HEARING VOICES (IN ROGUE ONE): WHY DUBBING SHOULD BE ABANDONED

gener 10th, 2017

The debate on the need to maintain dubbing for audiovisual media in Spain is old and tiresome. I’m probably preaching to the converted here but I’d like to contribute (or stress) arguments which are not often considered. Funnily, the inspiration for both lines of thought comes from recent articles on Rogue One, the exciting prequel to Stars Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (or plain Star Wars, as it was once called).

One of the film’s stars, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, declared in a recent interview that he doesn’t much relish hearing himself dubbed. After joking that perhaps the diverse dubbing actors may have improved his performance, he stated that he’d rather films were not dubbed (see in Spanish, http://metropoli.elmundo.es/cine/2016/12/15/58526f8ae5fdeab0528b458c.html).

As far as I can recall, whenever Spanish journalists asks foreign actors how they feel about dubbing, they expect said actors to answer politely that they respect very much the work of dubbing actors. Mikkelsen’s discordant answer, though still polite, suggests that it is about time we hear actors express an opinion. Although Mikkelsen did not expand on his, it follows that actors, who use their voices as much as their bodies to act, must profoundly dislike having that crucial part of their performance erased. Try to imagine for a second what it would be like to keep the original voice and replace the bodily appearance and you’ll get an idea of how gross what we do using dubbing is.

Another Rogue One star, Mexican Diego Luna, recently declared in his Twitter account that he felt “emotional” when reading a certain Tumblr post (which quickly went viral). In this post an American girl using the nick ‘riveralwaysknew’ narrated her experience of taking her Mexican immigrant father to see Rogue One (see the complete post at, for instance, http://nextshark.com/star-wars-fan-riveraalwaysknew-expresses-how-diego-lunas-character-in-rogue-one-impacted-her-mexican-father/).

“I wanted”, she wrote “my Mexican father, with his thick Mexican accent, to experience what it was like to see a hero in a blockbuster film, speak the way he does.” The father was, like many other spectators including myself, much surprised by Luna’s “heavy accent”. The daughter explained to her puzzled dad that indeed, Rogue One is extremely popular, and that Luna refuses to alter his accent because he’s proud of it. After mulling this over, the father declared himself very happy: “As we drove home he started telling me about other Mexican actors that he thinks should be in movies in America. Representation matters.” Now, in the version dubbed into Spanish for release in Spain, Luna has no Mexican accent–just the standard Castilian accent generally used in dubbing, with few exceptions. So much for representation.

Here, then, are my two main points against dubbing: 1) it is disrespectful of the actors’ work, 2) it erases accent, which is essential in performance.

Before I continue let me present briefly the situation in Spain (you might like to take a peak at my article ““Major Films and Minor Languages: Catalan Speakers and the War over Dubbing Hollywood Films”, available also in Spanish from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/136984). Dubbing was originally introduced by Hollywood studios (specifically Paramount) in 1929 as a strategy to end the cumbersome use of subtitles (useless for illiterate audiences) and the expensive practice of shooting different versions of the same film, one for each language. In Spain dubbing was introduced in Republican times (1931-6), precisely because most Spaniards were illiterate; also to ease the censor’s role.

A legal order of 1945 made dubbing into Spanish Castilian compulsory for all foreign films, forbidding in addition subtitling and dubbing into any other Spanish language (Catalan, Basque, Galician). Subtitling would only return in the 1950s for art-house films. Spanish TV, inaugurated in 1956, simply copied the practice habitual in cinemas, extending it to TV series. The 1945 decree, issued by Dictator Francisco Franco, went, then, much further than the Republic’s timid application of censorship to foreign films, turning dubbing into an instrument of nationalist linguistic cohesion (in imitation of the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany).

Ironically, in the same period the Portuguese Dictator António de Oliveira Salazar (1932-68, though his regime lasted until 1974), decided to do the opposite: forbid dubbing, hoping thus that the illiterate Portuguese spectators would shun foreign films, then only accessible through subtitles. Dubbing is still limited today in Portugal to films for children as, logically, they have difficulties to follow subtitles. In Finland, where they follow the same practice, they assume that by the age of 7 children are already literate enough to read subtitles.

For here’s the question: in Spain we are very reluctant to abandoning dubbing simply because most people are very poor readers and have serious difficulties to keep up with the pace of subtitles. Incidentally, if the demand for subtitles were bigger, I assume the quality of translation (often questionable) would also improve.

Whenever dubbing is discussed in Spain, however, the problem of literacy is set aside. Instead, we usually the issue of how little English we command, as if dubbing only affects films originally in that language. Thus, many who prefer dubbing claim that a) you don’t learn languages by seeing films in original version (see how much Japanese you can learn this way…), b) our dubbing actors are wonderful and so is our dubbing technique (I agree), c) cinemas’ revenue would fall even further if dubbing was suppressed, d) technology already allows most consumers to choose the version they prefer (which is true for TV or DVD but not for cinema).

I find dubbing simply barbaric, akin to smearing another layer of colour on another person’s paintings or chipping off bits of sculpture that one doesn’t like. Translation of print texts is bad enough but a sort of inevitable evil. In audiovisual products, however, translation can be easily pushed to the margins with the use of subtitles, respecting in this way the integrity of the actors’ work. I see all films and series in their original version, regardless of the language, and putting all my trust into the persons who translate subtitles. I may not understand a single word of Japanese beyond ‘arigato’ and ‘hai’ but I’d much rather hear the original voices.

These foreign voices come enshrouded in linguistic fog which, of course, fades away the better you know the language. A film in German, French or Italian is less opaque than one in Japanese, whereas a film in English is far more accessible. Not always, of course–we all have the experience of using subtitles to follow English-language products. The accent of Baltimore gangsters in The Wire is hard even for persons with PhDs in English Literature, and so is the working-class Leith brogue used in Trainspotting. We tend to forget about Spanish itself: I needed subtitles to follow the Argentinean film Nueve reinas, and I have abandoned recently a couple of films from Venezuela which I simply could not follow (they had no subtitles).

To sum up: the point of suppressing dubbing is not learning other languages (this is an extra bonus) but respecting the actors’ work. To get a glimpse of how hard they struggle with accent, see the video in which dialogue coach Erik Singer generously reviews an impressive collection of accented film performances: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NvDvESEXcgE

Whenever one mentions accent in films outside a university Department, eyebrows are quickly raised. Just picture your average Spaniard and you’ll see him/her struggling with the concept of accent in foreign films. You cannot give an approximate rendition of accent in dubbed versions, as this sounds ridiculous and, so, accent simply does not exist for the average Spanish film goer (even film lover). There is also the matter of voices: as everyone knows, often the same Spanish actor dubs several foreign actors – Ramón Langa lends his voice to both Bruce Willis and Kevin Costner, among many, many others (see http://www.eldoblaje.com/datos/Fichaactordoblaje.asp?Id=127). This means that dubbing also results in a ridiculously homogeneous panorama, with a few voices replacing the multiplicity that makes international cinema so rich.

Let me get back to Mikkelsen and Luna (and Rogue One). You can hear Mikkelsen express himself in his native Danish language in the disturbing Jagten (The Hunt, 2012) or play an American character in Hannibal (2013-15). In this second case, although we here in Spain missed the issue completely, he was criticized by American audiences for playing Lecter with a thick non-American accent (some spectators claimed that this was fine, as Lecter is originally a Lithuanian). This is an interesting conflict which even extends to English native speakers (was the American accent of British actor Hugh Laurie in House good enough?).

I’d say that Mikkelsen’s Galen Erso in Rogue One also speaks English with a Danish accent. Actually, very few American voices are heard in that English-language film, though I have not come across any negative comments from American audiences–rather, praise for the film’s international casting choices. I’m sure that in Denmark they feel happy to see Mikkelsen play in such a big film (and such a heroic role!) but his presence is not as heavily loaded with representation issues as Luna’s. Mexican actress Selma Hayek was seemingly told that she could not play the main role in Mexican director’s Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity because nobody in the audience would believe in a Mexican astronaut. Instead, producers chose bland all-American star Sandra Bullock (yes, I know that Hayek is also from America–the continent). Rogue One’s multi-accented cast may have been selected to please a wide-ranging international audience but the case is that Luna’s heavy Mexican accent is a breath of fresh air… in the galaxy.

Except in Spain, where dubbing sounds a bit like the echo of Darth Vader’s Empire… or just Franco’s regime. Now, come join the rebellion…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

SEEKING NEW READING PROJECTS: A NEW YEAR’S ANTI-RESOLUTION

gener 4th, 2017

Both public media and private persons engage these days in the twin exercises of celebrating the best books published last year and of announcing novelties, wishes and resolutions for the new reading year. Both exercises are quite tedious.

Each year, when December comes and I read the endless lists of all I have missed in the previous twelve months, I despair. I will never ever catch up. I feel condemned to always staying behind (with the only comfort of thus saving myself many overhyped books). Perhaps I should attribute this to my wilfully ignoring the lists of novelties, already abundant for 2017, as they make me feel somehow manipulated by interested parties that want me to read this but not that.

As for the wishes and resolutions, it’s always the same: when I go through the list of all I have read in the just defunct year, I always promise myself to read a) books from a bigger variety of languages (German novels, anyone??), b) books from a bigger variety of genres (where’s the poetry??!! why so many novels??!!). I have indeed started 2017 with a French novel, Submission by Michel Houellebecq. I’m sorry to say, though, that I have already abandoned it half-way through, sick and tired of the main character’s monstrous selfishness and chauvinism… My new year’s resolution, then, is to avoid forming any resolution as to my reading. I’m thinking, rather, of finding reading experiences that might enrich my life.

My brother-in-law has suggested a definitely enticing reading experience which he himself has gone through in the last 18 months: reading the 46 volumes of the Episodios nacionales by Benito Pérez Galdós. I certainly look forward to doing that after using a great deal of my time this past 2016 to the wonderful reading experience of devouring the 20 volumes of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (a bit spoiled by the disappointing last two volumes). My other project, by the way, was reading more books by Manuel de Pedrolo: I finally managed 9, and I don’t think this is over. Pedrolo has an 11-volume-series, Temps obert, a beacon sending distress calls for new readers to find it, if I have seen one.

A ‘reading experience’, then, is not at all like a new year’s resolution but, rather, a project to enhance and brighten your reading life. It is not about filling in gaps (I should have read many more Russian novels by now), or about unfulfilled obligations (I should read all those other plays by Shakespeare). Above all, a ‘reading project’ (or experience) is about freeing oneself from the weight of novelty, which is flooding us with a stream of books without teaching us how to navigate our way into the books of the past. And I don’t mean by this the classics, which are always available, but the books I’ll label ‘how-come-I-have-never-heard-of-this-beauty?’.

Also, contradicting myself, a reading project/experience is not something one may recommend to another person but something a reader chooses. If I end up reading the Episodios nacionales, as I think I will, this is because I am already interested and not because my brother-in-law has brought Galdós to my attention. Actually, I had already downloaded the first 10 books… Now is the time.

Most likely, if you’re serious about your reading, your whole life constitutes a reading project. I am not distinguishing here between readers who prefer the classics and the most literary genres and varieties of fiction but, rather, between self-aware and casual readers.

The self-aware reader is, like the god Janus, two-faced for s/he looks forward to a future of constant novelty but also backwards in case s/he’s missed something of (personal) interest. This is the kind that, if they enjoy a particular genre, will learn all about it, whether this is science fiction or 19th century romance. Self-aware readers keep reading lists, sheepishly notice glaring gaps in them, and see their whole life in terms of what they have already read and what they might read until the day they die. I know, I’m one of these obsessive weirdos. Casual readers, in contrast, are just pleased to read whatever is fashionable. They make little effort to remember titles and authors’ names, or to give their reading any kind of coherence, even when they really like particular authors and/or genres. They do not obsess and would not put themselves through the trouble of devising reading projects.

By coherence I don’t mean that a reader should contemplate reading as a study course for life. No. You might want to do that, naturally, but I will insist that there is a marked difference between setting yourself the task of reading the most representative Restoration comedies of the late 17th century and engaging in the project of reading them just because you fancy the experience: study is one thing, reading for pleasure is another (though, needless to say, studying can be a pleasure). The whole idea behind the ‘reading project’ is basic reading pleasure, if, that is, pleasure can be said to be an idea.

I don’t know what happens to students as readers once they leave our university classrooms but I would like to think that they become self-aware readers perpetually involved in attractive reading projects and experiences. Of any kind, from the single-volume (so, finally I have time to read Ulysses…) to the multi-volume adventure (and now I’ll read all the James Bond novels). For, and here is the question, a reading project/experience needs not be a gigantic undertaking but one of those long-delayed wishes that finally finds gratification. What I found when finally reading War and Peace or, if you want a much shorter text, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.

