“Shakespeare! Why bother?” And variations thereof.


  1. Being Stupid

First and foremost – if you don’t have the words it’s kind of difficult to have the thought. And if you don’t think too deep or too much, you are, in a word, stupid. Shakespeare, or any other piece of literature gives you those words. One may well wonder, however, what we need with words such as “pageantry”.

Surely, one might think, a skimpy jog trot through the dictionary every morning would suffice. But that’s here’s the problem with that: words out of context don’t mean a great deal, if anything. Just think about learning a foreign language. So, if you want to see words used and used well, turn to Shakespeare, Dickens, Eliot or Austen, or a raft of modern authors. And if you do regularly see words used well, then they become yours: a person with one hundred words for snow may be only marginally better off than a person with ninety-nine, but a person with the word “disheartened” or “addiction” or “bedazzled” is better prepared to engage with the world as they find it today – i.e. this person is a little less stupid.

  1. Being Alone

As a corollary of the above – if you don’t have the words you can’t express yourself – you limit the extent to which you communicate with others, and the extent to which you can partake of their understanding of the world (i.e. hang out with them, fall in love with them, disagree with them, hate them).

The old conundrum: how can you be sure that another person means the same thing by a word that you do, sees the same thing when you say “green”, feels the same level of antipathy to resort to the word “despicable”, or be in “love” with you in the exact same way, has never been resolved, nor even will be. But without doing some reading – where you see the words “green”, “love” and “despicable” used (and used well) you just won’t be speaking the same language as most other people. You won’t understand them. They won’t get your point. You’ll feel misunderstood. You will be misunderstood. You’ll have to hang out with the other people who just don’t get it, and not get it together.

  1. Being Dull


There are words and there are super words. Shakespeare is full of Super Words such as “cold-blooded”, “swaggering”, “new-fangled”, “with bated-breath”, “wild goose chase”, “heart of gold”, “to not sleep a wink”, or “to be in stiches”, to be “bloodstained”, and something happening “all of a sudden”; then there’s also even Superer Words such as “Hamlet”, “Ophelia”, “Love”, “Kingship”, “Tragedy” and Comedy” – I suppose these superer words that people play around with so liberally would today be called memes – but if you don’t have them you’re not playing (i.e. no one’s talking to you or listening to you),  and all words that will feature in the standard educated person’s lexicon.

Sure, you can use these words without knowing where they come from, which scene, which act or which play; without knowing that they come from Shakespeare, or even knowing their original context – howsoever it might differ to the usage of the word today – but, your grasp of the word, your use of the word, will be that bit weaker. When you say the word, when you hear the word, when you think of the word, there’s going to be something missing. Your armoury of Super and Superer Words will be depleted. Your speech and writing will be dull. This is also called “being dull”.


  1. Being a Fool


This may seem like a very similar point to the first, but the difference is very important.

The thing is, you, me and everyone else is constantly being played for a fool. Or a mug. Or a sucker. That latter is probably the best word – getting just the right meaning (the difference between the three words is subtle but instructive – if you’re not sure about this, see point 1).

A little allegory is needed here: you wake up at 5am, you drive in the morning darkness, fifty, sixty, maybe a hundred miles, happy to pay the cost in fuel, wear and tear, you’re your carbon footprint, only to arrive at a carpark to pay £9.00 for 8 hours, from which you set off, in company or alone, to walk into a distance that contains little over and above slight changes in gradient, the odd sudden rise or fall of some piece of rock or earth, and every so often you have to cross over a rushing stream. You’ve been played for a sucker.

Why are you here? Because, you say, it’s beautiful. But why? It just is. Ah, au contraire my fiend. You’ve been told it is; you just don’t know it.

Just like a sucker sitting at home and watching the shopping channel, that sucker about to pick up the phone and buy that pointless crap, you have been played. But how? By whom?

