Bad Literature Doesn’t Equal Genre – On Judith Hermann’s Aller Liebe Anfang (2014)

Aller Liebe Anfang

Edo Reents, the critic of the FAZ – Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – wrote about Judith Hermann’s long-awaited first novel:  “Judith Hermann has two problems. She cannot write and she has nothing to say.” – “Judith Hermann hat zwei Probleme: Sie kann nicht schreiben, und sie hat nichts zu sagen”. I wouldn’t go as far as that, but I too felt that the muses were absent while she wrote this. It’s particularly disappointing because she took a long time to write this novel. Her last book came out in 2009. You’d expect a masterpiece after five years of silence.

Edo Reents’ review wasn’t the only one I read and most critics share his opinion; they just don’t word it as a personal attack. I’m not keen on this type of exposure of an author, but there were other elements – in the reviews and the book – that were incredibly annoying.

Aller Liebe Anfang is a stalker novel. Yes, another one. It’s the choice of theme that led the critics to the most stupid analysis I’ve read in a long time. Because this is a topic often used in genre literature and because the book isn’t great, they deduce that it must be genre. Some critics even mentioned Stephen King. Now, you may like Stephen King or not, but the guy knows how to write great genre and, funny enough, if you read Aller Liebe Anfang as genre – it’s even worse. Clearly those critics just know about Stephen King, they haven’t read him or any other genre writer or they would know that plausibility and logic are key in most crime novels. Unfortunately you don’t find a lot of that in Hermann’s book. Nor do you find compelling and precise descriptions, but blurred settings and faulty imagery. The characters too are blurred and their occupations seem vague. I’ve never heard of a nurse doing people’s shopping or of a carpenter designing houses.

What’s the novel about? Stella and Jason have been married for five years. They live with their small daughter in the suburbs. Where? We don’t know. That’s another annoying trait of this book: Everything is vague. Jason is mostly gone for weeks and Stella is alone. She loves to sit in the living room, in front of a huge window, reading. She doesn’t realize that she’s probably watched all the time until one day a guy rings the door bell demanding to talk to her. She refuses and, Mister Pfister (yes, that’s his name, not Herr Pfister), insists. He returns daily, leaves messages, photos, small things in her letter box. Stella is passive at first and when she finally reacts it’s too late. Things go very wrong.

Why does she not react? Because she’s unsettled by Mister Pfister and starts to look at her own life from outside. Is this really the life she wanted? Has she ever decided what kind of life she wants or has she just been drifting?

The reflections circling around Stella’s life were well done. I also liked her prose in these sections because some of the descriptions stood out like scarecrows on an empty field. She does more telling than showing but it’s often interesting telling. She takes risks.

In spite of some good elements, this isn’t a book I would recommend. I seriously wonder what went wrong here. I have a suspicion. Judith Herman is one of a few German authors who has been highly praised and translated into English – and many other languages. This book feels as if it had been written with an international market in mind. Knowing that the US and UK market is much more interested in plot, she added a stalker element to an otherwise quiet and introspective novel. The names she chose are very telling too. Stella, Jason, Ava, Mister Pfister  – really? I haven’t come across these names in Germany very often. And then there’s the  setting. It’s deliberately vague – with a bit of imagination it could be set anywhere in the world.

I once thought that Judith Hermann was one of the most important younger writers. I still think her shot story collections are wonderful. But she isn’t a novelist and she shouldn’t add a dodgy plot to her story just because she has an international market in mind. Considering how very few German books are translated into English, I would wish, this one wouldn’t make it and leave room for something that’s really good. Sadly, without the stalker element – and maybe 100 pages shorter – this could have been another of her memorable short stories.


35 thoughts on “Bad Literature Doesn’t Equal Genre – On Judith Hermann’s Aller Liebe Anfang (2014)

  1. Hi Caroline, thanks for the review. I recently saw Judith Hermann reading and she said that the novel came about because she had a scene in mind – which is included towards the end of the book – involving violence. So she wanted to come up with the story behind it, and it got longer and longer and the violence scene got shorter and shorter, and ended up as a small novel. I thought that was interesting and I’m much more of a fan than you are, especially because I enjoyed the deliberate vagueness and could relate to the character very well.

    • That’s interesting, thanks for sharing it. Still, it doesn’t work. The scene you mention doesn’t work either, in my opinion. It’s a scene that I’ve seen so often in movies. Like Wild at Heart.
      I guess, having just read and reviewed another stalker novel (Ewig Dein), by another internationally acclaimed author – I had no more patience for the subject matter.
      I’ll be looking for your review.

