Over the years that he spent researching and writing his literary history of word processing, Matthew Kirschenbaum was publicly sharing his findings via lecture, hashtag, and blog. The process of discovery that he was documenting doesn’t simply cease when a book goes to press, though, and the publication of Track Changes in May has in fact sparked a whole new round of revelation. Below, Kirschenbaum shares a major new find for this ongoing project.
In 1977 Gay and Philip Courter purchased an IBM System 6 word processor. The System 6 was brand-new that year: although IBM had first introduced the world to the term word processing, and although competitor products consisting of keyboards and screens had been on the market since 1971, the unprepossessingly named System 6 was the first IBM word processor to have a CRT display. The 9-inch screen had room for eight lines of text, deemed adequate because this was about the same amount of type typically visible on a piece of paper as it came curling out of a typewriter’s rollers, bent under its own weight.
The plan was to use the word processor for routine office work in support of the documentary film company the couple ran. The machine was temperamental, and visits from IBM repair personnel to their home atop a steep hill near the Delaware Water Gap were frequent. Courter didn’t mind, though. She had quickly realized the word processor would allow her to do something that her domestic responsibilities had made otherwise impossible: write and publish her first novel. She began work on it in earnest in early 1977, shortly after the birth of their first child, and sold the rights to Houghton Mifflin two years later; The Midwife was published in February 1981. As a first-time novelist, she knew she had to do what she could to attract notice so she also wrote up a piece for Publishers Weekly that came out at the same time about her and other authors’ experiences using early word processors.
1981 is a pivotal year in my own literary history of word processing. Lots of things had happened that year: the Osborne 1 and IBM PC both debuted; Time magazine had written about writers and word processors (a year sooner than they anointed the personal computer their Machine of the Year); Isaac Asimov had had his first home computer delivered to him as part of a promotional ploy; and the New York Times had written about Jimmy Carter’s travails with his Lanier word processor. All of that is in the book, and much more. But I had missed Gay Courter’s story . . . until she recently wrote to me.
Of course I knew this would happen. Additional sources and information had come to light after I had published on William Gibson’s Agrippa in my first book, Mechanisms; and after the New York Times wrote up a lecture I gave at the New York Public Library very early in my research for Track Changes, my inbox was flooded with tips and contacts. So I knew that once this book was out persons would appear with other important pieces of the history. Some scholars may dread the lack of closure in a project, but I have always welcomed it: Part of what writing about contemporary topics means—especially in the age of the internet—is playing the long game.
So I laid what groundwork I could, registering a domain name and putting in place a blog, and including the URL with an invitation to send further contributions my way in an afterword that is printed in the book. Publishing a book also means speaking engagements and opportunities to do other kinds of follow-ups, so in that sense too I knew I could ensure that the historical narrative would continue to evolve. The real challenge for future researchers will be negotiating between the fixity and permanence of the book format and the living, dynamic ecology of scholarly communication in all its current forms, increasingly subject to diverse modes of documentation and archiving in their own right.
As with many authors who would follow, Courter realized that the revolutionary potential for word processing lay in the time it would save her typing and retyping her drafts: “I typed every word myself and I only think that I wrote a very commercial novel because I was able to ‘rewrite’ almost endlessly until I got it right,” she told me.† (The balance between performing the material work of writing and revision and the author’s impulses toward the perfection of the text was to become the fulcrum on which the allure of word processing rested.) But Courter was also quick to explore other innovative uses for the technology: she kept a searchable file to ensure consistency in family trees, place names, and other details for the long historical novel set across two continents, for example. She also generated a concordance that would allow a copyeditor to keep track of Yiddish, Russian, and other tricky words and phrasings. When she was ready to sell the book, she sent a cover letter and the first 100 pages, fresh off the dot matrix printer on sprocket paper. As she recalls, “the agent was fascinated with the cleanliness of the copy, the justified type (I would never submit like that now). . . . Part of the in-house buzz was because of the word processed MS.”
Meanwhile, her interest piqued, Courter had also placed an inquiry in Publishers Weekly, inviting other authors who were using the technology—or thinking about using it—to get in touch with her. The notice garnered some 45 responses, including several from prominent authors named in Track Changes—John Hersey and Richard Condon among them—as well as Leonard Sanders (a mystery writer), Arthur Hailey (a thriller writer), and others, nearly all doing technical writing or genre fiction. Ray Bradbury sent a postcard informing her he did not use a word processor himself, but that he found them “amazing and wondrous.”
So how does this discovery alter the underlying narrative in Track Changes? The good news is that it confirms the general parameters of the historical discussion as set out in the book’s closing pages, where I write:
We may never . . . know with absolute certitude who was the first author to sit down in front of a digital computer’s keyboard and compose a published work of fiction or poetry directly on the screen. Quite possibly it was Jerry Pournelle, or maybe it was David Gerrold or even Michael Crichton or Richard Condon; or someone else entirely whom I have overlooked. It probably happened in the year 1977 or 1978 at the latest, and it was almost certainly a popular (as opposed to highbrow) author. (244)
The Midwife climbed the New York Times bestseller list and ended up selling some 3 million copies, so Courter certainly qualifies as popular; and as we have seen, she acquired her IBM System 6 and began using it in 1977, although the book wasn’t published until four years later. As gratifying as it is to see the broad strokes of the history thus confirmed, however, I keenly regret not having uncovered Courter’s story in the course of my own research—even if, in my view, the question of who was first remains insoluble. Which is to say, it may yet prove impossible to localize by more than a calendar year, and it will always depend on by what criteria.*
But the significance of Courter’s story lies not only in her clearly deserving a place on the very short list above, but also in the fact that she becomes the first female author in this slate of early adopters. Nor is that incidental: the decision to invest in an $18,000 word processor as an unpublished and unsigned author was a direct consequence of both childcare responsibilities and the demands of a family-owned business, which together conspired to make writing a long historical novel—with the necessity for research as well as typing and retyping revisions—seem all but unthinkable.
Courter, in other words, found herself in exactly the circumstances articulated by Virginia Woolf half a century earlier. She credits her husband with realizing that a word processor could be good for both their business and her writing. When the unit arrived, Courter recalls, “we set it up in our little distribution center in the middle of a noisy room. It’s hard to believe I wrote with 5 or more people roaming around cleaning films (16mm), packing, shipping, etc. But I only had a few hours a day to do this.”
During those hours she shut out the distractions all around her. Courter composed and edited directly on the glass CRT, saving her work to the elephantine 8-inch diskettes the system relied on for storage. Gay Courter did not have a room of her own, but having a screen of her own gave her the space—and barely enough time—to craft a bestselling novel, earning her a place in literary and publishing history.
*First to purchase a system? First to publish their book? First to fully compose? What counts as a word processor anyway? And so on. Besides Pournelle and the others whose names I conjecture in this passage, Track Changes also includes detailed accounts of John Hersey and Len Deighton in its discussion of word processing firsts. Hersey used a mainframe computer at Yale to revise and typeset—but not compose—his novel My Petition for More Space (1974); Deighton leased an IBM Magnetic Tape/Selectric Typewriter for the benefit of his assistant, Ellenor Handley, in managing the revisions for Bomber (1970). The MT/ST was the first office product ever to be actually marketed as a word processor, the ancestor of the System 6—itself not a “digital computer” strictly speaking, it performed no calculations—that the Courters would purchase a decade later.
†Details and quotations are sourced from multiple emails and a Skype interview, as well as Courter’s article “Word Machines for Word People,” Publishers Weekly, February 13th, 1981.
Photos of Gay Courter by Philip Courter. Ray Bradbury postcard courtesy of Gay Courter.