Publishing Mousetrap: Professor Reviews Book That Mauled Him-Mine

This is going to be fun. I mean, don’t you love a little literary scandal? And it’s always particularly enjoyable to catch a lofty academic acting no better than a Grub Street schemer, concealing his self-interest—and his half-baked theories—behind a scrim of academic hauteur and scholarly condescension.

Columbia Professor James Shapiro, come on down!

Although I’m involved personally in the matter, let me emphasize that there is a larger issue here. We’ve been living through an era in which the ethics of journalists have been subjected (and rightly so) to severe scrutiny—the better for all involved, particularly readers, who deserve to know if something they’re reading that poses as a fair consideration conceals a biased hidden agenda.

But what about the ethics of academics, particularly those who take it upon themselves to sneer loftily at journalists, as Mr. Shapiro does?

Three weeks ago, I pointed out to Eric Banks, the editor in chief of the respected literary journal Bookforum, that Mr. Shapiro had concealed from Bookforum’s readers the fact that he’d reviewed a book (mine) that subjected Mr. Shapiro’s views to ridicule.

Mr. Banks, an honorable man, agreed to revisit the pages in question in The Shakespeare Wars, in which I’d called attention to the foolishness of Mr. Shapiro’s reasoning in a key controversy over Hamlet texts. After having read my pages and the review, Mr. Banks quickly called me back to apologize for not having vetted the matter more closely before publication—and promised to publish an apology in the next issue in his letter to readers.

But really, it is Mr. Shapiro who owes an apology to Mr. Banks, for putting him in this position. More importantly, he also owes the readers of Bookforum an apology for concealing his conflict of interest from them.

There’s nothing wrong with disparaging a book that one reviews, but there’s something very wrong in concealing from readers the fact that the book you’re disparaging has made you out to be a bit of a fool.

An editor must rely on the integrity of his reviewers to come clean about just how severe a conflict of interest may be involved in a review. The reader must rely on the reviewer not to conceal them.

It seems to me that Mr. Shapiro himself was, to say the least, “economical with the truth,” as the phrase goes, in not disclosing the degree to which my book made his views seem laughable.

I characterize Mr. Shapiro as promoting a “dumbed-down” version of Hamlet, an “action-film” Hamlet, “a diminished version of literary art” based upon unproven assumptions “without any foundation” in evidence, aside from Mr. Shapiro’s dubious attempts at “read[ing] Shakespeare’s mind.”

In addition, I make fun of his jejune Freudian analysis of The Merchant of Venice, in which he actually takes seriously the notion that the “pound of flesh” Shylock demands is really a displaced reference to the genitals. (I’m not making this up, I swear.)

The idea that these remarks on his work would not prejudice his evaluation of my work is ludicrous. By the way, I think there is much of value for secondary-school students in his sedulous if soporific analysis of the historical background of Shakespeare’s work in his book, 1599. I think he benefited from non-specialist reviewers’ unfamiliarity with Hamlet text issues in advancing his evidence-challenged opinions on Hamlet text questions as if they were fact, which is one reason I felt the necessity of correcting them in my discussion of the issues, so that unsuspecting readers would be warned.

He could easily have disclosed my critique of him and taken issue with it, and then at least readers might have taken his overall appraisal with the appropriate shaker of salt.

Let me re-emphasize that this is not a matter of my complaining about a less-than-laudatory review (in fact, he bestows some compliments on my book) or the complaint of someone who feels unduly injured by academics. In fact, as this is written, less than a week after publication date, The Shakespeare Wars has been blessed with enthusiastic reviews from writers both inside and outside the academy: John Sutherland, professor of English at University College London (in The Financial Times); William E. Cain, chairman of the English department of Wellesley College (in The Boston Globe); John Gross, respected independent Shakespearean scholar and theater critic for the London Telegraph (in The Wall Street Journal); John Simon, notorious curmudgeon (in The New York Sun); and independent critics such as Stephen Metcalf (in Slate) and Walter Kirn (in The New York Times Book Review).

Yes, there have been some dissents and mixed reviews, but none—as far as I know—with a shamefully concealed conflict of interest such as Mr. Shapiro’s.

But one of the things that his act of concealment does is permit me to bring his flawed reasoning to the attention of future readers of his book, who might otherwise have taken his word for them.

For the past quarter century, the entire Shakespearean scholarly profession has been riven by a civil war over what kind of writer Shakespeare was. (Mr. Shapiro absurdly and disingenuously claims that the Shakespeare wars were over in the 1960’s—particularly ironic for someone conducting his own little covert war.)

