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.