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It Looks Like You’re Writing a Novel

Tim Groenland

Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, by Matthew G Kirschenbaum, Belknap/Harvard, 368 pp, ISBN 978-0674417076

In 1986 Jacques Derrida traded his typewriter for a personal computer, which he referred to thereafter as le petit Mac. He was intrigued by the different opportunities and demands presented by the machine, and before long he found himself unable to do without it. Derrida was soon surprised by the fact that his word processing software would give him a warning when his paragraphs were becoming too long:

Like an order coming from I know not whom, from the depths of what time or what abyss, this slightly threatening warning would appear on the screen, and I decided to come quietly to the end of this long sequence ... so submitting the fifty-nine long sentences to an arbitrary rule made by a program I hadn’t chosen: to a slightly idiotic destiny. 

The “invisible and faceless” computer became, for Derrida, a “hallucination of an interlocutor” challenging his thinking, accepting his words only provisionally, both there and not-there: “like a hidden god who’s half-asleep, clever at hiding himself even when right opposite you”.

For anyone who has ever taken a course in literary theory, there is much to enjoy in this anecdote. A reader who has spent some time parsing Derrida’s radically opaque and subtle meditations on language and the nature of truth might experience a twinge of sympathy with the helpful software programme ‑ perhaps, even, a certain admiration at the blithe audacity of its suggestion. (Having spent several hours last week attempting to render Derrida comprehensible to undergraduates, I allow myself to wonder: might things have been made a little easier for all of us in the literary-critical game if the master had been able to avail himself of this kind of computer-generated editorial advice just a few decades earlier?)

We might also note the typically scrupulous, self-questioning consideration that Derrida gives to the program’s advice, thoughtfully weighing and then reluctantly accepting it, ultimately continuing his work with a renewed awareness of the ethical tangle of communication and the necessarily arbitrary and imperfect nature of all expression. Most intriguingly of all perhaps, we see how even an author of the stature of Derrida (whose books had by this time revolutionised humanities classrooms throughout the Western world) found himself adapting his writing habits in response to the wave of personal computing hitting authors’ desks during the 1980s.

Track Changes concerns itself with the effects upon writers (and writing) as the new technology made its way into their living rooms and their working processes. It tells a fragmented and often technically dense story in admirably clear style: Kirschenbaum, a professor of English at the University of Maryland, doesn’t skimp on the particulars (the reader will occasionally find detailed notes on obscure computer brand names and technical specifications) but these are threaded through vivid and often entertaining narratives of individual encounters between writer and software.

The book contains a cornucopia of literary-technological trivia to place alongside the Derrida anecdote. Did you know, for example, that Hugh Kenner, noted Modernist scholar, once published a user’s guide to the Zenith Z-1000 computer? Or that Douglas Adams, author of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, bought the first Apple Macintosh in the UK in 1984 (or that Stephen Fry was in the queue behind him)? Or that George RR Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series upon which Game of Thrones is based, does all of his writing on a DOS-era computer through an antique program called WordStar? (He likes the lack of distraction, apparently; Jonathan Franzen, self-styled nemesis of social media, who famously spoke in a 2010 interview of having sabotaged his laptop’s internet capability in order to enable purity of workflow, would surely approve.)

Kirschenbaum’s aim here is, as he puts it, “to narrate and describe in material and historical terms how computers, specifically word processing, became integral to literary authorship and literary writing”. The subject is one that seems so obvious, given how long computers have been with us, that it is surprising to find it hasn’t been explicitly dealt with before. The delay might owe something to the fact that the end product of writing labour still tends (at least when it reaches us in the form of a book) to look much the same as it did a hundred years ago. The shift from typewriting and inscription to writing on personal computers thus seems in retrospect to be less seismic (and more inevitable) than it once appeared.

Kirschenbaum is good on the experiential and theoretical jump that confronted users of early computers, as the “new intermediary element” of the screen suddenly interposed itself “between the writer’s fingertips and the printed page”. The writer’s words suddenly became provisional, subject to immediate oblivion – as I write this review now I unthinkingly erase and replace words as I go along, fumbling towards a workable sentence – and the need for visible and physical erasures of mistakes disappeared. “Language,” as Kirschenbaum notes, “became pliable, malleable – in a word, writing became processed.”

