Self-criticism, even regret, is common among writers looking back at old work, but novelist Ben Okri has now gone so far as to rewrite an entire published novel. And it’s a book he already loved a lot.
The Booker Prize-winning Nigerian author has spent much of the last five years reinventing his 2008 story Starbook, a mystical romance set in his homeland. A new version, with a new title and a new cover, is to be published this summer under The Last Gift from the Master Artists, and Okri believes he has put more emphasis on transatlantic slavery and will now offer his readers a “more thoughtful” account.
“It was a laborious and agonizing process. I always wanted the book to be magical and innocent but I also want it to be political. It all happens right before the slave trade – at that prescient moment,” Okri said over the weekend.
The changes made were more than cosmetic and gave more clarity to his treatment of the slave trade, he said.
“Starbook was a book that had cost me a lot emotionally. I paid the price for it and I think it’s one of my important works,” he says, but when asked to give it a public reading after it was published, he felt it could be improved.
“I never re-read my novels because I don’t like to look back,” says Okri, “but when Starbook came out, I was aware that some of the answers didn’t pick up on one of the book’s key themes, especially in the central passages, which all deal with the slave trade to come. Critics aren’t stupid and if they don’t notice something, there’s a reason.
Okri’s editors, Head of Zeus, said: “The first reception of the book did not refer to aspects of slavery or consider them allegorical. This reissue is a chance to correct that in light of contemporary recognition of historical and current injustices.
So maybe it’s the concerns of readers that have changed? Okri concedes that’s part of it: “Maybe my audience has changed because of the impact of Brexit and Covid, and of course Black Lives Matter and the rise of new feminism. We have all been sensitized and opened to a new discourse.
“There may be nothing for me to gain except a good night’s artistic sleep,” Okri said. “I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it, and it’s just a personal thing. I am not aware of others doing this.
Wholesale rewriting of published fiction is unusual, unless there are legal imperatives. It’s an industry in which the financial returns are often marginal, and significant changes to a novel require a new ISDN number to be issued, even for a self-published author editing their own e-fiction. But six years ago, American author and TV writer Karen Hall pulled off a similar feat when her publishing house, Simon & Schuster, released a hardcover edition of her popular 1996 novel. Obscure debts, with significantly revised content. Hall explained to New York Times she had “backed down” from the parts of the book she didn’t like.
Hall added one character and dropped another, as well as changing the ending, which she felt sounded off the hook. The author had won the backing of his publisher, Jonathan Karp, as the popular novel approached its 20th anniversary. “There are so many books as a publisher where you kinda miss the mark, either commercially or critically, and I’ve often wondered, why wouldn’t a writer want to try again?” Karp said at the time.
James Joyce rewrote his first attempt at Portrait of the artist as a young man, but that was before it was published, as Okri points out. Charles Dickens, however, heavily modified Oliver Twist after a Jewish woman, Eliza Davis, wrote to complain about Fagin’s anti-Semitic portrayal. Dickens initially resisted saying, “I must take my leave to say that if there is a general feeling on the part of intelligent Jewish people that I have done to them what you describe as ‘great wrong’, they are far less sensible, a far less fair and far less good people than I always assumed they were.
Then, in 1867, responsive to Davis’s argument that his friend Wilkie Collins had presented the Jews more favorably, Dickens changed the wording in Turn before a reprint of the novel.
In the film world, creative editing is more widely accepted. Director’s cuts of blockbuster films or films that have been edited controversially often acquire more cachet than the original.
“I would say that the director’s edit of Miloš Forman’s film Amedee, for example, is richer, even though the original is awesome,” Okri said. “It’s just that I felt there was something about the tone that made the first version read like a fairy tale. It was really a subtle thing, but it changes the way something can be read. I needed to find a new quieter tone: something less performative. I needed to find a tone that would make this particular subsumed material stand out.
For the effort to be worthwhile, argues the novelist, “the desire to go back” must have something important at its base: “It was a real labor of love but The Last Gift from the Master Artists is an older, wiser, humbler and more thoughtful book. I guess we could consider this a reincarnation.