THE PROBLEM OF SEXUALIZED SELF-PRESENTATION, AGAIN: SEARCHING FOR ITS ROOTS IN VICTORIAN TIMES

Reading these days Peter Bailey’s excellent Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City (1998), I was particularly surprised by his chapter on “The Victorian barmaid as cultural prototype.” First, I loved Bailey’s knack of brilliantly describing layers of thriving Victorian city life that are missing in the Victorian fiction I teach (despite Dickens!). Also, because what he narrates is part of a so-far incomplete ‘history of looking,’ which apparently Roland Barthes demanded (Bailey claims), and that today seems more urgent than ever. I refer here to the issue of my previous post: the problem of women’s sexualized public (self)-representation.

Bailey’s thesis is that the English barmaid of the newly refurbished Victorian pubs of the 1880s and 1890s belongs in the same category as the sexualized female body on display of the actresses, particularly those of the London music hall and the new musical comedy of the period. He argues that unlike the tavern girl serving tables and, thus, always the object of much unwanted groping and propositioning, the bar placed the barmaid firmly off-limits while emphasizing her theatrical display, as if on a stage (the area behind the bar became her own spectacular territory).

Bailey explains in all detail how barmaids were selected for their beauty and, to a certain extent, elegance (or poise), which means that often gentlemen’s daughters were employed as such. He notes that, logically, their position behind the bar emphasized the upper part of their bodies, with the area from the waist downwards becoming practically irrelevant (also because of the heavy multilayered Victorian skirts). Thus, the barmaids’ sexualized display depended on the shape of their torso, arms, neck and face, with hands playing, it seems, a major erotic part as targets of fleeting touch for male clients. Note that barmaids had a strict dress code and wore black dresses which covered their bodies from the neck to the feet. Even so, drinkers, whether gentlemen or otherwise, found these women unequivocally alluring. There is, by the way, no suggestion in Bailey’s essay that they were empowered by this public display; he very unambiguously explains that barmaids were exploited by their male employers (who decided to display them in this erotic way) and, in addition, overworked. The quick turnover of pretty faces was another constant.

The Victorian extension of the stage to the pub is interesting because unlike what happened with actresses and female dancers it did not use the excuse of the artistic performance for blatantly erotic bodily display. It was a purely commercial strategy to sell beverage.

The shock of seeing actresses on the English stage for the first time during the Restoration period (a habit that Charles II imported from France, where he had been exiled) had, logically, worn out by the time Victoria was crowned in 1837. Yet we tend to forget than from the 1830s onwards, when Romantic ballet was introduced in France with La Sylphide, ballerina’s skirts were progressively shortened to reveal a surprising amount of flesh according to Victorian standards. The revealing tutu showing Marie Taglioni’s pretty ankles in that pioneering ballet must have seemed extremely erotic to 1832 audiences, and I mean here the long, gauzy skirt, not the stiff variety that shows the full leg. Indeed, there are doubts about the etymology of the odd word ‘tutu’. A popular theory is that the gentlemen fond of fondling ballerinas’ bottoms, as they could easily do in the foyer of the Paris Opera, jokingly referred to the skirt by their colloquial name for the dancers’ derrière. Today, of course, a ballerina in a tutu appears to be a delicately chaste figure, very different from your average pole dancer cum stripper.

This leads me back to the English barmaid and to a mind-boggling puzzle: if fully clothed women were found to be alluring just because they could be ogled at behind a bar, there was perhaps no need to start the progressive stripping game that leads to the ridiculous Playboy bunny waitress in the mid-20th century and to her topless equivalent not much later. This makes me think of a male character in Colin McInnes’ never sufficiently appreciated novel Absolute Beginners (1959), nicknamed the Fabulous Hoplite, who poses for porn photos always with all his clothes on. Certainly, men have always managed to be sexy while fully dressed in unwieldy fashions, from your dark business suit to the more colourful (also baggier) outfits of current urban styles.

What is it then with women and un/dressing? And where does it stop? I always joke with my students that if a Victorian lady walked into our classroom she would be surprised by a) seeing a woman teaching a university class, b) everyone’s state of undress, including mine. Victorian underwear covered infinitely much more skin than our flimsy, tiny summer outfits. What is funny is how there is always margin to be scandalized no matter how far we go. Coco Chanel, who introduced in the 1920s the short skirt below the knee so favoured by the flappers of her time, found Mary Quant’s 1960s mini-skirt disgraceful. For the last few years, the reigning garment among young girls is the hot pant, which makes the mini-skirt seem positively the pinnacle of elegance… It is very nice to be free of Victorian corsets but where does the public undressing of the female body stop? And I’m not even considering the practice of top less exposure on beaches. Will it be ever extended to other public spaces… like a classroom??!!

Here’s something very obvious: women’s freedom of behaviour and movement has been greatly increased by getting rid of restrictive garments; yet, whereas much has changed regarding which parts of female bodies can be displayed in public, women’s bodies remain heavily sexualized, much more so than men’s. Victorian bourgeois men decided to abandon the flamboyant dress style of the idle aristocratic men and conceal their bodies beneath the dark fabric of the uniform business suit. Women were for a while in the 1980s tempted by the masculinised power suit with big shoulder pads but even office wear is now far more varied for women than for men. What remains tricky is how much you can display of your womanly body before crossing the thin line dividing personal freedom from the others’ freedom to ogle at you. This is because the rules are shifting all the time: a Victorian lady would not show her ankles, whereas we think nothing of showing our legs from hip to toe. Hot pants seem also useless to cover the low parts of bottoms.

Women decide how much of their body they wish to display in public, which explains why, despite the insistence of haute couture designers in the last twenty years, transparent tops worn without a bra are hardly ever seen (or are they?). There are also occasions in which wearing one of them with a bra may seem appropriate (a private romantic dinner?), while others times and places may never be right (a lecture on Victorian Literature…). The problem of the sexualized public display is that it invents its own occasions and pretends it is part of ‘normal’ life. Yes, I’m talking about red-carpet events.

As we all know, these events are a publicity stunt designed to sell products and careers, usually connected with film, television or popular music; and, of course, the fashions and cosmetics on display. That the funny phrase ‘wardrobe malfunction’ has become so commonly used in the press covering red-carpet events shows that something is malfunctioning and it might not be the wardrobe. Last week, for instance, Catherine Zeta-Jones’s perplexing new face, displayed at the ‘FIFA Best’ gala to honour distinguished football players, showed that anti-ageing plastic surgery also often malfunctions.

I am well aware that sexual abuse is not connected with the dress code in a direct way, as women have been abused no matter what they wear. The point I have been making in my last two posts is that even we women are confused about how our freedom to dress as we want intersects with the (patriarchal) imposition to look sexy and play the part. One may wear a mini-skirt for comfort one day and for seduction another, depending on the situation and this is how we use our freedom. The problem is that not all men understand that freedom and still go by old dress codes suggesting that women who show their ankles are ‘asking for it’.

How do we break out of this complicated situation? It seems that there is bound to be always a time lag between what women decide and what men learn to respect and accept, which makes clarifying each step taken towards freedom particularly important. I know that the quaint phrase ‘dress with modesty’ sounds very silly at a time when pre-teen boys are already consuming great amounts of on-line pornography and forcing their demands for sexual gratification onto girls their age. Yet, perhaps taking a step back and dressing for elegance or comfort rather than sexiness might be more liberating for women. And educating girls to say ‘no’ long before matters threaten to get out of hand.

And, yes, educating the dinosaurs lagging behind into the new times. If they can be educated at all, which I doubt. And I mean of all ages, pre-teen to ninety-nine, for history advances but prehistoric monsters still cling to our times.

