Sweet Swan of Avon
Make the doors upon a woman’s wit,
and it will out at the casement;
shut that, and ’twill out at the key-hold;
stop that, ’twill fly with the smoke
out the chimney.
—As You Like It
To tell you the truth, I never cared whether William Shakespeare wrote the literature that is attributed to him. My interests changed, however, when Robin Williams (not the comedian) wrote a book called Sweet Swan of Avon—Did a Woman Write Shakespeare? Robin’s book explores the possibility that a woman named Mary Sidney Herbert, the countess of Pembroke, wrote the plays and sonnets attributed to William Shakespeare.
My first two thoughts after reading Robin’s book were:
- “It’s too bad that Mary Sidney wasn’t a blogger because we wouldn’t be having this argument now.”
Isn’t Ben Jonson the Canadian sprinter who lost his Olympic medal because of steroids?
In subsequent, more cerebral days, I realized that Robin’s book is an important work of literature for two reasons. First, if you’re interested in literature, the authorship of Shakespeare’s works is fascinating question. Robin provides an intriguing possibility, and anything that furthers the pursuit of knowledge is a good thing.
Second, even if you’re not interested literature, this book is a superlative example of the craft of writing. It should occupy a space on the pedestal of books that authors—including wanna-be’s— should aspire to write. Here’s why.
Robin did a humongous amount of research. Essentially, Robin looks at the evidence suggesting the possibility that Mary Sidney—not Shakespeare—may have written the poems and sonnets and that Mary Sidney might have. For example, Shakespeare’s lack of key attributes: education, training in the past times of the day, fluency in multiple languages, acquaintances with the literati, ownership of books, support by patrons, documentation that he was paid as a writer, and proof that he wrote anything other than “his” published works.
By contrast, Mary Sidney was one of the most educated people in England; she owned an extensive library; “she hunted, hawked, bowled, sang, played musical instruments, composed music, stitched needlework, and studied medicine,” she was fluent in several languages, and she ran one of the most important literary circles in English history.
Proof enough? Probably not, but intriguing nonetheless. Maybe Oliver Stone will pick up where Robin left off.
The design of the book is so elegant that as a fellow author, I want to cry in envy...“Why can’t my books look like this?” Font selection, section headings, chapter headings, and epigrams as well as complex objects like timelines, charts, tables, and illustrations show how the sum of great parts is an even greater whole. Even if you aren’t interested in Shakespeare, this book is so cool looking that you’ll want to read it. We who are about to cry, salute you, Robin.
The breadth of tools that Robin used to achieve this design result is eye-opening. You can learn about them in the colophon at the end of the book. If you’re accustomed to reading books set in fourteen point Times with Helvetica heads, her colophon will make your head explode. I just use Word, and I thought I was pretty cool.
According to The Chicago Manual of Style:
Invariably, the best scholarly indexes are made by authors who have the ability to be objective about their work, who understand what a good index is, and who have mastered the mechanics of the indexing craft.
Robin indexed Swan herself. Very, very few authors do this because it’s (a) tedious, (b) time-consuming, and (c) considered a “clerical” task. (Hell, very few authors actually write their book too!) In truth, indexing is an art. Only an author who is an artist and perfectionist would do such a thing. (It’s also a great way to find typos.) The process of indexing your own book is like running your hand over a piece of woodwork that you’ve created with your own hands.
Four agents turned her down because she wasn’t “qualified.” Two small publishers turned her down too. Sounds a lot like venture capitalists and A-list bloggers if you ask me. Robin had just about decided to self-publish the book when PeachPit Press, the publisher of her computer books agreed to take up the project.
Robin includes one the most impressive pull-out exhibits I’ve ever seen. It’s on page 245. This is a timeline that compares the documented life of Mary Sidney and William Shakespeare to the plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare. This pullout is Tufte-esque in impact. Most publishers would never include a pullout like this because of expense; most authors would never even attempt to convince their publishers to include one.
There are only two blurbs, praise God. Most authors think that the more blurbs, the better. Their line of thinking goes like this: “If I get more blurbs, more people will think my book is legitimate. If more people think my book is legitimate, then more people will think I’m legitimate. If more people think I’m legitimate, then I’ll get more consulting and speaking gigs. If I get more consulting and speaking gigs, I’ll get rich.” As a rule of thumb, the more blurbs that you see on a book, the lower the quality of the book.
I’ll quote one of the two blurbs to show you how less is more.
The first question I am asked by curious freshman in my Shakespeare course is always, “Who wrote these plays anyway?” Now, because of Robin Williams’ rigorous scholarship and artful sleuthing, Mary Sidney Herbert will forever have to be mentioned as a possible author of the Shakespeare canon. The real beauty of Sweet Swan of Avon is not, however, primarily academic; this book reminds us of a day when scholarship was fun, and important and original books were written for curious readers everywhere.
Cynthia Lee Katona, professor of Shakespeare and Women’s Studies, Ohlone College; author of Book Savvy.
Robin knows what to borrow and what to do with it after you borrow it. Go to the matrix on page 10. It’s called “The Literary Paper Trail.” Here Robin has reprinted the paper trail of the Shakespeare’s contemporaries that was done by Diana Price. It’s true that Robin didn’t compile this herself, but she was good enough to find it, redesign it, and use it. Knowing what to borrow and what to do with it once you get it is an art in itself.
Entrepreneurs take note: this is how to do a competitive analysis. First, the parameters along the horizontal axis are highly relevant. When most entrepreneurs do a competitive matrix, they pick dumb-shiitake parameters like “built with Visual BASIC” to enable them to check a box that the competition can’t. Second, it’s a very complete competitive analysis—most entrepreneurs include only the companies they have heard of and can out checkbox.
Robin singlehandedly raised three children. She was dirt poor. She lived in a house so small that she could only work at night in her bed by putting a board on her lap while her daughter slept in the same bed. You know how I feel about (blogging) moms, so I’m sure as hell going to support a single mom who raised three kids if for no other reason than to provide a heroine for all the other artist/writer moms out there.
To my amazement, Swan is languishing at about #200,000 on Amazon. This is a crime—like letting a man take all the credit for what a woman has done. And don’t believe all that long-tail stuff you’re reading about. It’s fine and dandy if you’re Amazon and exploiting the long tail. It’s not so good if you are just a speck in the long tail.
Swan is well-written, well-researched, beautifully designed, properly blurbed, and indexed by the author. If you’re interested in literature, buy it. If you’re interested in book writing, researching, illustrating, and designing, buy it. If you want to impress anyone with a cerebral summer reading book, buy it. If you’d like to stir up some controversy, buy it. You don’t need to know a thing about Shakespeare, Mary Sidney, or writing to enjoy this book.
All truths are easy to understand
once they are discovered—
the trick is to discover them.