AN INSIDIOUS VILLAIN: THE NEO-LIBERAL UNIVERSITY

In just about two weeks I have accumulated an impressive amount of articles on the pernicious effect of the neo-liberal university, mainly in Anglophone countries. Here they are:

*the conclusions of the inquest regarding the suicide of Prof. Stephan Grimm, of Imperial College, who killed himself unable to withstand the pressure of generating 200,000 pounds in grants or else lose his job.
https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/imperial-college-professor-stefan-grimm-was-given-grant-income-target/2017369.article
https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/stefan-grimm-inquest-new-policies-may-not-have-prevented-suicide/2019563.article

*an article also in The Times Higher Education supplement disclosing that “Grant income targets for individual academics (…) exist in some form in about one in six UK universities”, https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/node/128909. Also, an article denouncing how British academics are embracing the “cult of no sleep” (a catchphrase coined by Arianna Huffington), https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/count-sheep-not-metrics. Or insomnia as the solution to an increasing workload.

*several articles posted in Academia.edu about:

1) “Attention decay in science” (http://arxiv.org/pdf/1503.01881v1.pdf), a piece that discuses the decreasing ability of scientists to keep up with so many publications and, hence, the decreasing life-span of newly published papers.

2) “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University” by a collective of US and Canadian academics. The title is self-explanatory.

3) Rosalind Gill’s article (draft) “Academics, Cultural Workers and Critical Labour Studies”, in which she argues that “What is urgently needed (…) is a critical take that can move us beyond the individualised, toxic, self-blaming discourses that are characteristic of academics in the neo-liberal University.”

Something is, clearly, afoot, and it has to do with academia’s more fearsome, insidious villain: the neo-liberal university. The academic collective is asking three questions: 1) how can we stop the pressure that neo-liberal demands have put on the production of knowledge?, 2) why have we allowed this pressure to mount to these unhealthy, even lethal, extremes?, 3) how are we personally contributing to upholding values that undermine rather than exalt research? The person who drew my attention to Prof. Grimm’s suicide, a Lecturer at a British university, told me he feared scholars would soon be asked to generate not just grants for their research but income for their salaries.

The neo-liberal villain has made fewer inroads into the Spanish university because we are poorer. If the meagre public money allocated to all of us by the Ministry is even more radically cut, research will have to grind down (well, it is grinding down) for good as in Spain we are lacking the alternative sources–foundations, corporations, etc.–which the neoliberal villain has invited into the folds of the Anglophone university. The building where I work boasts a considerable amount of graffiti inviting private business to go home and leave us alone, I am not so naïve that I have missed the increased creeping in of alien funds and interests into our midst. What I am saying is that its impact is not (YET) as dramatic as it is elsewhere. There are still ways to be a university teacher and do no research, be productive at low-cost (myself), or dip into public funding now and then with no fixed target. I am, of course, talking about the Humanities. I know very well things are much worse for my scientist colleagues.

In a very peculiar way, what I read in all these articles connects with the current debate in Spain about working hours and productivity. The question we are asking ourselves is why we produce less despite working longer hours than most of Europe; the answer is that when you force a person to be tied to their jobs most of the day their productivity slows down. If you excuse me, that is the reason why slavery did not work in the American South: slaves, knowing there was no leisure whatsoever for them, worked as slowly as they managed (and as the supervisor’s lashes allowed them). Even without Abraham Lincoln’s intervention the whole agrarian economy of slavery would soon have collapsed. So, back to my track: people would be far more productive in Spain if they stuck to eight solid hours and, generally speaking, a six-hour working day would benefit everyone all over the world. Also, create more jobs. This applies to academic work, as well.

A few years ago I had a serious health episode, as a consequence of my overworking. I got then told off by my doctor who, whether he lied to me or not, warned me that the ugly symptoms might come back if I overdid it again. I call the recurrent pain I feel now and then ‘my speed limiter’: when it hurts I know it is time to stop; if I can’t stop immediately, then the sooner the better. I have, then, a very good excuse to stay away from professional e-mail on weekends and after 17:00 (if possible 16:30). Also, I have learned to limit myself to a strict daily schedule, 8:30 to 16:30 when at home. I am talking about academic work apart from reading, as I read all as much as I can everyday and weekends. This blog is part of my spare time, not my daily schedule by the way.

I am, as everyone knows, a productive academic and I’m writing all this here to show that there is no reason to subject ourselves to killing work regimes (as I used to do). Also, this summer I have answered all emails from colleagues claiming they had no proper time for a holiday, explaining that I have indeed taken a holiday, as my health is at risk and I am a worker entitled to a number of days off. Never mind how much I have read in my free days, as I would read anyway. I am learning the hard way to set limits (like, this weekend I am not available to a student who is finishing his MA dissertation, sorry).

Perhaps I am lucky that the neo-liberal villain has not yet grabbed me by the throat, I am a tenured civil servant (we’ll see how this withstands the Catalan move for independence) and UAB has no grant target for me–though a few things are questionable about the teaching target. I know plenty of academics who suffer from diverse bodily and psychological complaints connected with our performance at work. When I complained to my partner, ‘who would have believed that being a college teacher would be so stressful?’, he, who does work for a neo-liberal multinational corporation just answered, ‘well, try to do less’.

