Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Post-apocalyptic fiction deals, as it names indicates, with the aftermath of a catastrophe which affects a very large territory or even the whole world. Typically, an individual or a small group of survivors narrate their efforts to rebuild civilization, or to accept reluctantly that it is gone for ever. In some extreme cases, only one person survives (Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826)). Post-apocalyptic fiction flourished in the 1950s and 1980s as a consequence of fears connected with nuclear weapons, and is now undergoing its most productive period or ‘golden age’ (post 9/11 2001). Yet, Mary Shelley’s novel suggests that the secular fear of total annihilation is older than we think. I emphasize ‘secular’ because, of course, Bible readers are only too familiar with Saint John’s lurid description of the end in his Apocalypse. Funnily, ‘apocalypse’, a Greek word, does not mean ‘catastrophe’ but ‘revelation’.

Essentially, post-apocalyptic fiction imagines three types of total destruction: one originating in natural causes, the second caused by man’s intervention and the third by an intelligent, non-human enemy. Natural causes include comets and asteroids crashing against Earth, our own planet going berserk, an unexpected mutation causing a plague. Man-made disasters include, as I have noted, the feared nuclear holocaust, unstoppable environmental damage or irresponsible experiments (Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, 1990). The third case responds mainly to alien invasions (though in Octavia Butler’s late 1980s Lilith’s Brood trilogy the invasion appears to be a solution of sorts to the nuclear apocalypse).

Those of use who were young in the 1980s surely can still recall the intense fear of total nuclear wipe-out. 1984, in particular, the year when the first Terminator movie was released, is not for me an Orwellian year but rather the culmination of the madness that led Cold War leaders to amass enough nuclear power to destroy the world several thousand times over. Here in Barcelona, then a pre-Olympics nonentity, we wondered whether we were important enough to deserve the attentions of a Soviet missile. It is in human nature to control our worst fears by imagining terrifying catastrophes and this is what fiction did then copiously. We could choose between the 1980s terrifying productions (Robert McCammon’s very long novel Swan Song of 1987 became my absolute favourite as I loved the girl protagonist); or read the quaint fiction of the 1940s and 1950s, when a nuclear planetary Judgment Day was still fantasy and not a daily possibility.

With almost 16,000 nuclear bombs right now on Earth (93% in the hands of the USA and Russia, the others in those of France, China, United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea… some list) we cannot really say that the 2010s are substantially different from the 1980s, they are perhaps even worse. Yet I am sure that for most earthlings all the other potential catastrophes I have named are more likely to happen, particularly the (unlikely) zombifying plague as seen in The Walking Dead. In the best post-apocalyptic tale of the 21st century, so far, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) no specific cause is named as the originator of the dreadful life to which the father protagonist so fiercely clings (for the sake of his son).

I have the impression that the United States have been narrating their own decadence since 2001, when a very small group of terrorists launched an attack that, seen on TV, seemed bigger than any alien invasion (think Independence Day, 1996). American fiction, whether it is The Hunger Games trilogy or the action film San Andreas, is imagining with rabid insistence what it is like to go through unthinkable destruction (with abundant technological glee) and to adapt to a civilization which has little to do with the one before apocalypse. I am fascinated by this already long-lasting phenomenon but I am wondering when it is going to end, since a consequence of post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction is that it increases depression. This need not be so. The wonderful Mecanoscrit del segon origen (1974) by Manuel de Pedrolo, which taught me to love science fiction, is post-apocalyptic fiction of the alien obliteration variety. It is meant to give hope in human resilience even in the face of hyperbolic destruction, which also used to be the case in older post-apocalyptic tales. Hope is today small and waning, or plain incredible.

Let me name a few post-apocalyptic novels that we, the depressive paranoid types, indulge in (apart from the ones I have already mentioned and excluding alien invasion stories for the sake of brevity):

After London (Richard Jefferies, 1885)
The Scarlet Plague (Jack London, 1912)
Earth Abides (George R. Stewart, 1949)
I am Legend (Richard Matheson, 1954)
The Chrysalids (John Wyndham, 1955)
The Death of Grass/No Blade of Grass (John Christopher, 1956)
On the Beach (Nevil Shute, 1957)
Alas, Babylon (Pat Frank, 1959)
A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, Jr., 1960)
The Drowned World (J.G. Ballard, 1962)
Lucifer’s Hammer (Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, 1977)
The Stand (Stephen King, 1978)
Riddley Walker (Russell Hoban, 1980)
The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1985)
The Children of Men (PD James, 1992)
The Road (Cormac McCarthy, 2006)
World War Z (Max Brooks, 2006)
The Passage (Justin Cronin, 2010)
Wool (Hugh Howey, 2011)
Seveneves (Neal Stephenson, 2014)

No, I have not read all of them, just about two thirds. And if I am writing this post today it is because of two strange feelings associated with, in particular, Seveneves and the novel I finished yesterday, Earth Abides (soon to be a TV mini-series). In Stephenson’s massive book a micro black hole disintegrates the Moon, whose pieces destroy Earth by setting the atmosphere on fire as they fall. Two years mediate between our satellite’s collapse and apocalypse and, this is very odd, I felt relief. Oh, well, two years to go, how many stupid things can be finally left undone…

Stephenson imagines that mankind’s ingenuity (women’s mostly) allows human beings to re-make themselves and eventually reconquer Earth in fabulous high-tech style. Yet, unexpectedly, I don’t believe a word of it. In contrast, the far more modest Earth Abides (which inspired King’s also massive The Stand and probably also Seveneves) deals with the possibility that no adequate leader is found to reboot civilization. Ish Williams cannot cope nor can his small community understand the need to educate its children at least to be literate. The young quickly forget 20th century life, yet having been born after the ruinous plague and having missed the comforts of this by-gone life, they quickly adapt to the new circumstances. Just like our own young people, a friend tells me, are adapting to our post-crisis, post-apocalyptic times. No doubt.

I am told that not only extreme-right survivalist groups in America but also common citizens here in the little corner of the world where I live are preparing for world-wide catastrophe. People stupidly chose to believe in the recent past that an underground shelter would protect you from nuclear catastrophe, as they now seem to believe that learning basic survival skills (lighting a fire with two sticks) can protect you from the terminal destruction of Earth by the very obvious climate change. In Earth Abides the protagonist is a scholar (a geographer) who soon realizes that his scavenging community is no good; also, that urban dwellers too specialised in one task (like selling perfume) cannot survive. I have no illusions about my own usefulness yet I still see no point in learning to survive in caves. What you learn from reading post-apocalyptic fiction is that survival is not always the best possible option.

Having said that, this post has not been motivated by my apocalyptic fears about what the current political circumstances right here right now may bring (perhaps my reading list has) but by the tiny hope that apocalypse can be prevented and post-apocalyptic fiction be read as just a nightmare. Hopefully.

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Back when I was a doctoral student and computers where starting to be the sophisticated tools they are now, I asked my MA dissertation supervisor whether she would contemplate the idea of my submitting a novel for my PhD dissertation. I was thinking of producing something hypertextual because I had then read that William Faulkner wanted to have his masterpiece The Sound and the Fury (1929) printed in inks of different colours, depending on whose internal monologue we read. Fancy that, I thought, it would be wonderful to produce a text that benefitted from all the digital advances and that would go much, much further than the two-tone fantasy Faulkner entertained.

Understandably, Faulkner’s publisher talked him out of what would have been a high-cost operation and today we’re still stuck with boring black-on-white books; hypertexts have not really taken off, either, I’m not sure why. My own supervisor initially encouraged me, even though I had never written fiction at all, but finally decided no tribunal in Spain would be ready for the experiment. This was 1993, before anyone had heard of creative writing here, although the famous programme at the University of East Anglia had been established by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson back in 1970. “The UK’s first PhD in Creative and Critical Writing followed in 1987”, the website of UEA proudly claims, whereas “Creative Writing at undergraduate level has been taught informally since the 1960s and formally since 1995”.

No, I have never got around to writing either a publishable short story or a novel, which now and then (like today) worries me. The nagging question at the back of my head is whether a university Literature teacher should be able to produce Literature in the same way, say, a Chemistry teacher must be able to produce suitable experiments leadings to advances in his/her chosen field. The consensual answer is a rotund no, as we, Lit teachers, are in the business of producing literary criticism and not Literature.

This comforts me except on the days when I feel green with envy considering the pile of money our Murcia ex-colleague, María Dueñas, has made out of her very limited literary talent (she used to teach Language, I’m told). On other days, I feel completely floored down by the case of my neighbour in the Department upstairs (Spanish), Carme Riera, who is not only a prestige writer but also a full professor. (I wonder how it feels to sit as a guest through a conference about your work, as she has done–can you criticise the papers presented as an academic, too?). The question is that, as another well-published colleague from the upstairs Department, David Roas, tells me, publishing Literature is not regarded as a merit by the academic authorities that be. It is very odd. David confirmed to me he did not know whether his own CV should include his short story collections and his novels…

As happens, two of our new MA students have also tentatively asked whether they can submit fiction for their MA dissertation, a tricky question since we don’t run a Creative Writing programme. We have not really, then, progressed much from the days when I had the idea of shaping my PhD dissertation as a novel.

If I had never written fiction, where did the idea for the never-written thesis come from? I am thinking of John Scalzi, the rising US SF writer, who wrote his first novel, Agent to the Stars (2005), as he candidly explains in the acknowledgements, simply to learn how it was done. That’s it. It is not the best possible strategy but I find Scalzi’s modest approach quite refreshing and I wish many more writers followed his lead, instead of claiming they were possessed by the need to tell a story or make it into the history of Literature.

In my own case, I can always say that I simply don’t know whether I can write a novel, as I have never had the time to try and, besides, a novel requires investing precious time that I need for my academic career (for the proper items that count). Some days I think I will take one year and see what comes out, but I know it will not happen. Either you feel the urge to fabulate from the beginning of adulthood or you do not and, besides, Literature teachers tend to be too self-conscious about the possibility of writing a mediocre piece. I wonder nonetheless what my imaginary novel would be about, though one thing I do know: it would NOT deal with a university Literature teacher. No way.

Translation, by the way, doesn’t count either as an academic merit in this country, no matter whether what you produce is a fine translation of, say, Paradise Lost. We used to have a teacher in the Department, Prof. Josep Maria Jaumà, whose main academic task consisted of translating poetry and I’m sorry to say this was never acknowledged as a serious pursuit by either Ministry or university; translating poetry seemed to be classed, rather, as a highly eccentric hobby. I believe he never tried to apply for a personal research assessment exercise on the basis of his translated poems but I do know of someone else who did try and was flatly rebuked with a hint more or less covert that this was an attempt at cheating. Research is research and it consists in our case of producing literary criticism, as I said. Of course, if you are a writing scientist, as my good friend Carme Torras is, things are even worse as colleagues tend to think that Literature is a waste of time in a scientist’s career. Prizes or no prizes, as it is her case.

