TWO THOUGHT EXPERIMENTS ON GENDER: AMMONITE AND ETHAN OF ATHOS

I read back-to-back Nicola Griffith’s acclaimed Ammonite (1993), just re-issued as an SF Masterwork, and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Ethan of Athos (1986), as part of my current search for sf novels with interesting ideas about gender. Back in January I was wondering here whether I’d eventually write a paper on another one of them, David Brin’s Glory Season, and, well, it’s done: I emailed the final version 2 days ago. In the end, that ‘average’ novel, as I called it, has ended up inspiring a very complex chain of thought about my misgivings about certain kinds of separatist sf feminist fiction.

Brin lost the James Tiptree jr award for best sf fiction focused on gender issues to Griffith, and I really needed to check in which ways her work is superior. My conclusion is that it is not. Also, that humour does benefit this kind of speculative fiction.

Ammonite is so close to Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness (1968) that I even wondered whether Griffith had the book at hand as she wrote, as a reference. In both cases, an anthropologist, risks his or her life to understand what is going on in a distant planet in which something quite odd connected with gender is happening. As any sf fan knows, LeGuin’s male explorer, Genli Ai, is completely baffled by the fact that Gethenians are genderless until they enter ‘kemmer’ and become either male or female, depending on the sex their erotic partner triggers. I used to love LeGuin’s book until I realised that she never contemplates same-sex unions. Maybe Griffith had the same problem, I don’t know.

The question is that her female anthropologist, Marghe Taishan, is sent to test in her own body a vaccine against the virus that has killed off all the men (… and 20% of the women). Logically, she finds a new Herlandia, peopled only by women. It’s true that Griffith’s planet has a much larger variety of women characters than Charlotte Gilman Perkins’s classic Herland (from her 1915 novel), and that she’s very open about their lesbianism. It’s also quite true that her women are all convincing in the tasks they carry out: I didn’t miss male characters at all. What I totally disliked was that Griffith doesn’t bother to explain why her sexist virus has killed all the men –I found that narrative resource plain androphobic. I also disliked her ‘magical’ approach to reproduction. Genetic variety is achieved when the women fall into a mystic, visionary state in which they can manipulate the embryos in their partner’s body, without surgery or lab work. Deep sigh… at the technophobic silliness of feminist pastoral sf.

From what I’ve read, Ethan of Athos is possibly one of the worst novels by Lois McMaster Bujold, which is great, for that was my introduction to her work and I loved it. She exports the idea of the misogynistic monastery on mount Athos in Greece to an all-male planet, in which men can choose between celibacy or homosexuality. In this society men accumulate credits to be allowed to become fathers of sons gestated in artificial uteri. This patriarchal lifestyle depends, however, on the availability of ovaries on the interplanetary bio-market and is deeply threatened when someone tampers with Athos’s most recent purchase. Ethan, a doctor in charge of one of the reproduction centres, is sent to find out what happened and to buy replacement ovaries. What follows is a highly entertaining, humorous adventure, as Ethan adapts to the fact that a woman (eeks!), and a mercenary to boot, has become his main aid in that mad quest for artificial reproduction.

An Amazon reader wonders whether Bujold is homophobic in making her all-male planet misogynistic. I don’t think so, although it’s true that Ethan doesn’t meet any other gay men outside Athos. I think that her target is, rather, gender separatism, as it leads to absurdly one-sided societies. Ethan himself realises that, after all, Athos is going to be conditioned for generations to come by the genes he’s chosen for its new baby boys, as it has been already conditioned by those of the first woman who helped to start the experiment. In contrast, in Griffith’s tale the erasure of men’s genetic imprint and even presence is total. Neither planet, of course, can be a utopia for heterosexual women like myself.

Possibly, what I enjoyed best in Bujold’s tale is that she lets Athos be, and even gives Ethan an unexpected new lover. A more radical feminist –and I have no doubt that she is a feminist indeed, considering her mercenary Elli Quinn– would have dismissed Athos altogether, but my impression is that Bujold’s universe is big enough to encompass all kinds of gender choices, even a utopian patriarchal celibate/gay world. Only this explains her heroine’s own choices, ironic as they may be. In contrast, Griffith’s world is completely humourless, as she takes the premise too seriously to consider its glaring faults, both as a lesbian paradise and as an androphobic hell.

Now you choose…

RUNNING IN CIRCLES?: ONLINE TEACHING AT UOC

Last Saturday I attended a seminar on the use of up-to-date computer technologies at my other university, the online Universitat Oberta de Catalunya. I’ve been teaching an ‘Introduction to English Literature’ for undergrads, compulsory for the degrees in ‘Humanities’ and ‘Language and Literature’, since 1998; it’s currently the 27th semester I do so. And I still enjoy it.

I don’t write much about UOC, or rather, very little, because, somehow, things run more smoothly there. The virtual campus platform is fine, so is administration and organisation; the students are usually highly motivated, with an interesting mix of ages (20 to over 65!!) and backgrounds. And of locations: I remember a glorious semester in which I had students in China, Japan, Florida and Ghana (I mean Catalans working there). I have learned plenty from UOC that I keep applying to UAB, as they have always been far more demanding concerning the clarity of the contractual relationship between teacher and student. I still hate it, though, that we, associate teachers, who used to be called consultors, are now called ‘teaching collaborators’ but still not quite ‘teachers’. And payment could be higher…

The issue that soon came up yesterday in the seminar is how the emphasis on learning skills and competences has affected learning content. In plain words: students do the exercises quite well but do not read nor learn in depth the course materials: they do not study. This is basic in the Humanities, as essentially, you cannot improve your competences and skills without constantly working on your intellectual capital, your fund of knowledge. This is common to both presential and virtual universities, as we’re both stuck with the same dilemma: students tend to limit the time used for study, whereas in my time it was very clear to us as students that the amount we needed to learn was up to us, provided we understood that it should take all of our free time. Consequently, the measures we are developing to make sure students do study pass through assessing or monitoring them on what they learn. And they’re self-defeating.

A colleague presented a method to have students develop the quizzes to test themselves on the course materials, arguing that in this way they need to understand well the texts. I liked that idea and will implement it in my two universities, in my own style. Yet, as I’m sure you see, whether the quiz is done on paper in class or virtually through Moodle, the wrong principle is at work: we need to ‘force’ students to study; besides, as the amount of background reading on which they can be tested is limited and usually focused on one text or kind of material, we don’t fulfil our aim at all: that they self-educate by choosing autonomously what to read from the bibliographies we provide (as we, teachers who were college students in the 1980s or earlier, were expected to do –and as the new competence-focused pedagogies require as well).

After another presentation, in which a UOC colleague showed the very hard work he’d done in turning his ‘linear’ class materials into an enticing hypertext, another very experienced colleague argued that, in the end, we’re working to back up a very classical pedagogy with new technologies without computers really changing the pedagogy at all. She worried that maybe UOC was becoming obsolete but I disagree: no matter how and where you teach a subject in the Humanities, the principle is the same –students need to study, as we, teachers, must study all the time, whether we use books or the computer. Yes, we have new tools; yes, they’re useful; yes, they can even be thrilling. However, they’re worth nothing without old-fashioned cramming and it is indeed the worst fault of some constructivist pedagogies to have encouraged students to think that using computers for study would decrease the effort needed to learn.

I am also personally quite tired of this carrot-and-stick approach by which I, as a teacher, am made responsible for forcing students to read-learn-think (=study!), worrying all the time about which shortcuts they’ll use to short-change me. Just remember: when I complained last June about the poor results of the first-year Literature quiz a student wrote in this very blog that if I was so concerned I should have worked harder on that quiz in class –when, actually, that quiz tests the students’ capacity to study on their own. They should be concerned, not I. And, above all, they should be concerned to learn, not to pass the quiz. Personally, I’d rather trust that everyone will learn the contents of the handbook independently than waste my precious research time marking quizzes.

In the end I’d like to make all my students more autonomous and not more dependent on my monitoring them. I’ll work on that, in my two classrooms. Promise.

GENDER PEDAGOGIES, AND THE LIMITS OF MATERIAL VIOLENCE

Yesterday (17-X) I presented my little book Desafíos a la Heterosexualidad Obligatoria, together with Miquel Missé, author of Transsexualitats: Altres Mirades Possibles and Gerard Coll-Planas, author of La Carn i la Metàfora: Una Reflexió sobre el Cos a la Teoria Queer. At one point of the lively ensuing dialogue, we were asked about the resistance to the incorporation in our teaching of Gender Studies.

Gerard acknowledged that he was often criticised for teaching “mariconades,” I explained that I need to fight my female students’ resistance to feminism by reminding them that discrimination becomes a crucial issue when looking for a job, and deciding to be a mother. But all this was nothing in comparison to Miquel’s comment that he hesitated to declare his identity as a transsexual whenever he taught workshops against gender-related violence in secondary schools, because he wanted to “leave the place alive.”

Logically, those of us working on Gender Studies are a bunch of naive idealists who think that everyone will eventually see the logic of total tolerance for personal choice. This creates what might even be a dangerous bubble as we carefully avoid contact with recalcitrant patriarchal individuals. They are often in class, as men or women, but political correctness prevents them from answering back; besides this, there are always ways of avoiding our discourse, as we give them the choice of not taking our elective courses or of working on other issues in our compulsory ones. Students unbounded by political correctness, the ones that Miquel faces, are another matter.

Miquel himself was not sure about his decision not to present himself as a transsexual in the workshops, as this contributes to concealing his identity and that of other persons like him. Yet, I sympathise for there is always the possibility that he’d be verbally abused –from sneers to insults. I want to believe that a physical assault would never happen, but the simple fact that I have to consider this possibility is indeed worrisome. The ugly reality of material violence is, precisely, what makes Gender Studies so necessary as a preventive pedagogy.

I myself and the colleagues who teach Gender Studies suffer from another form of violence, which I’ll call intellectual. Other teachers, even Department colleagues, use their classes to criticise and undermine what we do, somehow suggesting that because we do Gender Studies we are not qualified to teach Literature in a ‘proper’ (philological?) way, whatever that means. In other cases, they teach texts we also teach just because Gender Studies is fashionable, or because they want to offer the ‘proper’ non-ideological reading –as if that’s not in itself ideological.

I’m really looking forward to meeting the colleagues already teaching in the new UAB Minor on Gender Studies, see what’s going on in their classes. And, yes, as Miquel said, maybe we should attend one of his workshops.

‘PROUD OF WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW’: THE REALM OF STUPIDITY

At the end of a rainy afternoon I watch the 2003 documentary Stupidity (on YouTube). It’s not very good but at least the producers are brave enough to address the question of why stupidity is so popular in our days (much more so when the documentary was filmed, during Bush jr.’s first mandate).

The key question, which as a teacher bothers me very much, is why, in these times when people are better educated than ever, so many human beings choose to flaunt their stupidity –including the college-educated. As an interviewee explained, today too many people are ‘proud of what they don’t know’ instead of being troubled by what they ignore. Add to this, as Rosa María Calaf commented yesterday, that in the past people would be shown on TV as a kind of reward for their merits whereas now TV has become a parade of people with no merits at all. (Call that backlash, if you will…)

Stupidity, as many observed in the documentary, has many different meanings and I would indeed agree that the academic profession has many members that I would describe as downright stupid, English Literature teachers included. I myself am as guilty as many of my hypereducated peers of being unbelievably stupid at many points in my life, personal and professional. Yet, the kind of stupidity that concerns me is that of the person who won’t bother to overcome their own stupidity even when they are given the tools to do so (and are intelligent enough to realise they’re stupid, of course).

Downward peer pressure, I believe, is a great factor in this sad situation. Making the most of your capabilities, whether mental or physical, means taking the challenge of being different. This may attract admirers but also very often results in isolation. My generation is full of rampant individualists quite ready to step on anyone’s toes to fulfil their aims; isolation is not a huge worry. In contrast, the younger generation, I assume, have grown up in a very different climate, in which the number of cell phone and Facebook contacts are read as clear indicators of one’s popularity. In neither case is the atmosphere the most suitable one for the full development of one’s mental abilities: in my generation because of our fierce individualism, in the younger one because none wants to be taken for a nerd.

All this makes me wonder how athletic people view us, lazybones. After all, if I wanted to, I could join a gym, exercise every day and become as fit as Madonna (minus the botox…). Yet instead, although I don’t exactly flaunt my physical unfitness, I get by as well as I can, just checking that at least I stay healthy. Yet, just think of that excellent film, Wall-E, and see how easy it would be for everyone to let go in a society of very fat people. Also, think of how idiotic it would be for anyone uninterested in sport to demand a university education in that field and then show up in class making it obvious they refuse to exercise. Now, that would be stupid…

It’s hard not to be offensive when discussing stupidity, yet, as my job consists of fighting the natural human tendency towards stupidity, including my own, I worry. I worry, in short, because this ‘pride’ in not knowing is too often found in university classrooms (and offices). It is the worst enemy of those who do want to know, and who are becoming little by little more reluctant to showing their ambition to learn and think.

One is not stupid, remember, because one knows little. One is stupid when, given the chance, one refuses to learn. And that applies to all of us.

ELAINE SHOWALTER’S JOYS OF TEACHING LITERATURE

Although I try to take regularly some of the teacher-training courses offered by my university, I find them, and the academic literature on higher-education teaching, generally too disconnected from my specific needs as a second-language teacher of Literature. The same applies to the bibliography on using Literature to teach English, which is not at all what I do. This is why reading Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature (2003) has been quite a breath of fresh air.

Showalter is herself a very-well known academic and part of the attractiveness of her book is that she’s gathered an impressive array of anecdotes, opinions and tips from other big names like her. Although the volume is slim, she covers plenty of ground, with a clear focus on the teaching of English Literature, something, as I say, quite unusual. As I read, I ticked mentally all the points she raised –yes, I do this (hei! writing a blog is recommended); no, I don’t do that (write out my classes). Some of the advice regarding the use of technology in class sounds hopelessly outdated (she speaks of video-tapes instead of DVD). Still, most ideas are worth considering in depth, from the strangely intimate nature of teaching (which is why we resist our colleagues’ presence in the classroom) to how our wardrobe may make an academic point (bright colours for feminists!).

However, for all the familiarity of the issues raised, a couple of things kept nagging me. One is that since there is no straightforward description of what happens in an English Literature class, someone who had never attended one would not understand the book at all. The other matter has to do with Showalter’s Anglo-American perspective. She speaks of 50’ lectures, of small group discussions lead by teaching assistants (TAs) and, frankly, this is not my world. (It’s funny, though, that just these days the Generalitat has announced a plan to employ 2,000 TAs in Catalan public universities, beginning already and although we have no tradition whatsoever in that sense.) Even the job titles are different and although I call myself a ‘Senior Lecturer’ I’m aware that my British colleagues might disagree and my American ones misunderstand.

I was first hired 21 years ago as an ‘Ayudante’ or ‘full-time teaching assistant’, although I assisted nobody and my duties were from day one those of any tenured teacher (which is why the transition to being tenured meant in practice no change except a ‘spectacular’ doubling of my scant salary). It’s funny but I can’t remember whether as a student I attended 60’ or 90’ classes, but, whatever the case might be, I teach 90’ classes for undergrads (rather 75’ if we take into account the 15’ breaks between classes) and 150’ to 180’ classes for postgrads. The 50’ lecture is unknown to me. And so are small group discussions (not in the MA, of course, where groups are to our perpetual anxiety only between 5 and 10 students). I’d like to see Elaine Showalter try to discuss a literary text with 150 students in class (as a friend has in Castilla-La Mancha) or even 20, which is more or less the lowest number for us in electives. Without teaching assistants, of course.

In my Department, Literature teachers don’t use classroom time to lecture except occasionally, whenever we need to give an overview of an issue. We believe that whatever a lecture can transmit can be found in the appropriate bibliography, this is why classroom time is based on very intensive close reading. Ideally, our classes should function like Anglo-American small group discussion, with the teacher asking a leading question, and students responding (enthusiastically) and contributing close readings of passages. It hardly happens, though, given the size of the groups, the embarrassment felt by non-native speakers of English asked to read aloud or voice their opinion, etc. We try again and again…

Showalter knows nothing, either, of the challenge posed by teaching Literature in a language which is not your own. I have to face every class not just the potential embarrassment that my ageing body or my poor choice of clothes may bring, but also my unreliable linguistic abilities. I’m sure every foreign English Literature teacher has been plagued, like me, by the fear of mispronouncing or misspelling words, not finding the right expression to express a thought, etc. If, as Showalter says, teaching is a little bit like adlibbing in stand-up comedy, just imagine doing that in a second language. The presence of exchange students that are native speakers of English can also be, or is to me, a constant concern (though I love having them in class).

Finally, I had to smile when I saw that Showalter had called her epilogue ‘The Joy of Teaching Literature.’ That sums it up.

MORE ABUSED WOMEN… IN NOVELS BY MEN

An MA student, Rubén, asks me to supervise his dissertation on Richard Yates’s 1961 novel Revolutionary Road –a novel I promised myself not to touch ever after seeing the film adaptation (because of its very ugly plot). Yet, what can I do? I like his proposal to consider 1950s masculinity and so… I must read Yates. Another student, Diana, an undergrad, has asked me to work on the representation of love in contemporary fiction for her BA thesis. Since she’s in Dublin as an Erasmus student, I have persuaded her to focus on an Irish author. After some searching, we’ve fallen in love with Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1997). I read the two novels back to back over the weekend and I come to the conclusion that we don’t choose books: they seek us out (to help our reading lists cohere).

Still reeling from the impact of Nancy’s death in Oliver Twist when read aloud in class (just imagine Dickens reading that in public, as he did on his famous farewell tours), I’ve had to face something not so different in Yates’s sickening portrait of American 1955 suburbia and in Doyle’s stark portrait of Dublin’s working-class life in the 1980s and 1990s. The three texts have male novelists consider the plight of abused women, though, of course, the specific nature of the abuse and the social condition of the woman in question is very different. Also, the narrative technique.

Dickens, who could report with such chilling effect the death of a real young woman in one of his sketches (as I commented on), turns Nancy’s murder at the hands of her pimp, Sikes, into something lurid. It seems that the stage adaptations of the novel further sensationalised Nancy’s death, making the scene far longer for the audience to hiss the villain to their content. I do puzzle about why Dickens chose this ugly scene as a set piece for his public readings, 30 years after he wrote it. I just fail to see how the philanthropist that worked to rescue prostitutes from the streets could also be the performer who made piles of money out of Nancy’s death. It seems cruel to me. Still, I know his on her side.

Yates’s novel is that kind of text whose outstanding literary qualities you can easily miss if you focus on the asphyxiating suburban lifestyle it portrays –that this novel made me physically sick is, I believe, an indicator of its effectiveness. Although no academic work has, seemingly, reflected this, Yates anticipated by a couple of years Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) with the heroine April Wheeler. The novel, narrated in the third person, has however this odd problem: it is mostly focalised through the point of view of her husband Frank, quite the average 1950s conformist. He is abusive in the sense that a good deal of the novel deals with his attempts to tame depressive April into being a happy wife, including a ferocious battle over their third child, which she wants to abort. Yet, I can’t tell whether Yates is on his or her side and I very much suspect that many rightwing, pro-life activists might find much to admire in this sad American tragedy.

Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors is the kind of novel that makes you say that stupid thing: ‘My God! How could this male novelist use a first person female narrator so convincingly?’ Stupid since the novelist’s job description includes necessarily a capacity for empathy with any character. Yet, Doyle’s narrative technique is certainly very impressive. Poor Paula Spencer is particularly convincing as an example of how love is most of the time self-delusion, and also in her difficulties to come up with a coherent memoir of her life as a battered wife. Just as Dickens will not justify the behaviour of villains like Sikes, Doyle refuses to justify Charlo’s –which to me is quite right. Some people (whether men or women) are rotten apples and we need to protect their victims before we think of treating them as victims.

As happens, one of my favourite novels is Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), as I admire very much Ellis’s ability to write a first person narration focused on a horrific killer (of women and men, even animals). I have also read with great pleasure Jonathan Littell’s faulty but enticing first-person portrait of a Nazi officer in The Kindly Ones (2006). I don’t know, however, whether I could put up with a story about couple-related abuse narrated by the abuser (man or woman). I don’t even know whether this would have the desired effect of shaming abusers or whether it would rather, as often happens with the news, generate copycat abuse.

Do read Yates and Doyle and consider. Also Dickens, always and ever! (And thanks Rubén and Diana, for the joy of supervising exciting academic work).

AN EARLY PORTRAIT OF GENDER-RELATED VIOLENCE: DICKENS’S SKETCH “THE HOSPITAL PATIENT”

I read with my class the interview in Oliver Twist between the whore Nancy and the lady Rose –both 17-year-old girls separated by a social abyss. Dickens speaks through each girl’s mouth, first to claim (through Nancy) that it’s not inborn malice but the bad luck of finding yourself in an appalling environment as a child that leads to prostitution. Then through Rose’s lips he impresses on Nancy the idea that any prostitute can be ‘saved’, as long as she’s willing to fight for herself (and show repentance for her sin… yes, so typically Victorian). Despite Rose’s perplexed tears, though, Nancy decides to return to her pimp, the brutal Sikes, to be, as she somehow foretells, murdered by him. She just can’t leave him. Or won’t.

Dickens was accused of being untruthful to human nature in making Nancy so defenceless –or, as we’d call her today, so emotionally dependent on her abuser. He lashed back in the 1841 preface to the novel claiming that Nancy’s plight was true enough. He could do no more, lacking the contemporary research on domestic abuse that so well explains why a victim will not abandon her victimiser, not even at the risk of dying. Women like Nancy, used to being abused and exploited from early childhood, end up believing that violence (physical or psychological) is a natural part of human emotional life and even confuse abuse with an expression of love.

One of Dickens’s most poignant sketches is, precisely, “The Hospital Patient” (1836) –which might well be the foundation for his assertion that Nancy is ‘true’ to life. Curious about a street crowd, Dickens reaches a police station where a “powerful, ill-looking young fellow” is being questioned “on the very common charge of having, on the previous night, ill-treated a woman, with whom he lived in some court hard by.” She’s dying in a nearby hospital and, with the police’s permission, Charles the inquisitive young journalist accompanies the magistrates to doublecheck the prisoner’s identity (there were witnesses) –and face, as he knows, a horrific scene. Thus they find the girl: “Her face bore deep marks of the ill-usage she had received: her hand was pressed upon her side, as if her chief pain were there; her breathing was short and heavy; and it was plain to see that she was dying fast.”

When asked to identify her murderer, the victim bursts into tears and claims she injured herself: “He didn’t hurt me; he wouldn’t for all the world. Jack, dear Jack, you know you wouldn’t!” Dear Jack, taken by surprise, starts sobbing –if you believe that. The dying girl assures him that ‘they shall not persuade me to swear your life away. He didn’t do it, gentlemen. He never hurt me.’ Her last words are of repentance (‘I hope God Almighty will forgive me all the wrong I have done, and the life I have led’), followed by a blessing for Jack and love for her poor, disappointed father. Dickens closes the sketch simply with her death, no comments added. It is understood that ‘dear Jack’ will be, anyway, hanged as his neighbours witnessed the attack and her testimony was just a formality.

One can always suspect that Dickens, so fond of sentimentalism, added tears to the already tearful scene and, perhaps, those words of repetance. Yet beyond all this claptrap there lies a truth which he describes as “very common,” at least among low-lives like Jack (Sikes’s predecessor) and his victim (Nancy’s). J.S. Mill later clarified in his The Subjection of Women that middle- and upper-class Victorian ladies were also subjected to all kinds of abuse (Anne Brontë had already made the point in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall). What is surprising is why it has taken us so long to react.

By the way, my class and I agreed that in that interview the less credible character is Rose, the lady. Her hands, joined as if in prayer, and her abundant tears when begging Nancy to reconsider her choice seem fantastic –yesterday and today. So far I haven’t found in the Sketches any evidence that angelic ladies like Rose existed -except in Dickens’s imagination.

CHARLES AND MARIANO JOSÉ: A ZEST FOR (CITY) LIFE

A ridiculous moment in Dickens’s ‘paper’ (as he calls them) on a charity dinner in his Sketches by Boz (1836-37) provokes a strong sense of dèja vú. Soon I identify it with a memory of reading Mariano José de Larra’s articles back when I was a secondary-school student and again as an undegrad. Suddenly, I feel very thankful towards those who decided that I was mature enough to read Larra at 15, for that is a fond memory. As fond as that of later enjoying at 19 the whole collection of his 200 articles (within that massive survey course I mentioned two posts ago).

When I google Dickens and Larra together, though, I come up with very little. There’s a trivial article on Christmas dinners –mentioning Dickens’s tale A Christmas Carol and Larra’s acerbic report on overeating and bad table manners, “El castellano viejo.” Google Scholar throws up a couple of references to Lluís-Albert Chillón’s Literatura i periodisme: Literatura periodística i periodisme literari en el temps de la post-ficció (UAB/UJI/URV, 1999). It looks very interesting. As MLA returns zilch when I check “Dickens and Larra”, my guess is that Chillón’s might be the only volume where both writers are mentioned, even together in the same line, as (outstanding) practitioners of literary journalism.

WordReference tells me, as I suspected, that there’s no English translation for ‘costumbrismo’ though, very clearly, from a Spanish perspective (like Chillón’s) it’s easy to see that this is what Dickens produced in the Sketches. I marvel at how many of the characters and observations that later appear in his Oliver Twist are to be found in the Sketches: from the pompous parish beadle to the brutal ruffian with a dog, passing through the nightmarish suffering of the condemned at Newgate (and I have just read the first third). It’s really fascinating to see how Dickens used similar material for literary journalism and for literary fiction within the short span of a couple of years.

Larra (1809-1837) wrote a mediocre historical novel, El doncel de don Enrique el Doliente, which follows from his play Macías. He was more in the line of Walter Scott (1771-1832) than of Dickens (1812-1870). The dates show how, although he was Dickens’s contemporary, Larra belongs somehow to a previous literary generation, that of the Romantics, at least as a fiction writer (that’s 19th century Spain for you…). As a journalist, he’s indeed Dickens’s peer, though, as you may notice, he died the very same year Dickens finished the Sketches.

I still remember my brilliant secondary-school Spanish Literature teacher telling us cooly, with that glint in her eye, that Larra (the idiot!) shot himself dead minutes after his lover demaned that he returned the letters written during their adulterous (on both sides) love affair. He was only 27. His 5-year-old daughter, by the way, was the first to see the body (so much for having guns around the house, and for Romantic suicide). The Museo Romántico of Madrid stil exhibits the very pistol Larra used –a shocking sight!

On a trip to lift up his recurrent depression, Larra visited London in 1835, yet he never met Dickens, as ‘Boz’ was still a nobody. A pity, they would have liked each other. And I realise that this is what the dèja vú elicited: the memory of feeling as a very young reader that I liked Larra, in the sense that I liked the brain (or mind?) producing that writing as much as I like today Dickens, and for similar reasons. Here are two young men –Boz, Figaro– both very clever observers of their reality, which they portray under a stark light with a mixture of wryness and compassion. They both transmit an immense zest for life and an immense keenness on their task as recorders of the urban landscape that they daily examined. They do care.

Now that I’m 30 years older I can understand that whereas Dickens could cope with marital unhappiness and the ugly underside of English Victorian reality to die a most famous author at 58, Larra could not. His despair at Spain’s backwardness –not just Dolores Armijo’s rejection– was too much. That he chose to die by destroying his own brain says it all. How very Dickensian, in an odd sense.

Maybe one day someone will write one of those now fashionable novels or plays in which famous figures of the past meet and we’ll have young Boz and Figaro be amazed at each other, as I am at both.

SNOOKI AND OBAMA (DID I JUST WRITE SNOOKI AND OBAMA?)

Instead of the expected weekly dose of Ridiculousness, MTV broadcast last Thursday a special programme on Jersey Shore’s Snooki. Yes, I confess: I’m addicted to Ridiculousness, as I should be, being a specialist in Gender Studies. Its viral videos offer, after all, the most complete corpus one could wish for on the absurdity of human behaviour –in particular that of the US male teens and twenty-somethings of the infamous Jackass generation. I have never seen a complete episode of Jersey Shore, nor of Geordie Shore, and I’m not looking forward to seeing Gandía Shore, thank you very much. Snooki, though, has become this big eyesore on my screen(s), whether I want it or not.

The Snooki special showed at one point President Obama confessing, bemused but embarrassed, that until a week before he didn’t know who Snooki was. Now, the question is whether Snooki knows who this Obama guy is… If you don’t know who she is, then, obviously, there’s something very wrong with you. Nicole ‘Snooki’ Polizzi (b. 1987) is a big TV celebrity whose fame, like that of fellow Jersey Shore cast members, among them Pauly D, comes from a most unglamorous, not to say ugly, reality show. This has been raising quite a stir since 2009 because it shows with no taste whatsoever the lives of a bunch of Italian-Americans (with plenty of hard partying, booze, casual sex, etc.). Guys and gals are presented with no embarrassment at all by MTV as Guidos and Guidettes (Snooki, by the way, is actually Chilean but was adopted by her still proud Italian-American parents at six-months old). Both the inhabitants of the real Jersey Shore and the associations devoted to promoting Italian-American culture are mortified.

I am also mortified because a) Obama thinks he SHOULD know who the Snooki woman is, b) the Snooki woman has the cheek to ‘write’ books though she’s never read one (what she says, not my opinion). She’s published three so far (ghost-written by someone else, of course): A Shore Thing, Gorilla Beach, Confessions of a Guidette. Yes, they have got very bad reviews from Amazon readers but a few of them make the point that these books are just for fun and there’s nothing wrong with reading them. Naturally that is the case if you think that your life is anyway not really of much value, so why not waste a few precious hours reading utter trash –or watching Jersey Shore. (Unless, that is, you do with at least half your critical brain alert to what’s going on, as I try to do when I watch Ridiculousness – yes, the typical intellectual excuse).

In our appallingly bad times (better, in any case, than WWII or similar), one is tempted to absolutely disconnect from anything intellectually more challenging than Jersey Shore and, well, escape. It’s an option that millions have embraced. What baffles me is why anyone would want to go as far as to read a book by Snooki… Anyway, I’m sure we’ll soon have academic papers on the issue of the mis-representation of Italian-Americans in Jersey Shore, on the ethnic identity problems highlighted by Snooki’s insistence on suicidal overtanning. There is always someone consuming all kinds of trash with an academic brain on the alert (I do that all the time, as I said).

I’m just begin my Cultural Studies colleagues out there to, please, please, please, ignore Snooki’s books for the sake of the fast dwindling good writing left in our world. Yes, it’s sheer snobbishness but when I started working on Popular Culture back in the early 1990s, I never imagined the Snookis of this world would take centre stage. And be welcome to it!