New #MeToo novel targets German media giants

Thursday, 20 April 2023 (12:59 IST)
It's a book that started triggering speculation as soon as its upcoming publication was announced around a year ago: Set in the German media world, Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre's "Noch wach?" (Still awake?) is described as a #MeToo novel "inspired in part by various real events."
Why is the German media so excited by the book?
The author, whose works have not been translated into English, is the pop star of German literature. Having achieved fame with his debut novel, "Solo Album" (1998), and later publishing autofiction that detailed his drug addiction ("Panikherz," 2016), Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre quickly became a household name in Germany through various media appearances, as a TV and radio host and through readings.
Among his various media gigs, from 2008 to 2018, he wrote for newspapers owned by Axel Springer, Europe's largest publishing house, and developed a close relationship with the company's boss, Mathias Döpfner, who recently came under fire over a series of controversial text messages, including slurs on "East Germans."
Stuckrad-Barre also played a key role in the downfall of Julian Reichelt, the former editor-in-chief of Bild, Germany's most important tabloid that is also owned by Axel Springer. Following German media reports of sexual misconduct in March 2021, Reichelt initially remained unscathed.
But several months later, the New York Times published its own profile of publishing giant Axel Springer, following the latter's acquisition of US political news company Politico. The piece looked into Axel Springer's workplace culture — one that "seems stuck in the past," the article stated — and how young female employees were reportedly promoted by Reichelt in exchange for sex, and were paid to keep quiet upon dismissal.
The NYT piece quoted Stuckrad-Barre, who had WhatsApp messages from Mathias Döpfner demonstrating that the Springer CEO aimed to protect Reichelt during an investigation into his behaviour, describing him as "really the last and only journalist in Germany."
It was only after the publication of the NYT article that Axel Springer reversed course and fired Reichelt.
Fiction inspired by real-life events
Different details surrounding the novel were revealed ahead of its release. One of the central characters was described by the media as a slightly modified version of Julian Reichelt.
People with inside information on the Reichelt case point out that the book's title "Still awake?" is a reference to a late-night message the editor-in-chief had sent to a female colleague.
But Stuckrad-Barre denies his novel is a roman à clef: "It's absolutely not," claims the author in an interview with news outlet Der Spiegel. And yet, he says: "A novel, fiction, can be truer than reality." 
He adds that describing "Noch wach?" as a #MeToo novel is a simplification. But the star author knows that building expectations based on simplifactions can only contribute to sales.
Promoting the book ahead of its publication on April 19, he developed an Instagram campaign this month, in which dozens of public figures — as varied as singers Lena Meyer-Landrutand Bill Kaulitz , or pianist Igor Levit — stated into the camera a new title of each of the 18 chapters of the book, which include "Fear-free speak-up culture" or "An open secret" each day,
The novel also portrays the narrator's disintegrating friendship with an influential CEO, which is reported as reflecting Stuckrad-Barre's own friendship with Döpfner. But here too, the novelist points out in the Spiegel interview that it's simply fiction: "I have built in many people into this character, including parts of myself of course."
Berlin unfazed by Rose McGowan's impact in Hollywood 
Real-life actress Rose McGowanis also one of the novel's characters in a chapter set in 2017 in Los Angeles, just as the Harvey Weinstein accusations were breaking. McGowan is known as one of the first women to speak publicly about the powerful producer's sexual abuse, leading her to become one of #MeToo's leading figures.
In the Spiegel interview, Stuckrad-Barre details having actually met McGowan during that period, as they were both staying at the same luxury hotel.
Even though the revelations were seen as a watershed moment in Hollywood, the author says that upon returning to Germany, he observed how structures of power and abuse in his Berlin media circles remained unaffected by the #MeToo movement.
Women who had worked for Springer publications started getting in touch with the author, knowing that he was close to Döpfner. They would tell Stuckrad-Barre their story, hoping he could somehow support them. He told Spiegel he didn't come out directly with what he had heard, fearing it would be framed as an act of male rancor against his former friend.
Now, exercising his artistic licence, Stuckrad-Barre has freed himself from the actual details of the accusations.
It remains to be seen if the book empowers women who might recognize parts of their story in the novel to speak out publicly, and triggers actual change in Springer's patriarchal structures.

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