The Contenders for the First Novel Written with a Word Processor

Matthew Kirschenbaum, an English professor and expert on the early days of fiction writing on word processors received a flood of reader messages after The New York Times profiled him a couple of weeks ago.

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Matthew Kirschenbaum, an English professor and expert on the early days of fiction writing on word processors received a flood of reader messages after The New York Times profiled him a couple of weeks ago. The University of Maryland had discussed his upcoming book on the literary history of computers with the paper and hovered around a fascinating question: Who wrote the first novel on a word processor. Though her original Times's story suggested some big names who were likely candidates, the paper's Jennifer Schuessler followed up with a Tuesday morning blog post, linking Kirschenbaum's theories with the Times readers stories. The post is inconclusive about the answer to the big question of who wrote the first book on a word processor, but we've been able to compile a list of likely candidates. Spoiler: a lot of them are science fiction writers.

Jerry Pournelle

The Book: Oath of Fealty (1981), a sci-fi thriller about a sky city above a future, apocalyptic Los Angeles

The Back Story: This science fiction writer griped that  the 1982 novel Oath of Fealty he wrote with Larry Nivenhe was left out of The Times'  first story. Pournelle claims the Smithsonian wanted him to donate the late 1970s Z-80 comptuer named Ezekial on which he wrote Oath of Fealty "as the first computer to have been used to write a science fiction novel. "One thing led to another, however, and now the computer is not on display. They closed that wing for refurbishment, and I think he’s back in the basement," Pournelle wrote, referring to his old computer Ezekial as "he". So far, Kirschenbaum says that Pournelle "certainly has a strong claim" as the first novelist to write on a word processor.

Stuart Woods

The Book: Chiefs (1981), a crime novel about three police chiefs in a small town Georgia circa 1920.

The Back Story: Woods told Kirschenbaum about how he had "invented" word processing in his head in the mid-1970s, but had to wait until 1979 to find a system he could actually afford. He was kidding, but his first novel Chiefs, written on a PC, came out in March of 1981 and may slightly edge out Jerry Pournelle for the title. The 74-year-old -- his birthday was Monday -- has written an intimidating 44 novels, a travel book and a memoir -- so far.

Stephen King

The Book: "Word Processor of the Gods" (1983), a short story about word processing first published in Playboy and later in Skeleton Crew, a collection of King's short fiction

The Back Story: There's not a ton of evidence that suggests King was the first person to write a novel on a word processor, but it's indisputible that he was a trailblazer. In his original Times piece, Kirschenbaum meditated on the idea that Stephen King's 1983 short story "Word Processor of the Gods" was "likely the earliest fictional treatment of word processing by a prominent English-language author." King's first computer, a Wang System 5, has become both a legendary model and a dirty joke. ("Stephen King's Wang" -- get it?) In a follow up blog post, the professor describes one Times reader who used to work for the company and "got in touch to reminisce about the day in 1982 when Stephen King showed up at the factory in Lowell, Mass., to pick up the System 5 he used to write 'Talisman.' (Mr. King’s collaborator on that book, Peter Straub, used an IBM, hooked up to the Wang with a modem.)" So many dirty jokes…

Frank Herbert

The Book: ???

The Back Story: After Dune exploded with success following its publication in 1965, it's said that Herbert submitted drafts of future words to his agent on 8-inch floppy disks in the 1970s, though Kirschenbaum wasn't able to confirm that. It seems like this might be little more than a rumor, but with a sci-fi legend like Herbert at the center of it, it's a good one.

John Hersey

The Book: My Petition for More Space (1972), a novel about overpopulation

The Back Story: In a 1986 interview with The Paris Review, Hersey recounted how he'd been introduced to the idea of a word processor at the design department of the Yale School of Art in 1972. It's worth quoting Hersey's recollection of that experience at length:

I had just finished the longhand draft of a novel that was eventually called My Petition for More Space, so I thought, well, I'll try the revision on this machine. And I found it just wonderfully convenient … It was simply a time-saver. It took about a month to get used to looking at words on a screen, almost as if in a new language; but once that was past, it seemed just like using a typewriter. So when these badly-named machines -- processor! God! -- came on the market some years later, I was really eager to find one. I think there's a great deal of nonsense about computers and writers; the machine corrupts the writer, unless you write with a pencil you haven't chosen the words, and so on. …

It's not the same as writing the novel on a word processor but to borrow Kirschenbaum's words Hersey may have been "the first to commit acts of literature on any kind of computer."

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