PUBLISHING IN SLOW MOTION (AND OTHER LIMITS TO PUBLICATION)

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Last summer 2013 I managed to finish two articles I’d been working on for a long time. One is called “Rewriting the American Astronaut from a Cross-cultural Perspective: Michael Lopez-Alegria in Manuel Huerga’s documentary film Son and Moon (2009)” and the other’s title is “A Demolition Job: Scottish Masculinity and the Failure of the Utopian Tower Block in David Greig’s Play The Architect and Andrew O’Hagan’s Novel Our Fathers.”

The reason why they took so long to write is that lately I have very little quality time for writing, which means that basically I can only find two or (with luck) three weeks in July/August to write in peace and quiet. It’s very frustrating to see how productive a single week off email and teaching can be in comparison with the usual weeks during the course, with time split among a myriad little things.

Anyway, as any scholar knows, completing an article is just a small step in the long process of publishing. For both essays I had a certain idea of to which journal I wanted to send them. In the case of the article on Huerga’s atmospheric documentary on the manly Lopez-Alegria I chose first a journal on masculinities studies. They found it inappropriate, since they focus on sociology mainly, but pointed me in the direction of Culture, Society and Masculinities from the same Men’s Studies Press. This was fortunate, as the editor found me sympathetic reviewers. This week I have finished the revisions I was asked to introduce and I’m very happy to say that the article is off my hands.

I did agree with the reviews though, as usual, they suggested several small modifications that have made my article grow to almost 10,000 words. The whole process is so slow that a film I mentioned in a footnote, not yet released, occupies now a long paragraph, as it’s become practically inevitable to discuss it regarding the astronaut on screen (I mean Gravity). All in all, my astronaut has kept me busy for about two and a half years, since I first saw Son & Moon and knew I had to write about it during Christmas 2011. The article will come out next Spring 2015, making this process in a total three and a half years long. That’s the happy story.

Now for the unhappy one. I first read Andrew O’Hagan’s novel Our Fathers back in 2002 and saw David Greig’s acclaimed play The Architect at Teatre Lliure in January 2011. I can safely say, then, that the idea for the comparative article was already two and a half years old by the time I sat down to write it last August.

Funnily, I did check the website of the journal I had targeted for the word limit –always my nightmare, as I tend to write much more than required. The web nonchalantly announced it would accept pieces with no specific word limit, so I let myself go, read like crazy about Le Corbusier, the residential blue-collar skyscraper and local council regulations in Scotland to end up with a piece 12,000 words long. To my immense mortification, the journal sent me back the essay claiming they only accepted articles up to 6,000 words. I did cut down my article to that size… and sent it elsewhere. This second journal found my methodology ‘too Cultural Studies.’ So, back to the first option.

To my surprise they asked me for the names of possible reviewers. I named two; they disagreed. I was ask for a third name, which I supplied. And, then, on the basis of not three but only two reviews they told me I had to rewrite and resubmit, with no guarantee of publication. They found my poor stumpy article under-theorised (no wonder…).

I took a deep breath, spent 24 hours agonising about whether to go back to the drawing board or not and recalled a friend’s words. When they start asking for major revisions… the bloom is gone. So, I went back to the unpublishable 12,000 word version and emailed it to the Deposit Digital de Documents of my university, where it will soon be available online. That’s the unhappy story.

Why’s that unhappy if I have made my work available and will hopefully reach a few dozen readers? Well, it’s unhappy because the time employed and the effort I made will count for nothing as regards my future research assessment by the Ministry. It’s 2014, and this is due by the end of 2017 which means that I’m already in a hurry. I’ll remind you, readers, that I need to have published five ‘quality’ pieces in six years, which is why ‘throwing’ on line this article I’m telling you about feels very much like hitting myself in the face –hard.

On the other hand, experience tells me that when an article starts doing the rounds with difficulties and nothing has happened after one year, it’s better to move on, write another article (which is what I’m doing these days), try my luck elsewhere. Online publication at my university’s depository is, of course, a sort of consolation prize and much, much better than the proverbial drawer (or personal computer disk) where discarded papers used to die. Yet, tell the Ministry that.

There’s a third strange story. I emailed an article to a Spanish quality journal last November (2013). The editor did not acknowledge receiving it for a couple of months. I insisted, he’d been sick, poor thing. My article (he told me) would be considered for publication and I would get an answer by May 2014. June and early July came, still no answer. I checked their web: there’s a new editor. I emailed her and it turns out they’re restarting the journal as the former editor has retired. She suggested that I resubmit next November (that’s 2014, one year gone from the original submission) when things start rolling. I said yes out of loyalty, as she’s a friend, wondering whether the new journal will keep the good ratings of the old one.

I wonder how journal publishing works in the sciences, I really do. I doubt Nature or Science take so long to publish articles. I know everyone does what they can but on the whole we can safely say that in the Humanities publication lags about two years behind research. It’s a long time… Not to mention how word limit conditions us, for not all ideas can be properly argued in under 6,000 words. As I know.

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‘HEAVILY FICTIONALISED’: THE SADISTIC TREATMENT OF ARTEMISIA IN 300, RISE OF AN EMPIRE

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

When I saw Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006), based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, I knew at once that was a film I would write about –infuriating but original, ridiculous but deliciously camp, dangerous in its exaltation of laddism but key to understand today’s patriarchal backlash.

I did write about it, criticising its failure to produce a dignified model of masculinity for the hero and its blatant homophobia. You may see the results at my own web (http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/chapters-books). I also included it in the syllabus of the sessions I teach on heroism for the Cultural Studies module in UAB’s MA in Literary and Cultural Studies. It never fails to stir debate, particularly as regards its wild departures from historical evidence.

Sooner or later, then, I was bound to see the sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, directed by Noam Murro, but scripted, like 300, by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, and also based on a graphic novel by Miller, Xerxes. I’m now horrified –not just in an intellectual sense, meaning that I abhor the film for its low quality. I’m horrified in a very physical sense, for I am worried sick about the (possible) reactions of male audiences when seeing what is done to Artemisia, played by Eva Green. Let me explain. (I’m actually writing this to keep a clear memory of my dread for future reference, as I need to teach 300 again in the MA and in my new BA course on ‘Gender Studies’).

300 takes the story of Leonidas’s defeat by Xerxes at the Battle of Thermopylae and turns it into a celebration of the male body in military action. A handful of almost naked Spartans sporting awesome six-pack abs maim in slow motion, displaying plenty of blood and guts, the heavily-clad, ineffectual ‘Immortals.’ The Persian forces are led, to cap this widely distorted version of History, by an orientalised Xerxes styled as a barbarian drag queen. The whole concept depends on the by now famous scenes of carnage and on the unwitting camp subtext contributed by Rodrigo Montoro’s bejewelled Xerxes and, to a great extent, by Gerard Butler’s tongue-in-cheek performance as Leonidas. If anyone on that set understood how preposterous the whole film was, that was Butler.

If you check IMDB you will see that the tide in favour of 300, by now a cult film, has not abated in eight years. The film still has a remarkable 7’8 rating despite the many protests from Iranians outraged at Hollywood’s mistreatment of the glories of the Persian Empire (the Americans were then occupying Iraq). 300: Rise of an Empire (which empire? even the title is confused) has a much more modest 6’5 rating, absolutely too high in view of the trash this film is.

What has changed is the amount of resistance from those misrepresented. Many non-American spectators, including many from Iran and Greece, have raised their voices against this atrocity for its total disregard of the History books (a matter that begs the question of why historians work at all). Among the very negative reviews only one, though, complained that Eva Green’s Artemisia is an ‘obscene’ rendering of the Strong Female Character. In contrast, and this is scary, her Artemisia is often praised among the most positive opinions about the film (mainly by American men).

The point I want to raise here is not so much a complaint against this Queen’s misrepresentation on the screen but in particular about the end that Green’s Artemisia receives. The historical character was, though Greek, a wily ally of Xerxes. She did command five ships in the battle of Salamis, which she survived with a little bit of trickery. And, well, she was an aristocrat, daughter, wife and mother of kings and a queen herself. Instead, Miller, Snyder and Johnstad imagine her as an orphan raised by Xerxes’ father Darius, saved from a miserable life of sexual abuse after her whole family is massacred by the Greeks. The girl is raised to be, basically, a psychopathic killing machine enmeshed in an obsessive game of revenge. She participates with the same glee as the Athenians in killing and maiming her enemies.

