…AND SUPERMEN: READING GRANT MORRISON’S SUPERGODS

[This is my 400th post and I want to thank all of you, readers. I feel very embarrassed when someone sends me a message or approaches me with a kind word but it is also a great pleasure. I do hope you also get a little bit of that from reading my raving and ranting. Thanks!!]

One of the most exciting perks of being a teacher is how much one learns from students. Until last January I had no idea who Grant Morrison was and then, suddenly, my doctoral students Angélica and Matteo decided to enlighten me from very different fronts and without even having met. You won’t believe me but I heard the words ‘Grant Morrison’ from their lips on the very same day–serendipity! If you are a comic book lover, I’m sure you must be thinking that my ignorance of Morrison’s oeuvre is simply appalling… and I would agree now that I know that he is one of the greatest new voices in the recent renewal of the superhero universe caused by the ‘British invasion’ (Morrison is a Glaswegian). The Brits, he explains, “dragged superhero comics out of the hands of archivists and sweaty fan boys and into the salons of hipsters. In our hands, the arrogant scientific champions of the Silver Age would be brought to account in a world of shifting realpolitik and imperial expansionist aggression.”

I don’t wish to comment here on Morrison’s long career (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grant_Morrison) but on his essay Supergods (2011). This is an irregular volume both because there are more accomplished introductions to the superhero but also because Morrison’s self-portrait of the artist is too sketchy. The insights into his own career range from down-to-earth financial aspects to his candid report of an out-of-earth crucial paranormal experience. All this, coming from the horse’s mouth is fascinating but, as I say, not fulfilling enough. Guided by Matteo’s interest in the mythopoesis of the superhero and Angélica’s curiosity about Morrison’s approach to scientific notions of the multiverse, I have, nonetheless, quite enjoyed Supergods.

This is the opening week for Zack Snyder’s blockbuster Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice, a box-office hit despite dismal reviews venting the same twin complaints: why do we take superheroes so seriously?, and why is Snyder’s bleak film not fun? I have not seen the film yet (I find the idea of Ben Affleck as Batman quite repellent) but I should say that we have been taking superheroes seriously at least since Frank Miller published The Dark Knight Returns back in 1986, thirty years ago… Here Morrison can help: “By offering role models whose heroism and transcendent qualities would once have been haloed and clothed in floaty robes, [superheroes] nurtured in me a sense of the cosmic and ineffable that the turgid, dogmatically stupid ‘dad’ religions could never match. I had no need for faith. My gods were real, made of paper and light, and they rolled up into my pocket like a superstring dimension.” As ‘supergods’.

As I have explained to Matteo, I believe that we are still missing a much needed explanation about why Western mythology (including Greek, Roman, Germanic, Nordic, etc.) has resurfaced of all places in the United States. As Morrison writes, “Like jazz and rock ’n’ roll, the superhero is a uniquely American creation. This glorification of strength, health, and simple morality seems born of a corn-fed, plain-talking, fair-minded midwestern sensibility.” Morrison points out that other countries have superheroes (the UK, France, Italy, Japan…) and offers the habitual explanation that Superman appeared as a fantasy aimed to compensate Americans for the ugly daily reality of the Depression Era and the horrors emerging in Nazi Germany. Still, I’m not convinced.

My husband, an habitual reader of comic books, suggests that I should explore the idea that, lacking the medieval tradition of the knight, America invented superheroes (Batman, remember, is the ‘dark knight’). I quite like his thesis but it cannot explain why superpowers were added to the figure of the hero/knight. If you recall, classic heroes were the hybrid sons of couples formed by an ordinary human and a divine individual, hence technically they were demi-gods. I would agree than when the alien Superman lands on the cover of Action Comics in 1938 America generates a new version of the demi-god, though perhaps Morrison exaggerates by claiming that “Superman was Christ, an unkillable champion sent down by his heavenly father (Jor-El) to redeem us by example and teach us how to solve our problems without killing one another.” In view of the dark night of the soul that many superheroes have been going through since Miller re-drew the campy Batman as a brooding Gothic icon, Morrison sounds certainly overoptimistic when he wonders whether the superhero could be “the best current representation of something we all might become, if we allow ourselves to feel worthy of a tomorrow where our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses that seek to undo the human project”. I wish!

Perhaps because of my own atheism I feel far more intrigued by Morrison’s declaration that the superheroes “may have their greatest value in a future where real superhuman beings are searching for role models.” It had never occurred to me that superheroes are a prefiguration of what we call now ‘post-human’ and even ‘transhuman’ yet this is indeed what they are. Think X-Men, above all. Nonetheless, as you can see, my student Matteo will have plenty to do in order to explain why myth has resurfaced specifically in the early 20th century comics published in America and how exactly the mythopoesis of the superhero genre has evolved in the past 80 years. The connection with the post-human scientific paradigm might be the missing element…

This brings me to Angélica’s focus on how Morrison’s awareness of current theoretical physics shapes his narrative style (in case I forgot to say, Morrison is a writer, not an artist/draftsman). Here we face two different questions: one commercial, the other personal, as you will see.

