- Bernard Lahire and “The Double Life of Writers”
With the 2006 appearance of La condition littéraire: la double vie des écrivains Bernard Lahire consolidated his reputation as the foremost living sociologist of literature in France.1 Adding to an already prolific publication record, this six-hundred-page opus was hailed as a milestone of empirical investigation for revealing the social conditions of writers compelled to seek financial support by other means. Inevitably compared to Pierre Bourdieu’s Rules of Art, La condition littéraire revisits Lahire’s earlier critiques of field theory and the related notion of habitus while acknowledging his debt to the master of contemporary French sociology. Virtually his entire career has been devoted to examining the social nexus of literature and literacy, whether inequalities perpetuated through schooling, the nature of writing emanating from the working classes, or approaches to study in different milieus. Translated into English, Spanish, German, and Portuguese, Lahire’s scholarship clearly resonates with the global challenge of establishing a more inclusive literary culture. La condition littéraire sustains and develops this line of argument by documenting the diversity of backgrounds and employment among the hundreds of respondents to his survey who identified themselves as writers. It highlights the difficulties faced even by the most celebrated authors in securing the means to write. But it also underscores Lahire’s conviction that active reading and writing communities among all social categories are vital to a democracy.
Born in Lyon in 1963, Bernard Lahire has been professor of sociology at the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure Lettres et Sciences Humaines Lyon since 2000. An impressive roster of visiting positions at major institutions attests to his global reputation, along with prizes and honors in recognition of his contributions to the social sciences. Since 2002, he has edited the series entitled “Laboratory of the Social Sciences” published by Editions La Découverte while serving on the editorial board of numerous reviews and scholarly journals in France, Argentina, Brazil, and the United Kingdom. Among his fifteen books, some of the best-known titles include L’homme pluriel: les ressorts de l’action [End Page 439] and La culture des individus: dissonances culturelles et distinction de soi.2 La condition littéraire was followed by La raison scolaire: ecole et pratiques d’écriture, entre savoir et pouvoir and La cognition au prisme des sciences sociales.3 The excerpt from La condition littéraire translated here appears in the subsection of the first chapter entitled “The Double Life of Writers and Literary Intermittence.” In “The Double Life of Writers,” Lahire shows that at some point in their careers, virtually all writers seek alternative sources of financial support, usually through a second job. The ramifications of this fact—including its challenge to our conventional models of the autonomy of art—have been largely overlooked by both sociology and literary criticism. Just as the physical and mental demands of a “day job” can dictate the rhythm of writing, so this job can also impact the nature of the writer’s anticipated readership and even content or style. Moving beyond anecdotal or idiosyncratic appreciations of the writer’s double life, Lahire’s large-scale survey of 503 respondents and forty interviewees includes profiles of well-published authors, thereby dispelling the illusion that major writers are immune to financial concerns. “The Double Life of Writers” provides empirical evidence that this schizoid plight is far more pervasive among modern authors than generally assumed.
By insisting on how the writer’s double life fosters an internal duality, this study dramatically illustrates the central tenet informing Lahire’s sociological project: that individuals are plural, and therefore inadequately serviced by the monolithic sociological concept of the habitus developed by Pierre Bourdieu. But whereas Lahire’s earlier versions of this argument drew from texts by Marcel Proust and Michel Montaigne, “The Double Life of Writers” relies on the testimonials of living writers to describe the interplay between quotidian occupations and the antithetical universe of the “literary game.” In contrast to Bourdieu’s field, Lahire’s dominant game metaphor simultaneously conveys the survival stratagems necessitated by an especially precarious profession and the ludic elements of chance, diversion...