Here’s to the Love of Books: Pursuing Publishing

by Laurel Myers

I love books. This phrase is typical of an English major—so hello, that’s me, guilty as charged. I learned to read when I was three and have always lived within a block of the public library in my town. My mom would call the librarians when I was big enough to walk across streets by myself and let them know I was on my way. I always ended up walking home with a stack almost as high as me with a book propped open on the top so I could read on the way back. When I woke up, I would read until the smell of bacon cooking wafted up the stairs. When I was going to sleep, I read until I came to a good stopping point (sometimes) or I finished the book (more likely) or I fell asleep (okay, this one happened the most). I took books with me in the car, even if we were just going to the grocery store; I took books to school and read when I should have been working on homework or talking to friends; I took a book with me… I think you get the point. I was never without a book, as if the pages were an additional appendage. My punishment when I was a kid? Having my books taken away.


   Little kids are always asked what they want to do when they grow up, and my list leaned towards the sciences: marine biologist was up there for a while, followed by zoologist, and joining Doctors Without Borders was a possibility until I was told that wasn’t really a “job job.” Then, bioengineering somehow became the major I was looking at for college. After an internship in a pulmonary-cardiovascular research lab, I realized a career spent in a lab was not for me and that my aversion to math might be a slight problem. Although I felt like I had wasted a summer, this experience actually saved me from wasting even more time and money going to college for a career I would not ultimately enjoy. (I would like to emphasize career, as science is a compelling subject that I find fascinating). Because of that summer, I was forced to reevaluate what I could see myself studying for four years and then dedicating my life to.

Which brings us back to the “I love books” statement. I found myself wondering if I could be paid for reading for all day, because who wouldn’t love that? I had been training my whole life! I was practically a professional already.

   I happen to also watch a copious amount of Netflix, which is how I came across two movies that presented an answer to me: Not Another Happy Ending and Genius. These films follow the relationships between a publisher and an author, along with the arduous process of developing a book. In Not Another Happy Ending, an author with a best-selling book is not able to write the sequel because she is too happy, so her publisher attempts to remedy her writer’s block by making her miserable. Genius tells the story of Tom Wolfe (a Washington and Lee alum and past editor of Shenandoah) and his publisher Maxwell Perkins’ friendship developing as they work on manuscripts together through the tumultuous changes of life. While they are most certainly different in genre and tone, there is a striking similarity between the two: the passion and drive to create good books.

   I have always been a consumer of books and love the worlds they took me to, but I had never thought about how they were produced. The world of publishing that exists behind all of these stories is one I want to venture into and figure out how all of the gears and mechanics work together to create such mesmerizing works. Once I wrapped my head around the fact that there was indeed a job where I could read manuscripts and converse with the creators of fantastical journeys, I declared an English major and looked for a way to begin introducing myself to this profession.

Interning at Shenandoah is a direct connection to publishing and all of the nuances and skills needed. Looking at the inundation of submissions to the magazine highlights the importance of having a concrete list of what makes a good story, which means you actually have to work through and know what belongs on the list. Working with R.T. Smith is to be working with a prolific and successful writer who has an incredible knowledge of the literary sphere. Writing these blogs and finding poems of the week forces me to put my own work and interests out into the public eye, which is oftentimes a terrifying thought. Spearheading the Greybeal-Gowen Prize for Poetry reveals the range of authors and their determination to have people other than themselves read their work. Shenandoah also encourages my interest in simply reading, as there are wonderful stories and poems in this literary magazine that I would not have otherwise found.

I am also fortunate enough to have friends trust my editing skills and my honesty when reading through their work. I edited a short story for a friend trying to publish it in a literary magazine, and was astounded by how some simple questions and critiques transformed the writing into a driven, focused, and astonishing piece. I fell in love with the process of give and take between writer and editor, and I am happy to be working with another friend on a novel, which I am learning is an entirely different beast.

Apparently, my passion has always been right there in my hands.

Here’s to the love of books.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Judging a Book by its (Gendered) Cover

By Virginia Kettles

In 2013, the New York Times bestselling author Deborah Copaken wrote an essay about her experiences watching her books be “girlified” for publishing.

In the essay, Copaken spoke about the publication of her first book, a memoir about her experiences as a war photographer. After purchasing the rights, Random House changed the title of her manuscript to Shutterbabe and designed a cover involving a naked cartoon torso against a pink background with a camera covering the genitalia. It took a long fight on Copaken’s side to convince the publishers to rethink the design.

Such is the case for gender-specific advertising, and, as the saying goes, it doesn’t hurt that “sex sells.”

While there is little data readily available on the exact trends of this phenomenon, gender-specific advertising in regards to book covers has become increasingly common.

Walking into any local bookstore, customers can often find two kinds of books: ones with dark colors, thick, heavy fonts, and simple images, and others with lighter, muted colors, cursive fonts, and images of attractive, usually Caucasian, women. Some, as if by instinct, will unconsciously make assumptions on what kind of person wrote the book and, as a result, who the book is catered towards.

What’s wrong with this? Perhaps nothing. After all, a marketing tactic like that must be successful if it is practiced so freely. Consumers are perfectly able to purchase what they like. If that means we humans are slaves to our unconscious preferences that parallel the stereotypes associated with our gender, then so be it.

But this comes at a cost.

Johnson, a successful young adult author, wrote an essay about the uncomfortable attribution of gender and quality when it came to discussing books. According to her, books written by women, and especially books written by women ABOUT women, are often pegged as being of a lower quality.

“When I hear people talk about ‘trashy’ books, 95% of the time, they are talking about books written by women. When I see or hear the terms ‘light,’ ‘fluffy,’ ‘breezy,’ or ‘beach read’…95% of the time, they are talking about books written by women.”

Thus, I wondered. If femininity is not taken seriously in the literary world, what does that say about the book covers that employ the feminine theme so heavily? If a person is presented with a feminine-looking cover, will they see the book as being of a lower quality? Would they be interested in reading the book? Would they think the book could win an award?

As a senior in high school, I tested just that.

I created 3 pairs of fake book covers, where one was garnered towards women, and the other towards men, based on the author’s gender, the font, and the image in the background. I attached the different covers to surveys, in which I asked questions about what the book’s quality seemed to be, and whether the book was likely to win a literary award. I then distributed the survey to about 200 students and a handful of teachers at my high school.

The results were fascinating. While the gender of the author for the book Outsider made little difference when it came to the perceived quality of the book, the fonts and images in the other books elicited substantially different reactions. Participants saw the desk-and-skull background for The Study Side as being of a higher quality, and the bold-faced fonts of The Broke Test even more so. In comparison, the image of the woman-smelling-flowers background, or the frilly fonts, did not impress the participants.

It seems there is still a lot to be said about how people view femininity in terms of respect and reputability in the literary world.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Shenandoah Abides

The other day Shenandoah‘s editor, the great R.T. Smith (Rod), reached out to me about preparations for the Spring issue. It struck me then that we have been doing this since the Spring of 2011. Oh how six years flies by.  I track it time-wise in my mind right alongside the semester ds106 went open and online. Martha Burtis helped me code the design for the site, and while it might be high-time for a redesign, I think it’s held up quite well.* It was built on WordPress Multi-Site, and each issue has its own WordPress instance defined by issue issue and number, such as issue 65, volume 2issue 66, volume 1, etc. The architecture was pretty simple. 

They also got rolling with a blog that has seen, on average, more than 5 posts a month for the last 6 years. Rod has become quite a blogger himself, and the move from print to digital for Shenandoah was quiet and consistent. They regularly produced new issues, blogged about the work, and made the literary offerings from the last 12 issues free and open to anyone with a browser. What’s more, every time I work on Shenandoah it makes me think of Claudia Emerson, the late poet and friend, who got me the gig thanks to the work I did with her literary journals class. Can’t think of too many better people or teachers I have ever met. The recent issue features a powerful reminder how many hearts Claudia lives in.

BEYOND AUTOBIOGRAPHY: Claudia Emerson Through Three Poems on Race

So my work for the Shenandoah gladly continues.  There will be a day when Rod retires and a new crew comes in and rethinks the site, but until then this is one of the projects I’ve been a part of over the last 6 years that has been truly grounding. I am no literary expert, but I like doing my small part to get a little more imaginative thinking and writing out on the web.

Anyway, after Rod reached out about the upcoming issue I realized this was the sixth year we’ve been doing this, so I got curious about the numbers. I’ve been tracking the site in Google Analytics since the beginning, and just two weeks ago the site hit the 1 million page view mark, with almost half a million visitors, and 600,000 sessions. What’s been most interesting to me about these numbers is the growth over the last two years to get almost 20,000 hits a month during the semester. That is 4x as many as in 2013, and twice as many during 2014. The last half of 2015, all of 2016, and the first few months of 2017 have suggested the journal has grown a pretty significant readership. That said, numbers on the web can be meaningless when you look at how many times Gangham Style was been viewed any given week. But Shenandoah abides, and twice a year you’ll get an outpouring of new literary work to the web, and that’s what I like about it.

  • She was also kind enough to let me pay her in erratic installments given those were the very lean years for the bavas. 
Posted in Shenandoah | Tagged | Leave a comment

An Apology for Literature

An Apology for Literature

by Arlette Hernandez

I’m the first to admit that I’ve never been a fan of the early modern period. All throughout high school, I dreaded reading Shakespeare. My first English class in college, a seminar on revenge tragedies, was painful. It felt like weights were pulling down on my arms as I waded my way through the prose of Middleton and Kyd and Marlowe. As compelling as the plots sounded, reading something like The Spanish Tragedy was made difficult by the fact that it seemed so dated and irrelevant. Though, I’ll never forget some of the real gems I found in Shakespeare’s plays.

It wasn’t until this year in my literary theory class that I began to gain an appreciation for the early modern period. And all thanks to Sir Philip Sidney.

In 1595, Sir Philip Sidney, a prominent figure and author of the Elizabethan period published his essay An Apology for Poetry, also known as A Defence of Poesy. The essay was a response to The School of Abuse (1579), “a moralistic attack on poetry written by Puritan minister Stephen Gosson and dedicated (without leave) to Sidney himself” (Richter 112). Commenting on contemporary perceptions of the arts, Sidney writes, “Poetry, which from almost the highest estimation of learning is fallen to be the laughingstock of children” (116). The rest of the piece is an attempt to restore poetry’s dignity, while overturning all the claims lain against it.

But even though this essay was written in the 16th century, I cannot help but think of our current socio-political moment every time I read it. There’s been a lot of talk about the possible defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts. And looking at the departmental statistics of any university, one can see a decrease in the popularity of subjects within the arts and humanities. English departments across the nation are struggling to recruit majors, while business programs are seeing an influx of students (look below for some fun infographics). All this to say, our society seems to privilege the “practical,” or the “scientific” while marginalizing the arts and the humanities. Every time I tell someone I’m an English major the immediate response I get is, “Oh, what are you going to do with that?” or “You’re not going to make a lot of money.” History is repeating itself, and a lot of us in the arts are finding our craft under attack.

The Most Popular College Majors 2012

From Visually.

My goal is not to cause a rift or demonize any one party, but rather to emphasize the importance of the arts in our society. As someone who wants to go into education, I’m always thinking about the different ways I would run a classroom, and literature and creative writing always plays an important role.

I’ve gone to public schools my whole life—both really good ones, and some that were not so good. But one of the things I’ve seen repeatedly is a student withdrawing the moment he or she can’t emotionally invest in their own education. I think that’s why many of my teachers in elementary school were so adamant about acknowledging holidays like Black History Month. How are you supposed to reach out to a classroom full of students of color who are either keenly or subliminally aware of their position in society from watching television shows or the five o’clock news or even just going to the grocery store with their parents?

Here is where literature comes in, and here is why I think it’s so important.

I had never read a novel written by a person of color until I left high school. By the beginning of my freshman year of college, I had read five Shakespeare plays, poems by Wordsworth and Keats, and “canonical” novels like Madame Bovary, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Catcher in the Rye; but nothing by Morrison or Hurston or Ellison. I never saw myself in the curriculum except as a slave or an impoverished immigrant; always as an “oppressed minority,” rarely as a successful person.

No kid should have to go through this. We need to teach our kids that for every Joseph Conrad, there is a Chinua Achebe. For every Emily Dickinson, a Gwendolyn Brooks. English is without a doubt a “practical” major. It teaches people how to think critically and how to engage with history, psychology, and our physical and social surroundings. We can’t give up on literature because it has so much to teach us. And we especially can’t give up on the production of contemporary literature because with every publication of novel written by a woman or a person of color, a queer individual or an immigrant, a disabled person or a religious minority, we are reshaping a literary canon that has traditionally excluded several of these groups. These works show disadvantaged students that they have a place in our society, in the world, while increasing the overall empathy of a classroom’s students. Encouraging a student to engage in the arts shows them that they have the power to produce things, that their voices can be heard, and their experiences are important.

For these reasons, and so many more, I will always believe in the importance of literature and the arts. I’ll channel my inner Philip Sidney and keep defending it until the day I’m gone.

Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford St Martin’s, Macmillan Learning, 2016. Print.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Sidestepping the Book vs. Movie Debate

“That’s not how it’s supposed to happen.”

“She was much more likable in the book.”

How could they leave out James Potter’s backstory?”

When it comes to watching a movie that is based off of a book, there’s nothing worse than being in a room with a disgruntled reader who constantly feels the need to point out the differences between the two. And yet, admittedly, I’m often guilty of being that obnoxious, disgruntled reader.

While friends watching with me may be blissfully unaware of the details left out from the book, I struggle to stifle my complaints about the discrepancies. Given that the director is not privy to my subconscious screenplays, I guess it’s to be expected that the movie version is often drastically different from how I imagined the scenes while reading the novel. Yet somehow I still feel like he or she has personally let me down.

Whether from distractingly over-the-top production choices (looking at you, The Great Gatsby (2013)) or from being primarily focused on its perfect-looking cast (every Nicholas Sparks adaptation, ever), the full essence of a book is often lost in its conversion to the big screen. Nothing was more horrifying than when one of my favorite children’s books was turned into a film with a grotesque, feline-version of Mike Myers clad in a red and white striped hat. Even the Harry Potter film franchise— despite the fact that I honor Harry Potter Weekend marathons on ABC Family as something close to religious holidays— left some gaps that I may never totally come to grips with.

I know that often this criticism is not wholly deserved. Directors and screenwriters have a huge disadvantage in capturing what authors can fit in as many pages as they desire to an appropriate length film. Still, my aggravated chirps continue to spout unbidden from my mouth. If you’re like me in this aspect, I’ve found a substitution, though not a real solution. Some movies that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed are ones that are very loosely based off of books, but aren’t intended to follow the same plot line at all.

A prime example lies in Jane Austen adaptations. I love all of her novels, and yet for the most part I’ve been disappointed by the films. While I’m a fan of Keira Knightley and Gwyneth Paltrow in general, their depictions of Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse did not live up to my (admittedly high) expectations of the characters from reading the novels. My preferred substitutions? Bridget Jones and Cher Horowitz.

The modern day adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Emma come in the comical forms of Bridget Jones’ Diary and Clueless, respectively. While serious Austen scholars may spurn me for praising such frivolous comedies as satisfactory performances of her acclaimed novels, these were two films that did not, if I’m channeling my inner Mrs. Bennet, upset my poor nerves. The fact that they were so obviously intended to be only inspired by the novels made them easier for me to accept than most movie adaptations, as rather than looking for differences, I instead noticed the similarities. They bring Austen’s understated humor and clever societal critiques to the forefront. By replacing corsets with mini skirts and the dignified world of Highbury with 1990s Beverly Hills, Clueless makes the storyline of Emma more applicable to modern audiences while still following the transformation and revelations of an overly confident and meddlesome young woman in the form of Cher Horowitz. Similarly, Bridget Jones, while a messier and perhaps more alcohol-dependent version of Elizabeth Bennet, demonstrates a woman’s hasty judgments about two males contending for her affections, one of whom is her very own Mr. Darcy.

Another film adaptation that’s even more of a stretch from the novel but still worth mentioning is The Scarlet Letter-esque movie Easy A. Like most highschool students, I suffered through the required studying of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s celebrated novel as a ninth-grade English student. I have to admit, I’d take Emma Stone’s witty banter over Hawthorne’s stuffy language any day. Though in the form of a slapstick teen comedy, on a deeper level Easy A still deals with how female promiscuity is received by society. The continued double standards that Olive, like Hester before her, faces make us question whether we’ve really come that far as a society from 17th-century Puritanical Boston, at least when it comes to the hypocrisy in the way sexuality of women compared to men is viewed. Besides, anything’s better than the 1995 film version with Demi Moore, which boasts a nude bath scene, a different ending than the novel, and, by no coincidence, a Golden Raspberry Award for “Worst Remake or Sequel.”

At the present, I’m still working on being able to withhold my indignant comments and reserve my judgment when watching book-based movies. In the meantime, however, I’ll always opt instead for freely adapted versions of novels when they’re available. If listening to more of Cher’s shrill “As if”’s or Bridget’s drunken wailings of “All By Myself” is what it takes, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

-Emily Cole


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Kathie Odom’s “Sabbath”

by Laura Calhoun

I first discovered Kathie Odom’s work on Cabell Gallery’s website.  Shenandoah was looking for art to feature in our spring issue at the time, so I brought Odom’s website to the attention of our editor, R.T. Smith.  He related most to the subject matter of old buildings, a recurring theme throughout Odom’s work, and asked me to contact the artist.  Within twenty minutes, I was talking with Mr. Odom, Kathie’s husband and assistant who was kind and open to the idea of featuring Kathie’s work in Shenandoah.  A week later, after discovering that Cabell Gallery was located a few hundred feet from the Shenandoah offices, a deal was made.

Kathie Odom is from Knoxville, Tennessee, and has received many awards from plein air events across the country, including in states like Arizona and Vermont.  Her painting style is described as “nostalgic impressionism,” easily identified by the bright earth tones and daydream-like quality of Kathie’s work.  One painting R.T. Smith and I quickly agreed upon including is Sabbath (oil on linen, 30 x 40).

The church, an aging landmark in comparison to the field, is a reminder of days gone by in the countryside.  Growing up in rural Appalachia, it seemed there were enough churches to individually accommodate each person who lived there.  The juxtaposition of the dilapidated church and the lush, green field seems to make a statement about man and religion.  Though we build churches as a symbol of a higher being and eternal life, the buildings themselves are anything but eternal.  The life surrounding this church is what holds it up, the luscious hill steadying the weak foundation.  I see this as a statement about religion in general – the foundation of a religious building exists not within its walls, but in the life which occupies the area within and around it.

Besides the theme of religion, Sabbath captures a stereotypical vision of Appalachia.  The cow standing an equal distance from a barn and a church with no paved road or parking lot anywhere in sight.  After religion, southerners worship farming, a common way of life for the people of rural America.

The painting is entirely bright, except for the lone cow in the foreground.  To someone unfamiliar with rural life, this may be interpreted negatively, the cow viewed as a blemish on the beauty of the landscape.  A viewer more familiar with rural life, however, may see the black cow as an enhancement to the landscape.  Farming is not a lifestyle that affords luxuries; it is comprised of good days and bad days.  Farmers learn to appreciate the bad days, the difficult growing seasons, and the unpredictability of nature.  Just as the dark coloration of the cow strengthens this landscape, the hardships of farming make the rewards even sweeter.

Whether you grew up in rural America, there is some element of nostalgia in this painting with which you can relate.  The colors are reminiscent of a long summer day, the kind where you played outside on your tire swing as a child, when your only concern was when to come inside for supper.  The simplicity of the painting reminds the viewer of a simpler time.  Appalachia, the embodiment of simpler times, provides the perfect scene to depict this sentiment.

I looked for a poem to complement the ideas gathered from this painting, but realized that these thoughts are best expressed through visual art.  Paintings allow the viewer more subjectivity – the meaning must be entirely inferred.  I think this interactivity is a reason I was attracted to Kathie Odom’s art in the first place; her paintings balance casual admiration and deeper analysis effortlessly.  Sabbath is just one example of a landscape Odom has captured that tells a unique story to each viewer.

A collection of Kathie Odom’s art will be featured in Shenandoah Volume 66, No. 2 this spring.  To see more, visit her website at

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Reflections from a Culture-Shocked American

by Arlette Hernandez

I had always heard tales about the Promised Land called “college.” Growing up with Cuban immigrant parents, college was little more than a goal I needed to meet so I could earn a degree and break the cycle of poverty. It was not until I got into high school when that changed. All my teachers would sit back in their cushioned office chairs, staring off into the distance, eyes glazing over as they talked about college. About pulling all-nighters and roaming through city streets at two in the morning. Or for some, about meeting their husbands and wives, their partners for the past however many million years. College became a place for adventure, not just a place to get a degree. Despite all these different views, everyone always seemed to arrive at the same order: study abroad if you can.

Now flash-forward to five months ago when I found myself walking around Heathrow International Airport, eyes shifting between my phone screen and the semi-friendly faces scurrying past me as I waited to connect to the Wi-Fi. I had waited for twenty minutes, but my neon purple suitcase never made an appearance on the carousel. After filing a report with British Airways, I was tasked with the mission of transporting myself and my backpack—filled with nothing but a MacBook and a copy of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves—to Bath, a town in the southwest of England, located about an hour and a half (by train) from London. My next three months in the country would be filled with weekend trips, classes on Shakespeare and Chaucer, and an internship at a local bookshop.

My first day on the job was overwhelming. The bookshop may have been small, but every inch was stuffed. Walking through, you would see books scattered shelves and tables, even a cement filled bathtub with books littered on its surface. Yet, the biggest shock came to me when I walked past a shelf curated with some of the staff’s favorite books. As my eyes trailed over the covers, I noticed a familiar title. It was the same book I had brought with me from house—House of Leaves—but the design on the cover was wildly different.

2000 US Pantheon cover           2000 UK Doubleday cover

England is close enough to the US, that the culture shock doesn’t grab you immediately. Instead, it builds up slowly like the suspense in a good thriller novel. I expected the culture shock; I expect all the differences. But for some reason, it never occurred to me that I’d spot those differences in something as simple as a book cover.

As a part of the internship, I had to write a 30-page research paper inspired by my experiences. I followed this theme of book cover designs, mixing it with my own interest in divisions between genre and “literary” fiction. Really, I wanted to demonstrate that books are not neutral objects. Rather, book covers are incredibly meaningful. They are surfaces constructed by marketing strategies, aimed or targeted at certain groups. Nevertheless, I find the differences between covers in the US and UK fascinating.

Here’s another example:

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

2015 UK Hodder &                 2015 US Harper Voyager                           Stroughton cover                                                       cover

The difference is pretty striking, right? When I look at the UK cover, I think “sophistication.” It looks like something that would be read by my forty-year-old neighbor who works at a private school twenty minutes away. It’s radically different from the US cover.

The UK cover shows the silhouette of a girl standing atop a grassy hill, in front of a nighttime sky. It looks like we start on the ground, on earth, but presumably end up somewhere in a faraway galaxy. The image of the sky takes of the majority of the cover’s space, and the girl’s body covers perhaps a sixth of the area. She seems to be lost in the stars. While the space theme on the UK cover is realistic, the US cover appears cartoonish in comparison. The US cover features a black background with bold and blocky green letters coated in a gradient theme. Surrounding the letters is an image of a moon and a spaceship. I immediately stereotyped this novel as sci-fi. The spaceship, the lettering, they all scream Star Wars and Star Trek. We look at the cover and think adventure and plot, not “what is the meaning of life?”

You can look at these differences in a few different ways. In terms of age, I get the sense that the UK cover is trying to appeal to an older audience. Because of the contrast between the girl’s body and the stars, the cover suggests that the novel is concerned with man’s search for meaning, something that would likely be of more concern to an older audience. Yet, the US cover, knee-deep in genre tropes, would probably appeal toward a younger audience that cares more about story than commentary. The issue of genre v. literary fiction also plays a role. Traditionally, sci-fi is seen as lowbrow literature, or genre fiction, so a cover that makes direct appeals toward that genre is also targeting its readership. Meanwhile, the UK cover, which evokes some heavy existential questions, targets a more literary crowd.

Sometimes the differences between covers speak more to the author or the novel’s reputation.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

2007 UK Vintage cover             2007 US Vintage cover

When I look at the US cover, it’s like it’s saying, “Yes, this is THE Beloved by THE Toni Morrison. Enough said.” Meanwhile, the UK cover gives a little bit more about the novel’s plot. This is understandable considering the fact that Beloved is a uniquely (African) American novel that is taught in a number of US classrooms. It is undoubtedly a part of the American canon, so a publisher working in 2007—thirty years after the novel was first published—does not have to work quite as hard to sell it.

The differences in cover design make sense. When you change the audience, you also have to change the strategies you use to market a book toward them. Still, I wonder if we can draw any cultural conclusions based on these differences. Does the US prefer more concrete imagery and the UK something more abstract? In the case of Chambers’ novel, does the cover more clearly evoke the sci-fi genre because science fiction novels are more popular in the US than in the UK? I have no idea, but it’s questions like these that keep me up at night.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Defining Poetry: Anne Sexton’s “Transformations”

by Laurel Myers

I must admit before getting into this essay that I had never read a full book of poetry before university. Like my fellow classmate, Hannah Denham, I picked up Leaves of Grass with the intention to read every page. Holding a book of poetry in and of itself felt extremely scholarly and, dare I say it, snooty, that I worried the entire time I had the book people would think I was pretentious. Only a couple pages in, I got lost in the metaphors and otherworldliness of Whitman’s verse. I felt as if I had failed the literary world by not understanding the twists and convolutions of language. Because of this, I never attempted another book of poetry and only read the infamously famous poems passed out by my English teachers and wrote half-hearted stanzas about my trip to Cambodia or how much I love clouds. (I really love clouds.) In those moments of putting words on notebook paper and forcing out iambic pentameter and choosing rhymes from nowhere, poetry was just another homework assignment, a nuisance keeping me from the stacks of science fiction and fantasy novels that said what they meant and meant what they said. At the time, I simply did not understand the purpose of poetry.

That is, until I read Anne Sexton’s Transformations.

When I start a book, I read the foreword (if there is one) and then the last page first. I have received confused stares, angry outbursts, and sheer exasperation for this unconventional practice, which is understandable, but I am set in my ways. Beginning Transformations in this fashion prepared me for the dark humor and surprising intimacy of Sexton’s writing. I was delighted that Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had written the foreword, knowing that if my favorite satirist liked this book enough to write about it, I was in for something good. What struck me in his couple of pages was not something he said, but rather a quote from a friend: “I asked a poet friend one time what it was that poets did, and he thought awhile and then he told me, ‘They extend the language.’” This response partially answered my question of why someone would want to rewrite the Grimm fairy tales. We have the originals, we were read them at bedtime before slipping into dreams, and Disney has animated its fair share. However, there is always more to a story when an author as astonishing and introspective as Anne Sexton reimagines them while still staying true to the earliest versions of the tales. The forward, then, extended my expectations.

The last stanza of the last poem of her collection deserves the coveted spot, because the words linger long after the book is closed. They are the last impression, but just as important (if not more) as the first. Sexton ends “Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)” with these lines:

     What voyage this, little girl?

     This coming out of prison?

     God help—

     This life after death? 

After reading this, I knew an entire journey occurs, but was it through all of the poems or just this one? Is this what the transformation is about? Do the characters go on physical journeys or is the book itself a journey? Why were there so many questions at the end? Does Anne Sexton not even know how the story is supposed to end? Why did I have to read the end first again?

Questions make you look for their answers, and in poetry, the answers are usually found in the patterns. Or are they found when the pattern is broken? Professor Wheeler, who teaches Transformations in her class about speculative fiction in poetry, would propose that poetry is patterned language, and therefore both the existence of a pattern and then deliberately ignoring the pattern are goldmines for analysis. Reading any type of work for the purpose of writing a paper on it changes how you approach the text, and this is more than true when close reading and annotating a poem. Close reading can sometimes make me see the trees for the forest. I get stuck on a color that keeps popping up or the number of times a name appears in one poem. This can cause you to wonder if this was the reason for poetry, to write in the margins and circle motifs and draw arrows connecting ideas or images. Thankfully, discussing my findings during class and listening to my classmates helped me understand why the patterns that stood out to me were important in the big picture and teased the underlying meanings to the surface.

While reading Transformations, you do not have to look very hard to see that metaphors are everywhere. Sexton’s predilection for metaphors extends throughout the book, diving into her dark humor and curiously personal perspectives. Her use of this literary device causes the world of fairy tales and World War II to collide. Her lush comparisons sculpted scenes full of obsession and bizarrerie while constantly juxtaposing characters with delicious food and nature’s foliage. Because Sexton wrote this collection before my time, she also forced me to look up references to Thorazine, Limoges, and the Bobbsey Twins.

But poems are more than structure and what rhetorical devices are used. They are a conversation, an observation, a call for empathy. They are statements about something, be it political, religious, or simply what it means to be human. Poems are examinations of ourselves and of our world, of desires and losses. As Allison Curseen, a visiting professor, put forth with conviction, “Poetry is bodies talking.” Poetry is extended language, is patterned language, is all of these cursory definitions. But Anne Sexton’s poetry transcends all of these descriptions and stands as a stoic and stark reminder that the world may be a messy place, but you can make something worthwhile out of it. You may not get a happy ending—in fact, your ending may by full of question marks—but you are fully capable of creating a fairy tale journey along the way.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: American Individualism Then and Now By Hannah Denham


Nineteenth century poet Walt Whitman is heralded as one of the first truly American poets, but for me, he was my first. I’m a little sheepish to admit this, but I discovered Whitman during my middle school days of obsession with Nicholas Sparks novels: in The Notebook, Noah always read his poetry to Allie. In ninth grade, I transferred schools and one of the highlights was a new library to explore. I found an 1890 copy of Leaves of Grass. It smelled old and musky and like America. I checked it out every two weeks for the rest of the school year.

Known as a literary trailblazer, Whitman “broke the new wood,” as Ezra Pound phrases it, of stylistic technique. His lack of conformation reflects the greater inclusiveness of the content of his writing. I found this to be especially evident in his poem “Song of Myself,” first published in 1855 and later under this title in 1881. Its fifty-two sections delve into life during the era between the War of 1812 and the 1850s, known as the antebellum period. Whitman accomplishes this by elevating the sense of self through the speaker of the poem’s first-person narration and by providing a “poetic identity” for American culture.

This level of explicit boldness is a call to action for the modern American. Whitman connects himself to reality — the actual and the potential — through an indirect, biographical statement that expresses his speaker, “I,” does not direct his energies toward superficiality but toward the truth of existence. Its urgent tension provides a foundation of friction upon which the society can progress forward. The all-inclusive “I” relates the speaker’s narration to all Americans and serves as the personification of America as a nation during an era of social, political and economic growth, then and now.

Victorian-era values infiltrated American etiquette and social interaction during this time period. The merit placed on this social impression was often denounced by critics who claimed its superficiality over its value. Whitman delves into this influence on social status in the first stanza of the fourth section. “Trippers and askers surround me, / The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new, / My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues /… But they are not the Me myself.” The speaker’s recognition of the social ladder and its classist implications provides the opportunity as a spokesperson for the American voice: one that views certain values that still exist as inhibitors of the American ideal of leveled equality. Furthermore, a deeper analysis of the speaker’s voice shows that the antagonist of this section is not wealth but a unified goal for the social status that comes with it. His argument here is that those who romanticize the latest and greatest trends due to a desire for status will be swept up by a collective loss of identity. After establishing this foundation, the speaker expresses his own individuality by keeping his own values intact. The second stanza of the fourth section concludes with, “Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.” An omnipresent critic, the speaker acknowledges the importance of developing understanding through immersing himself in the culture without compromising his own individuality. His distance communicates the standard by which he regards the American people: the individuals who can claim the benchmark identity of “Me myself” are able to do so by employing a wider perspective.

Immigration in America steadily increased during the 1850s as the country gained popularity as a destination for people from all over the world seeking opportunity. A common mindset during this time was the strength in numbers: success measured by reproducing and expanding towards the brim. Whitman reflects this growing sense of urgency for growth as a nation with the speaker’s commentary in the third stanza of the third section: “Always the procreant urge of the world /…Always a knit of identity.” Here, Whitman uses anaphora by repeating, and subsequently emphasizing, the word “always.” This enables the speaker to express the exponential nature of American population growth during this time period. Furthermore, the speaker provides an ironic connection between these two actions: in an ever-expanding nation with increasing numbers, its people are united as one by their individualism as a whole. In the fifth stanza of the third section, Whitman elaborates on this irony by using deliberate diction by referring to it as a “mystery,” one that the speaker stands alongside, blindly confident in the effect it projects to have on the future of the nation. Furthermore, Whitman personifies this relationship between the speaker and the subject of the mystery as one that rests “in the beams” of the institution, and the word “braced” hints at the lack of clarity of what will ensue. This relationship serves as supporting evidence for the speaker’s ability to mold himself to unify himself with the cultural applications of America during this period. Today, in an age of xenophobia, bans on certain religions and threats to build a wall, I think we could all learn a little from Whitman’s idea that it is our diversity as Americans that makes us strong.

Sixty years before Walt Whitman wrote “Song of Myself,” the constitutional rights to freedom of speech were established. In the fourth stanza of the first section of the poem, the speaker asserts this right: “I permit to speak at every hazard.” While legal boundaries were set to prevent these potential hazards, the speaker acknowledges the cultural ramifications that could ensue. Whitman symbolizes the speaker as an orator “without check with original energy,” a comparison that reflects a metaphorical thunderstorm that has no agenda but to exist as it is. This comparison of the speaker’s sense of self establishes the expectation for American individuals to use their own voice. This ultimately asserts the true nature of individualism: not just without external consequences, but more importantly one that exists without self-imposed constraint.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Madness of Art: Gothicism in my Short Stories

by Caroline Sanders

I tend to be unabashedly optimistic and cheerful. I wake up early every weekday morning to do work on my closed-in front porch with my favorite, bright yellow coffee mug in hand that reads: “You Are My Sunshine” (disclaimer: if it’s dirty, I drink out of a white one that reads “SMILE, SMILE, SMILE”). It’s annoying—I know—but I like it nonetheless. It’s interesting, therefore, that my favorite genre of literature is Southern Gothic, a genre known for its grotesque imagery and its emphasis on darkness, especially the darkness found within deeply flawed characters, ultimately revealing problems in southern society and the human consciousness. I’m not sure how it happened. All I know is that one day my high school English teacher introduced Faulkner and the next day I was hooked. The questions Faulkner and other writers like him deal with in their stories are the questions that draw me in inexplicably and make me question my own existence.

And so, I, like any bright-eyed, self-discovering student, decided to pursue my interests in this topic through researching and eventually producing my own work that I will compile into a senior thesis. Drawing inspiration from great writers is easy. Flannery O’Connor, for instance, inspires me to no end. I read her work and am floored by her brilliance time and again. I thought about the ending of Wise Blood for weeks after finishing the novel, walking around in circles on campus as I pondered the implications of “the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind.” The final image in “Parker’s Back,” the one of Parker “leaning against the tree, crying like a baby,” had me crying as if I, myself, had seen and lost my first glimpse of faith.

Gaining inspiration is easy. Emulating O’Connor and her contemporaries is a whole ’nother story.

At first, I hesitated to try to write a gothic story. After all, I instinctively look on the bright side of things and had never attempted to write like my literary heroes before. I don’t tend to have neurotic tendencies or gothic fantasies, which puts me at a slight disadvantage. As I’ve written more and more stories, however, I’ve noticed gothic elements slipping in. In my latest story, tentatively titled “The Best We Can,” I decided to lean a bit more heavily on gothic themes and ideas. Some of these themes are confusion, darkness, figurative ghosts, and family secrets. In fact, the title and inspiration for the story came from a quote by Southern Gothic writer, Truman Capote.

Capote’s early works are written in the Southern Gothic vein. In a 1973 interview with Andy Warhol that was published in Rolling Stone, Capote said, “For me, every act of art is the act of solving a mystery…You know what Henry James says…let me see…it was one of the short stories of his…It says, ‘We live in the dark, we do the best we can, and the rest is the madness of art.’ To me, that’s always been my motto.” This is a paraphrase of James’ quote, but the essence of it lies in a kind of optimistic Gothicism—a kind of Gothicism that I believe O’Connor uses as well through her underlying themes of faith as a constant despite the darkness of the human heart. This is the kind of Gothicism I seek to employ in my own work.

I have encountered some problems with writing my own Southern Gothic stories. Perhaps the biggest roadblock I’ve run into is the great depth and breadth of things I want to say. Because I want my story to deal with concepts like dark family secrets, the pride and shame wrapped up in one’s past, mental illness, and race, I’ve become a little overwhelmed in telling it succinctly. What I intended to be a shorter story has turned into an epic of sorts and the organization and execution are proving difficult. I want the storyline to be confusing to the reader at first, but illuminated as one reads on. I want the themes to be accessible to all.

Now, after beginning to add gothic elements to my stories, I want to do more. I toyed with the idea of Gus McNeese, my protagonist in an earlier story entitled “Radio Man,” being a grotesque character, but now I’d like to emphasize that even further in my revisions. “John, the Baptist” has many gothic qualities as well that can be intensified. In doing this, I want to show characters who are grotesque projections of themselves, deeply hurting and deeply flawed. Penuel, the setting of my stories’ namesake, after all, is the place in the Old Testament where Jacob wrestled with God. In the end, my characters do the best they can and leave the rest up to “the madness of art.”

posted by R. T. Smith

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment