Dictation and Generosity

Posted by Anne Trubek


Richards Powers wrote his new novel by dictation. Does that affect the quality?


Richard Powers' new novel, Generosity, was published this week. I am a huge fan of Powers, and I loved the novel. But not all had the same reaction. James Wood wrote a lengthy article critiquing Powers and his latest novel in this week's New Yorker. Wood argues that Powers's novels lack convincing plots and characters. Fair enough-we are entitled to disagree. But in the middle of his essay he makes a comment that reveals an odd literary prejudice.

The main character of the novel, Russell Stone, is a failed writer. Since "Stone is himself a failed writer, perhaps Powers thought that mimetic fidelity compelled him to compose a failure, too." Ouch: a novel about a bad writer is badly written on purpose. But then Wood goes on to give what he deems a more reasonable explanation for s the novel's weakness: "A less postmodern explanation might be the now reasonably well-known fact that Powers has for some time been writing fiction by dictation, with the help of speech-recognition software."

And he leaves it at that. No explanation, no warrants to explain the assumption, no claims, supports or data to back up this explanation. The fact speaks for itself, Wood assumes: the novel is bad because Powers dictated it.

Huh? Is it a truth generally acknowledged that writers who talk are inferior to those who scratch or tap? I think not. I know not.

Henry James dictated many of his novels. So did Mark Twain. Socrates and Homer? Well, you get my drift.

There is no logical, historical, cultural, aesthetic, or cognitive reason why dictation is a poor way to write. As Powers himself said of his use of voice recognition software a few years ago: "Writing is the act of accepting the huge shortfall between the story in the mind and what hits the page. ... For that, no interface will ever be clean or invisible enough for us to get the passage right."

I would argue more of us should dictate than do now. I have seen how much fun my 10 year old son has when he gets to dictate his creative writing assignments for school to me. Freed from trying to find the "p" on the keyboard or remember to cross his "t," words flow. Sentences, even, with clauses. Every so often he says out loud: "Return."

Not all of us have the gift of composed speech, or speaking to write. I do not. I am a cut-and-paste revising maniac-never the first time will do for me, and I never know where I am going to go next. But just as anyone can be trained to write, anyone can be trained to memorize.

In his textbook on rhetoric, the Insituto Oratoria, Quintilian describes how to build a memory palace, a form on mnemonics in which orators picture a structure they know well-a palace, a house, and imaginatively furnish it with objects. Each object is then used as a symbol for a point the orator wants to make. Thus when giving a speech a speaker can simply take a virtual walk through the structure and remember what he wants to say.

In other words, there are all ways to get from conception to execution, or from God's lips to your ears.

Faulty assumptions about writing are everywhere, from "do not start a sentence with ‘And'" to "never end a sentence with a preposition." Now, I guess, some believe one should "never dictate novels." None of these dictates has good reasons to support it. Why this insistence on rules, protocols, right and wrong ways? It is all very ungenerous. Unscrew the locks form the doors already, so we can all try to get closer to what we mean.

Collage by Will Etling