I was waiting to see Todd Phillips’ controversial Joker before writing this post but now that I have seen it, I have very little to express about it –except indifference. And puzzlement that Mr. Cow Saviour (a.k.a. Joaquin Phoenix) has chosen to play a creep rather than a vegan hero, a figure we really need. I also feel nostalgia for the late Heath Ledger and his marvellous ability to lend Joker an air of mystery: we never know who the villain really is nor can we predict any of his reactions. Phillips and Phoenix’s Joker is, in contrast, a victim of mental health issues that have nothing to do with the colossal sense of entitlement behind villainy. To tell the truth, I found movie and characters more pathetic than thrilling in any way. I wasn’t even offended with this umpteenth portrait of the white heterosexual male as victim. I was, in contrast, incensed by a much smaller film, which is the inspiration for today’s ranting.

David Yarovesky’s film Brightburn(2019), written by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn is a horror film full of gory violence which uses as its starting point a scene that will immediately sound familiar. Tori and Kyle are a couple of farmers in Kansas unable to have children. One evening, as they get ready to try again, a strange artefact lands on their backyard. Next thing we know, they have an adopted twelve-year-old son, Brandon. As he hits puberty, the boy starts noticing that there is something odd about him, manifested in his uncanny powers to move heavy objects, materialize elsewhere, and so on. Yes, this is Superman’s story but with the darkest possible twist; spiteful, entitled Brandon totally outcreeps Phoenix’s Joker, believe me. I stopped watching the movie after a particularly gruesome murder. I next checked the spoilers on IMDB [skip the lines until the end of the paragraph!!!] and was scandalized to learn that horrid Brandon gets away with his violent rampage against parents, family, and fellow citizens. Just the story we need in our times!

[Spoiler alert over] I’m not fond of superhero comics or cinema but I think that characterising Superman as an evil pre-teen boy is much more than a bad plot decision: it is a sign of the decadence of the United States as a civilization incapable of furnishing its men with adequate role models. I’m sure that the scriptwriters would disagree and defend their work as a dark take on so many absurd superhero movies. Yet, though I would certainly welcome healthy parody, their screenplay is just a very unhealthy revision of the only genuine hero left from the Marvel and DC combined collection. How about Tony Stark, Thor, and all the others? What makes Superman special, you might be asking? Call me naïve but he is the only one without dark corners: meek as a man, humble as a hero, always gallant, helpful, altruistic, devoted to doing good. No wonder he is an alien from outer space! If we lose Superman, then we are all lost.

Brightburn, although just a minor horror film, is a clear symptom of a terminal malady, I insist: the American/Western/world-wide (choose!) inability to imagine positive representations of masculinity as role models for boys. This is a conversation I’m having with my doctoral student Josie Swarbrick and my good friend Isabel Santaulària. Josie is finishing her dissertation on the monstrous images of men in recent science-fiction cinema and, now that we are at the end of the road, we have realized that negative representation is dominant. It seems that as women make progress towards better representation in fiction and the media, and personal advance in real life, men retreat, showing themselves under the worst possible light and behaving in bad ways which show an evident increase in misogyny, homophobia, racism, etc. Isabel and I have the project of editing a volume on the good guys that might be an alternative to those nasty boys but we are having serious trouble finding examples. If you know of any, email me.

It is very difficult to say with certainty when the hero –as the highest male role model– started losing his charisma but he is now in the same position as the fairy Tinkerbell in performances of Peter Pan: unless the audience screams for him to reappear, he will vanish for ever. He cannot be the same man he used to be: boys do not need military genocides as role models, or patriarchal abusers of power. Boys need civic heroes: men who work for the good of the community without seeking personal empowerment, and who do so because they think it is their duty. Yes, I’m describing Harry Potter, possibly the last big hero, though if you notice few really admire him except for his ability to do magic. Certainly actor Daniel Radcliffe, who has done the impossible to play really whacky roles in whacky films, is no Potter admirer. Possibly the best boy character of recent years is Miguel, the protagonist of Pixar’s perfect animated film Coco (2017) but I have not read anything in his praise. Just let me say that Miguel and the Brandon of Brightburn are as different as two twelve-year-olds can be, and it’s easy to say who you want your boys to imitate.

