Why do authors rewrite?

I’m a big fan of rewriting.  But here’s an article from the Boston Globe making the point that rewriting hasn’t always been the standard.  One reason was technology:

In the age of Shakespeare and Milton, paper was an expensive luxury; blotting out a few lines was one thing, but producing draft after draft would have been quite another. Writers didn’t get to revise during the publishing process, either. Printing was slow and messy, and in the rare case a writer got to see a proof of his work—that is, a printed sample of the text, laid out like a book—he had to travel in person to a publishing center like London.

Another was a philosophical opposition to revisiting your original inspiration.  If you believe that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions, you’re not going to approve of a writing method that is deliberately unspontaneous.

The author points to Modernism as the source of our current deification of rewriting:

The Modernists wanted to produce avant-garde literature—literature that was less spontaneous and enthusiastic than it was startling and enigmatic. In an interview with the Paris Review, Hemingway famously described his “principle of the iceberg”: “There is seven-eighths of it under the water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.”

This is all pretty straightforward, although I’d point out that there’s solid evidence that Shakespeare did do some rewriting–for example, of King Lear, where the Quarto version is substantially different from that of the First Folio.  And I think the author doesn’t give enough weight to writing-as-a-job vs. writing-to-create-art. If your next meal depends on getting your novel finished, you’re not going to spend months revising its conclusion.

I’m on board, though, with the author’s discussion of the typewriter’s effect on rewriting.  The typewriter didn’t actually make rewriting easier; in a sense, it made the process harder.

Today we equate a keyboard with speed, the fastest way to get words down, but as Sullivan points out this wasn’t always the case. In fact, a typescript offered a chance to slow down. Most Modernist writers, like Hemingway with “The Sun Also Rises,” wrote by hand and then painstakingly typed up the results. That took time, but seeing their writing in such dramatically different forms—handwritten in a notebook, typed on a page, printed as a proof—encouraged them to revise it aggressively.

This was certainly my experience when I wrote my original drafts by hand.

Finally, the author points out that the computer may paradoxically make us less inclined to rewrite:

Today, most of us compose directly on our computers. Instead of generating physical page after physical page, which we can then reread and reorder, we now create a living document that, increasingly, is not printed at all until it becomes a final, published product. While this makes self-editing easier, Sullivan thinks it may paradoxically make wholesale revision, the kind that leads to radically rethinking our work, more difficult.

I think that’s right.  As I approach the end of the first draft of the novel I’m working on, I’m mulling how to approach the rewrite.  Do I start with the existing Word document, and just edit and add and cut and paste until I’m satisfied with the result?  Or do I re-keyboard the whole thing?  The former is certainly easier; just thinking about the latter makes me tired.  But re-keyboarding might cause me to re-imagine the story at a deeper level, and that might ultimately lead to a stronger finished product.

What’s a writer to do?

First Rowling, then Shakespeare… who’s next?

The Times today has an article about the possibility that Shakespeare wrote a passage in an edition of The Spanish Tragedy, an early Elizabethan play by Thomas Kyd.  The original computer analysis (by Brian Vickers) was very similar to that used to suggest that J. K. Rowling was the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, which we talked about here.  Big Think describes what Vickers did:

Sir Brian has employed software called Pl@giarism–a free program developed by Maastricht University to catch law students cheating on their written work–to search a database of the 58 different plays performed in London between 1580 and 1595. But Sir Brian isn’t looking to catch anyone cheating. Rather, he is looking for examples of so-called “self-plagiarism.” The Pl@giarism software identifies every occasion that a sequence of three words appears in Shakespeare’s known works, and then looks for repetitions of these sequences in an unattributed text. Some of these word sequences are common, everyday collocations such as “by the way” or “Yes, my lord.”

Excluding those phrases, Sir Brian focuses on word sequences that are unique to Shakespeare. For instance, the word sequence “eyebrows jutty over” appears only twice in all of Elizabethan drama. One instance is in Shakespeare’s Henry V, written in approximately 1599. The only other instance is found in the fourth edition of Thomas Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy,” published in 1602. This version contains additions to five scenes, totaling 320 lines. In these short passages, Sir Brian found 46 collocation matches that are completely unique to Shakespeare’s poems and plays written before 1596. That evidence is hard to argue with.

What got the Times’ attention was another paper that focuses on Shakespeare’s handwriting and how that helps explain oddities in the passage:

In a terse four-page paper, to be published in the September issue of the journal Notes and Queries, Douglas Bruster argues that various idiosyncratic features of the Additional Passages — including some awkward lines that have struck some doubters as distinctly sub-Shakespearean — may be explained as print shop misreadings of Shakespeare’s penmanship.

“What we’ve got here isn’t bad writing, but bad handwriting,” Mr. Bruster said in a telephone interview.

What I couldn’t find in a cursory Google search was the actual passage in question.  It’s easy enough, though, to find the standard sample of Shakespeare’s messy handwriting–the passage from the manuscript of the play Sir Thomas More that is generally agreed to be by Shakespeare:

Want to see a Shakespeare play in ten minutes?

. . . without all the annoying Shakespearean verbiage that slows down most productions of his plays?

Of course you do.  So you want to see early silent movies of Shakespeare plays.  Here is an 11-minute Tempest from 1908 that features special effects like Ariel disappearing:

And here is a hand-tinted King Lear from Italy in 1910:

It lasts 16 minutes, but King Lear is pretty complicated (even without the Edmund/Edgar subplot).

If you’re like me (and who isn’t?) you love this kind of stuff.  And you probably also love the Reduced Shakespeare Company, which gets Shakespeare done quickly, even if they have to use words.

Coincidence? I think not.

This American Life has a podcast called “No Coincidence, No Story,” in which they interview various people about amazing coincidences that happened to them.  This American Life is a popular program, so when they asked people to send in their stories, they got well over a thousand responses.  That means the ones that actually made it into the program were bound to be pretty amazing.  And they were.

The one I liked best was the man who was going to ask his girlfriend to move in with him.  On the way he stops at a store to buy something, and he notices that one of the dollar bills he was going to use to has the name of his girlfriend, Esther, printed on it.  He thinks this is a charming coincidence, so he holds onto the dollar, puts it in a frame, and gives it to his girlfriend.  It turns out that years before, the girlfriend, fed up with her bad relationships with men, impulsively decided to write her name on some dollar bills and put them into circulation. Her idea was that the man who would present her with one of those dollar bills would be her true love.  They are now happily married.  Sweet!

“No coincidence, no story” is apparently a Chinese proverb.  But it doesn’t really apply to modern fiction. I remember reading somewhere that a writer can get away with one coincidence per novel.  But even that seems like one too many for plot-driven novels of the sort I like to write.  This approaches being a law of fiction, like Chekhov’s Gun. Everything needs to be motivated; events that seem random and improbable need to have a “real” explanation.

But this is not to say that coincidences have no place in storytelling.  For example:

  • Writer like Murakami, Pynchon, and Vonnegut create their own reality.  Don’t be surprised if weird things happen in that reality.
  • Seems to me that there’s no problem with a coincidence starting a plot. That incident with the girl’s name on the dollar bill could motivate a romantic comedy, or even something darker.
  • Comedies in general can employ coincidences.  I’m not a big fan of the movie Love, Actually, but I don’t mind the absurd coincidences that litter the screenplay.  For example, the prime minister goes looking for his girlfriend on Christmas Eve (he apparently doesn’t have people who can do this for him).  It turns out she lives next door to the secretary who is trying to have an affair with the prime minister’s sister’s husband.  Everyone ends up at the big Christmas Eve concert at a nearby school, where most of the rest of the characters in the movie are also in attendance for various random reasons.  OK with me.
  • Thrillers can get away with some coincidences because the reader/viewer isn’t necessarily trying to follow every twist and turn of the plot.  Relying on coincidences isn’t exactly a virtue, but it doesn’t necessarily detract from your enjoyment.  I watched Rome: Open City for the first time the other night, and I was surprised to discover that it is basically a thriller (the screenplay, oddly, was co-written by Federico Fellini). The plotting is pretty crude, and a coincidence plays a totally unnecessary role in the proceedings.  But I realized this only after the movie was over.

In which the All’s Well That Ends Well brouhaha continues

I’m thinking that no one but me cares about this brouhaha, but as the sole proprietor of this very fine blog, I’m the only one that matters.

When last we checked in, two Oxford professors had written an article published in the Times Literary Supplement proposing that Thomas Middleton had a hand in writing Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well.  In response, Brian Vickers and Marcus Dahl produced a scathing rebuttal.  (By the way, it is the official position of this blog that, no matter who wrote it, the play kinda sucks.  But it doesn’t come within miles of the badness of Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside.)

Now the two Oxford professors, Emma Smith and Laurie Maguire, have responded in the TLS.  I can’t find the response online, but here is a taste of what they have to say:

Vickers and Dahl are flat-earthers.  They cling to an old date for AWEW (1604 rather than 1607) or later); they do not endorse revision in Measure for Measure or Macbeth; their appeal is to “lovers of Shakespeare”.  It is these ideological idées fixes that underlie their article.  Unlike us, however, they do not make their subjective positions clear.  We accept this new scholarship and build on it; these Canutes try to stem the incoming tide.

Ouch!  But wait!  Online we find a response from Vickers to the response by Smith and Maguire to the response by Vickers and Dahl to the article by Smith and Maguire.  Here is their concluding paragraph:

Smith and Maguire, abreast of ‘new scholarship’, claim that we ‘cling to an old date’ for All’s Well. It may well be that Gary Taylor in 2001 was ‘inclined to put it’ in 1607, and that others have been inclined to follow him. But contrary evidence cannot be dismissed. In Taylor’s own Textual Companion (1988) to the Oxford Shakespeare seven pages of tables listing various types of linguistic evidence place All’s Well after Measure for Measure and Othello, and before Timon and King Lear, thus in the period 1604-5. If Taylor now flirts with the idea of placing it after Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Pericles then he will have to disown the data collected in these tables. Writing from a literary critic’s standpoint, Barbara Everett has given some strong reasons for not lumping All’s Well with Shakespeare’s late plays, and these can be supplemented with Marina Tarlinskaya’s prosodic studies, which place All’s Well before King Lear. In the humanities, as in the sciences, the truth or falsity of a proposition can only be established by a consensus among those qualified to judge. Time will tell.

Both sides have a good bit to say about “anal fistulas,” which has its own Wikipedia article, but I’m going to advise you not to go there.  The discussion of fistulas (anal or otherwise) in All’s Well That Ends Well is one more reason to avoid the play.

I am incompetent to judge between these adversaries.  But I’d be disinclined to mess with Brian Vickers on matters Shakespearean.

Did Shakespeare revise his plays?

We should all revise our work.  And we shouldn’t spend too much time feeling sorry for ourselves because Shakespeare didn’t have to revise his work.  His plays, we are told, are all inspired first drafts.  At least, that’s what Heminge and Condell said in their “Epistle to the Great Variety of Readers” of the First Folio:

His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easinesse, that wee have scarse received from him a blot in his papers.

This has become part of the enduring image of Shakespeare — so supreme a genius that he he didn’t even have to labor over his masterpieces, like Mozart interrupting a game of billiards to jot down a movement in a string quartet. And, of course, this image is always paired with Ben Jonson’s envious comment:

“The Players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, ‘would he had blotted a thousand.'”

There was only one Shakespeare, and we’re not him.  And neither was Ben Jonson.

This image is under attack from modern critics.  Here is Stephen Greenblatt, interrupting his writing of The Swerve to write in the Wall Street Journal:

A number of Shakespeare’s plays survive in both the small quarto editions, inexpensively published during his lifetime, and in the first folio. Comparing versions of the same play, I and other scholars have concluded that many of the differences are probably due to Shakespeare’s own obsessive fiddling.

The Quarto

A particularly significant amount of fiddling occurred in King Lear, where there are extensive changes between the quarto edition and the First Folio.  As a result, some modern editions include both versions, instead of presenting a single edition that conflates both versions.  The Arden edition I own is of the conflated school.  It uses F and Q superscripts to indicate words that are only found in one version or the other.  Lear’s final line in the play, spoken over the dead body of Cordelia, appears only in the folio version:

Do you see this?  Look on her; look, her lips,
Look there, look there!   He dies.

Does he die joyfully, thinking Cordelia is really alive?  What was Shakespeare up to when he added the line?  Who knows?

Of course, there is no real evidence of revision, just of differences.  Maybe both the quarto and the folio are simply different versions of a lost original manuscript.  Maybe some of the differences are due to lines that were added by actors during rehearsals.  Greenblatt and others are convinced that Shakespeare fiddled, but that’s based on interpretation, not evidence.  The next generation of scholars may come up with some other interpretation — or decide that Heminge and Condell knew what they were talking about.

Still, it’s nice to think that Shakespeare was like the rest of us, adding words and taking them out and moving them around, trying to achieve some kind of perfection that is always just out of our reach.

In which I read Thomas Middleton so you don’t have to

The controversy over the authorship of All’s Well That Ends Well prompted me to give the Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton a try.  This turns out to have been a mistake.

A friend lent me A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. Wikipedia says: “Unpublished until 1630 and long-neglected afterwards, it is now considered among the best and most characteristic Jacobean comedies.”  The Internet is littered with other encomia.  Sheesh.

Here’s what I have to say: The plot is incomprehensible, the characters are uninteresting, and the language is devoid of poetry or wit.  The play is supposed to be dirty, and that sounds promising, but it turns out to be the kind of vulgarity that a modern reader can only understand by reading the footnotes.  The word “confusion,” the editor informs us, means “incest.”  Oh, of course, shoulda figured that out myself.  The play is supposed to be funny, but it’s the humor of stereotypes that were probably banal 400 hundred years ago.  The prim Puritan ladies get drunk at a party — what a riot!  The son comes home from college and he’s full of himself with all his new-fangled learning — I didn’t see that one coming!

Even in the dreariest parts of Shakespeare you’ll come across a startling image, a beautiful couplet, a character who does something unexpected.  There’s none of that in A Chaste Maid.  The only thing that seemed even quasi-Shakespearean is a happy ending that features a rebirth of sorts — the two lovers, supposedly dead, arise from their coffins, and the funeral turns into a wedding.  But there was no particular setup for the scene, so it felt entirely arbitrary.  And the characters could have stayed dead, for all I cared about them.

There, I feel better now.  Time to re-read As You Like It.

The greatest writer of English prose?

Shakespeare?  I dunno, the prose sections of his plays aren’t as good as his poetry.  Dickens?  Pretty darn good in spots, but he also perpetrated lots of mawkish drek.  Joyce?  Hemingway?  Yeah, OK, sure.

I think a case could be made for P. G. Wodehouse.  Andrew Sullivan points us to a site that generates random Wodehouse quotes. What a wonderful idea!  Here is the first one that came up when I went there:

Rodney Spelvin was in for another attack of poetry. He had once been a poet, and a very virulent one too; the sort of man who would produce a slim volume of verse bound in squashy mauve leather at the drop of a hat, mostly on the subject of sunsets and pixies.

I really don’t see how you can write anything better than that.

Here is a sampling of his dialog:

“Have you ever seen Spode eat asparagus?”
“Revolting. It alters one’s whole conception of Man as Nature’s last word.”

Here he is in person:

What can we learn from Shakespeare — or the Beastie Boys?

Scientism has been a term of considerable opprobrium for some time. The Wikipedia article has lots of definitions; this one is representative: “the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable.”

The New Republic recently ran an essay by Philip Kitcher called “The Trouble with Scientism,” where he refers to it as “natural scientific imperialism.”  He says:

The enthusiasm for natural scientific imperialism rests on five observations. First, there is the sense that the humanities and social sciences are doomed to deliver a seemingly directionless sequence of theories and explanations, with no promise of additive progress. Second, there is the contrasting record of extraordinary success in some areas of natural science. Third, there is the explicit articulation of technique and method in the natural sciences, which fosters the conviction that natural scientists are able to acquire and combine evidence in particularly rigorous ways. Fourth, there is the perception that humanists and social scientists are only able to reason cogently when they confine themselves to conclusions of limited generality: insofar as they aim at significant—general—conclusions, their methods and their evidence are unrigorous. Finally, there is the commonplace perception that the humanities and social sciences have been dominated, for long periods of their histories, by spectacularly false theories, grand doctrines that enjoy enormous popularity until fashion changes, as their glaring shortcomings are disclosed.

He then tries to make the case that these observations represent differences in degree rather than differences in kind, and that the humanities and the social sciences have much good to offer in advancing human understanding.

I have to say that the whole essay seems to me to be an exercise in demolishing a straw man.  He never bothers to quote anyone advocating any of the positions he criticizes.  For example, he says:

The contrast between the methods of the two realms, which seems so damning to the humanities, is a false one. Not only are the methods deployed within humanistic domains—say, in attributions of musical scores to particular composers or of pictures to particular artists—as sophisticated and rigorous as the techniques deployed by paleontologists or biochemists, but in many instances they are the same. The historical linguists who recognize connections among languages or within a language at different times, and the religious scholars who point out the affiliations among different texts, use methods equivalent to those that have been deployed ever since Darwin in the study of the history of life. Indeed, Darwin’s paleontology borrowed the method from early nineteenth-century studies of the history of languages.

Well, duh.  Is anyone saying that (for example) the professors arguing about whether Middleton was a co-author of All’s Well That Ends Well aren’t doing science of a sort?  I suppose they’re out there, but I’ve never encountered them, and Kitcher doesn’t point us to any of them.  Historians, linguists, social scientists, musicologists — they are all using variants of scientific methodology to increase our knowledge.  Things may be messier in these fields than they are in physics — we’re not likely to ever know for sure whether the pro-Middleton or anti-Middleton folks are right; but they are clearly approaching the controversy as scientists — marshalling evidence in favor of one theory or another.

So, that’s one problem with the essay.  But the more serious problem is that Kitcher never quite gets to the point he implies that he’s going to reach, the one that usually comes up when people start talking about scientism: how art and religion are equally valid as science in arriving at truth and understanding.  Isn’t literature another way of knowing about the world?  Doesn’t religion teach us things that science can’t? Aren’t there, like, non-overlapping magisteria?

Let’s leave aside religion for now.  Let’s consider Shakespeare.  Obviously we don’t go to Shakespeare for knowledge.  You won’t learn the truth about Richard III by reading or watching Richard III.  You’ll come away from reading A Winter’s Tale think that Bohemia has a seacoast.  So maybe we don’t get the truth from Shakespeare; but what about the Truth?  Don’t we learn what it is to be human from Shakespeare?  Doesn’t he advance human understanding?  I suppose.  But that doesn’t seem to me to be particularly special or interesting.  I could read psychological reports about jealous husbands and probably learn as much about them as I do from watching Othello.

We read and watch Shakespeare for the aesthetic experience his plays provide — the beauty of the language, the artfulness of the plotting, the joy and terror we feel as his characters make their way through those plots.  Anything else is incidental.  So, I don’t get it.  I don’t learn anything special from Shakespeare.  As far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t add to my knowledge of the world.  Brian Vickers (not the NASCAR driver) does science; Shakespeare, not so much.

Oh, yeah.  Same thing for the Beastie Boys. And Beethoven.  And Vermeer.

This doesn’t say anything about the value of Shakespeare (or the Beastie Boys) versus the value of science.  Lots of things have value.  But I’m still waiting to be convinced that literature and music somehow advance human knowledge in the way that science does.

Yet another brouhaha: Did Shakespeare have a co-author on All’s Well That Ends Well?

Our previous brouhaha was over how the universe began.  But who cares about that?  This latest brouhaha is serious.

The venerable Times Literary Supplement recently ran an article proposing that the Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton had a hand in writing the latest Shakespearean play All’s Well That Ends Well.  Here is Mr. Middleton:

The TLS version of the article isn’t online, but it’s available from the Centre for Early Modern Studies at Oxford.  Based on various kinds of evidence like stage directions and stylistic quirks, the authors state:

A broad-brush summary might look like this. One author knew that the two French lords had names, the other did not. One preferred personal names over types, and drew for many of them on his earlier plays. One used different speech prefixes from his collaborator. One wrote narrative stage directions as explanation to his partner at point of handover. One was more inclined to rhyming couplets and to hypermetric verse. One wrote like William Shakespeare and one wrote like Thomas Middleton.

Publishing a scholarly piece like this in the TLS is a big deal, and the authors’ identification of Middleton as Shakespeare’s co-author made news around the world, from the Huffington Post to the Times of India.

Enter Brian Vickers — not the NASCAR driver, you idiot, but the eminent Elizabethan scholar. Professor Sir Brian Vickers to you, bub.  He and a colleague have published a refutation in the TLS, also available separately, that refutes the claim.  They come out swinging:

Towards the end of their article claiming to have identified Thomas Middleton as the co-author of All’s Well that Ends Well,1 Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith record that only one previous critic had anticipated them, John Dover Wilson.2 That ought to have given them pause, for to follow the path of the Grand Disintegrator eighty years after his methods have been discredited is to risk a similar fate. When faced with some aspects of a Shakespeare play that he didn’t like or understand Wilson was always ready to postulate some “inferior dramatist” or the relic of “an old play” as the explanation. For All’s Well he suggested a dramatist who also worked on Measure for Measure and “had a passion for sententious couplets and a mind running on sexual disease”, a fiction that conveniently excused Shakespeare of both “faults”. It is rather shocking to find such antiquated attitudes taken seriously, after four decades of scholarship has established authorship attribution as a serious discipline.

They battle the Oxford authors statistic for statistic, and then conclude:

We could extend this rebuttal, but suffice to say that there is absolutely no evidence of another hand in this play. The world media get excited by any attempt, however weak, to take something away from Shakespeare. We hope that they will pay equal attention to this restitution. The Roman definition of justice was “suum cuique tribuere”, render to everyone his due. Whether or not you like the play, All’s Well is all Shakespeare’s.

Great stuff!

Before reading the original TLS article I listened to the Arkangel recording ofAll’s Well on my endless commute.  These recordings are great, by the way.  The only thing I noticed that might have been slightly anomalous was that there seemed to be a lot of rhyming couplets (an issue that the Oxford authors in fact raised and Vickers refutes).  The main thing I noticed was that the play continued to be every bit as unlikeable as I remembered it. (You’ll note that Vickers implies that this is not an uncommon reaction to the play.)  The lead male character, Bertram, is an arrogant prick; the lead female, Helena, is a dope because she has fallen for the arrogant prick.  It’s not funny, it’s not thought-provoking, it has no memorable lines . . .

But it sure did seem to be by Shakespeare.  It has the fairy-tale quality and gnarled syntax of his late romances.  It has the bed trick he used in Measure for Measure.  It has the long, and somewhat distasteful, gulling of the comic villain he used in Twelfth Night.  It has the concluding rebirth tableau he used in A Winter’s Tale.

But that doesn’t mean the play is any good.

Once I finish slogging through Lisa Randall on the Large Hadron Collider I’m going to give Middleton a try.  A friend has lent me the pleasant conceited comedy A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, which sounds not bad: