HOW TO READ 100 BOOKS A YEAR (AND WHY IT ELICITS REJECTION)

The article by Héctor García Barnés published in El Confidencial, “There are people in Spain who read 80, 150 or 300 books a year, and it is not as difficult as it sounds”, draws powerful attention both for the cases it presents of constant readers and for the rather negative comments they receive. According to García Barnés, the survey on reading habits and book purchases of 2021, carried out by the Federation of Publishers’ Guilds of Spain, indicates that “those over 18 years of age read on average 10.2 books per year, but there are 36% of people who do not read even one”, according to half of them due to lack of time. On the other hand, the “super readers”, according to the journalist’s nomenclature “those fans of literature who read the same number of books a year as entire towns”, always find time to indulge in their favorite vice. Engineer Mariano Hortal, who reads about 300 books a year as reflected in his blog Lectura y locura, is surely an extraordinary case, but according to García Barnés it is not so strange to find in Spain readers who consume 80 to 150 books per year among the ranks of teachers, publishers, and journalists. Hopefully, others too.

Although I consider myself simply a reader, I am one of those ‘super readers’, with an annual average of around 100 books. I began to keep the list of everything I read at the age of fourteen so as not to forget anything, and I continue to religiously write down the volumes I pass through, not out of an effort to meet a quota but out of pure curiosity about how my annual walk among books is developing. And, as I said, out of sheer necessity, to keep memories alive. I understand that the readers whom García Barnés has interviewed correspond to a similar profile: neither they nor I compete with other readers, we do not expect to be awarded any prizes for reading, and we do not read to inflate our respective lists; they simply grow every year.

The number of books read does not indicate the hours spent on each volume and so for a while I also used to write down the pages of each book, a habit I lost. Yes, there have been cases in which I have hesitated to add a book to my list because it was only around 100 pages, although in other cases I have read books of 800 or 900 pages (like the one I am now reading, Fall; or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson). One thing to understand is that the more you read, the more the reading speed increases, and the more comprehension improves, without a doubt. My usual reading speed is around 50-60 pages per hour, although as I said in the previous post, I rarely read more than two hours in a row unless it is for work. I never force myself to read every day, nor do I tend to finish books I do not like; actually, I should add to the 100 books per year something like 10 or 12 more per number of pages read in books eventually abandoned.

Neither the super readers of the article nor I myself narrate this experience with a desire for prestige or fame. In fact, García Barnés offers the article to those who claim they lack time to read as a lesson on how this can be found. The readers interviewed explain something more than obvious: time is always limited but if you find three and a half hours a day to watch TV (the national average in Spain in 2021), or waste time on the social networks, you can find one hour for reading. In fact, it is increasingly important to acquire that habit since various studies indicate that just as regular physical exercise keeps the heart healthy, reading helps maintain brain health.

Leaving aside this issue, it is clear that those of us who read books non-stop possibly get some kind of endorphin from reading similar to the one that encourages athletes to make further efforts. I do practice any sports, although I am aware that I should, and therefore I understand that there are many people who dislike reading, but I would never despise the sporting achievements of amateur athletes. If I stumbled upon an article in which a series of gentlemen and ladies told me that they run a marathon a week because they love it, it would not cross my mind to denigrate them; however, what the comments to García Barnés’ article reflect is distrust and contempt, and a very mistaken impression that super readers are arrogant.

Here are some of those comments. Mr. Puterfull states that “Reading cannot be taken as a challenge or a competition. We’re just going crazy,” though nothing in the article suggests that super readers set up challenges or compete. Stuart Carter stresses that “reading cannot be an obligation”, observing that “The important thing is to read and enjoy what is read”, without noticing that this is what the interviewees defend. Alberto Martín thinks (in capital letters) that “100 BOOKS A YEAR? IT IS BARBARIC”, next doubting that the super readers have understood at all what they read. Another reader, Weyland Yutani (the name of the diabolical corporation in the Alien saga), concludes that “He who reads 300 books a year does not read but flips through. It is not the same”, though he has no basis to justify his argument (nor to insinuate that Mariano Hortal is lying). Philip Buster (sic) supports this unfounded thesis with a resounding “I can consume a lot of reading and not read anything”. Maria Benjumea categorically denies that anyone can read 50 or 60 pages in one hour. In her opinion, “more than 30 pages in an hour means skipping paragraphs or reading garbage”. One Maximón insists that “if I read by the ‘weight’ I am literally wasting my time”, despite the fact that the super readers interviewed mention in all cases quality books. According to her, “the ideal is to select very well what is going to be read and why”, so that “I, with 10/12 books in a year I am satisfied”.

Other comments attack super readers on the flank of time rather than on the flank of comprehension ability. Daniel Monleón, who claims to be a reader depending on each period of his life, comments that “reading is enjoyment” like other pleasures, without it being “a choice (…) better or worse than others”, though it is “more lonely”. Reacting to the estimate by one of the super readers who has decided not to waste time with bad books because he only has time to read about 3500 if he hits old age, Felipe García writes that “I have no interest in reading 80 books a year, nor in reading 3500 in the rest of my life. Nor in watching 50 seasons of series per year or watching 200 games of the year”, thus putting at the same level the reading and consumption of television, which most super readers despise. Finally, Jorge Valdecasas writes that “If someone tells me that he has an 8-hour job, 3 children and reads a book every 2 days of the caliber of the three volumes of the lord of the rings (sic), I would ask that they lose custody of their children”. He forgets that reading habits are usually born by imitation of the parents who read.

