WRITERS WRITING ON BOOKS: READING JAVIER CERCAS’ EL PUNTO CIEGO / THE BLIND SPOT

I made a mistake when I borrowed Javier Cercas’ El punto ciego from the library, wrongly believing it was a volume by Javier Marías. I read the summary⁠—the book gathers together five lectures delivered by the author when he was appointed Weidenfeld Chair of European Literature at St Anne’s College at Oxford in 2015—and I just thought that was the kind of appointment the illustrious Marías is used to receiving. In the prologue a humble Cercas shows himself very surprised to have deserved that honour, seeing himself as a player in a lower league than his predecessors (his admired Mario Vargas Llosa among them). Cercas (b. 1962) became an instant celebrity with his fourth novel, Soldados de Salamina / Soldiers of Salamis (2001), which tells the story based on real-life facts of how a fascist politician saved his life in the middle of the Spanish Civil War thanks to an extraordinary act of human empathy by an anonymous Republican soldier. Cercas retired then from teaching (he was a lecturer in Spanish Literature at the Universitat de Girona), and has so far published eight more novels and received many accolades. The last novel by Cercas I have read, Planeta Award winner Terra Alta (2019)—the first in a crime fiction trilogy—did not particularly impress me, hence my difficulties to connect him with the Weidenfeld Chair. I grant, though, that Soldiers of Salamis is superb.

I have also enjoyed very much El punto ciego, wishing as I read that more writers found the time and energies to discuss their craft. There is a slew of books by professional authors offering notes on their professional experience and advice to aspiring writers (here’s a list of 100 volumes of this kind) but not so many essays by writers on what makes quality novels tick. Reading Cercas I often thought of Stephen King’s splendid On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000), a book everyone mentions at the top of their list of best books about the profession. I like it so much that I even pestered King’s agent, trying to have him persuade the author to write a second part… to no avail! Anyway, Cercas’ book is very different, more general literary analysis rather than memoir, perhaps closer to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature (1980)—which I have not read—or similar volumes. It is, in short, a series of lessons on fiction, rather than a series of pointers on how to write it.

Cercas considers a limited number of canonical classics (very few by women…) and his own novels—in particular Anatomía de un instante / Anatomy of an instant (2009), on the 1981 failed coup by Tejero—to offer a theorization of the novel that, plainly, suits him. What he calls ‘el punto ciego’ (the blind spot) is the resistance of the ambitious novel to offer closure, though he uses other words: “nada contribuye tanto como el punto ciego a cebar de sentido una novela o relato, a incrementar el volumen de significado que es capaz de generar” (“nothing contributes as much as the blind spot to fatten up the novel or short story, to increase the volume of meaning it can generate”). Cercas does not mean that fiction should be open-ended but that it should contain some fundamental “ambiguity”, which is not the same, he says, as “indefinition”. I know what he means: we return to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights again and again for the conundrum that the whole novel is, and how it resists any easy interpretation. The simpler novels are up for inspection, warts and all, with no ambiguity, just to offer an experience of reading that while pleasing enough is not necessarily fulfilling (this describes Cercas’ own Terra Alta).

Fiction, Cercas claims, need not “proponer nada, no debe transmitir certezas ni dar respuestas ni prescribir soluciones” (“propose anything, must not transmit certainties or give answers or prescribe solutions”) yet, at the same time, he argues, “toda literatura auténtica es literatura comprometida” (“all authentic literature is committed literature”). I hesitate about how to translate ‘comprometida’, tempted to use ‘compromised’, a false friend which, of course, means ‘at risk’. What is quality fiction if not fiction on the constant brink of disaster, though? But I deviate from Cercas’ meaning, which is clear enough, even a bit clichéd: “toda literatura auténtica aspira a cambiar el mundo cambiando la percepción del mundo del lector” (“all authentic literature aspires to altering the world by altering the perception of the world by the reader”)—though perhaps he means “of the reader’s world”, I don’t know. I love it when writers use these high-sounding words, rather than speak of sales and awards and all the accoutrements of literary fame, but then I recall this is a guy with a Planeta under his belt, the most commercialized award in the world and I wonder how he tells himself now that he is a ‘committed’ writer. Perhaps the money has freed him from this and other burdens.

Cercas maintains that fully realist novels have no blind spot, which means that he is praising a type of fiction that refuses to be fully accessible, either by accident (pioneers like Miguel de Cervantes’ El Quijote) or willingly (name your favourite post-modern novel here—Joyce’s Modernist Ulysses is even going too far down that road). At the same time, he warns about a matter we are all aware of: in literature there is no evolution, and in fact most readers (he claims and I agree) are perfectly happy with the modern descendants of 19th century realist fiction. I say the ‘modern descendants’ because if readers were happy with actual 19th century novels then Dickens and company would still be best-selling authors, which is not the case. Cercas points out, quite rightly, that despite the efforts of many Modernist and post-modern authors to shake 19th century novelistic conventions out of their complacency with countless narrative experiments, we read novels for what they say about the human condition, and not for what the authors can do with form. The model Jane Austen used (though she was a writer with more ambiguities than it might seem at first sight) is still good, if not best, for us since it seems that, despite what some experimental authors believe, readers want no narrative frills—just the illusion that the characters exist and that their lives matter.

This is where the novel and I as a reader are parting ways: I find very few current novels that interest me as expressions of human experience. I find now, as I have been noting here repeatedly, memoirs more interesting than novels. In fact, I possibly enjoy them not only because people who choose to narrate their lives usually have interesting trajectories to explore, but also because Cercas’ sense of ambiguity is possibly stronger in memoirs. Just to mention an example, I have just finished reading The Meaning of Mariah Carey (2020) by the artist herself with Michaela Angela Davis. I am not a Lamb, as Carey’s fans are known, and chose the book for the mostly positive reviews and because, as I say, suddenly I find memoirs more appealing than novels—even as fiction. By this I mean that memoirs are interested constructions in which a flesh-and-blood person turns him/herself into a character in a narrative of their own, turning his/her circle into secondary characters. I think Cercas would love The Meaning of Mariah Carey for its constant use of an almost Jamesian ambiguity, so radical that I think I know less about the diva than before I read her memoirs. I’m joking, as you can see, but I found more blind spots in Carey’s odd volume than in all the canonical novels Cercas mentions.

So, you see?, the danger of all literary theories, including Cercas’ on the blind spots that make great novels great, is that they can apply to texts created with no idea of the literary. Yet, if the blind spot is not enough to characterize great fiction, and it’s not a question of experimenting with form but of dealing with singular human experience, then many other types of narrative texts do the same, even reality shows. What makes us admire novelists and not essayists even when novelists are very close to being essayists—as is Cercas’ case—is the power of inventing a simulacrum of human life. The biographer and the auto-biographer also narrate human experience but no matter how solid their narrative skills are, there is something in pure invention that dazzles us.

Cercas and many others may take persons from real life as foundations for their novels but what we enjoy is how they fantasize about them, even preferring their fictional version to the strictly historical. Cercas does more or less say that he was not interested in the three men that never flinched when Tejero came into the Spanish Parliament and his stormtroopers unleashed volley after volley of bullets: he is interested in why they did not flinch. Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez, his Minister of Defence Teniente General Gutiérrez Mellado and Communist opposition leader Santiago Carrillo, Cercas explains, are not in his novel Anatomía de un instante a portrait of the actual historical figures but characters of his own invention.

For me, that is the real blind spot in novels: the elusive difference between the essayist’s power to offer an approximation to reality and the novelist’s power to invent what appears to be real. No novelist, though, seems interested to take a good look into that power, perhaps because it is a mystery and I have this feeling that it is a bit scary, something out of control and impossible to understand. But, then, if writers are not well equipped to explore this mystery of the fictionalizing mind, who is? Just don’t say the word ‘neuroscientists’… Enjoy instead the mystery of great fiction and great writers. And do read Soldiers of Salamis.

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 Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

BACK TO BASICS, WITH A CALL TO RENEW SELF-IMPROVEMENT IN LEARNING

BACK TO BASICS, WITH A CALL TO RENEW SELF-IMPROVEMENT IN LEARNING

I’m now in the middle of reading the essay by the philosopher and pedagogue Gregorio Luri, La escuela no es un parque de atracciones: Una defensa del conocimiento poderoso [School is not a Theme Park: In Defence of Powerful Knowledge, 2020], which, of course, I chose because I agree with the title. I guess this is how the author is weeding out the readers that might disagree with his views.

In essence, Luri disapproves of all the current pedagogical theories that, applied to actual teaching in school, have resulted in the very wrong view that learning should be fun and effortless. He is particularly critical of how competences have eroded the importance of knowledge; this is the reason why he finds the notion of ‘learning to learn’ meaningless; as he argues, unless you know about something (meaning that your memory retains information on the subject) there is no way you can truly learn, much less ‘learn to learn’. If, say, my Victorian Literature students have not memorized the names of authors, the titles of books, the basics of Victorian History, they won’t be able to learn how to write a paper on any of these aspects. Or, rather, they will, but their papers will be very poor. Luri’s argumentation is plain as daylight: the accumulation of knowledge has been wrongly derided by a pedagogy set on teaching skills, a pedagogy that forgets that nobody can teach or use skills without previous knowledge.

I read yesterday on thew newspaper Nius (yes, believe it or not) that Alexandre Sotelinos of the Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, has won the Abanca competition for best university teacher in Spain (the award is based on students’ votes combined with those of a jury). Sotelinos, a pedagogue by training, teaches in the BA in Pedagogy and the BA in Primary School Teacher Training. The article does not say on what merits he has won that competition; he himself just says that “I try to reinvent myself, learn plenty from other colleagues who have amazing projects and try to apply that to my classroom”, the classic endorsement of teaching innovation.

What called my attention, once I got over my deep envy of this Galician colleague, is how he reads the saying “Education through head, hand, and heart” by Swiss pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827): “In the end, what this idea means is that beyond knowledge, we have to learn skills and how to manage emotions. And that to learn some things or others, all is related. That is to say, we can never learn if our emotional state is not adequate”. To begin with, I really doubt that 18th century pedagogy connects so neatly with its 21st century descendant; in the second place, Sotelinos’ view of education is precisely what Luri condemns as the failed strategy that has wrongly turned schools into unmanageable institutions where learning happens only patchily, depending on students’ decisions to engage or disconnect. And that’s not my envy speaking.

