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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Santa Quits Smoking! Is It Right To Alter A Classic Book?



Should we alter a classic book because doing so could save lives and help society?

That’s a heavy question that one of my clients recently answers with a resounding Yes!

Pamela McColl, a Canadian child advocate took a work that is in the public domain and edited out a few lines without adding new text or substituting new words.  The result?  She removed references to Santa smoking a pipe from what’s arguably the most famous children’s holiday poem in the history of the country.

Twas The Night Before Christmas was originally published nearly 190 years ago in a newspaper, anonymously.  It has appeared in book form for at least 160 years. Last year it was on the best-seller list for 36 weeks.  The book gave rise to the modern interpretation of the fat, jolly, gift-giving Santa that kids know and love today.

Pamela made the edits in hopes of combating the early introduction of smoking to kids.  One can say she has good intentions.  Others may call her a politically correct censor but that would be wrong-headed.  Here’s why:

First, the original version of the book is still available, pipe and all. No one says not to sell it. No government or library says ban it.  She is asking for parents to make a choice – smoke-free Santa or the original version. It will be up to consumer to select which book to buy and read. It turns out there are hundreds of versions of this book that have already been published, including one version where pirates are included.

Second, her changes don’t impact the story one bit as far as its enjoyment, message, or intention. But the omission of a few words make a possible life-death influence on children.

Third, it’s an expression of free speech. She has the legal right to alter the original and the right to publish whatever book she chooses to.  To oppose her, is to oppose the First Amendment.

As a purist, we may not want one to tinker with a book but as long as it is made clear to consumers that changes were made and as long as the original is still available, I don’t see a problem here.  If it spurs us to look at other classics and to edit out things of a similar nature it would be a step in the right direction, if done carefully and openly.  Sometimes, books, like political views or other values, need updating so they can reflect the times we live in. Last year a version of Huckleberry Finn was published without references to the N word.

McColl’s PR campaign is just getting under way, so it remains to be seen what type of reaction the media and consumers will have. The New York Post covered the debate in a recent article in its Sunday edition and raised the specter of censorship at work. Other media outlets highlighted the potential health benefits of the revised work.

Another interesting aspect to what McColl did is that her book highlights an interesting approach to publishing, where you take a classic in the public domain and republish an altered version.  Many publishers will sell copies of the same public domain work, such as Shakespeare or the Bible. But many will add in commentary and analysis to their edition, so as to distinguish why the consumer should buy from them.

The idea, however, of altering a classic and reselling it could be a growing industry, especially with ebooks.  A publisher can add in photos, artwork, additional passages, etc. and conveniently sell the revised classic without paying royalties or having to market the book with the same challenges of marketing a new book by an unknown author.

And, if you are like McColl and want to take up a social cause such as smoking, you can publish revised books that potentially improves the quality of life for others.

But be prepared to deal with critics who may think you are destroying the very book you seek to preserve.

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. Please note Pamela McColl is a client of the publicity firm that I work for.  You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.

3 comments:

  1. How will classics remain so with alterations? We can discuss with children that it is unhealthy to smoke a pipe or even lie as we do that Santa is real and say he just like to hold it in his mouth! Don't change literature. It would be like putting a cloak on a naked statue.

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  2. Is there not room for both, and what happens when the child reads this without the parent, why complicate such a moment of innocent, delight and real grace and pleasure. It is one thing to keep the fantasy about Santa alive and quite another to lie about tobacco. It is the seriousness of tobacco addiction that is the issue. One billion people will die in this century from tobacco use, 1200 a day in America with twice that number of kids becoming committed tobacco users every day. It is now at epidemic proportions and Santa is the most influential character. He outsells anyone including Ronald McDonald. In 1995 the US government outlawed the use of cartoon characters in the marketing of tobaacco products because the science prooved that such imagery sympathized 3-4-5-6-7 year old children towards tobacco use. 25% of adult smokers started before the age of 10 , 35% of 15 years olds currently smoking will not see grandparenthood and not enough is being done to advance tobacco prevention. The Surgeon General released a report, the first in 18 years in the spring and called for more to be done for tobacco prevention, the World Health Organization, The Center for Disease Control and many other agencies are calling for help from all parents to get involved in protecting this generation from taking up tobacco. Thank you sincerely for for engaging in this conversation and I do hope we see something change that will turn the dir situation around. PS Clement C. Moore, a father of six hated smoking and wrote about it as opium's treacherous villianous friend." I am a historian and I looked it up. Again thank you sincerely, The Publisher

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  3. I agree with the cause to prevent children from smoking at an early age. I do not agree with changing our classical books. If we make small changes here where will it stop? Classical books and poems are a timeless look at how life was lived during the times they were written. This must be preserved as is, untouched.

    190 years ago it was perfectly acceptable to smoke. Today we have to continue to take responsibility as adults to instill non-smoking values in our children. Some parents do not believe in these values,lending to generations of children smoking. I believe the family core values is the most important key, not Santa. If we begin to change books we are changing the original intent of the story no matter how minor the changes.

    In the case of Huckleberry Finn, the use of the N-word was reality. This is a teaching moment for families. Learning by wrong example is a good springboard to help our children think about the right way to treat others.

    Why are we sugar coating our history? Humans do not have a pretty history, but we can learn from it if we are willing to take a good hard look at it. PS Clement C. Moore's children probably looked at smoking a lot differently than their peers. It is family values that change history not the text in a classical book. Thank you for this thought provoking post.

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