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Reverberations of ‘The Goldfinch’

I just ended a three-month literary affair with ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt. It was sincere, demanding, cerebral—and lengthy. I decided to pick up Tartt’s latest best-seller days after I learned of its Pulitzer Prize award for best fiction in April. The judges called it “a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart.”

Initially, the novel received rave reviews from critics at The New York Times (“’The Goldfinch’ is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind.”) and elsewhere, often calling it “Dickensian” literature.

The_goldfinch_by_donna_tart

But, in recent news, ‘The Goldfinch’ has been the target of criticisms made by a select group of even higher brow literary agents at The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and The Paris Review. All of which claim ‘The Goldfinch’ to be infantilizing our literary culture contemporarily and in the future.

As knowledgeable society understands, no book, while its reviews may be tipping the scale, will sustain completely positive, or negative, judgments. Thus, the kerfuffle over ‘The Goldfinch’ raises a few points for the literary world to discuss:

  • Is the success of a novel subjective to each reader?
  • Are the best pieces of literature characterized only by the highest form of scholarly language and complex story lines?
  • What is the difference between a novel as an art form and a novel as a form of entertainment? Is there a difference? Isn’t writing, itself, a form of art?
  • Is ‘The Goldfinch’ propelling our literary culture forward?

Let’s think about this: Whether the book is deserving of “literary praise” from highbrows or not, it proves to possess the kind of effervescent storytelling that captures audiences (it has sold over 1.5 million copies in nine months) and sparks conversation (much like this one).

Consider this statement about novels by Iranian-American writer, Azar Nafisi:

“A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil.”

If the only thing literary stalwarts are judging their idea of a “good novel” off of is the seriousness and maturity of the language rather than considering the intellectual conversation it ignites, then perhaps they are ignorant to the greater meaning of novels. I understand many of them are worried about the preservation of literature, but I have undoubted confidence in the literary culture of millennials.

For starters, my literary affair with ‘The Goldfinch’ left me compelled, inspired and asking for more. I think it appealed to universal truths and created a sub-genre all its own. I’m not sure what else the future could demand of a novel, are you?

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The magic of travel writing

Travel is glamorous only in retrospect. -Paul Theroux, American travel writer and novelist. 

This month, I collected three of my favorite travel magazines and dedicated time to studying the captivating storytelling each has to offer. By the end of each issue, I had a few favorite pieces. The best travel writing isn’t just about stellar accommodations or fabulous food. It’s about leaping out of comfort zones, emotional and mental maturation and the people who show up along the way. The magic of travel writing lies in its ability to shake up our perceptions of places and cultures—to see new meaning in those things we once believed to be familiar. 


Condè Nast Traveler – The Art of Being Alone” by Paul Theroux

Why it’s good: Master travel writer Theroux reminds readers in this terse journal entry why travel is synonymous with solitude. Theroux, at 73, seems to understand the generational gap between himself and millennials, yet refuses to accept it as an excuse. He assures readers that loneliness can, in fact, feel good and that travel is the true safe haven.

The best passage: “In this sort of confinement, you forgo the big picture for the small one and you discover that the tiniest things are the most telling—knowing the names of people and things, learning what they care about, understanding the subtleties of weather and the turn of the seasons, the look of the landscape at different times of day, its textures and odors.”


Afar – Ashes to Ashes” by David Farley

Why it’s good: This piece is raw, surprising and vulnerable. Farley carries readers through his days in Varanasi, an Indian sanctuary where Hindus go to reach Nirvana, and a “waiting room for death.” Farley tackles this bleak and often rudimentary experience with naiveté and bravery. It helps that Farley enters Varanasi utterly clueless. He shares a bit about his common struggles and motivations, presumably relating to scores of readers. As he learns about Varanasi’s culture, he teaches readers with a sincere explanation of the traditions there—and willingly offers his own realizations. Farley creates a vivacious setting in which he showcases the irony of a physically ruinous city that holds incredible spiritual potential.

