Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

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

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

*an article also in The Times Higher Education supplement disclosing that “Grant income targets for individual academics (…) exist in some form in about one in six UK universities”, Also, an article denouncing how British academics are embracing the “cult of no sleep” (a catchphrase coined by Arianna Huffington), Or insomnia as the solution to an increasing workload.

*several articles posted in about:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I have recently come across a good number of dud books. In this category I include a) books which I end up abandoning, despite my good will to read them; b) books which I read to the end, often skimming and with great impatience, hoping against all hope that they improve towards the end. By ‘books’ I really mean ‘novels’ here. The common denominator of all these novels is that I have chosen them because of the hype surrounding them often in connection with an award. These are novels I very much wanted to read.

Just for you to see that I have tried all kinds, three of the most egregious duds have turned out to be: 1) En la orilla by the late Rafael Chirbes (Premio Nacional de Narrativa, 2014), 2) Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road into the Deep North (Man Booker Prize 2014) and 3) Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids, first in the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy (Hugo Award Winner, 2003).

What’s wrong with them? En la orilla suffers from the typical problem of Spanish literary narrative: the need to produce artistic prose eats up the need to give each character a realistic voice–if they’re low-class, they cannot speak as a literary author writes. I abandoned it on page 60. Chirbes died a few days later, and you can’t believe to understand how guilty I feel about giving up on him. It took me a little longer to abandon Flanagan’s novel, say 100 pages. The problem? Well, if you’re telling a harrowing story about Australian POWs in Burma during WWII (yes, building the same railway line featured in Bridge over River Kwai), why interleave it with the trite story of a pathetic adulterous affair? I don’t care if both deal with the same protagonist–stick to your topic, write separate novels if you have two stories to tell.

In Hominids Sawyer tries hard to imagine what a civilization with Neanderthals as the surviving human species instead of Homo Sapiens would have been like. My! This is a thrilling topic, I thought. Yet, I hated the story because quite early in the novel Sawyer has the female protagonist endure a horrific rape, for no justified narrative reason, except that this terrible attack puts her off sex with the Neanderthal male lead (at least she finds the energy to comment mentally on the size of the bulky man’s member… before the whole thing starts leaning towards formulaic romance). As many readers write in their reviews these days ‘Meh’.

A ‘dud’ is something that does not work properly. In the many WWI novels I have read, soldiers are happy when a shell thrown at them turns out to be a dud, but that’s the only circumstance in which duds are welcome. A Google search throws up two other meanings of ‘dud books’ I had not considered: a) books printed incorrectly (really?) and b) a category of bizarre books which has generated its own cult. An oldish article in The Telegraph refers to dud books as “truly awful books that you can’t put down” ( The author, Brian Lake, explains that the furore over ‘dub books’ started back in 1982, “when antiquarian booksellers were encouraged to display their ‘Dud Books of All Time’ at a book fair in York”, running from the “unsaleable” to the “very funny”. One example will do: The Romance of Leprosy (1949). Now, the ‘dud books’ I refer to here have sold well, are not funny and are the opposite of a page-turner. As Miss Mouse writes in Twitter, “After a couple of dud books I’m happily immersed in a can’t-put-down-to-do-something-else one”. Precisely.

Now, a book I have swallowed whole in one sitting is Miguel Dalmau and Román Piña Valls’ joint effort, La mala puta: Réquiem por la Literatura Española (Sloper, 2014). Hemingway, the authors tell us, was the misogynist who originally called Spanish Literature a bitch and there is certainly plenty of misogyny in Dalmau’s segment of the essay, which seems to forget that, apart from smothering agents and adoring wives, the world of Literature has women writers in it. To be 100% honest, he does say at one point that the women writers who are serious about their literary aspirations are braver than the men, but he leaves it at that. Anyway, I digress.

Reading this acid denunciation of the sorry state of national Spanish Literature, I realized I had forgotten about a fourth ‘dud book’ category: the unpublished book. Michael Chabon tells in Manhood for Amateurs how after writing his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, he embarked on a gigantic novel which he had to abandon eventually–this dud book featured prominently in his delicious Wonder Boys as the novel that Grady, the protagonist writer, can never control. Dalmau has a much bitter experience to tell. He was about to publish a biography of Argentinean writer Julio Cortázar when, mysteriously, the late author’s agents, Carme Balcells’ Agency, withdrew her permission to use any quotations from Cortázar’s books (see Apparently Cortázar’s widow just didn’t want this particular biography published.

Dalmau and Piña have many controversial points to raise about how the Spanish publishing industry burns the budding talent of new writers and how insidious marketing techniques are destroying the literary tastes of readers. I do recommend you to read the whole book. I’ll highlight here just one of Dalmau’s most provocative claims: the idea that writers have lost all ambition to produce work aesthetically bold, that is to say, to produce a literary masterpiece. Writers complain, Dalmau notes, that they are not rich and famous enough (em, or culturally relevant) but they never consider why there is no masterpiece among their works. Dalmau insists that writers lead a too sedate life to produce masterpieces (yes, he is of the Hemingway persuasion…) but just consider Emily Brontë or Emily Dickinson and you’ll see how literary ambition has nothing to do with living la vida loca.

How’s this connected with dud books? Here’s my thesis: dud books are the result of this lack of literary ambition. Counterarguments: Chirbes was ambitious and the guys in the Ministerio de Cultura who awarded him the ‘Nacional’ were acknowledging that (supposedly). Well, yes, but here in Spain the problem is that there are no longer critics offering negative reviews–somebody says ‘this is good Literature’ and the rest meekly follow. Readers count for nothing. Second: does this apply to Sawyer, as well, who is not working within a genre which values literary prose? Yes it does because science fiction is far more literary than you would believe and also a genre that attracts writers keen on outstripping the rest regarding the power of their imagination. How about the Man Booker Prize? Well, Flanagan’s novel is the kind which prompts the ugly question: “How could they award such an important prize to this… dud?”

Dud books respond to the culture of ‘making do’ (in Spanish ‘si cuela, cuela’). If you start lowering standards because you want to build a book market which succeeds financially even if it fails artistically (no matter the genre), writers stop making an effort. Those who do make an effort get no reward, either material or critical (most critics work for the same companies publishing the books, see my post on Ricard Ruiz Garzón), and either are pushed out or abandon themselves the literary field, often with great bitterness. Dalmau and Piña insist that the equivalents of, say, Borges and Steinbeck, exist today but first, they are not the big names you’re thinking of and second, they probably work in total obscurity, which is why they will never produce a masterpiece.

There is another kind of dud book (sixth category?): call it the ‘cute bad novel’ (do I mean the ‘cookie-cutter novel’?). Take Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train, 4.5 stars on awarded by more than 16.000 voters–only 1% think this is a dud. Kline is a professional writer with a number of books under her belt and a nice list of awards and distinctions. She has a terrific subject, so far little known: how American charities shipped for decades East Coast orphans to the Midwest for adoption since there was no official system in place to take care of them. Needless to say, many of the ‘train orphans’ endured very unhappy experiences of abuse and exploitation. Kline claims to have done extensive research for her novel, focused on Niamh, an imaginary Irish girl adopted in the late 1920s. Yet, she chooses to endorse Orphan Train in her own website with a quote from fellow author, Ann Packer, which describes it as “A lovely novel about the search for family that also happens to illuminate a fascinating and forgotten chapter of American history”. ‘Lovely’, or ‘cute’, or ‘nice’, or ‘pretty’ is not want you want to call an ambitious novel. Why? Because it smacks of superficiality, and this is what Kline’s book is: superficial. I just wished I had read a non-fiction book about the very attractive subject.

Unfortunately, I already know that my next novel, Neal Stephenson’s new work Seveneves is a dud. Yet I stick by him, hoping he’ll publish again something as ambitious as his crazy trilogy The Baroque Cycle. Bracing myself for disappointment, then…

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

A friend emails me the link to an interview in the Catalan e-newspaper, Núvol: El Digital de Cultura, founded in 2012 by Bernat Puigtobella, whose existence I totally ignored… Likewise, I did not know who Ricard Ruiz Garzón, the person interviewed (by Montse Barderi) is. I know now that he is a relevant university teacher, writer, editor and book reviewer who has now decided to abandon cultural journalism after twenty years in the profession. This happens all the time–I am less and less aware of who the relevant people are… The interview, which you may read here, deals with a few juicy issues, so here we go.

Ruiz Garzón, always a free-lance reviewer, is abandoning cultural journalism because he cannot make a living out of it. The fee for a review (in Spanish and Catalan main media) is 100 euros, and he gets at the end of the month for all his hard work about 1,000. Many journalists publish articles and interviews on books they have never read, he says, but he takes things far more seriously and not only reads the book under review but, if necessary, any others by the same author. Actually, the point he makes is that good reviewing used to consist of that and now he is abandoning cultural journalism because current conditions only allow him to produce shallow reviews. This is, I think, very honest. Ruiz Garzón distinguishes carefully between the criticism that need not sell (academia work, though impact indexes have become our own sales target) and book reviewing, which he sees as “a service” like, he adds, the weather forecast. With, he notes, 200 new books every month, readers need guidance. No doubt.

The interview has a great segment on the five virtues of a good writer (honesty, willingness to assume risks, a good command of the language, being in touch with tradition, and sound technical skills). I’ll focus, though, on the five main defects of current book reviewing which Ruiz Garzón highlights (my translation):

1. “writing a review so well written that it does not give you the information needed to guide you about whether the book is good or not”
This is a particularly insidious problem, endemic to Spanish and Catalan reviewing but, I find, less common in Anglophone media. The reviewer feels a strange urge to show off and may very well mention, in a language as abstruse as possible, many other obscure works only he (for this is usually a ‘he’) knows perfectly well. Never mind whether these works have anything to do with the work under review, what matters is impressing the reader with the reviewer’s superior knowledge. I stopped reading Fotogramas, tired precisely of the ‘cinéfilos’ who never managed to express a clear opinion and that would have made Derrida proud in their convoluted use of prose.

2. “objectivity: the issue of friends and enemies, the friend I praise; the enemy, I badmouth”
To a certain extent, this is inevitable. There are two ways out of this conundrum: a) reviewers declare their friendships and enmities, as spoilers are declared in Amazon, GoodReads, IMDB or b) reviewers specialise in totally alien fields where they have no friends, neither enemies. Blind peer reviewing is supposed to prevent ‘amiguismo’ from playing a part in academic life but, then, networking is often built on the basis of personal friendship. We’re all human.

3. “the synergies between media and publishing groups” (example: if you work in El País, you put your job on the line if you criticize a book published by Alfaguara, etc.)
See my solution for point 2. Again: the problem is deceiving the reader into thinking that this is honest cultural journalism. The problem, by the way, extends beyond proper journalism. Recently, I searched for reviews of Rosario Raro’s novel Volver a Canfranc and, since opinions at and Casa del Libro are so few and so unreliable, I read a couple of blog posts. To my irritation, they were both shameless ads endorsing the novel; one even had the cheek to thank Planeta for having forwarded a copy.

4. “poor research, failing to read the complete works by an author and, therefore, producing amateur reviews”; that is, a good review must be able to place novelties in the context of the author’s whole career.
This, to be honest, is ideal but also shows that perhaps Ruiz Garzón entertains too high expectations about book reviewing. Or, alternatively, this means that there should be among the cultural journalists specialists in particular authors, as there are in academia. Logically, this only makes sense if all reviewers were free-lance, though I assume that the usual practice is that one reviewer in the newspaper’s payroll gets to review all kinds of books. Yet, it is also often the case that writers overproduce. I wonder who can produce a quality review of each new novel by Stephen King…

5. “we have an uneducated, untrained readership. They prefer the headline or the slogan over nuance”
Um, perhaps this is partly the fault of the navel-gazing reviewers guilty of fault no. 1 (see above). Also, our general lack of time. Personally, I don’t look for nuance in reviews, but for insight–that is to say, the ability to point out what is fundamentally right or wrong with a book. I very often read reviews in the middle of reading a book to check whether others share my impression. And I must point out that many readers, like myself, are fast going past the slogans and checking first the number of stars or the ratings. As I have noted here, everyone knows that a film rating below 7 in IMDB hardly ever is worth watching.

A sixth problem is highlighted in connection with point 5: “there is little criticism of popular authors, but when it is produced it has no effect whatsoever”. He mentions very negative reviews of Xavier Bosch and Albert Espinosa which did not affect at all their top Sant Jordi sales. Obviously. In general, few book buyers read reviews; they feel frequently lost among the many books on offer and just want to get the book everyone else is reading. They navigate the book market by positive advertising, not negative reviewing.

The phrase ‘crític de referència’ crops up several times in the interview with Ruiz Garzón. This is hard to translate into English but if I write Marcel Reich-Ranicki (1920-1913), you possibly know what I mean: a literary critic whose opinions are respected by both readers and authors, and who shapes with his/her reviewing the very state of Literature. In SF we have John Clute. And I recall from my childhood the peculiar figure and nasal voice of a truly great film critic working on TV, Alfonso Sánchez Martínez, a man so popular that many humorists did him the honour of impersonating him. Who do we have now that we can call ‘crítico de referencia’?

To finish, I wonder whether the case of Ruiz Garzón is symptomatic of a much larger malaise, which is the slow death of (cultural) journalism as we know it. My good friend Víctor Sampedro, who teaches sociology and communication, writes argues in his recent book El cuarto poder en red: Por un periodismo (de código libre) that journalism as we have known it in the 20th century is over for good, as proven by the complex Wikileaks case. He calls for a far more open journalism which is born of the collaboration between the general public and the professional journalist.

As I read the book, I thought that the key issue is where the money will be found to pay for the wages of the professionals in this new open source context. The 100 euros per review that Ruiz Garzón mentions and his own inability to make ends meet suggest that this is it: in a context in which everyone feels entitled to expressing an opinion on what they read on the net and in social networks, the economic value of professional opinion is sharply diminished. 100 euros may be a nice extra but not the basis of a full-time dedication to reading.

And so is culture diminished into an amateurism from which it may never recover.

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Tinder is not only easily combustible material but also the name of a very popular dating app, launched in 2012. Its use involves swiping photographs of possible matches on your cell phone: right for those you like, left for those you don’t. If someone swipes you back, then you can text each other, set up a date, etc. In an inspired feat of social engineering and personal psychology, Tinder does not communicate to you the rejections. The right-hand swipes, on the contrary, are duly noted which, I’m sure, must be a great ego-booster.

The rational behind this dating system is not only the classic chance to pre-select a date companion, already provided by any dating service, but the ease with which it can lead to a face-to-face meeting, as it also based on geo-location systems (you can see which Tinder users are close-by). As of today, Wikipedia informs, Tinder processes one billion swipes a day with twelve million matches–the actual figure for dates is unknown, but the phrase ‘Tinder date’ has already entered English. 50 million people all over the world use the service in 30 languages.

Why am I interested? Well, I am not. What called my attention was the article by Nancy Jo Sales for Vanity Fair, “Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse” ( So much so that I have decided to set my teaching next autumn of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) against it as background to discuss how human mating rituals have altered (recently). My point is that for my students to understand a novel from the ‘remote’ Victorian past first they need to be made aware of how the debate on similar topics stands today. Also, I need to explain to them that romantic fiction about love must operate within the personal, social and legal constraints of its time. Hence, I need to test what they know about those applying to their own generation. First, then, here are some points of Sales’ lengthy article–a piece which made me feel positively Victorian if not Jurassic.

Sales does not clarify how compulsory having a Tinder account is in the twenty something American urban middle-class culture she explores (Manhattan, basically). Reading her piece I got the impression that not having an account in this or similar dating services is little short of a social aberration, rather than a personal choice. She, subtly but firmly, exposes the persistence of the double sexual standard despite the apparent growth of sexual freedom (for this what Tinder is for–getting sex partners).

Although, obviously, hetero men could not get hetero girls to have sex with them via a Tinder ‘come on’ unless the girls were willing, the picture Sales draws is one in which men get all the (promiscuous) fun and the girls get constantly frustrated because a) sex does not lead to regular dates, much less a relationship and b) in the end the endless succession of lovers is unable to provide them with orgasms. Remember that in the Victorian texts I teach couples get engaged without even exchanging a first kiss (and in the girls’ case it is often the first kiss). Now try to make sense of this to the kids born in the mid 1990s.

Before I ramble on… Here are a few selections from Sales juicy report:
*a male Tinder user explains he’s organizing several dates at the same time as “There’s always something better” (call that the channel-hopping effect)
*the same guy adds that “You could talk to two or three girls at a bar and pick the best one, or you can swipe a couple hundred people a day—the sample size is so much larger”. He aims at sleeping with 100 ‘Tinderella’ girls in a year. Hot ones.
*this serial Romeo further explains that although he clearly announces he is not into relationships, most girls accept having sex “expecting to turn the tables” (he might also be kidding himself rather than admit that girls see him mostly as a disposable sex toy)
*average texts from guys (i.e. total strangers) often include unsolicited photos of their genitalia or explicit phrasing such as ‘Wanna fuck?’ or ‘Come over and sit on my face’. And worse. Girls also send pics, boys claim, but mainly of breasts and bottoms, not vaginas.
*Tinder users highlight the similarity of the service with ordering food or shopping online. Or having a hobby. Or meeting for sport.
*the overall impression is that today men have the power to decide whether a one-night stand (or a one-hour stand…) can develop into a relationship, whereas women have the power to grant men sex (isn’t this old as the hills?)
*a college girl explains that for her generation the anxiety about intimacy comes from having “grown up on social media,” so “we don’t know how to talk to each other face-to-face”. Not even in bed.
*very restrictive dating rules have turned romance into “a contest to see who cares less, and guys win a lot at caring less”; nobody wants to appear to suffer for love.
*not only is the double standard real and inalterable; a guy claims he does not want to be in a relationship because “You can’t be selfish in a relationship” (his italics)
*afraid of giving girls the wrong idea, guys tend to be quite insensitive; a girl recalls a lover using Tinder while she dressed up after sex… Men are not, Sales writes, “inspired to be polite”.
*as a girl points out, despite the aloofness, “Some people still catch feelings in hook-up culture”–as if they were a disease.

Several caveats here:
*Sales does not take into account how Tinder works in different cultures and neglects to see the identity factors conditioning her informers.
*Second, as a man told me, if girls feel uncomfortable with any point of the Tinder-date process they just need to refrain from using the service, which, let’s recall, is not compulsory.
*Apps like these, as the internet did in the early 1990s, have opened up the potential number of sexual and romantic partners, yet most people still marry in fairly conventional ways and try to raise families.
*Neither the idea (for hetero women) that you need to sleep first with a guy or with many before you find love is new; it’s been around for decades now.
*As for hetero men, they seem to be imitating dating models typical of gay culture whereas a good number of gay men are vindicating monogamy (serial or otherwise) thanks to the legalisation of gay marriage.

In the end it’s the old story: men try to get as much sex as the personal, social and legal constrains allow while women are divided into those who want to follow genuinely a similar inclination, those who tells themselves they do but actually don’t, and the post-Victorian ones who value long-lasting romantic intimacy above sex. I’m not saying that this third vital stance is not attractive to many men. And I have not said a word about the bodily fascism of the whole idea of app or online dating.

A few years ago a group of eight Californian girls who enrolled in one of my classes, all beautiful and intelligent young women, told me that dating was over–and this was long before I-Phone and Tinder. Men, they complained, get too much sex and, hence, they make no effort to be in a real relationship. They were truly upset by this. All this leads me to wonder whether, unlike what Victorian novels suggest, men and women like each other at all. It seems that given the chance and at least until they decide to form a family, current young men and women are using each other mutually for sex but without true enjoyment in each other. The taboos on sex that the Victorians suffered have this advantage: you need to talk in order to communicate. Victorian couples (and many others more recently) might spend years this way in long engagements which possibly explains, to a certain extent, why sex mattered less to them than to us (this IS a sweeping statement, I know).

In all this I am commenting on here, what irks me most is men’s (alleged) aloofness. The guy using Tinder while still in the same bedroom with his new lover… Ugh… If, as it seems, misogyny is the basis of the ‘hook-up’ system then there can be no real progress–and no real fun no matter how many lovers a girl gets. And the other way round: I have no doubt that Anne Brontë’s hero Gilbert is erotically incensed to despair by Helen because she is not sexually available. Ah, the Victorians and their erotic unavailability… how hard they are to explain in the age of Tinder.

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

My title throws a barb at Harold Bloom’s famous ‘anxiety of influence’ theory from his 1973 book. Bloom argued in it that poets are prompted to write in awe and admiration of particular predecessors. They, however, always struggle to find their own voice, fearing that they can only produce imitations of their chosen masters; hence, they labour under a constant ‘anxiety of influence’. In contrast, the attitude that Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920), showed towards his much admired Charles Dickens (1812-1870) seems to have been always celebratory–perhaps because from the very beginning Galdós had a clear voice of his own and also because there was no way 19th century Spain could be depicted exactly as Dickens depicts his native England.

I wrote a post back in 2012 (4th November) on the similarities between the young Charles Dickens and our own Romantic genius Mariano José de Larra, based on their showing a similar ‘zest for city life’ as journalist flâneurs. I did not know then about the literary connections between Galdós and Dickens, though having read half a dozen novels by Galdós and almost the full dozen by Dickens this should have been obvious to me. Possibly, Galdós’ ‘castizo’ characters threw me off the path.