Am I exaggerating? Not at all. Girls are increasingly benefitting from the feminist demand of better representation for women. It has been understood that fictional representation is extremely important for little girls to imagine themselves as self-confident persons capable of overcoming patriarchal pressures. There is much to be done along that road because female representation is still very limited in variety but the case is that, whether out of political correctness or sincere feminist belief, the number of positive women characters is growing. The mirror held up to girls is returning a much better image. In contrast, the mirror help up to boys is reflecting a much diminished image of masculinity. Who do boys see on the news or in representation today? Corrupt politicians –beginning with the President of the USA–, rapists (Weinstein and company), mass and serial killers (on Facebook transmitting live or on the many true crime series of the streaming platforms), young men of talent killed by drugs and rampant gang violence (I have lost count of the rap stars killed that way), cheating sportsmen (Lance Armstrong, anyone?)… Where, I wonder, are the charismatic men, the truly good men? Please, don’t name insipid Leo Messi.

If you do a quick Google search, as I have done, the panorama is devastating. Click in “good men” and this leads to the controversial website The Good Men Project (https://goodmenproject.com/about/), which went through a serious crisis in 2013 when a female contributor claimed that a ‘nice guy’ who had sexually assaulted a woman should not be really treated as a rapist (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/18/nice-guys-commit-rape-conversation-unhelpful). The Wikipedia entry for the label ‘nice guy’ warns that the term can be used negatively in relation to “a male who is unassertive, does not express his true feelings and, in the context of dating (in which the term is often used), dishonestly uses acts of ostensible friendship and basic social etiquette with the unstated aim of progressing to a romantic or sexual relationship”. The ‘nice guy’ as major creep is the object of a vicious attack on the website Heartless Bitches International (http://www.heartless-bitches.com/rants/niceguys/ng.shtml). “All too often”, the contributors write, “we hear self-professed ‘Nice Guys’ complaining about why they can’t get a date, and whining that women just want to date jerks, etc. etc. The truth of the matter is that there are genuinely caring, compassionate, decent, fun guys out there who have NO TROUBLE meeting people, getting dates, and having relationships”. Notice two things: a) the problematic ‘nice guys’ are the ones describing themselves as such (whether you are a nice guy, or a good man, this is judgement other people should pass); b) the “genuinely caring, compassionate, decent, fun guys out there” are like unicorns: often mentioned, much loved, but never seen in the flesh. Show me who they are, please…

One of the creepiest things I found out during this hurried search is that Hasbro had marketed for a few years in the mid to late 1980s Mr. Buddy, a male doll intended to be a pal for little boys (see https://nothingbutnostalgia.com/my-buddy-doll/). Screen writer Don Mancini transformed Mr. Buddy into Chuckie, the Good Guy doll protagonist of the slasher film franchise Child’s Play, started in 1988 and still ongoing (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child%27s_Play_(franchise)). This is a doll and I’m reluctant to take 1988 as the departure point for this negative view of men I am describing. I am, though, unable to fix a specific date for the beginning of the current process. When, in short, do men start focusing on nasty male characters as protagonists, pushing the do-gooders to the margins? If you follow my drift, what I mean is that even though there have always been negative representations of masculinity (I have just published a book on patriarchal villainy…), there is a tipping point after which the bad guy takes centre stage. I have the strong suspicion that the trend begins in 1950s USA, with novels such Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952) and Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo (also 1952), and that it might be connected with the extremely traumatic but silenced experience of men in WWII. I cannot tell for sure. Others might argue that the Vietnam War is the trauma that makes it impossible for American men to still believe in positive representation. Rambo replaces John Wayne, whose ridiculous movie The Green Berets, of 1968, is certainly anachronistic. But when exactly the hero begins his downhill journey into decadence remains elusive to me.

