Beneath all the well-worn fantasy tropes and flashy special effects — the CGI dragons, the armies of evil ice zombies, the clichéd Christ allegories about magical heroes coming back from the dead — at its heart Game of Thrones is really just a giant mashup of European history. Twenty-five million or so rabid fans are certainly looking forward to watching computer-generated dragons torch equally pixelated ice demons in the new season that starts this Sunday on HBO, but the biggest thrills in Game of Thrones arguably come from seeing real-world history recreated onscreen in the guise of a fractured fairytale. Like Homer’s mythical reimagining of the Greek past or Sir Walter Scott’s best-selling historical novels in the 19th century, HBO has come to dominate the 21st-century cultural landscape by producing the most spectacular history lesson on TV.
The historical parallels in Game of Thrones are almost too easy to pick out. (Unless you’re looking for non-Western history; then you’re mostly stuck with flat racist stereotypes. More on that in a bit.) The continent of Westeros, where the show’s main action takes place, is shaped like Britain and Ireland, and the massive ice wall that keeps out the Wildling barbarians from the North just so happens to be at the exact same spot where the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall to keep out the Celtic tribes. Similarly, the civil war at the center of Game of Thrones mimics the 15th-century War of the Roses, when the houses of York and Lancaster fought a bitter internecine battle for the English throne — in Westeros, the Lancasters go by Lannister. The Ironborn raiders, who sail around in longships, are stand-ins for the Vikings, while the Free Cities on the continent of Essos represent the Italian city-states, right down to the island-city of Braavos, which is duly filmed in Venice. And the Valyrian Empire, which was famous for its engineering feats and military power, has crumbled into a pile of elegantly twisted ruins reminiscent of ancient Rome.
It isn’t just the real-world history behind Westeros that draws in fans, though. The made-up history within the show, much more than the dragons and ice zombies, is what drives the story forward. The plot hinges on big revelations about the personal histories of individual characters (who are Jon Snow’s parents?) and the larger political history of Westeros (who is plotting with Varys to restore the Targaryen Dynasty to the Iron Throne?). Readers of the original books by George R.R. Martin will appreciate just how critical the fictional history of Westeros is to the epic war the story depicts. Martin delights in taking long, world-building digressions to explain the minutiae of Westerosi history, from ancient patterns of human migration to the tangled lineages of important noble families, the source of all present-day conflicts. With a less agile and inventive writer, this would be a mind-numbing drag on the narrative, but in Martin’s lively prose, the history lessons can be even more entertaining than the fight scenes.
The classicist and critic Daniel Mendelsohn says that Martin writes with “Herodotean gusto”: Martin describes the wonders of the Westerosi landscape and the wars between its peoples in the same exuberant and exorbitantly detailed style as the (partly) factual travelogue, conveniently called the Histories, in which the ancient Greek Herodotus invented the genre of history-writing in the 5th century BCE. But Game of Thrones is better seen as a 21st-century echo of William Shakespeare. Martin’s plots borrow heavily from Shakespeare’s English history plays and the late-medieval time period they portray. More importantly, both Martin’s books and HBO’s TV adaptation have a distinctly Shakespearean view of how history works and why it matters.
When King Robert dies in season one, it sets off a war of succession between his friends, brothers, bastards, and opportunistic lesser lords that might as well be the War of the Roses. Shakespeare, of course, wrote eight or so plays about the War of the Roses and its backstory, starting chronologically with Richard II — in which Henry Bolingbroke usurps the throne from Richard II and names himself King Henry IV — and tracking the complicated fallout from Henry’s rebellion in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1, 2, & 3, and Richard III. (You thought Hollywood was obsessed with sequels.) Both Shakespeare and Game of Thrones use the War of the Roses to explore how rulers seize and justify their power. In Richard II, when Henry usurps the crown through raw military force, he also makes sure that Richard II legally abdicates the throne and names Henry as his heir. In Game of Thrones, Cersei tears up King Robert’s will, bribes the city guards to help make her the Queen Regent, and forces the legal regent Ned Stark to publicly confess to treason. In these fictional recreations of factual events, both Shakespeare and Game of Thrones turn English political history into a tutorial on the workings of constitutional government. It’s political science 101, with dragons.
