#Secondthoughts: Bowdler, Buchan, and Heinlein

For a long time, I thought that to bowdlerise something was to make it a bit smutty, which is ironic really.  Looking back, I probably thought it was linked to ‘bawdy’; it was quite a surprise when I found out what it really meant.  It would be tempting to think of Thomas Bowdler as a typical censorious Victorian, but in realty his main work occurred before Victoria ascended the throne.  It’s always tricky to be sure about the motivations of someone who lived two hundred years ago, especially when that person’s legacy is divisive.  There are those who would say that Bowdler ripped the guts out of Shakespeare, whereas apparently he saw himself as serving the family by providing a version of the plays that could be read to children.

Hold that thought.


I was going to say that I’ve yet to come across a version of ‘the 39 Steps’ that I haven’t enjoyed.  This was based off the back of having listened to a radio version on the iPlayer the other day.  The Hitchcock film with Robert Donat is of course a thing of beauty and a joy for ever; and if you get a chance to see the stage play based on this version, then you are in for a comedic treat.  The Kenneth More version is not great cinematography, but hey, it’s Kenneth More.  The Robert Powell version has a lot of the energy of the book: more, in some respects, than the other versions.  The version that I really didn’t like was the 2008 Rupert Penry-Jones one.  The thing that all four film versions have is that they add a romance element to the story that isn’t part of the book.

Hold that thought.


Robert Anson Heinlein is usually described as one of the Big Three, with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.  All three wrote a lot of stuff across their careers, some brilliant, some less so.  One novel that has been on my mind a lot recently is The Door Into Summer.  I think at least in part because I’m sure I have a copy somewhere, but seem to have lost it.  In the end, I was able to discover the original magazine version, where this novel was published in three parts, online.  I can’t remember what prompted the desire to reread this story, but it is actually quite a good yarn in many respects.  The main character does a bit of hopping through time, missing out most of the 70s, 80s and 90s twice over via “the long sleep”, a cryo-hibernation easy time-travel, and jumping back once using an energy intensive piece of unreliable and almost unbelievable tech.  The story has lots of standard Heinlein tropes, which I’m not going to go into too much detail about here.  The one that is most problematic is that the main character ends up marrying a former friend’s step-daughter, who starts the story about 20 years younger than the MC, but catches up a bit thanks to all the time-travelling malarky.  This bit leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth, as it feels like a fudge to get round what should really be a verboten relationship.   John W. Campbell is supposed to have said of Heinlein:

“Bob can write a better story, with one hand tied behind him, than most people in the field can do with both hands. But Jesus, I wish that son of a gun would take that other hand out of his pocket.”

That’s probably a fair description.

Hold that thought.


Three very different writers – so what’s the connection?  Possibly none, but I started to wonder about what Bowlder was trying to achieve and what the effect is of changing text/stories, and the effect of an agenda: are the changes that were made 200 years ago still relevant today?  Is it possible to do some sort of reverse Bowlderism?

For example, if we look at Shakespeare, because we’re mainly talking about stage plays, the interpretation of certain directions, the staging, the actors’ take on characters, inflection, all these things can change the intent significantly.   A character who is borderline sympathetic can be made more or less personable by the acting, at least within the confines of the script.

Whilst a lot of Shakespear’s writing is deeply poetical, he has a repuation for being direct, blunt even, in his work.  Further, there is context to consider, all the little bits of current gossip that were built in for the audience of the time.  Words change meaning.  On the whole then, watching Shakespear can be much like watching traditional opera.  There’s a good chance you are not going to understand everything that is going on, unless you brush-up beforehand.  On that basis, tidying up the script, updating the language, making it a bit friendlier to a younger audience – surely that’s not a bad thing?

On the otherhand are there stories that should be revised to make them better?  Better for whom, you may say.  One of Shakespear’s most important plays has a relationship  between a girld and a boy of different ages.  An arguement that comes up from time to time is that it was different then.  Yes, it was, but that’s no reason not to take a good hard look and say, do you know what, it wasn’t OK then and it’s not OK now.  Let’s take that Heinlein story.  Ignoring the fact that it is slightly dated (it’s future is almost 20 years in our past!), it wouldn’t take a lot to tweak it to remove the objectionable bit – in the right hands you could probably change a very few references and one scene, perhaps a thousand or so words all told, and actually make a stronger story as a result.

I’m not sure how much the editor and the publisher really tried to change Heinlein’s work.  There were a few things that Heinlein got a bit over-excited about, but his work sold.  I suspect he would have just walked if people started getting too heavy-handed with the red pen.

And then, on the gripping hand, there are the stories like The 39 Steps: All four film versions are very different to the book, with added characters being the least of the issues.  Screenwriters sometimes seem to feel obliged to mess with the story, but at what point does it become too much?

In the modern world much is made of EDI: Equality , Diversity and Inclusion.  We need to make much of it, because we are not very good at it, but I saw an article recently that said that Monty Python wouldn’t be commisioned today, because, well, “six white Oxbridge men”.  Oh dear.

The 39 Steps is about a man on the run: does he really have to have a love interest? An EDI argument would be that there needs to be a woman in there.  What’s interesting is that if you looker at the earlier adaptations, the romantic foil is not just a pretty face, but generally holds their own in the story.  It’s the 2008 version where the woman needs to be seen to be independent of the man.

What do you think?  Are there stories that need to be rescued from some objectionable feature?  Are we in danger of homogenising our literature and screenplays by devising roll-calls of characters that need to be present in every story?

© David Jesson, 2018





#secondthoughts: Banned Topics

You’ll probably be unsurprised to learn that Debs and I talk to each other quite a lot about writing: the main focus of this is the story that we wrote together back in April, and of course this website.  For the most part though, we don’t usually talk about specific stories or essays.

In the commentaries of one of his collections, Gary Larson mentions that every so often he used to get a phone call from an acquaintance who’d say “I really liked that cartoon today”.  At that point Larson would start to wonder if maybe he’d gone a bit too far… Every now and again I write something that I think needs writing, but I want to get a second opinion before it goes out into the world.  Debs is my second opinion.

The first version of the following essay was one that I thought needed writing, but which I thought needed some critique.  It turned out that Debs had already written last month’s #secondthoughts, which was also prompted by some WorldCon shenanigans.  We had a bit of chat about whether we needed both of these essays, but we decided that we should give you both, because they deal with two separate, albeit related issues.  We also thought you might like our joint response to this, and even if you don’t, it’s included at the end of the post.

curly cue

One of the things I struggle with as a writer is how to deal with certain topics. There are some things that I just don’t want to write about, but I know that at some stage I might have to: avoiding the subject will leave an elephant in the room that might be more than the story can bear. Luckily I’ve not reached that point yet, and I’ll just have to burn that bridge when I get to it.

One of the things that worries me about such topics is the effect that it has on a reader. For example, what if writing about a suicide encouraged a reader to go through with it? What if I did come up with the perfect, undetectable murder and someone followed through on it? What if writing about an act of terrorism begat that act in real life?

The general view, I think, is that you’d have to look at the presentation of the topic: is the writer actively inciting a particular (negative) activity, or does the event follow as a logical consequence from the preceding events? Is it a meaningful contribution to the story being laid out or is it just being included to shock? These are not always easy questions to answer. Some people will regard an entire genre as being inappropriate (some would like to remove horror from the shelves completely, others would see romantic fiction as ripe for a cull); looking more broadly, one has only to look at awards given to modern art to wonder what the judges, let alone the artists, were on.

Recently, I saw a tweet that called for a blanket ban on a particular topic across all SF literature. I’m not going to specify the topic or the person because I think that it is a question that has a broader applicability to both other topics and other genres. I also don’t have all the information regarding the context, although apparently it stemmed from events/discussion occurring at WorldCon. (Given the stuff that Debs wrote about stemming from other events occurring during WorldCon, I wonder if I’ll ever go, even if I get the opportunity).  The author of the tweet had a particular view on this, being directly affected by the implications.  Their tweet (or rather tweets, as it became a longish thread), and the response from the community, warrants scrutiny, however.