What scared me is that the whole point of this movie is raising a justification to (spoilers!!) kill Artemisia. Queen Gorgo, Leonidas’s widow, is given the narrator’s voice and the final battle scene as a way to maintain a certain political correctness, if that makes any sense at all. Yet, the whole concept behind this sequel is justifying the scene in which Athenian general Themistocles (played by a totally useless Australian actor) stabs Artemisia in the belly (the womb?), draws the corresponding explosion of blood and watches her die. What you see –forget about the characters– is a heavily muscled man doing his ‘duty’: killing a woman, who, well, was asking for it.

In a previous scene, said Themistocles is, predictably, seduced by beautiful Artemisia in an extremely ugly and vulgar scene, which is anything but subtle. The whole point in that scene is that Themistocles gets to fuck (excuse me) Artemisia but refuses her tempting offer to side with her in battle –thus humiliating her. I forgot to say that Xerxes, who respected the real Artemisia very much, slaps this one hard as soon as he has the chance.

Strong Female Characters, about whom I wrote a post last September, reach with Artemisia a sad climax. Male screen writers routinely present them in isolation from other women, as signs of how freakish female empowerment is, and, what is more worrying in 300: Rise of an Empire, as embodiments of pure misogyny disguised as something else (justified enemy hatred in battle). You might argue that Miller, Snyder and Johnstad’s Artemisia is the very incarnation of Judith Halbertsam’s questioned ‘female masculinity’ and, thus, a step beyond femininity.

The physical prowess she displays, though, which is simply impossible in real life in which even a small gang of brutal men can overpower any woman, is by no means intended to cheer women up but to give a further justification for Artemisia’s murder –for, after all, she shows herself quite capable of attacking Themistocles. Her choice to die as an honourable enemy rather than live captive (again) makes sense in the patriarchal script. Still, no matter, I see a man kill a woman callously and brutally for ‘justified’ reasons.

What made my hair stand on end was the realization that lads all over America, and possibly in other countries, must have cheered on at this climax. Green/Artemisia’s screen death is, of course, just one more among many thousands cinema has depicted, both male and female. Yet, what makes it particularly galling for me is that Artemisia is initially presented as a victim of patriarchal violence as a child and a young woman. The victim grows revengeful by embracing the very violence that turned against her family and for that she is victimised again –not raped, as she becomes too powerful for that, but killed.

So much for (anti-patriarchal) justice.

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BA DISSERTATIONS/TFGs: EMOTION RUNNING HIGH…

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Oddly enough, BA dissertations are eliciting quite a high degree of personal involvement from both students and teachers. I say oddly enough because this is unexpected for a dissertation at this basic level, and because the teachers are not reacting in the same way to students in their own BA courses. Possibly, not even to their own tutorees if registered in those.

I’m aware that BA dissertations are common in many degrees all over Europe. In Spain, as happens, until recently they were a requirement only for Engineering and Architecture old style ‘Licenciaturas’ (for which students actually submitted ‘projects’). Some bureaucrat in the Education Ministry had the ‘brilliant idea’ of introducing dissertations without taking into account how the staff would cope with so many… nor the high anxiety that naming them ‘degree’s final work’ (‘trabajo de fin de grado’) would generate among students.

It is, however, simply not true that the new BA dissertation comes at the end of the degree (for us the only requirement is that a student has passed 160 credits), nor is it true that the TFG has an impact on the whole degree. It certainly tests the specific competences of the degree but it is, after all, just one more subject. It should have been named something like ‘Advanced Academic Skills’, or, perhaps just ‘Project.’ The problem is that we’re beginning to tell ourselves this now, two years into organising the TFG. If we had started with this plain truth rather than with the assumption that the TFG was a kind of proto-MA dissertation or the students’ only chance to truly choose a subject for themselves we’d be better off today. Both sides.

Although numbers have been growing, and many more students have submitted their TFG this second year than the first (63 instead of the original 22), we have tried to maintain the spirit of that first year, when we used too many hours to tutor the pioneering students who dared submit their TFG first. With a growing demand (perhaps up to 90 for 2014-15), we have no option, though, but to curb down the students’ and our own enthusiasm –though, to my surprise, this has already led to intense misencounters among teachers. Some feel somehow sorry that students will no longer be given the chance to freely choose their topic (we’ll offer a closed list, pre-inscription will depend on the student’s average grade); others (like me) worry above all about the impossible workload we’ve been assuming in the first two editions.

The personal involvement I was talking about, nevertheless, has other foundations apart from the so far free choice of tutor and topic. One is the decision we made to have supervisors (or tutors) be present as examiners in the oral presentation; the second, the decision to honour two deceased colleagues.

Generally speaking, the impression is that we tend to overvalue TFGs as tutors/supervisors, since the final product comes at a the end of quite a long process, which may have involved many meetings with the student (an exceptional situation in relation to our regular courses). In contrast, the second examiner knows nothing about this and generally has a less involved view of the matter.

About the presence of the supervisor in the oral exam, I’m myself in two minds about it. On the one hand, I’d rather ‘protect’ my students from that second less sympathetic examiner (though, to be fair, this is not always the case); on the other hand, as second examiner I have often felt quite annoyed by having to put up with other supervisors’ fierce defence of their students. About the prize awarded to the best Language and the best Literature TFGs in honour of our deceased colleagues, this has unleashed a strange competition among tutors promoting the candidacy of this or that student. Strange in the sense that, from what I have seen, who happens to tutor the best TFG is quite a lottery.

I have been asking colleagues in other Departments how they have organized matters both to limit teachers’ workload and to reach fairer standards of judgement. My impression is that the same problems are repeated everywhere. A colleague explained to me that she’s tutoring 19 different TFGs, the figure necessary for her tutoring to count as 6 ECTS, or a full course. This is, for me, madness (sorry)…

In our case, we started with 2 to 3 TFGs per teacher, supervised for free, apart from our official teaching hours. We’re still following this pattern, complemented with a novelty. With the application of the new teaching model, some teachers will have to supervise up to 10 TFGs to complete their teaching workload, a situation which surely calls for some kind of streamlining. We’re asking students to work on very similar TFGs if possible connected with electives (you’re teaching Shakespeare? Then you tutor that year only TFGs on Shakespeare). We’ll see how all this works.

I know students are not too happy, as the chances for a free choice of topic and tutor have dramatically diminished –and we’re bracing ourselves for the pairings in which neither tutor nor student will be happy to work together. Yet, there is only so much we can do before putting at risk precious time we need for research.

About my own experience, well, in the first edition I tutored three TFGs in which I was personally highly involved as I loved the topics and enjoyed the whole process very much (you may read them following the links in my own website). This year I have tutored three more, and though I loved once more the topics, contact with my tutorees has been more erratic, my involvement lower. Ironically, I have established the closest working and personal relationship with the student I have tutored online. Her TFG has been, all in all, an experience I’ll never forget on literary, academic and personal grounds –she’s done very well, of which I’m proud and happy. So you see…

I spent, by the way, two very enjoyable days attending the 23 TFG presentations (which I coordinated)–for, as I told everyone, I’m so fed up with discussing only bureaucracy with my colleagues that the chance of talking books was absolutely refreshing.

This, of course might be the root of that personal involvement I mentioned at the beginning of the post. The hours spent tutoring are often the only real chance along the semester to discuss books in depth with someone equally involved (which is not always the case in BA classes). What a pity, then, this will have to change… for lack of time.

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NETWORKING: BEYOND THE ANGLO-AMERICAN WORLD?

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

[The last two weeks have been too hectic for me to keep up the pace of regular posting here. Yes, teaching is over but not marking, or BA and MA examining boards. Bureaucracy is, well, eating me alive. Every time friends or relatives ask me whether I’m already on holiday I go ballistic…]

Two very different matters lead me to consider today networking. One is a conference, the other a doctoral dissertation.

Recently, I attended in Barcelona the Spring conference of At Gender: The European Association for Gender Research, Education and Documentation (http://www.atgender.eu/). I found out about this association through an email sent by the Institut Interuniversitari d’Estudis de Dones i de Gènere, to which I belong –and whose name has always puzzled me (aren’t women gendered??). Since I’m used to English Studies conferences it took me a while to get the idea behind At Gender: no Americans, hardly any Brit, plenty of Scandinavian scholars and many others from all over central and eastern Europe. Ah!, I thought, so Europe does exist after all –how nice.

I did enjoy the panels I attended and met two awesome ladies, one from Finland, one from Barcelona itself. Chances for networking? Well, frankly much higher with the local lady than with the other lady for, let’s be frank about it, it’s hard to keep in touch with people you are with for a couple of days, much easier to meet for coffee with someone nearby. Second observation about networking: attending a conference in one’s city is a very bad idea as the need to socialise (=network) with one’s peers is lower than if you’re thrown together with them in a distant location. Third observation: once an association has been running for years, the chances for new incomers to network diminish as the basic nets have been formed. When you see so many people greeting each other by first name, the chances to introduce yourself and start conversation dwindle (or that must be my shyness). Anyway, so that you know: At Gender exists, and so does the grandly named, EU-funded ‘European Institute for Gender Equality’ (http://eige.europa.edu). That its central office is in Vilnius, Lithuania says all I need to know about how peripheral gender is to the European Union. With apologies to gender scholars in Vilnius.

My doctoral student Auba Llompart, author of an impressive dissertation on children’s Gothic to be soon submitted, has applied for a ‘Mención Europea’. This is a certificate added to her doctoral degree stating that she has done research elsewhere in Europe for at least 3 months under another scholar’s supervision. Now, if you’re into English Studies, ‘elsewhere in Europe’ means Britain, where, by the way, hardly anyone knows what a ‘Mención Europea’ is. It turns out this is not a way of certifying all over Europe that you’re a doctor but just something that Spanish universities are promoting, with validity in two or three more countries.

Anyway, Auba must have on her board a foreign expert and we have invited someone from the British university where she did her research. Now, here’s the tricky situation: we need two other scholars to act as external examiners and write reports on her dissertation. It seems that one of these can also be based at a British university but the other must be based in some other European country. Uff. Not that easy… as my networking gravitates towards Britain.

Apart from the corresponding emails to anyone who might help, I spent a couple of hours surfing Academia.edu, trying to make a list of suitable specialists outside Britain. Start with my own contacts, check those of my followers and of people I follow, use research labels to locate other scholars and so on. I came up with a couple of names, one in Germany and one in Sweden but what Academia.edu revealed was what I already knew: networking is pyramidal, with the UK and the USA at the top. You get a smaller web of local connections (Spanish scholars following each other) and then a bigger web of international connections all pointing to ‘Anglo-America’. How many, say, Finnish and Italian scholars know of each other? If any? Something’s wrong here, I’m not sure what. Surely, my non-British equivalents in academic inclinations and aspirations must exist in all European countries, but how do we find each other?

Conferences? Well…

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UNIVERSITY TEACHERS WHO DON’T DO RESEARCH (SO, WHAT DO THEY DO?)

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

A pleased colleague tells me he’s been awarded the fifth ‘sexenio’, which means that his last personal research assessment exercise was positive and that he has validated by now, before the corresponding Ministry’s agency, 30 years of research. He tells me that this fifth exercise is valid for the rest of his professional life and so he need not worry about the sixth ‘sexenio’ (which is also the maximum allowed).

He is particularly happy that under the current Ministry’s regulations he’ll only have to teach 16 ECTS until he retires. I understand his happiness. The little detail missing here is that he’s already 60. He still has 10 years ahead before retirement at 70 and, so, the chance to obtain that last ‘sexenio’. But, well, excuse me, 60 seems respectable enough anyway for active researchers like him to be awarded some kind of leeway after 30 years of service…

I think of myself trudging on, with at least 9 years ahead in the best case scenario, before capturing the golden snitch of that fifth ‘sexenio’, or else. Else meaning that instead of my current 16 ECTS I’ll be ‘punished’ if I fail to validate my research with 24, or at worst 32 ECTS. My colleague and I discuss after his happy news how little enticing the system is now. The perspective of my reaching the nice age of 60 burdened by 32 ECTS despite all my research sinks me. Just don’t think, as we all know, that doing research is the same as having research officially validated.

Deep sigh…

Searching for information about that fabled fifth ‘sexenio’, however, I come across a piece of news that both puzzles and irritates me. Angers me. The headline, from ABC (http://www.abc.es/sociedad/20140505/abci-educacion-universidades-rectores-201405041703.html 06/05/2014), claims that ‘Más de la mitad de los profesores de universidad apenas investiga’ which is a peculiar way of saying that ‘Less than half of the Spanish university teachers do research’. Empty bottle, full bottle. The sub-headline is a bit trickier, for it clarifies that ‘El 57% del personal docente tiene uno o ningún sexenio reconocido.’ I wonder whether this is misinformation… How many of those with one ‘sexenio’ are still active researchers? If not, why they did abandon research? Can you really compare someone who does have a ‘sexenio’ with someone who’s never cared or bothered to publish?

Let me gather some figures from the article. According to a 2010 report by the Conferencia de Rectores de las Universidades Españolas (CRUE), Spain occupies position 22 worlwide by scientific documents by million inhabitants, 16 by number of citations. Not that horrific. But now consider more figures, connected with that 57’6%: 37’6% of Spanish university teachers have no ‘sexenio’, 20% has one. Now for the remaining 42’4%: 18’4% has two. If my calculator is right 24% have three or more ‘sexenios’. My five-sexenio colleague must be in the top 5%… Yet… Only 70% of all full professors, 40% of all lecturers do research (how the rest got their tenure mystifies me; maybe it’s a matter of ‘when’).

If you follow me, this means that the minority, the 42’4% who has more than two ‘sexenios’, is producing the documents that result in that 22nd position. I know that my argumentation is quite murky but so is the reality of the Spanish university. Between 42’4% and 60’4% care or have care at some point for validating their research (that’s not compulsory, by the way, it’s voluntary). Let me wonder about the remaining 37’6%.

I know quite a few cases in which research is being done but the Ministry has not validated it for its own reasons (lack of money being one, surely). So, let’s suppose that the actual figure of university teachers who do no research at all is 20%. One in five. These are teachers who, let’s recall this, are employed the same number of hours I am and earn the same salary (minus the research complements, a grand total of 120 euros a month each). If all teachers are supposed to teach, do research and contribute to admin tasks, what do those who only teach do in their daily routine? I wonder.

By contract we’re supposed to work 37,5 hours a week, with a teaching workload of 6 to 8 hours for teachers employed to teach 24 ECTS. Teaching involves 15 weeks per semester. If I manage to do my teaching, my admin tasks and my research by working, say, a 45-hour-week (evening and weekend reading aside), what do the colleagues who only teach do? If, for me, say, teaching involves half my workload, 22 hours a week, what do they do with the spare 15’5 hours? Suppose they read though, of course, reading is not the same as doing research, not even in the Humanities, as we’re supposed to write and publish. But, here’s the creepy thought, suppose they do nothing professionally relevant in that time.

Now complete the sentences:
*if that 20% put their 15’5 hours a week to the service of research…
*if validating regularly your own research was compulsory and not voluntary, teachers who do no research…
*if the Ministry’s validation system was more supportive of researchers…
And:
*if ‘sexenios’ are used to punish rather than reward, the effect…

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ATTACKING ACADEMESE IN THE HUMANITIES: THE HARD SF VIEW (ON GREG EGAN’S TERANESIA)

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Reading the SF novel Teranesia (1999) by Australian novelist Greg Egan, I’m surprised to find an anti-academese critique embedded in a key subplot.

The protagonist Prabir, a teenager, and his younger sister Madhusree lose their parents in the first segment of the book. The couple, Indian scientists doing research on a mysterious butterfly in a remote Indonesian island, are killed in terrible, war-related circumstances. The children survive to be eventually fostered by a cousin, Amita, who works as a ‘Diana Studies’ lecturer in Canada. Her ex-partner, Keith, whom she keeps around in case the children need a “male narrative” is also an academic specialising in ‘X-Files Theory’… Egan, whose domain is hard science-fiction, has a BA in Mathematics, according to Wikipedia, and used to make a living as a computer scientist before becoming an author. He has very little sympathy for the current theory-based Humanities discourse. Or maybe this is a case of seeing the Emperor’s clothes for what they are. Only he misses the point that there seems to be more than one Emperor.

Amita and Keith are good people, well meaning by the kids who are so unexpectedly dropped on their laps. It’s just that they speak academese all the time, the kind of jargon you do find in academic publications on Feminism, Literary Theory, Cultural Studies, etc. too often. Egan gets it right, to my great amusement, but quite humourlessly, forgetting that the liberal humanities crowd is doing much to get SF out of the ghetto. Including hard SF. I’m not going to defend that kind of molasses-thick prose whose meaning very often collapses the moment you attempt translation –not only into another language but into simpler terms. I’ll let you judge whether Egan goes too far.

One day brilliant Madushree returns from school, she’s just 9. What have you learned today?, Amita asks. Her lesson: since in the 1960s and 1970s people’s fight in the streets and the institutions for actual power –both in feminist and civil rights movements– was beginning to succeed, the concerned Government had to seek a solution to curb it down. In the 1980s the CIA, Madushree explains, “hired some really clever linguists to invent a secret weapon: an incredibly complicated way of talking about politics that didn’t actually make any sense, but which spread through all the universities in the world, because it sounded so impressive.”

The new babblers eventually hijacked street activism, and delegitimized its language, so that instead of shouting “‘How about upholding the universal principles you claim to believe in?’ the people in the social justice movements ended up saying things like ‘My truth narrative is in competition with your truth narrative!’” Logically, those in power could then dismiss their claims as unintelligible. “And the secret weapon,” Egan has his little puppet conclude, “lived on in the universities for years and years, because everyone who’d played a part in the conspiracy was too embarrassed to admit what they’d done.”

I agree with Egan that academic prose in the Humanities has been colonised by unnecessary, distorting jargon that seems designed to obscure rather than illuminate meaning. Obviously, there is no conspiracy, although I’m well aware that an inability to spout certain types of jargon is a serious obstacle to publication in many major journals. Whenever I hear someone confidently delivering a paper in a conference written in said jargon, I marvel at how it is done. It often feels like a foreign language embedded in English which I will never master. I do doubt that, apart from papers, though, people speak like this in real life, at least I’ve never heard anyone use the language Amita uses with the children in Teranesia. Language from which Prabir feels called to protect his sister to the point of claiming a very early emancipation from Amita, which even jeopardises his own education.

Madushree, who chooses to pursue an education as a scientist, plays in the late stages of Tiranesia a crucial role, though still an undergrad. Here’s the joke on Egan: these final chapters of his novel (too hurried, not that well written) reveal ultimately the inability of current scientific language to connect with the average reader. I trusted that the medical bio-babble his characters were spouting made sense in a scientific context, though some reviewers pointed that was not the case. The particular problem revealed by Egan’s dialogue, I’ll insist, is that hard SF highlights the enormous distance between scientists and non-scientists in our current culture. As everyone knows, of course, who is aware of the disputes in the field of SF between the hard and soft options.

Egan, of course, would tell you that unlike Amita and Keith he is using accurate language and that for him a spade is a spade. I can even hear Amita and Keith celebrating the complexity and richness of Egan’s scientific mentality, and even defending the idea that they’re contributing to creating a scientific vocabulary for the Humanities (as if criticism needs that). I just feel frustrated that while he sees that the Humanities’ Emperor may be naked, he does not see –quite stubbornly– that the Sciences’ Emperor is, if not naked, at least wearing very strange clothes.

I wonder how Egan and Amita would communicate if left alone for coffee. And if anyone listening in would understand a single word.

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GIVING ADVICE ON ACADEMIC CAREERS: AN IMPOSSIBLE TASK

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

In the last month I have given advice to three students who’d like to pursue an academic career and, to be honest, I didn’t know what to tell them. The easiest part is describing the mechanics of doctoral programmes and the accreditation system. The hardest part is assessing for them their chances to ever get a job as a university teacher. Slim, really slim.

I myself came up with this crazy idea that I wanted to be a university teacher of Literature at 17, in my last year in secondary school. My family are working class and I knew from a very early age that a) I didn’t want to work in a factory, b) I didn’t want to work in an office. Being a teenager myself, and not liking teenagers that much (nor younger children) but having a vocation to teach, I realised the university had to be my choice.

Also, the person I most admired then was my Spanish Literature teacher, Sara Freijido Fidalgo, a formidable woman. I was in such awe of her wisdom that I even failed an exam with her, the only time I’ve failed a Literature exercise in my life. Retrospectively, I wonder why someone as brilliant as Dr. Freijido (I think she was a doctor, I’m not sure) had not been kept by the University of Barcelona, where she’d been an associate teacher, rumours indicated. Add to this the mysterious words that my friend Eva Ceano pronounced when I announced to her my decision to be like this other Sara but in a university context (and teaching English, not Spanish Literature): ‘You know they’re a mafia, right?’ No, I didn’t (Eva had the middle-class background, not I) but her warning has helped to keep me on my toes. Since then.

Mafia, no, not quite. Feudal system (that’s another label often heard) no, not quite. What is true is that, as I discovered in my own case, university teachers are also talent scouts, always bearing in mind certain talented students for whenever a job comes up. In my own case (sorry to sound so smug), I did get a call, but then I had to compete hard for the position that had opened. I continued competing hard with others for the following 11 years, until I got tenure –endogamy, yeah, sure… Not for me.

When I responded enthusiastically to that early call, the person who made it poured a little cold water over my hot head by warning me that the pay was low, less than I was making as an English teacher in a language school. Who cared? I was in… Nobody warned about what was coming to my life, which often felt like the worst nightmare, but I would not have listened anyway. That’s the problem with vocations: you don’t listen.

So when I meet students as keen as I was on an academic career and I paint to them the whole black panorama, I still see that look of resistance in their eyes –I’m going to try, anyway, I don’t care what you say. When I tried myself, there were full time jobs for beginners without doctoral degrees because the Socialist Government was investing much money on public education and the university was soaking it up. Today, 23 years later, the full time jobs are gone and nobody knows how we’re supposed to train the new generation of teachers. According to a recent report by the Tribunal de Cuentas, a major problem is that the although the Spanish university has too many teachers, it keeps on hiring staff and even offering tenure. This totally mystifies me, as it is by no means what I have seen in more than two decades in my own Department. We have always had too few teachers.

Actually, the situation is getting worse all the time. Just last week, we were told that the vacancies left by retired or deceased teachers will simply disappear in a new ‘clean-slate’ policy. We counted on these vacancies (six in our Department) to consolidate the aspiring tenurees with accreditations who’ve been around for more than ten years, as no new positions (as mine was) are being created. I’m well aware that other Departments are overstaffed but I’m more and more certain that this is a case of ‘justos-por-pecadores.’

I’ll explain, then, in case someone else is interested, that whereas I could produce my doctoral dissertation in three years while I was employed full time as a teaching assistant by UAB, now aspiring academics are on their own. From the beginning of the MA to post-doc level universities offer practically no help. I’ve seen recently a very brilliant student, with close links to the research group I belong to, be denied all grants – he’s migrating to Holland. Clearly, they’re cropping us off at the bottom, and at the top. I very often feel I’m the last of the Mohicans.

I guess that those with the stamina which the challenge requires will find ways to train on their own for an academic career and then come knocking on our doors in ten years’ time. Necessarily, some position will then come up, unless the plan is to wipe out the entire Spanish university. A fast ageing teaching establishment makes very little sense in a fast changing world. When I mentioned there were plans to perhaps extend our retirement age to 75 (it’s 70 currently) one of my male colleagues expressed his hope that the authorities would take into account weakened prostates…

There are days when I feel not only privilege but also guilty when I think about the future of the younger academics, even though I’m trying to do my best to help them. The only thing I can say is good luck, don’t give up, fight the fight. We do need you.

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FANTASIZING ALTERNATIVE FATHER FIGURES: THE WAY, WAY BACK

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Just three posts ago I wrote about reviewing in websites like Amazon or IMBD. Today I’m opening this post with my eyebrows raised because the IMDB reviews I’ve just been reading for a film I enjoyed last night (Nat Faxon & Jim Rash’s The Way, Way Back, 2013) seem to describe ten different films. The average rating for the film is 7’4. For me it’s an 8. For 7605 voters this is a 10, for 629 this is a 1 (IMDB does not allow 0s). How can I recommended it in view of this? How can anyone recommend anything, I wonder?

I’m taking then an oblique angle on the film to say: Potterheads, if you care to see a successful Muggle version of the Harry-Sirius relationship, this is it. For this a story about a teen boy, Duncan, who finds someone who cares, Owen. And what I love about Owen, and possibly what any Potterhead loves about Sirius, is that neither has the obligation to care. Yet they do.

Let me explain. Most teen pics focus on 16-year-olds discovering how to empower themselves in relation to their parents and peers. Duncan is, in contrast, totally disempowered. He’s just 14, that uncomfortable age in which he cannot yet refuse going on a summer holiday with his mum, her obnoxious new boyfriend and his odious teen daughter. Raised by a divorced mother too scared, as she confesses, to face life alone, and distant from a father who does not care for him, Duncan needs badly a reliable man in his life. Trent, the boyfriend, is simply hateful –a Dursley if I’ve seen one. At the film’s start he asks Duncan how he’d rate himself on a scale from 1 to 10. The boy, confused and upset, answers 6. Trent (based on a stepfather of one of the film directors) replies that for him Duncan’s just a 3. What kind of man, later Duncan wonders, would ask a boy a question like that?

As I’ve been arguing for years, the main topic of US cinema is not romantic love but the father-son bond. Fun or tragic, Leia and Han Solo, Amidala and Annakin are not the centre of the story –the centre is Darth Vader’s revelation to Luke Skywalker that he’s Luke’s father. Whether close or absent, fathers are mostly inadequate, as films written by men have been complaining for about three decades. Fight Club (both novel and film) has that devastating dialogue in which Tyler Durden and his alter ego (or viceversa) come to the conclusion, after discussing how useless their absent fathers are, that “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.” Indeed no. The answer is an (alternative) father figure.

As fantasy father figures go, Owen is great. He’s, I think, what Sirius could have been without the long years in prison, the bitterness. Even though Owen is the embodiment of irresponsibility when it comes to his own life and job (he manages a water park), he acts very responsibly by Duncan. He takes the boy under his wing, gives him a job and embarks him on a programme aimed at raising his self-esteem, dispelling his overwhelming shyness. It works reasonably well given the short span Duncan spends (secretly) under Owen’s tutelage. Harry would have been so happy to have Sirius help him this way.

Funnily, neither the film nor the reviewers note how complicated navigating the matter of sexuality is here. A spectator does complain that the film is sexually too sanitized, another one that Duncan’s mother is too careless about the company his son keeps. The boy simply does not tell his mother where he’s working and who for, and this seems right for, surely, relationships between boys and adult men are so contaminated by the sad reality of abuse that it’s hard to imagine how the fine friendship that develops in the film could happen in real life.

The Way, Way Back is a very simple tale in comparison to Harry Potter, and there’s absolutely no need for Owen to sacrifice himself at all as Sirius does. What the film highlights for me is how necessary the intervention of well-meaning adults is for young people (and I also include girls) beyond the family circle. Yet, if the intervention of adults entitled to help, such as teachers, is difficult enough, imagine how impossible to digest is the presence of someone like Owen –who helps Duncan just because he feels like doing it.

You may undermine all this by arguing that in reality Owen would seek some satisfaction, whether sexual or emotional, but, well, I’m not discussing reality, I’m discussing fantasy, for this is a fantasy no doubt. What the directors and screen playwrights are showing is wishful thinking, but as it always happens with wishful thinking what matters is the absence, the lack it is built on.

Food for thought, there in Hollywood and here.

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DUBBING: THE IGNORED ACTORS

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

When I included the film adaptation of Harry Potter as a topic for my course I intended to consider how the movies betray or enhance the text –yes, the old-fashioned fidelity criterion. Also, I wanted to examine the very British cast. However, I ended transforming the two planned lectures into far more active sessions on, first, translation (with the help of Ariadna García Turón, working Harry Potter for her BA dissertation) and, second, dubbing.

A friend suggested that I contact Masumi Mutsuda, the actor who dubbed Harry into Catalan. Although a bit disoriented by his name (his dad is Japanese, his mum Spanish) I did so and he, very generously, allowed himself to be interviewed not only on Harry-related matters but on the much wider issue of dubbing. It was, for all of us, a great lesson on how culture works. Also, the best possible ending for the course.

Masumi’s answers allowed us to understand not only how the whole process of dubbing a film works, starting with casting, but also how invisible this practice is. When I asked which scene I should show as a sample of his work, he chose one in Deathly Hallows, part 1, when Harry, Hermione and Ron –much stressed and on the run from Voldemort– quarrel. Ron then leaves. You should see the surprised faces of my American and British students, hearing the trio they know so well speak in a totally unknown language… We had to explain to them matters as peculiar such as the fact that several famous Hollywood actors share the same Spanish or Catalan voice. And this is odd. Yet, we take it for granted.

Dubbing was introduced by Hollywood studios as soon as sound made it into films (1927, The Jazz Singer). In the Babel tower that Europe is this resulted in a split in the 1930s between countries who opted for subtitling and those, like Spain, which chose dubbing. The high illiteracy rate of spectators made reading subtitles impractical. I refer to the times of the Spanish Republic (1931-6). Franco’s regime, imitating Hitler and Mussolini, passed a law in 1941 banning subtitles in any language spoken in Spain and making dubbing compulsory, albeit only in Spanish Castilian. Subtitles were gradually allowed from the 1950s onwards (in Castilian, for art-house films). Dubbing into the other languages, however, only re-emerged in the 1980s with the new regional media. Dallas made TV3 very popular.

Masumi Mutsuda argued that, for the spectator, the most reasonable practice should be to see in the original version the films whose original language the spectator understands and, then, consume dubbed versions for the rest. This sounds very sensible. Yet, I put a stop to this in my own practice when I saw a Korean thriller (I forget the title) in which a gang of Chinese criminals and a gang of Korean villains met to discuss business –they spoke English to each other but their native language among themselves. Now imagine all this dubbed into Spanish… Ironically, it seems Masumi dubbed the scene!!

Children, who cannot really read fast-moving subtitles proficiently until at least twelve (my guess), are quite another matter. I don’t know how they manage in, say, Finland, when they show Disney films to kids who don’t even know how to read, but in that context the matter of dubbing makes sense. Actually, Masumi and my own students were at the centre of a fascinating, still on-going war between the Generalitat and the Hollywood distributors for dubbing into Catalan.

I chronicled that in an article you can find in my web. Basically, Warner Bros. declined to dub the first Harry Potter film (Philosopher’s Stone, 2001) into Catalan, despite having obtained already a subsidy to do so from the Catalan Government, Generalitat. 50,000 angry parents of the 200,000 children who’d read the book in Catalan (as many as children who’d read it in Spanish in Catalonia) started a furious campaign… that led Warner Bros. to apologise and to offer a few subtitled copies (useless…). They agreed to dub all subsequent Harry Potter films into Catalan. Now: my students were among these 200,000 children, the campaigners were their own parents or their peers, and Masumi was cast to be Harry from the second film onwards –he did dub the first one, too, for its TV3 release. He knew about the conflict, my students did not or had forgotten.

My students moved onto the original version of the books and films as soon as they could, around age 13, and often with great difficulties. Considering that most started reading Harry Potter aged between 7 and 10, you can see how great their dependence was on the translations of the books (and how nonchalantly these were produced!!) and on dubbing –in the language of their choice. Dubbing even affected the translation in the Catalan case and it many others it seems. The (very questionable) translator Laura Escorihuela was replaced after book four when she refused to give Warner Bros. for free the right to use her translation as the basis of dubbing for the first film. What a story…

Masumi tells me that in Japan dubbing actors (or voice actors, the term he uses) are big stars with specialised magazines, fans, etc. Here, even though their contribution is so crucial for our access to foreign culture and their quality amazingly high, they’re anonymous. He himself, though a professional making a living off his trade, runs a small start-up company with some friends on the side. Just in case work turns slack.

I believe that film critics are very much to blame for this state of affairs. I hate it when they praise the work of a particular actor despite having seen a dubbed version of the film in question (when they even mispronounce the names of actors or characters that is obvious). If they got into the habit of seeing both versions and praising the talent of the voice actors, things would be quite different. The pretence that voice actors contribute nothing and are just a transparent medium for the original actor to shine should be dropped urgently.

Thanks Masumi!! I’ll do my best to teach this to anyone who’ll listen.

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THE MATTER OF SCOTLAND AND WHY SCOTLAND MATTERS

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Twenty years ago, I spent some time in Scotland on a scholarship as a doctoral student at the University of Stirling (though I eventually moved to Glasgow). I have kept since then an interest in Scottish Literature (you’ve read here about my beloved Iain M. Banks), and, intermittently, in the matter of Scottish independence. I actually consider the comparison between Scottish and Catalan nationalism one of my research areas, though a very minor one. I have published some pieces, which you can find in my website. Now I’m waiting for the end of 2014… to go on.

The thesis I have been arguing is that Scotland and Catalonia are vastly different but share, nonetheless, major traits: a dislike for political violence (unlike Ireland and the Basque Country nationalisms, at least until recently) and a strong civil society used to achieving goals through dialogue and compromise. Roughly speaking, as regards recent historical times, the Scots learned very much throughout the 1980s from Catalan ‘autonomia’ about how to proceed in their quest for Devolution. When this came, courtesy of Labour’s Tony Blair, in 1996, the SNP vowed to stage a referendum for independence in 15 years time. 2011 did not bring the referendum itself, but it did bring the election as Scottish PM of SNP’s Alex Salmond. He fulfilled his electoral promise and the Scots will have a completely legal referendum on September 18 as we, Catalans, look on with envy.

Let me explain this envy, on very personal grounds. Yesterday I watched on TV3 the documentary ‘Homage to Scotland’, which I found tedious, predictable and conventional. I keep however, from it, two moments: one, the information about the White Book by the Scottish Government on the future of Scotland if the vote for independence wins (the .mobi file is already in my Kindle – where’s the Catalan White Book, I wonder?). Two: David Cameron’s campaign meeting, asking the rest of Britons to call their friends and relatives in Scotland to convince them to stay… because they love them. I know this is manipulative sentimentalism of the worst kind but, still, it’s nice when you’re asked by a friendly voice not to leave… because you’re loved.

I’m not going to raise here the spectre of Catalanophobia so often invoked. I had a very long talk with my ex-student Samuel yesterday and I’ll borrow his thesis that what marks the relationship between Spain and Catalonia is not hatred but indifference towards the other’s reality. The way I see it, a major flaw of the Spanish state is its failure to instil pride in the cultural diversity of Spain because of its indifference towards variety. In a state proud of this amazing bounty, all children would be taught in school a smattering of the other languages of Spain –and the Spanish ‘Presidente’ would speak them reasonably (well, I don’t know about Basque!). Instead, I have always felt that monolingual Spain sees the other cultures as either local eccentricities or irksome obstacles in the smooth path towards linguistic and cultural uniformity.

Spanish TV, for instance, has local regional branches in the ‘other’ languages, but it never shows a complete programme in Catalan, Galician or Basque on its national channel. You may spend your whole life in Spain and never hear someone speak the other languages on national TV for more than a minute or two. This, for me (remember I’m a philologist), is not reasonable. I know that the linguistic argument does not apply to Scotland, which is why I have always maintained that theirs is a completely different case. And, actually, what is absolutely misunderstood mainly by the Spanish nationalists and to a great extend by the Catalan nationalists is the bilingual, bicultural reality of most people in Catalonia. I’m happy to have had access from childhood to two languages and two cultures (no, I don’t vote Ciutadans). Catalan must be protected by both the Catalan and the Spanish governments, for it is in danger of disappearing. At the same time, I know from the children in my family that an education in Catalan is no obstacle for active bilingualism.

I really think that Rajoy could take lessons from David Cameron. How can he not see that every time he says ‘no’ to Artur Mas’s 9th November referendum independentism grows at least 1%? Will he turn out to be a bigger independentist, in the end, than Oriol Junqueras (by the way, a UAB colleague from the History Department…)? In Scotland many claim that their wish for independence is mainly due to Maggie Thatcher 1980s anti-Scottish policies. Just think of Rajoy calling Mas to say “don’t go, we love you” (or even better, “no marxeu, us estimem”… or the equivalent in his native Galician), and you’ll quickly understand what’s missing here –call it political hypocrisy, or genuine affection, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that, at least, there’s some kind of dialogue between Cameron and Salmond.

Insert here a deep bilingual (or trilingual) sigh…

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REVIEWING (FOR FREE): CONSIDERATIONS ON FREE TIME AND SOCIAL NETWORKING

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

I remember asking a few years ago a well-published Spanish writer –I was going to say ‘professional’ but she actually works as a lecturer– whether she ran a blog of her own. Elia Barceló, that was the author in question, answered she’d rather not write without getting paid (though I see she relented, at least for a while).

I often think of her words. When I wonder whether what I do by writing this blog is professional or personal (both, I think) and when I wonder how much spare time people have, seeing they offer countless reviews online… for free. I keep this blog, to be honest, for reasons of mental hygiene –I’m not enrolled in any gym (I did practice yoga for four years but this seems to be over), yet I have turned out to be quite disciplined when it comes to forcing my neurones to take periodical exercise. Every four days ideally, at least once a week. Um, sounds like something else!!

Writing is always a pleasure but, as happens with any kind of sport, it is also a chore. I recall my Spanish Literature teacher in the last year at secondary school, the wonderful and demanding Sara Freijido, claiming that intellectual work is also physically tiring, something that for me, a blue-collar worker’s daughter, was short of anathema… (imagine for my father!) So, like people who run marathons, I love writing but I have to force myself to do it. In a way the blog also exists to discipline me into curbing down the temptation to procrastinate (I find that I write faster but it still takes me forever to start academic articles). I recommend it…

All this comes from two main nagging ideas. One is my students’ class presentations and comments on fan fiction; the other is my having read a very good review on Amazon.com (of Richard Morgan’s SF novel Altered Carbon). Both ideas share this basic wonder or curiosity: how come people use their spare time for writing and for reviewing… just for the sake of it?

Possibly, this is because I don’t understand very well the idea of free time. My main hobby has always been reading and, thus, whenever I have free time you’ll find me with a book in my hands –which often becomes part of my professional pursuits. I use my ‘real’ free time for other matters such as seeing friends, going to exhibitions, theatre, concerts, etc… Yet, I don’t do activities in my spare time that result in ‘products’, from, I don’t know, a dress to… fan fiction or a review (this is why I think the blog is work, not leisure). It baffles me absolutely when I see people ‘produce’ something in their spare time, from muffins to… fan fiction or a review. It’s so… Victorian!!

I read very often IMDB and Amazon reviews written by people with time in their hands and a wish to enlighten the world. I keep a list of films watched on IMDB, and in this way I force myself to go through the titles I have seen more or less every month. It’s good to fix their imprint or lack thereof in my memory. IMDB offers the possibility of rating each film and also of writing reviews –I rate all the films I see but I never write reviews, particularly when I see hundreds of people have already contributed. If I write at all, it’s only about very little known Spanish and Catalan films that deserve much more attention (or documentaries). I must have written about 6 reviews in total, out of a list recording more than 3,000 films watched.

I find that reviews should be limited to a couple of paragraphs, as people tend to write overlong pieces –yet, this ads to my bafflement about why they use so much energy in reviewing. Is it a didactic instinct or is it narcissism? I know that there are lists of ‘top reviewers’, people who have written literally hundreds of reviews, or more… Same with Amazon. Whenever I read a book, I check the most valuable negative review (I never find the most positive ones really trustworthy) and I marvel at how widespread the ability to offer good criticism is. Reviewing is a very hard exercise and when I read a good piece over 500 words long I know that the author has possibly employed a couple of hours of his/her time for my benefit and anyone else’s. That’s, well, very nice.

I wonder what’s happened to professional critics since the mid 1990s when everyone started publishing opinions online. I’m well aware that may have managed to retain their authority since cultural consumers still make a distinction between the professional with a unique individual voice, and the amateur on the social network –who remembers their names? I’m also well aware that the reviewing realms I visit are heavily biased: to begin with, they’re in English; second, there’s always the suspicion that the enthusiastic reviewers that push totally forgettable books and films to the heights of hype are on someone’s payroll. Still, they’re there, making and breaking reputations.

Perhaps this works not so much because we want guidance, or sharing opinion, but because we’re lazy. I had already read Altered Carbon years ago and dismissed it to the point that I gave the copy away. A variety of circumstances led me to think I had undervalued, perhaps, this novel, so I returned to it. Once I decided I wasn’t going to include it in the course on SF I’m planning for 2015-16, I just got too lazy to think it through and pin down the reasons for my dislike. So, I checked that Amazon review and, well, that guy got it so right… His effort freed me to employ my neurones in writing this post. Some irony there.

One thing I can tell for sure: hardly any film with less than a 7 on IMDB is worth watching… This would be 3’5 stars for books on Amazon. And in a world with so much to read and see this is very valuable information. Isn’t it wonderful that this comes out of so many people, so much free time?

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ADDICTIVE AND WONDERFUL: THE EXPERIENCE OF READING THE HARRY POTTER SERIES

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

As I explained two posts ago, I have been very busy editing a collective volume which gathers together my students’ essays on their experience of reading the Harry Potter series: it’s called Addictive and Wonderful. The .pdf file of the volume (132 pages!!) is now available online, from the UAB’s repository, at https://ddd.uab.cat/record/118225. I am now in the process of publicising it among anyone who will listen and I’ll ask you, please, to help me. I’m neither on Facebook nor on Twitter… Thanks.

