February 27, 2014
Since winning the Nobel Prize ten years ago, Fiktion advisory-board member Elfriede Jelinek has published her literary writing only on her own website. On the occasion of the “Literatur digital” conference, Fiktion’s co-founder Ingo Niermann interviewed the Austrian writer. Read the interview exclusively on our website.
Before you had a computer, did you write by hand or with a manual or electronic typewriter?
I wrote poems by hand for just one or two years—they are short, after all. It wasn’t a lot of text. Then I got a manual typewriter and started writing everything on it. I can’t write by hand because my hand is so heavy that it quickly breaks any pencil, any felt-tip, and certainly any expensive fountain pen.
What was the first computer you used to write with?
I first tried out a DEC PDP/8 (Model VT78), in 1983, which is not really a computer for writing. I just wanted to test it out once, in my husband’s workshop. After that I had my Apple IIc, and that was the first computer on which I immediately started writing everything. The first text I wrote was the play “Präsident Abendwind” (“President Evening Breeze”) in 1986. After that I never used a typewriter again.
Did you type everything straight into the computer, or did you write a first draft by hand?
I’ve always written everything on the computer right away. Even today, the most I write by hand is a few notes, mainly on old envelopes or something like that. I have to write everything down at once because I have such a bad memory. Typing is a very organic activity for me, almost like thinking itself.
How did the computer change your writing?
There are two things in play here. One is that the work becomes easier. I used to retype entire pages even if I had made just one or two corrections—so that I could see the whole thing as it would then look in the book. It is almost as if the computer were invented for the way I work. I write very quickly because of an inner anxiety that barely allows any interruption while writing, no matter how brief. And then I often write down any old nonsense, which I delete again later. It is actually a mechanical process, but one that takes no effort. I need that—for it to be so easy. I rewrite the whole thing, and the computer is of course very accommodating to this way of working. You can let something disappear without a trace and put something else there in its stead. You feel like a god who can create something and then sweep it away in one and the same gesture. I do this until I know that I can let it stand as is. Then I grab it and hold it tight. There’s a point when it can’t get better than it is, and it stays like that, in spite of there being a thousand other possibilities. I don’t know if that’s ideal for every way of working, but it is for me.
Do emails and the Internet distract you from writing and reading? Have you ever used an Internet blocking service?
I don’t get distracted easily. Of course now and then, if I’m waiting for something important, I’ll check to see if something’s arrived for me (on my computer there’s no signal when this happens, only on the tablet), but distraction is not my problem. I can concentrate very easily. So no, I don’t need a blocker.
Have you considered making interactive work or using hypertext?
No, maybe I’m too old for that, I don’t know. Although, in the theatre, my generation was the first to introduce interactivity, so to speak, between the stage and the audience. I was pushing the envelope a lot in those days. Still, I haven’t done formal experiments in and with the Internet, although I’m sure it would be interesting.
What’s the difference, for you, between reading on the screen and in print?
That’s a very hard question. For a lot of things I appreciate the way you can skim over something quickly when reading on the screen, above all with newspapers and magazines or when you want to check something quickly. I wouldn’t say that a printed text is something for eternity, that it has more validity and duration. Otherwise I wouldn’t have decided not to release any more books and to publish my prose exclusively on my homepage. It is this oscillation between duration and ephemerality (the web doesn’t detract anything, after all; texts lead their own lives regardless of who is deriving value from them, they meander around, some fall into your hands by chance, others seek them out; I find that fascinating.) On the other hand, I need books on paper for my research. I often work with ten books simultaneously, which is practically impossible with computers and e-books. Maybe it won’t always be that way, but for now, I don’t find it workable. After all, I have to dog-ear the pages (often printed out via Project Gutenberg, if it’s a book that’s available there) and make notes in the margins; it all has to happen quickly. When I am researching quotations, of course I turn to the Internet. But for those quotations that I build into my texts—which I almost always change when writing, deliberately “falsifying” them—I can’t (yet) use electronic media. The quotations are never inserted in my work using copy-paste, but always written down and, as I say, modified.
When did you start reading books on a screen?
In July 2008, on a PRS-505. I still read on this antiquated model, though I have a new one as well, which still needs to be set up. But it’s only for light reading, mainly crime thrillers. I can’t use it for work.
So you started to publish your novel “Neid” (“Envy”) on your homepage in 2007—before you had an e-reader?
Yes, that’s right. We only converted it later, when there were better programs available, but I don’t understand all that.
