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How Literature Became Word Perfect

Before the word processor, perfect copy was the domain of the typist—not the literary genius.

Missouri State Archives

“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.”

Harvard University Press, 368 pp., $29.95

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.)

In the late 1970s and ’80s, brands of home computers proliferated: TRS-80 Model I, Commodore PET, Philips/Magnavox VideoWriter 250. All of these were stand-alone machines with price tags over $500. In 1984, Apple released the Macintosh personal computer, which included MacWrite, a word processor that couldn’t deal with documents over eight pages. Very few writers liked it—with the notable exceptions of Douglas Adams, creator of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Mona Simpson, who used MacWrite to compose Anywhere but Here while interning at The Paris Review. Simpson had an excellent reason for enjoying the new Mac: Her biological brother, Steve Jobs, had invented it.

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.

The first book to be word-processed, according to Kirschenbaum, was Len Deighton’s Bomber in 1970, a World War II thriller written on an IBM MT/ST, a machine that married the Selectric typewriter with new magnetic tape technology. The typewriter part was built into a desk and the tape remembered what you’d typed so you could go back and make edits, but only with some difficulty.  Arthur C. Clarke’s 1982 sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey was written on an Archives III microcomputer running WordStar, the manuscript having been “conveyed from Colombo, Sri Lanka (where Clarke had lived since the 1950s), to New York on a five-and-a-quarter-inch disk.” The book’s final words, Kirschenbaum points out with delight, are these: “Last-minute corrections were transmitted through the Padukka Earth Station and the Indian Ocean Intelsat V.” Isaac Asimov changed his writing practice radically when he began to word process in 1981 at the ripe age of 61. A producer of notoriously dirty copy, Asimov found word processing cleaned up his act: “I end up with letter-perfect copy and no one can tell it wasn’t letter-perfect all the time. …  Then I have it printed—br-r-rp, br-r-p, br-r-p—and as each perfect page is formed, my heart swells with pride. … I hope the copy editors appreciate the new me.”

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.

Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Louis Simpson warned that the word processor “tells you your writing is not final. …  It enables you to think you are writing when you are not, when you are only making notes or the outline of a poem you may write at a later time.” By contrast, Jacques Derrida reflected on this mutability with delight: “Previously, after a certain number of versions, everything came to a halt—that was enough. Not that you thought the text was perfect, but after a certain period of metamorphosis the process was interrupted. With the computer, everything is rapid and so easy; you get to thinking you can go on revising forever.” Simpson and Derrida agree on the formal features the word processor offers: They just disagree about whether the machines are good for writing.

What did Derrida mean by “perfect”? The word means different things for different kinds of writing. When Asimov spoke of “letter-perfect copy,” he meant words written on paper, unmarred by any mistakes. Before word processing, a writer would hammer on a typewriter, adjust errors with Wite-Out, and then type over it. Mistakes and revisions were the sign of true creativity for the Iowa Workshop writers who could not turn in a piece that looked “automated.” In an office, secretaries were trained to within an inch of their lives to produce completely accurate typescript—much as a medieval scribe would produce a perfect manuscript, because that was his job. Perfect copy has always been made perfect by human beings—but before the advent of word processing, few of those people were authors themselves.

Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, published in 1883, is commonly thought to be the first typewritten book. But Twain dictated that book to an assistant. In publishing, a typewritten copy would be annotated and sent back for changes via a long chain of staffers. Before secretaries and their typewriters, the clerk and his pen ruled the office—those were human beings, too. The perfection of perfect copy was the result of a process managed by human beings, producing multiple physical versions of the text. The edited text was a being of a kind, just like its human editors. Kirschenbaum’s book encourages us to linger with the fact that a text, before word processing, underwent multiple physical incarnations as an object.

But the word processor is the after-typewriter, its opposite. In poetic terms, the typewriter means thudding while word processing means deftness. Word processing on one’s own software or computer or special device—on WordPerfect (1980), the Osborne 1 or IBM PC (1981), the Kaypro II (1982), Microsoft Word (1983)—was for many writers special because it is done with light. Andrei Codrescu wrote that the Kaypro “let you write with light on glass, not ink on paper, which was mind-blowing. It felt both godlike and ephemeral.” The word processor is a powerful and empowering tool, far less about dominating the prone typewriter than about feeling humbled in the presence of infinite possibility.

John Updike was one of the first literary writers who made word processing a subject of his work. In 1988, Updike gave a keynote at a computer science conference at MIT. His 1986 novel Roger’s Version had explored “the nature of computation through the device of a theologian’s search for an algorithmic equation for God,” and that was apparently enough to garner the invitation. In the speech, he said that word processing made it “almost too easy” to type perfectly. Updike was terrified of word processors—or at least his feelings went very deep, and they were very muddled. If there is a shadowy lesson hiding in Kirschenbaum’s fine and erudite book, this is it: Updike was so simultaneously taken with and worried about word processing that it inspired him to art. He even wrote several poems about it, including 1983’s “INVALID.KEYSTROKE” (“Wee.word.processor,.is.it.not / De.trop.of.you.to.put.a.dot’) and 2004’s “Death of a Computer” (“the monitor / believed itself to still be making sense”).

When he declared at MIT that word processing produced text that was too perfect, too easily, Updike was thinking about changes happening to his own writing process. The traditional journey of the text towards perfection was being altered, cutting out people along the way. When the collector Steve Soboroff bought Updike’s old typewriter, it had a jammed ribbon still in it, which included a 1983 snippet addressed to his New Yorker editor, Roger Angell:

This ms. may be the last messy one you get I’ve bought
a word processor and we’re slowly coming to an
understanding. It’s quick as the devil, but has very little
imagination, and no smalltalk.

Some time later, Updike wrote about walking through his Pennsylvania hometown for The New Yorker. “The raindrops made a pattern on the street like television snow,” he wrote, “or like the scrambled letters with which a word processor fills the screen before a completed electric spark clears it all into perfect sense.” What does he mean? An actual visual scramble, one that you might see in word processors too outdated to ever use again? Or is he thinking about the flash of word-processed composition, the endlessly-deferrable moment when the editable document is, all of a sudden, final?

The writer who has mastered the word processor can cut, paste, edit, and delete, all alone. 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.”

In arguing for the literary history of the word processor, Kirschenbaum overstates the ease with which humanities scholars can interpret the political and artistic lives of objects. The invention of the word processor may have changed literary composition for the Updikes of the world, but it also facilitated the destruction of an essential genre of work usually done by women: secretarial labor. 

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 Bosanquet was 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. But now and then they get the odd minute in the literary sun. A typist appears in The Fire Sermon section of “The Waste Land”:

At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at tea-time, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.

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.

Evelyn Berezin pitched her Ms. ad to women in the workplace, but Berry’s praise for the wife who can out-process Microsoft Word shows that the literary history of word processing is also gendered in a way that is perhaps beyond the historian’s reach. There can be no true distinction drawn between the effect of word processing on the literary imagination and its intervention in the working lives of the women employed as noncreative automata. The data are skewed. Women typists are visible in the historical record when they are working for money in an office environment, but invisible almost everywhere else—slipping between categories, in and out of the credits. How can we know who was working where, what relationship each female amanuensis had with each new device that came to take her work away? Kirschenbaum’s book proves that women can take their place among the mechanical objects that produced the last century’s great works, and he records their lives and thoughts as far as he can. By the same token, however, he demonstrates that Updike’s frustrations with word processing were only about himself, and were therefore a fraction of the true story.

In the mid-1980s, Terry McMillan was working as a “word processor” in New York, at a law office, while writing her novel Mama. There, she used the law firm’s system after hours to “print and send literally thousands of promotional letters to bookstores, reading groups, and review outlets, especially those with a record of supporting black writers.” These kinds of automated functions were “precisely the sort of task the technology was designed to expedite.” McMillan mastered this technology as a professional, and then she used it to let the world know that she had written a perfect novel.