SCIENCE FICTION BEYOND THE ANGLOPHONE TERRITORY: THE CATALAN CASE

This weekend I have been participating in the IV CatCon or Catalan convention on science fiction and fantasy, celebrated like the first three in the lovely seaside town of Vilanova i la Geltrú, about 50 kms south of Barcelona. CatCon gathers together fans and writers and is also the event during which the Ictineu prize is awarded. CatCon is organized by the Societat Catalana de Ciència-Ficció i Fantasia, founded in 1997, and had its first, zero edition during Eurocon 2016, held here in Barcelona.

For this edition, I proposed a round table on the current state of Catalan science fiction, to try to find out whether this is case of a half full or half empty bottle. During my intervention in the 2018 CatCon I made some comments on a text by an author, Montserrat Segura, who happened to be in the room, and this sparked a conversation about what the university could do for the Catalan authors of science fiction. I managed to convince my colleague at the Catalan Department of UAB, Víctor Martínez-Gil, that we had to legitimize academically a literary tradition which started back in the 1870s and which is now at a particularly rich moment. We decided to publish a monographic issue in a journal that would serve to present the currently indispensable authors, for which we made a selection of seven: Antoni Munné-Jordà, Jordi de Manuel, Montserrat Galícia, Carme Torras, Marc Pastor and Enric Herce (I’m now very, very sorry we did not include Salvador Macip). Then Víctor recruited four more specialists in Catalan Literature (Francesc Foguet, Maria Dasca, Jordi Marrugat and Toni Maestre), and we wrote a proposal. A bit rashly, we decided to contact first the top academic journal for Catalan Studies, the Catalan Review, and to our relief and happiness its editor Bill Viestenz welcomed our proposal. He was familiar with my translation into English of Manuel de Pedrolo’s Mecanoscrit del segon origen (1974) as Typescript of the Second Origin (2018); every little thing helps, as you can see.

The proofs for the monographic issue arrived last week (it is to be published in July), and so it seemed the perfect moment to have the round table. For this, I invited Antoni Munné-Jordà, Carme Torras, Eloi Puig and Jordi Marrugat. Munné-Jordà is not only a great author of science fiction but also the person who knows most about this genre and fantasy in Catalan. He was the director of two key sf collections (for publishers Pleniluni and Pagès), was also one of the co-founders of the Societat Catalana de Ciència Ficció i Fantasia, and maintains the amazing bibliography of works (1873-2021) which can be downloaded from the Societat’s website. He has published more than twenty volumes, among which I’ll mention Michelíada (2015), an Ictineu winner. Carme Torras, is an internationally renowned researcher in the field of assistive robotics and a leading author known for her Ictineu award-winning novels La mutació sentimental (2007) and Enxarxats (2017). Eloi Puig is the current president of the SCCFF, the promoter of the Ictineu award and also of a series of fan meetings all over Catalonia known as Ter-Cat. I invited him as the author of the more than 1000 reviews published since 2003 in his website La Biblioteca del Kraken, which he runs in Catalan and Spanish. Last but not least, Jordi Marrugat teaches Contemporary Catalan Literature at the Universitat de Barcelona, and is the author, among others, of Narrativa catalana de la postmodernitat: històries, formes i motius (2014).

My own introduction made the point that whereas Anglophone sf can rely on a complete academic circuit, there is nothing similar to support and publicize the work of Catalan authors of sf and fantasy. The Science Fiction Research Association, founded in 1970, has been celebrating regular conferences since then; the peer-reviewed journals Extrapolation (founded in 1959), Foundation (1972), and Science Fiction Studies (1973), provide a wonderful forum of discussion. Although there are no full degrees in sf studies, there are courses in a variety of universities and also a notable research hub at Liverpool, which is also home to the key collection of monographs Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies. All this is lacking in Catalan, with the exception of Víctor Martínez-Gil’s indispensable collection Els altres mons de la literatura catalana (2005), a couple of dissertations (one BA, the other MA), and the work I myself have done on Mecanoscrit del segon origen. Without bibliography, as we know, there cannot be research. Indeed, one of the reviewers of my article for the Catalan Review complained loudly that I could not publish a piece with no academic secondary sources; since there are none in Catalan, I included in a few crowded lines references to half a dozen academic books… in English.

