“Painters do not, as far as I know, visit the galleries in which their pictures are hung and retouch them there; nor do sculptors hack at their monuments after they have been erected in public places.” So says H.E.Bates in The Writer Explains, his introductory essay, to the 1938 compilation of his own short stories, published as Country Tales.

Neither should authors, he asserts. ‘The finished work of an artist, in a sense, no longer belongs to them.’ But Tobias Wolff takes a different tack. Writing in A Note from the Author at the beginning of his 2008 collection, Our Story Begins, he says: ‘If I see a clumsy or superfluous passage, so will you, and why should I throw you out of the story with an irritation I could have prevented.’

In fact Wolff’s whole ‘note’ – just over a page long – is a discussion of why a text is not ‘sacred,’ or indeed ‘original’ at a point of publication in any meaningful sense.

The debate is entered into by both these writers, Bates seeking to justify by his analogy with painters and sculptors, his innate belief that ‘The author should resist impulses to tamper with it,’ Wolff defending his belief that because ‘they (the stories) are still alive to me I take a continuing interest in giving to that life its best expression.’

Both make telling points, but ones that will not necessarily bend our own beliefs to their way of thinking. Bates questions the legitimacy of bringing to a published work ‘the touches of a mature experience and technique’ whereas Wolff questions the legitimacy of seeing any version of the text as “the original form” – the quotation marks being his, as well as mine.

In fact, I’m inclined to think that rather than representing the two sides of an argument that must be won and lost, these two viewpoints reveal the stances of the two writers to their writings. Both seem to be product oriented, but whereas Bates sees publication as a mark of completion, Wolff sees it as yet another stage in the process of editing, and re-editing. My own position might be, and probably is, that one can straddle the two standpoints. I’ve certainly found myself thinking of some earlier works of my own, that they were the best I could do at that time, and that they were somehow beyond making more of. In a sense they were, are, stories I have left behind – and the same might be said of poems, plays, and notably, essays. Others however, I have found myself dusting off, metaphorically, and re-fashioning with the benefits of hindsight. Mostly these have been unpublished works, but some have been previously used, and are up for re-use.

Theoretically I favour Bates’s opinion, but in practice, I feel with Wolff, that where I can see better, I’ll try to make it so, with the proviso that the story must still ‘live’ for me. Perhaps that is the key thing – a story that we use the analogy ‘alive’ for, is still in the process of being made. A story that is ‘finished,’ perhaps loses that metaphorical ‘life.’ To try a resuscitation, bringing it back to life, might be seen as a Frankenstein-like undertaking.

Perhaps a hidden question raised by the comparison between the two viewpoints is that of at which point in the creative process does one publish? Wolff makes much of the editorial input of the publishing team: ‘an editor had read it with pencil in hand,’ ‘another editor looked it over,’ I would have given it yet another going-over,’ ‘and done so again.’

Bates never mentions an editor: ‘Except in the ordinary way of proof reading I have not revised them at all.’

Do these widely diverse expressions tell us something about the differences between two authors, or about those between two publishing models spaced a three-score-years-and-ten and an ocean apart? Either way, the discussion might help us to see ourselves more clearly, which is always helpful (isn’t it?).

BHDandMe in his English Derby....

BHDandMe in his English Derby….

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