Word Processing and Literary Writing: Case Studies of Three Italian Authors
by Domenico Fiormonte
Summary of unpublished dissertation
University of Rome "La Sapienza", April 1994
This research deals with the influence of the computer on the writing process and particularly about its effect on Italian contemporary prose. The theoretical background of the research results from the encounter between the European philological traditions of variantistica and genèse du texte, and the North American composition studies. Hence the interdisciplinary character of the methodology and the case-studies approach.
The work is divided into two parts: Theory (I: Building a theory of computer writing) and Experiments (II: The tool-text relationship: case studies of Italian writers). The section on theory dwells upon the relationship between writing, literature and technology, attempting to explain the special tie which exists between the medium and the literary creation (McLuhan 1964, Ong 1982). It follows a series of experiments conducted in this field in France (Anis-Lebrave 1991) and the USA (Bridwell et al. 1987, Hawisher-Selfe 1991, Hilligoss-Selfe 1990, Halio 1990, Snyder 1994) and a survey of the theoretical debate over the problem of electronic writing which has been going on in Italy and abroad since the early 80's (Eco 1984-1986, Schemla-Eco 1991).
The central chapter of part one attempts to provide a classification of the writing phenomena which occur when writers move from traditional tools (pen and/or typewriter) to the computer. Adopting a "genetic" point of view on the writing process (Contini 1986, Hay 1989, Grésillon 1985 and 1988), I distinguish between the final product of writing and the act of writing. Consequently, the computer may show different (though linked) effects on the three main stages of the writing process: reading, writing and production. What follows is an outline summarising some of the most common effects (or claimed influences) of the computer on these three groups as to current researches on writing and composition.
- READING: limited visualisation; dispersion of attention because of the high pulverisation of the text; EFFECT: possible negative influence on understanding; lack of comparison (Popper-Eccles 1981: 563); decreased access to text memory; loss of coherence.
- WRITING: planning flexibility; polished look of writing; micro-editing; high granularity of written text (Eco 1986); secondary orality (idioms, stock phrases, etc.); EFFECT: fluency (synonyms, better lay-out, spelling, etc.); scarce tendency to reformulation of the text ( conservatività, cf. Scavetta 1992, and Fiormonte 1995); prose "shrinkage"; waste of depth (expressive stereotypes, stylistic iteration); loss of the memory of the whole text; loss of consistency.
- PRODUCTION: increase of individual production; desktop publishing; increase of the length of the documents (electronic edition, collective electronic edition, phenomena of "textualisation" (Gallino 1991: 11); incompleteness of the electronic text (Landow-Delany 1991: 13); the development of procedures of production and access to the knowledge changes the concept of copyright (Lyman 1989: 30); spread and formalisation of the "enframing" (mise en abyme) as a literary genre (Benedetti 1991); multisequential vs. hierarchical processes (Vacca 1965: 97).
The first part is concluded by a short excursus on the theories of the hypertext, where I referred to the theoretical and practical origins of this new writing form started with some mainstreams of the modern European novel (Bolter 1990, Landow 1992).
Let's now consider the analysis made in the second part on word-processed texts which some authors allowed me to observe and study.
Vincenzo Cerami is a scriptwriter, a poet and a narrator from whom we received a series of stories in two versions: the first one published in "Il Messaggero" (national newspaper) in the summer of 1991 and a second revised version collected in a volume in 1993 (La gente, Torino, Einaudi, 1993). We have al least three intermediate stages of both versions (for an example see Una lettera d'amore). I compared the various editions noting down the differences in a traditional way -- collation, critic reading, etc. -- and with computing tools (punctuation, incipit of phrases, division of phrases by length and their percentage in the texts). The programme was obtained working with UNIX tools Sed & Awk and written by Lanfranco Fabriani (CISADU, Faculty of Letters Computing Services). Finally, I effected linguistic and stylistic research (e.g. the use and the frequency of the stylistic stereotypes, stock phrases, etc.) on a corpus of selected works.
From Francesca Sanvitale we have a brief portion of the recent novel completely written by computer, Il figlio dell'Impero, in four drafts, and the work in progress (eight drafts) of an entire tale, Orient-Express, published in "Tuttestorie", 3\4, November 1991, pp. 62-7. The eight passages coincide with the same number of developmental stages and they are the result of a kind of "post-variantism" experiment by means of which I tried to find the traces of revision and writing. At the beginning and the end of each work session the author saved or printed for me a certain portion of the document in the state it was at that time. With these eight drafts -- from the first lines to the definitive editing -- F. Sanvitale let me make a decisive operation: the description "frame by frame" of the various phases of the writing process. Every sheet in my possession with corrections, additions and hand-writing variants represents a stage of the development of the text and gives us the possibility to delineate the composing strategy of the writer.
R. Vacca is the author of best-seller essays and fictional novels and began to use the computer in 1983. I analysed the type of work and the compositive habits of the author to define the kind of evolution of his prose (see, the difference between the typewritten editions and the word processed ones).
This second part is concluded by an interview with Spanish literary critic and novelist Juan Felipe Villar and by two surveys conducted in the Italian national newspaper "La Repubblica" and in the Spanish newspaper "El País". But Villar's case is particularly interesting. For he wanted to publish a tale written ten years before, and could not find the original text, he was compelled to write it again by heart -- this time with the help of a computer. Both these texts written the first time with typographical and linear tools, and the second time with electronic ones, offer useful points of reflections both on the theoretical plan and about the more specific one of language and style.
Although my observations suggest that the word processor may not revolutionise a deeply rooted literary style, the computer may influence the writer in various ways. It may, for example, affect the literary direction (a sort of trend choices) of the writer. Rapidity of writing, extreme attention to the formal level of the text (fonts, lay-out, etc.) are all options offered to the professional writer for the first time and all of them, according to the forma mentis of the author, may influence either the level of the process (act of writing) or the level of the product (text).
Only by following this principle, it may be possible to analyse the style of every writer in greater depth and the differences between pre-computer and computer assisted production.
With the collation of Cerami's works there emerges a clear trend towards a kind of more colloquial prose, less related to literary standards. As a consequence of this change, we observe in his writing an increase of idioms, stock phrases, clichés, etc. Moreover, for the first time since the author bought the computer he decided to write short tales and went so far as to publish two volumes in two years. We will never know how this choice was influenced by the use of the new medium; nevertheless, the writer himself (see interview) admitted the possibility that the computer affected his initial options of writing.
In the case of Roberto Vacca, prevalently an essayist, it seems that the modifications of the style were due essentially to two factors: 1) the discovery by the writer (about 1980) of the index of readability of Rudolph Flesch; 2) the adoption of the computer. Flesch has a definite influence on Vacca's syntax, pushing the author to break all the sentences longer then 30 (or more) words into two or more phrases. The computer, instead, supports the theory on "granularity" of writing (more paragraphed texts, etc.) and encourages an increase of the extension and structuring of the indexes.
With respect to the second issue (2), it is also important to notice that the control on readability was expanded when the author passed from a manual control conducted on a few pages to a global check-up of the text conducted with a specific software (Italian adaptation of R. Flesch's index of readability by R. Vacca and V. Franchina).
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