Today, I’m commenting on Alison Gibbons’ article in the Times Literary Supplement, “Postmodernism is dead. What comes next?” (12 June 2017, There are many important questions about Postmodernism which nobody seems to agree on: 1) when did it begin: was it 1960s, 1980s, later even?; 2) is it already dead?; 3) when did Postmodernism die, if it is dead at all?: 1989, 2001, 2008?; 4) if it is dead, what label should we use for the culture of our own time? Post-postmodernism? Other labels being circulated, Gibbons informs us, are, brace yourselves: altermodernism, cosmodernism, digimodernism, metamodernism, performatism, post-digital, post-humanism…

First, allow me to clarify that Gibbons, a lecturer in Stylistics at Hallam University, is concerned specifically with creative or literary fiction, whereas I have always understood Postmodernism as a whole cultural movement better exemplified by certain landmark buildings (Frank Gheary’s Bilbao Guggenheim Museum) or styles of gourmet cooking (Ferran Adrià) than by Literature. This difference, however, might be moot because the point she is raising is also valid for the wider cultural view of Postmodernism.

What is at stake here connects with my previous post about the current obsession with labels. If you allow me, Gibbons’ piece and the many comments it has generated seem to be hinting at a critical failure we don’t know how to solve; she seems to be begging for somebody, please, to offer us a workable label, even if it is parodic (Romanticism was originally intended to mock the poets of this school). I don’t have a solution for this problem (see below…) but if anything astounds me at all about this period of so-called human civilization is its intense narcissism, banality and… disinterest in Literature. Current literary authors are also guilty of the same narcissism and, sorry, banality. Perhaps not even they are interested in Literature.

Let’s assume for the sake of argumentation that Postmodernism began in the 1960s with works such as John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969). In this clever novel the author eventually intrudes to a) teach us History lessons about the Victorians, b) claim he has no idea how his characters will behave, which is why readers are offered three possible endings. There is a more or less widespread consensus that Postmodernism in Literature is, above all, playful in diverse degrees of seriousness: its authors question the convention that reality can be represented at all; they introduce many linguistic and textual games which repeatedly break sacred boundaries between high and low culture; they also reject all the grand narratives shaping Humanism, and, perhaps above all, hold the view that History is a slippery matter, or, as historian Hayden White sentenced in 1973, just “an agreed upon fiction”. Gibbons claims that Postmodernist writers show “cool detachment”, thus suggesting that what used to be, precisely, a cool value is now a suspect declaration of emotional frigidity.

So, what is new in Literature? Gibbons argues that “in today’s cultural climate there appears to be a renewed engagement with history and a revival of mythic meaning-making that the arch-postmodernists would have abhorred”. To begin with, mixing history with myth is what Postmodernism often did: just think of Salman Rushdie, author of the seminal Postmodern novel Midnight Children (1985) and the ill-fated, or ill-fatwaed…, Satanic Verses (1987). If Gibbons means that more and more novels are set in the recent or remote past, she is right although I often get the impression that instead of real commitment they exemplify a (narcissitic) desire to show off on the writers’ side. They claim to have done tons of research and want to be admired for it, as if they were academics (see the current debate between the Oxbridge historians and Hillary Mantel). Then, frequently, the novels deal with times or areas remote from the author’s own, which actually shows a lack of engagement with the history happening on their doorsteps. Let me rephrase this: writing about historical episodes, past or present, can be done with or without an earnest political attitude and this is what I mean by lack of commitment: novels are apolitical today, or blandly liberal, not militant. Why write, in Spain, about 2010s corruption if you can write about the Civil War?

Next, Gibbons notes that when today’s writers obey the impulse to “blur the lines between fiction and reality” and appear in their own texts, as Fowles once did, “their presence is intended to signal realism, rather than to foreground the artifice of the text (…)”. Realism, Gibbons concludes, “is once again a popular mode”. Well, Postmodernism has made readers more sophisticated and they have got tired of literary games that, in time, have gone stale: fiction is fiction and, as such, artificial, and this is a lesson that we all know well by now.

