Illustration: Robin Cowcher.EVERYONE knows Gatsby died. So let’s remake the tale. Let’s suppose Gatsby reasoned with George and wrote him a cheque, then spirited Daisy away to Argentina, where they took up residence in an apartment in Buenos Aires. Two silk-wrapped gringos waltzing endlessly around the gramophone. Don’t let that version offend you. Here’s another: Gatsby takes the rap for what happened to Myrtle Wilson and goes to the chair, telling himself that it is a far, far better thing … Tom Buchanan smirks at him through the glass.
Is this the desecration of a monument? Or has the digital age enabled a bespoke literature in which one version of Gatsby will, eventually, fit your tastes? It has become impossible to protect the copyright of a book and it might be that when you go online to download it for free, you can choose between 50 or 100 versions. Pick the feminist version, in which Daisy is the yearning protagonist and Gatsby the blase survivor.
The writer China Mieville, speaking recently on the future of the novel at the Edinburgh World Writers Conference, said, ”Anyone who wants to shove their hands into a book and grub about in its innards, add to and subtract from it, and pass it on, will … be able to do so without much difficulty”. He described anti-piracy measures for literature in the digital age as ”disingenuous, hypocritical, ineffectual” and ”artistically philistine”. Mieville said that just as music fans remix albums and post them online, so readers will recut the novel. Writers should ”be ready for guerilla editors”, he said, adding: ”In the future, asked if you’ve read the latest Ali Smith or Ghada Karmi, the response might be not yes or no, but which mix?”
The idea that Fitzgerald’s Gatsby might be just the first Chinese whisper in an endlessly morphing version of itself – an amoeba requiring a literary evolution to make it something more rewarding – requires you to believe the writers who take on the task are better writers than Fitzgerald. Or, maybe, each is capable of a better moment than Fitzgerald, and the sum of their moments will eventually dwarf his original version.
But a committee of 100 voices could only write a novel by 100 concessions, each member giving up a piece of their own vision in democratic deference to the others. And every concession moves the novel, brick-by-brick, towards a more central, normal vision. Good for politics. Not so good for art. Great art usually reeks of idiosyncrasy. What committee could have written Ulysses? Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? Wuthering Heights? The Man Who Loved Children? Labyrinths? Infinite Jest?
If novels are to be rewritten, morphed slowly by countless serial writers on the net, it’s likely each book will end up becoming the same book. Just as the endless, amendments to entries on Wikipedia tend towards the truth, endless amendments to a novel will leave it, eventually, as a document displaying the mean average of the predilections and prejudices of the multitude. Which would be like reading your own thoughts. Which would not be like reading at all.
In 2009, Sean Hemingway, grandson of Ernest and his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer, refashioned A Moveable Feast to paint his grandmother in a more favourable light. To ”set the record straight”. Papa’s great friend A.E. Hotchner wrote: ”As an author, I am concerned by Scribner’s involvement in this ‘restored edition’. With this reworking as a precedent, what will Scribner do, for instance, if a descendant of F. Scott Fitzgerald demands the removal of the chapter in A Moveable Feast about the size of Fitzgerald’s penis, or if Ford Madox Ford’s grandson wants to delete references to his ancestor’s body odour.”
We all want to set the record straight. That is, bend the world to the shape of our mind. And who could trust big business, dictators or religious nut-jobs not to shape the classics to fit their mindskew? Holden Caulfield’s disenchantment is healed by Scientology. Tom Joad’s poverty ended by him managing a Ford dealership. The Japanese make a magically piquant sushi of a troublesome white whale.
Years ago, while getting The Fatal Shore signed by Robert Hughes, I asked if he’d like me to sign a copy for him. It could sit on his shelf celebrating ”The Unknown Reader”, was my idea. ”No. Write your own f—king book,” he told me.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.