Reading Luri I have found myself questioning my own conservatism as an educator. Some of his proposals do sound conservative but, then, perhaps I need to accept that I am a conservative teacher. I agree with him that the classroom is not a place for students to be entertained, but for them to be focused and make an effort to learn. I am myself making the effort to teach them. Students at all levels of education should accept a basic discipline. Teachers must be respected and their lessons absorbed in attentive silence unless students are asked specifically to speak. In my possibly annoying view, the students’ body language and facial expression should show that they are listening and actively participating in their own education and respecting the teachers’ work in the classroom.

Furthermore, students need to accept that learning entails making a constant effort; studying is necessary, which includes making notes, memorizing data, developing work using the knowledge and skills acquired in class. Students must also know that, whether we like it or not (and I don’t), they are being assessed, which means that they need to make the best possible impression (for their sake, not the teacher’s). Attitude does count for assessment, as we all know. Learning, Luri says and I agree, must be a process of constantly meeting challenges, in which students tests themselves to the maximum of their abilities. Instead of this, we have at least 20% of students who are not interested in learning, and the problem is that we are making a long series of efforts to engage those students in an education they don’t really care for while we neglect the needs and abilities of the better students, who are actually the majority.

Luri mentions as one of the pedagogues that most firmly attacked the traditional school, the American John Holt (1923-1985), author among other books of The Underachieving School (1969), known in Spanish translation as El fracaso de la escuela (1977). As happens, I had an Ethics teacher in secondary school who asked us to read this book, when we were 15. I can’t remember his name but I recall that he looked as if he was being forced at gun-point to teach us, second-year students; perpetually embittered and aloof, he had a strangely mixed pedagogy, both very loose and very demanding intellectually. Part of his rebelliousness against the school was that we were allowed to seat as we pleased, which means we ended up on the tables until we saw that the chairs were more comfortable. His true rebelliousness, of course, consisted of making us read Holt (and Orwell, among others) and teaching us that school was not run thinking truly of us; yet, he was unable to establish any kind of dialogue with us.

This man was simultaneously one of the best and one of the worst teachers I have ever had. He gave me a deep shock lasting until today by asking me to absorb Holt’s deconstruction of the (American) school, a deconstruction so deep that Holt ended up promoting home-schooling. And this teacher was the first to ask me to freely express my views, for which I thank him. I learned much more, though, from the teachers who believed that the true rebellion against school consisted of making us become deeply learned students. I have never ever been in the hands of a teacher that saw their job as simply passing on information. I was always taught by imitation, by which I mean that my best teachers were so good I just wanted to be like them. I admired them, and I my own work was a way to express my admiration. I learned to love learning because they were wise and I wanted to be just as wise.

Logically, not all my teachers were wise, and some were rather poor pedagogues but in the pedagogy that came before the current one, that didn’t matter because what mattered was the students’ abilities, and responsibilities. I was always told at home that I was responsible for my studies, just as my father was responsible for his job. Studying was my job, and I had to do it well, regardless of my teachers, as he did his, regardless of his bosses. If my teachers were good, then I was lucky; if they were bad, I had to compensate for that. No excuses. Getting an education was regarded as a tough task: I would have never dreamed of saying that I was bored, for the adults around me would have replied that recess was for fun, not the rest of school. I just don’t recall any problems of discipline among my fellow students at any level, with few exceptions that we all understood to be a minority and very special cases. Teachers were respected, even when disliked, and school generally accepted, even when abhorred. Teachers did not spend, as they do now, specially in secondary school, a good portion of their time (Luri says 20%) trying to have students sit down and listen. We just did, as we walk in the street rather than skip and jump all over the place, or willfully disregard the traffic lights.

I think I am trying to say that there is currently a wrong impression that education used to work on the basis of the teacher’s authoritarianism and the institution’s implementation of a strong discipline. This is not my impression of my own education in public primary and secondary schools. They worked well because, I insist, teachers were respected, parents would not dream of undermining their authority and children generally behaved well, understanding that they were responsible for their own progression. Because of Holt and many other pedagogues that rebelled against traditional teaching, however, we have a now the chance to make learning truly thrilling but have lost the necessary personal discipline required to engage in studying. Perhaps I should blame Pink Floyd. I hate with all my soul their idiotic 1979 anthem “Another Brick in the Wall” and its chorus of kids singing “We don’t need to education / We don’t need no thought control / No dark sarcasm in the classroom / Teacher, leave them kids alone”, not only because I wanted very much an education, but because in my experience teaching had been about freeing my thinking and I had never encountered sarcasm, just encouragement.

Sotolino is optimistic and thinks that primary school teachers in particular are now beginning to be better valued, following the information we get on the news about the Finnish system. I am not so sure, but in any case my impression is that the secondary school remains the most problematic part of current education. In my time primary education ended at 14, with the less scholarly-minded students choosing to train for jobs. The extension of secondary school to 16 in most countries means that teachers face everyday a huge wave of adolescent resistance and rebellion, far different from my own secondary school, in which the kids aged 14-18 were struggling to go on to college and, thus, less prone to resisting education. I find, returning to Sotolino and to Pestalozzi’s “Education through head, hand, and heart”, that the heart has been overemphasized and the hand most neglected, with actual skills to do things with our hands instead of our brains being woefully neglected.

