Condensed Books: A DIY Approach


. . . a leading publishing house [Orion Books] is slimming down some of the world’s greatest novels.

(London Times, 14 April 2007

Revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft minus 10%

Stephen King, On Writing

So shouldn’t you (pace Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch) “murder your darlings”? Or at least some of them?

Bill Keeth, WISP, ‘How to Write a Great Story’

A friend of mine who is as widely-read a man as I ever hope to meet once declared himself to be of the opinion that some novels (indeed, most) would benefit hugely in form and content if the sheer verbiage with which so many of them abound were to be drastically cut – in some cases by as much as 50%. Thus, Anna Karenina might entrain (so to speak) with some 400 pages to spare – sparing the reader and Count Vronsky, too, from undue dalliance with milady, and plantations aplenty of Sitka spruce from premature rendezvous with a McCulloch chainsaw. And I am bound to say that, provided I am permitted to lead in their entirety from the projected literary killing field before the cull begins a dozen books of my own choosing (see Footnote). Yes, granted this minimal concession, I am inclined to agree – indeed, I’m up for it, begob!

This is no Nazi book-burning I’m talking about here. Condensed books, courtesy of Reader’s Digest, have been with us for years. So there is nothing new in the idea per se – and, just as it has ever been with Reader’s Digest, it is only best sellers that will be getting the chop.

What is new, however, is the kind of best seller that will be getting the chop. Because, unlike Reader’s Digest, which has only ever hacked its way through the flavour-of-the-month sort of best seller which – once read, Booker-prized, Melvyn-Bragged, major-filmed and remaindered – is never heard of again . . . Yes, unlike Readers’ Digest, I intend to hack my way through all best sellers, and in particular through all those classic novels which are already as long-lived as they are ubiquitous and will still be pushing up the best sellers’ list when I am pushing up the daisies – or, more likely than not, being made to wait in the print-queue at the Pearly Gates whilst the Keyholder thereof gets around to turning his attention from Quo Vadis (wherein he gets a mention), which book is itself overlong now I come to think of it, as I shall not hesitate to point out to said Keyholder should he look like directing me to spend eternity with the likes of Faust, Svengali, and the Marquis de Sade.

So is there any chance, I wonder, in view of my firm intention of visiting literary depredation upon these classic best-sellers that we may perhaps look forward to finding an abbreviated War and Pace [sic] sitting on a library shelf in years to come? That our librarians must needs comfort us as we wax dewey-eyed about Captain Corelli’s Ma? That June 16, say (or a part of it, at any rate), must perforce be renamed Bloomsmorning? That some Christmas Yet To Come may yet discover us en famille perusing A Christmas Car?

‘Oh, yes!’ I hear you say. ‘Yes, indeed, Mr Keeth, sir. All this will undoubtedly come to pass. Every bit of it, just as you predict. Just as soon as James Michener’s Hawaii yields nothing more than a solitary, hooted – Haw!’

In other words, never in a month of Sundays to the tune of a Preston Guild will writers be cured of verbal diarrhoea. Because writers are inclined to be prolix. (Witness the 1,000 words you have before you which, with less expenditure of time and effort, might more reasonably have been 500.)

And so, humbly acknowledging my personal culpability in the matter, I hereby invite readers to condense three novels for their own use. Not that this DIY task should prove to be an overly burdensome one. Because, in the case of the three must-read novels to which I now refer you, all that is required is that you must not (whatever you do) read any one of them beyond the halfway mark. And in so doing (or rather, in not so doing), you will be doing your good selves (and English letters) a service not less than singular.

First for the chop, then, is The Collector [ISBN: 009974371X], John Fowles’ debut novel from 1963, which John Braine truthfully described as being both “fascinating” and “disturbing” – and about which Martin Amis, in The War Against Cliché, has more recently said with equal (and damning) candour that “the first half of The Collector is excellent”. Enough said.

Secondly, Paper Moon (1973) by Joe David Brown [ISBN 03430178620] is a real rarity in that the film version, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, knows exactly where to draw the line and roll the credits. A first rate read, this, quite as good as the film, except that Paper Moon in book form ends up outstaying its welcome overall, going on to suggest that the two protagonists have hearts of gold when they are seen to save a rich old woman from fraudsters. Yeah, like as if.

And, thirdly, Clandestine (1982) by James Ellroy [ISBN 0099226227], which is arguably the best of Ellroy’s series of noir thrillers, though only if you stop reading it at page 203 (in the the softback edition). Because to stray beyond this point is to wander into an editor’s Never-Never Land where Jack “Tesco” Cohen’s precept to “pile it high, sell it cheap” is the sole guiding principle – the words themselves being the commodity Ellroy’s editor would foist upon us, despite the fact that words, like aspirin (as we very well know), will not necessarily treat one’s condition if ingested in undue quantity. Indeed, a surfeit of either item has the propensity to do the exact opposite of what was intended in the first place.

April 2009

The Great Gatsby/The Pat Hobby Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Room at the Top by John Braine
Alfie by Bill Naughton
Hombre by Elmore Leonard
The Graduate by Charles Webb
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
True Grit by Charles Portis
There is a Happy Land by Keith Waterhouse
Get Carter by Ted Lewis
Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara (and a personal all-time favourite – IMHO the most perfect novel I have ever read): The Farmers Hotel by John O’Hara. Or am I showing my age here? A golden one, I’ll grant you.

Bill Keeth’s books, Every Street in Manchester ISBN 1859880649 & Write It Self-Publish It Sell It ISBN 97809558863 are available from Amazon and all good book shops. Bill can also be contacted via his website,

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