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Richard Greener

Richard Greener

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No Publisher Should "Edit" Mark Twain's Novels

Posted: 01/ 5/11 12:04 PM ET

Mark Twain's novels are about to be bloodied. As a novelist, I understand, object and feel compelled to protest.

Mark Twain published the first novel written on a typewriter, Tom Sawyer in 1876. Eight years later, in 1884, he published Huckleberry Finn. Now, despite being dead for a hundred years -- or perhaps because of it -- Twain's autobiography tops today's Best Seller list. On top of that, NewSouth Books is planning new editions of both Mark Twain classics. There's a problem, though. Every publisher has an editor and every author's manuscript goes through a process of editing. Even Mark Twain, you may ask? Wouldn't you just print it "as is" or better said, "as was" and leave it like that? I'm afraid not. I know -- from personal experience -- that there are rules in the publishing business. Among the firmest of them is: For every book there is an editor.

The editor at NewSouth Books apparently intends to drop the word "nigger" from the Twain texts. Twain included this word more than 200 times. Each and every one of them will be "edited" out, dropped, removed, erased -- call it what you will -- to be replaced by the word "slave" or perhaps some other less offending word in the English language. This will be an editor's decision.

As a novelist I believe an editor works best with a writer when he or she offers constructive criticism and asks pertinent questions -- all designed to result in better words, better sentences, better paragraphs; to make a better book. Every manuscript has room for improvement. The editor who best motivates an author to make such improvements is the best editor. This process is most effectively done live, of course. And even then, with two people in open, lively and respectful conversation, sometimes it doesn't work out. Like many writers, I have had my disagreements and problems with editors. Yet, often a spirited argument can lead to a remarkable change, one both the author and the editor are pleased with.

No such opportunity exists with this new edition of Mark Twain's work. Today's Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn editor has no way to communicate with the writer. All editorial changes will be, by definition, made without the author's approval or even his acquiescence. If you're dead you have no input. Still, the editor has a legitimate function and changes can be justified, just as they may be disagreed with. However, this piece of editing -- the removal of the word "nigger" -- goes over a line no editor should ever cross. This has nothing to do with the word itself. It relates to the form in which the word appears in the manuscript. Yes, Mark Twain wrote every word, as every novelist should do in every novel they write and put their name to. But, this word is not just Mark Twain's word, a manner or style of description, a statement of fact, an element of the novel's narrative. No, often it is a word of dialogue spoken by one of the novel's characters. As a writer, I know the difference. There are the author's words and there are the character's words. They are not always the same.

Some may insist that all words in a work of fiction belong to the writer. Technically that's so. But ask any writer and they will tell you there are things their characters say, stuff they just blurt out, that they -- the writer -- have no control over. The author taps the keyboard, punches the typewriter, moves the pen -- writes them down -- that's all. When an editor changes a word of dialogue they have edited the character more so than the author. I have had characters say things I would never say - even things I didn't want them to say. I have had characters say things that were grammatically incorrect, or vague and unclear, or actually misleading, and yes -- maybe offensive to someone, somebody, somewhere, for some reason.

Does the author have the right and the power to change dialogue? Of course. "Tom Sawyer" was written on a typewriter, remember? Could Twain have backspaced and changed his dialogue? Sure. Anytime he wanted to. Could Twain have taken that word -- "nigger" -- and made it "slave" or some other less offensive term? Sure. Anytime he wanted to. He could have done so as he was writing his books. He could have made the change before he sent the manuscript to his publisher. He might even have made the change afterward, during the editing process. But he didn't, did he? He never did. And no editor should take it upon himself or herself to do that now. And no publisher should be able to print an edition of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn including that kind of "editing" without prominently indicating their "unauthorized" manipulation of the original language on the front cover. I would suggest a large sticker across the book jacket declaring: THIS IS NOT MARK TWAIN'S ORIGINAL VERSION OF THIS NOVEL.