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.