La Résidence d’auteurs Littérature, territorialité et médiations culturelles  | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

La Résidence d’auteurs Littérature, territorialité et médiations culturelles 

La Résidence d’auteurs : Littérature, territorialité et médiations culturelles
by Carole Bisenius-Penin

Classiques Garnier, Paris, France, 2023
254 pp. Paper, 48 euros
ISBN : 978-2-406-15186-9.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
March 2024

Although less known than “artistic”, that is fine arts residences, since many centuries a vital element of advanced visual training and education, literary residences are neither new nor rare. In a more or less recent past, writers have frequently benefited from this type of financial and/or logistic support and this book starts with a useful reminder of the long-standing tradition as well as brief typology of who (which public or private sponsor) was offering what type of residency (short/long, solitary/collective, etc.) to whom (which type of writer). The starting point of this study is the observation that in France, quite surprisingly perhaps, the residency system tends since various decades to turn into a key dimension of literary life and cultural policy in the broad sense of the word. More and more supporting public and private bodies are choosing the residence formula to shape their support for the writing as well as reading, while a rapidly increasing number of literary authors is making room for residency periods in their own creative and communicative practices.

The reasons of this dramatic increase are manifold. In the French context, which is the exclusive focus of this detailed and very well informed pioneering study, it is often claimed that the success of residencies is the result of three major and inextricably related changes in the literary field.

One: residencies are a way of implementing new types of literary democratization, regardless of the type and nature of this democratic impulse (either top-down, with the attempt to offer the best of what has been written to as many people as possible, or horizontally, via the rejection of the high/low distinction and the recognition of popular forms of doing literature). Top-down residencies allow high-literary voices to meet more peripheral audiences; horizontal residencies allow less recognized authors to access previously inaccessible forms of financial and other support, while both types also help cross the boundaries between writers and audiences. In the French public system, there exists a widely accepted 70/30 ratio: writers are allowed to spend at least 70% of the residency time to their own work or more precisely to their own project, for there is not always an obligation to actually produce something at the end of the residency, and no more than 30% to various “communication” activities, ranging from public readings to creative writing workshops and everything that lies between them.

Two: residences are in sync with the (relative) transition form a highly centralized Jacobine state to new forms of administrative and political regionalization. Virtually all types of residencies tend to reposition the acts of reading and writing in the periphery of the system, the center of this system being Paris, more specifically the so-called “Saint-Germain” area where one finds the highest density of publishing houses, top quality bookshops, and formal as well as informal literary life. One of the perhaps unexpected consequences of the spread of residencies is therefore the return of nature writing, both as the object of critical reflection and the horizon of new forms of ecological writing.

Three: the changing nature of the author’s self-definition, which moves from (mainly) vocational, in the case of those who write because they feel they cannot do otherwise, to (mainly) professional, in the case of those who consider their literary work as a form of labor which deserves to be paid as any other form of labor, either by a wage or salary or by a fee. Unlike other groups of creative workers (actors, for instance, or journalists), writers have longtime functioned on a purely individual basis, and the combination of their creative work with a daytime job made that their economic power tended to be almost inexistent. Today, the increasing financial and political pressure of writers as an organized social and sometimes even unionized group makes that residencies end up as one of the answers to the problems writers have been facing in recent times: more and more writers, more and more books, less and less sales, dramatically dropping incomes.

The great merit of this publication is not only the exceptionally detailed mapping of the field, based on the use of a large set of possible criteria (the author proposes an analytic model that covers almost every possible feature of a residency) or the no less detailed discussion of the permanent interaction between the “internal” and “external” aspects of a literary residence. On the one hand, the internal side: what does a residency mean for an author, but also for her audience and the various mediating agents and agencies; on the other hand, the external side: how do cultural democratization, political regionalization and professionalization of the literary field go hand in hand? Next to these elements, which the author knows first hand thanks to her implementation in the residency program established by her own university in the North-East of France, Carole Bisenius offers an authentically interdisciplinary take on a cultural practice that proves to be extremely multifaceted.

Having a background in literary studies as a specialist of Perec and Oulipo and a well-respected scholar of constrained writing in contemporary literature, Carole Bisenius-Penin has succeeded in bringing together two fields, literary studies and information and communication studies (in French jargon “Infocom”), which over the last years have been following ever more divergent paths : formalist and historical in literary studies, empirical and sociological in Infocom approaches. In this book, the two strands enrich each other in an organic and inspiring way. Qualitative debates on what and how to write, including what and how to publish, what and how to discuss with various groups and types of readers, what and how to negotiate with funding bodies, are matched with more empirically oriented quantitative debates on economic, fiscal or legal aspects of writing, be it professionally or not (what does it mean, in legal and fiscal terms, to be defined as an author, how can one think of unemployment compensation for those who try to enter the field as a professional writer, which type of pension funds is needed for writers, for instance, and how can residency programs play a role in all this?).

The interface between these competing and sometimes clashing options is of course the notion of policy:  –the vocational versus the professional, quality versus quantity, creative freedom versus institutional constraints, literary ambitions versus communicative obligations, which might of course be seen as opportunities, the “real” residency place of the writer versus the “temporary” place of a residency (but what to think of it in terms of a travel residency, for example in the case of travel writers?), the role of the writer versus that of the mediator (for no residency is possible without certain forms of bureaucracy, which may be in danger of asphyxiating the residency), the tension also between reflection versus production, and last but not least the problem of how to define a “good” or “successful” residency and thus the further elaboration of a framework helping to remediate some current flaws of the system for the mutual benefit of all those involved in the process, be they writers, audiences, mediators, public and private sponsors, if not literature, politics, and society in general.

Bisenius-Penin’s answers to these questions are always subtle and nuanced, based on a good mix of three elements: field work (the research includes a large number of interviews with all kind of stakeholders), a solid theoretical basis in both literary studies and social sciences (one will find here for instance a through discussion of the concept of “dispositif”, but also those of ecopoetry, experience, mediation, and the like), and a personal and committed analysis of the theory, history, practice, and social as well as political framing of residences. The fact that Bisenius’ multi-perspectival analysis is strongly practice-based is another advantage of this book, which one hopes to find on the shelves, no on the table of all policy makers, literary mediators, and creative professionals in the field.