I’ll finish by stressing that I’m writing this post for feminist selfish reasons. In recent fiction and even ads (the Audi ad with Romeo and Juliet, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yu4hLYEwak&list=PLE48D5CD449F1818D) young women abandon toxic relationships to proclaim their independence, or simply free themselves from burdens they dislike (haven’t you seen Frozen 2 yet?!). Heterosexual relationships, though, are assumed to be short-lived affairs with a long string of men who always turn out to be inadequate. One thing, I must say, is enjoying your sex life as a free woman, tasting as much happy variety as you want, and quite another moving onto the next guy because all of them are below par as companions. Check what women say of their Tinder dates, wonder why so many Satisfyers have been sold, and come to the conclusion I have reached: heterosexual women do not really like heterosexual men. I’ll go further: heterosexual men are beginning not to like themselves because they have no positive role models to measure themselves against. It’s not just a matter of what women want from men but of what men have lost in the process of facing the worst aspects of patriarchy. Very selfishly I’ll claim that positive role models are necessary, particularly for heterosexual men (I think other men are doing much better), because without them I see little personal happiness in heterosexual women’s love lives. Women, of course, could do better if they stopped overvaluing the bad boys and praising the real nice guys as the good men we all need.

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 malfunction of my website forced to retrieve the folder where I keep the .pdf of the interview with Terry Eagleton which I did for the literary magazine Quimera, back in 2003. To my delight, the whole transcript of the original English version was still there (we published just a selection, in Spanish). After a quick revision, it is now available from my website (in the section http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/other-publications). Journalists must be used to keeping full records of their most interesting conversations but I’m just an amateur interviewer, and this is for me the rarest of documents. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed rediscovering how amazingly generous Prof. Eagleton was to me (as I assume he must be to everyone). Incidentally: the interview took place in a hotel in downtown Barcelona because Prof. Eagleton’s talk at my university was cancelled due to one of our many students’ protests. He was delighted that this was the reason for the cancellation!

This post completes, in a sense, an improvised trilogy on the matter of how theory and literary criticism fused around the 1990s. I mention in the interview that the most recent edition at the time of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Leitch et al., eds., 2001) excludes Erich Auerbach, I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis or Lionel Trilling, but includes Homi Bhabha, Helène Cixous, Stuart Hall and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and this helps to date with precision when the new model was fully institutionalised. Eagleton comments that “some of those critics who are today fashionably excluded were actually far more radical than some of the fashionably included”. The third edition (2018), though, appears to be far more comprehensive, with 157 authors, 48 of whom contribute texts written in the 21st century (the book is 2848 pages long!). The liberal classics I missed in 2001 are back in and, of course, Eagleton is present. The youngest critic included in this hefty volume is Ian Bogost (b. 1976) with a piece called “The Rhetoric of Videogames”. Please, note that the Norton does not carry the word ‘literary’ in its title.

Terry Eagleton made an extraordinary contribution to the establishment of theory within literary criticism with his handbook Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), which has gone to countless editions and has sold close to 750000 copies –not really to common readers but to students in need of a reliable guide. This is just one volume in Eagleton’s astonishing oeuvre, which runs to forty volumes so far (including a novel and memoirs). In the interview he tells me that he finds “writing criticism enormously creative, fulfilling” and that “I’m one of those strange people who are probably for good or bad just called ‘writer’ in the sense that what I write is far less important to me than the fact of writing. I happen to have ended up writing about culture and tragedy, but I might have ended up writing about something else”. This confirms my view that academic writing can indeed be seen as a genre, though Eagleton is privileged in having a voice of his own that expresses itself with complete freedom. He thanks feminism for “showing me a new style of approaching some subjects” but also mentions the Irish working-class background of his family (in England) as a major influence. “Perhaps almost unconsciously”, Eagleton says, “I’ve plugged into that tradition in my own writing” albeit he did so only as a fully established scholar. “[W]hen you’re younger and you are establishing yourself you have to play by the rules of the game and I look back on some of my early radical works and I’m shocked by how conventional they’re in their methods, or their tones, or their styles”.

Eagleton (b. 1943), grew up in Salford, in Greater Manchester. He graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, but wrote his doctoral dissertation at Jesus College, under Raymond Williams’ supervision. Later, he moved to Oxford, where his career developed for the following three decades (1969-2001) until he accepted the John Edward Taylor chair of Cultural Theory at the University of Manchester. The label ‘Cultural Theory’ was, he told me, of his own devising. When I met him, Prof. Eagleton was combining his Manchester chair with a position in the other Trinity College, in Dublin. He is now Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University, apparently with no thoughts of retiring. Do recall that Eagleton comes from a working-class family. He is a wonderful case of a person pulling themselves up the bootstraps of boots that don’t even exist (at least, he had access to grants which would hardly be the case in other nations).

