[ME] Scribble, Scribble, Scribble, Mr. McColm?

Also ...

The Liberal Moonbat
My Page at the USF Mathematics Department
Crystal Mathematician Weblog

Of Angels and Devils Elbow Grease The Monster Speaks


The primary books on writing English are probably:

And since the best advice is to write every day ...
  • Roy Baumeister is a psychologist at Florida State University, and he wrote about a relatively new area of his field in Willpower.
  • Paul Silvia is a psychologist at the University of North Carolina - Greensboro, and he applied his work on attention to the problem of getting things written in How to Write a Lot.

At the top of American letters are the literary magazines, including:

And also, for writers ... There is a more complete list, with daily updates, at the Arts & Letters Daily

For those interested in writing science fiction, the big three magazines are probably:

but the market is moving towards soft fantasy -- although strangely, and sadly, we are down to the Big Three because the
fourth, Realms of Fantasy, recently went under. Two additional resources are:

For people who want to check things out, here are several useful devices.

  • Google's Ngram Viewer plots usage of English phrases over the past few centuries.

And there are organizations of writers ...

Some writers find it useful to participate in a writers' critique group. It should not be a social club or a mutual admiration society: members should seriously review each other's work and provide candid, extensive, and constructive critique. Notice the use of the word "critique" rather than "criticism": the idea is to help each other learn, not to put each other down.

And many colleges, especially those with adult education departments, support writers' groups.

Writers' conventions are a bit problematic: an aspiring writer hears lots of sage advice (the most important advice being to write every day), but little feedback. But they can be useful for getting advice, and perhaps a little buzz. And the larger conventions aimed at fans rather than writers will tell you what the market is.

See also Wikipedia's List of science fiction conventions

And of course, there are resources on the web, like the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign's Center for Writing Studies, Every Writer's Resource, Writer's Market, Writers' Resources, and pages of links like Glendale Community College's Web Links for Writers, Midwest Book Review's Writer Resources, and ... You could spend all day surfing rather than writing ...

Online bookstores besides Amazon (which has a different selection from Amazon UK) includes AbeBooks,

Anthony Trollope and the Romance of Authorship

Writers often think that they're special, and since they write our books, our stories, our songs, and our screenplays, we're subjected to their claim that being a writer is a more rarefied business than, say, building furniture. It seems insensitive to suggest that writing and furniture-making are simply two different creative outlets. Unlike furniture-making -- or so we are told -- writing requires a certain magical touch. And writing is unbearably hard (Red Smith allegedly told Walter Winchell that writing was easy: you just open a vein and bleed). And outside of a handful of sell-outs sitting on top of the bestseller lists, writers are poor folk, living in garrets or surviving as university adjuncts, sacrificing their lives to the greatest of art forms.

Which brings us to a very prolific bleeder, Anthony Trollope.

Trollope is very fashionable these days. One of the great Victorian novelists, he wrote about clergymen, politicians, and a great deal about love and marriage. He also wrote short stories, plays, and non-fiction.

And an Autobiography. Even better, unlike the delusions one often finds in autobiographies, Trollope's contains an account of how he did it.

Trollope was exposed early to the practical aspects of writing. His mother took up the pen when his father's finances went south, and for the second half of her life, she was the family's sole means of support while nursing several children and her husband through fatal illnesses. (In his Autobiography, Anthony writes of a visit home, reporting that "They were all dying; except my mother, who would sit up night after night nursing the dying ones and writing novels the while, -- so that there might be a decent roof for them to die under. Had she failed to write the novels, I do not know where the roof would have been found.") His mother had no time for the romance of authorship: getting the book written in a form that the public would buy it, that was the priority. And no bones about the amount that she wrote: the more she wrote -- and she was a book machine -- the more money she had for her family.

Trollope says he was an unsuccessful student, even hinting that he didn't write in school: "Of things to be learned by lessons I knew almost less than could be supposed possible after the amount of schooling I had received. I could read neither French, Latin, nor Greek ... Of the merest rudiments of the sciences I was completely ignorant ... There was no subject as to which examination would have been possible on which I could have gone through an examination otherwise than disgracefully." (But C. P. Snow disagrees, and armed with documentation of Trollope's satisfactory performance as a student.) Still, he learned about the major poets, historians, bishops, judges, and cabinet ministers -- a list that pretty much tells us what his novels were about. (He would later develop a taste for ancient Rome, and despite his rigorous if disquieting homeschooling, perhaps the Latin in his Autobiography is a result of adult learning.) As for how he started writing:
I will mention here another habit which had grown upon me from still earlier years,—which I myself often regarded with dismay when I thought of the hours devoted to it, but which, I suppose, must have tended to make me what I have been ... As a boy, even as a child, I was thrown much upon myself. ... other boys would not play with me. I was therefore alone, and had to form my plays within myself. ... I was always going about with some castle in the air firmly build within my mind. Nor were these efforts in architecture spasmodic, or subject to constant change from day to day. For weeks, for months, if I remember rightly, from year to year, I would carry on the same tale ...

Trollope became a postal clerk (he was the one who introduced the mailbox to Great Britain), and after a few miserable years in London, he was sent to Ireland. There he was introduced to his great passion -- foxhunting, complete with hounds and everything -- and there he married, and wrote his first two books. "When I reached Ireland I had never put pen to paper ...," but by the time he married, he had written his first book. He apparently wrestled with procrastination: "It was only now and then that I found either time or energy for a few pages." It took a year to write the 170,000 words of The Macdermots of Ballycloran. It didn't sell, and in fact it was twelve years before his writing brought much income; unlike his mother, who had broken into print with a hugely successful debut book, Trollope had the more typical career of an novice writer, writing book after book that disappeared into the market's mist. He had one advantage most novices do not: his mother found him his first publisher.

He wrote two novels about Ireland; they bombed. He wrote a historical novel; it bombed. He wrote a play that never reached a stage. He became a newspaper columnist (oh, the horror, the horror). He even stopped writing for two years -- he had an excuse, a special assignment for the post office (yeah, right), but that's how he happened to visit Salisbury, which inspired him to write The Warden.

He had already had difficulties writing about subjects outside his personal experience, and "I may as well declare at once that no one at their commencement could have had less reason than myself to presume himself to be able to write about clergymen." To his surprise, an author who had never lived in a cathedral town, never had much to do with clergymen, never even met an archdeacon, was able to portray a Close so well that fans told him how life-like Archdeacon Grantly was, and how accurate his descriptions of clerical life. (Or so he wrote. C. P. Snow tartly observes that both of Trollope's grandfathers were clergymen, and speculates that his parents must have had many clerical visitors.) Part of his motivation to write the book were the sort of financial abuses central to the plot, which at that time were often in the news, but also what he called "the undeserved severity of the newspapers." Trollope's ability to portray two sides sympathetically is one of the major attractions of his novels.

As of 1857 -- after sixteen years of writing, which he calls "ten years of hard work" -- his pen had earned him 55 pounds. (Trollope fans will recognize this as just about the annual salary of a low-level cleric -- which Measuring Worth says was only a few thousand dollars in today's money.) In addition, whether it was because he particularly liked the characters of The Warden, or because it had been a commercial success, he set out to write a sequel in what would become one of the great series of literary history. His advance was 100 pounds.

Trollope's literary reputation allegedly suffered because of his Autobiography. Anyone with (assume proper pose of hauteur) an artistic temperament would not stoop to write about such mundane matters. "I am well aware that there are many who think that an author in his authorship should not regard money ..." But "[a] barrister, a clergyman, a doctor, an engineer, and even actors and architects, may without disgrace follow the bent of human nature, and endeavour to fill their bellies and clothe their backs, and also those of their wives and children, as comfortably as they can by the exercise of their abilities and their crafts." As for those who object to his approach, "They who preach this doctrine will be much offended by my theory ... They are like clergymen who preach sermons against the love of money, but who know that the love of money is so distinctive a characteristic of humanity that such sermons are mere platitudes called for by customary but unintelligent piety."

