THE BIOLOGY OF CREATIVITY: A FIRST APPROACH

I keep on telling my students that nobody is doing research on what I call fabulation–the writer’s ability to string together an imaginary story–but it turns out I am partly wrong. My mistake lies in having supposed that this research should be a branch of psychology when it is actually also a branch of biology and, to be more specific, of neuroscience. If this is the case, then I am not surprised that I have missed its existence because I feel a certain mistrust for neuroscience. This is grounded on my totally bigoted belief that neuroscience is trying a bit too hard to explain human emotion as a set of biochemical reactions. Call me Romantic, but I do not look forward to the day when human nature (I was going to write ‘soul’ but then I recalled I am an atheist) is fully explained by rational science–a point I have already made here. But I digress, as usual.

I have been given a wonderful little book for Sant Jordi (book’s day here in Catalonia), a classic of American journalism: Joseph Mitchell’s The Secret of Joe Gould (1964). The book actually contains two pieces by Mitchell on Gould, a.k.a. Professor Seagull, written at two different moments of the relationship between the two men. Gould, a bohemian gentleman, very popular in New York’s Greenwich Village, managed to eke out a precarious living by convincing his sponsors that they were contributing as patrons to his writing of an American masterpiece: An Oral History of Our Time. Mitchell discovered the secret mentioned in the book’s title, which I am not going to reveal, and this rounds off a unique portrait of a unique personage. If you’re curious, read the book, or see the film adaptation with Stanley Tucci as Mitchell and Ian Holm as Gould. Furthermore: see for an alternative version which questions Mitchell’s conclusions the article by Jill Lepore (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/27/joe-goulds-teeth).

Sorry about my ignorance of topics which, I’m sure, must be very well-known by my Americanist colleagues but it turns out that the book on Gould was Mitchell’s final volume: he suffered from one of the worst cases of writer’s block ever, and could not manage to write anything between 1964 and his death in 1996, even though he spent many hours every day in his New Yorker office. The words ‘writer’s block’ send chills down my spine because this is a mysterious condition which does affect all types of authors for reasons ultimately unknown (and we, academics, are also authors). In some situations, writer’s block is to be expected such as when a novelist who has published an immensely successful first novel simply cannot produce a second one. In other cases, such as Mitchell’s, there is no clear reason why writer’s block happens. My personal belief is that his case, as I am sure many other people have theorized, may have had to do with the impact of Gould’s work on An Oral History of Our Time, which perhaps unleashed deep-seated fears in Mitchell that he could not write at all. I simply do not know whether Mitchell tried to be cured but the point is that his case is mentioned in The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain a book by neurologist Alice W. Flaherty, which back in 2004 was a controversial pioneer in a new field. Funny how, despite the many volumes on Literary Theory which I have read in the last 10 years, none mentioned Flaherty nor any other volume remotely similar to hers.

I have not read Flaherty yet but I have learned from her a new word I had no idea existed until yesterday: hypergraphia, the opposite of writer’s block. In a promotional interview (http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/booksellers/press_release/flaherty/), Flaherty explains that hypergraphia is “driven, compulsive writing” triggered by “known brain conditions” involving “the temporal lobes”; also, and this is a puzzling sentence, “hypergraphia seems to reflect a component of literary creativity, namely creative drive”. Ironically, one of the most hypergraphic authors, Stephen King, also became a most famous sufferer of writer’s block after being hit by a truck. You’ll see now why I distrust neuroscience: after diagnosing 70% of all poets as “manic depressive” individuals, Flaherty makes the classic claim that “in women, there’s evidence that creative ability varies with the menstrual cycle. Plath illustrates this very vividly”. This, as we know, cuts both ways: some feminists will see the ebbs and flows of women’s body as part or source of our creativity, others (like myself) will be horrified by yet another attempt at picturing us as poor things (animals?) tied to our menstruation. Really… Flaherty stresses that while the treatments for writer’s block seem to work well and are much in demand from those afflicted with it–unsurprisingly… –those affected with hypergraphia do not seek professional medical help. “What right”, does Flaherty wonders, “do I have to give a medical name to a character trait that people value in themselves?” Indeed. By the way, Flaherty stresses that “talking about creative drive in neurological terms does not have to degrade the experience or value of creativity” and that “the medical terminology can coexist with the equally important, more subjective language that we are more comfortable with”. I’ll stick to the ‘subjective’ language for the time being, being a Humanist and not a scientist.

