After six decades as a prominent print journal, Washington and Lee's acclaimed literary journal Shenandoah is available at shenandoahliterary.org. The digital version - Volume 62, Number 2, is now online. The homepage also includes a Poem of the Week, an Archive Feature of the Month, audio files of contributors reading their work, an essay on featured artist, William Dunlap; brief and extended reviews and a rotating series of 100 arresting quotations. Those seeking information about submissions, prizes and the publication's history - from Tom Wolfe through Flannery O'Connor and W. H. Auden up to Rita Dove and Charles Wright- will find a wealth of information on the site. Further links reveal a description of the WLU English Department's Internship in Literary Editing program, along with comments by both the winter 2013 interns and recent graduates. All aspects of the journal are interactive and invite reader comment. Finally, Shenandoah's blog "Snopes" will introduce provocative topics and encourage readers to engage in discussion. Bloggers will include staff members, interns and special guests.
For over half a century Shenandoah has been publishing splendid poems, stories, essays and reviews which display passionate understanding, formal accomplishment and serious mischief.
Founded in 1950 by a group of Washington and Lee University faculty and students, Shenandoah has achieved a wide reputation as one of the country's premier literary magazines. Work from the magazine's pages has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best American Poems, Best American Essays, Best American Spiritual Writing, The O'Henry Prize, New Stories from the South and The Pushcart Prize, as well as numerous other anthologies and quite literally thousands of collections by the original authors. Recent issues have featured Pulitzer winners Natasha Trethewey, Claudia Emerson and Ted Kooser, as well as fiction by James Lee Burke, George Singleton, Alyson Hagy, Chris Offutt, Bret Anthony Johnston and Pam Durban.
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.
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
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?
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?
Continuing the theme of persistent pop culture trends established by last week blog’s post, we turn now to a subject nominally more realistic than zombies and monsters: the impossibly perceptive detective whose greatest power seems to be his ability to remain relevant over a hundred years after first coming onto the scene. After only the briefest time out of the public eye, Sherlock Holmes has returned in full force, with not one but two big-budget television shows undertaking the task of bringing the Victorian detective into the twenty-first century world of DNA tests, forensic evidence, and relative societal intolerance for the original’s opium habit.
Many people have speculated on why Sherlock Holmes remains such a compelling figure, but none have yet provided a fully satisfactory answer. Les Klinger, editor of the Holmes-inspired anthology A Study in Sherlock, argues that his appeal comes from his status as an outsider, telling NPR, “He is driven by a pursuit for justice, but it’s his own brand of justice, and I think part of us yearns to be like that: strong, independent, above worries, above how we fit in with society.” Philosopher John Gray, in a fascinating piece for the BBC, describes Holmes as “a servant of reason” who is also “a romantic hero ready to defy authority in order to stand by his sense of morality.”
But perhaps even more than his anti-authoritarian leanings, what truly defines Holmes in the mind of the public is his rationalism. Paradoxically, Holmes’s intelligence both gives him a timeless appeal and marks him as a creature of the Victorian era. Bear with me as I turn briefly to a book not about Sherlock Holmes: Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, published in 1907 but set in 1886. The events of that narrative are set off when the subversive Mr. Vladmir orders his agent provocateur Mr. Verloc to attack the Greenwich Observatory. When Verloc questions the merits of attacking an observatory rather than a more politically relevant target, Vladmir responds,
The sacrosanct fetish of to-day is science [ . . . ] Any imbecile that has got an income believes in that. He does not know why, but believes it matters somehow [ . . . ] They believe that in some mysterious way science is at the source of their material prosperity [ . . . ] The [bombing] must be against learning—science [ . . . ] The attack must have the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy. (Conrad 21-22)
Though Mr. Vladmir is obviously a dubious individual morally, he does accurately describe the elevated position that science occupied in the Victorian psyche. The effects of the Enlightenment were in full swing, Darwinism was radically reshaping how humans viewed their relationship to the natural world, and reason was seen as the answer to all problems. Holmes is almost a personification of that era’s belief in the infallibility of reason: with nothing more than his eyes and his brain, he can solve any crime and set every injustice to right. While the horrors and tragedies of the last century have somewhat taken the shine off of reason’s power to satisfactorily explain the world, people still wants to believe that the world can be figured out through intelligence and attention to detail, and Holmes offers us a role model in that regard.
Another aspect of the character’s endurance that I feel is not properly appreciated is the simplicity of the elements needed to make an authentic-feeling Sherlock Holmes story. Because everything that is distinctive about the Holmes canon is internalized within its characters, his stories take better than most to contemporary updates. Compare, say, the mythos of Arthurian legend or of Robin Hood: so much of what makes those stories distinctive lies in their setting and time period. Take Arthur out of Camelot or try to set Robin Hood in the twentieth century and it just won’t work. You have removed a vital part of what made it an Arthurian story or a tale about Robin Hood. In contrast, the only elements one needs to retain to have an authentic Holmes story are a detective named Sherlock with a friend named Watson, who together solve mysteries with little more than their wits.
Of course, it is impossible to talk about Holmes’s enduring popularity without acknowledging the ways in which the character has changed and adapted over the years. Entire books could be written exploring these changes, so I’m just going to touch works from the last few years. The Holmes-related media of the twenty-first century have each reflected contemporary trends in their own ways. The abominable 2009 film Sherlock Holmes and its sequel, A Game of Shadows, tried to capitalize on the superhero craze by casting Robert Downey, Jr. and turning Holmes’s analytical prowess into the superpower of pinpointing his opponents weaknesses during the many brawls into which this Sherlock blunders.
The BBC’s excellent Sherlock is more true to the heart of the character, though thanks to changing laws regarding smoking in public, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes has to slap on nicotine patches rather than smoke a pipe. Reflecting changing awareness of and attitudes toward homosexuality and gender, Sherlock makes a running gag out of Holmes and Watson being mistaken for a romantic couple. Interestingly, whereas Holmes is essentially asexual in the original stories, both Downey’s and Cumberbatch’s respective Sherlocks both nurse explicitly romantic interests in Irene Adler. (On some level, it makes sense that a Victorian audience would be more comfortable with an asexual hero than contemporary viewers.) The CBS show Elementary takes the prize for the most out-there treatment of Adler, however. Spoilers ahead: in Elementary, Adler and Holmes are former lovers, but in this adaptation, Adler is also Jamie Moriarty, and she is eventually revealed as Holmes’s arch-nemesis. Even before this reveal, Elementary made waves by casting Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson. Given the paucity of important female characters in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, I feel that we now have a Sherlock Holmes television show in which both one of the leads and the show’s greatest villain are women says a great deal.
No blog post can possibly do justice to the questions of why Sherlock Holmes has proven so enduring or how later adaptations reflect their time periods. I have not even touched on other noteworthy Holmes-related works, like Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, or the Basil Rathbone movies that defined Holmes for a generation. What’s clear, though, is that the sleuth is here to stay. As we get ever farther away in time from the Victorian world that gave birth to Holmes, I for one will be watching with interest to see what contemporary and future artists do to keep Holmes relevant to the modern world even as the modern world rapidly changes.
What do you think, fellow readers? Do you have a favorite Holmes story? How about a favorite parody of the sleuth? Have you encountered any particularly fascinating permutations of the Holmesian mythos?
Halloween is fast approaching, and with it all of our favorite standby nightmares; ghosts, werewolves, witches, vampires, and zombies lurk around the corner, waiting to thrill us with their wickedness. When I was little, I used to regard Halloween with a mixture of apprehension and excitement− apprehension for the inevitable ghost stories that would keep me up at night, and excitement for the candy I could binge eat to pass the sleepless hours. Halloween holds less anticipation for me now. This may be partially because of my increased cynicism and decreased sweet tooth, but is also due in no small part to the fact that those familiar Halloween monsters no longer belong solely to that one October night.
Of course, America has had a long love affair with monsters, and I do not mean to imply that we have only just discovered a penchant for the macabre. But our relationship with the creatures that go bump in the night seems to have developed beyond what it once was. The horror stories of the past have often been limited by their genre. Elvira’s Movie Macabre may have had its fans, but the fact cannot be avoided that it was considered gimmicky and enjoyed only a niche audience.
Blockbusters like the Twilight franchise and 2009’s horror-comedy film Zombieland have proven that monster movies can be more commercially successful than ever before. Furthermore, Twilight’s choice to portray a vampire as its dreamy love interest indicates a new attitude toward the old, recognizable ghouls. Novel-turned-Hollywood film Warm Bodies goes so far as to cast a rotting zombie as its romantic protagonist. It’s almost as if our childhood nightmares are the new “cool kids”.
Besides garnering the commercial success that goes hand in hand with their new popularity, monsters are also breaking through previously strict barriers of genre, attaining in some cases critical acclaim; television shows such as The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, which can only be classified as monster stories, have received many accolades, including nominations for various Golden Globe Awards. Even more remarkable than this is the appearance of well-regarded and literarily relevant works of fiction dealing with the monstrous and fantastical.
We have been discussing this trend in my 21st Century North American Fiction class, and recently read an article by Joe Fassler published in The Atlantic, entitled “How Zombies and Superheroes Conquered Highbrow Fiction”. In it, Fassler writes:
Discounting a few notable (and unclassifiable) isoladoes like Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Don Delillo, our literature unfolded in diners, standard issue automobiles, and the living room […] But now, only eleven years into a new century, American literary culture has undergone a sea change. A group of high-profile literary writers have fled what we call “real-life”− and their numbers are growing. Literature shelves now commonly feature Halloween party staples: Zombies, werewolves, and vampires […]
Fassler’s chosen example of this change in American literature is Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, a novel following a survivor of the zombie apocalypse as he and his fellow humans attempt to rebuild. The novel’s status as a piece of literature rather than a piece of valueless entertainment is indicative of our shift in attitude toward monsters.
Fassler seems to believe that our new fondness for “Halloween party staples” is not merely a fad, but promises to be a lasting trend in New American Fiction. Undoubtedly, their popularity has already lasted longer than expected. This leads us to wonder why monsters and their like found their way into the limelight in the first place. What is it about them that fascinates and attracts us?
Perhaps it is has something to do with Fassler’s assertion that literary writers are rejecting “real-life” in favor of the fantastic. Doing so certainly leaves them the possibility of representing the issues they deal with in a more metaphorical way. For example, in his collection entitled Thinking Dead: What the Zombie Apocalypse Means, Murali Balaji compiled a series of essays speculating on the reason for our obsession with zombies. His introduction says of zombie apocalypses:
There are social and psychological ramifications as well, particularly as they relate to our fear of Others, insecurities over self-reflection and the deep-seated paranoia over the possibility of an apocalyptic event.
According to Balaji and many of his essayists, the zombie apocalypse becomes something of a metaphor, representing anything from the fright of the destruction of the traditional American family, to tensions felt toward and by the gay community, to fear of the usefulness of a white-collar workforce in the face of economic turmoil. Some of these connections may be a little tenuous, but the general message remains that one can use the fantastic to more creatively address otherwise difficult themes. At the end of his “How Zombies…” article, Fassler articulates a series of points, collected with the help of several fantasy writers, detailing some reasons why what he calls “genre fiction” has gained popularity in recent years. They are as follows:
Michael Chabon, in the introduction to his essay collection, Maps and Legends, argues that the fantastic−monsters, magic and science fiction− is the direction in which American fiction must head. He proffers that this new writing, “haunts the boundary lines, the margins, the secret shelves between the sections in the bookstore. And that is where, if it wants to renew itself in the way the novel has done so often in its long history, the short story must, inevitably go”.
What do you think? What is the reason for our newfound fondness of the fantastic and morbid? Will it really last, or has the monster (and particularly the zombie) fad already played itself out? Is Chabon correct about the next phase of American Literature?