SEEKING A NEW VISION FOR UTOPIA

març 28th, 2017

Last week I attended a talk by Lynne Segal (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynne_Segal), a feminist academic and activist, born in Australia but based in the United Kingdom. I first heard about Segal because of her excellent book Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men; since then I have also read by her one of the very few outstanding books on heterosexuality, Straight Sex: Rethinking the Politics of Pleasure and her accomplished volume Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing. It appears that a very cruel member of the audience in a previous presentation asked Segal whether her next book would be about dying… She has chosen instead to write about happiness, and this is what her talk here in Barcelona dealt with.

Actually, the talk, which was a conversation with us, the 15 attendees, soon veered towards dystopia and utopia because Segal argued that personal joy can only be truly achieved in connection with the community (I paraphrase). This started your classic exchange about how we, Southern Europeans, appear to enjoy ourselves in the streets much better than our Northern peers, though I have never been fooled by this idea. Norway was recently chosen the happiest country in the world and this is pretty far up north. Next the conversation moved onto how a society can reach happiness in our current dystopian world, and whether utopia will ever resurface. Lynne Segal claimed that for utopia to re-emerge someone needs to have a clear vision of what it should be like. For her, generating this renewed utopian vision is the challenge today.

Since Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fable The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) has become an instant best-selling novel in the land of Donald Trump, you hear plenty about feminist speculative fiction these days in the media. I’m not sure whether plans for this already existed before the November 2016 election, but next month a TV series based on Atwood’s book will be released (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5834204/). There is already, by the way, a very good film adaptation (1990) with the late Natasha Richardson as the handmaid Offred. Every woman reader of Atwood’s grim story is terrified (as I explained in my post on Houellebecq’s Submission) not so much by the rise of the religious fundamentalism that takes over the US Government, as by the indifference of the protagonist’s husband to the progressive loss of her rights as a citizen. I will insist on this again and again: the current feminist utopian project has made important inroads in recent years but it is still a very fragile structure that can be easily dismantled. As Atwood shows. And Trump.

Many feminist writers have transformed their impatience at this slow process of change into utopian fiction, intended to offer a shortcut towards a better future. The shape taken by this sub-genre has usually been that of the gender separatist utopia, beginning with Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1915), and even earlier, Mizora (1880-1) by Mary E. Bradley Lane. Second-wave feminist gave new life to this type of fable, which resurrected with well-known examples such as The Female Man (1976) by Joanna Russ or The Wanderground (1978), by Sally Miller Gearhart, often with a lesbian component. A later wave, with works such as Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women (1986) and Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country (1988), are less optimistic about separatism. Nichola Griffith’s Ammonite (1993) is quite critical of the supposition that lesbianism would (or should) be an integral part of the utopian resolution of conflict, not so much between the genders but among women. You may also want to check Lois McMaster Bujold’s Ethan of Athos (1986) for an all-male gay utopia written from a woman’s point of view, or David Brin’s Glory Season (1993) for a man’s view of matriarchal utopia.

I tend to avoid, as I have explained here many times, feminist utopia as I don’t appreciate the separatist solution. As Segal claims, we need a new vision for utopia, but I find the ideas offered by classic feminist speculative fiction writers in support of separatism disheartening. I was beginning to think that the sub-genre had been buried two decades ago, when I came across all the hype surrounding Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power (2016). You may read her own take on utopian/dystopian feminist fiction here (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/25/dystopian-dreams-how-feminist-science-fiction-predicted-the-future). Now, here’s the premise of her novel: because of something to do with pollution, women suddenly develop an ability to generate electrical discharges with their bodies–a literal new power which they use to dominate men (and generally go berserk). No, I have not read this novel yet, and I don’t think I will (at least, I will not pay to do so) because I find the idea of reversing patriarchal domination simply disgusting: it increases misogyny and it offers women nothing positive. Alderman claims that what happens to men in her novel is close to what happens to women in real life. However, showing men that they could victims of rampant hatred and be trapped by dystopia forced on them by women is the complete opposite of the search for a new utopian vision that should bring communal and personal happiness, following Segal’s line of thought. Sorry to say so, then, but it seems that our energies as women are too caught up in our daily fight against dystopian patriarchy (which is the patriarch’s utopia, of course) to offer this urgently needed utopian vision (beyond feminism, I mean, which is utopian).

I mystified everyone in the room in conversation with Segal by declaring that we are already in the middle of an emerging new utopia but too scared to even contemplate it seriously. I refer to the replacement of humans by robots and artificial intelligence in many aspects of work. The debate about this issue has been steadily increasing and, I should think, accelerating quite fast in just the last year. The usual headlines concern fears about the many millions that will lose their jobs, with a warning about how these will mainly be the unqualified men now in low-paid jobs (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/mar/24/millions-uk-workers-risk-replaced-robots-study-warns). Yet, for the first time in decades, there is also a debate about whether the income generated by the robots could be taxed so that citizens can be offered a minimum wage, beginning with those soon to be replaced at work. Someone in the room objected that this will be catastrophic, as our identity centres on work and being deprived of this would destroy our lives. Whenever I come across that kind of comment, I always hear in my mind the voice of the late comedian Pepe Rubianes: “They always say that work helps you to fulfil yourself–sure, this is why I see every morning happy people in the metro, singing all the way to work… .” Everyone listening to him would laugh in discomfort.

Fears of the utopian vision in which robots and A.I. give us leisure to live our lives in content (if not total happiness) depend on which dystopian texts you are familiar with. Even though Isaac Asimov spent his lifetime promoting the idea of the positive contribution that robots could make to human wellbeing, the film adaptation of his I, Robot (2004) is the typically shallow story about robots rebelling to eliminate humankind and rule the world. I even fail to see that negative version as dystopian, since, from the point of view of Planet Earth, our elimination would surely bring much relief and a new breath of life. But, anyway, bear with me: utopia lies that way, in letting the machines take over. Obviously, the idea is not mine, and my belief in this utopia shows how deeply influenced I am by the novels of the late Iain M. Banks.

Once again, then: in the civilization imagined by Banks, which he simply called the Culture, the formidable artificial intelligences known as the Minds have taken control. The inhabitants of the Culture live on the artificial planets and on the colossal spaceships (the General System Vehicles) that the Minds have built. Banks explained that the Culture comes from a combination of ideas: to survive (in space) you need to cooperate with each other, trusting the machines to do the right thing can be extremely liberating and communal happiness can only be reached by embracing socialist anarchism. A citizen of the Culture craves nothing because all their needs are cared for. Property, and this fundamental, has not only been abolished but made simply ridiculous. So has crime. In the Culture, you can do as you please with your body (they are all technically post-human), including changing species if you like, and with your mind. Immortality is not ruled out, though most people have enough of life after a few millennia… And, yes, utopia works.

Critics of Banks’ eutopia claim that the Culture is boring. Utopia as a narrative genre is, indeed, boring, which is why Banks organized his tales around the idea that the Culture feels bound to export utopia to other civilizations. The clashes with these other more or less reluctant peoples are the focus of the novels, whose protagonists tend to be Special Circumstances Agents, part of the (secret) body preaching utopia to the galaxy. Living in eutopia might also be boring, for all we know–Norwegians, the happiest nation on Earth, remember?, do not hesitate to declare themselves boring. Offer Syrians and Iraqis a chance to be bored for a lifetime and see how they react… I am totally serious when I argue that if boredom is the reason why we are rejecting utopia, then we deserve dystopia. You cannot begin to imagine how depressed I feel when I think that I will never be a citizen of Banks’ Culture. I could cry, really. Of course, the challenge of utopia is how to fill your time productively without the onerous obligation of work–but we already have that: it’s called retirement and we all want it. So, here’s utopia: we live off what the robots and the A.I. produce and we use our lives for whatever we want, as retired people do. Whatever we want may include work, if you’re so inclined. Work would not consist, however, of the kind of backbreaking, mindsquashing jobs most people devote their lives to.

Now, here’s my call to women: if you, my dears, can look beyond gender and imagine utopia that gives everyone a new vision beyond patriarchy, we all win. And thank you Lynne Segal for the inspiring talk.

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/.

WONDERING HOW (POPULAR) CULTURE IS TRANSMITTED (WITH A REFERENCE TO STAR WARS)

març 21st, 2017

As consumers of cultural products we seem to take for granted that texts are, somehow, automatically saved for survival and that any new generation has access to all of them. This is, of course, naïve, misguided and plain wrong. In the case of popular texts (and I mean here generally of all kinds beyond the printed page), we seem to assume that transmission is practically automatic and immediately guaranteed, in some cases, by the big cults around some of these texts. Even so, there are specific practices, companies and persons involved in the process of keeping a text alive. Just think of the constant renewal of interest in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Do you, my reader, know exactly how Tolkien’s classic has managed to survive since the day of its publication back in 1954-55? Could this rich trilogy ever disappear? Surely, this catastrophe is unthinkable for its many fans but it seems to me that at this odd jointure in the history of culture its future is impossible to predict.

As one of the children lucky to attend a cinema screening of the first Star Wars movie, back in 1977, the one now known as Episode IV: A New Hope, I find myself often thinking about how exactly texts are passed on. (By the way, I’ll take the chance here to make the happy announcement of a forthcoming conference on Star Wars and Ideology at the Universidad Complutense for April 2018. Finally!!). You might think that something as gigantic as George Lucas’s brainchild, now a Disney brand, has a life of its own. Actually, this is not the case at all. To begin with, when the first film was released, the producers and the director were absolutely sceptical about its success. So was the manufacturer in charge of selling the corresponding toys, to the point that many children who loved the film received that Christmas 1977 not an actual doll (soon sold out) but a sort of i.o.u., promising their future delivery. Today it seems as if everyone knew about how the merchandising would keep the saga alive but this is just an illusion.

I visited a few months ago an exhibition of Star Wars toys at Barcelona’s Illa Diagonal (the shopping centre) and I paid close attention to the children. Some were very young, around six, and already familiar with most of the characters there represented. Their parents, clearly, had placed them before the TV screen as soon as possible to share the corresponding DVDs of the saga with them; most likely, they had also shared with them their own merchandising products and bought new items. This type of generational transmission, from parent to child, must be the most habitual one. The children I saw seemed eager, none was dragging their feet after an embarrassingly enthusiastic parent, all were smiling and wide-eyed, and so were the adults. I assume that many parents fail to transmit their love of Star Wars (or any other beloved text) to their children but, then, the failed cases were not attending the exhibition. I’m sure that the frustration must be terrible in those cases…

I wondered, however, what happens to children whose parents are not keen at all on Star Wars (or that do not have a special favourite text to enthuse about). I know very well that elder siblings, cousins (either older or not), and aunts and uncles (rather than grandparents) play major roles in this generational transmission, still totally under-researched. At least, my impression is that Reception Studies tends to focus on the interaction between consumer and text, not caring too much about how consumers actually access texts. Anyway: there are five children in my family (four girls, one boy) and we, my husband and I, have failed miserably to instil in them a love of Star Wars. They’re just not interested and find our own interest a bit peculiar (“the problem with being a nerd,” one of my nieces sentenced, “is that you feel under the obligation of being a nerd and doing nerdish things”–this was when she declined seeing Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens despite our insistence…). Intent on enticing at least our youngest niece, and seeing how useful the new girl hero in this film, Rey, could be, we launched a relentless campaign… To no avail. Then, suddenly, one day she announced that she was ready to see the saga and, so, we started with Episode IV. It has not worked (or not yet) because she herself has decided that she is too young (she’s 8) to make sense of the plot.

We still have hopes that she’ll turn to the light side of the Force but in the meantime I have decided to learn from her how little kids get acquainted with famous texts, such as, well, Star Wars, in the event of there being no adult pointing the way to them. I hear you groan: playground talk, it’s all it takes. Yes and no. Obviously, basing any conclusions on the experience of one single child is bad research but at least I have learned a few new things (to share with you). Here they are:

1) If my niece regards herself as too young to understand the saga, this means that many parents ‘force’ their children to consume texts for which they are not quite ready. It is not normal for an 8-year-old to claim, as one of my niece’s classmates told her, that Rogue One (the prequel) is her favourite film. This is an excellent adventure film but also quite a dark story of heroic sacrifice, and if this little girl saw it this is because an adult disregarded how she would react to the bleak plot. Yes, I’m a bit scandalized… children are sensitive and impressionable…

2) The transmission of the text values among children is done through direct comment and, indeed, through the toys. On the school bus, in the school playground, at the home of other kids. The toy or any other items connected with the text in question (stationery, bags, clothing…) elicit curiosity, which leads to questions: what is this?, who are they? At this very early age, children’s comments on the films are limited in criticism (the films are just ‘cool’) and include, rather, plot summary or scene descriptions. Often of shocking moments.

3) In this regard, I was surprised to find out that our focus on Rey was a bit misguided. My husband and I assumed that, just as little boys could identify with Luke Skywalker and hence enter into the spirit of the saga, Rey would have the same function for my little niece. She loved the ‘idea’ of Rey but was terrified by her confrontation with Kylo Ren using laser sabres (this is the clip we showed to her). The idea of a laser sabre toy is very attractive to her, but, paradoxically, not the terrible potential of this weapon in the films. In contrast, she explained that she had asked us to see the first film because she is very curious about Darth Vader’s death and his connection with Luke. Yes: we believe that spoilers are always negative but it turns out that sometimes they are the greatest enticement. A classmate told her about Luke’s fearful father… and she is puzzled about Vader’s person. My hope is that her curiosity keeps her interest alive and will eventually result in her seeing the three first films. At least.

4) A major lesson to learn is that children can make extremely clear judgements from a very early age about what they like. Not so much about why, logically. I keep on asking my nieces about their preferences and this is always a wonderful lesson for me. They, however, find explaining themselves quite a difficult exercise: they’re flattered about my interest, but also concerned that I may find their answers too basic (poor things!). Another obvious lesson is that textual transmission works much, much better if you (the adult) avoid forcing the text on the child. “I’m going to take you to see a film you will love” doesn’t work as well as “I’m going to see this amazing film, would you like to come with me?” In the first case, the child can even get a bit suspicious (“um… why do you want me to see this movie in particular?”), whereas in the second case, a better kind of complicity is built around the text. Sometimes it works the other way round: in the last year, my office has got a new set of tsum-tsum Disney characters, and some Trolls dolls… And my husband can’t stop watching Gumball

So, yes, basically you need the patience of an advanced Jedi knight/dame to bring a child to the light side of the Force but, here’s the lesson, you’re not alone. Other persons, particularly in the child’s own circle, are also participating in the constant renewal of the saga. If nothing works, then, this is it: you gain no padawan. But then, you can still enjoy the company of many other Star Wars fans all over the world. Some comfort!

Although at the time I was not aware that this would be a crucial memory in my life as a film spectator, I thank now George Lucas for the unforgettable sight of the Imperial cruiser crossing the screen at the beginning of Episode IV, 40 years ago. I was 11, remember? The Harry Potter generation also enjoyed 20 years ago (how time flies!) that ‘wow’ moment that defines a whole cohort when Harry got that letter from Hogwarts, also aged 11. But, what about the children of 2017? I sometimes worry that they’re trapped in the stories meant for other generations, as the machinery of cultural production stagnates. It’s wonderful to see how our own texts last but, surely, today’s children also deserve their own moment of wonder. And, then, we’ll learn from them.

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/.

A WRITER THINKS ABOUT HIS CRAFT: GEORGE SAUNDERS

març 14th, 2017

Today I am reading in detail here an article recently published by American writer George Saunders (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Saunders). He specializes in short fiction, children’s fiction and the essay and is not, therefore, a novelist, the type of writers I most commonly read. I have only read one book by him, Pastoralia (2000), a collection said to be among his best work. He has won plenty of awards in the last twenty-odd years, among them the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story (2013). He is since 2014 a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. All in all, then, a sophisticated kind of literary writer.

The article is “George Saunders: What Writers Really Do When They Write” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write) and has a subtitle that names to “A series of instincts, thousands of tiny adjustments, hundreds of drafts…”, which is the gist indeed of the piece. The complete article runs to almost 4000 words and I certainly recommend that you read all of them.

Saunders narrates first how the seed for his latest book, Lincoln in the Bardo, which happens to be his first novel, was planted in his mind twenty years ago. Lesson number one: fiction very often arises from an image suggested by one particular experience in the author’s life, which, while personal (it does happen to him or her) need not be auto-biographical, in the sense of dealing with the author’s own life. Saunders visited the crypt where Lincoln’s son was buried and was told that the grief-stricken President often visited it: “An image spontaneously leapt into my mind –a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà”. In 2012 Saunders felt finally ready to tackle the topic and write his first novel. Second lesson: inspirational images may live on for many years in the fiction writer’s mind until they demand to be brought forth. Saunders denies as “some version of the intentional fallacy” that “art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same”. As he warns us, “The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully”. He tries, nonetheless.

Saunders describes next his “method” to navigate the squalls of literary creation: “I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’).” Accordingly, he reads his work, “the way a first-time reader might”, paying attention to how the needle reacts and ruthlessly editing his text: “watch the needle, adjust the prose” ad nauseam. Of course, we have a problem here already: the process of distilling what your mind produces as you write happens before edition. This is common to all kinds of writers. As I write this post, I know vaguely where I am going with my argument but I am constantly surprised by the exact shape my sentences take. Why these words and no others? Actually, what I most enjoy in writing is that kind of surprise, which is why I make an effort to write a post every week: because otherwise my brain would be inactive. In the case of fiction writers, fabulation, as I call the process of imagining stories, happens, I insist, before edition. I believe that everyone can understand Saunders’ needle for we possess one, more or less rudimentary, but not his powers to fabulate. Not even he himself.

It is true, at any rate, that a great deal of the pleasure of writing lies in rewriting, in the polishing of the sentences. Saunders enjoys in particular the impression that “the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in ‘real life’ –funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining”. If, as he says, the author/narrator is more interesting than the person, the writer, this means that writing is, like being in love, about presenting the best side of yourself. Saunders makes a very interesting claim by declaring that his method aims at “increasing the ambient intelligence of a piece of writing”, something which, “in turn, communicates a sense of respect for your reader.” I don’t know if this is mere politeness, for it seems that Saunders does believe that rewriting makes texts “less hyperbolic, sentimental, and misleading”. I find, rather, listening to many other authors, that the reader matters relatively little and that any writer works for his/herself. The highest quality writers are those with the most demanding inner reading, so to speak, and how external readers react is of relative importance to them.

Saunders does attach greater importance to the “pursuit of specificity”, to the honing down of the language so that it is both nuanced and more effective. Again, this is a rule of all good writing, in any genre, including academic prose. An artist, Saunders stresses, “tweaks that which she’s already done” and, I would add, if this is art, then artistic writing (=Literature) should encompass many more genres, including, sorry to be so tiresome, academic prose. A rule my PhD supervisor taught me is that each sentence must advance my argumentation and be fully justified. This is not really that different from Poe’s injunction to observe an “economy of style” in fiction writing, which is what Saunders also defends without naming it. His analysis of how he writes becomes, then, an analysis of how he edits his texts, which, while interesting (“But why did I make those changes? On what basis?”) is not really about the unfathomable mystery of how sentences travel originally from neuron to screen (or paper).

Saunders turns next to another mystery, “the empathetic function” which, according to him, “is accomplished via the writer’s relation both to his characters and to his readers”. Revision, he explains, “is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you” –I find this very funny because it is intended to place the reader centre-stage and be flattering but in the end it reveals only the writer’s (any writer’s) narcissism. The point, as you can see, is to raise the reader up to your level via your writing, which might be a lovely exercise in intellectual seduction but feels more self-serving than that. In this sense, I believe that popularisers (sorry, I can’t find an English equivalent of the serviceable ‘divulgador’) are the only writers who truly care about their audience, as they (we?) see writing as a form of pedagogy. I know that I sound very smug in correcting Saunders but I truly believe that literary creation would happen even without readers.

Next lesson: Saunders claims that writing a novel did not require a different method from writing short fiction, just a “slightly larger frame” and a sort of specific architecture: “it occurred to me that a mansion of sorts might be constructed from a series of connected yurts”. Again, this possibly reflects the experience of the specific case of a short fiction writer trying to write a novel for the first time, whereas habitual novelists would not describe a similar approach. In science fiction there is something quote curious, the fix-up, which is a novel made of short stories that may not have been necessarily written with a book in mind. The fix-up is, perhaps, closer than any other type of novel to the mansion made of many yurts. But, then, poor Saunders, I should not criticize him for describing what he honestly feels.

“Any work of art quickly reveals itself to be a linked system of problems”. Indeed! Again, I would say that this can be extended to any piece of writing. A PhD dissertation is, if you want to see it that way, the answer to the problem of ‘how am I supposed to write this particular thesis?’ Only when you’re done do you realize how it should have been done, which is, I know, vexing. If you wrote a second PhD dissertation, on a different topic, then leads to a different ‘system of problems’. Ergo, each piece of fiction is also the answer to the question of how it should be written, and how the problems should be faced and solved. As Saunders notes, a problem is solved when it is transformed into “an opportunity”.

Saunders’s final lesson is a that “a work of fiction can be understood as a three-beat movement: a juggler gathers bowling pins; throws them in the air; catches them.” The first phase would correspond to what I call fabulation, which Saunders describes only tangentially–which is why I feel frustrated by his text. It’s tantalizing. “Certain decisions I’d made early on forced certain actions to fulfilment”, he writes and I wish I could tell him that the vagueness of the word “certain” is exasperating –which decisions?, how did you make him?, to what degree are you aware of the process of choice? The second step, based on how “the rules of the universe created certain compulsions” is, I think, what most literary criticism explores (Hamlet sets in motion a whole chain of events by paying heed to what his dead father tells him). Yet, we know close to nothing about how the ‘bowling pins’ materialize. When his characters start behaving as if following their own decisions (a phenomenon which all writers report but on which there is no research at all), Saunders enjoys the “beautiful, mysterious experience”. The mystery is the reason why we worship fiction writers: because we don’t have access to it, it doesn’t happen to us.

Saunders ponders whether the creation of fiction is “a feature of the brain, the byproduct of any rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system” but ultimately chooses Romantic celebration: There is “something wonderful in watching a figure emerge from the stone unsummoned”. Now, unless we, literary critics, sit by the writer as s/he writes and monitors the process as each sentence is written, there is no way we can understand the wonder of it all. Saunders gets very close in this piece to the ‘making-of’ habitual in cinema and we need to be thankful to him for the effort. This is perhaps the way we should go: invite writers to delve into the experience of writing, popularize among readers the very idea of the literary ‘making-of’. Not to destroy the ‘mystery’ but to retrieve literary creation from the intellectual fog surrounding it, and, why not?, make literary criticism a more confident art.

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/.

BE BOLD FOR CHANGE: INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY 2017

març 7th, 2017

This year the theme for International Women’s Day is #BeBoldForChange, as you may see from diverse sites on the internet. Tomorrow, 8 of March, we women are also invited to join a worldwide strike to demonstrate that without us the planet will stop rolling. The latest calculations suggest that we are 170 years away from gender parity, and this is an optimistic piece of guesswork, as it does not take into account possible setbacks (think Trump, think Putin, think ISIS). It is clearly too long to wait for, hence the call for action. Right now.

I have been writing this blog since 2010 and every year this is the most difficult post for me. International Women’s Day is a yearly reminder of our subjection to misogynistic patriarchy, for if we were truly free this celebration would not be necessary. For as long as we need to protest and show the evidence of the constant patriarchal terrorist campaigns against us, we women remain still subordinated and not at all citizens on full, equal terms with men. I do not like being reminded that my life as a woman is conditioned by patriarchy, hence my anger, sorrow and distress every 8th March.

Also my dismay. I go through the main newspapers websites in Spain, the USA and the UK regularly and it is always the same: most news items about women concern our bodies, whether these are on display for voyeuristic reasons or as objects of patriarchal violence. The same media that pretend to maintain a liberal outlook are guilty of the grossest misrepresentation of what women do and endure on a daily basis. Then, whenever there is a minimally positive article on women’s achievements, or one that discusses inequality from an intelligent point of view, you get all those anonymous trolls pouring out the most toxic venom. In the Spanish media they run unchecked; in the British newspaper I read (The Guardian) many contributions are erased by the moderators; some chains of comments are mostly blanks… I need not even mention the extent to which trolling on the social networks is becoming one of the most insidious, effective branches of patriarchal terrorism.

Yes, I am using the word terrorism insistently because this is how it feels today in Spain: about 20 women have died so far, killed by their current or previous male partners. I must say ‘about’ because not even the Director of the Observatorio por la Igualdad could name the actual figure with certainty (this morning on TV). It is possibly higher. Just reverse the situation and try to think of what would happen if 20 men had been killed so far this year by their female couples and ex-couples…

Whenever information like this appears in the media, I read a string of abusive comments from the habitual male trolls, with one argument that is constantly repeated: men also suffer from gendered violence, this might not be so obvious but it is also very harmful. Fine, if that is the case, please come out, you male victims of women’s abuse. Men are doing much better than they used to in reporting sexual abuse endured as children (by men…). So, if you’re being abused by your women, instead of pretending that patriarchal terrorism does not exist, do tell us what is happening to you and we will help you. Promise. What is not at all acceptable is a situation in which the women victims are made twice invisible by denying that they matter (I won’t even speak about the children killed this year, and those made orphans by furious, violent, lethal patriarchal monsters). And, yes, I support the call to speak about the survivors of violence, and not only the victims, for it seems to me that the exclusive focus on brutality contributes to patriarchal terrorism as an invitation to commit copy-cat crimes.

More dismay: the women themselves, and how we are contributing to our own discrimination. The women who voted for Donald Trump, the women who support Putin in Russia, or ISIS in Europe and the Middle East. The women who bully other women in school and on the internet, or beat them up. The women who publish sexualized photos of themselves and call this invitation to a demeaning use of their persons a free feminist act. The women who let themselves be used in fashion campaigns that are an invitation to abusive misogyny. The women incapable of working with other women in alliances to end inequality, at any level. The women who exploit other women they employ. The women who allow their girls’ genitalia to be mutilated. The women who reject feminism as if it is an infectious disease. The women who abuse the word feminism to defend absurd choices. I could go on…

Next, the lack of awareness and the refusal to know. I often feel like an abolitionist speaking to slaves who adamantly reject the idea that they are enslaved and, so, will not contribute to their own liberation. I wonder what it was like for the real abolitionists. I was teaching a seminar on Shakespeare within an MA course and we were discussing how having actresses play male roles (Hamlet, Richard III…) does not really alter the patriarchal nature of the plays, which, logically, reflect their time and society. One of the young women in class basically said that patriarchy is what it is and cannot be altered. Well, I replied, if that were the case you wouldn’t be here in class as a student and I would not be teaching in a university classroom. No reaction.

It might be the case that because I teach Victorian Literature I am particularly sensitized about the times when women had no rights whatsoever but it baffles me that young women take two oxymoronic things for granted: a) that patriarchy is basic human nature, b) that their rights are guaranteed. Patriarchy is NOT the same as human nature–it can and it must be changed and it is certainly changing, but not fast enough. If patriarchy was human nature, our lives as women would have remained unaltered for ever and I would not be writing this post; I’d be minding my ten children and be possibly illiterate. The problem with patriarchy is that it is not disappearing fast enough, and it’s clear to me that full equality can never be reached as long as patriarchy persists. 170 years? What a joke…

The other matter, that our rights are guaranteed, is another big joke. Right now the biggest best-sellers in the USA are George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Orwell’s classic is a horrifying story about how any individual can be coerced into completely submitting to an ideology, no matter how hard s/he tries to rebel. Big Brother, no mistake about it, is the personification of patriarchy. In Atwood’s dystopia she narrates how fast and how easily women are deprived of all their rights in the early stages of the fundamentalist dictatorship that overpowers democracy in the USA. As happened to me while reading Houellebecq’s Submission, I was horrified by the good men’s reaction: the husband of Atwood’s protagonist does not defend her rights, he just offers her his personal protection (don’t worry if you cannot work anymore, I’ll support you). This kind of, shall we say?, secondary complicity is to me even far more scarier than downright patriarchal terrorism. In the event of a frontal attack against women’s rights, then, there is no guarantee that all women would fight for them, and no guarantee either that the good men would confront the evil patriarchs for us. Atwood got it right. And so did Orwell: it’ll be everyone for themselves. And violent coercion.

And here’s my main worry: it may be impossible to imagine a situation in which Africans would be again kidnapped and sent to America to be enslaved but 150 years after the formal end of slavery, a brutal racism against African-Americans persists. Likewise, homophobia and all forms of LGTBI phobia persist despite the changes in legislation. As for us, women, yes, we may vote, study, work in the professions and make a thousand choices we could not make before the 20th century but the pressure of misogyny is not easing out, whether it results in bloody murder or in what Luis Bonino called ‘micro-machismos’, that is, the small everyday acts that make our lives harder: from a sexist joke by a workmate to a partner’s dragging their feet until we lose patience and clean the dishes ourselves. How our energy, talent and time is wasted is a scandal if we think of how necessary women are for the survival of the human species and our progress as a civilization.

I discussed in my previous post two examples of positive female characters addressed to a children’s audience, Judy in Zootopia and Poppy in Trolls. I insist that this is crucial: let’s find positive role models, women who have been bold to change, and who have changed life for us by giving us more choices. Madame Curie, rather than Kim Kardashian, if you know what I mean. And may 2017 be better for women than 2016 was, though I very much doubt this will be the case. We may be as bold as we can to change, but if patriarchy is not altered nothing significant will change. And this, good men reading me, is our common enemy.

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/.

CELEBRATING JUDY AND POPPY: GREAT FEMALE CHARACTERS IN ZOOTOPIA AND TROLLS

febrer 28th, 2017

The fiasco following Warren Beatty’s absurd proclamation of La La Land as this year’s Oscar winner instead of Moonlight (despite realizing that he had the wrong envelope in his hands) has already been commented on to exhaustion. I’m really sorry for the public humiliation that the producers of La La Land endured; yet, at the same time, I’m happy that the error was corrected, as this a film I profoundly dislike. I share 100% the reasons for my aversion with David Cox, and, so, I’ll recommend his insightful review (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/23/la-la-lands-inevitable-oscars-win-is-a-disaster-for-hollywood-and-for-us).

I’d rather use my time and energy here to praise the winner for Best Animated Feature Film, the delicious Zootopia (a.k.a Zootropolis in Europe). Also, another charming animated film, Trolls, though this was only nominated for its wonderfully catchy song: Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”(he voices Branch, the male protagonist, in the film). I want to applaud in particular the leading female roles, Judy and Poppy, respectively, for being a breath of fresh air in the stale world offered to little girls.

I love animated films for children and I’m sorry to see that adults with and without children in their families look down on them as inferior products. I have been reading these days Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure and enjoying very much his defence of Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks as producers of valuable work, worth analyzing from an academic point of view and actually quite subversive. Even so, he calls the films “silly” quite often, as if apologizing for dealing with them before those who despise movies for the little ones as sub-par cinema. This is the wrong attitude. So, please, here is my first plea today: do see films for children, and of all nations, not just American ones. I need not say that Japan’s Studio Ghibli is producing wonderful animation, and so are others around the world.

I am well aware that animation need not be limited to children. Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa (Oscar nominee last year) or Persepolis (nominated in 2007) are, obviously, not for children. Adults who make the mistake of believing that cartoon movies are for kids may find themselves very much chagrined, as did the many embarrassed parents who rushed their children our of the screening of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999) which I attended. I was myself quite shocked to see what could be done with a few pieces of cut paper… At any rate, take a look at any list of Oscar winners and nominees for Best Animated Films, a category activated in 2000, (like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academy_Award_for_Best_Animated_Feature) and marvel at the many excellent films it contains. Indeed, Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010), also appeared in the list of Best Picture nominees, apart from winning in their own category.

This year, Zootopia’s rivals were two other US films–Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana–the Swiss/French My Life as a Zucchini and the French/Belgian/Japanese co-production The Red Turtle. I have not see Moana yet (known as Vaiana in Spain because Moana is the trademark… of a bathing soap!) and it might well be, this goes in the same positive direction I want to praise here. Leaving aside The Red Turtle for the purpose of my argumentation, I need to say that I was horrified by Kubo and the Two Strings (despite loving Laika Studios’ Coraline and Paranorman) and will almost certainly not see My Life as a Zucchini.

Why not? Well, Kubo might be as beautiful and innovative as you may wish regarding its animation technique, but it begins with a mother running away with her baby after her own father gouges out the little boy’s eye. Not that you see the actual scene but I could never get over this bit of patriarchal cruelty, so nonchalantly narrated. My Life as a Zucchini begins with the protagonist, um… Courgette, accidentally killing his mother and being sent to an orphans’ home. Similarly, Pete’s Dragon, which I saw recently, begins with little Peter’s parents being killed in a horrifying car crash, which leaves him stranded in the forest for years. I usually go to the cinema with my little niece and after having put her through the terrifying experience of seeing The Good Dinosaur I have been avoiding like the plague this kind of traumatic children’s animation–hence my pleasure in Zootopia and Trolls. And her pleasure.

You’ll have noticed that in all the horrifying films for children I have mentioned, the protagonist is a boy (or a male creature). Odd. Call me naïve, but I’d rather push that ugly view of life as confrontation aside and focus on what cinema offers little girls, which seems far more upbeat. The trend, possibly started with Brave (2012), extends now to other products, like the TV series Gumball (2011-, with the amazingly well-balanced Anaïs) or Miraculous (2015-) with the girl superhero Ladybug. Even Spielberg’s failed film The B.F.G. is part of a growing trend: an increase in the number of appealing female characters for little girls. It’s not just a matter of up-dating the fairy-tale princess, though this is also happening, but of going a little bit farther. As my niece patiently explained to me, what is cool about Elsa in Frozen is that she is a queen, hence in no need to marry… and with power to do interesting things.

Zootopia and Trolls are, in this sense very different, for Judy Hopps is a rabbit very much focused on becoming a police officer, whereas Poppy is a troll queen, focused on saving her people from the ogres that want to eat them. At first sight, they seem to have little in common but they do share a main feature: the determination not so much to fulfil a dream as to do their job well, and for the sake of their community. They also have a magnificent self-possession, totally extreme in Poppy’s case, as she does not know the meaning of the word ‘defeat’ (Judy does, indeed). Jack Halberstam praises a series of animated films, from Finding Nemo to Chicken Run, precisely because they focus on characters that look beyond themselves to help others, something which he finds missing in our selfish society. In this sense, though I loved the French/Canadian film Ballerina (with its subversive Marxist conquest of 19th century bourgeois ballet by low-class Félicie), I realize that the plot repeats the selfish model of personal success. In contrast, Judy and Poppy are motivated, rather, by securing the best for their community: hence their being praiseworthy heroes.

Again, though the two films are very different, the central problem both in Zootopia and in Trolls is posed by predators. Judy’s utopian world is based on the idea that carnivores and herbivores can live happily together–a dream spoiled by shady manipulators who attempt to present meat-eaters as pure beasts. In Trolls, things are even more straightforward: the big ogres see the tiny trolls as a delicacy and (as we do with animals) they even have an annual festival devoted to gorging on them. Judy and Poppy’s mission, then, entails keeping a delicate balance that deters the potential predators from eating their prey, a category to which they themselves belong as a herbivore (Judy) and a troll, no matter how queenly (Poppy). In their efforts to redress the balance and avoid danger, Judy and Poppy are accompanied by a very reluctant male mate: respectively, the con artist Nick Wilde (a fox) and Branch, a severely depressed troll who lost all his colour because of a deeply traumatic event. Nick mocks in his stylish way Judy’s earnest fight against crime; grumpy Branch dampens (or tries to) the spirit of the always cheerful Poppy. That is, until both gentlemen are won over by the girls, in friendly, rather than romantic ways.

Girls, the message is, can change men, hence patriarchy, with their optimism. This has been well received by Zootopia’s audiences (the movie keeps a very high 8.1 score at IMDB) but not so much by the public for Trolls (only 6.5 at IMDB). I’m not sure whether this is important but Trolls is a DreamWorks, not a Disney, film. I loved every minute of Trolls, but others found it both too dark (in the sense I have been complaining here) or, confusingly, too mawkish. I enjoyed very much Zootopia’s clever plot and the many playful references to adult films. Yet, I appreciated Trolls for being an in-your-face defence of cheesy good feeling.

Beyond the actual events in the plot, I very much believe that Trolls has pulled the amazing trick of turning the disgusting, creepy Troll dolls designed by Dane Thomas Mann in 1959, into something, well, energizing. Please, take a look at Judy here (http://zootopia.wikia.com/wiki/Judy_Hopps) and see how optimistic and forthright she looks–encouraging, right? Now, take a look at pink-skinned, pink-haired Poppy here: http://dreamworks.wikia.com/wiki/Poppy. She is irresistible… an image of complete and utter self-sufficiency. Both my home and my university office are now decorated with her image, completed by the motto ‘I’m confident’–for so she is. And you know what? I feel confident when I look at her comical, slightly squint-eyed, glittery face… or when I see her sing her way into almost complete disaster and still be positive: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFuFm0m2wj0. Who, I wonder, can connect with angry, one-eyed Kubo instead?

Is Judy and Poppy’s optimism misplaced in our increasingly ugly world? Should we give little girls heroes like them at all? I’m not talking here about silly, pretty girls who only think of romance and fashion. These are, let me stress, females doing a good job (I puzzle, however, about why they are not human–perhaps I need to see Moana/Vaiana). Judy and Poppy are intelligent, resourceful, competent and, above all, positive. Not just happy in a bubbly, inconsequential way, but constructive, affirmative and encouraging of others. My heroes…

Now, thank you Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger for writing Trolls, thank you Erica Rivinoja for Poppy’s story. Thank you Jared Bush and Phil Johnston for writing Zootopia, thank you Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush, Jim Reardon, Josie Trinidad, Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee for Judy’s story. And the marvellous production designers for the way Judy and Poppy embody girl power.

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 CHARISMA OF SUPPORTING ACTORS: PAUL BETTANY (AND THE ‘THAT GUYS’)

febrer 21st, 2017

My doctoral student Josie Swarbrick contributed a paper on the film Transcedence (2014) to our recent yearly post-graduate seminar. The film is just average but Jack Paglen’s screenplay is one of the very few attuned to the treatment of the posthuman in current sf. The role of Will Caster, the man who transcends his humanity, is here played by Johnny Depp. I started a discussion about whether Will’s loss of control over his life parallels the current decadence of Depp as a star (see how Hadley Freeman bemoans her loss of an idol: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/11/how-i-loved-you-johnny-depp-purple-tinted-truth). Josie mentioned instead Paul Bettany, who plays Depp’s rival in love, as an example of an actor with quite a steady career. To my surprise, this unleashed a flow of comments from the women students in the room, each mentioning a favourite role played by Bettany…

Bettany has appeared so far in 43 films; chances are you’ve come across him. IMDB and Wikipedia help me here to offer a quick overview of his career. Bettany (b. 1971) is an English theatre and film actor. His debut was on the stage (An Inspector Calls) and he even appeared on a BBC Oliver Twist (as Sikes), before getting a small role in Bent (1997). British film audiences discovered Bettany thanks to Gangster No. 1 (2000). His career became international when director Brian Helgeland insisted that he was cast as Chaucer in his silly medieval adventure film A Knight’s Tale (2001). Bettany next secured a breakthrough supporting role in the Oscar-award winner A Beautiful Mind (2001, Ron Howard), with Russell Crowe. Bettany and Crowe soon played best friends Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in Peter Weir’s acclaimed Master and Commander (2003). Bettany has occasionally played leading roles in, among others, the romantic comedy Wimbledon (2004) and the medieval mystery The Reckoning (2002–or was he co-protagonist with Willem Dafoe?). You may have also spotted him in Dogville (2003) and The Da Vinci Code (2006). Curiously, after voicing Tony Stark’s artificial intelligence J.A.R.V.I.S. in four films in which Iron Man appears, Bettany has been cast as the literally red-skinned Vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Captain America: Civil War (2016). Incidentally, he’s been married since 2003 to actress Jennifer Connelly (they met when shooting A Beautiful Mind).

A 2004 interview with Sam Ingleby offers interesting clues about Bettany (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/paul-bettany-lets-get-physical-547410.html) Asked why he chose to make Wimbledom after the vastly different Dogville, Bettany “immediately drops into self-deprecating mode” and explains that “My plan–well, it isn’t much of a plan, but it’s mine and I like it–is to try to do lots of different things”. He cites two of his heroes, Peter Weir and Ang Lee, as examples of versatile film directors that work in many genres. He adds that “I just get bored if I don’t do different things”. No wonder, then, that Ingleby sees Bettany’s “malleability on screen” as a product of his “ability to change genre and to avoid being typecast”.

Here’s some irony, however, that Ingleby fails to explore: Bettany is slim, blond, blue-eyed, very tall and quite good-looking (perhaps not 100% handsome in a manly way). Yet, despite having “the lineaments of a film star” he is not one. He’s an actor, not a star. Russell Crowe, to name someone connected with Bettany, is a star. Because Bettany is very pale, he has often been cast as a cold-blooded character, none paler and colder than the monk Silas in The Da Vinci Code. Physical appeal, then, is not as easy to pin down in an actor as we assume.

Usually, the value of a film star is measured by the fees s/he commands. Currently these are the ten male names with the highest influence and appeal on planet Earth: Dwayne Johnson, Jackie Chan, Matt Damon, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Ben Affleck, Vin Diesel, Shah Rukh Khan, Robert Downey jr., Akshay Khumar and Brad Pitt. By the way, the best paid female actor in 2016 was Jennifer Lawrence; she made 46$ million; Dwayne Johnson, in contrast, earned 64.5$ million. Earnings, thus, turn out to be only indirectly related to box-office appeal; sexism also plays a part.

An obvious, yet important, point to make is that whereas spectators pay good money to see these stars on the screen, hence their earnings, generally speaking we do not go to the cinema to enjoy the work of particular secondary actors. Character or supporting actors certainly add value to films and may be a strong selling point, predominantly those in villain roles (like Javier Bardem in No Land for Old Men). I have no idea on what basis is their salary established but, surely, there must be a ranking which value in money what they add to films. My Google search for ‘highest-paid supporting actor’, however, throws nothing.

Supporting, or character, actors, appear to be of two kinds: the ones that eventually slip into stardom, and those who never do. All actors have volatile careers but supporting actors appear to fare better, since they can avoid the stressful demands of stardom. Nothing worse than pouring high expectations and hype on an actor who might have reached success by chance rather than merit–arguably, this might explain why so many Oscar-award winners for leading roles suddenly see their careers sink. Fickle fashions also play a role: an actor like Meryl Streep is not in danger of incurring in what is now called ‘brand exhaustion’ or ‘brand fatigue’. Scarlett Johansson, who seems to be six persons instead of just one, certainly is.

Returning to the supporting actors, Paul Bettany might be perhaps representative of a third category. Some actors hover forever on the brink of stardom; they are the kind whose fans are always asking themselves ‘how come s/he is not better known?’. Tom Hardy used to be in this category, but now he’s on the way to stardom aided by us, his fans from the early stages of his career. Other character actors, however, reach fame even without an enthusiastic fan base–simply because they’re very good: think of Paul Giamatti or the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Then we have what an IMDB user calls ‘that guy actors’: actors “you see in every movie and say to yourself ‘Hey its that guy!’ but you never know their names”. This person offers a great list of 100 male names here: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls050426470/. No, Paul Bettany is not included, but, then, no list is ever exhaustive. See also, for instance, http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2014/the-30-greatest-character-actors-in-hollywood-history/.

Although not all male stars are handsome–some are not even close–clearly physical attractive pays a major role in the lists of best-paid actors. Character actors, in contrast, bring physical variety to the screen. Their presence is what reassures us that the world is not peopled only with beautiful individuals. Charisma, of course, marks the difference between the more and the less popular actors in all categories. This is the x factor that whets the spectator’s curiosity and that helps us to recall specific names. And then return for more, in yet another film with the same actor.

This seemingly suggests that supporting actors on the brink of stardom, like Bettany, have an odd measure of charisma: enough to seduce loyal fans but not enough to seduce many fans and reach stardom. Bettany is very good at stealing scenes from the protagonists but not attractive enough (in a general sense) to bear the burden of a whole film on his shoulders. Perhaps he just needs a breakthrough leading role that tips the scales of charisma in his favour. Sometimes it takes a very long time, which is why I’m not writing Bettany off the list of 21st century stars. Sometimes it never happens. The good news is that characters actors like Bettany tend to enjoy longer careers than most stars as, ostensibly, spectators are more generous with their ageing process. The whole planet is monitoring each wrinkle in Brad Pitt’s face but, surely, this will not happen to Bettany.

My message today is that we need to reconsider success and failure. Paul Bettany’s career suggests that long-lasting careers in secondary positions may be much more satisfying than downright success/stardom. Also, that each charismatic individual seems to have a different measure of this elusive quality. Brad Pitt seems gifted with an endless supply, but here we are, Paul Bettany’s loyal fans, announcing to the world that we appreciate whatever amount he does have. This is a call, then, to look beyond the star and appreciate all the ‘that guys’ (and ‘that girls’) that make cinema such a wonderful experience.

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/

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…

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