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!

%d bloggers like this: