LET ME COUNT THE BOOKS…: PIERRE BAYARD’S HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN’T READ

Allow me to begin by venting my massive annoyance with the new platform which my university has chosen to keep track of our academic activities, as if ORCID, Academia.edu, and my own webpage were not enough. I have spent two and a half complete working days trying to make sense of its user-unfriendly approach to my CV, which I keep as tidy as a work of art (after all, it covers 30 years of my life). Apart from delaying the writing of this post and all my other activities, the platform has given me a terrible headache, enhanced by my realization that I will need at least four more complete working days, if not more, to put everything in its place. In the process, by the way, I have discovered that Scopus only registers one of my publications, when the real figure, leaving aside what I have self-published, is about 100. If I have to enter everything again there, I’ll scream!!! I’m fed up with the co-existence of so many platforms and their general lack of intercommunication.
My topic today is not that, however, but a delicious book by Pierre Bayard, the French scholar and psychoanalyst. I have read his volume Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus? (2007) in its Catalan translation by David Clusellas i Codina, and my first observation needs to be that in this and in the English translation the final interrogation mark has been lost. What was a query becomes a statement, which is curious to say the least. Apart from the books we have read and know well, Bayard refers to four categories of books: the ones we don’t know, the ones we have skimmed, the ones we have heard of, and the ones we have forgotten. I’m using here the table of contents of the English translation (by Jeffrey Mehlman), though I remain mystified by category two. The French original refers to ‘Les livres que l’on a parcourous’ and I don’t know sufficient French to be sure that ‘skimmed’ is a good translation (‘parcour’ means to travel); the Catalan translator has chosen ‘fullejat’ (‘fuilleter’ in French) which could be translated as ‘leaf through’. In my own reading practice I have never leafed through any book; this is a word I might connect to a magazine or a coffee table book, but not a volume with no illustrations. I was, therefore, totally confused by what Bayard meant until I simply accepted that he does indeed leaf through books he is not too keen on reading.
Please, recall that Bayard teaches Literature at the University of Paris VIII. Although I suspect that the whole volume is written very much tongue-in-cheek, I remain surprised by his willingness to openly declare that he often speaks in class of books he has not read –as his students do. I may have spoken of books I have not read in the context of giving information about an author’s oeuvre but I swear that I have never ever discussed a book I have not read at least twice. I agree with Bayard that many of my students discuss in their exercises books they have never read, and I once had a major incident with a gentleman who casually commented in another course that he had never read any of the books in mine despite having obtained an A. Instead of failing him retrospectively, as I could do, I called him to my office for him to explain to me how he did it, and that was a very interesting meeting. However, I simply cannot imagine what kind of teaching can emerge from a classroom in which absolutely nobody, including the teacher, has read the book under analysis. Bayard claims that is the best possible situation to produce something new and creative but, again, I think he jokes.
One matter in which I do find that he seems more serious is his declaration that (quoting the English translation) “Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to others”. If you read ten introductions to Victorian Literature there comes a moment in which you might be able to speak reasonably about the Victorian novel without having read any. If you add to this the Sparknotes summaries then you can pass as a true lover of Victorian fiction. The question, however, is why would you want to do that? It is very unlikely that you would find another person interested in a conversation about Victorian fiction who was also passing him/herself as a reader, so why pretend? I don’t think I could have a minimally intelligible conversation about, say, Italian 19th century fiction, just by being familiar with the main names and titles in a context in which the other person supposed I was a reader of that type of fiction. For me, the knowledge of the book system to which Bayard refers is a process of filling in the blanks, though I confess that to this day I am not sure how many Victorian novels you should have read before qualifying to teach Victorian Literature. I have teaching that for almost 30 years now and, obviously, when I started I had only read a tiny fraction of the Victorian novels I have read now. A list, that anyway, still seems pitifully short to me.
