LOOKING BEYOND THE NOVEL: THE OTHER PROSE

My post today continues from the last one in the sense that I want to consider here why the novel occupies the first position in the ranks of all the literary texts. In fact, I want to consider how come we have confused narrative with literature, additionally reducing fiction only to the novel, the novella, and the short story (and forgetting that drama and poetry can also be narrative). As I maintained in my last post, narrative non-fiction cannot compete in general public esteem with the novel because of the general fixation with narrative fiction, which to me is harder and harder to explain, particularly if we take into account than often narrative fiction is based on real-life facts (as Moby-Dick is) whereas narrative non-fiction borrows plenty of narrative techniques from fiction, including the novel, the novella, and the short story.

I’ll begin with a very basic observation regarding an issue that we often take for granted. Whenever someone is described as a ‘writer’, we immediately assume that this person must be a novelist. Whenever someone claims they like reading, they usually mean that they enjoy reading novels. Yet, not all writers are novelists and not all reading consists of reading novels. When I first saw myself referred to as a ‘university lecturer and writer’, I was mystified, for I don’t call myself a writer even though at this point I have authored 8 books, apart from editing a longish list of volumes, and even doing some translation. Emily Brontë, let’s recall this, only published Wuthering Heights (1848). However, the reason why she is universally regarded as a writer and I am not (not even in my own personal regard) is that she wrote a novel (and beautiful poetry) and I write essays.

Ms. Brontë was not a professional writer, and nor am I, yet that is immaterial, for what counts towards being a ‘writer’ is not an ability to commercialize one’s writing, but following a vocation that is supposedly artistic (I appear to be a vocational writer, but not of the artistic type). Ms. Brontë did certainly produce literary art in her novel, but the vast majority of novelists active today are not at all capable of writing artistic prose, being mostly proficient in the craft of storytelling. There is nothing wrong in producing and enjoying a tale well told written in functional prose, but that kind of novel should be enjoyed and studied as narrative, not as literature. Before I get lost in my own argumentation, I must make the point that not only are authors of essays (academic or otherwise) also writers, but some of them are capable of writing literary prose of a much higher quality than most novelists. As an example, read any of Robert Macfarlane’s exquisite essays on nature, and then read any recent Booker Prize winner and tell me where the better literary prose can be found.

An even more basic point than the ones I have raised is that all writing is produced either in verse or in prose. We now identify verse with poetry, and all poetry with lyrical poetry, but in fact poetry can be used in any kind of writing. I could be writing this blog in verse rather than prose. Verse has been used in narrative, from ballads to epic poems running to many pages, and indeed in novels. Verse used to be of common usage in drama, but, if I’m not wrong, T.S. Eliot was the last major author to write plays in verse, setting them besides in contemporaneous times. We associate verse to centuries old plays, like the ones by Shakespeare and company, but tend to forget that nobody has ever spoken in verse, and that poetry (especially blank verse) was of great mnemotechnic use to actors. To sum up this point, writing in verse is far more time-consuming than writing in prose but there is actually no reason why verse should not dominate over prose. Please, note that not all verse is literary, that is to say, successful in creating an artistic impression, even though we accept that poetry (the texts purposefully created to use verse artistically) is part of literature. Not all poetry, of course, manages to be artistically pleasing, hence literary.

So, whatever is not written in verse is prose, a style of writing in which rhythm is secondary and rhyme not used (even though the blank verse mostly used in Elizabethan drama, and by Milton in Paradise Lost, has no rhyme, either). Prose can be a very blunt instrument (read any set of instructions) or a very sophisticated tool, capable of sustaining from a witty tweet to all of Wikipedia. Here is where the word ‘creative’ complicates matters. Nobody would expect a newspaper or a journal article to use prose in a creative fashion, for the main purpose of the prose in those types of texts is transmitting information and ideas. The more creative segment of prose writing is to be found in literary texts which include, let me stress this again, drama (for the stage for also for the screen) and what we stubbornly call fiction, as if fiction could not be found in narrative poetry and in plays. Once Eliot’s experiment in writing verse plays was over, I should say that any literary impulse was lost in drama. By this I mean that authors from Beckett onward saw no point in cultivating creative prose of the kind that tickles the brain with the genius in stringing words together, preferring instead to focus on the situational, whether narrative or non-narrative. Thinking of the best 20th and 21st century plays I have seen, it strikes me that I love them either for the story they tell or the experience they offer, but one would hardly quote them as examples of linguistic art as we still quote Shakespeare (both his verse and his prose).

It would be absurd for me to claim that the prose used in short stories, novellas, and novels is no longer artistic but I certainly believe that most novels are appreciated for their plot rather than for the quality of their prose. I have recently read Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog (1967), which Jane Campion adapted so amazingly well for the screen, both as screenplay writer and director. This novel has been my most pleasing experience in reading this kind of book of the whole year (so, the best novel in 20 I have read so far) and as I read it I was wondering why it worked so well. I believe it is due to a happy overlapping of total narrative control (Savage knows when to provide apparently trivial details that later are seen to be crucial) with a prose that is above the basic needs of the story. There are no poetic flights but Savage’s prose is precise and insightful in its descriptions, and in its dialogue. Does this mean that The Power of the Dog is great literature? The answer is that it is great narrative, superior to many other novels, though it does not necessarily provide a better reading experience that some great non-fiction books I have read. But is Savage’s novel literature? No, if we think that the author was not particularly interested in writing artistic prose. Yes, if we use the concept ‘literature’ as a synonym of narrative, as it is done today.

There is an intriguing possibility that literature is dead with the exception of poetry if we regard literature as the artistic use of language. Both in drama (stage and audiovisual) and in prose fiction (novel, novella, shot story) any attempts to call attention to language itself are perceived as obstacles, and regardless of the degree of fantasy in the plot all works use functional dialogue, description, and authorial comment. No narrative writer is now making an effort (or just very few) to make the most of the possibilities of language, preferring instead to put their energies on situation (characterization is dying or almost dead). Whether we go to the theatre, watch the latest Netflix series, or lie down on the sofa with a novel in our hands, we don’t want to be offered bursts of elaborated language but narrative that flows well and is cleverly built, and dialogue that is as close to possible to real life (no verse please!) even when the work in question is set on 24th century Mars.

If, as I am arguing, the novel is not really a repository of artistic prose there is, therefore, no reason to give it so much room in Literature degrees, criticism, reviewing and reading. If novelists are not more capable than, say, scientists, to write the kind of prose that makes you wonder about the artistic flexibility of language, then why are they so highly valued? If we claim to love literature and not just fiction, how come so very few people enjoy poetry and hardly nobody reads plays? In our English Literature degrees, poetry and drama occupy just a small corner, and if the presence of short fiction is more or less stable, this is because the students bingeing on TV series for hours no longer have patience for novels. Much less for other genres. The course on Victorian Literature that I teach focuses on four novels. It used to be called Genres of Victorian Literature and last for two semesters. When it was reduced to one semester, we lost the play (Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest), the poetry and the selection of passages from Victorian essays. I still give students the booklets with the poems and the essay selections but the time I need to help them read the novels has reduced the time I could use for the other genres to nothing. Here’s the joke: the true best-sellers of Victorian times were the religious books. Victorian readers love sermons, it seems.

To sum up my argumentation, I wish we could acknowledge that what we call literature is actually narrative, and that the novel is no better than narrative non-fiction in offering interesting stories told in prose of similar quality. Essays, as Robert Macfarlane shows, can be of higher literary quality than novels if we look at the beauty of his prose, whereas the increasing pull of realism is making it harder and harder for all kinds of fiction to use literary language. I am not engaging here in the old debate of whether popular and so-called literary creative novelists are all part of the canon and so on. I am calling attention to the extraordinary amount of commitment that novels receive even in Literature degrees in comparison to other genres which do care for literary artistry (such as poetry) and other genres written in prose of similar quality and by authors as competent as novelists or even more.

