30/11/2009

Happy As A Censor

Given that Harlequin - yes, that Harlequin - has been squewering romance for decades, it's not surprising they now apply the same treatment to mystery. What's more, they are proud of themselves!

"Remember, our intention was to publish the stories in their original form. But once we immersed ourselves in the text, our eyes grew wide. Our jaws dropped. Social behavior—such as hitting a woman—that would be considered totally unacceptable now was quite common sixty years ago. Scenes of near rape would not sit well with a contemporary audience, we were quite convinced. We therefore decided to make small adjustments to the text, only in cases where we felt scenes or phrases would be offensive to a 2009 readership. Also, grammar and spelling standards have changed quite a bit in sixty years. But that did entail a text edit, which we had not anticipated. AND, we had to clear those adjustments with the current copyright holders, if we had been able to locate them. And of course, the covers: Though we used the original covers, they had to be scanned and touched up."

I don't dispute that vintage mysteries often include stuff that is hard for the modern reader to stomach, and while I don't think it should necessarily invalidate the corpus delictii's artistic value, I can see why readers and publishers might prefer to stay away from it. Had Harlequin finally decided not to reprint material it deemed offensive, I wouldn't have minded - more adventurous publishers might have taken the relay and it was just fine.

But this is not  what Harlequin chose to do, instead they decided to butcher books from another era to make them palatable to modern readers deemed too stupid or too sensitive to tackle "hot stuff" from the past.

Yes Virginia, the past is a foreign country, people do - and write - things differently there and you won't change that by deleting words and editing content. What you will do, however, apart from a disservice to both literature and history is emasculating a story and thus depriving it from a vital part of its interest and importance. That the whole thing seems to have been done without asking anyone's permission is further testimony to the moral quality of the enterprise.

I said in a recent post that preservation of the classics of the genre was up to fans, be them readers, critics or independent publishers, and that story provides further confirmation of it. That mystery is now the top-selling genre in the world doesn't mean it's taken more seriously and respectuously by people with money (and nothing much else) on their minds and will resort to anything to make some bucks - the kind of people, in short, who run the publishing industry.

29/11/2009

Better Late Than Never

Eons ago, I wrote a post suggesting that Golden Age be divided in three periods, with a brief outline of each stratus and its main characteristics. I would, I promised, expand on that in future posts. As procrastination, oblivion and lack of inspiration played their ordinary nefarious role, those future posts never came up. Even worse, I let a typically perceptive comment by Henrique Valle without the answer it deserved. As this blog has recently entered its third year of existence, it's time to get the work done and start this long-promised series. If I don't get writer's block and keep a good health it should be completed by December, 31. First instalment will take place on next Sunday.
Stay tuned...

19/11/2009

Our Job

Les Blatt over at GAdetection mourns the loss of John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, John Rhode, Emma Lathen and others whose works have been out of print for eons, with no better future in sight:

This thread hits on a very sore point for me - the fact that so many classic authors are completely (or nearly so) out of print, at least in the US. As far as I know, all of Sayers's, nearly all Christie's and a fair percentage of Marsh's books are still in print. Allingham, as you say, is being reprinted by Felony & Mayhem, who also has been reissuing most of Crispin (curiously excluding The Moving Toyshop) and Elizabeth Daly. So much for the good news. Once you get past Rue Morgue Press and, of course, Crippen & Landru, however most of the other publishers seem to have only a very limited assortment available, particularly of GAD authors. Poisoned Pen Press in Arizona has some available; ditto Merion Press, and I've found some Leo Bruce books published by Academy Chicago Press. I guess I should note that the Mystery Guild does have a handful of classics (usually multiple-novel volumes) available, amid the usual "blockbuster-hits-only" lists. I suspect that the problem too often is orphan rights. It seems criminal (pun, I suppose, intended) to me that Carr and Queen are totally out of print, not to mention Arthur Upfield, John Rhode and even later authors, including Emma Lathen and Patricia Moyes. I'm not sure I can offer an easy solution - but I do think that today's readers are being cheated. And I'm grateful to Doug Greene and to Tom and Enid Schantz, among others, for their work in trying to bring some excellent authors back.

The distressing gap between the huge popularity of the genre and the widespread ignorance of whole strati of its past is a familiar topic of this blog. It is not helped by classics going extinct. How can you fault someone for not knowing John Dickson Carr, or having never read anything by him, when the only way to do is to dig in the dusty shelves of some back-alley used book store? Availability is the first condition of notability.

The big question of course is why those once well-regarded authors fell off the train whereas their companions continued their travel more or less comfortably. Some will say it's estate's fault, others will insist that it's publishers'; still others will say that it's just because their works have not stood the test of time. They all have a point. Some estates are indifferent at best, provided that you can locate them. Publishing is a notoriously risk-averse industry and it's no coincidence that Rue Morgue, C&L and others are independents. Finally, times have changed and so have readers and their expectations, which to me is the most important factor.

Like it or not and for better or worse (no need to tell you which side I'm on) readers nowadays have a wholly different attitude to mystery fiction than they had back in the first half of the last century. Golden Age and later authors whose works have not faded into oblivion are those who satisfy the new standards or just provide a not-too-guilty pleasure.

Christie admittedly owes a great deal of her popularity to her amazing plotting skills and the legendary figures of Poirot and Marple, but an even larger part of her enduring appeal lies in what has come to be called "Christie-land", that quiet and gentle rural England with its retired majors and inquisitive spinsters. It is of course an oversimplification of her work and one of the reasons why she still fails in some quarters to be taken as seriously as she should, but this oversimplification is what makes the brand survive and the books sell.

The appeal of the other Crime Queens - Allingham, Marsh, Sayers and Tey - is of a different, more highbrow sort. While Christie is often (unfairly) chided for that modern capital sin, poor characterization, her sisters in crime are essentially lauded for their literary merits, in keeping with the contemporary liking for mysteries that "transcend the genre". Hardly anyone reads Tey or Allingham for the puzzles; their appeal lies in the elegant writing and the comedy of manners; Marsh and Sayers are stronger plotters but the dynamics are the same with, in the latter's case, a phenomenal plus in the person of Lord Peter Wimsey.

The forgotten men (and women) of mystery have none of all those advantages. John Dickson Carr for instance also wrote about rural England, but in a decidedly unquiet way no bound to please the cozy reader. Ellery Queen built several of their stories on psychology and the characterization in the Wrightsville books is superior but their plots (nor Carr's) had the deceitful linearity of Christie's - it takes much more attention and concentration to read Ten Days' Wonder or The Mad Hatter Mystery than And Then They Were None. Their books sometimes pushed the envelope but they didn't transcend the genre; they weren't character-driven, were scant on direct social comment and worse of all to a modern audience, they were doggedly unrealistic.

This is not to say that any revival is impossible; fortune may sometimes have happy reversals. But it will take time as the potential audience will not be easily won. Time being money, it is something big publishers are not readily prodigal of so don't expect them to lead the way in the rescue of the lost classics of mystery fiction; and while the aforementioned independent presses do a marvelous job, the bulk of the work is up to fans - it's up to us. Fans don't have money, they don't have power, but they have a plenty of that thing that move mountains: enthusiasm. Let's use it to enhance the visibility of our favorite writers, either by promoting them to our friends and relations or using the new tool we have been given or any other venue we can find. I can't say for sure it will result in the reprint of E.R. Punshon's complete works, but every travel begins with a single step.