So, my rule number one so far: don’t speak of books you have not read as if you knew them well, for, regardless of what students may think, your not having read them does show. Regarding the books we leaf through, or skim, I must say that now that I think about it there is a type of book I do leaf through: academic books, when I need a quotation for one of my articles. We would all lie if we claimed that we read the academic books we quote from beginning to end, it is simply not the case. I would not leaf through a novel, though, and if I start skimming then this is a sign that my energies are flagging and I am about to abandon the book. I have recently abandoned a 450 page novel around page 320, or as my e-book reader indicates, around 2:30 hours away from the end. I just could not go on, even though my usual rule is that past the 50% mark I must finish. This poses a problem, which Bayard does tackle: he argues that the unfinished book should count as a read book, whereas I tend not to add the unfinished volumes to the list of books I have read (I do keep a list, this is literal not metaphorical). Since I have recently abandoned about half a dozen novels, my list looks pitiful this month, as if I have somehow failed. I have even considered keeping a separate list of unfinished books, but this seems going too far. I see many readers posting reviews in GoodReads in which they do acknowledge they never finished the book under review. They make a point that if an author fails to interest them sufficiently that is part of the process of reading and, hence, of reviewing. This sounds fine to me for a platform like GoodReads but, again, rule number two, I would never teach a book I have not finished, or discuss it academically.
An even more tantalizing concept than that of the unfinished book is the forgotten book. Bayard explains in a wonderful chapter that Montaigne did not know how to tackle the problem of his forgetfulness as a reader until he hit on the system of making a note on the final page naming the date when he had finished the book and adding his opinion. Montaigne, nonetheless, discovered eventually that the method did not work at all; additionally, he felt as if his opinions were someone else’s. I started keeping a list of all I read when I discovered that I had re-read a book I had already read but forgotten. Even with the list, I’ve had some incidents of that kind. And when at the end of each year I go through the list for the last twelve months I inevitably discover one or two books I have already forgotten.
My good friend Bill Phillips has a wonderful capacity to recall the plots of the many novels he reads months after he read them, but my memory is rather mediocre in that sense and I can only recall in detail the books I teach or have written about. These are books that, please recall, I have read at least twice, in some cases ten or more times. This means that I recall having read particular books and having generally enjoyed them or not, but I can only remember specific details if I make notes. From Bayard’s perspective, this means that my whole reading experience consists mainly of books I have forgotten, which might well be the case. I have the impression, besides, that the more I read the more I forget as if my brain were a hard disk with a limited capacity. I don’t know if this is the same for all readers, as we hardly speak about these matters in my academic circle, or with my students.
The other book I’m reading these days, Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great (2014), is a collection of blog posts which she wrote commenting on the science fiction and fantasy she was re-reading for the website Tor.com. Walton does not speak of re-reading as a cure against forgetfulness but as a re-encounter with characters she values as friends. I do not re-read much because, like many other readers, I feel that life is too short to read the same book more than once. I must acknowledge, though, than when I re-read a book I need to teach or write about the pleasure is always bigger the second time around, or even the third. In the case of the two novels I have recently written about (Iain M. Banks’s The Algebraist and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312) I only truly loved them in the third reading –not because they are not good books but because I wasn’t paying enough attention. It occurs to me now that I actually choose the books I write about when I implicitly accept that I would like to re-read them, and the other way round: a book I don’t want to re-read is, most definitely, one I don’t want to teach or analyse. Walton, going back to her book, is Bayard’s direct opposite, for instead of speaking of books she does not know, she speaks of books she knows very intimately and to which she returns regularly. I believe this is how it should be done.
So, to sum up, as much as I loved reading Bayard’s book, I would not speak of books I have not read. If someone tells me about a book I have not read I have no problems to acknowledge my ignorance. I remain convinced, in any case, that Bayard’s book is a fine satire against those who speak of books they have not read, perhaps because the possibility that most conversations on books are carried out by people who don’t read scares me too much.

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

RETHINKING LITERARY CRITICISM: SEEKING A NEW BALANCE

Blogger Jim Harmon (http://wisdomofthewest.blogspot.com) left a comment on my post “Theorizing Character: A Few Pointers”, recommending an article on characters published in The Guardian by James Wood: “A Life of Their Own”. I didn’t know who Woods is: a major literary critic employed in publications such as The Guardian itself, The New Republic, and currently The New Yorker magazine (he’s also a part-time associate professor at Harvard). As it turns out, Wood is the author of a best-selling non-academic volume, How Fiction Works (2008, 2019) which can be said to be the heir to E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927). The article on characters published in The Guardian is actually a central part of Wood’s volume, and a continuation of Forster’s discussion of characters as flat or round, among other matters. My focus, however, is not character today but literary criticism. The date seems, besides, particularly appropriate, as Prof. J. Hillis Miller, who did so much to introduce deconstructionism decades ago, has just passed (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._Hillis_Miller). I would define deconstructionism as the last gasp of traditional literary criticism before the total dominance of the literary theory which it helped to introduce from 1990 onward.