I cannot reproduce here all that was commented in the hour-long round table, but I’ll try to highlight a few ideas. Today, Catalan sf and fantasy interest a remarkable number of independent publishers (mostly established in the last ten years) and fandom is active in the Ter-Cat and CatCon meetings, whereas websites such as La Biblioteca del Kraken, El Biblionauta and Les Rades Grises provide specialized reviews and criticism. This appears to be positive in all senses but, as Eloi Puig noted, the impression is that the field is growing very slowly and there seems to be no generational replacement so far (this is something I add considering the average age of the CatCon attendees, with a clear absence of persons under 30).

While the number of authors is growing, the market is not strong enough for any of them to be professional writers, a situation which extends to all Catalan authors with very few exceptions. Munné-Jordà and Torras do not see this as a problem, since they believe that in this way authors are freer to write as they wish. The size of the market with, possibly, 300-400 copies sold for each moderately successful novel, suggests that professionalization is hardly going to happen in the near future, but I do agree that this is not necessarily a negative situation. Similarly, reviewing and criticism is in the hands of committed fans. Eloi Puig explained that the task he has been doing at La Biblioteca del Kraken started as a way to share his impressions with friends. He does not see his role as the main reviewer of Catalan sf and fantasy (both original and translated) as a main referent. I myself believe he is doing a superb job which is a foundation for any academic work that could be done in the future. In fact, I would like to see a Catalan university volunteering to publish a selection of his reviews to commemorate the web’s 20th anniversary next year.

Puig and Munné-Jordà have done, then, plenty but they are not academics in Departments of Catalan Philology. Jordi Marrugat explained that even though it should be in the hands of academics to write a history of Catalan sf and fantasy, to do research and teach courses, the reality is that we are very much limited. He himself is the only specialist in contemporary Catalan literature of the Universitat de Barcelona, and with a BA syllabus concentrating in a just one subject all the 20th century and part of the 21st there no room for sf and fantasy. The canon and its insistence on celebrating Modernism takes priority. It seems to me, however, unlikely that readers, no matter how passionate, can make up for this lack. Munné-Jordà’s splendid bibliography and his recent donation to Library Armand Cardona Torrandell de Vilanova i la Geltrú of his own personal collection of books and other materials aims at building a legacy that needs to find committed readers. But where, I wonder, can they be found? Shouldn’t they be the students of Catalan at university?

Perhaps what baffled me most was the idea that the authors of sf and fantasy value their themes above the quality of their writing, at least this is what I understood from Carme Torras’s intervention when I asked her about MIT’s translation of La mutació sentimental by Josie Swarbrick as The Vestigial Heart, published accompanied by classroom materials to encourage the discussion of robotics and ethics. Puig explained that he proposed the creation of the Ictineu award because after reading this novel he thought that this kind of effort should get recognition. I do believe that Torras has a distinctive style, and I very much appreciate Catalan sf and fantasy writers not only as contributors to current discussions on technoscience, but also for the passion they put in writing works that, as I have noted, can only reach a limited circle. I find this year’s Ictineu winner, Enric Herce’s cyberpunk yarn L’estrange miratge [The strange mirage], much more engaging as narrative than many novels now winning Hugos and Nebulas. I did ask the participants at the round table what they thought about how few the translations from Catalan are in comparison to the translations into our language, and only Munné-Jordà was bold enough to say out loud that some of the translated books are no good. He played around with the words ‘cannon’ and ‘canon’ to suggest that who is translated often is a matter of who has the power.

The round table was, I think, extremely enlightening and illustrative of the current situation of sf and fantasy in Catalan. I see the bottle half full if I think of the display of activity among publishers, authors and the most committed fans, but I see it half empty if I think of where the young are. More and more children educated in Catalan are reading in Catalan than ever but, as happens in other linguistic areas including English, the allure of social media is robbing them of precious time to read starting around age 10-12, as soon as they get their smartphones. Their love of screens does not extend to e-books (I was told that only 5% of all readers of all ages use them in Spain, 20% in the USA) and with books around 15-20 euros it is hard to see how the numbers of readers is going to grow. In the case of Catalan sf and fantasy I also miss good adaptations that can attract a bigger audience, but with TV3 in dire straits this is unlikely to happen. Hence the half-empty bottle.

More on this when the Catalan Review publishes the monographic issue in July. In the meantime, check La Biblioteca del Kraken for lost of amazing books to read.


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/es/

ASSHOLES, VILLAINS, AND THE CURRENT WAR IN UKRAINE

One of experts interviewed in the collective volume edited by psychologist Jean-François Marmion, The Psychology of Stupidity (2020; originally Psychologie de la Connerie, 2018; trans. Liesl Schillinger), to which I devoted my post of 4 March, was moral philosopher Aaron James. Having now read his splendid monograph Assholes: A Theory (2012), I would like to use my post today for a reflection on the asshole as a gradation in what I am calling patriarchal villainy (we are here within Masculinities Studies). James notes that most assholes are men in the same way I note that most villains are men, and we both coincide that there are female assholes and villains (villainess is, like heroine, a feminized narrative role and not a moral category). James and I also coincide on the reason why assholes and villains are mainly male: both types are characterized by a strong sense of entitlement only encouraged in men by patriarchy; some women who enjoy or take power in their hands also allow themselves to behave as assholes or villains, but they are a tiny minority.

First, some etymology and a caveat on linguistic differences. Even though we are used to hearing the word ‘asshole’ invoked many times in films and series to insult or describe a guy behaving obnoxiously, this is an American corruption of the original word, ‘arsehole’, meaning, of course, ‘anus’. British speakers understand the ‘ass’ in ‘asshole’ to mean a donkey, which makes no sense to them. Calling someone an ‘ass’ meaning that they are stupid, as donkeys are supposed to be (they are not), is pure speciesm, but this is just not related to the word ‘asshole’. When an American says ‘kiss my ass’, they don’t mean ‘kiss my donkey’, they mean ‘arse’. Although the word ‘asshole’ emerged as a vulgar synonym for ‘anus’ in the 14th century, its usage as a personal insult dates back only to the 20th century, when it become truly popular in American slang (around the 1970s).

Films and TV, as I have noted, have carried ‘asshole’ all over the planet, once the resistance against swearwords was eroded in the 1980s. Incidentally, Brits tend to prefer ‘cunt’ as a strong personal insult against obnoxious men, which is an example of particularly detestable misogyny (fancy insulting a woman by calling her ‘dick’ or ‘cock’). In Spanish, we use ‘gilipollas’ but this is a word that I find quite weak in comparison. Apparently, ‘gilipollas’ comes from caló ‘jili’ or ‘gilis’ meaning idiot, whereas ‘polla’ as we know is a vulgarism for the penis. ‘Gilipollas’ means thus something such as ‘idiot man who thinks with his dick/cock’, though ‘tonto del culo’ (which roughly translates as ‘arseidiot’) is perhaps closer to ‘asshole’. Many articles carry an improbable story borrowed from a blog post by which ‘gilipollas’ comes from one Don Baltasar Gil Imón (1545-1629), the Fiscal del Consejo de Hacienda (or Ministry of Finances) under the Spanish King Carlos IV. This man had two allegedly ugly daughters, whom he would parade in search of a suitor. ‘Polla’ was used in the past a synonym for a young girl (as ‘pollo’ was for boys) and so, apparently, sneers against ‘Gil’ and his ‘pollas’ became the sneer ‘gilipolla’, which sounds to me as a misogynistic explanation. Having said that, ‘polla’ (and in English ‘cock’) is apparently used for the penis because it sits brooding the testicles (‘huevos’) like a hen; ‘chick’ is another word for girl in English, whereas in Spanish we call chickens ‘pollos’, hence the use of the word in the past for young boys. I have seen ‘pollita’ rather than ‘polla’ for girls in old texts. And I have no idea when ‘polla’ became everyone’s favourite vulgar synonym for penis.

So what is an asshole (or a ‘gilipollas’)? Let me use James’s spot-on definition “a person counts as an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relationships out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people”. James, who took inspiration for his academic analysis of the asshole from the asshole surfers that do not respect the codes of behaviour in this sport, sees the asshole as someone who does as he pleases regardless of the consequences in social situations that call for restraint, such as being on a queue, driving in the motorway, interacting with one’s peers or subordinates at work, being with one’s family and so on. The asshole, then, is a man whose obnoxious behaviour cannot be stopped because he will not listen to reason and he will not be reformed. “The asshole”, James argues, “refuses to listen to our legitimate complaints, and so he poses a challenge to the idea that we are to be recognized as moral equals”. We fight assholes “for moral recognition in his eyes”, which may makes us unusually aggressive out of frustration.

I know plenty about assholes because, unfortunately, I grew up with one: my father. James is right to say that assholes believe they are special but he is very wrong to say that “the material costs many assholes impose upon others (…) are often by comparison [with actual criminals] moderate or very small”. I am sure he has corrected his own position after publishing Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump (2016). We know now that assholes may even cause the loss of democracy in the USA (please, remember that Trump will run for President again in 2024), whereas assholes like Putin may cause the world to be plunged into a nuclear World War III. My own personal experience of enduring my father also shows that assholes cause widespread misery every minute they are awake. Our family life has been destroyed by the relentless assholery of this man, who can only be called a black hole in his total destruction of anything positive. My father is not a criminal and he cannot be called legally an abuser but he has made my mother’s life miserable. James warns that assholes cannot be reformed or defeated, and that the only solution is to keep a distance from them. Easier said than done, indeed. My siblings and I carry with us the weight of my father’s assholery at all times. In the letter James addresses to the asshole, he writes that “many who know you will find your death relieving. There will be a quiet celebration”. Quiet?

The whole world is right now waiting for the news that Vladimir Putin is ill to be confirmed. Imagine the reaction to his possible death. Now, Putin is useful to explain the difference between an asshole and a villain, both, as I am arguing, figures of male patriarchal empowerment. James claims that calling men like Hitler or Stalin assholes is not enough, as they did major harm to humankind, but at the same time there is no doubt that these men were assholes of a superlative category. What I argued in my book on villainy about Hitler is that there are many potential villains of his kind because patriarchy generates them all the time by allowing men to act on their sense of entitlement to power. Usually this begins within unbearable family dynamics or with school bullying, and progresses until villainy is checked by a stronger individual, the rules of the community or the law. Some assholes, however, are not checked and they are even encouraged, so that they go on empowering themselves until they break the barriers implicit in patriarchy. Then, a hero needs to act to limit the villain’s power, stop the widespread destruction he is causing, and return patriarchy to its status quo. This is what is happening now with Putin: the asshole, who was already giving many signs of villainy, is now expressing himself in full as a villain. Hence the war in Ukraine, the threat of nuclear violence (sent through his minion Lavrov), and the generalized wish that Putin is terminally ill. For here’s the problem: we have a hero (Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people) and a circle of Allies (NATO), but there is not a coordinated international offensive against Putin that can stop him for good. It took six years to defeat Hitler, let’s see how long it will take to defeat Putin.

James observes that assholes are now harder to defeat because they do not represent a particular ideology even when they present themselves as political figures. Trump has nothing to do with Abraham Lincoln, another Republican, but is, in fact, a figure expressing a personal brand of assholery under cover of the GOP. Why is he still so successful? Or Putin, for that matter, leaving aside the machinery of terror he operates in Russia. Because, James argues, we live in times in which narcissism is encouraged and we respond to any figure who frees himself (or herself) from social and moral rules to do as he pleases. I would not hesitate to call many of the influencers who think the world spins around them total assholes, for, unlike those of us who truly want to share knowledge and debate, they want to put their usually uninformed opinion above anyone else’s. Yesterday, an eighteen-year-old white male killed ten fellow Americans, all of them black, convinced that there is a conspiracy to outnumber the white race in his nation. Guess where that idiotic idea comes from? Indeed, assholes cause plenty of damage personally and also because they sanction minion assholes.

If, despite the efforts we are making in academia and in the serious segments of the media, the existence of assholes and villains cannot be prevented, how can we curb down their impact? James, as I have noted, warns that assholes cannot be reformed, whereas I myself argued that villains must be contained for the common good. Rowling gives us a wonderful lesson in Harry Potter when she has the titular hero fight Voldemort in a way that the villain ends up killing himself with the very wand he thought would kill Harry. Her villain, in short, is killed by his own power. Wishing anyone’s death is ugly, but, one cannot see Voldemort in handcuffs facing trial for his crimes against humanity. Hitler could not see himself, either, in that position, hence his suicide in the style of the scorpion surrounded by flames. These days every time a lovely person dies before their time, the whole planet wishes ‘that asshole’ (add the name you prefer) would have died instead. For me, this is the worst thing about assholes and villains: they turn even good people into murderers, if only in their fantasies. For, you see, a pacifist society that does not believe in the death penalty (or in war) does not go about exterminating its members, no matter how obnoxious they can be. We can discuss that self-defeating position, but I’ll conclude by declaring that the asshole’s worst punishment is total ostracism: one can hardly express any entitlement in isolation, for entitlement is always over something or someone.

So, next time your neighbour bothers you, think of how although most assholes are only guilty of assholery occasionally, some assholes may escalate into full villains, if no check is put on their empowerment. Ask Zelensky how he feels about his asshole neighbour and do help Ukraine.

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/es/

DEFENDING ACADEMIC SELF-PUBLISHING: THE PROBLEM OF BOOKS (AND A NEW ONE)

I have recently published a new book, but I don’t know whether it is really a book because it is self-published and, as such, it does not exist for the authorities that assess my research, the Ministry and ANECA. My new book is called Entre muchos mundos: en torno a la ciencia ficción, and it can be downloaded for free from the digital repository of my university. This is by no means the first book I publish at the DDD if I count the e-book versions of other books I have published in print or the 10 e-books with my students, but the novelty is that this is the first time I use the digital platform to publish a new book. ‘New’ relatively, since Entre muchos mundos gathers together a selection of 21 articles and book chapters on science fiction which I have published between 2000 and 2021. My intention was not only to put them together but also to make them all available in Spanish. As the credits show, most of these pieces had been originally published in English, but there is so very little on science fiction in Spanish that I decided to self-translate. The volume is quite long, around 340 pages, but I had already self-translated some of the pieces, and in case you don’t know, Word offers a translation tool (right-hand mouse button) which, as far as I’m concerned, works as proficiently as Google Translate or Deep-L. It still requires revision, logically, much not as much as you might think.

My collection is organized in three sections, Part I – Science fiction, genre and texts; Part II – Masculinity and Science Fiction, and Part III – Science fiction, women and feminism. Each section has 7 articles, with the first section being necessarily more miscellaneous. One of the hardest parts of organizing any book, particularly if it is an anthology of previously published work, is making it seem coherent. Another hindrance is getting over the embarrassment of re-reading work published fifteen or twenty years ago. What I have discovered in the process is that even though constant reading and studying brings new ideas all the time, one’s mind still spins around the same insistent notions. We are (or I am) rather stubborn creatures in what we think and believe. The matter that has surprised me more is that I wasn’t aware that I had already written so much on science fiction; in the end, I had to leave out some articles. This is not the kind of book I would have written if I had started from scratch but at the same time it is a more consistent sample of my work than I initially believed.

The focus of my post is not, however, the contents of the book, which the reader is invited to sample as more than other 100 readers have already done. I would like to discuss why this book exists and why it is in an academic limbo. In the process of trying to have my book Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort (2020, Routledge) published in Spanish, in self-translation, I have contacted 20 prospective publishers. Of these 7 declined to publish my book, usually invoking the excuse that their catalogue was full for two more years but never giving me the chance to consider if this was convenient for me. One, by the way, stopped replying to my e-mails at a point when I had already sent the contract with Routledge for them to check the matter of the language rights (which Routledge has granted me for Spanish). To my dismay, 11 publishers have never even replied to my proposal, accompanied by a rather complete dossier, and samples of my self-translation. Of the three who did reply showing some interest, I have finally been fortunate to be invited by one to publish the translation. In contrast, I had only contacted Palgrave and Routledge to publish the English original. I came to the conclusion that if publishing the translation of a book accepted by a top international academic publisher had been such a long, complicated process, there was no way anyone would accept a collection of already published articles on science fiction. In fact, I haven’t even tried to find a publisher. Why bother?

