Archive for the ‘General’ Category


Monday, March 18th, 2019

In a hilarious moment of the two-part documentary The Scandalous Adventures of Lord Byron (2009) presenter Rupert Everett discusses with Donatella Versace–as they wait for her butler to announce dinner at her own luxury Milan home–whether Byron (1788-1824) was really as handsome as so many contemporaneous testimonials claim. At this point, Everett has already seen diverse portraits and has even donned the same Albanian dress that Byron wears in the famous painting by Thomas Phillips, now at the National Portrait Gallery. Seeing handsome Everett look rather ridiculous in it, the spectator might conclude that Byron was indeed a man of good looks and even better poise. Also, a man who controlled each portrait that was made of him as we control our image in our Instagram accounts. He wanted specifically to look manly, a man of action and not a poet, as Everett notes, and also disguise a limp caused in childhood by polio.

Everett and Versace note that notions of beauty were very different in the early 19th century, suggesting that Byron’s physical appearance would not seem so extraordinary today. I find this quite tantalizing! Everett quips that, on the other hand, Byron must have looked stunning at a time when having all your teeth while still young was not common. At a later point in this second episode the tone changes and becomes a bit less flippant. Rather subtly, Everett’s comments start defending the view that by the time when Byron died, aged only 36, he was past his prime. The infection that killed him was an accident of life, perhaps one preventable, but the documentary hints that Byron’s choice of malaria-infested Missolonghi as his home in Greece was somehow suicidal. It is implied in short that had Byron lived on his life would have been a sad, gradual fall into physical decadence. This is, at the same time, part of the Byron myth: live fast, die soon, and conquer eternal fame. I’m not sure about leaving a beautiful body to bury.

In life, Byron enjoyed fame but he was mostly beset by celebrity and by notoriety–and, of course, scandal. It is fit that Everett, an openly gay man with a pansexual past, presents Byron’s biography, for George Gordon (this is his actual name) was a product of the sexual prejudice of his time or, rather, of its hypocrisy. Just as it seems impossible to discuss Coleridge without mentioning his drug addiction it seems impossible to discuss Byron without alluding to his sexual adventurousness. Likewise, whereas no biographical sketch of Wordsworth is complete without his sister Dorothy, no portrait of Byron can be offered without associating him with his half-sister Augusta Leigh (his father’s daughter by a first wife).

Byron might scream to high heaven that they did not commit incest and that Augusta’s third child Medora was her husband’s and not his but we would still doubt his word, for that is what celebrity and scandal are about: constructing people as we want them to be, not as they are. With lights and shadows: incest may be too much even for us but the pansexual man Everett describes is more to our taste. Funnily, as we dismantle the sexual prejudices of Byron’s time (serious enough to land you in jail for sodomy), we have started criticizing the man for not being handsome enough, and even for being at times in his life rather overweight. Duncan Wu, in particular, offers an image of an effeminate, flabby, shortish, stout Byron totally at odds with the connotations that the word ‘handsome’ awakes in our minds.

Byron was an aristocrat and though not an extremely rich man (he lived on borrowed money, mostly, like most of his class), he led a life of ease and luxury that seems to belong in the 18th century rather than the early 19th. He may be celebrated as a great national hero in Albania and Greece but his mildly Whig politics in defence of nationalism (and even at one point of the anti-Industrial Revolution luddites) are not based on very strong beliefs. It seems, rather, than in a world in which nobody cared for anyone beyond the national borders, Byron’s curiosity and personal presence in remote lands was in itself welcome as a heroic act. His contribution to the independence of Greece was, at best, very marginal and he seems to have been seen during his time at Missolonghi in the early 1820s as just a rich English lord that could be easily milked for his money, if you excuse the expression. He did not die a hero’s death in battle as one might expect from all the exaltation but simply write verse that vaguely endorsed the right of Greece to be a free nation again, on the strength of what it used to be in the classical past. He died, as I have noted, of a fever variously attributed to an imprudent ride in the rain or a bug caught from his pet dog.

If abroad he was a hero, at home Byron was a celebrity of the kind that the Daily Mirror enjoys praising and demolishing in equal parts today. And this what happened to this man: he found himself suddenly famous, as he wrote, after the immense success that the first two cantos of Childe Harold (1812) were, only to be completely ostracized just four years later. In 1816 Byron had to leave England for ever following the scandal of his separation from his wife Annabella because of the rumours about incest with Augusta. Byron was probably one of the worst husbands on record and the separation makes complete sense: his wife, whom he had married for her money as his father had married his two wives, just could not endure the constant humiliation of Byron’s active extramarital life. What is hypocritical is the scandal. Byron often claimed that he had never seduced any woman because he didn’t have to: basically, the women of the Regency period that chased him were the first groupies in literary history, and no wonder, since Byron has often been compared to a rock star. One of the harassers, Lady Caroline Lamb, defined Byron as ‘bad, mad, and dangerous to know’ but probably this is who she, not him, was.

The good looks, the hectic search for sexual pleasure, the journeys to distant lands, the scandalous married life, the more than likely homosexuality and the incest with Augusta… all these are sufficient not for one but for several celebrities. What makes Byron a radically different celebrity from those plaguing our time is that his fame was based on his poetry, for which he did work much harder than he pretended. The sales of his work from Childe Harold onward were in the first years high enough to push best-selling poet Walter Scott out of the market, to the point that Scott became a novelist (though he published anonymously his early novels as if ashamed that they were a second-rank, mercenary product). Byron was particularly well-known because of his narrative verse and he continued enjoying that success even after he had been socially ostracized, from his exile in Switzerland, Italy and finally Greece. To understand how relatively lucky he was, we need to think of the far more tragic fate of Oscar Wilde, a man as flamboyant and sexually curious as Byron but who could not escape, as Byron did, the harsh action of British homophobic legislation. Wilde’s exile in the late 1890s was a much sadder story indeed but, then, he was no aristocrat.

Byron’s main cultural legacy, beyond his poetry and even beyond Literature, is the Byronic hero, a construction that was appended to his own person by his readers whether he wanted it or not. We cannot know what Byron was really like but just as his looks his personality also elicit doubts. He insisted for years that he was not Harold, the character that first expresses the Byronic temper which other male characters inherited–restless, moody, pessimistic, curious about people yet a loner, interested in pleasure but little capable of sustained love. Yet, Byron eventually gave in and granted that in many ways the Childe’s pilgrimage was his own, and Harold a thin mask for himself. Indeed, Byron is all over his poetry, also as Manfred and Don Juan and most of his main male characters, but this is not at all singular. Look at how Wordsworth mined his own youth for The Prelude. I see the appeal of the Romantic construct and why the Byronic hero soon surfaced in many other narratives (mainly novels and plays) giving us Heathcliff, but also Dracula, and even Christian Grey. What puzzles me is what kind of audience Byron had and how they could follow him at all.

I have just finished reading Childe Harold, the four cantos, and I’m not sure how to describe the experience. Last week I told my students that Romantic poetry was published in its time with no footnotes and that the original readers did not expect a critic to decode the meaning, or any obscure passages, for them. We had read the passages in Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth introducing some of his poems but they were aimed at describing the circumstances that inspired each poem, not the poem itself. Likewise regarding Coleridge and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. We listened in class to Ian McKellen’s beautiful reading of this long narrative poem (about 30 minutes) and though I stopped now and then to make sure students could follow the plot, in general the text was well understood. I’m not in favour of that kind of teaching that turns reading poetry into a forensic exercise, of which you can find plenty on YouTube (a lot from India, for whatever reason!) and I’d much rather my students enjoy the poems they should know about. With Byron, however, I simply don’t know what to do. The booklet we are using includes all of Manfred and Don Juan’s first canto and not Childe Harold but even so the point is the same one: Byron’s poetry is just too obscure for us today, here and in my second-language, second-year classroom.

I did try to read Childe Harold without checking Byron’s own lengthy notes (mostly on points of History, always showing an amazing erudition) or the notes of his editor, which also included notes to Byron’s notes!! It was just impossible: it was like reading through glasses that would suddenly cloud and blind me, but also suddenly disappear altogether, a veritable rollercoaster. Thankfully, Rupert Everett’s documentary follows the journeys by Byron reflected in this long poem and I could make sense more or less of where Harold was at given points but without that aid (and the notes) I would have been quite lost. To my surprise, even though I expected a very intimate portrait of the Byronic hero to connect the diverse observations of the pilgrim, I found the stanzas oddly detached except in the few passages (mainly in canto four) where Harold bemoans his fame and wonders what it will be like once he dies. I positively missed Wordsworth, whom Byron very much disliked, in the stanzas about the landscapes and even the cities. And I had a really tough time understanding allusions to personalities of the 1810s even with the editor’s excellent notes. There was also the problem of when to read the notes, for they constantly interrupted the flow of the lines. I eventually settled on reading them after each stanza. When I came across six stanzas without notes, it felt like being on a sailing ship with a full gale.

Reading the negative comments on Walter Scott’s first novel, Waverley (1814), I came across a disgruntled reader who, hating this pompous piece of fiction as much as I do, proposes that we ‘decanonize’ Scott. I think that we are already in the process of decanonizing Scott, who has not been included in our second-year 19th century courses here at UAB since at least 1994. Preparing the lectures on Byron I realised that I wasn’t even sure when to tell my students about Scott: now, commenting on his poetry together with Byron’s, or later when we teach Jane Austen. It is very clear to me that an English graduate must know who Scott was but I would not include one of his novels in the syllabus, for that would probably alienate rather than interest students. What I fear is that we have reached the same point with Byron: students must know who he was and what he did, but can they read his poems at all? Perhaps the lyrical pieces like ‘She Walks in Beauty’ but this hardly gives a glimpse of the giant he was.

Arguably Byron (and Scott) are a case not so much of decanonization but of increasingly difficult readability. It’s not the same. Robert Southey may be canonical but we just do not include him in our syllabi, either his poetry or his person, whereas, I insist, knowing about Byron and Scott is essential. This is a typical conundrum for all teachers: how should we teach? On the basis of literary archaeology or on the basis of accessibility? It used to be the former in the ancient times when philology reigned but the more pragmatic current approach tells me that Byron is approaching if not total at least partial decanonization.

I’m not sure that I’m sorry… but that must be my class (and gender) prejudice against privileged male aristocrats, no matter how handsome.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

My post today refers mainly to the article in El País, “La Universidad afronta la salida del 50% de sus catedráticos en siete años” ( As it is habitual in the Spanish media, El País mistakes ‘catedráticos’ (i.e. full professors) for tenured teachers (i.e. those with positions as civil servants until they retire, but not necessarily ‘catedráticos’). The point raised is the same, though. By 2026, 16200 of the current full-time university teachers will have retired (almost 17%) but, here’s the nub: the current hiring system will not allow to fill in the vacant positions. The Spanish university will dramatically shrink though, in view of the constant demand, it might have to offer in a rush a high amount of tenured positions. Most likely, as we fear, 2026 will be the date when many Departments might disappear.

Allow me to comment on some on some points raised by the article, and then on some comments by the always angry readers of El País.

Point 1: the average age for teachers in the Spanish public university is 54. This refers only to full-time tenured teachers for, as we know, the average age for part-time associates is much lower (but also rising towards 40 since no tenured positions are being offered). I am myself 52 and was hired full-time aged 25 (yes, 27 years ago), so I am of the privileged best-paid, best-positioned teachers that aspire to retiring before 2026 (I certainly don’t want to be teaching 20-year-olds when I am past 65). Whenever I read this kind of news, I feel guilty that I am so lucky and profoundly annoyed that my professional group is presented as unusually, or even unfairly, privileged. This is the trick that the Spanish Government (and many others around the world) have been using to antagonise the different generations: the problem is not that the young are being grossly abused (they are!!) but that we, the ageing parasites, cling to our privilege.

Point 2: Pedro Sánchez’s current Socialist Government does not want to offer “an avalanche of tenured positions” that might bar access to the following generations, as happened in the Orwellian 1984. What happened then? Well, 5000 teachers with five years of experience and a doctoral degree were offered tenure in quite accessible state examinations. This, it is said, was a serious error as a blockage was formed that prevented the next generation from accessing tenure. The information, however, is not correct. In 1984, the year when I myself became an undergrad, there was a massive influx of students with working-class backgrounds (me again) thanks to Felipe González’s Socialist policies. This influx made it necessary to improvise the hiring of the new teachers; at the time, nobody thought of an alternative to the tenure system because this is how the university traditionally worked.

By 1991, when I was first hired as a teacher, the system still ran quite smoothly: you were employed full-time, with the expectation that you would write your doctoral dissertation in three years, and next face the corresponding state examination one or two years later. I should have been tenured, then, by 1997 or 1998, at the latest. What interrupted the quite acceptable ratio of generational replacement was not the bottleneck allegedly formed in 1984 but the new restrictive policies by the conservative Government headed by José María Aznar, which started to brutally attack the public university by destroying its hiring system. Thus, to use my own example, I did between 1996 and 2002, when I finally got tenure, the same amount of work as a tenured teacher but on the basis of temporary, poorly-paid contracts, while I waited. In 2008 the full-time contracts to hire junior researchers, as I was in 1991, were withdrawn. Then started the agony of the system and of the individuals who, like me, only aspire to doing their best for the Spanish university. Incidentally: replacing 17% of all employed teachers in seven years is a very acceptable ratio below 3% each year. This should liberate money that would suffice to pay for new tenured positions, which would be anyway cheaper as teachers would not be receiving money for any extra merits as after a long career. As things are now, though, this is considered too much and here lies the main problem.

Point 3: the function of ANECA and the accreditation system. Since the university system no longer could absorb the junior researchers, for lack of tenured positions, the Government raised the amount of qualifications needed to apply for one about ten years ago. The agency founded to grant national accreditations, ANECA (and other regional equivalents) guarantees the possession of those qualifications but has also created a fantastic amount of frustration. El País reports that ANECA has certified that 15000 Spanish doctors qualify for tenured positions (both ‘titular’ and ‘catedrático’) but this is far more than it is offered. Once you’re ANECA-approved, the waiting can take many years, during which, if you’re an associate, you might easily be dismissed by your university. I see that many of my colleagues have started signing as ‘catedrático acreditado’ or ‘titular acreditado’, which, in my modest view, is very sad.