On the other hand, realism has never gone out of fashion despite the early efforts of Modernism and, later, of Postmodernism to undermine it; these, as I see it, almost resulted in the total abandonment by readers of highbrow fiction for its middlebrow little sister (something realistic and about History? Ken Follett will do). “Emotions”, Gibbons writes, “are again playing a central role in literary fiction, as authors insist on our essential relationality”–but, then, what is Literature without emotion, as Wordsworth asked 220 years ago? Nothing but an empty shell. I believe that Gibbons means ‘empathy’, for emotions have always been around in Literature, though they may have been negative, as it is often the case in Postmodernist fiction. She mentions, by the way, “autofiction, a genre that integrates the autobiographical into fiction, and that has blossomed alongside the so-called memoir boom”. Autofiction is, as I’m arguing here, an example of the narcissism that dominates literary creation today; readers are dominated, rather, by gossip, which explains the memoir boom. And the interest in (exasperatingly boring) autofiction.

The end of Gibbons’ article expresses what’s behind her exercise in pattern recognition: her wish, shared with many others, that new literature can “examine complex and ever-shifting crises – of racial inequality, capitalism and climate change – to which it is easy to close one’s eyes”, as implicitly, Postmodernism did (or still does?). In our times, when we see globalization as the capitalist lie it always was and when ‘post-truth’ defines public discourse, there is, however, “little sign of a radical literary avantgarde sweeping away the old to make way for the new”. And that is the crucial problem: quickly burnt out by the demands of the market and by academia’s self-interested search for novelty, the rising generation lacks the mental energy to truly think and offer a “literature that engages earnestly with real-world problems”, beyond the petty problems of privileged individuals in the West which fill autofiction.

The prediction by Postmodernist guru Francis Fukuyama that History was reaching an end, made in 1989, and that capitalist utopia was here to stay, whether we wanted it or not, was proven wrong by 9/11. The terrorist outrage jump-started History and now we see that it could never be over because until the Sun goes supernova, or patriarchy manages to wipe all human beings out, events will succeed each other. History can hardly reach an end, then, and we’ll see a succession of more or less apt labels for each forthcoming period. I wonder whether we can say the same for Literature and in particular its most creative or artistic branch.

Like the universe in the Big Bang Theory, which first expanded and is now seemingly contracting towards the ultimate black hole it came from, Literature seems to have started with the bang of the classic period and is now contracting with a whimper. I can see why Gibbons and others are concerned to spot the trends that define the Literature of our times, for we are curious to know which label will win the contest and make us memorable for the future. My impression, nevertheless, is that this is the equivalent of marvelling at the discovery of a new tree species when the whole wood is on fire.

If someone can define a catchy equivalent of the phrase ‘wilfully illiterate’ then this exactly what describes current culture, at least in the decadent West. As a Catalan I’ve had to accept the label ‘Decadence’ for the early modern period of our Literature (more or less overlapping the ‘Siglo de Oro’ in Spain), no matter how disputed this label is today. And perhaps it is now time to acknowledge that this is what we’re facing today in Western Literature. Not perhaps a lack of talent, but an inability to make this talent truly matter socially beyond sales figures. This is what decadence means in culture.

Perhaps the problem with Gibbons’ approach and that of many others struggling to find a label for our current Literature is that they’re putting the cart before the horse, that is, trying to write the History of today’s Literature before it is even happening. One thing is chronicling the present and quite another is understanding the main trends of the past. The Victorian Age did not emerge until it was over and it is possibly not for us but for the future to choose a label for what writers are collectively producing today. If we need the label for academic reasons–a course, a book… –then Contemporary will do. Use that, or call up a competition to ask writers how they want to be known.

And if someone in the future uses the labels ‘Narcissist Period’ or ‘Western Decadence’ I’ll be happy enough to have contributed a little grain of sand to Literary History.

