About Sara Martín Alegre

I am a senior lecturer at the 'Departament de Filologia Anglesa' of the UAB, where I have been teaching English Literature (19th, 20th and 21st century) and Cultural Studies since 1991.

REDEFINING GOTHIC FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RETHINKING WILLY WONKA: ENJOYABLE VILLAINY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEING THE OTHER, THE OTHER BEING: MASCULINE INSECURITIES IN MATTHEW HAIG’S THE HUMANS AND BLAKE CROUCH’S DARK MATTER

This is the ten-minute talk I gave last week at the international conference of the Science Fiction Research Association, of which I spoke in my last post. Since we had been given such a short time, I used no secondary sources and focused directly on the two novels I discuss. I was a bit nervous that the paper would seem too informal but nobody complained. So, here it is, with a warning about spoilers.

The exploration of gender in science fiction mostly focuses on women and the LGTBI collective, overlooking heterosexual masculinity, even though most authors have that identity. I consider here what men’s recent science fiction says about this type of masculinity from a critical position informed by Masculinities Studies, though I’ll leave my theoretical framework aside because of time constraints. My focus are two novels set in the present: The Humans (of 2013) by English author Matthew Haig, and Dark Matter (of 2016) by American novelist Blake Crouch. Haig’s novel is a satire and Crouch’s a thriller but, despite their differences, both address a key issue for contemporary masculinity, namely, how to successfully combine the demands of an ambitious career with a pro-feminist family life.

These novels could be Gothic horror about the wife and teen son who gradually realize their husband and father is a stranger. Yet, both are first person narrations that use science fiction (in a light vein) to portray a male individual who needs to understand how men function in the contemporary world. In Haig’s novel, a nameless alien learns to be a caring human man by rejecting the behaviour of the uncaring workaholic it replaces. The family man in Crouch’s novel must defend his well-balanced masculinity from the assault by another uncaring workaholic, his own doppelgänger. Alien and family man have little in common but the authors’ message is similar. Both use science fiction to endorse a positive masculine model, focused on caring for women and children. Neither author explains, though, why a happy family life should involve sacrificing personal careers. In each case, the birth of a son transforms the lives of at least one parent into a less publicly rewarding existence. Arguably, both novels resist above all the impact of parenting on personal life.

In each novel, there is a talented woman who has chosen motherhood over her career but the situation of the husband, both gifted scientists, is different. In The Humans top Cambridge mathematician Andrew Martin is a selfish career man, and a disappointing husband and father, who cheats on his wife Isobel and lacks any empathy for his literally suicidal teen son Gulliver. In Dark Matter, Chicago physicist Jason Dessen is a happy family man, in love with his wife Daniela and in syntony with their son Charlie, unconcerned by having ditched his promising career. Each from their angle, Haig and Crouch are very critical of the workaholic career model that makes family life dysfunctional (or impossible) and that relegates women to a supporting role. In The Humans, workaholic Martin is killed when the alien narrator snatches his body. In Dark Matter Jason2, the doppelgänger, is dispatched for stealing Jason’s family life. In his gentle satire, Haig hints that an alien could be a better English family man than a human male, whereas Crouch has his happy American family man kill in a vicious way the workaholic he might have been.

Neither Haig nor Crouch, however, imagine their scientific male geniuses, for this is what Martin and Dessen are, combining their professions with a rich family life. For both, the arrival of a child at an early stage in their careers is a major crisis which forces them and their partners to make crucial choices. Andrew’s wife Isobel abandons her career as a historian to be a mother and to support her husband’s career, later taking up teaching. The unexpected pregnancy of Jason’s girlfriend Daniela makes them abandon their dream careers –hers as an artist, his in quantum physics–to become teachers, too. When each novel begins, the two couples are in their early forties and have been in their relationships for long: 20 years in Andrew and Isobel’s case, 15 in Jason and Daniela’s case. The novels narrate, then, a sort of mid-life crisis.

To give some more detail, Haig’s novel narrates the efforts of a Vonnadorian sent to Earth to stop Professor Martin from announcing his resolution of the Riemann Hypothesis, as this would fast-forward human progress in ways the aliens mistrust. Martin’s identity is wiped out and his body occupied by the nameless alien, who cannot easily adapt to his new life. The professor’s new oddball behaviour is, of course, attributed to a breakdown caused by overworking. On its side, the body-snatcher resists its orders to kill all who might know of Martin’s mathematical breakthrough. The alien refuses to kill Isobel and Gulliver, though he does murder the rival to whom a boastful Martin communicates his discovery. Taking a look at the many certificates of distinction in this man’s office, the alien feels “thankful to come from a place where personal success was meaningless” (89).

As the alien starts valuing Isobel and Gulliver, it discovers that Martin was totally focused on his career, that his wife was unhappy but unable to divorce him, and that Gulliver cannot cope with being the son of a genius. Enjoying the pleasures of caring for the boy and of being cared for by Isobel (since in its genderless home planet, family and love do not exist), the alien decided to become fully human. The attack of a second murderous alien, however, forces the alien to disclose its real identity. Gulliver takes the revelation well, even with relief. As the alien writes, there was no sentimental scene but the boy “seemed to accept me as an extraterrestrial life form far more easily than he had accepted me as a father” (264). Isobel, though, is shattered by the loss of her new happy family life. After this episode, Haig sends the alien abroad, still posing as Martin. But, being comedy, The Humans ends happily. When Gulliver invites his fake Dad back home, claiming that Isobel misses their life, the alien asks whether she misses the original or the alien Martin. “You,” Gulliver replies. “You’re the one who looked after us” (289). No more is needed.

In Dark Matter, Jason2 comes from the universe where Jason rejected fatherhood, and Daniela aborted. He built there the box that gives access to the multiverse. Successful but lonely, Jason2 starts seeking the life that Jason and Daniela enjoy with Charlie. As Jason comments, “If I represent the pinnacle of family success for all the Jason Dessens, Jason2 represents the professional and creative apex. We’re opposite poles of the same man, and I suppose it isn’t a coincidence that Jason2 sought out my life from the infinite possibilities available” (265). Jason2 kidnaps Jason and, wrongly assuming he will be thrilled to take his place as a single career man, swaps lives with him. In fact, Jason is shattered and only uses the box to get back home and terminate his usurper. Daniela and Charlie take Jason’s eventual revelation that they have been living (for a month) with Jason2 just with mild puzzlement. Yet, despite the reassurances of wife and son that Jason2 was not better than him, a certain doubt lingers. Since Jason’s family never really distrusts this other man (Daniela is, in fact, thrilled with their renewed passion), it appears that Jason is replaceable. Jason is robbed of his life but Jason2 is, on the whole, a good enough replacement, as if Jason’s roles as husband and father were just performances and not an expression of a deeply-felt identity.

To sum up, Haig and Crouch use science fiction to reject the workaholic male genius who refuses to be a good family man. Martin is flippantly replaced by an alien who is better at performing human masculinity than he ever was. As for Jason, by killing Jason2 he eliminates his workaholic self and regains his lost happy family life. Crouch, though, cannot wholly erase the impression that this man is replaceable because he can never prove that Jason is unique. Ultimately, whether a man is selfish or caring, his choices may make him vulnerable. In Haig’s and Crouch’s novels, the ‘other being’ embodies the choices not taken and men’s struggle to combine professional ambition and rewarding family life. It is, therefore, important to highlight science fiction’s contribution to the discussion of these male anxieties. I hope you agree!

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

IS SCIENCE FICTION RESPONSIBLE FOR IMAGINING THE FUTURE? POSSIBLY…

I’ve been attending these days in fits and starts the Science Fiction Research Association’s international conference, conditioned by the six-hour difference with Toronto, where the hosting institution (Seneca College) is located. Fifteen months into the pandemic I needn’t say how impossible it is to listen to anybody speak on Zoom, or similar, without either multitasking or disconnecting after five minutes. I may doodle like I’m possessed when I listen to papers delivered in person, but it is just beyond me to get used to streaming. I pity our poor students! And, no, unlike what you might expect, science-fiction conferences do not happen in an advanced virtual reality environment where we can project our ultra-realistic yet fantastic avatars, as if this were Ready Player One’s immersive universe OASIS. At most, you get funny backgrounds. A keynote speaker had chosen, for mysterious reasons, a gorgeous photo of a process of in vitro fecundation. Another was floating in outer space.

The main theme of the conference has been ‘The Future as/of Inequality’, so you can be sure that there has been much talk of class (in my case of middle-class men’s fears of not doing well as family men). Even so, I would say that the main keywords, or buzzwords, in the sessions I have attended were ‘race’ and ‘dystopia’. I wish the papers had dealt with how utopia will be reached in a post-racial future civilization, but most dealt with the extension into a long-lasting dystopia of the same racial issues negatively affecting so many people today. The number of authors and main characters other than white has grown spectacularly in recent science fiction, but many (or even most) are battling conflicts so deeply rooted in current racism that no utopian horizon is emerging for anyone of any skin colour.

The most interesting panel I attended had contributions by two of the most admirable scholars in science fiction (yes, I said admirable because I admire them): Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint. This came after the keynote lecture by Lars Schmeink in which he described the connections between the current theorization of capitalism–such as surveillance capitalism, the concept popularized by Shoshana Zuboff in her eponymous book, and others, such as Susan Lettow’s biocapitalism–and current science fiction. I had a feeling of déjà vu, having heard plenty in the 1980s about how corporations might replace nations in the 21st century as de jure and de facto global organizations. William Gibson ranted all he wanted in his cyberpunk novels about the boundless power of zaibatsus, when it seemed that Japan would soon dominate the world (whatever happened to Japan?). And if I recall correctly, in Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1991) the characters’ citizenship was granted by the corporations they worked for (as if I were an Autonomous University citizen rather than a citizen of the Spanish kingdom). But back to Bould and Vint: they discussed whether science fiction should and could operate beyond capitalism both in its means of production and the content of the stories. Their views were similar yet quite different. You’ll see.

There is something definitely hypocritical, I think, in telling tales of corporate dystopia while being published or broadcast by immense corporations. As Mark Bould insisted, science fiction should be free of commodification in order to be a true contributor to a future which could imagine life beyond corporate dystopia. Schmeink quoted Ursula Le Guin’s famous saying “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words”. This optimistic view appears to agree with Bould’s faith in science fiction but, of course, Le Guin does not explain how ‘the art of words’ can undermine the corporate monster from inside. We know that capitalism, in fact, can turn anything into a commodity, including resistance (the first example that has come to my mind is the fortune someone must have made selling t-shirts with the photo of Che Guevara).

Bould suggested something along the lines of perhaps turning science fiction into a kind of “collective folk art” as, to name an instance, ballads once were. Bould, who co-edited with British author China Miéville the volume Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction (2009), is surely aware of Miéville’s alternative proposal that authors are paid a salary by the state, which has always raised many eyebrows but seems fairer than having another job as you produce fiction in hippie-folkish (or Elizabethan aristo) style. Being myself an author paid by the Spanish state to write (also to teach, of course), I see Miéville’s point–though I wonder how authors would be selected, and if writing science fiction would be considered a merit. Anyway, Bould complained that “science fiction is everywhere but not evenly distributed” and called for an end to its commodification. My view, however, is that this goal is as difficult as making academic work truly open access, and not yet another corporate product (or what did you think it is?).

Sherryl Vint’s argumentation was more anti-corporation in the sense that she not only questioned how corporations force everything, including sf, to be commodified, but also how the nightmarish world that corporations have created has colonized sf’s imagination of the future and also our present. Her main target were the white, male, US billionaires whose visions of an ultra-monetized future we are all following like sheep to the slaughter, and how they are presenting those visions not as the opposite of the future science fiction has imagined but as its realization. To give you an example, Elon Musk is selling Neuralink–a project to connect human brains to computers–as the realization of Iain M. Banks’s neural laces in the Culture novels, calling himself a fan. Conveniently, though, Musk forgets that the Culture is a post-capitalist, post-scarcity civilization where guys like him would be socially ostracized. So, yes, I’m with Sherryl Vint in this urgent need to vehemently deny that the future to which Musk and company are dragging us is a utopian science-fictional future, and the only possible one. We must “resist the occupation of sf by all these corporations and alt-right groups”, she said, and reject all the “bad forms of using sf”. These are, I believe, dominant in the stylish but trashy sf served by the streaming platforms, cinema and videogames (less so in print fiction), overwhelmingly at the service of convincing earthlings that despite the unstoppable onslaught of climate change and other man-made disasters they must buy the latest i-phone and change their gas-powered car for a Tesla.

I have already expressed here several times that as academics we can contribute to altering the path of science fiction by writing about the works that promote positive change, and eschew the dystopian texts. I am, however, in a minority of one (or of very few), and run besides the risk of having nothing to write about if the sf I am reading and seeing these days continues in this dystopian vein. As plain consumers and as academics we can make demands on writers, showrunners, filmmakers and videogame designers to move beyond the ‘strong-hero-battles-corporation’ scenario, as we are managing to get better gender and racial inclusiveness. I’m sure that corporations are to blame a great deal for their insistence on destroying the planet as they sell us parasitical, useless objects and services but each of us contributes their share. Including myself. For instance, have spent this morning twenty euros to buy from Amazon Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry of the Future, hypocritically ignoring that this contributes more to enriching Jeff Bezos than to furthering Robinson’s crusade for utopia (I don’t think, however, that Robinson would appreciate the idea of sf as a folk product).

