Thursday, December 17, 2009


Dictation and Generosity

 Anne Trubek on October 8, 2009 at 3:02 pm PDT

Richards Powers wrote his new novel by dictation. Does that affect the quality?

Richard Powers’ new novel, Generosity, was published this week. I am a huge fan of Powers, and I loved the novel. But not all had the same reaction. James Wood wrote a lengthy article critiquing Powers and his latest novel in this week’s New Yorker. Wood argues that Powers’s novels lack convincing plots and characters. Fair enough—we are entitled to disagree. But in the middle of his essay he makes a comment that reveals an odd literary prejudice.

The main character of the novel, Russell Stone, is a failed writer. Since “Stone is himself a failed writer, perhaps Powers thought that mimetic fidelity compelled him to compose a failure, too.” Ouch: a novel about a bad writer is badly written on purpose. But then Wood goes on to give what he deems a more reasonable explanation for s the novel’s weakness: “A less postmodern explanation might be the now reasonably well-known fact that Powers has for some time been writing fiction by dictation, with the help of speech-recognition software.”

And he leaves it at that. No explanation, no warrants to explain the assumption, no claims, supports or data to back up this explanation. The fact speaks for itself, Wood assumes: the novel is bad because Powers dictated it.

Huh? Is it a truth generally acknowledged that writers who talk are inferior to those who scratch or tap? I think not. I know not.

Henry James dictated many of his novels. So did Mark Twain. Socrates and Homer? Well, you get my drift.

There is no logical, historical, cultural, aesthetic, or cognitive reason why dictation is a poor way to write. As Powers himself said of his use of voice recognition software a few years ago: “Writing is the act of accepting the huge shortfall between the story in the mind and what hits the page. ... For that, no interface will ever be clean or invisible enough for us to get the passage right.”

I would argue more of us should dictate than do now. I have seen how much fun my 10 year old son has when he gets to dictate his creative writing assignments for school to me. Freed from trying to find the “p” on the keyboard or remember to cross his “t,” words flow. Sentences, even, with clauses. Every so often he says out loud: “Return.”

Not all of us have the gift of composed speech, or speaking to write. I do not. I am a cut-and-paste revising maniac—never the first time will do for me, and I never know where I am going to go next. But just as anyone can be trained to write, anyone can be trained to memorize.

In his textbook on rhetoric, the Insituto Oratoria, Quintilian describes how to build a memory palace, a form on mnemonics in which orators picture a structure they know well—a palace, a house, and imaginatively furnish it with objects. Each object is then used as a symbol for a point the orator wants to make. Thus when giving a speech a speaker can simply take a virtual walk through the structure and remember what he wants to say.

In other words, there are all ways to get from conception to execution, or from God’s lips to your ears.

Faulty assumptions about writing are everywhere, from “do not start a sentence with ‘And’” to “never end a sentence with a preposition.” Now, I guess, some believe one should “never dictate novels.” None of these dictates has good reasons to support it. Why this insistence on rules, protocols, right and wrong ways? It is all very ungenerous. Unscrew the locks form the doors already, so we can all try to get closer to what we mean.

As originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, June 1968
hj_dn picture
by Leon Edel

"IT has long been known that during his last illness, in the midst of the 19l4-19l8 war, and when he was in delirium, Henry James called his secretary, the late Theodora Bosanquet, and dictated certain passages that dealt with the Napoleonic legend. The text of the dictation has never been published, although Miss Bosanquet once read an excerpt during a BBC broadcast devoted to the novelist; and in 1927 it was mentioned briefly in Pelham Edgar's Henry James: Man and Author as a "Napoleonic Fragment." I found the document in 1937 when James's nephew and executor gave me access to his posthumous papers. It struck me as curious  -- a kind of stream of consciousness of a fading mind still in possession of its verbal power and the grandeur of its style and I took a copy of it, feeling it to be a significant biographical document. Later, when the James family papers were given to Harvard, this manuscript was not included. I learned that the executor had ordered it destroyed along with certain other papers. He felt that it was too tragic a record of a mind in disintegration. I think he felt, too, that the passages hardly constituted a literary work. Miss Bosanquet, who took the dictation directly on the typewriter (as was James's custom), told me that the sound of the familiar machine, and the ability to ease his mind, had helped soothe the novelist in his feverish moments. It had been my intention to use this material in its relevant place in the Life of Henry James, which I am now completing. But I have learned that a certain writer in England, who gained access to Miss Bosanquet's papers, found copies of some of this dictation and is planning to make use of it in a forthcoming book along with other materials long ago made available to me by Miss Bosanquet, and reserved for my use. I have decided accordingly, in the interest of the record and of accuracy, to make this document public, there being no objection now from the James descendants. If I am to be anticipated, it seems to me, I may as well anticipate my own book. It must be noted that Miss Bosanquet did not have the complete document; certain sentences were set down during her absence, were dictated to James's niece, Peggy James, daughter of William James. Peggy, with her mother, the widow of William, had braved the submarine menace of the First World War and crossed the Atlantic to be with Henry James during his last days..."

The entirety of this article can be found here:

THE LAST WORDS OF HENRY JAMES; Two Unfinished Posthumous Novels and an Autobiographical Account of His "Middle Years" of Exceptional Interest to Students of His Work THE LAST WORDS OF HENRY JAMES


December 9, 1917, Sunday

Section: The New York Times Book Review, Page 47, 2679 words

TO borrow an odd phrase from Dr. Donne, whose conventionalities were paradoxes, the style of Henry James Is bones to philosophy and milk to faith. Even his brother William broke his teeth on Henry's later books; and the reason why the devotee swallows them whole is because the devotee makes of attempt to fletcherize. 


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