IRVINE WELSH IN TOWN, 25 YEARS AFTER TRAINSPOTTING

September 17th, 2018

I had a truly weird experience yesterday attending Irvine Welsh’s presentation of his novel Un polvo en condiciones, Francisco González’s translation of A Decent Ride (Anagrama, 2015). This is the tenth novel in Welsh’s long list, which also includes four short story collections and also plays. I decided to attend because I was meeting a friend, not because I’m a fan of the author. As happened, my friend arrived in time for the talk but after admittance to the auditorium was closed–that’s 250 seats. So, there I was, surrounded by 249 persons in a packed house, wondering how many who had rejected the translation aid could really understand Welsh’s Edinburgh brogue (and suspecting he was overdoing it…). About 15 minutes into the talk, two persons walked out, and then a few more–one a woman possible in her sixties, who did have the translation aid but, my guess, didn’t know who Welsh was (some members of the public will attend any literary presentation) and had left… in disgust at the obscene humour? Yet, when I left, towards the end of the q&a segment, 75 minutes later, there were people still queuing. I didn’t know Welsh had such loyal fandom.

Actually, I have a tale to tell. This was back in 2005 and Irvine Welsh came to Barcelona to present a new translation (Anagrama, which publishes his books, used to bring all prominent UK authors to the British Council thanks to the good offices of a now retired head of cultural affairs). The book was probably Glue–I’m not sure–but one thing I recall is that I had never seen, in years of attending, any presentation as crowded as that one… and with so many men!! In the q&a segment I did ask Welsh whether he saw himself as a writer specifically addressing men, and how he connected with his female readers–I don’t recall the exact words but he replied something along the lines that he hoped women found his books anyway interesting. Like many others, women and men, I consider Welsh’s first novel Trainspotting (1993) a great achievement. As a newly arrived PhD student in Glasgow, in 1994, I couldn’t help noticing the black book with the guys in silver skull masks on the cover, so frequently seen on the metro and the buses in the hands of young readers. I was fascinated by the phenomenon and I was subsequently fascinated by the text (once I could make sense of the dialect!)–I do have a copy signed by Welsh on that day of 2005.

I also have a peculiar personal memory. The British Council kindly invited me to stay for dinner and I found myself sitting between Welsh and his new wife, Beth Quinn, a Chicago native. I suspect that Welsh does not care for academics and, so, the moment I was introduced to him was, more or less, the last moment he spoke to me, despite my efforts. Perhaps the man is shy. In contrast, I found myself deep in conversation with Quinn, who, embarrassingly for me, chose to discuss the very personal topic of whether she should have children immediately, wait, or never have them. Welsh was then 46 (he was born in 1959); Beth, his second wife, 23. He had divorced Anne Antsy, his wife since 1984, and dedicatee of Trainspotting, in 2003. I was so enchanted young Beth and she was so absolutely full of very American charm and candour, that when we said goodbye, and I can’t believe I did this…, I shook Welsh’s hand and told him ‘you take care of your wife, she’s wonderful’. He said he would. The relationship has lasted for 15 years, until 2017–and they never had children.

So, yes, maybe I’m a bit prejudiced against Welsh because the social skills he displayed over that dinner were not top-notch, but, then, I trust that Beth Quinn was happy with him for a long time and, so, this is in his favour, absolutely! What makes me bristle at his novels is, rather, the glamorisation of a type of laddish masculinity that few women, if any, can abide. He is, clearly, still not thinking of his women readers, which is why his candid exposé of the dregs of the masculine underworld is, ironically, so useful to us: because we learn a lot.

Welsh is fully aware, as he acknowledged once more yesterday, that he occupies an extremely unstable position for, although he claims to be still surrounded by the working-class male friends of his youth, at the same time he is an educated man (with an MA) who makes a living writing novels–hardly a cultural product that interests men like his mates. No wonder then that, as he joked, they monitor him constantly for signs of his going soft (too middle-class), whereas he is transparently using his books to prove that he is in possession of a macho bravado that few, if any contemporary novelists, have. His presenter yesterday (Spanish novelist Kiko Amat) and most of the audience (except the grey-haired lady who left and yours truly) found it hilarious that A Decent Ride has so many penis jokes. I found the excitement with Welsh’s gross prose quite boyish, which in this context is not a word of praise.

Welsh defined himself as a brand, and he is right–specifically, he is a one-trick pony: a writer stuck in his Trainspotting universe while he himself and his characters age. This is neither good nor bad. He lives and works, however, in constant tension to prove to the reviewers he claims not to care for that he is not a literary writer. In his logic, he cannot be one because he is too prolific (lack of time was the reason he invoked to justify his disinterest in the reviews) but, then, his books are clearly unique and belong in no known genre, except the sub-genre of the ‘Irivine Welsh novel’. Anyone who has read Marabou Stork Nightmares can tell you that Welsh is an extremely ambitious literary novelist doing his best to undermine any possible reputation as such.

Thus, in order to prove to himself that he cannot be touched by the critics because he is not a literary writer of the kind that is shortlisted for the Booker Man Prize, Welsh spins increasingly delirious tales of men gone wrong and doing unspeakable things, or provoking them. The in-your-face scatology grows with each novel and is humorous if you’re already interested in that kind of bodily, iconoclastic comedy but it also produces a feeling of déjà vu and a sad impression that Welsh refuses to grow up as a writer. His staunchest fans are actually loyal to the spirit of Trainspotting and will buy anything he publishes (or queue to see him in the flesh) but they do so in a spirit of mateship, so to speak, than of readerly pleasure.

I’m re-reading these days Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series, now about to reach its 22nd instalment with In a House of Lies (to be published in October), and I was wondering how his Edinburgh and Welsh’s Edinburgh overlap. Rankin’s villain, Big Ger Cafferty, uses his taxi business as a cover for drug dealing at one point, and the protagonist of Welsh’s A Decent Ride is a self-employed taxi driver. Does Big Ger know this Terry Lawson, I wondered? Has he at any point done business with Sick Boy? Has Rebus ever arrested any of the Leith crew in Trainspotting? How would Rebus fare in a Welsh novel? Has he read, perhaps, Filth and enjoyed the exploits of Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson? Has Frank ‘Franco’ Begbie ever read a Rankin novel?

It’s funny how we accept such separate literary universes as representation of the same city, and even of the same circles, and how authors highlight each other’s strengths and foibles. After a dose of Rankin, Welsh seems dirtier than ever; after a dose of Welsh, Rankin seems over-polite. And it’s funny how you have no doubts of who the bigger literary artist is. Rankin is very good at spinning convoluted plots held together by extra-thin threads–his Rebus novels are very clever spider webs–but in his novels the prose is limpid and the main word-games are found only in Rebus’ sometimes obscure banter. Welsh, in contrast, elevates to literary art the prose one finds in elevator and loo graffiti, while pretending he just has a good ear. It may not be to everyone’s liking, not even the author, but Mr. Welsh you do write Literature. Please, note that Kiko Amat mentioned Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961) as a referent to understand Welsh’s work, and who doubts that Céline wrote Literature?

Amat also argued that perhaps it would be in Welsh’s benefit to be as dead as the French author because then he would be a proper cult author for the reluctant critics. This was Amat’s polite way of hinting that perhaps Welsh should have stopped writing once he published Trainspotting. After all, Emily Brontë only wrote Wuthering Heights–the Trainspotting of 1848– and then she died at 30, and look at her! Imagine, if you can, twelve more novels by Ms. Emily dealing with the same characters and environments, and you can understand Welsh’s problem.

Another unsubtle thing Amat said is that if you don’t enjoy the gross-out factor in Welsh’s novels and his kinky humour this is because you’re a prude, which barely concealed a misogynistic taunt, as he really meant ‘a prudish woman’. This is a type of justification that admits no counter-argument because if you acknowledge your prudishness then you’re done for in our heavily sexualized times, and if you reply that you’re unprejudiced but just don’t like vulgar humour, then you sound prissy anyway. As Stuart Kelly put it in his very negative review of Welsh’s novel in The Guardian, ‘The tired old rebuttal is “it’s a satire and you don’t have a sense of humour”. But listen. What’s that? It’s the sound of no one laughing. There is a faint and distant sniggering, though. If anyone parts with £12.99 for this, they’re being taken for a ride’. Not having read A Decent Ride yet, I cannot say whether it is indeed a scam perpetrated on pliant readers but, at least, I’m satisfied that not all men enjoy Welsh’s kind of laddish, boyish or childish humour, whatever you prefer.

There’s a slumming factor here at work that I need to unpack and that is verging on the dangerous side of snobbery. Welsh may be working-class originally but he is, I insist, an educated, middle-class writer reproducing in his works an idiolect conditioned by class and regional markers, with its peculiar humour. He has built his reputation on building characters that sound genuine and that you might recognize in certain areas of Edinburgh (perhaps as they used to be, not as they are now). He is doing, so to speak, literary-anthropological work for the benefit of his middle-class readers (perhaps mostly declassed readers with a working-class background) and presenting the ‘life of the others’ as humorous material.

I’m not about to suggest that this is cultural appropriation or politically incorrect in any way. What I’m saying is that Welsh’s novels are yet further proof that the working-classes have not been yet given a dignified literary representation which is neither sentimental nor humoristic. I’ll mention, however, William McIlvanney’s novels Docherty (1975) and The Big Man (1985), as an example of how Scottish fiction can offer better portraits of working-class masculinity beyond Welsh’s shenanigans. Incidentally, McIlvanney’s Laidlaw (1977) started the Tartan Noir tradition from which Rankin’s John Rebus descends (the first novel, Knots and Crosses was published in 1987). I cannot recommend enough McIlvanney’s elegant The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983), with dour Inspector Jack Laidlaw.

I wish I could have asked the 249+ persons attending Welsh’s talk with Amat why they were there. Perhaps in a city of 1,500,000 million, this is a tiny figure. I had an easy excuse: I’m a Literature teacher, and I have even taught Trainspotting (well, the film rather than the book, try to have second-language students read Welsh…). Was it celebrity? Was it a the memory of handsome Ewan McGregor, no matter how Rent-onized? For, and this is one last nasty barb, if you think that reading Welsh in translation is reading Welsh at all… you’re being taken for an (in)decent ride…

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE IDEA AND THE EFFECT: NOSTALGIA FOR THE 1980s (IN READY PLAYER ONE AND STRANGER THINGS)

September 10th, 2018

I have just gone through the second season of the acclaimed series Netflix Stranger Things (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4574334/) and I’m currently reading Ernest Cline’s SF novel Ready Player One (2011, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ready_Player_One), the object of a recent film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg and scripted by Cline himself. This is the second time I try to read Cline’s novel and if I’m trying again it is not because I enjoyed the movie version. Rather, the negative comments on the film by the novel’s staunchest fans have inspired me with the patience I need to finish Ready Player One, if only for academic reasons.

My impatience with Ready Player One and also with Stranger Things is motivated by their second-handness, if that word exists, which is in its turn based on their (mis)use of the 1980s. Allow me to explain.

Cline’s novel takes place in 2044 (Wade Watts, the 17-year-old protagonist, is born in 2027) and narrates the obsessive hunt for an Easter egg in the virtual environment of the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a search which will grant the winner a formidable reward. Life on Earth is on the decline because an unsolvable energy crisis has pushed civilization to the brink of total collapse; instead of using their brains to try to redress this crisis, though, most people prefer to live a second life (if you get the allusion) in the MMOSG (massively multiplayer online simulation game) created presumably in the mid-2030s by James Halliday and Ogden Morrow, of Gregarious Simulation Systems. The late Halliday, obsessed with the pop-culture of his 1980s youth, has shaped the hunt for the treasure buried in OASIS with a string of obscure leads that only individuals with a vast knowledge of his preferred decade can follow. Wade is one among the many ‘gunters’ (egg hunters) that accumulate a vast erudition of 1980s pop-culture, supplemented by the videogame-playing skills which he needs to solve each of Halliday’s riddles.

Ernest Cline was born in 1972, thus, he was 8 in 1980 and 18 in 1990. Indeed, only an original 1980s teen could have the detailed knowledge that Cline displays in Ready Player One: no research starting from scratch could be as convincing. Yet, this is what Cline supposes for Wade. The way US society is organized, children can choose to be educated in the virtual schools of virtual planet Ludus in the OASIS to receive a basic, compulsory education in a more orderly environment that presential schools can offer. This education also includes electives on the OASIS, the equivalent of teaching school children about current social media as part of the school curriculum. Except for the mandatory school time (and sleep), however, Wade spends all his other waking hours also in the OASIS but learning about the 1980s and interacting with other similarly obsessed people. He claims to have consumed basically all of 1980s videogames, popular films and TV, commercials, novels and music.

I was frankly amused by Cline’s view of teen erudition for, although adolescents of the nerdish variety tend to be extremely well self-educated they usually apply their efforts to their own era. I have never ever met a nerd (and I consider myself one) interested in the culture of sixty years before, as is Wade’s case. I stand corrected: yes, I have met many–they’re called academics and can be found in the Humanities schools of our universities but not in secondary schools.

The Ready Player One Wikia claims that James Donovan Halliday was born in 1972, just as Cline, and died in 2039 so, again, it makes perfect sense that as a 1980s nerd he built all these references into the adventure that obsesses the ‘gunters’. Now, I was born in 1966 and was a teenager through the 1980s, and one thing I can tell you is that young people in that decade were characterized by an abhorrence of seeming old-fashioned. That’s how I recall it. There were ‘retro’ touches in the ubiquitous use of shoulder pads and in other matters but the idea of a 1980s teen obsessing with 1920s pop-culture (the sixty year gap in Ready Player One) is totally preposterous. The 1950s were often a reference (in re-makes like John Carpenter’s The Thing of 1982) but the general idea was increasing creativity and looking forward. You can see evidence of this trend in how spectacularly Carpenter’s movie outdoes Nyby’s The Thing from Another World (1951) in all fronts. This had nothing to do with the current obsession with recycling 1980s culture, too deferential to be truly innovative. I’m 100% sure that The Predator, a remake of John McTiernan’s 1987 Predator to be released next week, will soon be forgotten as the mere copy it is.

There is then a contradiction embedded in Ready Player One signified by the very different cultural positions occupied by Cline/Halliday and Wade (and friends): the former makes sense, the latter is an absurdity. So absurd, in fact, that when Spielberg made the film he eliminated the many references Cline makes to his own 1980s films (other references to the 1980s had to be abandoned because of the high cost of rights). If you think about it, Spielberg is the last director that should have tackled Cline’s novel for, evidently, even he realized that he could hardly pay homage to himself! When I saw the movie with my husband, another 1980s teen, we went ‘oh!’ and ‘ah!’ every time we caught a clever allusion, yet at the same time I was bothered by a) how could the retro allusions make sense to the Millennials and to Generation Z?, b) I never played videogames in the 1980s (or now). Actually, many of the pop-culture achievements celebrated in Ready Player One as central to 1980s were products I absolutely hated; others, I simply missed. I saw Heathers (1988) only a few weeks ago, and Cocteau Twins rather than Thompson Twins (and I mean the Sheffield band, not Tintin’s characters) blew my mind as a teen. There was not only one version of the 1980s but many, yet I see a canon being formed which excludes the original variety. I know that this is the same for all decades but I am now living this process as part of my own personal biography, and I find it utterly reductive.

Stranger Things, created by twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, born in 1984, provokes another kind of impatience, that of the product that enjoys behind second-hand. The Duffer Brothers, as they call themselves (in allusion to the Blues Brothers?) were 1990s teens, and, so, I’ll argue that Stranger Things is a series created by Millennials (born 1984-1999), enjoyed by Generation Z (born in the 21st century) but actually inspired by the cultural experience of Generation X (born 1965-1983), mostly based on texts by Babyboomers (born 1945-1964). Stephen King, a major referent in Stranger Things, was born in 1947; his novel Firestarter, a main intertext for the Duffers’ series, was published in 1980 and filmed in 1984 (with a young Drew Barrymore). King was a favourite with my own generation, and we are responsible for taking him with us into (academic) respectability, of which we convinced the Millennials. They have enchanted Generation Z audiences with the tale of Eleven and her friends in the same way King enchanted us. But… the Duffers are not King, for, whereas they are King recyclers, King is as original as one can be.

I am bored stiff by Stranger Things precisely because I notice the recycling. One thing is the new version of It (2017), based on King’s novel of 1986, and quite another matter is presenting pseudo-King as a great novelty. Generation Z audiences logically love Stranger Things because the plot is new to them and because kids like them are central to it. This pleasure, however, is not easily shared – we, 1980s relics, notice, rather, how Winona Ryder has aged from her days as Lydia in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). Also, the moment I read the name Paul Reiser in the second season credits I shouted ‘spoiler!’ for the Burke of Aliens (1986) was bound to play a shifty scientist. The multilayered approach aimed at offering a series enjoyable by all family members results, rather, in a cacophony and creates a conversation at cross purposes with Generation Z. Notice that Ready Player One’s message is that the 1980s were an awesome generator of texts worth knowing first hand, as Wade does. Stranger Things, in contrast, appropriates the culture of the 1980s as its temporal background, but hardly mentions any names and titles. Do the kids in the series ever say that Eleven is like someone straight out of any of the King novels they must be reading?

What truly irks me about Ready Player One and Stranger Things, in the end, is that they aim at producing the same effect 1980s pop-culture had but by re-issuing the original ideas, hence their second-handedness. The much more important matter is that they reflect, though it might seem the opposite, a lack of actual dialogue with the past. In Wade’s future the OASIS works as a kind of universal multi-media library and, so, he can directly access any 1980s texts first-hand, which is the only way to be conversant with the past. Of course, the hunting of the Easter egg provides a major enticement to acquire a solid education in 1980s pop-culture–Cline does not explain what happens to the rest of literally unrewarding culture. I am sure that many Generation Z kids will be curious to know what inspires Strangers Things and, thus, enter that dialogue with the past but if the Duffer Brothers can get away with their parasitical stance, this is because there are no longer massively shared media that keep the 1980s alive. Generation Z does not watch TV, where you can still catch The Goonies now and then, and for reasons that I will never ever understand the healthy habit of the cinema re-release (and double-feature sessions) was lost some time in the late 1980s (wasn’t it?).

My point is not that things were better in the 1980s – this is what texts like Ready Player One and Stranger Things claim! My point, rather, is that each generation needs their own culture and referents, and that this cult of the second-hand is counterproductive. I am not saying ‘don’t touch my Predator’ (well, maybe I am!); what I am saying is, if you’re interested in the 1980s, then see the McTiernan movie and read King’s novels (don’t forget Cocteau Twins!) but make sure you have a culture of your own that kids in sixty years’ time can marvel at.

If this is happening, then I am happy for you, Millennials Generation-Zers and but is it really happening…?

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THEORIZING CHARACTER: A FEW POINTERS

September 3rd, 2018

I have suggested to one of my prospective doctoral students to consider studying the configuration of secondary characters (in Harry Potter) for his dissertation and, so, I have embarked on a small bibliographical search to see what is available generally speaking on characters. This post is a record of my failure to find much of significance and implicitly a call for your suggestions.

As usual, I have started with the MLA database, which to my infinite surprise carries no entry for a monographic or collective volume on ‘character’. You get hundreds of entries, mostly journal articles, with analyses of this or that character but nothing systematic that can be used as a departure point to study this central concept. Next, I have turned to WorldCat, where I have found a couple of academic books with the title ‘character’. They have turned out to be studies on moral philosophy within ‘Virtue Ethics’ (https://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_virtue_ethics.html). Here ‘character’ is used in the sense of personal identity that needs to be fortified in order to make adequate ethical decisions. Interesting! And how Victorian!

Next, I have turned to the Spanish database Dialnet, in search of anything on ‘personaje’. Here are some of the most relevant results:

*La construcción del personaje, Konstantin Stanislavskiï, Alianza Editorial, 1999.
*El personaje novelesco, coord. Marina Mayoral, Cátedra/Ministerio de Cultura, 1990.
*Más allá del personaje, José Javier Muñoz, Confederación Española de Gremios y Asociaciones de Libreros, 1996.
*Teoría del personaje, Carlos Castilla del Pino, Alianza Editorial, 1989.
*La condición del personaje, Álvaro Salvador, Caja General de Ahorros de Granada, 1992.
*El personaje teatral, Jesús G. Maestro, Universidade de Vigo, 1998.
*Personaje dramático y actor, César Oliva Olivares, Universidad de Murcia, 2004.

What do we have here, then? Very little!! 20th century research, with one exception; books that are hard or impossible to find and, in any case, more of interest in the field of drama than of the novel. Marina Mayoral’s collective volume gathers together the papers presented in a seminar and cannot be the type of systematic study that should exist but does not exist… but at least it is something…

Of course, E.M. Forster made a famous (or infamous) distinction in Aspects of the Novel (1927) between flat and round characters and most specialists in Literary Studies are content to pass it on our students with no further thought. This is, however, a very limited impressionistic difference of little actual use. I may be completely off the track but it appears that the major academic book in English on characters is W.J. Harvey’s Character and the Novel published in 1965, yes, +50 years old (see https://ia801601.us.archive.org/31/items/in.ernet.dli.2015.459267/2015.459267.Character-And-The-Novel.pdf). Its most recent edition is dated 1970, which gives an important clue about when the study of character went out of fashion. There is an article by Mark Spilka, Martin Price, Julian Moynahan and Arnold Weinstein called “Character as a Lost Cause” published in 1978 (NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 3, Spring 1978, 197-217) so, let’s say, for the sake of the argument that 1980 marked a turning point.

The article by Fernando Sánchez Alonso, “Teoría del personaje narrativo (Aplicación a El amor en los tiempos del cólera)”, in Didáclica (10, 79-105, 1993, https://revistas.ucm.es/index.php/DIDA/article/viewFile/DIDA9898110079A/19784, offers in its abstract an interesting summary of the issue: (my translation and my italics) “In this article, we try to explore our understanding of character as well as explain the reasons why its study has fallen into disrepute in modern literary theory in comparison to its prestige in Greco-Latin and Renaissance poetics; we examine character next in relation to psychoanalysis and society to finally explain how it is built and which kinds of character there are.” That is to say: in the 1980s stylistics lost ground to the forces of identity politics, whether on an individual basis (Freud and company) or in the context of representation (need I explain this?). Narratology, though, opened other ways to consider character, of which an example is Francisco Álamo Felices’ article “La caracterización del personale novelesco: Perspectivas narratológicas” (Signa 15, 2006, 189-213), which I must recommend for its thoroughness in presenting the case. I must say, in any case, that his bibliography does not include any text dealing specifically with characters but mainly with narratology–as it should be expected from the title.

Here I open a brief parenthesis to note that I personally disagree with the application of psychoanalysis to the study of character, which was pioneered by Freud’s reading of Prince Hamlet as an individual manifestedly suffering from Oedipus complex. A character is a construction, not a person. If we have to psychoanalyse anyone that should be the author but this is not at all a strategy I would endorse. Now, being myself extremely guilty of exploiting character traits to endorse this or that aspect of gender representation, I must insist that it is precisely because I am researching representation that I find the gap in the study of characterization so worrying. We need to understand collectively much better what kind of stylistic device a character is to see how innovation is produced, hence contribute to a better kind of representation for specific identities.

It has finally occurred to me that the obvious place to find volumes about characters in fiction (and here I mean novels, short stories, drama, film, TV… all kinds) is in creative writing. Here’s the list of 115 books with the words “creating characters” in their title offered by WorldCat (https://www.worldcat.org/search?q=ti%3A%22creating+characters%22&qt=results_page), and here’s the shorter list (88 volumes) of ‘Books for Writers’ that you may find in GoodReads: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/13705.Books_For_Writers

Allow me to highlight a few titles, with the word ‘character’ in them, though I think we can safely assume that all these books offer instruction about characterization (please do read Stephen King’s On Writing):
*Characters and Viewpoint by top science fiction and fantasy writer Orson Scott Card
*Creating Unforgettable Characters by Linda Seger, a very well known name in the field of creative screenwriting
*Creating Characters: How to Build Story People by Dwight V. Swain
*Characterization and Sensory Detail (Writing Active Setting #1) by Mary Buckham
* The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
*Bullies, Bastards and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction by Jessica Page Morrell

Here’s the daring thing to do: incorporate all this ‘advice literature’ to the academic study of character. I know that this is not as straightforward as I am suggesting here for, when read from an academic point of view, these volumes can be problematic. We are not used to their pragmatic approach, which clashes with our textual heuristic, etc. It might also be the case that, at least speaking for myself, I distrust this type of book because at heart I think that authors should know without being told how to build a character from reading other authors–and I know this is silly.

So far I have only mentioned ‘character’ in general, without distinguishing between protagonists and secondary characters. This is one of my pet obsessions these days: that secondary characters reveal the true tensions in the text. But… what does secondary mean? Think, for the sake of argumentation, of Mercutio and Count Paris in Romeo and Juliet: neither is a main character like those in the title, yet we can see that Count Paris is of lesser importance because he has few lines. However, if you think about it, you could take Mercutio off the play and the plot would still work (you could have Romeo slay Tybalt for another stupid, macho reason), whereas if you eliminate Count Paris the plot collapses–his arranged engagement to Juliet is the reason why she marries Romeo secretly and in such a hurry, as she does not want to marry her father’s choice. It makes no sense at all, as I’m sure you see, that secondary characters have been overlooked with such intensity in Literary Studies, with very few exceptions (the monographic issue of Belphégor, 2003, http://dalspace.library.dal.ca/handle/10222/31210).

In drama a ‘spear carrier’ is the nickname that actors in walk-on parts with no dialogue receive. The film equivalent would be the character seen but not heard–poor Álex González made his Hollywood debut in X: First Class, part of the X-Men franchise, appearing in the credits as Janos Quested/Riptide though he had no lines. A glorified spear carrier, then. I amused myself by asking some literary colleagues what is the minimum we need in print fiction to define a character as such: is a name enough? There was no agreement… These are examples to make you see that the problem is not simply that we do not know how to approach fully developed characters–we don’t even understand the spectrum of characterization connecting spear carriers and main characters, nor where to draw the line between kinds of secondary characters.

Plenty of work to do, then…

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

46 VOLUMES, 200 HOURS: BENITO PÉREZ GALDÓS’ EPISODIOS NACIONALES

August 20th, 2018

I have now completed the project of reading Benito Pérez Galdós’ five series of novels generically known as the Episodios nacionales (1872-1912), which I started back in January 2017. I could have finished earlier but I have delayed reading the last series about half a year because I wanted to keep attached to Galdós’ lucid view of 19th century Spanish History for as long as possible. It has been an immense pleasure, though also a disheartening lesson about who we are here in this corner of Southern Europe.

To my surprise, when I told a colleague in the Spanish Department that I was about to finish the Episodios–a big smile on my face, hoping the revelation would bring a torrent of positive comment–he asked me with total puzzlement ‘but why? You’re a specialist in English Studies!’. I must have looked so confused that he added ‘I mean, few researchers in Spanish Literature have read the Episodios, so why have you put yourself through the task?’ This left me utterly flabbergasted. If a colleague in the Spanish Department announced to me that s/he had read the complete works of Charles Dickens, I would offer congratulations, not commiseration. Poor don Benito, everyone still believes he is a ‘garbancero’–a chickpea merchant!–as Valle Inclán maliciously called him. Or perhaps with a little bit of envy, who knows?

I have read the Episodios using my Kindle (the 46 novels are available from dominiopublico.com in a rather nice edition) and, so, I cannot tell how thick each paper volume is. The 2005 Alianza paperback edition is about 200 pages per book. Considering that I read fast, each episode has taken me between 3 and 4 hours, a bit longer in some cases. To round numbers, that’s 184 hours or, if you want to stretch it a bit more, let’s say 200 hours. That would be the equivalent of about 100 films or 267 TV series episodes (45 minutes each, American style). This is like watching all of The X-Files (150 episodes) and Lost (118), which I have done, to my immense regret in the case of Lost (because of its moronic ending). I’m offering this information, silly as it may sound, in case you might consider joining the club of the Episodios’ admirers, whether you’re a specialist in Spanish Literature, in Quantum Physics, or a plain reader.

Galdós’ Episodios are a series, and although they were published along four decades (which means that original readers in their twenties finished them in their sixties!) they can be read as a single story, as I have done, in the same spirit we watch series on the screen. Reading, of course, is more demanding than watching, no matter how easily Galdós’ prose can be followed (which does not mean it is simple), but, on the whole, I get the impression that writers like Dickens and Galdós prefigure somehow current TV series. Today perhaps they would have been series’ screenwriters, something quite easy to imagine because both loved the theatre and were proficient at writing dialogue, on which all screen writing logically depends.

Reading the Episodios is a double experience in readerly endurance (and satisfaction) and in historical awareness. Galdós had an obvious didactic intention, expressed on these two fronts: he combines the specific lives of his attractive characters (I mean as rounded creations, not as physically beautiful persons, though they often are) with his cleverly managed History lessons. Instead of directly placing well-known historical figures at the centre of each episode, his protagonists are fictional characters in touch with their real-life counterparts one way or another. This creates a wonderful effect, for the Episodios deal both with the History shaped by the great figures and with the history of the more ordinary people around them–the novels are not a dry lesson enlivened by using historical characters in a puppet-like fashion but a slice of life. At the same time, Galdós’ technique incites you to consider what it would be like to turn current political life into fiction in this way, with the likes of King Felipe VI, Carles Puigdemont or Pablo Iglesias in the pages of a novel focused on someone very much like any of us, working as our delegate in the texts.

Most likely, the Episodios are best appreciated in a second reading, for the cast of characters is simply impressive and I suspect that many connections between them are missed in the process of simply getting on with the long reading. Many things have surprised me, above all that Galdós’ is far more open about sexuality than one may imagine for a late 19th/early 20th century Spanish writer, not only regarding his male characters but also the women. Another strong point is his ability to connect high and low, so that as readers we get to meet monarchs but also many marginal characters, with some even rising from rags to riches along several episodes.

The historical span is, of course, also enormous, for the series opens with Trafalgar (the battle took place in 1805) and closes with Cánovas (Antonio Cánovas del Castillo was the Spanish ‘Presidente del Consejo de Ministros’ several times between 1875 and 1897). This also means that whereas in the case of the first novel Galdós was writing about events happened 65 years before, the time lag had been reduced to 15 years when he wrote the last one. Incidentally, it must be noted that the fifth series is incomplete, running only to six rather than ten volumes, though I have been unable to find an explanation for why Galdós abandoned the Episodios. His last decade (he died in 1920) was particularly intense, specially after being elected an MP for his native Gran Canaria in 1914 (as a republican) when he was an ill, blind man past 70. That might be explanation enough.

The main doubt I felt before embarking on my reading of the Episodios was whether they demand from the reader a sound knowledge of Spanish History. I have not done any systematic study of this area since my years in secondary school and I’m far more confident naming the periods and monarchs of British History than of Spanish History. Our 19th century is, besides, an unbelievable chaos, with constant changes in the Government and administration, the series of civil wars provoked by the absolutist ultra-Catholic Carlists, and the love-hate relationship with the reigning Borbón dynasty. This resulted in the exile of Isabel II, the crowning of Italian Amadeo de Saboya as her unlikely replacement, and the disastrous first Republic–a complete shambles. Galdós, as I soon saw, has a transparent informative style and, so, I needed no textbook on the basics of 19th century Spanish History. I have used Wikipedia often, sometimes to check that specific events happened as Galdós narrates them (they did), other times to take a look at portraits of real-life characters. A scant knowledge of the 19th century complex political background is, then, no excuse but perhaps even an advantage to follow Galdós’ excellent History lessons.

As I have noted, the Episodios cover basically the whole 19th century. Read at the beginning of the 21st, with the memory of the calamitous 20th century still recent and with Pedro Sánchez’ Government struggling to bury Francisco Franco’s remains elsewhere (an anonymous ditch on any lonely road seems ideal), Galdós’ voice sounds poignant and ominous. The mere presentation of the pathetic, backward Spain he describes is depressing enough but the occasional authorial comments about, for instance, the absurdity of the carnage caused by the Carlist wars, highlight how we are collectively condemned to repeating the same mistakes. You see the Civil War (1936-39) coming already in the first Carlist War (1833-40), and I marvel that the Borbón monarchs have managed to stay on the throne in view of how their ancestors misbehaved.

Although the fifth series was never finished, as I have noted, the last novel, Cánovas, contains an often quoted pseudo-conclusion. Once Parliamentary monarchy had been installed under Alfonso XII and a democratic two-party system set, with Cánovas on the conservative side and Práxedes Mateo Sagasta on the liberal one, Galdós concludes: “Los dos partidos que se han concordado para turnar pacíficamente en el poder, son dos manadas de hombres que no aspiran más que a pastar en el presupuesto. Carecen de ideales, ningún fin elevado les mueve, no mejorarán en lo más mínimo las condiciones de vida de esta infeliz raza pobrísima y analfabeta. Pasarán unos tras otros dejando todo como hoy se halla, y llevarán a España a un estado de consunción que de fijo ha de acabar en muerte. No acometerán ni el problema religioso, ni el económico, ni el educativo; no harán más que burocracia pura, caciquismo, estéril trabajo de recomendaciones, favores a los amigotes, legislar sin ninguna eficacia práctica, y adelante con los farolitos…” (original ellipsis)

The death foreseen in this passage, caused by the inaction of the two parties which these men headed, gave me a terrible chill, for, of course, this is the Civil War with its million dead, still 25 years ahead on the horizon when Galdós wrote these words. At the same time, the same ills still abound in current politics, though Spain is today richer and less illiterate. For all these reasons, I certainly would make the Episodios compulsory reading at least for aspiring politicians and then for the rest of us. As historian George Santayana once stated, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. It is less than one year ago that I read the words ‘Civil War’ in relation to current Spain in the pages of The Guardian. An exaggeration, hopefully, but also a reminder that we are locked in the same conflicts that Galdós narrates and that brought so much misery 80 years ago.

Among recent academic work on the Episodios I’d like to mention Mary A. Kempen’s PhD dissertation Concepts of the Nation and Nationalism in Benito Pérez Galdós’s Episodios Nacionales (2007, U. Wisconsin). The same American university awarded a PhD to Glenn Ross Barr back in 1937 for his pioneering dissertation A Census of the Characters of the Episodios Nacionales of Benito Pérez Galdós (618 pages!). Checking Worldcat and other sources, it is easy to see that a great deal of the academic analysis of the Episodios has been produced in English by Hispanists in the United States. I’ll add, for good measure, Mary Louise Coffey’s The Episodios Nacionales: A Sociological Study of the Historical Novels of Benito Pérez Galdós (1997, Northwestern University).

In contrast, TESEO only offers three titles of dissertations on the Episodios written in Spain, all on partial aspects such as the press, communications and the most recent one, youth and childhood (2017). Happily, there is at least one notable collective volume, La historia de España en Galdós: Análisis y procesos de elaboración de los Episodios nacionales (U Vigo, 2012), edited by M. Dolores Troncoso Durán, Salvador García Castañeda and Carmen Luna Sellés. It seems, however, very little homage, on the whole, to Galdós’ magnificent achievement from his fellow Spaniards. Perhaps he makes us feel uncomfortable with our shortcomings and he is easier to approach from other cultures, such as the United States.

Trust me: if you’re minimally interested in understanding Spain, the Episodios nacionales are what you need. They’re not a dried-up mummy but a living body, worth the effort of reading them–if that is an effort at all. Stay away from Netflix and use the 200 hours you were going to waste on all those series going nowhere to read Galdós’ own unique series. Or bully Netflix into adapting the Episodios

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WHEN CULTURE ONLY INTERESTS WOMEN, PATRIARCHY WINS

August 14th, 2018

A couple of months ago, El Confidencial published an interview with former film director and screenwriter Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón (https://www.elconfidencial.com/cultura/2018-06-15/manuel-gutierrez-aragon-ojo-cielo-libro_1577791/). The occasion was the publication of his new novel El ojo del cielo, which focuses on four women in his native Cantabria’s Valle del Pas. I saw the interview by mid-July before taking my summer break but some pressing matter prevented me from reading it. Its title, however, “La cultura ya sólo interesa a las mujeres”, has kept nagging me these past weeks.

I got the impression from that title that Gutiérrez Aragón was showing his bitterness about how his very manly work is only appreciated by us women, those inferior creatures. It turns out, reading the interview as I should have done, that he’s expressing the opposite belief: regrettably, men are no longer interested in culture and, so, it’s thanks to women’s generous dedication that culture survives. Blame the journalist (Marta Medina) for distorting the interviewee’s words, hoping to catch more clicks on the link.

Gutiérrez Aragón (Torrelavega, 1942) has an illustrious career as film director and screenwriter, spanning the four decades between 1969 and 2007. He announced his retirement from cinema in 2008, winning the following year the prestigious Premio Herralde with his novel La vida antes de marzo. The new one, El ojo del cielo, is his fourth title. As an artist devoted to cinema, Gutiérrez Aragón has been the winner of an impressive list of major awards, among them a Festival of Berlin’s Silver Bear for Camada negra (1977), two Festival of San Sebastián’s Conchas de Oro for Demonios en el jardín (1982) and La mitad del cielo (1986), and a Goya to the Best Adapted Screenplay for Jarrapellejos (1988). He has a Medalla de Oro de la Academia de las Artes y las Ciencias Cinematográficas de España and the Medalla de Oro al Mérito en las Bellas Artes (both 2012). Why is all this information worth transmitting? A simple reason: if he feels pessimistic about the present and the future of culture because of its low allure for men, we need to listen, for he is a man of culture, and no doubt about it.

In the interview, Gutiérrez Aragón acknowledges that the great dreams of the Transition generation are gone, and that the youngest generation (the ones we call Millennials) must feel very frustrated. He’s very critical of directors like J.A. Bayona and Alejandro Amenábar and of their anglophone fantasy films, and quite bitter with a film business environment that would deny the likes of Ingmar Bergman any chance to direct. Even if winning the lottery allowed Gutiérrez Aragon to make a new film, this would mean nothing, he says, as nobody really cares for culture. Except women. “Right now,” he explains, “theatre, cinema and the novel are dominated by feminine consumption. I don’t think women have a particularly feminine and exclusive outlook; rather, they are keeping the flame of culture alive, women care about reading and going to the cinema. They are the ones in the book clubs, the ones you see on the seats”. Well, thanks for noticing!!

Another article in El Confidencial, “Todos los museos vacíos de España” (https://www.elconfidencial.com/cultura/2018-08-05/museos-vacios-espana-plan-desarrollo-publicos_1601237/) presents the average visitor as a woman in her forties. She alone is maintaining most Spanish museums open while, above all, male teenagers, families with young children and senior citizens above 65 (unless they visit as part of a group) stay away from them. I recently saw the excellent exhibition on Auschwitz in Madrid (open until 7 October) and I did notice that there were some pairs of teen girl friends visiting but not of teen boys. Of course, this was no place to see families with young children and, so, there were few but I would say that there was a majority of women, many on their own. Most men were accompanied by a woman friend or partner.

This is a common pattern whenever I attend any cultural activity: all are full of ageing ladies like yours truly, and conspicuously empty of young men. I will also stress that whenever I see two or three men together you can bet they are gay, which shows that the ones fast losing interest in culture are not all men but, specifically, heterosexual men. If you push me a little, it will come out: the individuals with little interest in culture are the patriarchal men who, realising that they cannot control it and that their opinions are not revered, reject culture as the territory of women and gay men. Hardly a new idea, but there it is.

In contrast, back in the 1980s when I was a young girl, I doubt that any secondary school lacked a pair of male heterosexual friends who knew everything about culture, and often used a snobbish approach to flirting with the less enlightened pretty girls. You could see that these guys were not really interested in culture since they would not discuss it with the better learned girls, pretty or otherwise. It seems that as more and more girls started exploring culture on their own, the patriarchal male snobs stopped seeing the point of erudition. There is, by the way, a delicious mockery of the type in this wonderful film, Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017). Interestingly, odious Kyle is played by Timothée Chalamet, who did a great job of playing the only truly cultured teen boy of recent fiction (novel and cinema): Elio in Call Me by Your Name. His story with Oliver, a young learned scholar in his twenties, is set in the 1980s. You can tell that today Elio would face a very hard time in high school, not so much for his sexual choices as for his truly amazing thirst for knowledge.

Culture, of course, comes in many manifestations and teen boys play a major role in many of its aspects, such as sports (including e-sports), music, comic and illustration, videogames, design, and so on. I assume that some teen boys still feel the urge to write Literature in any of its levels and genres, paint and sculpt, play classical music, sing opera, dance ballet… and all the many aspects of fine culture. I will also assume that increasing homophobia and misogyny are making it harder than ever for heterosexual teen boys to pursue careers which require great erudition in one aspect of high culture, unless their families, of course, are equally erudite. Despite Billy Eliot (2000), every time I attend my nieces’ dance festivals I see two boys for every forty girls, and you can tell which one asked his parents to register him for ballet school and which one did not (and was possibly forced by his mum).

I think I’ll blame in particular the obtuse masculinist sub-culture we import from the United States for the current terrifying transformation of European young men into active snubbers of culture, which is worse than being ignorant for no fault of your own. Constant bullying into patriarchal illiteracy is fast undermining young men’s contact with ambitious creativity and fast spreading the idea that learning can only appeal to women and gay men–never mind that some gays are also patriarchal and that not at all are highly sensitive, as the stereotype goes. The same applies to women: not all are eager to visit museums or jump at the chance of going to the theatre. I would say that the ones more interested in culture are a sub-set in each social class, with, perhaps, the main group in the upper working-class and the middle-class but not really in the upper classes. Just an educated guess.

A reader reacted to Gutiérrez Aragón’s comments complaining against political correctness and its imposition of a general mediocrity; despite the neutral nick, you can easily see that this is a man complaining against the production of culture by women, which is telling because Aragón refers specifically to women’s consumption, not production, of culture. Women have always been, one way or another, great consumers of culture, even when they were allowed to approach it only in small numbers. What is happening, then, is not really that women are flooding the territory of culture but that men are withdrawing at a ridiculous fast pace that will leave them stranded in the tiniest possible corner.

The Japanese universities that have fraudulently limited female students’ presence in their Schools of Medicine, with a 20-30% cap, (https://www.ft.com/content/54e98c1e-9c54-11e8-9702-5946bae86e6d) have been protecting, obviously, men’s entitlement to this area of knowledge. In the School of Humanities where I work, in contrast, young men have withdrawn willingly, leaving culture in the hands of their female peers in an 80%-20% proportion, or worse (for them, not for the young women). Funnily, many universities are running campaigns to increase the presence of female graduates above 20% in degrees like Engineering but nobody is telling young men that they should be interested in culture and in the Humanities. And they should, if only because a truly thriving culture must integrate a diversity of voices, and the male ones are also needed–without the patriarchal discourse. This is not mere political correctness but an active anti-patriarchal stance and plain logic: diversity cannot be built on a hierarchical basis, and this is what patriarchy is about, maintaining power-hungry hierarchy and privileging just a few.

The problem is that we are importing, also from the United States, a paralyzing model of male behaviour. Gutiérrez Aragón himself declares that, although he has written about women in some of his screenplays, he would not have focused on us if he had started his new novel after the #metoo campaign. The point of the campaign, however, is to out the harassers secretly dominating all areas of public life, including culture, not to gag all men into silence. You might like to see John Oliver’s interview with Professor Anita Hill (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHiAls8loz4), the woman who was so appallingly ill-treated back in 1991, when she outed U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas as a sexual predator. When Oliver tells her that many men are positively afraid of making a mistake which women might use against them, she coolly replies that only harassers should be afraid. The #metoo campaign has its dangers but the men who feel harassed by it should start considering how harassment has curtailed women’s lives, also in the domain of culture.

I bring this topic here up because there are many U.S. men claiming that the only solution for the #metoo ‘problem’ is a total separation of the gender spheres, not at all what is needed. This sounds, rather, like a poor excuse to retrench into ultra-patriarchal circles and end up creating new mutually exclusive cultures. They already exist, of course. As I have already written here, you don’t see middle-aged women queuing to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster or yelling with excitement at gamers’ conventions. But we all know this is not a problem because we are not wanted there anyway. The problem is the opposite: the increasing absence of (young) men in the kind of culture appealing to values which are not male-centred and patriarchal.

The article about the empty Spanish museums mentions a programme by the Museo Nacional de Escultura in Valladolid to attract male visitors: children visiting with their schools are given free tickets to visit the museum again with their father (not their mother!). I know what you are all thinking: most little girls will propose the plan to their fathers and charm them into accepting it; fewer little boys will try and even fewer will succeed. You can imagine their fathers. The day this Valladolid museum is crowded with father-son pairs will bring a victory for culture and a loss for patriarchy. This may sound odd, but, then, these are odd days in the anti-patriarchal frontline.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

BIBLIOMETRICS AND OPEN ACCESS: FIGHTING FOR COMMON SENSE

July 16th, 2018

My topic today is the corporate hold on academic research on two different but closely interrelated fronts: open access and bibliometrics. Open access policies are very simple to understand: the publications generated by research funded with public money should be available for free to anyone interested. This is, simply, not happening. Bibliometrics used to be a system designed to aid university librarians to choose how to invest their meagre, or large, resources into the best journals available but became about ten years ago an Orwellian way of measuring what cannot be measured: scholarly reputation and impact.

I attended back in 2010 a one-day workshop, organized by the Catalan Agència per a la Qualitat del Sistema Universitari de Catalunya (AQU), to debate the best way to implement the, at the time, rather new bibliometric approach to research. I was on the side of the Catalan researchers who complained that if you work on a tiny corner of the world of knowledge (and in a minority language) you can hardly expect your research to have world-wide impact. Your specialized journals will always be on the C and D list, even for your own local Catalan universities. So why measure not only personal production but also whole areas of research by pitting them against each other? Who has the right to say that a journal in English about Milton is more relevant that one in Catalan about Pedrolo? Why should an article published in the former be automatically regarded as superior to one published in the latter?

The other main concern expressed had to do with how bibliometrics negatively affect new publications, as scholars have quickly learned that since newly-born journals take time to consolidate it is preferable to try to publish in older, fully consolidated B or A-list journals–the only ones that really count for assessment though it make take years to publish in them even when accepted. I believed all this was plain common sense but was totally flabbergasted when hearing the line defended by some of the Catalan colleagues present at the AQU workshop, who were truly convinced that where you publish and not what you publish is what matters. Since then I have learned to do as required by my employers, and, so, I made sure that my last research assessment exercise included at least one article in an A-listed journal. I am also flooding, however, the digital repository of my university with plenty of academic work which I am self-publishing, following my own version of open access.

I say my own version because what is usually meant by open access is not free self-publication, whether peer-reviewed (which can be easily done) or not, but the online liberation of work previously offered through an academic journal (occasionally in collective books). That is to say: even though most universities have set up digital repositories to guarantee their researchers easy access to a platform where they can publish their work (beyond Academia.edu or Research Gate, which are private), it turns out that this has had no major impact because our CVs are measured, more rigidly than ever, on the basis of journal bibliometrics. If, to give an imaginary example, I publish an article in an A-ranking journal available by subscription that gets read by 30 persons but the same article is downloaded 300 times from the DDD of my university, which has the higher impact? You might think it’s the DDD but, no, it’s the journal publication–officially, digital repositories contribute zero to academic CVs. I am not speaking here of peer-reviewing vs. self-publication, I’m speaking only about access, which is supposedly the basis of impact.

Open access, in short, cannot function unless all journals decide to act like repositories and offer their publications for free online. Many, of course, are doing that and even using, besides, open peer reviewing, which means that you can leave comments either as a plain reader or as a formal reviewer (not anonymously). In contrast, most of the A- listed journals (highly-ranked according to bibliometrics, not necessarily scholarly consensus) tend to be available only by subscription, which means that universities are spending most of their library budgets on publications that actually depend on the researchers’ giving their work away for free. As we all know, though we do not get payment for our articles, the main academic journal publishers do good business by charging money for each article independently and for the subscriptions, some truly expensive–I mean up to tens of thousands of dollars for one journal (in the sciences).

A recent article in The Guardian complains that the European Union, in charge of guaranteeing the growth of open access policies, has hired academic giant Elsevier to check its progress. As the author, Jon Tennant, protests, “That’s like having McDonald’s monitor the eating habits of a nation and then using that to guide policy decisions” (https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2018/jun/29/elsevier-are-corrupting-open-science-in-europe). Elsevier, naturally, very much disliked at the critique. See in Tennant’s own blog the letter that Elsevier sent him, defending their appointment, and his arguments (http://fossilsandshit.com/elsevier-open-science-monitor-response/).

Business is business and corporations will do their best to go on accruing power over us, academics, as well as they can–just as Amazon, Apple and company do. What you should be wondering at this point is why this state of affairs is tolerated. If most of us, researchers, agree that open access is the way to go, why is this so hard to implement? Well, one answer is that open access is not free in the sense that if you want to set up a respectable online journal you still need extensive resources: a platform funded by your university, the know-how to operate it as editor (a time-consuming task), and lots of stamina to send regular cfps and manage peer reviewers, that unruly lot. It seems easier to let others do the job or, to be more specific, help to give the job you’re anyway willing to do more resonance.

Also, and this is the main point, for whatever reasons the political authorities, from the European Union down to each regional government, including the university admin teams, are upholding an assessment system that benefits the major academic publishers. We are assessed on the basis of their impact and reputation not of ours and, one way or the other, we have ended up working not quite for the good of knowledge but mainly for the benefit of our publishers. Let me give you an example of things that are beginning to scare me very much: I was planning to reuse a chapter that I wrote for a collective volume issued by a very well-known academic publisher in a monograph for another publishing house; I found out, however, that I was expected to pay 1000$ to get their permission. Needless to say, I’m writing a completely new chapter for the monograph. A doubt now corroding me is whether I can use the arguments without repeating my own text verbatim, for I’m not even sure that I can. What exactly do we give away with copyright?

Concerned specifically about the Journal Impact Factor, The American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) published in 2012 a document known as the “San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment” (https://sfdora.org/read/). JIF, a product of Thomson Reuters now published by Clarivate Analytics, is being used to measure academic CVs at all levels and beyond the USA. Incidentally: Clarivate Analytics is owned by the Onex Corporation (a Canada-based private equity or investment fund) and by the London-based Barings Bank, now in the hands of ING. Draw your own conclusions. Anyway, the San Francisco Declaration couldn’t be clearer: its general recommendation is “Do not use journal-based metrics, such as Journal Impact Factors, as a surrogate measure of the quality of individual research articles, to assess an individual scientist’s contributions, or in hiring, promotion, or funding decisions”. What should you use, then?: “assessments based on scientific content rather than publication metrics”. As an alternative, Altmetrics is proposed (http://altmetrics.org/tools/). For the British view of the matter, see James Wildon’s article which, among other matters, announces the establishment of the UK Forum for Responsible Research Metrics (https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2018/jul/10/has-the-tide-turned-towards-responsible-metrics-in-research).

I cannot find (sorry) another article in which a scientist working on an emerging field (possibly big data) explained that although researchers have organized themselves competently through open-access networks and publications, a major publisher has announced the launch of a journal specializing in their little patch of the academic quilt. This researcher was positively furious at what he regarded as an unwanted interference. I seem to recall that a number of the leading researchers in his field have signed a manifesto vowing not to publish in that corporate-owned journal but the question, obviously, is whether they will be able to stick to their resolve, or risk being pushed out of the fierce competition for funding and jobs by those who publish in the new journal.

Let me explain something I am doing. Since early 2017 I have been co-editor of the online journal Hélice (www.revistahelice.com), which specializes in science fiction. My co-editors, Mariano Martín and Mikel Peregrina, and myself had the intention of transforming the journal, originally founded by Asociación Xatafi in 2007, into a proper academic publication. Hélice certainly is an academic publication because we three are scholars and we publish in it scholarly work. What I mean is that we intended to introduce peer reviewing and bibliometrics into Hélice, and publish through my university’s online platform. We have decided, however, to post-pone indefinitely the decision for several reasons: one is that we do enjoy being editors in the classic style of many SF-related publications; another is that we are publishing work by rooky undergrad researchers not necessarily interested in an academic career; also, that we simply don’t have sufficient time to meet the demands of a university-endorsed journal. This may change in the future but we find ourselves interested in filling in the gap between fandom and academia, and in doing that beyond what counts or not academically speaking. And we need not worry about any major academic publisher wanting to steal the limelight from us. Perhaps we’re being Quixotic but, then, why not?

I think I am calling everyone to change the way we make research available. Establish your own online resources though blogs and websites, question your university’s investment into expensive subscriptions rather than full-time jobs, cite colleagues’ work because you find it relevant not because it is published in A-list journals, use peer reviewing wisely but also welcome other editorial approaches, don’t let yourself be consumed by your CV, that hungry monster. I personally know that I’m doing my most important academic work here in this blog yet, you see?, I have never counted who is reading it and whether it has an impact or not at all. It adds, by the way, zero points to my CV.

Some might think that doing academic work at any level which is not officially measurable is a waste of time but, believe me, though I feel enormous satisfaction when I see my academic work in relevant publications, I also feel much happiness when working outside the rather inflexible lines of current academia. That the words ‘inflexible’ and ‘academia’ may appear in the same sentence gives me, and should give you, much cause for concern. Let’s vindicate common sense instead and re-imagine how we approach reputation.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

DEATH OF THE NOVEL, DEATH OF THE READER: A DEBATE (WITH AIs)

July 10th, 2018

This post is inspired by two articles about novelists considering whether the novel is in its dying throes. The interview by Vicent Bosch of Guillem López (Castelló, 1975) for JotDown bears the heading “No creo que la novela sobreviva medio siglo” (https://www.jotdown.es/2018/06/guillem-lopez-no-creo-que-la-novela-sobreviva-medio-siglo-la-literatura-si-pero-sera-otra-cosa-tal-vez-un-videojuego/). The Guardian’s article about the BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking talk by novelist Howard Jacobson (Manchester, 1942) is titled “‘The Problem is the Reader’”.

Guillem López is one of the most important Spanish fantasy writers, and Challenger (2015)–which does deal with the space shuttle disaster of 1986–his most acclaimed novel. Here is an anecdote. López novel won the 2016 Ignotus for best fiction, the main award for fantasy fiction in Spain (apart from Planeta’s Minotauro). The awards ceremony is usually celebrated within Hispacon, which that year coincided with Barcelona’s Eurocon–and there I was. López was not in the room and his publisher, Cisco Bellabestia of Aristas Martínez (Badajoz, active since 2010) collected the award. He then launched into the total opposite of the thanks speech you might expect, shaming everyone in the room into considering sheepishly the charms of the floor tiles. His main point was that it was no use giving awards and clapping authors on the shoulder if sales remained so low–he mentioned having sold only 100 copies of Challenger in its first year. My, he was angry… The JotDown interview mentions an iron ceiling of 2000 copies at most for Spanish fiction (not just fantasy), and other editors and authors I know put habitual sales figures between 150 and 450 copies. In contrast, top YouTuber El Rubius has 30 million subscribers worldwide–yes, that is correct. There is a series of books presenting him as a superhero. No wonder…

Towards the end of the JotDown interview, López is invited to speculate on the future of the novel. He notes that even though the foundations of the genre remain quite static, innovation is still possible, as shown by Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000)–most likely, the only truly post-postmodern novel I have come across and an admirable text but also a one-off eccentric beauty. López remarks next that, in his view, novels will have probably disappeared in about fifty years, with only a small circle of committed readers keeping them alive at the end of the 21st century. If, I add, pastoral poetry went out of fashion why shouldn’t the novel go out of fashion, too? If, furthermore, you can date the birth of a genre then why couldn’t you imagine its death?

In López’s view, and this is what gives the interview its controversial subtitle, “Perhaps we should all be writing videogames because videogames are the literature of the end of the 21st century”. For López literature will survive, then, though not necessarily the novel. I must clarify that López does not mean that videogames are literature as they are right now but that they offer a model to explore. He stresses that the novel should fit the world awaiting us round the corner and not the other way round, and we need to start thinking of novels amenable to virtual and augmented reality, transmedia contents, etc rather than just the book. Why he assumes that ‘literature’ is a synonym for ‘narrative’ is an issue that I’ll leave aside for the time being.

What is in question, then, is not so much the novel’s survival but the convention according to which the novel must be read between the covers of a book and transmitted in printed text. This is not at all a new argument, though so far the constant obsolescence of computers has prevented most of the hypertextual fictional experiments to make it into any kind of canon (popular or otherwise). I still wonder that we don’t have hypertextual editions of the classics, with ‘footnotes’ popping up windows with all kinds of information. And, though I’m not sure this will ever happen, I have no problems imagining the use of virtual reality technology in immersive versions of novels, as if you could insert yourself in a BBC adaptation as you listen to Charles Dickens, to name an example. The videogame format that López alludes to suggests, however, something more interactive but, then, I’m not sure how that would still be a novel rather than an enhanced film.

In Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 (1953) the protagonist’s wife, Mildred, is totally addicted to a soap opera she can interact with through the four screens in her living room, a sort of predecessor of immersive virtual reality. This might be the kind of novel most valued in the 22nd century. Of course, in Bradbury’s dark tale books are banned and firemen are, ironically, in charge of burning them–the texts survive in the wondrous memories of volunteers who recall them verbatim for future generations, that is to say, the literary works survive as oral artefacts. Perhaps audiobooks and not videogame books are the future, one way or another, for even Bradbury grants that while books need to be written they needn’t be read.

Jacobson’s talk was given at the Man Booker festival (Southbank Centre, London) at a time when the award itself is under fire for not generating the enthusiasm of past decades. Incidentally, Michael Ondatjee’s The English Patient (1992) has been voted the best Man Booker novel in the 50 years of the award’s history, which sounds a bit suspicious to me for this in an extremely demanding novel and I would think that many voters were thinking of the far more accessible film. Maybe I’m wrong… Anyway, Jacobson’s argument is the opposite of López’: for him, the screen is the enemy to beat (he forgets e-book readers, as usual). Instead of the “infinite distractions of the Jumpin’ Jack Flash screen” Jacobson praises the “the nun-like stillness of the page” and, above all, of the page that requires concentration. “To say that reading more closely resembles study is not to be a killjoy: concentration and enjoyment are not opposites”. To reinforce his point, he offers a comparison: “Strange that when everyone’s running marathons and otherwise raising sweat for the hell of it, working hard at a novel is thought to take the fun away”. Um, perhaps that explains why few keen readers are also keen athletes: our sport is reading.

“Until people fall out of love with the screen, I don’t know what will win them back to writing”, Jacobson sentences. We are, then, lost because unless nuclear Armageddon or alien invasion wipes out electricity-based civilization, the reign of the screen in all its multiple forms is here to stay. Jacobson, the way I see it, is a combination luddite/print Taliban, not much to my taste. I love screens (cinema, TV and computer) and I don’t see that this love has affected in any way my passion for reading. Neither the screen nor the page are monogamous affections for a great percentage of individuals, though I agree that the youngest age demographic is where the real problem lies. People change and, thus, my father who had not read more than ten books before he hit 80 is now reading a thick novel every two days–boredom has unexpected effects. It is, however, much harder for me to imagine my 17-year-old nephew suddenly dropping his iPhone for a bunch of printed papers between covers. The last book I bought him was an exercise in self-defeat for both author and aunt: it explained, in print, why young people like him do not find enjoyment in reading and studying.

I grant, then, Jacobson one major point: concentration is going the way of the Titanic and the iceberg is not so much the screen itself but the downsizing of dialogue and discourse to the tweet and the Instagram post. Influencers’ blogs are all photos, no need to go through much text. And why read if YouTube can teach you all you need to know? Just imagine what I am thinking these days, now that I know that next year I’ll have to teach Romantic Literature (the main poets, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen) at 8:30 in the morning, and on Fridays. I can feel already the waves of enthusiastic concentration…

The problem which the reader has become for the writer is a consequence of the ambitious US white guys, now billionaires, who have peddled their wares to the most vulnerable age segment: Google, YouTube, Instagram, Whatsapp (add whatever you wish) have their uses but they are heavily undermining the more productive revolution which Johannes Guttenberg brought about (I’m not sure whether he would like the idea of the online repository of e-books Project Guttenberg being named after him…). Many defend the idea that reading is at no risk because we are continuously reading what reaches us though the screens (like my posts!) but nobody should claim that reading thousands of words in tweets is the same as reading longer, monographic pieces of writing.

I myself do not fear very much for the novel but I do fear for the book-length essay, as I see more and more of us, academics in Literary and Cultural Studies, publishing collective books rather than monographs. The short essay has its place in journals and volumes of this kind but, again, it aims at a short burst of attention both from writer and reader. There are days when it seems to me that only doctoral students will ever produce monographs–unless they start producing, as my university wants, theses which actually compile three or four articles.

Is the novel dead or dying, then? I think the answer is ‘it depends on which novel you mean’. The books that are dying, whether they are fiction or not, are those that demand, as Jacobson notes, concentration and attention. Ulysses will die faster than The Pillars of Earth, if anyone under 35 can recognize either of the titles. Conquering The Magic Mountain, still a badge of honour in my time as an undergrad in the mid-1980s, now means nothing. And I’m sorry to say that Howard Jacobson’s own novels are not really that thrilling as a readerly challenge. We may be going towards a world without difficult books, which is not the same as a world without novels.

I read yesterday that AIs are already writing fiction and perhaps our hope is that our machines will generate a new fashion for the exquisitely crafted page though, so far, the snag seems to be that they’re not very good at characterizing human beings. Perhaps the new Jane Austen, the new Noam Chomsky will be born from AI talent and computers will be not only the truly sophisticated authors of the future but also the only accomplished readers left, while human beings continue wasting their lifetime and the precious gifts of the human brain in inane messaging in the social networks.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

ANATOMY OF THE BOND GIRL: THE CASE OF SOLITAIRE

July 2nd, 2018

In one of those bouts of curiosity that may overpower even the most cautious reader, I have gone through the twelve James Bond novels by Ian Fleming (there are two more books, with short fiction, and other novels by living authors). I am by no means a Bond fan but, like many others who don’t particularly care, I end up seeing all the new releases and even (mildly) bothering about who should play the MI6 spy next. Blame the nagging advertising campaigns.

Bond functions much like Dr. Who in the sense that every few years he is played by a new actor, thus remaining perpetually in the 35-45 age bracket, roughly corresponding to the novels. I found Daniel Craig’s proposal that Idris Elba should be the next Bond appealing and was appalled by the subsequent racist reaction. I suppose that Tom Hiddleston will play Bond eventually (I’d much rather have Tom Hardy play a villain) but, really, it’s all the same. There is also some debate about whether the seventh official Bond actor should be a woman, inspired, precisely, by Dr. Who. The current one, number twelve, is played by Joddie Whitaker, a choice that caused some ripples in the misogynistic waters but that has been on the whole welcome. If it were up to me, I would simply bury the Bond franchise.

The James Bond series has been a relic of the past for decades. In our better enlightened times its racism, homophobia, misogyny and ridiculous British patriotism can only be approached in the spirit of an archaeologist digging up ancient tombs. The film franchise is pretending to correct the novels in all these fronts by, for instance, turning Bond’s boss M into a woman, or his American colleague Felix Leiter into an African-American. Much was written about the casting of 50-year-old Monica Bellucci in Spectre (2015) as a Bond girl, the oldest ever (Craig was 47 at the time). Although this might seem an improvement over the archaic, the ‘Bond girl’ is not yet a woman. This is a typical pseudo-feminist trap: you change some details to get progressive kudos but the bottom line remains the same. Indeed, the girl’s bottom still must be pert and pleasing to Bond’s touch.

A complication in any analysis of the Bond saga is that there is actually very little analysis of the original works because they are obscured by the far more popular films. The original fiction was published between 1953 (Casino Royale) and 1966 (Octopussy and The Living Daylights) and is, then, a product of the time right before the onset of Second Wave feminism (officially begun in 1963 with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique). The women in the Bond novels are, thus, stranded between the traditional homemaker model and the liberated girl of 1960s Swinging London; above all, the are the figments of a male imagination that sees them primarily as sexual objects. All are extremely beautiful and never past thirty. I’ll leave aside the preposterous names that Fleming came up with, some elegant (Vesper Lynd), some inexcusable (Pussy Galore), to explain that perhaps what most surprised me is that, for despite the deep misogyny, Fleming prefers his ‘girls’ to be fond of sex and not just passive dolls; none is stupid, and, on the whole, all are much better balanced people than Bond.

James Bond, himself an insatiable womanizer, never criticises the promiscuity of the women he beds (he even often justifies it as freedom) and if he consumes the ‘girls’ as he consumes his gourmet food, drink and cigarettes, it can equally be said that he is consumed by his sexual partners. This does not mean that the women are empowered in any way–not at all! Some are literal slaves of a specific villain and are more than willing to grant Bond power over them as soon as he shows any interest. For he is, here is the key word again, handsome.

The basic formula is this: he meets a truly interesting sexy and clever girl who seems unconquerable, she is eventually conquered to their mutual sexual satisfaction; next, either the relationship is soon over with no mutual grief, or love complicates matters so much that it needs to be over. When Tracy, Bond’s wife of one day, is murdered by the villain Bloefeld, Bond is hypocritically devastated–he seems, rather, relieved that he does not have to play husband and, God forbid!, become a father. Maybe this is the key to his characterization: Bond might settle down with a woman who loves sex as much as he does but could never accept her becoming a mother and himself a father. That would mean the end of his perpetual adultescence.

Let me focus on one of these women (I’m making an effort not to call them ‘girls’), a bit at random: Solitaire in the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die (1954).

This young woman is introduced in a scene with her master, Mr. Big, who is holding Bond captive. Buonaparte Ignace Gallia is unusual in Fleming’s gallery of villains because he is black. The absurd plot supposes that this Harlem boss gangster is interested in aiding “the Soviet organ of vengeance, SMERSH, short for Smyert Spionam–Death to Spies” by funding it with the earnings of the illicit traffic in the colonial treasure lost in the Caribbean. Jurisdiction problems are habitual in the Bond novels and, so, this one is set mainly in Jamaica, a colony until 1962, to justify the alliance between the MI6, the CIA and the FBI.

Back to Solitaire: she is, like all the others that appeal to him, “One of the most beautiful women Bond had ever seen (…)”, in this case, a black-haired white woman born in Haiti with “The face of the daughter of a French Colonial slave-owner”. Frigid Solitaire bears that name because, Mr. Big explains, “For the time being she is difficult. She will have nothing to do with men”. Actually, this is the bogus excuse which Fleming uses not to present this woman as the villain’s mistress for, as I am supposing here, inter-racial sex enslavement would have been too much for his readers. Unlike the other Bond women she is not, then, so openly sexualized.

Mr. Big, who does want to marry Solitaire but has not forced despite being a most cruel villain…, presents her as “my inquisitor”. He dislikes torture (at least at this point in the story) and uses the woman’s mental powers to deduce whether his prisoners are lying–the silly man. Solitaire has, then, a strange kind of power for although she really has no supernatural abilities, she classes Mr. Big’s prisoners “according to whether she sensed these people were good or evil”. She knows “that her verdict might often be a death sentence” but she cannot care–until she sees Bond and is smitten at once. Like all the other women in his life.

Naturally, she lies about Bond to Mr. Big, sending to the spy the message that she is his ally by “nonchalantly” drawing “her forearms together in her lap so that the valley between her breasts deepened”. He quickly gets that “He had a friend in the enemy’s camp” and rescues her as soon as both can fool Mr. Big. Grateful, Solitaire warms up to Bond: “You’ve given me a new life. I’ve been shut up with him and his nigger gangsters for nearly a year. This is heaven”. Bond, typically, never hesitates about his capacity to undo Solitaire’s dislike of men: “She seemed open to love and to desire. At any rate he knew that she was not closed to him”.

He imagines for her a ‘romantic’ colonial background (later recycled for Honeychile in Dr. No): the lonely white child in Haiti that becomes an orphan and is raised by a devoted servant, then the “struggle against the shady propositions” as beauty is her only asset. Next, “the dubious, unknown steps into the world of entertainment”, where she gains fame by exploiting her mentalist tricks, until she is charmed by Mr. Big’s promise of a Broadway career. Simone Latrelle, her real name, age 25, is a ‘solitaire’ virgin because Fleming cannot imagine a white partner for her in Haiti, much less a black one.

Soon Bond sees Solitaire as part of his professional rewards, “the ultimate personal prize”. The reward, however, takes a while to reap because both are kidnapped by Mr. Big and, this being a Caribbean tale, exposed to the sharks and to the nasty consequences of being dragged through a coral reef. Fleming, always the sadist, puts the pair naked together in a sort of alternative sexual encounter–guess which part of women’s anatomy he was obsessed by: “Their bodies were pressed together, face to face, and their arms held round each other’s waists and then bound tightly again. Bond felt Solitaire’s soft breasts pressed against him. She leant her chin on his right shoulder. ‘I didn’t want it to be like this,’ she whispered tremulously”. Are you sick yet…? Bond, logically, rescues himself and Solitaire, the villain get his come-uppance. In the chapter called “Passionate Leave” Bond gets finally his reward, once she learns to mix martinis to his taste. When Solitaire (never once called Simone) looks at him there is “open sensuality” in her eyes. How could it be otherwise?

Bond is not, then, a blunt sexual predator but a man actually capable of connecting with the willing, pliable women he meets, if only for the time his cases last. Whether she is sexually active or less so, the pattern is similar: the relationship with the women is always presented as a reward for Bond as a protector in one way or another. Perhaps what is incongruous is that although Fleming seems incapable of showing Bond’s deeper emotions he tends to involve his hero in relationships beyond the merely sexual. Nevertheless, one must wonder why if everything is so satisfactory the women disappear to easily from Bond’s life. Simone is simply gone by the next novel and when Bond wonders whatever became of her, we, the readers, also wonder.

Bond only proposes to one of his many women, Tracy, yet all seem good potential partners for him. You can see, then, that the problem lies in the seriality of the novels. If Bond were the protagonist of just one novel, then the plot would be straightforward: the hero slays the dragon and marries the princess. Seriality, however, turned Bond into a combination of the classic rake that will not reform and the modern serial monogamist. The ‘Bond girl’, excuse me!, is a stereotype (Bond’s preferred type) that must also be a variation, always within the pattern of the extremely beautiful, sexy, clever woman. Once Bond succeeds in bonding with them, excuse the silly pun, the problem for Fleming is how the end the relationship: some die, others leave or let Bond go, for who can imagine Bond married for life?

On the other hand, arguably the Bond women embody the beginning of the late 1960s rebellion. Tiffany Case, the strongest among Bond’s women, abandons him, which suggests that the real question is: who would want to marry someone like Bond? Fleming possibly understood that a change was coming, this is why he fantasised in his novels about how Bond conquers all these active women–though for that he had to transform them into passive princesses. Still, with Domino Vitali of Thunderball, his first 1960s woman, Fleming even came close to presenting a better hero than Bond, which would have made him superfluous.

Even so, no, thanks, I don’t care for a renewal of the franchise with a Jane Bond in the main role–and a string of Bond boys, what a terrible thought. As far as I am concerned, it is about time to let bygones be bygones and allow Commander Bond to retire. After all, if he were alive the guy would be nearing his hundredth birthday. Time to move on (or to start ignoring the films!).

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

KATHARINE BURDEKIN’S SWASTIKA NIGHT IN THE TIMES OF THE HANDMAID’S TALE: A WARNING ABOUT PATRIARCHAL ENSLAVEMENT

June 26th, 2018

I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) many years ago before seeing the unfairly neglected film adaptation with the late Natasha Richardson as Offred, directed in 1990 by Volker Schlöndorff and written by none other than Nobel Prize award-winner Harold Pinter. I have not seen, thank you very much, the ongoing HBO series, now in its second season and the object of a hot debate about whether watching misogynistic torture porn is every feminist’s duty or yet another insidious patriarchal contamination of a text about women’s suffering. On principle, I dislike feminist dystopia because in the end it tends to depress women and favour patriarchy by multiplying sexist images of women in deep distress. I believe, however, that this is a good time to recall another key feminist dystopia, which may even have inspired George Orwell’s 1984. I refer to Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night.

I hesitate whether to call this book a novel because, as it is often the case with utopia and dystopia, its plot is flimsy and what truly matters is the description of the happy or unhappy state of a given civilization. Burdekin (1896-1963) published Swastika Night in 1937, using the male penname Murray Constantine, as a specific warning about a future in which Adolf Hitler had not only won WWII but also become the object of a divine cult, enduring at the time the novel begins already for 700 years. Please, recall that Burdekin’s dystopia appeared two years before WWII began and one year after the Berlin Olympics, when the world didn’t yet suspect that the catastrophe that started in 1939 was on the horizon. The Jewish Holocaust that overlapped with this period and that lasted until 1945, however, may not have been so unexpected since Burdekin includes it in her novel, as one of the many shows of power of the Nazi regime. Her book didn’t do very well at the time of its release but was re-issued in 1940 within a left-wing collection, to be soon forgotten again. Decades later, feminist scholar Daphne Patai finally realized that Burdekin was Constantine and Swastika Night was re-released in 1985–the same year when Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale.

In Burdekin’s novel the world consists of two militaristic blocks constantly at war: the Nazi Empire, which comprises Europe and Africa, and the Japanese Empire (all of America, Asia, and Australia). Hitler’s miraculous birth from God the Thunderer without a mother is the foundation for the most horrendous misogyny ever imagined. Women have been reduced to the most basic animal function as breeding machines. They’re not sexually interesting to the men, who bond with each other through homosexual sex and a complex pseudo-feudal network of allegiances. Even more thoroughly than in 1984, all records of the past have been destroyed so that the Nazi Empire appears to be the only possible way of life. The plot narrates how a book assembled by a disaffected Nazi Knight falls into the hands of an Englishman, Alfred, though whom we discover how this sinister masculinist society works.

Men’s compliance with the Nazi patriarchal system is business as usual: patriarchy tells men that they are superior to women (sounds familiar, right?) and, so, they feel entitled to abusing them in any way they want. In Swastika Night rape is not a crime–it is a man’s right to which women must submit (unless they are officially ‘owned’ by a specific man). This is a demonstration of power, with no pleasure involved, since women are considered disgusting; beautiful young boys are preferred as objects of sexual desire. Mothers are routinely separated from their male offspring at eighteen-months but allowed to keep their daughters as they need to be educated into submission. This is all the education they receive. The boys are also educated in patriarchal submission but at least this affords them the protection of their fathers who, of course, try to do as well as they can by them.

Hitler was a defender of the Victorian ‘separation of the spheres’, a patriarchal doctrine by which women were told that they should accept being wives and mothers as their main role in life. In public he would claim that this should be a cherished role by no means inferior to those played by men; in private, he made no bones of abhorring women (and never had children), though he could be a gentleman if he chose to. It seems that the Nazi pro-natalist policies were not, however, particularly successful and that the aim of returning to pre-1914 birth rates was never achieved. Historian Jill Stephenson explains that the Nazi project of expanding the ‘Aryan race’ was undermined by the regime itself, which sent the ‘Aryan’ men to conquer Europe and, thus, left the ‘Aryan’ women with no adequate mates–instead, they were surrounded by foreign war prisoners, which in the end only resulted in many illegitimate children of the unwanted kind (in the Nazi’s view, of course). I won’t even mention what was done to Jewish mothers, and children.

The “fundamental immutable laws of Hitler Society” dictate that “As a woman is above a worm, So is a man above a woman. As a woman is above a worm, So is a worm above a Christian”–yes, religion is banned, except for the Hitlerian cult. What is then “the meanest, filthiest thing that crawls on the face of the earth”? A Christian woman. A classic mistake often made about patriarchy is that it privileges all men: this is not correct, for whereas men are persuaded that they are above all women, the pecking order in patriarchy is inexorable. “As a man is above a woman, So is a Nazi above any foreign Hitlerian. As a Nazi is above a foreign Hitlerian, So is a Knight above a Nazi. As a Knight is above a Nazi, So is Der Fuehrer (whom may Hitler bless) above all Knights, even above the Inner Ring of Ten”. God lies at the top of the pyramid. The word ‘mother’ is obscene. ‘Marriage’ no longer exists in the vocabulary of the English language.

Women were once as desirable as boys but the new women of the Nazi Empire are pitiful creatures, with their “naked shaven scalps,” the “horrible meek bowed way they had of walking and standing”; they have “no grace, no beauty, no uprightness, all those were male qualities. If a woman dared to stand like a man she would be beaten”. When they age past menopause women stop being socially useful beings and are only tolerated because they help to raise the younger generation of female slaves. Men like Alfred, though ‘good’ in comparison to his Nazi oppressors, never care “about the ordinary day-to-day sufferings of women”.

This starts changing somehow when the secretly rebellious Knight Hermann (of the Inner Ring of Ten) corroborates to Alfred that Hitler was indeed born of a woman and that, as the rumour goes, the creatures were different in the past. Why, Alfred wonders, “have they let themselves go down so?” Here is a passage that will hurt any woman reader (though please recall that this is a Nazi speaking, no matter how disloyal to the Hitlerian cause): “They acquiesced in the Reduction of Women, which was a deliberate thing deliberately planned by German men. Women will always be exactly what men want them to be. They have no will, no character, and no souls; they are only a reflection of men. So nothing that they are or can become is ever their fault or their virtue”. We might agree that women’s standards of beauty change to please men but when Hermann claims that “If men want them to have an appearance of perfect freedom, even an appearance of masculine power, [women] will develop a simulacrum of those things”, we may think that Burdekin is going too far. The conclusion that men can never “stop this blind submission and cause the women to ignore them and disobey them. It’s the tragedy of the human race” is infuriating, perhaps because it surpasses the limits of the novel to become something that rings true. Sorry.

The conversation continues, with Alfred defending the idea that, then, “It must be right for women to submit to men. Anything else would be unnatural”. The Knight disagrees: “It would be all right (…) if men were infallible” but it is women’s misfortune to have followed inadequate leaders. This is what I call ‘the faulty patriarchy argument’. Once a friend taunted me by declaring that feminism is the product of bad patriarchy, that is to say, if patriarchy had really fulfilled its own ideals (the chivalric code) then women would have seen no need to rebel. If every man were Darcy, we would all be happy Liz Bennets. Unfortunately, as the Knight Hermann observes, men of the patriarchal persuasion are not infallible–and, so, they abuse their authority using violence to confirm their power. Hence the constant conflicts with each other and over/with the women and children supposed to obey patriarchal family heads.

In Swastika Night the ‘Reduction of Women’, as the process is called, does not begin from above, as it happens in The Handmaid’s Tale. It begins from below with the devaluation of rape. Like the men who have distorted the label ‘incel’ (involuntarily celibate), created to define recently separated individuals, into a misogynistic badge of dishonour, the Nazis believe that “the rejection-right of women was an insult to Manhood (…)”. Their main theorist, one von Wied, claims (like the incels) that women’s beauty is another “insult to Manhood” for it gives females “an enormous and disgusting sexual power over men”. Following this man’s revolting directives, women are deprived of everything that might make them attractive: hair, flattering clothes, even basic cleanliness. When they reach the age of sixteen, they must be “completely submissive” to any man.

You might think that women put up a fight rather than meekly accept the delirious Nazi mandate. On the contrary, Hermann explains, “they threw themselves into the new pattern with a conscious enthusiasm that knew no bounds”. They believed, he adds, “those poor little typically feminine idiots, that if they did all that men told them to do cheerfully and willingly, that men would somehow, in the face of all logic, love them still more”. There is more: the women contributed to their own degradation with their love and admiration of men, which instead of gratitude generated a reinforcement of men’s feeling of superiority. Alfred begins to see that these animals are “not women at all, and never have been” because they have always seen themselves as slaves with no self-esteem. The remedy, he clarifies, is “simple”: “The highest possible masculine pattern of living should be imposed on women (…)”, beginning with basic literacy, and in this way they would see that men loathe their easy submission. By the end of the novel, Alfred feels something new when he holds his newly-born daughter in his arms, though this is not really the main point of the novel.

I am aware that Burdekin’s controversial discourse on women’s submission has elicited many answers from feminist scholars. I will insist that this is placed in the mouths of men living in an extreme form of patriarchy, though I very much suspect that the author is expressing through them her own feminist despair. The Handmaid’s Tale also complicates the issue very much with the presence of the Aunts, the women fully complicit with the system that help patriarchy to dominate the Handmaids. In Burdekin’s Swastika Night the whole situation is far worse: of course, violence was used to overpower the rebels, but most women accepted the restrictions of the (fictional) Nazi regime. Their way of life would be a nightmare even for Offred, for she recalls what life as a free woman was like whereas Burdekin’s women have lost all memories of the past. Arguably, the conversations between Alfred and Hermann are designed to elicit our disagreement and to be jolted out of any possible passivity in the face of our own patriarchal domination.

HBO, Amazon, Netflix: No, don’t do Swastika Night–time to move on and abandon dystopia for constructive utopia.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

June 12th, 2018

AN EXTREMELY GUILTY PLEASURE: THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

I recall from my childhood years how annoyed my father grew every time there was a musical film on TV and the actors burst out singing. I am confused to this day about whether the songs were also dubbed or left in the original English version (with no subtitles, that’s for sure). Both possibly happened, for I seem to remember my father loudly complaining that the worst thing about the songs was that you could not understand them. I still don’t like much translated musicals but I have overcome my father’s prejudices, which were my own for years, and, though not the staunchest fan, I can say that I do enjoy musicals both on stage and on screen.

I hated La La Land (2016), however, because I found it to be very weak in its dancing and singing routines, and, above all, because I intensely disliked its tepid discourse about contemporary love. To be frank, I was repelled by it; musicals are supposed to be naïve romantic fantasies, not depressing reminders of the sorry state of love today. Well, never mind. As happens, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the composers of the songs in La La Land are also the authors of the songs in this other recent musical film: The Greatest Showman (2017). They have also written “Get Back Up Again” for Poppy in Trolls (2016), a glorious hymn to persistence that I recommend you to sing in low moments (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFuFm0m2wj0).

You may have heard about The Greatest Showman because of Hugh Jackman’s very visible shock at losing to James Franco (The Disaster Artist) the Golden Globe to the best actor, back in January. Jackman, who has a solid background in musical theatre, had put much energy into completing what turned out to be a rather complex project, (complicated by his being diagnosed with skin cancer) and he was devastated. At least, Pasek and Paul won the Golden Globe for “This is Me”, though they lost the Oscar to the awesome “Remember Me” in the simply wonderful Pixar-Disney movie Coco.

The Greatest Showman is, as a musical, simply lovely. It has a gorgeous, fancy pseudo-Victorian look which director Michael Gracey does wonders with, it displays thrilling dancing choreographed by Ashley Wallen and it offers eleven exciting numbers, among which one, at least, stands out: the trapeze love dance with Zac Ephron and Zendaya. After seeing the movie once, I found myself recalling every single song, which is, I think, the mark of a great musical. After seeing it again, I could sing most. And this the very key to the film’s transformation into what is now: a cult film doing the rounds of midnight sing-along sessions very successfully. The critics who panned it as a hideous fantasy are flabbergasted. I’m not, but, then, yes I am.

Why’s The Greatest Showman hideous? The screenplay by Jenny Bicks–revised by Bill Condon (it’s her story)–offers a rosy picture of American circus businessman P.T. Barnum which is less than acceptable in its bland lack of criticism of what this shady man did do. The many differences between real-life facts and what the film narrates are irrelevant in some cases: Zac Ephron’s and Zendaya’s characters did not exist; famous Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind had strictly a business-related relationship with Barnum (who organized her first American tour). What is far more controversial is how Jackman’s film presents Barnum as a champion of human diversity, which he was not at all.

Barnum (1810-1891), the founder of the long-lived Barnum & Bailey Circus (1871-2017), was a ground-breaking showman who perpetrated constant hoaxes on the gullible American public and was known for his manipulative ‘freak shows’. The problem with The Greatest Showman is that, unlike David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), it completely fails to address its own key issue: the exploitation of the freaks publicly exhibited in America, from village carnivals to Barnum’s famous Manhattan circus. Barnum’s presentation is simplistic and one-sided: to convince a hesitant Charles Stratton, a midget (or little person), to accept being transformed into General Tom Thumb Barnum uses the argument that if people are going to laugh at him (as Stratton worries) they might as well pay. Incidentally: the real Stratton was recruited when he was only four-years-old, not twenty-two, and, thus, unable to decide for himself. This is the only comment about the dubious business relationship between Barnum and his distinct employees, apart from his snobbish exclusion of them from upper-class events, like the opening gala of Lind’s tour.

That the Barnum & Bailey Circus closed in the year The Greatest Showman opened is a clear indication of the colossal lacunae in the film’s discourse. ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, as the circus proclaimed itself, was the object of constant complaints from animal defenders until it was eventually forced to bow down to pressure, unable to transform itself into a spectacle better suited to contemporary preferences (think Cirque du Soleil). If Barnum’s record with animals is poor (he claimed that elephants feel no pain in their trunks to justify his appalling training methods), his treatment of his human fellow beings is also deplorable. His career started with the exploitation of a black slave, supposed to be the oldest woman in the world but actually only 76, whom he even exhibited once dead. His many human curiosities and oddities were, if not actually enslaved, at least treated with what now would be called intense ableism. As Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker, “The movie isn’t merely stylistically mediocre and emotionally simplistic, it’s grossly ahistorical, shorn of the complexities and fascinations of the character whose name is associated with the film. The master of ballyhoo has been ballyhooed off the screen” (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/the-greatest-showman-and-the-far-more-fascinating-real-life-of-p-t-barnum).

This opinion, as you can see, clashes with my view of The Greatest Showman as highly enjoyable spectacle, an “extremely guilty pleasure”. After The Elephant Man, a film telling the story of how Victorian Dr. Frederick Treves rescued John Merrick–a man suffering from elephantiasis exhibited by ruthless exploiters–we all grew sensitized to a very different view of the freak. Photographer Diane Arbus (1923-71) owed much of her fame to her portraits of freaks in the decaying 1960s shows but now we find her approach abusive. With the rise of Disability Studies in the mid-1980s the very word ‘freak’ became an insult and a new vocabulary of PC terms was deployed. The intensive medicalization that in the 1930s started pulling freaks out of the limelight to present them as cases was, however, also an expression of hypocrisy: Merrick’s deformed skeleton was exhibited only to doctors but it is doubtful that this was only in the interest of science. Incidentally, singer Michael Jackson was its last owner, which is fitting considering what Jackson himself did to his physical appearance.

The ableist hypocrisy I stress is grounded on the impression that the persons once called freaks have been freed from their freakdom to become integrated in society. This is completely false: I would never endorse Barnum’s awful business practices but what I see on the streets and on the screen is a totally homogeneous human body following narrow, damaging beauty standards. Whenever freaks appears in texts calling allegedly progressive, they are woefully sentimentalized. The recent film Wonder (2017, based on the novel by R.J. Palacio) is not only incredibly sickly sweet but also very false in its presentation of children with Treacher Collins Syndrome. It’s insulting to them that pretty Jacob Tremblay had to be put through gruelling make-up sessions when, surely, some actual patient could have been found for the role. This is an argument, of course, constantly advanced by activists in disability causes: we award Oscars to fully-abled actors for playing freaks but reject actual freaks (excuse my language).

The Greatest Showman is guilty of this sin and of many others. When I saw the Honest Trailer for it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaE0JD1X12g) I was truly dismayed. Yes, all the points raised there are undeniable, not only the many lies but also how the interracial romance is used to leave the freaks’ presence reduced to just a colourful background, and how the exploiter is, as I have said, presented as a romantic redeemer. I do not think, then, that I can defend my pleasure in this film without committing many ethical offences. This worries me very much, for I seem to be unable to extricate myself from the conundrum: why am I enjoying a text which I should abhor, given my knowledge of ‘freaks’ and my ideology? I cannot make sense of how my ethical barriers have been weakened.

But I’ll try…

It’s the glee. A trite answer, no doubt. Of course, I’m not the first one to argue that glee is the key. Variety notes that “The Greatest Showman is unabashedly nostalgic. Whereas La La Land was grounded in a darker realism, this film is bright and ebullient, infused with a let’s-put-on-a-show spirit that’s been largely missing from cinema since the days of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly” (https://variety.com/2017/film/features/hugh-jackman-the-greatest-showman-logan-1202629864/). For The Guardian, in an article about the film’s transformation into a surprise sleeper by word-of-mouth, “It isn’t hard to see how the film’s feelgood factor can give audiences a much-needed sense of escape or respite” (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/jan/31/the-greatest-showman-success-film-story-of-the-year-hugh-jackman) from our dark times.

Still, the problem of the subject matter and its treatment remains. In Mel Brooks’ 1967 hilarious film The Producers, Max Bialystock (a Broadway producer) and his accountant Leo Bloom decide to stage the most appalling musical ever, expecting it to be a flop, which would, paradoxically, benefit them. Their aim is to raise money before the play opens and then embezzle it. To their chagrin, however, Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden becomes an immense success when some members of the audience start laughing, mistakenly believing it to be a satire. The Greatest Showman is not amenable to this ambiguous reading, which is why I fear that this is actually our own candid Springtime for Hitler, with dancing freaks instead of dancing Stormtroopers.

Director Michael Gracey convinced Hugh Jackman to turn the script into a musical, perhaps as a way to politely tell his fellow-Australian film star that only the addition of songs could turn the awkward content into congenial film material. He was right. The songs and their lyrics provide the film with the uplifting tone which its admirers celebrate but also cancel the more problematic discourse carried out by the rest of the film. Or perhaps I’m totally wrong, and in the times of Lady Gaga and her ‘little monsters’, the images of the ‘freaks’ dancing riotously (so different from the Elephant Man’s tragic passivity) are far more positive than political correctness assumes. This is not nostalgia for Gene Kelly and Judy Garland but for a time when, though exploited, freaks were world-wide stars for (this is important) they were admired performers and not medicalized bodies displaced from public spaces. And, yes, I do know that my argument is problematic to say the least.

Do see The Greatest Showman and check whether what you feel and what you think clash.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

A PERSISTENT BUNCH: DOCTORAL STUDENTS AGAINST THE WORLD

June 5th, 2018

Yesterday we spent our working day going through the yearly interviews with our doctoral candidates–it seems, then, a good moment to ponder the use of doctoral programmes. To begin with, a reminder: only a very small minority of the individuals who practice medicine are properly speaking ‘doctors’; most just have a degree (a BA) in Medicine and mandatory professional training. They are ‘médicos’, not ‘doctores’, a distinction that, it seems, is respected in Latin America though not in Spain (https://www.elsevier.es/corp/conecta/medicina/medicos-o-doctores/).

Here, 0’8% of the population (376,000 individuals out of 47 millions) are doctors, that is to say: they have completed a doctorate, after submitting a doctoral dissertation (or ‘tesis’). In 2014, 10,889 persons managed to complete theirs (https://www.weforum.org/es/agenda/2017/03/estos-paises-tienen-la-mayor-cantidad-de-graduados-con-titulo-de-doctorado/), which is not at all a low figure in the context of the OCDE countries. Actually, the number of new doctors is growing all the time in Spain: the theses read in 2015 were 68% more than those read in 2010. This coincided with the introduction of the new 2011 national regulations for doctoral programmes and the extinction of the old ones but, anyway, it’s an amazing increase. Notice, please, that the age of the new doctors was 30-39 in 50% of the cases, with only 13’6% 29-years-old or younger (I assume that the rest, 37’4%, corresponded to persons above 40). 90% of all doctors in Spain are employed though not necessarily in their area and only a minority by commercial companies, which still don’t quite understand the value of having a PhD. A doctoral degree shows, I think, not only that the doctor is question is an intelligent person but also someone constant and capable of organizing his/her own projects. Ideally.

Many questions are being asked in relation this strange thing called a doctoral dissertation: is the world producing too many? (https://www.nature.com/news/2011/110420/pdf/472276a.pdf), how should they be valued socially? (https://www.eldiario.es/cienciacritica/Doctorado-ciencia-fraude-doctor-medico_6_110648947.html), what should we do to improve the situation of tutors and tutorees? (https://www.radoctores.es/doc/INFORME-GRUPO-DE-DOCTORADO-ACTUALIZADO.pdf), what good is in the end a doctoral degree? (http://www.elmundo.es/f5/campus/2017/10/25/59ef61f146163f721b8b465d.html).

I always heard that Cuba is the country in the world with the highest percentage of university students in relation to its total population. This factoid was usually followed by the opinion that this is bad since, as happens in Spain, a country cannot offer all its graduates high quality employment. The same argument is being invoked by those who think that not all doctors can be given satisfactory jobs: here, as we know, we are losing the best generation of Spanish researchers ever for lack of investment in research; many have migrated to richer countries, which in this way benefit from our restricted budgets. What is wrong, then, is not that we’re producing too many doctors but too little opportunities for them, possibly world-wide.

The United States shows, besides, that a country can generate a colossal amount of new doctors without this having an impact on the rest of the educational pyramid (perhaps because half or more of these new doctors are foreigners). I believe, however, that in a healthy educational system, the higher the percentage of doctors, the better all other levels should be. Doctors are not only supposed to do research but to train all the other professionals of education in secondary and primary schools. It might be even the case, then, that we need many more doctors.

Whereas in civilized nations like Germany average citizens understand the value of a doctoral degree, in Spain they don’t. This is no surprise: a barely educated society can hardly be expected to value intellectual effort, which, besides, is totally invisible outside universities. A PhD dissertation is an original contribution to knowledge but this is a definition that does not explain what it really is: three to five years of obsessing over an obscure topic, reading non-stop, trying to generate new ideas and finally writing a thick volume, possibly 400/500 pages on average. I have never seen anyone explain our educational system in any public forum, which means that families with no graduates face a hard time understanding what their children actually do in universities. A doctoral student may simply be an incomprehensible anomaly.

Why, then, do individuals put themselves through a major effort with scarce social recognition and low professional use? The usual answer is that doctoral candidates expect to start an academic career. However, as we all know, the Spanish State decided back in 2008 to suppress all full-time contracts of the kind I myself enjoyed as a rookie teacher (I was first hired in 1991). The cost of producing doctors, it was decided, should be met by the candidates themselves, with the exception of the very few grants and scholarships available. In contrast, all doctoral students, if I recall this correctly, receive a salary in Finland. Please, consider the absurdity of our situation: instead of funding the best brains in Spain to work full-time in producing innovation, we are forcing them to produce dissertations while they are employed elsewhere, often full-time. These are adults over 25 who expect to lead a normal life and who should not sacrifice themselves for the benefit of an indifferent State (and fellow citizens). No wonder then that one third of Spanish doctoral students are at risk of suffering serious mental health problems (http://www.elmundo.es/f5/campus/2017/04/19/58f646dfca4741dc138b461b.html).

Unlike a BA or an MA, then, which are supposed to have immediate professional application, a PhD appears to be an unnecessary addition to one’s education in our current circumstances, in which there is no guarantee at all that it leads to a career in research. If things are bad in science and technology, just imagine what they are like in the Humanities, an area of diminishing importance in the university and of no interest for employers outside it, except schools. Even though I have seen half of my doctoral tutorees abandon their PhD (usually after three years and when writing requires concentration they could not find), I know that this type of student is immensely self-motivated. I would have written my doctoral dissertation even if not employed by my university, and so they are doing. Completing a PhD dissertation, as I saw it and as they see it, is a challenge, a test of endurance and the culmination of the process of pulling yourself up by your intellectual bootstraps. The Victorians valued self-improvement above all else in education and a PhD dissertation is the ultimate step in that sense.

Naturally, what makes PhD dissertations so hard to sell in social terms is their specificity. BA degrees are already difficult to explain to those who don’t have one: my father used to call my degree ‘English Philosophy’ rather than ‘Philology’ although I find the idea of a BA specifically on Locke, Hume, Russell and company positively eccentric. An MA is simply understood to be a specialization course and possibly makes rather good sense at a grassroots levels because it is short: one or two years at the most. But just think of a PhD!! I always tell my doctoral students that they should be able to summarize their dissertation in a catchy sentence for conversational purposes: you immediately get a glassy stare the moment you go past three sentences whenever someone asks ‘so, what’s your thesis about?’

I assume that doctoral students working in labs, or in research groups that meet frequently (never the case for the groups I’ve been a member of), enjoy the luxury of sharing their progress and doubts. In the Humanities, however, producing a PhD dissertation is, most often, a lone-wolf affair. In my view, this is the worst effect of suppressing full-time contracts in Spanish universities. The doctoral students in my Department meet once a year in February in a workshop where they offer samples of their ongoing work to fellow students and teachers. They have no other regular meetings (we don’t have doctoral courses) and, so, basically no chances to socialize in our facilities. If they do that outside, this is on the basis of personal affinity and not necessarily in relation to their research. Since most doctoral students work outside the university they are not given free days to attend conferences; at most, they spend one day at the event to present their paper, perhaps just the morning or the afternoon. The generational networking that should be happening is thus curtailed (as is the generational replacement, of course), and conferences might be facing inevitable decay.

What is it like for tutors, then? Frustrating… The frustration begins the moment a good MA student, perhaps your own dissertation tutoree, walks into your office to ask for advice about writing a PhD thesis. What used to be ‘Of course! How can I help you?’ has now become ‘Why? Are you aware that there are no openings for young scholars?’, hardly a nice way to start. I have supervised so far six dissertations but have failed to complete the supervision of four others–they are thorns in my side, because the topics were very good and because they took time that counts for nothing in my CV. I have, then, become more cautious, less enthusiastic. Even in the best cases, what should be a three-year investment of energy is now lasting up to five or even six years. I like very much the company of my PhD students but tutoring for so many years is just not what it should be, for me and for them.

In practice, then, currently all doctoral students are part-time (like, incidentally, more than 50% of our teachers) and run, thus, the risk of ‘losing cohesion’, as one of the students who abandoned me explained. One might find this counterintuitive because it might seem that research carried out in five years should be more solid than that carried out in three. This is not true: researchers get tired even of favourite topics and need to move on after a while. A PhD is, besides, mentally exhausting in a way that writing later monographs is not because it is your first battle with a very extensive piece of academic writing. Better be done with it in a shorter, more intense period than over many years–yet, this is what we have now and must put up with.

I’ll end where I started, with the yearly interviews. I find them a great idea, one of the few useful improvements in all the arbitrary changes introduced into higher education in recent decades. They are at the same time an occasion to commiserate with the poor students, who, with very few exceptions, do all they can in an almost impossible situation. I cannot help reaching the conclusion, however, that interviews have become necessary precisely because our doctoral students are not where they should be: working with us full time.

Funny how I never made an appointment to see my supervisor: I just knocked on his office door, three down the corridor from my own office… Gone are the times when this was common for most doctoral students…

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

IN MIDDLE-EARTH AGAIN: TOLKIEN (AND WILLIAM MORRIS)

May 22nd, 2018

I’m re-reading again The Lord of the Rings these days, for the third time. J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) is not one of my great passions as a reader or researcher but I acknowledge the immense importance that he has as a major contributor to English Literature, and not just to fantasy. What he offers in his work is astonishing. Also, it makes me wonder what academic life was like back in the first half of the 20th century, since he managed to be a highly respected Oxford don and the writer of such massive texts. I do not refer here to the extension of his works but to the density of his mythological imagination, which reaches amazing heights in The Silmarillion.

There are actually several Tolkiens (without even mentioning the academic philologist and the fancy linguist): the charming children’s author of The Hobbit (1937), the epic writer of The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) and the mythmaker of The Silmarillion (1977, edited and published post-humously by his son Christopher Tolkien, but started in 1917). The latter book is far less known because few readers are willing to face the demands that Tolkien’s languid pseudo-Biblical prose imposes (even on his most ardent fans). I just wish Amazon would adapt that book instead of doing again The Lord of the Rings, not only because The Silmarillion has such an attractive plot (together with the other texts attached to it in the volume) but also because a new adaptation feels like a gratuitous insult to poor director Peter Jackson and his still recent film series (2001-3), undoubtedly a major feat in the history of cinema.

Here’s a personal anecdote: on Sunday I rushed to the Museu Nacional de les Arts de Catalunya to see the exhibition on William Morris and the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement that ended yesterday. I find Morris (1834-1896) a fascinating figure in many ways but, above all, because he came up with the idea that beautiful objects need not be the prerogative of the rich. Disliking very much the habitual clutter of useless objects that you could find in most wealthy Victorian houses, he drew a “golden rule”: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” (this comes from “The Beauty of Life”, a lecture delivered at the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design, 1880). IKEA is the ultimate descendant of that philosophy but also all our current perspective on high quality design, for Morris had a gigantic international impact.

Anyway, I was contemplating one of the magnificent pseudo-Medieval tapestries made by Morris’s house and thinking ‘um, this looks like Rivendell’ (the perfect home of the lordly half-Elf Elrond in The Lord of the Rings) when I overheard a guide explain that Tolkien had drawn much inspiration for his work from Morris’ fiction and, specially, his translations of the Icelandic sagas. Please, recall that Rivendell is presented in Peter Jackson’s adaptation as a kind of pseudo-Gaudinian paradise, which closes the circle very nicely: Morris was a major influence on Catalan Modernism (approx. 1885-1920), in which Gaudí (1852-1926) is a key figure (see the article by Anna Calvera on Morris’ impact in Catalonia here: www.raco.cat/index.php/Dart/article/download/100491/151064).

Obviously, I have not paid enough attention either to Morris or to Tolkien for I didn’t know what, checking the internet, everyone appears to know: Tolkien was very fond not only of Morris’s poetic translations from Icelandic (which he actually produced with his friend Eirikr Magnusson, see one instance here: https://archive.org/details/volsungasagatran009188mbp) but also of his historical and fantasy novels. The House of the Wolfings (1889) tells the story of how a Germanic tribe (renamed Goths in Morris’s novel) resists the invasion of the Romans, unusually presented as the true barbarians. The Wood Beyond the World (1894) appears to be a sort of update of Thomas Mallory’s style (not of the Arthurian content), and a clear precursor of current epic fantasy. The Well at the World’s End (1896) continues in the same supernatural vein. It has a King Gandolf, a name everyone cites as proof that Tolkien knew his Morris (apparently he spent part of the money earned for winning the Skeat Prize in 1914 to buy several books by Morris, including his translated Völsunaga Saga and House of the Wolfings).

Tolkien was also familiar with Morris’ classic of socialist utopianism News from Nowhere (1890) in which he preached essentially that the future should be built on a pre-Industrial Revolution rural economy. Echoes of this are, indeed, found in “The Scouring of the Shire”, the penultimate chapter of The Lord of the Rings. After fulfilling the hazardous mission of returning the evil One Ring to the place where it was made by Sauron, the hobbits (Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin) go back home to the Shire only to discover that its lovely landscape has been destroyed by the wizard Saruman, posing as the capitalist Sharkey. Jackson didn’t film this segment, which he doesn’t like, even though it is essential to understand Tolkien: this author hated modern life (what Bauman called Modernity with a capital M–see my previous post), in which he was following Morris but also his experience in the trenches of WWI. Tolkien’s utopian Shire is, ultimately, much closer to socialism than the author’s dream of a restored Medieval feudalism might allow us to see. Gondor may enjoy the aristocratic rule of the returned King Aragorn, but in the Shire there is no equivalent ruler, just a Thain in charge of guaranteeing the safety of the tightly-knit community and the enjoyment of its simple pleasures.

In this third reading of The Lord of the Rings, and possibly because in the last stages I was thinking of Morris, I have noticed a few things that I had overlooked. One is that the references to the economy and the labour system of the lands of Middle-earth are very vague: actually, we know more about how the arch-villain Sauron runs Mordor than about the other kingdoms and territories run by Elves and Men. The class system is also a problem. Many others have noticed that Sam Gamgee appears to play the role of WWI ‘batman’, or officer’s servant, a position often assumed by private soldiers from rural backgrounds. Tolkien was himself a junior officer (1915-18) and acknowledged in some letters that the batmen he knew had been an inspiration for Sam. However, I find Gamgee’s status as a servant (batman or otherwise) problematic mainly because it has a clear impact on how Sam’s deep bond with Frodo functions: it’s one-sided. Sam declares again and again that he loves Frodo but I don’t see that he is requited in the same way. This is a lopsided friendship, which somehow mars the text. By the way: I had missed how often Tolkien uses the word ‘queer’, it’s amazing… But I’m not saying that Sam and Frodo are gay, that’s a topic for another post.

Something else I had overlooked: I had kept the impression from my previous readings that Tolkien uses plenty of description but I realize now that this is not correct. His topographic detail is extremely abundant but also overwhelming for someone who can barely distinguish north from south (like yours truly). I realize now that Peter Jackson’s production design team (headed by Grant Major) must have faced a gargantuan challenge despite the precedents set by the illustrators of Tolkien’s works, among them Alan Lee. Incidentally, Tolkien was a marvellous illustrator as it is plain from his drawings for The Hobbit–clearly inspired by the painters of the Arts and Crafts movement. At any rate, Major’s design team had to be necessarily specific to make up for Tolkien’s descriptive vagueness. I don’t mean that he offered no descriptions whatsoever but that they are limited to certain features rather than to complete portraits, both for characters and for landscapes. Tolkien suggests, in short, rather than draw a full picture, in which he is far less Dickensian than I thought.

The women… What can I say? The Lord of the Rings is a patriarchal text 100%: it’s male-centred, exalts male bonding, celebrates patriarchal aristocratic power and so on. Funnily, if you read The Silmarillion you will see that the Valar (the fourteen auxiliary gods that the god Ilúvatar employs in creating Arda, or Earth) are genderless until they decide, according to individual inclination, to take a gendered form. Some of the females, like Varda, are very powerful but it is soon obvious that this is a patriarchy and that the male Manwë is in charge. Likewise, although the female Elf Galadriel astonishes everyone with her beauty, intelligence and power, she’s just the exception that confirms the rule: power is gendered male, anyway. Frodo timidly suggests to Galadriel that, if she took the Ring, she might use power in a beneficial way but she denies this–there is no feminine or feminist alternative. Or Tolkien is too nervous to consider it.

All female characters are, of course, defined by their physical appearance. And as the cases of Lúthien and Arwen show, Tolkien had this fantasy about superior women abandoning their high status for the love of men: both Elves become mortals to marry Men. Tolkien, by the way, who claimed to love and admire his wife Edith very much (naming her as the inspiration for Lúthien) forced her totally against her will to become a Catholic like him and raise their children in that faith–do what you will of this factoid. Finally, Eówyn, whom many worship as a figure of empowerment because she is a successful warrior, ends up assuming her proper feminine role as wife and future mother. For me Eówyn is particularly annoying, poor thing, because her dissatisfaction with her housebound life shows that Tolkien understood very well the problems women faced as he wrote (1940s to 1950s). I don’t mean with this that The Lord of the Rings is a sexist or misogynistic text: it’s, rather, a text with a conspicuous lack of concern for women. Fathers mourn again and again lost sons but mothers are hardly ever seen, and daughters are just princesses to be married off.

So why read and re-read this? Well, we women have this long training in reading patriarchal stories as if they had been written for us and we can even forget how deeply gendered they are. I have complained that the bond between Sam and Frodo is unbalanced in Frodo’s favour but even so, this relationship is the main reason why I do love The Lord of the Rings. The scene when Frodo volunteers to carry the evil One Ring back to Mount Doom and try to destroy it is very moving, as is his realization that he will never heal from his psychological wounds once he has accomplished his mission–or not, since he actually fails (do read the book to know how and why). I have read plenty of WWI fiction and I recognize in the brave hobbit the veteran suffering from shellshock, or what is now called post-traumatic stress syndrome. This might be a misreading, but in my view this is Tolkien’s main contribution to fantasy and mythmaking: its grounding in the evil reality of the trenches, not as allegory but as background inspiration. Beowulf would not understand what kind of hero Frodo is–but Harry Potter does.

Now, if you’re minimally interested, go beyond Sauron, and check who Melkor/Morgoth was. For if Morris is all over The Lord of the Rings, Milton reigns in The Silmarillion. Or, perhaps, now that I think about it, William Blake.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

AN UNSOLVED PROBLEM: ZYGMUNT BAUMAN’S MODERNITY AND THE HOLOCAUST

May 14th, 2018

The saddest paper I have ever written is “De la Primera Guerra Mundial al Holocausto: El uso de la tecnología en la destrucción en masa del cuerpo humano” (see http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/Primera%20Guerra%20Mundial%20Holocausto%20Sara%20Mart%C3%ADn.pdf). I’m thinking again of that paper after re-reading Zygmunt Bauman’s impressive Modernity and the Holocaust (1989). Also, because I see all over 21st century Europe a menacing rebirth of the basic tenets of Nazism. Above all, of the 19th century patriarchal völkisch ideology, focused on the nation’s salvation by a providential messianic leader who embodies its spirit–as he believes and fawning fanatics confirm.

If we are blinded to the equivalence of current populist movements with Nazism this is because most people wrongly believe that Hitler’s main aim from the very beginning of his rise to power was the Endlösung (or Final Solution). This is incorrect: anti-Semitism was present in Hitler’s ideology from the 1920s onwards but not genocide–he was obsessed, above all, by the ideal of a racially homogeneous German Reich and the Endlösung only occurred to him eventually (I follow in this English historian Ian Kershaw). Today, very similar ideologies aim at rebuilding the so-called national territory as a self-sufficient, uniform community purged of external elements. They are not, however, seen as spin-offs of Nazism because anti-Semitism is not part of their outlook. The far-right represented by UKIP is not an anti-Semitic genocidal party: the Nazi völkisch ideology, however, is part of its core beliefs. Call it Nazism, Fascism, neo-Anarchism, or post-Romantic nationalism, it’s all the same basic principle: ‘we’ exist in opposition to ‘them’ and ‘we’ are unique because ‘we’ are culturally and linguistically homogenous–even, God save us, a distinct ethnic group with the ‘right’ values.

This is why it is so important to read Bauman: because he warns us that the problem of how the Holocaust happened has not been solved for good. I’ll proceed, then, to highlight the main lessons he teaches (using his own italics throughout the post).

The first lesson is that although the Holocaust was indeed a “Jewish tragedy” (x) it was not just “a Jewish problem, and not an event in Jewish history alone” (x). The Holocaust, Bauman adds, was a product of “our modern rational society” (x). He warns us very strongly that believing in the exceptionality of the Shoah–an event now about to lose its last survivors to the passage of time–“results not only in the moral comfort of self-exculpation, but also in the dire threat of moral and political disarmament” (xii, my italics). I worry in particular about what the youngest generations know about this genocide, now that Schindler’s List (1993) is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Also, because most 21st century novels about the Holocaust are trashy, blithely sentimental tales (see https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/6066.Best_Holocaust_Novels). Spielberg was accused of committing the same crime but he was never that guilty.

The Holocaust was not at all a pre-meditated plan devised by an evil villain and his henchmen but, Bauman argues, the “outcome of a unique encounter between factors by themselves quite ordinary and common” (xii). These factors were closely connected with Modernity in two ways: the rationalization of industry on scientific principles (inspired by Henry Ford’s assembly lines in his car factory) and the establishment of modern-style, machine-aided bureaucracy (IBM, International Business Machines Corporation, was founded in 1911). These had already been applied in WWI to create a colossal machinery of mass destruction. The collapse of German economy and of the Weimar Republic in 1929 helped, of course, Hitler to access power and to undermine from the inside the fragile German democracy. Once the structures of control over his autocratic rule were destroyed following the brutal repression of his political enemies (1930-33), Hitler faced no obstacle, as he had the complicity of the upper classes and the Prussian-style loyalty of the Army. Remember, please, that the Nazis were voted democratically into power and that Hitler was appointed Chancellor legally. By 1938 he already had the law and the executive power united in his dictatorial person.

Bauman insists that although “Modern civilization was not the Holocaust’s sufficient condition; it was, however, most certainly its necessary condition” (13). The Jewish genocide was not at all an irrational event: “the rational world of modern civilization (…) made the Holocaust thinkable” (13); the Final Solution came from “bureaucratic culture” (15), coolly applying “routine bureaucratic procedures” (15) to human extermination. Bauman stresses that although the mass of Nazi underlings involved in the Endlösung knew very well what they were doing, most pen-pushers had little contact if any with the process itself, mostly carried out far from German offices. Bureaucracy, Bauman accuses, “is intrinsically capable of genocidal action” (106), which does not mean that all bureaucracies and each single bureaucrat act in genocidal ways. Rather, it means that if the most powerful person in Government marks a certain direction, bureaucracy will blindly follow it, and this his what happened in Nazi Germany.

Bauman is adamant that whatever allowed the Holocaust to happen between 1941 and 1945 (after the defeat in Russia that made wholesale Jewish deportation impossible and before the extermination camps were liberated by the Allies), “we cannot be sure that it has been eliminated since then” (86). In his view, we still live “in a type of society that made the Holocaust possible, and that contained nothing which could stop the Holocaust from happening” (86). The Holocaust will not happen exactly in the same way again, and no copycat Hitler with the same powers will arise. Bauman’s argument is that just as the Nazis could overcome the moral restraints active in the 1940s, someone else might overcome just as easily our own moral restraints. It is happening right now in the current war in Syria and to the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.

A note of warning: despite the lessons learned from the Jewish Holocaust by the Nazis, we cannot say that the far worse threat of nuclear Holocaust is over. Far from it. As Bauman writes, “In the years leading to the Final Solution the most trusted of the safeguards had been put to a test. They all failed–one by one, and all together” (108). As they are failing now: just last week President Trump broke the nuclear deal signed with Iran in 2015; the whole world has complained but nothing can seemingly stop Trump. Bauman wrote back in 1989 that during the 1940s “Civilization proved incapable of guaranteeing moral use of the awesome powers it brought into being” (111) but this might apply again to the 2010s, the 2020s or whenever someone finally starts a nuclear war. Nobody will ever again gas 6,000,000 Jews in extermination camps but we need to bear in mind that 600,000,000 persons could be wiped out in a nuclear conflict. Survival could be even worse than death.

Bauman complains that the popular narratives based on the Shoah tend to portray the victims with a dignity which was simply impossible to sustain in real life. He names the 1978 TV mini-series Holocaust (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077025/) as an example of this unrealistic representation of victimhood. Naturally, if the Holocaust were represented in all its crudity, and some films come close (Son of Saul, The Grey Zone) it would be unwatchable–arguably, a sub-genre of torture porn. Perhaps that should be the whole point, though I must say in favour of Holocaust (and of Schindler’s List) that they approached the horrors of the Nazi camps to plain viewers in a way that Claude Lanzmann’s revered, stark 10-hour arthouse documentary of 1985, Shoah, never could manage.

I’m sure that whenever we read about the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis we always wonder how we would have reacted. We imagine ourselves (correct me if I am wrong) as either a victim, or an ‘innocent non-Nazi bystander’ and fantasize that, if we knew that our neighbours were about to be deported and gassed, we would heroically save them. Leaving the Danish population aside, and the other well-meaning persons all over Europe who managed to defy the Nazis, this is not what happened at all. After discussing the famous experiments by Milgram and Zimbardo, which proved the propensity of all individuals to abuse fellow human beings if authorised by a superior, Bauman reaches a ghastly but realistic conclusion: “The most frightening news brought about the Holocaust and by what we learned of its perpetrators was not the likelihood that ‘this’ could be done to us, but the idea that we could do it” (152). The persons who actively participated in the Holocaust were, as a flabbergasted Hannah Arendt discovered during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, normal–perhaps 10% were sadists to begin with but 90% were just carrying out orders (and keeping a low profile if they disagreed with their bosses). This is easy to imagine: think of the engineers designing the bombs that kill children in Syria returning every evening to the comfort of their middle-class homes.

One of the most chilling passages in Mein Kampf (1925), among the many in this crazy book, appears in Chapter II. “There were very few Jews in Linz”, his home town, Hitler recalls. The Linz Jews, he explains, “had become Europeanized in external appearance and were so much like other human beings that I even looked upon them as Germans” (my italics). Hitler did not “perceive the absurdity of such an illusion” because the Jews were like any other ordinary Linz fellow-citizen, except for “the practice of their strange religion”. Pay attention now (my italics): “As I thought that they were persecuted on account of their Faith my aversion to hearing remarks against them grew almost into a feeling of abhorrence. I did not in the least suspect that there could be such a thing as a systematic anti-Semitism”. This, he claims, was something he discovered in cosmopolitan Vienna.

There was a time, then, when young Hitler was not a Jew hater. That he could become eventually the arch-Jewish hater shows that he was persuaded by an already widespread, prejudiced ideology which ignited fanatic flames ready to burst in his brain but also in many other brains. A concatenation of appalling circumstances put absolute power in his hands and then Hitler proceeded to commit one of the worst atrocities the world has seen using, as Bauman stresses, the tools that Modernity had already developed for his grisly project. Bowing before his power, others helped Hitler to use these tools, because they shared his fanaticism and rotten beliefs. They were all, however, normal people–not evil monsters from Hell. As normal as you and me, though convinced that by torturing and killing fellow human beings according to the atrocious ideology embodied by their messianic leader they were working for the good of their nation. They felt morally authorized. Put it the other way round, if you will: tell ordinary people that they must protect the nation and they will do anything–from fighting in wars to committing genocide. This is normal human behaviour, enhanced in our times by Modernity.

Reading Bauman’s volume is fundamental to understand that, as he so convincingly argues, the Holocaust was not an sporadic descent into barbarism but the very essence of 20th century Modernity. Hitler took advantage of the German humiliation after WWI to present himself as the völkisch leader that would return to the nation its lost dignity. He then destroyed not only the Jews but also most of his own nation: the Machine–as J.R.R. Tolkien, another WWI veteran, called Modernity–was at his service both in the camps and in the Wehrmacht. Since there is a relatively short distance between 1918 and 1945 but a much longer time lapse between that date and 2018 we tend to believe that the risk of a new Hitler and a new Holocaust is over. However, as Bauman stressed and Tolkien defended, only the rejection of Modernity itself can save us.

