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.
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.