ON THE DECLINE OF CINEMA (WITH SOME MUSINGS ABOUT THE 1980s)

This post is a mixed bag of ideas about cinema. Some are suggested by reading this weekend the Spanish version of Hadley Freeman’s pop essay Time of my Life (2015), a book about the pleasures of 1980s movies. Other ideas spring from the controversy at the Cannes Film Festival (which closed yesterday) on whether Netflix and Amazon films, which do not get theatrical releases, are cinema at all properly speaking.

Cinema is, roughly speaking, a century-old business which is possibly seeing its end as an art enjoyed in public. This is a situation that true cinema lovers bemoan, even though they (we) have been the first to desert our local cinemas. I am trying to return again but what puts me off is the discourteous behaviour of my fellow spectators.

As we all know, in cinemas people speak with each other in loud tones (or use their cell phones) as if they were in their own living room. Any complaint risks a really nasty incident, whereas in the pre-multiplex past ushers would invite obnoxious spectators out…. Then, I happen to abhor the smell of popcorn, which is a great inconvenient if you enjoy visiting cinemas; it can be worse in evening sessions mid-week, when bocatas de chorizo are a common snack. Also, my small size means that I am only truly comfortable in a handful of cinemas (a special recommendation for Balmes O.V. if you live in Barcelona). Many committed cinemagoers have chosen to attend the least popular sessions (here, Monday 16:00) but this is a sad solution to the basic problem of people’s inability to behave in cinemas. And, so, dear Pedro Almodóvar, president of the Cannes Festival Jury, and Netflix hater, here’s the explanation for why cinema is dying: spectators.

I don’t have a Netflix subscription but I have checked the monthly fees and, basically, they are the equivalent of a single cinema ticket. I paid 8.50 for my last film–Dancer, the wonderful documentary on ballet star Sergei Polunin–whereas a basic Netflix fee is 7.99 (standard 9.99; premium 11.99). Streaming requires, please remember, a good internet service (at least 40 euros a month) and, although you can watch films on tiny smartphone screens, ideally you should also possess a 50-inch television (which may cost thousands of euros). But, then, people pay anyway for these.

If you happen to be a teenager seeking to have a good time with your friends but only carry 15 euros in your pocket, you’re not going to spend them at the cinema–you’ll go to McDonalds (!?) and then use your parents’ subscription at home to see as many films as you want. Although, funnily, subscription channels like HBO and now internet services like Netflix are, essentially, platforms based on the appeal of television series, not films, which they have started to produce only a few years ago. Here is, Pedro Almodóvar, another question for you: is a film released on Netflix a TV movie? How come TV series are no longer really TV series, but internet series? But I digress…

To sum up: people are dragging their feet and thinking twice before going to the cinema because a) the other spectators are (mostly) obnoxious, b) the tickets are (relatively) expensive. A Netflix (or similar) subscription solves both problems at once: if you are still interested in films, you may enjoy them in the comfort of your home and for little money. You also get the series, of course. Cinemas lose business and we, who love cinema, lose the pleasure of the big screen. But, then, this pleasure seems to have been lost long ago, possibly with the introduction of the multiplex and the dismissal of the ushers to cut corners…

I had been avoiding the book by Hadley Freeman, Time of my Life, because the title is an allusion to Dirty Dancing and this is not the kind of 1980s cinema I enjoy. I’m an Aliens (1986) and Predator (1987) fan, rather, which I combined with art-house fare like Paris, Texas (1984) or Do the Right Thing (1989). Freeman doesn’t like Star Wars, and that’s all I need to say about our diverging tastes. In the 1980s I managed to avoid all the films by John Hughes, and although I find Ghostbusters (1984) fun, I really see no reason to see it many times as she has done. If I had written a book about 1980s cinema, Blade Runner (1982) would be all over the place. Ok, I grant that I also enjoy When Harry Met Sally… (1989)–and I would like to kill the incompetent person who translated ‘met’ as ‘encontró’ instead of ‘conoció’, as if Sally was a pebble on the beach.

What I appreciate about Freeman’s essay is the effort she makes to explain that, although not everything worked well in 1980s Hollywood movies (they could be blatantly misogynistic, homophobic and racist), many things are wrong today. Perhaps because she was a child in the 1980s, rather than a teenager, Freeman feels unencumbered by the generational loyalty and nostalgia that has led others to defend fanatically the cinema made in that decade. She’s, in short, more clear-headed and can number very accurately the problems of current cinema. These can be summed up in just one short sentence: Hollywood studios are working for the lowest common denominator and addressing a spectatorship they wrongly believe to be homogeneous.

More specifically this means that, after the old studios became at the beginning of the 1990s tiny cogs in the wheels of massive corporations: a) the people deciding which movies are greenlighted are executives, not cinema lovers (or even producers…), b) there is a total fixation with the blockbuster, with the subsequent loss of the mid-budget film, c) the only demographic truly taken into account are 12-year-old males (but why?? they don’t even read comics), d) the weight of the foreign market has increased (hence the downplaying of nuanced local issues), f) women’s role as spectators and creators has sharply diminished (men don’t see women’s films, women see all kinds of films)…, g) racial and ethnic variety is decreasing (if you have noticed more Chinese actors in recent blockbusters, this is because China is now the main Hollywood market). In short, and I think she is right, When Harry Met Sally… would not be made today. Or it would be a Netflix series. With Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan recovering their lost popularity.

