HOW TO READ 100 BOOKS A YEAR (AND WHY IT ELICITS REJECTION)

The article by Héctor García Barnés published in El Confidencial, “There are people in Spain who read 80, 150 or 300 books a year, and it is not as difficult as it sounds”, draws powerful attention both for the cases it presents of constant readers and for the rather negative comments they receive. According to García Barnés, the survey on reading habits and book purchases of 2021, carried out by the Federation of Publishers’ Guilds of Spain, indicates that “those over 18 years of age read on average 10.2 books per year, but there are 36% of people who do not read even one”, according to half of them due to lack of time. On the other hand, the “super readers”, according to the journalist’s nomenclature “those fans of literature who read the same number of books a year as entire towns”, always find time to indulge in their favorite vice. Engineer Mariano Hortal, who reads about 300 books a year as reflected in his blog Lectura y locura, is surely an extraordinary case, but according to García Barnés it is not so strange to find in Spain readers who consume 80 to 150 books per year among the ranks of teachers, publishers, and journalists. Hopefully, others too.

Although I consider myself simply a reader, I am one of those ‘super readers’, with an annual average of around 100 books. I began to keep the list of everything I read at the age of fourteen so as not to forget anything, and I continue to religiously write down the volumes I pass through, not out of an effort to meet a quota but out of pure curiosity about how my annual walk among books is developing. And, as I said, out of sheer necessity, to keep memories alive. I understand that the readers whom García Barnés has interviewed correspond to a similar profile: neither they nor I compete with other readers, we do not expect to be awarded any prizes for reading, and we do not read to inflate our respective lists; they simply grow every year.

The number of books read does not indicate the hours spent on each volume and so for a while I also used to write down the pages of each book, a habit I lost. Yes, there have been cases in which I have hesitated to add a book to my list because it was only around 100 pages, although in other cases I have read books of 800 or 900 pages (like the one I am now reading, Fall; or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson). One thing to understand is that the more you read, the more the reading speed increases, and the more comprehension improves, without a doubt. My usual reading speed is around 50-60 pages per hour, although as I said in the previous post, I rarely read more than two hours in a row unless it is for work. I never force myself to read every day, nor do I tend to finish books I do not like; actually, I should add to the 100 books per year something like 10 or 12 more per number of pages read in books eventually abandoned.

Neither the super readers of the article nor I myself narrate this experience with a desire for prestige or fame. In fact, García Barnés offers the article to those who claim they lack time to read as a lesson on how this can be found. The readers interviewed explain something more than obvious: time is always limited but if you find three and a half hours a day to watch TV (the national average in Spain in 2021), or waste time on the social networks, you can find one hour for reading. In fact, it is increasingly important to acquire that habit since various studies indicate that just as regular physical exercise keeps the heart healthy, reading helps maintain brain health.

Leaving aside this issue, it is clear that those of us who read books non-stop possibly get some kind of endorphin from reading similar to the one that encourages athletes to make further efforts. I do practice any sports, although I am aware that I should, and therefore I understand that there are many people who dislike reading, but I would never despise the sporting achievements of amateur athletes. If I stumbled upon an article in which a series of gentlemen and ladies told me that they run a marathon a week because they love it, it would not cross my mind to denigrate them; however, what the comments to García Barnés’ article reflect is distrust and contempt, and a very mistaken impression that super readers are arrogant.

Here are some of those comments. Mr. Puterfull states that “Reading cannot be taken as a challenge or a competition. We’re just going crazy,” though nothing in the article suggests that super readers set up challenges or compete. Stuart Carter stresses that “reading cannot be an obligation”, observing that “The important thing is to read and enjoy what is read”, without noticing that this is what the interviewees defend. Alberto Martín thinks (in capital letters) that “100 BOOKS A YEAR? IT IS BARBARIC”, next doubting that the super readers have understood at all what they read. Another reader, Weyland Yutani (the name of the diabolical corporation in the Alien saga), concludes that “He who reads 300 books a year does not read but flips through. It is not the same”, though he has no basis to justify his argument (nor to insinuate that Mariano Hortal is lying). Philip Buster (sic) supports this unfounded thesis with a resounding “I can consume a lot of reading and not read anything”. Maria Benjumea categorically denies that anyone can read 50 or 60 pages in one hour. In her opinion, “more than 30 pages in an hour means skipping paragraphs or reading garbage”. One Maximón insists that “if I read by the ‘weight’ I am literally wasting my time”, despite the fact that the super readers interviewed mention in all cases quality books. According to her, “the ideal is to select very well what is going to be read and why”, so that “I, with 10/12 books in a year I am satisfied”.

Other comments attack super readers on the flank of time rather than on the flank of comprehension ability. Daniel Monleón, who claims to be a reader depending on each period of his life, comments that “reading is enjoyment” like other pleasures, without it being “a choice (…) better or worse than others”, though it is “more lonely”. Reacting to the estimate by one of the super readers who has decided not to waste time with bad books because he only has time to read about 3500 if he hits old age, Felipe García writes that “I have no interest in reading 80 books a year, nor in reading 3500 in the rest of my life. Nor in watching 50 seasons of series per year or watching 200 games of the year”, thus putting at the same level the reading and consumption of television, which most super readers despise. Finally, Jorge Valdecasas writes that “If someone tells me that he has an 8-hour job, 3 children and reads a book every 2 days of the caliber of the three volumes of the lord of the rings (sic), I would ask that they lose custody of their children”. He forgets that reading habits are usually born by imitation of the parents who read.

As I said, I can’t imagine similar comments in response to an article about how to find time to run marathons, and the obvious question is why the super readers interviewed ruffle so many feathers. There is no comment appreciating the advice given (take books whenever you go on a trip even on the subway, look for shorter periods throughout the day if you cannot dedicate an hour to reading, use public libraries to experiment with different types of books), but a set of attacks. Spain is a tremendously uneducated country and perhaps therein lies the root of the hostility. While one comment indicates that the reading index is rising as indicated by the opening of large new bookstores in the major cities, another quips that if it were so there would be a bookstore on each street as there are bars.

Given this situation, it is not so surprising that super readers are looked down upon as people too clever for their own good who think they are superior to others. On the other hand, it is true that the interviewees do not hesitate to criticize the massive consumption of series and of gossipy talk shows as scourges that prevent maximizing the time that could be spent reading, and I understand that this position may be offensive. I have to clarify that in my own academic environment not everyone reads wildly, and that many teachers of Literature read less than they should because of being hooked on to series. I wouldn’t be surprised the way things are going that thirty years from now books will no longer be taught in our English Studies degrees, but only series (I think cinema is dying before it can reach our classrooms).
As I wrote in my previous post, when the night comes and I have some leisure time, the question always arises as to whether I will opt for a movie or the book I am reading those days. As Daniel Monleón noted in his comment, reading is a lonely pursuit and normally if I opt for a film it is because I want to keep my partner company (he just loves movies, all of them). The problem is that if the film does not interest me too much I squirm restlessly on the sofa thinking about the book I could be reading, a situation that is difficult to understand (I know) for a non-reader. If you think about it, the habit of constantly reading is extremely strange, and perhaps somewhat selfish as some of the comments cited suggest. Certainly, it cannot be shared, despite social networks such as GoodReads or the many book clubs, unless, as many families did in the 19th century, one reads aloud and the others listen. Watching TV or using social networks is not really a more sociable act, as can be seen in those groups of teenagers who do not talk to each other because they are checking their smartphones. Yet, only readers carry the stigma of being too abstracted, too immersed in other worlds. Nerds, in short.
Since I know that he will never run a marathon, whatever the athletes may say, I know that it is useless to recommend reading if not 80 at least more than 12 books a year. I will just drop the suggestion in case anyone feels inspired by it.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328, and visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

AN HOMAGE TO MINISERIES

It’s evening, after dinner, time to relax and choose a film to watch from whatever platform you subscribe. This means employing about two hours on consuming a story, leaving aside the fifteen minutes (or more) it may take to select a minimally enticing movie, unless you have preselected and placed some on your list. If you know of a film which you really want to see, that’s fine; if you don’t, at this point you start wondering whether you have the stamina to sit through one hundred and twenty minutes of a possibly mediocre script with perfunctory direction and performances, the typical film rated 6 to 6’5 on IMDB. So why not watch one episode from a series? Sixty minutes at most and then early to bed, perhaps to read for a while; or stay on the sofa and play a videogame. Four hours and four episodes later, you wonder where time has gone and whether you’ll wake up on time when the alarm sounds…

Why is it easier to watch four episodes from a show rather than a much shorter feature film? For the same reason that it is easier to read sixty pages from a novel than a twenty-page short story. All self-contained narratives require an effort to master the rules of a fictional world, whether this narrative is a micro short story or a sprawling twenty-season series (serial?). With a shorter text this effort is not productive because it is spent in a short time. With a longer text, the opposite happens: once the basic narrative rules are grasped, the narrative itself can go on for many pages or many hours, with no additional effort.

When we choose a series over a film, or a novel over a short story, we’re choosing to maximize the usefulness of the effort to engage with the worldbuilding. When the two-hour film ends, we need to begin the process of engagement again with another film. With a series, the same effort stretches for hours, days, weeks, and longer, with no extra investment. Besides, watching a series also solves the problem of what to watch the following days, until the series ends or its appeal diminishes for the viewer. In short, a person watching a different film every day, or reading a different short story daily, must be willing to spend much imaginative energy, whereas someone using two hours a day to watch the same series for a month, or read the same novel, is just engaging with one story, no matter how complex the plot and the subplots can be.

I don’t like series for the same reason that I don’t like novels of more than 400 pages: there must be a limit, I believe, to the time I am willing to invest on just one story. For the reasons that I have explained, I am not too keen on short stories, which generally make me impatient even when they are just a few pages long. I do like movies, but I am finding it increasingly difficult to find scripts that interest me and, so, I am becoming far less willing to invest two hours of my time on watching a movie, particularly if I am reading an attractive book. Unless I am travelling on a train, plane or bus, or reading for work, I don’t really read more than two hours at a stretch for leisure, which means that for me the evening film is in direct competition with whatever book I may be reading. Usually, the book wins.

A solution for those who, like me, don’t like series and are beginning to hate films is watching miniseries. The difference between a series and a miniseries is not that easy to establish, though. In principle, a miniseries is limited to one season; in fact, the word ‘season’ should not even apply to this kind of narrative as a series only has ‘seasons’ if it is properly speaking a series, not a miniseries. To confuse matters even more, it is not easy to distinguish between miniseries and series by number of episodes: to give an example, the brilliant miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) consists of fourteen episodes, whereas the not less brilliant series Sherlock (2010-2017) consists of fifteen episodes distributed in four seasons. Perhaps rather than ‘miniseries’, we should use the label ‘one-season series’, even though this contradicts my previous argumentation. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences of the USA, which awards the Emmys, prefers the label ‘limited series’, and it appears than in the UK the word series is used both for minis and for longer series.

As for the length of the episodes, there are miniseries of just two episodes which are shorter than Steven Spielberg’s magnificent film Schindler’s List (1993), which stretches to 195 minutes. The upper limit is marked by the maximum a season can last, though I should think that fifteen episodes is enough. Of course, episodes may last from twenty to ninety minutes, with most lasting forty-five to sixty minutes, so that the number of episodes is no indication of the actual length of a miniseries. War and Remembrance (1988-1989) is said to be the longest miniseries, with its 27 hours (in 12 episodes); its first episode lasts for 150 minutes! To add more data, the two highest-ranking fiction miniseries on IMDB, rated with a 9,4 (I’m here ignoring the documentary miniseries), are vastly different in length: Band of Brothers (2001) lasts for 594 minutes, Chernobyl (2019) only 330.

The miniseries was born long before the word itself, which appeared in the early 1960s (1963 according to Merriam Webster), with the serialized adaptation of novels. In The Classic Serial on Television and Radio (2001), Robert Giddings and Keith Selby attribute to John Reith, the British inventor of public service broadcasting, the idea of using BBC radio to stage plays in the 1930s. Radio drama, and the previous 1920s dramatic readings, inspired the idea of the serialized adaptation of novels for this means of communication, which started a fashion focused on 19th century literary and popular classics. The fashion moved later on to TV. Giddings and Selby note (p. 19) that BBC Television’s 1951 adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s novel The Warden in six episodes was the first miniseries; this was followed in 1952 by Pride and Prejudice. According to Francis Wheen’s Television (1985), the immense success in the USA, in 1960-1970, of British serial The Forsyte Saga (1967), from the novels by John Galsworthy, “inspired the American mini-series”, also often based on novels, both classics and best-sellers.

Sorry to use my personal memories, but, as happens, my childhood and adolescence overlap with the period in which the American and the British miniseries boomed. The key year was 1976. Then, the BBC’s adaptation of Robert Graves’s novels I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935) as I, Claudius, and ABC’s version of Irvin Shaw’s best-seller Rich Man, Poor Man (1969) hit the TV screen with a hurricane force that I perfectly recall. I was ten when Hombre rico, hombre pobre was broadcast by TVE, in 1977, and twelve when Yo, Claudio was finally seen in Spain in 1978, and I do recall their impact with all clarity. I don’t remember having seen Anglo-Italian hit miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977, directed by Franco Zefirelli), broadcast by TVE in 1979, but I certainly remember the huge phenomenon that Roots (1977), based on Alex Hailey’s novel (1976), became in that same year of 1979. Next came other BBC adaptations (I was blown over by the BBC’s 1978 version of Wuthering Heights, which I watched aged thirteen, before reading the novel by Emily Brontë) and the 1980s hits: Shōgun (1980), adapted from the novel by James Clavell; The Thorn Birds (1983) based on Colleen McCullough’s romance; and the North and South trilogy of miniseries (1985, 1986, 1994), based on the novels by John Jakes.

The miniseries that possibly altered most profoundly how literary adaptation should be handled for TV was Granada Television/ITV’s elegant Brideshead Revisited (1981) based on the 1945 novel by Evelyn Waugh. The eleven-episode miniseries, which launched the career of Jeremy Irons, was broadcast in Spain in 1983. I was sixteen then and I recall being completely enchanted with everything in it. Curiously, Spanish television originally broadcast Brideshead on its second channel, which only reached a minority of viewers and then gave it a second chance on its main channel in 1984. Those were the times before the onset of the private channels (in 1990s) and long before the streaming platforms, when everyone watched the same series. Brideshead Revisited has little to do with all the other miniseries I have mentioned, being a rather subtle exploration of the mismatch between Charles Ryder and the rich but decadent family of his friend Sebastian Flyte. It is also a rather nostalgic chronicle of the end of the big British country houses (the magnificent Castle Howard was the main location), and as such a forerunner of Kazuo Ishiguro’s far more critical novel The Remains of the Day (1989). I was then an easily impressionable teen and got the very wrong impression that English culture was that smart and refined all the time, which is not the case. I also missed the deep classism, which I saw in all starkness when I taught the book a decade later to uninterested first-year students.

