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Feeding the machine

In what ways did the typewriter affect how — and how much — writers wrote?

Susan Lever Books 11 October 2021 1321 words

Speed was of the essence: novelist Georges Simenon at work in the 1950s. Mondadori Portfolio/AAP Image

The Typewriter Century: A Cultural History of Writing Practices
By Martyn Lyons | University of Toronto Press | C$32.95 | 276 pages


Canberra’s Museum of Modern Democracy has a room full of typewriters with an invitation to visitors to write a letter. Children happily queue for the opportunity to try out this novelty (my granddaughter even asked for one for Christmas), which is disconcerting for someone who learnt to touch-type to “Buttons and Bows” at an evening class and bashed out reviews on a correctible Brother right up to the end of the 1980s.

But the typewriter’s appeal for children isn’t surprising. The journey from fingers to printed text is direct, the type appearing on paper before your eyes as you compose. When it works smoothly, the writer can feel in full control, from idea to tangible text. There’s no waiting for a printer to finish the task.

In his new book, The Typewriter Century, Sydney historian Martyn Lyons reckons that this machine shaped how we write from the 1880s up to the mid 1980s, when the word processor established its superior claims. He marks this neat century with photographs of a Remington No. 1, the model bought by Mark Twain out of curiosity in 1875, and of Len Deighton in his London flat, hemmed in by a massive IBM word processor, in 1968. Twain “wrote” Life on the Mississippi by dictating to a typist, and Deighton called in the services of an operator for the IBM.

Lyons begins with a fascinating overview of the typewriter’s development, detailing many of the technical difficulties overcome along the way. Of the various people with claims to be its inventor, he gives most credit to Christopher Sholes, whose ideas were incorporated into that Remington No. 1, which came encased in a wooden cabinet with a foot treadle for returning the carriage.

Lyons soon moves from the typewriter’s technical development to its role in changing how fiction, especially popular fiction, was created in the early twentieth century. While literary writers like Twain and Henry James quickly adopted the typewriter as a way of easing the process to publication — dictating to stenographers who transformed their work into legible copy for publishers — the typewriter also made possible a commercialised form of writing, with a new generation of writers learning to type as part of their work in offices or newspapers. Some successful popular writers even replicated the office hierarchy, with several “typewriter girls” at hand to process their work. The task quickly became gendered.

Along with a rising mass literacy, the typewriter made possible the “pulp fiction” phenomenon of the 1920s and 1930s, when writers like Georges Simenon, Erle Stanley Gardner and the Australian Gordon Bleeck could bash out a new novel in less than a week, selling them for a few pence on the railway stands. Some, like Simenon, were so prolific that they wrote under several pseudonyms to avoid flooding their own markets. Gardner referred to himself as the Fiction Factory. These writers made money by the sheer quantity of what they produced, not its quality, though both Simenon and Gardner longed for some literary recognition. André Gide thought Simenon a “great novelist” but his literary reputation was largely posthumous.

When he examines individual relationships with the typewriter, Lyons finds a range of responses. Some authors were worried by the “distancing” effect they felt when composing by machine. Rather than the intimate, physical experience of pen on paper, the typewriter transformed thought into impersonal, standardised print. Some authors who dictated their words were surprised by the impassive responses of stenographers trained to concentrate on the words rather than their meaning. James, for example, was disappointed when his most frightening passages in the Turn of the Screw made no impression on the demeanour of his typist. Others felt that the presence of the typist disrupted the privacy of composition, making them self-conscious about their creativity and alienated from their own work.

Many, of course, quickly went back to handwriting their first draft, creating a further distancing by handing copy to a typist. John le Carré replicated the elaborate office procedure of the civil service, where he had trained, by writing each draft in different coloured ink before passing it to his wife to type on different coloured papers. He then revised the typed text by hand in the appropriate coloured pen before handing it back to his wife for a further complete draft.

This process could continue for thirteen drafts, as for The Tailor of Panama, and must have slowed the process down rather than hastening it. Le Carré may have resisted acquiring a word processor, but his wife no doubt appreciated its arrival.

Writers trained in typewriter skills appear to have been more likely to develop what Lyons calls a “romantic” relationship to the typewriter, seeing it as an extension of their bodies and even a source of inspiration. The film cliché of the writer ripping paper from the typewriter, scrunching it up and throwing it on the floor appears to have no place in real life. Jack Kerouac, of course, is the archetypal romantic typist, but others, including Enid Blyton, felt freed by the responsive movement of the typewriter.

The Typewriter Century, with its amusing stories about the practices of many writers, is based on wide archival research. But it can hardly be exhaustive given the writing multitudes who have typed their way through the century. As the book progresses Lyons concentrates in detail on the typewriting careers of a handful of popular writers who could not have been so prolific without the machine: Simenon, Gardner, Agatha Christie, Richmal Crompton and Enid Blyton. This allows him to give some sense of the processes and self-mythologies of the writers. Simenon promoted himself as a speed typist, and Gardner became successful enough to supervise banks of female typists to produce his work. Christie, Crompton and Blyton professed to fit their writing around domestic routines — Christie is photographed sitting in a dining chair while she types on a drop-sided dining table.

All of these writers knew they were addressing distinct markets and the typewriter was the essential tool for them to meet their readers’ appetites for more of the same. The effect of the machine on literary writers raises more complex considerations. Lyons speculates that Ernest Hemingway’s newspaper experience, including the necessary typewriter, influenced his notoriously succinct and direct writing style. Yet there are examples of typewriter prolixity — perhaps those long and exuberant novels by Christina Stead and Miles Franklin were encouraged by their familiarity with the typewriter as office workers. The shift to dictation, too, must surely have influenced the writing style of James’s masterly later novels, or Twain’s later books. As Lyons concludes, “There is no single answer to the question, what was the impact of the typewriter?”

The book does invite readers to consider how their own favourite writers adapted to the typewriter. An obvious Australian example would be Joseph Furphy, the foundry worker who bought a typewriter in 1897 and revised the manuscript of Such Is Life himself. Scholars are often excited by handwritten manuscripts, as if they offer immediate contact with a revered writer; despite its visual anonymity, though, the typescript may be just as direct a product of a writer’s thoughts.

Readers of The Typewriter Century are likely to reflect on their own writing practices, too. The computer turned writing into a rather mechanical function called “word processing,” but its advantages as an editing tool were obvious and quickly embraced. It may be that it has encouraged different kinds of creative thinking and Lyons cites several writers, such as Cormac McCarthy, who resist it. The typewriter still has its uses, even if it is simply to avoid the distraction of the internet, as Zadie Smith says.

My ten-year-old granddaughter wrote her first film script on the second-hand Olivetti she was given for Christmas, but in the long run she found the keys too hard to press and the ribbon change too difficult. The laptop looks like winning out. •

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