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  • Writer's pictureDiving Bell

What even is textual integrity?

Updated: Feb 2, 2023

When I came back to Australia from doing a DPhil in late medieval politics at Oxford and saw that English students were required to talk about textual integrity I got all excited. When you use this phrase in a university English department they tend to point you towards the Medieval end of things. Around the rest of the world textual integrity refers to features of the physical manuscript and is what gets codicologists warm and tingly. I'm not sure who suggested the phrase to the (then) Board of Studies, but as Inigo Montoya says, 'I do not think it means what you think it means'.

The confusing definition in the NESA glossary is 'the unity of a text; its coherent use of form and language to produce an integrated whole in terms of meaning and value' which sounds like Virginia having an iffy moment in clarity. This is not ironic either, since the term is used by Virginia Woolf in her speech/essay 'A Room of One's Own.' Discussing how a novel communicates a sense of truth and being plausible, she says:

What one means by integrity, in the case of the novelist, is the conviction that he gives one that this is the truth. Yes, one feels, I should never have thought that this could be so; I have never known people behaving like that. But you have convinced me that so it is, so it happens. One holds every phrase, every scene to the light as one reads—for Nature seems, very oddly, to have provided us with an inner light by which to judge of the novelist's integrity or disintegrity.

All it really means is that Everything Matches. Nothing feels out of kilter with the rest of the story. Here's an example:

The character of Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), is a modern tech-billionaire. This means that his language should fit that character. He wouldn't talk like Hamlet. His setting should involve an appropriately tech-billionaire aesthetic - not a Dukes of Hazzard-style rural disaster. If we were to write a novel about him, we wouldn’t use 19th century novel language to describe events. It would be snappy and up to date in the way we told it. Similarly, the things that bother him (the themes) are commensurate with his character: justice, survival, triumph, manliness and so on. The meaning of beauty, or the nature of motherhood, probably wouldn’t bother Tony too much (though there are moments of comedy which depend on that incongruity, i.e. the lack of textual integrity), The plot is like this too – it’ll start dynamically, and rise to an action-packed climax, finishing with definite closure.

Once you see it, textual integrity is everywhere. And at some point it becomes a minor joke, like women who co-ordinate their children to their outfit.

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