Making it easy

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Rachel Cooke continues her rant in the Observer about the various tarted-up new editions of classic novels, including Jane Austen’s. (Here’s our previous post)

As the Bookseller wryly notes, classics make sense to publishers not only because there are no royalties or advances to be paid; there is no frustrating wait for the ‘break-out’ book from Tolstoy or Dickens.

That’s why they keep remaking the movies, too, you know.

All this repackaging obviously has an impact on sales – publishers wouldn’t bother otherwise – which means that, however tiresome, it must be a good thing, mustn’t it? More copies of Austen and Flaubert and Wilkie Collins get sold – and they, in turn, help to keep in print more obscure authors: Gissing, Gibbon and Gosse (the Penguin Classics catalogue is pure bibliographic bliss: where else in the private sector can you see Hildegard of Bingen cosying up to Barry Hines?). So why do I feel so snippy about it?

A good question! We have mixed feelings about it, but tend toward the positive, because we like the covers!

But a lot of good books do require a concentration span longer than that of the average Big Brother contestant. Why pretend otherwise? Why must everything be made to seem easy? Whatever you think about Richard & Judy’s book club, it has an essential honesty: it passes beach reads off as beach reads, and tricksy books (like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas) as tricksy. But this new marketing of classics seems to me to be essentially dishonest, the publishing equivalent of orange-flavoured cod-liver oil. I mean, I really loved Vanity Fair, but never more so than when I had finished it.

Well, yes, because you’d experienced the story. You hadn’t received a distilled version interpreted through someone else’s “vision” as one does with a film adaptation. And isn’t that why we read, after all?