Going these days through lists of the best current miniseries, by which I mean of the last ten years, it seems to me that this kind of narrative is now flourishing, though it is also possibly overhyped. I did enjoy enormously The Queen’s Gambit (2020), from the novel by Walter Tevis (1983), but I found The Night Manager (2016), from the novel by John le Carré (1993), much overrated. An important problem affecting miniseries is that the platforms do not distinguish between them and the multi-season series, which means that it is easy to miss the less publicised. The impossibility of subscribing to all the streaming services also means that viewers are constantly missing what they might enjoy. This was going to be originally a post with a list of great recent miniseries to watch, but I myself have access to a very limited selection. This is a topic for another post, of course, but I wonder whether the proliferation of platforms is making piracy grow again, once computer-savvy spectators have come to the conclusion that there is no way to keep up with the ceaseless flow of appealing audiovisual products.

I’ll finish by suggesting that the miniseries might end up killing the film adaptation of novels, which is probably good news. A two-hour film can never accommodate the events of an average-length novel, much less so of any novel over 400 pages. The more flexible miniseries appears to be, therefore, a much more suitable vehicle to adapt novels, as the BBC’s beautiful version of Pride and Prejudice already demonstrated in 1995. The bad news attached to this trend is the temptation to prolong the miniseries for a second season and further, in the hope of turning it into a long-running series based on the attractive of a character or a plotline. An example is The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-) now in its fifth season, far beyond the original novel by Margaret Atwood. Showrunners try to exploit the appeal of all the popular series but it’s good to know when to stop, and this is what I appreciate best about miniseries.

I hope you enjoy them, too.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328, and visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

LIVING IN FEAR: SLAVES TO (PATRIARCHAL) TERRORISM, FROM SALMAN RUSHDIE TO AFGHANISTAN

At the end of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) replicant Roy Batty shows his humanity shortly before dying by recalling all he has lived and concluding that, with his death, “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain”, a moving line which actor Rutger Hauer contributed to the film, ignoring the script. This is one of the most famous speeches in the history of cinema, but the line from the same scene I recall far more strongly is “Quite an experience to feel fear. That’s what it’s like to be a slave” which the enslaved replicant addresses to the man chasing him, detective Deckard (Harrison Ford), at a moment when his life is in Batty’s hands. I assume that the line was written by scriptwriter David Peoples, and I salute him for encapsulating in it the reason why we act as cowards in the face of rampant abuse: we are all enslaved by fear, and this fear has its roots in violence.

It is inevitable to mention this week the brutal attack suffered by Indian-born author Salman Rushdie, thirty-three years after the fatwa that Ayatollah Khomeini endorsed against him for having allegedly mocked Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses (1989). I live in a country where the Inquisition caused 1346 persons to be executed in horrid ways between 1478 and 1834, including the occupied territories of Central and South America, so I am quite familiar with the brutality to which radicalized religious belief can lead. Precisely because of that, I am, like many other persons, shocked to see that religious fanaticism is still alive and causing so much damage, when it should be just a matter of the historical past.

Fanaticism is the basis not just of the attack against Rushdie, but also of the terrorism that altered so viciously the peace in Barcelona one afternoon in August five years ago, and of the new captivity of all the women in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime established in 2021. I’m not forgetting the victims in Palestine, nor the American women prevented from aborting by the fundamentalist bigots at the US Supreme Court. To those who wonder why the Jewish Holocaust was never stopped, I would reply that the answer is clear, since we are seeing similar examples today: we’re just slaves who can be easily cowed into submission by fear. And when we are afraid, we just don’t care, and don’t act.

I do not know whether there ever was a time when humans lived with no violence, but for the sake of argumentation I am going to suppose that did happen. I have often argued that patriarchy is not fundamentally about sexism but about dominance and power. Dominance, however, is maintained by means of violence and my guess is that patriarchy started when one of the male hunters in a tribal hunting party understood that the violence used against animals could be used against fellow humans to gain ascendancy. The first patriarch was most likely a bully who saw that his ability to use violence could be turned into the foundation for power, and who usurped from women the power to give life by placing the phallus at the centre of social life.

The tribal chieftain need not be a bully or a villain, but the system of terror imposed using violence (obey me or else…) is the very foundation of patriarchal civilization, the authoritarian regime in which we all live, including democracies. The other system of patriarchal control was established through religion. I read not so long ago in a text by someone whose name I have forgotten that religion appeared as a system to impose obedience when tribes grew large. The chieftain and his warriors can only control through direct violence a limited amount of individuals, but if you instil in the tribe the fear of the gods or of god though persons presented as a cast of sacred beings (either wizards or priests) then the number of individuals you can control can grow into billions, as Catholicism and Islam show.

I don’t know about Islam, but I can say for sure that Catholicism has controlled personal behaviour by means of the fear of hell, and social ostracism, and whenever this failed, by the violent means which the Inquisition backed. The hold of Catholicism is now much weakened, and the Pope no longer excommunicates any believers for their transgressions or for blasphemy, but in historical terms, this church is not so different from the rampant fanaticism we see today in other religions.

The supposition is that History progresses toward a future in which all human rights will be respected and the authoritarian regime we know as patriarchy will be transformed into a democracy run by fully participative citizens. When Hadi Matar plunged his knife ten times into the unprotected body of Salman Rushdie he not only put the clock back to 1989, but also confirmed that progress is halting. The rights of Afghan women and LGTBIQ+ persons have evaporated, and the same is happening in the USA. Putin, Trump, Bolsonaro, and the many other patriarchs menacing democracy are pulling us back into the darker times we thought were just part of History, sorry to repeat my argument. Talk of nuclear warfare is becoming normalized in the hottest summer on record, which indicates that climate change might not have time to kill us because a nuclear winter will. The fanaticism and the fascism we believe were dead are coming back, like the psychotic killer of the increasingly bad sequels, and although no other group of six million people have been exterminated as systematically as the European Jews were killed, immense human collectives are being victimized, with women at the top of the list, even though we are actually the 52% majority in the world.

A question often asked of African-American slaves is why they never staged a collective rebellion and mass-murdered their owners, since these were clearly a minority in comparison to the number of enslaved persons. Well, replicant Roy Batty gave us the answer: being a slave is living in fear, and living in fear makes you a slave. I’ll add that you possibly need just 10% of truly brutal bullies to enslave the rest, though from what I see in the votes of those who support extreme right-wing policies, between 25% and 30% of the population are slaves who long for a tough master and who think that the rest should be enslaved.

As a woman, I am terrified. By this trend, by the onslaught against women’s rights, by the hatred against LGTBIQ+ persons even in countries like Spain where gay marriage is a right, and by the inability of the world community to stop beasts like Putin. We are going backwards so fast it will take us centuries to regain the future. Think of what J.K. Rowling must be feeling now, trapped as she is between the fury of the trans activists who have branded her a TERF, and the hatred of the radical Muslim man who announced to her on Twitter after Rushdie was attacked “you’re next”. And I am not forgetting Catalan Muslim rapper Miss Raisa, a defender of the LGTBI community. A man was arrested just a few days ago, having not only threatened to behead her but apparently preparing to do so.

My personal freedom of speech and our collective freedom of speech is jeopardised by the fear and hatred poured on us, both by long-lived institutions like organized religion and new ones, like the social media. Salman Rushdie thought he was free from the fatwa and was travelling with no escort, tired of the years he spent secluded like a prisoner. His attack by a young man who was not even born when the fatwa was issued, and who most likely acted as a lone wolf might be just the work of an isolated fanatic individual, but this man represents something deeper.

The freedom of speech of the radicalized, undemocratic others, whether they are the Taliban or Donald Trump, has not been curved down, whereas ours has been limited by their violence. Twitter expelled Trump, but that was in the end a token gesture. Among the barrage of tweets reacting to the attack on Rushdie with love and compassion, you could see a river of tweets celebrating and justifying it. I do not deny that The Satanic Verses may have offended some Islamic believers, but this is a matter to be argued using words, not a knife. In fact, the attack is going to have the opposite effect, as sales of the novel instantly boomed. I am just very sorry for the peaceful Muslims, the immense majority, who will have to bear the brunt of this man’s cruel and idiotic criminal action.

I don’t care, in any case, as much for Rushdie as I care for the 14.2 million women and girls in Afghanistan, enslaved by the Taliban. I don’t know how many of the 15 million men are part of the regime, or complicit with it, but I fear above all that this is a blueprint for the spread of anti-democratic patriarchy all over the world. See what Amnesty International has to say.

I personally no longer feel free, if I ever have, and indeed have stopped believing in the freedom of speech. Popular actor Tom Holland has just announced that he is closing temporarily his social media to protect his mental health from the constant criticism. I understand his decision, but the problem is that as things are now, the only way to protect one’s mental health is to totally disconnect from the world, and protect whatever privileges you may have. If you want to be minimally connected to life today, particularly if you’re a woman, you need to accept the mental distress, the anxiety, and the fear. And try to perpetuate the illusion of freedom despite knowing that, even under the best circumstances, you’re nothing but a slave to greed, authoritarianism, hatred, and lust for power, in short, of patriarchy. The freer you think you are, the less you will understand your own enslavement.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328, and visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

CHRONICLING THE DEATH OF LITERATURE (II): THE WRITER AS INFLUENCER

The other article that has interested me and, in this case, appalled me is Laura Miller’s “The Unlikely Author Who’s Absolutely Dominating the Bestseller List” for Slate on the current US top best-selling novelist: Colleen Hoover. Miller’s analysis led me to Stephanie McNeal’s similar piece, “How Colleen Hoover Became The Queen Of BookTok” for BuzzFeed, published a few weeks before.

“CoHo is fans’ nickname for the beloved romance and thriller author Colleen Hoover”, McNeal writes. “Hoover, a 42-year-old mom of three from Texas, has published more than 20 novels and novellas over the past decade, capturing the hearts of book bloggers, #bookstagram, and more recently, #BookTok”. Indeed, both journalists describe Hoover as a social-media savvy person who has mistress-minded her rise to the best-selling lists thanks to an astonishingly clever use of social media. Miller and McNeal stress that Hoover’s current popularity is not a product of TikTok book reviewing (or booktoking) but the result of a decade of the author’s relentless cultivation of each successive social network, as they rose and fell.

I had never heard of Hoover but this is unsurprising as I have given up trying to make sense of the constant flood of novelties and, besides, I don’t use social media, except Twitter (mainly to announce this blog’s new posts). If Hoover is more astute than any other writer at publicising her work, then kudos to her. Her success, it must be noted, is very different from the word of mouth recommendations that propelled J.K. Rowling to the top of the best-selling lists worldwide, a phenomenon on which she had no direct influence and that came very much as a surprise for her publishers, Bloomsbury. Hoover started self-publishing until Atria offered her a home, generating in the process immense revenues for both. Again, if author and publisher understand their business so thoroughly, then they deserve their windfall. What worries me is the impact writers like Hoover are having on the reading habits of their admirers. And no, I have not read any of her novels nor do I intend to do so.

My argument might make no sense, but I’ll mention another woman writer of supposedly very high impact to establish a comparison. This is not based on sales, or on TikTok reviews, but on GoodReads comments. Nigerian-American author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is very well-known as the author of the novel Americanah (2013) and the essay We Should All Be Feminists (2014). In GoodReads, Adichie’s novel has today 4’31 stars out of 5, with 329,795 ratings and 27,308 reviews; her essay is valued with 4’42 stars (246,407 ratings and 24,421 reviews). I will stress that books above 4 stars are, in my experience of using GoodReads, usually excellent and that anything below 3’70 is dubious. Now, let’s turn to Hoover. Her novels are, except for a couple of duds, rated above 4, with the readers’ favourite, It Ends with Us (2016) rated 4’40, on the basis of, attention!, 1,406,095 ratings and 139,103 reviews. Sally Rooney’s allegedly ground-breaking Normal People (2019) only rates 3’83 with 899,160 ratings and 84,780 reviews.

A rule of GoodReads and any other website rating texts of any type is that voters tend to dissent, so that works with close to five stars still find detractors. I always read first the worst reviews, since the five-star reviews are bound to be predictable (‘this is a masterpiece’ and so on). Almost 16,000 readers rated It Ends with Us with one star. I forgot to say that this is a romance novel and among the best-liked reviewers, Alissa Patrick complains about its clichéd plotline (“a story about a guy who apparently has the magical penis to make you throw your convictions out the window just because he’s hot and wearing hospital scrubs”), whereas Olivia’s criticism goes further, accusing Hoover of reducing “domestic abuse to a lovers quarrel and present[ing] a tactless caricature of the realities of abuse. I can acknowledge this may not have been the intention, but the elaboration in the author’s note does not absolve this book of its reckless and irresponsible marketing”. In contrast, the 5-star best-liked review by Aesta begins with “It Ends With Us is one of the most powerful books of 2016 and one of the most raw, honest, inspiring, and profoundly beautiful stories I’ve ever read. (…) This is the kind of book that I want to give to every woman and just be like… READ THIS BOOK. NOW” (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27362503-it-ends-with-us). Sorry but no, thanks.

I have been thinking about why Colleen Hoover’s success annoys me so profoundly, not being myself an (envious) novelist and being quite open to reading anyone and everything. It is, besides, almost impossible to express an opinion without attacking the genres which she practices (romance, YA, thriller, women’s fiction and paranormal romance) or her readers (mostly young women). I run the risk of being seen as an aged elitist feminist hag, which perhaps is what I am, but is not what I would like to be seen as. I believe that what depresses me is that, given how terminal the whole world of reading is—with more people than ever reading, but with those who read not choosing the better options available⁠—so much readerly energy is being wasted. It is this nagging feeling that all those young readers would be much better off reading better books since, presumably, they do like reading.

