FICTIONS WE LIVE BY: ORGANIZED CRIME, THE BANAL SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT, AND PATRIARCHY

I have just read two excellent volumes on organized crime in the UK, one by Alan Wright (Organised Crime: Concepts, Cases, Controls, 2006) and the other by Dick Hobbs (Lush Life: Constructing Organized Crime in the UK, 2013). Reading the last novel by Ian Rankin in the long John Rebus series, In a House of Lies (2018), I was struck by the idea that the main villain, Edinburgh’s top gangster ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty, is quite an independent operator. He is very different, despite his remarkable power, from the classic godfather figure first named in Mario Puzo’s novels on the Corleone family (and which Francis Ford Coppola famously adapted). Wright and Hobbs confirm this suspicion that there is not such a thing as a shadow crime syndicate with a rigid criminal hierarchy but, rather, a fluid, chaotic predatory business environment that appeals to violent patriarchal men. And that thrives with the complicity of consumers willing to purchase illegal goods.

Wright is a former officer with the Metropolitan Police in London, who later became a lecturer at the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies of the University of Portsmouth. Dick Hobbs is an urban ethnographer, and a native London East-Ender who, his web presentation claims, ‘came to academic work late having worked as an office boy, labourer, dustman and schoolteacher’. Although they come, then, from radically different positions–even possibly from enemy lines–Wright and Hobbs agree that we need to be cautious about the widespread idea of organized crime. Wright, who participated in the investigation of the crimes committed by the infamous Kray twins–whom Hobbs mocks as ‘marquee gangsters’–warns that ‘Because of the contested nature of the concept, the sense of organisation of each group needs to be understood within its specific social, political and economic contexts. Simplistic or one-dimensional theories simply do not work in this field’ (in interview with Woodiwiss & Telford 115). Hobbs goes much further, arguing that, basically, the only organized crime is the one being committed by liberal capitalism since the 1980s-1990s when it started destroying the industrial labour that allowed the working classes in Britain, at least for a very short time between the 1950s and 1960s, to maintain the illusion that a prosperity disconnected from illegality was possible.

Wright’s book is written from the side of the law and, though he is very much aware of how distorted notions of organized crime may even obstruct effective policing, he offers what Hobbs might criticize as a conventional, typically bourgeois view of criminality, in which the working classes are demonized. I must stress that Wright has also written extensively on what is usually called ‘white collar’ crime and that he more generally calls ‘business crime’, meaning the offences committed from inside the legal system. Bankia and the GĂŒrtel scandals in Spain show, as we all know, that the higher your social position is, the bigger your chances are of committing massive fraud and theft. Since this kind of crime leaves in its wake much personal suffering, including suicide, but is not connected with bloody violence, the general public tends to downplay it, showing greater alarm in cases at a much smaller scale which do affect specific individuals as victims of physically harmful crime. At any rate, the downfall of Rodrigo Rato is useful to explain why organized crime as such does not exist; rather, criminal organizations are formed ad hoc, opportunistically, to take advantage of certain new chances of making an illegal profit. In Rato’s case this came though the exploitation of uncontrolled areas of banking; in others far more often stereotyped as organized crime, a positive change may bring in new criminal opportunities. For instance, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 created an immense new market for drugs in Eastern Europe, closely connected with new patterns of conspicuous consumption. This meant an enormous expansion of the global drugs trade, which progressed as demand grew and not on the basis of a prior business strategy.

There are so many challenging ideas in Hobbs’ volume that it is hard to know where to begin. Perhaps with my surprise at the class-related seething rage that inspires the author who, while using an implied Marxist discourse, is also writing from the heart of his personal experience as someone born and bred in a working-class family–as I was myself. Hobbs is deeply annoyed that the in-your-face criminality of capitalism is not acknowledged as the breeding ground for the predatory (his word) behaviours so heavily surveilled by the police, the Government and the media. And he has a point, though I feel that Hobbs tends to downplay the harm done to specific victims who needn’t see their lives ruined by that kind of constant criminal predation.

Hobbs is very specific about when and why the phantom of organized crime was raised. 1991-2001, between the fall of the U.S.S.R. and 9/11, ‘was the decade when the internationalization of American law enforcement found favour after the cessation of the cold war had opened up political and security space in Europe, and organized crime began its rapid assent [ascent?] in importance within political discourse’ (24). American paranoia, the nation’s penchant for alien conspiracy theories, its racist xenophobia and ‘the conflicting moral orders of urban America’ (35) gave rise to the consolidation of the concept as a way for the USA to ‘attempt to establish a global hegemony in which law enforcement became little more than a front for a government-backed central casting agency, stereotyping both heroes and villains’ (37).

