18 November 2009

MCT: Jerome McGann

Another extract from MCT, “The textual condition” is McGann’s address to the Society for Textual Scholarship in 1985. I’m not particularly interested in textual scholarship, so won’t stay here long, but it concerns the question of how you know you are dealing with a reliable text; in fact it (disappointingly for me) suggests that you can’t ignore questions of how the text was produced when you are trying to understand it. This has always been clear with Shakespeare, for example, where the Arden editions refer to the various available readings and suggested errors and corrections. But even with later writers, it’s suggested, the process by which a printed text comes into being is significant and can’t be simply left to the drudges of textual scholarship (as I’d see them – obv McGann doesn’t).

The essay closes by looking at the distinction between scholarship and hermeneutics: traditionally scholarship is seen as the drudge work, which provides a basis for ‘proper’ examination of the significance of the text. There’s a reference to ‘copy-text editing’ – a theory in which text editors should separate out accidentals and substantives. Accidentals includes spelling and punctuation, while substantives include the line of thought expressed. The theory says that editors should, by and large, refer to the writer’s manuscript for accidentals, and to later printed editions for substantives. The obvious argument is that this distinction is too simplistic, and that textual scholars ought to be the last people to be taken in by it.

In the middle of the article, though, there’s a reference to Robert Pinsky’s Mindwheel, evidently some kind of interactive text, described as “an electronic novel – the first ever published, I understand. It will not be the last.” Perhaps not the last, but the form can’t be said to have caught on since 1985. Obviously such a book would raise questions about the respective roles of reader and writer, where scriptibility is open. But perhaps the fact that such works haven’t proliferated suggests something about the limits of the pluriel. Electronic publication (and of course since 1985 this has come to mean the internet, with even more possibilities than an electronic book on a disk) has provided the perfect medium for such interactivity, but very few people have taken it up. Wikipedia doesn’t seem to me to be doing this, but is maybe the closest. Even in fan fiction, which is probably massively bigger than most people know, the model is of single authors producing, as far as they can, a finished work.

I have spent longer on this than I meant to. I think this may mean that electronic publication is an area I should give some time to.

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