Revising Literature

In T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, he writes:

Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

I always associate these lines with any sort of creative process, none so more than writing. Although not a writer myself, aside from some university dissertations which I dare not revisit, I become intrigued when I read this article about a collection of first edition books that have been annotated by their author and will be sold off at a charity auction. Some of the authors are rather scathing of their own work such as Yann Martel, who concedes he never completely liked the opening line of The Life of Pi. Other annotations include small details like Lynne Truss fixing a hyphen that appears on the title page of Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Despite the success that all these authors have continued to have, I did wonder if they slightly gnashed their teeth in frustration as they penned their annotations, being unable to permanently improve or alter their books.

The annotations made by these authors on their own works does speak to Eliot’s words, in that they must have pored over each page of their manuscript, made corrections, scrubbed out words only to later add them back in but at some point had to take their toast and tea and draw the line somewhere. In turn, as books now appear in digital as well as print, is there the possibility that an author could endlessly tinker with their work? This piece in the Christian Science Monitor a number of years ago pondered the very question with its author concluding that this could very well be a ‘doomsday scenario’. In journalism, it is not infrequent to have articles amended, so can the same opportunity be afforded to authors who may wish to use the malleability of an e-book to tinker with their own work as time goes by? Or once published, should they be left untouched? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

4 Responses to Revising Literature

  1. Joelle says:

    I remember a few years ago right after Sarah Dessen’s book came out (I think it was LOCK AND KEY) she asked on her blog if the ending was clear. Apparently, some people were confused by it. I was one of them, actually. She sells enough copies that she was considering fixing it for the second print run. I’m not sure if she ever did or not. That seems okay. There are a couple of tiny errors in my second book, and one in my first, which my editor said I could change for future print runs, but alas, I am not Sarah Dessen, so remain, they do!

    When I read aloud from Restoring Harmony at events, there is one spot where I add a “he said” for clarity, but I wouldn’t go back and change that even if I could. That’s being a bit anal, I think.

    Wasn’t there an error in The Goblet of Fire – the order everyone came out of the wand? I think they fixed that for future printings.

    So…I’d say yes to changing continuity errors, but other than that, maybe move on.

  2. Redleg says:

    “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
    – Leonardo da Vinci

  3. D. C. DaCosta says:

    Sometimes I feel bad about a “finished” work, thinking (knowing?) that I might have done better. But I console myself when I read Twain or Tarkington, M. R. Rinehart, or other popular and successful writers of a century ago. You can blue-pencil their works for occasional repetition of vocabulary, ambiguity of expression, even misuse of a word, or lack of originality or inspiratioin in imagery.

    But really, “good enough” actually IS, in fact, good enough.

    I have to wonder, had these writers of the Victorian and Edwardian times had access to our word-processors, would they endlessly revise and polish…or would they hold themselves to a standard of “getting it right the first time”?

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