WHAT AN UGLY IMAGINATION IS ABOUT (TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF MY OWN IDEAS)

I am currently a member of the Ministry-funded research project led by Dr. Helena González of the University of Barcelona, Parias y tránsfugas modernas: género y exclusión en la cultura popular del s.XXI (http://www.ub.edu/adhuc/es/proyectos-investigacion/transfugas-y-parias-modernas-genero-y-exclusion-cultura-popular-del-s-xxi). We had a seminar last week, which opened with my presentation of six characters that, in my view, are either outcasts (‘parias’) or dissidents (‘tránsfugas’), or both. They are Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy The Hunger Games, Djan Seriy Anaplian in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novel Matter, Emiko in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Birha in the short story “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue” by Vandana Singh, Breq in Ann Leckie’s trilogy Ancillary Justice and Essun (a.k.a. Syenite and Damaya) in N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy The Broken Earth.

The research group should eventually produce a database with entries for about 100 female characters, and others for theoretical aspects, and I have volunteered to be the Guinea pig (oops!) in charge of writing the first six entries. So, I was trying to explain to the audience in the room that although I am very much interested in expanding my work on Banks and Singh (I have already written about Collins), I will not touch the novels by Leckie and Jemisin because I find their imagination ‘ugly’ (‘fea’). I have nothing against Bacigalupi but others have already written about Emiko, to my entire satisfaction.

I used ‘ugly’ in that informal way one uses intending to amuse the audience but I was the one amused when the presenter, my good friend Isabel Clúa, suggested that I should turn the label ‘ugly imagination’ into a fully theorized concept. This is the task I have given myself this week, not an easy one. Another very good friend in the audience, Felicity Hand, asked me why I was mixing my negative personal impression of the authors with my dislike of their works, and whether I would do the same with Shakespeare: I don’t like what goes on in Macbeth, therefore, I would never have dinner with its author. I replied, quite confusedly, that I knew I was being obnoxious but that what I have against Leckie and Jemisin is how they had forced me to endure not for one but for three novels their extremely unpleasant stories, with no relief whatsoever. In contrast, I said, Banks would treat his readers to some clever Scottish humour whenever he noticed he was going too far with any violence or cruelty. My admired Vandana Singh aims in all her stories not only for literary excellence but for engaging the mind and all senses in plots that are, simply, beautiful though by no means silly or sentimental.

Obviously, all that was improvised and I have been asking myself for the last few days what I mean exactly by accusing some writers of having an ugly imagination. I don’t think I know yet but I’m making an effort here to think hard.

Let me begin with one example. In Jemisin’s trilogy there is a human species whose flesh is of stone. They are called, not too imaginatively, the Stone Eaters (guess what they feed on?). The author herself explains that these living sculptures are “me playing around with the idea of mythological creatures” (http://nkjemisin.com/2015/08/creating-races/), which should be fine except that whereas the people of the Stillness, where her tale is located, “have heard many tales about stone eaters (…) the reader doesn’t have that bank of cultural capital to borrow against”. The Stone Eaters are, however, quite real also in the context of the novels, which means that they are doubly scary: for the characters in the tale, who see the monsters of legend become living persons among them whom they must accept, and for the readers, who do not catch until very late in the trilogy what is going on. “Without the cushioning effect of folklore, the creatures” Jemisin grants, “become too alien and frightening, or pitiful, to embrace as fellow people. I’ve seen other writers manage it, though, so here’s my chance to see if I can do as well”.

My reply is that ‘no, you don’t quite manage it’, for (spoilers ahead) the feeding habits of the Stone Eaters may be fine for monsters but not for characters that carry the weight of the whole story as narrators. Faced with the scene of Essun’s former lover Alabaster becoming stone and a major character/narrator eating his arm, I jumped off the sofa and almost threw the book out of the window. What kind of ugly imagination (well, sick person) would come up with this concept? Same about Leckie and what her girl Breq really is (you find out!). I realise that I still haven’t explained myself, though: Banks is also much capable of offering some truly distressing stuff (think of Zakalwe, if you can without hyperventilating, or of the digital hell which an alien civilization builds) but one knows all the time that we are not supposed to sympathize. Jemisin asks me to accept as a cool character someone who simply horrifies me and the same applies to Leckie. I do not mean that Hoa and Breq are evil or villainous in any way, poor things; what I mean is that the villainy that made them what they are is not sufficiently characterized as ‘Other’ in relation to them, or alternatively that they are too ‘Other’ for me to welcome them as my nexus with the text. There is something awfully cold in the way their tale is told so that the massive destruction from which they both emerge overwhelms any ability I may have to connect with these two and care for them, knowing besides they’re not even human.

