The Death of the Revision?

Big Think’s interview with Rick Moody covers a lot of ground—the problems with writing workshops, writers and antidepressants, the damage the recession has done to writers (especially experimental ones), and the effect of the internet has had on our attention spans. Those thoughts aren’t new ones, but Moody comes at them from a boots-on-the-ground perspective. And I hadn’t heard one idea that Moody puts forth in the interview, which is that writers aren’t revising the way they used to:

How it affects writers of literary fiction is sort of coming into view, but one way that I notice it is that books that were written primarily on a screen and never printed out and worked with by hand are now more numerous than they used to be. And I imagine sometimes that I can kind of tell. There are certain writers who work really quickly and the project goes straight from their screen to the editor to the copy editor to the printer—and it never got dealt with the way people used to deal with prose, which was to patiently revise. And that period of time in which one patiently revises is a period of time in which you can make important decisions about whether that particular passage, or that entire idea, or even the book itself is really worthy or not. And if you’re just sort of working fast and hitting “send,” you miss out on that opportunity to think about what you’re doing.

This is an occupational hazard with journalists, especially bloggier ones—and don’t think Moody won’t call you out for sloppy bloggy argumentation—but lacking specific evidence, it’s hard to say that revision is a lost art, or that the internet is helping to kill it. The fact that copy editors at publishers have disappeared at publishing houses has been well-documented, but if anything that seems to have prompted writers to take even more care with their own work, and forced agents to push their writers to rework more in order to get their work seen in a crowded marketplace. Whether the books are getting refined and polished to appeal to a certain set of tastes is worth discussing, but I’ve never gotten the impression that self-respecting authors at any serious major or indie press go from rough draft to published book with minimal fuss.

15 thoughts on “The Death of the Revision?

  1. The jump from “composing on computers” to “not revising” seems pretty specious and lazy to me; it’s the sort of idea that seems plausible until you think about how computer composing actually allows you to revise in all sorts of ways that were never posible otherwise, while it’s still completely possible to print out and hack away by hand. But it’s always easier to just blame technology and the internet…

  2. I think I know what Moody means. Read Tao Lin, for instance. Whatever you might say of him, his books certainly don’t give the impression of being labored over. They feel dashed-off, and I wonder if this is, in part, what Moody means. I’m not sure I agree with Moody that the problem is the use of computers in composing, but it’s as plausible a theory as any. I have had the same feeling when reading Kevin Sampsell’s recent memoir or so many other new releases I’ve read over the past few years. Much of this literature is born of the self-publishing/zine world in which turning out *something* (and often something confessional) is more important than turning out something good. I know many people from the HTMLGiant world would disagree with me, but a slackening of respect for subtext, careful writing, complexity and rigor seems a given in modern publishing. And–I hate to say it–particularly independent publishing. I think it was Bukowski who talked about “typing” as opposed to writing. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of modern (often younger) writers are just typing. What’s surprising to me is that the haphazard work that results appeals to anyone. I’ll grant that much of it is readable enough–like picking through someone’s diary, but little of it feels in any way valuable or important.

  3. Perhaps, for young adults who grew up reading blogs, the informality is familiar, comfortable, and appealing. Also, though, I can see why a writer might adopt that style, either as an artistic end in itself or as a way of commenting on that style and on the people who find it attractive. In a word, satire.

    1. Though for me to buy the satire, I generally have to trust that the author is skilled at playing it straight. And good satire demands its own share of attention, care, revision, etc….

  4. I agree with both ZGNGU and Mr. Traynor. The leap from computer composed to poorly-revised and ill- considered (How few writers still write longhand? Do writers who wrote longhand once but now type really show a decline in quality or a significant change in their revision process?) is questionable. What Moody, and Mr. Traynor are really speaking of, however, has more to do with modern publishing, online literary magazines, and the ways blogging and the proliferation of e-zines have influenced literary aesthetic. Some of the best work to come from that milieu maybe is good enough and intentional enough to qualify as satire. But much of it is poorly formed and sloppily crafted… often, it glorifies the surface aesthetic of writers like Mr. Moody, or Amy Hempel. Ann Beattie, and Lorrie Moore, without offering much substance due to a lack of real understanding of why those writers are actually good. But does that have to do with the rise of the computer and internet? Peripherally, culturally, commercially, but not directly in terms of anything that has to do with microsoft word.

  5. I’m just old-school enough to print out my drafts, and laboriously edit with a pen, after which the revised draft is retyped and the process begun again. Editing on-screen just seems too narrowly-focused – yes, doing so might get that sentence just right (and quickly/easily), but editing by hand gives me a more broader perspective on the work as a whole.

  6. You may also want to look at what is happening in some of the MFA workshops themselves. Compare Moody’s comments about staleness and repetition with these from Steve Almond, who taught at Boston College and Emerson:

    SA: I haven’t read a lot. Also, asking a student to read Flaubert’s short stories or even Chekov is—even though I don’t want it to and even though I can try to teach it in such a way that would light that flame—I think if I give them a Barry Hannah or a George Saunders story, they will say, “Wow! Not only can I do this but this looks like fun to do and it feels important to do.” They get out of that mode of the didactic. “I must understand that Chekov is writing about the theme of forgiveness in this story and that’s what I am trying to do in my writing.” If I was teaching a lit class, that’s a different thing.

    RB: You could pair up contemporary writers with classic writers.

    SA: That can be done, and good teachers do that. My approach is to try to convince them, quite forcefully because I only have them for one term, that literature and writing is something of now, of today and it’s funny as hell and it’s sad as hell and it’s important as hell. The short cut for me to do that is to give them contemporary writers who I came to as a fairly poor reader with a bad attention span and raised on TV so I could get in to them.

    http://www.identitytheory.com/people/birnbaum84.html

    Almond has a studied self-deprecating manner, but I suspect he is serious and what he does represents a trend. Writers — and students of writing — may not be looking back further than the last few decades.

    1. Perhaps, but I don’t take that to mean that there’s a growing disinclination to revise. Elsewhere in that (very good) interview, Almond makes it clear that he’s pretty hard on his students:

      But I teach and I very much try to weed out my classes in a way that says, “Look, I’m in this for life. This is what I do. It’s the most important ecstatic thing that you could possibly do with your life. And if you don’t believe that, and you are just in here to dabble, then get the fuck out, ‘cuz I’m gonna make your life miserable for the next four months and you are going to make my life miserable because I am going to be disappointed in you. And you are going to know that I am disappointed in you and in some fucked-up way, I am your daddy and that’s gonna bum you out. So get the hell out if you are not ready…”

  7. No argument. Almond is a serious writer. He has also tried to play the market, with so-so results. The market is a beast.

    I was referring to Moody’s comment:

    Rick Moody: What I suspect, I mean, on the one hand, that strikes me as a really good thing… I’m glad there’s a lot of stories around. I think that psychologically, emotionally, there’s a need for what story can do and by that I mean a narrative that begins at point A and goes to point B that really travels somewhere and contains some kind of earthly wisdom in the fact that its transit. That kind of story I think we’re sort of hardwired to find it valuable in a certain way. And I’m sure that the proliferation of those stories has to do with the fact that we do find them valuable.

    My concern is that many students — and writers — have set ways of approaching fiction and that their view of fiction and its possibilities is narrow, whatever has been done the last 10-20 years. I’ve heard this complaint about other programs, including Iowa. Note, too, Moody’s comments about the influence of the recession — but this trend has been going on for decades:

    I think the economy is changing the way people are writing and that writers are more desperate then at any time since I’ve been watching what’s been happening closely. And I worked in publishing in the last big recession in the early 90’s, so I saw some of it at that time. I think people are just really scared that they’re not going to get published at all, and as a result, they’re trying to shoehorn themselves into pretty rigidly formatted kinds of things.

    Thanks for posting the Moody, btw.

  8. Instead of speculating on what Moody means, why not track the man down and ask him? Why not conduct an informal survey with novelists and editors determining the present state of manuscript revision? Maybe Moody does have hard and/or specific evidence of certain novels that have never been marked up with a pen, or certain publishers who encourage all digital production — either due to a labor shortfall or an accelerated production calendar. (By the way, I can report on good authority that there’s a good deal of line editing that goes down at Melville House. Is it not possible that the “dashed-off” aesthetic that Pie Traynor detects is deliberate? The result of very careful revision?)

  9. It’s certainly possible that a haphazard, dashed-off effect is deliberately cultivated, but one would expect that any writer who had been able to convincingly achieve such an effect intentionally would be a writer of powerful skill with important (or at least interesting) things to express using this impression of sloppiness to bring depth to the work. I just don’t see that in the cases mentioned.

  10. It’s not a matter of there being a bunch of “dashed off” stuff out there. Quite the opposite–shit is polished even though editors don’t edit, because it’s easy to polish. Say you’ve got an iffy scenario in your novel, not sure the character’s motivation in a particular scene or hundred-page stretch of your book is convincing. It’s very tempting to think that once you get the language right, the rhythm right, pump it up with a flashy detail or two, the motivation will be there, on the page. Tinkering like this always leads you to something better than you started with, and word processing makes it easy to do. With handwriting or a typewriter, though, a mistake is a mistake. You have to start over. You’re much more likely, when starting over, to realize that tinkering is not the solution. You’ve entirely misconceived something. You’ve got to rewrite every word anyway, might as well tell the whole damn novel from someone else’s pov, or make the tight-lipped religious guy a Falstaffian windbag. Word processors make buffing and sanding easy and so offer false hope. Thus we end up with a bunch of books that look like finished novels but are actually early drafts subjected to micro-level polishing. It’s a theory, anyway.

  11. I’ve been working on a novel for some time now… I revised it again and again and again on my own (and when I use the word revision, I’m not talking about moving commas — I’m talking months of intense work resulting in a profoundly different manuscript), then again for an agent, then again for a different agent when the first one left the bizz. Then a (big six) pub said they were interested but asked for an extensive spec revision, which I did, and now they have asked for yet another spec revision. If the book does eventually sell to them, I have every reason to believe there will be more revisions in store.

    The idea that either authors or publishers are not deeply invested in a lengthy, grueling revision process is total bunk from what I’ve seen (not just my own experience, but my friends’ as well).

    I’m guessing that this rumor comes from non-writers and inexperienced writers (and also very lucky, genius writers) who have no clue how HARD writing is for most of us. So they read a book that seems kind of crummy, and they think “I bet no one revised this.” But the sad truth is, that crummy novel was probably revised over and over and over and over and over and is *still* not that good. Because writing really terrific books is, contrary to common perception, pretty damn difficult.

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