Thursday, January 1, 2015

On Being Written About and Through

When I was in graduate school studying the English and American novel, I had a fantasy. I imagined being a novelist myself. I idolized Joyce, Dickens, Beckett, Melville, Hawthorne, and short-story writers like Poe and Flannery O'Connor. My professors, who gave access to these authors' mysteries, seemed like priests. (This was at Notre Dame, by the way.) Because of this, nothing was more ego-flattering to me than to imagine a book of mine as the subject of scholarly scrutiny, a thing deemed worthy of mention in an academic journal or book, or of critical discussion in a seminar.

And now, it has happened! Yet not, overall, in a way that fulfills my grad student dreams.

Here's the story. I was accidentally Googling my name on the Internet, when I came across two references to  my fiction. The first concerned a novel I'd written
in 2006 for "young adults" (which, to be perfectly blunt, 14-year-olds aren't). The book was entitled Ariel. It's still entitled Ariel. I like to describe Ariel as a twisted version of Shakespeare's The Tempest, since in it, the blithe spirit-entity of the magic island is destructive and also indifferent to human suffering, quite the opposite of Shakespeare's own Ariel. Also unlike Shakespeare's, my Ariel is female, because, I don't know. Why not? She just is. But her femaleness stuck in the craw of this Internet-encountered author, whose name I will not reveal, except to say it is Erica Hateley, and she lives in Brisbane. In her 2010 book, Shakespeare in Children's Literature: Gender and Cultural Capital, Hateley observes that my novel "genders Ariel as feminine and 'childish' . . . while identifying both categories as negative" (186). That's mostly what she has to say.

Now, I will also refrain from naming the second critic (Amy Rodgers), who has contributed a chapter to a book called The English Renaissance in Popular Culture wherein she talks about a scene in my 2004 novel about Shakespeare, Will. She discusses an episode -- which she calls a "hagiography" -- wherein Will (Shakespeare) steps up to the edge of the stage and asks the yelling crowd to be quiet because Julius Caesar's about to start, and they settle down. After the play, exhibiting his messiah complex, Shakespeare brags to actor Richard Burbage that he has "redeemed" the bestial mob. About this, Rodgers suggests that "Tiffany's groundlings may be seen as automatons held by the sway of what seems like theatrical fascism," but that more accurately, "Tiffany constructs [the scene] as an experience that mimics modern celebrity-spectator dynamics. Her Shakespeare is the original mass-culture entertainment celebrity, an early-modern rock star . . . . [She] display[s] the groundlings against a transhistorical spectatorial continuum of which we ourselves are a part."

Wait, a what?

Okay, let me back up. I should first stress that these passages do not come from book reviews. Nobody reviews my books except bloggers like myself. No, these comments come from academic books of the sort nobody reads except specialists and authors accidentally Googling their names looking (accidentally) to see if anyone is talking about them. So, as such, these observations might be thought after all to fulfill my fantasy of being one day discussed by English professors, might they not?

Wrong! And not because neither Hateley nor Rodgers liked my stories much. Wrong, instead, because the subject of both H. and R. is not "good fiction" or even "notable fiction," but "fiction that adapts Shakespeare." I'm well aware that it isn't the formal qualities of my novels, but their place in this "adaptive" category, that brings them into view. My books could have been Shakespeare comic books, and still merited comment. (Some of those are kind of neat, by the way.)

And that's fair.  But other things bother me. I am surprised (though not really) that in discussing the passage in my book where Shakespeare addresses the audience from the Globe stage, Rodgers didn't distinguish between the narrator (me) and my character (Will Shakespeare), since English professors are supposed to be good at that distinction, and famously criticize their students if they don't make it. What I mean is, Will Shakespeare the character thinking he's a god doesn't mean I, the author, do. In fact, though I wrote Will a while ago, I seem to remember wanting to imply some analogy between Will-the-author with the Globe crowd, and Mark Antony with the Roman mob. It is, after all, Julius Caesar and not himself that Will claims has affected the watchers. Rodgers leaves out the whole Julius Caesar part. Erica Hateley, who critiques Ariel, also omits things. In her feminist discussion, she concludes that I am somehow dissing women because the female Ariel is kind of bad. But she doesn't mention the two actual and very kick-ass women in the story, Miranda and Sycorax. Shouldn't they, and not an inhuman spirit, be construed to represent "women" in the work, if anyone is? Also, Hateley suggests that I present children as negative because one character criticizes Ariel  by calling her "childish." She doesn't acknowledge that the word "childish" actually is a legitimate criticism when it's applied to people who have lived long enough that they're expected no longer to behave like children (people like Ariel, who is 800 years old). These omissions and oversights I don't like. I think critics should read all and not just certain passages of the books they discuss, or, if they have read them, should not suppress the parts that are damaging to their arguments. And I think they should pay attention to what words really mean.

Beyond that, I don't think I have the right to complain, even about that "transhistorical spectatorial continuum" stuff in Amy Rodgers' comments about Will. In fact, I've been trying to work that phrase into my conversation since I read it, which is not as easy as you might think, even for an English professor. I didn't know "spectatorial" was a word, but then, I didn't know you could use "elf" as a verb until I read act 2 of King Lear. I like "spectatorial." It sounds kind of like "gladiatorial," and might thus, I suppose, be a super-oblique reference to ancient Rome. Julius Caesar after all! Also I like that Rodgers found a "continuum" in my novel's episode, because I love science fiction, and her phrase makes me think of "space-time continuum."  Maybe I should have retained the passage where Shakespeare glances up from the stage and sees a plane passing by overhead. (No kidding, it was in the first version.)

The truth is, even though I had absolutely no intention of presenting a proto-fascist Shakespeare or mimicking "modern celebrity-spectator dynamics," I can't swear it didn't happen. Writers are not in complete control of what they create. I remember a talk by the British playwright Tom Stoppard, who likened coming across the Atlantic, and answering questions about his work at conferences, to being asked at customs to open a suitcase full of contraband. "I can't deny all that stuff is in there," Stoppard said. "I just didn't pack it." At the time I thought he was mocking us scholars for imposing on his plays meanings that weren't actually there. Now I know he wasn't. Now I've known and seen that, for all their labor and plotting and scrupulously considered decisions, most creative writers, if you ask, will describe the experience of being written through as they create. The medium is not only the paper and pen (or computer), but the writer himself. Designs unfold, and we are not the designer. Sometimes we don't see it until later. Sometimes we don't see it at all, until someone else points it out to us.

One example from my own humble collection of writings is a passage in my 2005 novel The Turquoise Ring. The book is a pre- and para-history of the events of The Merchant of Venice, told with regard to the perspectives of the women in the play. In one chapter, Jessica, a Jewish woman of Venice who has converted and eloped with a Christian, discards a fine cloak on which is sewn the red badge which Jews in Venice were forced to wear. "I tried to pull it off, but I could not do it without tearing the weave," she tells a friend.

"That is really great!," said my husband when he read the passage. "She can't tear out her Jewish identity without destroying herself. It's too much a part of her."

"Uh -- yeah!," I said, cleverly disguising the fact that when I wrote the passage, I was just thinking that Jessica couldn't get rid of the badge without destroying the coat. Period. The meaning my husband saw had never crossed my mind. I can't deny it's in there. I just didn't pack it.

Isaac Asimov once wrote a story about a physics professor who invented a time machine, fetched Shakespeare into the present day, and signed him up, under a pseudonym, for a fellow faculty member's Shakespeare seminar. Poor Shakespeare struggled and struggled in the course, but everything he said about his own plays was shot down by the disdainful professor. He ended up with a C-. Unlike Stoppard, Asimov was making fun of Shakespeare professors, and many of us deserve his scorn, for our misreadings and our over-readings. (Not me, though.) Still, when I think of the Asimov story now, it makes me wonder about something. It's evident that Shakespeare voraciously read and energetically conceptualized, plotted, wrote, and amended plays for his whole professional life. Most likely he thought and wrote himself into an early grave. Even so, could he have consciously planned all of what came through his pen?

Books are mysterious. They're like children. Every part of them comes from you (and your partner, unless they are clones). Yet you don't really know them. Like children, stories have their own plots and plans; they came through you, from someplace else. And like parents with children, authors are the least qualified people in the world to describe "their" creations, because they can't see them as free-standing creatures, separate from all their intentions and designs and hopes and dreams. That's why I ridicule those NPR interviews wherein authors discuss their characters and tell us what's what with them, detailing for us the inner life and "true" motivations of their fictional personae, confusing what they wanted to write, or thought they were writing, with what they actually wrote. Writers should write. They should not attempt to describe what they wrote.

Nevertheless, if Diane Rehm would like me to participate in just such a radio conversation, sign me up!

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