TEACHING THE CONTEMPORARY: CHALLENGES AND METHODS

This post is inspired by two presentations offered yesterday during the sixth TELLC (Teaching English Language, Literature, and Culture) Department workshop, a series of meetings which I have been organizing since 2014 (see the Sharing Teaching Experiences notebooks at http://ddd.uab.cat/record/132688). My colleagues Felicity Hand and Andrew Monnickendam dealt with the issue of how we are supposed to teach contemporary culture and Literature from extremely different but complementary perspectives and here is my chance to comment on both.

Felicity’s presentation was focused on the most recent edition of the third/fourth year elective course ‘Postcolonial Studies’. She shared with us her worry that, to begin with, it is hardly possible to offer undergrad students any meaningful introduction to a completely new field based on a selection of just three or four volumes. Since, however, students do not seem willing to read more, what other methods can we choose to expose them to a much wider-ranging experience of the subject taught? She had opted for class presentations (in groups of two) on any aspect of the postcolonial world but this had led to a bit of chaos since many students had failed to check with her in advance the suitability of their topic (as they were supposed to do) and their understanding of the concept ‘postcolonial’ did not totally overlap with that of their teacher. Besides, although they were supposed to speak about today’s world, some referred to past issues or events.

I teach contemporary fiction and film, and share with Felicity the preoccupation with how to select any relevant texts in the midst of so much abundance. When I teach Victorian fiction, I do not feel the same anxiety because there is a far more limited list of works which students are supposed to know about (and can read with their still limited command of English). But when dealing with living authors it is truly hard to decide who to include, much more so when the choice is limited to a maximum of five and can be down to three at most. An obvious solution is abandoning classroom close reading for traditional lecturing, and taking it for granted that students will read independently the set books. That’s how I was taught Spanish 18th and 19th century Literature over a year in which our lecturer never addressed any of us by name in class. She just droned on, though her droning, I must say, was quite interesting. The other solution I have used, and will continue using, is similar to Felicity’s –using class presentations by students– but on the basis of a closed list. I’m about to start a course on the American documentary (under our ‘Cultural Studies’ label) and this is how it’ll work. We have no set texts; instead, all of my 45 students will present each two documentaries in class. They’ll write next a factsheet, with a short essay considering how the USA is represented in the films, and we’ll produce a joint e-book. Presumably, they will read each other and will feel interested in seeing at least half a dozen documentary films.

I grant that in this way the students will not get deep insights into any of the films they will hear about but at least they’ll hear about 90 films. I also grant that listening to your classmates can be boring, but a) I have the experience of having taught an MA course in this way and it was fun indeed!, b) students are anyway bored in class, and much more so if they just listen to the same person for 90 minutes. If (or when) I teach the electives I’ve been thinking about for a while (one on non-fiction, another on autobiography) I will use the same approach. And if (or when) I teach the new compulsory fourth year course Contemporary English Fiction, I will also rely on this method but in this case, since students are already used to reading novels, I’ll train them to write reviews –a critical practice much necessary but that we never include in our teaching. Working on a closed list, incidentally, is still hard when dealing with the contemporary for not even 20, 30, 40 or 50 titles can be enough. If we assume, for the sake of my argumentation, that the contemporary is the 21st century that’s already 20 years of writing –now try to choose just one volume per year and you will see how difficult that is.

Andrew’s presentation was, as he called it, ‘abstract’. He took as his departure point Lionel Trilling’s classic essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” (1961) to consider how we understand Modernity today, also to reflect on whether the problems Trilling pointed out have changed. I have not been able to read this short essay because it is not available online, legally or illegally, always a sign that it is at risk of disappearing from view (yes, there are copies in my library…). There are many online pieces on it, from academic analyses to blog posts, in any case. Trilling, Andrew explained, was very much reluctant to teach Modern Literature, as his institution, Columbia University, finally asked him to do after much dithering. This reluctance sprang from his impression that students feel too much at home in the present world and would, somehow, produce smug, self-congratulating, vapid work on the contemporary which would, besides, belittle the importance of History. Hence, he devised for them a gruelling reading programme which comprised the intellectual foundations of Modernity: they had to read Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Freud, Nietzsche, etc in the first semester before addressing any Literature at all.

