Sunday, June 15, 2008

Version Control

"Version control" is a term from software development; but it's not something new to writers. And like software, writing has it's development and production phases; yet, just as a "software release" isn't necessarily the final say, neither is publication. In the past, it was the technical and human limitations of turning a handwritten script into a fair copy or typescript and then again, into the moveable type of a book. I'm always quite surprised when I read of writers - even younger writers who still write initially by hand, or even continue with a heavy manual typewriter long after they've fallen out of favour elsewhere. But if the technique's not broke then don't look to fixing it. It was still a surprise to read in the Sunday Times that Nietzsche used a typewriter. So says Andrew Sullivan pace Nicholas Carr in the Atlantic. I've long argued that the tools of your trade can effect the work - whether its Hemingway's heavy-duty Remington or Kerouac's continuous scroll. When I write poetry the page length can be a determinant (which is why when writing longhand I tend to steal the blank white space of copier paper), as can whether I write it direct to the PC (landscape) rather than in a notebook (portrait.) As Sullivan points out, Google, for all it's advantages, can give us "pond skater minds." Yet, it's not just that. Finding yourself without the internet nowadays, seems to make using a PC almost impossible - yet for years we used the computer as little more than a glorified typewriter anyhow. Tomorrow, on a long train journey, I'll have a choice: laptop whilst the batteries last or longhand. I think I might get a few thousand uninterrupted words on the former if I'm lucky, since without the distractions of my Google and Facebook and whatever else, there'll be nothing else to concentrate on. Yet, going back to my initial point: about "version control" - in a connected world, the distinction between "on" and "off" line is becoming less certain; and in the same way, the internet gives us (mostly) the latest version. A future literary sleuth may well find themselves going over the log files of a writer's wiki, to see what he or she changed, and when. I think its different for poetry, where a number of different versions of a poem can probably co-exist quite easily - the poem you read at the reading; the manuscript version; the one in the little magazine; the first collection; the selected etc etc - and I'm often surprised when I see a poet reading armed with nothing more than the published book. It seems a little disappointing in some ways, yet one assumes a well-edited collection will be the definitive version; but disappointing in a way that a gig that sounds like the album is disappointing, no surprises. I prefer the Roger McGoughs and Les Murrays of the world skipping through the career, picking plums, and armed with some recent manuscript poems. Fiction though, it's usually error or commerce that creates the different versions, at least these days. Whenever you read a work in progress in Granta, I doubt it changes much before the final version - and this, again, disappoints me a little. I think that "publishing" something gives you a sense of closure on the piece - perhaps "sets it" for you, even if you'd perhaps have gone back and changed it later. It's perhaps indicative of my preference for flux, that my favourite novel, "Tender is the Night" by Fitzgerald exists in two very distinct versions. The original - and restored version - begins with the moment when Dick Diver begins his fall, whilst the revised version (that was the popularly known one for so long) is chronological. It's clear to me that the chronological one isn't the right one - but picking up, at last, a copy of this secondhand earlier today, I'm looking forward to reading the wrong version at some point.

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