BLURRED LINES: TRYING TO UNDERSTAND THE WRITERS OF THE PAST

May 22nd, 2017

No, sorry, this is not a post about Robin Thicke’s catchy, appallingly sexist 2013 hit, which, by the way, turned out to be plagiarised (from a Marvin Gaye song). No: today I’m dealing with our difficulties to produce a clearly defined portrait of the writers of the pre-media past. By pre-media I mean the historical period before the invention of the recording (and broadcasting) of sound and of the moving image, even tough the press and photography may have been already available. And I’m using the Brontës as an example.

It has taken me a long twelve-step Google search to finally find out thanks to The Penguin Book of Interviews (edited by Christopher Silvester in 1993), that the first text of this kind to be published (in an American newspaper) dates back to 1859. The person interviewed was Brigham Young, leader of the Mormon Church, and the conversation appeared in the New York Herald. Silvester’s volume includes interviews with writers Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Emile Zola, Oscar Wilde and Henrik Ibsen, just to name a few authors who started writing in the 19th century. As an undergrad, I remember reading with immense pleasure a couple of anthologies gathering together the excellent interviews with writers published by The Paris Review, funded in 1953 by Peter Matthiessen, Harold L. Humes and George Plimpton.

So here is the first point: before 1859, the tools available to build the portrait of the writer, beyond the texts they chose to publish, are tangential. We have pictorial portraits, photos (from the 1830s onwards), impressions written by others, biographies and, here’s a vexing question, private letters. And the memorabilia. But not their voices in answer to our questions.

In the case of the Brontës, poor things, we have the dismal portrait of the three sisters painted by their adored but untalented brother Branwell. The photo believed to depict Charlotte has been revealed to be of someone else. Charlotte was the subject of a pioneering writer’s biography, written by fellow-author Elizabeth Gaskell. This volume, however, is now regarded as a manipulative instrument to present a more palatable image of the author to Victorian readers (even against Charlotte’s own wishes). And then there is the Brontë Parsonage Museum, where you can touch Emily’s bed, among other personal objects.

Obviously, even when portraits of the writer from the past exist, these are confusing objects. The slow speed of pre-20th century cameras required subjects to sit still for a long time, which is why all Victorians look so stern and unsmiling. Victorian photography was a new art and, above all, a new social habit; 150 years before the invention of the selfie, people simply lacked the know-how of self-presentation. See the ridiculous photos of Charles Dickens–a writer very careful of his public image and the first one to market himself as a brand–to understand how far he was from mastering this specific aspect.

In the absence of reliable elements for a clearly focused portrait, then, we use whatever we have at hand, and this is mainly letters, or diaries. Leaving aside the problems attached to the use of private documents which may have nothing to do with the literary craft to study how writers do write, it might well be the case that none have survived. Here’s an example of our difficulties, found in Josephine McDonagh’s 2008 introduction to Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848): “The absence of an autobiographical record makes it difficult to be sure of Anne’s motivations in writing The Tenant, but episodes of her life have led commentators to suppose that not only were some of the characters and events based on her own acquaintance and experiences, but that the novel itself was conceived as a response to troubling family circumstances” (xvii). This exemplifies the biographical phallacy that still dominates research (surprisingly): if you could map the writer’s life down to the most private detail, you would be able to explain his/her writing.

Interviews with living authors, however, reveal that this is not the case, as they have a mysterious something called ‘imagination’ that seems to lead a life of its own. A typical academic reply to writers’ strenuously denying that the biographical approach is correct is that writers themselves do not understand the process of writing. Or, as my PhD supervisor would remind me: “Writers lie all the time”. If, in short, we could interview Anne or her sisters, I’m sure they would be flabbergasted by the amount of speculation poured onto their lives… but they would not necessarily tell us the truth. What a vicious circle.

Here’s an alternative, coming from the same introduction by McDonagh: “Anne Brontë’s immersion in the print culture of her time, and specially her acquaintance with these more ephemeral forms of magazines and albums, may account for some of the stylistic features of the text” (xxxii). Observe the hesitation implicit in ‘may’ and ‘some’… This is the classic philological approach: if we could have access to the complete list of all a writer has read from infancy, then we would eventually be able to explain how his/her style works.

This stance led, as we know, to two apparently incompatible approaches: the intense Russian formalism later borrowed by American New Criticism (from which our close reading practices derive) and Harold Bloom’s idea of the ‘anxiety of influence’, which still respects the presence of the writer but tries to exclude the gossipy biographical approach and focus on authorship. Julia Kristeva cut an important Gordian knot by proposing that since influence cannot be really proven we should speak of intertextuality. This is both an extremely productive idea and a surrender, for it tells us that writers remain impenetrable fortresses better left alone. Just connect the texts with each other.

Let me recap: despite the immense energy poured by countless researchers, the portrait of the Brontë sisters we have today is a poorly assembled collection of blurred lines. Perhaps this is part of their myth and if we had them on television and on YouTube as much as we wished, they would not be the object of so much veneration. Or would they? I’m thinking of how contemporary writers market themselves and beginning to realize that fans would never tire if J.K. Rowling gave daily speeches and interviews.

In neo-Victorian conference I recently attended, there was someone very earnestly speculating whether Charlotte Brontë was actually pretty or not. A letter by her publisher George Smith was quoted, in which he offered a very unflattering description (later partially corrected by his daughter). We may disagree whether we find Rowling pretty or not, but in the age of the selfie it is absolutely frustrating that we cannot even be sure what Charlotte looked like, much less Emily or Anne. You may be thinking that, despite the countless interviews, press articles, documentaries, photos, etc., we’re not really closer to knowing who Rowling is. Our exploration of her work is not closer, either, to revealing how she managed to imagine the world of Harry Potter. Of course, but at least we can ask her whereas in the case of the writers from the past, unless new evidence appears, we are constantly stuck with the same limited, tangential material.

So what should be, as researchers specializing in Literature, do? I don’t know myself and I am beginning to be increasingly perplexed. It is clear to me that our central mission–the faith we profess as professors–is the survival of the texts from one generation to the next. Also, the correction of false impressions: Wuthering Heights used to be considered trash, and now it’s part of the canon. I am personally doing all I can in my classes to vindicate Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Every teacher of the Brontës fiction knows that biographical gossip helps to fix an idea of who these women were in the students’ minds. Yet, I certainly don’t want to discuss with them in class whether Charlotte was pretty; and the realization that Jane Eyre is the expression of sexual frustration regarding her unrequited passion for a married man has very much damaged my pleasure in this novel. Meaning that the more I know about Charlotte, the less I like Jane Eyre

Perhaps, and here’s the rub, the problem is that as teachers and researchers we are bound to fail: even if the best Brontë researcher devoted all his/her energies for the next fifteen years to Tenant and to Anne, this person would still be far from disclosing the mystery of her literary creativity. It’s back to the blurred lines. I don’t like speaking of ‘mystery’, as this makes literary research sound subjective and romantic in the worst possible way. But scientifically speaking, a mystery is that which cannot be explained with the current tools for research. And the ones we have are extremely limited. Even in the case of contemporary writers for, unless we sit by them as they write, we cannot really get a true insight into how writing works. And I see no author tolerating that kind of academic intrusion, not even for the sake of literary glory. For many, interviews even appear to be something they put up with and not something they truly relish…

Having just re-read Anne’s Tenant, with great pleasure, just after reading H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, I am wondering whether we should produce more criticism. We often teach texts or write about them taking for granted that they are good and this is why they are canonical. My fellow teachers and I decided, precisely, to include Tenant in our course on Victorian fiction because it has excellent features but also some problems, deeper than the faults to be found in Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. Rather than teach, then, that Anne’s Arthur Huntingdon is based on her brother Branwell’s, we focus on why the friendship between Gilbert and Lawrence is not convincingly narrated. And the challenge of explaining why King Solomon’s Mines is so inferior to Heart of Darkness and, at the same time, so indispensable to understand Conrad appears to be now very exciting. I’m glad we have chosen to teach Haggard.

So, yes: let’s apply a better focus on the texts, let the authors remain blurred, ghostly presences. And enjoy the mystery.

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/.

CULTURAL APPROPRIATION (AND THE MATTER OF SPANISH NEO-VICTORIAN FICTION)

May 16th, 2017

I’m just back from the “I International Seminar on (Neo-)Victorian Studies in Spain”, held in Málaga and organized by Prof. Rosario Arias, leader of the ‘(Neo-)Victorian Studies in Spain Network (VINS)’, of which I am currently a member. I have learned these days that many more Spanish scholars than I assumed are bridging the gaps between Spanish and Anglophone cultures. This is very refreshing and I stand corrected in my pessimistic assessment of the exchange with great pleasure. I have also learned, however, that bridging gaps often reveals other problems that widen the cultural split which I discussed in my previous post. Problems that seem very hard to solve despite the apparent increase in intercultural communication, as they have to do with cultural appropriation.

Although others dealt with this issue, I’ll refer here to two papers and a writer’s presentation. The first paper even carries the word ‘appropriation’ in its title: Begoña Lasa Álvarez, of the Universidade A Coruña, offered a presentation called “From Agustina de Aragón to The Maid of Saragossa: Cultural Appropriation of a Heroine”. Sonia Villegas (Universidad de Huelva) did not directly discuss ‘appropriation’ in her paper “Espido Freire Visits the House of Writing: The Role of Material Traces in Querida Jane, Querida Charlotte (2004)”. Yet, I find this was implicit in Freire’s positioning. Finally, the writer invited to the seminar is young Victoria Álvarez (Salamanca, 1985). She is currently specializing in Neo-Edwardian mystery fiction, which we might call a sub-set of the Neo-Victorian, of which she has published five novels already (see www.victoriaalvarez.es).

Begoña Lasa’s argument was straightforward: a series of British writers borrowed the heroic figure of Agustina de Aragón; using stereotypes connected with the representation of Spanish women (think Mérimée’s Carmen, 1845) and of a variety of female heroes, they progressively transformed her into a heroic fantasy. Furthermore, these British authors made the point of stressing that they had honoured Agustina in a way that was much above what Spaniards could do. In the process, the real Agustina became yet another loss to the truth of History.

As Begoña explained, unfortunately Agustina was connected by Franco’s regime with Spanish fascist patriotism in a way that had little to do with the original Agustina’s efforts to stop the French troops from storming Zaragoza. This is why so many of us have paid so little attention to her figure; I was very much surprised to learn that she was actually Catalan. No matter. While in her thirties (not her twenties) this woman, who may or may not have been pretty (probably not), and who was married to an artillery officer (and had seen what needed to be done), decided to fire a canon against the enemy. This common enough action for a man was magnified into a colossal feat for a woman, which had the downside of obscuring the participation of many other women in battle and in the diverse sieges. Typical patriarchal thinking: choose a woman, claim she is exceptional and pretend no other women are capable of doing like her. Then turn her into myth.

Agustina is only mentioned in passing in Benito Pérez Galdós’s novel Zaragoza, part of the first series of the Episodios Nacionales. Tired of the ‘Artillera’ legend, a character quickly dismisses it as he seeks information about someone else: “Ya, ya tenemos noticia del heroísmo de esa insigne mujer–manifestó D. Roque”. ‘Agustina’ is finally mentioned by name when a shy woman, Manuelilla, is offered a gun, which she does fire, “radiante de satisfacción”. The man who tempts her simply declares, echoing the author: “Si a estas cosas no hay más que tomarlas el gusto. Lo mismo debieran hacer todas las zaragozanas, y de ese modo la Agustina y Casta Álvarez no serían una gloriosa excepción entre las de su sexo”. In short: by the time major Spanish novelist Pérez Galdós undermined (in the 1870s) the heroic exception that Agustina embodied in order to show that many other women had fought the Napoleonic troops, a series of British writers had already taken her from Spanish hands to turn her into a folk hero which only represented their own fantasies of Spanish womanhood. When asked whether these fantasies of exalted passion, dark beauty and rash actions had been finally lost in our global age, Begoña politely answered that she was not sure. I thought of Penelope Cruz–playing Agustina in some silly English-language epic…

Sonia Villegas analyzed in her paper the singular volume by Spanish writer (Laura) Espido Freire, Querida Jane, querida Charlotte: Por la ruta de Jane Austen y las hermanas Brontë (2004). This is partly travel book and partly writers’ biography, and has been advertised as the volume that solves the mystery of why these women authors wrote as they did. The solution comes from a fellow female author and not from academics who, it seems, can never share the same writerly sensibility and sensitivity.

Freire, as Sonia explained, presents herself as an illustrated super-fan with a more refined approach to the material traces left by these celebrity writers, in particular the Brontës. She touches the dresses, the furniture, the books exhibited at the Brontë Museum at Haworth and these objects lead her to understand who her 19th century peers really were. The mention of Emily’s bed was, however, a little too much for me… even though I am guilty of having made a (small) donation to the museum. I asked Sonia privately whether she had found any sentence in the book suggesting that a) Freire aspired to the same kind of fetishistic immortality, or b) Freire lamented that her survival into that kind of literary eternity was not likely. Apparently not, though Sonia granted that, yes, perhaps there is something parasitical in Freire’s volume or similar books. Now imagine the Brontës brought back to life and wondering why so many authors are piggybacking on their success with the excuse of paying them homage.

Espido Freire is, of course, Spanish and this leads me to the third part of today’s post: Victoria Álvarez. I’ll just note before this that the two cases I have mentioned, the appropriation of Agustina de Aragón by the British and of the Austen/Brontë set by Freire, seem to be mirror phenomena: I take your heroine and claim I know her best than you do, and viceversa. There seems to be a draw, then, in this game, but you will see that, oddly, this is not quite the case.

I want to open up here a debate about the appropriation of the British Victorian and Edwardian ages to produce fiction in Spanish. Please, note that Espido Freire’s book is non-fiction. In contrast, the very popular El mapa del tiempo (2008) by Félix J. Palma, followed by El mapa del cielo (2012) and El mapa del caos (2014)–the three of them translated into English–has started a trend that needs to be considered in depth, and that Victoria Álvarez is cultivating.

I started reading Palma’s first volume and gave up after just a few pages because I had the uncomfortable feeling that his novel, set in 1896 London and closely following the work of H.G. Wells, was fiction translated from English. Perhaps I am being unfair to Palma, and also running the risk of sounding censorious, but I wonder what the point of choosing this background is. I assume that he and his literary descendants, like Álvarez, will claim that writers should be free to use their imagination as they please–and who am I to say otherwise? I worry, however, very much at the decision to ignore the Spanish 19th century to focus instead on the British 19th century, simply because while there are plenty of British writers to lend new life to the Victorian past, the relatively few Spanish writers are seemingly choosing to turn their backs on Spain. And I don’t think that British writers will suddenly return the favour and start fantasizing about our 19th century.

The British, as we all know, excel at selling their past and their heritage worldwide–in the Málaga conference Mark Llewellyn noted that the biggest British export to China in recent years has been Downtown Abbey… We, here in Spain, are not immune to the charms of British fiction from the Victorian and Edwardian periods, as I know first-hand very well. But, from what I have seen these days, I think that the Spanish specialists in English Studies are among the only Spaniards aware of a very simple truth: this is not our culture.

