novembre 22nd, 2015

Last week I attended the beautifully organized 39th AEDEAN (Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos) conference at the University of Deusto, in Bilbao. The association has about 1,100 members–quite a substantial number–of whom about 200/250, depending on the year, present work at the conference. I always say that the conference’s strong point is networking and PR: it functions very well as a meeting point for colleagues who joined the ranks of the field long ago and for newcomers to get a first taste of academic life. This year I have indeed enjoyed excellent work by doctoral candidates, and have approached them to offer congratulations (after being told by one of them, an ex-student, that younger researchers feel shy to approach senior researchers, which I certainly am after 24 years).

My post today aims at offering a (family) snapshot of what AEDEAN offered as regards Literature. My initial hypothesis concerns not just this conference but what I believe to be a general trend in research in the field of literary studies: while contemporary literary authors remain a stable object of interest (whether canonical ones or new names), the so-called popular or commercial novelists are being abandoned in favour of TV and cinema. Paradoxically, this is a side effect of the liberation from canonical constrictions that Cultural Studies started introducing 20 years ago in English Studies in Spain, a trend in which I myself was a pioneer. Younger generations read fewer novels and watch more series, with the result that in some fields (perhaps particularly SF), the so-called ‘popular’ novels are practically unknown and the audio-visual version of the genre is assumed to be the ‘real thing’. Of course, the AEDEAN conference is just a sample of the whole field and, as you will see, it turns out I’m not quite right–but let this post act as a call for young scholars to re-integrate the ‘popular’ novel into their field of research. And also to get an overview of what our colleagues are reading.

Briefly, this is a map of the authors dealt with (for full details, you may refer to the book of abstract, still available at http://aedean2015.deusto.es/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Book-of-abstracts-39th-AEDEAN-Conference.pdf)

PLENARY CONFERENCE (by David Río), “Renovating Western American Literature from an Urban Perspective: Contemporary Reno Writing”, dealing with Raymond Carver, Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ishmael Reed and local authors Willy Vlautin, Tupelo Hassman, Claire Vaye Watkins, etc. Note this deals with the representation of Western America, not with the genre of the ‘western’.

COMPARATIVE LITERATURE: authors studied include James Joyce, Graham Greene and José Luis Castillo-Puche; T.S.Eliot and Anna Akhmatova; Robert Bringhurst; Charlotte Brontë; Eugène Labiche and Sydney Grundy; Wallace Stevens and Harold Rosenberg; Charles Sedley (17th C) and a selection of other 17th C theatre.

CRITICAL THEORY: authors and titles dealt with, leaving aside the papers raising theoretical issues, include disability memoirs by Christina Middlebrook, (Seeing the Crab: A Memoir of Dying Before I Do) and Harriet McBryde Johnson (Too Late to Die Young); fiction: Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire, David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life, Michèle Roberts’s Mud: Stories of Sex and Love, Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, Tayari Jones’s Leaving Atlanta, Linda Grant’s Still Here… and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

CULTURAL STUDIES, yes, also offers its good share of fiction studies including Fifty Shades of Grey, Marita Colon’s The Magdalen, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace; SF authors Joanna Russ and Ursula K. Leguin were also dealt with in a paper considering women’s art.

The FILM STUDIES panel included two papers on dystopian films, some of them adapted from novel series such as YA SF Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Veronica Roth’s Divergent but the focus, of course, was on the films. I believe neither paper was actually presented.

GENDER AND FEMINIST STUDIES offered papers on literary novels (Camila Gibb’s Mouthing the Words, Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things, E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We (1930) and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990), Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, Mary O’Donnell’s The Elysium Testament), short stories (Alice Munro’s short story “Bardon Bus”, Téa Obreth’s short story “The Tiger’s Wife”, Angela Carter’s revision of Cinderella) and drama (Sarah Ruhl’s play In the Next Room, Or the Vibrator Play). Here some popular fiction could be found (crime fiction): Louise Welsh’s The Girl on the Stairs, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive.

MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE: with papers on A.S Byatt’s The Children’s Book, Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February, Imogen Robertson’s The Paris Winter, Kate Mosse’s The Taxidermist’s Daughter, Sara Stockbridge’s Cross my Palm, Joyce Carol Oates’s We Were the Mulvaneys, J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, Charles Yu’s short story “Standard Loneliness Package”; also authors Walter Scott and Irish playwright Marina Carr. A paper dealt with the intersection in popular fiction of two favourite topics: vampires and the Salem witches (Her Dear and Loving Husband by Meredith Allard, Jonathan Alden: The First American Vampire and Salem Lost by Frank R. Godbey, Jr.). The round tables mentioned Niall Griffiths’s Grits, Louise Kehoe’s In this Dark House, Lisa Appignanesi’s Losing the Dead and Linda Grant’s The People on the Street, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-pool Library and The Line of Beauty, among others.

In POSTCOLONIAL STUDIES authors and novels dealt with included Arthur Phillips’s Prague, John Beckman’s The Winter Zoo, Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Ama Ata Aidoo’s short stories “Nutty” and “About the Wedding Feast”, Travels in Nigeria by Noo Saro-Wiwa. I need to highlight, of course, the round table on postcolonial crime fiction chaired by Bill Phillips.

SHORT STORY panel: authors dealt with include Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen, H.P. Lovecraft, Elizabeth Gaskell, Angela Carter, Helen Simpson, Janice Galloway, A.S. Byatt, and Jeanette Winterson.

Finally, US STUDIES offered work on drama (Edward Albee’s The Goat; or, Who is Sylvia?, Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart); the novel: Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, Quiñonez’s Bodega Dreams, Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘hybrid’ novels, Ayana Mathis’ The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (really!?) and 10:04, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and Toni Morrison; short fiction: Poe, Annie Proulx’s Wyoming in Fine Just the Way It Is, George Saunders’ “The Semplica Girl Diaries’ (Tenth of December 2013)” and non-fiction (Perry Miyake’s 21st Century Manzanar). Saunders’ story is SF, as is the novel by Frederik Pohl, The Space Merchants, also dealt with in this panel.

The surprise came for me from the PRAGMATICS AND DISCOURSE ANALYSIS panel, which included work on the most neglected popular genre, romance – the paper “Discourse types and functions in a corpus of popular romance fiction novels (work in progress)”.