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Two years ago I published a post with the title “And now for the asexuals… : Ceaseless labelling in Gender Studies” (15 March 2015). This was inspired by the draft of a chapter in a PhD dissertation, which I was asked to assess. Yesterday I had the pleasure of sitting on the board for the finished dissertation, presented by its author (and new doctor), Petra Filopová ( During the viva and afterwards over lunch I had a lively exchange with Dr. Filipová on the difficulties of connecting asexuality with other labels used in the past; indeed, she defines this identity as a “new sexuality”, which very much puzzles me. Hence my post today.

As I explained in my 2015 post on this issue, asexuals have made a point of clarifying that they are neither celibate nor frigid. Celibacy is seen as a repression of sexuality willingly chosen by the individual concerned, whereas frigidity is understood to be a sexual disorder that causes distress to sufferers. Asexuality, let me stress this, is the identity embraced by persons who feel no sexual desire but are not distressed by the situation–they feel simply normal and reject both their medicalization and their pathologization. As Petra Filipová argued, many problems beset asexuals: their lack of public visibility, the disrespect poured on them when they announce their identity, the absurd idea that heterosexual romance can ‘cure’ asexuality and, above all, the rampant presence of sex in all aspects of our private and public lives. The point she is raising is that, precisely, this obsession with sex (booming since the 1960s) is what conditions the appearance of asexuality as a new identity and label in the late 20th century and early 21st century.

This posits a problem similar to the one elicited by the introduction of the new label ‘homosexual’ in 1869: how do we define the identity of persons who engaged in the sexual practices that currently define homosexuality before the word even existed? Some believe that homosexuality has always existed as an identity, regardless of its previous invisibility and diverse labelling, whereas others believe that the emergence of the label created the identity: what used to be defined clinically as a perversion and/or abnormality, was eventually transformed into a positive, normalized identity. Following the same line of thinking, I asked Petra whether she believed that there have always been asexual people adapting themselves to whatever social constructions of sex and gender where available to them. She replied that she was not quite sure we could call them asexual since, as happened with homosexuals in the past, they would not self-identify themselves as such, lacking the label. This is a singular conundrum…

I’d like now to consider celibacy, though I’ll leave frigidity aside (what an ugly word…). I often have to explain to students in my Victorians Literature class that one of the most serious obstacles we face to understand the Victorians is that we characterize them as sexually repressed because we apply to them our own (inconsistent) rules about sexuality. As Michel Foucault admiringly explained, the Victorians, far from being repressed, gave sex a great deal of thought and basically invented the labelling system we are still so keen on. The catalogue of perversions that Victorian doctors and psychologists came up with was actually a major step forward since it was their intention to liberate sex from the taint of sinning and the authority of religion. Leaving the so-called perversions aside, it seems plain that the Victorians had other rules than ours for sex, so different that we simply cannot make sense of their lives. Celibacy is, in this sense, a major bone of contention.

We tend to connect celibacy with priests and nuns and see it as an unnatural choice that leads to the criminal abuse perpetrated by many Catholic priests against children. Protestants, allegedly more attuned to the needs of the body, allow their male and female priests to marry; they have no nuns. However, it seems to me that religious celibacy actually confirms the impression that (as a quotation in Petra’s dissertation claimed), the more sex you have, the more you need it; the less sex you have, the less you need it. Celibacy, by the way–as I learned from the excellent, very scary documentary Deliver us from Evil (2006) –was implemented by the official Church as a way to make sure that Church property would not be lost to the children of priests. What occurs to me is that the Catholic Church may also have been a welcome refuge for male and female asexuals uninterested in forming a family. Yet we always think, for this is how our times work, that giving up sex is a major sacrifice for a person. Indeed, many priests and nuns have abandoned their habits and we suspect all the others of secretly engaging in homosexual acts. Yet there might be another truth hidden behind religious celibacy, Catholic or otherwise, if so many people consider it worthwhile to follow the call of divinity…