The best passage: “The day after my haphazard introduction to Manikarnika ghat, I returned for a deeper exposure to its rituals and protocols. Flames from the pyres punctuated the smoky landscape. The doms quietly went about their business, poking at the fires with bamboo sticks. Human ashes rained down on my head and shoulders as I watched a body being laid upon a stack of wood.”

*His ending is truly the kicker, but I won’t give anything away here.


Travel + Leisure – “Picture This” by Peter Jon Lindberg

Why it’s good: Lindberg’s “Picture This” is a point of view piece about the digital cloud and its increasing role in our lives today, particularly regarding travel. I appreciate his honesty throughout the piece, admitting that his recent week-long road trip resulted in a whopping 1,764 photos. Like a good journalist, Lindberg prompts readers to think—why are we so obsessed with pictures? Is travel still meaningful if there’s no photo evidence?

The best passage: “Perhaps the real issue is that we take too many travel photos; it’s that we rely too much on what those photos—and their reception—say about our travels. (Did people like it? How many favorites?) I’ve certainly questioned my own motivations for charting a trip in pictures, as well as the conclusions I’ve drawn from them. Would I remember the painted desert less positively had my photos gotten fewer likes on Instagram? If dappled sunlight falls in the forest and nobody retweets it, was it really so beautiful after all?”

Is tragedy becoming the new beat?

It’s difficult to accept, but we live in an era of senseless violence. Horrific events such as the Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech massacres, the Aurora movie theatre shooting, the Boston Marathon bombing and, most recently, the mass shooting that killed 6 and injured even more in Isla Vista, Calif., are begging to bring to the forefront arguments involving gun control, mental illness and a slew of other issues.

Journalists have always covered wars and mass deaths, but as of late, tragedy is being redefined. Tragedies have become less about where the violence occurred and in what context and more about what we can do—as progressive people—to stop this violence from happening. Massacres are becoming far too commonplace.

When is enough, enough?

Unfortunately, there are many who believe that these mass killings are indirect works of the media. People like this Thought Catalog blogger believe killers strive for attention and journalists give them the stage upon which to become a star. This is a cry from sects of the American public for journalists to remember their ethical standards in a time of tragedy. Journalists should continue to report for the good of the public, rather than the exploitation of individuals or groups.

Wrongful glorification

The media has often been criticized for glorifying killers (e.g. Jahar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone looking like a saucy rockstar). Where is the line drawn between providing the facts, and positioning the killer as a household name and internationally recognizable image?

Following the Isla Vista massacre, a Twitter user created the hashtag #YesAllWomen. It was born out of the necessity to fight back against the misogynist killer. The thread of tweets is a pretty powerful form of participatory journalism.

In this Atlantic brief about #YesAllWomen and the Isla Vista shooting, Conor Friedersdorf takes a stand: The perpetrator’s name and the contents of his rant are public if you’re interested. I won’t link or excerpt them here in hopes that my lonely approach is one day the norm—that would-be murderers will no longer expect a killing spree to help their manifesto go viral.”  Is this what journalists should be doing—strip the killer of his celebrity status and stick to the principal issues? One can only hope. 

A journalist’s role

Journalists rightfully share stories of victims and families during these tragedies offering testaments of suffering to the public. Reporters try to understand the pain these people endure to share their stories with the nation. They’re sacrificing their own emotional and mental health to discourage future violent behavior. They’re offering glimpses into the human condition.

But, at what point do journalists become advocates? Is it ethical for journalists to take a stand when reporting on horrific events like these? To end violence, journalists need to facilitate action against it. They need to inform the public of the issues, gather information and investigate trends and patterns. 

This NY Times article and this Atlantic article dealing with the Isla Vista shooting are strong beginnings in the fight against senseless violence. This is the kind of journalism we should paying attention to as we band together to create a future free from tragedy of this caliber. 

As journalists, we will still struggle mightily to find the right words to ask the questions and to tell the stories at times like these. But, if we care deeply about the people and the issues we are covering, and if we care deeply about the quality of what we do, our work can honor our duty to society. –Bob Steele, Poynter

It’s no longer our duty, as journalists, to simply report the facts here. We must become educators and advocates for society.