What does the snapshot show? First, that TV has not found yet its way into the AEDEAN conference… despite the round table on The Wire (in Film[?] Studies). Second, that there is a refreshing, up-to-date awareness of current trends, with many novels published in the 21st century and many new authors. Some classic authors remain (Carter, Morrison) but the field of research is fast expanding, specially as regards American authors of non-white ethnic backgrounds. Third, that only two popular genres (detective fiction, SF) are present in the panels, the former more consistently than the later but neither quite a strongly visible genre (both use the umbrella provided by other labels). Fourth: you may use this list as a very attractive reading list for 2016…

Is this representative or accidental? Yes and no. Take my own case: I’ve been devoted mostly to SF this past year but have presented a paper on two films with gay protagonists, Brokeback Mountain and Gods and Monsters, both adaptations of American authors. This is part of the research on masculinities produced with the group I’m currently working with and typical of what I tend to do, yet at the same time not what I am doing mainly now.

So, please, take the map with a pinch of salt… and enjoy!!

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novembre 17th, 2015

I was planning to write a post today on what I have seen and heard in the recent XXXIX AEDEAN conference (11-13 last week) but this needs a bit of careful thinking I have no time for today. Unexpectedly–because it often happens that I end up writing about something that I never thought I would consider–I have woken up with this urge to write about R.L. Stevenson. I have already written plenty about the text by him which I teach every year, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but today I’m dealing with something quite different: the article “A Note on Realism” (1883, Magazine of Art), included in the volume Essays in the Art of Writing, which you can download from https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stevenson/robert_louis/s848aw/index.html.

This is a passage I have often used in class, as I did yesterday (forgive the long quotation):

Style is the invariable mark of any master; and for the student who does not aspire so high as to be numbered with the giants, it is still the one quality in which he may improve himself at will. Passion, wisdom, creative force, the power of mystery or colour, are allotted in the hour of birth, and can be neither learned nor simulated. But the just and dexterous use of what qualities we have, the proportion of one part to another and to the whole, the elision of the useless, the accentuation of the important, and the preservation of a uniform character from end to end—these, which taken together constitute technical perfection, are to some degree within the reach of industry and intellectual courage. What to put in and what to leave out; whether some particular fact be organically necessary or purely ornamental; whether, if it be purely ornamental, it may not weaken or obscure the general design; and finally, whether, if we decide to use it, we should do so grossly and notably, or in some conventional disguise: are questions of plastic style continually rearising. And the sphinx that patrols the highways of executive art has no more unanswerable riddle to propound.

To begin with, I find it a great pleasure to read texts about the craft of writing penned by the authors themselves. I would make it compulsory for all kinds of literary work to carry a writer’s comment in the style of the director’s comments on the DVD and Blu-Ray editions of films. Interviews would also do. I miss very much the many presentations by writers the Barcelona British Council used to offer, because they gave me the chance not only to collect autographed books but to hear authors discuss in person the tricks and challenges of their trade. At one point I asked the British Council whether we could edit a volume with the transcriptions of these presentations but the task was so gigantic that we soon abandoned the idea. I was at the time fascinated by the series of volumes offering interviews with major writers published by the Paris Review (now online http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews). I still am.

Anyway, back to Stevenson. Consider what he says: talent (i.e. “passion, wisdom, creative force, the power of mystery or colour”) is innate but style, the “mark of any master” can be learned and even “improved at will”. He speaks next of working on “the just and dexterous use of what qualities we have” to reach “technical perfection” which is, in his view, “to some degree within the reach of industry and intellectual courage”. I may be misreading but my impression is that Stevenson is here over-optimistic in the sense that, correct me if I’m wrong, but ‘industry’ and ‘intellectual courage’ also depend on inborn qualities.

Let me rephrase this: if a writer is born with talent that amounts to 80% of what is required to become a ‘master/mistress’, the 20% that depends on hard work will also depend on their having the required innate capacities to make the best of their talent. Inborn talent + limited ability to develop style = not a master/mistress (or an oxymoron). And the other way round: if a writer is born with a 20% talent for producing good writing, there is no way s/he can ‘learn’ the remaining 80%, as acquiring skills cannot compensate for limited innate talent. Or, as Stephen King argues, creative writing courses can help only if you already have a natural talent; ergo, only those with a natural talent are in a position to complement it with the ‘industry’ required to polish it into producing outstanding writing.

Stevenson does not seem to think that there is a direct link between the inborn talent and the subsequent industry (unless I misunderstand him) because he apparently thinks that the hard work he does on his texts should have similar results for all writers, which is not the case. His style is not a ‘natural’ product in the sense that, as I taught my students yesterday, he wrote Jekyll and Hyde in a six-day fever but spent then six weeks re-writing the text. This re-writing, the search for style and ‘technical perfection’ which he describes in the passage is what makes the work outstanding–both, I’ll insist, depend on inborn abilities. The ability to reach ‘technical perfection’ can be improved but not learned from scratch and much less in the absence of inborn talent. Now, what exactly causes some individuals to be naturally inclined to producing good writing is a mystery. Perhaps one day scientists will discover that it is a mutation.

The features that Stevenson describes as contributing to ‘technical perfection’ will surely remind you of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1842) and his defence of “the unity of effect or impression” (he’s actually discussing poetry). “The true critic”, he writes in defence of the short story, “will but demand that the design intended be accomplished, to the fullest extent, by the means most advantageously applicable”. This is what Stevenson seems to bear in mind when he writes that ‘technical perfection’ consists of “the proportion of one part to another and to the whole, the elision of the useless, the accentuation of the important, and the preservation of a uniform character from end to end”.

This was useful for me to remind students that Victorian writers who serialized their work for as long as it could find an audience (Charles Dickens) or those forced to fill in a three-decker (Anne Brontë) could not afford the luxury of trimming their texts as both Poe and Stevenson recommend. It seems then that both the short story and the novella (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one) clashed with the novel in this sense until the one-volume novel became the norm (in 1894, when Mudie’s and Smith’s refused to distribute three-deckers). The famous designers’ rule that ‘less is more’ (according to Wikipedia adopted in 1947 by minimalist architect Mies van der Rohe but first found in Robert Browning’s poem “Andrea del Sarto” of 1855) also applies, then, to Literature. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is, in that sense, an absolute masterpiece–whereas the other novella I teach, Heart of Darkness, would be by Stevenson’s standards in need of some pruning for its verbal flamboyance.

