Introduction

What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Interesting Emendations: Michael Ondaatje's "The Cat's Table"


Here are two variations of the same passage. One is from Michael Ondaatje’s short story “The Cat’s Table,” which appeared in The New Yorker, May 16, 2011. The other is from his novel of the same name. Just from looking at their composition, can you tell which one is the New Yorker version?

Out on the street you could have the shape of your head read, your teeth pulled. A barber cut Cassius’s hair and poked a vicious pair of scissors quickly into his nose to clear away the possibility of any further hair in the nostrils of a twelve-year-old.

Out on the street, you could have the shape of your head read, your teeth pulled. A barber cut Cassius’s hair and poked a narrow, vicious pair of scissors quickly into his nose to clear away the possibility of hair in the nostrils of a twelve-year-old.

The two passages differ in three ways: (1) one has a comma after “street,” the other one doesn’t; (2) in one, the scissors are described as “vicious”; in the other, they are described as “narrow, vicious”; (3) one says “the possibility of any further hair”; the other simply says “the possibility of hair.”

Of the three differences, the most telling, in terms of identifying the New Yorker version, is the deletion of the extraneous “any further” in the second passage. The New Yorker consistently follows the principles set out in Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, chief amongst which is “Omit needless words.” The second passage is from The New Yorker.

Here from the same sources are two more extracts for comparison:

I was used to the lush chaos of Colombo’s Pettah market, that smell of sarong cloth being unfolded and cut (a throat-catching odour), and mangosteens, and rain-soaked paperbacks in a bookstall.

I was used to the lush chaos of Colombo’s Pettah market, the throat-catching smell of sarong cloth being unfolded and cut, and mangosteens, and rain-soaked paperbacks in a bookstall.

Note the elimination of the parenthesis in the second passage, and the insertion of “throat-catching” immediately before “smell.” The second version strikes me as more concise and, as Strunk & White would say, definite. It’s my favorite passage in the short story. I was surprised to see it altered in the novel.

The Cat’s Table contains many such differences. In almost every instance, I prefer the New Yorker version. I wonder why Ondaatje didn’t use the New Yorker edits in his novel.

Credit: The above portrait of Michael Ondaatje is by Patrick Long; it appears in The New Yorker, June 4, 2007, as an illustration for Louis Menand’s “The Aesthete.”

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