Andrew didn’t not describe the students’ reactions but raised the issue of what is meant by Modernity, and whether, as Trilling suggested, teaching it leads to falling into a dangerous ahistoricism. He unfairly blamed, I think, the rise of identity politics after 1990 for that. In my view, it’s the other way around: identity politics destroyed a view of History in which minorities had been absent because hegemonic patriarchal circles had decided that the Culture produced by them was universal. In fact, the teaching of Modernity started by Trilling and company is what set the ball rolling. Students used to be monolithically male, white, and middle-class but when students started being more varied and we were taught about Modernity, which we were living through in person, then the question arose of why our identities were missing in the teaching of the present, call it Post-Modernity or whatever. Then, the slow process of bringing back from oblivion all the authors that were not male, white, and middle-class started. Methinks that Trilling and company were not interested in that still ongoing rescue.

Anyway, if, as Andrew argued, the keyword to understand our own Modernity (post-post Modernity?) is cruelty, and perhaps anxiety, can we teach the texts that express this irrationality from a rational post-Enlightenment point of view? Can our academic pedagogy in the classroom and our academic rhetoric in our writing truly make sense and illuminate our own Modernity? I wonder about that. My new doctoral tutorees of this year have chosen topics that perhaps demand that we break down standard rhetoric: one wants to write about humans as animal prey in fiction, the other about climate-related anxiety (yes!) also in fiction as a sign of our times. I think that this will require, funnily, a return to the academic essay in the personal way that Trilling and company practised it, and not a continuation of the rigid scholastic methods introduced with theory in the 1990s (see my previous post). I’m also thinking that perhaps my inclination to expose students to as many titles as possible is a way of approaching our own Modernity by acknowledging its formidable noise and granting that it cannot be reduced to a single sound. Welcome to fuzzy academia!

In the question time following Andrew’s intervention, our colleague Carme Font raised a very interesting issue: we should teach each historical period, she said, not as what has survived from the past but as its own Modernity. In this way, she suggested, we would stop worrying about our own Modernity, which would simply be placed along a continuum which our students could more easily recognize and learn about. This makes perfect sense to me, at least I do try to present the British Victorian Age as the product of cutting-edge technology and a rabid sense of Modernity, and not at all as a quaint time of impossible crinolines and dishevelled Dickensian urchins. Still, I worry very much about the smugness which the “attitudinizing present”, using Trilling’s words, has brought to our classrooms. The students’ presentism is harder and harder to fight because it is fuelled by the social media, which reject all authority and thrive on a cacophony of voices. By authority I mean here the person who can offer a wider-ranging vision of the times, not someone who imposes their opinions. I find it particularly difficult to teach students where they belong in History and that their generation is not the centre of the universe, but just a tiny notch (like mine) in the few millions of years Homo Sapiens is spending on Earth. Modernity, I would insist, is not a confirmation of presentism but the opposite: an awareness that the generation that represents it now will be superseded soon by other ways of understanding Modernity. This will happen increasingly faster: reading this week about Billie Eilish (aged 17) I have come to realize how old one can be at 30 (Taylor Swift’s age) and how forgettable at 60 (Madonna). That’s Modernity for you: a sense of the quick passage of time and of how History’s present peak time is always rushing forward.

By the way, TELLC 7, which will hopefully be held next January 2021, already has a title borrowed from a student’s comment on one of our courses: ‘It was supposed to be fun, but it’s overwhelming’. This is a feeling I share at all levels about what we read, teach, and think about in our cruel, anxious Modernity.

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/

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO CLOSE READING?: A CALL TO BRING BACK TEXTUAL ANALYSIS INTO LITERARY CRITICISM

My latest misadventure in peer reviewing has possibly marked a turning point in my career. I had written with much effort and in all loving detail and care an analysis of robot Daneel Olivaw’s masculinity in four novels by Isaac Asimov: The Caves of Steel (1954), The Naked Sun (1957), The Robots of Dawn (1982) and Robots and Empire (1985). I am aware that the novels are well known in SF circles but I wanted to examine a series of points that would highlight Asimov’s clever handling of gender issues. I also wanted, indeed, to show where he had lost control of these issues though in ways that, paradoxically, turn out to be productive. For that I found it necessary to make comments on plot turns that connect the four novels and which, I argued, had been missed by previous scholarship.

