READING TV: THE END OF THE NOVEL?

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Literature students do not read. To be precise, just as, obviously, Austen’s man of good fortune is not really in want of a wife, many Literature students do read. Experience tells me, however, that this does not necessarily mean that student readers do read what we ask them to read but what they please to read. The non-readers simply don’t read.

This tongue-twister recaps worries occupying some of my time in recent days. Last Monday we had a Literature teachers’ meeting to discuss, once more, what we can do to have more students read more. My personal impression is that only a minority (say 20%) read all the set texts, a majority read some (say 50% to be on the generous side) and the rest get by using internet summaries and class notes (30%).

What is worrying, as I have noted here several times already, is the growing number among the non-reading students who have adopted an in-your-face attitude and do not hesitate to tell us as rudely as they can that they don’t and they won’t read. Recently, we even had a girl who demanded our praise for her honesty (and passing the exam). Now, the consequences of not reading are serious: undergrads can be expelled after registering for a fourth time in a subject–even so, some are beginning to express their, so to speak, ‘right’ not to read.

As usual, the problem is that the recalcitrant students do not approach any Literature teacher for a chat on why they don’t read. So, I have to make do with the ones who do read.

The less dutiful have clearly explained to me that there is a principle of selection at work: you want me to read so and so, fine, I’ll choose what interests me and fool you about having read the rest. A few weeks ago, I found at my door one of my most brilliant students: he was finally reading, after taking my Victorian Literature class four years ago, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights… and loving it! He is famous for having publicly declared that he got an A for my subject without having read any of the (four) books. When I called him to my office to justify this boast, I had him explain his method to me rather than fail him. He had worked quite hard reading summaries and essays and, anyway, the paperwork to fail him retrospectively was so messy I let him be (also, well, he is a compulsive reader). Still, we had other students demand their right to pass the subject as he did, students who based their claim on their not having read the books, either… nor even the summaries.

Anyway, two of the brilliant, dutiful students who do read plenty told me more or less the same story when I asked them this week: the 1990s generation may not be readers but they certainly are consumers of TV series. Both girl students, committed readers since childhood, explained to me that they are quite capable of consuming TV in very long bouts. When I say TV, I should be cautious, for they actually meant series made for TV but watched on the computer independently from broadcast schedules. Everyone, they told me, is watching at least two or three series at the same time, sometimes combining ongoing with already finished products.

As I have noted here, I don’t like watching series. I prefer movies and tend to see one every evening, instead of watching TV (my only ‘appointment shows’ are Polònia and APM Extra on TV3). Also, as I have noted here, this is because I prefer variety to following long narrations; I learned to control the time I use for a particular story after the fiasco of Lost. Yes, I did write that pioneering book about The X-Files (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/118437) but the experience also taught me that consuming a very long series is, for me, too taxing, too little relaxing.

My students tell me the opposite: for them, reading requires concentration and is, thus, increasingly subjected to a shorter attention span. As one of my colleagues hypothesised, the reason why students don’t read too much is because their reading practice was not sufficiently strong before they reached us; lacking practice, they find reading time-consuming and unrewarding. The more complex the texts we ask them to read are, the less they enjoy reading as, naturally, they need greater concentration. These students, of course, still enjoy storytelling, which they get from TV. Now, fancy this: it might well be that both the non-readers and the readers are consuming plenty of TV series because they are easier to follow than a printed text. For different reasons in each case.

Back to my two students, one quite surprised me by declaring that when she completed her MA dissertation she let off steam by watching The Gilmore Girls over a few days. This series is 7 seasons long with 22 episodes per season (seemingly 60’ each), more than 140 hours?? She clarified to me that her record, watching 10 episodes on one day, has to do with her ability to multitask–she does not sit in front of the TV but takes her laptop all over the place as she does different things. The other girl, who also uses TV series to relax, gave me a similar account of her habits, stressing that you need not follow all the episodes in detail, ergo, there is no need to concentrate unlike what happens when you read. Sadly, when I observed that, at least, our students’ oral and verbal skills must be improving with so much audio-visual input she told me that not all enjoy the original English-language version.

I told a colleague about all this and he wondered how this generational portrait as, mainly, TV consumers fits their other portrait as readers of Rowling’s Harry Potter. Supposing the overlap is large, of which I am by no means sure, I’ll argue that it is perfectly possible. Rowling only turned a fraction of her readers into readers for life and, anyway, a passion for reading is not incompatible, as we can see, with a passion for TV series. Perhaps the real testing ground should be provided by A Game of Thrones. Before the TV series started back in 2011, this story was known as A Song of Ice and Fire; A Game of Thrones (1996) is actually just the first novel in Martin’s ongoing series. Ask the 1990s generation and you will see that most refer to it by their TV series’ title, as this and not the books is what is mostly consumed. The TV series is surely getting more readers for Martin but I am sure most viewers are satisfied enough and feel no inclination to read the books.

I do wonder, then, whether the 15 years mediating between 1996 and 2011 will be seen retrospectively as the years that killed the novel, and whether we will ever come to the conclusion that the construction of reading fiction as a (cultural) habit has more to do with the availability of technology than with anything else (if Shakespeare or Dickens had had a camera then…). I am well aware that cinema has not killed the novel and that novel sales are still very high, yet this massive TV series consumption might be indicating something else: the final victory of middle-brow, easy-to-follow storytelling over all other forms of fiction.

I’ll leave the matter of whether TV series can be avant-garde for another post…

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ENCYCLOPAEDIC VERSUS ARGUMENTATIVE KNOWLEDGE: CULTURAL TENSIONS IN ACADEMIC WORK

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

As happens when I’m on holiday, I embarked last Christmas on a project I can hardly complete now: I’m re-editing my PhD dissertation (1996) as a user-friendly volume for my website, as, for reasons I fail to understand, the Catalan repository TDX has it split up into a variety of .pdf documents. Going through its more than 300,000 words (that’s about 2’5 current thesis… most likely the reason for its dismemberment), and its primary source list, including 75 novels and 125 films, I cannot help noticing the tension between my clashing encyclopaedic and argumentative methodologies. That is to say, between my native Spanish academic tradition and my adoptive Anglophone tradition.

When I chose to work on how monstrosity was articulated in the Anglophone texts of the 1980s and 1990s (novels and films), it was clear to me that my main task would consist of mapping a vast territory. There was no way I would be satisfied with just a handful of examples. The list of primary sources grew and grew, and I recall trips to libraries, bookshops, and video rental outlets which brought home a half-dozen new sources at a sitting. Things were also complicated, as I recall, by David Punter, one of my two supervisors, who demanded that I included a chapter on children –to a dissertation already 7 chapters long…

It was certainly very, very difficult to integrate so many sources into my discourse, without the thesis sounding as a collection of independent comments on each. I marvel at how hard I worked… really without needing to do so much. Yet, those were the times when a thesis 1,000 pages long was not really very exceptional (mine was about half). At any rate, I learned very, very much and I guess that was the point. I am still mining my dissertation for articles I’m writing today.

Dissertations, however, are currently much shorter and fulfil a different mission, apparently. A couple of years ago a student asked me for help to organize his PhD dissertation on zombies. To my surprise, he brought to my office, not a list but a gigantic spreadsheet (A1-size) on which he had traced a myriad intertextual connections among texts with zombies. I was impressed (my Spanish encyclopaedic tradition responding to this) and dismayed (the Anglophone side), and tried to explain to him that the argumentative demonstration of his thesis statement should dominate the impulse to make lists. Or should it?

There are indeed a number of problems with the encyclopaedic approach, particularly in our internet times. Typically, a Spanish book on, say, 1980s horror cinema, would present as many films as possible, with individual comment and little general argumentation linking them. The worst possible version of this is the volume aimed at a general readership, which usually consists plainly of file cards barely transformed into printable matter. This type of book is now a very obsolete artefact as, properly, its domain should be the internet. A website based on file cards on 1980s horror cinema makes sense, as it needs no argumentation; not a book, as it does.

Then, recently, I saw a woman academic embarrass herself beyond measure when she presented at a conference a so-called paper on vampire films. Her ‘paper’ consisted of mentioning a list of, well, vampire films. When someone in the audience, surely as aghast as I was, asked her (with a pinch of salt she totally missed) why Blacula was not included, she explained that hers was a random selection from a much longer list. Random? A key speaker in the same conference ‘delighted’ us with a lecture on monster films. Since this was in chronological order, a friend and I entertained ourselves with playing the game of whether we would guess the next item on the list. I must say that perhaps the boring list had a point, judging from the notes made by a student sitting in the next row–she consistently misspelled names I would have thought absolutely familiar to any film audience.

The Anglophone academic approach, in contrast, is based on the argumentative essay and relies very heavily on theorisation. What matters is not so much what you know about a field but which point you are making about it. This is, logically, a better strategy for the kind of fast production that the shorter BA, MA and PhD Anglophone programmes have aimed at. Although theory is also extended across many volumes and articles, mastering the basics is more feasible than, say, reading all the novels of the 18th century dealing with femininity. I am myself applying a very pragmatic version of this approach to my students’ own dissertations which, unlike mine, focus on a closed set of primary sources texts from the beginning, additions to be incorporated only if absolutely necessary.

Nevertheless, I’m missing something.

I have found myself very much annoyed during recent readings of volumes on post-humanism, the topic that currently absorbs me, by the, well, random selection of the primary sources. I am not saying the researchers have not done their homework, what I am saying is that the urge to theorise is so compelling that the primary sources are decontextualised, often isolated from intertexts they closely connect with.

Take the figure of the cyborg, which appears in fiction in 1972 with Martin Caidin’s novel, simply called Cyborg, the basis of the later very popular TV show The Six-Million Dollar Man. Now, take the cyborg as presented in Johnny Depp’s most recent film, Transcendence, or in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War saga and you can see there’s been a noticeable evolution marked by the discoveries in technoscience. However, when you read academic work on post-humanism the arguments revolve again and again around Donna Haraway’s 1991 “Cyborg Manifesto” (usually overlooking the primary sources she does mention).

