The Lost Art of Dictation

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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 authors through history have done.

But earlier writers–Milton, Dostoevsky, Henry James–used the first form of voice recognition software: women.

Before stenography and then typing provided an entry into the workplace for many 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 paintings by Delacroix, Mihaly Munkacsy, George Romney, and other artists.

Milton himself claimed that 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 . . . longer than it is.”

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 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.

Dostoevsky understood, even emphasized, that theirs was a collaborative effort. And though history may have forgotten invisible handmaidens like Grigorievna, authors like Dostoevsky responded to their presence in the moment of artistic production. 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 Grigorievna did when Dostoevsky dictated a scene in The Brothers Karamazov.

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

An 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.

Henry James turned to transcriptionists–although he preferred the term for secretary, amanuensis–because of rheumatism. 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 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 shaped by the medium through which it is produced. Even if we can never grasp the traces of the process on the final product.

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 to avoid repetitive stress injury, but others cite ease and convenience. Perhaps the new medium will again transform artistic production.

Richard Powers has said that when he is 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 speaking to his PC, he does not allow for the difference between dictating to a mechanical device and dictating to a responsive human.

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 curse words.

Amy Rowland is a freelance writer and a former copy editor for the New York Times Index. From The Smart Set (Aug. 12, 2010), an independent online magazine supported by Drexel University that’s full of smart, vibrant writing on arts, culture, and many other

Have something to say? Send a letter to This article first appeared in the July-August 2011 issue of Utne Reader

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