In Morrison’s words: “in place of time, comic-book universes offer something called ‘continuity’”. The many storylines owned by American comic book publisher DC “were slowly bolted together to create a mega-continuity involving multiple parallel worlds” aimed at integrating past periods in the life of re-booted superheroes (as we would say today) and new acquisitions. A singularity of superhero comics–possibly their main defining trait–is that DC and Marvel series have become “eternally recurring soap operas—where everything changed but always wound up in the same place”. The problem of how to prolong ad infinitum a successful character or series was solved, in short, by appealing to the idea of multiple narrative universes. This happened just when “string theory, with its talk of enclosed infinite vaults, its hyperdimensional panoramas of baby universes budding in hyperspace” started theorizing the existence of a multiverse (or our ‘multiversal’ existence). In this way, a plain commercial strategy was given an unexpected philosophical depth (I’m really serious about this–just in case…).

Morrison embodies better than any other current writer in any genre the confluence of the mythical, the mystical and the scientific, with an added in-your-face flaunting of his dabbing in the occult. A turning point in his career happened, he claims, one night in Kathmandu when he had an intense vision, courtesy of what he described as “chrome angels”. This experience introduced him to a new sense of time apprehended not as a linear event but as a total simultaneity “with every single detail having its own part to play in the life cycle of a slowly complexifying, increasingly self-aware super-organism”. Morrison decided to explore this epiphany in his comic books as he tried to find an explanation for his own new superpower, an ability to see a 5-D perspective of objects and of life “as it wormed back from the present moment and forward into the future: a tendril, a branch on this immense, intricately writhing life tree”.

What is most original about Morrison’s neo-Blakean visionary capacity is that, without doubting its reality one iota, he grants that it could be due to a temporal lobe seizure (“would it not be in our own best interests to start pressing this button immediately and as often as we can?”, he proposes), a lung infection that almost killed him, or his massive consumption of a variety of drugs for a long time. Never wavering for an instant, he concludes that “Superhero science has taught me this: Entire universes fit comfortably inside our skulls. (…) The real doorway to the fifth dimension was always right here. Inside. That infinite interior space contains all the divine, the alien, and the unworldly we’ll ever need”. Myth, mysticism and science coalesce, then, in the superhero mystique, at least according to Grant Morrison. And if you’re willing to accept that writing fiction is opening the door to beings coming straight out of the universes in our skulls it all fits. After all, even the gods and God are creations of the human imagination.

I envy Morrison his happy, gleeful fusion of the rational and the irrational and his ability to have turned this exercise in tightrope walking into the very productive foundation of his career. I just simply do not know enough about comic books to test his claim that superheroes are channelling our simultaneous need to a) bring the old gods into a world increasingly sceptical about God, b) maintain our falling ethical standards, c) supply a template for future post-human behaviour, d) connect us with the multiverse and e) inspire us to connect with our inner superhero. A very tall order indeed! I’ll trust Morrison, however, as he seems to know best.

After all, a world with no superheroes sounds, definitely, boring. And I don’t mean that they’re here to simply entertain us (this is just part of their truth) but also to re-connect us with parts of the ‘infinite interior space’ that our trivial daily lives are obscuring. Long live myth!

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/

OF MEN… : MASCULINITIES STUDIES AND THE GRASSROOTS REALITY

I’ll refer here to an article by Alejandra Agudo published in El País on March 18th: “Hablan los ‘nuevos’ hombres. Son feministas, igualitarios, cuidadores. Paco Abril, Octavio Salazar y José Ángel Lozoya defienden una sociedad más justa en la que ellos pierden poder” (http://elpais.com/elpais/2016/03/18/planeta_futuro/1458333179_184806.html). These three men were participants in the conference celebrated at the Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao, Paternidades que transforman (http://aitak.deusto.es/), hence their joint interview. I know Paco Abril from the seminars held by the research group I have worked with in the last four years, ‘Constructing New Masculinities’ (http://www.ub.edu/masculinities/), and I have a great deal of respect for him. He is a sociologist and a teacher at the Universitat de Girona and, above all, a pro-feminist activist for equality, the president of the Catalan branch of AHIGE (Asociación de Hombres por la Igualdad de Género, http://www.ahige.org/). I had never heard of José Ángel Lozoya, a member of the Red de Hombres por la Igualdad (http://www.redhombresigualdad.org/web/) who defines himself as “househusband, sexologist and gender specialist”. The name of Octavio Salazar, who teaches law at the Universidad de Córdoba, is more familiar, perhaps because he also writes for El País.

