Thursday, November 12, 2009

Pet Peeve #37: Self-fulfilling prophecies about the loss of culture

Elizabeth Zelvin

The 37 is a random number, meant to suggest that I’m holding a lot of pet peeves in reserve for possible future blog posts. The title is my best shot at avoiding the term “dumbing down,” which might seem insulting to just about anybody. But there is indeed a trend in our culture, especially in its literature, to assume that Americans, in particular, will not understand sophisticated or even mildly historical cultural references. The current solution is to change those references to something that whoever is in charge of these decisions believes will be comprehensible even to illiterate cultural ignoramuses. (I told you it was insulting—that’s why I’m peeved about it.) And the consequence of these changes is that as new generations arise, they have never heard of the terms or bits of history that they’ve been protected from exposure to. Any part of “self-fulfilling prophecy” you don’t understand?

Let’s start with the universally popular Harry Potter series, written for kids but apparently enjoyed by adults across a broad spectrum of reading tastes from don’t-usually-read-at-all to highly literate (that would be us). In England, the first volume was entitled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. If you’ve heard of the Philosopher’s Stone, raise your hand. Keep your hand raised if you learned about it by reading a book. The Philosopher’s Stone has been around since at least the 8th century. Well, not around, or alchemists, philosophers, and early scientists (including Sir Isaac Newton, John Dee, Paracelsus, and even perhaps St Thomas Aquinas) wouldn’t have tried so hard over hundreds of years to find or fabricate this legendary substance that was believed to turn base materials into gold and maybe confer rejuvenation or even immortality. I bet school kids even nowadays are told at least once in the course of their education who Newton was. Would it have been so hard to explain the Philosopher’s Stone? Yet thanks to a publishing decision, the millions of American kids who read and loved Harry Potter have never heard of the Philosopher’s Stone. The “Sorcerer’s Stone” they’ve read about is just a thing, a fictional magical object like the “Horcrux” in the later books, without cultural resonance outside the world of Harry Potter and easily forgotten.

Here’s another example from children’s literature, the source of many mystery writers’ and adult readers’ lifelong love of the genre: the Nancy Drew series, first published in 1930. The original Nancy was feisty and independent. She drove a roadster and always had a pocket full of tools (rope, flashlight, sewing kit) to get her out of the tight spots her love of adventure and desire for justice invariably got her into. Reading them in the 1950s, I didn’t know what a roadster was. But did it matter? A brave and active heroine of the 21st century, with a cell phone and a hybrid car, is nothing special. But against the cultural backdrop of less feminist times, Nancy shines. I recently found my ten-year-old cousin Emily reading one of the books. When I asked which version she had, she said she thought they were the originals. But when I asked her what Nancy drove, she said, “A convertible.” All that cultural texture is unavailable to Emily and her generation.

Some revisions are bowdlerizations, playing to our supposed prudishness rather than our supposed ignorance. As a kid in the 1950s, I learned a lot of history from Elswyth Thane’s popular Williamsburg series of historical novels. The Day, Sprague, and Murray families (from the Revolutionary War in Virginia to World War II in England) were probably, for me, the first fictional characters so well developed and likable that they felt like family. A few years ago I found them in library editions that took a kind of Victorian attitude toward certain cultural references. In one book, the fortyish male companion of the rather demi-mondaine seventy-year-old Cousin Sally, mysterious and unexplained in the original, is described as a “doctor” in the library edition, presumably so readers won’t be shocked that they are clearly intimates. (No sex scenes, but he sits at her bedside reading aloud. Horrors!) Elsewhere, references to champagne—a metaphor for a refined hedonism, life’s fizziness as opposed to its earnest Puritanism—are amended to “wine.” On the last reread I found one I’d missed—this one more of a dumbing down. A character in London in 1896 refers to his solicitor and business manager, saying, “I’ll refer the matter (the character’s divorce) to my man Partridge.” Nobody who’s ever read an English novel would have trouble with this, surely. But in the American library edition, Partridge has become a “handyman.” Ouch!

Finally, let me share a query I got recently from a young editor, passing on a query from the final proofreader before my new book, Death Will Help You Leave Him, went to press. It’s a scene in which two characters are brought to an office building on Wall Street after hours. The night security man at the desk in the lobby says, “Now stand on that spot for ten seconds, please. State your name and who you got the apperntment with for the camera.” The proofreader, and apparently the young editor as well, wanted to know, “Should this be ‘appointment’?” When I’d recovered from the shock, I wrote back that the passage was correct as it stood, and “apperntment” was “what used to be called Brooklynese.” I’m glad they asked. Otherwise, it would have been another nail driven in the coffin of American culture.


Pablo said...

Rod Duncan reports a similar incident of a baby editor correcting all of the grammar errors and sentence fragments in his dialogue. I recently read a book (by a different author) where the writing was just terrible, real first draft stuff (first draft by an 8th grader). Where was the editor on that one?

I had heard of and knew what a Philosopher's Stone was before the HP books.

Sandra Parshall said...

I once paid a freelance editor for her help with a manuscript. She wanted me to change the dialogue of my under-educated, rural characters and make them speak proper, standard English.

I've read plenty of published books that don't appear to have been touched by an editor.

CelebWedding said...

A roadster sounds so much more romantic and feisty than a convertible! Why can't they eave the classics alone?

Deb said...

(Long-time lurker; first-time poster)

One of my daughters (11 years old) reads Nancy Drew. Because our library has various Drew books from various eras, she goes from the forties to the seventies. Her comment was that she likes the "older" Nancy better because, "The older Nancy would never say 'Hey, you guys' like she does in the later books."

Regarding your broader theme, Robertson Davies used to say that we do no favors teaching our children only the things they already know or only within the context that they understand. I couldn't agree more.

Barb Goffman said...

The dumbing down problem isn't just in books. Fifteen years ago I worked as a newspaper reporter, and I used the word "orthodontia" in my story. The editor made me change it to "dentistry." She was afraid that no one would know what orthodontia means, and that they might think it was something sexual. Still makes me want to pull my hair out.

Julia Buckley said...

A great post. It's odd that in trying to take what is special about someone's writing--special because it contains context or important allusions--people seem to be trying to spread a sort of homogeneous frosting over everything that would otherwise be INTERESTING.

Julia Buckley said...

PS Fitzgerald's Daisy Buchanan also drove a roadster, and I really couldn't imagine it being anything else.