Importantly, Shakespeare shows us the big-picture political clashes of English history from the viewpoints of individual characters — that’s why there are so many soliloquies in his plays, times when a single character onstage shares his or her hidden thoughts with the audience. In Henry IV Part 1, for instance, Prince Hal (the future King Henry V) is a drunken lout who likes witty banter and chasing after prostitutes and has to wrestle with what he truly believes, but when it’s time to fight a war to protect his father’s kingdom, he turns out to be a highly effective soldier. In Game of Thrones, Tyrion is a drunken lout who likes witty banter and chasing after prostitutes and has to wrestle with what he truly believes, but when his father orders him to defend the kingdom, he turns out to be a highly effective . (He also channels John Falstaff, the charismatic, ingenious outsider of Henry IV Part 1: Tyrion faces social stigma as a dwarf, where Falstaff is mocked for his “fat-witted” enormity.) Game of Thrones, like Shakespeare’s play, uses an outcast with a brilliant mind, a sharp tongue, a taste for wine, and a non-normative body to explore what makes a good leader and what obligations we owe to our family and country.
Take a final example, this one directly from Martin’s books. When the rebels overthrow the Targaryen Dynasty, they kill the king’s two small children, Rhaenys and Aegon. But Aegon, it turns out, may have survived — or at least a young man who claims to be Aegon arrives in Westeros with an army to retake his father’s throne. This mimics the bizarre real-life tale of Perkin Warbeck, a twenty-something pretender to the English crown who claimed that he was one of the two young princes famously murdered in the Tower of London by their usurping uncle Richard III. Perkin Warbeck crossed the English Channel to Kent in 1495, supported by nobles from Scotland and mainland Europe, and led a series of armed revolts before he was finally captured and hanged in 1499. Shakespeare’s contemporary John Ford wrote a play called Perkin Warbeck that tells this story in order to ask a fundamental question: what makes the king the rightful king? If you remember Varys and Tyrion’s drunken banter about what makes a good ruler on their road trip in season five (not to mention countless other characters’ disquisitions on the nature of power), you know that’s the big question at the heart of Game of Thrones too.
In his history plays, Shakespeare reimagines the English past in order to ask, again and again, what makes the king the king. Is the rightful ruler chosen by God, or determined by laws and constitutions written by human beings? Is the ruler simply the person with the most money and military power, or should the ruler be the person with the best record of actually getting things done? Game of Thrones uses European history for the same reason: to stage a debate about how leaders gain and lose the legitimate right to rule.
Martin’s books and HBO’s show give a dazzling array of different answers to that question. For Cersei, the answer is raw power — swords create legitimacy, and she refuses even to pretend to care about her subjects. For her son Tommen, the answer is religion: the backing of the Faith conveys political legitimacy. For Stannis Baratheon, the answer is law and blood, the laws of succession that determine who should wear the crown when each king dies. For Jon Snow, the answer is that a good ruler should be elected and should have the right intentions and high moral principles. Jon’s followers, of course, end up killing him because he follows his principles. Then again, Jon also gets resurrected like Christ.
Daenerys is the most interesting case. She experiments repeatedly with how to legitimate her rule, from blood (her father was the king) to marriage (her husband was the Khal) to divine right (she appears to be the magically anointed savior of the world) to moral principles (she frees the slaves) to pragmatic success as a ruler (she spends multiple seasons bogged down in Meereen trying to improve her subjects’ lives). Her career as a queen is like a laboratory where Martin tries out the different styles of leadership represented in Roman and English history.
