When our last letter left off, we were left at a crossroads. What to do about reprinting (or not reprinting) the inflammatory word, “kyke”?
In the quest for guidance, I asked a wide range of people for their opinions and somewhat surprisingly received an equally wide range of responses.
Notably, older folks were more inclined to keep the word as originally intended by F. Scott Fitzgerald — after all that is what he actually wrote.
Still, I wonder if Bantam Books would’ve made the same decision in 1945 to swap “guy” for “kyke” if the author didn’t happen to have already died from a heart attack five years prior? Does that mean it’s more acceptable to modify an original text provided the author is no longer living? I’m not certain that’s a good rule to follow…
Perhaps not surprisingly, those in my generation (Millennial), felt more strongly about exercising some editorial privilege and making a change. But if a change were made, should it be silent/unwritten, or should there be a note in the text, whether footnoted, or at the end of the novel? These choices would have clear aesthetic costs and benefits, potentially distracting from the story itself.
That being said, weren’t the existing edits made by Bantam (“guy”) and Penguin Books (“tyke”) also potentially distracting? To me, they certainly create some dissonance and ambiguity of meaning in the fictional context.
In Chapter 2, the shrill Ms. McKee asserts: “I knew he was below me. Everybody kept saying to me: ‘Lucille, that man’s way below you!’ But if I hadn’t met Chester, he’d of got me sure.”
Is a “tyke” or “guy” necessarily a person that’s “way below you”? In my opinion, the meaning of this dialogue, the portrayal of Ms. McKee, and by consequence the nature of all the partygoers who are in attendance at Tom Buchanan’s not-so-secret NYC apartment become flattened. Fitzgerald intends for his readers to find Ms. McKee to be coarse, crass and vulgar, and we do—just not in the intended way.
The act of intentionally—and often thoughtlessly—editing texts, which can result in their concomitant loss of meaning, in order to appear more politically correct seems to be one of the primary arguments against making changes to classic novels.
Indeed, headlines were made roughly a decade ago when a new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn was published that replaced the N-word with “slave.” While the intent of the author and publisher of this edition was to preempt censorship that would remove Twain’s work from academic curriculum, this editing choice is self-defeating insofar as it muddles the meaning of a word used dozens of times in the book.
The N-word and “slave” are not synonyms, in the same way “kyke” and “tyke” are not synonyms.
Along those lines, as a publisher of classic novels, the question of what I would do with Mark Twain obviously crossed my mind. Would I ever publish a book with the N-word in it? Short answer: absolutely not!
Humans, whether fictional or not, use words to describe groups of people. As our culture constantly evolves, the terms to describe groups of people can transition from derogatory to non-derogatory or vice-versa. What remains constant, to a large extent is the actual description of that group (i.e. who we picture in our minds when the word is said).
I don’t believe that derogatory terms for groups of people should be re-printed if an equally descriptive, non-derogatory version of that term can be substituted. A slur itself exists with the purpose of insulting a person or group, not necessarily to describe them.
Like any decision-making framework, there are pros and cons to making any editorial adjustments to classic texts, but importantly here, I’m not advocating for the original edition of The Great Gatsby to be wiped from the historical record. If people want to read the original version, it’s easily accessible in written form, as well as a Tim Robbins audiobook. Perhaps some readers didn’t even know about the mid-century edits until they read this post!
Century Press was created in order to be relevant to the present era. That’s why we emphasize sustainable materials and local production. That’s why we have a new introduction from an economist discussing why The Great Gatsby rings true in 2021. And that’s why I’m exercising my editorial pen to make my own modification to the novel, and choosing to replace the derogatory term “kyke” with the non-derogatory term “Jew.”
Agree? Disagree? Don’t know what to think? Let me know in the comments.