I agree wholeheartedly that trimming and pruning are essential tools for good writing–no matter how frustrated I feel every time I am asked to reduce my articles… The mystery, then, is why the current dominant trend in fiction writing is not the pared-down text that Ian McEwan is so fond of but the sprawling series. I wonder what Stevenson would think of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, now reaching its sixth volume and nineteenth year as I do wonder how Martin values style…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


novembre 10th, 2015

A week ago I visited my good friend Antonio Penedo’s class to deliver a lecture on my experience of teaching the Harry Potter series in the Spring of 2014. This was for his elective course ‘Estudios Culturales’ within the Minor in Comparative Literature and Theory of Literature (which used to be a second-cycle Licenciatura… alas!… always losing chances to enrich our academic panorama). His class is crowded enough and in addition I had the good company of some of my Victorian Literature class, probably close to 100 persons, a size I am not used to (my classes are around 50 students at the most). I think I can safely say that possibly 75% would have joined a new Harry Potter course if I had offered it on the spot; quite a few did ask me to do so.

I’ll deal first with the problems involved in going back to Hogwarts and then with two of the questions I was asked.

I could certainly teach again ‘Cultural Studies: The Harry Potter Case’ within the degree in English Studies… unless, that is, we start the feared 3+2 model immediately (whether within the Spanish Kingdom or the Catalan Republic, I don’t even know…). As I explained to students, this 3+2 models means the end for fourth-year electives, that wonderful chance to catch students right where you want them, at the end of three years of academic training in our style and with up to 35 persons in class.

My experience of teaching in masters’ degrees is that the electives do not work at a higher level (with the exception of the early years of the MA in Comparative Literature, then crowded with many absolutely brilliant Latin-American students, later expelled from the system by our crazy non-EU rates of up to 6,000 euros). Why not, if MA students already have a BA degree? Well, because they come from different backgrounds, both national and international and by the time you manage to produce a homogeneous academic approach the course is over… Sorry, but I think this is a common experience. I simply don’t see myself teaching Harry Potter in the first year of a two-year MA which, besides, needs more than 10/15 students, a critical mass big enough to generate a variety of experience.

Beyond the 3+2 problem, the fact is that a new Harry Potter course could not compare with the one I have taught in terms of the serendipity that made that one a unique occasion–I could have the same guests, the materials I could generate would be very similar to the ones I have published (or are still trying to publish). It would be haunted by intense déjà vu. And, then, it should be now or never, before the original readers leave university. As for teaching Harry Potter to students in another degree, the problem is that I don’t see myself teaching Rowling’s series in translation. I would cringe all the time… I did this once, I mean teach the same elective in English at 10:00 and in Spanish at 15:00 and it worked very well because the texts were essays and documentaries and, somehow, the translations worked (this was a course on the US critique of US-generated globalisation: Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore…). The problem with Harry Potter is the magical jargon which Rowling developed–the Death Eaters can never be Mortífagos for me, no matter how accurate the translation. Yes, I know, this sound snobbish but this is not what I mean–I’m sure my literary colleagues understand me.

Now for the questions from the floor: 1) if Rowling did not plan beforehand her heptalogy as a best-selling series, how come this is perceived as a commercial product?; 2) is the Harry Potter series Literature? My answers…

As it is well known, the Rowling myth is a rag-to-riches story. Here is this recently divorced mother, raising her daughter in Edinburgh, supported by the generous Scottish benefits system. She went through many difficulties to sell her first Harry Potter novel, and even when the first three novels (I think) were already successful in Britain, many publishing houses in other countries rejected them. If this had been a commercial operation from scratch, then Planeta would have published Rowling, instead of the (lucky) Salamandra, the only one to bid for her books then. Likewise, please do visit the awesome bookshop Gigamesh to see how far the profits of George R.R.R. Martin’s saga have taken its eponymous publishing house, which believed in Martin when nobody did in Spain.

The intensive commercialization, as I explained, corresponds mainly to the film adaptations and the entrance of the gigantic Warner Bros. corporation in Rowling’s universe. Once the series became a world-wide phenomenon turning Rowling into a billionaire, it became hard to say who was the owner, the author or the corporation. The colossal publicity campaigns connected with the book and film launches may make us believe this had been planned from book one, but it is simply not the case.

What is certainly true is that successful products inspire the intensive commercialization of similar products, often commissioned. Suzanne Collins’ trilogy The Hunger Games was, I believe, a phenomenon similar to Harry Potter, whereas now many of those who practice the new sub-genre spawned by Collins, young adult dystopian fiction, do so not out of conviction but because they see an easy chance to make a quick buck. Or because publishing houses head-hunt them, as was the case of Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent trilogy. The derivative product is easy to spot because it tends to be inferior in quality and seems to be written by joining the dots, if you know what I mean. Collins can be read (more or less), Roth is trash.

Is Harry Potter Literature? I wonder how many times I have been asked this… No, it is not if you understand by Literature the endeavour to produce (in fiction) high-quality prose in which you can observe the artistic ambition of the writer. I only found one passage I would call literary in that sense, corresponding to the description of the clashing wands in the duel between Harry and the resurrected Voldemort in the fourth book, Goblet of Fire. Rowling’s prose is palpably functional and extremely effective in leading the reader by the hand; this is a kind of prose which is not that easy to produce, for it can quickly become too obviously hackneyed. I think that Rowling naturally writes this way, that this is her talent (though I must say I have not read her other books).

This is not a literary talent as subtle as what you can find in any of the literary elite writers, from Philip Roth to Margaret Atwood, yet it is an aspect of Literature, whether we like it or not. As I explained, we need to think that the Harry Potter series was addressed to children and teenagers, not to adults and, hence, it operates within certain literary limits (yes, I remember the poetical Platero y yo, but that’s an exception). What I most appreciate, and I think there must be some authorial control here, is Rowling’s ability to darken her prose as Harry’s confrontation with Voldemort proceeds. The style of the first and the seventh book is very different: each suits the needs of the story and the age of the implied reader (7-10 in the first case, 16-18 in the latter). I myself was put off by the first book, which I found too childish, until I gave the series a second chance–when I got to book three, Prisoner of Azkaban, I finally understood the gimmick.

Sirius’ handsome wand, a central icon in the décor of my home office, watches my back as I write–this is how close Rowling’s series remain to me. Now, let me think about teaching the elective again…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


novembre 5th, 2015

I have finally seen the BBC’s adaptation of Dickens’ Bleak House (2005) and Little Dorrit (2008), both scripted by the very talented Andrew Davies. Although I bought the DVD pack which includes both basically because I wanted to see the highly famed Bleak House, and I had no particular interest in seeing Little Dorrit, I found myself enjoying the latter even better. In both cases, though, I took much pleasure from seeing good men celebrated in the main characters John Jarndyce (Bleak House) and Arthur Clennam (Little Dorrit). No doubt, much of my pleasure derived from the excellent, elegant interpretations of Denis Lawson as Jarndyce and Matthew Macfadyen as Clennam. In these times in which actors are praised for playing evil men (a vogue possibly started by Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar in 1991 for the role of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs), it is rewarding to see that some actors can play good men with full credibility, without seeming too bland or sentimental.

The ten-minute (re)search I did to document this post revealed, nonetheless, that praising good men is not the thing done. A quick check of the MLA using the phrase ‘good man’ threw a limited number of results, most of them dealing with Flannery O’Connor’s famous short story of cynical title “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. In this story, written in 1953, published in 1955, there are no good men at all and, actually, the focus falls on a murderer. The novel by fellow American writer Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me (1952), a disgusting and disturbing insight into the worst kind of male mind which makes Breat Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991) look like a fairytale, had already made it clear that good men were gone. I am not sure whether this is an American phenomenon but a few more things made me take a deep breath and reconsider matters. One is that the Urban Dictionary defines a ‘good guy’ as “A male who despite being caring and respectful to his female friends and acquaintances will never become anything more than” (what Borja Cobeaga called ‘pagafantas’ in his 2009 eponymous film). The other is that The Good Men Project (2009), a multimedia resource founded to allow good men to share autobiographical key turning points, was the brainchild of James Houghton and a man whom few (women) define as good, Tom Matlack. From what I read, the project started as feminist-friendly but soon started showing signs of being, rather, patriarchy-friendly.

Back to Jarndyce and Clennam, I found on MLA only one piece related to Dickens’ good men, a positively ancient dissertation (MA or PhD is unclear to me) by one Thomas Richard Hagwood, of whom Google throws no further notice: “Dickens and the Power of Goodness: The Portrayal of the ‘Positively Good Man’ in Dickens” (1976, Dissertation Abstracts: Section A. Humanities and Social Science (36:) pp. 8073A-74A). The MLA database also led me to Naomi Segal’s article “Why Can’t a Good Man Be Sexy? Why Can’t a Sexy Man Be Good?” (in David Porter’s collective volume Between Men and Feminism, 1992, 35-47). The title is a bit misleading as what seems to worry Segal is why female sexual desire cannot be kept alive in a long-term domestic situation when your partner is a good guy (really?). She seems to me terribly confused, even worrying that a good husband (in the feminist sense of the word, a true partner) becomes in the end a ‘wife’. Segal claims she is not defending the sexiness of bad men but there is clearly a problem in an argumentation that cannot see masculinity and goodness as part of the same man.

As I have explained to my students again and again, 19th century narrative relied very much on this combination of features, a combination which we now deem unlikely. Both men and women writers agreed that the good man was an essential part of society: men saw in him the true gentleman and women the trustworthy husband that would protect them from the worst excesses of patriarchy. If you wish, the 19th century good man is defined by his choice not to abuse the power granted to him by the patriarchal system and by his decision to use that power to do as much good as he can. I am beginning to see that good men could (and did) subvert patriarchy in this way and I am sure that masculine goodness is the key factor that allowed children and women to secure the rights owed to them as citizens. Think J.S. Mill. I have, then, no illusions that Dickensian men like Jarndyce, Clennam and certainly John Brownlow are patriarchal but, well, I appreciate their gentlemanliness, generosity and plain human decency, which is a lot to say, particularly in comparison to contemporary male characters.

Contemporary fiction is not fully deprived of good men, though perhaps all of them are implicitly neo-Victorian. Leaving aside the ones that can be found in romance, a genre that I simply do not read (and if any is still found after the unleashing of the monster Christian Grey upon that genre) I have found some examples–all in literature addressed to children and young adults. Harry Potter’s godfather Sirius Black (possibly also Severus Snape), Katniss’ gentle admirer Peeta Mellark in The Hunger Games and the most recent addition to my list, Tom Natsworthy in Philip Reeve’s steampunk, post-apocalyptic quartet Mortal Engines (2001-6). Sirius and Tom are British, Peeta American, just in case this means something. Oh, my, I forget Orson Scott Card’s Ender Wiggins.

Yes, Harry Potter is no doubt also a good guy, possibly the reason why he has so few admirers as a hero (readers of Rowling’s series seem to like the story better than the protagonist). And here is where I am going: ‘sexiness’, in the widest sense of the word, call it ‘appeal’ if you will, depends to a large extend on admiration (doesn’t it?). Men positively ugly are loved by beautiful women as long as they have something to admire in them, whether this is athletic prowess or intellectual ability. What exactly is admired is the sexy bad guy is quite beyond me, though I suppose that what attracts is their power to resist domination and the challenge this entails. Now, the question is that goodness is not seen as admirable, hence appealing, hence sexy. I am sure Dickens would be mystified if we told him that few girls would rush to marry Arthur Clennam but this is the case. Jarndyce is a different matter as he is too old for Esther, the heroine, the very reason why he ultimately gives her up (allowing him, by the way, to marry another good man, Dr. Allan Woodcourt). Amy Dorrit (the quintessential good girl) chooses Arthur, then penniless, imprisoned and prematurely ageing, because he is a good man. Today we find the novel’s resolution sentimental and condemn these two, Amy and Arthur, as either too goody-goody to be believed or too damaged to be truly happy.

Perhaps the central weakness of ideas like the one behind The Good Men Project is that a man cannot step out and declare himself ‘good’. This is for others to do: mainly women but also other men. A man who protests that he is a ‘good guy’ protests too much, for if he were truly good there would be no need to proclaim it. Good men may be hard to find, as O’Connor suggested, but there must be many (some?) worth honouring, whether in real life or in fiction. What I am suggesting is that we need to make them central to the anti-patriarchal struggle to find alternative masculine models. Yes, I grant I sound terribly old-fashioned by vindicating Clennam and Jarndyce and, in general, the Victorian ideal of the gentleman (and look what Stevenson revealed about him with Dr. Jekyll).

Yet, the fact that good men are not our favourite persons and that we celebrate, above all, the powerful man explains why our current civilization is so fundamentally rotten. Doesn’t it?

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


octubre 29th, 2015

Next week I am returning to Wonderland once again, this time to introduce the students in my Victorian Literature class to Carroll’s classic. To be honest, I’m not completely sure that I like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) in the same way I like, for instance, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911). I’m truly sorry I will never get the chance to teach Burnett’s classic, as it is not Victorian and we don’t teach children’s Literature. In contrast, though I am happy indeed that I can teach Carroll, I am concerned by the many difficulties this involves.

I own a Penguin Classics edition which also includes Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). Both this text and Alice are accompanied by John Tenniel’s perfect illustrations, which is quite a nice touch considering this is an adult edition. I realize that the most popular image of the girl Alice, with her famous head-band (now known as an Alice band) and her pretty striped tights comes from Looking-Glass, which is a bit confusing. Actually, every time I read the two texts I end up confused about what goes in which, possibly a sign that they work better as a single unit rather than as book and its sequel.

This Penguin edition, I was trying to say, is a proper academic version and, as such, it is accompanied by a multitude of notes. These notes reveal that much of the nonsense of Carroll’s twin texts has to do with his relentless mockery of other texts, mainly poems, both for adults and children. It seems, then, that much of the humour appreciated by original audiences has to do with topical references lost to contemporary readers. I can imagine the glee of many child readers when offered very rude, impolite re-writings of poems and songs they may not have enjoyed at all. Yet, I constantly have the feeling that I am missing much that not even the original texts parodied by Carroll and included in my edition can make up for.

Alice was a text improvised orally by Carroll, as he had improvised many others, in a famous golden afternoon spent in the river with the three Liddell sisters. The author wrote it down accompanied by his own illustrations to offer it as a Christmas present to his beloved Alice Liddell, calling it then Alice’s Adventures Underground. Little by little, he rewrote it as the text universally known today, choosing Tenniel to offer a more professional rendering of his amateurish illustrations. The process, as you can see, starts with an adult improvising a tale for the amusement of three little girls whom he knew very well; the mechanisms on which the humour of the events in the plot depend must, then, connect closely with the narrative strategies that, as he knew, would trigger the girls’ pleasure. If you have a child in your family, or remember your own childhood, you will agree with me that there is nothing more delicious than making them giggle, particularly by appealing to shared, secret jokes. And that is what Alice appears to be in my view: a text intended for restricted consumption by three specific girls full of private jokes that possibly only they could decode.

I am not saying that Alice is unreadable but whenever I read it, I do feel very much as Alice does when the Mad Hatter tells her that his watch tells the year: “I don’t quite understand you. What you said had no sort of meaning in it and yet it was certainly English.” The whole text by Carroll is obviously in English but demands from the reader an ability to not-understand but still enjoy oneself that possibly only children have (or readers or James Joyce…). One thing that puzzles me tremendously is how contemporary cartoons for kids appeal to that kind of pleasure–watching an episode of Gumball, which I love for its very many allusions and clever scripts, I realized that my six-year-old niece could not possibly understand it all, as she granted. Yet, she had chosen it, claiming it was her favourite (it’s ‘The Fridge’). I’m sure, then, that Carroll’s genius consisted of getting absolutely right what would tickle a Victorian child–though, and here’s the root of my problem, there is no secondary level in Alice meant to appeal to an adult as there is in Gumball.

This means, if you follow me, that the ideal teacher and academic critic of both Alice and Through the Looking-glass should be a child. Unfortunately, I am not one, nor are my students, hence my concern. Take any passage from either book and you will see, as you pile different meanings overt and covert on it, that the whole edifice of literary interpretation comes crashing down as… nonsense. It is often said that Carroll plays with logic (he was a logician by training and profession) and that his nonsense is based on perverting its rules. I quite disagree. I think that Alice works because it generates a logic of its own and it has become a universal classic because beyond the actual comprehension of what is going on in the book readers are ensnared by it. I am amazed to see how many bits of Alice resonate in many other texts of all kinds and yet how different the are allusions to, say, the allusions made to Shakespeare’s plays. Why is “off with his head” so funny to quote?

There is something else I am possibly missing, like any other reader. Often, a book blossoms into a favourite among its target readers because it smashes its predecessors. I am not familiar with children’s fiction in the Victorian age but I’m sure that both traditional fairy tales and contemporary stories addressed to children depended too much on teaching morality to their little readers. Alice must have felt like a breath of pure air as, if it has anything to teach at all, this is pleasure–particularly to little girls who, unlike boys, were never offered adventure. Curioser and curioser…

Another way to try to make (adult) sense of Alice and Looking-glass is by recalling that both are dreams and, as such, they are full of incongruous details and happenings. The last part of each book, when the sleeper finally awakes, has Alice realize that noises and other background factors (like a kitten) have been transformed in her dream into strange event triggers and characters. This, I think (sorry Freud!) is how dreams work: their often bizarre plots are nonsense, yet somehow connect with the events of the previous day. Alice was written before Freud became a popular household name and thus Carroll could have no notion that the subconscious of her girl protagonist was shaping her dream. I am here supposing that he told himself ‘this is what a vivacious little girl like Alice Liddell would dream’.

I’ll end by saying that even so, Carroll’s insight into the child’s mind is limited by his condition as an adult–and necessarily so, as Jacqueline Rose and many other specialists in children’s Literature have pointed out. Thinking of the very odd questions my little nice asks me (the last one was ‘do you go to prison if you cross when the red light is on?’) I believe that we would have a very strange view of the world if we could get into a child’s mind only for an instant. Perhaps for them every day is a bizarre adventure in wonderland, hence the popularity of Carroll’s book.

Um, I would give anything right now to be able to re-read the book as a child of 7, Alice’s age… Too late…

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octubre 23rd, 2015

I have just accepted tutoring an MA dissertation on how the new digital media conditions the task of the dancer and choreographer. What is an (English) Literature teacher doing supervising this? Let me retrace the steps.

Since I have always been interested in the process of film adaptation, having published many articles about it, and since I have taught English Theatre a few times, I was invited by my colleagues in the Catalan Department to teach part of the course ‘Theatre Arts and Other Arts’ within their MA in Theatre Studies. I chose to teach a 12-hour seminar on ‘Shakespeare on the Screen’, based on a previous BA elective (see the materials at http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/teaching-0).