Daenerys’s attempts to rule also reveal the profound shortcomings of the focus on European history in Martin’s books and HBO’s TV adaptation. Daenerys swoops in like a deus ex machina on dragonback to liberate the oppressed people of color from Game of Thrones’s equivalent of the Middle East. In doing so, she (and the books and TV show) writes out the many historical non-Western models for political legitimacy (Al-Farabi, say, or Ibn Rushd; Confucius, or the Bhagavad Gita) and implies that it takes a white person to run an enlightened political system based on individual liberty. This isn’t very surprising: Art reflects the society around it, and plenty of Americans couldn’t believe a black man was the legitimate president of the United States. On the other hand, Game of Thrones goes powerfully in on the idea that a woman can be the most legitimate political leader in a crowded field. For Daenerys in this upcoming season, the woman card might turn out to be a winning hand.
Game of Thrones’ obsessive anxiety about the roots of political legitimacy helps explain why it’s such a smash hit right now. The question of what makes a ruler legitimate has been the central issue in American political life for the last fifteen years, from the mainstream to the fringe. Who won all those hanging chads in Florida in 2000? Was 9/11 an inside job? Was the Iraq War a legally and morally legitimate use of force? Was George W. Bush within his rights to have terrorism suspects indefinitely detained and tortured? Was Barack Obama really born in America, or is he a secret Muslim agent smuggled in to undermine the country? Did Donald Trump work with the Russians to steal the presidency? Can international climate accords legitimately control what America does? Does the press bravely speak truth to power, or is it all just fake news?
The world of Westeros, like the European history on which it’s based, implies that political legitimacy is both real and perceived: it rests on the power to rule, but it also lies in the eyes of the beholders, the everyday citizens who see their leaders as legitimate or not. Appearances, as Shakespeare knew, are everything — all the world’s a stage. Or, as Shakespeare’s ruler Queen Elizabeth I put it, “we princes, I tell you, are set on stages, in the sight and view of all the world.” It’s a lesson that George R.R. Martin’s characters have to learn. Robb Stark, for instance, manages for a while to maintain both the moral high ground and the military successes necessary to make himself a king. But when his underlings think he has acted illegitimately — breaking his betrothal to the Freys and letting his mother get away with freeing Jaime Lannister — they abandon him and kill him. In Game of Thrones, peaceful government depends on a system of political legitimacy — an agreed-upon set of norms about who gets to rule and how — but most of the time, that rule collapses into chaos and bloodshed.
The show ultimately reminds us that the institutions that create political legitimacy — our laws, beliefs, customs, and constitutions, the stories we tell ourselves about why our leaders get to lead — can be as fragile as Ned Stark’s neck, ready to explode when the next tyrant with a fop of yellow hair like Joffrey Baratheon slouches along. Behind the idealistic fantasy battle between good and evil, Westerosi history, much like our own real-world history, implies that if we want good government, we have to fight for the institutions that protect political legitimacy and preserve the rule of law. But neither our history nor Martin’s made-up one promises we’ll win.
In 1592 in London, a pamphlet called Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, bought with a Million of Repentance was published, supposedly containing the bitter last words of Robert Greene, a member of the group now known as the “university wits,” writers and playwrights who had been educated at Oxford and Cambridge and who had written, individually and collaboratively, many of the best plays of the previous decade. Greene had died in poverty a few months before, and the Groatsworth contains a letter addressed to his fellow wits, Marlowe, Nashe, and Peele, warning against “those puppets” and “apes” (the actors) who not only didn’t pay their writers enough but who even had the audacity to “newly set forth” the wits’ old plays, adding a few new scenes or retouching some passages and then claiming sole authorship, and sole revenue. Greene holds a grudge against one writer in particular:
Trust them not, for there is an upstart crow beautified with our feathers that, with his ‘Tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide’, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.
Shakespeare. In 1592, he was 28 and had probably been in London for three or four years, starting out as an actor of bit parts and perhaps then trying his hand at mending a few speeches here and there during rehearsals. Starting around 1590, he began writing his own plays.
