AWARDS AND PRIZES: NO GOOD FOR LITERATURE

I am writing this post as songwriter Bob Dylan keeps the whole world in tenterhooks about whether he’ll finally accept the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded to him days ago amidst much controversy. His silence is so loud that an irritated member of the Swedish committee has publicly called him “impolite and arrogant” (I agree). Dylan has not even bothered to pick up the phone to acknowledge the receipt of the Swedes’ insistent messages. I do not wish, however, to discuss the merits and demerits of Dylan as a Nobel prize recipient, nor whether song lyrics are Literature (of course they are, particularly in the best cases). I don’t particularly relish Dylan’s atonal nasal whine, which disqualifies me to consider his songwriting. I’d rather discuss the increasingly harmful effect that awards and prizes are having on Literature.

I have just learned that an award is a distinction granted without competition whereas a prize is given to the winner of a competition, despite the interesting exceptions to this rule presented by the Nobel Prize and the Oscar Award. No matter, my argument is the same. Actually, I was groping in the dark to understand what exactly my objection is when my niece came to my rescue without knowing it. Her school has organized a competition to find a slogan which helps fruit and vegetable sellers to sell product past its prime but still perfectly edible. Kids had been told that the winner will see his or her slogan actually used in local shops and markets–also, that the other reward will be a tablet. My niece was absolutely indignant that rather than care about the possible impact of their slogans in actual consumers’ behaviour, her classmates started asking what brand the tablet was as soon as the contest was announced. That’s my point: writers are also too focused on the prize, not on their impact on society through Literature. If my niece wins the school competition she’s very likely to reject the tablet and even complain about its pernicious effect. My guess is that Dylan has the same feelings about the Nobel… tablet.

I know that I’m being flippant but what exactly is the point of awards and prizes? Shakespeare never got one, nor did Dickens or Cervantes and this is no obstacle to their being still admired today. The opposite also holds: receiving an award or prize is, I’m sure, a great occasion in the life of the lucky writer but it is no guarantee whatsoever of lasting fame. Nobody in Spain ever recalls, much less reads, playwright José Echegaray, Nobel prize winner in 1904. It seems, in contrast, a bit superfluous that colossal figures like Thomas Mann, W.B. Yeats or Gabriel García Márquez have a Nobel Prize–they’re much bigger than that. I don’t want, however, to castigate in particular the Nobel Prize, which is, despite its good intentions, a constant source of disagreements (much like the Oscars). My point is, rather, that literary awards and prizes in general are of very dubious interest. Beyond publicizing some authors. Beyond boosting their egos.

I often read résumés of some authors’ careers and they are peppered with awards I have never heard of. So-and-so, often a relatively unknown author, is the winner of so-and-so and this-and-that; then you read their quite average work and wonder: how did this person win so many awards? This seems even to be counterproductive. It is very often the case that a novel hyped after winning a major award disappoints many readers, whether this is a Man Booker Prize, or a Dagger Award, it’s the same case. This generates ill-will against the corresponding jury and the corresponding distinction, which, little by little loses importance.

In my Department we often comment on how the Booker Prize used to be an extremely reliable indicator of where to find new, exciting writing whereas now it offers the same kind of blind lottery as reading whatever you wish to pick up. I acknowledge that, contradicting my own argument here, I have used prizes to navigate my way into some genres (or aspects thereof): I certainly relied on the Hugo and the Nebula to help me choose the science-fiction short stories which my students read last year. This does not mean, however, that the results of my choice were more solid than if I had acted on each author’s reputation. How reputation is measured, however, seems to be today conditioned by the awards received, which quite complicates my argumentation. Fish bites tail. Or Moebius strip.

Let me now mention the case of another recent prize, the Planeta, won by Dolores Redondo, a well-known crime fiction writer. The Premio Planeta, Wikipedia informs, awarded yearly since 1952 and founded by José Manuel Lara Hernández, is today the highest rewarded literary prize on Earth, only second to the Nobel for Literature, and the highest in the world for a single book. The winner gets an astonishing €601,000 (actually, an advance for the expected massive sales). No wonder, then, that a grateful Redondo was in tears when she gave her acceptance speech. What surprised me was her declaration that she had always dreamed of winning the Planeta, for this is not really a prestige award like the Nadal, the Nacional or the Cervantes. The Planeta Prize is always tainted by a suspicion that it is a well-orchestrated publicity stunt, with the winner and the finalist pre-selected in advance of the jury’s meeting. If this is a blatant lie, then at least it must be stressed that the Planeta has this knack of always rewarding writers who are already selling well.

