Put ginger in the jam and chilli in the milk

When I first ventured up here on cyberspace I discovered, followed and occasionally commented on various discussions on writing and books which disturbed me a little. So today, after yet another one, this old lady is sticking her head out, chicken like for decapitation, and venturing an opinion of my own.  If I tread on toes or offend I apologise, it is not my intention.

Are we authors, writers or readers?  I have always assumed we were readers first and foremost.  That the love of a good story leads us to endeavour to emulate and create ourselves.  I am discussing fiction only, by the way. So, if we take as our start that we are readers, why do we read?  I am sure there are some who only read for the words alone and if this so I am sorry, you are missing so much.  Words on a page will create a story of sorts.  But reading is so much more.  A story is a multi layered, richly textured experience.

A great deal of cyberspace time is taken up with ‘voice’ – the author’s voice. If it is so important for us to declare our own unique voice why do so many argue for a smoothing over, a dumbing down of that voice?  Why is so much discussion about changing and tweaking that voice. Should we all use words in the same way, I personally think not.  Should we all spell the same way, use the same grammatical styles, I personally think not.  I do not say this because of any national pride (of course I have that in spades) or because I happen to like the extra  ‘u’  in the word colour! (which of course I do, I’m a Brit after all) nor because I have any preference in the debate about the Oxford comma (I do), I say this because the way we write, the words we use, the construction we give to our sentences help to present the rich layers.

We are products of our educational systems, cultural backgrounds, locations, generation, nations and histories.  All these, and many other considerations, should be informing our ‘voice’. Then there are the mini layers resulting from all these, the subtleties.  When I read ‘Ya’ll’ I am transported to warm balmy scented nights and expectations.  When I read ‘Mom’ instead of ‘Mum’ I know the accent, can visualize the locale. When reading someone say ‘innit’ at the end of a sentence I realise immediately the culture, read someone say  ‘Oh I say’ understand the generation. This a part of reading, to be transported by these small clues to another world. So why even argue for the changing of colour to color, or color to colour? Why do we assume that readers will not adjust? No-one, I am sure, expected Fenimore Cooper, Dickens, Twain or Thackery to change!

In the same argument comes another rant of mine, those who would change what is already written.  If our’ voices’ are informing the reader of our place in the universe, as well delivering a story, then the writers of old are delivering this in gigantic and interesting amounts. Making something more accessible by changing it to ‘suit’ a modern audience is to insult the modern audience, as well as to demean the author and to strip away a very important aspect of our social and cultural history.  We learn best what life was really like in the past by reading the authors of the past.  Learn more by reading them than reading a modern day historical romance, however well researched, because that ‘voice’ is a product of that time.

Do not change them, do not ban or restrict them.  It seems humans are loath to learn from past mistakes but we do eventually however we won’t if the past is smoothed out.  Reading the old books is to enable ourselves to learn.

Why, if I did not grow up to be a racist because Huckleberry Finn was a favourite of mine when a child,  despite the use of the ‘n’ word (see how PC I can be)  would I assume children of today, with even more knowledge, would do so? I learnt it was an offensive word as I grew up, children today already know. My overwhelming feeling on reading this book and others like it, when a very young child was that the system of slavery was a ‘bad’ thing, that these ‘Africans’, strange to me as a small child (England in the 50s was a very different place to America or to today) were as other people. Of course I have discovered more shades, more depths, in time to these issues.  Why the call to ban this book? Surely it should be read? We do those who suffered a disservice if we smooth their histories out.

I did not grow to be a warmonger because I was brought up on a diet of Second World War books, films and comic strips, or an Empire lover because I read and re-read Saunders of the River, and others of that ilk. These books were written in their times, with the voice of those times and if we wish to learn some facet of that time we should read the originals, not some sanitized version of it.

I understood the position of females in society better from reading the novels of the time, from what is said or not, what is hinted at, than any history book.  When I wept over Tess, I understood her life and that of others of her day, could when older compare and contrast to my life as a female a hundred years later.

I was incensed at the time when The Saint James Bible was simplified so that it was ‘easier’ to understand.  The job of the clergy I believed was to explain the bible, the ‘word (voice) of God’ to those who wished to know.  To strip the ‘word’ of the richness and glorious language which surely enhanced, was an act of vandalism.  Not only did it rob future readers of that language, it also robbed them of the past, of the reason for so much of the ‘British’ English language and culture.  Words, phrases, sayings, references gone in one stroke.

Alright, I hear you, words are supposed to communicate.  If it’s so difficult only a few will benefit what is the point?  I grant some English is now so obscure only a very few can access it.  Very ancient English is the province of a few.  Early English such as Chaucer can be undertaken with concentration, Shakespeare is understood. I am not keen on Chaucer being mucked about with, I become angry when Shakespeare is.  ‘Ropeable’ is the expression I would use when 18th, 19th and 20th century writers are ‘changed’, when the long and, to many, unwieldy texts are truncated and ‘cleaned up’.

I know, I know, we live in a fast moving society, we have the attention spans of gnats. We ‘need’ the abridged versions, however, with every abridged version produced the loss is tremendous, the multi layered texture is stripped away, the richness is drained.

I have not, as many are now thinking, wandered from the original argument over different countries grammar styles, punctuation and spellings, it is all part of the same argument.  Think, as writers do you wish to have your words changed, the structure you laboured over tweaked?  Do you wish to have the, oh so carefully chosen, word altered to another which conveys a very subtle difference in meaning to that which you intended.  Wouldn’t you rather have your reader hear your ‘voice’ loud and clear?

Maybe we are too hung up on the pedantics of writing, after all, our dictionaries and style usage rules, even our spellings have all originated largely from a few influential men (I cannot think of a female who was engaged in this work) from a hundred years ago, individual men of power with personal preferences of writing style.

If any of us are lucky enough to be read in a hundred years from now some of our carefully chosen words will appear strange.  Maybe others will need to be translated to explain the changes that living languages undergo, those changes are also part of the layering, part of the times of the ‘voice’.  If we are lucky enough to be read in a hundred years the style will sound awkward, the grammar maybe even laughable because living vibrant languages evolve (and I do so hope in a hundred years English is alive and well.)

I hope those who are still read then, will have produced such multilayered works of fiction someone will be saying ‘do not change or tweak them, do not make them more PC or easier, leave them be to reflect the times that they were written in’. I hope for all this but some days, listening to the debates and arguments for this smothering of ‘unique voice’, I despair, feeling that works of fiction still read will not indicate enough of a difference between countries, cultures, attitudes and generations to inform anyone of what life was like back here.

I personally do not wish to be fed a milk soaked pap of bread and jam when I read a book.  I have a brain I can engage to ‘understand’ the story, the spelling, the words.  I have teeth and wish a good chew, not a sweet drink.  If, when I grow older still, I am sans teeth, please no pap, put ginger in the jam and chilli in the milk.

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