Turning on Shakespeare: an interview with John Reed

by Finn Harvor

Born in 1969 in New York City, John Reed is a novelist whose work moves across genres and achieves artistic seriousness and play at the same time. A graduate of Columbia University's MFA Program in Creative Writing, Reed is the author of three previous works: A Still Small Voice (Delacorte, 2001) Snowball's Chance (Roof Books, 2001), and The Whole (MTV Books, 2005). Snowball's Chance, a parody of George Orwell's Animal Farm, brought a great deal of controversy to the author's doorstep, positing a neo-liberalized farm in which market economics replace the allegedly communal economy of the original, and temporarily allow the animals to prosper as they never have before ... until the inevitable crash. Reed has also worked in the entertainment industry, writing for television (MTV, Nickelodeon, etc.), film, and multimedia.

Reed’s most recent book is All the World's a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare (Plume Books, 2008). This send-up of the bard is both new yet familiar; by using a literary form of montage, Reed plays with our understanding of some of the best known characters from Shakespeare's oeuvre and creates a work that is eerie in its timeliness. His next book, a compendium of chronically true stories of abject misery titled Tales of Woe, will be released by MTV Press in Spring 2010.

Finn Harvor: All the World’s a Grave is dubbed a "new" play by William Shakespeare, but it's really an innovative pastiche of the extant Shakespeare plays—King LearMacbethRomeo and JulietOthello, etc. Tell us a little about what prompted you to produce this work.

John Reed: When people ask me why I did this, I feel like saying, "because it was there." It didn't hurt that my editor liked the idea, of course, but I'd had the notion for a long time. Four catalysts, I think, got me going: I had kids, so could contend with Lady Macbeth, Gertrude, Lear, and other Shakespeare characters who were parents; my editorial skills, as the result of editorial work and teaching, were up to snuff; my understanding of narrative structure had been enhanced by the work I’d done in entertainment; last, and most spurring—I saw a terrible, terrible production of a play widely considered Shakespeare’s worst. Sitting in the balcony, moaning in agony, I semi-consciously decided that I could do better.

As for the content side: war, parody, the question of authorship, sex and exploitation, the current Shakespeare fracas, the long history of Shakespeare adaptations, Shakespeare and Hollywood, the Public Domain, the literary canon, the state of contemporary letters in relation to “great” works, the creative future we bequeath our children … all of these were things were prompts.

FH: One of the most tragic scenes in the work is the murder of a lover. The scene shocks partly because it unmasks that point at which knowledge of the canon meets expectations of basic human decency. It also shocks because of its contemporary feel—the murder occurs as easily as someone getting offed on CSI. Is this in part a play about post-modern lack of feeling?

JR: Wow, maybe. I have no idea. Juliet always annoyed me, as did Hamlet. I wanted to give Juliet a little more depth—make her something of a masochist. Hamlet, in All The World's A Grave, is equated with Henry V. His indecision is the guilt of warmongering, and produces/evidences the cruelty that we now see all over the world. Is that just our time? I've always resented Henry as well—that's he's marched out at wartime to fill the hall with new recruits. I think of the Henry and Katharine scene—the "seduction scene"—in Henry V. It's a weak seduction scene, better played as a rape. That was the play, the Shakespeare, I was drawing out.

And yes, there is a certain violence enacted on the canon. I remember sitting in a Times Square theater, years ago, watching the Will Smith alien invasion epic Independence Day, and when the White House got bombed, the crowd burst out in cheers. I’m not sure, post-9/11, that would still happen, or that the scene is even still in there—but that sentiment towards the literary canon … well, I still have it.

FH: In the preface of the book, you remark that we may be living in the end of days. Are pastiche and montage especially timely creative strategies in an historical epoch so laden with world-destroying danger that the typical artist's faith in the "immortality" of the canon might be futile?

JR: Whether or not it was ever true, one gets an impression of literature as a series of cause and effect relationships that began, continued, and finally reached the present moment. First off, that’s not the way it happened. We like to think that the good work comes to the fore, and that we find it and remember it, but that’s an optimistic assessment. Contemporary literature has become so broad and fragmented that no one person can be fully up to date on it. In the good old days, there was a finite number of literary publications from a finite number of publishing houses—midlist and genre titles could be ignored, and there was no confusion as to what was what. Now, midlist and genre titles are often considered literature, and vice versa—and the number of small, literary houses is beyond counting. Maybe an editor at a major book review might have a fairly comprehensive perspective; they’d know many of the houses, even many of the titles. But they couldn’t read all the books. Certainly, there’s no way an author could keep track of it all; “literature” is beyond the scope of what an individual can handle. Anyone telling you they can keep track of it has got their head up their elephant. And any author concerned with “inheriting the mantle” or writing “great literature” is disengaged from today—and, what’s worse, from tomorrow.

FH: All the World’s a Grave requires a certain flexibility on the part of the reader, as well as enough knowledge of Shakespeare's work so that the references make sense. What kinds of reactions have you received so far? Do academics and professional lovers of Shakespeare (i.e., those in theater) react differently than "common" readers do?

JR: I hope it doesn't require too much Shakespeare. People who know Shakespeare may get a little bit more out of it, but they're also more likely to stutter—to trip on where this bit and that bit came from. Most of what I refer to is so common to popular culture that I bet the majority of people will catch everything.

I was hoping that the Shakespeare people would be mad at me—as the Orwell people had been withSnowball's Chance. But so far, they haven't minded me at all. They're even—and I am both grateful and somewhat embarrassed to say this—enthusiastic. It's been a long time for them without a new play!

FH: Turning to the publishing scene generally: the current recession is certain to have a damaging effect on publishing, including the reviewing side of the industry. Fewer books will be bought and published, and probably fewer will be reviewed. Any thoughts on how lesser known writers can survive in an environment such as this?

JR: I don't think fewer books will be published—a few imprints at the large houses might go, but the name recognition of the old-world publishers is too valuable to lose. You'll see a little more hesitation on the part of publishers to get involved in really expensive projects, and we may see the larger houses peddling new translations and editions of public domain works—Dostoyevsky, Twain, etc.—which is a terrible mistake for them. The small presses will always be able to produce better objects at a better price, and they have equal access to the content. We're also likely to see all publishers looking at their backlist—more recent stuff that they still have the rights to—to try to resurrect some things. Hopefully we’ll just see more awareness on the part of publishers. Media and distribution are still huge obstacles for the small presses, though. In self-publishing, these obstacles are almost insurmountable.

As for the survival of writers, I don't know; my feeling is that you have to find your own path, which is largely determined by your work. Be flexible, don't be close-minded, don't be atavistic. On the other hand, if you get the right atavistic editor, and you're atavistic, and you guys are in the secret atavist fraternity—which is a powerful lobby, I know—it could all work out great.

FH: It's common these days to market books aggressively once they have won a prize, and good reviews seem to count for less than in decades past. Are the prizes too powerful? Are they warping the natural critical process by which a contemporary canon should be formed?

JR: You think it's become more of a problem? Maybe, maybe. I think it might be healthy that the judgment of reviewers matters less, but the really important (and scary) question remains the same—what gets reviewed?

As for awards, I'm afraid I just don't know. I tried to think of places to get Grave submitted for awards, but I can't even figure out what it is. I can't submit it as a play without the production; it's not a novel, it's written as a play. If anyone out there knows about an award for a literary stunt, please email me.

FH: Will recessionary pressures move literary publishing more in the direction of e-publishing? If so, how do you think reviewers will adapt to changing notions of what constitutes publication?

JR: E-publishing? Yeah, I guess. But the big publishers don't have an advantage there, and Amazon has screwed up the distribution. It’s a pretty messed-up model right now. As it stands, self-publishing an e-book is an almost sure-fire way to kill your book—it has to be a really specific, accessible market. People point to the one-in-a million exceptions, but you might just as well point to those exceptions in mainstream publishing.

As for the changing notions of being published—well, that's the big question. The early days of the printing press saw a similar problem: suddenly, there were all these "publications" that looked fairly official, and people desired them. But a lot of it was flotsam, and pretty soon, people wanted sources they could trust. Already, the Internet is moving back to "filters" and the "expert." That's not what web people want to hear, but I'm afraid that what we're looking at is the formation of a new hierarchy, one that will retain much of the old hierarchy. It may not be Utopia, but at least it's not the status quo.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009