The market for academic books collapsed possibly a decade ago when students stopped buying books (I always speak of the Humanities, where handbooks are not as habitual as in science degrees). Reading Javier Pérez Andújar’s delicious Paseos con mi madre, I came across a reference to Dos obras maestras españolas: El Libro de buen amor y La Celestina (1962) by Maria Rosa Lida de Malkiel, a book that all students of Philology like him (and I) read photocopied. The academic market survived for as long as copies had to be paid for but when digitalization resulted in the rampant piracy in which we all participate, publishers reacted by increasing the price of volumes so steeply that not even well-paid tenured professors can afford them. In the recent order I have passed to the library, some of my colleagues have asked for books priced 120-160 euros; paperbacks start now at around 30 euros, which is still expensive. As for e-book editions, I wonder who is buying them because they are that expensive if not more. I believe that if e-books were in the 5-10 euros range, piracy would diminish but of course this is incongruous in an academic market in which articles are priced around 35 euros (and please recall that authors are paid royalties for books but not for articles, or, for that matter, book chapters).

It makes, then, sense to self-publish, which as I noted in my previous post, some first-rank figures are already doing through platforms such as Amazon. If we want knowledge to circulate, this is an attractive possibility, though of course everything has a cost. Surfing the internet seeking publishers, one soon comes across businesses offering help with self-publication, including a concern by Planeta. They value the editing and proof-reading of a standard volume (200-350 pages) at more than 2500 euros. I don’t know if this is cheap or expensive, but I realize that not all academics have the skills to produce a correctly edited e-book that looks minimally nice. I hope this fits the description of my new book, but I must say that even though I am very far from being a professional book designer, I have 30 years’ experience in editing and proof-reading my own texts (like most of us do), and more than 10 years’ experience in publishing online at UAB’s DDD. Actually, I love the process of choosing fonts, designing covers and so on, but I am aware that not all academics enjoy it. Self-publishing, then, has that: it requires either money or skills, and of course time. If I recall correctly, I have used about six weeks to edit my new book, combined with other duties, though I am not teaching this semester.

Once the e-book is edited (and I say e-book because self-publication on paper makes no sense at all), and it is uploaded online, what remains is making it visible. We believe that publishing on paper with an academic publisher is more practical since the book enters a catalogue and the publicity machinery of the publisher. Just consider this: books have a shelf-life of a few weeks, even when they are published by big commercial houses; possibly, university libraries extend that shelf-life since the idea of academic novelty is not so limiting (most journals accepts reviews of books published in the last two years). Even so, my Routledge book has sold about 150 copies in the first year, which was enough for it to become a paperback, whereas Entre muchos mundos already has 123 readers in one month. I have not even announced its publication, except for a tweet. If you’re thinking, ‘fine, but you’re not making any money out of this book’, consider that I have made no money whatsoever with the articles and book chapters included in it.

So, supposing you have the skills (or the money) to produce a legible e-book as a .pdf (Calibre can help you transform it into .epub and .mobi), and supposing your university has a digital platform where you can upload it (as Academia.edu and ResearchGate have, too), why do we insist on publishing academic books on paper, even paying thousands of euros for the privilege? Because of the Ministry and the assessment agencies, whether they are ANECA or the regional ones. Books are an uncomfortable grey area in assessment because they do not follow strictly the same peer reviewing system as the journals, and because they are not ranked according to the same metrics. In Spain, a research group of the Universidad de Granada build a few years ago SPI (Scholarly Publishers Indicators) on the basis of a survey asking us, researchers, about the prestige of the publishers in our area. This oddly subjective method created a series of distortions which has resulted in a rather singular list. SPI, besides, mixes Language and Literature, which means that the list is rather useless for either area. The Ministry and ANECA are so unsure about how to judge academic books that they give full volumes the same value as single articles in our personal assessment exercises. I stupidly believed that, with 9 chapters, the Routledge book should be sufficient to pass the next assessment until an ANECA bureaucrat corrected me. I still need to submit 5 more items, ideally from peer-reviewed A-list journals. Given the importance of peer-reviewing, and the treatment which academic books receive as suspect vanity publications unless they have the seal of a SPI top publishers, it is no wonder that self-publishing academic e-books has attracted so few people.

In the end, though, you need to ask yourself how you want to organize your academic publishing. I myself have led for many years now a dual career: I publish in what the Ministry and ANECA consider valuable publishers and journals for assessment, and I self-publish online for free at UAB’s repository what I want to circulate with no limits at all, even if it does not count for assessment. Hence, my new book. Would I publish a full monograph in this way? The answer is not yet because I still need to be assessed every five years (perhaps when I retire). So, yes, I understand that there are few advantages in self-publishing e-books that do not count for assessment, except that knowledge circulates for free, which is a gigantic bonus. If, in short, academic publishers instead of digital repositories are issuing our work, this is because the Ministry and ANECA require it, not because this is the best way in which knowledge is enhanced. Open Access, in fact, currently consists of making available what was once published not what is being self-published (and could be also peer-reviewed if required).