If you disagree with me, please send me examples of beautifully crafted prose in recent fiction and we’ll continue the conversation. Thanks.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328, and visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

READING MOBY-DICK WITHOUT HAVING A WHALE OF A TIME

Michael Quinion explains in his beautiful online dictionary of idioms World Wide Words the origin of the expression ‘having a whale of a time’, meaning enjoying yourself enormously. The idiom originates, as it easy to surmise, in the idea that whales are big animals to which big things can be compared. Apparently, Quinion informs his readers, turn-of-the-century US student slang was prolific in its many references to whales. The article by Willard C. Gore, “Student Slang” for The Inlander, a Monthly Magazine of the Students of Michigan University (December 1895), defines ‘whale’ as 1. A person who is a prodigy either physically or intellectually (“He’s a whale at tennis”) and 2. Something exceptionally large, severe or jolly, hence the idiom having “a whale of a time” (in Quinion). By 1901, Quinion notes, the idiom was fully consolidated and “It has never gone away”.

This prologue is my introduction to the problem I have suffered as a reader these last few weeks: I haven’t had a whale of a time reading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, the Whale (1851). This has been, if I recall correctly, my third attempt at reading this famed American classic and if this time I have persevered it is only because I had announced to two colleagues who specialize in Melville that I was finally reading the book. As happens, I am co-editing a book called Detoxing Masculinity for which one of my two colleagues (Rodrigo Andrés) has contributed a chapter on Moby-Dick and I just thought the time had come to fill in that woeful gap in my reading. Besides, my doctoral student Xiana Vázquez is working on the concept of humans as prey, and it seems to me that Melville’s novel is fundamental for her dissertation. Please, note that Moby-Dick is a sperm whale, a toothed predator unlike the even larger blue whale, a filter feeder that eats tiny krill. No humans have been eaten by a sperm whale (or there are no reports), and despite constant speculation that the whale that swallowed Jonah could have been a sperm whale, the scientific studies indicate the prophet would have been crushed in the event.

The problem with Moby-Dick is not its length (539 pages in its Project Gutenberg edition) but the problematic merger in the text of, essentially, two books: one, a seaman’s yarn dealing with how Captain Ahab obsesses about the white whale that took his leg away; the other, a non-fiction report (I would not call it essay) on whaling and whales, in particular sperm whales. Nam Peruge claims in a blog post that readers can skip the 100 non-narrative chapters of the novel and just focus on the remaining 35 that are narrative, which, indeed, can be done, Rayuela-style. The problem, as you can see, is that if you only read the 35 narrative chapters you cannot claim to have read Moby-Dick, this so-called novel which is more non-fiction than fiction. The other major problem is that whereas the narrative chapters are proficient enough as adventure, the long list of non-narrative chapters are quite dull as non-fiction. I would call myself a rather patient reader but despite my love of non-fiction and my being used to academic prose, which is usually a pretty dry affair (including mine), I had many difficulties to read for more than thirty minutes at a time Melville’s too detailed informative chapters. The day I read one hour of Moby-Dick I was on a train with nothing else to do (or read).

In fact, I have used with Moby-Dick an old trick from my student days, which consisted of combining the books I had to read for class but didn’t like with one book I loved. If I read a good chunk of the compulsory set text, then I would allow myself to read a bit from the one I preferred. Quite by accident, my choice of companion for Moby-Dick turned out to be a perfect match. John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (2010)—which you should hurry to borrow from the Internet Archive before they close it down, as it might soon happen—is a thrilling non-fiction narrative volume about the hunting of a man-eating Siberian tiger, which tells, besides, the story of this species and of how the collapse of the Soviet Union led to its desperate situation. It is so close to Moby-Dick in so many ways that Vaillant even chooses an epigraph from Melville for one of the chapters. The two books differ, however, in one important point: even though The Tiger is the perfect mixture of the informative and the narrative Melville was aiming at it will never compete with Moby-Dick because non-fiction books still suffer from the absurd prejudice of being considered inferior to fiction.

