Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Long Story Short: The Issue of Abridgement Revisited

It is now more than fifteen years since Adam Gopnik took issue with abridgements in the pages of The New Yorker. Responding to the 2007 publication of Orion Press’ abridged versions of Moby-Dick and Vanity Fair, Gopnik argued that, however much such editions might present a “taut, spare” narrative, they did so by sacrificing much of what makes great works of literature great—passages of reflection or of description, digressions, “philosophical meanderings,” even
metaphysical huffing and puffing. [In Moby-Dick, for example,] the entire chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale,” where Melville tries to explain why white, the natural symbol of Good, is also somehow the natural symbol of Evil, is just, well, whited out.
Such an abridgement, Gopnik complained, “turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious, self-consciousness: it is all Dick, and no Moby.”

Gopnik was right on all counts.

Why, then, have my colleagues and I at Broadview Press decided to publish in 2023 abridged editions of Moby-Dick and of Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Don’t we agree that it’s far better to read the entire work? Don’t we get it?

We do get it—and for all the reasons Gopnik points to, and more, we have proceeded towards publication of these abridged editions with a certain amount of reluctance, and a good deal of caution. We are painfully aware of the pitfalls of abridgement—and we are aware too of how debased the appeals made by publishers of the abridged editions of earlier eras have sometimes been. (In the early twentieth century, for example, advertisements for abridged editions were often aimed at ambitious young men who wished to simultaneously save time and develop an ability to impress young women of a higher social class with the breadth of their reading.)

We also feel, though, that we cannot ignore the pedagogical realities of the 2020s. When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s and when I started in academic book publishing in the mid 1970s, works such as Moby-Dick and Vanity Fair appeared very frequently in their entirety on the required reading lists of university courses. And—for all that some of us sometimes tried to bluff our way through, pretending to have read all of Bleak House or The Brothers Karamazov when in fact we had run out of time and never made it past page 135—most students did actually read the works assigned in full most of the time, even if six or seven long novels were assigned for a single course. Nowadays, that’s simply not the case—and it hasn’t been the case for some considerable time. I don’t say this as an old curmudgeon decrying change—I say it as a simple statement of fact. The debate as to why such a change has occurred remains unresolved. Many have suggested that it results from a decline in attention spans associated with the rise of the Internet and of social media. Perhaps so, but it seems to me just as plausible that the change results very largely from the simple fact of eighteenth- and nineteenth- century diction and syntax being so much further removed from the language of today than they were from the language of fifty years ago. Whatever the cause, though, no one doubts that there has been a significant change. For university instructors in the 2020s, assigning half a dozen or more 500-page novels for a course is simply not an option; in the small number of courses where Middlemarch or Bleak House are still assigned, the norm is increasingly to assign only a single novel for the entire course. In most contexts, longer works have simply ceased to be considered as candidates for inclusion on required reading lists at the undergraduate level.

While the issue of abridging continues to provoke lively discussion in English departments, opinions have clearly shifted in recent decades. In the 1980s and 1990s, academics overwhelmingly deplored any move towards publishing abridged editions of literary works—or towards excerpting them for anthology purposes. Two decades into the twenty-first century, the practice of abridging or excerpting remains unloved, but it has come to be widely accepted as representing, in some cases at any rate, the least bad of a range of imperfect pedagogical options. Broadview’s abridged editions of Moby-Dick and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are both drawn from the recently-published first two volumes of The Broadview Anthology of American Literature; when, in the course of preparing that anthology, we sounded out a wide range of academics on how they felt about excerpting certain longer works in anthologies, there was considerably less resistance to the idea of excerpting or abridging longer works than I remember in the English departments of a generation or two ago.

Above all, we at Broadview want to make clear that these abridged editions are not published in the hope that they will provide an enticing alternative to reading the full text of Moby-Dick or of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. They are published rather in the hope that they will make it feasible for academics to include such works on reading lists at all. Our hope is that the editions may at least give some sense of the whole to every student—and that more engaged students will go on (perhaps in graduate school, or perhaps long after they have finished university) to read these works again, this time in their full form.

But if the hope in choosing an abridgement is that students may still read the entire work years later, wouldn't it be better for instructors interested in trying an abridged-edition approach to include the complete novel on the text list, and then do the abridging themselves? Surely they could make their own choices as to exactly which chapters or sections they would like their students to read.

They could indeed, and arguably that would be a better way to go, though I can see at least a couple of obstacles in the way of academics who might contemplate taking this route. One is simply the instructor's time. To make good choices as to which chapters to include and which not can take a surprising amount of time. And, where there may be a substantial gap between assigned chapters, it makes obvious sense to provide at least a paragraph summarizing the movement of the story in the 'omitted' chapters; such paragraphs can easily be inserted in square brackets in an abridged edition, whereas instructors doing their own abridgements while asking students to buy an edition of the complete novel would need to write any such bridging material themselves. Given the time pressures on academics these days - at many colleges and universities full-time faculty have a 4/4 load, and many adjuncts teach even more courses than that, often travelling back and forth between institutions to do so - I can imagine that adding one more item to the to-do list ("prepare an abridgement so that I can try an abridged-edition approach to teaching Moby-Dick") may simply not in many cases be realistic. I can imagine too that some students, no matter how clear the instructions, might not get what was required quite right ("I never read Chapter 52; I guess I must have misread that list of chapters you gave us" or "I did start reading the book, but I couldn't find that list of chapters you gave us; then I thought maybe I'd just read the whole thing but I got bogged down fifty pages in and couldn't go any further"). These are not insurmountable obstacles, though, and it may well be that most academics who are interested in trying an abdidged-version approach with some novels will prefer to make their own choices; that would be very much to their credit.

Gopnik rightly observes that “all abridgements … are part of their period.” He goes on to suggest that the Orion edition of Moby-Dick is, in the context of 2007, not at all “defaced; it is, by conventional contemporary standards of good editing and critical judgement, improved,” since it “adheres to … the contemporary aesthetic of the realist psychological novel.” I’m not at all sure that 2007 standards of “good editing and critical judgement” did in fact point unequivocally to a “taut, spare” narrative as a novelistic ideal; within academe, at least, standards of critical judgment were in 2007 surely placing quite a high value on the elements of fiction that can enable a novel to provide a wide-ranging and open-ended sense of a psyche, or of a society. At any rate, our 2020s approach at Broadview has been substantively different from those of the Orion editors in 2007. If the nineteenth-century novel is, as Henry James famously claimed, a “large, loose, baggy monster,” we at Broadview have striven to retain at least some of the baggy bits. We include, for example, the entire “Whiteness of the Whale” chapter that is omitted in the Orion edition.

It is worth pointing out that every novel is different, and that there may be different reasons for abridging different novels. The case for offering an abridged edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, is substantially different from that for offering an abridged edition of Moby-Dick. Readers may differ as to whether they feel Moby-Dick to be a great novel despite its oddities and long digressions, or whether they feel it to be a great novel in large part because of them. But few have argued that it is not a great novel. Many, on the other hand, have concluded that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not a great novel. What everyone agrees on is its historical importance; Stowe’s novel fueled abolitionist passion (and infuriated supporters of slavery) as no other work proved able to do. Any abridgement must thus aim to include not simply main threads of the narrative, but also chapters that proved particularly effective in arousing the passions of readers in the 1850s. The criteria for excerpting are inevitably rather different from those for excerpting Moby-Dick.

In earlier eras, abridged editions often tried to hide the fact that they were abridgements; the words “abridged edition” might appear in very small print on the title page or copyright page—or sometimes might not appear at all. Such editions would rarely provide any indication when passages or entire chapters were omitted; the intent was to provide a seamless reading experience, in which readers would not be reminded (and perhaps might never be aware) that they were reading only a portion of the whole. Broadview’s forthcoming abridged editions of Moby-Dick and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in contrast, indicate clearly where excerpting has occurred, and that is the case as well with the handful of abridged editions already on the Broadview list (among them Don Beecher and Massimo Ciavolella's 2017 edition of The Decameron: Selected Tales, Maureen Okun's 2014 edition of Le Morte Darthur: Selections, Ian Johnston’s 2019 edition of The Odyssey: Selections and Toni Bowers’ and John Richetti’s 2010 abridgement of Clarissa*). Rather than disguising from readers the fact that they are reading an abridgement, our intent is to make them continually aware of that fact—and to make it convenient for those who wish to do so to check into what has been left out.

Orion’s series of abridged editions seems to have fizzled in the marketplace; their website lists only eleven titles, all issued in either 2007 or 2008. Perhaps their “taut, spare” approach was less in tune with the times than Gopnik surmised. Perhaps their editions were simply not that well edited; regardless of the criteria one starts with, one may do a better or a worse job of excerpting. And perhaps their editors were at a disadvantage as a result of lacking experience in editing complete works; so far as I’m aware, Orion has never published editions of the complete novels that they offer in “compact” form. Broadview, in contrast, has of course made its name largely on the basis of its hundreds and hundreds of excellent unabridged editions of literary works, complete with full introduction, explanatory notes, and appendices of contextual materials. Regardless of how successful our abridged editions may be in the marketplace, we will never look for them to replace our editions of complete works.** Indeed, our hope is that, regardless of how many abridged editions we may eventually publish, they will be outshone and outsold in each case by our editions of the full works.

*Samuel Richardson’s 1,500-page epistolary monster has long stood as one of the very few English novels for which most academics agree there is a strong case to be made for abridged as well as complete editions. It’s a good example of how criteria regarding abridgement may change from one era to another; George Sherburn’s 1962 abridgement for Riverside is drastically different in its emphases from Toni Bowers’ and John Richetti’s 2010 abridgement for the Broadview Editions series.

** We plan to keep Christopher Diller’s fine edition of the complete Uncle Tom’s Cabin in print in perpetuity, as we do all Broadview editions. And, though we do not yet have a complete Moby-Dick on our list, I and others at Broadview certainly hope we’ll be able to publish a complete edition before too long.

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