“How tame will his language sound, who would describe Niagara in language fitted for the falls at London bridge, or attempt the majesty of the Mississippi in that which was made for the Thames?” —North American Review (1815)
“In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” —Edinburgh Review (1820)
Turning from an eastern dusk and towards a western dawn, Benjamin Franklin miraculously saw a rising sun on the horizon after having done some sober demographic calculations in 1751. Not quite yet the aged, paunchy, gouty, balding raconteur of the American Revolution, but rather only the slightly paunchy, slightly gouty, slightly balding raconteur of middle-age, Franklin examined the data concerning the births, immigration, and quality of life in the English colonies by contrast to Great Britain. In his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Franklin noted that a century hence, and “the greatest Number of Englishmen will be on this Side of the Water” (while also taking time to make a number of patently racist observations about a minority group in Pennsylvania—the Germans). For the scientist and statesman, such magnitude implied inevitable conclusions about empire.
Whereas London and Manchester were fetid, crowded, stinking, chaotic, and over-populated, Philadelphia and Boston were expansive, fresh, and had room to breathe. In Britain land was at a premium, but in America there was the seemingly limitless expanse stretching towards an unimaginable West (which was, of course, already populated by people). In the verdant fecundity of the New World, Franklin imagined (as many other colonists did) that a certain “Merry Old England” that had been supplanted in Europe could once again be resurrected, a land defined by leisure and plenty for the largest number of people. Such thoughts occurred, explains Henry Nash Smith in his classic study Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, because “the American West was nevertheless there, a physical fact of great if unknown magnitude.”
As Britain expanded into that West, Franklin argued that the empire’s ambitions should shift from the nautical to the agricultural, from the oceanic to the continental, from sea to land. Smith describes Franklin as a “far-seeing theorist who understood what a portentous role North America” might play in a future British Empire. Not yet an American, but still an Englishmen—and the gun smoke of Lexington and Concord still 24 years away—Franklin enthusiastically prophesizes in his pamphlet that “What an Accession of Power to the British Empire by Sea as well as Land!”
A decade later, and he’d write in a 1760 missive to a one Lord Kames that “I have long been of opinion, that the foundations of the future grandeur and stability of the British empire lie in America.” And so, with some patriotism as a trueborn Englishmen, Benjamin Franklin could perhaps imagine the Court of St. James transplanted to the environs of the Boston Common, the Houses of Parliament south of Manhattan’s old Dutch Wall Street, the residence of George II of Great Britain moved from Westminster to Philadelphia’s Southwest Square. After all, it was the Anglo-Irish philosopher and poet George Berkeley, writing his lyric “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America” in his Providence, Rhode Island manse, who could gush that “Westward the course of empire takes its way.”
But even if aristocrats could perhaps share Franklin’s ambitions for a British Empire that stretched from the white cliffs of Dover to San Francisco Bay (after all, christened “New Albion” by Francis Drake), the idea of moving the capital to Boston or Philadelphia seemed anathema. Smith explained that it was “asking too much of an Englishmen to look forward with pleasure to the time when London might become a provincial capital taking orders from an imperial metropolis somewhere in the interior of North America.” Besides, it was a moot point, since history would intervene. Maybe Franklin’s pamphlet was written a quarter century before, but the gun smoke of Lexington and Concord was wafting, and soon the idea of a British capital on American shores seemed an alternative history and a historical absurdity.
Something both evocative and informative, however, in this counterfactual; imagining a retinue of the Queen’s Guard processing down the neon skyscraper canyon of Broadway, or the dusk splintering off of the gold dome of the House of Lords at the crest of Beacon Hill overlooking Boston Common. Don’t mistake my enthusiasms for this line of speculation as evidence of a reactionary monarchism, I’m very happy that such a divorce happened, even if less than amicably. What does fascinate me is the way in which the cleaving of America from Britain affected how we understand each other, the ways in which we become “two nations divided by a common language,” as variously Mark Twain or George Bernard Shaw have been reported as having waggishly once uttered.
Even more than the relatively uninteresting issue that the British spell their words with too many u’s, or say weird things like “lorry” when they mean truck, or “biscuit” when they mean cookie, is the more theoretical but crucial issue of definitions of national literature. Why are American and British literature two different things if they’re mostly written in English, and how exactly do we delineate those differences? It can seem arbitrary that the supreme Anglophiles Henry James and T.S. Eliot are (technically) Americans, and their British counterparts W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas can seem so fervently Yankee. Then there is what we do with the early folks; is the “tenth muse,” colonial poet Anne Bradstreet, British because she was born in Northampton, England, or was she American because she died in Ipswich, Mass.? Was Thomas More “American” because Utopia is in the Western Hemisphere, was Shakespeare a native because he dreamt of The Tempest? Such divisions make us question how language relates to literature, and how literature interacts with nationality, and what that says vis-à-vis the differences between Britain and America, the lion and the eagle.
A difficulty emerges in separating two national literatures that share a common tongue, and that’s because traditionally literary historians equated “nation with a tongue,” as critic William C. Spengemann writes in A New World of Words: Redefining Early American Literature, explaining how what gave French literature or German literature a semblance of “identity, coherence, and historical continuity” was that they were defined by language and not by nationality. By such logic, if Dante was an Italian writer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau a French one, and Franz Kafka a German author, then it was because those were the languages in which they wrote, despite them respectively being Swiss, Czech, and Florentine.
Americans, however, largely speak in the tongue of the country that once held dominion over the thin sliver of land that stretched from Maine to Georgia, and as far west as the Alleghenies. Thus, an unsettling conclusion has to be drawn; perhaps the nationality of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson was American, but the literature they produced would be English, so that with horror we realize that Walt Whitman’s transcendent “barbaric yawp” would be growled in the Queen’s tongue. Before he brilliantly complicates that logic, Spengemann sheepishly concludes, “writings in English by Americans belong, by definition, to English literature.”
Sometimes misattributed to linguist Noam Chomsky, it was actually the scholar of Yiddish Max Weinreich who quipped that a “language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” If that’s the case, then a national literature is the bit of territory that that army and navy police. But what happens when that language is shared by two separate armies and navies? To what nation does the resultant literature then belong? No doubt there are other countries where English is the lingua franca; all of this anxiety over the difference between British and American literature doesn’t seem so quite involved as regards British literature and its relationship to poetry and prose from Canada, Australia, or New Zealand for that matter.
Sometimes those national literatures, and especially English writing from former colonies like India and South Africa, are still folded into “British Literature.” So Alice Munro, Les Murray, Clive James, J.M. Coetzee, and Salman Rushdie could conceivably be included in anthologies or survey courses focused on “British Literature”—though they’re Canadian, Australian, South African, and Indian—where it would seem absurd to similarly include William Faulkner and Toni Morrison in the same course. Some anthologizers who are seemingly unaware that Ireland isn’t Great Britain will even include James Joyce and W.B. Yeats alongside Gerard Manley Hopkins and D.H. Lawrence as somehow transcendentally “English,” but the similar (and honestly less offensive) audacity of including Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath as “English” writers is unthinkable.
Perhaps it’s simply a matter of shared pronunciation, the superficial similarity of accent that makes us lump Commonwealth countries (and Ireland) together as “English” literature, but something about that strict division between American and British literature seems more deliberate to me, especially since they ostensibly do share a language. An irony in that though, for as a sad and newly independent American said in 1787, “a national language answers the purpose of distinction: but we have the misfortune of speaking the same language with a nation, who, of all people in Europe, have given, and continue to give us thefewest proofs of love.”
Before embracing English, or pretending that “American” was something different than English, both the Federal Congress and several state legislatures considered making variously French, German, Greek, and Hebrew our national tongue, before wisely rejecting the idea of one preferred language. So unprecedented and so violent was the breaking of America with Britain, it did after all signal the end of the first British Empire, and so conscious was the construction of a new national identity in the following century, that it seems inevitable that these new Federalists would also declare an independence for American literature.
One way this was done, shortly after the independence of the Republic, is exemplified by the fantastically named New York Philological Society, whose 1788 charter exclaimed their founding “for the purpose of ascertaining and improving the American Tongue.” If national literatures were defined by language, and America’s language was already the inheritance of the English, well then, these brave philologists would just have to transform English into American. Historian Jill Lepore writes in A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States that the society was created in the “aftermath of the bloody War for Independence” in the hope that “peacetime America would embrace language and literature and adopt…a federal, national language.”
Lepore explains the arbitrariness of national borders; their contingency in the time period that the United States was born; and the manner in which, though language is tied to nationality, such an axiom is thrust through with ambiguity, for countries are diverse of speech and the majority of a major language’s speakers historically don’t reside in the birthplace of that tongue. For the New York Philological Society, it was imperative to come up with the solution of an American tongue, to “spell and speak the same as one another, but differently from people in England.” So variable were (and are) the dialects of the United States, from the non-rhotic dropped “r” of Boston and Charleston, which in the 18th century was just developing in imitation of English merchants to the guttural, piratical swagger of Western accents in the Appalachians, that this lexicographer hoped to systematize such diversity into an unique American language. As one of those assembled scholars wrote, “Language, as well as government should be national…America should have her own distinct from all the world.” His name was Noah Webster and he intended his American Dictionary to birth an entirely new language.
It didn’t of course, even if “u” fell out of “favour.” Such was what Lepore describes as an orthographic declaration of independence, for “there iz no alternativ” as Webster would write in his reformed spelling. But if Webster’s goal was the creation of a genuine new language, he inevitably fell short, for the fiction that English and “American” are two separate tongues is as political as is the claim that Bosnian and Serbian, or Swedish and Norwegian, are different languages (or that English and Scots are the same, for that matter). British linguist David Crystal writes in The Stories of English that “The English language bird was not freed by the American manoeuvre,” his Anglophilic spelling a direct rebuke to Webster, concluding that the American speech “hopped out of one cage into another.”
Rather, the intellectual class turned towards literature itself to distinguish America from Britain, seeing in the establishment of writers who surpassed Geoffrey Chaucer or Shakespeare a national salvation. Melville, in his consideration of Hawthorne and American literature more generally, predicted in 1850 that “men not very much inferior to Shakespeare are this day born on the banks of the Ohio.” Three decades before that, and the critic Sydney Smith had a different evaluation of the former colonies and their literary merit, snarking interrogatively in the Edinburgh Review that “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” In the estimation of the Englishmen (and Scotsmen) who defined the parameters of the tongue, Joel Barlow, Philip Freneau, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Washington Irving, Charles Brockden Brown, and James Fenimore Cooper couldn’t compete with the sublimity of British literature.
Yet, by 2018, British critics weren’t quite as smug as Smith had been, as more than 30 authors protested the decision four years earlier to allow Americans to be considered for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. In response to the winning of the prize by George Saunders and Paul Beatty, English author Tessa Hadley told The New York Times “it’s as though we’re perceived…as only a subset of U.S. fiction, lost in its margins and eventually, this dilution of the community of writers plays out in the writing.” Who in the four corners of the globe reads an American novel? Apparently, the Man Booker committee. But Hadley wasn’t, in a manner, wrong in her appraisal. By the 21st century, British literature is just a branch of American literature. The question is how did we get here?
Only a few decades after Smith wrote his dismissal, and writers would start to prove Melville’s contention, including of course the author of Benito Cereno and Billy Bud himself. In the decade before the Civil War there was a Cambrian Explosion of American letters, as suddenly Romanticism had its last and most glorious flowering in the form of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Emily Dickinson, and of course Walt Whitman. Such was the movement whose parameters were defined by the seminal scholar F.O. Matthiessen in his 1941 classic American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, who included studies of all of those figures saving (unfortunately) Dickinson.
The Pasadena-born-but-Harvard-trained Matthiessen remains one of the greatest professors to ever ask his students to close-read a passage of Emerson. American Renaissance was crucial in discovering American literature as something distinct and great in its own right from British literature. Strange to think now, but for most of the 20th century the teaching of American literature was left for either history classes, or the nascent (State Department funded) discipline of American Studies. English departments, true to the very name of the field, tended to see American poetry and novels as beneath consideration in the study of “serious” literature. The general attitude of American literary scholars about their own national literature can be summed up by Victorian critic Charles F. Richardson, who, in his 1886 American Literature, opined that “If we think of Shakespeare, Bunyan, Milton, the seventeenth-century choir of lyrists, Sir. Thomas Browne, Jeremy Taylor, Addison, Swift, Dryden, Gray, Goldsmith, and the eighteenth-century novelists…what shall we say of the intrinsic worth of most of the book written on American soil?” And that was a book by an American about American literature!
On the eve of the World War II and Matthiessen approached his subject in a markedly different way, and while scholars had granted the field a respectability, American Renaissance was chief in radically altering the manner in which we thought about writing in English (or “American”). Matthiessen surveyed the diversity of the 1850s from the repressed Puritanism of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to the Pagan-Calvinist cosmopolitan nihilism of Moby-Dick and the pantheistic manual that is Thoreau’s Walden in light of the exuberant homoerotic mysticism of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Despite such diversity, Matthiessen concluded that the “one common denominator of my five writers…was their devotion to the possibilities of democracy.” Matthiessen was thanked for his discovery of American literature by being hounded by the House Un-American Activities Committee over his left-wing politics, until the scholar jumped from the 12th floor of Boston’s Hotel Manger in 1950. The critic’s commitment to democracy was all the more poignant in light of his death, for Matthiessen understood that it’s in negotiation, diversity, and collaboration that American literature truly distinguished itself. Here was an important truth, what Spengemann explains when he argues that American literature is defined not by the language in which it is written (as with British literature), but rather “American literature had to be defined politically.”
When considering the American Renaissance, an observer might be tempted to whisper “Westward the course of empire,” indeed. Franklin’s literal dream of an American capital to the British Empire never happened. Yet by the decade when the United States would wrench itself apart in an apocalyptic civil war, ironically America would become figurative capital of the English language. From London the energy, vitality, and creativity of the English language would move westward to Massachusetts in the twilight of Romanticism, and after a short sojourn in Harvard and Copley Squares, Concord and Amherst, it would migrate towards New York City with Whitman, which if not the capital of the English became the capital of the English language. From the 1850s onward, British literature became a regional variation of American literature, a branch on the latter’s tree, a mere phylum in its kingdom.
English literary critics of the middle part of the 19th century didn’t note this transition; arguable if British reviewers in the mid part of the 20th century did either, but if they didn’t, it’s an act of critical malpractice. For who would trade the epiphanies in ballad-meter that are the lyrics of Dickinson in favor of the arid flatulence of Alfred Lord Tennyson? Who would reject the maximalist experimentations of Melville for the reactionary nostalgia of chivalry in Walter Scott? Something ineffable crossed the Atlantic during the American Renaissance, and the old problem of how we could call American literature distinct from British since both are written in English was solved—the later is just a subset of the former.
Thus, Hadley’s fear is a reality, and has been for a while. Decades before Smith would mock the pretensions of American genius, and the English gothic novelist (and son of the first prime minister) Horace Walpole would write, in a 1774 letter to Horace Mann, that the “next Augustan age will dawn on the other side of the Atlantic. There will, perhaps, be a Thucydides at Boston, a Xenophon at New York, and, in time, a Virgil at Mexico, and an Isaac Newton at Peru. At last, some curious traveler from Lima will visit England and give a description of the ruins of St. Paul’s.” Or maybe Walpole’s curious traveler was from California, as our language’s literature has ever moved west, with Spengemann observing that if by the American Renaissance the “English-speaking world had removed from London to the eastern seaboard of the United States, carrying the stylistic capital of the language along with it…[then] Today, that center of linguistic fashion appears to reside in the vicinity of Los Angeles.” Franklin would seem to have gotten his capital, staring out onto a burnt ochre dusk over the Pacific Palisades, as westward the course of empire has deposited history in that final location of Hollywood.
