THE CHRONOLOGY OF MODERNITY: A SURFEIT

[Last entry: 19 February – um, yes, it’s the beginning of the semester, a mad time until the subjects get themselves running and students find their places… Difficult to put aside 60 minutes for a blog entry… yet sanity calls!!]

Last week I produced a chronology of the first four decades of the 20th century for my own benefit and that of my first-year students (if they find a use for so much raw data). I have mixed a list of works (literary and commercial fiction), history and society facts and, here’s the novelty for me, a juicy list of inventions. For the curious, my very visibly acknowledged sources were the BBC (www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/timeline/worldwars_timeline_noflash.shtml), Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/20th_century_in_literature), and, for the inventions, About.com (http://inventors.about.com/od/timelines/a/ModernInvention.htm) and the amazingly chauvinistic but great fun Brits at their Best, (www.britsattheirbest.com/ingenious/ii_20th_century_1900-1930.htm). Call me stupid, but although I did know that literary and artistic Modernism was to a great extent a reaction against the radical changes brought about by technology applied to mass consumerism (and to mass destruction in WWI), I hadn’t realised how dense the list of innovations was for the first decades of the 20th century. Really mind-blowing.

To begin with, we seem to have quite a fuzzy idea of everyday reality at the turn of the century (I mean 19th to 20th) perhaps because the ladies took their time to update their bulky fashions to the demands of fast moving around (they waited until the 1920s to take up bras and raise hemlines even above the knee). Among the inventions already available by 1900 we count much of what makes everyday life still today: photography, cinema, the car, bikes, public and domestic electric lights, the telephone, the underground railway, machine guns, dishwashers, Coca-cola, the radar, the gramophone (now i-pod…), the escalator (first seen in 2011 in Uzbekistan)… And it’s not just that.

Take, for instance, the year 1915. The list of great eminent books published in Britain is quite rich: The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford (a great favourite of mine); The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence; Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham; Victory by Joseph Conrad; The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf; even the popular thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. But if you think this is meaningful for 20th century civilisation, what about what happened in that April 1915 of the WWI (the Gallipoli peninsula disaster for the Allies), or in September, with the first British use of poison gas at Loos (France)? Yet, maybe, in the end, the real sign of modernity was the invention that same year by US citizens Eugene Sullivan and William Taylor of the ever useful Pyrex glass. Or if you look at the British side, the Nobel Prize for Physics won by William Bragg and his son William Lawrence Bragg for essential work on crystal structure.

Here’s the thought for today: I guess chemistry students can very well learn the history of crystallography without reference to the list of 1915 eminent books (or even to WWI), yet I’m less and less sure that we can study 20th century English Literature without looking at what was going on in science and technology at the time. History and society are commonly accepted as part of the context relevant to (literary) texts, but we’re still a long way from connecting technology and literature, arguably even in science fiction. Or maybe that’s a thought brought on by our internet and mobile phone era, in which it seems simply impossible to write without thinking of how we do it (using a laptop) and how our texts are shaped by technology (um, yes, I’m writing a blog).

I realise that knowing about Pyrex will not help me read The Rainbow better but I also see that ‘Modernism’ was an ironic label, for we are the real modernists in love with ever-changing modernity.

HOW TO (NOT) USE A GUN: HEDDA GABLER AT TEATRE LLIURE

Henrik Ibsen’s ‘heroine’ Hedda Gabler has taken residence up at Teatre Lliure for a while and is today leaving town. Good riddance! Students of Victorian Literature will recall Shaw’s claim in The Quintessence of Ibsenism that whereas late 19th century British plays generated nothing much except entertainment, Ibsen’s generated discussion. Well, here it is: I’m generating discussion about why we put up with them. Entertained, I surely wasn’t.

The poster announcing David Selvas’s production (based on Marc Rosich’s version –how I hate that word in relation to the theatre) was promising enough, with actress Laia Marull (as Hedda) happily waving a gun. Yet, in the end the Chekhovian gun mentioned in Act I goes off predictably in the last act, killing the female protagonist. I’m sick and tired of so-called 19th century heroines who kill themselves rather than put up with the strictures of patriarchal society, and the fact that this one has been rewritten against a contemporary setting makes things much, much worse. Particularly so when I think of Laia Marull’s courageous Pilar in Iciar Bollaín’s hair-rising denounce of marital abuse, the film Te doy mis ojos (2003). Marull decided that Hedda is mad as a hatter, and she plays her like that with total glee; she’s right, for I believe that this is the only way to make sense of a useless woman like Hedda today.