By the way: I totally disagree with the opinion that, when we retire, there will be no sufficiently qualified personnel. It might well be that the Spanish university goes up a few notches in the international rankings, since the patient ‘anecandos’ know very well how to be competitive. What I see is that the 70-year-olds will be replaced, at the rate we’re going, by 50-year-olds with waning energies, past their prime in some specialities which require the stamina of the 25-35 young. After a time of restrictions, in which only 10% of the positions occupied by tenured teachers could be offered again, the Government has finally allowed universities to replace all their teachers. Yet, without better funding, this cannot be done. What I say: many brilliant researchers now in their 40s will still have to wait long years for tenure. Only 2.3% of all current ‘titulares’ like myself (i.e. senior lecturers) are younger than 40. Of course, many researchers in the 40-50 bracket are hired rather than tenured, but, even so, the case is that students aged 18-22 are being taught by their grandparents’ generation!

Now, three comments from readers (there are 270).

Comment 1: some countries, a reader says, would take the chance as a “golden opportunity” to replace the “endogamic, stagnant” Spanish teaching body. Thank you very much on behalf of the generation currently doing our best to educate students who are amazingly reluctant to being educated and to do, besides, research at levels never known in Spain before the 21st century. It is extremely satisfactory to receive so much support from the society that we serve and to be told, besides, that anyone younger would be better prepared. By the way, dear reader: the article does not refer to the massive dismissal of currently employed teachers but to our retirement. We do expect to be replaced by much better personnel, of course, but the point the article is making is not that we should retire but that the younger generation should be employed in adequate conditions. Not the same.

Comment 2: who cares, a reader writes, if the public Spanish university disappears? There are not sufficient students, anyway, to maintain a “bunch of lazy, overpaid guys, while the mass of workers lives in miserable conditions”. Thank you again, on behalf of my colleagues and myself. The whole point of the 1984 university revolution was to guarantee the higher education of the working classes so that they could be critical with their life conditions, including employment, and socially mobile upwardly. The 2008 crisis was used to destroy the university hiring system following the same abusive economic policies that have reduced the life of those born after 1985 to a constant struggle to survive. I am well aware that I am a luxury but what we should be demanding is not an end to the Spanish public university but an end to all the ultra-capitalist policies that are making the rich richer and the poor poorer. You might say that a university education does not guarantee any upward social mobility (the upper classes have done all they can to hinder it) but imagine for one moment a Spain with only ultra-expensive private universities and a paltry scholarship system, possibly much worse than what we have now. How’s that an improvement on the lot of the working classes? The upper and the middle classes can choose between the public and the private university, either in Spain or abroad. But, how do you allow the talent of working-class individuals to flourish? Aren’t you interested?

Comment 3: (with this one I must agree). “Spanish society does not value research”, nor any merits attached to it. This is possibly the key to the whole matter: the comments elicited by this article show a colossal miscommunication between those of us who take university research and teaching seriously and those who, unaware of what we actually do (or in some cases rejected by the system), show enormous hostility at what they assume to be our privileged positions. Reading the comments you can see how the colleagues that try to explain our job face an adamant dislike, even hatred, based on immovable premises: we get tenure aided by a close circle of accomplices though we lack sufficient merits, and the little we do does by no means justify the enormous salaries we are paid. Of course, to someone paid 800 or 1000 euros a month, a salary of between 2500 and 4500 (these figures are public) might seem stratospheric. Also, the very idea of tenure. It is funny to see, though, that nobody disputes what football players, top models, influencers of all kinds and the CEOs that kills thousands of jobs at the drop of their hat are paid. Supposing, then, that in the next seven years a new generation is given tenure, this is what they’ll find: generalised resentment. Just what one needs to offer good teaching and progressive research.

We’re trapped, then, in a vicious circle: any defence of the Spanish university as a necessary public service and of their under-50 workers as unfairly exploited sounds to lay ears as a defence of privilege. I do acknowledged that some of my colleagues shamelessly abuse their positions but a) they are the minority and will be out by 2026, b) the same can be said about many other workers–we’re not saints, and nor is anyone else. The resentment poured on us is a product of envy, the ‘national sin’ as many call it, but also of the low educational levels in Spain. Germans, Britons or Americans do not seem to hate their university teachers, though they’re possibly only socially respected in places like Japan (my guess). Long gone are the times when being a ‘catedrático’ or a simple senior lecturer elicited respect and I keep no illusions about that. But why we are so misunderstood baffles me. Also, why instead of urging the Government to solve a situation that can be indeed solved with a minimum good will the solution offered is getting rid of absolutely the only institution that can bring some social change to our chronically backward nation. Unamuno’s ugly “¡Qué inventen ellos!” still has us in thrall.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


Tuesday, January 15th, 2019

[Warning: Spoilers ahead!]

I first heard about The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2012), a novel by emily m. danforth (without capitalized initials), and Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (2015) by Becky Albertalli reading reviews of their film adaptations. The former, directed by Desiree Akhavan from a screenplay co-scripted with Cecilia Frugiele, has the same title as the novel. The latter, directed by Greg Berlanti and adapted by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, has a different title: Love, Simon. Both films were released last year, 2018. Miseducation won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, which is why it has attracted more critical attention; its IMDB rating is, however, only 6.7, in comparison to Love, Simon’s 7.7. Since I haven’t seen the films (yet), here I focus on the novels.

Both books are debut novels (winners of the William C. Morris Debut Award) originally published by Balzer+Bray, a HarperCollins label which specializes in young adult fiction. And both deal with the coming out of an American teenager. They seem to me, however, very different texts in style, content and approach. Miseducation is a literary novel, which is not surprising given the author’s training: an MFA in fiction (University of Montana) and a PhD in creative writing (University of Nebraska–Lincoln); she teaches creative writing and Literature (at Rhode Island College, Providence). In contrast, Becky Albertalli used to be a clinical psychologist specialized in children and teens before becoming a full-time writer. Her Simon is far less ambitious as a literary novel though, surprisingly, it made it to the National Book Award Long List (for Young People’s Literature). A major difference, and the source of much controversy, is that whereas danforth is a lesbian narrating the coming out of a lesbian teen, Albertalli is a heterosexual woman telling the story of how gay Simon comes out. Cameron’s story is rather bitter, Simon’s bubbly and happy.

Danforth’s novel has some autobiographical aspects, as she has granted, though she denies that Cameron’s experience mirrors her own. Author and character are natives of Miles City, in Montana (population a modest 8410), where the novel is mainly located. I usually read this as a negative sign: intense descriptions of one’s own small town in a debut novel tend to mean that the author has no other story to tell. We’ll see.

Danforth uses 470 very long pages to tell a rather simple story: Cameron Post is 12, in the early 1990s, when her parents die in a car crash–while she kisses a girl for the first time. Her unacknowledged, untreated sense of guilt prevents her from properly mourning them, and also from defending herself when she becomes the ward of her conservative maternal aunt Ruth. A heterosexual girl Cameron gets entangled with, when both are about 16, reports their first and only sexual encounter to her mother and, appalled, Ruth sends Cameron to a religious institution which offers conversion therapy (the novel’s implicit addressee is a progressive person, of course, and we know this cannot work). The last third of the novel concerns Cameron’s stay in this place, subjected to the increasingly absurd sessions with her bigoted therapist, Lydia, as she plots her escape with fellow sufferers Jane and Adam. Cameron eventually visits the site of her parents’ accident, finding closure for her mourning, though it is unclear whether the escapade with her new friends will come to a happy end.

This is a rather flimsy plot that could have been told far more efficiently in 350 pages, as many other readers have noticed. The prose is beautifully crafted but it often hinders the advancement of the scant plot. It screams at every page ‘look at me, I’m a sensitive, nuanced writer’, who learned her lessons well. Two caveats, then: I wonder why no editor cut this extra-long text and, more importantly, I wonder how much damage creative writing courses are inflicting. Reading Cameron this seems obvious: the subject matter asked for an acerbic style, less prettiness, and more insightful storytelling. Plot, tone and message end up muddled. I expected rampant villainy to colour the characterization of the obnoxious Ruth and Lydia but I was left instead with a confusing impression that they meant well but were misguided by their Christian values.

I have not read yet Boy Erased: A Memoir, by Garrard Conley, and the object of a yet another recent film adaptation (directed by the truly interesting Joel Edgerton) and cannot say how the memoir and the novel compare. Conley tells the story of his own religious conversion therapy, forced upon him by his father (at that time about to be ordained as a Baptist Minister). One thing I can say is that I learned practically nothing about this totally discredited way of ‘curing’ individuals of their own natural sexual inclinations reading danforth’s novel. She reduced this bizarre but important issue to the personal quirks of Ruth and, above all, Lydia, without providing in any way her young readers with information, and much less guidance, to resist being ill-treated in this way. This fuzziness was even more horrific to me than what they actually do, also because Cameron Post is very far from being a rebel in a way a real teenager might recognize. If the novel had focused more narrowly on the ugly issue of conversion therapy, it might work, but as it is everything gets diluted by danforth’s artistic ambition. My personal impression, then, is that this is a failed novel containing two possibly great novels: one about conversion therapy and the other about Cameron’s process of mourning–which in the end seems to be the main issue.

I also found in The Miseducation of Cameron Post much coyness in the treatment of lesbian sex. Once you read Sarah Waters, anything else seems coy but Cameron’s sexual awakening is so limited that you wonder whether the word ‘miseducation’ also extends to this. 1993 is pre-internet prehistory but, even so, Cameron seems vey little informed about lesbian sex. Her Seattle girlfriend, who boasts of being a progressive, well-connected lesbian, is not really much better informed. Whether you are a lesbian or another kind of reader, you are left pretty much in the dark about the many pleasures of this kind of sexuality. When interesting things finally happen, the encounter is terrible for Cameron, both in its development and its consequences. I wonder how many teen lesbian girls must have felt saddened and even scared, rather than encouraged, in view of this tepid approach and also because conversion therapy is not sufficiently described, or opposed.

Albertalli is much more fun but even worse at describing sex. She reminded me of J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter, and her awkwardly limited way of narrating the sexual awakening of the Hogwarts teens. I’m very much aware that Rowling is far, far worse since she completely excluded gay sex from Harry’s universe, a pathetic oversight which countless readers have corrected with their abundant slash fiction. Albertalli’s novel is quite different in that sense but her openly focusing on a gay teen does not mean that she is comfortable describing gay sex. The worst moment happens when Simon finds himself alone for the first time with his love interest (I won’t disclose the name, for this secret is the core of the novel). Believe it or not, they kiss and caress their naked chests as they lie on Simon’s bed. Yet, rather than masturbate each other, as one would expect of two 17-year-old gay boys (I think), Albertalli has each go to the bathroom separately. The words she uses are not very different from my own plain phrasing.

These are novels for young adults and the case is that adolescents–or teenagers, whatever you prefer–usually have their first full experience of sex (i.e. attempting to give each other an orgasm) around the age of 16 or 17. What Cameron and Simon do at that age corresponds to an earlier age, which is puzzling. Or one of the unstated rules of young adult fiction: discuss sex but describe it only coyly. Do I sound like an adult, heterosexual voyeur asking for some teen porn? I hope not! The point I’m making is that, in my view, the experience of coming out as narrated in fiction must be focused not only on acceptance by the corresponding social circle (or rejection, as happens to Cameron) but on the presentation of homosexuality as fun, pleasing and sexy. Sarah Waters does this–why can’t danforth and Albertalli do it? Are they bound by narrow YA codes? Or by the same irksome American puritanism that has Katniss and Peeta spend chastely so many nights together during the Hunger Games? Is Rowling a sign that this YA puritanism is not just American?

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a very nice novel–not necessarily a term of praise. I do prefer stories that end well for their gay protagonists and I frankly enjoyed sharing time with adorable Simon (a word frequently used by Albertalli) than with bland Cameron. The plot, however, completely lacks the tension one is supposed to find in romance. The story, again, is very simple: Simon replies to a post on Tumblr by a gay high-school fellow, calling himself Blue, and what follows is a sincere, friendly correspondence, only mildly complicated by this boy’s reluctance to give his real name. The game the author plays with her reader is straightforward: you need to guess Blue’s real identity, which is not so difficult. In romantic comedy, typically protagonist A meets protagonist B, they start a promising relationship, and then a mistake leads A to lose B. Subsequently, A and B are gradually brought together, the mistake is cleared and eternal happiness follows. Shakespeare fixed this productive model in Much Ado about Nothing and Jane Austen polished it in Pride and Prejudice. Simon’s and Blue’s romance, however, goes through no crisis: it’s nice to see it unfold but not thrilling. As for Simon’s coming out, it also lacks a significant turning point. His blackmailer cannot really hurt him and his loving circle of friends and family is welcoming and accommodating. This might be the reason why Albertalli’s novel is popular: it’s an uncomplicated tale, what teen readers need to come out and the rest to learn tolerance. It seems, however, disingenuous, to take this simple road in view of the horrors that danforth narrates (or tries to).

At one point, Simon says that everyone should come out, including heterosexuals. I have done that a few times: whenever I start teaching a Gender Studies course, I declare explicitly what I am. This is not easy because coming out as a heterosexual should never be about clearing out any suspicion that I might be gay. If I do it, this is because I want my students to feel comfortable and speak frankly about who they are. I find that declaring yourself asexual is hardest since everyone assumes that all individuals are interested in sex. But I digress. Cameron and Simon teach us that there is a happy and an unhappy way of coming out as gay and that both need to be discussed, in fiction and in life. Hopefully, one day teens won’t have to come out at all, for there will be no closet and all persons will be free to be whatever they are.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


Tuesday, January 8th, 2019

This post comes in a little late, as it is customary to close the passing year with a list of the best and to begin the new one with a list of the most expected books. This is not, at any rate, what I intend to offer here, as I gave up long ago any attempt at keeping up with the overwhelming mass of literary novelties. Every December I discover horrified that I have missed all that was (apparently) worth reading the previous eleven months and, so, it is only then when I select a few titles for the bottomless list of what I’d like to read. Add to this the classics, the accidental discoveries, and the odd, neglected books that surface from reading other books. I do wonder how the readers who appear to know what is relevant every year do manage. Or is it all marketing?

