Somehow I missed
Adam Gopnik's "The Corrections" in the Oct 22nd New Yorker. It's an interesting little essay, in and of itself, but it begins with what I would call a prima facia topic of interest:
Orion [a British publisher] has taken nineteenth-century classics--among them "Moby-Dick," "Anna Karenina," "Vanity Fair," and "The Mill on the Floss"--and cut them neatly in half, like Damien Hirst animals, so that they can be taken in quickly and all the more admired.Googling this subject, I quickly found a story in the entertainment section of the London Times, whose writers had the tact and judgment to do a little abridging of their own:
Although the tone of the blurbs and the back matter is defiantly unapologetic, the names of the abridgers are mysteriously absent, suggesting that, with the shyness of old-fashioned pornographers, they don't want to be quite so openly associated with the project as their publisher's pride would suggest they ought. Who was the mohel of "Moby-Dick"; who took the vanity out of "Vanity Fair"; who threw Anna under the train a hundred pages sooner than before? Orion isn't telling. Yet the work had to be done with considerable tact and judgment.
The problem is, thought Anna — her aristocratic brow furrowing slightly under a fabulous new hat — men look so irresistible in uniform! Ditto boots, billowing shirts and moustaches! Hang marriage. Hang motherhood. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a train to catch.
At Vauxhall, Posh and Becky were toying with their parasols and nibbling macaroons. Becky was singing, in a voice not unlike her poor dead mother’s, “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. Giving all your love to just several men”; when she spotted young George Osborne coming towards them.“Oops!” she said, as her friend fell into the boating lake.
I am Born . . . I am Sent Away from Home . . . I Have a Memorable Birthday . . . I Become Neglected and Am Provided For . . . I Make Another Beginning . . . Somebody Turns Up . . . I Fall into Captivity . . . Depression . . . Enthusiasm . . . Dora’s Aunts . . . Mischief . . . Mr Dick Fulfils my Aunt's Predictions . . . I am Involved in Mystery . . . Tempest . . . Absence . . . Return . . . Agnes!
Ishmael: Whaling’s cool.
Queequeg: Tattoos are cool.
Starbuck: Coffee’s cool.
Ahab: Fools! Stop yer philosophizin' and help me fight this fish.
Moby-Dick (rising from waves): Screw you, Pegleg!
All: At last! Some action!
Moby-Dick: [Crash! Chomp! Blow!]
Ishmael (later, alone, clinging to wreckage): Whaling’s cool . . .
Back to Gopnik:
...the Orion "Moby-Dick" is not defaced; it is, by conventional contemporary standards of good editing and critical judgment, improved. The compact edition adheres to a specific idea of what a good novel ought to be: the contemporary aesthetic of the realist psychological novel. This is not what a contemptuous philistine would do with the book. It is what a good editor, of the Maxwell Perkins variety, would do: cut out the self-indulgent stuff and present a clean story, inhabited by plausible characters-the "taut, spare, driving" narrative beloved of Sunday reviewers.
...the compact "Vanity Fair" relieves Thackeray of his "preciousness"-the discursive, interfering commentary on the action that charmed his Victorian readers. In a middle chapter called "In Which Amelia Invades the Low Countries," for instance, Thackeray's chatty, confidential tone is altered by his subtractors into the sparer narrative voice of good writing.Now comes the part when I state my opinons and drive the last of the other Incertians away and onto their own new blogs*. I don't find these abridgments particularly upsetting. There is, today, one very specific idea of what good writing looks like, and Gopnik describes it well. These "compact editions" will no doubt find a grateful readership. What I do find upsetting, however, is the absence of the editors' identities.
Even as sympathetic a reader as Edmund Wilson hated Thackeray's rambling remarks and continual intrusions of mild ironies. But Thackeray without his little jokes and warm asides becomes another, duller writer-too constantly on message. Meaning resides in the margins; Thackeray wants to insinuate, not force, his way into the reader's confidence. Becky Sharp lives for us not just because her creator made her but because her creator couldn't leave her alone; he is always there, fussing over her shoulder, commenting on her behavior, the way we do with real people who obsess us. Transparent, objective lucidity is the last emotion we have about the actual; we fret, comment, editorialize, intrude, despair, laugh, and gossip.
The real lesson of the compact editions is not that vandals shouldn't be let loose on masterpieces but that masterpieces are inherently a little loony. They run on the engine of their own accumulated habits and weirdnesses and selfindulgent excesses. They have to, since originality is, necessarily, something still strange to us, rather than something that we already know about and approve. What makes writing matter is not a story, cleanly told, but a voice, however odd or ordinary, and a point of view, however strange or sentimental. Books can be snipped at, and made less melodically muddled, but they lose their overtones, their bass notes, their chesty resonance-the same thing that happens, come to think of it, to human castrati.
Whoever these editors are, they are people who know these novels, and good modern writing, well enough to accomplish a truly amazing creative act. I see these books as something akin to "Bittersweet Symphony" or "Steal My Sunshine" or "Ice, Ice, Baby" or "Gold-digger": the original utterly defines the new artifact, but the artifact is valuable of its own accord, belonging (no matter what British judges who suck Rolling Stone cock think) to their new makers and to the time periods in which they were produced.
So it's sad to me that they won't (don't want to?) get credit.
Now, as for our modern idea of what makes a good novel, and what that ends up excluding, I'll keep those opinions to myself, lest I be the last Incertian standing*, babbling alone to myself in the dark.
*I don't actually believe I'm chasing anyone away. At least I hope I'm not. I do use shit metaphors a lot. Sorry. :-)