The field beyond Flaherty is so big I do not know how to start wandering into it, for there is, of course, a whole discipline called ‘Creativity Studies’. To begin with, you may check the Tennenbaum Centre for the Biology of Creativity at UCLA (https://www.semel.ucla.edu/creativity/references), founded by the kind of eccentric tycoon that I had thought extinct since Orson Wells’ Kane (Michael E. Tennenbaum even has a glass castle). As I should expect, many psychologists devote their research and practice to creativity. Division 10 of the American Psychology Association, which gathers them together, deals with “interdisciplinary scholarship, both theoretical and empirical, encompassing the visual arts, poetry, literature, music and dance” (see http://www.apa.org/about/division/div10.aspx). There is even a journal, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts (http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/aca/index.aspx). Many articles seemed informed by affect theory and deal with reception, but none, as far as I can see, with fabulation in the sense I am using it. Most likely, I need to search further.

I am particularly interested in the writer’s fabulation in the field of the fantastic, in particular science-fiction, although I would certainly agree that realistic fabulation is equally important. So far, however, we, literary scholars, have failed to explain where Madame Bovary comes from in the same way we have failed to explain the origins of Dracula. We speculate endlessly on whether a certain biographical event or the impact of a text read by the author is connected with particular plots points or characters but the method thus far followed is full of errors. Biographical research often degenerates into mere gossip and intertextual connections are frequently vehemently denied by authors. The formalist rejection of the personal to focus on the textual seems in this context quite convenient but, of course, it is ultimately unsatisfactory as texts happen to emerge from people’s brains.

There must be, however, a middle ground between the claim that Rose Maylie’s near death in Oliver Twist was inspired by the real death of Dickens’ young sister-in-law, and the claim that Rose Maylie emanates from a neurochemical reaction in Dickens’ frontal lobe triggered by God knows what… This is where I would like to go and explore… If I found a writer patient enough, I would beg him or her to examine at the end of the day the process of fabulation they have followed. Writers love to talk about their technique even when they claim that it is all a bit nebulous and characters seem to follow their own paths (I’ve never read an article about this often repeated claim). I would end up this way with something similar to the ongoing director’s comments in the Blue Ray or DVD edition of films. But, then, no writer, I’m sure, would want to have an academic looking over their shoulder as they write… Pity… If you know of any, let me know!

One day some scientist will discover that the predisposition to read and the predisposition to write and/or fabulate are genetic, perhaps a mutation, and we will finally understand why those of us who love Literature feel increasingly like freaks.

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/

SO YOU WANT TO PUBLISH A BOOK…: AUTHORS AND PUBLISHERS

The post today refers to three situations connected with publishing books. The first one is the presentation that two independent editors gave recently, to an audience mainly composed of my students, explaining how a small press works. The second is the publication of a collective book to which I have contributed an article. The third are my attempts to get an academic book in Spanish published. Actually, I’ll add a fourth point having to do with desktop publishing programmes. It all connects, you’ll see.

I have recently met Hugo Camacho, a young man with a degree in ‘Filologia Inglesa’, who runs single-handedly Orciny Press (http://www.orcinypress.com/). A week ago he offered a presentation at the bookshop Gigamesh in Barcelona together with his colleague Ricard Millán, who runs another small press, Sven Jorgensen (http://www.svenbooks.com/). I had agreed with Hugo that I could ask as many questions as I wanted on behalf of my students and so I did. The result can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pS_Nnp6vqQ, an hour full of very interesting information about how the business of publishing books looks from the side of the (small) publisher.

I could comment on what Hugo and Ricard explained point by point and never be done, which is why I’ll highlight just one issue: the mathematics. An independent publisher, they explained, self-distributes by selecting sympathetic booksellers. Small presses like theirs tend to be one-men (or one-woman) shows in which most of the tasks that occupy ten-person teams in middle-sized presses are done by just one person. The maths: they publish, generally speaking, from 7 to 10 books a year, perhaps 12 at the most. A typical print run is 150/250 books, though volumes are also offered through print-on-demand services, and as e-books. The habitual distribution of benefits works like this: 10% for the author, 30% for the distributor, 30% for the publisher, 30% for the bookseller. You need to deduce from all this taxes and costs (in the case of the publisher these include items such as translation, book design, text composition, style correction and proof reading). Small presses tend to cut the middleman off, that is to say the distributor, but even so if your 10 books sell 200 copies each at 20 euros–and that’s supposing a lot–we’re speaking about 40000 euros, of which 24000 would go to the small press. It’s not much… By the way, the author of each of the books would get 400 euros (before taxes).

At least, authors are paid by small presses but (and this covers points two and three) for reasons I have never quite understood when you publish an article in a collective volume you never get paid; I’m now finding out, besides, that when you try to publish an academic book in Spain you’re expected to pay in more and more cases.

I have recently published, as I say, an article in a collective book. I’m very pleased with the volume and with the work of the editors, particularly because they commissioned me to write a piece which has pushed my research in interesting directions which I had only half-considered before. I don’t wish to name the title of the volume, nor the publishing house because this is irrelevant for the point I’m trying to make, namely, that the volume (hardback, 250 pages) is on sale at the price of €99,00 ($128.00). This is not exceptional at all. Xavier Aldana’s excellent Body Gothic, which I have already mentioned here, is sold at £95.00 or $160.00 (both hardback and e-book!). I ended up asking for a copy to write a review and that’s how my institution’s library got it (I won’t say a word about the book being in the basement depot, out of sight).

