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Remixed literature?
August 30, 2006 8:47 AM   Subscribe

Has anyone vastly improved -- or just changed -- someone else's already published writing by editing?

I'm not the best writer, but I frequently come across blog posts, articles, and even books which I believe I could make better -- or just interestingly different -- through editing. It occurs to me that there's a fascinating potential genre out there for re-edited works and I'm wondering if anyone's done this.

What would a Stephen King novel look like if it were edited by a "serious" literary editor? What if someone decided to edit DFW's Infinite Jest down into a 400 page novel without footnotes?

I realize there are copyright issues, but it seems like this sort of thing must go on. Point me to some examples!
posted by callmejay to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I'm a professional editor, and I would be very surprised to hear that people do this seriously. For one thing you could only do it with works in the public domain — it's plaigiarism otherwise. And it wouldn't be well-received. Good editors and writers really toe the mark when it comes to respecting someone else's voice. You can certainly borrow, but the expectation is that you must produce something that is unquestionably your own. Fall short of that and you'll be pilloried.

Even when Susan Hill took it upon herself to write sequels to Gone With the Wind and Wuthering Heights (perfectly legal) there were some scathing articles about it, and I refuse to read them at all.
posted by orange swan at 9:04 AM on August 30, 2006


This isn't exactly what you're asking, but just this happens often in theater productions. Plays get edited down or rewritten or added to based on the ideas of whoever is putting it on. The short explanation of this is that nobody wants to see a five-hour Hamlet, and sometimes your conception ("The Importance of Being Earnest set in Mongolia!") requires some things to be cut out or altered.

Great versions of these rewrites can last -- David Garrick made tremendous changes to Shakespeare that helped solidify Willie's reputation and helped him escape the bowdlerizers. Garrick's versions, complete with extra speeches and cut characters, were still in print as late as the 1960s.

Samuel Johnson rewrote bits of Shakespeare that he disproved of. The idea has a long history. But it's mainly for plays, where someone has to sound competent while repeating someone else's words.
posted by rogue haggis landing at 9:10 AM on August 30, 2006


Maybe this is a dumb answer somehow, but isn't this what abridged works are? Taking the unabridged version and distilling it to carry the most essential elements (plot-wise, excellent-turn-of-phrase-wise, or other)?

(It's debatable whether any of those abridged versions - and I'm more aware of them in audiobooks than print - are anywhere near vast improvements on the original, but they are certainly changed).
posted by whatzit at 9:12 AM on August 30, 2006


But it's mainly for plays, where someone has to sound competent while repeating someone else's words.

And, I should add, where it has long been considered standard practice (or at least was until the late 19th century). Shakespeare's troupe edited down Shakespeare, so everyone else can, too.
posted by rogue haggis landing at 9:12 AM on August 30, 2006


It seems to me that you misunderstand editing. The point is to make someone sound like a better them. Fortunately, most writers are apalling enough to make that plenty of work.

King would sound exactly like he does with a "literary" editor because as far as developmental or copy editing goes, ie, as far as the editors who would be dealing with the text goes, there is no such thing. It's just fiction.

But what that has to do with sequels to famous books, I don't know. That's just playing with our cultural legacy.
posted by dame at 9:25 AM on August 30, 2006


Plays get edited down or rewritten or added to based on the ideas of whoever is putting it on.

I assume you're talking public domain plays. You can't do this with copyrighted material, at least not legally.

Hell, a few years back a group in Montreal was about to put on Glengarry Glenn Ross after making one change and the change wasn't to the text. Mamet threatened to sue their asses and the performance run was cancelled. The change? The roles had been cast with women. (Not women playing men, but changing the gender of the characters to female.)

What if someone decided to edit DFW's Infinite Jest down into a 400 page novel without footnotes?

I can't stand DFW, but the footnotes were the only thing that interested me about that book; I suspect that for many people, it was the footnotes that made the book worthwhile.

As an unpublished writer, I gotta say that what you're suggesting doesn't interest me in the slightest on a grand scale (ie, as a large scale art form), but perhaps as a one-time thing it could be interesting.

