A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Abridgement is always a thorny issue in audiobooks. However, I was surprised, and slightly perturbed, to read that one of CSA Word’s recent releases (On the Origin of Species read by Richard Dawkins) had been substantially edited by Dawkins himself to excise anything that didn’t fit with modern scientific thinking.
Dawkins is quoted as saying,
“In abridging the book, my priority was to cut those passages that are now known to be wrong, notably those concerned with genetics. I believe it is what Darwin himself would have wished. What takes my breath away as a modern biologist is how much Darwin got right.”
Surely, this is more than just straightforward abridgement but actually changing an historical work and inviting us to view it in a particular way (as complete fact rather than as an historical document containing theories, some of which that fit in with present day scientific thinking and some of which don’t)?
It seems that this issue has simply not been picked up on by reviewers or readers, despite this audiobook being one of CSA Word’s most successful non-fiction titles.
We decided to ask Victoria Williams and Bea Long of CSA Word about this in our interview. They kindly passed the above question on to Nicholas Jones, who was the producer of CSA Word’s On the Origin of Species and he sent this reply. We thought it was so interesting we decided to run it as a separate post.
Please let us know what you think about any of the issues surrounding abridgement and editing of classic works – scientific or other – in our comments section. We would be interested to hear any thoughts or opinions.
Nicholas Jones’ reply:
At heart, your question is: ‘Can abridgement alter balance and comprehension?’ My answer is, ‘Yes, of course it can, if it is done unsympathetically or ineptly, but to condense and intensify an argument may actually aid understanding.’
I am puzzled by the unquestioning view which some critics seem to adopt, that the author’s word in a printed book is somehow sacrosanct and exactly what he or she wrote, unaided, and that to add or subtract a single word irrevocably alters the meaning. Works are often constrained by the circumstances of their creation. Dickens wrote many of his novels for weekly magazines, so the length of each chapter was predetermined; that must surely have affected the pacing and balance of the story? That is also true for many other stories we now consider classics – Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories to a weekly schedule, Walter Scott wrote Waverley because he needed the money after a financial crisis in his printing business… a little thought will bring many more examples to light from many periods. The creative force behind work is rarely as simple as the author having a perfectly formed whole concept or story waiting to be captured as it springs, Athena-like, from his or her head.
Left unprompted, Darwin might never have actually published The Origin of Species: he explains in his introduction that what we now consider this seminal, definitive book is only what he was able to do in a limited time. Darwin was not in good health when he wrote it; he had embarked on writing up his theory, but it suddenly became necessary to publish quickly since Alfred Russel Wallace, as Darwin writes, was ‘now studying the natural history of the Malay archipelago, [and] has arrived at almost exactly the same general conclusions that I have on the origin of species.’ Darwin estimated in his foreword that he needed ‘another two or three years’ to complete his work, and that ‘This Abstract, which I now publish, must necessarily be imperfect.’ Imperfect it may be, but it was a good thing he did it, because the full work never appeared.
Critics of Darwin’s book observe that the writing is very uneven – some parts are models of lucidity, some are very tough going. Mark Twain remarked once, submitting a late and overlength essay to a magazine, that he was ‘sorry he didn’t have time to write less’, and I certainly wonder if some of the more obscure passages would have been clearer if Darwin has not been in a hurry to publish. James Costa, in his annotated edition of Origin published as part of the Darwin 200 events in 2009 observes that some parts of Origin are dense, but parts are almost lyrical, and the case studies and observations are presented in a narrative style unusual in serious scientific books even now, let alone then.
Darwin wrote 160,000 words in the first edition of Origin – that would take about 18 hours to read for audio. It is possible to get the essence into the 50,000 words, as we have done here, and make it much more accessible. We set ourselves the target length of five to six hours since that is a manageable listening task for most people. Our target audience does not need all the supportive details Darwin adduced in underpinning his arguments; the listener wants the gist of something, and if he or she wants to study the gradual processes by which the theory evolved, then the full book is available (I did not intend that as a deliberate pun; it just seems apposite).
Are we being true to Darwin’s vision? Well, a great deal of editing goes into most books between the first draft the author commits to paper or screen and the final printed book (or, now, e-book). Writing is a lonely occupation, so there is a long and honourable tradition of professional assistance (see Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins, for example, to see how much input he had into Hemingway or Wolfe). An editor’s job is to help the writer communicate his ideas to the intended audience in the best possible way, and the same is true of an audio producer. The point at which editing becomes censorship is a very subjective call, but not by any means unique to audiobooks.
Nicolas Soames remarks in the interview posted earlier here on Vulpes Libris: ‘A skilful abridgement inevitably concentrates on the plot and a the description may have to be conveyed by the actor.’ That is equally true of non-fiction: Richard Dawkins not only selected the portions central to the argument but spent much time studying the text to work out phrasing which will facilitate understanding when listening; Victorian writers like Darwin used punctuation in a very different style to now, and some sentences take a fair bit of disentangling. And it may seem obvious, but those without experience of creating audio books seem to need reminding that the listener doesn’t have the script in front of them, so that emphasis and clarity is fundamental to understanding: things which can be studied carefully and revisited in a written text have to be catchable in one pass when read out loud).
Your question about whether an abridgement can maintain a fair balance is a valid one. However, not only do I think that a careful abridgement will communicate the author’s intentions correctly, but it also puzzles me that this justification is very rarely demanded of theatre, film or radio adaptations. A Radio 4 ‘Book of the Week’ is only about 14,000 words – less than one tenth of Origin, but somehow that is OK because it’s radio (and had radio existed then, Origin would surely have been selected).
Perhaps the problem is that audiobooks are still not always seen as a valid medium in their own right, but as a (usually second-best) substitute for printed books, to be used by those who can’t read because of physical limitation or the demands of multi-tasking. But an audiobook is a performance into which abridger and reader and producer have put many hours of work. We come to know the work intimately; we live with it for hours, days, even weeks. We then choose to share our enthusiasm and understanding with our listeners. If we kindle (no pun intended) interest in the material, we have achieved what we set out to do.
The last thing any production team would want to do is misrepresent what we believe are the author’s intentions. With Darwin, of course, we are not in a position to check, but where authors are living, they are often appreciative of the care which goes into abridgement. For example, I heard that Andrew Taylor, CWA Dagger winner for his historical novel The American Boy, wrote to the abridger afterwards:
‘I was interested that you cut the tailpiece altogether. I added the last section partly under editorial duress and I always had a sneaking suspicion the novel needed to end with Tom and Sophie in Green Park. I think it all works beautifully. Well done.’
I also know that Ian Rankin was asked to write an additional explanatory end to one of his novels by his American publishers, and he welcomed its omission in the abridged audio. Note, too, this comment from author and Times audio reviewer Christina Hardyment, writing about the audio of David Starkey’s book on Elizabeth I:
‘Anyone wanting the story in full should go for the Chivers version, which Robert Powell does his level best to keep interesting, but there is an alternative, an audio abridgement published by HarperCollins, which arguably improves the balance of the book …’
An abridged audiobook produced with care and integrity will stimulate interest in the work from which it is derived, and that is what I think we have achieved with this edition of Origin; if anyone wants to follow the detailed history of the development of the scientific idea, they will research further. In the bonus disc in the new set, The Darwin Selection, Richard explains the historical context in which Darwin was writing; no work can be considered purely on its own, and I don’t think it is reasonable to criticize the audio version of a work for failing to provide all the detail which a far longer printed work will be, when in fact neither can be the last definitive word on the subject. All are part of a larger whole.
I am sure that by producing this edition we will have made it accessible to many who would not otherwise consider plunging into what they believe to be old-fashioned prose. It is one of the books which many more claim to have read than actually have done, and a succinct audiobook is, I believe, a contribution to widening scientific understanding.
I shall leave the last words to Mark Twain again. In 1868 he wrote to his friend Emeline Beach, daughter of New York newspaper proprietor:
‘To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself…. Anybody can have ideas – the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.’