Get me rewrite?

With books evolving into digital texts, authors could go back and change stories from years ago. But would they?

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / August 5, 2011

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Books are evolving from print to digital media, and reading is evolving, too. But what about writing? With texts going digital, it becomes alluringly simple to rework, revise - and profitably republish - earlier works. In theory, a writer could download his or her first novel onto a laptop, give it the thorough polish it deserves, and have it back on the real and/or e-bookshelves in a matter of days.

Tempted to revise and expand (or contract)? I asked a handful of writers for their thoughts.

John Banville, author of “The Sea,’’ and several mystery novels under the pen name Benjamin Black: “This is an interesting question. My first thought is that of course I could revise a book on paper and republish it - Auden revised many of his poems and reissued them. So I don’t think the new technology offers something that was not possible before, although I suppose it would make a revision much simpler and cheaper.

“For my part, I could not bear to revisit old work. I have said many times that my Banville books are a standing affront to me, and perhaps this gives a wrong impression: As we all know, my books are better than everyone else’s; they’re just not good enough for me. All I see in them are the faults. I’m after perfection, which is not available. As Beckett says, ‘Fail again. Fail better,’ and that’s the artist’s lot. So I’ll keep failing as best I can, and leave my past failures to posterity.’’

Jane Smiley, author of “A Thousand Acres’’: “I remember in college, when we were told that William Butler Yeats rewrote and improved his poems all through his life, that I thought what a shame that was, because I wished that his poems would supply a true record of his growth and development. I still pretty much feel that way - a novel attests to where you were at a certain point in your life, and later novels show whether or not you changed or learned. So I wouldn’t rewrite any of them. But I would correct the typos!’’

Chris Bohjalian, author of “Midwives’’: “I have no desire to rewrite any of my books. Some of them could use serious rewriting - or, better still, serious shredding or serious deletion. My first novel is - and this is not hyperbole - the single worst first novel ever published, bar none. Truly. And even a book that was well-reviewed and sold well, such as ‘The Buffalo Soldier,’ has a train wreck of an ending. (I knew within days of holding the published book in my hands how it should have ended.)

“But just because we can do something technologically doesn’t mean that we should. I’m open to the ways new technologies already are changing the novel - i.e., alternate endings, allowing characters multiple paths - and presume in the next few years I will explore them myself. But I try to respect the integrity of most completed works of art, whether it’s a novel or a painting or a sculpture. By the time one of my novels has arrived between hard covers in a bookstore or on a Kindle or Nook, I have made peace with its flaws and my own limitations as a writer.’’

Tom Perrotta, author of “Little Children’’: “I’m too lazy for that. And besides, the books are a sort of record of a life. They represent the best I could do at the time they were written. I’d be pretty reluctant to impose my current self on my former like that.’’

David Hackett Fischer, author of “Paul Revere’s Ride’’: “My books have been finding their way into digital editions without any help from the author, and that’s fine with me. Others are more expert than I in that sort of translation. And I have always centered my scattered thoughts on the next book, compulsively so. It’s scribble, scribble around here.’’

Elizabeth McCracken, author of “The Giant’s House’’: “No, I really wouldn’t. Any egregious mistake, yes. But there’s a reason I am most easy about my relationship with my earliest book [‘Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry’]. At this remove (nearly 20 years) I know it’s the best book I could have written at the time. Once I started unraveling, I think I would never stop. I am given to regret and second-guessing. I would rather not indulge that particular quirk.’’

Caroline Leavitt, author of “Pictures of You’’: “I’m an intrepid reviser anyway, so the opportunity to revise an old novel is more than enticing. I can’t help but want to tell the story from another character’s point of view.

“When I wrote my first novel, ‘Meeting Rozzy Halfway,’ about two sisters, one of whom becomes mad, I wrote it from the viewpoint of Bess, the so-called sane sister. But now I’d love to view the whole situation from spiraling-out-of-control Rozzy’s point of view.

“Or what about ‘Girls in Trouble,’ telling the story from the birth father’s point of view? Now, that would be lots of fun for me, because I could revisit the characters I ache for, and yet it would still be a new way of looking at the story.

“Of course for marketing, there could always be the tagline: Think you know the story? Look again! The only thing I wouldn’t do is change the ending of my latest novel, ‘Pictures of You,’ which did not have the happier ending some readers wanted!’’

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is