Establishing a composition date for Shakespeare’s early plays is tricky, but by 1592 he had at least written the three plays in the Henry VI cycle (Greene quotes from Part Three above), and possibly also Titus Andronicus. Parts two and three of the cycle, written first, were wholly by Shakespeare, though Part One, first performed in March 1592, could be Shakespeare’s revision of an earlier play by Nashe, and Titus is now thought to be partly by Peele. The notoriety these plays gave Shakespeare is perhaps what earned Greene’s ire.
The popular image of Shakespeare’s career is that he collaborated on a few plays as a young man, as a kind of apprenticeship. Proving his ability, he went on to eschew collaboration for most of his career, until just before his retirement he again collaborated on a series of plays with his own apprentice and successor, John Fletcher. Broadly speaking, this is true. But it doesn’t explain why Shakespeare, after the runaway successes of Henry VI parts two and three would collaborate on the prequel, writing only about 20 percent of it, or why in the middle of his career, he would collaborate with Middleton on Macbeth and Timon of Athens, and George Wilkins on Pericles. And then there’s the issue of the four plays from the 1580s and early 1590s — a tragedy about Hamlet, prince of Denmark, Victories of Henry the Fifth, King Leir, and The Taming of a Shrew — none by Shakespeare, but all curiously related to his own later plays.
Greene called Shakespeare “an upstart crow beautified with our feathers,” an allusion to a passage from Horace warning against poetic plagiarism. Part of Greene’s problem was that Shakespeare was not a university man, and therefore not a gentleman. He was an “ape” who was stealing not only the vocation and the paychecks of gentleman playwrights, but also, according to Greene, plagiarizing them. Shakespeare was stung by Greene’s accusations, somehow getting Henry Chettle, who had prepared the Groatsworth for the press, to print an apology. Greene was bitter and likely unstable, but his accusations and Shakespeare’s reaction do lead to the question: how often did Shakespeare “mend” plays? It was common practice for theater companies to bring back old plays in repertory with a few new ones each year, sometimes updating and revising older plays to fit a current vogue. In his position for most of his career as company dramatist, first for the Chamberlain’s Men and then the King’s Men, wouldn’t Shakespeare have done some of this updating?
A new anthology collecting those plays that may contain evidence of this kind of work, William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen and designed to be a companion to the RSC anthology of Shakespeare’s works, provides just this kind of portrait of Shakespeare the working playwright. It is the first collection of plays on the fringes of the Shakespeare canon — those plays, in other words, that may or may not have been collaborations in which Shakespeare took part — in 100 years, since C.F. Tucker Brooke’s The Shakespeare Apocrypha in 1908.
It includes some usual suspects. The riot scene in Sir Thomas More is now included in the acknowledged Shakespeare canon and is frequently included in anthologies of Shakespeare’s works. More is one of the few plays from that period to survive in manuscript form, and it is doubly unique for containing the handwriting of playwrights Anthony Munday, Henry Chettle, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker, court censorer Edmund Tilney, and William Shakespeare. The pages containing “Hand D” (Shakespeare’s) are among the most precious pieces of literary history, and are housed in the British Library in London. Other than six signatures, they contain the only samples of Shakespeare’s handwriting to have survived.
The evidence for Shakespeare being Hand D rests on the comparison of the handwriting to the surviving signatures, which share with it unique letter forms (a spurred a, a strange flourish on the k) unlike the handwriting of any other Elizabethan or Jacobean writer, and also on stylistic evidence. Will Sharpe’s exhaustive “Authorship and Attribution” essay at the end of the anthology explains the authorship studies done on each of the plays included in the collection, as well as giving an overview of the history of authorship studies on each. Computer analysis has made authorship studies easier and more accurate, allowing quick searches through the entire corpus of drama from the period. Stylistic evidence relies on matching an anonymous passage to the stylistic fingerprints of one author. Fingerprints could be the use of contractions (i’th or in the), oaths (‘sblood, zounds), prepositions (amongst or among), pronouns (you over ye), verb forms (hath over has), and metrics (adding extra syllables to poetic lines). Added to the evidence of vocabulary, spelling, dating, and which theater company performed the play (if any), it is sometimes possible to identify the author.
In the case of Hand D in More, the internal evidence of handwriting, spelling, and poetic style is a slam dunk. The trouble is that it doesn’t fit the traditional picture of Shakespeare. More is a play that, given everything we know about Shakespeare, he should never have been involved in.
More was originally written circa 1600 by Anthony Munday, possibly collaborating with Henry Chettle. It was part of a mini-vogue of plays about Henry VIII’s councillors and dramatizes Thomas More’s rise to power after helping to quell the Ill May Day riot of 1517 against foreigners living in London and his fall after refusing to sign the Act of Succession. But the reason for his fall is necessarily fuzzy, since it was the Act of Succession that recognized the legitimacy of the then-reigning monarch, Elizabeth I. In addition, the 1590s had seen a series of riots and hostilities against foreigners in London that seemed to echo the riot the play presented. For these reasons, censor Edmund Tilney refused to let the play be performed, writing on the front leaf of the manuscript, “Leave out the insurrection wholly with the cause thereof…at your own perils.”
Presenting politically sensitive material in a play was grounds under Elizabeth for arrest or imprisonment, and quite a few of Shakespeare’s colleagues at one time or another found themselves in hot water for their writing — Marlowe, Kyd, and even Ben Jonson — but never Shakespeare. So why would Shakespeare involve himself in trying to patch up a play already rejected by Tilney for containing dangerous material, and not only be involved, but agree to write one of the stickiest scenes in the play? It certainly challenges popular conceptions of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare & Others claims Shakespeare’s presence in More and Edward III, another common candidate for Shakespeare’s involvement. It is now generally accepted that Shakespeare contributed the countess scenes in Edward III (I.ii-II.ii and IV.iv) and that the rest of the play is by Kyd, Peele, or Nashe. Both plays are now included in anthologies of Shakespeare’s works. Shakespeare & Others also, however, puts forward Arden of Faversham, The Spanish Tragedy, and Double Falsehood (which I have previously written about for The Millions) as “almost certain” to contain passages by Shakespeare.
Arden of Faversham, written around 1590, is the earliest example of a domestic tragedy in English drama, as well as the first example of a detective procedural. Most of the play concerns the attempts by Alice Arden and her lover Mosby to hire someone to kill her husband, including two villains named Black Will and Shakebag (surely there’s a joke there). They finally kill Master Arden themselves, and the end of the play shows Arden’s friend Franklin uncovering the clues to their guilt. Shakespeare & Others suggests Shakespeare’s involvement in scene 8, in which Mosby and Alice quarrel and then reconcile in what is surely the sexiest makeup scene of the 1590s, and which contains stylistic and linguistic similarities to Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece, written at about the same time.
The Spanish Tragedy is Thomas Kyd’s masterpiece of a revenge drama, and influenced Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Hamlet. It is usually anthologized in its late-1580s version, and it is less-known that someone revised it a decade later for the Chamberlain’s Men, adding new scenes that increased the part of Hieronimo, the Marshal of Spain who feigns madness to gain revenge for his son’s murder. Shakespeare & Others attributes the additions to Shakespeare.
Double Falsehood is a different animal entirely, being perhaps the 1728 revision by Lewis Theobald of a Restoration-era revision by Thomas Betterton of a circa 1612 play by Shakespeare and Fletcher, Cardenio, based on an episode from Cervantes’s then newly-published Don Quixote. This anthology agrees with recent scholarship, including that of Brean Hammond, who edited it for the Arden Shakespeare series, that the play does represent, as it were, the grandchild of an authentic Shakespearean play.
Also included are Mucedorus, a play the editors describe as “worth considering” as partly-Shakespearean, as well as four plays they have determined are most likely not Shakespearean collaborations at all: A Yorkshire Tragedy, The London Prodigal, Locrine, and Thomas Lord Cromwell. The editors’ criteria for the table of contents of this anthology, therefore, seems to be the best of those plays that have, at some point in the past 400 years, been suggested by some scholar as possibly Shakespeare’s, or in other words, the best of those plays that belong to the group known as the “Shakespeare Apocrypha.”
The title of the anthology is therefore somewhat misleading. It does not present plays by “Shakespeare & Others” but by “Shakespeare, & Others.” However, presented this way, those plays that Shakespeare does appear to have a hand in are freed from the heavy trappings and gravitas the “Works” volumes lend, and can be examined not only for their literary qualities, which in the plays here are sometimes great, but also for the evidence they contain about Shakespeare the working writer. These plays can now more usefully be compared to the other canonical and collaborative plays, like Timon of Athens and Pericles and Macbeth. More attention to Shakespeare’s collaborative career, now known to be larger than was thought, may yield a new portrait: a playwright who was also a shrewd businessman and a company man, who likely spent more time in the day-to-day thinking about the bottom line than the immortality of his verse. And that is a more likely and more useful way to think about the man from Stratford.
Following is a continuation of my interview-conversation with David Shields, author of 10 books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, the subject of this interview. Click here for Part One, wherein we discuss the nature of a “manifesto,” love of lists, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joyce, Chekhov, and the novel as a dead shark.
The Millions: Another element of conventional fiction which you take up is the notion of a resolved plot arc, the falsity and myth of the “complete narrative action,” in favor of the entropic, the incomplete, the underprocessed. I wondered, though, in assembling the text-collage that is RH:AM, if you had some sense of narrative movement or “story” as you arranged, ordered, and created a structure for its fragments.
David Shields: Oh my goodness yes. The book pretends to be entropic, but it has an unmistakable movement to it. Collage is not a refuge for the compositionally disabled; it’s an evolution beyond narrative (as I say, more or less, in the book). The book gets increasingly personal, keeps developing its argument(s), keep opening out and inscaping in; I hope that is manifest. If the book is a collection of 619 riffs, it’s not working for the reader. It’s an absolutely sustained argument about appropriation, genre, and doubt.
TM: What about process? Did you arrange and rearrange a million times? Lay out little post-it notes on a giant canvass on the floor, Jackson Pollock style? Had you been “collecting” quotes in a notebook for 20 years? Etc. (I recall that in workshop you would sometimes pull out from your pockets your notes, scribbled on the backs of grocery and ATM receipts. Ah, the romantic image of the scatter-brained artist.)
DS: A dozen years ago or so, you took a graduate course with me, Sonya, in self-reflexive gesture in documentary film and essay, did you not? [Yes – good memory, exactly 12 years ago.] Can’t remember if I was teaching the course then. Over many, many years I’ve been teaching the course, and the reading material for the course has tended to be a very unwieldy packet that I developed, hundreds if not thousands of passages from various people. And each year, the packet would get slightly more refined, focused, and the big break for me was seeing how I could push these passages into rubrics, otherwise known as chapters. Then I needed to organize each chapter for maximum effect, and all of the chapters for maximum effect. I thought it was still a first draft for the book. But I read it and kept rereading it and rereading it, and I realized that for me, at least, the form worked, as is, to my astonishment, in a variety of ways. A rabbit pulled out of a hat—my favorite kind of book.
TM: Junot Diaz recently wrote on a New Yorker blog that President Obama’s central failing of the last few months has been absence of narrative. He wrote: “Ideas are wonderful things, but unless they’re couched in a good story they can do nothing[…] The story always wins.” Did you happen to catch that, and what do you think of that?
