Shakespeare's bootlegger, Dylan's biographer, Nabokov, and me.

Scrutinizing culture.
Sept. 23 2008 5:02 PM

Shakespeare's Bootlegger, Dylan's Biographer, Nabokov, and Me

When should an unauthorized version be authorized?

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

There's a new Dylan album —well, the eighth volume in the so-called "Bootleg Series"—coming out Oct. 7. The albums in the Bootleg Series, you probably know, each contain a selection from the vast corpus of unreleased tracks, variant versions, live performances, and the like that had previously been circulated, if at all, on unauthorized, semi-legal tapes and CDs. The Bootleg Series is the authorized version of the unauthorized versions.

I personally have never bought a bootleg, but I've listened to some. (There's even a bootleg titled with a memorable Dylan quote from an interview with me: "Thin Wild Mercury.")

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With the Bootleg Series, though, the Dylan organization has cleverly managed to monetize a significant portion of the vast congeries of unauthorized recordings by giving fans access to cleaned-up versions of the outlaw music. Depending on your point of view, the black market in unauthorized bootlegs—as opposed to authorized unauthorized bootlegs—either democratized the distribution of the music or denied the artist his hard-earned dues. Or both.

For my money, I hope both enterprises continue to thrive. Dylan's selection of particular works for "authorization" can perhaps provide clues to what he values about his work, hints about the evolution of his writing and performance—recasting our view, for instance, of what he called his shift from unconscious to conscious songwriting.

And I'm glad the authorized bootleg profits have helped to stabilize the once-chaotic financial arrangements in Dylan-world, serving to support his quixotic "Never Ending Tour" and allowing him to take on nonmusical projects like the still-astonishing autobiography Chronicles. (Dylan plans to deliver the second volume next spring, according to a source at his publisher, and mine, Simon and Schuster.)

In the course of checking on this, I learned of another forthcoming Dylan release: In November, Simon and Schuster will issue a recently rediscovered Dylan literary effort, a book of some 23 poems from the '60s inspired by photographer Barry Feinstein's moody black-and-white shots of Hollywood. Not exactly a bootleg (you may have seen two of the poems excerpted in The New Yorker recently) but new light on his mind at the time.

But this isn't primarily a column about Dylan—although it's interesting the way Dylan is turning into a kind of never-ending artist, the Philip Roth of iconic singer-songwriters. But Dylan culture, especially Dylan bootleg culture, figures into the way we assess "authorized" and "unauthorized" work by other great artists such as Shakespeare and Nabokov. (No, I'm not equating them.) Let me explain.

I recently learned from one of the foremost Dylan biographers, Clinton Heylin, that he has a book coming out next year on Shakespeare's sonnets, which he believes will illuminate an enduring—and significant— Shakespeare mystery: whether the original 1609 edition of the sonnets was authorized by Shakespeare or is, in effect, an unauthorized, 17th-century bootleg. Heylin told me he plans to argue that the 1609 edition was a bootleg. Not (please!) an edition authored by "someone other than Shakespeare," as the "anti-Stratfordian" (or someone-else-wrote-Shakespeare) cult believes but an edition published—authorized—by someone other than Shakespeare. (Some have argued that Shakespeare circulated the sonnets only privately among friends because of the potentially scandalous homoerotic content of some.)

Why does it matter whether the sonnets were authorized or bootlegged? Because if the sonnets were not published deliberately by Shakespeare, perhaps we would spend less time arguing about the order of the 154 poems. And there would be less justification for the enormous amounts of time the biographical fetishists devote to spinning stories from that order, figuring out the identities of the real "fair youth"—the subject of a number of homoerotic sonnets—and the real "dark lady"—the subject of a number of embittered ones.

We might instead pay closer attention to each individual sonnet as an aesthetic whole, rather than trying to assess what each one "means" in relation to the sonnets that come before and after and the supposed relationships they parallel and chronicle.

I don't deny that there are linkages in imagery, theme, and language among the sonnets. But it would be helpful, I think, to get rid of the distortions of gossip.

Heylin believes he will prove who, in fact, bootlegged the sonnets, but he wants to keep the identity—and motive—of the culprit secret until closer to his publication day next year in May 2009, the 400th anniversary of the sonnets' first publication.

This new challenge comes at a time when two other sonnet controversies have reawakened. One is about whether or not Shakespeare really wrote "A Lover's Complaint," the long lyric poem appended to the 154 sonnets in the 1609 quarto edition. I dealt with the "Complaint" argument in a previous column and tend to agree with Brian Vickers and Jonathan Bate (who left the poem out of the new Royal Shakespeare Company's edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare) that Shakespeare didn't write the poem. But who wrote it, and why it was included in an edition titled Shakespeare's Sonnets,remains a mystery. One that Heylin, who agrees with Vickers that the "Complaint" was written by an obscure hack named "John Davies," claims to have solved. (Not all scholars have turned against the "Complaint." Oxford's Katherine Duncan-Jones is a strong advocate for it being "authorized" and includes it in her new Arden edition of Shakespeare's poems.)

Another sonnet imbroglio showed up in the Aug. 15 edition of the Times Literary Supplement in an essay by Bate, who believes he has figured out who the sonnets were really dedicated to—a solution to a puzzle created by ambiguity in the dedication of the 1609 edition, which reads (in part):

To. The. Onlie. Begetter. Of.
These. Insuing. Sonnets.
Mr. W. H. All. Happinesse.
And. That. Eternitie.
Promised. By.
Our. Ever-Living. Poet …