Archives for category: Writing

After the double flop of Moby-Dick and Pierre (1851 and 52) Herman Melville lived out his life in literary obscurity. When he died in 1891 The New York Times even referred to him as Henry Melville. He kept on writing though, and the results of his endeavors were carefully saved by his wife, tied up in bunches with pink ribbon, and stored in a metal breadbox which wasn’t really looked at till 1919. Lucky man; Billy Budd certainly didn’t harm his reputation. Many a widow or widower has sought to protect their deceased spouse’s reputation by destroying all that awful stuff they were always scribbling away at. The dead can only lie quietly and let what happens happen.

On the other hand, if authors request that their papers be destroyed after their death I think it’s pretty monstrous to disregard their wishes. In what way can it be right to overrule someone’s intentions when they are no longer around to discuss the subject with you? Who are you to decide that the poor old author didn’t know his/her own mind, and to decree that the survival of this archive is so important that instructions to a literary executor should be disregarded. Sure if we follow instruction we may thereby miss out on some really great book, but is our selfish wish-gratification enough to make it all right to disregard the author’s will? After all, nobody but the author can decide (while the author is alive) whether a book is ready to be published or not. You can argue with them about this, but the ultimate arbiter is the writer. Why should this change upon their death?

The Guardian has a piece by Blake Morrison, Up in smoke, about the question.

Kafka wrote to Max Brod from his deathbed “Everything that I leave behind in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters of my own and from others, sketches, etc . . . should be burned, completely and unread.” As we know Brod disregarded this instruction and as a result we can read The Trial, The Castle and Amerika, all of which remained unpublished upon the author’s death. Kafka presumably had his reasons. Maybe he thought there was more work to do on the writing before he was ready to release them. The Castle and Amerika are actually incomplete. While an incomplete or unfinished book may provide enjoyment and enlightenment, it is in a form which the author did not regard as final. Surely the author is allowed to have an opinion on what and what should not be published. To say “Well, he obviously didn’t know what he was talking about because if he’d really meant it he’d have burned the manuscripts himself before he got sick” is just post hoc rationalization, an attempt to make our dishonest act appear noble and public spirited. If Kafka, in giving this direction, knew that Brod, because of conversations they’d had, would disregard it, then that’s a pretty silly way of going about things. If you build a bonfire and throw all your property on it in the expectation that the fire brigade will turn up and save you from your stupidity, I think that you don’t deserve saving. But I think we have to assume Kafka was sincere and meant what he said, which means we should never have been able to read these books.

Lost books, however tantalizing they may seem, have the right to remain lost if that’s what the author wanted. There was a man who used to walk around Cambridge with a pile of papers always under his arm: it was rumored that he had left (and lost) his manuscript on the train to King’s Cross, and was spending the rest of his life trying to reconstruct it. T. E. Lawrence lost the manuscript for The Seven Pillars of Wisdom at Reading railway station and (obviously) was able to rewrite. The original manuscript for Ultramarine by Malcolm Lowry was stolen from his publisher’s car in 1932, and Lowry wrote it again. The first draft of Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution: A History was mistakenly used for kindling by John Stuart Mill’s maid. (Imagine breaking that bit of news to the author.) Carlyle sat down to rewrite from scratch. And who’s to know whether these rewritten versions weren’t actually better: revisions are almost always needed after all. How much easier life is nowadays: we just print off another copy from our computer.

Virgil asked that The Aeneid be destroyed, but the Emperor Augustus overruled his deathbed wish. Gogol burned his continuation of Dead Souls, and then proceeded to die. Gerard Manley Hopkins burned his early poetry — who are we to say he was wrong — we’ve none of us read it? Philip Larkin’s diaries were burned as per his directions after his death, though other personal papers were saved from the fire. Lots of poems by William Blake were burned after he died: and this is different. Doing it yourself or by your direction is one thing: having it done to you is a horse of a different color. Byron’s memoirs were adjudged by a group of three men to be likely to damage his reputation, and the manuscript was accordingly burned in the fireplace at John Murray’s offices — a fireplace which in my youth I was once privileged to gaze upon. Clearly our attitude towards whatever shocking revelation the manuscript contained are likely to be very different now than they were then, and not being able to read Byron’s thoughts about his life just because a bunch of moralistic Victorian gentlemen couldn’t restrain their blushes is a real loss.


