Thursday, June 12, 2008

Hey, Justin - You Won!

The winner of the random drawing this week is Justin! Justin, I need you to email me at so I can get your address to mail Cynthia's book, "Complete Idiot's Guide to Shakespeare's Plays."
I want to thank everyone who visited and submitted a question to Cynthia. She was so impressed with the questions, she will be on the comments section later today to answer each one. Thanks, everyone and thanks Cynthia. This was a great discussion.

Now, here's Justin's question and Cynthia's answer:


Hi, Cynthia.

I can't get the idea that some things shouldn't get the Complete Idiot's Guide treatment out of my head. I buy what you said about Shakespeare, that his stuff was originally meant for entertainment. That's fair, and I can see the need and justification for a CIG to his works.


Do you worry at all that this could lead to CIGs for other authors/pieces that might be better left alone, that people might, instead of reading and appreciating the original works, just learn the gist from the CIG version and be done with it? Or am I just a pretentious and/or elitist ass for worrying? (My mom would say the latter, so don't feel like you need to be nice answering.)



First of all, I don't think your question is pretentious or elitist at all. You raise a fantastic question, and one that I, as a former teacher of Shakespeare, had to address before writing one word of my book. If I can digress a bit here..... Honestly, when I taught Shakespeare's plays at Wharton County Junior College during the late 1980s and 1990s, I had a strict policy about the use of Cliffs Notes in my classes. I didn't care if my students used them but I didn't want them to be quoted as secondary sources in written materials. So I found ways to force my students to read every word of the plays through exams and term papers. During that time that I developed a healthy respect for Cliff'sNotes and SparkNotes. They helped many of my students (not just the less motivated ones) fall in love with Macbeth and King Lear, by helping them decipher the plays' language and meanings. Today The Complete Idiot's Guides to Shakespeare's Plays helps students and readers overcome being intimidated by the texts, by encouraging them to watch the plays on the stage and screen whenever possible. But as you acknowledge, a CIG is certainly no substitute for enjoying the original plays. (I probably echo that sentiment about 25 times in the book, implying to you, the reader, that my book is no substitute for the original text!)

But to address your question - can a CIG to Shakespeare's Plays lead to a similar treatment for authors that should be read and appreciated in the original? Like a CIG to the world's greatest epics (The Aeneid, The Odyssey, The Iliad, and others) or a CIG to the novels of Henry James? And shouldn't such books be avoided at all cost?

I have no doubt that teachers and scholars fear the very sort of thing you allude to -- that the great unwashed will opt to read a CIG-style summary of a Henry James novel instead of "the real thing"...pardon the pun. And there are many who prefer to depend on Masterplots-style summaries of the classics, instead of reading the original. But I believe that CIGs do the opposite of what you suggest. Instead of pushing readers away from reading difficult classics, they encourage readers to seek them out. (Serious readers are truly curious, and they'll always seek out the original works, because they know better.) But many don't seek them out under any circumstances, because they are too difficult. So they need a boost!

In my view, CIGs and CliffsNotes are vital, and here's why. Because if one person reads my CIG (who wouldn't ordinarily give Shakespeare a second look) and it prompts him to get excited enough to crack open Romeo and Juliet or rent Zeffirelli's production on DVD, then I've created a convert. The same goes for a CIG to Henry James. Such a book might convince 20 readers in the U.S. to take a peek at The Portrait of a Lady or The Ambassadors. But without it, I doubt those same 20 could be bothered to slog through James, unless they were forced, by a dreaded English Lit professor.

This also might reassure you - convincing book publishers to issue new guides to the classics isn't easy. They have to be convinced there's a sizable market for such books. CIGs to Shakespeare and Jane Austen are one thing - these authors have blockbuster appeal on the big screen. But I doubt you'll ever find a CIG to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. There's just not enough popular interest in most of the classics, CIG or no CIG.

Thanks for posting your question!



Blogger Cynthia Greenwood said...

Thomas asked:
The CIG publisher asks authors to recommend a technical editor to check facts, which is of course a good idea. But the guy I recommended didn't seem to understand either his role or how to read...he critiqued not only the book but the CIG format--every so often he corrected a technical fact. 

I wonder if you had a similar or better experience and how you handled it.

Thomas Pellechia

Dear Thomas,

Funny you should ask me that. When I started trying to find a technical editor for ‘Shakespeare’s Plays,’ I realized that my best shot would be a graduate student, because of the pay provided by the publisher. I thought long and hard, and finally concluded that if I managed to find one, I would have the same problems that you describe. I thought about it some more, and realized that I could edit the manuscript for technical accuracy by having my own stage and literary experts read individual chapters, and fact-check on my own behind them. This is what journalists and scholars like myself do all the time. I believe my editor sensed that my expertise was high enough to forego the technical editor. The process worked very well; the book received a thorough technical edit by many experts.

2:06 PM CDT  
Blogger Cynthia Greenwood said...

Sandy asked:
Can you say anything about your next book idea? I'm curious about whether you could do a CIG to another famous playwright or huge literary figure.

