Houses of literature – A space for everyone

KC JOURNAL NO 24 JULY 2010

Florian Hollerer* discusses the Houses of Literature as center of active citizenship, as places for sustainable and independent programmes, and for cooperation. The Houses of Literature in cities and communities are spaces for literature and reading.

Florian höllerer* discusses the houses of Literature as centres of active citizenship, as places for sustainable and independent programmes, and for cooperation. the houses of Literature in cities and communties are spaces for literature and reading.

Centres of active citizenship

Over the last thirty years, there has been quite a boom in opening new Houses of Literature in Germany, Austria and in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. With Berlin as the starting point, the growing enthusiasm for Houses of Literature has not been limited to the large cities. Over the years, an increasing number of mid-size cities in Germany such as Kiel, Darmstadt, Magdeburg, Wiesbaden, Rostock and Nuremberg have followed the trend. The Houses of Literature are becoming a natural element of the urban cultural landscape – at the same level as theatres, museums, concert halls or cinemas.

The new Houses of Literature are found everywhere in Europe. In Poland, there are large municipal institutions such as the ‘Baltic Cultural Centre’ in Gdansk and non-governmental venues such as the ‘Pogranicze’ in Sejny, which are organised as foundations. As it is the tradition in all Eastern European countries, the houses of the Writers Associations are also major event venues. This is the case throughout Europe – from country to country and from city to city – with very diverse venues such as the ’Villa Gillet‘ in Lyon (France), the ’Maison de la Poésie‘ in Paris (France), the ’Casa delle letterature‘ in Rome (Italy), and the ‘International House of Literature’ in Brussels (Belguim). The SLAA in Amsterdam (Holland) joined forces with the cultural centre ‘De Balie’, the Kulturhuset in Stockholm (Sweden).

Different traditions

All these Houses of Literature follow very unique cultural, economic and social traditions: The French book- and reading landscape is strongly influenced by independent booksellers that have always been very influential. The situation is very different in Italy, where newsagents – among others – are increasingly participating in the book market. It is mainly the successful literature festival in Mantova that sets standards in Italy. The traditional formats of literature events also vary significantly: An author’s reading for an hour or more is a very normal in German- speaking countries and takes place in municipal libraries, bookshops or trendy cafés, whereas it is more the exception than the rule for a French, English or Portuguese audience.

The Houses of Literature have different features and the format of German Houses of Literature cannot be transferred to a Spanish or Greek environment. The differences and the non-transferable aspects create the spark that introduces a twist to a newly developed venue. The Houses of Literature are productive places that facilitate the dialogue between authors, accompanying the creative process of writing a book even before its publication and featuring the profession of the writer, his or her work environment and the mechanisms and material structures of the literature business. In a widely acclaimed newspaper article, the author Thomas Hettche, highlighted the laboratory character as the main challenge for the Houses of Literature, at the same time containing their greatest potential for the future. I quote:

In addition to the copyright- and distribution issues of future literature, in addition to the forums and formats of its presentation, in addition to the so far unresolved issues of archiving and thus its physical form and aesthetics, the realm of processing literature is also affected by changes. Not in the sense of literary production, but rather in terms of that particular hovering curiosity after each reading: How is it done? It seems to me that this curiosity impacts directly on the concept of Houses of Literature willing to adopt new functions in the future – moving away from being places of traditional readings with a diminishing audience.

I get the impression from creative writing courses that there is a greater longing for literature that can be experienced as part of our life. The Houses of Literature could meet this need with writing workshops, poetry events, reading groups, translation workshops, a café and – why not – a literary bookshop for all parts of society and all age groups. (The Houses) function as a laboratory.

As a place for a literary public, the House of Literature would be another protagonist in my dream of a City of Literature , which could provide ideas and facilitate a future precisely NOT by focusing primarily on literary production, but rather on the system of literature itself. With all its protagonists, the publishing houses, newspapers and universities, the writers, academics and booksellers, it has always been an intermediary for artistic experience, a place for social debate, for the absurd and the luxurious – and hence of freedom.’

Places for cooperation

The most important term for the work of any House of Literature is cooperation. Only a small minority of evenings take place without a cooperation partner. This could be a foreign cultural institute, a publisher, a university institute or a foundation. It could also be radio stations broadcasting a series of talks from the House of Literature, newspapers commissioning essays together with the venues, a big museum commissioning writers to describe their favourite work of art, or a theatre co-organising a reading by a famous playwright, or a law firm sponsoring a panel discussion on the ban of a novel, an architectural firm as the partner for a debate on urban developments and city planning, and so on.

However, this does not turn Houses of Literature into cultural supermarkets, constantly going beyond their own expertise by organising everything and nothing. Particularly a high-profile partner enables the houses to focus on their own core profile, even if the individual evening exceeds the boundaries of literature towards music, film, religion, education or politics. The fact that the audiences of two institutions and two interest groups meet and join forces in the mutual promotion of a joint evening is particularly beneficial for the perception of the House of Literature as the intellectual hub of the city. A search for co-operation takes place beyond the individual city. Or to speak in chemical terms, Houses of Literature are molecules with free, unsaturated compounds. Due to the continuous absorption of impulses from other cities and other countries, the initiators and providers of ideas play a stimulating role in common talk. Over many years, Houses of Literature have nurtured relationships to institutions abroad, particularly in Europe, which contributes to their wealth of experience. Meanwhile 11 major Houses of Literature in the German-speaking cities of Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Salzburg, Munich, Cologne, Stuttgart, Leipzig and as new additions Zurich, Graz and Rostock created the network ‘literaturhaus.net’ and also have a wide range of experiences with forms of cooperation. An office financed with equal representation was opened in Munich to coordinate the activities of the Literature Houses and to service the Internet presence ‘www.literaturhaus.net’.

One step in the right direction is the ambitious writer-in-residence project organised in cooperation with the Goethe-Institute. This year Turkey is the guest at the Frankfurt Book Fair and German cities with a House of Literature sent one author each to a Turkish city for one month to keep a diary. Every day, the diaries were published on the Internet in both Turkish and German. In exchange, Turkish authors came to the German cities as writers-in-residence. This project generated texts characterised by the immediacy of daily writing on the one hand and by the shifts in perception caused by the duration of the stay on the other hand. Two years before, the same project took place in cooperation with seven Arab cities, then it was followed by India. Argentina is the next partner.


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