Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Definitive Version

A few years ago I wrote an unpublished story about a man who goes around murmuring all the time - and people start following him because they think his outpourings are mystical truths. Inevitably one man thinks he can make money out of this, takes the preacher in, and writes down everything he says hoping to get "the definitive version" which can then become the centrepiece of an organised religion.

I think our desire to have the finished or "definitive version" of art comes from the codification of scriptures - even though in the New Testament we still manage four different versions of the story of Christ. We know that the codified Bible was a political statement, with many books that were circulating disappearing - gnostic gospels and the like - as the official church tightened its grip. The reformation in Europe insisted on letting people have access to "the word of God" in their own tongue loosening the power of the interlocutor, the priest - yet not until Vatican II in the sixties were Catholic ceremonies in anything other than Latin. What is the definite version anyway? Particularly if it can be translated....from English in that beautiful piece of literature the King James Version.

I was reminded of my ruminations on this having read this week of the academic who has published a paper on finding that the American and British versions of "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell are very different. Apparently British and American copy editors frequently change things for their local audience in new novels (I suspect its more of a one way street - we seem quite accepting of American usages and spelling in the UK) and this practice led to Mitchell correcting two different versions of his own novel. As one lay unedited he made changes to the other and the various additions and deletions weren't lined up. Reasurringly he says: "It’s a lot of faff – you have to keep track of your changes and send them along to whichever side is currently behind." The author, in other words isn't really minded that there are two versions out there, subtley but noticeably different.

Of course, Professors have more time on their hands, and their is a whole industry of literary textual work. A writer like Joyce keeps academics busy for decades on textual variants. The view of course is that there IS a definitive version; that the writer meant there to be a "perfect" version, when in reality the exigencies of publishing (never mind other issues in the days before Word Processing) mean that texts are never finished, they are always abandoned (Paul Valery?) to their fate one way or another.

I guess as writers we like the idea of perfection, though rarely attaining it, yet I guess we are still aware of the importance not just of words, but of exact words. One of my earliest published stories had the ending changed by the editor when it was published, and I changed it back as soon as I got a chance. Yet I'd have no problem going to that or many other stories now and fixing a few grammatical flaws. The writer I am now, is not the writer I was then. In poetry words are important, but a corollary of the poet who insists on 20 or 30 versions of a certain poem, surely is that they only reached their "definitive version" through iteration and versioning. Sometimes something must be lost as well as gained in such writing. I suspect that this "sweating the small stuff" is a sign of writerly uncertainty rather than confidence - all of us have taken the comma out, put the comma back in.

"Versions of some of these stories/chapters have appeared previously....." is a common formulation. I think it was Jonathan Franzen who bemoaned internet culture and the idea of a fluid rather than fixed text, saying something about nobody wanting a different version of Gatsby for instance. Yet Fitzgerald's other masterpiece,Tender is the Night, was widely published in a different order (chronological) than the version that we have nowadays. A friend who has a regular book club says that on a few occasions people have turned up with old editions of books which are different versions. I've an abridged by the author Somerset Maughan somewhere, I've also (all published in Penguin), "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and precursor texts. Translation also matters - and some notoriously poor translations of classics mean that its not always possible to be reading the same book that your lecturer read twenty years before.

As a writer, as a lover of versioning in music, I quite like this lack of a definitive version. Walter Benjamin wrote in "the age of mechanical reproduction" about the effect of this might have on us as consumers or music. The piano piece is not different in every parlour, but is defined by the recorded version. Benjamin would raise an eyebrow at contemporary practice I think: classical music from the 20th century does venerate the composer-conductor version sometimes, or composer-performer version, yet we have no way of hearing Mozart himself for instance. The fetish of "original instruments" is a fetish, but I can understand it - yet if someone covers a Beatles song, they won't be setting up their studio with the limitations of a four-track recorder will they? The record industry has recently plundered its vaults for versions of classic songs - the height of which must be the whole CD that a recent Dylan archival trawl dedicated to "Like a Rolling Stone." Here we keep coming back to the definitive version, but have the various stages before and after it that didn't quite work as well. In films we have the Directors Cut, or in some cases, like the Star Wars movies later reversionings which means the original cut as seen in a cinema in 1977 is no longer widely available.

Modern novels sometimes proceed to print without an editor, or with only cursory editing, and I sometimes think that close textual analysis is a sciencifying of the arts that adds little, whilst appreciating the literary archiving that goes to the trouble to find undiscovered works or paragraphs. The internet, with the its ability to shift text on an instant, so that the wikipedia entry is never definitive but always in flux, creates the ultimate versioning jukebox - yet at the same time we crave the sense that we are not being cheated. The new Harry Potter text may not be what you hear in the theatre since it will have been tweaked during performance. A second edition will ensure the coffers keep flowing. Without the first folio we'd likely not have half of Shakespeare, but certain plays, like "Hamlet" are very different in this version.

I guess this only really matters where different versions compete for space. I've noticed a tendency with cheap compilations of late to insert a few later recordings without really telling you. It becomes possible to see how the definitive version can fall away. On the other hand, a novel like Junot Diaz's debut appeared in a very different format in a magazine some years before it was completed. This ur-text is not the novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" but it is a version of it. I read a great SF novel called "Monument" and was pleased a few years later to find the novella version that had originally appeared in a magazine.

For a mostly unpublished writer the sense of what is definitive is very malleable - I try and get to final versions with my work - but of course they can always change if publication is an option. I've cut stories to reach a certain word length, and I'm never quite sure if the longer version is the one that I should preserve or not  (did the cuts matter? or were those words just colour?) It was quite pleasing to read Mitchell's response to the Professor - he didn't think his book would be being read or studied ten years on - he realises it means there are two versions out there in the world, but in the context of "Cloud Atlas" a novel which is consumed with the concept of ideas being passed through time and space, it seems only appropriate.

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