Wood’s volume is a deliciously old-fashioned study, devoid of all theory, about how realist fiction works. The title of the book is, actually, incorrect because even though there are some comments on what we habitually call genre fiction, Wood is only interested in realism. He adamantly denies that this is a genre, as many including myself claim, even though I remain more convinced than ever after reading his volume that realism is indeed a genre dealing with the life crises of mainly middle-class characters living in contexts identifiable as historically accurate or representing the mundane present. Wood says that no realist novel needs to mention Trump and that gives you an idea of what he means: in realist fiction, the socio-political reality that so interested 19th century novelists is missing, to the point that I wonder whether Covid-19 will ever feature in it. Realism of the kind Wood loves functions as if referring to issues beyond the characters’ personal lives is in bad taste. A problem, as Wood notes, is that since writers themselves have started being bored by the inner life of the average individuals often described in realist fiction, they have started moving towards more overtly autobiographical fiction, even half-abandoning the fictional. But I digress.
The question that seems to confuse the study of realism is that part of the definition of the genre is the use of literary prose and the foregrounding of form over plot. This is, I think, a direct consequence of dealing with the minute events of life as it is on planet Earth: you need to make matters interesting from an artistic point of view or risk alienating your reader out of pure boredom. A novel about nothing, as Flaubert wanted to write, needs to rely on a solid linguistic artistry and narrative technique to engage readers’ attention, whereas a plot-driven novel can do away with literary prose and formal experimentation because the point of engagement, so to speak, is provided by what happens.
Take, for instance, a detective novel. This genre is 100% realist in the sense that, unless supernatural elements intervene, the detective works against a background that readers accept as a representation of real life. Indeed, many detective fiction works are successful not so much because of the case they explore but because of the description of the social and geographical background (yes, I’m thinking of Nordic noir, or of Tartan noir). The best detective fiction is as good as any realist novel (using Wood’s vocabulary) at using free indirect style, strong characterization, plenty of details based on good powers of observation and so on. The main difference is that detective fiction writers do not use prose full of artistic literary elements (though I have thought here immediately about classic US noir’s invention of hard-boiled dialogue). I am not saying that detective fiction cannot be literary like the works of, say, Vladimir Nabokov; what I am saying is that if it is literary this is an added element and not part of the core of the genre. Readers, in short, do not read detective fiction for the literariness of the prose and any experiments in narrative structure but this does not mean that no novel in this genre is literary. I would say the opposite: that the best genre novels enter the particular genre canon because of their literary values. No reader loves a poorly written novel.
Wood, in contrast, focuses on a long selection of realist writers, from Miguel de Cervantes to Ali Smith, to lovingly enthuse about the beauties of their literary achievements in selected passages from their books. His clever, insightful, theory-free application of close reading is truly enjoyable and I hadn’t realized I was missing this so much until I read his little volume. I was reminded, above all, of Erich Auerbach’s classic Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur, 1946), which I read as an undergrad student in the 1980s. By the way, Wood notes that his book is being used as a handbook in many university courses but I have my doubts about its usefulness, simply because most of the literary authors he mentions (the canon complemented by a 21st century selection) might be unknown to undergrad students. Part of the value of Wood’s book comes from enjoying analyses of literary classics (or prestige new fiction) one is already familiar with, and as an introduction it can be a bit overwhelming for someone who has never heard of Thomas Mann or Karl Ove Knausgaard. But I digress again…
Wood does pay attention to detail, and does it amazingly well, because he can do it. He is, after all, a literary critic working in the media, whereas we, scholars, are no longer allowed to produce literary criticism but just theory-framed issue analysis. I have always argued that all types of fiction need to be subjected to the type of illuminating close reading that Wood offers for literary fiction because only good textual criticism can help a genre progress. If we only focus on the plot elements or on the identity politics affecting characterization then we end up encouraging a type of writing that, while satisfactory on those fronts, is weak as literature. Beyond the type of story you enjoy, you need to be demanding about the quality of its writing; that seems pretty obvious to me. I love science-fiction, as I have noted countless times here, but this doesn’t mean that I am willing to put up with bad writing.
