Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Call Me Ishmael. The End.

I once thought about writing a satire in which a smart guy would take it in his head that the next step in avant-gardism would be to compose a novel entirely in emoticons. Now I see I should have had him translate the classics into emoticons:
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).
Jude the Obscure: frowney face, smiley face, frowney face.

Beloved: frowney face, frowney face, smiley face.

Tristram Shandy: smiley face, winking face, smiley face.

The Metamorphosis: frowney face, frowney face, frowney face.

I don't mean to exalt the old canon, just to note the continued destruction of history and human labor by the corporations. De-fund the libraries, take over the schools, turn the old books into baby food. No wonder nobody knows or cares about anything!


  1. And brought to you by folks who enjoy believing the attendees of Davos are laughable and stupid.

  2. This reminds me of something I saw recently: a monthly digest of the hottest business books. Of course, there it makes more sense. The need to spend less time on leisure compounded with the notion that everything can be streamlined without loss, perhaps.

    This is combined with the stubborn ideal of a canon as well, here: a certain cloudy sense that it is best to be well read. I have upwardly mobile bourgeois family members who would read this sort of thing.

  3. "ideal of a canon"

    That's true. Peak canon anxiety among cultural conservatives arose in response not only to challeneges from the left and from the postmodernists, but also in response to Reaganism/Clintonism. Coming up with all those lists of must-reads that are still being produced is a way for the cultural conservatives to compete with business culture on its own terms: 'Here are the books you have to read to be successful. Get to it or you'll lose out!' They keep their status as arbiters of taste while reconfirming the general ethos of corporate culture.

    This goes back a ways in bourgeois culture, even into the nineteenth century, but it's gotten more desperate recently as the official mouthpieces of the ruling class have become more openly barbarous. So we get literature commodified, utterly rationalized, with all the things about it that might resist commodification, all the evidence of thought, complexity, individuality, opposition and self-criticism, hacked off. All books must be business books.

    "the attendees of Davos are laughable and stupid"

    Yep. Perfectly impossible to believe that they know what they're doing. Stupid liberal communists, unknowingly living a lie!