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Literature

Star authors nurture young literary talent

Many students dream of publishing a bestselling book. At Berlin's Freie Universität, star authors give seminars for budding novelists who want to know if they've got what it takes to make it big.

Raoni Duran is determined to become an author. The 26-year-old Brazilian literature student already has a spellbinding idea for his first novel.

But "something is missing," he explained. He lacks the experience to be able to translate his artistic ideas into the right literary form.

When he discovered the English-language seminar "Reading as a Writer" in the course listing at Berlin's Freie Universität, he quickly signed up. Making the difficult step from reader to been his dream for a long time.

"As an author you have to think about how the text actually works and not the details of the text," Duran said. That approach has helped him to develop his literary ideas further.

Learning from the best

The seminar instructor is not a lecturer, but bestselling American author Andrew Sean Greer from San Francisco.

As a Samuel Fischer Guest Professor, the 42-year-old writer is teaching 30 masters students literature and comparative literature over the winter semester.

Greer is not the first acclaimed author to have taught as a guest professor at the Berlin university.

american auhtor Andrew Sean Greer teaching in Berlin.
Copyright: DW/Caitlin Hardee
Berlin, Dezember 2012

Bestselling author Andrew Sean Greer is popular with his students

The scheme, organized by the Freie Universität, Germany's Foreign Office and the Fischer publishing house, has been attracting literary stars to teach as guest professors since 1998.

Previous guest professors include Japanese Nobel Prize-winner Kenzaburo Oe, Austrian-German author Daniel Kehlmann, and one of the most important African writers of his generation, Somali Nuruddin Farah.

Andrew Sean Greer has garnered international acclaim for his novels, "The Confessions of Max Tivoli" (2004) and "The Story of a Marriage" (2008).

From critic to author

Greer's seminar is based on the observation that too many young writers approach reading from the perspective of literary critics.

"I'm teaching them how to read books in a way that make them want to go straight and do their writing," he said. "You can't do that if you're just getting caught up in the characters and the storyline, then you sort of aren't paying attention to the way it's made."

Author Andrew Sean Greer

Andrew Sean Greer feels at home in Berlin

Students are introduced to a range of literary techniques, such as shifts in perspective and jumps back and forward in time. Greer is convinced that anyone can learn the basics of writing a book.

"The intellectual exchange with guests from all over the world is an important part of the identity of our university," university president Peter-André Alt explained.

Since 2007, the Freie Universität has had the status of a so-called "elite university." During the selection process for the excellence initiative, the university convinced the jury with its concept of being an "international network university."

Programs such as the Samuel Fischer Guest Professorship help students to better understand other cultures, which in turn deepens their understanding of their own culture, Alt said.

In high demand

But cultural comparisons are a secondary concern in Andrew Sean Greer's seminars. The author says he feels thoroughly at home in Berlin: "The atmosphere in the city is simply that of the present and not the past, despite the fact that the past can felt everywhere. That's very freeing for me."

Student Sarah Hang at Andrew Sean Greer's creative writing seminar in Berlin

Sarah Hang, left, plans to become a literary critic

Greer's passion for literature and the city of Berlin is contagious. His students enjoy his lectures, but unlike Raoni Duran, not all of them want to become writers.

Twenty-four-year-old Sarah Hang believes her strengths lie in literary criticism, while fellow student Lydia Dimitrow, 23, is already working as a translator. Nevertheless, both feel that the seminar has helped them hone their skills.

Students also gain from the course because of the limit placed on class size, Peter-André Alt explained. A total of 160 students applied to take the seminar, but only 30 were selected.

However, there are some words of consolation for those who didn't make the cut this time round: "Because the professorship post is filled every semester, all those who are interested eventually get the chance to take part," he said.

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