In fact, now that I am reading lots of science-fiction novels, for reasons that I will eventually explain, I am getting really fed up with the sloppiness dominating the genre today. Ursula K. Le Guin was a marvellous writer (and I can say that having read also all her realistic short stories) but many of the writers I am going through these days are either awful or, in the best cases, pedestrian. There seems to be, besides, a regrettable divide between the good prose writers and the good plot-makers. Lavie Tidhar writes lovely literary prose but his Central Station has no story. Everyone loves the space opera series The Expanse by James S.A. Corey but, though the plot is thrilling enough, I fail to be excited by the lack of authorial insight into the characters and the flat dialogue which is never conversation. Nobody, however, among my science fiction colleagues is commenting on these matters, as if proper literary criticism was taboo (that is left for the formidably clever readers in GoodReads and the media reviewers).
Intriguingly, Wood partly undermines his argumentation about the intrinsic difference between realism and the so-called narrative genres when he writes that realism, “seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are” (205), goes beyond verisimilitude to be what he calls “lifeness”: “life brought to different life by the highest artistry” (206). He insists that this is the reason why realism cannot be a genre, yet at the same time Wood claims that lifeness is what allows the genres to exist, from magical realism to the western. The novelist, he says, must always “act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention and so has to try to outwit that inevitable ageing” (206). There is plenty to unpack here but in essence two ideas emerge: a) if an impression of lifeness is a mark of the best fiction, there is no reason why it should not be found beyond the novel of everyday life, as long as the writer is willing to employ the “highest artistry”; b) if lifeness allows all genres to exist, there is no reason to think of realism as a strand of fiction apart from all genres (in fact, I don’t quote understand the idea that some kind of fiction has no genre for all fiction obeys generic conventions). In short, any novel of any type can be literary if the writer displays the “highest artistry” and all novels of all types aspire to tricking the readers into accepting that what they are reading is a slice of life of the context chosen for representation. When we read The Lords of the Rings, we get carried away by the illusion of life that Tolkien conjures up for us, even though we know very well that Hobbits do not exist. When we read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables we enjoy the same magical trick but from another angle. That Tolkien’s Middle-earth has never existed but Hugo’s France has is irrelevant, or, if you wish, a matter of the reader’s preferences. What matters is that both books are great works of fiction full of lifeness.
Seeking a more formal approach to science fiction, I ended up reading Peter Stockwell’s The Poetics of Science Fiction (2000), a volume that tries to undermine the type of subjective, impressionistic criticism that critic-reviewers like Wood produce by offering a scientific approach based on stylistics and cognitive linguistics. Whereas Wood is after a certain notion of beauty, admiring the writer’s personal ability to manipulate prose for his/her ends, Stockwell takes a whole genre to explore how it works at a macro level. His assumption is that if you map the linguistic and stylistic resources that a genre uses, then you will be able to say whether a particular text uses them well, beyond offering a personal opinion. It is a commendable position, but also one that forgets that writing fiction is an art, not a scientific endeavour. You can apply all the mathematics in the world to explain why Michelangelo’s David is so beautiful, but this will just result in an extremely limited impression of its appeal. Likewise, you may describe in all detail, as Stockwell does, all the types of metaphor used in science fiction and how readers understand worldbuilding but this doesn’t explain why Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) hit such a raw nerve when it was published and why it has become such a huge classic. In a way deconstruction came about to bridge the gap between impressionistic personal criticism and this new brand of objective stylistic criticism to re-introduce formalism, which had been already all the vogue in the early 20th century. In the end, though, literary theory has bridged no gap but left us with no guiding compass to truly read the texts.
You might think I am exaggerating but I am reading these days plenty of academic writing in which textual analysis has practically disappeared under a tremendous barrage of secondary sources, and in which building a theoretical frame matters more than introducing the author. Wood’s book has made my discomfort with this practice more nagging than usual, and I am wondering why I never see any analyses of the beauties of genre fiction, which are many. I do not agree that genre fiction should be the subject of clinical description, as Stockwell proposes. And the other way round: possibly only 10% of all genre fiction can sustain literary analysis in Wood’s style. But how about downplaying the role of theory and of identity politics, and looking at how texts are actually written? How about expressing more appreciation for how the writers we admire do what they do with words? I’m not asking for a return to pure formalism, but for a better grasp of writing itself and for a celebration in all genres –including realism– of that elusive thing Wood calls lifeness. It seems to me that is the very reason why we love reading fiction, whether as plain readers or as as professional academics.

