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Saturday 5 January 2019

Typewriter Writer Will Self Rails Against the "Bidirectional Digital Media"

I’ve been a huge Will Self admirer (a “Selfie” perhaps?) since the early days of the BBC Two television series Grumpy Old Men, first screened here more than 15 years ago now. I knew nothing about the man at the time, but he struck me as genuinely funny (a true rarity these days), laidback, forthright, unashamedly self-deprecating and, best of all, highly irreverent. Just my type of guy, I thought, even then. Since those days I’ve found, like other Typospherians, much that adds to Self’s appeal. He is not alone a dedicated typewriter user, but had at one time suffered a touch of what fellow English writer Christopher Long, now in Normandy, dubbed “typritisis” – happily for Self, one which didn’t quite develop into a serious case of “typritomania”. Self himself referred to it as a form of gerontophilia. His knowledge of typewriters, however, remains quite impressive. Self’s dalliance with typewriter collecting fell way short of Richard Amery’s passion for Imperial Good Companions and Piotr Trumpiel’s for Groma Kolibris, though Self did once own quite a few of both. He has since culled his machines to two Olivetti Lettera 22s, a taupe and a pistachio, the latter with an “American” keyboard (which presumably means it has a $ rather than a £ key). Both these had once belonged to his mother, Elaine Adams (née Rosenbloom), a publisher’s assistant originally from Queens, New York; she died of lung cancer at Easter 1988, a week short of her 67th birthday. Self was still 26, but Elaine had clearly left a lasting impression on him. His parents had split in 1970 and his father had settled in Canberra in 1980, where he was a senior research fellow at the Australian National University. He died here in 1999.
         On April 15 last year Self and his taupe Olivetti Lettera 22 portable provided the cover for The Observer’s Sunday colour magazine, which featured a spread variously called “Our Favourite Things” and "Objects of Desire". Self’s article read:
The Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter.
“This is widely regarded as the greatest typewriter of all time. It’s the best ergonomically; it has a light action on  the keyboard, but it still has a rhythm. It has an amazing set of features for a tiny machine. It has a half space insertion so you can delete a five-letter word with Tippex and then type it in again; if it’s one letter longer you can do a half space and squeeze up the words.
         “I didn’t take possession of this one until 1988 after my mother died. I have two of them, and they were both hers. One my eldest brother in America sent to me. I think he had the one with the US keys rather than the UK keys. I move between the two. This one is from the early 50s so it’s nearly 70 years old. That’s a hell of an age for a machine to be in regular use.
I used to have a little collection of typewriters. I had three or four Imperial Good Companions, which is the typewriter Beryl Bainbridge used – a beautiful machine from the late 30s that really looks steam punk. Then I got obsessed by Groma Kolibri, which are in the film The Lives of Others.
“I was seriously thinking of getting a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball – Nietzsche had one. It looks like a porcupine with the keys in a ball all around it. I was becoming obsessed by super-early typewriters, super tiny typewriters. But then I got rid of them all. I could see the beginning of the end of the whole typewriter shtick.  They’re great machines, but they’re old. The Olivettis are the only two I have left.
“Shalom Simons [ed, Simon] really is the last typewriter repairman left in London. I haven’t been in touch with him for three or four years so I’m not even sure if he’s retired. This Olivetti does need work now, and may not last me the next book. I think: “Come on, Will, you’ve got to reconcile yourself with moving on and writing some other way.” It would be fine to write longhand and then type it up on a non-wireless enabled computer.
“I never learned to touch-type – I still have to peck to this day. The problem with writing on computers now is that it’s unbounded – you feel that the world is with you in your creative life and that’s not helpful. I like the noise of the typewriter and then the silence. When you work on a computer you have a continual ultrasonic whine of some kind. When you’re working on a typewriter you have these little bursts but then you stop and … silence.
“I’ve written a novel about my mum, How the Dead Live, and I’m always thinking about my mum in one way or another – she’s always lurking around and, just as with our parents we’ve got phrases that come up all the time. I’m sure there are lot of phrases in my novels that relate to her on the typewriter. It’s very evocative.”
Perhaps of greater interest to Typospherians might be a later Self article, published in the October issue of Harper’s Magazine under the title “The Printed Word in Peril: The age of Homo virtualis is upon us”
In it, Self wrote about the “bidirectional digital media”, “by which I mean the suite of technologies that comprises the wireless-connected computer, handheld or otherwise, the World Wide Web, and the internet”. He said it was his “determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable.” Self went on, “It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a ‘tyranny of the virtual’, since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.”
Later in the article, Self writes, “Which returns me, suitably enough, to the much-punned-upon self that’s my own. In conversation and debate with those who view the inception of ­BDDM as effectively value neutral—and certainly not implicated in the wholesale extinction of literary culture—I run up time and again against that most irrefutable body of evidence: the empirical sample of one. Marx may have said that history is made by the great mass of individuals, but these individuals pride themselves on their ahistorical position: they (and/or their children) read a lot, and they still love books, and they prefer to read on paper—although they may love reading on their Kindle as well. The point is, they tell me angrily at whatever literary reading or lecture it is that I’m delivering, that rumours of the serious novel’s death are, as ever, greatly exaggerated.
“Well, I have considerable sympathy for their position—I, too, constitute an empirical sample of one. However, the study I’ve embarked on these past thirty-odd years, using my sole test subject, has led me to rather different conclusions. If I didn’t find screen-based writing difficult to begin with, or a threat to my sense of the fictive art, it’s simply because early computers weren’t networked until the mid-1990s; and until the full rollout of wireless broadband, around a decade later, the connection was made only with electro-banging and hissing difficulty. I didn’t return to writing on a manual typewriter in 2004, because apart from a little juvenilia I’d never written anything long on one before. And I didn’t even consciously follow this course; it just seemed instinctively right. If there are writers out there who have the determination—and concentration—to write on a networked computer without being distracted by the worlds that lie a mere keystroke away, then they’re far steelier and more focused than I. And if, further, they’re able to be transported sufficiently by their own word stream to avoid the temptation to research online in medias res, then, once again, I’m impressed.
“For me, what researchers into the impact of screen reading term ‘haptic dissonance’ (the disconnect between the text and the medium it is presented in) grew worse and worse throughout the 2000s. As did the problem of thinking of something I wished to write about—whether it be an object or something intangible—and then experiencing a compulsion to check its appearance or other aspects online. I began to lose faith in the power of my own imagination, and realised, further, that to look at objects on a screen and then describe them was, in a very important sense, to abandon literature, if by this is understood an art form whose substrate is words alone. For to look at an image and then describe it isn’t thinking in words but mere literalism. As for social media, I was protected from it initially by my own notoriety: far from wanting more contact with the great mass of individuals, having been a cynosure of sorts since my early thirties, I desired less. At an intuitive level I sensed that the instantaneous feedback loops between the many and the few that social media afforded were inimical to the art of fiction, which to a large extent consists in the creation of one-to-one epiphanies: ‘Oh,’ we exclaim as readers, ‘I’ve always felt that way but never seen it expressed before.’ And then we cleave to this new intimacy, one shorn of all the contingencies of sex, race, class, and nationality. By contrast with the anonymous and tacit intimacy to be found between hard covers, social media is all about stridently identified selves—and not simply to one another but to all. In the global village of social media it’s precisely those contingent factors of our identities—our sex, our race, our class, our nationality—that loom largest; no wonder it’s been the medium that has both formed and been formed by the new politics of identity.
“At the level of my person, and my identity, though, I’ve been striving for the past fourteen years to make the entire business of literary composition more apprehensible: the manual typewriter keeps me bound to sheets of paper that need to be ordinally arranged, for no matter how flimsy, they’re still objects you can hold and touch and feel. Nowadays, I go still further: writing everything longhand first, then typing it up on the manual, and only then keying it into a computer file—a process that constitutes another draft. If readers need to know where they are in a text, and to use this information to aid their grasp on the narrative and their identification with the characters, then how much more important is this for a writer? Not much more. Because readers and writers are so tightly dependent on each other, it’s specious to make the distinction—indeed, I’d assert that there’s a resonance between the act of writing and the act of reading such that the understanding of all is implicated in that of each. Yet to begin with I noticed nothing but benefits from my own screen-based reading—thousands of texts available instantaneously; the switching among them well-nigh effortless; and the availability of instant definitions, elucidations, and exegeses. Researchers hypothesise, and here I quote from Mangen’s ‘Lost in an ­iPad’, that ‘reading a novel on a tablet or e-reader doesn’t feel like what reading a novel should feel like’. Far from being bothered by this, however, I embraced it, and soon found myself no longer reading texts of all kinds in quite the same way; moreover, my sense of them being discrete began to erode, as I seamlessly switched from fact to fiction, from the past to the present, from the concrete to the theoretical and back again. Reading on paper, I had a tendency to have maybe ten or twelve books ‘on the go’ at once. Reading digitally, this has expanded to scores, hundreds even.”
        Plenty of food for thought for Typewriter Revolutionists in this Self piece. I thoroughly recommend a reading of the entire article.


Mike A. said...

Long, but oh so worth it. Thanks for the offering. This was really enjoyable and very in touch with the "revolution".

Bill M said...

Wonderful piece Robert. I never knew Will Self was so dedicated to typing. I do still watch Grumpy Old Men thought, and Keeping Up Appearances.

Joe V said...

Thank you for posting this, Robert. I thoroughly enjoyed the Self article.

Richard P said...

He is an interesting fellow. I wish he could contribute to "Cold Hard Type."

You remember the bust of him atop an Olivetti, I'm sure.

I haven't read much by Self, but I did read The Book of Dave, which is a tour de force in its own way.