RAMBLING THOUGHTS ON EMPATHY: TOWARDS A BETTER WORLD

There are many things that are disappointing about the 21st century. Surely we can do without the flying cars so often fantasized, and even prophesized, by SF writers. Yet, it is both tragic and absurd that religious wars and racism persist. A time will come, hopefully, when the need to kill people on behalf of a totally imaginary deity will cease and also when the need to classify people according to their skin colour will be regarded as a barbaric practice (seeing the hatred against certain racial and ethnic minorities, I always wonder how other human species would fare if they shared Earth with us). These thoughts are prompted not only by the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attacks of Paris two weeks ago but by more academic matters, such as reading Thomas Huxley with my Victorian students and attending a conference on post-colonialism at my own university.

Huxley is famous for being the grandfather of a far more famous Huxley, Aldous–who penned, of course, Brave New World–and for defending Charles Darwin’s theories in a famous debate in 1860 with Samuel Wilberforce; his staunch, early defence of evolution earned Huxley, as it is well known, the nickname of ‘Darwin’s bulldog’. The point that interests me more about Huxley, however, is that he has legated to us the very handy word ‘agnosticism’, which he invented about 1869. He conceived of believers as persons who had reached some kind of ‘gnosis’ or knowledge about divinity and so he came up with ‘agnostic’ to define those who, like himself, had not been enlightened by belief. In Huxley’s own words, “It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe” (“Agnosticism: A Symposium”, 1884). I consider myself an atheist even though I do believe in the supernatural and would be happy to be offered scientific proof of its existence, which technically makes me an agnostic. My atheism is what makes so impatient with religious belief, which I find a very shallow way of coming to grips with the scary thought that we humans are alive in the universe and do not know why. Sorry, I philosophize.

In the text by Huxley which I shared with my students, “The Interpreters of Genesis and the Interpreters of Nature” (1885), he makes a totally reasonable point: religious fanaticism is the root of bad science, and therefore religion should leave science alone, as much as science should not interfere with personal belief. He also hints that knowing about how monotheism recycles paganism helps to understand the root of contemporary religion and to make informed decisions about what to believe. Reading this I suddenly thought, and so I told my students, that for all its bad press, paganism doesn’t seem to be less civilized than monotheism and is, on the whole, possibly a much better alternative if you must adore something. Greeks and Romans were pagan, remember?, and look how much they contributed to civilization… No, I am not going to call for a return to worshipping gods and goddesses but I wish the Isis I hear discussed all day long was the Egyptian goddess and not the Islamic State. We’d be better off.

The conference was the ‘International Conference Relations and Networks in Indian Ocean Writing’, organized with her habitual efficiency and savoir faire by my good friend and colleague Felicity Hand. There was a paper in this conference on the now forgotten terrorist outrage in 1982 against an India Airlines flight, in which 329 persons died when a bomb detonated off the Irish coast (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_India_Flight_182)–the largest casualty count before 9/11. The presenter called our attention to the specific Indian Canadian identity of many of the 268 Canadian citizens killed and she speculated (or rather defended) the idea that grief and mourning are culturally conditioned. Although I see her point, and I agree with the need to specify how this particular community was hit by the attack, apparently perpetrated by the Sikh terrorist group Babbar Khalsa, it deeply worries me that grief is not perceived as something universal for I believe that empathy is undermined this way. And we need it so much…

Terrorism connects with my musings on Huxley because it has been mostly caused in the 20th century and is being still caused in the 21st century by religious fanatics (IRA and ETA also count as fanatics, but of a political persuasion). Terrorism also connects with ethnicity and race because as you can see who is killed and how they’re mourned matters very much, whether they are Indian Canadians or French. In the Paris attacks, the novelty is that what is eliciting most anxiety is not the identity of the victims–a cross section of today’s multi-ethnic France plus her visitors–but that of the also French (and Belgian it seems) terrorists. They invoke Allah to justify their crimes but you don’t need a PhD in sociology to understand that the barriers that north-African, Arab migrants find in France regarding upward social mobility are the breeding ground for their atrocious way to seek empowerment. Daesh, Isis or whatever you want to call it, offers the dispossessed literally a social network to meet and vent their anger.