This connects with my recent realization that in the 19th century (both in Britain and in Spain as far as I can see) celibacy was often a synonym for singlehood. In our modern view being single is no obstacle at all to practice sex, quite the opposite: we think that marriage kills sex. But in the past, when sex was connected mainly with reproduction, many men and women lived openly as bachelors and spinsters, making thus a public declaration of their celibacy. I know what you’re thinking: many Victorian spinsters were actually unhappy old maids who had failed to catch a husband; many Victorian bachelors were far from celibate, using the services of the prostitutes, often minors. Literary examples of the bachelor, such as Stevenson’s notoriously duplicitous Dr. Jekyll fuel rather than quench our suspicions. Yet, I keep thinking of Dickens’ respectable John Brownlow in Oliver Twist, who embraces celibacy when his fiancée dies. And I usually share with my class the passage in Harriet Martineau’s autobiography in which she declares that the early death of the man she was to marry happily freed her from the obligation of being a wife and mother–also, implicitly of having sex. My students always stare at me in disbelief…

I am suggesting, as you can see, that asexual persons may have led lives of their choice within the church or in society in ways no longer available to them. I grant that celibacy is not at all the same as asexuality but I am hinting that in the times when celibacy was not seen with as much incomprehension and dislike as we do today, it may have been a convenient ‘cover’ for many asexuals still lacking that label. In our times, celibacy is seen as an aberration because we believe that all bodies feel sexual needs; hence, sexual repression is, essentially, akin to ill-treating yourself. No wonder then that asexuals, who feel as normal as you and me can be (whatever identity you have), face so many problems when explaining themselves.

The other theory I will volunteer today is that the current proliferation of labels is tied to plain gossip. I was very surprised by many new labels I found in Petra Filipová’s dissertation, such as ‘demisexual’ (only partly sexed, or partly asexual) and ‘sapiosexual’ (“A person who is sexually attracted to intelligence or the human mind before appearance” or “a person who finds intelligence to be a sexually attractive quality in others”, depending on the definition). But why the interest in knowing what people do or don’t do sexually? Isn’t this simply gossip?

Dr. Filipová believes that each new identity label helps individuals to present themselves publicly and to shape their own psychology around the idea of normality. If this helps, then it is fine, though I am truly tired of how little we actually know about the supposedly best-known identity, heterosexuality –often confused with patriarchal normativity. To begin with, heterosexuality used to be up to the 1920s yet another label to define a perversion: that of differently gendered people who engaged in sex for pleasure, not to reproduce… And, let’s be honest: the moment you know that someone is gay, lesbian, queer, trans, bisexual, asexual, you name it… what comes to your mind is not the word ‘normal’ but a strong curiosity to know what exactly they do in bed. The same applies to heterosexuality and its many varied manifestations. And celibacy: you see a young, handsome priest, as I did recently, and the first thing you think is… It’s all down to gossip, believe me and in this sense asexuality is, from the outside, the most perplexing puzzle.

Insisting again that we attach far too much importance to sexuality, I wonder whether discrimination and intolerance will end when we feel real, healthy curiosity (gossipy or less so…) rather than contempt or disgust at what other people do (or don’t do) with their bodies. The more I learn about (a)sexuality, the more convinced I am that the categories and labels we live by are plainly ridiculous. Of course, it is my heterosexual privilege to say so and we still have a long way to go before everyone feels comfortable in public no matter their gendersexual identity. I can hardly ask for an abolition of labels when LGTBQphobia is growing so fast around me… Yet I hope I see in my lifetime the moment when gender and sex will stop defining persons in private and in public (though I know that gossip will never end).

And congratulations Dr. Filipová!! It’s been a pleasure…

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This is an anecdote I have often told in class and to my tutorees. I was in a tutorial with my PhD supervisor in Scotland, Prof. David Punter. My topic was monstrosity in 1980s and 1990s fiction. I had reached that low point which all doctoral students hit when you realize that nobody cares about your mighty efforts… I was working on my chapter on the vampire, and, sick and tired, I blurted out, “but who cares?, vampires don’t even exist!” Prof. Punter went gnomic–as if he was onto something I could never guess–and replied in a style that Oscar Wilde would have loved, “Oh, but they do exist! At least, they take a great deal of our imagination”. Or similar words. That taught me a most valuable lesson (also about vampires): just as we spend much of our life dreaming, we spend many hours daydreaming, and both our dreams and our imagination are as important as our waking hours. A truth that readers who limits themselves to realist fiction can never suffer. Poor things.

