A brief history of revising

[Boston Globe]


In this week’s Ideas section, in the Boston Globe, I’ve got a story about the history of revising. Today, we think of revising as an arduous, necessary process. But in an interesting new book an Oxford prof named Hannah Sullivan argues the Modernists were actually the first group to revise in this way.

Check out the story for more — there are cameos by Ernest Hemingway, John Milton, and Virginia Woolf, among others. But on my blog I did want to address one obvious (if insider-y) question. If the Modernists loved revision so much that they kept at it throughout the literary process, including when their work was in proofs — and one of Sullivan’s key points is that these discrete stages actually encouraged revision — then why didn’t their printers and publishers complain? James Joyce would call in revisions by phone even as his novels were in their final proofs. But, as any editor will tell you, changing work in proofs is expensive.

The answer to this question — and another important context for the Modernists and the rise of revision — comes from the patron-like figures who supported their work. In her memoir Shakespeare & Company, Sylvia Beach recalls Joyce’s publisher warning about “a lot of extra expenses with these proofs. . . . He suggested that I call Joyce’s attention to the danger of going beyond my depth; perhaps his appetite for proofs might be curbed.”

But Beach explains that, for her, the most important thing was that Joyce could work as diligently and obsessively as he wanted to:

I wouldn’t hear of such a thing. Ulysses was to be as Joyce wished, in every respect. I wouldn’t advise ‘real’ publishers to follow my example, nor authors to follow Joyce’s. It would be the death of publishing. My case was different. It seemd natural to me that the efforts and sacrifices on my part should be proportionate to the greatnes of the work I was publishing.

So there you have it — one reason “Thou Shalt Revise” has grown into the literary world’s first commandment is that the Modernists had the resources to revise and to experiment with the rules of revision.

About Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is a Ph.D. student in Yale’s English department and a freelance writer. He's working on a book about presidents and their books [more] . . .
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