I am not as naïve as to believe that the solution lies in reading the classics (I complained against Moby-Dick’s dullness just two posts ago) or that reading fiction for entertainment should be banned (I myself read science fiction for that purpose). What is depressing me is this tide coming mainly from America, but also widespread in Europe, by which you get in the more popular novels, or rather in the popular genres, a flat view of reality. Popular fiction has always been criticized for that, but somehow there came a point when romance, detective fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and so on could compete with the non-genre fiction in the depth with which they portrayed society (also because non-genre or mainstream fiction got shallower).

I must conclude that what is concerning me is how in the absence of a better kind of writing, a less proficient type of writing is attracting all the interest. Both in genre and in non-genre narrative, the books promise in the blurbs and the enthusiastic reviews much more than they can give, most likely because the authors of the present are not themselves as well-read as the authors of the past. Since the readers are not well-read, either, the standards are being eroded and what passes now for a masterpiece (the words used by many GoodRead reviewers for Hoover’s books) is really just a reasonably well-crafted, cliché-ridden novel of the kind that used to be called middle-brow and even low-brow.

Perhaps I envy Hoover’s readers because they describe very intense reading experiences in which they have been swept off their feet. I only get this feeling very rarely, finding myself putting up with books rather than enjoying them. Possibly, the more one reads, the more one sees any book’s seams and the less one is willing to enjoy the ride. I still think, though, that the reading world is upside down (arguably, it has always been so) and that there are out there many other novelists worth reading and promoting. Or perhaps not, and ours is the era of the Colleen Hoovers and of the writer as influencer. It used to be the case that authors became public figures on the strength of their publications, and I believe that this is now the opposite: first you build yourself as a wannabe influencer and then you build a fanbase before you’re really ready to produce any solid work.

Commenting these days with one of my nieces (she’s 13) on her books for the summer, she introduced me to Joana Marcús, a twenty-two-year old author from Majorca, who started her career by giving away her first novel online and cultivating a fanbase on Wattpad (https://www.wattpad.com/). Wattpad, the web where you share your fiction and receive feedback from readers, is a wonderful idea, but although it connects new writers to readers and publishers, it is hardly a platform to encourage the renewal of narrative clichés, as it thrives like all social media on likes and popularity. Wattpad Studios promises now to turn stories into smashing film and TV adaptations. So, social media are indeed killing literature by having not only taken away from young people the leisure time that many used to invest on more creative pursuits, but also by turning writers into influencers that care more about monetizing talent than about developing it.

I do not know how this might work, but I am (almost) sure that if we compare a novel by, say, romance queen Danielle Steele to one by Colleen Hoover, we might notice a significant difference in quality, in favour of the former. I am beginning to sound like George Eliot when she launched her ferociously misogynistic attack “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” (1856) (published anonymously in the Westminster Review), which is not my intention. Nonetheless, I will borrow from her essay the idea that the “greatest deficiencies” not only of women writers but of all authors writing today “are due hardly more to the want of intellectual power than to the want of those moral qualities that contribute to literary excellence—patient diligence, a sense of the responsibility involved in publication, and an appreciation of the sacredness of the writer’s art”. Instead, we find “that kind of facility which springs from the absence of any high standard” and plenty of “futile authorship” fuelled by vanity—that deeply human quality which those who developed the social media exploit so well.

As for the sacredness of the writer’s art, and the art itself, I’m afraid nobody knows any longer what it really consists of.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328, and visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

CHRONICLING THE DEATH OF LITERATURE (I): THE EXPERIMENTAL NOVEL AND THE RISE OF THE INFLUENCER

In my last post I argued that highly creative literature is practically dead, and that part of this foretold death is due to the dominance of the novel written by authors who do not care for literary prose. A few days later, Domingo Ródenas de Moya published in the culture supplement of El País, Babelia, an article called “¿Quién teme a la literatura experimental?” [Who fears the experimental novel?] in which he basically argued that the confluence of commercial interests and the readers’ disinterest had killed experimental fiction. By experimental he meant in essence the Modernist fiction culminating in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), now the object of a centennial celebration.

Ródenas’s notion of the experimental was criticized in the readers’ comments as an elitist position which did not take into account the scant interest that Modernist novels elicited at the time of publication, nor the fact that experimentalism can be found in other texts, including the popular ones. This is indeed the case. Gothic novels, for instance, were often experimental narratives because the authors needed to maintain the illusion that the preposterous events they narrated had actually happened. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), for instance, is a prodigy in that sense, consisting of an assemblage of documents from the phonographic recordings of Dr. Seward’s diary to newspapers cuttings. R.L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), a novella rather than a novel, also astonishes for how the tale is built, from the outside to the inside, beginning with the observations of the good doctor’s friends and ending with his own record of the catastrophe that engulfs him.

Stoker and Stevenson were very different kinds of writers, but their shared popularity shows that common readers are open to experimentation as long as the story narrated is engaging, which is not at all the case in Ulysses. This is, on the other hand, a much purer literary text since Joyce was not writing primarily as a narrator, or as a novelist, but as a literary experimentalist trying to create a new kind of artefact. He succeeded mightily in that endeavour but, of course, nobody approaching him as a narrator or a novelist can be satisfied with his storytelling skills (I won’t even mention Finnegan’s Wake, 1939, which almost killed the literary novel for good).

Among the comments to Ródenas’s text, one signed by a person calling themselves ‘Lola Montes’ caught my attention. ‘She’ showed a peculiar misunderstanding of the role of computers in writing (“Today books are written in batches like ‘churros’ thanks to computers, which demands little effort and scarce meditation on what is written”), a boutade suggesting ‘she’ must be either a technophobe or an elderly person, or both. However, I found another passage by ‘her’ absolutely relevant: “The difficulty of a reading is directly proportional to the relationship between the cognitive level of the author and the reality and context that it presents. And that requires also high cognitive levels in readers. It’s not a question of experimenting with just the semicolons. Today, Great Classical Literature should be considered experimental because very few address and understand it”). This comment can be tackled in two ways: no, Lola, very sophisticated readers of high cognitive skills can find experimental and/or classical fiction tedious, too and, yes, Lola, the more basic readers’ skills are, the less likely they are to choose fiction beyond the basic binge-in-a-few-hours standard.

A question that is not habitually addressed in relation to reading habits is leisure. The novel was born in the 18th century as a genre designed to fill in the spare time of leisured women of middle and upper-class backgrounds, who had received no formal education beyond mere literacy. Gentlemen also read novels (even the Prince Regent had read Jane Austen’s novels) but being associated with novel writing and novel reading was frowned upon as a lowly ‘feminine’ pursuit. When in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), the servant Rachel tries to warn her mistress Helen about her husband’s misbehaviour, Helen upbraids her: “What then, Rachel? Have you been reading novels?”

The idea that the novel could be a vehicle for high intellectual reflexion and for creative literary expression aimed at better educated readers came much later, in a 50-year process that ran from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2) to Ulysses (1922). This process overlaps with the establishment (in the UK) of state-funded primary and secondary education and, thus, with the idea that reading the classics had to be part of the education of all persons. Please, note that novels were still treated in that context as texts for leisure and they were not proclaimed officially part of a desirable education until F.R. Leavis published The Great Tradition (1948).

The novel, then, has occupied diverse niches in leisure, from the more basic need for entertainment on the beach, while travelling, to fill in a boring afternoon, to the more elaborate need to understand life. Those who read Ulysses originally had time in their hands for this type of demanding text, for this is not at all a text that you read to relax at the end of a bone-tiring working day. You don’t even read Middlemarch to relax, nor any novel by the major Russian and French novelists, but because you are curious about them. Readers endowed with a literary curiosity always find time to read demanding texts, but even so, they read them during their leisure time (unless they are literary professionals in reviewing and academia, or captive readers like students).

Guidance to fill in that productive leisure time, apart from education, used to come from the newspapers, magazines, and journals and in cultivated nations like France or Germany from TV shows devoted to reading. Literary critic Bernard Pivot, a former journalist, would tell French readers who to read in his weekly Friday evening talk show Apostrophes (1974-1989) and they would pay heed. When Oprah Winfrey started her book club (in 1996, as a segment of her own talk show), this was no longer about literary curiosity. As Scott Tossel wrote in The Atlantic, during the height of the controversy unleashed by author Jonathan Franzen’s refusal to be publicised by Oprah, “Modernism (and postmodernism) taught us that the true rewards of art and literature are not easily gained, but must be attained only through difficulty and struggle. Getting your culture from Oprah, in this view, is like getting it from Cliffs Notes—a cheaper, cheating method, one that withholds a work of art’s full rewards”. Tossel did not consider, of course, why Oprah had to fill in a gap left by education, nor when exactly workers employed 40 or more hours a week can find the energy to reap the rewards of hard reading.

Oprah was acting as what would be later called, beginning in 2015, an ‘influencer’. This is where the real battle is happening. German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s well-known talk show on German public television, Literarisches Quartett (1988-2001), which somehow bridges the gap between Pivot and Winfrey, is now unthinkable, with its in-depth interviews and its committed discussion of literature. Winfrey’s book club ended in 2011, with the end of her talk show. Its newer version launched in 2012, Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, which acknowledges the rise of the interactive social media, has never had the same impact. Those who, like Tossel, were appalled by how fine, creative literature had fallen into the middlebrow, plebeian hands of Oprah Winfrey, must be now suicidal, seeing how literature is perishing, drowned by reviews of undemanding narrative first by booktubers, now by booktokers. Readers are still following the lead of others but whereas Pivot and Reich-Ranicki, and to a great extent Winfrey, acted out of a genuine concern to educate readers using the mass media, this is gone from the social media, with a few exceptions that do not reach, anyway, the high number of spectators those proto literary influencers reached. Or that influencers like the Kardashians command.

In principle, nothing prevents booktubers and booktokers from championing extremely demanding Modernist, post-modernist and post-post-modernist fiction, or any other literary genre (poetry, drama). The Kardashians could indeed helped to publicize Joyce as they are publicizing so many fashion brands. The problem, as I see it, is that those who are present in social media as book reviewers are usually very young persons whose literary taste has not been formed yet and who are, besides, in the grip of this malady which is young adult fiction. Excuse me for my ageist snobbery, but although the idea of young persons recommending books to each other is beautiful, the idea of their mostly recommending novels designed to please junior readers is not.

I was recently reading Jorge Semprún’s La escritura o la vida (1994, originally L’écriture ou la vie), a deeply moving memoir of his return to ordinary life after Buchenwald, and I was astonished by the scenes in which he, then 20, comments on poems with an American officer, as young as he is. Both men have read enormously and quote an amazing variety of poetry. They were clearly under other influences (and influencers). As for young adult fiction, I am not disputing the quality of its texts, as I would never dispute the quality of children’s literature. What I am saying is that it has had the unfortunate (or tragic) side effect of convincing most teen readers, of which the vast majority are girls, that there is something called ‘adult’ literature which is dull to death and should only be read when white hairs start sprouting in your head.

I’ll continue my ranting in the following post…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328, and visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

LOOKING BEYOND THE NOVEL: THE OTHER PROSE

My post today continues from the last one in the sense that I want to consider here why the novel occupies the first position in the ranks of all the literary texts. In fact, I want to consider how come we have confused narrative with literature, additionally reducing fiction only to the novel, the novella, and the short story (and forgetting that drama and poetry can also be narrative). As I maintained in my last post, narrative non-fiction cannot compete in general public esteem with the novel because of the general fixation with narrative fiction, which to me is harder and harder to explain, particularly if we take into account than often narrative fiction is based on real-life facts (as Moby-Dick is) whereas narrative non-fiction borrows plenty of narrative techniques from fiction, including the novel, the novella, and the short story.

I’ll begin with a very basic observation regarding an issue that we often take for granted. Whenever someone is described as a ‘writer’, we immediately assume that this person must be a novelist. Whenever someone claims they like reading, they usually mean that they enjoy reading novels. Yet, not all writers are novelists and not all reading consists of reading novels. When I first saw myself referred to as a ‘university lecturer and writer’, I was mystified, for I don’t call myself a writer even though at this point I have authored 8 books, apart from editing a longish list of volumes, and even doing some translation. Emily Brontë, let’s recall this, only published Wuthering Heights (1848). However, the reason why she is universally regarded as a writer and I am not (not even in my own personal regard) is that she wrote a novel (and beautiful poetry) and I write essays.

Ms. Brontë was not a professional writer, and nor am I, yet that is immaterial, for what counts towards being a ‘writer’ is not an ability to commercialize one’s writing, but following a vocation that is supposedly artistic (I appear to be a vocational writer, but not of the artistic type). Ms. Brontë did certainly produce literary art in her novel, but the vast majority of novelists active today are not at all capable of writing artistic prose, being mostly proficient in the craft of storytelling. There is nothing wrong in producing and enjoying a tale well told written in functional prose, but that kind of novel should be enjoyed and studied as narrative, not as literature. Before I get lost in my own argumentation, I must make the point that not only are authors of essays (academic or otherwise) also writers, but some of them are capable of writing literary prose of a much higher quality than most novelists. As an example, read any of Robert Macfarlane’s exquisite essays on nature, and then read any recent Booker Prize winner and tell me where the better literary prose can be found.

An even more basic point than the ones I have raised is that all writing is produced either in verse or in prose. We now identify verse with poetry, and all poetry with lyrical poetry, but in fact poetry can be used in any kind of writing. I could be writing this blog in verse rather than prose. Verse has been used in narrative, from ballads to epic poems running to many pages, and indeed in novels. Verse used to be of common usage in drama, but, if I’m not wrong, T.S. Eliot was the last major author to write plays in verse, setting them besides in contemporaneous times. We associate verse to centuries old plays, like the ones by Shakespeare and company, but tend to forget that nobody has ever spoken in verse, and that poetry (especially blank verse) was of great mnemotechnic use to actors. To sum up this point, writing in verse is far more time-consuming than writing in prose but there is actually no reason why verse should not dominate over prose. Please, note that not all verse is literary, that is to say, successful in creating an artistic impression, even though we accept that poetry (the texts purposefully created to use verse artistically) is part of literature. Not all poetry, of course, manages to be artistically pleasing, hence literary.