For me, the 2016 Planeta is a far more interesting affair than the Dylan debacle because it marks the entrance of genre fiction in the general literary competitions devoted to mainstream fiction. If I am correct, the main award for detective fiction in Spain is the RBA, recently won by Scottish writer Ian Rankin. Redondo doesn’t seem to have received any previous awards which, in the current context, is beginning to be unusual but her fame depends on the very popular detective fiction trilogy of Baztán (El guardián invisible, Legado en los huesos and Ofrenda a la tormenta). It is, then, very good news for detective fiction in general to have broken into the mainstream with the Planeta, an achievement which might signal the end of the crisis of legitimation for this genre in Spain. In this sense, I grant, prizes and awards do matter. My problem, however, is that I could not even finish the first, bungling novel in her trilogy, and I wonder to what extent many mainstream readers who approach the genre through Redondo will have the same problem, and be alienated rather than won for the cause of detective fiction.

This brings me back to Dylan and the Nobel Prize. I’m here arguing (very confusingly!!) that awards and prizes are no indicator of a writer’s quality, and that they are generally harmful for the ambition to impact society that should characterize great Literature. At the same time I’m arguing that literary distinctions may be useful to solve the crisis of legitimation still affecting so-called minor genres, such as detective fiction. Um–they’re compatible positions, I believe. What I felt when the Nobel committee announced that Dylan had won the prize was that, well, if we are finally accepting that Literature happens beyond the printed page of highbrow books, then the Nobel should be open to all literary genres, including not only so-called genre fiction but even other genres such as journalism or screen writing. Let’s reward multimedia writers like Aaron Sorkin, or writers who have won all one can win in a specific category, like fantasy and SF icon Ursula K. Le Guin.

Or nobody. If Literature were truly valued, awards and prizes would be redundant. What is failing in our system of valuing Literature, then, is that it requires all the external props that non-profit institutions like the Nobel committee or rabidly commercial companies like Grupo Planeta are offering. If writers were sufficiently, and honestly, publicized in the media, if they had more visibility, then the literary distinctions would be unnecessary. We would never agree on who is best, and why certain works are valuable (you only needs to see how fiercely readers disagree on GoodReads and Amazon). At least, we would be free of clutter. Perhaps Bob Dylan is mortally afraid, after all, that if he accepts the Nobel Prize he will be just a badly remembered name in a list of half-known literary authors, rather the unique figure he is.

Of course, I have never won a literary award… and all this ranting may just be a case of very sour grapes and of wanting very much to be Dolores Redondo to see how it feels to be on the spotlight for those fifteen minutes of glory. And get the €601,000.

Dylan: reject the tablet, please!!!

PS: Dylan finally accepted the Nobel Prize two weeks after it was awarded to him with no explanation about the delay, except that he was left ‘speechless’. Oh….!!!

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/

TRIGGER WARNING: FEAR OF TRAUMA AS A MAJOR OBSTACLE TO AN EDUCATION IN CITIZENSHIP

I’m flabbergasted by the article which Prof. Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of Sociology at the University of Kent and author of the forthcoming What’s Happened to the University?: A Sociological Exploration of its Infantilisation, published recently in The Guardian. “Too many academics are now censoring themselves” (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/oct/11/censor-lecturers-trigger-warnings-students-distressed) does not deal, as the title hints, with the pressure from conservative academic authorities to avoid certain issues in university classrooms. It deals, rather, with the students’ pressure to silence Literature teachers touching on topics and events that might upset them. The concept is so alien to me that I had to read the piece twice to understand what Furedi means.

It appears that American college students started requesting ‘trigger warnings’ a couple of years ago to avoid the potential distress of certain scenes in Literature. An article also in The Guardian by Alison Flood (May 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/19/us-students-request-trigger-warnings-in-literature) claimed that some US students were refusing to analyze rape and war scenes in the fiction they had to read. Among the books outed as likely to trigger trauma by these reluctant students are Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, The Great Gatsby by Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

The students requested, if I understand correctly, that teachers added a trigger warning to the books in the syllabus. Thus, for instance, students who had gone through a traumatic episode connected with suicide would be warned in advance that Woolf’s novel might be painful to read. The same applies to rape victims asked to read Titus Andronicus. This demand and its reasoning, logically, elicited a huge controversy. However, a later article by Jessica Valenti (of December 2015), reported that “a new study shows that the actual use and influence of trigger warnings are so low as to be almost nonexistent”. The issue, she says, was misrepresented and hugely exaggerated.

If this is the case, and I certainly hope that it is, then we need to take Furedi’s article with a pinch of salt. To begin with, he presents a situation in which British, not only American students, are increasingly demanding trigger warnings. He, however, refers just to some anecdotes, no matter how worrying they can be (students refusing to be taught about the Holocaust…), as a prelude to warning that “Shielding students from topics deemed sensitive is fast gaining influence in academic life”.

I have, nevertheless, seen for myself that, as Furedi points out, the 2015-16 undergraduate handbook of the University of Newcastle contains a “School Statement on Use of Sensitive Material in Undergraduate Lectures, Seminars, Reading Lists” (http://www.ncl.ac.uk/media/wwwnclacuk/englishliteraturelanguagesandlinguistics/files/ug-handbook-2015.pdf). Sensitive topics covered by teachers include, they warn, “the depiction/discussion of rape, suicide, graphic violence” and other themes. In the Humanities, they add, “it is inevitable that distressing life events and situations can and will be encountered in texts and assignments”. After guaranteeing students that there is sufficient information warning them in advance about the modules content, the Newcastle academic authorities “warmly” encourage concerned students “to use this information to consider how best they can prepare themselves to study challenging material in a way that is appropriate for them”. Next, they offer the “support and guidance” of the module/seminar leaders, personal tutors, and the Student Wellbeing Service. I am truly speechless.

Furedi wonders, as I’m doing now, what exactly is meant by “challenging material”. He is also puzzled by how the meaning of the adjective ‘challenging’ has changed from ‘hard to tackle intellectually’ to ‘potentially unsettling’. He concludes, as any Literature teacher would do, that “It is difficult to think of any powerful literary text that does not disturb a reader’s sensibility”–most are meant to do exactly that. In the last line of the article he bemoans that “Sadly, far too many academics have responded to the pressure to protect students from disturbing ideas by censoring themselves”. Perhaps this is the main problem here: that teachers in Anglo-American universities have started censoring themselves before asking students how they were actually reacting to certain ‘challenging’ issues.

I cannot say whether the handbook of the University of Newcastle is typical or atypical. It seems to me that the notice I have quoted is, rather, a misguided attempt at protecting themselves from trouble not yet arising. A case of ‘forewarned is forearmed’. My own experience of teaching these last weeks the at points truly violent Oliver Twist is that I was the one pointing out the potentially shocking scenes, as students struggled with Dickens’ old-fashioned prose. When I started a discussion about Dickens’s racist representation of the Jewish criminal Fagin, the students were the ones to defend the argument that his racism needs to be contextualized in the Victorian Age. I have read Chinua Achebe’s outing of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a racist text in class, in front of a black student and she reacted by offering a well-articulated response to the racism in the text and to Achebe’s reaction rather than by asking me to stop. Or dashing out of the classroom in tears.

I’m so surprised by all this controversy that I find it really hard to offer a minimally coherent argumentation. It might well be that Anglo-American society and its college students are so totally alien that I just don’t know what to make of the articles I am commenting on here. I find the Spanish/Catalan students sitting in my classes open-minded, interested in discussing absolutely everything, eager to break boundaries when I step into risky territory (which is quite often) and not at all hostile. I do not feel that I have to censor myself at all, perhaps because I work in an institution known for its liberal, left-wing ideological positioning and students know what to expect from us, teachers.

Having said that, I acknowledge that we, teachers, do not know our students well and, so, there is certainly always a risk that a student may be negatively affected by something we teach because s/he has endured a terrible personal trauma. I believe that in this specific case, teacher and student can come to an agreement and solve the problem through alternative assessment. This situation, which seems to be the basis for the demand of the inclusion of trigger warnings in the syllabus of US universities– exaggerated as the concern may be–has nothing to do with, as Furadi reports, a student adamantly rejecting to see photos of Holocaust victims because she feared being traumatised by them. One thing is dealing with a student who has endured a traumatic situation in his/her life, and a very different matter dealing with overprotected children unable to stomach the appalling truth of human behaviour.

That overprotection is understood very differently on both shores of the Atlantic, and not only regarding young persons, was recently demonstrated by Facebook’s decision to censor the famous photo taken by Nick Ut of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, the little Vietnamese girl running away terrified from the horrors of war. Since she is naked in that photo, Facebook censored it on the grounds that it was a form of child pornography. An indignant Norwegian newspaper editor shamed Facebook into correcting this gross error by pointing out that rather than protect children they were censoring historical truth. Now, suppose I show the photo in class and a student complains that it is distressing. I can see the rest of my class guffawing and/or open-mouthed. They would rush to explain to this person that we need to care about the trauma which the victims of history have suffered and not about the trauma we, privileged persons, might suffer. For without empathy we fail to be educated as citizens.

My concern, rather, is that a generation used to the ultra-realistic representation of carnage and sadism in current fiction, from videogames to Literature, may be too desensitized to understand personal trauma, both that of the Holocaust victims and that of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus. Since the products that my students (and myself) consume come mainly from the United States I am wondering how and why US college students can claim to be so afraid of trauma. How does the same nation produce the brutal Django Unchained (no trigger warnings here) and also college students who will not discuss racism in Literature? It baffles me.

There is something else that these students and teachers are missing. Here go two personal experiences with traumatised students. A girl asked me specifically to work for her BA dissertation on a novel that narrated female self-abuse, leading to anorexia and which included suicidal tendencies. Why? She had issues to overcome and to outgrow. I initially panicked that her demand would entangle us in an impossible situation but in the end she used her BA dissertation in a way which can only described as beautifully therapeutic. I have immense respect for this young woman. In the other case, I asked students to write about their experience of reading Harry Potter for an online volume and a young man ended publishing an account of how he was abused and neglected as a child–much like Harry Potter. I was dreadfully nervous about publishing this but he reassured me: he felt happy and liberated by the chance to deal with his trauma.

So, here’s the lesson: reading Literature is an exercise in empathy which helps you to face your personal traumas and, above all, to understand the life of the traumatised fictional characters. This prepares you for the education in citizenship that you need to feel empathy for the victims of History and of life around you. May you never be one of them.

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/

REPRESENTING MEN’S FRIENDSHIP IN FICTION: DAMNED IF YOU DO, DAMNED IF YOU DON’T

My colleagues David Owen and Cristina Pividori invited me some time ago to contribute an essay to a volume on World War I, an event that fascinates me in its brutality, terrible as this may sound. They chose for me the two novels I should analyze in my article: Wilfrid Ewart’s The Way of Revelation (1921) and Ernest Raymond’s Tell England (1922). These two books are middlebrow fiction and were extremely popular in their time, but are now more or less forgotten. Raymond’s novel is too sentimental for our tastes and is probably rightly neglected but I found Ewart’s Way of Revelation an excellent novel. David and Cris chose these books knowing that I appreciate less-than-literary fiction but also because they wanted me to explore the male friendships that occupy each author in each book. I learned many, many valuable lessons.

Male friendship is a classic trope of WWI fiction but what I found in Raymond and Ewart was a less inhibited display of affection than I had seen thus far, after reading quite a long list of literary Great War fiction. In Raymond’s novel Rupert Ray and his soul mate Edgar Doe are boys who enlist out of public school to fight in the fated Dardanelles campaign. Ewart’s Adrian Knoyle and his best friend Eric Sinclair, already in their twenties, abandon a comfortable life for the trenches in France. I was truly surprised by the vocabulary of affection and the choices in behaviour in both books. Rupert frequently calls Edgar ‘beautiful’ and Adrian chooses Eric’s company in war rather than stay with his girlfriend Rosemary. At the same time both books make a clear distinction between male friendship and homosexuality: in Raymond’s novel there is a young gay man and he certainly is seen with aversion (yes, quite homophobic). Something else that puzzled me, by the way, was precisely the use of ‘gay’, often applied to Adrian and Eric meaning that they are happy men about town. Eric’s girlfriend Faith even finds him ‘too gay’, meaning too fond of having sex with chorus girls…

Ernest Raymond only realized in the 1960s that Tell England had a high homoerotic content and he claimed then that when he wrote his novel the word ‘homosexual’ was simply not on the horizon. This puzzled me very much, as ‘homosexuality’ was a concept first introduced in the Victorian Age, in 1869, to withdraw ‘sodomy’ from the catalogue of sins and present it in clinical terms as a perversion. This humilliation, paradoxically, was supposed to be a step forward. The men ostracized for their sodomitical practices suddenly saw themselves liable to legal punishment (think Oscar Wilde) but also in possession of a new label that defined a particular identity. This was, in the long run, positive.

Sexologist Havelock Ellis, a man of much higher impact in Britain than Sigmund Freud around WWI, concluded in the third edition (1927) of his renowned Sexual Inversion (1897) that “However shameful, disgusting, personally immoral, and indirectly antisocial it may be for two adult persons of the same sex, men or women, to consent together to perform an act of sexual intimacy in private, there is no sound or adequate ground for constituting such act a penal offense by law”. Ellis and other pioneers like Edward Carpenter or John Symonds, together with world-leading sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in Germany and certainly Freud himself, insisted on proving that homosexuality was neither a crime nor a vice. They still labelled it an ‘anomaly’ and a ‘perversion’, presenting ‘inverts’ as abnormal, though not diseased. However, despite their efforts and although the language of masculine desire already existed in poetry (thanks to Walt Whitman) the aftershock of the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895 still persisted, so that homosexuality still remained stigmatized (punishable by law until 1967 in the UK, considered a mental disease until 1970). Back to Raymond’s claim that he did not know the word homosexual in 1922, when gay still meant happy-go-lucky, he was being honest: ‘homosexual’ was only used in scientific circles, other colloquial words (‘pansy’, ‘fairy’) were used by homophobes in the social context. It seems that ‘gay’ only started meaning ‘homosexual’ when homosexuals themselves chose it as their preferred codeword in the 1950s.

Some authors such as Sarah Cole and Joanna Bourke have claimed that the extraordinary circumstances of WWI provided men with a situation in which the constant mortal danger allowed for displays of affection between heterosexual men that would have been frowned upon in ordinary society. They claim that indeed male friendship of this intensity died in WWI. When the soldiers returned they were meekly led into marriage and told that real intimacy could only happen in heterosexual coupledom (aided by handbooks such as Marie Stopes’ revolutionary manual Married Love: A New Contribution to the Solution of Sex Difficulties (1919)). Where am I going with this? Well, I’m arguing here as I argued in my essay that the advances in Gay and Queer Studies (particularly Eve Sedgwick’s seminal volume Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, 1985), have paradoxically caused great damage to the affection between heterosexual men and its fictional representation. Apparently, women feel no anxiety about whether friendly affection has a covert lesbian undercurrent and, so, the portrayal in fiction of female friendship hardly ever focuses on this issue. In contrast, since Sedgwick outed most male friendships in fiction as secretly gay (to be fair, she used ‘homoerotic’ rather than ‘homosexual’), the representation of this kind of relationship has become extremely complicated. I loved reading Raymond and Ewart precisely because their men were free from the problem of the homoerotic (although I do see that Cole and Bourke are quite right).

I’m then convinced that the representation of male friendship in fiction must be carefully separated from the representation of gay love, and both need to be encouraged in all genres and levels of fiction. I read just yesterday an article about the growing presence of ‘bromosexual’ friendship (between gay and heterosexual men) in American fiction–and I was totally non-plussed for I see that type of friendship around me with notable frequency. Anyway, I have already narrated here the immense pleasure that I feel when reading the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian (I’m in volume 10 of 20, had to stop for a while or I would read nothing else…). I enjoy the series very much because I admire the gentle, natural way in which O’Brian represents the friendship and intimacy between these two heterosexual men. But, and here is the real reason for my post today, reading the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Thorne (supervised by J.K. Rowling) I came to the conclusion that representing male friendship is now a case of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’.

I was asked for my opinion about the play for an article in El Periódico and I wrote that a nice opportunity to represent gay love is missed in the relationship between teenager Albus Potter and his best friend Scorpius Malfoy. Actually, charming Scorpius is the best element in this mediocre play which is bound to disappoint most Harry Potter fans. The case is that I got a quite furious email from a male ex-student, chastising me for outing the two boys. Just the day before another student had emailed me a Guardian article in which the (male) author defended the thesis that it is very, very important for Albus and Scorpio not to be seen as gay since this will help little Potterhead heterosexual boys to express their affection for other boys more openly. My answer to my ex-student’s email message was this: of course I see the need to open up the representation of male heterosexual friendship to more fulfilling, less homophobic ways of expressing affection but I just happen to believe that in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child this friendship is actually gay love.

Why? Because I see that in other cases, like the Aubrey/Maturin series or the pair Captain Kirk/Spock it is not. Sedgwick’s many followers tend to insist that most male friendship is secretly gay, which I totally dispute. And, yes, I’m well aware that Kirk and Spock have been the object of plenty of slash fan fiction. Yet, for me, the key lies in whether the presence of women in the life of the men in question feels forced or not: heteronormative or plain heterosexual. [Spoilers!!!] In the case of Albus and Scorpius the last minute introduction of a girlfriend is a dreadful, mismanaged heternormative intrusion, whereas in the Aubrey/Maturin series the presence of the women beloved by these men makes perfect sense. Now somebody will accuse me of being homophobic, biphobic, or queerphobic… I don’t know.

Last but not least, have a look at this wonderful photo and tell me whether the men seen kissing in it are friends or lovers. Also, once you know the correct answer, consider how it is circulating what and who exactly benefits from its publication: http://www.elperiodico.cat/ca/noticias/extra/peto-castellers-merce-barcelona-5458028

My article:
“The Loving Soldier: Vindicating Men’s Friendship in Ernest Raymond’s Tell England: A Study in a Generation (1922) and Wilfrid Ewart’s The Way of Revelation (1921)”. In Writings of Persuasion and Dissonance in the Great War: That Better Whiles May Follow Worse. David Owen and Cristina Pividori (eds.), Leiden and Boston: Brill Rodopi, 2016. Pp. 205-219. ISBN: 978-90-04-31491-7. http://www.brill.com/products/book/writings-persuasion-and-dissonance-great-war

Available online my other articles about male friendship:

“Aging in F(r)iendship: ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty and John Rebus”. Clues: A Journal of Detection 29:2, 2011. 73-82. ISSN 0724-4248. http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116052

“Antonio cuestionado: El mercader de Venecia de Michael Radford y el problema del heterosexismo”. Dossiers feministes, nº 20, 2015, 261-283. http://www.e-revistes.uji.es/index.php/dossiers/article/view/1772/1811

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/

MEDIA EXPOSURE AND THE OSBCURE PROFESSOR IN THE AGE OF THE YOUTUBER

I am mystified by the expression ‘an obscure professor’. Since ‘obscure’ is so close to Spanish ‘oscuro’ (meaning, of course, ‘dark’) I tend to think of people like Professor Snape, who teaches ‘Defence against the Dark Arts’ at Harry Potter’s school Hogwarts as an ‘obscure professor’. ‘Obscure’ has diverse meanings, according to the Oxford Dictionary, such as ‘not discovered or known about’, ‘uncertain’, ‘not clearly expressed’, ‘vague’; other dictionaries add ‘unclear’, ‘abstruse’. Yet in the phrase ‘an obscure professor’ the accent falls on ‘not important or well known’, ‘inconspicuous’, ‘unimportant’. Not Snape-like.

I am not sure what the opposite of ‘obscure’ is in this context, I hesitate between ‘distinguished’ and ‘famous’, as they seem to be such different concepts. What seems clear to me is that ‘obscure’ appears to be a reproach and an insult against those university teachers who never manage to leave their dark corner and make it into the spotlight. Indeed, spurred by being labelled ‘an obscure professor’ by an unkind journalist, Prof. Paul Boller called his successful autobiographical volume Memoirs of an Obscure Professor (1992).

Last week I stopped being an obscure professor for a few days–and it was fun. The Spanish translation of John Thorne’s play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a text supervised by JK Rowling but not written by her, was published on Monday 26. The internet helped journalists to decide that I am a Harry Potter expert because they found information about my elective course of two years ago and the related publications. And, so, I got invitations to express my (critical) opinion in El Periódico and on Catalunya Ràdio. That was on Tuesday 27. On Wednesday 28 I joined the translator and one of my students for a talk at bookshop Gigamesh with fans. As I waited for the act to begin, a young woman approached me mike in hand, placed me before a camera and started asking me questions. The Gigamesh talk is now online and what the young woman filmed appeared in the national news, TVE’s Telediario, that evening–five seconds, no more.

I informed my Department colleagues about the radio talk (with the Potter.Con organizers) and sent the podcast. Not the Telediario link as I was horrified to have been caught looking exhausted at the end of a long day, nursing a headache and talking so fast that it seemed someone was threatening me with a gun. Yet, some colleagues did see me, also my mum, and, as I found out today, even some neighbours. Here’s a constant in everyone’s reactions: all have congratulated me. So, really the theme of this post is why I was congratulated and on what.

I asked one of my colleagues, we had a good laugh about it and she speculated that, somehow, ‘congratulations’ means in this case ‘you have managed to become visible beyond the Department walls’. I don’t know whether any of my colleagues participates in the media regularly and I can only recall a TV appearance by one of them: Josep Cuní, then heading Catalan TV3’s evening news, called Prof. Aránzazu Usandizaga to comment on the death of Graham Greene. This was 1991, 25 years ago. I recall her complaining that she knew nothing about Greene, annoyed that journalists believe that experts are always at their beck and call to fill in news time. Well, that’s another matter. My point is that being on the media is so exceptional among my colleagues that I have found myself celebrated not quite for my particular intervention but, somehow, for making all of us visible. To my amusement, my 5-minutes of glory (not even 15!) is something we can use for the Department’s report on our collective transfer of knowledge to society.

If you think about it, there are many levels of obscurity. Some teachers manage to be invisible not only beyond the Department walls but even within them (which colleague are you thinking of now?). Other teachers are popular among students and staff but perfectly unknown outside the Department, or the university in question. For those of us operating within the campus territory the life of the media-savvy teacher is a mystery. We read their newspaper columns, see them in the many talk-shows Spanish style (I mean ‘tertulias’), follow them on Twitter or YouTube… I am really curious to know how one becomes that kind of non-obscure professor, not at all because I want to break out of my dark corner (very cosy here…) but simply because I want to satisfy a natural curiosity. I wonder, above all, whether this media exposure is satisfactory personally and professionally. And no, this blog is not at all part of that for I write it as if it were a private diary with a few onlookers rather than to make a splash of any kind.

I would not mind, of course, being paid to write a newspaper column–but then when I read the readers’ comments I only feel dismay… And I write this blog, yes. Yet, other forms of public exposure are beyond me. I have quite a hard time every day in class, like any other (female) teacher ageing in front of students who look younger and younger. They might think that I don’t care what they think of me but, to be honest, facing students requires overcoming a number of personal insecurities that never really disappear. I have been a teacher now for 25 years and I certainly feel more secure about what I say but less and less secure about what I look like. The idea, then, of seeing myself on TV is not gratifying but, rather, a source of anxiety. I marvel at the myriad YouTubers who have no problem filming themselves. I can’t even look at my own photos, much less see a few minutes of me on the screen. How embarrassing…

This is, however, the way we are all going. My university emailed all of us this week a booklet with many pages of instructions covering all possible cases of media exposure, particularly in social networks (also YouTube). The traditional media matter less and less and my university has realized that what each of us contributes to the new media reflects on the whole institution. Hence the minute instructions. I only missed some words about personal appearance but I believe this was implicit… Our traditional ‘tree professors’ (male teachers wearing brown corduroy trousers and green jumpers, both baggy) might damage our public image…

My university’s interest in the new media has, ironically, brought back fond memories of a TV programme I used to enjoy as a young girl: José Luis Balbín’s La Clave. This show consisted of a most civilized debate with the participation of absolutely first-rank figures, preceded by an art-house film. The opening credits, with the intriguing musical theme by Carmelo Bernaola are part of my generation’s awakening to intellectual curiosity. As usual, it is complicated for me to fix the dates but La Clave was on between 1976 and 1985 (on TVE’s second channel, then called UHF, now La2), and later between 1990 and 1993 (on Antena 3). It transpires that Felipe González’s socialist Government dismissed Balbín, fearing La Clave might negatively affect political decisions such as Spain’s entrance into NATO. By the time Antena 3 brought Balbín’s show back, private TV was beginning to erode the monopoly of national TVE and relying on banality as the main crowd-pleaser. Also, the internet was looming on the horizon. And, so, intellectuals disappeared from TV.

You can watch endless TED talks on YouTube but this has nothing to do with what Balbín and La Clave did: bring to many Spanish homes a taste of the best in current ideas. The film ploy was very clever for many viewers who would not have seen the intellectual debate stayed on–of course, channel hopping was no temptation as TV1 was the only other option. This kind of TV is gone for ever, replaced by endless triviality, despite the efforts of LaSexta to provide us with more or less solid political debate.

Waxing really, really nostalgic what I am trying to say is that I would have love breaking out of my obscurity to be a guest at Balbín’s La Clave. That would have been a matter for congratulations…

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