Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Reviving Dennis Wheatley: A Conversation with Miranda Vaughan Jones and Matthew Coniam

(This is an edited version of a talk given by Bloomsbury's Miranda Vaughan Jones and I at the Bristol Crimefest in 2014.)

MC:
Dennis Wheatley is a perfect illustration of my contention that, if you’re an author of mass-market popular fiction, there’s almost literally no level of success or popularity you can achieve in your lifetime that will guarantee you cultural longevity when you’re done. In fact, sometimes, it almost seems to work the other way; a new generation will come along and automatically say, ‘oh, that’s that author my dad used to read,’ or, ‘my granddad had all his books…’ so, unless you’re very lucky, there seems to be a strict three-generational lifespan that goes: 1) on every bookshelf; 2) in every charity shop and jumble sale; 3) oblivion.
 I was born in 1973, so in other words at the height of the ‘jumble sale years’, and I began collecting Wheatley novels because they were everywhere very cheaply (and had intriguing titles and garish covers). When I actually settled down to read them I was surprised, not only by how much I enjoyed them but by the fact that I enjoyed many of the things that were supposedly their biggest flaws: specifically that they have no eye on posterity at all and speak to Wheatley’s own generation and what he takes to be his peers, with the absolute confidence of being understood on all points. And it occurred to me that, if you are looking for a really vivid kind of social history, where the past actually comes to life before your eyes, you shouldn’t go to a work of non-fiction because that’s history in a glass case, and you shouldn’t go to an historical novel written now (however skilled, it will still have a kind of ‘retrospective focus’), nor to any of the great works of any particular era. What you want is a novel from the era in question, but crucially one written by an author who is not in any way trying to set down any kind of record of the times, but is merely speaking to the moment, without serious consideration.
So I liken the experience of reading a Wheatley novel to coming across an island somewhere that was colonised in the thirties, or the forties, and then sealed off from all outside influences, and just carried on as was… And this is what makes Wheatley’s novels so interesting to me; the way you can see the times in which he was writing not just being evoked but actually living and breathing. It’s a bit like a puppet theatre: in the foreground are the puppets, the thing we’re meant to be looking at, and that’s his characters and plots. But what’s even more interesting are the backgrounds, the scenery, slowly changing as the years go by. And Wheatley is an especially useful example of this process because he wrote so regularly, so prolifically and for such a long period of time: virtually a book a year every year, from the thirties to the seventies. So that’s a big chunk of the twentieth century passing by as you read.
 I started my website the Dennis Wheatley Project, therefore, in which I document my reading of every Wheatley book in the order he wrote them, partly for the fun of it but mainly so as to be taken on exactly this idiosyncratic tour of the century, with Wheatley as my guide. (And it struck me that, outside of Wheatley himself and his family, I might be one of the few people to have ever done such a thing. Even his exact contemporary and biggest fan probably didn’t read them all, in order. They might have started late, missed a couple, read some out of sequence. And even if they didn’t, they still weren’t seeing the times pass by as vividly as we do now, because they were their times to. And inevitably, as I was reading, I was wondering how they would play to a contemporary audience, never dreaming for a minute that such a thought experiment could ever actually be enacted in reality.
So imagine my surprise when I received an email from Miranda Vaughan Jones, to say that I was not the only person to be reading them all in order after all! That she was an editor at Bloomsbury and that she was overseeing, through the miracle of E-books, the re-issue of Wheatley’s entire back catalogue. Indeed that some, even, were going to be coming back as honest-to-God paperbacks. I’m going to hand over to Miranda now, who’s going to discuss some of the questions arising from the process of re-introducing Wheatley to the mass audience of today. Questions like: if we presume the right to edit the words of a deceased writer, is there a tendency to feel a greater right when it’s ‘only’ an author like Wheatley, rather than one with a higher reputation? How can we edit the books, and to what extent? Censorship is obviously a factor: everyone knows that his books contain various kinds of outdated attitudes and expressions; indeed he deliberately cultivated the image of crusty reactionary even at the time. Can we go further; can we edit for pace, for effect? One of the things he is most notorious for is including what one critic called ‘chunks of undigested research’, whereby he would choose his subject, then read ten relevant history books, and ten relevant geography books, and then just splurge what he’d read into his novels in big lumps, while the plot waits for him to finish.
Of course this is not mature, considered writing, and it impacts on the pace and effect, but if we remove it do we risk ‘unsealing the island’ I spoke of earlier; do we risk turning the books into something they are not? In short, I suppose what I’m asking can be put very simply indeed: What would Dennis say?