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

GENDER IN 21ST CENTURY ANIMATED CHILDREN’S CINEMA: NEW E-BOOK BY STUDENTS

This post is intended to be a sort of ‘making of’ of the new e-book I have edited and which has been written by the students in my MA course on Gender Studies this past semester. It is my ninth project of that kind (see the full list at https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/books). These e-books gather together short essays, and in some cases longer papers or brief factsheets, written by students as part of their assessment but mainly with a view to online publication. The new e-book is called Gender in 21st Century Animated Children’s Cinema and it can be downloaded for free from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/236285. I have also uploaded onto the digital repository of my university a narrated PowerPoint corresponding to the symposium presentation “Collaborative authorship: Publishing E-Books on Fantasy and Science Fiction with BA and MA students” (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/236037), which more or less repeats what I describe here (but with illustrations!). This is what I presented at the meeting on born-digital texts to which I referred a few posts ago.
I started publishing e-books with students both in the BA and the MA degrees in English Studies because my university, the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, invited all teachers to take advantage of the possibilities open by the digital repositories inaugurated in 2006. In 2013-14 I taught a course on Harry Potter for which I asked my students to write a brief essay about their experience of reading the series. When I saw that the essays had quality and interest I put together a volume which I published online in the digital repository. Then I put together a second volume with the academic papers written to obtain the course grade. These were my first two publications with students, in this case fourth-year BA students in the degree in English Studies, with a C1 to C2 command of English. Next, in 2015, I published a volume gathering together work written for a fourth year BA course on Gender Studies, including again personal essays and papers. I published a second volume a few years later, in 2018.
In the previous four publications I had worked with quite large groups of about 40 BA students. For the next two, Reading Sf Short Fiction: 50 Titles and Gender in 21st Century SF Cinema, I worked with much smaller groups. The science-fiction short fiction guide was written by only 15 BA students enrolled in an elective monographic fourth-year course on this genre. The e-book about gender in sf cinema was written by just 8 MA students in my Gender Studies course, with a similar C1 to C2 level. This is the minimum number this kind of project needs as each of the students had six films in their hands, which also meant six essays for the e-book of about 1500 words each. Of course, I could have chosen to cover less than 50 films, but this is quite a nice number if you want to cover minimally an extensive field. My two most recent projects before the new e-book were Frankenstein’s Film Legacy, written by a group of second year BA students with a lower B2 to C1 level, and Focus on the USA: Representing the Nation in Early 21st Century Documentary Film written by a group of 4th year BA students. This e-book is the most complex publication I have edited so far because I was not familiar myself with about 50% of the films and I had to learn about them as I taught the course. It is also a very long volume, with 90 essays.
All these e-books, published as .pdf files, are available for free from the digital repository of my university. They have generated together more than 22,000 downloads in six years, from a long list of nations all over the world. The most successful one is the short fiction guide which accounts for about 40% of the downloads, and seems to be particularly popular in the United States. I cannot explain its success except that it appears to be the most practical of the e-books I have published with students.
The last e-book has been written by 13 MA students of diverse nationalities (Spanish, American, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian) who have produced excellent work analysing how animated children’s cinema deals with gender issues. The novelty of the e-book and of the course is that unlike what is habitual in academic work it does not focus on a single animation studio. I did read in preparation for the course the two books by Amy Davis on Disney and another book by Shannon Wooden and Ken Gillam on Pixar. There are, however, no academic books yet on studios such as DreamWorks, Laika, Illumination, Blue Sky and so on. In contrast the e-book includes films by all these and others. The films are in any case all of them English-language films mostly made in the United States because they have been studied in an English Studies degree.
It was by no means easy to focus just on 50 titles, the maximum a small MA group can cover, even though it was my criterion to work only on 21st century films. I am myself a keen spectator of that kind of animated film so I relied on my previous knowledge of the genre to organise the course. Even so, I went through many lists of the best, taking into account that the films should also be interesting from a gender issues perspective. However, I must say there I discarded very few on those grounds for, as my students found out, all films for children implicitly address gender issues. An annoying problem was that many of the films made now have sequels and I found it very difficult to focus just on the first film and disregard the sequels. Perhaps I should have done that but I decided that taking a look at the franchises made sense to see precisely how gender evolved in them, or not at all.
Generally speaking, from the first film, Monsters Inc (2001) to the last, Onward (2020), there has been a general improvement in the treatment of gender though within a rather conservative pattern. Again generally speaking, the female characters are better represented, with many more strong, independent girls and women. Nevertheless, the influence of the Disney Princess stereotype still persists, even in films that try to opposite it openly. Besides, most films addressed to children have male characters as protagonists, even though it is by no means true that men or boys are always positively represented. The other matter that we established is that most animated films addressed to children are stubbornly heteronormative. There were hints that some characters could be gay or lesbian but only in Onward, that is to say last year, did we come across an openly LGBTI+ character, who has, it must be noted, a very minor role. So, on the whole the treatment of gender issues has improved but very slowly and we hope that the pressure put on the studios after the #MeToo campaigns and others will help to make animated children’s films generally more progressive and closer to what the march of gender progress demands.
For those who might be interested, this is how I taught the course. I used two of the ten teaching weeks for an introduction to Gender Studies and to animation, based on four 90’ lectures. Then I used the rest of the eight weeks for students’ class presentations of the gender issues in each film, with two to four 15’ presentations per session, apart from a teacher’s mini-lecture also of about 15’. I offered students a sample presentation, and I myself participated in the course as one more student. Each of us had four films in our hands. When we had to move online because of Covid-19, I kept the same format, though instead of streaming live presentations we used narrated PowerPoints that were later commented on in the corresponding forum. I don’t know whether this was the effect of certain competitiveness but the PowerPoints were in some cases simply spectacular. All students did much more than I asked them for. I must say that if the course had been run face-to-face it would have been impossible to deal with all the material that they uploaded after we went online, with most presentations running to 20 minutes instead of 10 to 15, as I had initially asked. The presentations were intended to be a draft of the essay that students later submitted; this was based on my own sample essay (including credits, film poster, three reasons why the film is interesting, a 1500-word essay). In total we covered 57 films, so the e-book contains 57 essays. I encouraged students to use for both the presentations and for the essays three secondary sources, including film reviews and academic secondary sources. Luckily, this time I had a research assistant helping all of us to find bibliography. We have found some academic work for most of the pre-2010 films but not so much for the more recent films, hence the importance of the film reviews.
I must note that I corrected in depth the essays, handed in two weeks after each presentation, but I did not grade them yet. If they were good enough, I accepted them for publication; if they required revision I returned them for a second draft, to be delivered one week before the final grades were due. That was the case with about 30% of the essays. This might surprise some but I asked students to self-assess: 50% of the final grade came from the essays, 30% from the presentations, and 20% from the forum contributions, that is to say the questions they asked their classmates. All assessed themselves fairly, though I upgraded some marks after going through the revised essays. Once I gathered the 57 essays together (216 pages, 105000 words), I spent about 35 hours revising them for the final publishable version, with most of that time used to correct the second versions of the essays for which I had asked students to rewrite.
I didn’t ask students to see all the films and I have not checked or valued in any way how many they did see, but I assume from their comments that they were familiar directly with at least half (in some cases more, in others less). Regarding the approach to Gender Studies, I have allowed students to express their own views and ideas freely. I am myself a feminist specialised in Masculinities Studies but I have not imposed on my students a single criterion (at least, I hope I have not done that). In any case, rather unified criteria emerged from classroom discussion with very little discrepancy, perhaps because the films are on the whole rather conservative, as I have noted, and they were quite easy to analyse and criticise. The students were clearly much more progressive and advanced in their understanding of gender than the studio executives.
I am extremely proud of my students’ great work. Thank you Rubén Campos, Manu Díaz, Cristina Espejo, Silvia Gervasi, Maria Guallar, Naiara López, Jessiah Mellott, Raquel Prieto, Alba Sánchez, Thu Trang Tran, Jamie Wang, Ting Wang and Helena Zúñiga for a wonderful experience in the midst of a hard time that seems hardly the best for doing good academic work. I hope your e-book is immensely successful!

