RARA-AVIS: Re: are authors the best judge of their work?

From: hardcasecrime (editor@hardcasecrime.com)
Date: 29 Nov 2009

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    > Mr. Ardai: If I recall correctly, you edit some
    > of your reprints (I seem to remember you asking
    > Donald Westlake to make changes to Somebody
    > Owes Me Money). Do recall correctly, and if I do,
    > what do you use as a basis for those decisions?

    If an author wants to edit a book he's written, I think that's his privilege; the edits might be improvements or they might not, but it's his book and he's entitled to do what he wants with it. (I had a discussion about this with John Lange before his death; he was concerned that the books he'd written in the 1960s wouldn't read properly today because of references to 1960s prices and other dated material, and I assured him that it wouldn't be a problem. His compromise in the case of ZERO COOL was to add a new pair of framing chapters set in the present day. I'm not sure that was less confusing to people, but it was his preference.)

    So that's one case. Another is a case where I think a book would benefit from some editing, for clarity or to fix errors in the original edition or for some other reason. In SOMEBODY OWES ME MONEY, for instance, the entire book is about the main character trying to get some gambling winnings that he's owed -- but you got to the end of the book and the subject of the missing money was simply dropped. It was left completely unresolved, and I didn't find this satisfying. So I dropped Don a note, pointed this out, and asked how he'd feel about adding a line or two to tie off this loose end. He was delighted to do it.

    In the case of a book we're publishing posthumously and that has never been published before (such as David Dodge's THE LAST MATCH or Roger Zelazny's THE DEAD MAN'S BROTHER or Don's forthcoming MEMORY), we'd be doing neither the author nor the reader any favors by printing the typescript without any editing at all. The author deserves to get at least the same quality and caliber of editing he'd have gotten if he'd sold the book to a publisher during his lifetime. Initially, we erred on the side of doing less rather than more editing in cases like this, and that's generally been a mistake, I think: THE LAST MATCH would have been better if tightened up a bit more. But in any event we work with great care, like restorers of priceless paintings, working very hard not to damage things in the process. (And we try to work with someone who is able to speak on behalf of the author with reasonable authority: Dodge's daughter, Zelazny's son, Don's wife.)

    What about posthumous reprints? Well, once in a while we come across one where there are sentences that look like they contain typos or a missing word or two, but there's no way to be 100% sure; we use our best judgment. Sometimes, as in Robert Parker's PASSPORT TO PERIL, there are inconsistencies that just need to be fixed -- a woman learns about a character's death on page 2 but then says something on page 20 that only makes sense if he's alive, that sort of thing. Again, we try to consult with the author's children or spouses about this sort of thing whenever possible.

    We do modernize spelling and punctuation: In the old days "ash tray" was two words and now it's one; same with "girl friend" and "boy friend." I go back and forth about whether to leave the charming archaism of capitalizing "Lesbian" or "Martini" or just lowercasing them the way you would today. Once in a very long while there's some incidental bit of dialogue written in gruesome racist dialect -- a detective interacting with a "negress" maid who comes on the scene and delivers a line or two in dialect that just makes you wince -- and changing that sort of thing falls somewhere between modernizing spelling and being a shameful PC bowdlerizer; it's come up maybe four times in 67 books and whenever possible I leave it up to the author (or author's close relatives) to decide. Note, though, that I would only consider such an alteration if it were truly incidental, if the plot, characters, situation and so on would be completely unchanged either way; in a book like Shepard Rifkin's THE MURDERER VINE, there's lots of ugly, painful, uncomfortable racial material, but that's the central point of the book (which is about a northern detective traveling to the Deep South to address a pair of race-related murders), and altering one word of it to make the reader more comfortable would be criminal.

    And in the worst case I'm talking about changing the spelling of a word or two in a scene of several thousand words, or maybe changing "I told the negress" to "I told the maid." I would never -- NEVER -- change the substance or events of a scene in a reprint (absent a living author's asking to do so, of course). You don't like near-rape scenes? Well, neither do I, and yes, old crime novels do have a lot of them. You know what I do? Choose different books to reprint. Why do you think I've never reprinted a Lionel White book? The man was a decent author (not fantastic, but decent), but in almost every book he had a near-rape scene that was clearly supposed to be titillating. I don't enjoy reading it, I don't think our readers would like it much either, the books aren't so amazing in other ways as to make me ache with regret over missing the chance to bring one back into print, and there are plenty of other books that are. So: I find other books to reprint. Issue resolved.

    Why Harlequin couldn't have just done that, I don't know.


    --- In rara-avis-l@yahoogroups.com, "trentrey" <trent@...> wrote:
    > A couple of comments about previous comments.
    > Harlequin _brags_ about censoring their crime books here. They were
    going to be on my Christmas list. They have been struck:
    http://harlequinblog.com/2009/10/the-harlequin-vintage-collectiona-lesso\ n-in-patience/
    > I'm astonished Ellroy said what he said about The Cold Six Thousand. I
    liked it on first read (after adjusting to the style) and on a second read concluded that it was almost the equal of American Tabloid, which is about as high a praise as I can give a novel. It's much better than Blood's a Rover.
    > I'm against editing already-printed books, but I think very minor
    exceptions can be made. In The Cold Six Thousand, a character chews Nicorette gum a couple of decades before it hit the market. Removing that one word in the reprint would have eliminated a jarring anachronism. So I guess I'm not a purist.
    > Mr. Ardai: If I recall correctly, you edit some of your reprints (I
    seem to remember you asking Donald Westlake to make changes to Somebody Owes Me Money). Do recall correctly, and if I do, what do you use as a basis for those decisions?
    > If you think it will cause a shitstorm on this message board, feel
    free not to answer. ;)
    > --Trent
    > The Violent World of Parker

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