IF I WERE CHARLOTTE DICKENS… (HOW I’D REWRITE OLIVER TWIST)

I don’t particularly favour the fashionable type of novel that attempts to update a classic by adding to it (the sequel to Pride and Prejudice by Emma Tennant, Pemberley), by paying homage (Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip), or by radically rewriting it (Ben Winters’s Android Karenina). If you want to tell a story, find your own topic.

However, yesterday, in the middle of lecturing on Oliver Twist, it suddenly occurred to me, and so I told my students, that it would be great to rewrite Dickens’s novel as the story of Rose Maylie’s failed attempt to rescue Nancy from prostitution and from her sick addiction to Sikes. Dickens’s imaginary sister Charlotte – I’m thinking here of Virginia Woolf’s imaginary Judith Shakespeare– would be up to this task, I’m sure, possibly following Elizabeth Gaskell rather than her own namesake Charlotte Brontë. Our 21st century Sarah Waters would, no doubt, in view of her spicy pseudo-Victorian fiction, like the sexy Tipping the Velvet, rewrite Rose and Nancy as two passionate, romantic Victorian lesbians. Now, that’s something I’m sure even Dickens would like to read…

As I explained to my students, mostly young women who are receiving my feminist tirades with more eagerness than I’ve met in recent years, Dickens was very deficient at writing female characters. His imagination, in the grip of his misogyny and of his obsession with his dead teen sister-in-law Mary and other women he loved (not his wife Catherine), seemed only capable of creating bland heroines like Rose Maylie. Yet, he did better with the bad girls. With Nancy, this poor thing unable to escape victimisation since the devious Fagin traps her in childhood, Dickens manages to create quite a heroine or, rather, a hero, as I mean not only that she is a main female protagonist but also that the heroic acts in the novel fall completely on her shoulders. Rose does nothing but believe in Oliver’s innocence against all evidence simply because he looks positively angelic; she tries to sacrifice herself and Harry Maylie’s happiness because of her obscure birth, but, essentially, she is just a good girl. Nancy, and this shows Dickens’s boldness, is first just one of Fagin’s gang, even becoming Oliver’s very public, cheeky kidnapper. Yet, seeing how his ill-treatment recalls so harshly her own by Fagin –which led her to prostitute herself possibly just aged 12- she relents and becomes the boy’s only champion in the underworld. As every Dickens fan knows, her moral choice to help Oliver by revealing Fagin’s plotting to the boy’s protector, Rose, costs Nancy her own life, in that famous murder scene that Dickens used to perform with such manic glee.

My favourite moment in this novel, and the inspiration for the rewriting I’ll never produce, is that scene in which Rose, supported by Mr. Brownlow, subtly but firmly offers to help Nancy by retiring her from criminal life. Rose wants Nancy, above all, to abandon Sikes but, like many abused women still today, whether they are prostitutes or not, she is too emotionally dependent to abandon her abuser… and so she tells Rose, in full consciousness of her predicament. Dickens was criticised for this, as he seemed to force the situation and withdraw from poor Nancy the reward she deserved. Yet, to my mind he made a realistic narrative choice, characterising, besides, Nancy as a reluctant (anti)-hero rather than as a full blown heroine like Rose, who does get her Harry. Of course, it is interesting to note that, whereas Rose is generous and open to doomed Nancy, her own adoptive mother, Mrs. Maylie, almost brings total unhappiness to Rose’s life by denying her her son’s love, as Rose is nothing but a nameless orphan until the mystery of her origin is solved together with Oliver’s. That she chooses to welcome and help Nancy must have sounded truly radical in 1837. Still today.

Rose and Nancy, the imaginary novel by the imaginary Charlotte Dickens, might perhaps rank high in a gallery of best unwritten Victorian fiction, together with other ghostly novels like The Angry Child Inside Me, a rewriting of Wuthering Heights in Heathcliff’s own words written by the imaginary Charles Brontë, or Wildness Calls by Oscar Stoker, in which Jonathan leaves Mina for Dracula to become a fulfilled Transylvanian count.

Add your own… !

