THE RISK OF REDISCOVERING THE ACADEMIC WHEEL (AND THE HANDMAID’S TALE)

The students in my Gender Studies class could freely choose the subject of their paper and I have ended up marking five (out of twenty-five) on Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). In parallel, I have been asked to peer-review two articles submitted to journals on the same topic. Even a proposal for a TFM dissertation.

Curiously, although the renewed interest in Atwood’s dystopian classic is due to Bruce Miller’s series (first season, 2017) for the streaming service Hulu, none of these articles nor the dissertation proposal, refer to it as an relevant trigger for new academic work. First issue, then, that calls my attention: the way in which all these budding academics hesitate to connect novel and series (it seems that if you deal with one, then you don’t deal with the other).

Second issue, the total absence of any comments on the quite good 1990 film version of The Handmaid’s Tale directed by Volker Schlöndorf, with Natasha Richardson as Offred and Aidan Quinn as Nick, based on a screenplay by a Nobel prize winner, illustrious playwright Harold Pinter. This film did generate some academic attention because of Pinter’s contribution but it’s worrying me very much to see how cinema is being neglected these days in favour of TV, even within academic circles in the Humanities.

Third issue, and this is my main issue today: the constant rediscovery of the academic wheel… Here we go.

One of the most beautiful feelings a reader can enjoy is the discovery of a text that becomes a significant landmark in one’s development. If you’re a student, or a professional academic, and you may choose what to focus on in your work, this joy of new discovery often becomes the foundation for papers, articles and even books. I have never ever believed in the phallacy that Literary Studies should be objective since all work within them begins with the process of falling in love with a text–and other sentimental variations, such as falling out of love with a text or hating it. Something mysterious happens and suddenly you do know that, sooner or later, you have to write about this or that text, and then proper research begins.

In Literary Studies ‘proper research’ means entering into a dialogue with your predecessors, those who also expressed their sentimental attachment in the sophisticated jargon of academia (for we’re not… irrational fans… or are we?). If you fall in love with a recent text, then the obvious problem is that there might not be any predecessors. In that case, you need to write a list of keywords and see who has contributed something indispensable in each area of interest. For instance, one of my TFG/BA dissertation tutorees has fallen in love with a new film adaptation, Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017, written by James Ivory, based on the 2007 eponymous novel by André Aciman). His dissertation will be among the first academic works devoted to this very well-received film and, so, he’ll have to compile a bibliography with sources that deal more generally with the representation of gay men in cinema, and the theory of film adaptation.

This student had also fallen in love with Mercutio in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and although there is not that much published on this ambiguous character, we decided that mastering the huge bibliography on this ultra-famous play would be a too tall order at this level. Besides, my student quickly found out that what he had to say about Mercutio had been covered by other scholars and, so, he decided to embrace the chance to make an original contribution. This does not mean that you should not write about Shakespeare. I have indeed tutored a TFG on Romeo’s masculinity and written myself a long piece about Antonio’s love of Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/132012). It simply means that if you feel an unstoppable love for a classic, you need to brace yourself for a long struggle to acquire an acceptably solid idea of all the relevant bibliography.

Here is, however, the problem: what is ‘relevant bibliography?’ I usually tell my students that their bibliographies should be properly updated and that, ideally, they should cover the period from 1990 to the present. That’s twenty-eight years!! Already a lot… Of course, I also tell them that they may quote from any source previous to 1990, provided this is absolutely relevant or an academic classic (Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, 1975). In practice, however, what happens is that most pre-1990s gets a blanket dismissal, and I won’t even mention how awfully neglected anything written before 1980 is, unless it is by a really big name like Michel Foucault or Raymond Williams. F.R. Leavis, anyone? Northrop Frye?

In the specific case of The Handmaid’s Tale this poses a singular problem, as I have seen in the work I have marked or assessed. The novel was published in 1985 and, as the MLA database shows, 24 authors wrote about this text before 1990, beginning with Michele Lacombe’s article “The Writing on the Wall: Amputated Speech in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale” (1986). The MLA database offers 199 registers for the period 1990-99, then 72 for 2000-9 and 41 since then; you can see the curve here: climbing up to 1999, then going down, then up again. Someone should look into these fluctuations and the reasons for them beyond my sketchy approach here.

Anyway, back to my point: what the 24 initial commentators said cannot be dismissed because they set the foundations for the critical approach to Atwood’s text, and covered all the main issues: feminism, dystopia, post-apocalyptic narrative, politics, speech manipulation, religion, puritanism, nature vs. nurture, even ironic autobiography and the epistolary nature of this novel. Naturally, this doesn’t exhaust The Handmaid’s Tale, as the many subsequent essays on it show. What I mean, rather, is that if you wish to write today about the dystopian nature of Gilead, the fundamentalist Republic that deprives women of all their rights in Atwood’s novel, you do need to take into account what the first authors to tackle the subject had to say. Even more so because this was criticism contemporary to the book’s publication and will give you a clear context for it.

What happens if you neglect the 1980s sources? Well, you may end up de-contextualizing the novel. It is certainly true that the 2017 television series indirectly comments on the dictatorial style of new President Donald Trump. However, the novel was published in a decade dominated by Ronald Reagan’s administration, when Christian fundamentalism, the dying but still vicious Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, and Iran’s radical Islamist revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini were very much in the author’s mind. As I’m sure the 1980s academic work stresses. This doesn’t mean that you cannot read The Handmaid’s Tale, novel, against the context of the early 21st century, as, say, Baz Luhrman’s film adaptation reads Romeo and Juliet for 1993, rather than 1593. Yet, just as no Shakespeare scholar would ever neglect the 1590s context, you cannot neglect the 1980s context.

Besides, you run the risk of reinventing the academic wheel… which consists of presenting as new arguments which others have already presented decades ago and that, are, in addition, obvious. If you’re lucky enough to be the first one to tackle academically a given text, then you can deal with the basics: The Handmaid’s Tale connects with the dystopian tradition. But if you approach a text thirty-two years after its publication, then the obvious is not an option. Again: of course you can write about dystopia in Atwood’s novel but not as if you were the first one to do so. Understood? So, yes, it is necessary to consider academic work published before 1990 in the particular case of Atwood’s novel to avoid reinventing the academic wheel.

Now I’m going to destroy my own argument…

What should we do with much older texts? I’m going back to Romeo and Juliet, with 1411 registers in the MLA database for work published between 1900 and 2017. And this is only because the registers begin with the 20th century… So, supposing I’m working on Shakespeare’s allusions to Queen Mab, should I take into account W.P. Reeves’s pioneering essay, published in Modern Language Notes (1902)? How about the 27 academic publications about this play from the 1940s? Is anyone quoting them? Should my student have started work with Leslie Hotson’s “In Defence of Mercutio” (Spectator, 8 August 1947: 168-169)? How long would his bibliography be in that case? Is this the reason why we tend to begin bibliographies in 1990? To limit our work?

Perhaps if we read early Shakespearian scholarship we might be dismayed to find that all has been said and that we reinvent the academic wheel every few years, as long as academic generations last. I was myself a second-year undergrad student when The Handmaid’s Tale was published, which means I am old enough to have a personal memory of all its academic trajectory; this is why I’m warning the current generation that they should be prepared to go beyond their own time. But, then, no teachers currently active were employed before 1975, right? And, anyway, the conceptual revolutions of the early 1990s, when apparently all current methodologies were invented, means that this is own our operative chronological barrier. 1990 is already beginning to seem too long ago to begin a bibliography on Romeo and Juliet, with 879 MLA registers since that year… Should we start in 2000? Is this good scholarship or bad?

