Greetings, everyone!  Sensible Shoes has some family medical issues (send your best thoughts her way), so I'm taking control of the series this week.  

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate!

Note: I'm hijacking the first part of the diary to touch on the currently hot issue of text and censorship (re: Huck Finn), so if you're here for the writing, you can skip to the second half.

On Censorship:

Big to-do this week about the proposed edition of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, excising the author's use of the n-word in favor of "slave".*

This may surprise people, but I'm not particularly infuriated by the idea that the text can be changed like that: anyone who studies literature knows that texts are neither static nor inviolable, and this sort of thing happens far more often than the general public realizes.  Twain himself wrote multiple versions of Huck Finn: most readers don't know that there is an entire chunk of Chapter 3 missing from most editions (Twain's publisher had a problem 'fitting' it in, but it's been restored in some later editions) and considerable problems with comparing manuscript and typewritten versions of the text.  Most readers do know that you can already buy substantially cut and edited versions of the text for different audiences.

Ironically, one of the arguments I've seen against changing the text is actually the best argument for changing it: that Twain was accurately depicting the spoken language of his time.  If that is the case, as Alan Gribben argues, then the verboten nature of the n-word today spoils the effect Twain was going for.  We are in effect reading a different text already.  

And this happens a lot more often than people realize.  Raise your hands if you know the original title of Agatha Christie's classic And Then There Were None (if not, click here).  Or seen this version of a Joseph Conrad novel rarely read because of its title.  Meanwhile we've been chatting on this very site about Hergé's editions of Tintin that have revised the racist language and imagery from the originals in order to make them readable today (scroll down to the bottom of this page for examples.)  Those of us who work with translations feel it more acutely: it's not uncommon to see English editions of Dostoevsky that don't translate his casual anti-Semitic slurs, for example.

Whatever side you fall on, it's worth reading Dr. Gribben's defense (pdf!) before drawing conclusions.  Huck Finn is, and will remain, a controversial masterpiece**, and discussions like this only help us deepen our relationship to the work.

* - and practically no to-do about the decision to mute Tom Sawyer's many racist terms for Indians ('Injun', 'half-breed'), which will appear in the same editions.  Huh.
** - apart from that crap ending, of course.


On Resolutions

Oh yeah, this is Write On, so y'all are probably sick of me talking about reading and textology.  Since it's just after New Year's, and we're all sorting through our various doomed-to-fail resolutions, has anyone made a resolution to write more in 2011?

Harry Mathews offers some advice:

Like many writers, I often find starting the working day a discouraging prospect, one that I spend much energy avoiding.  Four years ago I was reminded of an injunction Stendhal gave himself early in life: Vingt lines par jour, génie ou pas (Twenty lines a day, genius or not).  Stendhal was thinking about getting a book done.  I deliberately mistook his words as a method for overcoming the anxiety of the blank page.  Even for a dubious, wary writer, twenty lines seemed a reassuringly obtainable objective, especially if they had no connection with a "serious" project like a novel or an essay.  For the next year or so I began writing days with a stint of at least twenty lines, written about whatever came into my head on a pad reserved for that purpose.

Ah, that blank page: how does one conquer it?

This won't be everyone's cup of tea, but since I'm in charge today (mwuhahaha!)...  as SenSho knows, I find the most inspiration in constraints: that is, in deliberate roadblocks to writing.  It may sound paradoxical, but nothing is harder to work with than a wide-open slate.  The more rules you set for yourself, the more these rules prompt creative writing.

So here's the writing challenge for today.  Take an entry you'd done for Write On! in 2010 (or if not, see below) and rewrite it without using the letter "E".  More importantly, do whatever it takes to make the result sound natural, such that a reader might not even recognize what you've done.  If you need to move things around, use creative euphemisms, combine sentences or delete others... just preserve the meaning as much as possible.

Yeah, it's crazy and more than a little artificial, but as Mathews once said, "There is no value inherent in the product of a constrictive form, except one: being unable to say what you normally would, you must say what you normally wouldn't."  And that's a pretty difficult thing to do, which makes it a great writing exercise.

If you don't want to revisit your old writing, grab a book off the shelf, openly it randomly, and attack!  For those of you who need a passage to work with... in honor of the RNC, we'll go with opening of a famous novel:

"Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes. But I warn you, if you don't tell me that this means war, if you still try to defend the infamies and horrors perpetrated by that Antichrist- I really believe he is Antichrist- I will have nothing more to do with you and you are no longer my friend, no longer my 'faithful slave,' as you call yourself! But how do you do? I see I have frightened you... sit down and tell me all the news."

It was in July, 1805, and the speaker was the well-known Anna Pavlovna Scherer, maid of honor and favorite of the Empress Marya Fedorovna. With these words she greeted Prince Vasili Kuragin, a man of high rank and importance, who was the first to arrive at her reception. Anna Pavlovna had had a cough for some days. She was, as she said, suffering from la grippe; grippe being then a new word in St. Petersburg, used only by the elite.

Originally posted to De hominis dignitate on Thu Jan 06, 2011 at 05:03 PM PST.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers.

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