REDEFINING GOTHIC FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

[NOTE: this post is available in Spanish at https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/]

There is no volume called An Introduction to Gothic. The closest title is Nick Groom’s The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction (2012), though it could be said that the real introduction to Gothic was David Punter’s The Literature of Terror (1980, expanded into two volumes 1994 and 1996). In contrast, there are a few introductory volumes bearing the word ‘companion’ in their title, a concept that mystifies me. The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘companion’ as “the type of book that gives you information on a particular subject or tells you how to do something”, and this seems to me to include both the introduction and the handbook. I have checked WordReference for a synonym of Spanish ‘introducción’ to make sure there is no equivalent of ‘companion’, and there is none (‘compendio’ seems to be as similar as possible but it is not used as frequently as ‘companion’ is, nor in the same sense).

I am thinking of this matter after having read and enjoyed very much Maisha Wester and Xavier Aldana Reyes’ edited volume Twenty-First-Century Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion (2019), now new in paperback (at the very affordable price of 25 euros, what a miracle!!!). I want to discuss here not only this volume but, a little bit, the history of the companion in the field of Gothic studies. As far as I know, the first volume of this kind was David Punter’s edited volume A Companion to the Gothic (Blackwell, 2000), re-issued as A New Companion to the Gothic (2012). By definition, companions are collective volumes because no single scholar can cover the whole field under analysis (though, of course, single-authorship is more common in companions focused on a narrower field, or topic). Next came Jerrold E. Hogle’s The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction (2002), and this was apparently the last companion to deal with Gothic in general. From Hogle’s own The Cambridge Companion to the Modern Gothic (2014) onward, the word Gothic carries some adjective in the titles of companions. This holds for Andrew Smith’s The Victorian Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion (2014), Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s The Cambridge Companion to American Gothic (2017), Joel Faflak and Jason Haslam’s American Gothic Culture: An Edinburgh Companion (2017), Angela Wright’s Romantic Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion (2016) and Carol Margaret Davison and Monica Germanà’s Scottish Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion (2020). David Punter’s The Edinburgh Companion to Gothic and the Arts (2019) is slightly different. And the novelty in Wester and Aldana Reyes’s volume is that the title refers to a century, not a period (Victorian, Romantic, Modern).

Reading this volume I realize it has created for good a new entity, so far unknown: there is talk of 19th century Gothic but we need to start thinking now of 20th century Gothic as a distinct entity beyond being the chronological predecessor of 21st century Gothic. This is 2021 and, logically, there is sufficient ground to think of contemporary cultural movements as different from 20th century currents. Yet, two factors complicate matters: one is that at least half the Gothic scholars, if not two thirds, working right now are old enough to remember the 1980s (and even the 1970s or 1960s) as part of their life experience; the other is that in Gothic terms the distance between 1980 (when Punter published his seminal volume) and 2021 is much smaller than the distance between 1940 and 1980. Before you think I am crazy what I mean is that although, for instance, there were in the 1980s remakes of classic 1940s Gothic films (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), The Wolf Man (1941), Cat People (1942), I Walked With A Zombie (1943), a) there was a clear perception that they belonged to a distant period/cycle, b) the 1980s generated many new horror stories. In contrast, the new Alien TV series now shooting is being produced by Ridley Scott, the same man who directed the first title in the franchise back in 1979. The series might be 21st century Gothic but it is at heart a 20th century product lagging behind its time. This does not mean that cultural time has become completely static, but that recycling has now a weight it has not had in previous Gothic periods.

Xavier Aldana Reyes was not even born when David Punter published The Literature of Terror and he can be said to be a third-generation Gothic scholar (taking Punter as part of the first, and I myself as part of the second, though I can no longer call myself a Gothic scholar). Maisha Wester appears to be of the same third generation. At any rate, what worries me is not the age of the editors but the age of most readers of the companion who are more likely to be, I think, young students than ageing scholars. Of course, it might well be that I am totally wrong given the undergrads’ disinclination to buying books. My point is that I am old enough to have read Punter’s 2000 pioneering companion when it was published and this new companion, which means that I have a more or less complete historical overview of the whole Gothic genre. My doubt, though, is whether undergrad or post-graduate readers of the 21st century companion will go back to the Punter and the Hogle companions to understand what went on before the 21st century. Ann Radcliffe, to cite a canonical name, is mentioned twice in the new companion, which suggests that it is aimed at readers who have done their homework and do know the classics, but I constantly worry that presentism may destroy any wide-ranging, historical approach and that, in short, younger scholars may know The Walking Dead but never read The Castle of Otranto, where Gothic did begin.

