Gravity’s word processor
In this week’s issue of the New York Review of Books, the literary critic Edward Mendelson outs himself as yet another fan of old-school word processors, in this case WordPerfect, which he describes as “the instrument best suited to the way I think when I write.” He goes on to draw a contrast between his favored program, “a mediocrity that’s almost always right,” and Microsoft Word, “a work of genius that’s almost always wrong as an instrument for writing prose,” with its commitment to a platonic ideal of sections and styles that make it all the harder for writers to format a single page. It’s the difference, Mendelson implies, between a mindset that approaches the document from the top down, thinking in terms of templates and overall consistency, and the daily experience of a writer, who engages in direct combat with individual words and sentences, some of which have to be italicized, indented, or otherwise massaged in ways that don’t have anything to do with their neighbors. And as someone who lives comfortably within his own little slice of Word but wants to tear his hair out whenever he strays beyond it, I can’t help but sympathize.
I happened to read Mendelson’s essay with particular interest, because I’m a longtime fan of his work. Mindful Pleasures, the collection of essays he edited on Thomas Pynchon, is one of those books I revisit every few years, and in particular, his piece on encyclopedic fiction has shaped the way I read authors from Dante to Joyce. Pynchon, of course, is a writer with more than a few ideas about how technology affects the way we live and think, and in his conclusion, Mendelson takes a cue from the master:
When I work in Word, for all its luxuriant menus and dazzling prowess, I can’t escape a faint sense of having entered a closed, rule-bound society. When I write in WordPerfect, with all its scruffy, low-tech simplicity, the world seems more open, a place where endings can’t be predicted, where freedom might be real.
There’s more than an echo here of Gravity’s Rainbow, which pits its anarchic, cartoonish personalities against an impersonal conspiracy that finally consumes and assimilates them. And if Pynchon’s fantasy is centered on a rocket cartel that manipulates world events to its own advantage, a writer trying to wrestle a document into shape can sometimes feel like he’s up against an equally faceless enemy.
If Word can be a frustrating tool for writers, it’s because it wasn’t made for anyone in particular, but for “everyone.” As one of the core handful of programs included in the Microsoft Office suite, it’s meant to serve a wide range of functions, from hammering out a high school essay to formatting a rudimentary corporate newsletter. It’s intended to be equally useful to someone who creates a document twice a month and someone who uses it every day, which means that it’s tailored to the needs of precisely nobody. And it was presumably implemented by coders who would rebel against any similar imposition. There’s a reason why so many programmers still live in Emacs and its text-based brethren: they’re simple once you get to know them, they’re deeply customizable, and they let you keep your hands on the keyboard for extended periods of time. Word, by contrast, seems to have been designed for a hypothetical consumer who would rather follow a template than fiddle with each line by hand. This may be true of most casual users, but it’s generally not true of coders—or writers. And Word, like so much other contemporary technology, offers countless options but very little choice.
There are times, obviously, when a standard template can be useful, especially when you’re putting together something like an academic bibliography. Yet there’s a world of difference between really understanding bibliographic style from the inside and trusting blindly to the software, which always needs to be checked by hand, anyway, to catch the errors that inevitably creep in. In the end, though, Word wasn’t made for me; it was made for users who see a word processor as an occasional tool, rather than the environment in which they spend most of their lives. For the rest of us, there are either specialized programs, like Scrivener, or the sliver of Word we’ve managed to colonize. In my post on George R.R. Martin and his use of WordStar—which, somewhat embarrassingly, has turned out to be the most widely read thing I’ve ever written—I note that a writer’s choice of tools is largely determined by habit. I’ve been using Word for two decades, and the first drafts of all my stories are formatted in exactly the way the program imposes, in single-spaced 12-point Times New Roman. I’m so used to how it looks that it fades into invisibility, which is exactly how it should be. The constraints it imposes are still there, but I’ve adapted so I can take them for granted, like a deep-sea fish that would explode if taken closer to the surface, or an animal that has learned to live with gravity.