Recently I was reading an article in the New Yorker about how the British publisher Orion has created a new book series of "compact editions" of such classics as Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, and Vanity Fair. Adam Gopnik, the author of the article, goes on to explore this phenomenon, and to conclude that he finds this abridgment quite successful. Not only are the books cut nearly in half, so that readers may find the time to read such greatly admired classics, but also--supposedly--the parts missing are parts that we might well have done without. Moby Dick, for example, loses none of its complicated syntax but, rather, drops the lengthy, tangential sections on ocean watching and worship, the symbolism of whiteness, and the heavily technical, I've-done-my-research-y sections on whaling.
As an editor, I'd probably admire the precise beauty of a compact edition, but as a writer my gooseflesh has chickenskin about how much this creeps me out. I will be the first to admit that for various reasons many of those classics do not entice: I have never read any of the three books mentioned above (go ahead, judge me). But I would think just from the fact that they are just that--classic--they would be somehow "safe" from such surgery. Writers who are just starting out and haven't yet made a name for themselves encounter this all the time I'm sure: editors who want to prevent them from making missteps away from The Great Literary Masterpiece. Editors will say this section is tangential, or that character is thinking too much and not talking/doing enough, or the language is too poetic/too stark/too what-have-you, so fix it. I know this because I am an editor and I am often charged with doing the same thing. But classics were written by authors of yesterday whose writing has over the years been judged to be Literature with a capital L and, moreover, who are not around to defend themselves and make sure their meaning is maintained by editorial changes. So, what gives a publisher the right to decide what exactly is classic about a classic?* I think it is just those idiosyncracies, those quirks that make books not follow a formula, that make books memorable, that keep all literature from looking and reading alike.
Gopnik considers this point in his article, writing:
"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 self-indulgent excesses. They have to, since originality is, necessarily, something still strange to us, rather than something 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" (The New Yorker, October 22, 2007: 70).
Umm. I had not previously seen the connection between books and castrati. But sure I can see his point, and now I'm jealous that he somehow managed to make sure a weird and obscure metaphor work. In fact, some editors might have cut that metaphor, like "yo, Adam, you've made your point. Now you're just getting cute. Rework, rewrite, and resubmit, then we'll talk." But luckily for Gopnik, the New Yorker probably loves that quirkyness to his writing, plus he writes for them all the time so they're used to it already.
The article even made me rethink my writing rule of thumb that I've firmly believed since high school: you have to learn the rules before you can break them. By that, I intended that proper grammar (including barring the use of dialect) and particular organizational constraints (such as tangents, overly long sentences, etc.) should only be employed when a writer "knew" better, that is, when they were making a conscious stylistic choice (that should be left alone) rather than simply making a honest mistake (that should be edited out). Now it seems that what it boils down to for writers is how much (i.e., rule-breaking) you can get away with prepublication, because one once your book is published, it is gold as is. (Unless, of course, you are James Joyce and your book is Ulysses, wherein over 2,000 errata were still found in the first version in print, so that publishers still deem his work The Classic Challenge to rerelease as an improved edition. Another exception might be the Bible, with its many "authors" over the years and the various versions in circulation.)
Why does everyone feel this compunction to read "the classics" anyway? In my opinion, if you aren't interested in whaling, and if you don't enjoy Melville's style, it means you shouldn't read Moby Dick, not that a publisher should cut the book in half to make it easier for you to digest.
* For an amusing take on abridging classics, consider the Times' take on the issue.