Well, it’s not as simple as the analogy (hence the analogy) – but there’s a long line of literary types who’ve been pushing hills, mountains and tress for some time. The Alps were not visited in the middle ages by hordes of tourists – just to look at stuff (hills, mountains and tress); why would you go somewhere that has no amenities, is cold and wet, and where no one lives – other than the most poverty stricken and ignorant of farmers? And what’s more – the area was pretty inaccessible.

You might say that alpinism was invented in 1760. But the idea that these inhospitable places (also The Lake District, Northern Scotland and the Isles, the West of Ireland, the Pyrenees) were beautiful was made over centuries by authors such as Goethe in Germany and Wordsworth in England. So what?

Well, when your kids ask why you’ve just spent so much money travelling for so long just to arrive at precisely nowhere, you can begin to explain to them. Over and above ‘I like it here’. ‘Amm, it’s beautiful.’ Or ‘Just shut up and put on your raincoat.’ You can say – “Just as every other idea in your little head has been put there somehow, my child, the idea that this place is beautiful will one day be inserted there, and for that you will be grateful. Consider why you think pink things are pretty – that idea was put into your little head.”

More importantly you’re a little more aware of what you like and why – which is pretty important, now that we think the individual knows best, democracy and all that.


  1. Being Alive


The thing is, we’re doomed to be suckers – because, at the end of the day, it’s good to like stuff, howsoever we arrive at this state of liking, or loving, or even hating. It’s better to hate fig rolls, that to sit on the fence: without such emotional investment, nothing we do will have any value for us. Love, is a case in point.

You are invariably waiting for love to strike, in the thick of it, or mourning its passing. But what if I told you, don’t worry, it’s only a word.

Ok, sure. That wouldn’t help. The truth of this point though can, when looked at with consideration, begin to help. Yes, we do do it to ourselves, this love thing. But it is, up to a point done to us to, and not by that handsome boy who sits reading comic-books in the park.

So, who’s done this to us? Well, it’s been kind of a collective effort, maybe starting with Petrarch, whose sonnets did a lot of the spade work; then he was followed by a raft of other authors, Shakespeare being one of the prominent ones (154 sonnets make a cultural dent), and then everyone else since chipping in: “love” is a concept that’s been over-cooked, over-egged and over-overed – but it has been made, and an appreciation of this point allows us to fall in love, fall out of love, and mourn the passing of love with a bit more facility. We are just that bit more in control.

Just like people who struggle with anger in their youth, they need a way of dealing with these feelings. They need to be able to talk to them, of them, through them. They need a vocabulary of emotions at the very least. Even a passing familiarity with the literature of love – an awareness of how this idea was made and how we are its victims – is a useful tool. Better to know you’re a sucker. Or is it?

But to be alive is to like, hate, love, fear… If we don’t read Shakespeare we will like, hate, love, fear a little less; like, hate, love, fear with less subtlety; like, hate, love, fear with less panache; in the final analysis, be a little less alive.

So, read your Shakespeare!

Mr A



“the marshmallowy welter of pseudo-literary romance that dominates contemporary fiction”

marshmallowy“Coover, along with such writers as Thomas Pynchon, William Gass, Donald Barthelme and John Barth, broke open the carapace of postwar American realism to reveal a fantastical funhouse of narrative possibilities. His relentless experimentalism, combined with a sly and often bawdy humour, have made him a writer’s writer, a hero to those who feel smothered by the marshmallowy welter of pseudo-literary romance that dominates contemporary fiction. Refreshingly unconcerned with psychology, sympathy, redemption, epiphanies and conventional narrative construction (or rather, concerned with undoing these things), he is relatively unknown in Britain, where three of his books (Pricksongs & DescantsGerald’s Party and Briar Rose & Spanking the Maid) have recently been released as Penguin Modern Classics.”

“Born in Iowa in 1932, he studied at Indiana University, where he received a BA with a focus on Slavic studies. After a spell in the navy during the Korean war he began his literary career in the early 1960s, publishing stories in the Evergreen Review, edited by Barney Rosset of Grove Press, a champion of experimental writing who also worked with William Burroughs, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Hubert Selby Jr and Donald Barthelme. In 1966 Coover published his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, which deals with the rise of a religious cult centred on the survivor of a mining disaster. The New York Times noted sniffily that “Coover writes his first novel as if he doesn’t expect to make it to a second. Everything goes in it including plots for several grim short stories and more social novels, and notes for a juicy essay.” His second book, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968), headed further away from conventional realism (and the comfort zone of the Times book page) with its plot about the creator of a baseball dice game who gradually becomes consumed by his make-believe league, to the point where he is unable to distinguish game from reality. But it was Pricksongs & Descants, Coover’s 1969 short story collection, that cemented his reputation, standing today as one of the landmarks of postwar American fiction.

“The title is a metaphor for a method that Coover has elaborated throughout his career. In manuscripts of medieval European music, the notes were physically “pricked” or marked with holes or dots. The melody (the cantus firmus) could be ornamented or counterpointed with an extemporised part, known as the descant. It’s common enough for musical terms to be used to describe narrative (theme, leitmotif and so on) but Coover’s usage is more precise. The collection contains his most anthologised story, “The Babysitter”, which is told in a hundred or so paragraphs, each separated from its neighbours by white space. The cantus firmus is conventional. The babysitter arrives to look after two children. The parents go out. She spends the evening in their house. The parents come home. Coover’s innovation is to produce descant-like variations on the possibilities of this scenario, possibilities that open up a grand guignol underworld of sex and violence beneath this suburban surface. The father fantasises about the girl. The girl’s boyfriend and his buddy plan to come over and rape her. She plays with the little boy’s penis as she gives him a bath. These events are not definitive. Contradictory possibilities exist simultaneously. The girl is raped and unraped. The father acts and does not act on his lascivious fantasies. The reader is expected to hold the story open, thereby exposing the mechanics of narrative for inspection. The effect is like the quantum-theoretical notion of “superposition”, in which an unobserved particle exists in both of two possible states, before “collapsing” on to one or other possibility. The story ends with the mother exclaiming from the kitchen “Why, how nice! . . . The dishes are all done!” but also being told “your children are murdered, your husband gone, [there’s] a corpse in your bathtub, and your house is wrecked”.

“In an essay on Pricksongs, the novelist William Gass homes in on the way these “narrative slices” work like cards, giving “the impression that we might scoop them all up and reshuffle, altering not the elements but the order or the rules of play”. As a child Coover made up “simple narrative-like games, played with dice or cards”. This developed into an interest, not so much in chance process (like John Cage) but in the possibility of non-linear narrative architecture (closer to Julio Cortázar or BS Johnson), a concern that led directly to his more recent technological experiments. “By the time hypertext came along,” he notes, “I was already well into it.”

“In the 60s, Coover experimented with marginal punchcards, a now-obsolete filing system using a series of peripheral holes, some cut clear to the edge of the card, so that when rods were slipped through the holes in a stack of cards, those cards which did not have that position punched out remained on the rod, while the target cards fell out of the stack. This meant the cards could be indexed in several ways, making it a sort of physical precursor to the idea of “tagging” a digital file. Coover used this system to develop a thesaurus, and tried to use it for fiction-writing, creating cards for characters and narrative elements in ways that sound similar to some of the techniques later used in role-playing and computer adventure games. The problem was, as he admits, that his fictional web of inter-relations rapidly became too dense. “It took a lot of effort. You think of a character, you develop information about that character, you start to punch it for something, it leads to another thought about the character, about another type of character, and suddenly you have 15 notes that you hadn’t thought of before and none of them punched.”

“The fictions he developed with this system often used pre-existing material such as The Arabian Nights to provide a lexicon of elements from which to work. In 2005, McSweeney’s published A Child Again, a collection which included a story in the form of playing cards, which had its origin in these early punchcard experiments. Does he feel his work relates to that of the French proto-surrealist Raymond Roussel, who in the years before the first world war generated works such as Locus Solus and Impressions of Africausing a highly artificial set of formal constraints based on homophonic puns? He agrees that he is interested in Roussel, but was never attracted to the idea of constraints as a way of generating stories. He talks about “having fun with the writing”, and the formal manipulation of his source material appears to be more interesting to him than what he dismissively calls “angst writing”, a term that seems to encompass most psychologically driven fiction, from Henry James to Jonathan Franzen. The use of fairytales and genre elements (recent novels spin out of noir, the western and pornography) are a way of freeing himself from the task of having to generate cards to shuffle.

