RETHINKING THE POSTCOLONIAL: VANDANA SINGH, INDIAN SF WRITER

July 11th, 2017

My colleague Felicity Hand is organizing yet another exciting conference, this time on India. Having learned much about Postcolonialism from previous similar events, I have submitted a proposal (see http://jornades.uab.cat/aeeii2017/en, also Felicity’s research group Ratnakara http://grupsderecerca.uab.cat/ratnakara/). I decided to focus my paper on science fiction, a genre with a very rich history in India in several languages. Narrowing down the field to just one name was, though, quite difficult. Fortunately, the recent monographic issue published by Science Fiction Studies (#130, or 43.3, November 2016) led me to a simply wonderful writer, and an indispensable name in the genre: Vandana Singh (http://vandana-writes.com/).

Singh, born and brought up in Delhi, describes herself as a writer of “speculative fiction, which includes science fiction and fantasy”. She has a PhD in Theoretical Physics and works currently as an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Physics and Earth Science at Framingham State University, Massachusetts. Although she started writing both in Hindi and English, her main focus is now the latter language. Singh is known not only for her sf but also for a couple of children’s books: Younguncle Comes to Town and Younguncle in the Himalayas. Her sf consists of short stories and novellas, some of which can be found online (see http://www.freesfonline.de/authors/Vandana_Singh.html). She has published her work in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and has collected some of her earlier stories a volume, now out of print, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet (2008). Her second, forthcoming, volume is Ambiguity Machines and Other Tales (http://smallbeerpress.com/not-a-journal/2017/05/17/a-new-collection-from-vandana-singh/).

Singh is also co-editor with Anil Menon of the anthology Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana (http://zubaanbooks.com/shop/breaking-the-bow-speculative-fiction-inspired-by-the-ramayana/). Most Indian sf writers agree that a singularity of the genre they cultivate is how deep it sinks its roots in Indian myth. What readers enjoy in Singh’s fiction, as I do, is the excellent combination of her original cultural background with insights provided by her work as a scientist, now focused on climate change.

I chose initially to work on “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra”, one of Singh’s most obvious incursions into the mythical. This is what my conference proposal announced to the organizers. I read, however, many other stories by Singh, passing from the most often anthologized “Delhi” (classic Singh…) to the eccentrically romantic “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue”, a story about a dying old woman, a black hole and an eternally lost lover. Next I read “Entanglement”, the first truly global story I have ever come across. Eventually, a doctoral student explained to me that the title refers to a scientific concept, a point corroborated by the author. The more I read, the more I realized, then, that Vandana Singh cannot be pinned down under a single label, whether this is woman, Indian, speculative writer, or scientist. How, then, should we make sense of her work?

Trying to explain Singh’s work to my friend Mariano Martín I told him that she reminds me, above all, of fellow sf short fiction writer Ted Chiang (the recent film The Arrival adapts–poorly–one of his brilliant stories). I explained how academic analysis of Singh centres on her status as a postcolonial writer and Mariano complained that this is reductive… as absurd as studying Chiang as an Asian American writer, when everyone knows that he is, above all, the new Borges. Disappointingly, as I told Mariano, MLA offers only 6 entries on Chiang, half of which refer to his ethnic background. None mentions Borges.

As happens, Chang and Singh met at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (perhaps more than once?) and she interviewed him in 2012 (http://aaww.org/the-occasional-writer-an-interview-with-science-fiction-author-ted-chiang/). It comes as no surprise, in view of her own work, that she praises Chiang’s tales: “I love how so many of them posit and approach fantastical made-worlds in a wholly scientific way”. Pleased that she asks proper questions on science, he stresses how “the sense of wonder that science fiction offers is closely related to the feeling of awe that science itself offers”. Inevitably, racial issues come up… “Does your being Asian American inform your stories in any way?”, Singh asks. Chiang answers: “Race inevitably plays a role in my life, but to date it’s not a topic I’ve wanted to explore in fiction” because “the events of my own life are too dull to be the basis for fiction”. A bit annoyed, Chiang complains that “People have looked for a racial subtext in my work in a way I don’t think they would have if my family name were Davis or Miller”.

Academics, nonetheless, insist on using what Chiang defines as “extratextual information” to read fiction produced by non-white writers, while ignoring the whiteness of white writers (excuse the tongue-twister). At least, I have never come across an analysis of, say, Jonathan Franzen, emphasizing his race or his ethnic Swedish background. Either we stop asking Singh and Chiang about their background or, perhaps more to the point, we start asking the white writers about theirs. Jackie Kay once warned that she would accept seeing herself described as black, lesbian, Scottish, only when Martin Amis started being presented as white, heterosexual, English…. At the same time, the labels used to name non-white writers are absurdly loose: why should ‘Asian’ be a common label for writers from backgrounds as diverse as China and India? Nobody would label, for instance, a Portuguese and a Rumanian writer as ‘European’, so why use ‘Asian’, or ‘African’, in this comprehensive way?

Vandana Singh’s work has already attracted some quality academic work. I’ll refer here to two examples, before I turn to another interview, this time with Singh herself. The two examples highlight the problem I am dealing with: how are we supposed to read non-white authors in a context in which the category ‘white’ is both normative and non-existent?

On the one hand, Suparno Banerjee (Texas State University) claims in “An Alien Nation: Postcoloniality and the Alienated Subject in Vandana Singh’s Science Fiction” (Extrapolation, 53.3 (2012): 283-306) that one of the major topics of recent Indian sf is “the specter of an alienated postcolonial subject caught in the flux of historical eddies” (283). This is precisely, he argues, the kind of estranged character that Vandana Singh explores, calling attention “to the different types and levels of alienation that haunt the people who negotiate their surroundings and identities in this new world order” (283). Reading “Delhi”, “Infinities”, “The Tetrahedron” and the novellas Distances and Of Love and Other Monsters Banerjee argues that Singh “is a writer of the new postcolonial alienation: a form of alienation emerging out of the colonial discourse, yet different from it” (285). He grants that Singh’s style allows her “to speculate about different scientific and philosophical notions” but firmly insists that “alienation in the postcolonial subject becomes her most important concern” (286).

Banerjee’s Indian surname lends to his article an authority as a cultural insider that I cannot have as, well, an alien–a foreign Spanish/Catalan reader. Yet, I feel oppressed and constrained by his interpretation, mostly because he subordinates the essential scientific reading of Singh’s fiction to the ethnic, nationalist reading. Having recently edited a monographic issue for Science Fiction Studies on Spanish sf I believe that no Spanish writer would appreciate being defined by his or her belonging to a (white) postimperial nation: they would rather have academics discuss the specific themes of their writing. Singh does write about India but as we can see in her eagerness to ask Chiang, she is primarily concerned about how to turn science into narrative poetics, a point to which I will return.

