Writing Technologies

[Printable version]

Against Textual Idealism

Rob Latham

One important effect of a concerted focus on ‘writing technologies’ – that is, on the material mechanics of inscription – is a dilution of the textual idealism that is endemic to much literary study. Outside the area of bio-bibliographic research, where an attention to the specifics of manuscript variants is crucial, most literary scholars tend to operate as if any given version of a text is adequate for their scholarly or pedagogical purposes. The emergent field of book studies has done much in recent years to correct this assumption, showing compellingly how such extra- or para-textual features as publication format, illustrations, and mode of distribution work to condition how individual texts are interpreted by readers. It matters intimately to an informed grasp of Dickens’ novels, for example, that most of them were released in serial form, an arrangement that had appreciable effects on such intra-textual features as plot and characterization. Every text, whether an original publication or a reprint, is materially instantiated in a specific medium, accessible through particular modes of distribution, and amenable to discrete forms of reception. Encountering a story by H.P. Lovecraft or Dashiell Hammett in a pulp magazine such as Weird Tales or Black Mask is not the same thing as reading it in a Library of America edition.

These considerations apply with particular force in the field where much of my own research is centered, science fiction. For roughly the first thirty years of its existence, science fiction (SF) was essentially a magazine culture, sustained by pulp and digest publications appearing monthly or quarterly; a specialty book market was negligible until the late 1950s and did not achieve dominance until at least a decade later. This basic set of facts has important consequences for how we read SF texts. For example, early SF’s purplish prolixity—the adjectival profusion of the classic pulp style—may in part be explained by the fact that editors needed copy to fill pages and writers were paid by the word. Moreover, possible story structures were constrained by the serial format: some of the classic works in the field, such as Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (1950), though marketed in book form as novels, were not initially planned as such, but rather as cycles of tales published over decades—hence their episodic plots and flattened, repetitive characterization (since characters had to be introduced anew to a fresh set of readers with each installment).

Despite the evident salience of these contextual issues to an adequate interpretation of SF works published prior to the 1960s, many SF critics and teachers seem to assume that a text as presented in a current reprint edition is not substantially different from its appearance in a pulp magazine of the 1940s. This is a misleading assumption even if the reproduction is precisely word for word (which is often not the case since many SF authors, irritated by the persistent meddling of magazine editors, restored or revised their work when published in book form). A pulp story was seldom read in isolation but instead came bathed in the ambient culture of a particular magazine, with its editorial ideology, visual style, and layout—all of which hovered on the margins of the reading experience as an animating framework for interpretation. Broadly speaking, this encompassing context provided the ‘writing technology’ of the genre, and contemporary scholars who ignore it are in serious danger of generating blinkered or anachronistic readings of texts from pervious eras. Disciplined attention to a work’s material instantiation is thus an essential component of literary analysis, and not just for SF critics either.

  Against textual idealism