Let me go back to empathy. It seems to me that this should be the main project of post-colonialism as an academic field, I mean building empathy. My own environment is 95% white, with still very few students of non-white backgrounds, and it is then for me exceptional to meet people of so many different ethnic and racial backgrounds. My colleagues Felicity Hand and Esther Pujolràs have been working lately on ‘life writing’ and I attended at least two presentations at the conference that connect with this idea of narrating your life as a way to make sense of your own positioning and, thus, work towards increasing empathy with others. In one presentation, Neville Choonoo, a scholar born to Indian and Tamil parents in South Africa and now living in the USA, explained to us, with a great deal of emotion, how it feels to be him after the crises he has endured connected with the racial issues in his background. Another scholar, Flora Veit-Wild, a white German woman whose work has had a great impact on the academic and literary world of Zimbabwe, discussed, or rather narrated, the links with India of her family: two uncles and her grandparents, German Jews who had to flee there when Hitler came to power.

I must confess that I wondered whether an academic gathering is the right place for this kind of presentation, as we’re supposed to be able to theorize even our own life. Yet, on second thoughts if even academics feel the need to cross oceans to narrate how our lives are conditioned, then something is going on–perhaps a certain weariness with the limits of the (impersonal) academic discourse, to begin with. I’m wondering, going back to the idea of ‘life writing’ whether the young French terrorists would have used words rather than guns to explain themselves if given the chance to be heard. Violence, it seems to me, is after all the opposite of discourse, hence discourse might do away with violence. But I daydream of course.

Let me finish this rambling post written on a sluggish Sunday afternoon by attempting to link the dots: (monotheistic) religion and racism are two of the most formidable weapons to prevent empathy from connecting human beings among themselves; do away with either or both and a great deal of the suffering in the world will disappear. I have no patience, as I say, with believers not only because, as I said, I’m an atheist but also because they insist on inflicting organized, hierarchical churches on the rest of us–can you not believe on your own if you absolutely must?? Racism scares me on two counts: one, because it seems to be an almost universal principle of human life; two, because it is based on plain absurdity. Imagine a world in which people were classed and discriminated depending on their foot size and you get the idea…

If only we could explain who we are to ourselves to each other…

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A FAMILY SNAPSHOT: LITERATURE IN THE 39TH AEDEAN CONFERENCE

Last week I attended the beautifully organized 39th AEDEAN (Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos) conference at the University of Deusto, in Bilbao. The association has about 1,100 members–quite a substantial number–of whom about 200/250, depending on the year, present work at the conference. I always say that the conference’s strong point is networking and PR: it functions very well as a meeting point for colleagues who joined the ranks of the field long ago and for newcomers to get a first taste of academic life. This year I have indeed enjoyed excellent work by doctoral candidates, and have approached them to offer congratulations (after being told by one of them, an ex-student, that younger researchers feel shy to approach senior researchers, which I certainly am after 24 years).

My post today aims at offering a (family) snapshot of what AEDEAN offered as regards Literature. My initial hypothesis concerns not just this conference but what I believe to be a general trend in research in the field of literary studies: while contemporary literary authors remain a stable object of interest (whether canonical ones or new names), the so-called popular or commercial novelists are being abandoned in favour of TV and cinema. Paradoxically, this is a side effect of the liberation from canonical constrictions that Cultural Studies started introducing 20 years ago in English Studies in Spain, a trend in which I myself was a pioneer. Younger generations read fewer novels and watch more series, with the result that in some fields (perhaps particularly SF), the so-called ‘popular’ novels are practically unknown and the audio-visual version of the genre is assumed to be the ‘real thing’. Of course, the AEDEAN conference is just a sample of the whole field and, as you will see, it turns out I’m not quite right–but let this post act as a call for young scholars to re-integrate the ‘popular’ novel into their field of research. And also to get an overview of what our colleagues are reading.

Briefly, this is a map of the authors dealt with (for full details, you may refer to the book of abstract, still available at http://aedean2015.deusto.es/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Book-of-abstracts-39th-AEDEAN-Conference.pdf)

PLENARY CONFERENCE (by David Río), “Renovating Western American Literature from an Urban Perspective: Contemporary Reno Writing”, dealing with Raymond Carver, Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ishmael Reed and local authors Willy Vlautin, Tupelo Hassman, Claire Vaye Watkins, etc. Note this deals with the representation of Western America, not with the genre of the ‘western’.

COMPARATIVE LITERATURE: authors studied include James Joyce, Graham Greene and José Luis Castillo-Puche; T.S.Eliot and Anna Akhmatova; Robert Bringhurst; Charlotte Brontë; Eugène Labiche and Sydney Grundy; Wallace Stevens and Harold Rosenberg; Charles Sedley (17th C) and a selection of other 17th C theatre.

CRITICAL THEORY: authors and titles dealt with, leaving aside the papers raising theoretical issues, include disability memoirs by Christina Middlebrook, (Seeing the Crab: A Memoir of Dying Before I Do) and Harriet McBryde Johnson (Too Late to Die Young); fiction: Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire, David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life, Michèle Roberts’s Mud: Stories of Sex and Love, Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, Tayari Jones’s Leaving Atlanta, Linda Grant’s Still Here… and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

CULTURAL STUDIES, yes, also offers its good share of fiction studies including Fifty Shades of Grey, Marita Colon’s The Magdalen, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace; SF authors Joanna Russ and Ursula K. Leguin were also dealt with in a paper considering women’s art.

The FILM STUDIES panel included two papers on dystopian films, some of them adapted from novel series such as YA SF Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Veronica Roth’s Divergent but the focus, of course, was on the films. I believe neither paper was actually presented.

GENDER AND FEMINIST STUDIES offered papers on literary novels (Camila Gibb’s Mouthing the Words, Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things, E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We (1930) and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990), Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, Mary O’Donnell’s The Elysium Testament), short stories (Alice Munro’s short story “Bardon Bus”, Téa Obreth’s short story “The Tiger’s Wife”, Angela Carter’s revision of Cinderella) and drama (Sarah Ruhl’s play In the Next Room, Or the Vibrator Play). Here some popular fiction could be found (crime fiction): Louise Welsh’s The Girl on the Stairs, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive.

MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE: with papers on A.S Byatt’s The Children’s Book, Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February, Imogen Robertson’s The Paris Winter, Kate Mosse’s The Taxidermist’s Daughter, Sara Stockbridge’s Cross my Palm, Joyce Carol Oates’s We Were the Mulvaneys, J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, Charles Yu’s short story “Standard Loneliness Package”; also authors Walter Scott and Irish playwright Marina Carr. A paper dealt with the intersection in popular fiction of two favourite topics: vampires and the Salem witches (Her Dear and Loving Husband by Meredith Allard, Jonathan Alden: The First American Vampire and Salem Lost by Frank R. Godbey, Jr.). The round tables mentioned Niall Griffiths’s Grits, Louise Kehoe’s In this Dark House, Lisa Appignanesi’s Losing the Dead and Linda Grant’s The People on the Street, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-pool Library and The Line of Beauty, among others.

In POSTCOLONIAL STUDIES authors and novels dealt with included Arthur Phillips’s Prague, John Beckman’s The Winter Zoo, Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Ama Ata Aidoo’s short stories “Nutty” and “About the Wedding Feast”, Travels in Nigeria by Noo Saro-Wiwa. I need to highlight, of course, the round table on postcolonial crime fiction chaired by Bill Phillips.

SHORT STORY panel: authors dealt with include Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen, H.P. Lovecraft, Elizabeth Gaskell, Angela Carter, Helen Simpson, Janice Galloway, A.S. Byatt, and Jeanette Winterson.

Finally, US STUDIES offered work on drama (Edward Albee’s The Goat; or, Who is Sylvia?, Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart); the novel: Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, Quiñonez’s Bodega Dreams, Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘hybrid’ novels, Ayana Mathis’ The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (really!?) and 10:04, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and Toni Morrison; short fiction: Poe, Annie Proulx’s Wyoming in Fine Just the Way It Is, George Saunders’ “The Semplica Girl Diaries’ (Tenth of December 2013)” and non-fiction (Perry Miyake’s 21st Century Manzanar). Saunders’ story is SF, as is the novel by Frederik Pohl, The Space Merchants, also dealt with in this panel.

The surprise came for me from the PRAGMATICS AND DISCOURSE ANALYSIS panel, which included work on the most neglected popular genre, romance – the paper “Discourse types and functions in a corpus of popular romance fiction novels (work in progress)”.

What does the snapshot show? First, that TV has not found yet its way into the AEDEAN conference… despite the round table on The Wire (in Film[?] Studies). Second, that there is a refreshing, up-to-date awareness of current trends, with many novels published in the 21st century and many new authors. Some classic authors remain (Carter, Morrison) but the field of research is fast expanding, specially as regards American authors of non-white ethnic backgrounds. Third, that only two popular genres (detective fiction, SF) are present in the panels, the former more consistently than the later but neither quite a strongly visible genre (both use the umbrella provided by other labels). Fourth: you may use this list as a very attractive reading list for 2016…

Is this representative or accidental? Yes and no. Take my own case: I’ve been devoted mostly to SF this past year but have presented a paper on two films with gay protagonists, Brokeback Mountain and Gods and Monsters, both adaptations of American authors. This is part of the research on masculinities produced with the group I’m currently working with and typical of what I tend to do, yet at the same time not what I am doing mainly now.

So, please, take the map with a pinch of salt… and enjoy!!

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. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE WRITER’S VIEW ON STYLE: A PASSAGE BY R.L. STEVENSON

I was planning to write a post today on what I have seen and heard in the recent XXXIX AEDEAN conference (11-13 last week) but this needs a bit of careful thinking I have no time for today. Unexpectedly–because it often happens that I end up writing about something that I never thought I would consider–I have woken up with this urge to write about R.L. Stevenson. I have already written plenty about the text by him which I teach every year, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but today I’m dealing with something quite different: the article “A Note on Realism” (1883, Magazine of Art), included in the volume Essays in the Art of Writing, which you can download from https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stevenson/robert_louis/s848aw/index.html.

This is a passage I have often used in class, as I did yesterday (forgive the long quotation):

Style is the invariable mark of any master; and for the student who does not aspire so high as to be numbered with the giants, it is still the one quality in which he may improve himself at will. Passion, wisdom, creative force, the power of mystery or colour, are allotted in the hour of birth, and can be neither learned nor simulated. But the just and dexterous use of what qualities we have, the proportion of one part to another and to the whole, the elision of the useless, the accentuation of the important, and the preservation of a uniform character from end to end—these, which taken together constitute technical perfection, are to some degree within the reach of industry and intellectual courage. What to put in and what to leave out; whether some particular fact be organically necessary or purely ornamental; whether, if it be purely ornamental, it may not weaken or obscure the general design; and finally, whether, if we decide to use it, we should do so grossly and notably, or in some conventional disguise: are questions of plastic style continually rearising. And the sphinx that patrols the highways of executive art has no more unanswerable riddle to propound.

To begin with, I find it a great pleasure to read texts about the craft of writing penned by the authors themselves. I would make it compulsory for all kinds of literary work to carry a writer’s comment in the style of the director’s comments on the DVD and Blu-Ray editions of films. Interviews would also do. I miss very much the many presentations by writers the Barcelona British Council used to offer, because they gave me the chance not only to collect autographed books but to hear authors discuss in person the tricks and challenges of their trade. At one point I asked the British Council whether we could edit a volume with the transcriptions of these presentations but the task was so gigantic that we soon abandoned the idea. I was at the time fascinated by the series of volumes offering interviews with major writers published by the Paris Review (now online http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews). I still am.