I am working on something completely unrelated to sf, connected with recent American politics, and listening yesterday to Senator Cory Booker speak to Jimmy Kimmel, I realized what we’re missing and this man has in great quantities: positivity. Someone commented on YouTube that listening to Booker and to Donald Trump made you wonder how they could belong to the same species. Well, Trump is a main generator of dystopia whereas Booker has made a point of turning his personal sunniness into positive politics aimed at increasing US citizens’ welfare. I am not saying that Booker should write science fiction (or perhaps he should!): what I am saying is that science fiction has lost all its optimism and that generally speaking optimism is defended by very few (like Booker). Because of this science fiction is now an almost useless tool to fashion not only utopia but even a workable plan for the next decade. Hearing my twelve-year-old niece say recently that she does not want to have children because she herself has a very difficult future ahead breaks my heart. I wish I could tell her ‘don’t be silly, your future will be great!’ (I would never tell anyone ‘do have children’, that’s their choice!) but I just cannot illustrate this promise with any text, science fictional or otherwise. We seem to have lost in the attack against the false universalism of traditional sf the ability to build new worlds without inequality.

I’ll finish with a remark someone made in the conference: the problem is that we, middle-aged white baby boomers, do not want to give up our privileges and share our wealth with other generations and other nations. This is not a new discourse, but I was dismayed to hear it in a science-fiction conference because it is divisive and because Earth has resources to make everyone’s lives better, if only we get rid of the billionaires. I don’t mean killing them and using them for compost, as someone’s bad joke went, but putting a cap to personal earnings. One of the biggest lies of capitalism is that without the incentive of making money individuals do not exert their best talents–the defunct Soviet Union is often quoted as an example of how lack of personal gain-based initiative undermines nations. Yet, as long as the world is run by a cadre of billionaires (American or Chinese, I don’t care) and their corporations the future will be dominated by inequality. As for Le Guin’s words, someone did imagine what the future would be like without the absolute right of kings, but the problem is that we cannot imagine, having horrendously failed with communism, what will replace capitalism. She suggested smaller, rural communities with limited technology based on mutual aid, but I don’t quite see that. I see full automation generating income that guarantees universal freedom from the worst kind of jobs–but that for many is dystopia.

Let’s ask science-fiction writers to come up with new ideas, and help them to rethink the future. It is our duty, as much as theirs.

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

THE FEMINISATION OF LITERARY FICTION: IS IT HAPPENING?

I am reacting here to an article by Johanna Thomas-Corr, published on 16 May in The Guardian: “How Women Conquered the World of Fiction”. The arguments, as you will see, are not 100% new, but they are worth considering (again). The subtitle, by the way, reads “From Sally Rooney to Raven Leilani, female novelists have captured the literary zeitgeist, with more buzz, prizes and bestsellers than men. But is this cultural shift something to celebrate or rectify?” The keywords ‘buzz, prizes and bestsellers’ reveal that Thomas-Corr is not quite interested in quality but in the public visibility of new authors and novels. The concept ‘literary zeitgeist’, it must be noted, does not refer to genre fiction but exclusively to literary fiction, which is the focus of the article. Incidentally, Thomas-Corr does mention at the end of the piece a longish list of exciting, new male writers. Call me dirty-minded but I very much suspect that her ultimate aim is promoting them (or echoing their promotion by their respective publishing houses).

The main question that Thomas-Corr examines is whether “Men–and especially young men–are being shut out of an industry that is blind to its own prejudices”, meaning that said publishing industry is not treating male writers with the same care it is investing in female writers. The secondary question she examines is whether, in fact, fewer young male writers are currently writing literary fiction. Flippantly, the journalist writes that “Whenever I speak to men in their 20s, 30s and 40s, most tell me they couldn’t give a toss about fiction, especially literary fiction. They have video games, YouTube, nonfiction, podcasts, magazines, Netflix”. I myself am a big fan of non-fiction and fail to see why this genre—in my view far superior in interest to today’s literary fiction—is dismissed like that; besides, my impression is that nonfiction is a very egalitarian genre, with a paritary representation of men and women authors (and readers). I do not dispute that young men read less literary fiction than in the past, and less of everything else than in the past, but I do dispute that what they read is not worth considering as quality writing—particularly in view of how genres that interest women, such as romance, are treated.

But, back to the journalist’s argumentation: young men read less literary fiction, which also means they write fewer books in that genre, and, anyway, when they do write them, their novels are not received with the same eagerness as the novels by young women. The reasons for this, the article claims, are that there is an increasing number of women in key positions in the publishing world, as editors and agents, and that women readers seemingly prefer women authors, which is creating a snowball effect. The more you connect women with literary fiction at all levels, the less men are present in it at all levels. This, of course, is disputed by the many male readers commenting on Thomas-Corr’s article and I am certainly convinced that the number of male readers who avoid women’s writing for misogynistic reasons, or basic lack of interest, has been diminishing constantly. In fact, the issue that Thomas-Corr raises is not problematic in genres such as detective fiction, which is written (and devoured) by absolutely everybody. I do have myself some misgivings that, as Thomas-Carr suggests, men are also giving up in fantasy and science fiction, but I don’t mean that they are writing less—I mean that they are giving up on getting the buzz, the media coverage, the awards, seeing that now all that attention is going to women, partly for the novelty of what they are doing, and also because women’s writing is today, in all fronts, far more self-confident than men’s.

The reasons for that lack of self-confidence are not a great mystery. The ‘big beasts’, as Thomas-Corr calls them of the 80s and 90s—“Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro et al in the UK and Philip Roth, John Updike and Saul Bellow in the US”—are writers whose candid explorations of the less wholesome aspects of the male soul and body are far less welcome today. I was a young woman who read many books by Roth with great admiration, and an older woman who until recently believed he had been robbed of the Nobel Prize, but I have changed my mind. I am not dismissing at all these writers’ collective effort to rescue the Anglophone novel from the depressive 1970s, but theirs are stories I am no longer interested in. Besides, I have many new women novelists to choose from, and I think this is a process that many women my age have gone through. Having said that, I remain an enthusiastic reader of men’s fiction, but of the kind that energizes me (what I find in science fiction), not of the kind that depresses me. I have just abandoned recent Booker prize winner by Scottish author Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain, requiring no reminder of how dreary the life of an alcoholic woman and her loving son can be. As for Sally Rooney, whom Thomas-Corr mentions again and again as a female writer gloriously capable of generating an enormous buzz, I have already expressed here my extremely negative opinion of her awfully depressing, mediocre Normal People. She simply is not the best woman writer around.

Thomas-Corr reports the words of a male agent, claiming that a major problem in the publishing industry allegedly dominated by women is “the lack of interest in male novelists and the widespread idea that the male voice is problematic”, which diminishes the impulse to invest on them. In view of the many difficulties to publish in comparison to their female peers, Thomas-Carr notes, “young male writers have given up on literary fiction” finding “narrative nonfiction (particularly travelogues and nature writing in the vein of Robert Macfarlane) or genre fiction (especially crime and sci-fi)” more accessible avenues toward professionalization. I will not comment again on the disparagement of these genres in comparison to overpraised literary fiction, but I remain baffled by the journalist’s comment that these other genres are “less mediated by the culture and the conversations on Twitter” because it subtly hints that women dominate social media and are using them to police and cancel men’s fiction they dislike. Is this the awful truth??

A (male) reader signing as denisou comments that “People do not need to turn to the newest literary fiction to understand the experience of being a straight man in the world today”, and, anyway, this kind of novel has been offered for decades now. It appears, Thomas-Corr notes, that the only male writer with something new to contribute is the black, gay man, but, obviously, it is absurd to leave outside any kind of promotion and celebration the work of all straight men. “Male writers of colour”, Thomas-Corr writes, “feel they are under-represented” in the lists of thrilling novelties, by which she means straight BAME and Black men. There is, besides, a suspicion that white, straight, working-class men are wrongly put in the same category as their middle-class predecessors. Northern Irish working-class writer Darran Anderson declares, Thomas-Corr reports, that “I have neither the desire nor the means to pick up Martin Amis’s or John Updike’s bill”. Nor should he or any other men writing today.

The issue that may be making all the difference is, in fact, half-hidden in the article. Literary fiction by men became increasingly sexualized from the 1960s onwards, leaving aside the pioneering efforts of D.H. Lawrence in the 1920s. The way many male writers of distinction have been portraying sex is, simply, no longer palatable to women readers. Writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, who is not known for including much sex in his novels (I can’t recall a single scene by him), are thus better candidates to lasting fame than Amis, the above mentioned Roth, or others. Generally speaking, misogyny is no longer welcome—though this does not men that women’s writing is wholly free from this taint—and it is particularly unwelcome in sex scenes. What is happening now is that whereas women writers have found a way to write about sex that satisfies (!) women readers, male writers have not. This is why, Thomas-Corr observes, “Male writers definitely seem to be feeling more reticent about sex” and no wonder about it. Excuse my boutade, but what is a literary novel by a man with no sex scenes except a failure of nerve (leaving Ishiguro aside)? The recipe, then, for men to make it back to the literary spotlight is to learn from women new lessons about how to do sex scenes. I don’t mean they have to copy women, but refresh their own style and offer so much sexiness that women readers will go crazy for them. For, as we know, literary fiction has always been about desire.

I don’t think, to sum up, that men are excluded from literary fiction or excluding themselves for lack of interest or of opportunities. I just think that they need to rethink their own representation, and makes it more engaging. I am very much aware that capturing at the same time the attention of the non-reading gamer and of the female serial reader of quality fiction is an almost impossible task, but some nonfiction and genre fiction male authors have managed to do that. As for the portrayal of intimacy that literary fiction relies on, I do see that women handle it now much better and with greater confidence because they see themselves addressing like-minded female readers, and caring far less for the opinion of male readers. Aspiring male literary writers need to ask themselves, therefore, how to meet the challenge of reattracting a larger male and female audience, not by following a woke scenario (please!!!!) but by reinventing the representation of masculinity for our times, including a non-misogynistic sexuality.

And if any woman reading this is the type who proudly declares ‘I don’t read men’, then, I’m sorry for you because too many men were (or are) of the ‘I don’t read women’ persuasion. Let’s not fall into the sexist trap as readers, writers, editors, agents or teachers and let’s keep the conversation open.

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

WOMEN, ROCK, AND THE EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: CELEBRATING VICTORIA DE ANGELIS

I have started working on the preparation of the Cultural Studies course that I am teaching next semester, and I am thinking these days about women in pop and rock (again, after a long time). About ten days ago the Eurovision song contest took place in Rotterdam, and like half the planet I was fascinated by the Italian winners, rock band Måneskin. However, my fascination was caused not only by their obvious talent and the appeal of frontman Damiano David, but also by the contrast between bass player Victoria de Angelis and the other women in the contest. That contrast is today my focus, together with the thoughts prompted by my reading of Kristin J. Lieb’s Gender, Branding, and the Modern Music Industry: The Social Construction of Female Popular Music Stars (2018, second edition).

I must thank my wonderful student Andrea Delgado López for having rekindled my interest in music, which I lost to a combination of things, one of them being my sudden inability to work with the music on when I hit 40 or thereabouts. Andrea has just finished an excellent BA dissertation on Childish Gambino’s music video “This is America”, and has allowed me to embark her on the project of producing an e-book entirely of her authorship with an analysis of 25 outstanding music videos (available in July). Her list for that project was the reason why I spent a happy day watching 50 music videos as I chronicled here a while ago. Andrea’s perceptive analyses of the videos made me see I need to get back on track and, as they say, there is nothing better than teaching a course to learn, so that’s what I intend to do with the help of my students. The idea is to consider in particular the current position of women in Anglophone pop, and produce an e-book though at this point I’m not sure whether I want it to be critical of what is wrong with women’s presence in that music genre or to seek positive examples. Perhaps both, depending, too, on what students prefer.

So, back to Eurovision. My husband and I are confirmed, though not fanatical Eurofans (we have seen The Story of Fire Saga twice, if that’s an indication of our commitment), and we watched the two semi-finals from beginning to end, feeling as usual disappointed with the elimination of particular favourites (Australia, really?). As we watched, we noticed what we’re calling the legacy of the ‘Eleni school’, after Eleni Foureira, the Cyprus representative in 2018 who did not win but became an instant hit with her song “Fuego”. Eleni’s act consisted of passing as a song of supposed female empowerment –with the memorable lines ‘Oh your love is like wild-wildfire/You got me pelican fly-fly-flyin’”– a song (written by men) about a woman’s sexual availability, a point underscored by her sexy dance routine and revealing outfit. This year many Elenis made it to the final: Elene Tsagrinou, also from Cyprus; Anxhela Peristeri from Albania; Hurricane from Serbia; Stefania from Greece, Natalia Gordienko from Moldova and Efendi from Azerbaijan; perhaps I should add Eden Alene from Israel. That’s seven entries in total and nine sexy ladies (Hurricane are three women) out of twenty-six countries, with no sexy men in sight except for Damiano. The other women who could be seen on stage also followed the sexy script (celebrating curviness, like Senhit from San Marino or Destiny from Malta, or chic, like Barbara Pravi from France), or ignored it (though I loved the backless dark blue dress of the Hoverphonic singer from Belgium). My point, though, is that only Victoria de Angelis was there playing an instrument and not just, basically, exhibiting herself. Apart, now that I recall from Daði og Gagnamagnið keyboard player Árný (though she was not really playing, I think).

