Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
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Rewriting old books: Discuss. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
One of the hard things to do as an author sometimes is to go back and reread your own books.
You cringe at your word choices. You see passages you probably should have cut shorter. You remember entire things you learned when you were researching and writing that you should have included, but didn't.
You recognize that you made choices you would have done differently—and maybe better—now that you're older and possibly wiser. You think about how you were communicating with the readers of yesterday, and how the words you wrote then might land differently today.
Honestly, it happens with this newsletter. With the incredible help of Tom in Maine, I've been going back and compiling some of my "best of the early days" posts with the intention of (finally!) putting together some Understandably ebooks.
There are some real gems that I'm proud of among the 800+ editions (!!!) so far. But, I find some small errors and choices that I wish I'd made differently. And guess what: As we compile them into some kind of an anthology (or multiple anthologies), I'm going to try to improve them a bit.
With that, let's talk about Roald Dahl and R.L. Stine. Three quick data points, followed by a fourth:
Chapter 1: News broke last month that Puffin, which apparently holds the rights to Dahl's work, had brought in "sensitivity writers" as described by The Guardian, to go through the books and replace language that they deem offensive. Among the examples cited: removing words like "ugly" and "fat" along with similar descriptions, and removing some gender specific language.
Example: In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, first published in 1964, where the Oompa Loompas were described originally as "small men," in the new, revised edition, they'd be "small people."
Chapter 2: That's controversial enough, but then additional news broke that Puffin was remotely rewriting ebooks that people had previously purchased, to update with the new language.
To be clear, I think this is insane and dangerous. I suppose it's driven by pure dollars (or pounds): Puffin, which is a British children's imprint of Penguin, must have calculated that they're more likely to sell more copies of these classics and keep Dahl's brand going for another generation with the revised language than the original.
I also don't think they anticipated the backlash. But either way, even if they were correct, I don't think preserving the future value of a publisher's intellectual property is our collective societal problem.
In fact, for the most part that's what is supposed to happen: tastes and sensibilities change, the new replaces the old, and if Dahl's works recede into history, there are generations-worth of authors vying to replace him.
Chapter 3: Which brings us to R.L. Stine. I hadn't realized this, but Stine is basically the number-2 selling children's author of the last few decades, best-known for his Goosebumps series, right behind J.K. Rowling. (Note to self: Start using initials.)
Earlier this week, I linked to another article saying that his publisher, Scholastic, said Stine has edited some of his own books to update similar language and remove references to health, ethnicity, and weight. One cited example was changing a boy's reaction to the Russian novel Anna Karenina from "girl's stuff" to "not interesting."
I had a short debate in the comments section about this, and I made the point that I think the story about Stine is different from the one about Dahl. Dahl has been dead for more than 30 years, while apparently it was Stine doing the edits himself.
Like I say: Every writer looks back and cringes.
Chapter 4: But then—plot twist!—Stine took to Twitter to respond to fans and deny that he'd made the changes at all!
I'm sticking with my original assessment. I think if a living author wants to make changes to future editions of their work, go for it.
As someone who writes a lot, I put a lot of thought into this idea, but: Writing really is about a relationship. Obviously, the author tends to dominate the conversation, but we read books and other written media because of how they make us feel: smarter, happier, more cathartic, etc.
When it works well, we wind up in some kind of relationship with the author. It’s similar to any sort of artist, perhaps: an actor, a painter, a sculptor.
But, relationships take work, and language does change over time.
Post-mortem, however, there’s no more room for change—or even just post-retirement for that matter, and I think we have to seal the grave.
Certainly, I don’t think we should be going back and rewriting older versions of the stories—and certainly certainly certainly not doing it surreptitiously on people's ebooks without the reader's consent.
And certainly certainly certainly certainly not without the writer's consent.
Anyway, I'd sort of defended the rewriting of Goosebumps, only to find that this key fact about Stine denying he made the changes himself was missing. So I wanted to revisit it here.
I'm curious to know what you all think. That's the nice thing about this format over a book: You can always chime in and keep the relationships going in the comments.
7 other things worth knowing today
Nearly a decade after a brazen diamond heist at Brussels airport, it looks like a near-perfect crime. While one person was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison and a small part of the loot—estimated in 2013 to be worth $50 million—was recovered, 18 other people were acquitted in 2018 and four more were acquitted on appeal Wednesday, leaving it unclear whether the mastermind will ever be found. (Fox News)
Job openings declined slightly in January but still far outnumber available workers as the labor picture remains tight, according to data released Wednesday. U.S. Labor Department data showed there are 10.824 million openings, down some 410,000 from December. That equates to 1.9 job openings per every available worker. (CNBC)
U.S. auto safety regulators have opened an investigation into Tesla’s Model Y SUV after getting two complaints that the steering wheels can come off while being driven. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the probe covers an estimated 120,000 vehicles from the 2023 model year. (The Hill)
The fate of the Biden administration’s sweeping plan to cancel $400 billion in student loan debt for tens of millions of Americans may hinge on the newest conservative member of the Supreme Court: Justice Amy Coney Barrett. No matter what she thinks of the policy, Barrett seemed the most unconvinced among conservatives that the plaintiffs in the case have standing to sue. (CNBC)
Just months after the Taylor Swift saga enraged fans around the world, Ticketmaster is in hot water again. Tickets to Eurovision—a yearly musical competition known for its colorful performances and devoted fan base—went on sale Tuesday at noon British time. Just 36 minutes later, organizers said tickets to the Grand Final were sold out. (WashPost)
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are getting the vegan treatment. The Hershey Co. said Tuesday that Reese’s Plant Based Peanut Butter Cups, which go on sale this month, will be its first vegan chocolates sold nationally. The chocolates are made with oats instead of milk, Hershey said. (AP)
Is Mexico travel safe? What to know about visiting Cabo, Cancun, Playa del Carmen and more. (USA Today)