Such synoptic neutrality, though admirable, doesn't help us much. Lay readers can't and won't struggle through page after page of variants. It is tempting to declare that original versions are always preferable, even though most editorial theorists dismiss such views as cheap romanticism -- the cult of spontaneity and all that. In a 1984 book called ''Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons,'' Hershel Parker, the great Melville scholar, explains why original versions often do seem so superior. Parker advances a theory of the creative process borrowed from the philosopher John Dewey, who believed that meaning is built into a text as it is composed, step by step. Meaning is a function of all the choices made and problems solved in the act of creation, not of prior intentions or after-the-fact conclusions. Great artists, Dewey said, ''learn by their work as they proceed, to see and feel what had not been part of their original plan and purpose.''
Emily Dickinson, in a poem quoted by Oates in her afterword, called inspiration ''the White Heat.'' For Parker this is an almost technical description of how literature is forged. Writers do what they can while the metal is hot, and should not attempt patch-up jobs after it has cooled. The virtue of this position is not just that it preserves a literary work's documentary value -- Oates's unrevised novel, with its straightforward social realism, seems more of its time than the revamped one -- but that it keeps writers focused on the future, not chewing over the past.
The problem with Parker's position, of course, is that it's much too reasonable. How do we know that some writer's neurotic need to rewrite isn't just an extension of his need to create? And who would want to deprive literature of its more memorable second thoughts -- James transforming Isabel into an effete creature not unlike himself, or Auden renouncing his own poetry? Writers revise; that's what they do. In the interest of history, however, publishers like Modern Library shouldn't issue a radically altered text unless they're also willing to bring the original back into print. [end of quotation from Shulevitz]