FAILING TO EXIST: THE UNITED STATES OF EUROPE AND THE EUROVISION SONG CONTEST

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Just one year ago I wrote a post about Conchita Wurst’s unexpected triumph at the Eurovision Song Contest. This year’s edition was broadcast last Saturday from Austria, her homeland. The winner was the handsome Måns Zelmerlöw, representing Sweden, in tight competition with the pretty Polina Gagarina, representing Russia. I know that my remark is far from original, but their singing in English highlights the main reason why the United States of Europe are failing to materialize: we are too reluctant to accepting our diverse cultural and linguistic identities.

If I recall this correctly, the singers using their national language were representing Italy (third in the grand final), Montenegro (thirteenth), Romania (fifteenth), Spain (twenty-first) and France (twenty-fifth). The rest of the twenty-seven sang in English, or, rather, the bad English full of clichés that surfaces when you translate from your own language lyrics already quite cheesy. Of course, singing in English guarantees no good results: look at the United Kingdom’s position–twenty four out of twenty-seven… (Australia, the guest country, did much better, making it to a fifth position which should have been a second). And, as usual, the Spanish media and social networks have deplored that Edurne only got 15 points… because she sang in Spanish–well, send a Basque singer, or Catalan, or Galician, and see if that improves matters. And once again, our local jury delegate, Lara Ciscar, spoke only mediocre English, saving us at least from the embarrassment of last year’s ‘oit points.’ Just barely.

My personal favourite was Latvian Aminata’s “Love Injected”, which was also accompanied, in my view, by the best, most elegant, atmospheric mise-en-scène. Aminata, the festival’s commentators explained, is the daughter of a Russian mother and a Burkina-Fasso father, but regards herself as profoundly Latvian… whatever that means, for I simply don’t know. She sang in English which, I guess, must be for Latvians as shocking as it would be for me to hear Manel (local most popular Catalan band) sing in Shakespeare’s language. So, on surface, beautiful black Aminata does represent Europe’s plurality, as did the winner of 2012, the Swede Loreen (born Lorine Zineb Nora Talhaoui in Stockholm to Moroccan Amazigh parents). Yet, this is only on surface for as long as the ruling language is English the plurality remains unseen (and, above all, unheard).

Knez, the gentleman from Montenegro who offered us the beautiful ‘Adio’, sang, I assume (excuse my stupidity) in Serbian. Nobody bothered to explain which of the four languages spoken in his country he sang in. Anyway, the Eurovision Song Contest website does offer translations of the lyrics into English (…and French, since Francophone speakers seemingly still believe that theirs is a pan-European language…) This translation, then, could have been easily used in subtitles, helping us viewers understand what Knez sang about (not that this was strictly necessary as the title ‘Adio’ helped very much). In Spain’s case it would certainly have helped as it was hard to guess why Edurne was crying very pretty tears as she danced with a great-looking male dancer (mourning a dead lover, it transpires). The Rumanians, offering a moving song on the sorrows of abandoning your children to migrate elsewhere–now that’s a European subject–opted to self-translate, offering a bilingual song.

The contest is always criticised for being a shabby, old-fashioned spectacle for which nobody in their rights mind should care. To begin with, it’s not that shabby anymore and, as TV shows go, it is quite good. If, excuse me, this is an event supported mainly by gay people, then let’s give gay people the run of all European TV, it would be much more fun, believe me… I watched the contest, semi-finals and all included, because for a few evenings I got unusual variety on TV, and I heard about countries supposedly also in Europe, which never appear on my local media (or only for tragic, war-related reasons). Four years ago Azerbaijan’s Ell & Nikki won with “Running Scared” and I can still sing the chorus; I wouldn’t know, however, to place their country on a map. This does not mean that a handful of songs, more or less silly, should or can conceal tensions in European politics–everyone hoped this year Russia would NOT win with ‘A Million Voices’… a pacifist song, for God’s sake! Sorry, Polina Gagarina, I know you meant well.

Love it or hate it, the Eurovision Song Contest is the only yearly event that makes this strange idea we call Europe visible–it’s Brigadoon, remember?, that little Scottish village which in the famous Broadway musical reappears only once very hundred years. Luckily, we don’t have to wait that much, yet it is to be wondered why Europe is managing so poorly to exist. Many years ago, Robert Maxwell, the Czechoslovakian-born British media mogul, founded the only newspaper with a truly pan-European vocation, simply called The European. Its short life (May 1990 to December 1998) and reduced market (a weekly circulation of just 180,000 against the planed 225,000) is, to me, a sign of Europe’s inability to believe in itself as a political, social and cultural entity. In this context, the festival (now reaching its 60th anniversary) is simultaneously a freak event in European life and a much necessary, basic link among the disparate nations of Europe.

How is, then, the problem of this unmanageable diversity solved? We cannot all abandon our local languages for English, which is why it is a very bad sign that so many Eurovision’s singers are doing this. If this trivial event manages to highlight so clearly what our main problems are, imagine what things must be like at Strasbourg’s Parliament… I would prefer everyone to sing in their own language, using, as I suggested English subtitles for translation; in the Parliament, likewise, they use translators even though everyone speaks English (well, I assume …). What simple kills me is how European television is not happening at all beyond that evening every May. I have noticed that the Germans have managed to sell us lots and lots of second-rate TV movies but, beyond this, how come we have never heard of Måns Zelmerlöw, Polina Gagarina, Aminata or Knez if they are so famous in their own countries? Just to mention a few names… And will it matter for Latvia (or Estonia) that so many millions outside their country voted for their song and its multicultural lady singer?

Um, one last barb for Catalan nationalism: all those who complain that we waste plenty of money by sending Spanish singers to the contest, as they never win–wouldn’t you be pleased if Manel won singing in Catalan? Um, what a chance to explain Catalan independence to this Europe who cares nothing for it…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

‘VAMOS A LA PLAYA, OH, OH, OH…’: ACADEMIC LIFE (IN SOUTHERN EUROPE, ON A TRULY GLORIOUS DAY)

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

It’s an absolutely glorious day outside, with temperatures around an ideal 25º, not a cloud in sight. The beach is 5 kms. away, reachable in under 40 minutes by metro and here I am, hearing in my head the chorus of that catchy 1983 summer hit by Italo-disco Righeira, singing in Spanish: ‘Vamos a la playa, oh, oh, oh…’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTsVJ1PsnMs). Never mind that the song deals actually with the risks of going back to the beach after a nuclear explosion… (http://www.musica.com/letras.asp?letra=1490365). And that I hate going to the beach because I’m pale and I sunburn in five minutes, not to mention how the gritty sand finds a way all over your body… Ugh. It’s just this strange feeling that nothing and nobody prevents me from walking away, yet I’m staying on, tied to my desk and my computer. How much easier it is to do this with grey northern skies outside the window.

I do not intend to draw a sharp line between productive northern academics and unproductive southern academics justifying the division on the grounds of how distracting the weather is. Surely, one can always find other distractions. When I was on La Caixa’s scholarship, I recall one of my peers asking genuinely surprised how come nobody was going to check on our performance as scholars, considering we would be abroad, we were young and, well, you know?, fill in the rest. The person in charge of us replied, very politely, ‘we trust you; you know how hard it’s been to get here and you won’t start misbehaving now.’ ‘My!,’ I thought, ‘aren’t we strange people?’ Twenty years later, I have the same feeling: we, academics, are very strange. Here I am, tied to my desk, writing this post as I hope for the energy to continue the complicated article I’m working on to descend on me… instead of picking up my bag and heading to the sea… beaconing out there… It seems I’m still to be trusted.

The problem is that as I age I find my trustworthiness increasingly stupid (of me). Less vocational colleagues are surely if not down on the actual beach, possibly taking it easy in ways that my vocation spoiled for me from day one. Meanwhile, here I am, all stressed out because time runs fast and I won’t be able to do, in this strange semester with no teaching, all the writing I vowed I would do. Why all that stress, I wonder? As I brace myself to reach the ripe age of fifty next year, I am starting to wonder whether it is worth it, the whole thing of trying to accomplish something–and this nagging doubt returns with the intensity of a punch to the face on every sunny day.

I think of a colleague, truly upset that she had not passed her accreditation as full professor, telling me ‘if it’s going to be ‘no’, then at least they could let us go to the beach and relax.’ She, nonetheless, did not relax and got her accreditation at the second try–she’s still waiting for her merits to be acknowledged with real tenure not just a certificate but I’m 100% sure she’s not sunbathing. Good for her? I wonder… I’m thinking also of this other colleague who worked wonderfully hard to get the same accreditation, but then lost tenure to someone else in her own Department. Already past sixty, this admired colleague decided to retire–telling none of us, her colleagues for decades in Cultural Studies. I do wonder what went through her head and whether she finally decided that the beach made more sense. I hope she is happy now.

Of course, I’m way too young for that kind of decision. Still, just as forty certainly is a time of personal crisis, fifty seems to be the natural time for an academic crisis (in the Humanities, I’m aware that scientific research is quite different, bringing in earlier crises). Fifty is when you start measuring your colleagues in terms of how many books they’ve written and when you start thinking that the time to write your own is fast shrinking. Mind you, I am not depressed, feeling that I cannot do anything worthwhile yet. What I am considering here is that, unlike most workers whose daily schedule is marked by someone else, I determine my own and there are days when it feels like a strange masochistic exercise–why try so hard to produce something that, as a younger colleague noted with a smile, nobody will want to read, anyway? Why not relax and go to the beach instead? Is it a sense of duty? Is it pure ego?

I keep on telling myself that as long as football players and top models matter, academic work matters–but, who am I kidding? All the articles and books published this year by Spanish scholars matter far, far less than Leo Messi’s goal yesterday, the one that won Barça the League’s championship. Nobody goes on the streets to cheer for intellectual achievement, whereas thousands flooded La Rambla yesterday to celebrate Barça’s triumph. Thousands more had cheered Barça’s star player Gerard Piqué in the morning for publishing a cute photo showing his usually well-coiffured blond head all tousled. In this trivial world of ours, this matters. (Is it envy? Is it sour grapes?)

I could end up by claiming that I’m not picking up my bathing suit and towel this Monday morning out of respect for those workers who do not have the option to do so, even for the unemployed who sadly have all the time in the world to enjoy sunshine but little reason to enjoy themselves. But no, this is hypocrisy–it’s pure ego, the hope that this is finally the article that makes my reputation (if ever an article written by a Southern European academic can achieve that). The hope that next comes a book, and another, and another. It is also, a little bit or all of it, cultural clash between the northern Puritan work ethos born of melancholy grey skies and the southern temptation to take life as it comes born of cheerful blue skies.

The weather forecast for tomorrow announces rain…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

STAGE TO SCREEN: A POORLY UNDERSTOOD TRANSITION

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I will not refer in this post to the film adaptation of stage plays, though if you’re curious, you may start by checking the IMDB list I opened last February with my students in the MA ‘Theatre Studies’ (UAB). Here it is: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls076798996/. I mean, rather, the poorly understood transition from the 19th century technologies of spectacle to the beginnings of cinema, both in France and in the United States. This is a story I learned years ago in the course of studying for a tenured position I failed to secure. I ended up transforming the report I wrote then into an online document, Teatro y Teatro Inglés: Una Breve Introducción (2000), https://ddd.uab.cat/record/122989, if you care to take a look.