  2. Personally I think that genre writing can actually produce not just fun books but important books.

    With that said I do see an occasional good story where something is tacked on for popular appeal. I do find this to be nit just annoying but a shame.

    I can see have the vagueness that you mention can actually be an effective literary device. It sounds like it just did not work for you.

    Terrific review as always.

    • Thanks, Brian. I agree with you and I found it appalling that in some citic’s mind bad literature equals genre. You shouldn’t write about something you don’t know and they clearly think that genre is minor.
      Vagueness can be effective but I found it didn’t work here. And those names? Really?

  3. I love negative reviews, and this is a good one. I read Judith Herman’s earlier book of stories which I though was quite good so am a little surprised.
    Genre fiction is definitely NOT my thing, I don’t even like Stephen King, so definitely would have problems with this novel.

  4. Yes it does sound as though the book was aimed at a different market. Just as The Girl w/the Dragon tattoo was a game changer for Scandinavian crime fiction, Gone Girl & Before I go to Sleep seem to have the market scurrying into another direction.

    Apart from everything else, I know that this character would annoy me as she sounds passive.

  5. Oho! Sorry to know that you didn’t like Judith Hermann’s novel, Caroline. I was hoping that you would. It is sad that she seems have focused on the international market which has created problems in the story – like the stalker element, the vagueness about the place, the non-German names. Personally I feel that writers should focus on what they know and not on the market, because when they focus on the market and try to make the book more international it mostly falls flat. I also loved what you said about critics and Stephen King. I haven’t read a Stephen King novel in a while, but I think he definitely writes entertaining stories and I admire his work ethic – he keeps churning up one or two novels every year. When I was in school horror fiction was mostly regarded as entertaining – something that young people read when they had free time – but sometime back I saw an issue of Granta magazine dedicated to horror. It is interesting how something which is regarded as genre fiction and popular entertainment has crossed that barrier and people are taking it more seriously now, serious enough that a literary magazine decided to dedicate a special issue to it. I loved this sentence from your review – “She does more telling than showing but it’s often interesting telling. She takes risks.”

    • I was sorry as well because in spite of the flaws it had good elements. For example- she writes that Stella likes to see Jason’s books on the nighstand because it means he’s home and she thinks that feeling is both mysterious and difficult. It makes you think what she means and that’s interesting. It’s not a genre novel at all. There are too many inconsistencies you wouldn’t find in gerne. I have aproblem with ctotics who call something genre nd clearly have no clue what that really is. I really had the impression she wrote for an international market. Yeah well. It wasn’t as bad as The Weekend. 🙂

  6. Hi, Caroline. Though I’m not familiar with your author in any of her manifestations (as a short story writer or as a new novelist) and therefore perhaps should not comment, I found what you had to say about genre writing and the way it is reviewed interesting. Writers themselves often use genre as an excuse for writing sloppily edited, badly written weakly-plotted novels, so while I think it’s unfair to look at all genre this way, I can see a reason why the reviewers might make the mistake of assuming that they could just dismiss her novel as “genre” and be done with it. I’m personally coming off a high right now of reading book after book after book by a man named China Mieville (Brit) and his sci-fi and fantasy novels are top-notch, so I see no excuse for either writers or reviewers to practice genrealatry (if I can create a neologism). And when I tried to get through Mercedes Lackey’s edition of short stories called “Elemental Magic,” which should have fit right in with fantasy novels as well, I was sorely disappointed because even though only one of the stories was supposed to be by her and the rest were supposed to be by other people, they all showed the same weaknesses in composition, and so I stopped reading half-way through. I also tried to read a book called “Goddess,” a third book in a trilogy (I hadn’t known it was part of a trilogy, but that made little difference), also a fantasy, by a woman with the last name Angelini, and it too was very weak and badly done. My sense is that some bad writers have seen a niche for imaginative literature featuring sci-fi and fantasy creatures, and they don’t mind recycling hoary old monsters, tales, and plots in order to make a buck. Your stalker novel may be the same, for all I know: since the genre exists, some have concluded it’s open to all comers, and have decided to try their hand at something which, they expect, will win converts simply because of its subject matter, regardless of its quality. Whew! Sorry to go on so long–I had a lot to say!

