John Irving: The Shakespeare Authorship Question Enters His New Novel “Avenue of Mysteries”

“Elements of Irving’s own life – including his wrestling career, absentee father and own sexual fantasies as a young man – have inspired much of his writing, though the author says that he prefers to rely on an open imagination as the springboard for ideas rather than strict autobiography.” –

John-Irving Krimidoedel-Wikimedia-Commons

John-Irving Krimidoedel-Wikimedia-Commons

It was my brother Jim who tipped me off that in his new novel Avenue of Mysteries the great writer John Irving introduces the subject of the Shakespeare authorship question.

One of Irving’s characters, Clark French, tells his former writing teacher that in an upcoming public interview he wants to “put the issue of personal experience as the only basis for fiction writing behind us.”  Speaking of “the types who believe Shakespeare was someone else,” he declares that they “underestimate the imagination” or that they “over-esteem personal experience – their rationale for autobiographical fiction, don’t you think?”

The former writing teacher, Juan Diego, is a famous novelist who thinks to himself, “Poor Clark – still theoretical, forever juvenile, always picking fights.”

It turns out that both men have recently read James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? Both had admired the book and had been “persuaded by Mr. Shapiro’s arguments – they believed that Shakespeare of Stratford was the one and only Shakespeare; they agreed that the plays attributed to William Shakespeare were not written collaboratively, or by someone else.”

irving-avenue-mysteries-30-45Juan Diego wonders why Clark French fails to begin the interview by quoting Mr. Shapiro’s “most compelling” statement:  “What I find most disheartening about the claim that Shakespeare of Stratford lacked the life experience to have written the plays is that it diminishes the very thing that makes him so exceptional: his imagination.”  Instead, Mr. French opens by attacking Mark Twain, one the early doubters of the Stratfordian authorship, for lacking imagination; and in the process Juan Diego becomes embarrassed and wishes he could disappear.

I have no intention of trying to fathom Mr. Irving’s personal opinion on the matter, but, if given the chance, I would explain to him that doubters of the Stratfordian biography – and particularly those of us who believe that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was the true author – do not argue that the poems and plays are strictly autobiographical.  What we do perceive, in the case of Oxford, is that the Earl wrote as “Shakespeare” from his own vantage point as a nobleman and often drew upon his own life experiences, using autobiographical elements within his fictional creations.

In other words, our view of Oxford is that – like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, O’Neill, Williams and Irving himself – he often wrote about what he knew, building upon it with his imagination, to create works of fiction.  When Shapiro accuses us of saying that the poems and plays of Shakespeare are “autobiographical,” and then disagrees with us, he is creating a straw man and knocking it down.

shakeBut, then, I am sure that John Irving – one of the best writers ever — knows this quite well and has no need for my explaining.  And I have a hunch that, if Irving found out the true author of Hamlet had yet to be acknowledged after more than four centuries, he would know there was need for some serious correcting.

oxford11“A straw man is a common form of argument and is an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument which was not advanced by that opponent. The so-called typical ‘attacking a straw man’ argument creates the illusion of having completely refuted or defeated an opponent’s proposition by covertly replacing it with a different proposition and then proceeding to refute or defeat that false argument instead of the original proposition.” –

POSTSCRIPT:  Chuck Semple sends the following report:  “I saw Irving interviewed about his new novel at Louisville’s Center for the Arts. My ears pricked up when he veered close to the authorship question by referring to Shakespeare as “whoever that writer was.” I suspect he’s open to the question.”

Yes, I agree!  And thank you, Chuck!

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This reminds me of a psychoanalytic colleague who writes novels. She initially seemed offended by my Shakespeare authorship work. She told me–a bit indignantly, I thought–that only her own psychoanalyst would know which elements of her novels are autobiographical.

    I wonder if that hints at a psychological dimension of this debate: whether authors of fiction protect their privacy by the “fiction” that there is nothing autobiographical in their novels. This surmise is consistent with what recent books have reported about the psychology of authors who use pen names, and then feel liberated to write about deeply private matters.

    • It’s an interesting aspect of the debate, Richard, and thanks for mentioning it. John Irving’s case is particularly interesting — he seems compelled to declare, whether asked or not, that he relies mainly on his imagination. And while I’m sure this is true, especially in his case, given the marvelous use of his imaginative flights, clearly he draws upon aspects of his life experience, including places he knows well and specific environments or milieus. Methinks the author doth protest too much. Let us know, if you read pp. 444-447 of his new novel, whether you get the sense that he’s conflicted about the Shakespeare problem. Clearly he read Shapiro, but in doing so he also read about Mark Twain and Henry James doubting the Stratford story. That must have (or may have) raised a few doubts in Irving’s own mind. Twain had no imagination? Hmmmm.

  2. Dear Hank,

    In this week’s New Yorker there is an article about John Irving which is interesting as to his person – in addition to his literary accomplishments he is also a wrestler, active in a New York gym.



  3. Thanks Hank for all the blog-post info……Big Fun!! Presently rereading some of my Ben Jonson favorites. So difficult for some of us mere mortals to comprehend the existence of a WS without some kind of divine intervention? Jimmy did a bang up job on our reunion…..had so much fun!!!!! Merry Christmas & a healthy happy New Year Hank. After 24 yrs. away from Larchmont saw Loyal Inn Bowling vanished…….What are the Whittemores going to do on THANKSGIVING NOW!!?? Was shocked to see all the trees twice as big & 70% new store fronts. That the Liquor Store still survives must tell us something!! HaHa! Cheers, Peter

    • Hey Peter, great to hear from you again — well, we Whittemores hunt down bowling alleys wherever we go. We should probably open our own one day! I am over in Nyack NY and we bowl at New City alleys, which are good, and my son Jake is in a league, plus he and I are in a father-son league. And so it goes! I do not know how Shakespeare and bowling go together, but for me it works just fine. Thanks for the Christmas and New Year’s wishes, and back to you, too. Tell Ben Jonson I say hi. And Jimmy — well, my favorite guy! Best, Hank

  4. Thanks very much, Hank, for this interesting titbit. I agree that art is biography — beginning with the chosen language and medium. Shakespeare wrote English plays, not Sufi poems because of the dictates of his biography — he was an educated Englishman, not a Middle Eastern mystic.

    • Th Earl hid much more things about his life than previously suspected. Conected to the authorship-question, I’ve been examining exclusively the original copies of the Sonnet Quarto 1609 and First Folio 1623. It’s hair-rising what hidden under the surface is.

      • Sorry, I forgot to add that it was Hank’s The Monument which made me believe: the real author was the Earl. After Looney’s book I’m convinced that book is the most important one in the SAQ.

      • Sandy, I would like to hear more. Are you writing about what you’ve been seeing?

    • Thanks, Linda. Good way to make the point!

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