If I may be excused for making a generalization about late bloomers, I believe that most of us think of novels as enduring creations that stay the same over the centuries.
The first novel I read was the “Bobbsey Twins” (or “Merry Days Indoors and Out”), Volume One of the Bobbsey Twins series. I received a hardcover copy (bound in green cloth) roughly 45 years after the first edition was published in 1904.
Despite this considerable time span, I’m confident that the words in my book were those written by “Laura Lee Hope” (a pseudonym for Edward Stratemeyer, the syndicator who created the series and authored Volume One himself.)
Like you, I later read dozens of novels written in the 19th century, including Dickens’s “David Copperfield” (1850), Hugo’s “Les Miserables” (1862) and Austin’s “Pride and Prejudice” (1813). Some titles in the curriculum were even older: e.g., Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719).
It didn’t make any difference how these novels were bound, or where or when they were printed. I assumed — along with my teachers — that the words on the pages of different copies were identical. Simply put, my copy of “Huckleberry Finn,” my friend Alan Gordon’s copy, and Mrs. Raskin’s copy were the same, no matter who did the publishing — or when the particular books were printed.
When I began to think of myself as a writer of books, I initially saw this “rigidity” as an economic necessity. Once type for a book was set … it was, well, set! There were significant costs involved in resetting and proofing changes. But over the years I came to understand that the most important driver was the pervasive expectation that a finished novel is more or less permanent — a collection of words on paper that one could rely on to remain unchanged.
No one told me that “novels are forever,” but most every reader I knew took it as a given.
Things have always been different for non-fiction books. Periodic editorial “revision” of non-fiction works — to keep them up to date — is such a usual happenstance that it typically receives a provision in the Publishing Agreement. One or more clauses stipulate the author’s responsibility to prepare revised editions and define what will happen if the original author is not available to do the job.
The new publishing paradigm — especially POD and eBook technology — has brought easy revision to the world of fiction. It’s become commonplace for authors to update out-of-print novels before ePublishing them on Kindle and Nook. Many novelists are taking advantage of the opportunity to revise. Including Janet and me. If you are so inclined, it’s possible to “improve” a novel every day.
While not going that far, Janet and I cheerfully joined the ranks of authors who try to change their novels for the better by eliminating details that turn a “current day” novel into an historical. For example, references to …
- Obsolete technology — e.g.VCRs, dot-matrix printers, DOS, Wang word processors, and PalmPilots.
- No-longer existent companies — e.g. DeSoto and Pontiac, Mongomery-Ward, RCA, and Howard Johnson restaurants.
- Old celebrities — e.g. Johnny Carson and Phil Donohue.
- News stories from the past that might bewilder present day readers—e.g. President Clinton’s link to a particular blue dress, and the national angst caused by of the takeover of the American Embassy in Iran.
And … as long as we’re eliminating anachronisms, why not fix the awkward bits we wish we hadn’t written, and the occasional ambiguous phrase, and those few examples of clunky dialogue?
No reason at all!
This raises an obvious question: Is something lost when a novel is revised?
One can argue the answer is yes for “classics” — the kind of literary novels that are “taught” in English Literature classes. On three recent occasions, I’ve heard opponents to fiction revision offer the cliché that making changes to a classic novel is akin to painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa.
Perhaps — but is any real damage done to our cultural heritage if a romance author revises several obsolete slang phrases or a mystery novelist gets rid of a confusing passage or two? Your answer may depend on how you answer another question: When is a novel finished?
Legend has it that F. Scott Fitzgerald rewrote 30 percent of “The Great Gatsby” when he received the galley proofs. Presumably he reluctantly stopped rewriting only when the presses started to turn. Also presumably, he’d make a new round of major changes to Gatsby today, were he able to do so.
Even people who argue against revising fiction seem less opposed to removing epithets and curse words that have now become racist, sexist, or religious fighting words. It’s a safe bet that if Agatha Christie, Mark Twain, and Joseph Conrad were writing today they’d make less generous use of the “N word.” So why not revise their old novels accordingly? This is a lively debate today in many public school districts.
Getting back to the “commercial fiction” that most late bloomers write … Does there come a point when no more changes should be allowed? Not with our novels, thank you very much. We reserve the right to keep bringing them up to date for current readers.
However, I type these words with slightly forked fingers.
I recently reread that first Bobbsey Twins novel on a long flight — and came away astonished at the racism and sexism that permeated kids fiction at the start of the 20th century. I know that the books in the Bobbsey Twins series (all of which classify as commercial fiction) have been updated, but frankly I’m not interested in the revised versions. I don’t want to read about Freddie and Flossie Bobbsey visiting the Eiffel Tower with their Au pair and I don’t want to imagine Burt and Nan Bobbsey on an expedition to save the whales.