This refusal to make lists, historicize tropes and see how they have evolved is, for me, bad scholarship–as bad as the vampire film woman’s argument-free method. How can ‘cyborg’ mean in 2015 the same this word used to mean back in 1991? You might say that mapping a representational territory in fiction is not as important today because anyone can do it using the internet. Wikipedia does offer lists, if you want them, which I have often used as the starting point for my own maps–but, notice this: someone has made the effort to make the lists and make sense of a vast territory… beyond theory.

I remember being overwhelmed by my monsters twenty years ago: I despaired every day, thinking I could never finish a coherent list. And I never did, I simply stopped at a date. It is quite possible that theory-based academic work is a silent acknowledgement of the impossibility of commanding a minimum knowledge of any fictional field. Name any, and soon you have 200 texts to read and see, whether this is post-colonial detective fiction or recent British theatre.

The Anglophone solution, it seems, is using samples for the whole, regardless of the significance of the sample, and pruning it from complications (if I discuss Batman, I focus on Nolan’s films rather than the comic series and graphic novels). It’s a solution but it makes for that kind of book that reduces the representation of, say, monstrous children, to five texts. How representative can this really be? On the other hand, the Spanish leaning towards an encyclopaedic name-dropping sounds hollow without a proper theoretical foundation and a solid argument.

Ah… the pleasures of academic bi-culturalism…

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ONCE MORE RETHINKING GENDER (AND HOPING FOR POST-GENDER)

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I have spent an intense week marking the 33 essays produced by the students enrolled in my BA elective on Gender Studies. Together they amount to a complete volume of about 80000 words, perhaps worth publishing online (though I hesitate to embark again on the arduous task of editing undergrad work). The list of paper titles is, simply, exciting, with plenty of TV series and the first paper on video-games I have ever marked! I feel I have been reading cutting-edge research even though the researchers themselves are not quite ready yet to produce it. Some paradox.

The students’ papers cover a wide range of approaches to gender: femininity and feminism, alternative masculinities, queer and gay, lesbianism and the mainstream, transgender and intersexuality and a miscellaneous group of ‘gender-speculative’ work. This is why it has been such a … queer experience to combine marking them with reading Helen Merrick’s The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms (2009). This is a highly accomplished piece of scholarship on gender studies which has passed quite unnoticed, as usually happens with anything connected with SF. Yet it is also an acknowledgement that feminism and even gender are concepts in urgent need of revision within cultural criticism.

I have read Merrick’s volume because I am currently preparing a talk on women and SF, from Mary Shelley onwards, invited by CSIC (11 March, 19:00, Biblioteca Sagrada Familia). This is quite contradictory, for, though I am often connected with SF feminism, I have actually been writing against its unwise gender-based separatism (see “Cracks in the Feminist Nirvana: Reading David Brin’s Anti-Patriarchal SF Novel Glory Days as a ‘Feminist’ Woman,” in Yesterday’s Tomorrows: On Utopia and Dystopia. Pere Gallardo & Elizabeth Russell, eds.). I am a totally convinced feminist in demand of equal rights and opportunities for women and men; yet as a scholar and reader I have always criticised feminism for considering women’s work apart from men’s, and for ignoring how (and why) men are since the 1980s contributing positive representations of women, particularly in SF.

Merrick’s final chapter deals with the James Tiptree jr. award for SF fiction which contributes to offering alternative gender representation. She wonders, though, whether an award should highlight gender, even puzzling over whether an interest in gender is always feminist. Noting that explorations of masculinity are gaining ground in Tiptree submissions, she observes next that there is much pressure from “women of color”, post-colonialism, critical race theory, queer theory and even feminist science studies to “de-prioritize gender (…) as the primary tool of feminist theory” (281). Gwyneth Jones, a British SF writer, is quoted bemoaning how feminist SF has become just a ‘niche market, a minority interest’ while most women prefer thrilling ‘fem-SF’ and its strong female characters. My reaction?: “well, serves you right for insisting on the separatist line”. Then I’m sorry I’m so nasty.

Let me recap my views:

a) gender MUST be used as a crucial analytical tool as long as patriarchy exists; the main mission of Gender Studies is raising everyone’s consciousness, men and women, about patriarchy–this elephant in the room of feminism so few women and men call by its name.

b) once more: I prefer calling myself ‘anti-patriarchal’ if by calling myself ‘feminist’ I confuse men and women into thinking that I am interested in limiting myself to women (their rights, history, cultural production… as Merrick and her ‘cabal’ do)

c) SF is a gigantic lab for imagining post-gender, post-race, post-class… utopia, which is why I read it. Most young girls, most men and I myself are not very much interested in feminist stories by women (set in patriarchy) but in post-gender stories by women and by men (set in post-patriarchy).

d) I don’t understand why gender should be abandoned, since it is not only perfectly compatible with other identity markers (race, class, age, ability, nationality…) but also intertwined with them. White feminists and black feminists are separated by race, but why should this mean that gender is irrelevant to read their work or life?

Let me mention two more texts. Yesterday I saw The Expendables 3, part of the series bringing back to the screen the ageing actors who played the main roles in action films from the 1980s onwards. It is very peculiar to see these men (actually two generations, born between the 1940s and the 1960s) parade with pride faces that look terribly aged (Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Gibson). Harrison Ford (b. 1942!) looks positively ancient… In the case of Dolph Lundgren (b. 1957) what is most striking is the clash between his devastated face and his still very muscular arms.

The film, from a story by Stallone himself, deals with his character Barney’s misguided attempt to recruit a younger band of mercenaries to safeguard his habitual team from danger. His strategy backfires when his new young team makes a silly mistake, which results in their being held captive and in need of rescue by Stallone’s fogies. I entertained myself, between noisy shoot-outs and fights, with pondering how impossible the same story would be with ageing women actresses in similar roles (Linda Hamilton, Sigourney Weaver and who else?).

Yet among the post-racial rainbow assembly of testosterone-fuelled men (5 US white, 2 US black, 2 UK white, 1 Latino, 1 Spaniard, 1 Swede, 1 Asian, multiple ‘azmanistanies’…), a woman could be found. Luna, very credibly played by a mixed martial arts specialist, the handsome Ronda Rousey, is first presented as a bouncer in high heels, yet, arguably!, not really sexualised. She is just part of the team, full stop, and efficient at doing her job. When at the end she makes eyes at Stallone and tells him ‘if you were 30 years younger…’ he quips, ‘if I were 30 years younger I would be afraid of you’. Is this feminism? Of course not! It is mere tokenism (just one white woman and she’s secondary). Yet, I find it refreshing, for Stallone’s macho audience is the one needing to be taught respect for women. (I was going to comment on AfricanAmerican Zoe Saldana, kicking ass hard in Guardians of the Galaxy but I’m still processing her green skin, after her blue skin in Avatar).

The other text: N. Katherine Hayles’ ultra-dense How We Became Posthuman (1999). This is a fascinating account (if you’re up to coping with her unfriendly prose) of the current technoscientific craze by which Hans Moravec and company expect us to become disembodied and reach immortality as pure consciousness on the net or some digital device. Helen Merrick reads Hayles’ protest against this wacky discourse, which seemingly forgets that minds belong in bodies, as a feminist challenge against aberrant patriarchal dreams. I see this myself: the persons who have caused computers to shape our world are (privileged white) men who see themselves as primarily minds encased in messy, incidental bodily matter. Hayles’ horror of their ignorance of actual bodies is in essence feminist. Yet, funnily, she carefully avoids using a gendered discourse. My guess is that, ironically, speaking as a female person whose body conditions her daily life would diminish her authority against those who, believing themselves entitled to manipulating the whole human species, do not realise that their privileged position comes, precisely, from their possessing white, male, middle-class Western bodies.

Gender, as you can see, is not only not at all obsolete as a tool for understanding life but in dire need of being better understood. Of course, other factors matter but my view is that they’re all part of this evil patriarchal system that needs to be destroyed as soon as possible. Ignore it at your own risk.

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MAN OF TODAY?: (UN)COOL MASCULINITIES AND MOVIE STARS

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

It is not my intention to write today exclusively about the Hugo Boss ‘Man of Today’ campaign with Gerard Butler, aimed at boosting sales of its star perfume Boss Bottled. However, it is a useful starting point. You may have seen the TV add, first aired in November 2014. Butler looks his habitual handsome self as he sprays his manly chest with the perfume, dons a trim Hugo Boss suit and considers how great San Francisco looks in the distance.

He delivers off screen in his original Scottish accent the Boss Bottle manifesto. Brace yourselves, boys and girls: “I don’t believe in less, I go all the way. And you can see it in my stride. If good conduct makes a man, it makes me the man of today. A man will never run. Stay noble I say. I am a man. More than the grip of good handshake and a job well done. Diligence and dedication is what I live from day to day. And you can see it in my deeds, be true to yourself, I say. It makes me a man of success. I am a man of today.” Um, you mean ‘not of yesterday’? Really? Why’s that necessary? Now this sentence about ‘diligence and dedication’, doesn’t this also apply to women?

This modern man, Butler enthuses, is “a pretty cool guy” supposed to be, attention!!, smart, self-confident, masculine but not macho, aware of the demands of feminism but not passive, motivated, passionate, successful but discreet. Please, do read the whole article, part of the campaign, and do wonder about the claims made there about contemporary masculinity: http://www.msn.com/en-my/lifestyle/runningtheshow/the-man-of-today-who-exactly-is-he/ar-BBa6Jj3. GC editor Dylan Jones, the brain behind the ad’s copy, stresses that “I think the interesting thing about Gerard as an ambassador is that he’s unapologetically a real man”. I have no idea to whom he should apologize for being a man nor do I understand what a ‘fake’ or ‘unreal’ man is. And consider the effect of someone claiming that (insert here an actress) is ‘unapologetically a real woman’. Why and what for? Yes, I’m being obnoxious here.

Jones finds that Butler’s advantage as a “brand ambassador” is that he’s not “fleetingly cool or too young” perhaps thinking of former ‘ambassadors’ Jared Leto and Ryan Reynolds. Butler, a mature 44-year-old and not exactly a first-rank star, was honoured and humbled that he was chosen for the job of embodying the man of today; as he notes, “There are many other actors and celebrities they could have asked”. I couldn’t agree more, particularly considering he is famous thanks to his barbaric Leonidas in 300 (and if that’s the subtext he brings to the man of today, well, then let me be scared). Yet, if I ask myself who else could have taken up the job and with better credentials and more popular assent, I confess I find no easy answer.

Just humour me and follow me in this peculiar exercise. Using IMBD’s Advanced Search feature and its STARmeter, I find that the main male actors by generation are (20 top names excluding some not that popular outside the US):

*born in the 1960s: Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Ralph Fiennes, Robert Downey jr., Nicholas Cage, Will Smith, Daniel Craig, Hugh Jackman, Jason Statham, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carey, Vin Diesel, Josh Brolin, Russell Crowe, Philip Seymour Hoffman, George Clooney, Colin Firth, Woody Harrelson [also Gerard Butler].

*born in the 1970s: Tom Hardy, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, James Franco, Leonardo di Caprio, Christian Bale, Orlando Bloom, Bradley Cooper, Idris Elba, Mark Wahlberg, Ben Affleck, Michael Fassbender, Jude Law, Jared Leto, Ryan Reynolds, Matt Damon, Joel Edgerton, Joaquin Phoenix, Ethan Hawke, Ewan McGregor.

*born in the 1980s: Chris Pine, Charlie Hunnam, Chris Hemsworth, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Evans, Ryan Gosling, Jamie Dornan, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hiddleston, Henry Cavill, Andrew Garfield, Kit Harington, Robert Pattinson, Ben Wishaw, Emil Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Michael Cera.

Who’s your man of today? If Hugo Boss means, as I think they do, that this must be a steadily ‘cool’ man and supposing that cool means ‘self-possessed’ and ‘self-assured’, is Butler the best possible candidate? Who fits the bill best?

As I’m sure you have guessed by now, I find the whole Hugo Boss campaign quite ridiculous for, here’s the rub, a truly cool man never proclaims his coolness. Actually, part of being cool is the ability to radiate this coolness in a subdued, subtle way. The spectator, the onlooker, must feel when facing a certain male icon that he is the man of today, and not be told who embodies him. If looking at Butler you go ‘wow! he’s cool’ then he’s succeeding in being the ideal which Hugo Boss claims he personifies. If you need to be told what a cool, real man he is then I can only say that cool, real masculinity is in deep… trouble.

In Masculinities Studies the most frequently invoked mantra is that there is not one single way of being masculine but many, hence, there is no ‘man of today’ but ‘men of today’. If you look at my lists, you might perhaps see not only this variety (and remember that actors are just one profession, not all men) but also a manifest disregard for embodying the ‘manly man’ in the younger generations (which often baffles me… but then, I’m getting old). Whether a man can be cool and not necessarily manly (or vice versa) is quite a vexing question; it might even well be that cool and manly are categories of the past that no longer apply to the ‘man of today’ (surely younger men find the Butler ad old-fashioned and would name as man of today… fun-loving James Franco?). Also consider whether family man Chris Hemsworth (born 1983), recently proclaimed by People magazine the sexiest man in the world, is a likely ‘man of today’.

I always have the impression that Butler brings a certain tongue-in-cheek quality to all his roles, Leonidas included. Perhaps this is what I miss in the Hugo Boss campaign, and in the current approach to what being a ‘real’ man is about…

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PEETA AND KATNISS (AND GALE): STUCK WITH STEREOTYPES

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

One of my undergrad students is writing a paper for my Gender Studies course on Peeta Mellark’s alternative masculinity and this led me to reading recently the complete Hunger Games trilogy. As I wrote two posts ago, the final volume even gave me nightmares as I found the whole concept of having children kill other children on camera, reality-show style, quite sick.

J.K. Rowling’s flirting with the dark side in Harry Potter is intense enough but at least it has a certain sense of decorum and clear-cut ethic lines. What I found most disturbing about Collins’ dystopian fantasy, in contrast, is how often the same line would contain words as opposite as ‘death’ and ‘stylist’. I understand that she intends to represent Panem as the kind of rotten civilization that generates these grotesque matches between the serious and the banal (and the gory spectacle of mutual juvenile killing). Yet I could not help thinking that her own imagination is tinged with the dark colours of America’s unacknowledged sense of its own decadence (as much as Rowling’s is pure British stiff-upper-lip).

The Hunger Games has already generated an immense list of bibliography. I’m going to refer here specifically to two articles discussing gender issues in the trilogy: Ellyn Lem and Holly Hassel’s “‘Killer’ Katniss and ‘Lover’ Boy Peeta: Suzanne Collins’s Defiance of Gender-Genred Reading” in Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins and “Katniss and Her Boys: Male Readers, the Love Triangle and Identity Formation” by Whitney Elaine Jones, included in Space and Place in The Hunger Games: New Readings of the Novels. In case you don’t know this young adult trilogy, Collins narrates how Katniss Everdeen alters for ever the appalling dictatorship that, among other methods of brutal coercion, celebrates yearly games in which children tributes from the districts are forced to kill each other until only one is left. Her terrifying experience as a tribute runs parallel to an adolescent love triangle: Katniss must choose between her hunting partner, macho Gale, and her games partner, gentle Peeta. I’ll try to avoid spoilers…

The two articles on this triangle make the claim that Collins resists the binary gender system in the name of utopian feminism by having Katniss reconcile masculine and feminine traits in her own person, and by offering her a romantic choice between two very different types of male character, rather than two versions of the same stereotypically masculine hero. However, I find in the articles many worrying arguments.

One is the idea that Katniss’ ‘masculine’ traits respond to the need to entice male readers into reading the trilogy–let me rephrase this: whereas Harry Potter’s ‘feminine’ traits respond to Rowling’s wish to make male heroism less aggressive rather than to attract female readers (this is Hermione’s function), Collins had to worry, above all, about making Katniss attractive to her prospective male readers: less girly, more tomboyish. No, I haven’t forgotten that Joanne Rowling published her series as J.K. to mask her own gendered identity and thus reduce male readers’ resistance to reading women’s fiction. Always trying to please the boys… Deep sigh here.

About the ‘male’ and ‘female’ traits discussed in the articles, my confusion is superlative. Peeta, we are told “participates in a traditionally feminine occupation: baking”, or he represents “the beautiful, gentle part of nature”. The idea is that Peeta embodies Katniss’s feminine side whereas traditionally male Gale stands for her masculine side, and that she is herself torn between her masculinised identity as a hunter/survivor and the conventional (physical) femininity that her bizarre team of stylists manage so competently to highlight. Jones makes the claim that the three characters can be placed on an imaginary line representing the continuum of masculinity with Katniss veering towards one or the other as her own masculinity requires, for “Though biologically female, Katniss is essentially masculine” (my italics). Yet she also claims that Collins is offering a utopian feminist synthesis of gender traits aimed at overcoming the current need for them, particularly useful to teach, here we go again, male readers to overcome masculinist restrictions. In contrast, Lem and Hassel believe that Katniss is “neither overtly masculine, nor feminine” but a mixture (though the feminine side is just skin-deep). Another deep sigh…

I simply get dizzy, and quite annoyed, to be honest. It’s almost 25 years since the publication of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) but little has changed in the fight against gender binarism: essentialist categories remain, both in the readers’ perception of their own identity (all this concern about male readers) and in the vocabulary to describe characters who are supposedly alternative gender-benders. The inability to transcend the adjectives ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ even leads to truly weird statements: baking is a feminine occupation??? How funny: take a look at the mixed team baking cakes in TV show Ace of Cakes, and re-think ‘feminine’ (or baking). As for Katniss’ masculinity, well, she’s just one more typical strong female character too busy relating to her male companions to connect with other women. She is supposed to be motivated throughout her harrowing experience by the need to protect her younger sister Prim but I noticed that the girls hardly ever speak–so much for sisterhood and feminism…

About the boys in the triangle, um. Gale is such a huge stereotype he’s not even worth commenting on: he’s the kind who claims to like strong girls but finally marries a pretty non-entity whom he probably ends up abusing. Heathcliff, in short, once more, only marginally less villainous. Peeta is also a huge stereotype, the protective gentleman, perhaps less manly than Darcy and certainly manlier than Edgar Linton, but all the same a figure that dates back 200 years in time. He went through the 1990s ‘new man’ fantasy and is now seemingly resurfacing here as a man quite comfortable with the idea of the girl being on top. Yet the principle is the same Jane Austen invented with Darcy: Peeta is a gentle man (if not a gentleman) unswervingly in love with a girl whose glaring shortcomings he is willing to overcome unconditionally. He never gets angry, he never loses patience, though it’s funny to see how Collins has him literally brainwashed into hating Katniss for a while, perhaps once more to please those recalcitrant male readers. Read as you wish, by the way, his mutilation (sorry about the spoiler).

Once more, then, young girls are offered with Katniss the complete romantic package and no real positive role model: I was actually very much surprised to see that she is actually a very passive person, except for a crucial scene in the last book. This passivity seems contradicted by her ability to kill animals and, if necessary, human beings. However, it is most spectacularly manifested not so much in her difficulties to choose between Gale and Peeta but in her complete inability to express desire for either of them.

When I expressed to a friend my puzzlement at the frigidity of a text aimed at teenagers which contains at the same time so much horrific bodily violence, he reminded me that American fiction has always preferred violence to sex. Katniss constantly claims that there is no place for sensuality beyond kisses in her dangerous life yet, as any war narrative reader knows, there is no better aphrodisiac than a constant death threat… Poor Gale and Peeta with their love for this new chaste Diana of the bow and arrow!