Twenty-First Century Gothic is subdivided into four parts: I. Updating the Tradition (with chapters on Postcolonial, Queer, Postfeminist, Neoliberal Gothic, and Gothic digital technologies), II. Contemporary Monsters (zombies, vampires, serial killers, ghosts, werewolves), III. Contemporary Subgenres (New Weird, Ecogothic, Comedy, Steampunk, Posthuman Gothic) and IV. Ethnogothic (South African, Asian, Latin American, Aboriginal, Black Diasporic Gothic). My favourite chapter was Joseph Crawford’s discussion of Gothic digital technologies because it was the one where I found the most innovative side of current Gothic. As you can see from the titles of the chapters about today’s Gothic monsters, there are no new additions to the classic gallery even though there may be many differences between Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga. What has changed most radically since the 1990s, when I wrote my own dissertation on monsters, is that now most Gothic texts are TV series (that is one reason for my disconnection, since I don’t like series). In general, I felt pretty lost reading the volume particularly in relation to the last fifteen years, when Eli Roth’s gory porn-torture fest Hostel (2005) pushed me towards science fiction for good. As happens with any companion or introduction, then, I felt happy when I could follow the discussion and hopelessly disoriented when I could not, rather snowed under an avalanche of new titles. And here’s the main problem: one could catch up fifteen years ago, when novels and films were the rule, but now who can catch up with new Gothic when that requires watching series eight or ten seasons long…? A serious problem…

Regarding the ethnogothic segment, I am conflicted about how non-US/UK Gothic should be represented in companions. In Punter’s 2000 volume, there are articles on European (?) and Irish Gothic. In Hogle’s 2002 companion, there are chapters on ‘continental Gothic’ (for God’s sake!), Scottish and Irish Gothic, English Gothic (theatre) and ‘colonial and post-colonial’ Gothic. The 2012 revision by Punter of his 2000 companion includes chapters on ‘global’ Gothic, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian Gothic and, surprisingly, separate chapters for Asian and Japanese Gothic (so, where is Japan…?). Hogle’s Companion to Modern Gothic has a section called ‘Multi-cultural and Global Gothic’, with the essay “Gothic and the Politics of Race” by Maisha L. Wester herself, another one called “The Gothic in North American ‘subcultures’” (whatever that may mean) and yet again chapters on “The postcolonial Gothic” and “Asian Gothic” (by Katarzyna Ancuta, also the author of the marvellous “Asian Gothic” chapter in the 21st century companion).

As for ‘ethnogothic’ (or ‘ethno-gothic’), there is an article in the 2016 companion to American Gothic by Arthur Redding, which seems to have consolidated the label. In his blog Matthew Teutsch refers to the article “Deep Roots/Rich Soil: Race, Horror and the Ethnogothic” by John Ira Jennings and Stanford Carpenter in which it is explained that “the EthnoGothic deals with primarily speculative narratives that actively engage with negatively affective and racially oriented psychological traumas via the traditions of Gothic tropes and technologies”. The problem with this label, I think, is that I fail to see how concepts as diverse as South African Gothic, Asian Gothic, Latin American Gothic, Aboriginal Gothic and Black Diasporic Gothic can be dealt with from the same angle. If the angle is more or less the same one post-colonial used to cover, then the presence of imperialistic Japan in the discussion is odd. Considering language, I am not very happy with the inclusion in the same box of Anglophone and non-Anglophone areas. And the mixture of the geographical and the racial seems to me unstable. I am also made nervous by the categorization of non-white, non-US/UK writing as ‘ethnic’ as if white US-UK writers were not themselves part of ethnic groups, too. I know that Maisha Wester has done plenty of outstanding work on race and that she is much better qualified than me to deal with this question but I still find the label ‘ethnogothic’ extremely problematic. Think of where Spanish Gothic should be placed in a future companion to global gothic, and you will see where I am going with this.

