Thanks for typing

Ah the typing wife. I remember those.

Bruce Holsinger is a novelist and English professor at the University of Virginia.

Holsinger and some colleagues were recently discussing how often the wives of male academics do significant work for which they are rarely given proper credit.

This reminded Holsinger of all the times he has read male authors thanking their wives for typing up manuscripts in the acknowledgments of their books. Curious to see how widespread the practice was, Holsinger did a quick search on Google Books and found dozens of “eye-opening” examples that he started sharing on Twitter with the hashtag #ThanksForTyping.

“The response was immediate and overwhelming,” Holsinger said. “It’s turned into a lively and mind-bending exchange.”

The article includes many examples.

Holsinger said many people have engaged in the hashtag to discuss “the politics of academic labor, the crucial role of women as collaborators and unacknowledged co-authors of academic work.”

Holsinger noted that many people have studied and written about this phenomenon already, but the hashtag kicked off a big public conversation.

I remember the jolt of fury I felt on reading one example of this years ago, in a collection of essays on I’m not sure what – the decline of reading, the invasion of technology, some such thing. The essay, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” was by Wendell Berry. It gets right to the point.

Like almost everybody else, I am hooked to the energy corporations, which I do not admire. I hope to become less hooked to them. In my work, I try to be as little hooked to them as possible. As a farmer, I do almost all of my work with horses. As a writer, I work with a pencil or a pen and a piece of paper.

My wife types my work on a Royal standard typewriter bought new in 1956 and as good now as it was then. As she types, she sees things that are wrong and marks them with small checks in the margins. She is my best critic because she is the one most familiar with my habitual errors and weaknesses. She also understands, sometimes better than I do, what ought to be said. We have, I think, a literary cottage industry that works well and pleasantly. I do not see anything wrong with it.

I still remember my feeling of disbelief. It was long before blogging was a thing, let alone Facebook, so I had no way to tell an eager world about my disbelief. But now I do! With apparently total lack of self-consciousness, the guy congratulates himself on writing with a pen, and then says his wife soils herself with the beast technology in order to put his writing into a medium acceptable to editors.

What would a computer cost me? More money, for one thing, than I can afford, and more than I wish to pay to people whom I do not admire. But the cost would not be just monetary. It is well understood that technological innovation always requires the discarding of the “old model”—the “old model” in this case being not just our old Royal standard. but my wife, my critic, closest reader, my fellow worker. Thus (and I think this is typical of present-day technological innovation). what would be superseded would be not only something, but somebody. In order to be technologically up-to-date as a writer, I would have to sacrifice an association that I am dependent upon and that I treasure.

Did his wife get credit as his co-author? Of course not. Does he even bother to name her? Of course not. Did he really treat her as his “fellow worker” as opposed to his secretary? Of course not.

Fortunately this happened:

After the foregoing essay, first published in the New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, was reprinted in Harper’s, the Harper’s editors published the following letters in response and permitted me a reply. W.B.

I wasn’t the only one who saw it.

Wendell Berry provides writers enslaved by the computer with a handy alternative: Wife—a low-tech energy-saving device. Drop a pile of handwritten notes on Wife and you get back a finished manuscript, edited while it was typed. What computer can do that? Wife meets all of Berry’s uncompromising standards for technological innovation: she’s cheap, repairable near home, and good for the family structure.
Best of all, Wife is politically correct because she breaks a writer’s “direct dependence on strip-mined coal.”
History teaches us that Wife can also be used to beat rugs and wash clothes by hand, thus eliminating the need for the vacuum cleaner and washing machine, two more nasty machines that threaten the act of writing.

Gordon Inkeles Miranda, Calif.

The value of a computer to a writer is that it is a tool not for generating ideas but for typing and editing words. It is cheaper than a secretary (or a wife!) and arguably more fuel-efficient. And it enables spouses who are not inclined to provide free labor more time to concentrate on their own work.
We should support alternatives both to coal-generated electricity and to IBM-style technocracy. But I am reluctant to entertain alternatives that presuppose the traditional subservience of one class to another. Let the PCs come and the wives and servants go seek more meaningful work.

Toby Koosman Knoxville, Tenn.

Berry was indignant.

I am also surprised by the meanness with which two of these writers refer to my wife. In order to imply that I am a tyrant, they suggest by both direct statement and innuendo that she is subservient, characterless, and stupid—a mere “device” easily forced to provide meaningless “free labor.” I understand that it is impossible to make an adequate public defense of one’s private life, and so l will only point out that there are a number of kinder possibilities that my critics have disdained to imagine: that my wife may do this work because she wants to and likes to; that she may find some use and some meaning in it; that she may not work for nothing. These gentlemen obviously think themselves feminists of the most correct and principled sort, and yet they do not hesitate to stereotype and insult, on the basis of one fact, a woman they do not know. They are audacious and irresponsible gossips .

Zoooom – the point goes rocketing by. They weren’t saying any of that about his wife, they were saying it about the way Berry wrote about her – the clueless, entitled, smug way he wrote about her.

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