by Elizabeth Stevens
Grub Street Poetry Editor
For me, the term “literature” is very fluid and encompassing. I consider everything from poetry to novels to even comics books as literature. For me, there is a difference between the noun “literature” and the adjective “literary.”
Literature is an umbrella term under which many different genres reside, whereas “literary” is an adjective I only apply to certain works. If I am applying this term to fiction, then one of my main criteria is that the story must be character driven, not plot driven. When something is plot driven, it normally falls under genre fiction rather than literary fiction.
However, this does not mean that all literary work is either great or contemporary. I consider a work contemporary if it was written within the last fifty years. A work becomes great when you delve into its craft. Great craft involves many moving parts which come together to form a cohesive whole. Beyond character building, craft includes a mastery of syntax, diction, and descriptive language. This holds true for both fiction and poetry. However, even if a writer is a master of craft, a work of literature doesn’t become truly great to me until it addresses some sort of fundamental truth. It does not have to be a truth that resounds with me personally, because if the author has mastered their craft, then it will evoke an emotion for me even if they are addressing something that I have not personally experienced.
In the end, it is hard for me to pin down just one definition of great contemporary literature, due to the fluidity of literature itself.
by Nathan Buckman,
Grub Street Managing Editor
Whether for creative writing or academic writing, writing in another’s voice presents difficulties in voice representation, character design (both physically and emotionally / psychologically), and a host of other dynamic aspects. Creating that authentic feel while maintaining honest character representations (I use character to mean both fictitious persons and persons in real life) introduces that quandary the writer faces, which is why we must maintain a high degree of consciousness.
Combating tendencies to stereotype is imperative if we are to represent the gamut of life.
In 2017, I attended a reading by Roxane Gay at Towson University. She discussed, among other things, her creation of World of Wakanda, a comic book series for Marvel Comics. Gay talked about how she wanted to represent these characters within the comics—how she wanted them to be real, with body types that represented authentic images (i.e., non-photoshopped / plastic surger(ied) / Botox(ed), etc.). Gay’s approach points to an architectonic perspective—that is, our characters must arc beyond the de rigueur, the unimagined, the flat representations. As writers, we should have an acute consciousness when creating / representing characters. Our characters must achieve, and by default we must achieve, a new consciousness.
Instead of relying on stereotypes, we create authentic characters through individual perspectives—characters who embody their aspirations, their fears, their flaws, their wholly realistic and wholly retainable selves.
In 2015, actress Viola Davis’ Emmy award acceptance speech spoke to a new consciousness in writing and acting, in redefining what it means to be beautiful, what it means to be a character of color. Davis’s speech spoke of breaking a line—alluding to the racial divide that Harriet Tubman spoke of when she said: “In my mind I see a line, and over that line I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line, but I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.”
One of our jobs as writers is to be conscious of the lines weaving through our creations, and if we are honestly representing life, then, these lines are weaving through our society—our cultures as well. We are social critics; we are advocates of positive change. We are line-breakers. Reform in writing leads to reform of consciousness—to the way in which we engage a diverse cast of characters.
“The only thing that separates women of color from everyone else is opportunity,” said Davis. I would add that one of the things that separates the underserved, the unprivileged, the en masse from those of the esoteric elite is opportunity. This opportunity can be bridged. Davis thanked a host of writers who broke that line, who bridged that divide between color and creed.
Writers, we are a literary bridge. We are a prism through which to see a diverse world. In our representations, we must extend beyond the trite, the stereotype, the unimagined. We must write our true selves.
by Lisa V. McCrey
Grub Street Fiction Reader
Blogger, Text Teaser Book Blog
A Professor asked her class, “Write on the white board your favorite books.” There was a rush to grab dry erase markers as the students all filed to the board to write down their favorite titles. Some were considered “the classics” that we all have read during our school careers, while others were obscure titles that not many have read or heard of. There was even some poetry written on the board. The Professor then asked her class, “Which of these would you consider literature?” Not as many people rushed to the board for this task. This required a little more thought. As I sat there analyzing the books I chose to write on the white board, I noticed that all three of the titles I listed had one thing in common, the stories reached me emotionally. As a huge fan of the fiction genre, I believe great writing should make you feel something. Whether it is anger, sadness, depression, an overwhelming sense of happiness or all of the above, an author should be able to connect with their readers on more than a surface level.
The first book I wrote on the white board that day was author Kim Holden’s The Bright Side. The story was written in such a way that I felt I was a part of the character’s lives, experiencing the same feelings, having the same thoughts.
