Editing Hard Case Crime: A discussion with Charles Ardai

44 - Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald Westlake

I recently corresponded with Hard Case Crime editor and publisher Charles Ardai over at Rara-Avis. The inspiration for the discussion was the butchering of the Harlequin Vintage Collection to make it more politically correct. I thought that you might find the discussion interesting and asked for permission to post it here, which Mr. Ardai was kind enough to grant.

(Edited slightly.)

Trent: If I recall correctly, you edit some of your reprints (I seem to remember you asking Donald Westlake to make changes to Somebody Owes Me Money). Do I recall correctly, and if I do, what do you use as a basis for those decisions?

Charles Ardai: If an author wants to edit a book he’s written, I think that’s his privilege; the edits might be improvements or they might not, but it’s his book and he’s entitled to do what he wants with it. (I had a discussion about this with John Lange before his death; he was concerned that the books he’d written in the 1960s wouldn’t read properly today because of references to 1960s prices and other dated material, and I assured him that it wouldn’t be a problem. His compromise in the case of Zero Cool was to add a new pair of framing chapters set in the present day. I’m not sure that was less confusing to people, but it was his preference.)

So that’s one case. Another is a case where I think a book would benefit from some editing, for clarity or to fix errors in the original edition or for some other reason. In Somebody Owes Me Money, for instance, the entire book is about the main character trying to get some gambling winnings that he’s owed — but you got to the end of the book and the subject of the missing money was simply dropped. It was left completely unresolved, and I didn’t find this satisfying. So I dropped Don a note, pointed this out, and asked how he’d feel about adding a line or two to tie off this loose end. He was delighted to do it.

In the case of a book we’re publishing posthumously and that has never been published before (such as David Dodge’s The Last Match or Roger Zelazny’s The Dead Man’s Brother or Don’s forthcoming Memory), we’d be doing neither the author nor the reader any favors by printing the typescript without any editing at all. The author deserves to get at least the same quality and caliber of editing he’d have gotten if he’d sold the book to a publisher during his lifetime. Initially, we erred on the side of doing less rather than more editing in cases like this, and that’s generally been a mistake, I think The Last Match would have been better if tightened up a bit more. But in any event we work with great care, like restorers of priceless paintings, working very hard not to damage things in the process. (And we try to work with someone who is able to speak on behalf of the author with reasonable authority: Dodge’s daughter, Zelazny’s son, Don’s wife.)

What about posthumous reprints? Well, once in a while we come across one where there are sentences that look like they contain typos or a missing word or two, but there’s no way to be 100% sure; we use our best judgment. Sometimes, as in Robert Parker’s Passport to Peril, there are inconsistencies that just need to be fixed — a woman learns about a character’s death on page 2 but then says something on page 20 that only makes sense if he’s alive, that sort of thing. Again, we try to consult with the author’s children or spouses about this sort of thing whenever possible.

We do modernize spelling and punctuation: In the old days “ash tray” was two words and now it’s one; same with “girl friend” and “boy friend.” I go back and forth about whether to leave the charming archaism of capitalizing “Lesbian” or “Martini” or just lowercasing them the way you would today. Once in a very long while there’s some incidental bit of dialogue written in gruesome racist dialect — a detective interacting with a “negress” maid who comes on the scene and delivers a line or two in dialect that just makes you wince — and changing that sort of thing falls somewhere between modernizing spelling and being a shameful PC bowdlerizer; it’s come up maybe four times in 67 books and whenever possible I leave it up to the author (or author’s close relatives) to decide. Note, though, that I would only consider such an alteration if it were truly incidental, if the plot, characters, situation and so on would be completely unchanged either way; in a book like Shepard Rifkin’s The Murderer Vine, there’s lots of ugly, painful, uncomfortable racial material, but that’s the central point of the book (which is about a northern detective traveling to the Deep South to address a pair of race-related murders), and altering one word of it to make the reader more comfortable would be criminal.

And in the worst case I’m talking about changing the spelling of a word or two in a scene of several thousand words, or maybe changing “I told the negress” to “I told the maid.” I would never — NEVER — change the substance or events of a scene in a reprint (absent a living author’s asking to do so, of course). You don’t like near-rape scenes? Well, neither do I, and yes, old crime novels do have a lot of them. You know what I do? Choose different books to reprint. Why do you think I’ve never reprinted a Lionel White book? The man was a decent author (not fantastic, but decent), but in almost every book he had a near-rape scene that was clearly supposed to be titillating. I don’t enjoy reading it, I don’t think our readers would like it much either, the books aren’t so amazing in other ways as to make me ache with regret over missing the chance to bring one back into print, and there are plenty of other books that are. So: I find other books to reprint. Issue resolved.

Why Harlequin couldn’t have just done that, I don’t know.

Trent: Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I’m in agreement with you on much of it, in disagreement with some of it (I dislike editing uncomfortable racial language, because I worry about how far that could go–slippery slope sort of thing). But I understand where you’re coming from and appreciate the explanation.

Charles Ardai: I agree with you about the ‘slippery slope’. This is why, when in doubt, I err on the side of not changing things for the sake of reader comfort. (I don’t have any hesitation about fixing typos, obviously.) But if an author tells us he wants to make a change, having (along with society as a whole, thank god) become more sensitive about matters like racism and homophobia during the 30+ years since he wrote a book, we’re of course going to respect his wishes; and if the author’s not around to say one way or another, we’ll look for indications regarding what the author most likely would have wanted (consulting an original manuscript if one exists, talking to an original editor or agent if one is still alive, etc.).

One thing to note: Many of the books we have, especially from smaller houses like Lancer and Monarch, were aggressively edited at the time of publication, with the in-house editors (incompetent and taste-free, by all accounts) inserting dialogue and in some cases entire scenes to make a book “sexier” or “funnier” or “tougher-sounding” or what-have-you. Lawrence Block, for instance, has identified some bits that appeared in his Lancer books as having been egregiously added by the editor — and these bits often include the ugly, crude racial and sexual material that stops a modern reader in his tracks. (“You haven’t had a sex scene in 10 pages,” the editor might say. “How about that hippie jazz singer you mention there, why can’t he just screw her?” And voila, a new page appears, with a reluctant, “frigid” singer getting “taken” by the narrator’s forceful manhood.) So at least in some cases what you might think is bowdlerization is actually the reverse, the equivalent of washing graffiti off a work that never should have been defaced by it in the first place.

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Thanks to Mr. Ardai for the insight into his editing process and for permission to post this. I’d love to know your thoughts on the topic, so please do comment.