Please Show You’re Working

This is an unedited version of my review for The Times Literary Supplement. The typos are, for that reason, entirely my own.

Cover: The Work of Revision, from Harvard University Press

James Joyce would often write to his patron and unofficial archivist Harriet Shaw Weaver, adding “a little waste paper to get it out of the way.” He was sending her preparatory material, work in progress, which would later become part of the British Library collection. Of the estimated 25,000 pages of drafts and sketches, less than half of these words would be printed in his ‘final’ text, Finnegans Wake. Clearly, the presence of discarded drafts and proofs, and the economies they support, provide a range of opportunities for authors, literary executors, archivists, libraries and scholars. For the latter, establishing points of provenance, compositional order, and textual transmission of these wasted notebook drafts, ‘scripts, and page proofs, along with demonstrating a technical competence necessary to marshal difficult material, can bring professional esteem, employment, promotion, publication, and many an air-conditioned holiday to an archive or research library. Studying discarded and unpublished versions creates ‘grey canons’, altered or alternative bibliographies, ever more responsive to the individuals, communities and institutions that invest in the collection, conservation, dissemination and analysis of their contents. ‘Genetic criticism’, developed by French scholars in the 1970s, has been particularly influential in the attempt to critically assess these abandoned pages, or avant-textes, for the special kind of compositional afterglow that they offer a published work and the process of its creation. And it is this effort to “make texts speak” that makes the spirit and practise of genetic criticism so intriguing – it takes muted documents to describe and thus draw us closer to the thinking that accompanied their making.

The idea of readers peering behind the curtain to gawp at textual detritus gives some authors cause for anxiety. Basil Bunting, for example, preferred that his drafts pipe down and enjoy “the damp dustbins among the peel / tobacco-ash and ends spittoon lickings” instead of the “printed ignominy” offered by their preservation. In The Work of Revision, Hannah Sullivan shows herself to be a critic who is, so to speak, willing to go through the bins. In exploring the processes of composition and decomposition, as well as providing an excellent introduction to the practical and conceptual ideas integral to comparative textual genetics, she shows how the “fossilized historical intentions” and the “traces of the action” can emerge between revised texts. Fated experiments, she argues, produce invaluable castoffs. Readers glimpse an author’s wider ambitions and, significantly, the changing shape of a work as it moves from shop floor to shop window.

What is attractive about The Work of Revision is the way Sullivan’s precise and carefully organised case histories unsettle the simple, unidirectional, and ideal passage from draft to bound copy. In her descriptions of “post-compositional revision” in particular, she reminds us of the laborious transformations that can occur prior to and after the publication of a volume. Revised texts, she argues, elicit a different kind of review, and the work, to quote Michel Contat, Denis Hollier, and Jacques Neefs, “now stands out against a background, and a series, of potentialities. Genetic criticism is contemporaneous with an esthetic of the possible.” It is with an expanded sense of possibility that Sullivan traces the labour of writing. From the failure of Henry James’s New York Edition to the posthumous publication of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land typescripts (“years of waste time, exacerbating to its author”, according to Ezra Pound), this book reflects the mixed fortunes of those that choose to revise and revise again.

The Work of Revision is organised around writings by Henry James, Pound, Hemingway, Eliot, Joyce and Woolf, along with some others. Across these case studies swirl a wider set of historical, sociological, and economic ideas, particularly about the influence that writing technologies and print histories have had in forming specific, aesthetic effects (such as ambiguity, parataxis, or autobiographical closure). Contrary, perhaps, to the intuitive idea that ‘bad’ witting needs more revision than ‘good’ writing, Sullivan argues that the history of “revising is influenced by writing technology and medium more than initial composition”. Though some writers of the early-twentieth century entertained a minimalist, Imagist aesthetic, others took to a kind of textual maximalism, exemplified by Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and the accretive method by which Joyce developed later episodes of Ulysses. Both literary minimalism and maximalism, suggests Sullivan, are best understood in terms of the technologies that permitted experiments in revision.

The typewriter brought home the clarity of blacks on blanks and, since many of Sullivan’s modernist revisionaries wrote first in freehand and then employed a typist to produce their typescripts, they benefited from an important transition between the provisional nature of manuscript and the fixity of type (“Much as I loathe the typewriter”, wrote Auden, “I must admit that it is a help in self-criticism”). Another innovation that made the period between 1890 and 1940 something of a golden era for Sullivan, were advances in automatic typesetting. In the 1880s print became faster and cheaper, publishers could afford to send their authors proofs and, in doing so, they created another opportunity to make changes to the text. The proliferation of little magazines in this period gave authors yet another opportunity to test their work against a reading public before revising for subsequent publication. Form, as well as content, emerges from these relaying acts of modification: the Pound-Eliot co-editorship of The Waste Land created a paper trail that reveals poem and “a poem that merely could have been”; Joyce’s proof-stage additions to Ulysses thicken the interior depth of his characters. More than through some totalising set of ideals that were universally shared, the significance of the period’s experimentalism returns us to the economies of print, the systems of patronage, and the matter and materialities of composition.

A revisionary history of revision, based on the distribution of writing technologies, is an important contribution to the scholarship of twentieth-century literature, and it follows a wealth of other recent studies that have focused on the historical circumstances that encouraged artistic experiment in this period. It has been presented in a book that keeps the hand busy in the margin, to mark and then return to its frequent moments of insight but also in order to take a second look at the arguments once composed and then set aside. Sullivan says Keats, Shelley, Browning and other Romantic writers did not tend to revise and could not afford to, and they scorned attempts to reignite the fading coals of the imagination and turn back time on a creative act whose authenticity was held to be unilinear in nature. Wordsworth’s Preludes marks a telling exception. The moderns had a remorseless passion for revision that reached a “perverse” state – a “fetish” for some – as they became possessed by a “psychological compulsion” to transform their texts. Wordsworth, despite conducting a project of revision that lasted decades, is described as a “penitent” reviser and is therefore categorically pre-modernist. One wonders whether Sullivan’s desire to use the history of revision to solidify rather than complicate the relations between literary epochs – Romantic, modern, postmodern, or whatever we might call them – means that these moral and quasi-medical judgements about the practise of revision must appear like the tips to some unseen mass, untethered to her arguments about writing technologies and unsupported beyond a few familiar quotes from the works of Sigmund Freud.

Encompassing statements that seem to decry the “wasteful textual attitudes” of modernist writers and their “aesthetic of textual recklessness” are contrasted to our digital present. Sullivan shows how M.F.A. programmes, which make literary revision an important and explicit part of their curricula, are as familiar as authors at literary festivals discussing the ways that they turn and return to a phrase. So long as “revising a lot turns out to be something that famous authors do” the craftiness of writing will remain the pedagogical and performative norm. But the means by which we can document textual change, and therefore the kinds of individual text histories that Sullivan creates, has radically changed in the last two decades. Accelerating the pace of publication with the almost ubiquitous use of word processing software, many writers have lost the passage from manuscript to typescript that was so influential to previous generations: electronic documents are written and edited on screen, saving over previous versions; typescript changes are approved on screen; proofs are sent by email. This makes genetic criticism, especially object-orientated, archived, and institutionalised criticism, rather more difficult to undertake. In contrast to the modernist period, Sullivan declares that revision is now “effectively free”; “there is no real danger of a work becoming fixed in a single, imperfect form.” It is a shame that these claims of digital freedom are not supported with the same kind of rigorous detail provided elsewhere. Indeed, when Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was published in the UK using first-pass galley proofs – Franzen discovered the mistake while recording a reading for the BBC’s The Review Show and a subsequent public reading commenced with the author urging his audience not to but buy the book – the costs and dangers of electronic transfer resurfaced with particular force.

In a simple sense, publishing and the process of literary composition, like other aspects of craft and commerce, are not yet fully paperless. Contemporary writers also use notebooks, send hardcopy of their unrevised typescripts (some agents and presses only accept paper submissions), and uncorrected proofs are put in circulation for book fairs; the paper evidence has not entirely disappeared. Which brings us back to decisions of individuals and collectives, back to a wider set of positions – political, social, economic, ecological, and technological – that affect compositional practise. For instance, technological obsolescence may well prevent textual geneticists from accessing the working drafts of some contemporary writers, yet the primary issue, as it was with Joyce when he dispersed “waste paper” around Europe, is whether or not avant-textes, in whatever format, are kept, stored, backed up or emailed in the first place. So, while Joyce sent his working drafts to Weaver and agonised about the notebooks that he lost during his movements across Europe, Eliot was glad to see the back of his early notebook: “I cannot feel altogether sorry that this [typescript] and the notebook have disappeared” (it was hidden in a drawer and later published in 1996 as Inventions of a March Hare). As Hannah Sullivan so skilfully shows, textual waste does have a habit of returning to texts that once required its absence, but the rate of return is not yet so rapid as to be non-existent or untraceable. The Work of Revision reflects a variety of writerly attitudes to revision as well as the decisions left open to readers regarding the value of lines crossed-out and stanza redecorated. Provocative and direct, it goes to great lengths to show just how difficult it can be to elucidate the social life of texts whose use and meaning remain a work in progress.

– 1807

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