Selvas’s production is, simply, anachronistic. A production set in 1891 when the original play was first performed, which needn’t be a conservative production, could have worked very well as a poignant document about the past and, implicitly, about women’s progress in the last 100 years. By freezing Hedda in time rather than updating her Selvas and Rosich also highlight this progress but only unwittingly. Today, Hedda and Thea would be fighting themselves for an academic position, rather than help husband or (male) lover, as they do, to get the one they ambition. I’m sure certain parasitical upper-class women still expect their husbands to provide for all their caprices but they’re not representative of today’s women as Hedda Gabler was of her time. And I’m not paying to see a play about them.

So, why did I pay to see this one? Frankly, because having seen last October that well-made production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at Teatre Gaudí I was curious to see how different this would be from an Ibsen at Teatre Lliure. I got an attack of Shavian blues, so to speak, and wanted to get serious after getting trivial. My opinion after the event is that Wilde wins by a few heads: his ‘trivial comedy for serious people’ is fresh as dew whereas this Hedda Gabler smells or, rather, stinks.

As happens, I support legally-sanctioned suicide (or euthanasia) for medical reasons and generally believe that suicide is an act of courage in most circumstances. What annoys me is how often authors chose suicide for their ‘heroines’ in the 19th century: from Maggie Tulliver to Emma Bovary, passing through Edna Pontellier, Lily Bart and, yes, Hedda Gabler. And how today, in the 21st century, those deaths are still celebrated, somehow. I was happy to see that idiot Gabler top herself, but I deeply regret that her suicide is the central act of a so-called literary masterpiece. I am going to suppose that, having allowed Nora to slam the door on her husband in A Doll’s House (1879), Ibsen killed off Hedda more than a decade later as a way to denounce the uselessness of women like her. Yet, the popularity of play and role is annoyingly suspicious, reeking of that glamour attached to the female literary suicide but not quite for the same reasons to her male counterpart. Whereas she kills herself because she’s trapped, he kills herself because he’s free to do it. Not the same thing…

In my own updated version, Hedda finds in shooting her father’s guns the talent she lacks at everything else, becomes an Olympic champion and stops pestering those around her… Otherwise, keep her in Ibsen’s original 1891 setting. Or put her out of her misery for good.

MAKING SENSE OF THE 20TH CENTURY (OR NOT…): THE MATTER OF LABELS

I have started a new edition of our first year subject ‘20th century Literature’ and, as usual, I’m mystified by how untidy the labels used to describe it are.

Not that Metaphysical or Romantic are particularly tidy, either, which sets me thinking about how and why such a mess has been made of organizing (English) Literature. Of course, with the exception of some avant-gardes few Literary schools or movements bother to choose their own label –which shows how careless writers are… when thinking of marketing themselves and of posterity. We get by as best as we can, using labels pinned on authors by mocking contemporaries, or in hindsight by critics aspiring to wit. Writers seem too immersed in their surroundings to really care… It’s funny to read, for example, how quintessential Modernist Virginia Woolf decides to call fellow Modernists “Mr. Forster, Mr. Lawrence, Mr. Strachey, Mr. Joyce, and Mr. Eliot” ‘the Georgians’ in her famous essay “Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown” (1924). None uses Georgian at all today to refer to them… Didn’t they know they were Modernists??

Monarchs have, when it comes to the periodisation of English Literature, an uneven impact. There is an Elizabethan Age but somehow nobody has thought of calling ours ‘the second Elizabethan Age,’ even though the reign of Elizabeth II (Elizabeth I for the Scots) is now in its 60th year (poor Prince Charles…). Victoria was queen for 64 years (1837-1901… poor Prince Edward) and in her case, there’s no doubt that she provided a very convenient umbrella term for the period. In contrast, checking this morning how the label ‘Georgian’ is used, I came across more information on the Literature of the Caucasian Republic of Georgia than on that produced in the first decade of High Modernism… And all I found refers to the series of Georgian poetry anthologies that we now tend to connect with WWI poets.