If I, with my Senior Lecturer privileged salary, need to blink hard and think twice before spending €99,00 on a book, imagine what it’s like for undergrad students. Or is the other way round? Are publishing houses demanding these fantastic prices because students (and teachers) have stopped buying academic paperbacks? More questions: how do young researchers writing their PhDs manage? And how many people will read our exciting collective volume? Can a €99,00 book make an impact? How many copies can be sold all together? 400 world-wide at the most? Can we really ask our Departments and university libraries to spend so much public money on high-priced books? Is this all part of the general trend to re-directed academic publishing in the Humanities towards journals? At least, we’re not paying to be published in journals–or are we? A look at the Spanish market for university-produced books reveals that here the prices for volumes in the Humanities are not that high. Check http://www.unebook.es/, the bookshop of the Unión de Editoriales Universitarias Españolas, and you will see that our national university presses are still selling available paperbacks (most for under €25), some of them truly cheap in their e-book version.

I must at this point declare my incompetence, for I see colleagues announce on our AEDEAN list volumes published with major Anglo-american academic presses and I wonder why the impossible fifteen years ago has now become, if not exactly common, at least feasible. I’m mystified. We, Spanish English Studies specialists, tend to publish less in Spanish, which is why I decided to try to publish in this language a selection of works I have already published elsewhere in English. The first lesson I have learned is that when you ask for permission to reproduce articles published abroad in collective books, the publishers drag their feet. I’ve been given permision to translate myself and upload the resulting translation onto the digital repository of my university but not to use my own translated work in a Spanish book. Odd. Journals seem more flexible. The second lesson I’m learning is that publishers expect to be paid, in principle with money from research projects. I don’t know how this works in other projects, but I’ve always been in large groups with limited funding, which has gone to a great extent into the collective books published by Spanish houses but not into books by individual researchers. When I asked my previous group whether they could help me to publish my projected volume they said no, on the grounds that if everyone else made the same petition that would quickly exhaust our scant funding. I’m talking about a figure between 2500 and 6000 euros per book.

I have a bad experience of not being paid royalties for two of my books by a commercial publisher so it’s not the case that I expect to get money from any volume. I’m not, however, willing to pay for publication out of my own pocket if I can help it, not only because I already invest a good deal of my salary in my career but because if you pay, then this is a vanity publication, which should not count for our CV. Funnily, Hugo and Ricard, the small press owners, were very proud to stress that they do not charge authors. I think that the book I’m working on is attractive enough to justify that a university press publishes it but I was told by the publishers I visited yesterday that my potential audience is actually limited to just a few hundred, with luck. Naturally, they are reluctant to invest money on my book and prefer that I finance it, or co-finance it. Now, my question is whether most of the many books I see on the UNE bookshop have been published in this way. I’m mystified, more and more so.

I told my potential publishers in what was, believe me, a very friendly conversation, that if there is no market for my product then I would be very happy to self-edit my volume and upload it as a .pdf onto UAB’s repository. I already have more than 50 documents there, not including syllabi and the dissertations by my tutorees, with more than 15,000 downloads in total (talk about impact…). I was asked what my documents looked like and when I showed one example (an article) edited using Word, it was hinted to me that I would need professional services to publish an e-book. I felt so mortified that about five minutes later I was asking Hugo Camacho what do professional publishers use (Adobe InDesign) and my university whether we have a licence for that (no, too expensive, we don’t even have one for Acrobat beyond Reader). A colleague has suggested Scribus, a free desktop publishing programme; I’ll give it a try. So, there you are: now I intend to train myself in pseudo-professional desktop publishing to make my own e-books. The things we university teachers do…

So, here’s my conundrum–and, yes, I think that I’m asking my readers a direct question. What should I do?

A. Try to find a (hopefully prestige) commercial publisher outside the academic circuit and aim at a general readership (target: 800 copies?)
B. Convince my potential academic publisher that my book is worth publishing, perhaps in co-edition with another university press (target: 400 copies?)
C. Pay to be published by said academic publisher or another (target: 400 copies?)
D. Produce my own professional-looking e-book and make it available for free on DDD (target: 1500/2000 copies, judging by previous volumes)
E. Produce my own professional-looking e-book and make it available for money on Amazon.es (really?), or a specialized platform (is there one for academic work? Hugo and Ricard use Lektu and I could do so, but it’s not academic)
F. Persuade AEDEAN that we fund our own e-book platform for English Studies and that we give the books away for free as we do with the journal Atlantis
G. Fund my own online academic small press and invite colleagues to publish with me for free, provided they produce their own e-books

You tell me… (and guess which options do not count as valid academic publications for the Ministry).