This is due to the modern worship of authorial imagination. The irony is that although Melville invented Captain Ahab and had the idea of making his sperm whale an albino (see how popular the white humpback Migaloo is today), he took his inspiration from a very well-known historical episode, that of the sinking of the whaleship Essex in 1820 by a sperm whale. The first mate Owen Chase published the following year his Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, which inspired Melville to write his novel 30 years later. The Essex tragedy inspired as well American author Nathaniel Philbrick to write a truly admirable non-fiction volume, one of the best books I have ever read, in any genre: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000), which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. In 2015 Ron Howard released the film adaptation, a fiction film (not a documentary) with Chris Hemsworth playing Chase (who was not that handsome…).

Many readers who share their problems with Moby-Dick on Goodreads (see the very thorough discussion by ‘Matt’) mention Philbrick’s masterpiece as a volume which, unlike Melville’s, gave them a whale of a time. My colleague Nick Spengler, who wants to teach Moby-Dick in an elective, semestral course tells me that Melville’s novel needs to be approached as a singular construction rather than a standard novel. He told me that the illustrious Francisco Rico and Gonzalo Pontón once shared at UAB a similar elective subject on El Quijote, which is also a composite text, and not what we know now as a novel. My impression is that our students will have a hard time reading Melville, though I trust that if anyone can make Moby-Dick attractive, this is Nick. I would myself join his class… As I told him, I am planning to teach a non-fiction course in 2023-24, which will certainly include In the Heart of the Sea, so it might well be that students will read the two books simultaneously. That will be an interesting experiment!

The other major problem which Melville’s (alleged) masterpiece faces today is its insensitive approach to whales and whaling, as many other commentators have noticed. A passage from Chapter 41 encompasses everything that makes contemporary readers cringe before this novel’s appalling approach to animals; I refer to the lines describing Ahab’s dismemberment. The captain is attacking Moby-Dick with a “six inch blade” when the animal “reaped away Ahab’s leg”, in an action that can only be called self-defence but that Ahab reads as pure “malice”. Since losing his leg Ahab “had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale” as “the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them”. Melville writes that Ahab identifies the “intangible malignity which has been from the beginning” with the “abhorred white whale”, and sentences that “He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down”.

Melville is subtle enough for us to be able to read Ahab as a madman unfairly pursuing an animal that must feel terrified and that tries, accordingly, to flee his foe and, later, to save his own life for good [SPOILERS ALERT] by destroying Ahab’s whaling ship, the Pequod. Yet, in Chapter 105 Melville dismisses the account of how 18th and 19th century whaling almost exterminated these fellow mammals with the rather absurd observation that since other species hunted in bigger numbers still survive (such as elephants), “we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality”. Perhaps because of the negative reaction all this provokes in contemporary readers, Moby-Dick may be functioning today as a potent defender of animal rights. I am sure that many readers cheer when [SPOILER ALERT] the whale carries Ahab away (presumably to drown, not eat, him).

I wish, finally, to praise Ray Bradbury, for being one of Herman Melville’s best readers. John Huston commissioned Bradbury to write the screenplay for the film eventually released in 1956. Bradbury was then rather well-known but he was not familiar with Moby-Dick, and he found the double task of adapting the book and putting up with Huston’s ill-treatment barely bearable. He narrated his ordeal in Green Shadows, White Whale (1992), which is his lightly fictionalized memoir of the almost two years spent in Ireland writing the screenplay, while Huston drank, led a hectic social life, and enjoyed horse racing. Huston, by the way, stole a writing credit from Bradbury as he was by no means the screenplay’s co-author. It appears that Steven Spielberg wanted to show in Jaws (1975) his fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) watching Huston’s Moby-Dick, to stress the character’s similarities with the obsessive Ahab, but actor Gregory Peck, who played the captain, did not allow it. Peck, imposed by Warner Bros. against Huston’s criteria though the actor was not aware of this, was always unhappy with a role that came to him aged only 38 (Ahab is 58). I saw the film (again) right after finishing the novel and I must say that for me Peck still is the perfect Ahab. There are many other adaptations, but this one has a quaint charm that makes it unique. Incidentally, Russell Crowe, currently 58, might be a great Ahab.

