Writing Valuable Fiction: One Writer’s Reflections on Growing Up in Eastern Germany

Note From K.M.: A few weeks ago, after I shared the post “Are You Growing as a Writer? (Here’s the Only Way to Tell),” I received an email from reader Michael Albrecht. He talked about his experiences growing up in Communist East Germany, the evolution of the country’s literature during that time, and how it has affected his own intentions as a writer. I found his insights thought-provoking and asked him to expand them into a post that I could share with all of you, since it’s a perspective we don’t often hear. Enjoy!


What would you say if your son or daughter announced they would embark on a professional writing career after graduation? Would you be thrilled about the prospect to hold your child’s first novel in your hands or scared to death that they might always have an empty fridge and live as renters until the end of their days?

In centuries past, the intention to become a writer caused heated arguments between sons and fathers—who were traditionally responsible for the career choice of their offspring. Numerous popular novelists like Edgar Allan Poe or Wilhelm Raabe chose to disobey their parents and became the writers we know them for today. Their biographies were shaped by financial hardship, emotional turmoil, and a very modest lifestyle. They paid the price for following their passion to create great stories that lasted beyond their own lifetimes and shaped the thinking of generations.

Among writers of our days, the temptation arises to insist that living out the “art of storytelling” must not end in sacrifice and struggle. All we must do is sell ourselves to publishing houses that promise good returns, in exchange for our sticking to genres that turn around fast in the book market.

The result has been an ever-increasing flood of new book titles that enter the bookstores and online booksellers with written words that often have very little lasting value. For the sake of being published, writers must follow strict guidelines and the do’s and don’ts of their genre. There is very little regard for poetic prose or wordplay or even a word of criticism about the society they live in. It seems to suffice if the plot is a “page turner” and the customer will buy the sequel.

Are we on our way to producing “Fast Food Literature”? Are writers not meant to reflect the generation and the time we live in? Are we becoming the slaves of a hungry consumer market that hurries on to the next novel after they have read (hopefully) our last page?

Eastern German Writing—An Extinct Literature

I grew up in the communistic Eastern Germany of the 1960s and ’70s. The country was very isolated from the rest of the world by a heavily secured borderline—and so were its writers. Being a writer in Eastern Germany meant being poet, reporter, and journalist all at once. Free journalism did not exist. Many writers were fully employed by publishing houses, newspapers, and magazines. Some worked as freelancers with good prospects to sell their work if they did not criticize the communistic party or the government.

Literature developed in three historic periods:

  • The time after World War II from 1946–1960
  • The time of affluent communism 1960–1980
  • The time of crisis and decline 1980–1989

After World War II, writers generally concentrated on themes that dealt with the war and post-war years, revealing the cruelties of the Nazis but also calling for reconciliation and coming to terms with the errors of Germany’s fascistic past.

The next generation was a group of writers who had not experienced World War II and were born during communism. Their writing focused on communism’s rise to relative affluence and then its first cracks towards the end of that period. Eastern Germany was increasingly unable to obtain convertible currencies to trade in the western markets, which led to a severe shortage of consumer goods. Therefore, this period was dominated by a retreat into privacy. The range of literary themes circled around families, factories, and the challenges of daily communistic life.

The period between 1980–1989 was dominated by an increasing downturn in the Eastern economy, and a new generation that suffered under the effects of the decades of isolation. They called upon their government for freedom of speech and travel. Writers of this period raised their voices against the government and were no longer silenced, since the regime relied on financial transfers from Western Germany and had to maintain the reputation of maintaining human rights. Many writers were personally involved in the “Silent Revolution” of 1989 and later switched their career into political activism.

The Downfall of Eastern German Writing

After the downfall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Eastern Germany was trapped within its outdated technologies. Forced to compete in the western markets with non-competitive products, the country failed within a few months. In 1990, Western German chancellor Helmut Kohl negotiated the “Reunification Agreement,” which shaped the future of millions of Eastern Germans. In July 1990, Germany merged its two currencies into one and on October 3rd of the same year, Germans celebrated their reunification. Subsequently, countless Eastern Germans had to be retrained into western occupations as their Eastern German counterparts no longer existed. Many industries simply disappeared.