If you see Hobbs’ drift, it is also hinted that the establishment of terrorism as a common global enemy after 9/11 follows a similar pattern: the US Government casts whole nations and associations of rogue individuals in villainous roles that merit universal contempt, without looking at its own role in building the global policies from which the resentment expressed through the bombings emerges. And I’m NOT justifying terrorism any more than I would justify the violence of the intensely patriarchal world on which urban crime thrives. Here lies, actually, the main source of my disagreement with Hobbs: while I accept that it is wrong that classing ‘the transgressive tendencies and hedonistic drives that lie at the heart of so much urban life (
) into the emotive and politically charged category of organized crime implies a coordinated threat far more powerful, ominous, and extensive than is justified’ (38), I totally fail to see why we must put up with the brutal violence of illegality. Whether the threat comes from a world-wide mafia, supposing it exists, or from the individual mugger or rapist, the problem is the same: we live under the constant shadow of violence caused by the patriarchal endorsement of a sense of entitlement over bodies and minds which is not being addressed at all. The same applies to high-level corporate business.

Hobbs speaks of the ‘banal entitlements’ to the ‘lush life’ as the hypocritical source of much common criminality: the more affluent individuals promote ‘the ambiguity that is central to the urban milieu’ with their ‘demand for cheap goods and contraband, whether it be drugs, cigarettes, sex, or somebody to pick up the kids from school and do a little light dusting, that drives illegal markets, rather the administratively convenient demonic catch-all of organized crime’ (235). Having been an au-pair in Britain I know a little about the sense of entitlement to a good life that drives the not-so-affluent middle-classes to exploit others below them. Yet, I should say that there is an enormous difference between exploiting the craving for escape of drug users and forcing women and children to sell their bodies and be enslaved for that. A problem, then, which Hobbs does not address are the specific traits of the consumer market–in which exploitative men (not ALL men, but a certain kind) play a major role.

Hobbs claims, rather disingenuously, that although criminal culture is based on a clear machismo, women are also active in drug-dealing because it does not require the strength of other more violent types of crime (though they need to be protected by henchmen) and because the flexibility of the market makes dealers ‘unlikely to be lodged into a permanent niche of some rigid patriarchal hierarchy’ (155). Yet, he traces a very clear line of descent from working-class normative masculinity to post-industrial predatory patriarchy. In the past, when Britain was mostly white, East End ‘youth’ (not men) could enter normative working-class life ‘as a reward for ending their brief dalliance with deviant subcultures’ (126), and be absorbed into a ‘parent culture which offered, via local and familial networks born of long-standing settlement, unionized manual work in dock-related employment, in local wholesale markets, in the building trade, or any of the multitude of proletarian options over which the local white population had acquired come measure of control’ (126-7). Now that this safety net is gone, the macho cultures ‘integral to traditional work cultures’ do not fit the ‘low-paid, non-unionized, post-industrial service sector’ and are, thus ‘ideally suited to predatory illegal trading cultures’ (127).

In this sense, Hobbs’ strategy to defuse racism also falls into this paradigm of presenting working-class masculinity negatively. Before post-industrial Britain was born, with Thatcher’s mandates (1979-1991), the preferred concept was not organized crime but the ‘underworld’, ‘a construct commonly used to describe violent parochial networks of working class men active across a range of illegal markets’ (59) between the 1930s and the 1970s. Incidentally, this is a concept very much alive in Ian Rankin’s novels and which even ‘Big Ger’ uses. The ‘underworld’ was a mainly white, native milieu whose ethnicity was not commented on because it was assumed to be a non-issue. In contrast, Hobbs explains, each new wave of foreign migration has been connected, since the 19th century with the Irish, to ‘a contamination of indigenous purity whose degraded origins lie far away in a dangerous and unfathomable “Otherstan”’ (48), a racist strategy which disregards how native demand shapes illegal trade. When the different white ethnic groups (Irish, East European Jews, Italians, the Maltese and even the French) were replaced by non-white migrants (Asian, Caribbean, African) the same pattern was repeated, but with the addition of an increased racism. This was, of course, made far worse when the second and third generations, born in Britain, found themselves made socially doubly redundant by the post-industrial job scarcity. Their opportunistic criminality was then read (from the early 2000s onwards) as a sign of the re-organization of crime along imported, threatening youth gang lines.

Hobbs, then, strenuously defends that since the early 1990s the Machiavellian corporate market forces constraining British society have ‘enabled the normalization of individualistic and predatory relationships, and a whole range of illegal trades has thrived as a means of acquiring and transacting capital in the void left by legal employment, organized labour, and the enabling institutions of industrial culture’ (234). The criminal networks are not master-minded from above but, rather, formed on the basis of a common ‘general entrepreneurial habitus’ (166) needed to operate in the realm of ‘unlicensed capitalism’ (Hobbs 232); actually, the ‘fluid parameters’ of illegal trade follow ‘the chaos and fragmentation of deindustrialization’ (Hobbs 232). It’s, to sum up, a patriarchal Darwinian world at all levels, from corporate CEOs to teen street drug dealers.

I am then more than willing to accept that ‘organized crime’ is, like ‘global terrorism’, a convenient fiction articulated by authorities around the world, following the US example, to increase citizen surveillance. What I wonder is why both Wright and Hobbs, who show such great acumen, fail to see the elephant in the room: what lies behind the efforts to legally dominate and to illegally exploit persons all over the world is the same patriarchal sense of entitlement. This is not, I insist, common to ALL men, but to the minority that rules by means of legal and illegal violence, with the complicity of many women.

If, Hobbs argues, there is a direct link between the admiration of physical strength in working-class male culture, which connects the past respectability of the industrial worker and the present glamour of the young street gangster, this needs to be examined in depth. I would admit that the brutal violence perpetrated by the CEOs that have sent whole generations into the ‘no future’ announced by 1970s punk is the cause of the survival strategies implemented by those who live by illegal trade. But since I am not aware of any all-female criminal networks that traffic with male sex slaves, perhaps it is time to consider the issue of gender, most particularly the predominance of male patriarchal individuals in criminal circles.

Unless, that is, men are content to see working-class masculinity so generally equated with rampant violence, whether organized or chaotic. I hope not, for this is an insult to the many non-patriarchal good men in working-class families all over the world.

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

ALL THAT RESENTMENT: UNIVERSITY TEACHERS AND SPANISH SOCIETY

My post today refers mainly to the article in El PaĂ­s, “La Universidad afronta la salida del 50% de sus catedrĂĄticos en siete años” (https://elpais.com/sociedad/2019/01/09/actualidad/1547044018_002135.html). As it is habitual in the Spanish media, El PaĂ­s mistakes ‘catedrĂĄticos’ (i.e. full professors) for tenured teachers (i.e. those with positions as civil servants until they retire, but not necessarily ‘catedrĂĄticos’). The point raised is the same, though. By 2026, 16200 of the current full-time university teachers will have retired (almost 17%) but, here’s the nub: the current hiring system will not allow to fill in the vacant positions. The Spanish university will dramatically shrink though, in view of the constant demand, it might have to offer in a rush a high amount of tenured positions. Most likely, as we fear, 2026 will be the date when many Departments might disappear.

Allow me to comment on some on some points raised by the article, and then on some comments by the always angry readers of El PaĂ­s.

Point 1: the average age for teachers in the Spanish public university is 54. This refers only to full-time tenured teachers for, as we know, the average age for part-time associates is much lower (but also rising towards 40 since no tenured positions are being offered). I am myself 52 and was hired full-time aged 25 (yes, 27 years ago), so I am of the privileged best-paid, best-positioned teachers that aspire to retiring before 2026 (I certainly don’t want to be teaching 20-year-olds when I am past 65). Whenever I read this kind of news, I feel guilty that I am so lucky and profoundly annoyed that my professional group is presented as unusually, or even unfairly, privileged. This is the trick that the Spanish Government (and many others around the world) have been using to antagonise the different generations: the problem is not that the young are being grossly abused (they are!!) but that we, the ageing parasites, cling to our privilege.

Point 2: Pedro Sánchez’s current Socialist Government does not want to offer “an avalanche of tenured positions” that might bar access to the following generations, as happened in the Orwellian 1984. What happened then? Well, 5000 teachers with five years of experience and a doctoral degree were offered tenure in quite accessible state examinations. This, it is said, was a serious error as a blockage was formed that prevented the next generation from accessing tenure. The information, however, is not correct. In 1984, the year when I myself became an undergrad, there was a massive influx of students with working-class backgrounds (me again) thanks to Felipe González’s Socialist policies. This influx made it necessary to improvise the hiring of the new teachers; at the time, nobody thought of an alternative to the tenure system because this is how the university traditionally worked.

By 1991, when I was first hired as a teacher, the system still ran quite smoothly: you were employed full-time, with the expectation that you would write your doctoral dissertation in three years, and next face the corresponding state examination one or two years later. I should have been tenured, then, by 1997 or 1998, at the latest. What interrupted the quite acceptable ratio of generational replacement was not the bottleneck allegedly formed in 1984 but the new restrictive policies by the conservative Government headed by José María Aznar, which started to brutally attack the public university by destroying its hiring system. Thus, to use my own example, I did between 1996 and 2002, when I finally got tenure, the same amount of work as a tenured teacher but on the basis of temporary, poorly-paid contracts, while I waited. In 2008 the full-time contracts to hire junior researchers, as I was in 1991, were withdrawn. Then started the agony of the system and of the individuals who, like me, only aspire to doing their best for the Spanish university. Incidentally: replacing 17% of all employed teachers in seven years is a very acceptable ratio below 3% each year. This should liberate money that would suffice to pay for new tenured positions, which would be anyway cheaper as teachers would not be receiving money for any extra merits as after a long career. As things are now, though, this is considered too much and here lies the main problem.

Point 3: the function of ANECA and the accreditation system. Since the university system no longer could absorb the junior researchers, for lack of tenured positions, the Government raised the amount of qualifications needed to apply for one about ten years ago. The agency founded to grant national accreditations, ANECA (and other regional equivalents) guarantees the possession of those qualifications but has also created a fantastic amount of frustration. El País reports that ANECA has certified that 15000 Spanish doctors qualify for tenured positions (both ‘titular’ and ‘catedrático’) but this is far more than it is offered. Once you’re ANECA-approved, the waiting can take many years, during which, if you’re an associate, you might easily be dismissed by your university. I see that many of my colleagues have started signing as ‘catedrático acreditado’ or ‘titular acreditado’, which, in my modest view, is very sad.

By the way: I totally disagree with the opinion that, when we retire, there will be no sufficiently qualified personnel. It might well be that the Spanish university goes up a few notches in the international rankings, since the patient ‘anecandos’ know very well how to be competitive. What I see is that the 70-year-olds will be replaced, at the rate we’re going, by 50-year-olds with waning energies, past their prime in some specialities which require the stamina of the 25-35 young. After a time of restrictions, in which only 10% of the positions occupied by tenured teachers could be offered again, the Government has finally allowed universities to replace all their teachers. Yet, without better funding, this cannot be done. What I say: many brilliant researchers now in their 40s will still have to wait long years for tenure. Only 2.3% of all current ‘titulares’ like myself (i.e. senior lecturers) are younger than 40. Of course, many researchers in the 40-50 bracket are hired rather than tenured, but, even so, the case is that students aged 18-22 are being taught by their grandparents’ generation!

Now, three comments from readers (there are 270).

Comment 1: some countries, a reader says, would take the chance as a “golden opportunity” to replace the “endogamic, stagnant” Spanish teaching body. Thank you very much on behalf of the generation currently doing our best to educate students who are amazingly reluctant to being educated and to do, besides, research at levels never known in Spain before the 21st century. It is extremely satisfactory to receive so much support from the society that we serve and to be told, besides, that anyone younger would be better prepared. By the way, dear reader: the article does not refer to the massive dismissal of currently employed teachers but to our retirement. We do expect to be replaced by much better personnel, of course, but the point the article is making is not that we should retire but that the younger generation should be employed in adequate conditions. Not the same.

Comment 2: who cares, a reader writes, if the public Spanish university disappears? There are not sufficient students, anyway, to maintain a “bunch of lazy, overpaid guys, while the mass of workers lives in miserable conditions”. Thank you again, on behalf of my colleagues and myself. The whole point of the 1984 university revolution was to guarantee the higher education of the working classes so that they could be critical with their life conditions, including employment, and socially mobile upwardly. The 2008 crisis was used to destroy the university hiring system following the same abusive economic policies that have reduced the life of those born after 1985 to a constant struggle to survive. I am well aware that I am a luxury but what we should be demanding is not an end to the Spanish public university but an end to all the ultra-capitalist policies that are making the rich richer and the poor poorer. You might say that a university education does not guarantee any upward social mobility (the upper classes have done all they can to hinder it) but imagine for one moment a Spain with only ultra-expensive private universities and a paltry scholarship system, possibly much worse than what we have now. How’s that an improvement on the lot of the working classes? The upper and the middle classes can choose between the public and the private university, either in Spain or abroad. But, how do you allow the talent of working-class individuals to flourish? Aren’t you interested?

Comment 3: (with this one I must agree). “Spanish society does not value research”, nor any merits attached to it. This is possibly the key to the whole matter: the comments elicited by this article show a colossal miscommunication between those of us who take university research and teaching seriously and those who, unaware of what we actually do (or in some cases rejected by the system), show enormous hostility at what they assume to be our privileged positions. Reading the comments you can see how the colleagues that try to explain our job face an adamant dislike, even hatred, based on immovable premises: we get tenure aided by a close circle of accomplices though we lack sufficient merits, and the little we do does by no means justify the enormous salaries we are paid. Of course, to someone paid 800 or 1000 euros a month, a salary of between 2500 and 4500 (these figures are public) might seem stratospheric. Also, the very idea of tenure. It is funny to see, though, that nobody disputes what football players, top models, influencers of all kinds and the CEOs that kills thousands of jobs at the drop of their hat are paid. Supposing, then, that in the next seven years a new generation is given tenure, this is what they’ll find: generalised resentment. Just what one needs to offer good teaching and progressive research.

We’re trapped, then, in a vicious circle: any defence of the Spanish university as a necessary public service and of their under-50 workers as unfairly exploited sounds to lay ears as a defence of privilege. I do acknowledged that some of my colleagues shamelessly abuse their positions but a) they are the minority and will be out by 2026, b) the same can be said about many other workers–we’re not saints, and nor is anyone else. The resentment poured on us is a product of envy, the ‘national sin’ as many call it, but also of the low educational levels in Spain. Germans, Britons or Americans do not seem to hate their university teachers, though they’re possibly only socially respected in places like Japan (my guess). Long gone are the times when being a ‘catedrĂĄtico’ or a simple senior lecturer elicited respect and I keep no illusions about that. But why we are so misunderstood baffles me. Also, why instead of urging the Government to solve a situation that can be indeed solved with a minimum good will the solution offered is getting rid of absolutely the only institution that can bring some social change to our chronically backward nation. Unamuno’s ugly “¡QuĂ© inventen ellos!” still has us in thrall.

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

CAMERON AND SIMON: LESSONS IN COMING OUT

[Warning: Spoilers ahead!]

I first heard about The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2012), a novel by emily m. danforth (without capitalized initials), and Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (2015) by Becky Albertalli reading reviews of their film adaptations. The former, directed by Desiree Akhavan from a screenplay co-scripted with Cecilia Frugiele, has the same title as the novel. The latter, directed by Greg Berlanti and adapted by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, has a different title: Love, Simon. Both films were released last year, 2018. Miseducation won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, which is why it has attracted more critical attention; its IMDB rating is, however, only 6.7, in comparison to Love, Simon’s 7.7. Since I haven’t seen the films (yet), here I focus on the novels.

Both books are debut novels (winners of the William C. Morris Debut Award) originally published by Balzer+Bray, a HarperCollins label which specializes in young adult fiction. And both deal with the coming out of an American teenager. They seem to me, however, very different texts in style, content and approach. Miseducation is a literary novel, which is not surprising given the author’s training: an MFA in fiction (University of Montana) and a PhD in creative writing (University of Nebraska–Lincoln); she teaches creative writing and Literature (at Rhode Island College, Providence). In contrast, Becky Albertalli used to be a clinical psychologist specialized in children and teens before becoming a full-time writer. Her Simon is far less ambitious as a literary novel though, surprisingly, it made it to the National Book Award Long List (for Young People’s Literature). A major difference, and the source of much controversy, is that whereas danforth is a lesbian narrating the coming out of a lesbian teen, Albertalli is a heterosexual woman telling the story of how gay Simon comes out. Cameron’s story is rather bitter, Simon’s bubbly and happy.

Danforth’s novel has some autobiographical aspects, as she has granted, though she denies that Cameron’s experience mirrors her own. Author and character are natives of Miles City, in Montana (population a modest 8410), where the novel is mainly located. I usually read this as a negative sign: intense descriptions of one’s own small town in a debut novel tend to mean that the author has no other story to tell. We’ll see.

Danforth uses 470 very long pages to tell a rather simple story: Cameron Post is 12, in the early 1990s, when her parents die in a car crash–while she kisses a girl for the first time. Her unacknowledged, untreated sense of guilt prevents her from properly mourning them, and also from defending herself when she becomes the ward of her conservative maternal aunt Ruth. A heterosexual girl Cameron gets entangled with, when both are about 16, reports their first and only sexual encounter to her mother and, appalled, Ruth sends Cameron to a religious institution which offers conversion therapy (the novel’s implicit addressee is a progressive person, of course, and we know this cannot work). The last third of the novel concerns Cameron’s stay in this place, subjected to the increasingly absurd sessions with her bigoted therapist, Lydia, as she plots her escape with fellow sufferers Jane and Adam. Cameron eventually visits the site of her parents’ accident, finding closure for her mourning, though it is unclear whether the escapade with her new friends will come to a happy end.