    • Elemental Magic is awful! I started it before my readalong and, like you, stopped after a couple of stories. The readalong book Phoenix and Ashes was everything I hat – bad editing, lame story, unimaginative charcaters. I know Miéville. He’s on the literary end of genre. I haven’t read him though – just dipped into his books – but always meant to.
      Clearly – there’s no excuse for bad writing and composition. And it’s decidely not a trait of genre as some critics seem to think but – as Elemental Magic shows – there’s some bad writing out there and it’s giving genre a bad name.
      Genrealatry or genreism. Those should be words.
      And thanks for mentioning Goddess. I haven’t heard of it but will stay clear.
      In Hermann’s case it’s sad because she won’t win any genre fans and might have alienated those who like her normally. The stalker element ould even have worked but it should have had another ending.

  7. Trying to write an entire book for a single scene sounds difficult to me, and here, it doesn’t seem to have worked so well. And really you don’t need to be vague about setting or characters to have a broad appeal. That really struck a point with me, since I have just finished Shorter Days, as you know. You can hardly get more local than that book, and yet I think readers anywhere will be able to recognize the characters.

    • The vagueness is something that infuriated the critics and one of them showed nicely that it might not always be a real choice but sloppy writing.
      I agree about that scene and I found it read like it had been glued on. Now it seems as if the rest was glued on.

  8. Oh dear, oh dear, you can’t believe how glad I am that I didn’t buy that book when I was looking at it yesterday! I loved your review though, a good negative review is always a great read :). The really sad thing about bad genre is that it gives all genre a bad name though.

    • I think she should stick to short stories. I know the critics were harsh with those as well but I still think her first two collections are really great.
      For someone like you and me, who read in German, there’s so much more out there. I know I won’t pick up her next book, that’s for sure.

  9. It sounds like the author fell prey to writing for the broadest audience possible. In my experience when you write outwardly, the result is very different from when you write from within yourself. You mentioned Stephen King, and I remember that in his book, On Writing, he said he always writes to please only one reader: his wife. That seems like good advice. Trying to please too many masters often has a disjointed feeling.

    • I agree with you. I really wonder what happened in her case. Why would she want to write a book like this? It sounds like ideas do not come easy to her and she just clung to the first that felt remotely like a plot-driven novel.
      Stephen Kings gives such good advice in his book. I really love it.

  10. Writing short stories requires a whole different skill-set and I think that people who are good at it should just stick to it instead of publishing a mediocre novel. Jason is definitely not the first German name that springs to my mind! 🙂

    ‘…some of the descriptions stood out like scarecrows on an empty field.’ It’s painful to encounter such mediocre writing when you know how capable the writer actually is. I had a bit of the same reaction with Tracy Chevalier. Her early novels are wonderful and then she started turning out books that are much more commercial but not very good.

    • Kevin has become a popular in Germany, like in France but not Jason or Ava or even Stella and Mister?
      I still think she’s a capable writer but her strength is atmosphere and mood, not so much metaphor. And decidedly she’s not someone who should try a novel. This had great moments but she spoilt it.
      I haven’t read enough Tracy Chevalier. But I seem to remeber there was a hige difference between the two I read (Girl With a Pearl Earring and Remarkable Creatures – although I liked the latter too).

  11. I think your theory is probably correct, Caroline. What a shame the writer felt a need to write for an international audience. One thing I like about foreign novels is reading about foreign places and customs. Vague settings, etc. kind of drive me crazy too. I wonder how many writers feel the pressure to have broader appeal after a successful novel.
    On another note, I’ve noticed that more and more French movies have an American feel to them and I wish they didn’t.

    • I think I might be correct, even if it wasn’t an entirely conscious choice. I was thinking that if this was translated it would feel entirely American – with a few elements that are not – and the clumsy writing would be gone too as no translator would translate the mistakes – she even uses a couple of words incorrectly!.
      I hadn’t noticed this about French movies but I’m not watching all that many. That is a shame. Most French authors don’t do that yet. With the exception of the mainstream authors like Marc Levy.

  12. It sounds like it would have made a better short story.

    The interesting thing with crime is that generally it has a very strong sense of place, this kind of stripping back and anonymising is something I associate with literary fiction where the intent is to focus in on the internal state and so the externals are made generic. Here too generic, since if you hadn’t told me it was German I’d never have guessed from the names and description.

    China Mieville is the fantasy author who occasionally gets tipped as a possible future Booker contender. I have no view on that, but his writing is a cut above the norm in the fantasy genre (not that that’s much of a compliment).

    Genre of course isn’t one thing. There’s crime, and many subsets within that so that someone who loves cosies might hate noir, fantasy, SF, romance, historical (often read as literary but I see it as a genre), arguably naturalist fiction has itself become a form of genre with its disaffected middle aged and middle class protagonists reappraising their rather dreary lives.

    • She’s a literary writer but the book isn’t satisfying. And I found it infuriating that since there’s an uncanny – crime element, the critics assumed it was genre but not really crime, not really horror.
      Shorter, tighter, without the gratuituous violence at the end this might have been a great book about dread and loss of direction. The way it is it’s simply neither this nor that.
      I’ve been planning to read Miéville. I think his style is more elaborate than some of the Booker winners’.
      Names are important and the choice of names says a lot about an author and his/her intentions.

  13. Has this one been translated into English yet? I am not familiar with her. I hate it when critics are so scathing like that. I understand that some books may be lacking or weak or just bad, but somehow it seems unnecessary to be so blantantly nasty–or maybe I am just too sensitive? It’s a pity that the book was such a dusappointment–I’m not sure how I feel about a writer writing for such a broad market-in a way I understand, but in a way (in this case anyway) it seems to be selling out. I think it’s possible to write a good book, be true to yourself and your readers and still have appeal to other markets–as an English speaking reader I sort of like the feeling in international novels of the sense you get living somewhere else–the different locales and attitudes and such–making it so ‘samey’ just means it ends up being terribly bland.

    • Her first three books have been translated and I’m pretty sure youd lover her short story collections. I loved them. Another reasons why I was so disappopinted in this.
      I felt the critics was right but I didn’t care for the wording either because it sounds like a perosnal attack, not like a careful evaluation of a book. It sounded as if he’d been waiting foir her to stumble and fall. He even attacks other critics who were not as outspoken.
      The book isn’t bland, but it lack something; either to be a great literary read or to be a “real” crime or horror.

  14. When good writers write bad books I am very suspicious about what their editors have told them. I can quite imagine she was sold a very strong line about writing ‘crossover’ fiction, which publishers adore. I agree also that the personal attack by the critic was entirely unnecessary. It’s perfectly possible to critique a book and say it has flaws without resorting to personal abuse. In fact, when a critic does that, I’d go so far as to say s/he doesn’t deserve the title any more. I really don’t like to see it.

    • Same here. I was suspicious. And I find it sad because, unlike the critic I quoted, I think she can write. Even this book had many really great moments but it fell apart as a whole.
      Unfortunately this type of criticism is much liked. Maybe I shouldn’t even have quoted it. It might feel like endorsement.

  15. Great review. Mister Pfister? It sounds like a soda brand. He explodes if you shake it the wrong way?

    This book shows one thing: writing genre is not as easy as it seems. Critics tend to look down on genre but good crime fiction is not easy to write. (cf the disappointing Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon)

    Reading you review and the praises for her earlier work, she sounds like a writer under pressure from her publisher.

    PS: Every time I look at German literature in French, when the books are translated, they never make it to paperback. They’re only available in hardcover which more than doubles the price of the book. Frustrating.

    • Thanks, Emma. It’s deplorable that so many critics think bad literary fiction equals genre.
      I don’t think that she really wanted to write genre. I think she thought she did something very original.
      You’re not missing out if you can’t read this. 🙂
      Her short stories are very good though. Or I liked them when they came out. Even “Alice” was well worth reading although it wasn’t as great as the first books.

  16. I loved her first book very much, the stories sounded interesting and I was almost sure a great writer had entered the scene. Unfortunately the big success of the first book has somehow affected her creativity. Maybe it’s some kind of writers block. I mean she CAN write – she proved it sufficiently in her first work. But your review confirmed what I read also elsewhere: Judith Herrmann seems to be in a crisis as a writer. I appreciate your review because you clearly wanted to like the book, but you didn’t shy away to explain why exactly you didn’t enjoy it. Let’s hope we can soon read something from her that reconfirms the high opinion most readers still have of her artistic skills.

    • Crisis is a good word. That’s preytt much what I thought. There are still great moments in this too but she should have written a novella and not tried to please an international market.
      I’m never going to belive that the choice of names was “innocent”.
      Unlike some critics I really loved her first collection. Let’s hope for an end of the crisis.

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