In Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, a collection of nine short stories about robotics, Asimov explores the possibilities of human-computer interaction. How can humans and computers co-exist? How can they work together to make a better world?
A research group from the Meertens Instituut in Amsterdam and the Antwerp Centre for Digital Humanities and Literary Criticism recently introduced a new digital creative writing system. Using a graphical interface, an author drafts a text sentence by sentence. Then, the system proposes its own sentences to continue the story. The human and the computer work together to create what the system’s developers call “synthetic literature”.
The paper detailing this project describes the text generation system as an attempt to:
Create a stimulating environment that fosters co-creation: ideally, the machine should output valuable suggestions, to which the author retains a significant stake within the creative process.
How to train your robot
To learn language and sentence structure, the system has been trained using the texts of 10,000 Dutch-language e-books. Additionally, the system was trained to mimic the literary styles of such renowned authors as Asimov and Dutch science fiction author Ronald Giphart by generating sentences that use similar words, phrases, and sentence structures as these authors.
As part of this year’s annual Nederland Leest (The Netherlands Reads) festival, Giphart has been trialling the co-creative writing system to write a tenth I, Robot story. Once Giphart’s story is completed it will be published at the end of a new Dutch edition of Asimov’s classic text. Throughout November, participating libraries throughout the Netherlands will be offering free copies of this edition to visitors to get people thinking about this year’s festival theme: Nederland Leest de Toekomst (The Netherlands Reads the Future).
As Giphart types new sentences into the system’s graphical interface, the system responds by generating a selection of sentences that could be used to continue the story. Giphart can select any of these sentences, or ignore the system’s recommendations altogether.
The point of the system, its developers explain, is to “provoke the human writer in the process of writing”. Giphart says he still considers himself “the boss, but [the system] does the work”. One article even described the system as being ideal “for those who have literary aspirations, but who lack talent”.
Can a computer be creative?
The “synthetic literature” referred to by this system’s developers implies a combined production effort of both human and computer. Of course, the human still guides production. As co-developer Folgert Karsdorp explained: “You have numerous buttons to make your own mix. If you want to mix Giphart and Asimov, you can do that too.” The system follows its user’s direction, responding by using its own capacity for creativity.
But can a computer ever be truly creative? This is a question that the field of computational creativity has been studying since computers were invented. The field generally accepts that a computer can be called creative if its output would be considered creative had it been produced by a human.
Computational creativity debates are all rooted in one underlying question: is the computer merely a tool for human creativity, or could it be considered a creative agent itself? In a discussion about computer-generated art, creativity scholar Margaret Boden noted that:
It is the computer artist [the developer] who decides what input a system will respond to, how the system will respond, how unpredictable the system’s output will be, and how transparent the system’s functionality will be to users.
Even the most unpredictable output, according to Boden, results from choices the computer artist has made. While a developer may not be able to predict a system’s exact output, the output nevertheless reflects the choices the developer has made while programming.
The co-creative writing system Giphart is using isn’t able to produce an entire book by itself, but it can produce paragraphs that continue Giphart’s story for him. Giphart, though, ultimately has the power to choose what computer output he uses.
But does this mean that Giphart alone will be credited as the author of his Ik, robot story, or will his computer be given credit as a co-author? It’s still unclear. Although it could be hotly debated whether the creative writing system is just a tool for Giphart’s vision or could be considered an agent itself, we won’t be seeing the demise of human authors any time soon.
One Nederland Leest blog post compares this new method of writing to the evolution of the electric guitar. It may have existed for nearly a century, but it wasn’t until Jimi Hendrix showed us how to really play the instrument that its potential was realised. Similarly, we still need to discover how to “play” this writing system to get the best results, whatever they might be.
So is synthetic literature the future? Maybe. Keep reading to find out.
The scene: a field in southwest England. The sun is shining for a quintessentially British event, the Great Dorset Steam Fair. A six-and-a-half tonne steamroller takes centre stage. This, the Lord Jericho, goes head-to-head with a computer hard drive, and in a battle of old and new technologies, rolls over it several times. Then, just to be on the safe side, the hard drive is placed in a steam-powered stone crusher.