What has brought me back to it is my very enjoyable reading of Galdós’ quirky first novel, La Fontana de Oro, published in 1870, the same year Dickens died–yes, a peculiar coincidence, or yet another proof of Spain’s cultural belatedness. It might well be that this is Galdós’ closest imitation of Dickens. Suddenly, it was crystal clear to me that the Spanish novelist was applying literary strategies learned from the English master to his first attempt at narrating chaotic Spain. The colourful character descriptions, the fine attention to the grotesqueries of life, the droll authorial stance, the intense hatred for those who live to oppress others… all sounded familiar. Dickens would have loved it.

As it turns out, there is proof of Galdós’ admiration for Dickens: he translated into Spanish his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (a.k.a. The Pickwick Papers, 1836). Galdós was just 24, he cheekily claimed to know English and found a gullible editor in a Spanish newspaper who believed him. As diverse academics have proved, though, he actually translated Dickens from the French (see for instance The result, Ricardo Bada laments (, is appalling…: “es una catástrofe literariamente homologable con la marítima del infeliz Titanic”. Galdós never translated a work again, though he seems to have been able to read in English and was no doubt well-acquainted with the work of other English writers beyond Dickens.

In his Memorias de un desmemoriado (1915-6), Galdós recalls his trip to England in 1889 to visit Shakespeare’s house. In an often quoted passage he recalls visiting as well Dickens’ grave in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey: “Consideraba yo a Carlos (sic) Dickens como mi maestro más amado. En mi aprendizaje literario, cuando aún no había salido yo de mi mocedad petulante, apenas devorada La comedia humana, de Balzac, me apliqué con loco afán a la copiosa obra de Dickens. Para un periódico de Madrid traduje el Pickwick, donosa sátira, inspirada, sin duda, en la lectura de El Quijote. (…) Depositando la flor de mi adoración sobre esta gloriosa tumba me retiro del panteón de Westminster”. The literary loop is thus nicely closed: Dickens learned from Cervantes and Galdós learned from him.

I have not read Pickwick Papers yet, which will complete my pet project of reading all the novels Dickens published–then, the short fiction. Reading Galdós’ novel about the ‘trieno liberal’ of 1820-3 and the simply nauseating figure of King Fernando VII, I realized I know very little about the complicated Spanish 19th century. A perfect solution to this shameful blank is, of course, reading Galdós’ series Episodios nacionales. Now, here’s the rub: the series, which famously begins with Trafalgar, runs to 46 novels, published between 1872 and 1912. Don Benito’s complete list of publications runs to more than 100 titles, not including a long list of essays, plays and short stories… Someone should do research on why and how certain writers are so prolific. Is it a mutation in the brain? I also wonder about the kind of readership and book market capable of absorbing so much from the same pen.

The acerbic Valle Inclán dubbed Galdós ‘Don Benito el Garbancero’ as I learned back in secondary school when my wonderful teacher Ana Oltra made us read Galdós’ Tormento. I read Valle Inclán’s play Luces de Bohemia the following year, 1984, and saw it in the theatre with some classmates–we were very different from today’s teens, I guess… this was no school outing but our own idea. ‘Garbancero’ has no apt English translation beyond ‘chickpea dealer’ though Valle Inclán used its second sense: ‘vulgar’. Although my teacher was quite a Galdosian fan, and I loved Tormento much better than Luces de Bohemia, the prejudiced sobriquet somehow stayed with me. It was nevertheless dispelled by TVE’s excellent 1980 adaptation of Galdós’ masterpiece Fortunata y Jacinta (see the series here, a product of a now defunct time when TV did offer highly cultured entertainment. This was our Brideshead Revisited (1981) and I count myself fortunate that these smashing series are part of my literary biography. I doubt even BBC would be up to the task of adapting the Episodios nacionales but I certainly do not see RTVE attempting even to adapt any other of Galdós’ novels. Instead, we are being offered the crude period soap operas that dominate afternoon TV (Amar es para siempre, El secreto de Puente Viejo and so on…). That is ‘garbancero’.

Charles Dickens, by the way, was also labelled ‘garbancero’, though in this case by an illustrious academic. The Modernists regarded him mostly as an example of the ills that the commercialization of the novel inflicted on highbrow Literature throughout the 19th century. As the Modernist-inspired leading academic F.R. Leavis sentenced in The Great Tradition (1948), his reason “for not including Dickens in the line of great novelists” was that, though great, his was the genius “of a great entertainer, and he had for the most part no profounder responsibility as a creative artist than this description suggests” (1950: 18)–he was, in short, a ‘garbancero’. Leavis only concluded as late as 1970 that Dickens was also a great ‘creative artist’ in Dickens the Novelist. Luckily, the BBC never doubted that and has so done much to undo Prof. Leavis’ unfortunate early judgements.

So, back to the beginning, Galdós’ love for his master Dickens can be called a ‘celebration’ of influence, rather than anxiety. I am not denying the widespread existence of this ‘anxiety’–think of Martin Amis comparing himself to his novelist father Kingsley if you need an example. I am just claiming that literary anxiety has a potent counterpart in avowed, gleeful admiration–though I would grant that only a genius like Galdós can turn his awe for a master into unrestrained inspiration and, ultimately, an equally potent voice of his own.

When 2043 arrives and Spain gets the chance to celebrate Galdós’ bicentenary as joyfully as the British celebrated Dickens’ own back in 2012, we can discuss how the two cultures compare when it comes to celebrating the literary best they have produced…

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

[Warning: plenty of spoilers here, novels’ endings discussed]

I am not sure whether I have really taken a break from writing this blog as I realize that I seem to have been preparing today’s post all along in my free time. What is a summer break for if not for reading widely and wildly in between outings? Yet, as you will see, I have been reading less wildly than I assumed, and quite focusedly at least as regards one topic: young women’s agency between the 1890s and the 1920s. Blame this on my Kindle, which demands fuel all the time. Legal downloads go back now to authors who died before 1945 (books are ‘liberated’ for free circulation following 70 years from the author’s demise, a total scandal of you ask me… copyright should never be inherited). This explains, I think, the accidental coherence of my summer reading.

Re-reading some of the papers I wrote for my doctoral courses, I notice I focused much of my work on the tension between the women who did and those who didn’t… survive. I absolutely hated then and still hate middle-class novels in which the heroines commit suicide rather than work: Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart in House of Mirth (1905) and, ugh, that Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s absurdly overvalued The Awakening (1899). Being myself a working-class student, my heart went 25 years ago to Theodore Dreiser’s spunky Sister Carrie (1900). This summer it has gone again to Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams (1921), the story of a cheerful low middle-class girl who, losing her chance to contract the upper middle-class marriage which her mother so frantically wishes to secure for her, decides to train herself for useful work and financial independence.

Perhaps I am misreading Alice’s ending and contemporary readers saw her condemned to spinsterhood, I don’t know, yet I was glad that she makes a sensible decision. Tarkington, who had already won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919 for The Magnificent Ambersons won it again in this novel in 1922. In between, Edith Wharton became the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer for The Age of Innocence (1920), a story set in the 1870s in upper-class New York. Wharton’s story is indeed a failed love story but I like to read it as the story of Ellen Olenska’s refusal to submit to pressure and return to her abusive husband. In Tarkington’s novel, set in the aftermath of WWI, Alice finds herself falling out of the marriage market aged 20, for being too poor to catch an upper-class husband. At 16 she is pretty enough to have the nicest boys in town crowding “the Adamses’ small veranda and steps”; by 18 she is only attracting “the older men”. Without a chance to attend a finishing school or get a college education, by 20 she can no longer compete: “She had been a belle too soon”.

Stephen Crane’s bleak, naturalist tale Maggie, a Girl of the Streets (1893), in which the downward spiral of a poor girl can be chronicled but not stopped, has reminded me that Sister Carrie was scandalous precisely because Dreiser refused to condemn his proletarian girl, giving her instead a career on the stage, no matter how dubious. Again, I might be idealizing Carrie’s ending as I idealize Alice’s but work seems in both cases a pragmatic solution. In contrast, I have been much irritated by the endings of H.G. Wells Ann Veronica (1909) and of Australian Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901), though they are as antithetical as they can be.

Ann Veronica, which was quite a scandal at the time of publication, focuses on the New Woman’s predicament. As Hetty, a friend of Ann Veronica’s, explains: “The practical trouble is our ages. They used to marry us off at seventeen, rush us into things before we had time to protest. They don’t now. Heaven knows why! They don’t marry most of us off now until high up in the twenties. And the age gets higher. We have to hang about in the interval. There’s a great gulf opened, and nobody’s got any plans what to do with us. So the world is choked with waste and waiting daughters. Hanging about! And they start thinking and asking questions, and begin to be neither one thing nor the other. We’re partly human beings and partly females in suspense.” Already 22, Ann Veronica decides to leave her father’s home and support herself, taking as her inspiration G.B. Shaw’s Vivie Warren from Mrs Warren’s Profession (1893, first performed 1902), a young college graduate who earns a living as an accountant (if I remember correctly). Ann Veronica, however, concludes that Vivie is just a fiction and finding no work decides to give herself an education (borrowing money from a man, wilfully ignoring in what position of dependence this leaves her). I had hopes for her as she chooses Biology but, guess what?, her biology teacher, Capes, a man married but separated, ends up providing all she needs–the couple may be unconventional but the ending is as conventional as they come. Ann Veronica seemingly learns nothing from the suffragettes surrounding her and abandons her scientific career as soon as she can. Argh.

Like many other readers I originally supposed that Miles Franklin, author of My Brilliant Career (1901) was a man, until I learned this was Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, Australia’s best-known female writer. Also a fierce feminist and, like Jane Austen, a woman who never married despite her diverse suitors. I am not mentioning Austen by accident, as My Brilliant Career is not the story of young Sybylla Melvyn’s writing career but of how she rejects the best possible suitor since Darcy for the sake of starting this career. Sybylla is stranded between the dire poverty of her own family, blamed on the incapacitating alcoholism of the father, and the middle-class background of her mother’s family. She is, so to speak, working-class by professional situation but middle-class in her cultural training (she reads voraciously, plays the piano, etc.).

The novel, written by a still teenage Franklin, has us believe that the tomboyish heroine attracts, for no clear reason, the Darcyesque Harold Beecham. This young man is said to possess a horrid temper, which is certainly a gigantic obstacle for a happy marriage, yet throughout the story he is as self-possessed as a man can be. There is a horrifying moment in which, right after Sybylla accepts his marriage proposal, he stoops to kiss her (this would be their first kiss). She, “hysterical” and offended by Harold’s “calm air of ownership”, takes his riding-whip and brings it “with all my strength right across his face”, drawing blood and almost blinding him in one eye. She expects he’ll strike her but instead he forgives her and pretends he has had a domestic accident. Gosh. You may read this as a feminist attack against patriarchal man but I was very much disgusted, as disgusted as with Charlotte Brontë’s decision to maim Rochester–which is why I refuse to teach Jane Eyre, much to my students’ amusement.

In a later scene, in which masochistic Hal insists on marrying this idiot girl who clearly does not love him, she confesses she’s “queer” and is “given to something which a man never pardons in a woman”. Just when poor Hal must be thinking she is secretly the most promiscuous woman in Australia, Sybylla blurts out “I am given to writing stories, and literary people predict I will yet be an authoress”. Hal, to Franklin’s credit, laughs. Here’s his offer: “(…) if you will give me a hand occasionally, you can write as many yarns as you like. I’ll give you a study, and send for a truck-load of writing-gear at once, if you like”. This, she rejects.

Considering her own mother’s very unhappy marriage and her obvious reluctance to having children, Sybylla’s decision might make sense. Still, as a 21st century woman who wants to have it all, the loving partner and the successful career, I very much wanted to use the whip on her as she did on Hal. Funnily, I was thinking all the time not of Austen’s Darcy, whom Beecham so much recalls, but of Leonard Woolf, who married Virginia in 1912, and became the main support of her own brilliant career. Um, yes, she committed suicide but it was in spite of Leonard and her success and not because of them…

Reading about all these girls and their narrow choices and marvelling at how different their 21st counterparts are, I wonder whether their dilemmas are over. Harold Beecham is now Christian Grey and as for the Leonard Woolfs of today, is there any? The anxiety to be a ‘belle too soon’ somehow persists and so does Sybylla’s fear of losing control over her body and life if she marries.

This is why their stories are still so appealing…

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Whenever I think of short stories, I think of the late Prof. Guillermina Cenoz, from whom I learned to appreciate this genre. I took an undergrad and a post-grad course on short fiction with her and, later, already as a teacher, I inherited her undergrad course. This, I have taught twice: a first edition (1999-2000) in which I taught an ambitious selection of 24 stories, all adapted for the screen; and a second edition (2004-5) in which I limited myself to just 8, all of them SF and gothic fiction also adapted for the screen (yes, I used time for the films, which I had not done the first time around). Here is the complete reading list including both courses (the film adaptation has the same title, with the exceptions mentioned in parenthesis):

Asimov, Isaac. “The Bicentennial Man”
Barker, Clive. Books of Blood, Vol. 5: “The Forbidden,” [Candyman]
Bierce, Ambrose. “An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge”
Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber: “The Company of Wolves”
Conrad, Joseph. “Amy Foster” [Swept from the Sea]
Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness” [Apocalypse Now!]
Dick, Philip K. “Minority Report”
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: “A Scandal in Bohemia”
Du Maurier, Daphne. “Don’t Look Now!”
Du Maurier, Daphne. “The Birds”
Gibson, William. Burning Chrome: “Johnny Mnemmonic”
Greene, Graham. “The Basement Room” [The Fallen Idol]
Irving, Washington. Tales from the Alhambra: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” [Sleepy Hollow]
James, M.R. “Casting the Runes” [The Curse of the Demon]
Joyce, James. Dubliners: “The Dead”
King, Stephen. Different Seasons: “Apt Pupil”
Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Books: “Mowgli’s Brothers” [The Jungle Book]
Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. “Carmilla” [The Vampire Lovers]
Lovecraft, H.P. “Herbert West: Re-animator” [Reanimator]
McCullers, Carson. “The Ballad of Sad Café”
Poe, Edgar Alan. “The Fall of the House of Usher” [House of Usher]
Runyon, Damon. “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” [Guys and Dolls]
Singer, Isaac Basevis. “Yentl: The Yeshiva Singer” [Yentl]
Stern, Philip Van Doren. “The Greatest Gift” [It’s a Wonderful Life]
Stevenson, R.L. “The Body Snatcher”
Van Vogt, A.E. “Black Destroyer” [Alien]
Woolrich, Cornel. “Rear Window”

These are all stories I love and I would certainly be very happy to teach them again.

Then, in 2006 I was paid just 500 Euros, would you believe this?, to translate a collection I called Siete relatos góticos: Del papel a la pantalla. This included a commentary on each of the seven film adaptations of “The legend of Sleepy Hollow”, “An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge”, “Hoichi, the Earless” by Lafcadio Hearn, “Casting the Runes”, “Spurs” by Clarence Aaron ‘Tod’ Robbins (which inspired Freaks), “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell and “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet. The collection, by the way, is available from, or you may download the Epub and Mobi files from my web at I would like very much to have time to produce a sequel called Ocho relatos, both gothic and SF, but a) I don’t particularly enjoy translating, b) this is very hard work that counts for nothing towards my research assessment exercise. Perhaps when I retire…

Why the specific interest in the short story and cinema? No particular reason. I have always been interested in film adaptation and the short story happens to be arguably the most often unacknowledged source in terms of academic interest and popularity. With one exception: the many adaptations of stories written by Philip K. Dick.

This brings me back to SF, a genre (or mode?) for which short fiction is essential, as 20th century SF grew basically out of the specialized magazines, beginning of course with Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories (1926). I am not really a good short story reader, preferring instead novels. Yet, feeling curious about the function of short fiction in the development of SF and aware of the many gaps in my SF reading list, I have set out to fill this summer with all I can lay my hands on. Not randomly…

Here’s the idea: students taking my elective ‘English Prose: Considering Science Fiction’ next Spring will have to read the 5 novels I have selected. They will also be offered a selection of 40 to 50 short stories. Each student will be assigned a story and she or he will do a class presentation based on it, followed by writing a brief index card. I’ll collect the index cards and in this way we’ll produce a nice online booklet to help other SF readers locate and read the stories. If students feel like reading the 40/50 stories, they’re welcome, though this is not compulsory. I just hope they get to hear in this way about many other SF writers apart from our 5 novelists.

I started a while ago the process of choosing the stories, which is, in one word, mindboggling… I am using Hugo and Nebula lists of winners, and of short-listed authors, my own memories of stories I have read or heard about, and a wonderful website called Free Speculative Fiction Online ( Even so, I despair… for I want the final list to be balanced chronologically and also in terms of nationality, gender, ethnicity… This means that I am working in two directions: selecting famous/representative texts and finding texts for famous/representative authors. I calculate that for the final 40 to 50 titles I will have to read 200. Am I complaining? No!!!!… it’s wonderful to have the excuse to do this… It was about time…

In the first edition of the short fiction course I gave students the option to submit for assessment either a paper or a short story of their own. Many tried writing a short story (I’m so sorry I didn’t keep them…) but then complained it had been much, much harder than they thought. This year, I am also planning to have my students write SF short fiction though not for assessment. Last June I was a member of the jury judging the entries to the Spanish SF short fiction contest Inspiraciència ( and I aim at convincing my students to submit their own stories next year. I think the 800-word limit will help…

To finish, let me teach you a typical SF concept: the fix-up. What’s a ‘fix-up’? A novel made up of diverse short fiction pieces. That would explain why Charles Stross’s Accelerando (2005), one of the best-known recent fix-ups, is such a crazy, demanding book… The first piece, “Lobsters” is for now in my selection. We’ll see…

Back to reading SF short fiction, then, and loving it!

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I learned a few days ago that Minister Wert’s horrendous legislation on education in LOMCE, has done away with the obligation to study Literature in secondary education (I mean ‘bachillerato’). The subject has been reduced from four to two weekly hours, it is now formally an elective and does not count for the average mark which conditions university admission. In Catalonia this affects both Catalan and Spanish Literature, subjects, anyway, only compulsory in the so-called ‘Bachillerato Humanístico’. So-called because I have no idea what Humanities are left in it after this assault and the previous one perpetrated against the classical languages and Philosophy recently.

In a blog post for El público (24 June), Juan Tortosa lamented that the study of Latin and music is gone from what should be a basic education for all (and not just secondary education for some). As he very well says, “Arrancar de cuajo las humanidades de la enseñanza es privar a las generaciones que ahora crecen en nuestro país de un instrumento imprescindible para amueblar sus mentes y reforzar su sensibilidad” ( It should be obvious that downgrading Literature in this way ensures not only a specific ignorance of writers and texts but also makes explicit the malicious, evil intention to deprive younger generations of the tools needed to maintain a critical spirit. This is what we do in the Literature class: we teach people to read, think, argue ideas, be critical. The Language teachers cannot do that for us, busy as they are teaching how grammar, syntax, etc. work. Without an ability to read in depth the younger citizens are rendered not only functionally illiterate but also political idiots. This is the real plan.

This process, of course, started long ago, with LOGSE. Its first victims reached us here at the university about 20 years ago and since then, literacy has gone truly downhill. Further proof of this is a recent article in El País ( commenting on the drop in sales of Literature volumes, which is no surprise at all. This amounts to 30’5% in 5 years which, being those of the crisis, can be explained by the usual plunge into piracy: keen readers have got themselves an e-book reader and download illegally all they can. Um. What is more surprising perhaps is that El País actually calls Literature all the novels read for pleasure (not for any of the educational levels). This means that there has been a general drop in the sales of all genres, from the commercial general fiction to specific genres like SF or romance. An optimistic interpretation suggests that creative Literature is not faring worse than popular fiction; a pessimistic one suggests that the literary avant-garde may be dying, no longer addressing a committed readership, sinking fast.

Another article, also from El País ( suggests that not all is lost as a) children and young adult books have generated bigger joint sales than adult fiction and b) on the whole, the ebook reader has resulted in an unexpected demand for fewer commercial novels and more literary works. Um… now the question is whether the young readers will become adult readers without the intervention of secondary school Literature teachers, whom they may never meet. I was myself the keenest young reader you may imagine, but without Professor Sara Freijido in my pre-university year I would never have met the challenge of becoming a much better, far more sophisticated reader. So there we are…

Now, a little press note on my university’s website made me see things from another angle. Only 40% of all European university teachers, it seems, use films and documentaries in class ( Of course, there is an enormous difference between using film to illustrate a point about something else and teaching film. In Spain, let’s recall, we don’t have a degree called ‘Film Studies.’ We don’t have, either, a degree called ‘Literatura (Española, Catalana, English…)’ but ‘Filologías’ disguised as ‘Estudios’ and that strange hybrid, ‘Literatura Comparada y Teoría de la Literatura.’ Anyway, the study reveals that 78% of all European teachers complain that they face difficulties to introduce cinema in their syllabi, “which constitutes an obstacle for audiovisual literacy.” Certainly.

I myself feel illiterate despite having very often taught film, film adaptation and documentary in class because I have never been trained in the basic grammar of cinema. Now, if you think about it, the current audiovisual illiteracy mirrors what will soon happen with Literature. Since they have never studied film in class, my students (born in the early 1990s) are not only incapable of commenting on how a film functions aesthetically (same problem for me) but also ignore that there is a canon and a film History. How could they know about this? Remember they were born together with private TV in Spain, which eliminated from their cultural horizon all films previous to 1990. Apocalypse Now, just to mention a title among thousands, does not exist for them, just as soon La regenta will exist for nobody. Except in both cases, film and Literature, for the curious and for the ones committed to their own self-improvement, to use a Victorian term I am in love with.