The SFS issue on Indian sf offers an alternative to the exclusive postcolonial reading, offered by Eric D. Smith (University of Alabama in Huntsville), a white specialist in Postcolonial Studies. Yes, ‘white’ needs to be mentioned. In his article “Universal Love and Planetary Ontology in Vandana Singh’s Of Love and Other Monsters” (514-533), Smith proposes that we rise above “the limits of certain postcolonial theorizations in the postmillennial present”. More explicitly, by reading Singh’s novella through the critique of love proposed by French philosopher Alain Badiou, Smith argues “the insufficiency of postcolonial theory for capturing the event of postcolonial sf and the latter’s potential for the production of planetary being” (514). He cites Banerjee (the very words I have quoted) to oppose him and show that beyond the postcolonial, Singh’s fiction “insists on themes of infinity, interdimensionality, and, indeed, universality, frequently underpinned by a referential framework of theoretical mathematics (…)” (514). Half-way through his article, however, I found myself resisting Smith’s reading fiercely: who is this white guy to force Singh’s stories into the philosophical mould set by two other white guys, Alain Badiou, and, guess who?, Slavoj Žižek? How does this approach serve Singh better than Banerjee’s?

In the same issue, Malisa Kurtz (PhD from Brock University)–who looks Asian American as the category goes…–interviews Singh. She prioritizes in her questions the author’s “fascination with scientific speculation” (534) and with “the provisionality of scientific knowledge” (536); also the issue of whether her sf is ‘hard’ (it is, though not gadget-oriented). Kurtz gets Singh to explain how her sf connects with the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics, and also to disclose her relief at discovering Bengali writer Premendra Mitra (read in English) for “I didn’t want sf written by people from the West to be the only standard with which to compare and contrast my stories” (537).

Yet, Kurtz also gets from Singh the story of how US white female sf writers (above all Ursula Le Guin) saved her from alienation as a newly migrated PhD student. “What she showed me”, Singh enthuses, “was an array of alternate worlds, futures, histories, in which people like me existed” (537). Instead of the “white-maletechnofetishist(s)” Anglo-American sf authors she read as a teen, “Le Guin’s works restored sf to me, made it welcoming in a way I hadn’t experienced before” (537). Another source of enthusiasm, of course, is how Singh “cannot separate the aesthetic impulse that drives me to create worlds from the pleasure I get doing physics” (538). Her current work, “on the pedagogy of climate science”(538) is, thus, a direct inspiration for “Entanglement”.

The racial question pops up, again: how does Singh feel about the label ‘postcolonial science fiction’? Singh lets “the scholars worry about definitions”, noting that ‘postcolonial’ “has its uses” if it helps to dismantle what she calls “paradigm blindness”, that is to say, the “blinkers” imposed by the colonizers. But, and this is a very important ‘but’, “an implication of the term ‘postcolonial’ is that the unit of measure, the standard, is still the colonizer. That can be limiting. So while I acknowledge the importance of the term, I also want to transcend it, to go off and play in the much larger universe we inhabit” (543). In this sense, sf offers the “experience of playfully trying to decolonize my mind—shaking free of hitherto unexamined paradigms, trying to look at new vistas through new eyes” (544).

The question, ultimately, and the challenge, is whether Literary and Cultural Studies are ready to ‘transcend’ Postcolonialism and take as ‘the unit of measure’ something else. Not the white, male, European philosophical discourse that Smith summons from the past under the guise of modernity but, hopefully, a wholly new discourse that looks “at new vistas through new eyes” in a “much larger universe”. Transnationalism and cosmopolitanism have been often invoked as alternatives. Singh’s sf suggests, however, that just as her characters move across the many dimensions of the multiverse while being both deeply rooted in their places and alienated from them, we need to see how humanity functions in all backgrounds, including whiteness. Otherwise, we just contribute to prolonging normative racist ethnocentricity, forcing non-white writers to be spokespersons for just one segment of the human species, instead, as they are, of the whole species.

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

TRYING TO CATCH UP…: A BOOK ON RECENT (SCOTTISH) LITERATURE

July 3rd, 2017

I have given myself the task of checking my university library’s catalogue and select a variety of volumes for summer reading, in an attempt to catch up with the novelties in the areas I’m interested in. The function of journals used to be exactly that: keeping researchers informed about the latest advances in a given field. This seems to work better for the sciences but my impression is that in the Humanities we no longer read journal issues from beginning to end (if we ever did that). Rather, we read single articles and most likely only those that we cite in our own work, as there is no time to spare for reading around. In my personal case this lack of time also means that my visits to the library have diminished along the years. I feel that am slowly but steadily falling behind in my fields of research, and teaching, despite trying to frantically keep up.

This impression is, perhaps, not well grounded, however as I find that the enormous proliferation of academic writing in recent years has not resulted in deep changes in our methodological paradigm. I worked on my doctoral dissertation between 1993 and 1996, more than twenty years ago, and so I should expect new research to be radically different. I see, nonetheless, essentially the same names and the same bibliography established in the 1990s quoted again and again. I urge my students to not use anything published before 1995, except when it is fully justified, but I see that I’ll have to revise that rule for everything that matters today to us regarding theory in Literature and Culture seems to come from the early 1990s. The two most prominent big names of recent times, Zygmunt Bauman (who died in January) and Slavoj Žižek (born 1949), published their breakthrough work also in the 1990s. And I don’t see anyone under 40 making a big splash (yet?).

The dominion of 1990s academia over us connects with the prevalence of post-modernism as a label that has overstayed its welcome, an issue I discussed in my previous post. Perhaps the lack of progress in academic research has to do with this collective inability to move beyond labels but what worries me very much, besides this stagnation, is that the very few calls to action lean towards universalism and formalism, the two evils that the 1990s emphasis on identity tried to correct. I have come across much universalism in the dubious application to Literature and Culture of fashionable Affect Theory (see my conference presentation on the body here http://ddd.uab.cat/record/174232). And I have just come across a vindication of formalism in Marie-Odile Pittin-Hedon’s The Space of Fiction: Voices from Scotland in a Post-devolution Age (2015).

Let me stop here, for the issue is complex. Basically, there is widespread agreement that Scottish Literature bore the brunt of keeping the voice of the nation alive while politics progressed towards Devolution. Scotland used to be a separate kingdom but its devious aristocratic rulers signed a Treaty of Union (1707) with England, which resulted in the dissolution of its Parliament and the loss of its independence. The re-emergence of nationalism in the 20th century led to the ill-fated 1979 referendum for Devolution under Margaret Thatcher, which was lost, and, hence to an intense period of national self-doubt which only ended (relatively speaking) in 1997. A second referendum, this time under the aegis of Tony Blair’s Labour Government, resulted in a positive vote and, so, the Scottish Parliament was restored in 1999 (though not independence). In a recent referendum, in 2014, authorized by David Cameron’s Tory Government, independence was rejected by 55% of the voters. Another referendum, voted by all Britons in 2016, started Brexit by a narrow margin, 51.89%, and led Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) to declare that she would call yet another independence referendum; most Scots voted against Brexit (62%) and in favour of remaining in the European Union. This second referendum is still in the air, as I write.

In her conclusion, Pittin-Hedon quotes Gerry Hassan’s words warning that “Analysing trends is not enough, however good the data. Imagining the future is an empowering process that opens up the possibility of action” (186). To do so, Pittin-Hedon argues, we must follow Alex Thomson’s “lead” and “look for specific features” that are “stylistic, formal rather than systematically trying to connect” Scottish writing “to the political context” (186). She refers to Thomson’s 2007 article “‘You can’t get there from here’: Devolution and Scottish literary history”, which I have not read (yet). This is what worries me: the word ‘rather’, as it implies an either/or situation by which looking into stylistics is incompatible with looking into context.

This is even more puzzling because Pittin-Hedon never leaves context aside in her book; unless, that is, her extensive literary analysis of the works she presents is an attempt to downplay context. How, however, can any literary critic take politics for granted when Scottish academia has widely accepted ‘Post-Devolution’ as an apt label to discuss contemporary literature? In Catalonia, a nation mirroring Scotland in many ways beginning with the chronology of recent History (the Generalitat was ‘devolved’ back in 1980) nobody uses the label ‘post-autonomic’ (the equivalent of ‘post-Devolution’)–just ‘contemporary’. Even though nationalism is of immense importance, Catalan writers and critics are not restricted in this sense as the case seems to be in Scotland. Judging, that is, from Thomson’s call to formalist arms… echoed by Pittin-Hedon.

Actually, though, like Pittin-Hedon, I agree with Janice Galloway’s complaint that it is about time Scottish authors write ‘through’ the nation and not ‘about’ the nation, there is another kind of context that Pittin-Hedon ignores in her book. First, I need to explain that even though this volume has an obvious introductory inclination it is by no means didactic. She discusses the selected writing as if it were already very well known by her reader in the dense academic style typical of most contemporary Literary Studies. Struggling to make sense of her arguments, as I made notes about what I should read to catch up, I suddenly wondered who she was writing for–and why she wasn’t mentioning the elephant in the room: our collective fears that the very habit of reading fiction might soon die, for the younger generations are mostly non-readers. It turns out, and here’s a paradox, that this anxiety is central to Scottish fiction. At least, one of the writers that Pittin-Hedon praises, Ewan Morrison, asked the question none of his peers dared ask: “Are books dead, and can authors survive?”

This is the title of a talk Morrison gave back in 2011 at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and that he published in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/aug/22/are-books-dead-ewan-morrison). His argument is transparent: books will disappear because, “within 25 years the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books”. Also, said revolution “will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist”. The readers’ comments, divided between half-empty glass defenders and half-full glass opponents are marvellous to read… And while it is true that Pittin-Hedon brings her readers’ attention to this crucial article, she writes about the selected books with no reference to the issues that Morrison raises. As if Literature were still a central aspect of Scottish society and not an endangered cultual species in the whole Western world.

Introductions and updates are very difficult books to write, since trying to make sense of the present is extremely complicated. At the same time the academic writer undergoing that kind of task has the wonderful chance to shape literary History and even the canon simply by choosing what to include. Interestingly, Pittin-Hedon devotes a chapter to Scottish women writers specializing in crime, and although I miss their sisters in science fiction and I’m not at all fond of gender separatism in literary analysis, this chapter is symptomatic of how genres are merging to challenge canonical visions. I wish, nonetheless, to sound less like a reviewer and more like a reader and so, I’ll note, that, somehow, I find the genre of the academic introduction or update stubbornly resistant to… digitalization.

The whole point of volumes of this kind is to put the reader in touch with books s/he might want to read and the middleman or middlewoman’s role should be to facilitate the encounter. I really think that this is best done through a hypertext: a website combining actual reviews and interviews with authorial comment that would allow readers to navigate among a constellation of unknown books. I just don’t know anymore how to read a few hundred pages of literary analysis about books I have not read. The analysis sounds very clever but it might be all wrong, and even if it is brilliant and spot-on, I will have forgotten it by the time I manage to read the book.

I understand that the most positive feature of introductions, updates (and companions) is that they are, ironically, limited. The Victorian Web, for instance, (http://www.victorianweb.org/) does a very good job of presenting this age to interested readers but it is a sprawling text that cannot be read with the same ease as a volume that can be underlined (whether paper or e-book). Perhaps we don’t understand well how to use the digital media. This morning I have also been browsing through the impressive collections of Cambridge and Routledge companions that my university subscribes and, well, the volumes are now digital but what this means is that each one is fragmented into the .pdf for each chapter, not that they are hypertexts with links to other resources. This is a necessary academic revolution, I think, if the didactic value of this type of introductory book is to be enhanced. And made attractive for post-baby boomer generations…

The lessons I’m learning, then, as I try to catch up with recent developments is that academic literary criticism seems anchored in the 1990s, with few recent developments. The proliferation of new writing is asking for a new way of presenting readers with introductions to particular periods that might work much better as online hypertexts than as (paper) books. This revolution is not happening because we, academics, don’t know very well how to maximize the use of digital media in our favour. The very media that, if Morrison is right, will kill Literature. Or, at least, deprive writers of a living.

How in the middle of this cultural (and political) turmoil we can make sense of stylistics is, for the time being, beyond me–though, ideally, text and context should be always studied together. If anyone cares for reading at all…

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

POSTMODERNISM IS DEAD, LONG LIVE POSTMODERNISM: SEEKING A NEW LABEL FOR THE NEW TIMES

June 20th, 2017

Today, I’m commenting on Alison Gibbons’ article in the Times Literary Supplement, “Postmodernism is dead. What comes next?” (12 June 2017, http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/postmodernism-dead-comes-next/?CMP=Sprkr-_-Editorial-_-TimesLiterarySupplement-_-ArtsandCulture-_-JustTextandlink-_-Statement-_-Unspecified-_-FBPAGE). There are many important questions about Postmodernism which nobody seems to agree on: 1) when did it begin: was it 1960s, 1980s, later even?; 2) is it already dead?; 3) when did Postmodernism die, if it is dead at all?: 1989, 2001, 2008?; 4) if it is dead, what label should we use for the culture of our own time? Post-postmodernism? Other labels being circulated, Gibbons informs us, are, brace yourselves: altermodernism, cosmodernism, digimodernism, metamodernism, performatism, post-digital, post-humanism…

First, allow me to clarify that Gibbons, a lecturer in Stylistics at Hallam University, is concerned specifically with creative or literary fiction, whereas I have always understood Postmodernism as a whole cultural movement better exemplified by certain landmark buildings (Frank Gheary’s Bilbao Guggenheim Museum) or styles of gourmet cooking (Ferran Adrià) than by Literature. This difference, however, might be moot because the point she is raising is also valid for the wider cultural view of Postmodernism.

What is at stake here connects with my previous post about the current obsession with labels. If you allow me, Gibbons’ piece and the many comments it has generated seem to be hinting at a critical failure we don’t know how to solve; she seems to be begging for somebody, please, to offer us a workable label, even if it is parodic (Romanticism was originally intended to mock the poets of this school). I don’t have a solution for this problem (see below…) but if anything astounds me at all about this period of so-called human civilization is its intense narcissism, banality and… disinterest in Literature. Current literary authors are also guilty of the same narcissism and, sorry, banality. Perhaps not even they are interested in Literature.

Let’s assume for the sake of argumentation that Postmodernism began in the 1960s with works such as John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969). In this clever novel the author eventually intrudes to a) teach us History lessons about the Victorians, b) claim he has no idea how his characters will behave, which is why readers are offered three possible endings. There is a more or less widespread consensus that Postmodernism in Literature is, above all, playful in diverse degrees of seriousness: its authors question the convention that reality can be represented at all; they introduce many linguistic and textual games which repeatedly break sacred boundaries between high and low culture; they also reject all the grand narratives shaping Humanism, and, perhaps above all, hold the view that History is a slippery matter, or, as historian Hayden White sentenced in 1973, just “an agreed upon fiction”. Gibbons claims that Postmodernist writers show “cool detachment”, thus suggesting that what used to be, precisely, a cool value is now a suspect declaration of emotional frigidity.

So, what is new in Literature? Gibbons argues that “in today’s cultural climate there appears to be a renewed engagement with history and a revival of mythic meaning-making that the arch-postmodernists would have abhorred”. To begin with, mixing history with myth is what Postmodernism often did: just think of Salman Rushdie, author of the seminal Postmodern novel Midnight Children (1985) and the ill-fated, or ill-fatwaed…, Satanic Verses (1987). If Gibbons means that more and more novels are set in the recent or remote past, she is right although I often get the impression that instead of real commitment they exemplify a (narcissitic) desire to show off on the writers’ side. They claim to have done tons of research and want to be admired for it, as if they were academics (see the current debate between the Oxbridge historians and Hillary Mantel). Then, frequently, the novels deal with times or areas remote from the author’s own, which actually shows a lack of engagement with the history happening on their doorsteps. Let me rephrase this: writing about historical episodes, past or present, can be done with or without an earnest political attitude and this is what I mean by lack of commitment: novels are apolitical today, or blandly liberal, not militant. Why write, in Spain, about 2010s corruption if you can write about the Civil War?

Next, Gibbons notes that when today’s writers obey the impulse to “blur the lines between fiction and reality” and appear in their own texts, as Fowles once did, “their presence is intended to signal realism, rather than to foreground the artifice of the text (…)”. Realism, Gibbons concludes, “is once again a popular mode”. Well, Postmodernism has made readers more sophisticated and they have got tired of literary games that, in time, have gone stale: fiction is fiction and, as such, artificial, and this is a lesson that we all know well by now.

On the other hand, realism has never gone out of fashion despite the early efforts of Modernism and, later, of Postmodernism to undermine it; these, as I see it, almost resulted in the total abandonment by readers of highbrow fiction for its middlebrow little sister (something realistic and about History? Ken Follett will do). “Emotions”, Gibbons writes, “are again playing a central role in literary fiction, as authors insist on our essential relationality”–but, then, what is Literature without emotion, as Wordsworth asked 220 years ago? Nothing but an empty shell. I believe that Gibbons means ‘empathy’, for emotions have always been around in Literature, though they may have been negative, as it is often the case in Postmodernist fiction. She mentions, by the way, “autofiction, a genre that integrates the autobiographical into fiction, and that has blossomed alongside the so-called memoir boom”. Autofiction is, as I’m arguing here, an example of the narcissism that dominates literary creation today; readers are dominated, rather, by gossip, which explains the memoir boom. And the interest in (exasperatingly boring) autofiction.

The end of Gibbons’ article expresses what’s behind her exercise in pattern recognition: her wish, shared with many others, that new literature can “examine complex and ever-shifting crises – of racial inequality, capitalism and climate change – to which it is easy to close one’s eyes”, as implicitly, Postmodernism did (or still does?). In our times, when we see globalization as the capitalist lie it always was and when ‘post-truth’ defines public discourse, there is, however, “little sign of a radical literary avantgarde sweeping away the old to make way for the new”. And that is the crucial problem: quickly burnt out by the demands of the market and by academia’s self-interested search for novelty, the rising generation lacks the mental energy to truly think and offer a “literature that engages earnestly with real-world problems”, beyond the petty problems of privileged individuals in the West which fill autofiction.

The prediction by Postmodernist guru Francis Fukuyama that History was reaching an end, made in 1989, and that capitalist utopia was here to stay, whether we wanted it or not, was proven wrong by 9/11. The terrorist outrage jump-started History and now we see that it could never be over because until the Sun goes supernova, or patriarchy manages to wipe all human beings out, events will succeed each other. History can hardly reach an end, then, and we’ll see a succession of more or less apt labels for each forthcoming period. I wonder whether we can say the same for Literature and in particular its most creative or artistic branch.

Like the universe in the Big Bang Theory, which first expanded and is now seemingly contracting towards the ultimate black hole it came from, Literature seems to have started with the bang of the classic period and is now contracting with a whimper. I can see why Gibbons and others are concerned to spot the trends that define the Literature of our times, for we are curious to know which label will win the contest and make us memorable for the future. My impression, nevertheless, is that this is the equivalent of marvelling at the discovery of a new tree species when the whole wood is on fire.

If someone can define a catchy equivalent of the phrase ‘wilfully illiterate’ then this exactly what describes current culture, at least in the decadent West. As a Catalan I’ve had to accept the label ‘Decadence’ for the early modern period of our Literature (more or less overlapping the ‘Siglo de Oro’ in Spain), no matter how disputed this label is today. And perhaps it is now time to acknowledge that this is what we’re facing today in Western Literature. Not perhaps a lack of talent, but an inability to make this talent truly matter socially beyond sales figures. This is what decadence means in culture.

Perhaps the problem with Gibbons’ approach and that of many others struggling to find a label for our current Literature is that they’re putting the cart before the horse, that is, trying to write the History of today’s Literature before it is even happening. One thing is chronicling the present and quite another is understanding the main trends of the past. The Victorian Age did not emerge until it was over and it is possibly not for us but for the future to choose a label for what writers are collectively producing today. If we need the label for academic reasons–a course, a book… –then Contemporary will do. Use that, or call up a competition to ask writers how they want to be known.

And if someone in the future uses the labels ‘Narcissist Period’ or ‘Western Decadence’ I’ll be happy enough to have contributed a little grain of sand to Literary History.

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

ASEXUALITY REVISITED (WITH SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT LABELS)

June 14th, 2017

Two years ago I published a post with the title “And now for the asexuals… : Ceaseless labelling in Gender Studies” (15 March 2015). This was inspired by the draft of a chapter in a PhD dissertation, which I was asked to assess. Yesterday I had the pleasure of sitting on the board for the finished dissertation, presented by its author (and new doctor), Petra Filopová (http://kaa.ff.upjs.sk/en/people/159/petra-filipova). During the viva and afterwards over lunch I had a lively exchange with Dr. Filipová on the difficulties of connecting asexuality with other labels used in the past; indeed, she defines this identity as a “new sexuality”, which very much puzzles me. Hence my post today.

As I explained in my 2015 post on this issue, asexuals have made a point of clarifying that they are neither celibate nor frigid. Celibacy is seen as a repression of sexuality willingly chosen by the individual concerned, whereas frigidity is understood to be a sexual disorder that causes distress to sufferers. Asexuality, let me stress this, is the identity embraced by persons who feel no sexual desire but are not distressed by the situation–they feel simply normal and reject both their medicalization and their pathologization. As Petra Filipová argued, many problems beset asexuals: their lack of public visibility, the disrespect poured on them when they announce their identity, the absurd idea that heterosexual romance can ‘cure’ asexuality and, above all, the rampant presence of sex in all aspects of our private and public lives. The point she is raising is that, precisely, this obsession with sex (booming since the 1960s) is what conditions the appearance of asexuality as a new identity and label in the late 20th century and early 21st century.

This posits a problem similar to the one elicited by the introduction of the new label ‘homosexual’ in 1869: how do we define the identity of persons who engaged in the sexual practices that currently define homosexuality before the word even existed? Some believe that homosexuality has always existed as an identity, regardless of its previous invisibility and diverse labelling, whereas others believe that the emergence of the label created the identity: what used to be defined clinically as a perversion and/or abnormality, was eventually transformed into a positive, normalized identity. Following the same line of thinking, I asked Petra whether she believed that there have always been asexual people adapting themselves to whatever social constructions of sex and gender where available to them. She replied that she was not quite sure we could call them asexual since, as happened with homosexuals in the past, they would not self-identify themselves as such, lacking the label. This is a singular conundrum…

I’d like now to consider celibacy, though I’ll leave frigidity aside (what an ugly word…). I often have to explain to students in my Victorians Literature class that one of the most serious obstacles we face to understand the Victorians is that we characterize them as sexually repressed because we apply to them our own (inconsistent) rules about sexuality. As Michel Foucault admiringly explained, the Victorians, far from being repressed, gave sex a great deal of thought and basically invented the labelling system we are still so keen on. The catalogue of perversions that Victorian doctors and psychologists came up with was actually a major step forward since it was their intention to liberate sex from the taint of sinning and the authority of religion. Leaving the so-called perversions aside, it seems plain that the Victorians had other rules than ours for sex, so different that we simply cannot make sense of their lives. Celibacy is, in this sense, a major bone of contention.

We tend to connect celibacy with priests and nuns and see it as an unnatural choice that leads to the criminal abuse perpetrated by many Catholic priests against children. Protestants, allegedly more attuned to the needs of the body, allow their male and female priests to marry; they have no nuns. However, it seems to me that religious celibacy actually confirms the impression that (as a quotation in Petra’s dissertation claimed), the more sex you have, the more you need it; the less sex you have, the less you need it. Celibacy, by the way–as I learned from the excellent, very scary documentary Deliver us from Evil (2006) –was implemented by the official Church as a way to make sure that Church property would not be lost to the children of priests. What occurs to me is that the Catholic Church may also have been a welcome refuge for male and female asexuals uninterested in forming a family. Yet we always think, for this is how our times work, that giving up sex is a major sacrifice for a person. Indeed, many priests and nuns have abandoned their habits and we suspect all the others of secretly engaging in homosexual acts. Yet there might be another truth hidden behind religious celibacy, Catholic or otherwise, if so many people consider it worthwhile to follow the call of divinity…

This connects with my recent realization that in the 19th century (both in Britain and in Spain as far as I can see) celibacy was often a synonym for singlehood. In our modern view being single is no obstacle at all to practice sex, quite the opposite: we think that marriage kills sex. But in the past, when sex was connected mainly with reproduction, many men and women lived openly as bachelors and spinsters, making thus a public declaration of their celibacy. I know what you’re thinking: many Victorian spinsters were actually unhappy old maids who had failed to catch a husband; many Victorian bachelors were far from celibate, using the services of the prostitutes, often minors. Literary examples of the bachelor, such as Stevenson’s notoriously duplicitous Dr. Jekyll fuel rather than quench our suspicions. Yet, I keep thinking of Dickens’ respectable John Brownlow in Oliver Twist, who embraces celibacy when his fiancée dies. And I usually share with my class the passage in Harriet Martineau’s autobiography in which she declares that the early death of the man she was to marry happily freed her from the obligation of being a wife and mother–also, implicitly of having sex. My students always stare at me in disbelief…

I am suggesting, as you can see, that asexual persons may have led lives of their choice within the church or in society in ways no longer available to them. I grant that celibacy is not at all the same as asexuality but I am hinting that in the times when celibacy was not seen with as much incomprehension and dislike as we do today, it may have been a convenient ‘cover’ for many asexuals still lacking that label. In our times, celibacy is seen as an aberration because we believe that all bodies feel sexual needs; hence, sexual repression is, essentially, akin to ill-treating yourself. No wonder then that asexuals, who feel as normal as you and me can be (whatever identity you have), face so many problems when explaining themselves.

The other theory I will volunteer today is that the current proliferation of labels is tied to plain gossip. I was very surprised by many new labels I found in Petra Filipová’s dissertation, such as ‘demisexual’ (only partly sexed, or partly asexual) and ‘sapiosexual’ (“A person who is sexually attracted to intelligence or the human mind before appearance” or “a person who finds intelligence to be a sexually attractive quality in others”, depending on the definition). But why the interest in knowing what people do or don’t do sexually? Isn’t this simply gossip?

Dr. Filipová believes that each new identity label helps individuals to present themselves publicly and to shape their own psychology around the idea of normality. If this helps, then it is fine, though I am truly tired of how little we actually know about the supposedly best-known identity, heterosexuality –often confused with patriarchal normativity. To begin with, heterosexuality used to be up to the 1920s yet another label to define a perversion: that of differently gendered people who engaged in sex for pleasure, not to reproduce… And, let’s be honest: the moment you know that someone is gay, lesbian, queer, trans, bisexual, asexual, you name it… what comes to your mind is not the word ‘normal’ but a strong curiosity to know what exactly they do in bed. The same applies to heterosexuality and its many varied manifestations. And celibacy: you see a young, handsome priest, as I did recently, and the first thing you think is… It’s all down to gossip, believe me and in this sense asexuality is, from the outside, the most perplexing puzzle.

Insisting again that we attach far too much importance to sexuality, I wonder whether discrimination and intolerance will end when we feel real, healthy curiosity (gossipy or less so…) rather than contempt or disgust at what other people do (or don’t do) with their bodies. The more I learn about (a)sexuality, the more convinced I am that the categories and labels we live by are plainly ridiculous. Of course, it is my heterosexual privilege to say so and we still have a long way to go before everyone feels comfortable in public no matter their gendersexual identity. I can hardly ask for an abolition of labels when LGTBQphobia is growing so fast around me… Yet I hope I see in my lifetime the moment when gender and sex will stop defining persons in private and in public (though I know that gossip will never end).

And congratulations Dr. Filipová!! It’s been a pleasure…

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

REVIEWING THE VAMPIRE: WHAT SEEMS TO BE AT STAKE

June 6th, 2017

This is an anecdote I have often told in class and to my tutorees. I was in a tutorial with my PhD supervisor in Scotland, Prof. David Punter. My topic was monstrosity in 1980s and 1990s fiction. I had reached that low point which all doctoral students hit when you realize that nobody cares about your mighty efforts… I was working on my chapter on the vampire, and, sick and tired, I blurted out, “but who cares?, vampires don’t even exist!” Prof. Punter went gnomic–as if he was onto something I could never guess–and replied in a style that Oscar Wilde would have loved, “Oh, but they do exist! At least, they take a great deal of our imagination”. Or similar words. That taught me a most valuable lesson (also about vampires): just as we spend much of our life dreaming, we spend many hours daydreaming, and both our dreams and our imagination are as important as our waking hours. A truth that readers who limits themselves to realist fiction can never suffer. Poor things.

We have included again Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) in our syllabus for Victorian Literature–or rather, like the repressed, the uncanny Count has returned to haunt us. I have not re-read Stoker’s novel yet, a text which I admire very much because of its singular mixture of fake documents and its sense of modernity scandalized by the intrusion of the atavistic. I have, however, spent a great deal of the past week thinking hard about vampires for a seminar I am to teach soon. You might think that a specialist in Gothic Studies like myself already knows everything about vampires but a) even specialists forget details as juicy as the fact that Stoker wrote theatrical reviews for a Dublin newspaper that Le Fanu, author of Carmilla, owned, and b) there is nothing like having to teach a subject to learn a few new lessons.

For instance, I believed that the famous image of Count Dracula in modern evening dress complete with a red-lined black satin cape comes from the 1931 film with Bela Lugosi. It actually comes, though, from the 1924 play by Irish actor and playwright Hamilton Deane (he played Van Helsing; Dracula was first played by Edmund Blake). I can’t tell, however, whose idea the cape was. This may seem trivial but then other people employ their energies in recording how many goals Leo Messi has scored this past season (54…). Forgetting myself for a second on the track of the vampire, yesterday I even considered whether I should finally read Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight saga; yet, seeing how fast and how far Kirsten Stewart has distanced herself from her on-screen Bella, I thought perhaps not. I’ll read instead a similarly long book which promises to be far more thrilling, and sexy, and which will fill in a more glaring gap in my (Victorian) reading list: the serial Varney, the Vampire (1845-7). Good company for Dracula.

Generally speaking, I find vampires very boring creatures, though I must grant that the 19th century variety is far more exciting than the 20th and 21st century breed. The Romantic and Victorian vampires are in-your-face predators pretty much comfortable with their animal nature. In the late hippie times of 1976, Anne Rice had the very questionable idea of letting the vampiric creatures in her novel Interview with the Vampire, particularly silly Louis de Pointe du Lac, brood and mope about their sad fate. Fancy lions bemoaning being carnivores… Even worse, Rice revealed through reporter Daniel Molloy that secretly we all want to be vampires because they are immortal, a hidden truth that should have stayed hidden because it has led to endless horrors–implants of artificial long fangs and also the idiotic consumption of actual human blood by those who ignore the meaning of the word ‘metaphor’. Insert a shudder here.

I should leave all discussion of the vampire to more learned scholars, like my dear friend Antonio Ballesteros (read his volume Vampire Chronicle: Una historia natural del vampiro en la literatura anglosajona, 2000). But, still, I have re-discovered a few issues about the 19th century vampire that I’d like to share here. Actually, this re-discovery begins with the 18th century for this is the real turning point in the history of the vampire.

We fail to understand how it felt to live before the first serious, rational attempts to dispel the fog of superstition. The vampire emerges, precisely, from this fog with the strange cases of two Serbian peasants, Petar Blagojevich (1725) and Arnold Paole (1726), ‘executed’ for crimes committed once dead. The real novelty here is that the cases were documented by officers of the Austrian Empire using a pioneering rational perspective, later also employed by Dom Augustine Calmet. This abbot penned an indispensable essay with a wonderfully mixed title, Traité sur les apparitions des anges, des démons & des esprits et sur les revenans et vampires de Hongrie, de Boheme, de Moravie & de Silesie (1746, vol. II 1751), from which my own dissertation on the monster descends. The difference is that Calmet was not sure whether angels and ‘revenants’ (i.e. vampires) could exist whereas I, a belated child of the Enlightenment, know that they don’t (pace Prof. Punter). A pity, in the case of the angels. Extraterrestrials I still swear by, though.

The second point of re-discovery has to do with the fact that before the vampire reached prose fiction with John Polidori’s Gothic tale “The Vampyre” (1819), it had already colonized 18th century German poetry and, a bit later, the English Romantic variety. Of course, I knew about Coleridge’s transgender “Christabel” (1816), a tantalizingly unfinished text which leads to Carmilla (1871-2) but I had forgotten that sex and vampirism had come together much earlier in “Der vampir” (1748) by Heinrich August Ossenfelder–a poet who had possibly read Calmet and who actually anticipates Gothic fiction tropes, rather than copy from them.

Another crucial element that we fail to grasp is seduction, which is integral to the vampire. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as countless stories narrate, seduction was not at all sexy foreplay but a form of psychological violence which today we consider plain rape. From Richardson’s Lovelace to Lord Byron’s Don Juan, the seducer is a man who subdues the will of his female victims, and, so, it took only a tiny step for Polidori to turn him into a vampire, as Ossenfelder had already suggested. That “The Vampyre” is also a personal comment on how doctor Polidori saw his patient Lord Byron (possibly more sinned against than a sinner…) is incidental. And though “Christabel” is an early announcement of the misogynistic transformation later in the 19th century of the seducer’s victim into a victimizer (in Carmilla), it is worth remembering that during the last quarter of the 19th century and in the early 20th until Bela Lugosi, women were the vampire. Tellingly, the first film ‘vamp’, Theda Bara, was also the first great female film star.

Another surprising re-discovery is that once it colonizes poetry and prose fiction, the vampire tends to spread to other media and keep a good hold onto them: the stage (plays, melodrama, opera) and, we tend to forget this, painting and illustration. In our time when novels lack any ornaments, we have serious problems to understand how interconnected literature and painting were in the 19th century (the whole Pre-Raphaelite movement seems to be about that); particularly, how the iconography of even the cheapest penny dreadful conditioned the later iconography of stage and film adaptations. I’m thinking of the crude woodcuts that accompany Varney, the Vampire and of the higher quality images for Carmilla. Also of Füssli’s pseudo-vampiric painting ‘The Nightmare’ (1781) and misogynist Edvard Munch’s endless variations on the theme of the female vampire (1895-1902). As for Polidori’s “The Vampyre”, this tale inspired an astonishingly long chain of texts for the stage in French and German, and then back to English, which is certainly mindboggling.

And, then, there’s a mystery which I cannot solve satisfactorily, mainly because I’d rather it remains a mystery. It is clear as daylight that Bram Stoker took his inspiration for Dracula from Carmilla; plainly, he read Le Fanu’s novella and he thought that he would like to write an equally brilliant vampire tale. But when? The question is that there is a long lapse of 28 years between Carmilla (1871-2) and Dracula (1897) in which Stoker passed from Irish civil servant who wrote theatrical reviews in his free time to experienced manager of Henry Irving’s Lyceum theatre. A long, long lapse. Perhaps suffering what Harold Bloom famously called the ‘anxiety of influence’, Stoker felt that he could never do better, which is why he poured so much energy and spent so many hours at the British Museum library doing research.

Beautifully, the Lyceum, formerly the English Opera House, had welcomed the vampire onto the English stage with James Robinson Planché’s The Vampire; or, the Bride of the Isles (1820), a translation of the eponymous pioneering melodrama by Charles Nodier, who had taken his inspiration from Polidori. Was, then, Planché’s vampire waiting in the wings of Irving’s Lyceum to bite Stoker? Just a thought… As happens with the other two masterpieces of 19th Gothic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and R.L. Stevenson The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Bram Stoker’s Dracula seems to arise from something beyond the author which transmits itself to the public through his imagination, as if he were only a medium. Also, as happens with Shelley and Stevenson, the creature that sprang from Stoker’s pen is not at all the caricature we got from the 20th century stage and film adaptations but the real thing–a scary monster. Not the ridiculously handsome Edward Cullen of Twilight, but an inhuman, undead, abject thing that you don’t want to touch (much less be touched by). Today we have zombies playing that role but unlike Dracula they are mindless creatures–perhaps what we deserve (and how we all feel) in our mindless times.

Thank you, Prof. Punter, for that nugget of deep, wide wisdom. I have never forgotten that vampires do exist and do matter, though I may have forgotten some details. Never again, and I promise to read Varney

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

ON THE DECLINE OF CINEMA (WITH SOME MUSINGS ABOUT THE 1980s)

May 29th, 2017

This post is a mixed bag of ideas about cinema. Some are suggested by reading this weekend the Spanish version of Hadley Freeman’s pop essay Time of my Life (2015), a book about the pleasures of 1980s movies. Other ideas spring from the controversy at the Cannes Film Festival (which closed yesterday) on whether Netflix and Amazon films, which do not get theatrical releases, are cinema at all properly speaking.

Cinema is, roughly speaking, a century-old business which is possibly seeing its end as an art enjoyed in public. This is a situation that true cinema lovers bemoan, even though they (we) have been the first to desert our local cinemas. I am trying to return again but what puts me off is the discourteous behaviour of my fellow spectators.

As we all know, in cinemas people speak with each other in loud tones (or use their cell phones) as if they were in their own living room. Any complaint risks a really nasty incident, whereas in the pre-multiplex past ushers would invite obnoxious spectators out…. Then, I happen to abhor the smell of popcorn, which is a great inconvenient if you enjoy visiting cinemas; it can be worse in evening sessions mid-week, when bocatas de chorizo are a common snack. Also, my small size means that I am only truly comfortable in a handful of cinemas (a special recommendation for Balmes O.V. if you live in Barcelona). Many committed cinemagoers have chosen to attend the least popular sessions (here, Monday 16:00) but this is a sad solution to the basic problem of people’s inability to behave in cinemas. And, so, dear Pedro Almodóvar, president of the Cannes Festival Jury, and Netflix hater, here’s the explanation for why cinema is dying: spectators.

I don’t have a Netflix subscription but I have checked the monthly fees and, basically, they are the equivalent of a single cinema ticket. I paid 8.50 for my last film–Dancer, the wonderful documentary on ballet star Sergei Polunin–whereas a basic Netflix fee is 7.99 (standard 9.99; premium 11.99). Streaming requires, please remember, a good internet service (at least 40 euros a month) and, although you can watch films on tiny smartphone screens, ideally you should also possess a 50-inch television (which may cost thousands of euros). But, then, people pay anyway for these.

If you happen to be a teenager seeking to have a good time with your friends but only carry 15 euros in your pocket, you’re not going to spend them at the cinema–you’ll go to McDonalds (!?) and then use your parents’ subscription at home to see as many films as you want. Although, funnily, subscription channels like HBO and now internet services like Netflix are, essentially, platforms based on the appeal of television series, not films, which they have started to produce only a few years ago. Here is, Pedro Almodóvar, another question for you: is a film released on Netflix a TV movie? How come TV series are no longer really TV series, but internet series? But I digress…

To sum up: people are dragging their feet and thinking twice before going to the cinema because a) the other spectators are (mostly) obnoxious, b) the tickets are (relatively) expensive. A Netflix (or similar) subscription solves both problems at once: if you are still interested in films, you may enjoy them in the comfort of your home and for little money. You also get the series, of course. Cinemas lose business and we, who love cinema, lose the pleasure of the big screen. But, then, this pleasure seems to have been lost long ago, possibly with the introduction of the multiplex and the dismissal of the ushers to cut corners…

I had been avoiding the book by Hadley Freeman, Time of my Life, because the title is an allusion to Dirty Dancing and this is not the kind of 1980s cinema I enjoy. I’m an Aliens (1986) and Predator (1987) fan, rather, which I combined with art-house fare like Paris, Texas (1984) or Do the Right Thing (1989). Freeman doesn’t like Star Wars, and that’s all I need to say about our diverging tastes. In the 1980s I managed to avoid all the films by John Hughes, and although I find Ghostbusters (1984) fun, I really see no reason to see it many times as she has done. If I had written a book about 1980s cinema, Blade Runner (1982) would be all over the place. Ok, I grant that I also enjoy When Harry Met Sally… (1989)–and I would like to kill the incompetent person who translated ‘met’ as ‘encontró’ instead of ‘conoció’, as if Sally was a pebble on the beach.

What I appreciate about Freeman’s essay is the effort she makes to explain that, although not everything worked well in 1980s Hollywood movies (they could be blatantly misogynistic, homophobic and racist), many things are wrong today. Perhaps because she was a child in the 1980s, rather than a teenager, Freeman feels unencumbered by the generational loyalty and nostalgia that has led others to defend fanatically the cinema made in that decade. She’s, in short, more clear-headed and can number very accurately the problems of current cinema. These can be summed up in just one short sentence: Hollywood studios are working for the lowest common denominator and addressing a spectatorship they wrongly believe to be homogeneous.

More specifically this means that, after the old studios became at the beginning of the 1990s tiny cogs in the wheels of massive corporations: a) the people deciding which movies are greenlighted are executives, not cinema lovers (or even producers…), b) there is a total fixation with the blockbuster, with the subsequent loss of the mid-budget film, c) the only demographic truly taken into account are 12-year-old males (but why?? they don’t even read comics), d) the weight of the foreign market has increased (hence the downplaying of nuanced local issues), f) women’s role as spectators and creators has sharply diminished (men don’t see women’s films, women see all kinds of films)…, g) racial and ethnic variety is decreasing (if you have noticed more Chinese actors in recent blockbusters, this is because China is now the main Hollywood market). In short, and I think she is right, When Harry Met Sally… would not be made today. Or it would be a Netflix series. With Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan recovering their lost popularity.

Please, notice that the current decline of Hollywood cinema also affects the blockbuster. The 1980s Aliens and Predator are excellent films which have no match today. Prequels, sequels and spin-offs simply show how scared everyone is of producing something fresh and new. Hundreds of millions of dollars are poured onto films impossible to watch and forgotten the next day: the plots are either confusing or inexistent, the action scenes are just sound and fury signifying nothing, poorly designed cgi only contributes to this sense of chaos and randomness. Now and then a popcorn film fulfils the task of keeping you entertained (The Fate of the Furious, part 8 of the Fast and Furious series). Yet most films are unendurable because despite being edited for spectators with a three-second attention span, they go on for more than two hours on average (films used to be a satisfying 90 minutes long). One might choose to be bored, if thus inclined, watching the grass grow in a French avant-garde film, as Woody Allen explained, but not, I’ll add, watching a blockbuster, which is supposed to thrill you.

One need not be very clever to notice that the current passion for watching series is very closely connected with the decadence of cinema. I need another post to explain how series are now about to enter their process of stagnation (perhaps not decline) but just let me say that the recent release of the new Twin Peaks, closes a cycle started by the old Twin Peaks in 1990. When HBO feels the need to go back to ABC to stay competitive it’s time to say that something smells rotten… Or, rather, very briefly: David Lynch’s quirky series was a product made for national American television, specifically ABC. The gauntlet of how to make eccentric quality series was then picked up by Chris Carter’s The X-Files (1993-2001), which was made for Fox–one of the first major TV channels to appear in the decade which saw film studios swallowed into the maws of greedy, blind corporations. While films studios were slowly eaten up from the inside, like teenagers in a bad horror movie, cable TV grew: hence HBO with The Sopranos (1999-2007) and Game of Thrones (2011-). Now it’s Netflix’s turn… which started film production in 2013.

What I am arguing is obvious. Film and series, whether TV or internet, are communicating vessels: there is only a certain amount of audiovisual narrative talent around and if this has migrated to the series, it is only because cinema started being destroyed in the early 1990s by the corporations that dominate the film studios. Indie cinema appeared as a counterweight but, precisely, the problems is that it is too light in business terms to truly offer an alternative. I must thank Freeman for making me realize what was missing in this evident argumentation: despite the gigantic budgets of series like Game of Thrones, cinema has lost to the series the mid-budget list. In 1990, The Handmaid’s Tale was a (quite good) mid-budget film, today it is a 10-part- series (second season announced). And the series is publicized as if the film never existed, though its makers are MGM.

The problem is that the series may kill but not replace films. Freeman notes, and I very much agree, that whereas one may see a favourite film dozens of times, this is less likely to happen with a 50-hour drama (e.g. The Wire). Also, I add, whereas a film is a self-enclosed product (even when it is part of a trilogy, etc), series are sprawling products that tend to last for as long as possible, even past the right time for closure (this is known as ‘jumping the shark’). It is now known, besides, that with the exception of a few A-list series, spectators tend to abandon series around the third season. It might well be that, eventually, series start dying of their own success and the mini-series become everyone’s favourite format.

What do we do with cinema, in the meantime? Pedro Almodóvar was adamant that only films released in cinemas count as proper cinema, whereas his fellow jury member at Cannes, actor Will Smith, argued that all forms of seeing films should co-exist to ensure maximum exposure. Theatre, after all, still exists and in ways more diversified than ever (is it because theatre-goers are better behaved than film-goers?). Possibly Smith is right but I will insist again that platforms like Netflix or Amazon are not the problem. I am really serious when I say that cinemas started dying the moment ushers were deprived of any authority in the new multiplexes and spectators started behaving as if they were at home. Hopefully, this rude breed will soon desert the cinemas for their own home cinemas and let us, film lovers, enjoy films again on the big screen.

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

BLURRED LINES: TRYING TO UNDERSTAND THE WRITERS OF THE PAST

May 22nd, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 16th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRIDGING GAPS (AND FEELING SPLIT) BETWEEN DIFFERENT CULTURES

May 8th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOR STUDENTS: HOW A UNIVERSITY DEPARTMENT WORKS

May 1st, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STUCK IN A RUT: MISOGYNY AND FEMINISM

April 24th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 17th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 5th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEEKING A NEW VISION FOR UTOPIA

March 28th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 21st, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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