Friday, January 7, 2011

Tweaking Twain

"The difference between the almost right word and the right word
is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning."
—Mark Twain

Mark Twain once wrote about an explosion. A man asked, "Anybody hurt?" Another replied, "Nope. Killed two niggers, though." Twain used the offensive word deliberately, let it roll off the tongue of his racist character like it did the tongues of real people, to slap us in the face. Mark Twain was not a bigot, but through his characters he showed us the ugly reality of racism.

My little brother and I once found a dead bird in our grandma's yard. After wrapping it in a handkerchief and tucking it in a shoebox, we buried it in the orchard with a funeral, song, prayer—the works. A few days later we decided to see if it had been resurrected, so we dug it up and peeked into the casket. Hundreds of white, squirmy maggots were feasting on the tiny body. "Don't look!" Tommy screamed, but a glimpse of reality stayed with me. It was repulsive, but I needed to see it—I needed to know.

Alan Gribben, a Twain scholar, reminds me of my brother. "Don't look!" he seems to say with his new editions of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Tweaking Twain, he is replacing the N-word with "slave" in an effort not to offend readers.

Dagney Velazquez wrote this on her blog today:
"Is it an offensive word? Absolutely. Is it demeaning to an entire race of people? No doubt. Does it need to be completely purged from our current vocabulary? Certainly. Should we pretend like it never happened? No.

"Twain didn’t write fairy tales. And though the protagonists in these books are children, they are not children’s books. He wrote about and for the times, often using humor as the medium for his cutting criticisms of society, a society deeply entrenched in racism, who used words like “nigger” because a majority of them believed that black people were inferior human beings. To turn our eyes from this reality, to pretend it didn’t happen, is to doom us to ignorance, stagnation, and repetition."

Should an author use the ugly words? Should they be spelled out when quoted, as I did above, or referred to by an initial that makes everybody think it anyway? While writing Son of a Gun, I wondered whether to use a rough vocabulary or one I'd let my grandkids read. Research showed that many 19th century swear words are pretty tame today: blazes, boot-licker, dickens, dratted, strumpet, tarnation. Current favorites often meant something completely different in the olden days, so I avoided them by being historically accurate.

It remains a question for the book I'm writing now. I don't swear or take the Lord's name in vain, but should all my characters talk like a middle-aged, 21st Century, Mormon grandma from Salt Lake City? Or should they talk like a Texas cowboy, a Hungarian count, or a dam builder? (did I spell that right?)

Dagney wrote a conclusion I totally agree with:

"If, 100 years from now, someone were to republish my writing and change all the little parts they found offensive, I would rise up out of my grave and knock them over the head. Assuming that Mark Twain was no less spirited than I, let’s not risk it."

Now it's your turn:

You're forty pages into a book and you throw it down in disgust. Is it because of swearing, murder, slavery, war? Was the topic too G-rated? Too R? Did you want more love and less lust, or just the opposite? Was the prison too gritty, the hero too studly or the villain too tame? What do you find offensive in a book? Please leave your critique in your comment!


the wrath of khandrea said...

i find it offensive when the writing doesn't rhyme. because let's face it... these days, all i'm reading is dr. seuss and shel silverstein.

Diane said...

I almost fell over when I heard what was happening with Twain. I find it offensive that they want to change his writing - I can't even go on, or it would take pages. Censorship is an offensive word to me. Let us judge and read or not read for ourselves.

Holly said...

I find it more offensive that people are even considering rewriting/changing Mark Twain's work--or anyone else. His writings reflect the times and the culture--it was what it was and we shouldn't sugar coat it.

But anyway.

I don't mind sprinkles of more colorful language/adult situations if they benefit the character or storyline.

The Grandmother Here said...

I started reading a book about a knitting club. The main character had a foul mouth so I didn't read beyond the first chapter. Sometimes bad language fits the person's character and the plot and the setting, but in this case she was a character I didn't want to spend any time with.

Christie said...

I personally put down the books where everyone talks like a Mormon grandmother. Keep it real. Let the character's words come out through you. True to themselves. If someone is offended - it's their loss.

Heather @ Alis Grave Nil said...

It's hard to offend me with anything that's written well. That's usually my test.

Kay Dennison said...

What Holly snd Heather said. And to me, changing Mark Twain's words are sacrilege. When I write, I write what I mean and I mean what I write.

Susan Adcox said...

I normally oppose censorship, but replacing the "n" word with the word "slave" makes a certain amount of sense, as that is how they used the word in Twain's day. I taught Huckleberry Finn in high school, and dealing with the word was stressful. With my less able students, I did a lot of reading aloud. It was painful to me to pronounce that word, and I think it was painful to some of my students to hear it. Also, some of my students would use the word in their essays without putting the quotation marks around it, which really bothered me. To avoid these issues, I would consider using the alternate version of Huck Finn.

On to what bothers me in books--it is graphic violence. It blows my mind that sweet little grandmothers, librarians and Sunday school teachers are reading books about sex crimes, autopsies and serial killers. I don't see where that is good material to put in one's head.

Heather @ Alis Grave Nil said...

I forgot to add that I'm also an English teacher. If a book is too hard to teach or to have to deal with, I dont' teach it. Also, I have to consider what is age-appropriate. My seniors in AP English read Native Son, which is offensive in just about every way possible (but to a specific end, of course), but I wouldn't touch that in my freshman English class. Ever.

My first year teaching, the very first question I got asked at back to school night was (regarding Catcher in the Rye) "How on earth can you justify teaching that FILTH?" I think part of teaching is weighing what you want kids to get out of a book--which for me is more than just grammar and narrative--and decide if you can teach it. The book was approved by my district, so I did.

Another student came to school with a copy of Catcher that had every single swear word crossed out with a black sharpie. Her mom did the editing. Oh, the irony.

Heffalump said...

I do have a hard time with swearing. Not that I expect an author to not use it, but it's something I try not to be around in life, so why choose to be around it in print? Now, when it fits a character, that is one thing. Sometimes it seems like it is put in without any need at all.

The other thing is graphic sex scenes. I don't read that kind of thing. I tend to stick to reading children's novels because I want to steer clear of that.

Raejean said...

First off, I don't agree with "rewriting" Mark Twain. It's interesting to make his work politically correct, when the nature of his writing shows the immorality of bigotry. I do agree that it is important to consider age (or maturity) appropriateness of his work.

That being said, I have a hard time reading books with very much foul language. I can better withstand "biblical" swearing, but beyond that, not so much. I was reading a mystery. At the first vulgar word, I decided to give it three chances. But when the f*bomb came while I was still in the introduction, I decided that wasn't the book for me.

Tracy said...

I'm actually appauled that they want to 'tweak' Twain; who do they think they are to change a work of art. Is it offensive to use the n-word? Of course it is but it was a sign of the times and Twain was telling it like it was.

polly said...

I love reading for enjoyment and for learning about different people living in different places. If a book is written well I'm ok with how these people would react in life circumstances. Because that is how they are. Reading is the best way to widen horizons and understand the world. Also - nothing should ever be changed after an author has written it.

whit said...

I get offended by people wanting to change the work. It's history, and if people don't like it, then don't read it.

Beck said...

I'm with RaeJean on the F bombs. A book just isn't for me no matter if it fits the character or not. I find it somewhat ironic when writers think that they need to have the character "say" a cuss word when they can write something like, "Jim turned his head, cursed under his breath and said,..." I appreciate authors who are more careful and less likely to throw in cussing simply because it "fits" their character.