To sum up, then, we’re constantly reinventing the academic wheel, perhaps not at all advancing but moving in circles. Yet, I still think that one should try to enter a dialogue with the inventors of each wheel if they are historically close to us… and the final bibliography is manageable… and we’re not offending any scholar still active by neglecting their work.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

DOUBLE NOSTALGIA AND CLASS MATTERS: 1930s FICTION ON 1980s TV (THE BOX OF DELIGHTS)

A couple of months ago I came across a blog post on a book for children which apparently connects with Harry Potter, as a possible predecessor. This is John Masefield’s 1935 novel The Box of Delights (see https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/nov/30/long-before-harry-potter-the-box-of-delights-remade-childrens-fantasy). I had heard, vaguely, of Masefield (1878-1967) as a distinguished poet (he was appointed Poet Laureate in 1930, a post he held until his death) but not in relation to children’s literature. It turns out that The Box of Delights and its prequel, The Midnight Folk (1927) are, if not downright classics, at least well-known among genre connoisseurs.

Masefield appears to have been a very accomplished author, unafraid of trying his hand at many different literary pursuits. He wrote poems (both short and very long), plays, and a string of novels of varied types, with 12 appearing in just 15 years (1924-39). These included social novels (The Square Peg, The Hawbucks), adventures in exploration (Sard Harker, Odtaa), sea yarns (Victorious Troy, The Bird of Dawning), and the above named children’s fantasy. I make a first stop here to consider how difficult it is to keep a clear impression of whole stretches of English Literature and of whole personal careers which were important in the past, less than one century ago. No matter how hard you study, so much escapes our attention that it is a wonder we know anything at all! I will sound terribly obvious if I say that the only way to fix our memory of authors whose names we encounter in introductions and panoramic overviews is reading their works. Masefield is now more vividly present in my mind though, as happens with author you only see in old photos, perhaps not vividly enough.

The claim that The Box of Delights must have inspired some elements in Harry Potter is only of relative interest. There is a boy hero (Kay Harker), who has a dim but cute friend (Peter Jones), but they do not form with Peter’s sister Maria–a pert little girl too fond of revolvers–a triangular friendship in the style of Harry, Ron and Hermione. Two other Jones sisters, Jemima and Susan, are present in the tale but in very minor roles. Masefield’s story has an appealing magician at its core, one Cole Hawlings who turns out to be Majorcan all-talented, wise man Ramon Llull (or Lully, 1232-1315), still alive in 1935 thanks to an elixir. You might see shades of Hawlings in Dumbledore in a scene that has to do with a phoenix, and in his avuncular behaviour towards Kay, but Tolkien’s Gandalf seems a much relevant predecessor. Likewise, villain Abner Brown is not really in the same league as Lord Voldemort, being just a jewel thief thirsting after bigger booty, namely the titular box of delights, a singular magic contraption.

Judging a book according to whether it measures up to another one with which it might not really be connected is not a good idea. Let’s then get rid of Harry Potter (but do watch the Italian fan film Voldemort: Origins of the Heir, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6SZa5U8sIg) and enjoy the ‘delights’ Masefield has to offer. These are not few but I must confess that I struggled a little bit to get into the spirit of his novel. I attributed this to the fact that The Box of Delights is actually a sequel but the information I came across regarding The Midnight Folk confirmed that this is not a story in two books but two stories sharing a set of characters. The difficulties had to do, rather, with how characters speak, using a kind of dialogue which I found odd, not only because of the peculiarities of each character (one is always using ‘what?’ at the end of his sentences) but also because Kay and the Jones children use a formal register very different from what, um, Harry Potter and colleagues use. Kay does use school slang in one sentence but his guardian quickly bans this jargon, which suggests that the children use separate idiolects, one for themselves and one for the adults. Yet, this was not exactly the case, either (as you will see).

I just needed to hear them speak to get the right delivery and tone–and luckily for me I could use for that the charming six-part BBC version (broadcast between 21 November and 24 December in 1984). YouTube and its illegal uploads have very useful applications, as you can see. As I expected, the series ironed out all my difficulties and contributed, besides, not only very good performances by young and not so young actors but also a delicious use of special effects to materialize the magic that Masefield describes in his lovely book. This includes the metamorphosis of some characters into animals (or even a tree), Kay’s multiple size changes, a talking statue, a picture that opens up for Cole to walk in, etc. Masefield was also interested in technological fantasy and so, anticipating Ian Fleming’s James Bond, he gives the villains a car that transform into a sort of helicopter (nothing to do with the Weasleys lumbering flying car, then).

