Jan 24, 2007

Editing the classics - A Shelf Monkey prediction comes true!

As anyone who has read Shelf Monkey (or will read it, release date April 2007, get cracking on pre-ordering several copies for yourself), I love books. Thus, and unsurprisingly, it was with a heavy heart that I read here (via the wonderful literary blog Biology of the Worst Kind) that the publishing company of Weidenfeld & Nicolson is planning to re-release classic novels for the public. What's wrong that that? you ask. Well, for a start (actually, the whole problem), they've done market research which indicates that (as quoted in The Guardian) many readers are put off on reading the classics because of "daunting length and small print.

Boo-hoo, you say. But wait, the worst is yet to come! Their solution to this 'problem' (please note sarcastic tone in use of quote marks): editing their lengths. I mean, what could be simpler? Why read 400 pages, when you can read 200? Problem solved!

Here's the segment in its entirety:

"Despite the trend for new-look classics lists, no publisher has dared to meddle with the texts - until now. Weidenfeld & Nicolson is to launch a list of edited literary classics, called Compact Editions. It claims that market research shows many readers are put off by the "elitist" image of classics and by their daunting length and small print. So the Compact Editions - slogan "Great Books in Half the Time" - have been "sympathetically edited" down to fewer than 400 pages each. Weidenfeld insists that the novels retain the core plot, characters and historical background. The first six titles - Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, David Copperfield, The Mill on the Floss, Moby-Dick and Wives and Daughters - are to be released in May and will doubtless be snapped up by students eager to cut down their reading time."

Attributed to Joel Rickett, The Guardian, January 20, 2007.

To say it better than I ever could:

"The justification for simplifying and eviscerating books, as well as for inventing category nonsenses such as teenage fiction, is that it's better for people to read those than to read nothing. I don't think so. A sympathetically edited Moby-Dick is nothing. At any rate, it isn't Moby-Dick. You can screw around with the novel to make a film or a play if you like, even to make a new novel of your own. It could be wonderful. But the book that Melville wrote remains intact. It's available to be read as it was written and as generations have read it. It was written the way it was for a reason. For Melville's reason. That's what a novelist does. It's what the publisher ought to publish. It's what a reader should take or leave. For Weidenfeld & Nicolson to offer cut-down versions is to disgrace publishing, to give up on writers and on the possibility of literature. Actually to give up on anything except making money."

Attributed to Jenny Diski, Biology of the Worst Sort, January 22, 2007.

Now what's truly weird about all this (and I admit no small amount of prescience) is that I jokingly predicted this in Shelf Monkey. At one point (no plot spoilers here), a character rants over the antagonist's plans to re-release classic novels in drastically edited form. I even use Moby Dick as an example, editing it to 100 pages, and the whale loses. Man, I am changing my name to Nostra-Damn!-us.

Join with me in weeping for our children.

As well, check out this disturbing piece by Thomas Washington (a high-school librarian) in The Washington Post. It turns out that editing books for length might be the only option to appeal to children with short attention spans.


E. Ann Bardawill said...

Moby Dickless.

On shelves NOW!

Brought to you by CLASSIC LIGHT.

Why don't they just add cheesy porn ala Harlequin to these books and draw a WHOLE other segment of the romance reading population.

Ahab gazed longingly into Moby's dark, deep eyes.


Moby lit two cigarettes and then deftly passed one to Ahab.

Ahab sighed dreamily as he drew the stormy sky-blue smoke into his lungs. "So that's why they call you guys 'sperm' whales..."*

*With profuse apologies to HM.

Corey Redekop said...

Oh, that's just nasty.

If they're going to do this (and by all accounts they are), they should do it the admirable way, and instead of rewrite and cut, create entirely new works of fiction around the classics. There's already been Ahab's Wife (about guess who), and Wicked (spun off of The Wizard of Oz), and who knows how many riffs on the future of the characters in Pride and Prejudice.

But hey, what do I know? I'm obviously not their target demographic, i.e. moderately intelligent with an attention span greater than that of your average goldfish.

Anonymous said...

Publishers have been doing this for years. That's why it's so important to get the "unabridged" edition and to watch out for "reader's digest" versions at garage sales. Evil Evil things. More creative publishers do abridged and illustrated! I believe they are usually bought by high school students writing book reports. I don't see a need to pay attention to it at all.

E. Ann Bardawill said...

Oh man.

Did Ahab's wife freak when she found out he'd been seeing the whale on the side?
oh wait... sorry.
**evil grin**

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