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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE FEMINISATION OF LITERARY FICTION: IS IT HAPPENING?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NO PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?: MASCULINITY IN SCIENCE FICTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LET ME COUNT THE BOOKS…: PIERRE BAYARD’S HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN’T READ

Allow me to begin by venting my massive annoyance with the new platform which my university has chosen to keep track of our academic activities, as if ORCID, Academia.edu, and my own webpage were not enough. I have spent two and a half complete working days trying to make sense of its user-unfriendly approach to my CV, which I keep as tidy as a work of art (after all, it covers 30 years of my life). Apart from delaying the writing of this post and all my other activities, the platform has given me a terrible headache, enhanced by my realization that I will need at least four more complete working days, if not more, to put everything in its place. In the process, by the way, I have discovered that Scopus only registers one of my publications, when the real figure, leaving aside what I have self-published, is about 100. If I have to enter everything again there, I’ll scream!!! I’m fed up with the co-existence of so many platforms and their general lack of intercommunication.
My topic today is not that, however, but a delicious book by Pierre Bayard, the French scholar and psychoanalyst. I have read his volume Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus? (2007) in its Catalan translation by David Clusellas i Codina, and my first observation needs to be that in this and in the English translation the final interrogation mark has been lost. What was a query becomes a statement, which is curious to say the least. Apart from the books we have read and know well, Bayard refers to four categories of books: the ones we don’t know, the ones we have skimmed, the ones we have heard of, and the ones we have forgotten. I’m using here the table of contents of the English translation (by Jeffrey Mehlman), though I remain mystified by category two. The French original refers to ‘Les livres que l’on a parcourous’ and I don’t know sufficient French to be sure that ‘skimmed’ is a good translation (‘parcour’ means to travel); the Catalan translator has chosen ‘fullejat’ (‘fuilleter’ in French) which could be translated as ‘leaf through’. In my own reading practice I have never leafed through any book; this is a word I might connect to a magazine or a coffee table book, but not a volume with no illustrations. I was, therefore, totally confused by what Bayard meant until I simply accepted that he does indeed leaf through books he is not too keen on reading.
Please, recall that Bayard teaches Literature at the University of Paris VIII. Although I suspect that the whole volume is written very much tongue-in-cheek, I remain surprised by his willingness to openly declare that he often speaks in class of books he has not read –as his students do. I may have spoken of books I have not read in the context of giving information about an author’s oeuvre but I swear that I have never ever discussed a book I have not read at least twice. I agree with Bayard that many of my students discuss in their exercises books they have never read, and I once had a major incident with a gentleman who casually commented in another course that he had never read any of the books in mine despite having obtained an A. Instead of failing him retrospectively, as I could do, I called him to my office for him to explain to me how he did it, and that was a very interesting meeting. However, I simply cannot imagine what kind of teaching can emerge from a classroom in which absolutely nobody, including the teacher, has read the book under analysis. Bayard claims that is the best possible situation to produce something new and creative but, again, I think he jokes.
One matter in which I do find that he seems more serious is his declaration that (quoting the English translation) “Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to others”. If you read ten introductions to Victorian Literature there comes a moment in which you might be able to speak reasonably about the Victorian novel without having read any. If you add to this the Sparknotes summaries then you can pass as a true lover of Victorian fiction. The question, however, is why would you want to do that? It is very unlikely that you would find another person interested in a conversation about Victorian fiction who was also passing him/herself as a reader, so why pretend? I don’t think I could have a minimally intelligible conversation about, say, Italian 19th century fiction, just by being familiar with the main names and titles in a context in which the other person supposed I was a reader of that type of fiction. For me, the knowledge of the book system to which Bayard refers is a process of filling in the blanks, though I confess that to this day I am not sure how many Victorian novels you should have read before qualifying to teach Victorian Literature. I have teaching that for almost 30 years now and, obviously, when I started I had only read a tiny fraction of the Victorian novels I have read now. A list, that anyway, still seems pitifully short to me.
So, my rule number one so far: don’t speak of books you have not read as if you knew them well, for, regardless of what students may think, your not having read them does show. Regarding the books we leaf through, or skim, I must say that now that I think about it there is a type of book I do leaf through: academic books, when I need a quotation for one of my articles. We would all lie if we claimed that we read the academic books we quote from beginning to end, it is simply not the case. I would not leaf through a novel, though, and if I start skimming then this is a sign that my energies are flagging and I am about to abandon the book. I have recently abandoned a 450 page novel around page 320, or as my e-book reader indicates, around 2:30 hours away from the end. I just could not go on, even though my usual rule is that past the 50% mark I must finish. This poses a problem, which Bayard does tackle: he argues that the unfinished book should count as a read book, whereas I tend not to add the unfinished volumes to the list of books I have read (I do keep a list, this is literal not metaphorical). Since I have recently abandoned about half a dozen novels, my list looks pitiful this month, as if I have somehow failed. I have even considered keeping a separate list of unfinished books, but this seems going too far. I see many readers posting reviews in GoodReads in which they do acknowledge they never finished the book under review. They make a point that if an author fails to interest them sufficiently that is part of the process of reading and, hence, of reviewing. This sounds fine to me for a platform like GoodReads but, again, rule number two, I would never teach a book I have not finished, or discuss it academically.
An even more tantalizing concept than that of the unfinished book is the forgotten book. Bayard explains in a wonderful chapter that Montaigne did not know how to tackle the problem of his forgetfulness as a reader until he hit on the system of making a note on the final page naming the date when he had finished the book and adding his opinion. Montaigne, nonetheless, discovered eventually that the method did not work at all; additionally, he felt as if his opinions were someone else’s. I started keeping a list of all I read when I discovered that I had re-read a book I had already read but forgotten. Even with the list, I’ve had some incidents of that kind. And when at the end of each year I go through the list for the last twelve months I inevitably discover one or two books I have already forgotten.
My good friend Bill Phillips has a wonderful capacity to recall the plots of the many novels he reads months after he read them, but my memory is rather mediocre in that sense and I can only recall in detail the books I teach or have written about. These are books that, please recall, I have read at least twice, in some cases ten or more times. This means that I recall having read particular books and having generally enjoyed them or not, but I can only remember specific details if I make notes. From Bayard’s perspective, this means that my whole reading experience consists mainly of books I have forgotten, which might well be the case. I have the impression, besides, that the more I read the more I forget as if my brain were a hard disk with a limited capacity. I don’t know if this is the same for all readers, as we hardly speak about these matters in my academic circle, or with my students.
The other book I’m reading these days, Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great (2014), is a collection of blog posts which she wrote commenting on the science fiction and fantasy she was re-reading for the website Tor.com. Walton does not speak of re-reading as a cure against forgetfulness but as a re-encounter with characters she values as friends. I do not re-read much because, like many other readers, I feel that life is too short to read the same book more than once. I must acknowledge, though, than when I re-read a book I need to teach or write about the pleasure is always bigger the second time around, or even the third. In the case of the two novels I have recently written about (Iain M. Banks’s The Algebraist and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312) I only truly loved them in the third reading –not because they are not good books but because I wasn’t paying enough attention. It occurs to me now that I actually choose the books I write about when I implicitly accept that I would like to re-read them, and the other way round: a book I don’t want to re-read is, most definitely, one I don’t want to teach or analyse. Walton, going back to her book, is Bayard’s direct opposite, for instead of speaking of books she does not know, she speaks of books she knows very intimately and to which she returns regularly. I believe this is how it should be done.
So, to sum up, as much as I loved reading Bayard’s book, I would not speak of books I have not read. If someone tells me about a book I have not read I have no problems to acknowledge my ignorance. I remain convinced, in any case, that Bayard’s book is a fine satire against those who speak of books they have not read, perhaps because the possibility that most conversations on books are carried out by people who don’t read scares me too much.

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

RETHINKING LITERARY CRITICISM: SEEKING A NEW BALANCE

Blogger Jim Harmon (http://wisdomofthewest.blogspot.com) left a comment on my post “Theorizing Character: A Few Pointers”, recommending an article on characters published in The Guardian by James Wood: “A Life of Their Own”. I didn’t know who Woods is: a major literary critic employed in publications such as The Guardian itself, The New Republic, and currently The New Yorker magazine (he’s also a part-time associate professor at Harvard). As it turns out, Wood is the author of a best-selling non-academic volume, How Fiction Works (2008, 2019) which can be said to be the heir to E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927). The article on characters published in The Guardian is actually a central part of Wood’s volume, and a continuation of Forster’s discussion of characters as flat or round, among other matters. My focus, however, is not character today but literary criticism. The date seems, besides, particularly appropriate, as Prof. J. Hillis Miller, who did so much to introduce deconstructionism decades ago, has just passed (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._Hillis_Miller). I would define deconstructionism as the last gasp of traditional literary criticism before the total dominance of the literary theory which it helped to introduce from 1990 onward.
Wood’s volume is a deliciously old-fashioned study, devoid of all theory, about how realist fiction works. The title of the book is, actually, incorrect because even though there are some comments on what we habitually call genre fiction, Wood is only interested in realism. He adamantly denies that this is a genre, as many including myself claim, even though I remain more convinced than ever after reading his volume that realism is indeed a genre dealing with the life crises of mainly middle-class characters living in contexts identifiable as historically accurate or representing the mundane present. Wood says that no realist novel needs to mention Trump and that gives you an idea of what he means: in realist fiction, the socio-political reality that so interested 19th century novelists is missing, to the point that I wonder whether Covid-19 will ever feature in it. Realism of the kind Wood loves functions as if referring to issues beyond the characters’ personal lives is in bad taste. A problem, as Wood notes, is that since writers themselves have started being bored by the inner life of the average individuals often described in realist fiction, they have started moving towards more overtly autobiographical fiction, even half-abandoning the fictional. But I digress.
The question that seems to confuse the study of realism is that part of the definition of the genre is the use of literary prose and the foregrounding of form over plot. This is, I think, a direct consequence of dealing with the minute events of life as it is on planet Earth: you need to make matters interesting from an artistic point of view or risk alienating your reader out of pure boredom. A novel about nothing, as Flaubert wanted to write, needs to rely on a solid linguistic artistry and narrative technique to engage readers’ attention, whereas a plot-driven novel can do away with literary prose and formal experimentation because the point of engagement, so to speak, is provided by what happens.
Take, for instance, a detective novel. This genre is 100% realist in the sense that, unless supernatural elements intervene, the detective works against a background that readers accept as a representation of real life. Indeed, many detective fiction works are successful not so much because of the case they explore but because of the description of the social and geographical background (yes, I’m thinking of Nordic noir, or of Tartan noir). The best detective fiction is as good as any realist novel (using Wood’s vocabulary) at using free indirect style, strong characterization, plenty of details based on good powers of observation and so on. The main difference is that detective fiction writers do not use prose full of artistic literary elements (though I have thought here immediately about classic US noir’s invention of hard-boiled dialogue). I am not saying that detective fiction cannot be literary like the works of, say, Vladimir Nabokov; what I am saying is that if it is literary this is an added element and not part of the core of the genre. Readers, in short, do not read detective fiction for the literariness of the prose and any experiments in narrative structure but this does not mean that no novel in this genre is literary. I would say the opposite: that the best genre novels enter the particular genre canon because of their literary values. No reader loves a poorly written novel.
Wood, in contrast, focuses on a long selection of realist writers, from Miguel de Cervantes to Ali Smith, to lovingly enthuse about the beauties of their literary achievements in selected passages from their books. His clever, insightful, theory-free application of close reading is truly enjoyable and I hadn’t realized I was missing this so much until I read his little volume. I was reminded, above all, of Erich Auerbach’s classic Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur, 1946), which I read as an undergrad student in the 1980s. By the way, Wood notes that his book is being used as a handbook in many university courses but I have my doubts about its usefulness, simply because most of the literary authors he mentions (the canon complemented by a 21st century selection) might be unknown to undergrad students. Part of the value of Wood’s book comes from enjoying analyses of literary classics (or prestige new fiction) one is already familiar with, and as an introduction it can be a bit overwhelming for someone who has never heard of Thomas Mann or Karl Ove Knausgaard. But I digress again…
Wood does pay attention to detail, and does it amazingly well, because he can do it. He is, after all, a literary critic working in the media, whereas we, scholars, are no longer allowed to produce literary criticism but just theory-framed issue analysis. I have always argued that all types of fiction need to be subjected to the type of illuminating close reading that Wood offers for literary fiction because only good textual criticism can help a genre progress. If we only focus on the plot elements or on the identity politics affecting characterization then we end up encouraging a type of writing that, while satisfactory on those fronts, is weak as literature. Beyond the type of story you enjoy, you need to be demanding about the quality of its writing; that seems pretty obvious to me. I love science-fiction, as I have noted countless times here, but this doesn’t mean that I am willing to put up with bad writing.
In fact, now that I am reading lots of science-fiction novels, for reasons that I will eventually explain, I am getting really fed up with the sloppiness dominating the genre today. Ursula K. Le Guin was a marvellous writer (and I can say that having read also all her realistic short stories) but many of the writers I am going through these days are either awful or, in the best cases, pedestrian. There seems to be, besides, a regrettable divide between the good prose writers and the good plot-makers. Lavie Tidhar writes lovely literary prose but his Central Station has no story. Everyone loves the space opera series The Expanse by James S.A. Corey but, though the plot is thrilling enough, I fail to be excited by the lack of authorial insight into the characters and the flat dialogue which is never conversation. Nobody, however, among my science fiction colleagues is commenting on these matters, as if proper literary criticism was taboo (that is left for the formidably clever readers in GoodReads and the media reviewers).
Intriguingly, Wood partly undermines his argumentation about the intrinsic difference between realism and the so-called narrative genres when he writes that realism, “seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are” (205), goes beyond verisimilitude to be what he calls “lifeness”: “life brought to different life by the highest artistry” (206). He insists that this is the reason why realism cannot be a genre, yet at the same time Wood claims that lifeness is what allows the genres to exist, from magical realism to the western. The novelist, he says, must always “act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention and so has to try to outwit that inevitable ageing” (206). There is plenty to unpack here but in essence two ideas emerge: a) if an impression of lifeness is a mark of the best fiction, there is no reason why it should not be found beyond the novel of everyday life, as long as the writer is willing to employ the “highest artistry”; b) if lifeness allows all genres to exist, there is no reason to think of realism as a strand of fiction apart from all genres (in fact, I don’t quote understand the idea that some kind of fiction has no genre for all fiction obeys generic conventions). In short, any novel of any type can be literary if the writer displays the “highest artistry” and all novels of all types aspire to tricking the readers into accepting that what they are reading is a slice of life of the context chosen for representation. When we read The Lords of the Rings, we get carried away by the illusion of life that Tolkien conjures up for us, even though we know very well that Hobbits do not exist. When we read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables we enjoy the same magical trick but from another angle. That Tolkien’s Middle-earth has never existed but Hugo’s France has is irrelevant, or, if you wish, a matter of the reader’s preferences. What matters is that both books are great works of fiction full of lifeness.
Seeking a more formal approach to science fiction, I ended up reading Peter Stockwell’s The Poetics of Science Fiction (2000), a volume that tries to undermine the type of subjective, impressionistic criticism that critic-reviewers like Wood produce by offering a scientific approach based on stylistics and cognitive linguistics. Whereas Wood is after a certain notion of beauty, admiring the writer’s personal ability to manipulate prose for his/her ends, Stockwell takes a whole genre to explore how it works at a macro level. His assumption is that if you map the linguistic and stylistic resources that a genre uses, then you will be able to say whether a particular text uses them well, beyond offering a personal opinion. It is a commendable position, but also one that forgets that writing fiction is an art, not a scientific endeavour. You can apply all the mathematics in the world to explain why Michelangelo’s David is so beautiful, but this will just result in an extremely limited impression of its appeal. Likewise, you may describe in all detail, as Stockwell does, all the types of metaphor used in science fiction and how readers understand worldbuilding but this doesn’t explain why Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) hit such a raw nerve when it was published and why it has become such a huge classic. In a way deconstruction came about to bridge the gap between impressionistic personal criticism and this new brand of objective stylistic criticism to re-introduce formalism, which had been already all the vogue in the early 20th century. In the end, though, literary theory has bridged no gap but left us with no guiding compass to truly read the texts.
You might think I am exaggerating but I am reading these days plenty of academic writing in which textual analysis has practically disappeared under a tremendous barrage of secondary sources, and in which building a theoretical frame matters more than introducing the author. Wood’s book has made my discomfort with this practice more nagging than usual, and I am wondering why I never see any analyses of the beauties of genre fiction, which are many. I do not agree that genre fiction should be the subject of clinical description, as Stockwell proposes. And the other way round: possibly only 10% of all genre fiction can sustain literary analysis in Wood’s style. But how about downplaying the role of theory and of identity politics, and looking at how texts are actually written? How about expressing more appreciation for how the writers we admire do what they do with words? I’m not asking for a return to pure formalism, but for a better grasp of writing itself and for a celebration in all genres –including realism– of that elusive thing Wood calls lifeness. It seems to me that is the very reason why we love reading fiction, whether as plain readers or as as professional academics.

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

RECALLING TIMES PAST: ACADEMIC LIFE 1980-2020

As someone wrote recently, it makes sense to think of the 1970s as 40 years ago but how can 1980 be 40 years ago? This has come to my mind in relation to a question asked by one of my Master’s students. He wanted to know whether, on the whole and considering our current access to countless sources of information, academic writing has improved in the Humanities. This question started my recollection of the times when I didn’t have access to the Internet, much less to a computer. Having been born in the mid- 1960s, I’m old enough to have seen a dramatic change in academic work in my own lifetime. As this student told me, there will be far less difference between the academic life of people born in the 1990s and in the 2020s than there is between the academic life of the people born like myself in the 1960s and that of those born in the 1990s. I can only say that he’s totally right.
So let me go back to 1980, the year when I started secondary school. The first papers I handed in were handwritten, a situation which continued for at least three more years until my fourth and last course, what used to be called Curso de Orientación Universitaria (College Orientation Course). If you think that what comes next is the arrival of a PC to my working-class home you are in an alternate universe. What I got then, when I was 17, was my grand-father’s second-hand typewriter, a rather basic, heavy Olivetti. I recall in one particular instance a long Literature paper which I wrote by hand and my mom typed late into a Sunday evening; she had been an admin clerk before marrying, and still had the typing skills that I have never acquired. The typewriter in question, however, had a few glitches, one of which was that the Spanish orthographic stress key was broken. This means that the accents in my paper, which was in Spanish, were all open, in Catalan style. My teacher forgave me because she knew from what kind of home I came from.
This state of matters continued for a while. I enrolled as a university student in 1984, that Orwellian year. I continued using a typewriter, though I seem to recall a lighter new Olivetti made of plastic, with some suspicion that it was not mine but, again, someone else’s. I continued writing handwritten and typed papers based, of course, on school library resources until 1987. I spent the year 1986-87 in England as an au-pair girl and all my communication with my family and friends was through handwritten letters and the occasional phone call from a phone booth. Only when I returned from England did I finally have access to a computer, that of my boyfriend at the time, a nerdish type who grasped how important PCs would be before this was generally understood. All this time, please notice, I was still using library resources: those of my own university, the Autònoma, and the resources of the British Institute in Barcelona, which were in many cases better than what I found at UAB.
After completing the five-year Licenciatura, I started in 1991 my doctoral studies. Doctoral programmes consisted of two years of taking courses with a third year for writing your first dissertation, or tesina. I still wrote mine using bibliography on paper from libraries because although the Internet had already been born it only existed in very limited military and scientific circles. I recall purchasing dozens of articles, very expensively photocopied, from the British Library. I started work on my doctoral dissertation in 1993, spending one year in Scotland (1994-95), still with no internet access, not even e-mail. Like back in 1986-87, all communication with family and friends was done though snail mail and phone calls (no cell phones yet!). I submitted my doctoral dissertation in 1996 still without an Internet connection, though the novelty then was the introduction of email in our communications. This means that if you wanted to publish an article you would snail-mail the hard copies of the article accompanied by a cover letter and then whether the article was accepted or not would be communicated to you in the same way, by letter.
The first academic websites were started then, in the mid-1990s, and some look as they did originally. I was going through the Victorian website the other day and I realised that the layout and most of the texts that you can find there possibly come from that time. The same goes for many other websites built in the 1990s on a voluntary basis that need a revamp but will be lost for lack of volunteers. My post-doc life begins in 1996, when home Internet access also became generally available, but without a flat rate, which means that any prolonged consultation with any website could potentially cost a lot of money. In 1998 I became a consultant at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, the first online university in Spain, and that was an interesting position because the job included free Internet access. Telefónica eventually offered, around 2000, a flat rate, which was really the moment when the Internet took off in Spain (and so did illegal downloading of music, films, books…).
From 2000 onward, then, we academics started having access to many online sources, which means that composing a bibliography became quite easy. Months of research could suddenly be done in one afternoon sitting before your computer, accessing catalogues anywhere in the world. However, what truly made the difference was database access. A catalogue tells you what is available and where, but the database usually contains part of what is available as downloadable texts and that makes an enormous difference. You might have a bibliography which is 200 entries long but if none of those sources is really accessible there is not much point in its bulk. The wonder of research in the last 15 years, then, is not only that any list can be quickly compiled but also that you can download onto your computer in just a few hours many sources, particularly articles in journals. Books remain a grey area of research because not so many are accessible from college libraries as e-books. Universities subscribe to article databases but there are not equivalent book databases, which is the reason why everyone is using Google Books but keeping quiet about it. The price of academic books has gone through the roof so that few researchers and even few libraries can actually purchase books, which may easily cost 100 euros or more (a non-illustrated hardback). So, thanks Google!, you know what for.
The abundance of sources does not necessarily mean, however, that we are producing better research or better academic writing. A typical article in the Humanities usually contains around thirty secondary sources. They take less time to be located but still take a long time to be read. In the past, before the 1990s, when theory exploded, researchers in the Humanities could get away with using a maximum of ten sources for each article. This is a luxury that we can no longer afford. The proliferation of bibliography might seem to be a benefit and in many senses it is. Yet, at the same time, it has resulted in a style of writing that is very constrictive. Most articles I read these days consist of a long barrage of quotations taking the introduction and usually two thirds of the article itself, leaving just a little corner, usually less than one third of the article, for the actual discussion of the text supposedly analysed in it. Before so much bibliography was available and used, literary criticism was literary criticism, that is to say, it was an exercise in reading focused on what the primary source did say. The voice of the scholar had to be strong because it had to sustain the whole analysis, and so you got classics of literary criticism such as Leslie Fiedler, Tony Tanner, John Hillis Miller, Marianne Thormählen, Catherine Belsey, Elaine Showalter and so on.
Now there is very little room for one’s own voice among so many secondary sources, and to be honest this is one of the reasons why I started writing this blog: I was losing my voice in my own academic production. Since the need to publish has grown enormously, this means that you have less time for each of the articles or chapters you write; many sources need to be read diagonally, looking for that quotation which will contribute to your own article. Articles are more frequently quoted than books because a) they are more easily found in databases, b) can be read more quickly. Nobody uses bibliographies in which most items are books that must be read from beginning to end, for a quotation ends up costing too many working hours. That’s our reality. All this constant flow of bibliography, then, is coming when we have least time to benefit from it: to sit down and absorb whatever may be new and exciting. In my worst days I think that literary criticism is dead and we are just endlessly circulating the secondary sources without really paying much attention to what the literary authors themselves are saying. Post-1990s academic rhetoric, in short, has eaten up academic creativity in Literary Studies, and even in the apparently less conventional Cultural Studies.
This can be very daunting for a beginner in the field but, like all rhetoric, academic writing has a playful side. You need to look at academic research as a complex game, with rules that need to be mastered. I do not mean that scholarship is trivial or banal. I just mean that in order to get published you need to learn how to play the game, and this includes understanding which sources you need to check and how valuable they are for you. Having said that and although I’m not going to praise those times when literary criticism was written by hand and based on what your university library housed, we have certainly lost an indefinite something. The Internet has brought the world to our fingertips, but our brain still needs time to process information and deliver solid discourse. Yet time is what we most lack now, in our frantic effort to excel when more people than ever are in academia.
In a sense, then, the cyberpunk dream of the 1980s–if only we could access all the academic riches computers contain–has become if not a nightmare, certainly a source of anxiety, for those who rule academic life have decided that we need to use that flood of information to generate a flood of academic work and so increase the deluge until nobody can really follow it. The solution is to work on one’s own little corner, and play the game as best one can.

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

THE VICTORIAN PATRIARCH AND HIS QUEER FRIEND: JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN

Looking for a Victorian Literature topic suitable for an MA dissertation I came across very enthusiastic reviews in GoodReads for the novel John Halifax, Gentleman (1856) by Dinah Maria Craik (née Mulock, 1826-1887). I’m sorry to say that though I have come across occasional references to this once popular author, I had never heard about this novel. I asked my colleagues but none had read it, though one remembered having seen the 1974 BBC adaptation (the other two were made in 1915 and 1938). I downloaded the novel anyway (https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2351) and it turned out to be a totally engrossing rags-to-riches story about the titular character, John Halifax, narrated by his best friend, Phineas Fletcher (yes, like his ancestor, the real-life Jacobean poet). Craik made a most peculiar choice of narrator for Phineas is not only clearly in love with his friend John but also, once he marries, the third adult in his household, together with his wife Ursula. These Victorians never cease surprising me!

Phineas, 16 and the son of a Quaker tannery owner, meets orphaned working-lad John, 14, when the younger boy volunteers to take the older disabled boy home. The name of Phineas’ debilitating disease is not mentioned but it is understood that is has a debilitating effect and causes regular episodes of deep pain. Later in the novel Phineas overcomes it enough to walk for himself but here he still moves about in a singular hand carriage (the novel is set between 1784 and 1825, for you to understand the medical context). During this episode Phineas is fascinated by John, whose “face had come like a flash of sunshine” because he is “a reflection of the merry boyhood, the youth and strength that never were, never could be, mine”. He himself makes the connection between his sudden interest in John with the Biblical story of Jonathan and David, whom the former loved “as his own soul”. Indeed, once they become close friends, Phineas often uses the name of David for his friend, though towards the end of the novel he calls that impulse just a youthful folly.

In view of this candid Biblical declaration and of the many passages in which Phineas reports how pleasurable it is to be carried in John’s powerful arms and how fulfilling their conversations are, I expected that there would be plenty of academic work on Craik’s novel as a homoerotic text. This is not the case. I came across a very juice post by Clare Walker Gore, signing as silverforketiquette, “The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name?: Queer Desire in The Mid-Victorian Novel” (2016) https://victorianist.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/the-love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name-queer-desire-in-the-mid-victorian-novel/ but, as happens, most articles and book chapters dealing with John Halifax, Gentleman focus on Phineas’ disability and have been written from a Disabilities Studies point of view. They do focus, as Gore does, on the matter of whether Phineas’ disability places him in a ‘feminine’ position, which defuses any implicit homoerotic association with John but not his interpretation as an openly queer character. It appears that one of the original reviewers, R.H. Hutton, observed in his review “Novels by the Authoress of John Halifax” (North British Review 29, 1858, 253-262) that “it is hard to suppress the fear that Phineas Fletcher will fall hopelessly in love with John Halifax, so hard is it to remember that Phineas is of the male sex”. But this is disingenuous for despite his disability and his assumption of a necessary celibacy because no woman would marry him (he thinks) Phineas is not feminine or asexual but a queer man. The original Victorian readers seems to have been satisfied that as long as there is no chance of sex between the two men, their friendship is perfectly acceptable and so are Phineas’ frequent references to their mutual love and, above all, their mutual caring for each other.

Craik’s novel has often been read as a paean to the ‘captains of industry’ in Carlyle’s famous phrase but, actually, John just gets lucky several times in this tale of social mobility. First, he just happens to be near Phineas when his services are needed and, most crucially, his wife Ursula is a gentlewoman and an heiress (though not without difficulties). Once Halifax gets his foot into the tannery that Phineas’ father runs he does his best to prove his mettle, that is true, but John has his friend constantly scheming to his advantage and even giving him an education. In fact, those who expect a spectacular story about John’s social rise will not find it, for the scale of the novel is far more local and personal than I expected. In any case, Craik emphasises above all an ethos of mutual care and this is what binds John and Phineas. When, as Craik has it, the Fletcher tannery fails and Phineas finds himself an adult orphan with no working skills, John returns the favour received by inviting his friend to be a permanent member of his household, thus creating quite an interesting triangle.

Phineas’ most frank acknowledgment of how he loves John comes in the passage when, remembering the last day he spend alone with his friend before his courtship of Ursula started he writes that “that Sunday was the last I ever had David altogether for my own—my very own”. Phineas, however, finds that “It was natural, it was just, it was right” that John wished to marry: “God forbid that in any way I should have murmured”. To his wife-to-be Phineas declares that “John is a brother, friend, everything in the world to me” and from that she deduces not that there is something improper going on between the men but that her future husband “must be very good”, hence a good choice for her because “good men are rare”. There is no question of jealousy between friend and wife at all, quite the opposite: they soon find themselves comfortable in each other’s company. Once John is married, Phineas tells his readers that now “others had a right—the first, best, holiest right—to the love that used to be all mine”; seeing his David happy, Phineas writes, “I rejoiced both with and for my brother” though he does miss him from their common house. He is welcome into the newlyweds’ home in his first visit as a ‘brother’ as this is what he becomes to both for more than thirty years.

I believe that what makes John Halifax, Gentleman even more interesting as a text, then, is not only that Phineas and John’s first youthful friendship becomes brotherhood but that this is sanctioned by Ursula and so becomes the pillar of their triangular association. By sheltering Phineas, John saves him from poverty (his only income comes from some houses rented by working-class families) without making him feel dependent. Phineas claims that he “resisted long” the invitation to join John and Ursula’s household, for “it is one of my decided opinions that married people ought to have no one, be the tie ever so close and dear, living permanently with them, to break the sacred duality—no, let me say the unity of their home”. Yet, his presence, far from breaking this unity turns him into Uncle Phineas, a sort of third parent, in quite a singular way; after all, he is no blood relative of the married couple and the three are more or less the same age. I cannot think of any arrangement like this in current times (though it is true that in Great Expectations Pip lives for more than a decade with his close friend Herbert Pocket and his wife Clara, and their children). Apart from being the reporter for the reader’s benefit of his friend’s life, Phineas becomes an essential part of the family when he is given an important task: “the children’s education was chiefly left to me; other tutors succeeding as was necessary” and a governess for the younger girl. Do let me know where else, in fiction or in real life, you have seen something similar.

The last part of the novel, once the three protagonists are in their fifties and John has become “the patriarch of the valley”, as Phineas calls him, is not totally voided of the queer discourse of the first part, with some peculiar interventions from Ursula. When she catches Phineas looking at John during a party and considering how great his ‘brother’ looks for his age, Ursula knowingly voices aloud this very same impression. And when she falls seriously ill, she implores “Phineas, if anything happens to me, you will comfort John!” In a contemporary novel, the words would carry an unmistakable message but coming from an 1850s novel, they can only mean ‘be my husband’s support’. I imagine that Craik may have realized that she had a problem at the end of the novel for, if John died first, Ursula and Phineas would be forced to either go on living together (hardly conceivable) or separate with much sorrow to avoid an awkward situation. If she died first, then could John and Phineas go on living as brothers in the former’s mansion? I’m not telling you, of course, what solution Craik found, only that it does reveal the fragility of this unique triangular couple.

Of course, for this arrangement to work John can be the object but not the subject of a queer love, and this love must be disconnected from any kind of possessiveness. On John’s side there is no doubt that what he feels is a very deep affection for Phineas that not even the label brotherhood explains well; in fact, two of John’s sons quarrel and fail to speak for each other for years, a situation that is simply unthinkable in John and Phineas’ case. Phineas says that John’s main quality in tenderness and if we were not so obsessed with sexuality we would see that this is the foundation in this novel of a type of love between men that we understand very poorly. I believe that Phineas’ love for John is closer to homosexuality but though subtly erotic it is not sexual, which puts the novel in the territory of the homoerotic. I have no idea whether Craik was aware of what she was doing in having her two male character bond so intimately but, looking at things from another perspective, perhaps the novel and the triangular arrangement works so well because sex is not part of the equation. This may sound absurd to 21st century readers and proof incontrovertible of Victorian prudishness but it can be enriching now and then to explore human affection beyond sexuality. I am aware that by using the word queer I am sexualizing Phineas’ love in many ways but perhaps this is so because we lack a nuanced vocabulary to discuss friendship apart from sexuality. Don’t we?

Craik could have narrated her novel in many ways and, obviously, using a third person omniscient narrator was one. Her choice of Phineas as a first person narrator certainly complicated very much her approach to her main character, for Phineas had to be given necessarily a place as close to John as possible. He could still have played the role of Uncle Phineas and continue living in his own home but Craik possibly decided that this would limit her access to the dynamics of John and Ursula’s domestic life. It is true that at moments Phineas plays the role of fly-on-the-wall (he often sits in his corner by the chimney in the family’s drawing room with none noticing him there) and that his feelings are no doubt subordinated to those of his ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ but I believe that without Phineas John’s story would by no means be as interesting. If he manages to be a gentleman fully accepted in society, this is because Phineas imagines him as such carried by his affection for the ‘homeless lad’ he first meets. In fact, though John is himself a very generous man, nothing compares to Phineas’ generosity towards his friend, in terms of how little he gets personally out of their living together for, logically, Ursula and the children come first. Judging by our own criteria, Phineas’ life is a sad case of unrequited homosexual love, and it can be certainly read like this, but seen from another point of view, and considering that he lives in the early 19th century, he makes the most emotionally of his bond with the otherwise classically patriarchal John.

If you’re into Victorian fiction, please do not miss John Halifax, Gentleman, and see how you would feel in Phineas’ shoes. Fascinating…

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

NEW BOOK!: REPRESENTATIONS OF MASCULINITY IN LITERATURE AND FILM – FOCUS ON MEN

Last March I published the post “How Entitlement and Villainy Connect” (https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2020/03/03/how-entitlement-and-villainy-connect-as-i-explain-in-masculinity-and-patriarchal-villainy-from-hitler-to-voldemort/) to publicise my first monograph in English Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in British Fiction: From Hitler to Voldemort (Routledge, 2019). Now is the turn to launch my second book in English, Representations of Masculinity in Literature and Film: Focus on Men (http://www.cambridgescholars.com/representations-of-masculinity-in-literature-and-film). Both are part of my research in Masculinities Studies and, as such, are necessarily similar. Yet, at the same time they are very different examples of how academic research is done. I think that is worth some comment.

Every mature scholar accumulates a long list of articles published in journals along the years and there comes a time when it makes sense to see how they can be put together as a book. I believed that time had come two years ago, when I first submitted a proposal for the book now published. It is the habitual convention not to reprint chapters of books in other books (or only exceptionally) but is not uncommon to collect together journal articles. Or that is what I had assumed. I have read many books of this type but something seems to have changed because by the time I put my collection together I was told that this type of book was no longer interesting. The editor of the first book series to which I submitted the proposal was even rude to me about this: “why would anyone want to publish work available elsewhere?” he told me in a rather cold email message, which truly surprised (and hurt) me. I attribute this to his being a sociologist used to scientific publication which, certainly, is hardly ever published in collections (unlike what is more habitual in the Humanities). The second commissioning editor I approached was far more welcoming but told me that she’d rather publish new research by me. This is how I finally published Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in British Fiction: From Hitler to Voldemort a book, which as I explained in my previous post, had been since 2008 in the making.

The very week that Routledge published my book, a commissioning editor from Cambridge Scholars Publishing sent me an e-mail message asking whether I knew of any project that they might publish. I had edited for them the collective volumes Recycling Culture(s) (2008) and Persistence and Resistance in English Studies: New Research (co-edited with David Owen and Elisabet Pladevall). These gather together papers presented at two conferences celebrated at my university, UAB, expanded for book publication. My experience with CSP had been good and it occurred to me then that they might welcome my collection. So they did, and here’s the book, of which I am immensely satisfied. A matter that makes this book very special to me as that I chose for the cover a beautiful selfie that my nephew Álex took a while ago (for a class project in which students were asked to produce a self-portrait). I had originally called the book Focus on Men: Representations of Masculinity in Literature and Film, but, as happened in the case of the Routledge book, I was asked to reverse the order of title and subtitle (apparently libraries prefer the more self-explanatory titles). The photo, which shows Alex holding his glasses in his hand, ready to focus on his future whenever he chooses, illustrates very well my ‘focus on men’ concept, and there it is. It’s very beautiful and it makes me very proud to have it on the cover of my book.

I must clarify that Representations of Masculinity in Literature and Film: Focus on Men consists of six previously published articles and six new chapters (some had been online as working papers for a while, some are new). Here are the contents:

Introduction: Why We Should Focus on Men vii
Chapter One. Queerying Antonio: Michael Radford’s The Merchant of Venice and the Problem of Heterosexism 1
Chapter Two. Heathcliff’s Blurred Mirror Image: Hareton Earnshaw and the Reproduction of Patriarchal Masculinity in Wuthering Heights 21
Chapter Three. In Bed with Dickens: Ralph Fiennes’s The Invisible Woman and the Problematic Masculinity of the Genius 47
Chapter Four. Recycling Charlie, Amending Charles: Dodger, Terry Pratchett’s Rewriting of Oliver Twist 66
Chapter Five. Between Brownlow and Magwitch: Sirius Black and the Ruthless Elimination of the Male Protector in the Harry Potter Series 87
Chapter Six. Odysseus’s Unease: The Post-war Crisis of Masculinity in Melvyn Bragg’s The Soldier’s Return and A Son of War 112
Chapter Seven. A Demolition Job: Scottish Masculinity and the Failure of the Utopian Tower Block in David Greig’s Play The Architect and Andrew O’Hagan’s Novel Our Fathers 133
Chapter Eight. Rewriting the American Astronaut from a Cross-cultural Perspective: Michael Lopez-Alegria in Manuel Huerga’s documentary film Son & Moon 161
Chapter Nine. Discovering the Body of the Android: (Homo)Eroticism and (Robo)Sexuality in Isaac Asimov’s Robot Novels 186
Chapter Ten. Educating Dídac, Humankind’s New Father: The End of Patriarchy in Manuel de Pedrolo’s Typescript of the Second Origin 213
Chapter Eleven. Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Problem of the Flawed Mentor: Why Anakin Skywalker Fails as a Man 232
Chapter Twelve. The Anti-Patriarchal Male Monster as Limited (Anti)Hero: Richard K. Morgan’s Black Man/Th3rteen 251

I must say that it was not easy at all to come up with this final list, which is limited, as I say, to what I have published in journals (at any rate relatively little in comparison to what I have published in collective books). The other matter that worried me very much was how to place the articles, written in very different periods and circumstances, in a way that made sense. The other book, Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in British Fiction: From Hitler to Voldemort, is a monograph designed from scratch to cohere as much as possible. Yet in this one I had an immense variety of articles, from Shakespeare to Richard K. Morgan. I decided that perhaps that was the key: look at the chronology of the texts analysed and try to organise the volume this way. Of course, I have deviated from my own rule because the three chapters dealing with Dickens come after a chapter on Victorian Wuthering Heights but deal with 21st century texts. I wanted to build a nice gradation so that the reader would be taken gently from the 16th to the 21st century, from Elizabethan drama to post-cyberpunk. I hope it works… Of course, the articles were not written in this orderly fashion. The oldest one, the chapter dealing with Hareton in Emily Brontë’s masterpiece, originates in the lecture I gave back in 2001 in my official examination to get tenure, whereas the most recent piece happens to be the chapter on Asimov’s amazingly attractive robot R. Daneel Olivaw, which I wrote in 2019. It is, in any case, a real pleasure, to see together work that has a similar intellectual origin but that was until now scattered in very many different places (or that had been rejected in some cases by unsympathetic peer reviewers and, yes, I mean the chapter on Sirius Black, which with six rejections is my own personal record).

I must express here my absolute frustration with how the demands of our academic tasks prevent us from concentrating on writing books. I truly believe that both monographs and collections should be our main focus in publishing and not articles and chapters in collective books. Do not misunderstand me: shorter pieces are important and, as I am arguing, it makes good sense to collect them now and then in books. What I do not accept, and protest against, is the fact that books count so little for research assessment (at least in Spain). When I apply to be assessed in 2023, my next deadline, the Routledge book will only count as one of the five publications I need to inform about, even though it is 110,000 pages long and has nine chapters which equal nine articles. The idea that a book counts the same as a 5000 word article is simply ludicrous but these are the rules which assessment agency ANECA follows, inspired by the scientific fixation with the paper. I will not include my CSP book among my most valuable publications, not because I think it is not representative of what I do as a researcher (quite the opposite) but because ANECA will most likely argue that it is research corresponding to an earlier period. Actually, I will include one of the articles reprinted as a book chapter but referencing its original publication in a journal. This lack of enticement to publish monographs is, I think, a serious error for it is in monographs where we express our most sustained intellectual efforts. Articles and book chapters are fine but they are short bursts of energy in comparison to writing a monograph, which is steady, focused intellectual work (what we learn to do in doctoral dissertations).

The other matter that needs to be born in mind, apart from ANECA’s criteria, is time. I have managed to publish the monograph and the collection in about two years because my university scrupulously respects the legality marked by the decree known as ‘Decreto Wert’ of 2011. According to this decree, researchers with at least three six-year periods of research validated by the Ministerio can be allowed to teach 16 ECTS instead of the habitual 24 ECTS. I have been in this privileged situation for the last five years (if I recall correctly), which explains my productivity. The monograph was written in a period of one year during which I had no teaching duties. The collection has been assembled during Covid-19 lockdown, which has certainly facilitated matters to me not because I had less teaching to do but because I had no long commute to take my energy away. Now that I’m back to teaching face-to-face I have no time or energy to start a new book, even though title, chapter list and bibliography are ready and waiting.

Back to Representations of Masculinity in Literature and Film: Focus on Men, I’m quoting my own text in CSP’s website to note that collectively, these essays argue that, although much has been written about men, it has been done from a perspective that does not see masculinity as a specific feature in need of critical appraisal. Men need to be made aware of how they are represented in order to alter the toxic patriarchal models handed down to them and even break the extant binary gender models. For that, it is important that men distinguish patriarchy from masculinity, as is done here, and form anti-patriarchal alliances with each other and with women. This book is, then, an invitation to men’s liberation from patriarchy by raising an awareness of its crippling constraints. This begins, I add, by showing men how they are represented (mostly how they self-represent) in order to see where the positive models and the negative failures are. I find that, on the whole, men’s fictional representation is far less flattering than feminist criticism, focused on women’s deficient representation by men, usually assumes. The flaws are there for all to see, if you care to look, whereas the positive models are few and far between. A matter that puzzles me very much is that whenever positive models emerge they are not human (Asimov’s Daneel), are destroyed by their authors (Sirius Black and others), or prevented from bringing on deep changes. This is because, I believe, men have no collective agenda to improve their self-representation as, unlike women, they do not see themselves as a class (or so-called ‘minority’) but as a constellation of individuals. Please, recall that I always distinguish between men and patriarchy and that I would like to see men becoming collectively aware of the way in which they can be anti-patriarchal. I have found in the texts analysed some anti-patriarchal attitudes but not a sense that this is an actual position that can be actively assumed by a majority of men.

Enjoy!!!

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

TEACHING LITERATURE AS IMMERSIVE HISTORY: A LOOK AT THE 19TH CENTURY PAST

I have been reading this weekend Ruth Goodman’s fascinating volume How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Victorian Life (2014) in preparation for the new course I start tomorrow. Goodman is a rather well-known freelance British historian who makes a living as a consultor to museums, theatre, television, and schools of all types. She is known not only for her books–who wouldn’t want to read How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts (2018)?–but also for the TV series she has hosted, which include the six-part BBC series Victorian Farm (2009). In it Goodman and others recreate everyday life on a farm in Shropshire in the mid-19th century, as it supposedly was. In fact, much to my surprise, there is quite a remarkable number of TV programmes of this type, based on the idea of the immersive historical experience, on both sides of the Atlantic and other countries like Germany.

Goodman peppers How to Be a Victorian with comments on her personal experience of cooking Victorian food or using Victorian clothes and cosmetics. Her case is a very extreme form of immersive experience in the past (she also specializes in Tudor times) but it is also closely connected with the passion for historical re-enactment that drives so many amateur clubs and that is almost indispensable in today’s museums. Beyond this, a quick internet search beginning with Goodman’s Wikipedia page soon takes me from the TV series she has participated in to the debates on how Virtual Reality technology will alter the understanding of the past in educational contexts. The debate has been going on for more than a decade now, triggered by the commercialisation of the first VR headgear sets, though I must say that VR cannot give the bodily experience Goodman aims at. One thing is walking a Victorian street in a VR environment (with no smells…) and quite another wearing a Victorian corset or, as Goodman did, keeping your hair clean Victorian-style with no shampoo for four months.

On the other hand, as Patrick T. Allen argues in an article published in The Conversation, “A Brief History of Immersion, Centuries before VR” https://theconversation.com/a-brief-history-of-immersion-centuries-before-vr-94835, “immersion is a technique much older than technology. It is the key to storytelling, in literature, film, videogames, even in the spoken stories told by our ancestors around the campfire”. He makes, of course, a very good point but even so what I learn from Goodman, and from so many years teaching Victorian Literature, is that our immersion in a text of the past is woefully superficial in many senses. Goodman’s detailed description of everyday life makes me see the characters in Victorian fiction with an unexpected fullness. I can now imagine the underwear of the richer ones and what they had for breakfast, but also notice the absence of the poorest ones, except marginally in Dickens, Gaskell, and a few others. Indeed, preparing these days a PowerPoint presentation on Victorian fashions for my students I couldn’t help noticing once again how classist our approach to teaching 19th century Literature is. I don’t think that the 20th and the 21st century have done much better in representing the working classes but one might say that working-class life is conspicuously missing in the fiction of the century in which the Industrial Revolution changed everything.

Other type of volumes aim at enhancing the immersive historical experience that reading the Literature of the past always is. I started reading What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England (1994) by Daniel Pool but I soon stopped, frankly overwhelmed. Unlike Goodman, who mentions Victorian fiction only occasionally, Pool has paid attention to all the details that may baffle any contemporary reader and written a prodigious volume which is partly a collection of brief essays and partly an extensive glossary. Unfortunately he begins with a description of 19th century currency, in the section he calls ‘The Basics’, which made me throw up my hands in despair. I have never found the energy to understand guineas, sovereigns, and crowns and the question is whether I should find it. It’s the same with the types of carriages or other abstruse matters such as the difference between a baron and a baronet (the former is a peer, the latter is top of the gentry but plain Sir, not Lord).

This means that, unless we are scholars preparing a critical edition, no matter how many times we have read a text many small details will escape our notice. In part because there is always a limit to the energy we are willing to invest on reading a text and in part because we miss much information implicitly available to the original readers or that needn’t be included for their sake. Even so, they must also have missed much context for many Victorian novels were set decades before their date of publication. Just to give an example, imagine a twenty-year-old reader of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, published in 1848. The heroine, Helen Graham, refers in her diary to events that happen around 1827, when my imaginary reader hadn’t even been born (and incidentally, not Victoria but her uncle George IV was king). How was this young reader supposed to reconstruct that past? Did s/he bother to ask about life twenty years before? Where could s/he have found the relevant information? I am just a few clicks away from images of the 1820s on the internet but what could my imaginary reader check back in the 1840s? Remember that public libraries as we know them today were established later, from the 1850s onward.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”, L.P. Hartley famously wrote as the first line of his novel The Go-Between (1953), and he is absolutely right. What is refreshing in Goodman’s perspective is how she takes this ‘differently’ to celebrate it. Take the matter of personal hygiene, which always baffles and disgusts any person thinking of a past when the daily shower routine was missing. Goodman gently reminds us that a daily shower is a luxury we enjoy, precisely, thanks to Victorian advances in indoors plumbing and electricity (imagine washing your hair daily with no hair dryer!). The flushing toilet may not have been generalized in Victorian times but Victorian entrepreneurs made it a desirable domestic fixture. Goodman makes this point but at the same time she praises to the sky the sensible management of human waste, above all in the countryside where contraptions such as the earth toilet resulted in abundant compost.

What she is saying, then, but we tend to forget is that people living in the past were not barbarians who didn’t know better as we often assume but persons making the most of their circumstances. Goodman comments, for instance, that corsets were not really less comfortable than underwired bras or shapewear (of the kind Kim Kardashian uses and sells) but we tend of think just of the questionable practice of extreme tight lacing, which is what caused the bodily deformities so often criticized. In a similar vein, we know that high-heeled shoes are absurd but this doesn’t stop many women from wearing them and even claiming they feel comfortable. Goodman also makes a point of constantly stressing that many basic ingredients in Victorian cosmetics and prepared foodstuffs are still present in current products. There are elements of the Victorian past that scare her–she basically says that babies were routinely poisoned by concerned parents who fed them dangerous medicine–but she makes on the whole a very good defense of Victorian ingenuity and capacity to correct the worst situations. Life in 1890s Britain, thus, does not appear to be substantially worse than life in the post-WWII 1950s.

So, does it help to know about flushing toilets or about the difference between a crinoline and a bustle to understand Victorian fiction? I think it does, and very much. Some authors may not care very much to describe the background of their fiction but look at what Bram Stoker does in Dracula (1897). We miss the horror of his tale if we miss that Count Dracula comes from a medieval land to terrorize ultra-modern Britain. Stoker’s characters put together a record of the vampire chase using all kind of modern devices (a typewriter, a phonograph… both 1870s inventions) and they follow him back to his lair thanks to perfectly reliable train schedules. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation was the first to understand Stoker’s ultra-modernity. It even has a beautiful scene in which Dracula follows Mina into a cinema, which is not anachronistic as it might seem: “The first public film shows in the UK to a paying audience took place in London in 1896. On 21 February that year, the Polytechnic Institute on Regent Street hosted a display of the Lumière brothers’ new moving-picture device, the Cinématographe” (http://www.londonssilentcinemas.com/history/).

Reading Goodman’s volume and other excellent books such as Judith Flanders’s The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (2003) I cannot help being impressed by the massive effort Victorians made to improve matters. “The greatest invention of the nineteenth century”, Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “was the invention of the method of invention”, as he is right indeed. It can be argued that many of these inventions resulted in the hell that factory life was for many 19th century children, women, and men. Also that others were delayed for suspicious sexist reasons: the washing machine was invented by one Jacob Christian Schäffer (in 1767!) but not commercialized. American inventor Nathaniel Briggs was granted the first patent for a hand-operated washing machine in 1797, and others followed in his steps, but only the introduction of Alva J. Fisher’s electric Thor washer in 1908 started changing domestic life for women. As Goodman claims, doing the laundry was the worst chore Victorian women had to face, particularly those in the working classes and in service to the middle- and upper-classes. One never reads about these matters in Victorian Literature, in which clothes are worn and soiled with little mention of who makes and cleans them.

To sum up, then, yes indeed reading the fiction of the past is an immersive historical experience but a limited one–as limited as reading the fiction of the present, which can hardly make sense of the widespread use of the smartphone and the impact of the social media (can it??). I am not sure how far deep into the past we need to understand what we read or if we have simply to handle the background as well we can, which is possibly the only practical option. Let’s be at least aware that in the past things were done differently, and enjoy the difference.

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

(MIS)ADVENTURES IN (MIS)CASTING: VISUALISING CHARACTERS

I start reading Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009) by the recent Nobel Prize co-winner Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk, and I am dismayed to realize that the first-person narrator I have visualized for about fifteen minutes as an old man is an old woman. Her name is mentioned at the very end of the first chapter when my neurons have already made the effort of seeing this person as a man, for I must ‘see’ who is speaking; for a few more pages ‘she’ is still ‘he’ in my mind until the wrong image is corrected, with an ugly jolt.

Tokarczuk, the author, has seemingly forgotten that she is writing a novel, not making a film, and has taken for granted that her readers will understand her first-person speaker is a woman. But, why should we? Because we have read the blurb on the back cover? Seen the trailer for the film adaptation by Agnieszka Holland? I grow quite annoyed and end up finding many other flaws that make me intensely dislike this totally overhyped novel by this totally overrated Nobel. [SPOILERS ALERT] If you want to narrate a crime story in which the first person speaker is the criminal you need to do it upfront in an American Psycho in-your-face confessional style, not trying to build up any kind of suspenseful mystery, for God’s sake! [END OF SPOILERS]

My other adventure is casting is more satisfying. My ex-student Laura Pallarés sends me a copy of her first novel Pájaros en la piel, the story of the very intriguing relationship between a young Catalan woman in her early twenties, Júlia, and her Swedish father, Joseph. He and Júlia’s late mother had met when both were seventeen but Joseph ignores that their brief summer romance had resulted in a daughter. When he seeks Júlia out the scant age difference makes it hard for them to bond as father and daughter, as they seem to be more comfortable being friends although of an uncomfortably close kind.

Júlia, the author says, looks like Lily Collins, though this English actress is about ten years older. I imagine Júlia, rather, as Catalan actress Laia Costa, currently thirty-five, in a more youthful version (both Costa and Collins are pretty brunettes with interesting eyebrows and lively eyes). If I see her as Collins, then I’ll need to think of Júlia as an English-speaking girl, which is confusing. Joseph, a cosmopolitan artist, is given a Spanish best friend which justifies why he speaks the language so well. Knowing that he is Swedish, blond and blue-eyed, he is easy to cast: he looks like Alexander Skarsgård who, aged forty-three, could really play Joseph in a possible Netflix adaptation (I wish there is one!). Here’s the funny thing: Laura tells me she was not thinking of any specific actor for Joseph but it seems other readers have told her about casting Skarsgård in the role. Well, it was either him or Eurovision Song Contest winner Måns Zelmerlöw (aged thirty-four) for I cannot think of other Swedish men…

‘Why cast actors in roles in fiction at all?’, you may be wondering. And my reply is, ‘why do you ask? Don’t you do it as well?’ I do not know when this habit of mine started but I assume it is widely shared, and made necessary by what I have often commented about here: the diminishing amount of description in contemporary fiction. Novels offer today less information about characters than screenplays with authors supposing, I insist, that readers have not a mental theatre in the sense of the stage theatre but a mental theatre in the American sense of the word, that is to say, a mental cinema. I don’t have one and so I find myself increasingly struggling with visualization.

If failing to see space is bad enough, imagine what it is like not to see characters, either… Hence the constant casting (or even checking the IMDB.com credits before I start reading a novel in case there is already an adaptation). Not that you need a long description to present a character, mind you. This is for instance Long John Silver’s presentation in R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island: “I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow—a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white”. That’s him, no need to go fishing about for the perfect cast. Why, I wonder, is this gone?

This week I have put myself through another kind of trouble regarding the visualization of characters consisting of completely changing an image in a second reading. I am currently working on Iain M. Banks’s non-Culture novel The Algebraist for an article on masculinity in SF and, so, I needed to look again at the human protagonist Fassin Taak. When I say look I really mean look. When I first read the novel a few years ago I did it with no pencil in hand, just for fun, and I let myself go. Fassin is a sort of cultural anthropologist with an alien species known as the Dwellers, who live in gas giants like Jupiter. You might think that visualizing the Dwellers, who look “like a pair of large, webbed, fringed cartwheels connected by a short, thick axle with particularly bulbous outer hubs onto each of which had been fastened a giant spider crab” might have driven me crazy but no, I think I get the idea. Fassin has driven me crazy precisely because he is human and supposedly easier to visualize.

The name Fassin Taak gives no clues whatsoever: Fassin is a French surname, as far as Google tells me, and Taak appears to be a Dutch word for ‘talk’. I have found no men called ‘Fassin’ in real life as a first name so no help there. The only description Banks volunteers, and just in passing, is that Fassin has brown curly hair (no length or thickness noted) and light brown skin. He is two metres tall, looks a decade younger than his forty-five ‘body years’ and is handsome, though at the end of his rough adventure he looks older and somehow emaciated. For reasons unknown to me I saw Fassin as a colleague in another UAB Department initially, perhaps because this guy seems very keen on his scholarly pursuits and so does Fassin. This time, however, I decided to really focus and look at Fassin in the face.

A comment by the narrator suggests that the human civilization to which Fassin belongs is the result of alien abductions of Central American, Middle East and Chinese individuals (or just of their DNA) around the fourth millennium before Christ. Together with the light brown skin this indicates that Fassin is NOT white though the curly hair suggested to me that he must be of Middle East descend. This led me to Antonio Banderas because I had been re-reading Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead and Banderas played the Arab protagonist in the adaptation, The 13th Warrior. However, I was a bit scandalized to see Banderas rather than a proper Arab actor play that role and I Googled the words ‘handsome Arab man’ to check other possibilities for Fassin.

Here’s the joke: all men appearing under that heading were as light-skinned as Banderas, who looks totally white to me. Not Alexander Skarsgård white but white enough (a bit darker than me but Spanish white nonetheless). Anyway, I found a photo of a gorgeous Arab man with a nice beard and lovely green eyes and he has become my new Fassin Taak. I have no idea who this Arab man is and I totally avoided checking him up in case he is a celebrity but he has done me a great service of being the perfect Fassin Taak. When I saw a couple of illustrations by Banks’s readers I positively guffawed… MY Fassin Taak, with his love of hard partying and his ability to cry his green eyes out whenever he is struck by emotion is the real thing. At some points he looked a bit too much like green-eyed bullfighter Cayetano Rivera but I got rid of that and Fassin is now for good and for ever a Middle-East guy with shoulder length curly hair of soft locks, dark lips, bright green eyes and suitably light brown skin. Now the problem is that I have no idea what he is wearing, not what his cyborgian light gascraft looks like. Deep sigh…

Banks is no better and no worse than many other writers in describing characters. In fact, he is quite good if you consider how many alien species he describes in his books. The problem with him and any other writer coming after the Modernist revolution and the eruption of film is that they have stopped caring for physical description. In a world obsessed with racial issues like ours, this neglect of description is a real mess, for readers must be told which skin tone each character is but writers feel somehow embarrassed to go into that kind of detail. The result is that the first-person speaker may be a black woman but if we are not told we see by Pavlovian default a white man simply because we are used to that kind of character dominating fiction. I’ll be very happy to be contradicted in this by any of you (if anyone is reading me). Funnily, 19th century writers, who were on the whole very fond of description, did use illustrations to accompany their work but in our extremely visual time using illustration for fiction is a total taboo, except of course for children’s fiction.

I know I am repeating arguments already presented here, and I hope I am not boring my reader but it’s funny how in the middle of this tremendous crisis on identity politics and representation, character description occupies so little room. I don’t think at all that describing character better infringes on readers’ rights to imagine as they wish. I really think that writers are not fulfilling their part of the pact and helping us readers to share what they have imagined for their own sake as much as for ours. So, please, use more description!

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

THE STRAIGHT WHITE MALE STRIKES AGAIN (AND IS STRUCK…)

These days an article published in the new magazine The Critic, sponsored by Brexiteer billionaire Jeremy Hosking, has made a bit of noise. In their launch issue of November 2019 editors Michael Mosbacher and Christopher Montgomery announced that “Our writers will subscribe to no editorial line nor serve the interests of any party, faction or cause. We ask them to write because we expect them to be honest, and lucidly so. Look to our contributors and fault us if they are not”. However, it seems to me that the critic calling himself (because this is clearly a ‘he’) Secret Author (a “former professor of English and creative writing at a leading British university”) who signs the article “Decline of the English Novel” (https://thecritic.co.uk/issues/july-august-2020/decline-of-the-english-novel/) has a clear agenda. This is dominated by the defence of things as they were when white, straight, middle-class novelists ruled uncontested.

Secret Author bemoans in the July-August issue that the weekend arts sections run full of “a cornucopia of alleged talent”, when, in fact, the “awfulness of most of the fiction” available today is “one of the great unacknowledged secrets of modern cultural life”. What’s wrong with the English novel?, he wonders. Three factors: lack of technical ability, the snobbery that has radically undervalued the middlebrow novel, and, brace yourselves, a lack of religious belief and moral standards. Religious belief is not “a fit subject for a novel” (obviously he means Christian belief, for I am sure he would immediately reject fiction about any other religion), “while ‘moral behaviour’ is mostly reduced to the pressing dilemma of who to sleep with this week”. I would agree that too many new novels are usually overhyped and that technique could be improved in all fronts, but this appeal to traditional values is plain wrong.

This is where I started thinking that, unless this critic is past the ripe age of 100, he must be a troll. His idea of a good novel is one in which “the fount of all moral goodness flows from a country house in Gloucestershire and the lower orders are portrayed as shiftless and venal”, the kind “no one in these enlightened times would dare to publish it”. If, he sentences, you ignore “God, class, power and bourgeois moral values and all you have left for a subject is identity politics (of great importance to a sociologist but a desperate yawn when peddled by writers of both right and left) and some very minor social interactions”. Ah, here is what bothers him: that the ‘others’ who are not white, straight, male and middle- or upper-class have something to say at all, and that their work is appreciated.

The Guardian article by Rhiannon Lucy Coslett, “The Novel is Dead – Again. And this Time, It’s Women Who Have Murdered It” highlights how Secret Author identifies Zadie Smith and Sally Rooney with this “supposed decline” of the English novel (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/10/novel-dead-again-women-murdered-it-sally-rooney). Coslett claims that Rooney in particular “drives men wild” with “jealousy” but I must say that although I am not a man and I have no reason to feel jealous of Ms. Rooney I intensely dislike her novel Normal People. I am not going to fall into the trap of defending anything a woman writes just because I am a woman, though I will certainly refrain myself from attributing to Rooney faults that should be shared by the whole publishing industry, above all, the frantic search for the next masterpiece that burns so many young writers out. Let Rooney and all the others have a career before calling them superb.

I do agree with Coslett, however, that the problem with men like the Secret Author is that they do not understand that the Great White Male Novelist has also been expressing the identity politics of his type but without seeing them as such. The problem is, she says, that he is “still cloaked in too high a regard for some to see he has as much of an identity as anyone else”. I am not sure that I see the connection between high regard and identity, for me this is a matter, rather, of a general failure on the part of reviewers and scholars to make the label “men’s fiction” as visible as “women’s fiction”, or any minority label. Coslett concludes her article by re-assuring the indignant Secret Author that “No one wants to make the Great White Male Novelist extinct – they just want more diversity in publishing” for readers “who truly love books are hungry for a range of perspectives”.

I am afraid this is not true. The title of the interview with new Australian novelist Jessie Tu in the same publication, The Guardian, is “I will probably never read another novel by a straight white male” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jul/01/jessie-tu-when-you-dont-see-yourself-on-the-page-you-literally-dont-exist). Tu is the author of A Lonely Girl Is a Dangerous Thing, a novel about former child prodigy Jena Lien “who, as a young adult, now uses men to fill the void left by fame”. This includes her looking for validation from a powerful “older guy, he’s white, he’s a fucking douchebag” and he is, in essence, toxic but still socially valuable. This seems to define as well the “straight white male author” that Tu will not read again because “Those guys are always going to have readers … I’ll spend the rest of my life reading black writers and BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] people and LGBTQA people, because there’s so many books out there written by these people who don’t have the platform naturally that conservative straight white male guys have”. I could not agree more, yet at the same time I believe that this is absolutely wrong.

Tu’s words explain much better than Coslett’s what is happening now: a fragmentation of the reading public which can hardly end privilege and promote change. Coslett’s ideal readers “hungry for a range of perspectives” runs the risk of disappearing, if they are there at all, or of never emerging, if they are to materialize in the future. I have no doubt whatsoever that the white, straight, middle-class male writer is still privileged by the critics and very popular with readers but the way to undermine that privilege and that popularity is not at all ignoring him, hoping that, somehow, his work eventually loses appeal and his readers move onto other texts.

The way forward I think is twofold. On the one hand, privileged writers and readers that respond to that basic description need to be made aware of their own identity politics and educated in an appreciation of any other identity politics. On the other hand, the production of the WSMCM writer needs to be subjected to the same scrutiny anyone else passes regarding race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, gender. I’ll cite, once more, black, lesbian, left-wing, working-class Scottish author Jackie Kay, currently the Scottish Makar (or poet laureate), to stress that the moment we examine in which ways Martin Amis is a white, straight, conservative, middle-class, male English novelist we will have gained much. If we only see Martin Amis as a major writer and Kay as an author marked by her identity politics we are stuck in square one. Do create critical categories that speak of ‘white man’s fiction’, or ‘heterosexual male fiction’, etc., instead of just letting WSMCM authors go on undisturbed and even send now and then a Secret Author in their defence.

Tu’s loyalty to BIPOC people and LGBTQA people is praiseworthy but also worries me because this battle is not just about who you remain loyal to but about how you re-educate people. Imagine you are a white, straight, male, middle-class man intent on starting a career as a novelist from a position that I am going to call anti-patriarchal and totally respectful of diversity. How would you react to Tu’s words? Why should you be automatically classed with the male writers of the past and be denied any chance to offer a different perspective? What is more, how are Tu’s words and invitation to appreciate BIPOC and LGBTQA authors? Do they want to be put in those categories? Why does Tu, the Australian daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, want to put herself in a category beyond the category ‘writer’? How can Tu and Secret Author communicate at all? Many questions, as you can see.

As a critic working on Masculinities Studies, or Critical Studies of Men and Masculinities, I often feel very foolish trying to convince others that we need to read men’s texts from the same identity politics position we use for the rest. Haven’t WSMCM authors received enough attention I am constantly told? Well, yes and no. They have received attention for their art, if you want to use that word, but not for their politics except to criticise how they represent women and the minorities. We have not really looked into self-representation, into how identity politics is altering (or not) the way men write. Secret Author would then understand that the absence of God and of upper-class morality in the current English novel has nothing to do with the rising presence of the women and the minorities but with the abandonment of these issues by the WSMCM writers themselves. Why Evelyn Waugh has no current equivalent might be a pertinent question to ask but within the field of what should be called Men’s Fiction.

This has to do with a strange tension between representation and authorship. As critics we are doing plenty to examine representation, increasingly including in this examination male characters (just see my previous post). But we are strangely reluctant to the see the so far dominant critical categories also as critical categories for authorship. Shannon Wooden and Ken Gillam, the authors of Pixar’s Boy Stories: Masculinity in a Postmodern Age which I discussed last week, never think of Pixar as Men’s Cinema in the same way Women’s Cinema is assumed to exist in, for instance, Patricia White’s Women’s Cinema, World Cinema: Projecting Contemporary Feminisms (2015).

If someone who is not a WSMCM author creates a text, their difference from the WSMCM norm is always incorporated into the way their authorship is read. However, and I know that I am repeating myself, we have great difficulties to see WSMCM authors as specifically conditioned by their identity even when we discuss how they represent the persons of their same type. It’s an either/or question: either we stop using identity politics for everyone who is not a WSMCM author, of we also use them for WSMCM. We cannot just allow the norm to remain unexamined and split the reading public into mutually ignorant segments. Whatever needs to happen will happen, of course, but one thing we do not need is literary separatism.

Secret Author, I know you are a troll planted there as clickbait for The Critic, which needs all the publicity it can get in this early stage of existence. You might have a point but if there is anyone to blame for falling standards in the English novel perhaps you need to look at you own kind for falling standards in criticism.

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

SUPPOSING REASEARCH MATTERS: A BAD AND A GOOD EXAMPLE OF LITERARY INVESTIGATION

The mood has changed so much this weekend that I must think somebody is crazy: either the scientists asking for as much prudence as possible until the Covid-19 vaccine arrives (most likely 2022), or my fellow citizens who have taken to the streets disregarding all precautions as if this nightmare were already over. The latter, I should think. My crystal balls tells me that in two or three weeks we’ll be back in square one, with panicky calls to the emergency services and overcrowded hospitals again. If I were a doctor or a nurse I would be seething with frustration, anger, and disappointment and would scream during the daily 20:00 celebration of their heroism. What a mockery!

I’m writing this preliminary note because I no longer know which direction to take: are we still fighting for the survival of the species and nothing else matters?, or are we already on the road towards business as usual to save the economy? I’ll let my reader take their pick. For those of pessimistic inclinations, I strongly recommend the devastating article by Antonio Turiel “La tormenta negra”, which describes all you fear to know about the next oil crisis (https://ctxt.es/es/20200401/Politica/32045/Antonio-Turiel-petroleo-tormenta-negra-crisis-energetica.htm). For the rest, go on reading…

Supposing research still matters in this world, I’d like to discuss an example of bad literary criticism and an instance of great literary investigation. In a world now gone if somebody published a controversial article a polemic would follow with replies and counter-replies ad nauseam. Today, this is not worth the effort because so much is published and because, let’s be honest, you never know who you might offend. I have, therefore, decided not to name the author or the title of the bad article to which I’ll refer (though, of course, nothing is hard to find anymore). In contrast, I’m very pleased to reference the good article on which I’ll comment next: “‘I’ve learned I need to treat my characters like people’: Varieties of Agency and Interaction in Writers’ Experiences of their Characters”, by John Foxwell, Ben Alderson-Day, Charles Fernyhough, and Angela Woods, Consciousness and Cognition 79 (March 2020): 1-14, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2020.102901.

The bad article analyses Hareton in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, defending the thesis that he is an idiot in the clinical sense of the term. To begin with, I was mightily surprised to see the word used formally but Wikipedia teaches me that even though ‘idiot’ is not used in British psychology, in the United States it is still used in legislation, with amendments in diverse state legislations as recent as 2007 or 2008. The author of the article on Hareton uses ‘idiot’ in the sense of someone with an intellectual disability even though Merriam-Webster, an American source, claims that “The clinical applications” of idiot, imbecile, and moron “is now a thing of the past, and we hope no one reading this would be so callous as to try to resurrect their use” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/moron-idiot-imbecile-offensive-history).

The article I am discussing, published by an outstanding A-list American journal of literary criticism, uses a nice trick to avoid political incorrectness: it reads Hareton by measuring his characterization against 19th century conceptions of idiocy. The author is not simply calling Hareton an idiot, then, but suggesting that this is how the original readers would have understood his ungainly appearance and brutish behaviour. In fact, the author uses a Disability Studies perspective so that they can also criticize how persons with an intellectual impairment were callously classified as idiots in the not too distant past. I have nothing against this line of argumentation, for prejudice needs to be exposed and the appalling wrongness of earlier psychology also denounced. The problem is that Hareton is not at all an idiot, nor would original readers have mistaken him for one. The Literature of the past surely has other examples of persons with an intellectual disability worth exploring.

That Hareton is not mentally impaired in any way is very easy to establish: he responds quickly to the young Catherine’s literacy programme, which the lad himself suggests (once he returns the books he has stolen from her). When Catherine understands that he wants to be educated she proceeds, and this is the first step in their joint undermining of Heathcliff’s patriarchal rule. In the process, Hareton’s good looks and warm feelings resurface, having been buried under the thick layer of illiteracy that Heathcliff imposes on his foster son. If you recall, basically he wants to avenge himself by humiliating the son of his main enemy, his foster brother Hindley. When this man dies, Hareton becomes Heathcliff’s adoptive son. The author of the article, thus, misses what any Victorian reader would understand: Hareton looks and acts like any other person of the time who had received no education whatsoever and was subjected to much abuse from harsh parents. In fact, if one pays attention, there are frequent comments about how handsome the lad is despite Heathcliff’s efforts to destroy him physically and psychologically. No reader who reaches the end of the novel should doubt that Catherine has fallen in love with an attractive, warm-hearted, loyal man who is, besides, willing to learn from her (and teach her in return about nature).

What, then, is the cause of the misreading in the article I have mentioned? Two causes: one is the misguided desire to expand the field of Disability Studies to works which have no disabled character; the other is that we are scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to producing new readings of the classics, as my friend Esther Pujolràs tells me. The author of the article knows that the happy ending disproves the thesis, and even acknowledges that there might be no evidence of idiocy in the text, but the article has been accepted by peer reviewers who have seen no problem in publishing a piece which is plainly wrong. I am 100% sure that this has to do with the use of Disability Studies as the theoretical frame, though I must add that I have seen other articles cheekily warning that there is no evidence for the thesis presented. I was taught that this is mere speculation but it seems that the rules have changed. The other question, the depletion of new things to say about the classics, is visible in the thick stream of research that deals with minor aspects. It is, logically, hard to approach a classic like Wuthering Heights from a truly new perspective and so attention is paid to smaller elements missed by previous research. A result of this is that 21st century bibliography looks like an analysis of single leaves on trees rather than of the forest. Another problem is that there is so much bibliography that any new author has hardly room to develop a thesis among so many obligatory references to predecessors. I am not saying that no new work about the classics should be published; what I am saying is that many other authors, works, and aspects of literary criticism are waiting for someone to pay attention to them.

The article by Foxwell et al. is a very good example of this. Finally someone has thought of asking authors how they imagine their characters and here are the first results. The authors present evidence collected with a questionnaire sent to the authors who presented work at the Edinburgh Literature Festival (in 2014 and 2018). 181 replied (mostly women, mostly British) and from their replies the first tentative sketch of the imaginative process behind writing characters has emerged. Foxwell and his colleagues wanted to investigate a phenomenon which I have often mentioned here: writers claim that characters take decisions in the process of building a piece of fiction, often taking it in directions unanticipated by the author. The questionnaire was designed to have writers be more specific about their relationship with their own characters: are they like the imaginary friends of childhood?, is hearing their voices a sort of hallucinatory experience?, are characters’ voices different from the author’s own inner speech?

Although the results are not homogeneous, a general conclusion is that writers imagine characters and then they give them a voice in ways that recall how we suppose a person we know would react in certain circumstances. Of course, this is a very superficial summary of the many aspects concerning the topic which the article analyses. Read it and you will see how amazing the statements from the writers are. Here is an example: initially, the characters “feel under my control and then at that certain point when they feel completely real, it’s becomes a matter of me following them, hoping to steer” (10). The bibliography, full of articles on diverse forms of hallucinatory madness, indirectly hints that somehow the researchers were worried to discover that the authors of fiction actually suffer from some kind of mental disorder. They very carefully point out throughout the discussion of results that all authors know that their characters are mental constructions and that the voices they hear and the conversations they have are perfectly normal manifestations. Normal for a fiction author, I should add. I remain mystified by how it feels to have your imagination colonized by the presence of other people. The article describes quite well what happens in the mind of a fiction writer at work but it cannot say why it happens.

I am not a big fan of the strict, formalist language in which Foxwell and his colleagues write, and which is habitual in cognitive and linguistic analysis. Here is an example: “Those writers whose characters were fully distinct from their inner speech were significantly likely to report dialoguing as themselves with the character (χ2 = 22.19, df = 6, p < 0.001), to feel like they were observing their characters (χ2 = 32.15, df = 2, p < 0.001), and to experience their characters as possessing full agency (χ2 = 28.29, df = 6, p < 0.001)” (9). In fact, I’m quite sorry that there is no room for discussing how the imagination works in literary criticism, from which living writers are mostly absent. There should be, I think, a middle point between the interview and the statistical analysis, but it seems nobody is really interested, perhaps even few authors (see my post of 13 January, “The Elusive Matter of the Imagination: Too Frail to Touch?”). Tellingly, many writers declined the invitation to participate in the survey, refusing to explore in detail mental processes that are personal and delicate. As the researches stress, imagining characters is “a specific aspect of inner experience for which no established vocabulary exists” (13).

I’ll end by suggesting that perhaps that vocabulary does not exist because writing fiction is play and connecting adults with play is always complicated. I do not mean by this that the task carried out by fiction writers is easy child’s play but that dreaming up characters has a playful aspect. We take fiction too seriously to accept that it is a complex game and in the end we have no idea about how it works. If we could resurrect Emily Brontë, everyone would want to know how she imagined and spoke to her characters, so why not ask the living authors surrounding us? Obviously, they have plenty to say.

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

“WE ARE ALL MARXIST”: A CONVERSATION WITH TERRY EAGLETON

A malfunction of my website forced to retrieve the folder where I keep the .pdf of the interview with Terry Eagleton which I did for the literary magazine Quimera, back in 2003. To my delight, the whole transcript of the original English version was still there (we published just a selection, in Spanish). After a quick revision, it is now available from my website (in the section http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/other-publications). Journalists must be used to keeping full records of their most interesting conversations but I’m just an amateur interviewer, and this is for me the rarest of documents. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed rediscovering how amazingly generous Prof. Eagleton was to me (as I assume he must be to everyone). Incidentally: the interview took place in a hotel in downtown Barcelona because Prof. Eagleton’s talk at my university was cancelled due to one of our many students’ protests. He was delighted that this was the reason for the cancellation!

This post completes, in a sense, an improvised trilogy on the matter of how theory and literary criticism fused around the 1990s. I mention in the interview that the most recent edition at the time of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Leitch et al., eds., 2001) excludes Erich Auerbach, I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis or Lionel Trilling, but includes Homi Bhabha, Helène Cixous, Stuart Hall and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and this helps to date with precision when the new model was fully institutionalised. Eagleton comments that “some of those critics who are today fashionably excluded were actually far more radical than some of the fashionably included”. The third edition (2018), though, appears to be far more comprehensive, with 157 authors, 48 of whom contribute texts written in the 21st century (the book is 2848 pages long!). The liberal classics I missed in 2001 are back in and, of course, Eagleton is present. The youngest critic included in this hefty volume is Ian Bogost (b. 1976) with a piece called “The Rhetoric of Videogames”. Please, note that the Norton does not carry the word ‘literary’ in its title.

Terry Eagleton made an extraordinary contribution to the establishment of theory within literary criticism with his handbook Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), which has gone to countless editions and has sold close to 750000 copies –not really to common readers but to students in need of a reliable guide. This is just one volume in Eagleton’s astonishing oeuvre, which runs to forty volumes so far (including a novel and memoirs). In the interview he tells me that he finds “writing criticism enormously creative, fulfilling” and that “I’m one of those strange people who are probably for good or bad just called ‘writer’ in the sense that what I write is far less important to me than the fact of writing. I happen to have ended up writing about culture and tragedy, but I might have ended up writing about something else”. This confirms my view that academic writing can indeed be seen as a genre, though Eagleton is privileged in having a voice of his own that expresses itself with complete freedom. He thanks feminism for “showing me a new style of approaching some subjects” but also mentions the Irish working-class background of his family (in England) as a major influence. “Perhaps almost unconsciously”, Eagleton says, “I’ve plugged into that tradition in my own writing” albeit he did so only as a fully established scholar. “[W]hen you’re younger and you are establishing yourself you have to play by the rules of the game and I look back on some of my early radical works and I’m shocked by how conventional they’re in their methods, or their tones, or their styles”.

Eagleton (b. 1943), grew up in Salford, in Greater Manchester. He graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, but wrote his doctoral dissertation at Jesus College, under Raymond Williams’ supervision. Later, he moved to Oxford, where his career developed for the following three decades (1969-2001) until he accepted the John Edward Taylor chair of Cultural Theory at the University of Manchester. The label ‘Cultural Theory’ was, he told me, of his own devising. When I met him, Prof. Eagleton was combining his Manchester chair with a position in the other Trinity College, in Dublin. He is now Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University, apparently with no thoughts of retiring. Do recall that Eagleton comes from a working-class family. He is a wonderful case of a person pulling themselves up the bootstraps of boots that don’t even exist (at least, he had access to grants which would hardly be the case in other nations).

When he was a student at Cambridge, he reminisces, “everybody around me was an aristocrat. They were all about seven foot tall –I was quite small a student– because they had generations of good food and good breeding. They looked distinctly different from ordinary people, they spoke differently”. Oxbridge students later became “anonymously middle-class” though working-class students are still too few. His own job consisted of creating “a space in which these different people could come together”. In his view, “most conservative institutions create their own internal opposition, and there has to be someone there to organise it and that’s what I really tried to do” in an atmosphere that was in fact “incredible receptive” to new syllabi and topics. “The place I left was very different from the place I joined. But that wasn’t just because of me”, he concludes. Inevitably, Eagleton also absorbed the patrician culture surrounding him and, as you can read in the interview, he writes predominantly about canonical texts. We need not assume, he declares “that if everybody takes to writing their master’s thesis on The Simpsons it’s going to be more revolutionary than writing about Jane Austen”. The revolution that interests him is, rather, the “very subversive effect” that canonical texts may have; this is the method he followed at Oxford.

It’s quite funny for me to see that the questions I asked Prof. Eagleton about close reading, literary criticism, and theory in 2003 are exactly the same questions worrying me seventeen years later. I was then a recently tenured lecturer (2002), with already an experience of teaching for twelve years at UAB and it might seem that since 1991 much should have changed. I see, however, that basically I caught the beginning of an academic wave still swelling and far from breaking point, hence the recurrence of the same worries. I should have disliked Eagleton’s work, as he was one of the main defenders of the introduction of theory in the English classroom but he was also Raymond Williams’ disciple and, as such, he had a very British awareness of the relative values of culture, which is often missing in American criticism. This feels, to my mind, more straitlaced, puritanical, and humourless. I’m comfortable reading Eagleton but uncomfortable reading other theorists and there must be a cultural explanation for that.

What is then the function of theory, according to Prof. Eagleton? For him, the rise of theory between 1965 and the 1980 responds to students’ demands: “They don’t want to be taught the novel by teachers who never even stopped to ask themselves what a novel is (…)”. Theory pushes “questions a stage back: it doesn’t just say ‘is this a good poem?’, it asks ‘what do we mean by a good poem?’; it doesn’t just say ‘is this a moving tragedy?’, it asks ‘what is it to be tragic?’. It’s not replacing criticism, it’s asking questions that go one level deeper”. Close reading without that kind of question is valueless, but “any theory which can’t read the text closely is not for me a very valid theory”, Eagleton points out. He also worries about the commodification of theory, mostly an effect of ultra-competitive US academia, and declares his wariness of post-structuralism, presenting himself insistently as a Marxist. In fact, I called the interview “We Are All Marxist” because for Eagleton “Marxism as a theory is part of the modern mentality as much as Darwin or Freud or Nietzsche” and “we’re all Marxist now in the sense that Marx was the first to say ‘look, there is this object called capitalism, it has its peculiar ways of working; we must look at it as an object of study.’ You don’t simply throw that aside overnight. It’s part of our very deep way of thinking in the West”.

Marx, in short, was among the first cultural theorists and Eagleton approaches theory in the same spirit: as an object of study, not as a preacher, a fanatic or, even worse, an intellectual in love of abstraction. Marxism, Prof. Eagleton clarifies, is not about using Marx for literary criticism but “raising questions about the place of culture, the cultural practices in our kind of society” from a left-wing position, naturally committed to socialism. He praises Marx for using “dialectical thinking” to “embrace the riches of the great liberal, middle-class tradition” in his project to transform them into a culture open to all. For Eagleton “one of the great loses of post-modern theory, if that’s what it is, has been the loss of that dialectical habit of mind” which consists of “seeing a relation between the opposites” and how Modernity is both liberating and enslaving. “One reason I’m a Marxist still is I don’t hear anybody else say these things again”: there is no “third position”, no debate, no dialogue. I couldn’t agree more.

The problem is, I think I need not stress this, that the word Marxist carries many unwanted connotations. It is tainted both by the excesses of the Communist regimes –though I wonder why Vietnam is never discussed in the media; is it because it is a successful Communist nation?– and the excesses of the pro-Communist European intelligentsia of the 1960s and 1970s, all those upper-middle-class kids playing revolutionary and understanding nothing about working-class life. I don’t know whether Eagleton still identifies as a Marxist but if he does he must be one of the last great intellectuals using that label. Marx is being forgotten partly because the issues I have mentioned and also because the USA’s triumph in the Cold War. Add to this heady mix the rise of Communist China as the next world leader (if the current coronavirus crisis does not devastate its economy), and you can see how odd it is to call yourself a Marxist in the Western world. I know that I am indeed a Marxist, without having ever read Marx in depth, because what Eagleton implies is that if you come from a working-class family your awareness of class issues makes you necessarily a Marxist. You may become eventually right-wing but that is another form of class awareness, if you get my drift. So, yes, in a sense we are all Marxists, as we are the children of Darwin, Freud or Nietzsche –and of Mary Wollstonecraft and all the feminists.

I’ll end by vindicating, as Prof. Eagleton does in the interview, the need for a renewal of dialectal thinking because this must spring from conversation, one of the greatest victims of our current self-absorbed, narcissistic academic system. I thank the stars that allowed me to share conversation with one of the greatest minds of our time one morning in April, back in 2003. Enjoy not only the record of that rich conversation but all the enriching conversations you may have in your life.

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

THE END OF LITERARY CRITICISM?: ON GEORGE STEINER’S PASSING

George Steiner passed away a few days ago and the culture sections in the media have been abuzz with contrary opinions about his immense influence. Together with Harold Bloom (who died last October), Steiner was one of the last voices left from the time when literary criticism was not subservient to literary theory, which often means in practice to other disciplines such as philosophy or sociology. I cannot have much personal sympathy for Steiner as a patrician intellectual who seems to personify the ivory tower protecting privileged white men, but I mourn with his passing the death of a type of intellectuality connected with deep reading that will never return. His was the class of mind I was asked to admire by the scholars who trained me as an undergraduate student in the early 1980s, and something of my youthful awe remains, even though his academic style was at odds with my own scholarship.

I did see Steiner in the flesh, though my memories of the event are very poor. This must have been at the Universitat de Barcelona, possibly in 1985, and I recall being in the first row of a very crowded room, amazed at how deftly he moved his withered left arm (a birth defect) with his right hand. I remember being impressed by his lecture, but I don’t recall the topic (the Greek hero Cadmus?). It was clear to me that I was in the presence of one of the Minds in ways that I have hardly ever felt listening to other big names, for he commanded immediate respect. That feeling is now still intact but also, paradoxically, altered because I am much better aware of the academic context than I was then. Today, I would listen to him with more scepticism.

If you read the diverse articles which El País has published these days you get a sort of snapshot of that old-style European intellectualism that Steiner embodied, the kind I was told to bow down to, which exalted reading the classics at the cost of ignoring all of Modernity, and which did not take into account each reader’s background. In his last interview, with Nuccio Ordine, Steiner claims that he regrets not having understood the depths that the best cinema can reach, and not foreseeing the impact that feminism would inevitably have on all fronts of life (at least, he claims to have supported it). How, I wonder, can a person be one of the greatest cultural critics without understanding these two crucial elements of the 20th century and beyond? But, then, it seems to me that the ability to ignore whole areas of cultural experience was also part and parcel of what fine literary criticism used to be. It was a dialogue among the peers of a very exclusive circle, who never really wanted to invite outsiders in but to perpetuate their own conservative view of literature.

While Bloom was at war, precisely, with the American academia emerging in the 1970s after the establishment of identity politics, in Steiner’s case a rather more subtle war against him was waged by the rather provincial British academia (yes, Oxford and Cambridge) that never accepted him and his multilingual, comparative, pan-European approach to literary interpretation. Indeed, his longest-lasting position as a lecturer was at Geneva. His own personal war was fought against American culture from the 1960s onwards, in which he overlapped in many ways with the American Bloom as the last defenders of a world quickly collapsing around their respective pedestals. Both, incidentally, were Jewish though the one to have been most vocal about the importance of understanding the Holocaust was Steiner (and no wonder, since his Austrian parents were exiles from Nazism). By the way, let me recommend the obituary at The Guardian, not so much for the obituary itself but for the readers’ comments; some were Steiner’s much daunted students at Cambridge! (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/feb/05/george-steiner-obituary).

I am much divided in my views of what someone like Steiner meant. On the one hand, I miss the presence of voices like his in defence of reading and of the need to think as deeply as possible as critics. Where are the true intellectuals today, I wonder? I have been complaining loudly about how any chance of using a truly personal voice that resonates with a wide readership has been killed by the cookie-cutter paper and by shallow, hyper-productive scholarship. On the other hand, Steiner (much more so Bloom) did not have a voice I associate with dialogue. Obviously, I don’t know enough about Steiner (or Bloom) to discuss his achievements and opinions but, in essence, his literary criticism consisted of analysing the conversations that literary texts have with each other, according mainly to his own uniquely cultured criteria, ignoring all the rest. Authority can be built on the basis of only listening to one’s fine voice but, as it is happening with F.R. Leavis (or has already happened), this may mean a quick posthumous outmodedness. I have very rarely come across quotations from works by Steiner in thirty years as a literature researcher. Either that is already a sign of his obsolescence, or I am not reading the right bibliography.

Among the comments by Guardian readers that I have mentioned before there was an exchange that caught my attention. “These scholarly, deeply educated people” a reader claimed, “are almost extinct. It is impossible today to achieve the level of deep learning Steiner acquired. The future is very bleak”. Someone else replied “That’s simply untrue; there will always be a genuine old-fashioned elite”. Here is in a nutshell what irks me: the connection between being ‘deeply educated’ and belonging to an ‘old-fashioned elite’. The collective aim of any society should be having as many deeply educated individuals as possible, so that there would be no need for any elites in possession of the one and only true culture. What I imagined as a young girl listening to Steiner, among others, was a future in which erudition of the kind which he possessed would be as coveted as being slim is today –this was not as naïve as it sounds, for you should recall the quite high cultural level then of public television in Spain (at least the second channel) and of the post-Francoist new media. I supposed that the intellectual elites would inspire a constantly rising level of education among all classes as access to education grew but, instead, we have youtubers and influencers who lack any understanding of intellectual training and, possibly because of that, are the opposite of humble. We also have unexpected kinds of narrow erudition, such as the erudition of the football fan or that of the tabloid reader interested in Kardashian-style celebrities Of course I was stupid, I should have known better than suppose that people really want to be educated, for they don’t, and this includes many university students of working-class roots who are not really doing their best. Not that the upper classes are doing much better, I should say, and they have all the opportunities. Where is the Steiner of the ‘genuine old-fashioned elites’ now? Busy with their Instagram accounts most likely.

Having said that, it would be very wrong to assume that the conservative teaching and research model passed on by Bloom, Steiner and company is over, despite the high impact of theory and identity politics on literary studies. It is really hard to say who is in the minority since we tend to gravitate towards those who share our academic viewpoints. When we need to mingle –as happens in Department workshops– it’s easy to see that the divisions run very deep. There is still a prevalent view that texts can be analysed on their own, without context or politics, for we do literary criticism and so what matters is only textuality. This extreme formalism is accompanied by the misguided impression that if you take context into account, then textual analysis is contaminated and, thus, invalidated. I also marvel at how my colleagues (all over the Spanish university I mean) manage to function without paying attention to what articulates current Western and even global culture, whether you like it or not. Can one really claim to be in the world without knowing the basics of Star Wars, I wonder? And I say this despite being guilty of ignoring whole fields of culture that matter today (rap, which I dislike) and also the fields that are specialised interests but part of high culture (opera, out of pure ignorance).

I am beginning to feel stranded between Scylla and Charybdis, between old-school literary criticism and post-theory, post-identity politics scholarship. I do not think we can ever go back to that elite scholarship based on reading the classics, though I’m sure that many scholars are happy with it, because we have known for decades that in this way the experience of most readers alive today is ignored. I don’t see any sense in that and I will certainly dispute the claim that reading Dante is essential for any living person. On the other hand, I very much miss the fine writing of the old school of literary criticism, a feature that explains why the sales figures for the books by Steiner, Bloom and company were so high. Their prose appealed to many outside academia, whereas most of the academic work we write today is full of unintelligible prose, an unforgivable sin when dealing with any type of literature. As a doctoral student I much embarrassed myself when one of our teachers introduced the works of Mikhail Bakhtin (in English translation, I mean) and I asked him why the prose was so ugly. I expected the fine prose I had been reading as an undergrad to be extended to all topics of interest for literary and cultural criticism, not ugly prose to flood all corners of academia but this is what has happened.

I mourn, then, Steiner, as one of the last big figures who saw a direct link between fine reading and fine writing in literary criticism. We are all writers but we seem to have forgotten how to write essays, conforming instead to the rules of a straitlaced rhetoric that feels like a Victorian corset. I grant that few people, if any, still have the capacity for deep reading that comes from a bottomless erudition but ours is a different time which calls for different skills. I don’t see, however, why the skill of producing elegant prose transmitting a personal voice should be neglected, but then of course this would call for a revolution in academia which I don’t see happening right now, or in the near future.

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