Long Read: Should We Rewrite Books?

The Arts

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.

There’s a long-term project I’ve been working on, which is to eventually produce one massive ‘Complete Short Stories’ volume of all my short fiction. Quite a few people seem interested in producing this huge, unwieldy compendium but one thing I’ll have to address (as the copy editor rightly touched on) is that over the time I wrote them (1985 to present) the male/female gaze has changed, never more than in the last two years.
I’ve generally been forward-thinking about such things – we London-Bubble liberals tend to be ahead of the curve on sensitivity – but I’m dreading having to go over nearly a million words with a fine tooth comb looking for similarly crass phrasing.
Either I leave the stories as they stand or I possibly set the Thought Police onto every sentence. My instinct, and I say this in surprise because of the sheer amount of work involved, is to rewrite. I don’t honestly think it will be necessary to do that much work but I’m sure certain elements will now strike me as cringe-inducing. Or is it simply that I’ll be embarrassed by the earlier, less sophisticated prose?
I’ve rewritten before (‘Darkest Day’ had its supernatural elements removed to become ‘Seventy Seven Clocks’) but never for the purpose of sensitivity. Times change and writers change along with them, but how far back should we go to rewrite the past? How long is it before we start erasing photographs that don’t suit our sensibilities?
It’s a question many writers I know are still trying to grapple with.

21 comments on “Long Read: Should We Rewrite Books?”

  1. Brooke says:

    Before you edit anything, please remove unforch from your vocabulary.
    Rewrite, yes, IF to improve story, characterization and prose. Otherwise, NO. Cannot imagine you wrote anything deadly objectionable. Anyway, we readers are intelligent adults; consequently, on both sides of the pond, we have more important things to worry about.

    Can you tell that I’ve been in too many meetings discussing if this or that work of art should be removed (urgh!@#)

  2. Brooke says:

    P.S. Or ask opinion of someone like Helen before you wreck a story by editing it.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    It is an important question and best answered by the group denigrated. As a woman I don’t react to the “fast” woman references because it is a shorthand for character portrayal. I know, I know, it is denigrating and we’re better past it, but how are authors to portray that character aspect *when relevant to the plot* without a page and a half of references?
    The first British Chief Justice in B.C., Matthew Bailey Begbie, a man of great understanding and respect for the law, learned more than one First Nation language, talked to everyone and did his best to be even handed. He cared. Because he dispensed the justice of the time he got the nickname of The Hanging Judge. A group of first Nations leaders objected to white men (it’s us so we can say that) taking their territory and they attacked. They were defeated, captured, tried, and hanged in New Westminster. As part of reconciliation Judge Begbie’s statue was recently removed from New Westminster courthouse. That is a sort of shorthand correction, but is probably necessary in that place.
    Before the First War a ship, the Komagata Maru, arrived in Vancouver with passengers from India seeking to enter Canada. The ship was refused landing and the people sat on the ship in the harbour for two months until finally sailing back to India, where many of them were arrested and some killed by authorities there. Today they would be UN refugees, then they were *undesirables* and had to rely on sympathetic groups who kept them supplied with food. We have always been ashamed of that “incident” but it’s only now that a street in Surrey (here it’s a city) has been named for it and the name of a local member of parliament who pushed for exclusion been removed from a local building where a plaque praised the MP’s good works.
    Now, do we forget all the good things these two men did and remember only the bad? “The good is oft interred with their bones.” Do we remember only the good and forget the bad? I am neither Sikh nor First Nations and they should be heard first.
    It’s a fine line you have to walk, Chris, but part of the question to an author is, “When was it written?” Do you remove the racist phrases from Huckleberry Finn? The anti-Semitic and sexist attitudes from Shakespeare? Merchant of Venice and Taming of the Shrew don’t loom large in production lists these days but we don’t re-write them, either. They help to create the (rather unpleasant) context of the time and explain to a better age what had to change.

  4. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Another woman agreeing with Brooke and Helen.
    I’ve just finished reading If This Is a Man by Primo Levi. Some very offensive things happened. If they were edited out, we risk forgetting that they happened.
    Leaving the offensive bits in doesn’t mean that we condone them.

  5. Ian Luck says:

    It’s funny that you mention monocular cinematographers – I was talking to someone about early 3-D movies, one of which was made by Andre de Toth, who only had one eye, and as such, would never have been able to enjoy the result.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    1953’s ‘House Of Wax’, by the way. It starred my favourite film star, bar none, Vincent Price.

  7. Brooke says:

    Helen, apologies. I did not mean to put you on the spot, just value your point of view. Your examples are spot on.

  8. Dave Kearns says:

    Revisionism rarely helps, in history or literature. Add a note (or footnote) explaining why the view of the time has changed, or write a totally different story.

    The original US constitution counted non-white residents as 3/5 of a person for purposes of apportionment (and 0/5 for other purposes). We didn’t re-write those clauses, we wrote new ones (amendments) which corrected them.

    Simply changing the original words gives an utterly false impression of the culture and mores of the times.

  9. Liz Thompson says:

    It depends on what you, as the author, feel about the stories. If you are embarrassed by them, and/or feel they misrepresent you, then by all means update them. But I think it is true to say we do have an understanding of change in attitudes over time, and can note and give a (wry?) smile when we see a word or phrase or downright offensive view in current society trotted out in print on reissue of a book from earlier periods. And given the rate of change and speed of progress, earlier periods can date from about 2010, by my reckoning!

  10. Liz Thompson says:

    PS. Gods or “gods” have been behaving badly since the dawn of mythology.

  11. Bonnie Ferguson says:

    San Francisco is struggling with this issue from a slightly different lens. A mural in a high school painted by WPA artist during the Depression is scheduled to be painted over due to some images of Mexicans and African-Americans. The Opposition to painting it over is mostly from POC folks. In fact, another artist who is painting a new mural is asking that the older one be left up nearby his own work. How do we learn and know our past if we don’t confront it.
    Long time lurker, first time commenting (I live in one of the U.S. cities recently the site of mass shooting)
    Bonnie

  12. Bruce Rockwood says:

    Correct typos or unclear descriptions, but don’t transform text as if it were not written of and in its era. I think historical annotation may work for classics that deserve to be read. I think of E. Nesbit and High Lofting ‘s children’s books. Bruce

  13. Martin Tolley says:

    I’m with those who say don’t rewrite for current sensitivities. They are just that – current. Who’s to say what sensitivities will be appropriate in the next ten or twenty years? You wrote what you wrote, when you wrote it.

  14. SteveB says:

    You can’t change the person you were so why try? It’s an endless process, and even at a certain level hypocritical / dishonest. Best to add some introductory comments from today’s perspective.

  15. snowy says:

    With due respect to my esteemed compeers.

    It’s your story/creation/reputation do what you like. If the quarter of a century of writing experience gained since you first wrote it says change it, then it is probably right.

    [But if every single piece of metropolitain sensitivity is to be indulged, works of fiction will eventually become completely anodyne.]

    The usual pitfalls for writers/readers/editors: (cut-paste from an old e-mail sent to somebody doing Eng. Lit.)


    Character: If the use of the language is part of the characterisation then it can/should stand. Bad characters will think/say bad things it is part of why they are bad. [Foolish characters think/say foolish things that is how we know they are fools].

    Period: Words shift their meaning with time, what is today regarded as derogatory, could have had a purely descriptive function at the time of writing. [This is a particular problem with new-[modern] people looking at old books without realising how language shifts].

    Idiom: The same word can have entirely different meanings in different idioms, [UK-US]. Fanny, anybody?

    Most adult readers should be able to infer the intended meaning of a word from the context. Or has it become neccessary to pander to the intelligence levels of the lowest common denominator?

    However if a story is considerably revised, that then raises another question. Should it retain the same title? [There can be problems if there are several versions.]

  16. snowy says:

    Bonnie, a) Hello! b) Thank you for pointing me to another interesting example of reactionary revisionism in Art, [and confirming it’s not called La-La Land without good reason!]

  17. eggsy says:

    Thank you Brooke for picking up Admin on his vocabulary. Tsk, Mr. Fowler, tsk!
    As Snowy said, its the creative writer’s prerogative to do what they will with their works. Personally, as a grown-up, I can cope with period writing. Now feel the passing of years that comes with that sentence!
    How far do you take it? What if other things become fashionably (I know, but we have to agree there is sadly an element of fashion here – if we were all working from first principles of egality, there wouldn’t be a problem) beyond the pale? Should mention of smoking be removed? Alcohol in a teetotal society? What about meat consumption after we’ve all gone vegan? Who is the edit being done for? Yuval Hariri has been in the news recently due to edits made to the Russian-language versions of his work – some he claims were necessary in order for his voice to be heard in Russia, others appear to have been made without his consent….
    Back to Snowy, bad people should be seen to be bad because they do and say Bad Things (rather than just because they are asserted to be bad….).
    Essentially, only change anything in the author’s voice which may perceivably cause the author future embarrassment!

  18. eggsy says:

    Oh, sorry, more ill-formed opinions ahead (its a quiet shift, what can I say?)!
    While Admin has the ‘moral right’ as author to change his works, I can’t support such edits to other (ie. dead people’s) works. I’m a bit shy of all the ‘interpretation’ that gets foisted upon performance works by conductors, directors, producers, feeling that it smacks of egotism by those who can’t quite manage creative authorship themselves. But to expurgate what has become historical record, à la Bowdler, strays into Winston Smith territory. Unless like old Thomas you preface it with “The Family” edition.
    Will future readers see “The Family Edition of Christopher Fowler”? Not necessarily a large volume…..

  19. SimonB says:

    And there was me thinking from the title that this post would be akin to Hollywood remaking older films. Just think of the possibilities to re-write all those boring old tales with additional explosions, robots and sex scenes.

  20. John Howard says:

    As one of your readers I would be quite happy with a forward explaining the historical lack of PC in some of the stories.
    BUT, as you are the author then would also be happy with you changing things to your hearts content. You are the only one who could do that though.

  21. Ian Luck says:

    Isn’t writing the same story a bit differently again and again what our favourite typist, Mr Brown does? It doesn’t seem to have done him any harm. It’s still tedious, though. I was thinking about including the author of the ‘Fifty Shades Of Shite’ series, but I won’t, as she cannot actually write. Harsh, but fair.

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