So, whatever is not written in verse is prose, a style of writing in which rhythm is secondary and rhyme not used (even though the blank verse mostly used in Elizabethan drama, and by Milton in Paradise Lost, has no rhyme, either). Prose can be a very blunt instrument (read any set of instructions) or a very sophisticated tool, capable of sustaining from a witty tweet to all of Wikipedia. Here is where the word ‘creative’ complicates matters. Nobody would expect a newspaper or a journal article to use prose in a creative fashion, for the main purpose of the prose in those types of texts is transmitting information and ideas. The more creative segment of prose writing is to be found in literary texts which include, let me stress this again, drama (for the stage for also for the screen) and what we stubbornly call fiction, as if fiction could not be found in narrative poetry and in plays. Once Eliot’s experiment in writing verse plays was over, I should say that any literary impulse was lost in drama. By this I mean that authors from Beckett onward saw no point in cultivating creative prose of the kind that tickles the brain with the genius in stringing words together, preferring instead to focus on the situational, whether narrative or non-narrative. Thinking of the best 20th and 21st century plays I have seen, it strikes me that I love them either for the story they tell or the experience they offer, but one would hardly quote them as examples of linguistic art as we still quote Shakespeare (both his verse and his prose).

It would be absurd for me to claim that the prose used in short stories, novellas, and novels is no longer artistic but I certainly believe that most novels are appreciated for their plot rather than for the quality of their prose. I have recently read Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog (1967), which Jane Campion adapted so amazingly well for the screen, both as screenplay writer and director. This novel has been my most pleasing experience in reading this kind of book of the whole year (so, the best novel in 20 I have read so far) and as I read it I was wondering why it worked so well. I believe it is due to a happy overlapping of total narrative control (Savage knows when to provide apparently trivial details that later are seen to be crucial) with a prose that is above the basic needs of the story. There are no poetic flights but Savage’s prose is precise and insightful in its descriptions, and in its dialogue. Does this mean that The Power of the Dog is great literature? The answer is that it is great narrative, superior to many other novels, though it does not necessarily provide a better reading experience that some great non-fiction books I have read. But is Savage’s novel literature? No, if we think that the author was not particularly interested in writing artistic prose. Yes, if we use the concept ‘literature’ as a synonym of narrative, as it is done today.

There is an intriguing possibility that literature is dead with the exception of poetry if we regard literature as the artistic use of language. Both in drama (stage and audiovisual) and in prose fiction (novel, novella, shot story) any attempts to call attention to language itself are perceived as obstacles, and regardless of the degree of fantasy in the plot all works use functional dialogue, description, and authorial comment. No narrative writer is now making an effort (or just very few) to make the most of the possibilities of language, preferring instead to put their energies on situation (characterization is dying or almost dead). Whether we go to the theatre, watch the latest Netflix series, or lie down on the sofa with a novel in our hands, we don’t want to be offered bursts of elaborated language but narrative that flows well and is cleverly built, and dialogue that is as close to possible to real life (no verse please!) even when the work in question is set on 24th century Mars.

If, as I am arguing, the novel is not really a repository of artistic prose there is, therefore, no reason to give it so much room in Literature degrees, criticism, reviewing and reading. If novelists are not more capable than, say, scientists, to write the kind of prose that makes you wonder about the artistic flexibility of language, then why are they so highly valued? If we claim to love literature and not just fiction, how come so very few people enjoy poetry and hardly nobody reads plays? In our English Literature degrees, poetry and drama occupy just a small corner, and if the presence of short fiction is more or less stable, this is because the students bingeing on TV series for hours no longer have patience for novels. Much less for other genres. The course on Victorian Literature that I teach focuses on four novels. It used to be called Genres of Victorian Literature and last for two semesters. When it was reduced to one semester, we lost the play (Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest), the poetry and the selection of passages from Victorian essays. I still give students the booklets with the poems and the essay selections but the time I need to help them read the novels has reduced the time I could use for the other genres to nothing. Here’s the joke: the true best-sellers of Victorian times were the religious books. Victorian readers love sermons, it seems.

To sum up my argumentation, I wish we could acknowledge that what we call literature is actually narrative, and that the novel is no better than narrative non-fiction in offering interesting stories told in prose of similar quality. Essays, as Robert Macfarlane shows, can be of higher literary quality than novels if we look at the beauty of his prose, whereas the increasing pull of realism is making it harder and harder for all kinds of fiction to use literary language. I am not engaging here in the old debate of whether popular and so-called literary creative novelists are all part of the canon and so on. I am calling attention to the extraordinary amount of commitment that novels receive even in Literature degrees in comparison to other genres which do care for literary artistry (such as poetry) and other genres written in prose of similar quality and by authors as competent as novelists or even more.

If you disagree with me, please send me examples of beautifully crafted prose in recent fiction and we’ll continue the conversation. Thanks.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328, and visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

READING MOBY-DICK WITHOUT HAVING A WHALE OF A TIME

Michael Quinion explains in his beautiful online dictionary of idioms World Wide Words the origin of the expression ‘having a whale of a time’, meaning enjoying yourself enormously. The idiom originates, as it easy to surmise, in the idea that whales are big animals to which big things can be compared. Apparently, Quinion informs his readers, turn-of-the-century US student slang was prolific in its many references to whales. The article by Willard C. Gore, “Student Slang” for The Inlander, a Monthly Magazine of the Students of Michigan University (December 1895), defines ‘whale’ as 1. A person who is a prodigy either physically or intellectually (“He’s a whale at tennis”) and 2. Something exceptionally large, severe or jolly, hence the idiom having “a whale of a time” (in Quinion). By 1901, Quinion notes, the idiom was fully consolidated and “It has never gone away”.

This prologue is my introduction to the problem I have suffered as a reader these last few weeks: I haven’t had a whale of a time reading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, the Whale (1851). This has been, if I recall correctly, my third attempt at reading this famed American classic and if this time I have persevered it is only because I had announced to two colleagues who specialize in Melville that I was finally reading the book. As happens, I am co-editing a book called Detoxing Masculinity for which one of my two colleagues (Rodrigo Andrés) has contributed a chapter on Moby-Dick and I just thought the time had come to fill in that woeful gap in my reading. Besides, my doctoral student Xiana Vázquez is working on the concept of humans as prey, and it seems to me that Melville’s novel is fundamental for her dissertation. Please, note that Moby-Dick is a sperm whale, a toothed predator unlike the even larger blue whale, a filter feeder that eats tiny krill. No humans have been eaten by a sperm whale (or there are no reports), and despite constant speculation that the whale that swallowed Jonah could have been a sperm whale, the scientific studies indicate the prophet would have been crushed in the event.

The problem with Moby-Dick is not its length (539 pages in its Project Gutenberg edition) but the problematic merger in the text of, essentially, two books: one, a seaman’s yarn dealing with how Captain Ahab obsesses about the white whale that took his leg away; the other, a non-fiction report (I would not call it essay) on whaling and whales, in particular sperm whales. Nam Peruge claims in a blog post that readers can skip the 100 non-narrative chapters of the novel and just focus on the remaining 35 that are narrative, which, indeed, can be done, Rayuela-style. The problem, as you can see, is that if you only read the 35 narrative chapters you cannot claim to have read Moby-Dick, this so-called novel which is more non-fiction than fiction. The other major problem is that whereas the narrative chapters are proficient enough as adventure, the long list of non-narrative chapters are quite dull as non-fiction. I would call myself a rather patient reader but despite my love of non-fiction and my being used to academic prose, which is usually a pretty dry affair (including mine), I had many difficulties to read for more than thirty minutes at a time Melville’s too detailed informative chapters. The day I read one hour of Moby-Dick I was on a train with nothing else to do (or read).

In fact, I have used with Moby-Dick an old trick from my student days, which consisted of combining the books I had to read for class but didn’t like with one book I loved. If I read a good chunk of the compulsory set text, then I would allow myself to read a bit from the one I preferred. Quite by accident, my choice of companion for Moby-Dick turned out to be a perfect match. John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (2010)—which you should hurry to borrow from the Internet Archive before they close it down, as it might soon happen—is a thrilling non-fiction narrative volume about the hunting of a man-eating Siberian tiger, which tells, besides, the story of this species and of how the collapse of the Soviet Union led to its desperate situation. It is so close to Moby-Dick in so many ways that Vaillant even chooses an epigraph from Melville for one of the chapters. The two books differ, however, in one important point: even though The Tiger is the perfect mixture of the informative and the narrative Melville was aiming at it will never compete with Moby-Dick because non-fiction books still suffer from the absurd prejudice of being considered inferior to fiction.

This is due to the modern worship of authorial imagination. The irony is that although Melville invented Captain Ahab and had the idea of making his sperm whale an albino (see how popular the white humpback Migaloo is today), he took his inspiration from a very well-known historical episode, that of the sinking of the whaleship Essex in 1820 by a sperm whale. The first mate Owen Chase published the following year his Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, which inspired Melville to write his novel 30 years later. The Essex tragedy inspired as well American author Nathaniel Philbrick to write a truly admirable non-fiction volume, one of the best books I have ever read, in any genre: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000), which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. In 2015 Ron Howard released the film adaptation, a fiction film (not a documentary) with Chris Hemsworth playing Chase (who was not that handsome…).

Many readers who share their problems with Moby-Dick on Goodreads (see the very thorough discussion by ‘Matt’) mention Philbrick’s masterpiece as a volume which, unlike Melville’s, gave them a whale of a time. My colleague Nick Spengler, who wants to teach Moby-Dick in an elective, semestral course tells me that Melville’s novel needs to be approached as a singular construction rather than a standard novel. He told me that the illustrious Francisco Rico and Gonzalo Pontón once shared at UAB a similar elective subject on El Quijote, which is also a composite text, and not what we know now as a novel. My impression is that our students will have a hard time reading Melville, though I trust that if anyone can make Moby-Dick attractive, this is Nick. I would myself join his class… As I told him, I am planning to teach a non-fiction course in 2023-24, which will certainly include In the Heart of the Sea, so it might well be that students will read the two books simultaneously. That will be an interesting experiment!

The other major problem which Melville’s (alleged) masterpiece faces today is its insensitive approach to whales and whaling, as many other commentators have noticed. A passage from Chapter 41 encompasses everything that makes contemporary readers cringe before this novel’s appalling approach to animals; I refer to the lines describing Ahab’s dismemberment. The captain is attacking Moby-Dick with a “six inch blade” when the animal “reaped away Ahab’s leg”, in an action that can only be called self-defence but that Ahab reads as pure “malice”. Since losing his leg Ahab “had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale” as “the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them”. Melville writes that Ahab identifies the “intangible malignity which has been from the beginning” with the “abhorred white whale”, and sentences that “He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down”.

Melville is subtle enough for us to be able to read Ahab as a madman unfairly pursuing an animal that must feel terrified and that tries, accordingly, to flee his foe and, later, to save his own life for good [SPOILERS ALERT] by destroying Ahab’s whaling ship, the Pequod. Yet, in Chapter 105 Melville dismisses the account of how 18th and 19th century whaling almost exterminated these fellow mammals with the rather absurd observation that since other species hunted in bigger numbers still survive (such as elephants), “we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality”. Perhaps because of the negative reaction all this provokes in contemporary readers, Moby-Dick may be functioning today as a potent defender of animal rights. I am sure that many readers cheer when [SPOILER ALERT] the whale carries Ahab away (presumably to drown, not eat, him).

I wish, finally, to praise Ray Bradbury, for being one of Herman Melville’s best readers. John Huston commissioned Bradbury to write the screenplay for the film eventually released in 1956. Bradbury was then rather well-known but he was not familiar with Moby-Dick, and he found the double task of adapting the book and putting up with Huston’s ill-treatment barely bearable. He narrated his ordeal in Green Shadows, White Whale (1992), which is his lightly fictionalized memoir of the almost two years spent in Ireland writing the screenplay, while Huston drank, led a hectic social life, and enjoyed horse racing. Huston, by the way, stole a writing credit from Bradbury as he was by no means the screenplay’s co-author. It appears that Steven Spielberg wanted to show in Jaws (1975) his fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) watching Huston’s Moby-Dick, to stress the character’s similarities with the obsessive Ahab, but actor Gregory Peck, who played the captain, did not allow it. Peck, imposed by Warner Bros. against Huston’s criteria though the actor was not aware of this, was always unhappy with a role that came to him aged only 38 (Ahab is 58). I saw the film (again) right after finishing the novel and I must say that for me Peck still is the perfect Ahab. There are many other adaptations, but this one has a quaint charm that makes it unique. Incidentally, Russell Crowe, currently 58, might be a great Ahab.

I don’t have room here to comment on whether Melville was aware of the obvious queer elements in the relationship between the narrator Ishmael and his Polynesian harpooner pal Queequeg, but I marvel that the original readers didn’t see anything… queer… in their friendship. I just wish that their part of the story was longer, and that the couple [SPOILER ALERT] could have survived happily ever after on a lush tropical desert island with Moby-Dick as their companion, all three having a whale of a time.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328, and visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

THE FAILURE TO ENGINEER THE STUDENTS’ CHOICE OF BA DEGREES: THE AUSTRALIAN CASE

I have an immensely talented doctoral student from Australia, and when I asked her whether she has considered applying for a job at a university back home, I got all confused because she started telling me that fees have gone up dramatically, and this makes things complicated. Sure, I replied, but I meant applying for a job, not to take another degree. What she meant, however, is that fees have gone up so steeply for Humanities degrees that many jobs are being lost because of lower demand (as you will see, this is not general all over the country). The Australian fee hike reminds me of what happened a few years ago when the British Government allowed English universities to start charging fees of around £9,000 for BAs. The Australian case, however, has an even worse sting in its tail, for the fees went up just for some degrees but not for others, following a twisted logic which corresponded to a blatant but failed attempt at social engineering.

A few days ago the Spanish universities published their BA grade point cutoffs and, as happens every year, the newspapers were full of articles about why some degrees are so popular and others less attractive. The grade point cutoff for each BA degree depends on the ratio between offer and demand and, so, the combined degree Mathematics and Physics does not justify its amazing top-raking grade because it attracts a crowd of students, but because it only offers 20 places for a demand possibly only five times bigger. If it offered 500 places, its grade point cutoff would be low because I don’t think there is that big a demand for it. For many years, UAB’s BA degree in Translation and Interpretation has been amongst the most demanded, even though chances of getting employment as an interpreter or translator are quite low, forget about being well paid. It’s just a fashionable degree, for mysterious reasons. In other cases, such as Medicine, the degree has an enormous demand which seems justified by the high demand for doctors, yet Spanish universities are not offering more places in Medicine BAs because apparently Spanish hospitals lack sufficient positions to train resident doctors.