It feels like our culture, in the same way that 20th century and current American culture does, because its products have colonized our cultural market. Also, because many of us can access them in English or enjoy the experience of travelling regularly to anglophone areas. Nonetheless, when I heard Victoria Álvarez tell us about her problems with the many anglicisms (or English borrowings) in her prose, because she reads all the time in English, I worried. Unless she ends up writing in English, she happens to be a Spanish writer and she should be concerned with mastering the language which is her artistic tool. As for the use of Victorian and Edwardian times in her fiction, although she was clear about her trying to stick to a plausible, well-researched view of them, the risk of her using second-hand clichés is still enormous. Read a summary of Palma’s books and you will also see that name-dropping is essential in his novels. So, should Victoria Álvarez cease publishing her peculiar neo-Edwardian fiction in Spanish? No, of course not. It’s her choice and she has many readers, it seems. My aim is not, as I have said, censorship but raising our collective awareness as Spanish readers about why we need to fantasize about other people’s cultures. And appropriate them.

I am finally reconciled with the TV series El Ministerio del Tiempo, as it is, precisely, fulfilling the much needed task of turning local Spanish history into material for (fantasy) fiction. In one of the conference talks there was a scene from an episode on real-life Joaquín Argamasilla, who claimed to have x-ray vision but was exposed as a fraud by Harry Houdini. This is, I believe, a most fruitful strategy: make Spanish personages known, and bring international personalities into the tale if this requires it.

The British have found a very rich treasure in their past for their fiction and this is what we need to do: explore our own and claim it. It seems a better kind of appropriation.

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/.

BRIDGING GAPS (AND FEELING SPLIT) BETWEEN DIFFERENT CULTURES

May 8th, 2017

I am currently in the middle of my reading project for this year (see my post of 4 January): going through the 46 novels which comprise Benito Pérez Galdós’ series, Episodios Nacionales (1872-1912). To be specific the Episodios consist of four complete series of 10 novels, and one incomplete series of 6. I’m finishing today the second series (each novel is about 250 pages, hard to say how many exactly as I use a Kindle; all can be downloaded for free from www.dominiopublico.com). Reading Galdós’ simply marvellous historical fiction is something that I have wanted to do for a very long time and I am certainly enjoying myself very, very much. I will eventually explain why, once I’m finished. Or read to the end…

I have been procrastinating, however, because I had this feeling that I should be reading 46 novels by different authors in English, instead of, somehow, waste my time. This is an impression that I haven’t yet managed to shake off. After all, I’m an English Studies specialist. Shouldn’t I use all my reading time for English works? I feel, and I know this is absurd, a bit guilty, as if I were a little girl skipping school… Maybe because of this sense of guilt I am hurrying, absolutely devouring Galdós’ books, in the hopes that in this way I’ll have time to return to English Literature before the year runs out. But, then, here’s another major gap in my education: I have not read Tirant lo Blanch yet…

Reading Galdós is bringing back to me the History lessons about 19th century Spain which I received in secondary school. Since then, and with the exception of a 19th century Literature course which I took as a second-year undergraduate, I have learned nothing about this very complicated period in Spain. My focus has been, rather, the Second Republic, the Civil War and Franco’s regime, and only in recent years. Since I teach Victorian Literature, then, it turns out that I know much more about Britain than about Spain in the same 19th century period.

This, you might think, is as it should be for obvious professional reasons. And, anyway, it is my fault if I haven’t managed to find time for Spanish History in such a long time. I believe, nonetheless, that the lack of a comparative approach in English Studies, as we practice them in Spain, translates into a too exclusive focus on British History and that of other anglophone countries, mainly the USA. Again, maybe this is my fault but I have never taught my students 19th century History in a comparative way and I wonder if anyone does. I also wonder what use this comparative method would be as I very much doubt that my students have been taught any 19th century Spanish History at all…

This lack of a comparative approach and the intensive focus on English Studies means that I always feel split from my own two cultures, the Spanish one and the Catalan. I recently met an American scholar, Dale Pratt, who teaches all kinds of Spanish fiction (in Utah), from El Quijote to science-fiction, and who is currently doing research on Spanish novels dealing with prehistory. I was awed by his extensive knowledge of Spanish Literature, of which I know really very little. Of course, I’m sure that many native anglophone speakers would also be awed by the detailed knowledge that many Spanish specialists in English Studies have of their Literature, also including peculiar little corners. Yet, I do feel illiterate in my own two languages, and this is not a comfortable feeling for a Literature teacher. At one point I even thought of taking a second doctoral degree–but, then, in which area? Spanish or Catalan Literature? And, really, a second PhD seemed overdoing it…

So, you might be thinking: just give yourself the education you’re missing. I do not know what my peers all over Spain do, but every year, as I have explained here, I promise myself to do 50% of my reading in Spanish and Catalan, the rest in English. Usually by February I have already given up, under this self-imposed pressure that I should be reading in English all the time. The flow of novelties is so immense, the list of classics so vast… The result of my yearly abandonment of my two cultures is that my ignorance of their Literature grows in the same measure as my knowledge of English Literature increases. Perhaps I should have specialized in Comparative Literature… but there was no degree of this kind back in the 1980s.

Ironically, while we here in Spain insist on working in English Studies as if our local cultures were of no consequence for what we teach, and for how we teach it, in anglophone areas we are seen from a very different perspective. Let me give you as an example my most recent work. In March I published in the journal Science Fiction Studies an article on British author Richard Morgan. Last Friday I finished editing for the same journal a monographic issue on Spanish science-fiction. In the first case, I was acting as a specialist in English Studies. In the second case, my role has been very, very different, for I have acted as a bridge between two cultures.

The chance to edit this monographic issue fell into my hands quite by accident but once it materialized, I knew I had to do it. With the help of my co-editor Fernando Ángel Moreno (trained in ‘Filología Española’ and in Literary Theory) we assembled a solid team of authors, including Prof. Pratt, who have certainly done their best. I am extremely proud of our collective effort and of the end result, and I do hope that the volume (to be published in June) gives Spanish science-fiction a much more definite place on the world map of SF.

Now, happy and pleased as I am, still I feel concerned about how to announce the publication of this special issue to my English Studies peers. Perhaps I feel too paranoiac but I’m sure that many will wonder why I have put so much energy into doing something for Spanish, rather than English, Studies. My answer, ‘why shouldn’t I?’, might not be satisfactory. Perhaps I should think of a second argument: ‘none else could have done it’, at least none in my position. In this case, as in the case of my translation of Mecanoscrit del segon origen and of the edition of the forthcoming monographic issue on this novel for the US journal Alambique (also to be published in June), what has happened is very simple: I happen to write academic English, and this has been my main qualification to bridge gaps between different cultures.

Although some of the authors who have collaborated in the SFS monographic on Spanish SF have written their texts directly in English, language is a powerful barrier which I can easily cross, like any other English Studies specialist. The authors have contributed their expertise and, as I learned about Spanish SF (of which I knew very little when I started), I have shaped their articles into academic work that can function in English. This is not always easy, as we work in very different academic traditions. For my own article in the Mecanoscrit volume I have chosen to apply Masculinity Studies to a close reading of the male protagonist, Dídac, a methodology that while well-established in English Studies, is absolutely new to Catalan Studies. In both cases, by the way, we have decided to translate the work done in English to, respectively, Spanish and Catalan, thus closing the scholarly circuit. Bridging the reverse gap, so to speak.

As you can see, I am not speaking about translating texts, which, by the way, should be a much bigger part of our task as Spanish specialists in English Studies (if only the Ministry valued translation as academic work). I am speaking here about being a sort of cultural interpreter, giving access into our local cultures to anglophone audiences by means of English Studies traditions and, in the process, opening up the local field. I’m not seeking an acknowledgement of merits, if I have any, but a debate about why this type of work is so limited. Or a correction of my views, if these are wrong.

In recent years, I have been also frantically translating into Spanish everything I have published in English and making it available through my university’s digital repository for, otherwise, who would read me here, in Spain? As for what I publish in English elsewhere, I wonder whether it is read at all and by whom. And I have the impression that the SFS issue on Spanish SF might matter much more than any other work I may have done in English precisely because it bridges an important gap. We have insisted, by the way, that Spain is not the same as Latin America but a separate cultural domain that happens to be in Europe.

Funnily, going back to Episodios, as I wrote here about two years ago, Benito Pérez Galdós was also a cultural bridge-builder between Britain and Spain. In the post ‘Charles and Benito: A Celebration of Influence’ (11 August 2015) I explained that Galdós was absolutely fascinated by Dickens, who died in 1870, the same year when the Spanish author started publishing. A very young Galdós managed to publish a Spanish translation of Pickwick Papers, even though he knew no English and most likely translated the book from the French version. Reading these days the Episodios there are moments when I feel that I’m reading Dickens in Spanish, so strong is his influence. The detailed descriptions, the structure of feeling, the plot twists are so Dickensian and at the same time so profoundly ‘castizos’ and Galdosian, that I marvel at how they overlap. At the same time, the Dickensian influence often reveals what is obvious: that Dickens knew El Quijote by heart, as did Galdós. You see how I’m justifying to myself my reading of the 46 Episodes: this is actually about how Dickens influenced the rest of Europe and Spain in particular. And I’m wasting no time…

I do envy Galdós, for he created something new and unique in Spain by merging two very different traditions. Perhaps it’s about time we debate why as Spanish specialists in English Studies we are finding so many difficulties to do something similar and why our main aspiration is to be treated as honorary anglophone academics. It is: let’s begin the debate by acknowledging this. Our real mission, however, seems to lie elsewhere: in explaining our culture(s) to anglophone audiences, bridging gaps between us and them; most importantly, healing the split from our own background.

Back to Galdós… How Dickens would have loved the Episodios!!!

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/.

FOR STUDENTS: HOW A UNIVERSITY DEPARTMENT WORKS

May 1st, 2017

Talking with students in my Department, I realise that none has a clear idea of how teachers’ work is organized. I wrote a document in Catalan for the benefit of the Students’ Delegation, but I have ultimately decided to translate it into English and publish it here for anyone to see. This post is based, on course, on my experience of working at a particular Department and the information I offer here may vary from university to university. If you’re reading me from abroad, then please bear in mind that the Catalan/Spanish university has a specific situation, which is what I try to describe here. It is not my aim, I insist, to describe one particular Department but a situation to improve students’ knowledge of the institution surrounding them.

A university Department is a unit within a larger institution, called in Spain ‘Facultad’ (the closest English equivalent is ‘School’; here’s a warning about a false friend: ‘faculty’ refers to the staff that works in a university, or one of its units). A Spanish university is constituted by a group of Facultades, and also of ‘Escuelas’ (I believe that Escuelas are more narrowly specialized). Some universities, like Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, only house Departments dealing with science and technology, but most Spanish public universities, like UAB, tend to gather together all kinds of Departments. Universities also include other units, such as Research Institutes, which, in principle, offer no teaching.

The ‘Facultat of Filosofia i Lletres’ at UAB is quite unusual: it has 11 Departments, ranging from ‘Cultural and Social Anthropology’ to ‘Philosophy’, and passing through ‘Geography’. In contrast, the ‘Facultat de Dret’ (our Law School), only has 3 Departments. We offer 25 BAs and 23 MAs–it takes a lot of courage to be part of the Dean’s team, or the Dean, that is, the head of the school. The Facultat is responsible for organizing all the degrees (except the Doctoral programmes), and it delegates to the Departments the running of each specific BA or MA. They all have a Coordinator, acting as a link between Department and Facultad. Our yearly academic calendar and course schedule is, incidentally, the Facultat’s responsibility.

The Department faculty (=the teachers) is determined by ‘Rectorat’, the team running the whole university, depending on our budget and our teaching needs. The budget is never enough–guess why–and so we suffer a chronic staff shortage, now really worrying. By law the teaching positions in a Spanish Department must be at least 50% tenured positions (that is, teachers must be full-time civil servants). Currently, few Spanish Departments obey this rule, and too many teachers are hired as part-time associates (for one year, with renewable contracts). Just consider: the last tenured position obtained by my Department dates back to 2008, 9 years ago. Most tenured teachers are now 45-65 years of age.

Full-time university teachers are mostly civil servants of the Spanish State (the categories are: Titular de Universitat [Senior Lecturer], Titular de Escuela Universitaria (no longer offered) and Catedrático [Professor]). I’m Senior Lecturer since 2002, though I have been working in the Department since 1991. Alternatively, many full-time teachers have permanent work contracts with the regional Government; they’re not civil servants. The categories in Catalonia are Lector (Lecturer, hired for 4 to 5 years), Agregat (similar to Senior Lecturer) and Catedràtic (also Professor). In both cases, civil service or contract, all teachers pass a stressful public examination, open to other candidates. According to current legislation, you may only apply only if you have the corresponding accreditation, issued by the national agency ANECA or the Catalan AQU. You need to be at least a Doctor to apply. Accreditation requires that you prove your merits, and it is a complicated, demanding process.

Full-time professors (of either type) are supposed to divide their time (technically 37 hours a week) in three ways: teaching, research and admin work. Universities have professional administrators (or PAS) but we teachers are also expected to run the organization. We volunteer, then, along our career to take positions as Head of Department, Secretary of Department, BA Coordinator, MA Coordinator, Doctoral Programme Coordinator. These are official positions, compensated with some money (very little considering the hard work they entail) and/or a reduction in the teaching workload. Other positions (TFG Coordinator, Erasmus Coordinator, etc.) are meagrely compensated, often with a small teaching reduction. I have been Head of Department and Coordinator (both BA and MA), and I can tell you that this may be nerve-racking. Particularly being HoD, which often involves dealing with human resources and the budget, in ways we are not prepared for as teachers.

Teaching is currently determined by legislation devised by Minister Wert and implemented back in 2012. This ‘Real Decreto’ connects research with teaching. Research refers to the obligation that university teachers have of producing publications that contribute significantly to the progress of their chosen field of specialization. Their impact is assessed by CNEAI, a state agency, and by AQU. Not all university teachers are active researchers and not all active researchers choose to pass CNEAI assessment. Yet those who do, must explain the importance of 5 publications highlighted among the list of all their publications every 6 years. Each assessment exercise is known as ‘sexenio’ (teachers may also obtain ‘quinquenios’ for teaching excellence and ‘trienios’ for seniority).

This is how it works now. The usual workload for a full-time teacher are 24 ECTS, that is to say, 2 courses per semester. There are, however, variations, depending on the sexenios:
– 3 valid sexenios mean you only teach 16 ECTS (2 courses a year, plus tutoring dissertations: BA [TFG], MA [TFM], PhD). Curiously, Catedráticos must have 4 sexenios to be offered this reduction. The last valid sexenio must have been obtained in the last 6 years (it must be ‘alive’). The teaching is reduced for you to go on doing research… not as a reward, or free time.
– if a teacher has 1 or 2 valid sexenios, then the workload is 24 ECTS (4 courses, plus tutoring).
– without any valid sexenios, then the workload is 32 ECTS (plus tutoring). Teachers in this situation may have never done any research, or may be active researchers whose last sexenio was not validated.

Associate teachers usually teach 18 ECTS a year (sometimes 12, or 6). They have no obligation to do admin work, or research, yet in my Department most are active researchers with a Doctoral degree. Associate teachers can only be hired if they prove that they have another job, for this is a position designed to invite professionals to teach university students about their profession. A decade ago there were still temporary full-time contracts, but they were extinguished. This means that researchers hoping to obtain tenure one day, accept contracts as associate teachers, combining in this way two or three jobs. They often have very long working days and only manage to do research because they work weekends. Researchers may remain trapped in that kind of situation for decades. By the way: in my Department all associate teachers are hired by means of a public examination. Contract renewal is not automatic, and associate teachers may have to pass an examination of this kind every year.

Departments also have ‘becarios’ (interns, fellows, depending on the word you wish to use). They receive a grant that enables them to work full-time on their doctoral dissertation. My Department offers 2 PIF (‘Personal Investigador en Formació’) grants, one for Language and one for Literature, renewed only every 4 years. The Ministry and the Generalitat have their own grant programmes; these are extremely competitive and usually awarded to candidates connected with research groups.

Not all university teachers do research, as I have noted, even though this is their obligation. For those of us interested in research, this is the most important part of our job, even above teaching. Unfortunately, some researchers see teaching as a nuisance but ideally a good researcher should also be a good teacher.

Research in my Department is extremely varied depending on the area and the individual, ranging from experimental phonetics to cultural criticism. We, nevertheless, share the same aim: the generation of innovative knowledge. This needs to be transmitted though publication in specialized journals and books. Right now, one of the most controversial issues is whether our research (I mean all over planet Earth) is adequately measured. There is a certain obsession with rankings and often researchers feel that what is valued is not what they publish but where they publish. Anyway: each researcher specializes in an area, which may not even be closely connected with their teaching. Students should check the Department website to learn what their teachers specialize in (or teachers’ websites, or ask us). I myself specialize in Gender Studies and Popular Fictions. I love teaching Victorian Literature but this is not an area on which I publish (or not regularly).

An academic career is an obstacle race, now more than ever. How do you become a tenured teacher? Well, be ready to invest 10 to 15 years of your life… if you’re lucky:
– first you take an MA degree, then write your PhD dissertation. This is self-financed, unless you get a grant (see above). 1 year for the MA, 3 to 5 for the PhD.
– accrue as many merits as you can, from your MA year onward: present papers in conferences, publish articles in journals, publish your thesis as a book, etc… All self-financed. Rooky academics are always surprised that we pay to attend conferences, and for all our research materials… Welcome to academic life!
– get an ANECA or AQU accreditation to opt for a 4-5 year contract. The problem is that right now there are very few contracts of this kind. If I remember correctly, UAB offered 6 for the whole university in 2015-16. None has been offered in my Department for years more than 10 years.
– this is why so many researchers with accreditations (even to be tenured teachers) accept part-time, temporary contracts as associate teachers. They are, I insist, more than 50% of our current Department faculty.

As I’m sure you realize most university teachers are under enormous stress; few of us have a peaceful working routine. Associates cannot know whether they’ll ever get tenure, and need to combine at least two jobs. Teachers who do no research now have a 32 ECTS workload instead of the until recently habitual 24 ECTS. If you do research, you are under constant pressure to validate your sexenios, publish in prestige journals and university presses, run or be part of research projects. In addition, we all must put up with an exasperating bureaucracy, and often spend precious research and teaching time filling in endless paperwork.

Do not be surprised, then, if you find us tired or irritable in class, though we do our best for students to get the best possible education. Because we are under constant pressure to perform, we do feel frustrated, I acknowledge this, when students show indifference (they have not read the required texts, failed to do homework, not met a deadline…). It is important that you understand that collectively we are making an effort and that we cover teaching needs far above the hours in our contracts.

By the way, our salaries can be checked here:
http://www.uab.cat/web/personal-uab/personal-uab/personal-academic-i-investigador/retribucions-del-personal-academic-i-investigador-1345695026088.html
These are figures before taxation, so you need to deduce from them 20%-28%. It’s complicated to work out but, basically, an associate teacher makes about 600 euros a month (after taxes) and a Senior Lecturer between 2300 and 3300 depending on merits (teaching, research and admin). A full Professor earns about 600 more euros monthly, so I guess that the top salary is about 4000, perhaps a few more hundreds for teachers past 60 with 30 years’ experience. Full-time university teachers are not allowed to generate extra income elsewhere above 30% of their salary and only in special circumstances. Some teachers may be consultants, or make money by lecturing. I was myself for more than 15 years an associate teacher at the Universitat Oberta de Catalonia.

I hope this helps to satisfy your curiosity and to improve your understanding of the Department. I also hope that, once you see how precarious the situation of many teachers is, you feel inspired to make an effort and collaborate with us in your own education.

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/.

STUCK IN A RUT: MISOGYNY AND FEMINISM

April 24th, 2017

My post today is inspired by an article in the Verne section of El país, which offers a summary of the messages that many Spanish women have sent to Twitter in reaction to the hashtag #comomujermehapasado (more or less: ‘as a woman I have gone through that’) (see http://verne.elpais.com/verne/2017/04/13/articulo/1492088562_028524.html). I find that whenever a piece of news that decries misogyny is published in the Spanish press, the readers’ comments offer an appalling stream of anti-feminist abuse. I believe, then, that in this specific case and also generally, the real situation of gender issues in this country is reflected not by the article, or even by the women’s tweets, but by the negative comments written by male readers (either anonymously or using their own name).

This specific piece inspired 446 contributions (apart from the many, perhaps 50, erased by the moderator), which amount to a much, much longer text than the article itself. Actually, the persons contributing to the discussion were few, perhaps around 20 and, of course, it’s difficult to say if any of them were women because of the nicknames (I would say 2 were women). Here, in any case, I highlight a particularly recurring trend: many comments by male readers express complaints about the negative situations that men face; this is done not at all in solidarity with women but arguing that women should not complain because men do not complain.

Let me rephrase this. Many men feel that they face unfair situations yet, instead of exposing these situations–as they should–they reject women’s exposure of their own abuse (by men). I keep silent, you keep silent. This seems to be their motto. I don’t whine, you don’t whine–yet they do whine. The men’s attitude is summarized by the words of one ‘Julito Iglesias’: “hay montones de situaciones injustas que afectan a los hombres y ellas aquí llorando??” The other most common feeling is expressed by ‘horton’: “Adoctrinamiento diario de las femis. Coñazo diario. Nada nuevo” and “Las femis ya no saben qué inventar para sacar mas (sic) tajada y aumentar su ya millonario negociazo”. Incidentally, the word ‘hembrista’ appears quite frequently in the comments. According to this ideology, a reader explains, men who wish, for example, to access public bodies such as the police or the fire fighters need to possess higher physical qualifications than women. That is, life is made more demanding for men than for women because ‘hembrista’ women want it so.

I think that rather than quote verbatim the many comments, and since you may read them for yourself, I’ll just sum up the most often repeated arguments. These are also common to many similar articles I have read in the same newspaper:

*there is also a long list of clichés about men (about which men do not complain)
*women also abuse men verbally all the time (men put up with this with no complaint)
*women may not abuse men physically, but the psychological violence they cause is even more harmful than the physical violence by men; women’s violence, however, is not visible because the media silence it (also the ‘femis’ allied with the Government)
*(contradicting the above), women also use physical violence against men; men do not complain out of prudence, or because they are mocked (by women, also by other men)
*the statistics indicate that at least 29 men were killed in 2013 by their female partners or ex-partners (see https://www.buzzfeed.com/beatrizserranomolina/no-existen-los-30-hombres-asesinados-por-mujeres?utm_term=.feJ5QNgN5#.oiowY6l6w)
*men put up with many daily inconveniences, such as dress codes requiring suit and tie for the office even in summer (when women may wear light dresses)
*men often have to put up with women’s criticism about the following: they don’t know how to handle babies, can’t do two things at the same time, lack a fashion sense, are always thinking about sex, obsess about the size of their penis, are all of them violent…
*when men did the military service, women simply went on with their lives; in other instances in which men are unfairly treated, women keep silent
*men complain that if they report inequalities against them, then they are insulted (called ‘marichulo’) both by women and by men
*men are discriminated against in cases of divorce and hardly ever granted custody of their children, either individually or jointly
*many women who report couple-related violence to the police lie (see http://politica.elpais.com/politica/2016/03/17/actualidad/1458206253_890573.html)
*all persons receive negative comments and those which women receive are not part of generalized sexism, but just individual occurrences
*gender-specific violence does not exist: violence is a fact of life for both men and women
*the pay gap is a myth: women earn less money because a) they choose jobs with lower financial rewards; b) they are not as good as men at negotiating their salaries for top positions
*the tweets in answer to the hashtag #comomujermehapasado are quite trivial and only show that misogyny is decreasing; many men face similar situations but do not complain precisely because they are banal

The underlying supposition is this: the institutions favour ‘hembrismo’, facilitating the imposition of a radically androphobic feminist culture and legislation. Feminists are part of a powerful circle that benefits greatly from the Government budget, both collectively and personally. Any complaint by men is either silenced with abuse, or treated as politically incorrect–which is why men do not express their own suffering, as they see no point. Women have all the power, since “Tiran más dos tetas que una carreta, y eso la mujer lo aprende desde joven. Lo demás es tonteria. Ellas mandan” (this is a verbatim quotation in the same article, appeared, remember in El país).

If this lengthy exchange happened, this is because there were at least two dissident men. One, a teacher, intervened again and again, telling at one point one of the contributors: “¿No te da pena? ¿Hay un montón de situaciones injustas que afectan las mujeres y tú solo te miras tu ombligo? Además de machista egocéntrico (perdón, que va incluido)”. Another one writes: “Tengo dos hijas y quiero mucho a mi mujer, a los hombres que se ríen aquí ¿de verdad pensáis que, aún, no existe desigualdad y prepotencia de nosotros a ellas? No creo que lo vuestro sea sólo machismo, es egoísmo”. I need not add anything to these men’s words. Let me insist, however, that they are the only dissenting voices in a string of misogynistic comments published by the leading liberal newspaper in Spain. If readers of El país are so recalcitrant, I really wonder what the rest are like. (See my previous post “Of men and grassroots reality”, http://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2016/03/28/of-men-masculinities-studies-and-the-grassroots-reality/).

Clearly, misogynistic men cannot be addressed with rational arguments, as to begin with they are already convinced of their positions. Of course, they will reply that so are we, the feminazis. There is, then, very little hope that we can understand each other. It seems to me, then, that we, feminist women, need to support above all the men who are willing to speak for us, like the two I have quoted above. Not instead of us, mind you, but for us–as true gentlemen, the kind of men we need in the anti-patriarchal fight. And I really mean it.

Beyond the issue of the responsibility that liberal pro-feminist media like El país bear in granting a space for misogynistic trolling to these readers, which is not really a minor issue, we need to wonder why recalcitrant men are locked in this no-win situation. If, as men, you are suffering and need to express your grievances, by all means go ahead. If a woman is ill-treating you, the way to make this situation visible publicly is not by declaring “I’m also a victim of abuse but I don’t complain”. The way to go is to say “I’m also a victim of abuse; if we join forces, then we can hopefully liberate all personal relationships from violence”. If, however, a man begins by denying that gender-related violence exists, how can he expect to be heeded as a victim? If you deny someone else’s suffering, you’re complicit with the perpetrator.

I agree 100% that all situations of abuse are caused by a power imbalance. Since power is mainly in men’s hands (not all men’s hands, I know), they appear to be the main perpetrators of violence. The women who abuse their power within the couple, their family, their work environment, etc., also commit unpardonable offences. What is totally unfair is to disregard reality and claim that the amount of abuse committed by men and women is the same. Supposing the gender gap does not exist, and this is a lot to suppose, the reality is that women are abused collectively by Governments that deny their citizens’ rights and individually by patriarchal men who think that female bodies are objects for their pleasure–just because they are women.

The point I’m raising is that we are not moving forward because for us, women, to sympathise with men’s patriarchal grievances, ours have to be acknowledged first. The “I don’t whine, you don’t whine discourse” leads nowhere. Well, it leads to the pages of El país… Deep sigh.

Misogynistic and androphobic bitterness often has personal reasons. I don’t mean by this that it’s purely an individual matter. However, feminism taught us long ago that the personal is political and there is no doubt that radical feminism and misogyny also reflect personal experience. The man who declares that he loves his wife and daughters (and if he does that, this is because he is loved back) is not misogynistic. One of the most recalcitrant male readers ends up commenting on his difficult separation from his wife. Many opinions are based on personal experience at work, as well.

Am I saying that we should put up with misogyny and androphobia for the sake of inter-gender peace? Not at all. What I am saying is that each of us is both an individual and a representative of our gender (sorry to use basic binarism here). If you crack a joke at women’s expense, expect women to retaliate–and the other way round. Etc., etc. Some men will be misogynistic no matter what women do, and some women think that men are collectively despicable no matter what they actually do. But let’s aim at the rest, who happen to be the majority.

The silent majority that leaves no opinions in El país, because, as one reader concludes, “the better I know people, the more I prefer the company of fish”. Me too.

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/.

WHEN OFFICIAL CENSORSHIP EXISTED IN SPAIN: RECALLING THE CASE OF MANUEL DE PEDROLO

April 17th, 2017

There has been much talk recently about the case of Cassandra Vera, condemned to one year of prison and banned for seven from holding a public position or office, because of a series of tweets joking about the E.T.A. terrorist attack that killed Admiral Carrero Blanco back in 1973. The law used against Ms. Vera is supposed to defend the victims of terrorism from humiliation and although this is a respectable endeavour, there has been much debate about whether it applies to the case judged. Even a granddaughter of Carrero Blanco’s has publicly declared that Ms. Vera’s tweets were not offensive, whereas many have complained that gallows humour had been applied to his death for decades, long before Twitter existed. There are doubts, logically, also about how long must mediate between a tragic event and the emergence of black humour about it, for it seems that one thing is joking about a recently deceased person and quite another poking fun at historical figures (like Carrero Blanco). Underlying all these debates is the pressing issue of whether Spanish legislation is actually implementing some form of official censorship.

The word censorship has, understandably, a very bad press in all democratic states as it attacks one of the foundations of civic life: the right to free speech and self-expression. As we all know, however, the social networks and, generally speaking, any internet site to which you can contribute an opinion, have generated a fabulous amount of trolling. The trial of Ms. Vera seems, under this light, quite unfair for, although she posted jokes in very bad taste disrespecting the memory of a dead person, at least she did so using her own identity. In contrast, many persons are terrorized on a daily basis by anonymous abusers that seem immune to any just application of the law. So, whereas official censorship is, generally speaking, a truly regrettable practice, it seems quite clear that some form of censorship should be applied to online comments that may offend others, beginning with the strongest possible self-censorship. It would also be preferable to rule out anonymity in all the social media, for persons are inclined to be much nastier under its cover than using openly their names (as blind peer reviewing shows in academic life…).

My topic, in any case, is not Twitter censorship but the official censorship of books and periodical publications that existed under Francisco Franco’s regime (1939-1975). Actually, beyond it, since official censorship was abolished as late as 1977, in allegedly democratic times. I have chosen this issue today because I recently attended a presentation on Catalan writer Manuel de Pedrolo, jointly given by his daughter, Adelais, and Anna Maria Moreno Bedmar, a specialist in this highly accomplished author. I attended it with a young master’s dissertation tutoree, and if I was surprised by what I heard–despite being already familiar with the idea of Franco’s repressive regime (I was 9 when he died)–just imagine my student’s surprise.

Censorship, by the way, extended to peculiar corners in Spain beyond the artistic. There was, for instance, legislation against naming your own child in a language that was not Castilian Spanish and against using a name that did not correspond to a saint. Incongruously, then, since Sara is a biblical name, my mother was christened María Sara to smooth out the ‘problem’. Manuel de Pedrolo’s daughter had to carry for 36 years, as she explained, a saint’s name in Spanish, which she never identified with, until she was finally allowed to officially call herself Adelais (an Occitan Cathar name, incidentally). When in Pedrolo’s Mecanoscrit del segon origen (1974), then, Dídac chooses to call his baby boy by the androgynous name of Mar he is carrying out a whole revolution.