Please, notice that the current decline of Hollywood cinema also affects the blockbuster. The 1980s Aliens and Predator are excellent films which have no match today. Prequels, sequels and spin-offs simply show how scared everyone is of producing something fresh and new. Hundreds of millions of dollars are poured onto films impossible to watch and forgotten the next day: the plots are either confusing or inexistent, the action scenes are just sound and fury signifying nothing, poorly designed cgi only contributes to this sense of chaos and randomness. Now and then a popcorn film fulfils the task of keeping you entertained (The Fate of the Furious, part 8 of the Fast and Furious series). Yet most films are unendurable because despite being edited for spectators with a three-second attention span, they go on for more than two hours on average (films used to be a satisfying 90 minutes long). One might choose to be bored, if thus inclined, watching the grass grow in a French avant-garde film, as Woody Allen explained, but not, I’ll add, watching a blockbuster, which is supposed to thrill you.

One need not be very clever to notice that the current passion for watching series is very closely connected with the decadence of cinema. I need another post to explain how series are now about to enter their process of stagnation (perhaps not decline) but just let me say that the recent release of the new Twin Peaks, closes a cycle started by the old Twin Peaks in 1990. When HBO feels the need to go back to ABC to stay competitive it’s time to say that something smells rotten… Or, rather, very briefly: David Lynch’s quirky series was a product made for national American television, specifically ABC. The gauntlet of how to make eccentric quality series was then picked up by Chris Carter’s The X-Files (1993-2001), which was made for Fox–one of the first major TV channels to appear in the decade which saw film studios swallowed into the maws of greedy, blind corporations. While films studios were slowly eaten up from the inside, like teenagers in a bad horror movie, cable TV grew: hence HBO with The Sopranos (1999-2007) and Game of Thrones (2011-). Now it’s Netflix’s turn… which started film production in 2013.

What I am arguing is obvious. Film and series, whether TV or internet, are communicating vessels: there is only a certain amount of audiovisual narrative talent around and if this has migrated to the series, it is only because cinema started being destroyed in the early 1990s by the corporations that dominate the film studios. Indie cinema appeared as a counterweight but, precisely, the problems is that it is too light in business terms to truly offer an alternative. I must thank Freeman for making me realize what was missing in this evident argumentation: despite the gigantic budgets of series like Game of Thrones, cinema has lost to the series the mid-budget list. In 1990, The Handmaid’s Tale was a (quite good) mid-budget film, today it is a 10-part- series (second season announced). And the series is publicized as if the film never existed, though its makers are MGM.

The problem is that the series may kill but not replace films. Freeman notes, and I very much agree, that whereas one may see a favourite film dozens of times, this is less likely to happen with a 50-hour drama (e.g. The Wire). Also, I add, whereas a film is a self-enclosed product (even when it is part of a trilogy, etc), series are sprawling products that tend to last for as long as possible, even past the right time for closure (this is known as ‘jumping the shark’). It is now known, besides, that with the exception of a few A-list series, spectators tend to abandon series around the third season. It might well be that, eventually, series start dying of their own success and the mini-series become everyone’s favourite format.

What do we do with cinema, in the meantime? Pedro Almodóvar was adamant that only films released in cinemas count as proper cinema, whereas his fellow jury member at Cannes, actor Will Smith, argued that all forms of seeing films should co-exist to ensure maximum exposure. Theatre, after all, still exists and in ways more diversified than ever (is it because theatre-goers are better behaved than film-goers?). Possibly Smith is right but I will insist again that platforms like Netflix or Amazon are not the problem. I am really serious when I say that cinemas started dying the moment ushers were deprived of any authority in the new multiplexes and spectators started behaving as if they were at home. Hopefully, this rude breed will soon desert the cinemas for their own home cinemas and let us, film lovers, enjoy films again on the big screen.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. 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/.

BLURRED LINES: TRYING TO UNDERSTAND THE WRITERS OF THE PAST

No, sorry, this is not a post about Robin Thicke’s catchy, appallingly sexist 2013 hit, which, by the way, turned out to be plagiarised (from a Marvin Gaye song). No: today I’m dealing with our difficulties to produce a clearly defined portrait of the writers of the pre-media past. By pre-media I mean the historical period before the invention of the recording (and broadcasting) of sound and of the moving image, even tough the press and photography may have been already available. And I’m using the Brontës as an example.

It has taken me a long twelve-step Google search to finally find out thanks to The Penguin Book of Interviews (edited by Christopher Silvester in 1993), that the first text of this kind to be published (in an American newspaper) dates back to 1859. The person interviewed was Brigham Young, leader of the Mormon Church, and the conversation appeared in the New York Herald. Silvester’s volume includes interviews with writers Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Emile Zola, Oscar Wilde and Henrik Ibsen, just to name a few authors who started writing in the 19th century. As an undergrad, I remember reading with immense pleasure a couple of anthologies gathering together the excellent interviews with writers published by The Paris Review, funded in 1953 by Peter Matthiessen, Harold L. Humes and George Plimpton.

So here is the first point: before 1859, the tools available to build the portrait of the writer, beyond the texts they chose to publish, are tangential. We have pictorial portraits, photos (from the 1830s onwards), impressions written by others, biographies and, here’s a vexing question, private letters. And the memorabilia. But not their voices in answer to our questions.

In the case of the Brontës, poor things, we have the dismal portrait of the three sisters painted by their adored but untalented brother Branwell. The photo believed to depict Charlotte has been revealed to be of someone else. Charlotte was the subject of a pioneering writer’s biography, written by fellow-author Elizabeth Gaskell. This volume, however, is now regarded as a manipulative instrument to present a more palatable image of the author to Victorian readers (even against Charlotte’s own wishes). And then there is the Brontë Parsonage Museum, where you can touch Emily’s bed, among other personal objects.

Obviously, even when portraits of the writer from the past exist, these are confusing objects. The slow speed of pre-20th century cameras required subjects to sit still for a long time, which is why all Victorians look so stern and unsmiling. Victorian photography was a new art and, above all, a new social habit; 150 years before the invention of the selfie, people simply lacked the know-how of self-presentation. See the ridiculous photos of Charles Dickens–a writer very careful of his public image and the first one to market himself as a brand–to understand how far he was from mastering this specific aspect.

In the absence of reliable elements for a clearly focused portrait, then, we use whatever we have at hand, and this is mainly letters, or diaries. Leaving aside the problems attached to the use of private documents which may have nothing to do with the literary craft to study how writers do write, it might well be the case that none have survived. Here’s an example of our difficulties, found in Josephine McDonagh’s 2008 introduction to Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848): “The absence of an autobiographical record makes it difficult to be sure of Anne’s motivations in writing The Tenant, but episodes of her life have led commentators to suppose that not only were some of the characters and events based on her own acquaintance and experiences, but that the novel itself was conceived as a response to troubling family circumstances” (xvii). This exemplifies the biographical phallacy that still dominates research (surprisingly): if you could map the writer’s life down to the most private detail, you would be able to explain his/her writing.

Interviews with living authors, however, reveal that this is not the case, as they have a mysterious something called ‘imagination’ that seems to lead a life of its own. A typical academic reply to writers’ strenuously denying that the biographical approach is correct is that writers themselves do not understand the process of writing. Or, as my PhD supervisor would remind me: “Writers lie all the time”. If, in short, we could interview Anne or her sisters, I’m sure they would be flabbergasted by the amount of speculation poured onto their lives… but they would not necessarily tell us the truth. What a vicious circle.

Here’s an alternative, coming from the same introduction by McDonagh: “Anne Brontë’s immersion in the print culture of her time, and specially her acquaintance with these more ephemeral forms of magazines and albums, may account for some of the stylistic features of the text” (xxxii). Observe the hesitation implicit in ‘may’ and ‘some’… This is the classic philological approach: if we could have access to the complete list of all a writer has read from infancy, then we would eventually be able to explain how his/her style works.

This stance led, as we know, to two apparently incompatible approaches: the intense Russian formalism later borrowed by American New Criticism (from which our close reading practices derive) and Harold Bloom’s idea of the ‘anxiety of influence’, which still respects the presence of the writer but tries to exclude the gossipy biographical approach and focus on authorship. Julia Kristeva cut an important Gordian knot by proposing that since influence cannot be really proven we should speak of intertextuality. This is both an extremely productive idea and a surrender, for it tells us that writers remain impenetrable fortresses better left alone. Just connect the texts with each other.

Let me recap: despite the immense energy poured by countless researchers, the portrait of the Brontë sisters we have today is a poorly assembled collection of blurred lines. Perhaps this is part of their myth and if we had them on television and on YouTube as much as we wished, they would not be the object of so much veneration. Or would they? I’m thinking of how contemporary writers market themselves and beginning to realize that fans would never tire if J.K. Rowling gave daily speeches and interviews.

In neo-Victorian conference I recently attended, there was someone very earnestly speculating whether Charlotte Brontë was actually pretty or not. A letter by her publisher George Smith was quoted, in which he offered a very unflattering description (later partially corrected by his daughter). We may disagree whether we find Rowling pretty or not, but in the age of the selfie it is absolutely frustrating that we cannot even be sure what Charlotte looked like, much less Emily or Anne. You may be thinking that, despite the countless interviews, press articles, documentaries, photos, etc., we’re not really closer to knowing who Rowling is. Our exploration of her work is not closer, either, to revealing how she managed to imagine the world of Harry Potter. Of course, but at least we can ask her whereas in the case of the writers from the past, unless new evidence appears, we are constantly stuck with the same limited, tangential material.

So what should be, as researchers specializing in Literature, do? I don’t know myself and I am beginning to be increasingly perplexed. It is clear to me that our central mission–the faith we profess as professors–is the survival of the texts from one generation to the next. Also, the correction of false impressions: Wuthering Heights used to be considered trash, and now it’s part of the canon. I am personally doing all I can in my classes to vindicate Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Every teacher of the Brontës fiction knows that biographical gossip helps to fix an idea of who these women were in the students’ minds. Yet, I certainly don’t want to discuss with them in class whether Charlotte was pretty; and the realization that Jane Eyre is the expression of sexual frustration regarding her unrequited passion for a married man has very much damaged my pleasure in this novel. Meaning that the more I know about Charlotte, the less I like Jane Eyre

Perhaps, and here’s the rub, the problem is that as teachers and researchers we are bound to fail: even if the best Brontë researcher devoted all his/her energies for the next fifteen years to Tenant and to Anne, this person would still be far from disclosing the mystery of her literary creativity. It’s back to the blurred lines. I don’t like speaking of ‘mystery’, as this makes literary research sound subjective and romantic in the worst possible way. But scientifically speaking, a mystery is that which cannot be explained with the current tools for research. And the ones we have are extremely limited. Even in the case of contemporary writers for, unless we sit by them as they write, we cannot really get a true insight into how writing works. And I see no author tolerating that kind of academic intrusion, not even for the sake of literary glory. For many, interviews even appear to be something they put up with and not something they truly relish…

Having just re-read Anne’s Tenant, with great pleasure, just after reading H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, I am wondering whether we should produce more criticism. We often teach texts or write about them taking for granted that they are good and this is why they are canonical. My fellow teachers and I decided, precisely, to include Tenant in our course on Victorian fiction because it has excellent features but also some problems, deeper than the faults to be found in Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. Rather than teach, then, that Anne’s Arthur Huntingdon is based on her brother Branwell’s, we focus on why the friendship between Gilbert and Lawrence is not convincingly narrated. And the challenge of explaining why King Solomon’s Mines is so inferior to Heart of Darkness and, at the same time, so indispensable to understand Conrad appears to be now very exciting. I’m glad we have chosen to teach Haggard.