Still not there, I know, but I may be getting closer.

By qualifying some writers’ imagination as ugly I don’t mean that I only like pretty tales. Perhaps I can explain myself better if I refer to what horror cinema used to mean to me. Like everyone who enjoys a well-told horror tale, I accepted the pact by which I would agree to put up with some measure of terror caused by the monster until some kind of order was restored by the hero. Progressively, though, horror filmmakers came up with the idea that the pact should be broken, terror maximized, and no final return to order allowed, on the grounds that this is more realistic. There have always been gothic stories with a sting at the end, hinting that the vampire will return once more, or that the creature is not quite dead. However, when I stumbled upon the slasher film Hostel (2005) I just opted out of the pact. That is a most salient example, I think, of the purely ugly imagination that has swallowed whole what many of us used to like in horror cinema –reality is ugly enough for me to enjoy the full panoply of what then emerged as body horror, nor do I need any tales in which there is no relief and no way out. It is fine to avoid ex-machina solutions and be done with villains that spin long justifications rather that kill their foe, but I still loathe the type of storytelling that is relentless in its assumption that the whole world is a monster, and only the silly victims killed one by one have failed to notice this. I no longer watch horror movies for, following my theorizing of the concept, I can no longer put up with their extremely ugly imagination.

I am beginning to sound like one of those snowflake students who demand from lecturers trigger warnings for even the minutest conflict in the stories they must read for class (Glasgow University, it seems, is now giving modern language students trigger warnings… for fairy tales!). This is not where I am going. What worries me is the admiration that the ugly imagination is garnering in our times: the trilogies by Jemisin and Leckie have earned many major awards in the SF field, and so has Chinese SF star writer Liu Cixin, possessor of an even colder ugly imagination (at least in The Three Body Problem). I won’t even mention Game of Thrones –oh, I did! Concepts such as ‘awe’, ‘sense of wonder’, ‘enchantment’ have abandoned fantasy and SF, which means that they are now nowhere to be found. I stand corrected: they are still perceptible in some children’s film and fiction, though not everywhere. I had the same impression of ugliness in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials regarding what villainess Mrs. Coulter does to children, not so much because she is a very cruel person but because she is hero Lyra’s mother. Again: too close for comfort, not Other enough.

So, to sum up, and leaving plenty of room for further speculation: in the tales arising from an ugly imagination there is too little distance between the persons we are supposed to sympathize with, and the Other. Terrible things happen in many of our favourite stories but no matter how close hero and villain get (Harry and Voldemort, Katniss and Alma Coin) there is some margin for hope. Imagine Harry living for decades in the Dark Lord’s regime, or Katniss having to face Coin’s renewal of the Hunger Games, and I think we get closer in this way to what I mean by ugly imagination. If, as happens in Jemisin’s and Leckie’s tales, this hope appears after an overwhelming deluge of terrible events, then it is of no effect. Many readers enjoy this deferral of expectations, just like many readers enjoy watching The Handmaid’s Tale on TV, but not me, I’d rather be told a hopeful, though not a silly, tale.

Now back to reading Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, of which more next week. To be continued…

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

LUNCH WITH A WRITER: NECESSARY ENCOUNTERS

I have had the good fortune of sharing a few lunches followed by a long afternoon conversation with author Care Santos, whom I met thanks to my good friend Isabel Santaulària. Care has a long, accomplished career both in Spanish and Catalan, which includes major awards Planeta, Ramon Llull, and Nadal. Since 1995, she has published, I’m quoting from her official web (http://www.caresantos.com/index.htm), twelve novels, six short story collections, two poetry collections, and countless books for young adults and children. Her books have been translated into twenty-three languages. I personally love her novel Desig de xocolata, which I have read in Catalan but is also available in Spanish. That’s another singularity of her career: Care self-translates most of what she writes and has what might be called a true bilingual career.

I read recently one of those articles that questions the role of criticism (in relation to cinema, not that it matters) and a critic defended herself in it arguing that ‘you don’t have to be a hen to discuss eggs’. I’m not sure that this is the best possible analogy but it’s a useful starting point to consider the odd relationship between writers and academic literary critics. I find it odd on many fronts: authors (hens) write the books (lay the eggs) which we the literary critics praise or condemn but a) analysing a literary text (examining the egg) is not the same as reading it (eating the egg) and b) we also produce texts (we are also hens). If, as a literary critic, I write a book, am I an author as well, like the ones I analyse? We also get reviews and care about sales (well, impact). But what kind of writer am I? Try to imagine what it would be like to produce art criticism by creating a painting, or to discuss ballet by dancing, and you might get the idea of what worries me.

