TALK-STARVED, THE SEQUEL: TELLC, A MODEST CONTRIBUTION TO DEPARTMENT LIFE

Two years ago, on 14 December 2014, the teaching innovation group I belonged to, “Between the Lines: Comprehensive Reading of Literary Texts in a Foreign Language” (coordinated by Andrew Monnickendam, and financed by Catalan agency AGAUR), held a one-day seminar to discuss how to teach Literature students about the function of the narrator. You may read the ensuing publication, also called Between the Lines, at http://betweenthelinespublication.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/reading-between-the-lines.pdf. I myself presented a paper called “Contrasting Genres: Dickens, Engels and the Workhouse (Narrating and Reporting in Fiction and Non-Fiction)”, which is included in the volume.

In the post corresponding to 16 December 2012, “Learning from Teaching about Teaching, with Students’ Help”, I mentioned that about 80 people, counting students and Literature teachers from diverse universities attended the event. A conclusion I reached was that “we need to establish some kind of annual meeting” to discuss teaching methodologies, hopefully also including students. Well, it’s taken longer than I expected then, but the first meeting of this kind took place last Friday 28, and promises to become a feature of our Departmental calendar.

Opening up spaces for teachers to meet and discuss what they do in the classroom is no easy matter. I saw on that day of 2012 that it brings many benefits, as we are profoundly talk-starved also in this sense and not just concerning our research and intellectual life in general.

Using as quite a weak excuse that the celebration of the one-day seminar was one of the tasks I wanted to accomplished before my time as BA Coordinator is up next January 2015, I invited last September my Department colleagues to join what I called the one-day TELLC (Teaching English Language, Literature and Culture) workshop, and hoped would become a new yearly meeting and publication. I called the conference “Matching Assessment and Competences”, thinking of the oncoming degree teaching assessment exercise (I mean to validate the BA for another six years, not for research). Also of each teacher’s individual classroom activities assessment by the national and regional agencies.

Before sending the ‘cfp’ I checked with two other colleagues whether the idea made sense, for one thing I was absolutely certain of was that I wanted to gather together Language and Literature teachers. My idea was to invite all members of the Department to contribute papers on their teaching practice and then organise the seminar by year in the BA, rather than by speciality. Another key idea was that contributions would be jargon-free and very much focused on actual practice, descriptive rather than argumentative if so wished. Bibliography was not compulsory, either.

To be completely honest, part of me expected the ‘cfp’ to be unsuccessful, so as to be able to claim that at least that I’d tried but gloriously failed. Everyone is awfully over-worked, and so am I… Suddenly, taking on the responsibility of setting up something new just seemed too much but, well, stubborn is one thing I certainly am. I received proposals for 7 papers in total and made a feeble attempt to give in, which was soon stopped by the enthusiasts who had submitted an abstract. The point they made was that TELLC had to start and I had to set the ball rolling. And so I did.

In the end, two prospective contributors dropped out, and I was left with 6 papers, which were more than enough to fill a busy morning from 10:00 to almost 15:00. There were about 15 of us and, from the many congratulations I received (thanks!, thanks!), it became quite apparent that the meeting next year will be bigger. Yes, I’m in again!! Besides, it’ll be easy to remember as it’ll coincide with Black Friday, now suddenly a date on everyone’s mind.

The papers presented were lively and communicative. They not only transmitted information but also opened up debate in all cases and, what is more important, inspired new ideas for cross-collaboration between Language and Literature. The Syllabus may be published online but we simply do not read what our neighbour is doing, which is why hearing said neighbour describe his or her practice is often quite a nice surprise.

Next year, as I say, I’ll try again and will perhaps also invite students, as we did two years ago. Also, if we have resources for at least a cup of coffee, I’ll extend the cfp to colleagues in other English Departments in Catalunya. Eight years ago, in 2006, I organised the “I Trobada Internuniversitària d’Estudis Anglesos a Catalunya” (continued by one more meeting in 2007 at Universitat Rovira i Virgili), but the crisis destroyed the resources and the motivation to continue it. Perhaps the pedagogical focus will help put us back on our feet again…

I need to address now the colleagues who did not attend TELLC last Friday to ask them, please, to make room for the meeting next year. And I mean particularly the full-time colleagues, as I understand very well that part-time teachers have too many difficulties to integrate new activities in their ultra-busy schedule (though some did contribute, for which they get my warmest thanks). I think that the time spared to discuss what we do in class proved to be very fruitful, indeed much more than attending the bureaucratic meetings we all must attend now and then. And, well, I also had to put off for another day many tasks, like finishing an overdue article or preparing lectures.