I met in class my new tutoree, Toni, who had been, by the way, already my student in my UOC ‘Introduction to English Literature’. Yes, I am offering some kind of insidious critique against online teaching by saying I have ‘met’ someone I already knew as a student. But I digress. Toni is a retired contemporary dancer with a long career, currently a teacher at the Institut del Teatre. He wrote for my course, following my suggestion, a great paper on Scottish dancer Michael Clark’s performance as a totally silent Caliban in Peter Greenaway’s atmospheric film adaptation of The Tempest, Prospero’s Books. I gave a lecture within my course on how technology has impacted the evolution of theatre (I wrote about this here, see my post for May 11, of this year). Toni put two and two together and decided that I might be interested in seeing how digital media impact dance today. I certainly am but, believe me, I did agonize about whether I was doing Toni a favour by accepting his supervision. He seems to be far more certain than I am. But, then, as a colleague told me, he brings the knowledge, I contribute the know-how (to write a dissertation).

Discussing all this with my UAB colleague Teresa López Pellisa, she explained to me her work on theatre and cyberculture, which I ignored (this happens all the time–we don’t know what the neighbour next door is doing but we’re familiar with the last advances in, say, Toronto). I met Teresa when she organized in 2008 the ‘I Congreso Internacional de Literatura Fantástica y Ciencia Ficción’, so far with no second edition. We share also, apart from a love of CF, a course in another master’s degree, so I know about her interest in the post-human and Latin-American CF, but I didn’t know, as I say, about her work on new stage technologies. At one point, she mentioned working on a play with no text whatsoever and vented her doubts about how that fits the department she works for, the Spanish Department (within the area of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature, to be precise). Can you do research on wordless ‘texts’ from a language and Literature department? Can I supervise an MA dissertation on dance?

Obviously, it is clear to Teresa and myself that there should be no watertight compartments dividing academic work. The academic field should look, precisely, like a vast field with academics tending gardens in many different pretty nooks into which other academics might stroll and be welcome. Instead, it often seems to be a suburb composed of fiercely guarded small plots, with walled-in houses into which no neighbour is invited. Even worse, many of the houses are old crumbling mansions and construction stopped many decades ago–new architectural styles are just anathema. Just imagine: in Spain there are no Cultural Studies, no Film Studies, no Theatre Studies, etc, etc, either as degrees or Departments. This is why we find ourselves going out of our way so often. It is either that or Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf for ever.

I believe all my colleagues would tell you that we have internalized the fierce inquisitorial image of a tribunal member checking on us all the time, telling us off for straying off the path. In my case it goes something like this: ‘isn’t it enough for you,’ this inquisitor tells me, ‘to waste your time doing research on popular trash, now you want to go into territory that belongs to other specialists? Why don’t you stick to Shakespeare?’ Well, if you recall this is all Shakespeare’s fault, in the first place, for giving Caliban a physicality so manifest that only a dancer as wonderful as Michael Clark can make sense of… Will this do? As for the ‘trash’, um, as I wrote, the delicious SF movie Forbidden Planet is also an adaptation of The Tempest, at least in plot and subject matter, if not in textuality.

This anxiety that you’re occupying someone else’s territory or living perilously outside the boundaries of your own territory is the true source of much waste of time. Nobody is asking me at this point whether I should be supervising the MA dissertation on dance and I’m sure that my colleagues will find it thrilling (oh, here goes Sara again…). Yet, my internal tribunal member, a distillation of the tribunals I have actually faced, is here to remind me that this will look odd in my CV. I wonder! It might even lend some respectability to a CV full of ‘trash’.

This waste of time I have mentioned, and of energy, results in, as you can see, a constant need to justify yourself, as I’m doing here. In civilized countries you announce who you want to be by means of your doctoral dissertation, then you proceed to teaching courses that fit your academic interests and start a consistent line of publications. Here, it doesn’t work like that. I did announce my intentions with my own dissertation on monstrosity but it all seems geared to make you struggle to find a niche–teaching is restricted by absurd legislation that gives the Government (the Government!!) custody over our syllabus, you cannot invent elective courses, research assessment is based on the conservative suburban layout I have described. I may be protesting too much, since, after all, here I am a tenured teacher with a 24-year-long career. Yet, the insecurity about being judged negatively never vanishes.

Let me clear the unwholesome air and go back to dance and digital technologies. A couple of weeks ago I found myself in a Barcelona cinema watching the live transmission of the Romantic ballet Giselle performed by Moscow’s Bolshoi company. This was the first time I attended an event of this kind, even though there have been already several seasons, including opera and, a novelty this year I think, the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was a weird experience, as, first, I could not help feeling it was a film and not a live performance; second, I felt a little like a voyeur in relation to the audience cheering in Moscow. There were even people eating popcorn in my local theatre and nobody clapped, confused by their role as spectators. Anyway: what I didn’t expect was the intense aesthetic emotion generated by the loving detail with which dancers’ faces and bodies were shown. This is something I would have missed in a theatre.

So, you see?, there is no way you can put, as we say in Spanish, gates in the (academic) field. A ballet one Sunday afternoon in my free time turns out to be the reason why, in the end, I accepted tutoring Toni’s MA dissertation for, after seeing the Russian dancers I got home promising myself to learn more about dance. Toni’s petition for me to supervise his work came only two days later…

Yes, I am so privileged… and, yes, some days academic life is beautiful.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


octubre 18th, 2015

I did not mention in my post of 2 October on post-apocalyptic fiction Walter Tevis’ excellent novel Mockingbird (1980) as I started reading it right after writing the piece. It refuses to be consigned to my memory without further ado, so here we go.

As it happened to me, the name Walter Tevis may be familiar if you’re around my age (49) in relation to two film adaptations of his novels: The Hustler (novel 1959, film with Paul Newman 1961) and its sequel The Colour of Money (novel 1984, film 1986–again with Newman and a young Tom Cruise). I was very much surprised to see that this Tevis is the same Tevis of not only this SF masterpiece but also of another SF peculiar novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963); its 1976 adaptation by Nicolas Roeg with the charismatic singer/actor David Bowie as its protagonist, in the role of an alien visitor, is one of those cult films which re-surfaces again and again.