So, yes: let’s apply a better focus on the texts, let the authors remain blurred, ghostly presences. And enjoy the mystery.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. 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/.

CULTURAL APPROPRIATION (AND THE MATTER OF SPANISH NEO-VICTORIAN FICTION)

I’m just back from the “I International Seminar on (Neo-)Victorian Studies in Spain”, held in Málaga and organized by Prof. Rosario Arias, leader of the ‘(Neo-)Victorian Studies in Spain Network (VINS)’, of which I am currently a member. I have learned these days that many more Spanish scholars than I assumed are bridging the gaps between Spanish and Anglophone cultures. This is very refreshing and I stand corrected in my pessimistic assessment of the exchange with great pleasure. I have also learned, however, that bridging gaps often reveals other problems that widen the cultural split which I discussed in my previous post. Problems that seem very hard to solve despite the apparent increase in intercultural communication, as they have to do with cultural appropriation.

Although others dealt with this issue, I’ll refer here to two papers and a writer’s presentation. The first paper even carries the word ‘appropriation’ in its title: Begoña Lasa Álvarez, of the Universidade A Coruña, offered a presentation called “From Agustina de Aragón to The Maid of Saragossa: Cultural Appropriation of a Heroine”. Sonia Villegas (Universidad de Huelva) did not directly discuss ‘appropriation’ in her paper “Espido Freire Visits the House of Writing: The Role of Material Traces in Querida Jane, Querida Charlotte (2004)”. Yet, I find this was implicit in Freire’s positioning. Finally, the writer invited to the seminar is young Victoria Álvarez (Salamanca, 1985). She is currently specializing in Neo-Edwardian mystery fiction, which we might call a sub-set of the Neo-Victorian, of which she has published five novels already (see www.victoriaalvarez.es).

Begoña Lasa’s argument was straightforward: a series of British writers borrowed the heroic figure of Agustina de Aragón; using stereotypes connected with the representation of Spanish women (think Mérimée’s Carmen, 1845) and of a variety of female heroes, they progressively transformed her into a heroic fantasy. Furthermore, these British authors made the point of stressing that they had honoured Agustina in a way that was much above what Spaniards could do. In the process, the real Agustina became yet another loss to the truth of History.

As Begoña explained, unfortunately Agustina was connected by Franco’s regime with Spanish fascist patriotism in a way that had little to do with the original Agustina’s efforts to stop the French troops from storming Zaragoza. This is why so many of us have paid so little attention to her figure; I was very much surprised to learn that she was actually Catalan. No matter. While in her thirties (not her twenties) this woman, who may or may not have been pretty (probably not), and who was married to an artillery officer (and had seen what needed to be done), decided to fire a canon against the enemy. This common enough action for a man was magnified into a colossal feat for a woman, which had the downside of obscuring the participation of many other women in battle and in the diverse sieges. Typical patriarchal thinking: choose a woman, claim she is exceptional and pretend no other women are capable of doing like her. Then turn her into myth.

Agustina is only mentioned in passing in Benito Pérez Galdós’s novel Zaragoza, part of the first series of the Episodios Nacionales. Tired of the ‘Artillera’ legend, a character quickly dismisses it as he seeks information about someone else: “Ya, ya tenemos noticia del heroísmo de esa insigne mujer–manifestó D. Roque”. ‘Agustina’ is finally mentioned by name when a shy woman, Manuelilla, is offered a gun, which she does fire, “radiante de satisfacción”. The man who tempts her simply declares, echoing the author: “Si a estas cosas no hay más que tomarlas el gusto. Lo mismo debieran hacer todas las zaragozanas, y de ese modo la Agustina y Casta Álvarez no serían una gloriosa excepción entre las de su sexo”. In short: by the time major Spanish novelist Pérez Galdós undermined (in the 1870s) the heroic exception that Agustina embodied in order to show that many other women had fought the Napoleonic troops, a series of British writers had already taken her from Spanish hands to turn her into a folk hero which only represented their own fantasies of Spanish womanhood. When asked whether these fantasies of exalted passion, dark beauty and rash actions had been finally lost in our global age, Begoña politely answered that she was not sure. I thought of Penelope Cruz–playing Agustina in some silly English-language epic…

Sonia Villegas analyzed in her paper the singular volume by Spanish writer (Laura) Espido Freire, Querida Jane, querida Charlotte: Por la ruta de Jane Austen y las hermanas Brontë (2004). This is partly travel book and partly writers’ biography, and has been advertised as the volume that solves the mystery of why these women authors wrote as they did. The solution comes from a fellow female author and not from academics who, it seems, can never share the same writerly sensibility and sensitivity.

Freire, as Sonia explained, presents herself as an illustrated super-fan with a more refined approach to the material traces left by these celebrity writers, in particular the Brontës. She touches the dresses, the furniture, the books exhibited at the Brontë Museum at Haworth and these objects lead her to understand who her 19th century peers really were. The mention of Emily’s bed was, however, a little too much for me… even though I am guilty of having made a (small) donation to the museum. I asked Sonia privately whether she had found any sentence in the book suggesting that a) Freire aspired to the same kind of fetishistic immortality, or b) Freire lamented that her survival into that kind of literary eternity was not likely. Apparently not, though Sonia granted that, yes, perhaps there is something parasitical in Freire’s volume or similar books. Now imagine the Brontës brought back to life and wondering why so many authors are piggybacking on their success with the excuse of paying them homage.

Espido Freire is, of course, Spanish and this leads me to the third part of today’s post: Victoria Álvarez. I’ll just note before this that the two cases I have mentioned, the appropriation of Agustina de Aragón by the British and of the Austen/Brontë set by Freire, seem to be mirror phenomena: I take your heroine and claim I know her best than you do, and viceversa. There seems to be a draw, then, in this game, but you will see that, oddly, this is not quite the case.

I want to open up here a debate about the appropriation of the British Victorian and Edwardian ages to produce fiction in Spanish. Please, note that Espido Freire’s book is non-fiction. In contrast, the very popular El mapa del tiempo (2008) by Félix J. Palma, followed by El mapa del cielo (2012) and El mapa del caos (2014)–the three of them translated into English–has started a trend that needs to be considered in depth, and that Victoria Álvarez is cultivating.

I started reading Palma’s first volume and gave up after just a few pages because I had the uncomfortable feeling that his novel, set in 1896 London and closely following the work of H.G. Wells, was fiction translated from English. Perhaps I am being unfair to Palma, and also running the risk of sounding censorious, but I wonder what the point of choosing this background is. I assume that he and his literary descendants, like Álvarez, will claim that writers should be free to use their imagination as they please–and who am I to say otherwise? I worry, however, very much at the decision to ignore the Spanish 19th century to focus instead on the British 19th century, simply because while there are plenty of British writers to lend new life to the Victorian past, the relatively few Spanish writers are seemingly choosing to turn their backs on Spain. And I don’t think that British writers will suddenly return the favour and start fantasizing about our 19th century.

The British, as we all know, excel at selling their past and their heritage worldwide–in the Málaga conference Mark Llewellyn noted that the biggest British export to China in recent years has been Downtown Abbey… We, here in Spain, are not immune to the charms of British fiction from the Victorian and Edwardian periods, as I know first-hand very well. But, from what I have seen these days, I think that the Spanish specialists in English Studies are among the only Spaniards aware of a very simple truth: this is not our culture.

It feels like our culture, in the same way that 20th century and current American culture does, because its products have colonized our cultural market. Also, because many of us can access them in English or enjoy the experience of travelling regularly to anglophone areas. Nonetheless, when I heard Victoria Álvarez tell us about her problems with the many anglicisms (or English borrowings) in her prose, because she reads all the time in English, I worried. Unless she ends up writing in English, she happens to be a Spanish writer and she should be concerned with mastering the language which is her artistic tool. As for the use of Victorian and Edwardian times in her fiction, although she was clear about her trying to stick to a plausible, well-researched view of them, the risk of her using second-hand clichés is still enormous. Read a summary of Palma’s books and you will also see that name-dropping is essential in his novels. So, should Victoria Álvarez cease publishing her peculiar neo-Edwardian fiction in Spanish? No, of course not. It’s her choice and she has many readers, it seems. My aim is not, as I have said, censorship but raising our collective awareness as Spanish readers about why we need to fantasize about other people’s cultures. And appropriate them.

I am finally reconciled with the TV series El Ministerio del Tiempo, as it is, precisely, fulfilling the much needed task of turning local Spanish history into material for (fantasy) fiction. In one of the conference talks there was a scene from an episode on real-life Joaquín Argamasilla, who claimed to have x-ray vision but was exposed as a fraud by Harry Houdini. This is, I believe, a most fruitful strategy: make Spanish personages known, and bring international personalities into the tale if this requires it.

The British have found a very rich treasure in their past for their fiction and this is what we need to do: explore our own and claim it. It seems a better kind of appropriation.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. 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/.

BRIDGING GAPS (AND FEELING SPLIT) BETWEEN DIFFERENT CULTURES

I am currently in the middle of my reading project for this year (see my post of 4 January): going through the 46 novels which comprise Benito Pérez Galdós’ series, Episodios Nacionales (1872-1912). To be specific the Episodios consist of four complete series of 10 novels, and one incomplete series of 6. I’m finishing today the second series (each novel is about 250 pages, hard to say how many exactly as I use a Kindle; all can be downloaded for free from www.dominiopublico.com). Reading Galdós’ simply marvellous historical fiction is something that I have wanted to do for a very long time and I am certainly enjoying myself very, very much. I will eventually explain why, once I’m finished. Or read to the end…

I have been procrastinating, however, because I had this feeling that I should be reading 46 novels by different authors in English, instead of, somehow, waste my time. This is an impression that I haven’t yet managed to shake off. After all, I’m an English Studies specialist. Shouldn’t I use all my reading time for English works? I feel, and I know this is absurd, a bit guilty, as if I were a little girl skipping school… Maybe because of this sense of guilt I am hurrying, absolutely devouring Galdós’ books, in the hopes that in this way I’ll have time to return to English Literature before the year runs out. But, then, here’s another major gap in my education: I have not read Tirant lo Blanch yet…

Reading Galdós is bringing back to me the History lessons about 19th century Spain which I received in secondary school. Since then, and with the exception of a 19th century Literature course which I took as a second-year undergraduate, I have learned nothing about this very complicated period in Spain. My focus has been, rather, the Second Republic, the Civil War and Franco’s regime, and only in recent years. Since I teach Victorian Literature, then, it turns out that I know much more about Britain than about Spain in the same 19th century period.

This, you might think, is as it should be for obvious professional reasons. And, anyway, it is my fault if I haven’t managed to find time for Spanish History in such a long time. I believe, nonetheless, that the lack of a comparative approach in English Studies, as we practice them in Spain, translates into a too exclusive focus on British History and that of other anglophone countries, mainly the USA. Again, maybe this is my fault but I have never taught my students 19th century History in a comparative way and I wonder if anyone does. I also wonder what use this comparative method would be as I very much doubt that my students have been taught any 19th century Spanish History at all…

This lack of a comparative approach and the intensive focus on English Studies means that I always feel split from my own two cultures, the Spanish one and the Catalan. I recently met an American scholar, Dale Pratt, who teaches all kinds of Spanish fiction (in Utah), from El Quijote to science-fiction, and who is currently doing research on Spanish novels dealing with prehistory. I was awed by his extensive knowledge of Spanish Literature, of which I know really very little. Of course, I’m sure that many native anglophone speakers would also be awed by the detailed knowledge that many Spanish specialists in English Studies have of their Literature, also including peculiar little corners. Yet, I do feel illiterate in my own two languages, and this is not a comfortable feeling for a Literature teacher. At one point I even thought of taking a second doctoral degree–but, then, in which area? Spanish or Catalan Literature? And, really, a second PhD seemed overdoing it…

So, you might be thinking: just give yourself the education you’re missing. I do not know what my peers all over Spain do, but every year, as I have explained here, I promise myself to do 50% of my reading in Spanish and Catalan, the rest in English. Usually by February I have already given up, under this self-imposed pressure that I should be reading in English all the time. The flow of novelties is so immense, the list of classics so vast… The result of my yearly abandonment of my two cultures is that my ignorance of their Literature grows in the same measure as my knowledge of English Literature increases. Perhaps I should have specialized in Comparative Literature… but there was no degree of this kind back in the 1980s.

Ironically, while we here in Spain insist on working in English Studies as if our local cultures were of no consequence for what we teach, and for how we teach it, in anglophone areas we are seen from a very different perspective. Let me give you as an example my most recent work. In March I published in the journal Science Fiction Studies an article on British author Richard Morgan. Last Friday I finished editing for the same journal a monographic issue on Spanish science-fiction. In the first case, I was acting as a specialist in English Studies. In the second case, my role has been very, very different, for I have acted as a bridge between two cultures.

The chance to edit this monographic issue fell into my hands quite by accident but once it materialized, I knew I had to do it. With the help of my co-editor Fernando Ángel Moreno (trained in ‘Filología Española’ and in Literary Theory) we assembled a solid team of authors, including Prof. Pratt, who have certainly done their best. I am extremely proud of our collective effort and of the end result, and I do hope that the volume (to be published in June) gives Spanish science-fiction a much more definite place on the world map of SF.

Now, happy and pleased as I am, still I feel concerned about how to announce the publication of this special issue to my English Studies peers. Perhaps I feel too paranoiac but I’m sure that many will wonder why I have put so much energy into doing something for Spanish, rather than English, Studies. My answer, ‘why shouldn’t I?’, might not be satisfactory. Perhaps I should think of a second argument: ‘none else could have done it’, at least none in my position. In this case, as in the case of my translation of Mecanoscrit del segon origen and of the edition of the forthcoming monographic issue on this novel for the US journal Alambique (also to be published in June), what has happened is very simple: I happen to write academic English, and this has been my main qualification to bridge gaps between different cultures.

Although some of the authors who have collaborated in the SFS monographic on Spanish SF have written their texts directly in English, language is a powerful barrier which I can easily cross, like any other English Studies specialist. The authors have contributed their expertise and, as I learned about Spanish SF (of which I knew very little when I started), I have shaped their articles into academic work that can function in English. This is not always easy, as we work in very different academic traditions. For my own article in the Mecanoscrit volume I have chosen to apply Masculinity Studies to a close reading of the male protagonist, Dídac, a methodology that while well-established in English Studies, is absolutely new to Catalan Studies. In both cases, by the way, we have decided to translate the work done in English to, respectively, Spanish and Catalan, thus closing the scholarly circuit. Bridging the reverse gap, so to speak.

As you can see, I am not speaking about translating texts, which, by the way, should be a much bigger part of our task as Spanish specialists in English Studies (if only the Ministry valued translation as academic work). I am speaking here about being a sort of cultural interpreter, giving access into our local cultures to anglophone audiences by means of English Studies traditions and, in the process, opening up the local field. I’m not seeking an acknowledgement of merits, if I have any, but a debate about why this type of work is so limited. Or a correction of my views, if these are wrong.

In recent years, I have been also frantically translating into Spanish everything I have published in English and making it available through my university’s digital repository for, otherwise, who would read me here, in Spain? As for what I publish in English elsewhere, I wonder whether it is read at all and by whom. And I have the impression that the SFS issue on Spanish SF might matter much more than any other work I may have done in English precisely because it bridges an important gap. We have insisted, by the way, that Spain is not the same as Latin America but a separate cultural domain that happens to be in Europe.

