Writing Manuals for the Masses: The Rise of the Literary Advice Industry from Quill to Keyboard

Written by prof. Jan Baetens.

Writing Manuals for the Masses: The Rise of the Literary Advice Industry from Quill to Keyboard (New Directions in Book History) by Anneleen Masschelein and Dirk de Geest, eds.
London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2020

Open access: download the book here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-3-030-53614-5

Writing is a solitary business, slow and extremely time-consuming, without any guarantee of success, symbolic or financial. Nevertheless, nearly everybody dreams of becoming a writer, even a published and successful one. But how to get there?

Talent is not an option. It may help, but it will never be sufficient. Money is not a solution either. Success is like love: you can only sell it, not buy it. Moreover, in technologically enhanced societies financial thresholds are low: online self-publishing costs close to nothing, while talent and genius are old-fashioned concepts which our participatory but highly meritocratic culture has replaced by commitment and hard work. Yes, you can… become a writer. But once again, how to get there?

Luckily, there exists something like writing advice, and during the twentieth century literary counseling has turned into big business.

Writing Manuals for the Masses is not the first book on this practice, which is as old as literature itself, but it is certainly the one that addresses this type of counseling from so many different perspectives and with such a sharp eye on the purposes, needs, and desires of all stakeholders (those in need of advice, those offering it, and all those who function as matchmakers between the two previous groups). The book gives an excellent historical overview of the many ways in which literary advice has grown and evolved, “from quill to keyboard” as the subtitle nicely puts it. But the book is doing much more. It also discusses specific contents (what beginning or aspiring writers are supposed to do), specific techniques (how are literary counselors packaging their advice), and specific contexts (how to study literary advice as a market). In addition, it also tackles the highly sensitive problem of the deeply rooted suspicion toward literary advice, if not the violent rejection of it.

The key question of the book is not that of the raison d’être of literary advice (a false question, it suffices to notice that it exists, while everybody who has ever tried to write knows how necessary it is to feel a hand on one’s shoulder), but that of its incredible explosion since the early twentieth century (and there are no signs that the success of literary advice will not continue to boom in the decades to come).  What are the reasons behind this success? Is it the democratization of culture? The universal pressure to get one’s own 15 minutes of fame? The links between the subfield of literary advice and the larger field of the self-help business? Or why not the effectiveness of these manuals?

Perhaps we should also ask these questions in more negative terms: who is to blame for the success of literary advice? The refusal of formal education to include it in the classic curricula? The collapse of the traditional gatekeeping system and the vanished prestige of traditional officers of taste? The aristocratic skepticism of established writers dismissing amateur writing?

Writing Manuals for the Masses asks all these questions, without emphasizing specific answers. The book is an inspiring mapping of the field of literary advice, which we must now give a place near the very center of literary writing as a cultural practice.

The Way of All Flesh

Written by Prof. Jan Baetens

I have no idea whether Yukio Mishima is (still) a key figure in queer and LGBTQ studies, but his lesser known 1963 novel The School of Flesh would be a good starting point of a broad and stimulating cultural analysis (original title: Nikutai no gakkō; I read the book in French, for as far as I know there exists no English translation, unless of course one considers the US/UK release of Benoît Jacquot’s movie adaptation a case of intermedial and interlinguistic translation).

However, like all great works, the novel is not only of interest for one specific perspective or target group. The School of Flesh can also be read from other angles, such as for instance the reflection on the permanently shifting models of what the words “modern”, “contemporary” or “fashionable” may mean in specific yet simultaneously very diverse communities. Mishima highlights the fundamentally relative character of these references while at the same time bringing to the fore the no less fundamentally stable structure of some underlying cultural tropes.

However, like all great works, the novel is not only of interest for one specific perspective or target group. The School of Flesh can also be read from other angles, such as for instance the reflection on the permanently shifting models of what the words “modern”, “contemporary” or “fashionable” may mean in specific yet simultaneously very diverse communities. Mishima highlights the fundamentally relative character of these references while at the same time bringing to the fore the no less fundamentally stable structure of some underlying cultural tropes.

At first sight, this love story between an “older” upper class fashion retailer (she is in her late thirties) and a young and wild (he is twenty-one) but poor and lower middle-class student exclusively interested in “money” and “getting rich” (when they meet he works as a barkeeper/prostitute in a gay night club), is also a superb case study in the ephemerality of cultural canons –and I am taking here the position of a 2021 Belgian reader, intrigued by the way in which Mishima describes cultural change in Tokyo in the early sixties. Published in 1963, that is only some years after the great Ozu movies observing the destruction of traditional Japanese family structures due to the American occupation, Mishima’s novel foregrounds the French craze, all cultural referents of modern life having turned French: the luxury industry (special perfumes by Patou), cuisine (precooked French fries), fashion (the turning point in the book is a show with the latest creations of Yves Saint-Laurent, himself present behind and before the curtains and ridiculed by Mishima as a narcissistic pussy), and above all French literature. The reading of French literature is a must. Business men are scorned for speaking English (as we know, Mishima was extremely nationalist) and not-reading books, that is French books. The female protagonist has strong opinions on Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, the half-savage half-dropout student has less books then clothes (and all he reads are economy textbooks).

Mishima analysis is sharp: fashion, cuisine, luxury, and linguistic snootiness (Belgians visiting Tokyo share the same astonishment caused by the great number of French words in the public domain), are still there, and what happened in Tokyo has now become a universal phenomenon in almost all parts of the world. But what about the item that the novel presents as the heart of the matter, namely the prestige of French writing? For today’s readers of The School of Flesh, the literary references of the novel’s world will have become quite exotic (did you ever read Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter? or did you ever feel guilty for not being well read in recent French writing?), and that fading away of literature as the pillar of art and culture is of course not a detail in a book obsessed with the clash between traditional and modern, that is Japanese and Western ways of life. Mishima’s treatment of French literature is complex and ambivalent: French writing is at the same presented as an instrument against Americanization and a tool in the hands of those eager to abandon traditional Japanese culture. Yet as the very acme of culture, it also represents a kind of indirect survival of traditional Japanese culture, and its disappearance from the field of French culture, soon to be reduced to luxury and life style items, also hints at the devastation of “real” culture.

However, the changing status of French “signs”, which both aggressively emerge (food, fashion, logos, icons) and ineluctably withdraw from the center of culture (to be on the page does no longer suppose the reading of the latest French works, as shown by the attitude of all those wanting to make money), is only one layer of Mishima’s cultural work. Underneath, his novel also displays the ruthless return and stability of the mechanism of social distinction and the social comedy and agency through the manipulation of cultural signs. Today, Mishima would undoubtedly have used other cultural frameworks, but the vital link of “school” and “flesh” would definitely return. Culture is a something that has to be learned and whose learning does not come for free, while the mastery of signs and codes is something that is not just used for “Bildung” but also and perhaps even chiefly for sex.

“The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality” by Merve Emre

Written by Prof. Anneleen Masschelein.

It is always great to read a piece of research that you would have wanted to write yourself: thoroughly researched, fascinating and funny. The Personality Brokers is such a book. The book starts off as a personal quest as well as an archival research into the origins of the famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a personality test frequently used by human resources and professional coaching. Personality type is characterized by a combination of four letters, determined along four axes: the world you prefer (Extravert versus Introvert), how you take in information (Sensing versus Intuiting), how you make decisions (Thinking or Feeling) and how you structure your life (Judging and Perceiving) (nowadays, there is a fifth axis, determining how confident you are).

The test is based on a questionnaire in which every question has to be answered in quick succession of one another. The MBTI normally has to be administered by a trained professional, but there are plenty of free online versions to be found as well. (https://www.16personalities.com/) Considering the widespread use and popularity of this and other personality tests and assessment in the twenty-first century, it’s not a surprise that the book is a bestseller, garnering excellent reviews (except from people within the MBTI brand community who don’t like the critical tone) in both literary and economic journals. Once you’ve finished the book, you cannot help but marvel at how a test – which became so successful as to evolve into a verb (typing), which brings it on a par with google – was created in the first half of the twentieth century by Katharine Cook Myers, a housewife who meticulously observed her daughter, Isabel, in order to perfect her education system. Katharine not only monitored her daughter, but also counseled her friends and neighbors on educational matters. When she discovered the writings of psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung in the 1930s, she was able to perfect her system into the first version of the MBTI chart, even though she never had any formal psychological training. Later in life, Katharine passed on her creation on to her daughter Isabel Myers-Briggs. Unlike her mother, Isabel was not happy to be just a stay-at-home mum and after a failed career as a detective writer, she devoted herself to the test and eventually found employment within the burgeoning field of human resources. She mostly worked on a correspondence basis, selling her test to small and large businesses to help with the hiring process. It didn’t take long however for her to gather some odd customers as well. The government for example wanted to use the test to train spies in the Cold War fifties era while universities were looking for statistically valid personality tests to screen students in the sixties.

The story of MBTI is an endearing story of two single-minded women who pursue their passion, against all odds and facing great resistance from the (male) establishment. At the same time, it also sheds light on some of the most intriguing aspects of the twentieth century: the interrelation of the rise of psychology and the war; self-improvement and self-care as a replacement for religion in post-War American society; the drive towards categorization and quantification of personality; and ultimately the exploitation of human resources in late capitalism.

One of the most interesting episodes is Isabel’s employment by the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor of the CIA. That the war greatly increased the demand of ways to assess the personalities of soldiers and spies is a well-established fact (it also greatly stimulated psychotherapy and group therapy), but that a government agency bought home-developed tests with no psychological credentials behind them is remarkable. Later on, the test proved to be a challenge for early psychometrics. In a funny chapter, the middle-aged Isabel goes to Berkeley’s Institute of Personality Assessment and Research to join a team of researchers holed up in a San Francisco frat house, for weeks of incessant testing, not just of students, but also of some of the most distinguished creative minds, among whom Truman Capote.

