Friday, December 21, 2007

The art of condensation

Did anyone see the article entitled “The Corrections” by Adam Gopnik in the October 22, 2007, issue of The New Yorker? We here at Select Editions read it with interest, because it concerns “abridgement, enrichment, and the nature of art,” according to the subtitle. Unfortunately, The New Yorker hasn’t put the article on-line, so I can’t provide a link. But if this is a topic that interests you, it’s worth a trip to the public library to get your hands on a paper copy.

Most heartening to us was Gopnik’s endorsement of the excellent job done by the editors at Orion, a British publishing house, who put out a line of condensed versions of classic literature, such as Melville’s Moby-Dick and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. We also agree with Gopnik’s assessment that a condensed book is a valid work of art in its own right. It will never be exactly the same as the original, but people read for a variety of reasons, and every reader should be offered a choice.

I take issue, however, with Gopnik's conclusion:

“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 . . . 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.”

Maybe the reason that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century masterpieces seem a little unwieldy or "loony" to us today is because they were written so long ago. Cultural perceptions and expectations of language have changed over the centuries, and maybe the editors of those books weren’t obliged or accustomed to asking an author to cut his work. Today’s editor might ask Melville to take huge hunks out of Moby-Dick—cuts that wouldn’t necessarily jeopardize its status as a masterpiece. Maybe what Gopnik perceives as looniness or weirdness or self-indulgent excess is just a product of the times, a style that was tolerated by earlier readers just as a certain type of loony, weird prose is tolerated by today’s readers of literary fiction. Maybe it has nothing to do with quality.

Gopnik would probably argue that the works of Jane Austen, although economically written, have nevertheless attained masterpiece status because of their unique voice and point of view. But that seems to contradict his assertion that masterpieces are “inherently” loony.

What do you think? What books will be designated the masterpieces of tomorrow, whether "loony" or not?


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