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/

PRESIDENT RAJOY AND THE STARSHIP THAT FAILED TO LAND ON NOU CAMP: ‘ESPERPENTO’, LOW SELF-ESTEEM AND CERVANTES

My doctoral student Josie Swarbrick, who is working on the representation of monstrous masculinity in SF cinema, visited last week my SF class to offer a presentation based on one of her dissertation’s chapters, the one on District 9. In that film a massive alien starship reaches Johannesburg carrying thousands of refugees who have nowhere else to go. Their unenthusiastic South African hosts decide to lock them in an insalubrious township placed in, precisely, District 9, as they decide how to cope with these unwelcome, unsightly visitors. If you have seen the film you know that the central plot concerns the accidental transformation of a pathetic white man into one of the frankly disgusting ‘prawns’, a metamorphosis usually read in the context of post-Apartheid policies but that Josie is reading taking into account this man’s strange fall out of the human species.

District 9 is exceptional, as any SF fan knows, because it changed the trope of the alien invasion in cinema by turning the extraterrestrial visitors into refugees and by setting the action outside the habitual US context. Its closest precedent is possibly Alien Nation (1988, TV series 1989-1990), in which the aliens are not invaders, either, but runaway slaves seeking refuge from their masters in the Los Angeles area. Men in Black (1997) included a scene showing the MIBs patrolling the Mexican border, trying to make sure that no illegal aliens would cross it. In the more recent Monsters (2010) the metaphorical link between the extraterrestrial alien and the illegal human migrant is emphasized: the monsters of the title have invaded most of Earth and only the USA remains a safe haven for humans–or so Americans think. Like real Americans today, the fictional Americans of Monsters seem to believe that migration can be stopped, which is never the case.

I started a conversation about the aliens in these films and I asked my students what kind of stories we could tell, taking into account the shameful humanitarian crisis affecting the poor refugees stranded in Turkey, Greece and Eastern Europe. Imagine, I said, that a spaceship similar to the one in District 9 lands on Nou Camp, here in the middle of Barcelona… How does the story continue? And the students laughed. As Laia explained, one can easily imagine President Obama addressing visitors from outer space, but the idea of President Rajoy doing the same is simply hilarious (President Puigdemont seems to be slightly less hilarious, but still…). Laia herself added that if a spaceship landed in Spain this would result in another episode of Aquí no hay quien viva, the popular TV sitcom about a group of raucous neighbours.

At the end of the 1960s, Carlo Fruttero, editor of the SF publication series Urania, the most important one in Italy of its kind, was asked why he never published Italian SF. Famously, he replied that it “was impossible to imagine a flying saucer landing in Lucca”, a controversial statement that, of course, only spurred the imagination of Italian SF authors. I’m not familiar with Italian SF, and not even that much with Spanish SF, and I don’t know whether a starship has ever landed in Lucca. I know that Spanish writer Tomás Salvador produced an absolute masterpiece, even translated into English, with his tale of a generation ship, La nave (1959). Of course, this ship never lands in Franco’s Spain, it has been already travelling in space for many years when the story begins.

The aliens, curiously, have trodden Catalan land in at least two very well-known novels. One is Manuel de Pedrolo’s Mecanoscrit del segon origen (one alien at least is stranded after her companions manage to massacre practically all humans before abandoning their intended colonization project). The other is, there we go again, the hilarious Sin noticias de Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza (serialized 1990 in El País, published as a volume in 1991).

In this novel the eponymous Gurb, a metamorphic alien, takes the physical appearance of singer Marta Sánchez (!) and decides to explore Barcelona, going awol. Another alien, a shy fellow quite disturbed by his mate’s French leave, follows his tracks also using a variety of human disguises, each more outrageous than the previous one. My fellow citizens respond with total dead-pan indifference to the absurd situations in which the poor alien finds himself in the midst of the chaotic upheaval of the city which preceded the Olympic Games of 1992. This is the funniest book of any kind I have ever read, more than Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, more than Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I remember re-reading it once on the train and having to give up because I could not suppress my laughter. And, to be honest, I would have been very happy to have written Gurb.

Mendoza practices in Gurb the very Spanish literary genre of the ‘esperpento’; Aquí no hay quien viva is its television version. ‘Esperpento’, usually associated with writer Ramón María del Valle-Inclán is, supposedly, a deformed mirror of Spanish society which emphasizes with great irony its worst traits, among them its vulgarity, widespread ignorance, excessive pride, lazy habits and so on. It connects closely with the older genre of the picaresque novel but goes much further in highlighting the grotesque in local Spanish reality. Any Spanish literary critic will tell you that there is no consensus on whether ‘esperpento’ is a deformed or an exact mirror image of Spain (by the way, in Catalonia we also have ‘esperpento’ as seen in the popular TV political satire Polònia).

I believe that ‘esperpento’ is the reason why Laia and my other students laugh at the idea of President Rajoy welcoming the aliens. Unlike what is often believed, the inability to imagine the aliens landing on Nou Camp or in Lucca has nothing to do with the alleged low technological level of Spanish and Italian societies, as both societies are like any other in the West in that sense. It’s not, either, a matter of occupying secondary positions in the world order for District 9 and Monsters show that being a world leader is no longer a requirement to the object of the aliens’ attention in SF movies. I don’t know how things work in Italy, but Spain is dominated by a terrifying low self-esteem which ‘esperpento’ tries to mask with humour. That might explain the lack of alien visitors.

I’m sure that many others have given far more satisfactory explanations of why Spaniards have generated ‘esperpento’ as a strategy to cope with Spanish reality. Also stuck in a similar post-Imperial decadence, England has reacted very differently–unless, that is, we come to the conclusion that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and certainly Monty Python are also ‘esperpento’, and perhaps they are. Americans have also generated plenty of humour around the idea of the visiting alien. I’m thinking of some TV series: Mork and Mindy (1978-82) the sitcom that made Robin Williams a star, Alf (1986-1990) with its furry alien visitor or Third Rock from the Sun (1996-2001). In US culture, however, the humour at the expense of alien contact is perfectly compatible with the countless examples of fictional American Presidents facing alien visitors or invaders in far more dramatic circumstances. It must be, as I say, a matter of self-esteem. Theirs is so high that American cannot conceive of aliens visiting first other countries on Earth–I’m sure they would be flabbergasted if the aliens chose China.

One of the saddest films I have seen on the topic of alien contact is Óscar Aíbar’s bitter-sweet Platillos volantes (2003). This movie tells the pathetic real-life story of José Félix Rodríguez Montero (47), a textile worker, and Juan Turu Vallés (21), an accountant in the same Terrassa factory, near Barcelona, who committed suicide on 20 June 1972. Following the supposed call of the aliens and believing that they had somehow mutated, the two men lay down their heads on the tracks of the Barcelona-Zaragoza railway line convinced that dying was a one-way ticket to Jupiter.

I’m not the only spectator to have seen in these two poor deluded men the shadow of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, although they seem to have been both Quijotes. Aíbar’s film is a singular portrait of a naïve, poorly educated Spain easily misled by fantasies of alien contact, as I remember from my own childhood (yes, I did believe in aliens then… now I want to believe). If this were an American film, of course, José Félix and Juan would have eventually met the aliens, proven everyone wrong, and been carried away by an breath-taking starship to Jupiter and beyond. Being Spanish, the film is dominated by Cervantes’s legacy and, so, must punish those who dare fantasize–or, rather, since this is a real-life story, the director is conditioned by Cervantes’ legacy to choose this sad tale, rather than a more uplifting fantasy, for his film. True, he made amends with El bosc (2012), but the damage is done.

To sum up, then, Cervantes + ‘esperpento’ + Spanish post-Imperial low self-esteem = no alien contact. And just in case you were thinking of this, yes, Rajoy with his inexistent English and his frequent gaffes seems to embody much of this inconvenient mixture. It is certainly easier to imagine Pedro Sánchez, Albert Rivera, Pablo Iglesias or Alberto Garzón, perhaps even Soraya Saéz de Santamaría (?), engaging in elegant alien contact on behalf of Spain.

Perhaps a clear sign of the decadence of American world leadership is that soon we may have to imagine Donald Trump welcoming the aliens–now, that’s ‘esperpento’…

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/

HOW TV IS IMPLODING: SERIES, RATINGS AND NEW CONSUMER HABITS

This post is inspired by two sources: one, the article “The 2015–16 TV Season in One Really Depressing Chart” by Josef Adalian and Leslie Shapiro published online in Vulture (http://www.vulture.com/2016/03/2015-2016-tv-season-in-one-depressing-chart.html#); the other the collective non-academic volume Yo soy más de series (2015, http://www.esdrujula.es/libro/yo-soy-mas-de-series/) in which I have participated with, once more, an article on The X-Files. What these very diverse sources show implicitly is that the current boom around US TV series may well result soon in the destruction of television as we know it.

The article, quite brief, comments on the declining ratings for the “old-school broadcast networks” in the United States, or “Big Four”, regarding their current star product, namely, fiction series. They have lost “about 7 percent” viewers for “first-run programming” since the 2014-15 season, “continuing a pattern of substantial decline” in the last few years. The problem is attributed mainly to “a paucity of breakout hits” even though what seems more worrying is that “audiences appear to be abandoning established shows”, usually in the second or third season. You may next check the chart accompanying the article, which shows the ratings for a long list of series or, as they call them in the USA, ‘shows’. The authors claim that audiences have stopped being loyal to their favourite shows: “Now, in the era of viewing on demand, it seems audiences are increasingly having sordid affairs with new shows and then quickly moving on”. Of course, the problem for the broadcasters is that Nielsen rates connect directly to revenue for, remember, TV is basically one long ad interrupted by programmes. Streaming services have started competing for what the writers call “eyeballs” (the part for the whole, you know?) seemingly forgetting that the money business companies can spend on advertising is not unlimited.