Thanks, thanks, thanks to those of you who insisted that TELLC went ahead. I’m counting on you for next year and to publicise among our colleagues the results. Let’s see if this way we can be a little bit less talk-starved.

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TALK-STARVED: A MODEST CONTRIBUTION TO ACADEMIC VOCABULARY

A close friend tells me that the recent three-day conference on Modernism that he has co-organised worked very nicely. It was not, he tells me, necessary to divide the participants in simultaneous panels and this greatly contributed to raising the level of discussion. I can very well imagine! The whole event was in the end, he explains, “an orgasm” –not “like an orgasm”, please note, but “an orgasm”.

This, naturally, sets me laughing hard. Yes, I tell him, everyone is talking about being sex-starved, love-starved or starved for affection but nobody is really paying attention to the needs of the effervescent academic brain. We’re really starved for conversation, I tell him, but since this is not that catchy, I’ll claim that we’re ‘talk-starved’.

This very same week, I have had further proof of this: oral sex need not refer to genital activity at all, I’ll argue, but to the pleasure we, academics, get from good conversation (well, don’t call it ‘sex’, call it ‘joy’ if you wish, though I think this sounds a bit corny). Let me explain.

On Monday, I attended a seminar that the research group I belong to, ‘Building New Masculinities’, organised. Our guest was Prof. Robert Reid-Pharr, from CUNY (see http://reid-pharr.com/), who turned out to be a wonderful, brilliant conversationalist. He stringed together lunch, a three-hour long seminar and dinner, about 10 hours talking non-stop!! His seminar was particularly enjoyable because he did care very much for keeping the conversation going with each one of the twelve participants, no mean feat that. I myself, who attended the seminar out of duty as I was really having a very hectic week, staid on until midnight… and then had a hard time bringing down before sleep the excess oxytocin.

Yes, the same hormone we segregate during orgasm (and childbirth!!). So, you see, my friend does have a point. On Thursday I took out for dinner the members of the examining board of a doctoral dissertation submitted by one of my students. I booked a table for the absurdly early hour of 8 in the evening for dinner, thinking this way we’d be done by 10. Well, Cinderella got home just by midnight and her sleeplessness was only overcome close to 2 in the morning. Blame the oxytocin again (beautifully understood, incidentally, by the Spanish habit of ‘sobremesa’ or after-meal talk).

Keeping in touch with one’s friends in the academic world is complicated. I think it is generally complicated in any situation, despite Skype and all the social networking. The phone helps but I also have the bitter experience of ending a very long friendship with another academic when I realised that a long call very week could not replace actual direct contact. It’s either that situation in which you report down to the last detail activities done with other people, or just claim to be ‘fine’ (and then no real conversation ensues).

Many of the (academic) friends I have were made many years ago mostly in national conferences. I think that our yearly AEDEAN meeting helps very much to maintain alive this kind of absolutely necessary socialising, though it is not always possible to attend it. The experience of meeting people in conferences is, in the early stages of one’s career, exhilarating, but then, in the long run, it becomes something more complicated. After experiencing first hand the difficulties of keeping in touch with friends I love but who live hundreds of kilometres away (so that we do use AEDEAN to meet at least once a year) I am becoming more and more reluctant to invest much energy in making new friends. Don’t misunderstand me: the energy of friendship flows with its own logic and is quite capable of diminishing distance. What I mean is that, well, perhaps, in the end, it is better to enjoy conversation while it lasts in random meetings at conferences or seminars, than try to keep it alive once this is over. Yes, I know the same rule applies to casual sex at conferences (not that I have any experience of this at all –just in case!).

Conversation of the oxytocin-releasing kind, as you can see, is more likely to happen only under particular conditions which actually constitute a break from daily academic life. It seldom happens as part of a daily routine. In my Department we talk mainly about problems (or about problem-solving): bureaucracy’s demands, a lecture that does not go well, poor exam results, etc. We have, like everyone else, little time to spare, which is why we often practice the genre known as ‘corridor conversation’, typically when you’re rushing elsewhere. We have a tiny room, used for lunch and now furnished with a coffee machine. This is not, however, by any stretch of the imagination, close to the common room or lounge we fantasise that most Anglo-American university departments have. We tend, instead, to drop in whenever we catch a colleague in his/her office and see if they can spare 10 minutes of their hectic schedule for chit-chat.

