Chigozie Obioma explores the thematic power and appeal of fate in his masterful sophomore novel, An Orchestra of Minorities. “I think it’s the question of fate’s unknowingness, its unquestionability, its irrationality, its madness, its unpredictability, its mercy, its brutality, its generosity, its elusiveness, its banality, its vitality, and all the things you can ascribe to it. It is the most metaphysical of all phenomena—if we can call it a phenomenon. I cannot conceive of a greater topic for great literature,” he said.
Narrated by a chi, or guardian
spirit, Obioma’s latest novel follows the life of Chinonso, a poultry farmer,
whose entire world changes when he comes upon a young woman named Ndali, who is
preparing to jump from a bridge. Soon, Chinonso and Ndali find themselves in
love. But, like most things, their relationship proves itself to be more
complicated than either of them could have expected. Burdened and blessed by
the weight of sacrifice, determination, and destiny, Obioma takes readers on a
journey that weaves from the physical world into the spiritual one.
Obioma and I spoke about classic
literature, Nigerian influence, and human limitations.
The Millions: When I
read your novels, I recall elements of myths, epics, and even Greek tragedies.
When you set out to write, do you know you’ll be telling your stories in a
style and language that is reflective of these forms?
Chigozie Obioma: My answer would be that I grew up consuming Greek myth and Shakespeare, and Igbo tales. Across them, there is a tight thread, woven into a knot, which makes it almost impossible to tell them apart from each other. The universality of the archetypes in these stories—whether it is of the murderously ambitious serviceman who becomes convinced he must become king (in Macbeth) or the murderously angry man who becomes convinced that his life’s duty must be to hunt down the man who killed his father (Oedipus Rex) or of the man who embarks on a far journey into the forest of the Living and the Dead to reclaim his male potency (the tale of Ojadili)—make some of the most fascinating stories I have encountered.
So when I write, I’m often drawn unconsciously to these. The only conscious choice I make in this regard is in picking my subjects. I’m more chiefly concerned with metaphysics of existence and essence as they relate to the Igbo philosophy of being. We believe that life is in essence a dialectic between free will and destiny. It is a paradox: that you can make a choice, yet, that everything is preordained? And it is in this space that I anchor my stories.
TM: Do you think
you’ll ever veer away and write another kind of novel?
CO: I’m not sure but I know, by the short fiction I’ve written, that I’m capable of doing that. The issue is, the subjects I have been choosing are often so vast, so expansive they demand to be told in new ways. It is a constant surprise for me, personally. In fact, when the idea of narrative structure of The Fishermen first came to me, I waved it off as crazy. But as I wrote the book, it demanded that Ben tell the story that way. For An Orchestra of Minorities, I resisted the very challenging task of creating the chi. But again, the subject and vision for the novel demanded this structure. We will see what happens in the future.
TM: Your two novels
are both set largely in Nigeria, and there is a clear love and respect of place
in your prose. Do you think of Nigeria as being a character in itself in your
CO: Absolutely, in
both novels. The Fishermen has been correctly read as a metaphor for how
Nigeria was created by the chaos left in the aftermath of the encounter with
the madman (therein the colonialists who insisted we must become this specific
way). Nigeria has a more physical presence in An Orchestra of Minorities.
It is the land that sends its child—Chinonso the main character—away into his
great suffering and is also the mother that embraces him when he returns.
This is my complex relationship with Nigeria even on a personal level. It
is at once the home that sent me away, out of it because of its lack of
provisions for me, and it is the home that embraces me whenever I return.
TM: From where did you
get the idea to write An Orchestra of Minorities?
CO: I had been thinking for a long time about writing a novel about the Igbo civilization, a cosmological novel that will document for posterity the complex systems of my people. I wanted, in essence, to do what John Milton and Dante Alighieri did for Western civilization. But I didn’t know how to go about it until I moved to the Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus and encountered a Nigerian man who was duped into moving to North Cyprus and, when he discovered he had lost everything, got drunk and died tragically after falling from a three-story building. That became the inspiration for Chinonso. I wrote about that experience for The Guardian in 2016.
TM: I have to ask
about the narrator of An Orchestra of Minorities. A chi, or guardian
spirit, is who tells of the story of Chinonso and Ndali. Is having a narrator
who isn’t restricted by human limitations more difficult to write because of
the unknown boundaries? Or does that sense of freedom make the chi easier to
CO: The answer would
be both, but I imagine that the latter category will receive precedence. This
is because of the nature of the chi itself and the journeys it undertakes. The
Igbo has a concept of the heavenlies, a place where the afterlife happens. But
various zones and places in the Igbo nation do not have a unified description
of what it looks like. And where the descriptions are present, they are not as
comprehensive as you’d have, say, heaven in the Judeo-Christian tradition. So,
I had to invent something as close enough to what our ancestors would have
believed Alandiichie must have looked like. Things like this were very
difficult to do. But also, as you noted, the chi isn’t restricted by human
limitations so one has some space to write it without any fear of logical
inconsistencies or logistics. But the chi is also limited by a central
cosmological belief of the Igbo people. And it is more than 700 years old, so,
its memory is vast and to keep up with its commentary on life and being, to
continuously give it consistent prelapsarian eloquence—which sometimes allows
it to function as both a first and third person narrator—was difficult.
TM: Most of the
chapters begin with Chinonso’s chi offering wisdom. In one of the early
sections, the chi says, “Fear exists because of the presence of anxiety and
anxiety because humans cannot see the future. For if only a man could see the
future, he would be more at peace.” Do you think that’s true for contemporary
CO: I think so, at least as far as I know. There is a constant quest to know the future, to divine into matters we do not know. This is an ancient, almost primal quest that humanity has been engaging in. This is why Americans go to the tea leaf readers and Nigerians to “Miracle Center” churches and traditional priests. Que sera sera—what will I be? Will I be rich? Will I get that job? How about kids, will I have them? Are you sure this is the right man or woman to marry? OK, well, when will I die? And etcetera. I dealt with this fear as the central inciting action in The Fishermen as well.
TM: Thematically, this
novel looks closely at the value of sacrifice and the limits of love. However,
I want to focus on one theme that I think of most of all when thinking of An
Orchestra of Minorities: how fate shapes our lives. Chinonso struggles
constantly with the idea of his own life’s fate. Ndali and Chinonso’s chi do
too, but with some limits. What is it about fate that makes it such a compelling
CO: I think it’s the question of fate’s unknowingness, its unquestionability, its irrationality, its madness, its unpredictability, its mercy, its brutality, its generosity, its elusiveness, its banality, its vitality, and all the things you can ascribe to it. It is the most metaphysical of all phenomena—if we can call it a phenomenon. I cannot conceive of a greater topic for great Literature. As we speak, I’m writing an essay titled “Retreat from the Metaphysical” which looks at how great fiction has always tackled these questions and how modern fiction seems to be looking more and more at the self and to become more and more solipsistic because our vision of the scarcity of life is being obscured by the overwhelming abundance provided us by capitalism. Think of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Milton’s Paradise Lost which dealt with the question of foreknowledge and predestination—these are centered around the question of fate.
That said, fate is at the center of the Igbo-Odinani belief system. And if there is anything I have been trying to achieve in my work to date it is to center African philosophical ideas in the world discourse. Look around at the vast oceans of ideologies that mean anything today even to Africans themselves and none comes from us. The agelong erroneous belief that we had no complex systems of thought continues unchallenged, and today, even our intellectuals tramples on our cultural beliefs and philosophy. An Orchestra of Minorities shines a light on many strands of Igbo thought, and one of them is the essence of fate and its place in the cosmology of human existence.
TM: Chinonso is such a
complicated man. He saves someone’s life by sacrificing that which he values so
much. He loves. He tries to better himself. But he is also deeply flawed. He
does things rashly. He has a bad temper. He abandons who he is. I don’t want to
spoil too much, but what do you hope readers take away from Chinonso?
CO: I think this is open to the reader. I completely agree with you that Chinonso is very complicated and he is all of these things. But there is a line about him from the book that I always think about: “He has been vandalized by a spiritual politics into which he had been unwillingly conscripted.” This is my view of him. I think he is changed mostly by the things that had happened to him, and that test his humanity. And sometimes, when our humanity is tested beyond what we can bear, we can fail. This was the central theme of William Golding’s classic, Lord of the Flies.
But also, there is the element of
the physical politics that vandalize him: being defrauded by others and the
international racism he faces in Cyprus, which causes him to be unfairly
jailed. These things shape and reshape him, and his character evolves all
through the story till the last act in which he becomes, himself, a vandal.
TM: Readers fond of Homer’s epic Greek poem The Odyssey will likely view An Orchestra of Minorities as a contemporary retelling of sorts. How heavy of an influence was that text as you began writing? Did you always know your novel would have some similarities?
CO: In a way, yes. As I was plotting, it occurred to me that Chinonso’s journey would resemble that of Odysseus. So, I had him read the book as a child and use Odysseus’s story as a device to encourage him to continue on during times when it feels as though his troubles are beginning to sink him. But this is not a rewrite or re-imagining or retelling of Homer’s tale. There are just similarities.
recommendations are basically what I live for. There are a few weeks until An
Orchestra of Minorities is available, so I want to ask you something a
little different as we close. Are there any books you suggest readers check out
before they pick up your book? Ones that might help put readers in the perfect
place before they get to know the story of Chinonso and Ndali?
CO: I would ask them to read John Milton’s classic Paradise Lost, if they haven’t done so. I would also recommend Dante’s Inferno. For an understanding of some of the Igbo traditions readers will encounter in my book, I recommend Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God. But absent these, great contemporary books I have recently read and loved are Gun Love by Jennifer Clement and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean Dominique Bauby.
Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities is scheduled
to hit bookstore shelves on Jan. 8, 2019. Chigozie will be on tour to promote
his latest release. Be sure to check him out at one of his scheduled events:
1/8/2019, 5:00 PM: University of Nebraska/ Lincoln, NE
7:30 PM: Greenlight Bookstore/ Brooklyn, NY with Nicole Dennis-Benn
7:00 PM: Harvard Bookstore/ Cambridge, MA with Okey Ndibe
7:00 PM: Books & Books/ Coral Gables, FL
7:00 PM: Novel Neighbor with the International Institute of St. Louis and
WeStories/ St. Louis, MO
7:00 PM: Brazos Bookstore, Houston, TX
7:00 PM: Raven Bookstore/ Lawrence, KS
7:00 PM: Madison Central Library/ Madison, WI
6:30 PM: Indigo Bridge Books/ Lincoln, NE
In October 2015, Hogarth Press from Crown Publishing launched the Hogarth Shakespeare project, an anticipated eight-part series in which best-selling authors retell a Shakespearean classic as a contemporary novel. Jeanette Winterson’s cover of The Winter’s Tale—A Gap of Time—was published first, almost exactly 400 years after the Bard’s death. Five more installments have since been released, with the final one—Gillian Flynn’s cover of Hamlet—expected in 2021.
Contemporizing a Shakespearean play is a fairly common undertaking. As the Hogarth Shakespeare’s website notes, Shakespeare’s works have frequently “been reinterpreted for each new generation, whether as teen films, musicals, science-fiction flicks, Japanese warrior tales, or literary transformations.” Reimagining a Shakespearean story can often be a contentious effort as well. Many critics note the difficulty of believably translating a Shakespearean conflict—written centuries before the study of psychology—into a modern setting. Supporters, meanwhile, will often point to William Shakespeare himself and his own aptness to adapt and revise stories from various sources.
