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Whither literary manuscripts in the digital age?

December 21, 2011

Have you experienced the thrill of seeing original manuscripts by your favourite author or of a favourite book? I certainly have … the most memorable for me, of course, being some pages from Jane Austen‘s Persuasion. But such personal thrill isn’t the only value to be gained through having access to original manuscripts. Scholars love to analyse the progress of a writer’s work to better understand the work and/or the writer. Where would Charles Dickens or TS Eliot scholars be, for example, without the manuscript of, say, Oliver Twist or The wasteland? Marie-Thérèse Varlamoff and Sara Gould writing for UNESCO say

As a visit to the manuscript department of any of the great national libraries of the world will testify, the hand-written manuscript can reveal much more about the life and state of mind of the writer than any electronic document can ever do. Marcel Proust’s “paperoles“, the small pieces of paper which his servant wrote under dictation because he was too ill to write himself, contain many handwritten corrections in the margins, and are of major importance for all those who study the genesis of Proust’s literary creation. Victor Hugo’s splendid handwriting and the amazing and powerful drawings he used to draw in the margins of the pale blue paper he favoured, are similarly full of historical significance.

But, things are changing … we are now in the age of electronic (or digital) communication … and it’s not all bad …

Digitisation has been a boon for scholars. Sure, the ideal will always be to see an original manuscript, but that’s not always possible … and in these cases a digitised (scanned) version will often do the job. I love the fact that I can see Ezra Pound’s annotations on TS Eliot’s original manuscript (typescript) of The Wasteland on my app. For a scholar, a digitised version of an author’s manuscript will often suffice at the start of his/her research even if later on the original must be sighted. Digitised versions of manuscripts are regular features now of museum displays with touch screen and other technologies added in to enhance the experience. We take all this for granted. We expect to have access to anything we want in digital version …

But, along with the pluses come the minuses as Marie-Thérèse Varlamoff and Sara Gould continue:

How can the successive versions of a novel for example, or the progression or changes in an author’s thoughts, be studied in future, when the only permanent record may be a diskette containing the final version. No draft, no hesitation, no drawings or doodles. No doubt either that those who will study literary history or the genesis of a book will be at a loss.

Enter Max Barry. On his blog recently, he described how he has retained the whole edit history of his novel Machine man, which means readers can “browse to any particular page and see how it evolved from something to nothing”. He gives examples on his blog of how he worked on this novel and how the edit history looks. Click on this link to go to an example page. In the date bar above the text you’ll see a little arrow pointing to V2 (that’s Version 2 of course). Click on that to go to Version 2, and you will see a similar little arrow for V3 … and so on. Once you’ve mastered that, you can read the final serial version of the novel on the blog and, whenever the spirit moves you, you can click on a tiny icon at the top of the page to bring up and explore the entire version/edit history.

This is what libraries (archives/museums) now need (want) to collect … and this is what they’ll be challenged to preserve into the future. No longer will the challenge be to stop the ink from fading and the paper from deteriorating. No, it will be migrating the file so that no information is lost and so that the hardware and software of the day will be able to read documents produced under obsolete technologies. The principle is the same: collect, preserve and make available a writer’s work and process. The practices for achieving this with electronic/digital documents, though, is a whole new ball-game, and one that libraries (et al) are facing right now.

Max writes:

I’m not sure what use this is to anybody, other than for exposing my writerly fumblings in an even more humiliating manner than I’ve already done. But it was POSSIBLE, so I have DONE IT.

Librarians and researchers know what use this is … and we thank writers like Max Barry who take the management of their work so seriously.
18 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2011 18:29

    I had this thought a long long time ago, when I abandoned written first drafts and started to write directly onto a screen. Not that I think my efforts will be trembling in anyone’s hands when I am long gone! But because it is a big psychological leap – letting go of scribble, doodles, sudden ideas and hand-cramping flow. Now I can type much faster than I can write (I sound like I’m 80) and much more legibly. I have countless versions of the book I am about to publish on my various computers, and a shelf of print-outs which, during final rewrites, I did consult.
    I agree that writers should manage a project, if not for readers but for mental order. But these days I’d take a lovely cosy desktop sooner than I’d pick up a pen and notebook then worse – carbon paper and my clunky old typewriter!

    • December 21, 2011 19:15

      You never know Catherine … I think you should get those versions in order!

      I’m like you … my handwriting, once neat and legible, has gone to pot. I much prefer to type these days. I occasionally like to handwrite – personal notes of thanks or sympathy – but that is rare. I used to prefer fountain pen but I tend not to use them nowadays just because they are trickier to manage and care for. I think moving to ballpoint also spelt doom for my handwriting.

  2. December 21, 2011 21:05

    *chuckle* I think you might find that authors are not as well organised as they might need to be to achieve this.
    I have just finished writing Version 26 of the Emergency Management Plan for my school (all 89 pages of it), and keeping track of all these versions (and not accidentally using an old one is a *nightmare*.

    • December 21, 2011 21:14

      Oh yes I know, Lisa … my colleague and I have great fun trying to manage the versions of the reports we write for the WA organisation we are working for and we are supposed to be good at this sort of stuff! I dips me lid to Max Barry!

      Of course, many authors were not necessarily very good about their paper ms either. Still I reckon it is good to raise consciousness.

      I bet your Emergency Management Plan makes for rivetting reading!

      • December 22, 2011 19:02

        OH yes, very exciting stuff, my EMP. NO doubt the department will think of something else to add to it next year and then there will be Version 27…
        BTW Last day of school today at last!
        Now I can get some serious reading done (except for Xmas getting in the way LOL).

        • December 22, 2011 19:31

          That’s government for you! And yes, our son is on the Hume Highway as I write heading up here for Xmas. I won’t relax till he gets here. As for serious reading — good for you. I just don’t seem to be able – retired though I am – to find the concentrated time for reading. January, though, seems to be the best month for reading so we’ll see.

  3. December 21, 2011 22:39

    I think it’s true that new form of technology can create new ways of interacting with the arts, literature, and culture. Different ways, new ways, and not necessarily bad ways. But at the same time, where’s the fun in obsessively trying not to crack a new book’s spine when you’re reading on a Kindle? 😉

    P.S. You know how I’m reading Bleak House? Jane Austen is still winning over Charles Dickens in my heart, I think.

    • December 22, 2011 10:48

      Always pluses and minuses with progress … but perhaps spines thank the kindle. They can rest forever more. Hmm … or will that rue the kindle since they’ll become extinct. I guess we’ll never know their thoughts on the matter.

      Dickens is great … but Austen is greater!!

  4. December 23, 2011 02:28

    That’s awesome that Max Barry is keeping a digital trail like that. There are quite a few authors who don’t really think about it or if they do, they don’t have the tech know-how or organizational skills. It’s becoming really important for libraries to reach out to authors early, to help them organize and preserve their digital legacy.

    • December 23, 2011 10:23

      I thought you’d like this Stefanie. And that’s a good point about reaching out early … you may not get them before their debut novel but once you know about them you could certainly chase them up as you suggest. Librarians could also engage with Writers Organisations and get the message out that way too.

  5. December 23, 2011 08:19

    Technology has its edge, esp. in terms of ‘enhancing’ reading experience with interactive elements and info at he fingertips, all integrated with the eBook. However, I’m still one who likes to fix my eyes on paper rather than screen, less tiring and no double vision after long reading. Having said that, I’m sure digital tech. has almost unlimited usages for the literary world. They’re already imagining a future library with no hard copies.

    Allow me to take this opportunity, WG, to wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and peaceful holidays… and oh… how I dream of a warm Christmas. 😉

    • December 23, 2011 10:28

      Why thanks Arti … and back to you. I have experienced some wintry Christmases while living in the US and I really enjoyed the change, but I’m an Aussie and do love our warm Christmas. We are hoping – as we usually manage to do – to have our meal in our backyard under umbrellas. It’s been a cool rainy lead-up but the weather gods look as though they are smiling on us this year.

      I do like my kindle … but I find reading other electronic devices hard on the eyes and not comfortable to hold. I also find the kindle hard to quickly flick through at a bookgroup discussion, but maybe it’s just a matter of practice. In other words I can make the change to e-readers but I still do somewhat prefer printed books. I do love though the other advantages technology brings in terms of accessibility, value add etc.

  6. December 24, 2011 19:13

    I spent much of my career having to keep change records of developing computer systems and the thinking behind them so it would be second nature to me to do “version control”. I am sure that keeping a digital record of changes is something an established writer would think about but most new novelist slogging away over a word processor in the hope of being published wouldn’t bother with. Writer’s notebooks and manuscripts are fascinating and its tragic that the digital record has taken over – even more so with new “i” devices.

    Thanks for visiting my site over the year and leaving comments – all much appreciated. Your blog is informative and interesting as always!

  7. December 24, 2011 19:33

    Thanks Tom for your experienced input. It would be great to hear from other writers on what they do wouldn’t it? Let’s hope there are many like Barry out there.

    And ditto re visiting my blog … it’s been a great pleasure getting to “know” you over the last couple of years and I look forward to many more.

  8. mkirschenbaum permalink
    December 28, 2011 03:29


    That’s a fascinating piece, especially the links to Max Barry’s bold experiment. But I couldn’t disagree more with the findings of the UNESCO report you cite. For a counter example, see this white paper on “Approaches to Managing and Collecting Born-Digital Literary Materials for Scholarly Use”:

    The title is a bit of a mouthful, but the report itself documents the efforts of three different institutions to preserve exactly this kind of digital literary history.

    Best, MGK

    • December 28, 2011 10:09

      Thanks, and welcome, MGK … this is a wonderful article. The UNESCO article still has some validity, I think, as a consciousness raiser, simply because I don’t think all writers and all institutions have got it together yet. The UNESCO was written in 2000. Your paper provides a great perspective on what’s been happening nearly 10 years on doesn’t it?

      I haven’t read your article in detail yet, but it looks like an excellent initiative. I note that they suggest approaching writers’ associations as I discussed with Stefanie above. I like the way the group in your article have engaged with writers at their meetings in order to understand how writers work. They are also confronting, I see, the management of writers’ tools – like a collection of old Macs. This is a whole different proposition to preserving a writer’s quill or, even, typewriter! There’s quite a bit of discussion around the traps on the challenge of managing the technology itself (in addition to the electronic files). Instead of Jane Austen’s desk we’ll now want to see, say, Hilary Mantel’s desktop!

      Anyhow, thanks so much for ferretting out this article and sharing it with us … I will continue to read it.

  9. December 28, 2011 12:33

    And where does it end? It’s not just the author’s stuff: I’m just reading War and Peace and Sonya by Judith Armstrong – it’s based on the diaries of Tolstoy’s wife Sonya…

    • December 28, 2011 15:16

      Absolutely … the digital deluge places a whole new importance on the idea of selection, doesn’t it?

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