Teaching Literature in the university to first-year students is going to be soon the strangest kind of teaching practice ever. The keen readers will have read mainly young adult fiction, not a single classic. The ones uninterested in reading will have read nothing at all. Neither group will have received the least training in the practice of understanding the content of a text, much less in reading critically. This functional illiteracy will necessarily have an impact in all subsequent courses and it is to be wondered what doctoral dissertations on Literature will be like in the future. Game over, as I say, for Literature teachers.

What can you expect, on the other hand, in a land where ‘culturista’ means ‘bodybuilder’ and not ‘someone committed to cultural self-improvement’. Every time I hear this word or I read articles nagging everyone into joining a gym, I wonder what it would be like if people went to libraries to read three hours a week as they go to gyms. My only hope is that as Literature becomes residual in secondary education it also becomes an object of curiosity for, as we know, nothing kills the pleasure of reading as the obligation to read and pass exams. A young person who would never read a classic for class might well feel curious if not forced to read it. And, you see, curiouser and curiouser… Just as Spain managed to generate that curious figure, ‘el cinéfilo’, specialized in seeing the least popular films, there is still hope that we can generate ‘el lectórfilo’ (‘el bibliófilo’ exists, s/he loves books rather than reading).

Or not, and this is it for the art of writing… beyond tweets and whatsapps…

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

In the last fortnight I have attended two seminars on Affect Theory, one organized by the research group I am a member of, Construyendo Nuevas Masculinidades, and the other presented as a meeting between two research groups, one headed by Helena González of UB (Centre de Dona i Literatura) and the other by Belén Martín of the Universidad de Vigo. I can very well say that the two meetings have ‘affected’ me in deep academic ways of which I’ll try to make sense here.

I first heard about Affect Theory (a noun pronounced with the stress on the ‘a’ unlike the verb, pronounced with the stress on the second syllable) possibly a year ago, when I learned from Xavier Aldana (a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan) that he was working on a book which considers the effect that ‘body gothic’, focused on the extreme destruction of the human body, has on the somatic reactions of the spectators/readers. The somatic reactions (=how the body responds) is what, if I understand this correctly, interests Affect Theory. This is not focused on individual emotion (conditioned by your own culture) but on the bodily reactions that are seemingly common to all human beings and that pre-condition how we react to, in the case that interests me, certain stories. This makes perfect sense for Gothic. Indeed, reading John Clute’s glossary The Darkening Garden, I found that he refers to ‘affect horror’ (which the translator calls ‘horror de impacto’) as the kind of gross-out Gothic which aims at affecting primarily your guts (a trend started back in the late 1970s by, among others, novelist Peter Straub or film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). I assume that Affect Theory must also be very useful to analyze porn…

Like most of my colleagues attending the seminars I am unfamiliar with the key texts in the field of Affect Theory, one of which, psychologist Silvan Tomkins’ Affect Imagery Consciousness dates back to 1962. Brian Massumi was constantly mentioned in the seminar that Todd Reese offered to my group, whereas in the case of the other meeting, oriented towards feminism, the two names that most often popped up where Rosie Braidotti and Sarah Ahmed. I’m not sure how to place them. Affect Theory, anyway, which is really, as I notice, a branch of psychology, entered psychoanalysis and from it the Humanities with the work of, among others, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. This sounded promising for Masculinities Studies, as she is famous for her seminal volume, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985). Yet, to be honest, we had serious difficulties to understand how exactly to apply Affect Theory to Literature and cinema–and the example I saw at the feminist seminar was, actually, quite scary.

The idea, if I understand correctly, is to shift the focus from what the text says to how the text says it, considering how this affects the body. What makes me nervous is that this smacks a little bit too much of traditional formalist criticism of the kind that we, in Cultural Studies, have been disputing since the 1970s. The material conditions of production and consumption, the actual bodies doing the reading and the viewing and, certainly, the content of the stories and who they address matter to me very much. In the presentation I saw on Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank the lecturer focused on the aesthetics of an uncomfortable dance sequence, showing the young teenage protagonist trapped by her native housing estate. The idea was to interrogate how the spectator is bodily affected by this joyless sequence. I almost ended up quarrelling with the lecturer when I pointed out that this patronizing film seems designed to depress working-class girls like the protagonist into committing suicide, which is why it is important to know who has watched the film and what for. She called this Cultural Studies approach ‘traditional’ and stressed that there was no point in asking actual members of the audience who they are. I ended up defending Yo soy la Juani as a proper feminist text, so you see how things escalated.

What worries me here is not just my own personal intellectual obsolescence (already?) nor the feeling that I must understand Affect Theory, whether I like it or not, but the political implications of all these academic trends. Perhaps this is because I started my dipping into Affect Theory by reading Ruth Leys’ article “The Turn to Affect: A Critique” (2011); in it she points out that the main theorists suggest that affect is “independent” and “even prior” to ideology, an irrational substratum present also in politics. Yes, well, look at the emotional energies generated in Spain by Podemos and I see what is meant. Yet, I cringe.

In this new paradigm, feeling is personal, emotion social and affect pre-personal, whatever that means. The body speaks a language irrespective of language and culture (an animal language, I wonder?). Leys is particularly critical of the assumed split between mind and body as separate cognitive systems, and I agree with her (we’re fighting this battle too against the transhumanists). Her arguments are too complex to summarise but basically she ends by wondering why the turn towards anti-intentionalism in psychology and the affective neurosciences “exerts such a fascination over the cultural critics and theorists (…)—especially since one price their views exact is to imply such a radical separation between affect and reason as to make disagreement about meaning, or ideological dispute, irrelevant to cultural analysis.” If debating meaning and ideology is no longer part of cultural analysis, then, what are we supposed to do? Become scientists?

I’m going back to Gothic. I wrote my dissertation on monstrosity so I do know that at a very basic level there is an animal affect called ‘fear’. Those who love horror fiction enjoy the loss of control over their bodies: the adrenaline rush, the ice in the guts, the tingle down the spine, the uncontrollable scream and that bizarre jumping off your seat. Gothic Studies have, of course, used psychology and psychoanalysis abundantly to delve into the writer’s imagination and the spectator’s reactions. Yet, I’ll insist again, as I did in my post here on Xavier Aldana’s excellent Body Gothic: Corporal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film (2014) that it is important to specify whose body, as identity is crucial to understand ideology. Women tend to eschew body gothic (and affect gothic more generally) because the bodies too often tortured and destroyed are female bodies. Also, Gothic still is predominantly a narrative mode still mainly produced and enjoyed by white, male, middle-class, privileged persons facing no real situation of danger in their daily lives.

This is the main core of my worry: formalism, post-structuralism and now Affect Theory are telling us that there are universalist principles in the making and the reception of storytelling that can be theorized beyond who is found at each end of the process and how they connect. Understanding how the grim aesthetics of The Walking Dead affect the generic body of the spectator is, I think, a valid academic project. Yet, this project must be complemented by a consideration of how ideology works in this very suspect patriarchal, survivalist text. Why? Because if we reject the unmasking of ideology as a passé academic pursuit, we are falling into the most monstrous ideological trap: the pretence that ideology that does not exist. This, I certainly, don’t want to encourage.

I’ve run out of space to consider the matter of what an academic fashion is and why Affect Theory is now all the rage. I’ll repeat what we determined in the feminist seminar: one thing is embracing a theory out of a profound conviction and following the logic of one’s career and another quite different (this would be the fashion) is jumping onto the band wagon just because, as a participant noted, certain keywords will make your work look cooler than others. I am not, obviously, opposed to importing refreshing, challenging new ideas, for this is what academic debates are about–but I am growing quite suspicious of why particular ideas climb to the top. Also, I long for the day when a local Pérez, García or Martínez will originate an internationally acclaimed academic trend… instead of meekly submitting to someone else’s ideas.

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I’m borrowing from Merrian-Webster a definition of juvenilia: “compositions produced in the artist’s or author’s youth.” As you can see, problems begin at once, as juvenilia tends to include childhood and our current conception of youth seems to extend to 40. Then, authors who start ‘composing’ as children, may actually do so before they know how to read: pre-literate, precocious R.L. Stevenson dictated his early tales to his mother. For the sake of mutual understanding with my reader, I’ll consider as juvenilia whatever budding authors and artists produce between 5 and 20, which would exclude young prodigies publishing significant work in their twenties–like Leo Tolstoy, who published his autobiography then, starting with Childhood, when he was only 22.

I have learned all this in the course of attending some sessions of the meeting organized by my colleague, David Owen, the Fourth International Conference on Literary Juvenilia ( I tried to submit a presentation, focused on a fantasy or science-fiction writer and I did find a most interesting case–Marion Zimmer Bradley–and a thrilling anthology: First Words: Earliest Writing from Favorite Contemporary Authors, edited by Paul Mandelbaum. I did not find, however, the time to enter a completely new territory, which is even new to specialists if I take into account that my choices were contemporary and within the fantastic.

I asked David, who has edited Jane Austen’s Lady Susan for the Juvenilia Press, why so much work is focused on the past, as the title of Christine Alexander and Juliet McMaster’s book The Child Writer from Austen to Woolf (2005) suggests. David answered that interest in juvenilia simply started with canonical authors like Austen but need not be at all confined to them. Christine Alexander, who attended the conference, and gave a wonderful presentation on Stevenson, is General Editor of the Juvenilia Press ( This is a university press, supported by the University of South Wales in Australia, “originally conceived as a university/classroom project.” Indeed, David, who published Lady Susan with this Australian press, presented the volume on Hannah More’s juvenilia, edited by his three doctoral students: Noelia Sanchez, Alexandra Prunean and Reyhane Vadidar. It was beautiful to see two of these aspiring scholars presenting already very solid scholarly work. Incidentally, checking the website of the Juvenilia Press, I realize that my first impression was, nonetheless, misguided and that the list of 20th century authors whose juvenilia has been published (or is going to be) extends to 16, among them Margaret Atwood and Harold Pinter.

In her delicious presentation on Stevenson, Christine Alexander showed us work autographed by the very young R.L. Stevenson, including a re-telling of Exodus, produced age 7, with the wandering Jews dressed like his contemporary Victorians, tall hats and all. She told us the very cruel story of how Thomas Stevenson paid of his own pocket the publication of his son’s The Pentland Rising only to soon destroy all copies, finding it a fanciful poem rather than the historical study he expected. Stevenson was then 16, and the shock must have been immense, poor thing. This reminded me of the sentence that American novelist Christopher Bram puts in the mouth of his fictional version of British director James Whale in his beautiful novel, Father of Frankenstein. Whale tells a young friend about his working-class family’s unease with their artistic child: “I forgave and forgot my parents long ago. They meant no harm. They thought I was just like them. They were like a family of farmers who’ve been given a giraffe, and don’t know what to do with the creature except harness it to a plow.” (105)

I did not attend, regrettably, all the conference presentations and I cannot say whether the study of juvenilia is leading towards an individual or a collective understanding of how the future writer progresses. My own childhood productions suggest, besides, that not only future poets and storytellers produce juvenilia–I produced essays non-stop, both of the short variety we wrote in class (‘redacciones’) and longer works. I’m sure many other academics (or journalists) must follow the same pattern, funny as this may sound. Precisely, the ‘patterns’ are what concerns me: I don’t know whether the juvenilia specialists consider primarily how in each case the adult author is already visible in the young author, or whether there is a significantly similar pattern linking all their juvenilia. If so, a well-trained specialist should be able to see by glancing at the scribblings of a six-year-old whether there is something worth cultivating in them, or just the kind of effort that most children seem to enjoy producing spontaneously–until a mysterious x-factor makes them lose interest and stop.

As happened to Whale, most working-class families have no idea about how to deal with their ‘giraffes’, except asking a teacher when the giraffe’s eccentricities become a little too much to handle (or even a social impediment–is this where so much talk about exceptionally gifted children comes from?). The ‘problem’ are middle-class families, educated enough to notice the beauty of their giraffe patterns but unable to say whether s/he’ll grow into a graceful artist. You have two syndromes here: the doting parents, who think their child is an absolute prodigy, and the over-cautious parents, who may downplay talents obvious to everyone else. The middle-ground seems most desirable: encourage, teach, help but don’t overdue it. Obviously, Thomas Stevenson is not the example to follow.

Above all, treasure your children’s juvenilia. If you’re an adult connected with a scribbling, daubing child, keep their work–particularly away from their own hands, which are most likely to accomplish the mischief of destroying their own work as they grow older. In this time and age in which we document our children’s lives to exhaustion, I’m sure someone will soon come up with the idea of some social network to share early artistic work, as kids share pics on Instagram… But, above all, keep in a safe place the cardboard folder with their compositions until they’re old enough to overcome their embarrassment and can rationally decide what to do with those. Stevenson’s mother was that kind of committed custodian and we have, apart from exhaustive records on his progress, his actual juvenilia; in contrast, it seems that Dickens burnt all the early texts he could lay his hands on. Horror and consternation!!

If you Google images of ‘child writing’ you’ll see something else which is quite pleasing: whether little boys or, more frequently little girls, all the kids are shown using pen and paper, not a computer. I have edited as computer files my nieces’ own juvenilia to better preserve it (from their little destructive hands…) but there is a singular pleasure in reading from the original handwritten texts that is lost in its electronic version, no matter how prettified. It was the same with Stevenson’s originals: the evolving hand-writing gives a charming impression not only of the little kid behind it but of the brain at work fast overcoming obstacles. I don’t know whether the Juvenilia Press includes facsimile versions in their editions, but it would make sense.

So, yes, pester the kids in your family or friends circle for drawings, poems and stories. Give them crayons and notebooks as presents and encourage them to stay away from computers. Don’t forget to give them as well good books to get their inspiration from, and tell them stories, they love it. Anything they produce, keep it, cherish it, for it is precious. Even if they turn out to be as adults boring accountants rather than accomplished artists. For producing juvenilia, this I my final thought, is, happily, not limited to a small number of artists, but a central part of all children’s lives. Or it should be.

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

As announced in my post of 1 June, I decided to visit the Museu d’Història de la Immigració de Catalunya, MHIC, as part of my research for a paper on how local Barcelona museums portray the Spanish economic migration to Catalonia (1930s-1970s). In this other post, I presented a negative view of the Museu d’Història de Catalunya for devoting so little space to a process which is absolutely crucial to understand 20th century Catalonia. Paradoxically, my impression is that MHIC, although a more specialised museum, also fails to present a thorough portrait of Spanish migration. In a sense, this is an even worse failure than that of MHC, though, as I will try to explain its root is very different. And even justifiable.

MHIC, as I explained, is not even in Barcelona but in the “adjacent town of Sant Adrià del Besòs, which received many thousands of migrants from all over Spain between the 1950s and 1980s.” The L2 metro line takes you quite close to MHIC, yet the territory between the Verneda stop and Can Serra, the building housing the museum, is a rough urban landscape. Balmes Street is a collection of industrial stores and factories, leading to a busy roundabout boasting a huge gas station and a big McDonald’s outlet. No houses, no shops. I wondered what reaching the museum on a rainy winter day was like… Faced from the gas station, the museum looks half covered by a big metallic fence, separating it from the constant traffic of the Ronda, the highway encircling Barcelona. How different from the Museu d’Història de Catalunya, down by the marina, with its classy restaurant and bookshop, and nearby Barceloneta so full of tourists…

I think this has been one of the strangest museum visits in my life. I had not realized that MHIC is basically an open-air museum so what I took for preliminary information (a series of panels skirting the entrance corridor and surrounding the main building) is the real thing. I didn’t know where to get my ticket, so I asked a guy enjoying a cigarette in the garden. He turned out it be in charge of the museum which, by the way, is free, no entrance fee. Throughout my hour-long visit, he kept a discreet watch on me, pointing out what to see as he greeted warmly the people working the substantial urban orchard attached to the garden. I was the only visitor on a sunny summer Friday morning. My ‘guide’ told me the museum does get many visitors but I suspect these are mainly school groups. It takes, as I see it, determination to take the metro or grab a car and go on your own there…

The panel installation offers an overview of the history of migration, presenting migration as a common process in all periods and lands on Earth. The other main exhibits are a glass box which, again, presents a general overview based in this case on showing objects brought my migrants from all over the world, and naming the factors conditioning integration, from education to sports. Next to this, a metallic mesh fence shows the visitor the many obstacles migrants face when attempting to cross borders, with examples from all over the world.

As you can see, the 4 sections I have mentioned so far present migration from a world-wide, not a local, perspective. This is reserved for MHIC’s star attraction: a wagon of the train known as ‘El Sevillano.’ The exhibition on board this wagon focuses on the experience of the long voyage to Barcelona from places distant even more than 1,000 kms but still in Spain: mainly Galicia and Andalucía. The tone of the panels, oral narratives, photos, spaces and video is optimistic, with the hardships–which must have been many in trips lasting over 20 hours with no seats guaranteed and in overcrowded trains–compensated by the excitement of seeing the sea for the first time or reuniting with a husband unseen even for years.

I learned that Franco initially restricted internal migration from the countryside to the cities, as he thought that agriculture should be a key economic sector for his autocratic regime. The Guardia Civil could return you to your village of origin if you failed to produce your Carta de Trabajo, and they did this to thousand of migrants ‘sin papeles.’ When Franco finally saw in the 1950s that migration could not be stopped as peasants would no longer put up with the misery of their extremely poor lives, he decided to exploit the flow for his own ‘desarrollista’ plans. He ordered RENFE to build cheap trains for the migrants… but neglected to build housing for them in their place of destination. Many found themselves leading lives of utter squalor in Barcelona’s many shanty towns. You should see the photos of the beach, from Barceloneta to Sant Adrià, in the 1950s and wonder how people survived in those ramshackle huts. Think Brazilian favelas…

I do not want to be unfair to MHIC as I think this is an institution struggling to merely exist. What I wonder is why. A press note issued by the local town council of Sant Adrià announced in 2011 a project to build a third space, a handsome, modern building designed by Mizien Arquitectura, of 600m2 and a cost of 400.000€ to be funded by the Spanish Ministry of Culture (not the Catalan Generalitat!!). I’m not sure whether the fences surrounding one side of MHIC are hiding the works from view but I suspect they’re not. The official leaflet presents this new building extensively but mentions no opening date.

In an article of 2005 in La Vanguardia, Arcadi Espada complained that the local Catalan Government, then headed by Pasqual Maragall, showed as little interest as that of his predecessor Jordi Pujol in supporting the museum. For Espada, the new, foreign migration made the existence of MHIC even more necessary, particularly for Maragall’s left-wing Government, to consolidate the idea that all kinds of migration deserve attention. 10 years later and under Artur Mas’ right-wing, pro-independence policies MHIC still looks like a very poor relation of the openly nationalist, well-provided Museu d’Història de Catalunya. Perhaps this is in the end the problem: the migrants, old and new, complicate the idealized picture of a homogenously Catalan-speaking nation walking unanimously towards independence. The old Spanish migrants are, in this sense, more of a ‘problem’ since people with strong family ties to other areas of Spain will hardly want to see Catalonia go its separate way. Better, then, not mention them too much. And leave MHIC to survive as well as it can…

I have visited Ellis Island, possibly the museum that has most impressed me, even above El Prado or London’s British Museum. I was deeply moved by the ability of the Ellis Island museum to transmit the personal experience of migration. At a much more modest scale the beautiful Museo de la Emigración of Colombres in Asturias, has the same effect. I just hope MHIC can one day be as moving as these two other museums are.

So much to tell, so few resources. I just hope that neither malice nor indifference but just plain ignorance keeps the voices of the Spanish migrants from finding a better place than the current MHIC. I do look forward to see the new MHIC house one day those voices.

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

I’m starting here a long overdue reflection on the invisibility of second-language Literature teachers in the academic world where we supposedly belong. I am actually drafting an essay which has been spinning around in my head since I started preparing the science fiction course I am going to teach next Spring (see the syllabus at My worries do not concern only SF, as I will show, though SF tends to stress a situation on which, judging from my quick bibliographical search today, nobody has written. (Well, there’s a doctoral dissertation from the Universidad de Sevilla I need to check…).

It’s the typical problem. I teach, as my readers know, ‘Victorian Literature.’ It took me a while to find an introductory volume which second-year, second-language students would find accessible: Maureen Moran’s Victorian Literature and Culture (Continuum, 2006). In my time I went through the whole Penguin Guide to English Literature, which accompanied me, one volume at a time, through the years of my ‘Licenciatura.’ Whether I think of this multi-volume text or of Moran’s slim, slick presentation of the Victorians, the problem is the same: they have not been written for us, foreign students of Anglophone culture.

Now, there are two perspectives on this. Either the world-wide academic market treats all persons interested in English Studies as if we were, in practice, honorary Anglophones. Or, as I suspect, they do not acknowledge we exist. You might think that a) a market flooded by titles such as English Literature for Italians or American Culture for the Japanese would make little sense, or b) we, the foreigners, should provide the comparative, culturally adapted materials our students require. Option b) sounds very nice to me but we just don’t write these materials for lack of time (and of academic incentive as they ‘do not count’ for research assessment). We make do with what British and American printing presses produce.

The bibliography I have come across mostly considers the teaching and learning of foreign Literature within the pedagogical practice connected with EFL. Although I know very well that I work in a second-language environment, and I am certainly well aware of the difficulties my students experience in reading, speaking and writing in a foreign language, the funny thing is that at the same time I must pretend to be a fully functional native speaker for the purposes of publication.

I do not mean that I pass myself off as a native Anglophone, though I could–aided by simply suppressing the accent on top of the í in Martín. No, what I mean is that if I try, say, to publish in the Shakespeare Quarterly, I will be competing with the ‘real thing,’ with the native speakers, which means that I will have to sound linguistically and culturally impeccably not me. Actually, I have started adding footnotes commenting on my own origins and position, as I was recently mistaken for an Anglophone by the editor of one of my recent articles–to my chagrin, as the point I was making is that foreign cultures have much to say about Anglophone culture.

