It’s tough to get a room full of writers to agree on anything—the best wine, the best Shakespeare play, the best time of day to work. Perhaps the only belief that today’s writers share is that to produce good writing, you have to revise.
This principle appears everywhere—in classrooms, in newsrooms, in writing guides, and especially in author interviews. “I’ve done as many as 20 or 30 drafts of a story,” Raymond Carver once told The Paris Review. “Never less than 10 or 12 drafts.” Joyce Carol Oates, who is so prolific she leaves other authors shaking their heads, has said: “I revise all the time, every day.” Even comedian Jim Gaffigan, author of the new book “Dad is Fat,” recently urged NPR’s listeners to “keep going back and rewriting things to make it clear.”
It’s easy to assume that history’s greatest authors have been history’s greatest revisers. But that wasn’t always how it worked. Until about a century ago, according to various biographers and critics, literature proceeded through handwritten manuscripts that underwent mostly small-scale revisions.
Then something changed. In a new book, “The Work of Revision,” Hannah Sullivan, an English professor at Oxford University, argues that revision as we now understand it—where authors, before they publish anything, will spend weeks tearing it down and putting it back together again—is a creation of the 20th century. It was only under Modernist luminaries like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf that the practice came to seem truly essential to creating good literature. Those authors, Sullivan writes, were the first who “revised overtly, passionately, and at many points in the lifespan of their texts.”
What caused these writers to put their faith in revision as the key to good literature? In part, it was the philosophy of Modernism—the idea that a novel or poem should challenge the reader, break with tradition, and, in the words of Pound, “Make it new.” But Sullivan, who belongs to a new wave of scholars trying to understand literature through the physical and historical realities of its creation, finds that our value of revision was also driven by something else: the typewriter.
It might seem strange to think that we owe the high style of Modernism—and the notion that even a book titled “Dad is Fat” requires strenuous reworking—to a machine. But “The Work of Revision” makes a case that what we write often comes down to how we write. Careful revision isn’t automatic or even automatically useful. And that means, as our technology changes once again, that literary style may already be undergoing another transformation.
What first got Sullivan thinking about revision was encountering a version of Ernest Hemingway she’d never seen before. While a first-year PhD student at Harvard, Sullivan visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and its Hemingway collection. She marveled at the famous author’s archive—his letters, his family scrapbooks, even his bullfighting materials. But one thing in particular stood out to her: the typescript of his novel “The Sun Also Rises.” It showed Hemingway changing his book dramatically from one version to the next. Monologues vanished, entire plot points disappeared, and, in the end, he arrived at the terse, mysterious novel that became part of the American literary canon. “The Hemingway style that’s so familiar to us wasn’t in the first draft,” Sullivan says. “It was a product of revision.”
Hemingway’s method reminded Sullivan of the way T.S. Eliot had trimmed down “The Waste Land” from pages and pages of manuscript to the final, elliptical 434-line poem. She realized that these authors shared a profound commitment to the power of revision, and that this commitment was itself worth studying. While plenty of literary scholars had examined the way individual authors edited their own works, they rarely compared their findings between authors, or from one period to the next. By making these comparisons, Sullivan identified the Modernists as the first to practice our contemporary form of revision. She also learned how revision contributed to their distinct literary technique. “We often assume that style comes out of nowhere,” she says. “But style is produced in revision, and revision is not something writers do naturally.”
Revision didn’t start with the Modernists, of course, but the paper trail suggests that authors from the deeper past worked much differently than we are taught to do today. In 1637, for example, John Milton, perhaps the most polished poet in the history of the English language, took out a few sheets of paper and wrote the first draft of his famous elegy “Lycidas.” Thanks to a rare manuscript that survives at Cambridge, Milton experts know the author went back to revise, crossing out lines and phrases and scribbling replacements in the margin or at the bottom of the page. A flower “that sorrow’s livery wears” became a flower “that sad embroidery wears.” But for the most part even Milton stuck to such local tweaks instead of significantly recasting his work.Continued...