The literary field, in the broadest sense of the word, is a field of extremes. On the one hand, the authorities are worried about persistent functional illiteracy: ‘Approximately 1.3 million inhabitants of the Netherlands between 16 and 65 years old are functionally illiterate. They have trouble with reading, writing and communication in Dutch. Despite the continued efforts of various parties, the prevalence of functional illiteracy has not decreased over the past few years, but has, in fact, increased in a number of groups (especially groups of originally Dutch descent).’ This is how the minister of Education, Culture and Science opened her letter to the Dutch Lower Chamber on 6 March 2015, introducing the action programme Tel mee met taal. On the other hand, the authorities have been pleased to note the renewed enthusiasm in the book and library sector following the significant transformations the sector has been through over the past two decades. These transformations have led to a reorientation, among commercial parties (Singel Publishers, DAS MAG), too, which has seen the creation of new cooperative ventures and attractive new perspectives. Libraries have become public laboratories and centres of knowledge and information, creativity, and local democracy. Literary degree programmes at universities have become places for young, talented people to think about how the fragile book culture can survive in the 21st century, and how language and literature education can best be organized.
The staff of Dutch Literature and Literary studies research group at the VU are fully aware of the world they live in: they engage with the social backgrounds and cultural significance of literature in past and present. A trio of related focus areas can be identified in our research.
Literature, knowledge and society
First of all, our research ask how literature relates to the society in which it is created and read. We aim to find out how knowledge is imagined in literary fiction, and how authors engage with scientific and political debates about topics such as the theory of evolution, mental health, euthanasia, technological innovation and colonialism. Literature contains a special type of knowledge that can help shape the way we interpret and experience the world around us.
Book and manuscript studies
The second focus of our research concerns the material aspects of the production of literature. Whether this means studying collections of texts, the interaction between printed works and manuscripts, or the prominent role of publishers in the history of literature. On top of his, we contribute to maintaining our literary heritage by compiling text editions.
Reading culture and literary theory
Thirdly, we consider the theoretical fundaments of cultural and literary research. Various staff members study literary theories (hermeneutics, for example) and the processes that accompany literary and cultural socialization. With regard to the latter, the empirical perspective is especially important: we investigate how readers, particularly young ones, read and how we can encourage reading development. Functional illiteracy is also on our research agenda. We have an endowed professor in our research group funded by the Stichting Lezen whose research is focused on these topics.