Yes, what I am saying is diversify education, make the compulsory segment shorter, give professional training the same status as academic training, make the university again a place for generating knowledge and not for training and, above all, respect teachers. The solution is not trying to entertain disaffected teenagers but building a better commitment to serious learning at all stages of education. This does not mean returning back to an authoritarian model but celebrating the main reason why education was demanded and extended: it is called self-improvement and consists of going as far as you can in the development of your abilities, no matter of what kind they.

Head, hand, and heart will follow if you are set on making the most of yourself, not beyond knowledge but beyond what is required and expected of you. After all, how you are taught is in the end far less important than how you learn. Just don’t forget this.

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 Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

BEING ASSESSED AS A TEACHER: CAN WE PLEASE IMPROVE HOW WE DO IT?

I have spent several days recently writing the report for my assessment as a teacher by the regional Catalan authorities, an exercise that takes place every five years. Funnily, the Spanish authorities only ask that we apply to be assessed, also every five years, and I have not done any further paperwork towards that. In contrast, the Catalan authorities require a long report (mine extends to 18 pages), followed by as many certificates as you can add, for as we know here in Spain nobody trusts that university teachers have actually done what we claim to have done. As I put together the final 65 pages (thanks Manuel for teaching me about I Love PDF! and how to mix different documents), I wondered about which bureaucrat will go through them. My impression is that someone will use reading my report (perhaps just taking a cursory glance) to justify their working time, not really to take my assessment seriously. Yes, we work for the bureaucrats.

Writing this type of report is immensely annoying because we are supposed to enter all our information in the EGRETA application, so in theory the application itself should generate whatever documentation we need. Instead, we need to keep track of every single thing we do by constantly updating our CV in our home computer and even so, we always lose track of some thing or other. I forgot, for instance, that the yearly assessment interviews with doctoral students also count for assessment. My impression is that everything counts except what actually happens in the classroom. I have compiled for my examiners lists of courses taught, dissertations supervised, tribunals I have been a member of, admin positions, and have written a lengthy essay on my view of teaching in the last five years. Yet, the weakest segment has been the one connected with teaching itself, because, guess what?, the students’ surveys of my work were not sufficient in number for that section of the report to be acceptable with no further evidence.

I must clarify that students’ assessment of us, teachers, used to be done in class on paper by taking a few minutes off each subject. This was time-consuming and expensive and so UAB opted for moving the surveys online. The problem is that students are just not interested in filling them in, which I totally understand. I myself would only bother to complete a survey if I wanted to say something very positive or very negative about the teacher.

I don’t run surveys among my students at the end of the semester, in which I am possibly wrong, but going through the ones they did fill in, I started wondering whether I should. One thing I would like to do, after this catastrophic academic year in which I have not managed to learn much about students because of the (literal) distance Covid-19 has imposed, is starting each subject with a short questionnaire to learn who each student is as an individual with their own interests and expectations. A young member of the staff who was once my student reminded me that I had already done that years ago, but I have forgotten I did so. The problem about running a survey asking for feedback at the end of the subject is that it is by then too late to correct any problems, so I’m not so sure that this is useful. Perhaps the really useful thing is running surveys (or feedback sessions) periodically, but I have never done that and simply do not have the time.

The survey results we receive at UAB consist mainly of numbers on a scale of 0-4 (I don’t know why, since we use 0-10 with students). If you get, for instance, a 3 in relation to how you deliver your lessons, you know that there is room for improvement, though the problem is that you still don’t know how. In surveys students are not asked this type of nuanced question, but only offered the chance to offer open comments. In my own assessment, there were not many comments, but in general the problem is that I don’t know what to change or how to improve what I do from reading them. I believe that my general mark was good enough, and some students seemed pleased with my work, but, then, others clearly were not. I ran a feedback session at the end of my fourth year elective subject in January, and I found that far more useful since I could ask direct questions and I valued very much that students gave me very direct constructive criticism. With the official surveys, I just don’t see it.

There were two comments that have stuck, for different reasons, both come from second year students. One student wrote in a negative comment that “the teacher is very proud”, a description I have a hard time identifying with and that set me thinking in earnest about when I had been ‘proud’ in class and what is the meaning of that adjective. Did the student mean ‘demanding’? Well, yes, I am very demanding but I have a pass rate of 90%. Did the student mean that I somehow despise students? That would be a first in my 30 year long career. I wish, with all my heart, that I could ask this student ‘what do you mean?’, ‘was I having a bad day?’, ‘do you mean generally every lecture?’ The comment hurt me very much, as you can see, and I still feel perplexed by it.

About the other comment, I just don’t know what to do. Someone complained that I include too many comments on painting and architecture, and not enough on general background, in the Victorian Literature course. As happens, I have one PowerPoint presentation for painting and one for architecture, and around seven or eight for social, political, and cultural background, leaving aside the ones for specific authors. I use, therefore, about one hour for painting and architecture in a fifty-hour course. I do recall overhearing a student complaining at the end of the corresponding session that painting and architecture were out of place in a Victorian Literature course, so I assume the comment was his (I can’t recall who he is). I’m still flabbergasted. I bring to class as many images as I can of the Victorian Age, and you can be sure I am not going to suppress the tiny segment on painting and architecture just because it annoys one student in five years of teaching.

