Sunday, January 9, 2011

On the Mutability of Texts

It used to be that when a book was published, the text was more or less set in stone. Authors might fiddle with their words or punctuation to their hearts' content (or perhaps their editors' content) before publication; but once the book came out, it was a fixed text. So when we talk about Moby Dick or Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations--name your classic--we're all talking about the same thing. Sure, some authors have tinkered with a second edition, and texts that have been used for performances have always been more variable than novels. There are multiple variants of some Shakespeare plays, and composers and librettists of earlier eras had no compunction about making significant changes to operas between performances. Giuseppe Verdi wrote so many versions of his opera Ballo in Maschera--largely to satisfy the censors of the era--that it's almost ridiculous. But for the most part, as Gertrude Stein might have said, a text was a text was a text.

That's still true today, with books, but I wonder if it will always be so. With the advent of the internet (I shudder to think how many times THAT phrase has been used in recent years to introduce some portentous thought), texts in general are becoming infinitely protean. Just look at Wikipedia, where encyclopedia entries are never-ending works-in-progress. Or, for that matter, the New York Times. Just today the Public Editor wrote a column that touched on the fact that stories posted online often undergo frequent updates and headline changes, to the point that an alert reader may feel he or she is being gaslighted (and if you're too young to get that reference, see this Wikipedia entry). As one Times reader said, referring to different variations on an obituary of Arthur Penn posted on the paper's website, “I read something, and now poof, it’s gone without a trace.”

I can't help but think of two recent controversies involving rewriting that have been in the news of late: the reading of a bowdlerized version of the Constitution on the floor of the House (edited to take out all the parts that proved to be mistakes and were later changed by Amendments); and the new edition of Huckleberry Finn that takes out all instances of the word "nigger," of which there are many, and replaces them with the word "slave." I have, of course, no evidence that either of these moves were influenced by the ... (drumroll please) Advent of the Internet, but you have to wonder (or at least, I do). I see meaningful differences between the two situations--one seems designed to portray as infallible a document that was acknowledged to be flawed from its beginning, and the other seeks to make an American classic acceptable as part of a high school curriculum--but they both seem to reflect an attitude that it's okay to tinker with texts that an earlier generation might have been more likely to accept, or condemn, as simply a given.

Another change that computers, if not the internet, has effected is the demise of drafts. That's not to say that writers don't make changes to their works-in-progress anymore. If anything, those changes have probably increased many times over, given how much easier it is to make changes on a computer than on a typewriter or a handwritten document (believe me, I remember those days). But the changes no longer leave a paper trail. Unless you turn on the "track changes" feature, every new draft looks as clean as a newborn babe, as though it had sprung full-grown from the brain of its creator. No more messy cross-outs, strike-throughs, carets, or boxes of handwritten text at the top or bottom of a page. And no more scholarly tracking of the minute-by-minute thought processes of a long-dead scribe (see my immediately preceding post on the Jeremy Bentham papers project for some thoughts on that). It seems to me that perhaps something has been lost to posterity here.

But back to published books: With the advent of the e-book (we're seeing a lot of advents lately), I wonder if we'll see authors reaching back into their books to make a few changes here or there, or even make wholesale alterations to plot and character. After all, it would only take a few clicks, and voila--a newly revised work. Will authors someday respond to criticism in this way, the way the producers of a Broadway show might respond to feedback during previews?

If this seems absurd and futuristic, I have to point out that the future is indeed here, at least for self-published books, which are printed one at a time, as they are ordered. Every time I order more copies of my self-published book, A More Obedient Wife, I'm offered the option to "Revise" it. All I have to do is click on an icon, and boom, the text is up for grabs again. And actually, I did use this feature, once, to correct a few omissions in the acknowledgments and typos.

On the other hand, I suspect that for most writers, by the time a book is published they're ready to move on. Having just sent off Draft 9 of a second novel to my agent, with prayers that this time she'll think it doesn't need any further changes, I'm at the point where I'd be quite happy never to read it again. (And "Draft 9" actually vastly underestimates the number of changes I've made and the number of times I've gone through it, since--thanks to my computer--I can reread each chapter the day after I've tinkered with it and simply tinker with it some more.) A writer friend of mine once compared the work of revising a manuscript to "a dog returning to its vomit." Some days the metaphor seems quite apt.

So maybe we don't need to worry about a wave of authors indulging in massive overhauls of their already published books, because they'll be thoroughly sick of them. Let's just hope, though, that the "edit" function doesn't fall into other--and perhaps the wrong--hands.

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