“Correcting” Classics

I spend part of my time narrating for a group that produces audiobooks from Public Domain novels and short stories. Being that they’re in the public domain, they aren’t recent stories. The author isn’t even alive. Despite all that, it should seem like narrating them shouldn’t be any different than narrating a recent novel by a living author, right?

Or maybe I’m just influenced by my museum and anthropology background.

Recently, another narrator in the group admitted she changes books that aren’t politically correct because they offend her, and asked how others in the group handle the same issue. Most of the narrators who responded hadn’t thought about it before. Some thought they should follow her lead. Some weren’t so all right with it. (Keep in mind: Narrators can’t change a contemporary author’s novel while narrating it. Otherwise, that’s an error that has to be fixed. It makes narrating books with substandard proofreading interesting.)

I didn’t respond. I knew I wouldn’t respond kindly. But the more I thought about what she was doing, the more I actually wanted to put distance between her and me. If she wants to sanitize a novel that reflects its time period, what else would she be willing to sanitize to make a pretty story? It’s something historians wrestle with, because you want to preserve but at the same time you want that information to be accessible to the people who will be studying it.

My inner anthropologist/museum professional rages at the thought of making a older story “politically correct” because it robs us of an opportunity to experience a point of view relevant to the time of the author’s life. My inner narrator wonders why she didn’t just say, “I’m sorry. I can’t do this book.”, which is (I’ve been told. I’ve never done it.) completely acceptable when you’re bothered by a story’s content, and move on to the next one. (Because honestly, how believable is the narration going to be when you don’t like the story?)

I can only hope that she in time recognizes these little bits of history for what they are, and stop putting her contemporary sensibilities ahead of serving the preservation of that history, regardless of how unlikable it may be.

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