Transblawg discusses the differences between the British and American editions of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, quoting a paragraph that shows very significant differences. The UK version:

…he saw himself as a failure and felt vaguely responsible for this.
He was a small man, with very soft, startling black hair and small regular features. Val called him Mole, which he disliked. He had never told her so.

The US version:

…he saw himself as a failure and felt vaguely responsible for this. He was a compact, clearcut man, with precise features, a lot of very soft black hair, and thoughtful dark brown eyes. He had a look of wariness, which could change when he felt relaxed or happy, which was not often in these difficult days, into a smile of amused friendliness and pleasure which aroused feelings of warmth, and something more, in many women. He was generally unaware of these feelings, since he paid little attention to what people thought about him, which was part of his attraction. Val called him Mole, which he disliked. He had never told her so.

When I first read this, I was confused. I understand changing British to American usage, but why would there be added material? Had Byatt decided to rewrite, and it just happened to be in the US edition first? Then I read the paper by Helge Nowak from which Transblawg cited the paragraph, and I was appalled. It seems Random House (which I had thought of as a respectable publisher) wanted significant changes in the book before agreeing to publish it. Here’s Byatt’s account:

When the [American (HN)] editor first proposed to buy Possession she told me that the book would have to be very heavily cut for the American market—”You have spoiled a fine intrigue with extraneous matter” “most of the correspondence, journals etc will have to go” “there must be few poems and those there are short.” [...] I said this was unacceptable, and she said she wd edit 100 pages and send them to me [...] I waited for several months and then the 100 pp came. She had decided that Roland was not “sexy” or sympathetic enough to appeal to “our American audience” and that I was to amend the descriptions of him. The whole project made me quite ill. At this point however it became clear that the book was selling in Britain, and then it won the Booker Prize. So I told my agent we wd find a publisher in the USA who would publish what I had written, and the editor sent a fax saying that I could have my book as I wished, though she did not think it wd sell. She insisted on retaining the one concession—the description of Roland—I had made, and also insisted on changing the line ordering and paragraphing, which she said was “eccentric”. [...] There were attempts to substitute American words for English ones—paper route for paper round, which I resisted, and something or other for radiogram, wch I may have accepted, as radiogram means something quite different in American. She proposed sex between Maud and Roland where I had avoided it, and kept writing in the margin “You have missed a great opportunity for a climax!!!” (Byatt 1996; her elisions)
I agreed to expand on Roland’s thoughts as an act of self-destructive desperation, not because I thought it improved things—I thought it was redundant and nonsensical—but because I am naturally good mannered and it was the only one of the editorial suggestions I felt even partly capable of accepting. That was one of the places (as I remember) where the editor had made the comment that I had missed a good opporunity for a climax, which I don’t think she even saw was ambiguous or funny. (Byatt 1997)

It makes me sick as well to think about this (though doubtless not as sick as it made Byatt), and what’s almost as bad is the attitude of Helge Nowak, apparently a devotee of the very worst sort of the-hell-with-the-author postmodernism. She first quotes a warning (with which I thoroughly agree) issued by Carl J. Weber fifty years ago:

The wise man will act differently. He will know his American edition before he goes far with it. He will trust it as he would a rattlesnake. He will neither quote from it, nor rely on conclusions drawn from it, until he has compared it, word for word, with the parent English edition, or has assured himself that the English author saw and approved of what his American publisher put into print for him.

This, to her, is charmingly quaint. She presents her own analysis:

This approach, directed at authorial intentions alone, has been countered in recent years by theorists that regard texts as outcome of a collaborative effort by more than just their authors, and as a product that has been presented to different audiences in different historical situations. Consequently, rather than conceiving literary texts as unique stable entities—as ‘works’—, many theorists now point to the diverseness of textual ‘versions’, to all of which they grant equal status.
Applied to A.S. Byatt’s Possession, this view would consequently see both its British and its American editions as legitimate (and not merely as co-existing) versions. They were produced, i.e. created and prepared for book publication, by various teams, all of which included the author—willingly or unwillingly. As her intentions carried different weight at different times, other considerations, by other members of the team, could come in and leave their mark in the individual processes of production. This in consequence led to the publication of variant versions of Possession, meant for and presented to specific audiences within the English-speaking world.

“All of which included the author—willingly or unwillingly”! Talk about Newspeak. I presume, then, Nowak would not mind if I put a substantially altered version of the article online with no indication of the difference. Hey, all processes of production are good! I don’t know whether I want to toss eggs first at the Random House editor or at Nowak, but I do know that the publishing industry had better reform itself or authors will find some other way of getting their words (let me emphasize that: their words) to the public.


  1. For some reason (I must be very naive) I’m very shocked by this. How many other books has this happened to? I would have expected that AS Byatt was well-enough thought of to have been untroubled by such behaviour. Does it happen in reverse, US to UK, I wonder.

  2. In this case I agree with the author (Byatt) and you. There have been cases, though, when authors did well to obey their editors (it’s cheating to mention Ezra Pound and The Waste Land, but some excellent authors have benefitted from commercial editing — H. Scott Fitzgerald?).
    So I can’t come up with a general theory. Maybe something like “Authors are usually well-advised to listen to their editors, though as publishing becomes more commercialized this becomes less true.”
    I am expecting editor problems with something I’m working on, but I can’t complain because the publisher commissioned the book and I’m very happy to have a publisher at all.
    Nowak seems only to happy to squeeze off the post-modernist Death of the Author cliche of ten or twenty years ago. Can we assume that she has tenure and will, like Justice Scalia, be able to do this forever?