Anna Maria Moreno explained to the audience that Manuel de Pedrolo was the local writer in any language most often censored in Spain. I’m summarizing here what she explained, basically for the benefit of any young reader who might ignore not only Pedrolo’s case–most people even in Catalonia ignore it–but the existence itself of official Francoist censorship.

All authors in Spain had to face a complicated circuit before publication by which, basically, anonymous readers were put in charge of detecting any offences against morality, religion, sex and the regime in power. These readers would famously mark in red pencil the offending passages: sometimes just one word, sometimes the whole book. Spain had already gone through a very dark phase with the implementation of the Inquisition’s index of forbidden books, which went through a long series of revisions between 1551 and 1790, with supplements in 1805 and 1848. I don’t know enough about Spanish history to claim for sure that the Catholic Church’s censorship was quickly replaced by state censorship; I assume that was the case. There was, as far as I know, official film and theatre censorship during the Second Republic (1931-6). This suggests that, although Franco’s regime was particularly ferocious, there was never a time in Spain when writers were completely free to publish as they wished until the late 1970s. More or less…

Back to Pedrolo, then. Pedrolo was active as a writer for 41 years: between 1949, when he published the first of his 128 volumes (a book of poems), and 1990. He was, then, under the scrutiny of the censors for 28 years and able to express himself freely only for the last 13 years of his literary career. I am not sure how censorship in Catalan operated, and whether the censors had to be necessarily Catalan speakers themselves. In any case, Adelais de Pedrolo explained to me that when her father was accused of public scandal for publishing a novel about homosexuality (Un amor fora ciutat, 1970), the text had to be translated hastily into Spanish for the benefit of the judge. This novel is exceptional in Pedrolo’s career because of the harsh accusation launched against him (which he managed to dodge by selling underhandedly most copies with his publisher’s complicity); yet, it is also typical, since, having been written in 1959 the novel had to wait for 12 years to be published.

As Adelais de Pedrolo explained, her father saw himself as a humble worker at the service of the Catalan language, Literature, culture and nation. He very much wanted to get readers used to Catalan in all genres, which is why he ended up being a one man’s national Literature. Using a persecuted minority language was risky enough for any Catalan writer (Catalan could not be used in any kind of teaching, the media or the administration under Franco). Pedrolo wrote, besides, from a personal position that accepted no limits. This is why, as Anna Maria Moreno explained, he used a singularly resilient method, consisting of writing all he wanted but keeping some of his production in the drawer, waiting for better times. If a book was, anyway, banned, Pedrolo would wait for a few years to resubmit it, often using a different title to fool the censors. The result of all this repression (and authorial scheming) is that practically none of his books were published close to the year when they were written, with the time lag stretching from 1 to, in the worst case, 36 years.

No system of censorship can be truly objective as, certainly, what is offensive to one censor may be irrelevant to another. Spanish Francoist censorship, however, seems to have distinguished itself by a systematic lack of a clear method, paradoxical as this may sound. Pedrolo became extremely adept at using diversionary tactics in his prose, phrasing his texts in ways aimed at befuddling censors; yet, as happened to many other authors in Spain, censors managed to see offence where none was intended. I cannot repeat any specific examples that Moreno gave, but most were simply ridiculous. Since Pedrolo often used abstraction (particularly in his plays) and allegory, it was often hard for the censors to zero in and use the read pencil rationally. A report that Moreno showed evidenced the difficulties censors faced when trying to explain how exactly a novel was offensive, particularly when this novel did not have a recognizable realist setting. Amazingly, although it defends incest as a tool to regenerate mankind, Mecanoscrit del segon origen was not censored at all, presumably because it is science-fiction and censors possibly believed that it was just harmless entertainment…

The worst part of all this sad tale is that not only in Pedrolo’s case but in many others the original texts have not survived. This means that in many instances, the books we read are the censor’s, not the author’s. Anna Maria Moreno started a dissertation on Pedrolo and censorship, which she did not finish because she found a new job at another Department, and this meant a change of topic (her thesis on the reception of Pedrolo’s science-fiction among young readers is available at http://www.tdx.cat/handle/10803/392659). When I suggested to her that she should go on and explain how the censors tormented Pedrolo, she kindly explained that this is expensive, time-consuming research (at the censorship archive in Alcalá de Henares, mainly). Even supposing she had funding, time and a team, few of Pedrolo’s originals could be restored. There was even the suspicion that in some cases his editor at the corresponding publishing house had modified the original text before sending them to the censor for a licence. This, Anna Maria clarified, was not unusual, with or without the writer’s consent. In other cases, the writers themselves applied a rigid system of self-censorship, for they very much wanted to publish.

Pedrolo died, as I have noted, in 1990, one year after another form of censorship appeared: the fatwa launched in 1989 by Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, against Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. This was not limited to banning the book in Iran but actually encouraged any Muslim in the world to murder Rushdie as a punishment for having committed anti-Islamic blasphemy in his book. The author had to lived under police protection at least until 1998, when the British Government obtained a formal promise from its Iranian counterpart that it would not support any assassination attempt. The fatwa, however, has never been lifted and Rushdie still receives death threats regularly. Quite absurdly, this intolerable attempt at censoring an author only resulted in giving world-wide publicity to a dense novel that few would have read otherwise… and thus spreading the alleged offence.

Today, the debate rages about whether political correctness is an even more insidious form of censorship than the official red pencil. These are complicated waters to navigate. Official Francoist censorship, everyone agrees, could only delay but not stop the inevitable erosion of the dictatorship; Spanish society simply evolved and the censors always lagged behind. They did much harm to individual artists and certainly stunted the mental and intellectual growth of many readers, which is why the work of official censors should always be deplored. Also, as Pedrolo’s case shows, the censor’s task was often self-serving, plain ludicrous and preposterous. I do not wish, then, to defend any form of official censorship. As for political correctness, if this means a pressure to implement values that help to erase discrimination of any kind, then we cannot call it censorship. If a white author, for example, publishes a racist book, it is only right that the weight of negative public opinion falls on him/her. Now, the kind of censorship applied in Spain under Franco’s regime had nothing to do with this: it was a system intended to control any dissent from a repressive ideology. Of course, the censors believed they were doing the country a service…

What about self-censorship? Again, tricky… One thing is hypocrisy: ‘I’m going to pretend that, as the Francoist authorities want, I believe that sex should only be practised within marriage, only because I want my book published’. And quite another making an effort to avoid offending others: are jokes about midgets (or dead Admirals) truly necessary, and valuable examples of free speech? As for Pedrolo, I must say that, as much as I love Mecanoscrit, sometimes I am offended by his sexism. I don’t want, however, the censors to return from the grave and give me the read pencil. I read Pedrolo’s works as products of his time, though I would not like to see similarly sexist scenes in books written today. Some see this attitude as yet another red pencil–I don’t…

We’ll have to wait, then, a few decades to finally understand which aspects of current fiction will disappear under pressure from political correctness. And fight official censorship wherever it still exists.

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/.

GURB, STILL AT LARGE: REVISITING EDUARDO MENDOZA’S QUIRKY BARCELONA TALE

April 5th, 2017

Sin noticias de Gurb (1990, English translation No Word from Gurb [2007]), is a short novel by Eduardo Mendoza (b. 1943, Barcelona; Premio Cervantes 2016), which was originally serialised in El País, back in 1989. It belongs to the science-fiction subgenre of the ‘stranded alien tale’, popularized, above all, by Steven Spielberg’s family film E.T. (1982, written by the late Melissa Mathison). In Mendoza’s novel a pair of extraterrestrials land in Cerdanyola, next door to my own university, on a Christian/anthropological mission to explore Earth. Both are pure intellects capable of metamorphic embodiment, though they don’t particularly enjoy being human. Tired of the monotonous company of his crewmate and boss, the fearless Gurb soon transforms into a woman, is picked up by one of my colleagues at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in his car, and vanishes. The other alien–whose name we never learn–starts then an anxious search for his lost mate. Throughout this chase, the alien narrator tries to make sense of the city of Barcelona, then getting ready for the Olympic Games of 1992. His bizarre nature and the no less bizarre city clash, which is why Sin noticias de Gurb is often read not as science-fiction (which it definitely is) but as a satire of Barcelona’s Olympic aspirations. An extremely funny satire.

I’m thinking of this book today because, to my immense pleasure, it was the centre of this week’s episode of David Guzmán’s Rius de Tinta (http://beteve.cat/programa/rius-de-tinta/). This is a series on Literature and the city of Barcelona, and I have become frankly addicted to it. I believe that we’re extremely lucky to be offered this kind of cultured television in what appears to be a total international dearth. There had already been an episode on Barcelona and science-fiction (with, among others, Antoni Munné-Jordà and Marc Pastor), which is why I never expected Gurb to be the subject of another one. But, then, David Guzmán and his team decided to explore Mendoza’s very popular work as, possibly, the best-known novel about Barcelona. I absolutely admire what Mendoza did in La ciudad de los prodigios (1986) and I personally believe that this is the most relevant work about the city (sorry Juan Marsé). Sin noticias de Gurb captures very well a particular moment in recent times and although I do recommend it, even Mendoza himself is surprised that this particular work has so many fans of so many different types.

Right after watching the interview with Mendoza, I picked up the book and read its 139 pages again, in one sitting. That was possibly my fifth reading and I still laughed hard. I remember carrying the novel to read on the train as a post-grad student, and having to stop because I was in tears, trying to suppress my out-of-control hilarity. What’s so funny about Gurb? Mendoza speculates that readers find the narrator ‘entrañable’, which has no exact equivalent in English (‘cute’, not in the sense of ‘pretty’, seems to be as close as we can get). An academic article by Benjamin Fraser (there seem to be only three… in English, Spanish, and Italian), focuses on the ‘costumbrismo espacial español’ of Mendoza’s novel, connecting it with Alex de la Iglesia’s appallingly bad TV series Pluton BRB Nero, which is an insult.

There is ‘costumbrismo’ in Gurb, and a great deal of the comedy is no doubt generated by the contrast between the common people of Barcelona and its outskirts, and the befuddled alien narrator–equipped, poor thing, with very defective information about what humans are. Yet, this is not enough to explain the success of the novel. What is so funny is how deadpan everyone’s reactions are: no human shows surprise at the alien metamorph, not even when he chooses the most absurd shapes, from pop singer Marta Sánchez to historical figures like Conde Duque de Olivares. As for the satire, I was amused to discover yesterday that though part of it is dated –Up & Down is no longer the reference club for the glitterati, but a gym, and so on–, another part still works very well, particularly as a critique of the specific life of the city of Barcelona. Every reader of Gurb remembers for ever that in our city “it rains as the Town Council acts: very little but brutally”. As for other matters, such as Gurb’s transpecies fondness for being a woman, what can be more up-to-date?

The most interesting part of the interview, and the challenge to any local Barcelona writer, were Mendoza’s comments on another kind of transition, that of the city from boring backwater to touristic world icon. As he explained very well, Barcelona “makes no sense” since it lacks a major river, its harbour is too shallow and it is not at all a communications hub to other places in Europe. Mendoza noted that the accounts of foreign visitors from the remotest past up to 1992 show mostly disappointment. Then he explained that, for reasons he fails to understand, particular buildings that were considered just an ugly, inconvenient feature of the city have been re-read as unmissable attractions. Casa Batlló, he recalled, used to be known as Iberia House, for this is where the airline’s only agency in Barcelona used to sell the tickets. There was a lab for blood analysis in one of the tops floors.

There have been a number of novels in Spanish and Catalan about post-Olympic Barcelona–Miqui Otero’s Rayos was named in the programme–but not just one that has managed to capture the zeitgeist as Gurb did in 1989/1990. And the question is that we, Barcelona’s disheartened citizens, need to understand (like Mendoza) why we’re losing our city to the swarm of tourists that are so actively pushing us out–to the alien invasion. A friend once told me that Parisians are not nice at all because they are sick of tourists–well, we’re going that way. One Gurb and his mate are welcome indeed; millions are just an impossible burden.

Going back to Sin noticias de Gurb, then, reminds us of how fast the change has been. The only tourists mentioned are the Japanese, harbingers of the later hordes, who, perhaps even more than the Olympics, put us on the world-map by declaring Antoni Gaudí a genius. Surprisingly, there is actually very little about the Games in Gurb, whereas in La ciudad de los prodigios Mendoza shows a unique awareness of how hosting major international events transforms a city. In that novel the protagonist of the unlikely name–Onofre Bouvila–is direct witness and participant in the two events that frame the action: the International Exhibitions of 1888 (which gave us the Ciutadella park and buildings) and 1929 (the excuse for Montjuïch’s regeneration). In interview with Guzmán, Mendoza noted that the 1929 exhibition was actually a failure, as it came at quite a bad moment in world affairs–the start of the Depression–and in national History (the second Republic was established in 1931, the Civil War started in 1936). Though things were not as dramatic, the 2004 Forum de les Cultures also failed to galvanize the city, perhaps because we had already started the decline into our current status as a theme park. There has even been an attempt, better forgotten, to stage the Winter Olympics here, in association with the ski resorts in the Pyrenees. Our imagination is not only stagnant but positively flagging. And without it, any city dies.

Mendoza stressed that he will not write again about Gurb, still at large somewhere on Earth, nor about his nameless lonely mate, still seeking Gurb’s whereabouts. My guess is that whereas Gurb is possibly in Tahiti, his mate is not very far from where he landed; maybe one day he’ll even visit my office… The readers’ insistence that Mendoza writes a sequel of Sin noticias de Gurb, I guess, is not motivated by the need for some humour–though I can tell you that we do need this in our city–but by his key role as interpreter of the changes Barcelona has gone through. We are somehow asking Mendoza whether he can write not quite a sequel of Gurb, but a sequel of La ciudad de los prodigios, with our favourite stranded alien as observer/narrator. Perhaps because only an alien can begin to grasp how we have managed to become alienated from our own city, while believing that we were finally fulfilling the cosmopolitan dream that would show rival Madrid one thing or two. Now in Madrid they are beginning to talk of the negative impact of tourism as ‘Barcelonification’…

I am these days giving the finishing touches to a monographic issue for Science Fiction Studies on Spanish sf. To my chagrin, I realized this morning that I had neglected to include Sin noticias de Gurb in the bibliography/filmography, an error I have quickly repaired. I am certainly dismayed by my own omission, particularly because the list (in special the films) suggest that comedy is a fundamental ingredient of Spanish sf. In the introduction to the issue, I explain that comedy compensates for our low self-esteem as a nation. I have already written here, just one year ago, a post on this issue (12 April 2016, “President Rajoy and the Starship that Failed to Land on Nou Camp”). I did discuss there Gurb as an example of Valle Inclán’s ‘esperpento’ (or the bizarre), though funnily some of the plot details I gave were wrong… Gurb and his mate, however, land here in Barcelona at a moment when self-esteem was at its highest (hey! We got the Olympics!), and yet, still the raucous comedy is needed. Why? Most likely, Mendoza already had an intuition that the Games would change the city for ever but also reveal that behind Gaudí’s gaudy buildings, there is nothing much–even less than there used to be.

Gurb, wherever you are on the planet, go on having fun. The other one: my office doors are open, and I specialise in science-fiction… We could have a very nice conversation (and there will be lots of those ‘churros’ you love so much, promise…).

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 A NEW VISION FOR UTOPIA

March 28th, 2017

Last week I attended a talk by Lynne Segal (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynne_Segal), a feminist academic and activist, born in Australia but based in the United Kingdom. I first heard about Segal because of her excellent book Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men; since then I have also read by her one of the very few outstanding books on heterosexuality, Straight Sex: Rethinking the Politics of Pleasure and her accomplished volume Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing. It appears that a very cruel member of the audience in a previous presentation asked Segal whether her next book would be about dying… She has chosen instead to write about happiness, and this is what her talk here in Barcelona dealt with.

Actually, the talk, which was a conversation with us, the 15 attendees, soon veered towards dystopia and utopia because Segal argued that personal joy can only be truly achieved in connection with the community (I paraphrase). This started your classic exchange about how we, Southern Europeans, appear to enjoy ourselves in the streets much better than our Northern peers, though I have never been fooled by this idea. Norway was recently chosen the happiest country in the world and this is pretty far up north. Next the conversation moved onto how a society can reach happiness in our current dystopian world, and whether utopia will ever resurface. Lynne Segal claimed that for utopia to re-emerge someone needs to have a clear vision of what it should be like. For her, generating this renewed utopian vision is the challenge today.

Since Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fable The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) has become an instant best-selling novel in the land of Donald Trump, you hear plenty about feminist speculative fiction these days in the media. I’m not sure whether plans for this already existed before the November 2016 election, but next month a TV series based on Atwood’s book will be released (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5834204/). There is already, by the way, a very good film adaptation (1990) with the late Natasha Richardson as the handmaid Offred. Every woman reader of Atwood’s grim story is terrified (as I explained in my post on Houellebecq’s Submission) not so much by the rise of the religious fundamentalism that takes over the US Government, as by the indifference of the protagonist’s husband to the progressive loss of her rights as a citizen. I will insist on this again and again: the current feminist utopian project has made important inroads in recent years but it is still a very fragile structure that can be easily dismantled. As Atwood shows. And Trump.

Many feminist writers have transformed their impatience at this slow process of change into utopian fiction, intended to offer a shortcut towards a better future. The shape taken by this sub-genre has usually been that of the gender separatist utopia, beginning with Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1915), and even earlier, Mizora (1880-1) by Mary E. Bradley Lane. Second-wave feminist gave new life to this type of fable, which resurrected with well-known examples such as The Female Man (1976) by Joanna Russ or The Wanderground (1978), by Sally Miller Gearhart, often with a lesbian component. A later wave, with works such as Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women (1986) and Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country (1988), are less optimistic about separatism. Nichola Griffith’s Ammonite (1993) is quite critical of the supposition that lesbianism would (or should) be an integral part of the utopian resolution of conflict, not so much between the genders but among women. You may also want to check Lois McMaster Bujold’s Ethan of Athos (1986) for an all-male gay utopia written from a woman’s point of view, or David Brin’s Glory Season (1993) for a man’s view of matriarchal utopia.

I tend to avoid, as I have explained here many times, feminist utopia as I don’t appreciate the separatist solution. As Segal claims, we need a new vision for utopia, but I find the ideas offered by classic feminist speculative fiction writers in support of separatism disheartening. I was beginning to think that the sub-genre had been buried two decades ago, when I came across all the hype surrounding Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power (2016). You may read her own take on utopian/dystopian feminist fiction here (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/25/dystopian-dreams-how-feminist-science-fiction-predicted-the-future). Now, here’s the premise of her novel: because of something to do with pollution, women suddenly develop an ability to generate electrical discharges with their bodies–a literal new power which they use to dominate men (and generally go berserk). No, I have not read this novel yet, and I don’t think I will (at least, I will not pay to do so) because I find the idea of reversing patriarchal domination simply disgusting: it increases misogyny and it offers women nothing positive. Alderman claims that what happens to men in her novel is close to what happens to women in real life. However, showing men that they could victims of rampant hatred and be trapped by dystopia forced on them by women is the complete opposite of the search for a new utopian vision that should bring communal and personal happiness, following Segal’s line of thought. Sorry to say so, then, but it seems that our energies as women are too caught up in our daily fight against dystopian patriarchy (which is the patriarch’s utopia, of course) to offer this urgently needed utopian vision (beyond feminism, I mean, which is utopian).

I mystified everyone in the room in conversation with Segal by declaring that we are already in the middle of an emerging new utopia but too scared to even contemplate it seriously. I refer to the replacement of humans by robots and artificial intelligence in many aspects of work. The debate about this issue has been steadily increasing and, I should think, accelerating quite fast in just the last year. The usual headlines concern fears about the many millions that will lose their jobs, with a warning about how these will mainly be the unqualified men now in low-paid jobs (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/mar/24/millions-uk-workers-risk-replaced-robots-study-warns). Yet, for the first time in decades, there is also a debate about whether the income generated by the robots could be taxed so that citizens can be offered a minimum wage, beginning with those soon to be replaced at work. Someone in the room objected that this will be catastrophic, as our identity centres on work and being deprived of this would destroy our lives. Whenever I come across that kind of comment, I always hear in my mind the voice of the late comedian Pepe Rubianes: “They always say that work helps you to fulfil yourself–sure, this is why I see every morning happy people in the metro, singing all the way to work… .” Everyone listening to him would laugh in discomfort.

Fears of the utopian vision in which robots and A.I. give us leisure to live our lives in content (if not total happiness) depend on which dystopian texts you are familiar with. Even though Isaac Asimov spent his lifetime promoting the idea of the positive contribution that robots could make to human wellbeing, the film adaptation of his I, Robot (2004) is the typically shallow story about robots rebelling to eliminate humankind and rule the world. I even fail to see that negative version as dystopian, since, from the point of view of Planet Earth, our elimination would surely bring much relief and a new breath of life. But, anyway, bear with me: utopia lies that way, in letting the machines take over. Obviously, the idea is not mine, and my belief in this utopia shows how deeply influenced I am by the novels of the late Iain M. Banks.

Once again, then: in the civilization imagined by Banks, which he simply called the Culture, the formidable artificial intelligences known as the Minds have taken control. The inhabitants of the Culture live on the artificial planets and on the colossal spaceships (the General System Vehicles) that the Minds have built. Banks explained that the Culture comes from a combination of ideas: to survive (in space) you need to cooperate with each other, trusting the machines to do the right thing can be extremely liberating and communal happiness can only be reached by embracing socialist anarchism. A citizen of the Culture craves nothing because all their needs are cared for. Property, and this fundamental, has not only been abolished but made simply ridiculous. So has crime. In the Culture, you can do as you please with your body (they are all technically post-human), including changing species if you like, and with your mind. Immortality is not ruled out, though most people have enough of life after a few millennia… And, yes, utopia works.

Critics of Banks’ eutopia claim that the Culture is boring. Utopia as a narrative genre is, indeed, boring, which is why Banks organized his tales around the idea that the Culture feels bound to export utopia to other civilizations. The clashes with these other more or less reluctant peoples are the focus of the novels, whose protagonists tend to be Special Circumstances Agents, part of the (secret) body preaching utopia to the galaxy. Living in eutopia might also be boring, for all we know–Norwegians, the happiest nation on Earth, remember?, do not hesitate to declare themselves boring. Offer Syrians and Iraqis a chance to be bored for a lifetime and see how they react… I am totally serious when I argue that if boredom is the reason why we are rejecting utopia, then we deserve dystopia. You cannot begin to imagine how depressed I feel when I think that I will never be a citizen of Banks’ Culture. I could cry, really. Of course, the challenge of utopia is how to fill your time productively without the onerous obligation of work–but we already have that: it’s called retirement and we all want it. So, here’s utopia: we live off what the robots and the A.I. produce and we use our lives for whatever we want, as retired people do. Whatever we want may include work, if you’re so inclined. Work would not consist, however, of the kind of backbreaking, mindsquashing jobs most people devote their lives to.

Now, here’s my call to women: if you, my dears, can look beyond gender and imagine utopia that gives everyone a new vision beyond patriarchy, we all win. And thank you Lynne Segal for the inspiring talk.

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/.

WONDERING HOW (POPULAR) CULTURE IS TRANSMITTED (WITH A REFERENCE TO STAR WARS)

March 21st, 2017

As consumers of cultural products we seem to take for granted that texts are, somehow, automatically saved for survival and that any new generation has access to all of them. This is, of course, naïve, misguided and plain wrong. In the case of popular texts (and I mean here generally of all kinds beyond the printed page), we seem to assume that transmission is practically automatic and immediately guaranteed, in some cases, by the big cults around some of these texts. Even so, there are specific practices, companies and persons involved in the process of keeping a text alive. Just think of the constant renewal of interest in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Do you, my reader, know exactly how Tolkien’s classic has managed to survive since the day of its publication back in 1954-55? Could this rich trilogy ever disappear? Surely, this catastrophe is unthinkable for its many fans but it seems to me that at this odd jointure in the history of culture its future is impossible to predict.

As one of the children lucky to attend a cinema screening of the first Star Wars movie, back in 1977, the one now known as Episode IV: A New Hope, I find myself often thinking about how exactly texts are passed on. (By the way, I’ll take the chance here to make the happy announcement of a forthcoming conference on Star Wars and Ideology at the Universidad Complutense for April 2018. Finally!!). You might think that something as gigantic as George Lucas’s brainchild, now a Disney brand, has a life of its own. Actually, this is not the case at all. To begin with, when the first film was released, the producers and the director were absolutely sceptical about its success. So was the manufacturer in charge of selling the corresponding toys, to the point that many children who loved the film received that Christmas 1977 not an actual doll (soon sold out) but a sort of i.o.u., promising their future delivery. Today it seems as if everyone knew about how the merchandising would keep the saga alive but this is just an illusion.

I visited a few months ago an exhibition of Star Wars toys at Barcelona’s Illa Diagonal (the shopping centre) and I paid close attention to the children. Some were very young, around six, and already familiar with most of the characters there represented. Their parents, clearly, had placed them before the TV screen as soon as possible to share the corresponding DVDs of the saga with them; most likely, they had also shared with them their own merchandising products and bought new items. This type of generational transmission, from parent to child, must be the most habitual one. The children I saw seemed eager, none was dragging their feet after an embarrassingly enthusiastic parent, all were smiling and wide-eyed, and so were the adults. I assume that many parents fail to transmit their love of Star Wars (or any other beloved text) to their children but, then, the failed cases were not attending the exhibition. I’m sure that the frustration must be terrible in those cases…

I wondered, however, what happens to children whose parents are not keen at all on Star Wars (or that do not have a special favourite text to enthuse about). I know very well that elder siblings, cousins (either older or not), and aunts and uncles (rather than grandparents) play major roles in this generational transmission, still totally under-researched. At least, my impression is that Reception Studies tends to focus on the interaction between consumer and text, not caring too much about how consumers actually access texts. Anyway: there are five children in my family (four girls, one boy) and we, my husband and I, have failed miserably to instil in them a love of Star Wars. They’re just not interested and find our own interest a bit peculiar (“the problem with being a nerd,” one of my nieces sentenced, “is that you feel under the obligation of being a nerd and doing nerdish things”–this was when she declined seeing Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens despite our insistence…). Intent on enticing at least our youngest niece, and seeing how useful the new girl hero in this film, Rey, could be, we launched a relentless campaign… To no avail. Then, suddenly, one day she announced that she was ready to see the saga and, so, we started with Episode IV. It has not worked (or not yet) because she herself has decided that she is too young (she’s 8) to make sense of the plot.

We still have hopes that she’ll turn to the light side of the Force but in the meantime I have decided to learn from her how little kids get acquainted with famous texts, such as, well, Star Wars, in the event of there being no adult pointing the way to them. I hear you groan: playground talk, it’s all it takes. Yes and no. Obviously, basing any conclusions on the experience of one single child is bad research but at least I have learned a few new things (to share with you). Here they are:

1) If my niece regards herself as too young to understand the saga, this means that many parents ‘force’ their children to consume texts for which they are not quite ready. It is not normal for an 8-year-old to claim, as one of my niece’s classmates told her, that Rogue One (the prequel) is her favourite film. This is an excellent adventure film but also quite a dark story of heroic sacrifice, and if this little girl saw it this is because an adult disregarded how she would react to the bleak plot. Yes, I’m a bit scandalized… children are sensitive and impressionable…

2) The transmission of the text values among children is done through direct comment and, indeed, through the toys. On the school bus, in the school playground, at the home of other kids. The toy or any other items connected with the text in question (stationery, bags, clothing…) elicit curiosity, which leads to questions: what is this?, who are they? At this very early age, children’s comments on the films are limited in criticism (the films are just ‘cool’) and include, rather, plot summary or scene descriptions. Often of shocking moments.

3) In this regard, I was surprised to find out that our focus on Rey was a bit misguided. My husband and I assumed that, just as little boys could identify with Luke Skywalker and hence enter into the spirit of the saga, Rey would have the same function for my little niece. She loved the ‘idea’ of Rey but was terrified by her confrontation with Kylo Ren using laser sabres (this is the clip we showed to her). The idea of a laser sabre toy is very attractive to her, but, paradoxically, not the terrible potential of this weapon in the films. In contrast, she explained that she had asked us to see the first film because she is very curious about Darth Vader’s death and his connection with Luke. Yes: we believe that spoilers are always negative but it turns out that sometimes they are the greatest enticement. A classmate told her about Luke’s fearful father… and she is puzzled about Vader’s person. My hope is that her curiosity keeps her interest alive and will eventually result in her seeing the three first films. At least.

4) A major lesson to learn is that children can make extremely clear judgements from a very early age about what they like. Not so much about why, logically. I keep on asking my nieces about their preferences and this is always a wonderful lesson for me. They, however, find explaining themselves quite a difficult exercise: they’re flattered about my interest, but also concerned that I may find their answers too basic (poor things!). Another obvious lesson is that textual transmission works much, much better if you (the adult) avoid forcing the text on the child. “I’m going to take you to see a film you will love” doesn’t work as well as “I’m going to see this amazing film, would you like to come with me?” In the first case, the child can even get a bit suspicious (“um… why do you want me to see this movie in particular?”), whereas in the second case, a better kind of complicity is built around the text. Sometimes it works the other way round: in the last year, my office has got a new set of tsum-tsum Disney characters, and some Trolls dolls… And my husband can’t stop watching Gumball

So, yes, basically you need the patience of an advanced Jedi knight/dame to bring a child to the light side of the Force but, here’s the lesson, you’re not alone. Other persons, particularly in the child’s own circle, are also participating in the constant renewal of the saga. If nothing works, then, this is it: you gain no padawan. But then, you can still enjoy the company of many other Star Wars fans all over the world. Some comfort!

Although at the time I was not aware that this would be a crucial memory in my life as a film spectator, I thank now George Lucas for the unforgettable sight of the Imperial cruiser crossing the screen at the beginning of Episode IV, 40 years ago. I was 11, remember? The Harry Potter generation also enjoyed 20 years ago (how time flies!) that ‘wow’ moment that defines a whole cohort when Harry got that letter from Hogwarts, also aged 11. But, what about the children of 2017? I sometimes worry that they’re trapped in the stories meant for other generations, as the machinery of cultural production stagnates. It’s wonderful to see how our own texts last but, surely, today’s children also deserve their own moment of wonder. And, then, we’ll learn from them.

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/.

A WRITER THINKS ABOUT HIS CRAFT: GEORGE SAUNDERS

March 14th, 2017

Today I am reading in detail here an article recently published by American writer George Saunders (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Saunders). He specializes in short fiction, children’s fiction and the essay and is not, therefore, a novelist, the type of writers I most commonly read. I have only read one book by him, Pastoralia (2000), a collection said to be among his best work. He has won plenty of awards in the last twenty-odd years, among them the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story (2013). He is since 2014 a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. All in all, then, a sophisticated kind of literary writer.

The article is “George Saunders: What Writers Really Do When They Write” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write) and has a subtitle that names to “A series of instincts, thousands of tiny adjustments, hundreds of drafts…”, which is the gist indeed of the piece. The complete article runs to almost 4000 words and I certainly recommend that you read all of them.

Saunders narrates first how the seed for his latest book, Lincoln in the Bardo, which happens to be his first novel, was planted in his mind twenty years ago. Lesson number one: fiction very often arises from an image suggested by one particular experience in the author’s life, which, while personal (it does happen to him or her) need not be auto-biographical, in the sense of dealing with the author’s own life. Saunders visited the crypt where Lincoln’s son was buried and was told that the grief-stricken President often visited it: “An image spontaneously leapt into my mind –a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà”. In 2012 Saunders felt finally ready to tackle the topic and write his first novel. Second lesson: inspirational images may live on for many years in the fiction writer’s mind until they demand to be brought forth. Saunders denies as “some version of the intentional fallacy” that “art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same”. As he warns us, “The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully”. He tries, nonetheless.

Saunders describes next his “method” to navigate the squalls of literary creation: “I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’).” Accordingly, he reads his work, “the way a first-time reader might”, paying attention to how the needle reacts and ruthlessly editing his text: “watch the needle, adjust the prose” ad nauseam. Of course, we have a problem here already: the process of distilling what your mind produces as you write happens before edition. This is common to all kinds of writers. As I write this post, I know vaguely where I am going with my argument but I am constantly surprised by the exact shape my sentences take. Why these words and no others? Actually, what I most enjoy in writing is that kind of surprise, which is why I make an effort to write a post every week: because otherwise my brain would be inactive. In the case of fiction writers, fabulation, as I call the process of imagining stories, happens, I insist, before edition. I believe that everyone can understand Saunders’ needle for we possess one, more or less rudimentary, but not his powers to fabulate. Not even he himself.

It is true, at any rate, that a great deal of the pleasure of writing lies in rewriting, in the polishing of the sentences. Saunders enjoys in particular the impression that “the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in ‘real life’ –funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining”. If, as he says, the author/narrator is more interesting than the person, the writer, this means that writing is, like being in love, about presenting the best side of yourself. Saunders makes a very interesting claim by declaring that his method aims at “increasing the ambient intelligence of a piece of writing”, something which, “in turn, communicates a sense of respect for your reader.” I don’t know if this is mere politeness, for it seems that Saunders does believe that rewriting makes texts “less hyperbolic, sentimental, and misleading”. I find, rather, listening to many other authors, that the reader matters relatively little and that any writer works for his/herself. The highest quality writers are those with the most demanding inner reading, so to speak, and how external readers react is of relative importance to them.

Saunders does attach greater importance to the “pursuit of specificity”, to the honing down of the language so that it is both nuanced and more effective. Again, this is a rule of all good writing, in any genre, including academic prose. An artist, Saunders stresses, “tweaks that which she’s already done” and, I would add, if this is art, then artistic writing (=Literature) should encompass many more genres, including, sorry to be so tiresome, academic prose. A rule my PhD supervisor taught me is that each sentence must advance my argumentation and be fully justified. This is not really that different from Poe’s injunction to observe an “economy of style” in fiction writing, which is what Saunders also defends without naming it. His analysis of how he writes becomes, then, an analysis of how he edits his texts, which, while interesting (“But why did I make those changes? On what basis?”) is not really about the unfathomable mystery of how sentences travel originally from neuron to screen (or paper).

Saunders turns next to another mystery, “the empathetic function” which, according to him, “is accomplished via the writer’s relation both to his characters and to his readers”. Revision, he explains, “is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you” –I find this very funny because it is intended to place the reader centre-stage and be flattering but in the end it reveals only the writer’s (any writer’s) narcissism. The point, as you can see, is to raise the reader up to your level via your writing, which might be a lovely exercise in intellectual seduction but feels more self-serving than that. In this sense, I believe that popularisers (sorry, I can’t find an English equivalent of the serviceable ‘divulgador’) are the only writers who truly care about their audience, as they (we?) see writing as a form of pedagogy. I know that I sound very smug in correcting Saunders but I truly believe that literary creation would happen even without readers.

Next lesson: Saunders claims that writing a novel did not require a different method from writing short fiction, just a “slightly larger frame” and a sort of specific architecture: “it occurred to me that a mansion of sorts might be constructed from a series of connected yurts”. Again, this possibly reflects the experience of the specific case of a short fiction writer trying to write a novel for the first time, whereas habitual novelists would not describe a similar approach. In science fiction there is something quote curious, the fix-up, which is a novel made of short stories that may not have been necessarily written with a book in mind. The fix-up is, perhaps, closer than any other type of novel to the mansion made of many yurts. But, then, poor Saunders, I should not criticize him for describing what he honestly feels.

“Any work of art quickly reveals itself to be a linked system of problems”. Indeed! Again, I would say that this can be extended to any piece of writing. A PhD dissertation is, if you want to see it that way, the answer to the problem of ‘how am I supposed to write this particular thesis?’ Only when you’re done do you realize how it should have been done, which is, I know, vexing. If you wrote a second PhD dissertation, on a different topic, then leads to a different ‘system of problems’. Ergo, each piece of fiction is also the answer to the question of how it should be written, and how the problems should be faced and solved. As Saunders notes, a problem is solved when it is transformed into “an opportunity”.

Saunders’s final lesson is a that “a work of fiction can be understood as a three-beat movement: a juggler gathers bowling pins; throws them in the air; catches them.” The first phase would correspond to what I call fabulation, which Saunders describes only tangentially–which is why I feel frustrated by his text. It’s tantalizing. “Certain decisions I’d made early on forced certain actions to fulfilment”, he writes and I wish I could tell him that the vagueness of the word “certain” is exasperating –which decisions?, how did you make him?, to what degree are you aware of the process of choice? The second step, based on how “the rules of the universe created certain compulsions” is, I think, what most literary criticism explores (Hamlet sets in motion a whole chain of events by paying heed to what his dead father tells him). Yet, we know close to nothing about how the ‘bowling pins’ materialize. When his characters start behaving as if following their own decisions (a phenomenon which all writers report but on which there is no research at all), Saunders enjoys the “beautiful, mysterious experience”. The mystery is the reason why we worship fiction writers: because we don’t have access to it, it doesn’t happen to us.

Saunders ponders whether the creation of fiction is “a feature of the brain, the byproduct of any rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system” but ultimately chooses Romantic celebration: There is “something wonderful in watching a figure emerge from the stone unsummoned”. Now, unless we, literary critics, sit by the writer as s/he writes and monitors the process as each sentence is written, there is no way we can understand the wonder of it all. Saunders gets very close in this piece to the ‘making-of’ habitual in cinema and we need to be thankful to him for the effort. This is perhaps the way we should go: invite writers to delve into the experience of writing, popularize among readers the very idea of the literary ‘making-of’. Not to destroy the ‘mystery’ but to retrieve literary creation from the intellectual fog surrounding it, and, why not?, make literary criticism a more confident art.

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/.

BE BOLD FOR CHANGE: INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY 2017

March 7th, 2017

This year the theme for International Women’s Day is #BeBoldForChange, as you may see from diverse sites on the internet. Tomorrow, 8 of March, we women are also invited to join a worldwide strike to demonstrate that without us the planet will stop rolling. The latest calculations suggest that we are 170 years away from gender parity, and this is an optimistic piece of guesswork, as it does not take into account possible setbacks (think Trump, think Putin, think ISIS). It is clearly too long to wait for, hence the call for action. Right now.

I have been writing this blog since 2010 and every year this is the most difficult post for me. International Women’s Day is a yearly reminder of our subjection to misogynistic patriarchy, for if we were truly free this celebration would not be necessary. For as long as we need to protest and show the evidence of the constant patriarchal terrorist campaigns against us, we women remain still subordinated and not at all citizens on full, equal terms with men. I do not like being reminded that my life as a woman is conditioned by patriarchy, hence my anger, sorrow and distress every 8th March.

Also my dismay. I go through the main newspapers websites in Spain, the USA and the UK regularly and it is always the same: most news items about women concern our bodies, whether these are on display for voyeuristic reasons or as objects of patriarchal violence. The same media that pretend to maintain a liberal outlook are guilty of the grossest misrepresentation of what women do and endure on a daily basis. Then, whenever there is a minimally positive article on women’s achievements, or one that discusses inequality from an intelligent point of view, you get all those anonymous trolls pouring out the most toxic venom. In the Spanish media they run unchecked; in the British newspaper I read (The Guardian) many contributions are erased by the moderators; some chains of comments are mostly blanks… I need not even mention the extent to which trolling on the social networks is becoming one of the most insidious, effective branches of patriarchal terrorism.

Yes, I am using the word terrorism insistently because this is how it feels today in Spain: about 20 women have died so far, killed by their current or previous male partners. I must say ‘about’ because not even the Director of the Observatorio por la Igualdad could name the actual figure with certainty (this morning on TV). It is possibly higher. Just reverse the situation and try to think of what would happen if 20 men had been killed so far this year by their female couples and ex-couples…

Whenever information like this appears in the media, I read a string of abusive comments from the habitual male trolls, with one argument that is constantly repeated: men also suffer from gendered violence, this might not be so obvious but it is also very harmful. Fine, if that is the case, please come out, you male victims of women’s abuse. Men are doing much better than they used to in reporting sexual abuse endured as children (by men…). So, if you’re being abused by your women, instead of pretending that patriarchal terrorism does not exist, do tell us what is happening to you and we will help you. Promise. What is not at all acceptable is a situation in which the women victims are made twice invisible by denying that they matter (I won’t even speak about the children killed this year, and those made orphans by furious, violent, lethal patriarchal monsters). And, yes, I support the call to speak about the survivors of violence, and not only the victims, for it seems to me that the exclusive focus on brutality contributes to patriarchal terrorism as an invitation to commit copy-cat crimes.

More dismay: the women themselves, and how we are contributing to our own discrimination. The women who voted for Donald Trump, the women who support Putin in Russia, or ISIS in Europe and the Middle East. The women who bully other women in school and on the internet, or beat them up. The women who publish sexualized photos of themselves and call this invitation to a demeaning use of their persons a free feminist act. The women who let themselves be used in fashion campaigns that are an invitation to abusive misogyny. The women incapable of working with other women in alliances to end inequality, at any level. The women who exploit other women they employ. The women who allow their girls’ genitalia to be mutilated. The women who reject feminism as if it is an infectious disease. The women who abuse the word feminism to defend absurd choices. I could go on…

Next, the lack of awareness and the refusal to know. I often feel like an abolitionist speaking to slaves who adamantly reject the idea that they are enslaved and, so, will not contribute to their own liberation. I wonder what it was like for the real abolitionists. I was teaching a seminar on Shakespeare within an MA course and we were discussing how having actresses play male roles (Hamlet, Richard III…) does not really alter the patriarchal nature of the plays, which, logically, reflect their time and society. One of the young women in class basically said that patriarchy is what it is and cannot be altered. Well, I replied, if that were the case you wouldn’t be here in class as a student and I would not be teaching in a university classroom. No reaction.

It might be the case that because I teach Victorian Literature I am particularly sensitized about the times when women had no rights whatsoever but it baffles me that young women take two oxymoronic things for granted: a) that patriarchy is basic human nature, b) that their rights are guaranteed. Patriarchy is NOT the same as human nature–it can and it must be changed and it is certainly changing, but not fast enough. If patriarchy was human nature, our lives as women would have remained unaltered for ever and I would not be writing this post; I’d be minding my ten children and be possibly illiterate. The problem with patriarchy is that it is not disappearing fast enough, and it’s clear to me that full equality can never be reached as long as patriarchy persists. 170 years? What a joke…

The other matter, that our rights are guaranteed, is another big joke. Right now the biggest best-sellers in the USA are George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Orwell’s classic is a horrifying story about how any individual can be coerced into completely submitting to an ideology, no matter how hard s/he tries to rebel. Big Brother, no mistake about it, is the personification of patriarchy. In Atwood’s dystopia she narrates how fast and how easily women are deprived of all their rights in the early stages of the fundamentalist dictatorship that overpowers democracy in the USA. As happened to me while reading Houellebecq’s Submission, I was horrified by the good men’s reaction: the husband of Atwood’s protagonist does not defend her rights, he just offers her his personal protection (don’t worry if you cannot work anymore, I’ll support you). This kind of, shall we say?, secondary complicity is to me even far more scarier than downright patriarchal terrorism. In the event of a frontal attack against women’s rights, then, there is no guarantee that all women would fight for them, and no guarantee either that the good men would confront the evil patriarchs for us. Atwood got it right. And so did Orwell: it’ll be everyone for themselves. And violent coercion.

And here’s my main worry: it may be impossible to imagine a situation in which Africans would be again kidnapped and sent to America to be enslaved but 150 years after the formal end of slavery, a brutal racism against African-Americans persists. Likewise, homophobia and all forms of LGTBI phobia persist despite the changes in legislation. As for us, women, yes, we may vote, study, work in the professions and make a thousand choices we could not make before the 20th century but the pressure of misogyny is not easing out, whether it results in bloody murder or in what Luis Bonino called ‘micro-machismos’, that is, the small everyday acts that make our lives harder: from a sexist joke by a workmate to a partner’s dragging their feet until we lose patience and clean the dishes ourselves. How our energy, talent and time is wasted is a scandal if we think of how necessary women are for the survival of the human species and our progress as a civilization.

I discussed in my previous post two examples of positive female characters addressed to a children’s audience, Judy in Zootopia and Poppy in Trolls. I insist that this is crucial: let’s find positive role models, women who have been bold to change, and who have changed life for us by giving us more choices. Madame Curie, rather than Kim Kardashian, if you know what I mean. And may 2017 be better for women than 2016 was, though I very much doubt this will be the case. We may be as bold as we can to change, but if patriarchy is not altered nothing significant will change. And this, good men reading me, is our common enemy.

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/.

CELEBRATING JUDY AND POPPY: GREAT FEMALE CHARACTERS IN ZOOTOPIA AND TROLLS

February 28th, 2017

The fiasco following Warren Beatty’s absurd proclamation of La La Land as this year’s Oscar winner instead of Moonlight (despite realizing that he had the wrong envelope in his hands) has already been commented on to exhaustion. I’m really sorry for the public humiliation that the producers of La La Land endured; yet, at the same time, I’m happy that the error was corrected, as this a film I profoundly dislike. I share 100% the reasons for my aversion with David Cox, and, so, I’ll recommend his insightful review (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/23/la-la-lands-inevitable-oscars-win-is-a-disaster-for-hollywood-and-for-us).

I’d rather use my time and energy here to praise the winner for Best Animated Feature Film, the delicious Zootopia (a.k.a Zootropolis in Europe). Also, another charming animated film, Trolls, though this was only nominated for its wonderfully catchy song: Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”(he voices Branch, the male protagonist, in the film). I want to applaud in particular the leading female roles, Judy and Poppy, respectively, for being a breath of fresh air in the stale world offered to little girls.

I love animated films for children and I’m sorry to see that adults with and without children in their families look down on them as inferior products. I have been reading these days Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure and enjoying very much his defence of Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks as producers of valuable work, worth analyzing from an academic point of view and actually quite subversive. Even so, he calls the films “silly” quite often, as if apologizing for dealing with them before those who despise movies for the little ones as sub-par cinema. This is the wrong attitude. So, please, here is my first plea today: do see films for children, and of all nations, not just American ones. I need not say that Japan’s Studio Ghibli is producing wonderful animation, and so are others around the world.

I am well aware that animation need not be limited to children. Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa (Oscar nominee last year) or Persepolis (nominated in 2007) are, obviously, not for children. Adults who make the mistake of believing that cartoon movies are for kids may find themselves very much chagrined, as did the many embarrassed parents who rushed their children our of the screening of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999) which I attended. I was myself quite shocked to see what could be done with a few pieces of cut paper… At any rate, take a look at any list of Oscar winners and nominees for Best Animated Films, a category activated in 2000, (like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academy_Award_for_Best_Animated_Feature) and marvel at the many excellent films it contains. Indeed, Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010), also appeared in the list of Best Picture nominees, apart from winning in their own category.

This year, Zootopia’s rivals were two other US films–Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana–the Swiss/French My Life as a Zucchini and the French/Belgian/Japanese co-production The Red Turtle. I have not see Moana yet (known as Vaiana in Spain because Moana is the trademark… of a bathing soap!) and it might well be, this goes in the same positive direction I want to praise here. Leaving aside The Red Turtle for the purpose of my argumentation, I need to say that I was horrified by Kubo and the Two Strings (despite loving Laika Studios’ Coraline and Paranorman) and will almost certainly not see My Life as a Zucchini.

Why not? Well, Kubo might be as beautiful and innovative as you may wish regarding its animation technique, but it begins with a mother running away with her baby after her own father gouges out the little boy’s eye. Not that you see the actual scene but I could never get over this bit of patriarchal cruelty, so nonchalantly narrated. My Life as a Zucchini begins with the protagonist, um… Courgette, accidentally killing his mother and being sent to an orphans’ home. Similarly, Pete’s Dragon, which I saw recently, begins with little Peter’s parents being killed in a horrifying car crash, which leaves him stranded in the forest for years. I usually go to the cinema with my little niece and after having put her through the terrifying experience of seeing The Good Dinosaur I have been avoiding like the plague this kind of traumatic children’s animation–hence my pleasure in Zootopia and Trolls. And her pleasure.

You’ll have noticed that in all the horrifying films for children I have mentioned, the protagonist is a boy (or a male creature). Odd. Call me naïve, but I’d rather push that ugly view of life as confrontation aside and focus on what cinema offers little girls, which seems far more upbeat. The trend, possibly started with Brave (2012), extends now to other products, like the TV series Gumball (2011-, with the amazingly well-balanced Anaïs) or Miraculous (2015-) with the girl superhero Ladybug. Even Spielberg’s failed film The B.F.G. is part of a growing trend: an increase in the number of appealing female characters for little girls. It’s not just a matter of up-dating the fairy-tale princess, though this is also happening, but of going a little bit farther. As my niece patiently explained to me, what is cool about Elsa in Frozen is that she is a queen, hence in no need to marry… and with power to do interesting things.

Zootopia and Trolls are, in this sense very different, for Judy Hopps is a rabbit very much focused on becoming a police officer, whereas Poppy is a troll queen, focused on saving her people from the ogres that want to eat them. At first sight, they seem to have little in common but they do share a main feature: the determination not so much to fulfil a dream as to do their job well, and for the sake of their community. They also have a magnificent self-possession, totally extreme in Poppy’s case, as she does not know the meaning of the word ‘defeat’ (Judy does, indeed). Jack Halberstam praises a series of animated films, from Finding Nemo to Chicken Run, precisely because they focus on characters that look beyond themselves to help others, something which he finds missing in our selfish society. In this sense, though I loved the French/Canadian film Ballerina (with its subversive Marxist conquest of 19th century bourgeois ballet by low-class Félicie), I realize that the plot repeats the selfish model of personal success. In contrast, Judy and Poppy are motivated, rather, by securing the best for their community: hence their being praiseworthy heroes.

Again, though the two films are very different, the central problem both in Zootopia and in Trolls is posed by predators. Judy’s utopian world is based on the idea that carnivores and herbivores can live happily together–a dream spoiled by shady manipulators who attempt to present meat-eaters as pure beasts. In Trolls, things are even more straightforward: the big ogres see the tiny trolls as a delicacy and (as we do with animals) they even have an annual festival devoted to gorging on them. Judy and Poppy’s mission, then, entails keeping a delicate balance that deters the potential predators from eating their prey, a category to which they themselves belong as a herbivore (Judy) and a troll, no matter how queenly (Poppy). In their efforts to redress the balance and avoid danger, Judy and Poppy are accompanied by a very reluctant male mate: respectively, the con artist Nick Wilde (a fox) and Branch, a severely depressed troll who lost all his colour because of a deeply traumatic event. Nick mocks in his stylish way Judy’s earnest fight against crime; grumpy Branch dampens (or tries to) the spirit of the always cheerful Poppy. That is, until both gentlemen are won over by the girls, in friendly, rather than romantic ways.

Girls, the message is, can change men, hence patriarchy, with their optimism. This has been well received by Zootopia’s audiences (the movie keeps a very high 8.1 score at IMDB) but not so much by the public for Trolls (only 6.5 at IMDB). I’m not sure whether this is important but Trolls is a DreamWorks, not a Disney, film. I loved every minute of Trolls, but others found it both too dark (in the sense I have been complaining here) or, confusingly, too mawkish. I enjoyed very much Zootopia’s clever plot and the many playful references to adult films. Yet, I appreciated Trolls for being an in-your-face defence of cheesy good feeling.

Beyond the actual events in the plot, I very much believe that Trolls has pulled the amazing trick of turning the disgusting, creepy Troll dolls designed by Dane Thomas Mann in 1959, into something, well, energizing. Please, take a look at Judy here (http://zootopia.wikia.com/wiki/Judy_Hopps) and see how optimistic and forthright she looks–encouraging, right? Now, take a look at pink-skinned, pink-haired Poppy here: http://dreamworks.wikia.com/wiki/Poppy. She is irresistible… an image of complete and utter self-sufficiency. Both my home and my university office are now decorated with her image, completed by the motto ‘I’m confident’–for so she is. And you know what? I feel confident when I look at her comical, slightly squint-eyed, glittery face… or when I see her sing her way into almost complete disaster and still be positive: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFuFm0m2wj0. Who, I wonder, can connect with angry, one-eyed Kubo instead?

Is Judy and Poppy’s optimism misplaced in our increasingly ugly world? Should we give little girls heroes like them at all? I’m not talking here about silly, pretty girls who only think of romance and fashion. These are, let me stress, females doing a good job (I puzzle, however, about why they are not human–perhaps I need to see Moana/Vaiana). Judy and Poppy are intelligent, resourceful, competent and, above all, positive. Not just happy in a bubbly, inconsequential way, but constructive, affirmative and encouraging of others. My heroes…

Now, thank you Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger for writing Trolls, thank you Erica Rivinoja for Poppy’s story. Thank you Jared Bush and Phil Johnston for writing Zootopia, thank you Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush, Jim Reardon, Josie Trinidad, Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee for Judy’s story. And the marvellous production designers for the way Judy and Poppy embody girl power.

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/.

THE CHARISMA OF SUPPORTING ACTORS: PAUL BETTANY (AND THE ‘THAT GUYS’)

February 21st, 2017

My doctoral student Josie Swarbrick contributed a paper on the film Transcedence (2014) to our recent yearly post-graduate seminar. The film is just average but Jack Paglen’s screenplay is one of the very few attuned to the treatment of the posthuman in current sf. The role of Will Caster, the man who transcends his humanity, is here played by Johnny Depp. I started a discussion about whether Will’s loss of control over his life parallels the current decadence of Depp as a star (see how Hadley Freeman bemoans her loss of an idol: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/11/how-i-loved-you-johnny-depp-purple-tinted-truth). Josie mentioned instead Paul Bettany, who plays Depp’s rival in love, as an example of an actor with quite a steady career. To my surprise, this unleashed a flow of comments from the women students in the room, each mentioning a favourite role played by Bettany…

Bettany has appeared so far in 43 films; chances are you’ve come across him. IMDB and Wikipedia help me here to offer a quick overview of his career. Bettany (b. 1971) is an English theatre and film actor. His debut was on the stage (An Inspector Calls) and he even appeared on a BBC Oliver Twist (as Sikes), before getting a small role in Bent (1997). British film audiences discovered Bettany thanks to Gangster No. 1 (2000). His career became international when director Brian Helgeland insisted that he was cast as Chaucer in his silly medieval adventure film A Knight’s Tale (2001). Bettany next secured a breakthrough supporting role in the Oscar-award winner A Beautiful Mind (2001, Ron Howard), with Russell Crowe. Bettany and Crowe soon played best friends Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in Peter Weir’s acclaimed Master and Commander (2003). Bettany has occasionally played leading roles in, among others, the romantic comedy Wimbledon (2004) and the medieval mystery The Reckoning (2002–or was he co-protagonist with Willem Dafoe?). You may have also spotted him in Dogville (2003) and The Da Vinci Code (2006). Curiously, after voicing Tony Stark’s artificial intelligence J.A.R.V.I.S. in four films in which Iron Man appears, Bettany has been cast as the literally red-skinned Vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Captain America: Civil War (2016). Incidentally, he’s been married since 2003 to actress Jennifer Connelly (they met when shooting A Beautiful Mind).

A 2004 interview with Sam Ingleby offers interesting clues about Bettany (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/paul-bettany-lets-get-physical-547410.html) Asked why he chose to make Wimbledom after the vastly different Dogville, Bettany “immediately drops into self-deprecating mode” and explains that “My plan–well, it isn’t much of a plan, but it’s mine and I like it–is to try to do lots of different things”. He cites two of his heroes, Peter Weir and Ang Lee, as examples of versatile film directors that work in many genres. He adds that “I just get bored if I don’t do different things”. No wonder, then, that Ingleby sees Bettany’s “malleability on screen” as a product of his “ability to change genre and to avoid being typecast”.

Here’s some irony, however, that Ingleby fails to explore: Bettany is slim, blond, blue-eyed, very tall and quite good-looking (perhaps not 100% handsome in a manly way). Yet, despite having “the lineaments of a film star” he is not one. He’s an actor, not a star. Russell Crowe, to name someone connected with Bettany, is a star. Because Bettany is very pale, he has often been cast as a cold-blooded character, none paler and colder than the monk Silas in The Da Vinci Code. Physical appeal, then, is not as easy to pin down in an actor as we assume.

Usually, the value of a film star is measured by the fees s/he commands. Currently these are the ten male names with the highest influence and appeal on planet Earth: Dwayne Johnson, Jackie Chan, Matt Damon, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Ben Affleck, Vin Diesel, Shah Rukh Khan, Robert Downey jr., Akshay Khumar and Brad Pitt. By the way, the best paid female actor in 2016 was Jennifer Lawrence; she made 46$ million; Dwayne Johnson, in contrast, earned 64.5$ million. Earnings, thus, turn out to be only indirectly related to box-office appeal; sexism also plays a part.

An obvious, yet important, point to make is that whereas spectators pay good money to see these stars on the screen, hence their earnings, generally speaking we do not go to the cinema to enjoy the work of particular secondary actors. Character or supporting actors certainly add value to films and may be a strong selling point, predominantly those in villain roles (like Javier Bardem in No Land for Old Men). I have no idea on what basis is their salary established but, surely, there must be a ranking which value in money what they add to films. My Google search for ‘highest-paid supporting actor’, however, throws nothing.

Supporting, or character, actors, appear to be of two kinds: the ones that eventually slip into stardom, and those who never do. All actors have volatile careers but supporting actors appear to fare better, since they can avoid the stressful demands of stardom. Nothing worse than pouring high expectations and hype on an actor who might have reached success by chance rather than merit–arguably, this might explain why so many Oscar-award winners for leading roles suddenly see their careers sink. Fickle fashions also play a role: an actor like Meryl Streep is not in danger of incurring in what is now called ‘brand exhaustion’ or ‘brand fatigue’. Scarlett Johansson, who seems to be six persons instead of just one, certainly is.

Returning to the supporting actors, Paul Bettany might be perhaps representative of a third category. Some actors hover forever on the brink of stardom; they are the kind whose fans are always asking themselves ‘how come s/he is not better known?’. Tom Hardy used to be in this category, but now he’s on the way to stardom aided by us, his fans from the early stages of his career. Other character actors, however, reach fame even without an enthusiastic fan base–simply because they’re very good: think of Paul Giamatti or the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Then we have what an IMDB user calls ‘that guy actors’: actors “you see in every movie and say to yourself ‘Hey its that guy!’ but you never know their names”. This person offers a great list of 100 male names here: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls050426470/. No, Paul Bettany is not included, but, then, no list is ever exhaustive. See also, for instance, http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2014/the-30-greatest-character-actors-in-hollywood-history/.

Although not all male stars are handsome–some are not even close–clearly physical attractive pays a major role in the lists of best-paid actors. Character actors, in contrast, bring physical variety to the screen. Their presence is what reassures us that the world is not peopled only with beautiful individuals. Charisma, of course, marks the difference between the more and the less popular actors in all categories. This is the x factor that whets the spectator’s curiosity and that helps us to recall specific names. And then return for more, in yet another film with the same actor.

This seemingly suggests that supporting actors on the brink of stardom, like Bettany, have an odd measure of charisma: enough to seduce loyal fans but not enough to seduce many fans and reach stardom. Bettany is very good at stealing scenes from the protagonists but not attractive enough (in a general sense) to bear the burden of a whole film on his shoulders. Perhaps he just needs a breakthrough leading role that tips the scales of charisma in his favour. Sometimes it takes a very long time, which is why I’m not writing Bettany off the list of 21st century stars. Sometimes it never happens. The good news is that characters actors like Bettany tend to enjoy longer careers than most stars as, ostensibly, spectators are more generous with their ageing process. The whole planet is monitoring each wrinkle in Brad Pitt’s face but, surely, this will not happen to Bettany.

My message today is that we need to reconsider success and failure. Paul Bettany’s career suggests that long-lasting careers in secondary positions may be much more satisfying than downright success/stardom. Also, that each charismatic individual seems to have a different measure of this elusive quality. Brad Pitt seems gifted with an endless supply, but here we are, Paul Bettany’s loyal fans, announcing to the world that we appreciate whatever amount he does have. This is a call, then, to look beyond the star and appreciate all the ‘that guys’ (and ‘that girls’) that make cinema such a wonderful experience.

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/

HELLO, HANDSOME!: ON DESCRIBING MALE BEAUTY IN FICTION

February 14th, 2017

The illustration by Nick Hardcastle showing “the first historically accurate illustration of Mr Darcy (…) based on research commissioned by channel Drama to celebrate Jane Austen Season” has run like burning powder through my Department colleagues’ email. “Key findings”, we are told, “include Mr Darcy’s sloping shoulders, powdered white hair, a long nose, pointy chin and pale complexion” (https://vimeo.com/203141362/45c36ba575). Once you consider Darcy’s new fancy mug shot, you may next read the article on which this is based, by Professors John Sutherland and Amanda Vickery (http://drama.uktv.co.uk/pride-and-prejudice/article/real-mr-darcy-dramatic-re-appraisal/). It is called “The Real Mr Darcy: A Dramatic Re-Appraisal”, and it offers a quite amusing description of what a most desirable man must have looked like… either in 1790s when Austen wrote her novel or in 1813 when it was published, a mere 20 years apart, with Romanticism in the middle. Very accurate.

As you can see, I find the idea of portraying the ‘real’ Darcy absolute nonsense, as, to begin with, Darcy is a fictional character. As I have recently complained, authors offer too little description (except Dickens), which makes our task as readers often quite annoying. In the case of men presented as sex symbols, like Darcy, this vagueness may be an advantage to writers, for Austen only needs to say that Darcy is “handsome” for each woman reader to supply an ideal image. Here’s how Darcy is actually presented (in Chapter III of Pride and Prejudice), in direct contrast, by the way, with his best friend: “Mr. Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners. (…) his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year.” Two observations: not the man himself but his features are described as handsome, and Austen makes sure we get the point that Darcy’s handsomeness is much enhanced by his annual rent, in today’s currency, of 500,000£. The passage, however, continues, by noting that Darcy was much admired until “his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud (…)”. Indisputably, Pride and Prejudice is the story of how Darcy’s physical handsomeness is only proven by his handsome rescue of brainless Lydia from her entanglement with Wickham.

Colin Firth, who played a very manly Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation, obviously embodied for a whole generation of Austen readers a fantasy of handsomeness, as, of course, did Laurence Olivier for the 1940s. In contrast, Matthew McFadyen did nothing for the role. You will see that the many press articles generated by Hardcastle’s illustration tend to compare it with a photo of Firth as Austen’s heartthrob. Now we know that Firth had to die his gingerish hair in a darker hue to comply with the ‘dark’ part of the standard ‘tall, dark, handsome’ description. He’s naturally tall, at 1.87 m. Having recently heard Jack Halberstam wonder why in heterosexual romance men must be very tall, I now find this matter of height quite droll. Are the 10 cms separating Tom Cruise (170) from Brad Pitt (180) so crucial? Going back to Austen, just let me point out what should be obvious: an illustration of one possible way in which Darcy could be represented in the mental theatre of the female readers of the 1810s is not an illustration of the ‘real’ Darcy but only one element in the ongoing history of how Darcy has been imagined throughout the years. Also, of the history of the representation of male beauty in fiction.

I keep on telling my students–I’m sure I have already mentioned this here–that I want to supervise a PhD dissertation on the use of the word ‘handsome’ in fiction, particularly by women but not only so. My moment of enlightenment came when reading Iain M. Banks’ science-fiction novel The Hydrogen Sonata. As I’m sure I have already narrated here, the female protagonist Vyr finds herself gradually falling in love with Beardle, the avatar of the powerful artificial intelligence, or Mind, that runs one of the colossal spaceships which comprise the executive arm of the utopian Culture. Guess how Beardle is described? He’s handsome. Vyr is absolutely chagrined when Beardle basically tells her she’s an idiot for feeling anything towards him, as he is not even human. I was also chagrined, for as a heterosexual female reader used to responding in this silly Pavlovian way to the word ‘handsome’, I had also fallen for Beardle. For Vyr the problem is that Beardle is not a real man. I happen to share her problem for, precisely, Beardle is a fictional construct. Not a real man. Much like Darcy.

There is a wonderful conversation about whether the use of ‘handsome’ is archaic in relation to women here: http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/17108/can-you-still-call-a-woman-handsome. I will not go into this but let me just note that Sigourney Weaver is mentioned as a handsome woman, and Scarlett Johanson as a pretty one, though in my view she’s more handsome than pretty–attractive perhaps. Anyway, if we consider the difference between a ‘handsome man’ and a ‘pretty man’ (Douglas Booth, Elijah Wood), you begin to see that ‘handsome’ actually means ‘attractive in a manly way’. Therefore, what makes us, heterosexual female readers, respond to the adjective ‘handsome’ is the manliness embedded in it. Whether it is Darcy’s or Beardle’s.

A recent study indicated that woman’s favourite male physical feature is not, as it is often said, the eyes, or, as some have been insisting lately, a shapely butt, but, rather, a good pair of muscled arms. Why? Because when we think ‘manly’ we think ‘protective’ and little girls that we all are, we want to be embraced by manly men with bulky arms–tall ones, as daddy always is for little girls (there’s Electra for you, Jack Halberstam).

This is the main irritant in the new image created for Darcy: he’s lost the manly arms, the square shoulders we associate with him since Firth. Profs. Sutherland and Vickery explain that in Austen’s time “It was all about the legs. The six pack was unknown and square shouldered bulk was the mark of the navvy not the gentlemen. Chests were modest and shoulders sloping. Arm holes cut high and to the back rather pinioning the man within. The general effect was one of languid, graceful length not breadth. More ballet dancer than beef-cake”. What they’re missing is that not even ballet dancers, whether gay or not, look languid today. Also that contemporary heterosexual women do not care at all what was considered ideal for men back in the 1810s.

Reading recently my good friend Isabel Clúa’s new book Cuerpos de escándalo: Celebridad femenina en el fin-de-siècle, which deals with the Spanish female stars of the popular theatre, I was surprised by the photos. There was no way I could see beauty in Carolina Otero, internationally known as ‘la bella Otero’. Tórtola Valencia, on the other hand, seemed quite handsome to me–meaning that her beauty must have looked very odd in her time. I’m thus making again the well-known point that the appreciation of human beauty has a history. The problem, of course, is that it has usually focused on the representation of women, not of men. When I wrote the short essay “Entre Clooney y Pitt: El problema del deseo femenino heterosexual y lo sexy masculino” (http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/EntreCloone y Pitt Sara Martin.pdf) I had a very hard time finding sources that discuss male beauty as seen from women’s point of view. Even today, I’m not sure why the six-pack is an essential part of our ideal, though it’s been suggested that it connects manliness with discipline.

This lack of a history of male handsomeness, I am arguing, and of its representation in print and audiovisual fiction means that we lack the codes to read Hardcastle’s rendering of his ‘real’ Darcy but also to understand what is happening under our very noses. And this is quite interesting: let’s see who can convincingly explain why Brad Pitt, aged 53, is universally acknowledged as the most handsome man on Earth, a title he is keeping since 1991, when he seduced Thelma (Geena Davis) and the rest of the planet in Thelma & Louise. Recently, I went through as many lists I could find in IMDB of the hottest male actors active today, lists that ranged from men in their 70s to men in their teens, and, believe me, nobody could compare to Pitt. Chris Hemsworth came second but, like the rest, he lacked this something else that makes Pitt charismatic. Interestingly, Pitt’s status as male icon of beauty seems to have been unaffected by his ex-wife Angelina Jolie’s demolition of his image as ideal family man, whereas a similar icon of a similar age, Johnny Depp, is now facing decadence after a highly problematic divorce.

If I go into why Pitt is so handsome, despite the acne scarring of his face, I will never finish. For the sake of my argumentation, just let’s agree that nobody personifies better than him ideal masculinity today. Now think of two learned professors claiming in two hundred years time that in the fiction of 2010s Pitt is what handsome men looked like. Don’t even say the words Christian Grey and Jamie Dornan, please. Next, take any contemporary novel with a handsome man, thus described, and tell me what you see. Is it Pitt, our consensual ideal, or your own personal fantasy–perhaps based on someone you know?

What I’m saying is that not even in Austen’s time was handsomeness dominated by a single image. Today, when Pitt might be the equivalent of Hardcastle’s handsome man for our times, as in the past, the adjective ‘handsome’ is used by authors to trigger a certain psychological reaction in readers, not as a descriptor. A description would clarify that “Mr. Darcy was, at six feet, a very tall man. His impressive blue eyes were the best feature in a suitably pale countenance, dominated by an exquisite long nose, small mouth and gracefully pointed chin. His hair, naturally blonde, was hidden beneath an elegantly powdered wig.” There you are.

I can’t wait to write the following post about, how can I put it? secondary handsomeness. Think Paul Bettany…

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/.

RESISTING GENDER BINARISM: JACK HALBERSTAM (IN BARCELONA)

February 7th, 2017

Last week I attended two extremely interesting sessions with Jack Halberstam at Barcelona’s CCCB: a lecture on 1 February (the 400 seats in the room were taken!) and a seminar the next day (by invitation, attended by about 45 persons). I cannot give an exact idea of all that was discussed but here are some highlights. In any case, CCCB intends to make soon available online both the lecture and the seminar, which was actually a three-hour long conversation.

Jack Halberstam (b. 1961) is an American academic, author and transgender activist, currently at Columbia University, New York. As any person minimally interested in Gender Studies knows, Jack used to be known as Judith (a name he still accepts from family and friends), the name under which he published an early volume, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995) and his most famous book, Female Masculinity (1998). Later work appeared signed by Jack: In A Queer Time and Place (2005), The Queer Art of Failure (2011) and Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (2012). His forthcoming volume is Trans*.

I must recommend Skin Shows, which I believe was Judith’s doctoral dissertation. There is no doubt, however, that Halberstam’s Female Masculinity made a major contribution to post-Judith Butler Gender Studies. The point Judith Halberstam made then was and is still challenging: masculinity can also be performed by female-bodied persons, not just male-bodied persons. I found her argument convincing and liberating until a gay academic colleague, David Alderson from Manchester University, pointed out to me that far from breaking away from the gender binary Halberstam was endorsing it and, what was even worse for him, giving quite a monolithic image of masculinity. Later, Halberstam chose to transition and present herself as Jack, which I’m sure was a fine personal choice for her but left many of us, women who were coming to terms with our masculinity, somewhat stranded. I abandoned long ago this nonsensical idea that man have a feminine side and women a masculine one and now I put my efforts into de-gendering personal features such as assertiveness (why should that be coded masculine?) or a capacity for empathy (why should that be coded feminine?).

Jack stressed several times during his visit that Female Masculinity had been written 20 years ago and that he felt much better represented by The Queer Art of Failure (2011). I have not read this volume yet but following Halberstam’s own comments, the main argument is that transgenderism has made an art of failure because it has resulted in bodies that fail to be normatively male or female, which, for him, is positive. He sent a call to embrace this failure productively and helped me very much to understand this point when he said that “If we become men and we don’t change the meaning of manhood then we have been swallowed by manhood”. The other trans men in the room agreed. So now I understand that what bothers me as a feminist woman about trans women is, precisely, how little many do, generally speaking, to challenge conservative femininity–think Caitlyn Jenner.

A main bone of contention, of course, is whether just because you’re LGTB you are automatically subversive of heteronormativity. Halberstam believes this is not the case: 40% of LGTB people voted for Trump, he explained. The position he has been maintaining is perhaps a bit extreme, as he believes that whenever LGTB minorities are granted a civil right they should reject it as an attempt to expand normativity. Hence, he rejects gay marriage as part of a new homonormativity that parallels heteronormativity. In the same way transnormativity threatens to undermine the work of trans activists to undo gender.

And here comes the most remarkable argument presented in the sessions: Halberstam opposes the current extension of transgenderism to children. This, as he explains, is a new phenomenon based on the children’s access to YouTube standard narratives presented by transgender people outside activism. Their narratives focus on the enormous personal distress that gender dysphoria brings to the individual, the risk of suicide and the successful implementation of medical and surgical procedures, leading to a happy ending. The children absorb this story, which they then transmit to their helicopter parents and the distressed adults rush to doctors’ surgeries in order to place these very young persons on the path to early transitioning.

It’s not clear to be how these children acquire so early such a complex gender discourse (surely, more than YouTube is involved, perhaps the parents themselves). Halberstam, however, made a number of very valid points: a) no person knows until adulthood, if ever, what his gender identity should be, b) the lack of contact between the trans children and their parents with adult trans persons is creating a generational split among trans individuals and activisim (the trans adults could act as mentors), c) most convincingly: if the current trend is to respect intersex children and not manipulate their bodies, why are we manipulating the bodies of trans children as early as 3 years of age? A father in the audience gave us his personal answer: he wants his trans daughter to be happy… But, then, there might be wiser ways of ensuring her happiness…

The other major issue which Halberstam raised in relation to trans children is that it is contributing to upholding the gender binary system. He agreed that “the categories male and female remain remarkably stable” despite Butler’s introduction of the idea of gender performativity back in 1990, and the current proliferation of new gender identity labels. The kind of transgenderism that helicopter parents embrace is based on the urge to make their children normatively male or female as soon as possible, thus erasing the adult transgender person from society. This is why Halberstam thinks that the phenomenon is not positive. An adult may make better informed choices about gender and, what is more important, may choose to perform its trans identity in challenging ways, which a child can hardly do. Thus, in contrast to his rejection of trans children, Halberstam answered my question about trans fathers and mothers by stressing the positive contribution that these trans adults are making to transforming the family. He stressed that trans/parenting is part of a wider re-organization of traditional kinship beyond heteronormativity but also a particularly beneficial part of it.

Regarding the representation of trans lives, Halberstam, who is perfectly comfortable with using popular texts in his academic work, recommended the film By Hook or by Crook (2001) and the TV series Transparent (2014-). He stressed that positive representations of trans individuals should be complex, eschew the suicide narrative or trauma, and, ideally, be transinclusive in relation to the persons involved in their production. They should also present transitioning as a life-long process, avoiding the tempation of easy or neat closure (as happens in the film Transamerica).

He praised Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) as a significant turning point but was somehow inconclusive about Kim Pierce’s biopic about Brandon Teena’s tragedy Boys don’t Cry (1999). Halberstam did not clarify whether the terrible violence presented in this film works well to erase transphobia but he used the trans protests against Pierce during a screening of the film to criticize identity politics. When asked to clarify this point, he stressed that identity politics cannot deny the right of persons outside a particular label to offer representations of the individuals under that label. He also warned that the famous case of Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce Jenner), a Trump voter, shows how identity politics are not necessarily subversive as it is too often assumed.

About the gender binary, it took me a while to catch up with Halberstam’s frequent use of the word ‘cisgender’, “denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex” (or the opposite of transgender). I always have this feeling that the LGTB community is conveniently using labels that only serve to maintain separation alive. As a heterosexual woman who does not support at all patriarchal heteronormativity, I constantly vindicate the right to call myself ‘heteroqueer’ but I have been told that if I am heterosexual than I cannot be queer–I was under the impression, however, that been queer was about denying normativity. Now, it turns out I’m also cisgender. Well. Halberstam, to his credit, did stress that the LGTB community and activism are covertly enforcing the gender binary: “you also have to be male or female in a queer context”; he insisted that these are binary categories imposed by queers themselves, not by cisgender pressure. Thus, he explained, feminine gay culture is completely marginalized as is masculine lesbian culture.

I have used here the expression ‘female-bodied person’, which I’m borrowing from Halberstam’s talk. I find it tremendously liberating as it lays the stress on person, rather than woman. I increasingly dislike the words man and woman for their patriarchal connotations and although I’m well aware that ‘male-bodied person’ and ‘female-bodies person’ are a mouthful, they are as labels an appealing alternative. They say that you know how you see yourself when you look at the mirror and consider what comes first to your mind to describe yourself. I, definitely, see a person primarily, not a woman. It is very important that beyond all the identity politics defending particular gender labels, we make an effort to make gender far less important. I always say that as Gender Studies specialist my goal is to eliminate gender, by which I mean not only the pernicious gender binary but also any need to define ourselves primarily through our sex and our gender. This should be in the future as preposterous as defining yourself according to the size of your feet or the shape of your hands.

Until then, however, here we are: stuck with the same old labels and, yes, with the same clichéd, tired narratives (why, Halberstam asked, do heterosexual narratives always focus on size – tall men, big penises, big breasts?). I’ll finish by confessing that I was initially confused by Jack Halberstam’s female voice, as I had stupidly assumed that he had chosen a fully masculine style of self-presentation. I ended up loving this willing refusal to be a normative man, and his willing decision to be playful, to be queer. This is what we, heterosexual people, need: more queerness, less normativity.

Food for anti gender-binary thought…

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/