I grew up in a library. My mom worked behind the scenes while I sat among stacks of books all day, devouring story after story. The heaviest reading I’ve done in my life was during these days of sunny childhood and nonexistent homework. I grew up on adventure, on dragons and lady knights and magic and courage, mostly in the form of juvenile fiction.
When I eventually made the move to young adult books, I began to find it harder and harder to pull a random book out of the shelves and want to sit down and read it straight through in a night, and it wasn’t until recently that I realized why.
An overwhelming number of YA books revolve around idealized relationships, probably because that’s what sells. Romance has its place, of course - it’s fun to read! This isn’t, in itself, a bad thing. The real issue is that these books are not marketed as romances, yet tie their characters’ happiness and fulfillment to these frequently toxic or codependent relationships, not to their own individual growth throughout the story. Their genre is labeled “science fiction” or “fantasy,” not “romance set on the high seas masquerading as an adventure novel.” More often than not, I find books (not marked as romances!) that would be virtually plotless were it not for the relationships they chronicle. You too can be enraged at the system! You can tell when you’ve found a story like this pretty easily - the action will find its resolution when the main character achieves the seemingly secondary goal of defining a relationship with the brooding hottie they embarked on their journey with (bonus points if the main character hated them for the first twenty pages, then realized their eyes sparkled a certain way in the firelight and there will never, ever be another for them). Most of the time, this pervasive “subplot” ends up taking away from the independence of female main characters - on whom most of these hidden romances are centered - by validating them only with the love of another.
This trend is not the fault of any one book or author, but the industry echochamber as a whole. Romance is a hook. But romance is also a genre - a valid one! - that is currently missing quite a few books that I’d argue have been mistaken for more plot-based publications. From where I stand now, it’s obvious that the books I read when I was an unknowing YA reader shaped my perspective on relationships for many years, and I still struggle with unrealistic expectations about what a relationship should mean to me. I was sure that finding the “perfect” relationship would grant me the happiness and self-actualization I’d seen through the eyes of so many of my favorite YA characters. I compromised my self-worth and core values constantly, not realizing that perhaps my understanding of the world was a subconscious reflection of what was probably the biggest deception of my childhood. When I thought I was reading about a girl trying to solve deadly mysteries, I was unknowingly consuming these underlying messages that would stick with me for a long, long time. I am not alone in this. When a society consumes such media to the depth and breadth that our society does, these patterns of idealizing relationships are consistently reflected in our cultural reality.
There is something so valuable about a story that empowers its main characters to succeed, regardless of their relationship status, and that’s why I’ve found myself coming back to J-FIC after all these years - stories that can be dark and fantastic without forcing their heroes into love for the purpose of ratings. I promise I’m not a cynic - I’ve just learned that relationships aren’t everything and, frankly, I think it’s a little tragic it took me 19 years to do it.
Written by Kristen H.
When I first signed up for the English department's survey class, ENGL 200, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Having joined the class late due to scheduling issues, I quickly asked the person sitting next to me if she had the syllabus and after she emailed it to me, scanned over the topics of the course. Okay, structure and space, that sounds pretty familiar. Cool lineation, hot lineation, hot and cold syntax…wait, what?
That day, my professor described poems as mediums dependent on their context—the same poem would read differently as pixels on a computer screen than as squiggles on a page. Each poem also had a particular energy and frequency based on the amount of space it physically took up and the arrangement of words and phrases.
Fast-forward a couple of weeks, and I had learned hot/cool lineation (whether the lines are lined up vs. irregularity in line length) and hot/cold syntax (using main clauses vs. using subordinate clauses, which have lower “energy” than main clauses), among other various literary techniques (such as hot/cold rhyme). Our first paper was coming up, and my professor had defined his expectations for it: three pages, no thesis, and absolutely no analyzing of meaning.
That weekend, I sat in front of my laptop, thinking. How did he expect us to write this paper without veering into analysis? A few days later, I (reluctantly) turned in my essay. When I got it back, my professor had commented: This is a great start although you’re reading too much into what you’re seeing. See accurately first, then we can talk about interpreting.
