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No. 15 - Keep It Definitive


When our previous letter left-off, we were discussing whether re-printing slurs from classic works of literature could engender harm, and whether it was important to consider the demographics of the readership when deciding to edit or elide content. For those who haven’t read the comments from our last letter, there were some very passionate responses!

For the sake of our readers, I won't bury the lede. I'll be forthcoming in saying that for The Sun Also Rises and all other future Century Press publications, there will be no censorship or editing. All works will be re-printed as originally published.

⏮ Let’s work backwards to see how we arrived here:

To summarize the conclusions from the previous letter:

  1. The re-printing of derogatory slurs from works of classic literature doesn’t appear to manifest hate-driven violence in society.

  2. Century Press’ readership is primarily adults who are themselves choosing to acquire and learn from our publications, and are not participants in a public educational setting.

Before hitting the throttle on re-printing these classic works verbatim, we briefly considered a form of self-censorship common in both online discourse and printed contemporary works: the use of elision. Many of you may be familiar with this technique whereby certain words are truncated after their first letter, followed by an em dash, or a number of em dashes, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks (e.g. X—————).

Finger Drawing A Straight Line In The Sand

However, the possibility of elision was soon discarded, since as one of our commenters asked, “where do you draw the line?” At Century Press, we craft our books to last for hundreds of years, which forced me to consider the question: “If someone picks up this book in 100 years, will they even understand which word I’m choosing to elide?”

Plus, 100 years is eons when we think about how fast our culture changes.

To illustrate this point, you can follow two opinion pieces from John McWhorter—an American linguist—in the New York Times. The first, dated April 2021, discusses how the 'N-word' was become unsayable in recent years. A mere 8 months later in January 2022, McWhorter penned a second piece, responding to a new cultural discussion centred around whether the word 'Negro' should be banned. 

John McWhorter American Linguist Monochromatic

This sequence of articles underscores that what is considered offensive can evolve over short periods of time. By consequence, choosing to alter the definitive version of a work of literature could seem foolish, or more likely baffling, depending on the views of people a whole century from now.

Thus, while I do deeply consider every component that comprises a Century Press edition, I’ve accepted that my role does not extend to modifying any of the source material.

That being said, while derogatory language and ideas do not warrant censorship in the books we re-print, at Century Press, we do believe that they require examination and contextualization. 

You may recognize one approach to the contextualization of classic content if you've watched certain films on Disney+. Here, films such as Peter Pan and Aladdin now come with a disclaimer that appears before the movie begins.

 Disney Plus Offensive Content Warning Peter Pan Aladdin 

At Century Press, we wanted to go beyond this basic advisory notice, and move one step further by providing our readers the opportunity to learn from a modern interpretation of a classic text. In many ways, I was very much inspired by an exhibit on indigenous people at the Museum of Natural History in New York City  There, the original diorama remains present, but with new information that provides updated context for the exhibit. When you see these two perspectives super-imposed, you begin to recognize the importance and the power of choosing to confront history head-on rather than surreptitiously changing it and sweeping the past under a rug.

 

Museum of Natural History New York City Reconsidering the Scene Indians Native Americans Dutch Lenape Colonization 

The choice to leave the original text intact and add an educational framing around it was strongly endorsed by the academic contributor to the novel, Daniel Hannah. I think he did a great job analyzing the racial politics of Hemingway’s first novel, and I’m really looking forward to hearing what our readers think about his essay once the books have shipped. 

🔁 To bring this discussion around censorship full-circle, I’ll freely admit that I’ve received a few messages from readers suggesting that if I feel uncomfortable encountering derogatory words and ideas, I should refrain from publishing them all together.

However, I don’t think it’s that simple. 

‘Classic' novels occupy a special space in the minds of readers, and also myself. For what reasons have these novels been so celebrated and put on a pedestal above others? Should they still be praised and belong to ‘the canon’ today even though there are certain aspects of them that may feel completely inappropriate for 2022? Is the value of what they contributed to literature during the time they were written sufficient to compensate for deficits current readers may acknowledge today?

White Male Canon Books Great Book Shelf European Men Classics 

For me, re-publishing classic works, and finding appropriate literary critics to provide introductions, is entirely about challenging ourselves to spend time in this potentially uncomfortable space. These stories are indisputably ‘classics,’ but what we take from them today has certainly shifted from what someone would take away in the year of their original publication. By offering insightful introductions to classics, it becomes possible to responsibly engage in a conversation with the original text in a way that wouldn’t be available were the novel itself to be re-printed in isolation.

🐶 Woof, big talk, big themes, big ideas.

I feel like I could use a drink after these last two letters, maybe a daiquiri apropos of Hemingway?

Thanks for joining me on this journey, and keep an eye out for a more lighthearted letter where I’ll be reviewing the supporting cast from The Sun Also Rises: the panoply of alcoholic drinks deeply interwoven into nearly every scene in the novel🍸🍹🍷🍺🥂

A huge thanks to everyone in the Century Press crew who has already placed a pre-order for The Sun Also Rises! For those still on the fence, remember you can still save $20 CAD off the list price when you order today.

As usual the comment section is open below, and I’m always eager to hear what’s on your mind.

Alex


4 comments


  • Jeff

    You know I don’t understand what all the hubbub is all about. Some of these readers should just be glad to have the book to read, and you having to clarify you’re going to print it as it was originally published should go without saying. Why in the world should you change anything that the writer intended? Thanks for standing by the author and printing what he wrote. Looking forward to my book.


  • Mel

    After leaving us with a cliffhanger in your previous letter where literature was in mortal peril, it’s a relief to find that tragedy was averted and all is well. Clearly, I do not feel works should be altered; as Popeye the Sailor says, “I yam what I yam.” I also feel that your concern about contextualization is valid, and while contextualization does not seek to excuse, it does seek to explain, and that is instructive. Now your publications will have both the yin and the yang, the works and the context. A perfect pairing. Kudos. Enjoy your drink!


  • Andrew Carter

    Language and meaning change with time. It is therefore right to print the original and therefore, one hopes, the author approved version. It is therefore the job of an introduction or appendix to position that work in its place in time. How quickly things change is well reflected in Christopher Buelhman’s intro to the recent publication of “For those across the River” .


  • JEvFB Beckman

    With pencil in hand, I’ve refixed the fix in my Century Press versionexcursion of The Great Gatsby.


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