Now, take the case of SF, which is now occupying my energies. I have gone through six handbooks, apart from the few introductions I already knew, before selecting for my students The Science Fiction Handbook (Nick Hubble & Aris Mousoutzanis, eds., 2006). Again, the criterion I have used is accessibility. And clarity. By this I mean that the other volumes, though very good, included a staggering amount of literary theory which our local students simply cannot grasp, as their energies are not 100% devoted to studying English (a degree about Literature) but English (the language).

I asked one of the authors whose introduction I read, Brian Baker, of Lancaster University, and his view was that local English students are not as sophisticated as I assumed theory-wise. I still fail to understand when they learn all that theory. Baker was very much surprised when I told him that I might be the second person in Spain (after my colleague Pere Gallardo in Tarragona) to teach a BA-level course in SF, at least within English Studies (anyone who knows differently, please let me know). That’s not possible, he told me, college courses in SF have been taught in the USA regularly since 1960s. Oh, well…

So, let me recap: here I am planning a course on SF for my local Catalan/Spanish students and I need help from those who have been teaching the stuff for decades. I read, finally, Teaching Science Fiction edited by Andy Sawyer and Peter Wright (2011) and, again, the same problem–their context is not my context, the proposed reading list is impossibly long for my students, the theory much more than I can fit in one semester, there is not any comment on second-language teachers and/or learners.

There is an article by Elizabeth Ginway, which catches my attention: “Teaching Latin American Science Fiction and Fantasy in English: A Case Study.” I email her to ask, please, which degree her students are taking, as she does not say, and why she is using translation. Her reply is “The essay collection is directed towards the English-speaking population of the United States and United Kingdom. I teach SF in both Spanish and Portuguese, but I did not publish on that because it is not much help to those who do not speak those languages.” This, as we say in Catalan, ‘makes my head dance’ (or spin). Later she very kindly emailed me the syllabi for her Spanish and Portuguese-speaking students.

When I was an undergrad I noticed that in the field of Spanish Literature foreign specialists were as prominent and respected as native Spanish-speaking academics. I failed to notice, though, in my naivety, that the foreign academics I was asked to read were all Anglophone and working in American and British universities. I assumed back in the 1980s that foreign academics working on Anglophone culture would be similarly visible for Anglophone students but this is not at all the case.

Possibly the most spectacular exception within SF is that of Croatian Darko Suvin, one of the biggest names in the field. Suvin, however, did not make his name working from his home-town Zagreb but after becoming Professor at McGill University in Montreal. So, there you are: there is still a long way to go for true academic globalization to happen…

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

One month ago I published a post on Pablo Iglesias Simón’s monograph De las tablas al celuloide (2007). Iglesias devotes a good deal of his volume to Henry Irving (British) and David Belasco (American), both great stage-managers who shaped their local theatrical practice. Irving was, of course, also a star; for Belasco (1853-1931), in contrast, acting was just a minor aspect of his long career. Since Iglesias often refers to Belasco’s memoirs The Theatre through its Stage Door (1919) I eventually read them (see What a pleasure!!

Belasco’s engaging text is a snapshot of a transitional time when cinema was still silent and avant-garde theatre was being born. Irving and Belasco embody the kind of well-made, (pseudo-)naturalistic theatre that still pleases crowds but that is now regarded as less than artistic. To understand the limits of the magnetic Belasco’s task in Broadway, consider that he praises Sir Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, as “the most vital and truest picture of human experience”; today this is seen as a mere period piece aimed at philistine bourgeois audiences. Belasco certainly shows himself at a loss about how to deal with the new avant-garde theatre, which prefers a few splotches of colour to generate mood rather than his very elaborate lighting effects. This is why reading his book leaves a bitter aftertaste for it is a chronicle of a lost battle for artistic acknowledgement. Although the plays he describes seem trite and even silly, I can very well imagine the immense aesthetic pleasure his productions must have been. This was, remember, the time before colour movies existed and nothing but Belasco’s productions could equal the pleasure cinema would later provide. The plays, however, are another matter…

I’ll refer here extensively to his fascinating chapter on ‘motion pictures,’ “The Drama’s Flickering Bogy.” Belasco inserts a footnote warning that his arguments are only valid for 1919 cinema: “The growth of the motion picture has been rapid and, consequently, the trend of its future development is difficult to foretell.” Unlike many of his theatrical colleagues, Belasco defends the movies, maintaining that amusement must always be welcome and that, anyway, his stage productions are not in direct competition with the then silent, black-and-white movies. He also praises the ability of the moving image to bring home the landscapes of the world, until then only accessible “on faith” from the printed page. He does realize, however, that unlike former competitors of ‘legitimate’ drama the movies “have undoubtedly come to stay.” Also, that “all inferior forms of theatrical amusement have been hard hit by the motion pictures,” particularly minstrelsy, and the cheap stock companies. Vaudeville, which tried to survive in the company of the new screens “has become their victim.” Belasco, nonetheless, has faith in the future of quality drama (and of spectacular musicals): “I have always found that the public will never ignore a good play.” Belasco highlights the educational and scientific applications of movies but remains quite sceptical about their ability to offer “spirit” rather than “surface.” He finds, above all, the lack of spoken dialogue, the dependence on inter-titles and the clumsy narrative strategies (close-ups, medium shots, sped-up action…) a serious hindrance for the movies ever to be truly artistic. You see in this appreciation the seeds of Belasco’s defeat as eventually the human voice, colour, a fluid grammar of edition, etc. conquered cinema, allowing it to fully express human emotion.

Belasco describes on the basis of first-hand experience how primitive cinema borrowed from the stage its plots, its actors, even the theatre itself to exhibit the new films: “from their very outset,” except for what we call now documentaries, “motion pictures have been a parasite feeding upon the arts of the theatre.” This is why he rightly claims that cinema can only “hope to challenge the regular drama seriously” by developing “some form of art distinctly their own, and educate their performers in an entirely new technique.” He is particularly critical of movie acting, stressing that actors only give their best when facing an audience (something that TV sit-coms still exploit); for him, the most successful movies rely on plot. In cinema “Whatever appeal the performers make to their spectators must depend upon physical attractiveness.” Um, yes, it is hard to think of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie triumphing on a stage.

What I had not quite realized is that early cinema undermined its contemporary theatre by sapping it of its best talent–the real competition, Belasco argues, was not for audiences but for actors. Hollywood could afford to pay high rates even for secondary roles, as the huge distribution networks of the movies guaranteed, as they do now, very high returns for a relatively low investment (which theatre producers like Belasco could never meet). Movies stole all kinds of talent from drama, not only, as Belasco shows, that of already famous actors, or stage-managers, but also budding talent still in need of development that chose the more profitable path of a movie career. Popular actors found “that by capitalizing the prestige they have won on the dramatic stage they can earn in the studios, in a few weeks, more money than they could command in the theatre in an entire season.” Less talented actors discovered that the far less demanding cinema allowed them to cut years of stage training. The queues of eager applicants Belasco was used to dwindled dramatically. Likewise, many playwrights were lured by Hollywood to become better paid, though much less respected, screen writers. Belasco grants that some actors are born movie actors: Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford (whose career as a child actress he launched), and even vamp Theda Bara. In contrast, he cautions theatre stars not to risk their reputation for money. Belasco never contemplates combining the two media, for “No one who aspires to be an artist can hope to inhabit both.”

There is a peculiar moment when Belasco brings David W. Griffith, the great silent cinema director, into it. As he recalls, he met Griffith, “who has raised the picture spectacle to what I believe to be its highest point of interest,” as a young aspiring actor in the West “when the invention of the camera was practically new.” He applied for a position in Belasco’s company but none was available at the time. Griffith joined then Vitagraph, a movie company, soon becoming a director… Whether by accident or fate, the future of American cinema passed this way through Belasco’s hands. He shows throughout great admiration for Griffith, never regretting that he did not hire him as an actor, though Belasco feels that his movies would gain by being less full of crowds, more intimist. This is the kind of movie Belasco imagines himself directing, though he has “never felt an ambition to direct a motion-picture play.” His dream movie, with “a very human story adjusted to the simplest backgrounds,” and “very few characters” anticipates Ingmar Bergman or, in America, John Cassavettes. Funnily, Belasco thinks that emotion in movies can only work if scenes are shot in chronological order, which shows how impossible it would have been for him to triumph in Hollywood. In any case, the movie traits he wishes to avoid give a very clear impression of the weaknesses of early cinema.

“The theatre in which I live and work can never be endangered from the outside,” Belasco concludes. In the following chapter he shows how the main danger comes from the inside–from the European avant-garde. He is bitter that he himself, who pioneered many avant-garde techniques, such as the suppression of footlights, is not acknowledged as an advanced artist. Writing his memoirs aged 66, after already 50 years in the theatre and facing the last 12 years of his career, Belasco’s voice is already nostalgic–or it seems so to me in hindsight. The photos in the book reveal a mixture of incredibly advanced technology and old-fashioned acting styles which may have pleased Broadway audiences but surely set the teeth of modern 1920s spectators and avant-garde theatre artists on edge. Time, however, puts everyone in their place and Belasco occupies an undeniably important position.

I wonder what he would think of movies today and to what extent they are indebted to his constant search for technological innovation.

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Next October we’ll hold in Santiago de Compostela the twentieth, and possibly final, ‘Culture & Power’ conference. This is a series started in 1995 at my own university, UAB, with the aim of disseminating Cultural Studies in Spain, a much necessary enterprise then as it is still now. This, I know, sounds paradoxical as the series is, as I hint, winding down with two final contradictory messages: Cultural Studies still does not exist in Spain either as a discipline or, much less, a degree, yet at the same time we are strong enough within English Studies in Spain not to need anymore the scaffolding of the ‘Culture & Power’ seminar to hold us together (many of us have moved onto diverse, more specific branches like post-colonialism, popular fictions, media studies, etc.).

This new conference will deal with migration and I have finally decided to write about a long-overdue topic in my academic career… but not as part of it. I am not going to suddenly immerse myself into post-colonial methodologies, nor see how migration fits the many SF novels on colonization. No. I am going to use this excuse for an exploration of my own personal roots as a child of a series of migrant waves to Catalonia. I am using the blog post today, then, to draft the first part of my planned paper, which will deal with the representation of Spanish immigrants in the Museu d’Història de Catalunya and the Museu d’Història de la Inmigració de Catalunya. This may not be English Studies at all but, then, without what I have learned from migration to an from Anglophone countries I might not be aware at all about my own identity issues (also as an English Studies specialist…).