 

A list of good journalism

Just like sports players have their ‘fantasy league’ teams, writers deserve their own list of industry MVPs. Sure, there are Pulitzer winners each year but some of the best work by the average Joes and Janes of journalism often goes unnoticed. The other day I stumbled upon an article: “Slightly more than 100 pieces of good journalism” by The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf.

In the short introduction, I learn that Friedersdorf sends out a bi-weekly email containing great journalism recommendations for readers. (Sign up here). Then, each year, he compiles the pieces he’s highlighted into a “Best of Journalism Awards” list. This list has become my manifesto for good journalism. What I like most about Friedersdorf’s list is that he doesn’t interject his opinion. He provides a publication, article title, author and a short excerpt—leaving further exploration and judgement up to readers.

The cool thing: No. 1 on the 2013 list? Center of the Universe, the piece published in Orange Coast Magazine that I recently blogged about. A small reassurance that I, too, have an eye for good journalism.

It’s resources like this list of worthy journalism that are essential tools for young (and seasoned) journalists. Good talent in writing and reporting is part personal skill and part influence and inspiration from peers in the industry.

How to be an intrepid journalist

My reporting professor calls us intrepid journalists. An intrepid journalist is someone who is brave in their reporting and writing. An intrepid journalist is audacious enough to get that interview, to have that conversation, to write that story. An intrepid journalist is courageous and dauntless.

As an aspiring journalist, I’m always admiring journalists who are exceptionally intrepid in their pursuits. I like to think there are even a few different ways to be an intrepid journalist:

  • exposing oneself to danger or discomfort to capture a story that must be told
  • telling a controversial story that must be told
  • sharing personal details to recognize universal truths

Each of these types have one common denominator: telling a story.

Recently I was scanning Twitter and a tweet by Orange Coast Magazine led me to an incredible story.

The feature piece, Center of the Universe, was published last September and written by Jay Roberts. After reading it, I learned why it’s still getting read all over the world. I’d really suggest reading it all the way through, but I’ll provide a short teaser…

Roberts tells the story of a time when he was a young marine in the early 1980s. He met a man on a Southern California beach one day whom he described as “engaging, intelligent, and pleasant—a warm guy with a wry smile.” Roberts spent that afternoon and evening getting to know the guy and sharing a few beers…only to find out, 33 years later, that the man who he remembers so fondly was actually a serial killer…

Read the story here. (The last line is my favorite).

Roberts is an intrepid journalist here because he reveals personal details, emotions and thoughts to share an important story with the audience. He becomes vulnerable and raw. Through sharing his crazy story he appeals to universal truths and offers depth to a haunting possibility.

The Hunter S. Thompson in all of us

Before “Fear and Loathing,” “Hell’s Angels” and pioneering “Gonzo journalism,” Hunter S. Thompson was just a strapping young journalist committed to the craft.

(See: Before Gonzo: Hunter S. Thompson’s Early, Underrated Journalism Career)

As he is indicted into the 2014 Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame today, let us remember his humble beginnings. Beginnings that may seem familiar to many junior journalists today.

Even while his career evolved into a mere caricature of his life—exuberant, exaggerated, eccentric—he began as an eager reporter. (Sadly, his charismatic character still tends to outshine his undeniable journalistic and literary abilities.)

Courtesy of theatlantic.com

Courtesy of theatlantic.com

Atlantic writer, Brian Kevin, set out to chronicle some of Thompson’s earlier work to prove he was more traditional than many tend to believe. We learn that as an apprentice he traveled the Western Hemisphere churning out travel guides, straight news stories, book reviews and essays—anything he could get his hands on. Thompson positioned himself as a jack of all beats. During his time as a freelancer he experienced, absorbed, learned and practiced. What more could you ask of an aspiring journalist?

And so, Kevin yearns to make it known that Thompson’s reputation cannot be derived solely from his Rolling Stone years—he became the journalist he did because of the years he spent practicing and perfecting his specialized craft.

That’s what it takes.