Pratchett, author of the much-loved Discworld series, wrote more than 60 books in his lifetime. But it was his wish that any unfinished works remained unpublished, and so he instructed that the hard drive containing his remaining works be crushed by a steamroller.
Commenting on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, authors Patrick Ness and Samantha Norman asserted Pratchett’s absolute right to determine the future of his unfinished work. In recent years, though, both authors have completed unfinished novels by other writers. In Norman’s case, it was The Siege Winter, a book by her late mother, Ariana Franklin. For Ness, it was Siobhan Dowd’s A Monster Calls, now adapted into a hit film.
For each of these canonical authors, their unfinished texts add to our accumulated knowledge of their writing, their rich imagination, and the development of their thinking. After completing Dorothy L Sayers’ last novel, Jill Paton Walsh went on to create warmly regarded new novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. J R R Tolkien’s son Christopher likewise has worked painstakingly on unfinished works by his father, including The Children of Hurin.
Unlike Pratchett, the strict instructions left by some authors about their legacy have been ignored, sometimes to the reader’s benefit. Max Brod’s decision to counter Franz Kafka’s wish for destruction is to literary history’s benefit, as it led to the publication of The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika. Emily Dickinson left no instructions on what to do with the approximately 1,800 unpublished poems she wrote before her death in 1886. Fortunately, her sister Lavinia took it on as her mission to see them made public.
When Swedish crime novelist Stieg Larsson died suddenly, unmarried and with no will, his estate came under the control of his father and brother. They commissioned ghostwriter David Largenrcrantz to create new works using Larsson’s characters, with the latest, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye due in September 2017. Larsson’s bereaved long-term partner is in possession of the author’s laptop which is believed to hold Larsson’s last unfinished novel, but she has refused to turn it over to his family.
The biographical figure of the author has, despite Roland Barthes’ critical articulation of “The death of the Author” in 1967, never been more present. Now, readers have unprecedented access to the names on the spines of their books, thanks to festivals, talks and social media.
While some authors may not want to show the struggle of their early drafts to the world, there is both an industry (famous author’ manuscripts can sell for high figures) and scholarship attached to them. Formal archives of Pratchett’s work exist in Senate House in London, for example – including some tantalising glimpses replete with coffee stains and notes to the publisher. Salman Rushdie has even given a desktop computer and several laptops to Emory University in the US.
There is no doubt that Pratchett was within his rights to deprive readers of these last rough-hewn gems, though understandably fans may be disappointed with his choice. However, the rumours swirling around the appearance of Go Set a Watchman – the original version of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird – suggest that elderly and infirm authors can potentially be preyed upon. Pratchett’s wish to control his literary legacy was consonant with his advocacy for assisted dying. He, more than anyone else, understood the power of letting things come to an end.
As an author who had “Death” as one of his major recurring characters, Pratchett had thoroughly tested its presence in human life. But now, even knowing that Pratchett’s crushed hard drive will soon feature in an exhibition, we can’t but regret the loss of these early, unfinished drafts, which contained the very last doorway into the Discworld.
Yet women still aren’t equal to men. And if we think in terms of intersectional feminism – the connections between different multi-layered facets of oppression such as gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ability or age – the invisibility of some groups of women is even more striking.
Some may well say that this inequality is to be more expected in traditional male domains, and that in areas like arts and culture, women are actually far more visible than men. For example, they might argue that a glance at what is available in libraries or bookshops shows that more women writers are being published today, both in the UK and worldwide.
Indeed, in 2015, the BBC surveyed international critics to find the greatest British novels. Their results showed women authors accounted for half of the top 20 titles chosen. However, the same piece also emphasised how these results “stand in stark contrast to most such polls over the past decade”.
Look further into the number of reviews of women writers’ work published in literary magazines, and into the amount of writing prizes awarded to women, however, and a dramatic gender imbalance emerges.
Different gender-specific initiatives attempt to address this problem, such as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and organisations like VIDA, working to highlight the gender imbalance in publishing. But there’s still a great wealth of literature out there that is still consistently being overlooked: that of non-English women writers.