Regardless of one’s personal thoughts on Shakespearean adaptations, it is hard to overlook their significance to our cultural canon, from musicals like West Side Story and Kiss Me, Kate to films such as 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Even having the original texts set in modern circumstances can be incredibly influential and timely, with the Public Theatre’s recent production of Julius Caesar—in which Caesar was modeled after Donald Trump—being the most notorious recent example.
As a lover of both Shakespearean drama and contemporary literature, I am an ardent follower of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. However, my interest in the project stems not from a desire to see creatively adapted Shakespearean plots; but, rather, an interest in seeing Shakespearean stories used to examine contemporary political, social, and cultural issues.
Each book in the series thus far has had varying success with this. Jeanette Winterson uses her cover of The Winter’s Tale to examine the devastating effects of hyper-masculinity and violence against women, as well as the normalcy of homoeroticism. Shylock Is My Name—Howard Jacobson’s cover of The Merchant of Venice—uses both Shylock himself and his modernized counterpart, Simon Strulovitch, to examine the past and present expectations of Jewish identity. In Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, her cover of The Taming of the Shrew, the Petruchio character attempts to woo Kate into marriage so that he can avoid deportation. The most meta cover version—Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed—has the Prospero character produce The Tempest in a prison. This Tuesday marked the release of Edward St. Aubyn’s Dunbar—his cover of King Lear—which sees Lear reimagined as the head of an international media corporation.
Edward St Aubyn’s novel, however, was preceded by Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, her cover of Othello and Hogarth’s first modernization of a Shakespearean tragedy. Chevalier’s retelling takes place over the course of a single day on a predominantly white elementary school playground, in which Ian, the playground bully, schemes to break up the budding relationship between Osei—a new student originally from Ghana—and Dee, a popular white student.
When it comes to contemporizing Shakespeare, Othello tends to be considered one of the most substantial texts to view through a modern lens, generally accompanied by The Merchant of Venice. Although Shylock is presented as the villain of Merchant, the anti-Semitism he experiences allows for a modern writer to examine Shylock’s personal tragedy as a victim of discrimination. Meanwhile, although race is not specifically mentioned as incentive for Iago’s escalating schemes against Othello, the implicit racial politics of both Othello’s interracial marriage to Desdemona and his military success as a man of color provide plenty of contemporary subjects for a modern author to examine. In his recent piece for The New York Times, “Shylock and Othello in the Time of Xenophobia,” Shaul Bassi writes, “If throughout the 20th century ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’ vied for the title of most topical political allegory, in the new millennium ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Othello’ are the plays that make Shakespeare our contemporary.”
The fatal misstep of New Boy, then, comes from the fact that Chevalier chose to set her retelling in 1974 Washington D.C., only 10 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act and, from Bassi’s perspective, before Othello truly became the relevant allegory that it is today. There are only a few choice nods to early 1970s pop culture such as hippies, Oldsmobiles, and Roberta Flack, and only one fleeting reference is made to Watergate (despite impeachment proceedings presumably taking place minutes away from the playground). Instead, the main aspect of New Boy that gives it a sense of time is the overtness of the racism that it exhibits. Teachers are frequently overheard discussing Osei, expressing their relief that he isn’t in their classroom, sayings things like “This school isn’t ready for a black boy,” and commenting that Osei has given Dee “a taste for chocolate milk.” Osei and Dee’s teacher, a rumored Vietnam War veteran, functions primarily as a racist stock character, lashing out at Osei for minor infractions by calling him “boy” and telling him to watch himself. His arc appears in the final pages of the book, when he drops the novel’s one predictable and unnecessary n-word, as he yells to Osei to get off of the jungle gym.
Chevalier’s descriptions tend to hinder her storytelling as well. The most significant example of this is in her characterization of Osei’s sister, Sisi, who has begun to follow the Black Panther party back in New York. Her empowerment is described at one point as an “angry black girl performance,” and she is subsequently described as angry so often that her character appears flat and stereotyped. Chevalier’s writing can also begin to feel heavy-handed, with six instances in which characters start to call Osei black before stopping mid-word to correct themselves. Even with this occasional interruption, the word “black” is used so often that it begins to feel artificial and excessive. In Act IV, Chevalier writes:
[Osei] did not want to confront her, to have her get in his face, talking to him, telling more lies, treating him like her boyfriend, and then like the black boy on a white playground. The black sheep, with a black mark against his name. Blackballed. Blackmailed. Blacklisted. Blackhearted. It was a black day.
So how is it that Hogarth’s cover of The Merchant of Venice was so successful, while their Othello cover fell so flat? The answer appears to be because of writers that were assigned to them. Howard Jacobson is a Jewish novelist best known for writing about the struggles of Jewish characters. Jacobson reportedly asked to cover other plays before being assigned Merchant, indicating that Hogarth thoughtfully assigned the play knowing that he would modernize it in a provocative way. Meanwhile, Tracy Chevalier is a white woman best known for The Girl with the Pearl Earring, set in the Dutch Golden Age, which bares little resemblance to the conflicts of Othello. When asked in an promotional interview for Hogarth as to what attracted her to the text, Chevalier likened Othello’s otherness to that of hers living as an expat in Great Britain.
White writers opting to write about a time in the recent past when racism was more deliberate is not uncommon. Abandoning a nuanced discussion of micro-aggressions, structural and institutional racism, and white supremacy in favor of explicit and often dated racial language often simplifies the writing process, and keeps white audiences comfortable as they read. In a similar critique of Hollywood, Kara Brown noted in Jezebel last year, “Right now, Americans are only comfortable with a certain type of black person onscreen.” Although Chevalier occasionally hints at the possibility of a more complex discussion of micro-aggressions—the principal congratulates Osei on being “articulate” before telling the class to welcome him even though he is a “less fortunate” student, despite his father being a diplomat—she ultimately shies away from it.
Alternatively, in A Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson uses her own background to add to her source material and intensify the text’s conflict. In The Winter’s Tale, King Leontes rather unexplainably believes that his friend King Polixenes is having an affair with his wife, Hermione. In A Gap of Time, Winterson—known for her autobiographical writing on LGBT issues—creates a previous affair between her Leontes and Polixenes, which, as Dean Bakopoulos points out in his New York Times review of the novel, “makes Leo’s overblown rage and irrational envy at the outset even more credible than it is in the original.” Therefore, although The Winter’s Tale isn’t usually listed with The Merchant of Venice and Othello as one of Shakespeare’s most politically relevant plays, Winterson’s unique additions make it more successful adaptation than Chevalier’s take on Othello, which idly favors a more overt racism than what is featured in her source text.
The choices of writers in many cases have led to fascinating twists on Shakespeare’s works, namely Jacobson’s parallel Shylocks in Shylock is My Name and Jeanette Winterson’s gay undertones in A Gap of Time. However, in a 2015 New York Times article detailing the Hogarth Shakespeare project, Alexandra Alter wrote that Winterson’s cover was, “a promising start to an ambitious new series from Hogarth, which has assembled an all-star roster of stylistically diverse writers to translate Shakespeare’s timeless plays into prose.” As the series has gained more traction, it is hard not to notice the word “stylistically” here. Although the writings of the Hogarth team are stylistically varied, their biographies are less so. Three of the writers are American and three are British, leaving Margaret Atwood (who is Canadian) and Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, whose cover of Macbeth is expected next year. All eight writers are white—five women and three men—with only one under the age of 50 (Flynn is 46), and three writers in their 70s. Although each author did achieve some success within their own adaptation, imagine how rewarding the series would have been had it featured writers whose backgrounds varied more drastically from Shakespeare himself. It is disappointing when a project aims to see “the Bard’s plays retold by acclaimed, bestselling novelists and brought to life for a contemporary readership,” yet the writers selected are not ultimately representative of all that contemporary society has to offer.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Towards the end of each year I do one of those anonymous surveys where I ask the students—high-school sophomores and juniors—how much they read, as a percentage, of each book. I’ve been doing this for the last 10 years or so, and the results are remarkably consistent: most students read most, but rarely all, of each book. About 15 percent read every single word of every single thing, some of it twice. These the kids who would read the contents list of a 7-11 freezer if told, the same students who tend to sit in the front row and take the kind of notes that end up in the Smithsonian. Another 15 percent admit to struggling to even open the books, but would gladly read the 7-11 freezer list because of its novelty value and the refreshing lack of obfuscating adjectives and modifiers. The 70 percent of students in the middle make up the dominant percentage, the ones who often leave little notes, not quite apologia, but regretful explanations about wishing that they had more time to do all the reading because they would have liked to, that they did most of it, that what they read of The Great Gatsby was really good but what with other homework, and athletics, and Uncle Steve’s birthday dinner, and the cousin in Jersey with leukemia, and x not yet having said anything about prom…well, there was a lot to think about.
All this at three separate independent schools in different parts of California. Like I said, remarkably consistent results, and results that translate across gender, race, and socioeconomic status. In terms of the not-highly-rigorous breakdown of those not-highly-rigorous statistics you get about 70 percent of the students reading about 70 percent of the material 70 percent of the time. All of which sounds terrific, except that most of the time, most of the 70 percent, and even some of the 15 percent taking Smithsonian-esque notes, see words rather than read them. For most high-school students, the act of “reading” recalls the soft glow of something done at night, before bed, in jim-jams with a cup of hot cocoa—the equivalent of night-time elevator music. Or, if not that, they’re “reading” on the bus, in the car, while standing outside class two minutes before the bell. And, at best, gaining an understanding of situation and context: who did what or said what to whom and where at what time in what kind of weather. Seeing words but not really reading them, a marriage without contact.
I want them to see reading as something far more intimate, even fractured at times, as something combative, vulgar, assertive—a constant back-and-forth between reading and rereading, moments of stepping outside the text then coming back and battering at it with questions. Something better done in a flak jacket than pajamas. And high school students hate doing it. Who, what, when, and where, of course, are essential. You gotta figure out who’s sleeping with whom before you ask why. There’s a brother involved? What? No. Wait! They’re on a train? If that part’s hazy, the next stop becomes SparkNotes and PinkMonkey, and you might as well hand out the 7-11 freezer list. But how to truly turn them off? Ask them to annotate. The a-word: to add notes to (a text or diagram) giving explanation or comment. To say they “hate” it not strong enough. The most common disclaimers being about how it takes them out of the story, how if they stop they can’t remember what happened, that it takes too long, that it’s not enjoyable anymore. I’ve had students tell me, with genuine feeling, that reading’s been ruined for them—forever. Well, yes, if “reading” is that thing they do at bedtime with that cup of cocoa, and if that’s the thing ruined forever, then, no, I’m not sorry. How many students do trig curled up in bed without a pen or pencil?
So the task has to be to get them to see reading as something a little more combative, which is not to undermine scanning and context. I love scanning and context, reading for the sheer drama of turning the page, for the drama of occupation, of escape—especially on a beach, or hungover, or sitting in 24E on a flight without a functioning TV. But in a high-school English class, the skill of reading as an intimate, assertive thing stands as the thing I’m more interested in—the premise being that if reading were less of a spectator sport maybe we’d inhabit a world better informed, more critical—and critical in a reflective rather than a reactive sense—a world shaped more collectively by thoughtfulness, by magnanimity.