After reading his comment, I had plenty of questions. What did his comment mean? How was I not seeing the poem accurately? How could I improve? The next class, he cautioned us against trying to force meaning out of poetry—his reasoning was that we can’t know what to write until we know what’s going on in the poem. Rather than interpret the meaning of the poem, we need to talk about the effect of the poem on the space around it (for example, does the hot lineation make you feel cramped or claustrophobic?).
Heeding his advice, I reread my first paper, realizing that most of my paper consisted of analysis (out of habit, some still snuck its way in). I didn’t spend enough time viewing the poem (as my professor termed it) as squiggles on a page, and so my discussion of the poem itself was lacking. Having identified where I had gone wrong, I felt a sense of relief.
Even now, I walk into class not quite knowing what to expect. But I finally understand that analysis is not all that English is made up of. There are plenty of nuances to a text that can be discussed without ever delving into its meaning, and to me, that's fascinating.
Written by Evelyn S. ('20)
I’ll admit it. Even though I’m an English major, I can’t get myself to write. I can’t even remember the last time I wrote something for myself outside of school. So this list is actually pretty hypocritical but I’m going to roll with it.
1. Writing is as much a battle of getting yourself to the gym (if you’re like my lazy ass); a good schedule and persistence is key.
2. Free-write while listening to music or viewing art! It’s interesting how art in other mediums can inspire memorable pieces of writing.
3. Pick a peculiar occurrence in your day and construct a story on it. Or write on how it reflects Marx's theory of our recursively hegemonic exploitation of the non-ruling class (like most college students).
4. Take a walk. Like Thoreau said, nature is the mother of inspiration.
5. Extrapolate on a dream~ Dreams are weird. Weird makes for good writing.
6. Change locations. Maybe your desk has had all the creative energy pounded out of it. A change of place and mood may be conducive to new ideas.
Writing can range from creative writing to intellectual essays to passionate polemics against the social system. In any case, once you start, it'll be easier to get into the habit of regular writing. You just need to write that first word!
Written by Jennifer F.
I’ve long been fascinated with the Zeitgeist, particularly how greater artistic and political movements affect and are affected by schools of writers. I am interested to see the literary community’s reaction (although that word might be too direct, acute) to the unreality subscribed to by so many Americans; a deluge of delusions, levied only by free press and vigilant truth-seeking, seeps through the cracks of the Oval Office on a daily basis. I’m picturing Steve Bannon at the base of the Hoover Dam, the hilt of his pickaxe brandished with a capital B, and the barrier that bridles those bigoted, nationalistic, hegemonic impulses—those that we hold, at arm’s length and with head turned, to be self-evident in the depths of American consciousness—begins to crack.
In my high school’s survey of American Literature (aka White Male Literature from the United States) we read Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Miller, Pound, and Eliot; and, in a loose pairing with our American History course we learned about World War I, stream-of-consciousness, abstract art, recapitulation, prohibition, the decadence of the 1920’s…all of the historical and theoretical phenomena that shaped their work. It was during my freshman year of college that I took my first steps on that well-tread path to the Beat Generation. Yes, I do have a dog-eared copy of On The Road, and no, I do not idolize the Beats or pretentiously listen to jazz while sipping pour-over coffee and planning a road trip funded by some distant great aunt’s estate. But, I recommend the novel to anyone worried about what to do with their life (i.e. a freshman not sure what to major in, or a senior not sure where or how to get a ‘real’ job) for lines like these: “I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop.” Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar has a similar passage, the one about the fig tree—but, here, I’ll digress from my inner tempest…those inimical cyclonal forces of Senioritis and pre-post-graduation malaise…in order to return to my ‘real’ subject: the fin de siècle and the French Symbolists (Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Baudelaire.)
While I have owned a collection of Rimbaud’s poetry since my Beat-Generation days, I had not actually worked through any of it until a few weeks ago. I was writing an essay on Wallace Stevens’ use of synesthesia. Some of you might be familiar with the term on a psychopathological level, but the French Symbolist poets assigned literary and theoretical valences to the term almost as soon as it had been coined by psychoanalysts. In medicine the term describes the phenomenon of experiencing a sensation in one part or system of the body produced by stimulus to a different part or system of the body. For example, someone listening to Brahms might see colors; an auditory stimulus eliciting a visual response. However, in literature, synesthesia applies mostly to metaphors and descriptive language. The French Symbolists used the term to describe the affective sensation of descriptions that cross-reference and entangle the natural order of the senses. I turn to scholar Lauren Silvers from the University of Chicago, who frames an explanation of synesthesia from the psychoanalyst Théodore Flournoy: “Flournoy understood that synesthesia was not just the result of psychophysiological ‘association’ induced by certain classes of stimuli (such as numbers and words); rather, more fundamentally, the experience of synesthesia pointed to the physiological holism of the body: ‘First of all, from the physiological point of view, each of us is a model republic in which all parts are interconnected, and in which ‘everything touches everything else.’”
Consider some of these great sentences:
From A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway:
“In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.”
This is a beautiful sentence, although self-contradictory. If the pebbles and boulders are submerged in the river, then how can they be dry and white in the sun? The visual stimulus of the pebbles and boulders in the river evoke a sense of dryness in the tactile senses.
From As I Lay Dying, Faulkner:
“My mother is a fish.”
Clearly his mother is not a fish, but the phrase not only clues us in on the logic operating inside Vardaman’s head, it also conjures the smell of a decaying body.
And because I am vain, I will leave on a quote of mine that I found while researching for this article:
“Like the conch shell echoing the rush of blood within the ear, the senses submerge the immensity of the ocean.”
The crossing of senses requires abstraction to understand, and contrary to the beliefs of Romantic poets abstractions can offer complex representations of truth beyond the capabilities of the natural world.
Silvers quotes Guy de Maupassant from his recollection of experiencing synesthesia in the works of Baudelaire: “I asked myself how a modernist poet, from the symbolist school, would have rendered the confused nervous vibration that had just seized me, and that which seemed to me—to be frank—untranslatable.” I believe that all of us who write strive to achieve the affect that Maupassant describes.
I also believe that it is time that we as a literary community re-claim the unreality that has infected our political discourse. A faction of the current conservative has applied the principles of synesthesia in their creation of the mythic “Great America”—you’d be hard pressed to get an exact answer as to when and what the “Great America” was. History is always alive, always under revision; history is a narrative that shapes the present while reconfiguring itself to forge the future. This narrative of a lost “Great America” has captivated millions of Americans, and understanding their attraction to this myth is essential in the effort to combat its more destructive connotations. Consider the Alt Right’s misinformation, conspiratorial beliefs, and dismissal of measurable facts; these falsehoods only deepen the affective response of their constituents…much like how synesthesia can affect a reader. They’re telling a story, and we have to tell a better one. We have to reveal that their ideology was borne from a misstatement (possibly a joke) made by high school English teachers everywhere: that there is no “capital T” Truth. We have to demonstrate the power of subjectivity through storytelling, and re-assert the authority of objectivity. When there is video evidence that proves President Trump is lying, you can’t weasel out of it with an excuse about ‘what he really meant.’ When statistics, gathered in a reasonable manner, show something to be true, then one should not spread contrary information. The distortion of objectivity in politics results in “Alternative Facts,” but the distortion created by representations of subjectivity in literature has a different effect. Because literature relies on distortion, and often it is the shading of a subject’s lens that can reveal human-truths mired in ideology, political predilection, and bigotry. Human-truths are the things that we know through feeling: ideas of morality and social justice, and how shitty President Trump’s tailor is. “Capital T” truths are things like statistics on climate change, statistics on crime and immigration, the number of murders committed by refugees. Those are things that we cannot, and should not alter, because they undermine the credibility of the collective story we are telling. This story belongs to all of us, and we must fight for it. It is the story of America.
Written by Caleb S.
About a year ago, I gave into the geekiest of geeky daydreams, becoming the Dungeon Master of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with my friends. I know, I know - you’re already cringing. Why am I writing about my weekly nerd-session of pretending to be fantasy characters and rolling dice? Well, because as the leader of the session, I’ve had to learn quite a bit about the original form of storytelling: oral storytelling.
There’s been a huge surge in types and forms of oral storytelling over recent years, but I just wanted to bring up a few. Games like Dungeons & Dragons (Tabletop Role-Playing Games is the categorical titles) requires its players to form the story as their playing, partially assisted by some props around the table, but mostly through a collaborative engagement with the imaginary. As the Game Master, it’s my job to bring my players into a space that exists in my head and allow them to navigate the world and people in it as seamlessly as possible. This is a challenge enough when you’re writing, and you have time to put tape on the holes and put up some lights in the dark hallways for the reader, but I’ve found it incredibly difficult and revealing to have to give complicated details on setting and occurrences while speaking. However, as a result, I am now better able to come back to my writing and elaborate more precisely on the details of written spaces, and I understand real dialogue and interactions now, and I can see into parts of literature that I previously found relatively obscure.
Now, I’m not saying that to be a better writer, you necessarily have to role dice around some figurines for a few hours (although it’s crazy fun to do so), but I would recommend trying out oral storytelling of any form. Other examples? Podcasts and some YouTube videos fall into the category of oral storytelling, where the audience members have to interact just with the voices of other people and a few visual props if needed. It becomes a completely different experience to have to convey things out loud, and I would recommend it as a sort of taste that can build your improvisational and detail-oriented palates. It’s as simple as telling a ghost story or a really elaborate joke – but the form is different, and difference will teach you more about storytelling in general, no matter what your success may be.
Written by Erika S.
For a field so focused on humans and human connection, the Humanities can be a surprisingly isolating path. Your chosen course of study requires a lot of silent reading and reflection, which (unfortunately) is not always a community activity. Our STEM buddies form study groups and meet up with their lab partners. They have the fires of late-night problem sets to forge their friendships. What’s a Huma major to do?
Fear not! Though they may sometimes seem like a rare breed on Rice's campus, I am here to tell you that Humanities majors are all around you. They may be researching in Fondren or writing in Coffeehouse. With the proper strategy, you can lure them out of their favorite reading spot.
Whether you’re hoping to form a writing group or just make a new friend, here are some things to try:
Written by Megan G.
The Secret Life of a Baby Literature Scholar
Here are three absurd places I’ve found myself in the past 48 hours.
I don’t think it’s an easy thing to express the absurd places one ends up when really committing oneself to the study of literature or the humanities in general. Regardless of discipline – English is my true love, but this pretty much applies to everything that once stirred with human inspiration and breath – we are all going to end up talking about Big Issues. This was not something I really understood I’d signed up for until quite recently, I guess, when I was hard at work on my latest novel-project and wanted to show my work to a few people. When you’re writing a novel, people are interested in asking a single question – What’s it about? At
“What’s it about?” is the question someone will always like to know when you are writing a novel. And maybe I panicked or something, but somewhere along my stuttering explanation, I attached on a phrase that went something like “and it’s an exploration of counter-masculinities along with all these very real issues, and I didn’t mean it to turn into that, but it did.”
Needless to say, I did not think I’d be here when I first started writing little adventure fics about twelve year olds that form telepathic bonds with woodland creatures, which was (I am willing to bet) one of the first genres I slid into as a child. But it’s something of a responsibility I think we literary analysts (or historical analysts or philosophical analysts or film analysts or whatever you identify as) have, to write about and think about and wonder about those bigger issues. Writing, particularly fiction writing, is a medium where almost anything can go. There’s freedom in that, and there’s opportunity in that, but there’s responsibility there, too. It’s no different from social media, if you think about it, or even just normal conversation, but it’s elevated, because writing is something we can spend a very long time thinking about before publishing.
So let’s talk about my three absurd situations and where they came from.
On the distress of sharing my controversial writings: I’m a writer, and I’m going to write about things that are happening in my world. Even as a fiction writer – wait, even as a fantasy writer – I am fascinated by the world and what’s happening in it and what’s not happening in it. Isn’t that where fiction comes from, trying to fill the gaps in the events we see?
On the random Saturday conversations about life: I’m a writer, and I’m going to encourage the people around me to think about what’s harping at them, too. You don’t have to be a critical thinker of all things literary to say something profound. And it doesn’t matter if it’s the middle of a seminar or the middle of lunch or the middle of the night – we should be eager to share in each other’s little profundities.