It would have been far more useful to me if the student in question had protested in class when I was doing my presentation about its use, because then I would have been able to explain myself. This leads me to what I am really thinking about the students’ surveys, not what they say in them but how they are organized. Imagine you’re having sex with someone, and you think you’re communicating well in bed, but when it’s over this person goes go to a public rating board and comments on your performance—and only then do you find out that the sex was bad. What is the point of telling a third person about your lover’s shortcomings? How does this help your lover improve? That’s what I feel. The relationship between a teacher and the students should not work on the principle of sending teachers messages about their performance through a third party (or a public website such as Rate my Professor), but directly. I don’t assess my students by asking a colleague to please tell them how they are doing; I assess them personally and if there is any problem I call them for a tutorial. I believe we should have the same system between students and teachers: if I am not doing well in class, I need to know as soon as possible and as openly as possible.

Obviously, the main snag in this is that students can hardly offer candid views about the teachers’ performance to their faces for fear of being punished with a lower grade if these are negative. So we need to work out a system that excludes that fear. A possibility is inviting students to channel their worries through the class delegate, or to drop anonymous notes in the teacher’s mailbox. Of course, this is awfully awkward. I can see a student dropping a note protesting the uselessness of my painting and architecture PowerPoints but I would not know how to address the issue in class without outing the anonymous student. At least, though, I would get some kind of hint. You need a very special group of students for them to be able to tell their teacher how things can work better, particularly if any of them perceives the teacher as ‘proud’. Deep sigh. My fourth year students seemed far more comfortable telling me what to improve because they know me better, so I am making a mental note to talk as early as possible with second-year students to receive feedback, and to explain better at each point what I am doing and why.

As you can see, I am not concerned about getting a 4/4, though I’m very curious to know who has the highest rating in the Department (I can imagine), the School, and UAB; the ratings can only be accessed by the teachers assessed and the Degree Coordinator. I think that there will always be dissatisfied students, with inevitably some hating my guts and others enjoying my (supposed) cleverness, possibly in a similar proportion. Once a formidable teacher we used to have in the Department told me and a colleague that we worried too much about the students’ ratings, whereas she got very low ratings and still did not care to change her teaching. I’ll write here what I told her then: I don’t care for the ratings, I care to do my job well. In that sense my favourite rating is the 90% pass rate, I have never understood teachers who are proud of failing almost the whole class.

It turns out that I am a ‘proud’ teacher, after all, hopefully not in the problematic sense that student complained about. I am ‘proud’ of losing very few students along the semester, and of raising the standards so that the pass really means they have done great work. I’ll think hard about how to talk to them more fluently and more frequently about what we do together, though there is little I can do to convince UAB to improve the way students’ surveys are carried out. A pity, really.

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 Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

MORE ON NON-FICTION: HOW ABOUT FACTUAL PROSE?

I wrote almost eleven years ago—time does fly indeed—a post almost identical to what I was planning to write today: “The Other Books: The Problem of Non-Fiction” (https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2011/04/25/the-other-books-the-problem-of-non-fiction/). Good thing that I checked before I started writing today. This is proof that I may be beginning to repeat myself after so many years blogging (I started in September 2010), or, alternatively, that each of us has a set of fixed interests and ideas that do not really vary along the years although we might have the impression that constant reading must have an impact on our thinking.

Eleven years ago I mentioned my growing allergy to novels (still increasing), that I find the label ‘non-fiction’ lazy (I find it now irritating), and that Lee Gutkind seems to be responsible for the slightly less lazy label ‘creative non-fiction’, used to distinguish non-fiction with literary aspirations from the more pedestrian purely journalistic type (see the eponymous journal he founded at https://www.creativenonfiction.org/). I mentioned back then some lists—’100 best non-fiction books’ is still available on the Modern Library website (https://www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-nonfiction/)—to which I will add now Robert Crum’s ambitious list for The Guardian covering five centuries (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/31/the-100-best-nonfiction-books-of-all-time-the-full-list) and the ‘Must Read Non-Fiction’ list on GoodReads (https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/735.Must_Read_Non_Fiction). Wikipedia still has an entry for ‘nonfiction’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonfiction) with a bewildering array of sub-genres, which even includes ‘factual television’, that is to say TV documentaries.

I have been thinking about non-fiction again these days after reading Patrick R. Keefe’s captivating books Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (2020) and Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (2021), but failing to finish Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019), which is, as happens, a key volume to understand the 21st century and the originator of the indispensable label ‘surveillance capitalism’. Checking readers’ comments on GoodReads in the hopes that I would find some enticement to plod on (I still haven’t given up), I came across many complaints against Zuboff’s unfriendly prose—”The unnecessarily ornate writing style makes the content harder to comprehend and retain,” Lucy tersely wrote—with a person noting that this is typical of non-fiction. Hannah Cook specified that Zuboff’s volume is like “someone’s Phd thesis” with its avalanche of data, which is unsurprising, Cook added, since the author is a Harvard academic. “Not that everything should be dumbed down,” Cook concluded, “but this feels like it is purposefully trying to be hyper intellectual and the result is a giant yawn fest”. There is a lesson in all this about how non-fiction based on massive research, whether this is journalistic (Keefe’s case) or academic (Zuboff’s case), must result in books that can be consumed with no supplementary effort.