As I explain in the ‘Preface’, I gathered together the essays thinking of writing an article which would contradict Harold Bloom’s famous attack in The Wall Street Journal (November 2000). This is a review of the first volume in the series in which he called Rowling’s young readers ‘non-readers’ and in which he basically came to the snobbish conclusion that ‘oh, well, at least turning pages is better than using screens.’ The 56 persons who have contributed to the volume (mostly BA students in my class, but also some MA students who showed an interest, my colleague Bela Clúa and myself), offer quite a different impression of the process of reading the series. Most, whether they were already readers or not, make the claim that reading Harry Potter confirmed their passion for reading –indeed beyond the series, and into the university.

The volume contributors were asked to write personal, informal essays (not academic) about their experience. I provided them with my own essay as a sample, which was written very much in the same chatty but earnest tone I use here. Logically, since I started reading Rowling’s series at 38, my experience had to be different from theirs. Where I am flippant, they’re candid, where I try to conceal my overreactions, they show pure emotion. After all, they’re dealing with their own childhood. I must confess that some of the essays brought tears to my eyes, as the authors described difficult childhoods, marred by abandonment or divorce, and how they found comfort in reading Harry Potter. You will see, however, very easily why other essays moved me to tears for more positive reasons: for the happiness, enjoyment, pleasure the good memories transmit (often shared with mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins, aunts, friends…)

I invited my students to present orally to their classmates what they’d written and the three sessions we’ve used confirmed an unexpected find: the experience is quite homogeneous despite the cultural (and personal) differences. Students from Canada, Bulgaria, China, the United States and the United Kingdom narrated essentially the same process as my own Catalan and Spanish students (I make the distinction here because the language of their original contact with the series did matter). Many teachers of English Studies might be surprised to learn that impatience to know how the characters would fare led many of our students to attempt to read the books in English quite young (around 13), whether they were ready or not. They not only grew up with Harry, but learnt English with him. And here they are, reading more Literature in English with us.

Many aspects of the essays and of the situation I have stumbled into surprise me very much: as I write in the ‘Preface’ I have quite accidentally become a catalyser for an experience which, I think, is shared by many, many more students than we might think. I’ve had students bringing friends to class, another came from the Universitat de Barcelona last week as soon as I told him about my subject. Next week I’ll be publicising the online volume in my school, we’ll see what happens… I know that many are not only indifferent but also disdainful (not really hostile), but I myself have learnt plenty about my own approach to reading, and this is what matters in the end.

The email messages I have got from my colleagues mostly congratulate me on the initiative of working with the students (sorry, I feel very smug today!!). What I need to say here is that I firmly believe that the work I’ve carried out has application beyond the specific topic that occupies me. The good contacts with the staff that runs the DDD (the repository) at UAB are allowing me to self-publish not only my own academic work (strictly speaking, as this volume is also academic work) but also to test out new ideas as regards my teaching. In July I hope to publish a second volume on Harry Potter, this time with the best papers by the students. And next year, when I teach ‘Gender Studies’ I’ll publish a volume with the students’ own view of how gender issues affect them today. As a teacher told me, Addictive and Wonderful had allowed her to get an insight into who the students are and I think we need to learn that – at least as an ageing teacher, I need to find a way to learn who these young people are!

Send me comments or email me, please, if you happen to enjoy Addictive and Wonderful, as I hope you will. As I have. I must confess that when I finished the volume I burst out crying – I could only explain to my sympathetic husband that I was already nostalgic of a teaching experience I may never have again, not with the same emotional intensity. As we agreed in class, neither Literary Theory nor Literary Studies have quite managed to deal with emotion (not even in reader-response theory). Much less with our very deep need for the people whom we meet in the pages of the books we love best.

Harold Bloom and company… really…

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CONCHITA WURST, THE EUROVISION SONG CONTEST AND A BEARD: A VINDICATION OF THE WORD ‘PERSON’

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

For the last three years I have been watching the Eurovision Song Contest with two of my nieces. I think I grew nostalgic of the great fun that watching the show was for me as a little girl, hence the idea to share this with the girls, now 9 and 5. This year the experience has turned into a magnificent lesson in Gender Studies, which is why I’m writing this post. As a researcher, not just an aunt ;-)

As you, my reader, possibly know by now the winner turned out to be Austrian singer Conchita Wurst and her atmospheric song “Rise like a Phoenix”. My eldest niece is quite alert to gender matters and highly sensitised against homophobia because of the presence of gay relatives and friends in her life. So I explained to her that both Russia and Belarus had demanded that Conchita’s performance be censored for she happens to be… a lady sporting a beard. The homophobes all over Europe were horrified by her ambiguous looks and, I read on Friday, the Austrians had decided to support their representative by sporting fake bears (or natural ones the men) throughout the show. This is why before the show started, the girls and I built ourselves very nice beards (cut out from paper and painted with coloured pencils, then stuck to drinking straws, in the style of elegant carnival masks).

I loved best the lovely Dutch song and actually voted Conchita’s second best in our own private family vote. My nieces were all for Iceland’s Pollapönk, a band made up of four primary school teachers who charmed the girls with their colourful suits and lively performance. To my pleasure, the lyrics to their song “No prejudice” include the following refrain: “Let’s do away with prejudice/ don’t discriminate, tolerance is bliss/ we got to get together on this/ cross this problem off our list.” My nieces found Conchita charming, we donned our beards as she sang (they made a paper wig for my husband!) and we were all generally happy that the Austrian representative won a very clear victory. It was a big night for Europe, a night in which prejudice was erased, if only a little bit. It all counts.

The following morning, I made a mistake: I Googled Conchita. I had initially decided not to worry about whether Conchita was the classic freak-show bearded lady in post-modern version, or a drag queen but curiosity bested me. Conchita is Tom Neuwirth and, if you ask me, he looks very nice as Tom though far less intriguing than Conchita. I asked my nieces whether they wanted to see Conchita with no make up and no beard and very wisely the youngest said no way. The eldest said yes, why not?… and got monumentally annoyed when she found out that Conchita, after all, was no freakish-looking lady but a guy. I tried to explain the concept ‘drag queen’ to her but she only got even more annoyed. She felt cheated.

So, here I was, the Gender Studies specialist, celebrating charming Conchita’s triumph and considering whether this was the beginning of a new view of gender, with the word ‘person’ taking over, instead of ‘man’ and ‘woman’. And there goes my niece to bring me back down to Earth. For her, sticking up to a woman, no matter in which shape, was fine; defending a man impersonating a woman, bearded or not, not so fine. How naïve of me to think we were moving forward.

Of course, she could not articulate the reasons for her dislike of Tom Neuwirth and I feel guilty for having kept up the fantasy that Conchita might be a girl. To add to this, my mother suggested that Conchita had won because of the morbid interest of audiences on her/his body, an idea which I tried to reject on the grounds of her exceptional voice –but which kept resurfacing as Sunday moved on. Today, Monday, I have decided to write this post but not touch Google again. We’ll see how Conchita progresses or not.

To be honest, let me acknowledge that I don’t sympathise much with male to female transvestites, as they impersonate a type of femininity that only exists in patriarchal fantasies. Sorry. What I like about Conchita is how the beard contradicts this stereotyped view of femininity. I had not classed her with the drag queens actually because they tend to be quite flamboyant and Conchita’s style is more muted. I thought that the beard was a very clever comment on both transvestism and the whole drag queen phenomenon though I may have been duped by the facial hair into, as my niece saw, supporting a guy. Once more.

Let me go back, anyway, to that sweet moment when Conchita took the statuette that goes with the award and I saw on the screen a person, neither man nor woman, for it was an absolutely liberating moment. I have no idea about what Tom Neuwirth meant, maybe he just wanted his 15 minutes of fame, but I just wish there were more Conchitas around –and now I mention this, more men in skirts like the wonderful dancers accompanying the Irish singer. What a pity she didn’t make it to the final…

All in all, I’m still very happy that the homophobes of Europe failed so utterly… Putin, eat this!!

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A VINDICATION OF AUNTS… (READING THE HARRY POTTER SERIES)

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

I have been VERY busy finishing the edition of a collective volume which gathers together my students’ essays on their experience of reading the Harry Potter series. This volume is called Addictive and Wonderful, a phrase borrowed from the essay in it by Marta Canals, and will hopefully be available on the internet soon. I’m publishing it on the UAB’s repository as part of my personal campaign to vindicate the free dissemination of academic work, or, rather, of knowledge.