At any rate, what is clear is that since 1945 English Literature has become very hard to classify, much more so if we think of the present. There are catchy labels like ‘Angry Young Men’ or ‘In-yer-face Theatre’, but they are in dispute and, anyway, are not quite useful to describe what was going on outside the English (British?) stage. The case of the label ‘Post-modernism’ begins to smack, as I see it, of naughty intellectual and critical laziness. How can a period be said to begin in 1945, 1968, 1979 and even 1990? Is it over yet?? Who knows for sure?

Suppose, for the sake of argumentation, that there is something called Post-WWII Literature and that Post-modernism runs from, say, the emblematic 1968 to the not less emblematic 1989. Let’s say, then, that the year 1989-2001 form a distinct period, for which we have no name (except ‘Globalisation’) although it might seem that these two historical dates separate very neatly a slice of History in which particular kinds of Literature emerge. On the spur of the moment I told my students yesterday about Berthold Schoene’s proposal that current Literature (the novel, actually) should be called Cosmopolitan, as writers feel quite free to deal with stories anywhere they please and not in their immediate surroundings. Um, appealing… yet the way I see it from 1989 onwards what seems to be happening is actually a heady mixture of the local ethnic, the post-colonial and the cosmopolitan. And, yes, 10 years have gone by since 2001, which my young students couldn’t even recall.

Perhaps it’s time to celebrate a contest and see who comes up with an interesting label. So many writers claim today that they’re not part of any collective school or movement that perhaps the best label, after all, might be ‘Individualism’ (or ‘Self-conscious Literature’?).

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: why on Earth use labels if they’re so confusing? Well, as I said, to try to make sense of something as vast as the hectic 20th century. Here insert the usual deep sigh…

SELF-PUBLICATION IS HERE TO STAY: ABOUT JOHN LOCKE’S SUCCESS

My colleague David Owen has often heard me predict that soon enough at least part of our academic work will be eventually self-published on our websites. This is why he emailed me a very juicy article by Dave Lee about “The authors who are going it alone online – and winning” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-16469000). The article highlights a few key issues: The Chicago Tribune’s groundbreaking decision to review self-published books (e-books, actually), the re-fashioning of the self-published author as “an entrepreneur,” the rise of services designed to help you publish on the internet, and, oh yes, the success of novelist John Locke, who’s sold more than one million copies of his self-published works on Amazon.

Self-publishing has been around for a long time, as authors have always been free to spend their own money on having their work printed, distributed… and ignored. ‘Vanity’ publishing –as Lee points out– has traditionally been regarded as a major ego trip, which is why reviewers would not touch books without the stamp of a publishing house. The novelty is the current popularity of e-book readers, which makes the expensive business of printing, storing and distributing a paper volume redundant. Also, the availability of payment systems online that make selling your own stuff as easy as using e-Bay. Just think: authors usually get 8 to 10% on the book price –how tempting it must be to get 90%. Leaning towards the conservative, Lee warns readers that, in the end, not everyone can write a marketable book, which is why editors will always be needed (not necessarily publishers – a difference we don’t understand well in Spain). Distributors too: it turns out that Mr. Locke has a “distribution deal with Simon & Schuster.” Oh, well.

This is indeed the key point: distribution, which means visibility. Whether literary or academic, self-published book authors are like bloggers (we are self-published authors also) in the sense that you are read only if you’re noticed on the internet, not necessarily depending on the quality of your writing (sorry, does this sound smug?). Academic writers, as far as I know, make very little money out of writing, which is why I tend to think of self-publishing as a way of curbing down the impact of peer reviewing, and not as a way to limit the profits of academic publishing houses in favour of authors. That might also be desirable but my point is that, at least in the Humanities and particularly in literary and cultural criticism, academic creativity is often limited by prejudiced peer-reviewing, which can be easily avoided with self-publication. How to make self-published articles visible is quite another matter, unless MLA starts accepting them (it doesn’t, does it?), in the same spirit that has made The Chicago Tribune open its pages to self-published books.

One day I’ll do the experiment: I’ll write an article for publication in a peer-reviewed publication and a second version for self-publication on my web (I don’t have one yet). Then we’ll see which version has a higher impact. Yes, yes, it might well be that nobody will read either version, as I doubt anyone at all reads what I publish anyway. But you know what I mean, right?