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THE WEINSTEIN SCANDAL AND THE SPECTATOR’S COMPLICITY: THE PROBLEM OF SEXUALIZED SELF-PRESENTATION

For the last few weeks, as we all know, top Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has been accused of criminal sexual misbehaviour, ranging from propositioning to rape, by at least 50 actresses. In all likelihood, the list will increase and Weinstein will eventually land in prison. Countless publications and personal blogs have published articles on practically all angles of this matter and I am aware that it is really hard to add new argumentation.

I have little to say about the need to publicly expose sexual predators in any professional area and regardless of who the victims are: children, women, and also men. I am not worried, like Woody Allen, that this will lead to any witch-hunt, for it seems to me that other powerful male predators will use Weinstein as a smokescreen, or scapegoat, to hide their misdemeanours. That worries me. As for the less powerful predators, hopefully his downfall will make them think twice before they overstep the limits of decent behaviour, outmoded as the phrase is. I insist once more that the loss of the code of conduct once known as ‘gentlemanliness’ has done much harm, and that if men could re-learn to self-regulate their behaviour through a similar code today, we would all be better off.

This, of course, should be accompanied by women also having a clear-cut code of behaviour that did not blur the lines and that we also lack.

Am I blaming the victims of predator Weinstein? No, not at all–they were young, caught unawares in a violent situation, scared for their personal integrity and in fear of ruining their budding careers (he didn’t go, of course, for powerful, well-established stars). What is striking is the variety of the victims’ responses and how the last one of them, the youngest one, instantly knew that she should report the abuser to the police. The others were locked for decades in their appalled silence by the complicity networks surrounding the predator, and, of course, by the inability or unwillingness of the men whom they trusted to stand up and denounce the monster in their midst. I would agree that blaming the bystander is also important, as many have argued. Colin Firth came out to publicly declare his shame that he had only listened to a distressed friend victimized by Weinstein but had done nothing to help her. This is a gentlemanly act but, sadly, it comes too late. Brad Pitt’s threatening Weinstein with his fists if he didn’t stop bothering his girlfriend at the time, Gwyneth Paltrow, may have solved an individual case but brought no justice to the rest.

I would like to focus next on a photo (later I’ll comment on another). The picture shows actress Rose McGowan, dressed in a red strapless dress posing next to Harvey Weinstein; he is encircling her waist with his arm, and you can see his greedy fingers creeping towards her left-side breast (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4961282/Rose-McGowan-hits-monster-Weinstein.html). The photo was taken in 1997, two months after McGowan was raped by Weinstein, as she has alleged (and as I’m sure happened: she was paid a high amount of money for her silence). It shows a smiling woman, wearing the kind of form-fitting gown designed to market stars on the red-carpet as saleable commodities. The photo is horrifying, for it shows in all clarity that women whose professional lives depend on their bodily appearance are far from being in full control of their bodies. If they’re not directly abused, they are (un)dressed to be sexually appealing, offering glamorous looks that other girls are invited to imitate. And they have to smile to the camera even when posing with a criminal who has abused their body.

There have been, however, a few female dissenting voices in all this sad affair–all of whom later had to backpedal and apologise or downplay their comments. I want to consider them here.

French actress Catherine Deneuve, who refused to comment on whether she had been abused in any way during her career, did express her doubts that the current use of social media to shame the monsters is effective: “Is it interesting to talk about it like this? Does it help? Does it add anything? Will it solve the problem in any way?” (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/oct/20/catherine-deneuve-questions-anti-harassment-campaign-weinstein). This is in line with French sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky’s criticism (in The Third Woman, 1998) of the American culture of victimhood which, in his view, weakens women’s position by teaching them that the victim status is part of femininity. Instead, he claims, women should be taught to be better equipped to defend themselves, both physically and verbally. I agree: if you’re told that any man can overpower you, you are already half-defeated and paralyzed by fear, which is how the monster Weinstein overcame most of his victims. Some managed to run away, a handful were brave enough to say ‘no’ but most were rendered unable to defend themselves (by his physical strength as much as by his power in the industry).

