You Had One Job

And you didn’t do it. Ursule K. Le Guin’s son and literary executor explains why he is revising her work in order to bring it more in line with modern social justice sensibilities:

My job is to bring my mother’s work to new generations of readers, not to revise it. People who adore a book are often eager to transform it, through screen adaptation, fan fiction or critical reinterpretation. Sometimes this works well; often it doesn’t. I tend to start from the position that Ursula’s words are sacred, so my initial reaction to the editor’s request was that of a strict constructivist.

After deep breaths, and with Ursula’s own revisionism in mind, I contacted a disability rights attorney, a youth literature consultant, a racial educator, and some kids. My advisory group leaned toward change but was not in consensus. I genuinely didn’t know what my mother would have decided. But she left me a clue: a note over her desk asking, “Is it true? Is it necessary or at least useful? Is it compassionate or at least unharmful?”

I like to think that truth and compassion are immutable even as the language we use to express them changes. But cultural constructs of harm are mutable; we frequently revise our definition of what’s harmful to whom, how it is spoken of, and who gets to do the speaking. My mother’s note tipped me toward changing her words. I found substitutes that would retain the original meaning and cadence, and stipulated to the publisher that the new editions would note that the text had been revised.

Criticism of changes to Dahl’s books can just as well be leveled at my own decision. Closest to my anxiety is the reaction of Susanne Nossel, of PEN America, who counsels us to “consider how the power to rewrite books might be used in the hands of those who do not share their values and sensibilities.” Although this haunts me, people who don’t share my sensibilities about artistic freedom seem to prefer to ban or burn books, usually without having read them.

In other words, literature must be defaced in order to make it acceptable to the lowest-common denominator, thereby turning books, which preserve human knowledge, into a form of ephemeral entertainment akin to television.

We really do need to see about getting that Castalia History subscription going before it’s too late.

This is why successful authors are well-advised to formally place their work into the public domain rather than trust their children, and especially, their grandchildren, to be faithful to their work and to protect their historical words. With the exception of a few loyal souls like Christopher Tolkien, most literary heirs are far more concerned with how their predecessor’s works are perceived by their friends and acquaintances than they are with doing their one job of preserving the family literary legacy.

I’ve personally witnessed this myself, where the literary heirs would rather see their predecessor’s work continue vanishing unread into history than risk embarrassing them with a revival of its historical appeal.

This is another reason why current copyright law is downright evil; it tends to destroy an author’s legacy rather than preserve it. Life of the author is a sufficient period for copyright, with an additional 10-year period to benefit the heirs and provide a foundation for providing a literary legacy for those heirs genuinely interested in doing so.

And it is, of course, amusing that he attempts to justify his decision to modify his mother’s works by appealing to the belief that others won’t take similar liberties. But once one accepts the principle that texts can be deemed unacceptable to the public in their original state, one has already justified their burning. And it’s just a matter of time before someone who doesn’t approve of that work for one reason or another comes to power.