U is for Unabridged

If you’re anything like me, you love a good classic. The Odyssey, Iliad, Journey to the West, and other mammoth-sized books in the category impress upon the reader not only a sense of an intense dedication to the tale (many of these in fact authored by more than one person), but also a universal truth: the Story remains much the same.

However, there is a certain tendency publishers have with these gargantuans––perhaps to keep them accessible, perhaps to make them feasible material for literature classes––and that is to hack off huge portions of the text to keep the page count to a more reasonable number.

While I get the idea behind it, I am an intense avoider of “abridged” editions of anything (unless we’re talking Yu-Gi-Oh Abridged, which cracks me up terribly), mainly because I have a hard time knowing I’m not getting the full story, and also, because anything that has been cut has been done so subjectively… and how does the editor know what I will and won’t want to read?

To put my case in point, I’m going to talk about The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu. The novel is extremely important, not just in Japan, but for the history of literature, as it is considered the very first Novel, with a capital N. That being a story that shows consistent character development (arcs of high and low, changed perceptions by story’s end, etc.), as well as modern definitions of conflict, climax, and resolution.

The Tale of Genji was completed in 1021, by a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Shōshi. It was written in installments, and perhaps more importantly, it was written by Murasaki Shikibu in a time when women were highly discouraged from carrying any formal literacy. (It should be noted that Murasaki’s father didn’t care, and encouraged her studies.)

It is a complicated story that is hard to distill down into a paragraph, but basically, it follows the life and times of a Prince of the royal court, his conquests (a verifiable Japanese Casanova), and his quest to ‘sculpt’ the perfect wife. Keep in mind that this is an eastern culture, and at the time, polygamy was more than accepted amongst men, and even expected (it was basically expected if a woman allowed a man to see her face, she was allowing him into her bed–whether on accident or not, and if the man visited her three nights in a row, they were married, simple as that). There is political intrigue, including a scandal in which Shikibu wrote a fictional account of the imperial line being disrupted by a bastard child––something that the monks of the time assured Shikibu she would go to Hell for, and of course the classical tragedy of Japanese romance––no one finds happiness.

The book takes a drastic turn in the final third (a point which has scholars suggest that Shikibu’s daughter was in fact the person who finished the tome), and follows two of Genji’s relatives and their more tragic outcomes.

021619So, in short, this is one seriously long story. The most recent unabridged translation by Royall Tyler (which I highly suggest if you decide to pick it up) weighs in at 1,216 pages. One thousand, two hundred and sixteen pages of awesome classical literature. Yeah, it has its dragging parts, and partly because of the language it comes from (and the Empress it was written for, who, mind you, had it read to her) the language is highly formal and sometimes stilted. Tyler helps the reader get through portions of the text by reminding us at the beginning of every chapter who is now called what, because people are not called by their real names but their titles (Minister of the Left, Empress, etc), and stations are changing all the time.

Even granting those points, I find it hard to believe that this same translation, published in its abridged form by Penguin, has been hacked down to a mere 356 pages! Only a fourth of the entire text was deemed important enough to keep, and with some of the reviews I’ve been reading, it doesn’t help the text at all:

I’ve been reading Genji for 50 years. I’m no scholar and do not read Japanese, but I have kept coming back to it. It is one of the world’s greatest novels, and the earliest one. I have both the Waley and Seidensticker translations. I had hand surgery this summer and have been discovering the joys of one handed reading with my Kindle. I thought this an ideal time to revisit an old favorite. Wrong. This sad, truncated version lacks complexity, depth and charm. It breaks off incomprehensibly before the deaths of Murasaki and Genji, and the whole last third of the novel, the most psychologically interesting part, is missing. There are parts that Tyler usefully omitted, like those concerned with poor dreary Suetsumuhana, but if I had encountered it in this form 50 years ago I would never have given it a second reading. –Pandorabook

I remember when I was unpacking my books from America, and N J noted how BIG The Count of Monte Cristo was, and feeling angry that she might have read an abridged version in high school. It certainly makes me wonder how much of the Odyssey I missed out on (certainly it wasn’t as big as the 560 page book on my shelf now, while the abridged version on Amazon is only 174 pages).

