Every tale ever told depends in some way on isolation. No matter whether a novel is set in a hectic city or a pastoral village or a single claustrophobic room, that book’s author has to build a narrative container for its characters so we readers understand where our focus should be: We pay attention to these people, this conflict, and not all that other potentially interesting stuff out there. After all, one book can’t fit every person and place in the world. The solar system. The universe. Beyond! No, writers must limit themselves, choose what to include and what to leave out, in order to tell their stories.
Of course, that container can take any shape. A novelist might set their book in as tight a space as one person’s mind. She might place her story within a marriage, as Lauren Groff does in the split narrative of Fates and Furies, or a family line, as Yaa Gyasi does in her multigenerational epic Homegoing. Writers sometimes build a physical structure around their characters: a mansion in The Haunting of Hill House, a train in Murder on the Orient Express, a reform school, a whaling ship, an asylum, a gulag. Or writers choose the limits of geography.
Settings with natural boundaries—islands surrounded by ocean, peninsulas cut off by mountains, oases in the desert—have shaped some of the most exciting books in print today. This list brings you eight novels perfectly limited by geographic barriers. The stories below are set in places remote to most of their readers, yet the skill of their authors, the bold lines of their containers and the sharp focus on what happens within, make them compelling to us all.
1. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The island novel against which all others are measured. In this 1954 classic, a group of British schoolboys is marooned after a plane crash in the Pacific. Stranded far from the world they know, the boys establish their own miniature civilization, which soon turns toward violence. Golding’s novel shows exactly why stories in remote settings fascinate us: Stripped of outside influence, kept alone together, these characters reveal themselves for the eager, cruel, conflicted creatures they—and we—really are.
2. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
García Márquez’s flawless novel follows the rise and fall of the town of Macondo, established beside a river in Colombia. To José Arcadio Buendía, the town’s founder, Macondo seems idyllic, a pristine spot protected by water on all sides. That vision is shattered as generations of the Buendía family see their home transformed by the national railroad, new government, and foreign companies. Over the years, Macondo’s population is corrupted by forces external (an army massacre of striking workers) and internal (genetic mutations caused by incest). The novel describes a paradise lost—and convinces us that paradise never would have lasted anyway.
3. The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe
After an island in the Pacific and an isolated settlement in South America, this entry on the list takes us someplace stranger, more surreal. Abe’s dreamlike novel strands us in a town sunk in sand. The impossible terrain rules the story: All the people in the town pass their days shoveling back the dunes, and Abe’s main character is conscripted for the task. He has to clear the sand or he’ll be killed. Using the twin pressures of nature and community, the book pushes its characters to their haunting, unforgettable ends.
4. The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin
Lin’s debut novel is set on the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska. Containing nearly half the state’s population, Anchorage has robust infrastructure, plenty of industry, and strong ties to the rest of the world—it’s no village in the dunes—but those connections soon fray outside the city, where Alaska’s subarctic climate and wildlife rule. This book shows just how bleak life in such a distant, threatening place can be, as a family struggles to move forward after the death of a child.
5. Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen
Greenland’s capital city, Nuuk, is home to fewer than 18,000 people. It’s the cultural and economic center of a country that is sparsely populated, difficult to reach, and almost entirely covered by ice. Korneliussen takes us there through this daring novel, which weaves together the lives of five young people. She cracks open our frozen imaginations to show us Greenland in all its queer, loving, heartbreaking beauty.
6. Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda
Lush and grotesque, this novel places us in a nameless village perched on rocks over a river. Its inhabitants cling to the perceived moral excellence of their remoteness, their bloody customs, and their oppressive conformity. They don’t wish to know anyone or anything else. Rodoreda, one of the most important figures in Catalan literature, worked on this book for 20 years, until her death. Geographically, politically, socially, the village’s cruel isolation is an expression of what Rodoreda herself faced under Franco’s dictatorship, when she was exiled from Spain.
7. Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
This award-winning novel takes place in the fictional Desperance, a town in the desert bordering Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria. Wright digs deep into the red ground where her story is set to explore fights between local families, mining operations on sacred ground, and colonization of Aboriginal earth. Her story fixes itself in place as her characters move in and out of Dreamtime, through the past, present, and future, to show the full scope of what this land means to its inhabitants.
8. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
In this fictional history of Earth’s settlement of Mars, Bradbury’s characters attempt to transpose onto another planet all the conveniences of home. They end up bringing their diseases, weapons, and fears instead. As Bradbury puts it, “Men are men, unfortunately.” Along with the other novels on this list, The Martian Chronicles leverages a raw, remote setting to expose our common humanity. Stories set in such environments let us see what is resonant, what is fundamental, what is shared. Separated from other people and stressed by geographic extremes, characters and societies reveal their weaknesses (greed, selfishness, the violent desire for power) and cultivate new strengths (curiosity, fortitude, a drive toward genuine connection). Turns out, no matter what remote place we wind up in the Milky Way, we can’t escape ourselves. Like the authors of our favorite books, we are working within limitations—yet inside those boundaries there is so much room to explore.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: Pablo García Saldaña.
Though Venus is more like Earth in size, Mars is the planet that regularly makes headlines. New ice under its sandy cliffs has been caught on camera, causing more hope that life may have been present at some point in the past. Prominent people like Elon Musk are talking about going to Mars in the near future.
Scientists are once again planning sustainable living quarters for the colonization of the fourth planet from our sun. This is not the first time humanity has endeavored to send a manned mission there. For more than a century this planet has been popularized in the news as well as in pop culture. Mars has especially held a rich place in world literature.
In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli said he saw channel-like structures in his observations of the Martian surface. Partially through mistranslation, some scientists further thought these were actually canals built by intelligent life-forms. A few years later, American astronomer Percival Lowell agreed wholeheartedly with Schiaparelli’s so-called findings. Years later, when better telescopes were more readily available, the scientific community for the most part dismissed the concept of the channels for they were not present on the planet’s surface. However, Lowell was no fool. He predicted that another planet in our solar system existed outside Neptune’s orbit.
This extraterrestrial body was indeed discovered (it was called Pluto). But despite their brilliance, Lowell and Schiaparelli (and others) saw things in their telescopes that weren’t really there. It has been suggested that the optics or even tired eyesight brought on the effect that tricked these astronomers. This is still a bit of a mystery.
Prior to the scientific community’s brushing-off of this concept, another French astronomer, Camille Flammarion, wrote several works that would today be considered sci-fi novels. In one of these, Les Terres du Ciel (1884), Flammarion describes the scenery of bodies such as the moon and Mars to his readers. Flammarion’s interest in the moon may have been sparked by the 1865 novel by his fellow countryman Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon.
Percival Lowell was also able to write and have published a number of lengthy essays about the proposed life on the Red Planet. His first was a book that was simply called Mars, originally published in 1895. Two more followed: Mars and Its Canals (1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908). Lowell died in 1916, and Pluto would be discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh.
Around 1898, a mere three years after the publication of Percival Lowell’s first Martian book, H.G. Wells’s epic sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds was published. The story he tells is one of invaders from Mars coming to Earth and leveling cities with their destructive lasers. Humanity retaliates with what it can, but the Martians’ tech is too advanced and efficient. It is fitting that the Earth finds itself in a desperate fight with the inhabitants of Mars, the name for the ancient god of war. The War of the Worlds enjoyed a host of Hollywood film adaptations. It was also converted into a radio play in 1938, late in the Great Depression, and was broadcast and narrated by Orson Welles. His realistic rendition and delivery of the script famously caused a panic throughout the U.S. (although, this historic aspect has been disputed in recent years).
In 1917, the year after Percival Lowell’s death, a novelization entitled A Princess of Mars was published. This book was the first in the Barsoom series; its author was the renowned Edgar Rice Burroughs. Apart from the Barsoom series, Burroughs other famous story was that of Tarzan. Ten sequels were produced, most of them being attributed to Edgar Rice Burroughs. The last of these was John Carter of Mars, which was published in the early 1940s. Barsoom is the Martian word for Mars itself. Thus, the series is referred to as the “Barsoom series.” (It was the basis for the 2012 film John Carter.)
Sci-fi was a new and rising genre in the 1930s. Stanley G. Weinbaum’s short story “A Martian Odyssey” was published around this time. Many stories of the same caliber were being published in that decade. In 1938 (the year Orson Welles made the renowned radio broadcast), a book called Out of the Silent Planet was published. It is often overlooked by sci-fi fans, and yet is was created and penned by one of the greatest fantasy authors of the 20th century. Its author was none other than British professor C.S. Lewis, a good friend of J.R.R. Tolkien. Out of the Silent Planet was the first installment of Lewis’s sci-fi trilogy. The alien planet on which much of the story takes place is Malacandra, which is meant to be Mars.
The next notable literary work is Robert A. Heinlein’s 1949 novel Red Planet. The Martian Chronicles, a collection of short stories about the colonization of Mars by Ray Bradbury, was published the year later. Then in 1951, Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars was published. This whole period was filled with Martian literature. The 1950s and ’60s were the golden era of sci-fi, and so Mars appeared frequently in much of the pop culture of the day. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) also takes the reader to Mars.
It was really not until the ’90s when quality literature about Mars and Martians became popular again. This is because it was in the 1990s that high-tech probes like Mars Global Surveyor, Pathfinder, and Sojourner landed on the planet, giving us new, more detailed imagery of the Martian surface. The Mars Society was also founded in the late 1990s. In this decade, astronomer and astrobiologist Carl Sagan said, “Because of the historic romance of the general public with Mars (consider even today the associations of the word ‘martian’), the exploration of Mars has a public resonance and support that probably no other goal of the space program can claim.”
In 1993, Greg Bear published his award-winning novel Moving Mars, a futuristic story that discusses many political themes. Kim Stanley Robinson also published numerous Martian novels throughout this decade. Dr. John Gray published a book entitled Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992), which covered topics about the psychological differences between men and women. It employed the metaphor of the title to get its point across, picturing that the two sexes originated from two different planets of drastically different societies. Apparently, it was the longest-running nonfiction bestseller of the ’90s. And in 1999, bringing the decade to a close, the novel The Martian Race by Gregory Benford was released.
The most popular Martian-related literary tale next to the classical War of the Worlds did not reach its readers until 2011. This of course is Andy Weir’s widely acclaimed The Martian which, unlike The War of the Worlds, actually takes place on Mars itself. It was adapted for the silver screen and released to theaters in 2015. This obviously helped in popularizing the novel itself.
It was also in 2011 that the poetry collection Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith was first published. The work features creative pieces that include imagery of numerous objects seen throughout the cosmos. Smith was likely inspired by the life of her father, a scientist involved with the development of the Hubble Space Telescope. Even more recently, Martian anthologies such as Old Mars which was edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois have been published.
Even music writers have shown a great fascination with the Red Planet. For instance, English composer Gustav Holst wrote the classical suite “The Planets” between 1914 and 1916. Mars is given tribute in its own section entitled, “Mars—Bringer of War.” In hearing it, it can easily remind the listener of various John Williams soundtracks such as that of Star Wars. Nearly a century after Holst’s composition, in 2012, the singer, voice actor, and songwriter will.i.am had his piece “Reach for the Stars” broadcast from Earth to Mars and back again.
We are entering a new age of Martian exploration in both science and science fiction. Our efforts are being directed at colonizing the sandy celestial body. As humanity strives to reach out toward the Red Planet, more imaginations will be sparked, more pens put to work. Someday soon, writers may find themselves living on a red planet, writing even more far-fetched fantasies than those of their forebears.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
In the summer leading into my senior year, I received a letter from my literary hero. My mother — noting his famous name on the return address — hand-delivered it to me while I shelved books at the local bookstore.
“This came for you,” she said.
I glanced up from the stacks, read the return address, then slowly unfolded the letter.
There was my name at the top, followed by the backstory: how he’d received a copy of an essay I’d written and been humbled by its contents. Tasked with writing about a “great American,” I’d bypassed the usual fare (presidents, astronauts, etc.), and wrote instead about him — the writer who’d changed me.
“It is one of the finest essays I have ever read,” he wrote, adding that he’d keep it in his desk drawer as a “permanent piece of literature for me to read from time to time.”
And just below, in his thick black scrawl, his signature: Ray Bradbury.
I was dumbstruck, dumbfounded, just plain dumb.
In my stupor, my mind leapt to a June night five years prior, when directly following closing ceremonies for my seventh-grade school year, my mother had driven me to this very bookstore to pick out a book of my choice. It was a rare, late-night bookstore visit, and as I browsed the shelves, pointer finger dragging across the tops of the titles, it eventually fell to Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. I chose it, devoured it, and as a result of its power, rerouted my life’s trajectory.
To receive an unprompted congratulatory note from the man who’d written it — in that very store, no less — seemed a kind of kismet worth capitalizing on.
And since his letterhead noted his home telephone number, I decided to give him a call.
I picked up the phone, dialed, waited nervously for the rings to give way to Ray.
“Hello?” a booming voice answered.
Following a few minutes of cyclical thank you’s and bonding over our shared Midwestern roots (Ray hailed from Waukegan, Ill.; I, from Fort Wayne, Ind.), I at last grew bold, did what any budding fiction writer might when he had his hero on the line.
I lied. Spectacularly.
“You know,” I said, “I’ll be in the area soon. I’d love to swing by and shake your hand.”
“Well, come on over then!” Ray agreed.
The reality was that 2,200 miles separated Indiana from L.A. — no short commute, especially by way of my 18-speed Huffy. And so, I settled on my second best option: I used my earnings from the bookstore to purchase a plane ticket. A few months later I boarded a plane, hailed a taxi, scheduled a shuttle, and at last reached Ray Bradbury’s front door.
At 17, Ray Bradbury, too, indulged in the occasional lie.
“I was going nowhere when I was seventeen years old,” he explained to biographer Sam Weller. “I had no talent. I couldn’t write a short story. I couldn’t write an essay or a poem or a play. So I had to lie to myself when I graduated…”
That lie came in the form of a prophecy he placed beneath his senior yearbook photo: “Headed for Literary Distinction.”
He didn’t believe it, though he hoped to make it so.
A month prior to graduation, Ray was cast in a role in the senior class play. He slipped away sometime before curtain call, making his way to the top of the high school’s tower. “I looked at the setting sun,” he said, “and I knew that this was the last night when I would be famous for a while.”
Yet not for too long. Throughout the 1940s Ray continued to hone his short story skills, publishing dozens, many of which found their way into his debut collection, Dark Carnival. By the mid-1950s he’d become a household name — The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 doing much to solidify his status.
Despite his yearbook quotation, success had hardly been guaranteed. Ray, I was proud to learn, was even scrappier than I was. As a teen, he’d plucked scripts from dumpsters behind Hollywood studios simply to study them. Upon getting a knack for how they were written, he went further by pitching his material directly to the stars themselves.
Scrappier still, a decade or so later — with a pregnant wife at home and $40.00 in the bank — Ray boarded the bus to New York to share his work with editors. On his final night staying at the YMCA, Doubleday editor Walter Bradbury suggested he link together his Mars stories. Ray stayed up all night doing so, crafting an outline that later became The Martian Chronicles, and returning home with a $700.00 check.
I marvel at such miracles; in particular, Ray’s ability to forge his own fate as the opportunities presented themselves. But I marvel, too, at his refusal to leave anything to chance. Perhaps his stick-to-itiveness is best illustrated by way of a story he shared with me during my visit to his home all those years ago. How, as a young, broke, telephone-less writer in L.A., he’d given editors the telephone number of the gas station payphone across the street. His bedroom window flung wide, whenever that phone rang he’d leap out the window and sprint across the street. Then, as casually as possible, he’d answer, “Hello?”
Now that’s how it’s done, I remember thinking. That’s how you become a writer.
The shuttle dropped me in front of the Bradbury home at a few minutes before 9:00 a.m, leaving me three long hours to whittle away before our noon meeting.
I perched on a low wall across from his yellow and white Cheviot Hills home and waited, reaching for my tie-dyed-covered spiral notebook and jotting some notes.
Reading them now, I see a young man so full of zeal that he’s all but unrecognizable to me.
“I wonder if he can see me,” 18-year-old me wrote. “All he’d have to do is glance out his window and look at the boy furiously writing down every word…All he’d have to do is glance.” This continues for a few cringe-worthy pages, eventually concluding with lines that, today, feel a little too good to be true. “For the first time,” I wrote, “as I sit across from his house scribbling away in this notebook, I feel like a writer.”
Maybe it was my variation of Ray’s aspirational yearbook prophecy, my roundabout way of saying “Headed for Literary Distinction” in a more personal, low-stakes fashion.
My final line: “I felt a rain drop and I pray it holds off for another hour.” (It didn’t.)
At noon I made my way up to the Bradbury doorstep: shook the water from my hair, wiped my feet on the mat, then knocked on the front door. His wife Maggie answered (“Well hello there!”) and led me into the living room to meet Ray.
There he was, smiling broadly with red suspenders blazing.
“Welcome!” he called, and for the next hour or so, proceeded to offer me every key to the universe he had. He walked me through the books on his shelf, shared with me his paintings, his poems, his work.
In turn, I committed several embarrassing acts. Including giving him my senior photo (the one with me holding a copy of Dandelion Wine), as well as a baby food jar filled with rainwater and dandelions gathered from my front yard, vintage 1998.
“Dandelion wine,” I explained, and though it wasn’t — not the kind you’d want to drink anyway — he accepted my offering, seemingly appreciative of my attempt to strive toward the metaphor he himself had written about: how we might bottle, cork, and stopper time by capturing a glint of summer in a jar.
“Thank you,” Ray sighed, holding the amber goo up to the light. “I love it.”
For a moment it seemed he’d transported back to Waukegan, to being a 12-year-old boy in his grandfather’s lawn, dashing once more in search of dandelions.
The play-by-play of what happened that day isn’t as important as the fact that it happened at all. At least for me. The real accomplishment, as I later wrote to Ray, was that I’d managed to “transform my hero into my friend.” (Which, if you can get past the schmaltzy sentiment, is an accurate representation of how I truly felt.)
And it’s how I continued to feel through our decade-long correspondence, most of which was filled with affirmations by him and the airing of anxieties by me. In recent years, these letters, too, have become difficult to return to. Not only because Ray is gone, but because that version of me is gone, too.
Who was that earnest young man in those letters? I wonder. What ever became of him?
“I’m in love with my younger self,” Ray once said. “He was lousy, but I love him.”
I was lousy, but I loved me, too. Loved my zest and gusto and “anything can happen” mentality. The way the stars always aligned when I needed them to, the way the bottom-of-the-ninth-with-bases-loaded scenario meant the grand slam was always just a pitch away. Even today it’s an alluring idea: to imagine our lives as one eventuality after another. To dispense heartily with probability and believe in possibility instead.
My essay was titled, “With Zest and Gusto the World Was Saved.” That’s about all I could tell you of its contents. It’s been lost for years, which is probably just as well. If my other writings from that era are representative, then I imagine it was a highly dramatic, purple-prose-infused caterwaul complete with lots of heart and not a lot of substance. As such, I have a hard time believing it was one of the “finest essays” Ray had ever read.
In his letter, Ray noted that my essay had reminded him that he was a teacher, too; that there were people who were reading his words for more than the stories, but for the writing lessons they offered.
My title was a nod to a line Ray himself had written: “[I]f you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer.”
The words are as true today as they were when I first read them. Only now, I know that Ray’s advice transcends writing.
He was teaching me how to live.
“Now listen,” Ray told me as our conversation wound down. “You’re making all the right noises. Most important is that you stay enthusiastic about life.”
He kissed my cheek, called me his son, told me to live my life with zest and gusto.
I waved goodbye, stepped outside, tilted my head toward the rain, and tried.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Recently J.K. Rowling dropped a bombshell on the smoking remnants of one of the fiercest shipping wars of the last decade: “I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.” It’s from an interview conducted by Hermione herself, Emma Watson, excerpted in the Sunday Times; the full article, in an issue of Wonderland Magazine guest-edited by Watson, came out on Friday. (The words “publicity stunt” may be floating around, but that kind of speculation is useless.) The ladies, bafflingly, “agree[d] that Harry and Hermione were a better match than Ron and Hermione,” Ron wouldn’t be able to satisfy Hermione’s needs, and the pair as she wrote them would need relationship counseling. And then the internet exploded.
OK, first of all, JKR, please just stop. Is the most aggravating thing about all of this the fact that Hermione doesn’t belong with either of these jokers? Was there literally anyone else for her to get with? (Rowling’s shoddy math suggests possibly not; despite the insistence in an early interview that “there are about a thousand students at Hogwarts,” there remain just eight Gryffindors in the matriculating class of ’98, suggesting no more than three dozen in the entire year, a whole house of which remain irredeemably, mustache-twirlingly evil despite seven books in which to write convincing moral ambivalence and complexity. But I digress.)
But also, JKR, please just stop — for reasons that have a lot to do with literature. Because the weirdest thing about the statement is the “wish fulfillment” bit, which I’ve seen interpreted many different ways, none of them satisfactory. My read of it is accompanied by this question: how is a writer setting down a plot from her head wish fulfillment? Forced, sure — this certainly wasn’t the only instance where it seemed that Rowling was stifled by the tyranny of the outline she mapped out more than a decade before penning The Deathly Hallows. (I spent years wondering how the hell the final word would, as promised, be “scar,” though by the time I got to the last page of the epilogue I was too infuriated to care.)
This isn’t the first time that Rowling has “revealed” further details about her characters, as if she is their publicist rather than their creator. The Dumbledore announcement was, admittedly, totally awesome, for the political ramifications at the very least. But Rowling seems insistent on undercutting her authorial intent, or her position as omniscient narrator, the sort of “I would have loved for this to happen” statement, it’s like, really? I was under the impression that you were making all the things happen. (The full article in Wonderland—or the full interview, excerpted at Mugglenet — is worth a read for its continued, almost amplified strangeness — Rowling speaks of being shocked to see the filmmakers depicting things she hadn’t written but was feeling about the characters, like the scene between Harry and Hermione in the tent in the first installment of The Deathly Hallows. “Yes, but David and Steve — they felt what I felt when writing it,” Rowling tells Watson, referring to the director and screenwriter. “That is so strange,” Watson responds. Yes — this whole thing is so strange. It feels like there’s a simultaneous disregard for the concept of subtext and the idea that the characters were driven by something other than Rowling’s own fingers. “JKR, I think, probably is still in mystical mode when talking about her characters and work,” Connor Joel said to me in a Twitter conversation. “Which can be OK…sometimes.”)
Is a writer allowed to have regrets? Certainly. Is she allowed to air them publicly? I mean, yeah, it’s a free internet, why not? Do I want to hear a single additional word about the world of Harry Potter from J. K. Rowling that is not in the form of another book? Unless she is going to travel via Time-Turner to the past and personally validate all of my ships, no, not particularly — though that’s just me. (On second thought, no, not even that: sometimes the joy of delving into subtext is that it remains, well, sub.) The night all this came out (my new BFF) Anne Jamison kicked off a round of hilarious authorial regrets on Twitter, collected here. (For example: “‘I realize I made generations believe instant antipathy is a valid basis for ideal marriage,’ sighed Ms Austen, ‘I just thought he was hot.’”)
All joking aside, these tweets got me thinking: how often has this sort of thing happened in the past? Is there something fundamental in the author/reader relationship that feels like it’s being abused in Rowling’s admissions — or is she just following a long tradition of regretful writers undermining their own authority via statements after publication? Initial research suggests that some of the most famous writers haven’t stayed as faithful to their own original texts as I might have guessed. I mean, these examples aren’t exactly the same (I can hear you saying this, even now!), and that might get at what feels so incredibly strange about the “wish fulfillment” idea that Rowling’s putting forth. But regrets are regrets, and once the pages are printed — and even with all the revisions and retractions in the world — there’s essentially no going back. Here are five authors who had a variety of regrets and later said they really wished they’d done things differently — and, in many cases, went on to try to actually do things differently, to varying degrees of success:
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Oliver Twist’s greedy, villainous employer, Fagin, is most famously marked by his Jewishness, via every derogatory stereotype in the history of man and by outright assertion: references as “the Jew” outnumber “the old man” in the original text nearly ten-to-one. There was no doubt in Dickens’s mind, nor that of many of his mid-Victorian counterparts, that this was totally fine, that Fagin’s crimes fell right in line with his background: he stated later, by way of (really poor and blatantly anti-Semitic) defense, that “that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew.” But in 1860 Dickens sold his house to a Jewish couple and befriended the wife, Eliza, who wrote him later to say that the creation of Fagin was a “great wrong” to the Jewish people. Dickens saw the light, albeit in a sort of, “Well, some of my best friends are Jewish!” sort of way, and began stripping out references to Fagin’s religion from the text, as well as the caricature-like aspects: at a reading of a later version, it was observed that, “There is no nasal intonation; a bent back but no shoulder-shrug: the conventional attributes are omitted.” But was it too little too late? After all, the original depiction of Fagin has endured through the centuries. Dickens tried, anyway. “There is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard,” he wrote. “And to whom I would not willfully have given an offence.”
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Typee, Melville’s first novel and the most popular during his lifetime, is described as “one of American culture’s more startling instances of a fluid text.” There appears to be no definitive version of Typee — the sort of book that makes you question just how definitive anything you read really is. “All texts are fluid,” writes John Bryant, a scholar who’s done extensive work on Typee, examining its states of flux. “They only appear to be stable because the accidents of human action, time and economy have conspired to freeze the energy they represent into fixed packets of language.” Some of the changes — which were made over the course of half a century, from the first drafts Melville penned fresh off the high seas to the final years of his life — came from pressures from critics and his publishers: disparagement of missionary culture, expanded upon in first drafts, was largely removed in subsequent editions. Some requests for changes, including a toning down of the ‘bawdiness’ of earlier editions, took place decades later, when Melville was an old man — “Certain passages were to be restored, a paragraph on seaman debauchery dropped, and ‘Buggery Island’ changed to ‘Desolation Island,’” writes Bryant, though not all of these changes were honored in the posthumous edition. Bryant has developed a digital edition to view the fluid text as a whole, though perhaps even that can’t — and shouldn’t — answer the question of whether one version or another can be called the definitive text.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
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F. Scott Fitzgerald, a man prone to last-minute editorial regrets: he sent a telegram to his publisher as The Great Gatsby was going to press, asking to change the title to Under the Red, White, and Blue. It arrived too late. He’d wavered so much on the title already — amongst a dozen other suggestions, he’d been set on Trimalchio in West Egg for a good while. But Tender is the Night suffered, in his opinion, from problems far larger than what was printed on the dust jacket. It was published in 1934 to poor critical and public response, and Fitzgerald set to work figuring out why it didn’t work. When it was reprinted two years later, he wanted to make minor changes and clarifications, and wrote that, “sometimes by a single word change one can throw a new emphasis or give a new value to the exact same scene or setting.” But he soon decided it wasn’t a “single word” — it was the entire structure: “If pages 151-212 were taken from their present place and put at the start,” he wrote to his editor at Scribner, “the improvement in appeal would be enormous.” He set to work slicing apart the novel — physically — and rearranging it in the order he felt it was now meant to be, the narrative now chronological rather than reliant on flashback. The copy is on display at Princeton, with Fitzgerald’s penciled note written inside the front cover: “This is the final version of the book as I would like it.” After Fitzgerald’s death, Malcolm Cowley decided to try to fulfill these editorial wishes, rearranging the book based on the notes and cut-up version. But people weren’t any more interested in this version than the first, and in the intervening half-century, the original has endured.
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If the biggest disappointment of 2015 will be the fact that almost nothing resembles the 2015 bits of “Back to the Future” (what’s sadder — no hoverboards or no magical pizzas?), it speaks to the risks of setting a sci-fi novel in the not-so-distant future. When Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, first published in 1947, were reissued fifty years later, the stories’ chronological start date was just two years away. Bradbury and his publisher made the call to bump up the timeline by three decades, 2030-2057, and made some additional editorial changes while they were at it. The timeline shift isn’t unique in science fiction: Wikipedia’s got a poetically-titled “List of stories set in a future now past,” which reveals that Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep also got a thirty-year bump. It’s an interesting question, and one that may crop up more and more as time goes on: does reading about some sort of alien “future” that’s now a few years in the past take a reader right out of the story? Isn’t there some joy in imagining Bradbury imagining 1999 in 1947, a vision of the future from that precise point in the past?
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And then what to do if an author wishes the entire book had never been written? One famous example: “J.D. Salinger spent 10 years writing The Catcher in the Rye and the rest of his life regretting it,” Shane Salerno and David Shields assert in their recent biography. But Salinger’s dissatisfaction appeared to stem from the extraordinary amount of unwanted attention he received for it over the years. But what about Anthony Burgess, who wrote about A Clockwork Orange in his Flame into Being: The Life and Work of D. H. Lawrence, published in 1985:
We all suffer from the popular desire to make the known notorious. The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation, and the same may be said of Lawrence and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Lawrence died decades before the obscenity trials placed his book at the center of the moral questions of literature and society. Burgess had decades to witness the unraveling of the “misunderstandings” of the novel he will always be most remembered for. As for its merits as a work of literature? He also described it as “too didactic to be artistic.” Ah, well. Everyone is entitled to their opinions of a book and its characters. Even, I suppose, the author himself.