But annotate what, students ask? A fair question. And the place to begin is questions, the questions that come after the who, what, when, and where have been answered. Why questions—about place, about character, about motives…about the weather. Questions that pick at the story’s fabric in ways that enhance that fabric as opposed to designing a new one. So, for instance, after reading the first couple of pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby out loud in class, students invariably ask questions about why the novel’s named after Gatsby, about what makes him great, if his father gave him any other advice than the part about not all the people in the world having had the advantages he’s had. About how come the narrator doesn’t know the name for a seismograph. Interesting enough questions, but dead ends, as a couple of the students put it (though at least two of their classmates are adamant that we need to pursue the seismograph thing) because they depend either on plot that hasn’t happened yet or hearsay. Better the question that at least allows for the possibility of an answer through what’s already there rather than depending upon the goose chase of the imagination. So when Nick Carraway says that “[R]eserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope” it might benefit us to ask why? Why “hope” as opposed to something else? Why infinite? And what might this tell us about Nick Carraway’s temperament? Questions that allow us to begin to work out the kind of world Nick Carraway lives in and how that world might interact with ours. The kinds of questions that unnerve what’s in front of us, that give us something to hold onto in terms of plot while, simultaneously, digging a little deeper into that plot.
They want to know how many they need. A ball of string question. And I tell them not to go all gung-ho and answer the questions, but to let them sit for a while, the idea being to try and read from inside the story rather than from inside a predetermined perspective. Virginia Woolf calls it the art of delaying dictation: “If we could banish all [such] preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him.” Even in novels, to delay that impulse, that reflex, as long as possible, allowing the piece itself a chance to stand, at least for a moment, outside the moment of presumption. The questions more important, paradoxically, than the answers. It sounds all back to front, but getting students to trust, first and foremost, their own ability to ask questions rather than a teacher’s executive ability to provide answers leads, again, to the kind of critical, reflective impulse our world so desperately need. It allows students access to a way of thinking, a means for seeing, long after they’ve forgotten if affect works primarily as a verb or a noun, or how many suitors Odysseus slays in the great hall.
Which brings up the question of quantity. If the ability to read, and think, critically is the primary currency secondary education needs to invest in, then the disfigured mathematical percentage of how many students read how much becomes less important. I’m not sure it really matters if students read all of The Great Gatsby, or Their Eyes Were Watching God, or The House on Mango Street, Macbeth, etc. Of course it’s nice if they do, and it’s nice if they go out into the world with a complex sense of Gatsby’s dream, of Janie’s epiphany, of Esperanza’s journey, Macbeth’s predicament, etc., but I think it’s more important that they know what reading looks like, that they know it as an act of meaningful aggression. We’re not in the business of creating English majors, nice as it would be to fill the world with such people. But until Birnam Wood do come unto Dunsinane, I’ll take empathetic, critical thinkers as a stop-gap. Reading in high school is not about, or shouldn’t be about, numbers of pages; it should be about a way of thinking, a way of seeing. For that, we can focus on certain passages, the certain, crucial passages that most books build to—the golden bricks. As teachers, we can fill in the rest of the building. It’s the skill of reading itself that’s the important thing, perhaps the only thing.
That said, they can’t be forced. It tends to work to begin small—maybe one annotation every two pages, but a real one. Not underlining or highlighting—that’s not annotating, that’s underlining or highlighting. Annotating is where there’s something highlighted or underlined and accompanied by a note working out why said moment was underlined or highlighted. Why questions: about reserving judgments and infinite hope. So, one every two pages. And we agree to it as a class. If one person doesn’t do it, we all do jumping jacks. Not literally, though I wish, just like I wish I could pull off having class outside and using saxophones and live macaws as props. In place of jumping jacks, a two-minute free write on some contemporary event, like a wardrobe malfunction.
And this is where the larger picture begins to coalesce—the significance of developing a skill through reading that translates into larger worlds, a skill learned in a safe space where poor judgment comes without real consequences, except intellectual ones. The point being that the consequences aren’t human. They’re judgments about characters experiencing pain, triumph, sadness, joy, hurt, and so on, but we can get them wrong and little changes. Getting people wrong in the real world, of course, comes with real consequences, sometimes tragic. The skill of delaying judgment, at least categorically, until sufficient questions are in play stands so powerfully at the center of empathy. To return to Virginia Woolf’s point: if reading can teach us how to begin to push preconceptions about fictional characters further aside (“banish” seems overly hopeful), then reading perhaps serves as a model for a similar push in response to people in the world, and not just those that enter our interpersonal spaces, but also the persons in the worlds outside ours—the cultural, social, and political worlds so often represented in binary ways in the media. To effectively annotate and read the fictional worlds of Jay Gatsby, Janie Crawford, Esperanza, Macbeth, et. al. allows students, ultimately, to be able to do the same for hurricanes, race riots, economic policies, state of the union speeches, even wardrobe malfunctions—but to do so from a place that begins with witness, a place that works aggressively to keep preconceptions at bay—questions not answers. This what real reading can accomplish—an aggressive stance, a flak jacket, that stands as a condition, ironically, for more empathy. Romanticized? Maybe—actually, not even maybe. But still essential.
The other part of this resides in stillness. To be still, to hover, inside a piece of literature requires students stopping for moments at a time within the characters and their fates, their worlds. Annotations force them into that space, if only for a moment, alongside a partial stepping back from the worlds circumscribed by their own egos: the teaching of reading as the teaching of stillness, a kind of meditative, cognitive moment where students develop the ability to be intellectually still in a world so often pushing their intellects to move at breakneck speed from moment to moment, a constant shuffling of information, their minds the photons inside the Hadron collider moving at a searing pace. And this is crucial no matter where students go to school, no matter what the classroom: English and History, Science, Math, Art, Foreign Language, Metalwork, etc. Students need to know how to undermine and dismantle the spectacles surrounding them, and how to slow each spectacle down in turn in order to better see the axles turning inside of it. Critical reading is where that stillness begins. Annotations in the margins of Macbeth or a set of scribbled-on sticky notes in Their Eyes Were Watching God are the beginning points of interpreting their worlds, the ones screeching past them without brakes.
Image Credit: Pixels.
My professional reading life is fairly regimented — I have to be attentive to new, newsworthy books to assign for review or to write about myself — and my personal reading habits have become suitably random in response, subject to mood as much circumstance, which, this year, meant the purchase of a new coat. Said coat, a voluminous and awful garment — moss green, somehow both pilly and prickly — has, to its credit, pockets like wells. Which meant that I, who do most of my reading on the Q train to and from work, fell in with a group of regular traveling companions. Four books (or rather, 3 and 3/4), whose slenderness was, at first, their chief qualification, took up permanent residence upon my person: a new Picador edition of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping that’s about the size of a pack of cards; my friend Brenda Shaughnessy’s 2012 collection of poems Our Andromeda, a book I worship; my husband’s high school copy of Macbeth minus an act or two; and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters.
I read and reread many books in 2015 (my favorite books of the year can be found here and here), but these are the books I kept in orbit, the books I wore out. Desperate Characters, in particular, I couldn’t stop rereading. It’s the type of novel it’s become so fashionable to deride — one of the “quiet” books about middle-aged women staring out of windows, enjoying quiet epiphanies — when it’s really a wallop of a book, a barbed portrait of a marriage, not to mention a brilliant take on gentrification, white fears of black and brown people, the hostile insularity of the nuclear family, and how power reproduces and how power conceals itself. And from time to time, sure, the heroine stares out of a window.
(It occurs to me now that these books are more connected than not — they’re all about paralysis and ambition, about moving through trauma, trying to move past it. Reading choices can seem so random, but aren’t we always just digging deeper and deeper grooves into old obsessions?)
But it was also a year of discoveries — the late Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal was one, the poet Anne Boyer another — and rediscoveries. I taught a class in criticism, which allowed me to go back and reread a few favorites — The Sight of Looking at Death by T.J. Clark, Zona by Geoff Dyer, Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith, My Poets by Maureen N. McLane, Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me by Craig Seligman.
Most of all I was grateful for the number of writers finding fresh and intelligent ways to think about family life — I’m thinking of recent books like The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, On Immunity by Eula Biss, Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso, 10:04 by Ben Lerner — but also older books, beloved books I returned to as I wrote about these issues in an essay for Bookforum, including Zami by Audre Lorde, The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. These books position the family not in conflict with creativity but an extension of it, not a way of retreating from our obligations to our communities but a reaffirmation of them. It’s a lovely thought — that what tethers us, burdens us can somehow also set us free — especially to one in a coat bogged down with books, standing on a subway platform too early in the day.
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“All that he doth write / Is pure his own.” So a 17th-century poet praised William Shakespeare. This is not actually true.
Shakespeare was a reteller. Cardenio, also known as The Double Falsehood, which I’ve written about before for The Millions, was a retelling of the Cardenio episode in Don Quixote. As You Like It retold Thomas Lodge’s romance Rosalynde, The Two Noble Kinsmen comes from the Knight’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Cressida from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The Comedy of Errors is Plautus’s Menaechmi with an extra set of twins. The Winter’s Tale retold Robert Greene’s novella Pandosto without the incest. Much Ado About Nothing is Orlando Furioso, although Beatrice and Benedick are original. King Lear, Hamlet, and The Taming of the Shrew may be simple rewrites of earlier plays. In fact the only of Shakespeare’s plays to have original plots were The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. What makes Shakespeare, well — Shakespeare, is not his plots, but his language.
This month, Hogarth Press published the first entry — The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson — in a new collection of novels by today’s major practitioners that each rewrite one of Shakespeare’s plays. Tracy Chevalier will be retelling Othello; Margaret Atwood The Tempest; Gillian Flynn Hamlet; Edward St. Aubyn King Lear; Anne Tyler The Taming of the Shrew; Jo Nesbø Macbeth; and Howard Jacobson The Merchant of Venice. This is not a new endeavor, although it does seem to be a uniquely 20th- and 21st-century phenomenon. (The Romantics preferred to think of Shakespeare as an artless genius working under pure inspiration.) But as scholars have begun to recognize the extent of Shakespeare’s own retellings — and collaborations — modern writers have taken a page out of his book by rewriting his plays. (I’ll mention here the newly announced project by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to “translate” Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English, but that seems to stem from a different impulse.)
Perhaps this narrative is too simple. It is not as if, after all, writers in the last century suddenly discovered Shakespeare as a source and influence. For the past 400 years, Shakespeare’s poetry and plays have become as much a part of the common language and mythology as the King James Bible. In a sense, Noah’s flood is as much a foundational myth of our culture as the Seven Ages of Man. Like Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby, we use Shakespeare as a way to understand and connect with each other. There is so much of Shakespeare woven into Moby-Dick, for instance, that the allusions and the words and the quotations feel like the warp and woof of the novel. The same could be said for just about anything by Milton, Dickens, Austen, Woolf, Frost, Eliot — in fact I could name most of the writers in the English and American canons, and, indeed, abroad. Borges, to name just one example, found in Shakespeare a kindred spirit in his exploration of magical realism; and Salman Rushdie’s definition of magical realism as “the commingling of the improbable with the mundane” is a pretty good description of some of Shakespeare’s plays — A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind.
Let’s take, for an example, Woolf’s Between the Acts, her last novel. It is a book seemingly made entirely of fragments — scraps of literature spoken and overheard; parts of the village pageant, around which the novel centers, either omitted or the voices of the actors blown away by the wind; characters speaking to each other but failing to understand, or only managing to half-articulate their thoughts. In the midst of all this, Shakespeare is ever-present, a source for the poetry on everyone’s lips, inspiration for part of the pageant, and a symbol of what ought to be valued, not just in literature and art, but in life.
One of these piecemeal phrases that becomes a refrain in the book and in the consciousness of the characters is “books are the mirrors of the soul.” Woolf turns it around from meaning that books reflect the souls of their creators to meaning that the books we read reflect what value there might be in our souls. The person who is drawn to reading about Henry V must have that same heroism somewhere in him; the woman who feels the anguish of Queen Katherine also has some of her nobility. The younger generation of Between the Acts reads only newspapers, or “shilling shockers.” No one reads Shakespeare, although they try to quote him all the time. Shakespeare becomes a substitute for what they cannot put into words themselves, their “groanings too deep for words.” The worth of Shakespeare that emerges in Between the Acts is as a tap for the hidden spring in each of the characters that contains the things they wish they could say, the thoughts that otherwise they would have no way to communicate — instead of mirrors, books are the mouthpieces of the soul.
Shakespeare’s plays are a touchstone, and the way we react to them, the way we retell them, says more about us than about him. For example, Mary Cowden Clarke in 1850 created biographies for Shakespeare’s female characters in The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines. Each are made paragons of virtue and modesty, reflecting Victorian morals and values. But Clarke was also coopting Shakespeare for her own interest in women’s rights, using his stories of women with agency and power, and clothing them in Victorian modesty in order to provide an example and a way forward for herself and her female readers.
To take another example, Mark Twain retold Julius Caesar (actually, just Act III, Scene i) in “The Killing of Julius Caesar ‘Localized,’” but he used it to address the bully politics of his day. Shakespeare’s play becomes a news squib from the “Roman Daily Evening Fasces” and the title character becomes “Mr. J. Caesar, the Emperor-elect.” Twain’s Caesar successfully fends off each would-be assassin, “[stretching] the three miscreants at his feet with as many blows of his powerful fist.” The story also makes a claim about Twain’s status as a writer compared to Shakespeare: by mentioning Shakespeare as a supposed citizen of Rome who witnessed “the beginning and the end of the unfortunate affray,” Twain mocks the popular reverence for Shakespeare; he ceases to be a poetic genius and becomes merely a talented transcriber. But by doing so, Twain mocks himself as well; he is, after all, transcribing Shakespeare.
To turn to novels, I could mention Woolf’s Night and Day, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Robert Nye’s Falstaff, John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, Rushie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, and a long list of others. In a way these are their own type; rather than appropriating Shakespeare, or quoting or alluding to Shakespeare, they purport to re-imagine his plays. Jane Smiley’s retelling of King Lear is probably the most well-known. A Thousand Acres manages to capture the horror of Lear. It is modern in that there is no ultimately virtuous character. Cordelia, or Caroline, becomes naive and blind and prejudiced as any other character in the play, and Larry Cook’s strange relationship to his daughters and the way it blows up says less about power and pride and love and aging than about abuse and bitterness. It is both horribly familiar and also fits surprisingly well into Shakespeare’s play. It becomes part of the lens through which we now must view Lear. It enriches our reading of Shakespeare while also giving us a new view of ourselves. And oh is it a cold hard view.
For her entry into the Hogarth series, Winterson had first pick, and chose The Winter’s Tale, which she says has always been a talismanic text for her. In The Gap of Time, Winterson has written what she calls a “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. It’s a jazzy, news-y retelling, set insistently in a realistic world. Whereas Shakespeare takes pains to remind us that his play is just a play, Winterson’s emphatically tries to set the action in our own world. Hermione, for example, an actor and singer, has a Wikipedia page. Her acting debut was in Deborah Warner’s adaptation of Winterson’s novel The PowerBook, and she has performed at the Roundhouse Theatre in London. Leontes lives in London, where he is a successful businessman with a company called Sicilia, and Polixenes, a video game designer, lives in New Bohemia, which is recognizable as New Orleans. The characters are renamed with short, jazzy nicknames: Leontes becomes Leo; Polixenes is Zeno; Hermione is Mimi; the shepherd and clown who discover the lost Perdita become Shep and Clo. Only Perdita and Autolycus retain their full names. (Autolycus is the best translation of the book: he becomes a used car salesman trying to offload a lemon of a Delorean onto the clown.)
Shakespeare’s play is focused almost equally on the parent’s story and then the children’s, but Winterson’s focuses almost exclusively on the love triangle between Zeno, Leo, and Mimi. Whereas Shakespeare leaves open the possibility that Leontes may have some grounds for jealousy (though if we believe the oracle of Apollo, no room for the possibility of Hermione being guilty of adultery), Winterson is explicit that a love triangle does exist, but she inverts it. It is Leo who loves both Mimi and Zeno, Leo who has slept with both. And it’s clear that though Mimi chose Leo, there was a distinct connection between her and Zeno. Winterson even takes a hint from Shakespeare’s source in Pandosto and makes Leo consider romancing Perdita when he meets her. “As someone who was given away and is a foundling, I’ve always worked with the idea of the lost child,” Winterson has said. The part of Shakespeare’s tale that spoke to Winterson was the origin story, why the child was lost.
Shakespeare’s play, because it doesn’t insist upon existing in a realistic world, is full of wonder and mystery. It’s that magic that happens when you hear the words “Once upon a time.” The closest Winterson’s version gets to that place is in the scenes that take place inside of Zeno’s video game, when Zeno and Leo and Mimi play themselves but also become something a little grander, a little wilder, a little more numinous. But there is little of Shakespeare’s language present. Winterson’s The Winter’s Tale is as much a retelling of Pandosto as Shakespeare.
Why do we return again and again to Shakespeare’s plays, why do we keep rewriting them? Is it in hope that some of his genius will rub off? Are we searching for new possibilities for interpretation, hoping to mine new ore out of well covered ground? Or are we going toe-to-toe, trying our strength against the acknowledged genius of English literature? Perhaps it is simply that creativity is contagious. When a piece of art inspires you, it literally in-spires, breaths into you. It makes us want to create new art. Or, maybe it’s a more basic instinct. From the beginning of our lives, when we hear a good story, a story that as Winterson says becomes “talismanic” for us, what do we say? “Tell it again.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
At the end of May 2015, during the first stirrings of the summer, I drove out to Bromley with my son, Dylan, in search of something to read. For some five miles, the road runs through the grey monotony of London’s southernmost suburbs, past stone-clad, semi-detached family homes, beneath drooping silver elms planted kerbside generations ago, past The Crooked Billet, now a Harvester family restaurant, once the site of wartime disaster. The large structure stands in a car park that is never more than half-full of hatchbacks, and, on a sandwich board perched half-on and half-off the path leading up the front door, the all-you-can-eat salad buffet is celebrated in garish lettering. On November 19th, 1944, the original Crooked Billet pub was destroyed when a V2 rocket struck. 27 drinkers died. I imagine them as elderly men in drab colours, leaning against the bar, knocking spent tobacco from their pipes, finishing off the dregs of Kentish pints, blinking obliviously as the silver rocket explodes. The Harvester restaurant, taking its name from its destroyed predecessor, now hosts families attracted by the promise of cheap burgers and the surf ‘n’ turf special, all sure to hold their faces above the sneeze screen at the salad bar, the Perspex roof sheltering the tired lettuce and dumb-cut onion. I once asked a teenage waiter, whose purple acne rose above his collar and across his Adam’s apple, if he knew any detail of the rocket attack. He narrowed his eyes as if I were mocking him. He cleared his throat, shook his head, took my drinks order.
W.G. Sebald was born in the same year that the V2 rocket struck this South London pub. In 1929, his father joined the Reichswehr. It was Ernest Röhm’s desire to merge his Sturmabteilung (SA) with the smaller Reichswehr, its troop numbers limited by the Treaty of Versailles, that provoked the Night of the Long Knives (1934), during which the Nazi regime murdered Röhm, the leadership of the SA, and many other political figures considered a threat to Adolf Hitler’s newly gained power. Arriving in Bromley, I parked the car, a silver Ford Escort, in the South Street car park. A row of tired trees screened the lot from the adjoining road. Having forgotten to bring change, I attempted to pay for the parking ticket using my mobile phone. A bright poster, stuck to the side of the silver parking meter, promised easy electronic payment through a variety of online media. I attempted to download the iOS app, but forgot my password. I was given three chances before my account was locked. There is an absence of technology in Sebald’s work. He wrote in a world coming to terms with the Internet. His first “novel,” After Nature, was published in 1988. His last, Austerlitz, in 2001, the year of his death. Sebald described the impact of dogs on his writing:
But I never liked doing things systematically. Not even my Ph.D. research was done systematically. It was done in a random, haphazard fashion. The more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way — in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field. If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for. I think that, as I’ve always had dogs, I’ve learned from them how to do this.
His books are as strange as his analogy, as charming too. Ostensibly, they are a mixture of fiction, recollection, anecdote, and factual writing. Can we trust Sebald’s words? It doesn’t matter. The fragmented motifs, repeated images, are scattered throughout the texts and sweep you along to a conclusion, at which there magically appears sense to the whole. Verily, the field has been thoroughly sniffed out. I imagine it’s something like listening to a piece of classical music, if I were to listen to classical music. I didn’t sniff my way to Bromley Waterstones, one of the few bookshops in this, the largest of London boroughs. I used Google Maps. From the car park, we walked up South Street and turned right at the larger Tweedy Road. I thought of the album released the previous year by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his son. It’s an album written for Tweedy’s wife, suffering from lymphoma. I can only listen to it when happy. I don’t want my three year old to ask why Daddy is crying, not least because I would struggle to answer the question. On Tweedy Road is the old council building, a cut-price version of Wren’s Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. There is a stone cupola over the entrance porch. The brickwork, stone quoins and window dressings stick like a fishbone in Bromley’s throat. Its appearance is out of keeping with the corporate iron and glass of the town centre’s commercial units. I try to corral Dylan to stand on the stone steps, thinking of taking a picture. He refuses, pointing to the black grill tight and padlocked across the front doors. This was once the town hall, opened in 1906. It is derelict now, put up for sale 10 years ago. Its listing states that it could be easily converted into a conference centre or split into a series of apartment units. It was Dylan who pointed out Sebald’s name in the fiction section of Bromley Waterstones. That morning, I’d seen Sebald’s name in a review of The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century.
Thomas Browne is a figure that appears in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. He was a rural doctor and essayist in the 17th century. He invented the words “medical,” “precarious,” “insecurity,” and “hallucination.” In his writing, Browne asks questions such as ‘Did Jesus laugh?’ I’d mistakenly thought Sebald to be spelt ‘Sibald.’ I’m unsure why. Perhaps I had in mind the character Siward from Macbeth. Unable to find any of Sibald’s books, I was inured to the inevitability of disappointment. Dylan, thick hands full with his Peep Inside The Zoo not yet paid for but quickly granted as it meant ignoring books with rockets or rifles on their covers, said,
I traced my finger across book spines. Definitely no Sibald.
Dylan nodded to a book that sat facing forward, at his eye-level, positioned above a “bookseller’s selection” index card. Sebald’s books are full of such happy coincidences. This one was Austerlitz, the winner of many literary prizes, and, as with all of the man’s books, difficult to describe in a single sentence. I pulled out The Rings of Saturn and ushered my son away. Wikipedia describes this 1995 novel as “the account by a nameless narrator…on a walking tour of Suffolk.” And, when insisting friends read it, I compare its structure to clicking through a series of Wikipedia links. Sebald discusses the cultivation of silkworm, he discusses the Boxer Rebellion, he discusses Thomas Browne, he describes searching for Thomas Browne’s skull. He describes eating fish and chips in an empty coastal hotel. It’s compelling in a way that clicking through Wikipedia hyperlinks is not. It’s literary in a way that most “serious” novels aren’t, for Sebald feels no obligation to impress upon the reader his literary ability. Robert McCrum calls Sebald “a wonderful vindication of literary culture in all its subtle and entrancing complexity.” “JimtheRim,” on Amazon, gives the book a one star review, stating “I’ve never read such self-important words. It’s for pseuds. The bok is an intangible mess of nonsense.” Whatever anyone else thinks, I enjoy the time spent with Sebald, a man who insisted upon being called Max because he worried that “Winfried” sounded too much like a woman’s name.
My son fell asleep as I drove us home from Bromley. Peep Inside the Zoo fell from his fingers. Its heavy cardboard banged into the footwell and the sound made me start. It began to rain, the drops drumming against the car’s roof. It wasn’t until I’d finished reading The Rings of Saturn, a couple of days later, that I Googled Sebald and read of his life. He died aged 57. His car, a Peugeot 306, collided with a lorry while negotiating a left-hand bend. His daughter, Anna, was a passenger. She survived the crash with minor injuries. Her father did not. The Norfolk coroner reported that Sebald probably died from an aneurysm before his car struck the oncoming lorry. I felt a strange dissonance on reading all this. Did I remember his death being reported? Had I read of it subsequently? I think the reason for the almost uncanny (unheimlich in German, meaning “un-homely”) sensation is that I’d never read a book so full of life as The Rings of Saturn. It felt a cosmic injustice that a writer who’d invested so much soul in his writing should die so young. Thomas Browne, living in the 17th century, when doctors (such as Browne himself) were as likely to kill you as heal you, lived until 77. I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln, whose death, some say, was aided by the unsterilized fingers of “surgeons” attempting to extract the assassin’s bullet from the president’s brain. I clicked from Wikipedia to Amazon and I bought the rest of W.G. Sebald’s novels. Much as when Netflix releases an entire series of episodes at once, I am resisting the temptation to read Sebald’s books all the way through, pausing only to eat, sleep, and visit the toilet. As long as there remains a sentence, a word, unread Sebald must remain alive. To me, at least. In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald describes how the reader of Browne “is overcome by a sense of levitation.” The same can be said of the reader of Sebald.
An article in The Guardian from early 2014 quotes members of the Canadian electro-industrial band Skinny Puppy discussing the invoice for $666,000 in royalties they billed the U.S. government for use of the band’s music in torturing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Keyboardist cEvin Key (yes, he spells it that way) explains that the band was dismayed, but not entirely surprised, that their music was employed in this manner. “We thought this would end up happening, in a weird way,” Key said. “Because we make unsettling music, we can see it being used in a weird way. But it doesn’t sit right with us.”
Key’s comments made me curious about the phrase he used twice (in slightly different ways), one that I have often noticed in conversations with friends and colleagues: “in a weird way.” Google’s Ngram Viewer reveals that the phrase is a modern one: its first recorded uses are in the 1870s, and from that point, its usage continues in a more or less flat line (rising a bit in the noir 1940s, dipping in the 1950s) until about 1979, when its usage begins to angle sharply upward to the present day. A Google or LexisNexis search for the phrase turns up countless 21st-century examples.
What does “in a weird way” mean, and why did it become so much more prevalent in the late-20th century? The first uses of “weird” in English refer to “weird sisters,” as made famous by Macbeth (though the usage precedes the play), and in its earliest 19-century citations, “in a weird way” invariably means in an uncanny, creepy, or supernatural way. Some of the things that most often occur “in a weird way:” trees or leaves rustling in the wind, fires blazing up, and people muttering, singing, or murmuring. From an 1888 collection of sermons, describing the prophet David: “The demon was cast out, and the dark powers of the creation were mightily stirred up by it, and David, on his way home that night, felt them all about him in a weird way.” From an 1897 article in The American Archaeologist called “Notes on Delaware Indian Village Sites:” “The stone cists once occupying the eastern side of the burial place have been destroyed by the plow; the white oaks whose leaves rustled in the fall winds in a weird way have been cut down by the avaricious lumber man.” From “Catching the Wild Horse in South America,” in the Report of the Rugby School Natural History Society for the Year 1879: “A couple of the fattest mares captured are slaughtered, and without troubling themselves to skin them, the men cut up the carcases in huge joints, ribs, loins, back, etc., and pile them on the fires, which blaze high up in a weird way, owing to the quantities of fat and grease burning.” From the Wide World Magazine of 1898: “the native divers had tumbled out of their boats, and were swimming in a weird way down to the bottom of the translucent sea.” From a 1910 female traveler’s Journal of Japan: “I saw a most interesting method of laying a foundation of a native building — two dozen women pulling on a fan of ropes, and singing in a weird way, half drawing and twisting between each pull.”
Notice a common denominator? These are all travellers’ tales, quasi-ethnographic (or in one case, Biblical) accounts of strange people doing surprising things, usually in exotic, non-Western lands. The weird and its ways, it is implied, are threatened, or at least displaced, by the modern. This example from an 1887 Recollections of a Country Doctor, a description of a man sleepwalking, may seem to offer an exception to the rule of otherness, since it describes the non-exotic locale of Halstead, in Essex, England:
He not only muttered to himself uneasily and in a weird way, but he went through a sort of tragic pantomime at the very edge of the cliff, hanging over it in the dark, and seeming to be looking into the dimness as if he saw something.”
Yet this turns out to be a exception that proves the general rule, after all, when one considers the way the author sets the scene:
“it was one of those sad days when the cold and damp seem to penetrate to your very bones, and when the scenery round Halstead had a way of looking like Ultima Thule, with the haggard moorland and gaunt cliffs fraternising with the sea and sky.
When Halstead feels like Greenland, then an ordinary Englishman named Reginald can mutter “in a weird way,” like a Biblical prophet or a native priest (or like the witches in Scotland in Macbeth).
In the early 20th century, however, “in a weird way” begins to loosen its meaning, allowing for new possibilities: not only to describe an externally observed “weird” occurrence or action (someone muttering, wind blowing, fire surging), but to convey a particular kind of internal subjective state of questioning uncertainty. The earliest example of this new kind of usage I found is in John Galsworthy’s novel The Patricians, serialized in The Atlantic Monthly in 1910: “Mrs. Noel did not answer, but looked straight at Lady Casterley, to whom it seemed suddenly as if this was another woman. What was it about that face, staring at her! In a weird way it reminded her of a child that one had hurt.” This usage can be interpreted as another instance of the familiar sense; like Reginald the sleepwalker, or the prophet David, Mrs Noel has, perhaps, tapped into the non-rational “weird.” Yet there is something in Galsworthy’s usage that sounds more contemporary: the phrase “in a weird way,” opening the sentence, narrates Lady Casterley trying to make sense of her own impression, seeking to find the right language to communicate a fleeting or unresolved — and perhaps painful– feeling or insight.
Here we see, I think, for the first time, an emergent usage for “in a weird way” operating as what linguists call a filler phrase (like “sort of” or “kind of”) that allows the speaker a mental and syntactical pause to begin to try to convey an inchoate feeling. When we say “in a weird way” now, we often are letting you know: I recognize that what I am about to say may seem unclear, impressionistic, or strange; I haven’t completely sorted it out — and I am trying to figure it out as I speak. In the comments from the keyboardist of Skinny Puppy, his first usage (“We thought this would end up happening, in a weird way”), but not his second (“we can see it being used in a weird way”), fall into this category.
“In a weird way” continues to be used in its earlier senses throughout the early decades of the 20th century to describe uncanny effects, generally produced by non-Western others: “Not noticing Jack or his companion and holding her sides, the squaw began to moan in a weird way, rocking back and forth, and at the same time removing the greater part of her covering” (from a 1914 novel, The Forge of Destiny). But increasingly, we see more examples of usages resembling Galsworthy’s, in which “in a weird way” signifies an affectual vagueness or uncertainty. H.P. Lovecraft began writing about what he called “weird fiction” in the 1920s, and the pulp magazine Weird Tales was founded in 1923. The emergence of “weird fiction” as a category distinct from the Gothic seems to partake of both strands of meaning: drawing, of course, on conventions from supernatural and Gothic fiction, but also, crucially, on this new “weirdness” of affect.
The “weirdness” of “in a weird way” seems to begin to seep into discourse more generally as the 20th century progresses. In a 1973 novel, The Liberated, by David Slavitt, a man named Peter “got into the elevator…In a weird way, he had the feeling that he should be coming up the service elevator, that his news about Amy and their state of bereavement were a double gaffe.” “In a weird way” could be seen as entirely expendable in this sentence; cut it, and the meaning is conveyed. But the phrase crucially imparts a sense of Peter’s indeterminate “feeling.” The phrase “weirds” his affect, we could say, tells us that the thought that is about to be expressed is a hazy, perhaps only half-possessed one.
“In a weird way,” increasingly presented as its own grammatically independent clause, offers a hint of apology for its own imprecision; the phrase rose to prominence in the last few decades of the 20th century, we might speculate, because it proved useful for an era in which precision and rationality had been demoted as verbal desiderata. To preface a claim or observation with “in a weird way” is to undermine it, slightly, to confess that it may not convey a clear thought, but instead an inchoate feeling or perception; to note a possible contradiction or opposition, and to acknowledge that you, the listener, may see it differently; to communicate a feeling of vagueness that is not a mere prelude to a later state of desirable precision, but may be rather a final, somewhat undecided resting spot. The phrase offers us a way to acknowledge internal motives, desires, and impulses that we might otherwise disavow, or that we cannot rationally explain. A gay man quoted in The Advocate in 1998: “In a weird way I feel more connected to straight people.” A student at McGill University, cited in the Calgary Herald in 2000: “Sometimes, I’d make horizontal cuts across my entire forearm. It stung incredibly. It was so painful that, in a weird way, it felt good.”
A 2002 New York Times article about David Lynch’s hauntingly uncanny film Mulholland Drive is titled “In a Weird Way, David Lynch Makes Sense.” “In a weird way” had become ubiquitous by the turn of the last century perhaps for the same reason that a filmmaker like David Lynch could now be part of the mainstream, rather than relegated to the world of “underground” or B-pictures. We have lost some of our confidence in our ability to distinguish sharply — or of the value of so distinguishing — between the non-rational, often non-Western or non-modern “weird,” and our own selves and words; between the eerie or unheimlich outside of us, and the Heimlich rationality we used to believe was inside. Genres and aesthetic modes that were once, by virtue of their “weirdness,” relegated to the margins, are now closer to the center. The mainsteaming of so-called “weird fiction,” often indebted to Lovecraft – China Miéville and Kelly Link, whose new collection Get In Trouble is just out, are two prominent current flag-bearers — is one symptom of this shift.
In a weird way, we now tend to prefer to see ourselves less as the rational ethnographer or doctor taking notes on the “weird,” than as resembling the muttering sleep-walker, “at the very edge of the cliff, hanging over it in the dark, and seeming to be looking into the dimness as if he saw something;” or those divers, “tumbled out of their boats…swimming in a weird way down to the bottom of the translucent sea:” seeking not precision or exactitude of expression, but rather a hazy pearl of emotional and verbal uncertainty. We now all travel the weird way.
Image Credit: Alexandra Zakharova
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.
The film adaptation of Macbeth being helmed by Snowtown Murders director Justin Kurzel will star Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, reports Vulture. The movie will feature “Shakespeare’s original linguistic stylings” as well as “a visceral approach to the story including significant battle scenes,” and it is set to begin production this year.