This doesn’t mean a return to pre-history–for God knows what Homo Sapiens did to the poor Neanderthals then–but questioning the benefits of Modernity. Many argue that progress and the barbaric go together in Modernity but this seems to be a spurious argument aimed at defending barbarism. It should also be time to move beyond the ideologies of the 19th century with their ethnic and racial obsessions and work for the good of the whole human species. For planet Earth will go on until the Sun goes supernova, whether we’re on it or not.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

TUTORING TFG/BA DISSERTATIONS ON VIDEOGAMES IN ENGLISH STUDIES: THE WALKING DEAD AND THE LAST OF US

May 7th, 2018

I have access at home to three consoles, none of which I can operate–the plain truth is that I’m not a gamer and might never be. I do care, however, for how videogames are evolving. Nobody should ignore them if only because for more than a decade they have been generating much bigger business than films. Besides, they are a favourite entertainment among those born from the 1970s onward (but note: around 10% of all gamers are past 50 years of age). There are already two generations of gamers, mainly male but also increasingly female (excuse the gender binarism).

Genderwise, though, the videogame industry is particularly problematic. The news and the social media offer abundant complaints from the women in the field, mostly gamers but also developers and executives. They are routinely subjected to aggressive male chauvinism, a situation specially worrying because it is caused by patriarchal younger men. Women are not told to stay away from books, plays, comics, music, films or series appealing to men. In the gamers’ world, in contrast, misogynistic attitudes are common and result, in the worst cases, in women’s eviction from some particularly masculinist territories.

Why this sexist territorialism? The most recalcitrant men have found shelter in videogames after abandoning other domains of entertainment/culture convinced that they were being feminized: reading, above all, but also any activity that may seem passive, such as seeing films in cinemas or watching TV at home. For the patriarchal men videogames appear to solve two interrelated problems: how to approach entertainment in a more active way and how to keep the alleged threat of feminization away. The moment the more active girls have demanded admission into the all-male territory, the trolls have reacted as what they are. The truth, however, is that videogames are not as active as these patriarchal gamers assume, but rather passive. From a feminist point of view it also must be noted that their opening up towards a more egalitarian stance in some of their most advanced plotlines is not substantially altering their patriarchal narratives. Since I don’t play, how do I know? Easy: I have learned from my students.

Last year an ex-student returned to UAB after an absence of twenty years to finish his degree. In the meantime, Josué Monchán had become a well-known videogame professional as writer, translator and popularizer. It seemed, then, logical for him to focus his TFG on this field, though not so logical that I became his tutor. This was a case of nobody else wanting to take the challenge and of my accepting on the grounds that Games Studies is a branch of Cultural Studies, my area. Josué focused his TFG/BA dissertation on a very popular videogame, The Walking Dead (Telltale Games) inspired by the TV series (now in its eighth season), adapted in its turn from a graphic novel. Having seen a few seasons of the series, I felt confident that I would understand the gist of his research. He explored player’s agency and, to summarize his very sophisticated dissertation, Josué argued that even in the most accomplished games it is impossible to offer as much agency as the player demands. The multiple choices which open up at each plot turn need to be limited, or else force the studio to make a ruinous investment. Enjoy the TFG: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/181036.

In hindsight, I realize that we were after all approaching gaming from a Gender Studies angle, as, basically, Josué explained that videogames attract gamers by lying about the degree of agency they will enjoy. Gamers are ultimately far more passive than the jumping on the sofa fuelled by all that adrenaline suggests. In any case, Josué didn’t look in detail into the gender dynamics of The Walking Dead, a horror survival videogame which narrates how, in the context of a zombie apocalypse, university professor and convicted criminal Lee Everett rescues and afterwards protects young Clementine.

One year later, I find myself tutoring another undergrad student with a great enthusiasm for videogames. Andrea’s TFG deals with The Last of Us–a horror survival game that narrates how smuggler Joel accepts protecting young Ellie in the context of a zombie apocalypse. Talk about déjà vu! A few months ago, I knew nothing about The Last of Us (2013, Naughty Dog), an extremely popular quality videogame, honoured with many major awards and already a contemporary classic. Now I can boast that I have even lectured about it! When Josué invited me offer an introduction to Masculinities Studies to his class in the BA ‘Creación y narración de videojuegos’ (Universidad Francisco Victoria), I cheekily asked to discuss The Last of Us. It was great to share my impressions for once with a male majority in class (12 young men, 3 women).

Andrea is analyzing the gender issues in The Last of Us, specifically the allegedly progressive characterization of the female lead, Ellie. The plot (for this is a narrative or adventure videogame) takes one year to unfold; in three of the seasons the gamer plays through Joel, but in one the game is focalized through Ellie. Technically, both are the main lead. I found everything I read about The Last of Us (including some academic work) very interesting. It never occurred to me last year that I should have watched a walkthrough (a video of the game as actually played) to understand gameplay in The Walking Dead. This time, curioser and curioser, I selected a condensed walkthrough on YouTube and spent… 6 hours watching it. The full game, incidentally, takes a maximum of 15/17 hours to play, depending on the gamer’s skills.

Actually, I first watched one hour of a 10-hour walkthrough (this is average, it seems) to get the basics of the gameplay. The 6-hour version was more dynamic but also far more complete than the 90’/120’ plot-driven versions also available. These reduce The Last of Us to its bare bones acting as the equivalent of a possible film adaptation. Let me explain that I chose to spend the 6 hours watching The Last of Us after reaching the conclusion that this is not longer than reading each of the novels my other tutorees are working on (see my previous post). I simply loved the experience!: at one point I even stayed glued to my tablet for 3 hours. Also, please believe me, I was deeply moved by the initial segment and devastated by the end section, like many other YouTube spectators as I saw from their comments.

I understand Andrea’s interest in Ellie, though I have already warned her that women’s characterization in male-dominated media is always limited. I must note that script writer (and co-director) Neil Druckmann tries hard to offer a variety of male characters. They include not only white Joel and his brother but also two loving African-American brothers and what I will call paradoxical examples of homosexuality… and of cannibalism. Druckmann also tries seriously not to stereotype women as sexy toys. The female characters are far less diverse but Ellie, and specially Joel’s partner Tess, offer a convincing example of tough, self-reliant femininity.

What I didn’t anticipate is that Joel’s characterization would shake the foundations of my own Gender Studies research. Here is your classic handsome, rugged, mature Texan, helping Ellie to cross a devastated American landscape, using all the violence he can muster against the zombie hordes. Or, rather, ‘infected’ since they’re living individuals plagued by a scary fungal parasite. Ellie needs protection because she is immune and might be the key to a vaccine, to be developed in a secret lab hundreds of miles away. Why is Joel appealing if all this seems so typically malestream? Because he is not sexist. Or is he?

Druckmann became a father in the course of writing The Last of Us and this explains the emphasis on Joel’s paternal (or paternalistic?) stance towards Ellie. This is complicated, nonetheless, because for her to become his focus of attention, Joel has to lose first his biological daughter, Sarah, in awful circumstances–this is how the game begins. This child is a ‘woman in the refrigerator’, as the trope of the female who dies so that the hero can begin his adventure was christened back in 1999, in relation to the death of Green Lantern’s girlfriend. Still grieving, Joel takes a long time to sort out his feelings for Ellie and trust her own survival abilities but he makes the required effort successfully. He, in short, learns to see Ellie as a complete human being. Add to this that Joel treats Tess as his total equal.

Faced at the end of the videogame with the problem of where his loyalty lies, with Ellie or with the US civilization he is being asked to save (split between a militaristic Government and anarchist guerrilla forces), Joel makes a controversial choice. I can only say that it astonished me because it is coherently heroic but also appallingly villainous. I take my hat off before Druckmann! However, and this is a major snag, Joel takes his decision alone, bypassing Ellie’s opinion and agency even though she is the subject of that choice. Here’s, then, the quandary: is Joel yet another patriarchal chauvinist, or a man with his heart in the right place?

What worries me about Joel, then, is that he seems to exemplify an insidious ongoing trend. Patriarchal storytelling, including videogames, may be evolving towards plots that, while not overtly sexist or misogynistic (even quite the opposite), are still patriarchal. This means man-centred and based on deploying an ultra-violent heroic narrative, in which men make if not all at least most choices. You need to wonder why the two major videogames that my tutorees have chosen (The Walking Dead, The Last of Us) share the same storyline. I speculated in my lecture that Joel, the paradoxically ultra-violent good guy, and his kind aim at claiming back for men the debased role of protector, which explains the zombie/infected scenario. The contradictory feeling they inspire, even in feminist women like yours truly, is that they would be perfect companions in situations of danger. They want to protect us, as the idealized knights did but without the sexism, never mind how oxymoronic this sounds. As one of the young men in class told me ‘this sounds far-fetched, but might well be the case’. What worries me is that this type of effective protector only appears in violent fictions and not in the violent situations of real life, in which justice is needed. If you take the monsters away, could Joel channel his profound protective instinct towards justice? What would happen to his capacity for violence? If Tess had been entrusted with protecting Ellie, would The Last of Us be the same or substantially different, taking into account she uses plenty of violence, too?

I asked Andrea how it felt to be a woman and ‘play’ Joel because much has been written about boys manipulating female characters in videogames but very little, if anything, about the opposite case. Challenging, she said. The right word.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

CONFUSED BY LOVE: READING ANDRÉ ACIMAN’S CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

April 24th, 2018

[Warning: this post deals with the novel Call Me by Your Name and contains spoilers!]

One of my TFG (or BA dissertation) tutorees, Marc, has chosen to work on the novel Call Me by Your Name (2007) by Egyptian-born American author André Aciman. You may have already seen the successful film adaptation directed by Lucca Guadagnino and based on a script by acclaimed filmmaker James Ivory, who was honoured with an Oscar for it. I am aware that the film is quite faithful to the novel but, since I haven’t seen it yet, I will refer here only to Aciman’s gorgeous text.

Call Me by Your Name is an exquisite literary novel which narrates in the first person the relationship between 17-year-old Elio (the narrator) and 24-year-old Oliver, a brilliant college teacher and published scholar. Prof. Perlman, Elio’s father, has the habit of inviting budding academics to his Italian Riviera villa for a six-week stay during which they are supposed to assist him in his own work. Oliver is, then, the last addition to the list of guests, whereas his brief sojourn with the Perlmans functions as the time frame constraining his relationship with Elio. Their love story, which happens in summer, fits in many ways the conventions of this kind of transient romance: it is intense but brief and it finishes as soon as the participants return home.

Since they are two men, inevitably Call Me by Your Name has been read as a homosexual story– as a matter of fact, it got a Lambda Award for Best Gay Fiction in 2008. This is quite peculiar because actually both boy and man are in relationships with women: Elio has a besotted girlfriend, Marzia, whom he treats not too kindly, and, this is crucial, Oliver returns home to the United States to marry an unnamed girl. Technically, then, this is the story of two bisexual men. However, Aciman refrains from pinning any label onto his protagonists and their relationship; we need to wonder, then, why we, readers and critics, do use labels anyway. This is in fact my student Marc’s research question.

Marc started off from a position which completely rejects how labels are used, arguing that Elio and Oliver are involved primarily in a love story, with their gender and sexuality being of secondary interest. This would work, I told him, if the members of the couple could be other than two men, and we agreed that they could easily be two women, and even a young man and an older woman. Turning Elio into Elia, however, would result in quite a different story: one framed by patriarchal heteronormativity. A surprising point in the romance happens when Prof. Perlman books a luxury suit in Rome for Elio and Oliver, aware of what has been going on between them under his roof. Marc and I read this as proof that, quite possibly, Prof. Perlman is a closeted homosexual. What would not fit, at any rate, our current politically correct taste is a story in which a father would book a hotel room for his underage daughter and her lover, and be fine about her having seduced one of his guests. Odd. Labels, then, are still needed.

Not that Call Me by Your Name is not an odd tale. Reversing Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912), in Aciman’s novel the one who obsesses over a beautiful male body is the adolescent (though Oliver, of course, is a young man whereas Mann’s voyeuristic Gustav von Aschenbach is in his early fifties). Elio’s erudition and fine prose are simply baffling. He belongs to a family of Jewish intellectuals, which might be a justification for the passion he feels for high Culture. Still, he’s only 17 and, since I was myself 17 at the time he lives his summer romance, in 1983, I can tell you that he is a completely unrealistic rendition of a 1980s teenager. He sounds, in fact, like someone out of a Thomas Mann novel, perhaps Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain. I don’t doubt the intensity of the feelings Elio has for Oliver, but I find it impossible to believe that a 17-year-old would ever write in that subtle vein about them. Unless, that is, the one actually writing the story retrospectively is the 37-year-old Elio of the last part, set in the author’s narrative present.

It is this segment, Part 4 ‘Ghost Spots’, which makes Call Me by Your Name a particularly ambiguous text about modern love. As I explained to Marc, whatever gender and sex option we prefer, we’re awfully confused about how we want our love stories to end: if the couple remains together, then what follows is dreaded domesticity, a total anticlimax; it seems, rather, that we prefer the lovers to separate for ever, if possible tragically, as this prevents domesticity from spoiling passion. Aciman, though, chooses a peculiar third option: he has Elio and Oliver get together for a return to the landscape where their love flourished so many years ago, but he offers an open end. No decision is made, albeit Elio seems to be hoping that Oliver takes a step.

This might never happen, however, because he and Elio spend the first four weeks of their 1980s summer romance giving each other very confusing signals as they feign mutual indifference for strange personal reasons. This is more or less justified because Oliver worries that Elio might not really be ready for a sexual relationship with him, and also because the boy is still finding his feet as a seducer. As I read the novel, though, and because we live in the Tinder/Grindr age, I marvelled that any two persons could take so long to express their desire. To be honest, I started getting impatient, absurdly concerned that they would run out of time! Elio’s and Oliver’s cavalier use of time presents, as you can see, a serious obstacle to believe in a possible happy future together, now in the 21st century. Marc tells me that Guadagnino and Ivory are working on a second movie, so we’ll see…

Let me step back a bit and return to this puzzling Part 4. As I was explaining, the summer romance ends, simply, with Oliver’s return home. I find Aciman’s decision not to continue the love story (by, for instance, having Elio become a student in the USA and Oliver abandon his fiancée) correct. A 17-year-old boy seems to be in no position to commit for long, as most likely Oliver sees. This is hard to say, anyway, because and this is my main complaint against this discerning novel, Oliver remains a cipher. He is all handsome face and sexy body, but not a full person, a round character. But never mind. Assuming, then, that it makes sense to keep the two lovers apart as long as Elio is young, I cannot see, however, why Aciman stages their reunion 20 years later. It seems a very long time. Unless, that is, the author is narrating autobiographical events that simply happened in that way.

This long time lapse is a vital part in how Call Me by Your Name exemplifies modern love, for protagonists, author, and readers share a total uncertainty about romance. Conventionally, love stories are supposed to be intense but, like Elio and Oliver, we now avoid deep feelings out of fear of being excessively affected, or hurt. When romantic feelings start looming anyway, quite often the relationship is cut short, though this is, I think, far more frequent in real life than in fiction (is it?!). This is why Aciman’s novel is so original and at the same time so realistic: there is no tragedy (remember Brokeback Mountain?), just a logical, sensible drifting apart.

Or not so logical. Elio and Oliver’s passion could have been presented as a happy physical relationship within a specific period of their lives, and it would work well. Nevertheless, Aciman felt the need to add that problematic Part 4, which suggests that it was really love, of the kind Elio has never found (we’re not sure about Oliver, who seems more keen on being a father than a husband). But, then, if that summer fling was true love, why does Elio take so long to seek Oliver out…? You may sense here a hidden (or not so hidden) fear that the renewed relationship might not be as exciting, sexy or satisfying. To begin with the seven years separating Elio and Oliver, which made their first encounter so problematic but also so thrilling, mean now nothing: one is 37 and the other 44, practically the same age.

Of course, if we compare Call Me by Your Name to the most popular heterosexual romance of recent times, the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy, we immediately realize that Aciman’s elegant final paragraph is light years away from the cheesy heteronormative resolution which E.L. James offers. The two texts, however, are at the same time inevitably linked: neither makes sense of how sex and love connect, and I very much suspect that, even though he could not have read James’s first novel, published four years before Call Me by Your Name, Aciman is conditioned by the happy-ever-after trope she uses against all odds. That is to say, he avoids it like the plague it is.

This is both a strength and a shortcoming of Call Me by Your Name, published at a point in the history of the United States, 2007, when same-sex marriage was already available (Massachusetts was the first state to legalize it, in 2004). We need to read, then, in Aciman’s open end a question mark about how to narrate romance today, when a main homophobic barrier has already been broken. Perhaps the remaining barrier is aesthetic and Aciman’s main dilemma is that although Elio’s inspired prose can transmit the nuances of attraction, it cannot accommodate the corny image of his walking down the aisle to marry Oliver twenty years later. And I have no idea, begging your pardon, whether any other LGTBI+ novel has managed to conquer something as essentially heteronormative as marriage for classy, literary queer romance. Or reinvent it.

Lovely novel… Wistful ending.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/