“He tells me a story that can serve as a sort of myth of origin. In the summer of 1960 he found himself on his own in Chicago, temporarily separated from his family. A nocturnal creature (he frequently works through the night), he was simultaneously reading Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and William Gaddis’s monumental The Recognitions. “I really loved Augie March. The opening section, at least. But somewhere in the middle of the book the experience totally transformed, I was really ticked off. It was bad and getting worse. And I was really catching on to The Recognitions. I took Augie Marchand threw it across the room, and that was the last I saw of it.”

Why did realist fiction make him so angry? “I didn’t think of it as realistic. It used modes of response to the world that had become stultified and so were easily communicated. I learned my realism from guys like Kafka.” The idea that realism is a presumptuous name for a certain highly artificial literary mode has been floating around for at least half a century, yet its implications are still widely ignored. Postmodernism, as practised by Coover, is not simply a question of pointing out (tediously) to the reader that she is reading a novel. It’s about a return to the novel’s original, scandalous ability to create realities, rather than pretending to be a mirror or a movie camera. One section of Pricksongs & Descants is titled “Seven Exemplary Fictions”, after the Novelas Ejemplares of Cervantes. In an introduction, Coover addresses the old master: “For your stories also exemplified the dual nature of all good narrative art: they struggled to synthesise the unsynthesisable, sallied forth against adolescent thought-modes and exhausted art forms, and returned home with new complexities.”

Coover’s greatest battle with complexity is The Public Burning, a massive novel about the McCarthy era and the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which appeared, after much struggle, in 1977. Coover, whose work belies the idea that postmodernism is necessarily disengaged and apolitical, had been active in campaigning against the Vietnam war, and made a short film about a 1967 campus protest against Dow Chemical, On a Confrontation in Iowa City. The authoritarian drift of US politics led him first to write a satirical novella imagining a presidential campaign by Dr Seuss’s Cat in the Hat (A Political Fable, 1968) and then to take a panoptical look at the anti-communist panic of the 50s. Conceived before Watergate and then completely rewritten in the wake of the scandal, The Public Burning is narrated by Richard Nixon, who struts and frets his way across a political stage dominated by a foul-mouthed, xenophobic Uncle Sam, who is locked in mortal combat with the Phantom, a shadowy and seemingly omnipresent enemy. We’re now accustomed to fictionalisations of real events and people, but in the 70s, the use of real names was a dangerous novelty. Coover’s publishers were wary, as the Rosenberg prosecutor Roy Cohn had recently filed suit against CBS over the way he was portrayed in a film. “There was a lot of terror about,” Coover recalls. “There were no clear precedents. I had to hire a lawyer to help me negotiate those waters. At one point he said they’re never going to publish this and the thing to do is set up a company and publish it yourself.” The Public Burning was finally published, and indeed made the lower reaches of the New York Times bestseller list, but then was mysteriously pulled from the shelves. Coover suspects skulduggery, and the book never had the impact on the US political scene its author hoped.

Through the 70s, Coover was living in Britain, where his interest in the fairytale brought him into contact with Angela Carter, who became a close friend. “The folk tale is very subversive,” he explains. “It’s different from the mythic content of a society, which is from the top down.” Coover has little interest in archetypal explanations of myth and folk tales. He is more interested in breaking them open. As he wrote in the introduction to “Seven Exemplary Fictions”, “The novelist uses familiar mythic or historical forms to combat the content of those forms and to conduct the reader . . . to the real, away from mystification to clarification, away from magic to maturity, away from mystery to revelation.”