Now let’s turn to the really juicy part of the article. Yes, you guessed right: the readers’ comments–far more relevant and informative than the article itself. Here are some highlights (see with how many opinions you identify):

*(…) there is such an over saturation of shows that it is forcing people to really pick and choose what they want to watch and thus people are ditching poorer quality shows that don’t work for them anymore. Or ditching long running favourites that have run out of steam.
* [the lengths of US network seasons] 21-25 episodes is just ridiculous, it’s not conducive to making a good product.
*(…) ad-based business models result in content that puts audiences into a soporific state conducive to being influenced by ads, while subscription-based models favour content that locks in passionate fan bases.
*Networks need to cultivate small, passionate audiences for their shows and recognize that the audience is now so splintered that huge audiences will be rare one-offs for special events.
*Cable and streaming services are investing in creativity, giving writers and creators more freedom to make interesting things. The Networks are sticking to the old formula, and seeing fewer and fewer returns. It’s a loosing game. They’ll be gone in a few more years.
*By the time Nielsen’s gets with the times, broadcast will be defunct anyway and all the shows will be on streaming services, which know exactly who is watching what and when, but has no motive to share that info with anyone else.
*Not only are networks competing with cool streaming shows that are new (…) but there’s entire runs of old series to discover.
*I will never again watch a new network show. Why bother getting invested in a show that is likely going to get cancelled? I vastly prefer the Netflix way.
*Loyal viewers are going to be more important than massive numbers in the future.
*I have a lot of shows I love and a lot of shows I like. I don’t care if they are on networks or not. I’m not depressed by this. Sorry.

And my favourite comment: “Thank God for books”.

Look at the paradox: the networks have always broadcast series but something changed about 25 years ago (arguably) with ABC’s Twin Peaks (1990-91), which proved that audiences were willing to enjoy new kinds of TV fiction series. Then the TV model changed radically with the introduction of new local and national channels (think Fox), satellite and cable TV. The current model also includes internet streaming services of which, obviously, Netflix is the most popular one right now. What all these diverse ways of watching fiction on a smaller screen (TV, computer, tablet, cell phone…) have in common is their trusting series to keep them afloat–logically, since series have that strange quality: they may last for years and keep an audience loyal to a channel/service (or so it was assumed). What broadcasters of any type don’t seem to realize is that the personal viewing time of each spectator (eyeballs, argh!) cannot increase at the same pace, hence the new ‘disloyalty’. Spectators feel that the market is indeed oversaturated and, so, navigate it as well as they can: some give up TV for good, others give up certain series. All tend towards the same goal: controlling their viewing time regardless of network interests and desperately old-fashioned Nielsen ratings. What is at risk, in short, is not the fiction created to fill our smaller screens but any TV business based on advertising, even TV consumption itself.

Now to the book, Yo soy más de series, coordinated by Fernando Ángel Moreno. You will find in it articles dealing with 60 series, all of them American with a few British and Japanese exceptions (Spanish TV is represented by El Ministerio del Tiempo). The articles are very different, some are 100% academic, others 100% personal and informal, some (like mine) a combination. Having read its extremely appealing 472 pages, the impression I get is of a gigantic collective failure by American TV series’ creators to produce truly solid work. Actually, this is my personal point of view and, of course, I have sought confirmation in the volume.

I have often voiced my post-Lost opinion that a narration that begins with no firm plans about its ending is not to be trusted, which is why I very much prefer mini-series. When you try to stretch a series beyond its natural run, when the series ‘jumps the shark’, then the series is doomed and what started as an exciting tale ends up as flat as a bottle of champagne left uncorked for a week. And this is what I see again and again in the articles of Yo soy más de series: with the exception of the mini-series (I, Claudius) or of the series planned for a limited number of seasons (Babylon 5) and a few honourable exceptions, most series outstay their welcome. The reasons may be that, as one of the comments I have reproduced notes, the number of episodes per season is too high, but whatever the reason is very few series can maintain the same level of interest and creativity for long. After the second season, which is when ‘eyeballs’ start looking elsewhere, the plot lines get more and more twisted as writers and producers run out of ideas struggling desperately to go on. The shows enter then a sort of entropic process of decadence that leads to their final, eventual implosion.

Funnily, I’m writing this at a time when The Big Bang Theory is keeping me glued to my sofa for hours at a stretch at least once a week. Typically, we decide to watch a couple of episodes and may end up watching eight in a row (they’re 20 minute long). I am not following any other series and, frankly, after reading Yo soy más de series the only one truly tempting me is Breaking Bad; we’ll see… An advantage of sit-coms like Big Bang, I find, is that it’s somehow harder to feel disappointed for they do not make such high claims as drama series do to being avant-garde narrative, even better than novels… If there is an opinion I hate about TV series is that one. I feel, in short, refreshed by Big Bang but oversaturated by soap-opera products masquerading as great TV–like Game of Thrones or Homeland.

I’ll finish with the story I tell in my own article for Yo soy más de series, a story I have already told many times: TV is paying in Spain a high price for having despised spectators in the past. If TeleCinco had not cancelled arbitrarily The X-Files just when the internet was entering Spain, we would not have rushed to become TV pirates. Once learned, the habit will not be unlearned. Illegal downloading is, simply, a central aspect of TV consumption in Spain, which does not seem to be the case in the USA. Here satellite, cable and streaming are, I’m 100% sure, second to piracy, while this no doubt as popular as actual TV broadcasting if not more. I wonder how Nielsen is dealing with this when it counts Spanish ‘eyeballs’ for we all wear a pirate’s eye patch.

Soon, if not tomorrow, ‘TV’ series will drop the ‘TV’ part of their name to be called something else, perhaps just ‘series’, for they will no longer be connected with watching television at all. Nielsen be warned.

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/

REMEMBERING KURT COBAIN (MUSIC AND ENGLISH STUDIES)

Channel-hopping a couple of Saturdays ago, I came across the documentary Classic Albums: Nirvana – Nevermind (2005) on BTV, the excellent local Barcelona TV channel (you may see the film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lu48P8dZTk&list=RD2lu48P8dZTk). BTV is, as far as I know, the only public channel I have access to which bothers to broadcast a weekly series on popular music, simply called Música Moderna. Amazing how music has disappeared from public TV in Spain… I think back to all the variety I could get as a young girl and I’m truly mystified (thank you, by the way, Paloma Chamorro, wherever you are, for La edad de oro!). Anyway, I digress (or not, as you’ll see). The documentary stirred in me plenty of feelings, memories and impressions I had almost forgotten and I’m trying to make sense of them here.

Two years ago I attended the ‘16th International Culture & Power Conference’ at the Universidad de Murcia and I had the great pleasure of listening to my colleague Rubén Valdés (U. Oviedo) deliver a paper on Joy Division. Finally!, I told everyone present, we start dealing with the aspects of anglophone culture that matter so much but that we dare not acknowledged in our academic work. After the ensuing exciting conversation, I came up with an idea for an article on the role of popular music in the awakening of English Studies scholarly vocations in Spain, thinking in particular of my generation, the ones born in the 1960s for whom Joy Division’s music had been an undeniable inspiration. I even drafted a questionnaire which Juan Antonio Suárez kindly reviewed for me but I haven’t been able to find the right moment to get down to work. Maybe after this post… My thesis, as you can see, is that popular music played a major role in leading many young aspiring scholars in the 1980s to choose ‘Filología Inglesa’, in combination with Literature and cinema (also TV). Many of us learned about Britain and the United States through their popular music: translating lyrics from English was, I’m sure, a favourite activity, as was attending concerts both in Spain and, with luck, in the UK and the US. We knew that this would never be the subject of our ‘proper’ research but the music never stopped playing.

Or did it? In my own case ageing has brought an increasing intolerance of background sound, which means that I have progressively lost the ability to work as I listen to music–now I need total silence. My otolaryngologist has given me very strict instructions not to use earphones and to attend very loud pop and rock concerts only sparingly… And so I have little by little disconnected from that indie avant-garde I used to know all about, also because now I easily lose my way in the endless lists of new bands, emerging one day and gone the following week. Students have also changed. Years ago I could rely on their suggestions but the last time I used music in my classes (‘Literatura anglesa del s. XX’, 2012-13), I found that they didn’t know who Kasabian are… Now I myself don’t know what Kasabian are up to, if they’re still together at all.

Back in, I think, 1999 I visited Professor Simon Frith in Glasgow, no doubt the main anglophone academic specialist in pop and rock (http://www.eca.ed.ac.uk/reid-school-of-music/simon-frith). My students have heard about this visit countless times… I asked him how he had managed to develop his amazing career in this field and he gave me a golden recipe: use an impeccable scholarly methodology and nobody will be able to object. I soon wrote a piece on US 1990s Goth star Marilyn Manson (http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/Marilyn%20Manson%20Limits%20Challenge%20Sara%20Mart%C3%ADn.pdf), and I have subsequently written on gender in music videos (http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/Sara%20Mart%C3%ADn%20El_Cuerpo_en_el_Videoclip_Musical.pdf), Scottish female singers (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/112359), Linkin Park (http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/Linkin%20Park%20AEDEAN%202010%20Sara%20Mart%C3%ADn.pdf) and, my favourite piece, on Kylie Minogue (with Gerardo Rodríguez, http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/Forget%20Madonna%20Rodriguez%20Mart%C3%ADn%20AEDEAN%20Cadiz.pdf).

