In much the same way that painting changed with the development of photography, writing has changed with the development of the tape recorder. The process has been a bit slower perhaps because the connection between taping and writing is less obvious, but with the development of the cassette and small portable recorders writing is changing forever.
Photography entirely supplanted painting and drawing in several of its principal roles, but more significant was its effect on the styles of painting as painting, the rise of abstraction in representative painting and the beginning of non-representational painting.
Tape recordings have already supplanted many of the documentary roles of writing, but not as many as it might. Established practices die hard and the mystique of writing keeps it doing jobs that could be done more effectively and efficiently by tape recording. Writers have been even more effective than the strongest labor unions in resisting automation. Even in areas where writing will always be writing taping as an aid is still shunned, partially because its potential value is unrecognized, partially because of chauvinism.
There is no form of reportage that represents a subject’s ideas and character as accurately as an absolutely unretouched transcript.
The corporate executive is considerably more modern than most writers in the practice of dictation, the tape recorder has all but replaced shorthand, but the important fact is that they are able to compose as fast as they speak. Some writers do this—Harold Robbins is a notable example, he reclines on the sofa in his study and dictates his novels. He is so prolific that he requires a team of secretaries to transcribe his oral prose.
This mode of composition has much to be said for it. It develops the writer’s voice, both as narrator and in character. Since the text is spoken before it is written it is bound to be natural. Texts written in longhand or on a typewriter are not created in real time; the effect of real time, critical to naturalism, must be worked at. Also writers’ diction tends to be unnatural. Most writers and almost all bad writers use a different language when they write. They use words and constructions that they would never use in speaking—often when a writer reads his work badly it is not just that he is a bad reader, the text was written for silent reading.
The process of writing in which the writer labors over his words, taking an hour to write something that takes a few minutes to speak and even less time to read silently, is often seen as a virtue of the craft. The writer believes that this process of concentration and embellishment creates something better than what is attained in spontaneous speech. This may be true in some instances, perhaps it is common in literary masterpieces, but the usual result is quite the contrary. Painstakingly crafted writing today is usually of unbearable pomposity. Arcane language, stilted constructions and a trick bag of devices, most often and awfully, continual crass cornball alliteration and sustained lame parades of assonance.
Artifice and unnatural usage in writing can be a marvelous thing in the work of a master, Firbank, Wyndham Lewis—but writers with this gift no doubt spoke a rich, rare language as well. But writers who aim beyond the limits of their speech in the attempt to be literary would usually be embarrassed by their texts if they could be embarrassed. No matter how rich a style may be, its success or failure depends on its life, life born of speech.
Literary languages have existed probably almost as long as language has been written.They exist to convey a heightened effect; they grow from the common language of the people. But time and time again literary language has become too removed from living language and when this happens the language of literature is reformed. Dante revolted against the literary conventions of his time writing the Divine Comedy in the Vulgate, the language of his people, rather than in the Latin of the Empire that was sustained by and accessible only to the literati. Wordsworth preached and practiced similar reform in an English literary milieu that mimicked religiously the usages and styles of a dead foreign language.
The recorded interview was made prominent by the Paris Review and Playboy Magazineamong others. Interviews were nothing new but editors had believed that the transcripts had to be prosified to sustain a reader’s interest. Many editors still believe this and most magazines that publish Q and A interviews still limit that form to a single slot per issue. In 1970, Interview magazine, published by Andy Warhol, changed its format from a mixture of articles and interviews on the film scene to a format consisting almost entirely of Q and A interviews. Soon many other magazines, especially those concerned with music, began to view the interview as a popular and effective form.
The interview or transcribed conversation has many advantages over traditional prose journalism. By nature it is more accurate and representative of its subject than a prose profile, with less likelihood of misquotation and misrepresentation. And no matter who is the subject and who is the interlocutor there is much less room for pomposity and grandiloquence. If the subject is a bore the questioner can challenge his statements and vice versa. Ideas or pronouncements that might go unchallenged in a prose article or essay are likely to be challenged or argued in an interview. Best of all this form checks the bombast and nit-picking so prevalent among journalists. If they’re going to be bitchy they have to do it face to face, not after smiling and agreeing during a chat and then tearing up their subject back home at the typewriter injecting comments they didn’t dare make on the spot or taking their subjects’ words out of context. Dozens of writers have made a splash doing an ex post facto hatchet job, but how pathetic they seem compared to a journalist like Oriana Fallaci whose hatchet is on the table all the while and who gives eminent suckers an even break.