This is a rather flimsy plot that could have been told far more efficiently in 350 pages, as many other readers have noticed. The prose is beautifully crafted but it often hinders the advancement of the scant plot. It screams at every page ‘look at me, I’m a sensitive, nuanced writer’, who learned her lessons well. Two caveats, then: I wonder why no editor cut this extra-long text and, more importantly, I wonder how much damage creative writing courses are inflicting. Reading Cameron this seems obvious: the subject matter asked for an acerbic style, less prettiness, and more insightful storytelling. Plot, tone and message end up muddled. I expected rampant villainy to colour the characterization of the obnoxious Ruth and Lydia but I was left instead with a confusing impression that they meant well but were misguided by their Christian values.

I have not read yet Boy Erased: A Memoir, by Garrard Conley, and the object of a yet another recent film adaptation (directed by the truly interesting Joel Edgerton) and cannot say how the memoir and the novel compare. Conley tells the story of his own religious conversion therapy, forced upon him by his father (at that time about to be ordained as a Baptist Minister). One thing I can say is that I learned practically nothing about this totally discredited way of ‘curing’ individuals of their own natural sexual inclinations reading danforth’s novel. She reduced this bizarre but important issue to the personal quirks of Ruth and, above all, Lydia, without providing in any way her young readers with information, and much less guidance, to resist being ill-treated in this way. This fuzziness was even more horrific to me than what they actually do, also because Cameron Post is very far from being a rebel in a way a real teenager might recognize. If the novel had focused more narrowly on the ugly issue of conversion therapy, it might work, but as it is everything gets diluted by danforth’s artistic ambition. My personal impression, then, is that this is a failed novel containing two possibly great novels: one about conversion therapy and the other about Cameron’s process of mourning–which in the end seems to be the main issue.

I also found in The Miseducation of Cameron Post much coyness in the treatment of lesbian sex. Once you read Sarah Waters, anything else seems coy but Cameron’s sexual awakening is so limited that you wonder whether the word ‘miseducation’ also extends to this. 1993 is pre-internet prehistory but, even so, Cameron seems vey little informed about lesbian sex. Her Seattle girlfriend, who boasts of being a progressive, well-connected lesbian, is not really much better informed. Whether you are a lesbian or another kind of reader, you are left pretty much in the dark about the many pleasures of this kind of sexuality. When interesting things finally happen, the encounter is terrible for Cameron, both in its development and its consequences. I wonder how many teen lesbian girls must have felt saddened and even scared, rather than encouraged, in view of this tepid approach and also because conversion therapy is not sufficiently described, or opposed.

Albertalli is much more fun but even worse at describing sex. She reminded me of J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter, and her awkwardly limited way of narrating the sexual awakening of the Hogwarts teens. I’m very much aware that Rowling is far, far worse since she completely excluded gay sex from Harry’s universe, a pathetic oversight which countless readers have corrected with their abundant slash fiction. Albertalli’s novel is quite different in that sense but her openly focusing on a gay teen does not mean that she is comfortable describing gay sex. The worst moment happens when Simon finds himself alone for the first time with his love interest (I won’t disclose the name, for this secret is the core of the novel). Believe it or not, they kiss and caress their naked chests as they lie on Simon’s bed. Yet, rather than masturbate each other, as one would expect of two 17-year-old gay boys (I think), Albertalli has each go to the bathroom separately. The words she uses are not very different from my own plain phrasing.

These are novels for young adults and the case is that adolescents–or teenagers, whatever you prefer–usually have their first full experience of sex (i.e. attempting to give each other an orgasm) around the age of 16 or 17. What Cameron and Simon do at that age corresponds to an earlier age, which is puzzling. Or one of the unstated rules of young adult fiction: discuss sex but describe it only coyly. Do I sound like an adult, heterosexual voyeur asking for some teen porn? I hope not! The point I’m making is that, in my view, the experience of coming out as narrated in fiction must be focused not only on acceptance by the corresponding social circle (or rejection, as happens to Cameron) but on the presentation of homosexuality as fun, pleasing and sexy. Sarah Waters does this–why can’t danforth and Albertalli do it? Are they bound by narrow YA codes? Or by the same irksome American puritanism that has Katniss and Peeta spend chastely so many nights together during the Hunger Games? Is Rowling a sign that this YA puritanism is not just American?