The narrative of strained relationships with the university and different teams of psychologists who weren’t able to either statistically validate or to definitively discredit the Myers-Briggs test, offers telling insights in how psychology, even today, is never a fully scientific (in the quantitative sense) discipline. That the lack of scientific evidence has not hindered the test’s popularity in late-twentieth’s century capitalism is an understatement: the test’s belated and enduring success can be attributed to its simplicity, to the drive for self-knowledge and human capital and to the shrewd business model behind the institute that safeguards Katharine and Isabel’s invention. Although Emre, following Adorno, is very critical of the essentialist and categorizing drive behind MBTI, she is also deeply fascinated by the test’s enduring appeal. She manages to combine the details that she unearths to a compelling insight into our age’s compulsive focus on the self, also described by sociologists like Eva Ilouz. Focusing on the mother-daughter duo as unlikely heroines, and following their dogged determination and weird encounters, the book reads like a novel that is impossible to turn down.

DETECt: the contribution of Digital Humanities to Cultural Studies research

By: Frederik Truyen, KU Leuven CS Digital, Roberta Pireddu, KU Leuven CS Digital, Ilaria Bartolini, Dept. of Computer Science and Engineering (DISI), University of Bologna, Anne Marit Waade, Aarhus University, Cathrin Helen Bengesser, Aarhus University

As it is mentioned on the project’s website: “DETECt is a large collaborative initiative that involves scholars, teachers, students, professionals of the creative industries, and the general public in investigating how practices of transnational production, distribution, and consumption in the field of popular culture have facilitated the appearance of engaging representations of Europe’s cultural identity.”

The project researches the popular genre of crime novels and TV series, and in particular, tries to find out what explains the successful circulation of e.g. the European Noir.

Not only does the project bring together top experts in Europe on this very genre, but it also, from its inception, stated some very specific ambitions towards the role of digital approaches, methodologies and tools for the research as well as the dissemination activities.

There is little need to convince even the most hardcore humanities scholar of the necessity of going digital in these COVID times, unfortunately. But it is important to stress that it also offers key advantages from a research and teaching point of view, regardless of this direct urgency. In this short blog, we want to discuss how the DETECt project involved Digital Humanities in its data management and source gathering, methodology and analysis, teaching, public interaction and dissemination.

The developed portal contains access to the research data, the repository, an atlas, a web app, and access to the Moodle and MOOC learning environments (see details below). 

Data management and source gathering

To share documents for collaboration, UNIBO decided to develop a specific document repository for the project, instead of using the usual tools offered by big brand ICT platforms. This approach allowed for a better integration in the web portal and the possibility of specific indexing. As a bonus, this allowed us to comply with EU GDPR regulations without having to make contracts with outside parties about data storage. To structure the research data and repository an ontology was developed to map the different relevant aspects and their interconnections.

DETECt Repository

But probably the most innovative part of it all is that the University of Bologna (UNIBO)  developed an underlying repository and indexing system to assist in the gathering of sources. This was an important part of the evidence-based approach of this research: we wanted to do research into crime novel and TV series creation, distribution and reception based on a large repository of data. These activities in the “Infrastructures” part of the project support the research done in the specific work packages on creative industries, creative audiences, and transcultural representations.

Data was gathered according to legal use conditions from a diversity of open sources and merged into consolidated tables by means of tools such as OpenRefine. A workshop was organized for the project partners to share expertise on these digital humanities tools.

Methodology and analysis

The availability of a portal based on a proper internal database in a web environment allowed us to easily integrate data from a variety of sources, and describe them with relevant research metadata. It allows for the implementation of algorithmic Human-machine analysis as a tool to study creative industries, creative audiences and European transcultural identity. The DETECt researchers involved have a longstanding pedigree in data-informed approaches. 

On top of this database, data visualizations were developed, first off-line with tools such as Gephi and Tableau, and then specifically programmed onto our core database infrastructure for live online consultation. This means researchers can now find on our portal integrated visualizations build directly on the database, in mashups with maps. This allows for a refined analysis e.g. of trends in distribution and circulation.

As a result, a collaborative analytical atlas of European transcultural identity is available on the portal. 

Teaching and Learning

From the earliest conception of the project, it was decided to include a MOOC. KU Leuven is a member of the world-leading edX consortium, and has a wide range of MOOCs on offer. The Cultural Studies KU Leuven DETECt team also had ample experience with MOOCs, having been instrumental in the development of an institutional MOOC strategy. Our latest MOOC, “Creating a Digital Cultural Heritage Community”, attracted over 2000 learners. KU Leuven has several recording studios and a large support team including ICt support, pedagogical expertise, scenario writers and video artists. The university support service LIMEL also offers training of staff members into MOOC development. The MOOC will target a mixed audience of both professionals and a wider audience, as there is a very strong general public interest in crime novels and TV series.