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BEST OF 2014?: LOSING TRACK…

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Around New Year’s Day seems the best time to take a look at the list of the volumes I have read in the previous 365 days and see what I have been up to. I keep, as I have noted here several times already, a list of all I read, as a very necessary memory aid. My habit of, in addition, rating the volumes throws this time a very unexpected, odd, selection of top readings for 2014. In chronological order, as I read them along this now past year:

1.Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls (2003), fantasy.
2.Fanny Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839 (1883), memoirs.
3.Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892), autobiography.
4.Emmeline Pankhurst, My Own Story (1914), autobiography.
5.Roberto Saviano, CeroCeroCero (2014), journalistic essay.
6.Richard Morgan, Broken Angels (2003), SF.
7.Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2000), literary fiction.
8.Isaías Lafuente, Agrupémonos todas: La lucha de las españolas por la igualdad (2003), journalistic essay.
9.Geraldine Scanlon, La polémica feminista en la España contemporánea 1868-1974 (1976), academic essay.
10.Xavier Aldana Reyes, Body Gothic: Corporeal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film (2004), academic essay.
11.Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games Trilogy (2005-2010), juvenile dystopian fiction.

My first surprise is that even though 50% of my readings this year were novels, as usual, I have been impressed by very few and I’m not sure I would recommend them: Eugenides’ Middlesex, a re-reading, is excellent but Bujold’s Paladin of Souls and Morgan’s Broken Angels are, rather, signs of very personal preferences which are hard to pass on. What is Suzanne Collins’ trilogy doing here at this peculiar place 11, you may wonder? Well, her books upset me profoundly to the point of giving me intense nightmares; I know this is not a criteria to call her a ‘good writer’ and I rather think she’s a disturbed and disturbing author–yet, I have found myself caught in Katniss’ story with an intensity missing from all the other many novels I have read in 2014. The memoirs, autobiographies and essays I would not hesitate to recommend, as you can see by my having written about most of them here. I do not hesitate, either, to name Saviano’s CeroCeroCero, a bold, desperate dissection of the cocaine business, as the best volume that has passed through my hands recently.

It is also the only volume in the list published in 2014, together with Xavi Aldana’s study, which leads me to the second point today: I’ve completely lost track. I have been checking the ‘best of 2014’ lists published by newspapers like El País or The Guardian, and also the selections voted by members of GoodReads. Since I do not check these regularly for lack of time there was there plenty of authors and titles I didn’t know. Fair enough. What threw me off was that quite often they were said to be ‘world famous’ or a ‘smashing hit’. Can I be really this disconnected? And who’s the one so well connected with the media so as to keep pace with all that is new?

I shared these worries with a group of friends over coffee and we came to the conclusion that the ignorance I am acknowledging here is habitual. From what I gather, readers follow a thread of their own choice, whether this is young adult or post-colonial fiction, without excessively caring about the ceaseless flow of novelties. If you look at my list, I’m doing that: follow a few threads that interest me and see where they will lead–no need to limit myself to the immediate present. A friend noted not only that so much is published every year that it is impossible to keep up but also that reliable indicators of quality, like, say, the Man Booker Prize, have lost a great deal of their influence and reliability: the books highlighted by awards don’t last for as long as they used to last, she said. Indeed, it is harder and harder for me to recall the names of new writers hailed with exorbitant claims about their quality as they, simply, don’t seem to be around with the same force as their 1980s predecessors. A matter of numbers perhaps?

The same friend, currently reading African fiction in English, also told me that there is much of quality to be found in that area of the world–this was in answer to my pointing out that, judging by GoodReads, the middlebrow has replaced for good the literary in the top volumes selected by readers (or the literary writers, if any are left, are failing to connect with the public, I don’t know). I have no reasons to doubt that Africa is producing very fine novels, but how could I know unless she tells me?

I am even lost in my own preferred SF corner, seemingly finding by accident rather than good sense what is worth reading. Here is an example. My friend is co-organizing a conference on the Literature of the Indian Ocean and I proposed to contribute something about African SF. I googled my way into this unknown field yesterday, and here we go: I should have known that it is fast-progressing, spear-headed by white South-African author Lauren Beaukes who is, guess what?, very popular and the recipient of I don’t know how many awards… Yet, I didn’t know she existed at all until yesterday.

As long as readers come across good writers it is really irrelevant whether we keep up with the novelties or not, though obviously it is relevant for the publishing industry. I had no idea when 2014 started that I would be so pleased by books written one hundred or even almost two hundreds years ago, but here they are to last in my memory. We’ll see who my top ten are at the end of the following 365 days.

Happy New Year! May it brings you plenty of good books.

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THE (IM)POSSIBLE HENRIETTA JEKYLL: RECONSIDERING GENDER MATTERS IN STEVENSON’S MASTERPIECE

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I have lost count of how often I have taught R.L. Stevenson’s masterpiece The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, on which I have published here several posts, as this seems to be an inexhaustible text. I return once more to it after having marked the most recent batch of students’ exams to focus on their answer to our question: is this text specifically about men? Can we imagine the same type of moral duplicity in women?

Four years ago I wrote a post in which I mulled about the possibility of a contemporary female version of Jekyll, a Prof. Henrietta Jekyll who, like Jekyll’s successor Dr. Hannibal Lecter, had a secret life in which perhaps she had her own students home regularly for dinner. I took the chance then to reject Elaine Showalter’s famous reading of Jekyll’s male circle as a closeted gay ring, with Hyde being the incarnation of the ‘evil’ pleasures by which Oscar Wilde was sentenced to hard labour a decade later. Despite Wilde, I find the idea that Stevenson is covertly dealing with homosexuality uncomfortably homophobic, and particularly distasteful when defended by contemporary feminists.

Back to my students answers, then. The matter is very simple: is Stevenson claiming that duplicity is a necessary condition of masculinity in late Victorian times? Or is he taking a man as a representative of all Victorian individuals? Could we, in short, place a woman in the centre of his story and if we did so, how would it change?

This is not, as you can see, a simple question to answer as it is necessary to take into account whether gender or class matters predominate in Stevenson’s text. In class, we followed the argument suggesting that Stevenson’s target is the hypocrisy of, specifically, Victorian gentlemanliness of the upper middle-class professional (not aristocratic) variety. This lead my students to write exams split among three options to explain why Stevenson’s text dealt exclusively with masculinity: a) for Victorians it was impossible to imagine ladies leading double lives, and so it was for the author; b) the author was a misogynist and this is why he practically excluded women from the text; c) since women were excluded from the professions and Jekyll led his double life to protect his professional reputation, no woman could replace him as a protagonist.

Let’s see… To begin with, we had read together Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which made it very clear that ladies like Helen Graham faced daily, like gentlemen of their class, the challenge of having to keep up appearances or see their reputation destroyed. Now, Helen creates a false identity for herself to protect her son and not to indulge in secret pleasures, yet Victorian fiction is full of femme fatales, from the vampire Carmilla to the scheming Lady Audley–it is simply not true that Victorians were incapable of imagining perverse women. Rather, as Bram Dijsktra very well explained in his classic Idols of Perversity (1988) the problem is that they imagined too many… by which I do not mean that all Victorian ladies were angelic. I’m sure Henrietta Jekyll could have been imagined as a committed adulteress, for instance; fancying her a nymphomaniac would have been harder indeed. What puzzles me is the students’ denunciations of Stevenson as an anti-feminist for as I insisted again and again in class, Stevenson offers a very negative image of masculinity in his text, and, well, paradoxically, making a woman the centre of his tale would just have resulted in just one more case of the kind Dijkstra describes, by no means in a feminist story.

Some re-writings of The Strange Case.., like Hammer’s quirky movie Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) or the idiotic American comedy Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (1995), have fantasised about Jekyll’s dark side being a woman (in the 1971 film, she commits, in addition, Jack the Ripper’s crimes!). Others, have enhanced women’s participation in the story, producing totally unnecessary melodrama: just recall Julia Roberts as the maid falling in love with her master Dr. Jekyll (John Malkovich) in Mary Reilly (1996), based on Valerie Martin’s silly romance (1990). I have been unable to locate, whether in fan fiction or in film, however, a retelling with a female Jekyll, with the only exception of the seemingly pathetic horror comedy Jacqueline Hyde (2005), in which shy Jackie discovers she’s the granddaughter of the original Dr. Jekyll. The rest, it seems, is porn.

I have awarded the highest mark to a girl student who simply argued that Stevenson could have equally focused on a woman but once he decided to focus on a man he made the suitable decisions to make his tale as solid as possible. Of course. It makes perfect sense for Jekyll to be a gentleman scientist as it would make perfect sense for a Henrietta Jekyll to be, for example, his widow (even a former lab assistant as many scientists’ wives were). If you don’t want to go the SF way, then stick to fantasy and provide Miss or Mrs. Jekyll with a dark fairy godmother and a magic potion (Wilde, remember?, used magic for Dorian Gray’s picture). Henrietta Jekyll surely must be a lady, for ladies rather than low-class girls risked it all by losing their reputation as fallen women. If you still have problems visualizing her unspeakable pleasures, just read Dracula (1897) where you’ll find a lovely lady, Lucy, attacking every evening poor children to drink their blood.

Here’s a challenge for anyone interested, as I don’t have the time to do this myself: take Stevenson’s text and just alter the gender of the main characters, and see what happens. It will definitely not work if you insist on presenting Henrietta as a newly-minted pro-feminist Dr. Jekyll (unless you want to produce a misogynistic tale against the few women doctors practising in the 1880s). But think of all those angelic, repressed Victorian ladies and imagine what kind of secret life they would lead if in possession of a magic potion. Perhaps, here’s my conclusion, Stevenson knew very well how to do this… but refrained himself from writing what could only have been an outrageously scandalous text. Yet not impossible.

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ON BOREDOM: DIFFERENT GENERATIONAL STRATEGIES

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Who or what is to blame for the idea that whoever dares speak in public must, above all, entertain? The adjective ‘boring’ has become absolutely pervasive in the classroom and, no doubt, a major enemy of learning. In recent days I have gone through so many situations connected with this that it is hard to choose where to begin… One thing I have noticed is that, although boredom may have a long-lived presence in the history of education, each generation seems to cope differently with it.

Since I don’t recall being bored in primary school I’ll argue that classroom boredom begins in adolescence, when the augmented narcissism of the students results in their belief that teaching should focus on them. Respect for the teacher is eroded if not lost for good then: ‘you bore me; I could do better; who cares about what you teach?’ As I teen secondary school student in the early 1980s, I coped with my own boredom mostly by daydreaming, and only occasionally by skipping class (severely frowned upon, then). My daydreaming strategy has not changed since then: it consists of looking at the speaker with all due attention, signalling with my body language that I care while my mind wanders off. I often complete this with making notes, actually about my daydreaming, though the speaker may be totally fooled into thinking it’s about the talk.

As a university student I found that my threshold of tolerance for bad lecturing decreased sharply, which resulted in my skipping many lectures–often to go to the library or stay home to study. Other classmates famously chose the bar, always crowded. If we did choose to attend a lecture, however, we mostly kept up appearances: we took (pretend) notes and I don’t recall anyone yawning (only discreetly), eating or drinking, slumping on the chair, much less sleeping. We may have looked at the speaker with glassy eyes but a certain degree of politeness was maintained. Perhaps we just took it for granted that teachers were boring or, rather, that learning was not about being entertained. If a teacher happened to be entertaining that was a bonus, though I distinctly recall that the highest valued university teachers were the ones with the most interesting personality, which does not mean they cared for students at all… Admiring students just hoped their idols noticed them. Really.

In recent days, however, I have seen this in my class: a) an MA student just laying her head on the table and falling asleep (I stopped my lecture to wake her up and invite her to take coffee, or leave), b) an undergrad leaving the classroom five minutes into my lecture. In this case I stopped to manifest my delight at having broken a new record in my career… boring a student in the shortest possible time. He never emailed me to say he was indisposed, so I assumed it was boredom. Students think we don’t notice this but from our vantage point we see everyone: the ones staring at the floor or the wall rather than look at us, the ones never making notes, the ones using twitter and Facebook, the ones eating… The body language says it all: I wish I were elsewhere… Perhaps we were just as bored but the etiquette code dictated that we had to, as I say, keep up appearances, beginning with sitting up decorously. This, I find, is gone. If students are bored, they plainly show it, perhaps feeling that honesty is the best policy. For the caring teacher this is unnerving for the only solution is to a) close your eyes to what it going on in class and drone on, b) throw a hysterical tantrum.

In the last three days I have attended a conference and I have had the chance to see these diverse generational strategies at work simultaneously, as the public ranged from post-grads in their early twenties to seasoned academics in their sixties. It’s not the first time I write here that conferences have grown into truly boring experiences as few speakers succeed in making the 20-minute paper or the 50-minute plenary lecture… engaging. No, I’m not using the adjective ‘entertaining’ for in conferences what matters, in my view, is the ability to communicate new ideas based on solid research using an adequate delivery style. Just let me tell you just about one panel session.

I was sitting in the front row, daydreaming and making notes, as I wondered what the speaker was talking about since she had hidden herself behind her paper and was delivering it in an amazingly monotonous voice (a friend told me this is called ‘lectura parapetada’ or ‘walled-in delivery’). If the speaker had, however, raised her head and looked at the audience she would inevitably have seen the young man sitting to my left, madly twitting as she spoke. Not about her talk, as I noticed. Then came an appalling young man who used his 20 minutes to bore us to death about his journey to Japan, where he had interviewed old glories of Japanese cinema for his documentary on Godzilla. I grew so furious at his impudence I could not even daydream. The guy next to me twitted on–this time the factoids in the speaker’s self-advertising campaign. To my consternation (and delight) a senior academic in the audience told off the Godzilla guy very rudely for his total cheek. This same academic, however, had slept through the previous speaker’s paper… so who was being rude to whom, I wonder?

Is this all, I wonder, the effect of the remote control and channel hopping, the idea that something more exciting is going on elsewhere? Or is it something else, the replacement of an ethics of endurance by the demand for constant excitement for other reasons? The older academics I saw fall asleep in the conference as the younger delegates twitted on confirm my thesis that different generations react differently to boredom.

Yet the older ones’ sleep suggests that 1980s sense of etiquette is gone for all… for aren’t we all becoming great narcissists? Entertain us or else. Easy to say, hard to do. And why should it be done at all?

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ELSA’S DRESS AND GIRL POWER: WHAT I MISSED ABOUT FROZEN

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

On 5 January this year I published here a post on a new Swedish system to rate films according to their feminist interest. In this post I mentioned in passing Frozen, noting that, although this Disney film exalts sisterly love, after seeing it my two Madrid nieces didn’t hug each other but remained “mesmerised,” poor things, “by the stupid glamorisation of a pathetic fairy-tale lifestyle.” I totally missed the point. Stupid me.

An MA student, Camila Rojas, asked me subsequently to supervise her dissertation on how the concept of ‘true love’ has changed from Beauty and the Beast to Frozen. Thrilling! (She’s almost done). I interviewed then my two Barcelona nieces (same ages as the ones from Madrid: 9 and 5) and this is what I learned: Frozen is unrealistic in its depiction of sisterly love because actual sisters quarrel all the time. Still, older girls, though less interested in the princess theme, appreciate the fact that heterosexual romance is not central. They find the film warm and funny, in particular the quirky snowman Olaf. Younger girls simply love Elsa. Why? She’s pretty and smart and, attention!, she’s powerful. And a queen who needs no prince, take that! When I stressed that Elsa’s power to turn all she touches into ice is dangerous, I was explained that this is irrelevant–what matters is that it’s cool: look at her castle, her ice monster and her dress… My Madrid nieces corroborated these views, perplexed that they had to clarify for my benefit what was so obvious to them.

Elsa, as Camila has seen, has clearly become a figure of empowerment for very young girls who don’t even know such word exists. For them ‘power’ means Elsa’s special power, presented as a sickly condition by the script but re-written as a super-power by the young female spectators (more Superman than X-Men, if you know what I mean). This is the real reason why the film has become so strong, even a cult film, among little girls, a phenomenon which, in its turn, explains the superlative boom in merchandising-related sales. Particularly of Elsa’s dress, without forgetting that the doll based on this character will outsell Barbie herself this oncoming Christmas.

Let me digress about the dress, now that I’m the middle of the nightmarish process of commissioning the Three Wise Men with bringing one home. Think Snowhite, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle or Rapunzel, and you see a typical princess dress: a long, flouncy skirt accompanied by a bodice with puffy sleeves, ribbons… right? Now, picture Elsa (or check Google) and see what she’s wearing: a tight-fitting sequined gown with a long cut up her skirt. This suggestive dress is aimed at showing off her sexiness, which in the script accompanies her decision to, as she sings, “let it go” and enjoy her unique, toxic power. Her younger sister Anna, in contrast, wears girly dresses of a more conventional cut, actually very pretty. But, then, she has no power, right? Except the power to love Elsa (almost) to death.

I’m sure Disney never anticipated little girls would want Elsa’s dress (I’m told that even some little boys want it!!). The house designers have actually solved quite poorly the problem of how to adapt a sexy gown made for a curvy twenty-year-old girl into something wearable by girls aged 3 to 10 (without a major scandal). This is why you can currently find at least four official versions of Elsa’s dress–well, ‘find’ is a relative word, as they’re sold out in official online stores, whereas in the physical shops they disappear as soon as they arrive. All these ‘official’ versions are quite ugly, made with low-quality, wrinkled, rough cloth… and totally overpriced (40 to 80 euros, plus shoes, tiara, and other accessories). One wonders about the Asian workers making them probably for next to nothing, unable to afford them for their own little girls. Yet, you should have seen the anxious parents and other relatives asking Disney Store employees to please, please, please, let Santa Claus and the Three Wise Kings keep one for their little girl. Other sweeter and prettier princess dresses elicit much less interest–and, by the way, Merida’s unfussy outfit (from Brave) is gone for good. I also missed Maleficent-related merchandising items, um, perhaps for good reason, though, my!, I loved those wings (not the horns…). And Aurora is simply lovely.

Back to Elsa: the home-made solution, having the Three Wise Men make the dress thus improving on the wretched Disney materials, is not really easier as the required cloth has been sold out from the main stores (at least in Barcelona). Holy cow… A chirpy sales clerk familiar with the Frozen situation explained to me that mums came to his cloth shop accompanied by demanding five-year-olds, absolutely adamant that they wanted the ‘right’ dress. He was scandalised that mums allowed little girls to behave in this tyrannical way, curtailing, besides, all possible creativity. I wonder whether the choice of Elsa as a favourite reflects this trend… get me that dress, or else, I’ll use my power to freeze you!