An infinite variety of writers are, of course, also teachers, and viceversa, at least in the Anglophone area. In civilized countries they even have this intriguing figure, the visiting writer, supposed to draw his/her inspiration from staying at a particular university (mine would surely inspire some Ballardian entropic tales…). I learned to distrust the idea a bit when Lucía Etxebarría was appointed visiting writer by the University of Aberdeen, but, well, I’ll take this as proof that all systems have imperfections. And, yes, Creative Writing abounds as a degree-awarding discipline at all levels (BA, MA, PhD), though I’ll quote Stephen King again when he says in On Writing that a programme of this kind can help if you’re talented but cannot supply deficiencies if the talent is missing. Also, I’m told that many of the students in Creative Writing programmes tend to be writers who do not read, which partly explains the limited impact they (the programmes) have on truly outstanding Literature. But I ramble…

I have no answer then to the question of why the production of literary texts is not considered a merit in the academic career of a Literature teacher, beyond the suspicion that at heart Literature is not taken to be a serious affair. At another level, when I complained that I was fed up with having to pay the texts I teach out of my own pocket, a Language teacher told me, quite bemused, that he did not see why the university should pay for novels. That’s a good one.

As for students’ demand that literary production can be part of an MA called Advanced English Studies, the truth is that, even recalling my own naïve wish to submit a novel as a PhD dissertation, I don’t quite see it. It is not just because we are not Creative Writing teachers but rather the impression that we should have to learn from scratch how to judge the work submitted. There is quite a tight consensus on what constitutes good academic work, but would we agree on the merits of a novelette or a novel? Not without important changes in our training.

And, yes, it would have been foolish of me to attempt to write a novel as a doctoral student. Or maybe I missed then the chance to be a writer/teacher? I wonder, to finish, who will be up to the task of supervising the proposed MA dissertations if we greenlight them…

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Last semester I decided that it would be a good idea to go over my many published articles and see if I could produce at least one volume, hopefully two, out of them. The idea, let me clarify, was that said volumes would be in Spanish and mostly depend on translations of articles originally in English. I proceeded next to contacting a couple of local publishers who, um, ignored me–story of my life. A bit sheepishly, I decided to read as critically as possible my material and start translating myself in order to offer these two publishers (or others) the finished product in Spanish. In the meantime, I contacted six of the Anglo-American publishing houses I had published my work with, the ones everyone knows about, not quite asking for permission but notifying that a) I intended to upload my translated work onto my university’s repository and b) possibly use it for a book in Spanish.

I’ll start with the publishers’ answers. One has not answered yet, after two months… Another one suggested that since the copyright over any translation was also theirs they would charge me a small fee for the re-use of my work in another language. I was mystified, not to say enraged. For some odd reason this publisher believed I intended to use my article only with MA students and not place it online and so, I was told, the fee would depend on how many students would have access to my translation. I decided to let the article be–we’re speaking about a 15-year-old piece… Oh, my. Other three publishers gave me permission (?) to translate and upload my work online but not to republish it in book form; ergo, whenever the possibility of benefits raises its head, I lose my right to do as I please with my work (for which, remember, I have never got a cent, always the case for articles in collective volumes). The sixth publisher, actually the editor of a journal, gave me his permission and his blessings. I have reached the conclusion that it’ll be simpler to start a new book from scratch, perhaps follow the research line in the journal article.

Now for the translations. I decided that since I had to read my work critically I could in the process start discarding what I didn’t want to be re-published in a book. What better way, I thought, to make sure that my work is still passable than translate it? I have always worried that if you publish in English abroad nobody knows you in Spain and so, occasionally, I have published the same piece in English and Spanish. Recently, I wrote a bilingual Catalan-English conference paper aided by Google Translate and finding it has improved vastly, I determined to give other translations a try. I have translated eight articles originally in English this summer (whose copyright is firmly in my hands) and have just finished today the translation of the journal article that may finally result in a book. I have about half a dozen more pieces awaiting translation and plan to go bilingual as often as I can in the future.

Yes, as everyone knows I’m a little bit crazy and use my time in ways that other scholars might think wasteful but, apart from the matter of the low impact that English Studies specialists who publish regularly in English have in our native Spain, I worry that I no longer know how to write in Spanish (or Catalan). I have written books and articles in my own two languages but I am so little in touch with them that I am beginning to be seriously concerned. I mean that although I do have conversations all the time in my dear native languages, I read very little in them; most films I watch are in English (or French, even Japanese), and I watch practically no local TV. Translation, then, seems like a good way to kill not two, but several birds with the same stone.

Google Translate works, as I say, much better than I expected, and than I recalled from previous exasperating experiences–to the point that I’m wondering whether professional translators ease their workload by using it. Please, don’t think it provides word-perfect translation; rather, I use Google’s version as a draft which then I adapt to my own style. I must say, though, that I have been often surprised when a whole paragraph has required no changes at all and when Google has provided a version that somehow improves the Spanish or Catalan I would have produced myself. So you see…

At one point I got totally paranoid that Google would demand a fee on all my translations (perhaps depending on downloads from my university’s repository?) and I contacted the legal services of CEDRO (I’m a member) and of my university. Both appeared to be quite baffled by my query. CEDRO answered back a bit mischievously that neither animals nor machines can be considered authors and that in their view Google Translate is a machine, hence not a person who can be legally considered author or translator. The UAB services surely thought I was mad and on the verge of considering my computer a favourite pet, for they truly could not understand what I was up to. They gave me eventually a similar answer and, so, I concluded that I owe Google Translate no fees, as I owe Microsoft no fees for using Word to write books. I hope. Having said that, and since I know that Google Translate keeps tabs of all you translate, I’m putting my work in it a paragraph at a time. Just to confuse the Google guys.

After nine self-translations, or ten if I count the conference paper, I feel that one linguistic aim has been accomplished, as I have had to think long and hard about how to express myself in Spanish correctly. I find my translated sentences too short, too choppy, syntactically very un-Spanish and I have tried again and again with little conviction to use subordination instead of a stop or a colon. Quite often Google’s bare version reads terrible, not because it is incorrect but because it underlines the weaknesses of my English, or simply because what sounds fine in one language is appalling in another (or cannot be expressed). I have found a little comfort in the translation of the quotations originally in English by native authors–many have given me a very hard time and have resulted in a few emperor-with-no-clothes revelations when translated. Translating, I find, works very well to test whether what you are writing is sheer nonsense, no matter how cool it sounds in the other language. In the end, then, the translations are much better works than the original texts and also a peculiar self-examination of how I write and think, painful at times.

Last year I had half a dozen Chinese students in an MA class who could not communicate with me in Spanish at all but handed in papers with a Spanish closer to Cervantes than to Pérez Reverte and indeed to what any local student usually manages. We, the teachers, soon realized the papers were not plagiarised but Google-translated (does this word exist?). This is a very tricky situation as the MA they had signed up for did not have specific language requirements of the kind an MA in Spanish (philology) has. My own students in English Studies should stand warned, then, that the use of Google Translate is not welcome–they need to write their exercises in English in their own words; automatic translation is, as I now know very well, easy to detect.

The doubt eating me up is whether you can truly say ‘this is my translation’ if you have used Google Translate. I think you can since you have the final word yet, oddly, I feel a bit uncomfortable. I have been thinking for a while of producing a companion to my book of translated short stories Siete relatos góticos ( but I suddenly see no point. Or, to be honest, I feel too lazy to undertake very hard work that can be done much more easily. I firmly believe that using Google Translate for this would be cheating, which is not the case for my own academic work. Yet, again, I wonder how many translations of literary works are being published using this extremely useful tool, or shortcut.

Any professional translator out there?

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. You may download the yearly volumes from See my publications and activities on my personal web


Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

My tension headache is back after the summer break and only one week into teaching. I feel as if someone is pulling my head into my neck as the typical head band pressure mounts on my forehead. Painkillers are no use, as I know, only trying to relax, something hard to do when one is, as I am, a control freak that needs tidiness and perfect order around. And right now, my teaching is a bit of a mess. Why? The usual reasons with some added twists.

Our semesters run for 18 weeks, of which 15 correspond to teaching. Someone decided to advance one week the end of the first semester to 31st January. Then they counted backwards and the beginning of week 1 materialized on 9 September. Until 6 years ago, semesters had 13 teaching weeks, and we would start the course between 25th September and October 1st. This year, our classes started earlier than primary and secondary school (14th September), with the added problem that the previous course had not even ended, as we have all those MA dissertations to judge until September 18th–an overlap, which, interestingly, does not show on the official calendar. And what baffles me is that the second semester seems to run for about 20 weeks, as we start teaching on 8th February (only one week between semesters) and assess the BA dissertations in early July. All in all, this leaves us with two weeks for research and preparing new courses in summer. For we do have a right to enjoying a four-week holiday like all other workers, don’t we?

Three sessions into my course, then, when I am about to start discussing the first book (the corresponding exam is on October 14) I find myself facing this situation:
*students don’t have said book, nor the handbook on which they need to take a quiz on the same day because even though the syllabi are published in early July they don’t check them nor order their books in advance
*I opened our virtual classroom on 10th August with a welcome message, the complete programme week-by-week and a warning to get the books; they checked this information 24 hours before the beginning of the course, and, as I could show them in class, some of them had not even entered our virtual classroom yesterday
*then, during the first weeks of teaching, we see a stream of Erasmus visiting students move from classroom to classroom deciding what to sign up for. Even supposing they make up their mind soon enough, they only have access to virtual classrooms once they register, which might be as late as the end of September. Logically, they start emailing teachers asking for the Syllabus–yes, the same one available online since July…
*Even more puzzlingly bureaucratic red tape prevents our returned Erasmus students from registering in July, as they should, because their official student records are not updated in time. Why? No idea–it seems that all European universities have very lazy admin workers, or at least, this is the impression I get.

So, basically, although officially there are 39 students in my Victorian Literature class, I may end with 55 (as usual), God knows when… Deep sigh… My class list shows different signatures for every of the three initial sessions.

Then, as usual, I have been given yet another terrible classroom. I teach at 15:00, it is still summer, our walls are made of concrete and keep all the heat in. A kind colleague worried last Monday that I was going to catch a cold seeing my light summer dress but the truth is that I ended up my lecture drenched in sweat. Both blinds were broken, one could not be raised, the other could not be lowered and, thus, let the sunshine stream into the middle of the classroom. This annoyed me royally, as I had asked the Facultat specifically to see to the blinds over the summer–a very kind, concerned janitor explained to me the blinds had been revised but had already broken down, on the very first day. Too old. Since the screen was also broken and I needed to use PowerPoint I sought refuge in another classroom which this embarrassed janitor found for me. I am, yes, occupying a classroom as a teacher-squatter. Yesterday my students, poor things, took pity on me when they saw that the projector was malfunctioning and cutting the left side of my PowerPoint presentation; also that there was no eraser for the whiteboard. By the way, I took a member of the Dean’s team to visit my official classroom (I have asked to be placed elsewhere) and she was appalled by the smell. Oh, yes, the smell.

All these minor disasters would be stuff for stand-up-comedy if it were not for the fact that my university boasts of being an international excellence campus. Of course, as you can imagine, I am very well-known in my Facultat for my constant complaining. I have been told that our institution is poor and this is why we cannot have better classrooms and equipment. I do know we are poor, but, then, how can we also be a campus of excellence? Is it, in short, too much for a teacher to ask that students come prepared to class on the first day, that registration is completed during the first week at the latest and that classrooms are nice and well-equipped?

Am I a nagging witch? I might be but, then, if I don’t upload my Syllabus in July, set up the virtual classroom at some point in summer, and get all ready before my course begins, then I am a bad teacher. This is what annoys me: I am fulfilling my side of the deal but I am the only one and there is no way one can produce good teaching without the collaboration of the students and the institution. Hey, I have just let go a very deep sigh… literally.