To my complete mortification my article was rejected outright, with no chance of peer reviewing, by a journal editor who had published my work before, on the grounds that it had too much plot summary. My defence, arguing that this was close reading and not mere plot summary, was dismissed and I was (very kindly) told that perhaps my article should be placed elsewhere. It is not the first time I am accused of the same heinous crime, and of others even worse, though usually by the peer reviewers and not by an editor. Needless to say, I spent a couple of days smarting under the effect of the rejection (much more so because it came from someone I deeply respect and admire), but after 25 years in the publishing circuit my skin is thick enough. Or just thickish, otherwise I would not be writing this post. I have found another home for the article and have proceeded to write something quite different for the same journal, with less plot summary and more theory. But even so…

This was a few months ago. A little bit later, I was asked to peer-review an article on a science-fiction novel in Spanish, which I will not name to protect my secret identity as academic informer. Very cloak-and-dagger, like my last post. My co-reviewers and I agreed that the article was well written and well researched but needed serious revision. Why? Because the novel analysed was buried under a mass of theorisation which, besides, was only tangentially related to it. If, suppose, you come across an article on Hamlet, you have more room for theory since you can safely assume that all readers know the text as a matter of general culture. If, however, you read an article on a relatively unknown text –old, new, minor, foreign– then I should say that an introduction to the author and their work is mandatory. At least, I teach my tutorees that their dissertations should include that type of material. I must add that the comments on the novel analysed in the peer-reviewed article were so oblique that I had to check a few reviews to understand what was going on. I was amazed to discover that this is a technically dashing novel, of a post-post-modern kind, an aspect on which the article author did not comment at all!

Pure close reading with no use of a theoretical framework is no use, for it assumes a total consensus on the nature and values of the text analysed which can only lead to a rather bland reading. On the other hand, excessive theorisation suggests that the author is actually uncomfortable with literary criticism and would like to be writing something else. The author I peer-reviewed was very clearly far more interested in climate change than in the novel they was analysing but, for some strange reason, had decided to publish their work in a journal about Literature and not about, say, Environmental Sciences. As a peer reviewer, then, I had to highlight this discrepancy between interest and aim, hence the request for revisions. When I told a colleague about this, he told me that it was about time we returned to a more traditional style of doing literary criticism but I’m not sure that I am defending any traditionalism. I believe that I am asking for a new balance.

When my article on Asimov was rejected, I was told that I should consider rewriting it from a perspective that emphasized the main cultural issue raised in it (sex between humans and robots, or robosexuality). I had tons of bibliography dealing with robosexuality but all this refers to events that have been happening after Asimov’s death in 1992 and that he could not have been aware of. I could have written an article about how these recent developments colour our reading of Asimov today but I very much wanted to deal with how he built his four novels, and why he had to stop between 1957 and 1982 (the time was not ripe until the 1980s for a story about a woman who falls in love with a humanoid male robot). I wanted, in short, to explain to my potential readers how Asimov had worked as a writer, not as a cultural prophet, for (believe me!) nobody has used that angle before in relation to his novels. I honestly believed that any SF reader would enjoy the exposure of the electric homoerotic current accumulating around Daneel Olivaw’s beautiful non-human male body but this was not wanted. Too old-fashioned, perhaps, too fannish, maybe. I don’t know. I can only say that as a literary critic I care very much for how authors put stories together, although as a cultural critic I also enjoy writing about the context from which they spring–as I build my own theorization.