The second book I listed on the white board was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The topics covered in this story written over 30 years ago are still prevalent and relevant today. The social tensions, marital discourse, the love of a sister and the bond between friends are all relatable topics to most people.
The third and final book I placed on the white board that day was a book of poems by Shel Silverstein titled, Where the Sidewalk Ends. Another book from my childhood that brings on feelings of overwhelming happiness. I can still remember every single line from the poem, Crocodile’s Toothache.
As I looked over my list a second time, I realized it was what the book made me feel. It made me feel 7 years old again, a time when the only thing that mattered was if my mom had bought me the My Little Pony folder I so desperately required to make it in the second grade.
This, I believe, is what makes literary fiction great. The author’s ability to write a story so well-crafted that you become engrossed in it and feel like you are a part of the story. It is what makes little boys want to be wizards like Harry Potter, and girls fall in love with men like Heathcliff. It’s what makes us laugh, cry or even throw a book across the room. It’s what makes Hollywood adapt books into movies. It’s why some books live with us forever.
by Ellen Vallonga,
Grub Street Editor-in-Chief
I believe that literature is writing that has not only aesthetic and artistic merit, but also meaning that can be felt deeply, like a crack of thunder in your core that fades to a reverberating echo that never quite dies out but rather seeps into your life, long after your eyes leave the page.
What produces felt meaning? From what I can gather, felt meaning is created when various characteristics of literature come together perfectly in a piece.
Nonliterary works can of course produce a sense of meaning in readers, but only works which are free of gimmicks (e.g. sappy writing used to invoke sympathy in readers); representative of the human experience as a whole; unique and ambitious; and relevant over time; and create felt meaning in readers through the depth and complexities that lie beneath the surface-level story – these are works of literature.
Character development, plot, themes, and so on are crucial to good literature, but I believe syntax, grammar, and word choice are often most important in producing felt meaning. The ability to string together exactly the right words is an art, and if done well, the outcome can have an impact on the reader.
This is what great literature does for us. It breaks through the fog of ordinary routine, of mundane life, and shakes us up. It trickles in through the cracks of our aloof, sarcastic façade and makes us feel something. Literature means something to us in a way, say, pop culture novels do not, even if we are not sure why. Pop culture novels leave us feeling entertained; literature should leave us feeling as though a ghost is gliding through our veins, creating chills on our skin. It should provide us with a better understanding of ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies, and our world. It should attempt to capture some aspect of our shared human experience. It should motivate us to immediate, passionate action, or render us pensive and frozen in our chair for hours – the best works do both simultaneously.
I am no expert on literature, but I have learned about literature from experts who have helped me to identify the technique, aesthetic merit, depth, and meaning in works of literature. It is an exciting task, especially if the piece is undiscovered. This is my best attempt at explaining what literature is to me. This is what I believe.
by Jess Sexton
Grub Street Managing Editor
Grub Street Design Liaison
When I was a sophomore in high school, I joined the yearbook team. I thought the class would be an easy ‘A’ and I looked forward to my rising GPA. But to my despair, on the first day of class, the advisor told us that this would be one of our most challenging courses. We had to stick to deadlines and themes, all while producing a memorable book for the entire school. The yearbook would be our baby. And our advisor was right.
We spent nine long months creating a book that captured our school’s spirit and personality. That doesn’t even include yearbook camp that we went to each summer; sounds nerdy, right? It totally was. But that’s where the book was conceived. We designed templates and narrowed down our theme. We stayed up all night writing mock-stories just to have them thrown away the next day.
But it was all worth it. Each year, our yearbook won best-in-show. We knew that if we poured ourselves into the creation of the book, we would be able to publish a masterpiece. I was on the yearbook team for three years; the two years I was a section editor, it was like a part-time job. We would stay after school every Thursday, order Old Bay cheesy fries, a soda, and a pizza from the local pizza shop and work until about nine o’clock.
After those long nights designing, writing, editing, crying, and cursing under our breaths, our baby was born. Published for the whole school to see. I was terrified. Would they like my writing? What about my photos? It didn’t matter now, the 400-page book was no longer in our hands.
There are many moments I’ll never forget. But the most memorable were from when I was complimented by my teachers who loved the stories written about their clubs or classes. I won awards for my photography. Had I actually made something that people enjoyed?
Because of moments like that, I knew I had to keep publishing. The feeling of starting an idea from scratch to having it in my hands was one of the best things I have ever experienced. I cannot wait to experience it once again with Grub Street.
by Nathan Buckman,
Grub Street Managing Editor
One of my favorite writing maxims is this: We do not write to fill a page; we write to fill an idea. With this maxim in mind, I approach literature with something akin to the reverence given holy writ, for literature’s probative exploration into the nuances of thoughts and feelings animates the depth of good literature as it gives testament to what it means to be human. For instance, I love poetry for its concision and its emotive verve. I want to feel something when I read literature, but I don’t want to be bogged down by sophomoric sentimentality.
Literature must be salient and must retain its dignity. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter pierced my soul like the stitching of the emblazed A over Hester Prynne’s breast. The tormented Claude Frollo and his Ananke (fate) in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame from the prolific Victor Hugo delved into the darkness of a man driven by his own demons. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein reverberated the cacophony of nature and science—the painfully human tale accentuated the true characteristics of a monster. These stories had gorgeous emotive vitality without succumbing to sentimentality.
Stories have fascinated me throughout childhood, and now, in adulthood, I study them and their effect, their mechanical structure and poetic cadence—and the rhetoric of language. I read voraciously as a child. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer filled my aspiring mind; Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain taught me the connection to nature and the need to nurture wonder; Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond and The Sign of the Beaver gave me an identity. Literature does that—gives an identity to the reader.
Like David Balfour in Kidnapped and Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island from the auspicious Robert Louise Stevenson, I want literature to breathe in that exuberant adventure of life. James Baldwin, a Harlem Renaissance writer, says: “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” Words have meaning and can elevate a person’s soul to the peaks of the Himalayas or can descend that soul to the cavernous heart of the mountain. In that pursuit, there is no nobler an Ananke than reaching for the green light in the distance (reaching as Gatsby did in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby). Through (L)iterature, I reach.
by Megan Clark,
Grub Street Marketing & Publicity Director
Grub Street Poetry Team Member
The first time I was published, I was 12 years old. Sounds ridiculous, I know. It was my middle school's yearly literary journal that highlighted student work, chosen by teachers at the school. The fact that my seventh-grade language arts teacher chose MY short story to be printed in the magazine along with the yearbook inspired me. I felt so important and appreciated. I felt on top of the world.
It sounds so lame but it's true. I ran home from the bus stop to show my mom on the last day of school. The story was from an assignment that Mrs. Colgan gave us. Rewrite a classic nursery rhyme or fairy tale. Seems simple enough but I was stuck between ideas.
I ended up going with “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” I wrote about a boy who found a fallen star. The star didn't know how to get back up in the sky, so the boy found a new job for him; to live inside the broken traffic light on his street corner.
It was a pretty cute story, if I do say so myself.
I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer. No longer did I hope to be a veterinarian, a computer scientist, or professional basketball player. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to tell people stories and make them feel something.
I had a poem published in the magazine as well. It was about my dog, Charlie, who had just passed away. He was the family dog and my father took it the hardest. I had written a poem as a free-write in class about Charlie’s life from beginning to end, and it made my dad cry.
I wanted to do it again. Not make my dad cry, but make someone feel something that moved them in that kind of way. Whether it was laughter, sadness, or comfort, I yearned to recreate that moment.
Since then, I’ve been published small scale a few times: The Odyssey, school literary magazines, and the local online newspaper. Each time is a rush that I never want to stop experiencing.
To be a soldier, must maintain composure at ease
Though life is complicated, only what you make it to be.
–Tupac Shakur, “My Ambitionz Az a Ridah.”
Music colors the world we live in, at least for me. Many times I was able to find strength and empowerment through my favorite artists and songs. To introduce myself, I must introduce Hip-Hop first. Hip-Hop music has negative and positive aspects, as do most artistic genres. The evolution of this genre has showed the power of words as many songs have had the power to both divide cultures and unite races. Just as literature can be controversial, music can be as well. Artists connect to their listeners through their beats and lyricism. Many times the purpose is to show fans that regardless of what someone goes through, success is always attainable.
Tupac Shakur revolutionized music when he began educating his fans through his lyrics and words. Being an artist in the 90s, Tupac said many things that other artists were afraid to say. His words have spoken to me and many others of what it means to be an educated person of color. His lyrics, along with those of several other rappers, were the first English lessons I learned. I explored wordplay, puns, similes, metaphors, character development, and more through the intricate and purposeful use of language in my favorite songs. Tupac showed me the power of words, which gave me the love that I have for writing. Just how music has saved some rappers, writing has saved me and has inspired my ambitionz az a writer.
