2022 has been an interesting year for literature: censorship, suspension of library funding, book burnings. And now, “modern” editions of classics that change so much they may as well be new books.
The Guardian presents us with this dilemma using F Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, as an example. Apparently, its copyright has run out; meaning it is open season for all sorts of publishers legitimate and otherwise to alter Fitzgerald’s work as they see fit. And like all other attempts to fix something that isn’t broken, they just make it worse. Certain lines were described as “translated into another language and then rendered back into English by an antic computer”.
There’s a certain phrase I’ve learned to live by, as both a writer and consumer of stories: “There is nothing new under the Sun”. Every plot, every character, every concept has in some way already been written. The locations are different, the names are different, so on and so forth; but if you were to do what Joseph Campbell did in writing “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”, you would most likely find that all stories share the same basic elements.
If all stories are potentially derived from the same elements, why do we read so many of them? And why do they all seem so different and varied? Because of the way each story is written. Every writer brings something unique—a perspective, a tone, a voice, a vocabulary. So even if you strip away their character ideas or their setting they still have something unique and special to themselves to impart to the world.
This is why it is anathema for anyone to take classics like The Great Gatsby and “modernize” them. The plot is the same; the location is the same; the characters’ names and personalities are arguably the same. But F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unique writer’s voice is lost.