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

THE DAY I WATCHED 50+1 MUSIC VIDEOS: A NEGLECTED PLEASURE

One of my BA dissertation tutorees has asked me to work on Childish Gambino’s fascinating, controversial music video “This is America” (2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch/VYOjWnS4cMY) and I’m happy to have the chance of returning to a film genre that I neglect too much. Ages ago (or so it seems), I published the essay “El cuerpo en el videoclip musical: Más que carne fresca” (in Meri Torras (ed.), Corporizar el pensamiento: Escrituras y lecturas del cuerpo en la cultura occidental. Pontevedra: Mirabel, 2006. 175-194), which came from a seminar on the same topic which I taught at UAB. I will always remember a hilarious moment in it. I had decided to debate with students The Prodigy’s video for the song “Smack My Bitch Up” (1997). I had more than a little distaste for the lyrics (just a monotonous repetition of “Change my pitch up!/ Smack my bitch up!”) but the video directed by Jonas Åkerlund is still one of my favourites. It narrates from a first person point of view a riotous night in London, with plenty of booze, drugs, and sex. The spectator assumes that the invisible protagonist behind the camera must be a man but the big final reveal is that this is actually a young woman. When I walked into the room, I saw that one of the students was an elderly lady and, ageist me, I worried that she might be scandalized. Funnily, when the video was over, she raised her hand and asked me very eagerly “can you play it again, please?” Everyone laughed.
I wrote a few years later another article on a music video, “Unstable meanings, unstable methods: Analysing Linkin Park’s song ‘What I’ve Done’” (José Ramón Ibáñez Ibáñez & José Francisco Fernández Sánchez (eds.), A View from the South: Contemporary English and American Studies. Almería: Editorial Universidad de Almería, 2011. 150-157), in which I showed how even when a song is popular there can be very little agreement on what it actually means. The song appears to deal with a man’s regrets about his past misbehaviour, either because he has been a drug addict or because he has been abusive in a relationship, or both. In contrast, the video directed by one of Linkin Park’s members, Joe Hahn, shows the band playing in the desert with the performance intercut with a montage of documentary images, mostly showing the conflicts in which the USA have been involved. Chester Bennington’s passionate singing changes radically depending on what you decide the song is about: a heart-felt apology from a single man speaking for himself perhaps to a woman, or a heart-felt apology by an American man ashamed of his nation and asking the world for forgiveness. And this just because some images were added to a performance in the music video.
Back to my student. She is also taking a Practicum with me consisting of doing academic activities connected with Literature and Culture. Since the actual content is very open, I have employed her so far as my research assistant for my MA course on gender in animated children’s fiction and will employ her now producing a guide of the best American music videos of the 21st century (for online publication on UAB’s digital repository and under her name, not mine). This is for two reasons: one, I think that working on other music videos will enhance her understanding of Gambino’s video for her BA dissertation; two, I very much wanted to learn from a much younger person about the current state of the music video. There are always lists of the best at the end of the year and, inevitably, I stumble upon this or that music video on YouTube or browsing the international press. I must say that, unfortunately, I seem to have lost my former passion for pop and rock, which lasted until I became incapable of working with the music on and found listening to it outside working hours incompatible with the lots of reading I need to do. Besides, I could never accomplish the transition from the album to the Spotify list, without which following the ups and downs of current music styles is hard enough. I know, more or less, who is who but if asked to name ten great songs of the last decade I would be lost. Yes, quite sad –perhaps I should teach a course and get back on track!
I agreed with my tutoree that she would select 50 great music videos of the 21st century and then we could decide how to write about them for the guide. She sent me the selection last week and I spend a few wonderful hours on Saturday enjoying a list if not of the best at least of the very good music videos which the past two decades have given us. My student has mostly chosen elegant, well-made videos that illustrate great songs by a notable variety of US performers. I’m not going to comment on the list itself (I keep that for when she publishes the guide) but I will say that, as she and I know, all lists are bound to be very personal even when the person making the selection tries to be as open-minded as possible. Everyone has favourites and in the immense world of popular music there is no way two persons can agree on what is best. It is, besides, very hard to say in which ways a music video is a quality work, for, surely, some great videos corresponding to not so popular songs must pass unnoticed, whereas other videos get noticed just for the song, not because the video has any filmic values. Surely, the video for Luis Fonsi’s hit “Despacito” has no special values as a film, despite being the second most played video on YouTube ever (behind “Baby Shark”!). Even worse, some music videos have become extremely popular for very wrong reasons, and I’m thinking here of the exploitative images in Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”.
