Thursday, December 8, 2011
What's in a Name?
Recently I attended a rather remarkable catered event sponsored by Amazon.com's answer to the democratization of publishing--CreateSpace--whose motto seems to be 'Anyone can be an author.' Unlike, apparently, in the old un-democratic days when you had to be able to write, with a product that passes at least somebody's version of muster (usually one of those now-nearly extinct educated female editors with a no-nonsense approach and a degree or two from Barnard or Wellesley). Yet here in the now in Seattle, it all seemed fitting, because one of the key topics was having a so-called 'platform,' and as former publisher and editor Alan Rinzler (who has published and edited such dauntingly diverse clients as Toni Morrision, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Robbins, Shirley MacLaine, Clive Cussler, Andy Warhol, and Robert Ludlum and thus has stood on lots of platforms prior to this one at the Asian Art Museum) put it, "who are you to write about this subject?" Indeed, having just seen published the sixth translation of my book about Shakespeare--worse, daring to challenge the orthodoxy on that subject--indeed, who am I, to dare to do so, when even such stalwarts as Mark Twain and Otto Von Bismarck were chastened for doing so?
I have been ready with an answer for some time, of course, which I provided to several Italian journalists who were properly curious enough to ask. Indeed, who am I--Gene Ayres, John Underwood, or whatever else I choose to call myself-- to write about Shakespeare, when I don't hold one single university chair on the subject, or even have a PhD in English, let alone hold a tenured post at Oxford, Harvard, or Yale or even a cubicle at the Folger Library? My answer is simple: who else but a 'commoner' should be better qualified to write about one of his own? I have done my 10,000 hours of work, study, and preparation for my chosen role as Outlier. Because as surely as the Oxford theory of Shakespeare (as set forth in the film Anonymous) is only half correct (it wasn't Shakespeare who dunnit--well, he dunnit, but not the writing part) so also is the notion that only a cloaked don in an ivory tower is qualifed to speak for a man who had, at best, a third grade education and spent most of his time avoiding taxes and hoarding grain.
Hello? I have always been amazed at the rigid orthodoxy surrounding the Shakespeare myth, which has become to all intents and purposes nothing less than a religion--so powerful that as with most religion the facts themselves are considered irrelevant--that he only had a third grade education at best, owned no books, attended no universities, corresponded with no one but a local Stratford merchant who became his son-in-law and a lawyer about a real estate deal in London, and had two illiterate daughters-- are pretty much the only known facts about the man. And yet it is nothing short of blasphemy to suggest that maybe this guy could not possibly have written anything more than a shopping list, if that. And yet the dons, or what my doomed fictional professor-character Desmond Lewis (author of the Book Within the Book, pictured below) dared to call the 'Ayatollahs of Academe,' have gotten away with this for centuries. So, yes, Shakespeare was an unqualified illiterate who somehow wrote all those great plays and poems while in a presumed trance in his Bankside office, and thus only a learned academic is qualified to write about it, by way of presumption? No wonder Sarah Palin has gotten away with claiming to be the only qualified expert on Susan B. Anthony, except in reverse (or was that Michelle Bachmann? I do get these mid-life cheerleaders confused). Mark Twain had a ball with all this nonsense, of course, noting in his essay 'Is Shakespeare Dead?' how every single word in those hundreds of scholarly volumes the academics have generated over the centuries consists of but a single element: what Twain called 'surmise.' Hence, the following so-called logic: Shakespeare had no formal education, so he must have had some books. And since he had no books, he must have borrowed some from his learned friends. And since he had no learned friends, he must have talked to some in a pub. And since there's no evidence of him doing that except in one tavern in Oxford begetting Sir William Davenant with a bar maid, he therefore "must have been" a genius who thought it all up all by himself. All of which somehow 'proves' that he wrote the plays, simply because he managed to post his name on them (my theory, of course, is that he was a producer, and the first of his kind).
At least I, who dare to tackle this subject on grounds of an ancestral link to Shakespeare's own company among others, plus having dealt with many producers myself in my time, at least have a Bachelors Degree. Plus I have also read a book or two, and unlike Shakespeare even own a couple (and of course, also unlike Shakespeare have written several including the Italian book currently in print).
On a related subject, the issue was raised at this seminar about using a pseudonym. Apparently this is frowned upon. "What are you trying to hide?" The panelists wanted to know. Hmm. Good question. Maybe they should ask Mark Twain. In my case John Underwood was 2/3 of my father's name and also of his mother's father's name, in addition to being one of Shakespeare's partners in crime, so it seemed to fit. At least as well as Samuel Clemens nom de plume Mark Twain. Or Ed McBain's alter ego Evan Hunter (neither of which, incidentally, is his real name). Mine, for the record, is Gene (short for Eugene) Ayres. Sometimes I go by E.C. Cheers!