FINDING AN AUDIENCE: SMALL JOURNALS AND MELVYN BRAGG

I was leaving for home after a long, tiring day, depressed as I am these days at the thought of how hard the university is being hit by the current crisis, when a smiling colleague stopped me in the middle of the corridor. She’s an associate that teaches English Language and with whom I’ve only had contact because of admin matters. I thought she was going to ask me something about her workload next year as I’m the current Coordinator but I wondered why she was smiling.

To my surprise, she told me that surfing the net she’d come across an essay on Melvyn Bragg’s The Soldier’s Return (2000) and A Son of War (2001) that I had written a few years ago and published in Jaén’s ‘obscure’ journal Odisea. In the article (see: www.ual.es/odisea/Odisea09_MartinAlegre.pdf) I discuss these two autobiographical novels, which are part of a quartet completed by Crossing the Lines (2003) and Remember Me… (2008), using Masculinities Studies in order to examine a highly neglected theme: the silence that WWII British veterans kept and were forced to keep about their experiences. We know much about the shell-shocked WWI veterans and indeed about the post-traumatic stress syndrome suffered by Vietnam veterans. Yet, since WWII was a ‘just’ war fought against a monstrous villain, its veterans were forced to play the role of heroes, and, thus, to voice no complaints, for theirs could only have been the right (military) experience: all duty, honour and glory. Bragg dismantles the myth by narrating the many difficulties his own father had to readjust to civilian life once back from the war, also dismantling the myth that the reencounters with estranged wives and children were easy. They were not, as he himself learned.

As happens, my colleague’s father went through a similar situation and when she came across my essay she was looking for research on fiction that narrated the soldier’s return. In the lively 15 minutes we spent chatting in the middle of the corridor, she told me how sorry she was that she hadn’t listened with more interest when –atypically, I believe– her father insisted on telling his war tales to his daughters. ‘We were then teenagers’ she told me, ‘and teenagers are bored by these things.’ This is why she has decided to compensate for that lack of attention, which she sorely regrets, by checking the corresponding fiction and perhaps embarking on a doctoral dissertation (that’s why I always say that research in the Humanities is personal). Funnily enough, I had just taught my students that very same morning, following Leonard Davis’s clever Resisting Novels (1987), that ironically we pay attention to novels with a patience and interest we never find for actual human beings. I used as an example how I search myself all the time in Spanish Civil War novels for the experiences I could not get out of my grandfathers (being on opposite sides but in the same family they decided to silence them completely). I’m not sure I would have listened if they had decided to tell the tale.

So, Christina: thank you, you made my day by making me see that research no matter how ‘obscure’ can find an audience (as I always say, thanks to the internet), and that what mattered to me very much when I wrote that essay matters to others. I do hope you write that dissertation and I look forward to reading it.

THE PAYCUTS SEEN FROM THE OTHER SIDE: A FAMILY LUNCH

I made the mistake of declaring to my family over lunch that I was very depressed as President Mas has decided to deduct yet another 5% off my wages, this time off the complement paid by the Generalitat (I’m a civil servant on the payroll of the Spanish Government). This unleashed not the sympathy one is entitled to expect from one’s own family but a torrent of criticism against us, civil servants, preceded by the sentence ‘it might not be your case, because you work hard, but…’. I was flabbergasted. I still am, 24 hours later.

Happily, the members of my family are all employed. Some have been knocked hard, however, by the collapse of the market for which they work (real estate) and, logically, complained bitterly than when they had to take harsh paycuts none noticed or bothered. From their point of view, as a civil servant I’m afforded a high rate of protection against unemployment and, so, the least I can do is grin and bear it when the wages go down. The portrait I was offered is of a civil service class of pampered, lazy no-gooders sponging off the unprotected average citizen.

I tried to explain as best as I could that, whereas there’s been indeed much abuse of public money, if you apply general paycuts to all civil servants you demoralise the ones who do have a will to serve the public as best as we can. My view is that surgical interventions are needed and not wholesale amputations. To no avail. On the contrary, I had to agree with the view that in Spain we don’t need so many universities, nor so many Departments of the same speciality; there’s no point, indeed, in forming engineers if they’re going to be employed abroad. And I do know that employment opportunities for philosophers or philologists do not abound.

Used to the mutual commiseration which we, university teachers, exude when comforting each other as our world collapses little by little, it was shocking to see how close the ones who regard us as a luxury are. Yes, maybe this is what we are, but it’s dreadful to see how all kinds of civil servants get lumped together in this highly politicised misreading of what the public university is about. I feel tempted, now and then, to justify the criticism and misbehave like those who give us the bad name. Maybe I’d be better off, seeing how trying to convince even my dear ones that university teachers work hard is not working… Sad, very sad.

SPENDING MONEY ON DRAMA (WORKING OUT THE COST OF A SUBJECT)

I’ll be teaching again next year the elective ‘English Theatre’ and I’m reconsidering the texts I used 2 years ago. In that edition I asked my students to read two anthologies, Grahame Whybrow’s Modern Drama: Plays of the ’80s and ’90s and Alekz Seirz’s Twenty-First Century British Plays (both Methuen). 10 plays in total, 36 euros.

We worked on dramatised readings of scenes from all of them and seeing how they played out in class, I have decided to replace 50% of the plays with other texts. Now here’s the problem: the only way I have of checking whether the texts I have selected are worth teaching is by reading them, that is to say, by spending my own money (as I did, yes, 2 years ago). In the end I have spent 60 euros on 5 new books (3 single-volume plays, 2 collections by the same author). Single-volume plays are, at around 12 euros, not that cheap considering they’re on average 100 pages long. Yet, there’s no way around it. I have worked out that my students need to spend around 85 for the 10 plays. That’s roughly the price of a cinema ticket per play.

We teachers may purchase books through the library but they remain the library’s property and though we can borrow them for the whole academic year, we can’t make notes on them. The result? The books we buy for the library don’t include the ones we use in class, which we pay for out of our own pocket. A subject can, thus, easily cost each of us, teachers, 100 euros, if only a couple of secondary sources are added. This is why it’s VERY annoying when we see that students don’t buy the books (in time), or use low-quality editions, etc.

Now that I’m planning this subject I’m thus caught between a rock and a hard place: the need to spend my money to offer quality based on an informed choice and the students’ resistance to spending money on books. As usual, I’m possibly going to be unfair to many students but many seem to forget that books are part of the expenses of any university degree. The NECESSARY expenses. I saw the other day in my class a girl who had downloaded and printed an e-text copy of the (copyrighted) novel we’re reading, The Remains of the Day. That is something I will never understand… Back to drama (or to my drama!): If I opt for the cheaper solution (= teaching the same plays as 2 years ago) I do know that 50% of the subject will not be as good as it could; if I cut down the number of plays to, say 5 or 7, it’ll be a pity as that’s all the contemporary English drama (some!) students will read; if I keep the 10 plays, the subject will be rich enough but I’m sure it will all result in rampant piracy of the texts among my not-so-rich students.

I wonder if Medicine university teachers, a degree notorious for the cost of the textbooks, ever consider these matters. (I also wonder how they pay for the said textbooks…). Whatever my final choice is, in consideration of the students’ finances, the bare truth is that I have already spent those 60 euros…

A SOCIOLOGY OF TEACHERS: ENGLISH STUDIES IN SPAIN

To my surprise Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction (1979, English translation 1984), based on field work in late 1960s and early 1970s France, still makes perfect sense today. I don’t know whether this is because Spain is till catching up with the France he portrays, or because, essentially, Europe’s patterns of consumption have not changed that much since the pre-internet time when it was published. I’ll leave aside for the moment his insightful idea that so-called student failure is actually due to working-class students’ resistance to a devalued education that guarantees them no future. I’ll focus, instead, on a peculiar gap in the book. Although the tastes of primary and secondary teachers as consumers of goods and culture are often commented on, university teachers seem not to be there at all, unless, that it, Bourdieu assumes that in that France they were all upper-middle or upper-class. It’s puzzling.

This leads me to one of my pet projects: a sociological study of all those who teach English Studies in Spain. Coming from a working-class background –my father, now retired (or rather, made redundant at 57), was a printer; my mother is a housewife– I am myself very much class-conscious. I can only recall with a shudder the many difficulties during my student years to combine working and studying; my later academic career has always been marked by that and by a constant preoccupation with the sociology of culture, which is why I practice Cultural Studies. What I mean is that this kind of autobiographical musings are usually bypassed in the Spanish university. I myself only started wondering in earnest when, during my period as Head of Department, I was interviewed by two different research teams investigating whether women do admin tasks in a different way. I had to think hard and came to the conclusion, as I explained to both teams, that class could not be left aside. In my experience upper- and middle-class women in English Studies have a very different style of management from mine or that of my university female colleagues from my same social background.