Just take a look at all of these abridged books, and think about how many of the author’s words were deemed posthumously “fluff” and axed. In my case, nearly everything that got cut from Genji (above) were my favorite parts of the story.

If you’re a reader of classics, could you imagine one of your longer stories reduced to only 100 or so pages? Could you imagine one of your own novels reduced to only a fourth of its size?

Tomorrow: V is for Venn Diagrams!

20 thoughts on “U is for Unabridged

    • Alex Hurst says:

      I’m sure it made sense…. it was more a matter of that subjective “What is the heart of this story, really?”, and I fear with this abridgment, they cut out everything that makes the story so important in the context of its -own- culture, probably to make it more accessible to western readers.

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    • Alex Hurst says:

      I have that sitting on my shelf… a gift from a friend… I need to pick it up finally! So many people are recommending it. 🙂

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  1. Jelly-Side Up says:

    Great post! I totally agree that I prefer unabridged books; it’s like the director’s cut for movies, but better. 😉
    Speaking of unabridged, I’m super impressed with how you’ve kept up with this challenge! I’ve fallen miserably behind for both of mine. I’m wondering if I should do one mass-catch-up or extend these into May, hmm…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alex Hurst says:

      I wasn’t aware of it either, except Tale of Genji clearly states it on the cover. Then I got to wondering how many more books I’ve read that might have been abridged….

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  2. Marlene says:

    Wow, that’s some serious cutting – I guess to bring things to a level our give-it-to-me now youth can handle. I wouldn’t want to read a chopped version. I also choose directors cut movies.

    On the other side – I’ve been editing some books that need at least 25-40% cut. Not the same thing of course, but sometimes there’s the right amount of words and then there’s beating a dead horse.

    Nice post.
    Marlene at On Writing and Riding

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alex Hurst says:

      Yes, that’s true. And yes… Tale of Genji could have used *some* editing… but being the first of its kind, and serialized to boot, I can imagine that no one really knew how to do anything with it other than marvel. 😉 Thanks for the comment!

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  3. Katherine M. Lawrence says:

    The Tale of Genji is an undertaking, indeed. Ever time I read it I think to myself, “this was written a 1000 years ago.” It is one thing to look at sculpture or murals at Pompeii. But the sweep of the novel, the emotions, even when I don’t quite understand, makes Genji enduring.

    I suppose Shakespeare is a little easier, even there too, the Elizabethan grammar and idiom, sometimes escapes me, but as I was taught in high school, just let the words flow and soon I am transported by them.

    With Genji, the not-fully-understood nuance, still carries me.

    Les Miserables is one book that only at this point in my life, have I enjoyed in the unabridged form.

    As one of my English teachers once quipped, “the the author had wanted to abridge it, the author would have done so.”

    More often than not, quite true.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alex Hurst says:

      Thanks very much for the comment, Katherine. I apologize for responding so late… (love your icon!)

      I loved Genji so much, reading it, but it definitely helped that I was reading two unabridged versions side-by-side and for two different classes (which taught me all of the contexts) in the meantime. It’s very hard for me to read classical lit now without doing some research on it first, and I think it helps the reading along.

      Thanks for stopping by, again!

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    • Alex Hurst says:

      Especially in Genji’s case, I could see cutting some of the flowery descriptions, but the editor cut actual plot and character subplots from the story…. that’s the part I really don’t get.

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  4. The Childlike Author says:

    Putting it in that perspective (e.g., how would I feel if my work was abridged), I’d be against abridged versions, but mostly because my works are already short and sweet. On the other hand, sometimes I like to read things a little more quickly. A good editor can abridge a book without sacrificing too much, but a bad editor would butcher it. As such, it depends both on the book being abridged and the editor doing the abridging.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alex Hurst says:

      That it does. There’s a lot of old Chinese literature I want to pick up, but I definitely don’t have time to read it all… For instance, “Journey to the West” has been on my wishlist for some time, but there are multiple abridged editions, and I have no idea which one to try out (the end result being, if I liked the abridged version, I should buy the unabridged to get the whole story).

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