I find nothing particularly controversial in the article, which essentially confirms the impression that while the number of men who defend equality in their private lives is (slowly) increasing, men’s public activism is extremely limited. Men like Abril, Lozoya and Salazar do not represent, then, a recognizable movement but appear to be, rather, inhabitants of tiny islands of equality in a vast sea of inequality (excuse the corny metaphor). The sad, sad thing is that you needn’t go very far to see the enormous resistance they face: you just have to read the readers’ comments added to the article at the bottom of the webpage. Remember this is El País, supposedly a progressive newspaper read by liberal-minded persons.

There are very few positive comments, perhaps about 5 in a discussion amounting to 178 comments, and I must note that the most virulent opinions have been erased by whoever in El País monitors this kind of exchange. I have highlighted a few sentences, all by men, except where indicated; if you allow me, I’ll leave them in the original Spanish version, for the ‘castizo’, ‘machista’ nuances not to be lost in translation:

*Teniendo en cuenta lo que significa hoy en día el término ‘feminista’, un hombre que se defina como ‘feminista’… no es un hombre. (original ellipsis)
*Esos hombres no representan a los hombres ni a la igualdad. Son un instrumento al servicio del feminismo más radical. (…) En realidad, quienes defienden la igualdad de los hombres y los derechos de estos son los activistas por los derechos de los hombres o masculinistas.
*(…) Los retos de los nuevos tiempos nos deben de hacer reaccionar para no perder nuestro estatus y nuestra posición de privilegio en la sociedad. (…) ¿Nuevos hombres? no es mas que otra patraña de las que quieren desplazarnos de la esfera de poder para ser ocupada por ellas. (…)
*Y digo yo, ¿a Lozoya, las mujeres le endurecen la …..????
*[by a woman] (…) como mujer me gustan los varones hombres, sin cortapisas, ni melandros(sic)… la masculinidad es un valor en baja… Creo en la igualdad, no en la estupidez y lo digo como mujer que cada día lucha por ello, pero seriamente. (original ellipses)
*Lo que llegan a hacer algunos para ligar …
*(…) si estos tíos quieren luchar por la igualdad de derechos, que se pongan a a luchar por una ley de divorcio justa para los hombres (…) no veo a los colectivos feministas protestar por esto, ni por las denuncias falsas de maltrato, más del 80% de los casos, ¡¡es increíble!! (…)
*Señores, déjense de feminismos y de odiarse a sí mismos. No necesitan expiar sus pecados de varón, ya son buenos hombres porque sí, no por la luz salvadora del feminismo.
*¿Están siendo los hombres lo que de verdad desean ser o es el feminismo el que decide lo que debe ser un hombre? Parece haber un sentimiento de culpa derivado de una reducción de los hombres a machistas, maltratadores, violadores… que no deja libertad de elección. Me parece igualmente triste esa representación de una masculinidad obediente, bondadosa y dulce, que vive más pendiente del reconocimiento de su buena conducta que de su verdad. (original ellipsis)
*La masculinidad nunca ha abusado ni de la mujer ni de nadie. La paternidad comprometida ha sido lo único que ha movido a los hombres de todas las generaciones. (…)
*¿Y éstos marcianos de que país vienen?
*Me parece muy respetable que estos señores sigan un ‘modelo’ de vida acorde a sus ideas. Yo defenderé el derecho que tienen a seguir ese modelo. También supongo, y espero, que estos señores y los medios de comunicación desde donde se expande este ideario actuen con el mismo rasero y defiendan el derecho de los que no quieran seguir ese ideal.

These readers–and, please note that each passage corresponds to a different reader– might not represent all the Spanish defenders of patriarchy out there. It might well be, besides, that their in-your-face tone is deterrent enough for other men and women to express their anti-patriarchal views. I myself see no point in attracting plenty of negative energy by sending comments to this type of forum–yes, a bit cowardly of me. Yet I have come across the same or similar points in so many comments in different newspapers that I firmly believe they do represent our local reality too well. What is most disarming is the recalcitrance, by which I mean the impossibility of addressing these men in rational dialogue. I still have hopes that men like Abril, Lozoya and Salazar–and others like Luis Bonino and Miguel Lorente–can reach men in a way that feminist women cannot but I had not realized how much courage their task requires.

Recently, I tried to explain over a long coffee to a (male) colleague just arrived in the field of Masculinities Studies what these aim at and how little we have progressed. He was a bit alarmed, I must say, at my bleak panorama but I want nonetheless to reaffirm the (utopian?) ideas I am defending from my position. Unlike many other women who simply misunderstand what feminism is about–the struggle for equal rights–I have no problem to declare myself a feminist. I do not believe, however, that women can reach equality without men’s participation in a wide-ranging anti-patriarchal struggle. I preach to whomever listens that the common enemy is not masculinity but patriarchy, a social organization based on hierarchy conditioned by the individual’s degree of power and so insidious that its biggest triumph is making us believe there is no alternative to it. Yet, there is: a society based on equality among all citizens in which the will to help and not the will to power is the main aim. Sorry to sound so hippy.

