Bending the Bard

Poor old Bill.  He zags from genius to fraudulence.

Everyone wants a piece of Shakespeare (yeah — I recognize the irony of criticizing the impulse in the very act of typing out his name…).  Quasi-avant garde lit geeks want to rediscover him as Chris Marlowe.  In a perhaps even lower cut, menstruating-edge feminists insist on transgendering him.


He retains die-hard fans, of course.  Long before Star Wars or even the agelessly camp Bill Shatner, academics were producing “Cons” at Stratford-upon-Avon (suitably dignified; invitation-only).  Fan fiction for Will Shakespeare dates nearly to his direct contemporaries, though that seems only fair:  the bard Hisself reworked source material ranging from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to fables imported by conquering Angles.

Derivative art won’t stop there, because really, does it ever?  Another Shakespearean riff — whether ripoff or hommage is left as an exercise for the reader — is the phenomenon known as “extra-illustrated texts.”  Cross-threading pack rat impulses with scrapbooking craftiness under an illumination aesthetic, Extra-Illustrators build little shrines to writing through elaborate decoration of texts with woodcuts, photos, show tickets… even locks of hair.

Obsessive and slightly creepy though it may sound, extra-illustrated texts preserve more condensed bits of history than Grandma’s attic ever could.  As ever, the useless crap of yesterday’s church bazaar is today’s treasured insight to the past.  Onward, Beanie Baby so-oldiers, marching as to war!


Why am I wasting your time with geriatric fanfic stalker babble?  To ask a question, of course — this blog is as much for me as it is for you, and I intend to learn things here.  You’re expected to hold up your end of the board.

So here’s my question: why isn’t extra-illustration the nearly standard approach to blogging (G-D, but that’s an ugly word:  “blogging.”  Onomatopoeically reminiscent of a vast, grey, boneless mass schlorping and blogging its way up the coast, mindlessly bent on wreaking havoc upon a quiet Newfoundland fishing village…).

Given the web’s insistently proffered cornucopia of imagery, video and snippets of text both contextual and non-, why are bloggers (look OUT, little fishing village!) responsible for their own digital markups, with their entire coterie of potential collaborators confined to the comments box?  Through a prism of extra-illustration, that looks like shoving all but one lone pucker into the penalty box.

Since real-time, multi-user digital whiteboards have been available since the 90s in the U.S. and since approximately WWII in Japan, why don’t common blogging interfaces (this one is “powered by WordPress,” FWIW) support a kind of interactive urban wall for strangers and friends to commingle their colorful graffiti with a kind of digital spray paint — or even a sort of Albertson’s cork board supporting a riot of sketches, poetry, business cards and Grandpa’s 35mm slides of the Holy Land?

Maybe that’s what the web already is, overall, and there’s therefore no meaning to it or market for concentrating the enterprise into any one particular spot.  Maybe anyone who cares to participate is already blogging or cutting together youtube videos on their own hook.  In for a dime, in for a dollar, right?

Maybe this already exists and, like virtually every other seeping-edge trend, I’ve missed it by failing to poke my snapping beak out of the shell often enough — I am only a writer in general practice, not a media critic of any stripe.

Perhaps the ubiquity and low-bar entry to producing web content siphons off perceived value, analogous to purists’ former militations against cheap paperbacks and compact disks and now against the cultural devaluation of e-readers).  But then, when a book doesn’t cost 180 bucks from the student bookstore, one reasonably may contemplate jotting marginalia.  Besides, the same pencil-necked whiners probably grumped about Gutenburg’s incursion to the handwritten text market.

Which brings up the obvious point:  why allow anyone to adulterate a finished work in the first place?  Does it not rock the nostrils with a bleu-cheesy aroma of disrespect?

Maybe… until one considers the Legion of family Bibles encrusted with hand-inscribed genealogy, carefully inserted tintypes and baby fuzz.   I’m certain those families intended no more offense to Jesus than did King James’s editors or the long line of myopic monks lovingly floralizing bibles under hissing tallow lamps.

Beyond which there are endless examples of pop culture improved by, if not the wisdom, then certainly the intuition of the masses.  Really, the Rocky Horror Picture Show isn’t that great a movie.  If you don’t believe me, try watching it at home sometime, sans costumes and toast.  The relentless life of that text consists in the tropes and actions slathered on by generations of Curried fans.

It may be a matter of writers’ egos, to wit “don’t pee on my post.  I dug the hole, sawed the wood and poured the concrete; that is my post, and it is perfect as it stands.”   Admittedly, I nurture those issues myself.  I once argued so fizzily over proper colon use that an editor finally quashed my stertorous nattering with a crack about age-related colon obsession.

Perhaps it’s a matter of quality control, or perceived quality at any rate.  Some building walls are meaning-saturated murals relating the surrounding neighborhood with its overlapping world; these constitute collaborative art at its highest expression.  Some are fireplugs of sign and countersign, other-warning bear scratches slashed in flat black Krylon, and carry the approximate gravitas of a jail tattoo from juvenile hall.

There was a huge kid at my school who forced little kids to “spend” their lunch money on autographs he’d “collected” from pro wrestlers, all of which displayed a marked similarity both in graphology and in spelling peccadilloes.  Those signatures were worthless then and they’re worthless now… unless Richard realized his serial killer ambitions.  Then it’s eBay all the way, baby!  We’re history’s witnesses and occasional recorders, but never its arbiters.  They’ll be born later, unless too many of us meet Richard.

Where should the line be sprayed between vandalism and art, community expression and chest-bumping puerility?  Some people recently thought that such a line might light up between MySpace and FaceBook, but that idealistic little bird appears either to have flown or simply fallen out of the nest and gone splat; Zuckerberg is an unsentimental mommy.  The question then would appear to be begged — I beg it of you, anyway — from Neolithic cave scrawls to Egyptian tomb paintings to Aztec frescoes, which were considered junk doodling in their time?

One might construe scrawling a graffito onto ancient Hellenic ruins as cultural sacrilege, but George Gordon, Lord Byron’s signature is preserved on the Attican temple to Poseidon not merely as a literary figure but as a military hero of Greece.  And if he’d been an undocumented pipe fitter?

It’s a lead pipe cinch that van Gogh never made a decent living at his easel, though that seems a fairly irrelevant aside to the notion of marking up, elaborating, highlighting, annotating, illuminating and corkboarding over the foundation of an interesting text.  Hopefully, you perceive some prospect for interesting texts here… what would you do to them, if I handed you a Maker’s Mark and a Magic Marker?

It seems that gatekeeping should be easy enough to model along the lines of our current, semi-automated commenting permissions:  if you’d failed to be a jackass before, your established permissions would remain in place until and unless I noticed you shitting the bed.  It is my bed, after all.  I made it.  I have to lie in it.

Not that I’m a liar, so far as you know.

As pitiful as it may appear (please, sir, may I have more face paint?) and as painful as the prospect may be (careful with that axe, Eugene!), I think I actually want to be extra-illustrated.

There, I said it.  I want to see what someone else would add to my thoughts, even after I think they’re fully formed, edited, polished, dusted off and sent waddling into the world.  Go forth, little brainchild!  Try not to get hit by a bus…

So, if such a phenomenon does exist, would someone please tell me how it works?  And if it doesn’t, will you let me know why you think it should or shouldn’t be — and a bit about how it should go together?  Express yourself!  Post notes, spray diagrammatic manifestos, flash your boobs and throw toast.

If you don’t, I’ll come sneaking onto your beachhead in the night, concentrate my damp and festering evil, and blog, blog, BLA-AUGH! all over your innocent little town.

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You have been warned.

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  1. As far as the space where scrawling on the wall is implemented and acceptable? You said it yourself: Facebook. Not that there’s anything right with that, other than four hunnert zillion fangirls. Eyeballs is really *all* it has going for it.

    Gripping hand? The way WordPress works, between Askimet keeping the spammers at bay and the whole very simple moderation scheme, is a pretty good compromise between letting punks loose with Krylon and being forbidden to talk in church…. John Scalzi’s comment threads can be pretty illuminating in their own right, sometimes.

    And on the other other hand, there’s pingbacks and trackbacks… what very often happens is that folks like me see folks like you saying Something That Makes You Go Hmmm, and puts up a blurb about it in his own space and links to yours… now, trackbacks and pingbacks can be spammy in their own right, but if you stick up a note on here that says “please say if you link” then folks will more than likely do that, and you can go read what they wrote…

    But, yeah. The whole thing is distributed now, where everybody has their own soapbox and folks tend to use their own soapboxes from which to pontificate, rather than shouldering you aside…

    That’s my two centicredits, worth what you paid for’em.

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