Dictating a Masterpiece


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More and more writers are using voice recognition software, which is constantly improving and even has an app for the iPhone. The novelist Richard Powers has explained his process of dictating novels to his PC tablet as a return to “writing by voice” as done by authors through history.

But earlier writers, such as Milton, Dostoevsky and Henry James used the first form of voice recognition software—women.

Before stenography and then typing provided an entry into the workplace for thousands of women, handwritten transcription was an intimate exchange and was often unpaid work done by an author’s female family members.

Although the question of who really transcribed for Milton continues to be debated, the image of blind Milton dictating “Paradise Lost” to his daughters captured the public imagination and was the subject of several paintings, by Delacroix, Mihaly Munkacsy, George Romney and others.

Milton himself claimed he was taking direct dictation from God, but it must have been tiring for anyone to transcribe a work that, as Samuel Johnson noted, “None ever wished it longer than it is.”

Though dictation itself is not new, dictating to a human is not the same as dictating to a machine. For one thing, a human transcriptionist responds, even if the response is pre-reflective—laughing, crying, flinching—the transcriptionist is a substitute for the author’s body and that body reacts.

Dostoevsky called his transcriptionist, Anna Grigorievna,  his “collaborator.” He hired her in order to finish “The Gambler” because of a desperate contract he had made with his publisher, in part to help pay off his dead brother’s debts.

In her “Reminiscences,” Anna Grigorievna described working for Dostoevsky:

“There were times when I was amazed by my own boldness in expressing my views about the novel, and still more amazed by the indulgence with which a brilliant writer used to listen to these almost childish remarks and opinions.”

Although there is no way to measure her contribution, it is clear that she was aware that she was offering more than efficiency of production.

With her help, Dostoevsky finished “The Gambler” on deadline. Then he married her and their collaboration continued. She later recalled his praise:

“When, in the space of a few days, you and I had established our pattern of working, I began to have a glimmer of hope—I, who was on the brink of despair—and I began to think, maybe if I can continue to work this way from this point on, then…perhaps…I’ll finish the work in time!”

Dostoevsky understood, even emphasized, that theirs was a collaborative effort. And though history may have forgotten these invisible handmaidens, in the moment of artistic production, authors like Dostoevsky responded to their presence. No one would call voice recognition software a collaborator. Nor would anyone say that a computer “wrote with one hand and wiped tears with the other” as Anna Grigorievna did when Dostoevsky dictated a scene in “The Brothers Karamazov.”

She said that after finishing his dictation he always asked, “Well, what do you say, Anechka?” And she would respond, “It’s fine.” She added, “But my ‘fine’ meant to Fyodor Mikhailovich that perhaps the just-dictated scene, though successful from his point of view, had not produced any particular effect on me. And my husband placed great importance on my spontaneous reactions.”

This highlights a key difference between human and mechanical transcription—there is always the possibility that the human will respond. In Dostoevsky’s case, he even sought the response, something no technology can provide. The human transcriptionist allowed the author a different aesthetic point of view where he could gauge the affectivity of a sentence by watching the visceral response. And the meaning of this “spontaneous reaction,” even a silent one, was refracted back to the writer.

The improvement and mass production of the typewriter in the late 19th century eliminated the need for transcriptionists to write by hand. With the typewriter, women were hired in a professional capacity, the typewriter itself an impersonal machine separating the writer from the professional typist. The operators of these machines were even called typewriters.

A March 25, 1896, New York Times article described typists eating lunch at the “Typewriters’ Exchange”: “The typewriter is there in every form in which that business woman appears in thousands of offices. She is fair, she is plump and sometimes she is even 40. But most of them are young girls, with rosy cheeks and bright eyes, dressed very sensibly…”

My interest in these invisible handmaidens is personal. For a while I was one of them. I worked as a transcriptionist for The New York Times in the early 2000s, for journalists rather than fictionalists. It left me with the fear that my afterlife will involve a room with a chair, a Dictaphone and a keyboard with which to take dictation not from God (or even Milton) but from a well-meaning dance critic convinced that I cannot spell B-a-l-a-n-c-h-i-n-e.

On the other hand, considering the pitfalls of hurried homonymy, perhaps the critic was not being excessively careful. I once transcribed a film director’s comments: “I really love porn films, which have a lot of signage in them.” Um, the man got his signage from foreign films.

It’s not likely that Henry James faced that particular dilemma. He turned to transcriptionists—although he preferred the term for secretary, amanuensis—because of rheumatism of the wrist.

He is reported to have wished for “a typist without a mind” so that the transcriptionist would “be part of the machinery.” He first hired a male secretary, followed by two women, Mary Weld and Theodora Bosanquet.

Bosanquet wrote in her diary about James’s attachment to the typewriter’s sound: “Indeed, at the time when I began to work for him, he had reached a stage at which the click of the Remington machine acted as a positive spur. He found it more difficult to compose to the music of any other make. During a fortnight when the Remington was out of order he dictated to an Oliver typewriter with evident discomfort, and he found it almost disconcerting to speak to something that made no responsive sound at all.”

James responded to the technology—it was strange for him to no longer hear the click. But he also responded to the transcriptionist. Bosanquet remembered that after complimenting her work, James once said, “among the faults of my previous amanuenses—not by any means the only fault—was their apparent lack of comprehension of what I was driving at.”

And how would James know that Bosanquet understood what he was “driving at” unless she had responded in a way that he noticed and appreciated. Despite his assertion, James seems to have wanted more than a typist without a mind.

We think of writing as an author’s cognitive output, but it has a corporeal dimension—writing is an embodied practice, the outcome is itself shaped by the medium through which it is produced, involving both the materiality and the senses (that Remington click), immeasurable dimensions of artistic production. Even if the traces of the process on the final product we can never grasp.

Milton, Dostoevsky and James all outsourced aesthetic production because of human frailty, limitations on their bodies. Today, the process has been mechanized and writers turn to voice recognition for different reasons. Some choose it because of repetitive stress but others cite the ease and convenience. Perhaps the new medium will again transform artistic production.

Richard Powers has said that when dictating he can “forget the machine is even there.” And while he makes a connection between the author’s need to “write by voice,” whether it is blind Milton chanting to his daughters or Powers himself speaking to his PC, he does not allow for the difference between dictating to a mechanical device and dictating to a responsive human.

It seems that this is a nostalgic longing for an unmediated form of auditory authorship. Powers is right to note authors have dictated their stories since Socrates. The discontinuity is that in the past authors have dictated to humans and their corporeal responses have contributed to aesthetic production if in untraceable ways.

Powers also notes that he “can write lying down” and “live above the level of the phrase.” This authorial desire for invisible mediation is in part what has rendered human transcriptionists invisible through history.

Contemporary writers can dispense with typists and even keyboards and speak their books into being. The Dragon Dictation iPhone application is free. And although you can dictate for only 20 seconds at a time, for a generation of twitterers, it may be that writing a novel is one long string of verbal tweets. Dragon Dictation will not wait for Jamesian jawbations, nor will it shed tears at the beauty of your words, but it does have one editorial response—it censors out any curse words. • 12 August 2010