From The New Republic:
“As if being 1984 weren’t enough.” Thomas Pynchon, writing in The New York Times Book Review, marked the unnerving year with an honest question about seemingly dystopian technology: “Is It OK to Be a Luddite?” The Association of American Publishers records that by 1984, between 40 and 50 percent of American authors were using word processors. It had been a quarter-century since novelist C.P. Snow gave a lecture in which he saw intellectual life split into “literary” and “scientific” halves. Pynchon posited that the division no longer held true; it obscured the reality about the way things were going. “Writers of all descriptions are stampeding to buy word processors,” he wrote. “Machines have already become so user-friendly that even the most unreconstructed of Luddites can be charmed into laying down the old sledgehammer and stroking a few keys instead.”
The literary history of the early years of word processing—the late 1960s through the mid-’80s—forms the subject of Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s new book, Track Changes. The year 1984 was a key moment for writers deciding whether to upgrade their writing tools. That year, the novelist Amy Tan founded a support group for Kaypro users called Bad Sector, named after her first computer—itself named for the error message it spat up so often; and Gore Vidal grumped that word processing was “erasing” literature. He grumped in vain. By 1984, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Chabon, Ralph Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, and Anne Rice all used WordStar, a first-generation commercial piece of software that ran on a pre-DOS operating system called CP/M. (One notable author still using WordStar is George R.R. Martin.)
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Genre writers were among the earliest adopters of new word processing technologies—experimenting with them as early as the 1970s—since they were often more adventurous and less precious than their hyper-literary colleagues. Many of the highest-browed in the literary world resisted word processing for decades. Indeed, some writers would conceal the fact that they used a word processor for fear of being tarnished by an association with automation or inauthenticity. In a 2011 New York Times article, Gish Jen recalled colleagues at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1980s doctoring their printouts, adding unnecessary pencil annotations in order to make their manuscripts seem more “real,” less perfect. Perfect copy, after all, was for the typist, not the genius.
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Thinkers of all stripes marveled at their new ability to move chunks of text. In 1983, Michael Crichton told Merv Griffin that, “When you type, the words appear on the screen … you can move around on the screen, change what you’ve written, pull blocks of text, put them elsewhere. You have complete freedom.” His disbelieving glee was shared by many, but some writers reacted differently.
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For Anne Rice—who was devoted to WordStar and also had her most famous character, the vampire Lestat, use the program to type out his memoirs—the writer must come face to face with a machine that demands she create not just perfect copy, but ideal creative thought. With all these tools at one’s disposal, Rice writes, “There’s really no excuse for not writing the perfect book.”
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In the first issue of Gloria Steinem’s Ms. (1971) was an advertisement placed by Evelyn Berezin, proprietor of the Redactron Corporation. Berezin had been working in computer engineering since the early 1950s, first as lead logic designer at the Electronic Computer Corporation, then at Teleregister, a system facilitating plane ticket bookings. After losing out on a job on the floor of the male-only New York Stock Exchange, Berezin went solo. She decided to design a rival to IBM’s MT/ST.
She called her invention the “Data Secretary.” It would be a “true computer, with 13 onboard semiconductor chips and programmable logic driving its word processing functions.” To sell the thing, Berezin went straight to the frustrated professionals who would use the word processor soonest, those already drowning in paperwork. The Ms. ad is 400-ish words addressed directly to the “Dead-End Secretary,” promising her liberation from the typewriter, and therefore a better job. Once she doesn’t have to type all day, what’s to stop the secretary moving into management? “Ask your boss about the Data Secretary,” the ad said. “We’ve already told him about it.”
The premise of the ad was, of course, that word processors already existed, just in a different form: the human woman. Such women worked in every office, everywhere, and they also worked for literary writers. Henry James’s secretary Theodora Bosanquetwas an enormous fan of her employer, credited by James with truly getting what he was “driving at.” Valerie Eliot, widow and legacy—keeper of T.S. Eliot, had formerly been Valerie Fletcher, typist at Faber & Faber. She performed secretarial duties for Eliot with ferocious competence during his life and guarded his papers after his death with an equal loyalty. Sonia Orwell did exactly the same thing for George. These women’s professional, love, and literary lives blurred into one duty of work, dedicated to the male writer.
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Kirschenbaum quotes Wendell Berry, writing in 1987 on his wife’s essential role as typist:
My wife types my work on a Royal standard typewriter bought new in 1956 and as good now as it was then. As she types, she sees things that are wrong and marks them with small checks in the margins. She is my best critic because she is the one most familiar with my habitual errors and weaknesses. She also understands, sometimes better than I do, what ought to be said. We have, I think, a literary cottage industry that works well and pleasantly. I do not see anything wrong with it.
Link to the rest at The New Republic