The comments by other YouTube spectators led in two enticing but quite different directions. One the one hand, many celebrate their second contact with a beloved Christmas classic of their own 1980s childhood (actually a few have repeatedly seen the series in this context). Others speculate about whether a new version is (over)due because of how fast special effects age. For The Box of Delights the BBC used cutting-edge video technology which did a very good job of reproducing Masefield’s gorgeous fantasy; this is visually demanding even for the plain reader, much more so for TV before cgi (computer-generated images). I found the fx ‘delightful’ as corresponds to the ‘box of delights’ that television was in the early days of video (and that gave us masterpieces such as David Bowie’s marvellous music video for “Ashes to Ashes”, 1980, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMThz7eQ6K0).

The BBC, then, went as far as it was possible to go for TV in 1984 yet I understand those in favour of an update, for I found myself thinking as I enjoyed the enchanting 6 hours how many scenes would look today. Ironically, I might call this ‘the Harry Potter’ syndrome, as the whole movie series adapting Rowling is cutting-edge for the early 21st century–just as The Box of Delights was for 1984. There is a scene in the novel, excluded from the BBC version possibly because of how expensive it would have been, in which people seen in paintings start moving and, beyond whether Rowling did take inspiration from that or not, the Harry Potter films mirrored spot on what she meant in a way that simply could not be done for Masefield. Arguably, the same fx ageing process will eventually affect Harry Potter in thirty years time, when films will all come in virtual reality devices.

The ‘double nostalgia’ of my title, then, refers to the combined experience of reading a 1930s book and seeing its 1980s TV adaptation at the same time, taking also into account that the series approaches the book nostalgically and that we, 21st century spectators, also enjoy the special effects with nostalgia. I should think that a most spectacular case of this effect was the 1981 Granada/ITV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited, a story about the nostalgia which Charles Ryder feels for the 1920s, when, famously, he met spoilt child Sebastian Flyte and his contact with the very rich Flytes changed his life for ever. The Box of Delights is a sort of junior version of that compounded nostalgia (with appealing fx). That make-believe world of Masefield, Waugh and, later, Downtown Abbey (though with more servants) convinces us that the lifestyle of the rich is the rule, not the exception, and, oddly, despite having never enjoyed it, that we still feel it is somehow ours. Seeing the orphan Kay Harker do as he pleases with his friends under the very loose guardianship of the flexible Caroline Louisa, abused Harry Potter would surely have a fit. For the main delight of The Box of Delights is how Kay plunges into adventure without a worldly care. How refreshing.

It’s not, then, just plain nostalgia (or envy) but a yearning for the same carefree world that keeps us glued to the screen (or the book pages). In this, Masefield’s world could not be further from Rowling’s, where Kay would be a Slytherin, though he’s much nicer than Malfoy. And so, although I said that I would leave Harry Potter aside, it turns out that the heptalogy is indeed linked to Masefield’s fantasy world but not at all for the reasons suggested by other authors, the occasional borrowings. Kay and Harry would, I think, like each other instantaneously, as orphans keen on magic open to whatever it may bring. Also, because Kay is no snob (the series, however, conveniently eliminates the discomfort he feels in the novel before the hostile poor children in his rural community). The school which Kay attends, and that we don’t see since he is on holiday, is possibly similar to Hogwarts, or, rather, Hogwarts is similar to the establishments that 1930s upper-class kids would patronize. Rowling does operate her own kind of nostalgia but I wonder with what aim, as Harry battles Voldemort’s upper-class sycophantic Death Eaters but in the end Malfoy and his kind are still there, and nothing much changes in the Wizarding world, despite ‘mudbloods’ like Hermione.

I have finally realized, then, that my problem with The Box of Delights is not the challenge of visualizing the magic or my bad ear for dialogue but a class matter. Leaving aside the cultural distance between 1930s England and 2010s Catalonia, where I live, I had in the end fewer problems to accept the magic than the wonder of a household in which children are so comfortably well off. Harry’s broom cupboard under the stairs and his constant ill-treatment by the awful Dursleys have complicated very much the matter of class in children’s fiction. And, yes, I had to see the BBC version to make sense of what I know understand to be Kay’s upper-class (or upper-middle-class, I’m not sure) idiolect.