I don’t have room here to comment on whether Melville was aware of the obvious queer elements in the relationship between the narrator Ishmael and his Polynesian harpooner pal Queequeg, but I marvel that the original readers didn’t see anything… queer… in their friendship. I just wish that their part of the story was longer, and that the couple [SPOILER ALERT] could have survived happily ever after on a lush tropical desert island with Moby-Dick as their companion, all three having a whale of a time.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328, and visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

THE FAILURE TO ENGINEER THE STUDENTS’ CHOICE OF BA DEGREES: THE AUSTRALIAN CASE

I have an immensely talented doctoral student from Australia, and when I asked her whether she has considered applying for a job at a university back home, I got all confused because she started telling me that fees have gone up dramatically, and this makes things complicated. Sure, I replied, but I meant applying for a job, not to take another degree. What she meant, however, is that fees have gone up so steeply for Humanities degrees that many jobs are being lost because of lower demand (as you will see, this is not general all over the country). The Australian fee hike reminds me of what happened a few years ago when the British Government allowed English universities to start charging fees of around £9,000 for BAs. The Australian case, however, has an even worse sting in its tail, for the fees went up just for some degrees but not for others, following a twisted logic which corresponded to a blatant but failed attempt at social engineering.

A few days ago the Spanish universities published their BA grade point cutoffs and, as happens every year, the newspapers were full of articles about why some degrees are so popular and others less attractive. The grade point cutoff for each BA degree depends on the ratio between offer and demand and, so, the combined degree Mathematics and Physics does not justify its amazing top-raking grade because it attracts a crowd of students, but because it only offers 20 places for a demand possibly only five times bigger. If it offered 500 places, its grade point cutoff would be low because I don’t think there is that big a demand for it. For many years, UAB’s BA degree in Translation and Interpretation has been amongst the most demanded, even though chances of getting employment as an interpreter or translator are quite low, forget about being well paid. It’s just a fashionable degree, for mysterious reasons. In other cases, such as Medicine, the degree has an enormous demand which seems justified by the high demand for doctors, yet Spanish universities are not offering more places in Medicine BAs because apparently Spanish hospitals lack sufficient positions to train resident doctors.

In Spain, in short, there is not an adequate match between the BA degrees which students choose and the prospective jobs, nor between the places offered and the demand. Our main problem, however, is not so much that mismatch but that 15%-35% students abandon the BA of their choice between the first and the third year (our BAs run to four years), in many cases because that was not their first option. Needless to say, this is very costly for public universities, which must invest much effort and resources on students who often will never finish their degree. Consider that our registration fees are rather low (1.202,32 € for the first year in the BA in English Studies at UAB) but only cover around 15% of the real cost of tuition.

Now for the Australian case. In 2020, Dan Tehan, Minister of Education in the conservative cabinet of Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Liberal Party of Australia, 2018-2022), came up with a plan to redistribute university costs. Claiming that Australia needed workers trained in STEM degrees, education, construction, and health care in the next five years, Tehan lowered the fees for those degrees by 20% (with top discounts of 62% for mathematics and agriculture), and increased the fees for humanities, social sciences or law, up to 113% (see here). In a speech quoted many times in the Australian media, Tehan argued that “Universities must teach Australians the skills needed to succeed in the jobs of the future”. He added that since the fees were fixed at ‘unit’ (subject) and not degree level, “students studying Arts can still reduce their total student contribution by choosing electives in subjects like mathematics, English, science and IT within their degree”. Peculiar, to say the least.

One year later, in 2021, it was already clear that, as higher education expert of the Australian National University Andrew Norton noted, the Government’s policies and the fee hike had not had a “dramatic” impact on students’ choices. By June of 2022, the state of New South Wales was even reporting an increase of 9% in the demand for Humanities degrees relative to 2020, even much higher in specific degrees (see The Boar). A girl student declares in this article that “Most people I know didn’t choose subjects based on fee costs, we picked our subjects based on interest or future career, but I know that does come from a bit of a privilege though”. This is very worrying because it suggests that the students who can afford to take degrees in the Humanities are the ones more capable of sustaining the burden of a substantial student’s loan. On the other hand, Professor Catharine Coleborne, president of the Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, noted in the same piece that “the fee hikes had also created problems for funding” STEM courses since lower fees also mean a lower income for universities. The new Education Minister Jason Clare has promised to review the “job-ready graduates” policy of his predecessor, as Tehan called the bizarre scheme.

As the reader signing as voiceinthewilderness comments, “Only an inhumane government would not want people to study the Humanities”. I can only agree, but I am also going to play Devil’s advocate today by arguing that Humanities degrees should be much more elitist. Intellectually, not financially. Perhaps all degrees. Supposing Minister Tehan was perfectly honest in his wish to supply Australia with well-trained workers in the areas his nation will need in the near future, he was still making the mistake of associating degree choice to price. If you want to engineer the make-up of the work force, however, you need to attract vocational talent and this has nothing to do with fees. If you want to improve nursing, you need students with a talent for it, for which you need to award grants, not lower the fees. Keep all fees moderate, so that anyone who wants to study can pursue a degree, but make degrees much more competitive, so that the best students are given grants. You don’t want more students in one area or another, you want better students in all.

Gabriel Plaza, the student with the highest grade for the university access test (or Selectividad) in the community of Madrid (13,964 out of 14) has chosen to pursue a BA in Classical Philology, a decision which unleashed an astonishing tweetstorm. He replied to those who mocked him or accused him of wasting his talents that “I prefer happiness to success”, as if he could not be both happy and successful in this field of knowledge. The negative reaction to Gabriel’s choice connects with the general impression that Humanities degrees are useless, and full of students with limited talents who could not enter more demanding degrees. In fact, I think that Humanities degrees should have much higher grade point cutoffs so that only students with an average B- grade would be admitted. I believe that Tehan was wrong in increasing fees, he should have made the Humanities more selective by entrance grade if, that is, there is a real need to reduce the number of students. I’m sure that a rich country like Australia can afford them.

We can discuss endlessly the problem of how many Humanities students a society should educate, but this still leaves us with the problem of why, as we are seeing, so many traditional professional areas have no generational replacement whereas newer professions are failing to attract employees despite offering high salaries. Perhaps what the Australian case is revealing is something else: that university students see primarily themselves as students and cannot (or will not) see themselves as professionals. Possibly, the Humanities remain popular against all odds precisely because they are not intended to professionalize but to further educate students, offering a space for personal growth that more practical degrees lack. What seems clear in any case is that no national system of education can make full sense of how personal vocation and the job market combine, and it seems likely that things will continue in the current haphazard way for a long time. Here or in Australia.


I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328, and visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

EVOLVING GENRES: THE (PARTIAL) RACIALIZATION OF SCIENCE FICTION

Genres are never static, this is a basic truth of literary theory. They may appear at a given time, no matter how hard it usually is to pinpoint exactly when, and fade away as readers become less interested. Each genre has its history, whether this is the larger narrative arc of a genre as gigantic as the novel or of a specific literary manifestation, such as absurdist theatre.

I am thinking of these matters after spending five days attending the international conference of the Science Fiction Research Association, organized this time by the CoFutures collective of Oslo. The conference, titled ‘Futures from the Margins’, called for papers that would consider how “the issues of those from the margins, including Indigenous groups, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, and any people whose stakes in the global order of envisioning futures are generally constrained due to the mechanics of our contemporary world”. This also called for considering how SF is changing because of the arrival of new authors different from those who shaped the central canon many decades ago. SF, of course, can no longer be the same in the 21st century and this needs to be understood and studied.

For me, the cfp was a challenge because I do not belong to any of these marginal groups whose sense of their future is ‘constrained’ by external Western values. Add to this that I usually write (critically) about white men, the demographic category implicitly excluded by the cfp. I ended up submitting a paper on a stimulating short story collection in Catalan, Barcelona 2059: Ciutat de posthumans (MaiMes 2021), edited by Judith Tarradelles and Sergi López, with contributions by Roser Cabré-Verdiel, Ivan Ledesma, Salvador Macip, Jordi Nopca, Bel Olid, Ricard Ruiz Garzón, Laura Tomàs Mora, Carme Torras, and Susana Vallejo. The editors, who also run the publishing house, had the happy idea of inviting the authors back in 2019 to consider what Barcelona could be like 40 years into the future, taking as a departure point the existence of an artificial island called Nova Icària off the coast of the city.

This island, the authors explain in their stories, is a utopia which the citizens of the future Barcelona (a degraded place beset by climate change, recurring pandemics, and terrorism) can enjoy in exchange for full access to their bodies and minds, (ab)used in ruthless posthumanist experimentation developed for capitalistic gain. My thesis was that even though Barcelona might seem right now a privileged place, part of the Western world and universally known because of its tourist attractions, no city is safe from suddenly becoming marginal. Besides, we are all subjected to the whims of the handful of male billionaires (mostly white, but not all) currently running the world, West, East and the rest. I designed the paper to provoke a debate about what this entity we call the West amounts to, and whether white, European communities and citizens can also be marginal(ized), but nobody challenged me.

With three sessions running simultaneously, I must admit that I have only attended one third of the SFRA conference. What I have seen, however, was quite homogeneous and worrying because of the uniformity of the discourse and, I insist, the lack of debate. Nobody has challenged anyone else, which should be part of ongoing discussion. Or everyone was quietly avoiding confrontation. The conference organizers did a very good job of inviting keynote speakers representing planetary diversity (Sami author from Norway Sigbjørn Skåden, Chinese scholar Dai Jinhua, authors Indrapramit Das from India, Chinelo Onwualu from Nigeria, Laura Ponce from Argentina, and ‘chameleon’ artist from Egypy Ganzeer) but this diversity was not as visible among the participants, mostly white scholars. In a session about what the SFRA should take into account for the future, I mentioned that I had seen too many white scholars discuss non-white cultures, a comment greeted with what at first I assumed to be sniggers. In fact, everyone had the same impression but dared not voice it; I was thanked for raising the issue and was told that the SFRA would make an effort to promote SF among young non-white scholars. That was not quite my point, but thank you, this is very important.

As I have noted, I write about men despite not being one and I do think that scholars should never limit their field of action to the demographic category they belong to. What worries me is the lack of reciprocity. Today many white, Western scholars do research on non-white, non-Western authors in an effort to lessen racism. The number of non-white, non-Western scholars is growing, too. They, however, choose to discuss authors of their own demographic category, so that we don’t have (or have very few) discussions of white authors that, besides, might go beyond the issue of race.

You might think that this is fine because non-white scholars should put all their energy into promoting the authors so far ignored by white prejudice. Yet, at the same time, as more and more white scholars choose to ignore the whiteness of white authors, and since this is an issue also mostly ignored in current research by non-white scholars, the result is a heavily racialized academic environment that, while trying to avoid racism, practises a strange kind of illustrated racism by supposing that only non-white authors and scholars are conditioned by race. To be plain: if you are going to discuss how Indigenous writers produce SF today, you need to explore how whiteness conditions the SF produced by mainstream writers. I am not speaking here about what Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein did in the past, which shaped the SF canon whether we like it or not, but what white authors John Scalzi or Ann Leckie are doing today.

