I was once peripherally involved in someone else’s non-fiction book – to repeat… This was a factual, non-fiction book.
The writer described a Northern bar which I guess you can best imagine as a traditional Irish bar. It was long, narrow and dark with almost no exterior windows. I actually went up to see several of the locations in the book myself – including this one – and it was an excellent description of the old-fashioned bar.
When the high-profile publisher (we are not talking about a minor publisher here) received this part of the manuscript, he took it into his head to ‘improve’ it.
So he changed the description to an open area with tables and chairs and the sun streaming in through the windows, making the drinking glasses glint and sparkle. He was, in effect, describing the lounge bar of a modern South East English pub, not the actual Northern bar which was being described as it was in the 1960s.
A verbal fight ensued over this change and other attempted interferences in the manuscript of this factual, non-fiction book.
The major publisher’s view was that not every fact had to be correct in a non-fiction book. I am not in any way distorting that opinion as expressed to me.
When the book was eventually published, it became a bestseller and not a single word or comma had been changed from the manuscript (except for I think one change, made for legal reasons – the book was read by two separate legal eagles).
The reason the publisher could not – in the vernacular – fuck up the author’s work was that the author was still alive.
My understanding of standard publishing contracts is that the publisher has to accept 100% of the text submitted by the commissioned author (unless they can claim the quality is not up-to-standard or there are legal reasons).
The writer owns the text. The publisher owns and can choose and change the cover and the blurb on the cover. As I understand it.
Pity the poor author, then, who dies. If the publisher can successfully bully the dead author’s estate, they can – in the vernacular – fuck up the author’s work any which way they want. Or the money-grabbing estate can try to (in their minds) maximise their sales by changing the author’s text.
Thus the furore recently over changes to Roald Dahl’s children’s books.
The Guardian reported that:
Augustus Gloop, Charlie’s gluttonous antagonist in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which originally was published in 1964, is no longer “enormously fat,” just “enormous”. In the new edition of Witches, a supernatural female posing as an ordinary woman may be working as a “top scientist or running a business” instead of as a “cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman”.
The word “black” was removed from the description of the terrible tractors in 1970s The Fabulous Mr Fox. The machines are now simply “murderous, brutal-looking monsters”.
Apparently Roald Dahl, when alive, threatened to never write another word if his publishers ever changed his language. The Guardian reported that, in comments made 40 years ago, he promised to send his “enormous crocodile” – the character in his eponymous novel – to gobble them up if they did so.
Now he is dead, of course, his work can be shat upon willy-nilly.
Apologies if the word “willy” is offensive.
Today, the Sunday Telegraph reports that the James Bond books are now being censored by their publishers and made more ‘acceptable’:
In the sensitivity reader-approved version of Live and Let Die, Bond’s assessment that would-be African criminals in the gold and diamond trades are “pretty law-abiding chaps I should have thought, except when they’ve drunk too much” becomes – “pretty law-abiding chaps I should have thought.”
Another altered scene features Bond visiting Harlem in New York, where a salacious strip tease at a nightclub makes the male crowd, including 007, increasingly agitated.
The original passage read: “Bond could hear the audience panting and grunting like pigs at the trough. He felt his own hands gripping the tablecloth. His mouth was dry.”
The revised section replaces the pigs reference with: “Bond could sense the electric tension in the room.”
Arguably, the publisher is not, in this case, wholly to blame. The Telegraph reports:
Ian Fleming Publications Ltd, the company that owns the literary rights to the author’s work, commissioned a review by sensitivity readers of the classic texts under its control.
The Telegraph understands that a disclaimer accompanying the reissued texts will read:
“This book was written at a time when terms and attitudes which might be considered offensive by modern readers were commonplace.
“A number of updates have been made in this edition, while keeping as close as possible to the original text and the period in which it is set.”
Somewhat bizarrely, references to the “sweet tang of rape”, “blithering women” failing to do a “man’s work” and homosexuality being a “stubborn disability” … remain.
I look forward to all the morally dubious sex and sadistic violence being removed from the James Bond books and their re-marketing as period travel guides.
Presumably there will also be revisions to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four with ‘Big Brother’ being changed to ‘Brother’ or, as someone else suggested to me, to the more acceptable, less sexist and more Newspeak-friendly ‘Sibling’.