Tevis (1928-1984) was a teacher of English literature and creative writing at Ohio University (Athens, 1965 to 1978). As he explained, the inspiration for Mockingbird came from the realisation that his students did not care for reading. Hence, he imagined a strange post-apocalyptic 25th century American civilization in which all human beings are illiterate. The situation is strange, I’m claiming, because individuals choose of their own accord to abandon reading progressively; ironically, as literacy decays technoscience evolves fast enough to produce efficient robots that take over from humans not only the most onerous tasks but also the running of civilization itself. The most advanced robotic model, Make Nine, has been designed to manage complex organizations and–you may start chuckling now…–Spofforth, the android protagonist, happens to be the Dean of New York University.

The other post-apocalyptic novels I mentioned, including the one I’m currently reading (Alas, Babylon! by Pat Frank) are quite upsetting as they show how defenceless we, the common people, are in the face of accidental or purposeful destruction, whether this is caused by a plague or by a nuclear holocaust. What is most terrifying about Mockingbird is that there is no catastrophe but a progressive erosion of the interest in the written word, and, accordingly, of civilization (as Tevis knew it). This erosion is supposed to have started by the mid 1970s, when, as I have noted, Tevis was an English teacher–which shows that Literature teachers have been worrying about falling literacy standards for a long time… In Tevis’ 25th century New York not even university teachers are literate (the scant education offered depends on audio-visual media). The plot simply concerns android Spofforth’s decision to help a male teacher, Bentley, to teach himself to read and, later, educate the spunky heroine, Mary Lou, with the aim of giving humanity a chance to regenerate itself.

Human beings can survive in a state of illiteracy; indeed, along history most people were illiterate, with literacy spreading recently mainly due to the needs of the Industrial Revolution (complex machinery cannot be operated without written instructions), with a push from Protestantism, for which Bible reading is essential. As I commented in my post of 2 October George Stewart’s post-apocalyptic novel Earth Abides deals with how the surviving generation fails to educate its children and how, nonetheless, the younger people do go on to establish a new life similar to that of primitive tribes. What is at stake is not, then, survival itself but a much feared drawback into a darker age and the ensuing loss of our collective memory. The inability to read and write means an inability to connect with the past, logically, whether this refers to History or to the achievements in science and technology. In Tevis’ novel technology thrives as human beings become mentally numb, yet it is a technology with an absurd self-serving purpose and totally unable to connect with human needs (with the exception of the melancholic Spofforth).

Obviously, the reason why Mockingbird has impressed me so much, apart from its overlooked literary quality, is the central concept–the idea that individuals can choose not to read, therefore, not to be educated. We all know there was never a golden age when everyone read and very keenly so; yet, the Enlightenment promised to bring forth a civilization in which not only would all human beings have access to education but all would demand it. The central idea was, remember, to guarantee the rights of men (and of women as, later, Mary Wollstonecraft demanded). Almost 300 years later we have proof positive that many persons just do not want to be educated, which is not only puzzling but also a tragedy. The Victorians insisted very much on the idea of self-improvement and proceeded, besides, to place education in the hands of the Government, which was then a very novel idea. I am personally of the persuasion that a day when I have learned nothing new is a day wasted, and even though I do learn much from audio-visual media, nothing can replace reading.

And I mean by this, not just reading short texts but, most essentially, books. This is what my colleagues and I see these days in our university classrooms: students do not buy books, they do not bring the required set texts to class, they do not borrow them from the library. The overall impression if you read the press is that the book market is slowly dying; I’m told that most novels sell 400 copies and that successful novels sell just above 2,000. This is nothing in a country of 47 million people. The person in charge of purchasing books for our excellent Humanities library tells me that borrowing has dramatically decreased–I know, for I can get anything I need with no fear that someone else will have the book. So, yes, literacy persists as the social networks depend very much on the written word but the ability to read for long is on the wane, reduced to short pieces, with books looking impossibly long. At least, that’s my impression.

Walter Tevis, remember, had a similar impression when the internet was still firmly in the hands of a military clique and nobody had dreamed of its being a most important resource for interpersonal global communication. The internet per se is not an enemy of literacy–what am I doing here but use it to publish texts? What seems to be the main enemy is the generalized perception that reading is an optional pursuit, when it is actually the basis of all (post-tribal) civilization. Just imagine what kind of medicine we will have in the future in the hands of doctors who do not want to read. For, in the end, what matters is not quite whether Charles Dickens’ immortality is guaranteed (just to name someone I love) but whether we can maintain the living standards to which we are used for long. Don’t tell me now that the existence of nuclear weapons contradicts my argument as they are also a product of advanced education. Think, rather, of how the knowledge that sustains the comforts of our daily lives can be transmitted without the support of books and of interested readers. It can not.

Yes, we Literature teachers always complaining about the same, what a bore we are… I’ll add, just in case, that having finally seen this week the BBC’s wonderful 2005 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, I am even more convinced of the pernicious impact that the current fad to call TV series the 21st century equivalent of the 19th century novel is having. For, no matter how good the BBC’s Bleak House was, its 510 minutes can by no means replace the much richer experience of reading the book. And not even the best-written TV series compares to the best-written novel.

This is just in case we go the way of Tevis’ professor Bentley and end up teaching audio-visual texts to illiterate students being ourselves also illiterate. Some nightmare…

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octubre 12th, 2015

I have attended this week the international conference “New Typologies of (E/Im)Migration: Mobility and Transcultural Spaces” beautifully organized by my good friend José Manuel Estévez Sáa (http://www.josemanuelestevezsaa.com/). This was also the 17th Culture and Power International Conference, marking the twentieth anniversary of our seminar’s activities (http://www.cultureandpower.org/). I am not myself at all a specialist in the field but having attended all but one Culture and Power seminar, I felt compelled to submit a paper. And this, I did.

I described my research for this paper in the posts of 1 and 21 June. I visited then the Museu d’Història de Catalunya and the Museu d’Història de la Immigració in order to check why the public visibility of the migration to Catalonia of many Spaniards from other regions is so low. My starting hypothesis was that there is a clear political intention to make this internal migration subordinated to the foreign migration started in the early 1990s. This, however, is open to two readings: one positive, with the low profile of Spanish migration connoting total integration; one negative, with the nationalist/independentist agenda seeking actively the silencing of the former migrants and their descendants. MHIC somehow complicates matters as its displays are based on choices not conditioned by the Generalitat (as happens in MHC) and, yet, the narrative offered is quite limited and strangely optimistic, glossing over all the problems that Spanish migrants faced and how their experience connects with that of the later 1990s foreign migrants.

What is most surprising to me is the fact that the Spanish internal migrants themselves have not narrated this experience nor the following generations in their families. In English there is an abundant list of fiction and non-fiction on the migrant experience of practically any ethnic group, from Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), about a Jewish migrant to the USA, to the recent novels on the Polish migration to the UK (post 2004), which Noemí Pereira discussed in the conference. Yet, in Spanish we do not really have a sub-genre dealing with migration, much less with internal migration. From what I heard, Galician writers tend to focus on international migration (mainly to Argentina and Cuba), and from what I know here locally in Catalonia the early example of Paco Candel and the novels by Juan Marsé still remain quite exceptional cases.

A colleague forwarded me a while ago a list of documentaries on the topic I am discussing here:
La aldea maldita (1930 silent and 1942, sound), by Froilán Rey.
Surcos (1951) by Juan Antonio Nieves Conde.
La piel quemada (1967) by José María Forn.
Specifically towards Catalonia, the works by Llorenç Soler (see some here http://www.culturaenaccion.com/llorenc-soler-videos/):
52 domingos (1966)
Será tu tierra (1966)
Largo viaje hacia la ira (1969)
Enrique Martínez- Salanova Sánchez’s webpage (http://www.uhu.es/cine.educacion/cineyeducacion/emigracion.htm) shows how the subject of internal migration seems to vanish in 1970s cinema, perhaps because the Transición becomes a priority, to resurface in the 1990s with the new foreign migration. The main exception seems to be the TV movie co-produced by several regional public TV channels La Mari (2003).

I don’t have a similar information for the novel as I am not a specialist in Spanish Literature yet my assumption is that the same pattern is repeated. My very amateurish conclusion as to why this pattern exists (in the specific case of Catalonia) is that there was too little time between the end of the Spanish migrant influx around 1980 and the beginning of the foreign migration around 1990 for the internal migrants to process their own story. The Generalitat insisted, and rightly so, on imposing the general assumption that integration had been achieved and very successfully–rightly so because a fractured society has no future. Yet, I wonder why in the end the balance between integration and the migrants’ right to celebrate their culture is best represented by the big Feria de Abril in Barcelona (established in 1971) rather than by a stream of novels and films.

My working hypothesis is that by the time the second or third generation got college degrees and a sophisticated awareness of their own family’s experiences it was too late for the market to offer a niche, as this had been taken up by the foreign experience of migration (in Catalan the main example would be Najat El Hachmi’s Jo també sóc catalana of 2004). I wonder whether, and I said so at the conference, the current Spanish young persons, forced to migrate abroad due to the dramatic lack of jobs here, will be the ones to finally make sense of this past experience and of their own. Paradoxically, Anglophone post-colonialism has provided us with conceptual and academic tools we lacked in the past; sadly, these are still unknown among most Spanish writers and intellectuals and little appreciated in Spanish Departments, the ones that should be researching why there are no works narrating the Spanish internal migration.

Apart from this paradox–the absence of a rich literature of migration in Spain despite the copious national and international experiences of many Spaniards–I noticed another paradox. The novels and films depicting modern migration are at least 100 years old, if not more. And it is obvious that the story they narrate is quite similar: an individual feels the need to leave his or her home country pushed by the realization that there is no future for him/her there; the choice of destination is conditioned by the fantasy that the opportunities are many and the reception will be positive; harsh reality intrudes to shatter that fantasy and show the migrant that s/he can only occupy a low place in its new receiving society; the migrant is sorely disappointed, and the story ends either in failure or in a deferred hope that later generations will fare better. I made many people laugh among the conference delegates when I commented that ignoring the literature on migration seems to be an intrinsic part of the migrant experience: migrants could be better informed but they are not, and thus the same story is repeated. I am not sure why they laughed. You can attribute this pattern to the fact, I’ll add, that many migrants have no access to education. Yet a colleague answered that migrating is like having a child–you plunge into the experience and take risks, unheeding all the warnings against it (otherwise nobody would have children). Fair enough.

This begs, however, the thorny question of whether narrating the migrant’s experience in film or fiction makes sense at all. Another delegate (from India) complained that, in addition, the market selects which aspects to consume and which to ignore, so that even the best informed reader/viewer only gets a partial impression of what migration entails. The migrant, hence, by definition, faces his/her journey as a journey into the unknown even when much can be learned beforehand from the experience of past migrants. Perhaps migration is in part sustained by the migrant’s confidence that s/he will do well unlike the many who failed (remember Angela’s Ashes?). You have to migrate, you hope for the best because in the end the worst is what pushes you to migrate.

What totally mystifies me is the assumption by educated migrants from poor countries that they will be treated according to their qualifications… Also, here’s another paradox, how many migrant experiences are not called that: executives, artists, academics and in general liberal professionals from rich countries do not migrate, they ‘relocate’.

So much to consider…

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octubre 3rd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


setembre 27th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


setembre 22nd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The doubt eating me up is whether you can truly say ‘this is my translation’ if you have used Google Translate. I think you can since you have the final word yet, oddly, I feel a bit uncomfortable. I have been thinking for a while of producing a companion to my book of translated short stories Siete relatos góticos (http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116808) but I suddenly see no point. Or, to be honest, I feel too lazy to undertake very hard work that can be done much more easily. I firmly believe that using Google Translate for this would be cheating, which is not the case for my own academic work. Yet, again, I wonder how many translations of literary works are being published using this extremely useful tool, or shortcut.

Any professional translator out there?

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


setembre 17th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nagging witch…

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


setembre 10th, 2015

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

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

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

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

Dear Editor,

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

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

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

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

Sara Martín

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


setembre 5th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, let’s recall… unless we forget.

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


agost 30th, 2015

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

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

*an article also in The Times Higher Education supplement disclosing that “Grant income targets for individual academics (…) exist in some form in about one in six UK universities”, https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/node/128909. Also, an article denouncing how British academics are embracing the “cult of no sleep” (a catchphrase coined by Arianna Huffington), https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/count-sheep-not-metrics. Or insomnia as the solution to an increasing workload.

*several articles posted in Academia.edu about:

1) “Attention decay in science” (http://arxiv.org/pdf/1503.01881v1.pdf), a piece that discuses the decreasing ability of scientists to keep up with so many publications and, hence, the decreasing life-span of newly published papers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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