Long Read: Should We Rewrite Books?
You know when a suspense novel works because you tense up as you’re reading, so you should know when a joke works because you laugh, right? Unforch, it doesn’t work like that. As someone who has just spent the last two days trying to guide a comic scene to its payoff, I can tell you that the mechanics are a nightmare.
Writers who’ve worked in comedy know that a single hair separates the funny from the awful. I once worked on a horrific comedy show which was overseen by someone with no sense of humour. It doesn’t always lead to disaster; just as Hollywood cinematographers could work with just one functioning eye, so humourless producers can conceivably understand what is funny. This one didn’t, and was merely offensive.
To me, humour breaks down into two basic forms – comedy from within (character, situations) and without (observation, satire). So Waugh and Wodehouse, also Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge, in the former camp. Jonathan Coe, Graham Greene, Kate Atkinson, Zadie Smith in the latter – and there’s some crossover here too. But there’s a hurdle; an awful lot of older humour dates. And some novels from the past, humorous or not, are now uncomfortably hard to read.
That was OK with most writers most of the time; you’d note that a book was ‘of its era’, often in its outmoded attitudes to race and gender. (Try to imagine ‘On The Buses’ being remade now. Or better still, don’t.) I think of all those women described in popular crime thrillers as ‘fast’ in a derogatory manner, all those men with guilty secrets stumping off to the library and doing the decent thing by shooting themselves. Golden Age crime novels were astonishingly judgmental about class and looks.
In a series of articles about ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors‘ I mentioned some of the unreadable anti-semitic and racist prose that peppered popular novels. The milder books are republished now, carefully framed within their original time – the more offensive ones should be well and truly buried.
The #MeToo movement began in October 2017, and chiseled a line on the ground that quickly spread outwards to encompass everything in the arts from the male gaze in film to sex scenes in novels. We adapt quickly, recognise when the points raised are urgent and need to be addressed, and also know when things become too shrill. I attended a literary event recently which consisted of barely-read authors panicking over semantics for two hours before a visibly bored audience, and wondered what a casual, consistent reader would make of these very small teacup-storms.
In the long term important lessons are learned and writers are more careful, which simply means thinking a little harder about our readers and being a tad more sensitive. By now you can see this is a prelude to a Big Point, and the reason for writing this article.
I’m doing the copyedit on a very old story – something I wrote decades ago. Someone wants to republish it because it fits a theme for an anthology. The copy editor makes a few points I don’t agree with because I think he’s making personal choices, but then he adds ‘male gaze’ after one red-inked sentence and holy cow, I agree. It’s a sentence I would never write now because it superfluously describes a woman’s body, and while it would have been totally in keeping with the period when it was written (mid-1990s) it suddenly feels awkward, so I happily remove it.