‘Compact classics’ and literary elitism

I’m sure I’ve heard of this happening before, but The Times is reporting that Orion Group are set to publish ‘compact editions’ of literary classics such as David Copperfield and Vanity Fair:

“Malcolm Edwards, publisher of Orion Group, said that the idea had developed from a game of “humiliation”, in which office staff confessed to the most embarrassing gaps in their reading. He admitted that he had never read Middlemarch and had tried but failed to get through Moby Dick several times, while a colleague owned up to skipping Vanity Fair.

What was more, he said: “We realised that life is too short to read all the books you want to and we never were going to read these ones.”

Research confirmed that “many regular readers think of the classics as long, slow and, to be frank, boring. You’re not supposed to say this but I think that one of the reasons Jane Austen always does so well in reader polls is that her books aren’t that long”.


Each has been whittled down to about 400 pages by cutting 30 to 40 per cent of the text. Words, sentences, paragraphs and, in a few cases, chapters have been removed.”

The article lists a few bombastic “bloody ridiculous idea” and “Philistines, corrupting literature” responses, and I’m sure there’ll be plenty more. My response to that is: meh. I worked for two and a half years in a public library, and I know how rarely the classics go out – unless there’s been a recent TV dramatisation, of course. I don’t predict this line of books being a great success, but I don’t see it as some terrible sin against literature itself, either. It’s a business decision, nothing more – one that’s unlikely to succeed, at that.

The issue I have is with the assumption that people need to have read the ‘classics’ to have any valid claim to being a reader. It’s this attitude, I think, that drives so many people away from reading as a hobby – because, like enthusiasts of any pursuit, readers can be very snobbish abouth reading, and that “what do you mean, you’ve never read {x}?” attitude has one effect and one effect only – it makes the accused feel inadequate.

Why should people read the works of Jane Austen if they don’t feel the urge? What’s wrong with them sticking to their John Grisham, their Lee Child, their (dare I say it) science fiction? Here’s a confession: I’ve never read any Tolstoy. Not once. I think I may have started a Dickens novel in my school years, but was bored stiff by it. I’m an ill-read heathen! I have gorged on the junk-food of genre – I shouldn’t dare call myself a lover of literature!

But hey, guess what? I read. I read loads. And why is that? Because I was lucky enough to have parents (and a few teachers and librarians along the way) who never made me feel stupid or inadequate for reading things that weren’t their cup of tea.

That’s the problem with these compact editions; as one of the comments from the article says:

“It’s patronising to consumers. One of the striking things about a huge number of the classics is how readable and approachable they are. Just making them shorter doesn’t make them more palatable.”

No, it doesn’t. But it does make them seem even more of a guarded province: “Well, we know you couldn’t make it through the real version, so here’s the slimmed down version for … for people like you.” It’s not meant to, I’m sure, but it smacks of a grotesque elitism – even right in the office where the plan was conceived. Look, I’ll re-quote the sentence: 

“…the idea had developed from a game of “humiliation”, in which office staff confessed to the most embarrassing gaps in their reading.”

Why in the name of all that is good should anyone be made to feel embarrassed or humiliated for not having read A Tale of Two f**king Cities? It’s a more insipid iteration of the backwards thinking that produces the well-meaning (and largely unsuccessful) campaigns that see libraries with boldly labelled ‘Rapid Reads’ collections, explicitly aimed at ‘customers with literacy issues.’ Way to go stigmatising people who are already intimidated by reading, guys! Without realising it, you just committed a huge act of elitism, and nothing deters someone who already feels like an outsider more than elitism …

… and, as genre fans, that’s something we should bear in mind, too. If people can be put off books in general by a condescending attitude, the same effect doubtless applies to more specific spheres of interest. The harder and darker we draw the canonical lines, the less people are likely to ever step across them.

8 thoughts on “‘Compact classics’ and literary elitism”

  1. I have to admit, I first became interested in Shakespeare after reading the Classic Comics version of Hamlet.

    And I must have read the abridged version of A Tale of Two f**king Cities, too, because my version omitted the word “f**king” from the title.

  2. I read lots of classics when I was a teenager (Dickens bored me too, Tolstoy has one great novel War and Peace, the rest I found boring by and large, loved Forsyte Saga), but since my early 20’s and for the last 15 years or so, I read mostly SF with a little F and some historical novels (I still like interesting epics), because I think that SF is the most relevant literature of our age, being the literature of change.

    Also classics by and large (and that is a problem I have with fantasy) reinforce a very narrow worldview, pyramidal/privileged. If people would think a little they would realise that randomly they would have been the laughed at servant/peasant, not the hero (or rarely heroine) of the story (how many Mr Darcy’s were there after all, as opposed to the regular peasants toiling the fields).

    Unfortunately most people associate SF with pulp (Star Wars, Trek and the like), but ultimately it does not matter since SF ideas have been invading our cultural space for the past 50 years or so…

    I have just read an interview with a midlist SF author who had to write mysteries (for financial reasons) for several years before returning to sf, and as she put it, “writing mysteries was more lucrative than sf but after a while it felt like a day job, mystery is fun but it has nothing to say about the world, is just entertainment literature, while in SF I think I can say something relevant even if few people read me….”

  3. Who cares? If the end result is still a prioduct complete in itself then it doesn’t need to be anything more does it? Why should anyone care if other people are reading abridged editions. Its not like the fact that someone else read a shorter version makes anyones reading experience of the full version any less valid. On the other hand i’d probably be fairly enraged by a reworked version of V for Vendetta or From Hell despite the fact that nobody would be forcing me to read them simply because IT WOULD BE WRONG.
    I’d suggest we are all elitist in our own particular genres, its just that people who love the so called ‘classics’ and chose to speak out on subjects such as this tend to be smug fuckwits who fill any right thinking person with fury.

  4. I think you may have it backwards, Paul. Perhaps some people are discouraged from reading as a hobby because they haven’t read the classics, but I suspect even more are discouraged because they have. I’m sure I would have sworn off reading long ago if I had ever felt compelled to finish Ulysses.

  5. I loved Ulysses. But had I attempted it even ten years ago, I’m sure I would have been discouraged by the very first section.

    What’s wrong with this picture is that there is no real line between “the classics” and other literature. A book is relevant if the reader finds meaning in it. The real elitism can be found in the idea that certain works have made it into The Canon. I agree with Paul that sometimes dumbing them down into excerpts can be just as stratifying as getting your Biblical interpretation handed to you in simplified form from The Church.

  6. I’ve always felt that the following phrase is a good indication of whether or not a book is a classic:

    A classic is a book that everyone wants to have read, but that few want to read.

Leave a Reply