Funnily, going back to Episodios, as I wrote here about two years ago, Benito Pérez Galdós was also a cultural bridge-builder between Britain and Spain. In the post ‘Charles and Benito: A Celebration of Influence’ (11 August 2015) I explained that Galdós was absolutely fascinated by Dickens, who died in 1870, the same year when the Spanish author started publishing. A very young Galdós managed to publish a Spanish translation of Pickwick Papers, even though he knew no English and most likely translated the book from the French version. Reading these days the Episodios there are moments when I feel that I’m reading Dickens in Spanish, so strong is his influence. The detailed descriptions, the structure of feeling, the plot twists are so Dickensian and at the same time so profoundly ‘castizos’ and Galdosian, that I marvel at how they overlap. At the same time, the Dickensian influence often reveals what is obvious: that Dickens knew El Quijote by heart, as did Galdós. You see how I’m justifying to myself my reading of the 46 Episodes: this is actually about how Dickens influenced the rest of Europe and Spain in particular. And I’m wasting no time…

I do envy Galdós, for he created something new and unique in Spain by merging two very different traditions. Perhaps it’s about time we debate why as Spanish specialists in English Studies we are finding so many difficulties to do something similar and why our main aspiration is to be treated as honorary anglophone academics. It is: let’s begin the debate by acknowledging this. Our real mission, however, seems to lie elsewhere: in explaining our culture(s) to anglophone audiences, bridging gaps between us and them; most importantly, healing the split from our own background.

Back to Galdós… How Dickens would have loved the Episodios!!!

I publish a new post every Tuesday. 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/.

FOR STUDENTS: HOW A UNIVERSITY DEPARTMENT WORKS

Talking with students in my Department, I realise that none has a clear idea of how teachers’ work is organized. I wrote a document in Catalan for the benefit of the Students’ Delegation, but I have ultimately decided to translate it into English and publish it here for anyone to see. This post is based, on course, on my experience of working at a particular Department and the information I offer here may vary from university to university. If you’re reading me from abroad, then please bear in mind that the Catalan/Spanish university has a specific situation, which is what I try to describe here. It is not my aim, I insist, to describe one particular Department but a situation to improve students’ knowledge of the institution surrounding them.

A university Department is a unit within a larger institution, called in Spain ‘Facultad’ (the closest English equivalent is ‘School’; here’s a warning about a false friend: ‘faculty’ refers to the staff that works in a university, or one of its units). A Spanish university is constituted by a group of Facultades, and also of ‘Escuelas’ (I believe that Escuelas are more narrowly specialized). Some universities, like Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, only house Departments dealing with science and technology, but most Spanish public universities, like UAB, tend to gather together all kinds of Departments. Universities also include other units, such as Research Institutes, which, in principle, offer no teaching.

The ‘Facultat of Filosofia i Lletres’ at UAB is quite unusual: it has 11 Departments, ranging from ‘Cultural and Social Anthropology’ to ‘Philosophy’, and passing through ‘Geography’. In contrast, the ‘Facultat de Dret’ (our Law School), only has 3 Departments. We offer 25 BAs and 23 MAs–it takes a lot of courage to be part of the Dean’s team, or the Dean, that is, the head of the school. The Facultat is responsible for organizing all the degrees (except the Doctoral programmes), and it delegates to the Departments the running of each specific BA or MA. They all have a Coordinator, acting as a link between Department and Facultad. Our yearly academic calendar and course schedule is, incidentally, the Facultat’s responsibility.

The Department faculty (=the teachers) is determined by ‘Rectorat’, the team running the whole university, depending on our budget and our teaching needs. The budget is never enough–guess why–and so we suffer a chronic staff shortage, now really worrying. By law the teaching positions in a Spanish Department must be at least 50% tenured positions (that is, teachers must be full-time civil servants). Currently, few Spanish Departments obey this rule, and too many teachers are hired as part-time associates (for one year, with renewable contracts). Just consider: the last tenured position obtained by my Department dates back to 2008, 9 years ago. Most tenured teachers are now 45-65 years of age.

Full-time university teachers are mostly civil servants of the Spanish State (the categories are: Titular de Universitat [Senior Lecturer], Titular de Escuela Universitaria (no longer offered) and Catedrático [Professor]). I’m Senior Lecturer since 2002, though I have been working in the Department since 1991. Alternatively, many full-time teachers have permanent work contracts with the regional Government; they’re not civil servants. The categories in Catalonia are Lector (Lecturer, hired for 4 to 5 years), Agregat (similar to Senior Lecturer) and Catedràtic (also Professor). In both cases, civil service or contract, all teachers pass a stressful public examination, open to other candidates. According to current legislation, you may only apply only if you have the corresponding accreditation, issued by the national agency ANECA or the Catalan AQU. You need to be at least a Doctor to apply. Accreditation requires that you prove your merits, and it is a complicated, demanding process.

Full-time professors (of either type) are supposed to divide their time (technically 37 hours a week) in three ways: teaching, research and admin work. Universities have professional administrators (or PAS) but we teachers are also expected to run the organization. We volunteer, then, along our career to take positions as Head of Department, Secretary of Department, BA Coordinator, MA Coordinator, Doctoral Programme Coordinator. These are official positions, compensated with some money (very little considering the hard work they entail) and/or a reduction in the teaching workload. Other positions (TFG Coordinator, Erasmus Coordinator, etc.) are meagrely compensated, often with a small teaching reduction. I have been Head of Department and Coordinator (both BA and MA), and I can tell you that this may be nerve-racking. Particularly being HoD, which often involves dealing with human resources and the budget, in ways we are not prepared for as teachers.

Teaching is currently determined by legislation devised by Minister Wert and implemented back in 2012. This ‘Real Decreto’ connects research with teaching. Research refers to the obligation that university teachers have of producing publications that contribute significantly to the progress of their chosen field of specialization. Their impact is assessed by CNEAI, a state agency, and by AQU. Not all university teachers are active researchers and not all active researchers choose to pass CNEAI assessment. Yet those who do, must explain the importance of 5 publications highlighted among the list of all their publications every 6 years. Each assessment exercise is known as ‘sexenio’ (teachers may also obtain ‘quinquenios’ for teaching excellence and ‘trienios’ for seniority).

This is how it works now. The usual workload for a full-time teacher are 24 ECTS, that is to say, 2 courses per semester. There are, however, variations, depending on the sexenios:
– 3 valid sexenios mean you only teach 16 ECTS (2 courses a year, plus tutoring dissertations: BA [TFG], MA [TFM], PhD). Curiously, Catedráticos must have 4 sexenios to be offered this reduction. The last valid sexenio must have been obtained in the last 6 years (it must be ‘alive’). The teaching is reduced for you to go on doing research… not as a reward, or free time.
– if a teacher has 1 or 2 valid sexenios, then the workload is 24 ECTS (4 courses, plus tutoring).
– without any valid sexenios, then the workload is 32 ECTS (plus tutoring). Teachers in this situation may have never done any research, or may be active researchers whose last sexenio was not validated.

Associate teachers usually teach 18 ECTS a year (sometimes 12, or 6). They have no obligation to do admin work, or research, yet in my Department most are active researchers with a Doctoral degree. Associate teachers can only be hired if they prove that they have another job, for this is a position designed to invite professionals to teach university students about their profession. A decade ago there were still temporary full-time contracts, but they were extinguished. This means that researchers hoping to obtain tenure one day, accept contracts as associate teachers, combining in this way two or three jobs. They often have very long working days and only manage to do research because they work weekends. Researchers may remain trapped in that kind of situation for decades. By the way: in my Department all associate teachers are hired by means of a public examination. Contract renewal is not automatic, and associate teachers may have to pass an examination of this kind every year.

Departments also have ‘becarios’ (interns, fellows, depending on the word you wish to use). They receive a grant that enables them to work full-time on their doctoral dissertation. My Department offers 2 PIF (‘Personal Investigador en Formació’) grants, one for Language and one for Literature, renewed only every 4 years. The Ministry and the Generalitat have their own grant programmes; these are extremely competitive and usually awarded to candidates connected with research groups.

Not all university teachers do research, as I have noted, even though this is their obligation. For those of us interested in research, this is the most important part of our job, even above teaching. Unfortunately, some researchers see teaching as a nuisance but ideally a good researcher should also be a good teacher.

Research in my Department is extremely varied depending on the area and the individual, ranging from experimental phonetics to cultural criticism. We, nevertheless, share the same aim: the generation of innovative knowledge. This needs to be transmitted though publication in specialized journals and books. Right now, one of the most controversial issues is whether our research (I mean all over planet Earth) is adequately measured. There is a certain obsession with rankings and often researchers feel that what is valued is not what they publish but where they publish. Anyway: each researcher specializes in an area, which may not even be closely connected with their teaching. Students should check the Department website to learn what their teachers specialize in (or teachers’ websites, or ask us). I myself specialize in Gender Studies and Popular Fictions. I love teaching Victorian Literature but this is not an area on which I publish (or not regularly).

An academic career is an obstacle race, now more than ever. How do you become a tenured teacher? Well, be ready to invest 10 to 15 years of your life… if you’re lucky:
– first you take an MA degree, then write your PhD dissertation. This is self-financed, unless you get a grant (see above). 1 year for the MA, 3 to 5 for the PhD.
– accrue as many merits as you can, from your MA year onward: present papers in conferences, publish articles in journals, publish your thesis as a book, etc… All self-financed. Rooky academics are always surprised that we pay to attend conferences, and for all our research materials… Welcome to academic life!
– get an ANECA or AQU accreditation to opt for a 4-5 year contract. The problem is that right now there are very few contracts of this kind. If I remember correctly, UAB offered 6 for the whole university in 2015-16. None has been offered in my Department for years more than 10 years.
– this is why so many researchers with accreditations (even to be tenured teachers) accept part-time, temporary contracts as associate teachers. They are, I insist, more than 50% of our current Department faculty.

As I’m sure you realize most university teachers are under enormous stress; few of us have a peaceful working routine. Associates cannot know whether they’ll ever get tenure, and need to combine at least two jobs. Teachers who do no research now have a 32 ECTS workload instead of the until recently habitual 24 ECTS. If you do research, you are under constant pressure to validate your sexenios, publish in prestige journals and university presses, run or be part of research projects. In addition, we all must put up with an exasperating bureaucracy, and often spend precious research and teaching time filling in endless paperwork.

Do not be surprised, then, if you find us tired or irritable in class, though we do our best for students to get the best possible education. Because we are under constant pressure to perform, we do feel frustrated, I acknowledge this, when students show indifference (they have not read the required texts, failed to do homework, not met a deadline…). It is important that you understand that collectively we are making an effort and that we cover teaching needs far above the hours in our contracts.

By the way, our salaries can be checked here:
http://www.uab.cat/web/personal-uab/personal-uab/personal-academic-i-investigador/retribucions-del-personal-academic-i-investigador-1345695026088.html
These are figures before taxation, so you need to deduce from them 20%-28%. It’s complicated to work out but, basically, an associate teacher makes about 600 euros a month (after taxes) and a Senior Lecturer between 2300 and 3300 depending on merits (teaching, research and admin). A full Professor earns about 600 more euros monthly, so I guess that the top salary is about 4000, perhaps a few more hundreds for teachers past 60 with 30 years’ experience. Full-time university teachers are not allowed to generate extra income elsewhere above 30% of their salary and only in special circumstances. Some teachers may be consultants, or make money by lecturing. I was myself for more than 15 years an associate teacher at the Universitat Oberta de Catalonia.

I hope this helps to satisfy your curiosity and to improve your understanding of the Department. I also hope that, once you see how precarious the situation of many teachers is, you feel inspired to make an effort and collaborate with us in your own education.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. 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/.