The hottest book trend in 2022 is this 200-year-old German word

Goethe resting on ancient stones at the Campagna, Italy. (Photo by: Carl Simon/United Archives/Unive...
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Erin Somers
German Words

In January, debut author Sean Thor Conroe published a novel called Fuccboi, about a young writer with bad skin who goes around calling various women “bae.” If you follow contemporary fiction, whether or not you read Fuccboi, you read about Fuccboi. Some people loved the book, others derided it, still others tweeted about it, sometimes meanly. Conroe posed in these outfits. It generally constituted that much-sought grail in the life of a literary ingenue: a moment.

Lesser known, is that Fuccboi launched a second phenomenon, a resurgence of a word for a specific kind of novel, a novel about an artist coming into maturity: the Künstlerroman.

I first clocked the term in Hermione Hoby’s Bookforum review of Conroe’s novel, which was the earliest of the bunch to land. The review opens, “Generically speaking, there’s just one question driving the Künstlerroman, and it’s ‘How does this person become an artist?’” Subsequently, Conroe's book was described this way in an interview in Dazed, and by Jay McInerney in the Wall Street Journal. On this website, Hanson O'Haver wrote, "The book functions as a kind of younger millennial Künstlerroman, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Stan."

But it was not just Conroe's book. In January, Adam Dalva wrote in a review of Katie Kitamura's Intimacies in The Rumpus, "I enjoy a good old Künstlerroman." Later that month, New York Times book critic Molly Young called Andrew Lipstein's Last Resort and Jean Hanff Korelitz The Plot "anti-Künstlerroman." In February, scholar and literary critic Merve Emre used the word in her celebration of Ulysses for the New Yorker and Jennifer Wilson used it in her Vulture review of Sheila Heti's Pure Colour. In March, assessing Joachim Trier’s “Oslo Trilogy” for Another Gaze, Laura Staab called the film Reprise "a cinematic Künstlerroman."

The history of the Künstlerroman as a genre is difficult to pin down, but there’s general agreement that it leads back to German Romanticism and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. A subset of the Bildungsroman (the more general term for a coming-of-age novel), it was probably first used to describe Goethe's 1795/96 novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, about a guy with aspirations in the theater.

Emre guessed “that it becomes concretized as a genre in 1808, when Friedrich Schlegel actually identifies it as such in his essay on Goethe.” But while we were corresponding, Emre got a text from her “Germanist friend” who said it might have been Novalis. There is also a second Schlegel in the mix. To dispense of this swiftly: it was one of two Schlegels in the early 1800s or possibly Novalis in 1798/99.

If the term has been floating around for upwards of 200 years, what accounts for its present popularity? What I am describing as a trend may be at least partially attributable to the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. The word came to my attention in Hoby's piece, and then I began seeing it everywhere. It is not so obscure — it has popped up occasionally over the last several years. Katy Waldman mentioned it in a 2020 essay about Naoise Dolan and Sally Rooney. Christian Lorentzen used it in a 2018 examination of autofiction. It has sometimes been invoked in discussion of Sheila Heti's How Should A Person Be?

So, yes, sure, there is likely an element of frequency bias. But the Ngram (a chart marking the usage of a word over years drawn from Google Books) does mark an uptick. Usage peaked between 1980 and 1999 and then fell off precipitously, only to begin climbing again in 2012. This dovetails nicely with the rise of autofiction (How Should A Person Be? published in 2010, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station published in 2011, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Volume 1 published in the U.S. in 2013.)

Compare it to the Ngram for Bildungsroman, which is still much more widely used but has plunged in popularity since 2017, and it all supports my thesis well enough to proceed with a droll little investigation of how we arrived at our current Künstlermania.

Why did everyone start using this word at once? Adam Dalva told me “I have no memory of encountering it in the wild before using it myself. I've actually taught the term Künstlerroman for years and have always been obsessed with it as a subgenre.” He posited that the resurgence of the word is aligned with the recent preponderance of novels about artists.

Hanson O’Haver said he probably first came across it reading Knausgaard or Frederick Exley’s A Fan's Notes or Knut Hamsun’s Hunger in college. He told me, “It's a word I've been generally aware of for a while — I think I knew Bildungsroman first. I'm like 70 percent on how to pronounce it? Anyway, I used it in the review because that's what the book is.”

Jay McInerney did not respond to my query. The day I emailed him, he posted a picture on Instagram of a foie gras dessert he had eaten at Les Trois Chevaux in Manhattan, which is exactly what Jay McInerney should be doing instead of answering my emails. His comments about Gateau de Mille Feuille — "Sublime flavors and crispy/creamy textures” — will have to stand in here for a response.

Hermione Hoby said, “if the term truly is proliferating, I'd venture that it heralds an appetite for autofiction's next iteration: this could look like a re-evaluation of Romanticism, in which some sort of faith in art is admitted.” I told her I was attempting to trace the origin of this trend and she noted that the “OG patient zero” was of course Goethe, the German Romantics, etc., but “for our immediate purposes, credit must go to the mighty and non-German-Romantic Sam Lipsyte” who blurbed the book. She said, “After I'd finished Fuccboi I read its blurbs and noticed that Sam used the term, which struck me as judicious, in that Conroe's novel is, importantly, a becoming an artist novel more than it is a mere coming of age story.”

Aha! Sure enough, there it is in the Fuccboi marketing copy. Per Lipsyte, the book “Blazes a sonic trail through the tangles of experience.” It is “A contemporary Künstleroman—a coming of age of an artist.” Lipsyte seems to be the source of at least one strain: let’s call it the Fuccboi Strain.

Lipsyte told me that the blurb was taken from a critique letter he wrote for one of Conroe’s submissions in his MFA workshop at Columbia a few years ago. He said, "Obviously a lot of fiction by young people these days is still in an autobiographical or autofictional vein, inspired by Rooney and Lerner and others over the last decade. These novels often deal with the formation of an artist, and the Germans came up with a really good word for that, so I guess people are excited to use it.”

Lipsyte does seem to be patient zero here: he wrote the blurb years ago and he learned the word in college. “I remember thinking a lot about the Civil Rights lawyer William Kunstler, and whether a fictional portrait of him could also be a Künstlerroman, because that's the kind of stupid shit I tended to think about back then, and maybe still do today.” Simon & Schuster, come get your next hit.

There was just one person left to ask about this, the Künstler himself. Like everyone I talked to, Sean Thor Conroe was gracious and game. He said, “Fuccboi is for sure a Künstlerroman. That idea, in fact, ever since Lipsyte first identified what I was doing as that, early on, oriented the writing of it. Thinking of it like that made it so I didn’t feel pressure to resolve the story in any prescriptive or explicitly educational way, which classic coming-of-ages tend to.” He wasn’t aware of the trend but thinks it’s great if indeed people are writing more artists novels. “The more Künstlerromans there are, the more artists are clarifying and demonstrating, in their art, what makes it specifically theirs.”

So, a beloved author blurbs his student's book as a favor or out of genuine admiration. His words are used by a giant corporate publisher to sell the book to consumers. Some of the language is, wittingly or not, adopted by critics. In this way, the marketing is reapplied to the product as critique. Because of the excellence of the criticism or the prestige of the venues or the nature of the internet, the language then bleeds out into the culture at large. Art and commerce snarl irrevocably.

That's the cynical take. Here’s a sweeter one:

In my email to Lipsyte, I omitted the umlaut from Künstlerroman, for which he gave me a gentle amount of shit. He said, "Are we all too lazy to include the umlauts? Apparently!" I was pleased by this unpretentious show of rigor. I think a similar sentiment lies at the heart of Künstlermania. Something as pure as enthusiasm for the precision of the term among people who earnestly love language. It’s a good word. That’s all. If and when you use it, don't forget the umlaut.

Erin Somers is reporter at Publishers Lunch and the author of the novel Stay Up With Hugo Best.