The structure of the academic year makes summer the strangest of seasons, with a first month in which one is too exhausted to properly think just when a little bit of time for writing nonstop materializes, a second month when one is supposed to forget about all matters academic but cannot really do that, and a third month which marks a new beginning more than January does. That was a long sentence, but much happens indeed between 21 June and 21 September every year academically speaking. For this particular blog, this post is, besides, a moment of reckoning and closure since it concludes the yearly volume I publish as a .pdf in the digital repository of my university. Believe it or not, this will be volume number eleven. And, yes, I’m planning to continue writing, though part of my energy is flagging because the world really is in a terrible state, much more so if you’re a woman. It is hard not to fall into a dark mood these days, and I don’t think I will be able to escape depression today. I don’t mean personal depression but this general feeling that we, human beings, are not doing well at all.

To begin with, as I write hurricane Ida is devastating Louisiana on the same date when fifteen years ago hurricane Katrina almost erased New Orleans. Ida, we are being told, appears to be the most powerful hurricane in 150 years but one thing we know now is that while hurricanes used to be a product of the forces of nature in the past, they are now the bastard children of manmade climate change, too. Something very similar can be said about pandemics, with Covid-19 being proof of the excesses we go on committing in our dealings with animals. As if its murderous effects were not enough, eighteen months after the onset of the crisis in Wuhan, the scientists have now confirmed that we are on the brink of certain extinction because of the brutal climate change patterns, unless we do something urgently—which we will not do. I had high hopes that Covid-19 would change how people behave, turning us into more prudent and solidary community members. Yet the images these days of thousands of drunk youths acting like barbarians in the streets of Barcelona once the curfew has been lifted shows that something fundamental is wrong. No matter how few they are, these people and the anti-vaxxers, and the virus negationists—and the greedy pharmas and obtuse governments—reveal that as a species we are suicidal. Expecting the species to alter the path of climate change when we are unable to protect our fellow human beings from a deadly virus is almost preposterous. This is not who we are.

Add to this the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and the resurgence of ISIS in Afghanistan. I must confess that I have been avoiding the more detailed reports coming from that corner of the world and just paying attention basically to the headlines, cowardly trying to bury my head in the sand to pretend that the end of the Afghan War is not connected to my world. Of course, the sudden imprisonment of all Afghan women under sharia law affects all of us, the women that constitute 51% of the Homo Sapiens species but that live as a helpless minority. The fall of Kabul is not at all comparable to the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the Communists, which has so often been commented on this summer. In the end, and unlike what the domino doctrine behind the Vietnam War preached, Communism did not conquer the world after 1975. My deep worry is that in contrast other countries will follow the patriarchal dictatorship now established in Kabul, with not only Afghan women’s rights being lost but those of all women. You need not be a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale to understand that the future might quickly become worse than the past. On the other hand, both Syria (now forgotten in the news) and Afghanistan make me think of how the worst excesses can happen in daylight and in the face of the international press without anyone being able to stop them. It took a mighty alliance to stop Hitler’s army of darkness in 1945 but the UN and NATO have been unable to stop the far less powerful Taliban in a catastrophic failure of nerve (and, let’s say it, of military know-how) that will have terrible consequences for women, LGTBIQ+ persons, and non-patriarchal men all over the world. Terrorism will join forces with Covid-19 and climate change to make human life on Earth even worse than it already is.

Try to educate young persons in the middle of all this for the future. My project-oriented subject for this year is a semestral course on women in current pop music, an idea intended to cheer us up which now sounds to me a bit irrelevant. Of course, you never know these days what is really relevant—Leo Messi’s torrent of tears in his farewell press conference in Barcelona seemed to be very relevant to the state of masculinity these days but perhaps what is more relevant is how quickly we saw him smiling once the torrent of millions from Paris Saint-Germain fell on his lap. But I digress. The Taliban have forbidden all music in Afghanistan, having already executed key figures such as folk singer Fawad Andarabi. Discussing in this context the empowerment of women through their musical careers is chilling. Even the most trivial wannabe star takes on an enormous importance as a figure of anti-patriarchal dissent in ways I had never considered when designing the course. On the other hand, I very much suspect that once we listen to what current Anglophone female stars do say in their songs, we will grow more sceptical about their empowerment. As we are learning in Kabul—and not so far in local social media—we women are always one step away from being silenced no matter how vocal we may be. My intention in any case is to share with my students the pleasure of hearing women sing loudly and beautifully, as so many do. I was going to write ‘for as long as we can’ but perhaps that’s self-defeating.

Perhaps because of the constant threat of being cancelled by patriarchy, in this summer of apocalyptic proportions I have found much comfort in the memoirs of Katharine Graham, the woman who owned and ran The Washington Post for decades. As a young person I was a fan of TV series Lou Grant (1977-1982), the spin-off of popular sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) starring Ed Asner, the excellent actor who died yesterday (he was also the voice of grumpy Carl Fredricksen in Up!). Journalist Grant’s boss in the fictional Los Angeles Tribune was the formidable Margaret Jones Pynchon (played by Nancy Marchand), a composite character, Wikipedia informs, merging “real-life newspaper executives Dorothy Chandler of the Los Angeles Times and Katharine Graham of The Washington Post”. Later, I came across Graham herself as played by Meryl Streep in Steven Spielberg’s undervalued The Post (2017), on the crisis caused when the Nixon administration tried to ban all US papers from publishing the Pentagon Papers leaked by whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg. In Graham’s memoirs, Pulitzer-award winning volume Personal History (1997), this episode looms large, but the lesson on how to protect the freedom of the press she offers is nothing compared to her teachings about how marginal women were in journalism when she was suddenly empowered.

Basically, Graham’s patriarchal father Eugene Meyer could never see his daughter as his heir in The Post and so he chose his son-in-law Phil Graham to play that role. While Katharine lived the busy life of the upper-class wife, mother and society hostess, Phil went the downward spiral, plagued by thoughts that he had not succeeded because of his merits but for being his wife’s husband. Unable to deal with his own male chauvinism, Phil took his life, which left a shocked Katharine at the helm of The Post when she least expected it, aged 46. Her memoirs are often painful to read for the constant insecurity she shows at all times, even when she was one of the most powerful women on Earth. The elderly Katharine (she published the memoirs four years before her death in 2001, aged 84) narrates her life not as a woman who was a feminist from the start but as a woman who discovered feminism once she was empowered and who is appalled at her own naivete as a younger woman. It could not be otherwise given her background and the times. Tellingly, Katharine inherited The Post in 1963, the year when Betty Friedan jump-started second-wave feminism with The Feminine Mystique. Graham’s many comments about being the only woman in her professional circle (and how this constricted the socializing habits of her male peers, spoiling their sexist pleasures) remind us of how lonely a figure she was only sixty years ago. Many things have changed but tell that to the female journalists now fleeing Afghanistan (or trapped there).

Kabul and Katharine have taught me this summer, in short, that if living one’s life as a woman is complicated enough, being subjected to the patriarchal forces of history makes any illusion of personal control naïve and even dangerous. Frankly, I do not know where we are going as human beings, which is why I am sure I will find much comfort in going back to teaching Victorian Literature, since Victorians had a clear sense of progress, including the women who invented first-wave feminism. There was a moment in the 1990s when it seemed Homo Sapiens might have a chance to establish a truly enlightened multicultural global culture but that was revealed to be a false impression generated by the interests of multinational corporations, gleefully celebrating the end of Communism. Then came 9/11, the tragic wake-up call to the real nature of (in)human civilization whose twentieth anniversary will happen in a couple of weeks. Since then, we seem unable as a collectivity to find a new solid horizon, a sense of the future, a project for us and our planet. I would not mind so much for myself, but I have young people to educate, most of them women, and I am just wondering out loud how to do it with enthusiasm and hope for their future. I’m listening if you have any ideas.

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


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

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


Like half the planet, I’ve been watching these days Netflix’s mini-series The Queen’s Gambit (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt10048342) and enjoying it very much despite my total lack of interest in chess. Written and directed by Scott Frank, the mini-series adapts a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, a truly interesting American author. Some of his titles may ring a bell, for they have been adapted for the cinema screen: The Hustler (1959) and its sequel The Color of Money (1984) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963). I strongly recommend Mockingbird (1980), on which I wrote here a few years ago (https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2015/10/18/walter-tevis-sf-masterpiece-mockingbird-the-end-of-literacy/). I have not read The Queen’s Gambit, but it seems to have been inspired by Tevis’s own passion for chess (he was an advanced amateur player). Apparently, Tevis wrote in his author’s note that “The superb chess of Grandmasters Robert Fischer, Boris Spassky and Anatoly Karpov has been a source of delight to players like myself for years. Since The Queen’s Gambit is a work of fiction, however, it seemed prudent to omit them from the cast of characters, if only to prevent contradiction of the record.”

The problem with the novel, however, is not so much that it is a work of fiction about a female chess player, Beth Harmon, who never existed but that it is set in a parallel world in which women (or at least one woman) can aspire to be the best world player. In The Calculating Stars (2018) by Mary Robinette Kowal women are part of NASA’s first missions already because a meteorite strikes the USA in 1952 and colonizing the Moon and next Mars becomes urgent. That, of course, is a science fiction novel. Tevis’s novel and the Netflix mini-series are presented, in contrast, as mimetic fiction but we are never told about the reality of women’s chess players in the 1950s-1970s period that the plot covers. Beth Harmon, in short, is as fantastic a creation as any of Kowal’s lady astronauts but, somehow, we are made to believe that she is more real, which she is not. Beth appears to be a peculiar case of what I will call ‘retrospective feminism,’ that is to say, a female character who achieves something of historical relevance for women at a time when no woman could aspire to the same feat. I’ll argue that this is both positive and negative: positive because it attempts to rewrite history, negative because it is an impossible rewriting and seems to highlight women’s shortcomings instead of our achievements.

As I have noted, I’m not interested in chess because, generally speaking, I’m not attracted to games and much less to those that involve any type of earnest competition. I had to learn from scratch then the basics about how the chess world works by watching the series and doing some quick research online. So, for you to know the current world champion is Magnus Carlsen, a 30-year-old Norwegian, and the current woman world champion is Ju Wenjun, a 28-year-old Chinese citizen. Yes, there are separate championships for men and women, though the men’s makes no reference to gender because, in principle, it is open to women. Chinese player Yifan Hou, 24, the youngest woman to earn the Grandmaster title (aged 14) is the top-ranking female chess player in the world and the only woman in the World Chess Federation’s Top 100 players (currently in position 88). So you see how fantastic Beth Harmon is.

An article in The Conversation by Alex B. Root called “Why there’s a separate World Chess Championship for women” (https://theconversation.com/why-theres-a-separate-world-chess-championship-for-women-129293) manages to be confusing rather than convincing as regards this matter. Root writes that “segregated tournaments allow those playing to get media attention, benefit financially, and make friends with people with whom they share some similar characteristics. Separate tournaments don’t speak to whether there are advantages or disadvantages”. Not convincing… Then, he notes that with about 15% of young players being female in the world, this means that because of the “smaller base of females” there are “fewer women than men at the top of the chess rating list,” which is even more unconvincing. If things were fair, there should be 15% of women players in the top 100, not just one. Only-women tournaments, Root suggests, “may make chess more attractive to girls and women.” Do they…?

The world’s top female player ever, Hungarian Grandmaster Judith Polgár (retired since 2014), totally disagrees with gender-segregated chess. She was at her peak the eighth best world player and famously defeated among others, Magnus Carlsen, Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Boris Spassky. In an article published last year, Polgár expressed very vocally her opinion that women’s chess limits the chances of women players to do their best. “I always knew,” she declares, “that in order to become the strongest player I could, I had to play against the strongest possible opposition. Playing only among women would not have helped my development, as since I was 13 I was the clear number one among them. I needed to compete with the other leading (male) grandmasters of my time” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/30/chess-grandmaster-women-only-tournament-play-men.) In the school and the children’s tournaments she runs there is for these reasons no gender segregation.

Reading, however, about why women lose at chess in non-segregated competitions I came across two very interesting pieces. One is an article by Omkar Khandekar about India, the nation were chess was born. He quotes Koneru Humpy, a top female Indian chess player, who simply thinks that men are better at chess. She and other players Khandekar interviewed “pointed to a combination of systemic and societal factors, and a dollop of sexism, that hold back women from realizing their potential in chess. Lack of role models, lack of financial security, male gatekeepers in chess bodies and an overwhelming pay gap in the sport were further deterrents”. Yet, many added that “the game needed some innate traits, and that crucial ‘killer instinct,’ which most women ‘lacked’.” The author of the article believes that it is rather a matter of being historically disadvantaged and thinks that women have progressed spectacularly in recent years, and will eventually catch up with the boys. But not yet. Kruttika Nadig, a top female Indian player, notes that “Fortunately I didn’t experience sexism in the chess world. But for some reason, I found women are a lot more cagey. It was hard for me to find female practice partners. (I would find) guys working with each other, playing with each other… but not that much camaraderie among women.” In her world, Beth Harmon is totally alone, the one woman among men (both allies and rivals) but it must be said that she does nothing to connect with other women; and there is one at least asking to be her chess friend.

This leads me to the other article, which deals directly with The Queen’s Gambit and can be found on Vanity Fair (https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/11/queens-gambit-a-real-life-chess-champion-on-netflixs-new-hit). Jennifer Shahade, a two-time U.S. women’s chess champion and author of Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport and Play Like a Girl!, explains that there are many female child players of chess until around the age of 12, when they start quitting. Chess, she says, is social, “So if you’re a girl and you don’t have other girls who are playing at your same age range and level and city, it can start to be less interesting. You might just gravitate toward another sport where you have 10 friends.” This is still a partial explanation: for whatever reason, and unless they are committed, girls seem to start identifying chess as a boy’s game in their teens, possibly when they realize that if they want to go further they need to play in earnest and face the boys’ pressure. “I think”, Shahade claims, “there are two parts to the world. [One] part is very excited to see girls and women play. And then there’s also some undercurrents of resentment. Especially as chess moves online, there are a lot of nasty comments written about girls and women.” The Netflix series, with its insistence on the importance of having a team of friendly, supportive players helping you, may certainly encourage girls, and boys, to see matters very differently. But like any other area formerly dominated by men, it’ll take time to make things more equal.

It is certainly gratifying to see Beth receive lessons and support from men who do care about her but several matters are less gratifying. To begin with, Beth is dependent since childhood on a sedative similar to Librium which, quite incongruously, is linked to her ability to visualize chess matches in her head. The series corrects the representation of this and other addictions eventually to end up claiming that Beth’s talent is not their product. Yet, I worry very much that a young girl, as orphan Beth is when her story begins, possibly around 8 or 10, might believe that there is a link between being a talented player and being an addict. Another complicated matter is Beth’s relationship with her adoptive mother Alma (she’s adopted in her early teens), herself an alcoholic. Alma supports Beth eventually but only because this brings in substantial earnings from the tournaments that the girl plays. Alma and Beth bond in unexpected, interesting ways but the mercenary nature of Alma’s investment in her daughter’s success is not too positive.

Finally, there is the matter of clothes… You may visit now the virtual exhibition ‘The Queen and the Crown’ (https://www.thequeenandthecrown.com/) at the Brooklyn Museum and marvel at the costumes designed for both Netflix series: The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit. The progress of young Beth Harmon in the world of chess is marked by her gradual physical transformation, not only from child to woman in her twenties but also from terribly dressed ragamuffin to sophisticated 1970s fashion victim. She seems to invest, indeed, most of her earnings in designer clothes. This metamorphosis is a pleasure to watch but it is also a painful reminder that intelligent women characters need to look good to be accepted by TV audiences. The actress who plays Beth, Anya Taylor-Joy, is not an average beauty but she is attractive enough to have worked as a model. Ironically, Beth’s French model friend Cleo tells her that she could never be a model because she looks too clever… It’s a no-win situation.

Going back to the initial question of retrospective feminism, I’m pleased that Netflix has made The Queen’s Gambit and young girls may see in Beth interesting possibilities. I cannot call her a role model because of her many addictions but she’s an amazingly interesting character. I’m just sorry that the chance has been missed to tell Judit Polgár’s real-life story, or the story of the other women trying to compete with the men in the world of chess at the highest possible level. All my encouragement to them.

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


It is just impossible not to refer today to the controversial finale of HBO’s series Game of Thrones, which surely has put 19 May 2019 in the history books about fiction for ever. While the internet rages, divided into lovers and haters of the ill-conceived eighth season (more than 1,100,000 people have already signed the Change.org petition to have it thoroughly re-written and re-shot), it is no doubt a good moment to consider whether chivalric romance has won the fight with mimetic fiction that Cervantes immortalised in Don Quijote (1605, 1615).

I must clarify that I am by no means a fan of Game of Thrones. I watched the first two seasons, and read the first two novels, and that was more than enough for me. I have been following, however, the plot summaries (I must recommend those by El Mundo Today), for I felt an inescapable obligation to know what was going on. Pared down to its bare bones, then, the series has narrated the extremely violent struggle for the possession of power in the context of pseudo-medieval, feudal fantasy–hardly a theme that appeals to me, for its overt patriarchal ideology. Women have participated in that struggle, as they did in the real Middle Ages (and later), only from positions left empty by dead men, and not as persons with the same rights. Since in the eight years which the series has lasted the debate about women’s feminist empowerment has grown spectacularly, this has created enormous confusion about the female characters in Game of Thrones. I’ll say it once more: the degree of respect and equality for women should NOT be measured by their representation in fiction written by MEN but by women’s participation in audio-visual media as creators. In Game of Thrones this has been awfully low.

[SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH] I’ll add that I am very sorry for those who named their daughters Khaleesi or Daenerys–you should always wait for the end of a series before making that type of serious decision! Perhaps it is now time to think why so many women have endorsed a story that has ultimately justified the murder of its most powerful female character by a man who supposedly loves her, and who is then allowed (by other men) to walk free, despite this feminicide. And the other way around: we need to ponder why this brutal woman, a downright villain no matter how victimised she was once, has been celebrated as a positive hero. Just because she us young and pretty? All Daenerys ever wanted was power for herself, to sit on the throne and play crowned dictator, not to change the lives of others for good. This is the reason why she needs to be called a villain. In short: patriarchy has scored a victory with GoT: we are hungry for female heroes, and they have given us a villainess (or two, if we count Cersei, of course). Sansa and Arya (and Brienne) are just what they always have been: consolatory nonsense, as the late Angela Carter would say. Next time around, please all of you, women and men who hate patriarchy, reject its products.

Now, back to my topic: leaving gender issues aside (supposing we can), has chivalric romance won over mimetic fiction with GoT? Was the battle skewed since its inception? Did Cervantes really intend us to follow Alonso Quijano in his madness, induced by reading so much high fantasy? Or is the collective passion for GoT the kind of insanity Cervantes warned us against? I don’t have room here to explore this in much detail but since I have a class to teach tomorrow about Pride and Prejudice, I do want to trace here briefly the frontlines in the battlefield to see how they stand. Austen once wrote her own Cervantine anti-fantasy novel, Northanger Abbey, a frontal attack against gothic, published posthumously in 1818. If she were alive today, she would be possibly groaning and sharpening her computer keyword to pen an onslaught onto fantasy with dragons…

The thesis I am going to defend is that we are at a crossroads: mimetic fiction as practiced by Jane Austen and company cannot fight the primary impulse that favours fantasy; yet, fantasy seems unable to renew itself and satisfy the demands of its consumers (above all, of women seeking post-sexist stories). Both mimetic fiction and fantasy fiction, I maintain, are reaching an impasse. The popularity of television series is contributing to that impasse by eroding the novel in favour of the audio-visual and by maintaining an anachronistic writing system that, as we have seen, can no longer ignore the voice of the (angry) spectator.

Histories of literature usually present realistic/mimetic fiction as the centre of the Literature worth reading, leaving fantasy at the margins. Academia, however, has been partly colonized since the 1980s by scholars with very different values, quite capable, besides, of reading both mimetic and fantastic fiction (here I mean the three modes: fantasy, gothic, and sf). This has been changing the perception of how fiction works, with non-mimetic fiction gaining more ground but with the main line still attributed to realist fiction. My point is that, in fact, GoT certifies that we have been narrating a very biased version of literary history: mimetic fiction has not only been unable to stem the tide of fantasy but has also given fantasy some key elements–the melodrama of the 18th century novel of sensibility, the historical fiction of the Romantic period, and the verisimilitude that the old romances lacked with the mighty Victorian novel. When J.R.R. Tolkien changed fantasy for ever with The Lord of the Rings (1954-55), all those elements solidified.

So let me trace the genealogy, briefly. Chivalric romances, written in a variety of European languages, started as epic tales in verse to become prose narrative by the early 13th century. I don’t know enough Spanish Literature to understand why Cervantes focused in the early 17th century on the dangers of reading a genre that had been around for centuries. Amadís de Gaula by Garci Rodríguez de Montalbo is supposed to have been written in 1304, though it become really popular after the introduction of printing (c. 1440s). Le Morte d’Arthur (1485, Thomas Mallory) and Tirant lo Blanc (1490, Joanot Martorell, Martí Joan de Galba) are closer to Quijote but even so, he is driven mad by very old-fashioned texts, if I understand this correctly.

El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605, 1615) came too early to have an immediate impact, for the novel, so to speak, was not yet ready to be born. Thomas Shelton was the first to translate the two volumes into English (this was the first translation ever) in 1612 and 1620 but it was not until the 18th century that Cervantes could truly impact the realist novel. Tobias Smollett, who translated El Quijote in 1755 is usually included in the list of British authors of the sentimental novel (or novel of sensibility) but he seems to have picked up from Cervantes a major distrust of any fiction aimed at eliciting excitement rather than intellectual pleasure. Henry Fielding, who mercilessly mocked Samuel Richardson’s quintessential sentimental novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) with Shamela (1741), took Cervantes’s mantle to propose a style of narrating full of authorial irony, which Jane Austen eventually inherited. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) remains Fielding’s masterpiece.

Jane Austen’s own mimetic fiction can be said to be a belated type of sentimental fiction and at the same time as example of double resistance to this sub-genre and to gothic. Austen cannot have enjoyed the excesses of Richardson’s tale of rape Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady (1748) nor the silliness of Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) but I do see her having a good laugh at Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella (1752), Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and, of course, admiring Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778) or Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800). Austen, plainly, did not enjoy what most of her contemporary readers preferred: not only sentimental fiction but, mostly, gothic, from Horace Walpole’s pioneering The Castle of Otranto (1764) to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), passing through Ann Radcliffe’s best-selling The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Matthew Lewis’s frankly scandalous The Monk (1796). I’m 100% sure that George R.R. Martin has read, and heavily underlined, Lewis’s novel.

Gothic brought fiction back the Middle Ages as the backdrop for countless horrific thrillers about innocent heroines chased by appalling villains. At the time when the genre had been around already for about fifty years, Walter Scott (1771-1832) expunged the fantasy elements to turn the past into the stuff of the new historical novels. The Waverley Novels (1814-1832), with hits such as Ivanhoe (1820), prepared the ground for the grafting of the old chivalric romance, purged of the less palatable that so worried Cervantes onto the fictional model of the historical novel. William Morris laid the foundation for what was later known as high fantasy, heroic fantasy or sword and sorcery with his prose narratives A Tale of the House of the Wolfings and All the Kindreds of the Mark (1889), The Wood Beyond the World (1894) and The Well at the World’s End (1896). Morris’s translations, in partnership with Eiríkr Magnússon, of the Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs (1870) and these novels were a direct inspiration for Tolkien.

The Lord of the Rings is called a novel, not a romance, and this is what it is. H.G. Wells must have been among the last novelists to call his fantasy fiction ‘romance’ (a word we now use, confusingly, for romantic fiction similar to Austen’s). I might be completely wrong but, as I understand the matter, whereas in the old type of romance which Alonso Quijano enjoyed reading most elements were highly improbable, the new kind of romance (from Morris and Wells onwards) has learned the lesson of verisimilitude from the novel. Its plot is still impossible but, once we suspend our disbelief, each scene seems plausible, that is to say, the characters interact realistically, as they would do in a mimetic novel. This is how the battle against mimetic fiction is being won: if you can have similar complex characterisation, a naturalistic type of dialogue, and a thrilling setting, why not choose fantasy over fiction set in the too well-known realm of realistic representation?

The post-Tolkien realism of fantasy (call it the neo-romance), however, is also its bane. You may include as many dragons as you please, and give some of your characters magical powers, but it is simply impossible to write first-class fantasy (or gothic, or science fiction) which is not rooted in the real world. I do not mean by this that the best fantasy is necessarily allegorical: what I mean is that since characters in current fantasy must act realistically, they are shaped by expectations very similar to those shaping characters in mimetic fiction. If you had Harry Potter fight corporate villainy instead of a dark wizard, with no magical elements, the tale would be more boring but, basically, the same story (if would be closer to John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener). And the other way around: just because Daenerys has a special bond with her dragons, this does not mean that you may disregard the feminist expectations piled on her by so many female and male readers, based on their experience of real life (and not of handling dragons). Hence the impasse…

Ironically, then, we need to go back to Jane Austen for the fantasy of female empowerment, which allows the relatively poor Elizabeth Bennet to marry upper-class Darcy and climb in this way many rungs up the social ladder. Cinderella wins the game and gets to be, presumably, happy. In contrast, Game of Thrones has taken its ultra-realism so far that we are literally left with a colossal pile of ashes and the mounting anger of the many fans who thought that by endorsing fantasy they were supporting the alternative to the conservatism behind most mimetic fiction. It’s game over, not for fantasy but for fiction which does not listen to its readers and that can only tell tales of violence, with no sense of wonder or of hope – which is what we really need.

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


I have just gone through the second season of the acclaimed series Netflix Stranger Things (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4574334/) and I’m currently reading Ernest Cline’s SF novel Ready Player One (2011, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ready_Player_One), the object of a recent film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg and scripted by Cline himself. This is the second time I try to read Cline’s novel and if I’m trying again it is not because I enjoyed the movie version. Rather, the negative comments on the film by the novel’s staunchest fans have inspired me with the patience I need to finish Ready Player One, if only for academic reasons.

My impatience with Ready Player One and also with Stranger Things is motivated by their second-handness, if that word exists, which is in its turn based on their (mis)use of the 1980s. Allow me to explain.

Cline’s novel takes place in 2044 (Wade Watts, the 17-year-old protagonist, is born in 2027) and narrates the obsessive hunt for an Easter egg in the virtual environment of the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a search which will grant the winner a formidable reward. Life on Earth is on the decline because an unsolvable energy crisis has pushed civilization to the brink of total collapse; instead of using their brains to try to redress this crisis, though, most people prefer to live a second life (if you get the allusion) in the MMOSG (massively multiplayer online simulation game) created presumably in the mid-2030s by James Halliday and Ogden Morrow, of Gregarious Simulation Systems. The late Halliday, obsessed with the pop-culture of his 1980s youth, has shaped the hunt for the treasure buried in OASIS with a string of obscure leads that only individuals with a vast knowledge of his preferred decade can follow. Wade is one among the many ‘gunters’ (egg hunters) that accumulate a vast erudition of 1980s pop-culture, supplemented by the videogame-playing skills which he needs to solve each of Halliday’s riddles.

Ernest Cline was born in 1972, thus, he was 8 in 1980 and 18 in 1990. Indeed, only an original 1980s teen could have the detailed knowledge that Cline displays in Ready Player One: no research starting from scratch could be as convincing. Yet, this is what Cline supposes for Wade. The way US society is organized, children can choose to be educated in the virtual schools of virtual planet Ludus in the OASIS to receive a basic, compulsory education in a more orderly environment that presential schools can offer. This education also includes electives on the OASIS, the equivalent of teaching school children about current social media as part of the school curriculum. Except for the mandatory school time (and sleep), however, Wade spends all his other waking hours also in the OASIS but learning about the 1980s and interacting with other similarly obsessed people. He claims to have consumed basically all of 1980s videogames, popular films and TV, commercials, novels and music.

I was frankly amused by Cline’s view of teen erudition for, although adolescents of the nerdish variety tend to be extremely well self-educated they usually apply their efforts to their own era. I have never ever met a nerd (and I consider myself one) interested in the culture of sixty years before, as is Wade’s case. I stand corrected: yes, I have met many–they’re called academics and can be found in the Humanities schools of our universities but not in secondary schools.

The Ready Player One Wikia claims that James Donovan Halliday was born in 1972, just as Cline, and died in 2039 so, again, it makes perfect sense that as a 1980s nerd he built all these references into the adventure that obsesses the ‘gunters’. Now, I was born in 1966 and was a teenager through the 1980s, and one thing I can tell you is that young people in that decade were characterized by an abhorrence of seeming old-fashioned. That’s how I recall it. There were ‘retro’ touches in the ubiquitous use of shoulder pads and in other matters but the idea of a 1980s teen obsessing with 1920s pop-culture (the sixty year gap in Ready Player One) is totally preposterous. The 1950s were often a reference (in re-makes like John Carpenter’s The Thing of 1982) but the general idea was increasing creativity and looking forward. You can see evidence of this trend in how spectacularly Carpenter’s movie outdoes Nyby’s The Thing from Another World (1951) in all fronts. This had nothing to do with the current obsession with recycling 1980s culture, too deferential to be truly innovative. I’m 100% sure that The Predator, a remake of John McTiernan’s 1987 Predator to be released next week, will soon be forgotten as the mere copy it is.

There is then a contradiction embedded in Ready Player One signified by the very different cultural positions occupied by Cline/Halliday and Wade (and friends): the former makes sense, the latter is an absurdity. So absurd, in fact, that when Spielberg made the film he eliminated the many references Cline makes to his own 1980s films (other references to the 1980s had to be abandoned because of the high cost of rights). If you think about it, Spielberg is the last director that should have tackled Cline’s novel for, evidently, even he realized that he could hardly pay homage to himself! When I saw the movie with my husband, another 1980s teen, we went ‘oh!’ and ‘ah!’ every time we caught a clever allusion, yet at the same time I was bothered by a) how could the retro allusions make sense to the Millennials and to Generation Z?, b) I never played videogames in the 1980s (or now). Actually, many of the pop-culture achievements celebrated in Ready Player One as central to 1980s were products I absolutely hated; others, I simply missed. I saw Heathers (1988) only a few weeks ago, and Cocteau Twins rather than Thompson Twins (and I mean the Sheffield band, not Tintin’s characters) blew my mind as a teen. There was not only one version of the 1980s but many, yet I see a canon being formed which excludes the original variety. I know that this is the same for all decades but I am now living this process as part of my own personal biography, and I find it utterly reductive.

Stranger Things, created by twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, born in 1984, provokes another kind of impatience, that of the product that enjoys behind second-hand. The Duffer Brothers, as they call themselves (in allusion to the Blues Brothers?) were 1990s teens, and, so, I’ll argue that Stranger Things is a series created by Millennials (born 1984-1999), enjoyed by Generation Z (born in the 21st century) but actually inspired by the cultural experience of Generation X (born 1965-1983), mostly based on texts by Babyboomers (born 1945-1964). Stephen King, a major referent in Stranger Things, was born in 1947; his novel Firestarter, a main intertext for the Duffers’ series, was published in 1980 and filmed in 1984 (with a young Drew Barrymore). King was a favourite with my own generation, and we are responsible for taking him with us into (academic) respectability, of which we convinced the Millennials. They have enchanted Generation Z audiences with the tale of Eleven and her friends in the same way King enchanted us. But… the Duffers are not King, for, whereas they are King recyclers, King is as original as one can be.

I am bored stiff by Stranger Things precisely because I notice the recycling. One thing is the new version of It (2017), based on King’s novel of 1986, and quite another matter is presenting pseudo-King as a great novelty. Generation Z audiences logically love Stranger Things because the plot is new to them and because kids like them are central to it. This pleasure, however, is not easily shared – we, 1980s relics, notice, rather, how Winona Ryder has aged from her days as Lydia in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). Also, the moment I read the name Paul Reiser in the second season credits I shouted ‘spoiler!’ for the Burke of Aliens (1986) was bound to play a shifty scientist. The multilayered approach aimed at offering a series enjoyable by all family members results, rather, in a cacophony and creates a conversation at cross purposes with Generation Z. Notice that Ready Player One’s message is that the 1980s were an awesome generator of texts worth knowing first hand, as Wade does. Stranger Things, in contrast, appropriates the culture of the 1980s as its temporal background, but hardly mentions any names and titles. Do the kids in the series ever say that Eleven is like someone straight out of any of the King novels they must be reading?

What truly irks me about Ready Player One and Stranger Things, in the end, is that they aim at producing the same effect 1980s pop-culture had but by re-issuing the original ideas, hence their second-handedness. The much more important matter is that they reflect, though it might seem the opposite, a lack of actual dialogue with the past. In Wade’s future the OASIS works as a kind of universal multi-media library and, so, he can directly access any 1980s texts first-hand, which is the only way to be conversant with the past. Of course, the hunting of the Easter egg provides a major enticement to acquire a solid education in 1980s pop-culture–Cline does not explain what happens to the rest of literally unrewarding culture. I am sure that many Generation Z kids will be curious to know what inspires Strangers Things and, thus, enter that dialogue with the past but if the Duffer Brothers can get away with their parasitical stance, this is because there are no longer massively shared media that keep the 1980s alive. Generation Z does not watch TV, where you can still catch The Goonies now and then, and for reasons that I will never ever understand the healthy habit of the cinema re-release (and double-feature sessions) was lost some time in the late 1980s (wasn’t it?).

My point is not that things were better in the 1980s – this is what texts like Ready Player One and Stranger Things claim! My point, rather, is that each generation needs their own culture and referents, and that this cult of the second-hand is counterproductive. I am not saying ‘don’t touch my Predator’ (well, maybe I am!); what I am saying is, if you’re interested in the 1980s, then see the McTiernan movie and read King’s novels (don’t forget Cocteau Twins!) but make sure you have a culture of your own that kids in sixty years’ time can marvel at.

If this is happening, then I am happy for you, Millennials Generation-Zers and but is it really happening…?

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


I have now completed the project of reading Benito Pérez Galdós’ five series of novels generically known as the Episodios nacionales (1872-1912), which I started back in January 2017. I could have finished earlier but I have delayed reading the last series about half a year because I wanted to keep attached to Galdós’ lucid view of 19th century Spanish History for as long as possible. It has been an immense pleasure, though also a disheartening lesson about who we are here in this corner of Southern Europe.

To my surprise, when I told a colleague in the Spanish Department that I was about to finish the Episodios–a big smile on my face, hoping the revelation would bring a torrent of positive comment–he asked me with total puzzlement ‘but why? You’re a specialist in English Studies!’. I must have looked so confused that he added ‘I mean, few researchers in Spanish Literature have read the Episodios, so why have you put yourself through the task?’ This left me utterly flabbergasted. If a colleague in the Spanish Department announced to me that s/he had read the complete works of Charles Dickens, I would offer congratulations, not commiseration. Poor don Benito, everyone still believes he is a ‘garbancero’–a chickpea merchant!–as Valle Inclán maliciously called him. Or perhaps with a little bit of envy, who knows?

I have read the Episodios using my Kindle (the 46 novels are available from dominiopublico.com in a rather nice edition) and, so, I cannot tell how thick each paper volume is. The 2005 Alianza paperback edition is about 200 pages per book. Considering that I read fast, each episode has taken me between 3 and 4 hours, a bit longer in some cases. To round numbers, that’s 184 hours or, if you want to stretch it a bit more, let’s say 200 hours. That would be the equivalent of about 100 films or 267 TV series episodes (45 minutes each, American style). This is like watching all of The X-Files (150 episodes) and Lost (118), which I have done, to my immense regret in the case of Lost (because of its moronic ending). I’m offering this information, silly as it may sound, in case you might consider joining the club of the Episodios’ admirers, whether you’re a specialist in Spanish Literature, in Quantum Physics, or a plain reader.

Galdós’ Episodios are a series, and although they were published along four decades (which means that original readers in their twenties finished them in their sixties!) they can be read as a single story, as I have done, in the same spirit we watch series on the screen. Reading, of course, is more demanding than watching, no matter how easily Galdós’ prose can be followed (which does not mean it is simple), but, on the whole, I get the impression that writers like Dickens and Galdós prefigure somehow current TV series. Today perhaps they would have been series’ screenwriters, something quite easy to imagine because both loved the theatre and were proficient at writing dialogue, on which all screen writing logically depends.

Reading the Episodios is a double experience in readerly endurance (and satisfaction) and in historical awareness. Galdós had an obvious didactic intention, expressed on these two fronts: he combines the specific lives of his attractive characters (I mean as rounded creations, not as physically beautiful persons, though they often are) with his cleverly managed History lessons. Instead of directly placing well-known historical figures at the centre of each episode, his protagonists are fictional characters in touch with their real-life counterparts one way or another. This creates a wonderful effect, for the Episodios deal both with the History shaped by the great figures and with the history of the more ordinary people around them–the novels are not a dry lesson enlivened by using historical characters in a puppet-like fashion but a slice of life. At the same time, Galdós’ technique incites you to consider what it would be like to turn current political life into fiction in this way, with the likes of King Felipe VI, Carles Puigdemont or Pablo Iglesias in the pages of a novel focused on someone very much like any of us, working as our delegate in the texts.

Most likely, the Episodios are best appreciated in a second reading, for the cast of characters is simply impressive and I suspect that many connections between them are missed in the process of simply getting on with the long reading. Many things have surprised me, above all that Galdós’ is far more open about sexuality than one may imagine for a late 19th/early 20th century Spanish writer, not only regarding his male characters but also the women. Another strong point is his ability to connect high and low, so that as readers we get to meet monarchs but also many marginal characters, with some even rising from rags to riches along several episodes.

The historical span is, of course, also enormous, for the series opens with Trafalgar (the battle took place in 1805) and closes with Cánovas (Antonio Cánovas del Castillo was the Spanish ‘Presidente del Consejo de Ministros’ several times between 1875 and 1897). This also means that whereas in the case of the first novel Galdós was writing about events happened 65 years before, the time lag had been reduced to 15 years when he wrote the last one. Incidentally, it must be noted that the fifth series is incomplete, running only to six rather than ten volumes, though I have been unable to find an explanation for why Galdós abandoned the Episodios. His last decade (he died in 1920) was particularly intense, specially after being elected an MP for his native Gran Canaria in 1914 (as a republican) when he was an ill, blind man past 70. That might be explanation enough.

The main doubt I felt before embarking on my reading of the Episodios was whether they demand from the reader a sound knowledge of Spanish History. I have not done any systematic study of this area since my years in secondary school and I’m far more confident naming the periods and monarchs of British History than of Spanish History. Our 19th century is, besides, an unbelievable chaos, with constant changes in the Government and administration, the series of civil wars provoked by the absolutist ultra-Catholic Carlists, and the love-hate relationship with the reigning Borbón dynasty. This resulted in the exile of Isabel II, the crowning of Italian Amadeo de Saboya as her unlikely replacement, and the disastrous first Republic–a complete shambles. Galdós, as I soon saw, has a transparent informative style and, so, I needed no textbook on the basics of 19th century Spanish History. I have used Wikipedia often, sometimes to check that specific events happened as Galdós narrates them (they did), other times to take a look at portraits of real-life characters. A scant knowledge of the 19th century complex political background is, then, no excuse but perhaps even an advantage to follow Galdós’ excellent History lessons.

As I have noted, the Episodios cover basically the whole 19th century. Read at the beginning of the 21st, with the memory of the calamitous 20th century still recent and with Pedro Sánchez’ Government struggling to bury Francisco Franco’s remains elsewhere (an anonymous ditch on any lonely road seems ideal), Galdós’ voice sounds poignant and ominous. The mere presentation of the pathetic, backward Spain he describes is depressing enough but the occasional authorial comments about, for instance, the absurdity of the carnage caused by the Carlist wars, highlight how we are collectively condemned to repeating the same mistakes. You see the Civil War (1936-39) coming already in the first Carlist War (1833-40), and I marvel that the Borbón monarchs have managed to stay on the throne in view of how their ancestors misbehaved.

Although the fifth series was never finished, as I have noted, the last novel, Cánovas, contains an often quoted pseudo-conclusion. Once Parliamentary monarchy had been installed under Alfonso XII and a democratic two-party system set, with Cánovas on the conservative side and Práxedes Mateo Sagasta on the liberal one, Galdós concludes: “Los dos partidos que se han concordado para turnar pacíficamente en el poder, son dos manadas de hombres que no aspiran más que a pastar en el presupuesto. Carecen de ideales, ningún fin elevado les mueve, no mejorarán en lo más mínimo las condiciones de vida de esta infeliz raza pobrísima y analfabeta. Pasarán unos tras otros dejando todo como hoy se halla, y llevarán a España a un estado de consunción que de fijo ha de acabar en muerte. No acometerán ni el problema religioso, ni el económico, ni el educativo; no harán más que burocracia pura, caciquismo, estéril trabajo de recomendaciones, favores a los amigotes, legislar sin ninguna eficacia práctica, y adelante con los farolitos…” (original ellipsis)

The death foreseen in this passage, caused by the inaction of the two parties which these men headed, gave me a terrible chill, for, of course, this is the Civil War with its million dead, still 25 years ahead on the horizon when Galdós wrote these words. At the same time, the same ills still abound in current politics, though Spain is today richer and less illiterate. For all these reasons, I certainly would make the Episodios compulsory reading at least for aspiring politicians and then for the rest of us. As historian George Santayana once stated, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. It is less than one year ago that I read the words ‘Civil War’ in relation to current Spain in the pages of The Guardian. An exaggeration, hopefully, but also a reminder that we are locked in the same conflicts that Galdós narrates and that brought so much misery 80 years ago.

Among recent academic work on the Episodios I’d like to mention Mary A. Kempen’s PhD dissertation Concepts of the Nation and Nationalism in Benito Pérez Galdós’s Episodios Nacionales (2007, U. Wisconsin). The same American university awarded a PhD to Glenn Ross Barr back in 1937 for his pioneering dissertation A Census of the Characters of the Episodios Nacionales of Benito Pérez Galdós (618 pages!). Checking Worldcat and other sources, it is easy to see that a great deal of the academic analysis of the Episodios has been produced in English by Hispanists in the United States. I’ll add, for good measure, Mary Louise Coffey’s The Episodios Nacionales: A Sociological Study of the Historical Novels of Benito Pérez Galdós (1997, Northwestern University).

In contrast, TESEO only offers three titles of dissertations on the Episodios written in Spain, all on partial aspects such as the press, communications and the most recent one, youth and childhood (2017). Happily, there is at least one notable collective volume, La historia de España en Galdós: Análisis y procesos de elaboración de los Episodios nacionales (U Vigo, 2012), edited by M. Dolores Troncoso Durán, Salvador García Castañeda and Carmen Luna Sellés. It seems, however, very little homage, on the whole, to Galdós’ magnificent achievement from his fellow Spaniards. Perhaps he makes us feel uncomfortable with our shortcomings and he is easier to approach from other cultures, such as the United States.

Trust me: if you’re minimally interested in understanding Spain, the Episodios nacionales are what you need. They’re not a dried-up mummy but a living body, worth the effort of reading them–if that is an effort at all. Stay away from Netflix and use the 200 hours you were going to waste on all those series going nowhere to read Galdós’ own unique series. Or bully Netflix into adapting the Episodios

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


I’m re-reading again The Lord of the Rings these days, for the third time. J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) is not one of my great passions as a reader or researcher but I acknowledge the immense importance that he has as a major contributor to English Literature, and not just to fantasy. What he offers in his work is astonishing. Also, it makes me wonder what academic life was like back in the first half of the 20th century, since he managed to be a highly respected Oxford don and the writer of such massive texts. I do not refer here to the extension of his works but to the density of his mythological imagination, which reaches amazing heights in The Silmarillion.

There are actually several Tolkiens (without even mentioning the academic philologist and the fancy linguist): the charming children’s author of The Hobbit (1937), the epic writer of The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) and the mythmaker of The Silmarillion (1977, edited and published post-humously by his son Christopher Tolkien, but started in 1917). The latter book is far less known because few readers are willing to face the demands that Tolkien’s languid pseudo-Biblical prose imposes (even on his most ardent fans). I just wish Amazon would adapt that book instead of doing again The Lord of the Rings, not only because The Silmarillion has such an attractive plot (together with the other texts attached to it in the volume) but also because a new adaptation feels like a gratuitous insult to poor director Peter Jackson and his still recent film series (2001-3), undoubtedly a major feat in the history of cinema.

Here’s a personal anecdote: on Sunday I rushed to the Museu Nacional de les Arts de Catalunya to see the exhibition on William Morris and the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement that ended yesterday. I find Morris (1834-1896) a fascinating figure in many ways but, above all, because he came up with the idea that beautiful objects need not be the prerogative of the rich. Disliking very much the habitual clutter of useless objects that you could find in most wealthy Victorian houses, he drew a “golden rule”: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” (this comes from “The Beauty of Life”, a lecture delivered at the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design, 1880). IKEA is the ultimate descendant of that philosophy but also all our current perspective on high quality design, for Morris had a gigantic international impact.

Anyway, I was contemplating one of the magnificent pseudo-Medieval tapestries made by Morris’s house and thinking ‘um, this looks like Rivendell’ (the perfect home of the lordly half-Elf Elrond in The Lord of the Rings) when I overheard a guide explain that Tolkien had drawn much inspiration for his work from Morris’ fiction and, specially, his translations of the Icelandic sagas. Please, recall that Rivendell is presented in Peter Jackson’s adaptation as a kind of pseudo-Gaudinian paradise, which closes the circle very nicely: Morris was a major influence on Catalan Modernism (approx. 1885-1920), in which Gaudí (1852-1926) is a key figure (see the article by Anna Calvera on Morris’ impact in Catalonia here: www.raco.cat/index.php/Dart/article/download/100491/151064).

Obviously, I have not paid enough attention either to Morris or to Tolkien for I didn’t know what, checking the internet, everyone appears to know: Tolkien was very fond not only of Morris’s poetic translations from Icelandic (which he actually produced with his friend Eirikr Magnusson, see one instance here: https://archive.org/details/volsungasagatran009188mbp) but also of his historical and fantasy novels. The House of the Wolfings (1889) tells the story of how a Germanic tribe (renamed Goths in Morris’s novel) resists the invasion of the Romans, unusually presented as the true barbarians. The Wood Beyond the World (1894) appears to be a sort of update of Thomas Mallory’s style (not of the Arthurian content), and a clear precursor of current epic fantasy. The Well at the World’s End (1896) continues in the same supernatural vein. It has a King Gandolf, a name everyone cites as proof that Tolkien knew his Morris (apparently he spent part of the money earned for winning the Skeat Prize in 1914 to buy several books by Morris, including his translated Völsunaga Saga and House of the Wolfings).

Tolkien was also familiar with Morris’ classic of socialist utopianism News from Nowhere (1890) in which he preached essentially that the future should be built on a pre-Industrial Revolution rural economy. Echoes of this are, indeed, found in “The Scouring of the Shire”, the penultimate chapter of The Lord of the Rings. After fulfilling the hazardous mission of returning the evil One Ring to the place where it was made by Sauron, the hobbits (Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin) go back home to the Shire only to discover that its lovely landscape has been destroyed by the wizard Saruman, posing as the capitalist Sharkey. Jackson didn’t film this segment, which he doesn’t like, even though it is essential to understand Tolkien: this author hated modern life (what Bauman called Modernity with a capital M–see my previous post), in which he was following Morris but also his experience in the trenches of WWI. Tolkien’s utopian Shire is, ultimately, much closer to socialism than the author’s dream of a restored Medieval feudalism might allow us to see. Gondor may enjoy the aristocratic rule of the returned King Aragorn, but in the Shire there is no equivalent ruler, just a Thain in charge of guaranteeing the safety of the tightly-knit community and the enjoyment of its simple pleasures.

In this third reading of The Lord of the Rings, and possibly because in the last stages I was thinking of Morris, I have noticed a few things that I had overlooked. One is that the references to the economy and the labour system of the lands of Middle-earth are very vague: actually, we know more about how the arch-villain Sauron runs Mordor than about the other kingdoms and territories run by Elves and Men. The class system is also a problem. Many others have noticed that Sam Gamgee appears to play the role of WWI ‘batman’, or officer’s servant, a position often assumed by private soldiers from rural backgrounds. Tolkien was himself a junior officer (1915-18) and acknowledged in some letters that the batmen he knew had been an inspiration for Sam. However, I find Gamgee’s status as a servant (batman or otherwise) problematic mainly because it has a clear impact on how Sam’s deep bond with Frodo functions: it’s one-sided. Sam declares again and again that he loves Frodo but I don’t see that he is requited in the same way. This is a lopsided friendship, which somehow mars the text. By the way: I had missed how often Tolkien uses the word ‘queer’, it’s amazing… But I’m not saying that Sam and Frodo are gay, that’s a topic for another post.

Something else I had overlooked: I had kept the impression from my previous readings that Tolkien uses plenty of description but I realize now that this is not correct. His topographic detail is extremely abundant but also overwhelming for someone who can barely distinguish north from south (like yours truly). I realize now that Peter Jackson’s production design team (headed by Grant Major) must have faced a gargantuan challenge despite the precedents set by the illustrators of Tolkien’s works, among them Alan Lee. Incidentally, Tolkien was a marvellous illustrator as it is plain from his drawings for The Hobbit–clearly inspired by the painters of the Arts and Crafts movement. At any rate, Major’s design team had to be necessarily specific to make up for Tolkien’s descriptive vagueness. I don’t mean that he offered no descriptions whatsoever but that they are limited to certain features rather than to complete portraits, both for characters and for landscapes. Tolkien suggests, in short, rather than draw a full picture, in which he is far less Dickensian than I thought.

The women… What can I say? The Lord of the Rings is a patriarchal text 100%: it’s male-centred, exalts male bonding, celebrates patriarchal aristocratic power and so on. Funnily, if you read The Silmarillion you will see that the Valar (the fourteen auxiliary gods that the god Ilúvatar employs in creating Arda, or Earth) are genderless until they decide, according to individual inclination, to take a gendered form. Some of the females, like Varda, are very powerful but it is soon obvious that this is a patriarchy and that the male Manwë is in charge. Likewise, although the female Elf Galadriel astonishes everyone with her beauty, intelligence and power, she’s just the exception that confirms the rule: power is gendered male, anyway. Frodo timidly suggests to Galadriel that, if she took the Ring, she might use power in a beneficial way but she denies this–there is no feminine or feminist alternative. Or Tolkien is too nervous to consider it.

All female characters are, of course, defined by their physical appearance. And as the cases of Lúthien and Arwen show, Tolkien had this fantasy about superior women abandoning their high status for the love of men: both Elves become mortals to marry Men. Tolkien, by the way, who claimed to love and admire his wife Edith very much (naming her as the inspiration for Lúthien) forced her totally against her will to become a Catholic like him and raise their children in that faith–do what you will of this factoid. Finally, Eówyn, whom many worship as a figure of empowerment because she is a successful warrior, ends up assuming her proper feminine role as wife and future mother. For me Eówyn is particularly annoying, poor thing, because her dissatisfaction with her housebound life shows that Tolkien understood very well the problems women faced as he wrote (1940s to 1950s). I don’t mean with this that The Lord of the Rings is a sexist or misogynistic text: it’s, rather, a text with a conspicuous lack of concern for women. Fathers mourn again and again lost sons but mothers are hardly ever seen, and daughters are just princesses to be married off.

So why read and re-read this? Well, we women have this long training in reading patriarchal stories as if they had been written for us and we can even forget how deeply gendered they are. I have complained that the bond between Sam and Frodo is unbalanced in Frodo’s favour but even so, this relationship is the main reason why I do love The Lord of the Rings. The scene when Frodo volunteers to carry the evil One Ring back to Mount Doom and try to destroy it is very moving, as is his realization that he will never heal from his psychological wounds once he has accomplished his mission–or not, since he actually fails (do read the book to know how and why). I have read plenty of WWI fiction and I recognize in the brave hobbit the veteran suffering from shellshock, or what is now called post-traumatic stress syndrome. This might be a misreading, but in my view this is Tolkien’s main contribution to fantasy and mythmaking: its grounding in the evil reality of the trenches, not as allegory but as background inspiration. Beowulf would not understand what kind of hero Frodo is–but Harry Potter does.

Now, if you’re minimally interested, go beyond Sauron, and check who Melkor/Morgoth was. For if Morris is all over The Lord of the Rings, Milton reigns in The Silmarillion. Or, perhaps, now that I think about it, William Blake.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


I recently downloaded Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_Can’t_Happen_Here) by mistake, believing it was the source for the delicious Frank Capra comedy film You Can’t Take it with You (1938, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Can’t_Take_It_with_You_(film)). Any fool can see that the titles are very different but, well, mistakes do happen… I had read another novel by Lewis, Babbitt (1922), which I enjoyed (apparently it earned him the Nobel Prize in 1930) and, so, I decided to make the best of my blunder and read It Can’t Happen Here.

Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) is often confused with Upton Sinclair (1878-1958), who was actually Lewis’s mentor in his youth, during the years when he worked at Helicon Home Colony (1906-7), Upton Sinclair’s utopian project in Englewood (New Jersey). Later, the two authors became estranged and, funnily, Upton Sinclair appears mentioned several times as a crank in It Can’t Happen Here (Lewis names many other real-life persons). Incidentally, Upton Sinclair became famous thanks to his muck-raking novel The Jungle (1906), an exposé of the US meatpacking industry, which led to the passage of new legislation shortly thereafter. This book is the oldest predecessor of Eric Schlosser’s no less controversial Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2001), a highly recommended read.

It turns out that Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here has been in the news recently because it has been an object of a second stage adaptation by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen (2016), intended to replace the one written by Lewis himself with John C. Moffitt (1936) for Roosevelt’s Federal Theatre Project. Also, sales of this not too well-known novel have been booming because Lewis narrates the access to power of a barely literate populist whose unexpected electoral victory and chaotic presidential mandate soon degenerate into a fierce fascist regime. In case you still need me to spell this out, many have seen worrying affinities between Lewis’ Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip and Donald Trump.

Now be amazed… There were several attempts to turn It Can’t Happen Here into a movie between 1936 and 1938, finally abandoned by MGM in part because of the success of Charles Chaplin’s anti-Nazi satire The Great Dictator (1940). An ABC TV movie broadcast in 1968, Shadow on the Land (a.k.a. United States: It Can’t Happen Here), intended to be the pilot for a new series, failed, however, to stir sufficient interest. Later, in 1982, NBC rejected producer Kenneth Johnson’s adaptation of Lewis’ novel, titled Storm Warnings. The unyielding Johnson recycled then his project as the arch-popular alien invasion mini-series, V, premiered in 1983 (there was a second longer series in 1984, and a far less successful version in 2009). Johnson is now working on a new film: a sequel of his cautionary fable to be released in 2019. In case you’ve never heard of V, in that series the invaders are a disgusting lizard-like species, fond of eating rodents, that masquerade as humans. Initially, everyone assumes they are benevolent humanoids but soon enough their true reptilian nature, fascist politics and genocidal plans are discovered by the newly formed resistance. I believe that part of V’s immense success in Spain is that the alien leader, Diana (played by beautiful Jane Badler) literally embodied the word ‘lagarta’, or she-lizard–the Spanish equivalent of ‘bitch’.

Apparently, Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here in just four months in 1935 because he was very much concerned that corrupt politician Huey Long, Louisiana Governor and a US Senator, might win the American Presidency in 1936 and start a fascist regime in the style of those rampant in Europe (Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, Franco was yet to become Spain’s dictator). Long was murdered but, tragic as his assassination was, Lewis still published his novel just a few weeks later, possibly realising that Long might be dead but fascism was still very much alive. As I read It Can’t Happen Here I wondered why this novel is not as famous as 1984, for it should be, and I came to the conclusion that it is beset by three main problems: a) it’s not as well written as Orwell’s masterpiece, b) it ends in hope, a mood cancelled out by the horrific course of WWII from which 1984 springs, and c) the events that Lewis narrates are so grotesque that It Can’t Happen Here has been misread as political satire whereas, as Trump’s madcap Presidency shows, it is 100% realistic. It is, believe me, a very, very scary story.

Another circumstance that has played against Lewis is that he could not know in 1935 how far the Nazi regime would go. Many of its key elements are present in ‘Buzz’ Windrip’s tyranny: the undeniable demagogic brilliancy of the new leader, his rise to power thanks to a legitimate election, the clever use of new media (such as radio and even television) for rabble-rousing purposes, the quick formation of a nation-wide paramilitary corps (the Minute Men), the brutal repression at all levels, the rampant anti-Semitism, the murderous hatred of Marxism, the misogyny, the widespread censorship, the summary executions–even the concentration camps. That Adolf Hitler was applying all of this to his German subjects was well-known in Lewis’ America but few could have imagined in 1935 how far the Nazis would go in their attempt to exterminate the whole European Jewish population.

Windrip’s personal rule starts decaying before he can embark on an international war of conquest, as Hitler did, but, nevertheless, Lewis excels at identifying what his protagonist–provincial journalist Doremus Jessup–calls the ‘biology of dictatorships’. Let me cite from the novel: “The universal apprehension, the timorous denials of faith, the same methods of arrest—sudden pounding on the door late at night, the squad of police pushing in, the blows, the search, the obscene oaths at the frightened women, the third degree by young snipe of officials, the accompanying blows and then the formal beatings, when the prisoner is forced to count the strokes until he faints, the leprous beds and the sour stew, guards jokingly shooting round and round a prisoner who believes he is being executed, the waiting in solitude to know what will happen, till men go mad and hang themselves—Thus had things gone in Germany, exactly thus in Soviet Russia, in Italy and Hungary and Poland, Spain and Cuba and Japan and China. Not very different had it been under the blessings of liberty and fraternity in the French Revolution. All dictators followed the same routine of torture, as if they had all read the same manual of sadistic etiquette. And now, in the humorous, friendly, happy-go-lucky land of Mark Twain, Doremus saw the homicidal maniacs having just as good a time as they had had in central Europe”.

Many believe that fascism died in 1945, by the end of WWII, but it is evident that this is not at all the case. It may not be right-wing but tyranny persists in many territories of the world as the worst incarnation of patriarchal dominance. In the United Stated many have objected that it would not be possible for Donald Trump to go to the same lengths as Lewis’ Windrip because the structures of democratic power cannot be demolished in 2018 as easily as they were in the 1930s. That they are being demolished in other nations of South America and the Middle East is regarded as a sign of how backward these areas of the world are, and not as a warning that democracy is extremely frail everywhere–including Russia. The ‘manual of sadistic etiquette’ is being implemented today, right now, in many so-called democratic nations. And if we have learned one thing from the Holocaust, this is that genocide can be happening under our very noses and we will do nothing to stop it. Think of Syria. Or the Kurds. Or the Rohingya.

As I read It Can’t Happen Here I did not think primarily of Donald Trump or of Adolf Hitler (though it was eerie to see that before 1939 he was not an arch-villain but just the German dictator, a wacky ruler among many), but of Spain in 1936–the year when Lewis published his novel. Hitler ruled with absolute malice for 12 vicious years, half of which were taken by WWII, until he saw no option but commit suicide. Here in Spain, however, Franco’s dictatorship lasted for 39 years, and the tyrant died of old age as his family thrived on the profits accrued. Seeing how Jessup describes the birth of the resistance movement that might perhaps, one day, return democracy to his nation, I thought of the many Spaniards who tried to oppose Franco and who were defeated: imprisoned, tortured, sentenced to die, or just disappeared into ditches, where they still are.

Also, I thought of the many that didn’t even try because they were crushed before they started to resist and very much afraid of the fanatics surrounding them. I’m sure that many in 1931, when the Spanish Republic was proclaimed, thought that fascism could be kept at bay and that, once Primo de Rivera’s farcical monarchic military dictatorship was out together with King Alfonso XIII, Spain was safe–that ‘it could not happen here’. Yet, it did happen indeed. As he waits for the terrible circumstances to change, Jessup notes that “So much of a revolution for so many people is nothing but waiting. That is one reason why tourists rarely see anything but contentment in a crushed population”. I thought of 1960s Spain, flooded by tourists that didn’t care, and I marvelled that visitors could think of enjoying themselves in a dictatorship. As happens today with so many callous instagramming tourists visiting the many tyrannies around the world.

Everyone recalls the brutal torture that Winston Smith suffers in 1984 and how this causes him to betray everything he believes in, including love. Sinclair Lewis’ torture scenes are equally shocking (even more, perhaps, because there is no suave O’Brien behind them, but just blood-thirsty thugs), yet he decides to have his protagonist retain his faith in the future of democracy. Perhaps we find even the mild open end of It Can’t Happen Here too optimistic for our times and this is why Orwell and, generally speaking, dystopia are so popular. Yet, Lewis is not naïve and understands very well, as his vivid rendition of physical pain shows, that our fragile bodies often undermine our (theoretical) heroism. He still leaves, however, a door open for fascism to eventually end. I’m not sure that we have reached this point but perhaps one day we can learn not to be blinded by populist demagogues who present themselves as national saviours when they’re actually crazy, ignorant villains willing to ruin our lives for their personal glory. Or even worse, ambition.

Do read Sinclair Lewis’ novel and think not only that ‘yes, indeed, it can happen here’ but also that ‘yes, certainly, it can happen to us’. Call yourself very, very lucky if you don’t live in fear of what happens to Doremus Jessup and the rest of his nation. And consider carefully who you vote for–if you can vote at all.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


A couple of months ago I came across a blog post on a book for children which apparently connects with Harry Potter, as a possible predecessor. This is John Masefield’s 1935 novel The Box of Delights (see https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/nov/30/long-before-harry-potter-the-box-of-delights-remade-childrens-fantasy). I had heard, vaguely, of Masefield (1878-1967) as a distinguished poet (he was appointed Poet Laureate in 1930, a post he held until his death) but not in relation to children’s literature. It turns out that The Box of Delights and its prequel, The Midnight Folk (1927) are, if not downright classics, at least well-known among genre connoisseurs.

Masefield appears to have been a very accomplished author, unafraid of trying his hand at many different literary pursuits. He wrote poems (both short and very long), plays, and a string of novels of varied types, with 12 appearing in just 15 years (1924-39). These included social novels (The Square Peg, The Hawbucks), adventures in exploration (Sard Harker, Odtaa), sea yarns (Victorious Troy, The Bird of Dawning), and the above named children’s fantasy. I make a first stop here to consider how difficult it is to keep a clear impression of whole stretches of English Literature and of whole personal careers which were important in the past, less than one century ago. No matter how hard you study, so much escapes our attention that it is a wonder we know anything at all! I will sound terribly obvious if I say that the only way to fix our memory of authors whose names we encounter in introductions and panoramic overviews is reading their works. Masefield is now more vividly present in my mind though, as happens with author you only see in old photos, perhaps not vividly enough.

The claim that The Box of Delights must have inspired some elements in Harry Potter is only of relative interest. There is a boy hero (Kay Harker), who has a dim but cute friend (Peter Jones), but they do not form with Peter’s sister Maria–a pert little girl too fond of revolvers–a triangular friendship in the style of Harry, Ron and Hermione. Two other Jones sisters, Jemima and Susan, are present in the tale but in very minor roles. Masefield’s story has an appealing magician at its core, one Cole Hawlings who turns out to be Majorcan all-talented, wise man Ramon Llull (or Lully, 1232-1315), still alive in 1935 thanks to an elixir. You might see shades of Hawlings in Dumbledore in a scene that has to do with a phoenix, and in his avuncular behaviour towards Kay, but Tolkien’s Gandalf seems a much relevant predecessor. Likewise, villain Abner Brown is not really in the same league as Lord Voldemort, being just a jewel thief thirsting after bigger booty, namely the titular box of delights, a singular magic contraption.

Judging a book according to whether it measures up to another one with which it might not really be connected is not a good idea. Let’s then get rid of Harry Potter (but do watch the Italian fan film Voldemort: Origins of the Heir, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6SZa5U8sIg) and enjoy the ‘delights’ Masefield has to offer. These are not few but I must confess that I struggled a little bit to get into the spirit of his novel. I attributed this to the fact that The Box of Delights is actually a sequel but the information I came across regarding The Midnight Folk confirmed that this is not a story in two books but two stories sharing a set of characters. The difficulties had to do, rather, with how characters speak, using a kind of dialogue which I found odd, not only because of the peculiarities of each character (one is always using ‘what?’ at the end of his sentences) but also because Kay and the Jones children use a formal register very different from what, um, Harry Potter and colleagues use. Kay does use school slang in one sentence but his guardian quickly bans this jargon, which suggests that the children use separate idiolects, one for themselves and one for the adults. Yet, this was not exactly the case, either (as you will see).

I just needed to hear them speak to get the right delivery and tone–and luckily for me I could use for that the charming six-part BBC version (broadcast between 21 November and 24 December in 1984). YouTube and its illegal uploads have very useful applications, as you can see. As I expected, the series ironed out all my difficulties and contributed, besides, not only very good performances by young and not so young actors but also a delicious use of special effects to materialize the magic that Masefield describes in his lovely book. This includes the metamorphosis of some characters into animals (or even a tree), Kay’s multiple size changes, a talking statue, a picture that opens up for Cole to walk in, etc. Masefield was also interested in technological fantasy and so, anticipating Ian Fleming’s James Bond, he gives the villains a car that transform into a sort of helicopter (nothing to do with the Weasleys lumbering flying car, then).

The comments by other YouTube spectators led in two enticing but quite different directions. One the one hand, many celebrate their second contact with a beloved Christmas classic of their own 1980s childhood (actually a few have repeatedly seen the series in this context). Others speculate about whether a new version is (over)due because of how fast special effects age. For The Box of Delights the BBC used cutting-edge video technology which did a very good job of reproducing Masefield’s gorgeous fantasy; this is visually demanding even for the plain reader, much more so for TV before cgi (computer-generated images). I found the fx ‘delightful’ as corresponds to the ‘box of delights’ that television was in the early days of video (and that gave us masterpieces such as David Bowie’s marvellous music video for “Ashes to Ashes”, 1980, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMThz7eQ6K0).

The BBC, then, went as far as it was possible to go for TV in 1984 yet I understand those in favour of an update, for I found myself thinking as I enjoyed the enchanting 6 hours how many scenes would look today. Ironically, I might call this ‘the Harry Potter’ syndrome, as the whole movie series adapting Rowling is cutting-edge for the early 21st century–just as The Box of Delights was for 1984. There is a scene in the novel, excluded from the BBC version possibly because of how expensive it would have been, in which people seen in paintings start moving and, beyond whether Rowling did take inspiration from that or not, the Harry Potter films mirrored spot on what she meant in a way that simply could not be done for Masefield. Arguably, the same fx ageing process will eventually affect Harry Potter in thirty years time, when films will all come in virtual reality devices.

The ‘double nostalgia’ of my title, then, refers to the combined experience of reading a 1930s book and seeing its 1980s TV adaptation at the same time, taking also into account that the series approaches the book nostalgically and that we, 21st century spectators, also enjoy the special effects with nostalgia. I should think that a most spectacular case of this effect was the 1981 Granada/ITV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited, a story about the nostalgia which Charles Ryder feels for the 1920s, when, famously, he met spoilt child Sebastian Flyte and his contact with the very rich Flytes changed his life for ever. The Box of Delights is a sort of junior version of that compounded nostalgia (with appealing fx). That make-believe world of Masefield, Waugh and, later, Downtown Abbey (though with more servants) convinces us that the lifestyle of the rich is the rule, not the exception, and, oddly, despite having never enjoyed it, that we still feel it is somehow ours. Seeing the orphan Kay Harker do as he pleases with his friends under the very loose guardianship of the flexible Caroline Louisa, abused Harry Potter would surely have a fit. For the main delight of The Box of Delights is how Kay plunges into adventure without a worldly care. How refreshing.

It’s not, then, just plain nostalgia (or envy) but a yearning for the same carefree world that keeps us glued to the screen (or the book pages). In this, Masefield’s world could not be further from Rowling’s, where Kay would be a Slytherin, though he’s much nicer than Malfoy. And so, although I said that I would leave Harry Potter aside, it turns out that the heptalogy is indeed linked to Masefield’s fantasy world but not at all for the reasons suggested by other authors, the occasional borrowings. Kay and Harry would, I think, like each other instantaneously, as orphans keen on magic open to whatever it may bring. Also, because Kay is no snob (the series, however, conveniently eliminates the discomfort he feels in the novel before the hostile poor children in his rural community). The school which Kay attends, and that we don’t see since he is on holiday, is possibly similar to Hogwarts, or, rather, Hogwarts is similar to the establishments that 1930s upper-class kids would patronize. Rowling does operate her own kind of nostalgia but I wonder with what aim, as Harry battles Voldemort’s upper-class sycophantic Death Eaters but in the end Malfoy and his kind are still there, and nothing much changes in the Wizarding world, despite ‘mudbloods’ like Hermione.

I have finally realized, then, that my problem with The Box of Delights is not the challenge of visualizing the magic or my bad ear for dialogue but a class matter. Leaving aside the cultural distance between 1930s England and 2010s Catalonia, where I live, I had in the end fewer problems to accept the magic than the wonder of a household in which children are so comfortably well off. Harry’s broom cupboard under the stairs and his constant ill-treatment by the awful Dursleys have complicated very much the matter of class in children’s fiction. And, yes, I had to see the BBC version to make sense of what I know understand to be Kay’s upper-class (or upper-middle-class, I’m not sure) idiolect.

You can see that I’m a bit bitter here, and this is because my working-class childhood was full of BBC series like The Box of Delights and of their promise of a carefree world that was never fulfilled. Still, this is not Masefield’s fault but my own for having been born on the wrong side of the tracks, like the majority. He did what he had to do: tell a perfect tale of Christmas joy and makes us believe in magic for as long as it lasts. No mean feat.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


My doctoral student Josie Swarbrick, who is working on the representation of monstrous masculinity in SF cinema, visited last week my SF class to offer a presentation based on one of her dissertation’s chapters, the one on District 9. In that film a massive alien starship reaches Johannesburg carrying thousands of refugees who have nowhere else to go. Their unenthusiastic South African hosts decide to lock them in an insalubrious township placed in, precisely, District 9, as they decide how to cope with these unwelcome, unsightly visitors. If you have seen the film you know that the central plot concerns the accidental transformation of a pathetic white man into one of the frankly disgusting ‘prawns’, a metamorphosis usually read in the context of post-Apartheid policies but that Josie is reading taking into account this man’s strange fall out of the human species.

District 9 is exceptional, as any SF fan knows, because it changed the trope of the alien invasion in cinema by turning the extraterrestrial visitors into refugees and by setting the action outside the habitual US context. Its closest precedent is possibly Alien Nation (1988, TV series 1989-1990), in which the aliens are not invaders, either, but runaway slaves seeking refuge from their masters in the Los Angeles area. Men in Black (1997) included a scene showing the MIBs patrolling the Mexican border, trying to make sure that no illegal aliens would cross it. In the more recent Monsters (2010) the metaphorical link between the extraterrestrial alien and the illegal human migrant is emphasized: the monsters of the title have invaded most of Earth and only the USA remains a safe haven for humans–or so Americans think. Like real Americans today, the fictional Americans of Monsters seem to believe that migration can be stopped, which is never the case.

I started a conversation about the aliens in these films and I asked my students what kind of stories we could tell, taking into account the shameful humanitarian crisis affecting the poor refugees stranded in Turkey, Greece and Eastern Europe. Imagine, I said, that a spaceship similar to the one in District 9 lands on Nou Camp, here in the middle of Barcelona… How does the story continue? And the students laughed. As Laia explained, one can easily imagine President Obama addressing visitors from outer space, but the idea of President Rajoy doing the same is simply hilarious (President Puigdemont seems to be slightly less hilarious, but still…). Laia herself added that if a spaceship landed in Spain this would result in another episode of Aquí no hay quien viva, the popular TV sitcom about a group of raucous neighbours.

At the end of the 1960s, Carlo Fruttero, editor of the SF publication series Urania, the most important one in Italy of its kind, was asked why he never published Italian SF. Famously, he replied that it “was impossible to imagine a flying saucer landing in Lucca”, a controversial statement that, of course, only spurred the imagination of Italian SF authors. I’m not familiar with Italian SF, and not even that much with Spanish SF, and I don’t know whether a starship has ever landed in Lucca. I know that Spanish writer Tomás Salvador produced an absolute masterpiece, even translated into English, with his tale of a generation ship, La nave (1959). Of course, this ship never lands in Franco’s Spain, it has been already travelling in space for many years when the story begins.

The aliens, curiously, have trodden Catalan land in at least two very well-known novels. One is Manuel de Pedrolo’s Mecanoscrit del segon origen (one alien at least is stranded after her companions manage to massacre practically all humans before abandoning their intended colonization project). The other is, there we go again, the hilarious Sin noticias de Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza (serialized 1990 in El País, published as a volume in 1991).

In this novel the eponymous Gurb, a metamorphic alien, takes the physical appearance of singer Marta Sánchez (!) and decides to explore Barcelona, going awol. Another alien, a shy fellow quite disturbed by his mate’s French leave, follows his tracks also using a variety of human disguises, each more outrageous than the previous one. My fellow citizens respond with total dead-pan indifference to the absurd situations in which the poor alien finds himself in the midst of the chaotic upheaval of the city which preceded the Olympic Games of 1992. This is the funniest book of any kind I have ever read, more than Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, more than Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I remember re-reading it once on the train and having to give up because I could not suppress my laughter. And, to be honest, I would have been very happy to have written Gurb.

Mendoza practices in Gurb the very Spanish literary genre of the ‘esperpento’; Aquí no hay quien viva is its television version. ‘Esperpento’, usually associated with writer Ramón María del Valle-Inclán is, supposedly, a deformed mirror of Spanish society which emphasizes with great irony its worst traits, among them its vulgarity, widespread ignorance, excessive pride, lazy habits and so on. It connects closely with the older genre of the picaresque novel but goes much further in highlighting the grotesque in local Spanish reality. Any Spanish literary critic will tell you that there is no consensus on whether ‘esperpento’ is a deformed or an exact mirror image of Spain (by the way, in Catalonia we also have ‘esperpento’ as seen in the popular TV political satire Polònia).

I believe that ‘esperpento’ is the reason why Laia and my other students laugh at the idea of President Rajoy welcoming the aliens. Unlike what is often believed, the inability to imagine the aliens landing on Nou Camp or in Lucca has nothing to do with the alleged low technological level of Spanish and Italian societies, as both societies are like any other in the West in that sense. It’s not, either, a matter of occupying secondary positions in the world order for District 9 and Monsters show that being a world leader is no longer a requirement to the object of the aliens’ attention in SF movies. I don’t know how things work in Italy, but Spain is dominated by a terrifying low self-esteem which ‘esperpento’ tries to mask with humour. That might explain the lack of alien visitors.

I’m sure that many others have given far more satisfactory explanations of why Spaniards have generated ‘esperpento’ as a strategy to cope with Spanish reality. Also stuck in a similar post-Imperial decadence, England has reacted very differently–unless, that is, we come to the conclusion that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and certainly Monty Python are also ‘esperpento’, and perhaps they are. Americans have also generated plenty of humour around the idea of the visiting alien. I’m thinking of some TV series: Mork and Mindy (1978-82) the sitcom that made Robin Williams a star, Alf (1986-1990) with its furry alien visitor or Third Rock from the Sun (1996-2001). In US culture, however, the humour at the expense of alien contact is perfectly compatible with the countless examples of fictional American Presidents facing alien visitors or invaders in far more dramatic circumstances. It must be, as I say, a matter of self-esteem. Theirs is so high that American cannot conceive of aliens visiting first other countries on Earth–I’m sure they would be flabbergasted if the aliens chose China.

One of the saddest films I have seen on the topic of alien contact is Óscar Aíbar’s bitter-sweet Platillos volantes (2003). This movie tells the pathetic real-life story of José Félix Rodríguez Montero (47), a textile worker, and Juan Turu Vallés (21), an accountant in the same Terrassa factory, near Barcelona, who committed suicide on 20 June 1972. Following the supposed call of the aliens and believing that they had somehow mutated, the two men lay down their heads on the tracks of the Barcelona-Zaragoza railway line convinced that dying was a one-way ticket to Jupiter.

I’m not the only spectator to have seen in these two poor deluded men the shadow of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, although they seem to have been both Quijotes. Aíbar’s film is a singular portrait of a naïve, poorly educated Spain easily misled by fantasies of alien contact, as I remember from my own childhood (yes, I did believe in aliens then… now I want to believe). If this were an American film, of course, José Félix and Juan would have eventually met the aliens, proven everyone wrong, and been carried away by an breath-taking starship to Jupiter and beyond. Being Spanish, the film is dominated by Cervantes’s legacy and, so, must punish those who dare fantasize–or, rather, since this is a real-life story, the director is conditioned by Cervantes’ legacy to choose this sad tale, rather than a more uplifting fantasy, for his film. True, he made amends with El bosc (2012), but the damage is done.

To sum up, then, Cervantes + ‘esperpento’ + Spanish post-Imperial low self-esteem = no alien contact. And just in case you were thinking of this, yes, Rajoy with his inexistent English and his frequent gaffes seems to embody much of this inconvenient mixture. It is certainly easier to imagine Pedro Sánchez, Albert Rivera, Pablo Iglesias or Alberto Garzón, perhaps even Soraya Saéz de Santamaría (?), engaging in elegant alien contact on behalf of Spain.

Perhaps a clear sign of the decadence of American world leadership is that soon we may have to imagine Donald Trump welcoming the aliens–now, that’s ‘esperpento’…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


This post is inspired by two sources: one, the article “The 2015–16 TV Season in One Really Depressing Chart” by Josef Adalian and Leslie Shapiro published online in Vulture (https://www.vulture.com/2016/03/2015-2016-tv-season-in-one-depressing-chart.html#); the other the collective non-academic volume Yo soy más de series (2015, https://www.esdrujula.es/libro/yo-soy-mas-de-series/) in which I have participated with, once more, an article on The X-Files. What these very diverse sources show implicitly is that the current boom around US TV series may well result soon in the destruction of television as we know it.

The article, quite brief, comments on the declining ratings for the “old-school broadcast networks” in the United States, or “Big Four”, regarding their current star product, namely, fiction series. They have lost “about 7 percent” viewers for “first-run programming” since the 2014-15 season, “continuing a pattern of substantial decline” in the last few years. The problem is attributed mainly to “a paucity of breakout hits” even though what seems more worrying is that “audiences appear to be abandoning established shows”, usually in the second or third season. You may next check the chart accompanying the article, which shows the ratings for a long list of series or, as they call them in the USA, ‘shows’. The authors claim that audiences have stopped being loyal to their favourite shows: “Now, in the era of viewing on demand, it seems audiences are increasingly having sordid affairs with new shows and then quickly moving on”. Of course, the problem for the broadcasters is that Nielsen rates connect directly to revenue for, remember, TV is basically one long ad interrupted by programmes. Streaming services have started competing for what the writers call “eyeballs” (the part for the whole, you know?) seemingly forgetting that the money business companies can spend on advertising is not unlimited.

Now let’s turn to the really juicy part of the article. Yes, you guessed right: the readers’ comments–far more relevant and informative than the article itself. Here are some highlights (see with how many opinions you identify):

*(…) there is such an over saturation of shows that it is forcing people to really pick and choose what they want to watch and thus people are ditching poorer quality shows that don’t work for them anymore. Or ditching long running favourites that have run out of steam.
* [the lengths of US network seasons] 21-25 episodes is just ridiculous, it’s not conducive to making a good product.
*(…) ad-based business models result in content that puts audiences into a soporific state conducive to being influenced by ads, while subscription-based models favour content that locks in passionate fan bases.
*Networks need to cultivate small, passionate audiences for their shows and recognize that the audience is now so splintered that huge audiences will be rare one-offs for special events.
*Cable and streaming services are investing in creativity, giving writers and creators more freedom to make interesting things. The Networks are sticking to the old formula, and seeing fewer and fewer returns. It’s a loosing game. They’ll be gone in a few more years.
*By the time Nielsen’s gets with the times, broadcast will be defunct anyway and all the shows will be on streaming services, which know exactly who is watching what and when, but has no motive to share that info with anyone else.
*Not only are networks competing with cool streaming shows that are new (…) but there’s entire runs of old series to discover.
*I will never again watch a new network show. Why bother getting invested in a show that is likely going to get cancelled? I vastly prefer the Netflix way.
*Loyal viewers are going to be more important than massive numbers in the future.
*I have a lot of shows I love and a lot of shows I like. I don’t care if they are on networks or not. I’m not depressed by this. Sorry.

And my favourite comment: “Thank God for books”.

Look at the paradox: the networks have always broadcast series but something changed about 25 years ago (arguably) with ABC’s Twin Peaks (1990-91), which proved that audiences were willing to enjoy new kinds of TV fiction series. Then the TV model changed radically with the introduction of new local and national channels (think Fox), satellite and cable TV. The current model also includes internet streaming services of which, obviously, Netflix is the most popular one right now. What all these diverse ways of watching fiction on a smaller screen (TV, computer, tablet, cell phone…) have in common is their trusting series to keep them afloat–logically, since series have that strange quality: they may last for years and keep an audience loyal to a channel/service (or so it was assumed). What broadcasters of any type don’t seem to realize is that the personal viewing time of each spectator (eyeballs, argh!) cannot increase at the same pace, hence the new ‘disloyalty’. Spectators feel that the market is indeed oversaturated and, so, navigate it as well as they can: some give up TV for good, others give up certain series. All tend towards the same goal: controlling their viewing time regardless of network interests and desperately old-fashioned Nielsen ratings. What is at risk, in short, is not the fiction created to fill our smaller screens but any TV business based on advertising, even TV consumption itself.

Now to the book, Yo soy más de series, coordinated by Fernando Ángel Moreno. You will find in it articles dealing with 60 series, all of them American with a few British and Japanese exceptions (Spanish TV is represented by El Ministerio del Tiempo). The articles are very different, some are 100% academic, others 100% personal and informal, some (like mine) a combination. Having read its extremely appealing 472 pages, the impression I get is of a gigantic collective failure by American TV series’ creators to produce truly solid work. Actually, this is my personal point of view and, of course, I have sought confirmation in the volume.

I have often voiced my post-Lost opinion that a narration that begins with no firm plans about its ending is not to be trusted, which is why I very much prefer mini-series. When you try to stretch a series beyond its natural run, when the series ‘jumps the shark’, then the series is doomed and what started as an exciting tale ends up as flat as a bottle of champagne left uncorked for a week. And this is what I see again and again in the articles of Yo soy más de series: with the exception of the mini-series (I, Claudius) or of the series planned for a limited number of seasons (Babylon 5) and a few honourable exceptions, most series outstay their welcome. The reasons may be that, as one of the comments I have reproduced notes, the number of episodes per season is too high, but whatever the reason is very few series can maintain the same level of interest and creativity for long. After the second season, which is when ‘eyeballs’ start looking elsewhere, the plot lines get more and more twisted as writers and producers run out of ideas struggling desperately to go on. The shows enter then a sort of entropic process of decadence that leads to their final, eventual implosion.

Funnily, I’m writing this at a time when The Big Bang Theory is keeping me glued to my sofa for hours at a stretch at least once a week. Typically, we decide to watch a couple of episodes and may end up watching eight in a row (they’re 20 minute long). I am not following any other series and, frankly, after reading Yo soy más de series the only one truly tempting me is Breaking Bad; we’ll see… An advantage of sit-coms like Big Bang, I find, is that it’s somehow harder to feel disappointed for they do not make such high claims as drama series do to being avant-garde narrative, even better than novels… If there is an opinion I hate about TV series is that one. I feel, in short, refreshed by Big Bang but oversaturated by soap-opera products masquerading as great TV–like Game of Thrones or Homeland.

I’ll finish with the story I tell in my own article for Yo soy más de series, a story I have already told many times: TV is paying in Spain a high price for having despised spectators in the past. If TeleCinco had not cancelled arbitrarily The X-Files just when the internet was entering Spain, we would not have rushed to become TV pirates. Once learned, the habit will not be unlearned. Illegal downloading is, simply, a central aspect of TV consumption in Spain, which does not seem to be the case in the USA. Here satellite, cable and streaming are, I’m 100% sure, second to piracy, while this no doubt as popular as actual TV broadcasting if not more. I wonder how Nielsen is dealing with this when it counts Spanish ‘eyeballs’ for we all wear a pirate’s eye patch.

Soon, if not tomorrow, ‘TV’ series will drop the ‘TV’ part of their name to be called something else, perhaps just ‘series’, for they will no longer be connected with watching television at all. Nielsen be warned.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


I did not mention in my post of 2 October on post-apocalyptic fiction Walter Tevis’ excellent novel Mockingbird (1980) as I started reading it right after writing the piece. It refuses to be consigned to my memory without further ado, so here we go.

As it happened to me, the name Walter Tevis may be familiar if you’re around my age (49) in relation to two film adaptations of his novels: The Hustler (novel 1959, film with Paul Newman 1961) and its sequel The Colour of Money (novel 1984, film 1986–again with Newman and a young Tom Cruise). I was very much surprised to see that this Tevis is the same Tevis of not only this SF masterpiece but also of another SF peculiar novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963); its 1976 adaptation by Nicolas Roeg with the charismatic singer/actor David Bowie as its protagonist, in the role of an alien visitor, is one of those cult films which re-surfaces again and again.

Tevis (1928-1984) was a teacher of English literature and creative writing at Ohio University (Athens, 1965 to 1978). As he explained, the inspiration for Mockingbird came from the realisation that his students did not care for reading. Hence, he imagined a strange post-apocalyptic 25th century American civilization in which all human beings are illiterate. The situation is strange, I’m claiming, because individuals choose of their own accord to abandon reading progressively; ironically, as literacy decays technoscience evolves fast enough to produce efficient robots that take over from humans not only the most onerous tasks but also the running of civilization itself. The most advanced robotic model, Make Nine, has been designed to manage complex organizations and–you may start chuckling now…–Spofforth, the android protagonist, happens to be the Dean of New York University.

The other post-apocalyptic novels I mentioned, including the one I’m currently reading (Alas, Babylon! by Pat Frank) are quite upsetting as they show how defenceless we, the common people, are in the face of accidental or purposeful destruction, whether this is caused by a plague or by a nuclear holocaust. What is most terrifying about Mockingbird is that there is no catastrophe but a progressive erosion of the interest in the written word, and, accordingly, of civilization (as Tevis knew it). This erosion is supposed to have started by the mid 1970s, when, as I have noted, Tevis was an English teacher–which shows that Literature teachers have been worrying about falling literacy standards for a long time… In Tevis’ 25th century New York not even university teachers are literate (the scant education offered depends on audio-visual media). The plot simply concerns android Spofforth’s decision to help a male teacher, Bentley, to teach himself to read and, later, educate the spunky heroine, Mary Lou, with the aim of giving humanity a chance to regenerate itself.

Human beings can survive in a state of illiteracy; indeed, along history most people were illiterate, with literacy spreading recently mainly due to the needs of the Industrial Revolution (complex machinery cannot be operated without written instructions), with a push from Protestantism, for which Bible reading is essential. As I commented in my post of 2 October George Stewart’s post-apocalyptic novel Earth Abides deals with how the surviving generation fails to educate its children and how, nonetheless, the younger people do go on to establish a new life similar to that of primitive tribes. What is at stake is not, then, survival itself but a much feared drawback into a darker age and the ensuing loss of our collective memory. The inability to read and write means an inability to connect with the past, logically, whether this refers to History or to the achievements in science and technology. In Tevis’ novel technology thrives as human beings become mentally numb, yet it is a technology with an absurd self-serving purpose and totally unable to connect with human needs (with the exception of the melancholic Spofforth).

Obviously, the reason why Mockingbird has impressed me so much, apart from its overlooked literary quality, is the central concept–the idea that individuals can choose not to read, therefore, not to be educated. We all know there was never a golden age when everyone read and very keenly so; yet, the Enlightenment promised to bring forth a civilization in which not only would all human beings have access to education but all would demand it. The central idea was, remember, to guarantee the rights of men (and of women as, later, Mary Wollstonecraft demanded). Almost 300 years later we have proof positive that many persons just do not want to be educated, which is not only puzzling but also a tragedy. The Victorians insisted very much on the idea of self-improvement and proceeded, besides, to place education in the hands of the Government, which was then a very novel idea. I am personally of the persuasion that a day when I have learned nothing new is a day wasted, and even though I do learn much from audio-visual media, nothing can replace reading.

And I mean by this, not just reading short texts but, most essentially, books. This is what my colleagues and I see these days in our university classrooms: students do not buy books, they do not bring the required set texts to class, they do not borrow them from the library. The overall impression if you read the press is that the book market is slowly dying; I’m told that most novels sell 400 copies and that successful novels sell just above 2,000. This is nothing in a country of 47 million people. The person in charge of purchasing books for our excellent Humanities library tells me that borrowing has dramatically decreased–I know, for I can get anything I need with no fear that someone else will have the book. So, yes, literacy persists as the social networks depend very much on the written word but the ability to read for long is on the wane, reduced to short pieces, with books looking impossibly long. At least, that’s my impression.

Walter Tevis, remember, had a similar impression when the internet was still firmly in the hands of a military clique and nobody had dreamed of its being a most important resource for interpersonal global communication. The internet per se is not an enemy of literacy–what am I doing here but use it to publish texts? What seems to be the main enemy is the generalized perception that reading is an optional pursuit, when it is actually the basis of all (post-tribal) civilization. Just imagine what kind of medicine we will have in the future in the hands of doctors who do not want to read. For, in the end, what matters is not quite whether Charles Dickens’ immortality is guaranteed (just to name someone I love) but whether we can maintain the living standards to which we are used for long. Don’t tell me now that the existence of nuclear weapons contradicts my argument as they are also a product of advanced education. Think, rather, of how the knowledge that sustains the comforts of our daily lives can be transmitted without the support of books and of interested readers. It can not.

Yes, we Literature teachers always complaining about the same, what a bore we are… I’ll add, just in case, that having finally seen this week the BBC’s wonderful 2005 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, I am even more convinced of the pernicious impact that the current fad to call TV series the 21st century equivalent of the 19th century novel is having. For, no matter how good the BBC’s Bleak House was, its 510 minutes can by no means replace the much richer experience of reading the book. And not even the best-written TV series compares to the best-written novel.

This is just in case we go the way of Tevis’ professor Bentley and end up teaching audio-visual texts to illiterate students being ourselves also illiterate. Some nightmare…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


My title throws a barb at Harold Bloom’s famous ‘anxiety of influence’ theory from his 1973 book. Bloom argued in it that poets are prompted to write in awe and admiration of particular predecessors. They, however, always struggle to find their own voice, fearing that they can only produce imitations of their chosen masters; hence, they labour under a constant ‘anxiety of influence’. In contrast, the attitude that Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920), showed towards his much admired Charles Dickens (1812-1870) seems to have been always celebratory–perhaps because from the very beginning Galdós had a clear voice of his own and also because there was no way 19th century Spain could be depicted exactly as Dickens depicts his native England.

I wrote a post back in 2012 (4th November) on the similarities between the young Charles Dickens and our own Romantic genius Mariano José de Larra, based on their showing a similar ‘zest for city life’ as journalist flâneurs. I did not know then about the literary connections between Galdós and Dickens, though having read half a dozen novels by Galdós and almost the full dozen by Dickens this should have been obvious to me. Possibly, Galdós’ ‘castizo’ characters threw me off the path.

What has brought me back to it is my very enjoyable reading of Galdós’ quirky first novel, La Fontana de Oro, published in 1870, the same year Dickens died–yes, a peculiar coincidence, or yet another proof of Spain’s cultural belatedness. It might well be that this is Galdós’ closest imitation of Dickens. Suddenly, it was crystal clear to me that the Spanish novelist was applying literary strategies learned from the English master to his first attempt at narrating chaotic Spain. The colourful character descriptions, the fine attention to the grotesqueries of life, the droll authorial stance, the intense hatred for those who live to oppress others… all sounded familiar. Dickens would have loved it.

As it turns out, there is proof of Galdós’ admiration for Dickens: he translated into Spanish his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (a.k.a. The Pickwick Papers, 1836). Galdós was just 24, he cheekily claimed to know English and found a gullible editor in a Spanish newspaper who believed him. As diverse academics have proved, though, he actually translated Dickens from the French (see for instance https://mdc.ulpgc.es/cdm/ref/collection/galdosianos/id/1210). The result, Ricardo Bada laments (https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/cultura/cuando-galdos-tradujo-dickens-articulo-324923), is appalling…: “es una catástrofe literariamente homologable con la marítima del infeliz Titanic”. Galdós never translated a work again, though he seems to have been able to read in English and was no doubt well-acquainted with the work of other English writers beyond Dickens.

In his Memorias de un desmemoriado (1915-6), Galdós recalls his trip to England in 1889 to visit Shakespeare’s house. In an often quoted passage he recalls visiting as well Dickens’ grave in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey: “Consideraba yo a Carlos (sic) Dickens como mi maestro más amado. En mi aprendizaje literario, cuando aún no había salido yo de mi mocedad petulante, apenas devorada La comedia humana, de Balzac, me apliqué con loco afán a la copiosa obra de Dickens. Para un periódico de Madrid traduje el Pickwick, donosa sátira, inspirada, sin duda, en la lectura de El Quijote. (…) Depositando la flor de mi adoración sobre esta gloriosa tumba me retiro del panteón de Westminster”. The literary loop is thus nicely closed: Dickens learned from Cervantes and Galdós learned from him.

I have not read Pickwick Papers yet, which will complete my pet project of reading all the novels Dickens published–then, the short fiction. Reading Galdós’ novel about the ‘trieno liberal’ of 1820-3 and the simply nauseating figure of King Fernando VII, I realized I know very little about the complicated Spanish 19th century. A perfect solution to this shameful blank is, of course, reading Galdós’ series Episodios nacionales. Now, here’s the rub: the series, which famously begins with Trafalgar, runs to 46 novels, published between 1872 and 1912. Don Benito’s complete list of publications runs to more than 100 titles, not including a long list of essays, plays and short stories… Someone should do research on why and how certain writers are so prolific. Is it a mutation in the brain? I also wonder about the kind of readership and book market capable of absorbing so much from the same pen.

The acerbic Valle Inclán dubbed Galdós ‘Don Benito el Garbancero’ as I learned back in secondary school when my wonderful teacher Ana Oltra made us read Galdós’ Tormento. I read Valle Inclán’s play Luces de Bohemia the following year, 1984, and saw it in the theatre with some classmates–we were very different from today’s teens, I guess… this was no school outing but our own idea. ‘Garbancero’ has no apt English translation beyond ‘chickpea dealer’ though Valle Inclán used its second sense: ‘vulgar’. Although my teacher was quite a Galdosian fan, and I loved Tormento much better than Luces de Bohemia, the prejudiced sobriquet somehow stayed with me. It was nevertheless dispelled by TVE’s excellent 1980 adaptation of Galdós’ masterpiece Fortunata y Jacinta (see the series here https://www.rtve.es/television/fortunata-jacinta/), a product of a now defunct time when TV did offer highly cultured entertainment. This was our Brideshead Revisited (1981) and I count myself fortunate that these smashing series are part of my literary biography. I doubt even BBC would be up to the task of adapting the Episodios nacionales but I certainly do not see RTVE attempting even to adapt any other of Galdós’ novels. Instead, we are being offered the crude period soap operas that dominate afternoon TV (Amar es para siempre, El secreto de Puente Viejo and so on…). That is ‘garbancero’.

Charles Dickens, by the way, was also labelled ‘garbancero’, though in this case by an illustrious academic. The Modernists regarded him mostly as an example of the ills that the commercialization of the novel inflicted on highbrow Literature throughout the 19th century. As the Modernist-inspired leading academic F.R. Leavis sentenced in The Great Tradition (1948), his reason “for not including Dickens in the line of great novelists” was that, though great, his was the genius “of a great entertainer, and he had for the most part no profounder responsibility as a creative artist than this description suggests” (1950: 18)–he was, in short, a ‘garbancero’. Leavis only concluded as late as 1970 that Dickens was also a great ‘creative artist’ in Dickens the Novelist. Luckily, the BBC never doubted that and has so done much to undo Prof. Leavis’ unfortunate early judgements.

So, back to the beginning, Galdós’ love for his master Dickens can be called a ‘celebration’ of influence, rather than anxiety. I am not denying the widespread existence of this ‘anxiety’–think of Martin Amis comparing himself to his novelist father Kingsley if you need an example. I am just claiming that literary anxiety has a potent counterpart in avowed, gleeful admiration–though I would grant that only a genius like Galdós can turn his awe for a master into unrestrained inspiration and, ultimately, an equally potent voice of his own.

When 2043 arrives and Spain gets the chance to celebrate Galdós’ bicentenary as joyfully as the British celebrated Dickens’ own back in 2012, we can discuss how the two cultures compare when it comes to celebrating the literary best they have produced…

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that Literature students do not read. To be precise, just as, obviously, Austen’s man of good fortune is not really in want of a wife, many Literature students do read. Experience tells me, however, that this does not necessarily mean that student readers do read what we ask them to read but what they please to read. The non-readers simply don’t read.

This tongue-twister recaps worries occupying some of my time in recent days. Last Monday we had a Literature teachers’ meeting to discuss, once more, what we can do to have more students read more. My personal impression is that only a minority (say 20%) read all the set texts, a majority read some (say 50% to be on the generous side) and the rest get by using internet summaries and class notes (30%).

What is worrying, as I have noted here several times already, is the growing number among the non-reading students who have adopted an in-your-face attitude and do not hesitate to tell us as rudely as they can that they don’t and they won’t read. Recently, we even had a girl who demanded our praise for her honesty (and passing the exam). Now, the consequences of not reading are serious: undergrads can be expelled after registering for a fourth time in a subject–even so, some are beginning to express their, so to speak, ‘right’ not to read.

As usual, the problem is that the recalcitrant students do not approach any Literature teacher for a chat on why they don’t read. So, I have to make do with the ones who do read.

The less dutiful have clearly explained to me that there is a principle of selection at work: you want me to read so and so, fine, I’ll choose what interests me and fool you about having read the rest. A few weeks ago, I found at my door one of my most brilliant students: he was finally reading, after taking my Victorian Literature class four years ago, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights… and loving it! He is famous for having publicly declared that he got an A for my subject without having read any of the (four) books. When I called him to my office to justify this boast, I had him explain his method to me rather than fail him. He had worked quite hard reading summaries and essays and, anyway, the paperwork to fail him retrospectively was so messy I let him be (also, well, he is a compulsive reader). Still, we had other students demand their right to pass the subject as he did, students who based their claim on their not having read the books, either… nor even the summaries.

Anyway, two of the brilliant, dutiful students who do read plenty told me more or less the same story when I asked them this week: the 1990s generation may not be readers but they certainly are consumers of TV series. Both girl students, committed readers since childhood, explained to me that they are quite capable of consuming TV in very long bouts. When I say TV, I should be cautious, for they actually meant series made for TV but watched on the computer independently from broadcast schedules. Everyone, they told me, is watching at least two or three series at the same time, sometimes combining ongoing with already finished products.

As I have noted here, I don’t like watching series. I prefer movies and tend to see one every evening, instead of watching TV (my only ‘appointment shows’ are Polònia and APM Extra on TV3). Also, as I have noted here, this is because I prefer variety to following long narrations; I learned to control the time I use for a particular story after the fiasco of Lost. Yes, I did write that pioneering book about The X-Files (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/118437) but the experience also taught me that consuming a very long series is, for me, too taxing, too little relaxing.

My students tell me the opposite: for them, reading requires concentration and is, thus, increasingly subjected to a shorter attention span. As one of my colleagues hypothesised, the reason why students don’t read too much is because their reading practice was not sufficiently strong before they reached us; lacking practice, they find reading time-consuming and unrewarding. The more complex the texts we ask them to read are, the less they enjoy reading as, naturally, they need greater concentration. These students, of course, still enjoy storytelling, which they get from TV. Now, fancy this: it might well be that both the non-readers and the readers are consuming plenty of TV series because they are easier to follow than a printed text. For different reasons in each case.

Back to my two students, one quite surprised me by declaring that when she completed her MA dissertation she let off steam by watching The Gilmore Girls over a few days. This series is 7 seasons long with 22 episodes per season (seemingly 60’ each), more than 140 hours?? She clarified to me that her record, watching 10 episodes on one day, has to do with her ability to multitask–she does not sit in front of the TV but takes her laptop all over the place as she does different things. The other girl, who also uses TV series to relax, gave me a similar account of her habits, stressing that you need not follow all the episodes in detail, ergo, there is no need to concentrate unlike what happens when you read. Sadly, when I observed that, at least, our students’ oral and verbal skills must be improving with so much audio-visual input she told me that not all enjoy the original English-language version.

I told a colleague about all this and he wondered how this generational portrait as, mainly, TV consumers fits their other portrait as readers of Rowling’s Harry Potter. Supposing the overlap is large, of which I am by no means sure, I’ll argue that it is perfectly possible. Rowling only turned a fraction of her readers into readers for life and, anyway, a passion for reading is not incompatible, as we can see, with a passion for TV series. Perhaps the real testing ground should be provided by A Game of Thrones. Before the TV series started back in 2011, this story was known as A Song of Ice and Fire; A Game of Thrones (1996) is actually just the first novel in Martin’s ongoing series. Ask the 1990s generation and you will see that most refer to it by their TV series’ title, as this and not the books is what is mostly consumed. The TV series is surely getting more readers for Martin but I am sure most viewers are satisfied enough and feel no inclination to read the books.

I do wonder, then, whether the 15 years mediating between 1996 and 2011 will be seen retrospectively as the years that killed the novel, and whether we will ever come to the conclusion that the construction of reading fiction as a (cultural) habit has more to do with the availability of technology than with anything else (if Shakespeare or Dickens had had a camera then…). I am well aware that cinema has not killed the novel and that novel sales are still very high, yet this massive TV series consumption might be indicating something else: the final victory of middle-brow, easy-to-follow storytelling over all other forms of fiction.

I’ll leave the matter of whether TV series can be avant-garde for another post…

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In 2006 I published a monographic volume on The X-Files, entitled Expediente X: En honor a la verdad. I am practically certain that I was the first person in Spain to attempt to cover a whole TV series in a book with the intention of offering an in-depth analysis (accessible to the general readership) rather than just a guide with episode summaries (I did include that, too). If you’re curious the volume is here: <a href="https://ddd.uab.cat/record/118437. The X-Files is still today my favourite TV series, and I still consider it much superior to others who are now much better known. Actually, I find that Chris Carter’s brainchild, which lasted from 1993 to 2002 does not even exist for my own students, born around the time it was launched. A pity.

The X-Files was 200 episodes long and amounted to 150 viewing hours. Others ‘x-philes’ like me can verify for you what a torture seeing the complete series was, as Tele5 cancelled it with no warning, and the final two seasons could only be seen on private channel Fox TV, or on the then new, extremely expensive DVDs. Flat-rate internet access was beginning as the series reached its end and I’m totally sure that The X-Files was a key factor in the popularisation of piratical downloading among us using ADSL services. This, as we know, is a practice that has totally altered the way we see TV series, which is no longer dependent on their being shown on TV at all.

Anyway, a lo que iba: the long struggle to see the end of The X-Files put me off watching any other TV series for a couple of years. Then Lost came, in 2004, and like millions around the world I bit the hook and followed it with a crazy passion until its horrendously disappointing ending in 2010. That’s enough, I vowed to myself: no more TV series for me, unless they’re done and over. Then, last academic year, an MA student handed in an excellent paper on the hero-villain Omar from The Wire (2002-8) swearing to me this was the one series I could not miss. The IMDB rating is 9.4, in the range of Game of Thrones (9.5), Breaking Bad (9.6) or The Sopranos (9.3). 60 viewing hours later I can say now that Omar is the only thing I truly enjoyed from the series.

It is not my aim to review here The Wire, nor to question the taste of those 133,284 IMDB users who have awarded it that impressive 9.4. No. I aim at questioning, rather, the current vogue for TV American series that, more often than not, turn out to be not that good after all. Arguably, the new wave quality TV series started with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1), which, in its turn, inspired The X-Files (Fox TV). The current boom, however, is usually connected with HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007). Indeed, HBO has produced many other successful series: from Sex and the City to current hits Game of Thrones and True Detective. It also produced everyone’s favourite, best-valued ever mini-TV series, Band of Brothers (2001). But is it all, really, really, as good as so many claim? Hasn’t HBO contributed to inflating this impression?

I have read many opinions in praise of The Wire (also HBO) claiming that it works like a novel. My own consumption of this series corroborates this, even though it’s been a bit accidented (I saw seasons one and two in Spring, not continuously, and then have binged on seasons three to five this August, at a rate of three episodes an evening). The question is that at the (fast) rate I read The Wire would be the equivalent of a 3,600 page novel, more or less. Band of Brothers, which I loved, was 11-hours long, the approximate equivalent of reading a 660-page novel. If you ask me, in the end what we consume with each TV series is one story, no matter how many subplots this has. And my watching The Wire has left me with the clear impression that for one story I’m not willing to use more than twenty hours any more in my life. Whether this is TV or print fiction (sorry George R.R.R. Martin).

At one point in which we were desperately bored (no Omar in that episode), my husband and I worked out that 60 hours amounted to about 30 films, that is 30 stories. Supposing we only enjoyed half of these, we would still have 15 stories to remember with pleasure. Life is short, there’s so much to see and read, why use 60 hours in one story if many more pleasurable ones could be accessed in less time?

When I give friends, students and colleagues my line about why watching overhyped (American) TV is wasting precious time they usually tell me that I don’t understand the pleasures of seeing these new-wave HBO(-inspired) series: the pleasure, they tell me, is in the process not in the end result. You don’t watch to reach a sense of closure but, simply, to watch. Fair enough. My answer is, then, that I’d rather watch comedy (say Big Bang Theory) as in that case I need not worry about narrative arcs extended among many seasons and years. Sit-coms have that: you can plunge in and out, never mind about who Ted Mosby finally met in How I Met your Mother (2005-14).

Conclusions? It seems I am going to stick to mini-series. I am actually yearning to see again the British trilogy based on Michael Dobbs’s novels House of Cards (1990), To Play the King (1993) and The Final Cut (1995), currently being remade (or plundered) by Netflix (yes, not even a TV channel but an internet streaming service). As for Breaking Bad, which I have not followed, and seemed next on the list after The Wire, well, I don’t know… Add to this that I have just given up on BBC’s Sherlock after the awfully embarrassing episode about Watson’s wedding (3×3).

It’s that kind of week in which I just want to read…

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