Monthly Archives: October 2014

Man Booker Prize

A good portion of my close friends have been to different countries—whether on mission trips, study abroad, or vacations. The farthest I’ve been out of the country is the very edge of Canada, where the most memorable event was seeing an albino goat. My roommate likes to push me to study abroad—to change my life, see the world, etc.—but time and money make this nearly impossible. So I turn to books.

The 2014 Man Booker prize was just awarded this past week, and it’s made me long to travel the world again. The novel that won was entitled The Narrow Road to the Deep North and was written by Richard Flanagan. Flanagan, an Australian from Tasmania, emerged the winner out of 156 total entries. This scenario might not seem like much, but the rules of the Man Booker prize were changed this year to allow any author who writes in English to enter into the competition. Sarah Churchwell, a judge for the award, wrote an entire article dedicated to the process of choosing a winning novel. She addresses the change of rules, and says this of it: “I have always thought nationality a strange eligibility requirement for literary prizes: readers don’t care what passport an author holds. That’s literature’s entire point: it lets us traverse boundaries.” I can’t imagine why someone wouldn’t want to read a novel by a non-American, but maybe that’s just because I have always been intrigued by other cultures (I used to devour those gold-covered journals written by fictional, historical young girls). I loved being transported to another world through literature—a place that was different than my cornfield backyard.

In his acceptance speech, Richard Flanagan addressed his view of the novel: “They are one of our greatest spiritual, aesthetic and intellectual inventions. As a species it is story that distinguishes us, and one of the supreme expressions of story is the novel. Novels are not content. Nor are they are a mirror to life or an explanation of life or a guide to life. Novels are life, or they are nothing.” Of course, there’s all sorts of theoretical debates about whether or not life is reflected in novels or novels are a reflection of life, but the point of the matter is that literature allows us to reflect on our lives, the lives of others, and how those two intertwine. A.C. Grayling, the chair of the judges for the Man Booker prize, stated in a Washington Post article that Flanagan’s novel “bridges East and West, past and present, with a story of guilt and heroism.” His story brings together different generations, geographies, and feelings in “prose of extraordinary elegance and force.” Yes, the novel is obviously well written, but it also unites different cultures and beliefs and locations in one chunk of printed paper. Novels give people the opportunity to travel the world in the comfort of their own home. That sounds like a Kindle ad, but speaking from personal experience, it’s true.

Maybe that’s the whole purpose of the Man Booker prize—to bring together 156 authors who can unite an entire world through their works. I can’t personally vouch for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but I trust that the judges picked a novel that will influence the world and allow me to travel through time and space.

–Hannah Osborne

Pygmalion Literary Festival

I have heard The Pygmalion Literary Festival in Champaign, IL referred to as a mini-AWP. I’ve never attended AWP, although I understand it to be simultaneously soul-crushing and inspiring. To me, Pygmalion was mostly inspiring, and it was also a needed break from Charleston and the grad school grind.

The festival occurs each fall and was originally a music festival before the literary geek-out was added on. It regularly features musical groups on the cusp of some serious national recognition (on Saturday, Chvrches and Tycho played on the main stage). It’s the type of scene that might allow a future, balding, half-deaf English graduate assistant the opportunity to tell a room full of doe-eyed first-year students he saw (insert indie-artist name) “before they got big.”

Prior to Pygmalion, I’d never attended a book fair that was more than hundreds of paperbacks stuffed into my elementary school cafeteria, the PTA mothers waiting for me to slip a copy of Sports Illustrated into my backpack. (I put that shit up my sleeves. They never caught me.) As I sat at the Esquire Lounge in Champaign and harassed passersby until they purchased a copy of Bluestem, I learned a thing or two about how to navigate the loquacious waters of a literary book festival. I am here to impart my knowledge.

First and foremost, stay late. The writers and editors hawking magazines and novels had to lug those magazines and novels, usually in a beat-up suit case, from their apartments/offices to whatever bar/bookstore is hosting the festival. They then spend several hours engaging in the serious human-to-human interaction of sales, which is a total drag for (the many) writers who got into literature in the first place because they hate people. After all of that anthropoid interface, the idea of dragging those unsold magazines back to the dark from which they came often proves too much for the hawkers. Instead, they start slashing prices and doing two-for-one deals. I saw a writer throw in a lock of her own hair in order to seal a deal. If you stay late at a literary festival, you’re going to score some words on the cheap.

Even if social situations grate against every fiber in your being, walk around and shake some hands. These are the men and women who do the often unheralded work of keeping our literary community running. They’re also the people who’ve been reading your work, and if you’re like me, they’ve been sending you rejection emails. It’s nice to put a human face to the anguish.

While you’re walking around shaking hands, take a good hard look at the authors sitting at the tables designated for small presses. These authors are selling their own novels and short story collections at a bar, which is the literary equivalent of musicians pushing CD’s out of car trunks. It’s the real deal. Watch these people, because they are making an honest go of being a writer in a publishing world that has capitalism’s brutal hand gripping its throat. They are literature’s last remnant. They are also very pleasant company, and not just because they want to sell their book. Writers love talking about writing and reading, and a book fair presents an excellent place for those conversations.

And, oh yeah, you should go ahead and buy some magazines and books. You’ll be supporting good work and good people. You’ll be fighting the man. I suggest treating it like a Friday night at the bars. Visit an ATM beforehand and leave your credit card at home. Or, bring your credit card and watch literature people rue the day modern technology was born as they attempt to work a Square.

–Sean Towey

Judging Books By Their Covers

Maybe it’s cliché to start off a blog post with a cliché, but here we go: You can’t judge a book by its cover. My mom used to say this phrase to me to discourage my judgmental attitude towards people, and professors cajole you with it when the cover is from the 1970s and less than appealing. Let’s be real, though—we all judge books by their covers.

When I’m browsing the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, Colorado on vacation, I won’t even read the synopsis on the back if the cover is too busy, too provocative, too outdated. If you handed me two copies of the exact same book, I would pick the pretty one, superficial as it is. Don’t even deny it—you’d do the same.

It’s human nature, I suppose, to drift towards objects we find visually appealing. We even do this to people—you marry someone you find attractive. And while “it’s what’s on the inside that counts,” what can a book cover really say about a novel or collection?

Kyle Vanhemert’s blog post on Wired tackles this question. His post revolves around Peter Mendelsund, an acclaimed cover artist who has designed artwork for old and new novels alike. But, as Vanhemert states, designing a cover isn’t just about design aesthetic: “It starts with understanding.” Mendelsund must understand the intricacies and, as he puts it, the “metaphoric weight of the entire book.” The cover must be appealing to potential readers, but it also has to reflect the core of the novel.

In the blog, Vanhemert quotes Mendelsund as saying, “It’s very tempting to read a book only for visual cues when you’re a jacket designer… ‘Oh, her hair is blond, and it’s a cold climate, and they live on a hill.’ That’s just really treacherous. Because if you read that way, you’ll miss the point of the book. And almost never are those kind of details the point of the book.” It is easy to fall into the trap of picking out an obvious image to try and encompass the book, but Mendelsund’s cover for Kafka’s Metamorphosis “quietly suggests some of the story’s major themes—perception, identity, vision” all within two images on the cover of a story.

It would be interesting to track the covers of a novel throughout history and see how it reflects the art of the time of publication. Modern covers tend to be simple and clean, while a cover from the 1980s might be brighter and more intricate. The cover can also reflect the view society has had of the book throughout the years. Take The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, for example. In a blog post on The Lesbrary, the author includes pictures of the cover for the novel throughout the years, showing the progression of society’s views of lesbian relationships through the cover art. Just looking at the covers is fascinating, and it’s thought provoking to study the covers and track the changes that are made throughout history.

In addition to looking at the different covers that have appeared for a single novel over the years, it’s also interesting to take a look at “gendered” covers. Maureen Johnson sent out a challenge to her Twitter followers to create new covers for books as though the author was of the opposite gender. The results were eye-opening and are summarized in this Huffington Post article. The “girl” covers are soft, glowing, and airy, while the “boy” covers are sharper, edgier, and bolder. The point of her challenge was to show that the cover truly does impact who reads a book—whether it’s targeted towards males or females.

Examining book covers is an art in itself. With so much though that goes into them, maybe it’s okay to judge a book by its cover after all—just make sure you’ve read the book first.

—Hannah Osborne

Writing is Healthy

Have you ever written something and wondered who cares? You know, that piece you struggled to write—you cried over it, lost sleep over it, and lost your temper over it, and it doesn’t seem to be doing anything but sitting in your computer. You even start to wonder if you care about it; somehow, it has evolved from relief to frustration. You’re finding dead ends instead of solace in the writing process.

I can’t help but wonder what all this writing and reading is going to do for me later on in life. After all, writing isn’t easy. Michelle Huneven gives nine reasons why writing is a rough process. She says, “Writing itself is a series of problems to be solved, problems that constitute the hard work of writing and being a writer. Sometimes you can be surgical and rational in solving various difficulties, but it is the peculiar distinction of writing and much of the creative life that the inherent difficulties of writing have a propensity to become internally, personally disturbing and confusing, agitating, and otherwise psychologically problematic.” Writing is never easy, and it’s not something that is easily fixed, either. So why dedicate our lives to writing? Because writing provides a kind of gratification we can’t find anywhere else. Yes, it’s difficult, stressful, and frustrating, but it makes you express your feelings and struggles. It’s not an exact science—there’s no right formula you can plug words into to reveal a perfect story, and sometimes that’s infuriating. Isn’t that the beauty of writing, though? We can make it whatever we want because there’s no right answer.

The fact that writing doesn’t have to be like a color-by-number doesn’t make it any easier to write or let others read and critique. Rereading my own work is embarrassing at times—it’s like reopening a fresh wound or looking inside my heart from the outside. It’s even harder to send it out to get feedback from people I’ve never met. And even if I receive some negative feedback, my writing is still affecting people in some way. It’s making them think and wonder and question and grow. My writing matters to others and to myself.

New studies are even suggesting that writing can actually reduce stress and heal your body, as cited in an article by Rachel Grate. This stems from writing’s ability to force you to face problems head-on and address them in a forceful way. The mental benefits are particularly striking. Even as only a budding writer, writing allows you to vocalize feelings, questions, and ponderings that cannot be addressed anywhere else except in written word. That stress relief is reason enough to become a writer.

Writing betters your health and helps you express problems, so even if you don’t write to pay your rent, it has benefits. Maybe I’ll start telling people I’m a writer because it’s good for my health.