Local author Robin Cody has re-edited his PSU-published book to make it less objectionable to parents.
When Robin Cody started talking with PSU’s Ooligan Press about republishing his acclaimed first novel, Ricochet River, the Oregon author had a curveball to throw.
The coming-of-age novel, originally written for adults in 1992, includes two brief sex scenes and four-letter language that some might say is appropriate for the book’s colorful, Oregon logging town characters.
Since then, the book has become a staple in Oregon high schools. But periodically, parents object to its language and sex scenes and joust with their local school boards—as they did this past winter in North Clackamas School District.
These objections have lead to predictable outcomes: books banned, books banned from the classroom but approved for the school library, or, as in the recent North Clackamas ruckus, the book was kept on the reading list, but parents are notified and an alternative book is available as an option.
Cody’s curveball is less predictable: Working with Ooligan Press, he revised the book to make it less objectionable to parents.
“All it takes is a couple of parents to call it literary pornography,” says Cody. “A paragraph or two taken out of context and read to a school board or church group—it’s devastating. I’m against censorship, but I was in a personal situation where I could make this book available to more people—and I did it.”
“It’s very surprising to me, actually, that an author would do it without pressure from the publisher,” says Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. Bertin says she is not aware of another instance where an author has voluntarily censored a published work.
Instead, such issues are typically undertaken during editing, says Bertin.
“Editors and authors discuss this all the time, especially if the work is going to be marketed to minors,” says Bertin. “I have heard of authors whose books are marketed as adult literature because they have sexual content, when their intended audience is young adults. That way the publisher doesn’t worry so much.”
Ricochet River’s main characters are three teenagers: star athlete Wade, independent Lorna, and Jesse, a blithely spirited American Indian. These three friends struggle toward adulthood within the claustrophobic confines of Calamus, a fictional logging town modeled on Cody’s own hometown of Estacada.
The book is often compared to Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s classic 1951 novel of teenage angst. But where Salinger’s characters come from upperclass New York, Cody’s have working-class roots.
Jesse, the new boy, continually finds himself in trouble with the town rule makers—from cutting baseball practice to shoplifting to blowing up a small dam that blocks the passage of wild salmon. Wade, a dutiful town son, tries to help Jesse stay within the rules of Calamus society. But as he sees how much harder the town is on Jesse than on other teenagers, who misbehave within the accepted societal norms, Wade gradually begins to see Calamus in another light. Meanwhile, Lorna, Wade’s girlfriend, must figure out just how much wildness—and sexuality—a woman is allowed in Calamus society.
“In my mind,” says Cody, “the reasons it gets blocked are so peripheral to the book. I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll make it easier for teachers and school boards to get this book into the hands of kids.’ It started as a compromise. I’ll budge. I’ll tone down the sex scenes, and see if I can take out some of the logger language. That’s the way I went into it.”
Cody turned to Ooligan.
Ooligan is Portland State’s teaching press, where students run a real-world publishing house. The 70 or so students in the program edit, produce, and publish books that honor the cultural and natural diversity of the Pacific Northwest. Ooligan’s first book, Abraham Lincoln: A Novel Life, was published last year.
Ooligan’s publisher, Dennis Stovall, is the former co-owner of Blue Heron Press, which published the paperback edition of Ricochet River for several years until Blue Heron shuttered its doors. When Stovall took on the top job at Ooligan, Cody looked him up.
The six students in PSU’s graduate editing class separately reviewed a copy of the book—marking unclear passages and flagging profanity, then met to discuss their findings with each other.
“We were very much on the watch for vulgarity or overly sexual themes,” says Karen Kirtley, instructor of the editing class. “We understood that was the main thing we were being asked to do. We wanted to keep all the vivid color and power, at the same time we wanted to eliminate the obstacles to the book being adopted. We spent a lot of time discussing this.”
Among the more extensive debates, Kirtley says, were those over the profanity.
“Often the deterioration of language reflects the deterioration of the character,” she says.”We thought the vulgarity, most of it, could go without significantly reducing the color. We took as a given that we needed to help Robin make this book something that would pass under the radar.”
Finally the students met with Cody to review their suggestions. Cody, truth be told, was shocked.
When Knopf published the hardback edition in 1992, he recalls wryly, the editors changed nary a word. But the students, he soon saw, had taken their task with the utmost seriousness. Some of their suggestions were no-brainers. The students politely pointed out that since the book was set in the 1960s, the reference to U2 was an anachronism.
“They were thinking rock band,” says Cody. “I was thinking spy plane.”
No point in confusing readers over such minor details, Cody figured. He made those changes and others of the same ilk. In all, he figures, he accepted about a third of the student editors’ suggestions.
The students also marked each occurrence of a profanity. Again, Cody reviewed each suggestion.
“After I got their consolidated edit,” he says, “I made the decision which vulgarities would remain.” Mostly, he says, the changes consisted of replacing “f---” with less offensive expletives.
Cody spent the summer and fall taking an even more critical look at his first novel—at the language, at the development of the theme, at the craft of the writing. And at the two sex scenes.
“If you put something you write in a drawer for six months, then read it you’ll see stuff to change,” Cody says. Ricochet River was his first novel and it had been years since he’d viewed it afresh.
“Some things were surprisingly good, like, ‘man, I never would have thought of that,’ yet I wrote it,” he says. “On the other hand, you learn a lot about the craft of writing. There were lots of ways to make this better. You read a paragraph and think, ‘This isn’t helping.’”
And he looked with a critical eye at the scenes of passion.
In the first, Wade and Lorna watch salmon spawning, are inspired by the rhythms of nature and make love. “That was the scene people liked to take out of context and say how horrible the book is,” says Cody.
Cody felt the scene was essential to the theme of the novel, but felt he could tone it down. “I just made it less explicit about how far they go,” he says. “It’s still there, but it doesn’t describe the body to body stuff.”
The second scene was less thematic, although Cody admits it was one of his favorite comic scenes. In it, the three teens take a road trip and spend the night in a hotel room in The Dalles. Cody, a former English teacher himself, had several concerns about the scene.
“This is difficult to handle (in class),” he says. “They’re not married. They’re young people. They’re drinking wine. I cut the overnight part completely. It just doesn’t belong in the high school classroom and that’s where my book’s being sold.”
After all, he says, his original purpose in editing the book was to make it more accessible to high schools.
“I left in more than I took out,” Cody says. “It’s not kiddy lit. It’s not dumbed down for children. Some people will still object to it.” But with the revisions, Cody adds, “I think I’ve got a better, tighter book. It still will be objectionable to some, but it will be harder to call it pornography.”
Bertin, of the censorship group, doesn’t try to second-guess Cody’s decision, but she does worry about the implications.
“It’s such a slippery slope,” says Bertin. “How do you know? Once the pressure is exerted, how do you know, even assuming everyone’s trying to be honest with themselves. How do you disconnect the response from the anxiety the pressure creates? What we would hate to see is for the work to lose something, in some important way, because of the values other people bring to bear that may not necessarily be widely shared.”
Cody is confident that hasn’t happened with Ricochet River.
“When an author gets a chance to redo something after 14 years, and when he’s become a better writer, it’s an opportunity. Of course the initial motive was to make it more accessible to teachers. There’s some small sorriness that I chose to cut that comic sex scene in The Dalles. But that’s balanced by going back to something I did nearly 20 years ago and making it shorter and cleaner and crisper and better as literature. That wasn’t the motive going in—that was the surprise.”
Melissa Steineger, a Portland freelance writer, wrote the article “Women of Honor” for the winter 2005 PSU Magazine.
Read Tinsel Town's take for additional information about Richochet River.