Abridged novels

Who prefers the Reader’s Digest edition of a novel to the unabridged original? Those who are particularly pressed for time? Those who place less emphasis on the novelist’s actual words? Who are engaged more by plot than character?

The work of the editor who creates such shortened versions is not easy and yet it is a thankless task.  For many readers, such cuts are an anathema. They desire the full works of an author, unabridged, in order to savour his literary creation to the very last drop. For them the editor is a vandal, wantonly hacking away at a beloved creation.

Yet to succeed in retaining the true spirit of the original work, the editor must approach the task with care and loving attention to the details. They must identify which details are essential to keep the original work alive and which bits may be cut without damaging that essence. This is no easy job and is not to be undertaken by a person who does not “get” the original novel.

In some respects the cuts, therefore, might best be made by the original author.  Such was the approach which Trollope took when his publisher demanded that The Duke’s Children must be cut by a quarter for publication.

Trollope talked of this process as cutting away at his heart’s blood. One can only feel and empathise with him at the terrible agony of this process.

But perhaps that makes the author the one least fitted to make such cuts.  They may be too close to the work to be able to see what may or may not be cut without damaging irreparably the living heart of the story.  If all parts are too precious, which may be sacrificed?

So perhaps it is better that the edit should be made by an independent person who specialises in making such cuts.

One such person is Robin Brooks. He works for the BBC’s Book at Bedtime programme and his job is to cut down the novels for reading aloud over a series of 15 minute episodes, each of which allows time for perhaps 2,000 words once introductory music and end credits are taken into account. For a two week (10 episode) broadcast that entails cutting a 100,000 word novel by some 80%.

How can you cut 8 words out of every 10 and still retain the magic of the original? Truly, Trollope’s heart would have bled if faced with such a demand.

Yet Brooks manages it, and the continued success of the Book at Bedtime programme suggests that he does so without undue damage to the essential core of each novel.

To find out how he does it go to:



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