I worry about the lack of reciprocity because as a woman writing about SF I am annoyed about the expectations built around what issues interest me. Recently, I have been invited to participate in a series of six lectures on SF for a general audience and I been asked specifically to address the issue of women in SF (I’m the only woman). The organizer told me this is because I have been writing about women and SF, which is true, but I must also explain that although I am more interested in robotics and artificial intelligence, I keep on writing about gender in SF because I am a woman, and the male scholars are not interested in these issues. That is to say: if more men wrote about gender, I would not feel compelled as a woman scholar to write about these issues. I worry, therefore, that many non-white scholars are writing about race not because this is what they really prefer but because this is what they feel needs to be done and because this is expected of them. If race was not an issue (or gender), then more time and energy could be invested in exploring the central theme of SF: how science and technology are shaping our world.

A major problem, of course, is that the technophilia which Golden Age SF used to celebrate is gone, though I must emphasize that the genre was started by Mary Shelley’s technophobic Frankenstein (1818) two hundred years ago. Whereas Mary already claimed that the science developed by men would ruin the world of Homo Sapiens, today the claim is more nuanced and the ‘mad’ scientist is described as white, Western, heterosexual, cis-gender and, in a nutshell, patriarchal, even though many persons who are not in these categories participate in science and technology. My impression of the conference was that, in the face of rampant climate change and other man-made disasters such as war, fascism and capitalism, there are high hopes that SF from the margins can offer healing narratives that point the way forward by looking at the Indigenous past. In a way, this goes back to Ursula K. Le Guin’s complex text Always Coming Home (1985), in which she built “an entire ethnography of a future society, the Kesh, living in a post-apocalyptic Napa Valley”. Today, Le Guin’s efforts might be read as cultural appropriation, and what would be expected is for Indigenous authors to renovate SF in culturally authentic ways, though this smacks in my view of a worrying worship of pre-modern primitivism, which is implicitly racist. There you go.

My doubt is whether this approach is not curtailing the right of Indigenous authors to write as they want, just as feminism has been telling women authors that their first allegiance should be, precisely, to feminism. I am saying this as a feminist woman who does think that all women should contribute to the cause of feminism (if more women had voted for Hillary Clinton, the USA would not be the patriarchal dystopia it is fast becoming). Grace L. Dillons’s edited short story collection Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction (Arizona UP, 2012) has had an enormous impact, so that it is now common to find lists of Indigenous SF online, or more specific books such as Love after the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction (edited by Joshua Whitehead, 2020, Arsenal Pulp Press). The phenomenon is by no means new, and it is indeed a descendant of collections such as Pamela Sargent’s Women of Wonder series (1975-1996). The idea is that if you call attention to a specific category of writers, then readers and academics become curious about their presence and the whole field blooms. This is fine, but, I insist, it still categorizes authors within marginal groups and since there are no equivalent collections that emphasize the category ‘white, male, cis-gender, heterosexual, Western, etc.’ this category still constitutes the hidden norm against which the rest of groups are measured.

This is why I like much more what Judith Tarradelles and Sergi López have done in Barcelona 2059: Ciutat de Posthumans. Here what matters is the use of a common language and the exploration of a common situation, with no allusion to identity politics (or not as a main theme). If I were to edit a SF short story collection, I would propose a theme and invite a selection of representative writers, including those white men nobody likes in academia but that still sell plenty. My view is that the future is being destroyed by a minority of patriarchal individuals that need to be outed as monstrous villains, and we need to hear as many voices as possible to find alternatives, and hear them together, not compartmentalized in increasingly smaller categories. The way forward, I think, should be comparative and cross-cultural but, for that, as the SFRA conference implicitly showed, the main obstacle is not racism but linguistic diversity. As happens, despite the many allusions to Indigenous writing and so on, most papers dealt with Anglophone SF and, secondarily, Chinese. My paper was one of the very few dealing with SF written in a language spoken by just a few millions. So much for margins…

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/