I remain, however, confused by why non-fiction encompasses such a wide-ranging territory, at least as the label is used by readers, publishing houses and even authors. Keefe’s mentions in his author’s note that he writes ‘narrative non-fiction’ and it is certainly the case that the two books I have read do tell a story accompanied by a massive influx of information. His non-fiction is quality journalism about individuals in key historical and social circumstances extended to book-size, and he uses narrative to sugar-coat, I think, the reading of the denser passages. It works very well. I was wondering, however, how this is different from Dave Eggers’s The Monk of Mokha (2018), a volume that kept me interested in the world of coffee in Yemen through the story of American-Yemini entrepreneur Mokhtar Alkhanshali, and I came to the conclusion that not that much, even though Egger’s book is closer to being a memoir written by someone else at many points. The memoirs I have read recently—Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart (2021) and Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots (2012) —are also narrative non-fiction, but, of course, they are a first-person narrative, which is not common in the type of books that Keefe and other journalists write. As you can see, I remain confused by the gradation from journalism to the memoir since, to a certain extent, journalistic non-fiction can be personal without being exactly a memoir. From Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), which arguably inaugurates the current cycle of modern non-fiction to, for instance, Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003)—another fascinating recent read—the author of non-fiction is often present in the text even when this is presented as pure reportage.

I remain, as I was 11 years ago, puzzled by the general absence of non-fiction from academia. Autobiography and memoir, what might be called ‘life writing’, have attracted much attention and it is common to find courses and publications, though not presenting these types of texts as non-fiction. I doubt, however, that anyone is teaching in any English degree other sub-genres of non-fiction. Perhaps someone might be teaching travel writing (the ‘travelogue’ is the label on the Wikipedia list); after all, Bruce Chatwin is already a canonical writer, and one can include on the reading list volumes as delicious as R.L. Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879), or the many written by Victorian travelling women. Yet, I see no scholar devoting any efforts to teach, choosing again from Wikipedia’s list, handbooks, popular science or even academic writing in English courses. Creative non-fiction is taught through handbooks and courses, but it is not taught as a literary category in English degrees, at least not that I know of.

And, yes, I have been thinking for a while of teaching narrative non-fiction. I was, however, taken aback when I mentioned this in my subject on documentary films (2019-20), and a student observed it would be a very boring subject. Documentary films (for TV, cinema, streaming platforms, or YouTube) are the audiovisual branch of non-fiction, as I explained, so plainly what worried this student was that reading non-fiction would be boring. I don’t think he said so because he knew the genre first-hand but because he imagined a boring long read of a book full of data (yes, in the style of Zuboff). Funnily, he contributed to our e-book Focus on the USA: Representing the Nation in Early 21st Century Documentary Films (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/225886) a wonderful essay on Charles Ferguson’s quite demanding documentary Inside Job (2020), actually an adaptation of his own non-fiction volume Inside Job: The Financiers Who Pulled off the Heist of the Century (2012). Perhaps the difference is that while the film takes 110 minutes to watch reading the 371 pages of the book takes considerably longer. I am, however, still very keen on teaching narrative non-fiction, and hope to do so in 2023-24, in one of my project-oriented electives: I won’t work with a closed set of four or five texts, but will invite students to discover a set they might enjoy and will publish the corresponding e-book.

This, I’m not kidding you, might be the first academic introduction to narrative non-fiction, at least as far as I now. Cambridge UP and Oxford UP, which publish companions for the obscurest corner of English Literature do not have one for non-fiction. I would love to volunteer to edit an introductory volume but I have never published on non-fiction, and I don’t think I am qualified. I don’t see, however, that there is a specialist possibly because the territory is so vast that this is like calling yourself a specialist in the novel. I will be extremely happy to be corrected, and flooded with bibliography on non-fiction but so far my search for bibliography has led to scattered articles on specific works, and just three volumes. Barbara Lounsberry’s The Art of Fact: Contemporary Artists of Nonfiction (Greenwood, 1990) offers chapters on Guy Talese, Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, Joan Didion, and Norman Mailer; it can be borrowed from https://archive.org/details/artoffact00barb. I thought that Lee Gutkind’s The Art of Creative Nonfiction: Writing and Selling the Literature of Reality (Wiley, 1997), would have gone through many reprints now but it does not even have a second edition (see https://archive.org/details/artofcreativenon00gutk/page/n9/mode/2up). Gutkind’s more successful task is the edition for Norton of a three-volume anthology, The Best Creative Nonfiction (2007-09), which I assume is possibly being used in courses. My Google search has led to a variety of creative writing courses, but, I insist, not to English Literature courses.

Perhaps, you may be thinking, this is right since practically no prose except the novel has a central place in English Literature or English Studies degrees with the noted exceptions of the autobiography and the memoir. The lists I have mentioned earlier prove, however, that there are many quality volumes to choose from both for courses and for research. Like the student in my documentary film class, however, we teaching scholars seem to believe collectively that non-fiction is dull and might only lead to dull courses in comparison to teaching fiction. I find this is a misperception, having been thrilled much more by well-researched, well-written non-fiction in comparison to many dull novels of any genre published in recent years. I really believe that liming literature to the novel, and secondarily to drama and poetry, is a serious error that has deprived students of an education in prose works which are often not only much more sophisticated but also a major source of learning. I am not saying that we should stop reading novels but that human experience is also portrayed in other kinds of non-fictional narrative and non-narrative texts.

I wrote in my post of 2011 that calling a book ‘non-fiction’ is like calling men ‘non-women’, which is an aberration and would certainly cause much offence (just stop using the adjective ‘non-white’, please). I’ll offer ‘factual prose’ as an alternative, such as Wikipedia offers ‘factual television’, since the opposite of fiction is fact, not non-fiction. One Walter Blair already used the label back in 1963 for a book called Factual Prose: Introduction to Explanatory and Persuasive Writing (Scott & Foresman, 1963), so maybe that’s worth rescuing. It’s not very sexy, but at least it is more accurate than non-fiction. Let me know if you have other suggestions.

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 Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

ON BULLIES, TYRANTS, AND THEIR SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT: STOP THEM NOW

As I write, the Russian nuclear armament is ready to strike anywhere in, probably, the whole world and both the media and the social media are debating whether Russian President Vladimir Putin might eventually order a strike, and against whom. To the world’s amazement, the Ukrainians are still resisting and Kyiv has not fallen down after six days of fighting. Conventional invasion tactics are being deployed by the Russians less successfully than they expected but, at the same time, Putin has not yet directly threatened Ukraine with nuclear devastation. In this extremely volatile situation, as Putin loses the respect of the Russian people and of most persons in the world, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a comedian who won the 2019 elections vowing to end corruption, has emerged as a great leader, choosing to stay in Kyiv, rather than accept the rescue which the Americans offered.

I want to use my post today to read the Russian assault on Ukraine in gendered terms, since I am a feminist who does research in Gender Studies. The contrast between Putin and Zelenskyy is the contrast between two types of men, showing that whereas masculinity in general is not to blame for the brutal type of violence that war is, patriarchal masculinity is indeed guilty of the worst crimes against humanity. Putin is being compared these days to Adolf Hitler and since I am the author of a book called Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in British Fiction: From Hitler to Voldemort (2019), I also have a few ideas to share about the Russian tyrant. The point I made in the book is that Hitler’s atrocious behaviour was the culmination of a pattern linking the fictional and the real-life villain as representatives of patriarchal masculinity. I defined that as the type of male-supremacist, sexist, misogynistic, LGTBIQ+ phobic, racist and generally prejudiced masculinity, only interested in accruing as much power as possible to prove itself.

Patriarchy which is not the same as masculinity but a hegemonic subset, as Raewyn Connell and Michael Kimmel have theorized, attracts men by promising them a share of the power which hegemonic men have. Although this is a hollow promise, many men fall for it, believing that they have a right to patriarchal power but finding themselves usually disempowered, or less empowered than they wished to be. If their feeling of disempowerment runs high, Kimmel has explained, this results in their lashing out against others less empowered than themselves, a behaviour that explains bullying, couple-related abuse, random criminality from serial killing to terrorism, and so on. Usually, the mechanisms of control, from peer pressure to judicial intervention work, and the would-be-tyrants are one way or another disempowered. In a number of cases, though, the tyrants in the making grow strong in power using sheer violence, within criminal or political circles, until they simply cannot be stopped; or it takes a massive effort—like WWII, perhaps WWIII—to stop them.

For the chapter on Hitler in my book I followed Kimmel but also Hitler’s British biographer Ian Kershaw, to leave aside biographical trivia and read the Führer not as an exceptional individual but as an exceptional case of patriarchal villainy overcoming all controls against excessive empowerment. Hitler, an obscure man with many personal issues, could have failed in his plans to empower himself if German society had been able to impose the necessary checks on him. The situation, however, was so fragile—after the German defeat in WWI, the 1929 crisis, the rise of fascism in Italy and so on—that instead of being stopped, Hitler was endorsed. Recall that he won a legitimate democratic election in 1933 before staging the coup that made him the total dictator of Germany. This is a mechanism we have seen at work recently in the USA, where American democracy almost died on 6 January 2021, after the Capitol was stormed by pro-Trump fascists. Hitler, Trump, or Putin, as you can see, are not important as individuals, as men. What matters here is that the democratic mechanisms are in place so that no tyrant can rise. These men are proof that the mechanism to stop villains from empowering themselves too much often fail, much more so when, as it happens in Russia, they have never really been in place.

In the normal run of things, the men and women rising to power in democratic political systems are motivated by a sense of service mingled with personal ambition to make their mark in History. Of course, they wish to empower themselves and act following their own principles and ideas with no check, but the opposition and the voters are supposed to curb down that instinct. Most politicians in the world, at any level, understand that there are red lines that cannot be crossed, though, obviously, many cross them on a daily basis to enrich themselves through corruption. J.R.R. Tolkien speaks in The Silmarillion and in The Lord of the Rings of two kinds of power: the power of creation and the power of domination. The first kind is chased by persons who think they can do good on an individual or a collective basis, whereas as it is transparent through the Tolkienian examples of Morgoth and Sauron, the power of domination needs to express itself through oppression, exploitation, and violent submission. It takes an alliance of divine beings and elves to put Morgoth in prison forever (he is immortal) and it takes a second alliance of elves, men, dwarves and hobbits to expel Sauron (another immortal) from Mordor. Tolkien had fought in WWI and he understood very well how patriarchal masculinity proceeds: its need for empowerment is a need for domination, and this is based, here is the main key, on a sense of entitlement.