In Spain, in short, there is not an adequate match between the BA degrees which students choose and the prospective jobs, nor between the places offered and the demand. Our main problem, however, is not so much that mismatch but that 15%-35% students abandon the BA of their choice between the first and the third year (our BAs run to four years), in many cases because that was not their first option. Needless to say, this is very costly for public universities, which must invest much effort and resources on students who often will never finish their degree. Consider that our registration fees are rather low (1.202,32 € for the first year in the BA in English Studies at UAB) but only cover around 15% of the real cost of tuition.

Now for the Australian case. In 2020, Dan Tehan, Minister of Education in the conservative cabinet of Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Liberal Party of Australia, 2018-2022), came up with a plan to redistribute university costs. Claiming that Australia needed workers trained in STEM degrees, education, construction, and health care in the next five years, Tehan lowered the fees for those degrees by 20% (with top discounts of 62% for mathematics and agriculture), and increased the fees for humanities, social sciences or law, up to 113% (see here). In a speech quoted many times in the Australian media, Tehan argued that “Universities must teach Australians the skills needed to succeed in the jobs of the future”. He added that since the fees were fixed at ‘unit’ (subject) and not degree level, “students studying Arts can still reduce their total student contribution by choosing electives in subjects like mathematics, English, science and IT within their degree”. Peculiar, to say the least.

One year later, in 2021, it was already clear that, as higher education expert of the Australian National University Andrew Norton noted, the Government’s policies and the fee hike had not had a “dramatic” impact on students’ choices. By June of 2022, the state of New South Wales was even reporting an increase of 9% in the demand for Humanities degrees relative to 2020, even much higher in specific degrees (see The Boar). A girl student declares in this article that “Most people I know didn’t choose subjects based on fee costs, we picked our subjects based on interest or future career, but I know that does come from a bit of a privilege though”. This is very worrying because it suggests that the students who can afford to take degrees in the Humanities are the ones more capable of sustaining the burden of a substantial student’s loan. On the other hand, Professor Catharine Coleborne, president of the Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, noted in the same piece that “the fee hikes had also created problems for funding” STEM courses since lower fees also mean a lower income for universities. The new Education Minister Jason Clare has promised to review the “job-ready graduates” policy of his predecessor, as Tehan called the bizarre scheme.

As the reader signing as voiceinthewilderness comments, “Only an inhumane government would not want people to study the Humanities”. I can only agree, but I am also going to play Devil’s advocate today by arguing that Humanities degrees should be much more elitist. Intellectually, not financially. Perhaps all degrees. Supposing Minister Tehan was perfectly honest in his wish to supply Australia with well-trained workers in the areas his nation will need in the near future, he was still making the mistake of associating degree choice to price. If you want to engineer the make-up of the work force, however, you need to attract vocational talent and this has nothing to do with fees. If you want to improve nursing, you need students with a talent for it, for which you need to award grants, not lower the fees. Keep all fees moderate, so that anyone who wants to study can pursue a degree, but make degrees much more competitive, so that the best students are given grants. You don’t want more students in one area or another, you want better students in all.

Gabriel Plaza, the student with the highest grade for the university access test (or Selectividad) in the community of Madrid (13,964 out of 14) has chosen to pursue a BA in Classical Philology, a decision which unleashed an astonishing tweetstorm. He replied to those who mocked him or accused him of wasting his talents that “I prefer happiness to success”, as if he could not be both happy and successful in this field of knowledge. The negative reaction to Gabriel’s choice connects with the general impression that Humanities degrees are useless, and full of students with limited talents who could not enter more demanding degrees. In fact, I think that Humanities degrees should have much higher grade point cutoffs so that only students with an average B- grade would be admitted. I believe that Tehan was wrong in increasing fees, he should have made the Humanities more selective by entrance grade if, that is, there is a real need to reduce the number of students. I’m sure that a rich country like Australia can afford them.

We can discuss endlessly the problem of how many Humanities students a society should educate, but this still leaves us with the problem of why, as we are seeing, so many traditional professional areas have no generational replacement whereas newer professions are failing to attract employees despite offering high salaries. Perhaps what the Australian case is revealing is something else: that university students see primarily themselves as students and cannot (or will not) see themselves as professionals. Possibly, the Humanities remain popular against all odds precisely because they are not intended to professionalize but to further educate students, offering a space for personal growth that more practical degrees lack. What seems clear in any case is that no national system of education can make full sense of how personal vocation and the job market combine, and it seems likely that things will continue in the current haphazard way for a long time. Here or in Australia.


I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328, and visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

EVOLVING GENRES: THE (PARTIAL) RACIALIZATION OF SCIENCE FICTION

Genres are never static, this is a basic truth of literary theory. They may appear at a given time, no matter how hard it usually is to pinpoint exactly when, and fade away as readers become less interested. Each genre has its history, whether this is the larger narrative arc of a genre as gigantic as the novel or of a specific literary manifestation, such as absurdist theatre.

I am thinking of these matters after spending five days attending the international conference of the Science Fiction Research Association, organized this time by the CoFutures collective of Oslo. The conference, titled ‘Futures from the Margins’, called for papers that would consider how “the issues of those from the margins, including Indigenous groups, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, and any people whose stakes in the global order of envisioning futures are generally constrained due to the mechanics of our contemporary world”. This also called for considering how SF is changing because of the arrival of new authors different from those who shaped the central canon many decades ago. SF, of course, can no longer be the same in the 21st century and this needs to be understood and studied.

For me, the cfp was a challenge because I do not belong to any of these marginal groups whose sense of their future is ‘constrained’ by external Western values. Add to this that I usually write (critically) about white men, the demographic category implicitly excluded by the cfp. I ended up submitting a paper on a stimulating short story collection in Catalan, Barcelona 2059: Ciutat de posthumans (MaiMes 2021), edited by Judith Tarradelles and Sergi López, with contributions by Roser Cabré-Verdiel, Ivan Ledesma, Salvador Macip, Jordi Nopca, Bel Olid, Ricard Ruiz Garzón, Laura Tomàs Mora, Carme Torras, and Susana Vallejo. The editors, who also run the publishing house, had the happy idea of inviting the authors back in 2019 to consider what Barcelona could be like 40 years into the future, taking as a departure point the existence of an artificial island called Nova Icària off the coast of the city.

This island, the authors explain in their stories, is a utopia which the citizens of the future Barcelona (a degraded place beset by climate change, recurring pandemics, and terrorism) can enjoy in exchange for full access to their bodies and minds, (ab)used in ruthless posthumanist experimentation developed for capitalistic gain. My thesis was that even though Barcelona might seem right now a privileged place, part of the Western world and universally known because of its tourist attractions, no city is safe from suddenly becoming marginal. Besides, we are all subjected to the whims of the handful of male billionaires (mostly white, but not all) currently running the world, West, East and the rest. I designed the paper to provoke a debate about what this entity we call the West amounts to, and whether white, European communities and citizens can also be marginal(ized), but nobody challenged me.

With three sessions running simultaneously, I must admit that I have only attended one third of the SFRA conference. What I have seen, however, was quite homogeneous and worrying because of the uniformity of the discourse and, I insist, the lack of debate. Nobody has challenged anyone else, which should be part of ongoing discussion. Or everyone was quietly avoiding confrontation. The conference organizers did a very good job of inviting keynote speakers representing planetary diversity (Sami author from Norway Sigbjørn Skåden, Chinese scholar Dai Jinhua, authors Indrapramit Das from India, Chinelo Onwualu from Nigeria, Laura Ponce from Argentina, and ‘chameleon’ artist from Egypy Ganzeer) but this diversity was not as visible among the participants, mostly white scholars. In a session about what the SFRA should take into account for the future, I mentioned that I had seen too many white scholars discuss non-white cultures, a comment greeted with what at first I assumed to be sniggers. In fact, everyone had the same impression but dared not voice it; I was thanked for raising the issue and was told that the SFRA would make an effort to promote SF among young non-white scholars. That was not quite my point, but thank you, this is very important.

As I have noted, I write about men despite not being one and I do think that scholars should never limit their field of action to the demographic category they belong to. What worries me is the lack of reciprocity. Today many white, Western scholars do research on non-white, non-Western authors in an effort to lessen racism. The number of non-white, non-Western scholars is growing, too. They, however, choose to discuss authors of their own demographic category, so that we don’t have (or have very few) discussions of white authors that, besides, might go beyond the issue of race.

You might think that this is fine because non-white scholars should put all their energy into promoting the authors so far ignored by white prejudice. Yet, at the same time, as more and more white scholars choose to ignore the whiteness of white authors, and since this is an issue also mostly ignored in current research by non-white scholars, the result is a heavily racialized academic environment that, while trying to avoid racism, practises a strange kind of illustrated racism by supposing that only non-white authors and scholars are conditioned by race. To be plain: if you are going to discuss how Indigenous writers produce SF today, you need to explore how whiteness conditions the SF produced by mainstream writers. I am not speaking here about what Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein did in the past, which shaped the SF canon whether we like it or not, but what white authors John Scalzi or Ann Leckie are doing today.

I worry about the lack of reciprocity because as a woman writing about SF I am annoyed about the expectations built around what issues interest me. Recently, I have been invited to participate in a series of six lectures on SF for a general audience and I been asked specifically to address the issue of women in SF (I’m the only woman). The organizer told me this is because I have been writing about women and SF, which is true, but I must also explain that although I am more interested in robotics and artificial intelligence, I keep on writing about gender in SF because I am a woman, and the male scholars are not interested in these issues. That is to say: if more men wrote about gender, I would not feel compelled as a woman scholar to write about these issues. I worry, therefore, that many non-white scholars are writing about race not because this is what they really prefer but because this is what they feel needs to be done and because this is expected of them. If race was not an issue (or gender), then more time and energy could be invested in exploring the central theme of SF: how science and technology are shaping our world.

A major problem, of course, is that the technophilia which Golden Age SF used to celebrate is gone, though I must emphasize that the genre was started by Mary Shelley’s technophobic Frankenstein (1818) two hundred years ago. Whereas Mary already claimed that the science developed by men would ruin the world of Homo Sapiens, today the claim is more nuanced and the ‘mad’ scientist is described as white, Western, heterosexual, cis-gender and, in a nutshell, patriarchal, even though many persons who are not in these categories participate in science and technology. My impression of the conference was that, in the face of rampant climate change and other man-made disasters such as war, fascism and capitalism, there are high hopes that SF from the margins can offer healing narratives that point the way forward by looking at the Indigenous past. In a way, this goes back to Ursula K. Le Guin’s complex text Always Coming Home (1985), in which she built “an entire ethnography of a future society, the Kesh, living in a post-apocalyptic Napa Valley”. Today, Le Guin’s efforts might be read as cultural appropriation, and what would be expected is for Indigenous authors to renovate SF in culturally authentic ways, though this smacks in my view of a worrying worship of pre-modern primitivism, which is implicitly racist. There you go.

My doubt is whether this approach is not curtailing the right of Indigenous authors to write as they want, just as feminism has been telling women authors that their first allegiance should be, precisely, to feminism. I am saying this as a feminist woman who does think that all women should contribute to the cause of feminism (if more women had voted for Hillary Clinton, the USA would not be the patriarchal dystopia it is fast becoming). Grace L. Dillons’s edited short story collection Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction (Arizona UP, 2012) has had an enormous impact, so that it is now common to find lists of Indigenous SF online, or more specific books such as Love after the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction (edited by Joshua Whitehead, 2020, Arsenal Pulp Press). The phenomenon is by no means new, and it is indeed a descendant of collections such as Pamela Sargent’s Women of Wonder series (1975-1996). The idea is that if you call attention to a specific category of writers, then readers and academics become curious about their presence and the whole field blooms. This is fine, but, I insist, it still categorizes authors within marginal groups and since there are no equivalent collections that emphasize the category ‘white, male, cis-gender, heterosexual, Western, etc.’ this category still constitutes the hidden norm against which the rest of groups are measured.

This is why I like much more what Judith Tarradelles and Sergi López have done in Barcelona 2059: Ciutat de Posthumans. Here what matters is the use of a common language and the exploration of a common situation, with no allusion to identity politics (or not as a main theme). If I were to edit a SF short story collection, I would propose a theme and invite a selection of representative writers, including those white men nobody likes in academia but that still sell plenty. My view is that the future is being destroyed by a minority of patriarchal individuals that need to be outed as monstrous villains, and we need to hear as many voices as possible to find alternatives, and hear them together, not compartmentalized in increasingly smaller categories. The way forward, I think, should be comparative and cross-cultural but, for that, as the SFRA conference implicitly showed, the main obstacle is not racism but linguistic diversity. As happens, despite the many allusions to Indigenous writing and so on, most papers dealt with Anglophone SF and, secondarily, Chinese. My paper was one of the very few dealing with SF written in a language spoken by just a few millions. So much for margins…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

MEROPE GAUNT, VOLDEMORT’S MOTHER: NARRATIVE AS A HOUSE OF CARDS

The first novel about Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published by Bloomsbury on 26 June 1997, already 25 years ago today. This post looks back to that date, to celebrate it, and forward to next November, when Barcelona’s Witch Market will finally return and all of us, local Potterheads, will have the chance to meet again after a two-year hiatus caused by Covid-19. I have chosen to lecture on Voldemort’s mother, Merope Gaunt, because she is an example of that type of secondary character who seems very minor but whose actions are indispensable for a story to start moving. If poor Merope had not fallen in love with the Muggle Tom Riddle, Lord Voldemort would have never been born. The villain, not the hero, sets the events in motion and, so, without He Who Must not Be Named young Harry Potter would have enjoyed just a normal wizard’s adolescence.

Merope (pronounced ‘mɛrəpiː) is named after a star in the Pleiades which borrows its moniker from one of the seven daughters of the Oceanid nymph Pleione and the Titan Atlas. She only appears in the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005), published eight years after the first novel, which suggests that Rowling may have thought of Voldemort’s back story relatively late in the process of writing, not necessarily from the beginning. Merope’s sad story is narrated in Chapter 10, “The House of Gaunt” (184-204, Bloomsbury 2005 hardback edition), and in Chapter 13, “The Secret Riddle” (242-260), though neither of the two chapters focus on her. Her name is mentioned a total of 32 times, very few in the context of the sprawling narrative that the whole series is, and she is never in dialogue with any other character. We know about Merope because Professor Dumbledore proceeds to recall scenes from the past sharing his Pensieve with Harry, having decided, as he tells the boy, “that it is time, now that you know what prompted Lord Voldemort to try and kill you fifteen years ago, for you to be given certain information” (186).