The downfall hit the writing and publishing industry hard. Numerous Eastern Germans who used to consume Eastern German literature now devoured the Western German literature that flooded the bookstores. The Eastern German writers had to find their feet in the young reunified Germany, and many of them failed to adapt to the book markets and lost their publishing contracts as smaller Eastern German publishers merged with media giants from Western Germany.

This generation of writers lost their voices as nobody was interested any longer in stories that dealt with life under communism.

From 1995 onward, a new generation of younger writers emerged who tried to reflect the topics of the years after the downfall, and a new genre Wendeliteratur, the “literature of change,” was formed. However, this type of niche literature found only a small readership, and some of the younger writers moved on into Western German genre literature.


Whilst Eastern German literature did not survive the downfall of communism, its authors courageously reflected in their stories the challenges and topics of their time. They submitted themselves to the communistic government and censorship only to a certain degree and became a valuable voice which was influential in the time of the “Silent Revolution” and the end of communism in Eastern Germany. Their novels explored classical structures and created storylines that their contemporary readership was able to relate to. Later, most Eastern German writers refused to surrender to the consumerism of western genre literature and chose retirement or moved into new careers.

For me, walking through a bookstore during the ’90s was a very sad experience. I saw thousands of new bestsellers coming out every year, but honestly how many of them were of such value that I would remember their contents or even attempt to read them again with a new perspective years later? Not many.

From that time on, I knew I would only address themes in my own writings that really added value and helped my readers to reflect on their own perspectives. I have no appetite to pretend.

Are you willing to make the great sacrifice to be that writer who influences with stories that offer answers to the questions of our time? Will you be a voice with a clear message, or just a resounding cymbal of the “Fast Food” book markets?

The decision is yours.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What have you read lately that you found particularly inspiring and would recommend to others? Tell me in the comments!

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About Michael Albrecht

Born in Eastern Germany in 1967, Michael Albrecht grew up under communism and embarked on a professional career as broker for various insurance companies after the German reunification. In 2006, he migrated to Australia and continued to work as underwriter. He is married and has two sons and lives in a small country town south of Sydney. Since childhood, he has had a passion for writing which he followed in freelancing for magazines and local newspapers during various parts of his life. More recently he has started to write Christian devotionals, memoirs, and contemporary fiction, which he would love to further develop in future.


  1. I’m also from Germany, though from the Western part of it, and I must say that I have a strong dislike of “educational literature.” In the best case, it’s patronizing to the reader, in the worst case, it’s trying to indoctrinate him with the author’s moralistic biases. Or maybe that’s just true for German literature – we like to be morally superior, and lecture everyone about it. 1984 couldn’t have written by a German imo.

    It’s true that “fast food literature” only serves our need for escapism, but that’s exactly what I want: to be entertained when I read a book, and to entertain others when I write one.

    • Michael Albrecht says

      Hi Athaia,
      I agree with you we Germans have sometimes the habit to educate others. But I think that’s part of our national culture and as long as it allows the other side to express their opinion it may be very helpful to those who are not familiar with a certain area of expertise or need some informed input of s subject of general interest.
      I believe there is a need for “fast food literature” for certain occasions to be entertained by a book like going on vacation and enjoying a rainy day with a good book.
      However if writers exclusively see themselves as “entertainers” I would contradict. Writers of former centuries saw themselves more as “messengers” of necessary change in various areas, as “reporters”, as “journalists” and “Thermostate” of society. Who else then a writer could independently elaborate on a topic that needs a change in mindset of people during a particular time? Journalists working for a Magazin or newspaper will always attempt to stay in line with their employers and their criticism might be very limited. I understand obviously that not all people might want to read this type of books and I admit this is the risk the writer carries.


  2. I’m interested to know what Michael’s themes are. It’s all rather confusing, however. On the one hand we are told by some craft writers to write for yourself yet we know that we have to write for the reader and that the traditional commercial publishing business is only interested in “fast food literature.”

    • Michael Albrecht says

      Hi Bob
      Thanks for your reply. I am kind of newbie like you having to learn a lot about the craft of writing. My time is limited and great discipline is needed due to my day job’s demands which I need to sustain my family.
      After a long period of writing nothing in the middle of my life I started writing again mainly Christian devotionals. I was eager to work on my memoir about my life in Eastern Germany which had a very unknown way of life to most in the West. I have started to write topics of Christian fiction since I am
      a Christian myself and these topics are close to my heart.
      It is very important to keep the general crafts of the writing “trade” to make sense in your stories, however what I am talking about to ask your heart whether you see yourself as author in “ fast food literature” or outside of it in texts that really change the world. I understand that you will pay the price for it as this world’s main stream publishers pay you to write entertainment literature and if you do your craft right they pay you well. But is that where you really see yourself as writer? There is no right and wrong answer. It’s a personal decision.


  3. A concise view! Thank you, Mr. Albrecht!

    It is indeed a fine tightrope to walk, balanced between literature of enduring merit and purely entertaining fluff. A few writers achieve it, a lot of us hope to achieve it, and most of us likely don’t, whether or not we try. But because there are all kinds of readers out there, there are all kinds of writers out there. A major facet in this problem is that most writers – no matter their ability – are writers, not marketers, and the really good stuff they produce may be just as limited as the really bad stuff by a lack of marketing skills or motivation to market.

    I think this story is not unique to our times – short of doing in-depth research, we don’t necessarily know how much trash was published in past decades or centuries, because the trash ended up in the dustbins of obscurity.

    Another aspect of the public’s lack of interest in recent topics may be, too, that people are jaded from recent constant exposure. It may take some years before historians – amateur and professional – revive interest in the period in question. We saw this to a large degree in the States with the Vietnam War – it was quite a while before anyone wanted to read about it. But renewed interest generated greater interest in wars in history, strengthening the genre.

    But I don’t dismiss Mr. Albrecht’s dismay, primarily because of the exponential growth of publishing since the advent of electronic self-publishing options never before available, or affordable. The trash is ever more obvious.

    I write as the Muse moves me, and she is pretty active in my life. I am not a professional writer, so I am not concerned with feeding the mainstream market in order to feed myself. But there is considerable validity in Mr. Albrecht’s concern, that good material struggles more than ever to get the attention it deserves, no matter its aim. I’m always coming across an obscure, out-of-print gem that fulfills something in me, a book that stays on my shelves.

    Keep writing, Mr. Albrecht, as the passion moves you. It’s got to be important material if it means so much to you.

    • Michael Albrecht says

      Thank you Sally for your encouragement. I recall my grandmother actually telling me on the subject of cheap entertainment literature which was available in huge quantity in the late 1800 and early 1900 in a time when she was young and had time to read. Even if we don’t know the titles of those books as you say, my grandma commented of how little literary value those books had been and she disposed many of those small paper booklets without hesitation as she did not see the point to keep them for her children. I learned from it that there must have been loads of them around in those days. I agree with you that I also don’t need to feed mainstream markets to feed myself which is a huge advantage in producing texts that might not enter the headlines but perhaps have some impact on someone.
      Thank you for your kind words,


  4. Thanks for sharing with us today, Michael!

  5. Eric Troyer says

    Thank you, Michael. Interesting post. Makes me think.

  6. Josh Patrick-Riley says

    What’s discussed here is something I struggle with while writing, because on the one hand I want to create works with deep meanings and on the other I want my books to be enjoyable reads. Finding that fine line is tricky, but I think I’m getting there. This was a good reminder of what drives me to write deep down.

    • Michael Albrecht says

      Hi Josh thank you for your input. Yes absolutely important your texts remain enjoyable reads. I also understand the temptation to feed the “fast food markets”. Especially if you are younger and need to make a living there is often a need to sell yourself into those markets as we all need money to pay at Aldi or Walmart. We can’t do it with promises.
      I think it is a choice and also a matter of wisdom to work out whether you can do it right now or at a later stage of your life.


      • Some interesting thoughts here and some truth to it. However, I would say to present an exclusive dichotomy between these two types of fiction is to fail to recognize that most of the greatest literature in existence manages to seamlessly blend great storytelling with relevance and thematic depth. While Joyce’s Ulysses and such likes are literature for academics (many begin reading these works but few finish and fewer still understand) and Rowling’s Harry Potter is fluff for the masses (fun to read but so many opportunities for thematic depth missed out on), it should not be forgotten that the supreme value of the greatest literary figures such as Orwell, Steinbeck, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien (his great literary value is often dismissed because of his popularity but should not be underestimated), Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, etc. not to mention Homer, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, etc. lies in the fact that their works contain a seamless synthesis of thematic depth, relevance, and great storytelling.

  7. Thank you, Michael for the interesting and thought provoking post.

    In the west, there has been mass produced fiction, much of it of very low quality since at least the mid-1800s and the dawn of pulp fiction. Sometimes the books were seen as more valuable as fire starter than as literature. I wonder sometimes what this really meant. On the positive side, this was a byproduct of a growing market for books, indicating a rise in reading. More reading can’t be bad, can it?

    Well, what did it take the place of? It’s sad that we have so little idea (or at least that I do) of what everyday life was like for most people even 150-200 years ago. Before books became cheap, what did people do? Were they bored a lot? Did they spend more time in contemplation? Did they engage in more social activities? Probably some of each of these.

    I’ve strayed a long way from the topic of East German writers. I think my points would be that if you are writing for immortality, you are likely to be disappointed based on the relatively recent past. I’d also say that change is always a two edged sword. It’s as inevitable as the wind, but like the wind, it spreads seeds, provides relief from heat and uproots centuries old tries and levels buildings. With change there are always things gained and things lost.

    • Michael Albrecht says

      Thank you for your encouragement and yes interesting points.
      Yes thinking of my grandma who grew up in Germany in the late 1800, early 1900 I remember her telling me that reading was mostly limited to people that had either social status, money or both. Labouring people were far too tired after 12-14 hours of work to take a book into their hands other than reading a chapter in their Bible. Let alone the affordability of books for pleasure reading. My grandma came from a well situated family who lost all their assets during the Great Depression and through the early untimely death of her father my great grandfather. Her reading was limited to cheaper entertainment literature which was published as paper booklets but which she disliked so much that she used those booklets as burning material during world war 2. This gave me a little insight in reading behaviour of former generations and apart from the usual German classic authors like Goethe, Schiller and Heine, her main read remained the Bible.
      Otherwise yes families had very intact structures in those days and social family gatherings filled the void for information in many people even if that information was often of very regional nature.
      What I meant with “messenger” of change was also to articulate change for people as writing is the only art who is able to do this. A
      Painter could paint a picture of a homeless person to draw people’s attention to homelessness, a composer could write a moving song about a homeless person, but only a writer could elaborate on 500 pages what needs to happen that our this terrible reality changes. Even if we ourselves don’t see this change happen because we might die sooner there is a slight change we have contributed to a change of mindset in people.

      Thank you for your input!

  8. K.M. Thank you for your willingness to ” interrupt our normal broadcast to bring this special announcement.” —– It is a rare thing and I hope a freeing one for you, to raise the deeper question. The one that goes beyond, “How can I make this work?” …. to …” Do I actually have anything to say? ” Or, maybe even deeper. ” Do I realize what I am saying when I write? Again, Thank you.

  9. A very interesting post, and one that has generated an equally interesting and lively discussion. I will save it to read again. I’d offer Charles Dickens as a writer who was wildly popular in his own day, was a close student and critic of his society, and has never fallen out of favour. John Grisham also writes popular fiction that critiques his US society, especially the legal system where it impacts the poor and minorities. There are plenty of other writers like these two. It does not have to be either/or.

    As an Australian Christian writer, I am delighted and honoured that Michael has chosen to join us. All the best with your memoir and your writing.

    • Michael Albrecht says

      Thank you Julia for your input. Happy New Year to you and thank you for welcoming me on this beautiful continent that I am calling home for 15 years now. Very true what you say many writers try to go the way of being a messenger not just entertaining people which is great. Enjoy your first day of the year and thank you again.

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