Input, Output, and Literature

Timeline_0978_WordStar_2Generations pass so quickly these days, as my colleague William Germano noted, that the responsibility to record certain changes falls rather suddenly on those of us about to pass away. I am referring here, not to sports or to actual mortality, but to the modes of writing inflected by the advent and wide adoption of the personal computer.

I’ve just finished Matthew Kirschenbaum’s eye-opening Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, and it’s sent me down memory lane. I’m older than Kirschenbaum. I did not, like him, have to submit typed papers in middle school, because middle school, for me, was junior high, and not everyone had a typewriter at home, much less the Apple IIe that Kirschenbaum’s father bought. At the other end of the spectrum, I realized this past year that I am now teaching students who, unlike my own sons, have never known a world without laptops.

Kirschenbaum does not quite tackle the whole subject of word processing’s effect on literature. He does walk us through the shifts in both technology and thinking that led up to the process now creating this blog post. He reminds us that the early word processors — the MT/ST that supercharged the IBM Selectric, the onset of Wordstar in the early 1980s, the Tandys and Lexitrons and Kaypros that went down as cannon fodder in the war to claim hegemony over text production — were meant to serve mostly nonliterary functions. What we call a typist, after all, was a type writer, just as a person who crunched numbers was a computer. But even if, as Kirschenbaum puts it, “approaching word processing as a specifically literary subject therefore means acknowledging that we seek to concern ourselves with a statistically exceptional form of writing that has accounted for only a narrow segment of the historical printing and publishing industry,” I found the book enlarged my sense of what had occurred during the course of my adult literary career. He points out the profound difference between writing as imprinting letters onto an impressionable surface and writing as input and output of symbols “that are themselves numeric”; or, as one writer put it, “writing with light.”

Moreover, Kirschenbaum’s history brought back my own desperate moments along the learning curve. The meltdowns I experienced on losing whole files whose backups disks were corrupted, or on watching my Apple screen literally melt before my eyes one hot July day, taking my novel with it, find ample echoes in the narratives of the writers he interviews. Isaac Asimov, Amy Tan, John Updike, Ralph Ellison, Michael Chabon, Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen King, Anne Rice all tell their stories of exultation and despondency at the “hands” of evolving technology. By Kirschenbaum’s lights, I was a relatively early adopter, buying my first IBM PC in 1984. I lived then in the Hudson Valley, and my IBM-employed neighbor offered to come by and set up the machine for me. By the time he had installed all the groovy new programs that weren’t available on the disks in the box, it was midnight. By 3:00 a.m., understanding nothing about my souped-up machine, I was lying on the floor bawling. Two weeks later, I was walking on air.

I also spent part of the 1980s involved in the early stages of desktop publishing, which Kirschenbaum also addresses, and his narration of the search for Wysiwyg output (What You See Is What You Get) flooded me with memories of that quest for the magic link between the act of writing and the experience of reading. As he points out, along the way, writers have taken on tasks that were previously assigned to (mostly female) others — not just typing, but proofreading, formatting, indexing, and so on.

But Kirschenbaum deliberately stays away from the question of how using computers to write has affected the writing itself. I remember being reluctant, as were several of Kirschenbaum’s interlocutors, to convert from the typewriter to the computer. My fear was that the very ease of revision would rob my fingers of their revising role. That is, I had found in the course of writing my first novel that the very retyping of a marked-up page produced changes that weren’t in the handwritten markup — that as my fingers pressed the keys, new syntax, new phrases, new elisions called for notice. Clearly I could not read my way to revision; I had to type my way there. And if this newfangled device, engaging my lazier nature, saved me the trouble of all that retyping, would it not close the door on those finger-driven revisions?

Kirschenbaum does talk about revision, though mostly in glowing terms, as in the effect of a larger or wide screen on the writer’s ability “to conceive of [the text] as a whole, a gestalt.” (I find that nothing less than a stack of hard copy gives me that gestalt, which is why I beg my students to print out their work, but this is not a book on pedagogy.)  He also eschews the kind of debate that assigns style or book length to the prevalence of computers. He writes, for instance, “It would take a lot of convincing for me to believe that [George R.R.] Martin’s sentence structures … are tied in any significant degree to the specifics of WordStar’s keyboard commands.”

For George R.R. Martin, I suspect Kirschenbaum is right. Martin was born in 1948 and had been writing professionally for more than a decade before he began using a computer. The same holds true for most of the writers Kirschenbaum interviews. We are looking, here, at the generation that took to word processing consciously, often skeptically, and with an eye toward finding freedom from the burdens of handling reams of paper, of writers’ cramp, of revision fatigue, of handwritten or Wite-Out corrections. We are not looking at young writers, whose idea of what makes a written text “perfect” (one of Kirschenbaum’s chapter titles) leans heavily on spell- and grammar-checkers and the default settings of Microsoft Word. Kirschenbaum does address the conventional wisdom that everything is “overwritten” nowadays, in both senses of that term, and he engages the vexed question of writers’ legacies, e.g., should we be storing floppy disks in contemporary writers’ archives, or fetishing their computers as we do Hemingway’s typewriter? But whether and how the writing of novelists and poets who grew up with computers will differ from the writing of those who switched midstream and brought old habits with them is not Kirschenbaum’s subject. Perhaps no answer will emerge until the lens of history has had time to fix its focus on our era as a whole. Much has yet to change in the interplay of literary creativity and technology, and word processing may prove to be the least of it.

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