Then, there’s the thorny matter of self-presentation. Top designer Donna Karan was among the few to make comments in defence of Weinstein, for which she later had to apologise. She declared that we, women, need to ask “how do we display ourselves? How do we present ourselves as women? What are we asking? Are we asking for it by presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality?” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4964380/Donna-Karan-defends-Harvey-Weinstein-blames-victims.html#ixzz4wEOPQDUw). This is a bit rich coming from someone who is part of the red-carpet culture, but she has a point.

The discourse suggesting that women empower themselves by showing their body as their please is a sexist sham and it is about time we deny it. A body presented in public as a sexualized object is a sexualized object, and that’s it. The woman in question might think that she is in control of the reactions she elicits but she is not; it is simply ludicrous to think so. There is, besides, a subtle but important difference between elegant sexiness (see Lupita Nyong’o pale blue 2014 Oscar dress) and sexual vulgarity, of which you may see plenty in the MTV awards gala. Not that Weinstein and the like would notice (he did abuse Nyong’o) but other women might and, thus, earn some self-respect, which we need as much as men need gentlemanliness.

The other woman who’s had to apologize for her words is Mayim Bialik, currently a star in the popular series The Big Bang Theory. She published a piece, “Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/13/opinion/mayim-bialik-feminist-harvey-weinstein.html), which generated much controversy, as she presented a view of Hollywood actresses sharply divided between the less attractive (like herself, she says) and the “young girls with doe eyes and pouty lips (…) favoured for roles by the powerful men who made those decisions.” Bialik narrates how, after being quite popular as a teen actress (in the series Blossom), she abandoned the business, tired of its physical demands, to pursue a doctorate in neuroscience at the University of California: “I craved being around people who valued me more for what was inside my brain than what was inside my bra.” She returned, landing eventually the role of Amy Farrah Fowler, “a feminist who speaks her mind, who loves science and her friends and who sometimes wishes she were the hot girl” but who is not.

What incensed the social media was that Bialik also wrote that actresses who, like her, do not shape their body following absurd beauty models “have the ‘luxury’ of being overlooked and (…) ignored by men in power unless we can make them money.” She also made a point of declaring that she has carefully kept her “sexual self” for “private situations,” that she dresses “modestly” and does not “act flirtatiously with men as a policy.” This supposes, of course, that the ‘beautiful women’ do the opposite. Bialik tells women that in a perfect world they could act freely but that “we can’t be naïve about the culture we live in.” And, yes, she calls the women that Weinstein had been meeting in luxury hotel rooms “ingénues.” Ouch. Still, I believe she is right in all her claims and in her personal behaviour.

Now let me go to the other photo that has caught my attention this week. It’s the first image in a report in Esquire called “The Irresistible Rise of Penelope Cruz” (http://www.esquire.co.uk/culture/film/longform/a17840/penelope-cruz-interview/). The photo shows Cruz in a rumpled up bed, belly down. She’s wearing a long-sleeved lacy black body, which is not really anything to comment on, if it weren’t because Cruz’s slightly bent left knee emphasizes the allure of her cellulite-free thigh and, well, her raised bottom. The photo may have been authorized by Cruz and even concocted by the star herself but its only purpose, clearly, is titillation. The other photos in the article are designed to accompany its main focus: that at 43, Penelope Cruz, is still a very attractive woman that any sane heterosexual man (and lesbian!) would like to admire as closely as possible. The photos say absolutely nothing of Cruz’s ability to act, unless we take them as a performance of sexiness.

Like any other long piece on Cruz, this one also comments on her role, when she was only 18, in Bigas Lunas’s notorious film Jamón, jamón. This sexist movie not only made her famous but also partnered her on screen with Javier Bardem, who eventually became her husband and the father of her children. The journalist quotes an interview with Bardem in which he claims that the film is “like a document of our passion. One day we’re going to have to show the kids—imagine! ‘Mummy, Daddy, what did you do in the movies together?’ Well, my children, you should celebrate this movie as you’re here because of it.” I’ll leave aside the fact that what I remember of gross Jamón, jamón is another actor, Jordi Mollà, avidly licking the breasts of young Cruz, to focus on my complete failure to understand how children can ever enjoy seeing their parents having sex on screen in a publicly available document. Or being told by other children what they have seen.