When he was a student at Cambridge, he reminisces, “everybody around me was an aristocrat. They were all about seven foot tall –I was quite small a student– because they had generations of good food and good breeding. They looked distinctly different from ordinary people, they spoke differently”. Oxbridge students later became “anonymously middle-class” though working-class students are still too few. His own job consisted of creating “a space in which these different people could come together”. In his view, “most conservative institutions create their own internal opposition, and there has to be someone there to organise it and that’s what I really tried to do” in an atmosphere that was in fact “incredible receptive” to new syllabi and topics. “The place I left was very different from the place I joined. But that wasn’t just because of me”, he concludes. Inevitably, Eagleton also absorbed the patrician culture surrounding him and, as you can read in the interview, he writes predominantly about canonical texts. We need not assume, he declares “that if everybody takes to writing their master’s thesis on The Simpsons it’s going to be more revolutionary than writing about Jane Austen”. The revolution that interests him is, rather, the “very subversive effect” that canonical texts may have; this is the method he followed at Oxford.

It’s quite funny for me to see that the questions I asked Prof. Eagleton about close reading, literary criticism, and theory in 2003 are exactly the same questions worrying me seventeen years later. I was then a recently tenured lecturer (2002), with already an experience of teaching for twelve years at UAB and it might seem that since 1991 much should have changed. I see, however, that basically I caught the beginning of an academic wave still swelling and far from breaking point, hence the recurrence of the same worries. I should have disliked Eagleton’s work, as he was one of the main defenders of the introduction of theory in the English classroom but he was also Raymond Williams’ disciple and, as such, he had a very British awareness of the relative values of culture, which is often missing in American criticism. This feels, to my mind, more straitlaced, puritanical, and humourless. I’m comfortable reading Eagleton but uncomfortable reading other theorists and there must be a cultural explanation for that.

What is then the function of theory, according to Prof. Eagleton? For him, the rise of theory between 1965 and the 1980 responds to students’ demands: “They don’t want to be taught the novel by teachers who never even stopped to ask themselves what a novel is (…)”. Theory pushes “questions a stage back: it doesn’t just say ‘is this a good poem?’, it asks ‘what do we mean by a good poem?’; it doesn’t just say ‘is this a moving tragedy?’, it asks ‘what is it to be tragic?’. It’s not replacing criticism, it’s asking questions that go one level deeper”. Close reading without that kind of question is valueless, but “any theory which can’t read the text closely is not for me a very valid theory”, Eagleton points out. He also worries about the commodification of theory, mostly an effect of ultra-competitive US academia, and declares his wariness of post-structuralism, presenting himself insistently as a Marxist. In fact, I called the interview “We Are All Marxist” because for Eagleton “Marxism as a theory is part of the modern mentality as much as Darwin or Freud or Nietzsche” and “we’re all Marxist now in the sense that Marx was the first to say ‘look, there is this object called capitalism, it has its peculiar ways of working; we must look at it as an object of study.’ You don’t simply throw that aside overnight. It’s part of our very deep way of thinking in the West”.

Marx, in short, was among the first cultural theorists and Eagleton approaches theory in the same spirit: as an object of study, not as a preacher, a fanatic or, even worse, an intellectual in love of abstraction. Marxism, Prof. Eagleton clarifies, is not about using Marx for literary criticism but “raising questions about the place of culture, the cultural practices in our kind of society” from a left-wing position, naturally committed to socialism. He praises Marx for using “dialectical thinking” to “embrace the riches of the great liberal, middle-class tradition” in his project to transform them into a culture open to all. For Eagleton “one of the great loses of post-modern theory, if that’s what it is, has been the loss of that dialectical habit of mind” which consists of “seeing a relation between the opposites” and how Modernity is both liberating and enslaving. “One reason I’m a Marxist still is I don’t hear anybody else say these things again”: there is no “third position”, no debate, no dialogue. I couldn’t agree more.

