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 U.S. edition was missing the book’s twenty-first and final chapter, in which the infamously nihilistic protagonist begins to recognize 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 25 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 U.S. 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 U.S.)
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?