DS: I didn’t see Junot Diaz’s blog, and I haven’t read his work. But he’s a fiction writer; of course he’s going to say that: story is all. I’d say pretty much the opposite. I’m interested in ideas. I love the first chapter of The Great Gatsby, because Nick Carraway is thinking really well about things for 20 pages. The rest of the book is a snooze, because it’s just a bunch of sops to the lazy reader, otherwise known as not particularly revelatory plot developments. I wake up a little for the last 2 pages. So, too, I adore the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five. The best 30 pages Vonnegut ever wrote. That’s the entire book, compressed to thought, to consciousness. What separates us is not what happens to us. Pretty much the same things happen to us: birth, love, death. What I want is to gain access to how you think. That will assuage my loneliness. I want work that foregrounds that to an extraordinary degree. A few such books are published as novels: Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, Camus’ The Fall, Proust.
TM: What, if any, would you say is the distinction between the kind of raw, collagey, reality-fiction art forms that most interest you, and plain old reality TV of The Real World, Jon and Kate Plus Eight, Keeping Up With the Kardashians variety?
DS: I’m not really very interested in reality TV, I must say. There’s kind of a difference between, say, Ross McElwee’s self-reflexive documentary films—which have had a stronger influence on my aesthetic than just about anything I can think of—and Jon and Kate. What is the distinction? An animating, artistic intelligence that is organizing material into a metaphor that ramifies.
TM: Given RH:AM’s “evangelistic” impulse, does the possibility that the majority of readers who have a fidelity to fiction and the conventional novel form won’t be reading RH:AM trouble you at all?
DS: Hmm. To me, the book is much more self-critical than that. Also, see answer to the question about novels. If you’re opposed to abortions, don’t have one. If the argument doesn’t fly for you, I’m sorry that I didn’t bring you along. But fiction and poetry have ancient cheering sections. Thrillingly great nonfiction—essay as art—needs a fuller articulation of how and why epistemologically sophisticated nonfiction (Bouillier, Wenderoth, McElwee, Simon Gray, Spalding Gray, Cyril Connolly, Nietzsche, Markson, Lesy, Adler, Brainard, Dyer, Fusselman, Galeano, Lindqvist, Manguso, Maggie Nelson, Sebald, Trow, Thernstrom, Castle, Bernard Cooper, Annie Dillard, Pessoa, Mendelsohn, Spiegelman, Hardwick, Cioran, Rousseau, Duras, Pascal, Rochefoucauld) is about as exciting as prose gets. For that task, I’m your man. One needs to shout to be heard sometimes.
TM: Funny, though: it’s obvious to fiction writers that nonfiction rules the day, commercially speaking – money, readership, likelihood of getting published, etc. When I teach fiction classes, there’s always a demoralizing moment at the end of the term where I tell students to have low expectations for publishing fiction, because fewer and fewer people read it; if they want to get published and want to be read, they should write nonfiction. Why do you think each side sees itself as the David and the other as the Goliath?
DS: It’s a funny idea. Writer as perpetual spy in the house of love. Victim-lit as a way to psych oneself up. Crucial for me in writing this book—and in a way I’ve been writing it for thirty years, and certainly for the last fifteen years—was my vexed sense of the way in which great nonfiction is badly boxed in by straightahead memoir, on the one hand, and straightahead fiction, on the other. If I felt nonfiction ruled the day, the book may not have had its (willed? invented?) raison d’etre. The winner may get to control the story, but the loser always has the best stories.
TM: You quote at length Kevin Kelly, from an article in the New York Times:
Copies don’t count anymore; copies of isolated books, bound between inert covers, soon won’t mean much. Copies of their texts, however, will gain meaning as they multiply by the millions and are flung around the world, indexed, and copied again. What counts are the ways in which these common copies of creative work can be linked, manipulated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, enlivened by other media, and sewn together in the universal library. The only way for books to retain their waning authority in our culture is to write texts into this library… In the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail.