In any case, the ongoing war asks the question: Was he the one-draft wonder of Shakespeare in Love, who dashed off manuscripts for the playhouse and then never gave them a second thought? Or do the variations in the early printings of works like Hamlet and Lear indicate that he went back to his early drafts and altered them in both subtle and substantial ways, leaving us essentially two distinct versions of each play that some have characterized (not without hot dissent) as first and second “drafts”?

Were the variations in the early texts the result of errors by typesetters, changes by actors and theater managers, or did they indicate that Shakespeare himself made the changes?

And there is a war within the war over whether Shakespeare revised. If Shakespeare made the changes, did he do so to make the play more suitable for the theater, because he was, as one sub-faction argues, primarily “a man of the theater”?

Or, as an important and controversial 2003 book by Lukas Erne has argued, was Shakespeare primarily a “literary dramatist” who may have made expedient changes for the theater but preferred the earlier wordier Quarto versions?

(No Shakespeare wars?)

Mr. Shapiro falls into the circular fallacy of some of the revisionists by accepting without any evidence that every change in the later, allegedly more theatrical Folio version was brilliant because it must have been made by Shakespeare, and that it must have been made by Shakespeare because it was brilliant.

ONE FOCUS OF THE CONTROVERSY IS Hamlet’s final 35-line soliloquy, the one that begins “How all occasions do inform against me … what is a man … ?”

It’s the soliloquy that Hamlet utters in the fourth act of the 1604 Quarto version, when he sees action-hero Fortinbras marching his army all over the landscape, willing to send thousands to their death for an empty title, for “an eggshell.” This leads Hamlet to reprove himself at great and eloquent length for lacking the will to exact vengeance for a far more concrete wrong, the murder of his father by his uncle.

To some people, like Mr. Shapiro, this soliloquy—35 lines of Hamlet’s most agonized eloquence—should be cut, the way it is in the posthumous 1623 Folio version, because (in this simplistic view) it repeats the kind of self-lacerating self-reproach we’ve heard from Hamlet before. Why listen to Hamlet examine his thought process further? (Unless you think what makes Hamlet distinctive is precisely its examination of Hamlet’s thought process.)

But Mr. Shapiro suggests Shakespeare chose a simplified, dumbed-down, fast-moving, direct-action Hamlet, rather than the Hamlet who might indeed have returned to further self-examination. In fact, the soliloquy that Mr. Shapiro says Shakespeare cut (on the basis of reading Shakespeare’s mind) might be seen to have taken self-examination to an even deeper level, a kind of self-consciousness about self-consciousness.

No: too complicated for Mr. Shapiro, who wants Hamlet to be more like the Terminator at this point, an action-film figure who dispenses with self-doubt. Well, it’s one point of view—a simple-minded one—but there are others who believe the soliloquy is the essence of what makes Hamlet Hamlet, and that those like Mr. Shapiro who want to cut Hamlet’s last soliloquy to move things along more quickly are giving us a “diminished view of dramatic art,” as the respected scholar Edward Pechter put it.

But Mr. Shapiro believes that Hamlet’s last soliloquy should be cut, that it belongs in the play “only if we want to see Hamlet as dark and existential.”

To which I reply, in my book: “ Hamlet ‘dark and existential’? Who could possibly want that? Let’s have a Hamlet who becomes an action-film hero!”

I could go on (and do in the book), but I think it’s fair to say that I leave Mr. Shapiro’s argument in tatters for the half-baked, unexamined assertion it is, and that it’s not surprising he would not want a reader of his review to know about this, that he would not seek to defend it, and that he would not find anything good to say about my book.

But it’s also true that he manages to find something demonstrably false to say about my book, a desperate give-away of the supercilious condescension he demonstrates throughout his disingenuous review. In sneering about the fact that I left Yale graduate school to become a mere reporter rather than the lofty academic pooh-bah he fancies himself, Mr. Shapiro suggests that, as a reporter, I should have analyzed the “market forces” behind the decisions that publishers have made to divide Hamlet texts and to include dubious poems like the so-called “Funeral Elegy” in the canon (until it was discredited).

After all, reporters should concern themselves with grubby things like market forces, he implies. In fact, anyone reading my chapters on textual issues would find pointed discussion of the market forces in the Shakespeare publishing industry, and my chapter on the “Funeral Elegy” contains substantive analysis of the market forces behind the decisions made in that fiasco.

One would think Mr. Shapiro would be ashamed to have included such a flagrant misrepresentation (akin to his laughable claim that postmodern literary theory has triumphed for all times).

But then again, his conduct in this affair indicates a surprising degree of shamelessness.