The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Waaaa, I don’t want to read complex muddle!

Posted on: February 5, 2007

The Guardian books blog often suffers from a common newspaper malady. It likes to create controversy or at least something intriguing out of thin air or trash; therefore it encourages its writers to come up with asinine arguments poised to be little else but provocative. Inevitably the majority of these are weakly composed, the writer’s opinions meant to be taken seriously for no other reason than that she’s written it.

The news that Weidenfeld & Nicolson are producing slimline versions of classics has most people apoplectic but actually I don’t feel as appalled as everyone else seems to be.

According to those who are anti this idea, the whole point about these works of genius – Mill on the Floss, David Copperfield and Wives and Daughters are also to get the W & N cut-off-at-the-knees treatment – is their ambling byways, baffling dead-ends and sudden jumps of pace and tone. It is this glorious “complexity” – some might call it “muddle” – that makes a classic, classic.

I don’t agree. Many of these books, while marvellous, also suffered from being originally produced in installments, which meant that each section had to end with a cliff-hanger, regardless of whether the narrative required it or not. Others had to be finished in a hurry to meet a publisher’s deadline. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot is a case in point. While the first two thirds of the book is a wonderful, if leisurely, evocation of a small English market town at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the last part is a rushed, breathless, melodramatic affair with an entirely unlikely tying up of plotlines. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, while sublime in places, also contains whole stretches of writing that, frankly, never rise beyond the workmanlike.

I can’t say I got too irate when I first read of W & N’s efforts. I was annoyed but abridged classics have existed for decades, no? From what I could tell this was hardly a new development. What made me irate was Hughes paltry effort to support this move. First she misrepresents the argument she linked to: Matt O’Rama made no declarations as to what features make a novel a classic, he stated that to abridge Moby Dick, for example, is to invalidate it’s claim of being Moby Dick. But her main problem is the way George Eilot and Thackeray wrote their works, so she logically concludes that this makes their abridgement perfectly alright. She does not like the “ambling byways”, therefore change them to suit her, and raise them above their “workmanlike” origins. She also mentions that neither author’s novel, in the glorious present, would be “commercially viable”. They would be hacked down to their lean, mean, best-selling machine form.

If you’re a professor or student don’t worry: you can still study the long, boring stuff in school to learn about how and why the authors wrote their novels that way. “Ordinary readers”, only wishing to be diverted, can do without those extra trimmings.

I believe it was at that point that I silently screamed to the ceiling.


6 Responses to "Waaaa, I don’t want to read complex muddle!"

I wonder if they took out all the words that are too hard for “ordinary readers”?

In addition to those that had no direct relation to the plot. Sigh. It’s odd that she considers the novels to be “marvellous” yet still wants to chop ’em up. Clearly the muddling passages had no detrimental effect on the overall work.

That’s the Guardian for you all over, though. Interesting topics. Absolutely pants arguments which are frequently wrong. And when they’ve got the right conclusion it’s for the wrong reasons.

UGH! Perhaps she should have the muddle hacked out of her article. I’ll stick to my long Victorian melodramatic texts… thank you.


Solnushka aaahh, that explains it too. This isn’t the first time since the new year that they’ve had contributors with these daft arguments that have me scratching my head in bewilderment.

Amanda hear hear! Although if we took the muddle out of her article there’d be nothing left.

You’re absolutely right that abridgements have been around forever, so what’s the big deal with this new series of them? They’d be best ignored, I think.

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