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a very nice novel–not necessarily a term of praise. I do prefer stories that end well for their gay protagonists and I frankly enjoyed sharing time with adorable Simon (a word frequently used by Albertalli) than with bland Cameron. The plot, however, completely lacks the tension one is supposed to find in romance. The story, again, is very simple: Simon replies to a post on Tumblr by a gay high-school fellow, calling himself Blue, and what follows is a sincere, friendly correspondence, only mildly complicated by this boy’s reluctance to give his real name. The game the author plays with her reader is straightforward: you need to guess Blue’s real identity, which is not so difficult. In romantic comedy, typically protagonist A meets protagonist B, they start a promising relationship, and then a mistake leads A to lose B. Subsequently, A and B are gradually brought together, the mistake is cleared and eternal happiness follows. Shakespeare fixed this productive model in Much Ado about Nothing and Jane Austen polished it in Pride and Prejudice. Simon’s and Blue’s romance, however, goes through no crisis: it’s nice to see it unfold but not thrilling. As for Simon’s coming out, it also lacks a significant turning point. His blackmailer cannot really hurt him and his loving circle of friends and family is welcoming and accommodating. This might be the reason why Albertalli’s novel is popular: it’s an uncomplicated tale, what teen readers need to come out and the rest to learn tolerance. It seems, however, disingenuous, to take this simple road in view of the horrors that danforth narrates (or tries to).

At one point, Simon says that everyone should come out, including heterosexuals. I have done that a few times: whenever I start teaching a Gender Studies course, I declare explicitly what I am. This is not easy because coming out as a heterosexual should never be about clearing out any suspicion that I might be gay. If I do it, this is because I want my students to feel comfortable and speak frankly about who they are. I find that declaring yourself asexual is hardest since everyone assumes that all individuals are interested in sex. But I digress. Cameron and Simon teach us that there is a happy and an unhappy way of coming out as gay and that both need to be discussed, in fiction and in life. Hopefully, one day teens won’t have to come out at all, for there will be no closet and all persons will be free to be whatever they are.

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

REMARKABLE BOOKS: A LIST TO END AND BEGIN A YEAR

This post comes in a little late, as it is customary to close the passing year with a list of the best and to begin the new one with a list of the most expected books. This is not, at any rate, what I intend to offer here, as I gave up long ago any attempt at keeping up with the overwhelming mass of literary novelties. Every December I discover horrified that I have missed all that was (apparently) worth reading the previous eleven months and, so, it is only then when I select a few titles for the bottomless list of what I’d like to read. Add to this the classics, the accidental discoveries, and the odd, neglected books that surface from reading other books. I do wonder how the readers who appear to know what is relevant every year do manage. Or is it all marketing?

I keep track of everything I read since the tender age of 14 and this is the closest I have ever come to keeping a regular diary (excepting this blog). It is always exciting to close the list for the year and go through the books read each month to recall the best moments spent in the company of intelligent minds. And it is also exciting to open a new list and wonder how it will be filled as the months to come pass (or, rather, fly!). I don’t know that this in an average measure of any use beyond my personal experience but the 2018 list throws this result: I have much enjoyed about 40% of the books I have read but, basically, put up with the mediocrity of the remaining 60%. I mean here the books I have entirely read for I don’t count the many books I have abandoned, a figure that grows every year as I get more and more impatient with writers who do not care for producing good prose (also with those who care about the prose but not the content).

I’m not sure how this works for my academic colleagues in Literary Studies but about 50% of all the books I read each year are novels; the rest may also include fiction (short stories) but are mostly non-fiction and academic essays. No poetry, shame on me. Most of the worst books I read are novels and most of the best books are non-fiction, which either means that my own personal preferences are changing as I age, or that generally speaking, novels are overvalued and non-fiction undervalued.

Thus, if you ask me to choose just one of the 90 books in my 2018 list, I cannot hesitate: every person on planet Earth should read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1966), the non-fiction book that explained to the world how 1940s-1950s science had horribly polluted the whole environment with its pesticides and other venoms. I must seriously wonder what is wrong with our education since it has taken me so many years to get to this book, which I have only read because it kept surfacing in many academic works on science fiction. Why we think that reading such and such novel is more important than reading Silent Spring is a matter that we need to address urgently.

The justification used to be the artistic enjoyment supposedly found in reading novels but I find that few current novelists have either the literary skills or the intellectual equipment required to produce masterpieces, whereas the best essays (why has this been word abandoned for non-fiction??) contain both good, solid prose and admirable brainpower. Also, being myself a writer of academic work, I appreciate the hard work that often comes into writing non-fiction and in comparison to which fabulating novels seems a far less daunting task.