In 2002, I sold a paperback copy of Scott Spencer's Endless Love (one of my favorite books) for $100 to one of my old web site's subscribers. It was my personal copy that I'd "edited" by writing in the margins everywhere it occured to me to do so. I didn't edit Spencer's words, however. I merely used them as jump off points for my own writing, which was comprised (in this context) of very short phrases/clauses and the occasional paragraph. I didn't do it to sell the book but to use as a notebook to refer to when doing entries for my web site. I mentioned this offhand and shared a scan of a spread from the book with readers and someone then broached the subject of purchasing it. After I'd exhausted the text (used all my snippets in longer pieces outside the book), we went thru with the transaction.
posted by dobbs at 9:25 AM on August 30, 2006


An editor's role is to clean, clarify or otherwise enhance a writer's work. Not alter it. As orange swan and rogue haggis point out, this can be--and has been--done with public domain works. To do it to contemporary works requires the approval of the copyright holder. Movie adaptations can be an example of this. But in the same medium? I can't think of any examples. To do it without approval is called fan fiction--a risky and altogether frowned upon venture by all but fanfic writers.

I'm an editor and I can't help but mentally edit blogs, articles, ad copy, street signs... But I just let those writers totter on their unsteady literary legs and worry about editing my own writing or that of a writer who expects me to act as his/her editor.

This is all coming from a fellow writer who is slowly realizing he makes a far better editor than writer--and is okay with that.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 9:26 AM on August 30, 2006


How about the Bible?
posted by hermitosis at 9:28 AM on August 30, 2006


It seems to me that you misunderstand editing.

Missed that on preview, but... seconded.
posted by dobbs at 9:31 AM on August 30, 2006


Plays get edited down or rewritten or added to based on the ideas of whoever is putting it on.

I assume you're talking public domain plays. You can't do this with copyrighted material, at least not legally.


Yes. And more than that it's mostly for things written before ~1870.
posted by rogue haggis landing at 9:34 AM on August 30, 2006


Don't forget translations. Different translators' renderings of the same book can be worlds apart. And when a theater troupe makes changes to a translated play...

Last year, my theatre troupe did a production of Jean Racine's Phèdre, a 1677 update of Euripides' Hippolytus. We used a translation by Ted Hughes, who stripped out Racine's musical, mannered alexandrine poetry and replaced it with more muscular, turbulent free verse. To boot, our directors decided to stage the play as an American Southern Gothic tragedy; to that end, they stripped out almost every mythological allusion in the play.

It's safe to say that the end result, (while pretty damned good, IMO) was completely different from anything Euripides, Racine, or Hughes ever envisioned.

Of course, I'd feel somewhat uneasy making such drastic departures from a more contemporary play, one that hasn't time to...I don't know, settle. I believe that editing, emendations, and remakes are best made when they can give a play (or book, or film) a second chance at fulfilling their potential after a bungled first run.
posted by Iridic at 9:37 AM on August 30, 2006


The UK and US edition of books can differ dramatically, through the choices of different editors, so it's an opportunity to see the effects of different choices (but, alas, not generally a chance to see the first draft they started with.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:12 AM on August 30, 2006


I believe that I recall reading that Frank O'Connor would continue to tinker with his short stories after they were published, and the stories in later editions would be printed in the revised (or re-revised or re-re-revised, etc.) versions.
posted by LeisureGuy at 10:36 AM on August 30, 2006


Don't let the shortage of good examples discourage you. You could take some old public-domain works and try it. Start with something that is already interesting in some way (genre fiction, for example) and try to make Art of it, maybe as a straight job or as something odd (or some combination).

Fans of widely known and admired stories such as the Sherlock Holmes series are not going to appreciate your fiddling with what they consider the author's immortal words, but maybe you could get away with rewriting lesser (and lesser-known) stories in the same genre. The Thinking Machine stories could use a lot of work (sorry, Jacques) and the fans don't have a clubhouse on every corner.
posted by pracowity at 10:49 AM on August 30, 2006


I recall a mention in the acknowledgements to William T. Vollmann8217;s novel The Royal Family that the book was published as it was over the objections of its editor, who would have shortened it by a couple of hundred pages. Personally, I think it was a case where the editor was right, and the author wrong.
posted by misteraitch at 11:33 AM on August 30, 2006


It's probably not quite what you're after, but A Humument would be a somewhat extreme example.
posted by sad_otter at 11:42 AM on August 30, 2006


misteraitch mentioned Vollman. Perhaps not exactly what you're looking for but his 7-volume Rising Up, Rising Down, which McSweeneys published in its entirety, was recently released in a 1-volume "best of" or abridgement by a different publisher. Vollman did the editiing himself, however.
posted by dobbs at 11:57 AM on August 30, 2006


I am surprised no one has mentioned Reader's Digests "Condensed Books". They were published in hardcover, with 4 or 5 novels each in shortened form. I don't know when or if they stopped making them, but you can find a large number of them cheap on ebay or used bookstores and thrift shops.

When I was a kid, we had a few volumes of them picked up from some estate sale, and I read a number of them back in the day. The ones I really liked, I later went on to track down the "real" version, and in some cases, I found I liked the streamlined Reader's Digest version better, or at least as well, as the original long version.
posted by fings at 12:38 PM on August 30, 2006


It occurs to me that there's a fascinating potential genre out there for re-edited works and I'm wondering if anyone's done this.

This is done all the time musically. Basically, any time someone "covers" someone else's song.
posted by frogan at 12:55 PM on August 30, 2006


This:

>the end result, (while pretty damned good, IMO) was completely different from anything Euripides, Racine, or Hughes ever envisioned

pretty much strongly contradicts this:

>You can't do this with copyrighted material, at least not legally.

So, how does this work out in practice? If Ted Hughes finds out, he can sue you, but if he doesn't, you're fine?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:06 PM on August 30, 2006


If Ted Hughes finds out, he can sue you, but if he doesn't, you're fine?

I can only assume that Ted Hughes is somewhat past caring about maintenance of his intellectual property.

At any rate, it's common practice for directors to rearrange scripts somewhat to fit their individual artistic agendas. I'd wager that almost every play you've ever seen has undergone some trimming for time or some slightly unorthodox casting. There are playwrights like Mamet who reject any alteration to their original vision, (and indeed, almost all playwrights would prefer their work to make it to the stage intact), but writers pursuing actual legal action for minor practical or artistic changes are very much the exception to the rule.

That's just the tradition of the theatre; the art form is built on compromise (of art versus practicality versus money versus fame versus shock-value versus competing dramatic visions), and most playwrights understand their work is not exempt from that compromise.

However, compromise is different from theft. Writers are perfectly within their rights to pursue legal action when their work is stolen. If we had charged exorbitant ticket prices for our show and then withheld royalties from the Hughes estate, that would have been theft. If we had crossed off Hughes' name on the program and substituted our director's name, that would have been theft. If we had replaced the fifth act with a happy ending in which Theseus kills Phedre with a flamethrower, that would have been theft, in the sense of stealing Hughes' name and placing it on material that he did not write.

Generally, playwrights are pretty lenient about how their work is used. The unspoken expectation is that the resulting production will be respectful to the playwright in return. A production may edit, rearrange, or make unexpected production, casting, and acting choices for a play--but they may not steal money, ideas, or credit from a playwright.
posted by Iridic at 2:38 PM on August 30, 2006


Fings, you beat me to it. My mother subscribed to Reader's Digest Condensed Books for years. I only remember one, a condensation of Audrey Erskine-Lindop's hilarious mystery novel "I Start Counting," which I still have around here somewhere. I loved the RDC version, and when I finally tracked down the full book about 20 years ago, I was disappointed. The RD editors did a great job of condensing the book.
posted by lhauser at 9:07 PM on August 30, 2006


Just noticed this question, hopefully callmejay is still checking in!

Jen Bevins is an artist and poet experimenting with this idea. Her remarkable book Nets, re-imagines Shakespeare's sonnets in a beautiful and interesting way. The poems are printed in white ink on white paper, with a handful of words and phrases in each sonnet printed in black. The words she selects to print in black become a new poem. It is a gorgeous art object and the 'new' poems are often very very compelling -- Village Voice review, Jacket Magazine review.

Oh, the books title, is actually Son (printed in white) and Nets (printed in black).
posted by verysleeping at 10:00 AM on August 31, 2006 [1 favorite]


I am, verysleeping. Thanks! :-)
posted by callmejay at 10:14 AM on August 31, 2006


Oh heck -- her name is actually Bervin. Ugly Duckling also hosts this lovely (though unrelated to your question) project.
posted by verysleeping at 11:50 AM on August 31, 2006 [1 favorite]


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