When the Author Won’t Die

Death of the author. By now a familiar concept, thank you Barthes, and incredibly useful in interpreting a text. It’s freeing for both the reader and the writer, opening up works for interpretations that their authors never would have considered. The writer’s intentions don’t matter; the text speaks for itself. However, there are a few works where the authorial presence is so strong that divorcing the text from the author is almost impossible.

Les Miserables

Les Miserables

Namely, I’m talking about Victor Hugo and Les Miserables. It’s one of the longest books ever written, totaling 1500 pages in English and even more in French, and more than a quarter of the book is made up not of plot, but authorial digressions. Hugo is notorious for his tangents in Les Mis. He’ll put the story on hold and talk about Waterloo for fifteen chapters, then the lifestyle of a specific Parisian convent, and for me most egregious of all, the history and design of the Parisian sewer system. Even at the beginning of the book, before Hugo even introduces his main character Jean Valjean, he writes, “Although these details in no way essentially concern that which we have to tell…” and proceeds to devote several chapters to the background of the bishop that Valjean meets, including the layout of his house.

Hugo’s intentions in writing this novel don’t need to be speculated; he states them clearly within the text. He’s attempting to address social injustice above all, and in introducing Les Miserables, he says, “So long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.” Several times he pauses in the narrative to discuss the horrible lot in life of the poor – how society leads men like Jean Valjean to commit crime and the punishment is so severe that it turns him into a hardened criminal. While many novels attempting to make a similar statement would simply present the narrative and let the reader draw the natural conclusion, Hugo stops the narrative and explains it to the reader. There’s very little room for misinterpretation in Les Miserables – Hugo lets you know what he’s trying to do as an author all the time.

Victor Hugo, a man with something to say.

Victor Hugo, a man with something to say.

What audacity. Les Miserables is considered one of the greatest novels of its time, so how did Hugo get away with this? One of his biographers explains, “The digressions of genius are easily pardoned.” True, Hugo is a great writer, and Les Miserables has an epic scope, discoursing on French history, the architecture of Paris, politics, philosophy, the nature of justice, religious, love… Hugo has an incredibly informed and eloquent opinion on all of it, and he’s going to explain it to you at length.

Only in one other book have I encountered such a strong authorial presence within the text, one of the earliest novels ever written, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. The newness of the category explains Fielding’s unconventionality, at least. Like Les Miserables it’s an incredibly long book (both could be effectively wielded as a blunt weapon), and it has its share of social commentary as well, although Fielding goes for satire, exposing with comedy what Hugo does with tragedy. Fielding has the same authorial interruptions, but his are more organized; Tom Jones is divided into 18 books (like I said, long), and each book begins with a chapter where Fielding speaks directly to the reader. They’re not always unrelated to the plot, sometimes he makes analytical comments about specific characters, but he’s just as likely to start ripping into bad writers, and particularly, bad critics.

I love both Les Miserables and Tom Jones, and I think the authorial presence within them works well. Hugo may digress, but he writes with such knowledge, intelligence, compassion, and beauty that it only makes the work greater. Fielding’s notes to the reader make a long book even longer, but I was charmed by them. I felt like I was entering into a conversation with the author, and when the book ended, I felt the loss.

What I’m wondering is if any writer today could pull of this same kind of intrusive yet welcome authorial presence in a work of fiction. Generally we want authors to get out of the way of their writing, and I can’t see any attempts at interrupting the story for a personal digression making it past the editors. That’s why the non-fiction genre is there. What’s more, Les Miserables and Tom Jones were hugely popular when they came out. It’s hard to imagine any novel so long being widely popular outside of literary circles today, even without the additional eccentricities. Could a contemporary author accomplish this style, assuming their work had a similar epic scope and social commentary? Is there a particular author you’d want to write a book like that? Or is Les Miserables simply a period piece, undoubtedly great but unable to be repeated?

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Starbucks, Zombies, and Texts from Jane Eyre

How does Jean Valjean take his coffee? Does Dante prefer cappuccino to a macchiato? These are the questions that keep me up night, and thanks to Literary Starbucks, I can finally find my answers.

“Drinks are Up for Your Favorite Authors and Characters,” reads the site’s tagline. Spinning off the popularity of coffee house culture in the modern literary scene, this blog re-imagines some of literature’s greatest figures and places them in the context of a modern day Starbucks. Three college students came up with the idea this September, and describe the impetus for the project on their website. “One day we thought, what would all of history’s famous authors and characters order if they lived in modern times and went to Starbucks? The rest is history.”

Milton is my favorite Literary Starbucks customer.

Milton is my favorite Literary Starbucks customer.

The blog quickly garnered positive response, with floods of new readers making requests for their own literary favorites. Authors from Milton to J.K. Rowling have had their turn with the Literary Starbucks barista. In the month and a half since it’s inception, the blog has received attention from various media outlets, and just recently reached 25,000 followers.

The popularity of Literary Starbucks makes me wonder what it is about anachronism that draws people in. An anachronism, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is anything that exists out of its proper context of time. In many cases, it’s an error on behalf of the author. This definition doesn’t account for intentional anachronism, and the comical juxtaposition that so appeals to the modern reader. There’s something compelling about seeing the canon of the past clash with the present.

The popularity of literary reboots and remixes can attest to this: just take a look at the success of Seth Grahame-Smith’s zombified Regency Era in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or Mallory Ortberg’s new Texts from Jane Eyre and Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters. Grahame-Smith’s proper English zombies have become so popular that a film adaptation is in the works, and they will be shuffling to big screens in sometime in 2015. Meanwhile, Ortberg’s new book is sure to draw flocks of new readers to her website, The Toast, where she habitually juxtaposes the old and new with a charming irreverence. Ortberg cites Scarlett O’Hara with a cell phone as the inspiration for her book, but no literary or historical figure is immune to her anachronistic gaze.

The popularity of anachronism isn’t so much a literary phenomena as much as it is a cultural one. The creators of this media will admit that their success comes at least in part from the gimmick. Still, it’s interesting to consider why the gimmick works. (Maybe in this modern age, readers have become so desensitized to the accessibility of media that long-beloved characters no longer evoke any sympathy or understanding. Maybe readers have become cynical and lazy, and this recycling of media signals the death knell for literature.) Of course it doesn’t. This has been going on for centuries. Shakespeare’s Roman plays were performed in modern Elizabethan/Jacobean dress, for example, and I won’t even attempt to navigate the rabbit hole that is anachronism in Renaissance art. Even in cases of accidental anachronism, the inclusion of contemporary details forged a connection with the audience which might not have existed otherwie.

UntitledAnachronism might even inspire otherwise uninterested readers to take a second look at a classic. I remember feeling mostly apathetic toward Shakespeare during high school, until I discovered Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 “Romeo + Juliet.” Perhaps it was the late 90’s aesthetic, or the gun-swords, or Leonardo DiCaprio, but something about this adaptation clicked with me. When Abraham asked, “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?” I found myself actually caring about the answer. After that, whenever I struggled to connect with one of Shakespeare’s characters, I could try to imagine them in a modern context, and that would give me an angle into the play.

Intentionally anachronistic works aren’t going to win prizes for originality any time soon, but they still occupy a worthwhile niche in the literary market. At worst, they’re gimmicks, but at their best, they can be gateways. Our fondness for blending past and present is a good sign. It means we’re still curious and constantly looking for new ways to process literature, and to find reflections of ourselves in the classics. If that means Milton starts ordering Frappuccino from Starbucks, so be it.

Do you think that modern adaptations have value that cannot be achieved by the original version? Have you ever connected with a modern adaptation? Is intentional anachronism valuable, or is it the junk food of the literary world?

 

 

 

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The Power of Storytelling

typewriterSeveral recent bloggers have raised the question, “Why do we write?” I want to respond to that question. Mainly, I think we write because it’s therapeutic and exhilarating. Also, as humans we desire communication with those around us. But I’m also interested in something else. Not only why we write (Step 1), but also why does it matter (Step 2)? What’s the point? Does it change anything about who we are or the world we live in?

Step 1: Storytelling can be empowering for the writer, a form of self-expression, or a way of figuring out the truth. When a story is told, it can initiate change in a community or improve communication about a life experience. Stories have immense power in communities, connecting people to things they may not hear or see on their own. Stories, ultimately, can be archived for future generations and communities. We write because stories can find a way to truth or understanding, raise difficult questions, and spread awareness about experiences.

Step 2: Does the act of storytelling matter? What’s the point? Our whole society revolves around the written and spoken word: the building blocks of storytelling. We go to extensive effort to teach children how to read and write. I am going to be an English teacher next year. How can I explain to my students that storytelling really does matter?

I have recently been thinking about the power of storytelling because of a project I am working on called The Facing Sexual Violence Project, but first I am reminded of a TED talk that discusses the danger of a single story. Chimamanda Adichie, a lover of stories and a storyteller herself, speaks on why it is important for stories to provide multiple perspectives of life. There should not be one story, but many. According to Adichie, “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” Without a variety of stories, Adichie argues that we fall into the trap of believing what she calls “a single story”, a limited understanding of whatever it is we tell stories about.

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http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en#t-4699

Multiple stories, however, give individuals and communities a chance to think about things in a new way. Individuals who truly listen to multiple stories open up their minds. They begin to think for themselves, considering the perspectives they encounter in stories and developing ideas about how to move something in the world.

Adichie talks of stories as if they have volcanic power. She says, “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” Adichie’s TED talk inspired me because I also believe in the power of storytelling, which brings me to The Facing Sexual Violence Project, the inspiration that charges electricity through my fingers as I type this blog.

Why do I write and read stories?

Because I want these stories to change the world, advocate for social justice, entertain a young girl or a busy parent.

The Facing Project (http://facingproject.com/) is a national non-profit organization that works with communities to connect through storytelling over a particular challenge or social issue. Facing matches community members who wish to anonymously (or not, if desired) tell their stories about the issue at hand and ultimately publishes them in a book or in some other expressive form. The Facing Project has reached communities dealing with poverty, human trafficking, and many more.

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So, what’s our issue?

Sexual violence in Rockbridge County.

W&L student Noelle Rutland brought The Facing Sexual Violence project to Rockbridge County. Storytelling, it seemed, would be the best way for the community to speak for itself. Why does storytelling matter? To me, it matters because it inspires things like The Facing Project. Storytelling propels individuals to share something and it gives communities opportunities to communicate with each other.

As the project grows, I am lucky to participate as Noelle’s co-manager, and I am inspired by the stories we have received so far. Washington & Lee Professor Deborah Miranda shared an excerpt from her story, Silver, with our project that illuminates the importance of storytelling.

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W&L Professor Deborah Miranda (Blog: http://www.badndns.blogspot.com/)

For years, Professor Miranda kept her story silent. She confessed, “Most of all, I can’t tell because there is nobody who wants to hear…My husband asks what’s wrong. I don’t have the words to tell him. He doesn’t really want to know.”

Silence.

For anyone who has a story to share, silence can be petrifying. The longer you are silent, the more you convince yourself that your story should not be spoken aloud. If you speak it aloud you may disrupt the peace, you may upset someone, and you will certainly make yourself more vulnerable.

Storytelling defies silence

It yells doggedly at the settled earth and the status quo:

“LISTEN. I have something to say. I cannot keep this inside of me any longer. I have a story. We all have a story.”

Miranda says,

“I write this story by waking up each morning and writing until I feel myself begin to change the truth. Then I walk away from the work till I can face reality again…I walk away from this story for nearly a decade; walk away with its false ending: the warm old house, the husband, the fiction of a healing that doesn’t cost, but doesn’t transform. I fight transformation tooth and nail. At last, I recognize change as my old friend, Truth. I stand still, and embrace her.”

Professor Miranda’s story shook me in the best way – like when you’ve overslept and your benevolent roommate wakes you abruptly so that you’re not late to class – it pulled me out of my dream-like state into the world urgently awaiting these stories. We have to face them.

(Quotes from Miranda excerpted from: Silver, by Deborah A. Miranda. First printed in Bad Girls/Good Girls: Women, Sex and Power in the Nineties. edited by Nan Bauer Maglin and Donna Perry, Editors, Rutgers University Press, 1998.)

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Why I Write, and Why I May Not Have a Choice in the Matter

Sometimes I find myself dispirited, unsatisfied with my writing and wondering whether I should waste my time with it at all. It is not likely that it will ever find its way into the public eye, and even less so that it will have any sort of effect on the world. After all, there are thousands upon thousands of other would-be novelists and poets out there. The practice of writing becomes a rather egotistical undertaking when one considers the multitudes of hopeful writers there are. What right do I have to assume that I have something more important to say than they?

The answer, of course, is none. I am fully aware of this, but I continue to write; this leads me to wonder what my real motivation is for writing. Seeing as I have already given up on changing the world with my work, I can assume that it is a more selfish, personal reason. This could be any number of things: to express myself, to communicate my ideas, for the simple joy of stringing together words on a page.

George_Orwell_press_photo

George Orwell

George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” details what the author asserts to be his motivations for setting pen to paper. First, Orwell explains to his reader that he has had a penchant for writing since he was practically a toddler. He admits that he was a lonely child, and that writing came as a kind of remedy to his loneliness. Orwell was constantly composing stories in his head, as he puts it: “I was carrying out a literary exercise of a quite different kind: this was the making up of a continuous ‘story’ about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind.” This is certainly familiar to me, and I’m sure to many who feel the need to write. I remember being a small child, bored at a restaurant and one of the only children in a room full of adults. A waitress bent down and asked me cheerfully what my name was. “Emma, said Emma,” I quickly replied, accidentally vocalizing the story I’d been internally writing.

Orwell says, “I seemed to be making this descriptive effort almost against my will, under a kind of compulsion from outside.” But, he does not proclaim this habit to be his reason for writing. Instead, he gives his audience a list of much more mature, rational motives. These were formulated after he had completed his lonely childhood and are as follows:

  1. Sheer egoism.
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm.
  3. Historical impulse.
  4. Political purpose.

These are all very fair and seem to cover most of the reasons for writing that I can imagine. Indeed, Orwell asserts that every writer embraces these objectives to some extent.

However, I am not entirely satisfied with them because they are altogether too logical. What Orwell describes as “a kind of compulsion from outside,” and what I feel as a need to write despite all sense telling me not to, cannot be explained by such a rational list of aims. I believe Orwell recognizes this as well; he writes:

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

Clearly there is something else, some indefatigable impulse that forces us to write, and write again.

temporal lobe

The temporal lobes, in case you were wondering where the culprit resides.

Here I have brought myself to a familiar topic. It is often said that true writers have to write. In her book The Midnight Disease, Alice W. Flaherty examines this idea from a neurological standpoint. She writes about several reasons why a person’s brain might feel the need to write. In most extreme cases, a writer may have hypergraphia, which is increased motivation to write caused by temporal lobe epilepsy. According to Flaherty, the author Fyodor Dostoevsky is believed by some to have been hypergraphic, as evidenced by his “spells of altered consciousness, his mood swings and their free-floating feeling of doom and ecstasy, his religious and philosophical temperament, his altered sexuality, and his overpowering desire to write.”

Of course, it isn’t as if all writers are affected by this extreme condition; Flaherty offers other explanation for those who might not be affected by hypergraphia but feel the need to write. She asserts that many writers, and specifically amateur ones, “are suffering from something: bereavement, illness, exile, ‘narcissistic injury’ to self-esteem, adolescence.” This suffering can trigger “limbic system and temporal lobe activity through their roles in emotion [and] increases the desire to write and communicate.”

This would perhaps explain Orwell’s need to write from a young age; his self-described loneliness could certainly be seen as injury in his adolescence. It might be the cause of his mystery compulsion and my steadfast, illogical desire to write. It might be a hard concept to accept− that my writing is more chemical reaction than noble purpose. On the other hand, it is rather amazing to think that authors such as Dostoevsky and Orwell not only wanted to write, but were compelled to by their own brains as if by an outside force. It lends their stories an element of inevitability and fate.

What do you think? Why do you write?

Check out Elise Petracca’s “Why We Write” below! It deals with a similar topic and might be interesting to read with Flaherty’s ideas in mind.

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The Quirk Epidemic

In celebration of the recent release of the book-cum-movie Gone Girl, I’d like to join the antagonist of that story in lamenting one of literature’s most irritating clichés: the quirky girl. Beach read though the book is, and psychopathic though Amy the Antagonist may be, her character offers an impressively well constructed perspective on the heroine that we, as readers, have come to take for granted. In Gone Girl, Amy launches a complex and twisted revenge plot in order to get back at her husband, who she feels has forced her to pretend to be the beloved “cool” girl for years in order to keep up with his unrealistic standards. Amy argues that this girl that men everywhere lust after doesn’t exist. I have to agree.

Contemporary popular literature is littered with her. The first time you see her, she’s nothing special–a little odd-looking, even. But after a few weeks or months of getting to know her you realize she’s the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen and she doesn’t even know it. She’s always doing something crazy and irresponsible: jumping into strangers’ pools fully clothed, adopting five puppies at once, and yet her life never seems to truly suffer from her reckless, adolescent behavior. She can hang with the guys but you would never call her masculine. She has an endearing and unusual hobby, like making coffee tables out of bottle caps or watching foreign films from the 1940s. She’s attractive, smart, funny, and interesting, yet somehow she’s still shy in social situations and thus has been dubbed “the weird girl” by her peers, but you know better. You fall in love with her suddenly, you never saw it coming, but the readership knew from the very first paragraph.

Literature’s quirky girl is closely related to the “manic pixie dream girl” of the movies, a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin: “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” (Think Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer.) The manic pixie dream girl exists to teach the male protagonist to be himself and break loose from life’s rigid structures, a duty often undertaken by the quirky girl, although occasionally the gender roles are reversed in her case. Some perfect male specimen glimpses the beauty behind the quiet and convinces her to embrace her quirks for all the world to see.

The primary difference between the dream girl and the quirky girl lies in the latter’s–excuse the pun–bookishness. The dream girl tends to be frothy and feminine, while the quirky girl is smarter, more reclusive, with occasional dark flashes in her character. This tinge to her personality tricks the reader into thinking she may prove to be more complex than she is, but inevitably, the reader is disappointed. We need look no further than the bestseller lists of the past decade or so to see the evidence: Bella in Twilight; Anastasia in Fifty Shades of Gray; Sam in The Perks of Being a Wallflower; and so on. Although she has saturated the bookshelves more recently, the quirky girl is no new phenomenon. We saw her in Salinger’s genius-quirk girl Franny Glass and Harper Lee’s grit-quirk girl Scout.

Bella, brooding.

Bella, brooding.

My problem with the quirky girl is that authors insist on painting her as improbably awkward, shy, or insecure. If a girl possessing her amazingly diverse array of attributes existed, she would almost certainly not have such crippling social anxiety and lack of friends. And if we’re to believe that she really is somehow socially isolated or “different,” then let’s see a character who actually is kind of weird. She can still be charming and pretty and quirky and be a real human being with unsettling flaws as well: see Maura in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. The quirky girl is flat, dimensionless; her flaws, if any, are minor and easily forgivable, even loveable. (“Quirk” and “flaw” are not synonyms.) She is beyond, at least for me, the willingness to suspend disbelief.

What do you think, readers? Is my interpretation of the quirky girl too harsh or generalized? Does she play a more important role than I realize? Most importantly: do we think she’s here to stay?

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You Are What You Read

What role does collaboration play in the circle of influence?

What role does collaboration play in the circle of influence?

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” This often-quoted line from Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is a simple statement, but nonetheless profound in its acknowledgement of the literary tradition. Reading widely and well arms the author with knowledge of context and craft that can elevate a piece from good to great. Brain Pickings published an informative chart illustrating the “Circles of Influence” that produced some of today’s most popular artists. Sometimes it’s easy to trace a writer back to formative influences: H.P. Lovecraft begets Stephen King, for example. Other times, an author’s literary lineage comes as a surprise. Lord Byron certainly wouldn’t make it on my list of Lemony Snicket’s main influences. Distinguishing influence becomes even trickier when artists collaborate, and it can become impossible to discern who impacted who.

The source of this problem resides in the mechanism behind the circles of influence. Literary influence isn’t always the conscious process King describes. It isn’t always a writer equipping tools. Brain Pickings describes the process of intellectual exchange more as “the cross-pollination of disciplines across science, art, literature, film and music.” Sometimes, it’s more of an unconscious influence, one as pervasive and natural as pollination. What you read influences what (and how) you write.

You are what you read. It’s a variation on an old cliché, but like most clichés, its merit lies in a truism. We now know that reading can change how your brain works, so the logical progression follows that reading can also change your writing. I remember my visceral horror when one of my writing mentors described the phenomena in the wake of Twilight in the YA lit boom. Increasingly, her students wrote about characters “chuckling darkly” with “piercing eyes.” Stephenie Meyer had trickled into the shared consciousness of adolescents everywhere. Being an omnivorous reader, the subject matter didn’t scare me as much as the concept. I hated the idea that I didn’t control my own writing, as I have never been one to subscribe to the concept of the literary muse. Of course, I welcomed influences, but I wanted to be consciously aware of them. I wanted to choose and cultivate, not plant a mystery seed and watch, breath bated, as it grew.

For a brief period, I embarked on a literary detox. No more beach reads. No more books written for younger audiences. I waited until I was sufficiently satisfied that nothing remained but my own voice. Then I stocked up on some of the literary greats. Soon I noticed the way authors leaked into my own writing. I read some Faulkner novel that I could not really understand (but pretended to understand because I was too proud to admit otherwise) and I decided to write. Upon placing my fingertips to keyboard and typing I started spinning out lengthy and labyrinthine sentences the meanings of which I also probably could not understand but there on the screen they glowed profoundly. I also took it upon myself to read Jane Eyre, after which, my diction shifted to a positively comical mix of modern and Victorian. My thoughts veered into profoundly existential territory for a freshman in high school. I felt like a mime and a fraud. Not once did I consider that maybe I took myself too seriously, and that maybe this was a universal problem I experienced. Fortunately, my stint of detox only lasted until the publication of the next YA box office hit. I realize now that it was all a part of the process of finding my voice.

So what about you? Have you ever noticed the circle of influence impacting your voice? Is this something to be celebrated, or are more literary detoxes in order?

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Who Reads Short-Shorts?

 

“Omissions are not accidents.”    -Marianne Moore

For a class on modern professional communications, I have been assigned the topic “the future of the book.” So, through research and my own personal opinions, I haveLightningBoltonblack5188 to determine where the book is going. And while I have noticed a lull in the print book vs. e-book debate (I, myself, am sick of it), I think it’s safe to say that we need not assume that “digital” and “future” are synonymous. At least not when it comes to reading. The future of the book comes down to two words: flash fiction.

Next semester at Washington and Lee, the standard Creative Writing: Fiction class will receive an exciting facelift. Instead of surveying some of the various genres of fiction, this course will study exclusively the short-short story through reading and writing the like. This course is anticipating a major shift in the literary trend toward shorter stories, backed by a not-so-recent, but still relevant study that sites students’ diminishing attention spans. As a result of the digital age—where our access to information no longer requires combing library shelves across multiple floors but instead means a quick Google search—the average American’s attention span has decreased from 12 minutes to 5 minutes in the past 10 years. Wow. I’ll try to make this brief…

This is, of course, not a new genre—its roots go back to Aesop’s fables in 600 BCE. But it appears to be emerging in new ways. There are dozens of flash fiction anthologies on the market right now, and I’m sure plenty of older authors of the genre come to mind—Hemingway, Kafka, Chekhov to name a few. Brevity, an online magazine focused solely on extremely short stories—750 words or fewer—has been around for over a decade. But should we expect even more anthologies, collections, or genre-specific journals in the near future?

Because of the digital shift in publishing, writers, more than ever, must anticipate and write what the public wants (see “Highbrow Horror and American Literature” among the posts below). And if the general public is experiencing a decrease in attention span on the whole, then it seems that the short-short is what we ne…

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Blogging: an insider’s critical analysis

First, I would like to mention the forum in which I am publishing this “post” – a blog. That is, I am publishing this opinion-driven, critical analysis of blogs onto a web blog itself.

I would consider myself a connoisseur of blogs. It all began with my Pinterest obsession. I seeded, watered and nurtured my boards until they each grew into a well-categorized garden of pins. Pinterest only whet my appetite. It became too soft for me; it no long satiated my interests for random and creative pictures. I started to move onto the harder stuff – blogs. Rather than surfing Pinterest for unfamiliar people with likeable pinboards, I uncovered a world of domains. These domains were owned by anyone from a mother catering to her son’s peanut, gluten, soy, dairy, fructose, and air allergies to a young girl posting Lilly Pulitzer picture after sorority craft after cakeball. What made this unchartered territory – unlike Pinterest – was the tab sitting on the floating menu above the posts, labeled “About Me.” I could now peek into the lives of the blogging elite.

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A few niche boards

There is a blog for everyone. As my family and I sit around the TV at night, we spend our time searching the internet for personal interest blogs. My dad surfs for running gear review blogs, my mom visits her favorite design blogger’s sites, my sister sifts through young fashionista’s blogs, and I take a moment to appreciate the quiet and then redirect my attention to my own mixture of recipe, fashion, and review blogs. Lee Odden, author of Optimize: How to Attract and Engage More Customers by Integrating SEO, Social Media, and Content Marketing, argues that, “A blog is only as interesting as the interest shown in others.”

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One thing that I love about blogs is the forum that it provides for the writer. He or she is able to express himself or herself, or not. “Blogs are whatever we make them. Defining ‘Blog’ is a fool’s errand” according to blogger, Michael Conniff. The blogger has the opportunity to get emotional, and no one can criticize them to their face – the blogger can even remove the “Comment” section if he or she so chooses. This makes me question, who is this blog for? Is the blogger censoring the reader’s freedom of speech by disabling this function? And, what is the point of hiding from others’ opinions? It makes it seem as though the blogger is hiding behind a computer screen.

business_woman_hiding_behind_computer

All of this raises the question, with bloggers hiding behind their computer screens, and readers doing the same, are we resigning ourselves to a socially averse world? Do these people fear face-to-face, tangible relationships? I begin to wonder whether these people would be able to sustain conversation with others without taking time to cultivate, edit and contemplate their message before pressing “Post.” Also, consider, many times the blogger enables the moderation function. This means that the blogger is able to look at the comment and decide whether it is worthy of sharing with his or her readers – is this not censorship?

The blogging world has recently taken a very strong foothold within society. As blogger Luke Langford says, “The term ‘Professional Blogger’ is no longer an oxymoron.” I anticipate seeing where it leads and how people take advantage of the new forum. It can make for a light, thoughtless afternoon or a contemplative, epiphany invoking one. Make of it what you will.

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Why We Write

While perusing my late uncle’s poetry collection Anniversary Songs, I read the words that comforted him during his final years, words that he wrote, no less. While many of James Wronoski’s poems are written for his wife in an attempt to eternalize his love for her, the poet directly addresses his cancer in others. Sometimes, he even addresses them both.

I’ve recognized this in other works, that the words I’m reading are a way of coping with some sort of ailment, be it physical or emotional. I’ve found it in poetry, memoir, and even fiction. The writers’ words heal. There’s an intimacy in allowing others—strangers—to read these emotionally charged words, and it moves me every time.

Catharsis: “The purification of emotions by vicarious experience, esp. through drama.” Aristotle originally used this word in his work on dramatic theory titled Poetics. He used catharsis as a metaphor for how tragedy affects the spectator. Works by certain authors, poets, and playwrights succeed in evoking sympathy in the reader or viewer. Perhaps this explains why books—be it fiction or non—poems, plays, and arguably most often movies, can bring tears to audience members’ eyes. By inducing fear, sorrow, and pain, the readers or viewers can purge these excessive emotionsand are cleansed.

Aristotle_Altemps_Inv8575 4.42.58 PMBut what about the writer? What readers possess is the work in its finished stage. They don’t see it from proposal to publication like the writer does. They don’t have access to the drafts, rewrites, edits, and scraps. But that process is as important to the writer as the final product.

Mimesis: “Imitation; spec. the representation or imitation of the real world in (a work of) art, literature, etc.” Writers often recreate their past experiences through words. They don’t simply purge their emotions, but rather, they acknowledge them. Bringing these events back to life allows some writers to cope.

In the late 1800s, psychoanalyst Josef Breuer developed a psychological treatment for individuals who suffer from hysteria. Breuer’s patients, while under hypnosis, recalled traumatic experiences to evoke emotions that may have been suppressed or forgotten after the trauma. By doing so, their hysteric symptoms dissipated. And I’m under the impression that authors accomplish this completely consciously, intentionally, successfully, and throughout each and every stage of the writing process.

While Aristotle considers how tragedy affects the spectator, he does not address how, or if, tragedy affects the performer. I have found, while reading certain memoirs, poetry collections, and even novels, that writers often write for both themselves and their reader, and it is worth considering this relationship, especially when the writer invites the reader into a private and personal experience.

Reading Autobiography, a guide written by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, references “scriptotherapy,” a term coined by Suzette Henke in her book Shattered Subjects. Smith and Watson define this word as a response “to signify the process of speaking or writing about trauma in order to find words to give voice to previously repressed memories.” They identify it as an important method to consider when interpreting autobiographical texts, explicitly or not.

Last spring for Shenandoah I recommended Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec. In the post, I discuss how Diaz’s poetry is admittedly autobiographical, and the reader can infer from her jarring, if not graphic, entries that writing this coll3809675ection provided a means of coping for Diaz. This is not to say her writing cured her of her post-colonial traumatic stress, but it at least remedied some wounds.

Likewise, I believe my uncle’s poetry accomplished a similar goal. He wrote in the late stages of cancer and his poems allowed him to confront his disease head-on. One of his poems in particular addresses his cancer directly.

By acknowledging their respective ailments—one physical, one emotional—both poets are able to use the power of writing for good.

But this mechanism is not exclusive to poets. Memoirists also find comfort in exploiting their troubled pasts. Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club retells her dysfunctional childhood with an alcoholic, and sometimes pyromaniac, mother and an occasionally absent father.

It even applies to fiction. Marilynne Robinson’s epistolary novel Gilead features a dying narrator, Reverend John Ames, who writes letters to his young son. Rev. Ames laments that his son will grow up fatherless, and he attempts to quell this regret through these letters. He writes with the intention of creating a legacy for his son—an all-inclusive genealogy and stories about his own father—but ends up providing himself with closure.

Wronoski, Diaz, Karr, and Robinson’s works were each part of a long and intensive process that no doubt featured countless edits, rewrites, and scraps that each offered another kind of satisfaction. Discovering the perfect details, no matter the form, can itself be cathartic, perhaps even more then the purgative nature of spilling emotions onto a first draft.

christinas-world1These examples demonstrate why writers write, and even why readers read, why painters paint or musicians compose. The list is unexhausted on both accounts; the medium does not change or dictate the cathartic or mimetic nature of art. Artists can find—via an accumulation of words, of paint, or notes—the perfect confines for their unique experiences.

*Catharsis and Mimesis as defined by OED.

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Where’s the Merit in Memoir?

My English capstone class focuses on the study of memoir. Our class, comprised of one professor and six students, gathers each week around a conference room table to discuss and to analyze the practice of self-writing. Our studies cover an array of works, ranging from fiction to personal essays to memoirs. We’ve read Marilynne Robinson’s fiction novel Gilead, Joan Didion’s personal essay In Bed, and Mary Karr’s memoir The Liars’ Club. Supplementary to reading major works, our professor throws in theoretical texts that examine the practice of writing memoir, the multitude of creative choices involved and the tools needed to create a successful piece. The narrating “I” vs. the narrated “I.” The incorporation of historical episodes. The methods of humor, spirituality, reflection. And the ever-popular “show don’t tell.” We read, we analyze, we discuss. We gather the information and the skills we’ve collected from our studies to create our own pieces of self-writing. At the end of the term, we will culminate our capstone class and our careers as English majors with our own memoirs.

I’ve studied memoir and creative non-fiction in a multitude of English classes throughout my college career. I struggle with my own self-writing, specifically with selecting a piece of my memory to analyze or an episode of my life to portray to my audience. I’m still trying to find my groove with the practice and to discover my unique voice. But I think that’s why I’m so drawn to reading memoir and to the work itself. I’m struck by the art of self-writing and the way writers creatively craft and portray episodes of their lives. I admire David Sedaris’ self-deprecating humor. I respect Joan Didion’s journalistic approach to recounting her personal memories. Right now, I am particularly enthralled with Mary Karr’s writing after studying The Liars’ Club in my English class. She’s a creative genius who carefully depicts incidents of her turbulent childhood with vivid details and captivating descriptions. She takes on a child’s point of view to portray the turmoil of her youth, presenting the darkest of moments with poignant clarity and without vilifying any particular character.liarsclub.gif

My capstone class studies great works of memoirs whose authors shine brightly in the world of their genre. However, another side to the worlds of memoir and autobiography is emerging. With the rise of popular culture comes the rise of a new wave of memoir, where individuals with present-oriented stories publish books about themselves. These individuals write autobiographies or memoirs for an immediate audience by pinpointing a story that sells, that grabs the public’s attention, that exposes scandal or hardship, and mass produces the book across the country. First came the celebrities, publishing books about their lives in Hollywood and rise to fame, such as Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants. Next came musicians, athletes, politicians, reality television stars, etc. Now regular Americans who believe they have a compelling story to tell are publishing memoirs about their life

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struggles and overcoming hardships. Don’t get me wrong—many of these books are interesting, insightful, and entertaining. But the books contain transient subject matter and poor technical writing skills. These new memoirs and autobiographies top Amazon’s bestseller list, which drives the books’ popularity up even further because readers go to the list to select a read that fellow Americans are reading as well. The books on the list are entertaining and lack the threatening nature of more powerful, well-written books, such as Mark Twain’s autobiography. I, personally, would select Amy Poehler’s new autobiography Yes, Please over Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir as a summer beach read. But if I wanted a compelling story told through exquisite prose, I would choose to read Grant. The pop-culture oriented subjects of today’s memoirs and autobiographies entertain and enthrall us, but after a few years they are forgotten and left to collect dust on our bookshelves, while Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir withstands the test of time and continues to be read over one hundred years after his death.

The rise of transitory memoirs and autobiographies urges me to wonder what will happen to memoirs from Mary Karr or Joan Didion, the well-written memoirs that carry weight and hold substance in the literary world, over time. Books such as Life is Not a Reality Show: Keeping it Real with the Housewife Who Does it All by reality television star Kyle Richards and Kardashian Konfidential by the Kardashian sisters are on bookstands and best-seller list. The pop culture memoirs delve into the superficial lives of reality television stars and grasp the public’s attention. The present-oriented autobiographies feature an entertaining story, but the fundamental elements of the writing itself are subpar and poorly crafted. The temporal works of our society’s current politicians, athletes, and celebrities fail to incorporate general wisdom or relatable life stories that establish a direct connection with the audience and contextualize the subject matter so much that in a few years, the works may become obsolete in the eyes of the American public. A variety of factors contribute to a book’s longevity and success, just as the case with songs, fashions, and even sports. Predicting what will achieve longevity in our society is almost impossible. Perhaps current sensations do indeed contain the gravity and wit to captivate the audience’s attention throughout time. While I prefer the memoirs of Mary Karr, Joan Didion, and the likes, I wonder how the rise of popular culture will affect the literary memoir. Will the substantial works of Didion and Karr withstand the test of time, like the memoirs by Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant?

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What do you think? Which type of memoir do you prefer? Will the memoir greats, like Mary Karr, become overshadowed by reality television stars? Where do you see the practice of self-writing in 10 years?

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