28 May 2013

The Wordsworth Trap

by Terence Faherty

My first post on SleuthSayers, "Doyle When He Nodded," was about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fascinating lapses. One of the comments I received was from fellow contributor Elizabeth Zelvin, who wondered whether Doyle would have addressed his mistakes if he'd lived long enough to bring out e-editions of his books. (To do this, the long-lived doctor would had to have outlived Sherlock Holmes himself.) Elizabeth reported that she was having fun updating her novels for their e-debuts. That reminded me of an ethical dilemma I faced while working on the e-book editions of my early novels. I call this e-dilemma the Wordsworth trap.

Wordsworth the Younger
The Wordsworth in question is William, dean of the English Romantic poets. Wordsworth was even longer-lived than Doyle, making it to eighty, not a bad trick in 1850, the year he died. It certainly broke the pattern established by his Romantic stablemates Keats, dead at twenty-five, Shelley, dead at twenty-nine, and Byron, dead at thirty-six. Wordsworth should have amassed a much larger body of work than those three, but he really didn't. In my copy of Major British Poets of the Romantic Period, William Heath editor, a survivor from my college days, Wordsworth's poetry fills 224 pages, while Byron's takes up 230. It's true that Keats and Shelley have to team up to top Wordsworth with 245 pages, but William had roughly five more writing decades than either John or Percy was granted.

So what happened? For one thing (the one thing I'm interested in), Wordsworth spent time he might have devoted to new poems tinkering around with his old ones. And not necessarily improving them. This isn't just one mystery writer's opinion. Editor William Heath, mentioned above, noted in his introduction that he went with the later, revised versions of Wordsworth's poems even though, in the case of the longer work now called "The Prelude," the original version was "livelier, less abstract, less conventional in literary form and religious doctrine." Perhaps the revised one was gluten free.

Wordsworth the Elder
The way this tinkering wastes a writer's finite time supply is one objection to the practice. Another, philosophical one is best expressed as a question. Is any human project perfectible? After all, Leonardo da Vinci worked on the Mona Lisa for years and never got the eyebrows right. Say you think perfection is possible or that it's noble to strive for perfection whatever the odds. You're then left with another question. Whose standards of perfection apply? That may seem like an easy one. If the subject is Wordsworth's poetry, then Wordsworth's standards apply, not William Heath's or anyone else's. But which Wordsworth? The Wordsworth who thought The Lyrical Ballads was ready to go in 1789 or the Wordsworth who was still changing a word here and there in 1829?

You may give the nod to Wordsworth the Elder, due to his many years of reflection and his maturing as an artist, but what of Wordsworth the Younger's claims? He was closer in time to the experience that inspired a given poem, "Tintern Abbey," say.  And he was the one who actually wrote it. Isn't he entitled to have it the way he wanted it?

These questions came to mind when I sat down to review the e-edition of Deadstick, my first Owen Keane novel. It was first published in 1991, and I was reviewing it for a twentieth anniversary edition. Twenty years is a long time. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge (or over the damn, if you prefer) since then. I'm not the same person I was in 1991 on any level, not even cellular. I hope I'm a better writer; certainly some of the challenges that seemed daunting when I wrote Deadstick I now take in stride. But I'm definitely a different Faherty. And as such, I felt the temptation to rewrite rather than review. That is, I strayed close to the powerful jaws of the Wordsworth trap.

(I should note here that this ethical dilemma did not apply to Elizabeth Zelvin. She was reviewing a book written in 2008, a mere blink of the eye ago.)

I did make minor changes here and there to Deadstick, of course. Sometimes it was because a sentence that had passed the "What am I trying to say?" test in 1991 didn't seem to now. And I corrected at least one continuity error caused by my failure to write the series in chronological order (from Owen's point of view). But for the most part, I respected my lost self's right to have the book the way he wanted it. And I followed the same rule when reviewing Live To Regret, the second Keane novel, which just made its e-book debut, and the upcoming third, The Lost Keats. (Yes, that Keats.)

If I live to be eighty, I hope my future self will treat my current stuff with the same deference when he's preparing the thought-transference editions--or whatever they have then. I won't be around to write stet in the margins, but I hope he'll imagine me doing it.

Oddly, Wordsworth once explored the concept of the earlier self as a separate person. According to Reginald Gibbons of Northwestern University, he was the first to do so in poetry. Here's a link to Professor Gibbons' essay "Earlier Self is Other." Wordsworth cannibalized an older poem about a childhood experience for his epic "The Prelude," and then, being Wordsworth, he kept tinkering with it. In his early drafts, he's clearly writing about his own lost self; he uses first person. But in later versions, he backs away from the interesting idea that the earlier Wordsworth is a separate person by switching to third person point of view, making the lost self simply a lost boy. And that's a shame. I think he got it right the first time.

8 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

Yikes! I'm afraid I could become a tinkerer, especially if readers catch errors.

But yes, I agree Wordsworth had a problem. So did Leonardo da Vinci, if I remember right– he left lot of unfinished works. I also believe he lost commissions because he kept tinkering with models and concepts.

Bill Crider said...

Or maybe it's the Henry James trap.

Jim Winter said...

I can see fixing typos or inserting a scene or two to clarify something, but to go back and tinker? The two worst offenders of overdoing this are Stephen King and George Lucas. Lucas has mercifully handed off Star Wars to JJ Abrams (I would have picked Peter Jackson, but what do I know?)

King really needs to let The Stand stand. Yet I fear before he dies, he'll put out a 4000-word version that starts in 2020 and makes absolutely no sense compared to the original. Too much tinkering is really a slap at the reader anyway.

Eve Fisher said...

Perfectionist tinkering is just another way of not getting much done. But it's an easy trap to fall into, especially when faced with a blank page/screen.

I'm more intrigued by the idea of the earlier self as other, for one thing because I was talking to a program friend about this yesterday, and assuring her that she is not who she was. And we are not. If we did not/could not change, then education, rehabilitation, punishment, hope, would all be futile. Granted, some things from youth die, some things that we could consider very valuable. Or is that hindsight? Personally I'm always very wary of people who are ingenuous, naive, and innocent well into their 4th decade. Something is wrong.

Terence Faherty said...

I've always thought that a person who hopes to leave one perfect work of art behind when the pen falls from his or her cold dead hand is putting a lot of faith in his or her next of kin. I'm not sure I'll have any posthumous works. My wife has the dumpster rental company on speed dial.

Terence Faherty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Louis A. Willis said...

Striving for perfection is a futile endeavor. Once you have constructed that perfected sentence, two minutes later, you think “I can make it even better.”

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I hope nobody will think I've tinkered with DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER in a quest for the perfect 70,000 words. I merely deleted a thousand unnecessary adverbs and Jimmy's laborious explanation to Barbara of how to use Google (verb "to google" not yet in use in 2008). Oh, and changed back a name I loved that my legendary editor made me change. She died (at 92); I win. The past five years have been a blink of an eye in which everything in publishing and technology has changed significantly.