Please, don’t commiserate–this is not really about my personal situation but about the distance between reality and the ideal in my university and possibly in many other big, underfunded universities all over the world. I have been writing more or less the same post here at the beginning of each semester and not much has changed (or very little).

As far as I know, pedagogical treatises do not contemplate the factors I stress here, at least I have never come across advice on how to deal with an ugly space and the mysteries of registration. Somehow, the supposition is that teaching operates on an smooth basis and that you need not concern yourself about the state of the equipment or whether you’ll be too hot or too cold in class (will sweat stains show should not be part of a teacher’s worries). Yes, this is part of our teaching and I find that even the best-prepared lecture can collapse if the conditions are not what they should be.

Nagging witch…

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

This morning I have sent the message you can read below to the editor of an A-list journal which has rejected an article I have submitted. This is an article on which I have put long hours, much effort and much personal commitment, not to say passion. I am aware, of course, that my article can be improved with good peer reviewing, which has always been the case whenever I have been asked to reconsider aspects of my work in the past. Mostly.

Now, when I finally received an answer from the editor, after five long months of waiting, I found attached to it two reviews (whatever happened to the three-review rule?): one very tepidly suggesting that perhaps if I change most of my article there is a tiny little chance that it might be published; the other a very negative review full of unspeakable bile against my work and my person. Both reviews, by the way, coincided in censoring my feminist approach and absolutely denied my right to produce literary criticism in which I judge a woman writer an androphobe (how many times have I seen a male writer called a misogynist???).

My mouth still dries and my heart skips a beat when I re-read the reviews, and this is three weeks after receiving them. I feel hurt, unfairly wounded, and depressed as now I have to go through the harrowing process of finding a new home for a piece written specifically to meet the demands of this journal. I think all you know what I am talking about.

I must clarify that, to my surprise, the editor wrote to me that although there were serious doubts that I could manage a proper rewrite, they were willing to see a second version of my article. Here follows my reply:

Dear Editor,

Sorry it has taken me a while to answer your message. It’s been hard for me to make a decision about how to answer.

I must say that I am mystified by your decision about my article, as I fail to see how you think I can be encouraged to proceed and write a second version in view of the aggressive, negative tone of the reviews, particularly the negative one recommending rejection of my article.

I am actually dismayed to see that a publication with such a good reputation encourages this kind of appalling reviewing in which a peer feels entitled to insulting authors. I have done my best and I know that the article I submitted is a good one–all work can be improved, and I have no doubt that mine can also benefit from good reviewing. I am by no means a novice and I have passed a number of peer reviews in my career but I am no longer willing to put up with patronizing attitudes and abuse.

I will certainly discourage any colleagues and doctoral students from submitting work to your publication, and I recommend that you never employ again the services of reviewer number 1. What a sad example of academic lack of empathy, and of sheer arrogance.

Sara Martín

I am not naming the journal because the point I am making is that too many journals and editors are encouraging inacceptable peer reviewing. And this is growing because, ashamed of rejection, we do not discuss this growing trend with our colleagues. I have produced myself a good number of peer reviews and I have judged appallingly bad work: this is why I know that not needing to add your name to a blind peer review, you feel tempted to be nasty and cruel. I have vowed to myself, however, that I will always try to be at least courteous to the author for this person, despite what I believe, might be certainly doing his/her best.

As we all know, the problem with abusive peer review is that our egos are extremely fragile and in a work atmosphere which is geared towards constant competition, one failure signifies a general personal failure. If this article I produced, which I personally think is among my best, if not the best one, has been rejected in this harsh way, how have I managed to publish anything at all? Am I a fraud? Reading a novel by Neal Stephenson these days I came across a conversation between two women in very high work positions as scientists discussing the ‘impostor syndrome’, a phrase I didn’t know. This refers to the constant anxiety that you are not good enough at what you do and that sooner or later the cover will be blown and you will be exposed as an impostor, as a fraud. Each negative review feels like that: a blowing up of the carefully built cover.

Leaving my wounded pride aside, but with a still dry mouth, I want to make a call here for a better style in peer reviewing and, if possible, to put an end to the inquisitorial practice of blind peer reviewing. It is interesting to note that when we submit our CVs for assessment to ANECA (or similar agencies), we do know the names of the persons judging us and we can even access their CVs. I am well aware that ANECA has produced a high number of aggressive reviewing, and I have even heard of a lawsuit in this regard. Yet, at least, the principle of anonymity is questioned. I think we should sign our peer reviews and we should opt for more transparent systems. I have recently participated in a few peer reviewing exercises on in which some colleagues have submitted work in progress and asked for opinions. The tone was what it should be among peers who respect each other and the discussion enriching.

By the way, one of the articles discussed was an impressive piece by Rosalind Gill, a very well-known British scholar, “Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia”. In it she discusses the same unprofessional conduct I am discussing here, noting that 20 years ago reviews were not as “hostile and dismissive”. When, she wonders, “did it become acceptable to write of a colleague’s work ‘this is self-indulgent crap’ or ‘put this manuscript in a drawer and don’t ever bother to come back to it’–both comments I have read in the last year on colleagues’ work. What are the psychosocial processes that produce this kind of practice?” In her view, all this negativity is the product of the “the peculiarly toxic conditions of neoliberal academia” (see my post about it). Instead of lashing out at our oppressors we lash out at each other under cover of blind peer reviewing, that’s her thesis. She might well be right.

I know that it is not the habitual practice to question negative peer reviewing and that messages like the one I have sent can make you a few enemies, particularly in local contexts (this was an international journal, by the way, published in the USA). Yet, a while ago a colleague whom I respect profoundly and who is extremely proficient as an academic, told me she had started emailing back in the tone I have used in my message whenever she got a negative review. No, it’s not a good idea to do that if you are a post-grad student still in the process of hardening your skin against rejection. Yet, there comes a time when enough is enough and after twenty years in the publishing circuit I am just not willing to put up with gratuitous abuse. I’ll insist: I am willing to accept constructive, positive criticism but never again abuse.

And if you must reject my work a ‘No, thank you’ will do.

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

This week I took a guided tour of the Biblioteca Nacional de Catalunya (, a superb example of Catalan civic gothic which houses a truly impressive collection of 4,000,000 documents (it is the Catalan copyright library). This was organized as part of a conference on science, fiction and science-fiction I have attended these days, which means I was surrounded during this visit mostly by scientists and engineers, colleagues very much aware of how the history of techno-science has evolved…

Eventually, we reached the area that houses the old card library catalogue, inactive since the mid-1990s when the catalogue was moved online. I realise that the phrase ‘card library catalogue’ possibly will bring no immediate image to the minds of the generations born in the 1990s–do Google it. A scientist colleague suddenly declared he could not recall at all having used the cards, even though he knew he must have done so, as he submitted his dissertation in pre-internet times. So did I. And yes, I recall using cards and navigating my way into the available bibliography at great pains and expense. In contrast, I don’t recall how we managed to communicate before e-mail. Odd.

So, here’s a little techno-academic chronology, hoping colleagues will help me to complete it. A key aspect is this: my generation (born 1960s) has gone through a dramatic technological change as applied to academic work which has no parallel for the current students’ generation, born in the 1990s. You’ll see…

Checking the few papers I keep from my secondary school days, I notice that they were handwritten up to my final year 1983-4. I inherited a clunky typewriter with which I produced my C.O.U. (pre-university) work, hating it all the way as I had to tippex out my many mistakes and even repeat whole pages. My mum, who had done secretarial work in her time as a paid employee, and could type with all the fingers in her hands–still today, I can only manage a two-finger typing style–helped me one stressful evening to meet a deadline I could not have managed on my own. Typewriters were, in a way, recycled into computers in the 1980s. I went on typing my papers until 1987-88 but I must have used afterwards a programme incompatible with early Microsoft’s Word (was it Corel’s WordPerfect?) because I do not have the files. Word files started materializing coinciding with the beginning of my doctoral studies in 1991.

There was no internet in Spain, then, throughout the years of my doctoral studies, except for small pockets of pioneering users in technological universities. I got my first laptop, an awesome Toshiba, back in 1994-5 when I spent a year in Scotland–the screen was black and white and I had no internet connection. I don’t recall anyone using it in Stirling University and we doctoral students, definitely, had no e-mail address. I still keep the letters that family and friends sent me. These, yes, are the last personal letters to have ever reached me and I cannot begin to say how sorry I am that letter-writing is dead. Facebook and Twitter can by no means replace that, though e-mail may have done so for a while.

I submitted my doctoral dissertation in 1996, which is also the year (I think) when I got my first official university e-mail address (it might be 1997, rather). No internet access yet. General talk about the internet started in Spain in 1994 but monopolistic Telefónica provided the first commercial services as late as 1996: Infovía, which lasted to 1999 and Infovía Plus (1998-9). These internet connection services, like expensive lawyers, billed clients (using modems!) by the hour. They were so costly that one of the main incentives for me to join the online Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in 1998 (founded in 1994) was that the contract included free internet access (of course… but not for long).

Customer pressure mounted and by November 2000 the first flat rate ADSL service was commercialized (it was legislated by the Spanish Parliament in 1999), finally charging by month regardless of the amount of hours of actual connection rather than by time spent surfing the net. Still, the new flat rate was too expensive for most Spanish homes and further campaigning was needed to reduce it, which finally happened in 2002 (Telefónica was privatized in 1999, so this must have coincided with the liberalization of the communications market in Spain under José María Aznar’s Government).

Although I am not sure whether this is reliable data, I made a note here in another post saying that internet access was made available in classrooms only in 2006-7, not even 10 years ago. I really cannot recall when I started using databases like MLA or websites that now seem fundamental to me, like IMDB. The web 2.0 revolution launched in 2004/5 still makes me nervous, however. I have, I think, adapted well to resources like, or the Dipòsit Digital de Documentació of my university and, of course, I have been publishing this blog since 2010 and have my own website since, possibly, 2012. Yet, I have no Facebook account and Twitter overwhelms me. No Instagram, either. And, um, I use my cellphone mainly… as a phone.

This summer I have been re-reading and even translating some of my oldest papers and I realise that their modest list of bibliography has nothing to do with my inability to find sources but with how the demand for long bibliographies only started after the uploading online of the main bibliographical resources. MLA is very imprecise when it comes to informing about the exact date when this happened in the case of their International Bibliography, simply noting it was the mid-1990s. The database indexes now items back to the 1880s, as in April 2003, the JSTOR’s language and literature collection was added. The print version was finally discontinued in September 2009. As we all know, 30-page papers including 50 to 75 citations are now common when in my time as a doctoral student 6 would do for a course paper. As I have already mentioned here how my MA dissertation (submitted in 1993) has an enormous bibliography because I was trying to prove my proficiency as a research–the bibliography that took me months to complete can now be completed in one morning.

Now, if you were born from 1996 onwards in Spain this means that you have known no other world than the current one, dominated by the internet. Perhaps from this perspective it is easier to understand the addiction to Wikipedia of the oldies who had to make do with library cards…

I think that my scientist colleague had forgotten how to use a card library catalogue because we are a little bit embarrassed as a generation. Recently, I had to explain to my 14-year-old nephew what a cassette player is–remember we are the ‘compilation tape’ generation, best embodied by Nick Hornby’s Rob Fleming in his novel High Fidelity. We got rid of the cassette tapes, then the VHS tapes, now DVD is going out pushed by BlueRay. I still keep in my closet a, um, vintage telephone with a rotating disk instead of buttons for the numbers.

Can we be this Jurassic?? Early cellphones are, frankly, pathetic but they are a first sign of a revolution happening. Catalogue cards, in contrast, are a memento of a world that lived long but died in just about five years. This is, I think, why we have blocked our memories. It must be similar to what the generation that passed from horse carriages to cars felt back in the early 20th century.

So, let’s recall… unless we forget.

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

In just about two weeks I have accumulated an impressive amount of articles on the pernicious effect of the neo-liberal university, mainly in Anglophone countries. Here they are:

*the conclusions of the inquest regarding the suicide of Prof. Stephan Grimm, of Imperial College, who killed himself unable to withstand the pressure of generating 200,000 pounds in grants or else lose his job.

*an article also in The Times Higher Education supplement disclosing that “Grant income targets for individual academics (…) exist in some form in about one in six UK universities”, Also, an article denouncing how British academics are embracing the “cult of no sleep” (a catchphrase coined by Arianna Huffington), Or insomnia as the solution to an increasing workload.

*several articles posted in about:

1) “Attention decay in science” (, a piece that discuses the decreasing ability of scientists to keep up with so many publications and, hence, the decreasing life-span of newly published papers.

2) “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University” by a collective of US and Canadian academics. The title is self-explanatory.

3) Rosalind Gill’s article (draft) “Academics, Cultural Workers and Critical Labour Studies”, in which she argues that “What is urgently needed (…) is a critical take that can move us beyond the individualised, toxic, self-blaming discourses that are characteristic of academics in the neo-liberal University.”

Something is, clearly, afoot, and it has to do with academia’s more fearsome, insidious villain: the neo-liberal university. The academic collective is asking three questions: 1) how can we stop the pressure that neo-liberal demands have put on the production of knowledge?, 2) why have we allowed this pressure to mount to these unhealthy, even lethal, extremes?, 3) how are we personally contributing to upholding values that undermine rather than exalt research? The person who drew my attention to Prof. Grimm’s suicide, a Lecturer at a British university, told me he feared scholars would soon be asked to generate not just grants for their research but income for their salaries.

The neo-liberal villain has made fewer inroads into the Spanish university because we are poorer. If the meagre public money allocated to all of us by the Ministry is even more radically cut, research will have to grind down (well, it is grinding down) for good as in Spain we are lacking the alternative sources–foundations, corporations, etc.–which the neoliberal villain has invited into the folds of the Anglophone university. The building where I work boasts a considerable amount of graffiti inviting private business to go home and leave us alone, I am not so naïve that I have missed the increased creeping in of alien funds and interests into our midst. What I am saying is that its impact is not (YET) as dramatic as it is elsewhere. There are still ways to be a university teacher and do no research, be productive at low-cost (myself), or dip into public funding now and then with no fixed target. I am, of course, talking about the Humanities. I know very well things are much worse for my scientist colleagues.

In a very peculiar way, what I read in all these articles connects with the current debate in Spain about working hours and productivity. The question we are asking ourselves is why we produce less despite working longer hours than most of Europe; the answer is that when you force a person to be tied to their jobs most of the day their productivity slows down. If you excuse me, that is the reason why slavery did not work in the American South: slaves, knowing there was no leisure whatsoever for them, worked as slowly as they managed (and as the supervisor’s lashes allowed them). Even without Abraham Lincoln’s intervention the whole agrarian economy of slavery would soon have collapsed. So, back to my track: people would be far more productive in Spain if they stuck to eight solid hours and, generally speaking, a six-hour working day would benefit everyone all over the world. Also, create more jobs. This applies to academic work, as well.

A few years ago I had a serious health episode, as a consequence of my overworking. I got then told off by my doctor who, whether he lied to me or not, warned me that the ugly symptoms might come back if I overdid it again. I call the recurrent pain I feel now and then ‘my speed limiter’: when it hurts I know it is time to stop; if I can’t stop immediately, then the sooner the better. I have, then, a very good excuse to stay away from professional e-mail on weekends and after 17:00 (if possible 16:30). Also, I have learned to limit myself to a strict daily schedule, 8:30 to 16:30 when at home. I am talking about academic work apart from reading, as I read all as much as I can everyday and weekends. This blog is part of my spare time, not my daily schedule by the way.

I am, as everyone knows, a productive academic and I’m writing all this here to show that there is no reason to subject ourselves to killing work regimes (as I used to do). Also, this summer I have answered all emails from colleagues claiming they had no proper time for a holiday, explaining that I have indeed taken a holiday, as my health is at risk and I am a worker entitled to a number of days off. Never mind how much I have read in my free days, as I would read anyway. I am learning the hard way to set limits (like, this weekend I am not available to a student who is finishing his MA dissertation, sorry).

Perhaps I am lucky that the neo-liberal villain has not yet grabbed me by the throat, I am a tenured civil servant (we’ll see how this withstands the Catalan move for independence) and UAB has no grant target for me–though a few things are questionable about the teaching target. I know plenty of academics who suffer from diverse bodily and psychological complaints connected with our performance at work. When I complained to my partner, ‘who would have believed that being a college teacher would be so stressful?’, he, who does work for a neo-liberal multinational corporation just answered, ‘well, try to do less’.

I am not asking any colleagues to publicly embrace laziness, as many still do in Spain, but to take it easy (or easier). Feminist or not, try ‘slow academics.’ For, after all, as the article I have named, “Attention decay in science”, suggests few colleagues read what we end up producing and it is increasingly harder to stand up in a system that prefers quantity to quality.

Please, consider the sad fate of Prof. Grimm–and the cynicism of an inquest which concludes that “new policies may not have prevented [his] suicide”. And shame on you if you’re thinking that the problem is this poor man was too weak to keep up with the demands of research. For the worst aspect of the insidious neo-liberal villain is how many claim there is no villain –and how it makes villains of us all.

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I have recently come across a good number of dud books. In this category I include a) books which I end up abandoning, despite my good will to read them; b) books which I read to the end, often skimming and with great impatience, hoping against all hope that they improve towards the end. By ‘books’ I really mean ‘novels’ here. The common denominator of all these novels is that I have chosen them because of the hype surrounding them often in connection with an award. These are novels I very much wanted to read.

Just for you to see that I have tried all kinds, three of the most egregious duds have turned out to be: 1) En la orilla by the late Rafael Chirbes (Premio Nacional de Narrativa, 2014), 2) Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road into the Deep North (Man Booker Prize 2014) and 3) Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids, first in the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy (Hugo Award Winner, 2003).

What’s wrong with them? En la orilla suffers from the typical problem of Spanish literary narrative: the need to produce artistic prose eats up the need to give each character a realistic voice–if they’re low-class, they cannot speak as a literary author writes. I abandoned it on page 60. Chirbes died a few days later, and you can’t believe to understand how guilty I feel about giving up on him. It took me a little longer to abandon Flanagan’s novel, say 100 pages. The problem? Well, if you’re telling a harrowing story about Australian POWs in Burma during WWII (yes, building the same railway line featured in Bridge over River Kwai), why interleave it with the trite story of a pathetic adulterous affair? I don’t care if both deal with the same protagonist–stick to your topic, write separate novels if you have two stories to tell.

In Hominids Sawyer tries hard to imagine what a civilization with Neanderthals as the surviving human species instead of Homo Sapiens would have been like. My! This is a thrilling topic, I thought. Yet, I hated the story because quite early in the novel Sawyer has the female protagonist endure a horrific rape, for no justified narrative reason, except that this terrible attack puts her off sex with the Neanderthal male lead (at least she finds the energy to comment mentally on the size of the bulky man’s member… before the whole thing starts leaning towards formulaic romance). As many readers write in their reviews these days ‘Meh’.

A ‘dud’ is something that does not work properly. In the many WWI novels I have read, soldiers are happy when a shell thrown at them turns out to be a dud, but that’s the only circumstance in which duds are welcome. A Google search throws up two other meanings of ‘dud books’ I had not considered: a) books printed incorrectly (really?) and b) a category of bizarre books which has generated its own cult. An oldish article in The Telegraph refers to dud books as “truly awful books that you can’t put down” ( The author, Brian Lake, explains that the furore over ‘dub books’ started back in 1982, “when antiquarian booksellers were encouraged to display their ‘Dud Books of All Time’ at a book fair in York”, running from the “unsaleable” to the “very funny”. One example will do: The Romance of Leprosy (1949). Now, the ‘dud books’ I refer to here have sold well, are not funny and are the opposite of a page-turner. As Miss Mouse writes in Twitter, “After a couple of dud books I’m happily immersed in a can’t-put-down-to-do-something-else one”. Precisely.

Now, a book I have swallowed whole in one sitting is Miguel Dalmau and Román Piña Valls’ joint effort, La mala puta: Réquiem por la Literatura Española (Sloper, 2014). Hemingway, the authors tell us, was the misogynist who originally called Spanish Literature a bitch and there is certainly plenty of misogyny in Dalmau’s segment of the essay, which seems to forget that, apart from smothering agents and adoring wives, the world of Literature has women writers in it. To be 100% honest, he does say at one point that the women writers who are serious about their literary aspirations are braver than the men, but he leaves it at that. Anyway, I digress.

Reading this acid denunciation of the sorry state of national Spanish Literature, I realized I had forgotten about a fourth ‘dud book’ category: the unpublished book. Michael Chabon tells in Manhood for Amateurs how after writing his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, he embarked on a gigantic novel which he had to abandon eventually–this dud book featured prominently in his delicious Wonder Boys as the novel that Grady, the protagonist writer, can never control. Dalmau has a much bitter experience to tell. He was about to publish a biography of Argentinean writer Julio Cortázar when, mysteriously, the late author’s agents, Carme Balcells’ Agency, withdrew her permission to use any quotations from Cortázar’s books (see Apparently Cortázar’s widow just didn’t want this particular biography published.

Dalmau and Piña have many controversial points to raise about how the Spanish publishing industry burns the budding talent of new writers and how insidious marketing techniques are destroying the literary tastes of readers. I do recommend you to read the whole book. I’ll highlight here just one of Dalmau’s most provocative claims: the idea that writers have lost all ambition to produce work aesthetically bold, that is to say, to produce a literary masterpiece. Writers complain, Dalmau notes, that they are not rich and famous enough (em, or culturally relevant) but they never consider why there is no masterpiece among their works. Dalmau insists that writers lead a too sedate life to produce masterpieces (yes, he is of the Hemingway persuasion…) but just consider Emily Brontë or Emily Dickinson and you’ll see how literary ambition has nothing to do with living la vida loca.

How’s this connected with dud books? Here’s my thesis: dud books are the result of this lack of literary ambition. Counterarguments: Chirbes was ambitious and the guys in the Ministerio de Cultura who awarded him the ‘Nacional’ were acknowledging that (supposedly). Well, yes, but here in Spain the problem is that there are no longer critics offering negative reviews–somebody says ‘this is good Literature’ and the rest meekly follow. Readers count for nothing. Second: does this apply to Sawyer, as well, who is not working within a genre which values literary prose? Yes it does because science fiction is far more literary than you would believe and also a genre that attracts writers keen on outstripping the rest regarding the power of their imagination. How about the Man Booker Prize? Well, Flanagan’s novel is the kind which prompts the ugly question: “How could they award such an important prize to this… dud?”

Dud books respond to the culture of ‘making do’ (in Spanish ‘si cuela, cuela’). If you start lowering standards because you want to build a book market which succeeds financially even if it fails artistically (no matter the genre), writers stop making an effort. Those who do make an effort get no reward, either material or critical (most critics work for the same companies publishing the books, see my post on Ricard Ruiz Garzón), and either are pushed out or abandon themselves the literary field, often with great bitterness. Dalmau and Piña insist that the equivalents of, say, Borges and Steinbeck, exist today but first, they are not the big names you’re thinking of and second, they probably work in total obscurity, which is why they will never produce a masterpiece.

There is another kind of dud book (sixth category?): call it the ‘cute bad novel’ (do I mean the ‘cookie-cutter novel’?). Take Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train, 4.5 stars on awarded by more than 16.000 voters–only 1% think this is a dud. Kline is a professional writer with a number of books under her belt and a nice list of awards and distinctions. She has a terrific subject, so far little known: how American charities shipped for decades East Coast orphans to the Midwest for adoption since there was no official system in place to take care of them. Needless to say, many of the ‘train orphans’ endured very unhappy experiences of abuse and exploitation. Kline claims to have done extensive research for her novel, focused on Niamh, an imaginary Irish girl adopted in the late 1920s. Yet, she chooses to endorse Orphan Train in her own website with a quote from fellow author, Ann Packer, which describes it as “A lovely novel about the search for family that also happens to illuminate a fascinating and forgotten chapter of American history”. ‘Lovely’, or ‘cute’, or ‘nice’, or ‘pretty’ is not want you want to call an ambitious novel. Why? Because it smacks of superficiality, and this is what Kline’s book is: superficial. I just wished I had read a non-fiction book about the very attractive subject.

Unfortunately, I already know that my next novel, Neal Stephenson’s new work Seveneves is a dud. Yet I stick by him, hoping he’ll publish again something as ambitious as his crazy trilogy The Baroque Cycle. Bracing myself for disappointment, then…

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

A friend emails me the link to an interview in the Catalan e-newspaper, Núvol: El Digital de Cultura, founded in 2012 by Bernat Puigtobella, whose existence I totally ignored… Likewise, I did not know who Ricard Ruiz Garzón, the person interviewed (by Montse Barderi) is. I know now that he is a relevant university teacher, writer, editor and book reviewer who has now decided to abandon cultural journalism after twenty years in the profession. This happens all the time–I am less and less aware of who the relevant people are… The interview, which you may read here, deals with a few juicy issues, so here we go.

Ruiz Garzón, always a free-lance reviewer, is abandoning cultural journalism because he cannot make a living out of it. The fee for a review (in Spanish and Catalan main media) is 100 euros, and he gets at the end of the month for all his hard work about 1,000. Many journalists publish articles and interviews on books they have never read, he says, but he takes things far more seriously and not only reads the book under review but, if necessary, any others by the same author. Actually, the point he makes is that good reviewing used to consist of that and now he is abandoning cultural journalism because current conditions only allow him to produce shallow reviews. This is, I think, very honest. Ruiz Garzón distinguishes carefully between the criticism that need not sell (academia work, though impact indexes have become our own sales target) and book reviewing, which he sees as “a service” like, he adds, the weather forecast. With, he notes, 200 new books every month, readers need guidance. No doubt.

The interview has a great segment on the five virtues of a good writer (honesty, willingness to assume risks, a good command of the language, being in touch with tradition, and sound technical skills). I’ll focus, though, on the five main defects of current book reviewing which Ruiz Garzón highlights (my translation):

1. “writing a review so well written that it does not give you the information needed to guide you about whether the book is good or not”
This is a particularly insidious problem, endemic to Spanish and Catalan reviewing but, I find, less common in Anglophone media. The reviewer feels a strange urge to show off and may very well mention, in a language as abstruse as possible, many other obscure works only he (for this is usually a ‘he’) knows perfectly well. Never mind whether these works have anything to do with the work under review, what matters is impressing the reader with the reviewer’s superior knowledge. I stopped reading Fotogramas, tired precisely of the ‘cinéfilos’ who never managed to express a clear opinion and that would have made Derrida proud in their convoluted use of prose.

2. “objectivity: the issue of friends and enemies, the friend I praise; the enemy, I badmouth”
To a certain extent, this is inevitable. There are two ways out of this conundrum: a) reviewers declare their friendships and enmities, as spoilers are declared in Amazon, GoodReads, IMDB or b) reviewers specialise in totally alien fields where they have no friends, neither enemies. Blind peer reviewing is supposed to prevent ‘amiguismo’ from playing a part in academic life but, then, networking is often built on the basis of personal friendship. We’re all human.

3. “the synergies between media and publishing groups” (example: if you work in El País, you put your job on the line if you criticize a book published by Alfaguara, etc.)
See my solution for point 2. Again: the problem is deceiving the reader into thinking that this is honest cultural journalism. The problem, by the way, extends beyond proper journalism. Recently, I searched for reviews of Rosario Raro’s novel Volver a Canfranc and, since opinions at and Casa del Libro are so few and so unreliable, I read a couple of blog posts. To my irritation, they were both shameless ads endorsing the novel; one even had the cheek to thank Planeta for having forwarded a copy.

4. “poor research, failing to read the complete works by an author and, therefore, producing amateur reviews”; that is, a good review must be able to place novelties in the context of the author’s whole career.
This, to be honest, is ideal but also shows that perhaps Ruiz Garzón entertains too high expectations about book reviewing. Or, alternatively, this means that there should be among the cultural journalists specialists in particular authors, as there are in academia. Logically, this only makes sense if all reviewers were free-lance, though I assume that the usual practice is that one reviewer in the newspaper’s payroll gets to review all kinds of books. Yet, it is also often the case that writers overproduce. I wonder who can produce a quality review of each new novel by Stephen King…

5. “we have an uneducated, untrained readership. They prefer the headline or the slogan over nuance”
Um, perhaps this is partly the fault of the navel-gazing reviewers guilty of fault no. 1 (see above). Also, our general lack of time. Personally, I don’t look for nuance in reviews, but for insight–that is to say, the ability to point out what is fundamentally right or wrong with a book. I very often read reviews in the middle of reading a book to check whether others share my impression. And I must point out that many readers, like myself, are fast going past the slogans and checking first the number of stars or the ratings. As I have noted here, everyone knows that a film rating below 7 in IMDB hardly ever is worth watching.

A sixth problem is highlighted in connection with point 5: “there is little criticism of popular authors, but when it is produced it has no effect whatsoever”. He mentions very negative reviews of Xavier Bosch and Albert Espinosa which did not affect at all their top Sant Jordi sales. Obviously. In general, few book buyers read reviews; they feel frequently lost among the many books on offer and just want to get the book everyone else is reading. They navigate the book market by positive advertising, not negative reviewing.

The phrase ‘crític de referència’ crops up several times in the interview with Ruiz Garzón. This is hard to translate into English but if I write Marcel Reich-Ranicki (1920-1913), you possibly know what I mean: a literary critic whose opinions are respected by both readers and authors, and who shapes with his/her reviewing the very state of Literature. In SF we have John Clute. And I recall from my childhood the peculiar figure and nasal voice of a truly great film critic working on TV, Alfonso Sánchez Martínez, a man so popular that many humorists did him the honour of impersonating him. Who do we have now that we can call ‘crítico de referencia’?

To finish, I wonder whether the case of Ruiz Garzón is symptomatic of a much larger malaise, which is the slow death of (cultural) journalism as we know it. My good friend Víctor Sampedro, who teaches sociology and communication, writes argues in his recent book El cuarto poder en red: Por un periodismo (de código libre) that journalism as we have known it in the 20th century is over for good, as proven by the complex Wikileaks case. He calls for a far more open journalism which is born of the collaboration between the general public and the professional journalist.

As I read the book, I thought that the key issue is where the money will be found to pay for the wages of the professionals in this new open source context. The 100 euros per review that Ruiz Garzón mentions and his own inability to make ends meet suggest that this is it: in a context in which everyone feels entitled to expressing an opinion on what they read on the net and in social networks, the economic value of professional opinion is sharply diminished. 100 euros may be a nice extra but not the basis of a full-time dedication to reading.

And so is culture diminished into an amateurism from which it may never recover.

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Tinder is not only easily combustible material but also the name of a very popular dating app, launched in 2012. Its use involves swiping photographs of possible matches on your cell phone: right for those you like, left for those you don’t. If someone swipes you back, then you can text each other, set up a date, etc. In an inspired feat of social engineering and personal psychology, Tinder does not communicate to you the rejections. The right-hand swipes, on the contrary, are duly noted which, I’m sure, must be a great ego-booster.

The rational behind this dating system is not only the classic chance to pre-select a date companion, already provided by any dating service, but the ease with which it can lead to a face-to-face meeting, as it also based on geo-location systems (you can see which Tinder users are close-by). As of today, Wikipedia informs, Tinder processes one billion swipes a day with twelve million matches–the actual figure for dates is unknown, but the phrase ‘Tinder date’ has already entered English. 50 million people all over the world use the service in 30 languages.

Why am I interested? Well, I am not. What called my attention was the article by Nancy Jo Sales for Vanity Fair, “Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse” ( So much so that I have decided to set my teaching next autumn of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) against it as background to discuss how human mating rituals have altered (recently). My point is that for my students to understand a novel from the ‘remote’ Victorian past first they need to be made aware of how the debate on similar topics stands today. Also, I need to explain to them that romantic fiction about love must operate within the personal, social and legal constraints of its time. Hence, I need to test what they know about those applying to their own generation. First, then, here are some points of Sales’ lengthy article–a piece which made me feel positively Victorian if not Jurassic.

Sales does not clarify how compulsory having a Tinder account is in the twenty something American urban middle-class culture she explores (Manhattan, basically). Reading her piece I got the impression that not having an account in this or similar dating services is little short of a social aberration, rather than a personal choice. She, subtly but firmly, exposes the persistence of the double sexual standard despite the apparent growth of sexual freedom (for this what Tinder is for–getting sex partners).

Although, obviously, hetero men could not get hetero girls to have sex with them via a Tinder ‘come on’ unless the girls were willing, the picture Sales draws is one in which men get all the (promiscuous) fun and the girls get constantly frustrated because a) sex does not lead to regular dates, much less a relationship and b) in the end the endless succession of lovers is unable to provide them with orgasms. Remember that in the Victorian texts I teach couples get engaged without even exchanging a first kiss (and in the girls’ case it is often the first kiss). Now try to make sense of this to the kids born in the mid 1990s.

Before I ramble on… Here are a few selections from Sales juicy report:
*a male Tinder user explains he’s organizing several dates at the same time as “There’s always something better” (call that the channel-hopping effect)
*the same guy adds that “You could talk to two or three girls at a bar and pick the best one, or you can swipe a couple hundred people a day—the sample size is so much larger”. He aims at sleeping with 100 ‘Tinderella’ girls in a year. Hot ones.
*this serial Romeo further explains that although he clearly announces he is not into relationships, most girls accept having sex “expecting to turn the tables” (he might also be kidding himself rather than admit that girls see him mostly as a disposable sex toy)
*average texts from guys (i.e. total strangers) often include unsolicited photos of their genitalia or explicit phrasing such as ‘Wanna fuck?’ or ‘Come over and sit on my face’. And worse. Girls also send pics, boys claim, but mainly of breasts and bottoms, not vaginas.
*Tinder users highlight the similarity of the service with ordering food or shopping online. Or having a hobby. Or meeting for sport.
*the overall impression is that today men have the power to decide whether a one-night stand (or a one-hour stand…) can develop into a relationship, whereas women have the power to grant men sex (isn’t this old as the hills?)
*a college girl explains that for her generation the anxiety about intimacy comes from having “grown up on social media,” so “we don’t know how to talk to each other face-to-face”. Not even in bed.
*very restrictive dating rules have turned romance into “a contest to see who cares less, and guys win a lot at caring less”; nobody wants to appear to suffer for love.
*not only is the double standard real and inalterable; a guy claims he does not want to be in a relationship because “You can’t be selfish in a relationship” (his italics)
*afraid of giving girls the wrong idea, guys tend to be quite insensitive; a girl recalls a lover using Tinder while she dressed up after sex… Men are not, Sales writes, “inspired to be polite”.
*as a girl points out, despite the aloofness, “Some people still catch feelings in hook-up culture”–as if they were a disease.

Several caveats here:
*Sales does not take into account how Tinder works in different cultures and neglects to see the identity factors conditioning her informers.
*Second, as a man told me, if girls feel uncomfortable with any point of the Tinder-date process they just need to refrain from using the service, which, let’s recall, is not compulsory.
*Apps like these, as the internet did in the early 1990s, have opened up the potential number of sexual and romantic partners, yet most people still marry in fairly conventional ways and try to raise families.
*Neither the idea (for hetero women) that you need to sleep first with a guy or with many before you find love is new; it’s been around for decades now.
*As for hetero men, they seem to be imitating dating models typical of gay culture whereas a good number of gay men are vindicating monogamy (serial or otherwise) thanks to the legalisation of gay marriage.

In the end it’s the old story: men try to get as much sex as the personal, social and legal constrains allow while women are divided into those who want to follow genuinely a similar inclination, those who tells themselves they do but actually don’t, and the post-Victorian ones who value long-lasting romantic intimacy above sex. I’m not saying that this third vital stance is not attractive to many men. And I have not said a word about the bodily fascism of the whole idea of app or online dating.

A few years ago a group of eight Californian girls who enrolled in one of my classes, all beautiful and intelligent young women, told me that dating was over–and this was long before I-Phone and Tinder. Men, they complained, get too much sex and, hence, they make no effort to be in a real relationship. They were truly upset by this. All this leads me to wonder whether, unlike what Victorian novels suggest, men and women like each other at all. It seems that given the chance and at least until they decide to form a family, current young men and women are using each other mutually for sex but without true enjoyment in each other. The taboos on sex that the Victorians suffered have this advantage: you need to talk in order to communicate. Victorian couples (and many others more recently) might spend years this way in long engagements which possibly explains, to a certain extent, why sex mattered less to them than to us (this IS a sweeping statement, I know).

In all this I am commenting on here, what irks me most is men’s (alleged) aloofness. The guy using Tinder while still in the same bedroom with his new lover… Ugh… If, as it seems, misogyny is the basis of the ‘hook-up’ system then there can be no real progress–and no real fun no matter how many lovers a girl gets. And the other way round: I have no doubt that Anne Brontë’s hero Gilbert is erotically incensed to despair by Helen because she is not sexually available. Ah, the Victorians and their erotic unavailability… how hard they are to explain in the age of Tinder.

PS (added 13 September 2015). Here’s a very interesting piece with a man’s view of the article (judge for yourself what kind of man):

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

My title throws a barb at Harold Bloom’s famous ‘anxiety of influence’ theory from his 1973 book. Bloom argued in it that poets are prompted to write in awe and admiration of particular predecessors. They, however, always struggle to find their own voice, fearing that they can only produce imitations of their chosen masters; hence, they labour under a constant ‘anxiety of influence’. In contrast, the attitude that Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920), showed towards his much admired Charles Dickens (1812-1870) seems to have been always celebratory–perhaps because from the very beginning Galdós had a clear voice of his own and also because there was no way 19th century Spain could be depicted exactly as Dickens depicts his native England.

I wrote a post back in 2012 (4th November) on the similarities between the young Charles Dickens and our own Romantic genius Mariano José de Larra, based on their showing a similar ‘zest for city life’ as journalist flâneurs. I did not know then about the literary connections between Galdós and Dickens, though having read half a dozen novels by Galdós and almost the full dozen by Dickens this should have been obvious to me. Possibly, Galdós’ ‘castizo’ characters threw me off the path.

What has brought me back to it is my very enjoyable reading of Galdós’ quirky first novel, La Fontana de Oro, published in 1870, the same year Dickens died–yes, a peculiar coincidence, or yet another proof of Spain’s cultural belatedness. It might well be that this is Galdós’ closest imitation of Dickens. Suddenly, it was crystal clear to me that the Spanish novelist was applying literary strategies learned from the English master to his first attempt at narrating chaotic Spain. The colourful character descriptions, the fine attention to the grotesqueries of life, the droll authorial stance, the intense hatred for those who live to oppress others… all sounded familiar. Dickens would have loved it.

As it turns out, there is proof of Galdós’ admiration for Dickens: he translated into Spanish his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (a.k.a. The Pickwick Papers, 1836). Galdós was just 24, he cheekily claimed to know English and found a gullible editor in a Spanish newspaper who believed him. As diverse academics have proved, though, he actually translated Dickens from the French (see for instance The result, Ricardo Bada laments (, is appalling…: “es una catástrofe literariamente homologable con la marítima del infeliz Titanic”. Galdós never translated a work again, though he seems to have been able to read in English and was no doubt well-acquainted with the work of other English writers beyond Dickens.

In his Memorias de un desmemoriado (1915-6), Galdós recalls his trip to England in 1889 to visit Shakespeare’s house. In an often quoted passage he recalls visiting as well Dickens’ grave in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey: “Consideraba yo a Carlos (sic) Dickens como mi maestro más amado. En mi aprendizaje literario, cuando aún no había salido yo de mi mocedad petulante, apenas devorada La comedia humana, de Balzac, me apliqué con loco afán a la copiosa obra de Dickens. Para un periódico de Madrid traduje el Pickwick, donosa sátira, inspirada, sin duda, en la lectura de El Quijote. (…) Depositando la flor de mi adoración sobre esta gloriosa tumba me retiro del panteón de Westminster”. The literary loop is thus nicely closed: Dickens learned from Cervantes and Galdós learned from him.

I have not read Pickwick Papers yet, which will complete my pet project of reading all the novels Dickens published–then, the short fiction. Reading Galdós’ novel about the ‘trieno liberal’ of 1820-3 and the simply nauseating figure of King Fernando VII, I realized I know very little about the complicated Spanish 19th century. A perfect solution to this shameful blank is, of course, reading Galdós’ series Episodios nacionales. Now, here’s the rub: the series, which famously begins with Trafalgar, runs to 46 novels, published between 1872 and 1912. Don Benito’s complete list of publications runs to more than 100 titles, not including a long list of essays, plays and short stories… Someone should do research on why and how certain writers are so prolific. Is it a mutation in the brain? I also wonder about the kind of readership and book market capable of absorbing so much from the same pen.

The acerbic Valle Inclán dubbed Galdós ‘Don Benito el Garbancero’ as I learned back in secondary school when my wonderful teacher Ana Oltra made us read Galdós’ Tormento. I read Valle Inclán’s play Luces de Bohemia the following year, 1984, and saw it in the theatre with some classmates–we were very different from today’s teens, I guess… this was no school outing but our own idea. ‘Garbancero’ has no apt English translation beyond ‘chickpea dealer’ though Valle Inclán used its second sense: ‘vulgar’. Although my teacher was quite a Galdosian fan, and I loved Tormento much better than Luces de Bohemia, the prejudiced sobriquet somehow stayed with me. It was nevertheless dispelled by TVE’s excellent 1980 adaptation of Galdós’ masterpiece Fortunata y Jacinta (see the series here, a product of a now defunct time when TV did offer highly cultured entertainment. This was our Brideshead Revisited (1981) and I count myself fortunate that these smashing series are part of my literary biography. I doubt even BBC would be up to the task of adapting the Episodios nacionales but I certainly do not see RTVE attempting even to adapt any other of Galdós’ novels. Instead, we are being offered the crude period soap operas that dominate afternoon TV (Amar es para siempre, El secreto de Puente Viejo and so on…). That is ‘garbancero’.

Charles Dickens, by the way, was also labelled ‘garbancero’, though in this case by an illustrious academic. The Modernists regarded him mostly as an example of the ills that the commercialization of the novel inflicted on highbrow Literature throughout the 19th century. As the Modernist-inspired leading academic F.R. Leavis sentenced in The Great Tradition (1948), his reason “for not including Dickens in the line of great novelists” was that, though great, his was the genius “of a great entertainer, and he had for the most part no profounder responsibility as a creative artist than this description suggests” (1950: 18)–he was, in short, a ‘garbancero’. Leavis only concluded as late as 1970 that Dickens was also a great ‘creative artist’ in Dickens the Novelist. Luckily, the BBC never doubted that and has so done much to undo Prof. Leavis’ unfortunate early judgements.

So, back to the beginning, Galdós’ love for his master Dickens can be called a ‘celebration’ of influence, rather than anxiety. I am not denying the widespread existence of this ‘anxiety’–think of Martin Amis comparing himself to his novelist father Kingsley if you need an example. I am just claiming that literary anxiety has a potent counterpart in avowed, gleeful admiration–though I would grant that only a genius like Galdós can turn his awe for a master into unrestrained inspiration and, ultimately, an equally potent voice of his own.

When 2043 arrives and Spain gets the chance to celebrate Galdós’ bicentenary as joyfully as the British celebrated Dickens’ own back in 2012, we can discuss how the two cultures compare when it comes to celebrating the literary best they have produced…

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

[Warning: plenty of spoilers here, novels’ endings discussed]

I am not sure whether I have really taken a break from writing this blog as I realize that I seem to have been preparing today’s post all along in my free time. What is a summer break for if not for reading widely and wildly in between outings? Yet, as you will see, I have been reading less wildly than I assumed, and quite focusedly at least as regards one topic: young women’s agency between the 1890s and the 1920s. Blame this on my Kindle, which demands fuel all the time. Legal downloads go back now to authors who died before 1945 (books are ‘liberated’ for free circulation following 70 years from the author’s demise, a total scandal of you ask me… copyright should never be inherited). This explains, I think, the accidental coherence of my summer reading.

Re-reading some of the papers I wrote for my doctoral courses, I notice I focused much of my work on the tension between the women who did and those who didn’t… survive. I absolutely hated then and still hate middle-class novels in which the heroines commit suicide rather than work: Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart in House of Mirth (1905) and, ugh, that Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s absurdly overvalued The Awakening (1899). Being myself a working-class student, my heart went 25 years ago to Theodore Dreiser’s spunky Sister Carrie (1900). This summer it has gone again to Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams (1921), the story of a cheerful low middle-class girl who, losing her chance to contract the upper middle-class marriage which her mother so frantically wishes to secure for her, decides to train herself for useful work and financial independence.

Perhaps I am misreading Alice’s ending and contemporary readers saw her condemned to spinsterhood, I don’t know, yet I was glad that she makes a sensible decision. Tarkington, who had already won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919 for The Magnificent Ambersons won it again in this novel in 1922. In between, Edith Wharton became the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer for The Age of Innocence (1920), a story set in the 1870s in upper-class New York. Wharton’s story is indeed a failed love story but I like to read it as the story of Ellen Olenska’s refusal to submit to pressure and return to her abusive husband. In Tarkington’s novel, set in the aftermath of WWI, Alice finds herself falling out of the marriage market aged 20, for being too poor to catch an upper-class husband. At 16 she is pretty enough to have the nicest boys in town crowding “the Adamses’ small veranda and steps”; by 18 she is only attracting “the older men”. Without a chance to attend a finishing school or get a college education, by 20 she can no longer compete: “She had been a belle too soon”.

Stephen Crane’s bleak, naturalist tale Maggie, a Girl of the Streets (1893), in which the downward spiral of a poor girl can be chronicled but not stopped, has reminded me that Sister Carrie was scandalous precisely because Dreiser refused to condemn his proletarian girl, giving her instead a career on the stage, no matter how dubious. Again, I might be idealizing Carrie’s ending as I idealize Alice’s but work seems in both cases a pragmatic solution. In contrast, I have been much irritated by the endings of H.G. Wells Ann Veronica (1909) and of Australian Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901), though they are as antithetical as they can be.

Ann Veronica, which was quite a scandal at the time of publication, focuses on the New Woman’s predicament. As Hetty, a friend of Ann Veronica’s, explains: “The practical trouble is our ages. They used to marry us off at seventeen, rush us into things before we had time to protest. They don’t now. Heaven knows why! They don’t marry most of us off now until high up in the twenties. And the age gets higher. We have to hang about in the interval. There’s a great gulf opened, and nobody’s got any plans what to do with us. So the world is choked with waste and waiting daughters. Hanging about! And they start thinking and asking questions, and begin to be neither one thing nor the other. We’re partly human beings and partly females in suspense.” Already 22, Ann Veronica decides to leave her father’s home and support herself, taking as her inspiration G.B. Shaw’s Vivie Warren from Mrs Warren’s Profession (1893, first performed 1902), a young college graduate who earns a living as an accountant (if I remember correctly). Ann Veronica, however, concludes that Vivie is just a fiction and finding no work decides to give herself an education (borrowing money from a man, wilfully ignoring in what position of dependence this leaves her). I had hopes for her as she chooses Biology but, guess what?, her biology teacher, Capes, a man married but separated, ends up providing all she needs–the couple may be unconventional but the ending is as conventional as they come. Ann Veronica seemingly learns nothing from the suffragettes surrounding her and abandons her scientific career as soon as she can. Argh.

Like many other readers I originally supposed that Miles Franklin, author of My Brilliant Career (1901) was a man, until I learned this was Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, Australia’s best-known female writer. Also a fierce feminist and, like Jane Austen, a woman who never married despite her diverse suitors. I am not mentioning Austen by accident, as My Brilliant Career is not the story of young Sybylla Melvyn’s writing career but of how she rejects the best possible suitor since Darcy for the sake of starting this career. Sybylla is stranded between the dire poverty of her own family, blamed on the incapacitating alcoholism of the father, and the middle-class background of her mother’s family. She is, so to speak, working-class by professional situation but middle-class in her cultural training (she reads voraciously, plays the piano, etc.).

The novel, written by a still teenage Franklin, has us believe that the tomboyish heroine attracts, for no clear reason, the Darcyesque Harold Beecham. This young man is said to possess a horrid temper, which is certainly a gigantic obstacle for a happy marriage, yet throughout the story he is as self-possessed as a man can be. There is a horrifying moment in which, right after Sybylla accepts his marriage proposal, he stoops to kiss her (this would be their first kiss). She, “hysterical” and offended by Harold’s “calm air of ownership”, takes his riding-whip and brings it “with all my strength right across his face”, drawing blood and almost blinding him in one eye. She expects he’ll strike her but instead he forgives her and pretends he has had a domestic accident. Gosh. You may read this as a feminist attack against patriarchal man but I was very much disgusted, as disgusted as with Charlotte Brontë’s decision to maim Rochester–which is why I refuse to teach Jane Eyre, much to my students’ amusement.

In a later scene, in which masochistic Hal insists on marrying this idiot girl who clearly does not love him, she confesses she’s “queer” and is “given to something which a man never pardons in a woman”. Just when poor Hal must be thinking she is secretly the most promiscuous woman in Australia, Sybylla blurts out “I am given to writing stories, and literary people predict I will yet be an authoress”. Hal, to Franklin’s credit, laughs. Here’s his offer: “(…) if you will give me a hand occasionally, you can write as many yarns as you like. I’ll give you a study, and send for a truck-load of writing-gear at once, if you like”. This, she rejects.

Considering her own mother’s very unhappy marriage and her obvious reluctance to having children, Sybylla’s decision might make sense. Still, as a 21st century woman who wants to have it all, the loving partner and the successful career, I very much wanted to use the whip on her as she did on Hal. Funnily, I was thinking all the time not of Austen’s Darcy, whom Beecham so much recalls, but of Leonard Woolf, who married Virginia in 1912, and became the main support of her own brilliant career. Um, yes, she committed suicide but it was in spite of Leonard and her success and not because of them…

Reading about all these girls and their narrow choices and marvelling at how different their 21st counterparts are, I wonder whether their dilemmas are over. Harold Beecham is now Christian Grey and as for the Leonard Woolfs of today, is there any? The anxiety to be a ‘belle too soon’ somehow persists and so does Sybylla’s fear of losing control over her body and life if she marries.

This is why their stories are still so appealing…

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Whenever I think of short stories, I think of the late Prof. Guillermina Cenoz, from whom I learned to appreciate this genre. I took an undergrad and a post-grad course on short fiction with her and, later, already as a teacher, I inherited her undergrad course. This, I have taught twice: a first edition (1999-2000) in which I taught an ambitious selection of 24 stories, all adapted for the screen; and a second edition (2004-5) in which I limited myself to just 8, all of them SF and gothic fiction also adapted for the screen (yes, I used time for the films, which I had not done the first time around). Here is the complete reading list including both courses (the film adaptation has the same title, with the exceptions mentioned in parenthesis):

Asimov, Isaac. “The Bicentennial Man”
Barker, Clive. Books of Blood, Vol. 5: “The Forbidden,” [Candyman]
Bierce, Ambrose. “An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge”
Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber: “The Company of Wolves”
Conrad, Joseph. “Amy Foster” [Swept from the Sea]
Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness” [Apocalypse Now!]
Dick, Philip K. “Minority Report”
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: “A Scandal in Bohemia”
Du Maurier, Daphne. “Don’t Look Now!”
Du Maurier, Daphne. “The Birds”
Gibson, William. Burning Chrome: “Johnny Mnemmonic”
Greene, Graham. “The Basement Room” [The Fallen Idol]
Irving, Washington. Tales from the Alhambra: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” [Sleepy Hollow]
James, M.R. “Casting the Runes” [The Curse of the Demon]
Joyce, James. Dubliners: “The Dead”
King, Stephen. Different Seasons: “Apt Pupil”
Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Books: “Mowgli’s Brothers” [The Jungle Book]
Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. “Carmilla” [The Vampire Lovers]
Lovecraft, H.P. “Herbert West: Re-animator” [Reanimator]
McCullers, Carson. “The Ballad of Sad Café”
Poe, Edgar Alan. “The Fall of the House of Usher” [House of Usher]
Runyon, Damon. “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” [Guys and Dolls]
Singer, Isaac Basevis. “Yentl: The Yeshiva Singer” [Yentl]
Stern, Philip Van Doren. “The Greatest Gift” [It’s a Wonderful Life]
Stevenson, R.L. “The Body Snatcher”
Van Vogt, A.E. “Black Destroyer” [Alien]
Woolrich, Cornel. “Rear Window”

These are all stories I love and I would certainly be very happy to teach them again.

Then, in 2006 I was paid just 500 Euros, would you believe this?, to translate a collection I called Siete relatos góticos: Del papel a la pantalla. This included a commentary on each of the seven film adaptations of “The legend of Sleepy Hollow”, “An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge”, “Hoichi, the Earless” by Lafcadio Hearn, “Casting the Runes”, “Spurs” by Clarence Aaron ‘Tod’ Robbins (which inspired Freaks), “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell and “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet. The collection, by the way, is available from, or you may download the Epub and Mobi files from my web at I would like very much to have time to produce a sequel called Ocho relatos, both gothic and SF, but a) I don’t particularly enjoy translating, b) this is very hard work that counts for nothing towards my research assessment exercise. Perhaps when I retire…

Why the specific interest in the short story and cinema? No particular reason. I have always been interested in film adaptation and the short story happens to be arguably the most often unacknowledged source in terms of academic interest and popularity. With one exception: the many adaptations of stories written by Philip K. Dick.

This brings me back to SF, a genre (or mode?) for which short fiction is essential, as 20th century SF grew basically out of the specialized magazines, beginning of course with Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories (1926). I am not really a good short story reader, preferring instead novels. Yet, feeling curious about the function of short fiction in the development of SF and aware of the many gaps in my SF reading list, I have set out to fill this summer with all I can lay my hands on. Not randomly…

Here’s the idea: students taking my elective ‘English Prose: Considering Science Fiction’ next Spring will have to read the 5 novels I have selected. They will also be offered a selection of 40 to 50 short stories. Each student will be assigned a story and she or he will do a class presentation based on it, followed by writing a brief index card. I’ll collect the index cards and in this way we’ll produce a nice online booklet to help other SF readers locate and read the stories. If students feel like reading the 40/50 stories, they’re welcome, though this is not compulsory. I just hope they get to hear in this way about many other SF writers apart from our 5 novelists.

I started a while ago the process of choosing the stories, which is, in one word, mindboggling… I am using Hugo and Nebula lists of winners, and of short-listed authors, my own memories of stories I have read or heard about, and a wonderful website called Free Speculative Fiction Online ( Even so, I despair… for I want the final list to be balanced chronologically and also in terms of nationality, gender, ethnicity… This means that I am working in two directions: selecting famous/representative texts and finding texts for famous/representative authors. I calculate that for the final 40 to 50 titles I will have to read 200. Am I complaining? No!!!!… it’s wonderful to have the excuse to do this… It was about time…

In the first edition of the short fiction course I gave students the option to submit for assessment either a paper or a short story of their own. Many tried writing a short story (I’m so sorry I didn’t keep them…) but then complained it had been much, much harder than they thought. This year, I am also planning to have my students write SF short fiction though not for assessment. Last June I was a member of the jury judging the entries to the Spanish SF short fiction contest Inspiraciència ( and I aim at convincing my students to submit their own stories next year. I think the 800-word limit will help…

To finish, let me teach you a typical SF concept: the fix-up. What’s a ‘fix-up’? A novel made up of diverse short fiction pieces. That would explain why Charles Stross’s Accelerando (2005), one of the best-known recent fix-ups, is such a crazy, demanding book… The first piece, “Lobsters” is for now in my selection. We’ll see…

Back to reading SF short fiction, then, and loving it!

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I learned a few days ago that Minister Wert’s horrendous legislation on education in LOMCE, has done away with the obligation to study Literature in secondary education (I mean ‘bachillerato’). The subject has been reduced from four to two weekly hours, it is now formally an elective and does not count for the average mark which conditions university admission. In Catalonia this affects both Catalan and Spanish Literature, subjects, anyway, only compulsory in the so-called ‘Bachillerato Humanístico’. So-called because I have no idea what Humanities are left in it after this assault and the previous one perpetrated against the classical languages and Philosophy recently.

In a blog post for El público (24 June), Juan Tortosa lamented that the study of Latin and music is gone from what should be a basic education for all (and not just secondary education for some). As he very well says, “Arrancar de cuajo las humanidades de la enseñanza es privar a las generaciones que ahora crecen en nuestro país de un instrumento imprescindible para amueblar sus mentes y reforzar su sensibilidad” ( It should be obvious that downgrading Literature in this way ensures not only a specific ignorance of writers and texts but also makes explicit the malicious, evil intention to deprive younger generations of the tools needed to maintain a critical spirit. This is what we do in the Literature class: we teach people to read, think, argue ideas, be critical. The Language teachers cannot do that for us, busy as they are teaching how grammar, syntax, etc. work. Without an ability to read in depth the younger citizens are rendered not only functionally illiterate but also political idiots. This is the real plan.

This process, of course, started long ago, with LOGSE. Its first victims reached us here at the university about 20 years ago and since then, literacy has gone truly downhill. Further proof of this is a recent article in El País ( commenting on the drop in sales of Literature volumes, which is no surprise at all. This amounts to 30’5% in 5 years which, being those of the crisis, can be explained by the usual plunge into piracy: keen readers have got themselves an e-book reader and download illegally all they can. Um. What is more surprising perhaps is that El País actually calls Literature all the novels read for pleasure (not for any of the educational levels). This means that there has been a general drop in the sales of all genres, from the commercial general fiction to specific genres like SF or romance. An optimistic interpretation suggests that creative Literature is not faring worse than popular fiction; a pessimistic one suggests that the literary avant-garde may be dying, no longer addressing a committed readership, sinking fast.

Another article, also from El País ( suggests that not all is lost as a) children and young adult books have generated bigger joint sales than adult fiction and b) on the whole, the ebook reader has resulted in an unexpected demand for fewer commercial novels and more literary works. Um… now the question is whether the young readers will become adult readers without the intervention of secondary school Literature teachers, whom they may never meet. I was myself the keenest young reader you may imagine, but without Professor Sara Freijido in my pre-university year I would never have met the challenge of becoming a much better, far more sophisticated reader. So there we are…

Now, a little press note on my university’s website made me see things from another angle. Only 40% of all European university teachers, it seems, use films and documentaries in class ( Of course, there is an enormous difference between using film to illustrate a point about something else and teaching film. In Spain, let’s recall, we don’t have a degree called ‘Film Studies.’ We don’t have, either, a degree called ‘Literatura (Española, Catalana, English…)’ but ‘Filologías’ disguised as ‘Estudios’ and that strange hybrid, ‘Literatura Comparada y Teoría de la Literatura.’ Anyway, the study reveals that 78% of all European teachers complain that they face difficulties to introduce cinema in their syllabi, “which constitutes an obstacle for audiovisual literacy.” Certainly.

I myself feel illiterate despite having very often taught film, film adaptation and documentary in class because I have never been trained in the basic grammar of cinema. Now, if you think about it, the current audiovisual illiteracy mirrors what will soon happen with Literature. Since they have never studied film in class, my students (born in the early 1990s) are not only incapable of commenting on how a film functions aesthetically (same problem for me) but also ignore that there is a canon and a film History. How could they know about this? Remember they were born together with private TV in Spain, which eliminated from their cultural horizon all films previous to 1990. Apocalypse Now, just to mention a title among thousands, does not exist for them, just as soon La regenta will exist for nobody. Except in both cases, film and Literature, for the curious and for the ones committed to their own self-improvement, to use a Victorian term I am in love with.

Teaching Literature in the university to first-year students is going to be soon the strangest kind of teaching practice ever. The keen readers will have read mainly young adult fiction, not a single classic. The ones uninterested in reading will have read nothing at all. Neither group will have received the least training in the practice of understanding the content of a text, much less in reading critically. This functional illiteracy will necessarily have an impact in all subsequent courses and it is to be wondered what doctoral dissertations on Literature will be like in the future. Game over, as I say, for Literature teachers.

What can you expect, on the other hand, in a land where ‘culturista’ means ‘bodybuilder’ and not ‘someone committed to cultural self-improvement’. Every time I hear this word or I read articles nagging everyone into joining a gym, I wonder what it would be like if people went to libraries to read three hours a week as they go to gyms. My only hope is that as Literature becomes residual in secondary education it also becomes an object of curiosity for, as we know, nothing kills the pleasure of reading as the obligation to read and pass exams. A young person who would never read a classic for class might well feel curious if not forced to read it. And, you see, curiouser and curiouser… Just as Spain managed to generate that curious figure, ‘el cinéfilo’, specialized in seeing the least popular films, there is still hope that we can generate ‘el lectórfilo’ (‘el bibliófilo’ exists, s/he loves books rather than reading).

Or not, and this is it for the art of writing… beyond tweets and whatsapps…

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

In the last fortnight I have attended two seminars on Affect Theory, one organized by the research group I am a member of, Construyendo Nuevas Masculinidades, and the other presented as a meeting between two research groups, one headed by Helena González of UB (Centre de Dona i Literatura) and the other by Belén Martín of the Universidad de Vigo. I can very well say that the two meetings have ‘affected’ me in deep academic ways of which I’ll try to make sense here.

I first heard about Affect Theory (a noun pronounced with the stress on the ‘a’ unlike the verb, pronounced with the stress on the second syllable) possibly a year ago, when I learned from Xavier Aldana (a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan) that he was working on a book which considers the effect that ‘body gothic’, focused on the extreme destruction of the human body, has on the somatic reactions of the spectators/readers. The somatic reactions (=how the body responds) is what, if I understand this correctly, interests Affect Theory. This is not focused on individual emotion (conditioned by your own culture) but on the bodily reactions that are seemingly common to all human beings and that pre-condition how we react to, in the case that interests me, certain stories. This makes perfect sense for Gothic. Indeed, reading John Clute’s glossary The Darkening Garden, I found that he refers to ‘affect horror’ (which the translator calls ‘horror de impacto’) as the kind of gross-out Gothic which aims at affecting primarily your guts (a trend started back in the late 1970s by, among others, novelist Peter Straub or film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). I assume that Affect Theory must also be very useful to analyze porn…

Like most of my colleagues attending the seminars I am unfamiliar with the key texts in the field of Affect Theory, one of which, psychologist Silvan Tomkins’ Affect Imagery Consciousness dates back to 1962. Brian Massumi was constantly mentioned in the seminar that Todd Reese offered to my group, whereas in the case of the other meeting, oriented towards feminism, the two names that most often popped up where Rosie Braidotti and Sarah Ahmed. I’m not sure how to place them. Affect Theory, anyway, which is really, as I notice, a branch of psychology, entered psychoanalysis and from it the Humanities with the work of, among others, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. This sounded promising for Masculinities Studies, as she is famous for her seminal volume, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985). Yet, to be honest, we had serious difficulties to understand how exactly to apply Affect Theory to Literature and cinema–and the example I saw at the feminist seminar was, actually, quite scary.

The idea, if I understand correctly, is to shift the focus from what the text says to how the text says it, considering how this affects the body. What makes me nervous is that this smacks a little bit too much of traditional formalist criticism of the kind that we, in Cultural Studies, have been disputing since the 1970s. The material conditions of production and consumption, the actual bodies doing the reading and the viewing and, certainly, the content of the stories and who they address matter to me very much. In the presentation I saw on Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank the lecturer focused on the aesthetics of an uncomfortable dance sequence, showing the young teenage protagonist trapped by her native housing estate. The idea was to interrogate how the spectator is bodily affected by this joyless sequence. I almost ended up quarrelling with the lecturer when I pointed out that this patronizing film seems designed to depress working-class girls like the protagonist into committing suicide, which is why it is important to know who has watched the film and what for. She called this Cultural Studies approach ‘traditional’ and stressed that there was no point in asking actual members of the audience who they are. I ended up defending Yo soy la Juani as a proper feminist text, so you see how things escalated.

What worries me here is not just my own personal intellectual obsolescence (already?) nor the feeling that I must understand Affect Theory, whether I like it or not, but the political implications of all these academic trends. Perhaps this is because I started my dipping into Affect Theory by reading Ruth Leys’ article “The Turn to Affect: A Critique” (2011); in it she points out that the main theorists suggest that affect is “independent” and “even prior” to ideology, an irrational substratum present also in politics. Yes, well, look at the emotional energies generated in Spain by Podemos and I see what is meant. Yet, I cringe.

In this new paradigm, feeling is personal, emotion social and affect pre-personal, whatever that means. The body speaks a language irrespective of language and culture (an animal language, I wonder?). Leys is particularly critical of the assumed split between mind and body as separate cognitive systems, and I agree with her (we’re fighting this battle too against the transhumanists). Her arguments are too complex to summarise but basically she ends by wondering why the turn towards anti-intentionalism in psychology and the affective neurosciences “exerts such a fascination over the cultural critics and theorists (…)—especially since one price their views exact is to imply such a radical separation between affect and reason as to make disagreement about meaning, or ideological dispute, irrelevant to cultural analysis.” If debating meaning and ideology is no longer part of cultural analysis, then, what are we supposed to do? Become scientists?

I’m going back to Gothic. I wrote my dissertation on monstrosity so I do know that at a very basic level there is an animal affect called ‘fear’. Those who love horror fiction enjoy the loss of control over their bodies: the adrenaline rush, the ice in the guts, the tingle down the spine, the uncontrollable scream and that bizarre jumping off your seat. Gothic Studies have, of course, used psychology and psychoanalysis abundantly to delve into the writer’s imagination and the spectator’s reactions. Yet, I’ll insist again, as I did in my post here on Xavier Aldana’s excellent Body Gothic: Corporal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film (2014) that it is important to specify whose body, as identity is crucial to understand ideology. Women tend to eschew body gothic (and affect gothic more generally) because the bodies too often tortured and destroyed are female bodies. Also, Gothic still is predominantly a narrative mode still mainly produced and enjoyed by white, male, middle-class, privileged persons facing no real situation of danger in their daily lives.

This is the main core of my worry: formalism, post-structuralism and now Affect Theory are telling us that there are universalist principles in the making and the reception of storytelling that can be theorized beyond who is found at each end of the process and how they connect. Understanding how the grim aesthetics of The Walking Dead affect the generic body of the spectator is, I think, a valid academic project. Yet, this project must be complemented by a consideration of how ideology works in this very suspect patriarchal, survivalist text. Why? Because if we reject the unmasking of ideology as a passé academic pursuit, we are falling into the most monstrous ideological trap: the pretence that ideology that does not exist. This, I certainly, don’t want to encourage.

I’ve run out of space to consider the matter of what an academic fashion is and why Affect Theory is now all the rage. I’ll repeat what we determined in the feminist seminar: one thing is embracing a theory out of a profound conviction and following the logic of one’s career and another quite different (this would be the fashion) is jumping onto the band wagon just because, as a participant noted, certain keywords will make your work look cooler than others. I am not, obviously, opposed to importing refreshing, challenging new ideas, for this is what academic debates are about–but I am growing quite suspicious of why particular ideas climb to the top. Also, I long for the day when a local Pérez, García or Martínez will originate an internationally acclaimed academic trend… instead of meekly submitting to someone else’s ideas.

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