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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

(Un)Muting Minority Writers

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AWP 2015 tackles the issue of diversity in the creative writing classroom with panels on pedagogy, classroom politics, and the need for multitudinous perspectives. ♦
Last month, I traveled from Ohio to Minneapolis to attend the annual AWP Conference, the convention of university creative writers and writing programs. As a first-time attendee, I wasn’t entirely sure of what to expect. Would the 12,000 plus writers overwhelm me? Would I find an intimidating group of established writers? Would I be able to find other writers who looked like me? All my questions were soon answered after I made it to the Minneapolis Convention Center. What I found was an unfathomably large book fair, a ton of welcoming writers, some emerging like myself, some inspiring veterans, and a few literary legends. Yet, most important of all, I found a number of people who looked like me. After looking through the conference schedule I was pleased to find several panels highlighting issues that diverse writers face. During my time at the conference I was able to attend panels discussing diversity in creative writing, and the problems and expectations attached, unfairly, to writers of color.
   I’ve seen the problem myself in some writing workshops I’ve been a part of, where I’ve often been one of the only, if not the lone, minority in the group. When I write a story in which race isn’t mentioned, or where the characters could conceivably belong to any race, my peers will comment on the plot, the style of my prose, or the function of the dialogue, but never on whether the content itself is interesting enough to be read. Yet, in contrast, when my stories definitively feature black characters, there is often a critique by one (or a few) of my peers along the lines of, “I just don’t know if your characters are relatable to the ‘American’ experience’” or “I like that it features black characters, but why would a white person want to read it without any major white characters?” And I think to myself, “No one says they won’t read your story because it doesn’t feature minorities.”
   Minority writers often find themselves being bundled together in groups and expected to comment on large segments of the population. To speak to a singular “minority experience” for any minority group is not realistic, since every human experience is different. Unfortunately for writers, if a story does find a way to speak to a minority experience, it might not find a larger readership because it deals with a minority perspective. Thus, one of the biggest problems for the creative writing classroom is figuring out how to address issues of diversity in such a way that all writers in the room are heard, all voices are considered on their own terms, and all work is given the attention and reading it deserves.
   These problems were at the heart of one of the panels I attended at AWP titled “Striving for Balance between Language and Prejudice in Teaching Writing,” facilitated by fiction writer and essayist Christine Hyung-Oak Lee. When asked about such issues of diversity in the classroom, one panelist, the award-winning Cuban-American fiction writer and college professor Jennine Capo Crucet, said that it is important to remember that minority writers can’t be expected to speak for any group as a whole, that one person does not have all the answers, though that’s an expectation many minority writers face that their white counterparts do not.
   “[We must] recognize that an individual member of a particular ethnic, racial or religious group does not represent that entire group,” Crucet said, and we ought to “refrain from asking, both directly and indirectly, any individual, including yourself, to speak on behalf of an entire culture… it’s impossible to do.” At a panel called “Preparing Students of Color for the MFA: Advice, Reflections, and Methodologies”, Undocumented poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo noted that some of the problem stems from the fact that, as Americans, we sometimes think about race as only relating to minority experiences, forgetting that “even if you’re white, whiteness is a race.” Instead of thinking of white as racial designation, it is simply considered “the norm or the default” race in literature, and that, “if race isn’t mentioned, it’s always automatically assumed to be white.”
   Crucet also noted how whiteness is considered to be the default setting in literature, pointing out how often “no race is named until a person of color shows up in the story.” This assumption negatively affects not just how we write, but also how we read; we’ve been conditioned to separate the minority experience from the white experience, forgetting that all minority experiences are American experiences, and far more similar than many of us would like to admit. But when minority writers feel marginalized, we may stop writing about our differences and, in doing so, lock away that part of ourselves that makes up so much of who we are, and because of that our writing suffers.
   Whiting Award recipient Alexander Chee, a Korean-American writer, spoke directly to this issue of how we see ourselves versus those constraints the minority writer has placed on his or herself: “I don’t think of myself as having a diverse life. I think of myself as having a life, and other people who don’t have that might see that as diverse.” In the same panel, award winning Irish-African-American novelist Mat Johnson added, “if it’s avoidance [of students writing about their own experiences], it’s going to sink the whole thing, because they’re not giving all themselves.”
Photo Credit: Kristen Arnett | Twitter: @Kristen_Arnett
   “I don’t want to have [writers] put in a situation where they begin self-censoring,” Chee added, “trying to create these sorts of utopian stories where no one is racist, sexist or homophobic.”
  Fellow panelist Danielle Evans, an African-American, agreed: “We write as though all racists or sexists are people who exist apart from us . . . when in fact they are all around us ... If we want to address these problems, we have to shine a light on them, not sweep them under the rug . . . I’m interested in people writing racist characters or sexist characters . . . not always having it from the position of the victim, because I think otherwise we erase that sort of pervasiveness.”
   What Chee and Evans would call “self-censoring” was described by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo in the MFA panel as a form of White Fragility, wherein “we as writers of color are always catering to make white people comfortable in speaking about race, in speaking about diversity, in speaking about anything that will benefit us.” Writers of color shouldn’t feel the need to capitulate or play it safe to keep white people from feeling awkward. Instead we should show them why they shouldn’t feel that way by telling our stories. This includes not only approaching certain diverse subjects in our work, but also embracing diverse modes of storytelling, as Filipino-American poet Patrick Rosal argued in the same panel with Castillo. Rosal suggested that white readers should “open [their] mind to other possibilities of language, just open [their] mind to the possibility that everybody in your room brings in modes of speech and storytelling that can transform the way that we think about language.” Rosal has it right — if we transform how we think about language, we’ll be amazed at what we find. The lack of diversity in writing seems to come from close-mindedness, but when minority writers are unmuted, then every voice is heard. The writing community has a communication problem, but if we take the time to listen to each other, we’ll realize we all have something to say. The issue is, that I see this reluctance to have diverse conversations not just writing, but all throughout our nation.
   Just recently, while I was at work, a white man asked me, “What is it with the black position? How can black people say black lives matter, when black men are constantly killing each other?” To me that was an offensive question, but instead of getting upset I recognized that he was asking from a point of ignorance, so I attempted to educate him. I started off by telling him, “There is no such thing as a black position. We are an incredibly diverse group and our individual beliefs confirm that.” The gentleman commented back by saying, “But there is a black position.” To change his thought process, I then asked him, “Well is there a white position?” He thought for a moment, but couldn’t respond. Next I asked, “If you can’t view the race you claim in generalities, then how can you view another race in such a way?” He conceded. To answer the crux of his question I told him, “I’ve never killed another black man, so there is no hypocrisy when I say black lives matter. Besides, I didn’t ask you why white men shoot up schools and movie theaters. The most important thing to always consider is that human beings lost their lives, not what color they are.” I continued by telling him there are people that do bad things belonging to every demographic, “There are atrocities committed by people from every group and throughout history some white people have had their own part to play in terrible acts of violence.” He then told me he didn’t mean to be offensive. The problem is neither the intent, nor the interpretation, but instead the lack of communication. As writers, we are the first key to solving our nation’s communication problem.
   By attending the 2015 AWP Conference, I came away more informed about issues minorities face in creative writing. The esteemed panelists shared some of their experiences as students, and as professors, and let us in on strategies they use as writers and professors to embolden minority literature. I also left AWP excited that there were plenty of people who looked like me, and others who’ve had similar experiences as I’ve had, that love language and literature like I do. Seeing that I’m not alone has me more ready than ever to write a story, a true American story, about minority characters, as a black man, and not feel a need to make anyone comfortable. But as I really reflected on my AWP experience, the most important thing I took away was that as writers, we can help start the conversation our country desperately needs to hear.
  • About the Author
    Vernon Williams is a 6’5 black male writer from Ohio. What else do you need to know?
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    Tuesday, May 12, 2015

