HomeResearching in the present: methodologies of research in contemporary literature

Researching in the present: methodologies of research in contemporary literature

Chercher au présent. Méthodologies de la recherche en littératures contemporaines

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Published on Monday, June 13, 2016 by Céline Guilleux


Over the past decades, contemporary literature has become a real object of study in post-secondary education as shows the establishment of big names, trends as well as courses and research projects dedicated to it. Nevertheless, contemporary literature has a unique status among literary studies, which often endeavours to interpret or re-interpret works that are remote in time, making the field more akin to archaeology than prospection.



Over the past decades, contemporary literature has become a real object of study in post-secondary education as shows the establishment of big names, trends as well as courses and research projects dedicated to it. Nevertheless, contemporary literature has a unique status among literary studies, which often endeavours to interpret or re-interpret works that are remote in time, making the field more akin to archaeology than prospection. The study of contemporary literature seems to undermine the very idea that a comprehensive analysis of a literary text is only achievable thanks to the critical distance that remoteness in time apparently guarantees. Being deprived of this distance, which is often presented as a requisite for literary study, the researcher in contemporary literature must find new research methods and new analyses in order to make his/her study suitable for a living literary object whose forms may be unprecedented. How are these methods built and how do they find legitimacy?

It may be time for junior researchers in contemporary literatures – both francophone and foreign – to examine the field of contemporary studies and, in particular, to face the specific issues that emerge from them. These specific issues are due, among other things, to the contemporaneity of the researcher and his/her object of study. This contemporaneity cannot only be described as coexistence in time. The researcher and the writer share time but also space, and each try, with his/her own means, to disentangle the “brouhaha” that can define our contemporary world.i This unique proximity blurs the boundaries between the reflections of the writer and of the researcher, between their works and even their roles. What happens when the researcher interferes in the process of creation or when the texts offer their own independent critical theories? What happens when the researcher and the writer interact as equals and seem on the verge of exchanging their positions?

These questions lead the researchers to reconsider their methodological tools in order to reflect on their critical distance with their object of study. These questions also bring to light the consequences of the reversibility between literary and critical writing, between the job of writer and that of lecturer or researcher and between what is a document and what is a literary object. What’s more, the possibility that is given to the researcher to talk with the author about his/her work is often described as a unique opportunity. But what is this opportunity about? What does the dialogue between the author and the researcher actually give to the two of them? On the contrary, could we argue that a risk of dangerous propinquity and complacent repetition results from this possibility? How do writers and researchers share that space which sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish one from the other?

All these questions come to the researchers’ minds, and especially to the junior researchers who are more familiar with classical studies and have therefore to face, from the outset, the necessity to re-invent their methods. The purpose of this study day is, then, to hear them. Here are a few points that may be explored by the participants:

The methodology of contemporary studies

The author is often said to have lost his/her prominence and centrality in our contemporary societies but it seems that, on the contrary, his/her presence has increased: our modern world gives the researcher an unprecedented diversity of sources and resources to explore his/her object of study (be they lectures, meetings, festivals, interviews on the radio, the television or the internet). Besides this unprecedented profusion of resources, the specificity of the research in contemporary literature also stems from the fact that the authors who are studied are alive. The researcher therefore needs to establish new methodological ways to study a literary text, a process in which the author is given the chance to participate, as have shown some sociological studies like those of Bernard Lahire, which have enabled the creation of a cartography of “the double life of writers”, thanks to a questionnaire that more than five hundred writers participated in.

The critical tools must then be reconsidered and renewed since the study of what is contemporary allows new methodological opportunities to emerge but also engenders impossibilities or obstacles (such as the archives and private correspondence) and risks (how can we deal with the presence of writers on the social networks? Can Facebook be a source?).

Considering, among other things, the renewed policies of publication, the exclusively electronic or collaborative works, contemporary literature also offers new forms and unprecedented practices. How does the researcher grasp the mutations of his/her object of study? Can the critical and methodological tools of literary research apply to different centuries, to different countries? How does the critical and literary legacy shed light on contemporary works, and what modernity can these new tools reveal in texts that were written in the past?

The interpretation of what is unfinished

The researcher in contemporary literature faces various kinds of incompletion.

First, the very object under study is intrinsically unfinished since the author is living and his/her work is still in the making, if not in its embryonic stages. Does this mutability give rise to aporias? Does it hinder the research or is it, quite on the contrary, a source of scientific innovations or of desirable reserves in the interpretation of the work?

The incompleteness the researcher faces is also due to the incompletion of contemporary literature more generally and to the necessity to endlessly question its limits and its rhythms, to permanently shed light on its issues, its trends and their renewal. Can we synthesize what is contemporary? How can we periodize contemporary literature?

The incompletion of the period itself adds up to the intrinsically unfinished and mutable object the researcher faces. Both the writer and the researcher endeavour to demist the fog of contemporary times in their literary works and their critical discourses. What, therefore, are their roles and their responsibility in the readability of modern times?

Viva voce interactions

Since the Nouveau Roman, writers have had an increasing visibility at the university, but also in other places like meetings, discussions, in residences or even in some courses such as the Master’s degree in creative writing that Paris 8 created a few years ago. Nearly fifty years after the “death of the author”, he/she seems to be more alive than ever and rekindles the discussions about the interpretations of literary works in an original and concrete way thanks to his/her presence in conferences that are dedicated to him/her. On the contrary, the researcher in contemporary literature more frequently steps out of the universities to talk about his/her critical works in the media or to converse with the author during festivals or meetings that are accessible to an each time wider audience. What are the new possibilities and new role that are given to the critic in the public sphere? Is the porosity between the researcher and the journalist bound to expend?

Besides the particularities that stem from this viva voce interaction between the researcher and the writer, we would like to reflect on the consequences of such dialogue: what does this direct dialogue between a contemporary writer and a researcher allow? What kind of influence can research have on the legitimacy, the shape or even the orientation of a writer’s text? On the contrary, how can a writer interfere, in his/her lifetime, in the critical reception of his/her work?


In order to prosper, the research in contemporary literature has had to counter the criticism - often levelled at it - of lacking necessary temporal distance with its object of study. It even turned this apparent flaw into an epistemological opportunity and into a “practical necessity.”ii The epistemological opportunity offered by the study of contemporary literature stems from a reversal in the approach of a literary text as Laurent Demanze explains: “the study of contemporary literature at the University would somehow lead the researchers and students to reverse aesthetical thinking since it would induce a suspension of the “presumption of worth” in order to try out the worth of a text through the hermeneutic possibilities it gives rise to. The value of a literary text would therefore no longer be presumed and serve to legitimize reading but, on the contrary, the different readings and their strengths would make the value of the text emerge.”iii The researcher in contemporary literature has therefore to grapple with the issue of the ongoing constitution of the literary history of his/her time. Indeed, how does s/he evaluate the worth or the legitimacy of the works or of the authors s/he chooses to study? Do contemporary classics already exist? And if so, what part does contemporary research play in the perpetuation or, to the contrary, on the contestation of this patrimonial logic?

As to the “practical necessity”, an expression Dominique Viart used in a 2000 text, it refers to the deficiency of other institutions, and especially of the media, in their evaluation of the value of a literary text. Since the other institutions are defective, it behoves the researcher in contemporary literature to rate the literary works, to distribute them, to acquaint students and wide audiences with them, and to legitimize them. How can this commitment and even this activism of the researcher go together with his/her necessary critical distance with the works he/she studies? What’s more, one can wonder whether critical neutrality and equitable legitimization are not threatened when a writer and a researcher visit the same social circles or develop friendships and even closer relationships. Could we even talk about literary conflicts of interest?


i Lionel Ruffel, Brouhaha. Les mondes du contemporain, Lagrasse, Verdier, 2016.

ii VIART, Dominique, « L’œuvre en dialogue » in Souchon, Patrick, La Langue à l’œuvre : les temps des écrivains à l’université, Paris, Maison des écrivains, 2000.

iii DEMANZE, Laurent. « Le contemporain à l’université », in Écritures contemporaines. Atelier de recherche sur la littérature actuelle, url : http://ecrit-cont.ens-lyon.fr/spip.php?rubrique27#nb1.

How to submit your application

Applications, of a maximum of 500 words, should be sent to the following address: je.chercheraupresent@gmail.com,

before the 2nd of October 2016.

Please include the following details:

  • Surname and name of the author(s).
  • University and lab you are attached to.
  • Date of registration to the PhD or date of PhD thesis submission.
  • Bibliography (max. of 5 references, footnotes included).

Indicative bibliography

André, Marie-Odile. Barraband, Mathilde. Du « contemporain » à l’université. Usages, configurations, enjeux. Paris, Presses Sorbonne nouvelle, 2015. 

Citton, Yves. Lire interpréter, actualiser. Pourquoi les études littéraires ?. Paris, Amsterdam, 2007.

Demanze, Laurent. « Le contemporain à l’université », article mis en ligne sur le site Écritures contemporaines. Atelier de recherche sur la littérature actuelle. url : http://ecrit-cont.ens-lyon.fr/spip.php?rubrique27#nb1.

Meizoz, Jérôme. La littérature « en personne ». Scène médiatique et formes d’incarnation. Genève, Slatkine, « Érudition », 2016.

Rousso, Henry. La dernière catastrophe. L’histoire, le présent, le contemporain. Paris, Gallimard, « NRF Essais », 2012.

Ruffel, Lionel. Brouhaha. Les mondes du contemporains, Lagrasse, Verdier, 2016.

Viart, Dominique, « Histoire littéraire et littérature contemporaine », in Tangence, numéro 102, 2013, pp. 113-130.

Revue d’Histoire Littéraire de la France, L’histoire littéraire face à la création contemporaine, 2013/3, volume 113, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2013.


  • Jean-Marc Baud (ENS Lyon),
  • Pierre-Victor Haurens (ENS Lyon),
  • Emily Lombardero (Université de Lorraine)
  • Pierre Mathieu (Université Lumière Lyon 2).


  • Lyon, France (69)


  • Sunday, October 02, 2016


  • contemporain


  • Comité d'organisation de la journée d'études Chercher au présent
    courriel : je [dot] chercheraupresent [at] gmail [dot] com

Information source

  • Comité d'organisation de la journée d'étude Chercher au présent
    courriel : je [dot] chercheraupresent [at] gmail [dot] com

To cite this announcement

« Researching in the present: methodologies of research in contemporary literature », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Monday, June 13, 2016, https://calenda.org/367195

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