Notoriously Difficult Literary Classics, Transformed Into Popular Page-Turners


British novelist Fay Weldon may have come up with a solution to the ever-simmering genre wars. Writers, she said, should simply write two versions of their books, one meaty and contemplative for print, and one racier for Kindle.

Authors should write a literary version for publication in print form, and a racier “good-bad” version for those who use e-readers such as the Kindle…“Writers have to write now for a world where readers are busy, on the move and have little time for contemplation and reflection,” she said. “The writer has to focus on writing better, cutting to the chase and doing more of the readers’ contemplative work for them.” Weldon wrote on her blog that the works that sell best in e-book form were fast-moving event-driven stories “with no lingering on obscure complicated ideas,” and that authors should “abandon literary dignity” and write two versions of the same novel. She added: “Writers can’t expect the same version of their book to serve both markets.”

At Flavorwire, we kind of loved Weldon’s proposal; it would bring an end to all literary snobs vs. popular writers debates, forever, by forcing all novelists to test their skills in both arenas. Can you write detailed interiority and breathless prose, MFA graduates? Can you do artful prose and action scenes, too? In this brave new world, one person’s Freedom can become the other’s Fifty Shades of Grey — using the same plot points.

So, with Weldon’s words in mind, we decided to bowdlerize some famously difficult blocks of text to get them ready for the busy Kindle reader, in order to examine exactly how new system this might work. (Original texts are hyperlinked, where available.)

1. Molly Bloom’s speech, from James Joyce’s Ulysses:

Yes, I remember that really sexy adventure we had back in our wild and randy youth. How amazing all the flowers smelled; they say jasmine is an aphrodisiac and yes, I’d say they right! We did it outside, under the sky. Believe me when I say those flowers smelled extra sweet. Yes, yes, they did. So I think about it even now that I’m sleeping with another man, which yes, is a really awkward situation. My husband comes home. He gets into bed. Holy cow! Yes!

2. Quentin Compson’s section from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury:

My sister is a whore. I feel sad about it sometimes. All the time, actually. I walk around Harvard square a lot, with this watch in my hands. Time. Sometimes I just stand on the bridge and wish things had turned out different. If my mom had loved me and my dad weren’t so stern all the time? If Dalton Ames hadn’t deflowered my sister? Up North, it’s hard to remember how my sister smells. I’m not being creepy, I swear, when I say wish it had been me instead. I should have been the one to sacrifice. Me. I told dad some stuff, but he knew I was lying. Society is the worst. I walk back and forth on the bridge. It’s strange. I feel drawn to this bridge. My destiny waits for me on this bridge.

3. The episode of the madeleine, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:

A snack attack hits me hard, and I take a bite of that cookie and dip it into my tea. Suddenly crazy things start exploding in my mind. It’s as though a fountain of deliciousness pours over my brain. Buttery goodness in the form of memories completely takes over, and I’m powerless to fight. Powerless. Buttery. Suddenly a whoosh pulls me into a giant vortex. I close my eyes and when I wake up, it’s decades ago. I’m a kid again, and my aunt is in her bedroom, pouring some tea and giving a madeleine a happy dunk. I can hardly catch my breath, because I’ve figured it out. The cookie is the key to time travel.

4. Isabel Archer’s dark night of the soul (the famous Chapter 42), Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady:

Isabel sits late into the night, thinking things over. The candles burn low. She feels like she’s on fire and the flame is her own thoughts. Does Lord Warburton still love her? Does she love Ralph? Is it too late, now that Ralph lies dead, in England? Does her husband, who seemed like he could be so clever, actually mean to be cruel to her? And the way he’s been sitting with Madame Merle, what is up with that? It’s almost as though — could there be something between them! Oh, my. It’s so hard to understand your own heart!

5. “Time Passes,” from Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse:

The lights go out. You can’t see anything in the house. Time steps in and institutes a reign of terror. Mrs. Ramsay dies suddenly. Mrs. McNabb comes in and dusts the house, which is empty. She is old, and tired, and no one comes back because Prue Ramsay gets married, in a stunning dress, only to die in pregnancy while Andrew Ramsay gets blown up in the war. It was painless, everyone says. Everyone says a lot of things, but everyone is dead. The house stands empty. Mr. Carmichael writes some poems about the war. The wind and rain batter the house. One day, Lily Briscoe and Mr. Carmichael creep back in, with suitcases full of supplies. They enter the house. “I am awake,” Lily says. “I didn’t want to be a part of this, but I have no choice, now.” Time is the greatest enemy they have ever faced. It’s a stone-cold killer. They are hiding out to gather their forces, hoping to defeat it once and for all.