What are the odds? Whether through coincidence or cosmic convergence, two new novels with nearly identical titles—The Revisioners and The Revisionaries—are being published within a single 30-day period this autumn.
The Revisioners, by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (November 5, 2019). Read the New York Times review.
The Revisionaries, by A.R. Moxon (December 3, 2019). Read the publisher’s synopsis.
I haven’t yet read either of the books, but I am interested in title trends (read my Medium story about book titles here), and this one is especially intriguing. Sexton’s book is about women, race, and the stories told in families; Moxon’s is about a street preacher, a mental patient, and a religious cult. (And yes, I noted the other coincidence: both authors have an X in their surnames.) What is it, I wonder, about revision that appeals so strongly right now to two writers with such different interests and approaches? And not just those two writers: I see revisionist and revisionary cropping up regularly in popular culture.
The Revisionaries (2012), a US documentary: “The theory of evolution and a re-write of US history are caught in the crosshairs when an unabashed creationist seeks re-election as chairman of America's most influential board of education.” The adjective revisionary first appeared in print in 1686; I haven’t found a definition for the noun revisionary in standard dictionaries.
Revision ought to mean “seeing again”—and it did in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when it first entered English from French and Latin. But in fact it now means something else. And that something else is different in the UK and the US, which I discovered after some initial confusion when I came across the word in a British novel.*
The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible was published in 1989 by the National Council of Churches, the largest ecumenical body in the United States.
In the US, to revise means to rework, to edit, to change; in the UK educational system, it means to review or study in preparation for an exam. (View is of course another form of vision, but the words have distinct connotations.) As the American-in-England linguist Lynne Murphy explained it in her blog, Separated by a Common Language:
Thus in BrE one can revise for exams or revise Chemistry, while in AmE the object noun for the verb revise would have to refer to some kind of text: revise an essay. Look up “How to revise” on .ac.uk websites, and one gets lots of information about how to prepare oneself for examinations (see, for example, this). Look up the same phrase on .edu (i.e. mostly American university) sites, and one finds advice pages on how to improve a first draft of an essay (such as this one).
“Revisionist History” (2016-), a podcast hosted by Malcolm Gladwell: “Because sometimes the past deserves a second chance.” It’s just one of many sites and podcasts using the title “Revisionist History.”
Revisionism has some specific meanings in political history. Beginning in the mid-1800s, it referred to “the revision of Marxism on evolutionary socialist or pluralist principles as opposed to its original revolutionary principles” (source: OED). In the US, it has come to mean the practice of questioning the accepted version of historical events. (From a 1965 article in the British New Statesman magazine: “One linguistic difference between American and British historians lies in the frequency with which they use the word ‘revisionism’. It is common currency in Transatlantic seminars and journals, but hardly ever heard in this country.”) And in Israeli history, Revisionism was a movement within Zionism that became the basis of today’s right-wing politics.
“The Revisionists,” an alternate-history podcast. “One host presents a true account of a historical event or person. Another tells an alternate version of history. Then we open it to a vote. Whichever story wins becomes our accepted history. Any story from then on has to be based on what came before - whether it’s true or comic-book bullshit.” The most recent episode is about a legendary San Francisco character: Joshua Abraham Norton, aka Emperor Norton I. Just last week I saw a plaque dedicated to Norton at the Transbay Transit Center.
If you’re interested in revising your take on American history, I recommend Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen’s book, from 2017, about “how America went haywire.” In her New York Times review—there’s that word again—Hanna Rosin called it “a great revisionist history.”
* That novel, Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, also used marquee in a confusing-to-me non-movie-theater sense. In British English, I learned, a “marquee” is a large tent, like the sort used for wedding receptions.