Thompson wrote a lot, on a panoramic array of subjects, with dazzling technical proficiency, plus passion, wit, fury, sensitivity, reams of jaw-dropping sensory detail, and a fanatical devotion to the English language roughly akin to what Torquemada felt for the pope. –Hampton Stevens, The Atlantic

The lesson to be learned? Even the greatest journalists start small-scale. Still, they start with zeal and curiosity. And often, like Thompson, use their talent and training to champion a personal, unique voice that echoes for generations.

 

The power of the blogosphere

Like it or not, blogging is becoming a seriously viable player in the news media of the 21st century. Many businesses and corporations who don’t have blogs are taking hits in ways they never expected. Individuals blog to share thoughts and ideas with others whom they may never cross paths with.

Blog (noun); a website on which someone writes about personal opinions, activities and experiences.

In our arguably impersonal society, blogs offer a way of relating and humanizing. They take news reporting and business handling a step further. They allow companies to relate to people. They allow world issues to relate to people. They allow people to relate to people. 

That’s not to say some blogs aren’t rubbish—but it’s also to say many present valid and respectable fact and opinion. My favorite blog, Thought Catalog, blogs on issues that span the spectrum. From social issues to political issues to personal issues, all thoughts are relevant, they say.

Fairly often, a Thought Catalog piece will catch my eye. It will make me think, it will inform me, it will inspire me.* Blogging is a new form of participatory journalism that gives a voice to the masses. Sure, some voices are more articulate, more informed, more compelling, or more cerebral than others—but they are all relevant.

In this form of participatory journalism, not only is the writer/blogger participating in news reporting and commentary, but the audience is also a participant. They’re actively seeking thoughtful ideas, fresh perspectives, new opinions and respectable sources from which to learn.

Like reading a book, blogs have a way of offering readers togetherness and an acceptance of universal struggles, thoughts and truths.

A few of my favorite blogs:

So next time a search engine leads you to a blog, stick around, you never know what it could offer you.

*Here’s the piece that inspired this post.

The balancing act of digital journalism

Like many these days, I get my news online. Twitter and Facebook feeds provide me with bite-sized chunks of information that I can click, read (sometimes skim) and share or send to others.

Thus, when an Atlantic article popped up in my Facebook feed today entitled “My Students Don’t Know How to Have a Conversation,” I clicked and read. What I learned made me realize that the future of journalism (and the rest of the world) is in the hands of these students. Some who can’t even hold a conversation…

Paul Barnwell, a high school teacher and author of the Atlantic article, said that through projects aiming to practice the skill of conversation he is “focused on sharpening students’ ability to move back and forth between the digital and real world.” Barnwell notices a lack of intellectual discussion, online and in person, among his students and the millennial generation as a whole.

Think about this: his class is surely comprised of future lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers, government officials and most importantly (for the sake of this blog) future journalists. Journalists are primarily out in the field interviewing, conversing, observing, learning, experiencing; if young people have already lost the skill of conversation and fail to see its importance, then what is the future of journalism? 

We’re going digitalaren’t we?

Ideally, even though we live in a digital world, a dynamic person still possesses skills like patience and effective communication habits. Well, those things come from personal interaction and conversation. In a New York Times column, psychologist, professor and author, Sherry Turkle wrote: “Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits … we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions. We dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters.” 

In conclusion, Barnwell suggests striking a balance between digital and interpersonal communication to propel the next generation forward. Knowing when and how to put down the phone or shut the computer to cultivate conversation and experience life away from a screen is something that now needs to be taught in schools if we want the next generation of thinkers and doers to succeed. Scary, huh?

Don’t be fooled. Even though most news gets to me through social media and online platforms, I’m well-versed in the art of interpersonal communication. One conversation with me and you’ll see I’ve mastered the balancing act.

Wisdom from a novelist

Jill McCorkle may be the most quotable writer I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking with. McCorkle, a fiction novelist and creative writing professor at NC State, visited Elon Monday to share some insight with us.

Something struck me about McCorkle: the fact that she was able to so eloquently and honestly answer any and all questions my reporting class threw her way.

I asked three questions during our 60-minute discussion with her. Here are my questions and her brilliant responses:

1. What are the major differences between a journalistic writing process and a creative non-fiction writing process?

One of the biggest, most obvious differences, said McCorkle, is that non-fiction gives you the license to lie and to fill in the blanks. “On a good day, writing non-fiction does feel like a stream of consciousness,” McCorkle said. But, she said, the two have the aspect of self-disipline in common. Some of McCorkle’s most disciplined friends began with a career in journalism. Also, the revision process of creative writing is not unlike journalism, she said. But McCorkle admited that she was always the student who wrote the paper before writing the outline. “In fiction, it’s easier to not know where you’re going,” McCorkle said.

Courtesy of jillmcorkle,com

Courtesy of jillmccorkle.com

2. Have you ever created a character you didn’t like? How were you able to cultivate that character throughout the story?

McCorkle said that creating characters she doesn’t like is something that certainly happens more than people would think. But, she works hard to try to redeem those characters, although not always succeeding. When she finds herself disapproving of a character she has created, she pictures the worst person, and then pictures them as an infant, totally innocent. “[At that point] you become aware of all the external factors that could have made a person a certain way,” McCorkle said. An important part of creating a character, she said, is “knowing a lot more than makes it on the page.” 

3. I’ve heard that people must be good readers before they are good writers, what’s your take on that? Do you draw inspiration from your favorite novels?

Reading is such an important part of writing, you learn so much by osmosis, you absorb,” McCorkle said. Reading works of writers whom you admire is an important part of growing, she said. Personally, McCorkle said she reads a lot of poetry because it caters to her fast-paced lifestyle. “If I’m working on a novel, it’s easier for me to read non-fiction and/or poetry,” said McCorkle, “it’s hard to stay in two worlds at one time.”

 

‘A glorious ride’

Dr. J Earl Danieley still has his wits about him. That’s for sure. Today, during his convocation “conversation” with current President Leo Lambert, Dr. Danieley incited laughter, smiles and memories as he recounted his 70 years with Elon.

Courtesy of elon.edu

President Emeritus J. Earl Danieley with Elon President Leo M. Lambert. Courtesy of elon.edu

The comedic moments:

  • When Dr. Danieley said, “I took a job at the high school teaching chemistry. And (laughs) french! I can hardly ParlezVous!”
  • On the conception of study abroad programs at Elon: Upon every professor’s inquiry to take his or her class on a trip during winter term, Dr. Danieley said, “sounds good to me!”
  • Leo Lambert: So tell me how chemistry has changed over the last 70 years. [Dr. Danieley told a story for nearly 5 minutes] Leo Lambert: But you still haven’t told me about how chemistry has changed! Dr. Danieley: Oh yes! Wait, I have to tell you one more thing first!
  • Dr. Danieley: I remember all my teachers, 1st, 2nd, “Oh, I loved my 3rd grade teacher, she was a beauty!”

The insightful moments:

  • Dr. Danieley’s storytelling: I counted at least seven, detailed, enthusiastic stories.
  • When asked, “Why do you love teaching?” he responded, “Being involved in the lives of young people is probably the noblest calling a person can respond to.”
  • Dr. Danieley’s thesis: There is no more remarkable story in all the history of higher education than this institution.
  • On his time at Elon: “It’s been a glorious ride…I’m so happy.”

The telling moments:

  • The audience was invited to join in singing the last verse of Elon’s alma mater at the start of the ceremony. Dr. Danieley sang along with the choir for all four verses without missing a lyric. His mental energy and school spirit is astonishing.
  • After struggling with history and algebra, Dr. Danieley tried his hand at chemistry. His advice? “Stick to it! If you allow some little thing to deflect you and get you off the road, you will be a failure…I have no doubt about that.”
  • Someone once said to Dr. Danieley, “If you can’t go to college, go to Elon.” Dr. Danieley used it as his motivation to build.

A special moment: In honor of Dr. Danieley’s upcoming 90th birthday in July…