Are you looking forward to The Emails of Thomas Pynchon? Or maybe Jonathan Franzen: Tweets and Chats?
Sorry, but the future holds something different for the literary remains of famous authors.
Email and other forms of digital technology represent a sea change for writers. Works are drafted and rewritten on the screen. Authors have a vastly expanded capability to create and to correspond with editors, friends and others, all of whom may be just a few keystrokes away.
But the degree to which any one writer’s digital trail survives is very much an open question. In 2005, for example, Zadie Smith speculated that her email would “will go the way of everything else I write on the computer–oblivion.”
Famous writers have long bequeathed their correspondence, drafts and unpublished works to libraries and archives. It’s an arrangement that benefits everyone: the institution build prestige; the researcher get revealing material; the public learns about the literary back story; and the writer (or her estate) gets money. Yet the whole system as we know it is built on paper: letters, journals and hand-annotated drafts.
Personal digital content threatens everything. The biggest problem is the “personal” part: authors, like the rest of us, can be poor stewards of their own digital legacy. They don’t back up their hard drives. Their files are a disorganized mess. Their content is scattered among multiple devices and online platforms. And while writers may know that some of this digital material has enduring value, there is as yet no easy way to even think about preserving it. All of us are still working though what digital means in our lives.
People have a natural emotional connection to works on paper–it’s easy to see, to handle and to store. It’s durable and even resists apparent efforts to destroy it. Even though Samuel Clements could, for example, write a letter declaring “shove this in the stove… I don’t want any absurd ‘literary remains’ & ‘unpublished letters of Mark Twain’ published after I am planted,” the words live on because they were on paper.
Clemens changed his mind regarding his letters, choosing to “leave it behind and utter it from the grave.” He has plenty of company. F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Sylvia Plath, Mary McCarthy and Saul Bellow all left paper literary remains. Over the last century, libraries and archives have developed great expertise in acquiring and preserving this material.
But we are at an unusual point in documenting literary lives and works. Authors have had word processing and other forms of personal digital technology available to them for 30 years. Some writers have stubbornly refused to use it, but many have, and are contemplating their own “absurd literary remains.” What actually remains is big open question. Are there emails with editors or notable authors? Drafts with track changes? Ribald direct messages?
At this point, there are only a few institutions with literary personal digital materials. The Norman Mailer Papers at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, include “359 computer disks, 47 electronic files, 40 CDs, 6 mini data cartridges, 3 laptop computers [documenting] correspondence and literary drafts.” The Salman Rushdie Papers at the Emory University Library have “one Macintosh Performa 5400/180, one Macintosh PowerBook 5300c, two Macintosh PowerBook G3 models, and one SmartDisk FWFL60 FireLite 60GB 2.5′ FireWire Portable Hard Drive.” The Susan Sontag Papers at the Charles E. Young Library, University of California Los Angeles, contain “seventeen thousand one hundred and ninety-eight e-mails.” All these are hybrid collections, which is to say that most of the material is on paper.
How much born digital content is still out there, living wild under the good/bad/indifferent care of writers who find themselves to be their own unintended digital archivists? How ever much there is, I suspect that the proportion of paper to digital is rapidly declining.
What to do about it? Raise awareness about the value of personal digital archives across the board, pure and simple. Everyone has a story to tell and a digital legacy to pass on. The apparent value of email and other content will, I am sure, become more obvious over time.
This is already happening for writers. In 2005, Rick Moody told the New York Times that, when he was considering the sale of his papers, the dealer wanted to know about email. “This sort of brought to mind that there was a policy [for saving it], though it was a very unmethodical policy,” he said. Paying money for email is certainly one way to draw attention to its value. And once writers, agents, publishers, libraries and archives, and all the rest of us understand that personal digital collections warrant careful management from the moment of creation, we will see betters tools and methods for personal digital archiving.
In the meantime, we can only speculate how much and what kinds of digital literary remains will find their way into research collections. Or, to paraphrase Sontag, our libraries await the digital archives of longing.