Excellent question that gets to the heart of my sweet spot. I would love to do another literary CIG, but it’s not easy to pinpoint a classic author with broad popular appeal. I’ve been told that Jane Austen has been taken by somebody else. The only ‘literary figure’ who is as popular as Shakespeare (by book writers) is Jesus. Dickens, George Eliot, and Henry James come to mind, because the length of their novels daunts many contemporary readers. I’ve also considered a CIG to Appreciating Opera, but here’s the drawback. To stay alive as an art form, opera has become highbrow, and I fear that people who might be interested enough in the book would be put off by the ‘Idiot’ in the series title. A different issue!

2:08 PM CDT  
Blogger Cynthia Greenwood said...

Suzanne said:
Wow! I never thought of myself as a "Shakespeare" kind of girl ... but a version for idiots I could get into. LOL

It sounds great for my kids too.

Dear Suzanne:
You'd be surprised how broad the audience for 'Shakespeare's Plays' is. It's a bit advanced for junior high school kids, but very accessible to students and adult readers. That's not to say that it's dumbed down. It's actually quite intellectual in focus and substance, but the writing style is accessible enough to appeal to high school and college students, playgoers, critics, and even drama students.

2:09 PM CDT  
Blogger Cynthia Greenwood said...

Tom Dulaney wrote:
Two schools of thought seem to prevail in writing critiques of the arts. One takes the route of functioning strictly as a reporter, telling readers how audiences reacted to the performance, describing the performers and the play. And adding a personal observation on the "enjoyability" of the production.

The other route seems to favor application of a huge amount of background knowledge and training, casting the critic as a judge, jury (and, often) executioner of the work.

Which, do you feel, best serves the needs of the general play-going or moving-going audience?

Dear Tom,

First, I would slightly re-define the 'schools of thought' on reviewing and criticism. There are 'reviewers' and there are 'critics.' Reviewers report and judge, and because they combine the two rhetorical styles, they strike different balances between the extent of their reporting and the breadth of their critique or judgment. (I would say that less experienced reviewers, or less truthful ones, tend to report heavily on the particulars of plot, acting and stagecraft -- or screen plot, acting, and directing, if you're talking 'movies' -- and they offer fewer judgments about quality.) Critics also report and judge, but as you say, in doing both, they bring their knowledge about the entire theatrical (or cinematic) tradition to bear on the review of a new work or production. And the stand they take about quality becomes their premise, which makes their writing more definitive - more courageous, really. More truthful, but not necessarily more 'true'. (The whole question of truth in criticism, is another subject.)

When Everett Evans, theatre critic for the Houston Chronicle, speaks to audiences I'm told, he addresses the issue of 'reviewers versus critics,' and explains why he considers himself a reviewer, and not a critic. As a reviewer, Evans is just as forthright in making judgments as the critic you describe as 'judge, jury, (and, often) executioner.' The same could be said for drama critics at every major newspaper. But to follow your construct for a bit longer, I would say that the critics who write about plays/productions for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books fall in line with your definition of 'critic'. They tend to be more intellectual and culturally aware, bringing literary and cultural history to bear. They not only bring in knowledge of other plays and playwrights, they inject facts about performance history (which is something I was keen to do in my Shakespeare guide).

Now, to address your question -- I would slightly dodge it by saying, the general play-going public is best served by reviewers and critics who aim for a truthful balance of both purposes. The public needs and deserves a 'reviewer' who can dazzle them with precise detail and narrative recreation of the drama, combined with a judgment that sounds authentic, and shows true attention to the production. The public needs a 'critic' who is equally attentive and solicitous, and then can go a step further, bringing 'informed experience' of a new show to bear on traditions of the past. The public, I believe, is ill-served by bad reviewers and bad critics, whose writings are thin on details and well-corroborated, plausible judgments.

There are so many new plays and movies out there. Reviewers and critics serve a purpose. They broker new entertainment. And they hope, from time to time, new works of art.

2:12 PM CDT  
Blogger Cynthia Greenwood said...

Audrey asked,
What do you think of contemporary theories that Shakespeare's works were written by a woman, like Robin P. Williams' Sweet Swan of Avon? 

Very good question, and I will try to answer without being too long-winded. Robin Williams’ book builds a case that Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, who lived from 1561-1621, actually wrote the works attributed to William Shakespeare. Since the 18th century several theories of this nature have been asserted, suggesting that prominent people other than William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays attributed to the author immortalized in the 1623 First Folio. The most prominent theory postulates that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, of Queen Elizabeth’s court, wrote the plays himself.

Once you become a student and scholar of Shakespeare, i.e., his life, his plays and sonnets, and his times, you begin to see the holes and fallacies in many of these arguments. (For one, the Earl of Oxford died in 1604, before most of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies were supposedly written and performed!) Two important things to keep in mind: First, many of these views originated by folks who refused to believe that a man with a grammar school education could write the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. Others, though, somewhat plausibly argue that we have no hard evidence that the man from Stratford wrote sonnets and plays, only that he was an actor. Shakespearean scholars disagree, of course, and cite Ben Jonson's admiring dedication to the "sweet swan of Avon" at the beginning of the First Folio, among other pieces of direct and indirect evidence.

I believe these alternative views about authorship range from being elitist to simply blind to the accumulated textual and historical evidence that does indeed support the authorship of the man from Stratford. Second, once you begin studying the life and works of Shakespeare’s peers and rivals who also wrote plays, you’ll become convinced that these "other" theories of authorship just don't stand up to the direct and indirect evidence that literary scholars have uncovered.

2:55 PM CDT  

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