Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Ten Little N-Words

I honestly thought @shanehegarty of the Irish Times was having a laugh when he tweeted about THE N-WORD OF THE NARCISSUS during the week, in the midst of all the furore about NewSouth replacing the word ‘nigger’ with ‘slave’ in their new text of HUCKLEBERRY FINN. Unfortunately, he wasn’t.
  My knee-jerk reaction when I heard about the Huck Finn farrago was that it was political correctness run wild, and a pointlessly belated attempt to sanitise a text for contemporary readers, particularly schoolchildren. Maybe there’s an element of that, but the fact is that while ‘slave’ is a more acceptable word than ‘nigger’ today, it’s equally abhorrent as a concept. Changing a word is one thing, but the tragedy of HUCKLEBERRY FINN is the subjugation of men and women on the basis of their skin colour, not the language used to describe that subjugation.
  Besides, and with all due respect to NewSouth, the new version is only one version; anyone who desperately needs to get their fix of the printed word ‘nigger’ won’t have to go too far to find it.
  One thing that did slightly jar with me was the insistence that the new version is intended for schoolchildren, who are no longer reading HUCKLEBERRY FINN, given the potential for embarrassment in the classroom. It’s a long time since I’ve read either book, but I always thought that TOM SAWYER was a kids’ book in which Huck Finn appears, whereas HUCKLEBERRY FINN was a more serious novel, intended for adults.
  THE NIGGER OF THE NARCISSUS is definitely a novel for adults, and one I feel a little more protective of, because I love Joseph Conrad’s novels. Should it be renamed, and so clumsily? Quoth Professor Ruben Alvarado, who provides the version’s introduction:
“THE N-WORD OF THE NARCISSUS tells the tale of a fateful voyage of a British sailing ship, and on that voyage the ability of a lone black man to take the crew hostage. The ability of this man to manipulate an entire ship’s crew can no longer be seen as a mere exercise in storytelling. Conrad in fact appears to have been the first to highlight the phenomenon of manipulation based in white guilt.”
  Professor Alvarado claims that the title of the novel (novella, really) put him off reading it for many years, and that the inclusion of ‘N-Word’ in the title is an attempt to provide a text that will allow readers to appreciate Conrad’s theme of slavery, subjugation and white guilt. In other words, that it’s a version of white guilt that led to the changing of the title of a novel which trades in white guilt. Which seems to me a tad perverse, not least because the use of the word ‘nigger’ in the title is, in contemporary parlance, something of a grabber, but also because the word ‘nigger’ has been comprehensively reclaimed and subverted by those it was intended to denigrate in the first place, as Sean O’Driscoll’s fine piece in the Irish Times points out.
  The estate of Samuel Beckett aside, few texts are sacred these days, and to be perfectly honest, I’m much more outraged by the raft of Jane Austen zombie novels and their ilk than the changing of a few words in HUCKLEBERRY FINN. That novel is important for Mark Twain’s savage satire on slavery and racism, not for the language used to describe it. Arguing that texts must retain their original language for its own sake is something of a blind alley, in which lurks Agatha Christie’s facetiously insulting title, TEN LITTLE NIGGERS. Is it a good thing that Christie’s novel was retitled AND THEN THERE WERE NONE to reflect the fact that schoolchildren are no longer unthinkingly taught nursery rhymes featuring the word ‘nigger’? I’d argue yes.


Stuart Neville said...

I've read the arguments put forward by the publishers of the new FINN edition, and they do make some valid points about making it easier to present in a classroom. In particular, I'd imagine if it were a classroom of mixed races, the text will become at least awkward when it's time to read aloud.

What bothers me about it, though, is that I actually associate the N-word, and specifically the cultural weight of it, most with studying FINN at school. Although I might have been aware of the concept of slavery as a child, it was that book that showed what it actually meant. As an educational tool that shows both American history, and the sometimes negative power of language, it would be a shame to lose this book's strength in an effort to avoid offence.

adrian mckinty said...


I may be wrong about this but I think they first changed that Agatha Christie book to Ten Little Indians before realising that that too upset people!

Declan Burke said...

Stuart - " ... the sometimes negative power of language ..." I think that's a powerful concept, squire.

Adrian - the Christie book was titled 'Ten Little Niggers'. The movie adaptation of it was called 'Ten Little Indians'. Although, to be fair, I had to go and check it out once you brought it up ...

Anon - this has nothing to do with limiting 'Free Speech'. It's an amended version of a book that retains 99.99% of its original text. Next time you want to plug your book via my blog, do the decent thing and drop me a line, like most people do.

Cheers, Dec

Paul D. Brazill said...

When I first read about this it brought out the Richard Littlejohn inside me- and isn't THAT an icky thought, having Richard Littlejohn inside you! But having giving it rare moments of thought I don't think it's such a big deal. Although I think 'black man' and 'black woman' may be a better choice of word than 'slave'.

The Conrad one just sounds daft though.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

They aren't talking about making the change in all editions, just the one edition offered for kids in some schools. And they are compelling the change in none. Common sense applies.

In Kentucky, I've lived to see the words of the state song go from "tis summer, the darkies are gay" to "tis summer, everyone's gay" to "tis summer, the people are gay." Maybe some gays still snigger when it's sung before the Kentucky Derby, but no one else seems to care.

My feeling is, these things are argued more in the media than they are by the general public. Politicians are always grabbing such things, making political issues out of nothing worth more than a yawn.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Took my then nine year old son to see a very good Twain impersonator(banned books week at the library) Two years ago. He read from HF and when "the word" was spoken, I cringed, but he never noticed-he didn't know the word. And now at 11,he still has never heard it, and wouldn't even know what it means. Things are so much different than when I was a kid, for the better.

seana said...

I find the decision to adulterate the text very tone deaf in its lack of understanding of Twain's intentions. I'd agree with what you've said, Declan, that Tom Sawyer was written for the younger crowd. I'd think by the time Huck Finn was studied, there might be something valuable for anyone in a discussion about why Twain included the word where he did, what he was trying to say about racism and so on. Since the whole point of the book has something to do with Huck's slow but steady apprehension of the humanity of Jim, I'd think we could probably trust Twain to get the message across without our bowdlerizations.

Dana King said...

As usual, Seana makes the salient point, and better than I could.

The best argument for leaving in the offensive word is its offensiveness. Did anyone ever think that Twain and Conrad used the word because of its offensiveness, given how their stories develop?

I can see the point in changing it only in the children's version, but still disagree. If the kids are old enough to read it, they're old enough to engage in a discussion of the offensiveness of the word, and why it shouldn't be used.

Frankie said...

I actually would argue that texts should retain their original language for its own sake. If thats how the author wrote it, then thats how it should stay. Taking the word out is like a denial of social history.

Also, Im thinking hip-hop culture has slighty more influence on teenagers than Huckleberry Finn- unfortunately. Just sit on the bus where I live and hear the language these kids use, a lot more offensive than the N-word in a book published in 1884.

The mistake is thinking that we are all more enlightened now and therefore have the right to change people's books to suit our current notion of what is correct- I think not.

Declan Burke said...

Dana - I think you're right about Twain's original usage of the word - he was fully aware of how potent it was, even at the time.

Frankie - It's hard to disagree with you. I saw a production of King Lear last year in Dublin, and the text had been adapted to make specific references to Ireland's economic woes, which was largely unnecessary, given the play's context. That said, it didn't diminish the power of the play itself, of the crimes committed and my fascination with Lear. So I dunno.

Cheers, Dec

kathy d. said...

Gosh, I can't even say that word, more or less write it. Lightning would strike me!

Maybe it's living in the U.S., but many people of my generation were taught never to use this word--and we don't. And friends teach their children not to do so.

A lot of schools here do not teach FINN, because of the offensive language. A lot of educators, including African Americans do not teach this book in high schools, because they think it's harmful to children who hear it 219 times in the book, especially those from their community. (This has been discussed over here and debated in the media.)

The writer, Lorrie Moore, has an Op-Ed in the Sunday New York Times saying that the book shouldn't be taught in high schools, but should be in college, that it would be damaging to the building of self-esteem among Africa-American youth at that age to hear this disparaging word this many times.

Also, I don't trust that all teachers would do this in the right way. There isn't even a national educational curriculum in this country!

So, I'd say all adults should read what they want, and care needs to be taken in public schools, and those who are impacted by the language need to have a large say in this matter.

That said, I like Mark Twain, and much of what he wrote and said.

Agatha Christie is another story altogether.