I hope you enjoy my book, but I also hope you think of publishing your own collections and of self-translating. It is extra work, I know, but perhaps not as hard as you assume. Stick to the Ministry/ANECA rules for assessment if you have to, but look beyond them, and circulate your academic work in as many ways as possible. I believe it is worth it and satisfactory.

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/

READING MEMOIRS: EDITING LIFE

I am currently reading the memoirs by British pianist James Rhodes, Instrumental (2014), which caused quite a stir at the time of publication for his straightforward description of the horrifying sexual abuse to which he was subjected between the ages of 6 and 10 (and its aftermath). This is the sixteenth book of memoirs I read this year, and it is only May 2nd. I must clarify that up to now I have not been much interested in memoirs, finding them always a bit too gossipy for my taste, which has been no doubt conditioned by the tenets of a Catholic upbringing dictating that confession must be private, only for the priest’s ears. In Protestant Anglophone countries, confession, in contrast, is public. Memoirs actually come, or so I was taught, from the texts that Protestant believers composed to narrate how they had found grace after sinning. The idea behind memoirs was that they would help other sinners to lead an honest life, guided by example. Evidently, little remains today of that initial impulse, even though volumes like Rhodes’s always carry a bit of an exemplary intention, in this case to guide others in how to survive abuse (or, as he has the courage to call it, rape). On the other hand, the worst kind of memoir is that type which is basically a long list of trivial minor recollections, punctuated by constant name dropping. ‘I am important and I matter’ these vainglorious memoirs scream on each page.

Rhodes begins Instrumental by wondering whether, at age thirty-eight, he is too young to write his memoirs. This a common misconception: he is too young to write his autobiography, a text intended to cover the author’s whole life usually written at an advanced age, but not his memoirs. Any person at any point in their life can write a memoir as long as they have something worth telling. In fact, the pity about memoirs is that they need to be written when the subject is minimally mature to make sense of their recollections, which means that we are missing memoirs by children and by teens (I don’t mean memoirs of childhood and adolescence by adults, but texts written by minors). It is true, in any case, that memoirs usually contain plenty of autobiography of the classic Dickensian kind, mostly narrating the beginnings of the subject’s life. Usually, the first chapters of memoirs are for that reason rather more synthetic and better ordered than the rest. As the memoir progresses, more and more information and events are weeded out, which opens many gaps. Debbie Harry, former frontwoman of popular band Blondie, writes in her memoirs Face It (what a great title!) that this is because in memoirs life needs to be ‘edited’, so I’m borrowing her phrase for my title today.

Memoirs are, then, usually more partial accounts than autobiographies, which are supposed to be more comprehensive, though I would not want to be too dogmatic. What I find most intriguing about memoirs, and possibly this is the reason why I have resisted their appeal for so long, is that most are written by non-writers. Besides, we all know that in fact many memoirs have been penned by ghost writers (not all incurring the dangers of Roman Polanski’s protagonist in his thriller The Ghost Writer (2010)!). Being far less politically correct, in Spanish we call ghost writers ‘negros’, which is a way of stressing the enslavement of that kind of writer to the will of the master author. The existence of ghost writers and of acknowledged collaborators (the name following the preposition ‘with’ after the name of the main author) is nonetheless a factor that interferes in my reading of memoirs. Whenever I come across a great sentence, I always wonder whose turn of phrase that is. The same applies to the ‘editing’ that Harry alludes to; one thing is who makes the decision to narrate what, and another very different matter is who structures the book and how. Even when there is no ghost writer, the usually long lists of names of editors in the acknowledgements section makes me wonder what kind of Frankenstein’s monster text I am reading. This would not matter if it weren’t for the obsession with authorial integrity that we borrow from the novel and apply to the memoir, but it does ultimately matter.