Briar Rose, written in 1996, is probably the apogee of his engagement with the form, a hilarious series of descants on the Sleeping Beauty story. It is being republished by Penguin in a volume with Spanking the Maid (1982), which performs a similar operation on that most English of forms, 19th-century sadomasochistic pornography. Beauty and her prince, like the master and the maid struggling to satisfy his exacting standards, are caught in short-circuited narrative loops that never resolve, but seem to wind down, decaying entropically until the stories come to a halt, not so much because they’ve ended in any “satisfactory” way, but because the wheels have fallen off. Fictional consummation (the sense of an ending) is frustrated. Coover’s characters (who are mere functions of the story) are caught up in form, battling through thickets of narrative in the hope of fulfilling their desires. “That entrapment leads to all other forms of entrapment,” he explains gnomically. “Fiction is about a condition, not a process.” Coover’s stories are serious entertainments, devoted to play. As Cervantes put it, in his introduction to his own Novelas Ejemplares, “My intention has been to set up, in the midst of our community, a billiard-table, at which every one may amuse himself without hurt to body and soul.”

From – Robert Coover: a life in writing by 



experimental writing should… do what?

experimental writing…writers of the left should resist the chimera of trying to stabilise language, which “is forever trying to represent reality, but can’t”. Instead, he says, experimental writing should serve to show how language has been continuously subject to power’s distortions, “troubled by the Trumps of the world”.

Lance Olsen, a experimental novelist whose 2017 book Dreamlives of Debris is an ambitious retelling of the minotaur myth that reimagines the labyrinth as a seductive metaphor for our inability to find boundaries.



Briar Rose & Spanking the Maid by Robert Coover

Briar Rose & Spanking the Maid by Robert CooverNow here’s a guy who is really going for it. He’s really taking the reader to task: is this what you think? Really? You think that? Are you a complete idiot?

Well, here was I, just thinking like I normally do and reading some short story or other, and you do this? and that?

So, what is it that Robert Coover does, in ‘Briar Rose’ especially, but also, if less successfully in ‘Spanking the Maid’?

“”Briar Rose,” Robert Coover’s rich and intricate set of variations on the old fairy tale, begins not with the princess but with the prince outside, facing that supposedly impenetrable thicket and ”surprised to discover how easy it is.” The branches before him ”part like thighs,” the thorns turn to flowers and ”his drawn sword is stained, not with blood, but with dew and pollen.” Mr. Coover undresses the metaphor, strips bare the story’s body of sexual meaning. And like the prince, who has imagined he was in for a stiffer challenge, we may ourselves be surprised at how easy this seems. So it’s all about sex, is it? That’s hardly worth the sweat and bother of reading; it’s not a real challenge, not like a quest for the Golden Fleece or ”another bloody grail.”

“But those who know Mr. Coover’s other books, the games he has played with sports and politics, the way he used a character named Richard Nixon as the narrator of his 1977 novel, ”The Public Burning” — those readers will know that nothing he writes will ever be easy. Such parting petals aren’t the point, or not the only one, for ”Briar Rose” is also about storytelling, about sex and storytelling as metaphors for each other.

“With each page, the distance between the stories the princess hears in her dreams and the book that we’re reading seems to narrow, to vanish. What’s the prince’s status in this narrative? Is he ”real”? What about the princess or the old woman, neither of whom can ”live” without the other? But maybe nothing is real except the stories themselves, and any attempt to pick out just one of that old wife’s tales — to say that this is the real one, the true story of ”Briar Rose” — just lands you in this narrative’s self-reflexive thicket, with the thorns tearing at your clothes.

“Mr. Coover treats his material with what looks like irreverence but is really a kind of logic about the princess’s corporeal existence; he even asks if Sleeping Beauty menstruates. And though ”Briar Rose” can make one laugh aloud, there’s finally something grave and beautiful about Mr. Coover’s playful fusion of sex and storytelling, the way he makes it both never and always the same. Repetition, variation. The kiss that can ”take this spindled pain away” feels as though it comes unbearably early in the narrative — then again and again, without ever being quite enough, and then feels as if it had never come at all. For somehow that climax also remains unbearably deferred, so that this short and almost perfect book seems — paradoxically, blissfully — to go on forever.”


And here’s a good review of Spanking the Maid – “a celebration of the decay of love”


So, what is it that Robert Coover does that other modern short story writers don’t do. He makes us ask ourselves questions we didn’t have when we started the story, not just questions about the story itself – though these too of course – but questions about ourselves, about how we read stories, about the power of stories, the interaction of the written word with reality, and then also on our engagement with that real world ourselves. Do we see the world differently after reading a story. In Coover’s case, yes. Yes in the case of Calvino, Borges, Barthelme, Mansfield, Gogol, Henry James, James Joyce and Chekov, often too in the case of Chopin and many other short story writers. But alas, not in the case of most.

Mr A

There are Little Kingdoms by Kevin Barry

There are Little Kingdoms by Kevin BarryThere’s a lot to like in this collection of stories: “Reading Kevin Barry’s collection is like finding a shiny two-pound coin in a pile of muck. It brings unexpected pleasure. Not just because he gives you priceless glimpses into the lives of individuals in a small Irish setting, but also because it’s one of these collections you literally cannot finish in one sitting. It sent me into spirals of associations, memories, and universal contemplations. Double-takes of pure aesthetic admiration of prose. And bleats of laughter at the scrapes his characters get into.”


I’d take issue with the following: “Barry’s power of description is awe-inspiring. Nothing soporific about it. It’s not sentimental, but it contains lushness. It makes you believe there are little kingdoms invisible to the eye.” This is just not the case. If it’s awe you want to be inspired to, might I suggest a host of authors who are not Kevin Barry.

The review goes on…

“If there’s anything to fault, it’s the light plotting hand Barry wields – often, these stories feel like character sketches; it leaves one craving – I would have liked to stay longer with any of them.

Supposedly “a rewarding read for the prose aesthete” – speaking as one, this is not that. There is not a great deal to reward the prose aesthete here, apart from the odd turn of phrase which is beautiful – is this not reward enough? No.

There are bigger questions to be answered in relation to this collection: what are short stories (or novels) for these days, other than diverting the idle / the prose aesthete?

Well, there are other short stories that do far more than romanticize bleak alcoholic lives – which Barry can’t ever get far away from – there seems to be an effort to find the beauty in meaningless, hollow and hopeless lives, but only through romanticizing their unfortunate aspects, not by focusing on the more positive aspects, the moments of beauty or possibilities of hope. There are, however, a few places, where Barry’s stories go beyond mere narration, where they do something special, such as in ‘See The Tree: How big it’s Grown’, where Barry rubs against the wrongness of our sense of reality and the sheer strangeness of the passing of time – where his fiction actually does something: gives the reader a shake. All too often, his fiction reassures, softens and stifles – giving us what we already had – vague floppy sentimental notions.

Mr A

Another interesting review by an always thoughtful reviewer here:




Bliss and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield

Bliss and Other Stories by Katherine MansfieldHer second collection (1920), but considered her first mature work, is a little imbalanced by starting off with the very good and very ling story The Prelude, and then being followed by a mishmash of shorter stories, many of which don’t quite work – maybe this is Mansfield experimenting and seeing what works and what doesn’t. clearly she has this worked out by her next collection which includes the famous story The Garden Party – thought by many to be one of the finest examples in English of the short story form – and with very good reason. Of the shorter stories, only ‘Revelation’ really strikes home.

Mr A

The Awakening & Bayou Folk by Kate Chopin

The Awakening & Bayou Folk by Kate ChopinThe Awakening is such a beautiful story. Almost on a level with Mann’s Death in Venice. Of course, it’s very different – but it’s also kind of similarly haunting and sad in the same kind of way – but what makes it so good is, in my opinion, that the sentiment is perfectly judged throughout. Nothing mawkish or clichéd. Chopin makes it real. And the same is the case with the stories in Bayou Folk – what a lovely collection of portraits of real people who are all so utterly different, but plagued by the same old desires and perversities.

Mr A