The key tweet has not gone viral, but this is someone with a reasonable number of followers, and the tweet was liked and retweeted thousands and hundreds of times respectively.  A number of people replied.  Initially there was only support; after a time, a few people responded less positively and some of these were hounded, more or less aggressively, not by the original poster, but by supporters.  What’s surprising is that this ban is being touted by someone who wants more representation of people other than white males in fiction: there was also an implication that anyone who isn’t writing more about others and less about white males is deliberately setting out to keep everyone else down.  You could argue that it’s worse than that: lots of people just haven’t woken up to the fact that there is a problem.  On the other hand, sometimes certain topics aren’t addressed in a book because it makes no sense to talk about them.  They don’t fit.  It’s not that the author is avoiding the situation, or that they’re lazy, it is just something that would disrupt the flow of the story, or it doesn’t fit right.  Adding Morgan Freeman to Robin Hood sort of works, is sort of justifiable if you spin the narrative that way, but it does feel like a diversity tickbox.

It’s something that I’ve been thinking a bit about as I’ve been working on revising the AtoZ posts from earlier in the year, that I wrote with Debs.  We have at least three different species in play, possibly four, although all of these are basically humanoid.  We have a mix of male and female characters.  In all honesty, though our diversity comes more from the fact that whilst the novel is set in the East End of London, the characters are drawn from all over the British Isles.  We probably need to take a look at that.  On the other hand, time and place provide some limitations to the levels of diversity that can be achieved and on the other, some of it comes from the prejudices of the reader – after all, if JK can declare retrospectively that Hermione is actually black, then there are a few characters that are actually black and I didn’t realise at the time…

Where do we go from here?  Writers have to do better in the diversity stakes.  It is pretty much as simple as that.  Except it isn’t quite that simple.  Yes, we do need to do better, but we also need to think about what is appropriate for the story, and the time and place that it is set.  There is a reason that Shardlake has more than a few problems going about his business. OK, if you’re writing SF and you’re having problems with diversity then that might be an issue.  You can’t, for example, claim that in the future we only use stairs as a way of foiling the daleks. On the other hand, you shouldn’t not write something because the action can only be carried out by someone who isn’t in a wheelchair.  I was going to say ‘confined to a wheelchair’, but that is the sort of change that we can make.  There are all sorts of things that were a problem – a hundred or more years ago.  Today, they really shouldn’t be.

There’s a quote that I’m quite fond of, although I have no idea who said it, and I haven’t been able to find an attribution:

“We don’t want a seat at the table. We want a new table.”

Don’t let’s ban topics: lets engage, challenge ourselves and each other to do better, and make sure that our writing is as diverse as the communities we live in.

curly cue

What can we do as writers to make things better?  Here’s a few thoughts to get us started, please do add more ideas in the comments section:

  1. When you send a story out to beta, remember to ask people to think about diversity within the story.  Do you have any?
  2. For that matter, don’t just send the story to betas that look like you, broaden your input.
  3. When you are editing, reflect on the people that you have in your story.  Do they have any Genuine Occupational Traits? You’d be surprised how few things actually warrant specifying a particular kind of person.  John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy, Bad Day at Black Rock, 1955) did a pretty good job of sorting out the bad guys, with only one good arm to work with.
  4. Don’t overdo the diversity stuff: adding a black, trans, gay woman with a lisp just to tick the boxes doesn’t help anyone, including the writer.
  5. Don’t force situations.
  6. Don’t perpetuate stereotypes.
  7. Do add flavour and texture – a few words here and there to describe a person in the background can make all the difference, and giving some lines to a normally invisible person isn’t going to make your word count suffer too much.  Perhaps your MC can chat to the person ahead of them in a queue, who happens to be ___[fill in the blank]____.
  8. If you have a character with a particular trait, do take the time to do research and talk to people with that trait.  Writers are going to come to something like this with all sorts of baggage: don’t be the person that ends up explaining what it’s like to be [x] when you have no life experience in that area.


© 2018, David Jesson