Door Roel Smeets
Which types of characters populate the fictional society of Dutch literature? When thinking about literature in terms of demographics, questions arise with regards to the literary representation of certain social groups. Why are certain professions for characters in recent Dutch novels so popular? And what does that say about the potential emancipatory and progressive powers of literature?
Traditionally, literature has the reputation of being one of the highest, most sophisticated forms of art. Elaborate reflections on the nature of Being, critical views on Man’s place in contemporary society, deep contemplations on core values as love, respect and solidarity – those are topics which we might expect a true literary author to cover in their writings. Moreover, the domain of literature is preeminently a place in which societal tendencies resonate. For example: in 1863 the Dutch writer J.J. Cremer wrote the novel Fabriekskinderen (English translation: ‘factory children’), which is a very critical commentary on the child labor that took place in abundance in the Dutch 1860’s. This novel is a classic example of literature’s reflective, progressive and engaging powers. In that same vein, literature has throughout history shown to stand at the forefront when it comes to emancipatory movements in society. Take the famous anti-slavery, bestselling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which is commonly held to have been an enormous impulse for the abolition of slavery in the United States. More recently, writers such as Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are well known for the appealing ways with which they incorporate critical reflections on gender, race and class in their literary fiction.
The demographic landscape of characters in recent Dutch literary fiction
Be that as it may, a more quantitative and sociological approach to literature might lay bare inconvenient truths that usually remain firmly hidden underneath the literary surface. During my Research Masters Dutch Literature I have worked on a joint research project that aimed to show how diverse the fictional population of recent Dutch novels is, which also has been the point of departure for my current PhD research. Discussions in the Dutch public debate with regards to diversity among e.g. prize winning literary authors and among literary critics sparked our interest back then. Whereas it seemed clear that the Dutch literary field suffered from an overall dominant monoculture, it remained unclear how homo- or heterogeneous the literature itself was. Which characters populate that society? What is the gender balance among them? How many non-Western characters are there? Which profession do authors choose for their characters? With those questions in mind we started to gather demographic information from all 1179 characters in a corpus of 170 recent Dutch novels. Demographic features we searched for were gender, place of birth, place of residence, age, level of education, profession. As a (random) research sample, we took all 170 submissions to the prestigious Libris Literatuurprijs 2013. One of the results of our study was that the fictional population of recent Dutch literature is predominantly populated by Western, highly educated, male characters.
Prostitutes and housewives versus entrepreneurs and doctors
Another question we could try to answer on the basis of our results is what the job market in Dutch literature looks like. In the top 15 of most common professions for male and female characters in our corpus, some professions attract special attention. For both male and female characters, being a student is the most occurring occupation. Apparently, most characters are school-going, both to an institution of higher education and a primary or a secondary school. That is perhaps not so striking: it is imaginable that a literary author would find it interesting to write about a character that is in his or her formative years. Those years are often marked by the dynamics of youth, passionate-dramatic encounters with Self and Other, and are a rich breeding ground for potential trauma’s and personal growth issues.
Particularly interesting are the professions that are listed from the third place downwards. The third most common profession among male characters is entrepreneur, whereas for female characters this is prostitute. More generally, one can observe that the list of most common professions for male characters contains jobs that are usually perceived as having a higher social respectability than the jobs listed in the column for female characters; being a prostitute, housewife, secretary or housekeeper has a lower social prestige than being an entrepreneur, teacher, doctor or scholar. At least, the jobs in the latter category typically require more education and development of intellectual qualities, whereas the jobs in the first categories require less education and less intellect.
Moreover, some professions that stand out in both columns are stereotypically connected to men or women from a biodeterministic, essentialist point of view. Housewife and nurse are good examples: these are professions associated with the deterministic view on the nature of women as caring and nurturing. In that same line of essentialist thinking, being an entrepreneur can be associated with the alleged prehistoric role of a male homo sapiens as an entrepreneurial, adventurous hunter-gatherer.
Literature as a mirror for society?
What does such a demographic view on literature tell us about its relation to contemporary society? The composition of the actual Dutch population of 2012 and the fictional population of Dutch novels published in 2012 are of course not entirely comparable; the former consists of people, the latter of fictional constellations that we call ‘characters’. Moreover, every individual novel is a small fictional society in itself, consisting of a collection of imaginary people from which the reader only gets to know a definite amount (the narrator, some main characters, some side characters), but definitely not all ‘people’ that hypothetically populate the storyworld of that particular novel. Aggregating the characters from all novels from a certain year or time period does in that sense also not equal ‘the’ literary population of a specific year or period, it is only an aggregation of the inhabitants of multiple storyworlds.
But just as sociologists take samples from the current national population to study demographics, literary scholars should just as well be able to take a more or less representative sample from the available literary population at hand, taking into account all its limitations. The sample under discussion here raises some central questions with regards to literary representation. Imagine the writer of a novel as having the possibility to pick their characters from a broad range of character types available to them: should they write about a man/woman, a young/old person, a person living in the capital of the Netherlands or in the outskirts of Tanzania, a lowly/highly educated person, an entrepreneur or a prostitute?
It not only appears that Dutch writers are mainly inclined to write about a homogeneous character type (man, highly educated, Western), but also that they choose to intersect certain demographic categories with others in their characters. This becomes particularly clear in the intersection of profession and gender. There are zero male prostitutes or ‘househusbands’ (there is no proper male equivalent to ‘housewife’) in the corpus. Why is that? Perhaps writers do not associate those professions with masculinity, whereas they do associate them with femininity. Perhaps they think to attract a reader audience by writing about women with loose sexual moral standards. Perhaps they want their storyworld to ‘fit’ with readers conservative gender conceptions in which it is only natural for women to stay home and not have a personal financial income, which was a reality in the Dutch 1950’s.
Whatever the answer to the question why there are so many prostitutes in literature may be, keeping track and mapping the demographics of the characters in literature might or might not reveal changes in the literary populations throughout the years. One can, for instance, imagine that new migrations from non-Western people to the Netherlands would result in a literary population with more non-Western characters. Or not. For now I think it is wise to adjust any preconceptions about the so called ‘high’ genre of the literary novel as being fundamentally emancipatory and progressive. It is not necessarily so that everyone’s voice is heeded in the literature of a particular time and place.
Roel Smeets (1991) studied Philosophy and Dutch Literature in Utrecht and Amsterdam. Since September 2016 he is a PhD candidate at the Radboud University in Nijmegen. His research project is titled ‘Social Networks of Fictional Characters: A Computational and Empirical Approach to Literary Diversity’. The project explores the intersections and boundaries between ideological criticism on literature, Digital Humanities and empirical literary studies.