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Contemporary Literary Writers Discussing Europe

In the bustling European debate on migration and integration, literary writers are constantly intervening. They warn for bureaucratic arguments, rigidity and superficiality. They point at the fragility of local communities, and follow historical traces. They emphasize freedom of speech and satire. In short, they are true public intellectuals, fusing literature and politics. Odile Heynders, author of Writers as public Intellectuals, Literature, Celebrity, Democracy, talks about the role of literary writers in the European public sphere.

A public intellectual introduces an opinion of general concern in the public debate, and expands upon trending topics of the day by reflecting on their context. Literary writers as public intellectuals observe, argue and analyse, but also employ imagination to clarify political stances. In order to do so, they fuse different genres (novel, essay, column) on paper and in public, addressing reading audiences, television watchers and Internet users alike. They speak for and to a public, and take up a specific role as spokesperson, mediator and educator. Their different voices and strategies are presented and discussed in this book.

European democracies have forgotten their history, argues the celebrated German author Hans Magnus Enzensberger. In the bureaucracy in Brussels, individual voices get lost. That is why the writer invents a dialogue with people who are not heard anymore, and travels to the margins of Europe to speak to various persons. Slavenka Drakulic, born in former Yugoslavia and today living in Sweden, collects opinions and motivations on Europe in the East and West, and reveals the ideas of perpetrators and victims from the Balkan wars when reporting from the international court in The Hague. French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy engages frequently in political affairs – not only by writing opinions pieces and blogs, such as on the Huffington Post, but also through activism, stimulating politicians to intervene. He pushed Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron into action in Libya in 2011, he was on Maidan square to speak to the people in February 2014. The Belgian writer David van Reybrouck, disappointed in democracy, initiated a citizen-platform on which the cacophony of political voices and opinions can be criticised. Like his colleague Geert van Istendael, he feels the attraction of the multicultural heart of the city of Brussels (so much despised after the 13 November attacks in Paris). Turkish author of popular fiction Elif Shafak uses Twitter in two languages to convey political messages and discuss them with her global audience. In Germany the writer-journalist Henryk M. Broder, collaborating with Muslim writer Hamed Abdel-Samad, created a satirical television programme on integration: a safari in Europe.

All of these writers, in different national contexts, provide challenging opinions on political and social topics in current-day Europe. They demonstrate that the European project can only be successful when a trans-national public sphere is established in which opinions can be discussed and shared. The role of the writer as public intellectual is more relevant than ever, due to their capacity of detachment and imagination, rational argument and the invention of scenarios, theatricality and aesthetification.

In contrast to the pessimistic ideas of Habermas, Bourdieu and Hobsbawm on the intellectual effectiveness in the age of digitalization and media enhancement, this book offers a decidedly optimistic point of view on the new opportunities and activities of public intellectuals, in both on- and offline environments. It includes the philosopher-writer who uses radio and TV as a political diary on Libya, as well as the literary author engaging in Internet discussions to defend democracy. It considers the sociologist participating in a television satire, or the novelist promoting her popular fiction on Facebook and Pinterest, while also writing intellectual pieces in blogs on The Guardian website. No public intellectual writer today sticks to just one genre or platform. They have become hybrid and hypermediated celebrities, stylized and charismatic, influencing the history of the present.

© SpringerOdile Heynders is full professor Comparative Literature at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. She has published many articles on literature and politics and works currently on a project on European scenarios.