Anyway, back to Stevenson. Consider what he says: talent (i.e. “passion, wisdom, creative force, the power of mystery or colour”) is innate but style, the “mark of any master” can be learned and even “improved at will”. He speaks next of working on “the just and dexterous use of what qualities we have” to reach “technical perfection” which is, in his view, “to some degree within the reach of industry and intellectual courage”. I may be misreading but my impression is that Stevenson is here over-optimistic in the sense that, correct me if I’m wrong, but ‘industry’ and ‘intellectual courage’ also depend on inborn qualities.

Let me rephrase this: if a writer is born with talent that amounts to 80% of what is required to become a ‘master/mistress’, the 20% that depends on hard work will also depend on their having the required innate capacities to make the best of their talent. Inborn talent + limited ability to develop style = not a master/mistress (or an oxymoron). And the other way round: if a writer is born with a 20% talent for producing good writing, there is no way s/he can ‘learn’ the remaining 80%, as acquiring skills cannot compensate for limited innate talent. Or, as Stephen King argues, creative writing courses can help only if you already have a natural talent; ergo, only those with a natural talent are in a position to complement it with the ‘industry’ required to polish it into producing outstanding writing.

Stevenson does not seem to think that there is a direct link between the inborn talent and the subsequent industry (unless I misunderstand him) because he apparently thinks that the hard work he does on his texts should have similar results for all writers, which is not the case. His style is not a ‘natural’ product in the sense that, as I taught my students yesterday, he wrote Jekyll and Hyde in a six-day fever but spent then six weeks re-writing the text. This re-writing, the search for style and ‘technical perfection’ which he describes in the passage is what makes the work outstanding–both, I’ll insist, depend on inborn abilities. The ability to reach ‘technical perfection’ can be improved but not learned from scratch and much less in the absence of inborn talent. Now, what exactly causes some individuals to be naturally inclined to producing good writing is a mystery. Perhaps one day scientists will discover that it is a mutation.

The features that Stevenson describes as contributing to ‘technical perfection’ will surely remind you of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1842) and his defence of “the unity of effect or impression” (he’s actually discussing poetry). “The true critic”, he writes in defence of the short story, “will but demand that the design intended be accomplished, to the fullest extent, by the means most advantageously applicable”. This is what Stevenson seems to bear in mind when he writes that ‘technical perfection’ consists of “the proportion of one part to another and to the whole, the elision of the useless, the accentuation of the important, and the preservation of a uniform character from end to end”.

This was useful for me to remind students that Victorian writers who serialized their work for as long as it could find an audience (Charles Dickens) or those forced to fill in a three-decker (Anne Brontë) could not afford the luxury of trimming their texts as both Poe and Stevenson recommend. It seems then that both the short story and the novella (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one) clashed with the novel in this sense until the one-volume novel became the norm (in 1894, when Mudie’s and Smith’s refused to distribute three-deckers). The famous designers’ rule that ‘less is more’ (according to Wikipedia adopted in 1947 by minimalist architect Mies van der Rohe but first found in Robert Browning’s poem “Andrea del Sarto” of 1855) also applies, then, to Literature. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is, in that sense, an absolute masterpiece–whereas the other novella I teach, Heart of Darkness, would be by Stevenson’s standards in need of some pruning for its verbal flamboyance.

I agree wholeheartedly that trimming and pruning are essential tools for good writing–no matter how frustrated I feel every time I am asked to reduce my articles… The mystery, then, is why the current dominant trend in fiction writing is not the pared-down text that Ian McEwan is so fond of but the sprawling series. I wonder what Stevenson would think of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, now reaching its sixth volume and nineteenth year as I do wonder how Martin values style…

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. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

A BRIEF RETURN TO HOGWARTS, WITH QUESTIONS ABOUT COMMERCIAL LITERATURE

A week ago I visited my good friend Antonio Penedo’s class to deliver a lecture on my experience of teaching the Harry Potter series in the Spring of 2014. This was for his elective course ‘Estudios Culturales’ within the Minor in Comparative Literature and Theory of Literature (which used to be a second-cycle Licenciatura… alas!… always losing chances to enrich our academic panorama). His class is crowded enough and in addition I had the good company of some of my Victorian Literature class, probably close to 100 persons, a size I am not used to (my classes are around 50 students at the most). I think I can safely say that possibly 75% would have joined a new Harry Potter course if I had offered it on the spot; quite a few did ask me to do so.

I’ll deal first with the problems involved in going back to Hogwarts and then with two of the questions I was asked.

I could certainly teach again ‘Cultural Studies: The Harry Potter Case’ within the degree in English Studies… unless, that is, we start the feared 3+2 model immediately (whether within the Spanish Kingdom or the Catalan Republic, I don’t even know…). As I explained to students, this 3+2 models means the end for fourth-year electives, that wonderful chance to catch students right where you want them, at the end of three years of academic training in our style and with up to 35 persons in class.

My experience of teaching in masters’ degrees is that the electives do not work at a higher level (with the exception of the early years of the MA in Comparative Literature, then crowded with many absolutely brilliant Latin-American students, later expelled from the system by our crazy non-EU rates of up to 6,000 euros). Why not, if MA students already have a BA degree? Well, because they come from different backgrounds, both national and international and by the time you manage to produce a homogeneous academic approach the course is over… Sorry, but I think this is a common experience. I simply don’t see myself teaching Harry Potter in the first year of a two-year MA which, besides, needs more than 10/15 students, a critical mass big enough to generate a variety of experience.

Beyond the 3+2 problem, the fact is that a new Harry Potter course could not compare with the one I have taught in terms of the serendipity that made that one a unique occasion–I could have the same guests, the materials I could generate would be very similar to the ones I have published (or are still trying to publish). It would be haunted by intense déjà vu. And, then, it should be now or never, before the original readers leave university. As for teaching Harry Potter to students in another degree, the problem is that I don’t see myself teaching Rowling’s series in translation. I would cringe all the time… I did this once, I mean teach the same elective in English at 10:00 and in Spanish at 15:00 and it worked very well because the texts were essays and documentaries and, somehow, the translations worked (this was a course on the US critique of US-generated globalisation: Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore…). The problem with Harry Potter is the magical jargon which Rowling developed–the Death Eaters can never be Mortífagos for me, no matter how accurate the translation. Yes, I know, this sound snobbish but this is not what I mean–I’m sure my literary colleagues understand me.

Now for the questions from the floor: 1) if Rowling did not plan beforehand her heptalogy as a best-selling series, how come this is perceived as a commercial product?; 2) is the Harry Potter series Literature? My answers…

As it is well known, the Rowling myth is a rag-to-riches story. Here is this recently divorced mother, raising her daughter in Edinburgh, supported by the generous Scottish benefits system. She went through many difficulties to sell her first Harry Potter novel, and even when the first three novels (I think) were already successful in Britain, many publishing houses in other countries rejected them. If this had been a commercial operation from scratch, then Planeta would have published Rowling, instead of the (lucky) Salamandra, the only one to bid for her books then. Likewise, please do visit the awesome bookshop Gigamesh to see how far the profits of George R.R.R. Martin’s saga have taken its eponymous publishing house, which believed in Martin when nobody did in Spain.

The intensive commercialization, as I explained, corresponds mainly to the film adaptations and the entrance of the gigantic Warner Bros. corporation in Rowling’s universe. Once the series became a world-wide phenomenon turning Rowling into a billionaire, it became hard to say who was the owner, the author or the corporation. The colossal publicity campaigns connected with the book and film launches may make us believe this had been planned from book one, but it is simply not the case.

What is certainly true is that successful products inspire the intensive commercialization of similar products, often commissioned. Suzanne Collins’ trilogy The Hunger Games was, I believe, a phenomenon similar to Harry Potter, whereas now many of those who practice the new sub-genre spawned by Collins, young adult dystopian fiction, do so not out of conviction but because they see an easy chance to make a quick buck. Or because publishing houses head-hunt them, as was the case of Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent trilogy. The derivative product is easy to spot because it tends to be inferior in quality and seems to be written by joining the dots, if you know what I mean. Collins can be read (more or less), Roth is trash.

