Writing & Technology

Mathew Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2016) will delight a certain kind of readership: those who, like myself, are interested not only in what a writer has to say but in the tools the writer employs to say it. Readers who are keenly interested in both literature and technology are undoubtedly a minority but I’d wager there are more of us around than you might think. Certainly word processing itself has been around long enough, and become mainstream enough, to warrant a history of its development.

Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing
A fascinating study of writers and the technologies they employ.

Kirschenbaum, an English professor at the University of Maryland, does a fine job of describing how writers came to terms with (or chose not to come to terms with) word processing technology. In fact, as the author points out, word processing is just another point on the spectrum of writers’ methodologies. It did not replace longhand, nor did it completely replace the typewriter. Writers are a versatile lot.

Here are a few examples: George R. R. Martin, whose series Song of Ice and Fire became HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” writes with an antique word processing program called WordStar, using a DOS-era computer which is not connected to the Internet. (Philip Roth also used a DOS machine, in his case with WordPerfect.) Joyce Carol Oates, an incredibly prolific writer, sticks to longhand (and a typewriter).

At first, the ease and fluidity promised by word processing (for those writers who chose to embrace it) were thought to threaten literary quality. It was felt the machine and its software would wind up doing too much of the writer’s work. Some early adopters even tried to conceal their use of word processing because of the perceived stigma. The writer Gish Jen describes fellow students at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop working at mainframe terminals and then deliberately “doctoring” their printouts—adding annotations by hand, rumpling the corners—before sending their work out for consideration. “Real writers,” their instructors said, used pencils or typewriters. Yet for Jen the personal computer (in her case an early Apple) overcame such prejudices. “Computers coaxed out of me an expansiveness the typewriter never did,” she said. “What came out … was not further from the human heart; it was closer. It was looser, freer, more spontaneous—more democratic, too.”

Kirschenbaum’s history runs the gamut from do-it-yourself personal computer kits to early Kaypros and Osbornes to the latest “artisanal” software tools like Scrivener. He nominates Len Deighton‘s Bomber as the first published (in 1970) novel written with a word processor, the IBM MT/ST. The book is nicely written, with an appealing tongue-in-cheek humor. If you’re at all interested in how writing gets put together, this is highly recommended.

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