So while everyone has gone bananas dissecting Damiano’s presence, his possible consumption of drugs during the show (sternly denied!), and how his upper-middle-class origins make him an ‘inauthentic’ rock idol, I was wondering about Victoria. I don’t use social networks so I have no idea how she presents herself there, and seeing how pretty this very young girl is, I assume there must be tons of comments about her looks, maybe photos she has posted herself. What interested me is that, as I read in an Italian Elle interview, her own idol is Sonic Youth’s bassist, guitarist and vocalist Kim Gordon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Gordon). I’ve never been a Sonic Youth fan but I appreciate Gordon’s enormous contribution, and I’m certainly looking forward to reading her memoir, Girl in a Band (2015). The De Angelis-Gordon connection is simply thrilling and I do hope that more women follow it to bring back the figure of the female rock musician, which seems to me to be a bit lost in these times of Elenis and of WAP rappers. Perhaps rock in general is a bit lost, and Måneskin won the contest out of a certain nostalgia, which could also explain Finland’s nice sixth position with Blind Channel’s Linkin-Park style song “Dark Side”.

As a woman in a rock band and a bass player, then, De Angelis is, so to speak, necessary because we have been engulfed by an absurd pop-music model that is too fixated on the sexy singer. I do not discard that De Angelis will also exploit herself or be herself exploited in that way, but my point is that she is not in Måneskin for her looks but, basically, because this is the band she put together (there are rumours she is the real leader). The proliferation of the Elenis is, on the other hand, an export to other geographical areas of a pernicious American model that is not only exploitative but also cruel with the women who do not fit the mould. Malta’s Destiny or Israel’s Netta Barzilai (the 2018 winner) cannot be said to have really broken away from that model, nor has American Lizzo, because they still insist on associating sexiness with the female pop singer (or rapper), a quality male performers needn’t worry about. If Damiano David wants to look sexy, that’s his choice, not an obligation.

Kristin J. Lieb used to be a journalist and a marketing and business development executive and she has an insiders’ view of how the pop industry works. Denying all forms of feminist empowerment through the self-sexualization of women, she is very clear in her book that the artist who remains fully clothed in music videos has the power, and the one who is seen half naked does not. As she notes, male pop stars belong in the former category, women in the latter. She also mentions how in promotional material the face is emphasized in the men’s case and the whole body in the women’s. And, the rawest thing for me, that the career of female acts is planned taking into account their ageing process –that is to say, if you’re wondering why suddenly a certain female artist is all over the place, this might be because her recording company thinks she will not age well and they want to recap their investment as quickly as possible. Before she is no longer fuckable, excuse my French. As for those who lack the looks (according, of course, to a very narrow view of what the ‘looks’ are) but have real musical talent, the industry still offers them a place –as composers of hit songs for the main acts. The idea that female pop artists are brands is not really new but what I had totally missed is that in the end the music is just a small part of a multifaceted brand promotion which touches on many other products. If you want to know about a first-rank brand and the rest, Leib explains, think of who you’d see promoting a line of clothing or a perfume.

Lieb is, I think, very much reductive for even though there is much in common in the presentation of the artists she considers (Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Katy Perry, Fergie) each has a tale to tell. Beyoncé, it is obvious, controls the game in ways which totally escape poor Spears (legally her father’s ward). She is also quite ambiguous about the role played by Madonna, for Lieb praises her for building a model of self-empowerment –being very harsh on Camille Paglia’s critique of the self-sexualization embedded in it– while at the same time reading almost with sarcasm Fergie’s sexy music videos, which are Madonna’s legacy as well. Lieb also tends to dismiss stars that still have much appeal among their followers and that are much loved outside the USA (like Kylie Minogue) and is not too respectful of the ones that fight hard to come back on her own terms (Fiona Apple). And she positively hates Katy Perry for being a serial cultural appropriator (Lieb loves Miley Cyrus). An added problem is that cultural studies age very quickly. Lieb’s book was issued in a second edition in 2018, but Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa are nowhere to be seen in it.

I do agree with Lieb that self-sexualization is not self-empowerment since you are still pandering to the male gaze but, after coming across De Angelis, my doubt is whether by exposing how the industry works we teach our students to resist the appeal of the current pop stars. Billie Eilish’s new bombshell look and lingerie photoshoot for British Vogue have a far more direct impact on young girls than any crusty discussion by feminist academics of whether she is right to exhibit herself like that (thinking of her fans). I did want to begin my course with the Eilish cover and ask my students how they feel about her sudden abandonment of her signature baggy clothes, but perhaps that will be too prim and counterproductive. Perhaps I should begin instead with a photo of Victoria de Angelis in all her bass-playing glory as an example of other careers women can have in music. And talk about Kim Gordon, still very much active though older, at 66, than Madonna (62), and not botoxed like her. It’s funny how Lieb speaks of the pop star’s obligation to be sexy and young but does not comment on how Madonna’s and J. Lo’s artificial youth conditions older women’s view of themselves even when they do not even care for these singers. The sight of ‘la Lopez’, 51, pole-dancing during the 2020 Superbowl gave me the creeps. Imagine Luis Miguel, also 51, doing that…

Leib blames all this madness on the rise of MTV, when, as the Buggles sang ‘video killed the radio star’. She also highlights digital piracy, the rise of the social media and of the streaming platforms, which require stars to be ubiquitous brands in order to make the money lost when sales of CDs collapsed. The market, of course, is the same for men, but they still get to age naturally and keep their clothes on in all music genres, which shows that gender is shaping music branding indeed. I see, however, no way out of this since the girls who ultimately buy the music and the products endorsed by the female stars (not really the boys, right?) have also opted for an intensive self-sexualization as the young boys look less and less attractive. I hope my students give me some clues about how to break out of this vicious circle.

Enjoy Måneskin, thank you Victoria!


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

VIRGINIA AND NELLIE: THE WOMAN WITH NO ROOM OF HER OWN

This past Sant Jordi I was given as a present Alicia Giménez Bartlett’s Una habitación ajena (A Room not of One’s Own), originally issued in 1997 and now re-issued in a new, revised edition published to coincide with the 80th anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s death in 1941 (she was born in 1882). Bartlett’s title alludes, of course, to Woolf’s long essay “A Room of One’s Own” (1929), in which the author argues that women have not been free to write as well as they could because they have lacked a room of one’s own (but recall how Jane Austen wrote great novels half-hidden in a corner of her family’s living room). The bit that is usually neglected in quotations is that the three times Woolf mentions this coveted room she also mentions money, specifically 500 pounds a year, which apparently come from work rather than rent (or maybe not). In short, calling her view with irony ‘an opinion upon one minor point’, Woolf writes that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’. What Bartlett adds is that a woman writer must also have servants, whether she likes it or not.

Bartlett novelizes in her book the stormy relationship between Woolf and her two servants, Lottie Hope and Nellie Boxall, above all with Nellie. She takes up in this way the implicit challenge thrown by Woolf herself. In December 1929, Woolf candidly wrote in her diary that ‘If I were reading this diary, if it were a book that came my way, I think I should seize with greed on the portrait of Nelly (sic), and make a story–perhaps make the whole story revolve around that–it would amuse me. Her character–our efforts to get rid of her–our reconciliations’. The researcher that Bartlett invents for her novel tells us that Woolf made frequent mention in a rather acerbic tone of her clashes with Nellie (whose name she always misspelled), her cook and main housekeeper between 1916 and 1934. Bartlett imagines that Nellie learned to keep a diary from observing her mistress and, so, her novel intercalates the observations of the present-day researcher with this diary, and with dramatized chapters written in the third person. Bartlett swears in her author’s note that all the petty misencounters depicted in her novel did happen, as attested by Woolf’s own eight-volume diary. They were all based, according to Bartlett, on Nellie’s progressive realization that her masters’ left-wing political beliefs did not result in generosity towards their servants, whom, in short, they exploited (she was paid only £20 a year). This is a thesis similar to what Alison Light maintains in her study Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury (2007), though she cautions that the Marxist reading is in a way an anachronism, as few employers thought of servants as labour, seeing them instead as persons they kept.

Nellie started working at the Woolfs’ in the middle of World War I, which is a major point of inflexion in the history of domestic service. Last year I read, as background to my teaching of Victorian Literature, Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (2004), Karen Foy’s Life in the Victorian Kitchen (2014), and Fiona McDonald’s Victorian Servants, a Very Peculiar History (2010). I learned from them that Victorian middle-class households were complex machineries with high maintenance needs requiring from one to twenty servants, depending on the owner’s status. The Stephens, Virginia’s parents (Leslie and Julia), had ten servants, which means that Woolf and her siblings grew up with all their personal needs catered for. The daily lives of Victorian servants were gruelling affairs, with constant hard-core chores from morning to evening, and no leisure except one afternoon off, a whole day if they were lucky. Pay was never high, and they always depended on the whims of masters and mistresses who could dismiss servants with no severance payment, and with no references though without these getting a new position was impossibly hard. Servants who grew sick or grew old always depended on the charity of their employers. And, of course, only upper servants in rich households (governesses, housekeepers, butlers) could expect to have a room of their own to sleep in; the rest shared cramped accommodation, usually in cold attics. Nellie, indeed, complains all the time about having to share a room with Lottie. When she finally has a room to herself, Virginia feels free to intrude whenever she pleases. A major row erupts, precisely, when an annoyed Nellie orders her mistress to leave her room. Such insolence!

No wonder, then, that as World War I progressed and the need for factory labour grew in the UK, more and more young women chose to abandon employment as servants. Besides, with prices rising throughout the 1920s and with the constant turmoil of the general strikes called by the unions, eventually the middle classes found themselves unable to employ domestic help beyond one or two persons, as was the Woolfs’ case. A surprising aspect of Bartlett’s novel is her description of the Woolfs’ diverse homes–Monk’s House and Asham House in Sussex, and Hogarth House in London’s Gordon Square–as not particularly comfortable. It is hard for us to imagine middle-class persons living in homes with no hot water and no central heating, but that was common. Bartlett’s Nellie complains all the time about being cold and about having to shift lots of coal constantly. The Woolfs never purchased the modern conveniences appearing in the early 20th century (vacuum cleaners, for instance, were commercialized in 1905). When, tired of their constant bickering and of her frequent threats to leave their service, Virginia curtly dismissed Nellie, she was happy to find a position with a couple who did have all the latest gadgets: actors Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. She remained with them until 1939, choosing not to follow them to the USA. Instead, she retired to her native village, Farncombe in Surrey, and purchased there a home of her own, where she lived with fellow servant Lottie, until her death in 1965.

I don’t think that Woolf’s relationship with Nellie is extraordinary. What is extraordinary is that it is documented in detail on the mistress’ side and that this mistress happened to be a progressive feminist who believed in women’s independence. For those of us coming from the working-classes the contradictions of middle-class feminism have always been easy to spot, like the glaring absence of domestic service from English fiction. TV series Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75) and Downtown Abbey (2010-15, plus the two films, 2019 and 2021), together with Kazuo Ishiguro’s marvellous novel The Remains of the Day (1989), have appeased our curiosity about the lives of the servants in upper-class households. Yet, there is still much to say about the middle-class’ uncomfortable relationship with its servants in the vein of what Bartlett does. Neither Virginia nor her sister Vanessa knew how to cook. Both, Alison Light writes, ‘were irked by keeping servants but resigned to it’. Their resignation has to do with the loss of privacy that became in the early 20th century an integral part of personal life. For the generation of their parents using domestic service was not an issue, but for Woolf’s generation that bond became awkward, an unwanted intrusion in lives that felt exposed because they did not abide by standard social rules. Women like Virginia and Vanessa felt dependent and hated the burden of that feeling. In fact, Virginia would eventually learn to cook to be her own mistress and eat as she pleased. This crucial transition in the lives of middle-class women, from dependent to independent mistress of the house, has not been sufficiently narrated, though. There must be millions of Nellies (and of Virginias) waiting for their tale to be told.

Obviously, middle-class working women have never become independent because we still need domestic help. The servants are gone and, unlike what was promised, domestic appliances have not done away with housework, no matter how much they have simplified it. I just shudder at the thought of doing the washing by hand! We may have the room and the money, but not the domestic freedom that, as I see it, will only come with robotic servants. In the meantime, most of us manage with hourly-paid help (babysitters, cleaners) carried out by working women who manage their working-class homes quite often with the help of a grandmother. I’m sure you must be thinking that if only the men helped more, our domestic troubles would be over. I believe, however, that this is not just a question of getting men more involved in domestic chores but of working fewer hours. 1970s feminism promised a utopia in which individuals would work part-time and there would be plenty of time to share housework, including raising children. As we are now, most middle-class couples in which both members work do need help, as Virginia and Leonard Woolf did a hundred years ago. We might not need live-in help, nor for the same exact chores, but we are still dependent on others. Unless, that is, we choose to keep our homes below the impossible spotless standards of full-time housewives (like my mother). I’m not, then, writing this post to criticize the Woolfs’ at all, but to stress that this middle-class dependence is still hidden in life and in fiction, as much as it was hidden in Austen’s time or in Woolf’s time. It may be swept away by the Roomba rather than under the rug, but it is still hidden.

Read today, in 2021, Una habitación ajena may elicit a negative response about the privileged members of the Bloomsbury group and the social hypocrisy of the bohemian (English) middle-class, with its abstract left-wing politics and its inability to be truly interested in the persons they employed in their homes. I would be, however, careful about how we approach the portrait of the Woolfs. Looking at the book cover illustration, which shows Woolf sitting comfortably in an armchair as Nellie stands behind in her maid’s uniform, I cannot help wondering whether Bartlett does all the housework in her home. I don’t think J.K. Rowling does. Or less wealthy writers. The vision of a society in which every woman (and man) has a room to be creative in, sufficient money, and no need for domestic help is right now a utopia, for either we combine being creative with doing all our housework, or we employ someone else and enter the relations of dependence that Woolf bemoaned. I’m sure many middle-class persons have excellent relations with their paid help which are mutually satisfactory, but I don’t quite see how the working-class women employed by middle-class women in their homes can enjoy the same freedom of artistic and intellectual creation. Perhaps their daughters will, but then they will need somebody else’s domestic help, too.

Thus, until the day when the Nellies of this world are housekeeping robots with no need for a room of their own.

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

WRITING A REVIEW OF AN ACADEMIC BOOK: A FEW TIPS

I find book reviews a very hard genre to write. This is why I marvel every time I come across great reviews in GoodReads that cover plenty of ground in just a few paragraphs, written apparently by readers who simply enjoy sharing their opinions. It has come to a point in my own reading when I hardly take up a book without first checking what the GoodRead members have to say—or in which, lazily, I check their opinions when I sense something is off with a book but cannot be bothered to think for myself. I do have a GoodReads account but I have never posted a review precisely because I need plenty of motivation to write them. My reviews, besides, would simply amount to ‘Yes, read the book’ or ‘Please, avoid’, with no further nuance. I would not get many likes for them.

I happen to believe, however, that all serious scholars have the duty to review academic books now and then. I started in 1997 and have reviewed since then 25 books, so about one volume a year. I have just handed in my 25th review, the reason behind my post today. I wrote my first review once I was already a doctor but there is no reason why doctoral students cannot write reviews, I think. It just happened that my supervisor(s) never spoke to me of that possibility. My dear colleague Felicity Hand, then editing an issue of our defunct Department journal Links & Letters, was the person who convinced me that I could and should write a review. To be honest, I was terrified because the book she gave was a collective volume edited by a person I happen to have much respect for, and I did not see how I was authorized at all to offer an opinion on her work. What if I didn’t like her book? This is indeed a difficulty when writing reviews early in your career: a negative review can make you enemies. I know of a doctoral student who had the great idea of reviewing in negative terms a collective volume in which most academics in his field participated, including some in his own research group. I can tell you he did not endear himself to any of the authors. So, even though what I am going to say will sound rather awful and hypocritical, as a general rule only review books that you enjoy and of which you can write positive reviews.

In that sense, I have got lucky because I have enjoyed all the books I have reviewed, even when I asked for them not knowing whether I would like them (with one exception, see below). Sorry, I have forgotten to clarify that you may send an unsolicited review directly to a journal (most journals have a review editor) or ask to review a book from their list. When a scholar publishes a book, s/he sends the publishers a list of journals where the volume could be reviewed. The publishers offer then review copies to the journals, which keep lists. In my area, Science Fiction Studies, the Science Fiction Review, Extrapolation and other journals regularly publish their lists of books for review, which I get through diverse mailing lists. If I see an attractive title, I ask for it. The Spanish journal Nexus, by the way, also keeps a list of books for review. If you want to review a book that you have already read, it would be a good idea in any case to contact the journal where you want to publish to ask whether they would be interested. Not all journals welcome unsolicited reviews.

It is not a very good idea to review books by persons you know, from best friends to mere acquaintances, unless you are sure a negative review might not be a problem. A negative review of a book by a senior scholar who might be important in your future career is not, as I have noted, the kind of review you want to write. But a bad review of a friend’s book can lose you a friend, remember that too. Do I mean that you should write positive reviews always whether you like a book or not? No! What I’m saying is that you should try to review only books which you value as good books, regardless of who the author is.

Look what happened to me. I wrote a review of a collective book edited by a person that, without being a close friend is someone I share time with if we meet at conferences. I had a good opinion of this person’s work and asked to review the new book. I soon saw that the book was quite a catastrophe but tried, anyway, to highlight in my review mostly the good points, trying to conceal the most glaring weaknesses. It seems this didn’t work well, for the book editor of the journal in question asked me to revise the text not once but twice, which is very unusual. Things went down so quickly that I ended up withdrawing my review, the only time I have done that. I simply saw no point in antagonizing my academic friend, and I preferred not to publish a bad review. Other scholars might think this is stupid of me, and that negative reviews are something we should accept. Possibly. I just happen to prefer being constructive, much more so in a world as small as ours in which not even great books get many reviews. Authors spend a long time, sometimes years, writing academic books, as I know myself, and I just feel bad saying publicly that they have not done well. On the other hand, one must be careful never to write a review which is ridiculously enthusiastic, for that is not criticism–that is publicity.

Reviews run usually from 1000 to 2000 words (but pay attention to what each journal expects). Each of my posts here is between 1500-2000 words, and very often I write here about books I have just read. This means that writing a book review should be easy for me, but whereas I write a post in about two hours, depending on inspiration, I spent about twelve hours writing my most recent review (1895 words). Why’s that? Because a book review is a formal exercise, with exact rules that I cannot break as I do in my posts. Here are some of these rules:

• you need to describe the book for prospective readers, but the review cannot simply be a synopsis
• you must be familiar with the precedents of the book in question (but remember that reviews do not usually include a bibliography of works cited) and be able to contextualize it
• you need to judge the book according to what its author claims it does (in the introduction), not according to what you would like the book to be
• you are required to comment on the structure of the book, if only briefly, and be able to pick up deficiencies, if any, but don’t overdo it
• a review must engage with the ideas expressed in the book (identify a thesis, the main arguments), which means that you assume the position not only of a reader but also of a fellow writer, as if you were able to write a similar book–this is for me the hardest part, for I always try to put myself in the author’s shoes and imagine what it must have taken to have written that book
• never be smug, never be patronizing and much less insulting but don’t overdo praise
• be formal, you can never say ‘this is a glorious volume’ (much less ‘this book is awful’)

In terms of structure, reviews should begin by presenting the volume, as noted. Then the precedents (i.e. similar books already published) must be mentioned and compared to the new volume; perhaps also other books by the author. Next comes the paragraph(s) about the book’s strong points, and then (hopefully) minor comments on what could be improved or is missing. Finally, the conclusion, ideally recommending the book for its good qualities. In my last review, I had to include information about whether the volume in question could be accessible to a wider, popular audience; this puzzled me a bit, as the instructions came from an academic journal and the book was also academic. There is a similar book with a simpler academic jargon and so I could add a comment about this matter, but I found the request a bit unusual. Only academics read academic books, and only academic read reviews of academic books. We do, don’t we?

In terms of an academic CV, writing a review is not of great value, though when I passed my state examination for tenure back in 2001, the half a dozen reviews I had published were noted as a positive contribution. I don’t know what the official accreditation agencies think of reviews, and I am not aware that they are ranked in the databases which index everything we publish. To be perfectly frank with you, in the last five years or so I have been reviewing books not thinking of my CV at all but because I could not afford the volumes in question. The last book I have reviewed costs 99 euros (hardback edition) and even though we are not paid for reviewing, I feel that in this case I have earned those 99 euros (and no need to pay for taxes!). So that’s another good incentive to review. I assume that the publishing houses know about this, which is why in many cases reviewers are only offered the .pdf of the text. I hate reading .pdf…

To sum up, if you’re a doctoral student reading this post and are in your second or third year it might be a good idea to think of publishing your first review. I don’t know whether the tips I have offered here will help, and whether my position—review only the books you truly enjoy—is orthodox but this is what I do myself. And if you are a career academic with other priorities, let me remind you that even though reviewing will not do much for your CV, one can always learn plenty from paying close attention to how our colleagues write. Besides, we can hardly expect others to review our work if we do not write reviews ourselves.

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

NO PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?: MASCULINITY IN SCIENCE FICTION

This is a self-translation of my part of the article originally in Catalan which I have just published with Miquel Codony on the website El Biblionauta. I have not translated Miquel’s section but comment on it at the end of my own text.

I have been working on gender and science fiction for a long time from a feminist point of view and I need, therefore, to constantly reflect on the place of women authors and on the representation of female characters in this field. In 2008 I published an introductory piece on this subject, “Mujeres y ciencia ficción”, which was followed by a more formal article in 2010, with a very similar title, “Mujeres en la literatura de ciencia ficción: entre la escritura y el feminismo”. I have recently written the article originally in Catalan “The ethical impact of robotics and digital technologies: Carme Torras, from The Vestigial Heart to Enxarxats” –for the monographic issue of the Catalan Review on current Catalan SF, which I currently co-edit with Víctor Martínez-Gil and should be published in 2022– and in this article I make the first academic reflection on the place of women in this genre and in this language. According to my own figures, the Catalan female authors of SF are around 20-25% of the total and, thus, you can speak without a doubt about women’s Catalan SF.

The problem is that when thinking about women and femininity, we tend to lose sight of how men treat masculinity and whether there have been recent changes. I’ve been doing Masculinity Studies for a couple of decades now, but I didn’t understand a very important question until I wrote in 2016 an article about Black Man (2007), a remarkable novel by British author Richard K. Morgan, known for the trilogy about Takeshi Kovacs (Altered Carbon 2002, Broken Angels 2003, Woken Furies 2005). I complained in this article that Morgan allows his monstrous hero, Carl Marsalis, to make a deep and totally pertinent reflection on the patriarchal evil that power-hungry men do, but he does not let this man seek justice for all, only allowing him to take revenge at a personal level. The author told me in an interview that all his heroes are great individualists, but when one of the peer reviewers of my article (published in Science Fiction Studies) asked me why it was not possible to imagine Marsalis as the leader of a social change beyond what Morgan claimed, I finally realized that this is the main question: while women often feel attracted to science fiction because it imagines a better future for us, which we might call post-feminist, men do not have a vision for the future about masculinity nor plans to change it, which is why they are trapped in the individualist vision Morgan expresses even when they have a clear anti-patriarchal stance. Most women, I would add, are striving to achieve the utopia promised by feminism, but men do not have a utopian horizon that motivates them to improve for the future as men. There are simply no plans.

Traditional Golden Age science fiction fulfilled part of this function, full as it was of scientific heroes and space explorers who inspired many young readers personally and professionally. I think, however, that since the 1950s there are already signs that something was breaking in the field of masculinity, perhaps related to the massive trauma of World War II, a conflict which transformed many ordinary good men into murderers but forced them to keep silent about how they felt (the Vietnam War ended this enforced silence). This had already happened in World War I but the scale of WWII was bigger and included, let’s not forget, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is no coincidence, I think, that one of the most unpleasant male characters I have ever come across is neurosurgeon and World War III (yes, III) refugee Dr. Martine in Bernard Wolfe’s novel Limbo (1952, available in the SF Masterworks collection). I haven’t checked my hypothesis in depth but my impression is that the portrait of male characters in SF has never recovered the positive tone of the technophilic science fiction from the Golden Age, and never will.

One might think that this issue is closely related to the emergence of second-wave feminism in the mid-1960s and the revolution that texts such as Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) meant from the 1970s onward in the treatment of gender. I think, however, that the war waged by the female authors has never consisted of attacking the representation of masculinity in their works (well, some have done that) but mostly of improving the view of femininity in the SF by men. And I think this is a war that has been won. I still find sexism and misogyny in some of the 21st century SF novels written by men, with presentations of female characters that refer to their body and sexuality above all else, but in general professional, efficient, strong women abound in all these imaginary futures. David Weber, the American author of military SF, has a long series of fourteen novels (begun in 1992) about Officer Honor Harrington, a woman who climbs up the ranks of the Space Fleet to the highest level. It could be said that women like Harrington are essentially male characters with a woman’s body, but what matters here is that both Weber and many other male authors are perfectly capable of writing SF about female characters admired by men and women. On the contrary, that men write SF about admirable men no longer happens, or seldom.

Richard Morgan told me that his heroes are dangerous men I wouldn’t want to have coffee with, and since that conversation I run the ‘coffee test’ whenever I read a SF novel starring a man –would I want to meet him for coffee? I would certainly like to meet Miles Vorkosigan, protagonist of the very long saga published since 1986 by Lois McMaster Bujold; Fassin Taak, hero of Iain M. Banks’s The Algebraist (2008); and Fitz Wahram, the main male character of 2312 (2012), a novel by Kim Stanley Robinson. The rest of them don’t interest me that much, or disturb me, or scare me… Without going so far, these are in many cases men with serious deficiencies when it comes to socializing, almost always clumsy in relations with women, and with a not very seductive profile. Some still play heroic roles, such as Pandora’s Star’s Wilson Kime (2004) by Peter Hamilton, or Jim Holden from James S. A. Corey’s series Expanse (2011-), but not many more; and I should certainly mention the serious shortcomings of these and other male characters. Holden, for instance, congratulates himself on his honourability in a scene from Leviathan Wakes (2011) in which he celebrates not having abused sexually a woman under his command who is too drunk to give her consent. Ramez Naan’s Nexus (2012) begins with a distasteful scene in which the protagonist Kaden Lane, presented as an engineering genius, practically rapes the woman he is having sex with. I’m frankly surprised at how many male protagonists are not people I would like to meet and the question is whether this is a shared impression (it is for many GoodReads readers). Where, in short, are the great male characters of 21st century SF, the men of the future?

In fact, I would say that the authors are using SF not to imagine a positive and admirable future for masculinity but to deal with the insecurities and fears of today’s men. For example, in Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter (2016), physicist and engineer Jason Dessen has a very bad time trying to return to the universe where he is a good father and husband when he is impersonated by another man. In Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010), the protagonist —who also goes by the name Charles Yu— is stalled in a temporary loop he cannot leave unless he finds his father, lost in another temporary loop. In Spin (2005), Robert Charles Wilson’s beautiful novel, melancholic Tyler Dupree can’t get the woman he loves (and who loves him) because he doesn’t know how to make her see that nothing really separates them. In Peter Watts’ Blindsight (2006), Siri Keeton loses half his brain to prevent deep epilepsy and the result is a man who understands the patterns of human behaviour but feels no empathy at all. I could go on… Perhaps the worst thing is that when authors try to write an attractive hero in the old style, with self-confidence and even personal beauty, this either sounds false or results in totally unbearable types, such as the repellent Darrow in Pierce Brown’s Red Rising (2014). And if you liked Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011) I am sorry to say that in Ready Player Two (2020) the rather nice hero Wade Watts becomes a dangerous, selfish man that totally outdoes Elon Musk with his supposedly benevolent plans for world domination.

Since here I am talking about science fiction originally in English because this is the territory which I know better I invited my Biblionauta colleague Miquel Codony to give his view of Catalan SF for the article, which then became a joint effort. Miquel found in Michelíada (2015) by Antoni Munné-Jordà (a clever retelling of the Homeric Illiad) and in the space opera Adzum i els monoculars (2020) by Sergi G. Oset, a satirical vein opposing heroic hypermasculinization. He also found humour, in this case at the expense of the anti-hero trapped by apocalyptic catastrophe, in Marc Pastor’s L’any de la plaga (2010). Miquel also mentions “a sophistication of the emotional scenarios” usually allowed to male characters in alternate history within Catalan SF, highlighting Els ambaixadors (2014) by Albert Villaró and Jo soc aquell que va matar Franco (2018) by Joan-Lluís Lluís. His conclusion is that the representation of the male characters by male authors in Catalan SF is now “being filled with nuances and variations that respond to a transformation —without direction, perhaps, chaotic and insufficient— of the meaning of one’s own perception of masculinity in our society”. I find this extremely perceptive and helpful.

My questions might not be the relevant questions –indeed, I asked myself as I wrote why SF male authors should be made responsible for regenerating masculinity, since nobody else seems to be interested (except women!). I’ll finish by citing Raewyn Connell’s classic Masculinities (2005). “In the first moment of Men’s Liberation,” by which she means the 1970s and 1980s, “activists could believe themselves borne forward on a tidal wave of historical change. The wave broke, and no means of further progress was left on the beach”. What follows is quite harsh: “We now speak of a ‘men’s movement’ partly from politeness, and partly because certain activities have the form of a social movement. But taking a cool look around the political scenery of the industrial capitalist world, we must conclude that the project of transforming masculinity has almost no political weight at all –no leverage on public policy, no organizational resources, no popular base and no presence in mass culture (except as a footnote to feminism in a critique of the excesses of masculinity therapy)” (241). No wonder, then, that not even the SF written by men can imagine a bright future for a renewed masculinity, finally free from patriarchy.

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

READING MEN’S BOOKS ON MASCULINITY: BARKER, BOLA, KAUFMAN (AND FARRELL)

Raewyn Connell warned in Masculinities (1995, 2006) that we must recognise not only the diverse masculinities but also “the relations between the different kinds of masculinity: relations of alliance, dominance and subordination” because “There is a gender politics within masculinity” (37, original emphasis). As she theorized, masculinity is divided into hegemonic, subordinated and complicit, a division that on the whole is useful to understand the workings of patriarchal masculinity, but that does not take into account the diverse anti-patriarchal masculinities. In fact, though Connell takes it for granted that hegemonic masculinity can be altered and eventually replaced with a different model by resisting it, she tends to forget that, as Foucault stressed in his theorization of power (in The History of Sexuality, vol. I: The Will to Knowledge, 1986), “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (95), meaning that patriarchy’s resistance actually comes from the inside as men awaken to their own oppression and defect. The “points of resistance”, Foucault adds, are “everywhere in the power network” though they can hardly result in a “locus of great Refusal” (96). I’ll argue that this is what is happening within anti-patriarchal masculinity. It is building up, though not as a sweeping movement.

I’ve been reading these past weeks a few books, all published in 2019, that speak of that awakening from a variety of positions. Phil Barker’s The Revolution of Man: Rethinking What It Means to Be a Man is a volume by an Australian journalist addressing the men of his nation in a candid, accessible tone aimed at increasing rapport. One needs to love a book that includes a few recipes to convince men of the pleasures of caring for others! J.J. Bola’s Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined has been written for British young men by a black former refugee from Congo (his family migrated to the UK when he was 6), who is now a poet and novelist after being for many years a youth educator. Bola is also a UN advisor on refugee matters. Michael Kaufman’s The Time Has Come: Why Men Must Join the Gender Equality Revolution is a book by the US-born Canadian co-founder of the White Ribbon campaign against the violence against women (in 1989). Kaufman is one of the founding fathers of Masculinities Studies, a writer, scholar, and activist. To compensate for the anti-patriarchal tone of these three men, I have also read the 20th anniversary edition of Warren Farrell’s Bible for US Men’s Rights activism, The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex (1991, 2011). To put myself outside the comfort zone.

You may have frequently heard that men are from Mars, women from Venus, as John Gray’s 1992 best-selling book proclaimed, but having read these four books, it is far more accurate to say that although all live on Earth, some men appear to live on different planets (I’ll leave the women aside, for the time being). You will have noticed that the men living in Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada apparently belong to a progressive pro-feminist, anti-patriarchal world, whereas in the USA misogyny is making the fastest inroads. Just last week, for instance, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) asked the Supreme Court to revise Rostker v. Goldberg (1981), the case which argued that male-only draft is discriminatory and unconstitutional, and which the judges rejected on the grounds that women were excluded from combat. Since 2013, however, women have been allowed to serve in combat (with restrictions), hence the ACLU’s petition. But here’s the hidden barb. This organization, presided by a woman, is actually speaking on behalf of the National Coalition for Men, who already won a similar case in 2019, when a Texan judge declared unconstitutional the limitation of the Selective Service System by which all male US citizens aged 18-25 need to register with the Government who may then draft them for combat. Although the ACLU, which has a pro-feminist record, claims that “Limiting registration to men treats women as unfit for this obligation of citizenship and reflects the outmoded belief that men aren’t qualified to be caregivers in the event of a draft”, other feminists have noted that a) the NCM has not cared to help women get equality in any other fields, and b) if the NCM really wanted to protect men, they would ensure no young man is drafted. This case is not about granting women equality, clearly, but about subjecting them to the same ill-treatment male citizens are receiving from their Government. This is how patriarchy works.

Allow me to cite from passages from the books by Barker, Bola and Kaufman, and then I’ll move onto Farrell to end. Let me mention that Barker’s volume has a chapter called “The Woman Haters” in which he describes the Men’s Rights Activists inspired by Farrell as “a bizarre, hilarious and terrifying phenomenon bubbling up in society as a direct result of Man Box pressures defining young men’s lives” (41). It is important to say this because criticism of the MRAs does not always come from (feminist) women. Men like Barker have not been brainwashed by feminism but, as he shows, by patriarchy; this is why, once they are free from that burden, it is important that they themselves try to wean other men from the pernicious patriarchal ideology. Both MRAs and progressive men agree that too many men are dying or being harmed by the pressure put on them, though MRAs usually fail to see that this pressure comes from patriarchy, not from women. Barker, who writes that “Women deserve a world of better men” (191), calls for men to use their “beautiful, big, strong man bodies” for good. “Our strength is our weakness”, he argues, “because it allows us to impose our will over others. The belief that it’s okay to do so comes from the Man Box” (197), that is to say, from the narrow mental space in which patriarchy keeps men. He asks fellow men, therefore, to never use their physical power for violence but “to care for those we love”, resisting the “corruptible influence of power” (198). As he concludes, “It’s not too much to ask for a little self-control, is it?” (198). I really think this a key point: admirable as men’s bodies can be, we see them these days mainly as a potential source of violence rather than of care; this needs to change, above all, for men’s sake.

J.J. Bola called his book Mask Off because “men are taught to wear a mask, a façade that covers up how we are really feeling and the issues we are faced with from a young age” (8). As he warns, “the same system that puts men at an advantage in society is essentially the same system that limits them; inhibits their growth and eventually leads to their break down” (8). I was extremely happy and relieved to come across a passage by a man in which he insists, as I have been doing for many years that “Masculinity is not patriarchy. And while patriarchy is an oppressive structure that imposes the dominance of one gender over another, we must imagine and manifest a masculinity that is not reliant on patriarchy to exist; a masculinity that sees the necessity of the equality of genders for it to not only survive, but to thrive” (20-21). Like Barker and Kaufman, Bola stresses the advantages of feminism for men, claiming that this movement is “actually beneficial to men as it seeks to heal men and remove the pressures that patriarchal society places on them” (66) thus literally saving lives lost to violence and suicide. Bola advises men to let go of the anger that so often dominates their lives because only anger is accepted as a proper emotion by patriarchy, and to shed their mask, and see who they really are (and, yes, he recommends Jennifer Siebel’s excellent documentary The Mask You Live In, 2015).

Kaufman’s The Time Has Come: Why Men Must Join the Gender Equality Revolution seems to have been written in reply to a comment in Connell’s Masculinities in which she concludes that 1970s-1980s Men’s Liberation was a “tidal wave of historical change” that “broke” (241) and was never rebuilt. She writes that “We now speak of a ‘men’s movement’ partly from politeness, and partly because certain activities have the form of a social movement”, yet she denies that “the project of transforming masculinity” has any “political weight at all” (with the exception of the gay activism arising from the 1980s AIDS crisis). Kaufman, co-founder as I have noted of the White Ribbon campaign, is far more optimistic, this is why he addresses his book to the men willing to join “the greatest revolution in human history: the work to win women’s rights, gender justice, and gender equality” (22). Like Barker and Bola, Kaufman insists that the struggle not only benefits women but also men because “feminism is the greatest gift that men have ever received” (22), in view of how women’s demand for equality also frees men from their obligations towards patriarchal masculinity.

I find it thought-provoking that Barker and Kaufman coincide with Farrell in seeing the renewal of fatherhood as the key to a new masculinity. Barker enthuses about his own father and praises to the skies his daughter for the marvelous relationship he has with her, whereas Kaufman writes that “the single biggest way men will contribute to gender equality and the single most important and positive change that men are enjoying” (175) is what he calls the Dad Shift. Kaufman even argues that “The transformation of fatherhood will be, for men, what feminism has been for women. It is the thing that is redefining our lives in a powerful, life-affirming, forward-moving way” (76), which is not so far from what Warren Farrell writes in his own volume, though the perspective is quite different. I must confess that I was quite surprised by this, until I realized that whereas I have no problem imagining young women as future mothers, I have many problems imagining young men as future fathers.

What Kaufman means is that by integrating caregiving into boys’ lives as we do into girls’ lives we will allow their nurturing skills to develop, which can only result in the prevention of the violence associated to bullying patriarchal masculinity. “Just as I believe,” Kaufman writes, “that transforming fatherhood will prove to be the single greatest contribution by men to achieving gender equality, it may well be the thing that makes the biggest contribution to reducing men’s violence—both against women and against other men” (118). Logically, this raises the question of how men who are not interested in fatherhood fit this view of an egalitarian masculinity but Kaufman calls, above all, for making caregiving central in men’s lives, as it is in women’s lives. My concern is that call comes too late, when many women in the younger generation are rejecting caregiving as a burden imposed on them by patriarchy and when many young persons are declaring their intention not to have children.

Warren Farrell, as he narrates in his prologue to the second edition of The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex used to be a staunch feminist until he went through a deep crisis that left him wondering what actual amount of power individual men have. I have only understood recently that radical feminism’s misguided rejection of all men as a privileged class comes from the Marxist view of class struggle. I must, therefore, agree with Farrell (and with Michael Kimmel) when he says that though men appear to be more powerful than women as a class, they are not necessarily powerful on an individual basis. What Kimmel sees but Farrell is totally blind to is that this is because of patriarchy, the hierarchical organization that allows a circle of privileged men to dominate most women and many other men. As I have noted, Farrell coincides with Kaufman in seeing fathering as “the only career that will last a lifetime” (40) for men, in view of the changing conditions of the job market. Yet, Farrell is so full of spite against women and feminism that it is hard to see how men and women can be co-parents of a child (leaving aside the absence of other types of couples in his book). Showing his true colours, in his conclusion Farrell writes that “Ideally there should not be a men’s movement but a gender transition movement; only the power of the women’s movement necessitates the temporary corrective of a men’s movement” (591, my italics). Of course, he doesn’t mean the type of men’s movement that Connell had in mind, but an anti-feminist movement. As for the word ‘corrective’ I cannot help thinking of a few macho men spanking the feminist girls for having been so naughty.

Reading Farrell, I understand where many of the ideas defended by the anti-feminist extreme right come from, which is why I think his book should be read by feminists like me. Also, by anti-patriarchal male activists. We need all the strength of a solid rhetoric to persuade whoever listens to us that ours if the better future and the only one that guarantees human rights.

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

GETTING PUBLISHED: SOME ADVICE FOR BEGINNERS (ON BOOKS)

This post in, once more, based on the seminar for the doctoral students in the PhD programme in English Studies of my Department to which I referred in my previous post. There I voiced my own ideas, here I borrow heavily from my colleague Eva Codó’s presentation on how to transform your PhD into a book (thanks Eva!), mixed with my own experience.

Writing a PhD dissertation takes from 3 to 5 years on average (this can be extended if you’re a part-time student, though it is not really advisable). During these years you should start publishing articles in indexed journals and chapters in collective academic books, as I explained in the previous post, beginning in the second year. I am well aware that combining the effort required to write a 300-page-long dissertation with the effort required to write at least a couple of 25-page-long articles is daunting, but this is why we advise you to use part of the dissertation for those publications (you can always include a version of your publications in your thesis, with due acknowledgements; this is not self-plagiarising).

Once your dissertation has been submitted and has passed the assessment of your tribunal, that’s it, you’re a doctor! Spanish universities have an official mandate to upload online all the dissertations they produce (see www.tdx.cat, the repository of the Catalan universities as an example of how this is done) and, therefore, you will be asked to submit your dissertation (minus the typos!) for that. I know that in other countries this is not done, precisely to prevent academic publishing houses from rejecting dissertations as possible books. However, here in Spain we take into account that a) not all doctors transform their dissertations into books, b) a book based on a dissertation needs to be substantially different from the dissertation itself. The English Literature section of the programme I work for recommends that PhD candidates produce dissertations as close as possible to publishable monographs (a monograph is a book-length essay by one author), but even so there is very little chance that a publisher will accept a PhD dissertation as it is, with all the extensive theoretical framework, the many notes and so on.

My own doctoral dissertation, submitted in 1996, is available online (my university produced, believe it or not, a scanned version of the printed text!) and you will see if you check it that it is long (450 pages, plus 150 pages for diverse appendixes). I did try to have it published but failed precisely because I was told by all publishers I contacted that it was too long; nobody offered to accept only part of it. In fact, one publisher did accept it whole but the person I asked for advice (an American Fulbright scholar visiting our Department) told me that this was considered a vanity press, that is, a low-prestige publisher without a solid academic criteria that accepts any text, sometimes charging for publication. And, so, I rejected their offer without further checking their credentials, which were not at all that bad. In hindsight, I think that was a serious mistake, for a book publication would have been better than none, but I just did not have anyone who could guide me better. I did publish a sort of popular version of my thesis in Spanish, for a general readership, but even though that was a good experience which gave me a name in fandom circles beyond academia, this is not a road I would advice you to take. We are currently focused on academic validity and this type of excursion outside academic publication is not welcome. I do not regret my own excursion, though, from which I have got in the long run plenty of academic benefit.

At the end of 3 or 5 years working on your dissertation you will probably feel exhausted and little inclined to work 2 or 3 more years on your monograph. Let me tell you, however, that you might never get the chance to publish a book again, not even if you become a successful scholar. The duties connected with teaching and the preference in official assessment for peer-reviewed journal articles make it very difficult to find time for book-length work. If you pay attention, you will see that most books these days are either collective volumes or publications derived from PhD dissertations. My impression is that only a handful of extremely committed, prolific authors manage to have a career which includes three books or more. I myself felt very unhappy with myself for not having a monograph in English, though I have edited collective volumes and have some books in Spanish. When I managed to publish Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort as recently as 2019, I felt much better. This volume closed the gap left by the non-publication of my dissertation. In fact, it comes from one of its chapters, so you see how long we can go on working on our doctoral research. Mine, I know, is not over yet.

So, having established that publishing your dissertation as a book is a very good idea, let me tell you how to proceed. Here’s the first tricky matter. As I explained in my previous post, the impact factor helps you to understand how each journal is rated, but for books this is not so clear. The database SPI (Scholarly Publishing Indicators) can help you to navigate the field and have a more or less clear idea of who the major publishers are. But be careful! Their section ‘Lingüística, Literatura y Filología’ mixes fields which are in fact too diverse. I would not send a proposal for a book on Literary Studies to De Gruyter or John Benjamins Publishing Company, which I connect with Linguistics, and I wonder that Palgrave Macmillan is number 12 in the list, as I think it is much higher by prestige. Anyway, your reading for the dissertation should give you a clear idea of which university presses publish the most relevant authors and titles. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking, for instance, that publishing in Duke University Press (39 in the SPI list) is not worth it, and you should only aim at publication at number one, Oxford University Press. As happens Duke UP is a great publishing house, like others lower in that list.

A key matter in that sense are collections. Academic publishing houses do publish stand-alone books, but they tend to organize their publications into series about a particular topic, which is what collections are (yes, they are also called series). Let me give you an example. If you are, as I am, into science fiction and want to publish a monograph, then the best series is the Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies by the University of Liverpool Press (which is actually run by Oxford University Press). This series is edited by two very well known scholars in the field, David Seed and Sheryl Vint, and has an editorial board of six other very well-known scholars. If you check the webpage, you will see that you are invited to contact them through a Commissioning Editor, that is to say, the person in charge of the series on behalf of the publishers, Liverpool UP. She will consider your proposal and pass it onto the editors, who have the last word about their admission for publication. If your proposal is accepted, then either Prof. Seed or Prof. Vint will supervise your text. But before we go to that, let me tell you about the proposal.

Once you have chosen the series (or collection) you future book might fit, you need to produce a proposal. All publishers offer guidance through a proposal submission form, which tells you which steps you should follow (see for instance for the series I have mentioned https://bit.ly/2YkhV8O). Filling in a proposal is a first exercise in the marketing of your book, for here is where you have to ‘sell’ it, explaining what it is about, and describing its main saleable features. The publisher you target will want to know who might be interested in your book, what competitors is has, and so on. Writing an attractive description is, therefore, very important; this goes beyond simply writing an abstract, which tends to be a text addressed to other scholars, not to a publisher. When you write a proposal you need to ask yourself ‘why would this publisher want to issue my book at all?’ and you need to persuade them (but always use formal language!). Correct me if I am wrong, but I think that in the case of books, you can indeed send your proposal to several publishers, though perhaps it is more elegant to wait for a (possible) rejection before you try another one. And, of course, you need to accompany your proposal with a sample text, ideally one chapter.

Your proposal will be assessed by the series’ editor(s), and perhaps by other anonymous reviewers. Make sure you understand their instructions and modify your text accordingly, because you don’t want to rewrite substantially and then be told that you need to rewrite again. Your text will pass another review before publication and, of course, you will have to proofread it once it goes through the copy editor that checks errors (though not all publishers offer this service and some might demand that you pay for professional help). This varies with each publisher but make sure you negotiate a sufficiently generous deadline, so that you don’t find yourself awfully stressed. Please, note that depending on how much rewriting you need to do, and your work-related situation, this might take one or two years, during which you’re still expected to publish articles if you’re really committed to having an academic career. And, by the way, a tricky part of any book is the index –make sure you understand how to produce one, or be ready to employ paid help.

When your manuscript is ready, or almost ready, your publisher will ask you to supply back cover blurbs (usually one by you, a couple by prestige scholars in your field), and a list of journals where your book could be reviewed. Getting reviews is important, much more so if these reviews appear in A-listed journals but, don’t be, on the whole too optimistic about impact. Academic books are usually published as hardbacks costing between 100 and 200 euros, accompanied by a much cheaper e-book edition that, anyway, is expensive at around 35 euros. This means that an average academic book might sell 100 to 200 copies, bought mostly by university libraries, with royalties for the author of about 200 euros, if you’re lucky! Titles that sell reasonably well as hardbacks might be re-printed in one or two years as paperbacks, at a price between 25 and 35 euros, but, again, don’t think you’re going to make a lot of money out of that. My impression, however, is that in the Humanities no matter how many articles and book chapters you have published, what really makes you respected as a scholar are the books. I don’t think you get invitations, for instance. to be a plenary speaker at a conference without them.

When I started my own academic career, I imagined it as a process full of books, not of articles and book chapters. As a marvellous example of what I really wanted, please check the profile of my former student at UAB, Xavier Reyes Aldana, now a leading authority in Gothic Studies. Xavi’s many books as author and editor come, however, at a price. I really thought that academic careers were developed in a slow tempo, and that my books would come out regularly every three or four years. In fact, academic careers are now hectic, and if Xavi has produced so much this is not only because he is very talented but because he has submitted himself to the high pressure of British academia, which is very dangerous in terms of health (as he knows very well).

I’ll finish by explaining that in the Anglophone world, where researchers are expected to write books, they teach relatively short semesters. Here, our much longer semesters make writing books almost impossible. At the same time, this is now expected of us. CNEAI, the agency that assess our publications every six years (for the ‘sexenios’) regards books as just one of the five publications you need to present, even though a 100,000 word book is clearly much more work than a 5,000 word article. However, the current accreditations for tenure (=indefinite contracts) expect candidates to have already published a monograph. This can only be, given the time constrains, a book based on your dissertation.

I hope all this has been useful. Please, leave comments if there is any doubt. May you publish many books!

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

GETTING PUBLISHED: SOME ADVICE FOR BEGINNERS (ON ARTICLES AND BOOK CHAPTERS)

This text is based on the seminar presentation I have prepared for the doctoral students in the PhD programme in English Studies of my Department. It is published here in case some other PhD student finds it useful.

‘Why publish and should I…?’, you may be wondering. Publication is an essential aspect of academic life: it is indeed the main method to present research results and new ideas (apart from teaching, attending conferences, giving talks…). Unlike what I was told when I was a PhD student myself (but never heeded), the sooner you start publishing, the better; remember that publications are, besides, a key component in accreditation processes in Spain. You may have heard, by the way, of ‘impostor syndrome’: you might feel that you lack the authority to publish, but this authority is only acquired by publishing, so this is what you need to do. Academic writing, of course, is learned by reading, reading, and reading academic work, and understanding its conventions. Pay attention! To publish you need good academic skills, acquired during you BA and MA studies, but also a thick skin to stand criticism (which can be very harsh) and rejection.

Publication takes a minimum of six months from handing in your text to seeing it published, one year on average, and in some cases two years (or more). Thus, if you want to have one or two publications by the time you hand in your PhD dissertation, the second year might be a good time to begin. You may transform part of your future dissertation into an article; if this is published before you finish your thesis you can still use the text in it (with permission); indeed, some dissertations consist of a collection of previously published articles, though this is not a model we recommend in our programme (precisely because publication in the Humanities is a rather slow process). Writing an article for publication in the second year is also a way of testing your academic skills. If it is rejected, that is an experience you can also learn from… Please, note that our programme requires that you submit (not necessarily publish) an article to an indexed journal (= one that is acknowledged as significant in its field).

‘Where should I start publishing?’, you may be thinking. Please, note that I am speaking here of a journal publication, but (at least in Literary Studies) you might also start publishing by contributing a chapter to a collective volume (though this is usually less valued than an article). If you’re working with a research group, you need to follow the research lines marked by the principal investigator (perhaps s/he is also your supervisor). In Spain, many of us in English Studies have started publishing in the online journal of the Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos (AEDEAN), Atlantis, which has quite a good reputation (it is what we call a B-list journal). Ask your supervisor for advice and use databases such as, for instance, MIAR (https://miar.ub.edu/) to learn which journals might be a good choice for you, and how they are ranked. Yes, journals are ranked by performance (they are indexed).

MIAR, for instance, uses the ICDS index (Secondary Composite Index Broadcasting) which refers to the “visibility of the journal in different scientific databases of international scope or in repertoires evaluation of periodicals”. MIAR awards points to each journal according to how visible it is in the Web of Science Core Collections and Web of Science classic (AHCI, SCIE, SSCI o ESCI), Scopus, and other abstract and indexing databases (specialized or multidisciplinary); international catalogues like Latindex or assessment lists (such as Catalan CARHUS Plus, European ERIHPlus or Spanish Sello de Calidad FECYT). Spanish database DIALNET is also taken into account and so is the “rate of survival of the journal, considering a maximum of 30 years in the calculation”. Until recently, it might happen that the journal where you published an article was rated A+ but by the time you passed assessment, or applied for a scholarship, etc, the journal was down to C or D, and so was your article. Fortunately, this has been corrected now. By the way, each subject category of journals is sub-divided into four quartiles: Q1, Q2, Q3, Q4. Q1 corresponds to the top 25% journals; Q2 to the 25 to 50% group; Q3, 50 to 75% group; and Q4 to the bottom 75%-100% group. Logically, everybody wants to publish in the A+/Q1, journals but, unless you really are exceptionally talented, this is not really where you should begin; aspiring to publication in a B/Q2 journal is more advisable. Apart from MIAR, see our library’s databases website here (and do ask your supervisor).

How a journal rates is called its ‘impact factor’ (IF) or ‘journal impact factor’ (JIF). Just for you to really understand the academic world we live in, Wikipedia explains that IF and JIF refer to “a scientometric index calculated by Clarivate that reflects the yearly average number of citations of articles published in the last two years in a given journal”. Wikipedia further informs that Eugene Garfield, founder of the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), invented the impact factor. This has been calculated yearly since 1975 “for journals listed in the Journal Citation Reports (JCR)”. So what is Clarivate? Well, because of a series of financial operations, JCR is now the property of private corporation Clarivate, established by the Onex Corporation and the Baring Private Equity Asia. Check https://clarivate.com/webofsciencegroup and infer whatever you need to infer from this. It is assumed, in any case, that the higher the ranking, the better positioned the journal is and the more authors it attracts, being able to select the very best. However, many scholars dispute that the highest ranking journals are really the best in their field (and what happens when their field is very small, like Medieval Catalan Literature?). Perhaps all this is talk for another seminar.

‘But… how do I really start publishing?’, you may be wondering. There are, I think, three main ways. A) You write an article on your own initiative and send it to a journal. B) You attend a conference and the paper you present is further developed into an article which either you send to a journal or is included in a publication derived from the conference (monographic journal issue, proceedings, collective book). C) You respond to a call for papers (cfp) sent by an editor seeking contributors (to a monographic journal issue, or a collective volume). How do you get cfps? You join an association (such as AEDEAN), or a mailing list, or browse specialised websites (such as https://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/). This is important: you need to be very active in your search for journals and cfps, they will not simply come to you.

A few other notes, a bit randomly. Are you supposed to pay for publication? No, even though this is not uncommon in other fields, and not unheard of for books in ours. Will you be paid for publication? No, the only type of publication for which you might get royalties are books. What is Open Access? A European Union mandate indicates that academic publication should be ideally freely available online, this is what Open Access means. Online journals follow this mandate and I personally prefer open access because it gives more visibility to my work, though it must be noted that the highest ranking journals are usually only accessible through the very expensive databases to which universities subscribe. Some publishers sell Open Access, that is to say, they allow you to publish online work you have already published for them–for a fee. How about the digital repository at UAB? (Dipòsit Digital de Documentació, ddd.uab.cat). I do publish a lot at DDD, but this is considered self-publication and, therefore, useless for official validation or accreditation. You can use, however, DDD to publish work in progress, or other work usually not accepted directly for publication (such as conference presentations).

Once you have chosen the journal to which you want to submit your article, you need to edit it according to their guide for authors. Make sure you absolutely respect their preferred word count (articles and book chapters range from 4500 to 10000 words, though 7000-8000 is the more habitual length). Follow the journal’s (or book editor’s) instructions to submit: in some cases this just involves sending an email, in others you need to use a specific online application. You need to send your article anonymised (with no indication of who you are); the abstract and keywords are habitually sent in a separate document, usually with your name in it and contact information. Make sure you receive an acknowledgement of receipt; if you don’t, contact the journal/book editor within the week following your submission. A very important rule is that you cannot send your article simultaneously to several journals; you need to wait for a journal’s negative decision to try another journal. I am not 100% sure why this is the case, since it slows down very much the process of publication, but apparently this is to avoid having many peer reviewers assessing the same text (or the same reviewer assessing it for two journals).

Once you submit your article (or book chapter) the editor will send it to the reviewers, who will review it anonymously. This is the process known as blind peer reviewing. The number of reviewers used to be three, but is now down to two, and in some cases one. The journal (or book editor) should contact you in a reasonable period of time (ideally, a few weeks, usually a few months) and email you the reviews. Of course, the higher ranking journals take longer to review articles as they get many submissions. Some reviewers write some notes, others long reports (I usually also send the text submitted with corrections and notes). Three things may happen: a) your article is accepted with no further revision (very rare…); b) your article is accepted but you’re asked to revise it before re-submitting; c) your article is rejected (in that case, you are free to send it elsewhere). Rejection is common, and reviewers’ reports can be very harsh. Be ready for that! Do not reply to rejection emails with negative, rude comments. Just say thanks, move on and send the article elsewhere. If you have been asked to revise your article, this usually means that the journal is interested, though it might well be that your second (or third, or fourth) revision is finally rejected. It happens to all of us! Be patient and stay calm!!! The reviewers may ask you to simply rewrite some passages, or add certain quotations and sources, but in some cases revision might be extensive and require substantial rewriting. This is part of the process. Always keep the different versions of the text revised, just in case you need to go back to any of them (number or date them). If you do not agree with certain aspects of the peer reviewing, you may discuss them with the editor but be ready to accept his/her opinion, and do as you’re told.

Once your article (or book chapter) is accepted, the editor will contact you next to proof-read it (= to check that the text sent for publication has no errors). At this stage, you may not change your article/book chapter substantially; you can only correct spelling or punctuation mistakes, some occasional vocabulary and grammar errors. Once your text is published, you should get the .pdf (article) and ideally a hard copy of the book (for a chapter), and of course add it to your CV. Published authors track their citation impact index through Web of Science, Scopus, or Google Scholar. The more you publish, and the more you’re quoted, the higher your citation index will be. Of course, I always wonder whether the trick is to publish something controversial but rather foolish so that everyone cites you to explain how wrong you are. That also increases your citation index!

There are no hard and fast rules about how much a doctoral student should publish. I would recommend two publications (at least accepted) before submitting your PhD (two publications in three to five years is feasible). Publishing in books of proceedings derived from a conference is not well valued today, not even when the editors stress there has been a peer-reviewed assessment of the texts. And, yes, journal articles are valued above book chapters because supposedly, peer reviewing is more ‘serious’ in articles (I don’t agree with this). Co-authorship, by the way, is common in the sciences (including Linguistics) but not in Literary Studies (in which usually collaboration is limited to two authors, very rarely more). If you’re planning to get an accreditation as a Lector in the Catalan system or Profesor Contratado Doctor in the Spanish system, check the publication requirements now, so that you can plan your career in advance. And don’t forget to open an account at Research Gate or Academia.edu, to follow what other researchers in your field are doing.

Now, some notes on my personal experience. I have been publishing since 1994 (my first publication was a paper I wrote for a course in my doctoral programme) and it never gets any easier. I have never had a straightforward acceptance with no revisions, no matter how minor, though I must say that I have published everything I have written in close to 100 articles and book chapters (and some books). I am used to having my articles rejected, sometimes in very harsh ways: my article on Sirius in Harry Potter, got six furious rejections (it is now a chapter in one of my books). I have had two ‘desk rejections’ recently (meaning that my article did not go past the editor, who refused to send it to peer reviewers, in one case with no explanation at all). Most of my reviewers have been very kind persons who have helped me very much to improve my work; some, believe me, were haters who should never have reviewed any papers. I consider peer reviewing very necessary but I am against its anonymity, precisely because it gives room to too harsh comments. When I peer-review an article that I don’t like, I write the report as if I had to meet the author in person. I have peer-reviewed some articles that were simply terrible, usually coming from inexperienced authors (one can guess that) so please, ask your supervisor and other experienced researchers to read your work before you send it, at least at the beginning of your career.

You may find it frustrating (as I do, to be honest) to follow the conventions of academic prose, but this is absolutely necessary, otherwise you will never get published. I myself keep this blog to write on academic themes in a free style, and without supervision from reviewers. I recommend that you do that, too. Writing a blog is NOT hard work, but fun!! You should enjoy writing about what you are learning for your PhD dissertation, even if nobody else is interested.

Good luck, may your citation index grows to be very high!

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

RETHINKING THE PLACE OF DOCUMENTARY FILMS AND WONDERING ABOUT ACTING

I wrote my last post about a documentary film and I was not really thinking of continuing with the same topic but I came across a very interesting article by Carlos Lara, “¿Debería poder ganar un documental el Goya a Mejor Película?” (“Should a documentary film win the Goya to Best Film?”) so, here I go again. Lara is asking the question in relation to this year’s Goya winner for best documentary, El año del descubrimiento by Luis López Carrasco and to one of the nominees, My Mexican Bretzel by Nuria Giménez Lorang. In Lara’s view, these two films are much better (meaning far more daring) than those in the fiction film category, the winner Las niñas, and the nominees, Adú, Ane, Sentimental and La boda de Rosa. I cannot offer an informed opinion as I have only seen Iciar Bollaín’s La boda de Rosa, which I absolutely loved. I can say, however, that I have found myself not only watching more and more documentary films in the last year but also finding them far more satisfactory than fiction films. Incidentally, I must note that the Romanian documentary Collective is making history at this year’s Oscars, after being nominated in the best documentary and the best international feature film categories. I must also note that whereas 24 women have won Oscars for feature-length documentary films (Barbara Kopple has won twice) only 1 woman (Kathryn Bigelow) has won an Oscar for best director. I would say, then, that it is also in women’s interests to make documentary films more prominent and visible.

What Carlos Lara is implicitly asking is why documentary films are less valued than fiction films. Please, note that the label ‘fiction film’ is only used when it is necessary to contrast what we usually just call ‘films’ with documentary films. That is, then, one of the problems: any film which carries an adjective in its label (documentary film, animated film, short film) appears to be in a separate category from the generic category ‘film’, which in fact corresponds specifically to the feature-length live-action fiction film. The supposition, I assume, is that the fiction film is better valued because it is supposedly harder to tell a story from scratch, through scenes performed by actors, than creating a film using animation, or involving scenes from real life, or told in less than 90 minutes. As you can see, the moment this is made explicit, it sounds quite absurd. Only prejudiced convention determines that the feature-length live-action fiction film is accepted as the main category for films. There is, in fact, no specific reason why the other kinds of films are undervalued, except a poor understanding of the effort it takes to make them and of their aesthetics.

Having mentioned the word ‘aesthetics’ I will now ask the question of whether this is all we take into consideration when choosing to watch a fiction film or a documentary. Believe me when I say that trying to define the fiction film and the documentary film for what they do is much harder than it seems, and perhaps aesthetics is the answer to what separates one from the other. Let me take an example on which I have written: the documentary by Rob Epstein, The Times of Harvey Milk (1984, Oscar Award winner) and the fiction film Milk (2008, Gus Van Sant). This was the winner of an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, which went to Sean Penn, and of an Oscar for Best Writing, Original Screenplay, awarded to Dustin Lance Black. Here the problems begin, for although Milk is not based on a previous work, the connections between Black’s ‘original’ screenplay and Epstein’s documentary are more than obvious. Van Sant, besides, uses original footage also used by Epstein, recreating some of the scenes with his actors.

Anyway, my point is that both films tell in a very talented way the same story: how Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected for office (he was a member of San Francisco’s Town Council) was murdered in cold blood, by his fellow councillor Dan White, who also killed the mayor, George Moscone. Now ask yourself how you would like to know about this tragic event: through the documentary or through the fiction film? Just trust me when I say that both tell the story proficiently and in a moving, entertaining way. Advantages of the documentary? It is, obviously, far more informative and has plenty of footage of the real Harvey Milk, and other persons of his circle. Advantages of the fiction film? It recreates far more personal aspects of Milk’s private life into which the documentary does not go, and the acting is very good. I would say that both films are excellent and, in combination, a superb cinematic experience. Yet, we rarely find time for two films on the same topic. In fact, although I see the point in making a documentary once the fiction film has been made, I see little point in making the fiction film once the documentary is available, particularly if said documentary is a great film as Epstein’s is. Consider, if you want another example, why Robert Zemeckis’s fiction film The Walk (2015) exists, since James Marsh’s Man on Wire (2008) tells wonderfully the story of how Frenchman Phillip Petite crossed on a wire the distance between New York’s Twin Towers in 1974. Is it a matter of availability? Of audiences not knowing that certain documentaries exist? Or is it, as I say, a question of aesthetics? Why do audiences prefer the fakery of fiction film to the ‘authenticity’ of the documentary?

I have written the word ‘authenticity’ in inverted comas because this is the issue that bedevils any understanding of the documentary. To put it simply, fiction films can lie as much as they want, even when they recreate real-life events, but documentary films are not supposed to lie, yet they do. In fact, it is quite possible that all boils down to a misunderstanding. Famously, the Scottish father of the documentary, John Grierson, commended in a review Moana (1926) –a film portraying the natives of the South Pacific made by the American father of the documentary Robert Flaherty– for its “documentary” value, which eventually lent this film genre its name. As happens, however, Flaherty’s film was full of staged scenes that he had invented on the basis of the local ‘traditions’ which he forced his native actors to perform; besides, Grierson wrote that Moana was perhaps more interesting for its poetic values. The idea that the documentary documents reality does not come simply from that review and that remark but it is certainly connected with it, and has made it almost impossible to define the genre with precision since not all documentaries ‘document’ reality (many re-create it) and what you may mean by ‘reality’ is also open to discussion. Take, for instance, Goya’s nominee My Mexican Bretzel. Apparently, director Nuria Giménez Lorang uses in it the home movies shot by her grandfather from the 1940s to the 1960s (footage which she found by chance), grafting onto these moving images the melodramatic story of her grandmother Vivian, a story which is, basically, invented. How is that a documentary?

Every time I try to think of some rule that fiction films and documentaries cannot break, there appears an exception perhaps because the two film languages have mixed in recent times. I had never noticed, for instance, that documentaries use music in ways very similar to fiction films, giving some scenes the tone of a thriller, or of melodrama, as the director wishes. Some scholars claim that, ultimately, the basis of the difference between a fiction film and a documentary is a matter of expectations: audiences expect to be told a story in fiction films, but to be enlightened about an aspect of reality they didn’t know in documentaries (as if they were lessons). It doesn’t work like this, either. Just think of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) and how much one may learn from it about the Holocaust, even though it cannot be called at all a documentary film like, for instance, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985). Actually, Spielberg’s film created a big scandal by having the cameras enter the showers at Auschwitz, a moment that no other film, fictional or documentary, had dared recreate. Lanzmann was among the American director’s most vocal critics. Yet, this is just a matter connected with historical taboos, not a matter of what films –fictional or documentary– can do.

You may recall that one year ago we were all fascinated by Netflix’s documentary mini-series Tiger King (directed by Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode). There was a hilarious moment (I can’t recall whether it was in the series or in a bonus feature) in which Joe King fantasized about being played by Brad Pitt in a film about his life. That is hilarious not only because there are many obvious physical differences between King and Pitt, but because there is already a great film about King’s life: the mini-series. In a similar vein, let me repeat a curious anecdote I just heard actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt narrate: Philippe Petite, the man who did walk between the Twin Towers, remember?, taught the actor, who plays him in Ron Howard’s film, how to walk on a wire. This is bizarre, not only because just fancy the real-life man teaching the actor how to do what made him famous but also because, according to director James Marsh, Petite is a big narcissist that absolutely wanted to dominate the shooting of his documentary. Why Petite would feel interested in Gordon-Levitt’s performance is something I fail to grasp. Was he flattered in some way? Why not jealous?

All in all, I am going to argue that what ultimately makes the difference between choosing to see a fiction film or a documentary film has to do with a specific element of the aesthetics of the fictional film: acting. Moana, the film by Flaherty I have mentioned, inaugurated docufiction on the sly, by including staged scenes. Without going so far, many documentaries include recreations of scenes of real life for which there is no footage, usually employing actors in a rather anonymous way, frequently cast just because they look like the real-life person they play. On the other hand, the docudrama is supposed to bridge the gap between the fiction film and the documentary by sticking as closely as possible to the ‘truth’ of events while still being presented as a fiction film. Milk is a docudrama in that sense, and The Walk. I believe, however, that very few spectators think of films based on real-life events as docudramas, since the dramatic license many take is quite generous. I don’t think any spectator is now as naïve as to think that a film wholly based on staged scenes can be trusted. This is why I am claiming that ultimately what gives the feature-length, live-action fiction film its popularity over the documentary is the audience’s preference for acting, to the point that given the choice between seeing a documentary with the real-life person and a docudrama with an actor playing that person, the latter is preferred.

What I have been discovering –or rediscovering– in the last year is that actor-dominated films (= fiction films) are not necessarily more entertaining, or more fulfilling, than narrative or argumentative films in which acting is non-existent or just used at the basic level of re-creation (= documentaries). Despite marvelling at how Tom Hanks plays classic children’s TV star Mr. Rogers in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019), this fiction film cannot compare to the far better documentary film by Morgan Neville, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018), also on Fred Rogers. Indeed, when Hanks and Heller saw together Neville’s film, the actor asked the director why they were making their film at all… An obvious answer is that Hanks could attract viewers to the figure of Mr. Rogers in ways the far less known documentary by Neville could not, though this is not really a merit of fiction films (or of actors) but of their distribution channels. Now that we are used to finding so many documentaries on the streaming platforms the situation might change. My guess is that, if given the same visibility as fiction films, documentary films might grow to be just as popular and valued.

Here is, by the way, a very basic bibliography for documentaries in case you’re interested:
Aitken, Ian (ed.). The Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film. Routledge, 2013 (2006).
Aufderheide, Patricia. Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP, 2007.
Bruzzi, Stella. New documentary: A Critical Introduction. Routledge, 2006 (2000).
Ellis, John. Documentary: Witness and Self-Revelation. Routledge, 2012.
Grant, Barry Keith and Sloniowski, Jeannette (eds.). Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Wayne State UP, 2014 (1998).
McLane, Betsy A. A New History of Documentary Film. Continuum, 2012.
Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Indiana UP, 2017 (third edition).
Renov, Michael. The Subject of Documentary. University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Enjoy! (And if you subscribe to Netflix, watch Father, Soldier, Son…).

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

SHAME OF THE NATION: ON WATCHING EL SILENCIO DE OTROS

It is habitual in scholarly work that a text illuminates another text quite by chance, in that phenomenon usually called serendipity. Reading the second edition of Sarah Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004, 2014) to fill in a serious gap in my list of books read, I have found myself considering in the light of what she writes a documentary everyone in Spain should see: Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar’s multi-award winner El Silencio de Otros (The Silence of Others, 2019). What Ahmed writes about shame in her volume has helped me to process my own feelings of shame regarding what the documentary narrates even though, as you will see, the cases in question are quite different.
I find that Ahmed writes in a rather abstract way, as if she were a philosopher mainly, and after finally reading her book, I realise that she is one of those big names whose texts everyone plunders following their own interests and not necessarily what she says. Of course, I am going to do exactly the same here. Incidentally, I have been amazed to learn that Ahmed is now an independent scholar, having severed her ties with all universities. This happened in 2016 after she discovered that her employer, Goldsmith’s College in London, had been turning a blind eye on a long list of sexual abuses perpetrated by its male professors. I applaud her brave decision, though few of us at a far more modest academic tier can take that kind of dramatic step (I also wonder to what extent her leaving helped the female students—but I digress).
Briefly, El Silencio de Otros (available on Netflix) deals with how the Ley de Amnistía passed by the post-Franco new democratic Parliament has prevented the crimes of Franco’s henchmen from being investigated. The film’s focus falls on a variety of cases, from the recovery of the remains of persons executed by the anti-Republican military rebels to the suffering of the victims of torturer Billy el Niño, passing through the thousands of babies stolen between 1940 and 1990. All these cases are grouped under the Querella argentina, the name received by the class action lawsuit investigated by Argentinian judge María Romilda Servini de Cubria between 2010 and 2015 (with no sentences whatsoever). She accepted the case on the principle of universal justice at the request of two descendants of victims of the Francoist regime. This was after Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón was expelled from the judiciary for trying to investigate the crimes, on the grounds that he was breaking the Amnesty Law of 1977.
The documentary focuses on a variety of persons, but two elderly women stand out among them: María Martín, who lost her mother, and Ascensión Murieta, who lost her father, both to the brutal action of murderous Francoist squads decimating the ‘reds’. María, the classic Spanish village grandmother clad in black, opens the documentary pointing at the road crossing her village and claiming that her mother and other victims lie under it. Garzón’s own lawsuit mentions 114226 victims whose bodies were then missing; less than 10% have been disinterred and properly buried thanks to the Ley de la Memoria Histórica of 2011 and other legislation previously passed by regional Governments. I must clarify, however, that most identifications, if not all, have been carried out by the NGO Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica, not by the authorities. I had assumed that most victims were piled in the mass graves of cemeteries, in lonely spots in the woods and in road ditches, but it had not occurred to me that cars might be rolling over dead bodies on a daily basis. That seemed far worse than the decision by the Málaga Town Council, withdrawn in 2017, to place an area for dogs on top of mass grave number eight in the local cemetery of San Rafael, one of the biggest collections of Francoist mass graves in Spain. Seeing the cars roll by, I felt not only sorrow for María and her mother but also a very deep shame about the nation where I live.
In Alfredo Sanzol’s excellent play En la Luna (2012) two characters discuss, if I recall this correctly, the problems one has to rescue the remains of her Republican grandfather from the road ditch where he was thrown by his executors. The scene happens in 1990, and the other character, a man, comforts her saying that all will be well because, surely, they cannot have the Barcelona Olympic Games of 1992 with so many bodies still unclaimed. That scene still strikes me because Sanzol stresses in this clever way the idea that Spain has never been subjected to the international scrutiny that other countries have faced, including the Argentina of Justice Salvini. In her country and in other post-dictatorial democracies, all the Amnesty Laws passed to protect criminal regimes where annulled so that the crimes against humanity could be judged. Spain, in contrast, has always taken the position that forgiving works better than judging, applying a ‘let bygones be bygones’ policy that the Socialist-sponsored Ley de la Memoria Histórica has barely eroded.
An argument often invoked is that the Civil War, anyway, happened a long time ago, which disregards both the abuses committed by the long dictatorship and the existence of survivors from the war itself. The other main argument is that, anyway, the ‘Reds’ were also genocidal murderers who killed thousands arbitrarily during the Republic and the war, and who would have likewise exterminated many fallen foes had they won. This argument, often invoked by right-wing persons of Francoist leanings, does acknowledge the crimes, as it can be seen, but justifies them on the spurious grounds that the ‘others’ were equally brutal. I doubt this is the case, but even so the Ley de Memoria Histórica is not limited to the Republican victims but to all victims. Yet, since no descendants of the Civil War winners are digging mass graves or road ditches to rescue the bones of their grandparents this possibly means that the victims caused by the Republicans were not that many, or that they are properly buried. I cannot explain otherwise the indifference to the obvious suffering of persons like Ascensión Murieta, who lost her father Timoteo in 1939, when she was only six, and could only ease her pain the day his body was found in 2017, as El Silencio de Otros shows.
Sara Ahmed refers in The Cultural Politics of Emotion to the ‘Stolen Generations’ of Australia, that is to say, the indigenous children mostly of mixed race forcefully but ‘legally’ removed from their families by a combination of the Australian federal and state government agencies and church missions, between 1905 and 1967, in some case as late as the 1970s. The appalling idea behind this mass kidnapping was that the children could be in this way assimilated into the white Australian nation, though, of course, this awful crime only resulted in deep personal and national trauma. A formal apology was presented in 2008 by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, though at the time Ahmed was writing Prime Minister John Howard had adamantly rejected all calls for an apology. The situation, as you can see, is quite different from the Civil War and the dictatorship in Spain though, at least until 2008, the key question was similar: those in power refused to acknowledge a crime against humanity and apologize for it. Ahmed worries that shame can be acknowledged hypocritically so that those who apologize do so to continue a false narrative of national unity. Yet, she worries above all by how the lack of shame then embodied by Prime Minister Howard undermines the communal ability to “identify with a national ideal” (111). Although acknowledging the “brutal history” is not a magic solution, shame appears to be a positive step so that “the shame of the absence of shame” (111) can be overcome, always taking care that this witnessing might not “repeat the passing over” of the victims “in the very desire to move beyond shame and into pride” (111).
Most importantly, in cases such as that of the Stolen Generation, the shame is not only faced internally but externally, before “international civil society” (112). Ahmed, a British-born Australian, writes that “Being seen as an ideal nation is here defined as that which will pass down in time, not in our memories, but in how we are remembered by others. The desire for shame is here the desire to be seen as fulfilling an ideal, the desire to be ‘judged by history’ as an ideal nation” (112). In her conclusions, Ahmed writes that “The projects of reconciliation and reparation are not about the ‘nation’ recovering: they are about whether those who are the victims of injustice can find a way of living in the nation that feels better through the process of speaking about the past, and through exposing the wounds that get concealed by the ‘truths’ of a certain history” (201). In the Australian case, and in others like Argentina or Chile, the international mechanism of shame has more or less worked (remember that Justice Garzón managed to have Augusto Pinochet arrested in London in 1998 but the monster walked away free thanks to the efforts of Margaret Thatcher and President George Bush senior). What is extraordinary about the Spanish case is that the international mechanism of shame has had no effect: Justice Salvini was simply not allowed to interrogate either witnesses or the accused in Spain (extradition was, of course, denied), whereas Amnesty International’s calls to the Attorney General’s Office of Spain to investigate and prosecute the crimes have been ignored. Watching El Silencio de Otros I felt shame at the lack of shame, particularly because I do not see on the horizon any apology, much less any serious, committed investigation.
I find the idea of being proud of one’s nation quite silly for there is no nation truly free of fault. At least, though, I would like not to feel ashamed, as I can only feel for as long as 100000 fellow Spaniards remain buried in mass graves or under the tarmac daily tread on by rushing cars. I would be very proud if the Spanish Parliament agreed by unanimity to put each of these victims in the family graves where they belong, because that would mean that a first step into healing the nation had been taken. But since this is a fantasy, we must live in shame. So far, we have done quite a good job of hiding this deep national shame, so much so that Franco’s heirs are daily gaining power, as if they have nothing to apologize for. In view of all this, it is logically easier for me, and for many others, to deny that we are Spanish and to cling with all our might onto the idea that we are Catalan. Not really because we are independentists, or because Catalonia is a perfectly civilized haven, but because being Catalan is not internationally connected with any specific shameful events. It’s a little like being Danish if you know what I mean.
By the way, if you watch El Silencio de Otros and come across calls to abolish the Amnesty Law of 1977, be careful. As happens, the law was passed to free those unfairly accused and imprisoned by Franco’s regime, though it has had the side-effect of helping the Francoist henchmen to escape prison. This law does need to be abolished but only to be replaced by a new law that finally applies internationally accepted legislation about crimes against humanity to Spain—and that lifts the veil of shame under which we still live.

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