On my extremely weird English essay: I’m a writer, and…no, this one’s still absurd. If anyone has any explanations for why Milton decided to describe the ocean as a fertile womb, seriously, let me know, because the jury’s still out on why we do and write the things we do.
Written by Erika S.
If you ever experience the frustrating mindset that is writer’s block, you know how tough it is to get your fingers typing again. Here are a few of my favorite ways to break through the wall, and finish the paper.
Written by Emma E.
This is my season of stagnation. I don’t know what it is about the second-half of February that makes me feel so stale and uncreative, but I hit a mental roadblock around this time every year and sometimes it takes until April to get back into the swing of things. So this year, to shake off the late-winter blues, I have compiled a brief list of six great quotes for writers to remind me (and hopefully you as well) why we devote ourselves to this wild endeavor.
I carry these with me like good luck charms to ward off the insecurities that keep me from putting words on the page, and to remind me what a pleasure it is to live this life and be able to write about it every day. To that end, here’s one more quote that comforts me always as I move along in this mad, wonderful, endless quest to write.
“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” – Jack Kerouac
Written by Cara B.
Of course, the dazzling La La Land is a film that many of you have most likely already seen. Its array of beautiful colors and stellar acting by the spectacular Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, supplemented with a gorgeous soundtrack spawning a blend of classic jazz with contemporary notes make for an award-buzzing piece of art that has grossed over $232 million and won over the hearts of millions of people.
It’s important to note that La La Land has actually been in the works for nearly a decade now. Director Damien Chazelle’s strong affinity for musical films led him to write the screenplay for La La Land when he was a student at Harvard University in 2010. He wrote the script as his senior thesis and after graduating, moved to Los Angeles and continued writing and modifying the script. For years, no studio was willing to finance his film, claiming that it was not a “familiar” storyline and would not appeal to people. After Chizelle wrote the successful Whiplash in 2014, he finally attracted several studios and was able to start making the film, over five years after he wrote the script.
It’s interesting to note the resistance by studios to invest in this film, with the primary reason being that jazz musicals are too archaic for the youth – one theme explored in La La Land itself. The notion that past traditions do not appeal to modern generations is one that La La Land very much challenges: we haven’t seen a musical film in a long time, with the main assumption being that it’s just died out, but the very fact that it has been gone for so long is the catalyst for its popularity. La La Land draws from older films a nostalgic sense. It’s reminiscent of a different time that is real, making for a film that’s easy to lose ourselves in. The distinction, though, that sets La La Land apart from other films that adopt this same mechanism is while it incorporates older elements, it retains a modern feeling that keeps each scene fresh. The dance numbers aren’t flawlessly planned to perfection. Ryan and Emma’s voices are not Broadway-groomed and making our ears swoon. Their characters are flawed in numerous ways. They behave selfishly at times. This creates a much more real film, with the flaws and unpolished dance numbers creating a feeling of uniqueness.
Emma Stone plays Mia, a struggling actress working as a barista at a coffee shop in Los Angeles, serving lattes in between auditions. Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a jazz pianist making his living by playing cocktail party gigs with dreams of opening his own club. Two aspiring dreamers, full of passion yet so far have been unsuccessful. They meet. They’re attracted to each other’s ideal visions. They fall in love. It’s the ultimate love story. It’s the typical love story.
Yet, the movie defies the stereotypical clichés of a romantic plotline, and is in fact partly what constitutes its mass appeal. Their first interaction is Sebastian rudely pushing past Mia. When they seem to keep running into each other and Sebastian wonders if it means something, Mia states, “Probably not,” with them proceeding to sing about how they could never fall for each other. Their love story becomes more real, deeper, and more relatable to the audience.
The movie isn’t so much about their love story but more so about their artistic passion. Mia and Sebastian show how easy it is to get derailed from their dreams, and how sometimes it takes another person to push you back on the tracks to find it again. That’s what they do to each other. Mia has to remind Sebastian of his dream when he begins to play music he dislikes in a band, while Sebastian practically forces Mia to attend the audition. Ultimately, in their final scene together as a couple, Sebastian acknowledges that when Mia gets the audition, she will have to give it all she’s got. It’s his simple way of reflecting the harshness of reality: how pursuing your dreams requires sacrifice. Mia and Sebastian simply cannot be together for them to climb the ladders towards success. There have been dozens of films like this that try to capture the allure of Hollywood, yet cynically remark upon its cruel, harsh reality. However, Chazelle’s film is exceptional. He’s showing how getting plucked out of the crowd for a life-changing opportunity means that your life will chance and you will lose friends, loved ones, relationships, and other things that you hold dear. Yet he doesn’t try to criticize this. The film celebrates holding onto your convictions with rigidness, made clear in Mia’s audition song that pays homage to “the fools who dream, as foolish as they may seem.” This harsh reality is something we’ve all dealt with, which is what has caused so many to love La La Land because Chazelle doesn’t try to make us to feel bad about it. It’s simply the reality and we have to work with it.
The ending is jarring, seeing Mia with a husband and kid. Both have achieved their dreams, but the audience is met with shock and horror at the notion that Mia and Sebastian are not together. Ultimately, what sets the film even more apart is the beautiful epilogue that shows what life could have been like had Mia and Sebastian stayed together. I remember I found myself overcome with emotion, and quite frankly indignation. “Of course they could have stayed together! Mia should have filmed her movie and then come back and been with Sebastian. How could it not have worked out?” Yet the epilogue, I realize, is conveying something completely different. It’s not trying to show what could have happened. In fact, it’s not supposed to convey reality at all. There’s a reason the ending is so bright and colorful with uplifting, almost fantasy-like music. The ending is showing what would happen in an ideal world, a world in which everything works out perfectly: Mia and Sebastian attract everyone with their passions, land to success without an issue, have no fights, are able to live and work together in harmony.
The ending makes it clear: Although the couple spends most of the movie together, the movie never really belonged to their love story. La La Land is fashioned after Old Hollywood musicals, most of which pair guys and girls off in the perfect way. Often times in those movies, the couple doesn’t achieve their ambitions but what is important is that they are still together, making the audience happy. Yet La La Land underscores that the movie is not about Mia and Sebastian’s romance; rather, it’s about the shimmer of their dreams. The movie ending is in fact a happy one because they have accomplished their dreams. It’s fine that they don’t end up together, as made when they smile and nod at each other, having acknowledged each other’s success and happiness. The risky take of La La Land is that it asks its audience to understand that a happy ending doesn’t require its leads to still be in love. Sebastian and Mia live two parallel love stories: She has movies and he has jazz. They both end up with what they wanted in the end, ultimately with their own real loves. The movie lets the main characters essentially be selfish, but quietly. The movie tried to build up to this point, constantly hinting that they don’t belong together; they’re dazzling when they dance but not much else, often guilting each other into being more ambitious. The stunning epilogue in which Sebastian dreams his idealized life with Mia leaves his own life incomplete: he’s still without his jazz club, so the both of them could not have had it all together. It’s only in real life when Mia returns her taste in dark-haired, serious men (her husband looks awfully similar to the guy she was dating in the beginning - did anyone notice that?) that she can have everything she wants.
It’s questionable. Are they selfish? Should they have stayed together regardless of only achieving moderate success? Was their love really enough to overcome their own personal desires? The conclusion of La La Land seems sad, but it reflects people in real life and their real ambitions and dreams, and the compromises we have to make. Sebastian sums it up perfectly when describing jazz to Mia: “It’s conflict, and it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting.” That is essentially life, relationships, love - just about everything. The conclusion seems sad. But it’s real. And that’s what’s made this film so unique. It’s beautiful with a lovely soundtrack, great acting, and all the other traits of a fantastic film – but it’s ultimately its harrowing message of reality that people don’t like to hear that makes the film all the more rare and striking.
Written by Sarah Smati ('20)
R2: The Rice Review
Rice University's undergraduate literary magazine. Here you can find event updates, monthly writing contest winners, and opinions by the R2 staff on what's new, interesting, or subject to discussion in the literary and arts world.