What is ‘literary’ in the post-typewriter age?

HomeShoppingSpy declares trendy the motif of the typewriter as an element of design. (Easy, now. I know there is a keychopped ring in there. Let’s set that aside for a moment.) This windy tome, as I recall, discusses typewriters as writerly talismans, accenting jewelry, soundtracks, and book covers to impart the fine mist of literary nostalgia upon the watcher or wearer. It’s becoming a cliche, in fact, this notion of what is “literary:” Lone writer at a desk. Mid-20th century. America, or Europe, perhaps. Typewriter. Cigarette. A certain stylish cut to the clothes. It is something more than words.

Can one be ‘literary’ in sweatpants, writing on a Macbook? Can one be ‘literary’ tapping flash fiction on a T-Mobile Sidekick? I’d argue that the word is rooted in the now-romanticized idea of a writer in a sportscoat at a desk, 1950-something, typing away at a Smith Corona. Whatever we’re doing now with our microblogged soundbites or .docx files or Skyped conversations is not literary, even if the result is literature.

Or is it?

31 Comments

  1. When I found out just now that I was reading an ‘Ideal Home Magazine’ blog, I went into convulsions. As a dedicated anti-snob, I can’t tell you how fearful I am of the bourgeoisie and their encroaching consumption patterns. It’s like finding out I was into ‘shabby chic’ without being aware of it.

    As for the literary look, I am never without a copy of the NY or London Review of Books in the patch pocket of my smoking jacket.

  2. Well, I guess if what you are going after is a literary veneer, then you may want the cigarette, typewriter, well-cut clothes, etc. But I always thought ‘literary’ referred to the writing, so it wouldn’t matter what tool you used to create it. I personally like typewriters, but I ‘d love a new MacBook, too.

    I guess everything will become a trend eventually.

  3. I’d argue the word ‘literary’ in the post-book era is as much about style as it is about ideas.

    The gauntlet is thrown. (What is a gauntlet, by the way?)

  4. MacBooks are a trend now. Walk into any Seattle coffee shop. I’m sure the same is true in New York and San Francisco.

  5. A gauntlet is a glove made of armour, thrown down by a knight to challenge an enemy.

    Not sure we are actually IN a ‘post-book’ era yet! Still plenty of books around…

    I agree with ‘Typograph’. Surely poetry scrawled into sand can be ‘literary’ or words scribbled on a paper napkin with a biro in a coffee shop. Whether literature is created on a typewriter or a Mac Book is irrelevant. It’s the words that matter, not the tools that are used to record them.

    So thrilled to hear that our blog gave Shute convulsions. We aim to please.

    The bourgeoisie x

  6. Oh, and sorry about the ‘keychopped ring’ by the way. I understand that the typewriters used for this range of jewellery all led full and happy lives before dying of natural causes at ripe old ages, so there’s no need to worry. Think of it as re-incarnation/recycling rather than murder. I would never feature products created from happy, living, working typewriters…I wouldn’t be able to look my Good Companion in the eye again.

  7. @Homeshoppingspy:

    I was being ironic. When I describe myself as “a dedicated anti-snob”, my irony is peaking (self-deprecation etc).

  8. If the criteria have to do with “looks,” as it seems, then it’s not so much about writing, but more about the “air” of what people suppose artists and scholars look like.
    Maybe the typewriter appears more as an icon, since it is somewhat removed from the world of commodities. Might this be “archaic chic” to onlookers?

    Being a terribly unhip person, I just keep on writing, reading, and marching to my own drumbeat- and hope I’ll always be able to find typewriter ribbons, Waterman ink, Helix pencils, and Basildon paper.

  9. I thought the “Gauntlet” was the name of a Dirty Harry movie? 😉

  10. Madame, one day my version of writing in style, the babydoll dress and the clumsy boots and the silly hat with ear flaps, worn while hunched over on the floor with a bag of candy and a mug of tea, surrounded by pens and computers AND typewriters, will be the literary theme du jour and college kids everywhere will be trying to emulate me. Watch.

    I’m not full of myself, I swear.

    And I don’t think anything being produced right now simply has the STAYING POEWR to be considered literary. Most of it’s throwaway reading. I’d rather wipe my butt on a Nora Roberts book than read it.

  11. Or the STAYING POWER~, even. Poewr. What is this nonsense.

  12. @Strikethru:

    Since you threw down the gondola, I would argue that, in this post-wax tablet era, there is nothing that is out of bounds to ‘style’. In consumerism, everything is fair game, for the time being, until further notice, as long as it satisfies the desire to project an image which validates us.
    Lots of ‘great’ writers seem more about style, especially in the beginning (Kerouac’s first novel, vis-a-vis Wolfe, case in point) than substance, yet still manage to pull off something. And it used to be that emulation/pastiche was respectable, if not de rigueur, for some forms.
    In a time when the words, ‘genuine’ and ‘authentic’ appear as selling points for barely distinguishable goods we don’t really need, I think we should accept that there isn’t any point in legislating or sanctioning for purposes (or the lost art) of artistic distinction; nobody’s listening anyway because they are too busy acquiring/appropriating your style!
    So I agree but don’t think it is new, important enough etc.
    Have to go: one of my side tables is missing a coaster.

  13. HomeShoppingSpy:I understand that the typewriters used for this range of jewellery all led full and happy lives before dying of natural causes at ripe old ages, so there’s no need to worry.

    This is like justifying an elephant ivory cameo by saying, “I never buy elephant ivory from poachers, only from elephants that died of natural causes after living good, long lives.”

    Better yet, try convincing an animal rights activist not to throw a bucket of red paint on your mink coat by claiming that the fur was only harvested after the minks died peacefully of old age.

    Most of the keychoppers hawking keysets and jewelry on eBay and Etsy certainly don’t care about the machine’s condition. Sometimes they even brag about how rare and “mint” the machine was that they destroyed. Look at all the perfectly good, functional typewriter listings on eBay that say “Will cut keys to save shipping!” No, typewriter key jewelry is a trend that needs to die. Completely.

  14. Yeah, I hate to agree with Olivander on things, but, well, I totally agree with Olivander.

  15. @ Olivander

    I love typewriters, and would never want to see a lovely old one destroyed to make rings. But I think jewellery made from typewriters that are so old, damaged and irreparable that they would otherwise be scrapped, is OK. As long as that’s the case, I don’t see the harm in recycling parts and giving them a new lease of life. But I agree it’s a crime to damage or break up a working or repairable model. Not quite like elephants though…typewriters aren’t living or able to feel pain surely! I know you love them and all…but they’re not as important as living creatures surely!?

  16. or reparable (!)

    sigh

  17. HomeShoppingSpy: I love typewriters, and would never want to see a lovely old one destroyed to make rings. But I think jewellery made from typewriters that are so old, damaged and irreparable that they would otherwise be scrapped, is OK.

    My point was that even if you only make jewelry from truly unrepairable typewriters, it’s still feeding the market and causing others to capitalize upon it by destroying machines regardless of condition. That’s why all elephant ivory is illegal and you can’t buy ivory that came from elephants that died peacefully in their sleep. As long as the trend is out there, someone’s going to try to make a buck on it ethics be damned.

    Ethics aside, I still contend that typewriter jewelry is an anti-typewriter statement. Only with typewriters does one profess one’s love for them by wearing their dismembered bits upon oneself.

  18. L

    I feel sad that typewriters are becoming a “micro trend”. Not that i’m like some hipster who gets bitterly depressed when other people commercialize, well, everything, but still…I mean, typewriter JEWELLERY??? sad. why?

  19. Gauntlet is a totally freaking awesome four-player video game.

    Wait, are you saying I just had leather elbow patches sewn onto my tweed jacket for *nothing*?!

    Got to scale back my collection of writerly affectations, apparently.

  20. Golden Axe was better. Just sayin’.

  21. One does not lightly mention keychopping in retrotechnical circles!

    As the physical artifacts of literature are increasingly digitized, how does that change the meaning or perception of those remaining, now devalued artifacts? Style is one direction they might take.

    There is definitely an undercurrent of role playing / video game nerddom within the typosphere. I say this with affection, as my older brother is the king of video game nerds (and as such, I have a passing knowledge of at least retro video game history).

  22. Ahh…I think I see what you mean now, Strikethru. I was thinking more in terms of the two aspects of ‘literary’: the style and the genuine activity which it purposely resembles. And I was thinking that they will coexist in the same way that consumer lifestyles coexist with the professional roles upon which they are parasitic. So, for instance, outdoor clothing, which is used by people who work in the outdoors but also worn by loads of people who want to look similar; or landrovers that are used on farms and in war zones but are also driven by people who want to look like they are associated with the original function.

    My point about discriminating style from substance, is that no one really cares any more whether a person actually works outdoors as the ‘fashion’ has taken on a life of its own. In fact, outdoor workers may not want to look like the fancy people imitating them in the end.

    It is possible to distinguish, along what is a continuum, the image and the reality behind the users, but it might not be worthwhile. And as with writers who are more style than substance, there are some people driving landrovers with a flashing light on top who might not really need it, yet they can claim some ‘professional’ association that justifies its use, at a stretch.

    Perhaps this only matters to anti-snob snobs like myself? Perhaps it is time to retire to my genuine Proustian bed? Goodnight.

  23. Golden Axe was easily a better console game than Gauntlet. But in the arcade??? Gauntlet 4-player action is still unmatched.

    Blue Wizard is about to die!!!

    Yeah, unmatched.

  24. Deek is right, Speegle wrong.

    Golden axe is, I’m sure, a fine video game.

    But doesn’t come close to Gauntlet for four-player action.

    Gauntlet is worth driving all the way out to Putt Putt with your brother in his VW Rabbit to play. And when you’re there, playing, and you are killed, you hope and pray your brother and his two friends can hold their ground long enough for you to run to the counter for more tokens and return to rejoin the battle (“Welcome, Valkyrie!”)

    (What?! I *liked* playing Valkyrie. Sue me.)

    PS: “Remember: Don’t Shoot Food.”

    Gotta go. My life force is running out.

  25. Good blog!..

    Deek is right, Speegle wrong.

    Golden axe is, I’m sure, a fine video game..

    thnkx for posting.

  26. It is! And if it isn’t than my dreams of being the stereotypical “literary writer” have just died and gone to Hell. Thanks for that. (just kidding) I can’t help it if I prefer to act like a snob. It’s all these English majors rubbing off on me I’m sure. (We’re all snobs up here)

  27. @Strikethru: “As the physical artifacts of literature are increasingly digitized, how does that change the meaning or perception of those remaining, now devalued artifacts? Style is one direction they might take.”

    I’m waiting for the day when Kindle readers are keychopped … or the equivalent; perhaps made into kindling?

    Thinking about how many dead cell phones and laptops there are laying about, it’s only a matter of time. Meanwhile, the manual typewriters will still be klunking away; at least the ones that we’ve personally rescued.

  28. @Strikethru Hi, I’m new to this blog but have to say I am loving it.

    I have been writing ideas and drafts on a typewriter for four years now, I rescued a beauty from ebay, but final stories always end up on the pc. I just like the way it almost forces you to select your words and phrasing carefully.

    Anyway, really enjoying this blog.

    Take it easy,
    Alex

  29. Hi Alex! Thanks for reading. What kind of typewriter do you have?

    Joe, I’ve already seen some art that fits this description… a vase covered with computer keyboard keys….

    I’m having a hard time imagining rings and necklaces made of Nokia phones, though.

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  31. I have a royal-lite portable, it is this but mine is all yellow.

    http://tancred62.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/type2.jpg

    Lovely things, though mine dowsn’t travel too well. Looking to upgrade.