Students on campus are reading books for the wrong reasons. The power of a good story does not lie in its plot resolution or heroic character; the power of a good story lies in its conflict and terror — in its antihero. In the act of kindness that a villain once gave. In whichever war is being waged, either from within or directed outwards. You learn more about a person through their flaws, and not their successes. You learn more about a character through their wrongdoings, and not their integrities. 

Literature is precious precisely because it is ambiguous: because its characters can be murky, its plot thick, its setting a dystopia, as ugly as Orwell’s “1984.” This is why the best literature is so freeing — because it makes us feel alive again; it parades us into a story of epic battles and conflict. In literature, troubled characters can, over time, be redeemed and actually prove to be good, while good characters, either instantaneously or over time, can prove to be troubled and a stain on society’s cloth. Morals are questioned in literature — especially when Raskolnikov seeks absolution in Siberia — for adequate reason. Morals also sometimes disappear in literature, but when they come into view, can change in people, taking on new colors, hues, shapes and dimensions — like when Raskolnikov returns a reformed man. 

The finest books — the ones that deserve prizes — are actually extremely subversive. If you were to put clothing on them, these books would not be dressed in Polo Ralph Lauren or Lacoste, but in black Vans, ripped jeans and Bourdain heroin marks on their arms. The books that make the reader uncomfortable, make them squirm in their seat, make them want to vomit into the trash can, but still turn the page. That paradoxical feeling — of reading something so disgusting yet wanting to read more—is what makes this field stand out from others at Yale. 

Indeed, literature brings us into another ether, another realm: a realm where we can validate evil and question goodness without feeling grim about ourselves. This allows us to assess the characters in our own lives through a critical lens. Literature also gives us the rent-free space in our head where we can entertain other worlds — worlds where a mother kills her two-year-old so that girl doesn’t go into slavery, and worlds where a salesman transforms into a big insect and doesn’t want to tell his sister about it. 

Unfortunately, it is hard to make a dent in the literary market just out of college. Some of the best writers — and I mean the ones that dream of morphing into a second reincarnation of Kafka — are tortured souls, very tortured indeed. But they mean well, striving day by day to bring a dose of creativity to the reader’s veins, a new ecosystem for us to look at, a new universe to explore and realities to consider — undaunting, without judgment. 

The beauty of literature lies in its change. Amending one character while fixing the next, traveling across regions and continents, proposing one theme in the beginning then negating it with a second one in the end. A majority of English professors would call Harry Potter tacky, but one cannot forget that Snape, presumed to work for Voldemort, was actually protecting Harry “after all this time.” The phrase “after all this time” denotes a secret guardianship, a subtle way of loving someone. And here, the antihero — Snape — ended up being a figure of beauty. The audience was tricked into thinking otherwise, up until the end — the very end. 

Indeed, a novel I started penning called “Dear Brother” relies on the antihero to survive as a book. It only describes monstrous men who have done very few acts of extreme good, and who, with a stroke of compassion, even become lovely for eight seconds. The motto I relay to a younger brother is “Good people can do bad things and bad people can do good things.” In these pages, there is a Russian oligarch who shoots rivals and blows up oil fields but saves an entire high school from sexual assault. The nasty, coke-laden drug dealer who, outside of a strip club in Washington, D.C., reveals to a transgender man his own repressed memories from high school, out of love — pure, unadulterated love — and nothing more than that, nor nothing less. The captain working for Jordanian intelligence pulls nails out of the fingerbeds of men in the dungeon of the Mukhabarat during the day but paints the nails of gay men, at night, when he is hiding his trysts from the world. The antiheroes sustain the novel, and the villains keep the prose breathing. I did that for a reason. 

I’m not interested in the straight-A student who is captain of a sports team and a FroCo. Prize-winning literature — or even tacky Harry Potter — does not pride itself on those kinds of characters. I’m more interested in the Anthony Bourdains of the world. I’m interested in massive screw-ups and I’m interested in the underbelly of society. I’m interested in characters who redeem themselves — not immediately, but over time. 

And literature, in this sense, is redemption. Literature is what makes the world go round. And literature, alas, after all this time, is what keeps me alive — with its complexity, its eloquence and its rage. It keeps me alive more than almost anything else does. Trust me on that one. 

ISAAC AMEND graduated in 2017 from Timothy Dwight College. He is a transgender man and was featured in National Geographic’s “Gender Revolution” documentary. In his free time, he is a columnist for the Washington Blade. He also serves on the board of the LGBT Democrats of Virginia. Contact him at