I believe that we women have been thinking and doing for decades plenty to try to enjoy a better life but that we are facing enormous obstacles which have to do with women’s own complicity with patriarchy but, above all, with men’s lack of a clear anti-patriarchal agenda. In times when the patriarchal agenda is crystal clear and gaining adepts all over the world–think DAESH–the lack of a well-defined anti-patriarchal front is our worse enemy, both in the private and the public front. In the private front, it seems obvious to me that legislation is far from helping to stop the daily terrorist attacks committed against women and children by patriarchal abusers (I’m horrified to see that right here in my city the Maristas have chosen to defend rather than accuse the teachers who abused so many very young students in their schools). In the public front, it is simply not very clear on behalf of what we are fighting DAESH, for, if it’s human rights, then the refugee crisis sweeping Europe from East to West shows that nobody really cares to defend these rights. For all these I am using a good deal of my academic energy to insist that men have to become not (just) feminists but anti-patriarchal activists. It is my belief that if men are made aware of how evil patriarchy is and they embrace an anti-patriarchal stance then, automatically, they also become defenders of equality (pro-feminist) and the bane of any abuser.

It’s not, then, not only for me as a feminist to criticize and attack the men (and women) who have written the appalling comments I have reproduced here, nor for other women: men are the ones who should say ‘enough is enough’, patriarchy cannot and should not define masculinity for there are much better ways of being a man. Gentlemen: you are all invited to join the anti-patriarchal fight. Begin by freeing yourselves from the monster holding you down.

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/

“RINGIL ESKIATH. FAGGOT DRAGONSLAYER”: READY FOR A QUEER HERO? (RICHARD MORGAN’S A LAND FIT FOR HEROES)

I don’t particularly enjoy reading fantasy of the type set in pseudo-medieval settings because of its more or less covert patriarchal inclinations. I have to interview, however, British author Richard Morgan at Eurocon and, hence, I’ve gone through his fantasy trilogy of tongue-in-cheek title A Land Fit for Heroes. This comprises The Steel Remains (2008), The Cold Commands (2011) and The Dark Defiles (2014) and it is clear from the misadventures of the heroic trio of protagonists that their land is anything but fit for heroes.

Morgan’s trilogy is part of so-called ‘grimdark’, the currently popular trend in fantasy which aims at presenting readers with plots in which terrible things happen on the philosophical grounds that existence is a burden with or without a cool sword and magical powers. Generally speaking, Morgan’s fans (like myself) prefer his science-fiction to his fantasy though I believe that his diverse imaginary worlds are not so distant, linked as they are by the angst of his male protagonists, always at odds with their environment. In this particular case, what disgusts Ringil Eskiath are the homophobic laws of Trelayne, the land where he holds a privileged position as a nobleman but which makes an outcast of him as a gay man.

Yes, Morgan does this: he challenges readers to accept oxymoronic characterizations for his male heroes that go beyond the very obvious. Ringil is an extremely original character not just because he is, for all I know, the first (or one of the first) gay heroes in sword-and-sorcery fantasy but also because, despite his victimization, he is also an extremely violent man and, hence, an amazingly effective warrior. Perhaps because of his victimization. Whether they enjoy or not the convoluted plot, beset by too many deus ex-machina turns, many readers claim to admire Ringil for his rebelliousness and defiance of rules. This is another peculiarity of Morgan’s writing, as I know very well having devoted a long article to Carl Marsalis in Black Man: he charms readers with male characters who are extremely brutal and do unspeakable things but who are also burning with anger against the unfair systems of power that bind them. And you fall for them.

[Warning: spoilers ahead!]

In Ringil’s case his rage combines his horror at the execution of a former lover decreed by his own father, following the rules of the realm (the method is impalement), and his abhorrence of slavery, resurrected and legalized after a devastating war that seemed to announce a better future. Morgan, however, may have gone a bit too far in the violence which Ringil inflicts on others. Not only is his ‘hero’ guilty of killing children (never mind that these children are far from innocent cherubs), he also allows his men to gang-rape a female slaver. Brit Mandelo suggests in a review of The Cold Commands (http://www.tor.com/2011/10/12/a-hard-but-worthy-read-the-cold-commands-by-richard-k-morgan/) that Ringil does feels guilt at this atrocity and that Morgan “makes it clear” that his “sanction of her rape (…) is not acceptable.” There is something of that but, arguably, had he been heterosexual Ringil would have joined the other rapists–an ugly proposition for a so-called hero. Moving on, I found something else which gave me that icy punch in the guts you feel in the presence of evil. At one point in The Dark Defiles Ringil commits a horrifying act of violence against the man responsible for the brutal homophobic executions in his father’s domain. Morgan again uses this moment to teach Ringil a lesson, making him feel jealous of the deep bond this man enjoys with his son–but I was too aghast to pay attention. Both at Ringil for commiting that outrage and at Morgan for imagining it.

