Saturday, February 24, 2018

Revising the Creature: or, Does Advice Always Improve a Novel?

As a writer, it’s difficult to know when a work is complete. Writing “the end” is only a kind of beginning, after all, since there are so many stages of re-reading, revision, editing, proofreading, and nail-biting (waiting for the first readers to tell you what they thought of it). Of course, some would argue that a work is never complete; only after years or even decades of living with a work can you finally close the book on what you once wrote and what you actually meant. So how do you take the first step from writing to revising? Whose words can help you see the flaws (as well as the virtues) and figure out what kind of work you’ve actually written?

In other words, when do you listen, and when do you stick to your guns? Who gets to decide what your work should actually look like: you (the author) or them (the readers)? Do they know better than you? Or are you more far-seeing than they are?

Here’s a case in point: in 1818, Mary Shelley published her now-legendary novel, Frankenstein, as a twenty year-old with no previous publications (indeed, her name was suppressed in the first edition, so as to hide her gender as well as her name—she had recently taken up with the infamous, and married, poet Percy Shelley). What she published is an out-and-out masterpiece, totally consistent in tone, style, and length (very short, without a moment of slack). That said, it’s also quite raw—full of a young person’s passion, impatience, and occasional bombast (how many times does Victor “gnash his teeth” when he gets angry?). Though the writing is beautiful and evocative, there are times when her emotion runs away with her, and descriptive scenes of nature—plucked from her favorite Romantic poetry (including her husband’s)—could be clipped for dramatic effect. But these quibbles aside, it rightly established itself as a masterpiece of Gothic literature and one of the greatest novels of the entire 19th century (and perhaps the 20th and 21st, since it has never gone out of print since its publication).

But tell that to the author. In 1831, after surviving several personal traumas (the death of children, her husband, and several friends) and writing several novels, she returned to her most famous work and made ‘corrections.’ At 34, she was an established writer and mother, and hardly the nomadic teenager tramping across Europe with her flamboyant husband. In short, she saw things differently, and had a long time to live with her novel—and to hear everyone’s opinions about what was wrong with it, what needed improvement, and how much of it was clearly written by her husband.

Yes, many people insisted that a woman (and almost a child, as she was) could have never written such a landmark work of art, so clearly her husband wrote the better part of it, condescending to let her “borrow” its authorship to make a name for herself. Never mind that Percy Shelley was not celebrated for his prose writing and was in general far too long-winded to write such a compact novel that often criticized his very character and ideals (did I mention how angry and passionate she was when she wrote it?).

At any rate, she decided to respond to criticism and revise her novel accordingly. First, she took a shot at critics who denied her authorship in the 1831 edition’s preface: “At first I thought but a few pages—of a short tale; but Shelley urged me to develop the idea [of Frankenstein] at greater length. I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet buy for his incitement it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world.”

Having settled that, she went on to make some wide-ranging revisions, softening Victor Frankenstein’s character and guilt, removing some of the more revolutionary passages (that betrayed her Romantic sentiments and those of her father, William Godwin), and erasing much of the character of the novel’s most important female character, Elizabeth Lavenza. The latter is the most surprising: why would a female author edit out a woman’s voice from her novel? The easy answer is that probably many readers (chief among them men) found her sentiments shocking or her character intrusive. Why doesn’t she act like a woman—like a victim? they might have chided. For whatever reason, she complied and made Elizabeth a much quieter and less effective character, as would be expected of a daughter/wife in the 1830’s.

For example, here’s a major difference between the 1818 version and the 1831 revision. It occurs in Volume One, Chapter Seven in 1818, or Chapter Eight in 1831, when Victor and Elizabeth confront Justine, their servant who is wrongfully accused of strangling their brother, William. She will be executed the following morning, and she has just confessed that her confession was forced—undertaken merely to save her soul. In the 1818 version, Elizabeth responds as follows:

“Oh, Justine! forgive me for having for one moment distrusted you...I will try to comfort you; but this, I fear, is an evil too deep and poignant to admit of consolation, for there is no hope. Yet heaven bless thee, my dearest Justine, with resignation, and a confidence elevated beyond this world. Oh! how I hate its shews [sic] and mockeries! when one creature is murdered, another is immediately deprived of life in a slow torturing manner; then the executioners, their hands yet reeking with the blood of innocence, believe they have done a great deed. They call this retribution. Hateful name! When that word is pronounced, I know greater and more horrid punishments are going to be inflicted than the gloomiest tyrant has ever invented to satiate his utmost revenge. Yet this is not consolation for you, my Justine, unless indeed that you may glory in escaping from so miserable a den. Alas! I would I were in peace with my aunt and my lovely William, escaped from a world which is hateful to me, and the visages of men which I abhor.”

A powerful speech against the “justice” of capital punishment as well as the bias of men that offers up another woman for sacrifice. This reeks of the teenage Mary Shelley’s indignation against male prejudice and authoritarianism. Giving Elizabeth space to say this makes Justine’s death meaningful; it also calls out Victor for his inability to protect her, since he is too worried about what people will think of him (and too selfish to sacrifice himself). However, in 1831 we find something quite different in this passage, which you can read below:

“Oh, Justine! Forgive me for having one moment distrusted you...Justine shook her head mournfully. “I do not fear to die,” she said; “that pang is past. God raises my weakness and gives me courage to endure the worst. I leave a sad and bitter world; and if you remember me and think of me as of one unjustly condemned, I am resigned to the fate awaiting me. Learn from me, dear lady, to submit in patience to the will of heaven!”

That’s it. Elizabeth says one sentence. Instead, Justine gets to speak, and rather than blast male pride or judicial hypocrisy, she refuses to call anyone out, and almost thrilled with the opportunity to die like a Dickensian heroine. Her final sentence almost seems cribbed from a Victorian conduct manual: “Learn from me, dear lady, to submit in patience to the will of heaven!” So no matter how duped you are by your protectors or by justice itself, simply submit to the will of heaven and say your prayers. You might get killed, or raped, or even worse, but no matter—you’re only a woman!

Why would Mary Shelley take out one of her most powerful speeches (and a speech by a woman, no less) and revise it with something pat and perfunctory? A response to criticism, no doubt. People were uncomfortable with Elizabeth’s agency—her unwillingness to submit to her fate. She does the same elsewhere, too, and almost every time Mary strikes it out. In an England inching toward Victorian sensibilities, such women could no longer speak out. And whatever Mary privately thought of it, she seems to have nodded her head and bit her lip and crossed out the offending passages. Did it make for a better novel? After all, a few fine speeches don’t make a novel, and we can argue that Elizabeth’s powerful declaration has nothing to do with the story proper. Did Mary feel it actually detracted from her tale? Is it possible that she actually saw it as an improvement?

Sadly, we’ll never know, though to this day, the 1831 version is the more common form of the novel. Most people read this version, with its truncated Elizabeth, than the original 1818 (though this is increasingly gaining in popularity). So which one should we read? Are first thoughts best thoughts? Or does everything improve with revision? Whatever we decide, Frankenstein remains a cautionary tale on revision and criticism. To be sure, some things improved in the revision: the Creature has some better scenes, and the novel overall is a bit tighter and more dramatic. But much is lost, and not just with Elizabeth.

Revisions are always a compromise between what you wrote then and what you see now. And criticism can blind you to the fact of who you were when you wrote the work. The best revisions are undertaken with a foot in both worlds—the present and the past. If you only revise based on who you are now, with ignorance or even contempt the previous writer, the revisions are unlikely to improve the work. I think to some degree Mary Shelley revised in this spirit—or was convinced that she should.

Take criticism will a liberal pinch of salt. Don’t assume that what one or even a dozen readers say is gospel. Listen closely, carefully, and digest this advice in the balance of your own inspiration and intentions. Don’t assume that you’ve outgrown the writer of yesteryear. Sometimes—many times—we were much wiser back then than we are today. Wisdom isn’t always measured in years, after all. It’s not for nothing that Mary Shelley wrote many other novels, some of them quite good, such as Valperga, The Last Man, and Lodore, but nothing that matched the popularity and visceral thrill of Frankenstein. Perhaps she never forgave her first novel for being her best, especially when she no longer thought so herself (for what author ever thinks his or her first novel is their crowning achievement?).

If writing is an emotional exercise, so, too, is revision. But even worse, revision can become an exercise in exorcism—a chance to rid yourself of the demons and spirits that haunt you. Shelley hoped to make Frankenstein more civilized and respectable—an impossible task. We love it for what it says about who she was and how she saw the world: as a firebrand teenager who refused to conform to society’s laws. Only a teenager in the early 19th century could imagine a “monster” who thought like a child, and was cruelly tortured by his father—much as Mary was betrayed by her own father for loving Percy. Fiction preserves the follies of youth even when the adult can no longer stomach them. However, now that she’s escaped the dogma of 19th century England and the land of the living, I can only imagine that wherever she is, she’s reading the 1818 version and smiling with approval. Yes, that’s exactly what I meant...and the rest of you can choke on it!

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Don't Take It Out On the Books!

Recently in an article on Book Riot’s Facebook page, a writer/academic boasted of her lifelong disdain of a “great” work that everyone is supposed to like, but apparently, no one does. The work in question is Moby Dick, and the writer congratulated herself for finally tossing the work aside, realizing that you can be an academic without sacrificing your own sense of taste. On the one hand, she’s exactly right: being an academic doesn’t mean conforming to a rigid standard of taste or values, since no one is more argumentative or less homogenous than a group of English professors. I should know—I’m one myself, and ran the gauntlet of a PhD program in English literature with a highly divisive group of mentors. Indeed, one of my favorite professors would often tell us, “Jane Eyre is a piece of shit—read Wuthering Heights instead!” I was far too timid to contradict her at the time, but the question always forming on my lips was, “er, why can’t we read them both? Does liking one necessarily exclude the other?”

But to return to the article in question: why is rejecting a work a badge of pride or an arbiter of taste? Of course we’re not all going to like the same books, or appreciate the same music, but that has less to do with conforming than our individual aesthetics. I get that the writer felt pressured (by whom?) to like and appreciate Moby Dick, and by defying it to all and sundry, she felt she was asserting her independence from the academy. My only question is, why take it out on a book? Books don’t care what you think of them; they don’t have a secret agenda to make you feel stupid; and they certainly don’t belong to a secret club of hipster academic rock stars. Yes, a group of hipster academic rock stars might carry specific books as icons of their own importance, but that’s their choice—not the book’s.

I think the most tragic mistake we make as readers is grafting other people’s personalities onto books we haven’t read. A student recently told me, “I rarely read books that are assigned in class; I prefer to chose my own reading material.” While that sounds very enlightened and independent, it also says “any book an authority figure likes is immediately branded with their image.” So he rejects the book as an effigy for the professor, rather than putting his ego aside and taking the book on its own terms. After all, what if a book he might have read himself is on a class reading list? Does it suddenly become anathema? Does he pretend he never wanted to read it? Or does he actually convince himself he never did? Should reading books be so complicated? Isn’t the point of reading to learn, to dream, to imagine, to expand, to travel, to exalt, to fulfill, to explore, to be something more than you are? So why settle for so much less?

Okay, granted, you might have every intention of liking Moby Dick, or Beowulf, or To The Lighthouse and a dozen pages in, you’re nodding off. So you toss it aside and try again a few days later...with the same result. Maybe you try again in a month, even a year, with the same experience of tedium or blatant dislike. How could you respond so negatively to a work embraced and loved and taught by millions? It’s natural to feel a little embarrassed, as if everyone is laughing at a joke that doesn’t seem in the least bit amusing. And often that vague embarrassment turns into resentment—and then a total rejection of the book in question. Some people assume it’s a conspiracy or an act of pretension; no one really likes that book—it’s just something people say! Another click bait article on FB recently announced, “25 books that if people say they’ve read that proves they’re lying,” with rather tame favorite such as Pride and Prejudice and 1984. Is it really that simple? If two people disagree about a book one of them has to be lying?

Or is the answer much more complex? Books, like all creative art, have to be examined from multiple perspectives. Reading alone doesn’t make you the master of all books, and no matter how many places you’ve lived, you’re not ‘worldly’ enough to understand every book from every culture. Every book has its own aesthetic DNA which resonates when a reader shares a similar genetic makeup—either through their life experiences, or the books they’ve read, or their hometown, or their thought processes. Not liking a book isn’t necessarily a failure of the book—and it’s certainly not a failure in you. What is a failure is when you censure a book for not meeting your standards and/or assume that a book that bores you isn’t a book worth reading. Even worse is when you go on a crusade to stop anyone from reading that book...which is what the author of the article seemed to undertake as a newly minted academic (her poor students!).

Simply put, you will hate, dislike, be bored by, or simply find yourself indifferent to very good books. Even some of the best. Even worse, other people will hate, dislike, be bored by, and simply find themselves indifferent to the books you love most in the world. Some of these people will be your best of them may even be your husband or wife (gasp!). And it’s okay. Life goes on.

However, as we grow older our tastes change, broaden, deepen, are refined. The books we loved as teenagers don’t always carry on into late adulthood. Likewise, books we find deep meaning in after 50 might have infuriated us at 25. So how do we read for both or multiple selves—the one we are today, and the one we hope to grow into? Here’s what I would suggest if you find yourself at odds with a book that everyone else claims to love:

* Read some reviews of the book. Not Amazon or Goodreads reviews (ye gods!), but a review by a professional critic or another writer or academic. Or even better still, read the Introduction or Afterward often published in editions of classic books. Such reviews/intros will give you a fresh perspective on a book the way a college class can invite multiple discussions on a single page. The more voices you invite into the reading experience, the more you might see—and appreciate—in the book before putting it down again.

* Learn more about the author. Often we dislike a book because it seems to exist in a vacuum. If you don’t know anything about Flaubert, and his book seems tiresome, figure out who he was. Where did he come from? Who did he love? Why did he write this book? Connecting a book with an actual human being changes things immediately. It makes it real, a precious object rather than a mass-produced pile of pulp. It might also explain why some of the things that annoy or confuse you are actually there.

* Figure out what else was being written at the time. This is especially important for the so-called classics. Reading Candide might confuse you until you realize what Voltaire is directly responding to. This will help you understand much of the satire in the little volume, but also how courageous he was in standing up against tyranny and the dictates of popular taste. Also, seeing how one book responds to and expands upon another helps you appreciate the “spider web” effect of literature, and how everything exists in a symbiotic relationship—even books by authors who used to hate one another. Especially authors who hated one another!

* Give it time. We often think that we’re the most advanced, enlightened, educated, emancipated person right now that we’ll ever be. And it’s never true. In a year you might think differently. Things will change. A relationship (or lack thereof) will change how you read a book. So will a change of job. An election. Even the time of year. Nothing is more true than this: your taste will change. Not get “better,” perhaps, but evolve. The book you toss aside today might one day become your constant companion. And nothing is more annoying than admitting that to a friend you convinced never to read a specific book.

So don’t hate books. It’s not worth it. Hate politics, dogmas, bureaucracies, secret societies, even a few people while you’re at it. But not the books. They represent the best of what we do, and they last because they offer us more than we could possibly become ourselves. We diminish ourselves when declare a holy war against art. Because only art itself is holy, not our self-righteous and often hypocritical ideals.