As I said, I can’t imagine similar comments in response to an article about how to find time to run marathons, and the obvious question is why the super readers interviewed ruffle so many feathers. There is no comment appreciating the advice given (take books whenever you go on a trip even on the subway, look for shorter periods throughout the day if you cannot dedicate an hour to reading, use public libraries to experiment with different types of books), but a set of attacks. Spain is a tremendously uneducated country and perhaps therein lies the root of the hostility. While one comment indicates that the reading index is rising as indicated by the opening of large new bookstores in the major cities, another quips that if it were so there would be a bookstore on each street as there are bars.

Given this situation, it is not so surprising that super readers are looked down upon as people too clever for their own good who think they are superior to others. On the other hand, it is true that the interviewees do not hesitate to criticize the massive consumption of series and of gossipy talk shows as scourges that prevent maximizing the time that could be spent reading, and I understand that this position may be offensive. I have to clarify that in my own academic environment not everyone reads wildly, and that many teachers of Literature read less than they should because of being hooked on to series. I wouldn’t be surprised the way things are going that thirty years from now books will no longer be taught in our English Studies degrees, but only series (I think cinema is dying before it can reach our classrooms).
As I wrote in my previous post, when the night comes and I have some leisure time, the question always arises as to whether I will opt for a movie or the book I am reading those days. As Daniel Monleón noted in his comment, reading is a lonely pursuit and normally if I opt for a film it is because I want to keep my partner company (he just loves movies, all of them). The problem is that if the film does not interest me too much I squirm restlessly on the sofa thinking about the book I could be reading, a situation that is difficult to understand (I know) for a non-reader. If you think about it, the habit of constantly reading is extremely strange, and perhaps somewhat selfish as some of the comments cited suggest. Certainly, it cannot be shared, despite social networks such as GoodReads or the many book clubs, unless, as many families did in the 19th century, one reads aloud and the others listen. Watching TV or using social networks is not really a more sociable act, as can be seen in those groups of teenagers who do not talk to each other because they are checking their smartphones. Yet, only readers carry the stigma of being too abstracted, too immersed in other worlds. Nerds, in short.
Since I know that he will never run a marathon, whatever the athletes may say, I know that it is useless to recommend reading if not 80 at least more than 12 books a year. I will just drop the suggestion in case anyone feels inspired by it.

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/

AN HOMAGE TO MINISERIES

It’s evening, after dinner, time to relax and choose a film to watch from whatever platform you subscribe. This means employing about two hours on consuming a story, leaving aside the fifteen minutes (or more) it may take to select a minimally enticing movie, unless you have preselected and placed some on your list. If you know of a film which you really want to see, that’s fine; if you don’t, at this point you start wondering whether you have the stamina to sit through one hundred and twenty minutes of a possibly mediocre script with perfunctory direction and performances, the typical film rated 6 to 6’5 on IMDB. So why not watch one episode from a series? Sixty minutes at most and then early to bed, perhaps to read for a while; or stay on the sofa and play a videogame. Four hours and four episodes later, you wonder where time has gone and whether you’ll wake up on time when the alarm sounds…

Why is it easier to watch four episodes from a show rather than a much shorter feature film? For the same reason that it is easier to read sixty pages from a novel than a twenty-page short story. All self-contained narratives require an effort to master the rules of a fictional world, whether this narrative is a micro short story or a sprawling twenty-season series (serial?). With a shorter text this effort is not productive because it is spent in a short time. With a longer text, the opposite happens: once the basic narrative rules are grasped, the narrative itself can go on for many pages or many hours, with no additional effort.

When we choose a series over a film, or a novel over a short story, we’re choosing to maximize the usefulness of the effort to engage with the worldbuilding. When the two-hour film ends, we need to begin the process of engagement again with another film. With a series, the same effort stretches for hours, days, weeks, and longer, with no extra investment. Besides, watching a series also solves the problem of what to watch the following days, until the series ends or its appeal diminishes for the viewer. In short, a person watching a different film every day, or reading a different short story daily, must be willing to spend much imaginative energy, whereas someone using two hours a day to watch the same series for a month, or read the same novel, is just engaging with one story, no matter how complex the plot and the subplots can be.

I don’t like series for the same reason that I don’t like novels of more than 400 pages: there must be a limit, I believe, to the time I am willing to invest on just one story. For the reasons that I have explained, I am not too keen on short stories, which generally make me impatient even when they are just a few pages long. I do like movies, but I am finding it increasingly difficult to find scripts that interest me and, so, I am becoming far less willing to invest two hours of my time on watching a movie, particularly if I am reading an attractive book. Unless I am travelling on a train, plane or bus, or reading for work, I don’t really read more than two hours at a stretch for leisure, which means that for me the evening film is in direct competition with whatever book I may be reading. Usually, the book wins.