Trollope not only wrote about the tacky business of money, but also the tawdry business of writing itself. "I found it to be expedient to bind myself by certain self-imposed laws." Since he primarily wrote books, he set up a book-by-book regimen. When he started working on a book, he would start a journal in which he would record his day-by-day progress (in number of pages) and compare it with his projections. He allotted himself 40 pages a week, although his actual output ranged from 20 pages to 112, where a page is 250 words:

  • He got up at five in the morning, and started working at 5:30 am. "[T]hree hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. But then he should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours,—so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen..." (Actually, he wrote in pencil, with his wife transcribing his drafts.) He started each morning by reading material from the previous day -- out loud for his ear. Then out came the watch. He aimed to write 250 words every fifteen minutes, as marked by his watch.
  • He wrote perhaps eight pages a day, sixteen in the "hot pressure" of "the telling of the story". He usually wrote five days a week, although it did go up to seven days a week during hot pressure periods. "I have trebled my usual average, and have done so in circumstances which have enabled me to give up all my thoughts for the time to the book I have been writing."
  • "This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year." There are twelve months in a year, but he recommended going through the written work twice before sending it to the publisher. Ten months a year on first drafts, at 250 words per fifteen minutes, is about half a million words a year.
He routinely wrote books of his own projected length, and completed them in accordance with his schedule. "I have been told that such appliances are beneath the notice of a man of genius," but with steady writing, the book gets completed: "A small daily task, If it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules."

The hardest part seems to be the plot: "how very little time the brain is able to devote to such wearing work. There are usually some hours of agonising doubt, almost of despair,—so at least it has been with me,—or perhaps some days." (One suspects that part of his problem was the frustration of sitting, perhaps doodling, but not writing and no hot pressure. And later he writes, "I have never troubled myself much about the construction of plots ... ")

Then having kludged together the plot,
... with nothing settled in my brain as to the final development of events, with no capability of settling anything, but with a most distinct conception of some character or characters, I have rushed at the work as a rider rushes at a fence which he does not see. Sometimes I have encountered what, in hunting language, we call a cropper. ... [his croppers] have not arisen from over-hurried work ... [although] ... Rapid writing will no doubt give rise to inaccuracy,—chiefly because the ear, quick and true as may be its operation, will occasionally break down under pressure.
(He later writes of Wilkie Collins -- who seems to have done more advance plotting -- that he "... seems always to be warning me to remember that something happened at exactly half-past two o'clock on Tuesday morning; or that a woman disappeared from the road just fifteen yards beyond the fourth mile-stone.")

But we don't read Trollope for his plots; we read him for his characters. Snow quotes from a letter by that most un-Trollopian writer, Nathanial Hawthorne: Trollope's novels are...
... written on the strength of beef and through the inspiration of ale, and just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth, put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants goint about their daily business ...
None of his characters are as memorable as, say, Don Quixote, Captain Ahab, Long John Silver, or Gollum / Smeagol, but they are some of the most real and well-developed characters in fiction, and Snow calls Trollope "the finest natural psychologist of the Nineteenth century novelists" (and that was a century that started with Jane Austen and included Leo Tolstoy). So what does Trollope say about characterization?
[T]the creatures of his brain should be to them speaking, moving, living, human creatures. This he can never do unless he know those fictitious personages himself, and he can never know them unless he can live with them in the full reality of established intimacy. They must be with him as he lies down to sleep, and as he wakes from his dreams. He must learn to hate them and to love them. He must argue with them, quarrel with them, forgive them, and even submit to them. He must know of them whether they be cold-blooded or passionate, whether true or false, and how far true, and how far false. The depth and the breadth, and the narrowness and the shallowness of each should be clear to him. And, as here, in our outer world, we know that men and women change,—become worse or better as temptation or conscience may guide them,—so should these creations of his change, and every change should be noted by him. On the last day of each month recorded, every person in his novel should be a month older than on the first. If the would-be novelist have aptitudes that way, all this will come to him without much struggling;—but if it do not come, I think he can only make novels of wood.
So how does one show character? Snow focuses on dialogue and thoughts.

  • "The dialogue is generally the most agreeable part of a novel," writes Trollope, "but it is only so as long as it tends in some way to the telling of the main story." In addition, it should be realistic. Nineteenth century novels often had dialogue lifted out of essays, occasionally with long speeches, while modern novel-writing aims at being something like a tape recording. Trollope wrote dialogue so realistic that Snow claims him to be a fairly reliable source on how Victorians actually spoke, but Trollope did have filter: "The novel-writer in constructing his dialogue must so steer between absolute accuracy of language—which would give to his conversation an air of pedantry, and the slovenly inaccuracy of ordinary talkers, which if closely followed would offend by an appearance of grimace—as to produce upon the ear of his readers a sense of reality."
  • Showing the mental life of a character is almost as big a problem. Some modern writers present italicized internal monologue, sort of twittered soliloqueys. Perhaps James Joyce is to blame for this; Ulysses is a vast clutter of descriptive and interior tweets, interwoven with the daily dialogue that penetrates Stephen Dedalus's thoughts. This sort of "stream of consciousness" has a tendency to dissolve in large doses -- one of the problems with books like Ulysses, but it is the logical goal of purists who believe that novelists should show rather than tell. But Trollope uses a filter to organize the characters' thoughts, producing coherent descriptions of what is going on in his character's heads -- without the irrelevant stray thoughts that most of us experience (and that Joyce serves up en masse). Of course, Trollope winds up telling us what Mrs. Bold is thinking rather than showing us. Worse, these are the moments when Trollope is prone to step into his novel and start telling us what to think -- during one of them, he actually assures nervous readers that no, Mrs. Bold is not going to marry Mr. Slope -- but as Snow would point out, we do wind up with a clear idea of what Mrs. Bold is thinking about.
Trollope is primarily interested in characters. Like most novelists, he packages his characters so the reader doesn't have to devote too much effort to figure them out (this effort is one of the major reasons why James Joyce is relatively unread, however much he is admired). But Trollope doesn't label them, and since he is not prone to plop black or white hats on his characters -- perhaps with a few exceptions, like the odious Mr. Slope -- the reader does have to figure them out.

Trollope was an old man when he wrote of aspiring writers, "... many young fail also, because they endeavour to tell stories when they have none to tell. And this comes from idleness rather than from innate incapacity. The mind has not been sufficiently at work when the tale has been commenced, nor is it kept sufficiently at work as the tale is continued."

And the work must be completed on time.
I have known authors whose lives have always been troublesome and painful because their tasks have never been done in time ... Publishers have distrusted them, and they have failed to write their best because they have seldom written at ease. I have done double their work—though burdened with another profession,—and have done it almost without an effort. I have not once, through all my literary career, felt myself even in danger of being late with my task. ... that little diary, with its dates and ruled spaces, its record that must be seen, its daily, weekly demand upon my industry, has done all that for me.

There are those who would be ashamed to subject themselves to such a taskmaster, and who think that the man who works with his imagination should allow himself to wait till—inspiration moves him. ... To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting.

I ... advise young
[writers] ... to avoid enthusiastic rushes with their pens, and to seat themselves at their desks day by day as though they were lawyers' clerks;—and so let them sit until the allotted task shall be accomplished.
Other than this, Trollope has difficulty figuring out what to say to aspiring authors, except that "[t]he young author should feel that criticisms fall upon him as dew or hail from heaven,—which, as coming from heaven, man accepts as fate." But Trollope is skeptical of the ability of critics and other authors to evaluate an aspiring writer, and sympathetic with the writer's plight. "The career, when success has been achieved, is certainly very pleasant; but the agonies which are endured in the search for that success are often terrible" partly because "... rightly or wrongly, [the unsuccessful writer] feels that the world is using him with extreme injustice."

Eventually Trollope's royalties and salary as a senior administrator for Her Majesty's mail rose to over four thousand pounds a year -- on the order of a million dollars a year today -- which allowed him to "... keep a good house over my head, insure my life, educate my two boys, and hunt perhaps twice a week." What would the English do without foxes?

The Ticker

28 June 2015 - The Politics of Science Fiction

Science Fiction has long had many political strings. A citizen of the totalitarian Second Empire, Jules Verne tested the bounds of political acceptability as he grew increasingly misanthropic; a citizen of the triumphalist British Empire during its great collision with reality in South Africa, an originally imperialist Herbert George Wells wrote what is probably the great (and gloomy) anti-imperialist novel.