To prepare for the MOOC, a workflow was designed by UNIBO and KU Leuven, for which a Moodle instance, integrated with the DETECt platform, would be used as a temporary online tryout and content development platform. It also allowed for test student interactions. The materials gathered according to project standards for the Moodle constitute the pool of resources from which the MOOC is built, on the internal Edge server of KU Leuven, before it is published on the KULeuvenX edX platform. This way, we have a managed production process to which all involved partners could contribute. Of course, the MOOC will not only provide recorded lectures and study materials but will tap on the potential of the portal and database for interactive student activities.

Public interaction and dissemination: Web App

A Web App has been developed by the University of Aarhus, VisitAarhus and the start-up Motes, giving a guided tour to the “crime scenery” of Aarhus. The DETECtAarhus web-app (www.detectaarhus.eu) is a locative screen tourism experience, which consists of three walking tours through the city. Through GPS navigation It leads people to sites where contemporary films and TV series such as Dicte or Undtagelsen/The Exception were filmed, places which have inspired literary authors and it lets them discover the city’s silent film history. The app navigates the users to a total of 22 different spots where they can unlock audio, video, text and images or get recommendations for cafés and restaurants in Denmark’s second biggest city. 

This app demonstrates how this research can lead to innovative reuses in the tourism and entertainment sector. But the development of the screen tourism web-app for Aarhus was also a perfect opportunity for intertwining research and teaching. The app is suitable for teaching film students about silent film and film tourism as well as for presenting a new perspective on the city to international students. As one of the international students testing the app remarked: “I think it made me see the city in a different way, because I guess the mainstream tourist doesn’t go through film spots, so yeah, you get to see a different side of the city that to be honest, I didn’t know before.” (Spanish exchange student, Nov 2019)

But beyond this literal use as an educational tool, the app is also suited for demonstrating to students practical processes and challenges of product development. This experience prepares them for work environments in the creative industries. By becoming an active part of the research process around the app, students can also be trained methods of qualitative user research, which not only helps their development as academic researchers but also prepares them for research & development scenarios in the workplace. BA-students in media studies, for example, performed user-research around the app as part of their training in media reception analyses. They developed independent research projects, conducting and analysing 18 single or group interviews. Their findings contributed to the evaluation and further development of the app. Together with the web portal, the app is one of the vectors of our wider dissemination strategy. Following the pilot experience of DETECt Aarhus App, UNIBO is now working on DETECt Bologna that will feature multimedia material from six crime transmedia series set in the city. 

But of course this infrastructure and these tools are mainly conceived to support the research in the project, and the educational activities around it. You can find the main research outputs on the website, including journal articles and book publications.  

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Commission.

The research reported in this blogpost has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Grant Agreement No 770151, DETECt – Detecting Transcultural Identity in European Popular Crime Narratives

Metal Music Studies: why studying the world’s most controversial music is worth our time

Written by Didier Goossens, Cultural Studies alumnus

During my bachelor years at KU Leuven, I was told that if I wanted to pursue my true passion, I should be ready to defend it tooth and nail. Certainly, that came true when I discovered metal music studies. What are those? And why are they worthwhile? This is a question that I, following my graduation from the Master of Cultural Studies in 2018/9, have strived to answer and defend.

First, what are metal music studies? Utilizing a metaphor from Deena Weinstein (an American sociologist and one of the first scholars of metal music and culture), the term ‘metal music studies’ blankets an archipelago of disciplines that seek to understand and contextualize metal music and culture.This has brought together cultural theorists, literary and discourse analysts, musicologists, sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists, leading to the constitution of a formal research organization, the International Society for Metal Music Studies (ISMMS), and its associated academic journal, Metal Music Studies. That being answered, why do we practice these studies?

Metal music has a long and at times controversial history that proves fertile soil for social reflection and scholarly research. Issues that made past news, were either conservative accusations that metal causes Satanism, addiction and suicide; or its more extreme exploits, such as church burnings, murder and tendencies towards fundamentalist ideologies. More subliminally present in metal music and culture, and therefore known to a lesser degree, are on the one hand its negative treatment and underrepresentation of women and BIPOC, and on the other its consistent potential for cultural resistance. As such, metal music studies investigate such contradictions from various angles: cultural theorists and sociologists ask what brings fans of metal music together in so-called scenes and how the music and performances in those reflect cultural identities. One outstanding example of this is the reconciliation with traumas of dictatorial regimes in metal bands from Argentine, Peru and Chile. More musicology-oriented studies dissect structures within metal music and performances and analyse these through affect studies, among others. For example, a recent publication discusses the religious associations within drone metal, a brooding subgenre that stretches and distorts single notes.

It is within this cultural theory-oriented part of metal music studies that in 2019, I wrote my master thesis in cultural studies at KU Leuven. In it, I studied how the New Zealand metal band Alien Weaponry builds on their Māori identity in their music and performances, and how this identity is then distributed and received, particularly in western nations. According to theories of cultural globalization, this is where the majority of the metal-consuming masses are, and where thus the most cultural capital in metal still resides. Following my graduation, however, I did not want the thesis to lie around idly, as it reminded me of the fundame(n)tal value of metal music studies: its music and culture thoroughly reflect social dynamics. The inquiries of metal music studies unnerve, as they confront us with substantial elements of sexism and racism within metal music and culture; they also lay bare the explicit and implicit choices in life: how people come together in groups, exhibit taste, deal with different cultural identities in increasingly global and glocal contexts… These questions need to be asked, which has caused misunderstandings and tensions to arise between scholars of metal on the one hand and artists and fans on the other. Metal music studies are either unknown to people outside of academia’s ivory tower, or are accused of “demystifying” and/or “destroying” metal altogether – while the opposite is true. But how can metal music studies convince the world of this?

My proposition is through visibility and co-operation. With these ideas in mind, I submitted my thesis for the Vlaamse Scriptieprijs 2019. And while it did not win any prizes, it was picked up for an article in their newspaper, proving that the subject of metal music and culture, which is often discussed through simplistic and reductive stereotypes, intrigues and fascinates people, especially when dealing with different cultural identities. Following up on this visibility, I also made an appearance on Calling From The Underground, a podcast on (Belgian) metal hosted by popular stand-up comedian Alex Agnew and producer Andries Beckers. In it, I explained that while metal music and its studies are still largely absent from public debate and popular discussion in both Belgium (where I followed my higher education at KU Leuven) and the Netherlands (where I am currently employed at the Erasmus University Rotterdam), this is not necessarily cause for concern. With bands like Amenra and Brutus stepping into the limelight, discussions of metal music become increasingly nuanced, slowly opening the door for those themes of cultural studies that we find in it, and that are of great interest to metal music studies: culture, identity, affect, memory and performance. In order to bring this out in full, I therefore call for co-operation. In order to make the most of metal music studies, scholars need to co-operate with the field of metal production, dissemination and reception. We need to come together with artists, label agents, venue bookers, festival organizers, reviewers, journalists and fans alike to better understand what makes metal tick worldwide and across the world. This is a crucial element of my research that continue to stress in every publication and appearance. I am very positive about this, too: various documentaries on Latin American metal have been produced by scholars and in co-operation with local scene members. And while such efforts are taking place on a smaller scale in Belgium and the Netherlands, they are there, growing in the underground. That is why metal music studies are worthwhile.

Some links to these articles and appearances

Every experience is unique, including those of children with autism

Written by Andries Haesevoets, Cultural Studies Alumnus and winner of the Passwerk Prijs

Bij de keuze van het onderwerp van mijn masterproef wilde ik absoluut iets rond of over theater maken. Daarnaast ben ik heel blij dat ik Disability Studies heb leren kennen, omdat dit paradigma heel ruimdenkend is en zich niet beperkt tot één essentialistische of reductionistische visie. Al van kleins af aan moet ik regelmatig op doktersbezoek en dat voelt nooit echt prettig aan. Ik voel me daar dan niet helemaal op mijn gemak. Je wordt er enkel bekeken als een medisch subject met abnormale kenmerken waardoor je het gevoel krijgt dat je raar bent. Al die consultaties hebben een diepe indruk bij mezelf nagelaten en het heeft me ook gevormd als persoon.

De vrijheid om jezelf te zijn binnen de podiumkunsten

Een plek waar ik me altijd weer goed voel en geen last heb van mijn disabilities, is op een podium. Daar voel ik me steeds kiplekker. Al heel jong sloot ik me aan bij een lokaal dansgezelschap. Omwille van mijn motorische beperkingen kon ik niet alle dansjes even goed meedoen, maar mijn dansjuf maakte daar geen probleem van. Ze zocht naar oplossingen waardoor ik ook volledig werd opgenomen in de groep. Dat gaf mijn zelfvertrouwen een serieuze boost. Later sloot ik me aan bij een lokale toneelgroep, jeugdtoneel Kaboekie, en daar zit ik nog steeds bij. Ook zij beschouwen me allemaal als een volwaardig persoon die net zoals iedereen sterktes en zwaktes heeft. Ik kan er gewoon telkens opnieuw volledig mezelf zijn. Vandaar dat ik ook zo verknocht ben geraakt aan de podiumkunsten.

Een aantal jaar geleden werkte ik samen met theaterdocent Ingrid Dullens aan de voorstelling ‘Olla Podrida III’. Twee jaar geleden ontdekte ik dat Ingrid theaterlessen zou geven aan kinderen met autisme. Ik was meteen verkocht om hierover mijn masterproef te schrijven. De lessenreeks bestond uit tien lessen waarin de kinderen heel wat improvisatieoefeningen deden en toneelstukjes in kleine groepen maakten. Ze kregen veel vrijheid om te spelen en te onderzoeken. Elke les focuste zich op één element, zoals: locaties (waar), personages (wie), actie-reactie (wat) en emoties. Ik heb twee kinderen in de groep geobserveerd en geïnterviewd gedurende de volledige lessenreeks. De meest dominante modellen van het kennisdomein Disability Studies heb ik op een dynamische manier toegepast op deze data. Op die manier heb ik geprobeerd om dichter bij hun ervaringen van de theaterlessen te komen.

Iedereen is anders

Het doel van deze thesis is om een beter inzicht te krijgen in deze ervaringen. Hoewel beide participanten de diagnose autisme hebben gekregen, werd het duidelijk dat ze de theaterlessen niet op dezelfde manier ervaren. Het zijn twee verschillende kinderen met elk hun eigen karakter en hun unieke persoonlijkheid, ondanks hun autisme. Deze studie wil daarom ook onderzoekers, professionals en andere betrokkenen inspireren en hun blik verruimen. Mensen met autisme zijn meer dan hun diagnose en iedereen is anders. Door naar hen via meerdere brillen te kijken, zullen we hen niet meer als minderwaardig bestempelen en zullen we hen als een volwaardig persoon met unieke en bijzondere talenten opnemen in de samenleving.

Blowing in the Books

Written by Prof. Jan Baetens

Visitors of the « Galerie Bortier » near the Central Station in Brussels (a must see for all those interested in 19th Century arcade culture) will have noticed the Crypte Tonique, a modern antiquarian bookshop specialized in popular culture (please notice the allusion to Superman in the name of the company, which means something like “tonic vault”) and managed by Philippe Capart, equally active as publisher, historian, critic and curator.

Brussels: entrance of the Galerie Bortier
La Crypte Tonique: Manager Philippe Capart

One of his recent initiative is the “blowbook”, a new type of small-sized visual narrative books that “reinvent” a special type of books launched by Dutch cartoonist Alfred Mazure during the Second World War, at a moment of great paper shortage. Yet blowbooks (and there are currently already four of them) are much more than just “little books”.

Blowbooks: the current collection

The format is part of a larger policy trying to remediate two problems of current comics publishing: first the neglect of all formats that not fit into the binary model of either the album or the magazine; second, the often dissuasive price of recent publications, which make them no longer available to their intended audience.

Blowbooks are an answer to these problems, more specifically an answer in print (it is well known that graphic narrative is a field that does not easily move from print to screen) as well an answer that relies on the combination of all criteria that play a role in the making, distributing, selling, and reading of this kind of works:

  • Size: 7,5 x 11,5 cm (the size of a packet of cigarettes or a standard 52 cards deck) and more than 200 pages
  • Layout: one panel per page
  • Material quality of the object: first class printing and binding and particular focus on the work’s cover and opening and ending pages (generally just “filled” with technical information)
  • A new marketing tool: the books are not sold in bookshops or newsstands but in vending machines in the public space (like the first Penguins, by the way).
  • A special prize: five euros.
  • An attractive mix of reissues of classic small format books and new, often highly experimental works.
Vending machine in the Galerie Bortier
Penguin’s original “book-o-mat”

Blowbooks are just great. Buy them. Read them. Share them. Swap them. Keep them (if you manage to get them back from your friends of course).

The ART of REIMAGINING – Special Online Issue of the University Network of European Capitals of Culture

Written by Anna Puhr, alumna Cultural Studies 2019-2020

The European Capital of Culture (ECOC) initiative sheds an impressive light on the relevance of cities and their culture for the development of Europe. Every year two cities succeed with their candidacy and receive the title of being ECOC aiming at shaping an extraordinary year of the respective cultural capital as sustainable and ambitious as possible.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 counts definitely as one of the most – or even the most – challenging year for the ECOC presidency which was awarded jointly to Galway in the West of Ireland and to Rijeka in Croatia. While the actual program for both cities has not been totally cancelled, their offer has been much reduced by the nature and impact of the global pandemic. Universities often play a major role in the ECOC of their city either in forging research focused on the arts throughout Europe, in working with city councils in evaluating the bid or in defining new cultural and educational initiatives within their local communities.

In Ireland, NUI Galway was due to host the University Network of European Capitals of Culture (UNeECC); an academic network that comprises almost 50 member universities from 20 countries located in cities which have been, are or will be European Capitals of Culture. As the annual conference had to be postponed in view of the current situation, NUI Galway instead invited interdisciplinary contributions to an online Special Issue of the University Network of European Capitals of Culture. This Special Issue provides an opportunity to learn more about how both cities, Ireland and Croatia, have adapted their programmes and to understand better the pan-European responses to the impact on artists, cultural workers, local communities and universities.

As Leuven announced its ambition to candidate as ECOC 2030, a KU Leuven research team of Cultural Studies initiated a project to examine how needs and changing cultural preferences of international residents can be more included, as reported earlier: https://culturalstudiesleuven.net/2020/03/18/research-project-leuven-as-european-capital-of-culture-2030/.

The final results have been virtually presented to the city hall’s Arts Advisory Board Meeting in March 2020. In order to reach a wider audience and increase understanding of the potential to include a city’s international audience in cultural activities foreseen with regards to an ECOC year and beyond, the project was submitted and successfully chosen for the Special Issue of the University Network of European Capitals of Culture “The ART of REIMAGINING” which will be published this November (see the call for contributions: “ https://mooreinstitute.ie/2020/07/06/european-capitals-of-culture-the-art-of-reimagining-call-for-contributions/).

Zoom Seminar: Instagram and the Politics of Streetstyle in Iran; An Overview of the Social Media Strategy Used by Fashion Designers

Written by Leili Nekounazar, PhD researcher, Cultural Studies

An upcoming Zoom seminar organized by TechnAct, the research cluster on gender, sexualities, emergent communities and technocultural assemblages at the University of Gothenburg.

In this pop-up seminar I will present a chapter of my PhD thesis on “Fashion and Aesthetics Politics in Post- Revolutionary Iran”. The seminar will focus on the rising female fashion designers in Iran and the way they take advantage of social media platforms, in particular Instagram, to push back the existing restrictions on the underground fashion activities in Iran, in order to advance their business plans by introducing their designs to a large audience, marketing, and acquiring artistic inspirations, while at the same time contributing -not always intentionally- to the anti- compulsory hijab campaigns. 

An Iranian model on Instagram

Like any other Cultural Studies researcher, I am fascinated with the political dynamics of everyday life practices. I found the evolution of the Iranian women’s urban attire, over which, the Iranian upper- middle class groups of women struggle with the state for almost more than four decades, a platform of studying and observing such undercurrents. Indeed, how the Iranian women are challenging the compulsory hijab in Iran, and their subtle way of manipulating the Islamic dress codes in order to invent and create their own version of dress, comes about as a perfect case study of how ordinary people construct and participate in the everyday life practices. 

Women’s outfit in the early years of the Islamic revolution

Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, all Iranian women over the age of 9 are obliged to observe the Islamic hijab in public spaces. In the course of the past 41 years, the regime in Iran has implemented many moral projects and enforced various strict policies to impose a certain set of dress codes on women. However, according to the state’s officials’ statements, long after the victory of the Islamic revolution, the regime in Iran has not yet made an impressive progress in unifying the Iranian modern women’s urban attire. Ironically, as the results of 41 years push and pull, along with implementing many hijab- related state’s maneuvers that also involve harsh threats, violence and prison, the very pale, loose- fitting and lengthy garment that was imposed on the modern women in the early years of the Islamic revolution, has transformed to a stylish, sexy and beautified version of hijab, which looks way different from what is officially and politically accepted. 

In the past few years, the outfit of the Iranian modern women has radically changed

In the past few years, with the advent of social media platforms, a new generation of female fashion designers has emerged. These young women, of whom many are the art schools and universities’ graduates, deploy social media platforms to manifest their creativity in design and their ability to tactfully create a more stylish dress by displacing and manipulating the existing dress codes, thus pushing the current limits and boundaries. In my seminar on 19th of October, 2020, I will address how this generation of fashion designers, who regard fashion as their livelihood and their way of becoming financially empowered and independent, use Instagram in a hide and seek, on and off manner with the state, for the purpose of outreach and advertisement. In this way, they reclaim the right of choosing the desired attire, paving the way towards reclaiming the female body and dress. My conclusions are based on the analysis of 7-8 hours Skype interviews with a few models, fashion bloggers and fashion designers based in Iran, which will be presented during the seminar that takes place on Zoom.

Please register by sending an email to mia.liinason [at] gu.se. You will receive a zoom link upon registration.

The seminar will take place on October 19, 13.15-15.00 (CET).

Creating crime fiction in Belgium – behind the scene of the DETECt MOOC on Euro-Noir

Roberta Pireddu

Who has never read or watched a crime drama raise your hand. Crime fiction is, without any doubt, one of the most popular genres of our time. From P.D James to Fred Vargas, from Hercule Poirot to Commissario Montalbano, we are constantly -visually and literary- surrounded by characters, stories, allusions that refer to this genre. However, watching or reading crime fiction cannot just be considered as a form of pure entertainment. On the contrary, it truly is an ideal way to peek not only into the discrepancies and conflicts of the modern and contemporary society but also into the complex social, cultural, and linguistic features that make a country unique.

But have you ever wondered what goes on behind the writing of a crime fiction novel or the production of the last crime tv show that you watched? How does crime fiction in the literary and media field start and grow? And especially, what about Belgium? Can we overlook the linguistic barriers of this complex country and talk about pure Belgian crime fiction?

Precisely these and other questions emerged while working on the Belgian crime fiction section of the future MOOC on “Euro-Noir”, based on the European project DETECt H2020 and created from the collaboration between KU Leuven and four other European universities (University of Limoges, University of Bucharest, University of Debrecen, University of Aalborg and University of Bologna).

The purpose is to educate the learners, clarify and trigger new discussions around the existence of Belgian crime fiction, highlighting the multilingualism issues and the main features of the female crime fiction in Flanders. 

On the base of these inquiries, who more than a successful Flemish crime fiction writer and those responsible for the crime dramas production of the two most important Belgian broadcasts could provide a detailed explanation? The answer to this question has taken the form of three video interviews with four different guests.

