Most of my manuscripts are hand-written on alternate lines on both sides of the page. They are packed in boxes in a basement. There are also one or two typed (and copied) manuscripts per novel. Scribbled notes and vague outlines and research I might forget are also in the binders. Oh - yes - and today they are all safely on a flashdrive and scattered as attachments in emails. And on a computer or two.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Why literary archives are like monkfish
Properly filleted, they can be fascinating, but don't they spoil our appetite for the real flavour of the published work?
by Rick Gekoski
Not obviously appetising ... monkfish. Photograph: Murdo Macleod
I once attended, and spoke at, a conference on literary archives at the home of so many of them, the Harry Ransom Centre at The University of Texas. The conference stretched – interminably to me, for I am impatient and not very good at such things – over three days, and covered more topics about archives than most people would wish to know. But it was, of course, peopled by participants who did wish to know, and we (they) covered topic after topic with enthusiasm. What is the future of literary archives? How will they be affected by changes in digital technology? What new ways have been devised for information recording and retrieval?
Yawn, alas. Alas, because I make part of my living dealing in literary archives. So I ought to have been interested in such questions, and intermittently I was. Did you know that a techno-wizard can retrieve every keystroke made on a keyboard and recorded on a hard disc? This means not only will you be found out having watched (and deleted) Swedish Nurses 37, but that all of the emendations, alterations, changes and corrections in an author's literary compositions can be located, recovered, and eventually made available for hyper-diligent perusal.
However, though I spend a lot of my time with archives, this does not mean that I take unalloyed pleasure in them. Let's start at the beginning. An archive consists of the mass of personal papers that fill a writer's study, and attic, and (if you ask their partner) most of the rest of the house: the terminal moraine of an author's life. What is to be found there? Well, in ideal state – with, as Gertrude Stein put it, "no pieces of paper thrown away" – you might find: the author's manuscripts and drafts of work both published and unpublished; diaries or journals; incoming correspondence, and (if you are very lucky) copies of the author's outgoing letters as well; historical material that documents the author's life, like photographs and family memorabilia; objects of significance: the writer's desk, or typewriter, or (even) best Sunday suit. This material will have spread like an infestation through the house, and found its nesting places in boxes and cartons, filing cabinets, bookshelves, and drawers both open and secret. ("No one is looking into my drawers!" William Golding once told me, a little ambiguously).
When first encountered, an archive, I remarked at the conference, reminds me of a monkfish. When it is eventually served up to you in bite-sized morsels, accompanied by rice and a salad, it is enticing, but when you see it in an unfilleted state it is ugly, cumbersome and unappealing. I have spent a lot of time in attics, studies, and cellars, sifting through myriad unsorted boxes and cartons of a writer's manuscripts, letters, diaries and miscellanea – dust! damp! – and there is something lowering about the process, something dirty and invasive that makes you both literally and figuratively need a wash. My audience was not amused by my fish metaphor, and glared at me disapprovingly – "A monkfish!" muttered Tom Staley, the legendary director of the Ransom Centre – and I made myself an inward promise to stop trying to be funny, and to shut up. (I didn't keep it.)