There will always be writers and there will always be novels and plays and the best writers of novels and plays will not be afraid to use tape as a tool, whether they dictate from their imagination like Robbins or record others for dialogue. No doubt that much of the sparkling dialogue of such writers as Oscar Wilde, Claire Booth Luce and Joseph L. Mankiewicz was taken from life. Of course most people would find it inconvenient to record constantly the chat of their friends, but after a particularly brilliant exchange one might head for the bathroom to put it onto a micro-cassette. It’s a shame the round table at the Algonquin wasn’t equipped like the Oval Office.
The omnipresence of Andy Warhol’s Sony is what enabled him to “write” a novel. A was not heralded as a great literary advance, but much of it was quite amusing and in fact it was a great literary advance. A consists entirely of transcripts of conversations among and monologues by a number of characters, very real persons, mostly Factory superstars, most notably Ondine, ostensibly recorded in one day. Ulysses it is not, but it is quite a revolutionary work. There’s no doubt that truth is often stranger than fiction and often better fiction than fiction: this novel is proof that recorded spontaneous dialogue has the potential to surpass the dialogue invented by a solitary author. It is surprising that A has not been emulated many times over.
The compression of time in writing is, as previously noted, a blessing and a curse. Usually a writer spends a great deal more time creating a piece than the time required to read it. This is not a unique situation. Many months may go into a two hour film. Musicians work in real time, but not in today’s recording studio where months may go into a 40 minute record. But writers are notoriously ill-paid for their time intensive work. Paging through a magazine one might consider that a photographer spent perhaps a day shooting a three page layout whereas a writer might have spent a week, a month or more filling the same space for the same price or less. Tape recording could be a boon to writers, enabling them to do their work in something approaching real time, while perhaps improving their style by pruning it.
It was no coincidence that painting turned from realism toward abstraction with the advent of photography. Painting abandoned the areas where it could not compete with photography and began to depict what cannot be photographed. Painters also learned from photography—the Impressionists painting out of focus, the Pointillists emulating the grain at a photo and anticipating the color process, painters such as Modigliani and Soutine seeing, as it were, through a lens different from the human eye.
William Burroughs has made extensive use of tape recordings in his writings and researches—experimenting with tape cut ups which have led to cut up passages in his writings, and working with multiple recorders to create a third mind from two. Tape recorders as used by Burroughs show a great deal of potential in providing fortuitously arbitrary sequences of text, being perfectly suited for literary collage.
Transcripts of tapes are tremendously more revealing than a prose rendering of the same information. An article compiled from interviews, even one with extensive direct quotations, loses the sense of a subject’s manner. An accurate transcript captures a train of thought, patterns of speech and details which may be much more significant and revealing than a journalist’s observations. Many publications have a policy of “cleaning up” taped interviews, correcting grammar, making sentences of phrases, eliminating non sequiturs, filling in incomplete statements, correcting errors or slips (particularly unfortunate in the case of Freudian slips or Delphic speech) and sometimes changing the actual wording to suit copy editor’s favored usages.
Just as photography did not destroy representational painting but encouraged abstraction within it, the ability to recreate perfect dialogue should encourage the prose writer to concentrate his creative powers on narrative and description, and although writing can never be as abstract as the visual arts, the universality of recording devices (including those with a visual element) should encourage a greater degree of originality in writing. It is unlikely that writers like Stein and Joyce would have developed such comparatively abstract styles if the phonograph and cinema did not exist.
Similarly rhyme, while certainty employed as a pleasing musical device in poetry, was probably developed primarily as a mnemonic device. The decline in rhyme probably had much to do with the spread of literacy. Now, with mnemonic technology available to every writer, the capacity for observation once devoted to retaining dialogue may be used to record impressions of scene and atmosphere.
The cassette recorder is the greatest writers’ tool since the typewriter. Although few writers have explored its potential use, its ultimate impact will be enormous. False pride prevents many writers from recording—it doesn’t fit their image of the writer’s role. But once a few writers have used recording on their way to the best seller list these ridiculous apprehensions should vanish.
Recently I was delighted to read Victor Bockris’s book With Burroughs: a Report from the Bunker, which consists mainly of transcripts of recordings made at dinners with William Burroughs and a distinguished cast of table talkers. It is a fine portrait of Burroughs, capturing the man in his own words much better than the most brilliant observer might have, and it is also a collection of some very interesting pieces of thoughtful and for the most part funny conversations. It could not have been done without Victor’s Sony. One wonders how Plato did it. And one wonders if Boswell’s Life of Johnson might not have missed some of the man’s most brilliant remarks with the last glass of claret.