In the fall of 1986, the book review editor of THE GERMANIC REVIEW (GR), a prestigious scholarly journal edited by the Department of Germanic Languages at Columbia University, asked me to review Studies in GDR Culture and Society 6. Selected Papers from the Eleventh International New Hampshire Symposium on the German Democratic Republic. Edited by Margy Gerber et al. Lanham, New York, and London: University Press of America, 1986. vii + 206 pp. My review of this volume, which I submitted in August 1987, appears below. For reasons that I will later explain, it was never published.
This volume contains 14 papers that were presented at the 1985 New Hampshire Symposium on the German Democratic Republic. With one exception, the contributions are informative and of interest to scholars who wish to keep abreast of more recent cultural, economic and sociopolitical developments in the GDR. As the editor points out in the preface, this volume is more slender than previous ones in the series (e.g., volume 5 contained 25 papers and had a total of 361 pages), which may be attributed to the program structure of the 1985 Symposium. It is also unfortunate, in the opinion of this reader, that so few of the contributions are concerned with GDR literature per se—and in these, as in most of the other papers, the use of sociological approaches and discussion of social issues predominate.
If you are short of time, I would recommend that you read the following two essays first: “The Abrogation of Politics: Pseudo-Marxism in the GDR and Eastern Europe” by Lyman H. Legters and “Changing Patterns of Male and Female Identity in Recent GDR Prose” by Christiane Zehl Romero. Both are well-researched and well-written articles that offer intellectual analyses and new insights as well as factual information. At the other end of the spectrum is a short speech by Karl-Heinz Röder, the GDR’s delegate to the conference, which is entitled “The Perception of the United States in GDR Policy and Society: Preconditions and Possibilities for Dialogue.” If you have time to read it, you are likely to wonder (as I did) how Dr. Röder came to participate in this conference and, more importantly, why the editor decided to publish this obvious piece of propaganda.
In addition to the above-mentioned, the volume contains two articles on the GDR economy, one evaluating the GDR’s economic performance, the other explaining the position of the GDR economy between East and West; an essay on the role that traditional German authoritarianism has played in the development of socialism in the GDR; a discussion of scientific-technical progress and humanization-of-work schemes in the 1970s and early 1980s; an analysis of the social situation of (working) women in the GDR today, some 40 years after World War II; a piece on the current attitudes and practices of young people with respect to marriage and family; an essay on fictional depictions of illness and disability in GDR literature and the relevance of the classical concept of the “socialist personality;” an assessment of the state of literary criticism and research in the GDR today, as opposed to the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s; an article on the attempt by GDR critics to come to terms with modernism, postmodernism, avantgardism, and other “bourgeois”–isms and to relate them to recent GDR literature; and, finally, essays on two individual writers, Richard Pietrass, whose name and poetry are not widely known in the West, and Wolf Biermann, whose status and success as a “GDR writer in exile” are examined.
By way of conclusion, I would like to make three general observations: 1) Most of the papers in this collection would have profited from the thorough rewriting that is generally needed to transform a talk into an article suitable for publication. 2) The editor(s) should reconsider the apparent policy of publishing all papers presented at the Symposium; some pruning must be done, if quality is to be maintained. 3) An effort should be made to increase both the total number of papers and the percentage treating literary topics in future volumes. If these changes are made, the texts in Studies in GDR Culture and Society will become indispensable rather than interesting reading for students of the GDR.
In September 1987, I received a letter from the book review editor, acknowledging receipt of my review for publication in THE GERMANIC REVIEW. She wrote: “I’ve attached a list of revisions for the review, to which we’re hoping you’ll agree, and we look forward to receiving the final version when you’ve had time to incorporate them.” The revision list, which was almost as long as my book review, appears below:
1. p. 1, 2nd para.: Text would read better if the following 2 phrases were omitted: “If you are short of time” and “If you have time to read it.”
2. same para. as above: “At the other end of the spectrum. . .”: What spectrum is meant here? If, for example, a political spectrum is being described, it needs to be stated at which end Legters/Zehl Romero stand, and how their stance is to be differentiated from that of Röder.
3. top of p. 2: “ this . . . propaganda”: the reader needs to be told in what way (s) it is propaganda, ideally with specific examples.
4. p. 2, full para.: this para. needs to be expanded in two ways: 1) much more needs to be said about the content of the essays, both as regards the specific essays and the larger context of the directions this collection takes, whether they point to new areas of investigation, etc. It would help if at least a couple of the outstanding contributions could also be described in some detail, with your commentary as to why they stand out; 2) for each essay mentioned, the author’s name needs to be mentioned. This para. could easily expand into a 2-3 page discussion.
5. the final para. needs several types of revision, as follows: 1) these points raise some puzzling questions, to wit: re point 1: is it necessary that symposium proceedings be rewritten? You might explain what problems arose from the lack of rewriting in this collection; re point 2: why the “(s)” after editor? The “et al.” after Gerber’s name would point to multiple editorship. Also on this point: the title says “selected”: is this not the case? re point 3: how can you increase the number of contributions to a conference, or force a literary angle? 2) phrase “indispensable rather than interesting” needs rewriting.
6. a general problematic point that recurs several times is your complaint that too much was included in the volume, yet at other points the weakness of the volume is attributed to the paucity of material in this book. This point needs to be stated consistently: does the book need less or more?
When I received this long list of proposed revisions, which I clearly would have had to make in order to have my review published, I surmised that someone on the editorial board—not the book review editor, Dr. Shelley Frisch, who was merely the messenger—did not like my implicit criticism of the Conway symposium. The list of revisions amounted to a tedious homework assignment designed to discourage me and alter the thrust and tone of my review. The GR was not going to reject my review outright; they would just keep giving me revisions to make until I got it right or gave up. I did not want to play this game, which was a favorite tactic of publishing houses in the GDR so as to avoid being accused of editorial censorship. The matter was complicated by the fact that I had previously embarked on a major project with the GR, the preparation of two special issues under my guest editorship on “Literary Censorship in the German-Speaking Countries.” This project was extremely important to me, and I did not want to do anything in connection with the book review that would jeopardize it. Hence, I decided not to protest or do anything further with the review, and predictably the book review editor did not contact me again.