One of the effects of reading this study is to experience a defamiliarising jolt at seeing the now taken-for-granted technology subjected to scholarly scrutiny. Kirschenbaum identifies 1981, which happens to be the year of my birth, as the tipping point for the entry of personal computing into the mainstream, and the connection brought home just how mundane and obvious a part of today’s human toolkit a word processor is. By the time I first typed an official document, Microsoft Word had already dispatched its main competitor ,WordPerfect, (in what were apparently known as the “word wars”) and the questions of which word processor to use and how to go about using it never presented themselves as serious ones. When I cut and paste a paragraph from one place to another, I don’t think to describe my action as moving “modular blocks of text” around; reading Track Changes, I‘m reminded of typing’s proximity to programming and of the code hiding behind the words on screen.

The writers of 1981 would have needed no such reminder. The book paints a vivid picture of these early adopters, whose oversized and expensive gadgetry obliged them to become tinkerers and amateur programmers, setting up complex jerry-rigged workarounds and even going so far (as Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club, did) as to found their own user support groups. Several of the most memorable details here refer to the sheer bulk and cost of the array of machines on the market. Science fiction writer Samuel R Delany compared the size of his investment in a Kaypro II to the cost of his daughter’s private school tuition; spy novelist Len Deighton’s MT/ST had to be lifted in the window of his London house by a crane. Anne McCaffrey, an American-born fantasy writer who was writing bestselling dragon fiction long before Martin lay his hands upon an IBM, moved to Ireland in 1970 to avail of Charles Haughey’s tax exemption scheme for artists: when she bought a Kaypro II some years later, her neighbours were reportedly on record as fearing it would consume all of the electricity in Wicklow. Perhaps most deliciously of all, William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer – often cited as the most fully-realised fictional anticipation of modern cyberspace – was written on a typewriter because its author couldn’t afford a PC.

As the authorial examples given so far suggest, Kirschenbaum has chosen to focus his study primarily on American writers of prose fiction ‑ he acknowledges the bias, and notes that other histories are possible. For the Irish reader, the McCaffrey anecdote tantalises with the possibility of a parallel study on the influx of digital technologies onto these shores, and my own cursory bout of internet research suggests the existence of a comparable collection of stories tracking encounters between Irish writers and technology. Interviews with Anne Enright, for example, frequently mention the electric typewriter given to the author by her family for her twenty-first birthday; Eimear McBride made the move from longhand to an “ancient desktop Mac” for reasons of convenience. In 2012 Kevin Barry wrote a Guardian article about his practice of writing on a connected laptop in which he confessed to checking his email “at least once every five minutes” while writing and suggested that this might be fairly typical of the contemporary author’s habits.

Barry’s anxious self-deprecation raises larger questions about the effect of the change in writing tools upon on the writing itself. Is a novel written on a screen, with instant access not only to a suite of word processing tools but to an infinite digital landscape of information and distraction, qualitatively different to one written in longhand in a notebook? Does the “hidden god” opposite the author favour certain methods, techniques, or literary approaches?

Kirschenbaum’s speculations on questions like these are frustratingly – albeit justifiably –cautious, since general conclusions seem impossible to arrive at with any confidence. The evidence suggests that authors took to the word processor in vastly different ways and with enormously different degrees of enthusiasm. Gore Vidal warned in 1984 that the word processor would “erase” literature, and in the 1990s David Foster Wallace passionately defended his analogue methods, claiming that writing on a computer was “too easy” in the way it discouraged him from “transfiguring” his thoughts “through labor and care”. Salman Rushdie, on the other hand, eulogised the enhanced capacities for revision enabled by his MacPerforma, and Stanley Elkin was overjoyed at the way in which the search mode of the software on his Lexitron VT 1303 (with its capacity to facilitate instant return to important moments elsewhere in the text) enabled him to improve his plots.

One verifiably drastic impact of the word processor, at least from the point of view of the literary scholar, concerns the changing nature of authorial archives. “Some computers will be museum pieces,” Derrida claimed, and his prediction would be realised within a few short years as libraries began to adapt to the demands of storing born-digital works. In 2001 the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, for example, acquired the black Apple Mac Classic upon which Peter Carey had composed True History of the Kelly Gang. Visitors to Emory University in Atlanta, meanwhile, can access an emulation of the desktop of Rushdie’s aforementioned MacPerforma 5400/180 in order to get a flavour of the early computing environment in which the novelist worked. When I visited the David Foster Wallace archive at the University of Texas during my doctoral research, I read printouts from floppy disks (some of which had become corrupted, and all of which had already become obsolete during the time in which the author was working on what would turn out to be his final unfinished novel, The Pale King) alongside handwritten drafts, and notebooks.

These manifold, mixed-media remnants of the writing process testified to the existence in today’s scene of composition of what Kirschenbaum describes as a “complex writing environment, with texts originating in various media and migrating back and forth between them in the course of their revision”. The word processor, that is to say, has not replaced paper, but has instead taken its place in a complex network of compositional processes. At times, the story narrated in Track Changes is necessarily as fragmented as the environment it describes here. The sustained attention it pays to the social and material bases of writing, though, reveals a usually hidden network of contemporary writing practices and opens up new possibilities for thinking about the relationship between (word) process and product.


Tim Groenland teaches in the School of English in Trinity College, Dublin and in the School of English, Drama, and Film in University College Dublin. His research focuses on the role of editors in twentieth- and twenty-first century US fiction, particularly in the works of Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace.

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, was published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is also available to order online at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is Tim Groenland’s 2013 essay on Lolita, “Lost in the Funhouse”. Here is an extract:

The first months of Lolita’s early reception were in fact relatively quiet: the first spark of significant public attention was its selection as one of Graham Greene’s books of the year – despite it being available only in France – in the Christmas 1955 edition of The Sunday Times. Nabokov’s fears would soon prove to be well-founded, though: the editor of the Sunday Express expressed the view that “without doubt it is the filthiest book I have ever read” and a controversy was born. Attempts to publish the book in the anglophone market gathered pace, and the reaction among publishers was similarly polarised. Copies of the novel (many of which had, like early editions of Ulysses, been smuggled through customs in the bottom of suitcases) began to circulate among British and American editors and while many recognised its merits, the opinions of those who mattered tended to be unfavourable. Most agreed with Viking Press’s Simon Covici that anyone who took it on would risk a jail sentence.

When a publisher was eventually found, the promotional strategy for the novel revolved around the possibility of court action (not to mention Nabokov’s anxieties about a possible threat to his continued employment at Cornell). Jason Epstein of Doubleday proposed a carefully stage-managed publication process by which the novel would be gradually rendered respectable through critical approval and carefully selected extracts; the only way to avoid ruining its chances, he thought, was by surrounding the book “with academic praise and high critical authority, letting her peep out of the pages of the Anchor Review until eventually, little by little, the country gets used to her”.

The Review was a literary journal connected to Doubleday, and its 1957 issue printed a number of long excerpts along with an introductory critical essay by a literary scholar and a defensive afterword by Nabokov himself. The strategy would prove to be a winning one, and it was later copied by George Weidenfeld when the book was on its way to publication in Britain as he encouraged eminent literary figures like VS Pritchett, Stephen Spender and Iris Murdoch to write to The Times, invoking Ulysses and Madame Bovary in their defence of literature and of the novel’s right to exist.

It is worth remembering that the novel needed its defenders. In France, l’Affaire Lolita exploded in 1956 as the French ministry of the interior – spurred by the British home office’s alarm at the thought of British tourists bringing dirty books home from their holidays – banned it, prompting legal action from Girodias and a press debate about artistic freedom. Problems also persisted behind the scenes: the book would, in fact, eventually be published by Putnam’s in the US as Girodias’s excessive royalty demands caused Doubleday to withdraw from negotiations. Meanwhile, Australian federal police were raiding the Sydney Nation in search of the copy of the book from which the paper had published an extract. Nigel Nicolson, (one half of the UK publishing firm whose publication of Lolita would make its name) would soon lose his seat as Conservative MP for Bournemouth, partly as a result of the furore surrounding the book. Véra, however, seemed less worried about the potential for scandal than her husband and was perhaps more aware of the potential benefits, noting that the novel was creating “a lovely row in the French press”.