William Trevor and the (Modernist) Work of Revision

[Image: Manuscript of William Trevor’s “In Love with Ariadne,” available on the Paris Review website here.]

In her wonderful The Work of Revision, Hannah Sullivan tracks the ways that Modernist writers–Henry James, Pound, Eliot, Woolf, Auden–changed their works, arguing in turn that revision should be counted among the chief Modernist virtues. (If you, dear reader, aren’t familiar with the book, I’d urge you read my friend Alan’s insightful review for the now, alas, defunct Books and Culture.) Sullivan ably maps the new ecology of inscription technologies emerging as the twentieth century comes into view. Writers, for example, are toying with the typewriter (or employing typists). Printers, meanwhile, allow for more alteration to occur during the production process thanks to new machines for casting wads or complete lines of type (Monotype and Linotype). Sullivan doesn’t trade in simple deterministic narratives: the new technological and economic conditions are not singly responsible for the Modernist culture (or, maybe better said, cult) of revision. It’s better to say that they, along with other often related development (such as Modernist journal culture) give added license to certain writers’ penchants for and practices of revision. (And, soon enough, the rest of are expected to follow along…)

As my subject line suggests, I propose that we can extend Sullivan’s paradigm to the work of the great and, now unfortunately, late Anglo-Irish fiction writer William Trevor. In particular, I want to zero in on Sullivan’s discussion of the rhythm of Modernist revision, specifically the way that the Modernists experienced their texts in multiple formats in the process of revising. She addresses the issue in a succinct fashion in a rich exchange with Matthew Kirschenbaum preserved at the Harvard UP blog:

The material documents I studied include many things besides typescript: notebooks, manuscripts, different stages of proof (Joyce’s proofs for the “Ithaca” episode of Ulysses are notorious), serial printings, and first and subsequent book editions. Most of the writers I study continued to draft and compose by hand, but they revised and rewrote (also usually by hand) on very different kinds of pages.


The typewriter also came in at a later stage in the process than we tend to think. Media historians tend to focus more on “typing” than “typing up.” But for the high modernists (and then for their sometimes self-consciously imitative successors), the typewriter was more an instrument of re-representation, of re-presentation, than composition. Were the earliest document preserved in the story of a modernist novel’s development a typescript (even marked-up and scored with revision, and only the first of many others) the first working assumption should be that the manuscript was lost or destroyed.

This changed in the postwar period. And it doesn’t have much to do with competence at typing. Sylvia Plath was an excellent typist (and typed up Ted Hughes’s poems for him), but by writing her own poetry out in a distinctive, babyish hand, she was, I think, marking out her work as serious, modernist, and not effeminate or secretarial. (Not “written on a typewriter by a typewriter,” in Randall Jarrell’s infamous put-down of Oscar Williams’ poems.) For male writers such as Kerouac, Ginsberg, or O’Hara, the typewriter had a different symbolic meaning, untainted with the fear of secretarial work. They saw in the machine the “lyrical” possibility of spontaneous, first draft composition.

The prewar authors still, for the most part, put the pen or pencil first. “Type” techniques–whether those of a typist or a printer–serve to refresh attention. Or, maybe better said, typing up resets attention: it defamiliarizes the text, making the text strange and thereby allowing it to be seen anew. (Auden: “As much as I loathe the typewriter, I must admit that it is a help in self-criticism. Typescript is so impersonal and hideous to look at that, if I type out a poem, I immediately see defects which I missed when I looked through it in manuscript.”) And now the pen could go back to work. And then another round of typescript, etc. Writing becomes a cycle of “re-presentation” and manual adjustment (and defacement), which while not entirely unprecedented in the nineteenth century is certainly amplified in the new technological context. This passage also marks a shift in the postwar period: now younger writers’ composition practices began at the typewriter. (Perhaps here or a generation or so later, we can see the emergence of what Lori Emerson in a post regarding bpNichol terms “typewriter poems”: formal investigations of “the grid of the typewriter page and the typewriter’s non-proportional font.”)

Now we may introduce Trevor. His work has long been associated with the Checkovian tradition of the short story (especially because so many end sadly) and with Joyce, though because of his concern for matters Irish rather than his technique. I have found it helpful to set him alongside Trollope, in part because both placed such a high value on the realization of character, down to the most intimate details, as is evident in Trevor’s point about “knowing” characters in the long quotation below.(From Trollope’s Autobiography: “[The novelist] desires to make his readers so intimately acquainted with his characters that the creatures of his brain should be to them speaking, moving, living, human creatures. This he can never do unless he know those fictitious personages himself, and he can never know them unless he can live with them in the full reality of established intimacy.”) But the parallel also springs from the discipline of their respective writing habits: both were early morning writers who understood the value of calling it a day at lunch-time. (Trollope: “I was once told that the surest aid to the writing of a book was a piece of cobbler’s wax on my chair. I certainly believe in the cobbler’s wax much more than the inspiration.”) (For more on Trollope’s “professional” autobiography, see my review of a new edition for B&C [R.I.P.]). In his William Trevor: A Study of His Fiction, Gregory Schirmer, meanwhile, argues that Trevor should “[fall] somewhere between the radical experimentalism of high modernist writers and the more or less traditional methods of the realistic short story.” Similar ambivalent assessments appear in the Trevor criticism.

Through her emphasis on revision, Sullivan offers us an alternative vantage in which to understand Trevor’s practical indebtedness to Modernism. Consider the following remarks from his 1989 interview for the Paris Review‘s “Art of Fiction” series (No. 108):


Do you work on a typewriter?


Yes, I do, and also in longhand. I do a lot of rewriting. I find that the more versions you see of, say, the beginning of a chapter—blue paper, white paper, typed, longhand—the more you get it right in the end. This is a tremendously long-winded way of saying you have to become familiar with what you’re doing, so that in the end you practically know the whole thing by heart. After a certain time it becomes so familiar that you know exactly where to look for this bit or that bit and you know at once if it’s wrong. But more importantly, really, you know the characters inside out. You know what day it is when he did such and such a thing, what her favorite flowers are, the pattern of wrinkles on her face. I can’t do that unless I’ve spent ages with a novel, or a story. One of the big differences between the two is that the novel is a very different subject for me to see round, to the end of it. But you can see round a short story long before it’s finished, and feel what it’s going to be like. I have to create for the novel a tremendous amount of raw material, and then cut the novel out of it. I write novels the way films are made. I literally cut with a pair of scissors. In Fools of Fortune there is a character who disappears for years; I know where he went, and I’ve written all that and abandoned it. But I couldn’t have written the novel without knowing what he’d done, and where he was. But that’s an extreme example. A better one is knowing, say, what someone has done during a week it doesn’t tell you about in the book.

In his favored technologies of writing utensil, typewriter, and multi-colored papers and, more importantly, the techniques of revision for which he employed them, Trevor of course recalls the Modernist writers discussed above. Here again, revision is a process of proliferation: passing the text through the various modes of inscription offered Trevor a means of, to return to Sullivan’s language, “re-presentation.” Sullivan reveals that some authors primary habit in revision was substitution, others addition, and still others subtraction. Trevor belongs to the last class: revision eliminates all the material that inhibits not only a narrative’s accuracy to physical and social details but also its ability to distill some (often difficult) truth about life. We can tie the Modernist culture of revision to the Poundian goal of making it new; Trevor, it seems to me, recalls the other goal of revision evident in Sullivan’s account: to make it true. Even Trevor’s comparison to his cutting-and-pasting method to that of film production is suggestive historically speaking, given that the art of film editing arose during the period when the High Modernists were at work.

What’s perhaps most significant of all, though, is that Trevor doesn’t attribute (here or, as far as I can tell, in his other scattered interviews) his writing practices to those of his Modernist predecessors. This elaborate process of revision is just how it’s done, a necessary stage toward the end of (what now counts as) good writing. And that’s Sullivan’s point: after the passing of the High Modernists, their stylistic ideals (that is, the usage of revision to fine-tune a style)–and the practices that they developed to achieve them–pass from the avant-garde into the broader literary culture. Here perhaps my comparison with Trollope is instructive. Trollope’s triumph as a result of his “professional” working habits was that he never ran out of material: “I have known no anxiety as to ‘copy.’ The needed pages far ahead—very far ahead—have almost always been in the drawer beside me. And that little diary, with its dates and ruled spaces, its record that must be seen, its daily, weekly demand upon my industry, has done all that for me.” Trollope, in other words, used his daily session to produce ever more text. With those same morning hours, Trevor revised.


To close, I want to consider briefly a second passage from the Paris Review interview. It appears in Trevor’s discussion of his unhappy days working in advertising in the sixties, the generous deadlines for his copy (and his boredom) allowing him to begin writing fiction:


On company time?


Not entirely. But I did photocopy one of my novels on the company machine. The poet Gavin Ewart, who also was at the agency, refers to that in one of his poems: “Later we both worked at Notley’s—where no highbrow had to grovel / and I remember Trevor (with feminine help) xeroxing a whole novel. / ‘I see you’re both working late,’ the Managing Director said / as he went off to his routine gin and tonics and dinner and bed.”

Unfortunately, Trevor’s discussion of the photocopier cuts off here. What he did with those photocopies–whether and how they might have aided his process of “re-presenting” the text–he doesn’t say. But it’s nonetheless tempting to imagine the appeal of photocopying for a younger Trevor since it offered yet another means of multiplying the text (and, of course, as noted above this is multiplication toward the end of subtraction). The Ewart poem offers a few notable details, usefully recalling for us a time when photocopying was new (indeed, new media) and, in turn, a writer might need assistance to undertake it. That Ewart calls it “feminine help,” perhaps secretarial, offers a striking parallel to Sullivan’s observations of the time when typewriting was perceived as a “feminine” activity.

I have written before on Booktrades about Xerox-land. We can add Trevor’s dabbling at work (and apparent abandonment of the copier later) to the list of potential subjects for our imagined dissertator. And we might also encourage our dissertator to ponder how Xerox-land fits in the historical terrain in that Sullivan (whose book ends with a nod to Kirschenbaum’s then-upcoming Track Changes) and Kirschenbaum (whose book nods back to Sullivan) have been plotting on different ends of the twentieth century. (Sullivan’s manner of looking backward, particularly at the Romantic period, has been challenged by reviewers. It’s a point that I may return to later on this blog; I’ll set that aside for now, though.) Trevor offers, for example, a striking foil to Updike, one of Kirschenbaum’s central characters in Track Changes, given not only their historical overlap (the former born in 1928, the latter 1932), but also their professional parallels (for example, both were New Yorker authors). While Updike was experimenting with his WangWriter in Massachusetts in the early eighties, Trevor was plying his trade the not-so-very-old-fashioned way (or so Sullivan might teach us) with a pencil, typewriter, scissors, and glue in Devon. Our accounts of twentieth-century literary history need to inventory all of the instruments that writers employed in their practices of composition and revision and, in turn, the techniques and stylistic ideals that these humans developed with and sometimes despite those instruments. There’s time and space yet for a hundred visions and revisions on all these matters (our word processors make it all so easy…). For those moderns whose cup of tea this sort of stuff is, the future of the recent past looks bright.


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2 Thoughts to “William Trevor and the (Modernist) Work of Revision”

  1. Jake M

    With access to a word processor on my laptop, I have found one of the most helpful habits of revision to be to draft first with pencil and paper, and then to “re-represent” by typing up my scrawls onto a word document: I catch many mistakes on the original manuscript during this process. It’s harder and harder to take the time to write by hand, however, because of how easy (and efficient) the digital process has become. Interesting that many Modernists wouldn’t give up pen and paper despite the typewriter!

    1. Rhg

      Hi, Jake. Thanks for the comment. Your remarks call to mind those that Alan (and that’s the same Alan referenced in the post) makes in his “Attending to Technology” (originally the 79 Theses on Technology) about writing our thoughts out by hand:

      Everyone should sometimes write by hand, to recall what it’s like to have second thoughts before the first ones are completely recorded.

      Human beings have long wanted (perhaps we have always wanted) our technologies of writing to approximate as closely as possible the speed of thought: from writing on clay, to writing on paper, to writing some version of shorthand, to typing on a typewriter, to typing on a computer’s keyboard, to dictating to voice-recognition software — each technological development asymptotically approaches falling into step with our thinking. Rarely is the possibility considered that thought moves too quickly, and that matching our writing to the pace of the body’s movements may yield something, well, more thoughtful.

      In a powerful passage from A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf writes of the ways that women of her time, given their particular social standing and responsibilities, needed to adjust their ambitions in order to produce the kinds of books that were possible for them. But the way she formulates this problem is curious: “The book has somehow to be adapted to the body.” For Woolf, the (woman’s) book had to be adapted to the (woman’s) body because of certain unfortunate but unavoidable social constrictions. Yet there may be a categorical imperative lurking here, a more general law that writing benefits less from striving to match the pace of thought, more from slowing itself to the pace of the body.

      I have often in writing by hand realized, midway through inscribing a sentence, that it should not go in the direction I had thought it should go; or that it should not be written at all. Conversely, I have often typed in haste and repented of what I have typed at leisure. To write by hand is to revisit and refresh certain synaptic connections, links between mind and body. To shift from typing to handwriting to speaking is to be instructed in the relations among minds, bodies, and technologies. And if you can set aside your instincts for speed, writing by hand can be immensely enjoyable.

      So, Jake, you’re in good company in mulling these matters.

      The version of the theses published in the New Atlantis is here.
      The debut of the theses on The Infernal Machine is here. (See #65)

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