Below I am re-posting a comment that I originally made on Nicola Griffith’s blog a couple days ago in response to her discussion about updating fiction (especially science fiction), and asking her readers what we thought about it.
You can find her original blog post here: Updating science fiction for republication.
It’s funny you should bring this up now because I was just thinking about it last month. In a post a while back you made a comment about potentially needing to update The Blue Place. When I read your comment initially it struck me as wrong.
Last month I was reading a book published in 1990. While the story itself is rather timeless, you can’t avoid the fact that it’s prior to the time when everyone had a cell phone and personal computer. As I was reading it I thought of your comment and the idea of updating novels.
My resounding answer to the question of whether books should be updated is, hell no! While there may be a certain percentage of the reading population who can’t seem to relate to a novel that is quickly becoming a period piece, they aren’t the readers that writers should be concerned with. I love reading a book that was written in the 50s or 70s. It’s very different than reading a book written now that is set back then. You get the full flavor of what the world was like because it’s written in its own time. I don’t think that should ever be tampered with. It changes the tone of the book in unexpected ways and for no actual gain. The updating will only last for a short period before it’s again out of date, and then what? You have a book written in one time period, updated in another, and it loses something in the process. And it’s no longer a snapshot of life for those who read it fifty years from now.
I don’t even agree with updating SF. Part of the context and meaning of a novel comes from when it was written, maybe even especially with SF. Does someone reading Heinlein snort and throw his early novels into the trash just because he was way off about some things? No! When he wrote his books gave them a unique context and ambience. Novels should be left alone to stand on their own. If they fall out of sight and never pick up new readers it’s not because they are outdated, it’s because the story wasn’t one that can stand the test of time.
Adding a couple comments for this blog post today:
There seems to be a sense that in order for readers to be able to relate and truly appreciate a story that it must be relevant to them now, and reflect the now. But I don’t think that’s true at all. Such a belief truly underestimates readers, it’s insulting. What happens in the story, and the technology and pop references in use, have to be relevant to the characters in the story. That’s it.
Some of those leaving comments on Nicola’s post mentioned the recent furor over “updating” Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. If you haven’t heard about it yet, a publisher is planning to release a version that replaces the offensive word “nigger” with “slave”. The idea is to make the book more acceptable for use in school settings.
I have several problems with this. While legally the above can be done, because the book is in the public domain, that doesn’t mean it should be done. No one other than the author should ever make changes to the work. (Aside from error corrections, of course.) While I do not at all support updating fiction, if it’s going to be done then only the author should do it, and only because the author wants to do it. Twain is rolling over in his grave.
Another problem is that anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the English language knows that the offensive racial epithet being replaced is not synonymous with the word “slave”. So even if you leave aside the entire argument over whether or not an author’s original words should be changed, we’re still left with the fact that it’s a bad change because it changes meaning.
And finally, Twain chose his words with specific intent. The word in question is an ugly word with centuries of baggage associated with it. But we can’t go back and rewrite history and we can’t change the fact that the word was, and still is, used to demean fellow human beings. It’s wrong to try and sweep that under the carpet, or to dilute the very real experiences of African Americans. Twain wrote an accurate reflection of that time period and students need to know that. Rather than trying to clean things up students should be exposed to the bitter truth, and then discuss it. It’s a teaching opportunity, and I believe a very important one.