novembre 29th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now read Ted Chiang, please, please, please…

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novembre 22nd, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otherwise, nothing makes sense in our teaching lives.

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novembre 15th, 2016

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

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

As you may imagine, being a woman I feel absolutely betrayed by the 42% women who voted for Donald Trump, despite his being, as British journalist Matthew Norman wrote in The Independent a “pussy-grabbing, race-baiting, tangerine-hued pantomime ogre with the attention span of a Labrador puppy, the moral sensibilities of a slum landlord, the verbal dexterity of a stroke victim, and the default vindictiveness of a mafia capo” (

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


novembre 10th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

So, there we are: I’ve enjoyed myself enormously throughout Eurocon and got the (brilliant!!) interview, the autographs, the Mecanoscrit volume and the academic contacts. Mission accomplished and with flying colours!! Now, please, enjoy the Eurocon videos, there is much, much to learn from all the speakers:

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 See also: Or email me at


novembre 1st, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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octubre 23rd, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dylan: reject the tablet, please!!!

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

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octubre 18th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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octubre 11th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last but not least, have a look at this wonderful photo and tell me whether the men seen kissing in it are friends or lovers. Also, once you know the correct answer, consider how it is circulating what and who exactly benefits from its publication:

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

Available online my other articles about male friendship:

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

“Antonio cuestionado: El mercader de Venecia de Michael Radford y el problema del heterosexismo”. Dossiers feministes, nº 20, 2015, 261-283.

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 See also:


octubre 4th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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setembre 27th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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setembre 20th, 2016

I have just announced the third one-day workshop TELLC (Teaching English Language, Literature and Culture), which is a very modest Departmental event aimed at gathering together my colleagues to discuss what we do in class. Last year I invited the English Studies specialists at the Universitat de Barcelona to join in and this year I have extended the same invitation to the other English Departments in Catalonia (Lleida and Tarragona). A friend emailed me back asking me whether I really wanted to set this in motion, as neither the workshop itself not the corresponding publication (see could count for our official CVs. His is the kind of remark that makes me pause and think with dismay, sure, what is all this for? So here I am trying to explain myself.

I first thought of TELLC because, as happens in other Departments, possibly around the world, we are constantly discussing bureaucracy but not pedagogy. When the time comes to revise the Syllabus, around April, we exchange a flurry of emails about whether we need to alter any matter and that only if we share the course with other teachers. If we don’t, then basically we do as we please, with little real feedback from colleagues (or students). If we share a course, we discuss possible innovations by email because since so many teachers are part-time associates with two jobs it is simply impossible to have team meetings, as we should (also more than once a year). The most we have managed is introducing the novelty of publishing in the Department’s website a joint reading list for everyone to see what everyone else is teaching, yet a list gives you by no means an impression of what we do in class. And here I am not even mentioning the Language teachers who teach mysterious matters such as CLIL.

So, I just thought that it would be healthy and a nice investment in team building to spare one Friday a year to tell each other about what happens in our classes. Now, to appease concerns that this was worth nothing for our CVs I convinced UAB to certify the workshop as a teacher-training event of the kind we are supposed to attend regularly, hoping that this will also be helpful for our teaching assessment every few years by the Catalan Government. I also made a very pretty diploma, a kind of document we academics fondly collect in Spain, where authorities seem to suspect university teachers of being inveterate liars and where you need to present certificates for every single activity. The first two TELLC meetings (2015 and 2016), I believe, have been enjoyable and productive and I’m happy enough. We’ll see how TELLC progresses in the future. If the workshop fades away into oblivion at least I will have done my best.

Organizing this workshop, like writing this blog, is something I could very well not do: it is a self-imposed task which takes time away from my research. You know what it is like: answering lots of e-mail messages, booking a room (no easy job in my overcrowded university), producing a programme, chasing colleagues for them to hand in the text for publication, editing the booklet… you name it. These days I have some extra time to spare for pursuits like this because I am one of the privileged researchers granted the benefit of doing less teaching thanks to Minister Wert, now gone from the Government. My not teaching two classes explains my apparent hyperactivity, also expressed in the translation of Pedrolo’s Mecanoscrit del segon origen and in my current editing of two monographic issues for Science Fiction Studies (on Spanish SF) and for Alambique (on Mecanoscrit). I don’t know how to explain this better but after wasting my time in endless bureaucracy for three years as Degree Coordinator, I suddenly feel very, very happy to be investing my time in matters more closely related to my teaching and research. Here is another one, the booklet I have produced with my BA students and aimed at guiding readers to navigate their way into SF short fiction:

I am very well aware that those of us who have our fingers in many pies are a pest for those who want to be left alone. Sorry about this but, well, an invitation can always be rejected. I acknowledge that I am active on many fronts but, among other motivations, I always bear in mind the double daily routines of my associate colleagues (and friends) in the Department; I owe it up to them to make the most of my time as a privileged tenured teacher. I don’t support, however, and will never support the obsessive research type who thinks that we should not enjoy any spare time and, although I am certainly guilty of using at least part of my weekends for work, I make a point of limiting my daily work.

I think this is a lesson we still need to learn in Spain: 8 hours a day can be extremely productive, much more than 12 hours, if you do not procrastinate. I love the sound of my computer closing down by 17:00 at the latest, earlier if my day before the screen begins by 8:00. Otherwise, what is the point? There is always, of course, the tricky matter of whether reading (or seeing films and TV series) post 17:00 counts as work but, believe me, I’m the first one to subscribe to the idea that daily leisure is an unalienable right. I recently employed one afternoon in making a pair of shoes for a doll and I had a whale of a time… A second pair is soon coming. So, not at all, it’s not always work, work, work…

Now that I have established that one can run a reasonable academic career by avoiding the pitfalls of procrastination and by setting limits to your daily routine to always enjoy leisure (I don’t have kids, that would make a difference…), I’ll address the matter of how these 8 daily hours can be used. And I will acknowledge that I suffer from the main Spanish academic malady: I do lots of activities because I find no way to focus on the one activity I really want to carry out–writing books. You must be thinking well, just stop doing everything else and you will have time to write the books. But here we go back to the ‘no cuenta’ mantra and the power of the CV in our lives.

If you can, imagine a CV with nothing else but, say, 6 books, produced in 25 years (this is how long I have been active as a teacher/researcher). No conferences (either attended or organized), no articles in journals or collective volumes, no extras such as giving seminars or taking part in tribunals. Just pure book-writing besides the exact amount of teaching you need to do (this is how I imagined my career when I was 18). I might be wrong but even if the books were first rank, would prospective employers and tribunals be impressed? I doubt it. We live in the age of the bulky CV and of the fisherman’s strategy–by which I mean that we need to be constantly active because we never know whether the fish will bait. I have just been told, for instance, that a book chapter I handed in one year ago might be published in 2018. If I had counted on that work for urgent assessment, then I’d be lost, hence the need to multiply myself and my work for we never know when work will be published and what really counts for the Ministry.

Take, and with this I’ll finish, my being part of the Eurocon team (again, something I am doing because I have less teaching to do). This is an SF and fantasy literary festival addressed to fandom, of no academic import. Technically, a waste of time. Yet, Eurocon has brought to me very many new contacts, some of which have led to wonderful academic activities (like the ones around Mecanoscrit) which I would have never embarked on. I’m struggling to find a label for the kind of activity that brings in unexpected academic perks… The case is also that I am learning very, very much because, after all, I am constantly surrounded by very keen readers, most of them really erudite in the SF and fantasy film. And, well, I’m airing my brain beyond the university walls, which is always healthy. I gave a talk about Harry Potter before an audience of 200 enthusiastic readers a couple of Sundays ago at PotterCon and although I could have spent that Sunday morning on the beach, I knew where I would more fun. And it did not count for my CV.

To sum up: I’m trying to downplay the impact of the ‘no cuenta’ mantra and just enjoy myself. I enjoy organizing TELLC because it is about bringing colleagues together as I enjoy being part of this little mad world which is Eurocon. If I didn’t enjoy myself, then I would not do it, for one thing is clear to me: engaging in academic activities for the sake of an ultimate goal like fattening up your CV feels to me like duty, and that is not enjoyable. I think that enjoyment is essential for creativity and duty a total dampener, even though I am a most dutiful person (I teach Victorian Literature, how could I not believe in duty?).

So, odd as this may sound, I’m all for fun to increase creativity, which increases productivity. Never ever forgetting that our CV should not take the place of our life.

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setembre 13th, 2016

If you check the internet you will soon come up with a flurry of news items and articles explaining that the human attention span is now shorter than that of goldfish. Whereas goldfish can focus their whole attention for 9 seconds, humans can only manage 8. The figure for 2000 was 10 seconds, which is why researchers in psychology are claiming that our crazy, highly addictive use of smartphones and tablets has much to blame for attention span deficit (the smartphone-tablet revolution started more or less with the 21st century).

My own impression, allow me to digress, is that the dwindling attention span is also (or mainly) connected with the editing styles of music videos since the 1990s. When MTV started back in the 1980s music videos were often narrative, rather than performative (=showing musicians playing and singers singing), and used much longer cuts than today; in some cases they were mini-films, like John Landis’s landmark video Thriller (1983) for Michael Jackson. Today most music videos boast a convulsive editing style which seems designed to show the corresponding (female) star in as many outfits as possible; choreographies are also chopped down to the point that it is hard to say whether performers can dance at all, or for more than 3 seconds. I used to enjoy watching music videos but now I find myself unable to watch one for 3 minutes as, ironically, I get bored with so many different shots… Our attention span, as you can see, depends on each media and within these, on each text.

The editing style of music videos was transferred in the late 1990s not only to cinema (as video directors became film directors) but also to many new-style children’s cartoon series and, more recently, to the self-presentation strategies of the myriad YouTubers, who, like modern-day Hamelin players, enchant the young and are destroying TV. All–music videos, Hollywood films, cartoon series, YouTubers videos and, I’m sure, plenty of video games–affect the younger generation by shortening their general attention span, no doubt about this; at the same time, all these media must adapt their storytelling strategies to the diminishing attention span they have generated, resulting in your classic vicious circle.

Funnily, films are much longer than they used to be: 90 minutes was the classic Hollywood measure, now most films run to 120 minutes or more. At the same time, children and, above all, YA fiction is also full of very long series, beginning with the Harry Potter heptalogy. As I’m sure you, reader, have noticed, the films–and I mean here the blatantly commercial Hollywood films using genres such as SF, fantasy, superhero comics or videogames–are a messy succession of independent scenes that hardly cohere into a logical sequence, if at all. They are intended to be full of thrills to keep (young) audiences engaged but most often turn out to be as boring as any current MTV video. This is fine with film studio executives as they expect to make money in just the first two weekends, enough to fill their pockets and keep the machinery greased. However, many are commenting on this summer that this kind of expendable blockbuster is flopping hard–perhaps because older audiences, who enjoy a well-told story, are turning their back on them. The 1959 Ben-Hur remains a solid achievement whereas the 2016 version is painfully embarrassing.

Now, for the books. And teaching Literature. I learned from my experience with the Harry Potter books as a lecturer that the attention span of the very young (7 upwards) can stretch amazingly if given an exciting text. I am also learning, nonetheless, that not even Harry Potter works if the child in question rejects reading as entertainment. The young, here is my point, are divided and have always been divided into two classes: persons with a remarkable attention span (good readers, hence good students) and persons with a short attention span (poor readers, hence poor students). I’m afraid that what is fast diminishing is not the attention span of all young children but of those who do not have an inborn long attention span. Since children with a long-lasting attention span are always in the minority, and since the impact of the computer-related technologies on all the young (and not so young…) is undeniable, the current panorama is moving towards a situation in which only a few (readers) will be able to compete with the goldfish. This is tragic for humanity in general and for Literature teachers in particular, as we, needless to say, work with texts that require a very steady attention span from readers.

I’m not going to get again into the matter of why young persons who simply loathe reading register for a degree in the Humanities. I want to make the point that the resistance to reading is connected with this problem of the diminishing attention span. In the age of Twitter and the 140 characters 8 seconds are all we are willing to give up of our time and attention, both to read and to write. Here in this blog I have been gradually aiming at readers with a longer attention span: I started with 500-word posts six years ago, now I’m past the 1500 word count in most posts. For many, this will be too much, but, then, I’m not satisfied that 140 characters express anything worth considering (this is, ironically, a very good measure for insults, hence the many trolls plaguing Twitter users).

Children’s attention is scattered among the many invitations by different media to do something fun and in a short period of time. Reading seems to them time-consuming and very laborious in comparison to, for instance, watching YouTubers. As we know, the less we read, the worse our reading is: constant practice not only increases speed but also attention span. The fastest readers can read for the longest periods because they’re extremely practised in reading. Ask yourself, teacher or student: How many pages of a fiction book can you read in one hour? How many hours can you read for, non-stop? I know you’ll tell me that, no matter how experienced you are, sometimes reading a sonnet exhausts your attention span… Yes, I know. Let’s take Dickens’s Oliver Twist, which I am to start teaching next week: how much time do you need to read it? Did Dickens, incidentally, introduce serialization because he noticed that the diminishing attention span of Victorian readers required selling them stories in little bits? (Remember that in fast-paced 19th century USA readers preferred short stories to novels; Moby Dick was some freak phenomenon…). If 8 seconds is the average attention span, how do I keep students interacting with me for the 4500 seconds that a 75-minute session has? We, teachers, are told that we need to change tack every 10 minutes or so, but even 10 minutes are 600 seconds…

I have recently learned from the children in my family something else about attention span that connects with repetition and with the difficulties that many students have to summarize plots, highlight main points and establish connections. I was watching Despicable Me 2 with my youngest niece (aged 7), and she started reciting all the dialogue for each scene before it was uttered by the characters. This was my third time seeing the film, but she claims to have seen it… fourteen times. No wonder she knew the dialogue. However, when I asked her to summarize the plot (she might like to tell a friend why the film is so cool) she had no idea where to begin and simply did not manage to produce any coherent summary (which frustrated her enormously!). Typical among the kids her age, she’s good at retaining detail, even at memorizing many favourite bits, but not so good at understanding and building logical sequence. Repetition is, for that reason, always a pleasure, for whereas it irks us, adults who can recall plot, it offers children every time a renewed pleasure which is not spoiled by the anticipation of the known bits, quite the opposite.

In this sense, films are necessarily far more pleasurable than reading since they are narrated to a quite passive spectator. This is similar to the typical situation in which children unable to read on their own ask their parents to read them the same story again and again and again. Trouble begins when we tell children to start reading alone and take an active role. Some love it (fewer and fewer…) and most hate it (their numbers are increasing). The Setmana del Llibre en Català recently announced that sales for children’s books in Catalonia have diminished by 3% in the last year, which means that we, adults, are buying fewer books for children because they reject them. Nobody knows what makes some children connect with reading; you may raise two kids in exactly the same way and one will turn out to be a reader and the other won’t. Surely, it must be some kind of neurobiological predisposition attached to the pleasure centres of the brain which happens to be activated by consuming printed type. If the other children lack this predisposition, then there is nothing any reading programme can do for them–unless we start considering genetic engineering. I worry, not only as a Literature teacher but also as a plain citizen concerned about the future, for no culture can survive without passing on its knowledge in writing. If you don’t love Literature, fancy loving mechanical handbooks…

Finally, allow me to use a few lines to consider retentive memory, for perhaps in the end this matters even more than attention span. I mean here specifically the ability to remember what you read, which in turn helps you both to offer coherent plot summaries and to recall books read long ago. You may have a considerable attention span and read for hours but this does not mean that your retentive memory is guaranteed. I can read Dickens for hours but I always have tremendous problems to retain his convoluted plots, which is why I need to plot summaries, either borrowed or my own. I can offer a nice plot summary of Oliver Twist because I have read it many times but I can’t do that with any of the other Dickens books I have only read once. If you’re studying or teaching Literature, then, there’s no way around this: we need to summarize the plots of the fiction and drama we read, or the main arguments for essays, non-fiction and so on. Working on your retentive memory does increase attention span for it trains you to identify the highlights in the text.

What fails when you give a book many tries but you do not manage to read is your attention span, which is absolutely flexible, never rigid, and connected with your preferences. I’m happily reading the twenty Patrick O’Brian novels but no way I could go past page fifty of Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge . This is, in any case, much more than 8 seconds.

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setembre 6th, 2016

We, readers, seem to believe that the permanence of writers is automatic. Nothing needs to be done to have any book we want at our command, whether it is first-hand or second-hand. Only irrelevant authors and works sink into nothingness. We smile smugly whenever someone praises a long-forgotten author nobody else has heard of, never mind that this person was a best-selling writer in his or her time. Matters, however, are not that simple and the process by which the machinery that moves forward a writer’s career grinds to a halt is always worth-considering.

These musings come about because of the two dead authors occupying much of my time this summer and for very different reasons: Patrick O’Brian and Manuel de Pedrolo. I have now started reading the ninth novel in the highly addictive Aubrey-Maturin series by O’Brian, which expands to twenty finished volumes and an unfinished one. As I have narrated here in this blog, I have translated Pedrolo’s SF masterpiece Mecanoscrit del segon origen from Catalan into English (I’m celebrating that Wesleyan University Press has accepted publishing it!). Both writers have something in common, despite their very different positioning at an international level and in terms of their success: they hardly exist for academia and, thus, being dead, they depend now on their readers for their survival into literary immortality. In very different circumstances.

The size and the depth of the Aubrey-Maturin cult is simply staggering. It’s what we call in Spanish ‘un secreto a voces’, which sounds more colourful than the English ‘open secret’, for we mean ‘loud’. I recently came across an article in The Guardian, “Why Patrick O’Brian is Jane Austen at Sea” ( and I was fascinated by the many comments from readers, explaining that they have read the series several times over, each time loving it even more. I was mystified by a woman who objected to the view that you can enjoy the books without caring very much for the nautical detail by answering that in her all-female weekly reading group they discussed all that detail down to the last nuance. I don’t quite see myself discussing when topgallantsails should be displayed. Um, perhaps not yet.

Since the series is rich not only in nautical lore but also in other matters such as the state of natural philosophy in the early 19th century, O’Brian has inspired that kind of internet resource and companion book that unpacks all the research that he packed into his books. It’s a wonderful nerdish pursuit but I worry that the work done to clarify what kind of dessert is a ‘drowned baby’ (a boiled suet pudding with raisins, see may throw the baby out with the bathwater. No matter how much information you assemble about a favourite narrative, whether this is the Aubrey-Maturin series or SF equivalent Star Trek, data cannot satisfy if analysis is missing (and for the SF nerds, yes, maybe I’m cracking a joke at Data’s expense). As I noted in my previous post about O’Brian, the number of MLA-registered academic pieces on the series is a scant 32, not including the thesis that my colleague John Styles penned and almost managed to lose. How’s that low figure possible, I wonder?

The negligible academic attention paid to O’Brian (and to many other writers of a much higher impact like Terry Pratchett) apparently obeys the classic prejudice against so-called escapist fiction. In an attractive collection of articles by Neil Gaiman which I have read this summer, The View from the Cheap Seats, he wrongly attributes to C.S. Lewis a witty retort against escapism, which actually came from the mouth of Lewis’s friend, J.R.R. Tolkien: “What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and hostile to, the idea of escape?”, he asked Lewis. Tolkien himself gave, Lewis tells us, “the obvious answer: jailers”. And so, as crowds of readers enthuse over O’Brian, academics take him with pincers and in very small doses, and just because he reminds them of Jane Austen. This, in view of the frantic activity that Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin display in their journeys and of the massive research that O’Brian displays in his books, is a very lazy comparison. Yet, the academic lashing of O’Brian onto poor Jane’s back has given Jack and Stephen’s father at least a foothold onto Literary history, if only as a footnote, and what a strange one, in Austen’s modern legacy.

I don’t think that O’Brian and Manuel de Pedrolo ever met, though O’Brian, who lived in Colliure (Northern Catalonia) and created in Maturin the most important Catalan character in international literature, would have enjoyed the meeting. After all Maturin and Pedrolo share the same political views on Catalan independentism. The lesson I’m learning these days about Pedrolo is that it is not always clear why writers approach the brink of oblivion. Let me explain the case.

Pedrolo is remembered for Mecanoscrit, the best-selling, most widely read novel in the Catalan language, with sales up to 1,300,000 copies since publication in 1974 (we are approximately 10 million speakers). It turns out he loathed its success and often declared that if he’d known he’d be remembered for Mecanoscrit, the book would have never been written. In the excellent documentary by Eduard Miguel Manuel de Pedrolo: Trencant l’oblit (2015,, Antoni Munné-Jordà aptly compares Pedrolo’s case to that of French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a highly accomplished author today remembered only for the children’s book The Little Prince. Understandably, Pedrolo, who poured his endless energy into more than 120 volumes, felt chagrined that a book he regarded as a minor piece would represent all his production and even obscure his best work (the 11-volume series Temps Obert). This is why his daughter Adelais has poured her own energies but limited resources into building the Fundació Pedrolo (established 2005) to maintain the memory of her father alive. Not that this is an easy task.

When I attended this last Sunday a presentation of Pedrolo’s novel Procés de contradicció suficient, rescued and re-issued by Hugo Camacho’s small press Orciny, I learnt from Adelais de Pedrolo herself that only four of her father’s long list of books are available from Catalan bookshops. She is hopeful that by 2018, the centennial celebration of the author’s birth, the list will extend to 10 titles. I’m speaking of an author who is simply indispensable in Catalan literature, a man who was, as Jordi Coca has said, a complete Literature by himself–he wrote poetry, drama, essays, articles, memoirs, letters, short fiction, novels… and in all possible registers from the poetical experimental to the functional prose required for fast-driven plots. Yet, the bibliographical search I have been doing these days has resulted in a list of similar dimensions to the one for O’Brian in MLA, perhaps with just a few more monographic volumes but still with no major study of the works. Even more surprisingly, the number of doctoral dissertations on Pedrolo which I have located is only four, of which none has been produced by a Department of Catalan in Catalonia.

One of these dissertations was submitted in Salamanca, within a doctoral programme in aspects of Spanish fiction, which would have horrified Pedrolo. The author never appeared in the Spanish media and always maintained that Catalonia was a colonized nation. Now, here’s the paradox: having suffered terribly from the restrictions of Franco’s irrational censorship (Pedrolo was the most heavily censored writer between 1950 and 1970), he nonetheless managed to antagonize the Catalan political and literary establishment of his time. Hence, the story goes, his odd ostracizing.

According to Adelais, he was a painfully shy man who was simply bad at small talk and who hated the socializing rituals of his writing peers. Yet, if, despite having been honoured with the Premi d’Honor de les Lletres Catalanes (in 1979), he was buried in 1990 with the only company of his wife and his daughter, something else is amiss. Eduard Miguel’s documentary suggests that Pedrolo’s fierce independentism earned him the enmity of the Catalan nationalists then involved in the delicate process of the Spanish Transition. These nationalists, so the thesis goes, would have blocked Pedrolo out of any significant public positioning, implicitly including the study of his work at a university level. Arguably. Twenty-six years after his death the political situation has changed so much that Pedrolo’s opinions have been embraced by the same political party that back in 1980s labelled him a problematic writer. Yet, he does not seem to be re-emerging from academic limbo, or only very slowly. In the meantime, let’s recall, his books have been practically abandoned by those with the power to make decisions about publishing them. It seems to me that, for whatever reasons, the potential cultural capital embodied by the 1,300,000 persons who bought a copy of Mecanoscrit and its many more readers has been sadly squandered. Please, Catalan Literature colleagues, do something!

All this brings me back to my starting point: how dead writers approach the brink of oblivion. O’Brian, who died in 2000, is still alive in the many readers who praise his work. From what I see in GoodReads, he seems to be recruiting new young readers, some of whom might eventually produce the academic work that turns a popular classic into a canonical figure. Here I’m using canonical in the humble sense of worth writing about from an academic point of view, and not meaning ‘firmly in the canon’ (like, um, Jane Austen). The Anglo-American university is demonstrating a notable flexibility in the incorporation of successful, popular, cultish fiction.

The case of Pedrolo is far more worrying because there is an ill-defined ideological component interfering with the purely academic approach. The rise of independentism may benefit the cause of Pedrolo but let me tell you that I didn’t see any young readers waving independentist flags, literally or symbolically, in the presentation I attended, which was part of the Setmana del Llibre en Català. We’ll see, then, whether the 2018 centennial pushes Pedrolo away from the brink of oblivion and for the best possible reasons: our admiration for the high quality of his immense literary output.

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agost 16th, 2016

Although this is a short volume, it has taken me a while to read David E. Cooper’s A Philosophy of Gardens (2006), which my philosopher friend Marta Tafalla recommended to me. I had assumed that reading post-structuralist criticism had prepared me to deal with most kinds of abstract thinking in the Humanities. I was wrong. Before passages such as “The meaning of The Garden, if there is one, is what exemplary gardens exemplify. The Garden is appropriate to what it means through exemplifying it” (129), I was still baffled… Also, Cooper insists again and again that he aims to discuss ‘The Garden’ as an ideal concept, beyond its socio-cultural material realities and his is a position that I found myself resisting as a Cultural Studies specialist. I ended up eventually combining my reading of Cooper’s book with the delicious documentary mini-series presented by Monty Don, The Secret History of the British Garden (BBC, four episodes, available from YouTube).

Both Cooper, emeritus professor of Philosophy at Durham University, and Don, a popularizer or horticulture famous for presenting the BBC television series Gardeners’ World (started in 1968…), are very British in their taste for gardens. This doesn’t mean that other nations do not care for gardening (just think of Japan, or see Don’s series Around the World in 80 Gardens). What I mean is that a foreign student of British culture is often mystified by the intensity of the British devotion to gardens and gardening. When I started reading English Literature in its original version one thing I noticed is that flowers and plants were very often mentioned, of types I could by no means identify in my own two languages. I marvel at how many times I have come across the word ‘nasturtium’ in fiction. As for the famous poem with the daffodils, I learned when first reading it and trying to understand all its words that the flowers are called ‘narciso’ in Spanish (I first saw one in England…).

The Spanish gardens most often named and praised are those of la Alhambra in Granada, the royal palace at Aranjuez, the Reales Alcázares in Seville–and that’s about it (I know the list of notable gardens is much longer, but here I mean popular). The city where I live, Barcelona, is a disaster when it comes to gardens and parks. Madrid boasts of the extensive El Retiro park next door to the botanical gardens, all downtown and easily accessible. Yes, we have Ciutadella, the equivalent of Retiro in Barcelona but, discounting the zoo, it’s not as big nor as popular. The mountain of Montjuïc has several gardens (one even specialising in cactuses) but, well, it’s a mountain, which means it’s not particularly accessible, no matter what the Town Council preaches. One needs absolute determination to visit the botanical gardens there… I see park Güell from my window but, leaving the crowds of tourists aside, I find no aesthetic pleasure of the kind Cooper praises in its so-called gardens, too dusty, too unkempt.

Having enjoyed daily evening strolls in the central park of the small Spanish city where I have spent my holidays I wonder what is wrong with Barcelona and its gardens. Turó Parc, a very pretty little garden which I love, designed by the city’s most revered garderner–Nicolau Maria Rubió I Tudurí–is now in a pathetic state which is hard to believe. Something then, having to do perhaps with the merciless heat of summertime, which kills so many plants and demands constant watering, has made us, Barcelona citizens, less than keen on gardening. I see the wilting plants in the few window sills adorned with plants at all and I positively want to scream… particularly when I think of what you can see in Andalucía (extremely hot, remember?) and the north of Spain, where even the palm trees imported by the nostalgic ‘indianos’ thrive.

I don’t have a garden, that is to say, a plot of land to grow plants in, but I do have (rent…) a biggish terrace, where I battle daily with stubborn plants that refuse to stay healthy and survive the season. This is why I have read Cooper’s book with a bit of scepticism, perhaps because he does not care for the down-to-earth details of actually growing a garden. I think he makes a wonderfully valid point of remarking that the pleasure we take in gardens is distinctive, and not at all a mixed pleasure derived from our parallel enjoyments of the artistic and natural values of gardens. A garden is a garden is a garden. Now, his main philosophical argument, once the rules of appreciation have been established is that “The Garden, then, is an epiphany—a symbol, in the Romantic sense—of the relation between the source of the world and ourselves” (150). He himself jokes that you might be “liable to draw a blank” (132) if you approach you neighbour with that kind of sophisticated thought. Nonetheless, he is really in earnest when he insists that The Garden (the ideal place, not any specific garden) exemplifies “a co-dependence between human endeavour and the natural world” and is “an epiphany of man’s relationship to mystery. This relationship is its meaning” (145). In gardening, we strive to achieve the “good life (…) led ‘in the truth’”; in tending to our plants we learn “care, humility, and hope”, informed “by a sensibility towards a fundamental truth of the human condition” (157). If in tune with The Garden, we engage in an “appreciation of the place of human beings in the way of things” (157).

I see you, dear reader, raising an eyebrow, as I did, and thinking that this is overdoing it and that although parts of Cooper’s ideas ring true the whole argument is overblown. In taking care of one’s garden and in appreciating the beauty of someone else’s garden, private or public, we engage in a unique aesthetic pleasure, I grant that. Yet, I fail to see the epiphanic quality of that experience and I feel that it is a much more direct kind of pleasure, attuned to our love of being in places where you can relax and feel in peace with yourself and the world. Um, or is this what he means all in all?

Monty Don’s mini-series provided me with what I was missing in Cooper: a history of how the aristocratic privilege of owning a park and garden is in our times combined with the privilege of owning a few square metres to grow your own garden. Yes, privilege. As a working-class city dweller raised in a flat with just windows (and not even flowers in the windowsills much less fresh cut flowers in vases), I have always felt truly envious of people who could grow plants at home. As a little girl I felt envy of my grandmothers because they had each a tiny balcony to grow flowers in (to this day, I love hydrangeas because one grandma preferred them). Whenever we visited relatives in my mum’s village or saw some house with a garden outside the city, no matter how modest, I grew really moody and resentful. Just by chance I got my terrace, and now one of the main problems in my life is that I cannot afford to buy a bigger flat with an equivalent-sized terrace in absurdly overpriced Barcelona. Terraces, by the way, are often called ‘solariums’ by local real-estate agents, which gives you a clear idea of what people prefer doing with them: sunbathing.

The thought of giving up my terrace is simply inacceptable to me. Why? Because no matter how much effort municipalities may put in designing public gardens and parks for their citizens, the real privilege is not having to leave home to relax surrounded by bits of green. This is the privilege that neither Cooper nor Don address. The difference between Britain and Spain (or Catalonia) is that suburban sprawling gave the privilege of owning a garden to low-middle-class and even working-class British persons. In Catalonia geography is our enemy, for the terrain is mostly hilly and you see even in expensive ‘urbanizaciones’ houses placed in steep inclines, occupying plots in which there is hardly any room for a strip of grass. Having said that, I think that even when we have the space, either in a terrace or a proper garden, we in Spain lack the cultural background that makes gardening a rewarding activity, as it is in Britain or other countries. Perhaps, just perhaps, gardening is too close for comfort to the backbreaking agricultural work many of our grandparents fled as migrants to the city and we want no soil to dirt our hands.

Watching another documentary, I learned that the major British newspapers have ‘gardening correspondents’. Also that Prince Charles is a much more respected figure than you might think in the gardening world, which, by the way, has its long list of celebrities (Monty Don is one). I’m even beginning to worry that there might be already a discipline called ‘Garden Studies’ which I have completely missed (wait for Routledge to notice the gap…). The list of resources connected with gardening in Britain available online is simply staggering and has by no means an equivalent in Spanish (though I recommend the lengthy Wikipedia article on gardening in Spain, You might think that gardens make a small cultural difference, and one quite easy to overcome as everyone enjoys a beautiful garden. Yet, my impression is that this is a deeper cultural difference than it seems. Just think of how unlikely the existence of a ‘corresponsal de jardinería’ for El País or La Vanguardia is and you’ll see my point. Or try to imagine Queen Letizia showing an interest in gardens beyond the ones at la Zarzuela Palace.

One last word (or not). Here are three beautiful spots with gardens: El ‘señorío de Bértiz’ in Navarra (an extensive natural park and gardens), El Habana (a hotel with a lovely garden in La Pereda, near Llanes in Asturias) and the Casa Sorolla in Madrid, which will give you a very clear idea of the kind of privileged urban seclusion which a wealthy Spanish person might aim at in the 20th century.

May you enjoy an epiphanic moment in them.

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agost 4th, 2016

John Stoltenberg calls himself a ‘radical feminist’ activist, though in my view he appears to be one of the few genuine anti-patriarchal male fighters. There are two reasons, however, why he prefers using ‘feminist’, as I deduce.

One is that feminism made him aware of patriarchal injustice. As he writes in his main work, Refusing to Be a Man (1989)–the volume on which I’ll comment here–“In various ways, feminism has blown like a gust of fresh air through a lifetime spent agonizing and anguishing about the place of other men in our lives”. I’m hesitating to provide this piece of information but the case is that Stoltenberg, who identifies as gay, learned his feminism from Andrea Dworkin, his partner and wife for a total 31 years. His is, then, a classic case of a man learning to defend anti-patriarchal justice from a woman he loves, though I’d rather leave aside the gossip about the actual arrangements in their marriage (I assume everyone knows that Dworkin was a leading American radical feminist). On the other hand, unlike hooks (and myself), Stoltenberg prefers calling the enemy ‘male supremacy’ rather than ‘patriarchy’. For him, all masculinity is tainted by patriarchy, which is why he calls for men to reject being a man and embrace feminism; likewise, he believes that racism can only be eliminated if white people reject whiteness. Now, if you’re a white man and you are wondering what you can call yourself if you reject these main features in your identity, the answer is ‘person’.

Reading Stoltenberg’s complaints against how Elizabeth Badinter misrepresented his position as ‘male self-hate’ in her book XY: On Masculine Identity (1992), I realised that she may have prejudiced me against his work, which is why I have taken so long to read him. However, I have found Refusing to Be a Man (which is actually a collection of essays), an extremely lucid, well-argued and sensible book, deserving to be much better known. Badinter, of course, is not to be blamed for Stoltenberg’s marginal position as an author but, rather, the immense resistance which his critique of male supremacy elicited from patriarchal men–as it was to be expected. Stoltenberg refers to “a mass retrenchment, a counter-refusal, as it were, refusing to refuse to be a man” including the “earnestly liberal academics” in Masculinities Studies. In his view, which I share in part, this discipline “does not get at the problem” of how the blatant lies upholding male supremacy survive from generation to generation. He claims that our academic approach “serves theoretically only to deceive another generation yet one more time” though I’d argue that progress is slow because there is not a male anti-patriarchal civil rights movement similar to feminism. Unlike Stoltenberg, I don’t believe that men should join feminism: rather, my view is that both women feminists and men in need of liberation should join in their common anti-patriarchal fight.

“Male supremacy”, Stoltenberg explains, “is the honest term for what is sometimes hedgingly called patriarchy” (which he limits, rather, to the father). Stoltenberg places the material penis rather than the symbolic phallus at the centre of male supremacy, complicating in this way women’s contribution to this noxious social system (see bell hooks). The biology of sex is, thus, central in his view although he stresses that both the sex itself and male supremacy are constructions. For Stoltenberg even penile sensations are socially constructed, that is to say, men do not feel during sex anything we might call natural but what male supremacists tell them they should feel (mainly, the pleasure of domination). He even denies that sex exists as a class of individuals: “The penises exist; the male sex does not”. Of course, he worries that the ‘male sex’ does exist for those who maintain it as a social construction, since this is “a political entity that flourishes only through acts of force and sexual terrorism”. In Stoltenberg’s view of male supremacy, individuals accept the “values and interests of the class”, for which the “habit” of “sexual objectification” of women is essential: “Male sexual objectifying is not simply a response to male supremacy; it functions to enforce male supremacy as well”. What perhaps surprised me most in his argumentation is the idea that “male supremacy requires homophobia in order to keep men safe from the sexual aggression of men”; without homophobia, he claims, men would be raped as often as women (think of what happens in jails).

Stoltenberg’s volume is so varied in the topics it touches that it’s truly hard to summarize his main points. I’ll have to skip, then, aspects as important as how male supremacist fathers terrorize their boys into accepting the rules of patriarchal manhood. Also the shocking idea (for me) that the penile erection which confirms male supremacy is not limited to sexual arousal but to many other mundane experiences like feeling danger. I left unfinished a complicated article in which I tried to explain terrorist bombings (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki) as the ultimate patriarchal orgasms but, if I credit Stoltenberg, I was not really wide off the mark… Let me turn then to two central topics in Refusing to Be a Man: pornography and, of course, change.

It comes as no surprise that Stoltenberg’s views on pornography are very close to those of Andrea Dworkin in her best-known volume Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981). Dworkin, together with Catharine MacKinnon, defended the view that pornography should be outlawed not depending on vague obscenity legislation but because it attacks women’s civil rights. Dworkin’s views generated a massive confrontation between feminists who decried pornography and those who defended women’s rights to choose in any matter connected with sex. She and Stoltenberg describe in their works the kind of hard-core pornography based on humiliating women that any right-thinking feminist should reject; they do not even contemplate, however, the possibility now defended by many young feminists that women may create and enjoy their own kind of pro-feminist porn. When Stoltenberg claims that “Pornography is the theory, and rape the practice” or that “Pornography tells lies about women. But pornography tells the truth about men” I tend to agree simply because like him I don’t believe that real sexual freedom, accompanied by what he calls sexual justice, exists. “Essentially”, he writes, “sexual freedom has been about preserving a sexuality that preserves male supremacy” and in which porn is central. With true equality, if that ever comes, sex will not be at the service of male supremacy and only then will we find out whether porn can be dissociated from domination, humiliation and hatred. In the meantime, yes, by all means, let’s persecute abusive porn which infringes civil and human rights. And let’s question whether we need porn at all, pro-feminist or otherwise.

Another very important point which Stoltenberg also disputes is the widespread idea that men can’t express their feelings. As a “class”, men “have always expressed their feelings, eloquently and extensively”, he observes, through religion, nationalism, militarism, the diverse social institutions and even sciences such as psychiatry: “whether or not a particular man is feeling the feeling at a particular time, the feeling is being expressed through the institutions men have made”. Logically, only if the number of “men of conscience” ready to face these institutions rises can we hope male supremacy to be shaken to its foundations. Stoltenberg, is, however, quite pessimistic about the ‘man of conscience’, for “he won’t do anything until it is clear to him how it affects him and his brethren as men”. Thinking of the men of the 1990s (the men in the decade after the book’s publication), Stoltenberg makes a series of very negative predictions, which can be summarised this way: they will do nothing but will claim this is because they don’t know what is politically correct, and will feel good nonetheless for at last discussing their feelings. I’m sorry to say that this describes very well Masculinities Studies… though to be fair the current men of conscience are still facing an extremely recalcitrant male supremacy (see my post of 27 March).

I am currently reading an excellent book by American historian Adam Hochschild focused on WWI: To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (2011). In this volume Hochschild examines how a variety of male and female activists opposed this brutal war in Britain (feminist Emmeline Pankhurst, let’s recall this, sided with the Government). Hochschild gives very many examples of how the patriarchal institutions behind the war were opposed at a very high personal cost, and thus pays homage to the individuals who changed the private and public view of the Great War. When Stoltenberg writes that “The core of one’s being must love justice more than manhood” or that “The pride to which we aspire is not in being men but in being men who…—men who are living their lives in a way that will make a difference. We must be transformers of selfhood—our own and others”, then, what is missing is a specific programme of acts of resistance that can bring about this transformation, in imitation of other movements in other historical periods.

We might argue that the liberation movements that crystallized around the time of WWI (feminism, pacifism, anti-imperialism, communism) have failed in many ways but at least they have succeeded in others. The same can be said about the anti-racist civil rights movement of the 1950s. 27 years after the publication of Stoltenberg’s denunciation of ‘male supremacy’, however, there is not yet a visible public movement engaged in its destruction with men’s massive participation–the very existence of male supremacy or of patriarchy is still denied on a daily basis despite the evidence that links couple-related abuse and widespread military terrorism. Women are certainly divided between feminists and patriarchal collaborators but at least feminism has made us aware of the division and of who our enemy is. In men’s case, patriarchy totally prevails thanks to having convinced men that there is no possible collective action against it; I even suspect that the figure of the outsider has been glamourised to pre-empt, precisely, any collective anti-patriarchal reaction. Patriarchy tolerates the partial erosion of some of its main tenets (misogyny, homophobia, racism, slavery, militarism, capitalism) at particular points but has so far managed to survive by pretending it’s not open to change because it is basic human nature. How long for we are going to accept this appalling lie is really up to us.

Refuse being a man, and refuse being a woman. Let’s all be persons.

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