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How Brave Are You? Does Being An Editor Now Mean Altering History?

Gaining understanding vs. giving offense

stacks of colorful old books that might be edited, altering history

Altering history

Is it bad to be old, far-sighted, and short?

I was born in 1958, so I am not a spring chicken. I can see a rabbit across the meadow just fine, but I need glasses to focus on anything up close. I'm five feet tall if you don't flatten the pouf of my coarse, wiry hair that gives me the extra quarter-inch of height.

All of those features - older, far-sighted, and short - ("features," not "flaws, "I remind you) make me who I am. Good, bad, or indifferent, those characteristics are part of my identity. I can't deny their reality.

So I'm alarmed by the editing of classics and what feels to me like denial of a reality. Why are editors taking out descriptions of words and situations that reflect the honest realities of an era, a body, or a group of people in the past?

Does editing the classics alter history? No. History happened and can't be changed since we do not yet have a time machine that sends us back for "do-overs." But editing those terms out of classic literature obscures the reality of our past for students in the future.

Is it brave - or arrogant - to edit previously published works of dead authors to sell more of their books now?

Are we really so fragile?

The word "snowflake" comes to mind.

Publishers worry about selling classics, afraid that words written decades ago will offend new readers...that a book won't sell if it has the word "Oriental" in it.

But I wonder...

Are we really so fragile that we can't read text written long ago without taking offense at the language? Are we so obtuse that we can't discern that attitudes may have changed since the book was written? Are we so sensitive that we can't read something from the past and understand that it was the product of a different time?

If we eradicate any indication of past problems and prejudices from our literary history, will children of the future understand the past that we have overcome?

No great writer or "classic" book is immune to the current red pen of publishers. Roald Dhal, Agatha Christie, Ursula K. Leguin, and Ian Fleming are a few authors whose old works are being changed by publishers who control the copyrights.

Agatha Christie's great-grandson, James Prichard, agreed to have publishers take the words "gypsy," "native," and "Oriental" from his great-grandmother's novels. He believed that she would not have wanted to offend anybody. His thinking was,

“I don’t believe we need to leave what I would term offensive language in our books, because frankly all I care about is that people can enjoy Agatha Christie stories forever.”

Other descendants of published authors have also agreed to change the works written by their relatives. They believe that doing so will make the books more inclusive and less offensive for modern audiences.

Roald Dahl's Story Company, which owns the rights to his works, agreed to have the words "fat" and "ugly" deleted from the text. The company agreed to delete any references to colors of skin tone. Take, for instance, the worm in James and the Giant Peach. Even the fictional wiggler had an adjective describing his skin tone edited. The worm now has "lovely smooth" skin instead of "lovely pink skin."

Women's job descriptions in Dahl's book, The Witches from decades ago have now been upgraded to "top scientists" and "business owners" instead of cashiers.

I appreciate that publishers want to show that women hold important positions in society, but does updating these descriptions eradicate the knowledge that in the past, the majority of women had lower-level jobs? In essence, is it altering history?

Compassion versus complicity

You don't know me. People who do, however, would say that I am a compassionate, considerate soul, aware of other people's feelings and careful to respect them.

There's a difference between compassion and complicity in covering up our mistakes.

It's not because I'm thoughtless that causes me to look askance at these editorial changes. It's because I WANT our children to know that we have made progress in how we view people. Our students should know that we used to make racial slurs and now we don't. They need to know about the periods in our history when slavery and prejudices abounded and how we slowly are changing that.

How will they ever understand the cultural attitudes of an era if we erase the literary evidence that they ever existed?

Will works even have the same meaning if we slash powerful descriptors?

Take Rochester, from Jane Eyre, for example...

Jane Eyre and Rochester

Last year, I reread the old classic, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, where Jane refers to Rochester, on several occasions, as "ugly."

"...most people would have thought him an ugly man; yet there was so much unconscious pride in his port; so much case in his demeanor, such a look of compelte indifference to his own external appearance; so haughty a reliance on the power of other qualities, intrinsic or adventitious, to atone for the lack of mere personal attractiveness, that in looking at him, one inevitably shared the indifference; and even in a blind, imperfect sense, put faith in the confidence."
"I told her he was rather an ugly man, but quite a gentleman; and that he treated me kindly, and I was content..."

Now, I ask you. If the word "ugly" is edited out as a pejorative word, would the character of Rochester retain its intense, almost sinister, appeal? If he were nondescript, would he be as intriguing?

The homogenous, androgynous reader and writer of today

I'm a former college English teacher who believes that rules of grammar matter, that punctuation makes it easier for the reader, and that nuances of meaning are emphasized by word choice and placement in the sentence.

As a working writer, I'm thrilled that I have now written almost 10 MILLION words that Grammarly has checked. And yet...

Often, I ignore the advice of Grammarly, worried that by sanitizing and "perfecting" each sentence, eliminating adverbs and colloquialisms that reflect my conversational style, I'm erasing my uniqueness and authenticity. I want to sound like me, not like everyone else!

The trend in publishing may be to edit out any descriptive words that may have negative connotations, but I have my doubts about the practice. Somehow it seems wrong to eliminate works published years ago because they no longer reflect modern sensibilities.

Recently, six Dr. Suess books were pulled from publication, including his very first one published in 1937. And To Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street will no longer be printed because it included an illustration that caricatured an Asian man.

Does it have to be like this?

Isn't there a better way?

Aren't there other options?

Could books have an index of phrases that sensitivity editors suggested should be changed? Possibly commentary on the issue surrounding the words?

Could there be a sidebar, a footnote, or a highlight about the modern changes that were proposed?

Isn't it possible to rework a few questionable illustrations instead of pulling entire books from the printing presses?

Could Roald Dahl, Dr. Suess, and Agatha Christie books - and any other books being "updated" - be offered in both "original" and "revised" editions?

Distinctive and unique

It's okay to be individuals with different ideas, skin tones, and body types. It's most certainly okay to indicate those differences in our writing. We are not all the same, after all, and our words create vivid mental pictures of memorable characters...who will not be memorable if they are all described in ambiguity for future generations!

Literature shouldn't be homogenous.

...Thoughts on literary license and editorial edicts from an older, far-sighted, short woman who won't be offended by any of those adjectives!

photo of author, short, older, with glasses standing near giraffe in zoo
The author, not altering history or being nondescript.


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