Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Hands Off My Book!

We've got a Costo membership, a remnant of my husband's bachelor days. He'd make a monthly run to stock up on gigantic sizes of everything; now I go there for what I call targeted shopping. I know exactly what I want, how I'll store/use it, and how much I'm saving over the local 99-Cent store. In addition, we get the Costco magazine. It's got a monthly "Informed Debate" section, often about issues on which I have no strong opinion. This month, however, asks, "Should literary classics be sanitized?"

The case in point was the recent publication of Huckleberry Finn with certain words expunged. The "expert" advancing the "Yes" opinion was Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University in Alabama who "helped produce the NewSouth Edition." He not only justifies replacing nigger with slave but goes on to say, "Would Mark Twain approve of making this change? No one can be certain..." and adds that Twain was such a commercial writer that he'd want his work to reach the widest possible audience and that necessitates "sidestepping" "the n-word acrimony."*

I'm outraged by the rewriting of a published work according to someone else's political or social agenda.
I'm appalled by the idea that it's okay to do whatever you want to a creative work and then publish it as equivalent to the original. Mash-ups, satires and spoofs don't pretend to do that, which is why Sense and Sensibility With Sea Monsters, as objectionable as it might be on other grounds, seems to me fair usage. But Huckleberry Finn by NewSouth Editions is not. Maybe Huckleberry Finn With Politically Correct Language might be.

Sure, Mark Twain might have understood that polite language changes over time, that words can take on horrendous and insulting connotations. He might have been happy to make the substitution...but in my view, he is the only one entitled to do so. How would I feel if someone took one of my books and changed words, phrases, ideas I had carefully chosen, to suit their own social agenda? I don't think it matters whether the work is covered under copyright or not. It's my work, my intellectual property -- Twain's intellectual property -- so hands off!

It's tempting to condone the practice when we agree with the reasons, but how would we feel if someone took our favorite classics and turned them into propaganda for viewpoints we abhor? Or took our own work, twisted our meaning into something utterly offensive to us, and then justified it as making it more commercial, more politically correct, or for any other reason?

What do you think?

*This does not take into account the process of regaining ownership of previously offensive terms.


  1. Completely agree, Deborah! Let it as-is! It is a representation of a specific time and place, and changing the words makes a mockery of it. Those words need to stay. Are they painful to read? Yes, they are. Looking back on that time is painful, as it should be. It's a reminder of a time and place that we should never forget lest it repeat itself.

  2. @Michele. I agree, we need to respect the readers and their ability to understand complex and disturbing issues.

  3. ... And soon there were only four words left. 'No', 'Me', 'Obey,' 'Believe'.