I have, then, much admired this past year books as diverse as David Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Jungle (2010) and Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (2004). And taken off my imaginary hat before gigantic achievements such as Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) or Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), which need to be revisited now and then. I have likewise revered Ian Kershaw’s work in The Hitler Myth: Image and Reality in the Third Reich (1987) and, on the literary front, absolutely loved John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (2003) and Humphrey Carpenter’s The Angry Young Men: A Literary Comedy of the 1950s (2002). Sometimes books talk to each other without the authors knowing it in the individual experience of readers and, so, I find that Pavla Miller’s short but intense Patriarchy (2017) complements very well Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning (2018)–another book I would include in our basic education together with Carson’s.

Unfortunately, I don’t read illustrated books for children–I say unfortunately because we adults stupidly miss in this way the most beautiful books published each year. My personal award for prettiest book read in 2018 goes then to the British Library’s Harry Potter: A History of Magic (2017), the companion to the recent exhibition, and a book that manages to be highly informative and a true visual pleasure. Finally, I have already enthused here about Pablo Poó’s Espabila chaval (2017), worth one hundred novels because of his impeccable understanding of what is wrong with current secondary education or, rather, with under-18 students.

How about the fiction? Well, whereas I would award the books above named an A or A+ (or 4 to 5 stars in Amazon’s and GoodReads’ parlance), the best novels I have read are, with few exceptions, B+ to A-. I find, anyway, that recommending novels is harder than recommending non-fiction/essays for whereas all readers should read Silent Spring to be informed, regardless of whether it bores them or no, with fiction boredom does play a bigger role. Thus, I can insist that you should read Albright’s Fascism but I have fewer elements to argue that you should read Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here (1935), the novel that best narrates what she discusses. I find Lewis’ tale very exciting but, then, you might not. Take, then, the following list as a very personal record of the fiction that has kept me turning pages, sometimes for hours.

Margaret Oliphant’s Hester (1883) is a splendid Victorian novel about a woman’s failure to pass on to the next generation the power she has acquired by accident. John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (1935) is a novel for children that many connect with Harry Potter but that is worth reading on its own, if possibly re-visiting the 1980s TV adaptation. I don’t particularly like the work of Doris Lessing but I have found much to enjoy in my second reading of The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974). I can say the same about Lucia Berlin’s short stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women (2016)–which everyone praised so highly a while ago–and young Abi Andrews’s The Word for Woman is Wilderness (2018), a mixture of fiction and non-fiction which is simply awesome. AndrĂ© Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name (2007) and Michael Chabon’s Moonglow (2016) are the novels I would award an A, a mark I will also award to Octavio Salazar BenĂ­tez’ Autorretrato de un macho disidente (2017), if only because it is a brave, singular book which too many readers will miss.

Forget Kevin Spacey and the American TV series, and do read Michael Dobbs’s original trilogy: House of Cards (1989), To Play the King (1992), The Final Cut (1995). If possible, see the author speaking in any of the videos available on YouTube, he’s a most interesting gentleman! So is John le CarrĂ©, who cannot do female characters well but kept me up for hours one night reading his The Secret Pilgrim (1991), a fusion of the novel and the short story collection that works very nicely. I was also thrilled by Robert Harris’ Fatherland (1992), which has so many points in common with Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night (1937) but is also a great thriller–and I speak as a reader who is not really into crime fiction. My one favourite author, Ian Rankin, has published this year possibly his best John Rebus novel, In a House of Lies (2018), a subtle tale suggesting that Mr. Jekyll has already overpowered Dr. Hyde. Following Rankin’s suggestion, I read Lawrence Block’s Everybody Dies (Matthew Scudder #14) (1998). Again: see the author on YouTube, what a lesson in writing!

For those of you who like SF, as I do, I must mention Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age (1965), Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories (2018) and Richard K. Morgan’s Martian novel Thin Air (2018). I found the tales in the collective volume by women authors I Premio Ripley. Relatos de ciencia ficción y terror (2017) very good. And was totally surprised by Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (2016), a novel translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright which narrates the efforts of a local man to give peaceful rest to the victims of terrorist bombings by assembling a corpse out of their bodily remains. A corpse that is suddenly animated


Do read Silent Spring. On second thoughts, do read Fascism: A Warning. It is even more urgent. And share with other readers what you love, for those books truly worth reading are too often by-passed by the list of the best. Life is too short to waste on bad books


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/