What if ...?
Indeed, Launis will most likely get to rewrite history through the current Digital History for Literature in Finland research project (Academy of Finland, 2022–26). Its aim is to significantly expand the prevailing understanding of Finland’s literature history with the help of new digital materials and methods.
“In addition to literary researchers, the project includes computer science specialists. We are combining these fields in a completely new way by studying from Fennica, Finland’s National Bibliography, all the fiction published in book form in Finland in the 19th century. We are studying the metadata from the collection databases and also reading the works themselves. In other words, we are navigating in the space between distant and close reading.”
With the aid of data experts, a list of thousands of works has already been compiled, and it will soon be possible to examine and filter it. The intention is therefore to examine the huge mass of unread works, as it is assumed that the literature people are familiar with from that era is just the tip of the iceberg.
“What if we find from that mass of unknown works a new form of literature that we have not so far even thought to consider? And what will be found behind some of the amusing titles we come across? Are they parodies – although we have always assumed that the literature at that time was very serious and nationalistic?”
The material also contains a large number of pen names for whom no-one even knows the gender. One area of interest is how many books women were actually writing at that time. Another interesting question is that of when the production of Finnish-language literature surpassed that of Swedish-language works.
“The latest research-based work on the literature of that era is a narrative made by researchers on what literature was at that time. Such a work always includes the researcher’s own subjective assessment and valuation of the historical period. Now, by exploring this great mass of literature, we want to get below the surface, beyond Aleksis Kivi and Minna Canth – without asking questions of value.”
According to Launis, the most difficult thing is to learn to ask questions in a new way.
“Fortunately, our research is interdisciplinary. Having got used to examining things and asking questions in the way that is typical in our field, it is great to have experts in computer science and information systems working with us, as they give us completely new questions to ask and, consequently, new perspectives on literary research.”
Biographies make research accessible to the general public
Launis describes herself as conducting strongly contextualising and historical research that particularly highlights issues of gender and class. Through participation in multidisciplinary research projects, she has also studied topics such as reading, working class literature and the significance of illness and childhood in Finnish literature.
Her enthusiasm for women authors has also led her to write two biographies. The first of them dealt with the Hiisku sisters, so it is in fact a ‘triple biography’.
“The three Hiisku sisters were part of V.A.Koskenniemi’s inner circle, so they were publicly right-wing and nationalist, and they were all unmarried. Interestingly, they were able to dedicate their lives to writing and literature without having financial resources from a husband. This was quite unusual in Finland at the beginning of the 20th century.”
Launis is currently collaborating with the journalist Heli Peltoniemi on a biography of Wendla Randelin, one of the first Finnish female writers.
“I would like to write more non-fiction books, but teaching, research and administrative work takes up a lot of time. In my opinion, my book writing implements the third task of the university: social impact. I think that literary researchers should in general be more vocal in the public sphere and working to make their research accessible to the general public.”