Almost all publishers are now just small segments of great corporations (think tapeworms), and like supermarkets and breakfast cereal manufacturers they are required to provide product that makes a profit. The smart modern way to make a profit is to tell people what they want and then give it to them. It's not difficult, it's capitalism.
And so, great news: Weidenfeld & Nicolson are launching a new list in the Spring. As a result of market research, which has brought us so much of value over the years, Weidenfeld and Nicolson have come up with 'Compact Editions'. Tag line: Great Books in Half the Time. According to their market research (quoted in a small note Saturday's Book's section of the Guardian) many readers are put off by the 'elitist' image of classics and by their 'daunting length and small print'.
'What is it about Anna Karenina and Moby-Dick that puts you off reading them?' enquires the nice young man running the focus group. 'Oh, they're elitist, of daunting length and the print's too small.' Or were there hoards of angry demonstrators charging through Weidenfeld's offices with placards complaining that they had been alienated by Tolstoy and Melville and demanding their right to buy large print bowdlerisations?
So in the first series of Compact Editions Anna Karenina, Moby-Dick along with David Copperfield, The Mill on the Floss, Vanity Fair and Wives and Daughters will be 'sympathetically edited' down to fewer than 400 pages. But don't fret - so sympathetic are these editors that they will keep the central plot, characters and historical background. Pity really, I could get quite excited about a 21st century Anna Karenina set in Chislehurst and renamed Paige Simkins (she doesn't die in the end - the train's cancelled on account of engineering works).
Who are these people who want to read scalpelled classics? They are very, very busy, but they're just as entitled to feel cultured as anyone. For some reason (a hangover from their grandparents' education perhaps) they want to be able to say that they've read the classics, but they don't want actually to read them. A novel's just a story, isn't it? Just the gist, please, I'm busy, very, very busy. It's odd, this: a long book of say 800 pages is the same as two gutted books of 400 pages each. So they're in a hurry to get as many titles under their belts as possible, and sod the structure, subplots and descriptive stuff. Leave out the complexity. This creates a new definition of well read. She read not wisely but too much.
This new list will cost Weidenfeld money , of course, for the sympathetic editing and production, though being classics the books will be free of any copyright, so no author will benefit. I wonder if the profits from the enterprise will be channelled into publishing and promoting living novelists who are not specifically writing for the market. Probably not.
The justification for simplifying and eviscerating books, as well as for inventing category nonsenses such as teenage fiction, is that it's better for people to read those than to read nothing. I don't think so. A sympathetically edited Moby-Dick is nothing. At any rate, it isn't Moby-Dick. You can screw around with the novel to make a film or a play if you like, even to make a new novel of your own. It could be wonderful. But the book that Melville wrote remains intact. It's available to be read as it was written and as generations have read it. It was written the way it was for a reason. For Melville's reason. That's what a novelist does. It's what the publisher ought to publish. It's what a reader should take or leave. For Weidenfeld & Nicolson to offer cut-down versions is to disgrace publishing, to give up on writers and on the possibility of literature. Actually to give up on anything except making money.