The current fashion for memoirs is to be candid and sincere, even when they expose the author in a less than favourable light. This can be unwitting. In Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation (1994), a memoir of depression that has taken me ages to read because it is so painful, the author paints a most negative portrait of herself, revealing shortcomings that were not strictly speaking part of her illness. In contrast, I struggled with Anna Wienner’s Uncanny Valley (2019) because her indictment of Silicon Valley’s sexism totally lacked any self-criticism. I don’t mean that she is in any way guilty of provoking her own discrimination, but that she seemed unable to explain why she chose to be employed by that obviously sexist industry. Adam Kay, once a young doctor employed by the British public health system, is extremely critical of his work environment in This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Medical Resident (2022), but he is also candid about his own misguided idealism and the errors he committed in choosing Medicine as a profession. Memoirs are always partial but they should not be so in a way that raises more questions than answers. Mariah Carey’s narrative of her enslavement by her former husband and Sony recording company CEO Tommy Mottola in The Meaning of Mariah Carey (2020) is perplexing because she never acknowledges that she did benefit professionally from their marriage. I don’t mean that she is disrespecting the truth, what I mean is that her account has gaps which make the reader ask ‘but…?’, which should not happen. Naturally, perhaps not even Mariah Carey fully understands why her life went through certain turns, but, then, that is the danger of the memoir: one must be in control, if not of life, at least of the narrative shaping its account.

Not all memoirs are obvious memoirs. One of the most beautiful books I have read in a long time is Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland (1977). This cannot be really called a memoir since Shepherd is not there narrating her life but paying homage to this feature of the Scottish landscape. Nor is this travel writing since this is not a text about a specific journey but a recollection of many trips along the years into the hills. Yet, Shepherd herself is there in each page of the short book, loving the mountains, enjoying them alone or in company, first as a girl and later as a mature woman. Shepherd, the author of three well received novels—The Quarry Wood (1928), The Weatherhouse (1930), and A Pass in the Grampians (1933)—wrote The Living Mountain in 1944, but abandoned the idea of publishing it when one of her literary mentors (a man whose name I forget) told her it was not really worth issuing. She decided thirty years later that, after all, her slim volume should see the light, and the result is a prose poem of rare beauty in which Shepherd is an enchanted onlooker, enjoying in body and mind a total Romantic communion with the hills of her land. “On the mountain, I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy… I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. That is the final grace accorded from the mountain”. Her admirer, landscape writer Robert MacFarlane, wrote that “This is Shepherd’s version of Descartes’s cogito—I walk therefore I am. She celebrates the metaphysical rhythm of the pedestrian, the iamb of the ‘I am’, the beat of the placed and lifted foot”. Pure poetry, as I say, coming from a writer who needs no ghost writer in a text that almost became a ghost.

I do not mean with this praise of Shepherd’s unique memoir that more standard memoirs are lacking in literary ambitions, for what is remarkable about this genre is how protean it can be. Memoirs can be written by fine professional writers and by less gifted amateurs, and that is the beauty of their kind. Novels are read for the insight they provide into human experience but novels are not alone in providing that; besides, novels tend to focus on invented characters. Memoirs complement that search for human experience by presenting readers with recollections of life lived by persons who are in one way or another interesting. I never thought, for instance, that I would be attracted by what professional rock climber Alex Honnold has to say, but I found his memoir Alone on the Wall (2015) truly engaging (collaborator David Roberts claimed that he had worked very little on it, mostly as an editor). Memoirs require being a very open-minded reader and trusting that gems can be found amongst the most unlikely authors. One never knows.

Perhaps the secret reason why I admire memoir writers is that it takes courage to narrate your life, even when you do it out of sheer vanity. The woman professor whose courses on autobiography and memoirs I took as a doctoral student used to say when I raised this point that in the end human experience is not so dissimilar in terms of the general narrative arc of life, and so there is no reason to feel embarrassment. I believe that there is good reason to feel embarrassed about the specifics of each life, no matter how similar they can be. Memoir writers have crossed the boundary of embarrassment, with some, like Trevor Noah (do read please Born in Crime) making the most of rather painful recollections.

Privacy is not much valued these days but it still matters to many of us, which is why reading memoirs is so paradoxical: because they are the most private of texts (apart from diaries, yes). I thank, then, for their courage the authors that are giving themselves up for inspection, revealing big and small corners of human experience which go beyond fiction to connect with actual life.


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