Sometimes we edit ourselves, sometimes others do it for us. What is the purpose of this process? Quite often it is to ‘tighten up’ the narrative, which raises the question why we would want to do that? Do we really want to be tight? We probably do if we are writing a page-turner or a crime story. We try to keep the reader wondering what will happen next.
Some editors are more interventionist than others, how successfully we don’t know since we seldom get to see original, unedited texts. Robert Carver’s editor appears to have made his style more laconic, changing the import of his stories in the process. Going further back, it is known that Stendahl’s publisher reduced the length of The Charterhouse of Parma. Since we cannot compare the draft to the published version, there is no way of telling whether he improved the book or not, though given the chance to read the original I would take it.
Another reason for wanting to tighten up is that our draft is prolix and repetitive. If so, we would want to improve it. But I have come across a reason which doesn’t impress me so much. This is how it goes. Nowadays, people expect instant gratification. They know what they want and they want it now. Used to surfing as they are, their attention span is less than that of previous generations. They expect a story to skip along at a brisk pace and will lose interest if it doesn’t. So writers must adapt their work to the spirit of an age when many are more articulate with their thumbs than their tongue.
Yes, a spare, lean style can be very effective, but is that the only style open to us now? Can’t we be expansive any more? Are digressions out of the question? I hope not. Not only is there nothing wrong in principle with the expansive, in the right hands it has a lot to offer. I am left with the feeling that cutting too much flesh from the bone might not be the best idea. Who wants to cuddle up with a skeleton? Not me.