For these reasons, I am a bit embarrassed whenever I meet any writer who makes a living by selling their storytelling. I admire Care very much because she has the capacity to construct character and plot, and can do that book after book. That is the kind of admiration that leads most of us to read fiction and that may inspire whole academic careers. At the same time, I feel embarrassed that there are tenured positions like the one I enjoy (despite my occasional ranting) to teach Literature, whereas writers must struggle at all times to make a living. A few years ago British author China Miéville suggested there should also be state-sponsored positions for writers, and he created quite a stir. A negative one, for questions such ‘who would decide the appointments?’ soon came up. Funnily, nobody objects to the fact that writers with long, brilliant careers, like Miéville or Care, must constantly seek other activities to complement their income. You might think that Care’s frequent visits to secondary schools to discuss her own YA fiction with readers is part of her job, but while she is doing that she is not writing, which is her real job.

I am very grateful when a writer patiently replies to my questions about their methods. I find that even those with a fearsome reputation for being very rude enjoy discussing their craft. I had the chance to ask James Ellroy publicly in a recent post-interview Q&A session whether he agreed that sometimes characters dominate the narration and he didn’t bite me. ‘Bullshit’, he said, but he meant that in relation to writers who claim they have no control over their fictional people: ‘Whenever a writer says that the characters have taken over’, Ellroy explained, ‘he lies. He would have reached that same point anyway’ (yes, Ellroy used ‘he’). Care allows me to ask many questions, which is wonderful, and she is also eager to comment on what helps her in her task; for instance, she finds attending courses on writing plays extremely helpful to improve dialogue in novels. That’s for me a very valuable insight into the links between drama and, well, novels.

If I don’t have the chance to ask authors in the flesh, I try to read what they have themselves written about their careers. Stephen King’s On Writing is indispensable. Isaac Asimov’s memoirs (I, Asimov) provide inquisitive readers with plenty of information about the writer’s relationship with editors and publishers, and about the market. For instance, Asimov was amazed to discover that whereas the short fiction he sold to magazines did not produce royalties, books did. Since he had so many in the market simultaneously (he published 440!!!) Asimov became a wealthy writer before really being a best-selling author. He only realized that he could be one when his publishers Doubleday offered in 1981 a 50000$ advance for a new science fiction novel that would end his long absence from that genre. Foundation’s Edge became indeed Asimov’s first top of The New York Times book list publication after more than forty years as a writer.

I have read someone criticise Asimov’s memoirs (which, by the way, Care knew very well) for offering too much information on his business deals. I must clarify that Asimov also offers very candid insights into his straightforward style and into the difficulties of adapting to new times in such a long career: by the time the 1960s revolution in science fiction happened, he felt his work to be outmoded. Hence, the importance of the 50000$ advance for him to feel self-confident again. I personally feel that learning about the material conditions of production should be an integral part of literary criticism, but not to further uphold the idiotic principle that texts written for money can be no good. What I mean is that how writers progress financially (or not) is also part of their career; actually, for them the most important part, now and in the past. I have already praised here Edward Copeland’s Women Writing about Money: Women’s Fiction in England 1790-1820 (1995) as a crucial volume to understand Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and the other female writers of their time. Read it and marvel that even Austen worried about contracts rather more than about her reputation in posterity.

Logically, I would not ask any writer point blank about their income but I’m not above asking whether they consider their financial rewards sufficient. What I cannot bring myself to ask is what they think of the existence of teaching positions in the field of Literature. Things were perhaps easier when the author we taught were mostly dead people, but I have many doubts about how we relate to living authors. Care was mystified regarding the obstacle course that any academic career is today but this is the same for all fields, whether you teach Literature or Nuclear Physics. What I often have difficulties justifying is that, again, the concept of tenure exists for teaching but not for writing. I want to believe that we teachers are a sort of adoring mega-fans at the service of the writer and, so far, every writer I have contacted has thanked me for my interest. Still, I’m not sure this is a relation among equals, not out of anyone’s fault but for structural reasons.

