01. September 2022

“The Most Valuable Thing You Have is Time” “The Most Valuable Thing You Have is Time”

Sonja Lewandowski and Vanessa Briese used the gap between studying for a doctorate and working and the challenges posed by the pandemic as an opportunity to launch a feminist literature festival, among other things

Addressing contemporary literature from an academic perspective is very much on-trend at the moment. Sonja Lewandowski and Vanessa Briese are both interested in contemporary literature, albeit in different ways. They want to show why, now of all times, it’s important to give feminist voices in literature a platform. The pair, who are writing their doctorates with the support of the DFG Research Training Group, collaborated on the “Insert Female Artist” literary festival.

Insert Female Artist
Insert Female Artist © IFA
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The COVID-19 pandemic has turned out to be both a blessing and a curse for Sonja Lewandowski. Studying for a doctorate in the conventional way went out the window at that point: “Although I wrote more than I ever had before, particularly in the first phase of the pandemic, you were on your own for a long time,” explains the former research associate in the “Contemporary/Literature” DFG Research Training Group. Her doctorate is about training authors at academic creative writing schools. She also believes that hybrid and digital formats have given literature events some completely new momentum during the pandemic. “I realized that there’s a lot of scope to do more,” says the sociology of literature expert. “There’s a market for working as a conceptualist of culture.” Alongside working on her doctorate, therefore, she went freelance.

Vanessa Briese, who is also doing her doctorate at the University of Bonn, is studying the influence of travel bloggers on the literature industry in the DFG Research Training Group. Its training and support program enables and encourages participants to contribute to relevant literary and cultural debates in order to promote their own research in a demanding research environment. Needless to say, this also includes lively discussions and collaborations with colleagues. However, the pair saw for themselves how challenging it can be to maintain uninterrupted dialogue during a pandemic. Vanessa Briese joined the training group in 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic: “Of course, it made any kind of cohesion in the group really difficult, because nobody knew one another and not everybody lived in Bonn—and some of us still don’t. And when everything’s only happening online, a great deal gets lost.”

Sitting on their own at home, doing their doctorate in lonely isolation, Briese and Lewandowski missed the interaction that was supposed to go with it. Many of their fellow doctoral students sought out extra projects to give their daily routine a better structure. Vanessa Briese makes it clear that helping to organize a festival was an enormous help to her during this time: “Because you could finally sense this energy once again, this feeling that something happens when people are in touch with one another, when you’ve got regular meetings with the rest of your team and when working together on something was simply a fun experience.”

A literary festival for feminist voices

The event in question was a hybrid version of the “Insert Female Artist” festival for 2021, which Sonja Lewandowski had set up in 2018 together with Svenja Reiner. The idea behind the festival is to put up feminine-leaning voices against the male-dominated literature business. The festival gives artists and authors of all genders a platform for creating a sense of community in the spirit of solidarity and transforming the debate surrounding discriminatory practices in the contemporary literature industry, says Sonja Lewandowski.

During her time in the Research Training Group, she attended a literary writing course at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne for research purposes: “I tackled contemporary literature from an ethnographic perspective. I was at a creative writing school in Cologne, on a course where you can learn to write literature. This enabled me to get to know Cologne’s literary scene, and I saw there how male-dominated everything is—the reading lists, the staff, but also the lectures as well, for instance. So the ‘gender-show gap’ is definitely alive and kicking.” Women are still at a significant disadvantage outside the literature industry too.

According to the figures in the 2022 Gender Equality Report published by the German Institute of Economic and Social Research (WSI), women occupy a mere 11 percent of all the seats on the board of the 160 largest German listed companies. At the same time, only just over a quarter of all chairs at German universities are held by women— an inequality that projects such as “Insert Female Artist” also want to draw attention to.


Researching across boundaries

The Research Training Group supports its members on projects like these, because the idea is also to take academic debates, transplant them from the University into other spaces and hold them there. Interdisciplinary working means developing one’s own approaches and ways of thinking further by learning methods employed by various different subjects.

Sonja Lewandowski is grateful for the experience she has had and will take a few things away with her from her time in the group: “The most valuable thing you have is the time you’re given there. For me, the Research Training Group was an opportunity to work at a slower pace and thus focus all my energies on my project. The infrastructure the group provides is very much in the background, allowing you to get really creative.”

Vanessa Briese is likewise already looking forward to the second half: “I find the dialogue with my fellow doctoral students incredibly enriching and have noticed that, even if you just voice the problems that are on your mind at that moment in a room with other people, that in itself often brings you a step forward. I think this exchange is absolutely vital if you’re going to have a successful time in your doctorate.”

Sonja Lewandowski is a sociologist of literature and has been ethnographically involved with the contemporary literature scene.
Sonja Lewandowski is a sociologist of literature and has been ethnographically involved with the contemporary literature scene. © Sandra Stein
Vanessa Briese researches the influence of travel bloggers on the literary world at the Kolleg
Vanessa Briese researches the influence of travel bloggers on the literary world at the Kolleg © Sandra Stein
The visitors to the Weltcafè engaged in lively discussions on the topic of storytelling and self-narration.
The visitors to the Weltcafè engaged in lively discussions on the topic of storytelling and self-narration. © Insert Female Artist / Anna Siggelkow
Important space was given to networking and workshops.
Important space was given to networking and workshops. © Insert Female Artist / Anna Siggelkow

Sonja Lewandowski is a literature teacher, author and sociologist of literature. Between 2017 and 2021, she worked as a research associate in the “Contemporary/Literature” DFG Research Training Group at the University of Bonn. Her colleague Vanessa Briese has been a research associate of the DFG project since 2020. A contemporary historian, she is currently researching and doing her doctorate in travel blogs and travel literature of the 2010s.

DFG Research Training Group

Adopting a comparative approach, the Research Training Group studies the relationship between literature and the present in their various historical and European/North American guises. Its research projects focus on the historical and modern-day criteria determining what constitutes the present, (contemporary) literature and contemporary literary research as well as their interdependencies.


is a literary forum and festival that campaigns for more equity and gender equality in the literature industry and is strengthening the diverse literary scene in Cologne and North Rhine-Westphalia through literary events and education programs. IFA is a place for research into the literature industry and a point of contact for authors, institutions and independents and is creating an interconnected structure that fosters targeted dialogue on equality and diversity issues in the cultural sector.


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