Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing, and Publishing ~

Take Back Those Words !


Have you ever read something and wished the author hadn’t published it?

Have you ever published something and wished you could wipe it off the face of the earth?

Certainly, writers (of worth) take back many of their words during edits and revisions—sometimes, of course, restoring them, then, removing them, then, perhaps, trashing the whole lot

I just read an article in The Atlantic by Maria KonnikovaWhen Authors Disown Their Work, Should Readers Care?

It’s not about the normal disowning a writer does as they’re creating, it’s about finished work that the author judges harshly.

She discusses, primarily, incidents of radical disowning by W. H. Auden, Virgil, Nathaniel Hawthorne,Thomas Hardy, and James Joyce, though other authors are mentioned.

Naturally, as Maria indicates, if a writer commits their work to digital form, it could be impossible to get rid of it

The most compelling issue in the article, for me, is whether readers should respect an author’s feelings about words they want to call back—whether authors should rank higher than readers in judgements of literary worth.

Does a writer’s work really “belong” to the reader after publication?

Should readers respect the judgement by an author that a post-publication revision is the “official”, “definitive” version?

Should authors feel defeated, even if readers love their work, because what was published becomes something they want to disown?

At the risk of your not reading the whole article—brilliantly written—I’ll quote a substantial portion of Maria’s opinion:

“At the end, we can embrace and love whatever we want of an author’s work. But we also can’t ignore a writer’s express wish just because we don’t happen to agree with it. Instead, we can use that wish to enrich our understanding of the disinherited words, by doing our best to understand their history and the reason why their author chose to cast them aside as unworthy. We can, in other words, give authors the same consideration we’d want if we ourselves come to decide that something in our past no longer suits our present selves: the freedom to rethink and reconsider, to take back and reframe as we mature and as our understanding of the world changes. And we don’t even have to unwrite history to do that.”

Do, please, read the full article

And, do share your thoughts and feelings in the Comments.
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4 responses to “Take Back Those Words !

  1. martinaseveckepohlen August 29, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    What happens if a witer disowns his work because his political beliefs have changed? Twice in the last century political systems in my country were abolished. Writers had to renounce their earlier beliefs if they still wanted to publish new books. Most of them did but readers didn’t trust them …

    Like this

    • Alexander M Zoltai August 29, 2012 at 4:22 pm

      What a fascinating question, Martina!

      I’m sure any answer to it would require deep soul-searching

      Like this

  2. Barbara Blackcinder August 30, 2012 at 7:06 am

    While I would sympathize with a writer who must politicalize his work and himself for the sake of his occupation, or his life, I certainly would naively hope that this would never be the case in this ‘modern’ world. Even if a mind has changed, for the better, can he truly decide by himself that there is no worth to an older piece? Can anyone ever make this decision alone? Shame on the publisher that makes this choice, if it is indeed his choice.

    Like this

    • Alexander M Zoltai August 30, 2012 at 10:27 am

      Excellent questions you ask, Barbara

      Like this

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