In the course of the recent electoral campaign to elect town council representatives, Esquerra Republicana’s number two, actor Juanjo Puigcorbé, blundered pathetically when he proposed building a museum devoted to the Spanish migration to Catalonia. The blunder exposed his ignorance of the existence of such museum since 2004… at the same time it is completely understandable since very few people know that MHIC exists. There are, you can check, no comments on MHIC in TripAdvisor. I myself have never been there, daunted by the long metro trip I need to take for, yes, MHIC is not in Barcelona but in the adjacent town of Sant Adrià del Besòs, which received many thousands of migrants from all over Spain between the 1950s and 1980s. I have, then, finally found an excuse to visit MHIC and check what is bothering me: that the official Catalan discourse of immigrant integration is burying the memory of Spanish migration under a triumphal discourse focused on the new (1990s onwards) foreign migration. The ‘new Catalans’ are ousting the ‘other Catalans’ from public view.

The ‘other Catalans’ is an expression famously coined by Paco Candel, the man who explained to ‘proper’ Catalans from the fringes of the city of Barcelona who the migrants from all over Spain were. His book Els altres catalans (1964) was published in the middle of a social phenomenon that peaked, precisely, in the mid-1960s and that brought to Catalan territory more than one million migrants (in 1970 only 62% of the population were Catalan-born…). In 1980 Generalitat’s President Jordi Pujol appropriated Candel’s discourse to proclaim that anyone living and working in Catalonia was a Catalan, a much necessary proclamation to end the insidious discrimination and marginalization I recall from my childhood (I was never called ‘xarnega’ but other kids of recently arrived parents were). The gigantic waves of Spanish migrants stopped in the 1980s and less than one decade later the new foreign wave started… which clearly shows there has been no time for Spanish migration to be fully assimilated, and I don’t mean ‘disappeared into Catalonia,’ I mean ‘understood,’ even by the protagonists themselves. A number of recent books and a documentary have unearthed a little bit of that past, with attention narrowly focused on the shanty towns built all over Barcelona up to the 1980s. But little else…

The Museu d’Història de Catalunya offers, as I feared, no substantial comment on Spanish migration. I know that for some the label is offensive for, if you consider that Spain is a national territory and you identify migration with moving to foreign lands, then there is no reason to speak of migration at all within Spanish borders. The truth is that there is much need as, most importantly, migration to Catalonia meant coming across another language and a local culture very much fixed on it as an identity marker (clearly much more so today than under Franco’s regime, indeed). Well… out of the hundreds of linear metres of exhibits that MHC offers, only 5 are devoted to Spanish migration.

The first metre-long exhibit is occupied by panel 31.j ‘La Inmigració’ which explains that the first migrants arrived from País Valencià and Aragón to make up for the rural population deficit–it doesn’t say when. The 1920s public works, I’ll add ‘for the 1929 Universal Exhibition,’ increased the arrival of migrants, mainly from Murcia and Eastern Andalucía, each contributing about 80,000 souls (it seems they colonized l’Hospitalet de Llobregat). The next panel, 39, ‘L’onada inmigratòria’ is a bit longer at two metres but very confusing as it refers to 1936-1980 without examining what happened to the first wave, nor in which ways they settled down. A funny thing I noticed is that even though visitors are told that life was not easy for the newly arrived there is no comment on the fact that Catalan businessmen were responsible for their exploitation. Very cheerfully, the panel concludes that low salaries and poor housing were soon overcome by “economic expansion and an open social structure which allowed to prosper. The migrant wave was replaced by a baby-boom.” Deep sigh… now, I wonder how many of these baby-boomers and their descendants are bearing the brunt of the current crisis… still stuck in their neighbourhoods… The MHC also claims that Catalan society welcomed all the migrants, despite its own difficulties to express its own identity and that “Soon the ‘other Catalans’ identified themselves with the country and contributed to the construction of a ‘common future’.” Not what I have seen.

The final segment in the museum, ‘ Un retrat de la Catalunya contemporània 1980-2007’ exhibits a collection of photos showing nicely dressed, smiling people intended to represent current multicultural Catalonia. The places and dates of birth are supposed to show that the 7 millions living here do so in total harmony and content. I will not argue that the tensions are grave, for this is not at all the case–everything considered, Catalonia works well. But what I do not accept is the plainly false statement that according to recent statistics “the ‘new Catalans’ have progressively integrated Catalan as their own language at home and the numbers considering it their own language is growing.” Well, I might accept the second part but by no means the first one –do you really think that migrants from Ecuador (the third biggest community) are switching to Catalan?? Come on… The complicated linguistic practices in my own family would occupy several research papers…

Precisely, I started thinking of these matters when an Ecuadorian friend of mine told me we in Spain are totally homogeneous (I think he meant in comparison to the mixed ethnicity of his homeland, of which he is–handsome–living proof). Not at all!! I exclaimed. Look at my family: I have counted at least 4 migratory waves, my paternal great-great-grandmother in the 1900s, my paternal great-grandmother in the 1910s, my paternal grand-mother in the 1930s, my paternal uncle in the 1970s… and all my mother’s parents in the 1940s, with her, born outside Catalonia, in tow. What I have seen in my family, besides, is a series of conflicts based on, shall we say?, migrant seniority and the matter of how Catalan you are if your mom or dad is from elsewhere. This is the story I am trying to reconstruct now and, believe me, it is not easy.

Particularly because it is nowhere to be seen, or heard. Not at MHC. I’ll see what MHIC shows me…

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Posted by Sara Martín Alegre

Just one year ago I wrote a post about Conchita Wurst’s unexpected triumph at the Eurovision Song Contest. This year’s edition was broadcast last Saturday from Austria, her homeland. The winner was the handsome Måns Zelmerlöw, representing Sweden, in tight competition with the pretty Polina Gagarina, representing Russia. I know that my remark is far from original, but their singing in English highlights the main reason why the United States of Europe are failing to materialize: we are too reluctant to accepting our diverse cultural and linguistic identities.

If I recall this correctly, the singers using their national language were representing Italy (third in the grand final), Montenegro (thirteenth), Romania (fifteenth), Spain (twenty-first) and France (twenty-fifth). The rest of the twenty-seven sang in English, or, rather, the bad English full of clichés that surfaces when you translate from your own language lyrics already quite cheesy. Of course, singing in English guarantees no good results: look at the United Kingdom’s position–twenty four out of twenty-seven… (Australia, the guest country, did much better, making it to a fifth position which should have been a second). And, as usual, the Spanish media and social networks have deplored that Edurne only got 15 points… because she sang in Spanish–well, send a Basque singer, or Catalan, or Galician, and see if that improves matters. And once again, our local jury delegate, Lara Ciscar, spoke only mediocre English, saving us at least from the embarrassment of last year’s ‘oit points.’ Just barely.

My personal favourite was Latvian Aminata’s “Love Injected”, which was also accompanied, in my view, by the best, most elegant, atmospheric mise-en-scène. Aminata, the festival’s commentators explained, is the daughter of a Russian mother and a Burkina-Fasso father, but regards herself as profoundly Latvian… whatever that means, for I simply don’t know. She sang in English which, I guess, must be for Latvians as shocking as it would be for me to hear Manel (local most popular Catalan band) sing in Shakespeare’s language. So, on surface, beautiful black Aminata does represent Europe’s plurality, as did the winner of 2012, the Swede Loreen (born Lorine Zineb Nora Talhaoui in Stockholm to Moroccan Amazigh parents). Yet, this is only on surface for as long as the ruling language is English the plurality remains unseen (and, above all, unheard).

Knez, the gentleman from Montenegro who offered us the beautiful ‘Adio’, sang, I assume (excuse my stupidity) in Serbian. Nobody bothered to explain which of the four languages spoken in his country he sang in. Anyway, the Eurovision Song Contest website does offer translations of the lyrics into English (…and French, since Francophone speakers seemingly still believe that theirs is a pan-European language…) This translation, then, could have been easily used in subtitles, helping us viewers understand what Knez sang about (not that this was strictly necessary as the title ‘Adio’ helped very much). In Spain’s case it would certainly have helped as it was hard to guess why Edurne was crying very pretty tears as she danced with a great-looking male dancer (mourning a dead lover, it transpires). The Rumanians, offering a moving song on the sorrows of abandoning your children to migrate elsewhere–now that’s a European subject–opted to self-translate, offering a bilingual song.

The contest is always criticised for being a shabby, old-fashioned spectacle for which nobody in their rights mind should care. To begin with, it’s not that shabby anymore and, as TV shows go, it is quite good. If, excuse me, this is an event supported mainly by gay people, then let’s give gay people the run of all European TV, it would be much more fun, believe me… I watched the contest, semi-finals and all included, because for a few evenings I got unusual variety on TV, and I heard about countries supposedly also in Europe, which never appear on my local media (or only for tragic, war-related reasons). Four years ago Azerbaijan’s Ell & Nikki won with “Running Scared” and I can still sing the chorus; I wouldn’t know, however, to place their country on a map. This does not mean that a handful of songs, more or less silly, should or can conceal tensions in European politics–everyone hoped this year Russia would NOT win with ‘A Million Voices’… a pacifist song, for God’s sake! Sorry, Polina Gagarina, I know you meant well.

Love it or hate it, the Eurovision Song Contest is the only yearly event that makes this strange idea we call Europe visible–it’s Brigadoon, remember?, that little Scottish village which in the famous Broadway musical reappears only once very hundred years. Luckily, we don’t have to wait that much, yet it is to be wondered why Europe is managing so poorly to exist. Many years ago, Robert Maxwell, the Czechoslovakian-born British media mogul, founded the only newspaper with a truly pan-European vocation, simply called The European. Its short life (May 1990 to December 1998) and reduced market (a weekly circulation of just 180,000 against the planed 225,000) is, to me, a sign of Europe’s inability to believe in itself as a political, social and cultural entity. In this context, the festival (now reaching its 60th anniversary) is simultaneously a freak event in European life and a much necessary, basic link among the disparate nations of Europe.

How is, then, the problem of this unmanageable diversity solved? We cannot all abandon our local languages for English, which is why it is a very bad sign that so many Eurovision’s singers are doing this. If this trivial event manages to highlight so clearly what our main problems are, imagine what things must be like at Strasbourg’s Parliament… I would prefer everyone to sing in their own language, using, as I suggested English subtitles for translation; in the Parliament, likewise, they use translators even though everyone speaks English (well, I assume …). What simple kills me is how European television is not happening at all beyond that evening every May. I have noticed that the Germans have managed to sell us lots and lots of second-rate TV movies but, beyond this, how come we have never heard of Måns Zelmerlöw, Polina Gagarina, Aminata or Knez if they are so famous in their own countries? Just to mention a few names… And will it matter for Latvia (or Estonia) that so many millions outside their country voted for their song and its multicultural lady singer?

Um, one last barb for Catalan nationalism: all those who complain that we waste plenty of money by sending Spanish singers to the contest, as they never win–wouldn’t you be pleased if Manel won singing in Catalan? Um, what a chance to explain Catalan independence to this Europe who cares nothing for it…

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