The Author's Cut

Director’s cut, extended edition, restored version – you’ve probably stumbled over these phrases in the context of a film, but in the context of a novel? Not likely. Although some classics have been altered a little from edition to edition – for corrections, adding prefaces and notes – but very few have had, say, their endings changed. Tweaked a little, yes, but nothing major. Henry James some minor alterations to Portrait of a Lady (something about too much ambiguity or whatever). It’s not as if there’s a version of Gone with the Wind where Rhett comes back a second after not giving a damn and says, “Sorry about that, Scarlet. I got caught up in the moment.” If he did, there would probably be rioting.

The final version of a movie is less final apparently. Once a director becomes prominent enough, they can go back to their older work and re-cut it – sometimes to get closer to the version they had in mind that the studio didn’t agree to for whatever reason, sometimes to fix technical aspects, and sometimes simply because they’ve rethought the material over the years. Milos Forman’s director’s cut of Amadeus has about twenty minutes of extra footage, all worthwhile, but given that the theatrical cut already runs close to three hours, you can see why some of it had to be trimmed. I forget how many versions of Blade Runner there are – I also forget why.

But novelists don’t re-cut their books, however prominent they become. There aren’t any “extended editions” or “author’s versions” in circulation. At least, as far as I know it’s unheard of, but someone please jump in and correct me if I’m wrong. You have to wonder why that is. Well, maybe you don’t, but it struck me that once a novel is printed – that’s it. Done. No more changes except for correcting typos. I suppose you could argue that if a book is successful, there’s no point in changing the ending or editing it in any other way. And if it’s not successful, you might feel somewhat indignant, not to say a little humiliated, at the idea of changing an ending or whatever other changes occur to you in order to make the book successful. On to the next, as they say. (I don’t know who “they” are, actually.)

And how about DVDs with additional commentary tracks? Impossible in a book. Well, more annoying really – until books finally go digital – which we can assume is still quite some way off. There are annotated versions of classics, but that’s more to clarify specific details in the text, enlighten problematic aspects, etc., than to reveal how the book was created. That’s probably a good thing, too, because it would likely take away some of the magic. Once someone teaches you that disappearing-reappearing acts can only be done with identical twins or objects, it’s not as intriguing seeing the item disappear at one end of the stage and then reappear at the other end.

But – it could be utterly brilliant to see someone completely deconstruct their own work. The mystery might be gone, but the craftsmanship would still be there. I suppose that’s what workshops and author’s lectures are for, but think of your favorite book, now imagine the author took you through it step by step and revealed it in all its technical glory. Significant, enthralling, and instructive? Or maybe unnecessary, boring, and sacrilegious? It could very well go either way. Some DVD commentaries are wonderful, others are disappointing. Some movies are improved by being revisited and reedited, and others should be left well alone. Personally, I’m not looking for a trend of reediting published books to get started or having alternate endings float around in different editions.

I do think that once you’ve published, you need to accept whatever mistakes you’ve made and try not to repeat them. You can’t expect to be the same writer and the same person – forever. You can only hope to still be proud of what’s done, however amateurish it seems in retrospect. And you can also pray that no one amplifies its importance by putting it on a school curriculum. Although now that I think of it, forcing school children to study it may be precisely the way to make sure it’s not taken seriously, much like Shakespeare, whom people have a tendency to edit at their own discretion.

I’d be grateful if someone could find a version of Hamlet where he stops whining after the first act and doesn’t set off a chain of death and despair. If there had been DVDs in Elizabethan England, Master Will probably would have done it himself. The savvy old playwright may have written several alternate endings and versions for all of his plays, to be selected according to the audience’s wishes. He may have done a lot of things, given the opportunity, or he may have only smiled at me and said, “Woman, get thee to a nunnery.”

It did occur to me to end this post about three hundred words sooner, but this was the shortest I could whittle it down to. Consider it the author’s cut.


Selina said...

Not heard of any author's cuts/editions but Jasper Fforde does special features.

From his website "From here you can be directed to all my 'Special Features' sections. 'Making of' Wordamentarys, deleted scenes and much much more!"

kathleenmaher said...

Truly, Stella, your piece celebrates literature's unchangeable nature. But few will read it without thinking of their pet exceptions to the rule. Me included.
This year, The New Yorker published a story by Raymond Carver as written before Gordon Lish edited it. The non-minimalist version revealed shadows, emotions, and internal character struggles that were new to me (if no one else.)
Emily Dickinson's poems, or so I've read, have undergone numerous revisions both to render them closer to her (most likely) intentions, as well as--even today--sparing readers any dismay at all those infernal dashes.
Of course, such cases do not amount to Rhett Butler hooting, Just kidding, Scarlett!
Or Hamlet deciding to let things be.

Madison Richards said...

How funny that you would post about rewrites when I am solidly in the middle of needing to deconstruct my entire novel and rewrite it. Some things are working, some aren't.

As painful as the process is, the myriad of publishers who commented on this manuscript had some real insight and I think the book will be better for it, if I can ever climb off the editing room floor, sift through the bits, and piece together something worth reading!

Thanks for a great piece of encouragement!
Madison Richards

Stella said...

Selina - Interesting... I suppose the internet would be the ideal place for extra features.

Kathleen - Ha! The quote so should have been "To let things be or not to let things be..." although that does make for a much clumsier sentence.

Madison - I'm glad you found my piece encouraging! But, I didn't mean to give the impression that the editing process is redundant. Trust me, I'm forever editing! I meant that after a book is officially published, it's rare to see any changes made to it. That's why "the author's cut" is non-existent. Best of luck your book! Hope we'll be featuring you here as a guest author in the future.

the Amateur Book Blogger said...

"...There aren’t any “extended editions” or “author’s versions” in circulation."

I suppose the one place we get a chance to review edited versions, to a degree, are audio books in abridged versions. One out recently is featured over on my recent news article on Alan Cowell's "The Terminal Spy" - the life and death of Alexander Litvinenko.

But I wonder who makes the selection process for the edit? I presume it is still the publisher rather than the authors' cut?

Paul said...

Except with hypertext of course, where the ending might be pretty much wherever the reader wants it to be... but my exploration of hypertext led me to believe the whole structure might be a tad too random for my taste. And this perhaps goes to show that I like a few absolutes in my fiction and prefer not to have favourite endings messed around and revised ... unless they're absolutely built in from the start, as with The French Lieutenant's Woman.

Stella said...

Jen - yes, I'd also guess the publisher had the last word. Although probably the author would have more say if they had already proved him or herself. I guess it all comes down to reliability.

Paul - I agree with you. When things are left too open, I tend to get the feeling that I've been cheated somehow. Like the author couldn't come up with a fitting resolution.

Mike French said...

Blade Runner was recut because the studio insisted on the Harrison voice over in the original. The directors cut gets rid of it.

The book equivalent would be the publisher insisting that the author weave a commentary into each paragraph to explain everything.

Stella said...

Hmm. I really do have to see that movie. (One of them, anyway.)