I have in any case, enjoyed very much this volume, which announces itself as “the first transnational and transmedia companion to the post-millennial Gothic”, and responds very well to this ambitious presentation. It is very hard to take a snapshot of any given genre at a point in time, since, like naughty kids, texts and authors never stand still. The Castle of Otranto (1764) is now 257 years old and who could have imagined that Gothic would be still alive today, though in such a different shape? Or shapes, as you will discover from this excellent companion.

RETHINKING WILLY WONKA: ENJOYABLE VILLAINY

[NOTE: this post is available in Spanish at https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/]

My brilliant student Pol Vinyeta has written an excellent BA dissertation on one of Roald Dahl’s most popular books with the title “Don’t Trust the Candy Man: A Reading of Willy Wonka’s Enjoyable Villainy in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Its Film Adaptations”. Pol chose this topic because it seemed that Matilda (his initial choice) had been dealt with in plenty of academic bibliography but there was a better chance to say something new about Charlie. The idea was to take my own work on villainy, Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort (2019), and see in which ways Willy Wonka is indeed a villain, or not. We didn’t realize when we started work on the dissertation that Wonka would be constant news because of the fiftieth anniversary of the first film adaptation and the announcement of a third screen version. Serendipity at work, then.

Whereas in my book I took it for granted that the male characters I focused on were downright villains, with no redeeming features whatsoever, Pol concluded in his analysis that Willy Wonka appears to be a case of partial villainy, defined by “certain villainous traits”. In case you are an alien just landed on Earth and never heard of Wonka, allow me to say that in this novel for children Dahl tells the story of how this man –the world’s most renowned and most seclusive chocolatier– chooses an heir for his business among the children selected to visit his fairy-tale, colourful factory. The golden admission ticket is found in one of the myriad chocolate bars for sale, which of course makes Wonka even richer when kids all over the planet start buying his products like crazy. Charlie, a little boy raised in an extremely poor family (location undisclosed), gets lucky and the novel narrates how one by one the other children suffer accidents that result in only Charlie properly finishing the visit. Only then does Wonka disclose his plans for the boy he names his new heir. Among the villainous traits that Pol described are Wonka’s nonchalant cruelty towards the other children, his exploitative treatment of his imported workers the Oompa Loompas, and his sense of entitlement towards Charlie, who is not really given the chance to consider how Wonka appropriates his future. Pol’s thesis is that we do not see Wonka as a downright villain because Dahl uses humour to disguise his worst failings (and I would add because we perceive his rescuing Charlie from poverty as a positive action). Pol has called this villainy that gets away with it ‘enjoyable villainy’ and this is a label that intrigues me.

When one thinks of children’s literature it is quite clear that Lord Voldemort is the most potent villain ever threatening a child. There is some humour in the Harry Potter series, usually connected with the members of the Weasley family, but there is nothing humorous at all about Voldemort. Actor Ralph Fiennes, who played him in the film series, once said that if you take away all the fantasy trappings, Voldemort is an adult man abusing a boy and this is how we need to see him. There is nothing ‘enjoyable’, then, in Rowling’s treatment of this human monster. Perhaps, however, this is exceptional, for villains in children’s fictions are often exaggerated characters and because of that they are sources of humour, even though they may be themselves humourless. Pol mentioned as a case of humourless enjoyable villain the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. In less fanciful circumstances, this perpetually cross authoritarian woman might be the stuff of Gothic nightmares but in the context of Lewis Carroll’s hyperexcited fabulation she is laughable. Likewise, in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (which I strongly recommend), Count Olaf is a source of amusement, even though his relentless persecution of the orphaned Baudelaire siblings is hardly fun for them. If we laugh at Olaf’s ridiculous antics this is only because we hope (and we know) he will lose and the Baudelaires prevail.

The question is that in comparison to either the Red Queen or Count Olaf, or any other villain in children’s fantasy you can think of, Willy Wonka is a very strange character. He is not at all like Olaf in wanting to deprive a child of their means of subsistence but he is not that far from Olaf in his cavalier approach to the safety of the children who visit the factory. Humour in Dahl’s novel is based on the idea that, with Charlie’s exception, the other kids (ages 9 to 10) are insufferable brats: Augustus Gloop is an obese boy who can’t stop eating; Violet Beauregarde is an appallingly rude, gum-chewing, vain girl; Veruca Salt (surely the ugliest name ever for a little girl) is a dreadful spoiled brat, and Mike Teavee is a coach potato who only thinks of watching television. Their unseemly ends (if they end at all, it must be said) are presented by the author as well-deserved punishments and gloated over by Wonka to the consternation of the parents. In fact, the whole point of the book seems to torment these children for a) there is no reason the golden tickets could not have found their way to better children, b) Wonka could have selected his heir in many other ways, c) nice Charlie’s presence among this bunch is that of an odd-man-out. Someone here is a sadist who hates a certain type of child, and I’ve never been sure whether this is Dahl or Wonka. Either way, the message sent is not very encouraging and seems to appeal to the lowest instincts of the young readers rather then attempt any re-education of the insufferable visitors.

Then, there is the matter of the Oompa Loompas. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published in 1964 when it was till acceptable, it seems, to present Wonka’s tireless workers as tiny exotic indigenes from an unnamed land. In the first pictorial representations the Oompa Loompas were represented as African pygmies. By 1971, when the first adaptation was filmed, this was problematic enough for them to be played by actors in orange make-up and green wigs, though said actors were dwarves. In the 2005 version by Tim Burton Indian-Kenyan actor Deep Roy, also a dwarf, was cast as all the Oompa Loompas, as if they were clones. Why Wonka’s enslaved worked are short, non-white persons has been never satisfactorily explained, though there seems to be a connection with (of course) Snow White’s seven companions and, more directly, with the Munchkins in L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books. I cannot imagine, however, how this unmistakeably racist aspect of Dahl’s novel is going to be treated in Paul King’s forthcoming third adaptation. Ironically, Dahl wanted Charlie originally to be a black boy, but his editors told him nobody would buy a book for children with that type of protagonist.

Because of Pol’s dissertation, I have recently revisited the 1971 version with Gene Wilder as Wonka and found it a film few contemporary children might enjoy. Reviewing it recently in The Guardian, Guy Lodge calls it “a clunky film that Roald Dahl rightly hated”. Apparently, even though the author appears as sole author of the script, this went through many changes he was never informed about. Dahl wanted Spike Milligan or Peter Sellers to play Wonka and, siding with him, Lodge announces in his subtitle that “The years haven’t been kind to Gene Wilder and his underplayed performance as the sadistic chocolatier in a cheap and poorly made adaptation”. I must say that although Wilder’s creep factor is significant I found Johnny Depp’s 2005 Wonka even creepier with his silly page cut and his ultra-white teeth. Pol claims that Depp’s recent scandals have destroyed his performance to the eyes of adult spectators that would possibly not share this film with their children, and I would agree. Even without the scandals, though, I find very little to enjoy in Burton’s version which, besides, seems to be a forerunner of the current deplorable trend to justify villainy with melodramatic stories of abuse suffered by the villains in childhood (here Wonka’s father was a dentist who did not allow his son to eat sweets). The announced new film, with cute Timothée Chalamet as Wonka goes in that same direction.

For me, proof that Dahl was not sure about what Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was about is the fact the failed sequel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972) does not deal at all with Charlie Bucket’s assumption of his role as Wonka’s heir but with rather nonsensical space adventure on board the magical elevator. Apparently, the original novel was inspired by Dahl’s participation as a schoolboy in the testing of new products by Cadbury in the 1930s, and by its rivalry with the other great English chocolate maker, Rowntree. I think it makes perfect sense that the child Dahl’s fantasy of being able to visit and maybe own the place where the secretive chocolatiers of Cadbury made their product grew into the adult writer’s fantasy about Wonka’s factory. I also believe that this is what made the novel so popular: not Wonka himself, the Oompa Loompas or the brats’ fates, but the idea of the factory (just as Harry Potter appeals to kids mainly because of Hogwarts). Possibly, this is why so many outlets exploit that spirit (it seems that diverse coffee shop chains offer Willy Wonka brews for adults). In my view, though, Dahl did not make the most of his material, not knowing how to establish a relationship between Wonka and too-nice-to-be-true Charlie, and undermining the sense of wonder created by the factory with the ill-treatment the other kids get. I put myself in the shoes of Charlie’s parents and I would be far from charmed by Mr. Wonka’s attentions towards my child, which are pretty much proprietary, and not really clear at all (just consider why Wonka has no children of his own).

Does all this amount nonetheless to a good, solid case of ‘enjoyable villainy’? I think it does, and I thank Pol for teaching me that some villains are only partially so because humour makes their villainous traits acceptable. On the whole, I would have been happier with a less ambiguous characterization for Wonka –one in which, for instance, Charlie accepts the prize but calls him to task for his awful exploitation of the Oompa Loompas who are then given proper contracts. On the other hand, though children are good at enjoying black humour, often present in TV cartoon series, I wonder what exactly they ‘enjoy’ when reading Dahl’s Charlie. In Matilda this little girl’s parents are despicable persons who must be punished and the lesson learned is that whoever neglects a child only deserves disrespect. The girl protagonist is empowered, and so are the little readers. Willy Wonka embodies Dahl’s notion that bad parenting is to blame for badly-behaved children and so parents and brats are one way or another punished by him, but this is done with great cruelty and appears to have no bearing on passive Charlie’s empowerment (except, of course, that he is a naturally good boy and is rewarded for that). We might simply say that Wonka is too flamboyant and too free to bow down to anything, and this is why he is enjoyable despite his villainous traits. Still, I believe something is amiss. The humour, it seems to me, hides the shortcomings of the novel rather than be an integral part of the story of how Charlie met Wonka.

As for the new film, do we really need more villain origin stories? I should think that we don’t. We need new stories, and breaking out of this constant recycling of what talented writers (like Dahl) did in the past as we consider in more depth how their works survive in our day, and the enjoyability of certain villains. Thanks Pol!

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

THE END OF ENGLISH LITERATURE DEGREES?: NO, BUT GET READY FOR CHANGES

This post is inspired by two articles, one in The Guardian and one in The Critic, which discuss the possible end of the degrees in English language and Literature in England if things continue downhill, as they seem to be going. Before I start discussing in more detail the situation and the arguments, allow me to quote a teacher I had in my second year at university (the sophomore year, as the Americans say). Raquel Sotelo asked us, poor innocent babes, ‘so, what’s the use of the degree you have chosen?’ We expected a long speech about the wonders of reading for a degree in ‘filología’ (the Spanish concept that encompasses language and Literature) but instead she bluntly said that the degree was ‘no use’. It was, she added, basically a time for personal education. This is a very valid answer to me. The problem, as you will see, is that education –whether personal or collective– has no room in capitalism and this is the key question. Capitalism has room for the likes of Leo Messi and Kim Kardashian, but not for English graduates and teachers. On the other hand, as long as they make a fortune for their (for me) totally superfluous activities, I feel entitled to being paid comparatively just peanuts for my own superfluous activities. At least mine are educational.

The Guardian View on English Language and Literature: More, Please” is an editorial piece subtitled “We must take care not to devalue a subject that helps us build a more rounded and healthier body politic”. The text reacts to the announcement by the admissions service UCAS that “a third fewer 18-year-olds have applied to study [English] at university this year than in 2012”. As a result, English academics are being fired, whereas one university –Cumbria– has altogether dismantled its English Department. The Guardian blames the Tory Government for this state of affairs, highlighting Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s description of Humanities degrees as “dead-end courses”. The editorial also stresses the erosion of English at primary and secondary school levels, with a loss of emphasis on reading and the removal of popular Literature courses. “A rise in rote learning has been noted, along with a decline in interest in pupils’ own responses to great literature”, the editors write. There is a clear correlation between the lower number of university applications and the “slump in the number taking English A-levels”. Add to this the cost of university fees and the Government’s relentless “championing of science degrees” and the picture is complete. The conclusion is that the study of Literature in higher education, which has never been utilitarian in spirit but rather lofty in its aims, is collapsing. Whereas in Victorian times it was justified on the grounds of national unity, moral integrity and intellectual commitment, now it is justified as a means to acquire “the skills of critical analysis, lateral thinking and flexibility” that increase empathy and further the capacity for criticism. Besides, The Guardian concludes, “literature provides deep, complex, lifelong pleasure, which too often gets forgotten as a worthy end in itself”.

The point of view of Alexander Larman in The Critic is quite different. His article “The Death of the English Literature Degree” is subtitled “Thanks to ‘critical theory’, the study of English literature has become overrun with boring academics who hardly inspire the next generation”. Larman devotes part of his article to bemoaning the loss of Medieval Literature in Leicester University’s curriculum and the University of Cumbria’s scrapping of the English Department as “especially egregious”. For Larman, as for The Guardian, it is clear that “Our brave new government has little time for book-based degrees”. He blames the low popularity of English degrees, too, on the burden that student loans place on the job expectations of new graduates. Gavin Williamson’s inelegant remark about “dead-end courses” was apparently accompanied by the phrase “which give [students] nothing but a mountain of debt”.

Surprisingly, though, Larman does not continue with an examination of the steep rise in university fees that has made student loans so appallingly onerous, but with a frontal attack on critical theory. Apparently he was a victim of its introduction in British universities, though he mentions the 1960s as the onset of the new trends, I assume that a couple of decades before he was an undergraduate. “Long before any ideas of ‘woke’ had entered the mainstream,” Larman notes, “university English departments had decided what was, and wasn’t, acceptable. Woe betide you, student or tutor alike, if you deviated from the new orthodoxy”. More to the point than this boutade, Larman observes that “Students are angry, politicised and very much aware of their new status as consumers, rather than young men and women who are attending universities to learn”. Their anger fuels the culture wars waged on campuses all over the Anglophone world, with Literature acting as a mere weapon in the midst of a flurry of “doctrinal absurdities”. Almost logically, Larman concludes that if English degrees are “on the way out (…) I cannot say that I am particularly sad about their demise”. English Literature needs to be “treated seriously once more, and given the credibility that it deserves” to prevent “this slow slide into apathy and irrelevance”.

Now, suppose I was an English mother with a talented child who very much wanted to follow a career in English Literature (if I was a Scottish mother, things would be very different as BA degrees are still free for Scottish students, meaning that the 1,820 GBP fee is usually covered by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS)). Would I encourage my child to take that path, or would I prod them instead towards a degree in ethics and robotics (in my view, the most promising one within the Humanities)? The answer is that I would not encourage my child’s choice of a degree in English unless said child showed an inflexible determination and superb academic skills that might give them a chance at an academic career (and even so, I would hesitate). I believe that individuals should follow their vocations (as I did) and I would not curtail any young person’s vocation. However, in the case of young persons who are not specifically inclined, I would be much more pragmatic and consider the outcome of the investment on a degree, which is major whether for a fee-paying family or for a student saddled with a loan. I happen to agree with the British Government that we need more STEM graduates because as climate change progresses we need all the scientific talent we have at hand to find urgent solutions. This does not mean we don’t need graduates in English to provide us with critical tools, save the Literature of the past and bring on the Literature of the future. I just mean that we need fewer, and that the reduction in applications and in jobs is possibly part of a correction, not the end of the degrees in language and Literature. In fact, I would be much more restrictive and only admit academically outstanding students that could then reinforce the presence of language and Literature at primary and secondary school levels, for general increased literacy.

On the other hand, neither The Guardian nor The Critic mention the elephant in the classroom: fewer and fewer young people read, and those who do read are not necessarily interested in the books that constitute the core of the canon but mainly in YA. As I have explained again and again, although I have nothing against YA as such its misuse as a genre that invites young readers to eschew the classics (you know?, the books supposedly for adults) is catastrophic. I would invite these two publications to run a survey and ask applicants to English degrees what they have read so far. Sorry to sound so classically-minded but, whether you agree or not with their values, a person is only ready to do well at an English degree after having read canonical English Literature, apart from the books personally enjoyed. To debunk (or renew) the canon you need to a have a good knowledge of it and we just don’t need English graduates who appreciate YA but have never read Austen or Dickens, or any other major author you can think of, of any identity.

And this brings me to the reasons why degrees in Literature should be maintained. You will see that this is quite difficult to justify. The acquisition of critical skills, a capacity to write well in an argumentative style, and an ability to express yourself in accurate English is not necessarily acquired from reading Literature. In fact, we don’t teach students that (or mainly that), but to produce academic prose and oral presentations regardless of whether they have read the Literature we study. Perhaps advanced literacy skills could be better acquired with another type of degree, more open to the reality of the transmedia world today and less focused on Literature. And the other way round: some aspects of Literature might have to become a matter for MA degrees (for instance, Medieval Literature), whereas other genres connected with the present should have more room in Literature degrees (doesn’t non-fiction help acquire advanced literacy just as well as reading novels?). The idea that the degrees should be maintained to appreciate the aesthetic values of Literature, which is what Larman is defending, makes vey little sense to me because a) few current writers really care about style, b) few readers truly appreciate style and much less so if it is found in texts of the past, c) it has been shown that style does depend on cultural, social and political conditionings.

This leads me to another major preoccupation. I have been thinking of writing a post freely expressing my position about the growing wokeism in the Humanities degrees of Anglophone universities but I have desisted. I am guilty of using critical theory and identity politics in my teaching and research, but I am growing very wary of the minefield that academic work has become. I read on a daily basis news about academics or students being cancelled for uttering this or that opinion, and I am growing very much scared of saying what I really think about many matters. If debate becomes doctrine, then debate dies, and I think that debate is dying right now. We can always discuss in which ways the texts of the past carry negative values that are no longer part of our current repertoire, but if we come to the point when –as it has happened recently in British universities– some authors, and even spelling itself, are seen as part of patriarchal oppression and, hence, rejected, we are going nowhere except to the land of the ignorant. Please note that I am speaking as a convinced feminist whose main task if to unmask patriarchy. I do not like witch-hunts, I do not like intransigence, I do not like dogmatism and if English degrees are going to go that way, then I’ll keep a low profile until I retire and stop practicing Gender Studies.

Perhaps the time has come to reinvent the Humanities degrees, including English, just as the sciences degrees are constantly being reinvented. Reading these days that plenty of modern Australian Literature might disappear because so many rather recent books have gone out of print, it occurs to me that we need graduates to acquire editing skills that help preserve the literary legacy. In my degree, though, we never allude to text editing. I also miss teaching my students more about how to write reviews, blog posts, other contributions to social media that might help increase general literacy (I proposed a new subject, but my proposal was rejected). Our students have, generally speaking, no idea about what is going on in the world of Literature because we don’t have a subject in which we discuss where to find the novelties, how to develop one’s own criteria and so on. And we need to integrate creative writing –or be clear that we teach academic writing. I find it rather pitiful that someone with an English degree cannot write a poem (even a bad one), a short story or even a scene in a TV episode. There are many ways, you see?, to move beyond the canon and wokeism, and build new English degrees that are relevant for our times. Before it is too late.

The declining admission figures in Britain are sending a message that goes beyond the opinion of any Secretary of Education, and this message will not be answered with platitudes about the beauties of reading (which can be done with no degree) or the importance of critical skills (which can be acquired in other degrees). The time may have come to radically redraw the English degrees, not thinking of the steep fees or the employment opportunities but of what advanced literacy may mean in a 21st century society that is fast approaching the abyss of climate change, and in which we need above all persons who can persuade others to literally save our fragile civilization. For that, good rhetorical skills and a high command of English learned from reading the best authors is needed, hence the importance of protecting the English degrees though, clearly, not as they are now. Be ready for change.

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