The problem is, I think I need not stress this, that the word Marxist carries many unwanted connotations. It is tainted both by the excesses of the Communist regimes –though I wonder why Vietnam is never discussed in the media; is it because it is a successful Communist nation?– and the excesses of the pro-Communist European intelligentsia of the 1960s and 1970s, all those upper-middle-class kids playing revolutionary and understanding nothing about working-class life. I don’t know whether Eagleton still identifies as a Marxist but if he does he must be one of the last great intellectuals using that label. Marx is being forgotten partly because the issues I have mentioned and also because the USA’s triumph in the Cold War. Add to this heady mix the rise of Communist China as the next world leader (if the current coronavirus crisis does not devastate its economy), and you can see how odd it is to call yourself a Marxist in the Western world. I know that I am indeed a Marxist, without having ever read Marx in depth, because what Eagleton implies is that if you come from a working-class family your awareness of class issues makes you necessarily a Marxist. You may become eventually right-wing but that is another form of class awareness, if you get my drift. So, yes, in a sense we are all Marxists, as we are the children of Darwin, Freud or Nietzsche –and of Mary Wollstonecraft and all the feminists.

I’ll end by vindicating, as Prof. Eagleton does in the interview, the need for a renewal of dialectal thinking because this must spring from conversation, one of the greatest victims of our current self-absorbed, narcissistic academic system. I thank the stars that allowed me to share conversation with one of the greatest minds of our time one morning in April, back in 2003. Enjoy not only the record of that rich conversation but all the enriching conversations you may have in your life.

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/


George Steiner passed away a few days ago and the culture sections in the media have been abuzz with contrary opinions about his immense influence. Together with Harold Bloom (who died last October), Steiner was one of the last voices left from the time when literary criticism was not subservient to literary theory, which often means in practice to other disciplines such as philosophy or sociology. I cannot have much personal sympathy for Steiner as a patrician intellectual who seems to personify the ivory tower protecting privileged white men, but I mourn with his passing the death of a type of intellectuality connected with deep reading that will never return. His was the class of mind I was asked to admire by the scholars who trained me as an undergraduate student in the early 1980s, and something of my youthful awe remains, even though his academic style was at odds with my own scholarship.

I did see Steiner in the flesh, though my memories of the event are very poor. This must have been at the Universitat de Barcelona, possibly in 1985, and I recall being in the first row of a very crowded room, amazed at how deftly he moved his withered left arm (a birth defect) with his right hand. I remember being impressed by his lecture, but I don’t recall the topic (the Greek hero Cadmus?). It was clear to me that I was in the presence of one of the Minds in ways that I have hardly ever felt listening to other big names, for he commanded immediate respect. That feeling is now still intact but also, paradoxically, altered because I am much better aware of the academic context than I was then. Today, I would listen to him with more scepticism.

If you read the diverse articles which El País has published these days you get a sort of snapshot of that old-style European intellectualism that Steiner embodied, the kind I was told to bow down to, which exalted reading the classics at the cost of ignoring all of Modernity, and which did not take into account each reader’s background. In his last interview, with Nuccio Ordine, Steiner claims that he regrets not having understood the depths that the best cinema can reach, and not foreseeing the impact that feminism would inevitably have on all fronts of life (at least, he claims to have supported it). How, I wonder, can a person be one of the greatest cultural critics without understanding these two crucial elements of the 20th century and beyond? But, then, it seems to me that the ability to ignore whole areas of cultural experience was also part and parcel of what fine literary criticism used to be. It was a dialogue among the peers of a very exclusive circle, who never really wanted to invite outsiders in but to perpetuate their own conservative view of literature.

While Bloom was at war, precisely, with the American academia emerging in the 1970s after the establishment of identity politics, in Steiner’s case a rather more subtle war against him was waged by the rather provincial British academia (yes, Oxford and Cambridge) that never accepted him and his multilingual, comparative, pan-European approach to literary interpretation. Indeed, his longest-lasting position as a lecturer was at Geneva. His own personal war was fought against American culture from the 1960s onwards, in which he overlapped in many ways with the American Bloom as the last defenders of a world quickly collapsing around their respective pedestals. Both, incidentally, were Jewish though the one to have been most vocal about the importance of understanding the Holocaust was Steiner (and no wonder, since his Austrian parents were exiles from Nazism). By the way, let me recommend the obituary at The Guardian, not so much for the obituary itself but for the readers’ comments; some were Steiner’s much daunted students at Cambridge! (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/feb/05/george-steiner-obituary).