John Leland writes in Hip: The History that “Three generations after Whitman and Thoreau had called for a unique national language, that language communicated through jazz, the Lost Generation and the Harlem Renaissance…American cool was being reproduced, identically, in living rooms from Paducah to Paris.” Leland concludes it was “With this voice, [that] America began to produce the popular culture that would stamp the 20th century as profoundly as the great wars.” What’s been offered by the American vernacular, by American literature as broadly constituted and including not just our letters but popular music and film as well, is a rapacious, energetic, endlessly regenerative tongue whose power is drawn not by circumscription but in its porous and absorbent ability to draw from a variety of languages that have been spoken in this land. Not just English, but languages from Algonquin to Zuni.
No one less than the great grey poet Whitman himself wrote, “We American have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them, to unify them. They will be found ampler than has been supposed, and in widely different sources.” Addressed to an assembly gathered to celebrate the 333th anniversary of Santa Fe, Whitman surmised that “we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only—which is a very great mistake.” He of the multitudinous crowd, the expansive one, the incarnation of America itself, understood better than most that the English tongue alone can never define American literature. Our literature is Huck and Jim heading out into the territories, and James Baldwin drinking coffee by the Seine; Dickinson scribbling on the backs of envelopes and Miguel Piñero at the Nuyorican Poets Café. Do I contradict myself? Very well then. Large?—of course. Contain multitudes?—absolutely.
Spengemann glories in the fact that “if American literature is literature written by Americans, then it can presumably appear in whatever language an American writer happens to use,” be it English or Choctaw, Ibo or Spanish. Rather than debating what the capital of the English language is, I advocate that there shall be no capitals. Rather than making borders between national literatures we must rip down those arbitrary and unnecessary walls. There is a national speech unique to everyone who puts pen to paper; millions of literatures for millions of speakers. How do you speak American? By speaking English. And Dutch. And French. And Yiddish. And Italian. And Hebrew. And Arabic. And Ibo. And Wolof. And Iroquois. And Navajo. And Mandarin. And Japanese. And of course, Spanish. Everything can be American literature because nothing is American literature. Its promise is not just a language, but a covenant.
Image credit: Freestock/Joanna Malinowska.
“Homer on parchment pages! / The Iliad and all the adventures/ Of Ulysses, for of Priam’s kingdom, / All locked within a piece of skin / Folded into several little sheets!”—Martial, Epigrammata (c. 86-103)
“A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” -—John Milton, Aeropagitica (1644)
At Piazza Maunzio Bufalini 1 in Cesena, Italy, there is a stately sandstone building of buttressed reading rooms, Venetian windows, and extravagant masonry that holds slightly under a half-million volumes, including manuscripts, codices, incunabula, and print. Commissioned by Malatesta Novello in the 15th century, the Malatestiana Library opened its intricately carved walnut door to readers in 1454, at the height of the Italian Renaissance. The nobleman who funded the library had his architects borrow from ecclesiastical design: The columns of its rooms evoke temples, its seats the pews that would later line cathedrals, its high ceilings as if in monasteries.
Committed humanist that he was, Novello organized the volumes of his collection through an idiosyncratic system of classification that owed more to the occultism of Neo-Platonist philosophers like Marsilio Ficino, who wrote in nearby Florence, or Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who would be born shortly after its opening, than to the arid categorization of something like our contemporary Dewey Decimal System. For those aforementioned philosophers, microcosm and macrocosm were forever nestled into and reflecting one another across the long line of the great chain of being, and so Novello’s library was organized in a manner that evoked the connections of both the human mind in contemplation as well as the universe that was to be contemplated itself. Such is the sanctuary described by Matthew Battles in Library: An Unquiet History, where a reader can lift a book and test its heft, can appraise “the fall of letterforms on the title page, scrutinizing marks left by other readers … startled into a recognition of the world’s materiality by the sheer number of bound volumes; by the sound of pages turning, covers rubbing; by the rank smell of books gathered together in vast numbers.”
An awkward-looking yet somehow still elegant carved elephant serves as the keystone above one door’s lintel, and it serves as the modern library’s logo. Perhaps the elephant is a descendant of one of Hannibal’s pachyderms who thundered over the Alps more than 15 centuries before, or maybe the grandfather of Hanno, Pope Leo X’s pet—gifted to him by the King of Portugal—who would make the Vatican his home in less than five decades. Like the Renaissance German painter Albrecht Durer’s celebrated engraving of a rhinoceros, the exotic and distant elephant speaks to the concerns of this institution—curiosity, cosmopolitanism, and commonwealth.
It’s the last quality that makes the Malatestiana Library so significant. There were libraries that celebrated curiosity before, like the one at Alexandria whose scholars demanded that the original of every book brought to port be deposited within while a reproduction would be returned to the owner. And there were collections that embodied cosmopolitanism, such as that in the Villa of Papyri, owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the uncle of Julius Caesar, which excavators discovered in the ash of Herculaneum, and that included sophisticated philosophical and poetic treatises by Epicurus and the Stoic Chrysopsis. But what made the Malatestiana so remarkable wasn’t its collections per se (though they are), but rather that it was built not for the singular benefit of the Malatesta family, nor for a religious community, and that unlike in monastic libraries, its books were not rendered into place by a heavy chain. The Bibliotheca Malatestiana would be the first of a type—a library for the public.
If the Malatestiana was to be like a map of the human mind, then it would be an open-source mind, a collective brain to which we’d all be invited as individual cells. Novella amended the utopian promise of complete knowledge as embodied by Alexandria into something wholly more democratic. Now, not only would an assemblage of humanity’s curiosity be gathered into one temple, but that palace would be as a commonwealth for the betterment of all citizens. From that hilly Umbrian town you can draw a line of descent to the Library Company of Philadelphia founded by Benjamin Franklin, the annotated works of Plato and John Locke owned by Thomas Jefferson and housed in a glass-cube at the Library of Congress, the reading rooms of the British Museum where Karl Marx penned Das Kapital (that collection having since moved closer to King’s Cross Station), the Boston Public Library in Copley Square with its chiseled names of local worthies like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau ringing its colonnade, and the regal stone lions who stand guard on Fifth Avenue in front of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library.
More importantly, the Malatestiana is the progenitor of millions of local public libraries from Bombay to Budapest. In the United States, the public library arguably endures as one of the last truly democratic institutions. In libraries there are not just the books collectively owned by a community, but the toy exchanges for children, the book clubs and discussion groups, the 12 Step meetings in basements, and the respite from winter cold for the indigent. For all of their varied purposes, and even with the tyrannical ascending reign of modern technology, the library is still focused on the idea of the book. Sometimes the techno-utopians malign the concerns of us partisans of the physical book as being merely a species of fetishism, the desire to turn crinkled pages labeled an affectation; the pleasure drawn from the heft of a hardback dismissed as misplaced nostalgia. Yet there are indomitably pragmatic defenses of the book as physical object—now more than ever.
For one, a physical book is safe from the Orwellian deletions of Amazon, and the electronic surveillance of the NSA. A physical book, in being unconnected to the internet, can be as a closed-off monastery from the distraction and dwindling attention span engendered by push notifications and smart phone apps. The book as object allows for a true degree of interiority, of genuine privacy that cannot be ensured on any electronic device. To penetrate the sovereignty of the Kingdom of the Book requires the lo-fi method of looking over a reader’s shoulder. A physical book is inviolate in the face of power outage, and it cannot short-circuit. There is no rainbow pinwheel of death when you open a book.
But if I can cop to some of what the critics of us Luddites impugn us with, there is something crucial about the weight of a book. So much does depend on a cracked spine and a coffee-stained page. There is an “incarnational poetics” to the very physical reality of a book that can’t be replicated on a greasy touch-screen. John Milton wrote in his 1644 Aeropagitica, still among one of the most potent defenses of free speech written, that “books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are.” This is not just simply metaphor; in some sense we must understand books as being alive, and just as it’s impossible to extricate the soul of a person from their very sinews and nerves, bones, and flesh, so too can we not divorce the text from the smooth sheen of velum, the warp and waft of paper, the glow of the screen. Geoffrey Chaucer or William Shakespeare must be interpreted differently depending on how they’re read. The medium, to echo media theorist Marshall McLuhan, has always very much been the message.
This embodied poetics is, by its sheer sensual physicality, directly related to the commonwealth that is the library. Battles argues that “the experience of the physicality of the book is strongest in large libraries”; stand amongst the glass cube at the center of the British Library, the stacks upon stacks in Harvard’s Widener Library, or the domed portico of the Library of Congress and tell me any differently. In sharing books that have been read by hundreds before, we’re privy to other minds in a communal manner, from the barely erased penciled marginalia in a beaten copy of The Merchant of Venice to the dog-ears in Leaves of Grass.
What I wish to sing of then is the physicality of the book, its immanence, its embodiment, its very incarnational poetics. Writing about these “contraptions of paper, ink, carboard, and glue,” Keith Houston in The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most powerful Object of our Time challenges us to grab the closest volume and to “Open it and hear the rustle of paper and the crackle of glue. Smell it! Flip through the pages and feel the breeze on your face.” The exquisite physicality of matter defines the arid abstractions of this thing we call “Literature,” even as we forget that basic fact that writing may originate in the brain and may be uttered by the larynx, but it’s preserved on clay, papyrus, paper, and patterns of electrons. In 20th-century literary theory we’ve taken to call anything written a “text,” which endlessly confuses our students who themselves are privy to call anything printed a “novel” (regardless of whether or not its fictional). The text, however, is a ghost. Literature is the spookiest of arts, leaving not the Ozymandian monuments of architectural ruins, words rather grooved into the very electric synapses of our squishy brains.
Not just our brains though, for Gilgamesh is dried in the rich, baked soil of the Euphrates; Socrates’s denunciation of the written word from Plato’s Phaedrus was wrapped in the fibrous reeds grown alongside the Nile; Beowulf forever slaughters Grendel upon the taut, tanned skin of some English lamb; Prospero contemplates his magic books among the rendered rags of Renaissance paper pressed into the quarto of The Tempest; and Emily Dickinson’s scraps of envelope from the wood pulp of trees grown in the Berkshires forever entombs her divine dashes. Ask a cuneiform scholar, a papyrologist, a codicologist, a bibliographer. The spirit is strong, but so is the flesh; books can never be separated from the circumstances of those bodies that house their souls. In A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel confesses as much, writing that “I judge a book by its cover; I judge a book by its shape.”
Perhaps this seems an obvious contention, and the analysis of material conditions, from the economics of printing and distribution to the physical properties of the book as an object, has been a mainstay of some literary study for the past two generations. This is as it should be, for a history of literature could be written not in titles and authors, but from the mediums on which that literature was preserved, from the clay tablets of Mesopotamia to the copper filaments and fiber optic cables that convey the internet. Grappling with the physicality of the latest medium is particularly important, because we’ve been able to delude ourselves into thinking that there is something purely unembodied about electronic literature, falling into that Cartesian delusion that strictly separates the mind from the flesh.
Such a clean divorce was impossible in earthier times. Examine the smooth vellum of a medieval manuscript, and notice the occasionally small hairs from the slaughtered animals that still cling to William Langland’s Piers Plowman or Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Houston explains that “a sheet of parchment is the end product of a bloody, protracted, and physical process that begins with the death of a calf, lamb, or kid, and proceeds thereafter through a series of grimly anatomical steps until parchment emerges at the other end,” where holding up to the light one of these volumes can sometimes reveal “the delicate tracery of veins—which, if the animal was not properly bled upon its slaughter, are darker and more obvious.” It’s important to remember the sacred reality that all of medieval literature that survives is but the stained flesh of dead animals.
Nor did the arrival of Johannes Guttenberg’s printing press make writing any less physical, even if was less bloody. Medieval literature was born from the marriage of flesh and stain, but early modern writing was culled from the fusion of paper, ink, and metal. John Man describes in The Gutenberg Revolution: How Printing Changed the Course of History how the eponymous inventor had to “use linseed oil, soot and amber as basic ingredients” in the composition of ink, where the “oil for the varnish had to be of just the right consistency,” and the soot which was used in its composition “was best derived from burnt oil and resin,” having had to be “degreased by careful roasting.” Battles writes in Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word that printing is a trade that bears the “marks of the metalsmith, the punch cutter, the machinist.” The Bible may be the word of God, but Guttenberg printed it onto stripped and rendered rags with keys “at 82 percent lead, with tin making up a further 9 percent, the soft, metallic element antimony 6 percent, and trace amounts of copper among the remainder,” as Houston reminds us. Scripture preached of heaven, but made possible through the very minerals of the earth.
Medieval scriptoriums were dominated by scribes, calligraphers, and clerics; Guttenberg was none of these, rather a member of the goldsmith’s guild. His innovation was one that we can ascribe as a victory to that abstract realm of literature, but fundamentally it was derived from the metallurgical knowledge of how to “combine the supple softness of lead with the durability of tin,” as Battles writes, a process that allowed him to forge the letter matrices that fit into his movable printing-press. We may think of the hand-written manuscripts of medieval monasteries as expressing a certain uniqueness, but physicality was just as preserved in the printed book, and, as Battles writes, in “letters carved in word or punched and chased in silver, embroidered in tapestry and needlepoint, wrought in iron and worked into paintings, a world in which words are things.”
We’d do well not to separate the embodied poetics of this thing we’ve elected to call the text from a proper interpretation of said text. Books are not written by angels in a medium of pure spirit; they’re recorded upon wood pulp and we should remember that. The 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes claimed that the spirit interacted with the body through the pineal gland, the “principal seat of the soul.” Books of course have no pineal gland, but we act as if text is a thing of pure spirit, excluding it from the gritty matter upon which it’s actually constituted. Now more than ever we see the internet as a disembodied realm, the heaven promised by theologians but delivered by Silicon Valley. Our libraries are now composed of ghosts in the machine. Houston reminds us that this is an illusion, for even as you read this article on your phone, recall that it is delivered by “copper wire and fiber optics, solder and silicon, and the farther ends of the electromagnetic spectrum.”
Far from disenchanting the spooky theurgy of literature, an embrace of the materiality of reading and writing only illuminates how powerful this strange art is. By staring at a gradation of light upon dark in abstracted symbols, upon whatever medium it is recorded, an individual is capable of hallucinating the most exquisite visions; they are able to even experience the subjectivity of another person’s mind. The medieval English librarian Richard de Bury wrote in his 14th-century Philobiblon that “In books I find the dead as if they were alive … All things are corrupted and decay in time; Saturn ceases not to devour the children that he generates; all the glory of the world would be buried in oblivion, unless God had provided mortals with the remedy of books.”
If books are marked by their materiality, then they in turn mark us; literature “contrived to take up space in the head and in the world of things,” as Battles writes. The neuroplasticity of our mind is set by the words that we read, our fingers cut from turned pages and our eyes strained from looking at screens. We are made of words as much as words are preserved on things; we’re as those Egyptian mummies who were swaddled in papyrus printed with lost works of Plato and Euripides; we’re as the figure in the Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s 1566 The Librarian [above], perhaps inspired by those stacks of the Malatestiana. In that uncanny and beautiful portrait Arcimboldo presents an anatomy built from a pile of books, the skin of his figure the tanned red and green leather of a volume’s cover, the cacophony of hair a quarto whose pages are falling open. In the rough materiality of the book we see our very bodies reflected back to us, in the skin of the cover, the organs of the pages, the blood of ink. Be forewarned: to read a book as separate from the physicality that defines it is to scarcely read at all.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
After finishing Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, which originally appeared in 1982 and was re-issued this past November by New Directions, you may wonder how the marvelous secret of this novel was kept from you for so long. At 111 pages, shorn of extensive subplots, and paced for an evening’s read, Mrs. Caliban tells the droll story of love between an amphibious monster named Larry and a depressed housewife named Dorothy. It inspects what the love of a monster might mean when it doesn’t involve kidnapping, as it usually does in stories of uncanny “romance.” These tales are often anxious about a woman’s sexual allure, or feature a stiff measure of racist dread—think of King Kong or The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Think also of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where Frankenstein’s “monster of my creation” establishes the universal rule that any abominable creature of tremendous bad fortune must be in want of a wife. Larry and Dorothy’s tryst, by contrast, eschews possession and is almost anxiety-free.
And, after 35 years of near-obscurity, Mrs. Caliban’s time has come. Pop culture at large has caught up with Ingalls. Guillermo del Toro’s latest fable, The Shape of Water, appeared in theaters last December. Both film and novel chronicle the trials of an aquatic monster subjected to study in a government laboratory. In Del Toro’s film, a mute woman comes to the amphibious man’s aid, and what follows has the cadence of a wish fulfillment. In Ingalls’s novel, on a high wire above B-movie horror and second-wave feminism, “Aquarius the Monsterman” escapes his captors and walks through the kitchen door of Dorothy’s house. There’s little wishing, really. Dorothy is in the midst of improvising dinner for her husband, Fred, who has refused to say what he wanted to eat. Larry, with his incongruous frog’s head, stares her down and growls.
Dorothy has already heard about the “Monsterman” on the radio. Ingalls suggests she has been having aural hallucinations, hearing ads aimed just at her. One announces, “Don’t worry, Dorothy, you’ll have another baby all right.” She and Fred lost one child to a “drug sensitivity” during an appendectomy, and a second child was stillborn. Frozen out by her philandering husband, who no longer kisses her goodbye and seems less brutal than adrift, Dorothy lives in a world “too unhappy” for divorce. Or so she tells her friend Estelle. When she had been considering separation, Ingalls writes, “there were times when Dorothy would lean her head against the wall and seem to herself to be no longer living because no longer a part of any world in which love was possible.” This predicament—dead in a world of impossible love—resembles, in fact, the dilemma of Frankenstein’s monster. Living in a world that will never love him, he demands a companion from his creator. That’s what being a monster is sometimes: abandoned with the injuries of a painful isolation.
But Dorothy’s pain is different. She lives in a house she later implies is a “prison.” Though initially flummoxed by “shock and terror” at the appearance of Larry, she reaches—it may be a mistake, Ingalls doesn’t say—for a stalk of celery rather than a nearby knife. Brandishing it, she watches while Larry takes the gesture as an offer of food. She may have meant it that way. A world too unhappy for separation might not have the strongest borders to keep others out. When Larry eats the celery, he thanks Dorothy and asks for help. “They will kill me,” he says. “I have suffered so much already.” Dorothy thinks, “You need help and so do I.” That Larry killed his captors and fled is a fact neither forgotten nor brooded over in Mrs. Caliban. Dorothy considers Larry’s polite manners to be “scars” of the torture that made him behave while held in the lab, where he was tested and sexually assaulted. In her lonely mind, it’s no stretch to regard civility as self-defense.
Larry is Fred’s superior from the outset. For one thing, Larry actually tells Dorothy what he would like to eat. The irony of Dorothy’s imprisoning marriage is that Fred treats her as if she were his warden and him the prisoner. So, when Larry makes a specific request, Dorothy happily prepares vegetables. He also proves to have a strong affection for avocadoes, which Dorothy acquires for him by the bagful. After his first meal, Dorothy stashes Larry in the guest room where Fred never goes, full as it is of things that once belonged to their dead son. Larry fits right where the breaches are.
The next morning, because Larry is “so different,” Dorothy doesn’t mind him seeing her in her bathrobe, an item of clothing Larry loves. He thinks it’s a “garment of celebration.” Yet Dorothy misunderstands when he expresses the desire to help her clean the house. Freed from the lab, he enjoys the idea of being able to do whatever he wants and helping her clean is like permission. When they end up back in the guest room, Larry starts to take off Dorothy’s robe and nightgown, too. It’s a strange scene, and Ingalls only just dispels its creepiness, which feels appropriate for alien intercourse. Though Dorothy says she’s frightened and Larry asks what she wants, she wonders what it even means to feel “embarrassment” in the situation of sex with a six-foot-seven-inch aquatic monster-man. The upshot is: no shame. They spend the rest of the day having sex all over the house.
One of Ingalls’s key moves is simply to imagine casual sex with a monster-man. It doesn’t represent a journey beyond Dorothy’s inhibitions. When Larry asks her if they’re having too much sex, she answers:
It’s just the right amount for me. It’s perfect. People here are all different about it: some people like a lot, some only like a little, some change according to who they’re with or what age they are or whether they’re in a good mood, or even if the weather changes.
Ingalls doesn’t stop there, either. She spends the rest of the novel thinking over the boundaries of Dorothy’s desire.
Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, Larry never understands a woman’s company as the cure for pain. But, of course, his situation is entirely different. He has a species, something Frankenstein’s monster can only, tragically, fantasize about. Larry’s exile is his alone, and there’s a limit to how much he can share it. Dorothy never expects him to anyway. Though she believes the two of them are “so alike I’m not sure if we should really be called separate species,” she wants to help Larry return to his home in the Gulf of Mexico. If their romance is indeed a figment of Dorothy’s imagination (the novel leaves open the possibility), then what she fantasizes is not torrid and tragic but gracious and warm. The fantasy is not the fish-human hybrid, but the idea that your ideal sex partner would simply open the door and walk into your house.
Larry may not see it this way, though. After Estelle tells Dorothy that desire is all about wanting things you don’t need—an excess or indulgence—Larry claims the opposite:
When we [fish-men] want something, it’s true. We don’t want something we can’t have and not like the thing we get instead. The thing you want is the thing you have, isn’t it?
Dorothy argues with him. What we have depends on the prison we’re in, especially, she thinks, for women and monsters. To Dorothy, what Larry describes sounds surprisingly like male prerogative among humans, except that it dismisses the fantasy of wanting what you don’t have. Larry even explains that fish-women among his people are “jealous” and “wanting” in a way that fish-men, in their aloofness, are not. That’s just the way it is, he says. When he claims that only humans are all “different” from each other, Dorothy insists that,
if that were really true, men would be more different from other men than women from other women, because men’s jobs are very varied, while most women do the same things. But it isn’t true—women differ from each other just as much as men do. Do you think we could trust some other people to help us… if they were other housewives like me?
Human beings may not be so reliably different as Larry supposes, and those differences don’t guarantee any particular virtue. Perhaps fish-people are not all the same, either. Dorothy suspects that Larry hasn’t seen beyond the neat divisions of the mating habits he describes. Anyone can avail themselves of such easy thinking, and even a monster can have questionable opinions. Despite the love between them, Dorothy doesn’t regard Larry as a saint, god, or savior.
A good novel can’t be spoiled. Only a plot can. But readers should experience the perfect melodrama of Mrs. Caliban for themselves. I won’t give away its juicy conflicts. Taking its title from the half-fish monster of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Ingalls’s novel calls to mind another Shakespearean coinage, the “marriage of true minds” that alters not when it “alteration finds.” Larry and Dorothy are undeniably in love. Where other monsters bring destruction, Larry arrives in a life already destroyed. Where other human beings might see something grotesque, Dorothy sees herself: lovable, compassionate, and, take note, dangerous.
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
The teacher sits on the edge of his desk, slouching jauntily, maybe with one foot perched on a chair. He’s wearing khakis and a tweed jacket. His tawny hair sweeps back from his forehead. He is One of Us but also so, so much wiser.
“Today,” he announces, “we’re starting a unit on Shakespeare.” The class groans. “Hear me out,” Teacher Dude says. “Shakespeare was a man of the people,” he says. “He’s writing for and about young people just like you.”
Think Daryl Mitchell’s Mr. Morgan rapping Sonnet 141 to Julia Stiles’s delight in 10 Things I Hate About You. Michael Vartan in Never Been Kissed, drawing parallels between Rosalind in As You Like It and Drew Barrymore’s Josie. Look no further than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s substitute teacher sketch in a recent Saturday Night Live to see the cliché get called out for what it is.
The students in this stereotypical story, of course, will be writing or acting out some scenes from the chosen play, and, inevitably, our young protagonists will learn something about themselves over the course of the assignment.
If this ubiquitous Hollywood English-class scene teaches us anything, it may be an illustration of just how much the plays of Shakespeare — not to mention talking about Shakespeare, making comparisons to Shakespeare, re-examining Shakespeare in another light — has become so ingrained in our folklore. The Bard appears so often in either the foreground or background of our narratives that we hardly notice anymore.
Part of that storied tradition, the Hogarth Shakespeare Project pairs eight well-known authors with one of the plays. The latest entry, Margaret Atwood’s fun, quirky Tempest adaptation, Hag-Seed, toys with this foregrounding and backgrounding, as well as taking on the literal, figurative, critical, and sociological aspects of the story. Rather than The Tempest Retold it might be more aptly subtitled The Tempest: Engaged.
Set in present-day Ontario, Hag-Seed takes some key motifs from the play — theatre as magic, the island as a prison — and literalizes them, even while acknowledging and pondering the metaphors.
Our protagonist, Felix Phillips, is a theatre director known for his avant-garde takes on Shakespearean classics. Soon after the sudden death of his four-year-old daughter, Miranda, Felix sets out to mount a fantastical version of The Tempest starring himself as Prospero, robed in a cloak made from stuffed animals and wielding a fox-headed walking stick as his wizard’s staff. But before the show opens he is unceremoniously fired by his erstwhile business partner, Tony.
Felix exists in self-imposed exile until he gets a new job, teaching English at a local prison. Going by the pseudonym “Mr. Duke,” he directs the inmates in a different play each spring, teaching them skills like costume design and video editing as well as improving their often woeful literacy rates.
When Felix gets word that Tony and a politician, Sal O’Nally, are coming to the prison to see his latest play, he seizes the chance to stage his long-lost production as well as get revenge for his ousting. Tony and Sal will become prisoners of Felix’s enchantments, even while the inmate-cast is performing the very same story on the prison’s closed-circuit TVs.
From the beginning, the parallels to the original are obvious and noted. Felix, in his role as Artistic Director, is “the cloud-riding enchanter.” Tony is undoubtedly the villainous Antonio who usurps Prospero’s throne and sends him away in a leaky boat. That Felix’s daughter was named Miranda is entirely conscious: “What else would he have named a motherless baby girl with a middle-aged doting father?”
The first book in the Hogarth series, Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, has a quality of predestination about it. The characters have to follow a path laid out for them hundreds of years ago. Atwood hangs a lampshade on this idea in Hag-Seed. Felix leans into his role as Prospero, literally and figuratively. He lets slip that he’s in on the joke…and barrels ahead with his plot-reenactment anyway.
As Mr. Duke, Felix pitches the plays to his students as stories they can relate to: betrayal, murder, revenge, and comeuppance. He sells The Tempest along those lines, and Atwood follows the same tack, focusing on the character of Prospero and his revenge plot rather than on the story’s fantastical elements. But revenge hardly makes The Tempest unique in the Shakespeare canon. As a reader, I found myself hoping for more of the spirits and magicians and mysterious islands. Perhaps Atwood dismissed such approaches as too obvious.
Instead, we get the sociological angle of teaching Shakespeare in prison, in the context of a play about prisoners. As a metafictional conceit, it’s clever. As a real-world endeavor, it’s admirable. But as drama, it fails to completely connect. Perhaps it’s because none of the numerous characters get as much attention as Felix, and thus are largely reduced to their one or two recognizable characteristics. We don’t get to know them as people. At one point, Tony actually utters the uber-villain line, “You’ll pay for this!”
The title Hag-Seed comes from Felix’s class rule that the students can only swear if they use a word or phrase from the play itself. This results in chapters of playful dialogue full of “poxy” this and “whoreson” that. Perhaps a fun idea in a real-life Shakespeare class, here it comes off a bit gimmicky.
“Hag-Seed,” the term itself, refers to Caliban, the lone native inhabitant of the island, Prospero’s slave. He is the character the inmates relate to most, but for a book named after him, he is left oddly obscured. Neither the idea of Caliban, with all its ripe postcolonial and racial implications, nor the character himself have much impact on Atwood’s story.
The book is fun and readable. There are some delicious turns of phrase — “He would push every envelope, he would twist reality until it twangled” — but it doesn’t necessarily draw new conclusions about its source material. Rather it suggests angles you might not have considered since freshman-year World Lit. Did you know The Tempest used to be performed as an opera? How many different prisons can you find in the text? At times the book feels more like a thought experiment than an immersive novel.
Thanks to its taking place in an actual English class, Hag-Seed becomes the latest entry in that parade of pop-culture English classes with surprisingly literal correlations between the characters’ lives and their reading material. The difference here is that the character whose story most closely aligns with the play is the teacher himself. Felix achieves what he set out to do and learns something about himself along the way. By the time he’s ended his revels, he is free from the thing that was holding him prisoner.
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month — for more October titles, check out the Great Second-Half 2016 Fiction and Non-Fiction Previews.
The Mothers by Brit Bennett: The Mothers begins when a grief-stricken 17-year-old girl becomes pregnant with the local pastor’s son, and shows how their ensuing decisions affect the life of a tight-knit black community in Southern California for years to come. The church’s devoted matriarchs — “the mothers” — act as a Greek chorus to this story of friendship, secrets, guilt, and hope. (Janet)
A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem: Lethem’s first novel since 2013’s Dissident Gardens has the everything-in-the-stewpot quality that his readers have come to expect: the plot follows a telepathic backgammon hustler through various international intrigues before forcing him to confront a deadly tumor — as well as his patchouli-scented Berkeley past. Though it remains to be seen if A Gambler’s Anatomy can hit the emotional heights of Motherless Brooklyn andThe Fortress of Solitude, it will be, if nothing else, unmistakably Lethem. (Jacob)
The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine: I love a novel the plot of which dares to take place over the course of one night: in The Angel of History, it’s the height of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, and Yemeni-born poet Jacob, who is gay, sits in the waiting room of a psych clinic in San Francisco. He waits actively, as they say — recalling his varied past in Cairo, Beirut, Sana’a, and Stockholm. Other present-time characters include Satan and Death, and herein perhaps lies what Michael Chabon described as Alameddine’s “daring” sensibility…“not in the cheap sense of lurid or racy, but as a surgeon, a philosopher, an explorer, or a dancer.” (Sonya)
Nicotine by Nell Zink: Zink now enters the post-New Yorker profile, post-Jonathan-Franzen-pen-pal phase of her career with Nicotine, a novel that seems as idiosyncratic and — the term has probably already been coined — Zinkian as Mislaid and The Wallcreeper. Nicotine follows the struggle between the ordinary Penny Baker and her aging hippie parents — a family drama that crescendos when Penny inherits her father’s squatter-infested childhood home and must choose “between her old family and her new one.” Few writers have experienced Zink’s remarkable arc, and by all appearances, Nicotine seems unlikely to slow her winning streak. (Jacob)
The Loved Ones by Sonya Chung: Her second novel (after Long for this World), this ambitious story is a multigenerational saga about family, race, difference, and what it means to be a lost child in a big world. Charles Lee, the African-American patriarch of a biracial family, searches for meaning after a fatherless childhood. His connection with a caregiver, Hannah, uncovers her Korean immigrant family’s past flight from tradition and war. Chung is a staff writer at The Millions and founding editor of Bloom, and her work has appeared in Tin House, The Threepenny Review, and BOMB. Early praise from Nayomi Munaweera compares Chung’s prose toElena Ferrante or Clarice Lispector, “elegant, sparse, and heartbreaking.” (Claire)
The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky: Dermansky’s Bad Marie featured an ex-con nanny obsessed with her employer and with a tendency to tipple on the job. The protagonist of her latest is a less colorful type: a struggling novelist suffocated by her husband, also a struggling novelist. When her former boss dies in a crash, Leah is willed the red sports car in which her nurturing friend met her end: “I knew when I bought that car that I might die in it. I have never really loved anything as much as that red car.” What is the idling heroine to make of the inheritance and the ambiguous message it contains? (Matt)
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood: Margaret Atwood joins authors Jeanette Winterson, Howard Jacobson, and Anne Tyler in the Hogarth Shakespeare series — crafting modern spins on William Shakespeare’s classics. Hag-Seed, a prose adaptation of The Tempest, follows the story of Felix, a stage director who puts on a production of The Tempest in a prison. If Felix finds success in his show, he will get his job back as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival. The Tempest is one of Atwood’s favorites (and mine, too), and Hag-Seed should be an exciting addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series. (Cara)
The Mortifications by Derek Palacio: Palacio’s debut novel follows his excellent, tense novella, How to Shake the Other Man. Palacio shifts from boxing and New York City to the aftermath of the Mariel boatlift, set in Miami and Hartford, Conn. Here Palacio’s examination of the Cuban immigrant experience and family strife gets full breadth in a work reminiscent of H.G. Carrillo’s Loosing My Espanish. (Nick R.)
The Trespasser by Tana French: In her five previous novels about the squabbling detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad, French has classed up the old-school police procedural with smart, lush prose and a willingness to explore the darkest recesses of her characters’ emotional lives. In The Trespasser, tough-minded detective Antoinette Conway battles scabrous office politics as she tries to close the case of a beautiful young woman murdered as she sat down to a table set for a romantic dinner. On Goodreads, the Tanamaniacs are doing backflips for French’s latest venture into murder Dublin-style. (Michael)
The Boat Rocker by Ha Jin: It’s not without good reason that Jin has won practically every literary prize the United States has to offer, despite his being a non-native English speaker — he is something of a technical wizard who, according to the novelist Gish Jen, “has chosen mastery over genius.” Steeped in the terse, exact prose tradition of such writers as Nikolai Gogol and Leo Tolstoy, Jin’s work is immediately recognizable. His newest novel, The Boat Rocker, follows in the same vein. It finds Chinese expatriate Feng Danlin, a fiercely principled reporter whose exposés of governmental corruption have made him well-known in certain circles, wrestling with his newest assignment: an investigation into the affairs of his ex-wife, an unscrupulous novelist, and unwitting pawn of the Chinese government. (Brian)
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple: Semple, formerly a writer forArrested Development and Mad About You, broke into the less glamorous, less lucrative literary world with 2013’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (her second novel), which this reviewer called “funny.” In this novel she sets her bittersweet, hilarious, perceptive gaze on Eleanor, a woman who vows that for just one day she will be the ideal wife, mother, and career woman she’s always known she could be. And it goes great! Just kidding. (Janet)
No Knives in the Kitchens of This City by Khaled Khalifa: This novel, Khalifa’s fourth, illuminates the prelude to Syria’s civil war, and humanizes a conflict too often met with an international shrug. Tracking a single family’s journey from the 1960s through the present day, No Knives in the Kitchens of This City closely examines the myriad traumas — both instantaneous and slow-burning — accompanying a society’s collapse. As of this year, the U.N. Refugee Agency estimates there to be 65.3 million refugees or internally displaced persons around the world, and more than 4.9 million of those are Syrian. For those hoping to understand how this came to pass, Khalifa’s book should be required reading. (Nick M.)
The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang: Entertainment Weekly has already expressed excitement about former journalist Chang’s novel, calling it “uproarious,” and in her blurb, Jami Attenberg deemed The Wangs vs. the World her “favorite debut of the year.” Charles Wang, patriarch and business man, has lost his money in the financial crisis and wants to return to China to reclaim family land. Before that, he takes his adult son and daughter and their stepmother on a journey across America to his eldest daughter’s upstate New York hideout. Charles Yu says the book is, “Funny, brash, honest, full of wit and heart and smarts,” and Library Journal named it one of the fall’s 5 Big Debuts. (Edan)
About My Mother by Tahar Ben Jelloun: Frequent Nobel-shortlister Jelloun, who the Guardian calls “Morocco’s greatest living author,” has a newly translated novel–a mother-story set in Fez and Tangier that explores the familiar ravages of Alzheimers. (Lydia)
Truevine by Beth Macy: One day in 1899, a white man offered a piece of candy to George and Willie Muse, the children of black sharecroppers in Truevine, Va., setting off a chain of events that led to the boys being kidnapped into a circus, which billed them as cannibals and “Ambassadors from Mars” in tours that played for royalty at Buckingham Palace and in sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden. Like Macy’s last book, Factory Man, about a good-old-boy owner of a local furniture factory in Virginia who took on low-cost Chinese exporters and won, Truevine promises a mix of quirky characters, propulsive narrative, and an insider’s look at a neglected corner of American history. (Michael)
Upstream by Mary Oliver: Essays from one of America’s most beloved poets. As always, Oliver’s draws inspiration from the natural world, and Provincetown, Mass., her home and life-long muse. Oliver also writes about her early love ofWalt Whitman, the labor of poetry, and the continuing influence of classic American writers such as Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Hannah)
This year is already proving to be an excellent one for book lovers. Since our last preview, we’ve gotten new titles by Don DeLillo, Alexander Chee, Helen Oyeyemi, Louise Erdrich; acclaimed debut novels by Emma Cline, Garth Greenwell, and Yaa Gyasi; new poems by Dana Gioia; and new short story collections by the likes of Greg Jackson and Petina Gappah. We see no evidence the tide of great books is ebbing. This summer we’ve got new works by established authors Joy Williams, Jacqueline Woodson, Jay McInerney, as well as anticipated debuts from Nicole Dennis-Benn and Imbolo Mbue; in the fall, new novels by Colson Whitehead, Ann Patchett, and Jonathan Safran Foer on shelves; and, in the holiday season, books by Javier Marías, Michael Chabon, and Zadie Smith to add to gift lists. Next year, we’ll be seeing the first-ever novel (!) by none other than George Saunders, and new work from Kiese Laymon, Roxane Gay, and (maybe) Cormac McCarthy. We’re especially excited about new offerings from Millions staffers Hannah Gersen, Sonya Chung, Edan Lepucki, and Mark O’Connell (check out next week’s Non-Fiction Preview for the latter).
While it’s true that no single list could ever have everything worth reading, we think this one — at 9,000 words and 92 titles — is the only 2016 second-half book preview you’ll need. Scroll down and get reading.
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn: In a recent interview in Out magazine, Dennis-Benn described her debut novel as “a love letter to Jamaica — my attempt to preserve her beauty by depicting her flaws.” Margot works the front desk at a high-end resort, where she has a side business trading sex for money to send her much younger sister, Thandi, to a Catholic school. When their village is threatened by plans for a new resort, Margot sees an opportunity to change her life. (Emily)
Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers: The prolific writer has made his reputation on never picking a genre, from starting the satirical powerhouse McSweeney’s to post-apocalyptic critiques on the tech world. But if there’s one thing Eggers has become the master of, it’s finding humor and hope in even the most tragic of family situations. In Eggers’s seventh novel, when his protagonist, Josie, loses her job and partner, she escapes to Alaska with her two kids. What starts as an idyllic trip camping out of an RV dubbed Chateau turns into a harrowing personal journey as Josie confronts her regrets. It’s Eggers’s first foray into the road trip novel, but it’s sure to have his signature sharp and empathetic voice. (Tess)
Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra: The Chilean writer Zambra’s new book is: a.) a parody of that nation’s college-entrance Academic Aptitude Exam, b.) a parody of a parody of same, c.) an exercise in flouting literary conventions, d.) all of the above. The correct answer is d.) — because this sly slender book, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, is divided into 90 multiple-choice questions suggesting that how we respond to a story depends on where the writer places narrative stress. The witty follow-up questions suggest that the true beauty of fiction is that it has no use for pat answers. For example: “What is the worst title for this story — the one that would reach the widest possible audience?” (Bill)
Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams: Williams is the sort of writer one “discovers” — which is to say the first time you read her, you can’t believe you’ve never read her before; and you know you must read more. Ninety-Nine Stories of God is a “slim volume,” according to Kirkus, at the same time it lives up to its name: each of the very-short stories (yes, there are 99 of them) features God and/or the divine — as idea, character, or presence. In the world of Joy Williams, we can expect to meet a God who is odd, whip-smart, exuberant, surprising, funny, sad, broken, perplexed, and mysterious. I look awfully forward. (Sonya)
Home Field by Hannah Gersen: The debut novel from The Millions’s own Gersen has one of the best jacket copy taglines ever: “The heart of Friday Night Lights meets the emotional resonance and nostalgia of My So-Called Life”…I mean, right? Its story bones are equally striking: the town’s perfect couple — high school football coach Dean and his beautiful sweetheart, Nicole — become fully, painfully human when Nicole commits suicide. Dean and his three children, ages eight to 18, must now forge ahead while also grappling with the past that led to the tragedy. Set in rural Maryland, it’s a story, says Kirkus, built upon “meticulous attention to the details of grief,” the characters of which are “so full, so gently flawed, and so deeply human.” (Sonya)
How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball: Jesse Ball’s last novel, A Cure for Suicide, wrestled with questions of memory’s permanence, existence, and beginning again — all subjects that, according to The New York Times, “in the hands of a less skilled writer…could be mistaken for science fiction cliché.” Ball’s newest novel, his sixth, is something of a departure. How to Set a Fire and Why takes place in a normal-enough town peopled by characters who have names like Lucia and Hal. Don’t worry, though, Ball the fabulist/moralist is still very much himself; the young narrator muses on the nature of wealth and waste as she gleefully joins an Arsonist’s Club, “for people who are fed up with wealth and property, and want to burn everything down.” (Brian)
Problems by Jade Sharma: Problems is the first print title from Emily Books, the subscription service that “publishes, publicizes, and celebrates the best work of transgressive writers of the past, present and future” and sends titles to readers each month. They’ll be publishing two original printed books a year in conjunction with Coffee House Press. Sharma’s debut is described as “Girls meets Trainspotting,” about a heroin addict struggling to keep her life together. Emily Books writes, “This book takes every tired trope about addiction and recovery, ‘likeable’ characters and redemption narratives, and blows them to pieces.” (Elizabeth)
The Unseen World by Liz Moore: Ada is the daughter of a brilliant computer scientist, the creator of ELIXIR, a program designed to “acquire language the way that human does,” through immersion and formal teaching. Ada too is the subject of an experiment of sorts, from a young age “immersed in mathematics, neurology, physics, philosophy, computer science,” cryptology and, most important, the art of the gin cocktail by her polymath father. His death leaves Ada with a tantalizing puzzle to solve in this smart, riddling novel. (Matt)
The Trap by Melanie Raabe: Translated from the German, the English version of this celebrated debut was snaffled up by Sony at the Frankfurt Book Fair and is now on its way to a big-screen debut as well. A thriller, The Trap describes a novelist attempting to find her sister’s killer using her novel-in-progress as bait (this always works). (Lydia)
Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon: The Pushcart-winning author received a lot of praise for her debut, The Little Bride, and accolades are already flowing in for her latest, with J. Courtney Sullivan calling Lucy Pear, “a gorgeous and engrossing meditation on motherhood, womanhood, and the sacrifices we make for love.” It opens with an unwed Jewish mother named Bea leaving her baby beneath a Massachusetts pear tree in 1917 to pursue her dreams of being a pianist. A decade later, a disenchanted Bea returns to find her daughter being taken care of by a strong Irish Catholic woman named Emma, and the two woman must grapple with what it means to raise a child in a rapidly changing post-war America in the middle of the Prohibition. With poetic prose but a larger understanding of the precarious world of 1920s New England, Solomon proves herself as one of the most striking novelists of the day. (Tess)
Bad Faith by Theodore Wheeler: Kings of Broken Things, Wheeler’s debut novel about young immigrants set during the Omaha Race Riot of 1919, is coming in 2017 from Little A. The riot followed the horrific lynching of Will Brown. A legal reporter covering the Nebraska civil courts, Wheeler brings much authenticity to the tale. For now, readers can enjoy Bad Faith, his first story collection. (Nick R.)
Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan: Described in promotional materials as both Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Emma set in Singapore, Tan’s first novel explores “the contentious gender politics and class tensions thrumming beneath the shiny exterior of Singapore’s glamorous nightclubs and busy streets.” It is also the first novel written entirely in “Singlish” (the local patois of Singapore) to be published in America. The long-time journalist — Tan has been a staff writer at The Wall Street Journal, In Style, and The Baltimore Sun — previously published a memoir called A Tiger in The Kitchen: A Memoir of Food & Family, which was praised as “a literary treat.” (Elizabeth)
Pond by Claire Louise-Bennett: Published in Ireland last year, a linked series of vignettes and meditations by a hermitess. The Guardian called it a “stunning debut;” The Awl’s Alex Balk offers this rare encomium: “the level of self-importance the book attaches to itself is so low that you are never even once tempted to make the ‘jerking off’ motion that seems to be the only reasonable response to most of the novels being published today.” (Lydia)
An Innocent Fashion by R.J. Hernández: Ethan St. James was born Elián San Jamar, the son of multiracial, working-class parents in Texas. At Yale, he befriends two wealthy classmates, who help him reinvent himself as he moves to New York to work for the fashion magazine Régine. But once he’s there, things begin to crumble. It’s described as “the saga of a true millennial — naïve, idealistic, struggling with his identity and sexuality,” and an early review says that Hernández writes in “a fervently literary style that flirts openly with the traditions of Salinger, Plath, and Fitzgerald.” (Elizabeth)
Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard: Following up The Fates Will Find Their Way and Reunion, two-time Year in Reading alum Pittard hits us with a “modern gothic” novel about a faltering marriage and an ill-fated road trip. (Lydia)
My Name Is Leon by Kit de Waal: A former magistrate who has spent years doing family law and social work in England, de Waal publishes her debut novel at the respectable age of 55, bringing experiences from a long career working with adoption services to a novel about a mixed family navigating the foster care system in the 1980s. (Lydia)
Night of the Animals by Bill Broun: A strangely prophetic novel set in London, Night of the Animals takes place in a very near, very grim future — a class-divided surveillance state that looks a little too much like our own. A homeless drug addict named Cuthbert hears the voices of animals who convince him to liberate them from the London Zoo, joining with a rag-tag group of supporters to usher in a sort of momentary peaceable kingdom in dystopian London. The book is difficult to describe and difficult to put down. (Lydia)
Break in Case of Emergency by Jessica Winter: The fiction debut of Slate editor Winter, a seriocomic look at a woman trying to do what used to be called “having it all,” dealing with a job that sucks — a send-up of a celebrity non-profit — and uncooperative fertility. Publisher’s Weekly called it a “biting lampoon of workplace politics and a heartfelt search for meaning in modern life.” (Lydia)
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue: This is one of those debuts that comes freighted with hype, expectation, and the poisonous envy of writers who didn’t receive seven-figure advances, but sometimes hype is justified: Kirkus, in a starred review, called this novel “a special book.” Mbue’s debut, which is set in New York City at the outset of the economic collapse, concerns a husband and wife from Cameroon, Jende and Nemi, and their increasingly complex relationship with their employers, a Lehman Brothers executive and his fragile wife. (Emily)
The Nix by Nathan Hill: Eccentricity, breadth, and length are three adjectives that often earn writers comparisons to Thomas Pynchon. Hill tackles politics more headlong than Pynchon in this well-timed release. The writing life of college professor Samuel Andresen-Andersen is stalled. His publisher doesn’t want his new book, but he’s in for a surprise: he sees his long-estranged mother on the news after she throws rocks at a right-wing demagogue presidential candidate. The candidate holds press conferences at his ranch and “perfected a sort of preacher-slash-cowboy pathos and an anti-elitist populism” and his candidacy is an unlikely reason for son and mother to seek reunion. (Nick R.)