The volume runs to about 72,000 words, a full book. I decided, though, NOT to contact any publisher. I don’t think this is a product to be welcome by a commercial or academic publishing house, I shudder just to think of the mess involved in asking Ms. Rowling and Warner Bros. for permission to publish anything on Harry Potter for profit, and I simply want publication to happen as I still teach the Harry Potter elective. My students are currently presenting to their classmates what they wrote for my benefit, and their reward will be the online publication. My own reward is how beautiful the volume is, trust me…

I’ll say more about the collection when the volume is out. In the meantime, let me focus on a curious point in my students’ memoirs about Harry Potter: the role of aunts. Though most of the 56 essays mention parents, to my surprise a very nice total of 14 mention aunts. Only 3 mention uncles… and very differently. I am an aunt myself, meaning that though childless and not particularly fond of children, I’m finding great personal fulfilment in the role (see the following post…). My four nieces are readers (not my nephew…) and it is for me particularly rewarding to choose books for them. I’m actually waiting for the eldest to be 11 to buy her the first Harry Potter book. After reading what my students have to say about aunts, I wonder whether I can still wait for 18 more months…

In Addictive and Wonderful, aunts are seen to do their ‘duty’ by their nieces and nephews and buy Harry Potter books for their birthdays and Christmas, sometimes following the children’s suggestions but also because they know Harry and seek to please them. In one case, a boy who was abandoned by his father with his great-uncle and aunt, whom he calls the Dursleys, is amazed when Aunt Dursley buys him a Harry Potter book –for that is the only real present he ever got from her (apart from socks…). In another touching case, the aunt is only a few years older than the niece and the first Harry Potter book is also the first present she gives the little girl. For the little girl, in her turn, this is the first ‘real’ book she gets. Other aunts, described as ‘avid readers’ keep an eye on what might interest their nieces and nephews and inform the parents, usually the mother. In some cases, it’s the other way round: aunts buy what parents suggest.

Four of the seven aunts described as ‘avid readers’ not only buy some of the books or take the children to see some of the movies: they share the whole experience, also ‘avidly’. A girl explains how her aunt got so interested in the books that she decided to learn enough English to read them in the original version; the girl followed her in this, borrowing the volumes from her aunt. A second girl is fortunate enough to share not only the books but the eight films as well with her aunt. Another girl names her aunt as an example of a person of a different generation also interested in the series. As proof that Harry Potter actually interested three generations, a fourth girl mentions a paternal aunt, who bought her niece the books on condition that she could borrow them!

Uncles, in contrast, are far less visible. A boy explains that his uncle and aunt, his godparents actually, gave him the first book as a Christmas present. The second uncle mentioned is employed at a printing press, and he simply gives his niece a pile of books, among which the first Harry Potter. The third uncle is mentioned but for exactly the opposite reasons why the aunts are mentioned. A girl recalls how her uncle upset her by declaring: “You’re wasting your time. You don’t really think you will be interested in Harry Potter in a few years, do you? By the time the last movie comes out you will be around 18. You will have long forgotten about it.” Contradicting her short-sighted uncle, she writes: “But I think that is exactly the reason why I feel so attached to the saga. I grew up with it.” A view most students subscribe.

Only 14 of the 56 essays are by young men, as this happens to be the ratio of men to women in class (actually I invited 2 students not registered in the course to submit essays). It is then quite logical that I have referred here mainly to essays by girls. The fact is that aunts are mostly mentioned by girls (boys very often mention mothers), and it might well be that we, aunts, manage better to form steadier relationship with nieces than with nephews. Part of that relationship consists, it seems, of making books available and even sharing them with our nieces. At least, I haven’t come across an example of an aunt sharing Harry Potter with her nephew, though the sample surveyed might not be extensive enough. Alternatively, boys who have reading mothers seem not to require reading aunts, whereas girls are happier to get as many reading females in the family as they can.

Ironically, though the supply of nice aunts seems to be quite satisfactory, the demand for nice uncles is by no means covered. A girl writes about Sirius Black, my own favourite character in the Harry Potter series and seemingly everyone else’s (apart from Hermione for the girls) that Sirius was “the uncle I always wanted.” Absolutely!! In the saga Sirius buys Harry a spectacular flying broom for Quidditch, but I can very well see him giving Harry… the first Harry Potter book and sharing the whole experience with him. The uncle I always wanted, indeed.

Professor Freud, poor thing, had no idea really…

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A (CONFUSED) WORD ABOUT NON-FICTION (AND ROBERTO SAVIANO’S ZEROZEROZERO)

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Almost exactly two years ago I published a post titled “The other books: The problem of non-fiction”. I started by worrying about whether it is really true that as readers age the novel loses its charm and the other prose books gain ground in our preferences as readers. As I approach my 48th birthday I can very well say that this is the case, although novels still play in my reading habit a role that no other prose book can fulfil. Having said that, I know already, and it is only May, that I won’t read this year a better book than Roberto Saviano’s ZeroZeroZero, which begs many questions about what the best books are today (and what we mean by that).

To begin with, it’s hard to say to which genre ZeroZeroZero belongs. Saviano is a journalist and what he offers here is a report based on his (life-threatening) research. Yet, the chapter organization, the personal considerations and the often literary prose suggest that the aim is not just transmitting a certain type of information and a thesis (that cocaine plays a much bigger role in the world’s economy than we suspect). The aim is demonstrating that thesis, of course, but Saviano chose to do so in a way that also tickles the reading centres of our brain.

As I read I was, however, a bit confused about what I was supposed to feel, for my reactions veered from total horror at the violence Saviano narrates to admiration at the intelligent way he handles the telling of the tale. His previous book, Gomorra (2006), which I also admired very much, produces a similar effect: as a reader I don’t know what is the main key to the text –what it tells, how the author tells it or that Saviano has risked his life and lives under escort since then for his readers. I was going to claim that I ‘enjoyed’ Gomorra, but perhaps this is the key to my problem: it seems quite callous to enjoy Saviano’s books and perhaps I should stay with ‘admire’ as the most fitting verb.

Saviano answers towards the end of his book the question every reader is asking him mentally: why risk your life, and enrage the gangsters that run the world? He explains that his aim is telling the truth and that he will have been successful in his task if, after reading his book the reader feels that the world is a different place from what it was before opening the book covers. I do feel that and I thank Saviano for opining my eyes but, and this is a problem shared by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, I wonder whether these heroes really get their admirers to go beyond that admiration. Here I am saying that ZeroZeroZero is a great book, which is as absurd as praising Wikileaks for the quality of the prose in their communications. Perhaps, I am just wondering, this is Saviano’s fault for choosing to write a beautifully written volume instead of a dry report (I did miss, if you ask me a dramatis personae list as I couldn’t retain the many gangsters’ names he mentions, and I would have been grateful for an appendix with a map of the main cocaine transport lines).

Also in the last chapters Saviano considers for a moment whether he would have saved himself much trouble by writing ZeroZeroZero as a novel. In his way, he could have used false names for the gangsters and protect himself from their wrath. Actually non-fiction very often uses a hybrid form that he could have used, with frequent dramatisation of key scenes in the style of novels including dialogue that may or not have happened as it reproduced. Saviano’s book is full of memorable, terrifying scenes and it’s easy to imagine a soon-to-come film version based on them, as happened with Gomorra (made into a film in 2008). Yet, he uses mainly reporting prose to tell these stories, making it clear that his territory is not that of the novel, not even of the novelised non-fiction book in the style of Capote’s pioneering In Cold Blood.

I don’t take cocaine and never have, which is why in a way I can easily disconnect from Saviano’s whistle blowing –I find people who choose to destroy their precious neurons as deserving of their sad fate as people who choose to drink or smoke themselves to death. I know I sound smug but all addictions are initially a matter of choice. What I really appreciate in Saviano’s books (and I know that here I’m writing like a bad student, introducing new ideas in what should be my conclusion) is his relentless portrayal of patriarchal masculinity.

Reading about the lives of gangsters in Gomorra and of the cocaine lords in ZeroZeroZero, men always destined to be eliminated by their competitors often in very cruel ways or to serve long jail sentences, one wonders what the attraction can be. Unlike the public gangsters we all have in mind, I mean the corrupt politicians who live la vida loca without hiding at all, Saviano’s villains get, as the proverb about he wicked goes, no rest. He does explain in both books the simple truth: any disempowered man (and a tiny handful of women) given the chance to enjoy absolute power in his circle even at the risk of losing it all quickly will go for that, take his chance and hope it lasts.

Every time you snort white powder up your nose think of how you’re upholding the most sinister version of patriarchy. I’m sure few think of that…

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