Everyone feels entitled to something. Whether this is happiness or ruling the whole world depends on the share of power we have. A person with no power at all, a slave, cannot even contemplate feeling entitled to anything, whereas a person with a strong sense of entitlement to power will do anything to quash his/her enemies and rivals. We are seeing this at work in the national Spanish right-wing parties, with the sudden fall out of grace of PP’s President Pablo Casado for daring to interfere with Madrid’s regional President Isabel Ayuso, and in Vox, which is promising empowerment to men and women who feel they are being mistreated by progressive popular opinion and the left-wing parties.

Women, as you can see, feel as much sense of entitlement to power as men, but sexism has so far prevented them from enacting that need beyond a certain level (that of Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s Prime Minister, 1979-1990). If men and women had always been treated equally, I would not be speaking of patriarchal masculinity but of oligarchical humanity. Yet, the fact is that women’s sense of entitlement has been harshly suppressed throughout History. Feminism has liberated many women from their shackles but it may have created monsters by inviting all women to defend their choices, which regrettably also include, as we know now, being fascists aspiring to ruling their territory.

If sexism had not been a major factor in History, then, there is no reason to suppose that there could never have been an Isolde Hitler, a Charlotte Trump, or a Natalia Putina playing the same role as their real-life male counterparts. The prehistoric bullies, however, soon discovered that violent males always got the upper hand, whether they were themselves directly violent, or ordered others to be violent, and started in the Iron Age the patriarchal regime that is now leading to climate change and nuclear holocaust. This male supremacist regime based on satisfying the sense of entitlement and the need of power for domination of a select cadre of villainous men is still ruling the world, despite the existence of many peaceful nations, mostly ruled by men and women who understand that wars of conquest and expansion have brought nothing positive in the last thousands of years. If only hypocritically, given their record in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, the USA founded their world reputation on the basis that no other war of conquest should be tolerated. They exposed their argument by massacring the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear monstrosities because they felt entitled to ending their lives, but they still hold the argument that no one else should be allowed to enact a similar sense of entitlement over the lives of others.

This leads back to President Putin, whose sense of entitlement to the Ukraine and possibly other nations in Europe—he has directly threatened Finland and Sweden—has suddenly awakened, at a point when his power over Russia seems uncontested and after decades presenting himself internationally as a despot with no imperial ambitions. I can speculate whether Putin, now 69, is going through a personal crisis connected with his ageing as a man, given his ultra-masculine self-presentation—I believe this is the case—but I’m more interested in how the mechanisms to check his rogue behaviour are working. The war scenario in Ukraine is accompanied by other non-military measures elsewhere: massive demonstrations, financial exclusion, pressure to China to stop endorsing the war and so on. Both NATO and the EU have discarded military confrontation, though we’ll see what happens if Putin sets foot in Poland. Inside Russia, anti-Putin protesters are risking detention and worse, influencers are posting anti-war messages constantly, and billionaires beginning to grumble. There are, however, no signs (yet?) of a possible coup—a lonely MP, of the Communist Party, was the only one to oppose the war in Russia’s crowded Parliament. What is at stake, I insist, is not really how Putin should be stopped but how any villain of his kind should be stopped. Tomorrow, it could be Kim Jong-Un deciding next to invade South Korea and launch a volley of nuclear missiles. This is, however, where things get scary because right now, unless an honourable Russian man gets close enough to stop Putin for good, no strong check is in place.

As things are now, Ukraine and perhaps the world are being sacrificed to the personal needs of an ageing white patriarchal man who cannot be satisfied with ruling Russia. A German general was dismissed for arguing in public that Putin’s fears about Russia not being safe enough if Ukraine joins NATO or the EU should be addressed. I agree that his fears should be addressed, but not those concerning Ukraine. It is urgent to understand why one of the most powerful men on Earth feels suddenly so disempowered that he needs to lash out, perhaps ending the planet. What made me cry rivers last Sunday, when I heard Putin’s announcement about getting his nuclear arsenal ready, was not only pure fear but anger against the reluctance to learn lessons from Gender Studies and from the past, instead presenting monsters like Hitler as a mystifying aberrations when they are transparent and easy to understand. Now, here we are, with some idiots lashing out against the allegedly low profile that feminists are keeping in this war (like TikToker @notpoliticalspeaking, see https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-10560821/Man-SLAMMED-saying-unfair-men-fight-war-Ukraine-children-women-leave.html) while we close our eyes to the nature of patriarchal masculinity. Fight it in the streets, or fight it online, but stop it by any means or that patriarchal man in Russia will destroy all the other persons on Earth. This is now much more serious than Hitler ever was, and much more urgent. The genocide he committed, absolutely appalling as it was, may pale beside the planetary genocide we might soon witness—if anyone survives.


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 Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/