RISING UP TO THE CHALLENGE: IS MAKING THINGS HARDER THE BEST WAY TOWARDS IMPROVEMENT?

I am now part of a team of UAB and UB Literature teachers grouped together in an ‘MQD’ project (‘Millora de la Qualitat Docent’ = Teaching Quality Improvement). Our aim is improving our methodology by focusing on the narrator when teaching Literature. This is the reason why we decided to ask students to write their critical papers for Victorian Literature (second year) either on the narrator in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist or Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, novels that I have already mentioned here.

The process of writing the paper has been quite hard, as we expected, for our students. Many had difficulties understanding what we meant by asking them to focus on the narrator, used as they are to focusing on textual and contextual aspects, from the characterisation of a particular figure to socio-historical issues. Luckily for us, even though we didn’t plan this beforehand, the two novels contrast nicely as regards the narrator, since Dickens’s is famous for its overbearing third person narrator, whereas Brontë’s –technically an epistolary novel– is a first person narrator that mixes a diary written by a woman with letters written by a man. This helped us, as we could always appeal to this contrast when explaining how each novel is, at heart, the result of a collection of choices made by the author about how to narrate it. I think we also got very lucky in that the academic articles selected to boost class discussion (Karín Lesnik-Obertsein’s on Dickens and Carol Senf’s on Brontë) were quite productive in content and as models for our students.

Students were asked to submit a proposal mid-term, with a title, an abstract and quotations from three sources. This they did, with many difficulties, as I say, particularly as regards formulating a thesis. To my surprise –and that of my colleague in this subject– there is not a direct correlation between the quality of the abstracts and that of the final paper. Mainly, in quite a few cases, bad proposals led to very good papers, which is mystifying enough… In the end, students submitted 48 papers, of which I asked for re-writings in 23 cases due to editing problems (the content was acceptable but presentation matters had been approached with quite a cavalier attitude). I have failed finally only 6 papers… though I believe I’m quite a demanding teacher (maybe I’m not?).

So, my conclusion is that when a teacher poses a challenge students feel compelled to rise up to it. Ergo: I need to make things not necessarily more difficult but indeed more demanding (first year students, be warned!). I must say I have worked very hard to help students progress but they have made an effort, in some cases an impressive one. This must be acknowledged. I even emailed all of them to congratulate them, ask them to please remember the lesson learned with the paper and wish them good luck in the third year.

What I simply can’t understand is why NOBODY has answered that message… Maybe that’s my next challenge…

‘SINCE’ AND ‘BY,’ AND OTHER FORMS OF LINGUISTIC SNOBBERY…

I see someone carrying a bag with a Spanish brand name on it –Massimo Dutti?– followed by the word ‘since’ and a year number. I cringe, almost outwardly. A web in Spanish announces the new collection ‘Be my Valentine by Bershka’ and I double cringe (I heard someone described on Tele5 as a very intelligent person: ‘one of the few people in Spain who can pronounce Bershka’…). Although Zara designs always fit me very poorly, I have nothing against Inditex (who, for the absent-minded, also owns Dutti and Bershka); I am, however, stubbornly prejudiced against linguistic snobbery. I find the snooty (miss)use of ‘since’ and ‘by’ particularly obnoxious.

What’s new about this? Nothing, really. I just wonder whether it’s just me or, whether all non-native English philologists are plagued by the same prejudice. I see people on the street with silly T-shirts carrying a stupid message in English and I have to stop myself from challenging them: would you wear a T-shirt like that in a language you speak? Do you actually know what that means? Perhaps I should feign extreme surprise or disgust and leave them feeling there’s something wrong with the darn T-shirt… (A –male– student in my Department wears a T-shirt announcing ‘I’m still a good investment’ against the background of a graphic showing financial heavy loses, but that’s ok: it’s witty and he knows exactly why he’s wearing that…).

Back to ‘since’ and ‘by’. I don’t understand what is wrong with the word ‘desde’ (or Catalan ‘des de’). Does it sound old-fashioned (Vda. de Pérez e Hijos, desde 1886)? Is it a paralyzing fear that people in, say, Finland, will be mystified by what ‘desde’ followed by a year number might mean? As I gather, everyone has learned the meaning of ‘since’ by seeing this word between a brand name and a date in labels in English. How come I don’t know how to write ‘since’ in 12 different languages in this global world of ours? (Nokia ***** 1865? Yes, 1865!)

‘By’ is a slightly different kettle of fish. It is, of course, short for ‘designed by’ and I realise that Spanish ‘por’ fits only awkwardly the sense of the phrase. ‘Vueling by Custo,’ in reference to the designs produced to decorate some of this not-so-low-cost airline’s planes by Catalan designer Custo(dio) Dalmau, is a particularly mindboggling form of linguistic snobbery with an attempt at wit (how does Vueling sound to a native English-speaker?). ‘Un vestido de Gaultier,’ however, still sounds to me better than ‘Un vestido by Gaultier’ though I know that soon we’ll all speak like Tamara Falcó –on a bad day. ‘Rihanna by Armani Underwear’ as seen in a web in Spanish overwhelms me, as this means ‘En esta campaña la cantante Rihanna nos vende ropa interior diseñada por Armani’ (or was Rihanna herself designed by Armani in his underwear???). Are ads for perfurme to be blamed for this unfortunate trendy use of ‘by’? When did ‘de Paco Rabanne’ become ‘by Paco Rabanne’ in Spain? I seem to have noticed only recently…

End of today’s entry for The Joys of English Literature ‘por’ Sara Martín, ‘desde’ 2010 (as you can see, I’ve been marking essays all day long, needed to think of something else…)

THIS BUSINESS OF COORDINATING A DEGREE…

In my Department, since more and more staff are woefully underpaid provisional part-time associate teachers, there are fewer and fewer of us, tenured teachers, who can do the inevitable admin work. This is why I could not reject my appointment as Coordinator of our English Studies BA-style degree. For two years, possibly three, which would be the usual term.

It’s not one of those tasks you undertake for money but yesterday was quite funny in that regard, for in the morning I attended a UAB meeting in which we were told that Coordinators are crucial for the survival of the degrees and in the afternoon I got my first monthly payment: it turns out my university values this ‘crucial’ job at roughly 200 net euros a month (271 before taxes, 25%…).

We were told, of course, in that meeting how sorry the heavily bankrupt UAB is that we cannot be paid more, and having been Head of Department (2005-8) I know that the top position in that kind of unit is valued roughly at around 350 (after taxes). A basic fee for a plenary speaker at a conference is about 300 (a.t.) running up to 1,000; seminars are usually paid about 150 an hour (a.t.). I know, I know: I also get a teaching reduction (25% of my annual workload) and this extra money is on top of my monthly salary. As happens, though, with the recent pay cuts and the tax rate increase (more to come soon), my new salary, with the 200 euros addition, is just back to 2008 levels. Ergo: I’m now Coordinating for free…

I have promised myself to spend this money on extras, whether they are books or handbags, we’ll see. This may sound a bit naughty in the middle of the current crisis but somehow I need to get rid of that money fast or I’ll start thinking that I’ve got myself a considerable workload on top of my classes and research for money, which will make me feel exploited or, even worse, cheap. How heavy the added workload is going to be I don’t know yet, as the first months learning the ropes in admin positions are always the hardest ones. What I need to brace myself for are the many days lost to research because I must attend a very urgent meeting that is hardly ever truly urgent.

Am I complaining, cheeky me, being as I am a privileged worker unthreatened by unemployment (more or less)? Um, if you think about it, the key question here is that being a Coordinator was already badly paid in the good old days of the fat cows, pre-2007. If you ask me, I’d rather be paid less or even nothing but be given more time by doing less teaching –that’s the only way to save my research. Of course, in that case the UAB would have to hire a more expensive teaching replacement for me and that sums it up: it’s 200 euros and that’s final. And be grateful for small mercies (I am, I am…at least, I don’t work for Spanair…)

Here’s a final thought: the funny thing is that admin positions are not advertised as ways of earning extra income. It’s not done. I don’t know, there might be teachers up to their neck with mortgage payments who need the extra money sorely… It’s also inelegant to ask how much you’re going to be paid for extra jobs like this. As if we were above materialism… Odd, very odd.

PS: I’m writing this note on 23 February, when I already know that because of the UAB budget adjustments the extra money for admin tasks has been reduced to 50%… Yes, I’ll get the grand total of 100 euros!!!