Other readers have been disturbed, or even disgusted, instead by the many gay sex scenes in the trilogy–you may read Morgan’s fuming answer to one such complaint in his own website (http://www.richardkmorgan.com/2010/10/i-got-another-one/comment-page-1/). Nobody, by the way, seems to have rejected Ringil as a homophobic representation of a gay man. I have no problem with the scenes, I just wonder where Morgan got his information from (and how his wife reacted to reading her husband’s books…). What bothered me was how the scenes highlight, essentially, Ringil’s inability to love any man he has sex with and a sexual behaviour that is not truly new in relation to your classic patriarchal hero. Gil’s hard-boiled cynicism may be a novelty regarding the representation of gay characters, which might explain why The Steel Remains won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, intended to “honor outstanding works of science fiction, fantasy and horror which include significant positive explorations of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered characters, themes, or issues” (http://www.spectrumawards.org/whatis.htm). I feel, nonetheless, trapped by the classic dilemma: have we reached a point in which a gay hero can also be a nasty man? Morgan says yes, for we need to accept all kinds of (gay) men; I have my doubts for I don’t wish to glamorise any barbaric man. No matter how attractive (same problem in Black Man).

I think that Morgan is making the point that the evil patriarchal systems which his heroes fight are destructive even of heroism, which is why his men are as monstrous as they are rebellious. I feel, however, the same unease I felt when I finished Black Man: I would have loved to see Ringil take one step further and claim justice for gays and end slavery–in short, to become politically effective. Morgan, however, does not want to go in this direction. Fair enough. The irony is that this task falls eventually into the hands of his female protagonist–a story suggested by the end but that remains eventually untold.

As happens, A Land Fit for Heroes is also a tale of deep friendship among a peculiar trio brought together by the war (against the Scaled People, a dragon species): Ringil himself, his berserker male friend Egar and their common female friend, Archeth. You seldom see the three together but the point is that they share a solid camaraderie and loyalty despite their differences. The bond between the macho warrior Egar and Ringil is supposed to show that male friendship needn’t be contaminated by homophobia, whereas the respect that the two men show for Archeth suggests that women can also bond with men… provided they are lesbians?

In a patriarchal land in which women only appear as either prostitutes (I lost count of how many times the word ‘whore’ is used) or slaves, whether within actual slavery or within marriage, Archeth manages to find a more or less secure political position as the main advisor of Yhelteh’s obnoxious Emperor. Just look at what this requires: Archeth is an immortal half-breed born of the union of a human woman and an alien Kiriath man. Her Kiriath genes have given Archeth her ebony skin but do not make the mistake of thinking that she is respected for being a black lesbian–no, what saves Archeth from rape and slavery is her literally unique paternal heritage. Other readers have complained that Archeth behaves like a man, which I find to be totally wrong. She is a profoundly feminine character, always concerned not to make herself too prominent and–something I don’t get–also extremely reluctant to assume any type of leadership. By the way, while Ringil enjoys encounters with many lovers, she agonizes about whether to have sex or not with a more than willing slave girl… When the long-awaited lesbian scene happens this is not as enthusiastically described as Ringil’s romps.

Since I am not a native speaker, the hero’s jokey, in-your-face self-presentation at one point of the trilogy as “Ringil Eskiath. Faggot dragonslayer” is more confusing than challenging. I was under the impression that ‘faggot’ was old-fashioned British slang when all the sources I have checked confirm that this is a US term currently used to abuse gay men–similar in offensive potential to ‘nigger’ (check if you wish the wonderful Wikipedia list of slang terms for gay men at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_LGBT_slang_terms#Male). I do not know why an English writer would use an American term in a pseudo-medieval fantasy novel but, well, this is how limited my philological skills are. Perhaps Morgan is very specifically targeting American homophobia, which seems to be much more profound and widespread than British homophobia.

I have found myself, in conclusion, ready enough for a gay hero but, if you ask me, I’d chose Archeth over Ringil to protect me (Egar is the best choice in case dragons attack!). After all, Archeth appears to be the real queer hero in Morgan’s trilogy–in all senses.

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/

AFTER INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY: PROGRAMMING WOMEN WRITERS IN OUR SYLLABI

Once more we have ‘celebrated’ on the 8th of March, International Women’s Day, and like last year (see my post) I only feel irritation. A main downside of ageing is that one accumulates a memory of past events long enough to understand that although many things change at the speed of light, others seem to take for ever. One of these is achieving gender equality (actually, dismantling patriarchy should be the real target).

