May 20, 2007
Ideas & Trends
Writers Take Out Their Knives
By MOTOKO RICH
FOR all those who believe that “Moby Dick” would be great except for the parts about the whale, the British publisher Orion Books will publish this month a set of pared-down classics, cutting about 40 percent of what it calls “padding” from works like “Anna Karenina,” “David Copperfield” and yes, “Moby Dick.”
It’s a well-trodden path, from Reader’s Digest to CliffsNotes to “Shrink Lit,” and has sparked the inevitable tsk-tsk-ing in literary circles.
But surely, there are some books that could use some trimming. We asked seven authors, all of whom know a thing or two about the judicious use of words, what books they would put on the chopping block.
Their answers, not entirely serious, roamed from classics to modern literature, and even some works that might not qualify for either term. Not surprisingly, Norman Mailer took on an old target, Tom Wolfe, with whom he famously tangled after the publication of “A Man in Full,” Mr. Wolfe’s 742-page doorstop of a book about the Atlanta real estate and social scene. Mr. Mailer included other contemporary giants like Toni Morrison and John Irving. Then again, Mr. Mailer also suggested that some of his own work could use another go-round with an editor; Neal Pollack and Joyce Carol Oates offered themselves up, as well.
Length in and of itself was not a criterion for cutting: Ann Patchett suggested George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” which in the edition Ms. Patchett wrote an introduction for runs only 128 pages. And Ms. Patchett is a passionate advocate for “Moby Dick” — including all the stuff about the whale.
Might I dare to suggest that L. Ron Hubbards book
Mission Earth, which clocks in at 1.2 million words, might just
be a teensy bit more accessible if it were say, just a million words?
The pre-eminent examples of books that could probably do
with a slightly better body mass index would be the works of Ayn Rand. They,
nonetheless, stay resplendently in print, but having tried to read Atlas
Shrugged about four times and The Fountainhead
about, maybe, twice, these would be definite candidates for the literary liposuction
machine and would probably be just as good or just as bad.
Writers shouldnt necessarily just pick on the long
books. There are plenty of short books that are too long as well. I wrote
an introduction to a new edition of Animal Farm, and I hadnt
read it since I was 12 and it was awful. Then I reread 1984 and
it was beyond awful. Definitely cut that one down.
Suffering is often good for us in literature. I just read
The Wings of the Dove, and it has about 400 of the most excruciatingly
boring pages and then 150 pages that are transcendent beyond imagination.
When I was saying this to people, they said, Couldnt you just
skip the first 400 pages?
But its the suffering that makes reading transcendent.
Its like cutting out Good Friday and going straight to Easter. Easter
doesnt have the resonance without Good Friday. Sometimes we have to
suffer. But then Im Catholic.
Certainly the Bible could use cutting; think of all those
begats, not to mention minor-league prophets such as Habbakuk (there isnt
even a car dealership named after him).
What about Ulysses? All that tiresome stream
of consciousness could go.
And there is Gone With the Wind, which I would
shorten to this:
Civil War? said Scarlett.
But Atlanta burned! Rhett left!
I will think about it tomorrow, said Scarlett,
for tomorrow is another day.
Thats so good you could probably fit Dombey and
Son in the same edition. Or shorten Tess of the DUrbervilles
to a National Enquirer headline:
UNFORTUNATE GIRL SLEEPS THROUGH RAPE, IS LATER HUNG.
I would cut say 80 percent of The Notebook by
Nicholas Sparks and turn it into the greeting card that it was meant to be.
Given that Im a basketball fan, and given the recent controversy, I
would cut the NBA rulebook by about 40 percent because some of these rules
have got to go. I think I shouldnt have added the extra 60 pages to
The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature paperback edition.
Lets cut 40 percent of The Satanic Verses,
not necessarily the stuff about Muhammad, but just because I thought it was
Mr. Mailer sent in a list without commentary, which he
requested be printed in full.
Ernest Hemingway: For Whom the Bell Tolls
John Dos Passos: U.S.A.
William Faulkner: Absalom, Absalom!
John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath
Thomas Wolfe: Look Homeward, Angel, Of Time and the River,
The Web and the Rock, You Cant Go Home Again
James Jones: Some Came Running
Norman Mailer: Harlots Ghost, Ancient Evenings,
The Executioners Song
Tom Wolfe: Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full
Toni Morrison: Beloved
John Irving: The World According to Garp
I can suggest Ernest Hemingway. Theres much too much
smoking, drinking, fishing and hunting in Hemingway, and it could all be cut
out. If that is cut out about 70 percent of Hemingway would go.
And lets say Jane Austen: too many descriptions of
furniture and balls and ballroom gowns. Im sure I could think of many
other titles that would benefit from being cut, including some of my own.
Mr. Franzen said he cant think of any great work
that he would like to see slashed, but tinkered with some book titles, should
they be chopped.
The Pretty Good Gatsby
The Adventure of Augie March
Lite in August