When the discussion about how much theorisation literary criticism should absorb started, some time in the mid-1980s I think, most sided with theory but also with a style of writing I have never been comfortable with. Just then I was being trained as a second-language undergraduate student in the techniques of close reading, which were necessary for a person learning at the same time a non-native language and the texts written in it. As an undergrad I was woefully lacking a training in theory, which I only got, in fits and starts, as a doctoral student and, later, through my own reading. I have never, however, got rid of the instinct to dissect and explain the text, which I need, anyway for my teaching. I can hardly teach my own second-language students any Literature if I don’t teach them how to read first. This entails plenty of close reading and, yes, even plot summary.

Anyway, whenever I allow myself to go into the texts I am analysing in depth, as I like doing, my academic work is rejected –usually by Anglo-American native speakers who were trained in a completely different tradition and circumstances, which allowed for theory to have a much bigger impact and presence in their academic work. I have never heard anyone voice the same concern I am expressing here but I frequently hear among my Spanish peers the same complaint: ‘I don’t get it, I’m offering theorisation built on my own close reading but I’m told that this is not theoretical enough and has too much plot summary’. Beyond my own faulty scholarship, could it be that there is some kind of cultural clash at work that remains unexamined?

Just consider this anecdote. Since I am a serial committer of the same crime, I had been already told about one of my articles that it had too much plot summary. In that case, my focus was Anne Brontë’s The Tennant of Wildfell Hall, which I ‘retold’ following the thesis that it is actually articulated by the love story between Arthur Huntingdon and his mistress Anabella, and not just by his marriage to Helen. For that retelling to be convincing, I had to provide a detailed alternative reading of the novel, which my American peer reviewers rejected as unnecessary. So, I uploaded the rejected article onto my university’s repository and just the following day I got an e-mail message from a Spanish academic congratulating me on it. I have now submitted the article to a new (Spanish) editor, who has welcome it. Is this beginning to look like a pattern?

Let me insist on plot summary from another angle. When my PhD supervisor asked me to include in my dissertation an appendix with brief summaries of the 75 novels and the 125 films it covered he did so on two grounds: a) my examiners would need a quick guide for reference, b) summarising each text would help me to focus on what I wanted to say about them. He was 100% right. I later used the same technique for the 200 episodes of The X-Files which I explored in my book Expediente X: En honor a la verdad: I first wrote the summaries, then I wrote the book (still out there, see https://ddd.uab.cat/record/118437).

Re-reading these days Brian Attebery’s Decoding Gender in Science Fiction, I came across yet another argument in defence of plot summary (he alludes here to “Rapaccini’s Daughter”): “Having now summarized the same story four times, with four radically different results, I can conclude that there is no such thing as a simple plot summary. The very thing literature teachers tell students to avoid, as distraction from real critical work and a waste of the reader’s time, may actually be at the heart of critical interpretation” (2002: 26, my italics). The question is that I have never heard any teachers in all my years as a student or an academic in Spain to dismiss plot summary–look at what my (English) supervisor taught me! That Attebery felt the need to defend the link between plot summary and literary criticism in the early 21st century is an indication that something precious was lost in the 1990s.

Actually, I’ll stake the claim that two things were lost at the same time: not just the ability to produce and enjoy engaging close reading, but also the ability to generate new theorisation. The sequence ‘close reading of beloved literary text > critical insight > new theorisation’ was replaced by the sequence ‘choice of theory by big name > application to random text which is not really appreciated as writing > production of by-the-numbers paper with no new critical insights’. This is a model that, if you ask me, seems designed to do two things: 1. curb down any spark of critical originality, 2. offer the mass production academic model required by the hyper-productive but empty Humanities of the 21st century. I’ll add something else: when I started working on popular fiction in 1994 one of the arguments I insisted on is that plenty of Gothic, fantasy and science fiction is presented in very solid prose, and in elaborately complex narrative structures. What I meant is that the writing in those genres deserves the same attention to detail as the writing in literary fiction –I never meant that they could only be studied from a Cultural Studies perspective because they lacked literary quality. It seems to me, though, that many of my colleagues show a certain failure of nerve in their defence while, simultaneously, shying away from making negative judgements whenever they are required. Hence, the overwhelming use of theory.

I’ll stop my ranting here, or I will end up hurting myself…

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/

THE ELUSIVE MATTER OF THE IMAGINATION: TOO FRAIL TO TOUCH?

This post is going to sound a bit cloak-and-dagger since I have decided not to name the author whose opinions I’ll discuss here, in order to respect ‘their’ privacy. The art of sending emails to persons one has not met is a delicate one and in this case it has failed me totally, for which I’m very sorry indeed. I read during the Christmas break a most beautiful volume on creative writing aimed at budding authors interested in fantasy, science fiction, and gothic. By beautiful I mean that the volume has an amazing design, with plenty of illustrations, but also that the content is a gem, for it has contributions by an exciting list of authors and insights by the volume coordinator into the practice of writing fiction which must be eye-openers for all of us, teachers of Literature.

For a long time now, I have been taking any chances that come my way to ask writers about the technical aspects of their craft which, I think, we are overlooking in our obsession with identity matters and, generally speaking, content rather than writing in narrative. Author Richard K. Morgan posted in his website my interview with him about his novel Black Man and someone sent in a positive comment calling it a ‘making of’ style document. From that I got the idea of actually using this concept and I asked my good friend Carme Torras to let me interview her on her novel Enxarxats. She was extremely patient and gracious with my many questions. The resulting interview has been made available this week as a bonus feature of the e-book edition of her novel. Of course, a ‘making of interview’ needs to be read after the novel it explores has been read, since it is full of spoilers. I think of it as the kind of information that many readers are curious about just as spectators are curious about how movies are made. The idea is going beyond ‘where did you get your inspiration for the novel from?’ that journalists ask in promotional interviews and into much deeper waters.

Well, I sent the author I will not name an email praising the volume I had just read to high heavens. I described my ‘making of’ approach, and expressed my frustration that there are no volumes from writers exploring in more depth where the capacity to fantasise comes from, and why authors are divided into realists and fantasists. I do not mean following Freudian or neurobiological methodologies but as a matter of sitting down and considering the sources of the strange daydreaming which is the foundation of their work. I must say that the author in question does offer a notable amount of reflection on how the technical problems attached to writing specific scenes are handled but not about why fantastic storytelling is a skill that only a minority of human beings possess. In short, there is in the volume plenty of great advice once you know what kind of fantastic story you want to tell but no interest in examining why and how the authors of fantastic fiction come up with their singular plots. As a reader I would like to know, for it seems to me that departing from the mundane to risk narrating the imaginary takes a lot of courage. Coming up with Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy is far easier than making Victor Frankenstein and his creature plausible, if you get my drift.

Alas!, my email message did not go down well. I was told by the author that if the imagination is dissected (original wording) it might resist being summoned up. My mission, this person told me, cannot help anyone to produce better writing because authors should never compromise the organic construction that novels are and readers should be satisfied with the immersive experience of reading. What needs to be discussed, I was lectured on, is not the imagination but the technique and the conscious impulses it transforms into good narrative. I replied that I totally disagreed, and thanked this person for the time used in replying to my email. I come to the conclusion that I have ruffled feathers already ruffled most likely by a pro-Freudian academic, hence the emphasis on the conscious impulses.

What I would have explained if the chance had arisen is that that is precisely what I am interested in: how authors go from ‘I have this crazy idea, who knows where it comes from?’ to ‘now, this is the structure I need to tell the story’. I very much respect the mystery of the imagination, hence my interest in it, but if you think about it I am simply following what William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge did in the famous preface to the Lyrical Ballads, or Mary Shelley in the preface to the second edition of Frankenstein. I firmly think that many authors and many readers would welcome the chance to have ‘making of interviews’ accessible, and many academics would be keen to produce them. The imagination cannot be such a frail flower that its bloom is lost at the merest touch, excuse the corny metaphor.

So, now that I have let steam off, let me tell you about a few constants in fantastic authors’ declarations about their craft that scholarly work is not addressing at all, either from a formalist or a political perspective:

1. (my favourite): the best writing feels as if you’re a medium channelling a story that tells itself (a constant from Tolkien to Gaiman, etc). This is often followed by a disquieting ‘as if’: as if the stories come from a parallel universe authors tap into. You may invoke Jung at this point but that still would not explain why only some persons are gifted with that ability to connect with this suspected multiverse.

2. the authors of the fantastic (fantasy, sf, gothic) tend to be far more prolific than realist authors. This has nothing to do with lower quality standards but with the potency of their imaginations. Many speak of being happiest if left alone with their fantasy world and of writing every single day of the year, as if (another ‘as if’) losing touch with their inner storytelling sources would cause withdrawal syndrome.

3. most authors in this genre are ‘travellers’ rather than ‘planners’: they usually start their journey when a scene or a character command it, and sometimes work without knowing how the novel will end though they prefer knowing in advance. Authors who have it all planned down to the last comma and just fill in the dots are frowned upon. Writing is understood as a process of self-discovery: ‘Fancy what my mind has come up with!’ would approximate the feeling I am trying to describe, which is (I think) the root of the pleasure in (fantastic) writing.

4. this does not mean that the writing is not subjected to plenty of revision, including the throwing away of whole intermediate versions; I will name again the matter of plausibility: if making characters and situations convincing in realist fiction is hard enough, try to imagine what it is to give credibility to what simply does not exist in real life. Many authors note that a major frustration is how the final result, no matter how good, can never approach the mental impression produced by the original daydreaming.

5. characters are, obviously, the key to this process. Two ‘mysteries’ about characters (in all kinds of fiction): what do authors mean when they say that characters make autonomous decisions? And, this is a caveat: in order to be a storyteller you really must be interested in people, for without a set of solid characters you cannot engage your reader’s interest. In fact, a constant complaint against contemporary fiction of any kind is that characterization is weak, or that protagonists are not likeable people –at worst, both. I would add the matter of description. In the novel which I have just read (Colson Whitehead’s zombie tale Zone One) we learn that the male protagonist is black only in the last 35 pages. We never know his name and he goes by the nickname Mark Spitz (a white American star swimmer of the 1970s). This has wreaked havoc with my visualization of the story for I could see in all detail the zombies chomping on their poor victims but not the person I was supposed to sympathise with. On the other hand, I was much surprised by author David Weber’s declaration that he didn’t choose a woman as the protagonist of his Honorverse, the space opera series about Honor Harrington: “I didn’t set out to do it because I thought that it was especially politically sensitive on my part or because I thought it was likely to strike a chord with female readership or be a financial success. It was just the way that the character first presented herself” (http://www.wildviolet.net/live_steel/david_weber.html). Fair enough, and I’m sure Weber does not want to know where Honor comes from but, still, he can be asked about specific aspects of her characterization as a military hero with no risk to his imagination.

6. dramatized scenes are the backbone of novels – this is obvious, isn’t it?, but do we really see novels in this way? In essence, then, a novelist is that little kid with a figurine in each hand voicing each invented character in turn against the background of a plot that grows as their interaction expands. Narrative is a lot like puppetry, then. I find, however, that while the narrator’s voice interests many scholars, the construction of scenes and dialogue is not a major source of interest. This may get worse because conversation is dying out, pushed to the sides by the constant use of social media. In science fiction novels set in the future people still communicate face to face, which suggests that authors do not think that social media will gobble up dialogue – but maybe that’s the wrong representation of the future…

In the volume I so much admire but will not mention there is a strange moment. An author reports a conversation with a friend who is a neurologist and who claims she has no imagination whatsoever and could never tell a story. The author cannot understand this deficiency and somehow thinks that the friend is wrong about her own lack of storytelling abilities. Some teachers of Literature are also narrators but most of us lack the ability to tell a story, which is why we are in awe of those who can perform the feat (well, of the best ones whose work we love). What the email I got reveals, though, is that not at all authors enjoy our interest in their craft and even see us as a danger because of our insistence on offering ‘clinical’ analysis. This makes me feel quite nervous, to be honest, concerning what we are doing in our research. I thought I was working to send the message that the fantastic is one of the best creations of the human mind but perhaps I am the middle-person writers and readers can do without, thank you very much. I hope not…

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/