I keep track of everything I read since the tender age of 14 and this is the closest I have ever come to keeping a regular diary (excepting this blog). It is always exciting to close the list for the year and go through the books read each month to recall the best moments spent in the company of intelligent minds. And it is also exciting to open a new list and wonder how it will be filled as the months to come pass (or, rather, fly!). I don’t know that this in an average measure of any use beyond my personal experience but the 2018 list throws this result: I have much enjoyed about 40% of the books I have read but, basically, put up with the mediocrity of the remaining 60%. I mean here the books I have entirely read for I don’t count the many books I have abandoned, a figure that grows every year as I get more and more impatient with writers who do not care for producing good prose (also with those who care about the prose but not the content).

I’m not sure how this works for my academic colleagues in Literary Studies but about 50% of all the books I read each year are novels; the rest may also include fiction (short stories) but are mostly non-fiction and academic essays. No poetry, shame on me. Most of the worst books I read are novels and most of the best books are non-fiction, which either means that my own personal preferences are changing as I age, or that generally speaking, novels are overvalued and non-fiction undervalued.

Thus, if you ask me to choose just one of the 90 books in my 2018 list, I cannot hesitate: every person on planet Earth should read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1966), the non-fiction book that explained to the world how 1940s-1950s science had horribly polluted the whole environment with its pesticides and other venoms. I must seriously wonder what is wrong with our education since it has taken me so many years to get to this book, which I have only read because it kept surfacing in many academic works on science fiction. Why we think that reading such and such novel is more important than reading Silent Spring is a matter that we need to address urgently.

The justification used to be the artistic enjoyment supposedly found in reading novels but I find that few current novelists have either the literary skills or the intellectual equipment required to produce masterpieces, whereas the best essays (why has this been word abandoned for non-fiction??) contain both good, solid prose and admirable brainpower. Also, being myself a writer of academic work, I appreciate the hard work that often comes into writing non-fiction and in comparison to which fabulating novels seems a far less daunting task.

I have, then, much admired this past year books as diverse as David Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Jungle (2010) and Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (2004). And taken off my imaginary hat before gigantic achievements such as Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) or Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), which need to be revisited now and then. I have likewise revered Ian Kershaw’s work in The Hitler Myth: Image and Reality in the Third Reich (1987) and, on the literary front, absolutely loved John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (2003) and Humphrey Carpenter’s The Angry Young Men: A Literary Comedy of the 1950s (2002). Sometimes books talk to each other without the authors knowing it in the individual experience of readers and, so, I find that Pavla Miller’s short but intense Patriarchy (2017) complements very well Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning (2018)–another book I would include in our basic education together with Carson’s.

Unfortunately, I don’t read illustrated books for children–I say unfortunately because we adults stupidly miss in this way the most beautiful books published each year. My personal award for prettiest book read in 2018 goes then to the British Library’s Harry Potter: A History of Magic (2017), the companion to the recent exhibition, and a book that manages to be highly informative and a true visual pleasure. Finally, I have already enthused here about Pablo Poó’s Espabila chaval (2017), worth one hundred novels because of his impeccable understanding of what is wrong with current secondary education or, rather, with under-18 students.

How about the fiction? Well, whereas I would award the books above named an A or A+ (or 4 to 5 stars in Amazon’s and GoodReads’ parlance), the best novels I have read are, with few exceptions, B+ to A-. I find, anyway, that recommending novels is harder than recommending non-fiction/essays for whereas all readers should read Silent Spring to be informed, regardless of whether it bores them or no, with fiction boredom does play a bigger role. Thus, I can insist that you should read Albright’s Fascism but I have fewer elements to argue that you should read Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here (1935), the novel that best narrates what she discusses. I find Lewis’ tale very exciting but, then, you might not. Take, then, the following list as a very personal record of the fiction that has kept me turning pages, sometimes for hours.

Margaret Oliphant’s Hester (1883) is a splendid Victorian novel about a woman’s failure to pass on to the next generation the power she has acquired by accident. John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (1935) is a novel for children that many connect with Harry Potter but that is worth reading on its own, if possibly re-visiting the 1980s TV adaptation. I don’t particularly like the work of Doris Lessing but I have found much to enjoy in my second reading of The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974). I can say the same about Lucia Berlin’s short stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women (2016)–which everyone praised so highly a while ago–and young Abi Andrews’s The Word for Woman is Wilderness (2018), a mixture of fiction and non-fiction which is simply awesome. André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name (2007) and Michael Chabon’s Moonglow (2016) are the novels I would award an A, a mark I will also award to Octavio Salazar Benítez’ Autorretrato de un macho disidente (2017), if only because it is a brave, singular book which too many readers will miss.

Forget Kevin Spacey and the American TV series, and do read Michael Dobbs’s original trilogy: House of Cards (1989), To Play the King (1992), The Final Cut (1995). If possible, see the author speaking in any of the videos available on YouTube, he’s a most interesting gentleman! So is John le Carré, who cannot do female characters well but kept me up for hours one night reading his The Secret Pilgrim (1991), a fusion of the novel and the short story collection that works very nicely. I was also thrilled by Robert Harris’ Fatherland (1992), which has so many points in common with Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night (1937) but is also a great thriller–and I speak as a reader who is not really into crime fiction. My one favourite author, Ian Rankin, has published this year possibly his best John Rebus novel, In a House of Lies (2018), a subtle tale suggesting that Mr. Jekyll has already overpowered Dr. Hyde. Following Rankin’s suggestion, I read Lawrence Block’s Everybody Dies (Matthew Scudder #14) (1998). Again: see the author on YouTube, what a lesson in writing!

For those of you who like SF, as I do, I must mention Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age (1965), Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories (2018) and Richard K. Morgan’s Martian novel Thin Air (2018). I found the tales in the collective volume by women authors I Premio Ripley. Relatos de ciencia ficción y terror (2017) very good. And was totally surprised by Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (2016), a novel translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright which narrates the efforts of a local man to give peaceful rest to the victims of terrorist bombings by assembling a corpse out of their bodily remains. A corpse that is suddenly animated…

Do read Silent Spring. On second thoughts, do read Fascism: A Warning. It is even more urgent. And share with other readers what you love, for those books truly worth reading are too often by-passed by the list of the best. Life is too short to waste on bad books…

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


Tuesday, December 11th, 2018

After re-reading last week William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954), simply because some classics need to be revisited now and then, I got curious about whether there was a re-telling of the story with girls, rather than the all-boy cast of characters. What I found out is that there have been two recent projects, with very different outcomes, which are very useful to comment on patriarchy.

On the one hand, American film-makers Scott McGehee and David Seigel seem to have abandoned their project, presented in August 2017, to make a new film adaptation only with girls, following a deal signed with Warner Brothers. There are, by the way, two film versions of Golding’s novel, one directed in 1963 by Peter Brook, the other in 1990 by Harry Hook. A Twitter storm-in-a-teacup made it clear to McGehee and Seigel that this was a bad, unwelcome idea. A typical tweet (by @froynextdoor) read ‘uhm lord of the flies is about the replication of systemic masculine toxicity, every 9th grader knows this, u can read about it on sparknotes’. Front-line feminist Roxane Gay tweeted ‘An all women remake of Lord of the Flies makes no sense because… the plot of that book wouldn’t happen with all women’. The comments by readers following The Guardian article ( make for very interesting reading. The discussion, as it may be expected, focuses on whether Golding depicts specifically masculinity or generally humanity, and on whether girls would behave exactly like boys. Opinions lean towards the conclusion that the novel is indeed about masculinity but girls are also capable of the same cruel behaviour. A crucial, bewildering paradox to which I’ll return in a couple of paragraphs.

The other project is a stage adaptation of Golding’s novel, presented last October by director Emma Jordan at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, later transferred to Sherman Theatre, Cardiff. A small affair (with apologies to Jordan), then, in comparison to a Hollywood production. The Guardian reviewer, Mark Fisher, generally praises Jordan’s ‘muscular and brutal production’ of Nigel Williams’ 1996 adaptation of Golding’s novel ( Jordan presents two novelties: the play is set in the present, not the 1950s and the cast is all-female… but the names of the boys in the novel are kept–which is confusing. This production appears to be similar to recent Shakespearean productions with all-women casts rather than a retelling with girl characters. Another reviewer, Natasha Tripney reads, nonetheless, the characters as girls: this version ‘makes sense–there are few things crueller than a schoolgirl–but the production doesn’t capitalise on this premise’ ( She complains that the production ‘lacks tension’ but welcomes it anyway, for ‘Jordan’s female-led production makes it clear that violence, tribalism and a hunger for power are not–and have never been–the sole preserve of men’ (my italics).

First lesson: it is fine for women to experiment with texts written by men by altering the gender of the original characters BUT it is not acceptable for men to do the same, as, regardless of their intentions, it is automatically assumed that the result will be sexist. If I were McGehee, I would hire Jordan as script writer and in this way the problem of who has the right to retell Golding’s story would be solved. Now, let’s address the problem of whether the plot of Golding’s novel would or wouldn’t work with girls.

I haven’t read Golding’s most immediate referent, The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean (1858) by Scottish author R. M. Ballantyne. This is a Robinsonade (as the stories inspired by Defoe’s classic are called) about three stranded English boys who cope very well with the tasks of survival and in several encounters with evil Polynesian tribesmen and British pirates. Golding, it appears, decided that in his own tale, his English boys would carry evil inside and this would emerge as they gradually detach themselves from civilization and from the hope of rescue. A sort of Heart of Darkness for boys, then, but without Kurtz’ excuse of having fallen under the allure of tribal adoration and of the dreamy jungle.

Is Golding’s novel a story about masculinity? Yes and no: it is a story about how patriarchal masculinity overwhelms the positive influence, or rather lead, of non-patriarchal masculinity over the community. This is NOT a story about how all men react, but a story about how some men (Jack and his hunters), who are already patriarchal, make the most of the circumstances to impose their rule over other men with a far more rational worldview (Ralph and Piggy).

I agree with reviewers who downplay the public school background of Golding’s tale but, since this will help, let me rephrase his plot with other well-known names. Suppose that only the boy students of Rowling’s Hogwarts got stranded on a desert island (where magic does not work…). Initially, all would follow Harry Potter’s Gryffindor-inspired, sensible leadership but the moment Draco Malfoy declared that Slytherin should rule, the same split that takes place in The Lord of the Flies would follow. Both Harry and Draco are men (well, boys) but this does not mean that they have a common understanding of what masculinity is, and this is what happens with Ralph and Jack in Golding’s novel. What the author is criticizing has been usually called evil but it is actually patriarchy, even though people are now stubbornly calling it ‘toxic masculinity’, a label which is confusing, distracts attention from patriarchy and is useless to discuss women’s own hunger for power.

As soon as cocky Jack appears leading his submissive choirboys we can already see that he is trouble. When, two thirds into the novel, most of the boys have joined Jack’s tribe of hunters, Ralph asks Piggy–whose real name Golding, very cruelly, does not reveal– ‘what makes things break up like they do?’. They do not have a clear answer but I do: it’s the sense of entitlement that patriarchal men act by. This is the key to everything we call evil, a befuddling pseudo-mystical concept I totally reject. The non-patriarchal, non-toxic men like Harry Potter or Ralph are not interested in power and lack that sense of entitlement but, since they are not as violent, they tend to fight a losing battle. If the providential officers had not appeared in the nick of time to rescue the boys, Ralph would have been hunted down and impaled, as Jack intends (remember the stick with two points that his lieutenant Roger makes?). Harry is almost destroyed by the mission Dumbledore gives him to cancel out Voldemort’s genocidal sense of patriarchal entitlement, but–and we must admire Rowling for that–he does so on his own terms, using intelligence rather than murderous violence.

So, can we have The Lord of the Flies with an all-female cast? Of course we can! Girls would be split in exactly the same way as the boys in the novel, BUT not because girls are essentially cruel or because they behave like boys. It’s because everyone, of any gender or genderless description, feels the pull of patriarchy and its promise to reward a personal sense of entitlement to power. So far, patriarchy has pushed women out of the rat race to accrue power, but the more conquests feminism makes, the more women we see acting out their own lust for power, and not at all to help other women.

I have recently heard Michael Dobbs, the author of the original House of Cards novels and Margaret Thatcher’s Chief of Staff (1975-1987) praise her thus: ‘But it was that drive and that anger, that determination, that obsessiveness that drove her on to achieve things which most of her people could not’. She stood out among other women and among other individuals of her low middle-class background but only to claim power for herself, not to do any good to others like her. I can easily see a girl named Maggie play the part of Jack in a female retelling of Lord of the Flies, and a girl called Katniss resisting her.

The confusion springs, then, from this idiotic, harmful, essentialist supposition that all men behave in one way and all women in another, which does not take into account the OBVIOUS intra-gender divisions. If anti-patriarchal men like Ralph were not constantly opposing patriarchal men like Jack, we would still be living in prehistoric times and women would be much, much, much worse off than they are now. It is, then, both silly and extremely dangerous to go on speaking in essentialist terms of men and women when, actually, human beings are divided along power lines.

Patriarchal individuals, whether men or women (or genderfluid), endorse the idea that society is a hierarchy determined by the degree of power each person enjoys (or lacks). Non-patriarchal individuals, whether men or women (or genderfluid) are not being motivated by a hunger for power, and so they (we!) prefer communal circles to hierarchical pyramids. This looks very much like the political division between right and left, but let’s not be naïve: many individuals in the left also seek power (remember Stalin?). I’m talking about something that transcends political divisions even though politics depends very much on it: the allure of power (for domination).

Golding published Lord of the Flies in 1954, at the end of the first decade in the Cold War. His boys are evacuees from some unnamed British colonial outpost, which they must leave following the explosion of a nuclear bomb in a war never mentioned, nor explained. The author had then a very good reason to abandon the optimistic Victorian view of Christian gentlemanliness in Coral Island and replace it with a Conradian pessimism. His novel is supposed to link tribal primitivism with modern barbarian so-called civilization and it is clear to me that the target of his attack were the patriarchal men like Jack or like the makers of the bomb, not the good guys like Ralph. What is very, very sad in Golding’s work is that it came out the same year as Tolkien’s final instalment in The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King. Why is it sad? Because, though profoundly damaged, Frodo manages to defeat Sauron with the help of his loyal Samwise and other friends in the Fellowship of the Ring. Instead, Ralph loses Piggy and has no chance at all of becoming the hero that will stop the villain Jack. He is radically alone, as Frodo never is–this is what is sad.

