Wednesday, October 24, 2007

keeping a bit of the loony in the story

Do those old classics need to be as long as they were when first published? Maybe not, if we agree with British publisher Orion and a new series of "compact editions" of some nineteenth century classics, including "Moby Dick," "Anna Karenina," "Vanity Fair," and "The Mill on the Floss." Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker (22Oct07) reports they were neatly cut in half, so that they can be taken in quickly and all the more admired. He notes wryly, however, that the names of the abridgers were curiously withheld; perhaps they were alarmed at the magnitude of what they had done. Gopnik says that "Melville's story is intact and immediate; it's just that the long bits about the technical details of whaling are gone, as are most of the mock-Shakespearean interludes, the philosophical meanderings, and the metaphysical huffing and puffing." Wasn't all that half the magic of "Moby Dick"?

Gopnik imagines the soothing letter that Melville might have received from his editor accompanying the suggested cuts, had he been alive to receive it. "Herman: Just a few small trims along the way; myself I find the whaling stuff fascinating, but I fear your reader wants to move along with the story—and frankly the tensile strength of the narrative is being undercut right now by a lot of stray material that takes us way off line."

The Orion publisher's editing job is perhaps what a modern critic or professional editor might say about the original book if it arrived over the transom today—"too much digression and sticky stuff and extraneous learning. If he'd cut that out, it would be a better story." A small shudder is in order. Gopnik reflects on how "masterpieces are inherently a little loony…" but how that often contributes to their originality. He reflects, "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." Although we're often told in the revising process for our fiction, tighten, cut, cut, out with the darlings, kill the adverbs and adjectives, it might be well to remain aware not to lose all loony ambiance and originality.

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