Since then, the politics of science fiction ranged from the progressive technocracy of Isaac Asimov to the cowboy politics of Robert Heinlein to the careful satire of Stanislaw Lem. David Brin thought that science fiction encouraged open-mindedness with its embrace of Otherness, but Orson Scott Card knows better.

Larry Niven once described American science fiction writers as a mixture of veterans and liberals, but that seemed like the previous generation when George R. R. Martin claimed that a claque of tea partiers had somehow captured the Hugo Award and damaged it beyond repair. (This sounds like hyperbole: the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel spent over a decade handing out awards to right wing charlatans, but now, after a decade of drying out in rehab, they are almost respectable again.)

The latest on the Martin vs. the Tea Party front are two stories this weekend.

In comparison, the novel at the center of these racist fantasies, The Turner Diaries, (available from Amazon), looks increasingly like a fossil; you can practically smell the formaldehyde as William Pierce reads his book.

Now, if we can get a bunch of Navajo kids to crash the next Hugo Awards ...

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15 May 2015 - Ray Bradbury Warned Us About This

Robert MacFarlane warns us that in the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, words like "acorn", "adder", "ash", "beech", "bluebell", "buttercup", "catkin", "conker", "cowslip", "cygnet", "dandelion", "fern", "hazel", "heather", "heron", "ivy", "kingfisher", "lark", "mistletoe", "nectar", "newt", "otter", "pasture", and "willow" have disappeared, while more ... relevant ... words like "attachment", "block-graph", "blog", "broadband", "bullet-point", "celebrity", "chatroom", "committee", "cut-and-paste", "MP3 player", and "voice-mail".

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27 April 2015 - All Those Books

Amidst his feisty if forlorn defense against the rising tide of e-books, William Giraldi observes that collecting books and reading the books one collects are two different things.
"All those books," he said, and then asked the infamous cliché of a question, the question that occurs only to nonreaders: "You read all those books?" I told him that I’d read fewer than half—the truth was that I'd read fewer than half of half...
...Dedicated readers are precisely those who understand the Socratic inkling that they aren’t smart enough, will never be smart enough — the wise are wise only insofar as they know that they know nothing. In other words: Someone with all the answers has no use for books.

For more, see his Object Lesson.

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11 April 2015 - The Writing is in the Details

E.M.Forster claimed that War and Peace and Anna Karenina were the two greatest novels ever written. Fans of Miguel Cervantes and Victor Hugo are probably not so sure. But Gary Morson makes the argument that at least in character depiction, Leo Tolstoy was the master of careful description. Of course, some people simply find Ms. Karenina tiresome…

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14 May 2014 - How to get into the canon

As Ian Leslie observed, what made the Mona Lisa the greatest work of art was a burglary. But the Mona Lisa must have been a great work of art to be stolen from the Louvre in the first place. But it does raise the awkward question of whether the canon actually consists of the great works - an issue Leslie himself raises with his swipe at Thomas Kinkade. Indeed, once you've seen a Kincade you've seen them all -- but one could argue the same of Jackson Pollock.

Critics and the public are flighty creatures. Moby Dick is probably Huckleberry Finn's only serious competitor to the mantle of Great American Novel, but unlike Twain's great work, Melville's novel disappeared practically without a trace after publication, despite Nathaniel Hawthorne's enthusiasm. Wikipedia's article on Moby Dick is almost a stereotypic analysis: the book failed for various logistical reasons but was revived by a critic with impeccable credentials, and continued to rise thanks more high-brow criticism. Thus it's greatness was recognized by the approved authorities.

So we can be assured that the current popularity of Moby Dick has absolutely nothing to do with a preposterous Hollywood silent adaptation, nor with John Huston's extravaganza written by Ray Bradbury and starring Gregory Peck.

Goethe unearthed Spinoza and Mendelssohn popularized Bach, and Zorro keeps his grip on the popular imagination nearly a century after Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford discovered the pulp character in a bookshop. So is Zorro canonical? The critics have caved on Grant Wood's American Gothic and are slowly caving on Norman Rockwell as we speak. Will they cave on Zorro? After all, if a pulp character can gain a longstanding grip on the imagination that makes his more respectable contemporary, Leopold Bloom, anemic, what are the guardians of the canon to do?

Maybe Johnston McCulley was a genius ahead of his time. That would be better than the canon being what the critics say it is.

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7 May 2014 - How to Get Published

When Brazilian math teacher Julio Cesar de Mello e Souza couldn't get any of his math-y stories published in Brazilian magazines, he invented the Middle Eastern storyteller Ali Iezid Izz-Edim Ibn Salim Hank Malba Tahan, whose tales of mathematics in romantic settings won over readers in Brazil. He published over a hundred books, and became so popular that Brazil decided to make his birthday, May 6, into the National Day of Mathematics. BBC tells the story of Brazil's other passion.

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14 February 2014 - The Psychopathology of Procrastination

There is a (largely Freudian) theory that writer's block arises from a feeling of inadequacy. If you are a writer who believes that talent is innate, then you may prefer to put off writing to the last minute, so that when it looks rushed it's only the fault of your bad writing habits, not your lack of ability. Megan McArdle is the latest writer to advance this theory, but with an interesting twist: it's the fault of the self-esteem movement. Students are taught from examples of extraordinary people, suitably polished, whose fictionalized performance the students can't match. Yet they are also taught to expect to achieve.

But this is not anything new. After all, if fictionalized biography was at fault, then for the last two millennia, Plutarch's Lives have been leading people like George Washington and Harry Truman astray. In fact, there may be a simpler theory: writing is hard work...

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15 September 2013 - So what are short stories for?

Once upon a time, the road to science fiction publication was through the magazines. You worked your way up the zines to the Big Four or Big Three or whatever cluster sat at the top and made a name for yourself. Then, and only then, did you write a novel - for we all knew that in science fiction, at least, if you just wrote a novel and sent the unsolicited manuscript to New York, it would spiral into that black hole known as the Slush Pile and never be heard from again.

At recent OASIS meetings, panelists say that they don't know if that holds any more. With vast proliferation of webzines - that come and go so quickly like witches in the Land of Oz - it isn't clear what the road to publication is anymore. Meanwhile, Nicholas Dames claims that short stories are a genre of their own, complaining that "Nobody ever demands of an established novelist that she write a goddamn book of stories already." As John Gardner argued, a short story had its one mission - to set up a moment, according to Gardner - that was different from the more ... expansive ... mission of a novel.

Meanwhile, anyone can write a novel and put it up on Amazon, and from that moment ... it all depends on how you are at marketing.

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4 September 2013 - Frederick Pohl

In 1952, during the height of Joseph McCarthy's senatorial performance, at the beginning of a decade when advertising was regarded as the cat's pajamas, Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth wrote a novel that went against both tides. The Space Merchants was serialized in 1952 and published as a book in 1953 and is firmly established as one of the great prescient novels of science fiction (although, strictly speaking, all Pohl and Kornbluth did is predict the return of the gilded age).

Kornbluth died in 1958, age 34, but Pohl went on to write many more books. He has just died, and David Brin wrote that Pohl "... spent his long career both creating new worlds and helping others to do the same. Both as a prolifically creative author and as an agent/editor who coaxed other authorial visions into life, Fred Pohl may be responsible for more new "universes" coming into being than any other mortal ...."

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10 August 2013 - Shall I compare the to a summer's day?

Returning to Shakespeare, University of Westminster Professor Saul Frampton writes in the Guardian that one of Shakespeare's great works - the collection of 154 sonnets that contain many of the Bard's most familiar lines - may have been published against Shakespeare's will by one of his enemies. The proposed enemy - John Florio - may have been motivated by an affair between Shakespeare and his wife (recall that Shakespeare's Anne Hathaway - who saved his life - was back home in Stratford while Shakespeare plied his trade in London). Frampton even proposes that after Florio got hold of the sonnets (that Shakespeare was privately circulating), Florio himself penned The Lover's Complaint (published with the sonnets) as an attack on Shakespeare.

Both Frampton's op-ed, and the comments by readers, remind us that there are so many gaps in what we know about Shakespeare that it may be impossible to confirm or impeach this scenario. But lurking in Frampton's op-ed is the comment ...
Who were the young man and "dark lady" of the poems' sexual intrigues? And did Shakespeare want these poems published, or kept private? Literary theory advises against such biographical speculation.
This is a reminder of the fundamentally nonsensical and anti-intellectual trend in literary theory, which would have us treat texts as alien artifacts found amidst crop circles and butchered cows. Of course, biographical and historical context is only good for understanding the meaning of the text, and if the text has no meaning other than the one manufactured by the reader - pause while the reader imagines Huckleberry Finn as a comic travelogue (as Hollywood has done) - then such biography is pointless. But since this literary theory and Shakespeare denial rest on similar attitudes towards the text, it is hard to resist presenting an additional bit of biographical speculation: if Florio did indeed publish the sonnets with the Lover's Complaint as his own attack on Shakespeare, this would mean:

  • Shakespeare wrote the sonnets, and Florio knew that Shakespeare wrote the sonnets. If the sonnets were someone else's effusions, Florio would not have published them as an attack on Shakespeare. (Remember that Shakespeare circulated the sonnets privately, and Florio was part of the relatively small literary establishment, so it is unlikely that Florio would have been fooled about the authorship.)
  • If Shakespeare had not written the plays, then Florio (like the Queen's secret police during the Essex affair) would have found out. And just as the Queen would have sent Shakespeare to the Tower, Florio would have outed Shakespeare. We would know.
And yet, the Guardian's posting of Frampton's op-ed is illustrated by a scene from Anonymous.

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1 July 2013 - Revise, Revise, Revise

We've all been told to revise, revise, revise. But that takes paper, and paper has been cheap for only two centuries or so. What did great writers do before cheap paper?

Craig Fehrman reports that Hannah Sullivan claims that they simply didn't revise. Fehrman reports that in her The Work of Revision, Sullivan claims that cheap paper, the typewriter, and the Modernist backlash against the Romantic sentiment for unrevised text led writers like Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Virginia Woolf to launch the practice of obsessive revision.

Well, maybe, but what were the Romantics themselves rebelling against when they plopped first drafts on a publisher's desk and called it Art? (A word of warning: a few Romantics lied about their working habits.) Recalling that Beethoven filled notebooks with his struggles with his music -- while Mozart did it in his head -- perhaps one should be skeptical about any claim that, for example, Shakespeare would simply sit down and whip out sonnets, like he did in that very silly movie. As Plato's puppet Socrates noted, writing is merely an aid (crutch?) to memory, and before cheap paper, people almost certainly did it in their head. (And even afterwards, for we all recall James Joyce spending a morning putting a word in and an afternoon taking it out.)

C. P. Snow said that his first drafts looked like something a charwoman wrote. Perhaps that is what cheap paper and the typewriter did for us: the ability to simply throw text on a blank sheet of (cheap) paper and look at it. Before then, one had to mull over each word like a medieval illuminist. And now the computer gives us the ability to smear the text around. But that does not mean it's ready for publication.

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17 April 2013 - Cloaks, Daggers, and Truthiness

Authenticity is all the rage these days. We may be unable to follow Jane Austen's advice to write what we know - how many people actually know anything about stardrive, after all? - but we are supposed to create a credible illusion. And that's what many authors have striven for in novels about the intelligence business.

That may not be what the public wants. After all, the most successful of the cloak-and-dagger novelists is a fantasy writer whose hero, never shaken nor stirred, is clearly modeled after a fantasy detective whose origins are either literary or extraterrestrial but have nothing to do with real life. But of course, readers with, ahem, standards, require, ahem, credibility. Hence the highbrow popularity of serious writers in the genre, like John Le Carre.

A recent column by Le Carre raises the awkward issue: suppose you really were in the know. What sort of books would you write? Le Carre claims that the fact that The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is not credible can be seen from the fact that it was published: "As it was, [his superiors in the British Embassy in Bonn] seem to have concluded, rightly if reluctantly, that the book was sheer fiction from start to finish, uninformed by personal experience, and that accordingly it constituted no breach of security." Le Carre seems almost tired of saying that it's only a work of fiction, a claim that seems to be dismissed as false modesty or spin.

Meanwhile, the New York Times would like to introduce the America public to a French author of numerous trashy spy novels. I shouldn't call any of Gerard de Villier's novels "trashy" since I haven't read any of them, but if the Times is even remotely right, then trashy they are. The Times also claims that his fans and confidantes include spies, spymasters, terrorists, senior civil servants, and all sorts of people who wouldn't be caught dead in the same room with Barbara Broccoli, the current monarch of all things Bond. What are we to make of this?

It is possible that all this publicity about de Villiers is PR, just as it is possible that Le Carre's disclaimers are disinformation. But it is also possible that what de Villiers writes are the cheesy fantasies of his confidantes, who are then clamoring for more. And the French public - always ready to snap up cheesy fantasies produced by people of the right credentials - can't resist. And perhaps an American public that bought fantasies by Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy will join in. The only possible conclusion will be: Le Carre is more accurate than he admits.

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30 March 2013 - Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays?

Perhaps it was the recent film Anonymous, but the burning question of who wrote Shakespeare's plays has heated up recently. In fact, so much that a crew of literary establishment types have just published an ... authoritative ... tome proving that Shakespeare wrote his own plays. The effort is probably hopeless: more people saw Anonymous than will read the tome, and besides there is one thing that the anti-Shakespeareans are right about: the Shakespeare Establishment is fun to tease. In fact, the whole mess is probably their own fault.

The problem is what U. S. Chief Justice John Roberts calls originalism, which holds that the U. S. Constitution can best be understood with a Ouija board and a modern dictionary, discerning the meaning of the text independently of what was going on when the text was composed. Some works - like Gospel of John, are easily subjected to such exercises in clairvoyance, which is what leads to ahistorical works like Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, and the Passion of the Christ, each of them a Narnia-esque exercise in projecting one's own fantasies into the great Biblical Rorschach test.

Literary types, beguiled by Platonic idealism, have long held that Great Works - like a substantial fraction of Shakespeare's - are timeless and independent of historical context. Just as fundamentalists imagine the Bible written by the Holy Ghost, and originalists imagine the U. S. Constitution composed by clairvoyant statesmen, Shakespeareans are prone to imagine the bard as a demigod and not, say, an Elizabethan businessman.

I distinctly remember one literary complaint about Michael Wood's In Search of shakespeare (subsequently made into a documentary): Wood spent too much time on Shakespeare the man, and the world he lived in, and not enough on the plays and the poems. This wasn't the only complaint one could make about Wood, whose book and documentary resembled a high dive into a bucket, but there is one notable fact about the series: it makes the very proposal that Shakespeare didn't write the plays ridiculous. Here is Shakespeare the cautious young man, producing early plays that will not get him into trouble with the Queen's secret police (who killed Marlowe under questioning - no matter what Hollywood says), there's Shakespeare navigating the (his? asks Wood) Catholic - Protestant divide that rivened his own family and writing Romeo and Juliet (which was his intention, speculates Wood), there's Shakespeare accepting a ... bribe ... from agents of Essex to (un?)knowingly assist him in his conspiracy against the Queen.
Pause for reality check. The Queen's secret police investigated Shakespeare after Essex flopped. Does anyone doubt that Her Majesty's spooks would have found out about a silent partner? About Anonymous, does anyone doubt that if that silent partner turned out to be a dubious butterfly like De Vere, that Shakespeare and De Vere wouldn't both have gone to the Tower? Remember, the Queen herself was enraged by Richard II (yes, Anonymous used the wrong play).

And in the end, there is Shakespeare, presenting plays for that most cautious of kings, James I, who prized his reputation as a scholar (such as it was).

That Wood had made the De Vere proposal ridiculous was recognized by some De Vere fans - witness Kevin Gilvray's strange review (if you have a subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Education, compare this to David Kastan's much more serious, and less than laudatory, review). And there's the rub. The Essex affair was a lot more gripping, especially in Elizabeth's police state, than the fiction in Anonymous. Responsible Observers may complain about the tripe that Hollywood serves up, but Responsible Observers have no one to blame but themselves. Wood on Shakespeare, like Tuchman on 1914 or Mattingly on the Armada, engaged in a rare exercise to bring history to the people in an interesting way, and the historians are ... unhappy. Many simply refuse to play ball, while some bravely preach to the choir.

And then they whine when the History Channel runs series on ancient aliens.

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