I am gradually realising that a reading project is possibly connected with something you have already heard of. At least, many of my reading projects seem to have been around for decades, some from the time I was an undergrad student, 30 years ago. Very naïvely, I started at 18 a reading ‘wish list’ which, very wisely, I eventually abandoned. Even though I am the kind of person who is constantly making lists of things to see and do (and shop), reading lists are no use–ironically, they seem to inspire in me an urge to read totally at random and be as anarchic as a punk. What I do in these cases, is visit a library or bookshop and see what falls into my hands, often with amazingly serendipitous results.

I am beginning to think, as I write, whether an academic career is nothing but a massive reading project. Thinking back to when I was an undergrad, my reading project was all of English Literature, beginning with the canon. As a postgrad student, genre fiction because my dominant reading project, first gothic, then (still) science fiction. I confess that while reading the Aubrey-Maturin series, I felt a bit uneasy about whether I was somehow stepping out of my chosen project to read as much SF as possible until a) I decided to write something on the series, b) I found out that many other SF readers love O’Brian (what’s a spaceship, after all, but a ship in space?). Funnily, the series is the result of O’Brian’s own reading project, focused on the English Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.

Obsessive readers seemingly go well with obsessive writers… And what are academics if not readers that have made an obsession into a professional career? The obnoxious protagonist of the novel by Houellebecq that I have abandoned, a French Literature lecturer, claims that the teaching of Literature at university level has no use whatsoever except train other teachers at a failure rate of 95%. He’s wrong. Teaching Literature is what we, compulsive readers, have invented to vent our obsession with our personal reading projects. Elective subjects are the clearest expression of this, an alibi to obsess before an audience.

And, so, what reading experience are you looking forward for the immediate future? (No… it’s not a new year’s resolution. It’s an anti-resolution).

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

BREAKING POINT: THINKING OF THOSE STILL WAITING FOR TENURE

desembre 20th, 2016

The last tenured position came up in my Department about 8 years ago, though tenure is here a relative term, as the two colleagues in question were offered permanent contracts rather than the civil servant’s position that I myself enjoy. I just learned this morning that Universidad Juan Carlos I, whose credibility is now in total jeopardy because of the plagiarism the Rector has been accused of, abruptly dismissed last summer, with no previous warning, a dozen teachers with permanent contracts (they were reinstated).

The total security that you will be employed for life is a dream for most people, something which the head of the Spanish national employers’ association considers ‘very 19th century’. However, tenure is, or has been until recently, a foundation of university life, justified by the idea that we, scholars, should be free from the care of finding a job in order to produce our best work. Yes, we all know of teachers who have found tenure so mentally relaxing that they have managed to produce nothing in 40 odd years before retirement. Here, however, I’m thinking of deserving academics, who make the most of the chance to be employed for life.

When I got tenure back in 2002, after 11 gruelling years, I vowed to myself that I would never forget what those 11 years were like–perhaps the many times I visited doctors’ surgeries and emergency rooms would give a clear idea of the anxiety. Also, I swore that I would never ever gamble, as I felt that I could not be luckier than that. Since I haven’t forgotten those days, I have a very clear picture of what some dear colleagues in my Department are going through this morning, when they have received news that not even the chance to fight for a four-year full-time contract will materialize in the immediate future, much less tenure. I’m talking about four persons with an accreditation to be (finally) hired full-time, apart from other associates with hopes that they can eventually be rewarded with tenure. Absurdly, the position we have been expecting to be granted for years has gone elsewhere, where it is was never expected, nor much needed.

I’m going to sound quite incoherent because I’ll argue here that the Spanish university fails to see both each personal case and the impact on a whole generation of researchers of its hiring policies. I know it is the same in Britain, as I have recently written, and in many other countries, but this offers no comfort.

There is much talk of endogamy connected with how people are selected to occupy university positions instead of what really matters: how individual hopes and expectations of an academic career–serious individual vocations–are exploited by a ruthless institution which adamantly refuses to consider personal cases. When I was myself waiting for tenure, I always felt that the vice-rector in charge of signing the petition was a mythical creature, for I never had access to him (or what it her?). I don’t know how business concerns operate and I’m sure that many workers are hired and dismissed without ever knowing who signed their papers. Yet, unlike what it may seem after hearing so much talk of endogamy, I find the whole university employment system oddly depersonalized. Logically, this works in favour of the institution, which needs not justify why it suddenly has no room for a person who has given her best for a dozen years or more.

I know very well that in many other sectors, people are also nonchalantly dismissed or offered low-paid jobs for which they are woefully overqualified. However, the singularity of an academic career is that, as everyone knows, it qualifies you for nothing else, for no other job. This is the situation on which everything else hinges, for, despite all our complains about students who don’t study and so many other little miseries, if you’re a vocational teacher/researcher, once you set your foot inside a university classroom it is very hard to let go. I had a job offer before I was hired by my university, aged 25, and I would have been happy enough, I know, being a secondary school teacher of English, and reading non-stop in my spare time. However, when, aged 36, I considered what I could do if I failed to secure tenure, the prospect was bleak… A secondary school classroom seemed a letdown after so many years of sophisticated academic work. And I took it as a very bad omen that an application I sent to a very different kind of job (connected with communication) was returned by the post, for mysterious reasons.

I understand, then, why vocational teachers/researchers allow themselves to be abused by the system because I would have done the same. This is what the university counted on in Spain, when some anonymous villain made the decision of stopping all pre-doctoral full-time contracts and offering just a handful of post-doctoral positions, with a very vague promise of perhaps, who knows, might happen or not, tenure. This is the equivalent of being hired as an intern with the promise of quick promotion to be told, year in, year out, that you need to wait a bit more… until you’re just told the promotion will never happen. The additional problem, obviously, is that in the university you’re never told that tenure will never materialize for you, only that it won’t do so in the short term. This means that associates are always thinking of a nebulous long term, as, well, life moves on and time passes. This is being done, I insist, not to a handful of unlucky individuals but to a whole generation trapped by liberal economic policies which are not the product of the 2008 crisis but of the mid-1990s mentality declaring all public services a burden rather than a collective benefit.

In the darkest moments, I wonder whether what’s happening in the Spanish university and in other nations is a sinister social experiment to test for how long un-tenured academics are willing to be exploited until they reach a breaking point. Does this happen when you turn 35? 40? 45? 50 perhaps? Or will the life of many academics born from the 1970s onwards consist exclusively of this kind of underpaid, temporary employment? Does it really make sense, in terms of finance, to keep many individuals employed part time rather than grant tenure to fewer? What’s the point of raising expectations only to dash them? Is it merely cruelty, indifference, ignorance, a mixture of all? Could it be a basic lack of human empathy?

I recall a family dinner back at the time when I was waiting for tenure when a well-intentioned relative told me I should consider that the Spanish university could not accommodate all the aspiring academics. It seems to me that as long as we find money to rescue useless, expensive highways from bankruptcy–as we’re about to do–we can find money to employ deserving academics. They’re not asking for football player salaries, just for a dignified, full-time job, and, believe, they’re cheap workers. Also good ones, as we know because despite having the chance to dismiss then as we can do with associates, we have kept them.

I have no words of comfort, really, this is just terrible. I simply don’t know what to tell my friends: cling or, for eventually all valuable people are rewarded; or, stop hurting yourself and find another job. The optimistic message has no foundation, whereas telling someone to seek employment outside the university feels oddly callous, even when you’re thinking of the wellbeing of persons you care for. The worst thing is the survivor’s guilt (why me and not them?) and the impotence for, yes, we complain as loudly as we can to the authorities that be, you can be sure about this, but nothing seems to change.

I’m SO sorry…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO DESCRIPTION? (WITH A STORY ABOUT COGNITIVE POETICS)

desembre 13th, 2016

I keep on telling my students that I very much want to supervise research on the diminishing use of description in contemporary fiction but nobody is taking the hint–or they do, but then they panic thinking of the technical difficulties a dissertation would entail. So here is more bait, see if anyone bites…

I don’t seem to have addressed here before directly the matter of description, although it is one of my favourite bugbears as a reader. I have mentioned often, I believe, my habit of casting actors as the characters of the fiction I read, as I am increasingly desperate that authors are abandoning description. I always have, besides, serious problems to imagine space at a reasonable scale, which is why reading stage directions is always a nightmare for me (happily Shakespeare didn’t use them…); also, why reading space opera is such a challenge…

So, now and then, I test the waters and ask my students whether they pay attention to how they visualize as they read, hoping perhaps that someone will show me a trick I don’t know. I see that they’re keen to discuss this issue but I have never found a proper way to address it in class. I don’t see myself teaching an elective course on description, either; it sounds a bit weird even to me.

So, as I often do in class whenever the bugbear overpowers me, I’ll cite Dickens. Here’s a favourite Dickensian description, that of 11-year-old Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, in this scene asking Oliver himself, then wandering lonely and forlorn on the London road, what is the matter with him:

“The boy who addressed this inquiry to the young wayfarer, was about his own age: but one of the queerest looking boys that Oliver had even seen. He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough; and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see; but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man. He was short of his age: with rather bow-legs, and little, sharp, ugly eyes. His hat was stuck on the top of his head so lightly, that it threatened to fall off every moment—and would have done so, very often, if the wearer had not had a knack of every now and then giving his head a sudden twitch, which brought it back to its old place again. He wore a man’s coat, which reached nearly to his heels. He had turned the cuffs back, half-way up his arm, to get his hands out of the sleeves: apparently with the ultimate view of thrusting them into the pockets of his corduroy trousers; for there he kept them. He was, altogether, as roistering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six, or something less, in the bluchers.
‘Hullo, my covey! What’s the row?’ said this strange young gentleman to Oliver.”

The ‘strange young gentleman’ is rendered in a most vivid fashion, and as a reader I thank Dickens for helping me to activate my mental theatre in that efficient way. I do see and hear the Dodger, as I see and hear the rest of his characters.

Funnily, Dickens always published his fiction accompanied by illustrations (George Cruikshank produced 24 for Oliver Twist), which might even seem redundant in view of his florid descriptions. Illustration is today mostly confined to children’s literature though I see no reason why an adult should not enjoy it; at least I very much enjoyed recently the version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (is this YA?) illustrated by the wonderful Chris Riddell. I am, however, sadly ignorant of when and why illustration was abandoned in books for adults. Christopher Howse suggests that after peaking with Sidney Paget’s work for the Sherlock Holmes stories (in 1891 for Strand Magazine), “illustrations for adult books (until the quite separate development of graphic novels) sank into the weedy shallows of the pulp fiction market” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/children_sbookreviews/10465326/Why-dont-books-for-grown-ups-have-illustrations-any-more.html). In Norman Spinrad’s wickedly funny The Iron Dream (1972) budding artist Adolf Hitler never becomes the tyrant that terrorized the world but a second-rate pulp fiction illustrator getting a meagre living in California…

But I digress. I once heard Kazuo Ishiguro say that description has been diminishing in contemporary fiction because of the impact of cinema, as writers trust readers to supply their own images with just minimalist hints. I’m not sure, however, whether writers realize how annoying the job we have been entrusted with is. I am currently reading the sixteenth novel in the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian and I am still struggling to imagine his two protagonists with the clarity which Dickens provided for even his most minor characters. I know that Jack Aubrey has long blond hair and blue eyes, that he’s tall (but not how tall) and I learned yesterday that he’s verging on the obese as he weighs almost 17 stones (that’s 108 kilos). I know that his once handsome face and well-shaped body are now criss-crossed by a variety of scars after decades fighting the French and other assorted enemies. Yet I’m awfully frustrated that I don’t ‘see’ him as I ‘see’ the Artful Dodger. I checked Deviant Art and I found what I suspected: most illustrations are contaminated by the image of actor Russell Crowe in the film adaptation, Master and Commander. I tried to resist this by casting, following another reader’s suggestion, Chris Hemsworth as Jack (and Daniel Brühl rather than Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin). By the sixteenth volume, however, Jack is past forty and a very bulky man and, so, his face constantly shifts from Hemsworth’s to Crowe’s as I read, while I miserably fail to control my mental theatre. Ironically, if you know the lingo, O’Brian offers a brutal amount of information about any object that can be seen on Jack’s ships…

A student told me yesterday that she had tried the experiment of reading the same character description with a friend (in a contemporary novel). The results were completely different and she was wondering why this was so and whether, in the end, description really helps. She’s got a point, of course. Still, it does help to know that Harry Potter’s eyes are bright green (even though they’re blue in the films) and Voldemort’s red (green in the films…). Perhaps, in view of how much the adaptations have pleased readers, we might claim that Rowling and certainly J.R.R. Tolkien are powerful describers of place and character, no matter how different their post-Dickensian styles are (succinct in Rowling’s case, prolix in Tolkien’s). This is, I insist, a PhD dissertation waiting to be written.

The last time I found extremely detailed character descriptions in a novel this was in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991). The protagonist and narrator Patrick Bateman obsesses about what everyone is wearing, seeing people through the lenses of the brands they sport. This, of course, is Ellis’ ironic comment on 1980s avid consumerist society but I wonder to what extent this is also a critique of character description per se as old-fashioned and even in bad taste. Yes, I’m arguing that description has been progressively abandoned because writers find it a) distasteful, b) a drag to write, c) manipulative of readers’ reactions, d) to sum up, bad writing. You should check now whether poorly written fiction carries more description than the more ambitious variety–and here I have just recalled how prejudiced I am against the fiction produced by writers with MAs in Creative Writing precisely because it overdoes description. I mean, however, superfluous description of detail such as the colours of every single flower in a vase, rather than the (for me) necessary details that present the features of a character’s face and body.

As serendipity will have it, I read yesterday a delicious short story by Colombian writer Juan Alberto Conde, “Parra en la Holocubierta” (in Visiones 2015, https://lektu.com/l/aefcft/visiones-2015/5443). He narrates the efforts of a team of specialists in ‘cognitive poetics’ to develop a device that allows readers to record what they imagine as they read. After audiobooks, here come holobooks… Conde very wittily suggests that if we could find a very proficient ‘imaginer’ of what writers describe, like his protagonist Parra, a whole new field of business would bloom around literature. If audiobooks allow adults to indulge in the childlike pleasure of having stories narrated to them, then holobooks appeal to our nostalgia for illustration.

Or, rather, they reveal the hidden truth about contemporary fiction: its reluctance to describe is leaving readers in need of visual interpreters, whether they are film adapters or… holobook readers. And then they say that science-fiction is mere escapism…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

CYBORG VS POSTHUMAN: OBVIOUS DISTINCTIONS

desembre 6th, 2016

I’m celebrating this week the success of my doctoral student Jaume Llorens, who has been awarded the highest grade for his brilliant dissertation on the icon of the posthuman in science fiction. It is my aim to publicise here a little bit the main point he makes, which might seem obvious to many but, believe me, is not.

You may perhaps be familiar with Donna Haraway’s famous “Manifesto for Cyborgs” (1985, 1991), an essay which is possibly the second most frequently quoted academic text in the Humanities after Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. I met Haraway once, already ten years ago, when the research group I belonged to (‘Body and Textuality’) invited her to offer a lecture at MACBA (May 2006). The lecture had the ambiguous title of “An Encounter among Species: Feminism after Cyborgs”, which seemed to point in two radically different directions… The group chose me to present Haraway simply because I speak English and I found myself in quite a bizarre situation: I had a long list of questions to ask Haraway, on behalf of my colleagues, about cyborgs but she only wanted to discuss… her relationship with her dog. That was the core of her lecture, namely, that we should approach humanity as just one animal species among others on Earth. An approach some are beginning to call ‘posthuman’.

This is not, however, the kind of ‘posthuman’ which Jaume Llorens means. He means the new humanoid species that might replace us as the dominant species on Earth. You might think that this is a prolongation of Haraway’s cyborg but it is actually a radically different concept, so let me explain.

Haraway’s manifesto is a declaration in favour of using technoscience for subversive, feminist, socialist ends, in ways very different from those habitually connected with the masculinist, militarist figure of the cyborg. Back in 1985, the word cyborg was mainly connected with James Cameron’s 1984 film hit, The Terminator, although it turns out that the robot covered in synthetic human flesh played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in this movie is not a cyborg at all. You need to think, rather, of the popular 1970s TV series The Six Million Dollar Man (1974-78), based on Martin Caidin’s novel Cyborg (1972) to get the right idea. In this series, actor Lee Majors plays former astronaut Colonel Steve Austin who, after a terrifying crash, develops superhuman abilities thanks to a series of cutting-edge implants inserted in his shattered body. Austin, partly human and partly mechanical, is a cyborg that celebrates the achievements of 1970s utopian technoscience. In contrast, Robocop, which appeared only one year after Haraway’s manifesto, in 1986, presents the cyborg as the human victim of rampant capitalism. Here the victimised body is that of a police officer viciously attacked by criminals, who is resurrected to become the cyborgian replacement of the police force in Detroit. Omni Consumer Products, the corporation that turns Alex Murphy into a dehumanized cyborg, believes there is big business in this.

I am not too keen on Haraway’s manifesto, which seems to stubbornly deny the dystopian direction which the cyborg was taking in the 1980s both in real-life research and in science fiction. I believe, besides, that many readers tend to overlook the opening paragraph in which she warns us that she is being ironic and playful. My student Jaume shares this mistrust with me and, so, he formulated a basic research question: taking into account 1990s and early 21st century science fiction, can we argue that the idea of the cyborg is obsolete? His answer is that, certainly, the cyborg needs to be reconsidered, for the merger of the human and the non-human is no longer central either to science fiction or to real-life research. The dominating model is the transcendence of the human, which is, incidentally, the title of his dissertation. His inspiration, by the way, is another woman: N. Katherine Hayles, author of the indispensable How We Became Posthuman (1999).

The central idea is very, very simple but not that obvious, I insist: whether modified mechanically, digitally or organically, the cyborg is an exception, an individual that, supposing s/he has children, cannot alter the whole human species. In contrast, the posthuman tends to carry genetic modifications or to be part of a digital environment that will substantially alter humankind itself. In short, Robocop is a cyborg, the X-men are posthuman (and so is Frankenstein’s monster, incidentally). Of course, things are never that easy and, so, for instance, in Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, there is a mixture of cyborgian and posthuman elements. Takeshi Kovacs, Morgan’s protagonist, has been ‘enhanced’ (as the current by-word is for humans no longer purely homo sapiens) by genetic and bio-chemical manipulation. He’s also part of a digital environment that allows for personalities to be transferred to different bodies by means of inserting a cortical stack (a sort of black box, the author explains) in new ‘sleeves’.

Most stories about cyborgs, then, deal with our fears that our individuality may be radically and tragically disrupted by the insertion of non-organic materials and devices in our bodies (despite Haraway’s optimistic take on this iconic figure). In contrast, stories about posthumans deal with the fears that the whole human species may be altered by the genetic legacy of individuals whose genome is no longer ours. This is mostly associated with the dangerous transhumanist dream of interfering in the course of natural evolution by forcing humanity to move towards a certain posthuman model (read Hayles, please). However, in Greg Bear’s novel Darwin’s Children it simply happens that a virus alters all unborn babies at the foetal stage. Suddenly, no more homo sapiens are born and, since the new species has abilities quite superior to ours, we risk becoming obsolete. Of course, transhumanist leader Nick Bostrom argues that conventional humans and posthumans could live in harmony, in the same way we, potato-coach non-athletes, accept even with admiration individuals like super-athlete Usain Bolt. This, naturally, is disingenuous, for if Bolt turned out to be a mutant and likely to have posthuman children against whom no human athlete could compete things would be very, very different.

Jaume Llorens, and myself, declare ourselves moderate posthumanists. We both abhor the transhumanist dream of a eugenically modified posthumanity, complete with digital uploadings into supercomputers that will guarantee our immortality (perhaps online, perhaps using synthetic bodies for temporary downloads). We both believe, however, that technoscience will relentlessly advance to eliminate the main human bodily flaws and to free humans who suffer unnecessarily from their pain. The ethical problems posed by eugenics are already looming in the horizon but, let’s be frank, while using genetic selection to breed only blond, blue-eyed babies is monstrous, who would say no to getting rid of unwanted genetic defects? It is already happening on a daily basis.

Jaume claims that science-fiction writers are mainly producing a fantastic version of the posthuman, quite beyond the current state of technoscience. A sort of ‘worst-case scenario’, playing with deep-seated fears. I keep on telling him that by telling stories about posthumans we are actually indirectly facing our secret guilt that we’re responsible for eliminating all other human species from Earth. Yes, think of the Neanderthals but also many others that used to share Earth with us. We fear very much becoming the Neanderthals to a posthuman species because we know what we did to our others. This means that I’m not personally afraid or concerned that homo sapiens might disappear for, in my humble view, we’re nothing but vermin to our beautiful planet. What worries me sick is that we’re replaced by even worse vermin rather than by the superior humans every SF writer imagines. Or by the fascist regime that the transhumanists preach, based on the very selfish idea that we, homo sapiens, are so wonderful that we deserve to become a better version of ourselves, immortality included. Here’s my point: there is no better version, for we are fundamentally flawed. I’d rather support Bear’s mutant children, or the X-men (um, not the Magneto faction…).

Now, read science fiction for, really, this is the only kind of fiction that understands not so much our future but what is going on today, right now, beneath our very noses.

And congratulations, Jaume Llorens!!! May we soon see your PhD dissertation online and in print.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. Or email me at Sara.Martin@uab.cat.

CINEMA NEEDS WRITING!: WHY IS IT SO HARD TO SEE?

novembre 29th, 2016

Here is a simple question: why is it so hard to understand that film directors are not responsible for the plot of their works? Unless, that is, they have also written the script. Actually, there is a second question: why is so easy to ignore the source when a film adaptation is reviewed?

My irritation is prompted in particular by the reviews of Arrival, a film recently released, directed by Denis Villeneuve. I have not seen Arrival yet and I can’t judge its quality (IMDB spectators seem divided into those who call it superb and those who call it superbly boring). What really baffles me is that among the flurry of enthusiastic reviews, coming from film festivals and preceding Arrival’s release, nobody had paid attention to the fact that this is a film adaptation of Ted Chiang’s short fiction piece ‘Story of Your Life’. I only found out when checking the IMDB information.

Why’s this important? Very simple: Villeneuve has been hailed as the great renewer of science-fiction cinema when, actually, the merit corresponds mostly to Chiang, the author of the story which the film narrates. As any SF reader knows, Ted Chiang is the best short story writer operating today–most likely in any genre. Is he getting the credit he deserves for having imagined the inventive plot in Arrival? Not at all… all merit is attributed to Villeneuve. Eric Heisserer, the actual screenplay writer, and, thus, Chiang’s adapter for better or for worse, is never even mentioned in the reviews.

The ignorance of how important writing is for cinema is simply appalling. If screenwriters disappeared from Earth, film directors would have no stories to tell and the industry that employs them would grind to a halt (see the film Trumbo, please). The boisterous, haphazard blockbusters which Hollywood is currently perpetrating often appear to lack a screenplay but if you pay attention to the credits (as you must!), the problem is that they often employ four or five screenwriters whose authority is again and again denied, resulting in the onscreen mess. The finest films are, needless to say, the product of fine writing, whether original or adapted from other sources. Obviously, not all writers are the exquisite Ted Chiang and, yes, there are countless examples of scripts that improve the original source. This happens, however, because a screenwriter has produced an excellent script, and not at all the (sole) merit of the director.

For the reader to understand how pathetic the way we neglect screenwriting is, just consider the following: would you attribute to a stage director the merit that the playwright deserves? You might praise a stage director for making the best of a play, or chastise him/her for spoiling it. In the end, however, the one who is applauded or booed is the playwright. It is often said that if he were alive today, Shakespeare would be a screenwriter, which is an apt way of highlighting that he worked for a commercial theatre system not too different from the Hollywood film industry. What the comparison often overlooks is that whereas we venerate Shakespeare, not even those who love films can name their favourite screenwriter (I know I can’t). There is very little sense in this, for both playwrights and screenwriters write texts based on dialogue to be performed by actors (Martin Esslin has made the point that all is drama). So, why do we persist in neglecting screenwriting as one of the arts of writing?

Another film released recently may change all this misperception–or not, we’ll see. I’m talking about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which, borrowing the term from Andrezj Sapkowski, can be called a ‘sidequel’ of the Harry Potter saga. As you may know, the film’s title is also that of the magizoology textbook which Harry and friends are required to read at Hogwarts. Rowling did write the volume (penned by one Newt Scamander intradiagetically in the series) in 2001 to aid the Comic Relief charity. She eventually decided to turn Newt, who is active in the 1920s–that is to say, 70 years before Harry’s ordeal begins–into the protagonist of a new five-film series, which she is herself scripting. Since Potterheads will buy anything she touches, her published screenplay has already become a best-selling volume. This is mystifying many, who see no need to buy a screenplay when you can see the actual film.

Rowling already pulled this year the trick of turning a play she hadn’t even written (it was the brainchild of John Thorne, basic plot included) into a best-selling book: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Surely, many who bought the play had already seen it or expected to see it; after all, we’re all used to reading plays and they are perfectly accepted as literary texts. Screenplays are much harder to sell but they are indeed in particular cases published as books. I wrote my MA dissertation on Harold Pinter’s adaptation of John Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant Woman (the film was directed in 1981 by Karel Reisz) and I still keep the complete collection of all his screenplays. These include the ones made into films and the ones that were never filmed, just as plays need not be staged to be published. Back to Rowling, the colossal sales of her screenplay (in comparison to any other similar text) may hopefully teach the younger generations that films require someone to write them. I doubt very much that reviewers will bypass Rowling’s script, or attribute the film’s merits to director David Yates rather than to her.

Rowling, by the way, did not adapt the Harry Potter series for the film screen. I’m sure many fans can name the directors that contributed to the series’ overwhelming world-wide success (Chris Columbus, David Yates, Mike Newell, even Alfonso Cuarón). Who, however, can name the adapters, the persons who actually wrote the films? There were two: Steve Kloves (all films except Order of the Phoenix) and Michael Goldenberg (Order…). Rowling collaborated with Kloves and Goldenberg in what appears to have been a fruitful relationship, which is not always the case (most writers prefers not to interfere with the adaptation process). Apparently, this is how she learned the tools of the trade now enabling her to present herself as a screenwriter.

Returning to my initial question, there is more or less a general consensus that the reason why film reviewers and, generally speaking, audiences fail to understand the task of the screenwriter (and what adaptation entails) is the faulty pedagogy spread by Cahiers du Cinema. This prestige French magazine, founded in 1951 by André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca, is still active. Its impressive list of writers includes Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut, all major contributors to film criticism and theory. As you may imagine, being themselves film directors, these gentlemen were very much interested in attributing authorship to this figure. In this way they disseminated the very wrong view that a) films are a personal work, rather than the product of team collaboration; b) the director is sole responsible for film content, as if films did not originate in many cases in producers’ ideas and as if they did not depend on a script. This flawed view seeped down to all prestige film magazines all over the world and to academic teaching and research on film, with the results I’m complaining about.

What is surprising is that we have been reviewing films already for 50 years following these basic lines with no resistance whatsoever. I don’t see screenwriters complaining, perhaps because they have been taught that their reward is a) having their work filmed, b) being paid for it. I used to read the magazine Creative Screenwriting and be always amazed at how many unfilmed scripts there are and how deep is the abuse screenwriters suffer, to the point that they totally undervalue what they do. Published authors do now and then bemoan the poor treatment their beloved texts receive in the hands of unscrupulous screenwriters, directors and producers, yet many seem to have learned the lesson to just cash the cheque and keep silent. Nevertheless, please remember that writers of adapted works are not honoured by any film awards, which I find somehow odd. We would not have, say, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler without Margaret Mitchell–Sydney Howard may have written an excellent script and Victor Fleming done his best as film director, but Mitchell wrote the engaging, wilful pair into existence. If they matter so much for film history, this is because she wrote a novel.

Now read Ted Chiang, please, please, please…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. Or email me at Sara.Martin@uab.cat.

RISING FEES, FALLING JOBS, COLLAPSING STANDARDS: THE UNIVERSITY HEADING FOR DISASTER

novembre 22nd, 2016

I could reduce today’s post down to a tweet: ‘University fees climb as teaching contracts dwindle’ and be done, for I tire of feeling perpetually pessimistic. Next post, I’m here promising myself, must be on a sunny subject, though I wonder what this can be. After marking between Friday and Sunday a pretty poor set of students’ exercises, I find myself wanting very much to take the lost weekend days off and go wandering in the city (argh, heavy rains today, no chance!).

Actually, the exercises have much to do with the bleak mood. Let me rewind. I want to discuss here why the university has embarked on a relentless destruction of tenured positions. This is connected with the rising fees demanded by English universities, up to £9000, in the Guardian article that I wish to comment on (“Universities accused of ‘importing Sports Direct model’ for lecturers’ pay” by Aditya Chakrabortty and Sally Weale, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/nov/16/universities-accused-of-importing-sports-direct-model-for-lecturers-pay?CMP=share_btn_link). The authors consider the outrageous decisions by which the surplus income made by exploiting teachers is being invested on superfluous new facilities and on the scandalous salaries of the top administrators, as lecturers suffer the indignity of “zero-hours contracts, temp agencies and other forms of precarious work”. We have not yet hit that low mark in Spain (it’ll come…) but I am surrounded by increasingly overworked associate teachers, who need to juggle two or three jobs at the same time, as they endlessly wait for something to happen. And for students to react.

A point which the Guardian article does not consider is how these teachers’ burnout is also caused by falling standards among students. Being tenured, I can quickly overcome the disappointment caused by an irregular batch of students’ exercises, as I have the rest of my working day for my research. For an associate, however, the time students do not invest in doing their homework properly, is time added to painful correction and, thus, needlessly deducted from their already scant time for research. This generates terrible frustration which, in addition, goes unnoticed in the classroom (or just attributed to the teacher’s bad temper), for students ignore the sacrifices that teaching them entails. Technically, you might say that by accepting low salaries and precarious contracts, associate teachers are actually paying for the ‘privilege’ of teaching students who totally misread the situation, assuming we are all tenured (and well paid).

Chakrabortty and Weale’s piece is part of a series on “increasingly precarious jobs” in the UK, a label one would associate with occupations destroyed mostly in factories during the transition to a post-industrial economy but not with higher education and university classrooms. Both in Britain and in Spain, and surely all over the world, young researchers with strong vocations are being ruthlessly exploited by being underpaid, overworked and offered only part-time positions. Tenure, in the meantime, is slowly becoming a myth.

I became a tenured teacher myself 14 years ago, aged 36, which was back in 2002 the exact average age for new tenured teachers (nonetheless, I had to wait for 11 years since my first contract and for 6 after submitting my PhD dissertation). Since 2002 each year one extra year has been added, so that, as a friend told me recently, he expects to get tenure by the time he’s 48. And he’s one of the lucky university teachers, as he has a full-time job. Another dear friend with an absolutely brilliant CV has been finally offered a full-time contract (though for a temporary position) after 15 years as an associate combining two hectic jobs.

In England, the Guardian article claims, the National Union of Students has complained that “low-paid and overstressed tutors may not be providing quality education”, implicitly stressing that this is what students getting into heavy debt to afford a university degree want. Here in Spain fees are not that high but they’re very high considering the average income of families (and I mean BA degrees, MA degrees are simply impossible to afford for most). I don’t see, however, that students are doing their best to maximize the investment made in their education. Taking into account what I see in class, about 20% are doing their best, 20% do not care at all and the rest, 60%, just get by. Every day I teach Victorian Literature I have to put up with the expression of absolute boredom, even disgust, of one of my girl students, sitting very visibly in the middle of the classroom. Does she know, I wonder, what I’ve gone through in my life to be there teaching her? Does she know, I wonder, what my less privileged colleagues put up with? Why is she in my classroom at all?

I have been carefully avoiding this kind of complaint here in this blog because, as I say, I tire of feeling bitter and pessimistic. However, the truth is that my conversations with the Department colleagues always revolve around these twin topics: how little students do and how much we need to do. If we are active researchers, then we’re continually monitored and basically told we don’t do enough no matter how hard we struggle. If we’re not active in research, then our workload goes up dramatically (it used to be 24 ECTS for everyone, now it’s up to 32 ECTS for non-researchers). Associate teachers tend to teach 18 ECTS but they’re employed mostly teaching compulsory courses, always more crowded than electives and always more demanding in terms of marking and grading exercises. They rarely complain in public because one thing the university teaches you from day one is that you can be very easily replaced–associate positions can be reorganized on a yearly basis.

How often we discuss student motivation without taking into account that those needing motivation are the precarious teachers!! “When academic staff are demoralised and forced to cope with low pay and insecurity,” declares Sorana Vieru, a vice-president at the English students’ union, “the knock-on effect on students is significant”. Obviously! What she is not adding, but I am, is that this demoralization is deepened by most students’ nonchalant approach to their own education. An associate rising up at 6:30 am to get her classes ready can be indeed frustrated, and even angry, seeing that students have not bothered to read the five-page text assigned for class discussion that day. This is what is going on, right now, right here, every day.

We, teachers, are, then in a Scylla and Charybdis situation, trapped between the devious plans of the administration to gradually undermine our profession and the students’ indifference. Please, don’t tell me that their indifference is in its turn caused by the lack of prospects for one way of fighting a bleak future is to throw yourself with all your might into improving your chances to do well. I cannot explain well why the authorities are destroying the university, for the obvious explanation that our budget needs simply to be reduced does not make sense. Less investment in higher education means less investment in the nation’s future, whether this is Spain or England, and logic dictates that part-time teacher/researchers can only produce a very limited amount of good research. If the destruction of the public university system has been designed to boost the private universities and to push the working-classes out of the system, then, let me clarify that at least here in Spain private universities are not at all a haven for teachers/researchers and that, from what I gather, most students in my Department are middle-class rather than working-class.

I don’t know any associate teacher who has given up yet. I knew once a girl, hired by my Department at the same time as I was, 25 years ago, who very soon saw that the road was too steep, the rewards too little and abandoned the university after only one course. These were the good times, when my second-year, pre-LOGSE students were producing work that could now be acceptable in MA degrees. Yes, I know, every generation complains about falling standards and that the young do very little, or nothing at all, in comparison to what they did. The difference, I believe, is that it’s never been so hard to work as a university teacher for those aged 25-45 and they do need more than ever the students’ collaboration in what we do. All of us need it.

Otherwise, nothing makes sense in our teaching lives.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. Or email me at Sara.Martin@uab.cat.

APOCALYPSE SOON: BETRAYED BY THE WOMEN WHO VOTED FOR TRUMP

novembre 15th, 2016

So much has been written by so many persons these days about Donald Trump’s shocking triumph over Hillary Clinton that I’m tempted to skip the topic altogether. However, this would be similar to King George III’s writing in his diary ‘Nothing important happened today’ on 4th July 1776, the day when the United States became an independent nation. I would have written a post had I been running this blog on 9/11 2001 and, faced with another terrifying historic event, I feel that I must write a little something here.

Robert de Niro is certainly not alone in connecting the fear of chaos caused by the Twin Towers attacks with the dreadfulness caused by Trump’s winning the election: both are disconcerting, disturbing, tragic events that make the world a much darker place. As I told my students in my SF class, Cormac McCarthy never explains in his superbly well-crafted post-apocalyptic tale The Road what exactly destroys the United States in the near future. Now an explanation is looming on the Washington horizon. Hopefully, as The Simpsons narrate, Lisa Simpson–or someone as sensible and rational as her, woman or man–will win the American minds and hearts and replace Trump, sooner rather than later.

As you may imagine, being a woman I feel absolutely betrayed by the 42% women who voted for Donald Trump, despite his being, as British journalist Matthew Norman wrote in The Independent a “pussy-grabbing, race-baiting, tangerine-hued pantomime ogre with the attention span of a Labrador puppy, the moral sensibilities of a slum landlord, the verbal dexterity of a stroke victim, and the default vindictiveness of a mafia capo” (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-america-presidential-election-sick-to-my-stomach-victory-odds-chance-a7400896.html).

Famously, Susan Sarandon announced before the election that she would not be voting with her vagina. Sarandon endorsed Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and announced that she would not vote for either Clinton or Trump, on the grounds that she wanted to support a woman she trusted and not just any woman. Fair enough, although the problem she has ignored is that any vote taken away from Hillary was a vote given to one of the clearest embodiments of patriarchy in the 21st century (together with his friend Vladimir Putin). There are times, then, when the vagina–the female organ the new President is so fond of demeaning and grabbing–is as necessary as the brain to vote. Not just to elect a first woman President of the USA but, above all, to put an end to patriarchy which, unlike what many proclaim today, is not at all on its dying throes.

In the end, 54% of women voters and 41% of men voters supported Hillary Clinton, whereas Trump received the votes of 53% men and 42% women. Beyond race, ethnicity, social class, party lines… the figures indicate, as I explained to my students, that the number of American female voters complicit with patriarchal power outnumbers the number of American male voters who have expressed an anti-patriarchal opinion. This is very, very bad news. It means that while the slow process of reclaiming men away from patriarchy is progressing quite well, we women are stalled regarding the spread of feminism among women.

If all women and that 41% men had voted for Hillary Clinton, she would have taken possession of the Oval Office with the biggest number of votes ever. Instead, although Trump has received fewer votes than her and than the two previous Republican candidates, voters have stayed away from Hillary and she has lost many votes in comparison to the numbers that voted for Barack Obama. For, of course, women will vote for a handsome black man sooner than for a woman. Much has been said about Michelle Obama, or even Oprah Winfrey, running for President in 2020 but 2016 is happening now, and why wait for four years to elect the first woman President when her rival is the unspeakable Donald Trump? Really?

I’d like to turn now to Tina Brown’s article in The Guardian, “My beef over Hillary Clinton’s loss is with liberal feminists, young and old” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/12/hillary-clinton-liberal-feminists?CMP=share_btn_link). Brown offers the argument that Hillary didn’t fail but that the Democratic Party supporters and sympathizers, particularly the liberal feminists, failed her. This is a classic of all elections, as we know in Spain very well: right-wing voters are faithful and steady and will vote for their candidate, no matter how appalling, whereas left-wing voters are volatile and prone to stay at home unless mobilized by the hope that things will really change (‘Yes, we can!’). And, so, many American liberal women never went near the polling stations, nor did the millennials, who now, as happened with Brexit, are complaining that Trump is not their choice. The FBI ill-timed (or well-timed…), ugly hint that they would prosecute Clinton has much to blame for her defeat, but in the end it was up to the young and the old women of the Democratic Party who didn’t budge for her. Also and mostly to the 42% in the Republican Party who made a shameful public display of their slave mentality.

Tina Brown writes that Trump won because “There are more tired wives who want to be Melania sitting by the pool in designer sunglasses than there are women who want to pursue a PhD in earnest self-improvement. And there are more young women who see the smartness and modernity of Ivanka as the ultimate polished specimen of blonde branded content they want to buy.” Perhaps, though I very much doubt that this urban mentality was a crucial factor; after all, Trump has lost in all major cities bigger than 1,000,000 inhabitants and although I can very well imagine the women Brown describes here, I don’t think they make that chilling 42%. The betrayers are the women who just will do nothing for themselves. Many are enslaved to their own domestic tyrants (did you see Trump keep an eye on Melania as she voted?), which means that liberal feminism has failed to do successful grassroots work among the conservative women. Others can vote freely but, obeying this slave mentality I have mentioned, they believe that the men know better and it’s their job to run politics. Some, no doubt, wish they were Melania–and I have no words to comment on the replacement of Michelle Obama by that woman. Many of the 42%, and here’s my deep worry, are totally impervious to any feminist argument for they genuinely believe in patriarchy. And not all are white. A friend of mine was aghast after hearing on TV a Latino working-class woman declare that she had voted for Trump because he was honest. What kind of blindness is this? If no AfricanAmerican would vote for KKK, why do women endorse patriarchy?

I don’t particularly like Hillary Clinton, for I believe she lost a great deal of her feminist and feminine dignity when she learned about Bill’s womanizing and still stayed married to him. I understand that a divorced woman stood little chance of being elected for the highest office in the conservative United States but, even so, Bill is a blot on Hillary’s feminist credentials. Having said that, I have no doubt whatsoever that she would have been a good, perhaps even a great, President and much more so in comparison to Donald Trump. The Republicans are, by definition, defenders of patriarchy but if she had faced a rival who could call himself (or herself) elegant, rational and well-spoken I would not be writing this post. What bewilders me and any thinking person, male or female, is that half the American voters–including that 42%–chose the worst possible kind of man to be their President. Some are optimistic that Trump won’t be able to implement his racist, homophobic, misogynistic ideals any more than Obama could alter the structures of inequality, as he promised he would do. But, please, even Ronald Reagan and both Bush Presidents seemed more apt for the Presidency than this frightening patriarch.

I had classes to teach on the Wednesday when the election results were announced and, so, I could not do as one of my female students did: curl up in bed and try to calm down, bracing myself for the horrors to come. I felt, as I did on 9/11, dazed and confused. The difference is that on that day some comfort came from the realization that disempowered patriarchal men were lashing out against the power centres of American patriarchy. On 11/9, however, I lost all trust in women, and that is even more dispiriting than any form of male terrorism, whether from the ranks of Daesh or from the White House.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. Or email me at Sara.Martin@uab.cat.

AFTER EUROCON 2016 BARCELONA

novembre 10th, 2016

For the past year, much of my professional time has been occupied with work connected with the organization of Eurocon 2016 here in Barcelona (hence, also known as BCon). For those of you who don’t know what a ‘con’ is, this is a convention in which fans of a particular genre meet; surely you’ve heard of San Diego’s gigantic Comic-com. Locally, I mean in Barcelona, even though they don’t call themselves a ‘con’, the Salón del Cómic and the Salón del Manga play a similar role for comic-book culture. Regarding science-fiction, fantasy and horror, the Asociación Española de Fantasía, Ciencia Ficción y Terror (http://www.aefcft.com/) runs the yearly Hispacon, actually founded in 1968 but held annually only since 1991. The Societat Catalana de Ciència-Ficció i Fantasia (http://www.sccff.cat/) has now plans to consolidate CatCon (provisional name). And, of course, the biggest planetary event of the kind involving science-fiction and fantasy is WorldCon, to be celebrated next in Helsinki, where it’ll reach its 75 edition (http://www.worldcon.fi/).

I have never really been part of fandom, for no specific reason except perhaps shyness, and I’m just a recent member of both AEFCFT and SCCFF (where I serve as board member for contacts with academia). This means that Eurocon is my first ‘con’ ever. When I first learned about it back in April 2015, I wasn’t even sure that I would attend. However, I had just interviewed by e-mail British sf and fantasy writer Richard Morgan, and when I learned that he’d be a guest of honour, I volunteered (begged on my knees…) to be his Eurocon interviewer. You can now see the interview, which went, I think, very well, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYL_Ls3uhJo.

I soon understood back in 2015 that, leaving Morgan aside, BCon might be a good chance to get a number of my academic colleagues together and to meet others specialised in the same field. Once my proposal to interview Morgan was accepted, I burrowed my way into the organizing committee. I have been the token academic member in a team of 25 enthusiasts (Professor Pep Burillo of UPC was also part of the team, but he’s a mathematician not an sf specialist like me). The other task I have carried out, and which I have narrated here, has been the edition of a trilingual volume of Manuel de Pedrolo’s moving novel Mecanoscrit del segon origen, kindly published by the Diputació de Lleida. I was on the brink of tears throughout my speech in the Eurocon presentation, that’s how deep this book has gone into me. The handsome volume has been given to the about 750 delegates that finally attended BCon as a souvenir gift, to be disseminated in this way all over Europe.

I eventually managed to put together two vibrant round tables with international contributors, which were truly enriching: one on post-humanism and gender, another on teaching SF in the university. I think I have certainly managed to plant the seed of many future academic collaborations with these friends’ help. Besides, I found volunteers to interview two other guests of honour. Bright Meritxell Donyate interviewed top-rank Finnish author Joanna Sinisalo (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MleXTJynWw4). And my infinitely patient doctoral student, Pau Huergo, who wants to write his dissertation on Andrezj Sapkowski, got to interview the famously unmanageable Polish author; judge the hilarious result for yourself here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuU5Z-Cn25s. Pau tells me he has not changed his mind about his thesis topic… There were other major authors invited to Eurocon, such as Rosa Montero, Albert Sánchez Piñol, Brandon Sanderson, Aliette de Bodard, Rihanna Pratchett, and you may see their interviews on YouTube, as I will have to do, for having so many interesting activities means that overlapping is inevitable…

A ‘con’ is very, very different from an academic conference: the contact between readers and authors. I have seen our guests of honour chased by many autograph hunters, which is why I have not hesitated to chase myself my admired Charlie Stross (a guest but oddly not a guest of honour). We had a tiny green room at Eurocon and you could see our authors there patiently and politely answering questions from anyone who runs a magazine, fanzine, web, blog, etc. It is very hard to be noticed by an author in this constant stream of adoring, uncritical readers, which is why I found myself compressing all I wanted to say to Stross and to Morgan in just a few minutes (discounting in Morgan’s case the interview).

So, there we are: I’ve enjoyed myself enormously throughout Eurocon and got the (brilliant!!) interview, the autographs, the Mecanoscrit volume and the academic contacts. Mission accomplished and with flying colours!! Now, please, enjoy the Eurocon videos, there is much, much to learn from all the speakers: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLqA7nRotzVciios3Q5-7__UUYeqttwDEs.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. Or email me at Sara.Martin@uab.cat.

PROFESSIONAL ANNIVERSARIES: MISSING RITUAL

novembre 1st, 2016

I started working for the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona on 15 September 1991, which means that I have just celebrated my 25th anniversary as a university teacher (not just as a teacher, as I had been already employed teaching English by diverse language schools for a few years). ‘Celebrate’, however, is perhaps the wrong word in this context, as, in the end, I have not had any celebration.

I told myself that I would do something, anything, but then I started asking around and it turned out that none of my colleagues at UAB, past the 25th year mark, had celebrated this kind of professional anniversary. I have not yet discarded my original idea–giving my students some candy as little kids do in schools!!, silly as it may sound– but somehow I lack the motivation. I also realized that if I did something in the Department (colleagues offer cookies or chocolates on birthdays or other relevant personal occasions) I would be forcing everyone else to do the same. So I let it be… I am actually writing this post to encourage myself to finally do something before it is too late and I reach my 26th anniversary.

Why’s 25 such an important figure? After all, I didn’t write anything here when I hit the 20th year mark, 5 years ago. Well, 25 is more critical because although, if all goes well, I will retire having reached the nice figure of 40 years as a teacher (20 multiplied by 2), I know at this point that I don’t have other 25 years ahead of me professionally speaking (I certainly don’t want to retire at 75 after 50 years as a teacher, my gosh!!!). Also, this year I’ve celebrated my 50th birthday, which means that I have been a university teacher for exactly half my life, which impresses me very much. Where does time go, we ageing teachers wonder?

I explained to a friend whom I met in one of my earliest years as a teacher (he was my student 24 years ago!) that the strangest thing is looking back and thinking that I knew nothing when I started as a teacher. In these 25 years, I have never stopped studying–for this is what research is all about in the Humanities–which means that, logically, I should be much wiser than I was at the beginning. Funnily, I have the simultaneous impression that I’m both wiser and more stupid, as I notice now much more than I noticed 25 years ago how little I know but also how much I’m beginning to forget. I think that no matter how hard you study in your own area and no matter how convinced you are that you know at least something, many specific points still escape you. Otherwise, I would not need to update my class notes every year.

In part, one of the reasons why I have not celebrated my anniversary with my students is the embarrassing feeling that they might think I should be a much better teacher after a 25-year-long experience in the job. Ageing in public is not easy and some days students are, as every teacher will say, very difficult to face, with their demands and expectations, and their youthful faces. I was myself a very demanding student and I often wonder how I would have reacted to my own classes: would I find that I digress too much? (I think I do), would I find that I’m not systematic enough? (always something to work on). Writers often say that they never have the feeling that they improve as they write, as each novel is a different challenge and I’m beginning to feel the same as a teacher. I’m not a better teacher than I was 25 years ago, I just know a few tricks of the trade. Certainly, each course is a new challenge, if only because students are never the same ones.

As a teacher, one important barrier is crossed when you first double your students’ age (they’re 18, you’re 36) because this is when you start seeing yourself as part of a very different age group, no longer an elder sibling or young aunt/uncle. The second barrier is crossed when you realize that you’re their parents’ age, which puts you definitively in a different generation. As a Coordinator, I was often surprised to see that students were accompanied in their registration day at UAB by fathers and mothers already younger than me. Since I don’t have children myself, I cannot have the perception that students are my (hypothetical) children’s age, but I’m sure that they often make the connection between teachers and parents as obnoxious authorities… I wonder what this is like for colleagues with children in the university.

Back to the idea of the anniversary, I’m not sure what should be done. UAB used to offer in the good old days a sabbatical (thus ignoring in quite a cavalier fashion the actual meaning of ‘sabbatical’, which is ‘every seven years’). Now the much yearned-after sabbatical is gone, swept away by the economic crisis, to be replaced by nothing in particular. I joked with a friend who narrowly missed her anniversary sabbatical that perhaps we should be given a pin, or medal, soviet-style I would add. Of course, celebrating the 25th anniversary of teachers would open a Pandora’s box, with teachers demanding to celebrate next 30, 35, 40… years in the profession. There is somewhere a nice absurdist short story to be written about a university where teachers are colour-coded in their dress according to seniority (“Wow! You’re finally allowed to wear green! Congratulations!”).

Generally speaking, we’re abandoning ritual in our lives. On the personal front, many people no longer marry, christen their babies or celebrate their children’s first communion. This, of course, has to do with the waning interest in religion in what used to be a deeply Catholic country (I had a crazy, hilarious conversation yesterday with a colleague about what exactly we commemorate on 8th December, the day of the ‘Inmaculada Concepción’). On the professional front, as I’m reporting here, nothing much is happening, at least in my work circle. We have just celebrated the yearly graduation ceremony, but this is for students, not for us teachers, just as birthdays are for children but not for parents (they should be). Yet, to my surprise, I see that many teachers reject the only ritual we maintain: their retirement ceremony. That should be a good reason for a party…

So, this is it, time passes–with mixed feelings. On sunny days I think ‘My! So many years to retirement, so many interesting things to do. 50 is nothing, 25 years even less so’. On cloudy days, like today, I think, rather, ‘Gosh, I’m tired, I can’t go on like this, being my own tyrant for 15 more years at least. I’m getting old, I want to rest!’. But then I shut up, thinking that a) many chronically unemployed (or underemployed) people surely wish they were so lucky, b) it’s up to me whether I go on at this manic pace or call it a day and start braking down for deceleration and a soft landing.

There’s a candy store on campus–perhaps I should visit it next week, see what my students might like.

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

AWARDS AND PRIZES: NO GOOD FOR LITERATURE

octubre 23rd, 2016

I am writing this post as songwriter Bob Dylan keeps the whole world in tenterhooks about whether he’ll finally accept the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded to him days ago amidst much controversy. His silence is so loud that an irritated member of the Swedish committee has publicly called him “impolite and arrogant” (I agree). Dylan has not even bothered to pick up the phone to acknowledge the receipt of the Swedes’ insistent messages. I do not wish, however, to discuss the merits and demerits of Dylan as a Nobel prize recipient, nor whether song lyrics are Literature (of course they are, particularly in the best cases). I don’t particularly relish Dylan’s atonal nasal whine, which disqualifies me to consider his songwriting. I’d rather discuss the increasingly harmful effect that awards and prizes are having on Literature.

I have just learned that an award is a distinction granted without competition whereas a prize is given to the winner of a competition, despite the interesting exceptions to this rule presented by the Nobel Prize and the Oscar Award. No matter, my argument is the same. Actually, I was groping in the dark to understand what exactly my objection is when my niece came to my rescue without knowing it. Her school has organized a competition to find a slogan which helps fruit and vegetable sellers to sell product past its prime but still perfectly edible. Kids had been told that the winner will see his or her slogan actually used in local shops and markets–also, that the other reward will be a tablet. My niece was absolutely indignant that rather than care about the possible impact of their slogans in actual consumers’ behaviour, her classmates started asking what brand the tablet was as soon as the contest was announced. That’s my point: writers are also too focused on the prize, not on their impact on society through Literature. If my niece wins the school competition she’s very likely to reject the tablet and even complain about its pernicious effect. My guess is that Dylan has the same feelings about the Nobel… tablet.

I know that I’m being flippant but what exactly is the point of awards and prizes? Shakespeare never got one, nor did Dickens or Cervantes and this is no obstacle to their being still admired today. The opposite also holds: receiving an award or prize is, I’m sure, a great occasion in the life of the lucky writer but it is no guarantee whatsoever of lasting fame. Nobody in Spain ever recalls, much less reads, playwright José Echegaray, Nobel prize winner in 1904. It seems, in contrast, a bit superfluous that colossal figures like Thomas Mann, W.B. Yeats or Gabriel García Márquez have a Nobel Prize–they’re much bigger than that. I don’t want, however, to castigate in particular the Nobel Prize, which is, despite its good intentions, a constant source of disagreements (much like the Oscars). My point is, rather, that literary awards and prizes in general are of very dubious interest. Beyond publicizing some authors. Beyond boosting their egos.

I often read résumés of some authors’ careers and they are peppered with awards I have never heard of. So-and-so, often a relatively unknown author, is the winner of so-and-so and this-and-that; then you read their quite average work and wonder: how did this person win so many awards? This seems even to be counterproductive. It is very often the case that a novel hyped after winning a major award disappoints many readers, whether this is a Man Booker Prize, or a Dagger Award, it’s the same case. This generates ill-will against the corresponding jury and the corresponding distinction, which, little by little loses importance.

In my Department we often comment on how the Booker Prize used to be an extremely reliable indicator of where to find new, exciting writing whereas now it offers the same kind of blind lottery as reading whatever you wish to pick up. I acknowledge that, contradicting my own argument here, I have used prizes to navigate my way into some genres (or aspects thereof): I certainly relied on the Hugo and the Nebula to help me choose the science-fiction short stories which my students read last year. This does not mean, however, that the results of my choice were more solid than if I had acted on each author’s reputation. How reputation is measured, however, seems to be today conditioned by the awards received, which quite complicates my argumentation. Fish bites tail. Or Moebius strip.

Let me now mention the case of another recent prize, the Planeta, won by Dolores Redondo, a well-known crime fiction writer. The Premio Planeta, Wikipedia informs, awarded yearly since 1952 and founded by José Manuel Lara Hernández, is today the highest rewarded literary prize on Earth, only second to the Nobel for Literature, and the highest in the world for a single book. The winner gets an astonishing €601,000 (actually, an advance for the expected massive sales). No wonder, then, that a grateful Redondo was in tears when she gave her acceptance speech. What surprised me was her declaration that she had always dreamed of winning the Planeta, for this is not really a prestige award like the Nadal, the Nacional or the Cervantes. The Planeta Prize is always tainted by a suspicion that it is a well-orchestrated publicity stunt, with the winner and the finalist pre-selected in advance of the jury’s meeting. If this is a blatant lie, then at least it must be stressed that the Planeta has this knack of always rewarding writers who are already selling well.

For me, the 2016 Planeta is a far more interesting affair than the Dylan debacle because it marks the entrance of genre fiction in the general literary competitions devoted to mainstream fiction. If I am correct, the main award for detective fiction in Spain is the RBA, recently won by Scottish writer Ian Rankin. Redondo doesn’t seem to have received any previous awards which, in the current context, is beginning to be unusual but her fame depends on the very popular detective fiction trilogy of Baztán (El guardián invisible, Legado en los huesos and Ofrenda a la tormenta). It is, then, very good news for detective fiction in general to have broken into the mainstream with the Planeta, an achievement which might signal the end of the crisis of legitimation for this genre in Spain. In this sense, I grant, prizes and awards do matter. My problem, however, is that I could not even finish the first, bungling novel in her trilogy, and I wonder to what extent many mainstream readers who approach the genre through Redondo will have the same problem, and be alienated rather than won for the cause of detective fiction.

This brings me back to Dylan and the Nobel Prize. I’m here arguing (very confusingly!!) that awards and prizes are no indicator of a writer’s quality, and that they are generally harmful for the ambition to impact society that should characterize great Literature. At the same time I’m arguing that literary distinctions may be useful to solve the crisis of legitimation still affecting so-called minor genres, such as detective fiction. Um–they’re compatible positions, I believe. What I felt when the Nobel committee announced that Dylan had won the prize was that, well, if we are finally accepting that Literature happens beyond the printed page of highbrow books, then the Nobel should be open to all literary genres, including not only so-called genre fiction but even other genres such as journalism or screen writing. Let’s reward multimedia writers like Aaron Sorkin, or writers who have won all one can win in a specific category, like fantasy and SF icon Ursula K. Le Guin.

Or nobody. If Literature were truly valued, awards and prizes would be redundant. What is failing in our system of valuing Literature, then, is that it requires all the external props that non-profit institutions like the Nobel committee or rabidly commercial companies like Grupo Planeta are offering. If writers were sufficiently, and honestly, publicized in the media, if they had more visibility, then the literary distinctions would be unnecessary. We would never agree on who is best, and why certain works are valuable (you only needs to see how fiercely readers disagree on GoodReads and Amazon). At least, we would be free of clutter. Perhaps Bob Dylan is mortally afraid, after all, that if he accepts the Nobel Prize he will be just a badly remembered name in a list of half-known literary authors, rather the unique figure he is.

Of course, I have never won a literary award… and all this ranting may just be a case of very sour grapes and of wanting very much to be Dolores Redondo to see how it feels to be on the spotlight for those fifteen minutes of glory. And get the €601,000.

Dylan: reject the tablet, please!!!

PS: Dylan finally accepted the Nobel Prize two weeks after it was awarded to him with no explanation about the delay, except that he was left ‘speechless’. Oh….!!!

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

TRIGGER WARNING: FEAR OF TRAUMA AS A MAJOR OBSTACLE TO AN EDUCATION IN CITIZENSHIP

octubre 18th, 2016

I’m flabbergasted by the article which Prof. Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of Sociology at the University of Kent and author of the forthcoming What’s Happened to the University?: A Sociological Exploration of its Infantilisation, published recently in The Guardian. “Too many academics are now censoring themselves” (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/oct/11/censor-lecturers-trigger-warnings-students-distressed) does not deal, as the title hints, with the pressure from conservative academic authorities to avoid certain issues in university classrooms. It deals, rather, with the students’ pressure to silence Literature teachers touching on topics and events that might upset them. The concept is so alien to me that I had to read the piece twice to understand what Furedi means.

It appears that American college students started requesting ‘trigger warnings’ a couple of years ago to avoid the potential distress of certain scenes in Literature. An article also in The Guardian by Alison Flood (May 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/19/us-students-request-trigger-warnings-in-literature) claimed that some US students were refusing to analyze rape and war scenes in the fiction they had to read. Among the books outed as likely to trigger trauma by these reluctant students are Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, The Great Gatsby by Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

The students requested, if I understand correctly, that teachers added a trigger warning to the books in the syllabus. Thus, for instance, students who had gone through a traumatic episode connected with suicide would be warned in advance that Woolf’s novel might be painful to read. The same applies to rape victims asked to read Titus Andronicus. This demand and its reasoning, logically, elicited a huge controversy. However, a later article by Jessica Valenti (of December 2015), reported that “a new study shows that the actual use and influence of trigger warnings are so low as to be almost nonexistent”. The issue, she says, was misrepresented and hugely exaggerated.

If this is the case, and I certainly hope that it is, then we need to take Furedi’s article with a pinch of salt. To begin with, he presents a situation in which British, not only American students, are increasingly demanding trigger warnings. He, however, refers just to some anecdotes, no matter how worrying they can be (students refusing to be taught about the Holocaust…), as a prelude to warning that “Shielding students from topics deemed sensitive is fast gaining influence in academic life”.

I have, nevertheless, seen for myself that, as Furedi points out, the 2015-16 undergraduate handbook of the University of Newcastle contains a “School Statement on Use of Sensitive Material in Undergraduate Lectures, Seminars, Reading Lists” (http://www.ncl.ac.uk/media/wwwnclacuk/englishliteraturelanguagesandlinguistics/files/ug-handbook-2015.pdf). Sensitive topics covered by teachers include, they warn, “the depiction/discussion of rape, suicide, graphic violence” and other themes. In the Humanities, they add, “it is inevitable that distressing life events and situations can and will be encountered in texts and assignments”. After guaranteeing students that there is sufficient information warning them in advance about the modules content, the Newcastle academic authorities “warmly” encourage concerned students “to use this information to consider how best they can prepare themselves to study challenging material in a way that is appropriate for them”. Next, they offer the “support and guidance” of the module/seminar leaders, personal tutors, and the Student Wellbeing Service. I am truly speechless.

Furedi wonders, as I’m doing now, what exactly is meant by “challenging material”. He is also puzzled by how the meaning of the adjective ‘challenging’ has changed from ‘hard to tackle intellectually’ to ‘potentially unsettling’. He concludes, as any Literature teacher would do, that “It is difficult to think of any powerful literary text that does not disturb a reader’s sensibility”–most are meant to do exactly that. In the last line of the article he bemoans that “Sadly, far too many academics have responded to the pressure to protect students from disturbing ideas by censoring themselves”. Perhaps this is the main problem here: that teachers in Anglo-American universities have started censoring themselves before asking students how they were actually reacting to certain ‘challenging’ issues.

I cannot say whether the handbook of the University of Newcastle is typical or atypical. It seems to me that the notice I have quoted is, rather, a misguided attempt at protecting themselves from trouble not yet arising. A case of ‘forewarned is forearmed’. My own experience of teaching these last weeks the at points truly violent Oliver Twist is that I was the one pointing out the potentially shocking scenes, as students struggled with Dickens’ old-fashioned prose. When I started a discussion about Dickens’s racist representation of the Jewish criminal Fagin, the students were the ones to defend the argument that his racism needs to be contextualized in the Victorian Age. I have read Chinua Achebe’s outing of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a racist text in class, in front of a black student and she reacted by offering a well-articulated response to the racism in the text and to Achebe’s reaction rather than by asking me to stop. Or dashing out of the classroom in tears.

I’m so surprised by all this controversy that I find it really hard to offer a minimally coherent argumentation. It might well be that Anglo-American society and its college students are so totally alien that I just don’t know what to make of the articles I am commenting on here. I find the Spanish/Catalan students sitting in my classes open-minded, interested in discussing absolutely everything, eager to break boundaries when I step into risky territory (which is quite often) and not at all hostile. I do not feel that I have to censor myself at all, perhaps because I work in an institution known for its liberal, left-wing ideological positioning and students know what to expect from us, teachers.

Having said that, I acknowledge that we, teachers, do not know our students well and, so, there is certainly always a risk that a student may be negatively affected by something we teach because s/he has endured a terrible personal trauma. I believe that in this specific case, teacher and student can come to an agreement and solve the problem through alternative assessment. This situation, which seems to be the basis for the demand of the inclusion of trigger warnings in the syllabus of US universities– exaggerated as the concern may be–has nothing to do with, as Furadi reports, a student adamantly rejecting to see photos of Holocaust victims because she feared being traumatised by them. One thing is dealing with a student who has endured a traumatic situation in his/her life, and a very different matter dealing with overprotected children unable to stomach the appalling truth of human behaviour.

That overprotection is understood very differently on both shores of the Atlantic, and not only regarding young persons, was recently demonstrated by Facebook’s decision to censor the famous photo taken by Nick Ut of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, the little Vietnamese girl running away terrified from the horrors of war. Since she is naked in that photo, Facebook censored it on the grounds that it was a form of child pornography. An indignant Norwegian newspaper editor shamed Facebook into correcting this gross error by pointing out that rather than protect children they were censoring historical truth. Now, suppose I show the photo in class and a student complains that it is distressing. I can see the rest of my class guffawing and/or open-mouthed. They would rush to explain to this person that we need to care about the trauma which the victims of history have suffered and not about the trauma we, privileged persons, might suffer. For without empathy we fail to be educated as citizens.

My concern, rather, is that a generation used to the ultra-realistic representation of carnage and sadism in current fiction, from videogames to Literature, may be too desensitized to understand personal trauma, both that of the Holocaust victims and that of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus. Since the products that my students (and myself) consume come mainly from the United States I am wondering how and why US college students can claim to be so afraid of trauma. How does the same nation produce the brutal Django Unchained (no trigger warnings here) and also college students who will not discuss racism in Literature? It baffles me.

There is something else that these students and teachers are missing. Here go two personal experiences with traumatised students. A girl asked me specifically to work for her BA dissertation on a novel that narrated female self-abuse, leading to anorexia and which included suicidal tendencies. Why? She had issues to overcome and to outgrow. I initially panicked that her demand would entangle us in an impossible situation but in the end she used her BA dissertation in a way which can only described as beautifully therapeutic. I have immense respect for this young woman. In the other case, I asked students to write about their experience of reading Harry Potter for an online volume and a young man ended publishing an account of how he was abused and neglected as a child–much like Harry Potter. I was dreadfully nervous about publishing this but he reassured me: he felt happy and liberated by the chance to deal with his trauma.

So, here’s the lesson: reading Literature is an exercise in empathy which helps you to face your personal traumas and, above all, to understand the life of the traumatised fictional characters. This prepares you for the education in citizenship that you need to feel empathy for the victims of History and of life around you. May you never be one of them.

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

REPRESENTING MEN’S FRIENDSHIP IN FICTION: DAMNED IF YOU DO, DAMNED IF YOU DON’T

octubre 11th, 2016

My colleagues David Owen and Cristina Pividori invited me some time ago to contribute an essay to a volume on World War I, an event that fascinates me in its brutality, terrible as this may sound. They chose for me the two novels I should analyze in my article: Wilfrid Ewart’s The Way of Revelation (1921) and Ernest Raymond’s Tell England (1922). These two books are middlebrow fiction and were extremely popular in their time, but are now more or less forgotten. Raymond’s novel is too sentimental for our tastes and is probably rightly neglected but I found Ewart’s Way of Revelation an excellent novel. David and Cris chose these books knowing that I appreciate less-than-literary fiction but also because they wanted me to explore the male friendships that occupy each author in each book. I learned many, many valuable lessons.

Male friendship is a classic trope of WWI fiction but what I found in Raymond and Ewart was a less inhibited display of affection than I had seen thus far, after reading quite a long list of literary Great War fiction. In Raymond’s novel Rupert Ray and his soul mate Edgar Doe are boys who enlist out of public school to fight in the fated Dardanelles campaign. Ewart’s Adrian Knoyle and his best friend Eric Sinclair, already in their twenties, abandon a comfortable life for the trenches in France. I was truly surprised by the vocabulary of affection and the choices in behaviour in both books. Rupert frequently calls Edgar ‘beautiful’ and Adrian chooses Eric’s company in war rather than stay with his girlfriend Rosemary. At the same time both books make a clear distinction between male friendship and homosexuality: in Raymond’s novel there is a young gay man and he certainly is seen with aversion (yes, quite homophobic). Something else that puzzled me, by the way, was precisely the use of ‘gay’, often applied to Adrian and Eric meaning that they are happy men about town. Eric’s girlfriend Faith even finds him ‘too gay’, meaning too fond of having sex with chorus girls…

Ernest Raymond only realized in the 1960s that Tell England had a high homoerotic content and he claimed then that when he wrote his novel the word ‘homosexual’ was simply not on the horizon. This puzzled me very much, as ‘homosexuality’ was a concept first introduced in the Victorian Age, in 1869, to withdraw ‘sodomy’ from the catalogue of sins and present it in clinical terms as a perversion. This humilliation, paradoxically, was supposed to be a step forward. The men ostracized for their sodomitical practices suddenly saw themselves liable to legal punishment (think Oscar Wilde) but also in possession of a new label that defined a particular identity. This was, in the long run, positive.

Sexologist Havelock Ellis, a man of much higher impact in Britain than Sigmund Freud around WWI, concluded in the third edition (1927) of his renowned Sexual Inversion (1897) that “However shameful, disgusting, personally immoral, and indirectly antisocial it may be for two adult persons of the same sex, men or women, to consent together to perform an act of sexual intimacy in private, there is no sound or adequate ground for constituting such act a penal offense by law”. Ellis and other pioneers like Edward Carpenter or John Symonds, together with world-leading sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in Germany and certainly Freud himself, insisted on proving that homosexuality was neither a crime nor a vice. They still labelled it an ‘anomaly’ and a ‘perversion’, presenting ‘inverts’ as abnormal, though not diseased. However, despite their efforts and although the language of masculine desire already existed in poetry (thanks to Walt Whitman) the aftershock of the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895 still persisted, so that homosexuality still remained stigmatized (punishable by law until 1967 in the UK, considered a mental disease until 1970). Back to Raymond’s claim that he did not know the word homosexual in 1922, when gay still meant happy-go-lucky, he was being honest: ‘homosexual’ was only used in scientific circles, other colloquial words (‘pansy’, ‘fairy’) were used by homophobes in the social context. It seems that ‘gay’ only started meaning ‘homosexual’ when homosexuals themselves chose it as their preferred codeword in the 1950s.

Some authors such as Sarah Cole and Joanna Bourke have claimed that the extraordinary circumstances of WWI provided men with a situation in which the constant mortal danger allowed for displays of affection between heterosexual men that would have been frowned upon in ordinary society. They claim that indeed male friendship of this intensity died in WWI. When the soldiers returned they were meekly led into marriage and told that real intimacy could only happen in heterosexual coupledom (aided by handbooks such as Marie Stopes’ revolutionary manual Married Love: A New Contribution to the Solution of Sex Difficulties (1919)). Where am I going with this? Well, I’m arguing here as I argued in my essay that the advances in Gay and Queer Studies (particularly Eve Sedgwick’s seminal volume Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, 1985), have paradoxically caused great damage to the affection between heterosexual men and its fictional representation. Apparently, women feel no anxiety about whether friendly affection has a covert lesbian undercurrent and, so, the portrayal in fiction of female friendship hardly ever focuses on this issue. In contrast, since Sedgwick outed most male friendships in fiction as secretly gay (to be fair, she used ‘homoerotic’ rather than ‘homosexual’), the representation of this kind of relationship has become extremely complicated. I loved reading Raymond and Ewart precisely because their men were free from the problem of the homoerotic (although I do see that Cole and Bourke are quite right).

I’m then convinced that the representation of male friendship in fiction must be carefully separated from the representation of gay love, and both need to be encouraged in all genres and levels of fiction. I read just yesterday an article about the growing presence of ‘bromosexual’ friendship (between gay and heterosexual men) in American fiction–and I was totally non-plussed for I see that type of friendship around me with notable frequency. Anyway, I have already narrated here the immense pleasure that I feel when reading the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian (I’m in volume 10 of 20, had to stop for a while or I would read nothing else…). I enjoy the series very much because I admire the gentle, natural way in which O’Brian represents the friendship and intimacy between these two heterosexual men. But, and here is the real reason for my post today, reading the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Thorne (supervised by J.K. Rowling) I came to the conclusion that representing male friendship is now a case of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’.

I was asked for my opinion about the play for an article in El Periódico and I wrote that a nice opportunity to represent gay love is missed in the relationship between teenager Albus Potter and his best friend Scorpius Malfoy. Actually, charming Scorpius is the best element in this mediocre play which is bound to disappoint most Harry Potter fans. The case is that I got a quite furious email from a male ex-student, chastising me for outing the two boys. Just the day before another student had emailed me a Guardian article in which the (male) author defended the thesis that it is very, very important for Albus and Scorpio not to be seen as gay since this will help little Potterhead heterosexual boys to express their affection for other boys more openly. My answer to my ex-student’s email message was this: of course I see the need to open up the representation of male heterosexual friendship to more fulfilling, less homophobic ways of expressing affection but I just happen to believe that in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child this friendship is actually gay love.

Why? Because I see that in other cases, like the Aubrey/Maturin series or the pair Captain Kirk/Spock it is not. Sedgwick’s many followers tend to insist that most male friendship is secretly gay, which I totally dispute. And, yes, I’m well aware that Kirk and Spock have been the object of plenty of slash fan fiction. Yet, for me, the key lies in whether the presence of women in the life of the men in question feels forced or not: heteronormative or plain heterosexual. [Spoilers!!!] In the case of Albus and Scorpius the last minute introduction of a girlfriend is a dreadful, mismanaged heternormative intrusion, whereas in the Aubrey/Maturin series the presence of the women beloved by these men makes perfect sense. Now somebody will accuse me of being homophobic, biphobic, or queerphobic… I don’t know.

Last but not least, have a look at this wonderful photo and tell me whether the men seen kissing in it are friends or lovers. Also, once you know the correct answer, consider how it is circulating what and who exactly benefits from its publication: http://www.elperiodico.cat/ca/noticias/extra/peto-castellers-merce-barcelona-5458028

My article:
“The Loving Soldier: Vindicating Men’s Friendship in Ernest Raymond’s Tell England: A Study in a Generation (1922) and Wilfrid Ewart’s The Way of Revelation (1921)”. In Writings of Persuasion and Dissonance in the Great War: That Better Whiles May Follow Worse. David Owen and Cristina Pividori (eds.), Leiden and Boston: Brill Rodopi, 2016. Pp. 205-219. ISBN: 978-90-04-31491-7. http://www.brill.com/products/book/writings-persuasion-and-dissonance-great-war

Available online my other articles about male friendship:

“Aging in F(r)iendship: ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty and John Rebus”. Clues: A Journal of Detection 29:2, 2011. 73-82. ISSN 0724-4248. http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116052

“Antonio cuestionado: El mercader de Venecia de Michael Radford y el problema del heterosexismo”. Dossiers feministes, nº 20, 2015, 261-283. http://www.e-revistes.uji.es/index.php/dossiers/article/view/1772/1811

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

MEDIA EXPOSURE AND THE OSBCURE PROFESSOR IN THE AGE OF THE YOUTUBER

octubre 4th, 2016

I am mystified by the expression ‘an obscure professor’. Since ‘obscure’ is so close to Spanish ‘oscuro’ (meaning, of course, ‘dark’) I tend to think of people like Professor Snape, who teaches ‘Defence against the Dark Arts’ at Harry Potter’s school Hogwarts as an ‘obscure professor’. ‘Obscure’ has diverse meanings, according to the Oxford Dictionary, such as ‘not discovered or known about’, ‘uncertain’, ‘not clearly expressed’, ‘vague’; other dictionaries add ‘unclear’, ‘abstruse’. Yet in the phrase ‘an obscure professor’ the accent falls on ‘not important or well known’, ‘inconspicuous’, ‘unimportant’. Not Snape-like.

I am not sure what the opposite of ‘obscure’ is in this context, I hesitate between ‘distinguished’ and ‘famous’, as they seem to be such different concepts. What seems clear to me is that ‘obscure’ appears to be a reproach and an insult against those university teachers who never manage to leave their dark corner and make it into the spotlight. Indeed, spurred by being labelled ‘an obscure professor’ by an unkind journalist, Prof. Paul Boller called his successful autobiographical volume Memoirs of an Obscure Professor (1992).

Last week I stopped being an obscure professor for a few days–and it was fun. The Spanish translation of John Thorne’s play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a text supervised by JK Rowling but not written by her, was published on Monday 26. The internet helped journalists to decide that I am a Harry Potter expert because they found information about my elective course of two years ago and the related publications. And, so, I got invitations to express my (critical) opinion in El Periódico and on Catalunya Ràdio. That was on Tuesday 27. On Wednesday 28 I joined the translator and one of my students for a talk at bookshop Gigamesh with fans. As I waited for the act to begin, a young woman approached me mike in hand, placed me before a camera and started asking me questions. The Gigamesh talk is now online and what the young woman filmed appeared in the national news, TVE’s Telediario, that evening–five seconds, no more.

I informed my Department colleagues about the radio talk (with the Potter.Con organizers) and sent the podcast. Not the Telediario link as I was horrified to have been caught looking exhausted at the end of a long day, nursing a headache and talking so fast that it seemed someone was threatening me with a gun. Yet, some colleagues did see me, also my mum, and, as I found out today, even some neighbours. Here’s a constant in everyone’s reactions: all have congratulated me. So, really the theme of this post is why I was congratulated and on what.

I asked one of my colleagues, we had a good laugh about it and she speculated that, somehow, ‘congratulations’ means in this case ‘you have managed to become visible beyond the Department walls’. I don’t know whether any of my colleagues participates in the media regularly and I can only recall a TV appearance by one of them: Josep Cuní, then heading Catalan TV3’s evening news, called Prof. Aránzazu Usandizaga to comment on the death of Graham Greene. This was 1991, 25 years ago. I recall her complaining that she knew nothing about Greene, annoyed that journalists believe that experts are always at their beck and call to fill in news time. Well, that’s another matter. My point is that being on the media is so exceptional among my colleagues that I have found myself celebrated not quite for my particular intervention but, somehow, for making all of us visible. To my amusement, my 5-minutes of glory (not even 15!) is something we can use for the Department’s report on our collective transfer of knowledge to society.

If you think about it, there are many levels of obscurity. Some teachers manage to be invisible not only beyond the Department walls but even within them (which colleague are you thinking of now?). Other teachers are popular among students and staff but perfectly unknown outside the Department, or the university in question. For those of us operating within the campus territory the life of the media-savvy teacher is a mystery. We read their newspaper columns, see them in the many talk-shows Spanish style (I mean ‘tertulias’), follow them on Twitter or YouTube… I am really curious to know how one becomes that kind of non-obscure professor, not at all because I want to break out of my dark corner (very cosy here…) but simply because I want to satisfy a natural curiosity. I wonder, above all, whether this media exposure is satisfactory personally and professionally. And no, this blog is not at all part of that for I write it as if it were a private diary with a few onlookers rather than to make a splash of any kind.

I would not mind, of course, being paid to write a newspaper column–but then when I read the readers’ comments I only feel dismay… And I write this blog, yes. Yet, other forms of public exposure are beyond me. I have quite a hard time every day in class, like any other (female) teacher ageing in front of students who look younger and younger. They might think that I don’t care what they think of me but, to be honest, facing students requires overcoming a number of personal insecurities that never really disappear. I have been a teacher now for 25 years and I certainly feel more secure about what I say but less and less secure about what I look like. The idea, then, of seeing myself on TV is not gratifying but, rather, a source of anxiety. I marvel at the myriad YouTubers who have no problem filming themselves. I can’t even look at my own photos, much less see a few minutes of me on the screen. How embarrassing…

This is, however, the way we are all going. My university emailed all of us this week a booklet with many pages of instructions covering all possible cases of media exposure, particularly in social networks (also YouTube). The traditional media matter less and less and my university has realized that what each of us contributes to the new media reflects on the whole institution. Hence the minute instructions. I only missed some words about personal appearance but I believe this was implicit… Our traditional ‘tree professors’ (male teachers wearing brown corduroy trousers and green jumpers, both baggy) might damage our public image…

My university’s interest in the new media has, ironically, brought back fond memories of a TV programme I used to enjoy as a young girl: José Luis Balbín’s La Clave. This show consisted of a most civilized debate with the participation of absolutely first-rank figures, preceded by an art-house film. The opening credits, with the intriguing musical theme by Carmelo Bernaola are part of my generation’s awakening to intellectual curiosity. As usual, it is complicated for me to fix the dates but La Clave was on between 1976 and 1985 (on TVE’s second channel, then called UHF, now La2), and later between 1990 and 1993 (on Antena 3). It transpires that Felipe González’s socialist Government dismissed Balbín, fearing La Clave might negatively affect political decisions such as Spain’s entrance into NATO. By the time Antena 3 brought Balbín’s show back, private TV was beginning to erode the monopoly of national TVE and relying on banality as the main crowd-pleaser. Also, the internet was looming on the horizon. And, so, intellectuals disappeared from TV.

You can watch endless TED talks on YouTube but this has nothing to do with what Balbín and La Clave did: bring to many Spanish homes a taste of the best in current ideas. The film ploy was very clever for many viewers who would not have seen the intellectual debate stayed on–of course, channel hopping was no temptation as TV1 was the only other option. This kind of TV is gone for ever, replaced by endless triviality, despite the efforts of LaSexta to provide us with more or less solid political debate.

Waxing really, really nostalgic what I am trying to say is that I would have love breaking out of my obscurity to be a guest at Balbín’s La Clave. That would have been a matter for congratulations…

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

GOOD BUT NOT GREAT: ROBERTO CALASSO’S DIAGNOSIS OF CURRENT LITERATURE

setembre 27th, 2016

Italian writer and editor Roberto Calasso has been recently news in Spain for winning the quite new Premio Formentor de las Letras, also awarded so far to a few Spanish-language writers that he names among his favourite: Carlos Fuentes, Juan Goytisolo, Javier Marías, Enrique Vila-Matas y Ricardo Piglia (no women…). In at least two interviews, in El País and La Vanguardia, Calasso states that although many good books are published today, few are truly great. He attributes this to a revolution started in the mid 19th century which by expanding the territory of Literature ended up problematizing the very definition of this term. Confusingly, he names, in the Vanguardia interview, Borges as a main contributor to this new trend, which I myself would connect with someone far more popular, like Charles Dickens or Stephen King (a Recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, 2003). In this interview, plagued by an amazing series of typos…, Calasso explains that the overambitious aims of writers as different as Musil and Joyce appear to be no longer relevant today.

I haven’t had yet the pleasure of reading Calasso, a gap in my education that I will solve as soon as a I can (it turns out that my local public library is better equipped than my university library when it comes to titles by this Italian author). Calasso has been on my list of books to read since he published in 1990 Las Bodas de Cadmo y Harmonía (Le nozze di Cadmo e Armonia, 1988) back when I was about to start my doctoral studies… Suddenly, I lost track of the European intellectuals that, according to El País, then a very cultured newspaper, any educated Spanish reader should be interested in. I needed to focus on my thesis and, as we know, the anglophone world is not exactly conversant with the European intellectuality, despite the academic fashions built around Derrida and company. Perhaps I should have read Calasso then, after all, for my dissertation was hell-bent on showing, precisely, that Literature extends beyond high-culture and into the best of so-called popular fiction. This is why I chose a multi-level, cross-cultural subject as my topic: monstrosity.

In preparation for this post I have read “Roberto Calasso, The Art of Fiction No. 217”, a not very exciting interview of 2012 by Lila Azam Zanganeh which you may find in the Paris Review website (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6168/the-art-of-fiction-no-217-roberto-calasso). This text begins with the claim that “Roberto Calasso is a literary institution of one”, as editor of Adelphi, “Italy’s most prestigious publishing house, for forty years” and writer of more than a dozen books. Calasso, Zanganeh assures us, “has come to stand for a lost ideal”, which I will label ‘the person of letters’, the sum total of the reader, writer, critic, editor and intellectual. The word ‘erudite’, now so quaint, also comes to mind to define him. He wrote his PhD dissertation on the theory of hieroglyphs in Sir Thomas Browne; his supervisor was Mario Praz. He speaks Italian, French, English, Spanish, German, add to this Latin and Greek, learned in school, and Sanskrit which he studied “on my own”.

I fully agree with Calasso’s view that, in our days, many books and writers are good but lacking in ambition to be truly great. I am sure that his impressions are far more accurate than mine, as he is a superlative reader both professionally, as an editor, as personally, as a writer, and in many languages to boot. My subjective, impressionistic, far less erudite opinion, however, is similar and, I would add, applicable to all kinds of fiction I read, in all genres. The number of solid novelists seems to be increasing in all fronts (though this does not mean that the best writers are the most hyped ones), yet I personally feel constantly dissatisfied as a reader. I am not impressed, as I was when I read Thomas Mann as a young girl, or later, to name a living author, when I read Salman Rushdie’s prodigious Midnight Children. I’m not awed by any living author. Yes, of course, I have been expressing here my total devotion to Terry Pratchett, Iain M. Banks, and now Patrick O’Brian, but this is not the same. Wonderful as they were, they have not changed the face of Literature. They are singular worlds each one of them but not world-changers, which is what I miss.

My friend Laura Gimeno and I had a shortish conversation about Calasso’s opinion (for in our hectic university, there is not even time for one hour spent over coffee). She believes that originality is the problem, for it seems impossible to narrate something new or to innovate narrative technique as thoroughly as, she says, the Modernists did. I am more sceptical about the importance of innovation since taking it too far leads to Joyce’s Finnegans’ Wake, and, really, this is a dead end. Also about originality in the choice of subject matter, for although this is not lacking today at all, chancing upon a new tale does not guarantee greatness. Laura argues, very convincingly, that greatness is not compatible with the current shape which literary careers have taken, with a notable first book written away from the limelight and then a series of mediocre works produced under pressure from publishers and critics to consolidate commercial success, even in the case of writers with unwavering literary ambition. No doubt. We, academics, have a similar problem, caused by the pressure to work for the career rather than have the career develop out of work that should be creative but that feels mechanical.

A hurried pace of writing, then, can result in good but not outstanding literary work (unless you are a genius, that is, a concept I will leave aside for the time being). Now let me go back to erudition. And the mid-19th century.

I don’t think you can be truly ambitious as a writer without being an erudite. By erudite I understand here a careful student of the field of Literature, in any of its many sub-genres. One thing is being well-read and another being an erudite, which means that you can command a vast list of resources that will fill your pages with this something else that awes readers. Let me use an image. Suppose that Literature is a mountain and that you, as a writer, want to reach the top, as other writers have done. It makes sense then to study their methods by reading their books and so, once you know all the paths they took, attempt your own. All the way up to the top with ambition and determination. My impression is that today’s writers are in a hurry to reach the top of a lower peak, say Annapurna instead of Everest, and that they’d rather take shortcuts –an award, for instance, of the many given today, from the Nobel to the Nebula (for best SF and fantasy…).

Now, if you are a writer you probably want to strangle me at this point. Here I am complaining that all of you lack ambition and the mettle to reach true greatness. Navigating your way into today’s ferocious literary market is enough to dampen the most ferocious ambition, I am sure about that, yes if you do not raise the bar, who else is going to do it? You must also be thinking that this idiotic idea about erudition can only come from someone who gets a regular monthly salary and who is, basically, paid to read and teach a few hours a week. Fair enough. But, then, what do we make of a Literature in which writers are not erudite? Or less erudite than their prospective audience expects. This is a recurring conversation I am having these days, about many different writers: I find him/her clever but not overwhelmingly intelligent, and when I feel I know more than the writer, I disconnect. Replace intelligent with erudite and here we are.

Having offered the argument that erudition is the source of literary ambition (or should be), I must consider of course whether Calasso’s kind of erudition is still possible today. The answer is no. I think that the only ones defending erudition are the much maligned nerds (‘frikis’ in Spain), for they are the only readers with a passion for increasing their knowledge of the genre they love, both in breadth and depth. In science-fiction, in particular, a double erudition is required: literary (connected with the genre) and scientific (connected with its topic of interest). In contrast, the literary novel (at least the anglophone variety) is being flattened down by writers who mistake detail for depth and by readers who, as a student told my friend Laura, believe that Henry James is a bad writer (too dense). Trapped between writers with little time and interest in being erudite in their own field and by readers for whom a man like Calasso is a strange freak, Literature cannot soar. Perhaps Calasso is being generous by calling ‘good’ what others might call ‘mediocre’.

I am not forgetting the mid-19th century. Erudition is connected with leisure, meaning here time at your disposal for study. When the Industrial Revolution rebuilt our time around the merciless ticking of the clock, it destroyed leisure–that of the aristocracy, of the gentleman but also of the peasant. Leisure was regained little by little by the urban working classes as a new concept: time for fun after work, not for cultivation. Some of us still use leisure for both, fun and cultivation, but in such short stretches that erudition can hardly become an earnest pursuit. The very rich, by the way, have abandoned erudition altogether, consuming their everlasting leisure in fun. A figure like Lord Byron, who had as much capacity for fun as for erudition (and literary ambition) is now unthinkable.

And I’ll stop here, see if I can use the little leisure left in this Sunday afternoon for some reading. To increase my erudition… And hopefully have some fun.

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