  3. Thanks for this better summary than mine, Steve. As I said on my site, I did read this a year or two ago and was shocked then. Again and again over the years I’ve read of changes that irritated me, but nothing at all like this.
    This person Nowak: Helga is a woman’s name, but Helge, I think, is a Danish man’s name. He (if I am right) has a post at Regensburg University. I think the standard of literary awareness fluctuates widely in modern foreign language departments. Don’t know about English departments in Britain and the USA or German departments in Germany. I cited the article because I have never seen such a detailed comparison. I assume the details on which it’s based are accurate.

  4. MM: You’re right; according to my name bible, Hanks & Hodges’ Dictionary of First Names, Helge is a Scandinavian male name (“a derivative of the adjective heilagr prosperous, successful”) and Helga is the feminine form of Helge.
    zizka: In those days there were real editors, who brought out the best in the author. These days we have only pseudo-editors whose overriding goal is to make every book as much as possible like whatever last topped the bestseller lists. Bastards.
    qB: Good question.

  5. Keep in mind, though, that the postmodern approach to texts that Nowak cites has produced some very good scholarship, esp in Shakespeare studies: see the productive work done on the texts of King Lear during the 1990s. That work has done much to balance the excesses of what Nowak refers to as the “Greg/Bowers school of editing,” which was inclined to conflate all available texts of Lear into one that best realized the 20c editor’s interpretation of what Shakespeare intended. The result was a text of a play that Shakespeare never wrote, which surely did nothing to respect authorial intention.
    This model doesn’t work with Byatt, though, because, frankly, she ain’t dead. Since she can express her intentions — and since she does so so forcefully, as Nowak quotes her — I too find Random House’s changes irresponsible. But if Possession is still being read 100 years from now — and if textual scholarship is still being practiced — these endlessly multiplying editions will pose a fascinating scholarly problem.

  6. ((shocked))
    ….Hey, I like those four-hour versions of King Lear! And the thousand-line versions of Hamlet! It’s the opposite of condensed Shakespeare — Shakespeare dropped in a glass of water and blooming like those paper flowers! Bring it on!
    ….And I thought that whole Harry Potter “Philosopher’s Stone” thing was bad….

  7. You do realise that the ‘bladet checks IP addresses to determine whether to provide the FDRUSA or Yoorpean editions, don’t you?
    The Yoorpean edition is much better, of course…

  8. ….And I thought that whole Harry Potter “Philosopher’s Stone” thing was bad….
    On that score, if you’re interested in changes made to the Harry Potter books, see http://www.hp-lexicon.org/help.html#british

  9. qB, I can’t speak to the US->UK question, but A Clockwork Orange is another case of an editor making the American edition “sexier” and ruining the intention of the work. Burgess’ American editor demanded that he cut the last chapter, which entirely changes the argument the book makes. Even sadder is that Kubrick based his film not on the British edition, but on the American one.

  10. Yikes! I used to think that I wanted to know and face reality, no matter how unpleasant; now I’m beginning to ponder the pleasures of ignorance.

  11. Of course it’s not new. Charles Dickens was persuaded to change the end of Great Expections in order to have a fluffyish glide into the sunset – see here. I wonder if he was happy with it. It seemed bunged on like a lump of clay on a finished pot to me.
    Harry Potter is an interesting case. I assume from the unprescedentedly tight control JKR has over her texts that all changes for the US market were approved by her first. But since they appear to be novels-by-numbers I assume she won’t have minded if a slightly different equation was used to grind out Potter-pulp for the US market.

  12. I write from the UK to say that I am shocked by this but not surprised. I find that I can operate quite successfully with two vocabularies, two ways of spelling, two sets of measurement as I use material from the US – everything from knitting patterns through prize-winning novels up to academic texts – but someone, somewhere, believes that US citizens lack the supply of brain cells to do the same in reverse!
    On bad days, I mutter about cultural imperialism and the idleness of American readers.
    In more benign mood, I wonder whether a form of paternalism is at work and publishers are kindly (sic) and needlessly protecting you all from any effort.
    Let us assume that the second theory is the right one. Then, if a few unusual words are essential to understanding, what is wrong with a glossary in the US edition? And shouldn’t you all be standing up for your constitutional right to use your own brains?

  13. Sounds like a desire to turn literature into something more like big-studio filmmaking, with the editor as the ‘producer’.

  14. I’ve been mulling over this depressing development since I read your post a couple of days ago. I had similar thoughts to John h’s suggestion that this springs from a desire “to turn literature into something more like big-studio filmmaking.”
    What’s next? I asked myself. Test readings to allow a carefully selected group to respond to the novel, with their opinions — as recorded on the survey cards — being collated by the “editor/producer” and forwarded to the author who is then expected to incorporate the suggested changes…
    Something related has occurred in the visual arts, where curators have relegated artists to making works that merely provide the raw materials for the actual work of art: the exhibition as evidence of the curator’s artistry.

  15. Oh my. This is looking worse and worse. I’d say more, but a focus group has determined that I should make fewer negative comments and talk more about puppies. Arf!

  16. I am perhaps not a typically idle American reader, but to me the expanded version of the paragraph is much, much worse, and the editor who demanded it clearly an idiot.

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