A solution for those who, like me, don’t like series and are beginning to hate films is watching miniseries. The difference between a series and a miniseries is not that easy to establish, though. In principle, a miniseries is limited to one season; in fact, the word ‘season’ should not even apply to this kind of narrative as a series only has ‘seasons’ if it is properly speaking a series, not a miniseries. To confuse matters even more, it is not easy to distinguish between miniseries and series by number of episodes: to give an example, the brilliant miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) consists of fourteen episodes, whereas the not less brilliant series Sherlock (2010-2017) consists of fifteen episodes distributed in four seasons. Perhaps rather than ‘miniseries’, we should use the label ‘one-season series’, even though this contradicts my previous argumentation. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences of the USA, which awards the Emmys, prefers the label ‘limited series’, and it appears than in the UK the word series is used both for minis and for longer series.

As for the length of the episodes, there are miniseries of just two episodes which are shorter than Steven Spielberg’s magnificent film Schindler’s List (1993), which stretches to 195 minutes. The upper limit is marked by the maximum a season can last, though I should think that fifteen episodes is enough. Of course, episodes may last from twenty to ninety minutes, with most lasting forty-five to sixty minutes, so that the number of episodes is no indication of the actual length of a miniseries. War and Remembrance (1988-1989) is said to be the longest miniseries, with its 27 hours (in 12 episodes); its first episode lasts for 150 minutes! To add more data, the two highest-ranking fiction miniseries on IMDB, rated with a 9,4 (I’m here ignoring the documentary miniseries), are vastly different in length: Band of Brothers (2001) lasts for 594 minutes, Chernobyl (2019) only 330.

The miniseries was born long before the word itself, which appeared in the early 1960s (1963 according to Merriam Webster), with the serialized adaptation of novels. In The Classic Serial on Television and Radio (2001), Robert Giddings and Keith Selby attribute to John Reith, the British inventor of public service broadcasting, the idea of using BBC radio to stage plays in the 1930s. Radio drama, and the previous 1920s dramatic readings, inspired the idea of the serialized adaptation of novels for this means of communication, which started a fashion focused on 19th century literary and popular classics. The fashion moved later on to TV. Giddings and Selby note (p. 19) that BBC Television’s 1951 adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s novel The Warden in six episodes was the first miniseries; this was followed in 1952 by Pride and Prejudice. According to Francis Wheen’s Television (1985), the immense success in the USA, in 1960-1970, of British serial The Forsyte Saga (1967), from the novels by John Galsworthy, “inspired the American mini-series”, also often based on novels, both classics and best-sellers.

Sorry to use my personal memories, but, as happens, my childhood and adolescence overlap with the period in which the American and the British miniseries boomed. The key year was 1976. Then, the BBC’s adaptation of Robert Graves’s novels I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935) as I, Claudius, and ABC’s version of Irvin Shaw’s best-seller Rich Man, Poor Man (1969) hit the TV screen with a hurricane force that I perfectly recall. I was ten when Hombre rico, hombre pobre was broadcast by TVE, in 1977, and twelve when Yo, Claudio was finally seen in Spain in 1978, and I do recall their impact with all clarity. I don’t remember having seen Anglo-Italian hit miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977, directed by Franco Zefirelli), broadcast by TVE in 1979, but I certainly remember the huge phenomenon that Roots (1977), based on Alex Hailey’s novel (1976), became in that same year of 1979. Next came other BBC adaptations (I was blown over by the BBC’s 1978 version of Wuthering Heights, which I watched aged thirteen, before reading the novel by Emily Brontë) and the 1980s hits: Shōgun (1980), adapted from the novel by James Clavell; The Thorn Birds (1983) based on Colleen McCullough’s romance; and the North and South trilogy of miniseries (1985, 1986, 1994), based on the novels by John Jakes.

The miniseries that possibly altered most profoundly how literary adaptation should be handled for TV was Granada Television/ITV’s elegant Brideshead Revisited (1981) based on the 1945 novel by Evelyn Waugh. The eleven-episode miniseries, which launched the career of Jeremy Irons, was broadcast in Spain in 1983. I was sixteen then and I recall being completely enchanted with everything in it. Curiously, Spanish television originally broadcast Brideshead on its second channel, which only reached a minority of viewers and then gave it a second chance on its main channel in 1984. Those were the times before the onset of the private channels (in 1990s) and long before the streaming platforms, when everyone watched the same series. Brideshead Revisited has little to do with all the other miniseries I have mentioned, being a rather subtle exploration of the mismatch between Charles Ryder and the rich but decadent family of his friend Sebastian Flyte. It is also a rather nostalgic chronicle of the end of the big British country houses (the magnificent Castle Howard was the main location), and as such a forerunner of Kazuo Ishiguro’s far more critical novel The Remains of the Day (1989). I was then an easily impressionable teen and got the very wrong impression that English culture was that smart and refined all the time, which is not the case. I also missed the deep classism, which I saw in all starkness when I taught the book a decade later to uninterested first-year students.

Going these days through lists of the best current miniseries, by which I mean of the last ten years, it seems to me that this kind of narrative is now flourishing, though it is also possibly overhyped. I did enjoy enormously The Queen’s Gambit (2020), from the novel by Walter Tevis (1983), but I found The Night Manager (2016), from the novel by John le Carré (1993), much overrated. An important problem affecting miniseries is that the platforms do not distinguish between them and the multi-season series, which means that it is easy to miss the less publicised. The impossibility of subscribing to all the streaming services also means that viewers are constantly missing what they might enjoy. This was going to be originally a post with a list of great recent miniseries to watch, but I myself have access to a very limited selection. This is a topic for another post, of course, but I wonder whether the proliferation of platforms is making piracy grow again, once computer-savvy spectators have come to the conclusion that there is no way to keep up with the ceaseless flow of appealing audiovisual products.

I’ll finish by suggesting that the miniseries might end up killing the film adaptation of novels, which is probably good news. A two-hour film can never accommodate the events of an average-length novel, much less so of any novel over 400 pages. The more flexible miniseries appears to be, therefore, a much more suitable vehicle to adapt novels, as the BBC’s beautiful version of Pride and Prejudice already demonstrated in 1995. The bad news attached to this trend is the temptation to prolong the miniseries for a second season and further, in the hope of turning it into a long-running series based on the attractive of a character or a plotline. An example is The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-) now in its fifth season, far beyond the original novel by Margaret Atwood. Showrunners try to exploit the appeal of all the popular series but it’s good to know when to stop, and this is what I appreciate best about miniseries.

I hope you enjoy them, too.

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/

LIVING IN FEAR: SLAVES TO (PATRIARCHAL) TERRORISM, FROM SALMAN RUSHDIE TO AFGHANISTAN

At the end of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) replicant Roy Batty shows his humanity shortly before dying by recalling all he has lived and concluding that, with his death, “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain”, a moving line which actor Rutger Hauer contributed to the film, ignoring the script. This is one of the most famous speeches in the history of cinema, but the line from the same scene I recall far more strongly is “Quite an experience to feel fear. That’s what it’s like to be a slave” which the enslaved replicant addresses to the man chasing him, detective Deckard (Harrison Ford), at a moment when his life is in Batty’s hands. I assume that the line was written by scriptwriter David Peoples, and I salute him for encapsulating in it the reason why we act as cowards in the face of rampant abuse: we are all enslaved by fear, and this fear has its roots in violence.

It is inevitable to mention this week the brutal attack suffered by Indian-born author Salman Rushdie, thirty-three years after the fatwa that Ayatollah Khomeini endorsed against him for having allegedly mocked Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses (1989). I live in a country where the Inquisition caused 1346 persons to be executed in horrid ways between 1478 and 1834, including the occupied territories of Central and South America, so I am quite familiar with the brutality to which radicalized religious belief can lead. Precisely because of that, I am, like many other persons, shocked to see that religious fanaticism is still alive and causing so much damage, when it should be just a matter of the historical past.

Fanaticism is the basis not just of the attack against Rushdie, but also of the terrorism that altered so viciously the peace in Barcelona one afternoon in August five years ago, and of the new captivity of all the women in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime established in 2021. I’m not forgetting the victims in Palestine, nor the American women prevented from aborting by the fundamentalist bigots at the US Supreme Court. To those who wonder why the Jewish Holocaust was never stopped, I would reply that the answer is clear, since we are seeing similar examples today: we’re just slaves who can be easily cowed into submission by fear. And when we are afraid, we just don’t care, and don’t act.

I do not know whether there ever was a time when humans lived with no violence, but for the sake of argumentation I am going to suppose that did happen. I have often argued that patriarchy is not fundamentally about sexism but about dominance and power. Dominance, however, is maintained by means of violence and my guess is that patriarchy started when one of the male hunters in a tribal hunting party understood that the violence used against animals could be used against fellow humans to gain ascendancy. The first patriarch was most likely a bully who saw that his ability to use violence could be turned into the foundation for power, and who usurped from women the power to give life by placing the phallus at the centre of social life.

The tribal chieftain need not be a bully or a villain, but the system of terror imposed using violence (obey me or else…) is the very foundation of patriarchal civilization, the authoritarian regime in which we all live, including democracies. The other system of patriarchal control was established through religion. I read not so long ago in a text by someone whose name I have forgotten that religion appeared as a system to impose obedience when tribes grew large. The chieftain and his warriors can only control through direct violence a limited amount of individuals, but if you instil in the tribe the fear of the gods or of god though persons presented as a cast of sacred beings (either wizards or priests) then the number of individuals you can control can grow into billions, as Catholicism and Islam show.

I don’t know about Islam, but I can say for sure that Catholicism has controlled personal behaviour by means of the fear of hell, and social ostracism, and whenever this failed, by the violent means which the Inquisition backed. The hold of Catholicism is now much weakened, and the Pope no longer excommunicates any believers for their transgressions or for blasphemy, but in historical terms, this church is not so different from the rampant fanaticism we see today in other religions.

The supposition is that History progresses toward a future in which all human rights will be respected and the authoritarian regime we know as patriarchy will be transformed into a democracy run by fully participative citizens. When Hadi Matar plunged his knife ten times into the unprotected body of Salman Rushdie he not only put the clock back to 1989, but also confirmed that progress is halting. The rights of Afghan women and LGTBIQ+ persons have evaporated, and the same is happening in the USA. Putin, Trump, Bolsonaro, and the many other patriarchs menacing democracy are pulling us back into the darker times we thought were just part of History, sorry to repeat my argument. Talk of nuclear warfare is becoming normalized in the hottest summer on record, which indicates that climate change might not have time to kill us because a nuclear winter will. The fanaticism and the fascism we believe were dead are coming back, like the psychotic killer of the increasingly bad sequels, and although no other group of six million people have been exterminated as systematically as the European Jews were killed, immense human collectives are being victimized, with women at the top of the list, even though we are actually the 52% majority in the world.

A question often asked of African-American slaves is why they never staged a collective rebellion and mass-murdered their owners, since these were clearly a minority in comparison to the number of enslaved persons. Well, replicant Roy Batty gave us the answer: being a slave is living in fear, and living in fear makes you a slave. I’ll add that you possibly need just 10% of truly brutal bullies to enslave the rest, though from what I see in the votes of those who support extreme right-wing policies, between 25% and 30% of the population are slaves who long for a tough master and who think that the rest should be enslaved.

As a woman, I am terrified. By this trend, by the onslaught against women’s rights, by the hatred against LGTBIQ+ persons even in countries like Spain where gay marriage is a right, and by the inability of the world community to stop beasts like Putin. We are going backwards so fast it will take us centuries to regain the future. Think of what J.K. Rowling must be feeling now, trapped as she is between the fury of the trans activists who have branded her a TERF, and the hatred of the radical Muslim man who announced to her on Twitter after Rushdie was attacked “you’re next”. And I am not forgetting Catalan Muslim rapper Miss Raisa, a defender of the LGTBI community. A man was arrested just a few days ago, having not only threatened to behead her but apparently preparing to do so.

My personal freedom of speech and our collective freedom of speech is jeopardised by the fear and hatred poured on us, both by long-lived institutions like organized religion and new ones, like the social media. Salman Rushdie thought he was free from the fatwa and was travelling with no escort, tired of the years he spent secluded like a prisoner. His attack by a young man who was not even born when the fatwa was issued, and who most likely acted as a lone wolf might be just the work of an isolated fanatic individual, but this man represents something deeper.

The freedom of speech of the radicalized, undemocratic others, whether they are the Taliban or Donald Trump, has not been curved down, whereas ours has been limited by their violence. Twitter expelled Trump, but that was in the end a token gesture. Among the barrage of tweets reacting to the attack on Rushdie with love and compassion, you could see a river of tweets celebrating and justifying it. I do not deny that The Satanic Verses may have offended some Islamic believers, but this is a matter to be argued using words, not a knife. In fact, the attack is going to have the opposite effect, as sales of the novel instantly boomed. I am just very sorry for the peaceful Muslims, the immense majority, who will have to bear the brunt of this man’s cruel and idiotic criminal action.

I don’t care, in any case, as much for Rushdie as I care for the 14.2 million women and girls in Afghanistan, enslaved by the Taliban. I don’t know how many of the 15 million men are part of the regime, or complicit with it, but I fear above all that this is a blueprint for the spread of anti-democratic patriarchy all over the world. See what Amnesty International has to say.

I personally no longer feel free, if I ever have, and indeed have stopped believing in the freedom of speech. Popular actor Tom Holland has just announced that he is closing temporarily his social media to protect his mental health from the constant criticism. I understand his decision, but the problem is that as things are now, the only way to protect one’s mental health is to totally disconnect from the world, and protect whatever privileges you may have. If you want to be minimally connected to life today, particularly if you’re a woman, you need to accept the mental distress, the anxiety, and the fear. And try to perpetuate the illusion of freedom despite knowing that, even under the best circumstances, you’re nothing but a slave to greed, authoritarianism, hatred, and lust for power, in short, of patriarchy. The freer you think you are, the less you will understand your own enslavement.

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/

CHRONICLING THE DEATH OF LITERATURE (II): THE WRITER AS INFLUENCER

The other article that has interested me and, in this case, appalled me is Laura Miller’s “The Unlikely Author Who’s Absolutely Dominating the Bestseller List” for Slate on the current US top best-selling novelist: Colleen Hoover. Miller’s analysis led me to Stephanie McNeal’s similar piece, “How Colleen Hoover Became The Queen Of BookTok” for BuzzFeed, published a few weeks before.

“CoHo is fans’ nickname for the beloved romance and thriller author Colleen Hoover”, McNeal writes. “Hoover, a 42-year-old mom of three from Texas, has published more than 20 novels and novellas over the past decade, capturing the hearts of book bloggers, #bookstagram, and more recently, #BookTok”. Indeed, both journalists describe Hoover as a social-media savvy person who has mistress-minded her rise to the best-selling lists thanks to an astonishingly clever use of social media. Miller and McNeal stress that Hoover’s current popularity is not a product of TikTok book reviewing (or booktoking) but the result of a decade of the author’s relentless cultivation of each successive social network, as they rose and fell.

I had never heard of Hoover but this is unsurprising as I have given up trying to make sense of the constant flood of novelties and, besides, I don’t use social media, except Twitter (mainly to announce this blog’s new posts). If Hoover is more astute than any other writer at publicising her work, then kudos to her. Her success, it must be noted, is very different from the word of mouth recommendations that propelled J.K. Rowling to the top of the best-selling lists worldwide, a phenomenon on which she had no direct influence and that came very much as a surprise for her publishers, Bloomsbury. Hoover started self-publishing until Atria offered her a home, generating in the process immense revenues for both. Again, if author and publisher understand their business so thoroughly, then they deserve their windfall. What worries me is the impact writers like Hoover are having on the reading habits of their admirers. And no, I have not read any of her novels nor do I intend to do so.

My argument might make no sense, but I’ll mention another woman writer of supposedly very high impact to establish a comparison. This is not based on sales, or on TikTok reviews, but on GoodReads comments. Nigerian-American author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is very well-known as the author of the novel Americanah (2013) and the essay We Should All Be Feminists (2014). In GoodReads, Adichie’s novel has today 4’31 stars out of 5, with 329,795 ratings and 27,308 reviews; her essay is valued with 4’42 stars (246,407 ratings and 24,421 reviews). I will stress that books above 4 stars are, in my experience of using GoodReads, usually excellent and that anything below 3’70 is dubious. Now, let’s turn to Hoover. Her novels are, except for a couple of duds, rated above 4, with the readers’ favourite, It Ends with Us (2016) rated 4’40, on the basis of, attention!, 1,406,095 ratings and 139,103 reviews. Sally Rooney’s allegedly ground-breaking Normal People (2019) only rates 3’83 with 899,160 ratings and 84,780 reviews.

A rule of GoodReads and any other website rating texts of any type is that voters tend to dissent, so that works with close to five stars still find detractors. I always read first the worst reviews, since the five-star reviews are bound to be predictable (‘this is a masterpiece’ and so on). Almost 16,000 readers rated It Ends with Us with one star. I forgot to say that this is a romance novel and among the best-liked reviewers, Alissa Patrick complains about its clichéd plotline (“a story about a guy who apparently has the magical penis to make you throw your convictions out the window just because he’s hot and wearing hospital scrubs”), whereas Olivia’s criticism goes further, accusing Hoover of reducing “domestic abuse to a lovers quarrel and present[ing] a tactless caricature of the realities of abuse. I can acknowledge this may not have been the intention, but the elaboration in the author’s note does not absolve this book of its reckless and irresponsible marketing”. In contrast, the 5-star best-liked review by Aesta begins with “It Ends With Us is one of the most powerful books of 2016 and one of the most raw, honest, inspiring, and profoundly beautiful stories I’ve ever read. (…) This is the kind of book that I want to give to every woman and just be like… READ THIS BOOK. NOW” (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27362503-it-ends-with-us). Sorry but no, thanks.

I have been thinking about why Colleen Hoover’s success annoys me so profoundly, not being myself an (envious) novelist and being quite open to reading anyone and everything. It is, besides, almost impossible to express an opinion without attacking the genres which she practices (romance, YA, thriller, women’s fiction and paranormal romance) or her readers (mostly young women). I run the risk of being seen as an aged elitist feminist hag, which perhaps is what I am, but is not what I would like to be seen as. I believe that what depresses me is that, given how terminal the whole world of reading is—with more people than ever reading, but with those who read not choosing the better options available⁠—so much readerly energy is being wasted. It is this nagging feeling that all those young readers would be much better off reading better books since, presumably, they do like reading.

I am not as naïve as to believe that the solution lies in reading the classics (I complained against Moby-Dick’s dullness just two posts ago) or that reading fiction for entertainment should be banned (I myself read science fiction for that purpose). What is depressing me is this tide coming mainly from America, but also widespread in Europe, by which you get in the more popular novels, or rather in the popular genres, a flat view of reality. Popular fiction has always been criticized for that, but somehow there came a point when romance, detective fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and so on could compete with the non-genre fiction in the depth with which they portrayed society (also because non-genre or mainstream fiction got shallower).

I must conclude that what is concerning me is how in the absence of a better kind of writing, a less proficient type of writing is attracting all the interest. Both in genre and in non-genre narrative, the books promise in the blurbs and the enthusiastic reviews much more than they can give, most likely because the authors of the present are not themselves as well-read as the authors of the past. Since the readers are not well-read, either, the standards are being eroded and what passes now for a masterpiece (the words used by many GoodRead reviewers for Hoover’s books) is really just a reasonably well-crafted, cliché-ridden novel of the kind that used to be called middle-brow and even low-brow.

Perhaps I envy Hoover’s readers because they describe very intense reading experiences in which they have been swept off their feet. I only get this feeling very rarely, finding myself putting up with books rather than enjoying them. Possibly, the more one reads, the more one sees any book’s seams and the less one is willing to enjoy the ride. I still think, though, that the reading world is upside down (arguably, it has always been so) and that there are out there many other novelists worth reading and promoting. Or perhaps not, and ours is the era of the Colleen Hoovers and of the writer as influencer. It used to be the case that authors became public figures on the strength of their publications, and I believe that this is now the opposite: first you build yourself as a wannabe influencer and then you build a fanbase before you’re really ready to produce any solid work.

Commenting these days with one of my nieces (she’s 13) on her books for the summer, she introduced me to Joana Marcús, a twenty-two-year old author from Majorca, who started her career by giving away her first novel online and cultivating a fanbase on Wattpad (https://www.wattpad.com/). Wattpad, the web where you share your fiction and receive feedback from readers, is a wonderful idea, but although it connects new writers to readers and publishers, it is hardly a platform to encourage the renewal of narrative clichés, as it thrives like all social media on likes and popularity. Wattpad Studios promises now to turn stories into smashing film and TV adaptations. So, social media are indeed killing literature by having not only taken away from young people the leisure time that many used to invest on more creative pursuits, but also by turning writers into influencers that care more about monetizing talent than about developing it.

I do not know how this might work, but I am (almost) sure that if we compare a novel by, say, romance queen Danielle Steele to one by Colleen Hoover, we might notice a significant difference in quality, in favour of the former. I am beginning to sound like George Eliot when she launched her ferociously misogynistic attack “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” (1856) (published anonymously in the Westminster Review), which is not my intention. Nonetheless, I will borrow from her essay the idea that the “greatest deficiencies” not only of women writers but of all authors writing today “are due hardly more to the want of intellectual power than to the want of those moral qualities that contribute to literary excellence—patient diligence, a sense of the responsibility involved in publication, and an appreciation of the sacredness of the writer’s art”. Instead, we find “that kind of facility which springs from the absence of any high standard” and plenty of “futile authorship” fuelled by vanity—that deeply human quality which those who developed the social media exploit so well.

As for the sacredness of the writer’s art, and the art itself, I’m afraid nobody knows any longer what it really consists of.

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/

CHRONICLING THE DEATH OF LITERATURE (I): THE EXPERIMENTAL NOVEL AND THE RISE OF THE INFLUENCER

In my last post I argued that highly creative literature is practically dead, and that part of this foretold death is due to the dominance of the novel written by authors who do not care for literary prose. A few days later, Domingo Ródenas de Moya published in the culture supplement of El País, Babelia, an article called “¿Quién teme a la literatura experimental?” [Who fears the experimental novel?] in which he basically argued that the confluence of commercial interests and the readers’ disinterest had killed experimental fiction. By experimental he meant in essence the Modernist fiction culminating in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), now the object of a centennial celebration.

Ródenas’s notion of the experimental was criticized in the readers’ comments as an elitist position which did not take into account the scant interest that Modernist novels elicited at the time of publication, nor the fact that experimentalism can be found in other texts, including the popular ones. This is indeed the case. Gothic novels, for instance, were often experimental narratives because the authors needed to maintain the illusion that the preposterous events they narrated had actually happened. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), for instance, is a prodigy in that sense, consisting of an assemblage of documents from the phonographic recordings of Dr. Seward’s diary to newspapers cuttings. R.L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), a novella rather than a novel, also astonishes for how the tale is built, from the outside to the inside, beginning with the observations of the good doctor’s friends and ending with his own record of the catastrophe that engulfs him.

Stoker and Stevenson were very different kinds of writers, but their shared popularity shows that common readers are open to experimentation as long as the story narrated is engaging, which is not at all the case in Ulysses. This is, on the other hand, a much purer literary text since Joyce was not writing primarily as a narrator, or as a novelist, but as a literary experimentalist trying to create a new kind of artefact. He succeeded mightily in that endeavour but, of course, nobody approaching him as a narrator or a novelist can be satisfied with his storytelling skills (I won’t even mention Finnegan’s Wake, 1939, which almost killed the literary novel for good).

Among the comments to Ródenas’s text, one signed by a person calling themselves ‘Lola Montes’ caught my attention. ‘She’ showed a peculiar misunderstanding of the role of computers in writing (“Today books are written in batches like ‘churros’ thanks to computers, which demands little effort and scarce meditation on what is written”), a boutade suggesting ‘she’ must be either a technophobe or an elderly person, or both. However, I found another passage by ‘her’ absolutely relevant: “The difficulty of a reading is directly proportional to the relationship between the cognitive level of the author and the reality and context that it presents. And that requires also high cognitive levels in readers. It’s not a question of experimenting with just the semicolons. Today, Great Classical Literature should be considered experimental because very few address and understand it”). This comment can be tackled in two ways: no, Lola, very sophisticated readers of high cognitive skills can find experimental and/or classical fiction tedious, too and, yes, Lola, the more basic readers’ skills are, the less likely they are to choose fiction beyond the basic binge-in-a-few-hours standard.

A question that is not habitually addressed in relation to reading habits is leisure. The novel was born in the 18th century as a genre designed to fill in the spare time of leisured women of middle and upper-class backgrounds, who had received no formal education beyond mere literacy. Gentlemen also read novels (even the Prince Regent had read Jane Austen’s novels) but being associated with novel writing and novel reading was frowned upon as a lowly ‘feminine’ pursuit. When in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), the servant Rachel tries to warn her mistress Helen about her husband’s misbehaviour, Helen upbraids her: “What then, Rachel? Have you been reading novels?”

The idea that the novel could be a vehicle for high intellectual reflexion and for creative literary expression aimed at better educated readers came much later, in a 50-year process that ran from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2) to Ulysses (1922). This process overlaps with the establishment (in the UK) of state-funded primary and secondary education and, thus, with the idea that reading the classics had to be part of the education of all persons. Please, note that novels were still treated in that context as texts for leisure and they were not proclaimed officially part of a desirable education until F.R. Leavis published The Great Tradition (1948).

The novel, then, has occupied diverse niches in leisure, from the more basic need for entertainment on the beach, while travelling, to fill in a boring afternoon, to the more elaborate need to understand life. Those who read Ulysses originally had time in their hands for this type of demanding text, for this is not at all a text that you read to relax at the end of a bone-tiring working day. You don’t even read Middlemarch to relax, nor any novel by the major Russian and French novelists, but because you are curious about them. Readers endowed with a literary curiosity always find time to read demanding texts, but even so, they read them during their leisure time (unless they are literary professionals in reviewing and academia, or captive readers like students).

Guidance to fill in that productive leisure time, apart from education, used to come from the newspapers, magazines, and journals and in cultivated nations like France or Germany from TV shows devoted to reading. Literary critic Bernard Pivot, a former journalist, would tell French readers who to read in his weekly Friday evening talk show Apostrophes (1974-1989) and they would pay heed. When Oprah Winfrey started her book club (in 1996, as a segment of her own talk show), this was no longer about literary curiosity. As Scott Tossel wrote in The Atlantic, during the height of the controversy unleashed by author Jonathan Franzen’s refusal to be publicised by Oprah, “Modernism (and postmodernism) taught us that the true rewards of art and literature are not easily gained, but must be attained only through difficulty and struggle. Getting your culture from Oprah, in this view, is like getting it from Cliffs Notes—a cheaper, cheating method, one that withholds a work of art’s full rewards”. Tossel did not consider, of course, why Oprah had to fill in a gap left by education, nor when exactly workers employed 40 or more hours a week can find the energy to reap the rewards of hard reading.

Oprah was acting as what would be later called, beginning in 2015, an ‘influencer’. This is where the real battle is happening. German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s well-known talk show on German public television, Literarisches Quartett (1988-2001), which somehow bridges the gap between Pivot and Winfrey, is now unthinkable, with its in-depth interviews and its committed discussion of literature. Winfrey’s book club ended in 2011, with the end of her talk show. Its newer version launched in 2012, Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, which acknowledges the rise of the interactive social media, has never had the same impact. Those who, like Tossel, were appalled by how fine, creative literature had fallen into the middlebrow, plebeian hands of Oprah Winfrey, must be now suicidal, seeing how literature is perishing, drowned by reviews of undemanding narrative first by booktubers, now by booktokers. Readers are still following the lead of others but whereas Pivot and Reich-Ranicki, and to a great extent Winfrey, acted out of a genuine concern to educate readers using the mass media, this is gone from the social media, with a few exceptions that do not reach, anyway, the high number of spectators those proto literary influencers reached. Or that influencers like the Kardashians command.

In principle, nothing prevents booktubers and booktokers from championing extremely demanding Modernist, post-modernist and post-post-modernist fiction, or any other literary genre (poetry, drama). The Kardashians could indeed helped to publicize Joyce as they are publicizing so many fashion brands. The problem, as I see it, is that those who are present in social media as book reviewers are usually very young persons whose literary taste has not been formed yet and who are, besides, in the grip of this malady which is young adult fiction. Excuse me for my ageist snobbery, but although the idea of young persons recommending books to each other is beautiful, the idea of their mostly recommending novels designed to please junior readers is not.

I was recently reading Jorge Semprún’s La escritura o la vida (1994, originally L’écriture ou la vie), a deeply moving memoir of his return to ordinary life after Buchenwald, and I was astonished by the scenes in which he, then 20, comments on poems with an American officer, as young as he is. Both men have read enormously and quote an amazing variety of poetry. They were clearly under other influences (and influencers). As for young adult fiction, I am not disputing the quality of its texts, as I would never dispute the quality of children’s literature. What I am saying is that it has had the unfortunate (or tragic) side effect of convincing most teen readers, of which the vast majority are girls, that there is something called ‘adult’ literature which is dull to death and should only be read when white hairs start sprouting in your head.

I’ll continue my ranting in the following post…

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/