Thursday, July 03, 2008

Revising the Past

Now imagine this. (Highly hypothetical situation for all my blog readers I think!) You are a critically acclaimed author with several successful books under your belt. Your work is just going from strength to strength. The trouble is that when you look back at your earliest published work, it now seems ... somehow lacking. You've learned so much along the way. You've grown as a person, and as a writer, and looking back now you can see the flaws in your earlier work.

Do you get tempted to go back and revise?

A couple of recent articles in The Age raise this very question. First of all, Jane Sullivan wrote that Peter Carey set the cat among the pigeons by saying on a TV bookshow that he intends to go back and line edit his early stories. His fellow authors on the show, Paul Auster and Ian McEwan were apparently shocked :
It was almost as if Carey had uttered a heresy. Yet, what he was proposing didn't seem so awful. He explained that the idea had come to him when he was preparing a reading in New York a few years ago. He was going to read the story he was most proud of, American Dreams. But when he began to look at the sentences, he thought they were "really appalling". He could not bear to read them aloud in the company of other writers such as Joyce Carol Oates*, so he sat down and line-edited the story.
And presumably just didn't want to stop at just that one!

Now it seems that this year's Miles Franklin winner Steven Carroll is revisiting his earlier fiction starting with his 1994 novel, Momoko, which was republished last year as The Lovers' Room. Later this month Twilight in Venice is due to be launched - this is a rewriting of his 1998 novel, The Lovesong of Lucy McBride.

Carroll explains :
With Momoko I underwrote the book and I knew I did. I rushed it ... With Lucy McBride I was determined not to underwrite the book and I overwrote it. I knocked out about 50,000 words, I threw out about five or six characters and it all concentrates on three characters and Twilight is a much shorter book. It's only about 55,000 words. I wrote a lot of new material too. ... If you can, if you've still got enthusiasm, what's the harm with going back and making something work a little bit better than it did initially. ... the earlier ones were apprenticeship books, I was still learning my trade.
There's another intriguing antipodean example of an author rewriting the novels of his youth. The other day I mentioned New Zealand's Witi Ihimaera, as a novelist deserving much wider attention. He decided to revise works that had for decades been considered classics of New Zealand literature.

The reason?
I was a colonised person when I wrote those books. It’s been a whole process of personal decolonisation that I’ve had to go through to do this. Part of that decolonisation is to get out of my family. Trying to create for myself a sense of independence; a sense of political independence and a sense of sovereignty that allows me to see with my own eyes and with my own judgment the sorts of things my grandmothers were trying to tell me. ‘What you see is not what it’s all about.’ ... I was born brown with a white soul. Over the years I’ve had to find that brown soul again. And thank God, I’ve done it.
Comparing the before and after versions of the revised works of course will, as Sullivan points out, give PhD students a great deal of fun!

So are such revisions, understandable and even desirable? Or do you agree with Joyce Carol Oates :
... that is folly for the vindictive elder to try to set right the product of youth with the doubtful wisdom of experience.


Madcap Machinist said...

It's a common practice for poets. One example that comes to mind is 'Picnic, Lightning' by Billy Collins that I read recently. The poem that appears in Sailing Alone Around The Room (2001) is noticeably different and improved from the original in Picnic, Lightning (1998).

Why should prose be any different? If I had liked a certain story and the author rewrites it (presumably even more beautifully) then all the better.

Anonymous said...

Depends on the author's reasons:

- if it's to make the book more PC, then I wouldn't buy it
(look at Steven Spielberg removing the guns from federal agents's hands and replacing them with walkie-talkies in the remastered edition of ET; or George Lucas making Han Solo shoot someone in self-defence instead of in cold blood in Star Wars).

If the old edition is also kept in print, then I think it's acceptable.


Jane Sunshine said...

If Peter Carey had so much time on his hands, I would much rather he write some fresh material. Which of his books will he revise? All? Joyce Carol Oates is spot on, regardless whether it is fodder for PhD wannabes.

Anonymous said...

Stephen King did something similar by re-releasing the uncut version of The Stand...

If there's one book I wish the author WOULD damn well revise and improve by a 100 times, it'd be Da Vinci Code!


gnute said...

I think A Suitable Boy should be at least 900 pages longer, what do you think.

bibliobibuli said...

yes, it's way too short.

(but a longer revised version would need a forklift truck to carry around)

Madcap Machinist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Madcap Machinist said...

What do Editors think?

Damyanti said...

It is the writers' prerogative what they want to do with their work.

Yes, if it is to make it more PC, it is far less worth it than if the writer wants to correct inherent stylistic or literary flaws.

If both kinds of editions are in print, the reader can take his/her pick.

I have read two versions of Neil Gaiman's "Neverwhere", one of which is the "Author's preferred text", and I found I liked both books, in different ways.

Eliza said...

I'd feel cheated, if I'd read work by an author to have the author revise and rewrite. I agree with Joyce Carol Oates in this - leave earlier published work alone. Releasing uncut versions of the same work would not be the same as rewriting.