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landbeyondmaps

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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.

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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.

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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.

My comment:

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.

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