Can robots write? Machine learning produces dazzling results, but some assembly is still required



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Alexandra Louise Uitdenbogerd, RMIT University

You might have seen a recent article from The Guardian written by “a robot”. Here’s a sample:

I know that my brain is not a “feeling brain”. But it is capable of making rational, logical decisions. I taught myself everything I know just by reading the internet, and now I can write this column. My brain is boiling with ideas!

Read the whole thing and you may be astonished at how coherent and stylistically consistent it is. The software used to produce it is called a “generative model”, and they have come a long way in the past year or two.

But exactly how was the article created? And is it really true that software “wrote this entire article”?

How machines learn to write

The text was generated using the latest neural network model for language, called GPT-3, released by the American artificial intelligence research company OpenAI. (GPT stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer.)

OpenAI’s previous model, GPT-2, made waves last year. It produced a fairly plausible article about the discovery of a herd of unicorns, and the researchers initially withheld the release of the underlying code for fear it would be abused.

But let’s step back and look at what text generation software actually does.

Machine learning approaches fall into three main categories: heuristic models, statistical models, and models inspired by biology (such as neural networks and evolutionary algorithms).

Heuristic approaches are based on “rules of thumb”. For example, we learn rules about how to conjugate verbs: I run, you run, he runs, and so on. These approaches aren’t used much nowadays because they are inflexible.




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Writing by numbers

Statistical approaches were the state of the art for language-related tasks for many years. At the most basic level, they involve counting words and guessing what comes next.

As a simple exercise, you could generate text by randomly selecting words based on how often they normally occur. About 7% of your words would be “the” – it’s the most common word in English. But if you did it without considering context, you might get nonsense like “the the is night aware”.

More sophisticated approaches use “bigrams”, which are pairs of consecutive words, and “trigrams”, which are three-word sequences. This allows a bit of context and lets the current piece of text inform the next. For example, if you have the words “out of”, the next guessed word might be “time”.

This happens with the auto-complete and auto-suggest features when we write text messages or emails. Based on what we have just typed, what we tend to type and a pre-trained background model, the system predicts what’s next.

While bigram- and trigram-based statistical models can produce good results in simple situations, the best recent models go to another level of sophistication: deep learning neural networks.

Imitating the brain

Neural networks work a bit like tiny brains made of several layers of virtual neurons.

A neuron receives some input and may or may not “fire” (produce an output) based on that input. The output feeds into neurons in the next layer, cascading through the network.

The first artificial neuron was proposed in 1943 by US neuroscientists Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts, but they have only become useful for complex problems like generating text in the past five years.

To use neural networks for text, you put words into a kind of numbered index. You can use the number to represent a word, so for example 23,342 might represent “time”.

Neural networks do a series of calculations to go from sequences of numbers at the input layer, through the interconnected “hidden layers” inside, to the output layer. The output might be numbers representing the odds for each word in the index to be the next word of the text.

In our “out of” example, number 23,432 representing “time” would probably have much better odds than the number representing “do”.




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What’s so special about GPT-3?

GPT-3 is the latest and best of the text modelling systems, and it’s huge. The authors say it has 175 billion parameters, which makes it at least ten times larger than the previous biggest model. The neural network has 96 layers and, instead of mere trigrams, it keeps track of sequences of 2,048 words.

The most expensive and time-consuming part of making a model like this is training it – updating the weights on the connections between neurons and layers. Training GPT-3 would have used about 262 megawatt-hours of energy, or enough to run my house for 35 years.

GPT-3 can be applied to multiple tasks such as machine translation, auto-completion, answering general questions, and writing articles. While people can often tell its articles are not written by human authors, we are now likely to get it right only about half the time.

The robot writer

But back to how the article in The Guardian was created. GPT-3 needs a prompt of some kind to start it off. The Guardian’s staff gave the model instructions and some opening sentences.

This was done eight times, generating eight different articles. The Guardian’s editors then combined pieces from the eight generated articles, and “cut lines and paragraphs, and rearranged the order of them in some places”, saying “editing GPT-3’s op-ed was no different to editing a human op-ed”.

This sounds about right to me, based on my own experience with text-generating software. Earlier this year, my colleagues and I used GPT-2 to write the lyrics for a song we entered in the AI Song Contest, a kind of artificial intelligence Eurovision.

AI song Beautiful the World, by Uncanny Valley.

We fine-tuned the GPT-2 model using lyrics from Eurovision songs, provided it with seed words and phrases, then selected the final lyrics from the generated output.

For example, we gave Euro-GPT-2 the seed word “flying”, and then chose the output “flying from this world that has gone apart”, but not “flying like a trumpet”. By automatically matching the lyrics to generated melodies, generating synth sounds based on koala noises, and applying some great, very human, production work, we got a good result: our song, Beautiful the World, was voted the winner of the contest.

Co-creativity: humans and AI together

So can we really say an AI is an author? Is it the AI, the developers, the users or a combination?

A useful idea for thinking about this is “co-creativity”. This means using generative tools to spark new ideas, or to generate some components for our creative work.

Where an AI creates complete works, such as a complete article, the human becomes the curator or editor. We roll our very sophisticated dice until we get a result we’re happy with.




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The Conversation


Alexandra Louise Uitdenbogerd, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Poets and novelists have been writing about life under COVID-19 for more than a century



Literature from long ago speaks to the human experience of plague.
Marco Rosario Venturini Autieri/Getty

Rachel Hadas, Rutgers University Newark

Pondering the now no-longer Dixie Chicks – renamed “The Chicks” – Amanda Petrusich wrote in a recent issue of the New Yorker, “Lately, I’ve caught myself referring to a lot of new releases as prescient – work that was written and recorded months or even years ago but feels designed to address the present moment. But good art is always prescient, because good artists are tuned into the currency and the momentum of their time.”

That last phrase, “currency and momentum,” recalls Hamlet’s advice to the actors visiting the court of Elsinore to show “the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” The shared idea here is that good art gives a clear picture of what is happening – even, as Petrusich suggests, if it hadn’t happened yet when that art was created.

Good artists seem, in our alarming and prolonged time (I was going to write moment, but it has come to feel like a lot more than that), to be leaping over months, decades and centuries, to speak directly to us now.

‘Riding into the bottomless abyss’

Some excellent COVID-19-inflected or anticipatory work I’ve been noticing dates from the mid-20th century. Of course, one could go a lot further back, for example to the lines from the closing speech in “King Lear”: “The weight of this sad time we must obey.” Here, though, are a few more recent examples.

Drawing of Parisians in front of closed store in 1914
Marcel Proust wrote that in wartime Paris, ‘all the hotels … had closed. The same was true of almost all the shops, the shop-keepers … having fled to the country, and left the usual handwritten notes announcing that they would reopen.’
L. Bombard, from L’Illustrazione Italiana/Getty

Marcel Proust’s “Finding Time Again,” an evocation of wartime Paris from 1916, strongly suggests New York City in March 2020: “Out on the street where I found myself, some distance from the centre of the city, all the hotels … had closed. The same was true of almost all the shops, the shop-keepers, either because of a lack of staff or because they themselves had taken fright, having fled to the country, and left the usual handwritten notes announcing that they would reopen, although even that seemed problematic, at some date far in the future. The few establishments which had managed to survive similarly announced that they would open only twice a week.”

I recently stumbled on finds from the 1958 edition of Oscar Williams’ “The Pocket Book of Modern Verse” – both, strikingly, from poems by writers not now principally remembered as poets. Whereas a fair number of the poets anthologized by Williams have slipped into oblivion, Arthur Waley and Julian Symons speak to us now, to our sad time, loud and clear.

From Waley’s “Censorship” (1940):

It is not difficult to censor foreign news.
What is hard to-say is to censor one’s own thoughts,-
To sit by and see the blind man
On the sightless horse, riding into the bottomless abyss.

And from Symons’ “Pub,” which Williams doesn’t date but which I am assuming also comes from the war years:

The houses are shut and the people go home, we are left in
Our island of pain, the clocks start to move and the powerful
To act, there is nothing now, nothing at all
To be done: for the trouble is real: and the verdict is final
Against us.

