Sunday, May 16, 2021

Some Thoughts on Reprinting Books

This is essentially a response to Simon's post on Should Offensive Books be Republished from earlier in the week. Both his post and the comments below it are well worth reading with some excellent perspectives. I normally grapple with this from the point of view of a reader who likes to write about and recommend books I've enjoyed or found interesting - which is mostly, but not always the same thing. 

Simon's insights from his position as series consultant for the British Library's Women Writer's series are interesting, and so is what Kate Macdonald from Handheld Press has to say. In the end as far as choosing which books get republished goes it really is down to the people behind them and what they consider to be commercially viable. 

I think this more or less works in terms of checks and balances, especially if like me, you consider the publisher's name to be the badge of quality that makes you take a chance on a book. It's a faith that can be easily dented - after decades of trust in Virago books I'm really disturbed by the way criticisms of Naomi Wolf's Outrages have been handled. I expected better of Virago and find myself looking at their non fiction list with considerably more skepticism now. 

When it comes to fiction, Simon's post has left me with two strands of thought. The first is that there is clearly a need to engage with older fiction and all the questionable attitudes in it - for some of us. Reading is an easy way to engage with the past, and whilst I think there's probably a place for light editing; changing single words where the sense of the passage won't be lost for example, it's a slippery slope to go down. The Culloden visitors centre is one very good reason why this matters.

When I was last there a couple of years ago it really bothered me; the suppression of the Highlands that followed defeat at Culloden has not been forgotten, or forgiven. There used to be (and might still be) a small cross in one of the display cases that the curators thought likely to have been dropped by a fleeing highlander. There were pages of comments on trip advisor demanding the card be changed because no highlander would ever have fled from battle. People were genuinely offended, just as they currently are by The National Trust's attempts to reckon with the colonial past of many of it's buildings, amongst others.

Ignoring or denying the history and attitudes that don't fit with who we like to think of ourselves as being now is dangerous. It absolutely does lead to the worst sort of nationalism. For people like me (white and middle class) there's a real need to come to terms with what has gone before.

Which brings me to the second train of thought those comments sent me on. We don't all need to reckon with the same things, what is salutary for me to read might well be unnecessarily hurtful for others. The idea of a canon of work that's fit for all is an increasingly ridiculous idea, and when you come down to it isn't all fiction genre fiction anyway? We don't all like romance, we don't all like the world of Jane Austen (I do), we definitely don't all want to read the great American novel - but we all need, and deserve representation in books. 

I've wondered in the past if I'm being prissy when I say that attitudes are old fashioned, or potentially offensive, and if I should feel guilty for still enjoying those books. I think the answer to both is no. It's only good manners to be clear about the contents of a book if there's something problematic about it. How attitudes affect me is personal to me, as is what I might want to find in a book and why I'm reading in a particular direction. 


  1. A well thought out response to a difficult subject. We don't want to misrepresent the past, or cause offence today, and its a difficult balancing act. On your comment regarding the National Trust highlighting the history of slavery relating to its buildings, I wish they would also highlight those buildings associated with the many people who fought to abolish slavery. One particular property that shows that well meaning attempts can badly distort history is Lundy Island. The NT website mentions that one house was built on the proceeds of slavery abolition compensation, but not that the island was occupied from 1628 to 1634 by Barbary pirates, who were kidnapping British people to sell in the north African slave markets. History is not black and white, but fifty shades of grey! (see

  2. It really annoys me that the National Trust seems unable to deal with more than one narrative at a time. You can't understand anything about history like that, and it's a positive curse of our times that we still want to see things in terms of black and white, good and bad, us and them. People who talk about the right side of history are another bug bear. History doesn't take sides, it just is.

  3. Thanks Hayley, this is a really helpful contribution - I particularly like 'what is salutary for me to read might well be unnecessarily hurtful for others' - so well phrased.

    1. I was arguing with my partner about this - he thinks things should just stand as they are, but I wouldn't recommend a wine to someone without caveats, or assume that just because it's technically a great wine that everyone is going to enjoy it, or even assume that they enjoy wine at all. There are things I find hard to read about, or am just not especially interested in and I want to know if I'm going to come across them before I start investing time (or money) in a book so that I can make an informed decision. With hindsight I could have left Elizabeth Von Arnim's 'Vera' well alone, as I do with graphically violent crime novels. It seems odd that films come with content indicators and books don't.

      More than anything though I just find the idea of an accepted cannon increasingly questionable, and with it the whole way we value different books and writers. 1936 reading week and Captain Blood really gave me a lot to think about.

    2. Thoughtful and helpful comments (as was Simon T's article and the comments on it). I never subscribed to an "accepted cannon" in literature. As a fellow wine enthusiast, though without your professional skills and knowledge I hasten to add, I think your wine analogy is rather helpful. I am just finishing an excellent, satirical, thought-provoking, and splattered with the "n-word" novel "The Sellout" by Paul Beatty. I note that Beatty’s writing may seem taboo at first, and may well offend, but his treatment of serious racial issues call out society’s unwillingness to discuss and thus address these issues. I recommend it.