THE DIFFICULT ART OF SELECTING SHORT STORIES (CHOOSING SF STORIES FOR MY COURSE NEXT YEAR)

Whenever I think of short stories, I think of the late Prof. Guillermina Cenoz, from whom I learned to appreciate this genre. I took an undergrad and a post-grad course on short fiction with her and, later, already as a teacher, I inherited her undergrad course. This, I have taught twice: a first edition (1999-2000) in which I taught an ambitious selection of 24 stories, all adapted for the screen; and a second edition (2004-5) in which I limited myself to just 8, all of them SF and gothic fiction also adapted for the screen (yes, I used time for the films, which I had not done the first time around). Here is the complete reading list including both courses (the film adaptation has the same title, with the exceptions mentioned in parenthesis):

Asimov, Isaac. “The Bicentennial Man”
Barker, Clive. Books of Blood, Vol. 5: “The Forbidden,” [Candyman]
Bierce, Ambrose. “An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge”
Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber: “The Company of Wolves”
Conrad, Joseph. “Amy Foster” [Swept from the Sea]
Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness” [Apocalypse Now!]
Dick, Philip K. “Minority Report”
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: “A Scandal in Bohemia”
Du Maurier, Daphne. “Don’t Look Now!”
Du Maurier, Daphne. “The Birds”
Gibson, William. Burning Chrome: “Johnny Mnemmonic”
Greene, Graham. “The Basement Room” [The Fallen Idol]
Irving, Washington. Tales from the Alhambra: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” [Sleepy Hollow]
James, M.R. “Casting the Runes” [The Curse of the Demon]
Joyce, James. Dubliners: “The Dead”
King, Stephen. Different Seasons: “Apt Pupil”
Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Books: “Mowgli’s Brothers” [The Jungle Book]
Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. “Carmilla” [The Vampire Lovers]
Lovecraft, H.P. “Herbert West: Re-animator” [Reanimator]
McCullers, Carson. “The Ballad of Sad Café”
Poe, Edgar Alan. “The Fall of the House of Usher” [House of Usher]
Runyon, Damon. “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” [Guys and Dolls]
Singer, Isaac Basevis. “Yentl: The Yeshiva Singer” [Yentl]
Stern, Philip Van Doren. “The Greatest Gift” [It’s a Wonderful Life]
Stevenson, R.L. “The Body Snatcher”
Van Vogt, A.E. “Black Destroyer” [Alien]
Woolrich, Cornel. “Rear Window”

These are all stories I love and I would certainly be very happy to teach them again.

Then, in 2006 I was paid just 500 Euros, would you believe this?, to translate a collection I called Siete relatos góticos: Del papel a la pantalla. This included a commentary on each of the seven film adaptations of “The legend of Sleepy Hollow”, “An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge”, “Hoichi, the Earless” by Lafcadio Hearn, “Casting the Runes”, “Spurs” by Clarence Aaron ‘Tod’ Robbins (which inspired Freaks), “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell and “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet. The collection, by the way, is available from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116808, or you may download the Epub and Mobi files from my web at http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/books). I would like very much to have time to produce a sequel called Ocho relatos, both gothic and SF, but a) I don’t particularly enjoy translating, b) this is very hard work that counts for nothing towards my research assessment exercise. Perhaps when I retire…

Why the specific interest in the short story and cinema? No particular reason. I have always been interested in film adaptation and the short story happens to be arguably the most often unacknowledged source in terms of academic interest and popularity. With one exception: the many adaptations of stories written by Philip K. Dick.

This brings me back to SF, a genre (or mode?) for which short fiction is essential, as 20th century SF grew basically out of the specialized magazines, beginning of course with Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories (1926). I am not really a good short story reader, preferring instead novels. Yet, feeling curious about the function of short fiction in the development of SF and aware of the many gaps in my SF reading list, I have set out to fill this summer with all I can lay my hands on. Not randomly…

Here’s the idea: students taking my elective ‘English Prose: Considering Science Fiction’ next Spring will have to read the 5 novels I have selected. They will also be offered a selection of 40 to 50 short stories. Each student will be assigned a story and she or he will do a class presentation based on it, followed by writing a brief index card. I’ll collect the index cards and in this way we’ll produce a nice online booklet to help other SF readers locate and read the stories. If students feel like reading the 40/50 stories, they’re welcome, though this is not compulsory. I just hope they get to hear in this way about many other SF writers apart from our 5 novelists.

I started a while ago the process of choosing the stories, which is, in one word, mindboggling… I am using Hugo and Nebula lists of winners, and of short-listed authors, my own memories of stories I have read or heard about, and a wonderful website called Free Speculative Fiction Online (http://links.freesfonline.de/index.html). Even so, I despair… for I want the final list to be balanced chronologically and also in terms of nationality, gender, ethnicity… This means that I am working in two directions: selecting famous/representative texts and finding texts for famous/representative authors. I calculate that for the final 40 to 50 titles I will have to read 200. Am I complaining? No!!!!… it’s wonderful to have the excuse to do this… It was about time…

In the first edition of the short fiction course I gave students the option to submit for assessment either a paper or a short story of their own. Many tried writing a short story (I’m so sorry I didn’t keep them…) but then complained it had been much, much harder than they thought. This year, I am also planning to have my students write SF short fiction though not for assessment. Last June I was a member of the jury judging the entries to the Spanish SF short fiction contest Inspiraciència (http://www.inspiraciencia.es/ca/) and I aim at convincing my students to submit their own stories next year. I think the 800-word limit will help…

To finish, let me teach you a typical SF concept: the fix-up. What’s a ‘fix-up’? A novel made up of diverse short fiction pieces. That would explain why Charles Stross’s Accelerando (2005), one of the best-known recent fix-ups, is such a crazy, demanding book… The first piece, “Lobsters” is for now in my selection. We’ll see…

Back to reading SF short fiction, then, and loving it!

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

GAME OVER: LITERATURE NO LONGER COMPULSORY IN SECONDARY EDUCATION

I learned a few days ago that Minister Wert’s horrendous legislation on education in LOMCE, has done away with the obligation to study Literature in secondary education (I mean ‘bachillerato’). The subject has been reduced from four to two weekly hours, it is now formally an elective and does not count for the average mark which conditions university admission. In Catalonia this affects both Catalan and Spanish Literature, subjects, anyway, only compulsory in the so-called ‘Bachillerato Humanístico’. So-called because I have no idea what Humanities are left in it after this assault and the previous one perpetrated against the classical languages and Philosophy recently.

In a blog post for El público (24 June), Juan Tortosa lamented that the study of Latin and music is gone from what should be a basic education for all (and not just secondary education for some). As he very well says, “Arrancar de cuajo las humanidades de la enseñanza es privar a las generaciones que ahora crecen en nuestro país de un instrumento imprescindible para amueblar sus mentes y reforzar su sensibilidad” (http://blogs.publico.es/juan-tortosa/2015/06/24/la-muerte-de-la-ensenanza-de-la-literatura/). It should be obvious that downgrading Literature in this way ensures not only a specific ignorance of writers and texts but also makes explicit the malicious, evil intention to deprive younger generations of the tools needed to maintain a critical spirit. This is what we do in the Literature class: we teach people to read, think, argue ideas, be critical. The Language teachers cannot do that for us, busy as they are teaching how grammar, syntax, etc. work. Without an ability to read in depth the younger citizens are rendered not only functionally illiterate but also political idiots. This is the real plan.

This process, of course, started long ago, with LOGSE. Its first victims reached us here at the university about 20 years ago and since then, literacy has gone truly downhill. Further proof of this is a recent article in El País (http://cultura.elpais.com/cultura/2015/06/30/actualidad/1435650757_013490.html) commenting on the drop in sales of Literature volumes, which is no surprise at all. This amounts to 30’5% in 5 years which, being those of the crisis, can be explained by the usual plunge into piracy: keen readers have got themselves an e-book reader and download illegally all they can. Um. What is more surprising perhaps is that El País actually calls Literature all the novels read for pleasure (not for any of the educational levels). This means that there has been a general drop in the sales of all genres, from the commercial general fiction to specific genres like SF or romance. An optimistic interpretation suggests that creative Literature is not faring worse than popular fiction; a pessimistic one suggests that the literary avant-garde may be dying, no longer addressing a committed readership, sinking fast.

Another article, also from El País (http://cultura.elpais.com/cultura/2015/06/25/actualidad/1435257178_961935.html) suggests that not all is lost as a) children and young adult books have generated bigger joint sales than adult fiction and b) on the whole, the ebook reader has resulted in an unexpected demand for fewer commercial novels and more literary works. Um… now the question is whether the young readers will become adult readers without the intervention of secondary school Literature teachers, whom they may never meet. I was myself the keenest young reader you may imagine, but without Professor Sara Freijido in my pre-university year I would never have met the challenge of becoming a much better, far more sophisticated reader. So there we are…

Now, a little press note on my university’s website made me see things from another angle. Only 40% of all European university teachers, it seems, use films and documentaries in class (http://www.uab.cat/web/sala-de-premsa/detall-de-noticia/nomes-el-40-dels-professors-europeus-utilitza-pel-licules-i-documentals-a-classe-1345667174054.html?noticiaid=1345686949759). Of course, there is an enormous difference between using film to illustrate a point about something else and teaching film. In Spain, let’s recall, we don’t have a degree called ‘Film Studies.’ We don’t have, either, a degree called ‘Literatura (Española, Catalana, English…)’ but ‘Filologías’ disguised as ‘Estudios’ and that strange hybrid, ‘Literatura Comparada y Teoría de la Literatura.’ Anyway, the study reveals that 78% of all European teachers complain that they face difficulties to introduce cinema in their syllabi, “which constitutes an obstacle for audiovisual literacy.” Certainly.

I myself feel illiterate despite having very often taught film, film adaptation and documentary in class because I have never been trained in the basic grammar of cinema. Now, if you think about it, the current audiovisual illiteracy mirrors what will soon happen with Literature. Since they have never studied film in class, my students (born in the early 1990s) are not only incapable of commenting on how a film functions aesthetically (same problem for me) but also ignore that there is a canon and a film History. How could they know about this? Remember they were born together with private TV in Spain, which eliminated from their cultural horizon all films previous to 1990. Apocalypse Now, just to mention a title among thousands, does not exist for them, just as soon La regenta will exist for nobody. Except in both cases, film and Literature, for the curious and for the ones committed to their own self-improvement, to use a Victorian term I am in love with.

Teaching Literature in the university to first-year students is going to be soon the strangest kind of teaching practice ever. The keen readers will have read mainly young adult fiction, not a single classic. The ones uninterested in reading will have read nothing at all. Neither group will have received the least training in the practice of understanding the content of a text, much less in reading critically. This functional illiteracy will necessarily have an impact in all subsequent courses and it is to be wondered what doctoral dissertations on Literature will be like in the future. Game over, as I say, for Literature teachers.

What can you expect, on the other hand, in a land where ‘culturista’ means ‘bodybuilder’ and not ‘someone committed to cultural self-improvement’. Every time I hear this word or I read articles nagging everyone into joining a gym, I wonder what it would be like if people went to libraries to read three hours a week as they go to gyms. My only hope is that as Literature becomes residual in secondary education it also becomes an object of curiosity for, as we know, nothing kills the pleasure of reading as the obligation to read and pass exams. A young person who would never read a classic for class might well feel curious if not forced to read it. And, you see, curiouser and curiouser… Just as Spain managed to generate that curious figure, ‘el cinéfilo’, specialized in seeing the least popular films, there is still hope that we can generate ‘el lectórfilo’ (‘el bibliófilo’ exists, s/he loves books rather than reading).

Or not, and this is it for the art of writing… beyond tweets and whatsapps…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/