READING ‘TRASH’: ON THE HEROINE’S LOSS OF DIGNITY

As part of my MA course on ‘Postmodernities: New Sexualities/New Textualities,’ which deals with Gender Studies as it is easy to surmise, I decided to include a ‘chick lit’ novel. I needed something reasonably short and, ideally, about a woman who already has a candidate to be her Mr Right but who comes across the real thing unexpectedly. Also short enough given the numbers of texts in the course. With the invaluable help of my dear Elena Serrano, who is writing her dissertation on this genre, I finally chose Sophie Kinsella’s Can you keep a secret? Kinsella is a well-known brand name in the field of chick lit thanks to her Shopaholic series. If I have to believe the comments on Amazon, any of these novels are vastly superior to the one I chose. I may be then passing unfair judgement on Can you keep a secret? but the fact is that, in the end, this novel has been most useful for my students to consider the problem of what kind of readership is willing to put up with its appalling writing.

The plot is trite enough. Middle-class, 25-year-old Emma (yes, as in Austen) is a junior marketing executive (very junior, as in barely an assistant) who, despite having a college degree, seems quite fond of showing how ignorant and incompetent she is at work. During a bumpy flight to London back from Scotland, where she ruins a business meeting, she panics and blurts out her most intimate secrets to a complete stranger, an older American guy. This unlikely guy, of course, turns out to be the millionaire owner of the company Emma works for and is in possession of a wondrous memory which allows him to recall every single stupid secret Emma unveiled on the plane. A series of embarrassing misencounters happen and by the end of the book, guess what?, she’s got the promotion she was hankering after and the millionaire guy in her bed (no rock on her finger, though).

In principle, there is no reason why you couldn’t create fine literature out of this, since Jane Austen, the great-grandma of chick lit, managed to spun a subtle, irony-laden prose out of comparable bilge (excuse my… bile). We ended up, though, figuring out that she was lucky in that her readership welcomed (perhaps even demanded) that kind of prose for their literary entertainment, whereas in our supposedly more cultured time, thousands and thousands if not millions of (female) readers seem satisfied with Kinsella’s unbearable… trash. Trash, because as my students complained, you do not see any kind of thinking behind it, though we don’t know whether this is the product of hurried writing under marketing pressures or of plain inability to put the literary brain at work. Considering Kinsella’s education I doubt she lacks the brainpower, and if she is just dumbing it all down to please an allegedly less cultivated readership, well, isn’t that cynical?

There is something else that concerns me. If I compare Austen’s Darcy and Kinsella’s Jack Harper they are not really that different: both can be described as patient gentlemen, quite ready to tutor the younger heroine on the pragmatics of social life and also quite willing to love them despite the many irritating mistakes they make. The heroine has changed, though, in a crucial matter: she is much less dignified. Discussing Amy Heckerling’s updating of Emma, the teen pic Clueless, Melissa Mazmanian claims that since the 19th century lady has no equivalent today Heckerling could only rewrite Emma as a much more relevant figure for the late 20th century: the (rich) dumb blonde. Paris Hilton, yes, is the kind of woman Austen would have to write about today if she were alive. I’ll grant that Hilton, and Kinsella’s Emma and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones may be more clever than they appear to be but ‘lady’ is not the kind of word that comes to my mind when I think of them.

Last week, teaching a seminar on the comic and the film 300, I ended with film critic Roger Ebert’s complaint that whereas heroes seemed dignified in the old 1960s sword-and-sandal films (we know them as ‘peplums’), the hypermuscled lot in 300 act as ‘lager louts.’ Now it is my turn to complain about this new batch of bumbling, idiotic heroines. My students pointed out that, for all her mistakes, you still like Emma by the end of Austen’s novel, as she remains indeed dignified, even much more so after humbly learning a lesson. About Kinsella’s Emma the only thing I can say is that I hope there are not many real women like her. And novels like Kinsella’s.

OSCAR AND BORIS: A FARFETCHED COMPARISON

I was trying to get my students interested in Oscar Wilde’s peculiar position as a late Victorian celebrity avant la lettre, and before I really knew what I was saying I blurted out that his celebrity status then was not so different from that of Venezuelan import Boris Izaguirre today. That surely got their attention (poor things, it was 15:30…) and a good laugh. Once more I chastised myself for adlibbing instead of sticking to my notes… oh, well, it’s that pressure to keep them entertained all the time!!

On second thoughts, however, my boutade may have some grounds, at least it is making me consider in more depth the difficulties of presenting historical characters as real, living people as not just that – wooden, stiff characters in history, understood as Hayden White taught us: just an agreed upon fiction. The lurid details of Oscar Wilde’s unfortunate life stick out so prominently that it is harder in his case to reduce him down to just being a writer. One of my students really got a serious case of bad vibes when I mentioned that Wilde died as the fictional Ernest that Jack invents does in his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest: destitute, alone and in Paris… Yet, whether you read about him in the Wikipedia or in any proper academic source (say Richard Ellman’s biography), or even if you see the film Wilde with comedian Stephen Fry in the title role, there is always a mist surrounding Wilde’s real person, as happens with all the dead authors we’ll never see on TV, only in photos. This is silly, I know, but my guess is that what is shocking about comparing Wilde and Izaguirre is not so much that they’re very different men but that they live in very different times, the latter one when writers can have if they wish a prominent media presence. Just imagine what it would be like to have Wilde (or Shakespeare!) as a talk show guest and you can, perhaps, see what I mean.

Having said that, Wilde and Izaguirre share much if you think about it: a flamboyant dress style, a flippant repartee, a wish to shine as a celebrity no matter what it takes, their condition as homosexual men, their making a living primarily as journalists. I don’t know if Wilde would ever have accepted pulling down his pants as often as Izaguirre did on TV (remember Pepe Navarro’s late night shows?) but I can certainly picture him presenting Channel nº 4 with Ana Siñeriz. After all, Wilde was the editor of popular magazine The Woman’s World, which he rescued from financial ruin with great doses of glamour. No, I’m not forgetting in this comparison the fact that whereas Wilde was a brilliant scholar, Izaguirre did not attend university. I haven’t read any of Izaguirre’s novels (yet) and I can’t say how the two men compare as authors but they do have in common their good nose for the media that pays best: Izaguirre wrote soap operas for TV, Wilde took up playwriting for money (with great business acumen, he preferred a box office percentage over a flat fee).

Happily for Western society things have changed in a most significant front, and while poor Oscar was sentenced to two years hard labour for his homosexual liaisons, which led ultimately to his sad end, Boris is happily married to the love of his life: a man, Rubén. I’m aware of how controversial Izaguirre is as a gay man, with his often annoying mannerisms and his sharp tongue, but when I think of him and Wilde I’m very glad that Izaguirre can enjoy full citizenship rights in our time and very sorry that Wilde had to suffer so cruelly and, above all, so unnecessarily.

BACK FROM MARS: KIM STANLEY ROBINSON’S MARTIAN TRILOGY (ABOUT READING A VERY LONG TEXT… FOR PLEASURE?)

It’s taken me a few months to go through the 2,000 pages that compose Robinson’s trilogy about the (hopefully) soon to come colonisation of Mars: Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1992) and Blue Mars (1996). At some point, particularly when the end of the Mars 500 experiment was announced (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_500), I thought that Mars would be colonised before I finished the last book. I was clearly a bit overoptimistic about the colonisation of the red planet and, happily, I’m done reading.

‘Happily’ not because I got tired but because reading the trilogy has brought in much pleasure. Intellectual, as Robinson is not afraid of tackling head on complex political and ideological issues, and indeed aesthetic, as he decided to slow down in the third book and take his time to detail the dramatic changes in the terraformed Martian landscape and in the personal experiences of the long-lived earliest Terran colonisers. I have also enjoyed enormously the sustained anti-patriarchal tone, manifest not only in the characterisation of the bold female protagonists but also in that one of the main achievements of the new native Martian society is the abandonment of old-fashioned patriarchy for complete equality. The men and women of the trilogy do engage in frequent occasional liaisons and long-lasting romance, yet, above all, both work very hard for the betterment of the land they occupy and for the creation of a radically new society. It’s truly refreshing to read about women scientists and politicians, even mystics, taking a leading role together with the men as a matter of fact (how, after this, I’m going to teach a chick lit novel in a few days is something that right now mystifies me).

Having paid my long-standing debt with Robinson, the usual questions crop up. Should I write a paper about the gender issues in his work? (but… I was reading this for pleasure!! And, anyway, the MLA database already carries plenty about him…) Shouldn’t I do something, anything with the many hours I have spent on Mars, forgetting about everything else? (but… it was my leisure time!! And, anyway, there’s so much else to read, some also by him). Should I, to recap, re-read the whole trilogy, now that I know the basics of the plotlines, and see if I can milk something publishable out of it? (but… 2000 pages again, pencil in hand??). Is reading for so long wasted time if it doesn’t lead to some writing beyond this blog entry? Insert here the usual deep sigh.

The lesson to be learned? No rest for the wicked (English Literature teachers), for if we enjoy reading a text, this leads to this strange wish to write about it which, as far as I know, none has analysed as the source of all literary research and criticism. Is it a form of appropriating the original text? Is it a guilty way of maximising the utility of our scant leisure time? I understand now why some of my colleagues keep for their free-time reading a genre they’re not interested in academically. Yet if we don’t read what we’re interested in academically in our so-called leisure time, when are we supposed to read it? After all, if I have crammed Robinson’s 2,000 pages in the evenings and weekends of the last three months this is because even though I am a professional reader as a teacher of English Literature there is no way I could have taken, for instance, a couple of my working weeks to read the three books. Not even if I had decided beforehand that I wanted to write a paper about the trilogy and that reading it was indeed work.

So, here is the paradox (or do I mean vicious circle?): I have used my leisure time to read what I could or should have read in my working hours if I didn’t have to waste them doing a hundred other things which the bureaucrats above regard as real work. For, in their twisted logic, reading Literature isn’t work since, as everyone knows, reading books is something one does for leisure. Unless, that is, one produces something publishable.

Whatever happened to reading just for the sake of filling in gaps and learning? Why, oh why, do I feel guilty that I have used so much time for the trilogy…?

NEW BOOK (AND MANIFESTO): DESAFÍOS A LA HETEROSEXUALIDAD OBLIGATORIA

I have a new book out. It’s very small, only 84 pages, but it’s taken plenty of reading and plenty of thinking, so I thought I’d use this blog to publicise it a little bit.

The volume is called Desafíos a la Heterosexualidad Obligatoria and it’s part of the enticing collection that Meri Torras is editing, Los Textos del Cuerpo. Mine is number 7 (Barcelona: Ediuoc, 2011, ISBN 978 84 938802 7 9, see its wonderful cover by Lucy Gutiérrez at http://cositextualitat.uab.cat/?p=1298). And, yes, it’s a protest against the conceptualisation of heterosexuality as the patriarchal enemy and a call for us, heterosexuals, to reconsider our own identity as we must do under the impact of Queer Studies. And Feminism. And Masculinities Studies.

I close the book with a manifesto, so here it is, in the original language I used, Spanish.
MANIFIESTO
Hago una llamada para que desparezca:

*La heteronormatividad homófoba que privilegia la heterosexualidad. NO a la homofobia.
*La dominación masculinista (patriarcal, sea hetero o gay) sobre las mujeres (heteros y lesbianas). NO a la misoginia.
*El esencialismo en el género. NO a una sola manera de ser hombre (hetero o gay, etc.) o mujer (lesbiana o hetero, etc.).
*El modelo central de la heterosexualidad actual: el amor romántico. NO a la falsa idealización y la mala convivencia.
*El falso feminismo. NO a ayudar, NO a volver a casa (las mujeres) como ‘derecho’.

Abogo por una heterosexualidad plural que rechace el patriarcado, el masculinismo, la misoginia, la homofobia, la normatividad sexual y reproductiva. Pido una ética heterosexual que promueva la libertad de elección personal y que realmente la respete; que comparta la plena ciudadanía con todos y todas; que luche contra la violencia y el abuso; que promueva la afectividad y no sólo la sexualidad; que eduque en el placer; que enseñe a convivir y no sólo a enamorarse y que acabe con el falso feminismo habitual entre los heteros, tanto hombres como mujeres. En suma, pido una heterosexualidad que rechace privilegios y que se limite a ser una opción de libre elección y no una norma, sea dentro o fuera de la propia heterosexualidad. Reinventémonos ya.

The rest of the book, as you can imagine, is an examination of the basic tenets surrounding today heterosexuality both from queer and heterosexual positions in Gender Studies. I find, and here I should start a contest, that anti-patriarchal heterosexuals like myself do not have a label to distinguish us from the recalcitrant, patriarchal straights. I propose using, as Calvin Thomas does, ‘heteroqueer’ but queers tend to mistrust the label. So far, we have none better and perhaps it’s high time we find one. Others have proposed ‘dissident heterosexuality’ or ‘ethical heterosexuality’ but these are not catchy enough… Any ideas?

DEPRESSION LOOMS LARGE: MORE AND MORE PAYCUTS…

I’m beginning to sound like a broken record but I guess this is yet another sign of my incipient depression.

A few days after the Spanish elections the Catalan government insidiously announced yet another paycut for civil servants, something between 1 and 3% to be deducted off the extra month’s salary paid in June and December. Oh, well, we all said: it could have been worse. Now it IS worse, much worse. The announcement yesterday was that the salary ‘complements’ would be drastically reduced. Last time I checked complements made up about half my salary, so I am right now in a panic. I can’t imagine what it is like for university teachers with young children and a mortgage.

All this came on the same day when someone explained to me that the rumour circulating among our school’s students is that we teachers are paid between 4,000 and 7,000 euros a month, with some UAB employees making as much as 120,000 a year if in top admin positions. In other circumstances this would be a very funny joke… Right now it sounds plain ridiculous.

A young tenured teacher (meaning a new ‘titular’, between ages 35-40) makes around 2000 euros a months (net income I mean). Complements for seniority, research and the implementation of new teaching methodologies may bring that up to 2,500/2,600… after about 10 years. The basic salary, on which our pensions are calculated, is not quite 1,200 euros. For the next step up the ladder, full professor, what varies, once more, are the complements. A professor (a category achieved between ages 45-55 usually) makes 600 more euros a month, so around 3,100. Some may make more, again, because of seniority, research and teaching innovations. But very few, if any, make 4,000 a month. Maybe one or two about to retire (we retire at 70, remember?)

I have no idea what the Rector makes monthly for running the UAB on top of her full professor salary but I can say that as head of Department (2005-2008) I got a paltry 300 extra euros a month. And those were the good times. Managing a team of about 40 people brought in daily problems and plenty of stress all through three years, which that money could by no means compensate.

Yesterday, on the news they explained that for young people to be able to afford housing in any of Spain’s major cities average salaries should be around 2,350 euros. Ergo: soon, not even hyperqualified university teachers will be able to buy a decent flat, much less a house. We might become squatters at our own workplaces if things go on like this.