thoughts on the processing of words

The heart of the matter was mistakes. When typing on a typewriter, you made mistakes, and then had to decide what, if anything, to do about them; and woe be unto you if you didn’t notice a mistyped word until after you had removed the sheet of paper from the machine.

.. For some few writers the advent of word processing was a pure blessing: Stanley Elkin, for instance, whose multiple sclerosis made it impossible for him to hold a pen properly or press a typewriter’s keys with sufficient force, said that the arrival of his first word-processing machine was “the most important day of my literary life.” But for most professional writers — and let’s remember that Track Changes is a literary history of word processing, not meant to cover the full range of its cultural significance — the blessing was mixed. As Rice says, now that endless revision is available to you, as a writer you have no excuse for failing to produce “the perfect book” — or rather, no excuse save the limitations of your own talent.

.. Kirschenbaum also wonders “who was the first author to sit down in front of a digital computer’s keyboard and compose a published work of fiction or poetry directly on the screen.”

Quite possibly it was Jerry Pournelle, or maybe it was David Gerrold or even Michael Crichton or Richard Condon; or someone else entirely whom I have overlooked. It probably happened in the year 1977 or 1978 at the latest, and it was almost certainly a popular (as opposed to highbrow) author.

.. Wallace, for instance, always wrote in longhand and transcribed his drafts to the computer at some relatively late stage in the process. Also, when he had significantly altered a passage, he deleted earlier versions from his hard drive so he would not be tempted to revert to them.

.. “Every impulse that I had to generalize about word processing — that it made books longer, that it made sentences shorter, that it made sentences longer, that it made authors more prolific — was seemingly countered by some equally compelling exemplar suggesting otherwise.”

.. Thomas Hobbes says in Leviathan (1650) that in comparison with the invention of literacy itself printing is perhaps “ingenious” but fundamentally “no great matter.”

Algorithms Could Save Book Publishing—But Ruin Novels

Over four years, Archer and Jockers fed 5,000 fiction titles published over the last 30 years into computers and trained them to “read”—to determine where sentences begin and end, to identify parts of speech, to map out plots. They then used so-called machine classification algorithms to isolate the features most common in bestsellers.

.. The result of their work—detailed in The Bestseller Code, out this month—is an algorithm built to predict, with 80 percent accuracy, which novels will become mega-bestsellers.

What does it like? Young, strong heroines who are also misfits (the type found in The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). No sex, just “human closeness.” Frequent use of the verb “need.” Lots of contractions. Not a lot of exclamation marks. Dogs, yes; cats, meh. In all, the “bestseller-ometer” has identified 2,799 features strongly associated with bestsellers.

.. It’s sad to think that data could narrow our tastes and possibilities.”

.. There’s a wrinkle, though: Companies such as Amazon and Apple have the data for books read on their devices, and they aren’t sharing it with publishers.

.. The ability to know who reads what and how fast is also driving Berlin-based startup Inkitt

..Albazaz, now 26, sees himself as democratizing the publishing world. “We never, ever, ever judge the books. That’s not our job. We check that the formatting is correct, the grammar is in place, we make sure that the cover is not pixelated,” he says. “Who are we to judge if the plot is good? That’s the job of the market. That’s the job of the readers.”

.. Callisto studies the search terms Amazon suggests when users start typing in the first few letters, and found that people would frequently search for something that led to no results. “Consumers are searching for a piece of information, but no product exists to satisfy that consumer demand,”

.. Don’t we risk losing the distinction between what’s important and what’s popular? As NPR noted last year, books nominated for prestigious prizes like the Man Booker Prize or the National Book Award typically don’t sell many copies.

.. The computer found much to love: a strong, young female protagonist whose most-used verbs are “need” and “want.”


The Dos and Don’ts of Writing about the Disabled

Recently I have read several articles about disabled people by non-disabled writers. The authors have clearly projected their own fears and prejudices onto the subject of their piece, and spoken for them from that place. If I could say one thing to those authors it would be this: Do not assume that empathy equals experience. You might think you know what it’s like, but you don’t.

.. Never equate physical, psychological, or intellectual impairment with loss of personhood. People are people. Period.

.. Never use disability as “narrative prosthesis.” That is, don’t use a crip as a prop, or an impairment as a signifier of or metaphor for anything (especially evil, degeneracy, or corruption).

.. Always, before you publish, ask the opinion of readers with the disability you portray. Listen to what they say; believe their experience.

.. Always, if you are told by a disabled person that what you’ve written is wrong—even if you don’t understand what the problem is, exactly; even if you meant well and feel hurt by the response—be prepared to accept their criticism. Be prepared to apologize. Learn from your mistake.

Why America’s Business Majors Are in Desperate Need of a Liberal-Arts Education

Their degrees may help them secure entry-level jobs, but to advance in their careers, they’ll need much more than technical skills.

American undergraduates are flocking to business programs, and finding plenty of entry-level opportunities. But when businesses go hunting for CEOs or managers, “they will say, a couple of decades out, that I’m looking for a liberal arts grad,” said Judy Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program.

.. Almost one in five bachelor’s degrees earned in the United States is a business degree

.. Put simply, business majors seem to be graduating with some of the technical skills they’ll need to secure jobs, but without having made the gains in writing or critical-thinking skills they’ll require to succeed over the course of their careers, or to adapt as their technical skills become outdated and the nature of the opportunities they have shifts over time.

..“We have become so myopic in solving business problems that we don’t think about those problems from the perspective of other disciplines,” said Charles Iacovou, dean of the school of business at Wake Forrest University.

The Brontës’ Secret

The Jews have a word for the feverish imaginings that run like bright threads through their Torah commentaries: midrash, the spinning of gloriously weird backstories or fairy tales prompted by gaps or contradictions in the narratives. Midrash isn’t just a Jewish hermeneutic, by the way. You could call the Gospels a midrash on the Hebrew Bible, the lives of the saints a midrash on the Christ story, the Koran a midrash on all of the above.

.. Charlotte’s writing would have been even better, Woolf says, had she “possessed say three hundred [pounds] a year.”

.. Motherless since they were very young, the Brontës enjoyed the benign neglect of their busy father and made the most of their freedom to develop elaborate fantasy worlds.

.. Charlotte hung on a year longer, mostly because she fell in love with her teacher and colleague Constantin Heger. A brilliant, charismatic professor, he was the first male non-Brontë to recognize their powers and treat them as intellectual peers.

.. But in her next novel, Jane Eyre, and her last,Villette, she put her work history to spectacular use. She expressed her outrage at the degraded status of governesses and teachers. She condemned the isolation and vulnerability of a woman who goes into the world to make her own way. She let loose her feelings for Heger, electromagnetizing the novels with sensuality.

.. In short, had Charlotte been in possession of 300 pounds a year, she could never have written novels that startled her readers then with their frank depiction of middle-class women’s working conditions and continue to edify those of us who also have to earn our own living.

.. Deborah Lutz calls attention to the mixed meanings of 19th-century housework in the sisters’ lives and novels, especially needlework, with which ladies were expected to keep their hands busy at all times. Charlotte was indignant when her first mistress demanded that she add sewing to child care, requiring her to make doll clothes and stitch hems on sheets.

.. As a governess, Jane Eyre hides behind her stitching when she wants to watch rather than talk.

.. It has only belatedly dawned on readers that Nelly is an unreliable narrator. Read in a certain light, her story seems to be hinting that it was she who sabotaged the families as much as or even more than Heathcliff. If so, she did this by skillfully deploying the two main weapons of the household help: obscurity and ubiquity.

.. That the poet Ellis Bell was Emily Brontë came out only after her death, at age 30, one year after the publication of Wuthering Heights. She didn’t intend unsubtle readers to see Nelly any more than she wanted them to see her.

.. And therein lies at least one solution to the Brontë mystery. The sisters hid their subversiveness behind housewifery, and used their seeming eccentricity to excuse their shirking of social niceties. Early on, when their old housekeeper grew too lame to work, they took over her duties rather than let a stranger into their house. “I manage the ironing and keep the rooms clean,” Charlotte wrote a friend. “Emily does the baking and attends to the kitchen. We are such odd animals that we prefer this mode of contrivance to having a new face among us.”

.. life in their “attic” didn’t make the Brontës near-madwomen. It made them writers—admittedly, almost the same thing.

.. Dickinson’s biographer Alfred Habegger asserts that for her, reading an 1883 life of Emily Brontë “effectively validated her idea of power based in weakness.”

.. The Brontës lived as they did because they needed privacy to write their extraordinary but scandalizing novels—alternately extolled as having no “rival among modern productions” (as one critic said of Jane Eyre) and attacked for a “low tone of behavior” and “coarseness” (charges leveled against all three sisters’ works).