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/

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.

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/

RESPECT THE TRANSLATOR!: AMANDA GORMAN AND THE INACCEPTABLE DISMISSAL OF HER CATALAN TRANSLATOR

National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman (Los Angeles, 1988) became a world-wide celebrity two months ago, after her reading of her poem “The Hill We Climb” during President Joe Biden’s inauguration (on 6th January). I am not particularly interested in assessing her quality as a poet, which I find rather overvalued, but on criticizing the appalling decision taken to dismiss the work of her Catalan translator Víctor Obiols, on whose defence I am writing this post (and no, I have never met him). Allow me to explain the details of the case.
Gorman will publish later this year a poetry collection with the title of her inauguration poem, which is eagerly awaited. Her Dutch publishers, Meulenhoff, announced early this month that writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld had been chosen to be Gorman’s translator (I’m following among other sources https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/mar/01/amanda-gorman-white-translator-quits-marieke-lucas-rijneveld). Rijneveld, 29, the youngest winner of the International Booker prize for her debut novel The Discomfort of Evening, and a non-binary person very much aware of the pressures of public opinion, seemed a very good choice. They did welcome the commission, mentioning in a tweet Gorman’s “power of reconciliation” as a major point in their decision, but subsequently withdrew from the project, after a remarkable tweetstorm.
This was unleased by Janice Deul, a black Dutch journalist and activist, who published an article in Volksrant, arguing that, as a white person, Rijneveld was not the best choice to translate Gorman. She asked (or demanded) that the publishers choose someone like the American poet, that is to say, young, female and “unapologetically Black” for the task. Many others echoed her complaint and, as noted, Rijneveld abandoned the project, subsequently writing in their Twitter account that “I had happily devoted myself to translating Amanda’s work, seeing it as the greatest task to keep her strength, tone and style. However, I realise that I am in a position to think and feel that way, where many are not. I still wish that her ideas reach as many readers as possible and open hearts.” Later, she published a (not very good) poem in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/mar/06/everything-inhabitable-a-poem-by-marieke-lucas-rijneveld) about the experience, claiming that even though she has always resisted judgement in this case she feels “able to grasp when it/ isn’t your place, when you must kneel for a poem because/ another person can make it more inhabitable; not out of/ unwillingness, not out of dismay, but because you know/ there is so much inequality, people still discriminated against,/ what you want is fraternity (…).” As I write, two weeks after the uproar no other Dutch translator has been appointed.
Víctor Obiols, an experienced translator known also by his artistic name Víctor Bocanegra (he’s a poet and musician), was vetted by Gorman’s agents five days ago when he had already handed in his Catalan translation of her forthcoming book to publishers Univers. Speaking to Jordi Nopca for the Catalan newspaper Ara Obiols declared that he was told that Gorman’s agents wanted “una dona amb un perfil d’activista i, si pot ser, d’origen afroamericà” (“a woman with an activist profile and, if possible, with an African-American origin”). Author Nuria Barrios is so far translating with no problem Gorman’s poem for Lumen into Spanish but Univers are still seeking a new translator, having paid Obiols for a translated text that will never be published.
Obiols told global news agency AFP that this “It is a very complicated subject that cannot be treated with frivolity. But if I cannot translate a poet because she is a woman, young, black, an American of the 21st century, neither can I translate Homer because I am not a Greek of the eighth century BC. Or could not have translated Shakespeare because I am not a 16th-century Englishman.” He made, however, a more biting comment on his Twitter account when he wrote that (my translation) perhaps Gorman’s agents think that “a translator into Catalan who is also black–perhaps a woman with roots in Western Africa and raised in Catalonia–might have much more in common with a Los Angeles Afro-American, with a Harvard degree, who is also a model.” In fact, the agents’ request that Gorman be translated into Catalan by an African-American, if possible, only shows an appalling ignorance of Catalonia’s own black population and a US-centric bias that can never go well with translation.
I was not going to write about this ridiculous, absurd affair but I read an article in El Confidencial (https://www.elconfidencial.com/cultura/2021-03-13/amanda-gorman-traductores-espanoles-hablan_2990284/ ) calling for some sort of action to protect the translators. I am not myself a professional translator but I have done some translating, and I feel immense loyalty to this group of always unfairly treated professionals. Without translators there is no intercultural communication and the last thing they need is being disrespected for their personal identity. Yes, I’m calling what Amanda Gorman’s agents are doing a profound disrespect, particularly because both in the Dutch and in the Catalan cases the translator was already at work or done. The payment Obiols has received is not sufficient apology for the slap in the face he has got for not being young (a sign of ageism), a woman (of androphobia) and African-American (of racism). Spanish legislation guarantees that no person can be discriminated by reasons of identity in the job market, and what has happened with Obiols is, in my view, illegal. It is, besides, idiotic, for Gorman’s agents have no guarantee that a translator closer to her identity will produce a better translation.
The translators interviewed in El Confidencial try to take the hullaballoo with some humour that can hardly disguise the sinister overtones of the case. Mercedes Cebrián jokes that she can only translate short-sighted persons, being one herself, but finds the situation a story out of Black Mirror, the kind of scary situation that can quickly snowball and that benefits nobody except a “maddened Puritanism” (my translation). Another translator, Isabel García Adánez, points out that this attitude only harms the author, who can find herself in a ghettoized literary circle. I must say that I have been tempted to email Gorman’s agents to explain the damage they are doing to their client’s reputation in Catalonia with this misguided positioning but, well, let them learn the lesson. I am also thinking of the new Dutch and Catalan translators and how they will feel knowing that they have been picked up because of their skin colour and not their professional value. No doubt, this may be an opportunity for an aspiring translator who happens to be a black young woman to make her professional name, but the circumstances are, to say the least, dubious.
Translators are, most obviously, persons, not machines, and their personalities are part of the translation process. Translator and theorist Laurence Venuti has even asked for translation to be considered a literary genre, and translators a type of writer. I quite agree with his view, for it is obvious to me that readers in countries like Spain, where everybody reads translations, seem to believe that translators are an irrelevant part of the process of intercultural communication. Each translator has their style and no two translations can be alike, but, of course, one thing is saying this and quite another is claiming that the translator’s identity must match that of the author. I know, of course, of cases in which the work of a woman has been substantially altered by her male translator; a most famous instance is that of H. M. Parshley’s generally very poor 1953 translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex into English, only corrected with Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier 2009 version. I think, however, that translators are on the whole a particularly open-minded set of professionals; it is hard for me to think of someone with no empathy devoting their lives to translating the words of others. There is, I believe, a generosity in this that has been woefully overlooked in the Gorman case.
I always say that in controversial cases what one needs to do is to consider the opposite to correctly gauge the offense. Now suppose that a young, African-American, female translator had already completed her translation into English of Víctor Obiols’ poetry (remember he is a poet?) and that he asked his agents to reject it, replacing her with a white, middle-aged man like himself. That would be immediately read as an outrageous act of combined sexism and racism, and that is what it would be. As Obiols notes, Amanda Gorman is, besides young and African-American, a beautiful woman with a modelling contract with IMG Models. If we go down the identity path, it could be argued that her translator should also have the experience of being physically very attractive for, surely, being a great-looking woman is not at all the same as being plain (as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre comments on). Where, then, does identity stop? Could a plain, old black woman translator understand Gorman as her agents wish? Which factor should predominate: age, age, race? How about beauty, class, nationality?
The growing racial separatism is, in short, racializing persons and situations that should not be racialized. Interracial collaboration will always be necessary (how many female black translators is Gorman going to find in, say, Russia or China?), which is why I think that the wrong stance has been taken. As happens, Dutch publisher Meulenhoff did mention that Amanda Gorman had selected Rijneveld to be her translator. What offended Janice Deul was not really the choice but that the publishers described Rijneveld as a “dream candidate.” Her opinion noting that Rijneveld, though not a bad choice, was not at all the perfect one became magnified by social media ranting into a general opinion that Rijneveld was an inacceptable choice. What went wrong in this case, then, is that a) Meulenhoff bowed down to social media frenzy, b) Rijneveld did not stand her ground as she should have done, c) Gorman never gave her opinion. For all we know, she is disappointed but her Twitter account makes no mention of the Dutch or the Catalan translations. The lack of comment is, of course, a comment in itself suggesting that Gorman is failing to be aware of what her misguided agents are doing on her behalf.
Hopefully, this is yet another storm in a tweetcup, but it does hurt to see translation and translators treated in this awfully ignorant way. My recommendation to Gorman is that she changes agents, not translators, as quickly as possible before too much damage is done and her “power of reconciliation” evaporates.

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 DAY I WATCHED 50+1 MUSIC VIDEOS: A NEGLECTED PLEASURE

One of my BA dissertation tutorees has asked me to work on Childish Gambino’s fascinating, controversial music video “This is America” (2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch/VYOjWnS4cMY) and I’m happy to have the chance of returning to a film genre that I neglect too much. Ages ago (or so it seems), I published the essay “El cuerpo en el videoclip musical: Más que carne fresca” (in Meri Torras (ed.), Corporizar el pensamiento: Escrituras y lecturas del cuerpo en la cultura occidental. Pontevedra: Mirabel, 2006. 175-194), which came from a seminar on the same topic which I taught at UAB. I will always remember a hilarious moment in it. I had decided to debate with students The Prodigy’s video for the song “Smack My Bitch Up” (1997). I had more than a little distaste for the lyrics (just a monotonous repetition of “Change my pitch up!/ Smack my bitch up!”) but the video directed by Jonas Åkerlund is still one of my favourites. It narrates from a first person point of view a riotous night in London, with plenty of booze, drugs, and sex. The spectator assumes that the invisible protagonist behind the camera must be a man but the big final reveal is that this is actually a young woman. When I walked into the room, I saw that one of the students was an elderly lady and, ageist me, I worried that she might be scandalized. Funnily, when the video was over, she raised her hand and asked me very eagerly “can you play it again, please?” Everyone laughed.
I wrote a few years later another article on a music video, “Unstable meanings, unstable methods: Analysing Linkin Park’s song ‘What I’ve Done’” (José Ramón Ibáñez Ibáñez & José Francisco Fernández Sánchez (eds.), A View from the South: Contemporary English and American Studies. Almería: Editorial Universidad de Almería, 2011. 150-157), in which I showed how even when a song is popular there can be very little agreement on what it actually means. The song appears to deal with a man’s regrets about his past misbehaviour, either because he has been a drug addict or because he has been abusive in a relationship, or both. In contrast, the video directed by one of Linkin Park’s members, Joe Hahn, shows the band playing in the desert with the performance intercut with a montage of documentary images, mostly showing the conflicts in which the USA have been involved. Chester Bennington’s passionate singing changes radically depending on what you decide the song is about: a heart-felt apology from a single man speaking for himself perhaps to a woman, or a heart-felt apology by an American man ashamed of his nation and asking the world for forgiveness. And this just because some images were added to a performance in the music video.
Back to my student. She is also taking a Practicum with me consisting of doing academic activities connected with Literature and Culture. Since the actual content is very open, I have employed her so far as my research assistant for my MA course on gender in animated children’s fiction and will employ her now producing a guide of the best American music videos of the 21st century (for online publication on UAB’s digital repository and under her name, not mine). This is for two reasons: one, I think that working on other music videos will enhance her understanding of Gambino’s video for her BA dissertation; two, I very much wanted to learn from a much younger person about the current state of the music video. There are always lists of the best at the end of the year and, inevitably, I stumble upon this or that music video on YouTube or browsing the international press. I must say that, unfortunately, I seem to have lost my former passion for pop and rock, which lasted until I became incapable of working with the music on and found listening to it outside working hours incompatible with the lots of reading I need to do. Besides, I could never accomplish the transition from the album to the Spotify list, without which following the ups and downs of current music styles is hard enough. I know, more or less, who is who but if asked to name ten great songs of the last decade I would be lost. Yes, quite sad –perhaps I should teach a course and get back on track!
I agreed with my tutoree that she would select 50 great music videos of the 21st century and then we could decide how to write about them for the guide. She sent me the selection last week and I spend a few wonderful hours on Saturday enjoying a list if not of the best at least of the very good music videos which the past two decades have given us. My student has mostly chosen elegant, well-made videos that illustrate great songs by a notable variety of US performers. I’m not going to comment on the list itself (I keep that for when she publishes the guide) but I will say that, as she and I know, all lists are bound to be very personal even when the person making the selection tries to be as open-minded as possible. Everyone has favourites and in the immense world of popular music there is no way two persons can agree on what is best. It is, besides, very hard to say in which ways a music video is a quality work, for, surely, some great videos corresponding to not so popular songs must pass unnoticed, whereas other videos get noticed just for the song, not because the video has any filmic values. Surely, the video for Luis Fonsi’s hit “Despacito” has no special values as a film, despite being the second most played video on YouTube ever (behind “Baby Shark”!). Even worse, some music videos have become extremely popular for very wrong reasons, and I’m thinking here of the exploitative images in Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”.
This leads to me to video number 51 –“WAP”. My student did not include it in her selection but “WAP” is no doubt the most talked about music video of 2020. Here are some notes. “WAP” is a song published by New York rapper Cardi B (born Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar in 1992) featuring Texan rapper Meghan thee Stallion (Megan Jovon Ruth Pete, b. 1995). The song, which mixes hip hop, dirty rap, and trap, deals quite explicitly with sexual matters, with both artists singing and rapping about women’s sexual preferences and their expectations regarding men’s performance during sex (‘wap’ incidentally is an acronym for ‘wet-ass pussy’). “WAP” was generally well-received for its expression of female sexual agency but its dirty lyrics (https://genius.com/Cardi-b-wap-lyrics) were also a source of enormous controversy, with some criticizing them for their vulgar language. There was quite a backlash from conservative politicians (i.e. Trumpian Republicans) who even asked for some form of censorship, though their complaints mostly helped “WAP” to become an even more popular hit. Most progressive media outlets defended Cardi B’s raunchy song as an expression of black female empowerment through popular American culture’s reverence for the rebellious artist.
The music video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsm4poTWjMs), directed by the extremely experienced Collin Tilley but with plenty of input from Cardi B herself, made the controversy even more vivid, with figures such as British comedian Russell Brand arguing that there was little difference between pornographic sexualization by men and the supposedly self-empowering presentation of the women in it. The video shows Cardi B and Meghan thee Stallion, dressed in sexy outfits by haute couture designers (Nicolas Jebran, Thierry Mugler), walking in an extravagant mansion full of powerful women similarly dressed. The imagery uses plenty of animal print decorations and psychedelic colours in the style of Willie Wonka’s factory. A pool scene offers a sensual dance routine (by JaQuel Knight) imitated countless times on TikTok. The video features non-singing cameos by Kylie Jenner, Normani, Rosalía, Mulatto, Rubi Rose, and Sukihana, all contributing to enhancing the representation of female power. The video was celebrated, like the song, and soon hailed as one of the best of 2020, if not the best. However, beyond its sexiness, the video became a source of criticism for its use of live animals (with big cats appearing as pets for rich women) and for the presence of white celebrity Kylie Jenner. Cardi B defended her choice, arguing that race should not be a consideration (Jenner has been often accused of appropriating black culture) and that Kim Kardashian’s sister also appears as her personal friend.
There is an immense difference between Gambino’s “This is America” and Cardi B’s “WAP” but both have something in common: they are a wonderfully compressed representation of a rich bunch of interconnected issues, and require a savvy audience to make sense. I understand why my student is interested in the former far more than in the latter. Gambino’s issues, focused on racial discrimination in the USA, seem to be far more serious socially speaking than Cardi B and Meghan thee Stallion’s hymn to the hyperactive vagina. Yet, each knows its audience very well. Gambino throws one allusion after the other to events every black person in the USA should be able to identify whereas Cardi B appeals to those who follow the ins and outs of celebrity culture and of black female empowerment in the American music circuit. If you don’t know any of the celebrities appearing in the video, you will be mystified –though I remain mystified about why Rosalía accepted appearing in a sort of torero outfit without singing at all. Kylie Jenner’s presence is not, in my view, insulting in racial terms but because unlike Rosalía she is no artist and Cardi B hardly needs her to endorse her own art. Gambino, by the way, appears naked from the waste up in his film but this is not intended as a sexy display of his quite sexy anatomy. In contrast, Cardi B and her colleague Meghan display their curves in all their glorious abundance. In one of the scenes Cardi B’s breasts are quite visible, even though the nipples are covered, and this is when, like Russell Brand, I did doubt whether this was empowerment or self-exploitation. My own idol, Kylie Minogue, has found much more classy ways of being her own woman –and no, this is not prudery but a certain tiredness after seeing women claim power by showing their bodies for the last thirty five years, since Madonna started the trend. I recall dealing with the exact same issue in my 2006 article regarding a video with Jennifer Lopez…
See? These tiny films, lasting on average 3 minutes, are food for thought in ways much longer films are not. Half advertisement, half art the music video still survives and, from what I see in my 50+1 songs exploration, has a great future ahead. I’ll make sure to be more alert to it.

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 NARRATIVE AND AESTHETIC PROBLEMS OF UTOPIA: RECONSIDERING ITS LACK OF APPEAL

Last week I had the great pleasure of participating in the seminar “El miedo y la esperanza: utopías y distopías en las artes y la cultura de masas” (Fear and hope: Utopias and Dystopias in the Arts and Mass Culture, https://escolaeuropeadhumanitats.com/es/trobades/el-miedo-y-la-esperanza-utopias-y-distopias-en-las-artes-y-la-cultura-de-masas/) within the Escola d’Humanitats run by the magazine La maleta de Portbou. I must thank Prof. Antonio Monegal for his invitation. It is not habitual in my hectic profession to be asked to debate ideas with others and after the seminar was over I felt immensely satisfied to have benefited from a great conversation lasting for six hours –what a luxury! I must note, incidentally, that the seminar was originally programmed for March 2020 in Tarragona, but had to be delayed because of Covid-19. The meeting last week was moved to Barcelona but I must say that it became a hybrid event, with three of us participating from home and the rest in the La Caixa venue of Palau Macaya. The dystopia we are living in right now made it impossible for me to see my colleagues’ faces, except for those online, as all were using facemasks. I don’t how this will look in the future documentary film that is to come out of our meeting, particularly when this is seen once the pandemic is over, hopefully at the end of this dystopian year of 2021.
I tend to forget that Spanish academia favours an encyclopaedic approach in contrast to the argumentative discourse preferred by Anglo-American academia. Thus, whereas my own contribution –a discussion of Iain M. Bank’s utopia the Culture– was focused on a single author and a novel series, my colleagues’ contributions gathered together a great variety of titles, with possibly Iván Pastor’s panorama of current comics being the most wide-ranging. This worked well since it allowed for abundant discussion among all of us also in a wide-ranging fashion which was, after all, the object of the seminar. The participants, I must note, were not only academics but also practising artists and writers (some also academics). I found it very refreshing to meet them, and I also felt awed, as I tend to feel a little silly discussing authors in front of other literary authors… (I refer here to Laura Fernández and José Ovejero).
I must note that my contribution was the only one exclusively focused on utopia, even though the seminar was supposed to deal with both utopia and dystopia. This is not at all a criticism of my colleagues’ excellent talks but a way of stressing a major problem: the utopia/dystopia ratio works overwhelmingly in favour of the latter. At one point Prof. Monegal mentioned that IMDB mentions about 150 productions connected with utopia, but about 1500 related to dystopia; one to ten, then. The torrent of titles that came under discussion was, therefore, necessarily dystopian because this is what interests audiences –or, at least, what they are being offered by artists of all kinds. In fact, an issue that was raised is to what extent the insistence on the dystopian text is a capitalist ruse to keep all of us under control. A society that has no illusions about its future will not demand any changes and will most likely adapt to whatever little is offered in the way of social advances. At some point in the transition from the 1970s to the 1980s the very idea of a positive, brighter future was lost and without it there is very little that utopia can do to be appealing. Dystopia, in contrast, confirms again and again (or sells) the generalized impression that any utopia is necessarily misleading.
In my own contribution I insisted on a question that seems to me of great importance, namely, that utopia is never as easy to narrate as dystopia. Take, for instance, Suzanne Collins’ trilogy The Hunger Games. At the end of the story an epilogue hints that the formerly dictatorial civilization of Panem has been rebuilt as a democratic nation, under the leadership of the former rebels. It would have been very interesting to narrate Katniss Everdeen’s participation in that rebirth but Collins chose instead to involve Katniss in a plot twist that totally deprives her of any power she might have and that strands her in a domestic situation most of us judge to be just barely happy. Collins, of course, could have proceeded and narrate the building of a new utopia in a reformed Panem but instead she has published a rather dull novel about how tyrannical President Coriolanus Snow came to be: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Indeed, most of Collins’ readers expected her to go further back into the history of Panem and narrate how the United States became that dystopian monstrosity, which says plenty about the sad mood in the American nation. It is my personal opinion that we do not need more stories about the fall into dystopia that may ring prophetic, but new stories about how to build utopia beginning with current dystopia. They can be still full of incident and strife, and be exciting in its proclamation of a new beginning. I would agree, however, that narrating stories about utopia once this is in place might not be that thrilling. As Iain Banks once explained, persons who live in a utopia can also experiment disappointment or conflict but whatever crisis you choose to narrate it would be just too similar to what you might find in the typical middle-class novel in which the social background is inexistent. This is why he preferred to narrate the clash between the utopian Culture and those less advanced civilizations that resisted its intervention.
Apart from the problem of its narrative limitations, utopia seems to have another significant problem of an aesthetic kind. This was made evident by Fito Conesa’s observations about a series of rather kitsch utopian images which turned out to be propaganda for the Jehova’s Witnesses. What he suggested is that any ideally pastoral image of happy people in a lovely environment makes us cringe rather than feel elated and I would attribute this cringeworthy effect to the steady undermining of beauty as an artistic category and of the sentimental in the current structure of feeling. Beauty, of course, is not gone as an aesthetic category but it is not something we actively seek in connection to the utopian future –we may admire the beauty of certain individuals or natural landscapes, but beauty is not at all connected with social living. When it is, as happens in the orbital for the very rich of the film Elysium, beauty is offered as a marker of privilege, not as a communal aspiration. In contrast, the ugly landscape of dystopia seems ubiquitous and even socially inescapable, a constant feature of the future because it is already a dominant feature of the present all over Earth. If a beautiful human-made, communal landscape appears in fiction, then you can be sure that it hides something behind, usually of a sinister nature (think of the film The Island).
Utopia, in short, is not cool either narratively speaking or in its aesthetics, whereas dystopia has managed to be cool both as a tale and in looks. How can this double handicap of utopia be counteracted? To be honest, I don’t know, being neither a narrator nor an artist. One thing I can say, though: capitalism is infinitely flexible and it will certainly accommodate any utopia that is attractive to a significant number of people. If one day someone makes a truly good adaptation of a Culture novel by Iain Banks and the image of its utopia works well, that might start a new fashion. If it were in my power, I would go further and establish a well-endowed competition for utopian stories (though I would make it a condition that they are not separatist with, for instance, women-only civilizations or blacks-only civilizations, on the utopian principle that the elimination of prejudice should be paramount). Leaving aside the nightmare that Covid-19 currently is, I’m tired of that sinking feeling that dystopia produces, whether it comes from the daily reading of the news or the fantasies of depressing storytelling (ten seasons of The Waking Dead? Why?!).
One of the participants in the seminar, artist and academic María Ruido, complained that what most disgusted her is the habitual treatment of basic human rights as a utopia, in the sense of something unfeasible. She worries, most rightly, that the Covid-19 crisis will further undermine any social protest and will even push back the achievements of the last decades as regards workers’ rights and women’s rights. María and I stressed that the utopias behind these rights –Communism, feminism– have not been fully developed but should be given some room in any utopia to be. I believe that feminism is currently the only functional utopia in the sense that all women, even the non-feminists, are motivated by the idea that our future must necessarily be better until it is truly good. The many strong female characters in fiction and the many bold women in real life model their lifestyles on this utopian aspiration (whereas men wander lost in the now decadent patriarchal dystopia). In contrast, what has become almost taboo is any discussion of work and by this María and I meant something quite similar: not just the appalling lack of quality of most occupations but also the enormous amount of time that work takes.
Between 1820 and 1920 the average working hours went from 76 a week to 42, but in the last 100 years nothing has been done to reduce our weekly toil from 40 to 30 or less. We are told again and again that this would bring chaos, with more unemployment, lower pay rates, etc. but it just seems impossible to believe that productivity remains the same as in 1920. Something needs to be done and change demanded. The utopia spoused by 1970s radical feminism as regards the family had to do with this, precisely: the domestic model defended was a household in which each member worked no more than four hours a day, so that there was sufficient time to raise children and enjoy leisure of a constructive, active kind. Instead, we work very long hours, with more instability than ever and with hardly any chance of truly reconciling work with private life. Any attempt to reverse this trend is immediately branded communist agitation and dismissed as an afront to common sense. Thus capitalism thrives and utopia dies, while we consume as if there is no tomorrow the dystopian tales that capitalism itself sells to us.
Let’s create, then, utopia anew, for the sake of the future, with uplifting tales and pleasure in beauty.

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/

BORN-DIGITAL TEXTS AND ITS USES IN THE FOREIGN-LANGUAGE CLASSROOM: AFTER A SYMPOSIUM

Last week I attended the symposium organized by Saskia Kersten (U. Hertfordshire) and Christian Ludwig (Frei U. Berlin) called “Born-Digital Texts and its Uses in the Foreign-Language Classroom”, on which this post focuses. I first got in touch with Prof. Ludwig a while ago, when I replied to his cfp for the volume he has edited with Elizabeth Shipley, Mapping the Imaginative II (Universitätsverlag Winter, 2020). I have contributed to this volume the essay “Producing E-books on Fantasy and Science Fiction with University Students: Classroom Projects”, which describes the process by which I have edited the first five volumes out of eight that I have published so far with students in the BA and MA English Studies degrees for which I work (see https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/books). The ninth e-book, on which I am now working, was the subject of my presentation. Funnily, I didn’t know that these e-books are born-digital texts until I read the cfp for the symposium. Although there is not a total agreement on the definition of this concept, in principle a born-digital text is any type of text that is first created and circulates in a digital format, such as an e-book. The disagreements have to do with whether the born-digital texts can be made available in a non-digital form (an e-book can be printed as a book). However, once you know the concept, the idea is easy to grasp: many born-digital texts, from photos to hashtags, will remain digital and will not be transferred to any analogical medium; even though some might, the label is still useful.
The general question asked in the symposium was how we should adapt the foreign-language classroom to make the most of the familiarity of our students with the diverse digital media. This is not, of course, a new question. It was first asked back in the 1990s when internet access was first made commercially available, and when other digital tools such as e-mail were introduced. The difference is that for some years now our students have been coming from the cohorts born after this time. There has been much talk about how those born from the mid-1990s onward are digital natives and it is indisputable that their lives are organized around digital platforms in ways that those of previous generations are not. Of course, as a symposium participant reminded me, we should not divide digital users along generational lines, but even though we can find many of these users in older generations, it seems obvious to me that any child or young person with no access to their generation’s heavily digitalized environment runs a risk of becoming a social pariah. A participant mentioned how the lack of access to social media of less privileged children may become a problem in their future, when prospective employers check their networks and draw a blank. This is possibly already a problem for many of us –I’m sure that my empty accounts in Facebook and Instagram, my minimalist use of Twitter, and my absence from Linked In are inexplicable to many digital frequent users.
My approach to using digital media in the English Literature classroom remains sceptical, even though I am at the same time a staunch defender of that strategy. Of course, having taught online for the last two semesters I cannot say that the digital tools should have a minimal impact on the Literature classroom but, as I did in the symposium, I want to defend what I called the principle of reciprocity. By this I mean that I am very much concerned that many of the strategies described in the symposium and elsewhere are based on an academic surrender before the push of the social media and on the sad acceptance that some skills are being lost for good because students find them boring. That is to say, we, teachers that work with language from the primary school to university, seem to be giving up on the importance of two immensely important skills, reading and writing, in which we have a solid training; I mean of substantial texts, and not what young learners come across in the social media and, generally, online. I would agree that one can learn a foreign language on the basis of limited texts, and that not all learners should be expected to produce lengthy essays. However, as much as audiovisual media, from Netflix series to YouTube gamers’ life play streaming, can help learners, their knowledge in this case of English is going to be limited without some intensive reading and without the ability to write beyond the 280 characters on Twitter. By this principle of reciprocity, then, I mean that I am willing to incorporate digital media to my classroom as long as students are willing to read and write at the demanding level that higher education and academic life requires.
I understand that my position is totally conditioned by the fact that I don’t teach English language but English Literature, and I certainly see the point of adapting language teaching in primary and secondary school to other types of students than mine. The main point of the symposium, in a way, was to establish that learning English from print books, as it has been done so far is limiting –and here I mean both books written specifically to teach English but also fiction in English. I have no doubt whatsoever that the kind of exercise consisting of writing imaginary letters of complaint to a travel agency (which my 16-year-old niece showed me recently) has little reason to be in the current EFL classroom in comparison to producing a few minutes of narrated video to post on YouTube. Yet, perhaps a main problem is that attractive reading and writing has never been well integrated in English teaching, and little has been made of what students are actually reading. My colleagues and I have been told that in some secondary schools Literature has been introduced in English classes in which students have an advanced command of English, but I have little idea (rather, none) of how that is being done. If it were up to me, I would have secondary school students produce booktubing videos in English, based on short fiction, or novels. Even long sagas, for, let’s recall that YA fiction is usually published in trilogies or series, and consumed precisely by young readers sitting in high school classrooms.
Although I am explaining myself here very poorly, what I am trying to say is that what most worries me about the use of born-digital texts in the classroom inspired by social media, platforms like YouTube, gaming and so on is the lowering of educational standards. In my case, the e-books I have been producing with my students actually make higher demands on them since in my kind of project-oriented learning their written exercises are not simple classroom exercises but writing that needs to be ready for publication. As the participants in the symposium argued, there is indeed a barrier between the classroom and the outside online world in the sense that teachers and students are encouraged to integrate all digital media in learning but not to produce texts for it. One of the participants noted with undisguised bitterness that her university would not allow her to upload born-digital texts produced by her students, invoking matters of privacy and of authorship. Another noted that, indeed, authorship could be a problem but in my own university this has been solved by having students sign their permission to have their work uploaded onto our digital repository. With this I mean that there seems to be an important contradiction between having students bring to the classroom strategies of digital production and communication that they use in their private lives only to tell them that what happens in the classroom stays in the classroom. I find this very limiting. My approach has been, instead, that if we are to invite students to produce born-digital texts, then there must be a place for these to be visible; otherwise, the skills learned appear to be just part of assessment instead of part of an actual experience in communication at the level of actual real life.
In this sense, an interesting matter is how limited the production of videos for YouTube is in higher education (at least as far as my experience goes). I recently wrote an essay on Pat Frank’s SF novel Alas, Babylon (1959) and I came across many videos produced by American high school children commenting on it, as this novel is apparently a set text in many schools. Good for them! In contrast, YouTube does not seem to attract much attention in higher education. I have tried several times to convince my colleagues to start a YouTube channel but nobody has the know-how, my university does not provide training and, since it is not a priority, I keep delaying the project. I naively assumed that all institutions of higher education had advanced YouTube channels but I must say that the panorama is quite pitiful. I’m sure that many university teachers keep their own channels but I see no systematic effort on the side of the universities to turn YouTube into a far more effective educational tool. By this I do not simply mean as a platform for teachers to deliver lectures and upload teaching materials but as a platform for students to contribute to generally available online knowledge, in a foreign language or in their own. I have not given up on the idea of opening a channel for my Department and I certainly have many ideas for it, but I just don’t know enough about this medium, my younger colleagues are too busy having three jobs at the same time to help me, and we couldn’t find among our 400 students any with experience as a booktuber, LifePlay gamer or similar. So much for digital natives!!! Again, my ambitions for the future YouTube channel is not that it might make learning easier or more fun, quite the opposite: I’d like to have students learn skills that can be applied to improving standards. Excuse me but it seems to me that fine as current booktubing is to circulate opinion and encourage reading, it is missing quality academic criticism and I fail to understand why this is not being provided by universities. If you follow me, then, I would not have students imitate anyone but do a new job, which is right now vacant. Too ambitious, I know, but someone should do it.
This leads me to another concern that was voiced in the symposium: who should be responsible for the teachers’ training in digital media? My impression is that all the participants were making an effort to apply their own knowledge to their teaching but that this knowledge had been acquired independently from their institutions. This always happens: the institution of learning, whether this is a primary school or a university, suddenly decides to introduce a new tool, but it is always up to the teachers to train themselves in it. This has recently happened with Teams in my university, chosen overnight to be our main platform for online teaching, but possibly starts with e-mail back in the 1990s. The problem is, then, not only that we should be making the most of digital platforms that in many cases we just don’t know how to use (see my comments on YouTube) but also that these platforms’ popularity changes enormously in time. Using Facebook as a teaching resource may have seemed a good idea just a few years ago, but it is now hopelessly old-fashioned. And by the time a teacher learns to use Tik-Tok, this will have been replaced by some other platform not even born today. From this perspective old-fashioned, non-digital materials appear to have a certain advantage.
Finally, I’ll mention another matter that worries me: using born-digital texts can be time-consuming and not at all ‘cost-effective’. My MA students have been producing narrated PowerPoints for our virtual classroom, and one of them decided to produce instead a video. It took him 15 hours to produce a 15-minute video. His efforts and the results were generally admired, but not more than some of the PowerPoints, which means that he invested in his born-digital text too much. There must be, then, a balance between the time invested and the learning results. Producing, for instance, videos for YouTube only makes sense as a tool to teach/learn language if the skills needed for that have been already acquired or take limited time to be acquired. And the other way round: the more proficient a teacher is in the process of producing born-digital texts with students, the lighter the task of producing them is (as I know from my already longish experience of editing e-books).
So, in short: the foreign-language classroom can be and should be at some levels a place for the production of born-digital texts but this process should contribute to enhancing the educational experience (not to trivializing it). It also needs to strike a balance between the time invested in mastering the digital skills and the time devoted to learning the language, which in the end is the main target. I would also insist that the activities need to be carried out in a spirit of reciprocity, with teachers learning from students’ experiences in the digital media and students’ willing to learn from teachers indispensable skills in reading and writing substantial texts.
Thanks Saskia and Christian for the great symposium!

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/

DONALD TRUMP: PATRIARCHAL VILLAINY AT WORK

A year ago I published a monographic volume called Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort in which I aimed at showing how real-life and fictional villains embody patriarchy’s promise of power to complicit men. Some fulfil that promise to a degree so hyperbolic that they need to be eliminated, hence the need for heroes. Most ambitious patriarchal men, however, understand that there are legal and ethical limits to their power. They struggle anyway to take their empowerment as far as possible, risking a downfall but protecting themselves effectively whether they are called Mark Zuckerberg or Vladimir Putin. In other cases, such as that of Hitler or Voldemort, the massive sense of entitlement overwhelms all caution, resulting in a series of missteps that lead to an eventual downfall. I believe this is what we have seen this past week with Donald Trump’s enticement of his followers to take the Capitol and prevent Joe Biden from being formally proclaimed as the next US President. Trump has gone too far in his villainy, heroically stopped by the Senate and Congress, but although he seems to have reached the end of his political career (if the impeachment proceeds he will be banned from holding any kind of public office), the future looks uncertain. Most tyrannies end with the death of the tyrant, but we still need to see how democracy copes with a living would-be tyrant.
The assault on democracy of last January 6 has been brewing since the very day Republican Trump won the Presidential election against Democrat Hillary Clinton in November 2016, if not earlier. As I have written here diverse times, I blame American women for Trump’s win: many more men than women voted for Hillary Clinton, and that says all we need to know about the failure of feminism in the United States. I do not particularly sympathize with Senator Clinton but given the choice between her and the patriarchal monster Donald Trump, I would not have hesitated to vote for her. The question, then, is why American women allowed Trump to be elected, both the liberal women who did not bother to vote at all, and the conservative women who voted for this pussy-grabbing narcissist. How the man who was mostly considered a joke by 80% Americans in 2015 could become the US President in 2016 is a gendered matter indeed. In view of how he has degraded the American Presidency to limits unthinkable before his election, I believe many US voters owe a deep apology to Senator Clinton. I do not know what kind of President she would have been but one thing is certain: a much better one than the resident monster at the White House.
The one thing I most clearly remember about the 2016 election was President Obama saying in an informal TV intervention, addressing Trump himself, something along the lines of “the difference between you and me is that I will be remembered as an American President but you won’t, you’re not qualified”, implying that he would never be elected. There was in this remark both total lucidity (Trump indeed was not qualified) and a bit of arrogance, which possibly has incapacitated the Democratic Party from fighting Trump more adequately. Just as I blame the Democratic women for not having mobilized all American women in favour of Hillary Clinton, I blame the Democratic men for not having been more effective in counteracting Trump’s worst traits as a patriarchal man. Joe Biden’s calm, sedate personality (from what I see) seems to be what is needed now, but throughout the four years of this nightmare I have been wondering, much peeved and annoyed, why former President Obama was not opposing Trump more forcefully. I understand that an implicit rule of American politics prevents former Presidents from criticising their successors but I believe that Obama has gone too far in obeying that rule. I very much doubt that Trump will show so much leniency towards Biden, particularly if he still thinks of a hypothetical 2024 re-election but even if that goal is out of bounds for whatever legal reasons. In most democracies there is an opposition leader keeping the Prime Minister on their toes, and I believe that this figure is sorely missing in US politics. The President has, in short, too much power.
Surprised as I have been by the barrage of disrespect with which President Trump has been treated by late night show hosts and a variety of political critics, I have been even more surprised by the tolerance shown towards his behaviour. Yes, Trump was impeached, but this is a man whose personal demeanour is simply outrageous. He has shattered all the limits, from being known as a sexual abuser to making constant diplomatic gaffes in his dealings with the likes of Putin or Kim Jong-Un. Any other democratic leader in the world would have been ousted by far less, and new elections called to replace him. And that’s another weakness, I think, of the American democracy: its inefficient electoral system. I am not siding at all with Trump’s claim that the system is fraudulent (funny how he never raised the issue when he was himself elected) but noting that it is too inflexible. Supposing the impeachment had progressed or the 25th Amendment invoked, this would still have left Americans in the hands of Mike Pence, who, as Vice-President, has seconded each of Trump’s steps. That he chose to stay in Capitol and certify Biden’s win does not exonerate him from his responsibility in maintaining President Trump in power for four horrendous years. There should be a mechanism to call for new elections in case the US President behaves, as Trump has done, despicably. I will possibly eat my words if/when Joe Biden resigns and VP Kamala Harris becomes the first woman President of the USA, but it still seems to be anomalous that Americans are stuck with their choices for four years no matter what might happen.
Another issue I wish to raise is that of the Grand Old Party’s complicity with Trump. The GOP or Republican Party elected him their candidate, whereas, please recall this for future reference, Hitler ran for Prime Minister supported by his own Nazi Party. Donald Trump seemed initially the kind of fringe figure that would try to enter US politics using his own platform (in the style of Kanye West’s Birthday Party and the other third parties that backed independent candidates in the recent election). What is astonishing and disgusting is that the same Republican Party that backed Abraham Lincoln could back Donald Trump. I have not forgotten about Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, but in comparison to Trump they appear to be now excellent Presidents. It was even funny to read Bush’s press statement complaining that the USA are not a banana republic as the current incumbent at the White House believes, but also tragic. While democratic leaders all over the world worried how Trump’s behaviour would inspire other right-wing populists, the right-wing populists in power mocked the ineptitude of their American colleague. The Republican Party, and particularly Trump sycophants such as Ted Cruz or the extremely dangerous Josh Hawley, are to blame for the brutal attack against democracy perpetrated by the Capitol rabble as much as Trump himself.
This leads me to the concept of ‘the people’ and Trump’s argument that the closing down of his violence-mongering Twitter account is an attack against the right wing. The social media are not directly responsible for the possibly unsolvable political polarization of our times in all democracies because they were not created with that purpose. However, they are guilty of remaining passive as the fanatical political divide grew. Within democracy, there is room for the expression of diverging political views, but those views that threaten democracy itself, whether they are communist or fascist, need to be firmly rejected. Trump and his followers are using the classic Nazi argument in protecting extreme right-wing positions as a legitimate political stance but one thing is the democratic right and quite another the undemocratic extreme right. In that sense, all popular revolts that aim at invading Parliaments are undemocratic, hence intolerable and punishable by law. One thing is taking the Bastille to start a revolution against absolutist monarchy, and quite another taking the Capitol to deny the legitimate election of a new US President. The vandals assaulting the Capitol last Wednesday are not an expression of the American people, but its enemy, and so is Trump.
About the man himself, I’ll just say that the scariest thing about him is that there could be someone even worse, by which I mean more intelligent. The biographical volumes Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success (a.k.a The Truth about Trump) by Michael D’Antonio (2015) and Too Much and Never Enough (2020) by Mary Trump (Donald’s niece and a reputed clinical psychologist) describe in all detail the sociopathic personality of this immature, self-loving man. Yet, as happens in Hitler’s case, there is a major risk in stressing the singularity of an individual man whose rise is actually symptomatic of the society to which he appeals. Hitler rose with the complicity of the German upper classes at a time of profound economic crisis when the social anger of the disenfranchised masses had to be diverted away from Communism and given an outlet. Hitler was willing and able to play the role of German hero, to make Germany great again, and eventually escaped the control of his enablers, sinking the nation into chaos. Still, had he been unwilling and unable, I’m sure that some other messianic figure would have played the role, with the same or even worse consequences if that is conceivable. In Trump’s case the GOP was responding to eight years of Obama’s presidency, which exposed the deep racism of American society, and to a deep social fracture caused by the rampages of US capitalism amongst the less privileged segments of the white population. Trump was there to channel their grievances, despite being himself (supposedly) a key businessman, but, I insist, it could have been someone else, as shown by the number of ambitious men in the GOP biding his time as he falls. In short, you may send Trump to jail for life but what the USA needs is a much deeper structural change that prevents someone even worse from rising. For if he rises, the next assault against the Capitol will be carried out by fully armed militias that will not hesitate to execute the people’s representatives. Just think how much worse last week’s invasion could have been, perhaps the beginning of a second Civil War, in the hands of a more capable man.
Patriarchal villainy works, precisely in this way: it maintains a structure of power that is occupied by successive patriarchal men. The men themselves do not matter very much, and it is hopefully a sign of American patriarchy’s decadence that it has been unable to single out a more intelligent man than the clownish Trump. What matters is the structure and how it connects with privilege, and the sense of entitlement of the already privileged. In this case, please note that whereas Hitler came from the impoverished middle classes, Trump comes from American business aristocracy (though I insist that everything indicates he is not as rich as he claims). In that sense, democracy is just a slight deviation from the patriarchal norm stating that those with power rule but it is certainly preferable to any other system, if only because now and then it allows for genuine change. Of course, although I am calling the system ‘patriarchy’, we should not believe this is just an association of men–as we can see, there are now men and women on both sides of the democratic divide; the horrid thing is that the undemocratic women have been freed by feminism to express their undemocratic ideologies. For each Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez there is a ‘Trump in heels’, as State Senator Amanda Chase has described herself, though they are not democratic political equivalents: the former protects civil rights guaranteed by democracy, the latter does not.
I want to finish by appealing to the democratic right wing. I do not agree with your constant attempts to curb down personal freedom and to enable big business to rule our lives but democracy cannot be sustained without your firm defence. It is up to the Republican Party to regain lost honour and stop Trump and all other aspiring tyrants by impeaching him so that he can never hold office again, and it is likewise imperative to make sure that no other person like him will ever represent the GOP. The right wing should not oppose the democratic left wing but fight the undemocratic extreme right wing (as much as the undemocratic extreme left wing, of course). The Washington Post has been carrying since 2017 as its grim slogan ‘Democracy dies in darkness’, borrowed from journalist Bob Woodward, and this has almost happened in the nation that supposedly stands for the defence of democracy all over the world. Pearl Harbour and 9/11 were days that will live in infamy, but at least in those cases the enemy was external. 6 January 2021 will also live in infamy, but this time the enemy is American and wants democracy to end. This is how patriarchal villainy operates and it is something that all honourable conservative politicians should acknowledge to protect fragile democracy from any aspiring patriarchal villain.

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/

WORLD AND TIME ENOUGH: QUEER HERMAPHRODITISM AND MATURE ROMANCE IN KIM STANLEY ROBINSON’S 2312

I’m working these days on an article about Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel 2312, which has turned out to be a love story. Science fiction does not often deal with that topic, and, besides, this novel has been mainly read as a utopian tale of regeneration after Earth is devastated by the effects of climate change. Robinson presents a scenario in which Earth is a backward remnant of pre-Spacer times, preventing its own survival while Mars, the Saturn League, and Mercury progress towards a new alliance which will one day leave our stubborn little planet and its pseudo-feudal capitalism (the author’s appreciation) behind. As it is typical of Robinson’s fiction, the world building is energetic and requires masses of information that, without constituting info-dumps as they do in less gifted writers, do conceal in this case the centrality of the romantic motif. That 2312 is essentially a love story is not, after all, my own impression, but the author’s own. At least he declared at the time of publication that “I began with the idea of the romance at the center of the novel, between two people from Mercury and Saturn who were (surprise!) mercurial and saturnine in character, and thus a real odd couple”. The project of building their high-tech future civilization became necessarily “a major component of the novel, but it all began by trying to give the central romance its proper setting”, three hundred years into our future (in Susan De Guardiola “The Future Is Fun”. Publishers Weekly, 259.10, March 2012, 54).
To make matters even more complicated, Robinson’s odd couple is composed by two persons–Swan Er Hong from Mercury and Fitz Wahram from Titan, one of the moons of Saturn–who are not particularly likeable and who take a long time to have a series of almost random meetings transform into something that we might call with conviction romance. It took me two readings (the kind of exercise to which you only submit for academic reasons, or out of love for a writer) to grasp the mechanics of their love, and a third reading, which I finally totally enjoyed, to truly warm up to them. So, as you can see, I am recommending 2312 only to sf die-hards willing to go to all that trouble to enjoy an interplanetary tale of love.
What finally struck a chord with me is that Swan and Wahram have time and space as we don’t have, for theirs is a world in which longevity is expanding (reaching the 200 year mark is common) and in which none of members of the new post-human sub-species known as the Smalls have yet died of old age. The more years you live, as we’re beginning to learn in real-life, the harder it is to think of marriage for life. Swan’s grandmother Alex had lived with her partner for 70 years before she died (please recall that Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip of Edinburgh have been married for 73 years) but what do love and marriage mean when you’re life expectancy might be in the hundreds? As for space, which does not seem to trouble Swan and Wahram in their many comings and goings across the Solar System to which Robinson confines space travel, I was reminded of Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, but in reverse since 2312’s odd couple have “world enough and time” to let their love grow “Vaster than empires and more slow”. It doesn’t take Wahram “Two hundred to adore each breast” Swan possesses nor “thirty thousand to the rest” but about three years for him to declare his love, which (attention!) is but a blink of the eye, considering that he is 113 and she 137. The 24 year gap, however, is nothing in a context in which, as it appears, people remain young as they age, at least judging by Swan’s fierce love of physical adventure.
Now, here comes the really peculiar gender bit in Robinson’s world: longevity is significantly improved for the individuals he calls bisexual but are really hermaphrodites, possessing a male and a female sex (we call them usually intersexuals). This is the accidental result of therapies that have led “to very sophisticated surgical and hormonal treatments for interventions in utero, in puberty, and during adulthood. The XX/XY dichotomy still exists, but in the context of a wide variety of habit, usage, and terminology”. As Robinson adds, “principal categories of self-image for gender include feminine, masculine, androgynous, gynandromorphous, hermaphroditic, ambisexual, bisexual, intersex, neuter, eunuch, nonsexual, undifferentiated, gay, lesbian, queer, invert, homosexual, polymorphous, poly, labile, berdache, hijra, two-spirit”, with some “cultures deemphasizing gender (…) sometimes referred to as ursuline cultures”, a nice wink at Ursula K. Leguin’s masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) in which the Gethenians remain sexless and genderless except for a few days every cycle. As for Swan and Wahram, she is a woman-identified gynandromorph and he is a man-identified androgyne. Both have parented children as mothers and fathers.
Among readers that did not enjoy 2312, no complaint is louder than that of Robinson’s admirer and fellow sf author, Vandana Singh. She wrote in her blog a scathing indictment of this novel (“Why KSR’s 2312 is a Fail on Many Counts”. Antariksh Yatra: Journeys in Space, Time and the Imagination 19 March 2013, https://vandanasingh.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/why-ksrs-2312-is-a-fail-on-many-counts/) that, focused, above all, on the patronizing attitude that Swan and Wahram assume towards Earth. Swan’s misguided attempts to help Africans build homes fast with the help of AI-guided machinery is totally unacceptable in the context of the novel but Singh was incensed above all by how the couple and their extra-terrestrial allies decide to start a revolution on Earth to increase the safety of the other more prosperous planets. Singh denounces that this smacks of the worst colonial ideology, as Earthlings are treated as if “They aren’t people” but just “a monolithic mass of misery, beyond help”.
Her anger against what she calls Robinson’s betrayal of his post-colonial readers expands to his alleged mismanagement of the gender issues: “It is worth mentioning also that despite its apparent imaginativeness on the subject of human sexuality, gender and variations thereof, the book seems to idealize heterosexual mating, although between hermaphroditic beings. (Come on!) The romance between the two main characters, even independent of sexuality, does not come across as believable”. I was flabbergasted by this–not because Singh found the romance unappealing, as I found it when I first read the novel, but because she decried Robinson’s supposed idealization of heterosexual mating. Now, here’s the only sex scene in 2312. Judge for yourself: “Now it was said that their particular combination of genders was the perfect match, a complete experience, ‘the double lock and key’, all possible pleasures at once; but Wahram had always found it rather complicated. As with most wombmen, his little vagina was located far enough down in his pubic hair that his own erection blocked access to it; the best way to engage there once he was aroused was for the one with the big vagina to slide down onto the big penis most of the way, then lean out but also back in, in a somewhat acrobatic move for both partners. Then with luck the little join could be made, and the double lock and key accomplished, after which the usual movements would work perfectly well, and some fancier back-and-forths also. Swan turned out to be perfectly adept at the join, and after that she laughed and kissed him again. They warmed up pretty fast”.
Quoting Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” is not something I do frequently, for fear of misreading her opaque philosopher’s prose. But I found in its pages that given that heteronormativity is maintained by the ‘logic’ that ‘he’ is the penetrator and ‘she’ the penetrated “then, without this heterosexual matrix, as it were, it appears that the stability of these gendered positions would be called into question” (51, original italics). So, if you have a couple for whom sex consists of mutual penetration, I understand that this cannot be heterosexual mating, as Singh calls it, but something else. Furthermore, Butler notes, “The heterosexual logic that requires that identification and desire be mutually exclusive is one of the most reductive of heterosexism’s psychological instruments: if one identifies as a given gender, one must desire a different gender” (239, original italics). Neither for Wahram nor for Swan is their double sex and gendered identity an obstacle in this sense: both have had a diversity of sexual partners and both have, as noted, fathered children and been mothers. In fact, Robinson goes as far as to have Swan visit several times a former partner that goes by the gender-neutral name Zasha and for whom he never uses a personal pronoun. The child Swan and Zasha have parented together is a girl but though it appears that Swan was the father, this does not mean that Zasha, the alleged mother, is a woman. She could be another gynandromorph or a wombman like Wahram. Or someone else in gender terms altogether.
My personal perception is that Robinson is trying to do many things at the same time with Swan and Wahram. To begin with, I don’t think he offers conventional heterosexuality disguised as something else with this couple’s hermaphroditism but a comment on how perhaps only mutual penetration in intercourse could break heterosexuality away from heteronormativity. I am tempted to use the word heteroqueer for Swan and Wahram but I realize that it falls short since they are not really heterosexual: they are bisexual intersexuals, but I’m not sure whether there is a category for them, taking into account that each member of the couple identifies as either a man or a woman. Following this binary identification, they cannot be called gender-neutral or gender-fluid, so perhaps what Robinson is saying with all this is that not even three hundred years into the future will we have solved the matter of gender–though I hope we do sooner than that.
Actually, and this is the other big statement in the novel about sex, Robinson is saying that it just matters far less than love. In his otherwise quite insufferable philosophical novel On Love, Alain de Botton has some brilliant moments and, so, he says through the narrative voice of his main male character that love should be divided into mature and immature, categories by which he does not mean a difference connected with age but with idealization. Immature love is trapped by it, hence bound to be disappointing, yet this is the type we prefer. In contrast, “the philosophy of mature love is marked by an active awareness of the good and bad within each person, it is full of temperance, it resists idealization, it is free of jealousy, masochism, or obsession, it is a form of friendship with a sexual dimension, it is pleasant, peaceful, and reciprocated (and perhaps explains why most people who have known the wilder shores of desire would refuse its painlessness the title of ‘love’)” (185). I find that Swan and Wahran’s love is a great instance of mature love in this sense, though it is true that their romance is also mature because both are facing what could be called a second life, when most of the experiences of a habitual life have been gone through, and neither fully knows what to do with the years ahead.
When the word marriage starts looming in their horizon, Swan wonders what this old-fashioned patriarchal word may mean in a society in which, Robinson writes, “affection, child rearing, sex, lust, cohabitation, family, and friendship have all been delinked from each other and reconfigured as affect states” and in which individuals are free to engage in “line marriage, group marriage, polygamy, polyandry, panmixia, timed contracts, crèches, sexual friendships” in whatever capacity they choose. Yet, as Stephanie Coontz writes in Marriage a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (2005), marriage remains, though “optional and more brittle” still “the highest expression of commitment” (309). Perhaps it will be still that in 2312, on Mars, Mercury, Titan or wherever Swan and Wahram choose to live. Of course, there is no guarantee that a union across vast time and space can work better than a union among conventionally aged humans living together 24/7 but Robinson is throwing at us this peculiar ‘what if?’ and it is just fascinating to consider its implications – had we but world and time enough.

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/

AFTER WATCHING THE CROWN: WONDERING WHY I CARE…

Needing entertainment I chose to spend close to 40 hours watching the four seasons of Netflix’s The Crown (2016-). It has been impossible these last few weeks to ignore the abundant articles and blog posts on the alleged misrepresentation of the British Royal Family in the new fourth season, released in mid-November, as I just got curious. As you possibly know, so worried is the British Government about this matter that the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, asked Netflix last week to insert a warning at the beginning of each episode declaring that the series is intended to be fiction. I am under the impression that most spectators are aware that the series is not a documentary, but it seems there is some concern that the younger generation might take The Crown as a reliable history lesson. Naturally, there is also concern that the living persons represented in the Netflix series may be offended by their portraits, or even the object of social media attacks. The main worry in that sense is the Royal Family’s inability to protect Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, for the renewed wave of hatred against her as the late Princess Diana’s rival for the love of Charles, the Prince of Wales.
I recall in all detail the shock of hearing about Lady Diana Spencer’s tragic death in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris on Saturday evening, 31 August 31. I heard about the lethal car crash the following morning, when a neighbour told me, still amazed by the grim news. Diana was nothing to us, and I personally had no admiration for her, but she was an immense celebrity and still very young, just 36. There have been rumours to this day that MI5 had followed orders by Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, to have Diana killed, fearing that the by then divorced ex-wife of Prince Charles was about to marry Muslim Harrods’ heir Dodi al Fayed supposedly because she was pregnant by him. The supposition behind these rumours was that the Crown did not want the future King, William, to have a Muslim half-brother. I find all this conspiracy theory nonsense, though it appears that Diana really had the intention of marrying a Muslim, Pakistani surgeon Dr Hasnat Khan, and was dating al Fayed, who also died in the crash, just to make this other man jealous. That’s the thing about the Royals… they make you engage in gossip, whether you are naturally gossipy or not. Anyway, on the day news of Diana’s death reached me, it was clear as daylight that the car crash had been provoked by the relentless pursuit of the media. The paparazzi started pestering young Diana the day it was known she was dating Prince Charles and, I have no doubt whatsoever, eventually caused her death; it was manslaughter though not direct murder. I fail to understand why this type of harassment is tolerated when any ordinary citizen chased by another citizen has the right to report this to the Police as a crime.
On the whole, I have enjoyed far more the three seasons of The Crown previous to the point when my own memory of events started. Once Diana appeared in season four, memory and dramatization got entangled and I started questioning not so much the truthfulness of the series as finding it too focused on the triangle formed by the Princess, Charles, and Camilla. For the first three seasons, the series works in a far more appealing way, with each episode being a self-contained narration of a particular crisis. And in that sense in can be taken as an History lesson, not because it tells the truth but because it send you rushing to Wikipedia and other sources to check for yourself. On average, I have spent about 30 minutes reading online for each episode, sometimes finding that the events narrated were quite different but also learning about matters I knew nothing about, or just very little. Looking back, I find that episode 3 in season 3, dealing with the Aberfan disaster, which claimed in 1966 the lives of 28 adults and 116 children when a colliery spoil tip collapsed in this Welsh mining town, was not only extremely poignant but also, on the whole, a valuable lesson on the Monarch’s duties. Now we are used to the images of Kings and Queens comforting the families of the victims of disasters or terrorist attacks but at the time this was a novelty, and whether this is strictly how Queen Elizabeth II behaved or not, the reflection that show-runner Peter Morgan (also author of most scripts) presents is valuable. Of course, what he offers is an interpretation based on his own personal thesis about the events narrated but if his views have currently more weight than those of the British historians, then we need to consider why giving reliable History lessons to the general public is generally such a daunting task. In this time of fake news and when American historians are begging President Trump not to destroy crucial documentation when he leaves the White House, as it is assumed he will do, this is more important than ever.
Season four, I read, has been quite traumatic to watch for those Britons who recalled Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s mandate (1979-1990) in all detail. If you closed your eyes and listen to the marvellous Gillian Anderson, here playing Thatcher, you will certainly get goosebumps–at least, I did. Anderson has done better than Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady (2011). Yet, having spent 1985-86 in Britain as an au-pair, a period which included my stay for a few months in the borough of Finchley in North London, Thatcher’s own electoral district or constituency, I missed more about her mandate. Yes, the Falklands War was there (though no way she got into it distracted by her son Mark’s going missing during the Paris Dakar rally), and the final crisis that pushed her out of her long-held Prime Minister seat was there, but not the miners’ strike of 1984-85, the Poll Tax crisis and other events. Instead, we got the appalling soap opera that Charles and Diana’s romance was from its very onset.
The problem, perhaps, is that in current times each of us has become an amateur historian and we all have theories about what did or did not happen. I read an article by a woman journalist who claimed that now she finally understood Lady Diana, but to understand her I believe that the 2017 documentary Diana: In Her Own Words (also on Netflix) works much better. Not only because it reproduces interviews secretly taped to help journalist Andrew Morton to write his best-selling tribute Diana: Her True Story (1993) but because, ironically, it is easier to understand Prince Charles by listening to Diana’s own testimonial. The Crown argues that Diana was treated with total coldness by the Royal Family and by Charles himself, and so she is presented as their victim, but her own words present her as a victim of her own immaturity and of a grand vision of herself that Charles’ choice of her as his bride fulfilled, with horrific consequences. At many points of the documentary Diana is heard saying that she expected guidance from her husband, who was thirteen years her senior, but instead only got contempt for her immaturity. Peter Morgan has, in any case, a similar theory about Charles’s upbringing and treatment by his parents: that he received a cold-shoulder when he expected warmth and, yes, guidance. These were, then, two misguided individuals led to marry for the Crown’s convenience despite being woefully ill-suited to each other–which happens all the time, though in far less politically significant circumstances.
The history of the British monarchy as told in The Crown is, of course, a fascinating tale about how Western ideas of marriage have changed. Despite initial difficulties caused by Prince Phillip’s reluctant subordination to his wife, who is also his Queen, and his sense of emasculation as a man, the couple agree that divorce can never be an option. The real-life couple have been married for 73 years, and I must wonder whether theirs is one of the currently longest-lived marriages on Earth. The marriage may have survived with some infidelities on his side, as Peter Morgan hints in his series (though recall how Prince Phillip said it was hardly possible to commit adultery with a policeman shadowing his every move), but it is still there, whereas three of the couple’s four children have got divorced: Charles, but also Anne and Andrew; only Edward, who wed Sophie Rhys-Jones in 1999, is still married.
The episodes of The Crown dealing with Princess Margaret are in this sense pitiful to watch: her relationship with divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend ended when she chose her privileges as a Princess over a civil marriage to him and a private life away from England; later, she did marry in Westminster Abbey with the acquiescence of Crown and Church but her union with talented bisexual photographer Tony Armstrong-Jones was anything but placid. The message we are given is not really that the Royals are failing to do their duty by staying married, but that the changes in the idea of marriage, from life-long commitment accompanied by a high degree of personal compromise to a relationship supposed to provide sexual and sentimental fulfilment, has changed radically. Of course, the old-fashioned model may have worked for Elizabeth and Phillip, but we are now seeing in Spain how the long-lasting union of the still married Juan Carlos and Sofía, was a sham all along. The united front they presented was crucial for the transition into democracy, but the former King’s long stream of mistresses and his shady financial dealings is revealing to us not only the less palatable aspects of his personality but that Spain on the whole respected a man who did not respect the women in his life, beginning with his wife, nor his fellow Spanish citizens.
In all this matter of the Windsors, the most intriguing participant is, no doubt, Camilla Parker-Bowles, née Shand. In hindsight, it is quite clear that Charles and Camilla should have married not long after they met in the 1970s but most biographers agree that she was seen as a commoner (which Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle are) and was sexually too experienced (Lord Mountbatten advised Charles to marry a virgin); besides, as Charles’s junior by just one year she was ready to marry while he was told to sow his wild oats before wedding anyone. As we all know by now, in 1973 Camilla married Andrew Parker-Bowles, a man all accounts agree that she did love, and had to watch his ex-boyfriend marry the virginal Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. I was astonished to listen to Diana herself explain in the 2017 documentary that she had avoided having any boyfriends, and had kept herself “tidy,” just in case that became required. The girl, nicknamed Duch by her family, had fairy-tale dreams of marrying at Westminster Abbey one day, perhaps even being a Queen. I’m not saying that she was a calculating teen, but there is something unsettling about a woman that decided to remain a virgin till marriage in the late 1970s/early 1980s. That was unusual. Anyway, in past times, or not so past if we think of Queen Sofía, Diana could have played her assigned role as future Queen and tolerate Camilla as the official mistress. That, however, was not to be, and the irony is that now Camilla is finally Charles’ wedded wife. They married in 2005, in a civil ceremony (as Camilla is a divorcee), though Camilla is known as the Duchess of Cornwall, not the Princess of Wales because that was Diana’s title. If Charles is ever crowned, which seems doubtful, she would be Princess Consort, though it is known that the British heir wants his wife to be crowned Queen. I was going to write ‘fat chance’…
When the credits of the last episode rolled, my husband and I burst out laughing. He had joined me in the second season, attracted by the high quality of the dialogue written by Morgan and his other scriptwriters. The reason why we laughed is that we found ourselves at specific points feeling deep empathy for some of the characters, despite our republicanism and general mistrust of families who inherit absurd, anachronistic privileges. We have, then, embarrassed ourselves a little bit by following the lives of Queen Elizabeth’s family. I read that Prince William and Prince Harry are very much against the addition of a sixth season dealing with their lives to the planned five seasons, and I doubt that I’ll watch more of this show. To disconnect, in fact, I watched one episode of the hilarious, over-the-top The Windsors, also on Netflix, and a few episodes of the new Spitting Image. I must, in any case, take my hat off to British monarchy and British society in general for their ability to endure misrepresentation and satire with no major political damage. Here in Spain we are light years away from that.

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/

ON BULLIES AND NERDS: READING PIXAR’S BOY STORIES

I have now read Shannon Wooden and Ken Gillam’s Pixar’s Boy Stories: Masculinity in a Postmodern Age (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014) and feel even more disconcerted than I did last week about the boys in the audience for animated children’s movies. Interestingly, Wooden and Gillam are not only academic collaborators but the parents of two boys, their inspiration for writing the volume. We are all used to the idea that Disney is conservative and its filmic products a way of teaching little girls to stay within the confines of patriarchal heteronormativity (which is a biased view, as Amy M. Davis shows) and to the complementary idea that Pixar, bought by Disney in 2006, is the more progressive studio. Much to my surprise, Wooden and Gillam do a terrific, though controversial, demolition job of Pixar’s production until 2013 (Brave, A Bug’s Life, Cars, Cars 2, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Monsters Inc., Monsters University, Ratatouille, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3, Up! and WALL-E). Possibly only Coco out of the rest (Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, Finding Dory, Cars 3, Incredibles 2, Toy Story 4, Onward) contradicts their main arguments.

Wooden and Gillam establish, to begin with, that there is a worrying situation concerning boys as, the more girls advance, the more boys retreat. This is not because girls are actively pushing them out of any area but because American boys identify any area in which girls excel as a girlie area, which is slowly but constantly erasing their presence, out of their own accord, from many. This is a phenomenon we know well: the only degrees with a majority of young men are those in Engineering, which does not seem to interest girls so much. In the rest, the girls are the majority and still gaining ground. Borrowing their theoretical framework for masculinity mainly from sociologist Michael Kimmel, Wooden and Gillam paint a bleak picture of contemporary US masculinity, split between the bullies and the nerds (as I noted in my previous post). The patriarchal ‘boy police’, which consists not only of direct bullying but of general social pressure to avoid anything connected with femininity out of a combination of misogyny and homophobia, is preventing American boys from receiving the right guidance to become well-adjusted adults. Wooden and Gillam candidly grant that whereas girls are now well liked “At the heat of the boy crisis, it seems, is the hard truth that we don’t like them very much anymore” (17, original italics). I was surprised to read that this extends to some US couples actively trying to select the sex of their babies, preferring girls.

Using Jesse Klein’s The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America (New York: New York UP, 2012), Wooden and Gillam try to make sense of what has happened to boys for US society not to like them. I am not sure that I agree with all their arguments but the changes in masculinity, they say following Klein, have to do with the emergence of the concept of “body capital”, which has facilitated “the jock cult” (and on the side of the girls the cookie cutter looks of the teen influencers). Whereas in the past any classroom would afford social acceptance to a variety of boys, from the popular jock to the socially awkward nerd, passing through the geek, the super-achiever and the B-grade boys, now all classrooms are radically split between the jock and his cronies and the rest, all pushed into the nerd category by the jock’s bullying. This is a sort of revenge of the jocks: told in the 1990s that body matters more than brain by the combination of shallow lad/frat guy culture and celebrity culture, the jock demands a position of prominence he never had by demeaning those who do not possess his body capital. What he sees in society, with the cult of male sports celebrities, confirms his view of school social hierarchy. The boy that excels in matters which are not sports learns to conceal his abilities so as not to attract the jock’s bullying. The boy that has no special qualities tends to side with the bully, either overtly or covertly for “even young boys know how to read bodies as signifiers of social status” (35), and the one with the ‘right body’ is, definitely, the jock with the six-pack abs.

According to Wooden and Gillam, “The Pixar films, for all their wholesome surface messages, do nothing to rewrite the bully script by which many American kids suffer” (80). Their narratives register, in fact, “disapproval of the extraordinary” (22). They endorse the homesteader ideal of the past which “privileges self-effacement, obedience, and emotional stoicism, hardly healthy values for contemporary boys” (15) and preach that “Maturing out of boyhood requires suppression and conformity” (25). By joining in the “traditional celebration of physical brawn” they “tacitly endorse the social hierarchy that perpetuates our rampant bully culture” (52). This is done mainly by presenting the “gifted and talented” as “ludicrous, creepy, or downright dangerous” (96) and by characterizing them, not the jocks, as the villains even from childhood. The model, they hint, is that of the Columbine High School massacre: the child nerd, or geek, is ostracized and bullied, and left with no parental guidance, and he grows up to be a resentful teen school shooter seeking respect in real life, and a villain (or a loser) in the Pixar films. Wooden and Gillam also note that the worst villains are the guys that disrupt the workings of the market on which companies like Pixar and Disney depend. “Rather than asking the community which values should be taught, the corporation teaches the community those lessons that work in its favor” (130), they conclude.

I am not sure that I completely understand what Wooden and Gillam are arguing, for I do not see the alternative they propose and I do not see the boys in the audience (are the Pixar films for the bullies? Do they go to the cinema? Is going to the cinema nerdish?). If I follow them correctly, the authors want for the boys what studios are beginning to offer the girls: stories in which being outstanding following positive values is rewarded and which offer a lesson in how to mature into being a well-adjusted woman (man in the boys’ case). I am just wondering whether this is indeed what girls are being offered…

Take Frozen, the biggest hit with girls in recent years. Princess Elsa has a unique gift by which she dominates ice but she is forced to conceal that gift because her power is presented to her as a danger to the persons in her circle and to the community. Elsa almost becomes a villain, as she is in the original fairy tale, but learns to ‘let it go’, turn her fear of herself into a positive understanding of power, and enjoy the love of her sister Anna. For all that she is rewarded and becomes the respected, celebrated Queen of Arundel. Yet, in Frozen 2, which I initially loved but now I have serious misgivings about, Elsa feels again unhappy as, somehow, her powers are too constrained in her new role as Queen. The story leads to her gradually shedding away any duties she has towards her community, including passing the crown to Anna. Elsa moves elsewhere to a place that looks very much like Superman’s fortress of solitude to do… what? I thought she was going to enjoy complete freedom but now I read that as solipsism. Or even worse: social limbo. I recently read that, originally, Elsa died at the end of the film, which is very scary for even though this is a Disney film it responds to the Pixar model which Wooden and Gillam criticise: whoever is different needs to be isolated or suppressed. There are happier films with girls, like Disney’s Moana (2016), but Frozen also needs to be read from this dark angle.

I think that the Pixar film that most worries Wooden and Gillam is Monsters University, which most clearly corresponds to the ‘bully society’ pattern they describe, with Sulley as the jock and Mike as the bullied nerd (though my impression is that this is a much inferior film to Monsters Inc., in which Sulley learns valuable lessons about parenting and friendship). I find, however, that children’s animation moves on very quickly and the gaps noted by Davis in relation to Disney and by Wooden and Gillam in relation to Pixar are no longer there. We need to consider, besides, the DreamWorks films (Shrek, Trolls…) and other studios such as Blue Sky (of Ice Age fame).

Anyway, Wooden and Gillam make little of some of the Pixar films that have a happy end for the nerdish male character and I mean here specifically Ratatouille written by Brad Bird (also the director) from a storyline by Bird himself, with Jan Pinkava (also co-director) and Jim Capobianco. I am not very sure about how to read this film, which tells the story of how, defying patriarchal authority, the provincial French rat Remy manages to fulfil his dream: cooking in an haute cuisine Paris restaurant. He does so by establishing a singular partnership with the hopeless garbage boy, Linguini, who little by little learns to appease the bullies in the kitchen, be his own man and, of course, interest the strong female character, aspiring chef Colette. The message here is that, um…, even if you are the lowliest of the low as rat or boy you do have a right to fulfil your dreams which does sound positive to me. The bullies are put in their place and even charmed and, in short, the nerds here triumph. And we love it.

Coco (2017) is even clearer in its anti-bully, pro-nerd message. There have been very serious concerns about whether this film by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, from a story by them with Jason Katz and Matthew Aldrich plagiarises the Mexican film The Book of Life (2014) directed by Jorge R. Gutiérrez, from his own screenplay with Doug Langdale. Unkrich and Molina have claimed that the films just overlap in their visual treatment of Mexican popular culture but I have my suspicions that there is much direct borrowing of visual motifs. The plots, however, could not be more different. The Book of Life tells an embarrassingly cliched story about Manolo, a young man whose father wants him to be a bullfighter but who wants to be a musician and who is involved in amorous competition with his manly rival Joaquín for señorita María. In Coco Miguel, a younger boy than Manolo, also wants to be a musician against his family’s wishes but here the similarities end.

That his family are shoemakers instead of bullfighters is a relatively unimportant matter; what matters is that Miguel’s bildungsroman passes through understanding who the bully is in his personal story and through paying homage to a nerdish ancestor. Since he is universally celebrated in his native Mexico Miguel deduces for a series of wrong reasons that the late star singer Ernesto de la Cruz must be his great-grandfather, when in fact he turns out to be, once he meets him in the land of the dead, a most horrendous bully. The long-lost father that Miguel’s abuela Mamá Coco misses so much is a very different man, and actually a direct victim of Ernesto’s violence. The film is called Coco because what is at stake how the abuela’s gradual loss of memory makes Miguel’s identification of his real great-grandfather so complicated. The title tries not to spoil the film’s surprise discovery of who her father and Miguel’s great-grandfather really was but it might as well be called The Lost One. Talented Miguel, who has inherited his musical gifts from this man, not only vindicates him but also gets rid of his own bully, his Abuelita, who wrongly believes that her grandfather, the lost man, deserted his wife and daughter (Mamá Coco). Coco teaches boys in the audience, in short, to oppose the bully and stand up for themselves, which is what Wooden and Gillam find missing in the other Pixar films.

I haven’t seen yet Pixar’s most recent film, Onward (2020), about two elf siblings in search of their lost father but an enthusiastic IMDB spectator praises the studio for “providing rich a brotherly relationship” as Frozen did for girls. What I am wondering is whether the boys are there, getting the message, or elsewhere… perhaps playing videogames…

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/

LEST WE FORGET: THE 1980s AIDS CRISIS AND RANDY SHILTS’S AND THE BAND PLAYED ON

‘Lest We Forget’ is a phrase from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Recessional” (1897) habitually quoted in war remembrance events. May 8 2020 was the 75th anniversary of the Nazi rendition but World War II is not the war I have in mind today. Contradicting my own injunctions to only read positive, ideally utopian books, I have spent many hours this past two weeks reading one of the most impressive American non-fiction works: Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On (1987). This is a terrific account of the early phase of the AIDS plague, covering from the first cases until the public announcement in 1985 that star actor Rock Hudson was a victim of the disease. Shilts, an investigative journalist employed by the San Francisco Chronicle and a variety of Californian TV networks, wrote the book with passion and anger. A gay man himself, he waited to take the HIV test until the massive volume was published, and died of AIDS-related complications in 1994.

Shilts was the author of The Mayor of Castro Street (1982), the biography of Harvey Milk which was one of the sources for Oscar-award winner documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), directed by Rob Epstein. Gus Van Sant’s film Milk (2008) was based on Epstein’s documentary. A while ago I wrote a book chapter comparing documentary and film, and explaining the connections between homophobia and patriarchal masculinity (the Spanish version is available online here https://ddd.uab.cat/record/147464). The point I made was that Dan White, Milk’s fellow supervisor in the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (or town council), did not murder him and Mayor George Moscone simply because he was a homophobe but because he felt disempowered by Milk’s election. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay officer ever elected in the USA and when White, a classic patriarchal man, lost his position as supervisor because of his own ineptitude, he blamed both Milk and Moscone for his disempowerment. Moscone’s death was basically read as collateral damage, though, by an angry gay community that has since then honoured Milk as a martyr. His death in 1978 was the catalyst for the beginning of a time of enormously increased visibility for the San Francisco gay community, which knew how to channel their anger into positive activism.

Shilts’s And the Band Played On reads as a second act in the tragedy that Milk’s death was. As he narrates, the new happier period in the life of gay men lasted for just very few years until AIDS emerged. Shilts’s volume, based on hundreds of interviews that he himself carried out, has an immense cast of (real-life) characters, among which several are members of the Harvey Milk Club, a referent for gay activism in the Castro neighbourhood. What Shilts narrates is the story of how the gay community resisted in a suicidal way any measure that might curb down their newly found sexual freedom. Homophobia was much more intense in the 1980s than it is now and many gays feared being ostracized as lepers by the health safety measures dictated by mostly homophobic public officers. The disease, in short, spread far more than it should have if only many gay men had listened to doctors’ advice and refrained from engaging in dangerous sexual practices. Of course, as Shilts notes with bitterness, the advice came too late, when the virus had been probably circulating for years undetected (he dates the first case back to 1976).

I knew, more or less, of the efforts made by the gay communities of San Francisco and New York, mainly, to organize themselves and work on promoting not only safe sex but also the use of innovative treatment. The book is very critical of how irresponsible personal behaviour contributed to spreading HIV (though Shilts is very unfair to Gaetan Dugas, the Québécois Canadian flight attendant that was never really Patient One). This is an important lesson to apply to our Covid-19 crisis: disobeying health measures is lethal, and personal freedom should always be second to safety. Of course, the main difference between AIDS and Covid-19 is that the former was initially associated to gay men, which caused homophobia to increase even further, whereas Covid-19 is not associated to any specific human group. The lesson, anyway, is still valid. It must be noted that Shilts mentions several times how AIDS was never seen as a gay disease in France, where researchers at the Pasteur Institute first isolated HIV. They saw the disease as a sexually transmitted infection which affected both gays and heterosexuals, and which could also be transmitted through other contacts involving blood (transfusions, sharing needles for IV drug use, drawing nourishment through a placenta from an infected mother in the case of foetuses).

As a researcher, though in the Humanities, I worry very much about how scientists do research in critical situations like the onset of AIDS or of Covid-19. Shilts has two main arguments to develop about this. On the one hand, he demonstrates how President Reagan’s administration (1980-1988) did all it could to hinder research for its own homophobic reasons and because Reagan did not want to lose his most conservative voters in the 1984 re-election. Funding only started to materialise when it became evident that AIDS was never a gay-exclusive disease. On the other hand, Shilts exposes how academic squabbling wasted precious years. Academic authorities withdrew funding and shunned researchers working on AIDS for purely homophobic reasons. Yet what seems to me most intolerable is how the peer reviewing system slowed down progress and how certain scientific stars placed their personal careers before the care of AIDS sufferers. Shilts always defends the idea that Dr. Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi were the discoverers of HIV, siding with those who accused Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Institutes of Health of somehow having used the LAV French samples sent to him as the basis for his discovery of the HLVT-III virus (both LAV and HLVT-III were actually the same virus, later called HIV). Gallo was left out of the 2008 Nobel Prize award, which went to the French virologists.

There is a passage in And the Band Played On which, as a researcher, I found very scary. The French team isolated the virus in 1983, one year before Gallo. They did try to publish their research in the USA but, Shilts writes, “they were inexperienced at writing papers for American scientific journals. They did not present their data as well as American scientists. The Pasteur’s primary spokesman, Dr. Luc Montagnier, lacked the charisma and forcefulness of Gallo”. Peer reviewing, Shilts notes, was also used to prevent the French team from publishing, with prestige journals using reviewers connected with Gallo’s employer institution or others with a known animosity against Montagnier. That this kind of corruption could happen made me even more indignant than the shenanigans of the Reagan Government, for these were no surprise. Call me naïve but I should have thought that national or personal arrogance should play no role in science at times of crisis. Reading Shilts is not at all reassuring in that sense. I would expect personal irresponsibility and political interests to be the cause of many deaths, as we are seeing in the case of Covid-19, but the details of how some scientists misbehaved in the early 1980s in relation to AIDS are simply revolting.

Just this morning I received the Catalan bulletin for research, this time a monographic issue on Covid-19. As you may imagine, and I assume this is the same all over the world, the bulletin is pretty bombastic about the magnificent work of local researchers. I am sure that they are doing their best but what irks me is the nationalist angle at a time when this is the last thing we need. There are, at least, two news items about international matters publicizing the existence of the Covid-19 Clinical Research Coalition and the Coronavirus Research and Innovation Portal of the EU. More importantly, the bulletin includes a short piece defending the need for international open research, which highlights the Global Research on Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) portal run by WHO, and other initiatives mainly referring to open access repositories, among them Elsevier’s Novel Coronavirus Information Center. I cannot say, though, whether publications available there, like The Lancet or Cell Press, have made their peer reviewing processes more agile. Shilts describes the overwhelming frustration of early AIDS researchers forced by indispensable journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine to wait a minimum of three months before publication (remember these were pre-internet times) and not to leak any information to the media under penalty of article withdrawal. The media, I must complain, should be giving us information about all this: how science is being run right now, and not just the endless lists of figures which in the end mean very little.

And the Band Plays On narrates in the last segment the process by which the first antibody tests were put on the market. This will ring familiar: the tests were not made available to all who needed them, they were not 100% reliable, and did not necessarily result in the isolation of infected patients. Like Covid-19, HIV can be carried asymptomatically (the virus, it was determined, may take years to attack the immune system) which is why testing is so important. In case anyone thinks that HIV is under control, think twice: 700000 persons died last year of this disease all over the world. The number of new infections has gone down in most countries (South Africa remains a hot spot) and the rate of survival is much higher, with HIV carriers keeping the disease in check for decades. It must be noted, though, that only two persons have been cured thanks to stem cell transplants “from donors with a genetic mutation present in less than one percent of Europeans that prevents HIV from taking hold” (https://www.sciencealert.com/hiv-cured-london-man-still-has-no-trace-of-infection-nearly-3-years-after-treatment). The second patient was pronounced healthy just last March. Note that here is no vaccine yet, after 35 years of quite dynamic research. 35 million people have died of AIDS since 1981. This week a series of clinical trials have started in different labs of different nations, which sounds promising; there is talk of a functional anti-Covid-19 vaccine for 2021. Apart from questions of funding (remember covidiot President Trump withdrew US funding from WHO?), researchers are now facing ethical dilemmas such as whether it is legitimate to infect healthy persons for the experiments (logically, you could not do that with HIV), because there is always a risk of death. One hundred vaccines are currently being developed (see https://www.bioworld.com/COVID19products#vac). Now, try not to think of the still missing vaccines for AIDS.

Shilts explains that US citizens were shocked into the realization that AIDS was there to stay when they saw images of Rock Hudson’s ravaged physique in his last public appearance (on a TV show with former co-star in many films, Doris Day). Hudson still denied he was suffering from AIDS but his death in October 1985 was used to instil into the nation a widespread fear of the new plague, for good and for bad reasons. We have not gone yet through a Rock Hudson moment, that is to say, we still lack an image so potent that we finally understand what Covid-19 is about. We are being fed images of happy survivors and of hard-working doctors and nurses, but I don’t think we really understand that this coronavirus is potentially lethal for all, hence the daily acts of disobedience.

The US media, Shilts complains, were guilty of misinforming his fellow citizens about the urgency and gravity of the AIDS crisis but he is himself an outstanding example of the best investigative journalism. Read his book, pay him homage, and hope that current journalists are also doing their best.

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

COMBATING SPIRITUAL NUMBNESS: COVID-19 AND THE NEED FOR UTOPIA

This is my forty-third day at home, which means that technically I have passed quarantine, a period which used to mean forty days, and not as it does now a variable period of time extended by Government decrees. Today, Sunday, children have been allowed to take a one-hour walk for the first time in weeks, and this feels as a turning point of sorts, even though there is no way we can predict what lies ahead of us. Minister for Universities Manuel Castells announced this week that the new university year should be started in September with caution, taking into account the high probability of a second bout of infection. He spoke of classrooms that should be occupied only partially to guarantee social distancing (why is this not called personal distancing?) and that would be disinfected between sessions. This is so impractical and preposterous that I think Castells meant that in practice we’ll stay online for at least one more semester. I personally prefer that to taking overcrowded trains to travel to UAB, or speaking to colleagues and students from a distance of six feet, and wearing a facemask.

For those of us fortunate enough to continue working at home, this is a ghostly crisis. Life maintains a certain level of normality until the ‘other’ world appears. This consists of the persons working to guarantee our everyday routine: supermarket cashiers, bakers, food market sellers, sanitation workers, workers at factories and fields, employees of tech companies that guarantee we can work online, those who make sure we can still get water, power, gas, petrol… etc. For them, the changes caused by Covid-19 must be very different from what they are for persons like myself, but, then, where are they supposed to discuss them? Twitter, I guess. And, then, there’s the really scary ‘other’ world, the one we see grossly misrepresented in the media and, if we are less fortunate, in person in the hospitals. It’s hard to imagine the level of terror that doctors and nurses, patients and relatives, have been putting up with while the rest of us discuss the boredom caused by lockdown or the limitations of the Netflix algorithm. That, I think, is a key problem: the experience we have of Covid-19 is communal as no other experience can be except a war but, as it also happens in wars, personal experience is very different. Some self-isolate in total comfort and will suffer no significant trouble, for others the virus is the end of life as they knew it before, or the end of life full stop.

Raül Magí, who writes the blog Les Rades Grises: Una Mirada a la Literatura Fantástica, asked me recently to write a few words about the future of dystopia after Covid-19. You can find my contribution and many others by persons I admire very much in the Catalan SF/fantasy circuit here: https://lesradesgrises.com/2020/04/19/com-seran-les-noves-distopies/. I believe that making predictions of any kind makes very little sense. Nobody making predictions about 2020 back in December 2019 would have imagined the catastrophe we are now going through (even though Wuhan was already in deep trouble). On the other hand, it takes time for traumatic experience to be fully understood and even though we now rush to discuss new events as soon as they begin to happen (Netflix already has a documentary series about Covid-19), what this crisis really means will only be grasped perhaps in the 2030s, supposing it is over by then. The best fiction and autobiography about WWI started appearing in 1929; the Holocaust only became the topic of countless publications from the 1960s onward. I told Raül this and then I added that I hope to see many utopian fantasies of reconstruction (Slavoj Žižek has already written a book proposing a new form of communism, though I’m not sure I would support that) and also an end to dystopia because, I wrote, “this is a genre we can only enjoy as long as we enjoy a safe, comfortable lifestyle, which is what we have lost now”.

I am very much aware that this lifestyle has been so far enjoyed by a privileged minority in the world, to which I belong as an academic but also as a citizen of the Western world (though I’m not forgetting the millions of fellow-citizens who have lost all safety nets). The crisis caused by Covid-19 has so many angles that covering all of them is practically impossible but try to imagine what it is like to be a refugee, a person in a war zone, homeless or poor and then have the virus threaten your life on top of that. What is at stake right now for us, the privileged, is, leaving aside the brutal economic impact for all, a sort of spiritual numbness. Spain has been very hard hit not only because the early signs of the pandemic were disregarded (that has happened in many other countries anyway) but also because our lifestyle involves plenty of personal contact. We touch each other a lot in comparison to other cultures, tend to be gregarious, and think of our lives as extended networks beyond home. Now we are asked to obey personal distance and that is a main ingredient of what I am calling spiritual numbness. Online contact has many advantages but it is not the same as face-to-face contact. What the virus has brought is a total suspicion of proximity which must be already having a devastating impact on intimacy at all levels. If the Government decreed tomorrow that we can go back to normal in about one month, I fear that my own personal sense of abnormality will persist and it will take me time to get close to people again. On the other hand, I think of the Germans demanding that the Government of the Balearic Islands opens up the territory to tourism again this summer and I realize that their selfishness is also part of this spiritual numbness I am describing. Who are they to say that our lockdown measures are unnecessary, I wonder? How can they be so unfeeling?

The other reason why I dislike dystopia, apart from its inherent hypocrisy about privilege, is its destructiveness. What we’re going through is a mild form of dystopia in comparison to what a far more aggressive virus could have caused; a scientist recently claimed that Covid-19 is but a poor apprentice in comparison to HIV, though, of course what makes the new coronavirus so effective is its very simple strategy of contagion. Anyway, in dystopian fiction when a society is devastated and needs to focus on pure survival, it soon becomes apparent that all the skills developed since prehistory are useless. Only hunters, farmers and, if the post-apocalyptic society is lucky, low-level technicians are necessary (I mean smiths, weavers, and so on). In dystopia doctors become gradually useless because they require high-tech machinery; you only need to think of how the lack of basic protective gear has resulted in the death of many doctors and nurses, and how many patients have been lost for lack of respirators. Dystopia is a most potent generator, in short, of spiritual numbness for it makes you feel that if worse comes to worse, we’re done for. It also makes you feel your own intrinsic worthlessness. Why should I survive? Who needs academics in dystopia? What can culture contribute? One thing I regret about this crisis, though, is that it is not having the impact I expected in questioning celebrity. Musicians, for instance, are proving very convincingly that they do have a place even in current dystopia, but not even Covid-19 is helping us to get rid of all the superfluous celebrities that still persist in sharing their parasitical lives. Of course, they might think the same about me and my academic peers.

Utopian narrative of the kind I hope authors feel motivated to write, has the opposite effect: instead of making you feel useless, it asks how you might contribute to building a new society and it provides ideas about how to do it. This is why we hardly have any utopian narrative. Writing dystopia is very easy because it consists of imagining how a privileged world can be dismantled layer by layer: the aliens invade, the climate changes, a plague goes rampant, the economy collapses and one by one the comforts that we know vanish, from voting in democratic elections to eating every day. Dystopia consists of thinking how things could be worse, but for that things have to be good enough, otherwise the loss is not felt, the suspension of disbelief does not work. Many are reading or watching dystopia now for the sake of comparison (was the Spanish flu of 1918 worse than Covid-19?) but this is, I insist, numbing. All energies should go now to taking advantage of this horror and imagine a new way of doing things. Many others are asking for utopia now but I think that the impulse could be best consolidated by potent new utopian fiction. Otherwise, we’ll go back to that false sense of security that made us doubt climate change or the use of vaccines. That recent but already lost time when we felt that we could afford the luxury of enjoying dystopia because it would not happen in our lifetime. Well: here it is, now see how you like it.

Covid-19, I insist, is killing many persons and will kill many more but, above all, it might kill our ability to act in humane ways, which is a result of all-pervasive dystopia. My pharmacist told me that considering the world’s population (7.5 billion) and the average mortality rate, we should expect at least 3,000,000 deaths. The 1918 flu, caused by a virus of avian origins, is estimated to have caused 50 million victims; WWI caused about 40. Those 90 million are the breeding ground for what came next: spiritual numbness so deep that fascism grew out of it and then WWII. 3 million, even 10 million, might seem a relatively low figure but it is gigantic if we think of how unnecessary this crisis is. By this I mean that this is the 21st century and we should be moving towards a utopia with no biological warfare (supposing the virus came from that), minimal animal farming and no wet markets (if eating a wild animal was the cause), and little interfering with nature (third hypothesis). We humans are naturally vulnerable to infection and viruses appear to be far cleverer than we had assumed, but we have increased our vulnerability a hundred fold by following spiritually numb, selfish ideas in our relationship with our so-called civilization. Now we’re paying the price of having abandoned utopia because, guess what?, it is supposed to be boring… It is supposed to be participative, and that is the real reason why it has been abandoned both in narrative and as a political project (with the main exception, I think of feminism).

I hope that by next year, I can reread this and laugh at my fears and anxieties because Covid-19 will have disappeared, or be at least under control. I also hope that by then we will already see a change in the perception of dystopia and utopia, with the latter beginning to dominate over the former. That however may be in itself just a utopian hope, in the sense of pure wishful thinking.

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