I am not asking any colleagues to publicly embrace laziness, as many still do in Spain, but to take it easy (or easier). Feminist or not, try ‘slow academics.’ For, after all, as the article I have named, “Attention decay in science”, suggests few colleagues read what we end up producing and it is increasingly harder to stand up in a system that prefers quantity to quality.

Please, consider the sad fate of Prof. Grimm–and the cynicism of an inquest which concludes that “new policies may not have prevented [his] suicide”. And shame on you if you’re thinking that the problem is this poor man was too weak to keep up with the demands of research. For the worst aspect of the insidious neo-liberal villain is how many claim there is no villain –and how it makes villains of us all.

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/

DUD BOOKS (AND WHY WRITERS PRODUCE THEM)

I have recently come across a good number of dud books. In this category I include a) books which I end up abandoning, despite my good will to read them; b) books which I read to the end, often skimming and with great impatience, hoping against all hope that they improve towards the end. By ‘books’ I really mean ‘novels’ here. The common denominator of all these novels is that I have chosen them because of the hype surrounding them often in connection with an award. These are novels I very much wanted to read.

Just for you to see that I have tried all kinds, three of the most egregious duds have turned out to be: 1) En la orilla by the late Rafael Chirbes (Premio Nacional de Narrativa, 2014), 2) Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road into the Deep North (Man Booker Prize 2014) and 3) Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids, first in the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy (Hugo Award Winner, 2003).

What’s wrong with them? En la orilla suffers from the typical problem of Spanish literary narrative: the need to produce artistic prose eats up the need to give each character a realistic voice–if they’re low-class, they cannot speak as a literary author writes. I abandoned it on page 60. Chirbes died a few days later, and you can’t believe to understand how guilty I feel about giving up on him. It took me a little longer to abandon Flanagan’s novel, say 100 pages. The problem? Well, if you’re telling a harrowing story about Australian POWs in Burma during WWII (yes, building the same railway line featured in Bridge over River Kwai), why interleave it with the trite story of a pathetic adulterous affair? I don’t care if both deal with the same protagonist–stick to your topic, write separate novels if you have two stories to tell.

In Hominids Sawyer tries hard to imagine what a civilization with Neanderthals as the surviving human species instead of Homo Sapiens would have been like. My! This is a thrilling topic, I thought. Yet, I hated the story because quite early in the novel Sawyer has the female protagonist endure a horrific rape, for no justified narrative reason, except that this terrible attack puts her off sex with the Neanderthal male lead (at least she finds the energy to comment mentally on the size of the bulky man’s member… before the whole thing starts leaning towards formulaic romance). As many readers write in their reviews these days ‘Meh’.

A ‘dud’ is something that does not work properly. In the many WWI novels I have read, soldiers are happy when a shell thrown at them turns out to be a dud, but that’s the only circumstance in which duds are welcome. A Google search throws up two other meanings of ‘dud books’ I had not considered: a) books printed incorrectly (really?) and b) a category of bizarre books which has generated its own cult. An oldish article in The Telegraph refers to dud books as “truly awful books that you can’t put down” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3656400/The-insider.html). The author, Brian Lake, explains that the furore over ‘dub books’ started back in 1982, “when antiquarian booksellers were encouraged to display their ‘Dud Books of All Time’ at a book fair in York”, running from the “unsaleable” to the “very funny”. One example will do: The Romance of Leprosy (1949). Now, the ‘dud books’ I refer to here have sold well, are not funny and are the opposite of a page-turner. As Miss Mouse writes in Twitter, “After a couple of dud books I’m happily immersed in a can’t-put-down-to-do-something-else one”. Precisely.

Now, a book I have swallowed whole in one sitting is Miguel Dalmau and Román Piña Valls’ joint effort, La mala puta: Réquiem por la Literatura Española (Sloper, 2014). Hemingway, the authors tell us, was the misogynist who originally called Spanish Literature a bitch and there is certainly plenty of misogyny in Dalmau’s segment of the essay, which seems to forget that, apart from smothering agents and adoring wives, the world of Literature has women writers in it. To be 100% honest, he does say at one point that the women writers who are serious about their literary aspirations are braver than the men, but he leaves it at that. Anyway, I digress.

Reading this acid denunciation of the sorry state of national Spanish Literature, I realized I had forgotten about a fourth ‘dud book’ category: the unpublished book. Michael Chabon tells in Manhood for Amateurs how after writing his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, he embarked on a gigantic novel which he had to abandon eventually–this dud book featured prominently in his delicious Wonder Boys as the novel that Grady, the protagonist writer, can never control. Dalmau has a much bitter experience to tell. He was about to publish a biography of Argentinean writer Julio Cortázar when, mysteriously, the late author’s agents, Carme Balcells’ Agency, withdrew her permission to use any quotations from Cortázar’s books (see http://www.elmundo.es/cultura/2014/12/08/5481b1c8e2704e72268b4591.html). Apparently Cortázar’s widow just didn’t want this particular biography published.

