GOOD BUT NOT GREAT: ROBERTO CALASSO’S DIAGNOSIS OF CURRENT LITERATURE

Italian writer and editor Roberto Calasso has been recently news in Spain for winning the quite new Premio Formentor de las Letras, also awarded so far to a few Spanish-language writers that he names among his favourite: Carlos Fuentes, Juan Goytisolo, Javier Marías, Enrique Vila-Matas y Ricardo Piglia (no women…). In at least two interviews, in El País and La Vanguardia, Calasso states that although many good books are published today, few are truly great. He attributes this to a revolution started in the mid 19th century which by expanding the territory of Literature ended up problematizing the very definition of this term. Confusingly, he names, in the Vanguardia interview, Borges as a main contributor to this new trend, which I myself would connect with someone far more popular, like Charles Dickens or Stephen King (a Recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, 2003). In this interview, plagued by an amazing series of typos…, Calasso explains that the overambitious aims of writers as different as Musil and Joyce appear to be no longer relevant today.

I haven’t had yet the pleasure of reading Calasso, a gap in my education that I will solve as soon as a I can (it turns out that my local public library is better equipped than my university library when it comes to titles by this Italian author). Calasso has been on my list of books to read since he published in 1990 Las Bodas de Cadmo y Harmonía (Le nozze di Cadmo e Armonia, 1988) back when I was about to start my doctoral studies… Suddenly, I lost track of the European intellectuals that, according to El País, then a very cultured newspaper, any educated Spanish reader should be interested in. I needed to focus on my thesis and, as we know, the anglophone world is not exactly conversant with the European intellectuality, despite the academic fashions built around Derrida and company. Perhaps I should have read Calasso then, after all, for my dissertation was hell-bent on showing, precisely, that Literature extends beyond high-culture and into the best of so-called popular fiction. This is why I chose a multi-level, cross-cultural subject as my topic: monstrosity.

In preparation for this post I have read “Roberto Calasso, The Art of Fiction No. 217”, a not very exciting interview of 2012 by Lila Azam Zanganeh which you may find in the Paris Review website (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6168/the-art-of-fiction-no-217-roberto-calasso). This text begins with the claim that “Roberto Calasso is a literary institution of one”, as editor of Adelphi, “Italy’s most prestigious publishing house, for forty years” and writer of more than a dozen books. Calasso, Zanganeh assures us, “has come to stand for a lost ideal”, which I will label ‘the person of letters’, the sum total of the reader, writer, critic, editor and intellectual. The word ‘erudite’, now so quaint, also comes to mind to define him. He wrote his PhD dissertation on the theory of hieroglyphs in Sir Thomas Browne; his supervisor was Mario Praz. He speaks Italian, French, English, Spanish, German, add to this Latin and Greek, learned in school, and Sanskrit which he studied “on my own”.

I fully agree with Calasso’s view that, in our days, many books and writers are good but lacking in ambition to be truly great. I am sure that his impressions are far more accurate than mine, as he is a superlative reader both professionally, as an editor, as personally, as a writer, and in many languages to boot. My subjective, impressionistic, far less erudite opinion, however, is similar and, I would add, applicable to all kinds of fiction I read, in all genres. The number of solid novelists seems to be increasing in all fronts (though this does not mean that the best writers are the most hyped ones), yet I personally feel constantly dissatisfied as a reader. I am not impressed, as I was when I read Thomas Mann as a young girl, or later, to name a living author, when I read Salman Rushdie’s prodigious Midnight Children. I’m not awed by any living author. Yes, of course, I have been expressing here my total devotion to Terry Pratchett, Iain M. Banks, and now Patrick O’Brian, but this is not the same. Wonderful as they were, they have not changed the face of Literature. They are singular worlds each one of them but not world-changers, which is what I miss.

My friend Laura Gimeno and I had a shortish conversation about Calasso’s opinion (for in our hectic university, there is not even time for one hour spent over coffee). She believes that originality is the problem, for it seems impossible to narrate something new or to innovate narrative technique as thoroughly as, she says, the Modernists did. I am more sceptical about the importance of innovation since taking it too far leads to Joyce’s Finnegans’ Wake, and, really, this is a dead end. Also about originality in the choice of subject matter, for although this is not lacking today at all, chancing upon a new tale does not guarantee greatness. Laura argues, very convincingly, that greatness is not compatible with the current shape which literary careers have taken, with a notable first book written away from the limelight and then a series of mediocre works produced under pressure from publishers and critics to consolidate commercial success, even in the case of writers with unwavering literary ambition. No doubt. We, academics, have a similar problem, caused by the pressure to work for the career rather than have the career develop out of work that should be creative but that feels mechanical.

A hurried pace of writing, then, can result in good but not outstanding literary work (unless you are a genius, that is, a concept I will leave aside for the time being). Now let me go back to erudition. And the mid-19th century.

I don’t think you can be truly ambitious as a writer without being an erudite. By erudite I understand here a careful student of the field of Literature, in any of its many sub-genres. One thing is being well-read and another being an erudite, which means that you can command a vast list of resources that will fill your pages with this something else that awes readers. Let me use an image. Suppose that Literature is a mountain and that you, as a writer, want to reach the top, as other writers have done. It makes sense then to study their methods by reading their books and so, once you know all the paths they took, attempt your own. All the way up to the top with ambition and determination. My impression is that today’s writers are in a hurry to reach the top of a lower peak, say Annapurna instead of Everest, and that they’d rather take shortcuts –an award, for instance, of the many given today, from the Nobel to the Nebula (for best SF and fantasy…).

Now, if you are a writer you probably want to strangle me at this point. Here I am complaining that all of you lack ambition and the mettle to reach true greatness. Navigating your way into today’s ferocious literary market is enough to dampen the most ferocious ambition, I am sure about that, yes if you do not raise the bar, who else is going to do it? You must also be thinking that this idiotic idea about erudition can only come from someone who gets a regular monthly salary and who is, basically, paid to read and teach a few hours a week. Fair enough. But, then, what do we make of a Literature in which writers are not erudite? Or less erudite than their prospective audience expects. This is a recurring conversation I am having these days, about many different writers: I find him/her clever but not overwhelmingly intelligent, and when I feel I know more than the writer, I disconnect. Replace intelligent with erudite and here we are.

Having offered the argument that erudition is the source of literary ambition (or should be), I must consider of course whether Calasso’s kind of erudition is still possible today. The answer is no. I think that the only ones defending erudition are the much maligned nerds (‘frikis’ in Spain), for they are the only readers with a passion for increasing their knowledge of the genre they love, both in breadth and depth. In science-fiction, in particular, a double erudition is required: literary (connected with the genre) and scientific (connected with its topic of interest). In contrast, the literary novel (at least the anglophone variety) is being flattened down by writers who mistake detail for depth and by readers who, as a student told my friend Laura, believe that Henry James is a bad writer (too dense). Trapped between writers with little time and interest in being erudite in their own field and by readers for whom a man like Calasso is a strange freak, Literature cannot soar. Perhaps Calasso is being generous by calling ‘good’ what others might call ‘mediocre’.

I am not forgetting the mid-19th century. Erudition is connected with leisure, meaning here time at your disposal for study. When the Industrial Revolution rebuilt our time around the merciless ticking of the clock, it destroyed leisure–that of the aristocracy, of the gentleman but also of the peasant. Leisure was regained little by little by the urban working classes as a new concept: time for fun after work, not for cultivation. Some of us still use leisure for both, fun and cultivation, but in such short stretches that erudition can hardly become an earnest pursuit. The very rich, by the way, have abandoned erudition altogether, consuming their everlasting leisure in fun. A figure like Lord Byron, who had as much capacity for fun as for erudition (and literary ambition) is now unthinkable.

And I’ll stop here, see if I can use the little leisure left in this Sunday afternoon for some reading. To increase my erudition… And hopefully have some fun.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WHAT FOR?: ON GIVING OURSELVES TOO MUCH (ACADEMIC) TROUBLE

I have just announced the third one-day workshop TELLC (Teaching English Language, Literature and Culture), which is a very modest Departmental event aimed at gathering together my colleagues to discuss what we do in class. Last year I invited the English Studies specialists at the Universitat de Barcelona to join in and this year I have extended the same invitation to the other English Departments in Catalonia (Lleida and Tarragona). A friend emailed me back asking me whether I really wanted to set this in motion, as neither the workshop itself not the corresponding publication (see http://ddd.uab.cat/record/132688) could count for our official CVs. His is the kind of remark that makes me pause and think with dismay, sure, what is all this for? So here I am trying to explain myself.

I first thought of TELLC because, as happens in other Departments, possibly around the world, we are constantly discussing bureaucracy but not pedagogy. When the time comes to revise the Syllabus, around April, we exchange a flurry of emails about whether we need to alter any matter and that only if we share the course with other teachers. If we don’t, then basically we do as we please, with little real feedback from colleagues (or students). If we share a course, we discuss possible innovations by email because since so many teachers are part-time associates with two jobs it is simply impossible to have team meetings, as we should (also more than once a year). The most we have managed is introducing the novelty of publishing in the Department’s website a joint reading list for everyone to see what everyone else is teaching, yet a list gives you by no means an impression of what we do in class. And here I am not even mentioning the Language teachers who teach mysterious matters such as CLIL.

So, I just thought that it would be healthy and a nice investment in team building to spare one Friday a year to tell each other about what happens in our classes. Now, to appease concerns that this was worth nothing for our CVs I convinced UAB to certify the workshop as a teacher-training event of the kind we are supposed to attend regularly, hoping that this will also be helpful for our teaching assessment every few years by the Catalan Government. I also made a very pretty diploma, a kind of document we academics fondly collect in Spain, where authorities seem to suspect university teachers of being inveterate liars and where you need to present certificates for every single activity. The first two TELLC meetings (2015 and 2016), I believe, have been enjoyable and productive and I’m happy enough. We’ll see how TELLC progresses in the future. If the workshop fades away into oblivion at least I will have done my best.

Organizing this workshop, like writing this blog, is something I could very well not do: it is a self-imposed task which takes time away from my research. You know what it is like: answering lots of e-mail messages, booking a room (no easy job in my overcrowded university), producing a programme, chasing colleagues for them to hand in the text for publication, editing the booklet… you name it. These days I have some extra time to spare for pursuits like this because I am one of the privileged researchers granted the benefit of doing less teaching thanks to Minister Wert, now gone from the Government. My not teaching two classes explains my apparent hyperactivity, also expressed in the translation of Pedrolo’s Mecanoscrit del segon origen and in my current editing of two monographic issues for Science Fiction Studies (on Spanish SF) and for Alambique (on Mecanoscrit). I don’t know how to explain this better but after wasting my time in endless bureaucracy for three years as Degree Coordinator, I suddenly feel very, very happy to be investing my time in matters more closely related to my teaching and research. Here is another one, the booklet I have produced with my BA students and aimed at guiding readers to navigate their way into SF short fiction: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/163528

I am very well aware that those of us who have our fingers in many pies are a pest for those who want to be left alone. Sorry about this but, well, an invitation can always be rejected. I acknowledge that I am active on many fronts but, among other motivations, I always bear in mind the double daily routines of my associate colleagues (and friends) in the Department; I owe it up to them to make the most of my time as a privileged tenured teacher. I don’t support, however, and will never support the obsessive research type who thinks that we should not enjoy any spare time and, although I am certainly guilty of using at least part of my weekends for work, I make a point of limiting my daily work.

I think this is a lesson we still need to learn in Spain: 8 hours a day can be extremely productive, much more than 12 hours, if you do not procrastinate. I love the sound of my computer closing down by 17:00 at the latest, earlier if my day before the screen begins by 8:00. Otherwise, what is the point? There is always, of course, the tricky matter of whether reading (or seeing films and TV series) post 17:00 counts as work but, believe me, I’m the first one to subscribe to the idea that daily leisure is an unalienable right. I recently employed one afternoon in making a pair of shoes for a doll and I had a whale of a time… A second pair is soon coming. So, not at all, it’s not always work, work, work…

Now that I have established that one can run a reasonable academic career by avoiding the pitfalls of procrastination and by setting limits to your daily routine to always enjoy leisure (I don’t have kids, that would make a difference…), I’ll address the matter of how these 8 daily hours can be used. And I will acknowledge that I suffer from the main Spanish academic malady: I do lots of activities because I find no way to focus on the one activity I really want to carry out–writing books. You must be thinking well, just stop doing everything else and you will have time to write the books. But here we go back to the ‘no cuenta’ mantra and the power of the CV in our lives.

If you can, imagine a CV with nothing else but, say, 6 books, produced in 25 years (this is how long I have been active as a teacher/researcher). No conferences (either attended or organized), no articles in journals or collective volumes, no extras such as giving seminars or taking part in tribunals. Just pure book-writing besides the exact amount of teaching you need to do (this is how I imagined my career when I was 18). I might be wrong but even if the books were first rank, would prospective employers and tribunals be impressed? I doubt it. We live in the age of the bulky CV and of the fisherman’s strategy–by which I mean that we need to be constantly active because we never know whether the fish will bait. I have just been told, for instance, that a book chapter I handed in one year ago might be published in 2018. If I had counted on that work for urgent assessment, then I’d be lost, hence the need to multiply myself and my work for we never know when work will be published and what really counts for the Ministry.

Take, and with this I’ll finish, my being part of the Eurocon team (again, something I am doing because I have less teaching to do). This is an SF and fantasy literary festival addressed to fandom, of no academic import. Technically, a waste of time. Yet, Eurocon has brought to me very many new contacts, some of which have led to wonderful academic activities (like the ones around Mecanoscrit) which I would have never embarked on. I’m struggling to find a label for the kind of activity that brings in unexpected academic perks… The case is also that I am learning very, very much because, after all, I am constantly surrounded by very keen readers, most of them really erudite in the SF and fantasy film. And, well, I’m airing my brain beyond the university walls, which is always healthy. I gave a talk about Harry Potter before an audience of 200 enthusiastic readers a couple of Sundays ago at PotterCon and although I could have spent that Sunday morning on the beach, I knew where I would more fun. And it did not count for my CV.

To sum up: I’m trying to downplay the impact of the ‘no cuenta’ mantra and just enjoy myself. I enjoy organizing TELLC because it is about bringing colleagues together as I enjoy being part of this little mad world which is Eurocon. If I didn’t enjoy myself, then I would not do it, for one thing is clear to me: engaging in academic activities for the sake of an ultimate goal like fattening up your CV feels to me like duty, and that is not enjoyable. I think that enjoyment is essential for creativity and duty a total dampener, even though I am a most dutiful person (I teach Victorian Literature, how could I not believe in duty?).

So, odd as this may sound, I’m all for fun to increase creativity, which increases productivity. Never ever forgetting that our CV should not take the place of our life.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE PROBLEM OF THE DWINDLING ATTENTION SPAN: HOW IT AFFECTS TEACHING LITERATURE

If you check the internet you will soon come up with a flurry of news items and articles explaining that the human attention span is now shorter than that of goldfish. Whereas goldfish can focus their whole attention for 9 seconds, humans can only manage 8. The figure for 2000 was 10 seconds, which is why researchers in psychology are claiming that our crazy, highly addictive use of smartphones and tablets has much to blame for attention span deficit (the smartphone-tablet revolution started more or less with the 21st century).

My own impression, allow me to digress, is that the dwindling attention span is also (or mainly) connected with the editing styles of music videos since the 1990s. When MTV started back in the 1980s music videos were often narrative, rather than performative (=showing musicians playing and singers singing), and used much longer cuts than today; in some cases they were mini-films, like John Landis’s landmark video Thriller (1983) for Michael Jackson. Today most music videos boast a convulsive editing style which seems designed to show the corresponding (female) star in as many outfits as possible; choreographies are also chopped down to the point that it is hard to say whether performers can dance at all, or for more than 3 seconds. I used to enjoy watching music videos but now I find myself unable to watch one for 3 minutes as, ironically, I get bored with so many different shots… Our attention span, as you can see, depends on each media and within these, on each text.

The editing style of music videos was transferred in the late 1990s not only to cinema (as video directors became film directors) but also to many new-style children’s cartoon series and, more recently, to the self-presentation strategies of the myriad YouTubers, who, like modern-day Hamelin players, enchant the young and are destroying TV. All–music videos, Hollywood films, cartoon series, YouTubers videos and, I’m sure, plenty of video games–affect the younger generation by shortening their general attention span, no doubt about this; at the same time, all these media must adapt their storytelling strategies to the diminishing attention span they have generated, resulting in your classic vicious circle.

Funnily, films are much longer than they used to be: 90 minutes was the classic Hollywood measure, now most films run to 120 minutes or more. At the same time, children and, above all, YA fiction is also full of very long series, beginning with the Harry Potter heptalogy. As I’m sure you, reader, have noticed, the films–and I mean here the blatantly commercial Hollywood films using genres such as SF, fantasy, superhero comics or videogames–are a messy succession of independent scenes that hardly cohere into a logical sequence, if at all. They are intended to be full of thrills to keep (young) audiences engaged but most often turn out to be as boring as any current MTV video. This is fine with film studio executives as they expect to make money in just the first two weekends, enough to fill their pockets and keep the machinery greased. However, many are commenting on this summer that this kind of expendable blockbuster is flopping hard–perhaps because older audiences, who enjoy a well-told story, are turning their back on them. The 1959 Ben-Hur remains a solid achievement whereas the 2016 version is painfully embarrassing.

Now, for the books. And teaching Literature. I learned from my experience with the Harry Potter books as a lecturer that the attention span of the very young (7 upwards) can stretch amazingly if given an exciting text. I am also learning, nonetheless, that not even Harry Potter works if the child in question rejects reading as entertainment. The young, here is my point, are divided and have always been divided into two classes: persons with a remarkable attention span (good readers, hence good students) and persons with a short attention span (poor readers, hence poor students). I’m afraid that what is fast diminishing is not the attention span of all young children but of those who do not have an inborn long attention span. Since children with a long-lasting attention span are always in the minority, and since the impact of the computer-related technologies on all the young (and not so young…) is undeniable, the current panorama is moving towards a situation in which only a few (readers) will be able to compete with the goldfish. This is tragic for humanity in general and for Literature teachers in particular, as we, needless to say, work with texts that require a very steady attention span from readers.

I’m not going to get again into the matter of why young persons who simply loathe reading register for a degree in the Humanities. I want to make the point that the resistance to reading is connected with this problem of the diminishing attention span. In the age of Twitter and the 140 characters 8 seconds are all we are willing to give up of our time and attention, both to read and to write. Here in this blog I have been gradually aiming at readers with a longer attention span: I started with 500-word posts six years ago, now I’m past the 1500 word count in most posts. For many, this will be too much, but, then, I’m not satisfied that 140 characters express anything worth considering (this is, ironically, a very good measure for insults, hence the many trolls plaguing Twitter users).

Children’s attention is scattered among the many invitations by different media to do something fun and in a short period of time. Reading seems to them time-consuming and very laborious in comparison to, for instance, watching YouTubers. As we know, the less we read, the worse our reading is: constant practice not only increases speed but also attention span. The fastest readers can read for the longest periods because they’re extremely practised in reading. Ask yourself, teacher or student: How many pages of a fiction book can you read in one hour? How many hours can you read for, non-stop? I know you’ll tell me that, no matter how experienced you are, sometimes reading a sonnet exhausts your attention span… Yes, I know. Let’s take Dickens’s Oliver Twist, which I am to start teaching next week: how much time do you need to read it? Did Dickens, incidentally, introduce serialization because he noticed that the diminishing attention span of Victorian readers required selling them stories in little bits? (Remember that in fast-paced 19th century USA readers preferred short stories to novels; Moby Dick was some freak phenomenon…). If 8 seconds is the average attention span, how do I keep students interacting with me for the 4500 seconds that a 75-minute session has? We, teachers, are told that we need to change tack every 10 minutes or so, but even 10 minutes are 600 seconds…

I have recently learned from the children in my family something else about attention span that connects with repetition and with the difficulties that many students have to summarize plots, highlight main points and establish connections. I was watching Despicable Me 2 with my youngest niece (aged 7), and she started reciting all the dialogue for each scene before it was uttered by the characters. This was my third time seeing the film, but she claims to have seen it… fourteen times. No wonder she knew the dialogue. However, when I asked her to summarize the plot (she might like to tell a friend why the film is so cool) she had no idea where to begin and simply did not manage to produce any coherent summary (which frustrated her enormously!). Typical among the kids her age, she’s good at retaining detail, even at memorizing many favourite bits, but not so good at understanding and building logical sequence. Repetition is, for that reason, always a pleasure, for whereas it irks us, adults who can recall plot, it offers children every time a renewed pleasure which is not spoiled by the anticipation of the known bits, quite the opposite.

In this sense, films are necessarily far more pleasurable than reading since they are narrated to a quite passive spectator. This is similar to the typical situation in which children unable to read on their own ask their parents to read them the same story again and again and again. Trouble begins when we tell children to start reading alone and take an active role. Some love it (fewer and fewer…) and most hate it (their numbers are increasing). The Setmana del Llibre en Català recently announced that sales for children’s books in Catalonia have diminished by 3% in the last year, which means that we, adults, are buying fewer books for children because they reject them. Nobody knows what makes some children connect with reading; you may raise two kids in exactly the same way and one will turn out to be a reader and the other won’t. Surely, it must be some kind of neurobiological predisposition attached to the pleasure centres of the brain which happens to be activated by consuming printed type. If the other children lack this predisposition, then there is nothing any reading programme can do for them–unless we start considering genetic engineering. I worry, not only as a Literature teacher but also as a plain citizen concerned about the future, for no culture can survive without passing on its knowledge in writing. If you don’t love Literature, fancy loving mechanical handbooks…

Finally, allow me to use a few lines to consider retentive memory, for perhaps in the end this matters even more than attention span. I mean here specifically the ability to remember what you read, which in turn helps you both to offer coherent plot summaries and to recall books read long ago. You may have a considerable attention span and read for hours but this does not mean that your retentive memory is guaranteed. I can read Dickens for hours but I always have tremendous problems to retain his convoluted plots, which is why I need to plot summaries, either borrowed or my own. I can offer a nice plot summary of Oliver Twist because I have read it many times but I can’t do that with any of the other Dickens books I have only read once. If you’re studying or teaching Literature, then, there’s no way around this: we need to summarize the plots of the fiction and drama we read, or the main arguments for essays, non-fiction and so on. Working on your retentive memory does increase attention span for it trains you to identify the highlights in the text.

What fails when you give a book many tries but you do not manage to read is your attention span, which is absolutely flexible, never rigid, and connected with your preferences. I’m happily reading the twenty Patrick O’Brian novels but no way I could go past page fifty of Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge . This is, in any case, much more than 8 seconds.

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/

ON THE VERGE OF OBLIVION: HOW WRITERS (MAY) FADE FROM SIGHT

We, readers, seem to believe that the permanence of writers is automatic. Nothing needs to be done to have any book we want at our command, whether it is first-hand or second-hand. Only irrelevant authors and works sink into nothingness. We smile smugly whenever someone praises a long-forgotten author nobody else has heard of, never mind that this person was a best-selling writer in his or her time. Matters, however, are not that simple and the process by which the machinery that moves forward a writer’s career grinds to a halt is always worth-considering.

These musings come about because of the two dead authors occupying much of my time this summer and for very different reasons: Patrick O’Brian and Manuel de Pedrolo. I have now started reading the ninth novel in the highly addictive Aubrey-Maturin series by O’Brian, which expands to twenty finished volumes and an unfinished one. As I have narrated here in this blog, I have translated Pedrolo’s SF masterpiece Mecanoscrit del segon origen from Catalan into English (I’m celebrating that Wesleyan University Press has accepted publishing it!). Both writers have something in common, despite their very different positioning at an international level and in terms of their success: they hardly exist for academia and, thus, being dead, they depend now on their readers for their survival into literary immortality. In very different circumstances.

The size and the depth of the Aubrey-Maturin cult is simply staggering. It’s what we call in Spanish ‘un secreto a voces’, which sounds more colourful than the English ‘open secret’, for we mean ‘loud’. I recently came across an article in The Guardian, “Why Patrick O’Brian is Jane Austen at Sea” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/28/why-patrick-obrian-is-jane-austen-at-sea) and I was fascinated by the many comments from readers, explaining that they have read the series several times over, each time loving it even more. I was mystified by a woman who objected to the view that you can enjoy the books without caring very much for the nautical detail by answering that in her all-female weekly reading group they discussed all that detail down to the last nuance. I don’t quite see myself discussing when topgallantsails should be displayed. Um, perhaps not yet.

Since the series is rich not only in nautical lore but also in other matters such as the state of natural philosophy in the early 19th century, O’Brian has inspired that kind of internet resource and companion book that unpacks all the research that he packed into his books. It’s a wonderful nerdish pursuit but I worry that the work done to clarify what kind of dessert is a ‘drowned baby’ (a boiled suet pudding with raisins, see http://www.wwnorton.com/pob/vol3ii.htm#pudding) may throw the baby out with the bathwater. No matter how much information you assemble about a favourite narrative, whether this is the Aubrey-Maturin series or SF equivalent Star Trek, data cannot satisfy if analysis is missing (and for the SF nerds, yes, maybe I’m cracking a joke at Data’s expense). As I noted in my previous post about O’Brian, the number of MLA-registered academic pieces on the series is a scant 32, not including the thesis that my colleague John Styles penned and almost managed to lose. How’s that low figure possible, I wonder?

The negligible academic attention paid to O’Brian (and to many other writers of a much higher impact like Terry Pratchett) apparently obeys the classic prejudice against so-called escapist fiction. In an attractive collection of articles by Neil Gaiman which I have read this summer, The View from the Cheap Seats, he wrongly attributes to C.S. Lewis a witty retort against escapism, which actually came from the mouth of Lewis’s friend, J.R.R. Tolkien: “What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and hostile to, the idea of escape?”, he asked Lewis. Tolkien himself gave, Lewis tells us, “the obvious answer: jailers”. And so, as crowds of readers enthuse over O’Brian, academics take him with pincers and in very small doses, and just because he reminds them of Jane Austen. This, in view of the frantic activity that Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin display in their journeys and of the massive research that O’Brian displays in his books, is a very lazy comparison. Yet, the academic lashing of O’Brian onto poor Jane’s back has given Jack and Stephen’s father at least a foothold onto Literary history, if only as a footnote, and what a strange one, in Austen’s modern legacy.

I don’t think that O’Brian and Manuel de Pedrolo ever met, though O’Brian, who lived in Colliure (Northern Catalonia) and created in Maturin the most important Catalan character in international literature, would have enjoyed the meeting. After all Maturin and Pedrolo share the same political views on Catalan independentism. The lesson I’m learning these days about Pedrolo is that it is not always clear why writers approach the brink of oblivion. Let me explain the case.

Pedrolo is remembered for Mecanoscrit, the best-selling, most widely read novel in the Catalan language, with sales up to 1,300,000 copies since publication in 1974 (we are approximately 10 million speakers). It turns out he loathed its success and often declared that if he’d known he’d be remembered for Mecanoscrit, the book would have never been written. In the excellent documentary by Eduard Miguel Manuel de Pedrolo: Trencant l’oblit (2015, https://vimeo.com/131804610), Antoni Munné-Jordà aptly compares Pedrolo’s case to that of French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a highly accomplished author today remembered only for the children’s book The Little Prince. Understandably, Pedrolo, who poured his endless energy into more than 120 volumes, felt chagrined that a book he regarded as a minor piece would represent all his production and even obscure his best work (the 11-volume series Temps Obert). This is why his daughter Adelais has poured her own energies but limited resources into building the Fundació Pedrolo (established 2005) to maintain the memory of her father alive. Not that this is an easy task.

When I attended this last Sunday a presentation of Pedrolo’s novel Procés de contradicció suficient, rescued and re-issued by Hugo Camacho’s small press Orciny, I learnt from Adelais de Pedrolo herself that only four of her father’s long list of books are available from Catalan bookshops. She is hopeful that by 2018, the centennial celebration of the author’s birth, the list will extend to 10 titles. I’m speaking of an author who is simply indispensable in Catalan literature, a man who was, as Jordi Coca has said, a complete Literature by himself–he wrote poetry, drama, essays, articles, memoirs, letters, short fiction, novels… and in all possible registers from the poetical experimental to the functional prose required for fast-driven plots. Yet, the bibliographical search I have been doing these days has resulted in a list of similar dimensions to the one for O’Brian in MLA, perhaps with just a few more monographic volumes but still with no major study of the works. Even more surprisingly, the number of doctoral dissertations on Pedrolo which I have located is only four, of which none has been produced by a Department of Catalan in Catalonia.

One of these dissertations was submitted in Salamanca, within a doctoral programme in aspects of Spanish fiction, which would have horrified Pedrolo. The author never appeared in the Spanish media and always maintained that Catalonia was a colonized nation. Now, here’s the paradox: having suffered terribly from the restrictions of Franco’s irrational censorship (Pedrolo was the most heavily censored writer between 1950 and 1970), he nonetheless managed to antagonize the Catalan political and literary establishment of his time. Hence, the story goes, his odd ostracizing.

According to Adelais, he was a painfully shy man who was simply bad at small talk and who hated the socializing rituals of his writing peers. Yet, if, despite having been honoured with the Premi d’Honor de les Lletres Catalanes (in 1979), he was buried in 1990 with the only company of his wife and his daughter, something else is amiss. Eduard Miguel’s documentary suggests that Pedrolo’s fierce independentism earned him the enmity of the Catalan nationalists then involved in the delicate process of the Spanish Transition. These nationalists, so the thesis goes, would have blocked Pedrolo out of any significant public positioning, implicitly including the study of his work at a university level. Arguably. Twenty-six years after his death the political situation has changed so much that Pedrolo’s opinions have been embraced by the same political party that back in 1980s labelled him a problematic writer. Yet, he does not seem to be re-emerging from academic limbo, or only very slowly. In the meantime, let’s recall, his books have been practically abandoned by those with the power to make decisions about publishing them. It seems to me that, for whatever reasons, the potential cultural capital embodied by the 1,300,000 persons who bought a copy of Mecanoscrit and its many more readers has been sadly squandered. Please, Catalan Literature colleagues, do something!

All this brings me back to my starting point: how dead writers approach the brink of oblivion. O’Brian, who died in 2000, is still alive in the many readers who praise his work. From what I see in GoodReads, he seems to be recruiting new young readers, some of whom might eventually produce the academic work that turns a popular classic into a canonical figure. Here I’m using canonical in the humble sense of worth writing about from an academic point of view, and not meaning ‘firmly in the canon’ (like, um, Jane Austen). The Anglo-American university is demonstrating a notable flexibility in the incorporation of successful, popular, cultish fiction.

The case of Pedrolo is far more worrying because there is an ill-defined ideological component interfering with the purely academic approach. The rise of independentism may benefit the cause of Pedrolo but let me tell you that I didn’t see any young readers waving independentist flags, literally or symbolically, in the presentation I attended, which was part of the Setmana del Llibre en Català. We’ll see, then, whether the 2018 centennial pushes Pedrolo away from the brink of oblivion and for the best possible reasons: our admiration for the high quality of his immense literary output.

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