Dumbledore has no direct memories of Merope, so he uses instead the memories of the late Bob Ogden, a Department of Magical Law Enforcement official. Harry witnesses Odgen’s visit to the village of Little Hangleton, where the Gaunts live: the middle-aged father Marvolo, the son Morfin (possible in his mid-twenties), and the daughter Merope, who is eighteen as we eventually learn. The Gaunts are presented as the English equivalent of the American hillbillies, and Morfin, indeed, gives a rather violent welcome to their unwelcome visitor, sent by Slughorn to investigate a breach of magical law committed by the young man.

When Merope first appears, in a corner of their very poor dwelling, Rowling describes her focalizing the narration through Harry as “a girl whose ragged gray dress was the exact color of the dirty stone wall behind her. She was standing beside a steaming pot on a grimy black stove, and was fiddling around with the shelf of squalid-looking pots and pans above it. Her hair was lank and dull and she had a plain, pale, rather heavy face. Her eyes, like her brother’s, stared in opposite directions. She looked a little cleaner than the two men, but Harry thought he had never seen a more defeated-looking person” (194, my italics). When the nervous, mousy Merope drops a pot, her father upbraids her as he has done many times before: “That’s it, grub on the floor like some filthy Muggle, what’s your wand for, you useless sack of muck?” (194). She, however, cannot manage to repair the pot, which Odgen does, wishing to end the scene as quickly as possible.

When the visitor declares that Morfin has been summoned to the Ministry because he has attacked a Muggle, Marvolo reacts by yelling that his family are direct descendants of Salazar Slytherin, one of Hogwarts’ founders, and owed more respect. As proof he pushes Merope violently, so that Odgen can see the locket she’s wearing. This family heirloom, which she later sells to avoid starvation, is the same one that her adult son Tom, then in his early thirties, finds in the hands of rich collector Hepzibah Smith. When he murders her in a fit of rage (his first murder after he wiped out his father and grandparents, aged sixteen), he needs to flee, hence starting his path towards becoming Lord Voldemort.

Back in Chapter 10, a group of fashionable Muggle passers-by who mock the Gaunts’ derelict home startles Merope. She grows deadly pale when handsome Tom Riddle mocks Morfin and both siblings hear him call her companion Cecilia “darling”. Brutally, Morfin tells Merope (who has not said a word yet), “So he wouldn’t have you anyway” (198) and discloses to their angry father that “She likes looking at that Muggle” (199, original italics). This appals the old man, and even though Merope, still speechless, denies Morfin’s accusation, only Ogden’s providential intervention saves her from being strangled by her father. Then she does utter the first sounds coming from her mouth, though these are screams. Handsome Tom Riddle, as it is easy to guess, is the very same Muggle Morfin has assaulted, mistakenly believing he corresponded her sister’s interest.

Dumbledore tells Harry that both Morfin and Marvolo were apprehended at once and sent to Azkaban, a time of freedom for Merope during which her so far repressed magic flourished. Using, as Harry guesses, a love potion which, Dumbledore speculates, “would have seemed more romantic to her” (202) than an Imperious Curse, Merope seduces Tom Riddle and both elope together, to their village’s great scandal. The father, returned from Azkaban after six months, eventually dies of shock. As Dumbledore further gossips, Merope had lied to Riddle pretending she was pregnant, which she only became three months after their wedding. Riddle, however, returned soon home without his wife, claiming he had been “hoodwinked” (202) and Dumbledore continues his “guesswork” (203) suggesting that Merope “who was deeply in love with her husband, could not bear to continue enslaving him by magical means. I believe that she made the choice to stop giving him the potion. Perhaps, besotted as she was, she had convinced herself that he would by now have fallen in love with her in return. Perhaps she thought he would stay for the baby’s sake. If so, she was wrong on both counts. He left her, never saw her again, and never troubled to discover what became of his son” (203). This marks the ends of Merope’s presence in Chapter 10 and explains why the boy Tom grew to hate his Muggle father so intensely, though he never truly loved his pure-blood mother.

In Chapter 13 Dumbledore returns to the Pensieve to narrate Merope’s troubles once in London. Through the memories of one Caractacus Burke, Harry sees Merope selling the locket; she was “Covered in rags and pretty far along…”, meaning about to give birth (245). If this was not Dickensian enough, Rowling adds a date for the memories: before Christmas (supposedly of 1926). When Harry asks why the desperate Merope did not use magic, Dumbledore speculates that “when her husband abandoned her, Merope stopped using magic. I do not think that she wanted to be a witch any longer. Of course, it is also possible that her unrequited love and the attendant despair sapped her of her powers; that can happen. In any case, as you are about to see, Merope refused to raise her wand even to save her own life” (246).

Mysteriously (and a bit like Star Wars’ Amidala), Merope lets herself die after her baby’s birth. Harry is aghast that Merope would not choose to “live for her son” (246) and Dumbledore replies that, unlike Lily Potter who died to save her son Harry from Voldemort, “Yes, Merope Riddle chose death in spite of a son who needed her, but do not judge her too harshly, Harry. She was greatly weakened by long suffering and she never had your mother’s courage” (246). When Dumbledore recalls his first memory of eleven-year-old Tom Riddle, Rowling writes focalizing through him that “There was no trace of the Gaunts in Tom Riddle’s face. Merope had got her dying wish: He was his handsome father in miniature, tall for eleven years old, dark-haired, and pale” (249). He can only know this from Mrs. Cole, the orphanage’s director, who reports that Merope arrived on New Year’s Eve “staggering up the front steps” on a “nasty night” of cold and snow (249). She “had the baby within the hour. And she was dead in another hour” (249). Mrs. Cole confirms that Merope, who was “no beauty”, had just time to say “I hope he looks like his papa” (249), the only words she is reported to have pronounced, and to ask that the baby be named Tom Marvolo Riddle. Mrs Cole assumes that “she came from a circus” (249) because of the strange name; the surname Riddle, by the way, does exist.

Many commentators have expressed their surprise that Rowling uses Oliver Twist “not as the model for her hero but for the villain—creating, in essence, an Oliver twisted” in the Dark Lord (see James Washick, “Oliver Twisted: The Origins of Lord Voldemort in the Dickensian Orphan”, Looking Glass 13.3 (2009), https://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/ojs/index.php/tlg/article/view/165/164). In Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837-38) baby Oliver is born to young Agnes Fleming, who dies in childbirth, at a workhouse, where he is raised as an orphan. Agnes, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Navy officer is made pregnant by Edwin Leeford, a man possibly twice her age on the run from the older, rich woman his father had forced him to marry. Leeford dies with no time to pass onto Agnes and their yet unborn baby the fortune inherited from his father, a death which is supposed to characterize him as a good guy trapped between his late father’s patriarchal power and sheer bad luck. Yet, I find his liaison with the innocent daughter of the man harbouring him short of criminal. When Agnes dies, she is wearing a wedding band, which has always made me suspect that Leeford tricked her into believing he was free to marry her. Whatever the case, though Merope and Agnes are connected, Dickens ends his novel vindicating Agnes, with Oliver visiting her no longer anonymous grave, whereas psychopathic Tom Riddle never cares for Merope.

Just as Oliver Twist depends on the sexual attraction that Leeford feels for Agnes, all of Harry Potter depends on ugly Merope’s passion for her handsome Muggle neighbour Tom Riddle. I do not discard that this passion may have been awakened by Merope’s sexual abuse by both her father and her brother (Morfin’s assault of Tom hints at some type of unbrotherly jealousy), though only Rowling knows whether there are grounds for this speculation. If Merope had been beautiful, Riddle might have fallen naturally in love with her and perhaps even staid by her side. This would not have necessarily resulted in a different personality for their baby boy, for who knows why some men grow up to be horrendous villains, but the fact is that the whole house of cards that the Harry Potter heptalogy is depends on Merope’s attraction for Riddle. I am not calling it love, because considering how Merope has lived her life so far, she cannot know the meaning of love. In the absence of a mother who could have loved her, she cannot understand, either, the meaning of motherhood, hence her inability to bond with her baby, and her death, which is a sort of suicide.

Rowling could have invented a very different back story for Voldemort, but she came up with the pathetic romance between Merope Gaunt and Tom Riddle, using a curious type of indirect characterization and narrative for the couple, who are never seen (or heard) together. They are in many ways the counterpart of Lily and James Potter, Harry’s loving parents, though, above all, Merope is Lily’s opposite. Both James and Lily die protecting Harry from Voldemort, but Lily’s death gives the boy the extra magical protection that saves his life. In contrast, young Tom’s bitterest moment comes when he is sixteen and learns the truth about his origins from his uncle Morfin. This literally breaks his soul as he proceeds, as I have noted, to kill the father that abandoned him and his grandparents. Tellingly, he commits these crimes not because the Riddles scorned Merope, for whom he never cares, but because their Muggle blood taints his own blood.

Poor Merope, unloved daughter, sister, wife and mother. Let’s not forget, though, that the worst sons may come from the best mothers, and that if little Tom Riddle turns out to be evil this is not her fault. It seems to me that the fault lies, rather, with the callous father, but this is the topic for another post…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY: THE MAIN ACADEMIC KEYWORDS TODAY

In a recent teachers’ meeting the pressing issue of students’ low attendance this last semester came up. I have not been teaching but my colleagues tell me less than 50% of the students have attended classes, which is even lower than what I saw in the first semester, when we were all still wearing facemasks and enduring the discomfort of the windows open in winter for ventilation to protect us against Covid-19.

The causes for the students’ absence from the classrooms, for this is a general problem not limited to a particular degree, are hard to pinpoint since, logically, you cannot speak with persons who are not there and asking their peers about their absence is useless. Those whose job is to speak to students claim that the missing students are generally disinterested in classroom activities; they find lectures and listening to their peers’ oral presentations boring, which, anyway, is not a new phenomenon. What is new is that about 20% of all the students in my university have notified to the corresponding office that they are unable to attend classes because they are suffering from mental health issues connected with depression and anxiety. These two words have become in this way the most important keywords in our academic life.

Teachers are also depressed and suffering from anxiety, though arguably age and experience give us a resilience the younger generation might lack, at least among the ranks of the more privileged tenured teachers. The younger staff, employed mostly as part-time, temporary adjuncts even when they are doctors embarked in serious academic careers, are also suffering from depression and anxiety caused by the same factor that overwhelms the students: lack of prospects. As things are now, students are being asked to make an effort to train for their professional future by staff who are themselves trapped in a career limbo which is not being dissolved fast enough. My university is boasting these days that they are offering between 50 and 70 new full-time positions every year (most with a five-year contract) but even though my Department has been allocated three for 2022-23, two have come to give adjuncts with an academic career spanning about twenty years the chance to be tenured (of course, somebody else might win the positions after the public examination). As for the colleague who has retired, her full time position has been transformed into a set of three associates, thus saving the institution about half her salary. Depression and anxiety indeed.

Among the older staff, those of us who have been around for thirty years or more, I see mostly disappointment and tiredness. We, lucky tenured, full-time teachers can retire after the age of 60 provided we have been active for 30 years and taking into account that our pension will be reduced in relation to the full-pension which is only earned at 67. The colleague who has retired in my Department is precisely in that situation. I’ve heard of many others who have taken early retirement at a notable economic loss because they could cope no longer with teaching the depressed, anxious students now in our classes and with the pressures put on us by the bureaucratization of the university. I was under the impression that only the teachers less interested in research were retiring or thinking of doing so, but this week a dear friend who has published a marvellous stream of excellent research told me that he is considering retirement, too. He is tired, a word I hear among the older staff with monotonous regularity. I myself feel very tired, and if I am coping this is because I have a low teaching workload and can finally write books. I still have a decade to go, at least, and there are days when that feels a very tall order. At the same time, I look forward to continue publishing once retired, in, hopefully, peace and quiet.

The causes for the general depression and anxiety are transparent: neoliberalism has created a low-pay service economy which only offers bad jobs to the young; climate change threatens to wipe off life on Earth in about fifteen years at the most, and fascism is rising everywhere, undoing human rights which have taken more than 200 years to secure. As if Covid-19 was not enough, Ukraine has been suffering a horrifying invasion for almost four months which, besides, might result in the death by famine of millions in Africa and Asia who depend on Ukrainian grain to survive. Vladimir Putin declared last week that the reign of the West is over, to be replaced by a new era, which I would not mind at all if this was an era of true international democracy and cooperation. I don’t think he meant that. These days I have found myself encouraging my eldest niece along the three days which her university entrance examination has lasted, and while I did that I was feeling horribly anxious about the kind of future she and her generation will find. I know that many of us in our fifties and sixties are thinking that we’ve had a relatively good life (I won’t mention the constant fear of illness or that we’ll never get a pension) but we tremble for what the future might bring to the young, at least I do. So, yes, I understand that they are feeling depressed and anxious, and that they see no point in education, even though they know that without attending university their prospects will be even lower.

The situation is objectively bad but I am also wondering whether it feels subjectively bad because our ability to cope (our resilience) has been undermined by a philosophy of happiness that requires being constantly satisfied. I myself have no personal or professional reasons to feel dejected, but this is how I would describe my state of mind since at least 2008 when the financial crisis erupted. I am not clinically depressed but, like many other of my fellow citizens, I find it increasingly difficult to watch the news (not because I don’t care for the others but because I do care) and even to cope with minor personal crises that are not really that important. I am, besides, as a Gender Studies scholar, sick and tired of the pressures from the left and from the right, to the point that I am considering giving up altogether and writing about other matters, once I’m done with my next book. I am, therefore, trying to understand whether beyond the actual problems the widespread depression and anxiety have to do with the disappointment of a promise of personal and collective happiness, made perhaps in the 1960s, that has failed to materialize.

Trying to understand if that is the case, I’ve read back-to-back, quite by chance, two books that are in deep dialogue with each other. For reasons I cannot explain, I had not read yet Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), originally titled Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager. Possibly, I was under the wrong impression that this would be a dry philosophical book, when it is a memoir of Frankl’s harrowing experience of being a prisoner of the Nazis in diverse camps. The other book is Manufacturing Happy Citizens: How the Science and Industry of Happiness Control our Lives (2018) by Eva Illouz and Eric Cabanas, originally published in French in the same year as Happycratie: comment l’industrie du bonheur a pris le contrôle de nos vies. I was reading this book and thinking of how it connected with the other when I came across a quotation from Frankl, which proved there is indeed a connection.