Cambridge Core blog has a piece by Matthew Eddy of Durham University about the development of the school notebook, something we’ve all experienced as a prime site for perfecting the craft of doodling. Using a handsome example from Perth High School, he demonstrates that eighteenth century school notebooks were assembled sheet by sheet. A large sheet of paper was folded to make a four page section. No doubt few students took the ultimate step of having their notes bound up in book form, as someone has done with his example volume. I wonder if all students were as neat as this guy — I assume a male but Scotland was aways a liberal place in education policy, so it may have been a girl I suppose. This notebook’s survival may be down to its exceptional neatness.

I rather regret the loss of my old school notebooks, though what was written (and drawn) in them would probably make for pretty boring reading now, and was certainly nothing like as neat and tidy as the text Dr Eddy shows. But schoolboys (and schoolgirls) did write down a lot of stuff in bound (wire stitched) notebooks in those days. Most of my university stuff was on loose pages and was abandoned in an attic in Cambridge. I don’t think my notes and essays would have been much help to anyone who may have unearthed them in the subsequent half century. I observe my granddaughters referring to notebooks they’ve created: they look more formal than the ones I remember from my time, but clearly the notebook still thrives.

Erik Kwakkel tweets this picture of pages from a student’s notebook written by Heinrich von Weinfelden who was following a course of lectures by Peter Lombard in Vienna in 1399-1400. The full manuscript, from the University Library, Basel, can be found here. (The navigation arrows can be found above the image area on the left hand side.) It looks like Mr von Weinfelden must have written down almost every word. This surely must have been done after the event: it’s so tidy that one is tempted to believe it can’t have been done at the pace of the lecturer’s words. However there are marginal inserts, plus, as shown, a partial page which has been inserted later (?) which would suggest the main text being done live. Maybe lecturers talked slower back then, knowing that all students would be trying to transcribe their words. Always notorious are the good note takers: some undergraduates would not bother to turn up for lectures, knowing they could find out all about it from their assiduous friend. (Others just wouldn’t turn up at the lecture!) Maybe Mr von Weinfelden’s notes were funded by students with more money than energy, who’d just copy what he wrote into their own notebooks.

It is argued by some cognitive scientists that the use of hand and eye together to write things down improves our powers of memory. Certainly it’s the only way I can get close to memorizing a poem, but then of course the notebooks I grew up with weren’t powered by electricity, so hand-eye interaction was drilled into me at an early age. Tim Parks, at that same link, says he recommends to his students that they make a note in the margin of every page, something Bill Gates recommends too. I suspect that this linkage between hand, eye and memory is something we have inherited, even though the time since the origins of reading is perhaps rather short for evolutionary effects to have taken hold. I suppose we could lose this trait if notebook computers change the way we relate to the written word.

“Reading novels needs almost as much talent as writing them” as radical writer X. Trapnel used to say. Even if not sitting there looking over the reader’s shoulder, an author must wish for a reader who will bring completion to the work offered up in hope.

In his cabin by Walden Pond Henry David Thoreau reflected that “To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise . . . It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”

To a large extent I look on my university education as a training for reading novels. Not that I was tasked with reading a single novel written in English while I was there: it’s just that “education” is/used to be all about beefing up your critical faculties. My education (and life) seem to me to have prepared me for little more than the reading of books. Not that I’m complaining: it’s nice work if you can get it  — just hard to find someone to pay you a large wage for it. Obviously work in a publisher’s office is a good option: I can remember rubbing my hands together and giggling to myself “They’re paying me to read books; and before anyone else is able to read them too!” One is overwhelmed by the sight of a publisher’s reader like Edward Garnett directing the likes of Conrad and Lawrence to make this or that cut, such and such a rearrangement in the first drafts of texts which are now iconic. And they’d meekly follow his direction! Of course a hundred years makes a big difference in the fame and authority of an artist — Conrad and Lawrence had yet to become giants — but still . . .