My entire life I attended predominantly white institutions for my schooling. It never got easy. My friends were different; they were more privileged, they got along better with the teachers, and they were white. I grew up trying to ignore where I came from in order to feel that I had a place in the crowd. Yet every time, for some reason, I was always ten steps behind. So eventually I gave up. It’s exhausting pretending to be someone you are not and it’s depressing to turn your back on your heritage. With so much confusion in my head, what did I have left to do? I did the only thing that felt right in my heart, I listened to music. The lyrics became my safe haven and the artists became my friends. I listen to Rap and Hip-Hop because I feel exultant from the intellectual words coming from people who society wishes would fail. Exemplary people that prove it is possible to make it on your own. The way these artists deal with their everyday struggles is what I dream of being able to do.
The faith that artists place in their words and skills of lyricism has saved them from repeating cycles of poverty or of a painful life, as well as, saved their fans. I was weary about majoring in English because I thought that I would always be undermined for being a Latina attempting to make a career out of her second language. Yet, now I understand that this is what sets me apart from the many writers already existing in the world. I have a story of triumph to share, and I have a responsibility to reach the youth of my culture. Like Tupac said, I might not change the world, “but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will.”
Grub Street Poetry Team Member
Poetry is an art form that everyone can read, but all may not understand it right away. The way in which poetry is phrased, constructed, and handled is different from the ways writers will create and mold their stories. This isn’t to say that poetry is an isolated art form to a select group, but instead is something that can be looked upon and interpreted in a multitude of ways. Such an aspect creates an open door for anyone wanting to step into the world of poetry and get a better understanding from either the reader's point of view, the poet's point of view, or both perspectives. The first step into the world of poetry is to understand the type, the style, of poetry that speaks the most to them.
There is no set length on how long, or how short, a poem needs to be. The length can determine the style a person would be interested in. Now, I won’t be covering every single type of poem, but I will be covering some of the well-known types that will cover different lengths and styles. For those who enjoy short pieces, a haiku would be a nice place to start. A haiku is typically three lines that follow a format of 5-7-5 for the syllables of the words that are used. With such a length it is easy to read right through them, but they can also offer insight even at such a length. When looking for longer pieces, sonnets and dramatic monologues are some examples of mid-length poems. While sonnets follow a fourteen-line rhyming scheme, a dramatic monologue is written in first person and has the poet take on a person, or role, that is not them. Poems like these, and of similar length, offer a greater depth of the world through a variety of lenses. The depth sometimes even dips into the world of the “other,” those who are not us, which offer things we as readers and/or poets may have never imagined. Lastly, if you’re looking for a story, but still in the realms of poetry, the concept of epics and mock epics is where you will feel comfortable. Epics tell the story of hero’s and their adventures while mock epics tell stories of comedy, and they are written in great lengths with such examples as Beowulf as an epic or Don Juan as a mock epic. Poetry comes in all shapes and sizes, and once a reader or poet finds what they enjoy then it comes down to word choice and how they wish to use it.
Wordplay, in my opinion, is the part of poetry that makes it fun. Poetry relies on more than just the structure of the words, but also how they are used and sounds. A previous type of poetry that was mentioned, a sonnet, is a good example of how the wordplay of a piece is going to sound. Rhyming, a repetition of similar or same sounds, is considered pleasing to some poets/readers, which furthers along the refinement of what type of poetry they are interested in. Poetry isn’t just about how it is written, but also how it is read out loud which is why some will enjoy the rhythmic patterns that particular poems will offer. The other style of wordplay that I have previously mentioned, when describing haiku’s, is when the wordplay is based on the syllables of the words being used. At times poets will use certain phrases within their works that when read over may appear “off” or “unexpected” because there are different variations that could have been used, but there is a reason for it. One reason could be that the poet had wished to imply multiple meanings because of how they worded their piece, and another reason would be that the piece is following a pattern, similar to rhyming poems, that is based more on the syllables of words and not if they sound similar. Wordplay is the second main aspect of poetry, besides the style that they come in, and they are used to help poets/readers find their comfort zone within the realm of poetry; however, sometimes even with these two aspects at their disposal the answer isn’t always clear. There is one part of poetry that I have yet to talk about; free verse.
What happens when a poet can’t decide what style they wish to write in? How they want to handle their wordplay? This is where free verse comes into play. Free verse has no limit; hence the “free” in free verse. There is no set length or style that a poet has to follow when it comes to free verse. This type of poetry offers a gateway to a vast land for the imagination for the poet, which in turn offers much to the reader. In my opinion, free verse is where I think a beginning poet should begin with their work. No need to set up barriers and restrictions at the beginning of their poetry career whether it be as an actual career or a means of entertainment.
From my own experiences, I started out in free verse and often remain as a free verse poet. After a while the structure of the poem flowed naturally. It has become as easy as breathing for me. Sometimes, when writing, the poem will take on a style or a certain variation of wordplay that is well-known. Other times I enjoy a challenge and will attempt to write a few pieces in a certain style. Its relieving and a means to express things even when the words don’t always make sense, but that is the best part of poetry. Poetry is an art form, a craft, that will take on many forms and variations becoming a means of entering a world of unlimited possibilities with the ability to express oneself however they wish. As for the reader, reading poetry brings about a new world of the unknown. Each piece could be filled with one meaning, multiple meanings, or even no meaning but instead is just a stream of thought from the poet. Poetry is a wonderful art form that everyone should get into whether it be reading it, writing it, or both.
Christopher J. Enos
Grub Street Poetry Team Member
Image Source: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/the-magnetic-heart-1252781
Before I left England for America, I remember one of my teachers informing me that ‘I’d be in for a culture shock.’ At the time, I disregarded it--How? I had thought, when we speak the same language? Oh, how naïve I was. Aside from being constantly asked to repeat myself or that 80% of Americans seem to assume that being from England means you’re from London, we are more at odds with each other than I initially thought. In the 10 months that I’ve lived here I’ve been asked if I’ve had tea with the Queen, whether black people exist in England, and if people in the UK play quidditch like Harry Potter. To make matters worse, that has been the least stressful part of it all as it is the differences between our language that tops it.
I feel there is only one man to blame for that, and that is America’s very own Noah Webster. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t admire his effort towards making America lexically unparalleled to Britain, but I could’ve avoided many awkward encounters if he hadn’t. Five weeks ago, during a class for Grub Street, I asked for a rubber to correct an error I had made whilst copyediting. I imagine the look I was given after asking this was the same Einstein may have received when he first mentioned his theory of relativity. After several moments of awkward staring, I realised I hadn’t used my American tongue and corrected myself by asking for an eraser. It turned out the odd look was given because he thought by asking for a rubber, I was implying a condom.
In fact, there have been several circumstances that have forced me to feel like E.T. reincarnated or a stand-up comedian. I remember telling some friends in a film studies group that eggplant in America is known as aubergine in England. One of them found it that hilarious, he shed real tears whilst laughing and renamed our group chat aubergine is better than eggplant. Then there are the words that possess entirely different meanings, but are spelt the same. The most common one that comes to mind is pants, which in American English signifies a piece of clothing that covers each leg, but in British English is associated with underwear. The misunderstandings I have encountered over trying to comprehend the context within the way words, like pants, are being used has been endless as the case of this extends to other everyday words such as football, biscuit, jumper, trainer, and chips.
So here I am, in an American editing class with my British lexicon, where a full-stop is called a period, colour is spelt color, and even the size of paper is no longer A4. Whilst I love being part of such a great and rewarding project, it has most definitely been challenging. I don’t consider myself a master of British English as it is, so to copyedit American English when I already have much to learn about my own language has been a head-spin. However, this has caused me to acknowledge the differences between the two. The first being that in British English we tend to use a plural verb after a collective noun whereas American English prefers to use the singular. So in Britain it is more common to state: “The government are withholding information.” Whereas in American English it is more likely for the are to be replaced with is, especially when referring to a group of people.
There is also the matter of tense. In British English, when an action in the past is having a direct effect on the present we prefer to use the present perfect tense: “Have I already asked you that?” In America, the past simple tense is used more often, so the sentence would appear as: “Did I already ask you that?” Similar differences also transpire in the present simple form of have and have got, in which the latter is used more often in British English, for example, “I’ve got to take my brother to the dentist” versus the more American, “I have to take my brother to the dentist.” It was cases like this that made my editing experience a little more frustrating as I found myself either resisting the need to rectify something because it didn’t appeal to my British lexis, or questioning the basis of what I thought may be an error because I was British. I even learnt (which would more commonly be spelt learned in America) that the way in which we use prepositions differ. For instance, when referring to periods of time, the word through is used more often in American English: “I work Monday through Friday” but the words to or till are more likely to be used in British English: “I work Monday to Friday.”
Though there are many other dissimilarities, there is no need to go on and on in attempts to identify every distinction as the point has now been made. Today, I like to consider British English and American English to be a lot like tea and coffee—both are present and known in each other’s worlds, but one is favoured and given more privilege over the other.
Grub Street Fiction Team Member
Image Source: https://pixabay.com/en/cream-puff-tea-cream-puff-pastry-1829525/
The image above is "Flight" by Gillian Collins.