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Updating fiction

586 Views 9 Replies 8 Participants Last post by  Geoffrey
I stopped in my tracks as I read Jack Finney's The Woodrow Wilson Dime in a late-Eighties omnibus edition. It was originally published in 1968, as the copyright page doesn't try hiding, but out of nowhere comes a reference to Linda Evans and Cyndi Lauper.

Does anyone else worry about this sort of thing? Stephen King updated The Stand in the uncut edition, but he said so up front. Some updatings have been disasters. In the Seventies, a publisher updated the Thirties pulp hero The Spider into no-article Spider to make him more like The Executioner, but changing "biplane" to "jet" when the pilots are shooting at each other with revolvers doesn't show much care.

This seems like a dangerous road for writers nowadays--if you update every time you reupload to Kindle Direct, when do you find time to write new books?--but speaking as readers, does anyone else roll their eyes as I did?
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Speaking as a reader, I detest the idea. And The Woodrow Wilson Dime was fine as it was.

If, by updating, we mean weeding out residual errors that continually escape the author's notice, then I'm fine with it. But, like you're indicating--updating content, to me, is a bad idea. I think it separates the former readers from newer readers and it forever changes the story.
Fixing defects is fine, but re-writing (beyond minor editorial/continuity changes) is generally a bad idea, in my mind. I'd rather the author work on creating something new and better, not try to make something already out there better (at least in theory).

However, if they want to do so for whatever reason, the e-book format would allow them to easily include both versions in one file, and let the reader choose which version s/he wants to read (with maybe a short introduction explaining the changes and why they made them -- but no spoilers!).
Pretty much all the original Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books have been updated -- some several times.
On further reflection, there may be some cases in older books where the original text may need to be altered or at the least, annotated. Last week, I was reading a book published in the thirties where one of the characters mentioned she was out of L.S.D. Pretty much brought me to a stop.  ;D  I had to do research to find out it should have been printed as £sd (pounds, shillings, and pence), i.e., money. Another character mentioned he was O.A.P., which turns out to be Old Age Pensioner.

Ann in Arlington said:
Pretty much all the original Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books have been updated -- some several times.
So has the original Tarzan of the Apes. The versions seen today are ones that were re-written by the publisher around 1950. They changed up all sorts of things, mostly for the worse. There were a few things deleted that would be offensive today and one can argue the pros and cons of such a thing, but the publishers also changed grammar, phrasing of lines, references, and even some actions by characters.

Fortunately, with the advent of ebooks, the original is available (although a bit hard to find), as is the complete original text with the 1950s changes indicated. I have it around here somewhere and think it should prove interesting (if I ever get around to reading it).

I don't think books generally need rewriting, most people can read the book in its original context. I suppose putting out an updated version essentially resets the copyright: the new version remains under copyright even when the original enters the public domain.

What concerns me is sanitizing a book. A couple years ago, there was a sanitized version of Huck Finn published. I was upset by it, but later I realized that the sanitized version didn't make so much as a ripple. Now, if a copyrighted book is sanitized, that's a problem. I watched a Hallmark TV movie adaptation of Animal Farm that was sanitized. I detested it, it was just a movie rather than the book. On the other hand, if the copyright holder had tried to replace Animal Farm with a sanitized version, readers simply wouldn't stand for it.
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I'm okay with correcting mistakes. I'm also okay with cases where the author later reinstates scenes that were cut or changed at the publisher's orders (e.g. Burroughs' A Princess of Mars had a whole chapter cut from it, which was reinstated in later editions, A Clockwork Orange famously has a different ending in the US and UK, and one historical romance author here at KB cut a rape scene the publisher wanted her to write), because such changes bring the book closer to the author's vision. I understand changing really offensive things like racial or homophobic slurs, though in my experience those slurs either have a point, e.g. illustrating the all-pervading racism of the pre-Civil War South in Huckleberry Finn) or the general attitudes displayed in the book are so problematic that cutting a few slurs doesn't help. At any rate, I think a foreword - This work is a work of its time and contains things which may offend - is probably better in such cases.

What I flat out hate are attempts to update an older book with contemporary references like the OP described, because it's mostly unnecessary and annoying. I always check the copyright date anyway, so I'll know when a book was first published and I'll adjust my expectations accordingly. I ran into a situation as the OP described with the reissue of a Janet Evanovich category romance from the late 1980s. Somewhere, right in the middle of a novel with a copyright date of 1988, the heroine was described as wearing a Spongebob t-shirt. This confused me mightily and threw me right out of the book, because Spongebob clearly wasn't around in 1988. To this day, I remember next to nothing about the book except for that anachronistic t-shirt and that I wondered what had been on the original t-shirt.

Of course, this early Janet Evanovich book was a romance and writers of contemporary romances have been told for years not to include any details that might date the book. The result isn't timelessness but blandness.

Books are artefacts of their time and offer a snapshot of life at the time in question. The little tidbits about daily life during the Regency or Victorian eras are a large part of what makes Jane Austen or Charles Dickens so appealing. Never mind that it's never possible to update a book completely to a later era. For example, the Janet Evanovich romance was set in a world with no cell phones, so the heroine had to go in search of a payphone at one point and at another, a news headline about the conflict between the US and USSR was mentioned. Evanovich probably thought she was on the safe side with that one - though it would be outdated a year after the novel was published. So the book was clearly a product of the 1980s, so Spongebob stuck out like a sore thumb, much sorer than Garfield or whatever other 1980s figure was on the t-shirt ever could have.

As for those dreadful Spider updates from the 1970s, again there were lingering anachronisms such as people shooting at each other with revolver from the cockpits of jets. Besides, the Spider novels are still thrilling more than seventy years after they were first published and never needed an update.
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I'm with you on the author trying to update a book to make it feel contemporary - it just makes it feel like they're trying to hard to me. For example, in King's The Stand, (since you brought it up) he updated it with the pop culture references to make it 1990 yet Larry Underwood's song stayed the same as pure 70s dreck ... but, reinserting all the added items such as a much more detailed collapse of civilization as well as the people who survived Captain Tripps but died anyways made the novel much better.

So, correct but don't modernize ....
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