Annie Ernaux, Nobel Prize for Literature, and the social sciences

Social research should take into account this Nobel Prize for Literature and the ways in which an artistic discipline uses tools considered typical of the human sciences with excellent results. When carrying out a similar exercise, those who carry out research from the field of social sciences should take into account the potential of using tools typical of the literary field to understand the different spheres of the human.

The work of Annie Ernaux, winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize for Literature, has been at the center of analysis in different cultural media due to her particular style of writing. Cataloged by much of the critics as an essentially autobiographical narrative, the author resists this typecasting, pointing out that her work is much more than autobiography, and to understand it exclusively from this genre is to fall into a deep reductionism.

She prefers the qualification of an “autosociobiographical account”, where “she uses her experiences to assemble a social, almost ethnological portrait”. From this perspective, the author works with her intimacy and with the intimacy of the people who make up her family circle, but in turn her writings have the ability to reach universal themes.

In tune or not with Ernaux’s definition of her work, the French writer has positioned herself as one of the main promoters of autofiction and literature of the self from the mid-1970s. One of the most interesting aspects of this controversy that is generated between the artist and a part of the critics is that reflections on her work can go beyond literature as a field of study. battle and reach the terrain of the social sciences at an epistemological level.

Ernaux’s literary journey is diverse, and addresses issues ranging from sexual awakening, failed love relationships, daily life in France from the mid-20th century onwards, among others. It is true, the compass with which he narratively explores the events that interest him is most of the time an “I”, but not an egotic, limited self, destined to the closure of his own subjectivity or predetermined cultural frameworks, but, as she herself defines it, “it is a transpersonal self, it is not just a me that refers to my person, is a me that contains much more than a thea shea they”.

And if one of the main darts that have been thrown at this form of artistic creation has to do with whether or not it fits into the traditional canons of literature, the tension with which the author’s work responds is much more powerful: What is literature? To what extent is the writer allowed to use their own experiences to shape the contents of their work? Is it possible to use social science tools such as ethnography, participant observation, sociological description or the field diary in the field of literature?

Regarding the latter, Emmanuel Carrére has expressed in another press medium: “I admire the way of narrating that Ernaux has invented, mixing autobiography, history and sociology”. And it is true that this narrative technique, or literary production mode, finds exponents of weight in authors such as Lucía Berlin or George Perec (to name just two). As for the North American writer (Berlin), her stories are impregnated with a deep descriptive richness to show us the complexities of the domestic world; the tensions that originate in work spaces; breaks in love relationships; alcoholism and addiction problems; the difficulties in finding the time to write and be a mother at the same time. All that accumulation of meanings narrated from her special gaze, but she without ceasing to be a true anthropologist of herself and of the circumstances that surround her.

On the other hand, and continuing with the French authors who have carried out this form of writing, a good example is the book Attempt to sell out a Parisian venue, by George Perec, which although it can be read as an unclassifiable work, a type of experimental writing, we also find in this text a powerful exercise in urban ethnography, where observation, memory and introspection converge for the description and exploration of a given social space . I venture to say that this text by Perec may have influenced the writing of the book Look at the lights in the sky, my loveby Annie Ernaux, in which the author records her visits to a supermarket through writings over a period of years, revealing the surprising aspects that may be hidden from the daily gaze of its visitors.

Social research should take into account this Nobel Prize for Literature and the ways in which an artistic discipline uses tools considered typical of the human sciences with excellent results. When carrying out a similar exercise, those who carry out research from the field of social sciences should take into account the potential of using tools typical of the literary field to understand the different spheres of the human.

I think I am not saying anything new, but it is often overlooked or omitted because it does not “comply” neither methodologically nor epistemologically with the canons of scientificity required by academic communities. And when I refer to tools from the literary field or artistic disciplines –cinema, art, photography, etc.–, it is not just about narrative techniques or the ways in which texts are constructed. It also has to do with ways to deepen observations (literature is writing and imagination, but it strongly uses observation and memory); the ways of approaching reality, of calibrating the real aspects of the fictional ones (social research can also have certain degrees of fiction that are often not properly refined in the final results).

In conclusion, It is not that neither of the two disciplinary spheres loses its autonomy or its meaning; nor that the social sciences dissolve into literature, nor that literature should be transformed into social research. It is only about establishing bridges that communicate, that this methodological and epistemological flow that can circulate between the two, if well used, can greatly enrich each of them.

Jesus Reinoso

Sociologist.

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Annie Ernaux, Nobel Prize for Literature, and the social sciences