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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.
Anachronism 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?
Several 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.)