When I decided 30 years ago that I would try to be a university teacher, the main enticement was my impression that academics spent most of their life engaged in deep conversation. This utterly wrong impression was based on a) reading too many English novels about Oxford and Cambridge, b) reading too many American campus novels, c) the generous use of their time that my own teachers offered me. I understand c) best now because my office conversations with my students tend to be absolutely gratifying. I don’t mean the problem-solving visits but the ones in which we do manage to discuss books and raise thrilling issues. If lectures and seminars were not so one-sided, they would be another oxytocin source…

Fine, then, now that I have released a little of the adrenaline that our crazy academic life generates I feel better… How I wish it were oxytocin, though…

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GRAPPLING WITH BODY GOTHIC: THE LIMITS OF (MY) TOLERANCE

I spent a rich afternoon yesterday reviewing Xavier Aldana Reyes’s excellent volume Body Gothic: Corporal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2014). As happens, despite the 2,000 words I wrote, I’m not done yet; there’s still a matter to address: the limits of my own tolerance to the shocking primary sources analyzed in the book.

I completely agree with the main theses in the book: a) Gothic Studies scholars unfairly forget that this genre is as psychological as it is somatic and corporeal; b) all gothic is body gothic since it aims at eliciting bodily responses; c) current body gothic (he dates it back to 1984) manifests a “sustained questioning of the role of embodiment” (18); d) we consume body gothic as the best strategy to contain our fears about the vulnerability of our bodies. Xavier argues all this by examining 1980s splatterpunk, body horror, new avant-pulp, the slaughterhouse novel and torture porn, using a wide range of authors and texts: from Clive Barker’s short fiction (his Books of Blood) to Eli Roth’s Hostel film franchise, passing through pulp author Richard Laymon and Tom Six’ film trilogy on The Human Centipede.

When I wrote my own dissertation on the monster, almost 20 years ago, I also used the argument that the task of the academic must not be hindered by a censorious, prejudiced attitude and that extreme horror, in all its varieties, must be included in Gothic Studies. Like Xavier, I made a point of stressing that critical judgement does not apply and that ‘trash’ is not a relevant concept (fancy an anthropologist refusing to examine cannibalism). I must face, nonetheless, the vexing question of how far contemporary ‘shock’ cinema (no longer ‘horror’ cinema) will go in the representation of the total gross-out thanks, of course, to development of film special effects, both digital and prosthetic-based. Blood used to be a silly tomato-red in the old Hammer films, which is why it is laughable today (not so for contemporary audiences). I am squeamish and prone to nightmares but have managed to enjoy dozens of horror films… in the safety of my home. Yet, Hostel (2005) marked a limit and I abandoned mid-way the bizarre Saw saga (2003-10). Actually, after seeing them I gave up gothic for science fiction. Now let me explain why.

Current body gothic, as Xavier argues, addresses our fears regarding the vulnerability of our bodies by paradoxically subjecting us to the vicarious experience of seeing other fragile bodies destroyed in the cruellest ways. Yes, fine. Actually, I am comforted by his idea that there is a logic behind the appalling sadism of the films. They are rightly called ‘torture porn’: porn goes straight to sex, these films use plot as an flimsy excuse for torture. Now, torture as seen, for instance, in Katherine Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012), the film on the hunting of Osama Bin Laden, is ugly and inhumane but somehow bearable as part of a larger plot. In 1980s body horror the camera learned not to look away but in 2000s torture porn it has learned to grip the spectator by the scruff of our neck and force us to look. And I cannot do that anymore: the realistic detail has become ultra-realistic and, thus, unbearable (I imagined Xavier taking notes with all due academic care and I wondered how he did it…).

It’s ironic that I am now, at 48, invoking the same arguments that I myself had to put up with 20 years ago. Gothic horror is a misogynistic, homophobic genre but I answered back that I found in it strong women characters capable of fighting back. Still, I found myself criticizing Xavier for not passing judgement on these films’ dubious gender politics. What is, arguably, making them worse is the general disempowerment of all victims, men and women. Unlike the old-fashioned kind, these stories offer no comfort, preaching that the world is a terrifying place in which random violence just happens. Instead of helping audiences face this inescapable truth today’s body gothic is, rather, gloating over it.

It’s also harder than ever not to stoop down to consider the sick imagination of some gothic ‘artists’. Yes, yes, Mary Shelley, Charles Maturin or Matthew Lewis were also criticized and they are classics today. Yet, Xavier’s comments on the trilogy by Dutch director and screenwriter Tom Six, The Human Centipede (2009, 2011; the third instalment is in production) gave me the kind of shiver one feels in the presence of the profoundly disturbed (I mean Six…). Xavier sticks to his impeccable academic prose even in a plot summary that gave me tachycardia: a mad German surgeon kidnaps young tourists whom he mutilates in order to stitch their mouths and rectums to each other, thus creating the centipede of the title. Gasp, and deep sigh.

Thankfully, the sane IMDB spectators rate Dix’ film only 4’5 out of 10. Annoyed reviewers abound: one reports the film as ‘100% medically inaccurate’, another simply wonders ‘Why?’. The man who titles his review ‘After watching it I wanted to kill myself’, remarks that (original capitalised text): “People will say it’s an original idea, but OF COURSE IT IS. It’s never been done before because NO ONE HAS THOUGHT OF SOMETHING AS SICK AS THIS YET.” The late Roger Ebert’s magnificent review offers, exceptionally, no rating: “Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.”

After calling Dix a “dark artist” for taking his films seriously, Ebert grants that the film is “true to its genre” and “delivers what its audiences presumably expect”. These audiences are the most demanding midnight movie fans and I am quite familiar with them, having attended the Sitges horror film festival a few times: they’re mostly nice, harmless people, out with friends for a night of fun. Often, they receive gross films like The Human Centipede with hilarity, both at the expense of the whacky content and at the screenwriter’s devious mind. Still the question remains: ‘why?’, accompanied by my very deep dread of men thinking of ghastly plots like this and enjoying them alone at home.

All in all, then, I can only praise Xavier’s Body Gothic for his very, very brave approach to texts that for many people, including quite a big number in Gothic Studies, are intolerable. His theses are very useful to illuminate what the extreme texts of contemporary horror, in particular film, mean, for they do mean much of interest and relevance in our contemporary view of the body. I hope I find in his forthcoming volume on affect and the corporeal model of viewership answers to the questions I raise here, though I realise that only a titanic, perhaps collective effort, can succeed in finding an answer to the main question –‘why?’

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MOTIVATING STUDENTS TO READ (BEYOND POPULAR FICTION): NOT MY JOB

At the end of my intervention narrating the experience of teaching Harry Potter on a round table (see my previous post) a woman asked me whether I’m not depressed by the thought that students are willing to read Rowling’s seven-volume saga but not (implicitly) better books. Marta Gutiérrez, one of the round table organizers, asked me to what extent the experience of teaching popular fiction is different (or specific). A third person asked me: what should university teachers do to motivate students to read the classics with as much enthusiasm as they pour into reading certain popular fiction?

First my answer to Marta: what made the difference in my Harry Potter course was not the content but the fact that all the students registered in it had read the books (in many cases, more than once; in some, many times). I am, like all my Literature colleagues all over the world, tired of forcing LITERATURE students to read… Literature. I don’t even demand enthusiasm but simply that students who have FREELY CHOSEN to take a degree in language and Literature come to class having read the books we discuss (ideally having underlined key passages and made notes). The Harry Potter elective was wonderful to teach because a) I didn’t have to ‘sell’ the books to anyone nor ‘force’ them to read, b) everyone knew the contents in depth. This way I could take discussion to much deeper levels than usual. How do I know who has read the book or not? Easy: non-readers make notes of basic plot points, particularly those towards the end of the novel. Yes, we teach novels in rigorous narrative order to give students a chance to reach the end before we do. Spoilers are a problem.

The other two answers are intertwined. No, I’m not depressed that students have read Harry Potter, as I see it’s been a beautiful experience (also for me) and I can never be sorry that people enjoy books. I don’t want them to have read something else instead, particularly because I’m very much aware than Rowling did manage to turn many children into very keen readers. I am, to be honest, dismayed rather than depressed by the situation in class. I have been wondering in the last weeks when I became the kind of boring old teacher during whose lectures students fall asleep, check their email or wassap, sit slumped as if they have run a marathon… I have started to hear myself speak and I realise I drone on, loudly, to cover up their silences. We teachers have started to refer to ‘the cobra movement,’ which is that moment in class when you say something connected to what students enjoy and they raise their heads collectively. Also, I have taken to calling myself a dinosaur and to imagine my university as a campus Jurassic Park, as I’m quite sure about my obsolescence as a Literature teacher in a world of non-readers.