Year in, year out I promise myself that I will teach an elective on pop and rock but I don’t seem to find the moment, feeling a bit hampered too by not being sure about which methodology to use in order to assess students. Like many other teachers, I assume, I have used lyrics in introductory survey courses to complement poetry. I used to ask students to choose their own lyrics and it was funny to see how they offered quite conservative proposals thinking they would please me (Bon Jovi???). There was a girl absolutely surprised that I chose Linkin Park’s “Somewhere I belong” for class analysis… but that was so long ago. One of my fondest memories is a really hilarious first-year session in which we tried to make sense of Nirvana’s “Smells like teen spirit”–just give it a try, worse than The Waste Land

The other fond memory connected with Nirvana –also a bitter-sweet one–belongs to 6th April 1994, the day after Kurt Cobain (b. 1967) shot himself dead. I was 28, still a doctoral student, and teaching somebody else’s syllabus for ‘Literatura Anglesa Moderna i Contemporània II’, the 19th century. I had to teach Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814), a novel for which I have not yet managed to feel any enthusiasm. When I heard on the radio first thing in the morning that Cobain was dead this brought me back to the day when Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s singer, killed himself (18th May 1980). I told myself, ‘If that day was crucial for my generation, then today is crucial for my students’ generation’ and, so, I spent the whole 90 minutes talking about all the iconic pop and rock figures that had died too early and how this connected with the Romantic idea of suicide (poor things, my students!!). No mention of Waverley… except to say ‘Who can care about Scott today? Not me…’

I did not intend then and do not intend now to support the idiotic cult around early suicide (or youth suicidal lifestyles). I soon became a New Order fan, which I remain to this day, and I can only say that I have a great deal of admiration for how the members of Joy Division decided to move on and become a new band, full of energy and preaching a radiant, hedonistic pleasure in life. The same applies to Dave Grohl’s career after Nirvana. Courtney Love, Cobain’s widow, called him many names, none of them nice, during the funeral; unlike her, I believe that suicides deserve compassion but I’d rather not turn them into cult figures. What the documentary on Nirvana’s hit album Nevermind brought back (and perhaps Amy, this year’s Oscar winner, also does that for the late Amy Winehouse) was the explosion of talent before the regrettable early death. Cobain’s case is crystal clear: he simply could not cope with the sudden, massive success of his band. I know that there is a deep contradiction in choosing a career as a rock musician and not thinking of the consequences of success but if you read, as I have done, Bernard Sumner’s recent memoirs Chapter and Verse: New Order, Joy Division and Me, you will see that this is a quite common contradiction.

Back to Nevermind (1991), what I most appreciated about the documentary was the insight into how inexplicable creativity of this very high quality is. The focus of the film is producer Butch Vig’s narration of how the album was made, accompanied by interviews with Nirvana band members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic. Vig gives many technical details about how he came up with the now classic Nirvana sound (the double voice tracks, and so on) and recalls beautiful accidents; the final version of “Lithium”, a song that gave band and producer countless problems, came from Cobain singing softly to Vig to demonstrate what he was after. Yet nothing and nobody can explain how everything cohered into the making of that landmark in rock history.

I love the album with a fan’s irrational passion and completely lack the musicological training to explain in scholarly terms why it is so potent–I can go on and on about male voices that transmit Romantic intensity (Curtis, Cobain, Chester Bennington…) but this is still an impressionistic approach based on a very personal preference. One thing the documentary seemed to highlight is that, as Michael Forsythe comments in the YouTube segment for the documentary, “The music scene today could sure use another Nirvana. I know there will never be another Nirvana but something to regenerate rock again and take it by storm before it dies”.

This might be basic generational nostalgia though I think I’m not alone in feeling, like this person, that in the last 25 years since Nevermind no other main event has changed the course of pop and rock with the same power. New high-impact artists have emerged (think Beyoncé) but they seem to be more about image-packaging than about the music. Kurt Cobain’s dishevelled, grungy look couldn’t be further from that… I could joke in very bad taste that if he started his career today, Cobain would anyway end up shooting himself rather than submit to the image manipulation that music artists routinely accept today. I have never seen a man with such a beautiful face make himself so ugly as a way to protect his music.

I’m thinking of the equivalent of BTV’s Música Moderna in 25 years’ time and wondering which classic albums will be revisited… By the way: has any PhD dissertation on popular music been submitted yet within English Studies in Spain? I had one in my hands but, you know what it’s like these days, the author had a full time job, a family life… and abandoned it rather than, as he said,’lose coherence’. You don’t know how sorry I am…

Now enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vabnZ9-ex7o

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/