PRETEND TEACHING: THE LITERATURE CLASSROOM FROM THE TEACHER’S PERSPECTIVE

My ill-smelling classroom, now bearably hot as early Autumn temperatures have started falling slowly, has, as I have previously mentioned, no platform. As I wait for that to be built, from my unhigh-heeled perspective I see a very compact sea of 50-odd faces crowning young, restless bodies sitting too close for comfort. Like all teachers, as I lecture I seek facial confirmation that the (dense) information I’m transmitting is understood. Imagine a whole classroom of blank faces! I do find that confirmation in students I know from previous years (this is a second year course) scattered all over the sitting rows, faces mostly friendly as they chose to be in my class, and not in my colleagues’ class. Yet there’s a segment filled up with still unknown students that I find myself avoiding. This semester’s blank faces…

As a student I was one of the staring, critical faces. I’m sure I must have been positively obnoxious some times. When I couldn’t stomach a teacher I would not attend lectures. We are checking attendance this semester and possibly as a result of this, and because the subject is compulsory, the students who don’t enjoy Victorian Literature are opting for a kind of weird disappearing act in the flesh. This is common to many compulsory subjects, far less common in electives but not totally unheard of: the student’s body is there, s/he even looks at the teacher most of the time but the spirit is elsewhere, whether this is Linguistics (which seems to be Literature’s Other rather than a twin part of the same degree) or Saturday night, past or future. How do I notice? Well, the friendly faces are fully open-eyed and their owners nod at me now and then, noting they’ve taken in a particular point or even encouraging me to go on. They offer comments, answer my questions. If they get lost, their expression shows it before they ask for clarifications. The ‘missing’ just keep their eyes open, look away when my eyes stray over them, never nod, never speak (to me) and in some cases don’t even bother to makes notes. Blank faces, blank arms…

Then there’s the matter of books. This is the third week into the course, still no Oliver Twist to be seen in too many cases. I ask students to choose passages for comment as homework, only one volunteers. I do my best, offer my own choices, select others for home reading (but what for, since they don’t have the books?) The result is that I end up not looking at the blank faces and not looking at the desk tops, so as not to see who’s got actually the book (and I think of Stanley Fish’s classic Is There a Text in this Class?). As some students do their disappearing act, I do my pretending act: pretending I’m teaching a class FULL of committed Oliver Twist readers who follow every nuance of the demanding reading, focused on the narrator, that my colleague and I have chosen to offer. I tell them that Dickens rehearsed aloud what he wrote and that his texts work best, precisely, if performed but I don’t know what impression my theatrical readings make on students who can’t follow them without the text. Too oral for them?

How are lectures going, we ask each other? Oh, very well… if it weren’t for the blank faces and the still missing books. ‘Pretend literature teaching,’ the best methodology to feel happy and fulfilled in the classroom.

PEOPLE WHO PASS THROUGH OUR CLASSROOMS: A SUCCESSFUL EX-STUDENT (ABOUT ELS AMICS DE LES ARTS)

As a teacher I must say that one of the greatest satisfactions in seeing ex-students succeed professionally. Of course, ex-students who succeed in one’s own academic professional field elicit a little (or much…) envy, but that is truly fine: a healthy reminder of one’s limitations and even mediocrity, to which honest teachers must always be reconciled. A different type of satisfaction, more relaxed, is afforded by ex-students who do well elsewhere. Recently, I found myself writing a fan email message to one of them, Joan Enric Barceló. If you live in Catalonia you may have heard of him as one of the members of perhaps the most charming pop band ever: Els Amics de les Arts (http://elsamicsdelesarts.cat/).

Years ago, many of them, a young Joan Enric recorded a CD with his band of the moment, Toadstools, titled Syncopated People. I still keep the copy which I got as the reward for revising the lyrics, written in outstanding student’s English. He then graduated after many comings and goings, became briefly an actor and next thing I knew, he had made it to the modest Catalan top ten with the Amics. They are part of the exciting new wave of Catalan pop and rock, with Manel at the forefront. These bands are characterised by a wholesome approach to what they do, and by their avoiding the rarefied atmosphere of other Catalan bands of the past that seemed political projects rather than gatherings of musicians. What gives Els Amics de les Arts their own singular personality is, in any case, the sheer wit of the lyrics.

Lyrics are peculiar type of (literary) writing. They’re not poetry, they needn’t make sense and they’re often pure cliché of the trite ‘I love you, I need you, I want you’ kind. This is why when I found myself LISTENING as I smiled to the very witty lyrics of Els Amics I simply loved it: finally someone was working hard on the writing that goes into songwriting. Mostly narrative, the songs by Els Amics capture everyday anecdotes in a language that is elegant and that does not shy away from making cultural allusions (or, rather, making fun of them). Check the very popular “Jean Luc” at the Amics’ website, it is perfect to illustrate my point, and it is simply delicious.

Joan Enric did answer my fan message, which made me teen-style happy. He explained in it about the band member’s difficulties to become professional musicians in such a small market as the one in Catalan –isn’t it funny how one tends to think that popular people always have it easy? He also explained that he found much satisfaction in being qualified by his English Philology degree to discuss the band’s lyrics in depth. Hey, I thought, this is what we, academics do, not pop stars! I realised then that was the novelty that had actually attracted me to Els Amics: they are capable not just of writing well but also of understanding the very mechanisms of good writing from a proficient academic point of view. A nice application to pop culture of the (English) Literature classes, as Joan Enric himself concluded.

I couldn’t be happier!

BITTERSWEET: THE FIRST BLOGGING YEAR…

Yes, a year ago yesterday I posted my first entry (or did I enter my first post?, the semantics are unclear to me). 93 posts or entries later, I’m still here, which comes as a surprise to me, with enough energy, I believe, to go on for another year at least.

Or, rather, it’s not quite a matter of energy but of badly needing an outlet to vent the happiness (35%) and the growing frustrations (65%) that teaching (English) Literature brings me every day after 20 years in the profession (another anniversary this week). Yesterday, I came across an ex-student, now teaching 10 to 12-year-old students, and when I started telling her about the miseries of the university under the current economic crisis she asked me “but you still like it?” Sure, that’s the point: I like teaching so much I must write this blog to go on. If I didn’t like it, if it were just a job and not a career, I would not bother. The blog keeps me (half)sane. Otherwise, I’ve open the window and scream.

When I contacted other bloggers in a similar vein (see the links to your right…), we all went through the same questions: Is there a point in writing a blog in the age of Twitter? Isn’t a blog just a public diary (for narcissistic writers)? Is there any one out there? What’s the desirable frequency? Is a blog a hobby or more work? I don’t use Twitter and I worry about the way the institutions we work for are forcing us in that direction and also to use Facebook, as I don’t want to participate in the commercial frenzy they have unleashed. Anyway, I don’t think Twitter can carry much serious thinking at that limited number of characters per message; blogs, I believe, are great to train yourself to think in greater depth (um, I’m not sure I’ve managed any deep thinking here, but at least I’ve tried). A blog, yes, is a bit narcissistic but one also feels vulnerable and exposed, so one thing compensates for the other. And this one is a hobby, but, then, I’ve never known how to separate my profession from my main hobby, which is reading. Often, I have to stop myself from writing too much for instant publication is a constant temptation.

I know there are some people out there beyond the handful of friends who’ve left comments (thanks!). José Ángel García Landa tells me that after 4 years keeping his blog Vanity Fea alive he hasn’t really managed to generate the expected debate. My aims are more modest (though, yes, it’s great to be ambitious). Who, after all, would like to debate how we teach English Literature, except a handful of professionals too pressed for time to send in comments? I’m just happy if anything in my first 52,000 words has inspired anyone to read a good book, see a nice film, check a great web, understand a little better what teachers go through, and love (English) Literature a little more. Thanks!!

A FEW THOUGHTS ON SF (AFTER A PHD DISSERTATION)

One of my doctoral students, Rafael Miranda, has just passed his viva (or ‘defensa’) after submitting a brilliant doctoral dissertation on cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk. I am personally VERY proud to have helped him make such an interesting contribution to the field of Science-Fiction Studies. Particularly because that field is so tiny in Spanish English Studies that you can count the specialists with the fingers of one hand. There’s Pere Gallardo in URV, Ángel Mateos in UCLM, Rocío Carrasco in UHU, myself at UAB… and that’s only the proverbial ‘four cats’!! Of course, outside English, I must mention Fernando Ángel Moreno from UCM, and the names gathered together in the monographic issue published in Quaderns de Filologia (vol XIV, 2009). But that’s about it. I’m not quite sure, but Fernando Ángel might be the only one SF specialist full time. Excuse my ignorance, just in case I’m overlooking someone (Miquel Barceló from UPC, um, yes, but he’s doing something else, not Literary, Film or Cultural Studies).

I love SF. Not all of it, not at any time. Yet, I find myself going back for more, novels preferably, rather than films, which, in my mind, absolutely miss the sheer richness of literary SF. There’s very well written SF (William Gibson’s Neuromancer and many others) and SF which cares more for thrills, gadgets and technoscientific data -or babble- than for literary prose. I realise that, in any case, what draws me to the genre again and again is a) the density of ideas per page; b) the scope by no means limited to just one individual but ambitious enough to encompass whole worlds; c) the pleasure of being taken to my limits both as regards visualisation and my understanding of the impact of science and technology in our world. Those of us who read SF can’t simply understand how the rest copes with the world, ignoring as they do how we’re placed in our mystifying universe and within our fast-evolving technocrazy world. One of Iain M. Banks’ characters, thinking of these deep ontological matters in one of his novels –I forget which one– says that he “gets swim.” So do I, and I love the feeling. Give me a mid-life crisis novel about a middle-class individual and I choke.

I see, however, this is not a feeling easy to transmit. We tend to teach SF covertly, within subjects with unthreatening titles (Short Fiction, Contemporary Novels, War Narrative, Cultural Studies…) because students don’t quite manifest an interest in being taught SF overtly. Or maybe they would if we were bolder. In 2010 Pere Gallardo invited me to teach SF within an MA degree in Tarragona and one of the students told me precisely that: “it’s your collective fault for hiding.” Perhaps the key question is that when you teach Literature, in the general sense of the word, or specific genres, whether they are Victorian Poetry or Post-colonial Indian Fiction, you’re backed up by cultural or literary respectability and also by the idea that you’re doing something socially relevant (I mean here in relation to Post-colonialism). If students encounter difficulties when dealing with the texts, that’s part of the package –they must put up with them. In SF it’s quite the opposite: lacking this cultural respectability, as SF is still considered a silly genre for teen males lacking basic social skills, we can hardly put students through the difficulties of reading any major writer –and believe me, SF is difficult. Greg Egan and Thomas Pynchon are not really that far from each other. I wouldn’t like, either, to end up force-feeding students which is why, in the end, we keep SF for our lonely pleasures, publishing research now and then and trying to keep up with a field that often feels as vast as the universe.

IT’S HOT, SO HOT…: THAT CLASSROOM AGAIN!!

If you care to read my entry for 16 February, you will see I’m trapped in a kind of sinister loop.

Then I complained bitterly about the appalling conditions of classroom 302 in our Facultat, a room which is beginning to remind me of Stephen King’s 1408 and other mythical Gothic rooms. After being called names, such as ‘selfish,’ my students and I were moved last semester to a much better classroom. 302 has been revamped in the meantime but not really that much: still no platform, same whiteboard, no air conditioning… at least the eraser was not placed this time on a plate. By the way, I have a projector but no computer equipment (I’m supposed to bring my own, self-financed laptop). We have two tiny windows, a blind is broken and temperatures inside the classroom were yesterday at 15:00 in the afternoon above 30º (that’s 86º Fahrenheit). I’ve asked my very sweaty 50 odd students to bring in a thermometer next day to check if they’re actually closer to 35º.

An optimistic colleague who always looks on the bright side of life, tells me I should be happy that I’m getting sauna for free as I teach. Well, I know I’m supposed to earn a living with the sweat of my brow, but this is too literal! I thought of bringing an electric fan to class (instead of the computer…) but I finally brought just a hand fan, feeling it would be disloyal to keep fresh as my students fainted. Sooner or later one of them will indeed faint and then we’ll see what happens. You might say that all this is because temperatures are still unusually high for this end of summer but, then, if they’re too high for basic human breathing in class maybe the beginning of the course should have been delayed. Or a new air conditioning unit found urgently. Try giving an introduction to Victorian Literature in this heat… I can at least walk up and down the classroom, searching for whiffs of fresh air but my poor students are stuck in seating rows, unable to shift their chairs for more breathing space. They sigh, fan themselves with the paper they should be using to make notes, look wistfully at the out-or-order air-conditioning unit and unglue their t-shirts from their chests every two minutes, look at their watches and hoping this original form of torture is soon over.

Hopefully, temperatures will soon start going down, as, traditionally, Mediterranean Catalonia is drenched by hard rains at the beginning of Autumn. I haven’t asked this time for a transfer to another classroom, for reasons that are too long to explain (and perhaps a bit of masochism). Yet, I’ve drawn the line at bringing my own computer or begging on my knees for one of the only 5 laptops the Facultat possesses for the staff in 11 Departments. The consequence? I’m back to basics: I’ll teach Victorian Literature this time with no film clips, no PowerPoint, no internet… just as I was taught – by reading and talking about what we read. It might even be an innovation.

I just forgot to say I work on a European ‘Campus d’Excel•lència Internacional’ (Outstanding International Campus).