What's wrong with publishing earlier versions of a novel? Photo: Abhi Sharma/Flickr
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Why publishers should embrace the film world's enthusiasm for releasing a director's cut

The film world is keen on releasing a director's cut, which differs from the final version of the movie; publishers should do the same with books.

When Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange was first published in the United States, in 1962, it was controversial for the obvious reasons, but also for another more obscure: its US edition was missing the book’s twenty-first and final chapter, in which the infamously nihilistic protagonist begins to recognise that life might actually have some meaning after all. According to Burgess, who grumbled openly and at length about the omission, his New York publisher found that original ending too “Kennedyan,” when what they really wanted was “a Nixonian book with no shred of optimism in it.”

So for nearly twenty-five years, it was the bleaker ending that US readers got – and though finally the book was re-issued with the final chapter restored, by that point it was sort of too late, because Kubrick’s film adaptation had already been released without the “happy” ending. (Allegedly, Kubrick didn’t even know the book had a twenty-first chapter until long after the film was finished, and when he read it he disliked it.) Still, there’s some sense of victory about the book’s re-issue, which made Burgess’s pure creative vision once again available to all. To use the parlance of Hollywood, he finally got his director’s cut.

It’s oddly appropriate that all this happened during the Sixties and Seventies, because it was during exactly that period that today’s notion of a director’s cut, as an auteur’s definitive creative vision, was first appearing in Hollywood. Yet while the film industry eventually embraced the notion of a director’s cut and ran with it – ran, in fact, with the idea of releasing multiple versions of films, each definitive in its own, idiosyncratic way –publishing did not. Despite a few exceptions, there seems to be very little enthusiasm today for multiple editions of the same contemporary book. And that’s a real shame, because when I was asked – unusually – to significantly “re-cut” the US edition of my novel for its release in the UK, I actually found much to appreciate in the enterprise.

Since the birth of directors’ cuts, of course, they have inevitably been joined by other kinds of marketing-driven alternate releases, and as a result have lost some of their artistic standing; it’s hard to argue that Road Trip: UN R8D constitutes a culturally significant contribution to the canon. And while I expect it’s that reek of greed that’s prevented self-consciously literary publishers, anyway, from really pursuing alternate cuts with the same glee as Hollywood, that bias seems short-sighted – because there have been plenty of re-releases that have commanded critical acclaim alongside commercial success (Apocalypse Now Redux springs to mind).

Besides, what’s wrong with a little naked commercial ambition in the publishing industry, given everything we’re always hearing about the death of the book? There’s clearly a demand for this sort of thing. The New Yorker, for instance, has previously published “early drafts” of well-known stories by famous authors, and there’s already a market for new translations of foreign language work – not to mention the perennial re-issuing of Shakespeare and other classics according to slightly different original texts. If we’re already doing all that, why not different drafts of contemporary books as well?

I suppose part of the objection might be that, by definition, an author’s last draft is supposedly the best. So when we have the definitive final text – unlike with Shakespeare et al – there’s no reason to publish a “worse” earlier one. Yet this is a silly argument, because any writer will tell you that, by the final stages of revision, most changes are a matter of minor rearrangement rather than major improvement. There are certainly plenty of things in my early drafts that I cut and now wistfully re-read. (In the UK edition of my novel, I even reinstated several pages at the end of chapter four, with tweaks, that I’d cut before it was published in the US.)

Perhaps another objection is that changing a book solely for the purpose of creating a new “cut” is bound to reflect concerns beyond the author’s original artistic intent, and this is presumed to somehow sully the product. And since studio meddling – the same kind that spawned the director’s cut in the first place – is often blamed for ruining otherwise good films, I suppose there’s some fear that introducing the same kind of process to books might ruin them as well, just as they did with A Clockwork Orange. Except this is a silly argument too, because most novels are already a product of a creative team as large as any behind a film – from editors to marketers to sales execs – and that team’s motives are varied and not always focused on preserving the author’s original creative vision. That hasn’t destroyed literature yet, nor did it make A Clockwork Orange any less successful.

In any case, people already re-read favourite books all the time – and a few well-placed changes, even if minor, can make those people reconsider even the parts of a book they thought they knew back-to-front, showing previously unsympathetic characters in a new light, for instance, or revealing new motivations behind other characters’ choices. That was certainly my experience re-cutting on my own novel, and it’s the true promise of recutting films, too – and if that doesn’t make a good case for more regularly doing the same to books... Well, what does?

What Ends by Andrew Ladd will be published in August by Oneworld £12.99

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I assumed the elephant orchestra was a gimmick. But those pachyderms can play

Training an animal, Pavlov-style, to do human-designed tricks is one thing, but to have it come, voluntarily, to music practice is quite another.

When I first heard about it, I assumed it was a gimmick; which says much about human prejudice, I suppose. Still, I like to think that my initial scepticism was founded, not on some anthropocentric impulse, but upon its precise opposite.

Of course, I know that animals make music, but an elephant orchestra, complete with drums, gongs and harmonicas? Playing pieces that humans would consider pleasing to the ear? That proposition took me back to the early nature programmes, where the animals had distinctly human personalities. The grumpy pelican. The shy hedgehog. The mischievous chimpanzee. When humans argue about whether, or to what extent, animals have feelings, what they usually mean is: do animals have human feelings? To which I think the answer is: no – and why should they?

No surprise, then, that when a friend offered to play me a CD recorded by the Elephant Orchestra of Thailand, I was as wary as I was curious.

The orchestra began as a side project of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in 1999, after Richard Lair, a zoologist and artist (who had already begun teaching elephants to paint) met the experimental composer Dave Soldier and they decided that, if elephants could enjoy making pictures, perhaps they might also enjoy making music.

That word, enjoy, makes all the difference, of course: training an animal, Pavlov-style, to do human-designed tricks is one thing, but to have it come, voluntarily, to music practice on a damp Wednesday afternoon is quite another. Still, as the music began, I was aware that I had no way of knowing whether these majestic animals were being manipulated, merely to entertain humans – though as Lair has remarked, it isn’t that easy to manipulate an orchestra of around 12 players who, together, weigh three times as much as the entire Berlin Philharmonic.

Knowing that sales of the CD would benefit the Elephant Conservation Center itself didn’t altogether dispel my suspicions. Yet, listening to the various recorded performances, I began to feel that the elephant musicians really did get a kick out of banging drums and gongs, playing a thunder sheet, or wailing on a harmonica (a sound that is beautifully wistful to the human ear, though we can only speculate as to what it expresses for an elephant). There was an energy to the playing that I like to think betokened more than just a desire to satisfy a taskmaster.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra was started to raise funds to keep the animals in decent conditions after logging was restricted in Thailand in the early 1990s – and what better story than that of a community that learns how to survive by making art? As for the music, it seemed to fall into two categories: one where it was clear that the players had been directed to approximate existing orchestral works (there is a wild performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, for example) and these performances I could take or leave. Yet where the music arose more spontaneously, where it was allowed to be just elephant music, I was enthralled.

Dave Soldier has said that, “When you hear the elephant music you’re hearing what they mean to make” – and I find that idea infinitely intriguing. How does he know this? How can I know, just by listening? The fact is that I can’t, and yet, for long moments, I felt it in the marrow of my bones, like the resonance of a gong, or the eerie call of an elephant harmonica.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game