Partly because of being busy writing my own novel for NaNoWriMo, and partly because one of them was particularly long, I only read two novels during the month of November.
The first was Land Beyond Maps by Maida Tilchen. It was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in the lesbian debut fiction category in 2010, and I was lucky enough to pick up a copy for only one dollar. (The Kindle ebook is still only 99 cents as I write this.)
The novel is set in New Mexico in the very late 1920s, and the main characters are several women who are very independent or don’t easily fit into the roles women were expected to hold in that era.
Two of the women are a lesbian couple (one a photographer and the other a nurse), another is a frustrated artist who gave up her goals to help her husband seek his, another is an asexual woman who becomes obsessed with desert plantlife, and the last one you could probably say is gender queer, even though there was no recognition of that as an identity at that point in time.
The book is very well-written and in many ways can be viewed as a love letter to New Mexico. Tilchen vividly writes about the desert so that you feel you are there, seeing what the characters see. She does a fabulous job of bringing that time period to life, while also providing fascinating depictions of the Navajo people muddling through a cultural transition.
Land Beyond Maps doesn’t have much in the way of a plot. It’s a slice of life novel, looking in on these women at a singular period in their lives as they cross paths and discover what their goals are and what provides meaning for them. If you enjoy that sort of novel then I can highly recommend it. If you need something with a more typical beginning, middle, and end, with a central plot moving things forward, it’s probably not for you.
The other novel I read, which took up most of the month and the first couple days into December, was The Stand by Stephen King. It seemed like a perfect choice for the dark, rainy days of a Pacific Northwest November, and I was right.
This was the third time I’ve read the book, but it had been about twenty years since the last time I read it, so it was all fresh again. An online acquaintance had gifted me with the ebook copy quite a while back and I was finally in the right mood to read it. This was the uncut, extended version, which I hadn’t read before.
I don’t really want to go into the plot or characters. The book is extremely well known, and the majority of King fans tend to agree that it’s his best, or one of his best, novels. I agree with that assessment.
Even for people who don’t care much for horror, or King’s work in particular, it’s worth giving a try. It’s not heavy on horror. It’s a post-apocalyptic story with a central theme of good vs. evil using supernatural elements. I thoroughly enjoyed my leisurely reread.
The thing I was to discuss is the fact that when the novel was rereleased in the uncut version in 1990, King not only added back most of the original manuscript, he also updated the novel to that decade. (It was originally published in 1978, and written 2-3 years prior to that, I think.) I had discussed my opinion of updating fiction in a post here, and it turns out The Stand is an excellent argument for why I think updating doesn’t work, and shouldn’t be done.
It’s easy enough to go through and change dates, slip in different song titles and other pop culture references that fit a different decade, and update technology in a novel. Provided you don’t miss anything. But what the author can’t do, unless they’re willing to rewrite to a great extent, is update the entire context in which the story was originally written.
Anything a person writes is affected by when it’s written. This is true even for historical novels, but usually in a different way than a contemporary story. How a story is written is affected by how the author perceives the world, and how the author perceives the world is to a great degree dependant on the world around them. And in turn this all affects how their characters in the novel perceive their world.
It doesn’t seem like a twelve year difference in publication dates should have much of an effect on things, and that might have been part of King’s thinking at the time. Technological differences are much more obvious changes, and can be relatively easy to deal with. But underlying attitudes that characters hold are a much trickier thing.
There were many, many places in the updated version of The Stand where things just didn’t read right for 1990. They were right for the mid-1970s. Though in fact, there were quite a few attitudes expressed by characters that were already starting to seem a little dated by 1978. By 1990 they came across as rather archaic.
This is the primary reason I think writers should not attempt to update fiction. While it’s true that some people won’t read older novels because they are no longer contemporary, those people shouldn’t be accommodated. There are enough of the rest of us who don’t care, and in fact enjoy reading novels written in prior decades. Either because we lived through them ourselves and get a sense of nostalgia, or because we like to see what it was like through the eyes of people living through that time.
There’s another more practical reason as well. The Stand was updated for its 1990 extended version release, but that updated version is now more than two decades out of date. So you have to ask yourself, where does it end? Should a novel be updated every ten years? I say no.