HELLO, HANDSOME!: ON DESCRIBING MALE BEAUTY IN FICTION

febrer 14th, 2017

The illustration by Nick Hardcastle showing “the first historically accurate illustration of Mr Darcy (…) based on research commissioned by channel Drama to celebrate Jane Austen Season” has run like burning powder through my Department colleagues’ email. “Key findings”, we are told, “include Mr Darcy’s sloping shoulders, powdered white hair, a long nose, pointy chin and pale complexion” (https://vimeo.com/203141362/45c36ba575). Once you consider Darcy’s new fancy mug shot, you may next read the article on which this is based, by Professors John Sutherland and Amanda Vickery (http://drama.uktv.co.uk/pride-and-prejudice/article/real-mr-darcy-dramatic-re-appraisal/). It is called “The Real Mr Darcy: A Dramatic Re-Appraisal”, and it offers a quite amusing description of what a most desirable man must have looked like… either in 1790s when Austen wrote her novel or in 1813 when it was published, a mere 20 years apart, with Romanticism in the middle. Very accurate.

As you can see, I find the idea of portraying the ‘real’ Darcy absolute nonsense, as, to begin with, Darcy is a fictional character. As I have recently complained, authors offer too little description (except Dickens), which makes our task as readers often quite annoying. In the case of men presented as sex symbols, like Darcy, this vagueness may be an advantage to writers, for Austen only needs to say that Darcy is “handsome” for each woman reader to supply an ideal image. Here’s how Darcy is actually presented (in Chapter III of Pride and Prejudice), in direct contrast, by the way, with his best friend: “Mr. Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners. (…) his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year.” Two observations: not the man himself but his features are described as handsome, and Austen makes sure we get the point that Darcy’s handsomeness is much enhanced by his annual rent, in today’s currency, of 500,000£. The passage, however, continues, by noting that Darcy was much admired until “his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud (…)”. Indisputably, Pride and Prejudice is the story of how Darcy’s physical handsomeness is only proven by his handsome rescue of brainless Lydia from her entanglement with Wickham.

Colin Firth, who played a very manly Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation, obviously embodied for a whole generation of Austen readers a fantasy of handsomeness, as, of course, did Laurence Olivier for the 1940s. In contrast, Matthew McFadyen did nothing for the role. You will see that the many press articles generated by Hardcastle’s illustration tend to compare it with a photo of Firth as Austen’s heartthrob. Now we know that Firth had to die his gingerish hair in a darker hue to comply with the ‘dark’ part of the standard ‘tall, dark, handsome’ description. He’s naturally tall, at 1.87 m. Having recently heard Jack Halberstam wonder why in heterosexual romance men must be very tall, I now find this matter of height quite droll. Are the 10 cms separating Tom Cruise (170) from Brad Pitt (180) so crucial? Going back to Austen, just let me point out what should be obvious: an illustration of one possible way in which Darcy could be represented in the mental theatre of the female readers of the 1810s is not an illustration of the ‘real’ Darcy but only one element in the ongoing history of how Darcy has been imagined throughout the years. Also, of the history of the representation of male beauty in fiction.

I keep on telling my students–I’m sure I have already mentioned this here–that I want to supervise a PhD dissertation on the use of the word ‘handsome’ in fiction, particularly by women but not only so. My moment of enlightenment came when reading Iain M. Banks’ science-fiction novel The Hydrogen Sonata. As I’m sure I have already narrated here, the female protagonist Vyr finds herself gradually falling in love with Beardle, the avatar of the powerful artificial intelligence, or Mind, that runs one of the colossal spaceships which comprise the executive arm of the utopian Culture. Guess how Beardle is described? He’s handsome. Vyr is absolutely chagrined when Beardle basically tells her she’s an idiot for feeling anything towards him, as he is not even human. I was also chagrined, for as a heterosexual female reader used to responding in this silly Pavlovian way to the word ‘handsome’, I had also fallen for Beardle. For Vyr the problem is that Beardle is not a real man. I happen to share her problem for, precisely, Beardle is a fictional construct. Not a real man. Much like Darcy.

There is a wonderful conversation about whether the use of ‘handsome’ is archaic in relation to women here: http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/17108/can-you-still-call-a-woman-handsome. I will not go into this but let me just note that Sigourney Weaver is mentioned as a handsome woman, and Scarlett Johanson as a pretty one, though in my view she’s more handsome than pretty–attractive perhaps. Anyway, if we consider the difference between a ‘handsome man’ and a ‘pretty man’ (Douglas Booth, Elijah Wood), you begin to see that ‘handsome’ actually means ‘attractive in a manly way’. Therefore, what makes us, heterosexual female readers, respond to the adjective ‘handsome’ is the manliness embedded in it. Whether it is Darcy’s or Beardle’s.

A recent study indicated that woman’s favourite male physical feature is not, as it is often said, the eyes, or, as some have been insisting lately, a shapely butt, but, rather, a good pair of muscled arms. Why? Because when we think ‘manly’ we think ‘protective’ and little girls that we all are, we want to be embraced by manly men with bulky arms–tall ones, as daddy always is for little girls (there’s Electra for you, Jack Halberstam).

This is the main irritant in the new image created for Darcy: he’s lost the manly arms, the square shoulders we associate with him since Firth. Profs. Sutherland and Vickery explain that in Austen’s time “It was all about the legs. The six pack was unknown and square shouldered bulk was the mark of the navvy not the gentlemen. Chests were modest and shoulders sloping. Arm holes cut high and to the back rather pinioning the man within. The general effect was one of languid, graceful length not breadth. More ballet dancer than beef-cake”. What they’re missing is that not even ballet dancers, whether gay or not, look languid today. Also that contemporary heterosexual women do not care at all what was considered ideal for men back in the 1810s.

Reading recently my good friend Isabel Clúa’s new book Cuerpos de escándalo: Celebridad femenina en el fin-de-siècle, which deals with the Spanish female stars of the popular theatre, I was surprised by the photos. There was no way I could see beauty in Carolina Otero, internationally known as ‘la bella Otero’. Tórtola Valencia, on the other hand, seemed quite handsome to me–meaning that her beauty must have looked very odd in her time. I’m thus making again the well-known point that the appreciation of human beauty has a history. The problem, of course, is that it has usually focused on the representation of women, not of men. When I wrote the short essay “Entre Clooney y Pitt: El problema del deseo femenino heterosexual y lo sexy masculino” (http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/EntreCloone y Pitt Sara Martin.pdf) I had a very hard time finding sources that discuss male beauty as seen from women’s point of view. Even today, I’m not sure why the six-pack is an essential part of our ideal, though it’s been suggested that it connects manliness with discipline.

This lack of a history of male handsomeness, I am arguing, and of its representation in print and audiovisual fiction means that we lack the codes to read Hardcastle’s rendering of his ‘real’ Darcy but also to understand what is happening under our very noses. And this is quite interesting: let’s see who can convincingly explain why Brad Pitt, aged 53, is universally acknowledged as the most handsome man on Earth, a title he is keeping since 1991, when he seduced Thelma (Geena Davis) and the rest of the planet in Thelma & Louise. Recently, I went through as many lists I could find in IMDB of the hottest male actors active today, lists that ranged from men in their 70s to men in their teens, and, believe me, nobody could compare to Pitt. Chris Hemsworth came second but, like the rest, he lacked this something else that makes Pitt charismatic. Interestingly, Pitt’s status as male icon of beauty seems to have been unaffected by his ex-wife Angelina Jolie’s demolition of his image as ideal family man, whereas a similar icon of a similar age, Johnny Depp, is now facing decadence after a highly problematic divorce.

If I go into why Pitt is so handsome, despite the acne scarring of his face, I will never finish. For the sake of my argumentation, just let’s agree that nobody personifies better than him ideal masculinity today. Now think of two learned professors claiming in two hundred years time that in the fiction of 2010s Pitt is what handsome men looked like. Don’t even say the words Christian Grey and Jamie Dornan, please. Next, take any contemporary novel with a handsome man, thus described, and tell me what you see. Is it Pitt, our consensual ideal, or your own personal fantasy–perhaps based on someone you know?

What I’m saying is that not even in Austen’s time was handsomeness dominated by a single image. Today, when Pitt might be the equivalent of Hardcastle’s handsome man for our times, as in the past, the adjective ‘handsome’ is used by authors to trigger a certain psychological reaction in readers, not as a descriptor. A description would clarify that “Mr. Darcy was, at six feet, a very tall man. His impressive blue eyes were the best feature in a suitably pale countenance, dominated by an exquisite long nose, small mouth and gracefully pointed chin. His hair, naturally blonde, was hidden beneath an elegantly powdered wig.” There you are.

I can’t wait to write the following post about, how can I put it? secondary handsomeness. Think Paul Bettany…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

RESISTING GENDER BINARISM: JACK HALBERSTAM (IN BARCELONA)

febrer 7th, 2017

Last week I attended two extremely interesting sessions with Jack Halberstam at Barcelona’s CCCB: a lecture on 1 February (the 400 seats in the room were taken!) and a seminar the next day (by invitation, attended by about 45 persons). I cannot give an exact idea of all that was discussed but here are some highlights. In any case, CCCB intends to make soon available online both the lecture and the seminar, which was actually a three-hour long conversation.

Jack Halberstam (b. 1961) is an American academic, author and transgender activist, currently at Columbia University, New York. As any person minimally interested in Gender Studies knows, Jack used to be known as Judith (a name he still accepts from family and friends), the name under which he published an early volume, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995) and his most famous book, Female Masculinity (1998). Later work appeared signed by Jack: In A Queer Time and Place (2005), The Queer Art of Failure (2011) and Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (2012). His forthcoming volume is Trans*.

I must recommend Skin Shows, which I believe was Judith’s doctoral dissertation. There is no doubt, however, that Halberstam’s Female Masculinity made a major contribution to post-Judith Butler Gender Studies. The point Judith Halberstam made then was and is still challenging: masculinity can also be performed by female-bodied persons, not just male-bodied persons. I found her argument convincing and liberating until a gay academic colleague, David Alderson from Manchester University, pointed out to me that far from breaking away from the gender binary Halberstam was endorsing it and, what was even worse for him, giving quite a monolithic image of masculinity. Later, Halberstam chose to transition and present herself as Jack, which I’m sure was a fine personal choice for her but left many of us, women who were coming to terms with our masculinity, somewhat stranded. I abandoned long ago this nonsensical idea that man have a feminine side and women a masculine one and now I put my efforts into de-gendering personal features such as assertiveness (why should that be coded masculine?) or a capacity for empathy (why should that be coded feminine?).

Jack stressed several times during his visit that Female Masculinity had been written 20 years ago and that he felt much better represented by The Queer Art of Failure (2011). I have not read this volume yet but following Halberstam’s own comments, the main argument is that transgenderism has made an art of failure because it has resulted in bodies that fail to be normatively male or female, which, for him, is positive. He sent a call to embrace this failure productively and helped me very much to understand this point when he said that “If we become men and we don’t change the meaning of manhood then we have been swallowed by manhood”. The other trans men in the room agreed. So now I understand that what bothers me as a feminist woman about trans women is, precisely, how little many do, generally speaking, to challenge conservative femininity–think Caitlyn Jenner.

A main bone of contention, of course, is whether just because you’re LGTB you are automatically subversive of heteronormativity. Halberstam believes this is not the case: 40% of LGTB people voted for Trump, he explained. The position he has been maintaining is perhaps a bit extreme, as he believes that whenever LGTB minorities are granted a civil right they should reject it as an attempt to expand normativity. Hence, he rejects gay marriage as part of a new homonormativity that parallels heteronormativity. In the same way transnormativity threatens to undermine the work of trans activists to undo gender.

And here comes the most remarkable argument presented in the sessions: Halberstam opposes the current extension of transgenderism to children. This, as he explains, is a new phenomenon based on the children’s access to YouTube standard narratives presented by transgender people outside activism. Their narratives focus on the enormous personal distress that gender dysphoria brings to the individual, the risk of suicide and the successful implementation of medical and surgical procedures, leading to a happy ending. The children absorb this story, which they then transmit to their helicopter parents and the distressed adults rush to doctors’ surgeries in order to place these very young persons on the path to early transitioning.

It’s not clear to be how these children acquire so early such a complex gender discourse (surely, more than YouTube is involved, perhaps the parents themselves). Halberstam, however, made a number of very valid points: a) no person knows until adulthood, if ever, what his gender identity should be, b) the lack of contact between the trans children and their parents with adult trans persons is creating a generational split among trans individuals and activisim (the trans adults could act as mentors), c) most convincingly: if the current trend is to respect intersex children and not manipulate their bodies, why are we manipulating the bodies of trans children as early as 3 years of age? A father in the audience gave us his personal answer: he wants his trans daughter to be happy… But, then, there might be wiser ways of ensuring her happiness…

The other major issue which Halberstam raised in relation to trans children is that it is contributing to upholding the gender binary system. He agreed that “the categories male and female remain remarkably stable” despite Butler’s introduction of the idea of gender performativity back in 1990, and the current proliferation of new gender identity labels. The kind of transgenderism that helicopter parents embrace is based on the urge to make their children normatively male or female as soon as possible, thus erasing the adult transgender person from society. This is why Halberstam thinks that the phenomenon is not positive. An adult may make better informed choices about gender and, what is more important, may choose to perform its trans identity in challenging ways, which a child can hardly do. Thus, in contrast to his rejection of trans children, Halberstam answered my question about trans fathers and mothers by stressing the positive contribution that these trans adults are making to transforming the family. He stressed that trans/parenting is part of a wider re-organization of traditional kinship beyond heteronormativity but also a particularly beneficial part of it.

Regarding the representation of trans lives, Halberstam, who is perfectly comfortable with using popular texts in his academic work, recommended the film By Hook or by Crook (2001) and the TV series Transparent (2014-). He stressed that positive representations of trans individuals should be complex, eschew the suicide narrative or trauma, and, ideally, be transinclusive in relation to the persons involved in their production. They should also present transitioning as a life-long process, avoiding the tempation of easy or neat closure (as happens in the film Transamerica).

He praised Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) as a significant turning point but was somehow inconclusive about Kim Pierce’s biopic about Brandon Teena’s tragedy Boys don’t Cry (1999). Halberstam did not clarify whether the terrible violence presented in this film works well to erase transphobia but he used the trans protests against Pierce during a screening of the film to criticize identity politics. When asked to clarify this point, he stressed that identity politics cannot deny the right of persons outside a particular label to offer representations of the individuals under that label. He also warned that the famous case of Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce Jenner), a Trump voter, shows how identity politics are not necessarily subversive as it is too often assumed.

About the gender binary, it took me a while to catch up with Halberstam’s frequent use of the word ‘cisgender’, “denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex” (or the opposite of transgender). I always have this feeling that the LGTB community is conveniently using labels that only serve to maintain separation alive. As a heterosexual woman who does not support at all patriarchal heteronormativity, I constantly vindicate the right to call myself ‘heteroqueer’ but I have been told that if I am heterosexual than I cannot be queer–I was under the impression, however, that been queer was about denying normativity. Now, it turns out I’m also cisgender. Well. Halberstam, to his credit, did stress that the LGTB community and activism are covertly enforcing the gender binary: “you also have to be male or female in a queer context”; he insisted that these are binary categories imposed by queers themselves, not by cisgender pressure. Thus, he explained, feminine gay culture is completely marginalized as is masculine lesbian culture.

I have used here the expression ‘female-bodied person’, which I’m borrowing from Halberstam’s talk. I find it tremendously liberating as it lays the stress on person, rather than woman. I increasingly dislike the words man and woman for their patriarchal connotations and although I’m well aware that ‘male-bodied person’ and ‘female-bodies person’ are a mouthful, they are as labels an appealing alternative. They say that you know how you see yourself when you look at the mirror and consider what comes first to your mind to describe yourself. I, definitely, see a person primarily, not a woman. It is very important that beyond all the identity politics defending particular gender labels, we make an effort to make gender far less important. I always say that as Gender Studies specialist my goal is to eliminate gender, by which I mean not only the pernicious gender binary but also any need to define ourselves primarily through our sex and our gender. This should be in the future as preposterous as defining yourself according to the size of your feet or the shape of your hands.

Until then, however, here we are: stuck with the same old labels and, yes, with the same clichéd, tired narratives (why, Halberstam asked, do heterosexual narratives always focus on size – tall men, big penises, big breasts?). I’ll finish by confessing that I was initially confused by Jack Halberstam’s female voice, as I had stupidly assumed that he had chosen a fully masculine style of self-presentation. I ended up loving this willing refusal to be a normative man, and his willing decision to be playful, to be queer. This is what we, heterosexual people, need: more queerness, less normativity.

Food for anti gender-binary thought…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

GOODBYE, PALOMA CHAMORRO AND THANK YOU SO MUCH: GRIEVING FOR A LOST TV MODEL

gener 31st, 2017

Last Sunday Paloma Chamorro died, aged only 68, after a long silence. I read in the many obituaries that she will be remembered as the public image of the 1980s Movida Madrileña, the musical and artistic movement which sought to sweep away the cobwebs of the dusty Spanish life inherited from Franco’s regime (1939-75). I think, however, that this limits Paloma’s influence to a specific geographic territory, whereas she managed to be a symbol far beyond that–for the whole generation born in Spain in the 1960s.

I’ll summarize the biographical details which anyone can read in her Wikipedia entry. Born in Madrid, she earned a BA degree in Philosophy and was subsequently employed by public Spanish TV in the early 1970s. She was always involved in programmes that dealt with the arts: Galería (1973-1974), Cultura 2 (1975), Encuentros con las artes y las letras (1976-1977), Trazos (1977) or Imágenes (1978-1981), first as presenter and later as director.

Her fame among us, those who were young in the 1980s, is due to her unique series, La edad de oro (1983-1985), a weekly show to which she invited an impressive selection of national and international indie music stars, some rookies others fully established, to perform live. Everyone recalls the interviews with Alaska y Dinarama, Kaka de Luxe, Los Rebeldes, Loquillo, Danza Invisible or Almodóvar & McNamara, and the performances by Lou Reed or The Smiths. I recall, rather, the smaller international acts, artists like Aztec Camera or John Foxx (see the almost complete list here https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_edad_de_oro_(programa_de_televisi%C3%B3n).

Very cowardly, Televisión Española gave yesterday the news of her death without mentioning what caused La edad de oro to be cancelled and Chamorro to abandon public television eventually. An image in a video by the British band Moon Child seen in one of its episodes (October 1984), showed a crucifix impaled in a pig’s head. Even though Chamorro’s superiors in TVE saw no objection to broadcasting the video, she was later processed for blasphemy, following a major scandal and accusations from an offended spectator which the State’s prosecutor accepted. Paloma had to wait until 1990 to be exonerated; the case was finally closed by the Tribunal Supremo in 1993. In the meantime, she directed and presented the far less known arts programmes La Estación de Perpiñán (1987, 1988) and La realidad invertida (1988-89). From 1990 onwards she only worked sporadically on television, mainly in arts documentaries, keeping a low profile for the last fifteen years. You’ll find very little about Paloma Chamorro on the internet.

Chamorro’s La edad de oro was broadcast on TVE’s second channel (now La2) in reaction against music programmes such as Aplauso (1978-1983), devoted to the blatantly commercial music then flooding Spain’s post-Saturday Night Fever new discos. Aplauso’s most popular segment was ‘La juventud baila’ (‘Youth dances’), a spectacle that could not be farther from La edad de oro. There were other music programmes on TV that tried to steer away from crass commercialism, like Popgrama (1977-83), Chamorro’s main predecessor. Yet, the novelty in her case was that La edad de oro wanted very much to be avant-garde television, placing pop and rock against the much wider background of the arts. As a spectator I was always amazed to hear in her singular interviews musicians commenting on books, films, comics, etc. Chamorro had a distinctive didactic vocation, which is why she could never be called a simple presenter. She was a popularizer, a teacher, a mentor.

Chamorro was always an inconformist. It is difficult today to realize how hard life under Franco’s censorship must have been for persons like her and how long his oppressing regime lasted beyond his death (her 1990 trial is proof of that). If she could launch La edad de oro this was only because the new Socialist Government headed by Felipe González, elected in 1982, appointed José María Calviño as TVE’s director (until 1986). Calviño’s mandate was extremely controversial (he was responsible for the cancellation of José Luis Balbín’s intellectual debate programme La Clave) but he gave unusual freedom to a number of young personalities, including Chamorro. They used national public TV to bring audiences all over Spain closer to the energies that were renewing the Spanish artistic panorama in all in fronts. Spanish society was possibly not ready yet, but we, its young people were more than ready, almost desperate.

All generations are cursed by the impossibility of narrating their youth without sounding ridiculously nostalgic. There is also the implicit claim that only the time when one is young is really memorable. I need, however, to pay homage to Chamorro from a much more personal angle than the obituaries and in reference to my own memories. I don’t know whether I watched all the shows in La edad de oro and, funnily, I haven’t even seen the DVD collection in my possession, issued in 2006, with the best moments of the Spanish artists’ performances. Nostalgia has never led me either to the section in TVE’s Videos a la Carta, offering highlights from Chamorro’s programme (http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/videos/la-edad-de-oro/). Watching years later what impressed you as a young person can even be embarrassing, which is why I avoid it. I don’t want, either, to invite younger people to see La edad de oro. Rather, I’d like to explain what we had then as a society back in the 1980s and what we have lost.

The irony is that while Paloma fought with all her might to widen our mental horizons with her programmes, risking much personal comfort, today she would not have a place in contemporary television. When La edad de oro was broadcast there were only two TV channels, both state-owned. This limited offer may seem a disadvantage but has turned out to be an advantage because at the time, before the entry in 1990 of private TV in Spain, national TV did have a clear public service vocation. Of which she is undeniable proof.

At the time Chamorro launched her show, 17 May de 1983, I was 16, almost 17. Although I was in the hands of excellent teachers in my secondary school, there are whole areas of culture one must learn by herself–popular music is one. My working-class family knew nothing about the arts, whether these were painting or comics, again territories outside my formal education. Paloma Chamorro became my teacher, and because I watched her show alone at home and did not comment on it with my schoolmates, I believed she was my personal mentor. It is hard to imagine something like this in our times, marked by the massive use of social networks but, yes, there was a period when individuals sharing the same deep experiences did not communicate with each other. We are only discovering now as a generation what happened to us collectively then.

I have read recently an excellent article about how the newly released Trainspotting 2 can never have the effect that the original 1996 Trainspotting had. Precisely–this is why I am anti-nostalgic. What the article also argued, and I would subscribe here, is that each generation must have its iconic texts, whether they are a book, a film, or in the case that occupies me, a TV show. Now, for this to happen there must also exist someone with a full understanding of what is needed, someone who can act as a catalyst of the aspirations and/or grievances which others feel. Irvine Welsh and Danny Boyle did that for Scottish youth in the 1990s. And because we were about to forget her, I need to proclaim that Paloma Chamorro was our collective catalyst in the 1980s. With her spidery, bushy hairdo, her thickly lipsticked mouth, her very personal dress code, she taught us in addition that a person could be truly interested in culture and still be very cool.

Two last thoughts: I’m sure that only a minority of those born in the 1960s in Spain are now mourning Paloma Chamorro, as she was by no means to everyone’s taste–yet, those of us mourning her are doing so with true emotion. It is an irony of our celebrity-addled times that the most important persons are not necessarily those best known. Second: I may be blind to what is going on in the life of the younger generations but I wish they are as lucky as we were and have cause to celebrate many decades later the life of someone in their time who changed their lives for good. Someone who expanded their mind, as Chamorro expanded mine–not for money, or fame, just because she believed it was her mission, her task as a public figure.

Thank you, Paloma Chamorro. May you be long remembered.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

READING DRAMA (AND CONSIDERING DIALOGUE IN FICTION)

gener 24th, 2017

Today I begin from ignorance so profound that I have started by learning a concept I didn’t know: the ‘dialogue novel’. This should be familiar to me, as I read as a young girl in secondary school its main Spanish incarnation: Fernando de Rojas’s La Celestina (1499), a tragic story entirely told through dialogue. I never heard my marvellous teacher at the time, droll Ana Oltra, call it a ‘dialogue novel’, just a very odd novel. I do recall, however, brainy critical discussions later in university about whether La Celestina was, despite its extension, some kind of closet play, that is, drama never intended to be performed–like John Milton’s unmanageable (for me) Samson Agonistes or Goethe’s Faustus (though this was later performed). The ‘dialogue novel’, by the way, is alive and kicking, judging from the article you may find here (http://therumpus.net/2014/08/the-dialogue-novel/), with examples such as Dave Eggers’s Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live For Ever?. It takes all kinds!

‘Dialogue novel’ is a label I have come across for the first time while doing a basic MLA search about novels and dialogue, hoping to find academic work examining the dramatic foundation of novels. I have found 65 items with recent titles such as “The Evolution of Dialogues: A Quantitative Study of Russian Novels (1830–1900)” or “Metaphors and Marriage Plots: Jane Eyre, The Egoist, and Metaphoric Dialogue in the Victorian Novel”. I have had to go much further back in time, however, to find the kind of analysis I was looking for. This is the focus of a 1995 PhD dissertation, Speaking Volumes: The Scene of Dialogue in the Novel, and even much further back, a 1971 article called “Some Considerations on Authorial Intrusion and Dialogue in Fielding’s Plays and Novels”. Also, a totally ancient piece of academic work, the 1962 monograph, Jane Austen’s Novels: The Fabric of Dialogue.

What am I looking for? Evidence of the links between dialogue in plays and in fiction. I recall reading as an undergrad student that whereas Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela (1740) set the foundations for the psychological exploration of character in fiction, Henry Fielding’s novels are responsible for the later habitual use of dialogue as a narrative tool which is also fundamental in characterization. I assume that this is what “Some Considerations on Authorial Intrusion and Dialogue in Fielding’s Plays and Novels” deals with. Fielding, a judge by profession, was a playwright in his youth, before the 1737 censorship act made it too hard for his satirical stage work to continue. He took then to practicing law and writing novels, precisely because he was mightily annoyed by Richardson’s pious Pamela (he responded with something very naughty and witty called Shamela in 1741). Today, Fielding is mainly recalled for having published Tom Jones (1749) and for being a major influence on Jane Austen–she of the vivid dialogue.

I’m not doing any research on this topic but I’ve been mulling about the links between dramatic action in plays and novels since the very successful bilingual Catalan novelist Care Santos (now a Premi Nadal winner) told me over lunch that she had recently taken a course on play writing to improve her novels. This intrigues me. Also, I’m tutoring an MA dissertation on English playwright Martin Crimp and I’ve read this weekend a volume with half a dozen of his plays, including the one my student has chosen, the excellent In the Republic of Happiness. And, so, I’m going back to a question I asked myself as an undergrad and for which I seem to find no answers: how do we hear the voices when we read dialogue (both in drama and in fiction)?

The abstract of Susan Ferguson’s Speaking Volumes: The Scene of Dialogue in the Novel claims that her kind of research was not popular then, the mid-1990s, even though she makes a point of calling it necessary. Her third chapter “considers the issue of reception–most often hearing in the scene of dialogue–and looks at how representations of reception within the fictional world and within the narrative scene suggest different acts of reading”. Sadly, I have no time to read now about all this for I am pursuing very different lines of research. There are moments, however, when I miss all the empiricist research that was done before post-structuralist theory swept us off our feet as literary critics, perhaps off our better sense.

I hope to meet Care soon and will certainly take the chance to interrogate her about how a novelist approaches the writing of scenes, for we tend to forget that novels are very often structured around scenes and dramatic action. In the meantime I am still processing the impact of Crimp’s plays and trying to understand the force with which he makes dialogue clearly audible in my head. Although I love drama and try to teach contemporary British theatre now and then, I am by no means a specialist. Not even a frequent reader of plays, for which I’m really sorry as I always have a great time activating my mental theatre.

In the Republic of Happiness has three acts. The first one is, shall we say?, more conventional, since it presents a middle-class family on the brink of impending dissolution. Crimp’s dialogue in tense and terse, as befits an heir of the late Harold Pinter, the playwright who turned the claim that language is useless for communication into an amazingly productive stage and screen career (he was a Nobel Prize winner). Pinteresque is the adjective that defines his personal dramatic brand, just as Beckettian defines Samuel Beckett’s no less personal absurdist brand, another major influence on Crimp. He does not have yet his own adjective (Crimpian?) but he could very well soon generate it, seeing how he remains a major name of English stage since his successful Attempts on her Life (1997).

Anyway, the point I am trying to reach is the second act of Republic, which is articulated as post-dramatic theatre. In this act, eight voices, which are most emphatically not characters and that can be embodied by any of the actors in the play, present Crimp’s collection of very negative judgements on the harsh individualism of present-day life. As any one interested in contemporary theatre knows, post-dramatic theatre authors leave in the hands of directors many necessary decisions about how to stage their texts. This is a huge challenge, which grows even larger for readers as hearing disembodied voices is very, very difficult. My student tried to find on YouTube images to help him understand how Crimp’s play had been staged but found nothing. Theatre companies appear to be so jealous of their work that they live in practice in a pre-21st century neverland, set apart from social networks and, indeed, YouTube.

Crimp’s post-dramatic voices sounded loud and clear in my head but, to be completely honest, I have no idea why. I am also puzzled about what exactly my student has heard in his own reading, considering that he has a high command of English but is not an English Studies specialist. Believe me, I am really puzzled by the whole experience, even though in the two elective courses on British drama I have taught we already did go through the perplexing process of reading post-drama (Tim Crouch’s The Author was very hard to tackle, also great fun).

What is bothering me most this time with Crimp is that it is the first time I feel a gap between fictional and stage dialogue. Silly me, since the first crack in this gap was most likely opened with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot sixty-odd years ago. Still, there you have recognizable characters in the quirky Vladimir and Estragon, whereas in Crimp and the rest of post-dramatic authors you only have, I insist, disembodied voices. This is quite an oxymoron when you think that plays are texts written for performance by a necessarily embodied actor. Perhaps my complaint about the progressive disappearance of description from characterization in fiction is announcing also a post-dramatic turn in novels. Or perhaps I’m simply not familiar with the novels by Beckett which, most likely, are all like that… But, then, just as I tend to supply the missing descriptions in fiction with the bodies and faces of actors, I’m beginning to think that readers of post-dramatic theatre possibly supply the lack of bodies, and of directions about casting, with voices recalled from other plays, films, TV and even novels. We cannot simply read dialogue as a mute assembly of signs on paper, can we?

So, here’s the question: if I say that I enjoy Crimp’s plays, do I really mean that I love not his own voices but the voices I perform in my own head, prompted by his dialogue? Some question… In comparison, dialogue in novels seems quite functional and uncomplicated…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

THE BOOMERANG EFFECT: WHY MARKING IS SO EXHAUSTING

gener 19th, 2017

I’m writing this after a serious bout of marking post-grad essays today, lasting for about seven hours (with email messages in between). This means that I’m going probably to sound quite incoherent, as I’m exhausted. At the same time, I feel like letting off some steam by writing and, besides, this post is a bit overdue. So here we go.

April is not the cruellest month, as the poet claimed. The cruellest months are January and June, the time when piles of exercises to mark and grade replace classroom teaching. My workload is relatively small but even so it takes up long stretches of these two months because I’m the kind of teacher that corrects everything that can be possibly wrong, down to the last comma. I blame this on some kind of uncontrolled compulsion or TOC. Also, on my habit of marking all I can on the computer, as I hate carrying home printed work. Handwritten exams are also a complete nightmare to me, with all that undecipherable text and my increasing inability to write a legible hand myself…

Computer marking, as I was saying, is preferable to me but, then, I tend to pepper students’ exercises not only with corrections and revisions but also with lots of notes. I can’t help it… I’ve never been the kind of teacher that takes a quick look and emits a verdict for, among other things, I believe that notes and corrections help me very much when students request a review. Nothing more embarrassing than not knowing at first sight why you have failed someone… Oops!

Although it might seem that marking exercises is a repetitive exercise with no great novelties from one semester to the next one, I find that each semester is coloured by a particular note. Or notes. So let me share with you what’s on my mind, and see if we’re perceiving the same peculiarities and problems. I’m marking work by undergrad and postgrad students and this will help me to cover a lot of ground at once.

First my undergrad class, Victorian Literature, a second-year course. This semester the pattern for the final marks is as follows: a very small number of both A and D students, and a large number of C and C+ students. Hardly any Bs, much less B+. This is the same in our three groups.

Now let me add that the main task in this course is the writing of a basic academic paper, the first ever produced by our students. This amounts to 50% of the final mark (10% the proposal, 40% the paper itself). Since students are performing better in the exams, many more than we wished for have managed to pass the subject despite failing the paper. In my class, 30% of students have failed the paper, which means that they have not acquired fundamental skills despite passing. Raising the value of the paper to 60% seems extreme, but perhaps we should consider this…

Both in the case of the exams and of the paper, most students could have earned a B or B+ grade, if only they had planned their semester better and had paid attention to exercise instructions. And here’s the keynote for this semester: although I am convinced that all my/our students are bright enough they often trip themselves up by failing to check and/or understand what is required of them.

In the case of the first exam (which they were allowed to take home and prepare in advance) 25% failed to see that the questions referred to an article they were supposed to take into account. They failed simply because they didn’t even mention the article – I wonder why, as this was the whole point of allowing them to prepare the exam with plenty of time.

The case of the paper is even more severe… We have developed so far the following documentation:
a) a guide to writing abstracts
b) a guide to writing basic academic papers
c) a template to submit the paper proposal
d) a template to submit the paper itself
e) a sample paper
I’m possibly forgetting some item. To my horror and consternation, the student delegate for the second year complained in our last Department meeting that students do not receive enough information about what they need to do. I’m really baffled…

Among the errors due to this constant lack of attention to instructions, we found that even though we provide templates for the paper proposal and for the paper to ease edition, students systematically alter the templates or neglect the instructions. I have no idea how and why page numbers have disappeared, Times New Roman has become Calibri, nor why abstracts are missing the narrower lateral margins.

Even worse: my students claim to know, of course, that book and journal titles should be in italics – why then do I waste so much time correcting this? Worse even: we had to grade with a 0 paper proposals which neglected to include passages from the primary and the secondary sources, although that was clearly indicated in the template. The instruction to use at least quotations from three secondary sources in the paper is also a source of constant wrangling with my students: for mysterious reasons, many use only two. Or forget altogether to include any, even though this is one of the major skills the exercise teaches.

There are moments when I feel that there is some kind of secret tug-of-war going on: you say tomato, I say potato… something of that sort. Believe me: after adding italics to 45 papers, any teacher would be out of sorts. Hence my Harry Potter-style howlers, as I call the notes I write in capital letters (BOOK TITLES MUST BE IN ITALICS –THIS IS BASIC!!!)

Postrad exercises present their own challenges and can be even more frustrating. After all, poor things, my second-year students are new to argumentative academic papers. Yet, what is the excuse of the postgrad students to make very similar mistakes? This year, I have started using templates with them, to no avail – the italics are missing, the abstract awry, the bibliography incorrectly edited… And a classic: the quotations are thrown into the text with no connective tissue linking them to the main text, whether this is a colon or a phrase (‘As Smith claims…’).

What is exhausting in the case of the MA is not so much marking the papers but getting them under way. I never allow students to hand in a paper without a previous proposal, consisting of provisional title, abstract and bibliography, and this is where many postgrad students still face many difficulties. If they come from our Department, at least we can argue that, for shame, they know how to write an abstract since… Victorian Literature. But if they come from other Departments or even schools, that might not always be the case. This means that I find myself teaching in the MA academic techniques I’m also teaching to undergrads…

The main problem in all cases, whether under- or postgrad, which conditions in its turn the success of the paper is the student’s difficulties to formulate a thesis statement. In the Spanish tradition, the argumentative essay is a rarity and academic works tends to be rather descriptive, often covering all possible ground in relation to a text, rather than focus on a central idea. This means that my students are often perplexed by my insistence that they must have a thesis.

Here’s an interesting example: a student who wishes to write her paper about Walter White, the villain in Breaking Bad, submitted recently an abstract beset by the typical problem: it announced her intention to study this TV series but not her thesis. She came for a tutorial and, as it often happens, the moment she answered my question (why are you interested in White?), the complete abstract, thesis included, materialized. Much to her surprise. In contrast, the papers I have failed today suffered from this central problem: they lacked a thesis, and without a main argument you cannot write an argumentative essay.

So, why is marking so exhausting and grading so frustrating? Easy: this is when you realize that students are not paying enough attention to your instructions. If this because they don’t understand them, then the question that comes to my mind is ‘why didn’t you check with me?’. If this because they don’t care, then the question is ‘why are you wasting my precious time?’ Sharp and sour.

When you throw a boomerang with the right skill, it comes back to you. I feel that teaching is like throwing a boomerang. In the best cases, it returns to you loaded with wonderful gifts (I awarded a girl student a 10 because I found myself in dialogue with her paper, not just marking it). In the worst cases, the returned boomerang hits you smack in the face–yes, it feels like an insult, like being shouted “I don’t care and you won’t make me care!”

In the end the message to students who will not follow instructions because they do not care is that they only hurt themselves. I will never understand why, given the chance to do well for your own benefit, people choose to underperform willingly. A complete mystery to me…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

HEARING VOICES (IN ROGUE ONE): WHY DUBBING SHOULD BE ABANDONED

gener 10th, 2017

The debate on the need to maintain dubbing for audiovisual media in Spain is old and tiresome. I’m probably preaching to the converted here but I’d like to contribute (or stress) arguments which are not often considered. Funnily, the inspiration for both lines of thought comes from recent articles on Rogue One, the exciting prequel to Stars Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (or plain Star Wars, as it was once called).

One of the film’s stars, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, declared in a recent interview that he doesn’t much relish hearing himself dubbed. After joking that perhaps the diverse dubbing actors may have improved his performance, he stated that he’d rather films were not dubbed (see in Spanish, http://metropoli.elmundo.es/cine/2016/12/15/58526f8ae5fdeab0528b458c.html).

As far as I can recall, whenever Spanish journalists asks foreign actors how they feel about dubbing, they expect said actors to answer politely that they respect very much the work of dubbing actors. Mikkelsen’s discordant answer, though still polite, suggests that it is about time we hear actors express an opinion. Although Mikkelsen did not expand on his, it follows that actors, who use their voices as much as their bodies to act, must profoundly dislike having that crucial part of their performance erased. Try to imagine for a second what it would be like to keep the original voice and replace the bodily appearance and you’ll get an idea of how gross what we do using dubbing is.

Another Rogue One star, Mexican Diego Luna, recently declared in his Twitter account that he felt “emotional” when reading a certain Tumblr post (which quickly went viral). In this post an American girl using the nick ‘riveralwaysknew’ narrated her experience of taking her Mexican immigrant father to see Rogue One (see the complete post at, for instance, http://nextshark.com/star-wars-fan-riveraalwaysknew-expresses-how-diego-lunas-character-in-rogue-one-impacted-her-mexican-father/).

“I wanted”, she wrote “my Mexican father, with his thick Mexican accent, to experience what it was like to see a hero in a blockbuster film, speak the way he does.” The father was, like many other spectators including myself, much surprised by Luna’s “heavy accent”. The daughter explained to her puzzled dad that indeed, Rogue One is extremely popular, and that Luna refuses to alter his accent because he’s proud of it. After mulling this over, the father declared himself very happy: “As we drove home he started telling me about other Mexican actors that he thinks should be in movies in America. Representation matters.” Now, in the version dubbed into Spanish for release in Spain, Luna has no Mexican accent–just the standard Castilian accent generally used in dubbing, with few exceptions. So much for representation.

Here, then, are my two main points against dubbing: 1) it is disrespectful of the actors’ work, 2) it erases accent, which is essential in performance.

Before I continue let me present briefly the situation in Spain (you might like to take a peak at my article ““Major Films and Minor Languages: Catalan Speakers and the War over Dubbing Hollywood Films”, available also in Spanish from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/136984). Dubbing was originally introduced by Hollywood studios (specifically Paramount) in 1929 as a strategy to end the cumbersome use of subtitles (useless for illiterate audiences) and the expensive practice of shooting different versions of the same film, one for each language. In Spain dubbing was introduced in Republican times (1931-6), precisely because most Spaniards were illiterate; also to ease the censor’s role.

A legal order of 1945 made dubbing into Spanish Castilian compulsory for all foreign films, forbidding in addition subtitling and dubbing into any other Spanish language (Catalan, Basque, Galician). Subtitling would only return in the 1950s for art-house films. Spanish TV, inaugurated in 1956, simply copied the practice habitual in cinemas, extending it to TV series. The 1945 decree, issued by Dictator Francisco Franco, went, then, much further than the Republic’s timid application of censorship to foreign films, turning dubbing into an instrument of nationalist linguistic cohesion (in imitation of the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany).

Ironically, in the same period the Portuguese Dictator António de Oliveira Salazar (1932-68, though his regime lasted until 1974), decided to do the opposite: forbid dubbing, hoping thus that the illiterate Portuguese spectators would shun foreign films, then only accessible through subtitles. Dubbing is still limited today in Portugal to films for children as, logically, they have difficulties to follow subtitles. In Finland, where they follow the same practice, they assume that by the age of 7 children are already literate enough to read subtitles.

For here’s the question: in Spain we are very reluctant to abandoning dubbing simply because most people are very poor readers and have serious difficulties to keep up with the pace of subtitles. Incidentally, if the demand for subtitles were bigger, I assume the quality of translation (often questionable) would also improve.

Whenever dubbing is discussed in Spain, however, the problem of literacy is set aside. Instead, we usually the issue of how little English we command, as if dubbing only affects films originally in that language. Thus, many who prefer dubbing claim that a) you don’t learn languages by seeing films in original version (see how much Japanese you can learn this way…), b) our dubbing actors are wonderful and so is our dubbing technique (I agree), c) cinemas’ revenue would fall even further if dubbing was suppressed, d) technology already allows most consumers to choose the version they prefer (which is true for TV or DVD but not for cinema).

I find dubbing simply barbaric, akin to smearing another layer of colour on another person’s paintings or chipping off bits of sculpture that one doesn’t like. Translation of print texts is bad enough but a sort of inevitable evil. In audiovisual products, however, translation can be easily pushed to the margins with the use of subtitles, respecting in this way the integrity of the actors’ work. I see all films and series in their original version, regardless of the language, and putting all my trust into the persons who translate subtitles. I may not understand a single word of Japanese beyond ‘arigato’ and ‘hai’ but I’d much rather hear the original voices.

These foreign voices come enshrouded in linguistic fog which, of course, fades away the better you know the language. A film in German, French or Italian is less opaque than one in Japanese, whereas a film in English is far more accessible. Not always, of course–we all have the experience of using subtitles to follow English-language products. The accent of Baltimore gangsters in The Wire is hard even for persons with PhDs in English Literature, and so is the working-class Leith brogue used in Trainspotting. We tend to forget about Spanish itself: I needed subtitles to follow the Argentinean film Nueve reinas, and I have abandoned recently a couple of films from Venezuela which I simply could not follow (they had no subtitles).

To sum up: the point of suppressing dubbing is not learning other languages (this is an extra bonus) but respecting the actors’ work. To get a glimpse of how hard they struggle with accent, see the video in which dialogue coach Erik Singer generously reviews an impressive collection of accented film performances: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NvDvESEXcgE

Whenever one mentions accent in films outside a university Department, eyebrows are quickly raised. Just picture your average Spaniard and you’ll see him/her struggling with the concept of accent in foreign films. You cannot give an approximate rendition of accent in dubbed versions, as this sounds ridiculous and, so, accent simply does not exist for the average Spanish film goer (even film lover). There is also the matter of voices: as everyone knows, often the same Spanish actor dubs several foreign actors – Ramón Langa lends his voice to both Bruce Willis and Kevin Costner, among many, many others (see http://www.eldoblaje.com/datos/Fichaactordoblaje.asp?Id=127). This means that dubbing also results in a ridiculously homogeneous panorama, with a few voices replacing the multiplicity that makes international cinema so rich.

Let me get back to Mikkelsen and Luna (and Rogue One). You can hear Mikkelsen express himself in his native Danish language in the disturbing Jagten (The Hunt, 2012) or play an American character in Hannibal (2013-15). In this second case, although we here in Spain missed the issue completely, he was criticized by American audiences for playing Lecter with a thick non-American accent (some spectators claimed that this was fine, as Lecter is originally a Lithuanian). This is an interesting conflict which even extends to English native speakers (was the American accent of British actor Hugh Laurie in House good enough?).

I’d say that Mikkelsen’s Galen Erso in Rogue One also speaks English with a Danish accent. Actually, very few American voices are heard in that English-language film, though I have not come across any negative comments from American audiences–rather, praise for the film’s international casting choices. I’m sure that in Denmark they feel happy to see Mikkelsen play in such a big film (and such a heroic role!) but his presence is not as heavily loaded with representation issues as Luna’s. Mexican actress Selma Hayek was seemingly told that she could not play the main role in Mexican director’s Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity because nobody in the audience would believe in a Mexican astronaut. Instead, producers chose bland all-American star Sandra Bullock (yes, I know that Hayek is also from America–the continent). Rogue One’s multi-accented cast may have been selected to please a wide-ranging international audience but the case is that Luna’s heavy Mexican accent is a breath of fresh air… in the galaxy.

Except in Spain, where dubbing sounds a bit like the echo of Darth Vader’s Empire… or just Franco’s regime. Now, come join the rebellion…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

SEEKING NEW READING PROJECTS: A NEW YEAR’S ANTI-RESOLUTION

gener 4th, 2017

Both public media and private persons engage these days in the twin exercises of celebrating the best books published last year and of announcing novelties, wishes and resolutions for the new reading year. Both exercises are quite tedious.

Each year, when December comes and I read the endless lists of all I have missed in the previous twelve months, I despair. I will never ever catch up. I feel condemned to always staying behind (with the only comfort of thus saving myself many overhyped books). Perhaps I should attribute this to my wilfully ignoring the lists of novelties, already abundant for 2017, as they make me feel somehow manipulated by interested parties that want me to read this but not that.

As for the wishes and resolutions, it’s always the same: when I go through the list of all I have read in the just defunct year, I always promise myself to read a) books from a bigger variety of languages (German novels, anyone??), b) books from a bigger variety of genres (where’s the poetry??!! why so many novels??!!). I have indeed started 2017 with a French novel, Submission by Michel Houellebecq. I’m sorry to say, though, that I have already abandoned it half-way through, sick and tired of the main character’s monstrous selfishness and chauvinism… My new year’s resolution, then, is to avoid forming any resolution as to my reading. I’m thinking, rather, of finding reading experiences that might enrich my life.

My brother-in-law has suggested a definitely enticing reading experience which he himself has gone through in the last 18 months: reading the 46 volumes of the Episodios nacionales by Benito Pérez Galdós. I certainly look forward to doing that after using a great deal of my time this past 2016 to the wonderful reading experience of devouring the 20 volumes of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (a bit spoiled by the disappointing last two volumes). My other project, by the way, was reading more books by Manuel de Pedrolo: I finally managed 9, and I don’t think this is over. Pedrolo has an 11-volume-series, Temps obert, a beacon sending distress calls for new readers to find it, if I have seen one.

A ‘reading experience’, then, is not at all like a new year’s resolution but, rather, a project to enhance and brighten your reading life. It is not about filling in gaps (I should have read many more Russian novels by now), or about unfulfilled obligations (I should read all those other plays by Shakespeare). Above all, a ‘reading project’ (or experience) is about freeing oneself from the weight of novelty, which is flooding us with a stream of books without teaching us how to navigate our way into the books of the past. And I don’t mean by this the classics, which are always available, but the books I’ll label ‘how-come-I-have-never-heard-of-this-beauty?’.

Also, contradicting myself, a reading project/experience is not something one may recommend to another person but something a reader chooses. If I end up reading the Episodios nacionales, as I think I will, this is because I am already interested and not because my brother-in-law has brought Galdós to my attention. Actually, I had already downloaded the first 10 books… Now is the time.

Most likely, if you’re serious about your reading, your whole life constitutes a reading project. I am not distinguishing here between readers who prefer the classics and the most literary genres and varieties of fiction but, rather, between self-aware and casual readers.

The self-aware reader is, like the god Janus, two-faced for s/he looks forward to a future of constant novelty but also backwards in case s/he’s missed something of (personal) interest. This is the kind that, if they enjoy a particular genre, will learn all about it, whether this is science fiction or 19th century romance. Self-aware readers keep reading lists, sheepishly notice glaring gaps in them, and see their whole life in terms of what they have already read and what they might read until the day they die. I know, I’m one of these obsessive weirdos. Casual readers, in contrast, are just pleased to read whatever is fashionable. They make little effort to remember titles and authors’ names, or to give their reading any kind of coherence, even when they really like particular authors and/or genres. They do not obsess and would not put themselves through the trouble of devising reading projects.

By coherence I don’t mean that a reader should contemplate reading as a study course for life. No. You might want to do that, naturally, but I will insist that there is a marked difference between setting yourself the task of reading the most representative Restoration comedies of the late 17th century and engaging in the project of reading them just because you fancy the experience: study is one thing, reading for pleasure is another (though, needless to say, studying can be a pleasure). The whole idea behind the ‘reading project’ is basic reading pleasure, if, that is, pleasure can be said to be an idea.

I don’t know what happens to students as readers once they leave our university classrooms but I would like to think that they become self-aware readers perpetually involved in attractive reading projects and experiences. Of any kind, from the single-volume (so, finally I have time to read Ulysses…) to the multi-volume adventure (and now I’ll read all the James Bond novels). For, and here is the question, a reading project/experience needs not be a gigantic undertaking but one of those long-delayed wishes that finally finds gratification. What I found when finally reading War and Peace or, if you want a much shorter text, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.

I am gradually realising that a reading project is possibly connected with something you have already heard of. At least, many of my reading projects seem to have been around for decades, some from the time I was an undergrad student, 30 years ago. Very naïvely, I started at 18 a reading ‘wish list’ which, very wisely, I eventually abandoned. Even though I am the kind of person who is constantly making lists of things to see and do (and shop), reading lists are no use–ironically, they seem to inspire in me an urge to read totally at random and be as anarchic as a punk. What I do in these cases, is visit a library or bookshop and see what falls into my hands, often with amazingly serendipitous results.

I am beginning to think, as I write, whether an academic career is nothing but a massive reading project. Thinking back to when I was an undergrad, my reading project was all of English Literature, beginning with the canon. As a postgrad student, genre fiction because my dominant reading project, first gothic, then (still) science fiction. I confess that while reading the Aubrey-Maturin series, I felt a bit uneasy about whether I was somehow stepping out of my chosen project to read as much SF as possible until a) I decided to write something on the series, b) I found out that many other SF readers love O’Brian (what’s a spaceship, after all, but a ship in space?). Funnily, the series is the result of O’Brian’s own reading project, focused on the English Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.

Obsessive readers seemingly go well with obsessive writers… And what are academics if not readers that have made an obsession into a professional career? The obnoxious protagonist of the novel by Houellebecq that I have abandoned, a French Literature lecturer, claims that the teaching of Literature at university level has no use whatsoever except train other teachers at a failure rate of 95%. He’s wrong. Teaching Literature is what we, compulsive readers, have invented to vent our obsession with our personal reading projects. Elective subjects are the clearest expression of this, an alibi to obsess before an audience.

And, so, what reading experience are you looking forward for the immediate future? (No… it’s not a new year’s resolution. It’s an anti-resolution).

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

BREAKING POINT: THINKING OF THOSE STILL WAITING FOR TENURE

desembre 20th, 2016

The last tenured position came up in my Department about 8 years ago, though tenure is here a relative term, as the two colleagues in question were offered permanent contracts rather than the civil servant’s position that I myself enjoy. I just learned this morning that Universidad Juan Carlos I, whose credibility is now in total jeopardy because of the plagiarism the Rector has been accused of, abruptly dismissed last summer, with no previous warning, a dozen teachers with permanent contracts (they were reinstated).

The total security that you will be employed for life is a dream for most people, something which the head of the Spanish national employers’ association considers ‘very 19th century’. However, tenure is, or has been until recently, a foundation of university life, justified by the idea that we, scholars, should be free from the care of finding a job in order to produce our best work. Yes, we all know of teachers who have found tenure so mentally relaxing that they have managed to produce nothing in 40 odd years before retirement. Here, however, I’m thinking of deserving academics, who make the most of the chance to be employed for life.

When I got tenure back in 2002, after 11 gruelling years, I vowed to myself that I would never forget what those 11 years were like–perhaps the many times I visited doctors’ surgeries and emergency rooms would give a clear idea of the anxiety. Also, I swore that I would never ever gamble, as I felt that I could not be luckier than that. Since I haven’t forgotten those days, I have a very clear picture of what some dear colleagues in my Department are going through this morning, when they have received news that not even the chance to fight for a four-year full-time contract will materialize in the immediate future, much less tenure. I’m talking about four persons with an accreditation to be (finally) hired full-time, apart from other associates with hopes that they can eventually be rewarded with tenure. Absurdly, the position we have been expecting to be granted for years has gone elsewhere, where it is was never expected, nor much needed.

I’m going to sound quite incoherent because I’ll argue here that the Spanish university fails to see both each personal case and the impact on a whole generation of researchers of its hiring policies. I know it is the same in Britain, as I have recently written, and in many other countries, but this offers no comfort.

There is much talk of endogamy connected with how people are selected to occupy university positions instead of what really matters: how individual hopes and expectations of an academic career–serious individual vocations–are exploited by a ruthless institution which adamantly refuses to consider personal cases. When I was myself waiting for tenure, I always felt that the vice-rector in charge of signing the petition was a mythical creature, for I never had access to him (or what it her?). I don’t know how business concerns operate and I’m sure that many workers are hired and dismissed without ever knowing who signed their papers. Yet, unlike what it may seem after hearing so much talk of endogamy, I find the whole university employment system oddly depersonalized. Logically, this works in favour of the institution, which needs not justify why it suddenly has no room for a person who has given her best for a dozen years or more.

I know very well that in many other sectors, people are also nonchalantly dismissed or offered low-paid jobs for which they are woefully overqualified. However, the singularity of an academic career is that, as everyone knows, it qualifies you for nothing else, for no other job. This is the situation on which everything else hinges, for, despite all our complains about students who don’t study and so many other little miseries, if you’re a vocational teacher/researcher, once you set your foot inside a university classroom it is very hard to let go. I had a job offer before I was hired by my university, aged 25, and I would have been happy enough, I know, being a secondary school teacher of English, and reading non-stop in my spare time. However, when, aged 36, I considered what I could do if I failed to secure tenure, the prospect was bleak… A secondary school classroom seemed a letdown after so many years of sophisticated academic work. And I took it as a very bad omen that an application I sent to a very different kind of job (connected with communication) was returned by the post, for mysterious reasons.

I understand, then, why vocational teachers/researchers allow themselves to be abused by the system because I would have done the same. This is what the university counted on in Spain, when some anonymous villain made the decision of stopping all pre-doctoral full-time contracts and offering just a handful of post-doctoral positions, with a very vague promise of perhaps, who knows, might happen or not, tenure. This is the equivalent of being hired as an intern with the promise of quick promotion to be told, year in, year out, that you need to wait a bit more… until you’re just told the promotion will never happen. The additional problem, obviously, is that in the university you’re never told that tenure will never materialize for you, only that it won’t do so in the short term. This means that associates are always thinking of a nebulous long term, as, well, life moves on and time passes. This is being done, I insist, not to a handful of unlucky individuals but to a whole generation trapped by liberal economic policies which are not the product of the 2008 crisis but of the mid-1990s mentality declaring all public services a burden rather than a collective benefit.

In the darkest moments, I wonder whether what’s happening in the Spanish university and in other nations is a sinister social experiment to test for how long un-tenured academics are willing to be exploited until they reach a breaking point. Does this happen when you turn 35? 40? 45? 50 perhaps? Or will the life of many academics born from the 1970s onwards consist exclusively of this kind of underpaid, temporary employment? Does it really make sense, in terms of finance, to keep many individuals employed part time rather than grant tenure to fewer? What’s the point of raising expectations only to dash them? Is it merely cruelty, indifference, ignorance, a mixture of all? Could it be a basic lack of human empathy?

I recall a family dinner back at the time when I was waiting for tenure when a well-intentioned relative told me I should consider that the Spanish university could not accommodate all the aspiring academics. It seems to me that as long as we find money to rescue useless, expensive highways from bankruptcy–as we’re about to do–we can find money to employ deserving academics. They’re not asking for football player salaries, just for a dignified, full-time job, and, believe, they’re cheap workers. Also good ones, as we know because despite having the chance to dismiss then as we can do with associates, we have kept them.

I have no words of comfort, really, this is just terrible. I simply don’t know what to tell my friends: cling or, for eventually all valuable people are rewarded; or, stop hurting yourself and find another job. The optimistic message has no foundation, whereas telling someone to seek employment outside the university feels oddly callous, even when you’re thinking of the wellbeing of persons you care for. The worst thing is the survivor’s guilt (why me and not them?) and the impotence for, yes, we complain as loudly as we can to the authorities that be, you can be sure about this, but nothing seems to change.

I’m SO sorry…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO DESCRIPTION? (WITH A STORY ABOUT COGNITIVE POETICS)

desembre 13th, 2016

I keep on telling my students that I very much want to supervise research on the diminishing use of description in contemporary fiction but nobody is taking the hint–or they do, but then they panic thinking of the technical difficulties a dissertation would entail. So here is more bait, see if anyone bites…

I don’t seem to have addressed here before directly the matter of description, although it is one of my favourite bugbears as a reader. I have mentioned often, I believe, my habit of casting actors as the characters of the fiction I read, as I am increasingly desperate that authors are abandoning description. I always have, besides, serious problems to imagine space at a reasonable scale, which is why reading stage directions is always a nightmare for me (happily Shakespeare didn’t use them…); also, why reading space opera is such a challenge…

So, now and then, I test the waters and ask my students whether they pay attention to how they visualize as they read, hoping perhaps that someone will show me a trick I don’t know. I see that they’re keen to discuss this issue but I have never found a proper way to address it in class. I don’t see myself teaching an elective course on description, either; it sounds a bit weird even to me.

So, as I often do in class whenever the bugbear overpowers me, I’ll cite Dickens. Here’s a favourite Dickensian description, that of 11-year-old Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, in this scene asking Oliver himself, then wandering lonely and forlorn on the London road, what is the matter with him:

“The boy who addressed this inquiry to the young wayfarer, was about his own age: but one of the queerest looking boys that Oliver had even seen. He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough; and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see; but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man. He was short of his age: with rather bow-legs, and little, sharp, ugly eyes. His hat was stuck on the top of his head so lightly, that it threatened to fall off every moment—and would have done so, very often, if the wearer had not had a knack of every now and then giving his head a sudden twitch, which brought it back to its old place again. He wore a man’s coat, which reached nearly to his heels. He had turned the cuffs back, half-way up his arm, to get his hands out of the sleeves: apparently with the ultimate view of thrusting them into the pockets of his corduroy trousers; for there he kept them. He was, altogether, as roistering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six, or something less, in the bluchers.
‘Hullo, my covey! What’s the row?’ said this strange young gentleman to Oliver.”

The ‘strange young gentleman’ is rendered in a most vivid fashion, and as a reader I thank Dickens for helping me to activate my mental theatre in that efficient way. I do see and hear the Dodger, as I see and hear the rest of his characters.

Funnily, Dickens always published his fiction accompanied by illustrations (George Cruikshank produced 24 for Oliver Twist), which might even seem redundant in view of his florid descriptions. Illustration is today mostly confined to children’s literature though I see no reason why an adult should not enjoy it; at least I very much enjoyed recently the version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (is this YA?) illustrated by the wonderful Chris Riddell. I am, however, sadly ignorant of when and why illustration was abandoned in books for adults. Christopher Howse suggests that after peaking with Sidney Paget’s work for the Sherlock Holmes stories (in 1891 for Strand Magazine), “illustrations for adult books (until the quite separate development of graphic novels) sank into the weedy shallows of the pulp fiction market” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/children_sbookreviews/10465326/Why-dont-books-for-grown-ups-have-illustrations-any-more.html). In Norman Spinrad’s wickedly funny The Iron Dream (1972) budding artist Adolf Hitler never becomes the tyrant that terrorized the world but a second-rate pulp fiction illustrator getting a meagre living in California…

But I digress. I once heard Kazuo Ishiguro say that description has been diminishing in contemporary fiction because of the impact of cinema, as writers trust readers to supply their own images with just minimalist hints. I’m not sure, however, whether writers realize how annoying the job we have been entrusted with is. I am currently reading the sixteenth novel in the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian and I am still struggling to imagine his two protagonists with the clarity which Dickens provided for even his most minor characters. I know that Jack Aubrey has long blond hair and blue eyes, that he’s tall (but not how tall) and I learned yesterday that he’s verging on the obese as he weighs almost 17 stones (that’s 108 kilos). I know that his once handsome face and well-shaped body are now criss-crossed by a variety of scars after decades fighting the French and other assorted enemies. Yet I’m awfully frustrated that I don’t ‘see’ him as I ‘see’ the Artful Dodger. I checked Deviant Art and I found what I suspected: most illustrations are contaminated by the image of actor Russell Crowe in the film adaptation, Master and Commander. I tried to resist this by casting, following another reader’s suggestion, Chris Hemsworth as Jack (and Daniel Brühl rather than Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin). By the sixteenth volume, however, Jack is past forty and a very bulky man and, so, his face constantly shifts from Hemsworth’s to Crowe’s as I read, while I miserably fail to control my mental theatre. Ironically, if you know the lingo, O’Brian offers a brutal amount of information about any object that can be seen on Jack’s ships…

A student told me yesterday that she had tried the experiment of reading the same character description with a friend (in a contemporary novel). The results were completely different and she was wondering why this was so and whether, in the end, description really helps. She’s got a point, of course. Still, it does help to know that Harry Potter’s eyes are bright green (even though they’re blue in the films) and Voldemort’s red (green in the films…). Perhaps, in view of how much the adaptations have pleased readers, we might claim that Rowling and certainly J.R.R. Tolkien are powerful describers of place and character, no matter how different their post-Dickensian styles are (succinct in Rowling’s case, prolix in Tolkien’s). This is, I insist, a PhD dissertation waiting to be written.

The last time I found extremely detailed character descriptions in a novel this was in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991). The protagonist and narrator Patrick Bateman obsesses about what everyone is wearing, seeing people through the lenses of the brands they sport. This, of course, is Ellis’ ironic comment on 1980s avid consumerist society but I wonder to what extent this is also a critique of character description per se as old-fashioned and even in bad taste. Yes, I’m arguing that description has been progressively abandoned because writers find it a) distasteful, b) a drag to write, c) manipulative of readers’ reactions, d) to sum up, bad writing. You should check now whether poorly written fiction carries more description than the more ambitious variety–and here I have just recalled how prejudiced I am against the fiction produced by writers with MAs in Creative Writing precisely because it overdoes description. I mean, however, superfluous description of detail such as the colours of every single flower in a vase, rather than the (for me) necessary details that present the features of a character’s face and body.

As serendipity will have it, I read yesterday a delicious short story by Colombian writer Juan Alberto Conde, “Parra en la Holocubierta” (in Visiones 2015, https://lektu.com/l/aefcft/visiones-2015/5443). He narrates the efforts of a team of specialists in ‘cognitive poetics’ to develop a device that allows readers to record what they imagine as they read. After audiobooks, here come holobooks… Conde very wittily suggests that if we could find a very proficient ‘imaginer’ of what writers describe, like his protagonist Parra, a whole new field of business would bloom around literature. If audiobooks allow adults to indulge in the childlike pleasure of having stories narrated to them, then holobooks appeal to our nostalgia for illustration.

Or, rather, they reveal the hidden truth about contemporary fiction: its reluctance to describe is leaving readers in need of visual interpreters, whether they are film adapters or… holobook readers. And then they say that science-fiction is mere escapism…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

CYBORG VS POSTHUMAN: OBVIOUS DISTINCTIONS

desembre 6th, 2016

I’m celebrating this week the success of my doctoral student Jaume Llorens, who has been awarded the highest grade for his brilliant dissertation on the icon of the posthuman in science fiction. It is my aim to publicise here a little bit the main point he makes, which might seem obvious to many but, believe me, is not.

You may perhaps be familiar with Donna Haraway’s famous “Manifesto for Cyborgs” (1985, 1991), an essay which is possibly the second most frequently quoted academic text in the Humanities after Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. I met Haraway once, already ten years ago, when the research group I belonged to (‘Body and Textuality’) invited her to offer a lecture at MACBA (May 2006). The lecture had the ambiguous title of “An Encounter among Species: Feminism after Cyborgs”, which seemed to point in two radically different directions… The group chose me to present Haraway simply because I speak English and I found myself in quite a bizarre situation: I had a long list of questions to ask Haraway, on behalf of my colleagues, about cyborgs but she only wanted to discuss… her relationship with her dog. That was the core of her lecture, namely, that we should approach humanity as just one animal species among others on Earth. An approach some are beginning to call ‘posthuman’.

This is not, however, the kind of ‘posthuman’ which Jaume Llorens means. He means the new humanoid species that might replace us as the dominant species on Earth. You might think that this is a prolongation of Haraway’s cyborg but it is actually a radically different concept, so let me explain.

Haraway’s manifesto is a declaration in favour of using technoscience for subversive, feminist, socialist ends, in ways very different from those habitually connected with the masculinist, militarist figure of the cyborg. Back in 1985, the word cyborg was mainly connected with James Cameron’s 1984 film hit, The Terminator, although it turns out that the robot covered in synthetic human flesh played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in this movie is not a cyborg at all. You need to think, rather, of the popular 1970s TV series The Six Million Dollar Man (1974-78), based on Martin Caidin’s novel Cyborg (1972) to get the right idea. In this series, actor Lee Majors plays former astronaut Colonel Steve Austin who, after a terrifying crash, develops superhuman abilities thanks to a series of cutting-edge implants inserted in his shattered body. Austin, partly human and partly mechanical, is a cyborg that celebrates the achievements of 1970s utopian technoscience. In contrast, Robocop, which appeared only one year after Haraway’s manifesto, in 1986, presents the cyborg as the human victim of rampant capitalism. Here the victimised body is that of a police officer viciously attacked by criminals, who is resurrected to become the cyborgian replacement of the police force in Detroit. Omni Consumer Products, the corporation that turns Alex Murphy into a dehumanized cyborg, believes there is big business in this.

I am not too keen on Haraway’s manifesto, which seems to stubbornly deny the dystopian direction which the cyborg was taking in the 1980s both in real-life research and in science fiction. I believe, besides, that many readers tend to overlook the opening paragraph in which she warns us that she is being ironic and playful. My student Jaume shares this mistrust with me and, so, he formulated a basic research question: taking into account 1990s and early 21st century science fiction, can we argue that the idea of the cyborg is obsolete? His answer is that, certainly, the cyborg needs to be reconsidered, for the merger of the human and the non-human is no longer central either to science fiction or to real-life research. The dominating model is the transcendence of the human, which is, incidentally, the title of his dissertation. His inspiration, by the way, is another woman: N. Katherine Hayles, author of the indispensable How We Became Posthuman (1999).

The central idea is very, very simple but not that obvious, I insist: whether modified mechanically, digitally or organically, the cyborg is an exception, an individual that, supposing s/he has children, cannot alter the whole human species. In contrast, the posthuman tends to carry genetic modifications or to be part of a digital environment that will substantially alter humankind itself. In short, Robocop is a cyborg, the X-men are posthuman (and so is Frankenstein’s monster, incidentally). Of course, things are never that easy and, so, for instance, in Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, there is a mixture of cyborgian and posthuman elements. Takeshi Kovacs, Morgan’s protagonist, has been ‘enhanced’ (as the current by-word is for humans no longer purely homo sapiens) by genetic and bio-chemical manipulation. He’s also part of a digital environment that allows for personalities to be transferred to different bodies by means of inserting a cortical stack (a sort of black box, the author explains) in new ‘sleeves’.

Most stories about cyborgs, then, deal with our fears that our individuality may be radically and tragically disrupted by the insertion of non-organic materials and devices in our bodies (despite Haraway’s optimistic take on this iconic figure). In contrast, stories about posthumans deal with the fears that the whole human species may be altered by the genetic legacy of individuals whose genome is no longer ours. This is mostly associated with the dangerous transhumanist dream of interfering in the course of natural evolution by forcing humanity to move towards a certain posthuman model (read Hayles, please). However, in Greg Bear’s novel Darwin’s Children it simply happens that a virus alters all unborn babies at the foetal stage. Suddenly, no more homo sapiens are born and, since the new species has abilities quite superior to ours, we risk becoming obsolete. Of course, transhumanist leader Nick Bostrom argues that conventional humans and posthumans could live in harmony, in the same way we, potato-coach non-athletes, accept even with admiration individuals like super-athlete Usain Bolt. This, naturally, is disingenuous, for if Bolt turned out to be a mutant and likely to have posthuman children against whom no human athlete could compete things would be very, very different.

Jaume Llorens, and myself, declare ourselves moderate posthumanists. We both abhor the transhumanist dream of a eugenically modified posthumanity, complete with digital uploadings into supercomputers that will guarantee our immortality (perhaps online, perhaps using synthetic bodies for temporary downloads). We both believe, however, that technoscience will relentlessly advance to eliminate the main human bodily flaws and to free humans who suffer unnecessarily from their pain. The ethical problems posed by eugenics are already looming in the horizon but, let’s be frank, while using genetic selection to breed only blond, blue-eyed babies is monstrous, who would say no to getting rid of unwanted genetic defects? It is already happening on a daily basis.

Jaume claims that science-fiction writers are mainly producing a fantastic version of the posthuman, quite beyond the current state of technoscience. A sort of ‘worst-case scenario’, playing with deep-seated fears. I keep on telling him that by telling stories about posthumans we are actually indirectly facing our secret guilt that we’re responsible for eliminating all other human species from Earth. Yes, think of the Neanderthals but also many others that used to share Earth with us. We fear very much becoming the Neanderthals to a posthuman species because we know what we did to our others. This means that I’m not personally afraid or concerned that homo sapiens might disappear for, in my humble view, we’re nothing but vermin to our beautiful planet. What worries me sick is that we’re replaced by even worse vermin rather than by the superior humans every SF writer imagines. Or by the fascist regime that the transhumanists preach, based on the very selfish idea that we, homo sapiens, are so wonderful that we deserve to become a better version of ourselves, immortality included. Here’s my point: there is no better version, for we are fundamentally flawed. I’d rather support Bear’s mutant children, or the X-men (um, not the Magneto faction…).

Now, read science fiction for, really, this is the only kind of fiction that understands not so much our future but what is going on today, right now, beneath our very noses.

And congratulations, Jaume Llorens!!! May we soon see your PhD dissertation online and in print.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. Or email me at Sara.Martin@uab.cat.

CINEMA NEEDS WRITING!: WHY IS IT SO HARD TO SEE?

novembre 29th, 2016

Here is a simple question: why is it so hard to understand that film directors are not responsible for the plot of their works? Unless, that is, they have also written the script. Actually, there is a second question: why is so easy to ignore the source when a film adaptation is reviewed?

My irritation is prompted in particular by the reviews of Arrival, a film recently released, directed by Denis Villeneuve. I have not seen Arrival yet and I can’t judge its quality (IMDB spectators seem divided into those who call it superb and those who call it superbly boring). What really baffles me is that among the flurry of enthusiastic reviews, coming from film festivals and preceding Arrival’s release, nobody had paid attention to the fact that this is a film adaptation of Ted Chiang’s short fiction piece ‘Story of Your Life’. I only found out when checking the IMDB information.

Why’s this important? Very simple: Villeneuve has been hailed as the great renewer of science-fiction cinema when, actually, the merit corresponds mostly to Chiang, the author of the story which the film narrates. As any SF reader knows, Ted Chiang is the best short story writer operating today–most likely in any genre. Is he getting the credit he deserves for having imagined the inventive plot in Arrival? Not at all… all merit is attributed to Villeneuve. Eric Heisserer, the actual screenplay writer, and, thus, Chiang’s adapter for better or for worse, is never even mentioned in the reviews.

The ignorance of how important writing is for cinema is simply appalling. If screenwriters disappeared from Earth, film directors would have no stories to tell and the industry that employs them would grind to a halt (see the film Trumbo, please). The boisterous, haphazard blockbusters which Hollywood is currently perpetrating often appear to lack a screenplay but if you pay attention to the credits (as you must!), the problem is that they often employ four or five screenwriters whose authority is again and again denied, resulting in the onscreen mess. The finest films are, needless to say, the product of fine writing, whether original or adapted from other sources. Obviously, not all writers are the exquisite Ted Chiang and, yes, there are countless examples of scripts that improve the original source. This happens, however, because a screenwriter has produced an excellent script, and not at all the (sole) merit of the director.

For the reader to understand how pathetic the way we neglect screenwriting is, just consider the following: would you attribute to a stage director the merit that the playwright deserves? You might praise a stage director for making the best of a play, or chastise him/her for spoiling it. In the end, however, the one who is applauded or booed is the playwright. It is often said that if he were alive today, Shakespeare would be a screenwriter, which is an apt way of highlighting that he worked for a commercial theatre system not too different from the Hollywood film industry. What the comparison often overlooks is that whereas we venerate Shakespeare, not even those who love films can name their favourite screenwriter (I know I can’t). There is very little sense in this, for both playwrights and screenwriters write texts based on dialogue to be performed by actors (Martin Esslin has made the point that all is drama). So, why do we persist in neglecting screenwriting as one of the arts of writing?

Another film released recently may change all this misperception–or not, we’ll see. I’m talking about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which, borrowing the term from Andrezj Sapkowski, can be called a ‘sidequel’ of the Harry Potter saga. As you may know, the film’s title is also that of the magizoology textbook which Harry and friends are required to read at Hogwarts. Rowling did write the volume (penned by one Newt Scamander intradiagetically in the series) in 2001 to aid the Comic Relief charity. She eventually decided to turn Newt, who is active in the 1920s–that is to say, 70 years before Harry’s ordeal begins–into the protagonist of a new five-film series, which she is herself scripting. Since Potterheads will buy anything she touches, her published screenplay has already become a best-selling volume. This is mystifying many, who see no need to buy a screenplay when you can see the actual film.

Rowling already pulled this year the trick of turning a play she hadn’t even written (it was the brainchild of John Thorne, basic plot included) into a best-selling book: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Surely, many who bought the play had already seen it or expected to see it; after all, we’re all used to reading plays and they are perfectly accepted as literary texts. Screenplays are much harder to sell but they are indeed in particular cases published as books. I wrote my MA dissertation on Harold Pinter’s adaptation of John Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant Woman (the film was directed in 1981 by Karel Reisz) and I still keep the complete collection of all his screenplays. These include the ones made into films and the ones that were never filmed, just as plays need not be staged to be published. Back to Rowling, the colossal sales of her screenplay (in comparison to any other similar text) may hopefully teach the younger generations that films require someone to write them. I doubt very much that reviewers will bypass Rowling’s script, or attribute the film’s merits to director David Yates rather than to her.

Rowling, by the way, did not adapt the Harry Potter series for the film screen. I’m sure many fans can name the directors that contributed to the series’ overwhelming world-wide success (Chris Columbus, David Yates, Mike Newell, even Alfonso Cuarón). Who, however, can name the adapters, the persons who actually wrote the films? There were two: Steve Kloves (all films except Order of the Phoenix) and Michael Goldenberg (Order…). Rowling collaborated with Kloves and Goldenberg in what appears to have been a fruitful relationship, which is not always the case (most writers prefers not to interfere with the adaptation process). Apparently, this is how she learned the tools of the trade now enabling her to present herself as a screenwriter.

Returning to my initial question, there is more or less a general consensus that the reason why film reviewers and, generally speaking, audiences fail to understand the task of the screenwriter (and what adaptation entails) is the faulty pedagogy spread by Cahiers du Cinema. This prestige French magazine, founded in 1951 by André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca, is still active. Its impressive list of writers includes Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut, all major contributors to film criticism and theory. As you may imagine, being themselves film directors, these gentlemen were very much interested in attributing authorship to this figure. In this way they disseminated the very wrong view that a) films are a personal work, rather than the product of team collaboration; b) the director is sole responsible for film content, as if films did not originate in many cases in producers’ ideas and as if they did not depend on a script. This flawed view seeped down to all prestige film magazines all over the world and to academic teaching and research on film, with the results I’m complaining about.

What is surprising is that we have been reviewing films already for 50 years following these basic lines with no resistance whatsoever. I don’t see screenwriters complaining, perhaps because they have been taught that their reward is a) having their work filmed, b) being paid for it. I used to read the magazine Creative Screenwriting and be always amazed at how many unfilmed scripts there are and how deep is the abuse screenwriters suffer, to the point that they totally undervalue what they do. Published authors do now and then bemoan the poor treatment their beloved texts receive in the hands of unscrupulous screenwriters, directors and producers, yet many seem to have learned the lesson to just cash the cheque and keep silent. Nevertheless, please remember that writers of adapted works are not honoured by any film awards, which I find somehow odd. We would not have, say, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler without Margaret Mitchell–Sydney Howard may have written an excellent script and Victor Fleming done his best as film director, but Mitchell wrote the engaging, wilful pair into existence. If they matter so much for film history, this is because she wrote a novel.

Now read Ted Chiang, please, please, please…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. Or email me at Sara.Martin@uab.cat.

RISING FEES, FALLING JOBS, COLLAPSING STANDARDS: THE UNIVERSITY HEADING FOR DISASTER

novembre 22nd, 2016

I could reduce today’s post down to a tweet: ‘University fees climb as teaching contracts dwindle’ and be done, for I tire of feeling perpetually pessimistic. Next post, I’m here promising myself, must be on a sunny subject, though I wonder what this can be. After marking between Friday and Sunday a pretty poor set of students’ exercises, I find myself wanting very much to take the lost weekend days off and go wandering in the city (argh, heavy rains today, no chance!).

Actually, the exercises have much to do with the bleak mood. Let me rewind. I want to discuss here why the university has embarked on a relentless destruction of tenured positions. This is connected with the rising fees demanded by English universities, up to £9000, in the Guardian article that I wish to comment on (“Universities accused of ‘importing Sports Direct model’ for lecturers’ pay” by Aditya Chakrabortty and Sally Weale, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/nov/16/universities-accused-of-importing-sports-direct-model-for-lecturers-pay?CMP=share_btn_link). The authors consider the outrageous decisions by which the surplus income made by exploiting teachers is being invested on superfluous new facilities and on the scandalous salaries of the top administrators, as lecturers suffer the indignity of “zero-hours contracts, temp agencies and other forms of precarious work”. We have not yet hit that low mark in Spain (it’ll come…) but I am surrounded by increasingly overworked associate teachers, who need to juggle two or three jobs at the same time, as they endlessly wait for something to happen. And for students to react.

A point which the Guardian article does not consider is how these teachers’ burnout is also caused by falling standards among students. Being tenured, I can quickly overcome the disappointment caused by an irregular batch of students’ exercises, as I have the rest of my working day for my research. For an associate, however, the time students do not invest in doing their homework properly, is time added to painful correction and, thus, needlessly deducted from their already scant time for research. This generates terrible frustration which, in addition, goes unnoticed in the classroom (or just attributed to the teacher’s bad temper), for students ignore the sacrifices that teaching them entails. Technically, you might say that by accepting low salaries and precarious contracts, associate teachers are actually paying for the ‘privilege’ of teaching students who totally misread the situation, assuming we are all tenured (and well paid).

Chakrabortty and Weale’s piece is part of a series on “increasingly precarious jobs” in the UK, a label one would associate with occupations destroyed mostly in factories during the transition to a post-industrial economy but not with higher education and university classrooms. Both in Britain and in Spain, and surely all over the world, young researchers with strong vocations are being ruthlessly exploited by being underpaid, overworked and offered only part-time positions. Tenure, in the meantime, is slowly becoming a myth.

I became a tenured teacher myself 14 years ago, aged 36, which was back in 2002 the exact average age for new tenured teachers (nonetheless, I had to wait for 11 years since my first contract and for 6 after submitting my PhD dissertation). Since 2002 each year one extra year has been added, so that, as a friend told me recently, he expects to get tenure by the time he’s 48. And he’s one of the lucky university teachers, as he has a full-time job. Another dear friend with an absolutely brilliant CV has been finally offered a full-time contract (though for a temporary position) after 15 years as an associate combining two hectic jobs.

In England, the Guardian article claims, the National Union of Students has complained that “low-paid and overstressed tutors may not be providing quality education”, implicitly stressing that this is what students getting into heavy debt to afford a university degree want. Here in Spain fees are not that high but they’re very high considering the average income of families (and I mean BA degrees, MA degrees are simply impossible to afford for most). I don’t see, however, that students are doing their best to maximize the investment made in their education. Taking into account what I see in class, about 20% are doing their best, 20% do not care at all and the rest, 60%, just get by. Every day I teach Victorian Literature I have to put up with the expression of absolute boredom, even disgust, of one of my girl students, sitting very visibly in the middle of the classroom. Does she know, I wonder, what I’ve gone through in my life to be there teaching her? Does she know, I wonder, what my less privileged colleagues put up with? Why is she in my classroom at all?

I have been carefully avoiding this kind of complaint here in this blog because, as I say, I tire of feeling bitter and pessimistic. However, the truth is that my conversations with the Department colleagues always revolve around these twin topics: how little students do and how much we need to do. If we are active researchers, then we’re continually monitored and basically told we don’t do enough no matter how hard we struggle. If we’re not active in research, then our workload goes up dramatically (it used to be 24 ECTS for everyone, now it’s up to 32 ECTS for non-researchers). Associate teachers tend to teach 18 ECTS but they’re employed mostly teaching compulsory courses, always more crowded than electives and always more demanding in terms of marking and grading exercises. They rarely complain in public because one thing the university teaches you from day one is that you can be very easily replaced–associate positions can be reorganized on a yearly basis.

How often we discuss student motivation without taking into account that those needing motivation are the precarious teachers!! “When academic staff are demoralised and forced to cope with low pay and insecurity,” declares Sorana Vieru, a vice-president at the English students’ union, “the knock-on effect on students is significant”. Obviously! What she is not adding, but I am, is that this demoralization is deepened by most students’ nonchalant approach to their own education. An associate rising up at 6:30 am to get her classes ready can be indeed frustrated, and even angry, seeing that students have not bothered to read the five-page text assigned for class discussion that day. This is what is going on, right now, right here, every day.

We, teachers, are, then in a Scylla and Charybdis situation, trapped between the devious plans of the administration to gradually undermine our profession and the students’ indifference. Please, don’t tell me that their indifference is in its turn caused by the lack of prospects for one way of fighting a bleak future is to throw yourself with all your might into improving your chances to do well. I cannot explain well why the authorities are destroying the university, for the obvious explanation that our budget needs simply to be reduced does not make sense. Less investment in higher education means less investment in the nation’s future, whether this is Spain or England, and logic dictates that part-time teacher/researchers can only produce a very limited amount of good research. If the destruction of the public university system has been designed to boost the private universities and to push the working-classes out of the system, then, let me clarify that at least here in Spain private universities are not at all a haven for teachers/researchers and that, from what I gather, most students in my Department are middle-class rather than working-class.

I don’t know any associate teacher who has given up yet. I knew once a girl, hired by my Department at the same time as I was, 25 years ago, who very soon saw that the road was too steep, the rewards too little and abandoned the university after only one course. These were the good times, when my second-year, pre-LOGSE students were producing work that could now be acceptable in MA degrees. Yes, I know, every generation complains about falling standards and that the young do very little, or nothing at all, in comparison to what they did. The difference, I believe, is that it’s never been so hard to work as a university teacher for those aged 25-45 and they do need more than ever the students’ collaboration in what we do. All of us need it.

Otherwise, nothing makes sense in our teaching lives.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. Or email me at Sara.Martin@uab.cat.

APOCALYPSE SOON: BETRAYED BY THE WOMEN WHO VOTED FOR TRUMP

novembre 15th, 2016

So much has been written by so many persons these days about Donald Trump’s shocking triumph over Hillary Clinton that I’m tempted to skip the topic altogether. However, this would be similar to King George III’s writing in his diary ‘Nothing important happened today’ on 4th July 1776, the day when the United States became an independent nation. I would have written a post had I been running this blog on 9/11 2001 and, faced with another terrifying historic event, I feel that I must write a little something here.

Robert de Niro is certainly not alone in connecting the fear of chaos caused by the Twin Towers attacks with the dreadfulness caused by Trump’s winning the election: both are disconcerting, disturbing, tragic events that make the world a much darker place. As I told my students in my SF class, Cormac McCarthy never explains in his superbly well-crafted post-apocalyptic tale The Road what exactly destroys the United States in the near future. Now an explanation is looming on the Washington horizon. Hopefully, as The Simpsons narrate, Lisa Simpson–or someone as sensible and rational as her, woman or man–will win the American minds and hearts and replace Trump, sooner rather than later.

As you may imagine, being a woman I feel absolutely betrayed by the 42% women who voted for Donald Trump, despite his being, as British journalist Matthew Norman wrote in The Independent a “pussy-grabbing, race-baiting, tangerine-hued pantomime ogre with the attention span of a Labrador puppy, the moral sensibilities of a slum landlord, the verbal dexterity of a stroke victim, and the default vindictiveness of a mafia capo” (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-america-presidential-election-sick-to-my-stomach-victory-odds-chance-a7400896.html).

Famously, Susan Sarandon announced before the election that she would not be voting with her vagina. Sarandon endorsed Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and announced that she would not vote for either Clinton or Trump, on the grounds that she wanted to support a woman she trusted and not just any woman. Fair enough, although the problem she has ignored is that any vote taken away from Hillary was a vote given to one of the clearest embodiments of patriarchy in the 21st century (together with his friend Vladimir Putin). There are times, then, when the vagina–the female organ the new President is so fond of demeaning and grabbing–is as necessary as the brain to vote. Not just to elect a first woman President of the USA but, above all, to put an end to patriarchy which, unlike what many proclaim today, is not at all on its dying throes.

In the end, 54% of women voters and 41% of men voters supported Hillary Clinton, whereas Trump received the votes of 53% men and 42% women. Beyond race, ethnicity, social class, party lines… the figures indicate, as I explained to my students, that the number of American female voters complicit with patriarchal power outnumbers the number of American male voters who have expressed an anti-patriarchal opinion. This is very, very bad news. It means that while the slow process of reclaiming men away from patriarchy is progressing quite well, we women are stalled regarding the spread of feminism among women.

If all women and that 41% men had voted for Hillary Clinton, she would have taken possession of the Oval Office with the biggest number of votes ever. Instead, although Trump has received fewer votes than her and than the two previous Republican candidates, voters have stayed away from Hillary and she has lost many votes in comparison to the numbers that voted for Barack Obama. For, of course, women will vote for a handsome black man sooner than for a woman. Much has been said about Michelle Obama, or even Oprah Winfrey, running for President in 2020 but 2016 is happening now, and why wait for four years to elect the first woman President when her rival is the unspeakable Donald Trump? Really?

I’d like to turn now to Tina Brown’s article in The Guardian, “My beef over Hillary Clinton’s loss is with liberal feminists, young and old” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/12/hillary-clinton-liberal-feminists?CMP=share_btn_link). Brown offers the argument that Hillary didn’t fail but that the Democratic Party supporters and sympathizers, particularly the liberal feminists, failed her. This is a classic of all elections, as we know in Spain very well: right-wing voters are faithful and steady and will vote for their candidate, no matter how appalling, whereas left-wing voters are volatile and prone to stay at home unless mobilized by the hope that things will really change (‘Yes, we can!’). And, so, many American liberal women never went near the polling stations, nor did the millennials, who now, as happened with Brexit, are complaining that Trump is not their choice. The FBI ill-timed (or well-timed…), ugly hint that they would prosecute Clinton has much to blame for her defeat, but in the end it was up to the young and the old women of the Democratic Party who didn’t budge for her. Also and mostly to the 42% in the Republican Party who made a shameful public display of their slave mentality.