This leads to me to video number 51 –“WAP”. My student did not include it in her selection but “WAP” is no doubt the most talked about music video of 2020. Here are some notes. “WAP” is a song published by New York rapper Cardi B (born Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar in 1992) featuring Texan rapper Meghan thee Stallion (Megan Jovon Ruth Pete, b. 1995). The song, which mixes hip hop, dirty rap, and trap, deals quite explicitly with sexual matters, with both artists singing and rapping about women’s sexual preferences and their expectations regarding men’s performance during sex (‘wap’ incidentally is an acronym for ‘wet-ass pussy’). “WAP” was generally well-received for its expression of female sexual agency but its dirty lyrics (https://genius.com/Cardi-b-wap-lyrics) were also a source of enormous controversy, with some criticizing them for their vulgar language. There was quite a backlash from conservative politicians (i.e. Trumpian Republicans) who even asked for some form of censorship, though their complaints mostly helped “WAP” to become an even more popular hit. Most progressive media outlets defended Cardi B’s raunchy song as an expression of black female empowerment through popular American culture’s reverence for the rebellious artist.
The music video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsm4poTWjMs), directed by the extremely experienced Collin Tilley but with plenty of input from Cardi B herself, made the controversy even more vivid, with figures such as British comedian Russell Brand arguing that there was little difference between pornographic sexualization by men and the supposedly self-empowering presentation of the women in it. The video shows Cardi B and Meghan thee Stallion, dressed in sexy outfits by haute couture designers (Nicolas Jebran, Thierry Mugler), walking in an extravagant mansion full of powerful women similarly dressed. The imagery uses plenty of animal print decorations and psychedelic colours in the style of Willie Wonka’s factory. A pool scene offers a sensual dance routine (by JaQuel Knight) imitated countless times on TikTok. The video features non-singing cameos by Kylie Jenner, Normani, Rosalía, Mulatto, Rubi Rose, and Sukihana, all contributing to enhancing the representation of female power. The video was celebrated, like the song, and soon hailed as one of the best of 2020, if not the best. However, beyond its sexiness, the video became a source of criticism for its use of live animals (with big cats appearing as pets for rich women) and for the presence of white celebrity Kylie Jenner. Cardi B defended her choice, arguing that race should not be a consideration (Jenner has been often accused of appropriating black culture) and that Kim Kardashian’s sister also appears as her personal friend.
There is an immense difference between Gambino’s “This is America” and Cardi B’s “WAP” but both have something in common: they are a wonderfully compressed representation of a rich bunch of interconnected issues, and require a savvy audience to make sense. I understand why my student is interested in the former far more than in the latter. Gambino’s issues, focused on racial discrimination in the USA, seem to be far more serious socially speaking than Cardi B and Meghan thee Stallion’s hymn to the hyperactive vagina. Yet, each knows its audience very well. Gambino throws one allusion after the other to events every black person in the USA should be able to identify whereas Cardi B appeals to those who follow the ins and outs of celebrity culture and of black female empowerment in the American music circuit. If you don’t know any of the celebrities appearing in the video, you will be mystified –though I remain mystified about why Rosalía accepted appearing in a sort of torero outfit without singing at all. Kylie Jenner’s presence is not, in my view, insulting in racial terms but because unlike Rosalía she is no artist and Cardi B hardly needs her to endorse her own art. Gambino, by the way, appears naked from the waste up in his film but this is not intended as a sexy display of his quite sexy anatomy. In contrast, Cardi B and her colleague Meghan display their curves in all their glorious abundance. In one of the scenes Cardi B’s breasts are quite visible, even though the nipples are covered, and this is when, like Russell Brand, I did doubt whether this was empowerment or self-exploitation. My own idol, Kylie Minogue, has found much more classy ways of being her own woman –and no, this is not prudery but a certain tiredness after seeing women claim power by showing their bodies for the last thirty five years, since Madonna started the trend. I recall dealing with the exact same issue in my 2006 article regarding a video with Jennifer Lopez…
See? These tiny films, lasting on average 3 minutes, are food for thought in ways much longer films are not. Half advertisement, half art the music video still survives and, from what I see in my 50+1 songs exploration, has a great future ahead. I’ll make sure to be more alert to it.

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