Had you already read a whole novel on the computer at the time? Or printed out books?
I don’t like to read on the computer because I get uncomfortable sitting in front of it for such a long time. I only print out shorter theoretical texts or texts by others that I need for my work. I am, as I said, more flexible when I can make notes on paper. I have never printed out a whole book. I am basically afraid of so much paper. I still often buy books.
You once said that “Envy” was “virtually” published on the Internet, as opposed to “really” published. Do you still think that’s true? Hasn’t something changed through the development of e-readers and tablets?
It is virtual in the sense of a software rendering of a real object, by which I mean a book made of paper. The decisive factor, however, is something quite different: if I publish something online then the text belongs to me, and it carries on being mine. There’s something very intimate in this dialogue between me and technology. At the same time, everyone who needs to access it can do so. I found this mixture of private and public very appealing from the beginning. I mean, deep down I don’t want to abandon my things to the world, and so it gives me the sense that I can have my cake and eat it too.
Have you made any changes to the novel since you put it online? Do you still think of it as less final than publication by a publishing house?
Yes, I’ve changed things from time to time. Given that my writing also often deals with political events and other factual information, it works very well, because the facts change and I can enter these changes at any time. Nothing that is online is set in stone. On the other hand I would never put any draft versions of a text online; I destroy all that stuff. I wouldn’t like it if someone were able to trace my process (which after all wouldn’t be hard to do, given how I work). What I put online is always a final version, and if something gets changed then there is a new final version. Of course it’s then less “final” than publication by a publishing house. But that’s exactly why I like it. The printed book is a brick. When it is reprinted you can correct mistakes, but nothing more than that.
And you’re also planning to carry on releasing your prose exclusively on your website? Is that because of the way that your work is developing (you called “Envy” a “private novel”), or because you’d like to distance yourself from the commercial publishing world?
Not only from the world of publishing (where, by the way, I have had very few bad experiences), but also from the German-language literary scene, which I consider to be extremely corrupt and nepotistic. It’s always funny to see who is friends with whom and who owes whom a favour. I don’t want to have anything to do with that any more. And it’s also true that books that are only released online are rarely if ever reviewed. That’s good – or rather, it’s good for me. That’s how I like it.
Why do you make your books available exclusively on your homepage and not, for example, through Amazon (likewise at no cost to the reader)?
Why should I offer them for free on Amazon? If I’m doing without publishers then I can do without Amazon too. There is work to be done revising copyright law, adapting it to what has become possible today, and finding a way to make sure writers still get paid, but that’s something for professional organisations and writers’ advocacy groups. I am not good at that kind of thing. No, if someone wants to read my work they have to get it from me directly. If someone’s interested in my things, they have to call up my page. I don’t force anything onto anyone – not that I could, even if I wanted to.
You are a big name and you financed the editing of “Envy” yourself. What should other people do who haven’t yet made a name for themselves and don’t have any money? Do they have any choice but to carry on working with commercial publishers?
Yes, that’s going to be our problem over the next few years – how all writers, even those nobody has heard of yet, can get attention. Maybe through independent agencies on the web, which could also offer editing services and publicity. They could, like the Verlag der Autoren or other cooperative models, be controlled and run by writers themselves. Unfortunately such models tend not to work, but still, it’s important to work on developing something like that. And of course, after the Nobel Prize, I could afford to give away my next novel. Not everybody is going to be in that position.
Is the model of the professional author coming to an end?
No, definitely not. There won’t be any more publishing houses, but there will always be writers. The problem is just that we need to find a fair way of paying them. Maybe from tolls on the information highways? [CSU Chairman Horst] Seehofer needs some company, after all, with his idea of charging people to use the Autobahn.
In the early 1970s you were part of the Austrian Writers’ Circle, which published its own books. Could such projects have a future in the digital realm?
The “edition literaturproduzenten” was an imprint in a larger publishing house. But it was such a different time; we were simply more politicised—even if that didn’t work out either. The problem with such solutions, apparent also at the Verlag der Autoren—which is a literary drama publisher—is always that writers whose work has made them more famous also want a larger slice of the cake. That’s the end of solidarity (not that there’s much left of it anyway).
But still, you’re on the advisory board for Fiktion. Can we do it differently, or are we also condemned to failure sooner or later?
I have no idea. We will probably make some big mistakes that haven’t been made before. But it’s important to try to find new possibilities for publishing today.