Online Accessibility and the 2020 Big Read’s Transition to a Virtual Platform

This year’s Big Read, like many past years’ programs, has been highly anticipated by both Purdue students and residents within the Greater Lafayette community. Offering the opportunity for readers to bond over literature with a large group of other people, the Big Read creates a town-wide book club, formed through the love of literature. Past Big Reads have given Purdue students, affiliates, and supporters—myself included—the chance to discuss award-winning novels not only with friends, but also with the author themselves; it is no wonder, then, that the Big Read is awaited annually. This year, however, the program is different. With the outbreak of Covid-19, Purdue itself has had to change the way it functions to protect its students and staff, and all events on campus have had to change with it. This year’s Big Read is unlike any we have previously seen, with the whole campaign going entirely virtual, increasing its accessibility. Although there is a disconnect due to a lack of in-person contact, this year’s Big Read is opening up possibilities for future years and changing how we think about the event at its very core.

As the summer started after a chaotic end of spring semester, one thing was clear: the Big Read was going to need to be online. With this being her first year as assistant director of the Big Read, Erika Gotfredson has had to consider the give and take of an entirely virtual campaign and use this knowledge while planning each event. The virtual platform of this year’s Big Read has allowed Erika to broaden her technological skills and reconsider the concept of accessibility within the Big Read. With more engagement in events due to the all-online platform—allowing audience members to participate from the comfort of their own home, on their own time—each event has become more accessible. Those previously unable to attend events due to prior engagements, personal restrictions, or distance can access most of these events long past the time they are posted, from anywhere in the world. With lectures on certain aspects of the book, such as the Russian/Slavic fairy tale elements, as well as recorded panel discussions, events that were once one-time-only opportunities have become evergreen tools for better understanding the novel. Some of these events are recorded through the likes of Zoom, while others are posted as podcasts or require present participation, like during the Kahoot Fairy Tale trivia night. Through different forms of media, the Big Read can reach out to wider audiences and create events that engage different types of participants.

Increased accessibility has changed the way the audience interacts with the content during events as well. In past years, many of the Big Read events have opened the floor to general book discussions for those in attendance. This year, however, has allowed the organizers to focus on the themes of this year’s novel, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. Each recent event has intentionally thought about the novel in different contexts, from the fairy tale aspects found within it, to its representation of the Jewish diaspora and feminist elements. As Erika says, “the audience is now thinking about the book in different ways that work together to benefit the understanding of the meaning of the book.” This sharing of the layers of literature is in line with the purpose of the Big Read. Having it entirely online furthers the program’s stated goal of helping participants “slow down and make time for fiction and poetry” in a “fast-paced digital world” (English@Purdue), proving that it is possible to merge digital culture with the joys of reading. Reading is escapism, especially when it comes to Spinning Silver; according to Erika, it “provides distance as it allows us to think through important questions,” such as the effects of anti-Semitism and gender norms.

Although there are clearly many benefits that go with the move to an all-online format, there are, of course, tradeoffs. There is something to be said for meeting in-person to discuss literature. Although a virtual format is accessible, there still remains an inherent level of distance. In past years, being able to meet and directly ask questions of a talented writer in the same room as you was a leveling experience—the author of a critically acclaimed book became less of a symbol to those in the room, and more of a person. However, with events all online, this leveling proximity is harder to achieve. Additionally, there is more room to hide in the shadows of online anonymity and also a risk that the audience will participate less actively in the events.

When discussing the Purdue Writing Lab’s involvement in the Big Read with Elizabeth Geib, the Assistant Director of Writing Across the Curriculum and Workshops, I mentioned this instinct to hide while online; face-to-face interaction seems to me to hold more draw for active participation. In directing the Writing Lab’s online module, therefore, Elizabeth asked us to consider ways to compensate. As a tutor at the Writing Lab, I have been working on a series of videos for the Big Read about “Writing Fairy Tales,” and have considered the merits of using voiceover for these tutorials, rather than a video of myself and my fellow tutors. Voiceovers may allow audience members to focus on the information being shared and how they may use it, rather than the faces of those speaking. With our own more passive engagement with the audience, we are leaving room for those watching these modules to prioritize their own creativity, cultivating a space where our anonymity as Writing Lab tutors gives way to more confidence and active participation in writing from those watching. Additionally, these tradeoffs to a virtual platform lead us to consider constant improvement with current and future online events. As Elizabeth says, “we are working on the things we can control and continue to ask questions about things we can’t control while working on finding other means [to reach out to our target audiences].”

We continue to test these boundaries through each new Big Read event. Moving to a virtual format allows us to vary the type of media we use, encouraging different modes of engagement. Some events allow for passive participation, while others, such as the Fairy Tale trivia night or the Enchanted live watch party on Twitter, allow for real-time interaction. For the trivia night and the Twitter watch party, undergraduate and graduate students from Purdue, as well as local high schoolers, interacted with one another online. These two events were casual and informal, allowing participants to tweet their genuine responses to scenes from the movie Enchanted, or to test their knowledge of fairy tales while competing for prizes via Kahoot, a game-based learning platform and online quiz app. This year’s virtual format is creating new possibilities for community-building. A larger variety of events, such as the Fairy Tale writing module or the book discussion podcasts, have been made possible due to the fresh start an online format provides. Although we are used to bonding over literature in-person, this year’s challenge is to discover how to do so virtually. With the accessibility of online events, we are discovering new ways to connect through books, and new technologies to deliver future Big Reads.

References
“English@Purdue: The Big Read.” EnglishPurdue The Big Read, cla.purdue.edu/english/thebigread/purduebigread/.

Fayth Schutter is double majoring in Professional Writing and Mass Communication at Purdue University.

Rumpelstiltskin Reimagined: A Review of Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver

Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver loosely follows the fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin, reimagining the story of a young woman who (with the help of an otherworldly creature) spins straw into gold. However, while the source material clearly shines through the text and tugs on readers’ nostalgia for the Grimm brothers’ folktale, this tale offers a vastly different world, crafted in juxtaposition to the fantastical and utopian perception of fairy tale worlds. Miryem, this tale’s main protagonist, lives in a world of strife. She is an outsider in her own village, set apart and othered for her status as the local Jewish moneylender’s daughter. Immediately, then, Miryem flips the familiar story on its head, exploring the antisemitism within the European folklore tradition.

“The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard…Because that’s what the story is really about: getting out of paying your debts” (3).

A multi-perspective narrative, Spinning Silver primarily varies between Miryem, the moneylender’s daughter turned icily merciless moneylender herself; Wanda, a young woman whose father signed her away to work for Miryem’s family in recompence for his debts; and Irina, a duke’s daughter made enchantingly beautiful with adornments of magical Staryk gold. These three young women hold different worldviews, based on their disparate life experiences and social standing. However, each narrator’s perspective occurs in first person, thus assigning a stronger sense of agency and autonomy to these characters than a third person narrative would allow for, as well as connecting the reader more closely to the thoughts and actions of the protagonists.

Miryem performs the role of coldhearted moneylender, taking over from her father who could not achieve the same emotional detachment when collecting from the townsfolk. While Miryem’s cold mannerisms might put the reader off at first, the tale appeals to her family’s dire social and financial circumstances, as well as to her father’s empathy and his reluctance to collect debts given his family’s precarious position in the community. The townsfolk refuse to pay off their debts despite having ample wealth and demonize the moneylender due to his job as well as his Jewish heritage. Miryem recognizes the stereotypes—Jewish people as merciless and greedy, solely focused on their own self-interests—that the villagers place on her family. It is only after her mother’s grave illness that she decides to take an active role in the business, reclaiming the debts owed to them. Soon, as her mother’s health and the family’s living conditions improve, Miryem boasts of her near-magical ability to turn silver to gold, or, in other words, maneuvering herself from poverty to prosperity.

Beyond exploring the anti-Semitism Miryem faces, and her decision to reclaim her agency despite the village’s perceptions, Novik’s reimagining of fairy tales tropes allows for a more nuanced understanding of the various other social hierarchies and ideology that governs this world. Through Wanda’s peasant perspective, for example, Novik defamiliarizes these governing structures, likening them to magic. When Miryem teaches Wanda how to collect, count, and record money, an economic necessity to raise oneself out of poverty, Wanda adamantly thinks “she spoke as if it was ordinary, but I knew she was teaching me magic” (44). This process of rendering remarkably unfamiliar activities that readers likely take for granted allows the text to explore the nature of these ideologies that so often go unquestioned. By linguistically distorting and thereby estranging the reader from these practices, the text enables new perspectives on these social conventions. As Wanda learns to navigate her culture’s structures of power and privilege, readers can rediscover the power within their own simple acts of literacy and view them with the same wonder that she does. In this way, Novik heightens our awareness of truths ingrained within our own perception of the world.

Without giving away too much of the story, I want to emphasize how incredible this book is in terms of worldbuilding, plot, character development, and its connection to contemporary social and political issues (the novel was published in 2018). Spinning Silver has received much acclaim, having won the 2019 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and having been nominated for the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel. This fractured fairy tale seeks to subvert the anti-Semitic stereotypes omnipresent throughout the text’s world as well as our own, and makes use of cleverly reimagined fairy tale tropes, like the significance of promises with Fae creatures and the implication of naming. The text emphasizes ambiguity, rupturing binary thinking about moral right and wrong, allowing for nuanced layers behind each character’s actions and their underlying intentions. For example, as I mentioned above, Miryem only assumes the coldhearted moneylender persona to save her family. Due to the alienation that her family felt at the hands of their community, she, and the reader, become increasingly confident and aware that, despite her initial façade of mercilessness, Miryem protects those towards whom she holds affection and affinity. As she later states, “I didn’t have a country to do it for. I only had people” (377).

“All of a sudden everyone around you was the same as each other but not like you. And then I thought, but it was like that for Miryem already. It was like that for her all the time, in town” (303).

Whittled down to its core, Spinning Silver calls for young people marginalized in society to exercise their own agency and autonomy wherever possible. Like this beautifully intricate fairy tale world, our own world is deeply flawed. Although we may feel powerless, Novik calls us to act anyway, like Wanda who “had not known that [she] was strong enough to do any of those things until they were over and [she] had done them. [She] had to do the work first, not knowing” (381).

Content warning: domestic abuse and antisemitism

Other Recommendations
This genre of fairy tale retellings has become quite popular, especially within Young Adult literature. While working to achieve different ends, and with vastly different worlds and characters, here is a brief collection of my recommendations to check out if you enjoyed Spinning Silver: A.G. Howard’s Splintered; Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark & Grimm­ series;

Gail Carson Levine’s Fairest; Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles; and Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles ­­series.

Ally Geoffray is a senior in English Literature and Professional Writing in the English Dept. at Purdue.