‘Return to what remains’

Photo of novelist Henry James
In an 1897 novel, Henry James wrote ‘She couldn’t leave her own house without peril of exposure.’
Hulton Archive/Getty

Dipping a bit further back, into Henry James’ “The Spoils of Poynton” from 1897, I was struck by a sentence I hadn’t remembered, or had failed to notice, when I first read that novella decades ago: “She couldn’t leave her own house without peril of exposure.” James uses infection as a metaphor; but what happens to a metaphor when we’re living in a world where we literally can’t leave our houses without peril of exposure?

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In Anthony Powell’s novel “Temporary Kings,” set in the 1950s, the narrator muses about what it is that attracts people to reunions with old comrades-in-arms from the war. But the idea behind the question “How was your war?” extends beyond shared military experience: “When something momentous like a war has taken place, all existence turned upside down, personal life discarded, every relationship reorganized, there is a temptation, after all is over, to return to what remains … pick about among the bent and rusting composite parts, assess merits and defects.”

The pandemic is still taking place. It’s too early to “return to what remains.” But we can’t help wanting to think about exactly that. Literature helps us to look – as Hamlet said – before and after.The Conversation

Rachel Hadas, Professor of English, Rutgers University Newark

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why it’s not empowering to abandon the male pseudonyms used by female writers



Portrait of the writer Vernon Lee by John Singer Sargent.
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Eleanor Dumbill, Loughborough University

In a letter to James AH Murray in 1879, the writer ME Lewes wrote “I wish always to be quoted as George Eliot”. She perhaps would not have been pleased by a new campaign from The Women’s Prize for Fiction and its sponsor, Baileys called Reclaim Her Name campaign.

Marking the 25th anniversary of The Women’s Prize, under the bold tagline of “finally giving female writers the credit they deserve”, 25 novels have been reprinted using the real names of 26 writers who used male pseudonyms.

The scheme may have some positive outcomes, such as introducing readers to writers and works they might not have otherwise discovered. However, whether it gives female writers the credit they deserve is up for debate.

Mary Ann, Marian and George

The collection’s lead title, touted in all press coverage of its release, is George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872) – now published with the author’s name given as Mary Ann Evans. Though this was the name given to her at birth, Eliot’s “real name”, or the name by which we should refer to her, has been a matter of debate by researchers for years.

She experimented with alternative spellings like Marian and with completely different names like Polly, used her common-law husband’s surname, Lewes, for much of her literary career, and was known as Mrs Cross at the time of her death. 19th-century readers would have known exactly who to assign credit to. Her true identity was revealed shortly after the publication of her second novel, Adam Bede (1859), and at the height of her literary fame she signed correspondence ME Lewes (Marian Evans Lewes).

Portrait of writer George Eliot sitting
George Eliot.
Wikimedia

Eliot’s own consideration of the name she should be known by is as complicated a psychological and moral question as any depicted in her novels. However, her wish to be known professionally as George Eliot is resolute and clearly articulated. It helped her separate her personal and professional personas. Choosing a name to publish under is an important expression of agency and using a different name without the author’s input and consent deprives them of that agency rather than reclaiming it.

It is also important to debunk a common misconception to understand why this campaign is misguided. In George Eliot’s time, women did not have to assume male pseudonyms to be published. Writers who opted to use pen names tended to choose ones that aligned with their own genders. In fact, in the 1860s and 70s men were more likely to use female pseudonyms than vice versa. William Clark Russell, for example, published several novels under the name Eliza Rhyl Davies.

Women dominated the literary marketplace as both readers and writers for the majority of the 19th century. Of the 15 most prolific authors of the period 11 were women, according to the At the Circulating Library.

The need to project modern gender imbalances that exist in publishing today onto 19th-century authors is understandable but anachronistic.

Obscuring queerness

There are further issues with how this campaign depicts LGBTQ+ writers and its inclusion of Vernon Lee’s A Phantom Lover (1886) and Michael Field’s Attila, My Attila! (1896).

There has been much discussion among scholars concerning Lee’s gender identity, with many believing that in a 21st century setting the author may have identified as a trans man. This makes the inclusion of Lee’s birth name (also known in the trans community as a deadname) particularly troubling.

Black and White photograph of Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper.
Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper.
Wikimedia

Meanwhile, Field was the pen name for a pair of writers — Edith Cooper and Katharine Bradley. The name Michael Field represented their collaboration, with Michael representing Bradley and Field representing Cooper. Bradley’s name is misspelt (with an “e”, rather than an “a”) in the collection – another indication that this project may not have been completed with the degree of care one might expect from a literary prize. Like Lee, the pair expressed discomfort with being seen as women as authors.




Read more:
Poets and lovers: the two women who were Michael Field


Ultimately, the problem with the Reclaim Her Name project is one of agency. The writers included in the project chose the names that would be associated with their works and, in many cases, continued to use these pseudonyms after their identities had been revealed. Their reasons for choosing to write under pen names were complicated and, in some cases, we may never know why those decisions were made. One thing is clear, though: if we choose to override these decisions then we are choosing to deny a woman agency. We are not “reclaiming” names, but imposing them.The Conversation

Eleanor Dumbill, Doctoral Researcher, Loughborough University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The rise and fall of Black British writing


Malachi McIntosh, Queen Mary University of London

In many ways, the current state of the world seems unprecedented. The last few years – but especially 2020 – have brought shocks that no one could have foreseen.

Although much headline news has been cause for anxiety, there have been a few notable moments of hope. For me, like so many, the worldwide protests in response to the murder of George Floyd have been among them. In the centre of the uprising’s hopeful surprises has been the way they’ve torn open space for conversations about race and racism in the UK.

Why don’t we teach all British schoolchildren about colonialism? Why does it take so much more convincing to have the statues of slaveowners removed than those of others responsible for past atrocities? Why were so many young people of colour so quickly mobilised to say “the UK is not innocent”, in solidarity with their peers on the streets in the United States?

With the boom in interest in the histories of colonialism, empire and the British civil rights movement in response to Black Lives Matter protests, has come an aligned boom in interest in Black British writing.

Candice Carty-Williams and Bernardine Evaristo won significant firsts for Black authors at the British Book awards – book of the year and author of the year, respectively. Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, became the first Black Briton to top the paperback non-fiction chart, while Evaristo topped the fiction list.

Across social media and newspapers, reading lists proliferated, apparently responding to a hunger from readers of all backgrounds to gain knowledge of issues and the history of race and racism they’d never received in schools or universities.

For many in and on the fringes of the publishing industry, it’s felt hopeful that a moment of real recognition for Black British writing, in an echo of the attention being paid to Black British lives, has arrived.

But has it really? Although the accelerated pace of interest feels unique, the pattern – social unrest triggering readerly interest in the works of writers of colour – is, unfortunately, not.

Post-war Booms (and Busts)

Immediately after the second world war there was a similar boom. Britain was about to enter a long phase of decolonisation, and its demographic make-up, through waves of colonial then ex-colonial migration, was on course to permanently change. This opened up space and piqued curiosity for works from the most visible group at the centre of social transformation – at that time Caribbean emigrants.

As detailed in Kenneth Ramchand’s book The West Indian Novel and Its Background, from 1950 to 1964, over 80 novels by Caribbean authors, including classics like In the Castle of My Skin by by George Lamming and A House for Mr Biswas by VS Naipaul were published in London – far more than those published in the Caribbean itself.

Book cover showing children at school sitting at desks.
To Sir With Love (1959) by the Guyanese writer ER Braithwaite is a semi-autobiographical novel set in East London.
Wikimedia

What’s most significant about that spike is that it didn’t last. As Caribbean migration waned after the passage of a series of restrictive immigration acts from 1962 to 1971, so did the opportunities for writers from Caribbean backgrounds.

This was evident in the fortunes of most of the those published in Britain post-war. The likes of Edgar Mittelholzer and John Hearne – then known and widely published – and even Samuel Selvon – now widely known and respected – found their works falling out of print.

Attention then shifted to Black writers from the African continent – primarily those from west Africa, like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka – where the progress of decolonisation was taking dramatic turns. But this interest also waned.

There have been more recent booms, for example in the 1980s after the New Cross fire in 1981, which sparked protests in south London after 13 young black people were killed, and the Brixton uprising of the same year in response to excessive and, at times, violent policing in the area.