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson: Although the National Book Award winner’s Brown Girl Dreaming was a young adult book, everyone flocked to lyrical writing that honed in on what it means to be a black girl in America. Now Woodson has written her first adult novel in two decades, a coming-of-age tale set in 1970s Bushwick, where four girls discover the boundaries of their friendship when faced with the dark realities of growing up. As Tracy K. Smith lauds, “Another Brooklyn is heartbreaking and restorative, a gorgeous and generous paean to all we must leave behind on the path to becoming ourselves.” (Tess)
Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney: This is the third of three McInerney novels following the lives of New York book editor Russell Calloway and his wife Corinne. The first Calloway book, Brightness Falls (1992), set during leveraged buyout craze of the late-1980s, is arguably McInerney’s last truly good novel, while the second, The Good Life (2006), set on and around 9/11, is pretty inarguably a sentimental mess. This new volume, set in 2008 with the financial system in crisis and the country about to elect its first black president, follows a now-familiar pattern of asking how world-historical events will affect the marriage of McInerney’s favorite cosseted and angst-ridden New Yorkers. (Michael)
Carousel Court by Joe McGinniss, Jr.: Each unhappy mortgage is unhappy in its own way. A man and his beautiful wife (“a face that deserves granite countertops and recessed lighting”) try to flip a house in a California development at the wrong time. Now “it’s underwater, sinking fast, has…them by the ankles, and isn’t letting go.” This is the bleak but gripping setup for McGinniss’s second novel (coming 10 years after The Delivery Man), a portrait of a marriage as volatile as the economy. (Matt)
Shining Sea by Anne Korkeakivi: Korkeakivi’s second novel — her first was 2012’s An Unexpected Guest — opens with the death of a 43-year-old WWII veteran, and follows the lives of his widow and children in the years and decades that follow. A meditation on family, the long shadow of war over generations, and myth-making. (Emily)
How I Became a North Korean by Krys Lee: Lee’s debut novel (following her praised short story collection, Drifting House), is set in and adjacent to North Korea. The novel follows three characters who meet across the border in China: two North Koreans, one from a prominent and privileged family, the other raised in poverty, and a Chinese-American teen who is an outcast at school. Together the three struggle to survive in, in the publisher’s words, “one of the least-known and most threatening environments in the world.” (Elizabeth)
Moonstone by Sjón: “One thing I will not do is write a thick book,” asserts Icelandic author Sjón, who seems to have done just about everything else but, including writing librettos and penning lyrics with Lars von Trier for Björk’s Dancer in the Dark soundtrack. Sjón’s novels often dwell in mytho-poetic realms, but Moonstone, his fourth, is set firmly in recent history: 1918 Reykjavik, a city newly awash with foreign influence: cinema, the Spanish flu, the threat of WWI. Moonstone deals with ideas of isolation versus openness both nationally and on a personal scale, as Máni navigates his then-taboo desire for men, his cinematic fantasies, the spreading contagion, and the dangers imposed. (Anne)
Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott: The fictional town of Cross River, Md., founded after our nation’s only successful slave revolt, serves as the setting for the 13 stories in Scott’s latest collection. Here, readers track the daily struggles of ordinary residents trying to get ahead — or just to get by. By turns heartbreaking, darkly funny, and overall compelling, Insurrections delivers a panorama of modern life within a close-knit community, and the way the present day can be influenced by past histories, past generations. Scott, a lecturer at Bowie State, is a writer you should be reading, and this book serves as a nice entry point for first-timers. Meanwhile, longtime fans who follow the author on Twitter are in no way surprised to hear Scott’s writing described as “intense and unapologetically current” in the pre-press copy. (Nick M.)
White Nights in Split Town City by Annie DeWitt: DeWitt’s first “slender storm of a novel” White Nights in Split Town City lands on the scene with a fury worthy of a cowboy western. To wit, Ben Marcus calls the book a “bold word-drunk novel,” that deals a good dose of swagger, seduction, and “muscular” prose (as corroborated by Tin House’s Open Bar). It’s a coming-of-age tale where a young girl’s mother leaves, her home life disintegrates, and she and her friend build a fort from which they can survey the rumors of the town. Laura van den Berg calls it a “ferocious tumble of a book” that asserts DeWitt as a “daring and spectacular new talent.” (Anne)
A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi: Hashimi, part-time pediatrician and part-time novelist (The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, When the Moon Is Low), offers readers an emotional heavyweight in her latest story, A House Without Windows. An Afghan woman named Zeba’s life changes when her husband of 20 years, Kamal, is murdered in their home. Her village and her in-laws turn against her, accusing her of the crime. Overcome with shock, she cannot remember her whereabouts when her husband was killed, and the police imprison her. Both the audience and Zeba’s community must discover who she is. (Cara)
Still Here by Lara Vapnyar: In her new novel, Russian-born writer Vapnyar dissects the lives of four Russian émigrés in New York City as they tussle with love, tumult, and the absurdities of our digital age. Each has technology-based reasons for being disappointed with the person they’ve become. One of the four, Sergey, seeks to turn this shared disappointment upside down by developing an app called Virtual Grave, designed to preserve a person’s online presence after death, a sort of digitized cryogenics. It could make a fortune, but is there anyone — other than Ted Williams or an inventive novelist – who could seriously believe that Virtual Grave is a good idea? (Bill)
Divorce Is in the Air by Gonzalo Torné: For his third novel (and first published in the U.S.), Spanish writer Torné gives us a man we can love to hate. Joan-Marc is out of work and alone as he sets out to make things right by coming clean with his estranged second wife, giving her a detailed account of his misspent life — from childhood scenes to early sexual encounters, his father’s suicide and his mother’s mental illness, and on through a life full of appetites indulged, women mistreated, and the many ways his first wife ruined him. The novel, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, becomes an unapologetic exploration of memory, nostalgia, and how love ends. (Bill)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: In 1998, Whitehead appeared out of nowhere with The Intuitionist, a brilliant and deliciously strange racial allegory about, of all things, elevator repair. Since then, he’s written about junketing journalists, poker, rich black kids in the Hamptons, and flesh-eating zombies, but he’s struggled to tap the winning mix of sharp social satire and emotional acuity he achieved in his first novel. Early word is that he has recaptured that elusive magic in The Underground Railroad, in which the Underground Railroad slaves used to escape is not a metaphor, but a secret network of actual tracks and stations under the Southern landscape. (Michael)
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer: It’s tempting to play armchair psychiatrist with the fact that it’s taken JSF 11 years to produce his third novel. His first two — both emotional, brilliant, and, I have to say it, quirky — established him as a literary wunderkind that some loved, and others loved to hate. (I love him, FWIW.) Here I Am follows five members of a nuclear family through four weeks of personal and political crisis in Washington D.C. At 600 pages, and noticeably divested of a cutesy McSweeney’s-era title, this just may be the beginning of second, more mature phase of a great writer’s career. (Janet)
Nutshell by Ian McEwan: “Love and betrayal, life and death come together in the most unexpected ways,” says Michal Shavit, publisher of the Booker Prize-winner’s new novel. It’s an apt description for much of his work and McEwan is at his best when combining elegant, suspenseful prose with surprising twists, though this novel is set apart by perspective. Trudy has betrayed her husband, John, and is hatching a plan with his brother. There is a witness to a wife’s betrayal, the nine-month-old baby in Trudy’s womb. As McEwan puts it, he was inspired to write by, “the possibilities of an articulate, thoughtful presence with a limited but interesting perspective.” (Claire)
Jerusalem by Alan Moore: For anyone who fears that Watchmen and V for Vendetta writer Moore is becoming one of his own obsessed, isolated characters — lately more known for withdrawing from public life and disavowing comic books than his actual work — Jerusalem is unlikely to reassure. The novel is a 1,280-page mythology in which, in its publisher’s words, “a different kind of human time is happening, a soiled simultaneity that does not differentiate between the petrol-colored puddles and the fractured dreams of those who navigate them.” Also: it features “an infant choking on a cough drop for eleven chapters.” Something for everyone! (Jacob)
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: A new novel by the bestselling author of gems like Bel Canto and State of Wonder is certainly a noteworthy publishing event. This time, Patchett, who also owns Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn., takes on a more personal subject, mapping multiple generations of a family broken up by divorce and patched together, in new forms, by remarriage. Commonwealth begins in the 1960s, in California, and moves to Virginia and beyond, spanning many decades. Publishers Weekly gives it a starred review, remarking, “Patchett elegantly manages a varied cast of characters as alliances and animosities ebb and flow, cross-country and over time.” (Edan)
Deceit and Other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua: A one-time staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle who filed stories from around the world while winning prizes for her fiction (including The Atlantic’s student fiction prize), Hua makes her publishing debut with this collection of short stories. Featuring characters ranging from a Hong Kong movie star fleeing scandal to a Korean-American pastor who isn’t all he seems, these 10 stories follow immigrants to a new America who straddle the uncomfortable line between past and present, allegiances old and new. (Kaulie)
The Last Wolf & Herman by László Krasznahorkai: To get a sense of what Booker Prize-winning author Krasznahorkai is all about, all you need to do is look at the hero image his publishers are using on his author page. Now consider the fact that The Last Wolf & Herman, his latest short fictions to be translated into English, is being described by that same publisher as “maddeningly complex.” The former, about a bar patron recounting his life story, is written as a single, incredibly long sentence. The latter is a two-part novella about a game warden tasked with clearing “noxious beasts” from a forest — a forest frequented by “hyper-sexualized aristocratic officers.” All hope abandon ye who enter here. Beach readers beware; gloom lies ahead. (Nick M.)
Intimations by Alexandra Kleeman: Kleeman’s first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, earned her comparisons to such postmodern paranoiacs as Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. Her second book, Intimations, is a collection of 12 stories sure to please any reader who reveled in the heady strangeness of her novel. These stories examine the course life in stages, from the initial shock of birth into a pre-formed world on through to the existential confusion of the life in the middle and ending with the hesitant resignation of a death that we barely understand. With this collection, Kleeman continues to establish herself as one of the most brilliant chroniclers of our 21st-century anxieties. (Brian)
Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch: The author of the international bestseller The Dinner, will publish Dear Mr. M — his eighth novel to date, but just the third to be translated into English. A writer, M, has had much critical success, but only one bestseller, and his career seems to be fading. When a mysterious letter writer moves into the apartment below, he seems to be stalking M. Through shifting perspectives, we slowly learn how a troubled teacher, a pair of young lovers, their classmates, and M himself are intertwined. With a classic whodunit as its spine, the novel is elevated by Koch’s elegant handling of structure, willingness to cross-examine the Dutch liberal sensibility, and skewering of the writer’s life. This is a page turner with a smart head on its shoulders and a mouth that’s willing to ask uncomfortable questions. (Claire)
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue: Set in 1850s rural Ireland, The Wonder tells the story of Anna, a girl who claims to have stopped eating, and Lib, a nurse who must determine whether or not Anna is a fraud. Having sold over two million copies, Donoghue is known for her bestselling novel, Room, which she also adapted for the screen to critical acclaim. But as a read of her previous work, and her recent novel Frog Music shows, she is also well versed in historical fiction. The Wonder brings together the best of all, combining a gracefully tense, young voice with a richly detailed historical setting. (Claire)
Black Wave by Michelle Tea: Expanding her diverse body of work — including five memoirs, a young adult fantasy series, and a novel — Tea now offers her audience a “dystopic memoir-fiction hybrid.” Black Wave follows Tea’s 1999 trek from San Francisco to L.A. in what Kirkus calls “a biting, sagacious, and delightfully dark metaliterary novel about finding your way in a world on fire.” The piece has received rave reviews from the likes of Eileen Myles and Maggie Nelson, which promise something for readers to look forward to this September. (Cara)
The Black Notebook by Patrick Modiano: Modiano, a Nobel Prize winner, used a setting that shows up often in his work to give atmosphere to his 2012 novel L’herbe du nuit (appearing in English for the first time as The Black Notebook): the underdeveloped, unkempt suburbs of Paris in the 1960s. The book follows a man named Jean as he begins an affair with Dannie, a woman who may or may not be implicated in a local murder. As their relationship progresses, Jean begins to keep a diary, which he then uses decades later in a quest to piece together her story. (Thom)
Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy: Released last year in the U.K., Sleeping on Jupiter will hit the shelves in the U.S. this October. Longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize and winner of the 2016 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, Roy’s latest novel follows the story of Nomita, a filmmaker’s assistant who experiences great trauma as young girl. When Nomita returns to her temple town, Jarmuli, after growing up in Norway, she finds that Jarmuli has “a long, dark past that transforms all who encounter it.” (Cara)
Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: Discussing The Sound of Things Falling, his atmospheric meditation on violence and trauma, with The Washington Post several years back, the Columbian writer Vásquez described turning away from Gabriel García Márquez and toward Joseph Conrad, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo: “All these people do what I like to do, which is try to explore the crossroads between the public world — history and politics — and the private individual.” That exploration continues in Reputations, which features an influential cartoonist reassessing his life and work as a political scourge. (Matt)
Umami by Laia Jufresa: A shared courtyard between five homes in Mexico City is frequently visited by a 12-year-old girl, Ana. In the summer, she passes time reading mystery novels, trying to forget the mysterious death of her sister several years earlier. As it turns out, Ana’s not the only neighbor haunted by the past. In Umami, Jufresa, an extremely talented young writer, deploys multiple narrators, giving each a chance to recount their personal histories, and the questions they’re still asking. Panoramic, affecting, and funny, these narratives entwine to weave a unique portrait of present-day Mexico. (Nick M.)
The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies: Davies, the author of The Welsh Girl and a professor at University of Michigan’s esteemed MFA program, returns with a big book about American history seen through the lens of four stories about Chinese Americans. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, calling it “a brilliant, absorbing masterpiece,” and said it can be read as four novellas: the first is about a 19th-century organizer of railroad workers, for instance, and the last is about a modern-day writer going to China with his white wife to adopt a child. Celeste Ng says, “Panoramic in scope yet intimate in detail, The Fortunes might be the most honest, unflinching, cathartically biting novel I’ve read about the Chinese American experience. It asks the big questions about identity and history that every American needs to ask in the 21st century.” (Edan)
Loner by Teddy Wayne: David Federman, a nebbishy kid from the New Jersey suburbs, gets into Harvard where he meets a beautiful, glamorous girl from New York City and falls in love. What could go wrong? Quite a bit, apparently. Wayne, himself a Harvardian, scored a success channeling his inner Justin Bieber in his 2013 novel The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. This book, too, has its ripped-from-the-headlines plot elements, which caused an early reviewer at Kirkus to call Loner “a startlingly sharp study of not just collegiate culture, but of social forces at large.” (Michael)
Little Nothing by Marisa Silver: From its description, Little Nothing sounds like a departure for Silver, the author of the novels The God of War and Mary Coin. The book, which takes place at the turn of the 20th century in an unnamed country, centers on a girl named Pavla, a dwarf who is rejected by her family. Silver also weaves in the story of Danilo, a young man in love with Pavla. According to the jacket copy, Little Nothing is, “Part allegory about the shifting nature of being, part subversive fairy tale of love in all its uncanny guise.” To whet your appetite, read Silver’s short story “Creatures” from this 2012 issue of The New Yorker, or check out my Millions interview with her about Mary Coin. (Edan)
After Disasters by Viet Dinh: Four protagonists, one natural disaster: Ted and Piotr are disaster relief workers, Andy is a firefighter, and Dev is a doctor — all of them do-gooders navigating the after-effects of a major earthquake in India. Their journeys begin as outward ones — saving others in a ravaged and dangerous place — but inevitably become internal and self-transforming more than anything. Dinh’s stories have been widely published, and he’s won an O. Henry Prize; his novel debut marks, according to Amber Dermont, “the debut of a brilliant career.” (Sonya)
The Revolutionaries Try Again by Mauro Javier Cardenas: Cardenas’s first novel The Revolutionaries Try Again has the trappings of a ravishing debut: smart blurbs, a brilliant cover, a modernist narrative set amongst political turmoil in South America, and a flurry of pre-pub excitement on Twitter. Trappings don’t always deliver, but further research confirms Cardenas’s novel promises to deliver. Having garnered comparisons to works by Roberto Bolaño and Julio Cortázar, The Revolutionaries Try Again has been called “fiercely subversive” while pulling off feats of “double-black-diamond high modernism.” (Anne)
Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler: Butler, who won the Pulitzer in 1993, is still most well-known for the book that won him the prize, the Vietnam War-inspired A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. In his latest, a novel, he goes back to that collection’s fertile territory, exploring the relationship of a couple — both tenured professors at Florida State — who can trace their history to the days of anti-war protests. When the husband, Robert, finds out that his father is dying, he gets a chance to confront the mistakes of his past. (Thom)
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride: McBride’s first novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, unleashed a torrent of language and transgression in the mode of high modernism — think William Faulkner, think James Joyce, think Samuel Beckett. James Wood described its prose as a “visceral throb” whose “sentences run meanings together to produce a kind of compression in which words…seem to want to merge with one another.” McBride’s follow-up, The Lesser Bohemians, is similar in voice, though softer, more playful, “an evolution,” according to McBride. Again the novel concerns a young woman, an actress who moves to London to launch her career, and who falls in with an older, troubled actor. (Anne)
Every Kind of Wanting by Gina Frangello: Each unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way, but the families in Frangello’s latest novel are truly in a category all their own. Every Kind of Wanting maps the intersection of four Chicago couples as they fall into an impressively ambitious fertility scheme in the hopes of raising a “community baby.” But first there are family secrets to reveal, abusive pasts to decipher, and dangerous decisions to make. If it sounds complicated, well, it is, but behind all the potential melodrama is a story that takes a serious look at race, class, sexuality, and loyalty — in short, at the new American family. (Kaulie)
A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem: Lethem’s first novel since 2013’s Dissident Gardens has the everything-in-the-stewpot quality that his readers have come to expect: the plot follows a telepathic backgammon hustler through various international intrigues before forcing him to confront a deadly tumor — as well as his patchouli-scented Berkeley past. Though it remains to be seen if A Gambler’s Anatomy can hit the emotional heights of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, it will be, if nothing else, unmistakably Lethem. (Jacob)
The Loved Ones by Sonya Chung: Her second novel, this ambitious story is a multigenerational saga about family, race, difference, and what it means to be a lost child in a big world. Charles Lee, the African-American patriarch of a biracial family, searches for meaning after a fatherless childhood. His connection with a caregiver, Hannah, uncovers her Korean immigrant family’s past flight from tradition and war. Chung is a staff writer at The Millions and founding editor of Bloom, and her work has appeared in Tin House, The Threepenny Review, and BOMB. Early praise from Nayomi Munaweera compares Chung’s prose to Elena Ferrante or Clarice Lispector, “elegant, sparse, and heartbreaking.” (Claire)
The Fall Guy by James Lasdun: Lasdun is a writer’s writer (James Wood called him “one of the secret gardens of English writing;” Porochista Khakpour called him “one of those remarkably flexible little-bit-of-everything renaissance men of letters”). Now, the British writer adds to his published novels, stories, poems, travelogue, memoir, and film (!) with a new novel, a spicy thriller about a troubled houseguest at a married couple’s country home. (Lydia)
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple: Semple, formerly a writer for Arrested Development and Mad About You, broke into the less glamorous, less lucrative literary world with 2013’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (her second novel), which this reviewer called “funny.” In this novel she sets her bittersweet, hilarious, perceptive gaze on Eleanor, a woman who vows that for just one day she will be the ideal wife, mother, and career woman she’s always known she could be. And it goes great! Just kidding. (Janet)
Mister Monkey by Francine Prose: Widely known and respected for her best-selling fiction, Prose has had novels adapted for the stage and the screen. It’s impossible to say (but fun to imagine) that these experiences informed her latest novel, Mister Monkey, about an off-off-off-off Broadway children’s play in crisis. Told from the perspective of the actress who plays the monkey’s lawyer, the adolescent who plays the monkey himself, and a variety of others attached to the production in one way or another, this novel promises to be madcap and profound in equal measure. (Kaulie)
The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa: This debut novel, set in the 1930s, follows a young Jewish family as it tries to flee Germany for Cuba. When they manage to get a place on the ocean liner St. Louis, the Rosenthals prepare themselves for a comfortable life in the New World, but then word comes in of a change to Cuba’s immigration policy. The passengers, who are now a liability, get their visas revoked by the government, which forces the Rosenthals to quickly abandon ship. For those of you who thought the boat’s name sounded familiar, it’s based on a real-life tragedy. (Thom)
The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke: A decade ago, The Guardian described Lianke as “one of China’s greatest living authors and fiercest satirists.” His most recent novel, The Four Books, was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize. The Explosion Chronicles was first published in 2013, and will be published in translation (by Duke professor Carlos Rojas) this fall. The novel centers on a town’s “excessive” expansion from small village to an “urban superpower,” with a focus on members of the town’s three major families. (Elizabeth)
Martutene by Ramón Saizarbitoria: A new English translation of a work that the journal El Cultural has suggested “could well be considered the highest summit of Basque-language novels.” The novel follows the interlinked lives of a group of friends in the contemporary Basque country, and the young American sociologist who’s recently arrived in their midst. (Emily)
Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar: Jarrar, whose novel A Map of Home won a Hopwood Award in 2008, comes out with her first collection of short stories old and new. In the title story (originally published in Guernica in 2010), a woman whose father has recently died goes to Cairo to scatter his ashes. In accompanying stories, we meet an ibex-human hybrid named Zelwa, as well as an Egyptian feminist and the women of a matriarchal society. In keeping with the collection’s broad focus on “accidental transients,” most of the stories take place all over the world. (Thom)
The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle: In 1994, a group of eight scientists move into EC2, a bio-dome-like enclosure meant to serve as a prototype for a space colony. Not much time passes before things begin to go wrong, which forces the crew to ask themselves a difficult, all-important question — can they really survive without help from the outside world? Part environmental allegory, part thriller, The Terranauts reinforces Boyle’s reputation for tight plotlines, bringing his talents to bear on the existential problem of climate change. For those who are counting, this is the author’s 16th (!) novel. (Thom)
Swing Time by Zadie Smith: The Orange Prize-winning author of White Teeth and On Beauty returns with a masterful new novel. Set in North West London and West Africa, the book is about two girls who dream of being dancers, the meaning of talent, and blackness. (Bruna)
Moonglow by Michael Chabon: We’ve all had that relative who spills their secrets on their deathbed, yet most of us don’t think to write them down. Chabon was 26 years old, already author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, when he went to see his grandfather for the last time only to hear the dying man reveal buried family stories. Twenty-six years later and the Pulitzer Prize winner’s eighth novel is inspired by his grandfather’s revelations. A nearly 500-page epic, Moonglow explores the war, sex, and technology of mid-century America in all its glory and folly. It’s simultaneously Chabon’s most imaginative and personal work to date. (Tess)
Fish in Exile by Vi Khi Nao: A staggering tale of the death of a child, this novel is a poetic meditation on loss, the fluidity of boundaries, and feeling like a fish out of water. Viet Thanh Nguyen has described it as a “jagged and unforgettable work [that] takes on a domestic story of losing one’s children and elevates it to Greek tragedy.” (Bruna)
Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson: Lawson’s magazine debut was in the Paris Review with the title story of the collection. Other stories like “Three Friends in a Hammock” have appeared in the Oxford American. Fans of Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More will be drawn to Lawson’s lyric, expansive dramatizations of Southern evangelical Christians, as she straddles the intersection of sexuality and faith. Her sentences, so sharp, are meant to linger: “The problem with marrying a virgin, he realized now, was that you were marrying a girl who would become a woman only after the marriage.” (Nick R.)
Valiant Gentleman by Sabina Murray: PEN/Faulkner Award-winner (The Caprices) Murray returns with her latest novel Valiant Gentlemen. Murray’s first novel, Slow Burn, was published when she was just 20 years old. Currently the chair of the creative writing department at UMass Amherst, Murray has also received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Her sixth book (seventh, including her screenplay), Valiant Gentlemen follows a friendship across four decades and four continents. Alexander Chee writes, “This novel is made out of history but is every bit a modern marvel.” (Cara)
Collected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: Written between the 1960s to the early years of this century, the 15 stories in this collection were selected, revised, and placed in order by the masterly Doctorow shortly before he died in 2015 at age 84. The stories feature a mother whose plan for financial independence might include murder; a teenager who escapes home for Hollywood; a man who starts a cult using subterfuge and seduction; and the denizens of the underbelly of 1870s New York City, which grew into the novel The Waterworks. They are the geniuses, mystics, and charlatans who offer both false hope and glimpses of Doctorow’s abiding subject, that untouchable myth known as the American dream. (Bill)
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías: Marías, one of Spain’s contemporary greats, is nothing if not prolific. In this, his 14th novel, personal assistant Juan de Vere watches helplessly as his life becomes tangled in the affairs of his boss, a producer of B-movies and general sleaze. Set in a 1980’s Madrid in the throes of the post-Francisco Franco hedonism of La Movida, a period in which social conservatism began to crumble in the face of a wave of creativity and experiment, the novel calls to mind Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories and the paranoid decadence of Weimar Germany. Spying and the intersection of the domestic with the historical/political isn’t new territory for Marías, and fans of of his earlier work will be as pleased as Hari Kunzru at The Guardian, who called Thus Bad Begins a “demonstration of what fiction at its best can achieve.” (Brian)
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins: Collins is described as “a brilliant yet little known African American artist and filmmaker — a contemporary of revered writers including Toni Cade Bambara, Laurie Colwin, Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel, and Grace Paley.” The stories in this collection, which center on race in the ’60s, explore the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality in ways that “masterfully blend the quotidian and the profound.” (Elizabeth)
The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma by Ratika Kapur: Kapur’s first novel, Overwinter, was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. This, her second, chronicles a changing India in which the titular Mrs. Sharma, a traditional wife and mother living in Delhi, has a conversation with a stranger that will shift her worldview. Described as a “sharp-eyed examination of the clashing of tradition and modernity,” Asian and European critics have described it as quietly powerful. The writer Mohammed Hanif wrote that it “really gets under your skin, a devastating little book.” (Elizabeth)
The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy: Recent reports of the author’s death have been greatly exaggerated, but unfortunately reports of delays for his forthcoming science fiction book have not. Longtime fans will need to wait even longer than they’d initially suspected, as The Passenger’s release date was bumped way past August 2016 — as reported by Newsweek in 2015 — and now looks more like December 2017. (Nick M.)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: For Saunders fans, the prospect of a full-length novel from the short-story master has been something to speculate upon, if not actually expect. Yet Lincoln in the Bardo is a full 368-page blast of Saunders — dealing in the 1862 death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, the escalating Civil War, and, of course, Buddhist philosophy. Saunders has compared the process of writing longer fiction to “building custom yurts and then somebody commissioned a mansion” — and Saunders’s first novel is unlikely to resemble any other mansion on the block. (Jacob)
And So On by Kiese Laymon: Laymon is a Mississippi-born writer who has contributed to Esquire, ESPN, the Oxford American, Guernica, and writes a column for The Guardian. His first novel, Long Division, makes a lot of those “best books you’ve never heard of” lists, so feel free to prove them wrong by reading it right now. What we know about his second novel is that he said it’s “going to shock folks hopefully. Playing with comedy, Afro-futurist shit and horror.” (Janet)
Difficult Women by Roxane Gay: If this were Twitter, I’d use the little siren emoji and the words ALERT: NEW ROXANE GAY BOOK. Her new story collection was recently announced (along with an announcement about the delay on the memoir Hunger, which was slated to be her next title and will now be published after this one). The collection’s product description offers up comparisons to Merritt Tierce, Jamie Quatro, and Miranda July, with stories of “privilege and poverty,” from sisters who were abducted together as children, to a black engineer’s alienation upon moving to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to a wealthy Florida subdivision “where neighbors conform, compete, and spy on each other.” (Elizabeth)
Transit by Rachel Cusk: In this second novel of the trilogy that began with Outline, a woman and her two sons move to London in search of a new reality. Taut and lucid, the book delves into the anxieties of responsibility, childhood, and fate. “There is nothing blurry or muted about Cusk’s literary vision or her prose,” enthuses Heidi Julavits. (Bruna)
Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh: This first collection of stories from Moshfegh, author of the noir novel Eileen, centers around unsteady characters who yearn for things they cannot have. Jeffrey Eugenides offers high praise: “What distinguishes Moshfegh’s writing is that unnamable quality that makes a new writer’s voice, against all odds and the deadening surround of lyrical postures, sound unique.” You can read her stories in The New Yorker and the Paris Review. (Bruna)
Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki: Long-time Millions writer and contributing editor Lepucki follows up her New York Times-bestselling novel California (you may have seen her talking about it on a little show called The Colbert Report) with Woman No. 17, a complicated, disturbing, sexy look at female friendship, motherhood, and art. (Lydia)
Enigma Variations by André Aciman: New York magazine called CUNY Professor and author of Harvard Square “the most exciting new fiction writer of the 21st century). Aciman follows up with Enigma Variations, a sort of sentimental education of a young man across time and borders. (Lydia)
“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.
How do we use language to describe surveillance? As an organization that promotes literature and defends freedom of expression wherever it is threatened, PEN is especially concerned about the effect of mass surveillance on creative freedom. We fought U.S. government surveillance all the way to the Supreme Court in the case Amnesty v. Clapper, and our report “Chilling Effects” documented that U.S. government surveillance is causing one out of six writers to self-censor their research and writing. We may never know how many ideas are being lost every day because of these programs.
Judges and legislators are increasingly confronted with the need to understand new surveillance technologies, and often resort to metaphor to do so. The Oxford English Dictionary defines metaphor as “a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.” The use of metaphors can result in quite strange decisions, as Noam Cohen noted in a December 2013 New York Times article, when Supreme Court Justice Scalia tried to illustrate how preposterous it would be to liken a tracking device on the bottom of a car to a miniature policeman hitching a ride in the case U.S. v. Jones. The inappropriate use of metaphors can distract from the fact that real lives are affected by them. “Metaphors in law are to be narrowly watched,” once warned Justice Benjamin Cardozo, “for starting as devices to liberate thought, they often end by enslaving it.”
To better understand how metaphors are being used in coverage of surveillance, PEN embarked on a study of articles by journalists and bloggers. Over 62 days between December and February, we combed through 133 articles by 105 different authors and over 60 news outlets. We found that 91 percent of the articles contained metaphors about surveillance. There is rich thematic diversity in the types of metaphors that are used, but there is also a failure of imagination in using literature to describe surveillance.
Over 9 percent of the articles in our study contained metaphors related to the act of collection; 8 percent to literature (more on that later); about 6 percent to nautical themes; and more than 3 percent to authoritarian regimes.
On the one hand, journalists and bloggers have been extremely creative in attempting to describe government surveillance, for example, by using a variety of metaphors related to the act of collection: sweep, harvest, gather, scoop, glean, pluck, trap. These also include nautical metaphors, such as trawling, tentacles, harbor, net, and inundation. These metaphors seem to fit with data and information flows.
Yet we have also learned that George Orwell’s novel 1984 continues to dominate literary metaphors with respect to surveillance; indeed, it was the only book referenced in our study. His dystopian work, written in 1948, described a totalitarian state ruled by Big Brother. Nineteen Eighty-Four in some ways describes the repression experienced by our writer colleagues in countries such as Vietnam, Iran, China, and Syria. On our caselist, which we use to advocate on behalf of threatened writers, these countries account for 58 of the 92 writers persecuted for their use of digital media.
But scholars and activists have observed that relating U.S. government surveillance regimes to Big Brother overstates the case, because the U.S. is a more open society than the one 1984 describes and, despite the NSA’s overreach, the country should not be labeled authoritarian. Scholar Daniel J. Solove, for example, pointed out in a seminal article that Kafka’s novella The Trial is probably better suited:
We are not heading toward a world of Big Brother or one composed of Little Brothers, but toward a more mindless process — of bureaucratic indifference, arbitrary errors, and dehumanization — a world that is beginning to resemble Kafka’s vision in The Trial.
Other activists prefer to use Jeremy Bentham’s notion of the panopticon, an institution that allows those with power to create the perception that their subjects are under surveillance at all times. But for journalists and bloggers, the rich variety of literature that has tackled surveillance — from science fiction to modern novels — is rarely invoked. Orwell is the reigning king of the surveillance state.
What do these results mean? The fact that 91 percent of articles contain metaphors suggest that writers will continue to use metaphors to help us understand advances in technology. They also use a diverse range of metaphors. However, as advocates develop new messaging on surveillance and look to literature for inspiration, they should not stop at Orwell: there are many more literary treasures to be explored. The human rights community and, now, private businesses are emphasizing the importance of encryption and digital hygiene to protect against government intrusion. Soon we will need metaphors to explain how these tools work, and how they might be abused.
As security expert Bruce Schneier has observed, people “tend to base risk analysis more on stories than on data. Stories engage us at a much more visceral level, especially stories that are vivid, exciting, or personally involving.” Choose the wrong story, and you can overstate the risk. This means journalists should be vigilant in deciding which literature should serve as metaphors.
As we grapple with new technologies and continue our work to fight illegal government intrusion into our privacy, we’ll have to think carefully about how to explain complex, high-tech programs in an easily comprehensible way. Literature is a logical resource for finding metaphors. Aaron Santesso and David Rosen, for example, have shown that the Eye of Sauron in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings better captures the current surveillance state, but so too do plays by Shakespeare, such as The Tempest. Our study suggests we need better metaphors while not losing sight of the implications of government action that affect real human beings. Meanwhile, we’ll continue fighting bulk surveillance in the courts and promoting legislation that respects privacy and enables creative freedom to flourish.
My reading of Shakespeare tends to be seasonal: comedies in the spring and summer, histories and tragedies in the fall and winter. There are exceptions. A hot, sweaty tragedy like Othello or Antony and Cleopatra reads better in hot, sweaty weather, and a “problem” comedy like Measure for Measure seems less problematic during an autumn chill. I persist in this folly even when confronted with The Winter’s Tale, three/fifths wintry tragedy, two/fifths vernal comedy, and wholly a masterwork, because Shakespeare seems to me more rooted in the earth and its rhythms than any other writer. Samuel Johnson believed that “Shakespeare is, above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature.” Johnson was speaking primarily of human nature, but if we extend the term to mean the other kind too, we get a little nearer the mark. Shakespeare is the poet of everything.
What then is the optimal time to read The Winter’s Tale – in winter if you feel the burden is primarily tragic, in spring if you feel the opposite pull, or maybe (if you feel the issue is eternally undecided) in a blustery week in late March when the crocuses have begun to push through? (The logical solution – to read the first three acts in the winter and save the last two for warmer weather – is, alas, a reductio ad absurdum. Not that I haven’t tried.) Theater people don’t have the luxury to be so choosy, and I’ve seen excellent productions of The Winter’s Tale at all times of the year, the most recent being a (winter) performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music starring Simon Russell Beale and Rebecca Hall that left me in tears. A local high school production probably would have done the same. In my experience, The Winter’s Tale plays more effectively on stage than more celebrated works like Hamlet or King Lear, which are sometimes doomed by theatrical self-consciousness and present obstacles to staging (the storm on the heath, for instance) difficult to surmount. In particular, Act IV of The Winter’s Tale is so perfectly conceived that it seems as much carnival as theater. Slapstick, satire, music, dance, suspense, disguise, romance, bawdry, philosophy, sleight-of-hand: one mode of performance succeeding another, and all stage managed by the greatest dramaturge of them all. So yes, Shakespeare was a playwright – an actor, a director, a producer, in fact a man wholly of the theater – and The Winter’s Tale is a play. But we can’t always have the benefit of an actor as skilled as Simon Russell Beale interpreting Leontes for us, and even then, it’s his interpretation, not ours. When we read the plays, we’re actor, director, and lighting designer at once. And what we’re reading, it’s worth pointing out, is very largely poetry.
Seventy-five point five percent poetry, to be precise. The Winter’s Tale is just about the golden mean – 71.5% blank verse, 3.1% rhymed verse, and 25.4% prose, plus six songs, the highest number in the canon, and appropriate for the genius of wit and improvisation who sings them, the “rogue” Autolycus. How I love Shakespearean metrics! Iago has 1097 lines to Othello’s 860, 86.6% of The Merry Wives of Windsor is in prose, King John and Richard II have no prose whatsoever, 45.5% of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is in rhymed verse, there are 150 named female characters in the canon as opposed to 865 male, and the actor who plays an uncut Hamlet has to memorize 1422 lines. (Cordelia, by contrast, makes her overwhelming presence felt with a mere 116 lines.) If there were a way of computing the Bard’s earned run average, I would want to know that too.
Clinical as they might seem, these statistics do remind us of a salient fact: three quarters of Shakespeare’s dramatic writing is poetry. (The other quarter is pretty good too. Shakespeare wrote the best prose as well as the best verse in the English language, and if there were anything other than prose and verse, he would have surpassed everyone at that as well.) Polixines’s first lines in The Winter’s Tale are, “Nine changes of the wat’ry star hath been / The shepherd’s note since we have left our throne / Without a burden” (I.ii. 1-3). That’s a long way from, “It’s been nine months since I’ve been away from my kingdom.” Even if Shakespeare had phrased the lines in prose, they would have been suitably orotund, something like the courtly politesse Archidamus and Camillo speak in the opening scene. (“Since their more mature dignities and royal necessities made separation of their society, their encounters (though not personal) hath been royally attorney’d . . . “) Nevertheless, they are in verse. No prose could match the effect of the bold initial spondee balanced by an unstressed pyrrhic before catching up with the regular iambic rhythm of the pentameter line. (“NINE CHANG/es of/the WAT’/ry STAR/hath BEEN . . .”) It’s like a bell going off. Surely what’s greatest about Shakespeare is not that he knows where to put his iambs and trochees but that he writes so expressively within character. Polixines’s periphrastic way of saying what could have been said much more simply is more than the eloquence one would expect of a king taking leave of another king. In evoking the moon and the waters and the shepherd’s eternal rounds, Polixines conjures the elemental, folkloric realities that the play will traffic in. There will be shepherds, long passages of time, lots of water, and boy will there be “changes.” Plus, this being Shakespeare, Polixines’ lines are almost gratuitously beautiful. He just couldn’t help it.
On the other hand, beauty has a job to do. It compels attention, and if you’re paying attention to the words, chances are you’re also paying attention to what words do: tell stories, define characters, establish themes, orchestrate emotions, explore ideas. Not that it’s as easy as all that. There are times in The Winter’s Tale when it’s maddeningly difficult to figure out what the hell the characters are talking about. You are ill-advised to attend any production cold.
Harold Bloom has grumpily admitted to boycotting most productions of Shakespeare out of frustration with tendentious interpretations. For me the problem is less directorial overkill than the sheer difficulty of doing Shakespeare at all – finding actors who can speak the verse properly, trimming the texts to manageable lengths, not overdoing the dirty jokes, and so on. I usually attend three or four productions a year and happily settle for whatever patches of brilliance (sometimes sustained for nearly a whole evening) I can get. And yet I wouldn’t want to deprive myself of the pleasure of unpacking the involutions of Leontes’s soliloquies in The Winter’s Tale at my leisure and with text in hand – partly because in the theater it’s so hard to follow what this lunatic is actually saying. Even his faithful courtier Camillo at one point has to confess that he’s mystified as to precisely what dark “business” his Highness is hinting at:
Leon. Was this taken
By any understanding pate but thine?
For thy conceit is soaking, will draw in
More than the common blocks. Not noted, is’t,
But of the finer natures? By some severals
Of head-piece extraordinary? Lower messes
Perchance are to this business purblind? Say.
Cam. Business, my lord? I think most understand
Bohemia stays here longer.
It’s true that the density of this language depends at least as much on formal rhetoric – all those tropes and devices that Shakespeare had drilled into his head as a schoolboy – as on versification. But what the poetry gives us that prose could not (or not so well) is a sense of formlessness within form. Leontes is falling apart. His jealous ravings feed on themselves in an ever more frenzied cycle of psychological dislocation. You might call it a nervous breakdown. Yet no matter how feverish his utterances, they all stay within the strict boundaries of ten or sometimes eleven syllables. If you’re losing your mind in iambic pentameter, your mode of expression is necessarily compressed. No wonder Leontes is so hard to understand:
Affection! thy intention stabs the centre.
Thou dost make possible things not so held,
Communicat’st with dreams (how can this be?),
With what’s unreal thou co-active art,
And fellow’st nothing. Then ‘tis very credent
Thou mayst co-join with something, and thou dost
(And that beyond commission), and I find it
(And that to the infection of my brains
And hard’ning of my brows).
To my mind, no one has ever satisfactorily explained the meaning of the first line, but the sense of psychic violence is clear enough, as is the sense of delusion that Leontes unwittingly demonstrates in the following lines – he perfectly illustrates what he thinks he’s criticizing. Hard as it is to follow this soliloquy on the page, it’s that much harder in the theater, which doesn’t allow for second readings or leisurely reflections on dense ambiguities. Unlike the pattern of some other geniuses, the movement of Shakespeare’s late work (at least verbally) is toward an increasing complication rather than a simplicity or clarity of expression. Those Jacobean groundlings must have had remarkable attention spans, and no wonder. The linguistic transformation that they witnessed, according to Frank Kermode in Shakespeare’s Language, “happened in the writing of Shakespeare and in the ears of an audience he had, as it were, trained to receive it.”
Dense, compressed, harsh, impacted: these qualities don’t stop Shakespeare’s later dramatic verse from being magnificent. Has anyone ever rendered the grosser tendencies of the male imagination with more obscenely “reified” imagery? What makes Leontes’s ravings especially sickening is that he pronounces them in the presence of his innocent son Mamillius:
Inch-thick, knee-deep, o’er head and ears a fork’d one!
Go play, boy, play. Thy mother plays, and I
Play too, but so disgrac’d a part, whose issue
Will hiss me to my grave: contempt and clamor
Will be my knell. Go play, boy, play. There have been
(Or I am much deceiv’d) cuckolds ere now,
And many a man there is (even at this present,
Now, while I speak this) holds his wife by th’ arm,
That little thinks she has been sluic’d in ‘s absence,
And his pond fish’d by his next neighbor – by
Sir Smile, his neighbor.
When Simon Russell Beale spoke these lines at BAM, that “sluic’d” went through the audience – or at least through me – like a wound. Sometimes it’s hard to believe just how graphic Shakespeare’s imagery can be. As a woefully inexperienced undergraduate, I thought Pompey’s description in Measure for Measure of Claudio’s offense against sexual morality – “Groping for trouts in a peculiar river” – vaguely amusing. Amusing yes, vague no. There are some things no book can teach you.
The simplicity that many people would like to find in late Shakespeare as they do in the closing phases of Beethoven or Michelangelo is in fact there but selectively deployed and as much a matter of technique as of vision. Hermione’s protestations of innocence during the horrendous trial scene have a dignified plainness in contrast to the casuistry with which Leontes arraigns her. (“Sir, / You speak a language that I understand not.”) The language relaxes in the last two acts, as we move from suspicion and sterility to rebirth and reconciliation. Yet touches of lyricism occur earlier in the play (as in Polixines’s “We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ th’ sun, / And bleat the one at th’ other”), just as echoes of Leontes’s rhetorical violence occur later in Polixenes’s rage at the prospect of a shepherdess daughter-in-law (“And thou, fresh piece / Of excellent witchcraft, whom of force must know / The royal fool thou cop’st with”). Our Bard, who knew rhetorical tricks from hypallage to syllepsis, was not likely to disdain something so basic as plain contrast. Consider this contrast: Leontes, who earlier expressed the most extreme repugnance toward almost any form of physicality, now uses the homeliest of similes to express his wonder at the “miracle” of Hermione’s transformation from statue to living creature in Act V: “If this be magic, let it be an art / Lawful as eating.” Eleven lines later the loyal retainer Paulina, who has brought off the whole improbable spectacle, speaks the half line that is, for me, the most wrenching moment in the whole play: “Our Perdita is found.” How like Shakespeare – to expand emotionally by contracting linguistically. (Compare the lonely, cuckolded Bloom’s “Me. And me now” in Joyce’s Ulysses – the emotional heart, in four words, of a novel much given to logorrhea.) To gloss such a line would be almost an impertinence, except to say that being lost (“Perdita,” analogous to “perdition”) and found is in some sense what the play is all about. It’s not just Leontes who, rediscovering his wife and daughter, finds himself. Ideally, at a performance or in a reading, so should we.
Self-discovery can be a pretty scary experience, which is why Tony Tanner in his Prefaces to Shakespeare wrote that the proper response to this play is one in which awe borders on horror: “It does not merely please or entertain. It should leave us aghast, uncertain of just what extraordinary thing we have just witnessed.” Iambs and trochees will get you only so far. They signify that Shakespeare thought poetically, and thinking poetically means expressing experience in a highly concentrated manner. It’s curious that as Shakespeare’s language grew increasingly dense and demanding, his plots moved in the opposite direction – towards the deliberate improbabilities of folklore and fable. Shipwrecks, foundlings, treasure chests, prophecies, oracles, and hungry bears: if the plot of The Winter’s Tale were to be retold stripped of its poetry, it “should be hooted at / Like an old tale,” as Paulina says of the biggest improbability of them all – the apparent transformation of the martyred queen from cold statue to living flesh. To the disappointment of some, the patterned contrivances of the four late “romances” (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest) necessarily entail a slackening of authorial interest in the particulars of character development. Othello’s jealousy is motivated point by excruciating point; Leontes’ jealousy just is. Sometimes it’s well to think back to Samuel Johnson’s point of view. Shakespeare is the poet of nature, and all that naturalism shines out amid the archetypal movements and resolutions of the late romances. Certainly these plays have evoked unusually personal responses. Northrup Frye, no critical slouch, wrote of The Tempest, it is a play “not simply to be read or seen or even studied but possessed.” When Eric Rohmer wanted to depict a transfiguring moment in the life of his heroine in A Tale of Winter (Conte d’hiver, 1991), he did so by having her attend a regional production of The Winter’s Tale and training the camera on her face during Hermione’s transformation scene. Nothing like seeing a clunky, old-fashioned version in French to make you understand what Shakespeare can do without language.
Another curiosity about the romances is the degree to which they turn on the concept of forgiveness. “Pardon’s the word to all,” says Cymbeline late in the play of that title, jauntily brushing aside five acts worth of treachery, corruption, murder, and deceit. Was there something in Shakespeare’s experience that turned his thoughts in his last years to the possibility of forgiveness? Had his many years as an absent husband and father begun to gnaw at him as he contemplated retirement and a return to the wife and family he had clearly neglected? Or had his wife Anne – perhaps understandably in the light of their long separation – been “sluiced” in his absence, and had he, with all his attendant guilts and slippages, to pardon her for that? Was he thinking of the Catholicism he might secretly have been raised in and of the doctrine of grace that – it could be argued – subtly informs these plays? Or was it something simpler and even more personal – namely, brooding on the usual fuckups that everyone racks up over time and hopes to be forgiven for? Virtually nothing is known of the man’s inner life, but few people dispute the semi-autobiographical nature of The Tempest, with its sense of a valediction to the theater he had known and loved. So why not extrapolate a little from the work to the life?
Depends on whose life, I guess. While I’m very much interested in Shakespeare’s life, I’m more interested in my own. What I extrapolate from The Winter’s Tale is that if Leontes deserves a break, so do I. There came a time in my life when I needed to be forgiven. I wasn’t. If I must take my consolation from a play rather than from any flesh and blood Hermione, that’s not quite so bleak as it sounds. Yes, I would have preferred real forgiveness to the literary kind, but I find it no small consolation that at the end of his life the world’s supreme imaginative writer returns again and again to a basic home truth: we must forgive each other. For me, reading Shakespeare is like going to church, except that in place of a God I could never and wouldn’t want to believe in, I “commune,” so to speak, with a mind that seems to comprehend all others and enforces no doctrinal obedience. This community of believers embraces anyone who has ever seen, heard, or read a word of Shakespeare’s and been moved to wonder and reflection. That’s what I call a catholic church.
The forgiveness I’ve spoken of is not without cost. Antigonus and Mamillius die, and when Hermione steps off that pedestal, she speaks to her daughter, not to her husband. Part fairly tale, part moral exemplum, The Winter’s Tale is what religion would be if it could free itself of those hectoring, incomprehensible Gods. In the unveiling of the supposed “miracle” in Act V, the sage and long-suffering Paulina speaks the lines that could serve as the epitaph for all of late Shakespeare: “It is required / You do awake your faith.” The fact that the miracle turns out to be completely naturalistic (the “resurrected” Hermione has been hidden away for sixteen years and has the wrinkles to prove it) means only that the faith required transcends any particular religious dispensation. It’s a faith, first of all, in the reader’s or spectator’s willingness to enter without quibbling into the imaginative world that Shakespeare has created, but more than that, it’s a faith in life itself – in the human imagination, and in our capacity for endurance, transformation, and renewal. As Leontes exemplifies, our capacity for hatred, rage, and murderous insanity is pretty impressive too. To see whole and to understand these contradictions – that too is an act of faith.
I don’t presume to know what this or any other play by Shakespeare ultimately “means.” They will not be reduced to “themes.” Obviously, the plays and sonnets teem with ideas, a few of which are near and dear to my heart, but I could no more sum up the “themes” of Shakespeare’s work than I could sum up the “themes” of my own life. If his work has any unity of meaning, it is simply that of life itself – its abundance, its ongoingness. In Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Caroline Spurgeon wrote that “The thought constantly in Shakespeare’s mind,” in The Winter’s Tale, is:
the common flow of life through all things, in nature and man alike, seen in the sap rising in the tree, the habits and character of flowers, the result of the marriage of base and noble stock, whether it be of roses or human beings, the emotions of birds, animals and men . . . the oneness of rhythm, of law of movement, in the human body and human emotions with the great fundamental rhythmical movements of nature herself.
Spurgeon was writing in 1935. We tend to be skeptical of such claims now. There are no universals; or, as Terry Eagleton bluntly put it apropos of a couple of poems by Edward Thomas, “If these works are not ‘just’ nature poems, it is because there is no such thing” (How To Read a Poem). If language and culture mediate everything we can know, why should Shakespeare, the playwright-businessman writing for a motley provincial audience of sensation seekers and esthetes, be exempt? Wouldn’t he be just as blinkered by the social prejudices of this time, just as imprisoned by the reigning discourse, as anyone else? So it would seem – until we turn to the plays themselves. There we find that our hearts speak to us in a different register than our minds do. There we find, as in Florizel’s wooing Perdita, precisely that sort of “universality” that is supposed not to exist:
What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I’ld have you do it ever; when you sing,
I’d have you buy and sell so; so give alms;
Pray so; and for the ord’ring your affairs,
To sing them too. When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that; move still, still so,
And own no other function. Each your doing
(So singular in each particular)
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,
That all your acts are deeds.
Ever been in love? Florizel speaks courtly Renaissance verse because he’s a prince. The shepherd’s son, who isn’t even granted the dignity of a name (“Clown”), woos the shepherdess Mopsa in rustic comic prose. Although Shakespeare grants Clown the full measure of his country kindness and courtesy, he won’t let him talk like Florizel. Such were the parameters of the Jacobean worldview. I doubt any lover anywhere has ever spoken so beautifully as Florizel, but if you have been in love you’ll recognize the feeling – the idealization that has yet to withstand the test of time but nonetheless ennobles both the lover and the beloved and creates, as it were, its own truth. How did the groundlings and the nabobs respond when they first heard those words at the Globe Theatre in 1611? My guess is that some of them reacted much as I do. They wept.
The trilogy currently sitting atop the New York Times bestseller list is in many ways a fascinating one, the sort of Cinderella story that gives journalists a chance to make wild guesses about the future of publishing. E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels began on the Internet, evolved into e-books, were printed by a small Australian press, and, just a few weeks ago, were finally picked up by a traditional big publisher, Vintage, which paid seven figures at auction for the North American rights. It wasn’t a risky bet; the biggest trouble has reportedly been keeping physical copies on the shelves.
The book is notable, too, because to some degree, it’s forced erotica into the mainstream conversation. Much of the coverage of Fifty Shades of Grey has focused on sex: women are passing around the novels at spin classes and telling the Times how nice it is to be able to read porn and talk about it with friends. (“It’s relighting a fire under a lot of marriages,” one woman said.) But then there are the books’ origins: the trilogy started on FanFiction.net, as a story entitled “Master of the Universe,” in which James’ main characters, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, were called Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. It was Twilight AU, or Alternate Universe fan fiction, wherein Stephenie Meyer’s innocent girl and vampire were re-imagined as innocent girl and manipulative billionaire. The story eventually morphed into something more original — and “Masters of the Universe” was removed from the web — but the threads remained. “The book emerged from the steamy land of fan fiction,” said Jason Boog, discussing the legal and ethical questions for NPR. “Fifty Shades of Grey has opened the box underneath Pandora’s bed, and we need to decide what to do with the sexy publishing trend hidden inside.”
Why, when discussing fan fiction, do journalists often sound like anthropologists discovering some long-lost tribe — and a somewhat unsavory and oversexed one at that? To be fair, Fifty Shades of Grey is an erotic novel, but it represents a mere fraction of this “steamy land.” Let me take a crack at it: fan fiction is original work with largely unoriginal foundations, in which writers take established fictional worlds and spin them into something else entirely. Outside of all of the various fandoms, and even occasionally within them, a few assumptions seem to prevail: that there is something inherently embarrassing about fan fiction, that it’s cause for anonymity and secrecy, and that it is overwhelmingly pornographic — and often seriously, creepily pornographic. There’s plenty of that stuff, sure, but then, there’s plenty of original erotica out there, too. It’s all a sliver of something much larger. For every story that puts Harry, Ron, and Hermione in some kind of BDSM threesome, there are a thousand stories in which they manage to save the world without having any sex at all.
The literary establishment seems divided on the subject — those who even notice fan fiction, at least. (It’s here that we can part ways with Fifty Shades of Grey, which, as a romance novel, doesn’t really fall under the purview of the “literary establishment” — and the blurry dividers between genres are a wholly different discussion.) Writing for TIME last year, Lev Grossman mercifully skipped the baffled anthropologist shtick: the piece was clearly the work of a super-fan, and he laid out the basics with a great deal of affection. Fan fiction is “still the cultural equivalent of dark matter,” he writes. “It’s largely invisible to the mainstream, but at the same time, it’s unbelievably massive.” (FanFiction.net, the largest fanfic site in the world, has more than two million users and nearly 600,000 Harry Potter stories.) Grossman continues:
Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.
Some authors seem to love the conversation, but some, for legal or creative reasons, seriously hate it. Grossman highlights a few of its vehement detractors, like Orson Scott Card, Anne Rice, and George R. R. Martin, who says on his website that, “Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out.”
But writers have been lifting and borrowing and refashioning characters, worlds, and settings since people began putting stories down on the page. Grossman draws a line between literary influences, allusions, and homage and the world of fan fiction: he highlights 1966, the year in which Star Trek premiered and Trekkies were, in turn, born, and in which two great literary heists were published: Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The latter pair were “written for profit, and they’re adorned with the trappings of cultural prestige; true fan fiction has naught to do with either one.”
I’m just not sure we need the distinction — and I’m not sure that it helps. Nearly every work of fan fiction on the Internet is accompanied by a disclaimer, some variation on “This story was not written for profit, and these characters are not my own.” But it’s copyright law at the heart of that, and to suggest that these writers have no interest in “the trappings of cultural prestige” creates a stark division between fan fiction and its literary counterparts. I have a deep respect for the devotion of fans, and I can certainly understand why one would write a story for love rather than for money. But it’s a multi-faceted world: many of these writers just want a different — and sometimes, a better — way into a story. Hasn’t literature has been doing that for centuries?
There’s fan fiction lore surrounding King Arthur and Don Quixote, but we find easier analogies with modern-day fan culture say, a few hundred years ago, when the novel as we know it was born. Copyright laws had been on the books since the seventeenth century, but the most successful eighteenth and nineteenth century writers watched helplessly as their characters were baldly lifted and reworked into sequels or just plain rewrites — and then sold to the public at a fraction of the price. Charles Dickens, already a victim of intellectual pirating across the Atlantic, watched domestic copycats put out seriously poor imitations of his books with dismay: “I have not the least doubt that these Vagabonds can be stopped,” he wrote. “They must be.”
This was pure plagiarism, meant to harm and to generate profit, not to elevate Dickens’s words. But a century earlier, Samuel Richardson found Clarissa, which he was publishing in installments, to be the subject of positive and somewhat extraordinary fannish speculation. Two sisters, Lady Bradshaigh and Lady Echlin, exchanged dozens of letters with Richardson, urging him to change the course of the novel (basically, they wanted to cut out the rape and death). In The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Carol Houlihan Flynn writes of Bradshaigh contacting Richardson: “Assiduously scribbling over the margins of all the volumes of the novel, she first writes him after finishing volume 4, cajoling, flirting, excoriating, loving, hating, but always admiring her torturer.” Her sister took things further: “Lady Echlin…seems more professional in her investment into the passions of Clarissa, and literally rewrites the novel…Richardson received and of course rejected her alternative ending, but they debated the critical differences in at least forty letters.”
The nineteenth century saw fans skipping correspondence with recalcitrant authors and writing their own endings for books that they loved, including the novels of Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, and, most notably, Arthur Conan Doyle, who made the mistake of killing off Sherlock Holmes and whipping the detective’s admirers into a frenzy. The practice continued through the first half of the twentieth century, until the 1960s, when the term “fan fiction” was coined and the literary tradition merged with our current ideas of fandom — science fiction, “cult” television shows, terms like “continuity” and “canon” gaining significance in the process. As the Internet became pervasive, fan fiction communities grew and spread exponentially.
But the past half-century also played host to a lot of self-conscious borrowing and refashioning across literature: authors began to look for silences in the canon and probed the neglected perspectives they found there. Some post-colonial literature could easily be categorized as fan fiction. The most famous of these is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which follows Jane Eyre’s “madwoman in the attic” all the way back to the Caribbean. Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête draws the colonial themes out of The Tempest with an essentially direct re-writing of the play. J. M. Coetzee’s Foe exists within the confines of Robinson Crusoe, placing another character on the island with Crusoe and Friday, and explores ideas of authorial voice in the colonial narrative.
Outside post-colonialism, dozens of books fall within the realm of “parallel novels,” many of which take minor characters and expand their worlds. Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs emerges from Great Expectations; Geraldine Brooks looks for the absent father of Little Women in March. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours offers us two subgenres of fan fiction: the AU of the modern-day Clarissa, Richard, and Sally, and the RPF — that’s Real Person Fic — of the Virginia Woolf passages. With RPF, you’re not writing about Aragorn and Legolas’ lost adventures anymore — it’s Viggo and Orlando on the set, and who knew they might be an item? Every biopic that takes factual liberties could be classified as such, and the same could be said for plenty of books, from Colm Tóibín’s The Master (Henry James) to Ron Hansen’s Exiles (Gerard Manley Hopkins) to Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George (our old favorite, Arthur Conan Doyle).
So what’s the difference? Isn’t all of this just a bunch of variations on the same theme? Why does fan fiction’s stigma persist — and why are remixes and mash-ups, analogs in the art and music worlds, accepted, even celebrated? There’s something about the written word that limits all this unfettered refashioning, something that makes people more protective of their work. It’s the fear of plagiarism, perhaps, or the way that for many people, a character can feel so much dearer than a beat or an image ever could. But fan fiction — and all of its literary counterparts, however you classify them — comes from a place of love and admiration. Some people see a corner of a fictional world waiting to be explored; others just want to exist in the world past the last page of their favorite novel. After all, who among us hasn’t felt that way, closing the back cover of an amazing book and wishing that the author had given us a little bit more?
A recent post at Pinky’s Paperhaus entitled “The backwards academic,” muses critically on the backward-looking focus of the GRE subject exam in English literature, required for applicants to English department Ph.D. programs, and, in Pinky’s case, Ph.D. programs in Creative Writing.Having cited the breakdown of the GRE subject exam in English Literature (pasted in below from the post):- Continental, Classical, and Comparative Literature through 1925 – 5-10%- British Literature to 1660 (including Milton) – 25-30%- British Literature 1660-1925 – 25-35%- American Literature through 1925 – 15-25%- American, British, and World Literatures after 1925 – 20-30%Pinky expresses some concerns – both personal and philosophical:To sum this up, 70-80% of the exam focuses on work before 1925. 25-30% of the entire exam will be on BRITISH LIT BEFORE 1600. What concerns me isn’t that I can’t possibly do well on the test (I can’t. I was terrible at recognizing poets from excerpts when I learned them more than a decade ago, and I don’t know a caesura from a sestina) but what this focus indicates. The discipline, as it appears through the lens of this exam, is inherently colonial, still trying to prove to big bad monarch daddy that we deserve his love, we do, we really really do, because we can appreciate him and study his dirty bards and his pious poets and his sarcastic essayists and his metaphysical poets and his beowulf, thank you very much, and since we’ve been so good, may we please have some more moors, please?The essence of Pinky’s concern, is the exam’s historical focus – What about, she wonders, contemporary fiction, blogs, the effect of the internet on reading? All of these, she suggests, seem the relevant questions – not Milton, sestinas, and Beowulf.I have a few thoughts on these questions, both practically and philosophically speaking, as someone whose taken this exam, and is now entrenched in the academy. Practically speaking, the only way to do well is to spend a few months studying Norton anthologies: No one, even with a freshly minted B.A. in English, is ready for this exam without putting in some time. Also, it’s a multiple choice exam: How, realistically, could they ask questions about the amorphous world of the blogosphere (Name the contributors of certain blogs? Pick traits of a blog essay?) or the yet to be determined effects of things like Google Books and Project Gutenberg on reading practices? Exams have genres too and multiple choice exams cannot help us explore abstract and emergent fields.Philosophically speaking, it seems to me that the desire to get a Ph.D. implies a desire for a deep understanding of a field, and a deep understanding means history. If you just want to contemplate the effects of the internet on literature and read contemporary novels, blogging and book-reviewing will certainly suit you. The doctorate in literature (and, I presume, Creative Writing, since faculty in CW do end up teaching literature quite often), for better or for worse, means theory, the history of forms, the evolution of genres, methodical consideration of allusion and borrowing.Someone with an interest in the internet’s effects on literature and the rise of the blogosphere might naturally appreciate the 18th century English pioneers of the newspaper and essay (Addison and Steel’s The Spectator, for one) and maybe read a little bit of Jurgen Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which resemble nothing so much as the ultimate fulfillment of quintessentially 18th century ideas about the periodical press as a virtual space for rational debate on subjects of public interest, a space in which all who desired to participate, regardless of class, were allowed. The rise of the periodical press and its role in facilitating writing as a profession for middle-class people was revolutionary – and we’re still enjoying it today as we write our blog posts. Again, to read examples of the early “essai” as practiced by Montaigne – coiner of the genre’s name – (or by Sir Thomas Browne or Francis Bacon) is to be delighted to discover that the rambling, loose essay format that blogging allows and sometimes seems to encourage is nothing so much as a return to the essay’s generic origins. In sum, feelings about how a new technology impacts literature are only broadened by knowledge of literature’s history.And a final philosophical point: The best modern and contemporary writers draw from the literature of the past. Joyce and Pound’s titanic knowledge of the history of forms, T.S. Eliot’s profound reliance on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra and Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy in The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf’s delightful literary critical essays, and her respectful appreciation of Aphra Behn and Jane Austen in A Room of One’s Own for the help they’d inevitably given her as a woman writer. More recently, I offer J.M. Coetzee’s Foe as a re-reading of Robinson Crusoe, his Disgrace as a reading of Clarissa (this reading is Blakey Vermeule’s), Zadie Smith’s On Beauty as a reading of Howard’s End. Frank Miller’s 300 as a rereading of Herodotus.I am also generally horrified by how little I know, how little my peers know, how little my students know or care about history. And I find myself thinking about the affable but fraudulent academic hero of Don Delillo’s White Noise, a professor of Hitler studies who doesn’t know German. Shortchanging history when studying literature inevitably leaves a similarly gaping hole.