DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY: THE MAIN ACADEMIC KEYWORDS TODAY

In a recent teachers’ meeting the pressing issue of students’ low attendance this last semester came up. I have not been teaching but my colleagues tell me less than 50% of the students have attended classes, which is even lower than what I saw in the first semester, when we were all still wearing facemasks and enduring the discomfort of the windows open in winter for ventilation to protect us against Covid-19.

The causes for the students’ absence from the classrooms, for this is a general problem not limited to a particular degree, are hard to pinpoint since, logically, you cannot speak with persons who are not there and asking their peers about their absence is useless. Those whose job is to speak to students claim that the missing students are generally disinterested in classroom activities; they find lectures and listening to their peers’ oral presentations boring, which, anyway, is not a new phenomenon. What is new is that about 20% of all the students in my university have notified to the corresponding office that they are unable to attend classes because they are suffering from mental health issues connected with depression and anxiety. These two words have become in this way the most important keywords in our academic life.

Teachers are also depressed and suffering from anxiety, though arguably age and experience give us a resilience the younger generation might lack, at least among the ranks of the more privileged tenured teachers. The younger staff, employed mostly as part-time, temporary adjuncts even when they are doctors embarked in serious academic careers, are also suffering from depression and anxiety caused by the same factor that overwhelms the students: lack of prospects. As things are now, students are being asked to make an effort to train for their professional future by staff who are themselves trapped in a career limbo which is not being dissolved fast enough. My university is boasting these days that they are offering between 50 and 70 new full-time positions every year (most with a five-year contract) but even though my Department has been allocated three for 2022-23, two have come to give adjuncts with an academic career spanning about twenty years the chance to be tenured (of course, somebody else might win the positions after the public examination). As for the colleague who has retired, her full time position has been transformed into a set of three associates, thus saving the institution about half her salary. Depression and anxiety indeed.

Among the older staff, those of us who have been around for thirty years or more, I see mostly disappointment and tiredness. We, lucky tenured, full-time teachers can retire after the age of 60 provided we have been active for 30 years and taking into account that our pension will be reduced in relation to the full-pension which is only earned at 67. The colleague who has retired in my Department is precisely in that situation. I’ve heard of many others who have taken early retirement at a notable economic loss because they could cope no longer with teaching the depressed, anxious students now in our classes and with the pressures put on us by the bureaucratization of the university. I was under the impression that only the teachers less interested in research were retiring or thinking of doing so, but this week a dear friend who has published a marvellous stream of excellent research told me that he is considering retirement, too. He is tired, a word I hear among the older staff with monotonous regularity. I myself feel very tired, and if I am coping this is because I have a low teaching workload and can finally write books. I still have a decade to go, at least, and there are days when that feels a very tall order. At the same time, I look forward to continue publishing once retired, in, hopefully, peace and quiet.

The causes for the general depression and anxiety are transparent: neoliberalism has created a low-pay service economy which only offers bad jobs to the young; climate change threatens to wipe off life on Earth in about fifteen years at the most, and fascism is rising everywhere, undoing human rights which have taken more than 200 years to secure. As if Covid-19 was not enough, Ukraine has been suffering a horrifying invasion for almost four months which, besides, might result in the death by famine of millions in Africa and Asia who depend on Ukrainian grain to survive. Vladimir Putin declared last week that the reign of the West is over, to be replaced by a new era, which I would not mind at all if this was an era of true international democracy and cooperation. I don’t think he meant that. These days I have found myself encouraging my eldest niece along the three days which her university entrance examination has lasted, and while I did that I was feeling horribly anxious about the kind of future she and her generation will find. I know that many of us in our fifties and sixties are thinking that we’ve had a relatively good life (I won’t mention the constant fear of illness or that we’ll never get a pension) but we tremble for what the future might bring to the young, at least I do. So, yes, I understand that they are feeling depressed and anxious, and that they see no point in education, even though they know that without attending university their prospects will be even lower.

The situation is objectively bad but I am also wondering whether it feels subjectively bad because our ability to cope (our resilience) has been undermined by a philosophy of happiness that requires being constantly satisfied. I myself have no personal or professional reasons to feel dejected, but this is how I would describe my state of mind since at least 2008 when the financial crisis erupted. I am not clinically depressed but, like many other of my fellow citizens, I find it increasingly difficult to watch the news (not because I don’t care for the others but because I do care) and even to cope with minor personal crises that are not really that important. I am, besides, as a Gender Studies scholar, sick and tired of the pressures from the left and from the right, to the point that I am considering giving up altogether and writing about other matters, once I’m done with my next book. I am, therefore, trying to understand whether beyond the actual problems the widespread depression and anxiety have to do with the disappointment of a promise of personal and collective happiness, made perhaps in the 1960s, that has failed to materialize.

Trying to understand if that is the case, I’ve read back-to-back, quite by chance, two books that are in deep dialogue with each other. For reasons I cannot explain, I had not read yet Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), originally titled Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager. Possibly, I was under the wrong impression that this would be a dry philosophical book, when it is a memoir of Frankl’s harrowing experience of being a prisoner of the Nazis in diverse camps. The other book is Manufacturing Happy Citizens: How the Science and Industry of Happiness Control our Lives (2018) by Eva Illouz and Eric Cabanas, originally published in French in the same year as Happycratie: comment l’industrie du bonheur a pris le contrôle de nos vies. I was reading this book and thinking of how it connected with the other when I came across a quotation from Frankl, which proved there is indeed a connection.

Frankl (1905-1997) was a prestigious neuropsychiatrist in Vienna, when in 1942 he and his family were imprisoned and eventually separated. During the three years of his imprisonment, he managed to make notes about his mental condition and that of his fellow prisoners, finding solace in the hope of meeting his young wife again without knowing she had already died. Frankl’s memoirs are different from those of other Holocaust survivors precisely because he has an extremely lucid understanding of resilience, a word that is now trending as much as depression and anxiety. It would be obscene to speak of happiness in the context of the camps and what Frankl describes is a situation in which the Jewish prisoners adapted as well as they could to the erosion of their humanity because they placed resilience before any other value. Their thoughts, so to speak, whether neither positive (that would be foolish) nor negative (that would be suicidal) but focused on surviving one step at a time. Frankl claims that the most resilient prisoners were motivated by the idea of something left behind which needed to be continued, whether this was a career and a marriage as in his own case, or other questions. This is why he explains that for many the darkest period came after their release when they found that the life whose memories had been sustaining them in the camp no longer existed. Many also suffered, I will add, because their accounts of extreme suffering were not believed. Frankl’s volume was translated into English in 1959, which suggests that for about fifteen years survivors’ accounts were of little interest at least in the Anglophone area of the world.

Illouz and Cabanas cite Frankl as part of their efforts to demolish positive psychology, the American school of thought claiming that psychology should not be limited to treating the mentally ill but should provide everyone with tools to feel mentally stable, and, ideally, happy. They complain, very rightly, that neoliberalism has turned positive psychology with the acquiescence of their inventors into a tool to make individuals responsible for their welfare, thus avoiding the structural issues which are at the root of much human suffering. Within the parameters established by the neoliberal ‘happicracy’, the students are not depressed and anxious because the present and the future are bleak, but because they are mismanaging their mental health. Many of the ‘happicratic’ gurus base their careers on teaching persons who are not mentally ill to feel bad because they are not working adequately towards happiness. This would be the equivalent of telling the Jewish prisoners that the problem is not the camp but their negative approach to the situation. Resilience is in many ways part of positive thinking, but the difference is that whereas true resilience refers to the ability to cope with negative situations, of which life has many, resilience is now being sold as a tool to secure personal happiness against all odds, which is not. At the same time, if the absurd promise that you can lead a life free of care (for this is what happiness is about) had never been made, depression and anxiety would not be so widespread.

For me the main conundrum is why so many whose lives are quite good in comparison to the lives of the many disenfranchised persons in the world, in the West and everywhere else, suffer from depression and anxiety. I am a confirmed atheist but I tend to agree with the Christian view that life is to be endured, not enjoyed (or only enjoyed in special moments). Life needs not be a valley of tears and, certainly, what angers me most is that it could be much more satisfactory if we respected human rights and did away with the patriarchal hunger for power. Yet, I find the declaration in the American constitution that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” not only hypocritical but also a poor foundation for a communal life of peace and justice. Perhaps if all the negative energy consumed by depression and anxiety could be channelled towards a demand for social and personal justice we would feel better, but as Illouz and Cabanas suggest, that’s the whole point of neoliberalism: making us focus on our personal happiness (or lack of it) as the world remains in the hands of the few that are destroying it for their own personal gain. And, presumably, happiness.

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

A PHANTOM GENRE: THE STRANGE CASE OF THE TECHNOTHRILLER

The one who should be writing this post today is my PhD student Pascal Lemaire since he has chosen to deal with the technothriller as his topic of research. However, I am myself curious about some of the points he is raising about this genre, so here I am.

Back in 2014 Pascal published in Hélice an excellent article which is the basis of his dissertation, started this academic year. In “Ain’t no Technothriller in Here, Sir!” (II.3, March 2014, 50-71) he dealt with the fact that both authors and critics deny that the technothriller really exists as a genre, despite the fact that this is a label most readers of popular fiction are familiar with. Pascal tests the hypothesis in his article that “The Techno-Thriller (sic) is narrative fiction set in the near past or the near future about violence in a political context exerted with advanced technologies”, and though, as it happens with any genre definition, soon the exceptions crop up, he manages to name a substantial list of authors and novels connected with the genre and establish some key sub-genres (submarine warfare, WWW III fiction, the Commander’s story and the Commando’s novel). His conclusion is that the technothriller exists at the same level as, for instance, chick-lit exists, that is to say both as a commercial label and a set of features coalescing into a genre most readers can identify. He also claims that “the whole package” survives and should be studied as “a testimony for some of the cultural aspects of the last quarter of the twentieth century up to the present day”. As he explained to his examining board last week, despite being a keen reader of the genre he is approaching it critically; he does not wish to vindicate all its values but to make sure that current scholarship no longer overlooks the existence of the technothriller.

As we discussed these matters in our last tutorial, I was reminded of the revolutionary work that Janice Radway did in the early 1980s, when her reader-response approach to the romance resulted in her indispensable study Reading the Romance (1984). Until then romance fiction was the dirty secret in women’s writing and reading, since feminist criticism regarded the genre as a scion of patriarchal ideology (which it is). Radway, however, proved that romance readers understand quite well how the texts they enjoy are positioned in relation to patriarchy, knowing how the romantic fantasy and sexist submission connect. Their preferences have gradually reshaped the genre towards a more open discussion of the contexts in which feminism offers women hope and comfort as romance seems to offer. Today, in short, no feminist critic treats romance readers in the patronizing way they used to be treated in the past and, the other way around, many authors have incorporated narratives of empowerment in their work which can certainly be called feminist.

The contradiction Pascal will be exploring, then, is why the technothriller, a genre that has been climbing to the top of the best-selling lists for decades, is being ignored by all scholars whereas romance, a genre that used to be marginalized, has received so much attention. The answer, as you can see, in my own sentence: because genres regarded as marginal and that address non-mainstream audiences are seen now as proper objects of academic study but we still don’t know what to do with best-selling authors addressing mainstream audiences (in any genre). Now you may find books such as Deborah Philips’s Women’s Fiction, 1945-2005: Writing Romance (2014), but as far as I know nobody has written a dissertation on Danielle Steel, possibly the genre’s most popular author together with Barbara Cartland. There is plenty of bibliography on romance and plenty of resources for scholars but we still understand very poorly the phenomenon of the best-selling author and do not know how to argue that authors can be key contributors to a genre or to all of fiction despite lacking literary merit. It will be easier for Pascal to write about the whole genre of the technothriller, in short, than to justify writing a dissertation only on Tom Clancy, the genre’s best-known author after its founding father, Michael Crichton.

Other matters complicate the approach to the technothriller. Supposing Pascal chose to follow on Janice Randway’s footsteps and carry out field work among readers of technothrillers, his work would not be equally welcome for the simple reason that most readers of this genre are cisgender heterosexual white men. This is not a very popular demographic these days among scholars. Just a few days ago I had to explain for the umpteenth time to a feminist colleague that I write about that type of male author because I want to know what they are up to. I find women’s progression in all areas of literature marvellous, and I am happy to see how the more inclusive approach is resulting in the celebration of many trans and non-binary authors, but I still want to know about traditionally binary men because they are producing massive quantities of fiction read mainly by men, and thus generating gendered ideology I want to be aware of. You may ignore all that only at your own risk. Likewise, the technothriller needs to be explored because its plot-driven narratives celebrating technology appeal mostly to cisgender, heterosexual, white men and, guess what?, this is the category of person holding power today in the genre’s home, the United States, and in many other key nations of the world. When former President Ronald Reagan claimed that a novel by Tom Clancy had given him better information than the CIA reports someone in academia should have listened and start paying attention to the genre. This was no joke.

Apart from the low popularity of the technothriller’s target readership among scholars today, the genre is also treated as a bastard outshoot by the SF community, which is somehow harder to explain. I’ll take it for granted that technothrillers begin with Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969) and leave to Pascal a more nuanced explanation of the genre’s origins. This novel narrates the frantic efforts of a group of American scientists to halt the spread of a deadly extraterrestrial virus which reaches Earth together with the debris of a military satellite. The Wikipedia page claims that “Reviews for The Andromeda Strain were overwhelmingly positive, and the novel was an American bestseller, establishing Michael Crichton as a respected novelist and science-fiction writer”. This is not true as regards his being a respected SF writer. Crichton was never nominated for a Hugo, and his only nomination for a Nebula was for the film Westworld (1973), which he wrote and directed.

Possibly, Crichton’s bestsellerdom alienated him from most SF fans and from fellow authors struggling to make an impact and also contributed to the alienation of other technothriller writers from SF’s fandom and awards circuit, even though it seems clear enough that the technothriller is a sub-genre of SF, particularly close to military SF. Beyond this matter (bestselling authors need no fandom or genre awards), there is another problem. I once considered writing a book on Crichton and found it an impossible task after noting that his ideological values are now obsolete in many ways, especially as regards gender; the project collapsed after my reading Prey (2002). Joking a bit with his other best-known title, Jurassic Park (1990), I would say that Crichton is now a dinosaur; if you notice, nobody mentions him any more in relation to the film franchise started by Spielberg’s 1993 film, a sure sign that he is no longer respected. Elizabeth Trembley published back in 1996 Michael Crichton: A Critical Companion but I just don’t see anyone updating this volume.

Now, if Crichton is too hot to handle, imagine what it is like to deal with a list of authors mainly interested in technology connected with the military and turning that interest into the stuff of, well, thrilling tales for grown-up white boys. I must say that I am not a reader of technothrillers (though I have seen tons of films based on them, or that are technothrillers in their own right) and perhaps I am wrongly assuming like most of my academic peers that their stance is technophiliac and right-wing, hence not worth discussing and much less defending. Yet, supposing this is the case (even though Crichton himself was very critical about the misuse of science and the impact of techno-corporations), and the brothers and sons of Tom Clancy are indeed in the worst case scenario white supremacists and staunch militarists, shouldn’t we all be aware of what they are writing? There is something else. As I am learning from Pascal, technothriller writers have a very good awareness of geopolitical issues whereas realist mainstream writers insist on depicting the personal lives of middle-class people as if conflict never happened. I am guessing that many readers find technothrillers didactic and, like Ronald Reagan, are learning from them lessons no other writers are providing. Perhaps, and this is for Pascal to say, some of these lessons might be worth learning and not just bilge, as we are now assuming.

If a genre manages to survive in the absence of fandom, specialized awards and scholarly attention, and even still appear on the best-sellers’ list after decades, this means that it is worth considering. Speaking as a scholar who writes about science fiction by men whose values I do not always share, I find it absolutely necessary to explore what interests most male readers. It is simply not true that most are reading now as much fiction by men as by women, or that gender ideology has impacted the writing by men (and their reading) as much as it has impacted women’s. We might have the impression that the world of fiction is now accommodating with no hitch the deep changes in gender ideology that we have seen in the last decades, but I believe this is not the case at all and that just as some women passionately love romance fiction of the more traditional kind, some men must certainly be still addicted to technothrillers, but being very quiet about their addiction simply because nobody is asking them about their preferences. I am glad, then, that Pascal Lemaire cares out of a truly academic interest in fiction by men who are in their shared ideology very different indeed from him. I am very much interested in what he is finding out and I hope many others will be, too.

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

ASSHOLES, VILLAINS, AND THE CURRENT WAR IN UKRAINE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

READING MEMOIRS: EDITING LIFE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

YOUR OWN BRAND: THE (IN)VISIBILITY OF ACADEMICS

To my surprise, my school invited me to attend a seminar by writer and coach Neus Arquès addressed to making our personal brands more solid and visible. Having turned herself into a self-employed consultor, Arquès claims that she was one of the introducers in Spain of the idea of the personal brand, beyond, I assume, the world of show business and celebrity. She helps her clients to turn their skills into recognizable personal brands as a first step to publicize professional projects and attract, in their turn, clients. I was invited to join her seminar, it seems, for my efforts to make academic life visible with this blog, my e-books with students, and my collaborations with non-academic fandom associations.

In the end, I didn’t learn from Arquès’s seminar what I wanted to learn: how I can break the barrier that is preventing me from publishing books in Spanish, and by that I mean both academic volumes and essays for a general readership in one of the Planeta publishing houses. Arquès herself issues her books through a publishing house attached to Planeta, so why not I? However, the advice she gave me was that I need to be patient and try as many publishers as possible (I have gone through fifteen already trying to publish my book on villainy in Spanish) and, perhaps, disguise the academic nature of my work. Deep sigh.

At some point I apparently missed the train, because even though my first two books were in Spanish (with a publisher whose name I won’t even mention), I have been unable to secure the attentions of other more serious Spanish publishers (I mean without paying to be published). In contrast, many of us in English Studies in Spain are publishing regularly with top academic publishers Routledge, Palgrave, Brill and other Anglophone university presses (not Penguin Random House but, well, good enough). I see, besides, that most books currently popular in Spain within my own field of research, Masculinity Studies, are not written by scholars but by journalists with a significant media profile (see La nueva masculinidad de siempre: Capitalismo, deseo y falofobias by Antonio J. Rodríguez). It’s tremendously frustrating. A friend tells me that first-rank academics are now self-publishing in Spain even on Amazon, which is certainly something I have been considering. In fact, I have just self-published a new book in my university’s digital repository, of which more next week.

I digress, though. My theme today is how academic life forces all academics to turn into personal brands even when they don’t know this is how things work. Arquès explained to us that you may understand the value of your personal brand by checking how you are mentioned on the internet; this is what she called ‘reputation’, warning this is a word few like. I happen to like it. Reputation used to be the prestige attached to outstanding scholars usually thanks to a well-known book (I’m talking about the Humanities). Reputation used to be what made others scholars and even some illustrated students exclaim ‘oh, yes…!’ when a name was mentioned. It still is the cause by which one gets invitations to lecture. Reputation, however, is now being destroyed, if it has not been already destroyed, by metrics, accreditation processes, and other types of measuring standards (I am amazed by how people insist on winning awards and prizes, when its sheer abundance devalues them to much). At any rate, since competition is so fierce in academia, a basic tenet is that you need to build your reputation (new or old style), which is why every academic is indeed a personal brand, whether they know it or not.

A brand, in case I am not explaining myself well, is what makes a business publicly recognizable as a concept. Please, don’t confuse this with a logo, though of course they are related. Apple, as a brand, is the concept that Steve Jobs developed to identify a set of technological products and the strategies to develop them; the logo is the famous bitten apple (Jobs used to work picking apples in his hippie youth, hence the fixation). Brand and logo connect in a rather awful way: ‘to brand’ means to mark with a burning iron a symbol on the hide of cattle, so that the owner can be identified. Slaves and criminals also used to be branded. The brand burnt into animals and persons is the originator of the logo which companies use to identify themselves, so next time you proudly wear a t-shirt with any commercial logo on it, consider how you contribute to your own enslavement and feel treated like cattle. Harsh, I know. Particularly if you think that even universities are brands and have logos. I am attending these days a course on how to maintain the Department’s website and you can be sure that the matter of the correct UAB logo to use has already been raised.

So, even though we may not have individual logos (hey, that’s an idea…), we scholars are personal brands since we must put a great deal of effort on the constant promotion of our talents and work. This comes quite as a shock when rookie teachers are hired, for not all have the skills that self-promotion requires. I have seen some individuals progress from being doctoral students to full professors in a little more than a decade, on the basis of what you might call unbounded ambition, whereas others initially enjoying the same scholarship have even failed to complete their PhD dissertation, soon losing their bearings.

Nobody tells you openly what the rules are, so you need to grasp them as you work on. You are generally told that you need to make your work known through conferences and publications, that you need to join a research group, that you should join Academia.edu and ResearchGate, but these is general advice. It is then up to each scholar to work out how to engage in effective networking, what publishing houses and journals give you more visibility (i.e. citations), and how to position yourself strategically in relation to the job category you aspire to, vying with others in the same Department or elsewhere. Even so, obstacles arise or errors are committed in the plan. You may have dreamed of being a catedrático in your favourite city only to become a catedrático but in a city you hate and be stranded there for decades until you retire.

I referred in another post, years ago, to the figure of the obscure professor and the difficulties of being visible and my impression is that nothing much has changed. I dutifully joined Academia.edu and ResearchGate and this has generated a variety of problems: I need to keep track of my publications in both sites apart from my own website and the UAB’s Research Portal, I keep on getting requests for publications which are copyrighted and I’m not supposed to circulate, and I don’t have time to keep up with all my colleagues upload. I don’t know if my presence in these networks has really increased the number of my citations, but one thing I can say is that even though I am doing all I can to make my work visible, in a recent application for a group research grant my impact was calculated on the basis of Scopus, for which I hardly exist since I am not a scientist. I felt so deeply humiliated… How Scopus and academic reputation combine is beyond me.

A quite intriguing aspect of Arquès’s seminar is that she insisted that being visible does not necessarily mean being present in social media. I agree: you can have a Twitter account, as I do, and keep a very low profile, as I do. I have never got the hang of social media and I am not really making any efforts to learn because of the immense amount of noise they generate. It certainly makes more sense to publicize academic work in Academia.edu or ResearchGate than on Instagram. I know that some primary and secondary school teachers are very popular TikTokers, but I don’t see my academic peers or myself capable of generating much interest in that way – perhaps I should try to have my students work with me on a Victorian Literature TikTok channel… Yes, I know, not really… So basically, Arquès meant using personal websites wisely and making sure you release information in your social media (academic or otherwise) that enhances your impact. Always considering that this takes time stolen to research.

I am thinking, to conclude, that whereas Neus Arquès’s seminar did help me to understand in which ways I already operate as a brand and in which other ways I don’t (can’t, won’t), I would like to be in a seminar with a really big academic name who could teach me how they have gained their visibility. On the other hand, as matters stand now, with Elon Musk about to buy Twitter and erase its already extremely limited rules of engagement to express opinion, being visible only means being vulnerable. I like passing on information and ideas to share in debate, that’s all, as I assume most scholars do. Any other ambition in the Humanities is just quite silly (fame, money… come on!). It just annoys me that others passing on information and ideas are not academically as qualified, though they are certainly clever at making themselves visible. Perhaps the key word in all my ranting today is not, after all, reputation but recognition and, why not?, envy.

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

STUPIDITY: THE FORBIDDEN WORD IN THE CLASSROOM

I whole-heartedly recommend the delicious collective volume edited by psychologist Jean-François Marmion, The Psychology of Stupidity (2020; originally Psychologie de la Connerie, 2018; trans. Liesl Schillinger) for its truly glorious outing of all types of thoughtlessness. It is really thought-provoking! Marmion’s volume warns that stupidity is hard to define and explore because it has multiple facets. It is easy to recognize assholes like Donald Trump, his contributors explain, but it is much harder to understand why people daily showing their intelligence professionally can say and do truly foolish things.

One thing that I should note is that persons are never wholly intelligent. Whenever uber-computers Deep Blue and Alpha Go are mentioned, AI detractors make a point of noting that they lack general intelligence and are only good at performing specific tasks. I think that a common mistake is believing that intelligent human beings possess general intelligence, which is not at all the case. To avoid offending other persons, I’ll mention that in my own case, I appear to have a certain talent for language, but my alleged intelligence evaporates the moment I need to apply it to other disciplines (yes, maths) and I have certainly made appalling, stupid mistakes in my life. I am also totally talentless for sports, which means that I would always get a basic pass for Physical Education. I am stupid, then, on many more fronts than I am intelligent, but because I am hard-working, my primary school teachers got the impression that I am mostly intelligent. As I grew up, I kept up the pretence by shedding the subjects at which I am stupid until I got in the niche where I seem to excel, more or less (let’s not exaggerate).

Among the many paragraphs I ended up underlining in Marmion’s book, I’ll reproduce here one from Jean-François Dortier’s chapter “A Taxonomy of Morons” which provides us with an insight into how school and intelligence (or stupidity) originally connected: “When, at the end of the nineteenth century [in 1881-2], Jules Ferry made primary education compulsory in France, it appeared that certain students were incapable of absorbing routine instruction. Two psychologists, Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon, were asked to create an intelligence test in order to identify such children so that they could receive an adapted education. This test formed the basis of what would later become the famous ‘IQ’—the Intelligence Quotient”. Today, Dortier adds, we use euphemisms (‘learning disabilities’) to avoid referring to children once commonly described as ‘retarded’, just as we don’t speak of ‘gifted’ children but of “children with ‘high potential’”.

I have never taken an IQ test, an instrument which I find of very little use. In fact, I think it is totally ridiculous, since having a high score does not mean a person is particularly useful to the welfare of humankind. If you are interested in this matter, I have just learned searching information for this post that there is something called Mensa International, a non-profit association that gathers together 134000 persons all over the world with IQs “at the 98th percentile or higher on a standardised, supervised IQ or other approved intelligence test”. What these persons are doing to stop climate change, or end the war in Ukraine, is not known, hence my mistrust of this kind of classification. What Dortier’s passage suggests, nonetheless, is that there was a moment in history when it might have been possible to organize all schools on the principle of IQ scoring, which is as frightening to me as the idea of eugenics. Happily, public schools were organized on the basis of providing students with the same education, though it is true that some students were horribly discriminated because of ableist prejudice and that others with special needs were awfully neglected. We were saved, at least, from carrying our IQ emblazoned on the school uniform, which is a relief.

This does not mean that there are no differences in learning capability among children, or that the school does not emphasize them through assessment, which I have opposed here recently. Reading Marmion’s Psychology of Stupidity it seems obvious that there must be a direct correspondence between the number of adults that show remarkable intelligence and those who enjoy wallowing in stupidity, and the number of children in both categories, despite the current pretense that all children are equally capable and will demonstrate it if given the right kind of education. I have been defending the idea that education should make the most of each person’s abilities and I hate any kind of classification that separates children according to academic performance—I still shudder to recall a fourth-grade teacher who had us shift seats at the end of each week (or was it day?) depending on how we had done, placing the best students at the front and the worst ones at the back. It is ugly to do this to children, but we all know cases of adults whose learning abilities are limited and who were already like that as kids. I am not speaking here of children with manifest problems, but children who could not and would not be educated and who have become adults that despise intelligence and learning. Thousands are displaying on social media each day what can only be called a profound stupidity, and, as we are seeing, the phenomenon begins as soon as children are given a smartphone, around age ten.

As I have noted, the supposition today is that no child is stupid but also that children’s self-esteem can be damaged if they are in any way told that their performance is below par. This has turned assessment into a minefield. In 2016 the local Catalan authorities decided to eliminate for that reason the 0-10 scale that we still use at the university to rate students’ performance, replacing it with another system which while apparently more lenient, still classifies children by performance. The new score system is ‘excellent achievement’ (assoliment excel·lent), ‘notable achievement’ (assoliment notable), ‘satisfactory achievement’ (assoliment satisfactory) and ‘no achievement’ (no assoliment). These are the old Sobresaliente (A), Notable (B), Aprobado (C), and Suspenso (D) but with an emphasis on learning outcome rather than assessment, or so did the authorities claim. This year the Catalan Education Councillor Josep González-Cambray has tried to replace ‘no achievement’ with the more optimistic ‘achievement in process’ (en procés d’assoliment) but teachers have argued that this would confuse families, and the ‘no achievement’ nomenclature for fails remains in place.

The struggle to find replacements for the traditional assessment categories is plainly manifesting that the school does not know how to handle the children who are not learning, despite being fully able to do so. It is feared, as I have noted, that they will feel abused if told openly that they have failed, but perhaps what is undermining the respect for intelligence and endorsing the reign of stupidity is, precisely, the supposition that children can be measured by the same system. If I am a child constantly told that my school activities lead to ‘no achievement’, I will do my best to bring the world down to my own level, beginning as soon as I can and with the help of social media. There, the more intelligent people are being mercilessly abused by those who feel free, thanks to the anonymity the media allow but also under their own names, to impose their aggressively stupid views. It’s a sort of revenge of the underachiever that is eating up any authority teachers or the school once had. They are winning the war, as the school can do nothing to revalue intelligence as what it used to be: not something a handful of children have, but something many children can show.

If, in short, all children are treated as equally capable and worthy of attention, which I am sure they are, where do stupid adults come from? The politically incorrect suggestion is that some people are born stupid, by which I mean congenitally incapable of benefitting from an education, even at its primary stage. The politically correct assumption is that the school produces stupidity by insisting on assessment and on presenting the more capable children as children of ‘high potential’, instead of selling intelligence as the more desirable model for all. As I have insisted, nobody is generally intelligent or totally stupid, and it is a question, then, of finding out in which areas each person is most capable. It is also a question of valuing in school other aspects. There might be children whose performance is not particularly outstanding but who are caring and generous. Others might be able to pass solid moral judgement and promote mutual respect. Some could be genius with their hands, rather than their brains. The school, in short, needs to be more intelligent in curbing down a system that, as I see it, produces excess adult stupidity.

The other institution that needs to be more intelligent are the social media. Back in the early 1990s, when I joined the pre-internet BBS (Bulletin Boards System) such as Fidonet, trolls would be shouted down as the disrespectful creatures they are. I had intense conversations of all kinds with a variety of persons all over Spain and we could certainly disagree without insulting each other. Then the internet came on in 1994, and later the social media (Facebook was launched in 2004). They attracted not necessarily less intelligent people but more permissive business models, based on the premise that the more users a network has, the higher income it receives from announcers. Trolls were for that reason welcome, if not directly more welcome, than people who could join in intelligent debate. Add to this anonymity and the populist rule of the like, and the recipe for the growth of worldwide stupidity is ready.

Please, recall that the guy who started the ball rolling, Mark Zuckerberg, was a Harvard University student at the time, showing how close intelligence and assholery often are. His cleverness has led to the massive exploitation of stupidity and the downfall of intelligence as a respected value all over the world. Food for thought.

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

BACK TO BASICS, WITH A CALL TO RENEW SELF-IMPROVEMENT IN LEARNING

BACK TO BASICS, WITH A CALL TO RENEW SELF-IMPROVEMENT IN LEARNING

I’m now in the middle of reading the essay by the philosopher and pedagogue Gregorio Luri, La escuela no es un parque de atracciones: Una defensa del conocimiento poderoso [School is not a Theme Park: In Defence of Powerful Knowledge, 2020], which, of course, I chose because I agree with the title. I guess this is how the author is weeding out the readers that might disagree with his views.

In essence, Luri disapproves of all the current pedagogical theories that, applied to actual teaching in school, have resulted in the very wrong view that learning should be fun and effortless. He is particularly critical of how competences have eroded the importance of knowledge; this is the reason why he finds the notion of ‘learning to learn’ meaningless; as he argues, unless you know about something (meaning that your memory retains information on the subject) there is no way you can truly learn, much less ‘learn to learn’. If, say, my Victorian Literature students have not memorized the names of authors, the titles of books, the basics of Victorian History, they won’t be able to learn how to write a paper on any of these aspects. Or, rather, they will, but their papers will be very poor. Luri’s argumentation is plain as daylight: the accumulation of knowledge has been wrongly derided by a pedagogy set on teaching skills, a pedagogy that forgets that nobody can teach or use skills without previous knowledge.

I read yesterday on thew newspaper Nius (yes, believe it or not) that Alexandre Sotelinos of the Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, has won the Abanca competition for best university teacher in Spain (the award is based on students’ votes combined with those of a jury). Sotelinos, a pedagogue by training, teaches in the BA in Pedagogy and the BA in Primary School Teacher Training. The article does not say on what merits he has won that competition; he himself just says that “I try to reinvent myself, learn plenty from other colleagues who have amazing projects and try to apply that to my classroom”, the classic endorsement of teaching innovation.

What called my attention, once I got over my deep envy of this Galician colleague, is how he reads the saying “Education through head, hand, and heart” by Swiss pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827): “In the end, what this idea means is that beyond knowledge, we have to learn skills and how to manage emotions. And that to learn some things or others, all is related. That is to say, we can never learn if our emotional state is not adequate”. To begin with, I really doubt that 18th century pedagogy connects so neatly with its 21st century descendant; in the second place, Sotelinos’ view of education is precisely what Luri condemns as the failed strategy that has wrongly turned schools into unmanageable institutions where learning happens only patchily, depending on students’ decisions to engage or disconnect. And that’s not my envy speaking.

Reading Luri I have found myself questioning my own conservatism as an educator. Some of his proposals do sound conservative but, then, perhaps I need to accept that I am a conservative teacher. I agree with him that the classroom is not a place for students to be entertained, but for them to be focused and make an effort to learn. I am myself making the effort to teach them. Students at all levels of education should accept a basic discipline. Teachers must be respected and their lessons absorbed in attentive silence unless students are asked specifically to speak. In my possibly annoying view, the students’ body language and facial expression should show that they are listening and actively participating in their own education and respecting the teachers’ work in the classroom.

Furthermore, students need to accept that learning entails making a constant effort; studying is necessary, which includes making notes, memorizing data, developing work using the knowledge and skills acquired in class. Students must also know that, whether we like it or not (and I don’t), they are being assessed, which means that they need to make the best possible impression (for their sake, not the teacher’s). Attitude does count for assessment, as we all know. Learning, Luri says and I agree, must be a process of constantly meeting challenges, in which students tests themselves to the maximum of their abilities. Instead of this, we have at least 20% of students who are not interested in learning, and the problem is that we are making a long series of efforts to engage those students in an education they don’t really care for while we neglect the needs and abilities of the better students, who are actually the majority.

Luri mentions as one of the pedagogues that most firmly attacked the traditional school, the American John Holt (1923-1985), author among other books of The Underachieving School (1969), known in Spanish translation as El fracaso de la escuela (1977). As happens, I had an Ethics teacher in secondary school who asked us to read this book, when we were 15. I can’t remember his name but I recall that he looked as if he was being forced at gun-point to teach us, second-year students; perpetually embittered and aloof, he had a strangely mixed pedagogy, both very loose and very demanding intellectually. Part of his rebelliousness against the school was that we were allowed to seat as we pleased, which means we ended up on the tables until we saw that the chairs were more comfortable. His true rebelliousness, of course, consisted of making us read Holt (and Orwell, among others) and teaching us that school was not run thinking truly of us; yet, he was unable to establish any kind of dialogue with us.

This man was simultaneously one of the best and one of the worst teachers I have ever had. He gave me a deep shock lasting until today by asking me to absorb Holt’s deconstruction of the (American) school, a deconstruction so deep that Holt ended up promoting home-schooling. And this teacher was the first to ask me to freely express my views, for which I thank him. I learned much more, though, from the teachers who believed that the true rebellion against school consisted of making us become deeply learned students. I have never ever been in the hands of a teacher that saw their job as simply passing on information. I was always taught by imitation, by which I mean that my best teachers were so good I just wanted to be like them. I admired them, and I my own work was a way to express my admiration. I learned to love learning because they were wise and I wanted to be just as wise.

Logically, not all my teachers were wise, and some were rather poor pedagogues but in the pedagogy that came before the current one, that didn’t matter because what mattered was the students’ abilities, and responsibilities. I was always told at home that I was responsible for my studies, just as my father was responsible for his job. Studying was my job, and I had to do it well, regardless of my teachers, as he did his, regardless of his bosses. If my teachers were good, then I was lucky; if they were bad, I had to compensate for that. No excuses. Getting an education was regarded as a tough task: I would have never dreamed of saying that I was bored, for the adults around me would have replied that recess was for fun, not the rest of school. I just don’t recall any problems of discipline among my fellow students at any level, with few exceptions that we all understood to be a minority and very special cases. Teachers were respected, even when disliked, and school generally accepted, even when abhorred. Teachers did not spend, as they do now, specially in secondary school, a good portion of their time (Luri says 20%) trying to have students sit down and listen. We just did, as we walk in the street rather than skip and jump all over the place, or willfully disregard the traffic lights.

I think I am trying to say that there is currently a wrong impression that education used to work on the basis of the teacher’s authoritarianism and the institution’s implementation of a strong discipline. This is not my impression of my own education in public primary and secondary schools. They worked well because, I insist, teachers were respected, parents would not dream of undermining their authority and children generally behaved well, understanding that they were responsible for their own progression. Because of Holt and many other pedagogues that rebelled against traditional teaching, however, we have a now the chance to make learning truly thrilling but have lost the necessary personal discipline required to engage in studying. Perhaps I should blame Pink Floyd. I hate with all my soul their idiotic 1979 anthem “Another Brick in the Wall” and its chorus of kids singing “We don’t need to education / We don’t need no thought control / No dark sarcasm in the classroom / Teacher, leave them kids alone”, not only because I wanted very much an education, but because in my experience teaching had been about freeing my thinking and I had never encountered sarcasm, just encouragement.

Sotolino is optimistic and thinks that primary school teachers in particular are now beginning to be better valued, following the information we get on the news about the Finnish system. I am not so sure, but in any case my impression is that the secondary school remains the most problematic part of current education. In my time primary education ended at 14, with the less scholarly-minded students choosing to train for jobs. The extension of secondary school to 16 in most countries means that teachers face everyday a huge wave of adolescent resistance and rebellion, far different from my own secondary school, in which the kids aged 14-18 were struggling to go on to college and, thus, less prone to resisting education. I find, returning to Sotolino and to Pestalozzi’s “Education through head, hand, and heart”, that the heart has been overemphasized and the hand most neglected, with actual skills to do things with our hands instead of our brains being woefully neglected.

Yes, what I am saying is diversify education, make the compulsory segment shorter, give professional training the same status as academic training, make the university again a place for generating knowledge and not for training and, above all, respect teachers. The solution is not trying to entertain disaffected teenagers but building a better commitment to serious learning at all stages of education. This does not mean returning back to an authoritarian model but celebrating the main reason why education was demanded and extended: it is called self-improvement and consists of going as far as you can in the development of your abilities, no matter of what kind they.

Head, hand, and heart will follow if you are set on making the most of yourself, not beyond knowledge but beyond what is required and expected of you. After all, how you are taught is in the end far less important than how you learn. Just don’t forget this.

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

MORE ON NON-FICTION: HOW ABOUT FACTUAL PROSE?

I wrote almost eleven years ago—time does fly indeed—a post almost identical to what I was planning to write today: “The Other Books: The Problem of Non-Fiction” (https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2011/04/25/the-other-books-the-problem-of-non-fiction/). Good thing that I checked before I started writing today. This is proof that I may be beginning to repeat myself after so many years blogging (I started in September 2010), or, alternatively, that each of us has a set of fixed interests and ideas that do not really vary along the years although we might have the impression that constant reading must have an impact on our thinking.

Eleven years ago I mentioned my growing allergy to novels (still increasing), that I find the label ‘non-fiction’ lazy (I find it now irritating), and that Lee Gutkind seems to be responsible for the slightly less lazy label ‘creative non-fiction’, used to distinguish non-fiction with literary aspirations from the more pedestrian purely journalistic type (see the eponymous journal he founded at https://www.creativenonfiction.org/). I mentioned back then some lists—’100 best non-fiction books’ is still available on the Modern Library website (https://www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-nonfiction/)—to which I will add now Robert Crum’s ambitious list for The Guardian covering five centuries (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/31/the-100-best-nonfiction-books-of-all-time-the-full-list) and the ‘Must Read Non-Fiction’ list on GoodReads (https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/735.Must_Read_Non_Fiction). Wikipedia still has an entry for ‘nonfiction’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonfiction) with a bewildering array of sub-genres, which even includes ‘factual television’, that is to say TV documentaries.

I have been thinking about non-fiction again these days after reading Patrick R. Keefe’s captivating books Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (2020) and Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (2021), but failing to finish Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019), which is, as happens, a key volume to understand the 21st century and the originator of the indispensable label ‘surveillance capitalism’. Checking readers’ comments on GoodReads in the hopes that I would find some enticement to plod on (I still haven’t given up), I came across many complaints against Zuboff’s unfriendly prose—”The unnecessarily ornate writing style makes the content harder to comprehend and retain,” Lucy tersely wrote—with a person noting that this is typical of non-fiction. Hannah Cook specified that Zuboff’s volume is like “someone’s Phd thesis” with its avalanche of data, which is unsurprising, Cook added, since the author is a Harvard academic. “Not that everything should be dumbed down,” Cook concluded, “but this feels like it is purposefully trying to be hyper intellectual and the result is a giant yawn fest”. There is a lesson in all this about how non-fiction based on massive research, whether this is journalistic (Keefe’s case) or academic (Zuboff’s case), must result in books that can be consumed with no supplementary effort.

I remain, however, confused by why non-fiction encompasses such a wide-ranging territory, at least as the label is used by readers, publishing houses and even authors. Keefe’s mentions in his author’s note that he writes ‘narrative non-fiction’ and it is certainly the case that the two books I have read do tell a story accompanied by a massive influx of information. His non-fiction is quality journalism about individuals in key historical and social circumstances extended to book-size, and he uses narrative to sugar-coat, I think, the reading of the denser passages. It works very well. I was wondering, however, how this is different from Dave Eggers’s The Monk of Mokha (2018), a volume that kept me interested in the world of coffee in Yemen through the story of American-Yemini entrepreneur Mokhtar Alkhanshali, and I came to the conclusion that not that much, even though Egger’s book is closer to being a memoir written by someone else at many points. The memoirs I have read recently—Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart (2021) and Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots (2012) —are also narrative non-fiction, but, of course, they are a first-person narrative, which is not common in the type of books that Keefe and other journalists write. As you can see, I remain confused by the gradation from journalism to the memoir since, to a certain extent, journalistic non-fiction can be personal without being exactly a memoir. From Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), which arguably inaugurates the current cycle of modern non-fiction to, for instance, Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003)—another fascinating recent read—the author of non-fiction is often present in the text even when this is presented as pure reportage.

I remain, as I was 11 years ago, puzzled by the general absence of non-fiction from academia. Autobiography and memoir, what might be called ‘life writing’, have attracted much attention and it is common to find courses and publications, though not presenting these types of texts as non-fiction. I doubt, however, that anyone is teaching in any English degree other sub-genres of non-fiction. Perhaps someone might be teaching travel writing (the ‘travelogue’ is the label on the Wikipedia list); after all, Bruce Chatwin is already a canonical writer, and one can include on the reading list volumes as delicious as R.L. Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879), or the many written by Victorian travelling women. Yet, I see no scholar devoting any efforts to teach, choosing again from Wikipedia’s list, handbooks, popular science or even academic writing in English courses. Creative non-fiction is taught through handbooks and courses, but it is not taught as a literary category in English degrees, at least not that I know of.

And, yes, I have been thinking for a while of teaching narrative non-fiction. I was, however, taken aback when I mentioned this in my subject on documentary films (2019-20), and a student observed it would be a very boring subject. Documentary films (for TV, cinema, streaming platforms, or YouTube) are the audiovisual branch of non-fiction, as I explained, so plainly what worried this student was that reading non-fiction would be boring. I don’t think he said so because he knew the genre first-hand but because he imagined a boring long read of a book full of data (yes, in the style of Zuboff). Funnily, he contributed to our e-book Focus on the USA: Representing the Nation in Early 21st Century Documentary Films (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/225886) a wonderful essay on Charles Ferguson’s quite demanding documentary Inside Job (2020), actually an adaptation of his own non-fiction volume Inside Job: The Financiers Who Pulled off the Heist of the Century (2012). Perhaps the difference is that while the film takes 110 minutes to watch reading the 371 pages of the book takes considerably longer. I am, however, still very keen on teaching narrative non-fiction, and hope to do so in 2023-24, in one of my project-oriented electives: I won’t work with a closed set of four or five texts, but will invite students to discover a set they might enjoy and will publish the corresponding e-book.

This, I’m not kidding you, might be the first academic introduction to narrative non-fiction, at least as far as I now. Cambridge UP and Oxford UP, which publish companions for the obscurest corner of English Literature do not have one for non-fiction. I would love to volunteer to edit an introductory volume but I have never published on non-fiction, and I don’t think I am qualified. I don’t see, however, that there is a specialist possibly because the territory is so vast that this is like calling yourself a specialist in the novel. I will be extremely happy to be corrected, and flooded with bibliography on non-fiction but so far my search for bibliography has led to scattered articles on specific works, and just three volumes. Barbara Lounsberry’s The Art of Fact: Contemporary Artists of Nonfiction (Greenwood, 1990) offers chapters on Guy Talese, Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, Joan Didion, and Norman Mailer; it can be borrowed from https://archive.org/details/artoffact00barb. I thought that Lee Gutkind’s The Art of Creative Nonfiction: Writing and Selling the Literature of Reality (Wiley, 1997), would have gone through many reprints now but it does not even have a second edition (see https://archive.org/details/artofcreativenon00gutk/page/n9/mode/2up). Gutkind’s more successful task is the edition for Norton of a three-volume anthology, The Best Creative Nonfiction (2007-09), which I assume is possibly being used in courses. My Google search has led to a variety of creative writing courses, but, I insist, not to English Literature courses.

Perhaps, you may be thinking, this is right since practically no prose except the novel has a central place in English Literature or English Studies degrees with the noted exceptions of the autobiography and the memoir. The lists I have mentioned earlier prove, however, that there are many quality volumes to choose from both for courses and for research. Like the student in my documentary film class, however, we teaching scholars seem to believe collectively that non-fiction is dull and might only lead to dull courses in comparison to teaching fiction. I find this is a misperception, having been thrilled much more by well-researched, well-written non-fiction in comparison to many dull novels of any genre published in recent years. I really believe that liming literature to the novel, and secondarily to drama and poetry, is a serious error that has deprived students of an education in prose works which are often not only much more sophisticated but also a major source of learning. I am not saying that we should stop reading novels but that human experience is also portrayed in other kinds of non-fictional narrative and non-narrative texts.

I wrote in my post of 2011 that calling a book ‘non-fiction’ is like calling men ‘non-women’, which is an aberration and would certainly cause much offence (just stop using the adjective ‘non-white’, please). I’ll offer ‘factual prose’ as an alternative, such as Wikipedia offers ‘factual television’, since the opposite of fiction is fact, not non-fiction. One Walter Blair already used the label back in 1963 for a book called Factual Prose: Introduction to Explanatory and Persuasive Writing (Scott & Foresman, 1963), so maybe that’s worth rescuing. It’s not very sexy, but at least it is more accurate than non-fiction. Let me know if you have other suggestions.

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

ON BULLIES, TYRANTS, AND THEIR SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT: STOP THEM NOW

As I write, the Russian nuclear armament is ready to strike anywhere in, probably, the whole world and both the media and the social media are debating whether Russian President Vladimir Putin might eventually order a strike, and against whom. To the world’s amazement, the Ukrainians are still resisting and Kyiv has not fallen down after six days of fighting. Conventional invasion tactics are being deployed by the Russians less successfully than they expected but, at the same time, Putin has not yet directly threatened Ukraine with nuclear devastation. In this extremely volatile situation, as Putin loses the respect of the Russian people and of most persons in the world, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a comedian who won the 2019 elections vowing to end corruption, has emerged as a great leader, choosing to stay in Kyiv, rather than accept the rescue which the Americans offered.

I want to use my post today to read the Russian assault on Ukraine in gendered terms, since I am a feminist who does research in Gender Studies. The contrast between Putin and Zelenskyy is the contrast between two types of men, showing that whereas masculinity in general is not to blame for the brutal type of violence that war is, patriarchal masculinity is indeed guilty of the worst crimes against humanity. Putin is being compared these days to Adolf Hitler and since I am the author of a book called Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in British Fiction: From Hitler to Voldemort (2019), I also have a few ideas to share about the Russian tyrant. The point I made in the book is that Hitler’s atrocious behaviour was the culmination of a pattern linking the fictional and the real-life villain as representatives of patriarchal masculinity. I defined that as the type of male-supremacist, sexist, misogynistic, LGTBIQ+ phobic, racist and generally prejudiced masculinity, only interested in accruing as much power as possible to prove itself.

Patriarchy which is not the same as masculinity but a hegemonic subset, as Raewyn Connell and Michael Kimmel have theorized, attracts men by promising them a share of the power which hegemonic men have. Although this is a hollow promise, many men fall for it, believing that they have a right to patriarchal power but finding themselves usually disempowered, or less empowered than they wished to be. If their feeling of disempowerment runs high, Kimmel has explained, this results in their lashing out against others less empowered than themselves, a behaviour that explains bullying, couple-related abuse, random criminality from serial killing to terrorism, and so on. Usually, the mechanisms of control, from peer pressure to judicial intervention work, and the would-be-tyrants are one way or another disempowered. In a number of cases, though, the tyrants in the making grow strong in power using sheer violence, within criminal or political circles, until they simply cannot be stopped; or it takes a massive effort—like WWII, perhaps WWIII—to stop them.

For the chapter on Hitler in my book I followed Kimmel but also Hitler’s British biographer Ian Kershaw, to leave aside biographical trivia and read the Führer not as an exceptional individual but as an exceptional case of patriarchal villainy overcoming all controls against excessive empowerment. Hitler, an obscure man with many personal issues, could have failed in his plans to empower himself if German society had been able to impose the necessary checks on him. The situation, however, was so fragile—after the German defeat in WWI, the 1929 crisis, the rise of fascism in Italy and so on—that instead of being stopped, Hitler was endorsed. Recall that he won a legitimate democratic election in 1933 before staging the coup that made him the total dictator of Germany. This is a mechanism we have seen at work recently in the USA, where American democracy almost died on 6 January 2021, after the Capitol was stormed by pro-Trump fascists. Hitler, Trump, or Putin, as you can see, are not important as individuals, as men. What matters here is that the democratic mechanisms are in place so that no tyrant can rise. These men are proof that the mechanism to stop villains from empowering themselves too much often fail, much more so when, as it happens in Russia, they have never really been in place.

In the normal run of things, the men and women rising to power in democratic political systems are motivated by a sense of service mingled with personal ambition to make their mark in History. Of course, they wish to empower themselves and act following their own principles and ideas with no check, but the opposition and the voters are supposed to curb down that instinct. Most politicians in the world, at any level, understand that there are red lines that cannot be crossed, though, obviously, many cross them on a daily basis to enrich themselves through corruption. J.R.R. Tolkien speaks in The Silmarillion and in The Lord of the Rings of two kinds of power: the power of creation and the power of domination. The first kind is chased by persons who think they can do good on an individual or a collective basis, whereas as it is transparent through the Tolkienian examples of Morgoth and Sauron, the power of domination needs to express itself through oppression, exploitation, and violent submission. It takes an alliance of divine beings and elves to put Morgoth in prison forever (he is immortal) and it takes a second alliance of elves, men, dwarves and hobbits to expel Sauron (another immortal) from Mordor. Tolkien had fought in WWI and he understood very well how patriarchal masculinity proceeds: its need for empowerment is a need for domination, and this is based, here is the main key, on a sense of entitlement.

Everyone feels entitled to something. Whether this is happiness or ruling the whole world depends on the share of power we have. A person with no power at all, a slave, cannot even contemplate feeling entitled to anything, whereas a person with a strong sense of entitlement to power will do anything to quash his/her enemies and rivals. We are seeing this at work in the national Spanish right-wing parties, with the sudden fall out of grace of PP’s President Pablo Casado for daring to interfere with Madrid’s regional President Isabel Ayuso, and in Vox, which is promising empowerment to men and women who feel they are being mistreated by progressive popular opinion and the left-wing parties.

Women, as you can see, feel as much sense of entitlement to power as men, but sexism has so far prevented them from enacting that need beyond a certain level (that of Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s Prime Minister, 1979-1990). If men and women had always been treated equally, I would not be speaking of patriarchal masculinity but of oligarchical humanity. Yet, the fact is that women’s sense of entitlement has been harshly suppressed throughout History. Feminism has liberated many women from their shackles but it may have created monsters by inviting all women to defend their choices, which regrettably also include, as we know now, being fascists aspiring to ruling their territory.

If sexism had not been a major factor in History, then, there is no reason to suppose that there could never have been an Isolde Hitler, a Charlotte Trump, or a Natalia Putina playing the same role as their real-life male counterparts. The prehistoric bullies, however, soon discovered that violent males always got the upper hand, whether they were themselves directly violent, or ordered others to be violent, and started in the Iron Age the patriarchal regime that is now leading to climate change and nuclear holocaust. This male supremacist regime based on satisfying the sense of entitlement and the need of power for domination of a select cadre of villainous men is still ruling the world, despite the existence of many peaceful nations, mostly ruled by men and women who understand that wars of conquest and expansion have brought nothing positive in the last thousands of years. If only hypocritically, given their record in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, the USA founded their world reputation on the basis that no other war of conquest should be tolerated. They exposed their argument by massacring the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear monstrosities because they felt entitled to ending their lives, but they still hold the argument that no one else should be allowed to enact a similar sense of entitlement over the lives of others.

This leads back to President Putin, whose sense of entitlement to the Ukraine and possibly other nations in Europe—he has directly threatened Finland and Sweden—has suddenly awakened, at a point when his power over Russia seems uncontested and after decades presenting himself internationally as a despot with no imperial ambitions. I can speculate whether Putin, now 69, is going through a personal crisis connected with his ageing as a man, given his ultra-masculine self-presentation—I believe this is the case—but I’m more interested in how the mechanisms to check his rogue behaviour are working. The war scenario in Ukraine is accompanied by other non-military measures elsewhere: massive demonstrations, financial exclusion, pressure to China to stop endorsing the war and so on. Both NATO and the EU have discarded military confrontation, though we’ll see what happens if Putin sets foot in Poland. Inside Russia, anti-Putin protesters are risking detention and worse, influencers are posting anti-war messages constantly, and billionaires beginning to grumble. There are, however, no signs (yet?) of a possible coup—a lonely MP, of the Communist Party, was the only one to oppose the war in Russia’s crowded Parliament. What is at stake, I insist, is not really how Putin should be stopped but how any villain of his kind should be stopped. Tomorrow, it could be Kim Jong-Un deciding next to invade South Korea and launch a volley of nuclear missiles. This is, however, where things get scary because right now, unless an honourable Russian man gets close enough to stop Putin for good, no strong check is in place.

As things are now, Ukraine and perhaps the world are being sacrificed to the personal needs of an ageing white patriarchal man who cannot be satisfied with ruling Russia. A German general was dismissed for arguing in public that Putin’s fears about Russia not being safe enough if Ukraine joins NATO or the EU should be addressed. I agree that his fears should be addressed, but not those concerning Ukraine. It is urgent to understand why one of the most powerful men on Earth feels suddenly so disempowered that he needs to lash out, perhaps ending the planet. What made me cry rivers last Sunday, when I heard Putin’s announcement about getting his nuclear arsenal ready, was not only pure fear but anger against the reluctance to learn lessons from Gender Studies and from the past, instead presenting monsters like Hitler as a mystifying aberrations when they are transparent and easy to understand. Now, here we are, with some idiots lashing out against the allegedly low profile that feminists are keeping in this war (like TikToker @notpoliticalspeaking, see https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-10560821/Man-SLAMMED-saying-unfair-men-fight-war-Ukraine-children-women-leave.html) while we close our eyes to the nature of patriarchal masculinity. Fight it in the streets, or fight it online, but stop it by any means or that patriarchal man in Russia will destroy all the other persons on Earth. This is now much more serious than Hitler ever was, and much more urgent. The genocide he committed, absolutely appalling as it was, may pale beside the planetary genocide we might soon witness—if anyone survives.


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

SONGS OF EMPOWERMENT: WOMEN IN 21ST CENTURY POPULAR MUSIC

First, a note. This is the first post I publish on the date it has been written after four months of silence, caused by the cyberattack that affected the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona on 11 October 2021 (the blog is hosted by UAB). I was confident that the texts were not lost, as I keep separate copies, but at one point I did believe that I would have to rebuild the whole blog from scratch (eleven years posting, more than 500 posts). This didn’t happen, but I learned an important lesson about the fragility of digital media and its ephemerality. Last week I posted the twelve posts I wrote between 11 October 2021 and 10 January 2022. The ensuing five weeks of silence between that date and today are due to my finally losing the impulse to write without imagining an audience. I don’t know who reads me, and I have never checked statistics, but I realize that every blog needs an audience, if only an imaginary one. So, thank you for being there.

In those five weeks I have been extremely busy editing the tenth e-book I have published with UAB students (see the complete list here). The book is called Songs of Empowerment: Women in 21st Century Popular Music) and it can be downloaded for free (in .pdf and .epub) from the digital repository of UAB. In its more than 300 very entertaining pages, the reader can find the students’ analyses of a selection of more than 60 songs by currently active women artists using English in their lyrics. Each short essay consists of a biographical presentation of the artist, followed by a commentary on the song, mainly focused on the lyrics, and of the music video. The songs run from 2000 (Kylie Minogue’s “Spinning Around”) to 2021 (Charli XCX’s “Good Ones”). The book is not, however, a history of women singers in the 21st century, but a selection based on the students’ preferences. It is a sort of snapshot of what music by women sounded like in the Autumn of 2021, when I taught the subject from which the e-book derives. And, yes, it comes with a Spotify list, compiled by one of the students.

This is the first time I have ever taught a course on music, and this requires some kind of justification being, as I am, a Literature teacher. It is obvious to me that most of us, born in the 1960s and later, who choose to study for a degree in English did (or do) so out of an interest in Anglophone music. I have always been a keen reader but my initiation into English was through the songs which I would try to translate painstakingly as soon as I bought any new album. Music, however, meaning basically pop and rock, has never been an integral part of English Studies degrees in Spain, and although I constantly told myself that I should teach a course on this topic, I procrastinated until I lost the ability to work while listening to music. With the time devoted to music reduced practically down to zero, I decided that the chance was gone to present myself before students pretending I knew about current trends. This changed last year when I supervised a marvelous BA dissertation by Andrea Delgado López on Childish Gambino’s music video “This is America”. Andrea also did a research internship with me that we used for her to produce a booklet called American Music Videos 2000-2020: Lessons about the Nation. Andrea wrote for each of the twenty-five videos analyzed a short essay presenting the singer(s), the song, and the video, and this gave me the idea for the e-book.

I told my students in the ‘Cultural Studies’ elective (2021-22) about the projected e-book, candidly confessing I had no idea about what was going on in the world of popular music in 2021. They would have to teach me. Since I believed that we could not cover everything of relevance in one single volume, we focused on the women artists, and I will focus next year on the male artists with my MA students in a similar project. I brought to class a very long list of about one hundred women singers, all of them active, and asked students to choose two each, which they did, adding some new suggestions. I gave them, then, as much freedom of choice as possible, though I made sure that the main names got due attention (some, like St Vincent or Kacey Musgraves, will be probably missed, though, perhaps also Alanis Morrissette). I extended this freedom of choice to the songs, which students selected on the basis of their preferences and also thinking of whether the song and video combination would be productive enough for their essays. In a feedback session which I held at the end of the course, some told me that had been a major difficulty, since many favorite songs had no music video, or because they found the videos less interesting than the songs. I happen to like music videos very much as a strange bastard child of cinema and advertising, so there was never a question of focusing only on a song. Given, besides, our lack of training in music, I feared that students would be unable to write even a few hundred words on lyrics which are often very basic at a poetic or literary level.

Something quite peculiar has happened in relation to the main thesis behind the e-book. I originally announced that we would organize the class presentations of the songs and videos (used as a rehearsal or pre-draft of the essays) around the question of whether the songs women pop singers sing today are empowering. Little by little, we lost track of that question, as we worried mainly about how to continue the presentations with no internet in the classroom because of the cyberattack. We became so interested by the particularities of each singer—from mainstream Jennifer Lopez to indie Mitski, and so many others—that the notion of empowerment lost focus. We did discuss it all the time indirectly, mainly by commenting on the artists’ self-presentation and whether their choices could be called feminist and other issues such as race or class; it seemed to us that depression and abuse, a constant in most singers’ biographies, were somehow antagonists to any notion of empowerment. However, as I went through the second final draft of the essays, I noticed that the students had not missed at all the notion of empowerment, and had in fact addressed their essays mostly to explain how this is not in contradiction with women having been radically disempowered by patriarchy. That is to say, the common thread in the e-book is how women singers, despite being in some cases quite powerful, are constantly subjected to abuse (mental, physical, even commercial) and must send each other a message in favour of self-empowerment. This message is not sent, as I assumed, by songs that celebrate natural strength but by songs that candidly admit that strength is often born of vulnerability. In that sense Madonna, though still the Queen of Pop, is not representative but, rather, Rihanna, whose battered face we all remember and, indeed, Lady Gaga.

Although with variations, most of the songs in the e-book (and, believe me, they are a very representative selection) hold the same discourse: the singer describes how she fell in love with a man who turned out to be either abusive or simply disappointing, next how hard it was to break up with this man because of the strong hold of love on her mind and body; and, finally, how this experience brought empowerment by teaching the woman that she, and not a man, should be the centre of her own life. I found that with few exceptions (such as Shania Twain’s “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” and perhaps Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP”), the expression of female heterosexual desire for men had been replaced by the expression of a constant disillusion with heterosexual love and masculinity. With the songs women not only express their personal feelings but aim at giving other women support, inviting them to discuss their own views of love. The classic love song with the triad “I love you”, “I want you”, “I need you” has been replaced by “I once loved and wanted you, but now I don’t need you anymore”; “I will survive” is now “Of course I will survive, why shouldn’t I?” Secondarily, there is also a parallel discourse on femininity, which on the one hand expresses great admiration for women’s superiority (Ariana Grande’s “God is a Woman”, Halsey’s “I Am not a Woman, I’m a God”) and at the same time a certain acknowledgement of imperfections (as in Celine Dion’s eponymous song), which must be accepted as they are. I have no room here to comment on each of the sixty plus songs—please, read the book—but I think these are the main lines.

In class another topic that came up recurrently is how much pressure these women singers must endure from the social media. Since music videos became popular after the establishment of MTV in the mid-1980s, women singers have had to accept a constant exposure of their bodies to the public gaze. Videos, photoshoots and even performances are subjected, however, to a limited time frame. Social media are not, which means that female singers must now be posting on a daily basis about their activities, their looks, and their private lives trying to please fans but also battling haters. Just a week ago Charlie XCX announced on Twitter that she is taking a break from social media, tired of the endless monitoring and the angry comments by her own fans: “I’ve been grappling quite a lot with my mental health the past few months and obviously it makes negativity and criticism harder to handle when I come across it—and of course, I know this is a common struggle for most people in this day and age.” So it is, indeed, but because of how the lines between being a celebrity and being a pop artist have been blurred, many women singers like Charlie XCX are bearing a brunt that few other professional must endure. It seems to me that the pressure is much lighter on the male singers.

Next year, as I have noted, I will be dealing with the men in current popular music. I do have a list already of bigger and lesser names, and I’m bracing myself for the barrage of sexist, misogynistic lyrics, particularly those coming from rap. I am telling myself, though, that these lyrics must be analysed, also the music videos, from a perspective as constructive as possible. I don’t know, however, what the resulting e-book will tell us. I just hope it is not called Songs of Entitlement, though my deepest fear is that it will.

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

THE RISK OF ERASING AUTHORSHIP: THE STRANGE CASE OF J.K. ROWLING

NOTE: This post was originally written on 10 January 2022, but it’s published now because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

The streaming on New Year’s Day of the show Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts (HBO Max) may have brought back many sweet memories to the original Potterheads, but was no doubt marred by a conspicuous absence: that of J.K. Rowling. Warner Bros., the franchise owner, explained that Rowling had been invited but declined appearing; others noted that what was being celebrated was the film series, not the novels, and, hence, Rowling’s participation was not required. I have not seen the reunion show, precisely because I believe that there is no point to it without Rowling’s presence. Not only is she the author of the original book series but, as it is well known, she also guided adapter Steve Kloves in his task; let’s not forget that Rowling wrote part of her series (1997-2011) as the films (2001-2014) progressed. Having Kloves and Rowling sit down together to discuss how this overlapping process worked should have been a must for the show.

What irks me most about Rowling’s absence is the hypocrisy: everyone knows she is now a hindrance in the path of the franchise because of her controversial tweets against the Scottish legislation allowing transgender individuals to choose their gender identity regardless of their biology (a similar law has been submitted in Spain by Minister for Equality Irene Montero). Rowling has been branded a TERF (a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist), harassed on social media and at her own doorstep, cancelled by the same fans who used to treat her as almost a goddess. Articles about how Rowling has become Voldemort abound, which I am sure would amuse her villain could he read them. Far from apologizing for her transphobic remarks, Rowling has insisted on presenting her views whenever a controversial issue connected with transgender individuals arises, which has only worsened the situation. I don’t wish to discuss here, however, Rowling’s views but the impossible situation in which the Potterheads have placed themselves by reacting negatively to them. My thesis is quite straightforward: you may wish to cancel an author for their opinions, even when they are not expressed in their texts, but if you take that step, you also need to stop finding pleasure in reading their work. The alternative that is now emerging –erasing Rowling’s authorship but still celebrating Harry Potter– is, I insist, hypocritical and downright wrong.

I read in the article by Fatemeh Mirjalilli “Harry Potter Needs to Move on without J.K. Rowling” (https://www.slashfilm.com/722404/harry-potter-needs-to-move-on-without-j-k-rowling/) that Roland Barthes’s ‘death of the author’ theory applies to Rowling’s case. If you recall, Barthes (1915-1980) argued in his 1967 short essay (originally published in English in the avant-garde American journal Aspen) that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”. He meant, in agreement with other French theorists like Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault (in a way all descendants of the Russian formalists), that literary criticism had been paying excessive attention to the person behind the text, when actually only the text matters. Certainly, the analysis of Literature had been bogged down by the Romantic biographical approach that views texts through the lens of the author’s biography to an absurd, often brutally gossipy extent. Yet, I have always believed that Barthes et al. were great double-dealers attempting to shift the authorial spotlight from the Author to the Critic. I don’t think Barthes would have quietly accepted the death of his own authorship. Unfortunately, his school succeeded and then went too far, so that it is now habitual to read literary criticism (or by analogy film criticism) in which the text appears to have magicked itself into existence with no actual author. Or articles like Mirjalili’s.

The ‘death of the author’ theory has been applied to Rowling already in academic literary criticism, which tends to ignore her biography and reads the Harry Potter series mainly in the absence of the Author, as Barthes suggested. Quite another matter is fandom. What Mirjalili means is that Barthes had given us permission to cancel authors and erase their authorship, which is not the case at all. One thing is saying that Charles Dickens’s texts are open to interpretation beyond what he intended them to mean, and quite another to claim that we are free to take his novels into our hands and deny he had an essential role in writing them because we don’t like his misogynistic views. This is what seemingly is being done to Rowling. There has always been fan fiction about the Harry Potter series (that is, fiction based on Rowling’s characters but prevented from being commercialized to respect her copyright), but Mirjalili is proposing that she hands over her work to the fans for them to do as they wish with it, even eventually erasing her authorship. I am sure this is how the classic author we know as ‘Homer’ was constructed, but this is the 21st century and we have strict views about authorship, beginning with the fact that the law prevents you from stealing it, regardless of the opinions which the authors may voice in their social media. No matter how great a fan you might be, you will never be the author.

Going down a truly dark path, ‘the death of the author’ may be taking a very grim meaning in the Harry Potter case. Rowling does not want to relent, that seems clear enough, and will go on tweeting for as long as Twitter allows her. It is very unlikely that she will accept the erasure of her name from the credits of the films based on her work, or the ones she is herself writing (for the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them franchise), since she enjoys internationally acknowledged legal rights protecting her work. I don’t see any judge granting an association of Potterheads the right to do with Rowling’s work as they please, to develop new fiction or, God forbid, rewrite her original novels to include more diverse characters, on the grounds that they feel offended by her tweets. This means, literally, that the only hope for those who think that Rowling should be kept apart from the Harry Potter franchise is that she literally disappears, even though, naturally, in the event of her demise her heirs would want to defend their own legal rights over her legacy. Talking about ‘the death of the author’ does have this sickening underside: that it runs the risk of becoming too literal, if only as morbid wishful thinking.

The Potterheads who still love anything connected with Harry Potter but hate Rowling’s TERF persona are thus stuck in a no-win situation, complicated by the specific nature of Harry Potter as children’s and young adult fiction. The series is too closely connected to their personal emotions and growth for them to abandon it with no regret; one can renounce rather easily an author read in adulthood but the impressions formed in childhood are quite another matter. Much more so when the text itself is not the actual problem but the opinions which the author has voiced about other issues decades after the beginning of its publication. I am serious when I say that the process of cancelling Rowling must be appallingly hurtful for many Potterheads, for she is not just one among many authors read in childhood and adolescence, but an astonishing exception among them. I have not heard any of my students referring to her as a personal idol, or a kind of surrogate parent, but Rowling created a world in which many young readers felt they were truly themselves. Discovering that this beloved, trusted woman has actually very different opinions from what is now common sense among most Potterheads must be, I insist, devastating. If she is not Voldemort, she feels at least like Dolores Umbridge. This massive generational disappointment must be also hurting Rowling, no doubt, and possibly threatening her emotional wellbeing and sense of personal safety, yet here she has the upper hand, for whereas she may have been emotionally invested in the process of creating the wizarding world, she created it at the margins of the fans and can do without them. The Potterheads, in contrast, depended on Rowling for their emotional fulfilment, hence the sense of betrayal once they have reached an age in which they understand that she defends politically incorrect opinions.

At this point, my impression is that the Harry Potter franchise is starting its decadence and J.K. Rowling will not survive its fall as a writer, though I guess that she is rich enough to live off benefits of her brainchild to a very old age even without her fans’ support. I leave it in the hands of sociologists to research what percentage of her readers will be cancelling her in the short and the long term, and in the hands of her publishers to report the slump in sales that is already possibly happening. I don’t think that the confrontation over the transgender rights she is disputing will abate; this is no storm in a teacup, but an unfolding process with deep ramifications we are very far from understanding (but that could be better understood with more dialogue). I have tried here to separate the novels from the author but the fact is that because of her transphobic tweets many see now the Harry Potter heptalogy as too homogenous in racial, sexual and class terms to be acceptable any more. Not everyone has been charmed by the series, but what is now happening is possibly unique in the annals of literary history: when has a writer ever been abandoned by their readers, like Rowling is being abandoned, but not his/her world?

Fans cannot, I insist, deprive Rowling of her legal rights over her work, pretend that she is disconnected from the franchise, wish that the author’s death did really apply to her case if only in Barthes’s metaphorical sense. Harry Potter belongs to J.K. Rowling to the day her heart stops beating, and until then she needs to be acknowledged for her merits. Criticism of her demerits as an author is also part of the literary game she accepted playing when publishing her work but Potterheads cannot call themselves by that name and reject Rowling’s authorship at the same time. For good or for bad, this is inescapable. Fans can imagine a more diverse, politically updated version of Harry Potter, and negotiate with her in which directions the franchise can evolve, but the original text will always be hers. That’s a way in which an author, pace Barthes, can never be killed unless we cancel copyright when we cancel authors. Perish the thought.

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

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: WRITING INSIDE SOMEONE ELSE’S BORDERS

NOTE: This post was originally written on 20 December 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

I’m borrowing for this post the famous phrase “location, location, location”, coined by Harold Samuel to describe the three things that matter most in the real estate market. I won’t be dealing with property, however, but with the limits in the choice of settings for fiction, inspired by a film and a novel. The film is Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel (2021) and the novel Víctor García Tur’s L’Aigua que Vols [The water you want] also of 2021. Though vastly different, both are incursions into a community by a foreign storyteller who might not be best qualified to tell the story precisely by reason of his being an outsider. I question here the assumption that authors are free to tell any tale they please regardless of where it is located, with some caveats about nationalism and national history.

When he made in 1992 the truly horrendous 1492: The Conquest of Paradise, with Gerard Depardieu playing Christopher Columbus, English director Ridley Scott was asked many times why he had wanted to make this film instead of leaving the matter to Spaniards. He always replied, increasingly annoyed, that no Spanish director had showed any interest in commemorating Columbus as a national hero in the 500th anniversary of his first American landing and, so, the story was his to tell. This elicits two immediate contradictory reactions: a) fair enough, b) did Scott personally ask all Spanish directors about their intentions? Actually three reactions, the third one of dismay, since a variety of Spanish directors have indeed told the story of Cristóbal Colón; Scott was clearly not familiar with them nor interested in their films.

The Last Duel seems affected by a similar situation: since no French director had bothered to tell this notorious rape revenge story, set in 14th century France, why shouldn’t Scott tell it? The answer is that, as many reviewers and spectators have noticed, we may be no longer willing to accept films in which the original languages and national cultures are replaced by English and by a generically Anglo-American approach. There have been thousands of Anglophone films set in non-Anglophone locations, of course, but somehow The Last Duel makes this artifice particularly annoying. Imagine a French film set in the American west in which all the characters speak French simply because that is the language of the film producers, and you will quickly understand how wrong Scott’s film is. Add to this the socio-cultural distance between the 14th and the 21st century, and between Scott’s post #MeToo context and his historical material, and you have the explanation for why The Last Duel has failed at the box office.

I know that the point I am making is close to pure nonsense if we think of the long tradition of telling stories set in other lands which proliferates in Anglophones cultures. Although Italian by birth, Romeo and Juliet have always spoken English, even in the film version by Italian director Franco Zeffirelli. Shakespeare’s blatant cultural appropriation is not usually disputed by Italians, just as Danes don’t bother to complain that the characters in Hamlet should be speaking Danish. I think, however, that this type of cultural colonialism is suspect, to say the least. I am imagining now what it would be like to have Ridley Scott come to Catalonia to make a film about, for instance, the execution of Lluís Companys –the President of the Catalan Government murdered by Franco’s regime in 1940 with the Gestapo’s collaboration– in which not a word of Catalan was heard because the whole cast spoke in English (would Edward Norton play Companys?). No matter how that would help to publicize Companys’ tragedy internationally, I would be mightily annoyed as a Catalan native. If, supposing, Scott were interested in Companys (after all, the subject matter of The Last Duel is far more remote), then the best thing he could do would be to put his production machinery at the service of a Catalan director, such as Manuel Huerga who has already worked on a film on Companys, or put himself at the head of a Catalan team, including a Catalan cast, so that the film’s credibility would be enhanced as much as possible. In The Last Duel any credibility the film might have is thoroughly destroyed by the American accents and American body language of actors (and film screenwriters) Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, totally impossible to accept as feudal French aristocrats.

Am I saying that a ‘to-each-their-own’ approach is the only narrative possibility? Not quite. What I am saying is that even though in many cases it makes sense to accept the artifice and conventions of filmmaking, the structure of feeling regarding this matter may be changing. It was easier for Ridley Scott to convince us in 2000 that New Zealander-Australian actor Russell Crowe was a Roman general than it is now to propose that we accept Matt Damon as a medieval French warrior, and not just because the Roman civilization is long gone whereas France is very much alive. The principle that Quentin Tarantino established in Inglorious Basterds (2009) by which film characters should speak realistically in their own languages or with an accent if they spoke another language has never caught on, nor has the idea that cultural-linguistic barriers need to be acknowledged. Watching the rather overrated Encanto this Christmas, I was really appalled by Disney’s insistence that using accented English for Colombian characters who logically should only use Spanish makes sense. It does not, and it should not.

Now for the novel by Víctor García Tur, L’Aigua que Vols, a text written in Catalan but set in Québec. Again, I acknowledge that I am defending an almost non-sensical argumentation if I think that my favourite Catalan author, Marc Pastor, has set some of his novels (like Bioko or Farishta) in exotic locations, using only Catalan as the language for all his characters; the same goes for Albert Sánchez Piñol’s La Pell Freda, in which the main protagonist is Irish. That did bother me (why couldn’t this guy be Catalan, I wondered?), but less than I am bothered by the Quebecois family in García Tur’s novel, perhaps because Pastor and Piñol write in the tradition of the exotic novel inherited from the Anglophone nations, whereas García Tur is writing in the realist tradition that is prevalent in Catalan. Funnily, I had a conversation with the author at the time when he was writing L’Aigua que Vols, and he was very much surprised by my point of view. Even more funnily, he writes in the postface that he understands the dangers of writing about a foreign community which he does not know first-hand, and promises not to do it again. He then proceeds to announce that his next novel will be science fiction, a genre in which writers are far freer to choose who they write about.

L’Aigua que Vols tells the simple story of a family reunion called by the matriarch, 76-year-old Marie, a widow and former theatre actor. The four siblings –JP, Helène, Laura, Anne-Sophie– visit the downtrodden house by the lake, bought by their late father, and get updated about the state of each other’s lives. They speak plenty but cannot be really said to communicate, and nothing terribly dramatic happens until the end of the novel, though in a rather subdued way. As I read the text, written in a beautifully flowing Catalan, I was thinking of those enjoyable French films, such as Guillaume Canet’s Les Petits Mouchoirs (2010) and its sequel, which always make me wonder why we don’t have any movie that effective in Spanish or Catalan. At the same time, I was always wondering at each turn of the page, why García Tur’s characters were not Catalan, and why their ramshackle home was not located by a Catalan lake. As I read, I was all the time under the very uncomfortable impression that they were dubbed, which was very much complicated by the author’s note presenting the Catalan text as a translation of a French-language Quebecois novel published in 1996. What a complicated pirouette…

It took me a while to understand why L’Aigua que Vols is not set in Catalonia, though at the same time I hope I am totally wrong. The novel is set in 1995, the date of the second (failed) referendum for independence in Québec; the first one was held in 1980. The siblings discuss their preferences, with Laura being very much in favour of independence and even attempting to buy her brother JP’s vote for the cause, though this is not centrally a political novel. At one point, however, JP gives a rather long speech about how tired he is of the whole independence debate, and how he envies Parisians because they don’t wake up in the morning thinking of their nation. They just go on with their life. JP also argues that it must be nice for people in ordinary countries unencumbered by independentist issues to complain about their nation. In contrast, he says, the Quebecois can never criticize their nation because it feels disloyal. My impression is that this is how García Tur feels about Catalan independence but he chose a roundabout route to express himself, putting his own feelings and opinions in the mouth of a Quebecois character. His novel is, then, a sort of roman-à-clef where everything Quebecois stands for something secretly Catalan. I just wish this was not the case, and the novel was overtly about Catalonia. It just would feel more authentic.

To conclude, what I propose is that each storyteller carefully considers their choice of location, beyond their first impulse. If tempted to set a story elsewhere, within someone else’s borders, the question to ask should be why this is necessary. Can a local person tell the story better? Why is the foreign location necessary if the tale can be set within one’s own borders? And always consider the opposite possibility: would Ridley Scott be happy with a French-language film about Queen Victoria?, would García Tur enjoy a novel in Quebecois French with a cast of all-Catalan characters set in Catalonia? I may be limiting the scope of much fiction, historical or contemporary, but I believe these are questions that need to be addressed. Location, location, location…

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

THE BEST BOOK ON SECONDARY CHARACTERS: ALEX WOLOCH’S THE ONE VS. THE MANY

NOTE: This post was originally written on 13 Decemeber 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

As far as I know, Alex Woloch’s The One Vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (2003) is the only book attempting to theorize the secondary character (note that he calls them ‘minor’). I have found books on secondary characters in specific authors (for instance, Wisdom of Eccentric Old Men: A Study of Type and Secondary Character in Galdós’s Social Novels, 1870-1897 by Peter Anthony Bly of 2004) and a volume studying how secondary characters have become protagonists in, for instance, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (Minor Characters Have Their Day: Genre and the Contemporary Literary Marketplace by Jeremy Rosen of 2016). Not, however, any other monograph on the concept of the minor character.

After writing about some secondary characters (Sirius Black in Harry Potter, Anabella Wilmott in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), I have come to the conclusion that quite often the conceptual centre of fiction can be found in their characterization. We tend to pour our critical energies into the study of the protagonists, but not only is there plenty to say about the secondary characters –just think of Romeo’s friend Mercutio–; it is also the case that in literary criticism we don’t know how to distinguish between the near-protagonist secondary character (Samwise in The Lord of the Rings) and the basic ‘spear-carrier’ with one line. We don’t have a theorization that helps us say with certainty what type each character is and perhaps it is about time we develop a classification into levels that can determine whether a character is secondary, tertiary, quaternary, quinary, senary, septenary, octonary, nonary, or denary, if there are indeed only ten levels.

Woloch is not interested in this classification but he tries hard to move beyond E.M. Forster’s division in Aspects of the Novel (1927) of all characters into flat and round. It is possibly not at all Forster’s fault but literary theorists have spectacularly failed to elaborate a more nuanced categorization, seemingly satisfied that, after all, flat characters do not require literary analysis. Woloch demonstrates quite the opposite by offering fascinating readings of the minor characters in Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations and Le Père Goriot, among other texts such as King Lear, proving that the development of the protagonists cannot be understood without them (think of Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas), that the space of the major characters is conditioned by the space minor characters occupy in the novel (think of Pip and Abel Magwitch), or that it is not always easy to decide who is the protagonist and who the secondary (think of Goriot and Rastignac). Woloch does not answer questions that have always baffled me –how do writers know when a secondary is needed and how many are required for a plot to work–but he comes up with a number of intriguing ideas and concepts, certainly worth considering.

Thus, he refers to character-space as “that particular and charged encounter between an individual human personality and a determined space and position within the narrative as a whole” (14), making characterization mostly a matter of narrative structural needs. In his view, the character-system results from the combination of all the character-spaces into a “unified” narrative world, though he clarifies that by character-system he means specifically “the combination of different character-spaces or various modes through which specific human figures are inflected into the narrative” (32, original italics). In this way, Woloch discards romantic views of the character as a pseudo-person colonizing the writer’s imagination (the view mostly sustained by writers who claim that characters come ‘whole’ to them as if they were people), and foregrounds the idea that a novel is always a construction in which different elements must be balanced.

Woloch understands novels as spaces in which the characters vie for attention, with the protagonist assuming most of it in tension with the minor characters. This works well for Pride and Prejudice, in which the first chapter does not immediately present Elizabeth Bennet as the protagonist, portraying instead her family nucleus (parents and sisters). Yet, there is no doubt in Great Expectations, dominated by Pip’s first-person narrative voice, that the six-year-old scared out of his wits by Magwitch in the first chapter is indeed the protagonist. We do notice, as Woloch does, that he is a ‘weak’ protagonist, that is to say, a first-rank character excessively shaped by his minor companions, but, still, he is the focus of the novel. What I don’t quite see is why Woloch gives potential protagonism to, at least, the first circle of secondary characters. There are novels in which Miss Havisham and Estella are the protagonists; even Austen’s dull Mary has a novel to herself. Yet, we are in no doubt ever that the protagonist is distinguished from the rest because the plot is focalized through her or him, whereas in the case of the minor character this doesn’t happen, or only very occasionally. I wish we could see the bizarre proposal scene in Pride and Prejudice through Mr. Collins’ stubbornly biased perspective, and it would be great if novels could be written in this multi-angle way but the asymmetric structure of characterization is just a fact of fiction. Quite another matter, of course, is that we find minor characters so attractive that we are not satisfied with their limitations (hence their becoming protagonists in other novels, as Rosen has studied).

What puzzles me most about Woloch’s theorization is that despite taking great pains to detach characterization from cultural concerns and placing it squarely in the field of literary theory, he ends up invoking a labour theory of character to explain how nineteen century novels work. Here is a key passage: “The nineteenth-century novel’s configuration of narrative work–within the context of omniscient, asymmetrical character-systems–creates a formal structure that can imaginatively comprehend the dynamics of alienated labor, and the class structure that underlies this labor. In terms of their essential formal position (the subordinate beings who are delimited in themselves while performing a function for someone else), minor characters are the proletariat of the novel; and the realist novel–with its intense class-consciousness and attention toward social inequality–makes much of such formal processes” (27, original emphasis). Woloch is interested in tracing a connection between the abundant cast of characters in 19th century fiction and the new class awareness resulting from the emergence of a working-class because of the Industrial Revolution. Just as in life, he seems to argue, the upper classes rely on the alienated labour of the working classes, in the 19th century novel the protagonist holds that status by ‘exploiting’ the services of the minor characters. When the Modernist novel was introduced, the social panoramas of the realist 19th century novel were reduced down to the protagonist’s individual consciousness, though we might say that the readers’ preferences have always favoured the larger cast of characters which survives in popular fiction (think of a Ken Follett novel). It is mostly true that 20th century literary novels are far less comprehensive in their approach to society, with authors being far less ambitious than Balzac in trying to depict the whole ‘human comedy’. Yet, I remain unconvinced by the connection traced between class issues and narrative needs in Woloch’s argumentation, particularly because the 19th century novel is so blatantly middle-class and so resistant to opening up to the working classes except for melodramatic reasons (Gaskell included). Or maybe I misunderstand Woloch.

After teaching Great Expectations for so many years, I have been thinking for a while of writing an article about it taking into account the secondary characters. I was about to embark on a piece about Joe Gargery as an abused husband, when I came across John Gordon’s essay in the Dickens Quarterly arguing that Dickens is misogynistic in characterizing Joe’s wife Mrs. Gargery as an abuser. I have no idea why a man wants to defend an abusive female character just because she is a woman, when in fact Dickens builds very persuasively the case presenting Joe as a victim of abuse in his childhood (by his father) who, like many victims, later marries an abuser confusing abuse and love. The lesson I am drawing from this is that I should focus, following Woloch on structural needs and character-space examining another key secondary character.

In fact, I have read Woloch in search of a theoretical framework to analyse a minor character I had already chosen after discarding Joe: the lawyer Jaggers. The idea I will be defending is that minor characters play a role without which the plot collapses, whether tertiary and beyond can be dispensed with. Thus, Biddy, it seems to me, is not essential to Great Expectations which can well be imagined without her, no matter how much she enriches it, whereas Jaggers is the narrative fulcrum on which the whole plot hinges. Jaggers, I have noticed in my umpteenth reading of the novel, makes a crucial decision that he only very reluctantly acknowledges when Pip discloses he knows who Estella’s biological parents are. A man who shows no feelings whatsoever, Jaggers tells Pip, referring to himself in the third person:

“Put the case that he lived in an atmosphere of evil, and that all he saw of children was their being generated in great numbers for certain destruction. Put the case that he often saw children solemnly tried at a criminal bar, where they were held up to be seen; put the case that he habitually knew of their being imprisoned, whipped, transported, neglected, cast out, qualified in all ways for the hangman, and growing up to be hanged. Put the case that pretty nigh all the children he saw in his daily business life he had reason to look upon as so much spawn, to develop into the fish that were to come to his net,—to be prosecuted, defended, forsworn, made orphans, bedevilled somehow.”

The ‘confession’ follows: “Put the case, Pip, that here was one pretty little child out of the heap who could be saved”. Knowing that the father believed the girl to be dead, Jaggers bargains with the mother, his murderous client, to give him her daughter as the price for his services, not knowing yet where he will place the girl. Dickens needs to link Jaggers to Miss Havisham at the right moment and so she eventually tells Pip: “I had been shut up in these rooms a long time (I don’t know how long; you know what time the clocks keep here), when I told [Jaggers] that I wanted a little girl to rear and love, and save from my fate. I had first seen him when I sent for him to lay this place waste for me; having read of him in the newspapers, before I and the world parted. He told me that he would look about him for such an orphan child. One night he brought her here asleep, and I called her Estella”.

Everything that happens in Great Expectations follows from Jaggers’ decision to save one little girl “out of the heap” –doesn’t this deserve an article? So, yes, I’ll make sure to write it, and then will start thinking about teaching a course on the most attractive secondary characters –what a challenge to find them!

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

MUSINGS ON WOMEN’S SINGERS: BETWEEN POP AND ROCK

NOTE: This post was originally written on 6 December 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

This semester I am teaching, as I have been narrating, a course on Cultural Studies based on analysing a selection of 60 songs by currently active women singers. Each student works on two singers, and I myself chose to work on Kylie Minogue and, after some hesitation between other options, Shirley Manson from Garbage. I offered my first presentation on Minogue’s “Spinning Around” without any glitch, except, as I could see, that students were a bit dismayed that I had chosen a bubbly pop song and a music video focused on Ms. Minogue’s display of her fabulous derriere in her iconic golden hot pants. The reception of my presentation of Garbage’s much more aggressively feminist “The Men Who Rule the World”, with lyrics by Manson and part of their most recent album, No Gods No Masters (2021), was, however, far more tepid, not to say cold.

I am sure that I used the same enthusiasm as for Minogue, and that the song and the video are no worse than many others we have enjoyed in class. It seems, though that I made a mistake in using a quotation to describe Manson’s reputation. Here it is (this comes from an article by Dayna Evans published in 2017, so please add four years to the ages mentioned); see https://www.thecut.com/2017/06/shirley-manson-garbage-returns-with-blondie.html. Manson states that

“[Debbie Harry and I] are some of the few women left who do what we do in the way that we do it. We’re getting rarer and rarer. I think people understand that this breed is dying.” She pauses, and adds, “Literally dying”. Harry and Manson belong to a generation of women musicians who, as she puts it, “write their own music and aren’t chasing pop success,” but Manson worries that the bloodline is thinning. Patti Smith is 70. Chrissie Hynde, 65. Courtney Love, 52”. (…)
For Manson, many of the music industry’s current megastars fail to pass her rock litmus test. “Rihanna is the closest thing we have in the pop world to a rockstar”, she muses, adding that she’s a huge fan of pop music. “If Rihanna wanted to make rock music, I’m sure she could. But unless you’re playing rock music, you’re not a rockstar”.

This elicited some comments in class about Manson’s patronizing attitude towards pop stars, triggered, I assume, by the perception that the much younger Rihanna (33 to Manson’s 55) is a much bigger figure than Manson herself. My students are around 20-22, so it is not surprising that they had never heard of Garbage, formed in 1993 and most popular between 1995 and 2007, when they disbanded (they reunited in 2010). Perhaps I didn’t help matters very much by stressing that Manson is my own age and that I admire her for a cool I will never acquire (but, then, the same goes for Minogue, aged 53). The question is that, clearly, if asked to choose between Manson and Rihanna, my students would opt for Rihanna. To my chagrin, they did not even like that much Chilean artist Javiera Garcia-Huidobro’s video for “The Men Who Rule the World”, with its clever cut-out artwork and its merger of the images of Manson and Metropolis’ Maria. A student found its anti-patriarchal imagery too overtly phallic. I’m miffed, most of all with myself for not being able to transmit Manson’s appeal.

The Shirley Manson fiasco started a conversation in class about why pop is more appealing than rock for women. I grant that I introduced the wrong bias in the course by focusing on solo singers, which has limited the presence of frontwomen in rock bands (I was more worried about excluding girl bands, which I am not really interested in). This means that we are more focused on pop than I originally conceived, though at the same time this has made the course (and the future e-book we are writing) more coherent.

In the notes I sent my students after class, I referred to some passages in the article by Joanca of November 2021 for Spinditty, “Why Did Rock Music Decline, and Can It Make a Comeback?” (https://spinditty.com/genres/rock-music-comeback). Joanca writes that “Girls and women 40 and under mainly purchase pop music. Despite the success of some later female rockers like 10,000 Maniacs and Alanis Morissette, modern rock still seems to have a problem attracting female buyers”. Joanca grants they doesn’t know why women and girls are much less interested in rock music, “but perhaps the feminist movement is one reason. The overt sexism and masculine nature of rock may have been a turn-off to girls raised with ideas of female empowerment. The rise of strong women in pop music, like Madonna, may have made it more appealing to girls and women as both listeners and artists.” I find that this is a good point, and in fact I ended up arguing in class that Madonna’s legacy is right now much bigger than Mick Jagger’s, whose most obvious male successors I fail to spot.

This other article, of March 2021 by Dorian Lynski, “Why Bands Are Disappearing: ‘Young People Aren’t Excited by Them’” (https://www.theguardian.com/music/2021/mar/18/why-bands-are-disappearing-young-people-arent-excited-by-them, considers the gradual fall of rock from another perspective, less focused on gender. The article was sparked by a comment from Maroon 5’s lead singer Adam Levine in the sense that there are no rock bands left –to which Shirley Manson angrily replied “What are we? CATS!?” What Levine meant is that there are no new rock bands making it to the charts; he was in fact issuing the same complaint Manson had voiced in the quotation about the ageing generation of women in rock. Several arguments are considered regarding the problem of the dwindling number of bands, most boiling down to the impact of the digital technologies: equipping a band to play live and funding their records is expensive in comparison to working with a laptop alone in your bedroom; social media seem better geared towards solo pop stardom. I believe that the popularity of Korean and Japanese boy bands contradicts the impression that watching guys together on the stage has lost its appeal, as another argument goes, but I do believe that what has gone is the sexual appeal of the rock music instruments, above all the electric guitar. Somehow, heterosexual women no longer fall for that (is there anything more pathetic than a rock groupie today?), whereas they never mastered the art of appropriating the electric guitar for themselves. I don’t mean by this that women can’t play rock, what I mean is that they have not generated an appealing iconography –or one as appealing as that of pop stars. Women rock singers may have fared better (I still believe that cool Manson is a case in point) but with very few exceptions like the ones she names, and others like Sharleen Spiteri of Texas, female rockstars are not rocking. Could it be, allow me to be flippant, that electric guitars don’t go well with dresses?

This does not mean that there is an insurmountable divide between rock and pop, or that each genre is gendered, with rock being male territory and pop, female. What it means is that none knows very well what the white guys that used to be the most visible fans of rock music are consuming. Possibly, Spotify has the key to the mystery. My students claim that the women pop singers we are studying have an audience composed of other women and of LGTBIQ+ persons, with, perhaps, a tiny minority of cis-hetero men. They say that, most likely, white men are listening to non-white men in the rap and reggaeton territories, unless music’s best-kept secret is that they are indeed following mostly women pop singers. I don’t think the audience for rock is lost for good, but I don’t think either that young men are pouring their energies into playing rock music. Maybe here is the key: rock needs a certain type of energy that you don’t see young white guys possessing today, and that young women are applying to pop (rap included). Perhaps what we are seeing is an extension of the listlessness that has young men do worse than young women in school and university to the world of music, but that’s just speculation. After all, black men seem to be doing fine as rap musicians, having never been truly interested in rock.

Manson might be right, then, to worry that popstars are not rockstars, being a rockstar herself in her mid-fifties, with no obvious female disciples. Perhaps they are to be found in the indie labels, and the problem is that it takes too much effort for rock lovers to find them given the dominion of the charts and of the Spotify pop lists (though I assume that Spotify might have a list of women indie rockstars). Manson is wrong, though, in assuming that there is a hierarchy in which rockstars are placed above popstars, which is what annoyed my students. I could imagine Rihanna patronizingly say that “If Manson wanted to make pop music, I’m sure she could. But unless you’re playing pop music, you’re not a popstar”. I hope Manson has not fallen in the classic patriarchal trap of pitting talented women against each other so that we fail to build the solidarity and sorority that should help all women singer march forward.

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