Then, around the turn of the millennium, rechristened “multicultural” writing rose, alongside visible demographic change, through the successes of Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy, Monica Ali and others. These were breakthroughs significant enough for Wasafiri, the magazine where I work and which has been championing Black British and British Asian writing since 1984, to declare in 2008 that Black Britons had “taken the cake” of British letters.

Yet in 2016, eight years later, only one debut novel from a Black British male author, Robyn Travis, was published in the UK.

The Future

In her memoirs, the British writer and editor Diana Athill calls the post-war boom in writing from then-colonies a result of short-lived “liberal guilt” combined with curiosity about the peoples and nations disconnecting from Britain. There are concerning signs along these lines in our present.

In their recent report – a result of over a hundred interviews with those in the field – Anamik Saha and Sandra van Lente reveal that British publishers feel both that they ought to publish more writers of colour and that those same writers belong to a particular niche with limited quality and limited appeal to their target readers.

Novelist Bernardine Evaristo wearing a denim jacket and glasses
Bernardine Evaristo has questioned the growing body of Black writing.
Jennie Scott/Wikimedia, CC BY

Anticipating this conversation in her 2019 essay What a Time to Be a (Black) (British) (Womxn) Writer, first published in the book Brave New Words on the eve of her Booker Prize win, Bernardine Evaristo both celebrated and questioned the growing body of Black British writing.

Something, she notes in the essay, is definitely shifting, but she wonders how far it will really shift – if Black Britons are being published in greater numbers but on singularly narrow terms. Like their forebears in the 1950s, 1960s, 1980s and early 2000s, are there only certain stories Black writers are allowed to tell? Only certain messages they’re expected to convey?

While it is far too early to make a judgement on how long the current boom will last, the way this moment repeats a pattern of social change followed by publishing frenzy is at least worthy of attention – and perhaps scepticism. So often the present seems unprecedented, but in order for it to be truly revolutionary, novel, status-quo shifting – liberating – the changes we see within it have to be sustained.The Conversation

Malachi McIntosh, Emeritus lecturer in British Black and Asian Literature, Queen Mary University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Radical hope: What young dreamers in literature can teach us about COVID-19



The arts, literature and culture provide models for hope and resilience in times of crisis.
(Marc-Olivier Jodoin/Unsplash)

Irene Gammel, Ryerson University

We rarely associate youth literature with existential crises, yet Canada’s youth literature offers powerful examples for coping with cultural upheaval.

As a scholar of modernism, I am familiar with the sense of uncertainty and crisis that permeates the art, literature and culture of the modernist era. The modernist movement was shaped by upheaval. We will be shaped by COVID-19, which is a critical turning point of our era.

Societal upheaval creates a literary space for “radical hope,” a term coined by philosopher Jonathan Lear to describe hope that goes beyond optimism and rational expectation. Radical hope is the hope that people resort to when they are stripped of the cultural frameworks that have governed their lives.

The idea of radical hope applies to our present day and the cultural shifts and uncertainty COVID-19 has created. No one can predict if there will ever be global travel as we knew it, or if university education will still to be characterized by packed lecture halls. Anxiety about these uncertain times is palpable in Zoom meetings and face-to-face (albeit masked) encounters in public.

So what can literature of the past tell us about the present condition?

What we see in the literature of the past

Consider Canadian author L.M. Montgomery, a master of youth literature. In her books, Montgomery grapples with change. She provides examples of how youth’s visions and dreams shape a new hopeful future in the face of devastation. I have read and taught her novels many times. However unpacking her hope-and-youth-infused work is more poignant in a COVID-19 world.

Her pre-war novel Anne of Green Gables represents a distinctly optimistic work, with a spunky orphan girl in search of a home at the centre. Montgomery’s early work includes dark stories as subtexts, such as alluding to Anne’s painful past in orphanages only in passing. Montgomery’s later works place explorations of hope within explicitly darker contexts. This shift reflects her trauma during the war and interwar eras. In a lengthy journal entry, dated Dec. 1, 1918, she writes, “The war is over! … And in my own little world has been upheaval and sorrow — and the shadow of death.”

COVID-19 has parallels with the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed more than 50 million people and deepened existential despair. Montgomery survived the pandemic. In early 1919, her cousin and close friend Frederica (Frede) Campbell died of the flu. Montgomery coped by dreaming, “young dreams — just the dreams I dreamed at 17.” But her dreaming also included dark premonitions of the collapse of her world as she knew it. This duality found its way into her later books.

Rilla of Ingleside, Canada’s first home front novel — a literary genre exploring the war from the perspective of the civilians at home — expresses the same uncertainty we feel today. Rilla includes over 80 references to dreamers and dreaming, many through the youthful lens of Rilla Blythe, the protagonist, and her friend Gertrude Oliver, whose prophetic dreams foreshadow death. These visions prepare the friends for change. More than the conventional happy ending that is Montgomery’s trademark, her idea of radical hope through dreaming communicates a sense of future to the reader.

The same idea of hope fuels Montgomery’s 1923 novel Emily of New Moon. The protagonist, 10-year-old Emily Byrd Starr, has the power of the “flash,” which gives her quasi-psychic insight. Emily’s world collapses when her father dies and she moves into a relative’s rigid household. To cope, she writes letters to her dead father without expecting a response, a perfect metaphor for the radical hope that turns Emily into a writer with her own powerful dreams and premonitions.

What we can learn from the literature of today

Nine decades later, influenced by Montgomery’s published writings, Jean Little wrote an historical novel for youth, If I Die Before I Wake: The Flu Epidemic Diary of Fiona Macgregor. Set in Toronto, the book frames the 1918 pandemic as a moment of both trauma and hope. Twelve-year old Fiona Macgregor recounts the crisis in her diary, addressing her entries to “Jane,” her imaginary future daughter. When her twin sister, Fanny, becomes sick with the flu, Fiona wears a mask and stays by her bedside. She tells her diary: “I am giving her some of my strength. I can’t make them understand, Jane, but I must stay or she might leave me. I vow, here and now, that I will not let her go.”

Governor General Julie Payette and author Cherie Dimaline pose for a photo at the Governor General's Literary Award for English young people's literature. Dimaline is holding a book in her left hand.
Governor General Julie Payette presents Cherie Dimaline with the Governor General’s Literary Award for English young people’s literature for The Marrow Thieves.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

A decade later, Métis writer Cherie Dimaline’s prescient young adult novel The Marrow Thieves depicts a climate-ravaged dystopia where people cannot dream, in what one of the characters calls “the plague of madness.” Only Indigenous people can salvage their ability to dream, so the protagonist, a 16-year-old Métis boy nicknamed Frenchie, is being hunted by “recruiters” who are trying to steal his bone marrow to create dreams. Dreams give their owner a powerful agency to shape the future. As Dimaline explains in a CBC interview with James Henley, “Dreams, to me, represent our hope. It’s how we survive and it’s how we carry on after every state of emergency, after each suicide.” Here, Dimaline’s radical hope confronts cultural genocide and the stories of Indigenous people.

Radical hope helps us confront the devastation wrought by pandemics both then and today, providing insight into how visions, dreams and writing can subversively transform this devastation into imaginary acts of resilience. Through radical hope we can begin to write the narrative of our own pandemic experiences focusing on our survival and recovery, even as we accept that our way of doing things will be transformed. In this process we should pay close attention to the voices and visions of the youth — they can help us tap into the power of radical hope.The Conversation

Irene Gammel, Professor of Modern Literature and Culture, Ryerson University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Many writers say they can actually hear the voices of their characters – here’s why



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John Foxwell, Durham University

Many famous writers claim it’s the characters who actually drive the plot, create the dialogue, and essentially “do their own thing” in the novels they write.

To investigate this phenomenon, we ran a survey at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2014 and 2018, asking writers how they experienced their characters. Over 60% of the 181 participants said they heard their characters’ voices, and over 60% said their characters sometimes acted of their own accord. Some authors even said they could enter into dialogue with their characters and that their characters sometimes “talked back” and argued with them.

These writers were often fairly explicit that all of these experiences were imaginary. But writers also talked about being “surprised” by what their characters said and did – even sometimes laughing because of the jokes their characters told. This brings up questions around control and “agency”, since these writers did not always feel as if they were consciously deciding what happened in the narrative.

Who’s talking?

This experience is often explained by the suggestion that writers are somehow special or different, and that their imaginings are more “vivid” or “powerful”. But in our study, there was a much greater degree of variation than such theories account for. Indeed, there was a significant minority of writers who did not report the experience of their characters having agency.

But recent studies on “inner speech” may help to explain writers’ experiences of their characters in a different way. Inner speech is the inner monologue and or dialogue that most of us have when we think verbally. It can vary a great deal from person to person. For instance, some people are aware of hearing their inner speech most of the time, and some are barely conscious of it at all.

Some people, for example, experience their inner speech more as a monologue, while for others it is more of a dialogue. People can also be aware of having the voices of “other people” in their inner speech – for instance, hearing the voice of one of their parents giving them a piece of advice or criticism.

In much the same way, we might also imagine hearing the voices of other people when we do things like think about how an argument might have gone differently, or how someone we know is likely to respond to the news we’re about to give them.

It’s not unreasonable then to question the extent to which we’re aware of actually controlling these imaginary versions of real people. After all, the feeling that a friend or family member is more likely to say one thing than another isn’t usually something that’s consciously decided or laboriously worked out through reasoning. Usually it’s immediate and intuitive, at least when we know that person well. And this is different again from simply deciding to imagine them responding the way we want them to.

A matter of contrast

According to this line of thinking, most of us actually have independent and agentive “characters” and hear their voices – it’s just that these characters have the same identities as the people we know in the real world.

Indeed, some of the writers in our survey explicitly compared hearing their characters to the “other people” in their inner speech:

It’s like when you see a dress in a shop window and you hear your mum’s voice saying ‘it won’t wash [well]’ in your mind. It’s involuntary but not intrusive.

So perhaps it isn’t so much a question of how writers have these experiences of independent characters. Instead, it might be more a question of why the agency of fictional characters is so much more noticeable (and therefore more noteworthy). One possible explanation lies in the way this experience of characters’ agency relates to other experiences, both real and imaginary.

Young pensive woman sitting at desk.
We found the majority of writers hear voices of their characters and can enter into dialogue with them.
GoodStudio/Shutterstock

On the one hand, there is a contrast that emerges because of how the characters develop over time. First, there are the initial stages where the writer consciously determines what the characters do and say. Yet after a certain point, the writer’s greater familiarity with the characters provides the same kind of immediate and intuitive sense of what they would do or say that often applies to our imaginings of real people.

On the other hand, there is a contrast which usually pertains to our imaginings of real people: the contrast between our imaginings of what they will do and what they actually do in the world. But of course, fictional characters do not have a counterpart out there that has conspicuously more independence and agency. In other words, those qualities aren’t being constantly “overshadowed” by the real-life versions.

These theories may go some way towards explaining some of the broader aspects of what’s going on. Yet the more researchers delve into thought and imagination, the more difficult it is to say exactly how much control over our thoughts and actions any of us actually have – and to what extent the control we feel we have is an illusion.The Conversation

John Foxwell, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of English, Durham University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Reading and Writing in Early Modern Europe


The link below is to an article that looks at reading and writing in early modern Europe.

For more visit:
https://lithub.com/in-early-modern-europe-reading-and-writing-meant-getting-your-hands-dirty/

How literary censorship inspired creativity in Victorian writers



Forbidden Books.
Alexander Mark Rossi

Stephanie Meek, University of Reading

In an open letter published in Harper’s Magazine, 152 writers, including JK Rowling and Margaret Atwood, claim that a climate of “censoriousness” is pervading liberal culture, the latest contribution to an ongoing debate about freedom of speech online.

As we grapple with this issue in a society where social media allows us all to share extreme views, the Victorian writers offer a precedent for thinking differently about language and how we use it to get our point across. How limits of acceptability and literary censorship, for the Victorians, inspired creative ways of writing that foregrounded sensitivity and demanded thoughtfulness.

Not causing offence

There are very few cases of books being banned in the Victorian era. But books were censored or refused because of moral prudishness, and publishers often objected to attacks on the upper classes – their book-buying audience. Writer and poet Thomas Hardy’s first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, was never published because the publisher Alexander Macmillan felt that his portrayal of the upper classes was “wholly dark – not a ray of light visible to relieve the darkness”.

Charles Edward Mudie.
Mudie family archive/Ruth Tillyard

However, more common than publishers turning down books was the refusal of circulating libraries to distribute them. These institutions were an integral part of literary consumerism during the Victorian period as the main means of distributing books.

Most influential of these was Charles Mudie’s Select Library, established in 1842. Mudie’s library was select because he would only circulate books that were suitable for middle-class parents to read aloud to their daughters without causing embarrassment.

This shaped how publishers commissioned and what writers could get away with. Victorian literary censorship, while limiting, managed to inspire writers to develop more creative and progressive ways to get their points across.

Censorship as productive

George Eliot’s publisher, John Blackwood, criticised her work for showing people as they really were rather than giving an idealistic picture. He was particularly uncomfortable when Eliot focused on the difficulties of working-class life.

In Mr Gilfil’s Love Story(1857), Eliot’s description of the orphan girl, Caterina, being subjected to “soap-and-water” raised Blackwood’s censorious hackles:

I do not recollect of any passage that moved my critical censorship unless it might be the allusion to dirt in common with your heroine.

George Eliot.
National Gallery/Wikimedia

As well as dirt, alcohol consumption was also seen as an unwanted reminder of working class problems. Again in Mr Gifil’s Love Story, Eliot describes how the eponymous clergyman enjoys “an occasional sip of gin-and-water”.

However, knowing Blackwood’s views and anticipating she may cause offence galvanised Eliot to state her case directly to the reader within the text itself. She qualifies her unromantic depiction of Mr Gilfil with an address to her “lady” readers:

Here I am aware that I have run the risk of alienating all my refined lady readers, and utterly annihilating any curiosity they may have felt to know the details of Mr Gilfil’s love-story … let me assure you that Mr Gilfil’s potations of gin-and-water were quite moderate. His nose was not rubicund; on the contrary, his white hair hung around a pale and venerable face. He drank it chiefly, I believe, because it was cheap; and here I find myself alighting on another of the Vicar’s weaknesses, which, if I cared to paint a flattering portrait rather than a faithful one, I might have chosen to suppress.

Here, literary censorship enriches Eliot’s writing. Eliot’s refusal to suppress her work becomes part of the story and reinforces her agenda to portray Mr Gilfil as he really is, a vicar who mixes gin with water because he is poor.

Power in not telling

As well as inspiring narrative additions, censorship was also powerful because of what was left out of a text.

One of Hardy’s most loved books, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, highlights the crimes of sexual harassment in the workplace and of rape. Because Hardy had to be careful about the way that he presented the sexual abuse of Tess, his descriptions were very subtle. This is how he portrays the scene where Tess is sexually assaulted by her employer, Alec D’Urberville:

The obscurity was now so great that he could see absolutely nothing but a pale nebulousness at his feet, which represented the white muslin figure he had left upon the dead leaves. Everything else was blackness alike. D’Urberville stooped; and heard a gentle regular breathing. He knelt, and bent lower, till her breath warmed his face, and in a moment his cheek was in contact with hers. She was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears.

The influence of censorship meant that Hardy could not describe this scene in graphic detail. Instead, his depiction is more sensitive and thoughtful. Hardy does not dehumanise Tess by depicting her as a sexual object to entertain the reader.

By focusing on Tess’s “gentle regular breathing” and the poignant image of her tear-stained eyelashes, Hardy avoids gratuitous depictions of violence while at the same time making us painfully aware of the injustice she has suffered. This makes his portrayal of Tess more powerful and poignant. It can be argued that this was achieved because of the limits placed on his writing, not in spite of them.

In these instances, we can see how literary censorship influenced writers to tread more carefully upon difficult territory. It made them think about whether including violence or socially controversial depictions were necessary or gratuitous to their narratives.

For Hardy and Eliot, censorship and its limits inspired creativity, sensitivity and thoughtfulness. These examples can provide food for thought in the debate today about free speech and censorship. As Hardy and Eliot wrestled with as they wrote, can things be said differently and, in some cases, do they need to be said at all?The Conversation

Stephanie Meek, PhD Candidate in English Literature, University of Reading

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.