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Bewildering Stories

Clyde Andrews and Don Webb
discuss Editing

Here We Stand

Political correctness run amuck: “The past is a different place, and you aren’t allowed to go there any more; it might distress you." —Jerry Wright

I was reading our paper today (27th June), and in it was an article about how Enid Blyton’s story’s (to be re-released soon) will undergo some changes to cater to today’s tastes. (As dictated by the publisher that holds the rights to her work, obviously.)

A few character names in Faraway Tree will be changed. No longer will they be Dick, Fanny, or Bessie, rather they will now be Rick, Annie, and Bess (a modernisation).

Now, name changes are common, and I just wanted to say something about it, seeing as it is a sensitive issue for some authors, myself included. Also, in this case, the name changes are minor — and yes, names do take on different meanings as time goes by. Actually, in America, as I just found out, “Fanny” has been Frannie for a while now. Seems Enid can’t get away from changes.

Also, in The Secret Seven we can no longer have the boys going out for adventures while the girls do domestic chores (such as wash dishes). Oh no, that’s just not on. Things like that never happened in the 40’s or 50’s, the time in which these stories take place.

Also the word “queer” will be deleted, replaced with a more appropriate term. “Dick felt sick” for example.

Apparently, according to the publisher, Enid’s books are even more popular today than ever. And as a defence the publisher states that they are only slightly modifying the books to cater to today’s market. I must say, when buying an Enid Blyton book I’m not buying a book of today’s tastes, now am I?

I understand the publisher’s point of view, too. But could it be considered trying to please too many people all at once? Yes, the publishers want to keep their pulse on what the public likes. But in the case of Enid’s work, I think it’s a moot point. Her work was a product of a different time and is selling well regardless of what a publisher does or does not do. What I am saying here is that the work shouldn’t be changed willy-nilly or for the sake of change. That would be a crime.

I grew up reading those books, and I have just finished reading Faraway Tree to my daughter. She loved it, and we both enjoyed the experience. Is this a case of the publisher determining taste and style to the consumer, or the consumer dictating to the publisher? I don’t really know, but it’s an interesting subject. Readers these days are aware that Enid’s work was written all those years ago. And the reason they are popular is simple: they are good stories.

And this isn’t the first time Enid’s work has under gone the political correctness knife. No longer can Noddy sleep with big ears, and alas, poor gollywog became a teddy bear so as not to offend. Oh, dear, what next? (A Golly Wog — I used to have one as a child — is a toy that looks like a black and white minstrel. And Noddy sleeping with Big Ears alludes to homosexual behaviour. But one would imagine that was not Enid’s intention.)

Enid’s work is a ‘peek’ into in the values and ideals of a time gone by. A history lesson if you will. Shouldn’t we learn from that and not censor it? Political correctness has a lot to answer for.

Clyde Andrews

Y’know, Clyde, you’re talking about something extremely important here. Editing is no abstraction; it’s real work that affects real people such as yourself and your daughter as well as many others like you. And I, for one, want to say I’m right with you.

Why change the names of Enid Blyton’s characters? Because “Dick” and “Fanny” have acquired off-colour connotations in modern slang? And yet at least one of those names is in common use today. Can readers then not be trusted to have any sense of discrimination? One suspects, rather, that some editors have taken leave of their senses altogether.

I remember hearing a paper read at a conference a long time ago. A famous 17th- or 18th-century British author — I forget who — was quoted as using the verb “to roger.” Does anyone today — other than a specialist — know what it means? Think of Tom Jones or Fanny Hill (pardon the expression). Today, the name Roger has no unusual connotations. How times do change.

In making up the proofs for this issue, I discovered in one story that the point of view character remembers that another character has visited a certain city. Two paragraphs later he’s uncertain where that other character went. Now that will never do: the main character isn’t being forgetful, he’s made an outright contradiction. I simply deleted the sentence; problem solved.

Likewise, what do I do with grammar and punctuation errors, redundant “he said” and “she said” tags, or awkward repetitions that will distract the reader? And I could go on... I try to give our authors a helping hand; I figure they would have caught that sort of thing if they were more experienced in proofreading. And by that I mean reading their own work as a reader, not as the author.

Do we then march ahead with the corrected work and shoulder the author into the ditch, so to speak? Like hell. All the authors are sent a preview notice with a link to their work. Each notice contains the line: “Please let me know if any changes are needed.” That’s your proof copy.

I usually get very nice replies saying everything is okay or even complimenting the display; I appreciate that very much. But if you think anything is amiss or want to make a change, you can always let me know and we can talk about it. I don’t know everything: if I can’t convince you, the original version stands. After all, it does have your name on it.

Honoré de Balzac is one of the great novelists of world literature, and yet even he made mistakes. Feeble editing made his Cousin Pons a disaster. When a character is supposed to speak in a foreign accent, a few lines suffice to show what it sounds like. Thereafter, a few language mannerisms can be added here and there. But Balzac tediously reproduces the accent throughout — and makes the novel unreadable. That’s a classic case of a writer failing to proofread like a reader rather than an author.

Let’s go for broke: style is one thing, but what about content? Would I change the names of Enid Blyton’s characters? No. Would I replace gollywogs with teddy bears? No. Would I change the mid-20th century gender role stereotypes that so many female authors and political activists have struggled to overcome? No!

Let’s learn from history: Thomas Bowdler published The Family Shakespeare with all the “naughty words” removed — and thereby made himself a laughingstock for all time to come. But his was a minor offense, as we shall see.

Balzac was prone to adding “digressions” to his novels. Some people complain about them as being “irrelevant” or — the height of chutzpah — “boring.” As an editor, would I delete them? Hell no! Balzac’s so-called digressions are mini-essays and quite interesting in themselves; if any readers don’t think so, they can skip those passages. An editor who denies the readers that choice is one who thinks he’s better than the author. Better than Balzac? Calling it hubris puts too good a face on it: that’s just plain crazy.

You think that’s bad? Hang on, the worst reaches cosmic proportions. In the first half of the 20th century, a couple of professors produced the Dartmouth Bible. A curious title? Hold on to that thought.

The original intent was to make the Bible accessible as literature to university freshmen who — quite unlike almost all post-Renaissance authors — presumably knew little of scripture. If only the editors had stopped there — even if we’d had to put up with their commentaries, wrongheaded as they were — they might have produced something useful.

But no. They excised passages they didn’t understand and put in italics the parts they didn’t like but couldn’t conveniently get rid of. Their excuse: those parts were supposedly inauthentic additions. The editors thus rewrote in their own image not only the letter but the spirit of the texts.

The establishment of text — be it ancient, medieval, or modern — is a basic and honorable work of scholarship; it works with and for the text. Deliberately deforming the spirit of a text is a sin against intellectual integrity. Does it constitute playing with fire? Hell yes. The “Dartmouth” Bible is no longer in use, thank God, but it remains a historical embarrassment and a caution to the future.

The confluence of letter and spirit is the lifework of both writers and editors; separating letter and spirit — thereby killing both — is part of the Devil’s job description. We can see it in action today. In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Jim refers to himself as a “nigger.” As an editor, would I change it? No! Would I ban the book because the “n-word” is and has always been a racial slur? Hell no! Mark Twain’s Jim is a proud man: his dignity nullifies the slur and exposes it for the pathetic trash it is. Small wonder that Huckleberry Finn, untainted by censorship, is a monument of world literature.

Thank you for bringing up the subject, Clyde. I rest our case, and here we stand.


Copyright © 2006 by Clyde Andrews
and Don Webb

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