On the Modernist Roots of Revision

As discussed this week at workshop, some scholars believe our current beliefs about the importance and necessary depth of revision derive from the practices of Modernist authors at the turn of the century in conjunction with one very significant invention: the typewriter. Below is an excerpt of Craig Fehrman’s fascinating article for the Boston Globe discussing Hannah Sullivan’s new book, The Work of Revision, and the evolution of the writing process throughout history:

“It’s easy to assume that history’s greatest authors have been history’s greatest revisers. But that wasn’t always how it worked. Until about a century ago, according to various biographers and critics, literature proceeded through handwritten manuscripts that underwent mostly small-scale revisions.

Then something changed. In a new book, “The Work of Revision,” Hannah Sullivan, an English professor at Oxford University, argues that revision as we now understand it—where authors, before they publish anything, will spend weeks tearing it down and putting it back together again—is a creation of the 20th century. It was only under Modernist luminaries like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf that the practice came to seem truly essential to creating good literature. Those authors, Sullivan writes, were the first who “revised overtly, passionately, and at many points in the lifespan of their texts.”

What caused these writers to put their faith in revision as the key to good literature? In part, it was the philosophy of Modernism—the idea that a novel or poem should challenge the reader, break with tradition, and, in the words of Pound, “Make it new.” But Sullivan, who belongs to a new wave of scholars trying to understand literature through the physical and historical realities of its creation, finds that our value of revision was also driven by something else: the typewriter.

It might seem strange to think that we owe the high style of Modernism—and the notion that even a book titled “Dad is Fat” requires strenuous reworking—to a machine. But “The Work of Revision” makes a case that what we write often comes down to how we write. Careful revision isn’t automatic or even automatically useful. And that means, as our technology changes once again, that literary style may already be undergoing another transformation.” — Craig Fehrman, “Revising your writing again? Blame the Modernists,” 30 June 2013.

Follow the link above to enjoy the rest of the article–which goes into greater detail about the typewriter’s impact on the writing/revising process and reveals the revision practices of some of our most beloved authors–over at the Boston Globe.

Do you have a revision ritual or writing process that works for you? Strange habits that help you create? We want to hear from you, so please share in the comments below! 

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