Tina Brown writes that Trump won because “There are more tired wives who want to be Melania sitting by the pool in designer sunglasses than there are women who want to pursue a PhD in earnest self-improvement. And there are more young women who see the smartness and modernity of Ivanka as the ultimate polished specimen of blonde branded content they want to buy.” Perhaps, though I very much doubt that this urban mentality was a crucial factor; after all, Trump has lost in all major cities bigger than 1,000,000 inhabitants and although I can very well imagine the women Brown describes here, I don’t think they make that chilling 42%. The betrayers are the women who just will do nothing for themselves. Many are enslaved to their own domestic tyrants (did you see Trump keep an eye on Melania as she voted?), which means that liberal feminism has failed to do successful grassroots work among the conservative women. Others can vote freely but, obeying this slave mentality I have mentioned, they believe that the men know better and it’s their job to run politics. Some, no doubt, wish they were Melania–and I have no words to comment on the replacement of Michelle Obama by that woman. Many of the 42%, and here’s my deep worry, are totally impervious to any feminist argument for they genuinely believe in patriarchy. And not all are white. A friend of mine was aghast after hearing on TV a Latino working-class woman declare that she had voted for Trump because he was honest. What kind of blindness is this? If no AfricanAmerican would vote for KKK, why do women endorse patriarchy?

I don’t particularly like Hillary Clinton, for I believe she lost a great deal of her feminist and feminine dignity when she learned about Bill’s womanizing and still stayed married to him. I understand that a divorced woman stood little chance of being elected for the highest office in the conservative United States but, even so, Bill is a blot on Hillary’s feminist credentials. Having said that, I have no doubt whatsoever that she would have been a good, perhaps even a great, President and much more so in comparison to Donald Trump. The Republicans are, by definition, defenders of patriarchy but if she had faced a rival who could call himself (or herself) elegant, rational and well-spoken I would not be writing this post. What bewilders me and any thinking person, male or female, is that half the American voters–including that 42%–chose the worst possible kind of man to be their President. Some are optimistic that Trump won’t be able to implement his racist, homophobic, misogynistic ideals any more than Obama could alter the structures of inequality, as he promised he would do. But, please, even Ronald Reagan and both Bush Presidents seemed more apt for the Presidency than this frightening patriarch.

I had classes to teach on the Wednesday when the election results were announced and, so, I could not do as one of my female students did: curl up in bed and try to calm down, bracing myself for the horrors to come. I felt, as I did on 9/11, dazed and confused. The difference is that on that day some comfort came from the realization that disempowered patriarchal men were lashing out against the power centres of American patriarchy. On 11/9, however, I lost all trust in women, and that is even more dispiriting than any form of male terrorism, whether from the ranks of Daesh or from the White House.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. Or email me at Sara.Martin@uab.cat.

AFTER EUROCON 2016 BARCELONA

novembre 10th, 2016

For the past year, much of my professional time has been occupied with work connected with the organization of Eurocon 2016 here in Barcelona (hence, also known as BCon). For those of you who don’t know what a ‘con’ is, this is a convention in which fans of a particular genre meet; surely you’ve heard of San Diego’s gigantic Comic-com. Locally, I mean in Barcelona, even though they don’t call themselves a ‘con’, the Salón del Cómic and the Salón del Manga play a similar role for comic-book culture. Regarding science-fiction, fantasy and horror, the Asociación Española de Fantasía, Ciencia Ficción y Terror (http://www.aefcft.com/) runs the yearly Hispacon, actually founded in 1968 but held annually only since 1991. The Societat Catalana de Ciència-Ficció i Fantasia (http://www.sccff.cat/) has now plans to consolidate CatCon (provisional name). And, of course, the biggest planetary event of the kind involving science-fiction and fantasy is WorldCon, to be celebrated next in Helsinki, where it’ll reach its 75 edition (http://www.worldcon.fi/).

I have never really been part of fandom, for no specific reason except perhaps shyness, and I’m just a recent member of both AEFCFT and SCCFF (where I serve as board member for contacts with academia). This means that Eurocon is my first ‘con’ ever. When I first learned about it back in April 2015, I wasn’t even sure that I would attend. However, I had just interviewed by e-mail British sf and fantasy writer Richard Morgan, and when I learned that he’d be a guest of honour, I volunteered (begged on my knees…) to be his Eurocon interviewer. You can now see the interview, which went, I think, very well, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYL_Ls3uhJo.

I soon understood back in 2015 that, leaving Morgan aside, BCon might be a good chance to get a number of my academic colleagues together and to meet others specialised in the same field. Once my proposal to interview Morgan was accepted, I burrowed my way into the organizing committee. I have been the token academic member in a team of 25 enthusiasts (Professor Pep Burillo of UPC was also part of the team, but he’s a mathematician not an sf specialist like me). The other task I have carried out, and which I have narrated here, has been the edition of a trilingual volume of Manuel de Pedrolo’s moving novel Mecanoscrit del segon origen, kindly published by the Diputació de Lleida. I was on the brink of tears throughout my speech in the Eurocon presentation, that’s how deep this book has gone into me. The handsome volume has been given to the about 750 delegates that finally attended BCon as a souvenir gift, to be disseminated in this way all over Europe.

I eventually managed to put together two vibrant round tables with international contributors, which were truly enriching: one on post-humanism and gender, another on teaching SF in the university. I think I have certainly managed to plant the seed of many future academic collaborations with these friends’ help. Besides, I found volunteers to interview two other guests of honour. Bright Meritxell Donyate interviewed top-rank Finnish author Joanna Sinisalo (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MleXTJynWw4). And my infinitely patient doctoral student, Pau Huergo, who wants to write his dissertation on Andrezj Sapkowski, got to interview the famously unmanageable Polish author; judge the hilarious result for yourself here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuU5Z-Cn25s. Pau tells me he has not changed his mind about his thesis topic… There were other major authors invited to Eurocon, such as Rosa Montero, Albert Sánchez Piñol, Brandon Sanderson, Aliette de Bodard, Rihanna Pratchett, and you may see their interviews on YouTube, as I will have to do, for having so many interesting activities means that overlapping is inevitable…

A ‘con’ is very, very different from an academic conference: the contact between readers and authors. I have seen our guests of honour chased by many autograph hunters, which is why I have not hesitated to chase myself my admired Charlie Stross (a guest but oddly not a guest of honour). We had a tiny green room at Eurocon and you could see our authors there patiently and politely answering questions from anyone who runs a magazine, fanzine, web, blog, etc. It is very hard to be noticed by an author in this constant stream of adoring, uncritical readers, which is why I found myself compressing all I wanted to say to Stross and to Morgan in just a few minutes (discounting in Morgan’s case the interview).

So, there we are: I’ve enjoyed myself enormously throughout Eurocon and got the (brilliant!!) interview, the autographs, the Mecanoscrit volume and the academic contacts. Mission accomplished and with flying colours!! Now, please, enjoy the Eurocon videos, there is much, much to learn from all the speakers: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLqA7nRotzVciios3Q5-7__UUYeqttwDEs.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. Or email me at Sara.Martin@uab.cat.

PROFESSIONAL ANNIVERSARIES: MISSING RITUAL

novembre 1st, 2016

I started working for the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona on 15 September 1991, which means that I have just celebrated my 25th anniversary as a university teacher (not just as a teacher, as I had been already employed teaching English by diverse language schools for a few years). ‘Celebrate’, however, is perhaps the wrong word in this context, as, in the end, I have not had any celebration.

I told myself that I would do something, anything, but then I started asking around and it turned out that none of my colleagues at UAB, past the 25th year mark, had celebrated this kind of professional anniversary. I have not yet discarded my original idea–giving my students some candy as little kids do in schools!!, silly as it may sound– but somehow I lack the motivation. I also realized that if I did something in the Department (colleagues offer cookies or chocolates on birthdays or other relevant personal occasions) I would be forcing everyone else to do the same. So I let it be… I am actually writing this post to encourage myself to finally do something before it is too late and I reach my 26th anniversary.

Why’s 25 such an important figure? After all, I didn’t write anything here when I hit the 20th year mark, 5 years ago. Well, 25 is more critical because although, if all goes well, I will retire having reached the nice figure of 40 years as a teacher (20 multiplied by 2), I know at this point that I don’t have other 25 years ahead of me professionally speaking (I certainly don’t want to retire at 75 after 50 years as a teacher, my gosh!!!). Also, this year I’ve celebrated my 50th birthday, which means that I have been a university teacher for exactly half my life, which impresses me very much. Where does time go, we ageing teachers wonder?

I explained to a friend whom I met in one of my earliest years as a teacher (he was my student 24 years ago!) that the strangest thing is looking back and thinking that I knew nothing when I started as a teacher. In these 25 years, I have never stopped studying–for this is what research is all about in the Humanities–which means that, logically, I should be much wiser than I was at the beginning. Funnily, I have the simultaneous impression that I’m both wiser and more stupid, as I notice now much more than I noticed 25 years ago how little I know but also how much I’m beginning to forget. I think that no matter how hard you study in your own area and no matter how convinced you are that you know at least something, many specific points still escape you. Otherwise, I would not need to update my class notes every year.

In part, one of the reasons why I have not celebrated my anniversary with my students is the embarrassing feeling that they might think I should be a much better teacher after a 25-year-long experience in the job. Ageing in public is not easy and some days students are, as every teacher will say, very difficult to face, with their demands and expectations, and their youthful faces. I was myself a very demanding student and I often wonder how I would have reacted to my own classes: would I find that I digress too much? (I think I do), would I find that I’m not systematic enough? (always something to work on). Writers often say that they never have the feeling that they improve as they write, as each novel is a different challenge and I’m beginning to feel the same as a teacher. I’m not a better teacher than I was 25 years ago, I just know a few tricks of the trade. Certainly, each course is a new challenge, if only because students are never the same ones.

As a teacher, one important barrier is crossed when you first double your students’ age (they’re 18, you’re 36) because this is when you start seeing yourself as part of a very different age group, no longer an elder sibling or young aunt/uncle. The second barrier is crossed when you realize that you’re their parents’ age, which puts you definitively in a different generation. As a Coordinator, I was often surprised to see that students were accompanied in their registration day at UAB by fathers and mothers already younger than me. Since I don’t have children myself, I cannot have the perception that students are my (hypothetical) children’s age, but I’m sure that they often make the connection between teachers and parents as obnoxious authorities… I wonder what this is like for colleagues with children in the university.

Back to the idea of the anniversary, I’m not sure what should be done. UAB used to offer in the good old days a sabbatical (thus ignoring in quite a cavalier fashion the actual meaning of ‘sabbatical’, which is ‘every seven years’). Now the much yearned-after sabbatical is gone, swept away by the economic crisis, to be replaced by nothing in particular. I joked with a friend who narrowly missed her anniversary sabbatical that perhaps we should be given a pin, or medal, soviet-style I would add. Of course, celebrating the 25th anniversary of teachers would open a Pandora’s box, with teachers demanding to celebrate next 30, 35, 40… years in the profession. There is somewhere a nice absurdist short story to be written about a university where teachers are colour-coded in their dress according to seniority (“Wow! You’re finally allowed to wear green! Congratulations!”).

Generally speaking, we’re abandoning ritual in our lives. On the personal front, many people no longer marry, christen their babies or celebrate their children’s first communion. This, of course, has to do with the waning interest in religion in what used to be a deeply Catholic country (I had a crazy, hilarious conversation yesterday with a colleague about what exactly we commemorate on 8th December, the day of the ‘Inmaculada Concepción’). On the professional front, as I’m reporting here, nothing much is happening, at least in my work circle. We have just celebrated the yearly graduation ceremony, but this is for students, not for us teachers, just as birthdays are for children but not for parents (they should be). Yet, to my surprise, I see that many teachers reject the only ritual we maintain: their retirement ceremony. That should be a good reason for a party…

So, this is it, time passes–with mixed feelings. On sunny days I think ‘My! So many years to retirement, so many interesting things to do. 50 is nothing, 25 years even less so’. On cloudy days, like today, I think, rather, ‘Gosh, I’m tired, I can’t go on like this, being my own tyrant for 15 more years at least. I’m getting old, I want to rest!’. But then I shut up, thinking that a) many chronically unemployed (or underemployed) people surely wish they were so lucky, b) it’s up to me whether I go on at this manic pace or call it a day and start braking down for deceleration and a soft landing.

There’s a candy store on campus–perhaps I should visit it next week, see what my students might like.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/