In early 2012, Joshua Boldt launched The Adjunct Project, a website containing a collaboratively updated spreadsheet of adjunct salary and work conditions. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported the site had nearly 800 user entries in the first month. While comparative salary data is useful, the most disheartening element of the site is the short narratives. Adjuncts accept poor pay with silence, “terrified of being even more broke than we are.” Other grievances include no health benefits, rushed contracts, and — despite the fact that adjuncts comprise nearly three-quarters of university faculty — paltry voice and representation in university matters.
I am unable to offer an absolute solution to this institutionalized, national problem. But I have, and will continue to, make a suggestion to the graduates of MFA programs who often enter these adjunct positions as perceived full-time employment. Before you join a dismal system where you might teach an overloaded schedule on multiple campuses and still earn less than $30,000 a year, pause for a moment. You have other options. Continue to fight your good fight, and bring this academic sharecropping, as some have called it, to public attention. But consider another career. Teach high school. It works for me.
The Adjunct Project’s hard data and brief narratives are best complimented with the nuance of explanation. I have been an adjunct since 2009, and have had a great experience, yet I know my situation is unique. I have also taught high school full-time since 2004, so my adjunct work is for supplementary, rather than essential, income. For many adjuncts, employment is a constant struggle with little or uneven returns.
MFA graduates who are able to teach creative writing courses appear more satisfied than those leading composition courses. Andrew McFayden Ketchum, who adjuncts at four different Colorado universities, makes an important distinction between those types of instruction. Ketchum explains that composition instructors are “expected to teach critical thinking, writing, and even research skills” to students in a core course. Besides the “undoable” workload and “atrocious” pay, Ketchum notes a fascinating bit of misinformation: “students think adjuncts are ‘professors’… [and those] students who aren’t already well-prepared or extremely dedicated to learning either fall through the cracks or are ‘saved’ by the SuperAdjunct.” Such an educational structure “is not what schools advertise, and it’s not the sort of education students paying extraordinarily high tuitions should receive.”
One writer, who wished to remain anonymous, had been a Visiting Assistant Professor for five years before “that line was terminated” and replaced with an adjunct position. The resulting “commute times, low pay, and lack of support and office space for adjunct faculty” made her “less able to write or concentrate on publication than I was when teaching full-time.” Such a lament is echoed by other adjuncts. Book and significant magazine publication are often necessary to become competitive for tenure-track positions, yet the adjuncts longing for those positions are unable to devote sufficient time to writing and scholarship, thus creating a nearly inescapable cycle. She notes that others, some holding a PhD, must seek government aid. Another recent report from The Chronicle revealed that 360,000 Americans “with master’s degrees or higher in 2010” received “some kind of public assistance.” While that number pales next to the 44 million total Americans receiving public assistance, these are highly educated professionals struggling to survive.
Jay Varner’s first book, Nothing Left to Burn, was sold soon after his graduation from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington MFA program. Although the book was well-received, and Varner interviewed for several tenure-track positions, his search was ultimately unsuccessful. The tenure-track market is oversaturated with “highly accomplished” writers with “recent teaching experience” who are “vying for few jobs,” the same coveted by adjuncts. Varner recently began adjuncting at James Madison University, and quips that “some of my adjunct friends look at me a bit strangely when I say” such work is fun. He recognizes the tenuous financial reality of adjuncts, but also the need to gain further college teaching experience.
Michael Nye, managing editor of The Missouri Review, was an adjunct at several universities in St. Louis between 2006 and 2009 and taught undergraduate creative writing courses, composition, and a graduate-level course. Nye did not enter his MFA program planning to teach. His first adjunct position at Washington University in St. Louis was as a last-minute replacement for a sick faculty member. Nye was not “considered part of the faculty or team” nor was he a member of committees or departmental discussions, but he didn’t expect such participation as a recent MFA graduate. Although Nye also bartended and worked as the managing editor of River Styx, he had sufficient time to write.
Nye no longer adjuncts. His work at The Missouri Review is considered full-time, and is a success story among the typical career trajectory of adjuncts, who have their eyes on future Associate Professor positions. Such “midcareer” positions follow years on the tenure track where professors are, according to The Chronicle, “protected from work outside their research and writing.” The Chronicle quotes David Harvey of New College of Florida that once administrative and other responsibilities accumulate, Associate Professors “go from being one of the rising young stars of the department to being one of the workhorses.” The long slog of adjunct work does not end in immediate bliss upon tenure.
Since many MFA graduates perceive adjunct employment as their only possible track toward tenured positions, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at the MFA itself. Few graduate degrees are as misunderstood, or lambasted, as the MFA in Creative Writing. The MFA is a convenient generalization, an acronym without individual personality. The image of short-sighted, novice writing students lounging at a rectangular table, nitpicking a draft into a sanitized work of chaff has become a straw-man target for any perceived misstep in contemporary published writing. Misconceptions have even found their way into the programs themselves. Graduates of MFA programs might think becoming a college adjunct is their only academic career choice until the possibility of a tenure-track position, but such a view is unfounded, and not the fault of MFA programs.
I have not yet encountered an MFA program that guarantees book publication or professorship. I have seen MFA programs that sell themselves to applicants as places where students can study literature and creative writing within a supportive community, but not as training schools for tenured professorships. The same sense of camaraderie and inclusiveness that creates a successful MFA experience might also delude students into thinking such support will exist after the degree in temporary teaching positions. And yet MFA graduates continue to settle for adjunct positions and then subsequently criticize the degree.
Such unhappiness should cause self-reflection, but often that reflection is rejected. Seth Abramson’s approach to ranking MFA programs for Poets & Writers has resulted in equal parts blowback and praise, and those reactions can often be delineated between programs who think they should be ranked higher and those who have earned the top spots. Yet Abramson’s research has moved the MFA conversation in directions of greater transparency and awareness of practical considerations. He is correct to stress that applicants should research program funding, talk to current and former students, and consider cost of living expenses as they weigh their decision about an expensive art degree. In 2012, those responsible recommendations should extend to decisions about graduate education in any discipline.
Abramson has recently debunked the myth that more than 800 MFA program are “now in operation,” replacing that figure with roughly 200. Even with this decreased amount of programs, the resulting number of MFA graduates far outstrips the supply of available tenure-track positions in creative writing. The announcement of a non-composition teaching job with a writing-heavy schedule creates a windfall of applicants, pining for the promise of tenure, even in a world where universities like Wayne State are radically redefining, or ending, the practice. As mysteriously as they appear, advertised positions disappear due to lost funding, or are filled in silence, leaving anxious applicants to refresh the Creative Writing Academic Jobs Wiki page. New graduates are competing against seasoned writers and teachers; whereas a decade ago significant magazine publication might enable a writer to be competitive for a tenure-track position, now multiple, well-received books appear to be a necessity. The simple result is that the MFA system creates far too many well-trained graduates than can be placed in tenure-track positions. Yet the assumption that MFA graduates enter academia on the tenure track is grounded in a false economic model, one that presupposes the degree exists to create such academics. It does not, and it never has; as Abramson notes, the MFA is a “patronage system for artists” that “provide[s] a nurturing space for their talents.” It is not a place to groom future professors. So is there another option for the MFA grad looking to teach but frozen out of the higher education system? I believe there is.
Graduates of MFA programs should consider teaching high school. I recognize that such advice might be rejected outright. Even adjuncts are “professors,” while secondary educators are “teachers,” and the difference in connotation might bother some. Additionally, MFA graduates will need to be certified to teach at public schools, although many states offer expedited, alternative routes toward certification. The shift from higher to secondary education will require planning. And any criticism that English teachers are not in demand as much as other teachers in other disciplines seems petty compared with the equivalent competition for adjunct positions with less pay. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average median salary for a high school English teacher in 2010 was $53,230. Granted, the pay is less than that of an Associate Professor, but certainly more than even the most oversubscribed adjuncts. While the shape of tenure is even changing at the secondary level, the job security is far firmer than as a traveling adjunct, and secondary educators have better health and retirement benefits. An adjunct could go from teaching composition to 35 19 year-olds for a meager salary to teaching literature or creative writing to a classroom of 25 students between 15 and 18, with far better pay, more stability, and the ancillary benefit of helping young people at a crucial time in their development. Aren’t the arts supposed to cultivate our most selfless tendencies, anyway?
When I was hired at a public high school in 2004, I was halfway finished with an MA in English Literature, and had no pedagogical or instructional experience. I taught AP Language and Composition and Introductory Creative Writing. In my first year, students compared the poetic philosophies of T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and Robert Frost, contrasted 1984 with some of Orwell’s lesser-known non-fiction to see the narrative and stylistic breadth possible for a single writer, and wrote raps in the voice of Macbeth characters. Not every moment of teaching is a success.
But I hope that I’ve gotten better. I now teach AP Literature and started a course, Advanced Creative Writing, in which students write, revise, and workshop short fiction, research literary magazines, and study contemporary writers. The class ranges from 14 to 22 students, and most enter for the right reasons: they want to become better writers. Many have succeeded, and their achievements include the Davidson Scholarship, winning The Florida Review fiction contest, and publication in Flyway, elimae, The Louisville Review, Willows Wept Review, and other magazines. Two students appeared in the lauded W.W. Norton Hint Fiction anthology alongside Joyce Carol Oates and Ha Jin; one student appeared twice. Those stories were written in class.
These are 16 to 18 year-olds. Kids. At least part of the time while teaching them, I was pursuing an MFA in Fiction. Granted, I began my high school teaching before I entered an MFA program, and continued it afterward. That might give me an advantage over others, particularly people who have never taught at any level. But I don’t think that negates my advice. I like to think that if someone pursues an MFA in Creative Writing, they love both reading and writing, and have also gained quantifiable skills in literary analysis, writing, and critical thinking. I believe one can learn how to transfer those skills — to teach them — to young students.
Consider this: a good MFA program stresses breadth and depth of reading, close attention toward personal crafting of writing and subsequent revision, and the ability to articulate one’s self in a workshop setting. One must offer criticism that is at times pointed and also constructive; one must be aware of tone. But we can refine these skills further. Again, a good MFA program — and I know not all are created equal — contextualizes that aforementioned reading both historically and stylistically; a class might read Raymond Carver’s fiction in comparison with Bobbie Ann Mason and Elizabeth Tallent, wondering why all three were classified together by Bill Buford in Granta, opening conversations regarding British perspectives of what makes American fiction “American” (or even look at Gordon Lish’s editing of Carver’s writing from both craft and conceptual senses). And the workshop is not merely a convenient way for professors to structure a class meeting; it is an organic discussion of ideas and aesthetic approaches, where students offer skepticisms of the traditional model, perhaps channeling the approach of Michael Martone in recent articles published in TriQuarterly. A thorough MFA curriculum provides comprehensive literary training. That training might assist a writer in her own work, but as an ancillary benefit, it prepares her to view those skills on both practical and theoretical levels, and such duality is essential in becoming a reflective, successful secondary teacher. Wouldn’t an MFA graduate with such training be an incredibly useful addition to a high school English department, and wouldn’t students reap the benefits?
I suspect the MFA graduates would, also. I certainly don’t mean to derail the potential careers of those convinced they ultimately want to teach at the college level, but I don’t see how a stint teaching high school will not make them better teachers and writers. Teaching high school reminds you that instruction requires empathy. Awareness of audience is essential. So is a sense of humor: the bullshit detectors of teenagers, confronted with a pretentious “emerging” writer, will drown the room.
I have had some particular benefits in my teaching experience: open-minded and intelligent students, a very supportive supervisor, and a community focused on education. I have also had roadblocks: a Board of Education that has stalled and stonewalled contract negotiations, and an increasing perception of non-university educators as test-prepping, unintellectual drones. Writers I publish with give a look of pain when I tell them I teach high school, wondering how I have any remaining interest or energy to write. I argue that I not only have sufficient time — the summers certainly help — but the emotional freedom that sometimes is only provided through job security. In the past two years, while teaching high school full-time and working as an adjunct part time, and having a minimum two-hour round trip to work, I’ve had two books of poetry published, am finishing a book of criticism to be published next year, have published more than 30 reviews, and other essays, fiction, and related work. That’s with no sabbaticals and no artist residencies. God bless those who can manage them, but I can’t. I agree with Faulkner: only “demon driven” writers will be successful. You’ve got to make it happen.
Some might think it a waste to earn a terminal degree in creative writing and then work the same job that one could get with a bachelor’s degree. I recognize that the MFA is not designed to prepare students to teach at the high school level. But we should be honest here: the MFA is not designed to train novelists, either, yet most fiction graduates of such programs think that was the intention.
Adjuncts already do good, necessary work. They often teach students needing remediation, students from low-income families, students who need personal mentorships. The adjuncts I know are idealistic, skilled, intelligent people, who are working for less than they are worth. They can be equally idealistic as high school teachers, while also making a more reasonable income, becoming a more stable yearly employee in their community, and most importantly, helping young people.
As someone active in publishing, I have sometimes felt like a lone wolf in secondary education. Then I discovered that Lauren Berry, whose debut collection The Lifting Dress was selected for the National Poetry Series, teaches high school. Ryan Call, winner of a 2011 Whiting Award for fiction and an editor at HTMLGIANT, teaches at a private high school in Houston. Call began teaching freshman and sophomores in the fall of 2011, three years after graduating from the George Mason MFA program. During that time he collected the stories that comprise The Weather Stations, which won the Whiting Award.
Call finds high school teaching very different from his previous university work. In the college environment, Call “didn’t really know anything about my students” beyond the experiences borne of the classroom. In high school, Call sees his students in class, on campus, at lunch, and as a cross country coach, expanding the dynamic to where he can now see “how these people navigate their young frantic lives.” He praises the collegiality of faculty. He also admits that, as a beginning teacher, his writing output paused. Teaching “took a lot out of me . . . physically, mentally, and emotionally,” but realized he could “afford to pause in my writing given what I’d achieved,” and that the break “was good for me.” He’s greatly rebounded as a writer during the summer, producing much work, and now feels more confident that he can both write and teach during the upcoming year. Call’s example shows how idiosyncratic this, and really any employment decision, must be: his experiences as a first year teacher sound like the experiences of a longtime adjunct, and yet the differences are essential. The support of his colleagues, the inclusive dynamic of his school, and the rewards of working with younger students creates a sense of optimism that pushes him forward. I do not see the same hope articulated by adjuncts, who feel like the light at the end of the tunnel is a flashing mirage.
I hope MFA graduates can pause their skepticism. Now, more than ever, we need intelligent and passionate teachers to lift the profession. The organic training and experiences of an MFA student might just be the perfect recipe for a successful high school teacher. Try it. You might find that those three letters on your degree feel like they carry much more weight.
Image via Phil Roeder/Flickr
It feels like this happened last week though it actually happened twenty years ago. Late one wintry afternoon in 1992 I found myself sitting on a sofa in a glass box in midtown Manhattan, trying to figure out how I could possibly stay awake till sundown. I had just enjoyed a long celebratory liquid lunch with Gary Fisketjon, who would soon be publishing my first novel and who, as I’d learned first-hand, is a master of an art that was then dying and is now all but dead – the art of editing fiction, line by agonizing line. Gary had gone over every word of my 362-page manuscript with a green Bic ballpoint pen, sometimes suggesting surgical cuts or ways to improve dialog, sometimes writing long insightful paragraphs on the back of a page. He stressed that these were merely suggestions, that the final call was mine, always. If I had to guess, I would say he improved my book at least by half. As I sat there on the sofa in Gary’s office, my fogged eyes started roaming across his bookshelves…
(As I re-read the preceding paragraph, I realize it’s about ancient history, a long-lost time when book editors actually edited books and they were encouraged to keep their authors fed and watered on the company dime. That paragraph also reminds me of something John Cheever wrote in the 1970s – that his first stories, published in the years after World War II, were “stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.” Gary Fisketjon’s industrious green Bic pen seems even more remote to me from a distance of twenty years than those 1940s radios and stationery stores seemed to John Cheever from a distance of thirty years.)
…so anyway, my fogged eyes landed on a slim volume with one word on its spine: Jernigan. I got up off the sofa, crossed the small office and picked up the book. On the dust jacket the blurry figure of a man stands on a lawn in front of a suburban house. At first I thought it was the liquid lunch affecting my vision, but then I realized the picture was intentionally fuzzy. “What’s this?” I asked.
“That’s a first novel I brought out last year by a wonderful writer named David Gates,” Gary said. “Sonny Mehta, my boss, loves one-word titles. Go ahead, take it.”
I took it. I read it. I loved it. It’s the story of a messed-up guy from the New Jersey suburbs named Peter Jernigan who works a boring job in Manhattan real estate and is dealing with his wife’s death in an automobile accident by dosing himself with gin and Pamprin as his life falls apart. He ends up sleeping with the single mom of his teenage son’s girlfriend. The woman is a survivalist who keeps rabbits in her basement (for meat, not as pets). One day, in an effort to snap out of his spiritual numbness, Jernigan presses the barrel of a gun to the webbing between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, then squeezes the trigger. I’ll carry that image in my head as long as I live.
Ever since I fell in love with Jernigan I’ve been drawn to books with one-word titles – partly because Sonny Mehta loves one-word titles, but mainly because they can be so enviably concise and memorable, so perfect. At their best, one-word titles distill content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind. Sometimes, of course, they fall flat, and much of the time they’re just lukewarm and vague or, worse, falsely grand.
Over the years I’ve developed categories and a pecking order. Here is my unscientific and by no means exhaustive taxonomy, beginning with the best and ending with the worst kinds of one-word book titles:
1. An Unforgettable Character’s Name
This category begins for me with Jernigan but also includes:
Shakespeare’s Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet (for the last title in this trio of masterpieces I wish he’d gone with Yorick, that “fellow of infinite jest,” which no doubt puts me in a minority of one).
Walker Percy’s Lancelot (the wife-murdering narrator in a nuthouse, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar says many wise and funny things about the decline of America, such as: “What nuns don’t realize is that they look better in nun clothes than in J.C. Penney pantsuits.”)
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (the nymphet who became an icon).
Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree (not my favorite of his novels – that would be Blood Meridian – but the things Cornelius Suttree and his roughneck Tennessee riverfront buddies do while under the influence of alcohol give a whole new kick to the word “debauched”).
Jane Austen’s Emma (I might think Emma Woodhouse is a meddling, coddled ninny, but I wouldn’t dream of saying so).
Stephen King’s Carrie (you’ve got to respect a girl who gets drenched in pig’s blood at the prom and then goes on a telekinetic rampage), Christine (what’s not to love about a homicidal Plymouth Fury?), and It (that maniac clown Pennywise deserves such a tersely dismissive moniker).
2. Place Names That Drip With Atmosphere
Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti (just saying the word makes it possible to conjure a place full of pirates, thugs, widowmakers, scorching sunshine, and tourists with a death wish; Leonard is a serial user of one-word titles, including the less memorable Raylan, Pronto, Killshot, Touch, Bandits, Glitz, Stick, Gunsights, Swag, and Hombre).
Gore Vidal’s Duluth (alluring precisely because it’s so imprecise – what could possibly be interesting about a Minnesota port town on Lake Superior? Plenty. Vidal is another serial user of one-word titles, including Williwaw, Messiah, Kalki, Creation, Burr, Lincoln, Hollywood, and Empire).
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (that exclamation point befits the over-the-top setting, a fading alligator theme park in the moist loins of Florida).
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (your first thought is Biblical – balm of Gilead or Mount Gilead – but the title of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the name of a town in Iowa where the God-infused protagonist, a dying preacher, is writing a long letter to his young son; Robinson’s other novels are titled Housekeeping and Home).
Geoffrey Wolff’s Providence (this title, like all good titles, has layers of meaning: the novel is set in the crumbling capital of Rhode Island – “a jerkwater that outsiders bombed past on their way to Cape Cod” – but this Providence is visited by surprising gusts of divine providence, God’s inscrutable ways of touching a menagerie of less-than-perfect characters, including mobsters, thieves, patrician lawyers, cokeheads, and crooked cops).
Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (alas, the title refers to a fictional hippie outpost in northern California, not to that sweaty little armpit in the New Jersey pine barrens – now that would have been a ripe setting for a Pynchon novel).
Marshall Frady’s Southerners (fluorescent non-fiction about the people who inhabit a haunted place, it’s one of my all-time favorite books).
Then, on the downside, there’s James Michener’s Hawaii (a title that’s about as evocative as a pushpin on a map, much like his other generic place-name titles – Chesapeake, Alaska, Poland, Texas, Mexico, and Space).
3. One Little Word That Sums Up Big Consequences
Josephine Hart’s Damage (edited by Sonny Mehta, the novel’s title deftly sums up what results when a member of the British Parliament develops an obsessive sexual relationship with his son’s fiancee; Jeremy Irons, at his absolute smarmy best, plays the MP in the movie version of the book. Hart, who died last year, also published the novels Sin and Oblivion).
James Dickey’s Deliverance (refers to what it feels like to return home to the Atlanta suburbs after surviving a nice relaxing canoe trip in the Georgia woods that turns into a nightmare of hillbilly sodomy and murder).
Martin Amis’ novel Money (a raunchy hymn to the lubricant that greased the Reagan/Thatcher decade, it’s bursting with the things that made America great – “fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs”); and his memoir Experience (with a cover that says it all: the future bad boy of Brit letters as a pre-teen towhead, with a scowl on his face and an unlit cigarette plugged between his lips).
William S. Burroughs’ Junky (though written under a pseudonym, the title of this highly autobiographical 1953 novel refers to what you will become if you inject heroin into your veins on a regular basis; a sequel, Queer, was written earlier but not published until 1985).
Harry Crews’ Car (you are what you eat, and Herman Mack, in a twist that out-Christines Christine, sets out to eat a 1971 Ford Maverick from bumper to bumper; rest in peace, Harry Crews).
4. Words That Ache So Hard To Become Brands You Can Practically See Them Sweat
The absolute pinnacle of this bottom-of-the-birdcage category is half-smart Malcolm Gladwell’s runaway bestseller Blink (as in, how long it takes for us to develop supposedly accurate first impressions; for a much more nuanced and intelligent treatment of this fascinating subject, check out Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow).
Not far behind is right-wing goddess Ann Coulter’s Godless (an attempt to prove that liberalism is America’s state religion and its tin gods are recycling, Darwinism, global warming, gay rights, abortion rights, and teachers’ unions. According to this harridan-hottie, “The following sentence makes sense to liberals: President Clinton saved the Constitution by repeatedly ejaculating on a fat Jewish girl in the Oval Office.” Low blow! Monica Lewinsky wasn’t fat!)
Robin Cook’s Contagion (possibly a Freudian slip, the title might refer to what all brand-name authors like Cook secretly hope their books will induce in readers: a rapidly spreading, uncontrollable itch to spend money on schlock).
5. One-Letter Titles
You can’t get any poorer than dead, as Flannery O’Connor reminded us, and if you’re a book title you can’t be any more concise than a single letter. Writers who have boiled the contents of their books down to a single letter tend to be in the high-literary camp, which would seem to suggest, counter-intuitively, that one-letter titles are the work of expansive, not reductive, imaginations. Here are a few, from A to Z:
Andy Warhol’s A (you’d have to be zonked on some killer shit to make any sense of this gibberish, but let’s be charitable and remember that Warhol was a great artist).
Fred Chappell’s C (this writer of glorious poetry and fiction is celebrated in his native South but criminally under-appreciated in other quarters of the country; his title is taken from the Roman numeral for 100, which is the number of poems in this superb collection).
Tom McCarthy’s C (the third letter of the alphabet is used more nebulously in this novel, which brims with cats, cocaine, cocoons, and code as it travels to Cairo with a protagonist named Serge Carrefax; McCarthy’s first novel was titled Remainder).
John Updike’s S. (it’s the initial of the novel’s protagonist, Sarah Worth, part superwoman and part slut, a disaffected wife who leaves her husband and her home on the North Shore to pursue her guru at a commune in the Arizona desert).
Thomas Pynchon’s V. (no, Pynchon’s first novel is not Vineland minus the i-n-e-l-a-n-d; it’s a woman’s initial, or is it the shape the two storylines make as they converge?).
Georges Perec’s W (the name of an allegorical island off the coast of Chile that resembles a concentration camp).
Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z (the last word, or letter, on political thrillers, it’s about the 1963 assassination of leftist Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis; Costa-Gavras made it into a hit movie starring Yves Montand).
In closing, I should note that seven of the 32 books on the current New York Times hardcover fiction and non-fiction best-seller lists – a healthy 22 percent – have one word titles: to wit: Betrayal, Drift, Imagine, Wild, Unbroken, Quiet, and Imperfect. Turns out Sonny Mehta was on to something. Concision, like sex, always sells.
I’m guessing that most readers these days know A. C. Bradley secondhand, through the excerpts and quotes found in the study materials for the Arden series and the other popular editions of Shakespeare’s plays. This is a shame, because Bradley is a better critic in full than he is in bits and pieces, and Shakespearean Tragedy continues to be an exciting book for anyone interested in literature.
Bradley’s specialty is the passionate discussion of literary characters in vivid, consuming detail. He feels that exploring the mind and actions of Hamlet or Iago is worth every last bit of effort we can give it. He has a point—one that applies to the work of many modern writers as much as it does to Shakespeare. It would be fascinating, for instance, to see the Bradley touch brought to bear on books like Underworld or Infinite Jest.
In the history of literary criticism, Bradley is a worthy successor to Johnson and Coleridge, two of the earlier writers whose names and opinions spring up repeatedly in Shakespearean Tragedy. Like his predecessors, Bradley still instructs and amuses long after most of the general literary theories of his time have fallen away.
The first edition of Shakespearean Tragedy came out in 1904, and is based on work Bradley prepared for teaching at Oxford, Liverpool and Glasgow. The volume takes the form of a set of imaginary lectures, largely a series of detailed examinations of the most important characters from Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear.
Bradley’s learning is formidable. He has an easy acquaintance with the imposing German tradition of Shakespeare scholarship, along with an elegant, lightly-worn knowledge of the many influences Shakespeare drew upon for his writing.
At heart, though, Bradley’s method is personal. He says what he thinks of Shakespeare’s characters, and why he feels they matter to our understanding of life. Obviously, this approach exposes him to ridicule. His only real shield against failure is his own insight into people, based on his inevitably dated and incomplete notions of human nature. In the end, he can’t begin to tell us more about Hamlet or about the world than Shakespeare tells us himself. Bradley knows this, and his modesty is appealing. He assumes that good literature always has more to give us than even the best critics can express in topic sentences and abstractions. And it’s precisely Bradley’s humility—his willingness to embrace his ultimate defeat—that allows him to polish and display certain facets of Shakespeare we aren’t likely to have seen so sharply on our own.
The Hamlet lectures are the standouts here. Bradley highlights Hamlet’s disastrous failure, which leads not only to his death but to the deaths of many others, including his mother and the young woman he has loved—a domino fall of wasted lives that goes far beyond the intended murder of Claudius.
Mentally and emotionally, Hamlet is both overwhelming and exasperating. His mind whirls with all the clashing thoughts and passions that come out in the abrupt swerves of his thrilling verbal agility. Whatever the motives for his delays and decisions, we never doubt his intelligence or the complexity of his feelings. He has always been one of Shakespeare’s most popular characters, even though I suspect most of us would rather see him from the safety of the audience than change places with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for some of those abusive conversations at Elsinore.
Bradley confronts us with one of the play’s many mysteries: Why does Shakespeare show us this smart, resourceful, startlingly changeable young man destroying himself and everyone around him? Elizabethan tragedy is a long way from our modern appetite for uplifting stories about sympathetic people overcoming adversity. In Hamlet, nobody overcomes adversity—everyone is crushed by it. Yet Hamlet remains an exhilarating play, and Hamlet an exhilarating character. He isn’t likeable in any narrow sense, but his flaws are electric, a high-voltage display of humanity at its most disorienting.
For Bradley, Hamlet’s key mistake is his failure to kill Claudius while the king is praying. At this point, Hamlet has seen Claudius’s reaction to the play-within-the-play and has confirmed that Claudius is the murderer of Hamlet’s father. With loving attention to counterarguments and conflicting evidence, Bradley sets forth the different possible reasons for Hamlet’s hesitation, from his stated refusal to kill someone in the middle of a prayer to the less conscious repulsion that Hamlet now feels for all human action. “His whole mind is poisoned,” Bradley says. In Bradley’s view, Hamlet is serious about his stated reasons, yet he also follows emotional, philosophical and mystical impulses that he barely comprehends.
It’s characteristic of Bradley that he chooses less to limit the possible interpretations here than to open them up and allow a wide and sometimes contradictory range of options. Many modern critics are so polemical that they sound like lawyers defending a consortium of tobacco companies. Bradley, in contrast, takes an inclusive approach that seems nicely suited to fiction in general. Fiction writers have the advantage of not needing to settle on a single explicit thesis. Instead, they can grow as many vines and branches of motive and implication as a story allows. Few authors are better at this than Shakespeare: it seems to have been a natural part of the way he thought about life. This is one reason his poetry tends to be so suggestive, filled with images that unfold in many different directions at once.
At any rate, Hamlet’s refusal to kill the praying Claudius is, Bradley claims, the turning point of the play:
So far, Hamlet’s delay, though it is endangering his freedom and his life, has done no irreparable harm; but his failure here is the cause of all the disasters that follow. In sparing the King, he sacrifices Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes, the Queen and himself.
Bradley feels that, from this scene on, Hamlet’s melancholy combines with the circumstances around him to bring about the story’s increasingly out-of-control destruction—starting, of course, with the reckless murder of Polonius. Have you ever wished that, just once, the gun-toting hero of an action movie would accidentally shoot the wrong person during a car chase and spend the rest of the film facing the consequences of his mistake? Well, that’s a bit what Shakespeare does with Hamlet’s killing of Polonius, which leads to Ophelia’s suicide, the executions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the quadruple slaughter of the swordfight scene.
Bradley believes that all this devastation throws into high relief the waste of Hamlet’s special alertness to the world and its mysteries. “Hamlet most brings home to us at once the sense of the soul’s infinity, and the sense of doom which not only circumscribes that infinity but appears to be its offspring,” Bradley writes. Hamlet is, in Jamesian terms, an unusually vital vessel of experience, and the waste of his life is a more catastrophic version of the waste of all our lives, all our potentials:
We seem to have before us a type of the mystery of the whole world, the tragic fact which extends far beyond the limits of tragedy. Everywhere…we see power, intelligence, life and glory, which astound us and seem to call for our worship. And everywhere we see them perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves, often with dreadful pain, as though they came into being for no other end. Tragedy is the typical form of this mystery…and it makes us realize so vividly the worth of that which is wasted that we cannot possibly seek comfort in the reflection that all is vanity.
A passage like this is obviously overreaching, but it’s overreaching in a way that feels entirely appropriate to Hamlet. Bradley risks bombast in criticism of this sort, but so does Shakespeare in most of his best plays, and critics need to throw off their restraint sometimes and write as freely as Bradley has written here. We can quarrel with his language, we can disagree with some of his assumptions, but this passage has more than enough insight in it to excuse its flaws.
Bradley loves guiding us through the tragedies scene by scene, giving us his views on the characters’ words and acts. Every page hums with energy: Bradley has an expert sense of pace, and carries us along from one brisk comment to the next.
He has much to say on Othello, all of it interesting. Although most of the criticism is delightfully specific, Bradley also does what Shakespeare surely wanted us to do, and draws from our encounters with Iago a fuller attention to certain forms of cruelty:
To ‘plume up the will’, to heighten the sense of power or superiority—this seems to be the unconscious motive of many acts of cruelty which evidently do not spring chiefly from ill-will, and which therefore puzzle and sometimes horrify us most. It is often this that makes a man bully the wife or children of whom he is fond. The boy who torments another boy, as we say, ‘for no reason’, or who without any hatred for frogs tortures a frog, is pleased with his victim’s pain, not from any disinterested love of evil or pleasure in pain, but mainly because this pain is the unmistakable proof of his own power over his victim. So it is with Iago. His thwarted sense of superiority wants satisfaction.
Later, in his lectures on Macbeth, he teases out the title character’s thread of dark inner poetry:
Macbeth’s better nature—to put the matter for clearness’ sake too broadly—instead of speaking to him in the overt language of moral ideas, commands, and prohibitions, incorporates itself in images which alarm and horrify. His imagination is thus the best of him, something usually deeper and higher than his conscious thoughts; and if he had obeyed it he would have been safe.
In addition, Bradley is as good on the tragedies’ secondary characters as he is on Hamlet and Iago. He stands up for Ophelia against the old charge that her mental collapse is a result of her personal weakness:
…her critics hardly seem to realize the situation, hardly to put themselves in the place of a girl whose lover, estranged from her, goes mad and kills her father. They seem to forget also that Ophelia must have believed that these frightful calamities were not mere calamities, but followed from her action in repelling her lover.
Similarly, with Kent in King Lear, he clarifies that character’s particular mix of nobility and foolishness:
One has not the heart to wish him different, but he illustrates the truth that to run one’s head unselfishly against a wall is not the best way to help one’s friends.
In the years after his death in 1935, Bradley took some beatings for his belief that Shakespeare’s characters can be treated as people and not as fictional conceits. Looking back on these complaints now, they seem overstated. Any extended character study, with its presumption that a character has some independent life or personality outside the text, relies as much on imagination as on scholarship. Bradley isn’t merely critiquing Shakespeare—he’s writing a fiction of his own. Still, to critique one fiction with another fiction is both defensible and potentially exciting, and shouldn’t bother readers who enjoy Borges or Nabokov or Sebald. If we take Bradley as an artist—a role his modesty would probably deny—his fictional versions of Shakespeare’s creations are rich achievements. Besides, Bradley always sticks closely to the plays themselves, and grounds his speculations in his intimate study of the tragedies’ theatrical and poetic details.
I suspect that Bradley would want us to end by giving less credit to him and more to Shakespeare. Again and again, Bradley takes up these four tragedies and uses them to bring his personal observations about the world into focus. He approaches the plays as if they were a collection of powerful lenses, and puts them on when he wants to look at things that are too distant or too obscure for his unaided sight to make out as clearly as he would like. This is one of the ways that many of us use good writing, and Bradley’s method has a straightforward intelligence to it that still impresses, and always entertains.