The lesson to learn, then, from Golding’s Lord of the Flies is how to protect ourselves from patriarchal fascists like Jack (or his imaginary female counterpart Maggie) by listening to the voice of reason. Like Piggy, who embodies it in the novel, this is a voice constantly bullied and denied–even by the supposedly sensible persons. Piggy begs Ralph not to tell the others that he is known by that body-shaming, awful nickname but he non-chalantly lets it be known, thus paving with this act the way for Piggy’s final murder. I do not mean that Ralph wants Piggy dead but that failing to protect reason leads to appalling consequences for all.

A last word: dystopias like Lord of the Flies are born of despair but make us cynical, which is why their current proliferation is so dangerous. If you want to redraw Golding’s tale changing gender lines, make the community of children varied (including boys and girls, hetero and LGTBI+). Tell how Jack and Maggie try but fail to establish heteronormative racist tribal patriarchy, and then have Ralph and Katniss and Hermione (in Piggy’s role), choose their colour, organize the whole community to resist their rule. If this works, Jack and Maggie end up isolated in a corner of the island, where, with some luck, they kill each other in a fight to determine who is more powerful; the rest build a democratic community based on mutual respect and tolerance. This works so well that when their adult rescuers appear it, they join it.

See how easy it is to think of a utopia that works? What, you find it sentimental? Well, some feeling would be welcome in our age of narcissistic unfeeling and hypocritical dystopian pessimism. And fight patriarchy not masculinity!

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


Thursday, November 22nd, 2018

I’ll begin today with a semantic quibble about the presence of the word ‘Bachelor’ in the name of the degree ‘Bachelor of Arts’ or BA.

Pop etymology indicates that the Medieval Latin word ‘baccalaureatus’ derives from Latin ‘baccalaureus’, a portmanteau of ‘bacca’ (berry) and ‘laurea’ (‘laurel’), because of the laurel crown awarded to graduates as if they were Roman victors. In Spanish this eventually gave ‘bachiller’, which refers to the man with a secondary education; ‘bachillera’ was used mockingly, since women were not educated to this level until the turn of the 19th century into the 20th. The word ‘bachillerato’, still used for the two-year course after E.S.O. and before university has, then, that peculiar origin. For higher education, Spanish preferred ‘licenciado’, that is to say, the person who has a license to teach to others what he has mastered (note my sexist choice of pronoun), usually in a five-year course. Now we have ‘graduado’ in imitation of English ‘graduate’. ‘Bachelor’ appears in English as an import from French meaning a young man in training, whether this is in arms or in academic knowledge, hence the eventual use of the word for the degree. Also for the man who remained single for life, as, I assume, that was the case for many minor knights and scholars too poor to marry (besides, bachelors eventually took orders, or already belonged to them). So, ladies, think how funny it is that you claim to have a Bachelor of Arts degree.

This prologue is just the opening salvo for what I want to discuss to day: what is the point of a BA in the Humanities, and specially in English Studies? Please, note that I mean the Spanish-style BA combining Language and Literature in a four-year course, not English in the Anglo-American sense of the study of the literary arts, though my argument also applies in many ways. My post today is specifically a very personal response to the assessment the degree I work for has gone through. We have passed it though not with flying colours because it seems we have shortcomings to solve in three areas, or, rather, types of skills: employability, teamwork and digital skills.

To understand what we’re going through now, I need to mention that universities are Medieval institutions that have survived the vagaries of time because they are very slowly to change. In recent years, meaning within the timespan of my own personal memory, this change has been accelerated with very questionable results. I am constantly narrating here how as researchers we are constantly on the verge of burnout but hardly given any psychological support, much less reward. I won’t go again through the tragedy of the chronically exploited younger staff. Rather, the focus is why we have degrees at all.

The old focus was that degrees exist to enhance the territory of knowledge, and, so, ‘Filología Inglesa’ first saw the light in 1952 in the Universidad de Salamanca because it was such a shame that English language and Literature were so woefully unknown in Spanish scholarly circles. The initial reason why ‘licenciaturas’ were established, then, was self-centred in the sense that the presence of the student body justified the tenure of the staff, so that they could generate knowledge mainly for scholarly use. The students attended university to benefit from, so to speak, the fallout of academic life and perhaps enter it themselves. Students who did not pursue an academic career (95%) were supposed to get an education, not necessarily professional training. The education was supposed to give them general credentials to find a job beyond the specific knowledge they had earned. A ‘licenciatura’ in ‘Filosofía y Letras’ meant that you were competent, intelligent and capable of further learning.

The current model–established in 2009 after an intermediate period in which ‘licenciaturas’ were reduced to four years rather than five and before MA degrees were established in Spain–is radically different. Now universities need to justify their very existence depending on what they contribute to society via results, usually connected with the employability of students. Let me give you an example. Suppose you have, as we do, a German language and Literature unit, which contributes to our BA degree and to others in the Facultat. As long as student demand of German reaches a minimum, this section survives. If, as happened in Universitat Rovira i Virgili years ago, the demand dwindles dramatically, then the section is closed, regardless of the research it contributes. There is usually a time of transition during which the State will wait for the tenured teachers to retire and will hire no more staff (or only associates that can be dismissed). But, yes, whole segments of knowledge can be lost in this way, and I’m not talking about obsolete science.

In this market-oriented new model, then, teaching matters more than research when deciding which Departments you keep alive and, what is more, even though universities are formally research centres, the cost of keeping certain units open is calculated on teaching-related statistics. Now, here’s the problem: we know that we’re giving our students an education but we do not know what it is for. Furthermore, if you think about it, BA degrees should not worry about employability because they exist as a bridge between secondary education and the advanced education provided by MA degrees and doctoral programmes. Technically, then, the burden of employability should fall on the MAs, which is not an exaggeration considering that old ‘licenciaturas’ were five-years long, thus the sum total of UK-styles BA and MA programmes (3+2 courses).

Employability is a very tricky question for a BA degree in English Studies: 75% of our students will end up being secondary-school teachers, whether they have a vocation or not, but 25% are open to other possibilities (jobs in management or in professions connected with publishing, translating, writing and so on). We cannot formally train our students to be teachers, for this task corresponds to the School of Education (though, paradoxically, they train mainly primary school teachers). So, we proceed on the basis that whatever our students learn will be later applied to their future profession through some intermediate stage, whether this is a formal MA or direct work experience.

As a Literature teacher, then, I train my students in skills that are 100% of direct scholarly application, should they decide to pursue an academic career, but that are supposed to be also of general applicability in any professional occupation requiring intellectual abilities (reading and interpreting texts, seeking sources, giving presentations, writing reports, and so on). I use a mixture of the traditional and the new model. I cannot, however, organize my teaching around the idea that I’m training students for professions they don’t even know they will have. As for teacher-training, well, I wasn’t trained myself: I made a good note of what my teachers did and then copied what I think worked best. Other than presenting myself as a model to follow or not, I don’t know how to train future teachers, thinking besides that they might teach secondary school, which I have never taught, and against a mid-21st century background with God knows what kind of classroom technology (and students!).

Teamwork is an obsession with current regulators of educational rules that in practice all students hate. This is why they don’t like participating in class discussion, which is our basic, most uniformly used type of teamwork. I keep on telling my students that classroom work is collaboration and that I’m not there to lecture (only sometimes) but to guide them in collective discussion–if only for the sake of practising English. They do know that a class is a team which must work together but this is resisted every day in class. If I ask my students to work in pairs or in small groups of up to four and then walk around and talk to each little group that works well (though our classroom space is hardly designed for that). Ask them, however, to work in teams on a project and you have that typical situation: out of, say, five students, two do nothing, two do a little and one does everything, which ends up benefitting the lazy ones. Perhaps that is realistic training for actual job-related situations but students tend to see teamwork as frustrating (at least in this little corner of the university where I work). This is why I have tried other kinds of teamwork: producing collective volumes as e-books (available from the digital repository). The problem, I’m told, is that this is not visible in the official syllabus. Well, it is not because I’m still experimenting (this year, for instance, I’m thinking of applying project-oriented teaching to second year teaching, rather than third and fourth).

Digital skills–here I feel like screaming…!!! Teachers born in the 1960s and before should be learning digital skills from the digital natives in their classroom and not the other way round. We have self-trained at each point since the internet first reached Spain (in 1996) to use e-mail, online catalogues and databases, blogs, websites and the social networks. I don’t understand, then, why we should be made responsible for the digital training of our students–persons who often sit in class compulsively checking their cellphones rather than listening to us. Just let me explain that I do want to have my students collaborate in a booktube channel and produce basic documentaries to accompany papers or dissertations. However, when I asked my university for help to learn the required skills, they basically told me that they lack the budget and the facilities. I asked next the student delegation to find me a student with advanced audiovisual know-how who could train me and other students, supposing that we must have some vloggers in our classrooms. So far, no luck. I contacted then a professional company but they asked for 1000 euros which with our ridiculous yearly budgets is an impossible quantity (we get now one fourth of the money I could use back in 2005-8 as Head of Department and that was already very little).

I am, in short, plain angry to be constantly judged, as a teacher and as a researcher, by standards that can never be met because they are fundamentally elusive. Also the other way round: I have the suspicion that the standards chosen are elusive so that we can never be up to task. It’s this constant feeling that you’re working hard to run a 100-metre race and when you get to the starting line than you’re told that actually you must also compete in other events for which you didn’t know you had to train. If you manage you get some inkling, by the next time you’re assessed rules have, anyway, changed again.

The market, in short, wants to invest as little as possible in educating citizens, preferring instead to train workers that must have skills universally employable so that they can be moved around from one badly-paid job to the next. The market wants, in addition, to have us, university teachers, assume the burden of passing on skills for which we have not been trained, while at the same time it undermines the respectability of the academic skills we do possess. I often feel that the message I’m being sent is that, as a Literature teacher, I am a useless luxury and, as such, society would be better off without me. And I’m not speaking here of myself personally but of all Literature teachers in the world.

I must, then, justify how what I teach trains the university’s clients (are they still students?) for employability, team work and the use of digital technologies. Well, I have a double answer to that: a) obviously and b) not at all, depending on whether you are willing to value what we, Literature teachers do, or not. We can always improve our teaching in relation to our own subject needs but we cannot turn critical scholarly work on William Shakespeare into skills generally needed for current jobs. It is the employers’ responsibility to train employees, not ours, for we’re educators–and that’s a different set of skills. Don’t make us, then, shoulder a burden which belongs to the market, not to the university.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


Monday, November 12th, 2018

I was watching last week the new wonder woman of Spanish music, Rosalía, in an interview on TV (in Pablo Motos’ El Hormiguero) and she confirmed that, indeed, her new recording, El mal querer, deals with ‘el poder femenino’ (I’m not sure whether she means female, women’s or feminine power). Rosalía herself is an example of sudden artistic empowerment that I don’t quite understand, as I think that we’re missing crucial information about her family background and her training as a musician. But that’s not my point (to clarify matters: like millions of people around the world, I love what she does, it’s so thrilling and refreshing!). My point is this: why do we speak of power rather than of liberation? When did liberation stop being a keyword for feminism?

The very accomplished article ‘Empowerment: The History of a Key Concept in Contemporary Development Discourse’ by Anne-Emmanuèle Calvès (–empowerment-the-history-of-a-key-concept.htm) offers a very useful overview of how this term became so widespread and why. She cites as a major inspiration ‘the conscientization approach developed by the Brazilian theorist Paulo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1968’. According to Calvès, the 1970s were the time when ‘the term formally come into usage by social service providers and researchers’, particularly after Barbara Solomon’s Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities (1976).

 The current popularity of ‘empowerment’, however, sinks its roots in the mid-1990s, when,Calvès explains, it firmly ‘entered institutionalized discourse on women in development’ thanks to feminist NGOs. Calvès highlights the UN’s InternationalConference on Population and Development (Cairo 1994) as one of the main events ‘to give the concept international visibility’. Precisely, the article by Ann Ferguson ‘Empowerment, Development and Women’s Liberation’–one of the few publications linking the two concepts that interest me–appears in a book published by the UN’s University Press, The Political Interests of Gender Revisited (Anna G. Jónasdóttir and KathleenB. Jones, eds., 2009, 85–103. The article itself is not available online but you may easily find the volume’s introduction.

I have serious doubts about the word ‘empowerment’ because it seems to be intrinsically patriarchal. If, as I am preaching, patriarchy is a form of hierarchical social organization characterized by its placing individuals in different ranks according to the power they wield, why is empowerment desirable? If you start from a position of oppression and you manage to empower yourself, you may end up in a higher position but how do you contribute to undoing the very system of power? Could it be that we use empowerment mistakenly and we actually mean ‘liberation’?

Let me go back to Rosalía (born in 1993) to discuss next another young woman also born when the word ‘empowerment’ was become popularized, Malala Yousafzai (born in 1997).

As far as I know, Rosalía has freely taken all the decisions concerning her career and has not been the object of any patriarchal attempts to curtail her artistic creativity. In short, she is enjoying the chance to develop her personal agency in freedom (within the legal and moral limits of current Spanish legislation) like any other young man of her generation and inclinations. Agency, incidentally, is a word that seems to have disappeared from the horizon, though it seemed to be ubiquitous just a few years ago. So, how’s Rosalía a ‘powerful woman’ rather than a ‘free’ or ‘liberated’ woman? And how come ‘liberated’ has taken on this sexualized meaning? It seems to me that the ‘poder femenino’ she invokes and maybe embodies is a position, rather than a reality, a sort of pre-emptive strike against the patriarchal power that might limit her–it’s a way of saying ‘you can’t touch me’,even though, as we know, successful women like Rosalía attract much attention from misogynistic haters. Her ‘power’, then, is in how her popularity and public presence outdo the control that the patriarchal trolls would use, if they could, against her. It’s not power to repress or control others.

 Now takeMalala, the 2014 winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace and, thus, also another example of empowerment–or is it liberation? Unlike Rosalía, Malala grew up in an environment dominated by an extreme patriarchal regime, that of the Taliban in her native Pakistan. Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, was motivated by his personal and professional circumstances to become an anti-patriarchal activist,willing to sacrifice his own life to give girls in his community an education.His sisters never attended school but he made sure that his daughter and other girls like her would have a school to welcome them: the one he himself ran. Malala learned her own educational activism from her father and almost lost her life in 2012 when a Taliban patriarchal terrorist shot her in the head. The family relocated then to the United Kingdom, from where both Malala and her father continue their task of empowering (or is it liberating?) other girls by providing, to begin with, the inspiration to demand an education.

Empowerment takes, then, as many forms as personal experience dictates and is supposed to act, as I was arguing, as a barrier against further oppression by shifting the relationships of power and introducing a better balance. This is where my misgivings resurface: if power is, say, a cake, the more I eat, the less you eat–which means that empowerment is necessarily finite and also that those in power will always resist giving any away. This is how things seem to be working so far: the oppressed demand a bigger share of the cake, which they seem to be getting but the ones who feel entitled to holding the whole cake under their control do not like the situation a bit (a bite?). Hence all the lashing out, from Taliban violence to online trolling, simply because we cannot all be empowered. In contrast, we could all be free, that is to say, liberated from the restrictions imposed by patriarchy if only we started thinking about who baked the cake and why we have to eat it at all for, you see?, you cannot have your cake and eat it, too.

Bob Pease writes that ‘The challenge that confronts men is to find ways to exercise power without oppressing anyone. For men to change for the better, power must be redefined so that men can feel powerful while doing the tasks that are not traditional for men’ (30 in Carabí & Armengol, editors, Alternative Masculinities for a Changing World), such as… rearing children, he adds. I think these words encapsulate much of what is wrong with empowerment: what does ‘feel powerful’ mean, whether you’re a man or a woman? Isn’t Pease himself suggesting that being powerful is the same as having the capacity to oppress others? How can you ‘exercise power’ without controlling others? If you ask me, for men to change they should oppose the very idea of patriarchal power to liberate themselves and others from oppression–ask Ziauddin Yousafzai whether being powerful is a priority for him. He is the very example of what liberation is for men and for women under harsh patriarchal regimes. Why, then, knowing as we do that patriarchy survives because it appeals to men with a sense of entitlement to power, we want to empower women? Again: why not liberate everyone from the shackles of power?

Women who manage to choose how to live their lives, whether they’re called Rosalía or Malala, are, to me, not instances of empowerment but of freedom. Power, as we see in patriarchal men, does not free you: it’s the other way round–it enslaves you to living life as others dictate. If you’re thinking that I’m wrong and that only enjoying a great amount of power guarantees your personal freedom then you don’t mean power, you mean agency. Vladimir Putin has plenty of power and he’s not using it for his personal liberation: he’s using it to compete with other men for the title of biggest living patriarch. Angela Merkel also has much power–but isn’t she the counterexample of women’s liberation? Perhaps she’ll feel truly liberated when she retires next year and can finally use her agency to help others rather than uphold, as she is doing, the status quo.

 I think I’ve now hit on the key of my own personal philosophy of power, perhaps I should call it anti-power. If being powerful is being in a position to cause things tohappen (and being powerless is being in a position in which you can’t stopthings from happening), then I can say that the only use I see in empowerment is an altruistic ability to make life better for others. Rosalía’s ‘poder femenino’ should ideally translate into lending a hand so that other persons can flourish,as she is doing. Malala is more clearly following this path already, as are others. I don’t mean Bill-Gates-style philanthropy (though this is much better than what he used to embody and now Elon Musk embodies) or charity, not even NGO activism but a rethinking of what power is for. If, as a teacher, I am in a position to use my (very limited) power to benefit the careers of others who will in their turn help others, this is how I should use it. This may sound endogamic but that’s not at all what I mean. Patriarchy will be undone when we,men and women, ask ourselves ‘how can I help?’ rather than ‘how can I dominate?’

I’ll end by suggesting that empowerment is much more popular than liberation because the very idea of power is, regrettably, too glamorous. We also need to recall that empowerment is mainly a US export, pace Paolo Freire and NGO activism, and that in American culture the opposite of being powerful is not just being powerless but being a loser, which is even worse. Perhaps if we free ourselves from the obligation of being a winner that would be a step forward towards true liberation and the abandonment of the current obsession with power, which, trust me, is suspiciously patriarchal.


Monday, November 5th, 2018

I was recently re-reading Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) in the elegant translation by Peter Bondanella (Oxford UP, 2008), when I came across this passage in ‘Chapter XXX: Of Fortune’s Power in Human Affairs and How She Can Be Resisted’: ‘I certainly believe this: that it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because Fortune is a woman, and if you want to keep her under it is necessary to beat her and force her down’ (86-87).

I’m still reeling from the force of the slap, for this was possibly three weeks ago and I can’t stop thinking about these words. I didn’t feel feminist indignation at Machiavelli’s blatant misogyny, which should be any thinking woman’s reaction, but a very strong sense of exclusion: I felt as if he was telling me to my face from his grave ‘you are a woman and the words you are reading are not for you’. I also felt positively unwanted in the circles discussing The Prince, perhaps, above all, because Bondanella added no explanatory note to this rude remark (among the many, many devoted to much minor details).

He did explain, as editor, that Fortune was habitually represented as a woman–for, I’ll add, Fortune is fickle and so are women. Bondanella also noted that, as I could check in his bibliography, very few women scholars have done work on Machiavelli; this comes as no surprise because they possibly felt the same rotund punch in the guts that I felt. Incidentally, Bondanella neglected to mention that Machiavelli was married (to Marietta Corsini) and he had six children. It took me a few clicks to get her name and the number of children, not out of idle curiosity but because I wanted to know whether Machiavelli could possibly be gay. I feel even more downhearted than usual when gay men support patriarchy.

Then, last week I was reading Humphrey Carpenter’s selection of Tolkien’s letters (published in 1981) and enjoying it very much until I came to a letter sent to one of his three sons, Michael, dated 6-8 March 1941. Tolkien was in the middle of writing The Lord of the Rings and, so, the female Elf Galadriel already existed, also Lúthien in The Silmarillion, both characters much praised by feminist critics. Incidentally, Tolkien also had a daughter, Priscilla, 13 at the time.

Tolkien theorizes in this letter to his son about how ‘The sexual impulse makes women (naturally when unspoiled more unselfish) very sympathetic and understanding, or specially desirous of being so (or seeming so), and very ready to enter into all interests, as far as they can, from ties to religion, of the young man they are attracted to’ (49). Um, I’ve always had my doubts about this fantasy of the Elf woman (Arwen) who gives up her mortality to marry a mere mortal (Aragorn). Tolkien continues in the same vein: women are not deceivers (what a relief!) but moved by ‘the servient, helpmeet instinct, generously warmed by desire and young blood’ (49).

As an Oxford professor, Tolkien had learned that women ‘can in fact often achieve very remarkable insight and understanding, even of things outside their natural range: for it is their gift to be perceptive, stimulated, fertilized (in many other matters than the physical) by the male. Every teacher knows that’ (49). That possibly explains why so many male teachers see no difference between different types of fertilization in different rooms. Tolkien, not the kind to have affairs with his female students, explains himself further thus: ‘How quickly an intelligent woman can be taught, grasp his ideas, see his point–and how (with rare exceptions) they can go no further, when they leave his hand, or when they cease to take a personal interest in him’ (49). Learning for women, to sum up, is a love affair not with knowledge but with male teachers. I wonder what Tolkien made of female teachers and male students.

So, again the slap in the face, the punch in the gut, though neither Machiavelli nor Tolkien seem to understand, particularly Tolkien, that we women can read in their texts their candid revelations about masculinity. My message to all the feminist critics wasting their time in endless discussions of how empowered poor Eówyn is that they should look, rather, into how the villain Sauron’s defeat matters less than Aragorn’s ‘legitimate’ patriarchal entitlement to the throne of his ancestors. By the way: Tolkien engraved on his wife’s tomb the name of Lúthien, the brave Elf she had inspired. Here’s something the two women have in common: Lúthien, like Arwen, gave up immortality to marry a man; Edith, a fervent  Anglican, became a Catholic to please the ultra-conservative Tolkien before they married. Lúthien never regretted her choice but Edith, Humphrey Carpenter informs us, raged and raged (she hated compulsory confession) until her husband allowed her in 1940 (they had married in 1916) to attend church as she pleased.

What I am describing is yet another case of noticing the idol’s clay feet. I don’t mean that either Machiavelli or Tolkien are my personal idols but that most texts, past and present, which are extremely relevant to how we think and read in Western culture exclude 50% of humankind. (Of course, you silly girl!). Those reluctant to changing any rules of grammar concerning genre usually claim that ‘man/men’ is often a generic way of referring to all human beings, and that we women exaggerate when we complain against this usage. What I find, however, is that actually ‘man/men’ refers specifically to the male half of humankind and if you press me actually to its patriarchal top. Take the title of Damien Chazell’s recent film on Neil Armstrong, First Man: what is the word ‘man’ doing there? Does it actually mean ‘person’? Or is it, as I suspect, another neglectful way of telling us women, ‘none of you have travelled to the Moon’ (because we men didn’t allow you)? One more slap… (Now check what the Mercury 13 programme was).

I’m trying to be fair here and think of how often women’s writing excludes men, which is often, I’m sure, particularly in radical feminist works. The difference, I think, is that male readers (and please excuse my essentialism) are less likely to be caught unaware, as we are. If you read a feminist text you know where you stand. The problem with most patriarchal texts is that they tend to conceal their filiation not necessarily out of hypocrisy but because they assume that the whole world is patriarchal. Only when some kind of explanation is offered (e.g. Tolkien’s letter) are the true colours of the man in question displayed. It is, I believe, far less likely for a feminist woman to avoid commenting on her own gender views. Even so, I just don’t see a radical feminist making androphobic comments such as ‘Destiny is like a man and he needs to be grabbed by the testicles to be controlled’ or ‘male students only learn if they feel erotically bound to their female teachers but, even so, their ability to learn evaporates the moment she shows disinterest’. Amazing how things sound when you reverse gender.

Reading recently Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution (a collection of lucid blog posts) I had to agree with her that it is very difficult to relax at the end of the day without being slapped in the face by patriarchy in any of the fictions and non-fictions we consume. I started watching a few days ago 1922, a Netflix movie based on Stephen King’s eponymous novella, and I stopped about 15 minutes into it when farmer Wilf James convinces his teen son Henry that they should kill his mother Arlette (she insists on selling the land they live off and move elsewhere). I did grasp that King and Netflix intended this crime to be a horrendous example of patriarchal abuse, and I knew that Wilf’s and Henry’s lives would be destroyed by it–but is this what I want to see? How does this help male viewers be interested in undermining patriarchy? How many enjoyed the very graphic scene of Arlette’s murder? The difference in relation to either The Prince of The Lord of the Rings is that I can ignore 1922 without feeling that my cultural capital is seriously diminished–but how can I ignore Machiavelli or Tolkien? I must read them, if only to better understand my own marginal position in a patriarchal world.

I think sometimes of what the world was like for, say, Mary Wollstonecraft, who understood so well her own marginal position 200 years ago and I wonder what it was like to know that, as a woman, you were not even a citizen with full rights. Some of us in a handful of Western countries have been told that we are equal to men but we get these constant reminders that we are not. You may be thinking that it is very naïve of me to expect to connect with Machiavelli and Tolkien, as they are instances of very different times and ways of thinking but here’s my question–how do we go on reading what we should read to be cultured persons without being constantly insulted as women? For we need to read men, right? It’s not a matter of not reading The Prince. And I certainly don’t want to ignore The Lord of the Rings (as I don’t want any man to ignore Frankenstein).

Here’s a riddle to finish: this is 2018 and no woman has travelled to the Moon yet–can we, then, say that the human species has reached our satellite? Will there ever be a film called First Woman about how the first human to step on Mars will be/was a woman?

Deep sigh.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


Tuesday, October 30th, 2018

Comparing the lists of works cited in pre-1990s bibliography and in recent academic publications, it is obvious that we are about to reach a critical turning point after which our secondary sources will overwhelm our writing. At least this is how I feel.

There are, I think, two justifications for the use of quotations in academic work. One is the need to prove that you know how to find the relevant sources–a task now made easier by digital databases but also more onerous, precisely because you can download in one afternoon a torrent of information that takes time you don’t have to digest. The other is the need to show that your argumentation is in touch with current debates on your topic and that you’re not rediscovering the wheel.

Beyond these two factors, it used to be the case that quotations were used to strengthen a point of your thesis or because the author in question expressed an idea with greater accuracy than you could muster. Now, every article begins with a barrage of increasingly short quotations and numerous parenthetical references to other sources simply alluded to by author’s surname, before a thesis can be minimally discerned. This is usually offered but only developed, if at all, many paragraphs later into the article as the barrage of quotations and references continues. In contrast, pre-1990s articles often rely on a maximum of ten sources, often no more than six, leaving thus room for close reading–which is what we need to do–and more importantly, for the expression of new ideas in creative ways.

How have we reached this situation? It’s a simply matter of numbers: the amount of English Studies specialists publishing new work in the 21st century is simply staggering. This means that in order to produce a reasonable list of works cited that does not consume 50% of the paper, as researchers we need to invest an enormous time in a) making a list of the relevant bibliography, b) reading as much and as fast as we can, c) taking notes. Then, once we have amassed about as many words as we can write (this happens to me every time), we need to start paring down all the information so painstakingly amassed in order to select the few precious words we can quote. I tend to write much more than I need for the limited word count we can fill in journal articles or collective books, which means that I need to weigh very carefully every secondary source I insert, hoping nobody will notice omissions. Needless to say, I try but do not always manage to read in depth all the sources I use, for there must be a balance between the time we consume in writing each piece and its importance in our research.