What I am specially resenting today is the hypocrisy and the cant: you no longer hear anyone in the media openly declaring that women are inferior and should be discriminated on the basis of our possessing a vagina but it seems to me that the misogynists excluded from public view for reasons of political correctness are doing their best to do their job–you see plenty of them lurking, by the way, in the readers’ comments sections of online newspapers or behind the masks of the many trolls aggressively policing women in the social networks. Even in courts of justice and I do not mean male judges. At a time when Spain already has more female than male judges, which should call for celebration, we have female judges harassing abuse victims with questions that come straight of pure sexism. I am simply appalled that the question ‘did you try hard enough to close your legs?’ addressed to a rape victim has been heard on a Spanish court and from a woman’s lips in 2016.

I’ll try to avoid the rant that I published here one year ago and strike a more positive note. I’ll start by recommending 25 excellent science-fiction short stories by women that I have chosen for my elective course. This is part of a project to produce with my students a guide to reading short stories (which will also include 25 tales by men). Here they are (enjoy!); all authors are US-born, unless specified:

Bear, Elizabeth. “Tideline” (2007).
Brackett, Leigh. “No Man’s Land in Space” (1941).
Cadigan, Pat. “Is There Life After Rehab?” (2005).
Cherry, C.J. “Cassandra” (1978).
Due, Tananarive. “Patient Zero” (2010).
Ermshwiller, Carol. “Creature” (2002).
Fowler, Karen Joy. “Standing Room Only” (1997).
Goldstein, Lisa. “The Narcissus Plague” (1995).
Goonan, Kathleen Ann. “A Short History of the Twentieth Century” (2014).
Griffith, Nicola. “It Takes Two” (2010). British author (naturalized US citizen)
Gunn, Eileen. “Coming to Terms” (2004).
Hoffman, Nina Kiriki. “Futures in the Memory Market” (2010).
Hopkinson, Nalo. “The Easthound” (2013). Canadian author.
Johnson, Kij. “26 Monkeys also the Abyss” (2008).
Jones, Gwyneth. “The Tomb Wife” (2008). British author.
Kowal, Mary Robinette. “Evil Robot Monkey” (2012).
Kress, Nancy. “Out of all them Bright Stars” (1985).
Lee, Yoon Ha. “A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel” (2011).
McCaffrey, Anne. “The Ship Who Sang” (1961)
Moore, C.L. “Shambleau” (1948).
Norton, André. “All Cats Are Grey” (1953).
Russ, Joanna. “When It Changed” (1972).
Tiptree jr., James. “The Women the Men Don’t See” (1972).
Wilhelm, Kate. “Mrs. Bagley Goes to Mars” (1978).
Willis, Connie. “Daisy in the Sun” (1982).

Next, I’ll refer to my title. An implicit rule in my Department is that syllabi must be balanced and contain an equal representation of men and women. This is not always easy to accomplish, not because women have not produced excellent work but because much of that work is not as canonical as that of men. I have been reading with my class a very good piece by Adam Roberts (in The Science Fiction Handbook edited by Nick Hubble & Aris Mousoutzanis) on how canons are formed. In it he explains that Dale Spender changed back in 1986 the conditions for the upkeep of the canon for the English novel by claiming with her book Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Novelists Before Jane Austen not only that at least 100 women novelists had been so far ignored but that they were good. The 18th century canon has, therefore, expanded to include many more women and it is quite possible to teach a course including a mixed selection of men and women. Whoever does this is, in practice, altering the old-fashioned canon for good if only for the benefit of a handful of students. Roberts presents the gender-inclusive transformation of the canon as a solid, generally accepted process and simply dismisses as ‘not-the-done-thing’ all-male reading lists in any university course. (He should have visited my Department last semester…).

The real challenge, however, does not lie just in finding a new balance in our classroom for the canon of the past but applying new strategies to the formation of the canon of the future. And this is done mainly in contemporary fiction courses.

This is why I want to praise here what a colleague in my Department has done for, precisely, our course on current British fiction. This teacher has selected six novels by six women novelists: Karen Joy Fowler’s We are All Completely beside Ourselves (2013), Poppy Adams’ The Behaviour of Moths (2008), Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine (2010), Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing (2014), Zadie Smith’s NW (2012) and Marina Lewycka’s Two Caravans (2007). The course objectives are, as described in the official syllabus, “to come to a fuller understanding of particular aspects of post-modern Britain (…) attempting to comprehend those concerns and leitmotifs that may be generally applicable in these novels to the culture as a whole, with the aim of attaining a closer conception of the cultural parameters currently at work in contemporary British society.” Now, here is the best thing: my colleague is a man, David Owen.

And, yes, I’m extra happy that the course objectives do not refer at all to gender for this means that for David the writers chosen are, above all, high-quality writers and not principally women writers. When David confirmed this approach to me I joked whether the problem is that male British novelists are not up to the task of producing good fiction and he said that certainly the diverse new currents started back in the 1980s by Martin Amis and company have run their courses and now, I paraphrase, the novelists offering the more interesting proposals are women.

If one of my women colleagues had produced a similar syllabus I’m sure this would have been read as yet another feminist attempt as displacing the men, mere ‘women’s literature for women’. The idea of a woman teaching a reading list composed only of women writers faces inevitably this problem. This is why we need the men as allies, for with this list David is sending students the message that a) men do read and enjoy fiction written by women, b) men can certainly value women’s work above the fiction men are currently writing and c) it is about time that the inclusion of women writers in any syllabus stops being an act of feminist defiance to become the most habitual thing in the world… So, please, let’s have more men teaching work written by women because they are good writers.

I asked nonetheless one of my women colleagues whether David’s list is not a bit too much, an excessive reversal of the too often habitual exclusion of women. This colleague told that me she personally prefers mixing her writers (remember I am not mentioning other identities markers like race, ethnicity, etc) but she welcomed the idea of teaching only women. After all, she said, we have had only-men Literature courses for too long. And been told, besides, that the only principle of selection was their high quality, not, as it was always the case, their gender.

I am also particularly happy that there is no international writing women’s day, for this means that women writers have no specific grievances to vent regarding their profession (or am I wrong and women writers are also paid less for their work than their male peers?). I am myself privileged in relation to most women in my country, the sixth one in Europe in the black list of nations where women are exploited for basic gender reasons (women are paid 20% less here than their male peers). This does not mean I forget the simple fact that women are still woefully under-represented in the ranks of the Spanish full professors (15% to 53% of female students).

I’ll end as I started by wondering in irritation who International Women’s Day addresses. The media were full yesterday of items celebrating women’s achievements but also of many reports on the appalling conditions which women endure all over the world. We women already know about all these achievements and horrors and, seemingly, so do the anti-patriarchal men. The others, the patriarchal bastards that keep us tied to their sexism and misogyny were, I’m sure, mocking all the protests while enjoying the snug positions of power they occupy.

The European Commissioner responsible for gender equality, Vera Jurova, has declared that the European Union might reach equality in rights for all persons in 70 years. Two more generations?? I should say we have a serious problem if this is the best the EU can offer… Now think of the rest of the world. (And include more women in your Literature syllabi!!)

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/

SOME ARCHEOLOGY: THE OLD ‘LICENCIATURA’ IN ENGLISH PHILOLOGY (THINKING OF THE 3+2 REFORM)

The student assembly at the Facultat de Filosofia i Lletres where I work have decided that the national student strike announced for tomorrow is not enough and so have extended it to yesterday, today and tomorrow. I have lost count of all the strikes I have witnessed in my 30 years at UAB, as student and teacher–one thing I know is that none of them have bothered the diverse Ministries of Education at all… I certainly am in favour of people struggling to defend their rights but I wonder why the methods have not adapted to the 21st century. Also, I fail to understand why suspending one’s education for a few days may send the Ministry any message, as there is no way a students’ strike can reproduce the effect which a workers’ strike is supposed to have. Anyway… the same arguments all over again every few years if not every year.

I have already written here about the reasons for the protest: the new degree reform announced in 2014 (see my post for 19 October) and legislated in 2015 (see my post for 4 February). Although we have not yet started drafting the new syllabus and we are actually going through our first process of BA degree accreditation, it seems that the Catalan universities will go ahead with the plan to transform our degrees into the 3+2 model beginning in 2017-18 (some new degrees are starting in September). I was reminded yesterday that the Generalitat has not yet appointed a Secretary for the Universities; besides, there is currently only a provisional Spanish Government, with a most likely chance of new elections in June. How wise it is for any reform to begin at this point is for the reader to decide.

My own view, already expressed here again and again is that the 3+2 model might be acceptable for English Studies provided a) the 3-year BA is taught only in English, including possible common courses shared with other language and Literature degrees; b) the fees for the 2-year MA are the same as for the BA, so that all newly graduated students can have the option to complete the 3+2 model. This is pretty much the official position of my Department. I have observed also again and again that this apparently new 3+2 model reproduces that of the old ‘Licenciatura’, which consisted of a first cycle after which you could be granted a ‘Diplomatura’ degree and a second cycle, followed by a doctoral programme. Actually, the Spanish Parliament has recently determined that in legal terms possessing a ‘Licenciatura’ is the equivalent of possessing a ‘Grado’ and a Master’s degree. So, why, many of us are wondering, not go back to the ‘Licenciatura’.

