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Lighting the flame for literature

08 January 2019
'People need fiction'
'People need fiction'

For Mathijs Sanders, literature and life are synonymous. He lives with it and for it and shares his love of it with anyone who will listen. As Professor of Modern Dutch Literature, he even makes his living from it. He considers himself fortunate. ‘There is nothing I would rather do.’

Text: Gert Gritter, photos: Hesterliena Wolthuis

Sanders is no old-school man of letters who thinks in terms of a canon and seeks to divide works into literary periods and movements. ‘What interests me most is how Dutch literature is used - not what it is but what it does. How is it applied? By whom and for whom? What does it mean? The power and impact of literature is sometimes used to legitimize a point a person wishes to make. For example, Dutch politician Thierry Baudet recently stood up in the Dutch Lower House and recited a poem by Menno Wigman, adding slight embellishments of his own. The giggly responses this elicited from the cabinet and members of the house were telling. The question is what the speaker was hoping to achieve and what effect his recitation had on different listeners. What do texts do with people and what do people do with texts?’

Broader definition

Sanders attributes a broader definition to the chair of Modern Dutch Literature than that which was previously used. ‘To start with, we are witnessing a shift from “literature” to “literary language”. Literary language is a specific way of using language. People are linguistic beings and literary language is interwoven into all facets of society – games, drama, film, music, politics. The study of Dutch language and literature can help us to denote, interpret and understand concepts that lie beyond literature. The other sense in which the definition has become broader lies in the link between Dutch language and literature and literature from other language areas. I have abandoned the idea of restricting the subject to Dutch literature only. What I address these days is not just literature from the Netherlands, Flanders and Suriname but all literature in that language area. Why? Because translated literature is also part of our modern society and influences it to a significant degree.’

‘Literary experience’

‘People need fiction. Novels give them access to worlds beyond their own experience. Fiction augments our ability to accept what is different and increases our understanding of all kinds of topics. Take, for example, medical humanities – a field founded on the assumption that there is a story behind every patient and their environment and that every patient is a story. A doctor who understands that story will also understand the patient better. That doctor uses literary language as a source of knowledge. The study of Dutch language and literature examines this phenomenon and its impact. So the subject has a much broader scope than many people think. That, above all, is what I want to get across to my students – the value of their ability, thanks to their study, to draw all sorts of unexpected links.’


Sanders is a passionate advocate of literary education. He is critical of the disproportionate emphasis secondary schools place on ‘technical’ knowledge of – and knowledge about – language. In his opinion, Dutch as a school subject has been reduced to little more than a sort of glorified reading comprehension, with far too little attention being paid to the pleasure reading can bring – a trend guaranteed to suck the ‘fun’ out of ‘function’. Not only does it lead to an impoverishment of knowledge transfer in education, but it also makes teaching Dutch or studying Dutch appear less attractive options. Fewer people are choosing to study Dutch at Dutch universities. These are worrying trends for his field. What is more, the public’s inclination to read books is diminishing fast, especially among the young.

'Novels give them access to worlds beyond their own experience.'
'Novels give them access to worlds beyond their own experience.'

Comfort zone

And yet Sanders is not pessimistic. ‘I am not easily discouraged. I won’t deny that there’s a decline in reading, but in my experience it’s still not difficult to convince people of the value of literature. I sometimes visit secondary schools to talk to pupils about literature. It’s striking how easy it is to awaken their enthusiasm – how quickly their “light goes on”. The drop in the number of students choosing Dutch is a fact, but not one that necessarily spells doom. It forces us to step out of our comfort zone and think hard about alternatives. That gives rise to new opportunities. What we need most of all now are enthusiastic teachers who can promote the enormous societal value of literary experience. Actually, studying Dutch is very popular in other countries these days. More people are studying Dutch abroad now than in the Netherlands. That is adding a more international flavour to the study of Dutch language and literature. I notice it here in Groningen – lots of foreign students and researchers are showing an interest in studying the language. I know an American, for example, who is interested because of the historical links between the Netherlands and the US. And a Russian woman who had noticed that so many Dutch children’s books have been translated into Russian.’

‘Beyond Sleep’

The obvious questions to ask Sanders are which novel he thinks is the best or which book has made the deepest impression on him. ‘I can’t come up with a single title straight away. And my answers change over time. I read lots as a child, but my first literary reading experience was with Beyond Sleep by W.F. Hermans. That was a novel that got hold of me and then wouldn’t let me go … I was very keen on Vestdijk for a while, but moved on to other writers later, like Thomas Mann with his Joseph tetralogy (1933-1943) – a thick and frankly unpalatable work that was nevertheless very well received in the Netherlands. It depends very much, too, on who I read books with. Books come to life for me when I discuss them with other people. For example, I once read Frans Kellendonk’s Mystic Body with a group of students over a two-year period. The students reacted more strongly to it than I had anticipated. The subject matter was quite remote from their personal experience, and yet it spoke to their concerns and fascinations. It was an exciting exercise for all of us.’

Last modified:22 April 2020 3.50 p.m.
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