You can see that I’m a bit bitter here, and this is because my working-class childhood was full of BBC series like The Box of Delights and of their promise of a carefree world that was never fulfilled. Still, this is not Masefield’s fault but my own for having been born on the wrong side of the tracks, like the majority. He did what he had to do: tell a perfect tale of Christmas joy and makes us believe in magic for as long as it lasts. No mean feat.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

CHANGING PATTERNS IN STUDENTS’ PERFORMANCE: RESISTING CLASSROOM PARTICIPATION

In my post of 10 October last year I discussed the problems connected with using a methodology based on close reading to teach long texts. The main concern I expressed was that a pedagogy developed to train students into producing literary criticism of poetry might be inadequate for dealing with prose, particularly complete volumes. I spoke then of the challenge of trying to acquire total recall of the nuances of very long novels (any Victorian three-decker) or even novel series (like The Hunger Games).

To be honest, the post was trying to process a deeply-set anxiety that has plagued me this semester and that has to do with the changing patterns in students’ performance, specifically their resistance to engaging in class participation.

Now that I’m practically done marking the corresponding papers I can say that this has not been an easy semester for me as a teacher. Let me acknowledge that I have often felt uncomfortable in class, unable to find my feet, as the saying goes, and to understand what I was doing. Unusually, then, the posts for the last four months carry practically no comments on my teaching practice and read, rather, as a series of independent essays mostly on Gender Studies (this is what I have been teaching, together with Victorian Literature).

The remarkable quality of the papers I have just read (and some kind words from students) tell, however, a story quite different from what I thought was unfolding in class, this is why I am finally writing this post. I have been at some points truly distressed in class and if I have managed to keep my cool (mostly), if you allow me to use the expression, this has been thanks to a handful of extraordinarily participative students, two of whom have received my warmest thanks in the shape of an A with honours. Thank you, Carla and Marc. And Neele, Alicia, Albert, indeed.

I must grant that the anxiety-inducing political climate in Catalonia has been a major obstacle to keep going as a teacher last Autumn. Not only my own personal worries but also the students’ have had an impact in class, for when the future looks so uncertain education takes on part of that uncertainty. You might think that students were enthusiastic about the project of a possible new republic but I have seen mostly long faces in class, expressing a deep concern that the near future might be even more difficult than it already is for the millennials. There have been no direct political discussions in class but, even so, this has been a heavily politicized semester. At one point I asked my Erasmus students whether they wanted to stay in view of the (perhaps unsafe) turn that the situation was taking and they responded no, as the situation seemed ‘interesting’ for them. This, of course, reminded me of the Chinese curse: ‘may you live in interesting times’… You need peace of mind to teach well, and this has been lacking for the whole past semester.

Now, to the specifics of the case, which, I’m sure will be familiar to any teacher but to which I need to add some very odd factors like… my smelly classroom (a classic in my blog). My Facultat has a peculiar corridor which seems to be built on a swamp (I’m told it is actually built on sandy soil that doesn’t drain well). Our first action on entering the classroom has been every day the same one: opening the windows as wide as they would go. Even so we, students and teacher, have been forced to associate Victorian Literature with a bad odour–which possibly is what Victorian themselves were used to in their dirty streets but not what we need to focus on intellectual work.

Add to this the fact that the classroom was too big, which resulted in a strange seating pattern, with students basically forming a diagonal from the first row of benches to the back row, instead of sitting close in just a few rows. There were moments when I didn’t know where to place my gaze; and, then, when I did, what I saw was not very reassuring: students texting, or lounging as if on their sofa… not taking notes at all… talking to each other but not to me… I’m amazed that so many days I had to ask for silence to lecture and, then, when I asked for comments the chatterers kept silent.

Here is what every student should understand (or at least my students): a teacher’s performance depends on the students’ attention. If this attention wavers or is never available, the teacher falters, hesitates, starts waffling instead of properly lecturing, and the discourse collapses in the worst case. That was the day when I stopped and told my students that since they were not interested in what I had to say, I was perfectly willing to go to my office where I had tons of work to do. You can’t begin to imagine how foolish I felt, and how hard it was to return to my topic.

By the way, I have also noticed another symptom of bad teaching: linguistic accuracy vanishes. My English simply starts evaporating, the sentences don’t flow, the mistakes are unbelievably basic. When a class goes well, however, the solidity of the use of language increases tenfold and the brain seems to go on a faster gear, which is why I love teaching: this is when I do my best thinking.

I finally came out of my bleak cocoon to speak to some of my students and some of my colleagues about what was missing in class, and it turned out that the impression that my teaching was not working was not shared by the students (um, at least the ones that spoke to me). It was, however, shared by my colleagues, not because they think I’m a lousy teacher but because they were in a similar situation regarding their own classes. And I don’t mean my Department colleagues only, but others teaching English in Britain, which shows this is not a local case. Somebody, then, should produce an academic study of why, plainly, students are very clearly showing with their attitude in class that they prefer lecturing to participative-style teaching. For this is it: my discomfort has to do with realizing that basic truth.

Students’ resistance to class participation manifests itself, to begin with, by their not reading the books we discuss in advance. We publish the syllabus in early July for them to read the texts over summer but this has never ever worked–yet, we persist. I told my students that in order to succeed in their degree the main trick is acquiring good time-management skills. This means planning ahead and preparing all tasks with sufficient time, both to avoid failure and stress. Since very few do that in spite of our efforts to inform them of the content of courses, I must conclude that they need to be told that this expected of them.

It occurs to me that, possibly, our problems have to do with our different perception of the situation: we teachers believe that students understand what their role involves, and students believe that it’s our duty to point out at each step what they need to do. My syllabi, then, will include from next year onward a warning in bold, red type that a) books need to have been read at least two weeks before their class discussion begins; b) time-management is essential and c) class participation… inevitable.

For the last six years, we have invited students to participate in class in the following way. The first novel in the course (second-year Victorian Literature, remember) is entirely in the hands of the teacher, who produces plenty of close reading to set an example. Then, we distribute the chapters of the second novel among students and in each session a maximum of about 8 contribute a comment based on a passage. Then for the third and fourth novels students need to contribute a passage from a secondary source. Well, this is the first time when the method has not worked at all, as some students have chosen to ignore that this is a compulsory activity. In some sessions only 1 or 2 of the students were present–some, indeed, had a valid excuse for their absence but they were a minority. I did ask my class whether there was a boycott afoot, which they denied, a bit surprised at my paranoia… But then I do know that some students take our invitation to participate as a form of coercion, and it appears that, whereas in previous years they made an effort to comply, this year they have resisted the obligation to speak in class.

I don’t wish to give you the impression that the whole thing has been a disaster – not at all. Very few students have failed and these were the ones that did not complete assessment. What I’m trying to say is that this resistance to engaging in a participative-style of teaching benefits nobody. I’ll say again this: when I taught Harry Potter back in 2013-14, every lecture was a most enjoyable party, not because of the text itself but of students’ eagerness. I refuse to believe that only Harry Potter produces that effect… I’ll add that I expected something similar regarding our newest addition to the Victorian syllabus: Dracula. Instead, attendance was at its lowest.

The students that speak to us, teachers, are, of course, the keener ones. It is then only partially useful to ask them why their peers are not so keen. A factor that emerges in conversation, anyway, is that the university entry system in Spain forces students into degrees that were only their second or third choice. I will not go into the shortcomings of our secondary education, nor into the problem of how the social media are negatively impacting the attention span of young people (even their ability to think in silence and with no interruptions). There is, however, something else at work: a generational pragmatism which rejects all unnecessary extras. Since my students’ performance has, on the whole, been quite good, I need to reach the conclusion that the lectures (classes, sessions, whatever) are beginning to be seen as superfluous activities, which they eschew, rather than as what they should be: an occasion to engage in high-level intellectual dialogue.

I was for sixteen years a teacher at the online Universitat Oberta de Catalunya and I am, therefore, familiar with a pedagogical model that does not rely on classroom interaction. My students at UOC did very well but at the back of my mind there was always the question of whether they would do even better in class. As happens, one of them did become my presential student and even my BA dissertation tutoree and this convinced me that we do need direct personal contact in lectures. Now I’m not so sure and I wonder whether the millennials’ pragmatic ways will, in the end, force us either to return to traditional lecturing or to abandon the classroom altogether.

We’ll see.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE DECLINE OF LITERARY FICTION (AND MICROHISTORY AS ALTERNATIVE STORYTELLING)

A recent report by the British Arts Council, “Literature in the 21st Century: Understanding Models of Support for Literary Fiction” (http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication/literature-21st-century-understanding-models-support-literary-fiction) has unleashed much controversy about what exactly ails the most demanding form of prose writing. It is obvious that sales are going down with many literary fiction writers now being unable to live off their artistic vocation (please note that the top-selling book of 2017 in the UK is… Jamie Oliver’s 5 Ingredients – Quick & Easy Food with 716,000 copies sold; for the top 100 see https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/30/bestsellers-2017-top-100-philip-pullman-jamie-oliver-margaret-atwood).

The terms of the debate following the issuing of the report are focused, as it was to be expected, on a variety of already well-known arguments: a) print fiction cannot compete with the attractions of the social media and of audiovisual fiction/entertainment; b) literary fiction is, by definition, non-commercial; c) this a specific anglophone problem and in other languages literary fiction still thrives; d) the MAs in creative writing are having a (paradoxical) negative impact on literary quality by limiting individual creativity and innovation; e) literary fiction has done a good job of cultivating prose but is neglecting plot in excess and g) readers are no longer willing to make the effort to read literary fiction after being disappointed by too many over-hyped volumes. I could go through the whole alphabet…

I will add fuel to the fire by pointing out that not all professional writers should expect to make a living off their writing. Arundhati Roy, who published an excellent novel twenty years ago, The God of Small Things, and has only now published the second one, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, might be the kind of writer we need: someone who offers very few, strictly selected novels rather than a constant flow of mediocre writing aimed at keeping the pot boiling on the stove, and not at all contributing to the art of Literature. Why, indeed, should literary fiction be a profession, except for a handful of very high quality writers?

I’ll go even further to note that I myself, a Literature teacher, went into shock recently when reading the short story collection Hijas de un sueño (http://www.esdrujula.es/libro/hijas-de-un-sueno/) published by my dear friend Gerardo Rodríguez (also an English Literature teacher at the Universidad de Granada). My shock surfaced from realizing that I haven’t been reading great Literature produced in our own period for a very, very, very long time… if at all. Pretentious, yes indeed; great, no. Wisely combining the lessons learned from Katherine Mansfield with his own Andalusian cultural heritage, Gerardo has produced a slim volume which is worth 100 over-hyped, fumbling literary novels, of the kind that promises more than delivers. Why’s that? Because this is a book written in no hurry and with the only aim of accomplishing a personal goal, namely, the publication of a volume the author can be proud of. Is it ambitious? Of course it is, but not the kind of ambition that is now spoiling the literary game: the ambition leading to craving for meaningless awards, striving for a fleeting media presence, competing in the top sales charts with plenty of other bad books. The underside is, as I told Gerardo, that few will even notice that his beautiful literary book exists for in our topsy-turvy times literary excellence is simply not admired. An inconvenient truth that the Arts Council’s report, by the way, overlooks.

I think that what we, readers, are doing in the absence of fine prose (which is not the decorative prose they teach in creative writing schools) is to choose storytelling. This might explain the pleasure we get from 19th century fiction–which tried to mix both good prose and good plotting–and contemporary popular fiction. Unlike literary fiction, which, as I have noted, tends to neglect plot because of the Modernist prejudice against it, popular fiction is capable of combining quality plotting with quality writing. The kind of popular fiction we tend to hate fails, precisely at both ends: the prose and the plot (for an example, read Riley Sager’s appalling thriller Final Girls).

Compulsive readers, and I am certainly one, may be starving for new fine prose, of the kind that gives you an insight into human life, but this does not mean we are starving for good reading. If we don’t find it in the fiction of the past (I’m currently reading Margaret Oliphant’s awesome 1883 novel Hester with much enjoyment), then we find it outside the novel. And I mean in non-fiction (a lazy label if I ever have seen one…) and particularly in what is now often referred to as ‘microhistory’.

Wikipedia informs us that microhistory is “the intensive historical investigation of a well-defined smaller unit of research (most often a single event, the community of a village, or an individual)” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microhistory). The resulting print volumes are, then, a specific branch of non-fiction, mostly written by historians instead of, as it is often the case, journalists. The distinctions are, however, not that clear-cut possibly because few academics have bothered to pay attention to non-fiction and its generic taxonomy and we are constantly confused by the label. Non-fiction, by the way, including microhistory, tends to be narrative rather than essayistic which is why it is often chosen as an alternative to the novel by dissatisfied readers.

There is not (yet) a canon of the best microhistory but you may find an impressive list on GoodReads: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/1058.Microhistory_Social_Histories_of_Just_One_Thing. Number 9 on the day I’m writing (this may vary depending on the number of votes) is Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, simply the best book I have read this past 2017 (together with Hijas de un sueño). It is also very handy to explain the links (and differences) between fiction and non-fiction: Philbrick narrates the real-life story that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. Both did intensive research but whereas Melville chose to embellish the events by developing his own plotting and using his fine, insightful prose, Philbrick uses a scholarly, yet still entertaining approach, attempting to reconstruct past events.

And this is it: for us, readers who love learning from books, the combination of solid research, appealing narrative and elegant prose is unbeatable. Also, the variety of topics, another aspect that is giving microhistory an advantage over plain fiction. You will soon see that the GoodReads microhistory list mixes many heterogeneous works. I’ll take just the first 10 titles to make my point (consider how many you would like to read…):

1. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
2. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
3. Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
4. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
5. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson
6 Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel
7. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
8. Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
9. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
10. At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

What a marvellous list for a monographic course (or analysis in a collective volume…)!!! Or reading project for 2018…

It has taken since the 1980s much academic effort to convince university students and teachers that the world of fiction worth reading and researching extends far beyond the narrow confines of literary fiction, beginning with (poorly labelled) popular fiction. It is now the time, perhaps, to start considering the role that non-fiction is playing in the habits of contemporary readers to replace the ailing literary fiction, and its merits as good writing, in particular in microhistory. Can we really say that, for instance, Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit (or Unbroken) has less merit as a storytelling volume than any of the contemporary anglophone novels we read, teach and do research on? I should think not–quite the opposite, it is better than many which we value simply because they are marketed as literary fiction.

I realize that the microhistory in the GoodReads list has a common ingredient: the intention to popularize scholarly knowledge. These volumes are often popular science but also an application of its popularizing techniques to many other areas. I marvel at how although English ‘popularize’ and Spanish ‘divulgar’ appear to share a similar meaning (populus = the people; vulgus = the common people), yet ‘divulgar’ expresses much better the idea of making scholarly research available to a mass readership while still maintaining a serious didactic tone. I would not say that the didactic component is what is luring readers away from literary fiction and into microhistory but it is certainly a very strong point.

The function of Literature, to end, used to be providing an insight into human life coached in beautiful language (which, by the way, poetry does much better than novels…). What we’re seeing today, then, is that literary fiction is providing mainly forgettable prose and extremely limited insights into personal lives with scant projection onto the rest of the world. Microhistory (as a print genre expressing a trend in historiography) is placing individual experience against a much larger historical canvas, as the novel used to do in pre-Modernist times. It may not offer literary prose (though it could) but it is offering a more complete approach to human life than the minimalist, fragmented, individualistic approach of current literary fiction. This is why many, like yours truly, find so much pleasure in its pages.

Perhaps the Arts Council should look next into microhistory for, as we know, genres come and go, rise and fall, and perhaps the literary novel is beginning to outstay its welcome, at least as we know it today.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/