This issue of the proliferation of secondary sources is a problem affecting all topics, since there are specialists in all areas. I grant that more bibliography is generated on the canonical classics than on newer work but writing about some popular favourites–for instance, The Hunger Games–is also daunting. Basically, no matter what you want to discuss it takes much longer to combine your writing with the sources than to express what you wish to say. My student tutorees often complain that once they read the bibliography on their topic they feel dismayed rather than encouraged, and almost crowded out of their dissertations by the many other researchers they need to name. This was one of the reasons why I started writing this very blog: to be able to express my ideas in a simple, direct way without the compulsory search for bibliography–here I just quote what I really need to quote–and the insertion of footnotes.

In Catalan Studies matters are, naturally, very different. The number of specialists is tiny in comparison to those in English Studies, which means that whole stretches of Catalan Literature are still unexplored (or neglected, depending on how you look at it). Last Saturday I presented the collective book I have edited, Explorant Mecanoscrit del segon origen: Noves lectures (Orciny Press,, which is a translation of the monographic issue published in English in 2017 by the online journal Alambique ( I still marvel that this is pioneering work–sorry to brag–despite the fact that Manuel de Pedrolo’s best-known volume (he published 128!) has sold more than 1,500,000 copies since 1974 when it appeared and has been read practically by every Catalan speaker under 50. There was a gap to fill in, it seems, and I’m glad to have helped.

If you look at the works cited list for each of the six articles in the new volume, you will immediately see that the bibliography on Pedrolo is far more limited than that on his anglophone equivalents, such as Graham Greene or George Orwell. We (the six authors) have nonetheless used the whole bag of tricks to give each of our essays the expected list of 25/35 secondary sources, almost scrapping the bottom of the barrel and bringing in an assortment of tangential items (such as newspaper articles, documentaries and so on) into our work. I have enjoyed, for once, the certainty that the limited list of extant sources is all the available bibliography there is, and relished my familiarity with most of the entries.

This is why last Wednesday 24 was such an exceptional day for me. I was invited to participate in the one-day conference at the Universitat de Barcelona, ‘Manuel de Pedrolo, una mirada oberta’, and I had the immense pleasure to see in the same room most specialists in Pedrolo–almost the complete bibliography! In no particular order: Antoni Munné-Jordà, Víctor Martínez-Gil, Àlex Martín, Elisabet Armengol, Anna Maria Villalonga, Patrizio Rigobon, Francesc Ardolino, Ramon X. Rosselló, Jordi Coca and my co-authors Pedro Nilsson-Fernàndez and Anna Maria Moreno-Bedmar (who invited me, for which I’m very thankful). This may be a common situation for other researchers but, as a non-native specialist in English Studies I always have the impression that the inner circles of each area I’m interested in happen elsewhere, and this is the first time when I find myself not only part of a circle but in the presence of most of its members.

Beautiful as the meeting on Pedrolo was, it was also further proof that, generally speaking, textuality is overwhelming conversation by which I mean that, because the paper presentations were so many and so long, we had hardly time to debate the issues we had ourselves raised. This is always frustrating to me, to the point that once I considered with a friend the possibility of having a one-day conference organized on the basis of speed-dating, with academics actually talking to each other for a few minutes at least and reading the papers either before or after the event. The way we do things now, interaction happens too seldom and too hurriedly, which means that what we produce in writing is not as advanced as it might be.

Sometimes you need someone from outside to realize that things are far from ideal. A non-academic friend who attended the presentation of Explorant Mecanoscrit del segon origen was very much surprised to see that some of my co-authors were meeting then for the first time. He had assumed that a collective book springs from a series of previous conversations in which we draw a plan for the volume, then divide the tasks and next spend time debating each point in our corresponding papers. I explained that actually we tend not to read each other’s work when we participate in a collective volume until this is published (at least, I always do that), and he was flabbergasted. In a way, so am I but, then, as I have just pointed out, not even seminars have room for debate.

I’m not the only one to be calling for a slowing down of academic life, of course, but the particular bee in my bonnet is, I insist, conversation. In our frenzy to produce texts than count as research, we have forgotten how to communicate with each other–we read and quote each other, but this is not real conversation. It might even be a sign of profound loneliness. In my days as a naïve undergrad I imagined that joining academia would mean enjoying whole afternoons of intelligent conversation once morning lectures were over, but this has never happened. I really believe in the traditional institution of the common room, but instead what we get is each researcher in their office answering e-mails. If we stop to talk, this happens mostly in the corridor, as we rush from office to classroom (or bathroom!). Conversation has the bad reputation of being idle chat, when it might solve the problem of how to slow down hectic academic life and produce less but better research. (And here I am, writing to whoever is reading me instead of discussing books with my ultra-busy Department colleagues…).

So, to sum up my sketchy argument today–easy access to what others write thousands of miles away is a miracle in comparison to my days as a pre-internet PhD candidate, yet digitalization and the very growth of English Studies has also generated the burden of colossal works cited lists. Experiences like the recent Pedrolo seminar show me that, sometimes, small is much better than big but also that textuality carries too much weight in comparison to conversation. If only we could re-learn the almost lost art of conversation, academic life would slow down and we could produce better research. Less prolific, of course, but deeper. (But, then, would quoting from live personal communication in papers be valid?).

I wonder which Departments still have common rooms and whether they’re ever used for truly meaningful academic conversation. Or has this never happened?

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

I have been trying to avoid the thorny subject of Catalan independence here but the recent hullaballoo caused by the (supposed) misreading of Agustí Colominas’ words on a television interview last 17 October might be useful to offer an alternative, gendered interpretation of the self-styled ‘procés’.

My personal political opinion is simple enough: Catalan independence should be won in a legal referendum with at least 75% to 80% support for–as Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya has recently acknowledged and former Generalitat President Artur Mas also acknowledged–you cannot start a new state with only half the citizens’ support. You risk in this way a terrible split, at worst a civil war (though I doubt this would happen here). The Catalan conflict is not really a matter of Spain versus Catalonia but of how the independentists are trying to rush the political process without a convincing discourse that entices hostile, reluctant or even just indifferent people to their cause. Argue your case with solid ideas, explain how a Catalan Republic would be much better than any top-of-the-world Scandinavian country and then let’s vote. Legally, with UN and EU backing, if not with that of Spain, for who could stop a unified population absolutely convinced of what they want (which is not the case now)?

Colominas’ unfortunate words raised the issue of violence, which had been so far more or less suppressed. I mean mortal violence–much has been said, of course, about the brutal, intolerable use of police repression on October 1st 2017. Allow me to explain that Agustí Colominas is a historian and political theorist attached as major ideologist to Carles Puigdemont’s Crida Nacional, soon to become a formal political party. This is why his words carry so much weight. Speaking on La Xarxa, Colominas was trying to celebrate the fact that Catalan independentism has chosen a pacifist strategy. However, the way he defended this argument was most awkward (or a Freudian slip…): ‘There were a number of naïve steps. No doubt. Above all, if you try to carry out this very Catalan experiment of trying to get independence without a single death’. He was asked whether people should die for an idea and he replied that ‘so far, in all independences in the world people have died. In ours we have decided we don’t want that. If you make that decision, then it takes longer. The process is far longer’.

Unsurprisingly, his ambiguous wording was interpreted as evidence that Colominas was asking for human life to be sacrificed if necessary for the sake of Catalan independence. The reactions on Twitter and other media were furious, including that of Esquerra’s notorious member of Parliament, Gabriel Rufián. Not too elegantly, Colomina twitted back: ‘You can see that Gabriel Rufián possibly does not understand Catalan. I’ll translate [into Spanish Castilian] and simplify: “the Catalan process does not want any dead and this why it will take longer to accomplish our aim”’ (“el procés català no desitja morts i per això portarà més temps aconseguir l’objectiu”). Fair enough and happy to read so.

Now, here’s a nasty surprise–last 24 August, Stanford University professor Joan Ramon Resina (director of the Iberian Studies Programme) suggested in an interview published by VilaWeb that sacrificing Catalan lives could have helped defend the Republic, declared on 27 October but quickly suppressed for lack of internal and external support. Acknowledging that he is speaking from a position of complete safety (he lives in California), Resina describes a terrifying scenario, imagining that the Catalan Parliament could have been stormed and the Spanish State would have used then extreme violence, leading to fatalities. The cost of the “collateral victims” (his own quotation marks) ‘would have been too high for the European institutions’ and, presumably, independence would have followed. Next, he adds: ‘I have trouble understanding those who say that a people’s freedom is not worth a single victim. Great causes have never been won with anaesthesia. Why should freedom be cheaper in Catalonia than in other places?’ (

Here’s the answer: because Catalonia–like all civilized nations–should aspire to being a dignified post-patriarchal nation that respects human rights and lives, and not another patriarchal national aberration, full of pointless violence and bloodshed. Resina’s suggestion that the death of some individuals hypothetically murdered by Spanish police, or troops, could be a desirable event in our history is disgusting, despicable, atrocious and, above all, deeply anti-Catalan. Even Colominas understands that.

I have always wanted to write a book about the gender issues connecting the quadrangle formed by the Basque Country and Catalonia, plus Ireland and Scotland. I won’t do that because I’m too busy dismantling patriarchy in other projects (I’m currently writing about villainy) and, so, I’ll use this post as a sort of summary of my project. I’ll insist here on the central point of my theorization: patriarchy is not masculinity–as we can see, many men reacted in horror after (mis)interpreting Colominas’ words as a call to take up arms and sacrifice life for a political ideal. Theirs is what I would call an anti-patriarchal position, one that defends argumentation and a pacific, legal struggle rather than revolution–for this is 2018, not 1789 or 1917, and we know how bloody revolutions end. So this is what my imaginary book would discuss. Please, bear with me.

If you notice, what characterizes the case of Ireland and the Basque Country is that both had terrorist movements presenting themselves as political organizations for the defence of the homeland (following the chivalric scenario of the knights saving the damsel in distress). Fernando Aramburu’s excellent novel Patria (2016)–now filmed as an HBO series–has done a very good job of dissecting the absurdity of E.T.A., which left in its gory wake 800 dead and hundreds of casualties, in a mad bid to attain the independence of the Basque Country. Today, the independentist option is peacefully represented by legal party Euskal Herria Bildu and growing, following the non-violent Catalan process.

Likewise, the I.R.A. (in its different incarnations and factions) killed hundreds and maimed hundreds more, before surrendering to plain reality and accepting that the Republic of Ireland and British Northern Ireland could not be unified by force. Brexit will perhaps manage the deed, probably with a good share of personal suffering but, hopefully, no loss of limb or life. A woman too often neglected, Mo Mowland, was behind the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998, which brought much needed common sense and placed Sinn Feinn firmly within Northern Irish legality. Of course, another woman, Margaret Thatcher, was responsible for responding to terrorist patriarchal violence with even more patriarchal violence, coming from the state. But, then, this reinforces my notion that patriarchy is not masculinity but a way of organizing society and personal life through fear and violence.

My thesis is that in Ireland and in the Basque Country the independentist, national political struggle was coloured by gender values attached to classic patriarchal masculinity: glory, honour, duty. This is both the basis of militarism and of terrorism, which is why it is sometimes so hard to distinguish heroes from villains (what was Napoleon?). You are probably thinking that women were also part of E.T.A. and I.R.A. and that some are today ISIS supporters. The matter of the poor sex slaves, represented by the new Nobel Prize winner for Peace, Nadia Murad, should make it obvious to you that ISIS is an extremely patriarchal terrorist organization–far beyond any patriarchal European ideology and criminal band. At the same time, you should begin to see that all violence is based on the typical sense of patriarchal entitlement: I kill (or try to kill) you because I personally decide that your life matters less than my struggle, even though by using violence I undermine the justification for my own fight and cause state violence to grow accordingly.

Now, Scotland and Catalonia also had their own patriarchal terrorist movements–but they were small. Scottish author Ian Rankin refers in his novels to the 1950s/1970s proto-terrorist Sword and Shield, but this appears to be his own invention (is it?). The Scottish National Liberation Army (SNLA), a.k.a. the Tartan Terrorists, was formed in 1979–after the failed referendum for devolution–by one Adam Busby jr., a convicted terrorist since 2010. Mr. Busby preferred letter bombs and even parcel bombs–in the style of the infamous Unabomber–but does not seem to have caused major human harm. In Catalonia, Terra Lliure, formed in 1978, went much further than SNLA, injuring many in a series of similarly misguided attacks and even killing a poor woman before its dissolution in 1995.

I’m not making the idiotic point that Scottish and Catalan terrorism was less effective (if that is a word that should ever be used in this context) than Irish and Basque terrorism because it lacked committed enough ‘warriors’. The point I’m raising is that both Scotland and Catalonia were and are societies uninterested in political violence of any kind, including terrorism, because the classic patriarchal values are less appealing there and here. The counterargument I give myself is that the British Army (Scottish soldiers were always a mainstay of the Empire) and gang-related street violence, an endemic problem, have absorbed much patriarchal violence in Scotland. Yet, the fact is that the recent referendum and its aftermath have not generated any violent incidents. Catalan nationalists tend to claim that being subordinated to Spain has resulted in a constant need to negotiate and this is why violent confrontation is not part of our society–or the other way round: being mainly a trading nation, we understand the advantages of negotiation.

Let me recap: nations with a deeper patriarchal foundation may be tempted by terrorism and, generally, political violence leading to revolution, whereas nations with a shallower patriarchy (there is no nation with a wholly alternative social arrangement) abhor political violence and will not sacrifice human lives for ideas. The two World Wars, Vietnam, the Cold War, Iraq, the Balkans War and Syria today have done much to erode the appeal of the glory/duty/honour triad based on bloodshed. Neither in Scotland nor in Catalonia has the craving for independence resulted in personal clashes, or rioting of any kind–though the image of the Catalan police almost losing the national Parliament last 1 October to a horde of violent protesters is certainly worrying.

Now, here’s a problem. Few of the Catalan men and women that were scandalized and appalled by Colominas’ words in the basic, immediate interpretation–and I hope they were 99%, though there are always lost souls–were aware that their reaction was anti-patriarchal, for the simple reason that we are generally ignorant of how patriarchy operates. Patriarchy is not, as radical feminism assumed in the 1970s, a terrorist system established to intimidate women into submission. It is certainly that but also, more generally, a social system based on using violence, against both men and women, to impose its own views.

In Resina’s ugly vision, the Spanish Other is the violent patriarch and the dead would have been part of the gendered discourse of Catalonia as a victimized nation. Yet, this is not good at all: what Resina presents is the case of an abused wife who welcomes her husband’s murdering one of their children because its death will free her… You can see this leads nowhere. A truly anti-patriarchal nation does not put its hopes into the acts of bullies or into male messianic leaders but into the ability of its male and female citizens to renew the jaded, 19th century scenario of national liberation. What is needed is a new approach based on a collective capacity to re-imagine the community as a forward-looking project (not a vague, dreamy utopia). For that, it is important that the men, above all, continue eschewing all violence and embrace an alternative way of being a (Catalan) man.

They are not doing so badly… I only know of one book about Catalan masculinity, the collective volume edited by Josep-Anton Fernàndez and Adrià Chavarria Calçasses, gallines i maricons: Homes contra la masculinitat hegemònica (2004). That wimps, chickens and faggots appear in the title as terms of pride rather than opprobrium says a lot about how unafraid Catalan men are of resisting hegemonic masculinity. Perhaps the strong reaction against Colominas’ words, whatever he intended them to mean, shows that we are now ready to make anti-patriarchal policies absolutely central in our society. My suggestion is that this might be the way to build something truly new, even post-national, to replace the worn-out patriarchal stories we have been hearing for the last two centuries. Just an idea. Scotland, now headed by a woman First Minister, is continuing its non-violent path, as it educates its young men into abandoning street violence. And happily, in Ireland and the Basque Country peace continues.

Some days, I find there is hope for the world. Can we, please, set an example?

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


Tuesday, October 16th, 2018

Back in 1994 I met one of the most delicious persons I have ever met in my life–it is very, very hard to encapsulate in just one adjective the vivacity, cheerfulness, zest for life that Prof. Lois Rudnick transmits with her presence. Now emeritus, Lois was that academic year a Fulbright visitor from the University of Massachusetts at Boston. She spent that time teaching in my Department (also in the English Dept. at the Universitat de Barcelona). Lois gave me personally many wonderful moments to remember for ever, from our seeing together Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (Prof. Rudnick is Jewish) to teaching me why contemporary dance is more thrilling than classical ballet (it’s about the freedom to create new moves, as pioneering US dancer Isadora Duncan demonstrated her whole life).

Prof. Rudnick’s academic career has been focused mainly on researching the life of literary and artistic hostess Mabel Dodge Luhan. Several of the many biographical books she has devoted to Luhan are available from, if you’re curious. I must say that, before meeting Lois, I had never heard of Luhan (1879-1962), a wealthy socialite from Buffalo (New York) particularly known for having chosen Taos, in New Mexico, as her home and having attracted there a long list of artists of all descriptions from 1917 onward. D.H. Lawrence and Georgia O’Keefe are usually mentioned among her guests, but the list is far, far longer. Incidentally, her beautiful Taos home is now a bed-and-breakfast establishment–though she hated tourists. Luhan, née Ganson, went though four marriages that gave her not only a long list of surnames to choose from but also a troubled private and public life. Her last husband, Tony Lujan (notice the different spelling) was a handsome Pueblo Indian (today native American…) whom she married in 1923, at a historical period when very few interracial unions of this exceptional kind were celebrated at all. They stayed married for almost 40 years.

Lois Rudnick’s latest book on Luhan is The Suppressed Memoirs of Mabel Dodge Luhan: Sex, Syphilis, and Psychoanalysis in the Making of Modern American Culture (2012). This is actually an edition of a number of autobiographical texts which Luhan did not include in her groundbreaking autobiographical tetralogy, Intimate Memoirs (1933-37), which she started writing at 45. In this 1600-page long, poignant text Luhan gave a candid account not only of her network of celebrity friends and acquaintances but also of her own personal life, with a sincerity that is to be praised. This woman was born in an American Victorian home but her life ended the year before second-wave feminism erupted with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. In these 83 years she had to learn, at a great personal cost, how to break the tight rules she had been handed down as a girl while she and the rest of the international Modernist coterie(s) re-invented love, sexuality and identity. Not an easy task.

The ‘suppressed memoirs’ that Prof. Rudkin could not access before 2000 (there was an injunction placed by author’s son, if I understand correctly, against their publication) deal specifically with the episodes in Luhan’s life connected with sex, and more particularly with how the transmission of VD negatively affected her marriages and her many affairs. Indeed, the volume even contains a nicely-packed condom–a clever reminder that VD is still rampant, despite all we (supposedly) know about gonorrhoea, syphilis and the rest. Also, a reminder that (though also transmitted in other ways than VD) HIV and syphilis connect distant periods of heterosexuality in ways we hardly pay attention to.

The paradox in Luhan’s life is that of her four husbands, three suffered from syphilis and, although she did all she could to avoid catching the feared disease (except, it seems, using condoms, for she wanted children) ultimately Tony’s infidelity was the reason why Mabel was infected and their idyll radically transformed. I am very much reluctant to reading biographical material and I have a very prudish Victorian horror of intruding into the sex lives of persons who have not entrusted their confidence to me. Fiction is fine but real-life events are not so fine. You may imagine how befuddled I felt reading the passage in which Luhan describes that she knew simultaneously that her husband Tony was a) unfaithful and b) infected with syphilis, when she noticed the stain of bloodied semen on the otherwise pristine white sheet he used to wrap his body in.

I get Lois’ point: Luhan gives unique evidence of how the Modernist sexual liberation of the 1910s-1930s was accompanied by the dark shadow of VD, so why not explore it? We do know that Victorian women (and their babies) were often the innocent victims of their husbands’ secret lives but we have little information about how women of Luhan’s generation coped with the reality of VD, once first-wave feminism introduced a certain measure of female sexual liberation. Fiction could not go very far: D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published in 1929 (privately and in Italy) was the object of an obscenity trial in 1960 and could only be published in the UK after that date. And there’s no mention of VD in it despite its frank sexuality! So, yes, I value and understand Luhan’s painful, brave testimonial. Still, I’m somehow sorry that I need to intrude into the privacy of her bedroom to grasp a truth everyone in her time seemed to be hiding. I must thank Lois Rudnick, then, for bringing that truth to us while I wonder whether that is the only way to raise awareness. Possibly.

Having got that off my chest that, I have other issues to raise. You can, by the way, listen to Prof. Rudnick herself discuss her book here: One of these issues is that, obviously, only educated, upper-class women like Luhan were articulate enough to offer an insightful portrait of private life (and even so, she mostly wrote her texts for the psychologists and psychiatrists treating her all her life). The anger and disappointment with which she receives evidence of infection (and hence, of betrayal) must have also been part of the life of less privileged women but, then, we will never have their testimonial. They’re just statistics, if at all.

Another issue is that, from what I gather, early 20th century women who, like Mabel, appeared to be liberated and even had a notorious reputation as men-eaters, did not really find much satisfaction in sex, which was not even the main point in their search for romance. Reading Luhan’s account of the affair she had with Dr. John Parmenter during her first marriage, it seems that she fell in love above all with a certain patriarchal ideal of protective masculinity, paradoxical as this may sound. The pain which she felt when this idealized man turned out to be incapable of abandoning a wife he didn’t love seems to come directly from the Romantic period rather than the 1910s. This is Jane Austen with sex and not the post-second feminist wave accounts of bedroom misencounters we are used to now.

In fact, and this is what kept me reading–apart from Prof. Rudnick’s manifest passion for her subject–the suppressed memoirs function as a chronicle of a lost struggle against infidelity. Decades into their marriage, and even though Mabel knows that Tony has had liaisons with other women, she feels again a deep Romantic pain caused by the budding relationship between her husband and a younger woman, Millicent Rogers. A celebrity in the circles of fashion and art, Rogers moved from Hollywood to Taos in 1947 intent on imitating the much admired Luhan, to the point of also obsessing with Tony. Luhan never acknowledges that she is in the same position as Dr. Parmenter’s wife back in the first of the suppressed memoirs, either because she is mortified by the comparison or because she cannot see the parallelism. I don’t mean that infidelity necessarily leads eventually to some kind of retribution but, rather, that Luhan must be one of the first modern women to describe how monogamy and sexual liberation clash–a situation we are very far from having solved.

Thus, the most painful memory Luhan narrates is not her chagrin at realizing that, despite her caution, she has syphilis but her realization that she can do nothing to stop Tony from loving this Rogers woman, the upstart whom Mabel so hates. Much more so because unlike Dr. Parmenter, who acts as a cowardly child with both wife and mistress, Tony assumes with all the serenity he can muster that he loves Mabel but also Millicent (she eventually left him for his nephew, Benito). Encountering that type of deep Romantic pain in a book about venereal disease gives Lois Rudnick’s exploration of American Modernism a strange twist, for my impression is that in current discussions of sexuality love (which is what Mabel feels) occupies in the end little room. I may be ranting and raving at my worst today but, beyond the clichés of romance, is there any serious current attempt at considering love? Don’t we talk too much about sexuality, too little about feeling? And how come I notice this void in a book about syphilis?

There is also a subtle subtext in The Suppressed Memoirs of Mabel Dodge Luhan which has do to with race and class. As a rich, white, female intruder in the Pueblo community Luhan is not particularly well-liked; her affair with Tony, which begins when both are still married, is less than welcome and she even more or less acknowledges that her money bought this Pueblo man just as she purchased Taos land. Eventually, Mabel convinces the Pueblo Indians indirectly through Tony (by then her husband) and, if I recall correctly, the intervention of John Collier–later Commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in President Roosevelt’s administration–to test the adult community members for syphilis. Among those who refuse to be tested is the husband of Tony’s mistress, the woman who passes syphilis onto him. If you add two and two, Rudnick is hinting at a plot of revenge aimed at putting the Yankee interloper in her place. The impulse to do biographical research exposes, thus, patterns in History we might never be aware of.

I recall conversations with Lois, worried already in 1994-5, before the internet really exploded, about what would happen with documentation in the future and how biographers would work. Funnily, if Luhan were alive today, she would most likely be an influencer with a heavily documented life in the social networks. And/or perhaps one of those novelists that write narcissistic auto-fiction, though I wonder whether there is a single grain of truth in the sub-genre. As for the truth we get from Luhan’s ‘suppressed memoirs’ (and ‘suppressed’ here means both unpublished and self-censored), it is necessarily biased towards a zeitgeist obsessed with sex and very much reluctant to consider love–and the models we follow in our lives. At one point Mabel throws a tantrum at her husband, she writes, not so much because she is uncontrollably angry but because she intends to seduce her man back into her arms as the heroines of romance do. Impassive, Tony responds coolly ‘You’re tearing my trousers’ and the whole edifice of romantic seduction comes crashing down. At least, Mabel knows which model is failing her. As for us, how do we love (or fail to love)? I wonder.

By the way, you might be surprised to know that in the USA, ‘During 2017, there were 101,567 reported new diagnoses of syphilis (all stages), compared to 39,782 estimated new diagnoses of HIV infection in 2016 and 555,608 cases of gonorrhoea in 2017’, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( Just in case you thought syphilis was a thing of the distant Victorian past and not of post-modern sexuality.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:

Romanticism: Doubts and Queries

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018

Next semester I will be teaching again English Romantic Literature after a long lapse, spent teaching mainly Victorian Literature. I last taught Romanticism in the academic year 2004-5, which is really a long time ago–even though the 21st century produces this strange effect of making all yearly dates beginning with 20 seem just yesterday. Although to the layperson it might seem that the literary periods of the past stay static, the fact is that they are in constant turmoil because of expanding research. What Romanticism was back in 1988, when Prof. Guillermina Cenoz so beautifully taught it to my second-year undergrad class, is not the same Romanticism I taught in 2004. 14 years later, in 2018, Romanticism is, once more, quite a different construction. Or is it?

The way to gauge the changes in how a particular literary period is apprehended is to read the introductions aimed at students. In my undergrad years I learned Romanticism from the Norton Anthology of English Literature (volume 2) and the truly splendid New Pelican Guide to English Literature, edited by Boris Ford. The nine volumes are still in my office and I marvel at how dense they are–Ford and his collaborators assumed that undergrads were sophisticated readers, willing and happy to study what amounts to an extraordinarily long text. The last volume, if I am correct, was published in 1995 and put an end to a classic style of presenting information to students, before the emergence of theory seeped down to more basic levels and before identity politics wreaked havoc on the canon (or tried to). I’m not being nostalgic but just making a note of how academic fashions come and go.

We have been using as background reading for our second-year ‘Victorian Literature’ course Maureen Moran’s guide, simply called Victorian Literature and Culture (Continuum, 2007). When I write ‘using’ I mean that students are expected to read it in the first month and then pass a quiz. I must confess that my colleagues and I had great fun preparing the multiple choice questions, particularly the nonsensical option that should be discarded first (but that each year a handful of students do choose…). I have read, then, Sharon Ruston’s introduction in the same series, called Romanticism, to consider whether we could use it in a similar way. I have enjoyed it very much but there are a number of issues that worry me and that I would like to address here. One is the very construction of the books called introductions and the other is the resilience of the canon.

I have already written here two posts about the sub-genre of the introduction. One in 2011, on British theatre (; the other just last year, 2017, about Scottish Literature ( I may be repeating, then, some of the arguments, though this topic always takes a slightly different angle depending on the material. Thus, last September 27, I attended the presentation of the volume edited by Teresa López-Pellisa, Historia de la ciencia ficción en la cultura española at Llibreria Gigamesh and you can see that the presenter, Prof. Miquel Barceló, spent a good deal of his talk wondering how such a dense volume should be read ( I myself intervened to question whether a book is the ideal vehicle for an introduction, guide, or history but seeing Teresa’s concerned face (her publisher was in the room…) I quickly changed subject.