I’ve done my digging at the website of the Boletín Oficial del Estado to find the syllabus (Plan de Estudios) implemented back in 1977, the first one after Franco’s death, that is, the first university reform of our then young democracy. The ‘Orden por la que se aprueba el Plan de estudios de la Facultad de Filosofía y Letras de la Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona’ can be found at https://www.boe.es/buscar/doc.php?id=BOE-A-1977-27200 (16 November 1977, BOE 274). I had forgotten that the Facultat offered then 1 single degree in ‘Filosofía y Letras’ with specialities, but it is interesting to note that the decree speaks of students tailoring their degrees to suit their needs with the help of a tutor… (which I never had).

Credits were counted by classroom time, i.e., 1 hour = 2 credits. The first cycle amounted to 90 credits (15 annual subjects), of which only 18 credits had to be from another speciality; 60 had to be taken within the speciality. The decree gives the Facultat the choice not to organize a common first year syllabus. This sounds quite open in relation to what we have now, though my suspicion is that the freedom granted by the decree was actually diminished by internal regulations. Second cycle: 60 credits, 42 belonging to the speciality chosen, 18 to any other speciality (the word ‘minor’ was not part of the vocabulary). Now, this does contrast with the current limitations, as students’ need to stick to a much more limited choice. Interestingly, the BOE speaks of ‘transversal specialities’ taught by different Departments–we could have had, for instance, a second cycle on Literature in different languages… never happened!!

Thus, until the ‘Licenciatura’ became a 4-year degree in 1992 (see http://www.boe.es/boe/dias/1993/01/28/pdfs/A02385-02388.pdf), students of ‘Filología Inglesa’ at UAB took the following yearly courses: ‘English language’ (I, II and III), ‘English Literature’ (I and II), ‘Anglo-Saxon Civilization’, ‘History of Language’ (with the pompous name of ‘Filología Germánica), and ‘German language’ (I, II and III). Students also had to take ‘Lengua Española’ (I and II), and ‘Introduction to Literary Studies’ (taught by the Spanish Department). In the second cycle, if I remember correctly, you could choose to specialize in English language or Literature, provided you chose a minimum of 5 semestral electives from the other branch. I haven’t been able to find a list of subjects, though.

Seeing this information, I realize that little by little the ‘Licenciatura’ descendants have pushed German out of the syllabus, to make room for more English language courses beyond the instrumental; Literature has also expanded to include more American Literature. The number of courses outside the Department was back in 1977 the equivalent of 6 semesters, in comparison to the current 4, but still so, these 4 semesters are a bone of contention, for we feel they should be taught in English. Needless to say, this is going to be the main obstacle for our Department in the new reform. All in all, however, the impression that ‘Licenciados’ (pre-1992) had a better exit level than later students may have to do with their taking a five-year course of studies than with the actual training they received. Following this line of thought, the students receiving the worst training were the ones in the period 1992-2009, as they took a 4-year ‘Licenciatura’ with no option to take an MA (except abroad).

Beyond the crucial question of the fees (they were relatively lower for the ‘Licenciatura’ and the same for the five years), our specific problem–and I refer here to all English Studies in Spain–is our students’ low command of the language we teach in. This is something we all know: the 1977 ‘Licenciatura’ attracted mostly students who understood that their English had to be solid enough to face the demands of the degree; since 1992, however, and particularly since the implementation of LOGSE in 1994, we are attracting students who, mostly, want to learn English. I’m perhaps exaggerating and back in 1977 (or 1984 when I started the ‘Licenciatura’) there were also many students with an inadequate command of English. I recall, however, from my students’ days a high rate of competitiveness among students to test who had the best accent, the largest vocabulary. This has been gradually vanishing from our classrooms. It makes for a certainly more relaxed atmosphere but the absence of peer pressure and the decreasing standards have also increased the time we need for pure instrumental language training. Hence the need to turn absolutely all subjects into English language practice.

That this is seen with a great deal of hostility became evident to me recently. I explained the idea that the common courses should also be taught in English, even when they are taught by teachers outside the Department, to a colleague in the Comparative Literature section (they teach the first year core course) and he was absolutely furious. Two things were striking in his overreaction: a) the idea that, we, English philologists, are not qualified to teach Linguistics and Literary Theory and b) a total incomprehension regarding the role that English plays in our classrooms. I understand the territorialism though, obviously, I disagree with it. What baffles me is the other matter. I tried to explain that if my students’ English is too weak, there is no way I can teach them Dickens (for example) but I totally failed. Now, my students’ English has been too weak for Dickens since, at least, I insist, 1994 and may never again be strong enough. Whether we limit the BA degrees to 3 years might make no difference at all, as I’ll probably still be teaching Dickens in the second year but, surely, if we could use more time for English in the first year, that would make at least some difference. Why this is so hard to understand is beyond me…

I’ll stop here. My master’s students have democratically decided not to be on strike this afternoon so I’m off to the UAB, hoping the habitual picket lines and barricades will be no obstacle… But that’s a topic for another post.

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/