Frankl (1905-1997) was a prestigious neuropsychiatrist in Vienna, when in 1942 he and his family were imprisoned and eventually separated. During the three years of his imprisonment, he managed to make notes about his mental condition and that of his fellow prisoners, finding solace in the hope of meeting his young wife again without knowing she had already died. Frankl’s memoirs are different from those of other Holocaust survivors precisely because he has an extremely lucid understanding of resilience, a word that is now trending as much as depression and anxiety. It would be obscene to speak of happiness in the context of the camps and what Frankl describes is a situation in which the Jewish prisoners adapted as well as they could to the erosion of their humanity because they placed resilience before any other value. Their thoughts, so to speak, whether neither positive (that would be foolish) nor negative (that would be suicidal) but focused on surviving one step at a time. Frankl claims that the most resilient prisoners were motivated by the idea of something left behind which needed to be continued, whether this was a career and a marriage as in his own case, or other questions. This is why he explains that for many the darkest period came after their release when they found that the life whose memories had been sustaining them in the camp no longer existed. Many also suffered, I will add, because their accounts of extreme suffering were not believed. Frankl’s volume was translated into English in 1959, which suggests that for about fifteen years survivors’ accounts were of little interest at least in the Anglophone area of the world.

Illouz and Cabanas cite Frankl as part of their efforts to demolish positive psychology, the American school of thought claiming that psychology should not be limited to treating the mentally ill but should provide everyone with tools to feel mentally stable, and, ideally, happy. They complain, very rightly, that neoliberalism has turned positive psychology with the acquiescence of their inventors into a tool to make individuals responsible for their welfare, thus avoiding the structural issues which are at the root of much human suffering. Within the parameters established by the neoliberal ‘happicracy’, the students are not depressed and anxious because the present and the future are bleak, but because they are mismanaging their mental health. Many of the ‘happicratic’ gurus base their careers on teaching persons who are not mentally ill to feel bad because they are not working adequately towards happiness. This would be the equivalent of telling the Jewish prisoners that the problem is not the camp but their negative approach to the situation. Resilience is in many ways part of positive thinking, but the difference is that whereas true resilience refers to the ability to cope with negative situations, of which life has many, resilience is now being sold as a tool to secure personal happiness against all odds, which is not. At the same time, if the absurd promise that you can lead a life free of care (for this is what happiness is about) had never been made, depression and anxiety would not be so widespread.

For me the main conundrum is why so many whose lives are quite good in comparison to the lives of the many disenfranchised persons in the world, in the West and everywhere else, suffer from depression and anxiety. I am a confirmed atheist but I tend to agree with the Christian view that life is to be endured, not enjoyed (or only enjoyed in special moments). Life needs not be a valley of tears and, certainly, what angers me most is that it could be much more satisfactory if we respected human rights and did away with the patriarchal hunger for power. Yet, I find the declaration in the American constitution that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” not only hypocritical but also a poor foundation for a communal life of peace and justice. Perhaps if all the negative energy consumed by depression and anxiety could be channelled towards a demand for social and personal justice we would feel better, but as Illouz and Cabanas suggest, that’s the whole point of neoliberalism: making us focus on our personal happiness (or lack of it) as the world remains in the hands of the few that are destroying it for their own personal gain. And, presumably, happiness.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

A PHANTOM GENRE: THE STRANGE CASE OF THE TECHNOTHRILLER

The one who should be writing this post today is my PhD student Pascal Lemaire since he has chosen to deal with the technothriller as his topic of research. However, I am myself curious about some of the points he is raising about this genre, so here I am.

Back in 2014 Pascal published in Hélice an excellent article which is the basis of his dissertation, started this academic year. In “Ain’t no Technothriller in Here, Sir!” (II.3, March 2014, 50-71) he dealt with the fact that both authors and critics deny that the technothriller really exists as a genre, despite the fact that this is a label most readers of popular fiction are familiar with. Pascal tests the hypothesis in his article that “The Techno-Thriller (sic) is narrative fiction set in the near past or the near future about violence in a political context exerted with advanced technologies”, and though, as it happens with any genre definition, soon the exceptions crop up, he manages to name a substantial list of authors and novels connected with the genre and establish some key sub-genres (submarine warfare, WWW III fiction, the Commander’s story and the Commando’s novel). His conclusion is that the technothriller exists at the same level as, for instance, chick-lit exists, that is to say both as a commercial label and a set of features coalescing into a genre most readers can identify. He also claims that “the whole package” survives and should be studied as “a testimony for some of the cultural aspects of the last quarter of the twentieth century up to the present day”. As he explained to his examining board last week, despite being a keen reader of the genre he is approaching it critically; he does not wish to vindicate all its values but to make sure that current scholarship no longer overlooks the existence of the technothriller.

As we discussed these matters in our last tutorial, I was reminded of the revolutionary work that Janice Radway did in the early 1980s, when her reader-response approach to the romance resulted in her indispensable study Reading the Romance (1984). Until then romance fiction was the dirty secret in women’s writing and reading, since feminist criticism regarded the genre as a scion of patriarchal ideology (which it is). Radway, however, proved that romance readers understand quite well how the texts they enjoy are positioned in relation to patriarchy, knowing how the romantic fantasy and sexist submission connect. Their preferences have gradually reshaped the genre towards a more open discussion of the contexts in which feminism offers women hope and comfort as romance seems to offer. Today, in short, no feminist critic treats romance readers in the patronizing way they used to be treated in the past and, the other way around, many authors have incorporated narratives of empowerment in their work which can certainly be called feminist.

The contradiction Pascal will be exploring, then, is why the technothriller, a genre that has been climbing to the top of the best-selling lists for decades, is being ignored by all scholars whereas romance, a genre that used to be marginalized, has received so much attention. The answer, as you can see, in my own sentence: because genres regarded as marginal and that address non-mainstream audiences are seen now as proper objects of academic study but we still don’t know what to do with best-selling authors addressing mainstream audiences (in any genre). Now you may find books such as Deborah Philips’s Women’s Fiction, 1945-2005: Writing Romance (2014), but as far as I know nobody has written a dissertation on Danielle Steel, possibly the genre’s most popular author together with Barbara Cartland. There is plenty of bibliography on romance and plenty of resources for scholars but we still understand very poorly the phenomenon of the best-selling author and do not know how to argue that authors can be key contributors to a genre or to all of fiction despite lacking literary merit. It will be easier for Pascal to write about the whole genre of the technothriller, in short, than to justify writing a dissertation only on Tom Clancy, the genre’s best-known author after its founding father, Michael Crichton.

Other matters complicate the approach to the technothriller. Supposing Pascal chose to follow on Janice Randway’s footsteps and carry out field work among readers of technothrillers, his work would not be equally welcome for the simple reason that most readers of this genre are cisgender heterosexual white men. This is not a very popular demographic these days among scholars. Just a few days ago I had to explain for the umpteenth time to a feminist colleague that I write about that type of male author because I want to know what they are up to. I find women’s progression in all areas of literature marvellous, and I am happy to see how the more inclusive approach is resulting in the celebration of many trans and non-binary authors, but I still want to know about traditionally binary men because they are producing massive quantities of fiction read mainly by men, and thus generating gendered ideology I want to be aware of. You may ignore all that only at your own risk. Likewise, the technothriller needs to be explored because its plot-driven narratives celebrating technology appeal mostly to cisgender, heterosexual, white men and, guess what?, this is the category of person holding power today in the genre’s home, the United States, and in many other key nations of the world. When former President Ronald Reagan claimed that a novel by Tom Clancy had given him better information than the CIA reports someone in academia should have listened and start paying attention to the genre. This was no joke.

Apart from the low popularity of the technothriller’s target readership among scholars today, the genre is also treated as a bastard outshoot by the SF community, which is somehow harder to explain. I’ll take it for granted that technothrillers begin with Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969) and leave to Pascal a more nuanced explanation of the genre’s origins. This novel narrates the frantic efforts of a group of American scientists to halt the spread of a deadly extraterrestrial virus which reaches Earth together with the debris of a military satellite. The Wikipedia page claims that “Reviews for The Andromeda Strain were overwhelmingly positive, and the novel was an American bestseller, establishing Michael Crichton as a respected novelist and science-fiction writer”. This is not true as regards his being a respected SF writer. Crichton was never nominated for a Hugo, and his only nomination for a Nebula was for the film Westworld (1973), which he wrote and directed.

Possibly, Crichton’s bestsellerdom alienated him from most SF fans and from fellow authors struggling to make an impact and also contributed to the alienation of other technothriller writers from SF’s fandom and awards circuit, even though it seems clear enough that the technothriller is a sub-genre of SF, particularly close to military SF. Beyond this matter (bestselling authors need no fandom or genre awards), there is another problem. I once considered writing a book on Crichton and found it an impossible task after noting that his ideological values are now obsolete in many ways, especially as regards gender; the project collapsed after my reading Prey (2002). Joking a bit with his other best-known title, Jurassic Park (1990), I would say that Crichton is now a dinosaur; if you notice, nobody mentions him any more in relation to the film franchise started by Spielberg’s 1993 film, a sure sign that he is no longer respected. Elizabeth Trembley published back in 1996 Michael Crichton: A Critical Companion but I just don’t see anyone updating this volume.

Now, if Crichton is too hot to handle, imagine what it is like to deal with a list of authors mainly interested in technology connected with the military and turning that interest into the stuff of, well, thrilling tales for grown-up white boys. I must say that I am not a reader of technothrillers (though I have seen tons of films based on them, or that are technothrillers in their own right) and perhaps I am wrongly assuming like most of my academic peers that their stance is technophiliac and right-wing, hence not worth discussing and much less defending. Yet, supposing this is the case (even though Crichton himself was very critical about the misuse of science and the impact of techno-corporations), and the brothers and sons of Tom Clancy are indeed in the worst case scenario white supremacists and staunch militarists, shouldn’t we all be aware of what they are writing? There is something else. As I am learning from Pascal, technothriller writers have a very good awareness of geopolitical issues whereas realist mainstream writers insist on depicting the personal lives of middle-class people as if conflict never happened. I am guessing that many readers find technothrillers didactic and, like Ronald Reagan, are learning from them lessons no other writers are providing. Perhaps, and this is for Pascal to say, some of these lessons might be worth learning and not just bilge, as we are now assuming.

If a genre manages to survive in the absence of fandom, specialized awards and scholarly attention, and even still appear on the best-sellers’ list after decades, this means that it is worth considering. Speaking as a scholar who writes about science fiction by men whose values I do not always share, I find it absolutely necessary to explore what interests most male readers. It is simply not true that most are reading now as much fiction by men as by women, or that gender ideology has impacted the writing by men (and their reading) as much as it has impacted women’s. We might have the impression that the world of fiction is now accommodating with no hitch the deep changes in gender ideology that we have seen in the last decades, but I believe this is not the case at all and that just as some women passionately love romance fiction of the more traditional kind, some men must certainly be still addicted to technothrillers, but being very quiet about their addiction simply because nobody is asking them about their preferences. I am glad, then, that Pascal Lemaire cares out of a truly academic interest in fiction by men who are in their shared ideology very different indeed from him. I am very much interested in what he is finding out and I hope many others will be, too.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

SCIENCE FICTION BEYOND THE ANGLOPHONE TERRITORY: THE CATALAN CASE

This weekend I have been participating in the IV CatCon or Catalan convention on science fiction and fantasy, celebrated like the first three in the lovely seaside town of Vilanova i la Geltrú, about 50 kms south of Barcelona. CatCon gathers together fans and writers and is also the event during which the Ictineu prize is awarded. CatCon is organized by the Societat Catalana de Ciència-Ficció i Fantasia, founded in 1997, and had its first, zero edition during Eurocon 2016, held here in Barcelona.

For this edition, I proposed a round table on the current state of Catalan science fiction, to try to find out whether this is case of a half full or half empty bottle. During my intervention in the 2018 CatCon I made some comments on a text by an author, Montserrat Segura, who happened to be in the room, and this sparked a conversation about what the university could do for the Catalan authors of science fiction. I managed to convince my colleague at the Catalan Department of UAB, Víctor Martínez-Gil, that we had to legitimize academically a literary tradition which started back in the 1870s and which is now at a particularly rich moment. We decided to publish a monographic issue in a journal that would serve to present the currently indispensable authors, for which we made a selection of seven: Antoni Munné-Jordà, Jordi de Manuel, Montserrat Galícia, Carme Torras, Marc Pastor and Enric Herce (I’m now very, very sorry we did not include Salvador Macip). Then Víctor recruited four more specialists in Catalan Literature (Francesc Foguet, Maria Dasca, Jordi Marrugat and Toni Maestre), and we wrote a proposal. A bit rashly, we decided to contact first the top academic journal for Catalan Studies, the Catalan Review, and to our relief and happiness its editor Bill Viestenz welcomed our proposal. He was familiar with my translation into English of Manuel de Pedrolo’s Mecanoscrit del segon origen (1974) as Typescript of the Second Origin (2018); every little thing helps, as you can see.

The proofs for the monographic issue arrived last week (it is to be published in July), and so it seemed the perfect moment to have the round table. For this, I invited Antoni Munné-Jordà, Carme Torras, Eloi Puig and Jordi Marrugat. Munné-Jordà is not only a great author of science fiction but also the person who knows most about this genre and fantasy in Catalan. He was the director of two key sf collections (for publishers Pleniluni and Pagès), was also one of the co-founders of the Societat Catalana de Ciència Ficció i Fantasia, and maintains the amazing bibliography of works (1873-2021) which can be downloaded from the Societat’s website. He has published more than twenty volumes, among which I’ll mention Michelíada (2015), an Ictineu winner. Carme Torras, is an internationally renowned researcher in the field of assistive robotics and a leading author known for her Ictineu award-winning novels La mutació sentimental (2007) and Enxarxats (2017). Eloi Puig is the current president of the SCCFF, the promoter of the Ictineu award and also of a series of fan meetings all over Catalonia known as Ter-Cat. I invited him as the author of the more than 1000 reviews published since 2003 in his website La Biblioteca del Kraken, which he runs in Catalan and Spanish. Last but not least, Jordi Marrugat teaches Contemporary Catalan Literature at the Universitat de Barcelona, and is the author, among others, of Narrativa catalana de la postmodernitat: històries, formes i motius (2014).

My own introduction made the point that whereas Anglophone sf can rely on a complete academic circuit, there is nothing similar to support and publicize the work of Catalan authors of sf and fantasy. The Science Fiction Research Association, founded in 1970, has been celebrating regular conferences since then; the peer-reviewed journals Extrapolation (founded in 1959), Foundation (1972), and Science Fiction Studies (1973), provide a wonderful forum of discussion. Although there are no full degrees in sf studies, there are courses in a variety of universities and also a notable research hub at Liverpool, which is also home to the key collection of monographs Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies. All this is lacking in Catalan, with the exception of Víctor Martínez-Gil’s indispensable collection Els altres mons de la literatura catalana (2005), a couple of dissertations (one BA, the other MA), and the work I myself have done on Mecanoscrit del segon origen. Without bibliography, as we know, there cannot be research. Indeed, one of the reviewers of my article for the Catalan Review complained loudly that I could not publish a piece with no academic secondary sources; since there are none in Catalan, I included in a few crowded lines references to half a dozen academic books… in English.

I cannot reproduce here all that was commented in the hour-long round table, but I’ll try to highlight a few ideas. Today, Catalan sf and fantasy interest a remarkable number of independent publishers (mostly established in the last ten years) and fandom is active in the Ter-Cat and CatCon meetings, whereas websites such as La Biblioteca del Kraken, El Biblionauta and Les Rades Grises provide specialized reviews and criticism. This appears to be positive in all senses but, as Eloi Puig noted, the impression is that the field is growing very slowly and there seems to be no generational replacement so far (this is something I add considering the average age of the CatCon attendees, with a clear absence of persons under 30).

While the number of authors is growing, the market is not strong enough for any of them to be professional writers, a situation which extends to all Catalan authors with very few exceptions. Munné-Jordà and Torras do not see this as a problem, since they believe that in this way authors are freer to write as they wish. The size of the market with, possibly, 300-400 copies sold for each moderately successful novel, suggests that professionalization is hardly going to happen in the near future, but I do agree that this is not necessarily a negative situation. Similarly, reviewing and criticism is in the hands of committed fans. Eloi Puig explained that the task he has been doing at La Biblioteca del Kraken started as a way to share his impressions with friends. He does not see his role as the main reviewer of Catalan sf and fantasy (both original and translated) as a main referent. I myself believe he is doing a superb job which is a foundation for any academic work that could be done in the future. In fact, I would like to see a Catalan university volunteering to publish a selection of his reviews to commemorate the web’s 20th anniversary next year.

Puig and Munné-Jordà have done, then, plenty but they are not academics in Departments of Catalan Philology. Jordi Marrugat explained that even though it should be in the hands of academics to write a history of Catalan sf and fantasy, to do research and teach courses, the reality is that we are very much limited. He himself is the only specialist in contemporary Catalan literature of the Universitat de Barcelona, and with a BA syllabus concentrating in a just one subject all the 20th century and part of the 21st there no room for sf and fantasy. The canon and its insistence on celebrating Modernism takes priority. It seems to me, however, unlikely that readers, no matter how passionate, can make up for this lack. Munné-Jordà’s splendid bibliography and his recent donation to Library Armand Cardona Torrandell de Vilanova i la Geltrú of his own personal collection of books and other materials aims at building a legacy that needs to find committed readers. But where, I wonder, can they be found? Shouldn’t they be the students of Catalan at university?

Perhaps what baffled me most was the idea that the authors of sf and fantasy value their themes above the quality of their writing, at least this is what I understood from Carme Torras’s intervention when I asked her about MIT’s translation of La mutació sentimental by Josie Swarbrick as The Vestigial Heart, published accompanied by classroom materials to encourage the discussion of robotics and ethics. Puig explained that he proposed the creation of the Ictineu award because after reading this novel he thought that this kind of effort should get recognition. I do believe that Torras has a distinctive style, and I very much appreciate Catalan sf and fantasy writers not only as contributors to current discussions on technoscience, but also for the passion they put in writing works that, as I have noted, can only reach a limited circle. I find this year’s Ictineu winner, Enric Herce’s cyberpunk yarn L’estrange miratge [The strange mirage], much more engaging as narrative than many novels now winning Hugos and Nebulas. I did ask the participants at the round table what they thought about how few the translations from Catalan are in comparison to the translations into our language, and only Munné-Jordà was bold enough to say out loud that some of the translated books are no good. He played around with the words ‘cannon’ and ‘canon’ to suggest that who is translated often is a matter of who has the power.

The round table was, I think, extremely enlightening and illustrative of the current situation of sf and fantasy in Catalan. I see the bottle half full if I think of the display of activity among publishers, authors and the most committed fans, but I see it half empty if I think of where the young are. More and more children educated in Catalan are reading in Catalan than ever but, as happens in other linguistic areas including English, the allure of social media is robbing them of precious time to read starting around age 10-12, as soon as they get their smartphones. Their love of screens does not extend to e-books (I was told that only 5% of all readers of all ages use them in Spain, 20% in the USA) and with books around 15-20 euros it is hard to see how the numbers of readers is going to grow. In the case of Catalan sf and fantasy I also miss good adaptations that can attract a bigger audience, but with TV3 in dire straits this is unlikely to happen. Hence the half-empty bottle.

More on this when the Catalan Review publishes the monographic issue in July. In the meantime, check La Biblioteca del Kraken for lost of amazing books to read.


I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

ASSHOLES, VILLAINS, AND THE CURRENT WAR IN UKRAINE

One of experts interviewed in the collective volume edited by psychologist Jean-François Marmion, The Psychology of Stupidity (2020; originally Psychologie de la Connerie, 2018; trans. Liesl Schillinger), to which I devoted my post of 4 March, was moral philosopher Aaron James. Having now read his splendid monograph Assholes: A Theory (2012), I would like to use my post today for a reflection on the asshole as a gradation in what I am calling patriarchal villainy (we are here within Masculinities Studies). James notes that most assholes are men in the same way I note that most villains are men, and we both coincide that there are female assholes and villains (villainess is, like heroine, a feminized narrative role and not a moral category). James and I also coincide on the reason why assholes and villains are mainly male: both types are characterized by a strong sense of entitlement only encouraged in men by patriarchy; some women who enjoy or take power in their hands also allow themselves to behave as assholes or villains, but they are a tiny minority.

First, some etymology and a caveat on linguistic differences. Even though we are used to hearing the word ‘asshole’ invoked many times in films and series to insult or describe a guy behaving obnoxiously, this is an American corruption of the original word, ‘arsehole’, meaning, of course, ‘anus’. British speakers understand the ‘ass’ in ‘asshole’ to mean a donkey, which makes no sense to them. Calling someone an ‘ass’ meaning that they are stupid, as donkeys are supposed to be (they are not), is pure speciesm, but this is just not related to the word ‘asshole’. When an American says ‘kiss my ass’, they don’t mean ‘kiss my donkey’, they mean ‘arse’. Although the word ‘asshole’ emerged as a vulgar synonym for ‘anus’ in the 14th century, its usage as a personal insult dates back only to the 20th century, when it become truly popular in American slang (around the 1970s).

Films and TV, as I have noted, have carried ‘asshole’ all over the planet, once the resistance against swearwords was eroded in the 1980s. Incidentally, Brits tend to prefer ‘cunt’ as a strong personal insult against obnoxious men, which is an example of particularly detestable misogyny (fancy insulting a woman by calling her ‘dick’ or ‘cock’). In Spanish, we use ‘gilipollas’ but this is a word that I find quite weak in comparison. Apparently, ‘gilipollas’ comes from caló ‘jili’ or ‘gilis’ meaning idiot, whereas ‘polla’ as we know is a vulgarism for the penis. ‘Gilipollas’ means thus something such as ‘idiot man who thinks with his dick/cock’, though ‘tonto del culo’ (which roughly translates as ‘arseidiot’) is perhaps closer to ‘asshole’. Many articles carry an improbable story borrowed from a blog post by which ‘gilipollas’ comes from one Don Baltasar Gil Imón (1545-1629), the Fiscal del Consejo de Hacienda (or Ministry of Finances) under the Spanish King Carlos IV. This man had two allegedly ugly daughters, whom he would parade in search of a suitor. ‘Polla’ was used in the past a synonym for a young girl (as ‘pollo’ was for boys) and so, apparently, sneers against ‘Gil’ and his ‘pollas’ became the sneer ‘gilipolla’, which sounds to me as a misogynistic explanation. Having said that, ‘polla’ (and in English ‘cock’) is apparently used for the penis because it sits brooding the testicles (‘huevos’) like a hen; ‘chick’ is another word for girl in English, whereas in Spanish we call chickens ‘pollos’, hence the use of the word in the past for young boys. I have seen ‘pollita’ rather than ‘polla’ for girls in old texts. And I have no idea when ‘polla’ became everyone’s favourite vulgar synonym for penis.

So what is an asshole (or a ‘gilipollas’)? Let me use James’s spot-on definition “a person counts as an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relationships out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people”. James, who took inspiration for his academic analysis of the asshole from the asshole surfers that do not respect the codes of behaviour in this sport, sees the asshole as someone who does as he pleases regardless of the consequences in social situations that call for restraint, such as being on a queue, driving in the motorway, interacting with one’s peers or subordinates at work, being with one’s family and so on. The asshole, then, is a man whose obnoxious behaviour cannot be stopped because he will not listen to reason and he will not be reformed. “The asshole”, James argues, “refuses to listen to our legitimate complaints, and so he poses a challenge to the idea that we are to be recognized as moral equals”. We fight assholes “for moral recognition in his eyes”, which may makes us unusually aggressive out of frustration.

I know plenty about assholes because, unfortunately, I grew up with one: my father. James is right to say that assholes believe they are special but he is very wrong to say that “the material costs many assholes impose upon others (…) are often by comparison [with actual criminals] moderate or very small”. I am sure he has corrected his own position after publishing Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump (2016). We know now that assholes may even cause the loss of democracy in the USA (please, remember that Trump will run for President again in 2024), whereas assholes like Putin may cause the world to be plunged into a nuclear World War III. My own personal experience of enduring my father also shows that assholes cause widespread misery every minute they are awake. Our family life has been destroyed by the relentless assholery of this man, who can only be called a black hole in his total destruction of anything positive. My father is not a criminal and he cannot be called legally an abuser but he has made my mother’s life miserable. James warns that assholes cannot be reformed or defeated, and that the only solution is to keep a distance from them. Easier said than done, indeed. My siblings and I carry with us the weight of my father’s assholery at all times. In the letter James addresses to the asshole, he writes that “many who know you will find your death relieving. There will be a quiet celebration”. Quiet?

The whole world is right now waiting for the news that Vladimir Putin is ill to be confirmed. Imagine the reaction to his possible death. Now, Putin is useful to explain the difference between an asshole and a villain, both, as I am arguing, figures of male patriarchal empowerment. James claims that calling men like Hitler or Stalin assholes is not enough, as they did major harm to humankind, but at the same time there is no doubt that these men were assholes of a superlative category. What I argued in my book on villainy about Hitler is that there are many potential villains of his kind because patriarchy generates them all the time by allowing men to act on their sense of entitlement to power. Usually this begins within unbearable family dynamics or with school bullying, and progresses until villainy is checked by a stronger individual, the rules of the community or the law. Some assholes, however, are not checked and they are even encouraged, so that they go on empowering themselves until they break the barriers implicit in patriarchy. Then, a hero needs to act to limit the villain’s power, stop the widespread destruction he is causing, and return patriarchy to its status quo. This is what is happening now with Putin: the asshole, who was already giving many signs of villainy, is now expressing himself in full as a villain. Hence the war in Ukraine, the threat of nuclear violence (sent through his minion Lavrov), and the generalized wish that Putin is terminally ill. For here’s the problem: we have a hero (Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people) and a circle of Allies (NATO), but there is not a coordinated international offensive against Putin that can stop him for good. It took six years to defeat Hitler, let’s see how long it will take to defeat Putin.

James observes that assholes are now harder to defeat because they do not represent a particular ideology even when they present themselves as political figures. Trump has nothing to do with Abraham Lincoln, another Republican, but is, in fact, a figure expressing a personal brand of assholery under cover of the GOP. Why is he still so successful? Or Putin, for that matter, leaving aside the machinery of terror he operates in Russia. Because, James argues, we live in times in which narcissism is encouraged and we respond to any figure who frees himself (or herself) from social and moral rules to do as he pleases. I would not hesitate to call many of the influencers who think the world spins around them total assholes, for, unlike those of us who truly want to share knowledge and debate, they want to put their usually uninformed opinion above anyone else’s. Yesterday, an eighteen-year-old white male killed ten fellow Americans, all of them black, convinced that there is a conspiracy to outnumber the white race in his nation. Guess where that idiotic idea comes from? Indeed, assholes cause plenty of damage personally and also because they sanction minion assholes.

If, despite the efforts we are making in academia and in the serious segments of the media, the existence of assholes and villains cannot be prevented, how can we curb down their impact? James, as I have noted, warns that assholes cannot be reformed, whereas I myself argued that villains must be contained for the common good. Rowling gives us a wonderful lesson in Harry Potter when she has the titular hero fight Voldemort in a way that the villain ends up killing himself with the very wand he thought would kill Harry. Her villain, in short, is killed by his own power. Wishing anyone’s death is ugly, but, one cannot see Voldemort in handcuffs facing trial for his crimes against humanity. Hitler could not see himself, either, in that position, hence his suicide in the style of the scorpion surrounded by flames. These days every time a lovely person dies before their time, the whole planet wishes ‘that asshole’ (add the name you prefer) would have died instead. For me, this is the worst thing about assholes and villains: they turn even good people into murderers, if only in their fantasies. For, you see, a pacifist society that does not believe in the death penalty (or in war) does not go about exterminating its members, no matter how obnoxious they can be. We can discuss that self-defeating position, but I’ll conclude by declaring that the asshole’s worst punishment is total ostracism: one can hardly express any entitlement in isolation, for entitlement is always over something or someone.

So, next time your neighbour bothers you, think of how although most assholes are only guilty of assholery occasionally, some assholes may escalate into full villains, if no check is put on their empowerment. Ask Zelensky how he feels about his asshole neighbour and do help Ukraine.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/