I had always distrusted the many introductions to English Literature which claim that there is nothing of interest in Romantic and Victorian theatre, except for the plays of Oscar Wilde. And I was right to do so, for there may have been few 19th century plays worth printing for posterity, but the history of theatre in those years is a very exciting tale about how the many technological advances and the new urban mass audiences, both created by the Industrial Revolution in England, resulted in an relentless, thrilling stage revolution.

I had told no students the complete story because, although I teach Victorian Literature, this is focused on the novel (yes, we used to teach Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest but it felt odd, out of place). This is why I was very happy to finally get a chance within my seminar on ‘Shakespeare and the Cinema’ for the MA subject ‘Stage Arts and Other Arts’ (the MA itself is called ‘Theatre Arts’, http://masters.filescat.uab.cat/muet/). Using Shakespeare as my excuse, I tried to make sense for the benefit of my students of how cinema was born as a parasitical theatrical art to become eventually a separate, fully autonomous art. Just recall that in the USA cinemas are still called ‘theatres’. At the time of preparing my seminar I did not know about the existence of Pablo Iglesias Simón’s monograph De las tablas al celuloide: Trasvases discursivos del teatro al cine primitivo y al cine clásico de Hollywood (2007, Fundamentos), based on his doctoral dissertation, a book that I have read with great enjoyment. It is an excellent account of this little known but crucial process.

I’ll begin here by recycling my own PowerPoint presentation to mention a number of facts that may be surprising for the Shakespeare aficionado:

*Up to the 1720s, there was no serious attempt to preserve Shakespeare’s ‘original’ plays (‘original’ because he never bothered to edit them and what has survived is by no means reliable)

*David Garrick, who wanted to turned his Drury Lane theatre into the literary competitor of the spectacle-oriented Covent Garden, organized the first Shakespeare Jubilee (1769). Despite this, he himself used Restoration re-writings of Shakespeare by John Dryden and Colley Cibber, as was then the common practice.

*Throughout the 19th century Shakespeare became the object of increasingly spectacular productions aimed at a general audience.

*At the beginning of the 20th century William Poel changed this trend by foregrounding the text and using a simple pseudo-Elizabethan production design (by Edward Gordon Craig, son of stage star Ellen Terry). This was the beginning of the end for the view of Shakespeare as a popular author.

*Today, yes, Shakespeare has been adapted for the screen (cinema or TV) more than 1,000 times (see his IMDB entry http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000636/), yet although he is fundamental to understand how stage and scene connect, the real roots of this connection are to be found in 19th century popular theatre.

Now for theatre itself:
* From the early 19th century onwards Drury Lane (remember Garrick?) and Covent Garden, the only two ‘legitimate’ theatres licensed by the authorities, started competing with each other, enlarging their buildings and offering increasingly more expensive productions that required bigger audiences (even above 3,000…). These were secured by turning melodrama, imported from France in 1802 with Thomas Holcroft’s version of a play by the originator Guilbert de Pixérécourt, into the main attraction.

*As the actors’ star system grows (there no director really until the early 20th century…), the upper and middle-classes abandon the theatre for the novel (excepting opera and ballet).

*This lasted until mid-century when the Haymarket Theatre, re-decorated as an exclusive middle-class playhouse, starts offering text-based plays in a naturalist style avoiding the excesses of melodrama but still derived from it (these are the plays which Wilde later parodies and that Ibsen crumbles down).

*Melodrama thrives for as long as gaslight dominates (1803-1881), yet stage illusion and special effects need to be reconsidered with the advent of the much harsher electric light: London’s Savoy Theatre is the first in the world to be illuminated by electricity in 1881 (Boston’s Bijou follows in 1882). By 1890s most theatres have abandoned gaslight (Savoy recently pioneered the introduction of integral LED lighting).

*Cinema, which appears in the 1890s, soon starts borrowing plots and actors from melodrama, also from vaudeville (and/or music hall). Most importantly, early cinema tries to reproduce the experience of being in a theatre, using the spectator’s point of view, showing actors in their natural size and using static filming.
*Mèlies in France and Edison in the USA, however, soon see that this is not the way to go, and they start generating new film effects in the first cinema studios in the world, Montreuil (1896) and Black Maria (1896), respectively.

*Cinema’s real independence from theatre comes with the work of David Griffith, who invents what we know today as edition, wisely mixing with the series of diverse shots he and others developed (famously the close-up).

I think that what best explains the transition from spectacular stage melodrama to the cinema of spectacle is Ben-Hur. This was originally a novel by General Lew Wallace (1880), very successfully adapted for the stage in 1899. This adaptation inspired in its turn the short film Ben-Hur (1907, black and white), the long feature film Ben-Hur (1925, black and white, the third highest-grossing silent film), and finally the Technicolor blockbuster we all know, Ben-Hur (1959) with Charlton Heston. My students would not believe me when I explained that the stage adaptation included the famous chariot race, until I showed them the original poster.

To sum up, then, Victorian theatre on both sides of the Atlantic ended up offering amazing pre-electricity spectacle of a kind we can hardly imagine today. Cinema appeared precisely when electricity started complicating the continuity of the old gaslight-style of stage spectacle; initially borrowing basic techniques from theatre, cinema ended up eventually developing its own spectacular technology. Sadly, we tend to believe that this is exclusive to cinema because our current theatre (with the exception of musicals) tends to be visually quite limited. David Griffith already foretold it would be so.

About vaudeville… I was immensely pleased when I found a photo of the very popular vaudeville stars The Gumm Sisters in their first film (the short The Big Review, 1929). The youngest, Judy Garland…, was just 7. Early cinema certainly knew where to find big talent…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

TRAVELLERS AND PLANNERS: TWO STYLES IN FABULATION

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I am going to sound sillier than usual in this post but I keep wondering these days why there is no research on how writers fabulate. Yes, I am aware that I am most likely misusing the word. See below.

I’m working on Black Man, an SF novel by British writer Richard K. Morgan and wondering why this thriller is so long (630 pages) and why the action is so often interrupted with long (juicy) conversations, I emailed the author. I have never ever bothered an author, except to request a formal interview in a couple of cases, as my PhD supervisor used to tell me that authors lie all the time… Well, to my surprise and delight Morgan generously answered this and many other questions (I’ll soon publish the improvised interview online at my university’s repository). One thing he clarified is that unlike what I supposed, that thrillers are written ‘backwards’ after careful planning, he had started the journey of writing the book with a clear ending in mind but with only a vague idea of the actual path he would take. Paraphrasing his words, writing Black Man was like travelling towards a hilltop glimpsed at the end of a thick jungle with little idea of how to cross it. Since, he says, he is not good at planning, he will never make the airport best-selling lists. I answered back telling him about my surprise that he is a ‘traveller’ and not a ‘planner’.

These two labels, ‘traveller’ and ‘planner’, are my own private way to distinguish between types of authors but I have never used them formally in any academic writing. There was a time, years ago, when I attended many of the presentations offered by British novelists at the British Council’s building in Barcelona (no longer offered, sadly). From their talks, I deduced that fiction writers are very keen on discussing technical matters but that nobody really asks them the right questions. The ones that do get asked refer to the habitual matters: ‘where did you get your inspiration for this or that?’, ‘were you influenced by this or that?’ Naturally. We, common readers, are always making connections and expressing curiosity about how exactly fiction is written. Yet we don’t write novels.

The problem is that, academically speaking, this curiosity is complicated to manage. I did ask Morgan whether he got the inspiration for his main character (Carl Marsalis) from an actor (Idris Elba) who seemed to connect very well with his novel; he confirmed that I had got this right and his confirmation will help me with the article I am writing, as I will be able to claim that audiovisual products do have a very direct impact on fiction writing, particularly as regards the possibility that white writers deal with black characters. Yet, this connection still explains very little about the process of what I call ‘fabulation’: what happens when, as Martin Amis recalled in a British Council presentation, the writer sits down to think about a story, spending hours looking at the computer screen and outside the window, being bored, picking his nose now and then…

Back to my topic: the many writers I heard discuss their trade alluded, mysteriously to me, to either a long process of pre-planning or to taking a journey, a favourite metaphor it seems. Michael Crichton, the best-selling author who penned Jurassic Park among many other very popular novels, used to explain that he would do research for six months, plan his forthcoming book down to the last comma and then sit down to write it. A ‘planner’, then. Stephen King is, in contrast, a ‘traveller’ of the thick-jungle-crossing kind, which also explains why all his books are overlong. My dear Charles Dickens seems to be a hybrid ‘journey planner’: I once wrote a paper on his longest novel, Bleak House, and was completely overwhelmed by the enormous effort at planning the book he had made; yet, he was at the same time quite capable of improvising new plot lines to increase the sales of his serialised works. And, as I keep on explaining, what put me off watching TV series is the fact that the writers in charge of Lost claimed to be the best of planners when they were actually travellers, and very poor ones to boot, with no real hilltop in view.

If I consider what Morgan suggests, that planners make the best-selling lists better than travellers (um, I don’t know, look at King), then this means that there is a so far little explored tension between the needs of the writer to fabulate and the needs of the text to be constrained by feasible limits. My guess is that the masterpiece is the work in which those contrary needs are best balanced. Now, for the word ‘fabulate’…

I use ‘fabulate’ in the basic sense of ‘telling invented stories’ but within Theory of Literature, or literary criticism, the word has a more specific meaning. Robert Scholes is responsible for first using ‘fabulation’ to describe the plotting of liminal novels, placed somewhere between realism and fantasy, though not quite 100% the same as magical realism (perhaps because they were Anglophone?). He did so in The Fabulators (1967), although this particular meaning of ‘fabulation’ was spread among literary scholars thanks to Fabulation and Metafiction (1979). It seems that writers were labelled ‘fabulist’ until the word ‘post-modernist’ put Scholes’ term out of fashion in the 1980s. Or not quite. Within SF, ‘fabulation’ is associated with the work of American scholar Marleen Barr, who with her volume Feminist Fabulation: Space/postmodern Fiction (1992) urged critics to correct the exclusion of women fantasists from the post-modern canon. I do not use ‘fabulate’ in this way.

I mean, rather, the psychological process which is the foundation of storytelling. For all I know, someone in Cognitive Science may be literally picking the brains of novelists to see what happens when they sit down to stare at the blank page or screen and daydream about their stories. Think of J.K. Rowling’s famous claim that Harry Potter materialized in her head during a train journey and consider the impressive effort at planning his confrontation with Voldemort into 3,500 exciting pages. A detailed reading of Rowling’s series shows, as we all know, errors and gaps, and, certainly, improvised authorial decisions but, on the whole, she knew where she was going and had a pretty good idea of the jungle paths. What she did do as she walked them down, however, is just a matter for speculation and for, mainly, fan interviews, for it seems as if we have developed in academia a manifest distrust of writers. Remember my PhD supervisor?

I was thinking, excuse my silliness, that it would be nice to have ‘making of’ documentaries about novels. We have them for movies and they offer wonderful insights into filmmaking. I have no idea whether novelists keep writing journals where they jot down observations about how, returning to Black Man, Idris Elba shaped the physical appearance of Carl Marsalis, or showing their surprise that, say, Professor Dumbledore turned out to be gay. It would be nice to read something like ‘and then I realized that Heathcliff would never get Cathy’, in the same way we get sentences like ‘and when I saw Vivien Leigh, I knew we had our Scarlett O’Hara’. Supposing the journals existed, they would only scratch the surface, of course. Yet, it would be nice to have them.

What I am discussing here also affects, naturally, other kinds of writing, including academic writing. As a teacher, I insist to my students that they MUST plan their essays in advance, yet I know from my own practice that the greatest pleasures in writing come from surprising yourself: ‘Now, where did that come from?’ Now, imagine a silly academic asking you that all the time…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

CERCAS, HERNÁNDEZ DE MIGUEL AND MAUTHAUSEN: THE LIMITED USE OF THE NOVEL (FICTION OR NON-FICTION…)

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Knowing about my recurrent interest in the Holocaust, my family gave me as Sant Jordi presents two closely related books: Javier Cercas’ non-fiction novel El impostor (2014) and Carlos Hernández de Miguel non-fiction essay Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen (2015). I have read them back-to-back, half by chance and half on purpose and the result is that I have serious doubts right now about the function of the novel in contemporary culture.

Cercas became an instant celebrity back in 2001 with the publication of Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis) and remains today one of the few Spanish novelists with a truly high literary reputation. I enjoyed his Soldados though still today I find it an over-hyped novel, a phenomenon rather than a literary masterpiece capable of withstanding the test of time. The subject of El impostor, however, intrigued me, which is why I was glad to receive the book. In case you have not heard about it, Cercas deals with the extraordinary case of Enric Marco Batlle, a compulsive liar who ended up presiding the association ‘Amical Mauthausen’ falsely claiming he was one of the 9,000 Spanish Republican prisoners locked up in a Nazi concentration camp (in Flössenburg). This affable, talkative man became the main spokesperson for the Spanish victims of the Nazis and when historian Benito Bermejo exposed him, in 2005, public opinion was sharply divided between the urge to shame him and the impulse to defend him as one of the main Spanish disseminators of knowledge about the Holocaust, quite unknown in Spain (until Schindler’s List…).

Cercas seems fascinated by Truman Capote’s dubious position when writing his masterpiece In Cold Blood (1966), the book which the American writer devoted to the two murderers of a family of farmers in Kansas. This is the volume that originated the genre we know today as ‘non-fiction’, which uses a mixture of techniques borrowed from the journalistic report and from the novel, with the difference that, unlike the latter, non-fiction is supposed to narrate the ‘truth’ (or something that approximates it).

Cercas, very cleverly, calls El impostor a ‘non-fiction novel’ so that his reader never knows whether there is any truth in it or, the opposite, whether this is fiction disguised as something else. I was first taken over by Cercas’ post-postmodern approach to his elusive subject, his constant hesitation about whether Marco’s life had any truth in it, and his insightful suggestion that Marco’s pathological lying responds to a deeper pathology in the Spanish psyche, as so many Spaniards chose to re-invent themselves as victims after the Transition. My initial admiration, though, started paling when I realised that as the volume progressed the repetitions increased without Cercas’ scratching more than Enric Marco’s surface. Above all, I was quite annoyed by the constant authorial presence in the text, that of his friends, family and even his student son, whose banal problems seemed to worry Cercas on their trip to Flössenburg more than the truths (and lies) of History. In the end, Cercas delivers a trite message about the novel as a genre: just like Marco, novelists are unreliable manipulators who will do anything it takes to pass themselves off in public for what they are not… in Cercas’ world, real writers.

Next I read Carlos Hernández de Miguel’s non-fiction essay Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen, a thick book which presents itself as a work of clear didactic intent, aimed at teaching common readers the truth about the sad fate of the Spanish Republicans after 1939, when 500,000 Spaniards faced exile in France little imagining the horrors awaiting them. Hernández de Miguel, who started his own trip into Nazism chasing leads that would explain his own uncle’s experience, chose to let the few Spanish survivors speak. He disappears from the text, fusing in his portrait of these men and women his own interviews with them, testimonials kept by their families and frequent quotations from other sources, whether these are military and Government documents or well-known volumes like, for instance, Montserrat Roig’s Els catalans als camps nazis (1977). The result is extremely vivid, compelling and at the same time absolutely devastating. I have read quite a few volumes about the camps and knew about many of the atrocities I would find in Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen. Even so the immediacy of the Spanish voices–and Hernández de Miguel’s adamant denunciation of the complicity among Franco, Hitler, Pétain and even the allies to let the Republican exiles die–made reading this volume a very intense experience. A true History lesson.

As I read Los últimos españoles… I could not stop thinking, logically, of Cercas’ novel, for what Hernández de Miguel’s narrates is the truth that Enric Marco usurped for his own false biography. Being familiar with Marco’s very public downfall through the media before reading El impostor, I already knew that his lie was grotesque. Yet, when reading the disheartening memories of the real survivors, and understanding the depth of their still unacknowledged grief ad suffering, Marco’s lie appears to be hideous and unpardonable. I am now convinced that Cercas made a very serious mistake in choosing for his novel this monster and not one of the 9,000 lives that passed through Mauthausen and similar places.

Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen produces the same intense disgust with the human species that many other books on Nazism produce, for the facts narrated touch the very marrow of evil. No wonder many survivors decided to keep silent, seeing that family and friends would not believe them. If you are familiar with Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (1947), a volume absolutely fundamental to understand Nazism and the Holocaust, but also human nature, you’ll find that Hernández de Miguel’s survivors tread the same dark territory.

Cercas, who has quite a cavalier attitude towards the recent process in favour of recovering historical memory in Spain, may be regarded as a good literary writer but I find in the end his work quite trivial in comparison to what Hernández de Miguel provides the reader with in his volume. At one point in El impostor, Cercas (I’m not sure whether the man himself or a meta-fictional version) claims that Marco could fabricate his ersatz victim personality because of the rampant historical kitsch. He doesn’t explain himself clearly but he seems to mean that kind of superficial, sentimental (or morbid) fashion for Holocaust stories that has led to perversions such as best-selling novel The Book Thief. I hope he’s not thinking of Schindler’s List for we owe Thomas Keneally and Steven Spielberg much more than they’re credited for. I have no idea what Cercas thinks of Hernández de Miguel’s book but what worries me is that is can be mistaken for historical kitsch. It is not.

I express in my title doubts about the function of the novel today and perhaps I mean the novelist. Hernández de Miguel takes a back seat but even so he makes his indignation palpable all through his book. In contrast, Cercas’ literary vanity is all he thinks about. Novelists used to be good at writing well and spreading indignation (Charles Dickens…) but it seems that now these two aims are incompatible. If you ask me, in the end I even find much better Literature in Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen than in El impostor, in the essay than in the novel, non-fiction both. I have no doubt whatsoever about which is the truly good book.

Now, visit www.deportados.es and let’s continue thinking–for here’s the irony: as I read Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen, I wished Hernández de Miguel had made a documentary mini-series which millions would watch instead of a book which only a few thousand will read. So much for the power of the written word…

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MAKING SENSE OF CATALAN MASCULINITY: A CHALLENGE…

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Last Friday 24 I taught a group of visiting American undergrads a seminar which I called ‘Making Sense of Catalan Masculinity.’ I published a post on 12 April regarding my worries about how to organize the contents; here I offer a summary. I must say that the students were great, I enjoyed very much the ensuing debate and their intelligent questions. As it often happens, when I asked the 3 young men (and 15 young women) about their view of masculinity, they were a bit taken aback. One young man told me very candidly he had not really thought about the matter. The girls had… And, yes, they agreed that Hollywood movies reflect well American men’s fears about appearing to be ‘losers,’ ‘homos’ and ‘sissies.’ Quite different here, I think.

It seems that Catalan men have not given much thought to Catalan masculinity so far. If you Google “homes catalans” and similar variations, you’ll see that nothing comes up. I did come across a list of the 50 most influential Catalan women, and the 50 most influential Catalan media personalities, but nothing specific about Catalan men or masculinities. Well, I did learn from a Canary Islands female journalist that our men are complete morons since they have more sex on the days when local football team Barça wins matches… My academic search did not go much further, either. The two main volumes published in Barcelona and in Catalan are: Calçasses, gallines i maricons: Homes contra la masculinitat hegemònica, edited by Josep-Anton Fernàndez (Angle, 2003) and Masculinitats per al segle XXI: Contribucions als congressos de masculinitat a Barcelona, 2003-2007 edited by Josep Maria Armengol (Centre d’Estudis dels Drets Individuals i Col•lectius, 2007). In Armengol’s volume there is no specific essay on Catalan masculinity; I still need to read the other book…

Catalan men… I spoke to colleagues, friends and family and, of course, I was told that it is impossible to generalize and that once I start categorizing a particular local masculinity then I should need to map them all. This is funny, as the day before the seminar I had an interesting conversation about Basque matriarchy, whether it does exist or it is a myth (and in which way, here is the paradox, it is patriarchal). Anyway, I made a gigantic list of Catalan male icons and decided finally to choose a few, or collapse under the weight of so many popular names.

I think I am on safe ground if I claim that Barça’s football team is essential to understand Catalan men, and not only in the sense highlighted by the Canary Islands journalist. Since star Leo Messi is an Argentinean (and Neymar from Brazil), I focused, rather, on Xavi Fernández, Andrés Iniesta, and Gerard Piqué, who seem to be the most obvious poster boys–and, of course, Pep Guardiola, now coaching Bayern at Munich. This is the man who, together with Jorge Valdano in Real Madrid, taught men that football is not incompatible with personal elegance and with an education. The other Catalan male icons I showed the visitors are: Ramon Pellicer and Josep Cuní (media), Artur Mas and Oriol Junqueras (politics), Joel Joan and Andrés Velencoso (acting and fashion), Albert Rivera and Jordi Évole (Catalan men with a Spanish projection). The students deduced that Catalan men are not much concerned as regards physical attractiveness, but they saw in the photos an inclination towards idealized middle-class professionalism. Um, yes, I think so. Or was it my choice of names and photos?

In the course of preparing the seminar I came across a hilarious piece on a website, “10 Tipus d’Homes Catalans” (http://benegre.cat/2014/12/03/10-tipus-dhomes-catalans/ ). This is not intended to offer an exhaustive catalogue of all men you can find in the streets of Catalonia but it is true that you recognize the types, to which I have added two. Here they are, with my approximate translation: 1. el perroflauta (the recycled hippie, with his local okupa undertones), 2. el fucker (the sexy but tasteless guy), 3. el runner (more obsessed by sports equipment than by sports), 4. el modernillu (the hipster), 5. el cholo català (the son of Latino migrants), 6. l’extraradi (the son of Spanish migrants), 7. el pijet (the brand-obsessed son of the 1980s ‘pijo’ or trendy guy), 8. El pijipi (the posh hippie, yes…), 9. El marca blanca (the non-descript guy), 10. l’emprenedor (money matters rule…). I added l’indepe (for Independence!) and the pagesot (the country boy). I had great fun choosing the illustrations for the PowerPoint… I used Manel, everyone’s favourite Catalan pop band, to explain the ‘non-descript’, possibly the most common type right now…

Here are the main traits I came up with, in my pseudo-sociological approach:

*Catalan men are not blatantly patriarchal. My personal impression is that sexism is moderate in Catalonia but, as a friend reminded me, perhaps the truth is that patriarchy is less vocal while still keeping a firm, covert hold.

*Catalan men, I believe, are family-oriented but strictly as regards their own nuclear family, and not a more extended kind of family. I put as an example of the local fusion of patriarchy and matriarchy the Pujols: the many corruption scandals they have been involved in recently do stress that Jordi Pujol, the President of the Catalan Government for more than 20 years, is actually a tool in the hands of his power-hungry wife, Marta Ferrusola.

*Catalan masculinity is defined by a contradictory discourse which mixes professional success and political victimization. This a nation of small businessmen, perhaps still best represented by shop-owners, both the classic ‘botiguer’ and the more modern versions. Yet, this commercial success clashes with the idea that national leadership is limited because of the enmity of the Spanish Government. Catalan men appeal to this supposed victimization indeed too often, failing in the process to make more effective civil and civic contributions.

*Catalan men are not particularly emotional in social and personal contact. The whole culture tends towards limited displays of positive and negative emotion (perhaps with the exception of Barça… and the demonstrations for independence) both in public and private.

A few years ago I started a paper on Joel Joan’s TV series Porca Misèria (2004-7) as I thought that his own character, Pere Brunet, and that of his brother and antagonist, Roger Brunet (played by Roger Coma), are interesting representations of Catalan masculinity. I abandoned the paper half-way through as I am, after all, a specialist in Anglophone culture and I decided that working on Catalan texts was becoming a distraction. I feel now that, after so many years studying Anglophone masculinities, it might be time to have a good look at our local guys. Perhaps I should study the current TV3 soap La Riera, or Joel Joan’s recent El crac, or the political humour of Polònia but then I think that all this is for my Catalan Studies peers to research. The additional problem is that local Catalan Cultural Studies hardly exist as such, and sociology can provide us only with limited cultural insight.

I’ll be happy, and I really mean it, to receive proof of the opposite, so if you happen to know about any study of Catalan masculinity (or masculinities), I would very much like to read it. For next year’s seminar.

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AFTER SANT JORDI: ROSES OUTNUMBER BOOKS

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

For those reading me outside Catalonia, I need to explain that 23rd April, Saint Jordi’s festivity, is a gigantic civic holiday all over the nation. According to the segment devoted to this celebration on the website of Barcelona’s Town Council, Saint Jordi fuses together the old legend of the dragon-slaying hero (possibly descended from Perseus and his sea monster) and the martyrdom of a knight (doubtful…) under Emperor Diocletian (284 to 305 AD). Both legend and saint are commemorated around the time when roses bloom, and it seems that already in the 15th century Barcelona boasted of a rose fair celebrated at the Catalan Government’s palace. It seems that the tradition by which men (must) give their sweethearts a rose dates back from that time…

The idea of celebrating books on the same date is much more recent. In 1927 Valencian writer Vicent Clavel i Andrés, also a publisher, proposed to the ‘Cambra Oficial del Llibre’ of Barcelona and to the ‘Gremi d’Editors i Llibreters’ that a holiday was established for the promotion of books in Catalonia. The original date chosen, 29 October, was changed in 1929, when the booksellers mounted the first street book market on 23rd April. This also happens to be the date when both Cervantes and Shakespeare died, in 1616, which came in handy for UNESCO to declare in 1995 23rd April ‘World Book Day’. Not that you hear much about this internationally.

This year’s Saint Jordi has been hailed as one of the most successful ones in recent memory, meaning during the current economic crisis. At least 250 writers (possibly 50 more) signed books; major figures like Ken Follett kept fans queuing for more than 2 hours, many of them failing even so to get his autograph… La Rambla was so packed, that Major Trias suggested moving the main bookstall area, once and for all, elsewhere for fear of accidents… The best-selling writers were María Dueñas (in Spanish) and Xavier Bosch (in Catalan). A group of medicine students and a group of Roma street sellers almost came to blows towards the end of the day when the students’ decision to lower the prices of the roses they were selling to make some extra money threatened to destroy business…

Now, of all the hullaballoo what caught my attention this time is that 7,000,000 roses were sold (yes, that’s right, as many as Catalonia’s inhabitants) but only 1,500,000 books. Roses, (over-)priced 2 to 7 euros, are obviously cheaper than books, 15-20 euros on average (minus the customary 5% discount). Also, they’re bought on Saint Jordi’s day itself, which is not the case with books (I, for instance, purchased the 6 books I gave as presents 2 weeks before, which means that the total number of books sold around Saint Jordi must be bigger, as not everyone loves the massive street crowds of the holiday). Even so, the picture that emerges is that although Catalan men are romantic enough, Catalans altogether are not that keen on reading… Let’s say that only around 20% got books.

The main local newspaper, La Vanguardia, published on Saint Jordi’s a summary of the general survey by CIS (Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas), published in December 2014. CIS data refer to all Spaniards, but this will do for my purposes. 35% of Spanish people never read: 37,9% of all men, 32,1% of all women. They just don’t like reading (42%), lack time (23%) or prefer other type of entertainment (15%). As I always say, if you like something, you always find time… I prefer the two other, far more honest answers. Among those who do read, 65% of the Spanish population then, many claim to read every day (men 24’40%; women 34’90%), which I very much doubt. If seems Spaniards do not only lie about how often we practice sex… It seems more realistic to claim, as around 16% do, that they read twice a weak (does this also apply to sex??). By the way, the average books-per-year figure for Spanish readers is 8’69… less than one a month… They must be very slow readers…

A common complaint on Saint Jordi’s day is that books may be celebrated but not really culture as many best-selling authors on that day are media celebrities or, at best, middle-brow authors. You can check for yourself at http://www.lavanguardia.com/libros/sant-jordi/20150422/54430780161/firmas-autores-sant-jordi-2015.html. Mariló Montero was there, but also Carme Riera… Anyway, back to CIS: which genres do Spaniards enjoy reading? I’m not sure whether it is surprising that they prefer historical fiction (23’6%), followed by general fiction (17,9%), adventure (7’6%), detective fiction (7’4%). There is a joke somewhere in the fact that 6’1% read romance fiction and 4’4% science fiction, as both figures are very low (3’7% fantasy??? Who did CIS ask, I wonder…). Below 4% you find other genres like biography, essays, short fiction, self-help, poetry, cooking books, travel, drama, comics. I find it very, very hard to believe, all the same, that self-help (1,9%) and poetry (1,7%) have a very similar share of the market… or that only 0’6% read comics and graphic novels. Really, CIS? Have you ever visited FNAC? I got curiouser and curiouser and checked CIS’s website to find out that Spaniards read mainly for entertainment (61’6%) and not really to improve our culture (10’4%) or be better informed (12’8%). We choose books by subject matter or genre (64’5%), and not by author (16’6%)–poor things! Blurbs matter more than covers, by the way.

The other matter that got me curious is what Spaniards do instead of reading. CIS asked how much free time they have on a working day and the answer baffles me, for only 5’8% claim to have no time at all… whereas 44’1% grant they have between 2 to 4 hours of leisure every day. 27’7% of all Spaniards say they have from 8 to 5 spare hours a day. I don’t get it… This, however, makes sense if we consider that daily viewing time of TV in Spain (for 2014) amounts to 238 minutes per person, that is, 4 hours. The historical record was 246 minutes, reached in 2012. Figures are possibly much higher for Spaniards aged 65-75 who do not use the internet (25% claim they do) than for young people aged 16-24 who do surf the net (98,4%). These claim that they have mainly quit watching TV (62%) rather than reading books (27%).Yet, as everyone knows, internet consumption among the young is closely tied to watching TV series online or using downloads. I won’t say a word about the 25% of unemployed general population in Spain or the 50% of unemployed young people under 25. Well, just one question: how do they fill in the hours spent in despair, hoping a job finally materializes?

Five roses for every book sold, this is who we are, the lucky ones with money to spare and limited time in our hands.

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RESPONDING TO ‘THE ACADEMIC MANIFESTO’ (BY HALFFMAN AND RADDER): SHOCK AND AWE

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

My colleague David Owen has circulated among us, Literature teachers, a juicy article by Dutch professors Willem Halffman and Hans Radder, “The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University” (Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning and Policy, 3 April 2015, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11024-015-9270-9/fulltext.html). This is a very bitter indictment of the intrusion of what they call ‘management’ and I call ‘bureaucracy’ into the university, clearly far more advanced in the Netherlands as regards the occupation of our professional world by private corporate interests than in Spain. They call for the counter-occupation of the university and its transformation into a real ‘public university,’ by which they don’t simply mean ‘state-sponsored’ but working to benefit the citizens. I’ll refer here extensively, then, to the article and try to answer back in some way, from a different yet similar (Spanish) university context.

Halffman and Radder offer a very through dissection of the negative effects that the “regime obsessed with ‘accountability’ through measurement, increased competition, efficiency, ‘excellence’, and misconceived economic salvation” has forced into what should be an institution geared at the production and dissemination of knowledge for the common good. The saddest part of this catastrophe is that, as they show, we all contributed to letting the Wolf in about 25 years ago when the younger generation decided to do away with the sluggish ivory-tower university and show to society what we are capable of. Since, basically, society still thinks we live in that old-fashioned ivory-tower, we have allowed their delegates, the bureaucrats (who hate us for the supposed ‘privileged’ nature of our jobs) to control our production and, frankly, to limit our capacity for thinking. How? Well, by turning us, as Halffman and Radder explain, into sheep who meekly obey all the absurd regulations imposed on us for the sake of hanging by the skin of our teeth onto the possibility, more and more remote, of producing knowledge, as it is our vocation.

From their comments, I understand that the Dutch university is far more privatised than the Spanish university, as we still run, basically, ourselves our own institutions, despite the growing control by external forces, like the ‘Social Councils’ (not to mention the companies funding research). Anyway, here are six “excesses” they identify, quite familiar too (mostly) here in Spain, followed by my comments paraphrasing their words:

1. “Measurability for accountability”: we need to produce, produce, produce to keep up with changing indicators that only result in an “illusion of excellence”; so much over-production leaves with no time to actually read and think.
2. “Permanent competition (for ‘quality’)”: this is a mechanism devised to keep everyone on their toes, for it is easy to see that knowledge is generated by collaboration and networking.
3. “The promise of greater ‘efficiency’”: Competition increases (rather than decrease) the cost of running the universities as we waste time and resources vying with each other for students and funding.
4. “The adoration of excellence: Everybody at the top!”: rather than help many to do research, top researchers get more and more resources, leaving nothing for the rest (nor for discredited, cheaply-funded science)
5. “Contentless process management”: the bureaucratization of the university means much more work for teachers/researchers, who become admin servants
6. “The promise of economic salvation”: the universities lose their autonomy in research by following the orders of the private companies that fund projects; non-profit-oriented fields, from philosophy to mathematics, are dismissed as a financial burden.

We, Halffman and Radder write, have internalised the Wolf and feed it by, I’ll add, living to fill in our C.V.s rather than to transmit knowledge. Yet, since we lost long ago the support of society, to a great extent because of the many indolent ivory tower inhabitants, there’s very little we can do to explain our plea and gain sympathy. Nobody cares. How, then, do we change matters? The authors of the “Academic Manifesto” suggest up to 20 measures, actually 21 as they also support Pels’ (2003) call to replace “the publication rat-race with more meaningful, slower-paced and more considerate research.” Publish, in short, only when you have something to say and after carefully thought out research. Anyway, the 20 measures are (quotation marks for verbatim citation, otherwise my paraphrasis):

1. An administration style open to academic staff, students and supporting staff (we do have that at UAB, yet the impression is that most decisions are made by higher instances…)
2. The administration supports the staff, and not the other way round (we justify the work done by the bureaucrats); also, point 9. the university administration must be accountable to the academic community and not vice versa
3. “Limiting wasteful control systems” (self-explanatory–consider all the resources wasted on checking what we do, and how they punish those who work harder)
4. “A ban on mergers”: currently happening in Spain at Department and ‘Facultat’ levels, though not yet at a university level; we have the opposite problem–too many universities.
5. A less intensive focus on our own institution, a more open vision encompassing all local universities; this is complemented with 6. “No wasteful competition between universities”
7. “A ban on university marketing” to attract students, followed by 8. using the university media to transfer knowledge to society, not for our own marketing
10. “No real estate speculation”, think of the universities in Barcelona occupying areas in central locations and gentrifying them…
11. No top researchers allowed not to teach (fine by me, but also limit teaching so that whoever wants to do research can do it); accompanied by 15. Rejecting ‘productivity’ as the main “research assessment criterion” and, this is a good one, 16. “Introducing the Sabbatical Year” so that once every 7 years we can stop, read and think.
12. “Free education” but also 13. a limitation of student population so as not strain public resources and 14. promoting “vocational training” as a professionally attractive alternative to the university.
17. Freeing research from its bondage to content-oriented interests, both in production and assessment (18), which also translates as giving researchers time to follow long-term lines and not only projects with immediately applicable results.
19. Make society both a partner and the target of our activities, by 20. establishing an open access system to distribute knowledge.

Now, here’s the problem–what do you do if the managers/bureaucrats and society do not care for any of the above? Halffman and Radder call for “resistance” and “shaking off our fear”, yet what they offer sounds often like desperate measures: 1. leaving the university, 2. legal action, 3. “Muddling through” and even “work-to-rule,” 4. sabotage, 5. collective refusal, 6. trade unions, 7. mass demonstration, 8. establish contra-indictors as counter-measures (and disseminate knowledge about our real working conditions), 9. striking, 10. occupying the university, 11. parliamentary and political action. Working, as I do, in a ‘Facultat’ (or school) were 9 and 10 are recurrent but totally useless events, I can only proclaim my scepticism. Also, in view of the fact that more than 50% of our staff are temporary workers and those of us who are tenured are gripped by our… throats by a system that has frozen our salaries and only offers tiny inducements by passing assessment exercises (or the very unlikely chance of promotion to full professor). Actually, it occurs to me that the full professors, the ‘catedráticos’, are the only ones in a position to lead the resistance that the “Academic Manifesto” calls for. So, if any of them is reading me…

In the meantime, here’s reality: one of my most brilliant students announced to me today his intention of moving to Denmark, where the Government funds post-grad students, including the foreign ones with a nice student’s record. When I showed my sadness that his leaving would only contribute to enhancing the current Spanish brain drain, he could only answer to me that he sees no future in Spain. So–why don’t we ask the Danes?

Resistance may not be totally futile but when have the sheep ever banded to eat the Wolf? I think of Naomi Wolf’s (oops!) description of the ‘shock and awe’ doctrine to keep whole populations subjected to the current appalling political and economic regime, and I think this is it–we’re too shocked by and in awe of the Wolf.

Anyway, thanks Willem Halffman and Hans Radder for the effort and, above all, the call to amass and use courage.

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A PECULIAR CHALLENGE: MAKING SENSE OF LOCAL MASCULINITY…

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I was approached a while ago by a Danish colleague who explained to me that she would bring to Barcelona a group of undergrad American students, as part of their Study Abroad programme. She asked me for help regarding gender issues in Spain, as her students will be dealing with these during their stay in Barcelona (she contacted me as a member of the research group in Masculinities Studies I belong to).

To my horror and consternation, though, the Danish website describing my city and the tour intended for these students was full of appalling clichés, running from Hemingway (in Barcelona??) to bull fighting (forbidden by Catalan law…), the whole stereotypical rigmarole. Quite indignant, I volunteered to lecture the students on condition that the offensive text be replaced. I’m meeting them next week–and I’m using the post today to start drafting my presentation… (the clichés are still online… I wonder whether their rephrasing depends on what I’ll say).

I need to teach these young American students in which precise way Spanish masculinity differs from old-style ‘machismo,’ whether Catalan masculinity is different in any way from that of other areas of Spain, the role that men play in current debates on gender equality all over Spain and, finally, whether our reputation for being a women-friendly state (remember Zapatero’s Government?) is still extant. A tall order indeed… It is very difficult, believe me, to know where to begin. I have asked the American students to come to my lecture having previously made a list of features defining American masculinity. A challenge, I know!, for both of us.

I’ll start with possibly the easiest part: clearly, Zapatero’s Government was more favourable to women than the current Rajoy Government. It’s not just a matter of how many women Ministers Zapatero appointed (50%, which prompted male chauvinist Berlusconi to joke this was a ‘pink’ Government), but of a general attitude towards women’s rights. Just this week, several prominent members of Partido Popular, some in the Government, including the current Health Minister, have insisted that abortion is not a right and have announced that they intend to remove any references to that word in the new legislation on this issue, so crucial to women.

Soraya Sáez de Santamaría and María Teresa Fernández de la Vega may have both occupied the position of Vice-Prime Minister, but I cannot imagine two more different women. This does not mean that we need to get suddenly nostalgic of Zapatero’s Government as not that much was done for women, and much more could have been done for gender equality in general. Some of the steps taken, for instance the legislation to diminish the burden of caring for dependants in the home by women, were not solid enough and have been swept under the carpet with the excuse of the 2008 crisis. We all certainly have much to do in that sense.

I do not know how to translate Miguel Lorente’s wonderful slogan to encourage men to fight patriarchal violence: “No basta con arrimar el hombro, hay que arrimar a los hombres.” Lorente, a forensics specialist familiar with the bodily harm endured by women in the hands of patriarchal abusers, is the author of Mi marido me pega lo normal (2001). He has also been the Government’s Delegate (2008-11) in charge of running the anti-violence programmes devised by the Socialist Ministry for Equality. The title of his volume defines, I believe, the enormous change in the matter of couple-related violence seen in recent decades in Spain. This kind of violence, as the shocking title expresses, was assumed to be a normal part of marriage, both by men and women. The fact that it is no longer so is what, paradoxically, gives us the impression that there is more violence, when, actually, this is decreasing. Its relatively new visibility is, I believe, a sign of the diminishing tolerance. Again, this does not mean that all men are doing their bit explicitly against anti-patriarchal violence. And, yes, yes, we need to deal with the matter of men’s victimization by their female and male partners, even if this is only 10% of the total couple-related abuse.

I think that in order to understand how deeply Spanish masculinity has changed one only needs to see the grandfathers pushing baby prams in the parks or picking up young children from school (they’re not as many as the grandmothers, I know, but they are many, nonetheless). My own father, who is not quite that kind of grandfather, tried to justify men’s avoidance of children both in private and public when he was himself a young father (mid-1960s to late 1970s) on the grounds that “we were not allowed” to behave as fathers do today. I was puzzled by how his words suggest the existence of a repressive external authority, when actually it was, rather, a matter of personal choice (he could have for instance picked up my younger brother, born in the mid-1970s, from school without facing patronising looks but he chose never to bother). Spanish men, who took a gigantic step towards their own patriarchal liberation when they fought together to end compulsory military service (1996), have often discovered in their personal lives that it is in their own hands to change things. For their own benefit but also for women’s.

I am thinking of accompanying my talk with iconic Spanish male figures, both in fiction and the media, yet it is complicated who to choose. Is there a man who represents Spanish masculinity best today? What does Pablo Iglesias’ famous ponytail say about men in Spain today? Is our most successful actor, Antonio Banderas, the ideal Spanish man? I wonder… As for Catalunya, I need to explain that the process for independence is now stalled by the squabbling for prominence between alpha males Oriol Junqueras (a man who does not care what he looks like) and Artur Mas (a man of carefully styled looks). Their confrontation says much about our local masculinity, torn between the need to play victim of the patriarchal Spanish other and, thus, unable to build a serious Catalan leadership. In Polònia, the political satirical show that always gets it right, Catalan men are represented by a new hero, Super Seny (Super Sensible), characterized by his inability to make any decision as he is always torn between the possible consequences… And I keep thinking of Joel Joan, who in his delicious TV series El crac (2015) chose to poke fun at his own iconic value as the poster boy for Catalan independentism by presenting the character also named ‘Joel Joan’ as the worst bundle of lies and cowardice you can imagine… I think the word I am looking for is self-deprecating.

Of course, if I tell my American visitors and Danish colleague that, as a recent survey suggests, bull-fighter Francisco Rivera is the most desired man in Spain (it’s hard to imagine a similar category in Catalonia right now), then I’m lost… as this will only reinforce the clichés I’m trying to fight. Happy were the 1980s when Miguel Bosé, then young and handsome, was the most desired man in Spain–and because of his ambiguity and not despite it. The fact that his own coming out of the closet and his, relatively recent, paternity of four children have not diminished his acceptance as an artist is perhaps a clear sign of how far Spain has progressed. I wonder, though, on what common grounds a man like him and, say, former President José María Aznar, could meet… and what this says about men in Spain today.

I’ll keep on thinking…

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BETWEEN LIFE AND FICTION: MALE SUICIDE

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

British cinemas are warning sensitive spectators about the first ‘conte cruel’ in Damián Szifrón’s highly acclaimed film Relatos Salvajes (2014). The story certainly has eerie coincidences with Andreas Lubitz’s tragic murder-suicide of last week. Yet, Szifrón’s very Argentinean take on the matter of a pilot’s terminal depression is humorous rather than tragic. The tale is dominated by improbability (the pilot’s method to select his passage) and by Szifrón’s mockery of the psychiatrist’s efforts to stop the pilot. As he bangs on a door also firmly blocked against intruders, he manages to increase rather than decrease the pilot’s destructive determination. The final oedipal image is an indictment both against family life and against the failure of psychology and psychiatry to contain a man’s pain. As it happened in Lubitz’s case, with nothing at all to laugh about.

I am writing these days an article about a novel dealing with the real-life suicide of a man, British director James Whale. The novel is Father of Frankenstein (1995) by Christopher Bram, adapted for the screen by Richard Condon as Gods and Monsters (1998). I argued in the abstract submitted that this ageing man’s decision to kill himself is an act of masculine empowerment: Whale, 68, suffered a series on minor strokes which were diagnosed as the onset of an immediate psychological and physical decay. Rather than face this, Whale decided to drown himself in the pool of his wealthy California home (he could not swim, the pool was built for a young lover). The whole novel is addressed to proving that gay men like Whale are also manly; this is why Bram fancies that Whale befriends in the last two weeks of his life a prejudiced, homophobic young man, Clayton, who little by little realises the ‘old fruit’ is a man in full. I was asked on what grounds I claimed that Whale’s suicide was a specifically masculine act of empowerment and not an act any human being could commit; also, how his being gay connected with my claims. The Alps tragedy happened in the middle of my considering all this for the article.

Statistics indicate that, roughly speaking, in most countries more men than women commit suicide: of all suicides 70% to 80% correspond to men (the only exception? Afghanistan, where women lead this sad rating). Some specialists claim that the same number of men as of women consider committing suicide; among those who do try killing themselves, however, women are far less effective than men. There are no clear reasons for this, though I’ll speculate that women are worse at using violence, even against themselves. Also, that men connect suicide with courage and possibly feel ashamed at the possibility of appearing to have acted in a cowardly way if they fail to do themselves in.

In support of my argument, I’ll cite Iain Bank’s last novel, The Quarry (2013). Banks was writing the story of cantankerous Guy, a man terminally ill with cancer, when he was himself diagnosed with the same disease. One early morning Guy suddenly disappears; his son Kit and friend Hol find him on a bridge above the motorway: “(…)‘I still couldn’t jump, in the end (…) More of a coward than I thought. (…) Thought I could at least control something, take fucking charge of something, impose my own fucking schedule on what was happening to me, rather than just being… prey to it’” (368). Banks himself did not commit suicide, nor did Terry Pratchett, who passed recently. Pratchett’s family had to twit that he had died of natural causes, given the very vocal attitude he had kept in favour of assisted voluntary suicide; Pratchett had even collaborated in the documentary Choosing to Die (2012), which shows the suicide of Peter Smedley, a 71-year-old man suffering from motor neurone disease (aided by Swiss pro-choice Dignitas).

Men, most research suggests, tend to commit suicide because they bottle up their feelings are unable to ask for help when depressed. The case of the German pilot, who did ask for help and was technically on medical leave, possibly even under medication prescribed by his psychiatrist, shows that this claim needs to be disputed. I agree that men tend to keep their feelings to themselves more than women do, and that acknowledging that they feel depressed may in many cases be incompatible with their own sense of self-confident masculinity. In Bram’s novel, and in real life, James Whale did not tell anyone about why he wanted to die; Father of Frankenstein actually shows the very narrow limits of the friendship he establishes with this other man, Clayton, whom he sees just as a tool. Whale fancies that this man is his Frankenstein’s monster returned; his violence will kill him and there will be no need for Whale to commit suicide. This is not, though, what happens. Yet, just suppose that Whale had asked for help: he would have been told that degenerative illness must be endured and told to bear it with anti-depressants.

Carmen Tejedor, a Spanish psychiatrist who implemented a very successful anti-suicide programme at Barcelona’s Hospital Clinic, claims that there is not such thing as a ‘rational suicide,’ as Whale’s appears to have been, since “95% of all suicidal individuals present clear symptoms of being mentally disturbed.” The other 5%, those diagnosed with a terminal bodily illness as Whale was, are “balance suicides;” these appear to be rational but the individuals involved actually suffer from “more or less covert depression” (http://lescontres.blogspot.com/2009/06/carmen-tejedor-psiquiatra-dirige-el.html). This, of course, is totally at odds with the philosophy behind SOARS, the British Society for Old Age Rational Suicide established, by Michael Irwin in 2009, with the intention that rational suicide might become one day a human right.

I realise that I chose to write about Father of Frankenstein because I am totally in favour of assisted voluntary suicide, that is to say, of the individual’s right to choose how to die. I also think we need to carefully distinguish depression induced by a biochemical imbalance, which is an illness, from sadness and unhappiness caused by events in one’s life, which is a condition. Take Lubitz again: if he suffered from the first kind of depression, he should not have been allowed to fly a plane ever; if, however, he was suffering from a physical complaint that would make him lose his flying licence, and thus his dream job as a pilot, then he needed help to understand that he could still lead a fulfilling life rather than anti-depressants. As for Whale and anyone else like him, male or female, the only dignified solution is helping them to commit suicide in better circumstances than doing yourself violent bodily harm.

And men, listen: feeling sad and unhappy is part of being human. Do ask for help, do help each other, share feelings, share problems, share stories… If male suicide, as the British say, is the ‘silent plague’ killing too many of you, then speak out about what is troubling you. There is dignity in doing this, even in dying if that’s your choice. There is no dignity at all in victimizing yourself pointlessly and, indeed, in victimizing others even more pointlessly.

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BODIES: BROKEN, MISSING…

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

It is hard to come up this week with an idea which does not connect one way or another with the crash of GermanWings flight 4U9525, apparently caused by co-pilot Andreas Lubitz. It all points to a textbook situation: a frustrated individual who cannot achieve a goal in life (becoming a Lufthansa captain, it seems) commits suicide claiming in the process the lives of other persons, who simply had the bad luck of standing in the way of an unstoppable death wish.

I do not intend to analyze this person and his motivations: I’ll simply note that, for me, the most baffling aspect is how and why his suicidal cravings overcame the necessary empathy which a person responsible for the lives of 149 human beings, many of them children, is supposed to feel in similar circumstances. I am familiar with the processes of dehumanization to which the victims of monstrous abusers are subjected, from pimps exploiting prostitutes to the Nazi personnel running the death camps. What is particularly bewildering in the case is the lack of utter motivation or benefit. In comparison, the 9/11 murderers seem much easier to explain as deeply damaged human beings.

The bodies. For quite a number of years I have been a member of the research group ‘Body and Textuality,’ and I’ll try to process my think here using the Cultural Studies tools I learned with them. I wrote for one of our collective volumes a very grim article, explaining how the techno-warfare unleashed on the frail human body during WWI, when so many disappeared, was a sort of general dress rehearsal for the Nazi final solution. This applied to the systematic extermination of the Jewish all kinds of technology designed to make bodies disappear, so successfully that many denied the Holocaust ever happened. Then the Americans dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese that reduced many of the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to mere shadows on the wall. Between 1914 and 1945, in short, we learned the sad craft of viciously breaking bodies and disappearing persons as it had never happened before in human History.

I had to think about these matters recently as a) I have written an article criticizing J.K. Rowling for cruelly disappearing Sirius Black, most readers’ favourite character and, b) because I visited last Saturday Federico García Lorca’s museum in Fuente Vaqueros (Granada). I have actually come to the conclusion that the many dead of the Spanish Civil War whose bodies are still missing have probably taken a subconscious hold on all of us in Spain, which is, most likely, why I could not stomach Sirius’ death (he is also, let’s recall, a political prisoner wrongfully condemned to a life sentence at Azkaban for crimes he did not commit). The friends who took me to see Lorca’s house explained to me that his family’s tepid attitude towards the efforts made to find his body (he was executed for no reason at all, except that he was gay and a progressive man, by Franco supporters) can only be explained by his having been buried elsewhere, in a secret location only his closest relatives know. This would make sense, but, still, the appalling fact that he and many others are missing after so many years makes my heart flinch. In Alfredo Sanzol’s marvellous play, En la Luna (2011), a couple searching for another missing victim despair of ever giving him a proper burial. It’s the early 1990s and the optimistic man tells the depressed woman that there is no way the Olympic Games will be celebrated in Barcelona with all the dead still buried anonymously in dirty ditches by village roads. My hair stood on end… for this is where so many still are.

Reading about WWI, the Nazi death camps, Sirius Black, García Lorca… you learn that you can only properly overcome the terrible process of mourning if you celebrate funeral rites. 9/11 is fresh in our memories as a tragic event whose grief can never be truly conquered since many of the bodies simply vanished swallowed by the extreme violence of the events. Jonathan Safran Foer wrote a poignant novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), narrating how nine-year-old Oskar tries to make sense of his father’s disappearance on that day. The 9/11 missing crop up again and again in fiction, ghostly presences signalling our perplexity before the onslaught of ferocious death.

Sinister planes connect those 3,000 deaths with the 150 this week (and with the other plane, lost in the Indian Ocean one year ago, possibly in the same circumstances). We learned with 9/11 that the images of the broken bodies should not be shown, as a sign of respect for the dead. Tabloids used to show them; I still shudder at what I saw on the pages of Interview after Los Rodeos’ crash, as a too curious 10-year-old. We also learned with 9/11 that DNA positive identification is crucial to allow relatives and friends to close their process of mourning if only on the basis of minimal human remains. This very intense week, we have seen again and again on TV the families travelling to the Alps village close to the site of the tragedy, mourning around a memorial stone their dead ones–as we all hope in Spain that DNA processing will not result in the disaster that it was in the case of the military personnel lost in the accident of the fated Yak 42 flight in 2003. All this coming in the week after the local Madrid authorities gleefully announced that the mortal remains of writer Miguel de Cervantes had been disturbed from their place of eternal rest and will soon be the object of morbid curiosity for any fee-paying tourist.

Ironically, trying not to think of the broken bodies and the broken families, and of the bad luck that trapped the poor people destroyed by a frustrated person’s moment of fury, I decided to watch the most trivial of movies: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last action flick, Sabotage. Now, this is a man whose whole acting career (yes, I know this is an oxymoron) has been based on the display of his muscular body, still in possession of spectacular biceps at 67. Action films thrive, precisely, on celebration of what Yvonne Tasker once called ‘musculinity’ and I just wanted some pop-corn movie in that style. No such luck… Sabotage was, rather, a celebration of the broken body; each of Arnie’s badass team died in terrifying ways, closer to the kind of body horror I have learned to avoid than to your typical action film. The first man to be dispatched is mowed down in his Winnebago by a freight train. When Arnie gets to the site, a local police officer asks him to stick little flags to the dead man’s scattered remains… shown in all gruesome detail.

I think we, human beings, are a mad civilization. We take pains to avoid certain images from reaching us on the screen, on any screen. And, then, as you can see, we generate fake images of what we do not want to see, for enjoyment. All the many series about forensic specialists, the pleasure in zombies, all the graphic, gory detail of the fictional representation of the broken body is telling something quite ugly about who we are. This spectre first reared its head, as I say, during WWI, when the impossibility of bringing home whole bodies led to the gigantic cemeteries in France and all the war memorials. Since then, we have been growing something rotten in our souls, a psychopathic yearning to break human bodies in the worst possible ways–precisely the sick craving that filled the lost soul who destroyed so many human lives a few days ago. May they all rest in peace. May we all learn to prevent horrors like this one.

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ALTMETRICS AND THE MAJOR OF JUN: QUESTIONING (MY) EXISTENCE…

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

There are days when I think that I live in a kind of time warp, causing me to catch up with crucial matters for research with unavoidable delay. Thus, I have only learned about ‘altmetrics’ last week, via an email I received from their organization, when this seems to have materialized five years ago. What is ‘altmetrics’? Citing from their own web, http://altmetrics.org/about/, ‘altmetrics’ is “the creation and study of new metrics based on the Social Web for analyzing, and informing scholarship.” Oh dear…

If you read the “Altmetrics Manifesto” (http://altmetrics.org/manifesto/) of 2010, you’ll learn that the ‘alt’ in ‘altmetrics’ stands for ‘alternative.’ The manifesto explains that, as we all know in academia, peer reviewing, citation counting measures and instruments like JCR (Journal Citations Report), are failing to fulfil their purpose of helping to transmit sound knowledge and measuring its impact accurately. Peer reviewing is excruciatingly slow (it seems that also in science) and citations impact is open to manipulation.

Dr. Roger A. Brumback narrates in his article “Impact Factor Wars: Episode V–The Empire Strikes Back” (Journal of Child Neurology, 2009, http://jcn.sagepub.com/content/24/3/260.long) an interesting case. Two “clever scientists,” Harm K. Schutte and Jan G. Svec, members of the International Association of Logopedics and Phoniatrics (IALP) published an editorial in Folia Phoniatrica et Logopaedica (2007) citing “all 66 articles published in that journal” in the two previous years. Self-citation, Brumback explains, more than doubled the journal’s impact factor and helped the journal climb “9 places in the subject category of ‘Rehabilitation’ (which only contains27 journals).” I love it, by the way, that Brumback validates the impact of popular fictions (and its research) by basing his argumentation on Star Wars. Thomson Reuters plays the part of Darth Vader, we are all rebels against the Empire. I always knew Princess Leia is my girl!

The matters of altmetrics also includes what they call peer-review crowd sourcing: “Instead of waiting months for two opinions, an article’s impact might be assessed by thousands of conversations and bookmarks in a week.” There was indeed something called CrowdoMeter for a while (http://blogs.plos.org/mfenner/2011/12/20/crowdometer-or-trying-to-understand-tweets-about-journal-papers/) based on the idea that measuring tweets about journal papers gives a reliable indication of their impact. I have serious doubts that Twitter is the place to react to academic papers and there is, besides, always the risk that, as the manifesto acknowledges, altmetrics might reflect “just empty buzz.”

I understand, then, that so far this is a closed avenue and that the strategies to measure impact are still going in the current official direction. As an example, see the announcement I have just received today for the “Quartes Jornades sobre Gestió de la Informació Científica (JGIC-2015)” (http://blogs.iec.cat/observatori/jgic/jgic-2015/). The programme includes plenty on bibliometrics and institutional information systems but nothing directly on social networks, which is, well, odd, CrowdoMeter or not.

As a researcher, as I have been complaining here, I feel overwhelmed by the need to prove not so much my impact but my very existence. Although I have published plenty, not all databases acknowledge that I am alive and working as nobody, except myself, is providing information about what I do. And the task is never-ending. Recently, my university informed me, to my horror and consternation, that I don’t belong to any research group–I had not entered the corresponding information in our user-unfriendly computer application. Deep sigh because, as happens, I do spend much time keeping that updated. Also, as I have been narrating here, I’m using Academia.edu, my web, this blog and a Twitter account to publicise my work. I think it is working, more or less, but I feel daunted by the task of being my own community manager, as I don’t have the training. There are days, then, when I seriously doubt I can carry on the task of proving that I exist. The task of proving that I matter, if I do at all, is just too much…

This weekend I have met someone who has indeed no doubts that he exists and that what he does matters: José Antonio Rodríguez Salas, the Mayor of Jun. This is a town of about 3,500 souls next to the city of Granada, which is now famous for its Mayor’s indefatigable work in pursuit of visibility in the social networks. The Mayor’s project is to turn Jun into not just a smart town but one of the smartest on Earth, by making it as forward-thinking as possible in terms of current trends in communications and networking. His very popular Twitter account (@JoseantonioJun) has indeed placed Jun on the world map and you can even see a little blue bird on the façade of the Town Hall. When he announced that Jun would welcome any gay and lesbian couples wishing to marry, this caused an Australian minister to stage his wedding there… Just yesterday, he broadcast live on Twitter the counting of the votes for the Andalusian elections in Jun, a pioneering initiative for the sake of transparent democracy. So here is someone who fully understands social media (and a politician who knows what he’s doing). I just don’t have his energy…

The impact of computers in our lives is so immense that even though I spent my first years as a university teacher with no internet I cannot remember how on Earth I managed to work then. Internet must have been introduced in my university in 1995-6, for while in Scotland in 1994-5 I didn’t have an email account. I had been using pre-internet BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) for forums and chats pre-online since 1993, but the internet came later. The funny thing is that although I acknowledge the need to adapt to the new times and I try to catch up as best as I can, at heart altmetrics irritates me as much as bibliometrics and the attached citation systems. One thing is counting the downloads of my papers on Academia.edu or the digital repository of my university for my own reference; quite another matter reducing me to these figures, to the number of my followers on Twitter and to that of my blog readers. I never check that myself, as I don’t want to know. I don’t want to be, as I say, reducible to a set of figures and much less for what I do precisely to open up academic work to general readers beyond the official ways of measuring me up. Just let me be…

So my conclusion is a very existential one: I exist a little, and I matter (hopefully) a little. And I don’t want anyone to give the exact quantities of that ‘little’ something. I know full well, thank you very much, that other individuals matter much more. Yet, I think of the many millions whose lives will pass unnoticed by the social networks and whose lives will leave no trace and I conclude that, in the end, Twitter or not, altmetrics or bibliometrics, this is our most common destiny.

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SCHOLARSHIP, CRITICISM, REVIEWING: FINE DISTINCTIONS, DIFFERENT JOBS

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Today I’m quoting from an essay by Gary K. Wolfe, “Pilgrims of the Fall: Critics and Criticism” from his highly stimulating volume Evaporating Genres (2001, p. 205) He discusses the differences between ‘reviewer,’ ‘critic,’ ‘scholar’ and ‘academic,’ explaining that for “ a great many practicing writers” reviewer and critic mean the same, that is to say, the persons assessing their work in periodical publications for a general readership. Yet, in academia, he adds, “the distinction can be crucial” for we call ourselves ‘critics’ but we are not reviewers “working under ‘journalistic’ constraints.” We may do review work for academic publications but it usually involves academic texts and not literature.

Criticism, Wolfe adds, remains, however, within academia a “much vaguer term” than ‘scholarship,’ meaning “the uncovering of new or newly combined knowledge by means of formally described and peer-reviewed processes” with a view to obtaining a “degree, a job, or promotion and tenure” (p. 206). Wolfe then proceeds to praise the work within SF and fantasy of John Clute, known for his indefatigable task as a reviewer and encyclopaedia writer outside the circuit of academia, though actually straddling this and fandom (he’s, em, an independent scholar). Wolfe also proceeds to chastise scholars and academics for using too little time to read literature and too much energy to read theory; we are also guilty of patronising the reviewers who, like Clute, may lack a theoretical framework, as once Rob Latham famously complained, but who do much to map a particular genre on a regular basis and thus, I would add, pave the way for scholarship.

The key problem worrying Wolfe is how to tie “literary criticism directly to the actual world of readers” (p. 213) which chimes in directly with the complaint by the only Amazon.es reviewer of Historia y antología de la ciencia ficción española, edited by Julián Díez and Fernando Ángel Moreno (Cátedra, 2014). This lonely voice complains that although the anthology is “impeccable” the study is a bit marred for being “too elitist, neglecting the task of fandom within the genre.” Indeed. Certainly, SF and fantasy, secondarily horror, detective fiction and romance, are very different fields from literary and mainstream narrative (middlebrow?), and other genres like poetry, since the emergence of scholarship is posterior to the emergence of fandom. As Wolfe explains this created a strange situation for academics within SF and fantasy who had to adapt to a pre-existent vocabulary or risk excluding themselves completely from communication with the readers in this genre.

Yet, this is not where I was going (if I’m going anywhere today!). The internet, forums like Amazon and Good Reads, give us the chance, as I have already noted here, to contrast the opinions of academic critics and scholars with the opinions of common readers, to which, of course, we need to add those of professional reviewers. Although academic work must include a certain measure of reviewing in the case of works relatively unknown, few academics ever work on a text untouched by reviewers, whether professional or amateur.

I might even say that a complete lack of professional reviews for certain contemporary texts bothers me far less than a lack of reviews by common readers, a void which seems to me a clearer indication of the indifferent quality of a particular text. Whenever I start a paper on a contemporary novel, I read the reviews first, with appreciation, and try to quote them. Although it might seem that expressing an opinion is easy enough, I find reviewing a very difficult art, as a reviewer must be knowledgeable without being pedantic, and communicative without being arrogant and, above all, s/he must be fair.

Proving his point that an academic critic/scholar must also be a well-informed reader, Wolfe uses in his volume an encyclopaedic approach–the one I also miss in theory-oriented scholarly work. He inserts mini-reviews of a few lines as he theorizes, using an almost jargon-free, elegant prose which keeps you reading as if his academic book were a novel. This, let me stress, is bold and surprising for, as he complains (and I complain), if you want to publish within the habitual academic circuits you need to accept restrictive style rules. When I let myself go a little bit in my own academic work, I kick myself hard: girl, this is academic work, not a blog post! Yet I know that I’m possibly doing my most significant scholarly work here, writing informally in my blog, if by scholarly we understand as Wolfe does, the dissemination of knowledge.

Wolfe recalls interviewing a candidate for a college teaching position who declared that she had no time to read fiction as she had to read so much theory; he adds that this is what this woman thought she needed to say, though it might not be true at all. In my own case, I seem to have developed a strange sort of guilt about reading fiction. It seems that academics do not work unless they’re using a computer so, somehow, I started pushing my reading to the evenings and weekends. Monday to Friday, 8:30 to 16:30, except for the time I spend in class, I sit at my table trying to produce something publishable, preparing classes, answering emails, etc, etc. I haven’t spent a weekday reading for a long, long time and now that I have the chance, as I need not teach this semester, I feel, well, guilty of enjoying a very strange kind of privilege. The sense of guilt increases if I do my reading in glorious sunshine, on my terrace… but decreases a little if I read theory, pen and paper at hand. Spending my day reading a novel is not really working, is it?? I know it is, but this guilt must be a remnant of the time when reading was what I did for a hobby after school was over…

So, funnily, reading theory feels like more real work than reading fiction even though the criticism of fiction is, in the end, my main aim. Or is it? Wolfe says it’s the other way round: theorizing is the real aim of contemporary scholarly work, and the fiction is there just to pepper the theory. Could it be, I’m wondering, a kind of puritanical attitude against the idea of reading fiction? Is this also why we, academics, do not review fiction (unless it is properly literary and in the proper newspapers)? Waste of time, read serious work…

Although I am a doctor in English Philology, I don’t call myself a philologist. To be honest, I don’t call myself much of anything, as I find that, generally speaking, we refer to our task by speciality (‘I do Masculinities Studies’, for instance) rather than by name (‘I’m a scholar’). When I try to define what I do to myself, I prefer the label ‘cultural critic’, though perhaps ‘academic cultural critic’ comes closest. I use ‘cultural’ because I work with a variety of texts, literary and audio-visual. When I think of ‘scholars’ I tend to envision colleagues working in archives or libraries, unearthing the secrets of the past. As I work on contemporary texts, and tend to produce knowledge by making connections rather than discoveries, I’m not sure whether I am a scholar, though it seems I am indeed an academic.

Wolf, as I have noted, claims that scholarship is produced to obtain a “degree, a job, or promotion and tenure” (p. 206). I see it the other way round: one aims at obtaining tenure in order to be able to produce scholarship (or academic criticism, whatever you want to call it). Wolfe seems a bit jaundiced here for I believe that genuine scholars are as vocational as, say, literary writers. I see many people around me producing fine academic work with little hope of achieving tenure because they feel, shall we say?, naturally inclined to do so. A strange vocation calls us to try to disseminate knowledge though in the end we may produce very obscure knowledge that only a handful ever read. No wonder there is a little of bad blood between academic and journalistic critics for, in the end, they have a higher impact, not to mention the millions of amateur reviewers crowding Amazon, GoodReads…

So, thank you, Gary Wolfe for the salutary reminder that as academic critics/scholars we need to read fiction and not only theory. Sunshine on my terrace is calling, as is this alluring novel on my table… yet it only 10:45 and there are papers to write…

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GOODBYE AND THANKS, TERRY PRATCHETT

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s, in 2007. We, author and readers, have been saying goodbye for almost 8 years, then, yet for all our readiness this is a death that catches us unawares. Couldn’t we have had more time? This is it? Sir Terry, just 66, is no longer with us and although we were lucky that he kept on writing to the very end (dictating in the last stages), it is still too little time.

His death comes, besides, not even two years after losing Iain M. Banks also too early and too unfairly. It is hard to lose them both, it feels as if very dear personal friends are gone. I think also of my doctoral student, Rosa María Moreno, currently writing her dissertation on the narrator’s voice in the Discworld series and how sad she must be feeling now. As I told her, the best possible homage is finishing the work and making sure Pratchett’s novels are preserved for posterity.

I have already written here that I started reading Pratchett 20 years ago, when my PhD supervisor in Scotland, Prof. David Punter, gently mocked my snobbish prejudice against the colourful covers of Pratchett’s novels. I have read since then 39 novels by Pratchett and 3 other volumes he has co-authored, missing just 1 Discworld novel. Since then, I have taught novels by Pratchett twice: my favourite, The Truth (number 25 within the Discworld series) and his collaboration with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens.

When I finished teaching last year my course on Harry Potter, I asked my students to please, please, please thank me, if they wished to do so, by reading one Pratchett, any novel, and see how it worked for them. I don’t know if I have made any new fans this way but I hardly see the way to teach a monographic course on his work, if only one based on a selection of 5 or 6 novels. My personal homage, by the way, is an article I was already preparing for a volume dealing with neo-Victorian fictions, on his novel Dodger, which I’ll praise for his clever recycling of Oliver Twist.

For me, Pratchett and Dickens are very close: as I have insisted here again and again they are writers one reads for the pleasure of their company, no matter what they narrate. Both have potent narrative voices, suggesting that the man behind the telling, the author, is, yes, a wise and witty man. As my student Rosa María is arguing, Pratchett had a unique way of satirizing the real world by transforming it into the blend of comedy and fantasy on which his Discworld lies. Also, as she claims, the satire works not by direct allusion but by winking an eye to the reader and making us feel part of the circle of initiates who is in on the joke.

The cast of Pratchett’s characters is very extensive, also very Dickensian in their way of appearing on the page very much alive from the first sentence introducing them. They’re all quirky in a way that would even disconcert Miss Havisham, yet they are all recognisable human beings, even the ones who/which are not human at all. I have, for instance, a silly soft spot for Otto von Chriek, a vampire iconographer (= photographer) who, being destroyed every time he uses flashlight for his photos, has the precaution of carrying a tiny flask of blood tied to his wrist. He collapses in cinders, the flask breaks, the blood remakes him. My other soft spot is for Corporal/Captain Carrot, a most decent man who would be simply overwhelmed if he only knew who he really is.

Pratchett has legions of fans and in the same many other popular classics have survived without the aid of academia, I am sure they will keep his memory fresh for generations to come. I would say, besides, that an ability to read Sir Terry in English should be a great enticement to learn the language; I have never read any translation into Spanish or Catalan but one thing I can say is that it is impossible that the humour translates well. Perhaps the same applies to the cultural references, I don’t know, though my guess is that Pratchett’s books are multi-layered, so that the older and more sophisticated the readers is the more meaning s/he grasp in his satirical voice. This does not mean, quite the opposite, that the novels are inaccessible to young or foreign readers, just that they possibly grasp only the more basic layers.

The MLA database only names 48 items dealing with Terry Pratchett works, of which only 1 is a book: Discworld and the Disciplines: Critical Approaches to the Terry Pratchett Works, a collective volume edited by Anne Hiebert and William C. Spruiell (McFarland, 2014). There is actually a second volume, the monograph Accused of Literature by Andrew M. Butler, which MLA ignores, perhaps for being that kind of work which straddles fandom and academia. Interestingly, the first item named by MLA appeared in 1992, a very brief essay by Liz Holliday for the Science Fiction Chronicle. This is 8 years after Pratchett started publishing his Discworld series, 21 since his first book. The new collective volume is, hopefully, a good sign that the academic world has finally caught on and realised that Pratchett is someone worth studying and not only worth reading. My own first attempt to explain Pratchett to local Spanish audiences, by the way, dates back to 2002: “Ídolos del fantástico popular: el gótico cotidiano de Stephen King y la sátira pseudo-histórica de Terry Pratchett” (see: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/other-publications).

If you’re reading this and are wondering where you should start reading Pratchett and why you should read him at all, my answer is that you can either start at the beginning, with The Colour of Magic, or just anywhere you like. I started with Guards, Guards! (1989), the 8th Discworld novel, I don’t even know why, read a few more published later and then decided to start again, back at the beginning. Why read Pratchett, then? Because he was a wordsmith, as the definition goes “a skilled user of words.” Was he, then, a literary writer? Yes, he was that rare breed: the popular literary writer, the ones who used to abound in the 19th century until Modernism decided that either you told a story or you wrote Literature. Fortunately, Sir Terry could do both.

A typical experience of reading one of her novels consists for me of reading non-stop and then braking hard in the last 50 pages, realizing that the pleasure of a new Pratchett will not be repeated for one year at least (now never again…). I admire the way Pratchett comments obliquely on the absurdity and stupidity of our world by using an even crazier parallel in the Discworld; I love how the narrator’s voice is full of barbs and yet so kind, so humane; I enjoy the variety of eccentric characters and how one gets to know little by little the varied geography and societies of the Discworld; I value Sir Terry’s defence of integration despite difference and how his humans, trolls, dwarves, zombies, vampires… find a place in the accommodating city of Ank-Morpork. I marvel at the inventiveness. He has always made it smile, and has often made me laugh, sometimes really loud. No easy feat for a writer.

Queen Elizabeth II knighted Terry Pratchett for services to literature in 2009 (he had been appointed ‘Officer of the Order of the British Empire’ or OBE in 1998). He declared himself “flabbergasted,” and I declare myself won over by a state capable of honouring this way not only him but also Arthur C. Clarke or Arthur Conan Doyle, even Barbara Cartland. That Pratchett ended his days ‘Sir Terry’ is one of those very nice British quirks we wonder about from abroad… very civilized.

Sir Terry, knight of the Discworld, servant of Literature: I’ll miss you very, very much. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for 20 years of the most wonderful company. I’m really sorry you’re gone; your books will be here, by my side, for as long as I live. And I’ll do my best, this is a promise, to find you as many new readers as I can. Long live Sir Terry!

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INTERNATIONAL WOMAN’S DAY: A REMINDER OF OUR SUBORDINATION

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Today, 8 of March, International Woman’s Day, I only feel irritation. I’m irritated because we still need a special day to complain that more than half of humankind is subordinated to men, who are actually the minority. I’m irritated because I wish we did not need days like today in 2015 and because even if I live to be 100 (2066…) there is still going to be an urgent need for an 8 of March like today. Google has decorated its opening page with a logo reminding us of women’s achievements in a variety of fields but the Spanish media are full, rather, of the miseries we women endure and I feel really downbeat.

El País explains that since the Spanish Government started counting the victims of couple-related violence, back in 2001, the list extends to more than 800 already… The son of one of them writes about the tragic void left by his mother’s absence and this is as it should be: the men must shoulder half the burden of the fight against patriarchal misogynistic terrorism, which must become a collective fight. Miguel Lorente, the man who, together with Luis Bonino, has spoken with the greatest clarity against male violence in Spain, makes the same claim and I could not agree more with him: my main hope for violence against women to end are the loving sons, brothers, fathers, partners, friends… and, above all, the fathers of daughters who will not want to see their little girls grow into abused women, whether this is in the hands of men claiming to love them or men in positions to employ them.

Many of the news items this week have to do, precisely with the gender pay gap, which in Spain is officially 17.5% in contrast to 19% for the whole European Union. This means that if a man and a woman are hired to do a job he will get higher wages by that percentage just for having a penis (it seems that a common strategy to justify this kind of illegal discrimination is giving the man’s job a title within a higher category). Catalan TV3 interviews today a few female students indignant that they have to face a worse future than their male peers although the statistics indicate not only that women are a majority in college but also that they do better. Then, the newscast moves onto a report of a political act in which President Artur Mas has promised women will have full equality in a future independent Catalan nation. His own Government has withdrawn all aids to kindergarten for children from 0 to 3 years-old, the very pre-school establishments on which young mothers depend in order to be able to work full time. So why delay to a hypothetical future Catalonia what can be done today? And not only to help young mothers but also young fathers…

As regards violence, I’m left with two potent images: one from the new film Refugiado directed by Diego Lerman, who was inspired to write it when he saw a woman attacked in the street by her husband before his very eyes. The little boy Matías, age 8, and on the run with his pregnant mother from his murderous dad, has a conversation on the phone with him: “If you love her so much”, he asks really distressed, “why do you hurt her?” The other image comes from an Italian campaign, in which some boys, ages 6 to 12, are introduced to Martina, a girl about 10. They’re asked to caress and kiss her face, which they all do very sweetly–and then to hit her. Taken aback, all the boys refuse to use violence against the girl: as one sentences, this is not what a man does. I only wish all the men who do use violence could be shamed by other men into understanding that they do not deserve the honour of being called a man, much less a human being.

I have not joined the local demonstration in Barcelona today, though I have crossed paths with it as I walked to La Virreina to see an exhibition by the renowned French woman photographer Sophie Calle, ‘Modus Vivendi’. What better way to celebrate women’s work, right? I have been distressed by some of Calle’s autobiographical works, presenting her as vulnerable because of her body (she has even worked as a stripper) or her relationships with men. The main segment of the exhibition had to do with one of her peculiar projects: she passed to a variety of women an email which her lover had sent her announcing that he was ending their relationship. Each of these women analyzed the lover’s pathetic, whiny letter from her own vantage point, determined by age and occupation. The result is a frankly hilarious deconstruction of romance, right now one of the worst vampires sucking energy off women, together with fashion and the cult of youth.

Then, to complete my peculiar homage to women I have read La guerra secreta de los sexos, a fascinating volume that María Lafitte, the Countess of Campo Alange, had the temerity to publish in 1948, under Franco’s regime and one year before de Beauvoir published The Second Sex. I marvel not only at her bravery but at how profoundly feminist her book is, and how valid her view of women’s subordination is still today. If you’ve never heard of Lafitte, she founded in 1960 the Seminario de Estudios sobre la Mujer, the first one in Spain. Like the editors of her text, re-published in 2008, I had serious misgivings that she would offer a right-wing version of women’s mission in support of the fatherland, closest to Pilar Primo de Rivera, the regime’s main female spokesperson. This is not at all the case; Lafitte is no left-wing, radical feminist like the ones that would appear in the 1960s but she is quite outspoken in her own mission to highlight the strategies used by patriarchy to diminish women physically and mentally. Her view is that patriarchy of the traditional kind ended in the 19th century when legislation took much power away from patriarchal family men; we are, then, immersed in the long process of building a new system which she thinks will take very long to accomplish, perhaps centuries. I see myself like her in 1948, just one of the few free enough to hurry the process along, surrounded by many more freer women than Lafitte but also by millions of other women stuck in the mud of what I can only call enslavement.

Over lunch I hear on TV the news about that young Moroccan woman, resident in Rubí, just a few kilometres from my university, who has been arrested for inducing women to join the Islamic State. She herself abandoned her husband, kidnapping their three-year-old boy, and moved to Syria. A Spanish woman lawyer specializing in cases like this one explains that women are lured into joining this barbaric kind of patriarchy (as seen by this week’s destruction of the Assyrian city of Nimrud) by the promising of finding the man of their dreams: a handsome warrior that will protect them. My appalled husband complains loudly that the authorities should launch a campaign against that kind of gendered brainwashing but I find myself telling him that, then, another campaign needs to be launched against other forms of enslavement. Like Fifty Shades of Gray, the film so many Western women are freely choosing to see (with their girl friends) and which is giving men the excuse to say that all we want is a master to enslave us –whether he is Christian (Grey) or Muslim…

Only 364 International Patriarchal Men’s Day left for the next International Woman’s Day, then…

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