So what’s the problem? To begin with, very few books are being translated into English from other languages. In Britain, translated literature makes up only 3.5% of the market, but 7% of book sales.
To challenge this, ongoing work carried about by English PEN – more specifically PEN Translate, a network promoting translations into English of outstanding works in foreign languages – and other organisations such as Literary across Frontiers – a platform for literary exchange, translation and policy debate based in Wales, aimed at developing intercultural dialogue through translation – is undoubtedly crucial. However, still more must be done.
The thing is, within that small number of translated works, women writer’s books are consistently undervalued. But women read and women write. Even if it has been traditionally difficult for women writers to have their works published – with many resorting to male pen names to combat sexism – and even if the current publishing market still shows a clear gender bias, globally more fiction than ever before is being authored by women.
Yet, even those women authors who make the cut and become renowned writers in their home countries are not being translated for an English-speaking audience. There is a clear tendency to translate fewer women authors than men authors. Generalist publishers have been found to have obvious gender-biased attitudes when selecting titles for translation, and the work of women writers is far less often chosen for inclusion in translation anthologies, as shown in recent examples from Galician literature.
The tendency is even worse if we think about outstanding women authors from postcolonial, peripheral and non-hegemonic contexts. There are so many examples of Polish, Italian, Latin American, Czech, Arab, Balkan and Japanese women writers that aren’t translated into English.
Portuguese is one of the most widely spoken languages worldwide and yet there are barely any translations of women authored-literature into English. And that accounts for not only those coming from Portugal or Brazil, but also Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau or East Timor.
The fact that these women are being silenced in translation is not something trivial: in the age of transnational feminism, in which we want to promote truly cross-cultural understandings, we should be facilitating dialogues among women across the globe. And translation can certainly help us do that.
In an ideal world, women’s presence in literature and translation should not have to be ensured by gender-specific prizes, anthologies and supplements. Instead, their work should be placed in generalist and genderless ways alongside men’s. But in our still patriarchal world – in which, for example, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has been awarded twice out of 21 times to women writers – corrective and positive action measures are indeed very much a necessity.
Supporting the translation of female writers, literary network The English Pen has recently announced a record number of women authors and translators won its annual translation awards. More than half of the 18 award winners were women, with books translated from 14 languages and 16 countries among those honoured. This is indeed a move in the right direction. As was this year’s Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, launched on International Women’s Day to promote foreign writers in English translation.
The future of feminism is in the transnational, and transnational links can only be made through translation. Women writers the world over should be given a voice, no matter what language they speak and what cultural background they come from. Surely, we all can benefit from this: to carry on denying British readers access to great literature simply because it is authored by women is beyond belief.
When we speak of bestsellers, we’re often referring to books that have sold fewer copies than one might think. By the estimation of award-winning author Donal Ryan, there are times when 300 sales might be enough to make a chart topper – the bestseller mantle tends to have more promotional than monetary value. Of course there are the literary blockbusters — titles like Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code — books that ship hundreds of millions of copies. But combine the sales of JK Rowling and Dan Brown, even throw in John Grisham, and you’re still lagging behind the sales figures of the world’s true bestselling author — James Patterson.
According to his publisher, Patterson has written no fewer than 114 New York Times bestsellers. His total bibliography is upwards of 150. He is, without doubt, one of the most prodigious literary figures that the world has ever seen.
Patterson’s success is unusual, in that he isn’t quite a household name; rather, he is a master of the airport novel, an author whose success has largely been achieved as a writer of commuter fiction. Patterson divides opinion: Stephen King describes his work as “terrible”, reviewers have deemed it “subliterate”; yet in 2015 he received the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award for his philanthropic efforts in encouraging Americans to read.
Patterson’s prodigious output is accomplished through the use of collaborators: co-authors offered a chance to make their name under the tutelage of the world’s most commercially successful author. He is engagingly transparent about his process: co-authors work from a narrative framework provided by Patterson, who either then re-writes what they come up with or provides notes on bi-weekly drafts. The narrative frameworks he provides emerge from his understanding of the literary market, informed by his years of experience as an advertising executive. He has been described as a co-publisher, more of a brand than a writer. This is a distinction worth exploring, because it is Patterson’s name that looms largest on his covers.
Using digital methods, if sufficient samples are available, the extent to which someone actively contributes to the actual words of a text can be tested. The field is called stylometry, and it has been previously used in author attribution studies involving popular figures like Harper Lee and JK Rowling.
A colleague and I applied stylometric methods to the work of Patterson in order to form an impression of how much he contributes to the writing of his books in terms of the actual words used. The results of the study show that, in each of the collaborative novels (we checked all where there was a relevant sample to test against – where the co-author had written individual texts), the dominant style is that of Patterson’s co-authors. This is quantitative evidence that, when collaborating with a junior party, Patterson’s contributions to the literary process are more concerned with plot than style. This isn’t a “gotcha!” moment: Patterson has always given the impression that he’s more about the plot. But it is confirmation that the world’s bestselling author may not principally be a writer.
At a superficial level, this tells us something about Patterson’s practices, how it is that he has managed to sustain such prolific output. But it also challenges notions of authorship — what is the significance of Patterson’s name on a dust-jacket? Is it mainly an endorsement, a valuable moniker which generates sales? Or is he properly seen as an author, just one who is attracted to the possibilities of narrative structure over those of language?
Patterson’s work might contain little to provoke the consideration of literary critics, but his restoration of the novel’s popular traditions — his approach to literary capitalism as both author and corporation, creator and trademark – gives us cause to query our own hierarchies relating to story and expression. After all, the novel’s 18th century beginnings are embedded in commercialism. Critics tend to value style over structure, yet the public are clearly drawn towards the latter. Is plot what makes an author, and style an artist?
All about story
The intention here is not to revive the tired debate between “high” and “low” art. Structure is rich in creative potential, and plot was essential to the novel long before movements like high modernism sought to subvert the popular by privileging style. At the same time, the role of the critic, and indeed, the reader, is to appreciate, interpret, and communicate that which is hidden in the nuances of artistic expression. One is unlikely to find an abundance of such nuances in a text that is all plot.
One could point to the film and music industries, where collaboration is the norm, in defence of Patterson’s approach. Most creative practices, certainly those that have been commodified, involve interaction with some form of producer or director. In the literary world, publishers and editors guide a manuscript before turning it into something tangible for dissemination. Patterson might be seen as a literary director, or even a producer, emulating the practices of contemporary ghostwriters or predecessors like Dumas, though this is something of an unfair comparison, considering Patterson’s 19th-century French counterpart was widely suspected of outright plagiarism, described as “only a myth”.
Patterson is all about story. He has turned the instruments of late capitalism to the task of commodifying storytelling. He is far from the first author to attempt such a commodification: King, Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and many other popular writers have privileged story over style. But Patterson is a curious figure among his peers, and our research suggests that “author” in its widely accepted sense isn’t always the most appropriate term for his role within the writing process.
In 1967, French theorist Roland Barthes famously declared the metaphorical “death of the author” in his essay of the same name. Barthes rejected the Romantic idea of the author as a unique figure of genius. Still, despite his best efforts, this romantic notion of the heroic, solitary wordsmith lives on today.
In Medieval times, authors were seen as nothing more than craftsmen. But the Romantic poets – Byron, Coleridge, Blake, Shelley – singled out the writer as a figure of “spontaneous creativity”. As academic Clara Tuite has noted,
the Romantic period saw the birth of the literary celebrity, a figure distinguishable from the merely famous author by his or her status as a cultural commodity.
This Romantic writer was seen as either a solitary hero, a tragic artist, a melancholy genius – or all three. In the centuries since, famous authors have been both celebrated and panned, adored and ridiculed.
Since Romantic times, we have often expected writers to be detached from the trappings of celebrity culture, aligning their integrity with an anti-commercial attitude. There is, argues author Joe Moran, a “nostalgia for some kind of transcendent, anti-economic, creative element in a secular, debased, commercialised culture” that we commonly attach to writers.