Historia… is very different from Ruston’s Romanticism yet they present similar problems because these are books that need to be studied, not just read. Miquel Barceló referred to Teresa’s excellent volume as a ‘reference book’ but this is not really what it is. His own Ciencia ficción: Nueva guía de lectura (the 2015 new edition based on his 1990 classic) is, for me, a reference book: you can read it from end to end or just dip into it for specific information. Of course, this is what he meant in relation to the 14 chapters in Historia… but even if you take each chapter separately, you still need paper and pen to make notes or, as I did, keep your tablet close by to check whatever you need to check. And here’s a problem (also with Ruston’s Romanticism): when I read books that survey a literary field, I need to see pictures as a memory aid–of authors, book covers, places, arts, you name it… Whether this is a thick 500+ page book (like Historia….) or a slim 150-page volume like Ruston’s, a survey which offers no illustrations is beginning to be problematic for me as a reader of the internet age. Imagine what the digital natives seating in our classrooms must think of so much print…

I’ll leave the ambitious Historia de la ciencia ficción en la cultura española aside to focus on the introductions to literary periods for undergrads to claim that they should be offered, ideally, as hypertextual online resources most attractive to navigate. Now, the problem with the available resources (at least the ones I know of) is that either they are too basic, or too sprawling. Also, excuse me, antiquated. Look, for instance, at the very well-known Victorian Web. If you read the credits page, you will see that, basically the website’s configuration dates back to the mid 1990s. It has been growing magnificently in number of documents and now it offers versions in Spanish and French. But, although it is listed as one of the resources we recommend to our students, I’m very sorry to say that it is not really useful to them–it can even have the negative effect of overwhelming them. It is not my intention to criticize in any way what is, I insist, a wonder of the academic world but to question the inexistence of truly adequate, basic level introductions to literary periods and schools that can be safely recommended to undergrads.

Let’s see if I can explain myself better. Take Ruston’s book, with its four sections: 1. Historical, Cultural and Intellectual Context, 2. Literature in the Romantic Period, 3. Critical Approaches, and 4. Resources for Independent Study (including a chronology, a glossary of key concepts, and a bibliography). This is about 125 pages of text (parts 1, 2 and 3) and about 30 for part 4–a reasonably brief text, of a size that would adapt very well to the website format. The moment I started reading, I could see where the links to other online resources could be placed and where the pictures should be inserted; their absence grew louder as I read on and what appeared to be basic information started thickening into a lovely but very thick broth.

Half-way into the book, I understood what the problem is: Ruston has a marvellous understanding of the Romantic period and an impressive ability to offer a synthesis but she thinks as an expert academic and not as an undergrad student. Her introduction made perfect sense to me–as does Moran’s to the Victorian Age–because I already know what she is writing about and can, thus, enjoy the new twists and turns she has introduced in the canonical story I was handed down back in 1988. But I’m sure that our second year students approaching the Victorian age or Romanticism anew must be mostly baffled.

In Ruston’s volume there is, also, a perceptible tension between what is relevant and irrelevant, which is part of all introductions. Thus, no matter how amazing the Lunar Society (a Midlands scientific league of the most advanced minds of the time) seems to the author, I doubt that our students find the 3.5 pages about it relevant to the study of Wordsworth and company. This tension is, of course, most palpable in Ruston’s attempt to undo the vision of Romanticism as a period dominated by the poetry written by the six male geniuses (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats).

Our syllabus, as you may imagine, is focused on their poems (30% of the course) with the other two thirds devoted to celebrating women’s fiction, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). Reading Ruston, however, I felt positively guilty that we strike such a poor gender balance in the poetry segment; then, at the same time I wondered whether I really want to teach Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Charlotte Smith or Joanna Baillie instead of any of the six men. We might correct this by including in our booklet more poems by women but classroom time is awfully limited as it is. I realize that for others the real sin lies in not teaching Walter Scott’s novels but, again, if we had one year instead of one semester, we might include one of his books. As things are now, neither Mary Shelley nor Jane Austen are replaceable (at least to me).

A problem, then, is that if we really follow the picture that Ruston draws of the Romantic period and we radically alter the syllabus we run the risk of giving our students an impression that would not agree with the standard view. I do realize that we are changing the syllabus all the time: Frankenstein would have seemed an odd choice for the 1988 course I took. At the same time, I doubt very much that students will criticize us for not telling them about Hannah Moore–and the other way round: the experiment last year consisted of including the anti-slavery autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) to emphasize that the Romantic period was a time of abolitionist agitation. From what I’m told, students failed to be enthusiastic.

In an ideal situation, I would have the 70 students in my Romanticism class produce their own study materials, not in e-book form (as I have done in other courses) but as a small, limited, accessible website. This, I know, is pure madness for it requires an investment of time and digital know-how that I simply lack–and also because, guess what?, the result would not count as a Ministry-approved merit for my CV. A friend told me recently that publishing an introduction in book form has many advantages because this is a kind of text often quoted. I must stress, however, that the Spanish Ministry of Education, or, rather, the ANECA agency, does not rate introductions as valid research. Two friends, each the author of a valued introduction to their fields, have confirmed this point after failing their personal assessment exercise.

We, then, simply need to make do with what we can purchase or check online–which is, besides, produced in the anglophone world with no consideration of whether it is adaptable to other cultures. And hope that this will do for our students.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018

Two weeks ago I gave the inaugural lecture for the four-year BA in English Studies at the Universidad de Murcia. Actually, my lecture was intended to represent the Literature and Culture segment of the degree, and a colleague from the Universidad de Zaragoza, Dr. Iraide Ibarretxe Antuñano, offered a second inaugural lecture on Linguistics. She asked the students present how many had chosen the BA because of an interest in Linguistics and only a few raised their hands. She asked then the rest whether they were interested in Literature but, again, only a few hands were raised. The immense majority, then, had either no particular inclination or had not made their mind up yet. Or were confused–and no wonder!

Now bear with me…

Dr. Ibarretxe, though a graduate in English Studies has a Doctorate in Linguistics and works for the ‘Departamento de Lingüística General e Hispánica’ (not to be confused with ‘Filología Española’). This is an interesting name for, as happens, in my university we have no Linguistics Department and, indeed, the Spanish Department–familiarly known as ‘Hispánicas’–is the home not of this language speciality but of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature. Linguistics belongs, so to speak, to the Catalan Department–at least, they are the ones in charge of the first-year compulsory course common to all language-based BAs. At the Universitat de Lleida, in contrast, Linguistics belongs to English Studies, and the corresponding unit is the ‘Departament d’Anglès i de Lingüística’.

Still with me?

Many Departments in Spanish universities which, back in 2009 or thereabouts started offering degrees called ‘English Studies’ (‘Estudios Ingleses’) or similar are, however, still called ‘Departamento de Filología Inglesa’. My university has Departments of ‘Filologia Anglesa’, ‘Filologia Hispànica’, ‘Filologia Catalana’ and ‘Filologia Francesa i Romànica’ even though the BAs are, apart from the above mentioned ‘English Studies’, ‘Spanish Language and Literature’, ‘Catalan Language and Literature’ and ‘French Studies’. The old degree in ‘Classical Languages’ (‘Filologia Clàssica’) has been integrated into a new BA called ‘Ciències de l’Antiguitat’ (‘Sciences of Antiquity’). This BA mixes classical philology, history and archaeology and is offered by the ‘Departament de Ciències de l’Antiguitat i de l’Edat Mitjana’. At the Universitat de Barcelona, in contrast, they have a ‘Departament de Filologia Clàssica, Romànica i Semítica’. And English is part of the ‘Departament de Llengües i Literatures Modernes i d’Estudis Anglesos’–not ‘Filologia’.

‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, Juliet Capulet once said, trying to convince herself that Romeo Montague’s surname was of no significance. Her argument makes sense for the flower but not for her lover, as we know and she learned tragically, whereas we need to wonder what this confusing nomenclature signifies in relation to what we teach and who we are. I myself identify as a ‘filòloga anglesa’ because I have an official document from the Spanish State guaranteeing that I possess degrees (‘Licenciatura’, ‘Doctorado’) in ‘Filología Inglesa’ but, even so, I call myself a ‘cultural critic’ rather than a ‘philologist’ (a job description I connect with the analysis and edition of non-contemporary texts). For many in the anglophone world a ‘philologist’ is a sort of historical linguist, so see how confusing things can get.

In the tradition we come from, the study of a language and its Literature within a single degree is justified on the grounds that a language is the expression of a culture and its Literature the highest artistic manifestation in that tongue. Thus, the reasoning goes, if you want to know all about English you’re bound to learn how each anglophone community contributes to the common language and how Literature expresses its most sophisticated uses. This is, however, a very old framework, established back in the early 19th century in Romantic Germany, which is why the two main areas of knowledge under the yoke of ‘philology’ as it is known is Spain are pulling away from each other. In Literature we have been gravitating towards Cultural Studies, and thus expanding the number and variety of texts in English available for study. In Linguistics, though I’m not sure I am using the word correctly, they tend towards a kind of ambitious theorization in which the English language is just one element of the general entity known as language (funny how the difference between ‘idioma’ and ‘lenguaje’ helps in Spanish but is lost in English!). Properly speaking, then, there are very few ‘philologists’ among us, English Studies specialists.

I am actually beginning to realize that, to be perfectly honest, I don’t know what our Language and Linguistics colleagues do. What we do in Literature and Culture Studies is far easier to explain for we are classified by geographical area and/or historical period. A course called ‘Scottish 18th century Poetry’ is self-explanatory but what do mysterious labels such as ‘Pragmatics’ or ‘Discourse Analysis’ really mean? Is ‘Historical Linguistics’ the same as ‘History of English’ or is it a more theoretical area? I’m even told that the yearly conference of AEDEAN (Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos) is increasingly seen as a Literature/Culture event, for which there is some evidence (see the programme for Córdoba this year), though not any intentionality. Linguists, I’m told, prefer meeting at the conference of AESLA, the Asosiación Española de Lingüística Aplicada (, at least those inclined, logically, towards the applied aspects of Linguistics. This association, needless to say, goes far beyond English and you might well be a specialist in Mandarin Chinese and join it (after all, it’s about Linguistics not languages). In the same vein, ASETEL, the Asociación Española de Teoría de la Literatura, welcomes all kinds of specialists but I don’t think it has much weight within English Studies.

The centrifugal forces at work means that in some universities like Seville there are two separate Departments called ‘Filología Inglesa’, one for ‘UK and US Literature’ and one for ‘English Language’. I know that other universities have considered this structure but splitting Departments goes now against the crazy fashion for grouping as many of them together as possible (for basic financial reasons). In my own Department, we have asked several times to be considered at least separate units, in the same way our colleagues in ‘Filologia Alemanya’ are a different section. However, the UAB tells us that as far as they’re concerned we are a single body, which affects negatively our chronically under-staffed Literature/Culture section. If you think about it, an interesting solution might be the reshuffling of the language and Literature Departments into two macro-units: a Department of Language and Linguistics and a Department of  Literature and Culture, but I can hear the groans already as a I write this. There is a sort of conviction, odd as this may sound, that each Department’s culture depends very much on the language named in our degrees and that, essentially, we  in English Studies are a sort of ‘foreign body’ in habits and methods wherever we can be found. At least, I always have that impression.

Now think what it is like for a newly arrived students, like the ones I addressed a while ago in Murcia. They have most likely chosen English Studies with a vague idea that they like this particular language (this is the same all over Spain) and with very little actual knowledge of what the degree really means, much less of its tradition, and even of the meaning of ‘filología’. Then, on the first day, they are given two examples of research in the field which could not be more different and unorthodox: Dr. Ibarretxe’s invitation to consider the whole field of human language, not just English, and my own invitation to shatter the literary canon and bring even television series and videogames into their BA. If any of them originally registered to, say, study Shakespeare and learn English grammar, they must be wondering what hit them… And what hit them is, precisely, what I’m trying to pin down: the centrifugal forces of our study area.

At this point it is also necessary to raise the matter of how current ideas about science are also having an often unacknowledged impact in our midst. I have no doubt that Linguists are scientists and consider themselves so because they use method that can only be called scientific: data gathering, running experiments, and so on. Curiously, every time I tell a linguist that I’m not a scientist but a critic, s/he usually responds that I’m certainly a scientist, too, because I use a method. I do use a scholarly method of study, research and argumentation, which I also teach my students how to apply, and that is certainly based on gathering data (textual evidence from primary sources, ideas from secondary sources). I think, however, that there is an important difference: I don’t use labs, nor run experiments as scientists do and, above all, I celebrate full subjectivity, which is not welcome in science. I’m actually far more comfortable with the German concept of Wissenshaft,  which is practically impossible to translate but that I translate in my own style as ‘the cultivation of wisdom’, surely twisting the original word to suit my own ends. If you get the idea, I feel conceptually closer to Philosophy than to Linguistics and this a peculiar thought coming from a ‘philologist’.

Any kind of re-arrangement affecting knowledge as produced and transmitted by (Spanish) universities is costly and cumbersome. The school I work for is called ‘School of Philosophy and Letters’ which may have made sense back in 1968 when it was founded but is a really eccentric name today: Why is Philosophy foregrounded? What is the meaning of ‘Letters’, except a reminder that we have lost ‘Belle-lettres’ to the passage of time? When I asked whether we could possibly be renamed ‘School of Humanities’ I was reminded that many colleagues would possibly prefer ‘Human Sciences’ and that, anyway, the current name is convenient enough. As, I should add, ‘Departament de Filologia Anglesa’ is convenient enough but, then, no longer descriptive. Or, I think, accurate.

Perhaps, in the end, I just feel a bit envious that the language colleagues can call themselves ‘linguists’ and be done with the problem of what a ‘philologist’ should be called today. Those of us in Literature and Culture are not faring that well for if you call yourself a ‘literary critic’ people will think you’re a reviewer and I don’t think I know anyone calling themselves ‘literary theorist’ with the confidence others use the word ‘linguist’. Maybe I should give ‘literary scientist’ a chance… and, yes, I’m kidding.  

And to the students in Murcia, and any other first-year students in language and Literature degrees: remember that scientists were once called ‘natural philosophers’ and don’t forget that we used to train you as ‘filólogos’. Yes, lovers of language in all its extension…

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


Monday, August 20th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

This post is inspired by two articles about novelists considering whether the novel is in its dying throes. The interview by Vicent Bosch of Guillem López (Castelló, 1975) for JotDown bears the heading “No creo que la novela sobreviva medio siglo” ( The Guardian’s article about the BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking talk by novelist Howard Jacobson (Manchester, 1942) is titled “‘The Problem is the Reader’”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web: