Thanks to Edelweiss and to the publishers (Vanderbilt University Press) for providing me a copy of the book that I freely chose to review.
I was drawn to this book because although I was born and grew up in Spain, I have spent the last 25 years of my life in the UK, and between the time invested in education and work, I know I have missed some of the big debates about the past that have taken place in the country. From personal experience, I know that living abroad gives you a different perspective, usually wider, on a country’s history and society, and I was interested to learn the opinions of a foreign Hispanist on the controversial topic of the book.
This book was illuminating for me. I’ve discovered that I need to catch up and read books, watch documentaries, and explore the memory movement in Spain. I know some details thanks to my mother’s family, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the many initiatives and projects that have been implemented. I learned about laws (helpful and, mostly, unhelpful), about controversy and debates, about the origin of well-known photographs and documents (including the fact that photographers shared cameras and subjects during the Spanish Civil War, and no matter what their intent, those photographs also had, even at the time, a commercial value), about the uneasy relationship between Culture, cultural objects, and History. Is fiction less valuable when it comes to documenting the reception and the collective memory of a historical event? Or more?
Although I am not an expert in History, I have read some History books over the years and one of the things I found more refreshing about this volume, which collects a variety of essays on topics that fit in well together, is the fact that rather than offering an authoritative version of events or pontificating about the right or wrong way of looking at a particular period in history, it asks questions. On relevancy: how can an academic book written in English discussing events and recent debates about Spanish history and politics reach a wider audience? Are academics simply talking to themselves without ever reaching the general public (unless given an “official” status)? On the approach and the position historians should take when researching and writing their findings: Can historical essays and books ever be “neutral”? And should they be “neutral”? Isn’t it better to be open about one’s point of view and allegiances? (As the author observes, WWII historians are clearly positioned when writing about the war, but in Spain, this is frowned upon). On comparative studies and the risks of conflating similar events in different countries and eras, thereby missing the most interesting and fruitful aspects for analysis: Is it legitimate to apply international models (like those developed through the Holocaust studies) to the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist repression? On the position of the intellectuals and how politics and affiliations affect even those who try hardest to be rigorous. How can those intellectuals who were heavily invested in the Transition open up to other opinions and not consider them a personal criticism? On the memory movement, the hurdles faced by those trying to find out more about relatives or friends, and about the resistance of historians to see any value in memory narratives. Is forgetting the past the best option, or do the unhealed wounds and traumas that have been festering, no matter how long for, always find a way to resurface? About the boom in historical fiction novels about the Civil War and what they tell us about society and popular opinion. Although the author’s opinions are clearly stated, the questions hang there and readers can take them up and find their own answers.
As I said, I cannot claim to any expertise on the topic, and I suspect experts will have much to take issue with in this book, but for me, it helps provide the tools to answer some of the questions that inform the author’s work and that are the same that a large part of the Spanish population are asking. Quoting from the book:
How have history, fiction, and photography shaped Spanish memory? How has democratic Spain dealt with the legacy of the Civil War, the Franco dictatorship, and the Transition? And how have academics, writers, filmmakers, photographers, and journalists in Spain and elsewhere engaged with a collective process that is central to the country’s future as a unified, functioning democracy?
In view of recent events, these questions are more pressing and relevant than ever, and I hope this book reaches as wide an audience as possible. I recommend it to anybody who is open to fresh perspectives on the subject and is up for a challenging — but ultimately rewarding— read.
A long, ranty follow-up to earlier post here regarding whether to be disappointed or angry.
And in part this is prompted also by Elentarri's comment to that earlier post, an excerpt from which I quote here:
. . . if someone was bright enough to get into university they were supposed to be intelligent enough to do a lot of self-study. The professor was only there to provide a few hours of entertainment in class every week and provide course material/mark exams, which was the proof the rest of the world required that the students were doing work. (Elentarri's Book Blog)
In many respects, I completely concur; certainly my graduate classes were often like this, with little or no guidance from the professors, even though a couple of them did nothing much more than talk, talk, talk about nonsense unrelated to the course material. One even refused to answer questions, and when I finally demanded that he at least address the reading we were doing and which we all agreed none of us understood, he laughed at me and said "Welcome to grad school!" before launching on another tangent. He didn't like it when my evaluation of the course was highly critical of him.
Another prof in another graduate class lost complete control of the situation to the point that one student physically threatened me and I in turn accused the prof of encouraging the abuse. I found out later he was terrified I would report the situation and he'd lose his job. He admitted to me -- and to the rest of the class after I had walked out -- that he had let things go too far. . . because he found it entertaining.
But those were graduate classes, and they were "seminar" formats where there was supposed to be discussion and even debate as contrasted to more typical teaching formats where students did the assigned reading, then came to a class session where the professor led the instructive process.
My gripe is with the undergraduate experience, where professors failed to provide guidance and/or information that was specifically asked for.
I was expected to meet with my advisor for the honors thesis at least a few times during the six months or so I researched and then wrote the actual paper. As I wrote in the earlier post, her area of specialization was women's history, not women's writing or literature or anything like that. She pretty much admitted she knew nothing about my subject and was as much interested in learning what I had to say as she was in actually helping me write it. She did recommend one book for me, and it provided some very useful information, but that was the sum total of her contribution. At one point prior to my actually writing the thesis, I gave her my bibliography. She had few comments.
My other two readers were from the English department, but I only met with one of them once, to go over the basic premise of the project. She, too, admitted to knowing absolutely nothing about romance fiction. When I asked if she had any suggestions for areas I could add to my research, she offered nothing. She did not ask many questions about what research I had already done or what references I had consulted.
All three of these full professors -- two were then or had been recently heads of their departments -- knew that I was very much a non-traditional student: In addition to being over 50, I had come back to college after a 25 year hiatus, I had a minimum of humanities background, and I had in fact taken exactly one literature course.
Everything I knew about literary criticism theory I had in fact learned on my own. There had been absolutely none in that single class, which was titled Contemporary Women Authors (most of whose works we read in translation). The focus in that class was on the woman's experience as depicted in the writing, and not on how it was written or where any of the individual novels/stories fit into the general literary landscape. Whether the professor simply presumed we had already learned all that stuff in prior classes, I don't know. The whole subject was one of those unknown unknowns as far as I was concerned: I didn't know enough about lit crit theory to know what I didn't know.
So I went ahead and wrote the thesis. I gave the first "final" version to my advisor for review. She had virtually no comments, criticisms, or suggestions. I then distributed copies to the other members of my committee, and prepared for my defense.
I knew, of course, that I was defending more than just the paper I had written: I was really defending the entire genre of romance fiction as it had been defined -- or redefined -- as a powerful segment of popular fiction, of feminist literature, of women's financial empowerment. I had laid out some of that in the paper itself, and I already had a traditional publisher interested in a book-length version. So I went into the conference room probably over-prepared for the defense.
Well, probably didn't come close to describing it. I'm pretty sure all three of them had actually read the thing, but their questions about the paper led me to believe they hadn't understood any of what I had written. I remember one question in particular was about the difference between a romance novel and a television soap opera. The simple answer, of course, was that one ends at "The End" and the other never ends, but that didn't seem to be enough. "Happily Ever After" is guaranteed in a romance novel; there is no "ever after" in a soap opera. And on and on, until I realized the question was actually intended to confirm the bias that romance novels are the same as soap operas, and that both serve to entertain poorly educated women who don't work outside the home and have nothing better to do with their lives.
But the thesis was ultimately accepted as written with a few minor adjustments. I got my degree with honors, and the following fall I started the graduate program. The book length version of Half Heaven, Half Heartache got put on hold for a whole lot of reasons (not least among which was my own lack of confidence in it). A few years later, Pamela Regis came out with her The Natural History of the Romance Novel and I set HH-HH aside more or less permanently. I couldn't afford to buy Regis's book, but I figured it said everything I had intended to say anyway.
When I finally did acquire a copy a few years ago, I discovered quite the opposite. I also discovered how incomplete certain aspects of my own original research had been. I went back to Christopher Vogler's book, I went back to his co-written work Memo from the Story Department, then I began with the Joseph Campbell source material for those two books. What I wasn't finding was the basic theory of Story that I wanted, and that was essentially missing also from HH-HH.
In what I read of Regis, I found no references to Campbell or Vogler, but I did find some to Northrop Frye. I was vaguely familiar with the name, but that was it. Quick research informed me that Campbell's work had predated Frye's, so I continued to expect my reading of Campbell to provide that bedrock.
It wasn't there. And though I eventually gave up on both of the Campbell works to which I had access, I didn't retain any expectation that they contained it.
In amongst this, and because my time was constrained by art shows and so on, I began rereading Stephen King's On Writing. I enjoyed the memoir part, the struggles with poverty, the family issues, the shock of sudden financial success, and so on. I still haven't finished all the actual text on writing. But something in there, something in the respect King gave to his own popular fiction writing, kept the other fires flickering in the back of my brain.
So I picked up the first of the two Frye books I had purchased (used) from Amazon.
And there, in the first few pages, was a theory of Story.
I returned to my research on Frye. And that's what aroused my disappointment first and now real anger.
Frye is often considered one of the leading literary theorists of the twentieth century. Not one single professor with whom I discussed HH-HH ever mentioned him. None of his works were in my bibliography. He's not referenced in the text.
It is one thing, as Elentarri states, for professors to grant their students freedom for self-directed study. None of the professors I consulted with during the six months or so that I spent on the thesis really had enough information to be able to help me find specific research material; many of the works I did use were unfamiliar to them. And certainly none of them had ever read a romance novel.
But I had specifically asked for help. I knew I was in uncharted waters, and I made no secret of my ignorance. I trusted those individuals to at least steer me in the right direction. Instead, they simply let me drift.
What might have happened if just one of those professors suggested I look at the literary theories of Northrop Frye (a Canadian)? What if just one of them had suggested I look at the literary theories of F. R. Leavis (an Englishman who was mentored by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who also mentored Daphne DuMaurier)?
I feel almost as if I'm starting over, from scratch. That's a disappointment. The feeling that I shouldn't have had to is what makes me angry.
After the bitter disappointment of The Power of Myth, I wanted to try Joseph Campbell's original work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I hoped it would be more illuminating than the pretentious nonsense of Campbell/Moyers collaboration.
If anything, it was worse. I managed to slog through about 50 pages before giving up. There isn't enough time in the world to waste on this.
I was expecting an analysis of myths from around the world to show how they fit Campbell's pattern, but what I got seemed like fragmentary stream-of-consciousness ramblings. Though his "nuclear unit" of story construction made sense, nothing else did.
That nuclear unit posits three main parts of a myth or story. The hero begins in his/her ordinary world, then leaves that world to have some kind of adventure in a non-ordinary world, and finally returns to the ordinary world with some special knowledge or talent or gift that fixes whatever was wrong in the first place. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again - that sort of thing.
If he had taken that core and expanded it into the more detailed structure of Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Threshold Guardian and so on, I might have felt there was something of value. But his examples of myths rarely illustrated his premise. The last one I bothered to read was about the Chinese prince who didn't want to get married, but Campbell ended the chapter without explaining what the point of it was!
The other negative for me was the inclusion of dreams, either from Freudian or Jungian psychoanalysis. First of all, I'm not all that impressed with either Freud or Jung, though Freud really rubs me the wrong way. But second, and far more important, was that I just don't feel random dreams, taken completely out of context, are a valid foundation on which to build a theory of story structure.
A few nights ago, I had a dream that a volcano was opening up under a portion of my house. In the dream, I was trying to keep certain objects from falling into the volcano, but they were relatively valueless objects. As I came to the realization that there were far more valuable objects to be saved, and that I did have the means to save them and escape the path of destruction, I exited the house and began to select items to be packed and taken away with me. As I did so, however, I discovered that someone was cutting down all the trees and big cactus on my property, with the explanation that he was doing so to stop the volcano. At that point, I woke up.
Because I'm aware of the context in which that dream developed, I know that there's not a whole lot of Freudian bullshit involved. Were the dreams cited by Campbell also taken out of an everyday context? Not knowing for sure, I just brushed them aside as meaningless.
That, of course, made much of the rest of the discussion equally meaningless.
The book was definitely not what I expected, and I really didn't find it useful at all as a basis for analyzing story structure.