I told the three ladies and the 120 students in the room that I do not think my job includes motivating students. These are adults over 18 who have chosen to pursue an academic degree in the Humanities. Their capacity to read well and for long stretches all kinds of academic and literary texts must be taken for granted, as must their interest in a subject of their choice. We, English Literature teachers, have had enough of students who tell us to our faces they don’t like reading and that they’re here to learn English –well, I was under the impression that reading is the best possible exercise to acquire vocabulary in a native or foreign language. And if you don’t like reading Literature fancy reading English phonetics manuals… As I explained, I am responsible for finding my motivation to teach and I will not be made responsible for the students’ motivation to read. I make sensible choices (like asking them to read Oliver Twist and not the very long Bleak House) and try to connect the Literature of the foreign past with our local present, but this is it. Well, I also try to be as professional as I can. They know this.

Next year I very much want to teach an elective monographic course on science fiction. I have chosen a list of novels and films with some students and I’m beginning work now on downsizing this overlong list to fit the limits of the semester. I find the syllabus very thrilling but I am as worried as if I were to teach Middle-English poetry for there is no guarantee at all that students will a) read the texts, b) like them, c) be willing to discuss them in class with energy and enthusiasm. I do look forward to teaching this course but, as I anticipated last semester, I know that the degree of student involvement I enjoyed during the Harry Potter course will NEVER materialise again. And I won’t complain, as I am VERY lucky that I had the chance to enjoy that.

I have conversations all the time with students about the matters I raise here but, as they tell me, the problem is that I usually talk with students who are keen readers (they are the ones who, logically, take coffee with Literature teachers…). For the non-reading students I must be a bore, a pest, an obstacle they want to forget as soon as they can. When I think of the nightmarish years I spent trying to obtain tenure and the constant effort that maintaining an academic career afloat entails… then I get depressed. Would things change, I’m often asked, if we taught English-language culture through audiovisual texts exclusively (films, TV)? No, I don’t think so. It’s something else altogether, a deep fault in the system.

So, students, you should know that we Literature teachers are worried sick there is no way we can do our job well. We need your collaboration, your participation, more effort and more enthusiasm on your side. You’re the young ones, not us, and this must show. I hate to think that my Harry Potter course will be the exception to remember not now, after 23 years teaching, but when I retire in 22 years… I know it might be hard to swallow but we need to know what’s going on and why you don’t want to learn from us, willing as we are to teach you. And, no, your motivation is not our responsibility. We have the duty to teach you, you have the duty to read, as simple as that.

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THE HIGHS OF ACADEMIC LIFE: A CROWDED COURSE ON POPULAR FICTIONS

I have just spent two joyful days in Valladolid, where I have offered a lecture and have also taken part on a round table. Both were activities within the course ‘Héroes, dioses y otras criaturas’ organized by the efficient and committed Sara Molpeceres (a member of the ‘Literary Theory and Comparative Literature’ section of the local university). I have felt throughout these two days a deep envy of the 75 students registered in her course, for in my time it would have been unthinkable to gather together so many lecturers to discuss comics, Tolkien, science-fiction, role games, zombies, witches… with the utmost academic naturalness.

What is happening, despite petty attempts at repressing some aspects of these kind of events (for the events themselves can no longer be stopped) is that the younger academics are making available to current undergrads the subjects we could not study in our time (but are teaching and researching now). I hope these lucky undergrads in Valladolid do appreciate the effort. Naturally, there might be other subjects many students are interested in which are still overlooked or, worse, excluded from the university. If that’s the case, do let us know –unlike many of our predecessors, we do listen.

To my surprise, I find myself hailed as a Spanish pioneer in the field of the study of popular fictions. It is true that I already have twenty years of experience under my belt (I presented my first paper in public back in 1994… oh, my!!) but I feel personally that I’m just beginning and far from being consolidated. It is lovely, in any case, to have my ego massaged by invitations like the one issued to me by Sara and our common friend and colleague, Marta Gutiérrez (of the English Department).

Sara and Marta accepted my proposal to lecture on SF and the post-human as part of my current research, and asked me to discuss my experience of teaching Harry Potter last semester –on which you have read plenty on this blog– on a round table. I spent a very happy time describing this innovative, fulfilling experience and sharing it with about 120 persons crowding the room (the questions I was asked deserve deeper thinking that I can offer now, next post, then). The lecture on SF went well, I think, and I left Valladolid happier than I have been in a long while.

The lesson learned from the very successful Valladolid course is that there is room for thrilling activities to accompany regular teaching but also that they are under attack. Not because of their content, which may be more or less adventurous, but because the degrees have been pruned of all extras. I used to teach a UAB summer course on film adaptations, which always was a very satisfactory experience, before the concept of the ‘free credit’ was erased from the new BA degrees. It is true that the ‘free credit’ was often too easy to earn with trivial activities but this can be easily corrected.

Sara and Marta tell me that their university allows students to take courses like theirs up to 6 ECTS, which are then validated as an elective. I think this makes perfect sense but I need to check whether my university allows this. We complain that the university is lacking the intellectual effervescence of previous times but then we seem to be doing all we can to prevent that from coming back… I hear that the new degrees will have as few elective courses as the authorities can manage and I fear very much that the precious chance to teach a fourth-year elective connected with our research and the students’ specific interests might soon vanish all together. Not to mention any possible extras we can fantasize about.

The other lesson I need to consider is whether specialised courses can contribute to making other subjects attractive –or just the opposite. Let me explain. My worry is that the success of ‘Héroes, dioses y otras criaturas’ and similar courses based on connecting popular fictions with better-established academic disciplines (here the study of ‘myth’), may make ‘standard’ subjects (even) less attractive. The course included a lecture by the illustrious Carlos García Gual, emeritus professor of Greek at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid. His presence added indeed much academic ‘respectability’ and interest to the course topic but I wonder whether students would have responded that well to a course on Greek myth. He himself told us over lunch a revealing anecdote: a student in his course complained against the obligation to read the Ilyad, which is like telling Prof. Harold Bloom you’re not willing to read Shakespeare…

I’m wondering, then, whether after the excitement provoked by a course like the one I’m discussing here the students feel an increased dislike of the classics they must read. One thing is, say, Tolkien and myth, quite another just myth. Couldn’t we offer, then, a more exciting view of the classics? The colleagues in charge of presenting a great session on role games within the course claimed that all narratives can be turned into role games and, thus, that role games are very good educational tools. I had this queer vision of my students playing Oliver Twist or Pride and Prejudice, and I thought ‘no, this is not the way to go.’ But then it is hard to imagine a class as enthusiastic about Dickens and Austen as the Valladolid students were about role games.

Sara, Marta: thanks, it’s been a wonderful experience. Call me anytime, I’ll be there. And keep up the good work!!

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TRUE DETECTIVES AND SERIAL KILLERS (BOTH SIDES OF THE ATLANTIC): DEHUMANISED GIRLS AND MALE CLICHÉS

This week I have watched the US series True Detective (9 episodes, 2014) and have read book 19 in Ian Rankin’s series about Edinburgh cop John Rebus, Standing in Another Man’s Grave (2012). Blame a nasty cold for my sluggish mind but at points the missing girls in Nic Pizzolato’s screenplay would get mixed with their peers in Rankin’s novel, the remote corners of the Louisiana bayou with the lonely tracks in the Scottish Highlands. Both set of girls were blurry, undistinguishable, mere appendages to the madness of the sick male that killed them (off screen) and of the obsessive males who hunted him. The cases were solved by flimsy, far-fetched coincidences. Nobody really cared nor mattered.

The first paper I ever presented in public, back in 1994, was a positive reading of FBI trainee agent Clarice Starling in Thomas Harris’s novel The Silence of the Lambs (much less conservative in this sense than Jonathan Demme’s film, despite the subsequent horrors to which Harris subjected Clarice). I remember a senior female academic asking me whether I did not feel disgusted with this obvious misogynistic trash, in which women were always victimised. Young that I was then, I was puzzled by her remark: not at all, I answered, Harris offers a strong female character who is a good role model to empower other young women in the fight against male violence. I still stand by that. Now, what makes Clarice so unique is that, unlike the men surrounding her, she learns who each individual female victim is and this way she eventually tracks their troubled male killer. I think this is what irked this woman and what irks me now: not so much the femaleness of the victims but their dehumanisation, intensified in current fiction.

I knew I would not like True Detective already by minute ten. Where are, I complained, the police women? Has none heard of Clarice and her many descendants? The series turned out to be, indeed, a bare-faced male ego trip. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson were simply marvellous, giving total credibility to bickering partners Rust and Marty. Yet, somehow the pretentious Pizzolato convinced himself that the more Rust spoke, the deeper the series would be when actually all his pseudo-mystical, depressive chatter only deflected from what should have mattered: the victims. Me, me, me both true detectives proclaim to the world: I’m so unhappy, I’m so lonely, life is dark (but light’s winning??). Promising to unmask a confederacy of villains, they unmask in the end … a cliché, seen one hundred times (for the hillbilly’s point of view see the very funny comedy Tucker and Dale vs. Evil). Two things have been stuck in my dizzy brain for the last few days: Rust’s Texan drawl preaching to me endlessly and the beautiful opening credits (with the song ‘Far From Any Road’ by Handsome Family). Oh, well: 9,3 according to IMDB audiences. Really?

I read Standing in Another Man’s Grave a little edgy, as I wrote a while ago an article on the whole Rebus saga. Once Rankin published Exit Music (2007), supposedly to be the closing volume, I embarked on an article about the strange bond between his detective and the gangster Cafferty: “Aging in F(r)iendship: ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty and John Rebus,” published in Clues: A Journal of Detection in 2011 (see http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116052). I wrote with much caution, as I very much suspected Rankin would go on and follow Rebus beyond retirement, as he has done. Luckily for my argumentation, Rebus and Cafferty are still ‘best fiends’ since they cannot be ‘best friends’ (a bit like Rust and Marty). Rankin has a great subplot about Cafferty’s misleading attempt to become the overlord of a young upstart, who actually becomes the next big thing in Edinburgh’s gangsterhood. Yet, Rankin needs a case… so here we go: serial killer it is.

Rebus has been accompanied in the series since 1993 (The Black Book) by Siobhan Clarke, a very solid female character who is crying out for her own series. In Standing… she has made it to Detective Inspector; she is now aspiring boss. Keen on the last criminal advances, she suggests that a profiler be brought into the case of the missing girls but her (tepid) attempt to sound properly up-to-date is dismissed. Obviously… for just as happens in True Detective not only the victims lack interest for the writer but also the killer. Perhaps aware that the figure, borrowed from American fiction, fits awkwardly the Scottish landscape, Rankin tries even less firmly than Pizzolato to convince us that his male wacko has a solid reason to kill. He is just there in both cases as the excuse for the cranky hero to succeed in the face of unadventurous authority. Siobhan simply looks on, letting Rebus proceed. In Marty and Rust’s case there is no female peer about (just a disappointed wife).

Let me recommend at this point Isabel Santaulària’s excellent study of the serial killer, El monstruo humano (http://laertes.es/monstruo-humano-p-815.html). My problem with this figure is not that it exists at all, even though clearly the fictional representations must multiply by now thousandfold the real thing. My problem is that he is used too often in a lazy way. Perhaps Se7en (1995) went too far to make any other serial killer interesting. Yet the problem with the ones these three true detectives have faced for me this week on each side of the Atlantic is that, I insist, they’re clichés (and blurry ones at best).

My colleague Bill Philips from UB, who leads a research team on the post-colonial detective novel, explained to me recently that readers no longer seek the thrill of the well-made detection story: they value detective fiction as social fiction. Fair enough – after all, I read Rankin for what he says about the dark side of Scotland. Yet, possibly as series as diverse as Bones or Sherlock show, detective fiction is and has always been about the main character. Both Pizzolato and Rankin (I don’t know about the female authors) are suggesting that it would be altogether nice to do away with victim and killers, let the detective be our own nihilistic, existential hero. This as odd as doing away with love in romance…

The matter with genre in fiction is that labels make promises: if its romance, it has love; if it is detective fiction, it has a case. I’m not against mixtures (SF and ‘noir’ blend beautifully in Blade Runner) nor against eccentric detectives. It’s just that if you’re willing to work on their characterisation you should also be willing to work on their case, for a very basic reason. A poor case spoils the picture, making the oddball detective just that, an oddity, instead of what he was meant to be: someone with a deeper insight into life’s dark side.

And no, Pizzolato, the light is not winning, at least not for the victims.

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