I am much divided in my views of what someone like Steiner meant. On the one hand, I miss the presence of voices like his in defence of reading and of the need to think as deeply as possible as critics. Where are the true intellectuals today, I wonder? I have been complaining loudly about how any chance of using a truly personal voice that resonates with a wide readership has been killed by the cookie-cutter paper and by shallow, hyper-productive scholarship. On the other hand, Steiner (much more so Bloom) did not have a voice I associate with dialogue. Obviously, I don’t know enough about Steiner (or Bloom) to discuss his achievements and opinions but, in essence, his literary criticism consisted of analysing the conversations that literary texts have with each other, according mainly to his own uniquely cultured criteria, ignoring all the rest. Authority can be built on the basis of only listening to one’s fine voice but, as it is happening with F.R. Leavis (or has already happened), this may mean a quick posthumous outmodedness. I have very rarely come across quotations from works by Steiner in thirty years as a literature researcher. Either that is already a sign of his obsolescence, or I am not reading the right bibliography.

Among the comments by Guardian readers that I have mentioned before there was an exchange that caught my attention. “These scholarly, deeply educated people” a reader claimed, “are almost extinct. It is impossible today to achieve the level of deep learning Steiner acquired. The future is very bleak”. Someone else replied “That’s simply untrue; there will always be a genuine old-fashioned elite”. Here is in a nutshell what irks me: the connection between being ‘deeply educated’ and belonging to an ‘old-fashioned elite’. The collective aim of any society should be having as many deeply educated individuals as possible, so that there would be no need for any elites in possession of the one and only true culture. What I imagined as a young girl listening to Steiner, among others, was a future in which erudition of the kind which he possessed would be as coveted as being slim is today –this was not as naïve as it sounds, for you should recall the quite high cultural level then of public television in Spain (at least the second channel) and of the post-Francoist new media. I supposed that the intellectual elites would inspire a constantly rising level of education among all classes as access to education grew but, instead, we have youtubers and influencers who lack any understanding of intellectual training and, possibly because of that, are the opposite of humble. We also have unexpected kinds of narrow erudition, such as the erudition of the football fan or that of the tabloid reader interested in Kardashian-style celebrities Of course I was stupid, I should have known better than suppose that people really want to be educated, for they don’t, and this includes many university students of working-class roots who are not really doing their best. Not that the upper classes are doing much better, I should say, and they have all the opportunities. Where is the Steiner of the ‘genuine old-fashioned elites’ now? Busy with their Instagram accounts most likely.

Having said that, it would be very wrong to assume that the conservative teaching and research model passed on by Bloom, Steiner and company is over, despite the high impact of theory and identity politics on literary studies. It is really hard to say who is in the minority since we tend to gravitate towards those who share our academic viewpoints. When we need to mingle –as happens in Department workshops– it’s easy to see that the divisions run very deep. There is still a prevalent view that texts can be analysed on their own, without context or politics, for we do literary criticism and so what matters is only textuality. This extreme formalism is accompanied by the misguided impression that if you take context into account, then textual analysis is contaminated and, thus, invalidated. I also marvel at how my colleagues (all over the Spanish university I mean) manage to function without paying attention to what articulates current Western and even global culture, whether you like it or not. Can one really claim to be in the world without knowing the basics of Star Wars, I wonder? And I say this despite being guilty of ignoring whole fields of culture that matter today (rap, which I dislike) and also the fields that are specialised interests but part of high culture (opera, out of pure ignorance).

I am beginning to feel stranded between Scylla and Charybdis, between old-school literary criticism and post-theory, post-identity politics scholarship. I do not think we can ever go back to that elite scholarship based on reading the classics, though I’m sure that many scholars are happy with it, because we have known for decades that in this way the experience of most readers alive today is ignored. I don’t see any sense in that and I will certainly dispute the claim that reading Dante is essential for any living person. On the other hand, I very much miss the fine writing of the old school of literary criticism, a feature that explains why the sales figures for the books by Steiner, Bloom and company were so high. Their prose appealed to many outside academia, whereas most of the academic work we write today is full of unintelligible prose, an unforgivable sin when dealing with any type of literature. As a doctoral student I much embarrassed myself when one of our teachers introduced the works of Mikhail Bakhtin (in English translation, I mean) and I asked him why the prose was so ugly. I expected the fine prose I had been reading as an undergrad to be extended to all topics of interest for literary and cultural criticism, not ugly prose to flood all corners of academia but this is what has happened.

I mourn, then, Steiner, as one of the last big figures who saw a direct link between fine reading and fine writing in literary criticism. We are all writers but we seem to have forgotten how to write essays, conforming instead to the rules of a straitlaced rhetoric that feels like a Victorian corset. I grant that few people, if any, still have the capacity for deep reading that comes from a bottomless erudition but ours is a different time which calls for different skills. I don’t see, however, why the skill of producing elegant prose transmitting a personal voice should be neglected, but then of course this would call for a revolution in academia which I don’t see happening right now, or in the near future.

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/


My husband told me recently that he expected my academic life to include plenty of socialising with postgrad students at home, as we see in American films about campus life, and was a bit perplexed about why that is not happening. I was the one perplexed… That was funny! I wonder whether US academics socialize much with students today in view of the minefield that campus intergender relationships have become after #MeToo. In Spain I think that teacher-student socialising was rather more common up to the 1970s. At least, I recall my beloved teacher Guillermina Cenoz reminiscing in the 1980s about the times when she would invite home her whole undergrad class for dinner. That meant just about a dozen persons!!! In my case, I use a variety of cafeterias as my second office because my postgrad students often have working schedules incompatible with my office hours but this is still tutoring, not proper socialising. Now and then, though, I try to get a few PhDs together for lunch, for I know first-hand that being that type of postgrad student is very lonely and that networking is important.

Last Saturday, then, I organized lunch (in a restaurant, not at home…) with quite a varied group of PhD students (and one MA student) and I must say that sharing time with younger persons is a real pleasure. I notice that in our national conference on English Studies people tend to remain within their age group and make no new contacts, unless they are part of a research group, of course. I find myself greeting people I’ve known for ten or twenty years, and feeling quite shy to approach younger researchers. This is why I enjoy better this type of small gathering. I hope it was useful for the students, too.

During lunch, one of my students, Laura Luque, told me she had just read my last post and found the slogan I had chosen for next year’s teaching workshop –‘It was supposed to be fun, but it’s overwhelming’– quite appropriate to describe how it feels to write a doctoral dissertation right now. I asked then everybody why they had chosen to put themselves in that quandary and most replied that they want to be academics, like myself. Other students tell me whenever I ask the same impertinent question that they want to prove that they can do it (to themselves I mean, not to anybody else). That was my own case, for I never really believed that I would eventually get the chance to start an academic career (I must thank Guillermina for that). I was happy enough with my project of being a Doctor in English Literature one day.

The pity is that whereas PhD dissertations were supposed to be a sort of culminating point in one’s studies and a rite of passage into a second more mature phase as a scholar, they are now quite devalued. A Doctorate is still the highest degree one can obtain but the new habit of following this by years as a post-doc, with no final degree to mark the end of the process, has diminished the weight of the PhD dissertation in any academic career. A ‘doctor’ is someone certified to become a source of knowledge with no need for further training, but now it seems that doctors are not real researchers until at least three (or even five) years after obtaining their degrees. On the other hand, having a PhD is no longer a guarantee that one will eventually become tenured, as it used to be the case back in the 1980s when the Spanish university grew so massively. We are now interviewing for badly paid part-time positions persons with a doctorate and an extensive list of publications who would have been immediately hired for full time positions a few decades ago.

Now, is a doctoral dissertation supposed to be fun? It didn’t feel like that at all when I wrote my own PhD, plagued as I was by a profound hypochondria that has never really vanished and that resurfaces with the writing of any other important text in my career. Of course, I had a deadline to meet tied with my contract as a junior, full-time teacher and that was a constant source of tension. I suppose that Laura means that, unless you’re enjoying a grant, most doctoral students write now their dissertations while they work outside the university, which means they are not in the same hurry I was. On the other hand, many other doctoral students are working towards their PhD as they combine two or more university positions as part-time lecturers. I don’t know how they manage, really!!! Anyway, I believe that academic work only really becomes fun when one is very senior and can get away with publishing texts that have been a real pleasure to write. I told everyone that I am uncommonly pleased to have just published an article defending Poppy, the hero of animated children’s film Trolls, as a feminist heroine (in Contemporary Fairy-Tale Magic: Subverting Gender and Genre, https://brill.com/view/title/56407). That was great fun to research and write. My recent book Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort (2019), which is a sort of second doctoral dissertation (see the chapter summaries at https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781003007951) has been fun to write. But not my dissertation, no.

If that was overwhelming for me, a full-time university teacher who enjoyed besides a year-long leave to write it, imagine what it is like for the students I met on Saturday, who work (usually teaching English) between 17 and 36 hours a week. I mean teaching hours, apart from preparation. A dissertation, for those of you who are wondering, is a 300-page long book, about 110,000 words, which is quite substantial –and much more difficult than writing any other kind of book. You might manage to write a novel by writing 300 words every day (as Stephen King claims he does) but, no matter how thoroughly planned a novel is, this is a type of autonomous book that needn’t refer to any other. What is overwhelming about dissertations is that they seem to be bottomless as far as bibliography is concerned. This is pressing enough for each individual article but when you write a dissertation you need between three and five years for research (that is, for reading), during which the academics in your field continue producing tons of new bibliography. My main nightmare, and I know this is a common one, was that someone would produce ahead of me a dissertation on exactly the same topic. The other recurrent nightmare is that by the time you finally submit your PhD the examiners might find it already old-fashioned, or even worse, obsolete. At the pace we’re going, three to five years may mean a complete change of paradigm indeed.

What takes so much time –what overwhelms any PhD student– is the need to read so many secondary sources, of course. In the field of Literary Studies the primary sources are not really the problem, for a good dissertation can be written even about just one book (novel, play, autobiography… you name it!). Even supposing you’re dealing with, say, twenty-five primary sources, they can be read and annotated in one semester. What takes ages is the slow-going, painful gathering of possible quotations. In my case, I ended up with gigantic folders full of passages I scavenged from perhaps two hundred sources, despite knowing that I could by no means use more than 10% of all. By the way, nobody has managed to create a programme or app to manage the quotations which any scholar quickly accumulates. There have been more or less failed attempts at managing bibliographies in more efficient ways but not clever ways of indexing quotations for later use. Or I’m just an ignorant scholar who has no idea that everyone is using a magical app except she herself.

Is there any way, then, of making a PhD more fun and less overwhelming? I’m afraid not –I know as a tutor how I would make my students’ dissertations less time-consuming, supposing they were my own books. But I can offer them no shortcut because PhD students need to become experienced scholars and this is done through a process of trial and error (including wasting time). I think that the best a tutor can do is insist on having a chapter list as soon as possible, and try to stick to it for as long as one can, rather than spend three years reading and only then sit down to think of a structure. That’s a recipe for disaster. It is always much, much better to invest time on writing a solid table of contents than simply amass long lists of bibliography. The lists are also useful, evidently, but they need to be subordinated to a plan, which must be as clear-cut as possible. A PhD student who works many hours a week, or even one on a scholarship, cannot afford investing all their energies in a text that should have very clear boundaries. A novelist can ramble on, change tack mid-writing by introducing new subplots, and end with 600 pages but this is not a luxury which a PhD student can afford today. It’s all about planning, and the sooner the better.

The hardest part of my PhD dissertation was actual writing. I had a very useful chapter list practically from the beginning, time to read primary and secondary sources, time to copy quotations into my computer, and not one but two tutors willing to discuss my progress with me. The difference is that one used bi-weekly tutorial sessions, whereas the other demanded to see written work. The tutorials worked fine and I would return home with a clearer idea of what I was doing, but I always found myself unable to hand in written work of any value. I think that I blocked myself by wrongly believing that I could only start writing at the end of the process of reading. That is a mistake, I see now retrospectively. I never press my students to hand in written work if they prefer conversation in a tutorial setting but I still think that it would be best for PhD students to start a blog and write a weekly post to practice writing and, why not? find kindred souls. If it were up to me, I would have the students I met for lunch run a collective blog, perhaps there are already doctoral programmes doing that. My impression is that talking to other PhD students, sharing some kind of intellectual space, would make the whole process more fun, less overwhelming. Or not, but it would certainly be less lonely.

I realise now that I have not used the main word in my title, resilience. Well, this sums all I’ve been saying here: it takes much resilience to write a doctoral dissertation and only truly resilient people are up to the task. You may be resilient and still feel overwhelmed, but at least you’ll be in a better position to aim also at having fun!

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/