Is Harry Potter Literature? I wonder how many times I have been asked this… No, it is not if you understand by Literature the endeavour to produce (in fiction) high-quality prose in which you can observe the artistic ambition of the writer. I only found one passage I would call literary in that sense, corresponding to the description of the clashing wands in the duel between Harry and the resurrected Voldemort in the fourth book, Goblet of Fire. Rowling’s prose is palpably functional and extremely effective in leading the reader by the hand; this is a kind of prose which is not that easy to produce, for it can quickly become too obviously hackneyed. I think that Rowling naturally writes this way, that this is her talent (though I must say I have not read her other books).

This is not a literary talent as subtle as what you can find in any of the literary elite writers, from Philip Roth to Margaret Atwood, yet it is an aspect of Literature, whether we like it or not. As I explained, we need to think that the Harry Potter series was addressed to children and teenagers, not to adults and, hence, it operates within certain literary limits (yes, I remember the poetical Platero y yo, but that’s an exception). What I most appreciate, and I think there must be some authorial control here, is Rowling’s ability to darken her prose as Harry’s confrontation with Voldemort proceeds. The style of the first and the seventh book is very different: each suits the needs of the story and the age of the implied reader (7-10 in the first case, 16-18 in the latter). I myself was put off by the first book, which I found too childish, until I gave the series a second chance–when I got to book three, Prisoner of Azkaban, I finally understood the gimmick.

Sirius’ handsome wand, a central icon in the décor of my home office, watches my back as I write–this is how close Rowling’s series remain to me. Now, let me think about teaching the elective again…

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. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

IN SEARCH OF GOOD MEN (AS ANTI-PATRIARCHAL ROLE MODELS)

I have finally seen the BBC’s adaptation of Dickens’ Bleak House (2005) and Little Dorrit (2008), both scripted by the very talented Andrew Davies. Although I bought the DVD pack which includes both basically because I wanted to see the highly famed Bleak House, and I had no particular interest in seeing Little Dorrit, I found myself enjoying the latter even better. In both cases, though, I took much pleasure from seeing good men celebrated in the main characters John Jarndyce (Bleak House) and Arthur Clennam (Little Dorrit). No doubt, much of my pleasure derived from the excellent, elegant interpretations of Denis Lawson as Jarndyce and Matthew Macfadyen as Clennam. In these times in which actors are praised for playing evil men (a vogue possibly started by Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar in 1991 for the role of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs), it is rewarding to see that some actors can play good men with full credibility, without seeming too bland or sentimental.

The ten-minute (re)search I did to document this post revealed, nonetheless, that praising good men is not the thing done. A quick check of the MLA using the phrase ‘good man’ threw a limited number of results, most of them dealing with Flannery O’Connor’s famous short story of cynical title “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. In this story, written in 1953, published in 1955, there are no good men at all and, actually, the focus falls on a murderer. The novel by fellow American writer Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me (1952), a disgusting and disturbing insight into the worst kind of male mind which makes Breat Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991) look like a fairytale, had already made it clear that good men were gone. I am not sure whether this is an American phenomenon but a few more things made me take a deep breath and reconsider matters. One is that the Urban Dictionary defines a ‘good guy’ as “A male who despite being caring and respectful to his female friends and acquaintances will never become anything more than” (what Borja Cobeaga called ‘pagafantas’ in his 2009 eponymous film). The other is that The Good Men Project (2009), a multimedia resource founded to allow good men to share autobiographical key turning points, was the brainchild of James Houghton and a man whom few (women) define as good, Tom Matlack. From what I read, the project started as feminist-friendly but soon started showing signs of being, rather, patriarchy-friendly.

Back to Jarndyce and Clennam, I found on MLA only one piece related to Dickens’ good men, a positively ancient dissertation (MA or PhD is unclear to me) by one Thomas Richard Hagwood, of whom Google throws no further notice: “Dickens and the Power of Goodness: The Portrayal of the ‘Positively Good Man’ in Dickens” (1976, Dissertation Abstracts: Section A. Humanities and Social Science (36:) pp. 8073A-74A). The MLA database also led me to Naomi Segal’s article “Why Can’t a Good Man Be Sexy? Why Can’t a Sexy Man Be Good?” (in David Porter’s collective volume Between Men and Feminism, 1992, 35-47). The title is a bit misleading as what seems to worry Segal is why female sexual desire cannot be kept alive in a long-term domestic situation when your partner is a good guy (really?). She seems to me terribly confused, even worrying that a good husband (in the feminist sense of the word, a true partner) becomes in the end a ‘wife’. Segal claims she is not defending the sexiness of bad men but there is clearly a problem in an argumentation that cannot see masculinity and goodness as part of the same man.

As I have explained to my students again and again, 19th century narrative relied very much on this combination of features, a combination which we now deem unlikely. Both men and women writers agreed that the good man was an essential part of society: men saw in him the true gentleman and women the trustworthy husband that would protect them from the worst excesses of patriarchy. If you wish, the 19th century good man is defined by his choice not to abuse the power granted to him by the patriarchal system and by his decision to use that power to do as much good as he can. I am beginning to see that good men could (and did) subvert patriarchy in this way and I am sure that masculine goodness is the key factor that allowed children and women to secure the rights owed to them as citizens. Think J.S. Mill. I have, then, no illusions that Dickensian men like Jarndyce, Clennam and certainly John Brownlow are patriarchal but, well, I appreciate their gentlemanliness, generosity and plain human decency, which is a lot to say, particularly in comparison to contemporary male characters.

Contemporary fiction is not fully deprived of good men, though perhaps all of them are implicitly neo-Victorian. Leaving aside the ones that can be found in romance, a genre that I simply do not read (and if any is still found after the unleashing of the monster Christian Grey upon that genre) I have found some examples–all in literature addressed to children and young adults. Harry Potter’s godfather Sirius Black (possibly also Severus Snape), Katniss’ gentle admirer Peeta Mellark in The Hunger Games and the most recent addition to my list, Tom Natsworthy in Philip Reeve’s steampunk, post-apocalyptic quartet Mortal Engines (2001-6). Sirius and Tom are British, Peeta American, just in case this means something. Oh, my, I forget Orson Scott Card’s Ender Wiggins.

Yes, Harry Potter is no doubt also a good guy, possibly the reason why he has so few admirers as a hero (readers of Rowling’s series seem to like the story better than the protagonist). And here is where I am going: ‘sexiness’, in the widest sense of the word, call it ‘appeal’ if you will, depends to a large extend on admiration (doesn’t it?). Men positively ugly are loved by beautiful women as long as they have something to admire in them, whether this is athletic prowess or intellectual ability. What exactly is admired is the sexy bad guy is quite beyond me, though I suppose that what attracts is their power to resist domination and the challenge this entails. Now, the question is that goodness is not seen as admirable, hence appealing, hence sexy. I am sure Dickens would be mystified if we told him that few girls would rush to marry Arthur Clennam but this is the case. Jarndyce is a different matter as he is too old for Esther, the heroine, the very reason why he ultimately gives her up (allowing him, by the way, to marry another good man, Dr. Allan Woodcourt). Amy Dorrit (the quintessential good girl) chooses Arthur, then penniless, imprisoned and prematurely ageing, because he is a good man. Today we find the novel’s resolution sentimental and condemn these two, Amy and Arthur, as either too goody-goody to be believed or too damaged to be truly happy.

Perhaps the central weakness of ideas like the one behind The Good Men Project is that a man cannot step out and declare himself ‘good’. This is for others to do: mainly women but also other men. A man who protests that he is a ‘good guy’ protests too much, for if he were truly good there would be no need to proclaim it. Good men may be hard to find, as O’Connor suggested, but there must be many (some?) worth honouring, whether in real life or in fiction. What I am suggesting is that we need to make them central to the anti-patriarchal struggle to find alternative masculine models. Yes, I grant I sound terribly old-fashioned by vindicating Clennam and Jarndyce and, in general, the Victorian ideal of the gentleman (and look what Stevenson revealed about him with Dr. Jekyll).

Yet, the fact that good men are not our favourite persons and that we celebrate, above all, the powerful man explains why our current civilization is so fundamentally rotten. Doesn’t it?

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