 MVJ:
Generally, the idea of interfering with the classics is frowned upon, but there are many instances in which we read a body of text not in its original form. We have the option to read bridged or unabridged versions, and even when reading work in translation we are experiencing a ‘once-removed’ interpretation of an author’s work. It was the request of the Wheatley family that, on re-releasing Wheatley titles that span decades of the twentieth century, someone look at the whole body of work and decide how best, if at all, to make changes to make them more appealing to a contemporary audience. At the helm was Dennis’ grandson, Dominic Wheatley – a director of a gaming company, a man engaged daily with new technologies and social media, so someone who can fairly be said to have his finger on the pulse. We have received a few emails supposing that we are trying to make Wheatley ‘politically correct’, but I hope to show that that was not the intention here; it was giving old novels an edit with a contemporary readership in mind.
 In 2011 there was a publisher in Alabama whose decision to edit Huckleberry Finn caused quite a controversy. They took out the n-word, of which there were more than two hundred instances, and replaced it with the word ‘slave’. Their reasoning for doing this was that the novel had fallen off school curricula because teachers were no longer comfortable with the language, but the publisher felt it was such a key part of the literary canon that it was important to get it back into the hands of the younger generation. But the point of the book, boiled down, is that Huck Finn starts out with racist views, in a racist society, and then through his experiences he stops being racist and leaves that society. These publisher’s changes mean their version of the book ceases to show the moral development of his character, and an integral nuance is lost. This brings us to the question of representation through dialogue, which to me is entirely different from representation through narration and context. Dennis Wheatley famously travelled for seven months of the year and wrote for five, so he was bringing into his novels some very worldly views that spoke to a generation of readers in an age where international travel was nowhere near as common or accessible as today. He was writing about civilisations fairly unknown to them, or that were known only in the fearful stereotypes of ‘otherness’. For this reason, my decision was to keep the dialogue intact – if characters are speaking to one another then the reader expects it to be a faithful representation of how people spoke at that time. However, there is something known as ‘authorial intervention’ in literature where the author, as omnipotent narrator, will chip in with a personal view not attributed to anyone within the fictional world of the story. This is a trespassing of thought into a narrative where it has no place. So, there was a lot of racial language that we wouldn’t use any more, and that stays there because it is, in the story world, reported speech. In narration, however, I would argue that the author has a certain responsibility to abstract himself – personal views can and should be removed, or attributed to a character through speech or internal thought. It is jarring for the reader to be inside one characters’ head when, all of a sudden, the author pipes up, because the author isn’t supposed to be there.
 The second point to consider in the editing process was pace, and Dominic Wheatley used a really good example to illustrate his desire to ‘tighten up’ the texts. He talked about the Steve McQueen movie, Bullitt, explaining that when it was released it was crisp, it was pacey, it was slick, but now we have moved into the Tarantino generation, so we have grown used to a higher velocity. As Matthew said, a predominant criticism of Wheatley’s writing was that it had these long, plodding descriptions that weren’t relevant or necessary to the plot, so that was going to be my main focus – seeing if it was possible to splice out bits of information that weren’t moving the story forward. I actually found myself doing less and less of that as I worked through each novel, particularly when it came to the Roger Brook series, which is set in the 1800s, and contains an astonishing amount of transposed research. Even though I had my red pen hovering, I thought it would be such a shame to lose all of this historical information when it was being spooned out in such a pleasurable medium. It may not make for a fast-paced, Tarantinoesque novel, but I deigned to keep it all in, because if you’re reading and learning by proxy I don’t think that’s ever going to be a bad thing for any generation. 


Member of audience:
It does seem, from personal experience of the Wheatley books, that I think you hit the nail on the head. The Roger Brooks, particularly. If you strip out the history, you really only have a shell. When I was working in Bosnia, the Roger Brook books greatly helped me. Maybe a tiny bit of editing is needed, of some of the more politically motivated parts, where he’s trying to make a contemporary political point rather than a purely historical point.


 MC:
He did claim that he got grateful letters from school history teachers, saying ‘I’ve been trying to teach my class this subject for a year with no success, and now because of your book they’re all expert in the period.’

 Member of audience: 
I can believe that. And more power to them, if it gets youngsters finding out about these subjects without too much boredom.

 Question from audience: 
Is there an example you can think of where you most thought, “I have to take that out!”?


 MVJ:
There were a few patterns that emerged, but certainly the political interventions stood out…


 MC:
I got a message from somebody who had just read The Forbidden Territory, and they were expecting certain edits, but they were surprised that you had toned down some of the descriptions of atrocities. 


MVJ:
Really?


 MC: 
There’s a bit where De Richleau kills one of the baddies quite cold-bloodedly and one of the other characters takes him to task for it, and he says something like, ‘You’d have no sympathy for them if you’d seen what I’ve seen,’ and goes on to describe this long catalogue of barbarities he’s witnessed, and the guy said that had been considerably truncated. He wasn’t up in arms about it, but he wasn’t sure of the motivation.


 MVJ:
It may well have simply been a question of pace and / or repetition, if it was indeed a long catalogue of events that did not read like natural speech. I very much doubt it was because of too much graphic content, which I don’t find in the least offensive in Wheatley’s work – he is hardly at the level of Chuck Pahluniuk or Irvine Welsh – but yes, on reflection, I do remember shortening some dialogue in The Forbidden Territory on the grounds that it read like a factual list. I suppose in that vein we can call it editorial intervention… basically we get the point, let’s move on with the story!


 MC:
It’s very interesting to me what you were saying about authorial intervention, because that is one of his most defining features. And in terms of what you’re trying to do, which is to bring these books back to life for a new generation, it is one of the things that most stands in the way of that. But at the same time, if you’re silly like me, and actually enjoy the books in part because of these outdated elements, that is one of the things I find most enjoyable. The way he cannot shut up, he cannot just tell you what’s happening; if he wants to make a comment, suddenly he’s a character, he’s there in the book telling you what to think. And it’s not mature writing but it can be very amusing, and certainly once you get a sense of the man he was, it’s so very typical, and it fits his character absolutely. Of course he does that! How could he restrain himself?


 MVJ:
Yes, I do see that. There is that wonderful sort of charm – the outspoken drunk Uncle at a wedding with all of the controversial commentary, and there is a fondness there. I would argue that the novels are still saturated with the Wheatley voice – it is really inescapable, and the characters behave as thinly veiled spokespeople for his views. So what would Dennis say? I don’t know, but I’m sure he would have no qualms airing his views one way or the other. Perhaps more importantly, what would I say to Dennis? I would say that, as somebody who had never read Wheatley before, perhaps I am this ‘new generation of reader’, and as such I am a converted fan. The notion of reissuing the novels alone is breathing new life into his legacy, so I would hope that a considered amount of nipping and tucking will lead to a new legion of fans.