Dalmau and Piña have many controversial points to raise about how the Spanish publishing industry burns the budding talent of new writers and how insidious marketing techniques are destroying the literary tastes of readers. I do recommend you to read the whole book. I’ll highlight here just one of Dalmau’s most provocative claims: the idea that writers have lost all ambition to produce work aesthetically bold, that is to say, to produce a literary masterpiece. Writers complain, Dalmau notes, that they are not rich and famous enough (em, or culturally relevant) but they never consider why there is no masterpiece among their works. Dalmau insists that writers lead a too sedate life to produce masterpieces (yes, he is of the Hemingway persuasion…) but just consider Emily Brontë or Emily Dickinson and you’ll see how literary ambition has nothing to do with living la vida loca.

How’s this connected with dud books? Here’s my thesis: dud books are the result of this lack of literary ambition. Counterarguments: Chirbes was ambitious and the guys in the Ministerio de Cultura who awarded him the ‘Nacional’ were acknowledging that (supposedly). Well, yes, but here in Spain the problem is that there are no longer critics offering negative reviews–somebody says ‘this is good Literature’ and the rest meekly follow. Readers count for nothing. Second: does this apply to Sawyer, as well, who is not working within a genre which values literary prose? Yes it does because science fiction is far more literary than you would believe and also a genre that attracts writers keen on outstripping the rest regarding the power of their imagination. How about the Man Booker Prize? Well, Flanagan’s novel is the kind which prompts the ugly question: “How could they award such an important prize to this… dud?”

Dud books respond to the culture of ‘making do’ (in Spanish ‘si cuela, cuela’). If you start lowering standards because you want to build a book market which succeeds financially even if it fails artistically (no matter the genre), writers stop making an effort. Those who do make an effort get no reward, either material or critical (most critics work for the same companies publishing the books, see my post on Ricard Ruiz Garzón), and either are pushed out or abandon themselves the literary field, often with great bitterness. Dalmau and Piña insist that the equivalents of, say, Borges and Steinbeck, exist today but first, they are not the big names you’re thinking of and second, they probably work in total obscurity, which is why they will never produce a masterpiece.

There is another kind of dud book (sixth category?): call it the ‘cute bad novel’ (do I mean the ‘cookie-cutter novel’?). Take Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train, 4.5 stars on Amazon.com awarded by more than 16.000 voters–only 1% think this is a dud. Kline is a professional writer with a number of books under her belt and a nice list of awards and distinctions. She has a terrific subject, so far little known: how American charities shipped for decades East Coast orphans to the Midwest for adoption since there was no official system in place to take care of them. Needless to say, many of the ‘train orphans’ endured very unhappy experiences of abuse and exploitation. Kline claims to have done extensive research for her novel, focused on Niamh, an imaginary Irish girl adopted in the late 1920s. Yet, she chooses to endorse Orphan Train in her own website with a quote from fellow author, Ann Packer, which describes it as “A lovely novel about the search for family that also happens to illuminate a fascinating and forgotten chapter of American history”. ‘Lovely’, or ‘cute’, or ‘nice’, or ‘pretty’ is not want you want to call an ambitious novel. Why? Because it smacks of superficiality, and this is what Kline’s book is: superficial. I just wished I had read a non-fiction book about the very attractive subject.

Unfortunately, I already know that my next novel, Neal Stephenson’s new work Seveneves is a dud. Yet I stick by him, hoping he’ll publish again something as ambitious as his crazy trilogy The Baroque Cycle. Bracing myself for disappointment, then…

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/

A CULTURAL JOURNALIST ABANDONS THE FIELD (FOR VERY GOOD REASONS…)

A friend emails me the link to an interview in the Catalan e-newspaper, Núvol: El Digital de Cultura, founded in 2012 by Bernat Puigtobella, whose existence I totally ignored… Likewise, I did not know who Ricard Ruiz Garzón, the person interviewed (by Montse Barderi) is. I know now that he is a relevant university teacher, writer, editor and book reviewer who has now decided to abandon cultural journalism after twenty years in the profession. This happens all the time–I am less and less aware of who the relevant people are… The interview, which you may read here http://www.nuvol.com/entrevistes/ricard-ruiz-garzon-deixo-el-periodisme-cultural-abans-dodiar-lo/, deals with a few juicy issues, so here we go.

Ruiz Garzón, always a free-lance reviewer, is abandoning cultural journalism because he cannot make a living out of it. The fee for a review (in Spanish and Catalan main media) is 100 euros, and he gets at the end of the month for all his hard work about 1,000. Many journalists publish articles and interviews on books they have never read, he says, but he takes things far more seriously and not only reads the book under review but, if necessary, any others by the same author. Actually, the point he makes is that good reviewing used to consist of that and now he is abandoning cultural journalism because current conditions only allow him to produce shallow reviews. This is, I think, very honest. Ruiz Garzón distinguishes carefully between the criticism that need not sell (academia work, though impact indexes have become our own sales target) and book reviewing, which he sees as “a service” like, he adds, the weather forecast. With, he notes, 200 new books every month, readers need guidance. No doubt.

