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"Gatsby without greatness"
July 8, 2011 1:28 AM   Subscribe

Roger Ebert has discovered the Macmillan Reader's Edition of The Great Gatsby and he hates it: "This is an obscenity." Macmillan Reader's Editions are geared to ESL students. Ebert thinks that's a really bad idea: "Why not have ESL learners begin with Young Adult novels? Why not write books with a simplified vocabulary? Why eviscerate Fitzgerald?"

You can (for a time anyway1) read the full text (it's much shorter than Fitzgerald's) here. This book, like other Macmillan Reader's Editions2, was constructed by Margaret Tarner who describes her work. She's doing Hamlet next:
the obvious difficulty is that with Shakespeare, the language is the play, so if you’re changing the language you’re changing the play in many ways. And the best you can do is to try to understand what Shakespeare was trying to say and attempt to put it in words that wouldn’t shame you or him by being so odd. It is difficult, I’ve always wanted to do a Shakespeare and I’m finding it very very interesting…But it is difficult of course. But you know the language is the essence of Shakespeare so this makes it almost impossible in many ways. But worth attempting all the same.
1I tried to link to other Macmillan Reader's Editions, like Emma, but they've been taken down.
2 I wanted to use the abbreviation "MRE", but it has other uses and might be seen as editorializing.
posted by CCBC (247 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Can I hazard a guess that Ebert has never learned a foreign language to fluency?

'Easy Reader' versions of classics serve two purposes. One is imparting cultural knowledge/grammar/vocabulary - the basic practice-text stuff. This function could, indeed, be fulfilled by readng children's chapter books, and often is. (Young Adult novels - with their sophisticated vocabulary, complex plots, and teenage slang, won't work for this.)

The other functon of this type of simplified text, though, is to serve as a bridge to the real thing. If you've read simplified Gatsby as a lesson task, and learned the vocabulary and the basics of the plot in doing so, you are then able to pick up the real Gatsby for pleasure more easily, and benefot more from reading it. You've got the basics and a handle on the plot, you will catch yourself if your understanding of the basics of a passage differs from what you know, and you are therefore free to enjoy Fitzgerald's prose and pick up on his more sophisticated vocabulary and nuances.

Ebert seems to have started to write the standard essay about how 'kids today are sooooooo dumb and lazy', based on his misconception of what this book was for. Once corrected, he just redirected his rant at ESL students, rather than admit that he'd been wrong.
posted by Wylla at 1:43 AM on July 8, 2011 [29 favorites]


Wylla: Can I hazard a guess that Ebert has never learned a foreign language to fluency?

Or been an ESL teacher faced with the difficult task of finding age-appropriate yet accessible and engaging reading material for adults. Wylla's comment perfectly describes the purpose of graded readers/graded versions of classic literature.

I just can't get as worked up about this as Ebert. I like the man, but he's really off-base on this one.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:55 AM on July 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


It's obscene not so much because it simplifies the language (nothing wrong with ESL or children's versions of great literature) but because it totally neuters Fitzgerald's message. It gets across the basic plot points, but that's just a vehicle for a larger philosophical message. The original conclusion is this dark and poetic musing on the futility of trying to realize impossible dreams, how people can become broken or corrupt striving for them even as they convince themselves they're progressing more every day, and how this reflects the broader story of Gilded Age America. But the "dumbed-down" version is just that: Everybody has dreams! You gotta follow your dreams, guys! Gatsby did, and he ran into some bad dudes, but that's totally not his fault -- and hey, he ended up rich and famous, didn't he? Hooray!

Some better takes on the book:

Kate Beaton's comic book vignettes

As a classic Nintendo game (previously)

TVTropes
posted by Rhaomi at 1:58 AM on July 8, 2011 [21 favorites]


And this comment from the blog encapsulates it perfectly:

Celia: Suppose you'd decided to take up Finnish, and the only two Finnish-language novels on hand were an abbreviated hi-lo version of Under The North Star, or the Finnish equivalent of Twilight. Do you really mean to tell me you'd rather read the latter?

The reality is that adult learners of English don't want to read young adult books, nor should they have to. You may choose to be outraged at their desire to learn English in a way that doesn't insult them, but the Macmillan Readers exist because reality supersedes your outrage.

It's also not as though ELLs (English Language Learners) are so stupid they'll think they're reading the "real" book.

posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:00 AM on July 8, 2011 [7 favorites]


**The Great Gatsby Ending Spoiler Alert**
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
***
Gatsby had believed in his dream. He had followed it and
nearly made it come true.
Everybody has a dream. And, like Gatsby, we must all
follow our dream wherever it takes us.
Some unpleasant people became part of Gatsby's dream.
But he cannot be blamed for that.
Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn't he?
posted by lemuring at 2:06 AM on July 8, 2011 [8 favorites]


Orgastic futures be damned, I think it's a wonderful tool for learning a new language.
posted by lemuring at 2:10 AM on July 8, 2011


Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn't he?

...and then the ESL teacher says "discuss." And you do.

(That said, "Some unpleasant people became part of Gatsby's dream.
But he cannot be blamed for that
" is pretty left-field. Not sure where that came from!)
posted by Wylla at 2:12 AM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'd like to see him try to teach a class of 10th-graders The Great Gatsby when 1/3 of the class are ELL, and, if he's lucky, maybe half of the remaining students can read at grade-level. The other option is to not teach Gatsby at all.

This is a perfect example of Not Getting It when it comes to the battles being fought in order to forge some kind of path to literacy in a school-age population in America that doesn't look anything like what it did even twenty years ago. Unfortunately, it's easier to be ignorant of the myriad issues regarding current classroom make-up, as Mr. Ebert is doing, than to understand how these kinds of adaptations can be helpful to students who otherwise would get nothing at all out of The Great Gatsby.

Over the past decade, my opinion of Roger Ebert has grown increasingly positive--and I always had liked the guy to begin with. In just the past year or so, though, he's come out with a few essays/opinions that are starting me back the other way. Not that I feel like my hero let me down, but I do wish someone who is so often as smart and insightful as he is about so many things wouldn't publish pieces that make it apparent he didn't bother to think past the the most rudimentary appearance of the issue before going to press.

Rhaomi: It's obscene not so much because it simplifies the language (nothing wrong with ESL or children's versions of great literature) but because it totally neuters Fitzgerald's message.

First of all, it's not obscene, period. Second of all, if it's being used in a classroom, the student will get the message if the teacher is doing his or her job. If the student can't read the book, the greatest teacher in the world can't help them discover the message.

(Don't start me on the bullshit surrounding "YA Novels." Did he not read Gatsby before and/or when he went to college? Therefore, wasn't he a young adult when he read it? Therefore, isn't Gatsby a young-adult novel? Fuck that shit.)
posted by tzikeh at 2:13 AM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


On no preview - or, what Wylla said.

Dammit.
posted by tzikeh at 2:17 AM on July 8, 2011


hah - I just bought a bunch of these these for German practice called "Easy Readers" and they are cool for a language learner because the stories are actually interesting and a bit more adult. So you want to read them.

I was reading children's books but they are full of really weird vocabulary and just a bit 'silly'. it makes them hard to follow as they are usually about princes and frogs and weird and wonderful things.. that are just not very useful in sustaining a conversation with your German friends.

Instead I'm reading about a group of criminals attempting to take over a lighthouse boat on the sea. Its much much more interesting.
posted by mary8nne at 2:18 AM on July 8, 2011 [6 favorites]


Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn't he?

That isn't simplified English. It's a different book.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:20 AM on July 8, 2011 [45 favorites]


I understand Ebert's point, even if I don't quite agree with it, but did he have to call it "an obscenity"? What an awful use of an emotionally charged term to describe an emotionally neutered medium.
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:21 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Roger Ebert: Internet troll
posted by channel-1- at 2:28 AM on July 8, 2011 [6 favorites]


If you've read simplified Gatsby as a lesson task, and learned the vocabulary and the basics of the plot in doing so, you are then able to pick up the real Gatsby for pleasure more easily, and benefit more from reading it.

What evidence is there that it works that way? This seems like a thing that is so rare, and so hard to correlate, that it may as well never happen. Instead you'll get more of the converse: "Well that does it for the Great Gatsby, don't have to read that again." Though with adult ESL students (which are not all of ESL students) the context does change.

I think it's good to use literature as "here is a mode of text in English, you should learn how this works", but I'm always pretty skeptical when educational reading materials think they're doing a second thing besides help and motivate students to read them, especially when it seems like such a tenuous connection. Though at least here it's bowdlerized literature and not straight-up didactic content like it was with the last company I worked on books for.
posted by furiousthought at 2:28 AM on July 8, 2011


As someone who has learnt a number of foreign languages, including English, I agree that Ebert somewhat misses the point of such a book. However...

Literature in most languages, and certainly in English, is rich enough to include books that are both engaging and accessible enough for those learning the language at any level. Ebert is wrong when he proposes YA books (there could scarcely be a worse choice, for the reasons given upthread), but he does have a point, in that there really is no need to desecrate elegant prose such as Fitzgerald's to teach beginners. Especially because the whole purpose of using literature for teaching a foreign language is that of presenting the kind of idiomatic language that isn't normally found in schoolbooks, as well as teaching the rythm and feel of the language as it is usually written.

For a foreign language learner, there is scarcely a more exhilarating feeling than that sudden understanding of a peculiar phrase embedded in text or conversation. Dumbing down books for the purpose of teaching a language completely misses the point of using those books in the first place.
posted by Skeptic at 2:40 AM on July 8, 2011 [8 favorites]


Fitzgerald is a stylist as opposed to a story teller. So, to me, this is an abomination. Every author cannot be reduced to the plot line of his story. The plot line of Gatsby is not The Great Gatsby. So they still haven't read it.
posted by umberto at 2:41 AM on July 8, 2011 [22 favorites]


I look forward to Ebert finding out that abridged books are shorter than the originals and thus ripoffs.
posted by srboisvert at 2:48 AM on July 8, 2011


So, between this and Huck Finn, does Ebert now spend his spare time reading well below his reading age and then getting pissed off?
posted by running order squabble fest at 2:49 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


The plot line of Gatsby is not The Great Gatsby. So they still haven't read it.

But that is beside the point.

Graded readers are for getting people to read in the target language. If more people will read a simplified Gatsby than an equally simple story by an unknown writer, give them Gatsby Lite. One day they may be able to read the original because they spent a lot of time with graded readers.
posted by pracowity at 2:53 AM on July 8, 2011


The plot line of Gatsby is not The Great Gatsby. So they still haven't read it.

As pointed out by the commenter quoted by hurdy gurdy girl, they aren't under the impression that they have.

So, to me, this is an abomination.

Do you hold the same opinion about The Iliad in English? The Divine Comedy?
posted by DLWM at 3:06 AM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


As an ESL teacher (and I never thought I'd ever say this about the man), but "get bend, Ebert".
posted by cerulgalactus at 3:08 AM on July 8, 2011


Skeptic: a peculiar phrase embedded in text or conversation.

Agreed. And I think it's especially important for ESL readers to get contact with raw idiomatic text because ESL very often teaches English simplified to the point of actively being wrong. It's one of my pet peeves about ESL; it often presents rules that are fuzzy in reality as if they were clear-cut. A while back I was (unsuccessly) arguing with an ESL learner that it was perfectly OK to say or write "very ancient" - because she'd been taught that "ancient" was an "extreme adjective" trhat wasn't allowed to take "very" as a modifier.
posted by raygirvan at 3:11 AM on July 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


I learned German partly by playing Mass Effect 2 - a video game. The German version of Mass Effect 2 is certainly a fine piece of art. Much more interesting than some boring old book by Kate Gratsby.
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 3:19 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


WENN ICH SIE ZERREIßEN MUSS EBERT, DANN WERDE ICH ES TUN!
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 3:22 AM on July 8, 2011


In my experience (teaching English in Greece for three years), advanced learners use original texts (we read "To Kill a Mockingbird," and "The Accidental Tourist," while mid-level students used simplified versions of books; I'm afraid I don't see the obscenity.

Of course, what everybody at every level really wanted to know was what certain terms in hip hop lyrics meant, which was often an interesting challenge, depending on student age.

We also had a great many more conversations about "shit," than one might expect. When teaching a language that doesn't have a native "sh" sound, correcting pronunciation errors related to "sheet," "sit," and "seat," was rather crucial. :)
posted by taz at 3:30 AM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


Furoiusthought: What evidence is there that it works that way? This seems like a thing that is so rare, and so hard to correlate, that it may as well never happen. Instead you'll get more of the converse: "Well that does it for the Great Gatsby, don't have to read that again." Though with adult ESL students (which are not all of ESL students) the context does change.

I can't speak for ESL, but this progression is standard in foreign-language teaching of other kinds: in a lower-intermediate class, you might read the simplified version of something, and then at the advanced level, you read the real thing (or sometimes, in my experience, a different text by the same author in the same genre.)

How many people will pick up classics on their own, outside of school, and read them for pleasure? Not many - reading for pleasure is rare in the US, whether you started out as an ESL student or a native speaker.

SO the question is really which is better - providing students with the tools and opportunity to feel comfortable picking up Gatsby should they desire to do so (or should a later teacher assign it), or having students read simplified middle-years chapter books, with no indication that there's something more interesting for adults out there, and no direct help accessing it for the minority that might want to?
posted by Wylla at 3:31 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


speaking of obscenity.. the ELL version of Leviticus is interesting...
posted by ennui.bz at 3:40 AM on July 8, 2011


A while back I was (unsuccessly) arguing with an ESL learner that it was perfectly OK to say or write "very ancient" - because she'd been taught that "ancient" was an "extreme adjective" trhat wasn't allowed to take "very" as a modifier.

It might not always be "perfectly OK" for them to use that construction -- for instance, if they were speaking with other non-native speakers who had also been taught that it's a no-no. I run into this problem a lot teaching ESL to businesspeople in Europe... they don't want to necessarily speak like an American (or Brit, or South African, or whatever) would; they want to communicate as effectively as possible.

Kind of like the construction "If I would've been there, I would've..." Lots of native and non-native speakers use it without a second thought; lots of native and non-native speakers think it's an abomination unto God. Perfectly OK? Depends on context.
posted by DLWM at 3:44 AM on July 8, 2011


Ugh, Gatsby was anything but great. It was the original White Whine/First World Problems book. Sorry about your farm, Tom Joad, but I can't get a date with the gal I like!
posted by Eideteker at 3:48 AM on July 8, 2011 [11 favorites]


I often said that assigning comic books in grade school or high school would do a whole lot more literacy than Shakespeare.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:06 AM on July 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


Simplified versions of adult books for ESL learners are great. That doesn't mean that this particular book is great -- the ending sounds terrible, honestly, and it makes me unconvinced that the rest of the book is worthwhile -- but one bad example of recasting a book in simplified language doesn't mean that the idea doesn't work ever for anything.
posted by jeather at 4:22 AM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


Is it possible that the venerated Ebert is wrong about something? UNTHINKABLE!
posted by crunchland at 4:23 AM on July 8, 2011


I don't get the Ebert veneration. He's the guy who wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and he also had a TV show where he rated movies with his and another guy's thumbs.
posted by Eideteker at 4:24 AM on July 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


Don't show Ebert the "Great Illustrated Classics" series. Not only is the language simplified, but the plot is shortened (and sometimes even added to) significantly.

However, the series is really great. As a kid I read (part of) a lot of classics I would not otherwise have ever touched and loved them. Around the World in 80 Days, Robinson Crusoe, Hound of the Baskervilles, etc. Then later, when reading these books "for real" in English class I was much more kindly disposed towards them and was able to follow along a lot better.
posted by DU at 4:29 AM on July 8, 2011


As many others have said, the man missed the point entirely. Graded readers are usually written with a mind toward the size of the vocabulary of the intended audience. There are incredibly simple books (simpler than Doctor Seuss, because honestly, Dr. Seuss isn't all that simple), up to near native level books.

Reading can be an incredible experience for a second language learner, as long as their reading. Throw a good student a young adult book meant for native speakers, and they'll spend most of their time in despair, using a dictionary for the tenth time in a single paragraph, incredibly frustrated and ready to give up. Congrats, Professor Ebert, your plan of giving them Y.A. books has convinced them that reading is painful and difficult, not something to enjoy.

The basic idea? Give a student a book that actually matches their level, or is even slightly below. If they can get through a page without using a dictionary, that's a good page. They've just read, comprehended and been engaged by the text. They're not exhausted or dispirited, and they are ready to go on to the next page, or chapter. Maybe the grammar and/or vocabulary aren't constantly challenging them, but at the same time, they are reading, understanding, and internalizing 'real' English, words and phrases and sentences that will act as a guide for them when they write.

Reading these 'obscenities' is how second language learners pick up that small voice in their head that says, "hey, wait, it's not 'go to shopping,' it's 'go shopping.' You know, like in that book we read."

But hey, obviously everyone already knows how to teach English, right? It couldn't possibly be a job that requires skill, practice, or training, right?
posted by Ghidorah at 4:30 AM on July 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


Instead you'll get more of the converse: "Well that does it for the Great Gatsby, don't have to read that again."

Sam Malone, in the middle of a struggle to read War and Peace in order to please Diane: "Are you telling me there's a movie?"
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:31 AM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ebert's 1974 review of the movie The Great Gatsby: I wonder what Fitzgerald, whose prose was so graceful, so elegantly controlled, would have made of it: of the willingness to spend so much time and energy on exterior effect while never penetrating to the souls of the characters.

Ebert loves him some Fitzgerald, so much he can't tell a book from a movie.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:33 AM on July 8, 2011


Brandon Blatcher: I often said that assigning comic books in grade school or high school would do a whole lot more literacy than Shakespeare.

As one of the final pieces of my portfolio as a soon-to-be Language Arts teacher, I built a year-long SecEd World Literature Mythology course plan on The Sandman by incorporating almost all of the directly-referenced literature as full unit plans that would fall during the reading of each collection. I turned my Methods instructor entirely around on the idea of using graphic novels in the classroom.

Now there's the just that "getting a job teaching English/Language Arts in a middle or high-school" hurdle to overcome. Oh, and then building up enough cred as a good teacher--should the school I end up at be allowed to keep its doors open and/or should I manage not to get the boot thanks to NCLB and a host of other happy fun times that we've gone through multiple times recently on the blue--to have the clout to get that kind of a course plan accepted.
posted by tzikeh at 4:42 AM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


Is it possible that the venerated Ebert is wrong about something?

It is very possible. He is wrong about a lot.
But he is right about this.
posted by Flood at 4:49 AM on July 8, 2011


I wholly support the intent of these books.

However, I think the execution is horrible and probably what Ebert is actually railing against. The excerpt of the ending lemuring posted makes me think that these "adaptations" are actually messing with the story itself and injecting some, at best, misguided interpretations. If that's what they're going to do, you may as well give the students Cliff Notes.
posted by like_neon at 4:51 AM on July 8, 2011 [7 favorites]


Maxwell Perkins turns over (elegantly, of course) in his grave!
posted by Jody Tresidder at 4:53 AM on July 8, 2011


The people in the comments section are certainly very pleased with themselves.
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 4:57 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


No doubt Ebert wouldn't have gone off on this rant if he had understood the true purpose of these books, but I certainly understand why he had the reaction he did. If you care about The Great Gatsby as much as he clearly does, this Stepford Wife simulacrum of it is pretty horrifying.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 4:58 AM on July 8, 2011


I suppose I should disclose that The Great Gatsby was one of my favourite ever books I "had" to read for high school. I think it's because I actually don't like reading poetry (don't stone me!) but The Great Gatsby *read* like poetry to me. The prose is lovely. By virtue of selecting this particular novel for this exercise, it does feel like they are ruining one of the best things about the novel.

Why don't they use something like a Dan Brown novel? It's a gripping, adult story and you can't really ruin it more than Mr. Brown has done to it himself. In fact, you'd probably make a better book at the end.
posted by like_neon at 4:58 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


It could be worse: Storyboards from Michael Bay's The Great Gatsby
posted by zarq at 5:02 AM on July 8, 2011


I often said that assigning comic books in grade school or high school would do a whole lot more literacy than Shakespeare.

Yikes.

I watched Bugs Bunny at home, but I'm glad school didn't reframe everything as a Bugs Bunny story to keep me interested and learning. I don't think I'd have come out of high school loving Shakespeare if it had all been reduced to picture books with simplified language. "Romeo! Romeo! Why did you have to be Romeo Montague?! Forget your name and I'll forget mine! Let's be Romeo and Juliet Smith!" That's the route to soap opera appreciation, not to Shakespeare.

But graded readers used for their purpose are great. The writers use carefully controlled vocabulary to get readers up step by step without frustrating them. When you're done with level 1, you go on to level 2, then 3, and so on until you're reading unabridged stories in the target language.
posted by pracowity at 5:03 AM on July 8, 2011


Seriously, call me an elitist or whatever, but this horrifies me. As is noted above, this book simply isn't "The Great Gatsby" anymore. I can't imagine Fitzgerald would have been pleased about this. I agree with like_neon; if you're going to do this, do it to Dan Brown, not to one of the great prose stylists of the twentieth century. Do it to a novel that's all about story and not about literary quality. Because this is just... wrong.
posted by OolooKitty at 5:06 AM on July 8, 2011


In fact, I'm totally serious about this idea.

The problem with using loaded "classics" for this type of activity is that it's using the wrong tool for the job. I read The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Shakespeare, Emma, etc. in high school not to learn how to read English, but how to read critically. It wasn't about understanding grammatical structure and tenses. It was about understanding metaphors, allegories, symbols, political/cultural settings, and story arcs.

ESL students are not English Lit students. If the problem is that you don't want to insult them by giving them the Twilight series because it's aimed at Young Adults (for one thing) then pick simple pool-side reads where the story is exactly what the story says so that they can just get on with the point of learning how to read and understand the plot. Go to the airport, pick out any top 10 fiction novels, adapt those.

Why confuse them with the symbolism of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg when all they're trying to do is know how to pronounce it?
posted by like_neon at 5:07 AM on July 8, 2011 [7 favorites]


Good lord, I just read their list as well. Frankenstein? Moby Dick? Of Mice and Men? Anna Karenina????? It would do a great disservice to the students themselves if these novels are being used just to learn English.

Some people think Ebert is missing the point of these books. I think the greater danger is that the students are going to miss the point of these books.
posted by like_neon at 5:09 AM on July 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


Ugh, Gatsby was anything but great. It was the original White Whine/First World Problems book. Sorry about your farm, Tom Joad, but I can't get a date with the gal I like!

Speaking of not getting it...
posted by mattholomew at 5:11 AM on July 8, 2011 [12 favorites]


Disclaimer: IAAEnglishProf who has worked with some ESL students, but I am not a specialist. Once Ebert belatedly learned the audience for the simplified version, he really just should have pulled the whole piece rather than doing sort of an Emily Litella, "Oh, nevermind BUT . . ." that made little sense.

Simplified Fitzgerald doesn't bother me per se, though considering the massive number of English-language novels for adults you've got to work with, you probably just want to stay away entirely from those with highly figurative or elliptical styles to make life easier for your writers and the students. I mean, you could do a bang-up version of The Maltese Falcon, but ESL Lolita? Not so much.

My big problem with the end passage --

Gatsby had believed in his dream. He had followed it and
nearly made it come true.
Everybody has a dream. And, like Gatsby, we must all
follow our dream wherever it takes us.
Some unpleasant people became part of Gatsby's dream.
But he cannot be blamed for that.
Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn't he?


-- is not that it oversimplifies or wrecks the timeless prose but that it outright bowdlerizes the text, and for an audience likely to be stuffed full of recent immigrants or their children, which practically makes this agitprop. "Yeah, a great American author says 'follow that dream right into the minimum wage,' everybody! Three cheers for the red, white, and blue!" That's just crummy. You could present the real, dark, painful content of the book in simple language if you wanted to.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:14 AM on July 8, 2011 [20 favorites]


I cringe a little at this, but yeah, I can see the value in simplifying the language for readers who are just learning English--

She's doing Hamlet next

I WILL STAB HER WITH MY HOBO KNIFE.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 5:24 AM on July 8, 2011 [14 favorites]


ESL Lolita

I see what I did there! (accidentally)
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:24 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I understand why a fan of a great novel might feel icky about a simplified textual version, but it's necessary with ESOL students. Children's literature is a useful supplement to ESOL programs, but there's no need to treat these students like children because they're learning English as adults.

As for Ebert's suggestion of writing simplified original novels, who has the money for such a project?
posted by John Farrier at 5:24 AM on July 8, 2011


cerulgalactus: "As an ESL teacher (and I never thought I'd ever say this about the man), but "get bend, Ebert"."

As an English speaker, I hope you teach better grammar than this.
posted by mkultra at 5:25 AM on July 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


I often said that assigning comic books in grade school or high school would do a whole lot more literacy than Shakespeare.

The best of both worlds...
posted by mikelieman at 5:26 AM on July 8, 2011


Because a Dan Brown novel would be quite a bit more expensive.
posted by item at 5:27 AM on July 8, 2011


Just out of curiousity, do they have these kinds of books for other languages?
posted by empath at 5:28 AM on July 8, 2011


Er, in response to someone waaaaaay upthread.
posted by item at 5:28 AM on July 8, 2011


hey empath - yes they do have these for other languages. (i'm reading some German ones now)
posted by mary8nne at 5:31 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Yeah, a great American author says 'follow that dream right into the minimum wage,' everybody! Three cheers for the red, white, and blue!" That's just crummy. You could present the real, dark, painful content of the book in simple language if you wanted to.



...the point most people in this thread seem to be missing.
posted by mattholomew at 5:32 AM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


I am honestly curious--and no one has to answer, I'm just thinking... out loud is the wrong phrase for text, but you knwo what I mean--about how many people who are aghast at these versions of great novels are teachers who deal with ESL/ELL students, and how many people are just aghast at great novels being simplified.

I think a lot of the conclusions being drawn in this conversation are incorrect only because the miss the purpose and intent of the books beyond the "learning how to read but why *these* books" reaction. To those who feel that the meaning of the books are lost in the simplification of the text, I can only say that reading them is not the end of the students' experiences with the texts, if they are being used in ESL/ELL classrooms, either for adults learning English, or middle-school/high-school students using them as methods of engaging in the broader conversation regarding the symbolism, the underlying meanings, the "critical readings" of the works. A good teacher is not simply assigning the books and then administering vocab/simple comprehension tests.

justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow: That isn't simplified English. It's a different book.

No, it isn't. It is a different approach to the same book. If the line in question were "Gatsby was a success, in the end," then yes, I'd agree. "Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn't he?" is a direct "in" to the meaning of the book for someone who is ready to think about the bigger picture, but cannot read the words in the original text for comprehension.
posted by tzikeh at 5:34 AM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Eideteker: Ugh, Gatsby was anything but great. It was the original White Whine/First World Problems book. Sorry about your farm, Tom Joad, but I can't get a date with the gal I like!

Now, that's a different book.
posted by tzikeh at 5:36 AM on July 8, 2011


Ugh, Gatsby was anything but great. It was the original White Whine/First World Problems book.

What other subjects, in your view, preclude a book from being great? And why?
posted by IndigoJones at 5:46 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Because a Dan Brown novel would be quite a bit more expensive.

Would it, though? I'd think the point is that pulpy writers like Brown already use a simple vocabulary and the book wouldn't need to be rewritten.
posted by mattholomew at 5:47 AM on July 8, 2011


Gatsby had believed in his dream. He had followed it and nearly made it come true. Everybody has a dream. And, like Gatsby, we must all follow our dream wherever it takes us.
Some unpleasant people became part of Gatsby's dream. But he cannot be blamed for that.
Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn't he?


None of us have even read the reader. The irony of this may well be clear to some half-way intelligent second-language speaker.
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 5:48 AM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


The reality is that adult learners of English don't want to read young adult books, nor should they have to.

I call bullshit on this. I was a Russian Language major in college. That was 20 years ago. We read a lot of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. 20 years later and with no reason to have spoken Russian over those 20 years, I am on a project where I have to go to Moscow every few months. My first stop on getting there was a book store that carried Young Adult versions of classics along with things like nursery rhymes and such. I bought a bunch of them to ramp up my vocab and grammar.
posted by spicynuts at 5:50 AM on July 8, 2011


I must repeat it: what bothers me about this whole idea is that it eviscerates wonderful language for no good reason. Yes, foreign language students need "easy" reads (while it must be pointed out that an easy read for a foreign language student isn't necessarily an easy read for a native and viceversa). However, there are plenty, plenty of easy reads available without pulling something from the canon and boiling it into a mush. Not children's books, not YA books, real, honest-to-good literature, as well as other prose (magazine articles, for instance) simple and crystalline enough for even beginners to understand. And I say this as someone who is not a native speaker of English, and moreover has never lived in an English-speaking country.

Already, "Simple Gatsby" seems ridiculous enough, but "Simple Hamlet"? The mind reels. The people who do this are the same idiots who peddle crap like "The Bible for Children" and other bowdlerised nonsense.
posted by Skeptic at 5:53 AM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


Ghidorah: "But hey, obviously everyone already knows how to teach English, right? It couldn't possibly be a job that requires skill, practice, or training, right"

To be fair, unfortunately, it's not just native English speakers who often seem to think this is the case.

Not that this is necessarily germane to the topic at hand.

Also brb gonna go on an angry white person rant about how people can't appreciate haiku in English because they've been too heavily modified in translation (and because the 5–7–5 mora structure doesn't make sense in English)
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:53 AM on July 8, 2011


was a book store that carried Young Adult versions of classics

Hmm. How exactly does this differ from the reader? Other than that your level is much higher. This book seems to be tailored to people with a vocabulary of about 2000 to 3000 words. That's really not that many.
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 5:54 AM on July 8, 2011


Damn, I meant "honest-to-God", not "honest-to-good". I feel a bit silly now, talking about idioms and completely messing that one up.
posted by Skeptic at 5:56 AM on July 8, 2011


@DoctorFedora, Eideteker

very close to rigging foxreplace to swap out 'white person/white people' for 'gummi lifesaver/s', here
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 5:56 AM on July 8, 2011


Because a Dan Brown novel would be quite a bit more expensive.

Also I don't think it would be possible to dumb down Dan Brown's writing.

(on preview, it's been said nicer)

But though a joke, the point still stands. And though I understand that an ESL teacher wouldn't want to focus solely onWww genre fiction (though even the worse would probably be more like "real speech/use of the language"), surely there must be somewhere between "there's no books to use" and "completely changing the tone of the book and voice of the narrator."
posted by MCMikeNamara at 5:57 AM on July 8, 2011


Margaret Tarner's takes on W.C. Williams:

In case you're
looking for the plums
that were in the fridge,

I ate them all.
Yum.
Sorry, my bad!


(and)


Hey, haha, look at that funny chicken,
pecking at stuff over there

by the wheelbarrow thingy!
What do you think it means?
posted by aught at 6:00 AM on July 8, 2011 [9 favorites]


speaking of obscenity.. the ELL version of Leviticus is interesting...

It is indeed. I prefer the language of the Good News Bible (which was made for precisely this purpose, and manages not to sacrifice the meaning of the text), but it's certainly not bad. This version makes some bizarre decisions about what to explain within the text and what to simply gloss, though - "wings" becomes "the parts that the bird uses to fly", while "incense" remains as-is and gets glossed.
posted by ZsigE at 6:04 AM on July 8, 2011


Bill Golding's Lord of the Flies:
We had some trouble along the way, but in the end we learned that we kids can take care of ourselves, didn't we?
posted by mattholomew at 6:09 AM on July 8, 2011 [13 favorites]


"...the obvious difficulty is that with Shakespeare, the language is the play, so if you’re changing the language you’re changing the play in many ways."

It's dismaying that she didn't realize this was the case with The Great Gatsby as well. A novel is not simply plot.
posted by aught at 6:11 AM on July 8, 2011


My (bright) 9-year old told me that he read "Moby Dick." I said, "Really? Even all the boring parts about the economics of whaling? I didn't read that until I was about 25." And he said, "There were no boring parts."

He had read the Illustrated Classics versions of the book....and while I had a Jesuit college degree in English under my belt, he got to that story a long time before I did. I think this is fine, because though maybe he'll need to go back to it in a few years when some teacher assigns it, he won't have any fear based on its reputation.

(Also, I think Ebert is a fanstastic writer with a lot of interesting things to say. But he might enjoy more readership and provoke less ire if he filtered a little.)
posted by wenestvedt at 6:12 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Dr Johnson said about himself, that no man but a blockhead writes for anything but money."

This is as offensive as anything else in Ms. Tarner's weird little interview. Pandering, condescending hack.
posted by aught at 6:14 AM on July 8, 2011


Seriously, someone please tell me why Gatsby was great. I read the book in high school, barely made it through (as it was unbearable to read and the characters were completely unsympathetic; Gatsby himself was simply pathetic). It was overwrought drama where Fitz was clearly working out some personal issues.

We spent weeks on this book in English class. I was, and to this day have been, unable to get a sensible justification for what makes the book great. Something about the American Dream?

(What's the saying? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof? Well, I'd just like some basic, non-dismissive... proof is even too strong a word. Don't worry about convincing me. Just give me SOMETHING, some kind of defense of this book.)
posted by Eideteker at 6:15 AM on July 8, 2011


BAH! You haven't truly read Shakespere until you've read it in the original Klingon!
posted by fuq at 6:20 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd like to see him try to teach a class of 10th-graders The Great Gatsby when 1/3 of the class are ELL . . .


The plot line of Gatsby is not The Great Gatsby . . .

When I was in 10th grade, they tried to teach me The Great Gatsby with limited success. Fortunately, there was a movie out at the time to help. Everything I know about The Great Gatsby I learned at Harry Bailey's masters defence.

Thanks Dr. Lysander. That makes it all clear.
posted by Herodios at 6:24 AM on July 8, 2011


I'm an EFL teacher and teacher trainer with pretty strong opinions about graded readers. Graded readers are shit, don't use them.

Authentic texts are the way to go, always. Authentic texts that the student might actually want/need to encounter out in the real world.

If I am a beginner level language learner, here is the sorts of stuff I might expect to be able to read: traffic signs, train and airport departure/arrival boards, phone books, flyers, short advertisements, signs in shop windows, product labels.

Step it up a notch for intermediate learners - maybe short newspaper and magazine articles, notices you'd get in the mail from the government, stuff like this.

People just starting out in a new language do not need and probably do not want to be reading literature for pleasure in that language (if you do, and you're following a program of self study, knock yourself out). Most people don't want to read literature in their own language! So why the hell would we make them do that in a foreign language they are just coming to terms with?

There are a tonne of free, real-life, useful materials out there for language learners to interact with no matter what the level. Graded readers are shit, don't use them.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:30 AM on July 8, 2011 [12 favorites]


I don't teach ESL, but would many of the students have encountered the classics of English literature in translated versions during their own schooling in their own language? Perhaps the familiarity helps with the graded readers.
posted by xingcat at 6:33 AM on July 8, 2011


A while back I was (unsuccessly) arguing with an ESL learner that it was perfectly OK to say or write "very ancient" - because she'd been taught that "ancient" was an "extreme adjective" trhat wasn't allowed to take "very" as a modifier.
I don't know anything about grammar rules, but intuitively "very ancient" sounds bad to me. Not wrong bad like mixing up plurals but just off and inelegant.

On the commentary track for Fight Club with Chuck Pahalunuk and David Fincher, Pahalunuk talks about one pivotal scene and how the movie did it so much better then his book. I thought it was interesting. Just because an author wrote it doesn't mean that they think it's perfect. If I had a book out I don't think I would mind if someone made a simplified version of it for people trying to read English.
Some people think Ebert is missing the point of these books. I think the greater danger is that the students are going to miss the point of these books.
It's not really that great of a danger.
As for Ebert's suggestion of writing simplified original novels, who has the money for such a project?
Actually it would be an interesting challenge. It wouldn't cost any more then translating the novels. But would anyone want to read it?
posted by delmoi at 6:37 AM on July 8, 2011


[Oh, and please feel free to explain Gatsby to me in MeFiMail. There's no need to further derail the thread unless you think the Greater Interwebs would benefit from your explanation.]
posted by Eideteker at 6:40 AM on July 8, 2011


Just give me SOMETHING, some kind of defense of this book.

The ideas that the novel explores include the social reinvention of oneself, tensions between upper and lower classes (and callous exploitation of the latter by the former), rapidly evolving sexual mores in the "Jazz era", the unreliability of the teller of a tale (Nick's passive complicity in the novel's events), and the hollowness of "The American Dream" -- just for a start, off the top of my head, thirty years after having last read it. It's not incidental that the novel is written in graceful, concise, and often very beautiful prose - this is one of the reasons it's particularly offensive to have a bowdlerized version.

I'll also say, since you seem to be taking particular offense at it being about rich white people (which is only partly true - it's also about the poor people they take advantage of), that it's an indictment of those rich white people, not a celebration of them. Tom and Daisy are villains, to put it unsubtly, and Gatsby a lonely, hollow man who traded his true self for success that never gave him back anything of substance, only false friends who socialize with him for his money. The ending that the "re-writer" of the simplified version excised wholesale is a poetic meditation on the emptiness and loss of that devil's bargain, and one of the most affecting passages in American literature.
posted by aught at 6:40 AM on July 8, 2011 [17 favorites]


Some people think Ebert is missing the point of these books. I think the greater danger is that the students are going to miss the point of these books.

Yes. If you want to learn a language, read the newspaper. Once you learn the language, *then* you tackle works of literature in their native languages.

Having read that comparison of the ending, I must admit I'm with Ebert on this one. It's not just a retelling in simplified language, it is a neutering. No wonder people think Americans are stupid, if this is what is being fobbed off as a Great American Classic. At the very least, slap something on the cover that says it isn't the real thing.

What next, "The Red Hat, by Nate H."? "Once upon a time, a girl didn't eat her vegetables and the town made her wear a red hat. Then she ate her vegetables, and she got to keep her hat! The End!"

It's not that hard:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
None of those words are hard. Change "to-morrow" into "tomorrow". "Orgastic" into "seductive". "Borne back" into "yet being pushed".

As has been stated- this book is meant to be for adults who don't know the language very well. Not children or morons.
posted by gjc at 6:43 AM on July 8, 2011


guys I love the smell of books
posted by Legomancer at 6:49 AM on July 8, 2011


Gatsby had believed in his dream. He had followed it and
nearly made it come true.
Everybody has a dream. And, like Gatsby, we must all
follow our dream wherever it takes us.
Some unpleasant people became part of Gatsby's dream.
But he cannot be blamed for that.
Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn't he?
I'm sorry, this is making me mad. I haven't read the book in a while, but for shit's sake, that's not even a correct literal translation of what happened at the end of the book, much less any kind of approximation of the tone or message.

It's almost "The Great Gatsby" as interpreted by a psychopath.
posted by gjc at 6:49 AM on July 8, 2011 [6 favorites]


"Seriously, someone please tell me why Gatsby was great...and the characters were completely unsympathetic; Gatsby himself was simply pathetic".

I think you understood the book better than you give yourself credit for.
posted by like_neon at 6:50 AM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


A passage can be hard to read even if none of the individual words are hard. Following poetic language — metaphorical, allusive language — in a language that you aren't fluent in, is difficult as fuck.

(And for what it's worth, I don't think the individual words and phrases in that passage are easy. They're certainly not used in a straightforward way. I wouldn't necessarily expect a mid-level ESL student to know the idiom that's no matter; or to be familiar with the use of beat on to mean "keep rowing," or the use of fine in one fine morning, where it means "wonderful" rather than having its usual meaning "just sorta OK"; or to know the words recede or ceaselessly off the top of their head; or.... Yeah, in fact, that short passage is a wonderful example of how many pitfalls Literary Text has for someone who's learning the everyday conversational/business register of a foreign language. You could easily spend five or ten minutes of class time just disentangling the literal meaning of those two sentences, without even touching their poetic or literary weight.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:57 AM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


She's doing Hamlet next

It's been done. I found an abandoned box of books on the sidewalk once, the unsold leavings of a yard sale. Among them was the Coles "Hamlet in Everyday English," fitted out in the same livery that a couple of generations of Canadians know as Coles' Notes. A sampling: Act II Scene ii, where Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about his bleak mood --

I have of late--but
wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling
you seem to say so.


Or as Coles would have it:

For some time past, without being able to account for it, become greatly changed. I am no longer joyous! I have given up my usual practice of manly accomplishments and, in fact, my natural tendency is so severely shaken that this fair world of ours is in my eyes a dreary waste; its splendid covering, the atmosphere, mark you, the beautiful sky which embraces it, the stately vault of the heavens embossed and adorned with flames of gold, in my sight nothing more than a collections of loathesome [sic] and noxious gases.

Man himself, that monument of creative skill, endowed with such magnificence of intellect, such immensity of ability, in figure and carriage so astonishingly and exactly fitted to his purpose, resembling a celestial being in his exploits, and a very deity in his conceptions, the flower of the whole earth and the grand ideal of inanimate nature -- even he, the highest perfection attainable by earthly matter, ceases any more to afford me pleasure; neither does his consort, though from your looks you seem to disbelieve me.


I barely recalled the thing and went and pulled it off the shelf just now prepared to snark, but that is not as primary-coloured as I thought it would be.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:03 AM on July 8, 2011


Argh. That should begin "For some time past I have, without being able"

O for an edit window of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of orthography.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:05 AM on July 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


writers like Brown already use a simple vocabulary and the book wouldn't need to be rewritten

Dr. Fedora (not that you said the above, but I'm using it as an example), this is why I let loose about the 'everyone thinks they know how to teach English' thing. That, and I just spent 13 hours marking final exams for 7th and 8th grade ESL students.

Brown doesn't even come close to using the simplified vocabulary accessible to non-native speakers. His books, as poorly written and pulpy as they may be, are chock full of jargon and arcane bullshit. YA books are full of slang and pop-culture references that near native speakers from another culture would be mystified by.

Why Gatsby? Because that's shit is famous, folks. There are tons and tons of readers that aren't based on famous books. There are all kinds of biographical readers, bits of history, even really bad original work. Imagine, though, just for a second, that you've advanced enough in this new language that you're heading to a specialty bookstore on your own to pick out a book to help you study. Are you going to pick out something you've never heard of, like "The Ghost Bike" or trash like it, a Teen Beat-esque biography of DiCaprio, or hey, what's that, Gatsby? I've heard of that!

And meatbomb, sorry, I disagree. I think readers are great when used as part of an overall curriculum. Getting students to engage with the langauge at the level their comfortable with does a hell of a lot to boost their self esteem and enjoyment of langauge learning. To me, newspaper English is a) not English I'd want my kids to be learning (silly me, I believe in paragraphs), and b) filled with the same cultural references and jargon/shorthand that would mystify ESL readers who picked up a Dan Brown book.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:10 AM on July 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'll be outraged when this version replaces the original.
posted by mazola at 7:11 AM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ebert is absolutely correct. It is far better to use an easier work for translation than to desecrate great literature. As others have already eloquently stated, this translation is a different book. They are not reading Gatsby. Rather than dumb down Fitzgerald's beautiful prose, it would be far better to read something with a more terse style, such as Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" - a great book which can be read as written without being dumbed down. Papa didn't use complicated sentences, flowery language or other style techniques yet he still achieved beautiful prose and had something interesting to say. A comic book depiction of the Mona Lisa pales by comparison to the real thing and that so-called Gatsby they gave to the ESL students probably doesn't even rise to the level of comic book depiction. It is a pathetic commentary on the state of art and appreciation how many people even on MeFi find so little fault in such desecration.
posted by caddis at 7:14 AM on July 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


Personally, I'm waiting for the Macmillan Reader's Edition of Finnegan's Wake. Always wanted to be able to read that book.
posted by koeselitz at 7:18 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Brown doesn't even come close to using the simplified vocabulary accessible to non-native speakers. His books, as poorly written and pulpy as they may be, are chock full of jargon and arcane bullshit.

I was the one who suggested Brown and I totally agree with your critcisms and I wouldn't mind if Tarner had a go at changing it to make it more accessible for ESL students because it wouldn't actually change the narrative of the story. Doing it to The Great Gatsby does.
posted by like_neon at 7:21 AM on July 8, 2011


I had to write some "adapted" texts like these as part of my last job (for a major textbook company, competitor of Macmillan's). I also found it outrageous. I remember we adapted MLK's I have a dream speech down to about two paragraphs. I struggled so hard with an "adapted" excerpt of Bill Bryson's Walk in the Woods that I eventually had to leave the project. I'm sympathetic to the cause, and still work with ELL curriculum in some way (after all, in Texas, half of all students are English Language Learners), but if you read this version of The Great Gatsby, I just don't think you can say that you've read The Great Gatsby. You haven't.
posted by mattbucher at 7:29 AM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


All those in favor of this abomination are pretty much defaulting to "But who will think of the children ELL?!"

Fuck all y'all. Fitzgerald didn't write Gatsby so that they could learn english or to make it easier for you to teach it. It's irrelevant that there aren't level-appropriate materials--create them!--don't fuck up someone else's labour.

I can't believe the bloated sense of entitlement being exhibited.
posted by dobbs at 7:31 AM on July 8, 2011 [6 favorites]


Oh and we moan about how awful Da Vinci Code is, and yeah in terms of "literature" it's pish. But as something to read come on, it actually is a fun read, total page turner, totally for grownups, and had an impact on the American culture. If Macmillan can make it palatable for the context of ESL, heck I think even I'd read it again.
posted by like_neon at 7:32 AM on July 8, 2011


I was the one who suggested Brown and I totally agree with your critcisms and I wouldn't mind if Tarner had a go at changing it to make it more accessible for ESL students because it wouldn't actually change the narrative of the story. Doing it to The Great Gatsby does.

Actually, that's not a bad suggestion.

Better yet, it seems like some of the classic adventure stories would take this sort of treatment pretty well. Treasure Island! The Count of Monte Cristo! The Man who Would Be King! (Well, maybe that last one wouldn't be so great for the classroom. Whatever you think about Kipling's personal beliefs, his characters are godawful racists.)

'Course, I also think that native-English-speaking middle schoolers should be assigned Stevenson and Kipling and such, rather than wading through The Scarlet Letter in school and sneaking trash like Twilight (or, uh, Dan Brown) at home. The kids want plot and action and exotic settings, may as well give it to them done right. But maybe that's a different conversation.

Anyway, as long as we're requiring our own kids to read Gatsby and Shakespeare when half of them are too young to appreciate it, and using Gatsby and Shakespeare as shibboleths for Culture and Taste and Education, there's going to be demand for ESL-student-friendly versions of the books as well. Nobody wants to sound Uncultured and Tasteless in their new language. If you're going to learn it past a certain level, you're going to want yourself properly enshibbolethed as well, and for anyone college-bound that means cramming some version of The Canon in.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:35 AM on July 8, 2011


I found an abandoned box of books on the sidewalk once, the unsold leavings of a yard sale. Among them was the Coles "Hamlet in Everyday English,"

Under similar circumstances, I once found a box of books containing Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales From Shakespeare (1807).
posted by Herodios at 7:36 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


(Hmm. "Gatsby and Hamlet," maybe. Or "Fitzgerald and Shakespeare." Whatevs.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:37 AM on July 8, 2011


I don't usually say this, but these students aren't reading Gatsby. They're reading a book that they see as a stepping stone to being better English speakers. It happens to share some of the same themes and have the same title. For motivated students, readers are a way to get a leg up on the language, and just maybe get some exposure to some of the themes in the book, as altered as it may be.

And dobbs, Fitzgerald is dead. The book? It's not some holy text. If it helps people to learn the language, I'm sorry if it offends you, but it's doing some good. Maybe some of them will even read the original and realize just how right you are.

And nebulawindphone, there are graded readers of pretty much all the classics, for a lot of the reasons you mention. If you're at the level of dedication where you want to read a foreign language, there's a good chance you have enough awareness of that language's culture to know of the 'great works' and be more willing to choose those than some god awful reader-novelization of Transformers 3.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:39 AM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't really think of this as "desecration." Gatsby is still there. It will always be there. Creating a bastardized version doesn't ruin your life, or indeed impact it at all.

But I agree with the people wondering why you'd pick Gatsby for such a venture. It's only a great book because of the language. Even if this abridgement reproduces the plot faithfully, the plot minus Fitzgerald's language isn't a classic anymore, and if it's not a classic why are you going to all this trouble so ESL students can read it? Why not just buy a bunch of copies of a non-classic book that's already on the proper level?
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 7:39 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


No, it isn't. It is a different approach to the same book. If the line in question were "Gatsby was a success, in the end," then yes, I'd agree. "Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn't he?" is a direct "in" to the meaning of the book for someone who is ready to think about the bigger picture, but cannot read the words in the original text for comprehension.

This.

I completely agree that there's very little point in re-rendering a book that is largely about the beauty of its prose in what is, fundamentally, ugly prose. I'm also willing to believe that the author or the simplified version is a stone cold idiot who entirely missed the point of the book.

BUT you also have to consider the fact that the book is narrated by Nick, a classic unreliable narrator, and that this is NICK'S final line, not an attempt to summarize the actual point of the book. It's not insane to characterize Nick's view of the world this way and to use that oversimplified last line as an entry point for discussion. Do you lose the stunning force of one of literatures greatest final lines? Yes. But does this entirely misrepresent Nick's understanding of the world? I'm not sure you can say that.
posted by The Bellman at 7:42 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I wholly support the intent of these books.

However, I think the execution is horrible and probably what Ebert is actually railing against. The excerpt of the ending lemuring posted makes me think that these "adaptations" are actually messing with the story itself and injecting some, at best, misguided interpretations. If that's what they're going to do, you may as well give the students Cliff Notes.
Exactly this. It's not that simplified books are a bad thing. But this particular simplified book seems like a very bad thing to me because it actively misrepresents (intentionally or not) the thematic content and spirit of the original work. That's going to make it harder, not easier, for ESL learners to engage with the original work and to become more culturally literate.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:45 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


-- is not that it oversimplifies or wrecks the timeless prose but that it outright bowdlerizes the text ... You could present the real, dark, painful content of the book in simple language if you wanted to.

Indeed.

Disclaimer - I've never read any of the MRE text, I don't know what it's like. What I DO know is that, having spent a while working in the field of Plain Language (which is targeted at creating medical and legal writing that is readable by a vast majority of the population, so that the information communicated is actually, you know, communicated), I can say that "plain language" is not a dumbing-down. It's quite challenging, especially when you're trying to fit complex information or concepts into more straightforward sentence structures, but rarely does it ever involve actually stripping information or complexity out.

From a different angle, I take slight umbrage to the notion that plain language is ugly prose (though, this is really separate from what I feel about re-rendering works of incredible artistry). A very common writer's saying comes from Antoine de Saint-Exupery - "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to remove."

So much good writing is about clarity and simplicity.

posted by entropone at 7:50 AM on July 8, 2011


I'm not a big fan of Gatsby, but I'm not actually sure what is the point of using Fitzgerald's work in either the original or adapted version.

I think, and someone will no doubt correct me, that the core goal of ESL/ELL programs is to improve literacy and familiarity with the spoken and written word. The goal isn't to imbue a deep and lasting love affair with literature or the wonders of elegantly shaped prose, it's to improve the student's connection with a different language.

It seems like the primary goals are functional language acquisition and acceleration to grade/level appropriate literacy. Familiarity with the great works of literature seems to be a secondary goal/need at best.

I understand that for many people Gatsby is some quintessential American masterpiece but because it has such a limited connection to the lives that most people particularly most ESL people are living, it's use as a compelling teaching tool seems limited. If you don't sympathize/empathize with a character and the frame of reference is completely alien to your existence it seems likely to provoke disengagement in the reader more than triggering some deep understanding about existence.

The idea of using YA books doesn't seem to be entirely bad, I'm not sure why Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys or their modern day counterparts aren't appropriate to use with adult learners, is it that critical to examine the human condition or can people follow the same path to literacy that millions of native English speakers use? Yes Twilight is garbage but not every YA book is crap and plenty of them tell universal stories that are more accessible than Gatsby or Moby Dick.
posted by vuron at 7:51 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's one of my pet peeves about ESL; it often presents rules that are fuzzy in reality as if they were clear-cut. A while back I was (unsuccessly) arguing with an ESL learner that it was perfectly OK to say or write "very ancient" - because she'd been taught that "ancient" was an "extreme adjective" trhat wasn't allowed to take "very" as a modifier.

As somebody who has gone through many good and "less good" language courses, I absolutely loathe that method of teaching a foreign language. Teaching vocabulary? Yes. Teaching the basics of grammar so that the students become able to formulate intelligible sentences? Yes. Teaching more grammar as they progress so that they understand the underlying structures of the language as it's written or spoken? Absolutely.

But teaching obscure and often made-up rules about which combinations of words are OK or not OK? Profoundly stupid. The first aim of foreign language teaching should be to bring the students to a level at which they are able to communicate effectively. From then on, it's practice, practice, practice. Especially for a language as flexible as English. Burdening them with such strict sets of rules from the beginning will only hold them back, undermine their confidence and ultimately disgust them from the whole exercise.

And this is also why this adaptation of literary works bothers me (and probably Ebert) so much. What often makes prose brilliant is just how it successfully subverts or ignores such rules.
posted by Skeptic at 7:59 AM on July 8, 2011


Exactly this. It's not that simplified books are a bad thing. But this particular simplified book seems like a very bad thing to me because it actively misrepresents (intentionally or not) the thematic content and spirit of the original work. That's going to make it harder, not easier, for ESL learners to engage with the original work and to become more culturally literate.

In my experience, most EFL learners don't engage with The Great Gatsby and don't become more culturally literate. Why should we expect more from ESL students?

Honestly, I love The Great Gatsby but I don't think this is any more a desecration than the abridged novels that lots and lots and lots of native-english speaking children read before they are ready for the full classics.

I'm not sure why Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys or their modern day counterparts aren't appropriate to use with adult learners

Those novels would still require a lot of translation to fit into the vocabulary requirements, and I imagine since they are still in copyright (unlike, say, Hamlet) it's much more expensive to do so.
posted by muddgirl at 8:01 AM on July 8, 2011


Why not just give them some Hemmingway?
posted by Bookhouse at 8:04 AM on July 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


Vuron, it would help if you'd keep in mind that graded readers are for ESL/EFL students. At the lowest level, you're talking about effective vocabularies of a couple hundred words, and sometimes written entirely in the present simple tense. And that's sort of the point to how I use them. When we use texts in class, they aren't there to show the students how little they know, and how far they have to go. Instead, the books are at the students' level, and the excitement they feel when they see how far they've come is palpable.

Even, as has been said many times already, the most basic of YA fiction is still at native speaker level, and assumes native fluency in the culture and it's language. Most YA books would be overly difficult for all but the highest level of student, and the rest would merely feel discouraged by the gap between where the book expects them to be and where they've managed (through a hell of a lot of work) to reach in their studies.

on preview: Hemmingway is the model for stripped down language, I guess, but it still doesn't fit what the students would need. Most graded readers are organized by headwords (the number of words a student would need to fuctionally know for that level) and grammar (the forms that can reasonably be expected of those students). Books written for native speakers, no matter how simple they might seem to other native speakers, are simply beyond the reach of most ESL students.

To put it another way, if there were books out there written for native speakers, but that ESL students could read easily, you wouldn't read them, because they'd bore you to tears.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:14 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I assume that the ESL learners, who are adults, are not idiots and can recognise the sarcasm in that final line. I still think that *this* rewrite sounds like a bad one, and maybe Gatsby is in general a bad choice, but the idea isn't without merit.

(My way -- which I considered cheating for *years* -- was always to read one chapter or sometimes paragraph in the English translation, then the same chapter/paragraph in the original. This is very, very time-consuming.)

I would have loved a well-rewritten book for languages I learned as an adult.
posted by jeather at 8:17 AM on July 8, 2011


I don't quite understand the hate. I mean it's not as if they're trying to teach Gatsby to the students, nor do the students think they're reading Gatsby, nor does anyone suggest this book is an equivalent to or substitute for Gatsby. It's just meant to be a palatable drill which also gives them some idea of what may be meant by some cultural references.

This book bears the same relation to The Great Gatsby as citrus-flavored toothpaste bears to fresh orange juice. Would y'all be happier if it was titled Artificial Drill Text Volume 6: Gatsby Flavored ?
posted by tyllwin at 8:17 AM on July 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


Getting students to engage with the langauge at the level their comfortable with does a hell of a lot to boost their self esteem and enjoyment of langauge learning.

If you are old enough to read The Great Gatsby, you are also old enough to know what it is to have someone patronizing you. I'd feel much more confident and happy reading something real. I've had a lot of success with the introduction to Mother Night with intermediate level students, for example.

Tolerance for ambiguity is another really important skill that you short circuit if everything that your students come into contact with is designed for 100% comprehension. Real world don't work like that. Grade the task, not the text.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:19 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


In my opinion, was the Fitzgerald eviscerated? Maybe to almost certainly yes. As someone who often tries to read literature in languages I'm not fluent in as a learning tool, I don't think this is the point. Most students being subjected to this modified Gatsby are, as Wylla noted above, to impart vocabulary, cultural literacy and just plain practice reading. Cultural literacy and a transformative experience with a great novel in another language are pretty much at two ends of a spectrum of reading, the latter of which few language learners have access to right off the bat.

I can empathize with his rage though, because when I attempt to read Proust, Cervantes or Baudelaire and I find myself translating literally and trying to grasp the sentence, I absolutely rage at the injustice of not being a native speaker. Woe is me, I will never read Rumi or Dostoevsky in their native tongues either, and I just can't get any closer to that holy shit this is blowing my mind with it's humanity than a really excellent English translation. He is just missing the point that stumbling through the original text as a learning speaker and reader would rob the students of the essence of the book in the same way, and require far more work to get a modicum of the cultural literacy bonus.
posted by Lisitasan at 8:21 AM on July 8, 2011


I took a class in French literature and so we had to read... French literature.

We read some of Marcel Pagnol's work*, so I picked up some of his other books to read. And guess what? As a non-native reader, having to look up words every thirty seconds because apparently Pagnol decided to set an unbreakable record for book with most words for different kinds of plants, bushes, trees and types of rocks, gets really old.

So when I had to brush up on my fluency to take my foreign language literacy test, I did not read Pagnol's Guides To Absolutely Every Specimen of Flora and Fauna in Provence, With Some Plot Bits^. I read a bunch of Petit Nicholas books and lots of newspapers.

What I did not do was expect that someone would re-write Pagnol's books and take out all the FORTY MILLION different words for bushes and plants and animals and rocks. Because the point of Pagnol's book is a celebration of the things those words depict, and it would be super crude and not at all the same to take them out.

*We read his memories of childhood. I still cry when I read the end of Le château de ma mère.
^Jean de Florette.

posted by winna at 8:27 AM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


At least these books are being sold and labeled as simplified.

How many posters in this thread have read any works translated into English and gone to the trouble to check if the translations are not simplified? I know I never bothered to check if I had read good translations of much of the classic material I was required to read in high school. Additionally, I would be willing to bet that there are more bad translations of the Analects of Confucius, The Divine Comedy, The History, etc... out there than there are good translations. However, I think that the readers of these bad translations still learned valuable lessons from them. If the lessons are different from those intended by some dead authors is that necessarily a bad thing?

Literally billions of Chinese students have learned that repeated practicing of a task should be a pleasure from a translation of the Analects from classical Chinese to Modern-ish Chinese made roughly 1000 years. I personally think Zhu Xi's reading of the characters 时习 in that instance was wrong. He glossed it as meaning time repeated like the beating of the wings of a bird. Or to put it another way "practice": repeated exercise. Personally, I think it makes more sense to mean at the appropriate time: "the time it is put into practice". Who is right? Well the author is over 2000 years dead so I think it doesn't matter and short of time travel we will never know. Both I and the Chinese students have learned valuable if different lessons.

Does the new simplified Gatsby teach a valuable lesson? I think so. The question mark at the end leads me to wonder whether he had a good life or not. Perhaps this is different than Fitzgerald intended, more negative meaning, but I do think there is value in this new line of reasoning.
posted by wobumingbai at 8:29 AM on July 8, 2011


Except, of course, the students *will* think they have read "The Great Gatsby". The students who try to get through Shakespeare using "No Fear Shakespeare" translations instead of reading the text always think that they've 'read Shakespeare'.

And, as dozens of posts in this thread have pointed out, they haven't. When you strip-mine the language like this, the novel disappears.

My grandmother taught herself English by reading comic books and Harlequin romances; my grandfather read comic books and cheapo-crappy sci fi. There's nothing wrong with reading crappy garbage for fun. The real horror is that this is turning high art into crappy garbage, which is utterly unnecessary.
posted by jrochest at 8:33 AM on July 8, 2011


For some time past I have, without being able to account for it, become greatly changed. I am no longer joyous!

That's...not terrible, but while it conveys the meaning of the original, it completely throws all the rhythm and structure of the language out the window. I'm not a slave to iambic pentameter like some of my former MFA classmates, but there's a cadence in Shakespeare that really gives it a large part of its power and expression, even in the prose. I mean, compare the above with "I have of late--but wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise"1--Shakespeare's version flows better and is much more evocative.

1It's "exercise" in the First Folio, but "exercises" in the 1604 Second Quarto. The rhythm's better to me in the Second Quarto version, but your mileage may vary.

(I may be a tiny bit overeducated. I've made Mrs. Example swear to poke me with a stick if I start boring people with this stuff at parties.)

posted by Mr. Bad Example at 8:33 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Most YA books would be overly difficult for all but the highest level of student, and the rest would merely feel discouraged by the gap between where the book expects them to be and where they've managed (through a hell of a lot of work) to reach in their studies....Books written for native speakers, no matter how simple they might seem to other native speakers, are simply beyond the reach of most ESL students. "

Well, yes, exactly. The Great Gatsby was also written for native English speakers and is innapropriate in its original form for ESL students and that's why they changed it. I don't mind that books in general are being adapted in this manner, I actually think it's great (and I'm getting the feeling that most people in this thread feel this way).

But some books are just not appropriate for it because it utterly changes the soul of the story, like The Great Gatsby. I haven't read this MacMillan version, but really, if you maul the prose the way they did for the ending, what you have left is a mere shadow of a residue of the original so you haven't even achieved the goal of giving them something *good* to read.
posted by like_neon at 8:34 AM on July 8, 2011


The rhythm's better to me in the Second Quarto

I meant the First Folio version. My kingdom for an edit window!
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 8:35 AM on July 8, 2011


When you strip-mine the language like this, the novel disappears.

*checks bookshelf*

Phwew, still there.
posted by empath at 8:36 AM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Music is a great cultural literacy learning tool too, so let's all sing:

Born in the USA
simplified version by Ronald W. Reagan

I was born in a pleasant town
I had some problems when I was young
If you struggle in your early life
Soon you will forget those hard times
Born in the USA!

As a young man, I had opportunities
I joined the army to serve my country
I was trained to use a gun
To defend our freedom
Born in the USA!

etc.

posted by FelliniBlank at 8:37 AM on July 8, 2011 [8 favorites]


I read Ebert's post but haven't managed to read all the comments yet, and as a non-native speaker of English I have to say I absolutely, enthusiastically agree with everything Ebert wrote.

And I was one of the people these books are targeted at. I was about 11 I think when I started properly learning English as a foreign language in school. I did actually read some of these simplified English stories (I still have them!), from other publishers, and I'm glad they were not abridged version of classics but stories in their own right, specifically written for beginners level in EFL. There are plenty of those already! so there is no need to write any of these 'simplified' versions of literary masterpieces, which should instead be read in full later at a more advanced level. In my experience that is both a lot more rewarding for the student, and much fairer to the writers and to the history of literature.

That's the short version and censored version because I'm just as enraged as Ebert is, after reading that first page of the "simplified" Gatsby. It's insulting really. I did eventually read Fitzgerald in English a few years later. I am so, so thankful that my high school teachers in Italy had the sense to introduce us to literature in the English language by making us read the full original texts, at the right time, when we had reached an advanced enough level, rather than give us these abominations as beginners!

Oh another thing - when we started reading the "big names" in literature in English, teachers also specifically told us to avoid using the dictionary, and try and understand new words by context. That is indeed a universal method used in teaching a language as a foreign language, and it does work, so I think Ebert is 100% spot on about that too.
posted by bitteschoen at 8:37 AM on July 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


Btw, if you haven't heard Scott Shepherd recite Gatsby (he has the entire book memorized), you really should. He makes the book shine.
posted by empath at 8:38 AM on July 8, 2011


Music is a great cultural literacy learning tool too, so let's all sing:

Heh... my brother used to annotate the translation for some words in the lyrics printed on the inside sleeve of LP's. He ruined a wonderful vinyl edition of Neil Young's Harvest that way.
posted by bitteschoen at 8:42 AM on July 8, 2011


I don't really think of this as "desecration." ... But I agree with the people wondering why you'd pick Gatsby for such a venture.

I'm guessing:
  1. it was meant to present certain vocabulary and grammatical structures to students. I'm assuming this book does that
  2. it was intended to engaging to a certain demographic of reader; best case it provides additional motivation; worst case? it still presents the basic vocabulary and grammatical structures
  3. the title was available (rights, etc.); adaptations are probably quicker/cheaper to produce than original work
  4. it was sellable. I'd assume they sell these to teachers moreso than directly to students. I'm guessing the people teaching these programs would be familiar with the original work and this would give the adaptation a leg-up over 'original' work they've never heard of.
Again, the book is not meant for literary analysis, it's meant to help learn vocabulary and structures.

In the end we live in a complex world where educational resources are also sellable product. If this book achieves the pedagogical goals while covering off on the practical needs of publishing, why not?

Taken in the context of where this book is being used, I think the benefits outweigh the dangers.
posted by mazola at 8:42 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


"the book is not meant for literary analysis,"

Books for ESL students are not meant for literary analysis, agreed.
However, The Great Gatsby is meant for literary analysis. That's my problem.
posted by like_neon at 8:56 AM on July 8, 2011


So, how do you feel about Cliff Notes?
posted by crunchland at 8:57 AM on July 8, 2011


1. it was sellable. I'd assume they sell these to teachers moreso than directly to students.

DING DING DING!

There is a huge business creating and selling this stuff. You wouldn't believe the number of schools I have been through with dusty boxes of class sets of these things stuck in back corners...

Of course real stuff that you as a teacher collect (and photocopy) yourself, or print off the Internet, there's no money to be made in that...
posted by Meatbomb at 9:02 AM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


If this book achieves the pedagogical goals while covering off on the practical needs of publishing, why not?

Because this particular version seems (intentionally or un-) to have an agenda. Rather than twisting Fitzgerald into Horatio Alger Lite, why don't they just use actual Horatio Alger?

Moment of Godwin: I would also be annoyed by a simplified German translation of Mein Kampf that quietly advocates turning Germany into a primarily Jewish nation named Israel because that's sort of an inaccurate presentation of the original thrust of the piece.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:03 AM on July 8, 2011


So, how do you feel about Cliff Notes?

I owe them one for my passing mark slogging through The Unvanquished. UGH.

But seriously, they aren't passing themselves off as an adequate adaptation of the books, they very clearly are meant for quick synopsis and a crutch for critical thinking. And also, I remember I did have to actually read the original text in addition to the Cliff Notes, not instead of so I don't think they'd be appropriate for an ESL course either.
posted by like_neon at 9:08 AM on July 8, 2011


"that it's an indictment of those rich white people, not a celebration of them."

But I didn't need to read the book to know these things were bad. The devil's bargain and all of it.

To address your specific items (and this isn't an attack on you or what you remember after 30 years):
// the social reinvention of oneself – This is Disney Princess fairytale stuff. Nothing novel or groundbreaking about it, and the way it was told certainly wasn't interesting. These aren't the only criteria for a novel, but I feel they're important.
// tensions between upper and lower classes (and callous exploitation of the latter by the former) – Again, hardly "scales falling from the eyes" stuff.
// rapidly evolving sexual mores in the "Jazz era" – Oh man, if you think that's interesting, wait til you hear about the 60s! OK, I joke, but really? Of his torical interest, I guess...
// the unreliability of the teller of a tale – It's no Rashōmon. Which is not to say that you can only ever do a thing once or one way, but if you want to hold something up as an example of why it's great, it should be a great example of that thing. But I'll concede a bit because...
// (Nick's passive complicity in the novel's events) – This, to me, was the most interesting thing about the book. The way the narrator was not merely unreliable (like in a Noir story) but actually an active (well, passive) participant in the protagonist's downfall. The only way I made it through the book was reading it as Nick's story; not in the sense that it's the story he's telling, but in the sense that it was about him and his decisions. So we're in agreement here.
// and the hollowness of "The American Dream" – Again, this feels like every 'American' novel ever (well, the 'classics').

So all in all, 1-1.5 points out of a possible 5. And it was still an interminable (for such a short book!) slog through one man's attachment issues played out on the written page. Because I couldn't connect to any of the characters. I don't even need them to be sympathetic, I just need them to be interesting. It's one thing to say the characters are uninteresting because the rich are deep down shallow and uninteresting, but I don't buy that for a second. Everyone is interesting, everyone has things about them that make them unique. Daisy was never anything special, but we're supposed to believe Gatz's over the moon for her based on, what, really? Again, I probably haven't read it in 20 years (to your thirty), so I'm probably leaving out a lot of detail that might help your case. We're like a pair of old fogeys bickering over the merits of silent films we haven't seen since movies cost ten cents, eh? =D

(And the "white" isn't as important as the "rich." What I properly should have said to be 100% transparent is "the rich, racially homogeneous people"—if the vast majority of the wealthy were black, I'd feel the same way; I'm talking about the unfair concentration of wealth along racial lines. Any racial lines.)

"I think you understood the book better than you give yourself credit for."

I never said I didn't understand it. Passed the class, after all! ;)
posted by Eideteker at 9:11 AM on July 8, 2011


Yes, my English teachers all loved me. Why do you ask? 0=)
posted by Eideteker at 9:13 AM on July 8, 2011


Also, I don't think the people who would read this version and think, "Well, now I've read Gatsby" are much different from people who wouldn't read it in the first place. I know there are books I read in Spanish class (with varying levels of translation) that I'd love to tackle in the original (Garcia Marquez, Borges, Neruda are the three who spring to mind AtM). Because I'm that kind of person. As much as I hated it, I'd read Gatsby again if I thought it was worth my time (might, after this thread).
posted by Eideteker at 9:17 AM on July 8, 2011


Most of the Spanish language speakers I know have read Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Lorca and Borges--great literature in Latin America is not seen as "inaccessible" as it is in the U.S. The same can be said for the books I see Spanish speakers reading on the Subway.

Granted, this is anecdotal.

But if the first book these speakers read in English is this dumbed-down shite, I think they are going to have a very poor idea of our literary tradition, indeed.

These texts are essentially the literary equivalent of talking really slow and loud to someone who doesn't speak English.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 9:19 AM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


"So, how do you feel about Cliff Notes?"

A total crutch for those students that feel like slogging through a book would take too much time out of their busy days. Personally I have never used a Cliff Notes version of a book either as a supplement or a replacement for a piece of literature. I suspect that if they were used exclusively to provide a starting map for insight into a challenging piece of literature or to provide the basis for class discussions about basics criticisms of a work they might work but it seems the vast majority of students seem to use them in place of actually reading.

Thank god I'm not an English instructor because I think the endless parade of students that feel like cliff notes or even worse a movie adaptation is an adequate replacement would get depressing after a time.

However these adaptations aren't really cliff notes versions of the original books. They seem to be more akin to rewrites using a more limited vocabulary and simpler grammar and rhetoric. As such they are probably useful in teaching basic literacy but the relationship to the original work seems tangential at best.
posted by vuron at 9:21 AM on July 8, 2011


But if the first book these speakers read in English is this dumbed-down shite, I think they are going to have a very poor idea of our literary tradition, indeed.

Except they know it's been dumbed down. I didn't read a dumbed-down translation of a french novel and think "Well now I've read The Real Thing and it's shite," because I'm not an idiot. And neither are ESL students.
posted by muddgirl at 9:21 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


He's the guy who wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and he also had a TV show where he rated movies with his and another guy's thumbs.

The first part is a positive. And you realize he's actually written a ton of reviews and other film criticism, right? Saying that Ebert just rated movies with thumbs is like saying all Michael Jordan ever did was some fancy dunks.

So, how do you feel about Cliff Notes?

Horrid wannabe cheatsheets that were often wrong anyway.
posted by kmz at 9:22 AM on July 8, 2011


I knew Jello Biafra's Boulder High School English teacher. As you might expect, he mirrored some of the comments above: "Mr. ________, why do we have to read this book, anyway. It's just about a buncb of stupid rich people!"
posted by kozad at 9:27 AM on July 8, 2011


So all in all, 1-1.5 points out of a possible 5.

I don't think we're arguing that the book is THE BEST at all these things, but it's a very very good demonstration of them as well as wrapped up in wonderful tone and voice in the prose.

Again, this feels like every 'American' novel ever (well, the 'classics').

It is a classic American novel. I'm finding it really amusing that your criticism of a classic American novel is that "It was just another classic American novel, yawn."
posted by like_neon at 9:29 AM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Suppose you'd decided to take up Finnish, and the only two Finnish-language novels on hand were an abbreviated hi-lo version of Under The North Star, or the Finnish equivalent of Twilight. Do you really mean to tell me you'd rather read the latter?

That only makes sense if the only books available in English are dense works with poetic prose and pandering tween pablum.

And for all the talk of costs associated with licensing rights and whatnot, isn't Gatsby still under copyright?
posted by kmz at 9:33 AM on July 8, 2011


Suppose you'd decided to take up Finnish, and the only two Finnish-language novels on hand were an abbreviated hi-lo version of Under The North Star, or the Finnish equivalent of Twilight. Do you really mean to tell me you'd rather read the latter?

I dunno, does Under The North Star have Robert Pattinson in it?
posted by like_neon at 9:37 AM on July 8, 2011


isn't Gatsby still under copyright

Sure, but it's plausible that the copyright holders are much more amenable to translations, since it's been published a lot of times. Compared to Dan Brown, who can rightly worry about dilution of his IP if a simple-English version is produced.
posted by muddgirl at 9:38 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, and more importantly, The Great Gatsby is already out of copyright in countries that don't have the US's Disney-inspired "95 years" law - many many countries expire copyrights 50 years after the author's death. So an unlicensed simplified version couldn't be published in the US, but it could in the UK.
posted by muddgirl at 9:42 AM on July 8, 2011


I'd think the point is that pulpy writers like Brown already use a simple vocabulary

Brown doesn't use simple English. He uses stupid English, which is not quite the same.
posted by Skeptic at 9:44 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


After looking at a few passages, I find some of the changes a little mystifying. I mean, simplifying vocabulary and sentence construction is one thing, but in some cases the only distinguishing characteristic of the Macmillan version seems to be that it's less beautiful.

Here's Fitzgerald:
There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.

Here's the Macmillan version:
My neighbour, Mr Gatsby, gave parties all through the summer. Nearly every night his house and gardens were full of music. Men and women walked among the beautiful flowers, laughing, talking and drinking champagne"

Okay, same idea. But do you really need to add the explanatory "Mr. Gatsby gave parties" sentence? And it's not like the vocabulary is substantially different in the two versions, just that the rhythm of the thing is sort of chopped up.

Anyway, I'm curious about what sort of guidance somebody like Tarner is given when attempting this sort of thing. Are they asked to change the minimum necessary for comprehension? Or to simplify everywhere where they feel like "eh, this is a little confusing?" Anyone with experience doing this sort of thing want to chime in?
posted by chalkbored at 9:45 AM on July 8, 2011


I read a similar version of The Count of Monte Cristo in French when I was in school. Take a novel that's several hundred of pages and shorten it to about 150, and yet, it was still interesting.

I later read The Count of Monte Cristo in its entirety in English for fun, which I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have done if not for exposure to that simplified version.
posted by threeturtles at 9:48 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Brown doesn't use simple English. He uses stupid English, which is not quite the same."

Yeah, I wouldn't recommend we give it to ESL students straight out of the box either. I wouldn't recommend that to native English speakers for that matter.

The Da Vinci code has been translated into 40 languages. Which makes me wonder, is the prose as awful in other languages? Anyone know? I mean, what if The Da Vinci code in Croation is sheer poetry?
posted by like_neon at 9:50 AM on July 8, 2011


Suppose you'd decided to take up Finnish, and the only two Finnish-language novels on hand were an abbreviated hi-lo version of Under The North Star, or the Finnish equivalent of Twilight. Do you really mean to tell me you'd rather read the latter?

1. I hate Twilight, but if the version of Under The North Star on offer was as badly mangled as this Gatsby adaptation, I'd hold my nose and read the Finnish Twilight.

2. If ESL students are anything like native English speakers (and it would be racist to assume otherwise), most of them would much rather read Twilight than any version of The Great Gatsby.

3. Your false dichotomy is ridiculous. There are literally thousands of excellent books written at the reading level of this lame Gatsby adaptation that are more enjoyable and more worth reading at any age.
posted by straight at 9:52 AM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


I mean, what if The Da Vinci code in Croation is sheer poetry?

I wouldn't be surprised.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:53 AM on July 8, 2011


On reading some more of the comments: I'm not defending this particular adaptation because it sounds like it is especially bad, but the point of these books is not to capture the essence of the language and spirit of the original. That's the point of a good translation. The point of these versions is to give the person learning a language the experience of reading a novel in their new language without having to struggle over each word and sentence.

I've spent a lot of time studying French literature in the original, and it's very difficult to appreciate a work if you have to stop to look up vocabulary several times per line. These versions use words that are similar to words in the student's native tongue so that they can comprehend without having to work too hard. It's a stepping stone towards being able to read more complex works. It's similar to watching films in a foreign language without subtitles. You're not going to understand every word, but it's a worthy exercise to watch and realize you can follow along if you focus and it's a good way to gain confidence with the language.

I'm not a big fan of Gatsby but it might be a particularly interesting text to use in an ESL class because in theory I can imagine reading a simplified version and then moving on to the original fairly soon after once the students are familiar with the story.
posted by threeturtles at 10:02 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


"you realize he's actually written a ton of reviews and other film criticism, right? Saying that Ebert just rated movies with thumbs is like saying all Michael Jordan ever did was some fancy dunks."

I can point to stats as to why Jordan was a great player. Whether that's an accomplishment is debatable ("hurr hurr, he put a ball thru a hoop"; I have no dog in that race). What's Ebert's great and transcendent piece of film criticism? I certainly haven't heard of anything other than the two things I mentioned (and I know he's written reviews for newspapers and later the web, but nothing beyond the mainstream). So no, I don't get the reverence/worship. Not saying he's not worth it, but I haven't seen anything that merits it.

(And yes, I liked BtVotD! But it was silly, not necessarily a great moment of film history.)

"wrapped up in wonderful tone and voice in the prose"

Disagree, but this is a style argument and probably not something we'll ever agree on. Too subjective.

'I'm finding it really amusing that your criticism of a classic American novel is that "It was just another classic American novel, yawn."'

'classics'
In other words, "because it's on the syllabus."
posted by Eideteker at 10:07 AM on July 8, 2011


How do I get things like this in French?

please don't rat me out to ebert
posted by Flunkie at 10:16 AM on July 8, 2011


Disagree, but this is a style argument and probably not something we'll ever agree on. Too subjective.
Agree, but it is one of the reasons why The Great Gatbsy is held up as an exemplary novel.

'classics'
In other words, "because it's on the syllabus."


It's not a classic because it's in the syllabus, it's in the syllabus because it's a classic.

I think we are in danger of derailing so apologies, but you know how you gave it only 1 out of the 5? I think the another point is that it encompassed all five of those things in one novel. That's surely an admirable achievement as well. And a lot of novels are about the context surrounding the time it was written. I think a lot of it could feel irrelevant against present day experience.
posted by like_neon at 10:18 AM on July 8, 2011


When someone tells me that style is 'subjective', I always assume that they have a tin ear for language -- that they're like someone who cannot tell the difference between a Brahms concerto and a 6 year old playing chopsticks.
posted by jrochest at 10:20 AM on July 8, 2011


Some people just don't like Brahms. Some prefer Mussorgsky. *shrug*

One man's flowery prose is another man's bloviating. But yes, I do tend to write like Hemingway (before I ever read Hemingway). I have a preference for direct prose. I also prefer a complex beat to a beautiful melody. I can appreciate both, but one is more engaging to me.

(We had a fun exercise in my English class... 10th grade, I think. We would be handed a piece of prose without any identifying information or distinctive passages and we would have to identify the author. And I was really good at it. So tin ear or not, I can tell the difference. Or could, at the point in time I was reading (and disliking) Gatsby. Might not do so well now that I'm farther removed from the 'classics'/syllabus.)
posted by Eideteker at 10:27 AM on July 8, 2011


Okay, same idea. But do you really need to add the explanatory "Mr. Gatsby gave parties" sentence? And it's not like the vocabulary is substantially different in the two versions, just that the rhythm of the thing is sort of chopped up.

Anyway, I'm curious about what sort of guidance somebody like Tarner is given when attempting this sort of thing.


I'm guessing it's because it's the start of a new chapter. The book would probably be read in pieces, with some sort of discussion/follow-up in-between. This re-establishes the narrator's voice, if you're just dropping in/starting fresh.

I imagine there are a lot of other details that serve specific instructional purposes but look funny from the outside.

I just am not getting the hate for what is obviously a niche product.
posted by mazola at 10:27 AM on July 8, 2011


When someone tells me that style is 'subjective', I always assume that they have a tin ear for language -- that they're like someone who cannot tell the difference between a Brahms concerto and a 6 year old playing chopsticks.
Reasonable people can disagree about who would win in a match between Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson in their respective primes while still agreeing that either one of them would be able to beat Frank Perdue.
posted by Flunkie at 10:31 AM on July 8, 2011


Oh and also, I'm not trying to convince Eideteker to become a Gatsby lover. You like what you like. But I think what we're facing is the difference between understanding why something is considered Great Lit and why you like it. You asked why The Great Gatsby is considered to be so awesome, and I think aught did a fine job in explaining. There's nothing to agree or disagree about those facts. They are some reasons why in the general field of literature it is considered a classic.

That's totally different from a person agreeing it's a great book. No one is going to make me love The Unvanquised no matter what. But I get why it's "a classic". I understand why it's a classic and I can think it sucks, at the same time, and I think it's perfectly acceptable that the same goes for The Great Gatsby and you.
posted by like_neon at 10:31 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm impressed by Macmillan's wide selection of these simplified readers, including:

Jane Eyre -- the affecting tale of a scheming little homewrecker who destroys a nuclear family.

Little Women -- in this simplified version, the entire March family realizes the error of their ways and joins the Confederacy.

Frankenstein -- major themes include "knowledge and technological advances never have a downside" and "humans can always improve on nature."

Tess of the D'Urbervilles -- You control your own destiny! No matter where you start out, you can achieve anything, so reach for the sky!
posted by FelliniBlank at 10:33 AM on July 8, 2011


Right on. I mean, I still disagree about it being worthy of being called a classic, but it's definitely a classic by now (or at least on the syllabus).

So high-five, and thanks for a great discussion.
posted by Eideteker at 10:36 AM on July 8, 2011


- But if the first book these speakers read in English is this dumbed-down shite, I think they are going to have a very poor idea of our literary tradition, indeed.

- Except they know it's been dumbed down.


That is true, but even knowing it, personally, it means if I'd read this version, it would have ruined the pleasure of reading the actual book later.

The pleasure that native speakers get out of it, of reading great writing, and the extra pleasure of being able to read it, the pleasure of learning and of your own accomplishment as a student of that language, once you're at the right level.

There are so many other things you can read, and enjoy, as a beginner in a language. Comics! Comics are great to start with. Listening to songs for lyrics. Short articles from newspapers or popular magazines. Bits of news. Short poems. Textbooks are already full of these examples, and teachers also collect short texts to handout to classes. This worked even way before the internet. It is so, so much easier today. So, I don't see the point of "simplified" versions of literary classics. Why do such a disservice to a language by dumbing down the worthiest expressions of its literature, when there are so many alternatives that are even more effective and fun?
posted by bitteschoen at 10:38 AM on July 8, 2011


Tess of the D'Urbervilles -- You control your own destiny! No matter where you start out, you can achieve anything, so reach for the sky!

Ha! Had to sporfle at that one. I remember my Hardy phase in high school. Some of my other favorites then included All Quiet on the Western Front and Light in August.

I was a very chipper fella back then.
posted by kmz at 10:39 AM on July 8, 2011


Jut to expand on my corner of the world a bit... Most students here want to pass the Cambridge Proficiency, Michigan Proficiency, or TOEFL exams, often because they plan to go to an English language university. So learning, courses, and materials are geared to achieve exactly this over time, from one level to the next. If their teachers are competent and courses that have been proven effective are used, and if they attend the classes and do their work, most of them will pass their proficiency exam and read, write and comprehend English at a university entry level (or better).

By the time they are at proficiency level classes, they are reading full length original texts of books like the Great Gatsby. It's a process.

The reason they don't read Twilight or Dan Brown is a) just because you think these are bad books doesn't make them good for people learning to read and understand English, and b) they are preparing for academic scholarship in English. Reading simplified versions of the sorts of texts that they will be reading in their full form later is more helpful than reading comic books or non-literary blockbusters.

For everyone who is just infuriated by this, what can I say? These students aren't reading simplified version so that they can say, Okay! Been there, read that – next! They are reading them so that they can read the real thing at fluency level later.

Plus, how does this affect you at all? Does it mean you can no longer read and enjoy Fitzgerald because somewhere someone is reading a simpler version that may help them to later read the real thing?
posted by taz at 10:49 AM on July 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


I read a "heavily abridged" (aka simplified) version of Great Expectations and it did not ruin the pleasure of reading Dickens when I was older.

I think every reader is different. For those who wouldn't read Dickens at all, the abridged/simplified version is enough anyway - nothing's been ruined. For those who would read Dickens, reading the simplified version while they're still learning the language shouldn't deter them when they become proficients - nothing has been ruined.
posted by muddgirl at 10:51 AM on July 8, 2011


It's a devil's bargain, but this is one of those cases where I can imagine that the viewpoint of those with immediate visceral experience may not provide the best perspective for solving the problem.

In education, a lot of time and energy is wasted compensating for systemic and institutional shortcomings. This burden falls squarely on the shoulders of education professionals who are already struggling to keep up with the every day demands of making education work. But to approach the problem with an eye towards easing that frustration may provoke a counterproductive goal-directed myopia.

The commuter who is stuck in traffic might wish that the city council would just build more lanes and the police commander who is faced with a crowd of disgruntled citizens might know that the quickest way to restore order is to crack down with force. But from a distance, most of us will appreciate that these short-term solutions have significant long-term costs, and more importantly, that they threaten and encroach on greater, more fundamental values and ideals.

Brutalizing literature to better teach it seems like killing the patient to aid the operation.
posted by eeeeeez at 11:09 AM on July 8, 2011


Ugh, Gatsby was anything but great. It was the original White Whine/First World Problems book.

Heh. I don't really agree with this ciriticism because so much classic literature is about royalty and the wealthy and powerful. But I'll admit I similarly dismissed the movie "The King's Speech" as "the story of a humble king overcoming adversity" which made my wife laugh and meant I got to watch something different instead. I'm sure it's a good movie though.
posted by Hoopo at 11:19 AM on July 8, 2011


I'm an adult learner of Japanese. At 19, I took a Japanese Literature class for native Japanese speakers -- wherein I had to read Mori Ogai and Soseki. So I know something of the challenges of reading literature in a language not my own. (I also plowed through a ton of manga and romance novels, so I deeply believe in the value of simply written and pulpy fiction.)

Here's Fitzgerald:
There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.

Here's the Macmillan version:
My neighbour, Mr Gatsby, gave parties all through the summer. Nearly every night his house and gardens were full of music. Men and women walked among the beautiful flowers, laughing, talking and drinking champagne"

Okay, same idea. But do you really need to add the explanatory "Mr. Gatsby gave parties" sentence? And it's not like the vocabulary is substantially different in the two versions, just that the rhythm of the thing is sort of chopped up.


In my experience, when you're having trouble just figuring out vocabulary and the syntax and holding a whole sentence in your head at once -- and if you're reading a book with a vocabulary limited to 2000-3000 words, that's more or less the stage you're at -- you want as few metaphors and ambiguities as possible. The little hop from "What does this literally mean?" to "What does this figuratively mean?" isn't insurmountable, but it can be an extra hurdle at a time when you already have enough hurdles to deal with.
posted by Jeanne at 11:19 AM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also note that the reader includes audio cd and support material.

The truth is educational publishing is an expensive venture. There may be plenty of good books and appropriate readings out there, but they lack audio support or worksheets or teacher's guides.

The real expense in publishing this kind of book is in the development of the support materials. To pay for this kind of development, a publisher needs to secure an audience and market. Having a tie-in to a known title probably makes that easier, even if it is a bit of a gimmick.

What bugs me about Ebert is he published his tirade on the basis of a misunderstanding of what the book actually was. He has been completely uncurious in the follow-up. He seems to have no interest in learning about something he might not understand. It seems as though it's more important to him to 'be right' from the get go. Sometime's he's a real blowhard.
posted by mazola at 11:20 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


What bugs me about Ebert is he published his tirade on the basis of a misunderstanding of what the book actually was. He has been completely uncurious in the follow-up. He seems to have no interest in learning about something he might not understand.

Exactly. In fact, I would say that he was uncurious because of his preconceived ideas about the state of the American education system. Of course "intermediate readers" who are native English speakers would be given a dumbed-down book (in Ebert's mind). There's no reason to look critically at his assumptions because there's no dissonance there.

There's a very important lesson, here.
posted by muddgirl at 11:48 AM on July 8, 2011


Have any actual ESL students chipped in on this thread? I grew up as...well, not necessarily an ESL speaker, but someone learning English from mostly non native speakers, and with three other languages simultaneously, in a country that taught English in schools, but not as the language of instruction.

My favourite book was this hardbound collection of really condensed books that my dad kept in the bathroom. It wasn't a Reader's Digest condensed book anthology; it was pretty much the great classics condensed into TWO pages(in small type...but just TWO pages). I wish I could tell you what it was, but I can pretty much assure you that the stories were likely as terrible as these Macmillan versions. I didn't care, though! I liked reading stories, and I certainly wasn't in the mood to be concerned with the intricacies of language. I read a lot of Nancy Drew and (embarrassingly)The Berenstein Bears too, but I felt that these condensed stories were more "adult" even though I also knew they were dumbed down.

Eventually, I moved to a country/school with English as the language of instruction, and picked up more of language(and sadly, started losing the ability to speak in other languages since my parents wanted to speak English at home, even if it was their second language). I certainly read many of the books again that I had "read before" again. I eventually moved to the US in 10th grade, took AP English classes, went to college to major in English Lit. I don't really feel that having "read Moby Dick" when I was 14 was a deterrent to Reading Moby Dick when I was 21(and writing my senior thesis on it).

Another important thing is that with ESL students in a school environment, you do want to approximate what the other students are doing. So if the 10th grade class is reading Hamlet, the ESL class should be reading the condensed Hamlet, so that when they interact with the other students(which is the goal, because again, that helps English comprehension), they have something in common already to talk about. No one's talking about Hamlet and the nature of his inaction at recess - they're talking about who gets to play Ophelia in the play they get to do at the end of the class, and the ESL students should know who Ophelia is.

Anyway, I guess my point is that ESL students are being taught the language, and they are well aware that they're reading a version different from the "actual" book. There is time to imbue a love of English Literature, and actually - a condensed, watered down, version of Grapes of Wrath or Hamlet is still more fun and less insulting to the reader(and really, the goal is to get the reader to learn English and like reading, not to preserve the intentions of Fitzgerald) to read than Twilight in its original, unaltered, form.
posted by sawdustbear at 11:51 AM on July 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


Taking TL;DR to new lengths.
posted by polymodus at 12:14 PM on July 8, 2011


Mad #172 in 1975 had a parody of The Great Gatsby. Wish I could find an online version.
posted by telstar at 12:16 PM on July 8, 2011


Unfortunate timing, polymodus...
posted by muddgirl at 12:18 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Under similar circumstances, I once found a box of books containing Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales From Shakespeare (1807).

You can find them online here. The language is a little ornate, as you might expect from something that early in the 19th century, but if you're trying to get up to speed with the plot of a play you're unfamiliar with, it's not a bad start.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 12:18 PM on July 8, 2011


I would be in favor of an anthology of condensed works—however each without sacrificing the essence and expression of the work. It should not be any easier—just shorter. But a prose version of Fitzgerald/Shakespeare is not good enough for that.
posted by polymodus at 12:21 PM on July 8, 2011


I don't really feel that having "read Moby Dick" when I was 14 was a deterrent to Reading Moby Dick when I was 21(and writing my senior thesis on it).

That's fine, but here's the salient question: Do you feel that, if you had read a really poorly-written condensed version of Moby Dick (say, one that basically got the main ideas of the story all wrong, portraying Ahab as a well-adjusted, wise and determined heroic martyr figure who dies tragically through no fault of his own in service to the greater good) that left you with a completely mistaken impression of what the book was about, do you think that might have been a deterrent to you reading it again when you were 21? Because if the experience was bad enough, it might have. That's the offense to taste that people are railing against here; the intended target audience of the work doesn't factor into it.

If this particular condensed version of the text is bad even as far as condensed versions of its kind go, then what difference does it make that the audience isn't mainstream readership but ESL students? I could try to lend my argument credibility by pointing out that, for me too, English was once a second language (when I first started school in the US I only spoke German), but that would miss the real point.

Saying that a bad translation is a bad translation isn't the same thing as saying there should be no more translations ever produced. And saying that a particular writer's work is too idiosyncratic and bound up in the original language of authorship to stand up to translation, likewise, isn't to say that no work of literature ever could. It seems to me the reactions to Ebert are overgeneralizing his criticisms.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:22 PM on July 8, 2011


That's the offense to taste that people are railing against here; the intended target audience of the work doesn't factor into it.

They're basing this on the last couple sentences of a book they haven't read yet (and, I think, they're misinterpreting those sentences).

So really, people are railing against a strawman, constructed by Ebert because it fulfills some pre-formed opinions about Literature and Education.
posted by muddgirl at 12:24 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Plus, how does this affect you at all? Does it mean you can no longer read and enjoy Fitzgerald because somewhere someone is reading a simpler version that may help them to later read the real thing?

It doesn't affect me in the least, because no matter how much it helped their syntax and vocab, I would never give my students a "simplified" version of Huckleberry Finn that was pro-slavery or a "simplified" version of a Glenn Beck column that said what a great guy Obama is.
posted by FelliniBlank at 12:25 PM on July 8, 2011


I mean, from this thread and the OP, I'd think that there's nothing important in The Great Gatsby save the last three paragraphs.
posted by muddgirl at 12:26 PM on July 8, 2011


Me: I'd like to see him try to teach a class of 10th-graders The Great Gatsby when 1/3 of the class are ELL . . .

Herodios: The plot line of Gatsby is not The Great Gatsby . . .

I didn't say teach the plot; I said teach the book. As you say, these are different things.
posted by tzikeh at 12:34 PM on July 8, 2011


Do you feel that, if you had read a really poorly-written condensed version of Moby Dick (say, one that basically got the main ideas of the story all wrong, portraying Ahab as a well-adjusted, wise and determined heroic martyr figure who dies tragically through no fault of his own in service to the greater good) that left you with a completely mistaken impression of what the book was about, do you think that might have been a deterrent to you reading it again when you were 21?

Well, you haven't read the whole reader. Noone here has. We can't tell from one excerpt whether the whole tone of the book has been butchered.
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 12:45 PM on July 8, 2011


It should not be any easier—just shorter. But a prose version of Fitzgerald/Shakespeare is not good enough for that.

Definitely not, but a new reader definitely benefits from a cut-down Shakespeare. The dirty little secret most Shakespeare enthusiasts won't tell you is that a lot of Shakespeare just doesn't work unless you're a sad bastard like me who knows what "swyve" means and that "hour" and "whore" used to be pronounced similarly.

The best thing anyone trying to introduce Shakespeare to a new audience can do is cut out most of the obscure mythological references and some of the tedious comic bits that don't work without three pages of footnotes and just leave the core of the story and the evocative language.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 12:47 PM on July 8, 2011


Do you feel that, if you had read a really poorly-written condensed version of Moby Dick (say, one that basically got the main ideas of the story all wrong, portraying Ahab as a well-adjusted, wise and determined heroic martyr figure who dies tragically through no fault of his own in service to the greater good) that left you with a completely mistaken impression of what the book was about

Maybe, but I didn't. And I really have no reason to think that these condensed versions, while abbreviating prose(and sometimes not all that well), necessarily change the substance of the characters and story.

And I've been skimming through this Macmillan Great Gatsby, and I don't think those final lines being quoted here really represent the portrayal of Gatsby that you seem to think it does.

page 44: Gatsby began to talk about the time when he had first met Daisy . He told me ab out the first time he had kissed her. That was when Gatsby's dream had begun. And he had spent his life trying to make that dream come true.

But no woman can be turned into a dream. I could see this, but Gatsby could not. He could see no reason why he and Daisy should not be happy forever.


Clumsy and on the nose, yes. Not inaccurate. The last page of the book comes a mere two pages before the paragraph detailing how no one comes to Gatsby's funeral. I'm pretty sure that no one reading this abridged book comes away with the belief that Gatsby really was a success. And if they did, fortunately, the discussion guide prompts the reader to think critically about the matter - "'Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn't he?' Nick Carraway ends his story of Gatsby with this question. What is your answer to Nick's question?"
posted by sawdustbear at 12:49 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, you haven't read the whole reader. Noone here has.

In theory somebody could have read it all by now. It's linked in the post after all.

But I suppose probably not.
posted by kmz at 12:49 PM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


For example, here's a bit from the previous chapter:
As we stood by the grave, I saw that Daisy hadn't sent a flower or a message.

After the funeral, the fat man said, 'I'm sorry I couldn't get to the house.

'That's all right,' I said. 'Nobody came to the house.'

The fat man stared. 'My God!' he said, 'and hundreds of people used to go there! What friends!'
I don't think that's half bad

It's quite ironic that "well-read" people are stating that the simplified book literally says "Gatsby was a great success, The End."

Here are some leading questions for advanced readers that I've made up:

(1) What was the dream that Gatsby nearly achieved?
(2) When Nick says, "We must follow our dream," is that a prescription or a description? In other words, does "must" imply that Nick thinks we should follow our dreams, or does it mean he thinks we will follow our dreams, because we have no other choice?
(3) When he ends with "Wasn't he?" is that rhetorical or is it meant to be a literal question? Remember that this book was intended for non-native speakers.
posted by muddgirl at 12:49 PM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Disclaimer: "swyve" never actually turns up in Shakespeare. I'm one of those people who gets drunk and recites Chaucer in the original Middle English pronunciation, though.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 12:49 PM on July 8, 2011


And it's probably also insulting to ESL readers to assume that they can't grasp the concept of Nick Carraway as an unreliable narrator. "Gatsby was a success in the end, wasn't he?" comes from Carraway, not a third person omniscient point of view.
posted by sawdustbear at 12:56 PM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


My takeaway from all this:

- Roger Ebert liked The Great Gatsby
- Roger Ebert didn't like the Macmillian Reader edition of The Great Gatsby
- Roger Ebert isn't learning english as a second language
- Roger Ebert isn't teaching english as a second language
- Roger Ebert isn't a publisher of resources for teaching english as a second language
posted by mazola at 1:03 PM on July 8, 2011


I would be pretty well stunned if MacMillan Readers were sold exclusively to adult ESL classes. If they were, they'd be labeled that way. They're not. They're sold as "Reader's Resources." I'm sure they're sold & applied in a number of contexts including standard language arts classes.
posted by furiousthought at 1:06 PM on July 8, 2011


They're basing this on the last couple sentences of a book they haven't read yet (and, I think, they're misinterpreting those sentences).

I read the "re-written" book -- I mean, it was only 30-some short pages of simplified English. If the closing passage was misinterpreted by all those criticizing it, then it was poorly written, even for simplified English. And Roger Ebert has nothing to do with my opinion on the matter, thank you very much.
posted by aught at 1:06 PM on July 8, 2011


I would be pretty well stunned if MacMillan Readers were sold exclusively to adult ESL classes. If they were, they'd be labeled that way. They're not. They're sold as "Reader's Resources." I'm sure they're sold & applied in a number of contexts including standard language arts classes.

Well they seem to be targeted at reluctant readers too.
posted by mazola at 1:11 PM on July 8, 2011


Well, you haven't read the whole reader. Noone here has. We can't tell from one excerpt whether the whole tone of the book has been butchered.

But I think most critics and serious fans of the book would agree that getting the final scenes and imagery right is crucially important to capturing the spirit of the whole. Look, is it really all that unreasonable for people who really like a work of art to be concerned that an inferior, derivative work like this might leave people with mistaken impressions about the source material? Maybe the concerns are misplaced in the end, but they aren't that incomprehensible or unreasonable. If you value the original Great Gatsby a lot, it's hard not to see a project like this as fraught with the potential to harm the legacy of the original.

As a disinterested or unsympathetic party, you might not feel that such concerns are unfounded or you might consider that the benefits of using condensed texts for ESL learning purposes outweigh any potential harm done to the reputation of the original text, but isn't it at least understandable and even reasonable that someone who holds the original text in such high regard would have these concerns?
posted by saulgoodman at 1:13 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


If the closing passage was misinterpreted by all those criticizing it, then it was poorly written

Or people taking clear words out of context, or adding a spin that isn't there.

For example, I think people are seeing the word "dream" and thinking that Gatsby's dream was to be rich and successful. But that wasn't his dream - both the original and the simplified book are very clear about what Gatsby's dream was.

If they were, they'd be labeled that way.
he Macmillan Readers provide a choice of enjoyable reading materials for learners of English.
It's on the second page
posted by muddgirl at 1:15 PM on July 8, 2011


And FWIW this sentence - "Macmillan Reader's Editions are geared to ESL students." - in the original post is misleading. That's a secondary distributor. Macmillan itself markets the book as:
Our international ELT list caters for every age and level from pre-primary through to adult learners. Our award-winning range of dictionaries is the flagship area of our reference publishing; the Macmillan Readers provide a vibrant range of graded literature texts; our unique English for Specific Purposes reveals our responsiveness to industry trends and needs; our exams publishing prepares students for all international and school exams; our business courses offer professionals a vast range of language and 'soft' business skills.
(just backing myself up here in case anyone points to the top of the page and goes "nuh uh!")
posted by furiousthought at 1:16 PM on July 8, 2011



Tzikeh, that was not a riposte to you. That was me accidently quoting another post along with yours and accidently leaving off the italics.

It was supposed to look like this:
I'd like to see him try to teach a class of 10th-graders The Great Gatsby. . .

When I was in 10th grade, they tried to teach me The Great Gatsby, with limited success. Fortunately, there was a movie out at the time to help. Everything I know about The Great Gatsby I learned at Harry Bailey's masters defence.

Thanks Dr. Lysander. That makes it all clear.
And I'd like to add my voice to the chorus asking for an edit function.
posted by Herodios at 1:19 PM on July 8, 2011


It's on the second page

Can you read English? Does that sentence say "ESL" anywhere? Who else might be learning English? Do you realize that "ESL" might be a subset of people that are learning English?
posted by furiousthought at 1:19 PM on July 8, 2011


The dirty little secret most Shakespeare enthusiasts won't tell you is that a lot of Shakespeare just doesn't work unless you're a sad bastard like me who knows what "swyve" means and that "hour" and "whore" used to be pronounced similarly.

Only for a ridiculous definition of "works" that means "every member of the audience catches every single joke and reference."

Five-year-old kids don't get all the jokes and references in Pixar's Cars, but they still love it.
posted by straight at 1:24 PM on July 8, 2011


Can you read English?

Ummm... popcorn?
>Our international ELT list caters for every age and level from pre-primary through to adult learners.
>

ELT is a teacher-centric term for ESL programs.
ELT (English language teaching) is a widely-used teacher-centred term, as in the English language teaching divisions of large publishing houses, ELT training, etc. The abbreviations TESL (teaching English as a second language), TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) and TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) are also used.
MacMillan does specifically market to non-English-native communities.
posted by muddgirl at 1:26 PM on July 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


Our international ELT list caters for every age and level from pre-primary through to adult learners.

Also note the use of 'international' to describe ELT.
posted by mazola at 1:34 PM on July 8, 2011


Under similar circumstances, I once found a box of books containing Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales From Shakespeare (1807).

Many of Shakespeare's plots are re-tellings of older stories. Many such stories (King Arthur, Robin Hood, Cupid & Psyche, Romeo & Juliet) have a life of their own apart from any particular writer's telling of the story.

I don't think The Great Gatsby is really one of those stories. It's greatness is almost entirely in Fitzgerald's telling. If a writer disagrees and wants to do her own version of "the Gatsby story" she should give it a new name ("West Side Gatsby") to make it clear it's a re-telling. Passing this off as Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby just seems like false advertising.
posted by straight at 1:51 PM on July 8, 2011


When I was little, I read a bunch of abridged, simplified Illustrated Classic Editions my parents had brought home in a small stack, along with some Reader's Digest Condensed Books my aunt sent over in a box after cleaning out her cupboards. It must have been at least two years before I asked my mother what the little "complete and unabridged" note on some of my other books meant, and before the slow, terrible dawning of the realisation that I had wasted thousands of pages of my precious young life (I was seven or eight by then) on fake, artless, hopelessly diluted rewritings of proper books. All the books I read in those editions feel sort of ruined for me, though I suppose that's silly. I still think things like that are a complete waste of almost all English-speaking children's time, and that there are a million more interesting and appropriate things to read for children who need to learn how to read or get an introduction to classic literature. Anything is better than basically asking them to read two books, at least one of which is bound to suck as art of any kind, in order to have read just one.

On the other hand, I don't think I understand the situation of children and adults who have moved to an English-speaking country without knowing English and who need to acquire practical skills right away well enough to say whether these readers are appropriate for them. A Gatsby like the one in this post strikes me as desperate measures, but if this method really works better than anything less aesthetically appalling would (I'm not convinced either way), then it's worth it.

As for people whose need for English is less pressing, those who live in their own countries and learn English in classrooms, this method doesn't seem good for them to me. (Personally I'd much rather attempt the Finnish Twilight [or a professional translation of the English one into Finnish, though I'm sure I could at least get Harry Potter instead] than a rubbish, simplified version of just about anything else.) I'm not an ESL teacher, but I've learned languages in classroom and immersion settings, taught English to French elementary and high school students as an assistant and watched how real teachers do it, and taken classes on language learning and teaching for my linguistics BA. And I do agree with a lot of the comments here that the challenges posed to foreign-language learners really need to be surmountable. Yes, it's counterproductive for students to attempt a text that's well above their level and for which they need to consult a dictionary about every other word.

But in a class that is partly about teaching the appreciation of a language, the act of meeting those challenges should (and can) feel like a meaningful interaction with the language as it exists in the real world - should feel like a slow but exhilarating conquest of the language's landscape. I think students of whatever age should be assigned original versions of novels (or short stories or whatever) at their level in the foreign language, or the class shouldn't attempt literature at all. There are other good things to read and there are certainly other ways to learn languages apart from lots of reading. In any case, if the idea is for students to get familiar with a foreign text's plot and ideas, it seems better to me for them to move up from having read and discussed a translation of it into their own language than to have wasted time on something awkward, inauthentic, and generally just worse that doesn't really exist outside of a classroom.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 2:07 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have read the MRE. What stands out for me is the absence of metaphor and I wonder if this is an intended feature of ESL editions. The beginning of Chapter 3 (cited by chalkbored above) lacks the simple simile of "moths". Why? And why lose the image at the end, boats against the current of the river of Time? This is one of the most famous passages in American literature, couldn't it be paraphrased at least? I don't see why students should even be interested in this book once it has been gutted of poetry.

Ebert's question: why not just write something new? There are some lame answers proposed in this discussion. For instance, it shouldn't be any more expensive to write new stuff, possibly with the same plot line. If you have to eschew metaphor, your narrative could sound like Icelandic saga and still have power. One person said that the ESL books are keyed to the originals being read by English-speaking students of the same age so that they can have a discussion. Maybe. Others have said that the ESL students will move on to the unedited work after they become language proficient. Maybe so. But what many folks seem to be saying is that they want to give this unsubstantial MRE the cachet of a classic. No.
posted by CCBC at 2:41 PM on July 8, 2011


I recently stumbled upon 'Goodfellas'* on The Accessibility Channel done in described audio for the visually impaired. The last segment of the film is manic and highly visual and the described video could not keep up with the pace/action nor do justice to the original.

So why do it?

----
*I really love this movie and hold it in high esteem
posted by mazola at 2:51 PM on July 8, 2011


I did read (cursorily) the full MacMillan version and compared it to the original. A few observations:

--Adult ESL students can certainly grasp an unreliable narrator. Unfortunately, nearly all the information needed to know that about Nick and to clue us in that he's the actual protagonist here is cut from the simplified version. So good luck with that. Most of Nick's awful behavior is retained.

--Also, in the original, Nick is only semi-unreliable by the end. (I just had a student who wrote a paper on this, so I'm less dumb about it than usual). Nick is still *studiously* silent about the fact that his own values and actions are as bad as if not worse than those of everybody else in the novel, but he *clearly* does not share Gatsby's optimistic delusions about the possibility of re-creating/improving the past or successfully reinventing himself, etc.

--The MacMillan version cuts pretty much the entire commentary on Ben Franklin's self-made man, the American character as one's own invention and re-invention and Fitzgerald's connection of all that to class and privilege and the idea of America.

--Speaking of which, I may have missed some stuff, but pretty much every nuance about class-related issues is gone. This is sort of like reading Austen's Persuasion with the first few chapters cut out.

I'm not saying Macmillan did it purposely, but this version omits, distorts, or soft-pedals every element of the book that critiques or contradicts superficial trite mainstream rah-rah myths about America. It's interesting that those incidentally happen to be the concepts they think might be too linguistically tough for international learners.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:02 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Two or three cars, it's awful funny that you mention Harry Potter. I work with a lady here in Japan who loooooves English (full disclosure: I teach English to middle schoolers in Japan. My coworkers are shocked by the fact that I have any training in either teaching English or speaking Japanese, as they aren't used to that). She's subscribed to Time magazine, and that's how she studies nowadays, and her English is incredible despite having spent less than a month of her life, total, in English-speaking countries. She's also a huge Harry Potter fan, and has been trying to read the books in their native English. She's been working on that for years now, despite their ostensibly being "children's books" to natives. It takes a lot of work to understand metaphor (especially in something as densely layered with relevant naming as the Harry Potter novels) in a foreign language, even if it's meant to be accessible to kids.

A lot of people here just don't understand what it's like to try to learn a foreign language, rather than just studying it, and to try to understand not just the words, but the meaning of a foreign-language text. I believe the cutoff for merely not losing your mind due to frustration is somewhere around 80% comprehension of just the words. Like, that's where you start to be able to understand words from context. You have to read below your level for long things, just in order to keep your brain from overheating and leave space in your head for actually putting the words and sentences together. At the same time, it's also good to have at least a little bit of cultural literacy in addition to raw linguistic literacy, and if you're not able to read something that was — let's face it — meant for educated, native-speaking adults, what harm is there in making something a little simpler also available? The original novel isn't going anywhere, and it's pretty hard to not notice that you're working with a simplified reader. Anyone sufficiently motivated to read a novel about deliberately unsympathetic people and the crushing reality of the American Dream can seek it out later on, once they've spent a large number more years studying the living hell out of the language and cultural context required to understand the novel. Not too many folks are in the habit of reading that novel for fun as native speakers who grew up in a culture that prepares them to understand it; if a nonnative speaker wants to read it, it's made that much harder for them.

Everyone seems stuck on that ending, too. It's a little heavy-handed, and it has to adapt one of the Most Beautiful Uses of Language, Ever, Ever, but given that it's meant to be a biased character's narration, and the use of the "wasn't he?" at the end, it's not too shabby as a way of expressing a degree of irony that's accessible to a nonnative speaker. Living your life in a foreign language means living a life of primary colors and bold, simple outlines, and having something like this to enable people trying to learn a language to feel like they've been able to do something right, to enable them to not focus, for a change, on everything they don't understand and get wrong is a wonderful change of pace that helps to prevent discouraged giving up.

I could go on and on, like how in my high school German classes, the most ambitious text we tackled was probably "Die Loreley," and even that was for scarcely more than its literal meanings. We didn't even try to tackle metaphor or anything like that, and this was after four years of constant study of a language that's pretty darned close to English (given that, uh, English came from German, more or less). The long and short of it, though, is that, given that the original isn't going anywhere, much like with the "tilt-shift Van Gogh" thread, you'd think that people would agree that the worst thing that could result from this is that you simply have to ignore it, because it is not meant for you.
posted by DoctorFedora at 3:16 PM on July 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


OolooKitty writes "I can't imagine Fitzgerald would have been pleased about this. I agree with like_neon; if you're going to do this, do it to Dan Brown, not to one of the great prose stylists of the twentieth century."

Well if copyright holders hadn't conspired to rape the public domain this would be a possibility. (Well not Dan Brown but works a little bit older). However because the only works in the public are 90+ years old it is only classics from that period that are going to remain relevant.

dobbs writes "Fuck all y'all. Fitzgerald didn't write Gatsby so that they could learn english or to make it easier for you to teach it. It's irrelevant that there aren't level-appropriate materials--create them!--don't fuck up someone else's labour.

"I can't believe the bloated sense of entitlement being exhibited."


It's not entitlement, it is the entire point of the public domain. You're making it sound like the authors of this book hunted down and destroyed every other copy of the work.
posted by Mitheral at 3:58 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


And dobbs, Fitzgerald is dead. The book? It's not some holy text. If it helps people to learn the language, I'm sorry if it offends you, but it's doing some good. Maybe some of them will even read the original and realize just how right you are.

Except that it IS a holy text to many people, who respect the integrity of works of art, and respect the work of creative people. Someone took the time to put those words in that order, to tell that story. He named it, and it became famous. It is a singular thing that exists on its own, as itself.

It is taking Michelangelo's "The Last Supper", cutting and pasting the apostles onto an Olive Garden placemat, ignoring Christ because 13 is too complicated and then saying "Hey look, it's Michelangelo's The last Supper! Can you count how many apostles there are?"

If you want to change it, at least say that's what you are doing somewhere on the cover.
posted by gjc at 4:09 PM on July 8, 2011


It's not entitlement, it is the entire point of the public domain. You're making it sound like the authors of this book hunted down and destroyed every other copy of the work.

Sure it is. You feel entitled to completely change a work of art to suit your desires. The public domain exists so that works of art can be *enjoyed* by future generations, not abused by it.
posted by gjc at 4:12 PM on July 8, 2011


It is taking Michelangelo's "The Last Supper"

I guess you mean Leonardo's, but even so, wasn't he adapting it from a written work that some people hold in fairly high esteem? And didn't someone rewrite Mark's gospel that was written for a Jewish audience and rewrite it for Gentiles?
posted by empath at 4:13 PM on July 8, 2011


The public domain exists so that works of art can be *enjoyed* by future generations, not abused by it.

Works of art aren't people, and they don't have rights, nor should they.
posted by empath at 4:15 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Crap. Got the name wrong. Sorry, history!

Anyway, to the point: he didn't name the work of art "The Holy Bible".
posted by gjc at 4:15 PM on July 8, 2011


Works of art aren't people, and they don't have rights, nor should they.

If you don't believe that works of art deserve to be preserved and protected, then this argument is futile. Maybe the work itself, being inanimate, doesn't have rights. But certainly future people deserve to have the artwork maintained in its original state, and more importantly, not have shitty approximations fobbed off as the genuine article.

That book is NOT "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and should not be labeled as such.
posted by gjc at 4:20 PM on July 8, 2011


But certainly future people deserve to have the artwork maintained in its original state, and more importantly, not have shitty approximations fobbed off as the genuine article.

That book is NOT "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and should not be labeled as such.


Well, mission accomplished then, because nobody who this is marketed to is under any illusions that it is.
posted by empath at 4:27 PM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


they are preparing for academic scholarship in English. Reading simplified versions of the sorts of texts that they will be reading in their full form later is more helpful than reading comic books or non-literary blockbusters.

I had to take the TOEFL (wait no, I think it was the IELTS in my case) to prepare for academic scholarship in English too, and by then, everyone at my level had no trouble reading selected literary works in full. Comics and non-literary stuff was at beginner's levels. You don't go from beginner to TOEFL and academic-level English in a month, not even in a year. (Unless you only do that, I guess, but everyone I know who did it was studying in a school doing other subjects too).

I guess it's a matter of different views about learning, and about works of literature. In general, I can't help feeling that they should not be abridged, for any reason (just like movies should not be edited! imagine if there were simplified version of classic movies, what would you get out of it?), including being reduced to tools strictly for language practice, because I do think that would detract from the learning experience, and enjoyment, and understanding of the language and culture -- what two or three cars said above about having a "meaningful interaction with the language as it exists in the real world", as well as facing challenges appropriate to the level you're learning.

Now, if someone is reading these Macmillan editions and finding them useful, fair enough, I have no personal objection to them doing it! That's not the point, that doesn't affect me personally at all, of course. What I find objectionable is the publisher's treatment of the text, the concept, and the teaching method that would resort to this.

It's up to teachers to make sensible choices and give students something that's enjoyable to read at their level, and advance appropriately. A full novel is for more advanced learners. Shorter stories can be enjoyed at intermediate level already.

If you need to learn the language quickly for practical daily use, say as an immigrant, then I don't see why you would need to venture into literature at all, not yet, so I don't see how you'd need a simplified version of literary texts either.

If on the other hand you do want to get to know the literature of a language but don't have the language proficiency, well, that's what translations are for.

(Incidentally -- no less than five new translations of The Great Gatsby have been recently published in Italian, yes, five! I was reading about it recently. Some of the existing translations suffered from being written in an outdated style. My mother doesn't speak a word of English and she read a lot of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Melville, a lot of American and Russian literature, hers were editions from the 50s or 60s and I remember trying to read them as a teenager and giving up. So yay for new, updated translations.)
posted by bitteschoen at 4:31 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you want to change it, at least say that's what you are doing somewhere on the cover.

These books, when they are on shelves, are located in the ELT section. They are placed alongside dozens, hundreds of other books, each one color/number coded to signify the level of reader they are aimed at. They are, in my experience, placed first by publisher (Macmillan here, Oxford there), then ranked by difficulty, then in each section, just sort of thrown together. The text itself, including the introduction of the book, repeatedly says that the books are for English langauge learners, which is just another way of saying ESL/EFL students. You wouldn't likely give one of these to a native speaker unless you wanted to bore them. There's no stealth whatsoever. The book is not marketed as the real thing, and the publisher and bookseller are quite up front about what, exactly, the book is intended for.

It's training wheels, folks. It's to help language learners get up on the bike for a little while and experience actually comprehending the language they've been slogging through all these years/months. Are you telling me that you think kids shouldn't be allowed to use training wheels simply because it 'takes away from the experience'? Or, say, another analogy (which ESL students usually have trouble with, btw) these books are Easy-Bake Ovens. You're not going to make a quiche, but you might get interested in cooking enough to some day figure it out for yourself. In the meantime, cookies! --> In the meantime, 'holy shit, I managed to read a book in a foreign language!'

In short, if you're reading MeFi, these books really, really aren't meant for you.* Your beloved text is still there, if you'd like to hug and fondle it again.


*If they were at some time in the past, and you've mastered English to the point where you are reading this, and you are a regular contributing member, I am literally in awe of the work and effort you put in to getting to this point (and good lord, I don't mean to sound patronizing) because the work involved must have been staggering.

Unless, of course, language learning comes naturally to you, in which case I sputter with incompetent low-level Japanese language jealousy in your general direction.

posted by Ghidorah at 5:02 PM on July 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


Sorry, bitteschoen; I definitely didn't mean to give the impression that people were reading this sort of simplified version, and then a month later being ready for academic English. o_0 I said that it was a process and progression. (And I also said that students at proficiency level are reading full texts). So I'm a little confused by the response.

It's up to teachers to make sensible choices and give students something that's enjoyable to read at their level


I've had one-on-one students who just wanted to learn, not necessarily to pass a certain test, and I've used all sorts of different texts with them based on their interests and purposes, and wouldn't choose a book like this... but when I was teaching in a school, it certainly wasn't up to me to choose the course material (and I wasn't qualified to, either). I could introduce my own things, but the basic curriculum was a big deal and a lot of effort was spent selecting the elements. This was a private school, and students passing their tests was good for business. Failing students, not so much.
posted by taz at 5:08 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: Sorry, history!
posted by Eideteker at 5:37 PM on July 8, 2011


Shut the fuck up, Roger.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:54 PM on July 8, 2011


gjc writes "The public domain exists so that works of art can be *enjoyed* by future generations, not abused by it."

No that is why copyright exists. The public domain is explicitly there to be folded, spindled and mutilated however anyone wishes.
posted by Mitheral at 6:57 PM on July 8, 2011


it was the red light, it was.
posted by clavdivs at 7:28 PM on July 8, 2011


It seems worth noting that the people most strongly defending this all seem to have experience in studying and/or teaching foreign languages. It's a specialized market item being complained about by the mass market that it isn't for. I honestly cannot understand what is so difficult about this concept.

It's nice to see some people here getting the point of them though.

And seriously, comparing this novel to the bible? You'd best recall that that is a book that's been translated a minimum of twice to get to your native language, and was translated into it for the first time from Latin to HELP PEOPLE WHO COULD NOT BE BOTHERED TO LEARN LATIN TO FLUENCY.

Maybe it's a better comparison than I'd thought, actually.
posted by DoctorFedora at 8:12 PM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


And much like when Ebert talks about video games, it's agonizing to see someone who's smart about so many things talk about something he's dumb about.
posted by DoctorFedora at 8:13 PM on July 8, 2011


Ebert: as irrelevant as ever.
posted by stp123 at 9:15 PM on July 8, 2011


So, have they done James Joyce yet?

So, we are back where we started on the river. Finnegan decides he will finally rest in peace and declines the generous offer of whiskey by the mourners. The mourners were sad but grateful he shared a final moment with his loved ones, even if they were a little clumsy with their drinks. It was a sad day, but Finnegan would be remembered fondly by his friends and family. That's all anyone can ask for, isn't it?
posted by krinklyfig at 11:17 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Actually I noticed that in the comments, here and on Ebert's blog, there's more than one person with experience of learning or teaching English as a foreign language who had the same dislike for this Gatsby-lite kind of books, so I don't think pointing out that "but this is for foreign students" is enough of a strong defense in itself, but ah well. I guess it's all matter of preferences on how to teach or learn a language. I also noticed an employee from Macmillan US chimed to clarify these editions are by Macmillan UK, "don't worry, they butcher their own too", heh...
posted by bitteschoen at 11:28 PM on July 8, 2011


It seems worth noting that the people most strongly defending this all seem to have experience in studying and/or teaching foreign languages.

Not really. I rather get the feeling that there's a strong split into an ESL camp, like you and Ghidorah, which defends this, and an EFL camp, like Meatbomb, bitteschoen and me, which abhors it. It's interesting, and it perhaps shines a light on the specific constraints of teaching the language to recent immigrants.
posted by Skeptic at 2:01 AM on July 9, 2011


I dunno, given that Ghidorah and I both teach EFL as well.
posted by DoctorFedora at 3:10 AM on July 9, 2011


Although 95% of my experience is in EFL, my critique of this stuff seems even stronger when teaching ESL in a TLC... I mean, there is so much English out there for the taking, why use some fake thing?
posted by Meatbomb at 3:43 AM on July 9, 2011


Whoops sorry I just realised I was using "ESL" all the time when I meant "EFL" - I had to look them up to realise there was a difference.

(Just in case others found it as confusing as I did: ESL stands for English as a Second Language. EFL stands for English as a Foreign Language. ESL is used when people learn English in an English speaking country. EFL is used when people learn English in a non-English speaking country. Is this important? Not very, if you are a student. But there are some important technical considerations for teachers.)

Now, that TLC, agh... The Learning Channel? Tender Loving Care? Tastes Like Chicken? Transportation for Livable Communities? Transgender Liberation and Care? damn you native speakers and all your infinite list of acronyms ;)
posted by bitteschoen at 4:47 AM on July 9, 2011


As an American, if I were teaching a class of international or immigrant students, I would have a giant ethical problem giving them an American novel famous for being critical of American culture and values in a "just for foreigners!" edition that removes/distorts all the parts about how America sucks.

Students would be well within their rights to question my motives and credibility and wonder whether I was there to help them improve their English or brainwash them.

If a school I worked at forced me to use this text, I'd at least try to use a little class time to summarize the deleted content and discuss whether they think it's OK to remove it. If all the students had the same first language, I'd try to provide them with the missing sections in translation.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:39 AM on July 9, 2011


I don't think defenders are trying to suggest that everyone should like it or that everyone who teaches ESL should use it. People have asked why should such a book exist and I think people have provided many reasons.

I think the arguments of 'This is obscene!'; 'It shouldn't exist!'; and 'no one should use it!' are unreasonable and extreme.
posted by mazola at 7:17 AM on July 9, 2011


So, have they done James Joyce yet?

So, we are back where we started on the river. Finnegan decides he will finally rest in peace and declines the generous offer of whiskey by the mourners. The mourners were sad but grateful he shared a final moment with his loved ones, even if they were a little clumsy with their drinks. It was a sad day, but Finnegan would be remembered fondly by his friends and family. That's all anyone can ask for, isn't it?


But they changed Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk to 'Boom!'

It's OBSCENE!

(btw, I would totally read that graded reader)
posted by mazola at 7:36 AM on July 9, 2011


target langauge community
posted by Meatbomb at 7:39 AM on July 9, 2011


Ah! Thanks!
posted by bitteschoen at 11:15 PM on July 9, 2011


target langauge community

from space!
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:10 AM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's the only way to be sure.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:04 PM on July 10, 2011


Does anyone wanna try "simplifying" Infinite Jest? I have a feeling if that was the book in question this community's response would be a little different.
posted by MattMangels at 7:31 PM on July 10, 2011


Honestly this sounds like a way to sell more books, even if it's just badly rewritten ones. And the thing is, if the class you're teaching isn't ready for something at the level of Gatsby - don't give them a rewritten book, find content that's better suited. It's not that I think the rewrite into something easier is horrifying - it's that I think it's not good writing, not representative of the original (from the excerpts anyway), and in that case, why bother? Seriously, if Cliff Notes can do it better, then it's better to switch up your texts.

Plus there are tons of books out of copyright that can be downloaded and xeroxed for free - and it doesn't hurt the students to have something handed out rather than having to buy yet another textbook. Or just use a single chapter of a larger work. Or perhaps a magazine article - there are plenty to choose from, and you'll definitely be able to find appropriately adult content. That's the type of thing that was used in my French classes in high school and college - I'd think it work just as well with English.

The worst thing would be if the schools were pushing teachers to use these books without the option of refusing. There's a history of why we think bowdlerization is a bad thing.

(Yes, former teacher here, and both my parents and grandparents were teachers as well. Sadly all generations have had annoyances with texts.)
posted by batgrlHG at 8:03 PM on July 12, 2011


don't give them a rewritten book, find content that's better suited

batgrlHG, if you read through the comments, the reason these graded readers exist is that, for the most part, there isn't suitable content out there. An adult ESL student isn't going gain anything from The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but at the same time, most Y.A. (even if they're willing to read it) will sail over their heads with all of the cultural references and native level English. These books are specifically written for this *very small* target audience, to suit their needs.

There are generic books that have been written for these students, but for the most part, they're pretty boring, and they have no name-recognition. Gatsby does, and the student who reads it is not under any illusions that they are reading the real thing. Their reasons for reading it are not the same as yours. You, and many others here, are defending the idea of reading Gatsby as an appreciation of art. These students are reading Gatsby as a measure of their studies, and to gauge their level of comprehension. Different goal, different tools.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:36 PM on July 12, 2011


Hey that Caterpillar is actually hiding a very indepth metaphor about world economics and....yeah, no. Heh.
And nope, I'm not thinking of this as an appreciation thing - I'm in agreement with you, I think. After all, students do have the rest of their lives to read the "classics" (and what's considered a classic varies from person to person) if they want to, and textbooks were rarely classics. (My ESL students got a textbook, a dull one.) People have been using Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Spencer rewritten into "modern language" in classes for ages - but usually as a study aid for those who find the language difficult - and those are English speakers. I happen to have enjoyed the originals - but then not everyone does. It's why not everyone lines up around the block to become English majors. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, says the English major.)

I've taught college age ESL mixed in with my other students - and unfortunately they had to use the same textbook as the rest of the class. In it were all sorts of examples of incorrect English - grammar problems, needlessly confusing definitions, etc. I wish I could have chosen a better one for all my students. But in the case of these rewritten books - if the sample indicates the writing style and content of the series I do find it hard to believe that there's nothing else available that's better. Maybe it's just because I've had plenty of experience with the textbook industry, but I can't help but feel that part of the story here is the publishers finding a target audience and then marketing a set of books like crazy, without bothering about content - it's a niche to fill and they're gonna sell the whole set. But that's my bias speaking.

Perhaps obtaining an alternative text when teaching ESL in another country is harder - I only know about the ESL classes at places I've worked. At one of the colleges where I taught a class used the Wall Street Journal and business magazines in class - because they were specifically focused on adult content and older students, and wanted students to be prepared to deal with that form of language. (WSJ center column personal interest story can have a heck of a lot of jargony vocab that I think would be weird or problematic too. I specifically remember an article title: "Dairy Queen Involved in Time Zone Hooha" about daylight savings time - I have no idea how you'd translate hooha.)

If I was given the Gatsby-rewrite to teach with and told it was a "must use" (because that happens, and you just have to sigh and move on) - then I'd make sure that I handed out at least one xeroxed chapter of the actual text. Just to give them an idea of what the difference was. And I'd think that the taste of that one chapter or sample would be enough to interest the kids who wanted to focus on the literature to come back to it later.
posted by batgrlHG at 9:46 PM on July 13, 2011


Aside: It is totally the fault of this thread (for reminding me) and my last French teacher that I just downloaded a copy of Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal. That teacher gave the class excerpts of the poems to translate that stuck with me til today, and then I remembered I never did go back and read the whole thing. I thought this was a good quote on this Fleurs du mal website

"I once read a lot of Baudelaire + my Angel kid has read every translation -- apparently, if you don't know french (I do) you have to read all the translations to get a good idea." — Allen Ginsberg

So you see, even if you read a classic, if it's a translation of a classic? - you might want to go back and reread it anyway, even if you can't speak the original language. In a new translation it might be a totally different book to you this time.

posted by batgrlHG at 9:58 PM on July 13, 2011


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