As films with a very similar focus, I very much prefer Maleficent to Frozen, though I understand that Maleficent is too dark for very young girls–I found the fairy’s mutilation almost unbearable to watch. As for the princess dress, though Elsa’s is beautiful, I find it out of place in a fairy tale: it’s closer to Gilda and Jessica Rabbit than to Scarlett O’Hara. Why do little girls have, in any case, this fantasy of being empowered by wearing a princess (or queen’s) dress? And, in our Catholic culture, how does this connect with the first communion dress and the wedding dress, both patriarchal concoctions? Well, I’d answer that very obviously. Disney films for girls suggest that power only comes either by inheriting it from dad or by marrying a prince, and just in fairy tales, not in real-life contexts. In contrast, little boys are offered a much wider choice and may dress up as super-heroes or as more ordinary heroes (firemen, spies, astronauts and such). No prince outfits required for them…

My feminist self would rather see my nieces become real heroines than fake princesses or queens. But, then, what little girl would accept an astronaut dress as a Christmas present with the same glee as an Elsa dress? Even I would go for that blue beauty–though I’d rather warm than freeze hearts…

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OUTSMARTING CERVANTES: ARTURO PÉREZ REVERTE’S EDITION OF EL QUIJOTE

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Recently, I went to Laie in search of a copy of Juan Ramón Jiménez’s Platero y yo (1914) for my nine-year-old niece. I asked for an edition aimed at children, meaning illustrated, and I was offered instead an adapted edition. Scandalized that someone had dared touch the original, I bought her a beautiful edition commemorating the 100th anniversary of its original publication… with illustrations. Platero y yo, as everyone knows, is not a book for children but the poetical language is perfectly accessible, and, in fact, I bought my niece the book on the basis of her dad’s good memories of reading it as a child. It worked, she loved it (well, except the ending, too sad of course).

Next thing I know, the internet is full of comments on the RAE’s new edition for secondary school students of Miguel de Cervantes’ El Quijote –and edition adapted by Arturo Pérez Reverte, one of RAE’s members and, of course, a well-known author himself. RAE itself announces that in this way they finally fulfil the ‘Real Orden’ of 12 October 1912, commissioning this institution to produce a ‘popular’ edition and one for schools, apart from the critical edition (this was issued in 2004, edited by Francisco Rico). Obviously, I’m not the first to note that in 1912 Spain was a mostly illiterate country, which may have made these other editions necessary. But today??

During his presentation of the new edition in Mexico, Arturo Pérez Reverte took the chance to berate, precisely, the “illiterate Ministers” of Culture and Education that have eliminated El Quijote from the compulsory school curriculum in at least six Spanish Castilian-speaking countries. He called for a return of Cervantes’ masterpiece to all school systems in this linguistic area, on the habitual grounds that the book guarantees a much needed education in the shared language and in the values needed for today’s life. I marvel how far Matthew Arnold’s shadow extends, even in countries culturally alien to his preaching. Claiming that a book published in 1605 (1615, the sequel) is essential to face life in 2014 is odd, to say the least. And that the person making this claim is the local equivalent of Ken Follett and not of Harold Bloom is even stranger.

What has Pérez Reverte done to El Quijote? As RAE informs (I guess this is his own text), he has streamlined the narration, pushing to the margins the digressions and the interpolated tales (whether to footnotes, appendixes, or links I’m not sure). As if this were Frankenstein’s creature, the RAE’s press note refers to the “special attention devoted to the cleanliness of the stitches” used to conceal the cuts in the original. Chapters have been re-numbered and fused together… an operation accompanied by the truly cheeky claim that the integrity of the text has been respected. Now fancy Javier Mariscal adding colour to Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ on the grounds that it’s muted tones bore contemporary audiences and you get what Pérez Reverte has done.

Juan Ángel Juristo, absolutely indignant, claims that RAE has simply and plainly “expurgated” Cervantes (http://www.cuartopoder.es/detrasdelsol/la-rae-publica-una-edicion-manipulada-del-quijote/5849). He mentions as an example to follow Tales from Shakespeare, the popular versions for children of the plays that Charles (and his sister Mary!) Lamb published in 1807. If you are to adapt a text for children, his point is, do it openly, and don’t pretend that you’re still offering the original, an argument I subscribe even though I think that adaptations are valid only in very particular circumstances. If young scholars are bored by El Quijote we need to learn why, he concludes, and not mutilate the book.

I was myself one of the scholars bored to death when aged 15 by El Quijote. Reading it put me off Spanish Literature for many years, as I was reading at the same time the much more exciting work by Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson and similar English classics. When I asked my current students of Victorian Literature how they would solve the problem of making El Quijote attractive to teenagers, they suggested inviting young students to read just some chapters and let them decide when to read the whole book. Checking this morning how the teaching of Literature is organised in Catalonia, I have come across a document indicating that this is what local teachers do (I mean in the itineraries for ‘Humanities and Socials Sciences’ and ‘Arts’ of ‘Batxillerat’). The same applies to the Catalan classic Tirant lo Blanch (1490).

Logically, the additional problem to be considered is the kind of literacy possessed by current teenagers, who may be absolutely proficient in following complex videogames or TV series but poor readers (a problem I believe made worse by young adult fiction). El Quijote was not written with teenagers in mind and it is possible best read in a more mature phase of life, when the reader approaches it with a much bigger cultural baggage. The concern, however, is that unless young readers are force-fed El Quijote they will never read it; likewise, I myself face the problem of having to force my second-year students to read Victorian Literature in the original language when most are not ready at all. Reading just chapters is not the solution at a university level, and adapted versions are totally out of the question. Pérez Reverte’s monstrosity exposes a problem which has no easy solution. In the end, as I know very well, students simply choose to read complete books, a segment or a summary…

As for RAE, instead of contributing to launching a dubious edition which may bring money to its coffers (and to Santillana, the publishing house) but no prestige, it should embark on a much needed project to guide readers beyond their teenage years. To begin with, since Rico’s critical edition is freely available online (http://cvc.cervantes.es/literatura/clasicos/quijote/), RAE should develop a hipertextual digital resource (which might also appeal to teenage readers).

Actually, I would engage those teenage readers in producing the hypertext… and let Arturo Pérez Reverte continue to write his novels. May they never be compulsory reading…

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TALK-STARVED, THE SEQUEL: TELLC, A MODEST CONTRIBUTION TO DEPARTMENT LIFE

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Two years ago, on 14 December 2014, the teaching innovation group I belonged to, “Between the Lines: Comprehensive Reading of Literary Texts in a Foreign Language” (coordinated by Andrew Monnickendam, and financed by Catalan agency AGAUR), held a one-day seminar to discuss how to teach Literature students about the function of the narrator. You may read the ensuing publication, also called Between the Lines, at http://betweenthelinespublication.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/reading-between-the-lines.pdf. I myself presented a paper called “Contrasting Genres: Dickens, Engels and the Workhouse (Narrating and Reporting in Fiction and Non-Fiction)”, which is included in the volume.

In the post corresponding to 16 December 2012, “Learning from Teaching about Teaching, with Students’ Help”, I mentioned that about 80 people, counting students and Literature teachers from diverse universities attended the event. A conclusion I reached was that “we need to establish some kind of annual meeting” to discuss teaching methodologies, hopefully also including students. Well, it’s taken longer than I expected then, but the first meeting of this kind took place last Friday 28, and promises to become a feature of our Departmental calendar.

Opening up spaces for teachers to meet and discuss what they do in the classroom is no easy matter. I saw on that day of 2012 that it brings many benefits, as we are profoundly talk-starved also in this sense and not just concerning our research and intellectual life in general.

Using as quite a weak excuse that the celebration of the one-day seminar was one of the tasks I wanted to accomplished before my time as BA Coordinator is up next January 2015, I invited last September my Department colleagues to join what I called the one-day TELLC (Teaching English Language, Literature and Culture) workshop, and hoped would become a new yearly meeting and publication. I called the conference “Matching Assessment and Competences”, thinking of the oncoming degree teaching assessment exercise (I mean to validate the BA for another six years, not for research). Also of each teacher’s individual classroom activities assessment by the national and regional agencies.

Before sending the ‘cfp’ I checked with two other colleagues whether the idea made sense, for one thing I was absolutely certain of was that I wanted to gather together Language and Literature teachers. My idea was to invite all members of the Department to contribute papers on their teaching practice and then organise the seminar by year in the BA, rather than by speciality. Another key idea was that contributions would be jargon-free and very much focused on actual practice, descriptive rather than argumentative if so wished. Bibliography was not compulsory, either.

To be completely honest, part of me expected the ‘cfp’ to be unsuccessful, so as to be able to claim that at least that I’d tried but gloriously failed. Everyone is awfully over-worked, and so am I… Suddenly, taking on the responsibility of setting up something new just seemed too much but, well, stubborn is one thing I certainly am. I received proposals for 7 papers in total and made a feeble attempt to give in, which was soon stopped by the enthusiasts who had submitted an abstract. The point they made was that TELLC had to start and I had to set the ball rolling. And so I did.

In the end, two prospective contributors dropped out, and I was left with 6 papers, which were more than enough to fill a busy morning from 10:00 to almost 15:00. There were about 15 of us and, from the many congratulations I received (thanks!, thanks!), it became quite apparent that the meeting next year will be bigger. Yes, I’m in again!! Besides, it’ll be easy to remember as it’ll coincide with Black Friday, now suddenly a date on everyone’s mind.

The papers presented were lively and communicative. They not only transmitted information but also opened up debate in all cases and, what is more important, inspired new ideas for cross-collaboration between Language and Literature. The Syllabus may be published online but we simply do not read what our neighbour is doing, which is why hearing said neighbour describe his or her practice is often quite a nice surprise.

Next year, as I say, I’ll try again and will perhaps also invite students, as we did two years ago. Also, if we have resources for at least a cup of coffee, I’ll extend the cfp to colleagues in other English Departments in Catalunya. Eight years ago, in 2006, I organised the “I Trobada Internuniversitària d’Estudis Anglesos a Catalunya” (continued by one more meeting in 2007 at Universitat Rovira i Virgili), but the crisis destroyed the resources and the motivation to continue it. Perhaps the pedagogical focus will help put us back on our feet again…

I need to address now the colleagues who did not attend TELLC last Friday to ask them, please, to make room for the meeting next year. And I mean particularly the full-time colleagues, as I understand very well that part-time teachers have too many difficulties to integrate new activities in their ultra-busy schedule (though some did contribute, for which they get my warmest thanks). I think that the time spared to discuss what we do in class proved to be very fruitful, indeed much more than attending the bureaucratic meetings we all must attend now and then. And, well, I also had to put off for another day many tasks, like finishing an overdue article or preparing lectures.

Thanks, thanks, thanks to those of you who insisted that TELLC went ahead. I’m counting on you for next year and to publicise among our colleagues the results. Let’s see if this way we can be a little bit less talk-starved.

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TALK-STARVED: A MODEST CONTRIBUTION TO ACADEMIC VOCABULARY

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

A close friend tells me that the recent three-day conference on Modernism that he has co-organised worked very nicely. It was not, he tells me, necessary to divide the participants in simultaneous panels and this greatly contributed to raising the level of discussion. I can very well imagine! The whole event was in the end, he explains, “an orgasm” –not “like an orgasm”, please note, but “an orgasm”.

This, naturally, sets me laughing hard. Yes, I tell him, everyone is talking about being sex-starved, love-starved or starved for affection but nobody is really paying attention to the needs of the effervescent academic brain. We’re really starved for conversation, I tell him, but since this is not that catchy, I’ll claim that we’re ‘talk-starved’.

This very same week, I have had further proof of this: oral sex need not refer to genital activity at all, I’ll argue, but to the pleasure we, academics, get from good conversation (well, don’t call it ‘sex’, call it ‘joy’ if you wish, though I think this sounds a bit corny). Let me explain.

On Monday, I attended a seminar that the research group I belong to, ‘Building New Masculinities’, organised. Our guest was Prof. Robert Reid-Pharr, from CUNY (see http://reid-pharr.com/), who turned out to be a wonderful, brilliant conversationalist. He stringed together lunch, a three-hour long seminar and dinner, about 10 hours talking non-stop!! His seminar was particularly enjoyable because he did care very much for keeping the conversation going with each one of the twelve participants, no mean feat that. I myself, who attended the seminar out of duty as I was really having a very hectic week, staid on until midnight… and then had a hard time bringing down before sleep the excess oxytocin.

Yes, the same hormone we segregate during orgasm (and childbirth!!). So, you see, my friend does have a point. On Thursday I took out for dinner the members of the examining board of a doctoral dissertation submitted by one of my students. I booked a table for the absurdly early hour of 8 in the evening for dinner, thinking this way we’d be done by 10. Well, Cinderella got home just by midnight and her sleeplessness was only overcome close to 2 in the morning. Blame the oxytocin again (beautifully understood, incidentally, by the Spanish habit of ‘sobremesa’ or after-meal talk).

Keeping in touch with one’s friends in the academic world is complicated. I think it is generally complicated in any situation, despite Skype and all the social networking. The phone helps but I also have the bitter experience of ending a very long friendship with another academic when I realised that a long call very week could not replace actual direct contact. It’s either that situation in which you report down to the last detail activities done with other people, or just claim to be ‘fine’ (and then no real conversation ensues).

Many of the (academic) friends I have were made many years ago mostly in national conferences. I think that our yearly AEDEAN meeting helps very much to maintain alive this kind of absolutely necessary socialising, though it is not always possible to attend it. The experience of meeting people in conferences is, in the early stages of one’s career, exhilarating, but then, in the long run, it becomes something more complicated. After experiencing first hand the difficulties of keeping in touch with friends I love but who live hundreds of kilometres away (so that we do use AEDEAN to meet at least once a year) I am becoming more and more reluctant to invest much energy in making new friends. Don’t misunderstand me: the energy of friendship flows with its own logic and is quite capable of diminishing distance. What I mean is that, well, perhaps, in the end, it is better to enjoy conversation while it lasts in random meetings at conferences or seminars, than try to keep it alive once this is over. Yes, I know the same rule applies to casual sex at conferences (not that I have any experience of this at all –just in case!).

Conversation of the oxytocin-releasing kind, as you can see, is more likely to happen only under particular conditions which actually constitute a break from daily academic life. It seldom happens as part of a daily routine. In my Department we talk mainly about problems (or about problem-solving): bureaucracy’s demands, a lecture that does not go well, poor exam results, etc. We have, like everyone else, little time to spare, which is why we often practice the genre known as ‘corridor conversation’, typically when you’re rushing elsewhere. We have a tiny room, used for lunch and now furnished with a coffee machine. This is not, however, by any stretch of the imagination, close to the common room or lounge we fantasise that most Anglo-American university departments have. We tend, instead, to drop in whenever we catch a colleague in his/her office and see if they can spare 10 minutes of their hectic schedule for chit-chat.

When I decided 30 years ago that I would try to be a university teacher, the main enticement was my impression that academics spent most of their life engaged in deep conversation. This utterly wrong impression was based on a) reading too many English novels about Oxford and Cambridge, b) reading too many American campus novels, c) the generous use of their time that my own teachers offered me. I understand c) best now because my office conversations with my students tend to be absolutely gratifying. I don’t mean the problem-solving visits but the ones in which we do manage to discuss books and raise thrilling issues. If lectures and seminars were not so one-sided, they would be another oxytocin source…

Fine, then, now that I have released a little of the adrenaline that our crazy academic life generates I feel better… How I wish it were oxytocin, though…

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GRAPPLING WITH BODY GOTHIC: THE LIMITS OF (MY) TOLERANCE

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I spent a rich afternoon yesterday reviewing Xavier Aldana Reyes’s excellent volume Body Gothic: Corporal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2014). As happens, despite the 2,000 words I wrote, I’m not done yet; there’s still a matter to address: the limits of my own tolerance to the shocking primary sources analyzed in the book.

I completely agree with the main theses in the book: a) Gothic Studies scholars unfairly forget that this genre is as psychological as it is somatic and corporeal; b) all gothic is body gothic since it aims at eliciting bodily responses; c) current body gothic (he dates it back to 1984) manifests a “sustained questioning of the role of embodiment” (18); d) we consume body gothic as the best strategy to contain our fears about the vulnerability of our bodies. Xavier argues all this by examining 1980s splatterpunk, body horror, new avant-pulp, the slaughterhouse novel and torture porn, using a wide range of authors and texts: from Clive Barker’s short fiction (his Books of Blood) to Eli Roth’s Hostel film franchise, passing through pulp author Richard Laymon and Tom Six’ film trilogy on The Human Centipede.

When I wrote my own dissertation on the monster, almost 20 years ago, I also used the argument that the task of the academic must not be hindered by a censorious, prejudiced attitude and that extreme horror, in all its varieties, must be included in Gothic Studies. Like Xavier, I made a point of stressing that critical judgement does not apply and that ‘trash’ is not a relevant concept (fancy an anthropologist refusing to examine cannibalism). I must face, nonetheless, the vexing question of how far contemporary ‘shock’ cinema (no longer ‘horror’ cinema) will go in the representation of the total gross-out thanks, of course, to development of film special effects, both digital and prosthetic-based. Blood used to be a silly tomato-red in the old Hammer films, which is why it is laughable today (not so for contemporary audiences). I am squeamish and prone to nightmares but have managed to enjoy dozens of horror films… in the safety of my home. Yet, Hostel (2005) marked a limit and I abandoned mid-way the bizarre Saw saga (2003-10). Actually, after seeing them I gave up gothic for science fiction. Now let me explain why.

Current body gothic, as Xavier argues, addresses our fears regarding the vulnerability of our bodies by paradoxically subjecting us to the vicarious experience of seeing other fragile bodies destroyed in the cruellest ways. Yes, fine. Actually, I am comforted by his idea that there is a logic behind the appalling sadism of the films. They are rightly called ‘torture porn’: porn goes straight to sex, these films use plot as an flimsy excuse for torture. Now, torture as seen, for instance, in Katherine Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012), the film on the hunting of Osama Bin Laden, is ugly and inhumane but somehow bearable as part of a larger plot. In 1980s body horror the camera learned not to look away but in 2000s torture porn it has learned to grip the spectator by the scruff of our neck and force us to look. And I cannot do that anymore: the realistic detail has become ultra-realistic and, thus, unbearable (I imagined Xavier taking notes with all due academic care and I wondered how he did it…).

It’s ironic that I am now, at 48, invoking the same arguments that I myself had to put up with 20 years ago. Gothic horror is a misogynistic, homophobic genre but I answered back that I found in it strong women characters capable of fighting back. Still, I found myself criticizing Xavier for not passing judgement on these films’ dubious gender politics. What is, arguably, making them worse is the general disempowerment of all victims, men and women. Unlike the old-fashioned kind, these stories offer no comfort, preaching that the world is a terrifying place in which random violence just happens. Instead of helping audiences face this inescapable truth today’s body gothic is, rather, gloating over it.

It’s also harder than ever not to stoop down to consider the sick imagination of some gothic ‘artists’. Yes, yes, Mary Shelley, Charles Maturin or Matthew Lewis were also criticized and they are classics today. Yet, Xavier’s comments on the trilogy by Dutch director and screenwriter Tom Six, The Human Centipede (2009, 2011; the third instalment is in production) gave me the kind of shiver one feels in the presence of the profoundly disturbed (I mean Six…). Xavier sticks to his impeccable academic prose even in a plot summary that gave me tachycardia: a mad German surgeon kidnaps young tourists whom he mutilates in order to stitch their mouths and rectums to each other, thus creating the centipede of the title. Gasp, and deep sigh.

Thankfully, the sane IMDB spectators rate Dix’ film only 4’5 out of 10. Annoyed reviewers abound: one reports the film as ‘100% medically inaccurate’, another simply wonders ‘Why?’. The man who titles his review ‘After watching it I wanted to kill myself’, remarks that (original capitalised text): “People will say it’s an original idea, but OF COURSE IT IS. It’s never been done before because NO ONE HAS THOUGHT OF SOMETHING AS SICK AS THIS YET.” The late Roger Ebert’s magnificent review offers, exceptionally, no rating: “Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.”

After calling Dix a “dark artist” for taking his films seriously, Ebert grants that the film is “true to its genre” and “delivers what its audiences presumably expect”. These audiences are the most demanding midnight movie fans and I am quite familiar with them, having attended the Sitges horror film festival a few times: they’re mostly nice, harmless people, out with friends for a night of fun. Often, they receive gross films like The Human Centipede with hilarity, both at the expense of the whacky content and at the screenwriter’s devious mind. Still the question remains: ‘why?’, accompanied by my very deep dread of men thinking of ghastly plots like this and enjoying them alone at home.

All in all, then, I can only praise Xavier’s Body Gothic for his very, very brave approach to texts that for many people, including quite a big number in Gothic Studies, are intolerable. His theses are very useful to illuminate what the extreme texts of contemporary horror, in particular film, mean, for they do mean much of interest and relevance in our contemporary view of the body. I hope I find in his forthcoming volume on affect and the corporeal model of viewership answers to the questions I raise here, though I realise that only a titanic, perhaps collective effort, can succeed in finding an answer to the main question –‘why?’

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MOTIVATING STUDENTS TO READ (BEYOND POPULAR FICTION): NOT MY JOB

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

At the end of my intervention narrating the experience of teaching Harry Potter on a round table (see my previous post) a woman asked me whether I’m not depressed by the thought that students are willing to read Rowling’s seven-volume saga but not (implicitly) better books. Marta Gutiérrez, one of the round table organizers, asked me to what extent the experience of teaching popular fiction is different (or specific). A third person asked me: what should university teachers do to motivate students to read the classics with as much enthusiasm as they pour into reading certain popular fiction?

First my answer to Marta: what made the difference in my Harry Potter course was not the content but the fact that all the students registered in it had read the books (in many cases, more than once; in some, many times). I am, like all my Literature colleagues all over the world, tired of forcing LITERATURE students to read… Literature. I don’t even demand enthusiasm but simply that students who have FREELY CHOSEN to take a degree in language and Literature come to class having read the books we discuss (ideally having underlined key passages and made notes). The Harry Potter elective was wonderful to teach because a) I didn’t have to ‘sell’ the books to anyone nor ‘force’ them to read, b) everyone knew the contents in depth. This way I could take discussion to much deeper levels than usual. How do I know who has read the book or not? Easy: non-readers make notes of basic plot points, particularly those towards the end of the novel. Yes, we teach novels in rigorous narrative order to give students a chance to reach the end before we do. Spoilers are a problem.

The other two answers are intertwined. No, I’m not depressed that students have read Harry Potter, as I see it’s been a beautiful experience (also for me) and I can never be sorry that people enjoy books. I don’t want them to have read something else instead, particularly because I’m very much aware than Rowling did manage to turn many children into very keen readers. I am, to be honest, dismayed rather than depressed by the situation in class. I have been wondering in the last weeks when I became the kind of boring old teacher during whose lectures students fall asleep, check their email or wassap, sit slumped as if they have run a marathon… I have started to hear myself speak and I realise I drone on, loudly, to cover up their silences. We teachers have started to refer to ‘the cobra movement,’ which is that moment in class when you say something connected to what students enjoy and they raise their heads collectively. Also, I have taken to calling myself a dinosaur and to imagine my university as a campus Jurassic Park, as I’m quite sure about my obsolescence as a Literature teacher in a world of non-readers.

I told the three ladies and the 120 students in the room that I do not think my job includes motivating students. These are adults over 18 who have chosen to pursue an academic degree in the Humanities. Their capacity to read well and for long stretches all kinds of academic and literary texts must be taken for granted, as must their interest in a subject of their choice. We, English Literature teachers, have had enough of students who tell us to our faces they don’t like reading and that they’re here to learn English –well, I was under the impression that reading is the best possible exercise to acquire vocabulary in a native or foreign language. And if you don’t like reading Literature fancy reading English phonetics manuals… As I explained, I am responsible for finding my motivation to teach and I will not be made responsible for the students’ motivation to read. I make sensible choices (like asking them to read Oliver Twist and not the very long Bleak House) and try to connect the Literature of the foreign past with our local present, but this is it. Well, I also try to be as professional as I can. They know this.

Next year I very much want to teach an elective monographic course on science fiction. I have chosen a list of novels and films with some students and I’m beginning work now on downsizing this overlong list to fit the limits of the semester. I find the syllabus very thrilling but I am as worried as if I were to teach Middle-English poetry for there is no guarantee at all that students will a) read the texts, b) like them, c) be willing to discuss them in class with energy and enthusiasm. I do look forward to teaching this course but, as I anticipated last semester, I know that the degree of student involvement I enjoyed during the Harry Potter course will NEVER materialise again. And I won’t complain, as I am VERY lucky that I had the chance to enjoy that.

I have conversations all the time with students about the matters I raise here but, as they tell me, the problem is that I usually talk with students who are keen readers (they are the ones who, logically, take coffee with Literature teachers…). For the non-reading students I must be a bore, a pest, an obstacle they want to forget as soon as they can. When I think of the nightmarish years I spent trying to obtain tenure and the constant effort that maintaining an academic career afloat entails… then I get depressed. Would things change, I’m often asked, if we taught English-language culture through audiovisual texts exclusively (films, TV)? No, I don’t think so. It’s something else altogether, a deep fault in the system.

So, students, you should know that we Literature teachers are worried sick there is no way we can do our job well. We need your collaboration, your participation, more effort and more enthusiasm on your side. You’re the young ones, not us, and this must show. I hate to think that my Harry Potter course will be the exception to remember not now, after 23 years teaching, but when I retire in 22 years… I know it might be hard to swallow but we need to know what’s going on and why you don’t want to learn from us, willing as we are to teach you. And, no, your motivation is not our responsibility. We have the duty to teach you, you have the duty to read, as simple as that.

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THE HIGHS OF ACADEMIC LIFE: A CROWDED COURSE ON POPULAR FICTIONS

Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I have just spent two joyful days in Valladolid, where I have offered a lecture and have also taken part on a round table. Both were activities within the course ‘Héroes, dioses y otras criaturas’ organized by the efficient and committed Sara Molpeceres (a member of the ‘Literary Theory and Comparative Literature’ section of the local university). I have felt throughout these two days a deep envy of the 75 students registered in her course, for in my time it would have been unthinkable to gather together so many lecturers to discuss comics, Tolkien, science-fiction, role games, zombies, witches… with the utmost academic naturalness.

What is happening, despite petty attempts at repressing some aspects of these kind of events (for the events themselves can no longer be stopped) is that the younger academics are making available to current undergrads the subjects we could not study in our time (but are teaching and researching now). I hope these lucky undergrads in Valladolid do appreciate the effort. Naturally, there might be other subjects many students are interested in which are still overlooked or, worse, excluded from the university. If that’s the case, do let us know –unlike many of our predecessors, we do listen.

To my surprise, I find myself hailed as a Spanish pioneer in the field of the study of popular fictions. It is true that I already have twenty years of experience under my belt (I presented my first paper in public back in 1994… oh, my!!) but I feel personally that I’m just beginning and far from being consolidated. It is lovely, in any case, to have my ego massaged by invitations like the one issued to me by Sara and our common friend and colleague, Marta Gutiérrez (of the English Department).

Sara and Marta accepted my proposal to lecture on SF and the post-human as part of my current research, and asked me to discuss my experience of teaching Harry Potter last semester –on which you have read plenty on this blog– on a round table. I spent a very happy time describing this innovative, fulfilling experience and sharing it with about 120 persons crowding the room (the questions I was asked deserve deeper thinking that I can offer now, next post, then). The lecture on SF went well, I think, and I left Valladolid happier than I have been in a long while.

The lesson learned from the very successful Valladolid course is that there is room for thrilling activities to accompany regular teaching but also that they are under attack. Not because of their content, which may be more or less adventurous, but because the degrees have been pruned of all extras. I used to teach a UAB summer course on film adaptations, which always was a very satisfactory experience, before the concept of the ‘free credit’ was erased from the new BA degrees. It is true that the ‘free credit’ was often too easy to earn with trivial activities but this can be easily corrected.

Sara and Marta tell me that their university allows students to take courses like theirs up to 6 ECTS, which are then validated as an elective. I think this makes perfect sense but I need to check whether my university allows this. We complain that the university is lacking the intellectual effervescence of previous times but then we seem to be doing all we can to prevent that from coming back… I hear that the new degrees will have as few elective courses as the authorities can manage and I fear very much that the precious chance to teach a fourth-year elective connected with our research and the students’ specific interests might soon vanish all together. Not to mention any possible extras we can fantasize about.

The other lesson I need to consider is whether specialised courses can contribute to making other subjects attractive –or just the opposite. Let me explain. My worry is that the success of ‘Héroes, dioses y otras criaturas’ and similar courses based on connecting popular fictions with better-established academic disciplines (here the study of ‘myth’), may make ‘standard’ subjects (even) less attractive. The course included a lecture by the illustrious Carlos García Gual, emeritus professor of Greek at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid. His presence added indeed much academic ‘respectability’ and interest to the course topic but I wonder whether students would have responded that well to a course on Greek myth. He himself told us over lunch a revealing anecdote: a student in his course complained against the obligation to read the Ilyad, which is like telling Prof. Harold Bloom you’re not willing to read Shakespeare…

I’m wondering, then, whether after the excitement provoked by a course like the one I’m discussing here the students feel an increased dislike of the classics they must read. One thing is, say, Tolkien and myth, quite another just myth. Couldn’t we offer, then, a more exciting view of the classics? The colleagues in charge of presenting a great session on role games within the course claimed that all narratives can be turned into role games and, thus, that role games are very good educational tools. I had this queer vision of my students playing Oliver Twist or Pride and Prejudice, and I thought ‘no, this is not the way to go.’ But then it is hard to imagine a class as enthusiastic about Dickens and Austen as the Valladolid students were about role games.

Sara, Marta: thanks, it’s been a wonderful experience. Call me anytime, I’ll be there. And keep up the good work!!

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