The interview has a great segment on the five virtues of a good writer (honesty, willingness to assume risks, a good command of the language, being in touch with tradition, and sound technical skills). I’ll focus, though, on the five main defects of current book reviewing which Ruiz Garzón highlights (my translation):

1. “writing a review so well written that it does not give you the information needed to guide you about whether the book is good or not”
This is a particularly insidious problem, endemic to Spanish and Catalan reviewing but, I find, less common in Anglophone media. The reviewer feels a strange urge to show off and may very well mention, in a language as abstruse as possible, many other obscure works only he (for this is usually a ‘he’) knows perfectly well. Never mind whether these works have anything to do with the work under review, what matters is impressing the reader with the reviewer’s superior knowledge. I stopped reading Fotogramas, tired precisely of the ‘cinéfilos’ who never managed to express a clear opinion and that would have made Derrida proud in their convoluted use of prose.

2. “objectivity: the issue of friends and enemies, the friend I praise; the enemy, I badmouth”
To a certain extent, this is inevitable. There are two ways out of this conundrum: a) reviewers declare their friendships and enmities, as spoilers are declared in Amazon, GoodReads, IMDB or b) reviewers specialise in totally alien fields where they have no friends, neither enemies. Blind peer reviewing is supposed to prevent ‘amiguismo’ from playing a part in academic life but, then, networking is often built on the basis of personal friendship. We’re all human.

3. “the synergies between media and publishing groups” (example: if you work in El País, you put your job on the line if you criticize a book published by Alfaguara, etc.)
See my solution for point 2. Again: the problem is deceiving the reader into thinking that this is honest cultural journalism. The problem, by the way, extends beyond proper journalism. Recently, I searched for reviews of Rosario Raro’s novel Volver a Canfranc and, since opinions at Amazon.es and Casa del Libro are so few and so unreliable, I read a couple of blog posts. To my irritation, they were both shameless ads endorsing the novel; one even had the cheek to thank Planeta for having forwarded a copy.

4. “poor research, failing to read the complete works by an author and, therefore, producing amateur reviews”; that is, a good review must be able to place novelties in the context of the author’s whole career.
This, to be honest, is ideal but also shows that perhaps Ruiz Garzón entertains too high expectations about book reviewing. Or, alternatively, this means that there should be among the cultural journalists specialists in particular authors, as there are in academia. Logically, this only makes sense if all reviewers were free-lance, though I assume that the usual practice is that one reviewer in the newspaper’s payroll gets to review all kinds of books. Yet, it is also often the case that writers overproduce. I wonder who can produce a quality review of each new novel by Stephen King…

5. “we have an uneducated, untrained readership. They prefer the headline or the slogan over nuance”
Um, perhaps this is partly the fault of the navel-gazing reviewers guilty of fault no. 1 (see above). Also, our general lack of time. Personally, I don’t look for nuance in reviews, but for insight–that is to say, the ability to point out what is fundamentally right or wrong with a book. I very often read reviews in the middle of reading a book to check whether others share my impression. And I must point out that many readers, like myself, are fast going past the slogans and checking first the number of stars or the ratings. As I have noted here, everyone knows that a film rating below 7 in IMDB hardly ever is worth watching.

A sixth problem is highlighted in connection with point 5: “there is little criticism of popular authors, but when it is produced it has no effect whatsoever”. He mentions very negative reviews of Xavier Bosch and Albert Espinosa which did not affect at all their top Sant Jordi sales. Obviously. In general, few book buyers read reviews; they feel frequently lost among the many books on offer and just want to get the book everyone else is reading. They navigate the book market by positive advertising, not negative reviewing.

The phrase ‘crític de referència’ crops up several times in the interview with Ruiz Garzón. This is hard to translate into English but if I write Marcel Reich-Ranicki (1920-1913), you possibly know what I mean: a literary critic whose opinions are respected by both readers and authors, and who shapes with his/her reviewing the very state of Literature. In SF we have John Clute. And I recall from my childhood the peculiar figure and nasal voice of a truly great film critic working on TV, Alfonso Sánchez Martínez, a man so popular that many humorists did him the honour of impersonating him. Who do we have now that we can call ‘crítico de referencia’?

To finish, I wonder whether the case of Ruiz Garzón is symptomatic of a much larger malaise, which is the slow death of (cultural) journalism as we know it. My good friend Víctor Sampedro, who teaches sociology and communication, writes argues in his recent book El cuarto poder en red: Por un periodismo (de código libre) that journalism as we have known it in the 20th century is over for good, as proven by the complex Wikileaks case. He calls for a far more open journalism which is born of the collaboration between the general public and the professional journalist.

As I read the book, I thought that the key issue is where the money will be found to pay for the wages of the professionals in this new open source context. The 100 euros per review that Ruiz Garzón mentions and his own inability to make ends meet suggest that this is it: in a context in which everyone feels entitled to expressing an opinion on what they read on the net and in social networks, the economic value of professional opinion is sharply diminished. 100 euros may be a nice extra but not the basis of a full-time dedication to reading.

And so is culture diminished into an amateurism from which it may never recover.

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/

TEACHING VICTORIAN ROMANCE IN THE AGE OF TINDER

Tinder is not only easily combustible material but also the name of a very popular dating app, launched in 2012. Its use involves swiping photographs of possible matches on your cell phone: right for those you like, left for those you don’t. If someone swipes you back, then you can text each other, set up a date, etc. In an inspired feat of social engineering and personal psychology, Tinder does not communicate to you the rejections. The right-hand swipes, on the contrary, are duly noted which, I’m sure, must be a great ego-booster.

The rational behind this dating system is not only the classic chance to pre-select a date companion, already provided by any dating service, but the ease with which it can lead to a face-to-face meeting, as it also based on geo-location systems (you can see which Tinder users are close-by). As of today, Wikipedia informs, Tinder processes one billion swipes a day with twelve million matches–the actual figure for dates is unknown, but the phrase ‘Tinder date’ has already entered English. 50 million people all over the world use the service in 30 languages.

Why am I interested? Well, I am not. What called my attention was the article by Nancy Jo Sales for Vanity Fair, “Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse” (http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/08/tinder-hook-up-culture-end-of-dating). So much so that I have decided to set my teaching next autumn of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) against it as background to discuss how human mating rituals have altered (recently). My point is that for my students to understand a novel from the ‘remote’ Victorian past first they need to be made aware of how the debate on similar topics stands today. Also, I need to explain to them that romantic fiction about love must operate within the personal, social and legal constraints of its time. Hence, I need to test what they know about those applying to their own generation. First, then, here are some points of Sales’ lengthy article–a piece which made me feel positively Victorian if not Jurassic.

Sales does not clarify how compulsory having a Tinder account is in the twenty something American urban middle-class culture she explores (Manhattan, basically). Reading her piece I got the impression that not having an account in this or similar dating services is little short of a social aberration, rather than a personal choice. She, subtly but firmly, exposes the persistence of the double sexual standard despite the apparent growth of sexual freedom (for this what Tinder is for–getting sex partners).

Although, obviously, hetero men could not get hetero girls to have sex with them via a Tinder ‘come on’ unless the girls were willing, the picture Sales draws is one in which men get all the (promiscuous) fun and the girls get constantly frustrated because a) sex does not lead to regular dates, much less a relationship and b) in the end the endless succession of lovers is unable to provide them with orgasms. Remember that in the Victorian texts I teach couples get engaged without even exchanging a first kiss (and in the girls’ case it is often the first kiss). Now try to make sense of this to the kids born in the mid 1990s.

Before I ramble on… Here are a few selections from Sales juicy report:
*a male Tinder user explains he’s organizing several dates at the same time as “There’s always something better” (call that the channel-hopping effect)
*the same guy adds that “You could talk to two or three girls at a bar and pick the best one, or you can swipe a couple hundred people a day—the sample size is so much larger”. He aims at sleeping with 100 ‘Tinderella’ girls in a year. Hot ones.
*this serial Romeo further explains that although he clearly announces he is not into relationships, most girls accept having sex “expecting to turn the tables” (he might also be kidding himself rather than admit that girls see him mostly as a disposable sex toy)
*average texts from guys (i.e. total strangers) often include unsolicited photos of their genitalia or explicit phrasing such as ‘Wanna fuck?’ or ‘Come over and sit on my face’. And worse. Girls also send pics, boys claim, but mainly of breasts and bottoms, not vaginas.
*Tinder users highlight the similarity of the service with ordering food or shopping online. Or having a hobby. Or meeting for sport.
*the overall impression is that today men have the power to decide whether a one-night stand (or a one-hour stand…) can develop into a relationship, whereas women have the power to grant men sex (isn’t this old as the hills?)
*a college girl explains that for her generation the anxiety about intimacy comes from having “grown up on social media,” so “we don’t know how to talk to each other face-to-face”. Not even in bed.
*very restrictive dating rules have turned romance into “a contest to see who cares less, and guys win a lot at caring less”; nobody wants to appear to suffer for love.
*not only is the double standard real and inalterable; a guy claims he does not want to be in a relationship because “You can’t be selfish in a relationship” (his italics)
*afraid of giving girls the wrong idea, guys tend to be quite insensitive; a girl recalls a lover using Tinder while she dressed up after sex… Men are not, Sales writes, “inspired to be polite”.
*as a girl points out, despite the aloofness, “Some people still catch feelings in hook-up culture”–as if they were a disease.

Several caveats here:
*Sales does not take into account how Tinder works in different cultures and neglects to see the identity factors conditioning her informers.
*Second, as a man told me, if girls feel uncomfortable with any point of the Tinder-date process they just need to refrain from using the service, which, let’s recall, is not compulsory.
*Apps like these, as the internet did in the early 1990s, have opened up the potential number of sexual and romantic partners, yet most people still marry in fairly conventional ways and try to raise families.
*Neither the idea (for hetero women) that you need to sleep first with a guy or with many before you find love is new; it’s been around for decades now.
*As for hetero men, they seem to be imitating dating models typical of gay culture whereas a good number of gay men are vindicating monogamy (serial or otherwise) thanks to the legalisation of gay marriage.

In the end it’s the old story: men try to get as much sex as the personal, social and legal constrains allow while women are divided into those who want to follow genuinely a similar inclination, those who tells themselves they do but actually don’t, and the post-Victorian ones who value long-lasting romantic intimacy above sex. I’m not saying that this third vital stance is not attractive to many men. And I have not said a word about the bodily fascism of the whole idea of app or online dating.

A few years ago a group of eight Californian girls who enrolled in one of my classes, all beautiful and intelligent young women, told me that dating was over–and this was long before I-Phone and Tinder. Men, they complained, get too much sex and, hence, they make no effort to be in a real relationship. They were truly upset by this. All this leads me to wonder whether, unlike what Victorian novels suggest, men and women like each other at all. It seems that given the chance and at least until they decide to form a family, current young men and women are using each other mutually for sex but without true enjoyment in each other. The taboos on sex that the Victorians suffered have this advantage: you need to talk in order to communicate. Victorian couples (and many others more recently) might spend years this way in long engagements which possibly explains, to a certain extent, why sex mattered less to them than to us (this IS a sweeping statement, I know).

In all this I am commenting on here, what irks me most is men’s (alleged) aloofness. The guy using Tinder while still in the same bedroom with his new lover… Ugh… If, as it seems, misogyny is the basis of the ‘hook-up’ system then there can be no real progress–and no real fun no matter how many lovers a girl gets. And the other way round: I have no doubt that Anne Brontë’s hero Gilbert is erotically incensed to despair by Helen because she is not sexually available. Ah, the Victorians and their erotic unavailability… how hard they are to explain in the age of Tinder.

PS (added 13 September 2015). Here’s a very interesting piece with a man’s view of the article (judge for yourself what kind of man):
http://verilymag.com/2015/08/dating-apocalypse-hookups-casual-sex-modern-relationships-dating-tinder-commitment

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CHARLES AND BENITO: A CELEBRATION OF INFLUENCE

My title throws a barb at Harold Bloom’s famous ‘anxiety of influence’ theory from his 1973 book. Bloom argued in it that poets are prompted to write in awe and admiration of particular predecessors. They, however, always struggle to find their own voice, fearing that they can only produce imitations of their chosen masters; hence, they labour under a constant ‘anxiety of influence’. In contrast, the attitude that Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920), showed towards his much admired Charles Dickens (1812-1870) seems to have been always celebratory–perhaps because from the very beginning Galdós had a clear voice of his own and also because there was no way 19th century Spain could be depicted exactly as Dickens depicts his native England.

I wrote a post back in 2012 (4th November) on the similarities between the young Charles Dickens and our own Romantic genius Mariano José de Larra, based on their showing a similar ‘zest for city life’ as journalist flâneurs. I did not know then about the literary connections between Galdós and Dickens, though having read half a dozen novels by Galdós and almost the full dozen by Dickens this should have been obvious to me. Possibly, Galdós’ ‘castizo’ characters threw me off the path.

What has brought me back to it is my very enjoyable reading of Galdós’ quirky first novel, La Fontana de Oro, published in 1870, the same year Dickens died–yes, a peculiar coincidence, or yet another proof of Spain’s cultural belatedness. It might well be that this is Galdós’ closest imitation of Dickens. Suddenly, it was crystal clear to me that the Spanish novelist was applying literary strategies learned from the English master to his first attempt at narrating chaotic Spain. The colourful character descriptions, the fine attention to the grotesqueries of life, the droll authorial stance, the intense hatred for those who live to oppress others… all sounded familiar. Dickens would have loved it.

As it turns out, there is proof of Galdós’ admiration for Dickens: he translated into Spanish his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (a.k.a. The Pickwick Papers, 1836). Galdós was just 24, he cheekily claimed to know English and found a gullible editor in a Spanish newspaper who believed him. As diverse academics have proved, though, he actually translated Dickens from the French (see for instance http://mdc.ulpgc.es/cdm/ref/collection/galdosianos/id/1210). The result, Ricardo Bada laments (http://www.elespectador.com/noticias/cultura/cuando-galdos-tradujo-dickens-articulo-324923), is appalling…: “es una catástrofe literariamente homologable con la marítima del infeliz Titanic”. Galdós never translated a work again, though he seems to have been able to read in English and was no doubt well-acquainted with the work of other English writers beyond Dickens.

In his Memorias de un desmemoriado (1915-6), Galdós recalls his trip to England in 1889 to visit Shakespeare’s house. In an often quoted passage he recalls visiting as well Dickens’ grave in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey: “Consideraba yo a Carlos (sic) Dickens como mi maestro más amado. En mi aprendizaje literario, cuando aún no había salido yo de mi mocedad petulante, apenas devorada La comedia humana, de Balzac, me apliqué con loco afán a la copiosa obra de Dickens. Para un periódico de Madrid traduje el Pickwick, donosa sátira, inspirada, sin duda, en la lectura de El Quijote. (…) Depositando la flor de mi adoración sobre esta gloriosa tumba me retiro del panteón de Westminster”. The literary loop is thus nicely closed: Dickens learned from Cervantes and Galdós learned from him.

I have not read Pickwick Papers yet, which will complete my pet project of reading all the novels Dickens published–then, the short fiction. Reading Galdós’ novel about the ‘trieno liberal’ of 1820-3 and the simply nauseating figure of King Fernando VII, I realized I know very little about the complicated Spanish 19th century. A perfect solution to this shameful blank is, of course, reading Galdós’ series Episodios nacionales. Now, here’s the rub: the series, which famously begins with Trafalgar, runs to 46 novels, published between 1872 and 1912. Don Benito’s complete list of publications runs to more than 100 titles, not including a long list of essays, plays and short stories… Someone should do research on why and how certain writers are so prolific. Is it a mutation in the brain? I also wonder about the kind of readership and book market capable of absorbing so much from the same pen.

The acerbic Valle Inclán dubbed Galdós ‘Don Benito el Garbancero’ as I learned back in secondary school when my wonderful teacher Ana Oltra made us read Galdós’ Tormento. I read Valle Inclán’s play Luces de Bohemia the following year, 1984, and saw it in the theatre with some classmates–we were very different from today’s teens, I guess… this was no school outing but our own idea. ‘Garbancero’ has no apt English translation beyond ‘chickpea dealer’ though Valle Inclán used its second sense: ‘vulgar’. Although my teacher was quite a Galdosian fan, and I loved Tormento much better than Luces de Bohemia, the prejudiced sobriquet somehow stayed with me. It was nevertheless dispelled by TVE’s excellent 1980 adaptation of Galdós’ masterpiece Fortunata y Jacinta (see the series here http://www.rtve.es/television/fortunata-jacinta/), a product of a now defunct time when TV did offer highly cultured entertainment. This was our Brideshead Revisited (1981) and I count myself fortunate that these smashing series are part of my literary biography. I doubt even BBC would be up to the task of adapting the Episodios nacionales but I certainly do not see RTVE attempting even to adapt any other of Galdós’ novels. Instead, we are being offered the crude period soap operas that dominate afternoon TV (Amar es para siempre, El secreto de Puente Viejo and so on…). That is ‘garbancero’.

Charles Dickens, by the way, was also labelled ‘garbancero’, though in this case by an illustrious academic. The Modernists regarded him mostly as an example of the ills that the commercialization of the novel inflicted on highbrow Literature throughout the 19th century. As the Modernist-inspired leading academic F.R. Leavis sentenced in The Great Tradition (1948), his reason “for not including Dickens in the line of great novelists” was that, though great, his was the genius “of a great entertainer, and he had for the most part no profounder responsibility as a creative artist than this description suggests” (1950: 18)–he was, in short, a ‘garbancero’. Leavis only concluded as late as 1970 that Dickens was also a great ‘creative artist’ in Dickens the Novelist. Luckily, the BBC never doubted that and has so done much to undo Prof. Leavis’ unfortunate early judgements.

So, back to the beginning, Galdós’ love for his master Dickens can be called a ‘celebration’ of influence, rather than anxiety. I am not denying the widespread existence of this ‘anxiety’–think of Martin Amis comparing himself to his novelist father Kingsley if you need an example. I am just claiming that literary anxiety has a potent counterpart in avowed, gleeful admiration–though I would grant that only a genius like Galdós can turn his awe for a master into unrestrained inspiration and, ultimately, an equally potent voice of his own.

When 2043 arrives and Spain gets the chance to celebrate Galdós’ bicentenary as joyfully as the British celebrated Dickens’ own back in 2012, we can discuss how the two cultures compare when it comes to celebrating the literary best they have produced…

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/

ALL THOSE GIRLS FROM THE PAST AND THEIR NARROW CHOICES: FROM ALICE TO SYBYLLA…

[Warning: plenty of spoilers here, novels’ endings discussed]

I am not sure whether I have really taken a break from writing this blog as I realize that I seem to have been preparing today’s post all along in my free time. What is a summer break for if not for reading widely and wildly in between outings? Yet, as you will see, I have been reading less wildly than I assumed, and quite focusedly at least as regards one topic: young women’s agency between the 1890s and the 1920s. Blame this on my Kindle, which demands fuel all the time. Legal downloads go back now to authors who died before 1945 (books are ‘liberated’ for free circulation following 70 years from the author’s demise, a total scandal of you ask me… copyright should never be inherited). This explains, I think, the accidental coherence of my summer reading.

Re-reading some of the papers I wrote for my doctoral courses, I notice I focused much of my work on the tension between the women who did and those who didn’t… survive. I absolutely hated then and still hate middle-class novels in which the heroines commit suicide rather than work: Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart in House of Mirth (1905) and, ugh, that Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s absurdly overvalued The Awakening (1899). Being myself a working-class student, my heart went 25 years ago to Theodore Dreiser’s spunky Sister Carrie (1900). This summer it has gone again to Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams (1921), the story of a cheerful low middle-class girl who, losing her chance to contract the upper middle-class marriage which her mother so frantically wishes to secure for her, decides to train herself for useful work and financial independence.

Perhaps I am misreading Alice’s ending and contemporary readers saw her condemned to spinsterhood, I don’t know, yet I was glad that she makes a sensible decision. Tarkington, who had already won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919 for The Magnificent Ambersons won it again in this novel in 1922. In between, Edith Wharton became the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer for The Age of Innocence (1920), a story set in the 1870s in upper-class New York. Wharton’s story is indeed a failed love story but I like to read it as the story of Ellen Olenska’s refusal to submit to pressure and return to her abusive husband. In Tarkington’s novel, set in the aftermath of WWI, Alice finds herself falling out of the marriage market aged 20, for being too poor to catch an upper-class husband. At 16 she is pretty enough to have the nicest boys in town crowding “the Adamses’ small veranda and steps”; by 18 she is only attracting “the older men”. Without a chance to attend a finishing school or get a college education, by 20 she can no longer compete: “She had been a belle too soon”.

Stephen Crane’s bleak, naturalist tale Maggie, a Girl of the Streets (1893), in which the downward spiral of a poor girl can be chronicled but not stopped, has reminded me that Sister Carrie was scandalous precisely because Dreiser refused to condemn his proletarian girl, giving her instead a career on the stage, no matter how dubious. Again, I might be idealizing Carrie’s ending as I idealize Alice’s but work seems in both cases a pragmatic solution. In contrast, I have been much irritated by the endings of H.G. Wells Ann Veronica (1909) and of Australian Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901), though they are as antithetical as they can be.

Ann Veronica, which was quite a scandal at the time of publication, focuses on the New Woman’s predicament. As Hetty, a friend of Ann Veronica’s, explains: “The practical trouble is our ages. They used to marry us off at seventeen, rush us into things before we had time to protest. They don’t now. Heaven knows why! They don’t marry most of us off now until high up in the twenties. And the age gets higher. We have to hang about in the interval. There’s a great gulf opened, and nobody’s got any plans what to do with us. So the world is choked with waste and waiting daughters. Hanging about! And they start thinking and asking questions, and begin to be neither one thing nor the other. We’re partly human beings and partly females in suspense.” Already 22, Ann Veronica decides to leave her father’s home and support herself, taking as her inspiration G.B. Shaw’s Vivie Warren from Mrs Warren’s Profession (1893, first performed 1902), a young college graduate who earns a living as an accountant (if I remember correctly). Ann Veronica, however, concludes that Vivie is just a fiction and finding no work decides to give herself an education (borrowing money from a man, wilfully ignoring in what position of dependence this leaves her). I had hopes for her as she chooses Biology but, guess what?, her biology teacher, Capes, a man married but separated, ends up providing all she needs–the couple may be unconventional but the ending is as conventional as they come. Ann Veronica seemingly learns nothing from the suffragettes surrounding her and abandons her scientific career as soon as she can. Argh.

Like many other readers I originally supposed that Miles Franklin, author of My Brilliant Career (1901) was a man, until I learned this was Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, Australia’s best-known female writer. Also a fierce feminist and, like Jane Austen, a woman who never married despite her diverse suitors. I am not mentioning Austen by accident, as My Brilliant Career is not the story of young Sybylla Melvyn’s writing career but of how she rejects the best possible suitor since Darcy for the sake of starting this career. Sybylla is stranded between the dire poverty of her own family, blamed on the incapacitating alcoholism of the father, and the middle-class background of her mother’s family. She is, so to speak, working-class by professional situation but middle-class in her cultural training (she reads voraciously, plays the piano, etc.).

The novel, written by a still teenage Franklin, has us believe that the tomboyish heroine attracts, for no clear reason, the Darcyesque Harold Beecham. This young man is said to possess a horrid temper, which is certainly a gigantic obstacle for a happy marriage, yet throughout the story he is as self-possessed as a man can be. There is a horrifying moment in which, right after Sybylla accepts his marriage proposal, he stoops to kiss her (this would be their first kiss). She, “hysterical” and offended by Harold’s “calm air of ownership”, takes his riding-whip and brings it “with all my strength right across his face”, drawing blood and almost blinding him in one eye. She expects he’ll strike her but instead he forgives her and pretends he has had a domestic accident. Gosh. You may read this as a feminist attack against patriarchal man but I was very much disgusted, as disgusted as with Charlotte Brontë’s decision to maim Rochester–which is why I refuse to teach Jane Eyre, much to my students’ amusement.

In a later scene, in which masochistic Hal insists on marrying this idiot girl who clearly does not love him, she confesses she’s “queer” and is “given to something which a man never pardons in a woman”. Just when poor Hal must be thinking she is secretly the most promiscuous woman in Australia, Sybylla blurts out “I am given to writing stories, and literary people predict I will yet be an authoress”. Hal, to Franklin’s credit, laughs. Here’s his offer: “(…) if you will give me a hand occasionally, you can write as many yarns as you like. I’ll give you a study, and send for a truck-load of writing-gear at once, if you like”. This, she rejects.

Considering her own mother’s very unhappy marriage and her obvious reluctance to having children, Sybylla’s decision might make sense. Still, as a 21st century woman who wants to have it all, the loving partner and the successful career, I very much wanted to use the whip on her as she did on Hal. Funnily, I was thinking all the time not of Austen’s Darcy, whom Beecham so much recalls, but of Leonard Woolf, who married Virginia in 1912, and became the main support of her own brilliant career. Um, yes, she committed suicide but it was in spite of Leonard and her success and not because of them…

Reading about all these girls and their narrow choices and marvelling at how different their 21st counterparts are, I wonder whether their dilemmas are over. Harold Beecham is now Christian Grey and as for the Leonard Woolfs of today, is there any? The anxiety to be a ‘belle too soon’ somehow persists and so does Sybylla’s fear of losing control over her body and life if she marries.

This is why their stories are still so appealing…

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/