Authors, literature and the screen

August 17, 2007

In the great future lit debate, there’s one thing we keep coming back to, that we hear over and over again: “I can’t read from a screen.” Never mind that most of us spend far more time reading from a screen (as you’re doing right now) than we do reading from paper (especially if you count text messages, display boards, TV titles and subtitles and many other instances).

Is fiction different? Is the novel or other long work uniquely suited to paper? Novelists like Margaret Atwood certainly believe so, in her vociferous opposition to all things electronic, and who better to judge than writers?

Well, it struck me that writers would be a good group to examine in this debate, so I figured I’d start with The Guardian’s Writers’ rooms series, a weekly feature on writers and their places and methods of work, and see how many of these writers compose the works on a computer in the first place, the work never reaching paper until the final proof is printed and makes it to the bookshelf, completing the illusion that this is how it is meant to be.

Here are the results (I’ve left out John Banville because the photo is the same as that for Beryl Bainbridge and he doesn’t say anything specific; all the rest are included):

The haters:

  • John Richardson: “I am computer illiterate and write everything by hand.”
  • Colm Tóibín: “all in longhand”.
  • John Mortimer: “I write with a pen on long sheets of paper. I’ve never learnt how to type.”
  • Edna O’Brien: “I write by hand. I do not understand how people can arrive at even a flicker of creativity by means of a computer.”
  • Geoff Dyer – surprised by this one, but there’s no computer in sight, and he doesn’t mention one.
  • Michael Holroyd: “Early this year I bought a new black laptop which lies somewhere under a pile of papers. It is, I’m told, capable of miracles. I haven’t used it yet.”
  • Will Self: “I loathe computers more and more.” (If you’ve never seen Self’s study, do check out his awesome post-it system).
  • Antonia Fraser: “My typewriter is electric and so ancient that other typewriters have to be cannibalised when it needs mending.”
  • JG Ballard: “I have resisted getting a computer because I distrust the whole PC thing. I don’t think a great book has yet been written on computer.”
  • AS Byatt – a very papery desk.

The in-betweens:

  • Jacqueline Wilson: “I write all my first drafts in gorgeous Italian leather notebooks” – then she types them up on an iBook.
  • Hanif Kureishi: “Computers are a mercy for writers, but they do encourage books that are too long. I write by hand first and then type it up.”
  • David Hare: “I write things out in longhand, then later put everything on the computer.”
  • Beryl Bainbridge: “I got the typewriter in 1958 from a Chinaman… I type it up onto a computer so I can correct it.”

The lovers:

  • Carmen Callil: “I write every day, typing straight on to that small computer.”
  • Graham Swift – computer taking up most of the desk space.
  • Margaret Drabble (Ditto).
  • Mark Haddon: “Few schools have cartoons of men with rectal bleeding above the computer workstation” (Yes, he does).
  • AL Kennedy: “If I’m doing serious writing I prefer to be in here at night with the low energy bulb and the music, typing on a lap top.”
  • Rose Tremain: “The computer desk is an ugly, ancient thing – but I don’t suppose I’ll ever replace it. I’ve written 13 books on it.”
  • Ian Rankin: “Under the desk you will see an unused Mac tower (never got the hang of it)” – but he seems OK with the laptop on the desk.
  • Esther Freud: “I don’t need any of these things, just my green chair and my laptop.”
  • Claire Tomalin – not much room for anything but that computer.
  • Andrew O’Hagan: “The laptop is there for work.”
  • Diana Athill: “I’m a hopeless dummy about computers, using mine only as a typewriter and for emails, but I do love writing on it.”
  • David Lodge: “I found myself doing more and more writing straight onto the computer.”
  • Hilary Mantel – a very smart computer.
  • Sarah Waters: “All I need in a study is a flat surface, a computer, and a closable door.”
  • Michael Frayn: “Word-processor” – confirmed by the statement that “I sit sideways on [to the window] most of the time.”

I make that 10 haters, 15 lovers, and 4 inbetweens. (Please don’t take the terminology too seriously, and yes, it’s deeply unscientific. Still…)

More than half those questioned exclusively use computers – and that’s from a severely weighted sample, tending towards older, literary authors, the kind of people you’d imagine would run a mile from the computer. Yet for many of them, the work comes together, is revised and edited on a screen, where it passes in all likelihood via email to their agents and publishers, who may print it out (as may the authors) to read, but still: the work itself is undeniably of the electronic screen, rather than the page.

Food for thought?


  1. Brilliant. Authors either write longhand, or on computer. Or do they?

    Pingback by Times Emit — August 18, 2007 @ 1:33 am

  2. […] Another great post from James Bridle at with an alternative take on one of the classic criticisms of electronic literature […]

    Pingback by Chris Joseph — August 22, 2007 @ 1:44 pm

  3. Writing onto a screen is not the same as reading from one: an apples/oranges comparison.

    Comment by Lee — August 22, 2007 @ 7:05 pm

  4. Lee, I’m forced to disagree. When writing, writers read their work as they type it. Therefore, all those long hours spent writing are also spent reading.

    Beyond this facile point, I’m also trying to draw a line between the perceived ‘natural’ state of literature – upon paper – and the reality of it: that it exists independent of any medium, and is tied to none.

    Comment by James Bridle — August 23, 2007 @ 4:35 pm

  5. ‘When writing, writers read their work as they type it. Therefore, all those long hours spent writing are also spent reading.’

    James, yes, of course that’s true, but my point is that it’s not the same kind of reading.

    Far be it for me as a fully committed online novelist and writer to argue that paper is the only ‘natural’ state of literature, but I do find there are many different types of reading. It won’t do our cause any good to make what I perceive as problematic comparisons. Nor am I convinced that text is entirely divorced from its medium. This doesn’t mean that literature cannot exist online, but I’m beginning to suspect – and I grant you, this is entirely anecdotal and only based on very limited personal experience – that it may be a different sort of literature to what we know now. That, in fact, is the challenge and the fascination.

    But I’m willing to be convinced of my wrong-headedness!

    Comment by Lee — August 23, 2007 @ 6:16 pm

  6. Hi Lee,

    I know as an electronic writer I’m biased here, but I agree with your point about different types of reading as well as writing. There is already a lot of e-literature out there that requires different modes of reading and interaction to print literature, and it will have required a different type of writing from the author too – most if not all of it at a screen…

    Personally I’m still slightly uncomfortable with the term ‘literature’ when used in comparisons of print and electronic, as for most people the term is too loaded with the notions and experience of print literature to accept the different goals, experience and required reading mindset of electronic. But hopefully this will change as more people come across it…

    Comment by Chris Joseph — August 23, 2007 @ 7:08 pm

  7. […] write on the screen, or resort to paper? Here’s how the greats do it. For the curious, here’s how I do it […]

    Pingback by Bright Meadow — September 2, 2007 @ 3:53 pm

  8. […] Authors, literature and the screen by James Bridle and my response here […]

    Pingback by Chris Joseph » Is e-literature just one big anti-climax? — September 29, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

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