Book review: Track Changes looks at whether word processors have changed literature

From the huge banks of equipment seen at the dawn of the word-processing age to the latest sleek laptop, the technology has changed completely – but has it had an effect on the actual content of literature?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 July, 2016, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 July, 2016, 1:02pm

Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing

by Matthew Kirschenbaum

Belknap Press

4/5 stars

In a photograph taken in his high-tech home office at 29 Merrick Square, London, in 1968, thriller writer Len Deighton is hard at work on his next novel, Bomber. An electric typewriter is perched atop a desk, a huge telex machine extrudes paper coils on to the florid carpet, and a video camera on a tripod is pointed at the author’s face. In the foreground is another bulkier typewriter connected by a fat cable to a cabinet or console.

The author of Billion Dollar Brain had lately taken delivery of a Magnetic Tape/Selectric Typewriter (MT/ST). It was first dreamt up at IBM’s main offices in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1957; the finished product weighed 200 pounds and cost US$10,000. And with it Deighton was about to compose the first novel ever written on a word processor.

Book review: was acclaimed journalist Gay Talese taken in by The Voyeur’s Motel?

In fact, as Matthew Kirschenbaum points out in his unexpectedly engaging history of word processing, it was Deighton’s sedulous assistant Ellenor Handley who did most of the typing (until 1968 she’d had to redraft each novel dozens of times). As she typed, her keystrokes were saved to tape, and corrections could be made before a final printout.

It was a vexing process in which writing happened both on paper and in the typist’s harried imagination; IBM’s literature commanded the user to “visualise the characters on the tape!” so as to grasp the machine’s capricious behaviour. There was no screen and no mouse; the MT/ST had no conception of what a page was; you had to manually slow and stop printing to introduce new text. But the MT/ST was a step towards the dream, as Kirschenbaum clunkily puts it, of “hardware and software for facilitating the composition and formatting of free-form prose as part of an individual author’s workflow”.

In part, Track Changes is one of those histories of the everyday in which the broader claims are often open to question. “Each of us remembers our first time” using a word processor, Kirschenbaum claims. But this is surely true only of generations that witnessed notable innovations, such as the rapid arrival of new software in the early 1980s: WordStar, WordPerfect and Microsoft Word. By that time there were numerous competing hardware models to choose from, many of them running proprietary programmes and so quite incompatible with other systems.

As a writer, you might dither a while over a stack of computer magazines and then plump for an Osborne 1 (Ralph Ellison) or a Wangwriter (Stephen King ). Or you might, like the great New Yorker writer John McPhee, commission a bespoke suite of writing applications, tailored to your own idiosyncratic habits with notes and drafts. (McPhee still writes using only the software a friend at Princeton, now deceased, wrote for him in 1984.)

Book review: Wish Lanterns illuminates modern China by focusing on six twenty-somethings

Unsurprisingly, it was science fiction writers who took most readily to the new technology. Isaac Asimov wrote four articles in 1981 about his patient efforts to write with a Tandy TRS-80, wondering once he had mastered it whether he wasn’t giving himself more work in the long run. Frank Herbert laboured for years with a Boeing engineer to perfect a computer custom-made to the arcane world-forming of his fiction – the project was never finished. And Bonnie MacBird, screenwriter of Disney’s Tron, wrote much of her script at Xerox’s research facility in Palo Alto, California, on the kind of machine that would soon inspire Steve Jobs.

So far, so very gee-whiz. Few of these writers seem to have been exercised by thoughts of what the machines were doing to their prose, for good or ill. Not so the more self-conscious literary world, which reacted with a mix of pragmatism, naive eagerness and fastidious horror. Gore Vidal thought word processors would “erase” literature; John Updike worried that his Wang made things “almost too easy”, and wrote a very bad poem, INVALID.KEYSTROKE, on the subject. Some well-known authors held out – Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy still use manual typewriters – while others simply got on with it. Philip Roth and Zadie Smith have both said the computer has done away with drafts: they edit as they go, saving over earlier versions.

Such variety of attitudes and habits proves mildly less interesting than the history of the technology itself, because the former amounts to very little in the end. Writers used either to think word processing would make for seamless prose without colour or texture, or fear that everything would be overwritten, extravagantly qualified. (“You get to thinking you can go on revising forever,” said Jacques Derrida in 1996.)

In fact, nothing much happened: you can’t tell a word-processed novel from one dictated from the couch or typed on a vintage Olivetti. The tools fade away, as tools are meant to do. Kirschenbaum cannot prove that word processing affected any writer’s style, so he must make do with the banal observation of writing’s materiality: “Our instruments of composition, be they a Remington or a Macintosh, all serve to focalise and amplify our imagination of what writing is.”

Forty years ago, the phrase “word processing” meant a whole complex of office management and info-wrangling, from photocopying and dictation to organisational protocols and hierarchies. The composition of words on page or screen was just one element in that verbal system, but it was the one that caused writers most thrills and fret. Track Changes is as much the story of their distracting emotions as it is of what they wrote and how; some writers are too easily diverted by their own instruments.

This review is being drafted with a German fountain pen of 1960s design – but does it matter? Give me this A4 pad, my MacBook Air or a sharp stick and a stretch of wet sand, and I will give you a thousand words a day, no more and likely no different. Writing, it turns out, happens in the head after all.