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I remember the days when people ...

Posted Nov 21 2008 3:10pm

I remember the days when people used to write something–a novel, a newspaper column, whatever–and it stood. Absent some blatant factual error, what you read was what you got.

The same used to be true about what people said, particularly famous people, who speak a lot, in public, with people listening. You researched your topic, you wrote your speech, knowing people would hear it, and you tried to be as accurate as possible.

Somewhere these tenets of publication changed. Society now seems to be running on a paper-towel roll philosophy: whatever is said today, if someone attacks it, you tear off the next sheet and apologize, and try again.

The 2008 presidential campaign has been rife with these episodes. Hillary with her Bosnian landing field, Obama and his “bitter” Pennsylvania voters, McCain as well, and all their staff people shooting off their mouths left and right, coming in as soon as a criticism is made with a “Oh, gee, we’re sorry, we misspoke.”

And there, in the public confessional, they say their Hail Marys, or whatever penance is necessary, and then the campaigns move on to their next outrageous attack–that they’ll withdraw as soon as someone speaks up.

(Don’t even get me started on Bill Clinton and his tilting windmills. Or the current president, for that matter. I wouldn’t believe anything either of them said at this point.)

Aren’t these people supposed to inspire confidence, instead of undermining it? With all their advanced degrees from prestigious universities, shouldn’t the rest of us be able to feel like they know what they’re doing? That they think before they speak? That they know the difference between the truth and a lie?

I’m equally disturbed about several blogs I’ve read lately about readers forcing a publisher or author to change their work. Like the post The Jungle Book, for example, Amanda Marcotte’s effort to turn her successful blog platform into a launching place for the book It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments. This is what all the publishers and agents are telling us writers to do, when we go to conferences. So she did. But then women of color protested the illustrations from classic comic books, which showed a blonde woman battling assorted evils, and an “undifferentiated brown horde.”

So, does Marcotte say, I know my audience and this is my book, if you don’t like it, don’t read it? No. According to The Root, “the publisher posted an apology on its Web site and announced they would change the illustrations in any subsequent print runs of the book. Marcotte apologized as well, on Pandagon.”

So here we have the functional equivalent of all these big-name stars (Can we say Sharon Stone in China any more? I don’t think so.) who do something people don’t like, then fall all over themselves to apologize. Just before they go into rehab and emerge shiny-new. So, the author and publisher apologized, CHANGED THE MATERIAL despite their previous satisfaction, and that’s the end, right?

No. From The Root: “The more Seal Press and Marcotte tried to make amends, the more voices rose telling them just what was missing from their apologies; each renewed charge would spark new, and newly misbegotten, explanations or apologies.”

My question is, why did all these people, some of whom I’m sure had never even read the material in question, have the right to demand changes anyway? It wasn’t their work. They may not have agreed with it, but then don’t read it! I mean, how ridiculous is this? Does this open the door to demanding from the Melville estate that Moby Dick be rewritten because whaling is barbarous? Or that someone redraft Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for all the reasons they won’t let it be taught in school any more?

Technological advances have made our world a little smaller and more intimate. We can hear campaign speeches 24-7, or read about them online. We can discuss public acts by public people with others around the globe. We have an opportunity to weigh in with our opinions on just about anything, still, as long as you stay clear of Homeland Security.

I believe this sharpens up certain rights and responsibilities. Speakers/publishers have the obligation to guard their words to make sure they are true and accurate–the first time. Readers/listeners have the right to consider the words and decide whether to accept them as given. But I don’t think the reader/listener ever gains the right to control that content. Content belongs to the author. Authors are entitled to opinions. Authors say what they have to say. Take it–or leave it. But don’t fix it.

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