We have included again Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) in our syllabus for Victorian Literature–or rather, like the repressed, the uncanny Count has returned to haunt us. I have not re-read Stoker’s novel yet, a text which I admire very much because of its singular mixture of fake documents and its sense of modernity scandalized by the intrusion of the atavistic. I have, however, spent a great deal of the past week thinking hard about vampires for a seminar I am to teach soon. You might think that a specialist in Gothic Studies like myself already knows everything about vampires but a) even specialists forget details as juicy as the fact that Stoker wrote theatrical reviews for a Dublin newspaper that Le Fanu, author of Carmilla, owned, and b) there is nothing like having to teach a subject to learn a few new lessons.

For instance, I believed that the famous image of Count Dracula in modern evening dress complete with a red-lined black satin cape comes from the 1931 film with Bela Lugosi. It actually comes, though, from the 1924 play by Irish actor and playwright Hamilton Deane (he played Van Helsing; Dracula was first played by Edmund Blake). I can’t tell, however, whose idea the cape was. This may seem trivial but then other people employ their energies in recording how many goals Leo Messi has scored this past season (54…). Forgetting myself for a second on the track of the vampire, yesterday I even considered whether I should finally read Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight saga; yet, seeing how fast and how far Kirsten Stewart has distanced herself from her on-screen Bella, I thought perhaps not. I’ll read instead a similarly long book which promises to be far more thrilling, and sexy, and which will fill in a more glaring gap in my (Victorian) reading list: the serial Varney, the Vampire (1845-7). Good company for Dracula.

Generally speaking, I find vampires very boring creatures, though I must grant that the 19th century variety is far more exciting than the 20th and 21st century breed. The Romantic and Victorian vampires are in-your-face predators pretty much comfortable with their animal nature. In the late hippie times of 1976, Anne Rice had the very questionable idea of letting the vampiric creatures in her novel Interview with the Vampire, particularly silly Louis de Pointe du Lac, brood and mope about their sad fate. Fancy lions bemoaning being carnivores… Even worse, Rice revealed through reporter Daniel Molloy that secretly we all want to be vampires because they are immortal, a hidden truth that should have stayed hidden because it has led to endless horrors–implants of artificial long fangs and also the idiotic consumption of actual human blood by those who ignore the meaning of the word ‘metaphor’. Insert a shudder here.

I should leave all discussion of the vampire to more learned scholars, like my dear friend Antonio Ballesteros (read his volume Vampire Chronicle: Una historia natural del vampiro en la literatura anglosajona, 2000). But, still, I have re-discovered a few issues about the 19th century vampire that I’d like to share here. Actually, this re-discovery begins with the 18th century for this is the real turning point in the history of the vampire.

We fail to understand how it felt to live before the first serious, rational attempts to dispel the fog of superstition. The vampire emerges, precisely, from this fog with the strange cases of two Serbian peasants, Petar Blagojevich (1725) and Arnold Paole (1726), ‘executed’ for crimes committed once dead. The real novelty here is that the cases were documented by officers of the Austrian Empire using a pioneering rational perspective, later also employed by Dom Augustine Calmet. This abbot penned an indispensable essay with a wonderfully mixed title, Traité sur les apparitions des anges, des démons & des esprits et sur les revenans et vampires de Hongrie, de Boheme, de Moravie & de Silesie (1746, vol. II 1751), from which my own dissertation on the monster descends. The difference is that Calmet was not sure whether angels and ‘revenants’ (i.e. vampires) could exist whereas I, a belated child of the Enlightenment, know that they don’t (pace Prof. Punter). A pity, in the case of the angels. Extraterrestrials I still swear by, though.

The second point of re-discovery has to do with the fact that before the vampire reached prose fiction with John Polidori’s Gothic tale “The Vampyre” (1819), it had already colonized 18th century German poetry and, a bit later, the English Romantic variety. Of course, I knew about Coleridge’s transgender “Christabel” (1816), a tantalizingly unfinished text which leads to Carmilla (1871-2) but I had forgotten that sex and vampirism had come together much earlier in “Der vampir” (1748) by Heinrich August Ossenfelder–a poet who had possibly read Calmet and who actually anticipates Gothic fiction tropes, rather than copy from them.

Another crucial element that we fail to grasp is seduction, which is integral to the vampire. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as countless stories narrate, seduction was not at all sexy foreplay but a form of psychological violence which today we consider plain rape. From Richardson’s Lovelace to Lord Byron’s Don Juan, the seducer is a man who subdues the will of his female victims, and, so, it took only a tiny step for Polidori to turn him into a vampire, as Ossenfelder had already suggested. That “The Vampyre” is also a personal comment on how doctor Polidori saw his patient Lord Byron (possibly more sinned against than a sinner…) is incidental. And though “Christabel” is an early announcement of the misogynistic transformation later in the 19th century of the seducer’s victim into a victimizer (in Carmilla), it is worth remembering that during the last quarter of the 19th century and in the early 20th until Bela Lugosi, women were the vampire. Tellingly, the first film ‘vamp’, Theda Bara, was also the first great female film star.

Another surprising re-discovery is that once it colonizes poetry and prose fiction, the vampire tends to spread to other media and keep a good hold onto them: the stage (plays, melodrama, opera) and, we tend to forget this, painting and illustration. In our time when novels lack any ornaments, we have serious problems to understand how interconnected literature and painting were in the 19th century (the whole Pre-Raphaelite movement seems to be about that); particularly, how the iconography of even the cheapest penny dreadful conditioned the later iconography of stage and film adaptations. I’m thinking of the crude woodcuts that accompany Varney, the Vampire and of the higher quality images for Carmilla. Also of Füssli’s pseudo-vampiric painting ‘The Nightmare’ (1781) and misogynist Edvard Munch’s endless variations on the theme of the female vampire (1895-1902). As for Polidori’s “The Vampyre”, this tale inspired an astonishingly long chain of texts for the stage in French and German, and then back to English, which is certainly mindboggling.

And, then, there’s a mystery which I cannot solve satisfactorily, mainly because I’d rather it remains a mystery. It is clear as daylight that Bram Stoker took his inspiration for Dracula from Carmilla; plainly, he read Le Fanu’s novella and he thought that he would like to write an equally brilliant vampire tale. But when? The question is that there is a long lapse of 28 years between Carmilla (1871-2) and Dracula (1897) in which Stoker passed from Irish civil servant who wrote theatrical reviews in his free time to experienced manager of Henry Irving’s Lyceum theatre. A long, long lapse. Perhaps suffering what Harold Bloom famously called the ‘anxiety of influence’, Stoker felt that he could never do better, which is why he poured so much energy and spent so many hours at the British Museum library doing research.

Beautifully, the Lyceum, formerly the English Opera House, had welcomed the vampire onto the English stage with James Robinson Planché’s The Vampire; or, the Bride of the Isles (1820), a translation of the eponymous pioneering melodrama by Charles Nodier, who had taken his inspiration from Polidori. Was, then, Planché’s vampire waiting in the wings of Irving’s Lyceum to bite Stoker? Just a thought… As happens with the other two masterpieces of 19th Gothic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and R.L. Stevenson The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Bram Stoker’s Dracula seems to arise from something beyond the author which transmits itself to the public through his imagination, as if he were only a medium. Also, as happens with Shelley and Stevenson, the creature that sprang from Stoker’s pen is not at all the caricature we got from the 20th century stage and film adaptations but the real thing–a scary monster. Not the ridiculously handsome Edward Cullen of Twilight, but an inhuman, undead, abject thing that you don’t want to touch (much less be touched by). Today we have zombies playing that role but unlike Dracula they are mindless creatures–perhaps what we deserve (and how we all feel) in our mindless times.

Thank you, Prof. Punter, for that nugget of deep, wide wisdom. I have never forgotten that vampires do exist and do matter, though I may have forgotten some details. Never again, and I promise to read Varney

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 See also: