A Riff on Figs

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The fig is a vibrant ingredient of my private mythology.  Both sets of my grandparents had thriving trees in Griffin, Georgia, and when I moved to Opelika in Alabama my new yard was blessed with a pair that eventually reached thirty five-feet high, but of course the shade they offered was hardly their greatest gift.  Kin to the mulberry, the shrub/trees can grow luscious, delicate fruit, companionable to rocky, free-draining soil, but hard to cultivate here in the Blue Ridge, where they are not only not native, but seem reviled by the weather.  But not always, for our generous neighbor Lori out on Timber Ridge seems to have the touch and industry to help them thrive, and from her bumper crop this year she has brought some bowls to savor.

My earliest or strongest association with figs is not a comforting one.  Under the fig tree by the well house at my Grandmother Thaxton’s house, I once discovered a very dark copperhead coiled, thick as my adult wrist, less coppery than brown and shadowy mud, no mistaking the viper wedge head but with a sheen of the purplish hue on his head akin to the figs ripening above.  How old was I – eight, nine?  It was no great leap from the camouflaging  fig leaves of Genesis, Adam and Eve and their dangerously serpent-haunted apple tree to a fig tree with a venomous snake flicking his split tongue andflexing his loops.  I yelled for granddaddy, but to my amazement, he did not smite or shoot or stone the reptile but lifted him by a garden rake and carried him beyond the trash pit, whispering something about God’s creatures.  His wife was of a different mind and never failed to introduce any visible snake not a good luck black snake to the sharp edge of a gooseneck hoe.?

But I overcame my dread, if not the association, mostly due to the syrupy fig preserves she put up in Ball jars, the dark amber syrup with skins suspended, honey on the tongue, the golden seeds popping between my teeth,  I slathered fresh cat head biscuits with the delicacy and gobbled them down.  No regrets, as the commercial world appears to have judged that fig jelly is an adequate substitute for the sinful treacle, and less messy.

Griffin, Georgia, as I said, right down McIntosh Road from Calvary Baptist, so I was pretty soon getting figs in my religion.  Mostly they came to us from Spain, then the Golden State,  back eastward and south, but with different ethnic migration patterns, they might have come from Palestine, where they are native and necessary, among the seven sacred plants of Canaan.  Jesus seemed to have mixed feelings about them and not a lot of expertise, but he was a carpenter, fishing guide and otherwise occupied with his Father’s business.

 

Still, the Bible has a bit to say about ficus carica  Mysterious enough to invite much primal imagination, they became more than sweet food.  Isaiah wrote that they could, boiled, render a plaster to cure, well, boils.  Jeremiah identified two kind of figs, good and naughty, and if you sent the latter to wicked people, pestilence would visit them.  It’s tempting to imagine that he saw the barren trees as the wicked ones, but it takes two kinds of fig trees to render a harvest – the ones the fig wasp has taken pollen to and those it has taken pollen from.

In Judges 9, Jotham told a story to the men of Shechem, in which the parliament of the trees invited the olive to be their king but were refused, as the olive was quite content to be used by men to honor their god.  So then they turned to the fig, who declined saying he would not abandon his sweetness just to be promoted over the trees. The bramble was another matter, but he had conditions.  I pondered this one and asked hither and yon but received no satisfactory answer.  I was beginning to see figs at the heart of an enigma, and they were personified and inscrutable.  They occupied a text and were resonant, so I knew I had to weasel out the implications for myself.  Not that I ever succeeded.

Jesus asked if you could get figs from thistles, making agricultural wit, but I knew this was not merely farm business.  He also cursed a fig tree he saw from afar and desired fruit from.  Up close, it proved to be the barren sort.  He was in parable mode and declared the empty tree a symbol of Israel’s unbelievers.  He was in a mood anyway, on his way to scourge the money lenders and goose peddlers from the temple.  Maybe the tree was a rehearsal.

For a while, those old puzzles were part of my cloud-gathering repertoire, but they faded from sight and savored the preserves.  In college, however, I read D. H. Lawrence’s poem “Figs,” which explains both “the proper way to eat a fig in society” and the “vulgar way.”  Even the history major I was (that day) could see that the latter was clearly sexual, and Lawrence’s speaker, like Jesus, was talking about two things at once.  Besides, I’d already encountered Prufrock’s reluctance to eat a peach and suspected the perils and attractions of sensuality.  Texts again, but that poem didn’t really sink into me until Ken Russell’s film of Lawrence’s Women in Love with Rupert and Gerald disputing over fig manners.  Then I knew it was about even more than sexuality but about embracing life or trying to rule it.

The fig lends itself to metaphor and indulgence, even in language.  “A fig to you,” “I don’t give a fig.” It once meant “trifle” because they were so common but has also in the Mediterranean come to imply femininity.  During the Punic Wars, Cato wishing to goad his fellow Romans into attacking Carthage, placed a bowl of figs on the map to represent Carthage – feminine, vulnerable.  An aside: Cleopatra ordered her suicide serpent brought to her in a basket of figs.  Her way of presiding over her own fate.

Many cultures believe the fig is a talisman against the evil eye.  The hole in its blossom end is called the eye, though it radiates to become a star.  The seeds inside are golden, the pith pink.  No one has ever found a way to safely ship them ripe, but even the dried versions are tasty in their packaged spirals.  More like fig Newmans.

In Opelika, I found the starlings, grackles and blackbirds, as well as other pillagers of convenience delighted in my figs, but the bounty was sufficient to allow me to net and harvest the lower halves of the trees and leave the rest to the greedy beaks.

Cato identified over thirty varieties of fig in De Argi Cultura, but from all I can determine, the white sap of all the green parts are an irritant to human skin.  Especially mine.  Goggled, watch- capped and poncho-draped on the step ladder with my wicker basket in Opelika (“swampy place” to the Creeks) I would often (August through early October) ascend and descend, itching like a poison ivy picker, collecting the just exactly ripe figs, gently, my mouth already watering and my mind jangled by Lawrence, Jesus, Cato, Cleo and the question of English holiday “figgy pudding” drenched in brandy and served flambé.

Itchy skin and eyes, bird competition, copperheads and occasional vertigo.  Complications aside, I’d still love to have my own fig tree. Go figure.

— RTS (September, 2017)

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Securing the Future of Shenandoah

Shenandoah literary magazine

As discussed in my last post, I’ve been working on getting all the sites I run secured.  An immediate candidate was the Shenandoah literary magazine. In 2010 I worked with Martha Burtis to design the site and have been hosting and maintaining it ever since. I have really enjoyed working with the editor R.T. Smith these last seven years, but he has announced his retirement this coming Spring. Well deserved. He took on the Herculean and unpopular task of moving a well respected physical publication entirely online. He weathered it beautifully, and with over a million views last year and half a million visitors the site has 25x the amount of exposure it did seven years ago. 

Traffic from August 1, 2011 – August 1, 2012

Traffic from August 1, 2016 – August 1, 2017

This is a very solid base to build on for whomever comes next, and I imagine the new editor will have some ideas of how to keep broadening access. What I loved about Rod’s vision is that it was open and accessible to everyone online: no logins, no paywalls, no nothing. Bringing culture to the interwebs is never a bad thing. That said, at the very least the site is due for a more responsive redesign. It will be interesting to see what the future has in store for Shenandoah, and I plan on making the transition to the new editor as seamless as possible. I will probably bow out as the “webmaster” once Rod leaves given my other commitments, but I plan on staying around long enough to make sure all is well. One of the things that has been on my list is securing Shenandoah to make sure the main site, the Snopes blog, and all 11 (soon to be 12) issues load over https.

To that end I issued a free Let’s Encrypt certificate yesterday, and ran the SSL Insecure Content Fixer plugin across the entire network. That worked seamlessly. It is worth noting that Shenandoah is a WordPress Multisite instance in which the blog and all 11 (soon to be 12) issues are their own site within the multisite. It is a subdirectory setup, so all the sites can be secured by one Let’s Encrypt certificate, which is nice. Once I forced SSL the two errors I got were caused by a network activated plugin that was outdated (pictured below) and an insecure image on the front page of several issues (the image was embedded from another site that did not have SSL). 

I deactivated the offending plugin, and I am looking for an alternative presently. I also replaced the embedded image with a local, secure alternative and all is well. The site is now running securely over https, and I will need to make sure there are no broken media links as a result. So if you see something, say something in the comments of this post.

There is a certain amount of satisfaction in having Shenandoah run securely over https. I admittedly waited too long, but better late than never.  It is also provides a long overdue push to start getting some other things shored up as we prepare for the future.

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While Snopes Is Away . . .

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From mid-May until June, the blog will be accessible but not active.  In lieu of brief, frequent posts, readers are invited to read the essay entitled “Where I Come From a Hushpuppy Is Not a Fuzzy Shoe,” which is posted on the Shenandoah homepage.

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O Wicked Walls!

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“And Thou, O wall, O sweet, O lovely wall,
That stand’st between her father’s ground and mine!
Thou wall, O wall, O sweet and lovely wall,
Show me thy chink, to blink through with mine eyne!”
— Bottom/Pyramus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

 

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall . . . .”
— Robert Frost

Elves?

 

 

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
— Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987

In his poem Mending Wall, Robert Frost’s narrator (who sometimes seems to be his spokesman) scoffs at his neighbor’s unquestioned belief that ‘“good fences make good neighbors.”’  His skepticism is due in part to the fact that he doesn’t see the utility in hard borders – one man has apple trees, one pines, no livestock, no traffic to be impeded.  The narrator doesn’t acknowledge the value of shared work, ritual, a covenant handed down from fathers to sons, and he likes seeing himself as both reflective and practical, verbal and philosophical, while the neighbor gets short shrift for he is, evidently, living the unexamined life Socrates berated, toting and raising rocks “like an old-stone savage armed.”

It’s in part a poem about feelings of superiority, the broad picture, social discourse, as opposed to habit and Yankee acerbity.  But the narrator is not altogether fool.  Questioning why such obstructions make good neighbors might lead in various directions and conversations, as some reasons are pretty obvious, others as mysterious as, well, elves.

In what might be the narrator’s best moment, he wants to declare (though he seems to lack the grit to voice it),

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walking in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.”

What would follow such inquiry is not simple business, though walling out bison, felons, foxes, zombies, might be wise practice, especially if they might be dangerous takers who don’t repay.  However, walling out trading partners, needed workers, fugitives from violence, allies . . . , maybe not so smart.

What to do, what to do?  I suppose Frost’s speaker and others involved in barrier transactions have to observe, absorb, analyze, consult, prioritize, evaluate, keep a clear eye and an open mind and humane heart, scrutinize every facet and their own (perhaps somewhat unacknowledged) motivations, operate with imagination and a willingness to evolve.  They must not create distractions and deceits for themselves and others, and shouldn’t dismiss the complications of maintenance and karma.  Maintain a balanced perspective and humane ambitions.  Crazy, right?  But maybe much madness is divinest sense.  It’s worth a try.

A week ago, shortly after watching a TV report on the notorious Wall-to-be (not Pink Floyd’s) and viewing sections of some kind of border blockades already in place, I turned to the Weather Channel (exciting evening in the entertainment department) and watched a featurette on the current flooding threats to New Orleans.  What to my wondering eyes should appear but a section of levee flood barrier that looked identical to the segment of “Le Mur” I’d just seen touted as part of the Wall our putative president has already been building (though it was standing before what we now tentatively refer to as “the election”).  It’s meant to slow down high, fast water and trap debris.  And drug mules, immigration coyotes and other malefactors who celebrate Cinco de Mayo (which the Chief-in-Chief, bless his heart, did mention last week), according to the slap-dash commentary.  It all left me a trifle bewildered.

Even now I ask myself what this panel of small-barbed words might be walling in or out.  Perhaps that’s one positive result of the wall mania running rampant.  We stop and count to ten (as Twain advised) before we swear.

12345678910 –#@%% **^/ $?

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O Tell me the Truth About Love: Advice from W. H. Auden

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When I was younger, I used to tip-toe into my father’s study, sit quietly amongst his towering wooden bookshelves, and crane my neck to marvel at the aged, jewel-toned spines of the vintage editions displayed before me. Intricate, golden cursive against the peeling leather spelled out titles from The Essays of Sir Francis Bacon to The History of Epistemology, and while my preschool reading abilities were confined to the likes of The Frog and the Toad, I felt an undeniable sense of reverence and humility in the presence of the wise, yellowing pages and ornate covers housed on those bookshelves. One night, however, I was feeling particularly audacious and decided to climb the tallest shelf, which contained a thick, purple book that had for months been the object of my intrigue. A few minor miscalculations later, I had made enough noise to awaken my entire family and quickly fled the scene, purple book in hand. Thus, I discovered the works of British poet W. H. Auden.

Though my appreciation of poetry leans towards the all-embracing, I often find myself put off by overly-sentimental writing stifled by excessive attempts to convey emotion. I believe that language is most beautiful when permitted to speak for itself, and the words of W. H. Auden do exactly that. Auden evokes grief, loss, and utter desolation without the sentimentalism upon which the Romantic poets relied so heavily, and he defies conventional expectations in his technical virtuosity just as he does in his pragmatic, grounded approach to love.      

Many love poems assume an idealized position in which the eternality of love allows man to transcend life’s inevitabilities, but Auden challenges the validity of this idea, arguing instead for the ephemerality of love and supremacy of time. “Lullaby” is a condemnation of traditional Romanticism that, like many of Auden’s poems, begins with an intentional surrender to convention followed by a swift repudiation. The first line, “Lay your sleeping head, my love/,” expresses tenderness and vulnerability, while the second, “Human on my faithless arm,” almost immediately establishes the practicality and unorthodoxy that characterize the remaining stanzas. In readily admitting his own faithlessness and consequently calling into question the value of monogamy, Auden portrays himself as the antithesis of the traditional Romantic hero and goes on to celebrate the love between two imperfect individuals. Rather than depicting the unflawed and even sublime love typical of Romantics, Auden urges humanity to abandon the pursuit of traditional ideals and to instead seek authenticity, ending the first stanza with an affirmation that his lover, while “mortal” and “guilty,” is nonetheless “entirely beautiful.”

Perhaps Auden’s ease in discerning the superficiality behind such ideals results from his understanding of the supremacy of time; he appreciates love but accepts its transience. Just as “Time and fevers burn away/Individual beauty from/Thoughtful children,” death ultimately “proves the child ephemeral.” Likewise, while considering the anguish of unrequited love in “The More Loving One,” Auden assures readers that “Though this might take [him] a little time,” it is possible “to look at an empty sky/And feel its total dark sublime”—that is, while the speaker contemplates his ability to exist in the absence of his beloved, he also acknowledges that time’s passage will lessen his pain.  The lovers depicted in “As I Walked Out One Evening,” however, represent the alternate side of this scenario: their affection is very much mutual, and each assures the other of the perpetuity of his or her love, proclaiming “I’ll love you/Till China and Africa meet” and “till the ocean/Is folded and hung up to dry.” Auden’s antagonistic stance is voiced through “all the clocks in the city/,” who “Begin to whirr and chime:/O let not Time deceive you,/You cannot conquer Time,” reminding the lovers that their passion and youthfulness will ineluctably wane.

Admittedly, it is neither Auden’s pragmatism nor his conviction in love’s impermanence that has drawn me to his work, but rather his emotional sincerity. His writing brims with the same genuineness and authenticity that he urges readers to seek in their own lives, and the resulting vulnerability elicits empathy without asking for it. Furthermore, he seems to leave certain lines open to varying interpretations, perhaps mirroring the lack of certainty with which these lines have been composed. I often wonder, for instance, whether Auden prefers to be “the more loving one” because he considers it the less painful option or rather because he cannot bear to see his loved one suffer as he does. Like the speaker of “As I Walked Out One Evening,” Auden’s readers undoubtedly find themselves contemplating the “deep river” that continues to “[run] on,” despite love’s coming and going.

-Sierra Terrana

 

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Orwell’s Reminders of Absurdities

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By Elyse Ferris

Contemporary political discourse has caused a surge in sales of George Orwell’s groundbreaking dystopian novel 1984. Remembering Big Brother’s brainwashing methods and ‘newspeak,’ Orwell readers connected aspects of the book to Kellyanne Conway’s comments about “alternative facts” following President Trump’s inauguration. The discussion of ‘alternative facts’ and the comeback of 1984 also call to mind interpretations of Orwell’s book in general, as well as the seemingly contradictory points of his ideology.

I first read George Orwell’s 1984 for a high school English class, and I was entranced. I recognized how aspects of the novel might have inspired contemporary literature for younger audiences, such as Lois Lowry’s The Giver, or other series like The Hunger Games, Maze Runner, and Divergent. I tried to identify a common significance between these examples of dystopian literature. I came to think that some of these books were made almost exclusively for entertainment purposes, but others send a stronger message. What does dystopian literature (particularly that which includes a totalitarian state) imply about the reach of government? To what extent did Orwell intend for 1984 to be a warning?

   I think I misinterpreted 1984 to some degree the first time I read it. I identified what appeared to be contradictions not only within the story (such as Big Brother’s idea of ‘truth’) but also in the thoughts presented by Orwell himself. I was surprised to learn that he was liberal, indeed a socialist. Initially viewing his work simply as a book with straightforward, anti-government sentiments, I assumed he must have been a zealous pacifist and  libertarian. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Orwell began to consider himself a socialist in the 1930’s, but “he was too libertarian in his thinking ever to take the further step – so common in the period – of declaring himself a communist.” For a while, it was almost impossible for me to reconcile these opposing viewpoints. I couldn’t understand how someone could be part libertarian, part socialist.

I still sometimes struggle with the idea, but I think it’s important to remember the political context in which Orwell developed his views and wrote his books.

 

   Britannica says Orwell’s articles and essays during WWII revealed a mixture of his patriotic, libertarian, and decentralized socialist ideas. I believe that 1984, the last novel of his life, points to his vision for a compromise of government’s societal role. Orwell recognized government’s beneficial potential, but hated its invasive potential to control and manipulate. We can speculate that in the aftermath of WWII, Orwell feared a future in which the world was divided up between just a few powers. Maybe it was only natural for one’s mind to wander when observing interactions between the ‘big three’ (Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Franklin D. Roosevelt) in the early stages of the Cold War. A future of totalitarianism around the globe was not necessarily inevitable, but its potential must have been great enough to inspire aspects of the book. Orwell’s warning in 1984 does not detract from his faith in the state. Overall, I still see the novel as a cautionary tale which warns against the dangers of extreme nationalism, thoughtless submission, and totalitarianism.

In a similar regard, does contemporary dystopian literature aim, above all, to send a message? If so, I think its message can often be misconstrued. For example, The Hunger Games series features the downtrodden citizens of the Panem districts whose backbreaking labor benefits the capital. I think people could observe this from a couple of different perspectives: 1. citizens suffer at the hands of a cruel totalitarian regime which, like Big Brother, watches everything, or 2. an abused proletariat rebels against the elite, addressing their grievances and fighting for rights and equality. The way I see it, readers could focus on blaming the Panem government for the suffering of the districts. On the other hand, they could view the story as a struggle of rich versus poor, emphasizing similarities between the citizens of Panem districts and lower classes of contemporary society who fight inequality.

Maybe people will always just see what they want to see. I think we are often tempted to interpret ideas based on our own bias and predispositions, picking out thoughts here and there that we agree with, sometimes ignoring the rest. Readers (*guilty as charged*) can pick up 1984 and gather from it a defense for a political ideology which they’ve already been exposed to. Perhaps Orwell had an idyllic potential in mind. Perhaps ‘alternative facts,’ like newspeak, are simply a contradictory construct used to push an agenda. I think Orwell condemned ignorance as he encouraged a healthy degree of skepticism of authority and bias. 1984 reminds readers that political absurdities and contradictions are simply inevitable.

“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidarity to pure wind.”

 – George Orwell 

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The Goldfinch: The Audience Who Loved it, and the Critics Who Hated it

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When Donna Tartt’s much anticipated novel The Goldfinch hit bookstore shelves in 2013, the reaction was instantaneous.

Unwary shoppers found themselves caught up in the tidal wave of die-hard Tartt fans who had been waiting over ten years for her newest book. Together, they poured into stores, buying and ordering copies of the novel at accelerating rates. The book jumped onto the New York Times bestseller list and sat tight for nearly a year, selling over a million and a half print and digital copies, and drawing in rave reviews from the likes of Michiko Kakutani and Stephen King.

Because of the book, Tartt was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. The producers of The Hunger Games buckled down to create a film/television series based on the novel. New York’s Frick Collection, which had just begun exhibiting the painting for which the book was named, was suddenly accosted by throes of tourists who just wanted to see the piece of art that started it all.

But when The Goldfinch was entered into the running for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that year, that was the last straw. A mix of critics, simmering in a stewy silence, finally bubbled over the edge.

“Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature,” wrote The New Yorker book critic James Wood. According to Wood, the book was full of relentless, far-fetched plotting and stock characters, and was simply undeserving of the literary respect it had received.

“Tartt’s novel is not a serious one—it tells a fantastical, even ridiculous tale, based on absurd and improbable premises,” he said.

The Goldfinch did end up taking home the prestigious award, much to the dismay of many literary critics, who panned the novel just like Wood did. And so, the question was posed: Was our literary culture being infantilized? Were we finally sinking into a doomed world where adults read Harry Potter and Twilight instead of Moby-Dick and The Tale of Two Cities?

In a way, this concern made sense. The plot of The Goldfinch is certainly an outlandish one. The novel follows the troubled life of Theo Decker, whose world is turned upside down when he is swept up in a catastrophic event at an art museum in New York City that kills his mother. Panicked, thirteen-year-old Theo steals a famous painting, titled “The Goldfinch,” in order to save it during the chaos. Drawn into a life full of drugs and crime, Theo tumbles from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, coming of age with a haunting secret: he is in possession of a piece of art that many are desperate to get their hands on.

But the supposed lack of “seriousness” of The Goldfinch did not stop readers from buying the book. It did not stop Tartt from enjoying wild literary success, achieving more attention and praise than any of her past books combined. Whether the critics liked it or not, the novel served as a catalyst for the shifting in literary tastes, an accurate representation of what the public wanted to read in the early 21st century.

Hate it or love it, The Goldfinch proves that people will read what they want to read. And if that means tossing “seriousness” to the wind, then so be it.

-Virginia Kettles

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Here’s to the Love of Books: Pursuing Publishing

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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.

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Judging a Book by its (Gendered) Cover

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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.

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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. 
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