News Feed as Archive

Ruth Franklin, commenting on the New York Timesarticle on John Updike‘s papers, writes that such collections are inevitably disappointing:

[T]the archive offers an illusion of completeness not entirely different from the way the novel itself offers an illusion of reality. All those boxes, their contents neatly filed and numbered and alphabetized, in all their exquisite order! But anyone who has spent time poking through a writer’s archive—and I have been doing a bit of this myself lately—will realize that the apparent intactness masks what is not there.

And there’ll be plenty more not-there in future archives, she notes; after all, there’s no paper trail when writers draft their novels in Word. “What’s missing is the alchemy that takes an assortment of random objects and transforms them into a work of art,” she writes. “And that process leaves no trace.” But it may be that the lack of evidence of excisions and changes may be replaced with a whole new set of data points relating to the writing process. Assuming people get smart about archiving, there’ll be plenty of blog posts, Tweets, and Facebook updates for literary biographers to trawl through in the future, and those updates will be more precise to boot. Where once Updike hung onto a Planters Peanut Bar wrapper for some reason at some point, we can now know that a future brilliant writer, at 2:15 a.m. on July 2, 2008, liked a Diet Coke-and-Mentos video.

That bit of information, in itself, isn’t very meaningful. (Unless, I suppose, this hypothetical brilliant writer’s most powerful work involves Diet Coke and Mentos.) But all that online activity, with the authority of timestamping, might make for a kind of a negative portrait—an image of the writer when he or she wasn’t writing that hints as much at the “alchemy” as any other assortment of writerly detritus. And if there’ll be less evidence of the careful revisions that Updike’s archive displays, there’ll probably be more commentary about the process than what Updike bothered to write down. The ephemera will be there; we just won’t have to find shelf space for it.

4 thoughts on “News Feed as Archive

  1. Hmm. If anybody could make the case for this, you could; yet I am not totally convinced.

    There is something sacred about paper. As writers, when we decide to make those black (or blue) marks on white, that is a decision more significant than what we skimmed through on the Internet when we were tired.

    Speaking of which, I’m off to pop a Mento in my Coke.

    1. Well, I’m not entirely convinced either that interesting details about the revision process won’t be lost. I just mainly wanted to point out that scholars probably won’t be hurting for ephemera from writers in the future; it’s just that a lot of that stuff will be digital. And I don’t doubt that some determined geek can find a way to trawl through Word documents and find evidence of deletions and rescribblings. And if not? Well, writers, as you point out, are really just people who make significant decisions about words, and it’s an occupational hazard that they’ll leave evidence of those decisions all over the place—in multiple draft files, in emails to confidantes, in printouts for writers’ groups. Those black and blue marks are nice to see, but I don’t think we’re going to wind up world where the only evidence writers leave of their efforts are clean Word files.

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