One aspect that could be easily remedied is making the link between authors and academic literary critics more public. Let me give you an instance. The public session with James Ellroy which I have mentioned here took place last month, when he visited Barcelona to present his new novel, This Storm. He’s not an author I know well as a reader (I just know his L.A. Confidential) but, given his world-wide popularity and his personality, I expected the presentation to be stimulating. And it was, very much so, except for the presenter…

Typically, nobody thinks of academics for this type of act and Ellroy’s publishers Random House (I assume) chose fellow noir writer Carlos Zanón (not to be confused with Carlos Ruiz Zafón) as his presenter. Zanón coordinates now the literary festival BCNegra devoted to detective fiction and is himself a well-known author in the field. I have not read any of his books, though. I just will tell you what I saw: a man uncomfortable with his role as presenter not because Ellroy was not receptive (he was extremely friendly!) but because (this is my hunch) perhaps Zanón felt he should at the receiving end of the homage his American colleague was getting. Zanón warned that Ellroy had refused to answer politically-oriented questions and seemed frustrated that the interview would be thus limited. The fact is that I subsequently read an interview bounded by the same parameters and it was brilliant. Actually, the audience’s questions were far more exciting than the presenter’s. And, by the way: I was the only English Studies specialist in the room, unless I missed some younger colleague I have not met yet. (I am myself constantly missing visits by authors because I’m too busy writings about authors…).

Thanks, Care, for your time and attention (and thanks Isabel for the introduction). Ours are very necessary encounters for us, academics in literary criticism, a salutary reminder that in the end we know little about the writer’s day-to-day worries. Hopefully, this also helps you as a writer!!

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

A VISIT TO THE LIBRARY: THE SAD LOOK OF YELLOWING BOOKS

I recently read an article about some matter connected with a university library, I forget which, and I noticed, to my surprise, that readers’ comments mostly supported the idea that students need not buy books for study. Any decent college library, a reader stressed, should supply all students’ needs. I was flabbergasted, for, no matter how good the library may be, you can hardly expect it to have, say, seventy copies of Pride and Prejudice (the number of students enrolled in my second-year course). I would expect the library to have one copy of Austen’s novel, perhaps two or three, no more. And I would expect each student to buy their own copy, as I did and still do. This is the reason why my own use of our Humanities library is so erratic: whenever I borrow a book I need for study, I end up returning it in a short time to buy my own and feel free to underline text and add notes. I tend to borrow, therefore, only those books I can read more superficially: the essays usually in search of quotations for my own research, the literary works for pleasure.

I must clarify that in my university the usual practice is to buy the books which teachers ask for, though the library treats them as any other publicly available volume. Research groups are often allowed to keep the books they pay for in their own seminar office but anyone with a library card can borrow them as well. In practice this means that I order for the library the books that I believe the institution should have but not really the books I personally need for my job. These come out of my pocket, whether they are academic or literary. When once I expressed my frustration about this, a colleague in the Language area of my Department guffawed that I could hardly expect public money to go into buying me novels. I should say that it should certainly go into buying the books we teach in our Literature subjects but this is, as I know, a lost battle.

This state of matters means that, in practice, we teachers, pay for own job as we invest part of our salary into our professional library. This usually runs to thousands of books, requires plenty of space at home and, thus, further decreases our income since we need to buy expensive properties to place our books in (and when a square metre is on average 4400 euros, enlarging one’s personal library is just too costly). My own solution to this problem has been demanding more office space (as a reward for being Head of Department), giving away plenty of books, and downsizing my purchases. I have the advantage of loving books but not being a bibliophile, which means that I feel no compunction to regularly cull a number of volumes from my not too big collection and give them away. Mind you, this has become harder and harder for no public library, university or otherwise, accepts books as they used to do. So, now and then, I carry books to class for my students to take or place them in the bookcrossing space I myself opened in my Department (but that nobody else seems to use).

I must confess that whereas some people are in love with the smell of old books, I dislike it almost as much as I dislike the smell of popcorn in cinemas. I love bookshops, where every book is new, of course; and as you may imagine, my oldest paperbacks are the first to abandon my library every time I go through it with murder in mind. I would never go as far as Marie Kondo and keep just a dozen books (or is it six?) but I agree with her that you should only keep the books that are useful and/or that provide you with some emotional connection. Even in that case, though, I might consider buying new editions when the ones I have start yellowing and generally falling apart. Paperbacks have, as we know, a shortish shelf-life.

I don’t know if this also happens to you but I find myself going to the campus library only when I need a specific book, and never with enough time to browse. A few days ago, I found myself with one hour to spare between activities (that was a miscalculation!) and off I went to the library. This is why I’m writing this post. I first enrolled in my university back in 1986, and I have seen the library move to two newer buildings, progressively growing all the time. One of these buildings is now the journal library and I must say that this is the one slowly dying for, thank God or the stars, journals are now digitalized. I marvel at the beautiful change this has introduced: I collected for my MA and PhD dissertation masses of photocopied articles, which I hated having around, and now all I have are neat folders of digitalized texts in my computer. Not only the journals have gone that way, of course. Also the magazines: I am writing an article on Isaac Asimov and I almost cried with pleasure when I saw that you can check all the scanned copies of the magazine Amazing Stories. It took me just a few clicks to download the 1951 issue where a story by Asimov I very much wanted to read was printed. Pre-internet, this would have been slow and expensive.

I keep on writing and I still haven’t got inside the library… Since, as I have noted, the library buys the books which teachers order, the English Literature section is a palimpsest. As happens in that kind of manuscript, there are layers and layers, each corresponding to the different teachers’ interests (all those books by Anita Brookner…). The UAB was founded in 1968, which means that pre-1970s books are rare (for this you need to visit the library of the Universitat de Barcelona). The problem is that since we are chronically underfunded and tend to stretch our budget by buying paperbacks, now we have mostly that type of yellowing book that is asking for a replacement. What I like about the old books, though, is that they appear to have been read frequently, which is not at all the case for the 21st century purchases. This means, clearly, that up to the 1990s many students read many books in our collection but since then few students read any books, not even the newer books. As much as I like new books, it hurts my heart to see books bought five or six years ago (by me or others) glaringly untouched, never taken off the shelf.

Something that always makes me smile is how the library purchases clash with our own selections. What I mean is that the librarians also buy books for our English Literature collection but just a few and with a very different criterion. For instance, we never buy translations but the library does, on the grounds that not everyone interested in English Literature can read English. The funny thing is that these translations are often of best-selling fiction either from the past or the present. We have a copy, in Spanish, of Howard Fast’s Spartacus (1951), a handful of translated novels by Donna Leon, and so on. I notice this because I am the one buying fantasy and science fiction, and I always wonder who bought the other popular texts (or donated them). I was happy to see that someone is reading volume one of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, which I ordered, but quite dismayed to see the seven volumes of Harry Potter (adult edition) on the shelf –perhaps, I comforted myself, most students have already read Harry Potter, and those who haven’t would never think of our library having a copy, for this is not Literature… right?

I have no idea how students use the library but I would say that very little. I know our collection quite well because years ago I took a good look at it and made a list of what was missing (which we tried to correct, at least regarding the classics). My impression in this recent visit was that 90% of the collection is on the shelves. Looking at some of the classics, I wondered when they had been borrowed last. Supposing that, for instance, nobody borrows Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) for fifteen years, which might happen (or has already happened), should the library retire it to the depot where the less wanted books are stored? Only the librarians truly know how many readers each book has and, though we were once tempted to ask, we decided not to do so in case we get too depressed. How different this is from local public libraries, with their constant stream of older readers and having to wait two-months to borrow a popular volume!!

I used to order books for the library on the basis of what our collection should have to awaken interest in some research areas. I bought, for instance, many contemporary plays and academic studies of drama in case somebody wanted to write a paper or a dissertation on this genre. Then I stopped. Our budget was drastically diminished and we were told to purchase mostly what was required for our subjects and our research (I go back in this way to my first paragraphs). I keep a wish list but I must say than in the last two rounds I have ordered no books. I felt that nothing I wanted for the library would attract more than five readers at the most, and it suddenly seemed to me that this was a waste of public money and of shelf space. I must also say that some of these books are overpriced volumes at almost one hundred euros a piece. That is another lost battle: academic publishers have raised the price of books to absurd heights, so that neither researchers nor libraries can afford them. If for the price of one academic hardback I can have ten paperback novels, I will buy the novels. And this is in the end what we have: ten yellowing paperbacks for each better-preserved hardback. Well, except in the Postcolonial section, started relatively recently. From my biased point of view, I wish the whole library looked that crisp and enticing.

I read recently that videotapes are dying, particularly those used for domestic movies. Many people who never bothered to have the videos of important family events transferred to a digital file may find themselves with nothing. The Spanish National Library has warned that the tapes are so frail that they often break when they’re played to be digitalized. The beauty of the ageing paperback is that, unlike the videotape, it can be replaced (I’m not talking about unique old volumes) but if this is not done in time many university libraries with limited income and few hardbacks might find soon find themselves with literally crumbling collections in their hands. Limited shelf-life is here the key problem. I don’t know whether the solution is, as for the videotapes, digitalization; it might be. What I feel is that a library full of fast ageing books is not a place our young students enjoy visiting; that could be a factor in the decreasing numbers of borrowings. I myself will borrow a dying book if I have to, but I find the sight of any strips of cellotape quite dispiriting. Ah, for the smell of new books… how pleasing.

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