Revisiting an old rant on behalf on Master Shakespeare

Sometime in the past fifteen years, a Creative Writing 101 technique moved with insidious deliberation across the face of modern fiction, a yawn now crippling the 21st century novel.

Call it ‘ The Shakespeare Syndrome’, and no book represents this phenomenon better than the recent NY Times Bestseller, Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. The trend started many years ago in some cramped classroom, no doubt: I see eyes bouncing with word-saturated fervor suspended above a questioning goatee. “And what can I write, sir, if I have nothing to say?”

The answer, for everyone from the originator, James Joyce (Odysseus) to Jane Smiley ( King Lear), to Matt Haig ( Henry IV Part One, and Hamlet, again), to Oprah’s summer darling, David Wroblewski, (plus 583, 234 not yet published, MFA graduates) is pusillanimously simple: “Take a famous story for your plot — say, Hamlet — and work on your style, boy.”

And stylistically acrobatic they are, these pasted-up mockeries of originality. Mr. Wroblewski’s words somersault and glide across the page, showcasing his craft and deliberation nicely, rather like my leather-bound version of the Bard’s tragedy offsets the pine finish of my bookshelf. But genius? Creativity? Art? None of the above, sad to say, and I let the pages of this book swim from my fingers and splash at my feet, so dampened and dismayed I felt for the future of fiction.

Wroblewski chisels memorable, authentic characters, and then presses them onto a world manufactured towards devastation. Yes, cleverness is there: he makes highly intelligent, specially breeded ‘companion dogs’ the crux of the kingdom, his Hamlet is a mute, highly sympathetic lad, yes, his Claudius and (ger) Trudy reveal complexities of love and hatred that the original can not show. But genius would be finding a true home for Edgar Sawtelle and his story. Whittling away at words in a prefabricated frame– what beauty or redemption, moral or remonstration can be found if the end is assured by reading the back cover? For Edgar Sawtelle remains devastatingly true to its origins: the ending swells with almost laughable tragedy, as each character fulfills an assigned role to die, littering the pages with death and destruction nearly identical to Shakespeare’s original.

A drop or two of humanity is welcome in my reading, but I am not allergic to tragedy, provided it evolves from the characters, not some pre-ordained path from God Shakespeare. Of course, every writer borrows from every writer before, but what Mr. Wroblewski seems to ignore: at some point in every artistic endeavor, the muse overtakes and human intervention means little. That is genius, and cannot be replicated nor manufactured in a Creative Writing Factory.

Some artists can borrow to their own advantage, most notably Shakespeare himself, or James Joyce. But no one places Wroblewski, despite his commercial success or critical applause, on a Shakespearen or Joycean level of style. Style cannot resuscitate mediocrity; no matter where this stifling trend began, I hope angels soon fly it to its rest.

Posted to an online forum in 2008

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