Readers, even readers long after publication, can be said to have a role in creating the work of art: an intelligent, sensitive reading will make a novel come alive in ways it never could if just read through for the story only, or more extremely, just left unopened! Ralph Waldo Emerson was onto this. In “The American Scholar” he tells us “There is then a creative reading as well as a creative writing.” Kurt Vonnegut neatly described reading as “the only art form in which the audience plays the score”. John Cheever said “I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss — you can’t do it alone”. The reader is an essential part of the tale. Almost inevitably there’s now a branch of literary theory called reader-response criticism which maintains that only when the reader engages with the text is its real existence activated. This critical stance would seem to demand that you consider a large number of independent works of art all budding forth from the author’s single root stock: one for every creative reader. This must make the writing of criticism quite difficult, as you would logically need to talk to everyone who’s ever engaged with the text before you can confidently assert what it is!

But should the reader’s role extend back into the writing process? Here’s a piece by Vanessa Lafay about using readers’ reactions to inform the writing process. Crowdsourcing is easy enough nowadays, but is it a good idea when it comes to the creative arts? Yes, no doubt, if your primary motivation is to write a book which will sell more copies; probably not if you hope for literary immortality, though lightning can of course strike in the most unlikely places.

An abugida is a symbol system for writing a language without using an alphabet. In an abugida each symbol is both a consonant and a vowel; its shape tells which consonant, and the way it’s pointing tells the vowel. Just accept this and watch the video. Or, if you have to delve deeper, Wikipedia gives a mound of information.

This video is another brought to us by David Crotty via The Scholarly Kitchen.

For addicts of this stuff, eager to rush down the rabbit hole, there’s apparently a third system: 1. alphabet, 2. abugida, and 3. abjad. In an abjad no record of vowels is attempted.

“People think because a novel’s invented, it isn’t true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Because a novel’s invented, it is true. Biography and memoirs can never be wholly true, since they can’t include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that. The novelist himself lays it down. His decision is binding. The biographer, even at his highest and best, can be only tentative, empirical. The autobiographer, for his part, is imprisoned in his own egotism. He must always be suspect. In contrast with the other two, the novelist is a god, creating his man, making him breathe and walk. The man, created in his own image, provides information about the god. In a sense you know more about Balzac and Dickens from their novels, than Rousseau and Casanova from their Confessions.”

X. Trapnel* would delight in holding forth in The Hero of Acre or another of the pubs he would frequent, and the above is a sample of what you’d get back if your bought him a drink.

Philip Roth can be found in the same vein in his autobiographical fragment, The Facts, where he has Nathan Zuckerman (his fictional avatar) write to him commenting on the manuscript “— no, this isn’t you at your most interesting. In the fiction you can be so much more truthful without worrying all the time about causing direct pain.”

Is there really no fully honest autobiographer? Jean-Jacques Rousseau is notorious for his self-revelation, but it is a revelation of which he was in control all the time. He didn’t just blab into a tape recorder and publish whatever came out of his mouth — not of course that even that method would necessarily lead to total honesty. He obviously puts in what he wants to put in — sometimes no doubt to make himself look good, but also sometimes to make himself look honest — the reader will then think “If he can say that he must be telling the truth”. Is Karl Ove Knausgaard’s stream of consciousness completely and exhaustively honest? Maybe, maybe not; probably not I suspect, because I don’t really think any such thing is possible. He says we look for truth in writing, but of course one man’s truth may be another’s bloody lie. Clearly however he’s aiming at some kind of total self-revelation by writing without intermediation. I just suspect that, if only subconsciously, it’s not possible to be totally frank.

I do believe that hiding behind a fictional character can afford you cover for some revelations which you’d be unwilling to make of your self without the cover that fiction provides. It’s that fictional character who did it, not me — though clearly I know about it and can portray it convincingly enough to make it real. I’ve noticed a willingness to say things in a foreign language which I’d monitor into silence in English. It’s almost as if a different person, a German avatar, was blabbing.

One should of course not overlook the possibility of novelists distorting the truth to make their lives look more admirable. If the narrator is the most likely authorial avatar, that doesn’t have to mean that a potentially embarrassing revelation of some conduct of the author’s, can’t be laid on a minor character. If we have to write what we know (which shouldn’t be brushed off as if that meant something like knowing how a handloom works — it’s more about knowing the murderous thoughts coursing through the weaver’s mind) then in order to write about it we have to know it. In crude terms an autobiographer will tend to suppress ignoble thoughts; a biographer won’t know about them; a novelist is free to expose them in the shape of another person, a character in the novel, “Heaven forfend, not me of course”.


* Fictional author in Anthony Powell’s A dance to the music of time. His girlfriend left him, throwing the only copy of the manuscript of his magnum opus, the novel Profiles in String, into the Grand Union Canal. He was modeled after Julian Maclaren-Ross, who, according to Wikipedia, was also the model for Prince Yakimov in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy.

Not a bad literary afterlife. Authors would no doubt prefer that their own works should be remembered, but living on as a character in novels still being read is better than obscurity.

“Lipogram is the name applied to a species of verse in which a certain letter, either vowel or consonant, is altogether omitted” W. T. Dobson tells us in Literary Frivolities, Fancies, Follies, and Frolics (1880) as quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary. Maybe this sort of thing is more common in verse but it doesn’t have to be restricted to poetry.

Wikipedia has examples including versions of “Mary had a little lamb” worked in various lipogrammatic ways: i.e. each one avoiding a certain letter or letters.

In what must surely be one of the oddest sentences in Wikipedia we are told “Poe’s poem The Raven contains no Z, but there is no evidence that this was intentional.” Bit of a stretch to allow that to qualify it as a lipogram surely. What evidence of intentionality might we look for? A letter from Poe saying that he was planning a poem with lots of Vs and Qs, but no Z? As far as I can see very few of his other poems contain a either. Anyway I’d say it was obviously (if trivially) intentional in that Poe clearly selected no words in which Z featured. Of how many poems could we say that they contain no Z? Certainly too many to bother with. I suspect that big-league lipogrammarians would consider their job required the omission of a letter slightly more frequently-occurring than Z!

Eunoia by Christian Bök certainly satisfies on that score: it restricts itself to the use of a single vowel. Wikipedia includes it as a lipogram, though it is in fact not a lipogram but a univocalic. Each of its five “Chapters” uses a single vowel only. Incredibly this actually manages to make sense and at the same time be interesting, or at least tell a coherent story. The title, which apparently means beautiful thinking in Greek, is alleged to be the shortest word in the English language which contains all five vowels. It is not however represented in the OED, even after this week’s update. Maybe Mr Bök’s efforts will get it there eventually. On a bellyband around the book, Gyles Brandreth describes Eunoia as “Extraordinary, outrageous, irresistible — a must for verbivores.” I guess experimental writing encourages that sort of thing.

Here’s the first page: Chapter A continues to page 30, so he keeps the performance up for a considerable time.

Haplography (chiefly to be encountered in the world of palaeography) is “The practice or an act of inadvertently writing a letter or word, or series of letters or words, once, when it should have been repeated. Opposed to dittography, which is “double writing; the unintentional repetition of a letter or word, or series of letters or words, by a copyist.” Re-reading this paragraph I find it itself sounds a bit haplographic, or maybe I mean dittographic.

Academics who can write for a general audience are a vital resource. They know the stuff, and have the knack of explaining it to the man on the Clapham omnibus. Many such books become hugely influential without ever selling in mass quantities. These are just the sorts of book which are perceived as being most endangered by recent developments in trade publishing. Mid-list is often held to be dead. But I’ve often maintained that these are just the sorts of books which university presses can use to amortize the costs they incur for all the research monographs they exist to publish. I’m not criticizing university presses; naturally if they could always persuade such authors to publish with them they obviously would. I propose them as a refuge, after trade publishers have decided it’s no longer worth their while to attempt to publish books which only sell 5,000 or so.

The Passive Voice sends us a link to this Washington Post story about National Endowment for the Humanities grants being given to people writing non-fiction books directed at a general, non-specialist audience. Such books are perceived as being squeezed between reductions in publishers advances against royalties and difficulties with time off from your academic job.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of the post in order to view it in your browser.

While it’s always nice to hear of writers getting grants, I wonder if this sort of pre-gatekeeping-gatekeeping is really the best way to go. American suspicion of government payments for anything is not utterly misplaced, though we are perhaps a longish way from people being required to write books about themes mandated by an evil dictatorship. Still the price of liberty is good old eternal vigilance — though it’s always struck me as paradoxical that the very people who think the establishment has a monopoly of the good, are the same people who suspect it of harboring evil designs on their freedom.

The Public Scholar Program does have noble aims. One just hopes that such generosity survives the next few years of refocussing our revenues into the wallets of millionaire donors to the GOP!

MIT has put together a writing bot which is churning out horror stories. BookRiot brought the news. Future Tense at Slate has an account. Shelley, as they have named the machine, after Mary Shelley, can be visited at this link. Shelley will generate stories in collaboration with readers, via its Twitter account. The stories can be read online, or on your Twitter feed if you prefer. Here’s an image of the beginning of one of the stories.

In a world where robots are already writing quite a lot of pieces in newspapers, I wonder what happens to copyright in such things. The case of Shelley is even more complex, being a collaboration partially written by a non-human. See Copyright for robots.



This Pompeiian lady holds the putative precursor to the bound book — a polyptych of wooden-framed wax tablets fastened together as a unit — while her more conservative partner strokes his beard with a papyrus scroll, the principal means of written communication for 2,000 years prior. Obviously an intellectual couple.

Wikipedia shows a modern reconstruction of a wax tablet: hollow out a ⅛” thick board, leaving a protective rim around the edge and fill the depression with wax so that it can be impressed with a stylus. When the message has been read it can be smoothed over, and the tablet reused. In the picture the woman is warming the end of the stylus in her mouth to heat it up and make writing in the wax easier.

If you pressed too hard you’d scratch the bottom of the case, and we’ve found lots of information about everyday life in Roman Britain from such survivals found in excavations. They are of course hard to interpret because the scratches come from many different writings. This example comes from The Museum of London. You can just make out the scratches of letters in the wood. Finds have been made of simple wooden units which were written on in ink, and this appears to have been a technique used for “postal” communications. The thin slices of wood would be folded over and tied together for delivery. Homer even refers in Book 6 of The Iliad to what is probably such a thing: “Many, of fatal import, all graved on a tablet infolded”. Pope puts it more elegantly if less specifically: “To Lycia the devoted youth he sent,/ With tablets seal’d, that told his dire intent.”

The Romans appear to have referred to these memo pads pretty straightforwardly as “waxes”, cerae, though an alternative term tabulae exists; but it appears to be a bit more general referring to any tablet on which one could write in any way (stone, metal, clay, wood), narrowed down as tabulae ceratae when used specifically for “waxes”. If there were multiple “leaves” bound (tied) together, the inner “pages” might be hollowed out on both sides. “Waxes” were not invented by the Romans: they took them over from Greece where the may be seen on vases from the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Inevitably this happy chappy looks to us like he’s working on his MacBook.

Douris cup, c.480BC. Berlin, Antikenmuseen

No wonder the guy in front of him looks a bit startled. But he is of course writing on a (rather large) triptych wax tablet set.

Nor did the Greeks invent them: they got them from earlier middle eastern cultures. The oldest surviving example of a wax writing tablet comes from fourteenth century BC Turkey.

Just because something new comes along doesn’t of course mean that any piece of technology instantly disappears.  People like to use tools they are familiar with, and if they work well there’s really no reason to innovate just for the sake of innovating. The everyday use of wax writing tablets continued for centuries after the invention of paper: they were apparently still being used in the Rouen fish market in the 1860s.


Knowing what you want to say, seeing it clearly in your head, and then just letting it rip at the keyboard may work with an essay (or a blog post), but with a book the length of the project will mean that sooner or later the words you just wrote will inevitably begin to influence your next line of thought, and soon you’ll be veering off on tangents on tangents. Writing an outline is something every author should confront sooner or later. Sooner’s better, as thinking it through will help you clarify your aims in your own mind. It’s also better because if changes are suggested, they are easier to implement before the passage in question has been written in full.

But it seems so cold and final. Much nicer to let your inner Heathcliff drive you along wherever he wants. Still, beware; if you want to get a publisher on-board, you’ll need to write a proposal indicating why the book’s needed and why you’re the one to fill the void. An outline will be a necessary part of that process: so you’re going to have to do it anyway — may as well get it done as early as possible when it’ll be of most help to you. So all writers, even self-publishers (perhaps especially self publishers who won’t have to go through the disciplinary step of satisfying an agent or editor), will end up benefitting from having to make a thorough outline.

Help is provided by a wide range of sources. This article from Publishing Talk by literary agent Sarah Such focusses on the writing of the outline. A more business-oriented tack is taken by Jane Friedman.