Indeed theorist Lorraine York has asked if we can even use words like “fame” and “celebrity” to describe writers, “those notorious privacy-seeking, solitary scribblers”.
One of the first to question the idea of literary celebrity was the 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who found his own fame something of a burden.
More recently, authors such as Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Dave Eggers have struggled with the desire for popularity and credibility. In today’s internet culture, reaction to a famous writer’s actions or utterances is quick and merciless. Next week, a new author will be thrust into the media spotlight, with the announcement of the Booker Prize winner.
Yet interestingly, discussions about the difficulties of being a famous writer rarely include women. The notion of the solitary genius is usually attached to men. A notable exception is the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante – who is famous, ironically, precisely because of her reluctance to engage with literary celebrity. Ferrante writes under a pseudonym, in her words, to “liberate myself from the anxiety of notoriety”.
The extent to which her true identity has been picked over shows how our society craves constant closure, often at the expense of creativity and imagination. As Michel Foucault once noted, literary anonymity is “of interest only as a puzzle to be solved”.
Such is the nature of contemporary celebrity culture that many cannot tolerate the idea of writers who prefer anonymity over fame. So those such as Thomas Pynchon, J.D. Salinger and Ferrante, who have evaded the limelight, have been scrutinised as much for their personal lives as their actual works.
A short history of famous (male) writers
The 19th century writers Charles Dickens (hero of the working class) and Mark Twain (America’s most beloved humourist), were plagued with aspects of their fame. While Dickens was often criticised for appealing to the lower classes, Twain likened celebrities to clowns. Celebrity, he said, “is what a boy or a youth longs for more than for any other thing. He would be a clown in a circus […] he would sell himself to Satan, in order to attract attention and be talked about and envied”.
Yet Dickens and Twain also enjoyed their fame. Dickens was renowned for engaging his audiences at public lectures; Twain also went on speaking tours.
If we fast forward half a century or so, we come to Ernest Hemingway – another author who felt imprisoned by his fame. As theorist Leo Braudy puts it, Hemingway was caught between “his genius and its publicity”. In an undated writing fragment, Hemingway wrote:
We have reached the point where we are ruled by photographers and agents of publishers and writing is no longer of any importance.
He also called fellow writer F. Scott Fitzgerald a “hack” for writing Hollywood screenplays.
Yet Hemingway nevertheless helped promote the “Hemingway myth”, built around ideals of masculinity and genius. He was frequently photographed outdoors, fishing and hunting, or attending bullfights.
Then there was Norman Mailer, the pugnacious, Jewish author of The Naked and the Dead and Advertisements for Myself. In 1960, Mailer stabbed and seriously wounded his then-wife, Adele Morales with a pen-knife at a drunken party. (After pleading guilty to a charge of third-degree assault, he received a suspended sentence.)
Mailer cultivated a public persona that certainly boosted his fame, but did little for his literary reputation. Many critics accused him of wasting his talents by shamelessly promoting himself; he did frequent TV interviews, including a particularly notorious appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, where he and Gore Vidal famously butted heads over Mailer’s public profile and ego.
a node in a new electronic landscape of celebrity, personality and status.
Theorist John Cawelti suggests that unlike Hemingway, who lived out to the end an ambiguous conflict between celebrity and art, Mailer “tried to make his public performances themselves into a kind of artistic exploration”. Mailer frequently wrote about himself in the third-person, in an effort to “perform” himself as a character.
In 2001, Oprah Winfrey put Jonathan Franzen’s sprawling family saga The Corrections on her book club list, encouraging her audience to read it. Franzen was invited onto Oprah’s show. He declined, saying he didn’t want his novel placed alongside “schmaltzy, one-dimensional [books]”.
Franzen was widely panned for being a snob. Andre Dubus III, for instance, criticised Franzen’s assumption that “high art is not for the masses, that they won’t understand it and don’t deserve it”.
Media scholar Ian Collinson sees Franzen’s reaction as a symbolic attempt to separate the television celebrity from the novel, an act of “cultural decontamination”. Franzen, he writes, feared his position within the high-art tradition “would be compromised if his novel were subject to such blatant commercialism”.
Yet nine years later, Franzen apologised to Oprah. He was again invited onto her show, this time to promote his 2010 book Freedom. He did not refuse a second time. Ironically, many criticised Franzen for succumbing to the allure of popularity. The old assumptions regarding the incompatibility of literature and celebrity resurfaced, with one critic, Macy Halford, suggesting that “Oprah and Franzen are not terribly compatible personalities”.
This whole saga attests to what Tessa Roynon has called the “damned if you don’t, damned if you do” mentality of literary celebrity. Authors are often seen as having to choose between respectability amongst fewer critics, or widespread popularity at the expense of their reputations. (One article about a speech Franzen gave to students in 2011 was memorably titled, “Touching the hem of Mr Franzen’s garment.”)
Like Mailer, Franzen’s career has been marred by the troubled union between mass media presence and desire for literary acceptance.
Celebrity and Sincerity: Wallace and Eggers
One of Franzen’s peers, the late David Foster Wallace, was an author in the Romantic mould; he is associated with the “New Sincerity” literary movement, and his 1996 novel Infinite Jest has been judged by many as a work of genius.
In 2008, Wallace took his own life. Before his death, Wallace was known to have suffered from depression, and he projected an image of the melancholy genius. His opinion of celebrity was less than favourable. His widow Karen Green once noted in an interview that all of the media attention given to Wallace “turns him into a celebrity writer dude, which I think would have made him wince”.
In a 1996 New York Times piece, Wallace claimed that the “hoopla” of celebrity made him want to become a recluse. The cult of celebrity was something he consistently mocked in his work, calling celebrities “symbols of themselves” rather than real people. As with Rousseau and Salinger, the logic went that Wallace “deserved his celebrity”, journalist Megan Garber writes, specifically because he had not sought it.
Early in his career, Eggers often spoke of wanting to retreat into anonymity. Instead, he seized the reins of literary celebrity. Some then accused him of hypocrisy – in criticising fame while also inviting it. He has also been criticised for “excessive sincerity”, while journalist David Kirkpatrick called Eggers “agonizingly ambivalent”.
treats his celebrity like a gold lamé suit: It’s amusing, absurd and, in his mind, not quite appropriate.
Meanwhile, in her reading of Eggers’ 2003 book You Shall Know Our Velocity, Caroline Hamilton suggests that the central characters “resemble the credibility-obsessed younger Eggers torn between longing for celebrity and legitimacy”.
In a 2000 email interview, Eggers referred to himself as a sellout for having sold many books and appeared in various magazines. As Hamilton writes, the term sellout has less to do with wealth, and more to do with “the popularity that comes with it”.
Celebrity, then, remains a problem for those authors wishing to appear genuine and serious.
Where are all the women?
It is striking that female authors are, for the most part, excluded from all these agonised discussions about inner turmoil and perceived loss of prestige. This suggests that women are not often thought of as having substantial reputations in the first place.
Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, for instance, has frequently appeared on Oprah’s program to discuss her complex, poetically written, novels. In contrast to Franzen, however, Morrison’s credibility was never seen to be compromised in doing so.
Despite the number of talented women writing today for large audiences – Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Joan Didion, and Toni Morrison just to name a few – critics do not often think of female authors as having the kinds of monumental reputations that their male peers possess. The Byronic hero, the Hemingway legend, and the Foster Wallace genius are larger-than-life men.
Women are seldom discussed in such a way – with the possible exception of Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf. Yet this may actually be a blessing for them. Avoiding the expectations that go along with literary celebrity can be an advantage. Female authors may be better able to breach certain boundaries – of genre, style, content – in ways that certain male authors cannot.
Ferrante, for instance, said she explicitly needed anonymity to write honestly. While some may see it as a bizarre sort of compliment to her that she is so intriguing that an Italian journalist spent weeks combing financial and property records to unmask her, she surely deserved the right to her privacy to focus on her own work.
Some of the most interesting genre-defying authors writing today are women such as Morrison, Atwood, and Emily St. John Mandel. Perhaps, then, female authors can more seamlessly defy stringent boundaries that continue to define the literary world when they are not hailed as heroic geniuses.