I will never ever blame Weinstein’s victims, or any other victim of a sexual predator: the monsters should be judged, sentenced and imprisoned, if the law thus dictates. What amazes me is the hypocrisy around the public presentation of female sexual availability. Penelope Cruz’s all too common photos connect with the red-carpet display in presenting beautiful women as bodies you can goggle at but cannot touch. This sexual teasing is designed to elicit the desire that makes you buy the cinema ticket whose benefits are pocketed by producers like Weinstein. We are in this way all complicit. And sexual predators, all of us.

Weinstein has clearly crossed the ‘don’t touch’ barrier but by hypocritically demanding to see, as we do in our role as spectators, that actors show their bodies and mimic sex on screen for our (prurient) entertainment we are also trespassing on their intimacy and their right to say ‘no’ without destroying their careers, particularly the actresses. They, regrettably but also logically, see their self-presentation as sexual objects justified, although it is not. It is just part of a script that can be changed and should be changed by letting more women into the business as screen writers, directors and producers.

I’ll never argue that photos like Cruz’s lead in a straight line to Weinstein’s aberrant behaviour but we need to wonder why images like that are necessary and how they contribute to women’s degradation, rather than freedom. Or empowerment. My view is that they don’t, so, why be complicit with them?

I publish a new post every Tuesday (follow updates from @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Please be warned that I check them for spam and this might take some time. Download the yearly volumes: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

SECONDARY CHARACTERS: TIME TO END OUR NEGLECT

These days my students smile the moment the phrase ‘secondary character’ comes our of my lips, as they have heard me say already many times that we have neglected them woefully. They smile as a polite way to tell me that I need to be more persuasive, for everyone knows that the main characters are the ones that carry the weight of the fictional text, hence the only ones that deserve being the object of literary analysis.

I have, however, already showed to my two classes that a) in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy The Hunger Games a great deal of the plot depends on decisions made extradiagetically (um, secretly!) by secondary characters (the scheming President Alma Coin but also, intriguingly, fashion designer Cinna); b) in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the real plot mover may be the wicked Arthur Huntingdon and not the protagonist, his saintly wife Helen, but the greatly neglected plot shaker is his sexy mistress, Annabella Wilmot. Likewise, in Dickens’ Great Expectations, which I am about to start teaching again, although Miss Havisham and Abel Magwitch are impressive secondary characters, it is actually the far more secondary Compeyson who sets the plot in motion. Literally, for he is bound by a (criminal) plot to both.

Literary Studies has paid very scant attention to the secondary character. To begin with, there is doubt about when a character is a protagonist or just a supporting actor (I’m thinking here of Iago in Othello). In, for instance, Wuthering Heights, the elder Catherine is universally regarded to be a main character. Her daughter, also named Catherine, plays in the second part of Emily Brontë’s novel a similarly important role; nonetheless, she has hardly received any critical attention. There may be, then, plenty of analyses of particular secondary characters, as I have found in a quick search, but there is not a sustained theoretical approach to how they are built and how/why they matter.

In this quick search, combining the MLA database and WorldCat, I have found, as I should expect, more articles and dissertations than books about the secondary character–all in all, less than 60 documents since the 1970s, and only if we combine in this list four different major languages. The books are actually just two: Peter Bly’s The Wisdom of Eccentric Old Men: A Study of Type and Secondary Character in Galdós’s Social Novels, 1870-1897 (2004) and Jennifer Camden’s Secondary Heroines in Nineteenth-Century British and American Novels (2010), both originating in doctoral dissertations. Also committed to making the most of the secondary character is the monographic issue published by the French and English-language journal Belphégor in November 2006 (http://dalspace.library.dal.ca/handle/10222/31210). The issue, nonetheless, is focused on the flexibility of secondary characters in their diverse media adaptations, rather than to an in-depth consideration of their role in print fiction.

Fictional characters, generally speaking, are underanalysed as literary constructions. This is why what Lennard J. Davis had to say about them 30 years ago in his singular 1987 volume Resisting Novels: Ideology & Fiction is still relevant (the book was reissued recently, in 2014). In a fascinating chapter called “Characters, narrators, and readers: Making friends with signs”, Davis explains that characters “are designed to elicit maximum identification with the observer” and that “their existence is part of a monolithic structure created by an author”; that is to say, they are a function of the text.

Characters, Davis adds, do not have a personality: they have characteristics, although the main trick that novelists play upon us, readers, is making us believe that a limited set of features constitutes a human-like personality. “In essence,” Davis argues “the feeling that we get that we are watching a complex character is largely an illusion created by the opposite–the relatively small number of traits that make up a character”. Oddly, Davis focuses on how attractive protagonists are created to be desired “in some non-specific but erotic way” because “part of novel reading is the process of falling in love with characters or making friends with signs”. Yet, he misses the chance to consider, first, what minimum number of traits gives secondary characters a distinct personality; second, in how many tiers are they organized (from your basic ‘spear carrier’ with no lines to almost-protagonist) and, third, how much of any novel’s appeal depends on them.

In cinema things are slightly different, if only because the Oscars (and the Emmys for TV) acknowledge actors’ merits in two categories: leading and supporting. This is not without controversy for, often, production companies try to have co-protagonists nominated in both categories so as to increase the chances of a particular film to win an Oscar (or two). Other strange things often happen in connection to the Oscars. This year Viola Davis won as Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Fences, even though she is the female lead in that film. I don’t believe that she has less screen time than Ruth Negga, nominated as Best Actress in a Leading Role for Loving–but of course, how could Davis compete with Emma Stone, everyone’s favourite for La La Land?

‘Screen time’ is, of course, also a very tricky concept to measure the ‘secondariness’ of a role: Judith Dench got a very well-deserved Oscar for playing Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love (1998), a performance lasting all of… eight minutes. It turns out that the record is in the hands of Beatrice Straight for a six-minute role as a spurned wife in Network (1976). This is fine as, precisely, Straight’s win shows that what matters in a secondary character is not the extent of their presence but of their impact.

Whereas screenwriters can congratulate themselves for having written secondary characters that, in the right hands, become Oscar-worthy, (print) fiction writers are not granted any special merit for creating great supporting roles. Praise usually goes in the direction of number, rather than specific successful characterization. There are exceptions, of course. Dickens’ disciple J.K. Rowling gave us in Harry Potter a marvellous secondary character list that kept the best British actors happy for years, whether they had been chosen to play minor roles (Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart) or fundamental ones (Alan Rickman as Severus Snape). Fans claim that Rowling came up with 772 characters, though apparently ‘only’ 136 receive enough attention to qualify as main or secondary (with lines), the rest are just names dropped in passing into the text.

The list of Dickensian characters runs to many more hundreds, among which the secondary roles come in all sizes and types, from the cheeky Artful Dodger, to the ill-treated Bob Cratchit, or the brutal Bentley Drummle. And the inevitable ‘spear carriers’. Dickens, indeed, seems to be the only writer in English always drawing praise for his secondary roles, even far above Shakespeare, who could do Mercutio brilliantly but somehow fell short with the likes of Count Paris. In a 2012 article, Paul Bailey enthuses about Dickens’ “ability to catch life on the hop” and chronicle life through his myriad minor people. There is, however, still that elephant in the room as beyond creative writing courses (I assume), nobody is trying to analyze secondary characters in fiction. How do writers ‘do’ them?

Perhaps this academic feet-dragging should be blamed onto genius playwright Tom Stoppard, who had the last word (and the last laugh?) with his 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead. In it Prince Hamlet’s hapless university classmates, called by King Claudius and commissioned to help do away with the obnoxious heir to the Danish throne, meet a sad end, as happens in Shakespeare’s play, of course. What changes in Stoppard’s witty version is the focalization: whereas the hesitant blonde prince is our delegate in the original text, in this other play the pair of minor characters are the protagonists. That they have no idea of what is going on and that their lives only appear to make sense (if any) when Hamlet is on stage is a wonderful comment on the role of secondary characters. Also, a sort of self-defeating strategy, since few authors can pull the trick of using secondary characters as narrators and focalisers without promoting them to the main role–the exception being, of course, Nelly in Wuthering Heights, who remains elusively secondary.

In The Hunger Games there is a secondary character called Johanna Mason, a former victor in the 71st edition of the Games. Ostensibly introduced as a lesser rival to Katniss Everdeen, Johanna turns out to be her reluctant secret ally. Spunky, forthright, angry and resilient, Mason is so well-drawn despite her very limited presence that many fans wish Collins should have chosen her to play hero. You should have seen the smiles in my students’ faces when we briefly discussed her. Briefly because, of course, being a secondary character Johanna only got whatever little time was left after we finished discussing Katniss. Now I know those few minutes was far less than her contribution to the success of the trilogy deserved. Next time I teach The Hunger Games I’ll do it the other way round: beginning with the secondary characters.

One day I should teach a course called ‘Great Secondary Characters of English Literature’… Let’s start a list!

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CLOSE READING: THE PROBLEM OF THE LONG TEXT

In my Department, we use a pedagogy based on close reading combined with contextual comment to teach Literature, as happens in all English Departments in the world influenced by Anglo-American styles of teaching Literature. Yet, I’m growing anxious this academic year about the limits of this methodology and how it actually works in our context, both for teachers and students.

Close reading, let’s recall, is a teaching methodology based on exploring the actual texts by paying minute attention to detail; ideally, it should lead to interactive classroom discussion between teacher and students. This formalistic approach was developed in the USA in the early 20th century to replace an older European philology-oriented methodology, in which the texts were described without actually reading from any in class. Thus, as an underground student I took a year-long ‘traditional’ course on 18th and 19th century Spanish Literature, consisting exclusively of lectures about approximately twenty set texts. We were expected to read them all but we never carried any books to class, nor discussed them in any way with the teacher. This kind of ‘lección magistral’ aimed at very large classes is the equivalent of the Anglo-American lecture, which is then combined with the seminar, a type of undergrad teaching we don’t have a tradition for in Spain. In most English Studies Departments in Spain we do use, then, the seminar format but applied to large groups, ranging from 20 students in the elective courses to 90 in some compulsory core courses. Yes, absurd!

Since we have not really managed to convince students to read the books in advance and contribute their own passages for comment, I believe that what we do in class fails on both counts: it is never as informative as a lecture, nor as effective as seminar in-depth analysis. My own classes have become a very strange product: I read a passage, comment on it and students make notes of what I say, as in a lecture, instead of contributing their own comments. Only a handful talk with me, which does not necessarily mean that they have read the text, they may just elaborating on the specific passage. The bigger the class, the less productive close reading is, even though common sense suggests that class discussion should be livelier with many participants. I need to add that I’m no longer sure about how close reading must combine with introductory lecturing, as it seems a waste of classroom time to transmit what can be easily found on the internet, especially when this is what we use for our own introductions. I won’t even mention the nightmare of producing a nice-looking PowerPoint in as few hours as possible…

I realize that I have never discussed with any of my colleagues how a text is prepared for class; actually, I have never been trained as a teacher on that central aspect of my profession. So what do we actually do?

Basically, I do as I did as a student: read the text once to get an overall impression, then again pencil in hand to locate what I call the ‘hot spots’. During this second reading, I make very brief notes of the plot in each chapter, which is an extremely tedious business. I hate it so much that often I can’t decipher my own handwriting. Then, whether this is legitimate or not I don’t care, I borrow another summary (from Wikipedia, or study aids such as Gradesaver), and produce–only for my eyes–a kind of composite creature, merging my plot notes with these other notes as briefly as I can manage. Next, I add to the summary thus produced the page number of the main passages from the ‘hot spots’ and, obviously, I place small pieces of paper marking the most relevant pages in the book. It is very important that the notes I take to class are visually very clear so that I see at one glance the ‘hot spots’ I want to discuss and the quotations. Funnily, although I usually select around ten, I never have time for more than six, yet I never manage to select only those six. Discussion inevitably leads to passages not marked and that are impossible to find in a hurry.

How long does it take to work on a novel using close reading? Well, it’s funny how a novel can be dealt with in a couple of sentences in a wider-ranging lecture–“Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall denounces that women married to abusive husbands in the 19th century lacked the protection of the law and were reduced to trusting the gentlemanly inclinations of good men”–but ‘covered’ only very partially even in ten sessions of frantic close reading. For, here is something else: what dictates the number of sessions are the needs of the syllabus and not the intensity of the text, which might require a year-long monographic course to really get to its core. Or surface.

On the other hand, perhaps we’re overdoing it. Because of a series of external accidents affecting my program, I have been forced to compress my teaching into fewer sessions. Novels that should have been taught in seven sessions have been reduced to four. Hence, I’ve had to talk ‘about’ the text rather than read from it as extensively as I wanted to do. Strangely, this change is not so negative as I would have assumed because attention to textual detail often results in not having the chance to discuss larger issues in the text, from characters’ narrative arcs to plot architecture. And it’s great to be able to do that.

What is it like for a Literature teacher to prepare a novel for a series of close reading sessions, then? A time-consuming chore. Let’s say, for the sake of argumentation, that a 300-page contemporary novel to be taught in 5 sessions takes 5 hours to read the first time, and 8 the second (pencil in hand, marking text, making notes). Add 3 hours to produce a summary, then, say, 3 more hours to check bibliography (download at least one article and read it, check at least 3 other sources). This is already 18 hours, plus, say 2 hours for the PowerPoint, if you’re lucky, that’s 20 hours for 5 sessions of 75 minutes each, 1.92 hours of preparation for each hour we teach, instead of the official 1.07 in my university. And this, of course, is just a silly figure, for to properly teach any novel, you need to have read many, many others novels, other Literature, and plenty of literary criticism… What I teach every session has taken, in fact, 33 years of my life to prepare, since the day I became an undergrad.

Time-consuming as preparing a novel for class is, I find it increasingly difficult to ‘control’ the text. No matter how often I have taught the text and how hard I have worked on the summary and the passage selection, it is more and more complicated to keep the whole novel ‘fully available’ in my mind.

To strengthen my grip on the text, in a few occasions I have transferred the selected quotations onto a Word document, projected onto the classroom screen. With classics available online this type of document can be produced in a reasonable time, but with new books typing the selected quotations into your computer constitutes a waste of precious (research) time. A possibility is, of course, using both the paper copy and the ebook. Since we’re trying to convince students to buy the set texts, however, I find that projecting a selection of quotations rather than reading from the print book is a self-defeating pedagogy. With quotations from secondary sources things are, I believe, different and I see no problem in just sharing a passage without bringing the whole book to class. But maybe I’m wrong…

These days in particular, I feel that the bottom is dropping out of my own pedagogy, for I am having trouble handling in class the bulky text of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy The Hunger Games. Summarizing in the manner I have described book three, Mockingbird, selecting the passages for discussion and writing the class notes took me about three hours of a very busy morning. This is for a book I have read twice, which means I was already using a copy with pencil markings and comments. After these three hours, however, and seeing that there was no way I could comment on so many aspects of the protagonist’s (gender) characterization in just 75 minutes, I threw it all away (metaphorically speaking) and decided to focus on just the last chapter and the Epilogue, using intensive close reading. And trust that the novel would be sufficiently ‘covered’ in one session (I’m using 7 for the whole trilogy, treating it as a single text, within a one-semester elective course on Gender Studies). In the end, I only had time to read three passages…

Perhaps I should be teaching poetry… Or use less close reading?

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