    A Game of Thrones: Race to the Finish

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    As the acclaimed television series begins diverging from its source material, will fans of Game of Thrones be willing to embrace competing versions of the same story?  ♦ 
    Ask anyone clued into American pop culture and they would probably recognize the title of the epic fantasy television series Game of Thrones. Even without watching the show, it’s almost impossible to avoid because of its large and enthusiastic fan base and presence in recent pop culture, along with the numerous accolades the show has won and its well-known controversial scenes. Game of Thrones is an adaptation of George R. R. Martin's bestselling book series, A Song of Ice and Fire. When the first season began its broadcast in 2011, Martin had five out of a planned seven books released. Now, HBO is currently airing their fifth season, which covers the narrative arc of the fourth and fifth book, and it looks like the show will finish before Martin's novels. Four years ago, this did not seem to be the case, but alas, Martin is human. He has not yet published the sixth book in his series, The Winds of Winter, and further confirmed that it would not be published anytime in 2015. This leaves the production team in a unique position . . . even more unique because Martin himself provided the ending of his tale to the creators/show-runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, giving rise to the question of what will happen as the series outpaces the books. Originally, there was much speculation about what direction the showrunners would decide to pursue as they continue to produce and eventually conclude their television series.
          Now we know: as reported recently in Vanity Fair, producer David Benioff confirmed that the television show will indeed follow Martin’s planned storyline for books six and seven of A Song of Ice and Fire. How closely they’ll follow Martin’s storylines, however, is still something of question, as book six is still in the editing stage. The release date for book six, The Winds of Winter, is still a point of contention; Martin has nothing set in stone, though he recently revealed his hopes to publish the sixth installment before the broadcast of HBO's sixth season in 2016. But even if Martin were to publish the book and prevent spoilers from the next season, he still has one final novel yet to write, and the chances that Martin would be able to write and publish the seventh and final novel before 2017 (the airdate for the final planned season) are slim to none. However, Martin remains hopeful and sees a recent announcement from the HBO executives as promising. Apparently, there is disagreement between the producers and the executives on just how many seasons of Game of Thrones should be produced. The showrunners have seven (possibly eight) seasons planned, but the executives want to increase the number to ten. If there were ten seasons, Martin may have additional time to finish his books ahead of the show, and the question of who will finish first is once again raised.
         The reality, of course, is that the show will finish before all of the books are published. Whether the show outpaces the book on their sixth season or seventh, the question remains: how will this affect the book sales? Would knowing the ending of the television adaption before the book is released damage the books' ability to sell the copies? Or would knowing one ending drive more readers hungry for more of the world to buy the novels?
         The television show itself, we now know, will conclude with a hybrid of Martin's original ending along with a few new creative twists on the part of production. The television team recently announced that some characters who are still alive in the novels will die in this season (as already happened in the recent episode, “Sons of the Harpy”). As more details and spoilers have emerged for the rest of the season, these suggest slight changes in plot that stay true to the original themes and ideas but have new stories developed within them. This raises what might be, for some, worrisome question about the future of literary adaptions. Have we entered a point in time where it could become common for authors to have to fight to finish their texts before the media produces it? Or will fans be willing to accept alternate versions of the same story, told in two different mediums, peacefully co-existing?
         Looking ahead at the uncertain future of the series can be frightening, but it’s also a chance to witness something brand new and groundbreaking in the realm of literature-adaption relationships. Whatever extent to which HBO uses Martin’s material, I’m confident the television show will remain true to their creative team’s unique vision and sense of duty. The same is true, undoubtedly, for Martin and his books. It is certainly an exciting time to be a fan.
  • About the Author
    Rob Johnson is currently a junior studying English Literature at Miami University. Rob enjoys reading many different genres of books, watching TV, and playing soccer.
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    An Interview with Kate Monica

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    On the eve of her first published book of poems titled Nervous Universe, Kate Monica talks about her work and what led her here.  ♦ 
    At twenty-one, most of us don’t have a lot to show for ourselves: a little over half the required credit hours for an undergraduate degree, a handful of extracurriculars, and a crippling sense of dread associated with thoughts about the future. Not many of us can say we have our first book coming out.
       Kate Monica, a junior at the University of Connecticut, can.
       Even before inking her first book deal, Monica had already racked up some impressive literary accomplishments while at UConn; her work has been published by the Long River Review, tNY, Orchid Children, Holey Scripture, and Control Literary Magazine, and she has received numerous awards for her poetry including the Collins Literary Prize in 2014 and second place in the Wallace Stevens Poetry contest. Currently she is one of five university students in the Connecticut area chosen to be a part of the Connecticut Poetry Circuit, through which she is able to participate in the Poetry Circuit reading tour.
        Then, last December, Monica published a number of poems in the online literary magazine Electric Cereal, run by Luis Silva. After announcing on her Tumblr the completion of a manuscript, Silva reached out, saying he’d be interested in seeing the finished product. Soon thereafter, the deal was struck for Electric Cereal to publish Monica’s first book of poetry, Nervous Universe, which will see print later this month.
        In this interview, Monica shares her thoughts on her wild and quick journey toward publication, what makes a poem good (or not), and what compels her to write.

    It seems like your book deal happened pretty quickly, given how tough it can be to publish. 

    Yeah. I emailed it to [Luis Silva] and at around 4 in the morning the next day, he emailed me back and said, “I really like the manuscript and I want to publish it,” and then he sent me the contract. I’m honestly still a little shocked how quickly it happened.
    .
    How does it feel, having a book so close to publication?
    .
    Happy, excited, glad. It’s a dream come true a little. I’m going to keep going the way I’ve been going, except now I really know I want to be a writer. Before I kind of thought I’d be a professor or a teacher, but now I’m sure I want to be a writer.
    .
    It must be nice to have that kind of clarity, knowing what you want to do at twenty-one.
    .
    It’s funny, because I used to hate poetry. I thought it was stupid until my freshman year when I took a class and my professor came in the first day reciting High Windows by Phillip Larkin. After that I didn’t think it was stupid anymore at all.
    .
    Have you ever worked in fiction, or are you exclusively a poet?
    .
    I’ve been working on a novel for two years. I recently finished it. It’s about a girl going through a bunch of transformative things—like adjusting to college, figuring out her sexuality, and growing up, which is kind of the subject matter for a lot of my poems.
    .
    What do you think makes a poem “good”?
    .
    I’m hesitant to answer, because I don’t want to sound like I think I have all the answers about what makes poetry “good,” but for me, what a “good” poem is, and I think one of my professors said this, a “good” poem should feel simultaneously surprising and inevitable. You shouldn’t know what’s coming, but it should also feel like there was only one way for it to end.
    .
    What makes a poem unsuccessful? Do the poems you dislike have anything in common?
    .
    For me, too many abstractions is kind of boring. Talking about love but not putting a face to it doesn’t work. A poem is good if it’s personal, authentic, if it feels like it belongs to whoever wrote it, if it feels like it couldn’t have been written by anyone but the person who wrote it.
    .
    Of the poems you’ve written, do you have a favorite?
    .
    To Various Persons Talked To All At Onceafter Kenneth Koch’s poem of the same title. I wrote it because my friend showed me the Kenneth Koch poem and decided to write his own poem kind of based on that, and so I did it too. It’s about transient things said and overhead at a party, and it starts to deteriorate as the speaker gets drunk. Everything is clipped and cut and the things that were said earlier are coming back only smaller and less and the night is getting repetitive and redundant and it just starts feeling like every other night.
    .
    How did you decide which poems would go into the book? 
    .
    My professor was helping me pick poems that already felt finished […] I was working on it for an independent study with really no intention to publish until after graduation. There’s no theme—at least no intentional theme—but the poems read similarly. The book is called Nervous Universe, so they all at least fall under that category.
    .
    Does success at this young age seem strange to you at all? 
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    The only thing is I’m too young to have a good origin story. If I had some insane creative process, I don’t think people would really believe me because I haven’t been alive long enough to be really interesting yet.
        My professor told me about this one writer who, when asked how he would write, said he would wake up every morning, take off all his clothes, go to the boiler room in the basement, and just sit all day, sweating and writing. I don’t have anything like that, and I could never say anything like that. Right now, all I can say for my origin story, for like why I write, is a quote from “As Planned” by Frank O’Hara, which is my favorite poem. “For they are words that you know and that/is all you know words not their feelings/or what they mean and you write because/you know them not because you understand them/because you don’t you are stupid and lazy/and will never be great but you do/what you know because what else is there?”
         That’s why I write. That’s what I’ve got.
  • About the Author
    Kaylee Via is a sophomore English Lit and Creative Writing double major to prove to her parents that there is, in fact, beyond being a single English major, a way to make yourself more unemployable. She appreciates a good cup of coffee, punctuality, and not having to talk about herself.
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    Death Vigil: The Grim Reaper Beckons

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    Enter a world of masterful full-color storytelling where second chances at life happen after death and the Grim Reaper isn't so grim.♦
    Stjepan Sejic is a master of words and art, both talents equally on display in Death Vigil, a comic book series published by Top Cow Productions, Inc. The series follows a small group of characters who have died and been granted a second chance at life by the Grim Reaper (named Bernadette) herselfa chance that involves fighting Necromancers and the demons and hellspawn they command in a mission to protect Earth’s unsuspecting populace.
        Sejic’s distinctive style of art is likely what most people think of first with Death Vigil, particularly his idiosyncratic character design that helps readers clearly see and understand the emotions of main characters, rendering complex personalities with artistic clarity. The style shows influences from many modern popular comic series such as X-Men and Batman, yet it visually separates itself from these books by using colorful, bright pages and greater-than-typical detailing. The eye-popping use of color allows the characters and scenery to look clean, warm, and inviting, and allows readers to follow the brisk action in each panel without much fuss or confusion.
           However, the real beauty of Death Vigil is in its writing, which brilliantly creates characters such the Grim Reaper Bernadette. Through Sejic’s use of flashbacks, action, and dialogue we see that the typical view of the Grim Reaper as a stone cold, uncaring, and sinister figure is not true in the slightest—she is in fact one of the good guys of the series—while showing Bernadette as an emotionally complex and connected character who loves, hates, and feels like everyday people. Sejic reveals her humanity in flashbacks where she openly hurts and is saddened by the loss of members of the Death Vigil, and in another scene where she is dancing around while listening to music on an ipod. She even makes joking jabs at her underlings of the Death Vigil and shows somewhat of a romantic relationship with Sam, one of the newer members of the Vigil and an intriguing character in his own right. The series opens up with Sam’s death and induction into the Death Vigil, introducing just how the process works and why the Vigil exists, offering the reader a (dead) everyman to root for as he is ushered into this fantastic realm. Given these twists in story and character, the series feel like a fresh take on superhero comics, a genre it’s certainly playing off of, while also acting like a fantasy set in a modern world.
         Of course Death Vigil isn’t completely without its faults. Sejic uses the majority of the first five issues to explain what the Death Vigil is, fleshing out the story behind its various members and creating much of the world’s background and lore. This can be a daunting barrier for someone looking to immerse themselves in the series right off—a lot of information gets thrown around early, which can be confusing and overwhelming at times—yet the extended opening exposition is nearly unavoidable, as world-creation and familiarization with its rules are absolutely necessary. Overall, though, Death Vigil feels like it could be a big contender against more mainstream titles like X-Men, Avengers, or Batman. It's already gathered a large and loyal reader base excited to see where the series goes next.

    Note: Interested readers can find out more about Death Vigil and other works by Stjepan Sejic at Top Cow's website and at Sejic’s personal online art gallery and blog, which includes free downloadable copies of Death Vigil’s first issue and Volume One of Sejic’s Ravine, a high fantasy 100+ page adventure.
  • About the Author
    Benjamin Byrd is a fourth year Creative Writing Major. An avid comic book reader and gamer Ben hopes to pursue storytelling in any possible medium as well as maintaining a healthy interest in music.
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    Wednesday, May 6, 2015

    Neil Patrick Harris’s Choose Your Own Autobiography: A Call for Creative Autobiographies

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    How Neil Patrick Harris's meta memoir might inspire new frontiers for a sometimes-dull genre.  ♦ 
    I remember back in middle school being told to write a report on an autobiography and struggling to keep my internal groan from becoming external. I hated the idea of reading a book in which someone bragged about how interesting their life was (yes, I know, not a very accurate description, but I was a pretty pessimistic and dramatic kid). To me, the whole idea of straight-up autobiography just seemed boring.
         I wish I could say I grew out of this phase, but that would be a lie. I’ve avoided reading non-fiction at all costs, especially autobiographies, because they still seem stale and egocentric, and I have better things to read. That is, until I received a copy of Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography. This is exactly what it sounds like: an autobiography modeled as a “choose your own adventure” story. Instead of the traditional autobiography, the reader acts as Neil Patrick Harris, moving through the story by making decisions and turning pages accordingly that lead to various moments in his/your life. Some of these moments are blatantly untrue and fictionalized, others are questionable, and plenty more seem to be real enough.
          At first, I was distrustful of this new creative autobiography, even though it promised to be unlike anything I’d ever read before. Part of me worried it would be like a less organized version of something I knew I’d dislike, but because it was a gift and I’m a huge fan of NPH, I gave it a read, and I’m glad I did because it was fantastic. Besides being really funny, it opened my eyes to the untapped creative potential of authors playing around with the traditional autobiographical form. It was clear that Harris wasn’t attempting to do the same thing as other authors; the purpose of this autobiography was more to entertain than to inform. This was something new and unique that appealed even to me.
          Reading this book, it was like Neil Patrick Harris was making up stories about himself, something that isn’t the norm in the traditional autobiography but definitely got my attention. (It’s nice to know that celebrities still daydream.) This is also, I imagine, more fun for the author, as it allows him to both write about his real life and to envision different ways his life could have turned out. The book is a blend of fake and real pictures, several storylines in which the author dies gruesome deaths, and a lot of random musical numbers that all add something compelling to what might otherwise have like the dry, self-congratulatory book I feared back in middle school.
         What Neil Patrick Harris did was demonstrate that there are more creative possibilities than have been explored in the autobiographical form. And what this book has done — the compelling effect it has created — could be accomplished by other creative forms as well. Maybe we’ll see comic books or flash fiction or blends of multi-media mixed in to future autobiographies; it seems to me when the author has more creative freedom, the result is more entertaining work. Everyday occurrences become funny and readers don’t feel bad for laughing because the author is laughing at himself. Creative forms say to the world, “I’m here, I’m amusing, don’t take me too seriously.” It’s not just that creative forms are entertaining; they lead the reader to allow him- or herself to be entertained.
        I’m not saying that traditional autobiographies can’t also be entertaining. There are plenty of fascinating life stories being written; I’ve just found straight narrative forms grow stale in both fiction and non-fiction. In the “choose your own adventure” form, readers become a part of the story, inviting them to be more invested in the events. If an author were to make a comic book or illustrated form the audience wouldn’t just be reading the story they’d also be seeing it. Also, fans of certain creative forms of storytelling would be drawn to similar creative autobiographies. A manga enthusiast, for instance, could spend all day learning about Zachary Quinto through comic panels and thought bubbles. A mother could teach her toddlers about the music of Elton John with sparkly pop-up pictures. There must be several other ways that creative autobiographies could pull readers into the story, the only limit is the imagination of the author.
         Don’t get me wrong, I recognize there’s a place for the traditional autobiography; if you’re an astrophysicist and are well known for being serious, then it’s probably not a good idea to write your life story using a collection of flash fiction. However, if you’re a creative person then there’s no reason that your autobiography shouldn’t also be creative. Think about what your potential audience wants and think about what you want. Don’t let yourself be trapped by conventions. If you want to write your life in a pop-up book then go for it. The world, and the genre itself, needs more creativity.
  • About the Author
    Erin Mathey is a Junior at Miami University majoring in Creative Writing. She hopes to write books for elementary and middle school aged children. She loves animals, food, and all forms of storytelling.
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    Fifty Shades of Great?

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    How does a book about BDSM become a pop-cultural phenomenon? Ryan Sheets tries to find the answer.  ♦ 
    Three years ago my sister gave me a book to read. I glanced at the cover and saw only black and grey, an expensive tie hanging down the length of it; I immediately assumed it was a business drama. As I began reading, I started to suspect that my initial assumption was false Around the sixth chapter, I closed Fifty Shades of Grey and quit reading. My sister had played a cruel prank on me.
         Sixty million copies later, Fifty Shades of Grey has spawned a blockbuster film, two more movie deals, and a fan base that spreads far and wide. What is it about this series that inspires so many to band together and be so vocal about a book whose subject matter is so private?
         The answer may not be so complicated.
         Alone, many people become self-conscious and highly aware of other’s opinions. But as a group, a movement really, they feel empowered and safe to express themselves no matter what they are expressing. ContrarianVille, a website that analyzes behavioral economics, would place this under the heading of Mob Mentality. As author Mike Mask writes, “Mob mentality is caused in part by the concept of ‘social proof'’ which is the well-documented tendency of people to think (either consciously or unconsciously) that whatever behavior a number of other people are engaged in must be important and ‘right,’ and that a group of people engaging in a particular activity must collectively know more than us about that activity.” This certainly helps explain how a book whose subject matter might not be for everyone was suddenly being read by everyone . . . the crowd itself helped grow even bigger curious crowds, thinking that there must be something there if so many people had already been drawn to the book.
         Or perhaps what draws much of this curiosity isn't necessarily this expanding fan base in itself but the sometimes-raucous behavior exhibited by a select few toward the book, as seen during the recent release of the blockbuster adaptation and which was discussed by ET Online’s "Fifty Shades of Crazy" article. A group of women attending a showing of the film—at a theater that serves alcohol—became so rowdy that they began to vomit, and one even cut an irritated male viewer with a wine bottle. Other crazed events include a crowd of teenagers rioting after being denied entry, the Fifty Shades of Grey film being mistakenly shown in place of a Spongebob flick, and a woman in Mexico who proceeded to pleasure herself throughout the showing. Needless to say, the film has prompted some people to act in odd ways. Others, however, prefer to stick behind the anonymity of their tablets while they read, something that the e-book has allowed in recent years.
          Fifty Shades of Grey was the first e-book to ever sell a million copies on Amazon’s Kindle, beating records previously held by Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling. A connection may exist between these staggering Kindle sales and the prevalence of Fifty Shades of Grey, but what reason could explain it? The Kindle not only offers a level of convenience via its instant downloading, but offers a sense of anonymity behind its screen. If there are readers out there who may still be uncomfortable with letting people know their reading interests, they can relax and enjoy their erotica from behind their tablet screens. With the cover of the book hidden it may be easier to conceal the fact that the reader is reading Fifty Shades of Grey, which may appeal to some who are self-conscious about people knowing their literary tastes.
           Although many people support the Fifty Shades of Grey series, recent news updates have shown us that there are some with much dislike for E.L. James’ work. Campaigners and religious groups have reached the forefront, protesting the abuse, BDSM depictions, and manipulation tactics utilized by Christian Grey, one of the novel’s main characters. Fifty Shades of Grey is Domestic Abuse, a specific group created to protest the book and film’s main subject matter, hopes to raise the public’s awareness about what is actually going on behind the Fifty Shades of Grey series. Natalie Collins, the campaign’s leader, claims that she isn’t bothered by the BDSM actions, but the controlling nature of the self-made playboy billionaire. Her campaign focuses on informing people of what domestic abuse actually looks like, as well as advocating to end the romanticization of sexual violence seen in James’ series.
         So what does the Fifty Shades of Grey movement mean? In a way, James has taken a topic otherwise swept under the rug and put it on display for all to see. This action has empowered some to embrace their inner goddess, as Anastasia Steele would call it, and show their support for the author’s courage and ability to bring such a unique story to the masses. And what could this mean for other aspiring writers, those that also find enjoyment in writing fan fiction, as James’s series itself was inspired by the vampire love story series Twilight? Maybe it means that more and more people will have a chance to get their work published, even if it is based off of a current publication that has already had success. And with the recent rise in self-publication, we can only hope that writers are getting their creative writing to those who want to read it, those who have something to gain from those author’s hard work. Only time will tell if this is just a simple anomaly or the start of something big.
  • About the Author
    Ryan Sheets was born just outside of Cleveland but then moved with his family to Hamburg, Germany for his dad’s moving career. After making his return home, he found he enjoyed many hobbies including golf, football, and most of all, creative writing. Ryan has a full length YA Urban Fantasy novel complete and hopes to seek publication at one point in his life.
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    New Adult Fiction: An Untapped Potential

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    Not a Young Adult novel, and not yet an adult novel, New Adult fiction strives to find its place in the world.  ♦ 
    As a reader just coming into her 20s, I’ve found myself in a frustrating predicament. I feel I’m somewhat too old for Young Adult novels and the way they seem to focus on high school teens who fall in love with vampires, or who must band together in a dystopian society to defeat their dictatorial adult leaders while juggling a love triangle. That’s not to say there aren’t great Young Adult novels out there, or that I haven’t read some I really enjoyed. It’s just come to the point where practically every book I pick up for that age-group seems to be a variation of The Hunger Games or The Fault in Our Stars. The YA genre seems to be slowly morphing into one that follows the Hollywood approach to movies: originality is dead — long live the rewrites.
         At the same time, I haven’t reached the point in my life where I am ready to commit to what’s marketed as Adult novels. The content offered in them, which usually involves characters already settled in jobs and relationships, tackles issues largely unrelatable to someone my age. As a reader, I want something that is catered to me, the college sophomore who has no idea what she’s doing half the time and is just trying to figure it out, someone who is learning what it means to be on her own and is trying to navigate without her training wheels for the first time. This content isn’t available in the bulk of YA novels, even in the realistic fiction subgenre, since most involve characters and conflicts revolving around popularity struggles and prom mishaps and other adolescent drama I’ve since left behind.
         What is the solution, then, for those of us who want books more relevant for our age and status in life? The answer may lie in New Adult fiction, a term only coined back in 2009. These books are written with the 18-25 age-group specifically in mind and promise to deal with the difficult transition from the teen years to adulthood, involving struggles and emotions often faced by people my age. These novels focus on characters making discoveries about themselves and their world and navigating the obstacles they must face after they have come of age.
         At least, this is what New Adult fiction was supposed to be, but on bookshelves, the genre is definitely lacking. It’s difficult to know exactly why this is, but it seems in part a failure of publishing houses and their advertising efforts which has allowed New Adult fiction to earn a reputation of being “smutty,” or driven by sex, and allowed what could be true New Adult fiction to be published as “Young Adult. Take for instance one such “YA” series by Megan McCafferty, the Jessica Darling series. This five-book arc follows Jessica as a sixteen year old navigating through high school through college and grad school, and ends with her as a young businesswoman. Along the way, she grows up, and that’s exactly seems exactly the kind of novel a new adult reader, like me, would want to read. Good luck finding it, though, because McCafferty’s books are labeled Young Adult and get lost among the masses of YA published every year.
          Bottom line, as of 2015, New Adult fiction lacks the literature many readers of my age are looking for and becomes a genre only suited for those looking for a specific type of sort-of-more-mature YA romance, and that seems like an awfully missed opportunity. While it may seem counter-intuitive to publishing’s mission to make money, it appears to some as though publishing is holding back New Adult fiction because they fear what it would mean to back yet another genre. As many online outlets have pointed out, recognizing New Adult as a legitimate genre means bookstores and libraries would have to re-organize stock. Molly Wetta of Ebsco’s Novelist addresses this very question, “The publishing world continues to debate the nature of and need for the category, but what does that mean for librarians? Should it have its own space, separate from adult and young adult fiction collections, or should it be spread between the two? How do new categories change collection development practices or cataloging for librarians? These questions are still up in the air.” Meanwhile, Jane Jorgenson of Library Journal talks about how there is still much debate over taking the time to create more genre shelves in libraries (and bookstores alike), “we’ve discussed for years whether it’s better to break out the genre fiction or keep it all in the fiction section so that authors who write in several different genres can have all of their works found.” This idea of shifting an entire system that has been around for years is one that library branches and booksellers seem opposed to, and publishing seems unwilling to push for.
         The question then becomes, shouldn’t publishing cater to their customers/readers instead of simply agreeing with bookstores and libraries? Brian Klems writing for Writer’s Digest may have the answer. He says traditional publishers are “relying on targeted packaging and social media marketing to reach the New Adult audience in the absence of designated shelf space.” While expanding into social media marketing is smart given we live in a technological age, this apparent rationale doesn’t help readers when we walk into brick and mortar bookstores and have to scour the stacks in the hopes of discovering where novels of this genre are hidden.
         Not to mention, when you go looking for New Adult, all you find is lists of romance novels about young college students who are only interested in scandalous sexual affairs. With only the steamiest of these books being labeled New Adult fiction, it’s no wonder that readers don’t take the genre seriously. New Adult fiction isn’t meant to only give women their fill of raunchy debauchery, though, there is so much unexplored territory on the subject of early adulthood that would hit the sweet spot of the New Adult audience, yet you have to dig deep to discover such titles.
         Bestselling author Jenifer L. Armentrout said about the genre, “While universally acknowledging that the strongest subcategory of new adult is romance, many authors are itching to broaden the boundaries. For new adult to be anything other than a flash in a pan, it has to break out into different categories.” In her article, Naughten also said “Already, we are seeing romantic suspense, thrillers, and there are several upcoming paranormals and science fiction new adult novels.” Naughton’s talking about expanding past what’s next for New Adult authors and novels, with excitement for a new future for the genre with many added subgenres featured besides romance.
         What all this means is that New Adult novelists are being forced to either allow their books to be called YA (or sometimes Adult fiction), or to self-publish, which makes it awfully difficult to be a New Adult novelist. Their genre is hardly recognized off the internet, where only the trashy content is advertised, and this is a real issue. How are readers supposed to find titles under a genre that is currently being hidden or written off as a completely different one instead?
         New Adult fiction has a lot of potential to help bridge the gap between Young Adult and Adult novels and appealing to a originally designated “new adult” audience, if the publishers, authors, and prospective readers took the category seriously and not as a purely erotica based genre. There are books out in the world right now being slipped behind the latest Young Adult novel and are therefore are overlooked by the 18-25 year olds who are searching for such a topic to read. If publishers would recognize New Adult as a legitimate genre we might begin to see a rise in authors in this genre and a new collection of books for a specific and ignored age group that produces quality pieces and not just guilty pleasure erotica. This genre could bring in more readers if only it were given as much attention and marketing as the Young Adult and Adult novels and it is a shame that the publishing industry does not see that.
  • About the Author
    Olivia Augspurger is a sophomore English Creative Writing major. She is an avid reader and writer, when she can manage to find time to sit down and push past the writer’s block. Her hobbies include dancing, reading (of course), and suffering through writing the occasional brief bio.
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    Monday, May 4, 2015

    What Inspires You to Write? The Story Behind the Story

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    “The world was more than a place. Life was more than an event. It was all one thing, and that thing was: story.”-Luis Alberto Urrea  ♦ 
    As a writer, you have the ability to tell a story in your own words and use your own creativity. This individual creativity and interpretation of life is what makes writers special. For a lot of writers, it’s not the process of actually writing the story that proves to be complicated, it’s the ability to come up with a story and find something to write about. Everyone has a story and has the ability to tell a story with their words, but many face the challenge of finding something that inspires them to write or express themselves in some form. This inspiration can come from many different sources: books, dreams, conversations, news, events in your life, real people, and fantasies.
         Like anything that happens in life, there is always a story behind it. People enjoy listening to their favorite music, reading their favorite books and watching their favorite movies because of the entertainment and joy it gives them. Often times we do these things without ever taking the time to think about the story behind where it came from. These books and movies were created by a certain individual or group of individuals who had such a deep passion for something that they felt the need to create it and share it with others. But the books we read sometimes have a backstory that’s just as interesting as the story itself. What inspires these people to create the amazing work they do? This doesn’t only apply to bestselling authors or famous actors, it applies to everyone. Each artist, whether big or small, creates work from inspiration that they find in their own lives. As readers, we are lucky enough to be given the chance to have a deeper look into the thoughts and imaginations of these artists and maybe we can even find our own inspirations through theirs.
        Finding inspiration for a story is not restricted to only certain types of writers or certain genres of stories. Any type of story can come from any moment that presents itself. As many writers and readers know, the Twilight Saga is a best seller series of novels written by Stephenie Meyer. While many literary fanatics have read this fictional love story, I can bet that many don’t know about how this series originated or where Meyer got the motivation to write this series.
         Stephenie Meyer can still recall the day she began writing Twilight, because it was the first day of swim lessons for her kids. She recalls having an extremely vivid dream the night before where your average girl was talking to this beautiful vampire in a meadow in the woods about how they were falling in love, but at the same time he was also restraining himself from killing her from the scent of her blood. Meyer described the morning after saying, “I stayed in bed, thinking about the dream. I was so intrigued by the nameless couple's story that I hated the idea of forgetting it; it was the kind of dream that makes you want to call your friend and bore her with a detailed description.” From that point on, Meyer said she wrote something for the book every single day. Finding names for the characters was extremely hard for Meyer, but with some research and a little inspiration, she came up with the names. The name for the female protagonist, Bella, came from an inspired love that had grown for the character while writing the story. She named her Bella after the name she had always wanted to name her daughter that she never had. After two more years of work on the story and finding publishers, Meyer finally got the book on shelves and the rest is history. One simple dream turned into two years of hard work that paid off for Meyer, who is now a bestselling author.
         “I believe the best stories result from characters who come to me when I’m not looking for them,” said John Herrick, author of the novel, Between These Walls. In 2011, Herrick had a novel idea that came to mind about a Christian middle-school student who struggled with being gay. At that time, Herrick didn’t think he had the courage to write a story like that so he decided to save the idea but not pursue it. One year later, Herrick was watching the news one night on the television and came across the story of a 15 year old boy who was on the verge of suicide as a result of the bullying he received at school because he was gay. Herrick’s heart broke for the kid and he decided to begin Between These Walls that night. Herrick created his main character, Hunter Carlisle, and depicted him as a classic All-American male dealing with the struggles that come from when people find out you are gay. Herrick wanted to make the story relatable and help readers find commonalities with the protagonist. He hopes this novel will challenge readers and change readers’ perspectives on being gay.
         These two stories, though very different, were developed in such unique ways that they make the stories themselves even better. It’s interesting to think about the fact that a fantasy story like Twilight was inspired by a dream while the more real life story was inspired by actual events that had happened. It just shows that this inspiration for writing can come from anywhere at any time.
         As I continue to write for the rest of my life, I also will continue to look for opportunities around me that I can create into a story that can inspire someone else. Half the fun of writing a story is finding the story that I want to write about. As writers and readers, I hope you will accept the challenge to find what inspires you. Take the time to appreciate moments in your life and never take any for granted. Most importantly, find the story behind the story.
  • About the Author
    Joey Battista is a senior English: Professional Writing major and Marketing minor here at Miami. In his free time he enjoys leisurely writing and participating in intramural sports on campus. Joey spends his summers at his beach house in Maryland working and enjoying photography. Three of his photos have been published.
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    Sunday, May 3, 2015

    Don't Sleep on the Classics

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    Now that you're safe from the grueling reading activities of high school English classes, consider giving the classics another try. ♦
    Students everywhere remember it all too well. They get the reading list for an English class in high school and see a novel from a classic author.
        “A Tale of Two Cities…?” they would groan. “Why do I have to read about something so old? There is no way this is still relevant today.”
         Many students had to struggle through novels like Grapes of Wrath or To Kill a Mockingbird in their formative years. But I pose a question: Why was reading these classics of the English language such a chore for kids growing up? Perhaps the pages and pages of reading reports they had to complete or those dreaded speeches in front of the whole class where they were scared of tripping over their own tongues created an aversion to reading classic novels. Reading felt like a chore rather than a pleasure.
       I, for one, loved reading those novels. Sure, the reading responses were tedious, and I definitely didn’t love getting in front of the whole class and being forced to speak for seven to ten minutes. The history and beauty of language are what got me through presenting my findings on southern culture and situational elements in To Kill a Mockingbird, or analyzing symbolism in Les Miserables. The work was a pain. The reading was an adventure.
         It’s a shame that young readers, and particularly those nearing or still in their college years, shun the classics and stick to reading more modern or recent novels. The stories may be more directly relevant and relatable to a contemporary audience, but most lack the artistry and brilliance that make a classic novel so universally lauded. The Twilight series has sold over 120 million copies worldwide, but it is definitely not a triumph of the English language (I got through maybe fifty pages of the first book). But the series has sold that many copies for a reason. Today’s young readers can simply do better; they can learn more about the world and how it has grown and become the world of today. That being said, allow me to give a few recommendations of some classic novels that are not only considered masterpieces, but will remain glued to the reader’s hands until they are finished.
        For the casual reader, or the fallen-away reader, a collection of short stories is a great way to become engrossed in a story without the commitment of a 700-page behemoth. There is nothing quite like opening a copy of Oscar Wilde’s Short Stories and getting lost in his lyrical mastery of the written word. His style is almost sarcastic in most instances, with biting commentary on human relationships and institutions that often leave the reader thinking, “Ah-ha! I see what you did there!” His stories also often take the form of a sort of “adult fable,” making them both easy to follow and very fun to read.
        For those interested in taking on a longer piece, look outside of England and the United States and maybe delve into classics from Russian or French authors. Period pieces can provide some of the best stories out there. I am not saying to go out and buy a copy of War and Peace, even I had trouble getting all the way through that one. But The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky did not get the credit or attention it deserved in the English classroom, and despite the complexity of characters and plot, provides a great story of the social and political climate in those days in Russia. Moving on to France, Les Miserables is a classic that was recently brought back to the fore with a critically acclaimed screen adaption, but The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas are two more exciting adventures that grab the reader and make it hard to put them down.
         My last recommendation is a simple one. Go back and re-read a novel that was required in a classroom setting. Dust off that old copy of To Kill a Mockingbird or Animal Farm and read it purely for the story. Not only will the experience be much less stressful (no page count deadlines to meet by Thursday!), but also the deeper messages and symbolic elements will come back to you as you read, giving you understanding on a deeper level. Another great way to re-experience a novel is to see a movie adaption and then go read the book again. It is always fun to see what the screenwriters saw as important and what they felt was not as essential in their final cuts, and reading the book right after seeing the movie gives another layer of understanding. I did this when the most recent version of Les Miserables came out in theaters; seeing the movie in live action and then re-reading the book made the whole experience that much more meaningful, and painted a whole new picture in my head while reading.
         If I can leave you with one thought, it’s this: read everything you can, read outside your favorite genre, but also read outside your time period. Finish the newest James Patterson thriller, but maybe consider something from F. Scott Fitzgerald next. You may be surprised what you find in the pages of a classic tale. So read everything you can, but don’t sleep on the classics.
  • About the Author
    Ricky Modrzynski, 22, was born Polish-Catholic in New Jersey many years ago, but has spent the majority of his formative years south of the Mason-Dixon line. An avid hockey fan, he has played the sport since age seven and is the reigning champion of his fantasy hockey league. In his free time, he enjoys annoying his roommates with his guitar, destroying the kitchen on a daily basis, and having as much fun as possible.
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