Monday, 10 March 2014

The "n" word

In 2006 Five Leaves republished Louis Golding's Magnolia Street, a novel of Jewish Manchester first published in 1932. The date is relevant. Ours was a straightforward - though newly typeset - reprint, with an introduction by Hugh Cecil. At the end of the introduction there is a discrete note which the layout indicates was a note from Hugh but was actually a publisher's note and should have been so described. It reads "Throughout this edition, the word 'nigger' has been changed to 'negro', 'black man' and (the Yiddish) 'schvartzer'. As used in the 1930s, the word was not so outrightly offensive as it has become in modern times. Otherwise, the original text, complete with some archaic spellings and punctuation, is unaltered."
Our edition remains in print, having occasional Manchester revivals, and will remain in print.
Today we received a complaint from a reader about the substitution. Our reader is no more a racist than Golding was at the time. Golding was simply using contemporary dialogue. Our reader - who is white, as I am - felt that it was inappropriate to alter the original text (though would have had no objection if we had included a note saying that Golding was using the language of the time). He was the first to comment on this issue out of the thousands who have read our edition, but nonetheless his views have validity. And I think they are wrong.
I accept that it would be foolish to muck around with older texts - I know that some of our reprinted novels of the 1960s include derogatory comment about "queers", I know that some of our reprinted novels used less than currently acceptable words about Travellers. I did not feel the need to change them - though would obviously think about the context and suggest appropriate changes if a modern novelist wanted to use inappropriate language as I would if someone wanted to use opaque, exclusive or academic language or, say, have working class people speaking in a stereotypical way. That is not to say that Five Leaves sets language police on our writers, these things are just everyday desk-editing.
I am not suggesting we go through Shakespeare with a fine tooth-comb, or ban Huck Finn from libraries. But there is something about the "n" word that makes me much more uncomfortable than, for example, casually racist comments about Gypsies (itself, now, a contested word) or Jews or gay people. In a previous job I dealt with - rejected - a complaint from someone about a poet referring (in a 1960s context) to the "Jewboys down the market" as she was writing in the argot of the period. Was it relevant that the poet's husband was one of the "Jewboys" in a Cardiff market? I don't know, but I rejected the complaint.
Having both Traveller and Irish and, by marriage, Jewish family connections I have heard, and challenged racists using anti-Gypsy and anti-Semitic language. I have never, personally, heard any anti-Irish comments though I know of them from family and friends. Hearing them is one thing, but would I change them in an old novel? No - I don't think so. But the "n" word trumps them all. I feel queasy typing it out earlier and I felt uncomfortable using it in a rational conversation about whether it should be used in text. And more uncomfortable that the discussion with our complainant, and another publisher (who does not share my view) was played out in the hearing of a Black person.
So, for now, while I accept the person who complained was doing so without malice, I'm standing by the original alteration. That word has blighted the lives of Black people, scarred people. I'll leave it out.


David Belbin said...

Interesting. I used the 'n' word in a novel about racism published nearly 20 years ago, as an example of casual racism by a police officer. Despite this being a book for teenagers that went into thousands of school libraries, there was only one complaint, and that from somebody who had only read the opening chapter in a preview. When it was republished on Kindle last year, it didn't occur to me to replace it, although it makes me feel queasy for the reasons you mention. If I'd been updating it to modern times I might have done, as the word is much less commonly used today.

Old books are re-edited for modern sensibilities all the time all the time. But not, for the most part, the important ones. Eliot, Greene etc used casual anti-semitism that rankles when we read the references today. But you wouldn't dream of changing them. What this adds up to is to say, in a comradely fashion, that I think replacing those words is utterly wrong. Contextualising them is fine. The authors would probably be grateful for your not exposing his prejudices. But he's not alive and you have no right to change his words, for whatever reason.

Incidentally, the same publisher who happily let me use the n word in 'Black and Blue' in 1995 later let me use the f word in the final book in the series, only to change it, twice, after the proof stage, without telling me. That ended the relationship. A fucking disgrace!

Dr Tony Shaw said...

As the unnamed reader in this blog post, I have to thoroughly agree with David Belbin's sentence:

'But [Louis Golding is] not alive and you have no right to change his words, for whatever reason.'

You say 'Our reader is no more a racist than Golding was at the time.' Yes, and then some. Many years ago I was vociferously called a 'quisling' by a white bigot because of my wish that Nelson Mandela should be freed from jail and (I hoped) liberate South Africa: it's wonderful that he was freed, but...

But I digress to a certain extent. I'd tucked away my comment on our conversation this Monday with the intention of adding it to a future post on my blog when I'd actually read Magnolia Street, although I have been forced to publish it now as this comment facility will only allow me a certain number of characters. My full comment is at

Ross Bradshaw said...

I appreciate the comments from the pair of you, and would encourage others to read Tony's blog which he refers to (and not just for this issue).
This is the ONLY word I have ever felt like changing. If it had been used by a racist, within the context of, say, a racist tirade or as reported speech by a racist I would not have changed it as the context would have been clear. Obviously if someone was a modern novelist I'd discuss the issue and would probably insist an alternative word was used which would still convey extremist racist views without having to use that particular word.
I had not thought of this issue since preparing the book for publication. I've talked with some of the shop workers here, as they might have to face the issue if the Black person who heard the discussion, and was very uncomfortable hearing it, were to raise it in the future. The workers are split over what they think I should have done in 2006, though obviously that was my decision. Right or wrong.