Then you go on to write:
It’s important for the writer to be cognizant of the marginalization of literature by more technologically sophisticated and more visceral narrative forms…I don’t think it’s a very good idea to write in a vacuum. Culture, like science, moves forward. Art evolves.
Did you at all consider publishing RH:AM in a more digitally-driven or technologically hybrid form, i.e. not primarily as a book? Do you think your work from here forward will be in print/book form, or something that incorporates more a fundamentally multi-media conception? The approaches of documentary and other cinematic forms, as well as music, for example, seem to figure integrally into your Manifesto.
DS: Interesting. One offer I had from a UK publisher was to publish the book as a series of tweets. I was tempted, but I decided not to go that way. I feel like my bluff got called. Here was my chance, but I was still somewhat loyal to good old print. We shall see where I go next, Sonya—whether this book will find its way digitally and what I’ll do next. I’m extremely interested in opening up the floodgates, but part of me still loves the monumental old dam up on a hill. I’m working it out.
TM: Lastly: in RH:AM’s epigraph, you quote Picasso’s “Art is theft.” In the first sentence of the book, you write about artists “smuggling” reality into their work, and then later you quote Bacchylides: “One author pilfers the best of another and calls it ‘tradition.’” At The Millions, editor Max Magee recently published an interview with an anonymous “book pirate,” and the interview prompted a lively and heated discussion among readers, and a record number of comments. How are we to negotiate/understand this new landscape of borrowing and stealing and sharing literary content in a way that is generative for literature, not merely parasitic?
DS: “After decades of measures that have drastically reduced the public domain, typically by extending the terms of protection, it is time to strongly reaffirm how much our societies and economies rely on a vibrant and ever expanding public domain. The role of the public domain, in fact, already crucial in the past, is even more important today, as internet and digital technologies enable us to access, use, and re-distribute culture with an ease and a power unforeseeable even just a generation ago.” (Public Domain Manifesto)
Two-thirds of Shakespeare’s Henry VI (parts I-III) is taken directly from other sources (especially Plutarch)—none of which are cited, of course.
As I say in a preface to the appendix (I wanted to publish the book without any citations, but I wound up needing to do so, to comply with Random House’s legal obligations), “I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it. That would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it. Or writing a book about destroying capitalism, but being told it can’t be published because it might harm the publishing industry.”
“Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do. All of us. Though not all of us know it, yet.” (William Gibson)
Art is a conversation between and among artists; it’s not a patent office. Reality can’t be copyrighted.
The citation of sources belongs to the realms of journalism and scholarship, not art. Citation domesticates the work, flattens it, denudes it, robs it of its excitement, risk, danger.
I want to make manifest what artists have done from the beginning of time—feed off one another’s work and, in so doing, remake it, refashion it, fashion something new.
Cortázar: “To quote someone is to quote oneself.”
Walter Benjamin: “Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse—these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.”
“My taste for quotation, which I have always kept—why reproach me for it? People, in life, quote what pleases them. Therefore, in our work, we have the right to quote what pleases us.” (Alain Robbe-Grillet)
“Language is a city, to the building of which every human being has brought a stone, yet each of us is no more to be credited with the grand result than the acaleph which adds a cell to the coral reef that is the basis of the continent.” (Emerson)
“Genius borrows nobly.” (Emerson again)
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” (T.S. Eliot)
“About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment.” (Josh Billings)
“People are always talking about originality, but what do they mean? As soon as we are born, the world begins to work upon us, and this goes on to the end. What can we call our own except energy, strength, and will? If I could give an account of all that I owe to great predecessors and contemporaries, there would be but a small balance in my favour.” (Goethe)
“A great man quotes bravely and will not draw on his invention when his memory serves him with a word as good. What he quotes, he fills with his own voice and humor, and the whole cyclopedia of his table talk is presently believed to be his own.” (Yet again Emerson, who is unfailingly brilliant on this subject).
The mimetic function has been replaced by manipulation of the original.