One country, many languages: Elly Vervloet (VRT) and Marc Janssen (RTBF)

Watched from above, under the static gaze and the squared shadow of the Reyers Tower, the headquarter of the two most important Belgian broadcasts appears as a compact group of buildings, hiding perfectly the deep barrier symbolized by the French and the Flemish language. Respectively, VRT -Vlaamse Radio-en Televisieomroep- and  RTBF -Radio-télévision Belge de la Communauté française- are the two official broadcasts of the Flemish and of the French-speaking communities of Belgium, separated only by the concrete walls of a building, but at the same time totally independent one from each other. 

It is still morning when we are welcomed at the entrance of the VRT building by Elly Vervloet, who kindly leads us through the hallways of the Flemish broadcasting headquarter, and finally to the location established to host our video interview. Elly Vervloet is not only the International Drama Executive for VRT but also Coordinator of the Drama Initiative for the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). The EBU is a recently established organism that aims, through a broad collaboration that embraces the whole of Europe, to bring high-quality drama content to the European audience. 

Elly Vervloet starts talking about the big relevance of the work of EBU at a European level with the same intensity as she mentions the many local creations, produced by VRT. When it comes to Flemish TV Dramas, the words “local” is an essential keyword, one of the reasons behind the huge success -national and international- of Flemish crime series such as Tabula RasaBeau Séjour or Undercover. The attention to the cultural and social realism of a story seems to be, in fact, one of the keys that make Flemish tv dramas so intense, authentic, and successful. Certainly, in this context, language is not left behind but, on the contrary, emphasized in all its varieties and dialect. A strategy that keeps the authenticity of the drama alive and that is strongly supported by the long Flemish tradition -as stressed out by Elly Vervloet – of subtitling the media productions. 

The authenticity of the productions’ content and emphasis on the local culture and society are also some of the features of the TV dramas produced for the French-speaking community of Belgium, as underlined by a couple of days later, during our meeting with Marc JanssenHead of Fiction at RTBF. With the same intensity as Elly Vervloet, he highlights the importance of creating authentic content that emphasizes cultural and linguistic peculiarities. This is, even more, the case for crime fiction, a powerful genre able to bring out the most twisted aspects of human society. Similarly to VRT, also to RTBF the importance of preserving the local language is one of the main priorities of their production, even though this does not preclude the simultaneous presence of different languages as part of one singular TV drama. But going beyond the undeniable linguistic barrier between the French and Flemish parts of Belgium, there seems to be something that deep inside can be defined as a sort of Belgian touch in producing tv dramas. This materializes through the so-called Belgian surrealism, here defineds as a twisted mix of drama and irony, as well as in the unconventionality and complexity that distinguish Belgium as a country and that still mirrors in its media productions. 

Multilingualism is then really a barrier in the Belgian tv dramas context? Maybe, if it comes to preserve the linguistic tradition of a region. But it is without any doubt a true source of extreme richness when collaboration is more than welcome. 

A screen capture from the interview with the Flemish crime fiction writer Hilde Vandermeeren

Hilde Vandermeeren and Walter Damen: creating a psychological thriller

The majesty of the Spoelberchkamer at the KU Leuven University Library, with its antique furniture and the 18th-century books perfectly ordered in the wooden bookshelf, was a perfect location to meet Hilde Vandermeeren and Walter Damen and to talk with them about crime fiction. 

Hilde Vandermeeren is already well known inside and outside of Flanders as a successful female crime fiction writer since 2009. One of the few exceptions in Flanders, where the literary market is still dominated by male writers. Labeled as psychological thrillers, her books reached international success and have been translated in different languages, also winning important literary prices.

The collaboration with the criminal defence lawyer Walter Damen, which started exactly one year after Hilde Vandermeerens’ winning of the prestigious Hercule Poirotprijs in 2017, led to the writing of a psychological thriller trilogy, set in Lisbon, but with a female Flemish criminal defence lawyer as a protagonist. And it is exactly highlighting this aspect, the mix between the international setting and the Flemish culture of the main character, that we start our interview with. This is, in fact, one of the features that recur as a distinctive trait in many of Hilde Vandermeeren’s books, and that can rarely be found in the works of other male Flemish crime fiction authors – mainly focused on Flanders not just as a culture but as a setting. Yet, Hilde Vandermeeren and Walter Damen trilogy is rooted in the Flemish culture and language but at the same time, it imposes a different scenario, inviting the readers to cross the borders and explore them. A peculiarity, that is significant not only for the future of the Flemish crime fictions in the international landscape but also because it brings the attention on the crime fiction as a universal, internationally understood genre.  Since the beginning of our interview, Hilde Vandermeeren points out the importance of the continuous collaboration between her and her co-author, a co-writing partnership profoundly grounded on their experiences – literary on one side and juristic on the other side, especially when it came to sketch the main characters of the trilogy and to give them intensity. But more in general, the strong psychological development of her characters, which includes not only their emotions but also their personal story, and choices, is one of the features that distinguishes her works. And maybe the attention to the most profound human emotions and its complexity is one of the keys to the popularity of her novels, described as neither black nor white, a place where reality is never good either bad. A statement that seems to perfectly express also the core of the crime genre.