My pet project would consist of asking everyone who teaches English Studies in Spain from which class they come from, to which class they think they belong now and how class conditions their choice of speciality or field, and of teaching methodology. It is a key factor, believe me. When ‘Filología Inglesa’ started back in the 1950s and until the 1980s when my own generation came on board, the whole field was upper-middle or middle-class, both teachers and students. With no English taught at all in public schools and no money to afford private tuition, it’s easy to see why the working-classes had little access. My generation (born 1960s) must have been the first one to be taught some English (irregularly, often by ill-qualified teachers) in public primary and secondary schools and also the first one to make up for the many gaps by going to England to work as au-pairs or waiters (Erasmus only started in 1986). None has examined what (popular) cultural baggage we brought onto English Studies, nor how (badly?) we fitted in an environment run entirely in a second language that remains a mystery to most Spaniards. Other factors, such as who got what grants and scholarships also bear examining, together with the history of the introduction of Cultural Studies as a discipline and of new subjects such as popular texts and/or film (Film Studies still has no degree in Spain, would you believe that!?).

I guess this survey will never be carried out to begin with because I’m not sure where it could be published and, second, because it’s somewhat a taboo. In English Studies the impression is that we’re all part of a big, nice family quite inexplicably ignored by the other ‘Filologías’. It would be regarded as in very bad taste to ask people for their class credentials, I assume, which is in itself a typical upper-middle-class position. In the meantime, I’m asking myself the relevant questions and I’m starting to think that perhaps I should ask my own students. I already know that teaching English Literature in the downright blue-collar UAB has nothing to do with teaching the same subject in Navarre’s private university but I don’t what the exact differences are. As for my students, whereas I have assumed, seeing that 68% of the first-year ones work, that they are working-class indeed, I might be in for some surprises. Who knows? This is why I’d like to ask.

Or have we come to a time when people will be tempted to conceal a middle- or upper-middle background? (By the way, do we have actual upper-class people in English Studies in Spain? And in the whole Spanish university?).

ON COPYRIGHT, VIRTUAL CAMPUS, CEDRO AND HARVARD

CEDRO is the Spanish organisation that protects the copyright of writers on books (and music scores, I mean sheet music); it is analogous to SGAE, which protects performing artists. Recently, CEDRO has sued UAB for 1 million euros, accusing my university of not restricting at all book piracy in our virtual classrooms (see http://www.lavanguardia.com/cultura/20120411/54283660307/cedro-uab-fotocopias.html). They apparently want to charge all 75 Spanish universities a flat rate of 5 euros per year and student that, together with the tax charged for each photocopy, would be distributed to their authors members. The bottom line is that they do know that everyone, teachers and students, infringes copyright, hence the decision to collect tax on that ‘bad habit’ rather than try to stop it by other means. This is a little bit like the tax on smoking.

In the same week, as my colleague José Ángel García Landa informed us, Harvard University has decided to curb down the expenses on bundle subscriptions to academic journals offered by major publishers. The prices in some cases have increased by 145% when, as Harvard notes, publishers are already making an alarming 35% profit on journals. The additional problem is that the university itself, a very potent generator of research, is getting too little back in return for the funds poured on the very work that produces articles for journal publication. The whole memo is worth reading (see http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k77982&tabgroupid=icb.tabgroup143448), particularly the recommendations to Harvard researchers, who are encouraged to “Consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access.” (my italics) I’m personally elated to see that common sense views I have defended again and again in public and private also make sense at Harvard. Call me smug, that’s how I feel today.

Now, here’s the joke: I’m also a CEDRO member, as a writer of single-authored books and as collaborator in collective volumes published in Spain. CEDRO, by the way, does not include my articles in academic journals in the list of my copyrighted work. As a teacher, I wonder whether this means that uploading articles onto virtual classrooms is not really a crime (or is it another kind of crime?). Ironically, I do get a little bit of money annually from them out of the photocopy tax, but their protection does not extend to my more serious problem: a cheeky publisher that has failed to pay me royalties for years (I have got NOTHING for my book on The X-Files). The lawyer I have contacted is asking for 2,500 euros, plus 800 for other legal fees, to sue this person, who owes me less than that. Logically, I’m stuck, worried that he’ll declare himself bankrupt and, thus, cost me much more money than I’m owed. I’m mystified that piracy is in Spain a bigger issue than the rampant fraud committed by certain editors on naive authors (we seem to be too many, from what I gather).

So, how do I feel as an author myself regarding piracy? Well, the problem has three sides. With books allegedly protected by a contract, my concern are publishers rather than piratical readers. With chapters in collective books, I believe that those paid by research groups using public funds or by conferences using members’ fees, should be free access. At any rate, they should always be very cheap, as authors are never paid royalties for book chapters. With journal articles, I’m a Harvard girl: we should ‘move prestige to open access’, with all the consequences (including indexation lists, etc.). It’s very simple: if my work does not entitle me to receiving royalties I don’t see why it should benefit others in the scandalous way Harvard highlights.

(And, yes, this entry has been very hard to write because I realise that I’m in flagrant contradiction with myself, as I want to protect my copyright on books and give away for free my shorter pieces –I can only say in my defence that books are VERY hard to write and that, anyway, royalties amount to so little they seem to be just a symbolic reward).

‘IN THE VERY FIRST ROW OF THE SECOND-RATERS’: READING W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM’S OF HUMAN BONDAGE

I have spent much of my time this long weekend glued to the 600 pages of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915). I picked up the yellowing, crumbling copy at UAB’s library to read for pleasure, after having read a while ago The Razor’s Edge (1944) –and yes, having seen the two film versions, one with Tyrone Power, the other, surprisingly, a pet project of Bill Murray. I vaguely recalled this was supposed to be a scandalous novel, but that was not was had kept it at the back of my mind for future reading, nor the three film versions, which I have never seen. Rather, it was Brad Pitt as a police officer in Se7en asking his partner Morgan Freeman whether Maugham’s novel, a clue connected to the sophisticated serial killer they are after, is S&M. Note this: Freeman plays in the film the cultured detective William Somerset –script-writer Andrew Kevin Walker’s homage to Maugham, his favourite writer. And yes, this novel is indeed S&M, but not of the leather-clad kind Pitt meant.

Maugham was a great star in his time, in that line of solid British writers that has also given us Graham Greene, John Le Carré, maybe Anthony Burgess, and that, while also somehow connected with E.M. Forster, has nothing to do with Modernism. Maugham, enormously successful as novelist, playwright and short story writer, is actually one of the greatest victims of Modernism, as his unadorned prose and oddly melodramatic novels are at the antipodes of what Woolf et al regarded as interesting literature (include also Bennet and Galsworthy). Theodore Dreiser loved Of Human Bondage and I should think he makes a good transatlantic companion for Maugham. There’s been recently a renewed interest in Maugham’s work because of a handful of new film adaptations: Up at the Villa (2000), Meeting Julia (2004) and The Painted Veil (2006) –Naomi Watts and Edward Norton are superb there– but, arguably, they have fixed Maugham in the role of vaguely passé, decadent writer, a la Noël Coward or Terence Rattigan, rather than vindicate him.

It seems Maugham described himself as belonging to ‘the very first row of the second-raters’. A colleague, who happens to specialise in Shakespeare, spoke wonders to me about Of Human Bondage and I read it, accordingly, not at all as second rate, but as one of the great forgotten novels that should be included in my dream course about, well, great forgotten novels. Now I’m not so sure. One thing I noticed is this: I never looked at the page number as I read Maugham’s masterpiece and when I did it was to note, with surprise, that I had read 100-150 pages non-stop. This is something that rarely happens, and a good sign that the author does indeed know how to tell a tale. Yet, as for the tale itself, possibly what’s happened to me as a reader is exactly the same that happens to its protagonist, Philip, regarding his paramour Mildred: he has no idea why he loves her, being, as he is, fully aware of her many faults and of her lack of beauty –of her vulgarity, in short. Even so, Philip loves her; even so, I’ve loved this book. But it is, let’s be clear about this, first row of the second-raters.

As I read the story of Philip’s life –close to the author’s own life in many aspects, completely fictional in others– I kept wondering why I wanted to go on reading. I doubt any reader can truly like Philip and I don’t wonder that some have found the story of his obsession for the heartless Mildred that of a fool. Maugham, however, deals through Philip not just with the misery of unfulfilled sexual yearning but also with the even bigger misery of misreading one’s mediocrity. He gives Philip a chance to confront his own and choose finally a reasonably happy life but the book is strewn with the dead bodies of those who fail to come to terms with their own limitations. I was (morbidly) impressed by that; also by the women’s frank approach to sex in the novel, far more direct that in Lawrence because of the, excuse the pun, bare prose.

Curiosity satisfied, then, for the time being. I know I’m not done with Maugham, either because I’m at heart a philistine or because we need the second-raters (front or back row) as much as we need the first-raters… to make our reading complete.