George Saunders Booker win: why the British shouldn’t be sore at American literary success



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Andrew Dix, Loughborough University

“In the four quarters of the globe,” asked the British writer and cleric Sydney Smith in 1820: “Who reads an American book?” Smith was a career eccentric, known for odd sayings and doings, such as wearing a self-designed tin helmet as a defence against rheumatism. However, his scorn about the impoverished state of literature in the upstart nation across the Atlantic was no mere individual fancy, but a judgement backed by his nation’s sense of cultural superiority.

But pose the same question now, almost exactly 200 years later, and such complacency is hardly the response you’re likely to get. The most esteemed British literary prize, after all, has now been awarded to an American author two years running.

American writer George Saunders’ victory in the The Man Booker Prize for Fiction, for his debut novel Lincoln in the Bardo, follows on from US novelist Paul Beatty’s 2016 win for The Sellout. Fears of the Americanisation of this piece of British literary heritage are likely to be renewed. Saunders and Beatty face being seen as the high-cultural wing of an ongoing transatlantic takeover of national life that recently took more bone-crushing form in the series of NFL fixtures in London.

Changing the rules

Worries about precisely such literary colonisation by the United States were voiced, in fact, when the organisers of the Booker changed its eligibility rules in 2013. Formerly a prize only for novelists of the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Commonwealth, with winners including such non-UK citizens as Nadine Gordimer and John Banville, the parameters were altered so as to make the language of composition itself the key criterion. The new rules invited submissions of “any novel in print or electronic format, written originally in English and published in the UK by an imprint formally established in the UK.”

A S Byatt, a former judge as well as winner, said at the time she feared such an expansion of the field would result in “good work” going unrecognised. Her qualms were based not on nationalistic unease but in the spectre of unmanageable piles of novels to be sifted. But for literary scholar John Mullan, the risk of the rule change was indeed that the Booker would decline into a series of spectacular US/UK faceoffs. He imagined the new Booker as:

A Ryder Cup of Literature … Toni Morrison versus Hilary Mantel, or Jonathan Franzen against Ian McEwan.

Nevertheless, it is not as if the Booker’s previous criteria for eligibility were beyond criticism. How convincing a defence can be assembled for a prize whose original geographical coverage mapped exactly onto that of Britain’s recent colonial and imperial dominance? These embarrassing parallels were pointedly addressed in 1972 by John Berger, also a Booker winner. On being awarded the prize for G., he remarked that the sponsor, Booker McConnell, had derived much of its wealth from “exploitation” during “extensive trading … in the Caribbean for over 130 years”.

Novels without borders

If writers in English from Durban had always been eligible for the Booker, then why not those from Denver? If Delhi, why not Detroit? While the organisers’ announcement in 2013 triggered expressions of anxiety in the UK that the novelists of Hampstead would be ill-equipped to compete with those from Harlem, others welcomed the prize’s reimagining so as to include writers in English from beyond Britain’s recently relinquished imperial citadels. As the Scottish author A L Kennedy said: fiction is “deeply international, deeply humane. It has no borders. It’s lovely that the Booker is reaching out”.

George Saunders with his award.
Man Booker

There are striking affinities, in fact, between Kennedy’s rhetoric and that of George Saunders in his acceptance speech after winning for Lincoln in the Bardo. His novel’s subject could not be more closely affiliated with the national narratives and icons of the US: its key figure, of course, is the grieving President Lincoln. Nevertheless, Saunders’ model of literary composition and reception remains resolutely non-jingoistic:

Well this tonight is culture, it is international culture, it is compassionate culture, it is activist culture.

Two responses, perhaps, are possible in the face of nationalistic concern that the Americans are taking over British literary prizes.

The first is to recall more of Berger’s wise words in what was as much a speech of refusal as acceptance in 1972. Even at a time when coverage of the prize was modest, with the only media “platform” provided by a few broadsheet papers, Berger complained about “the deliberately publicised suspense, the speculation of the writers concerned as though they were horses, the whole emphasis on winners and losers”. The task now, perhaps, is to extricate Saunders, and Beatty before him, from conversations about their passports and instead to give their thematically challenging and formally inventive fictions the serious attention they deserve.

The ConversationBut a second possible response to Saunders’ victory may offer a better cure for the prize envy of the smaller-minded British reader, currently sore at US literary success. Yes, Saunders may have won the Booker. But in Kazuo Ishiguro, Britain currently has the holder of the biggest literary trophy of all.

Andrew Dix, Lecturer in American Studies, Loughborough University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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British literature is richly tangled with other histories and cultures – so why is it sold as largely white and English?



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Brick Lane: popularised in a novel by British writer, Monica Ali.
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Elleke Boehmer, University of Oxford and Erica Lombard, University of Oxford

Recent global developments have sharply polarised communities in many countries around the world. A new politics of exclusion has drawn urgent attention to the ways in which structural inequality has marginalised and silenced certain sectors of society. And yet, as a recent report shows, diversity and inclusion in fact “benefit the common good”. A more diverse group is a stronger, more creative and productive group.

In the world of literary writing, we find similar gaps and exclusions. But these are counterbalanced in some respects by new positive initiatives.

In 2015, a study revealed that literature by writers of colour had been consistently under-represented by the predominantly white British book industry. Statistics in The Bookseller show that out of thousands of books published in 2016 in the UK, fewer than 100 were by British authors of a non-white background. And out of 400 authors identified by the British public in a 2017 Royal Society of Literature survey, only 7% were black, Asian or of mixed race (compared to 13% of the population).

Colourful misrepresentation

A similar marginalisation takes place in the curricula in schools and universities, mirroring exclusions in wider society. In most English literature courses of whatever period, the writers taught are white, largely English and largely male.

A fundamental inequality arises in which, though British culture at large is diverse, syllabuses are not. Indeed, many British readers and students find little to recognise or to identify with when they read and study mainstream British literature.

But it’s not just a case of under-representation. It’s also a case of misrepresentation.

Black and Asian writers who have been published within the mainstream British system describe the pressure they have felt to conform to cultural stereotypes in their work. Their books are often packaged and presented in ways that focus on their ethnicity, regularly using cliches. At the same time, more universal aspects of their writing are overlooked. For example, the covers of novels by Asian British writers usually stick to a limited colour palette of yellows, reds, and purples, accented by “exotic” images.

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These writers bristle at the sense that they are read not as crafters of words and worlds, but as spokespeople for their communities or cultures. At its worst, this process turns these writers and their books into objects of anthropological curiosity rather than works inviting serious literary study or simply pleasurable reading. The message is that black and Asian literature is other than or outside mainstream British writing.

Against these exclusions, leading British authors such as Bernardine Evaristo and others have urged for a broader, more inclusive approach. They recognise that what and how we read shapes our sense of ourselves, our communities and the world.

Reframing the narrative

The Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds research project, based in the Oxford English Faculty and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, set out to ask what it means to read contemporary fiction as British readers. Working with reading groups and in discussion with writers, we found that readers of all ages entered the relatively unfamiliar worlds created by BAME authors with interest.

For many, finding points of familiarity along gender, age, geographical or other lines was important for their ability to enjoy stories from communities different from their own. Identifying in this way gave some readers new perspectives on their own contexts. At the same time, unfamiliarity was not a barrier to identification. In some cases, universal human stories, like falling in love, acted as a bridge. This suggests that how literature is presented to readers, whether it is framed as other or not, can be as significant as what is represented.

Contemporary black and Asian writing from the UK is British writing. And this means that the work of writers such as Evaristo, Nadifa Mohamed and Daljit Nagra be placed on the same library shelf, reading list and section of the bookshop as work by Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Ali Smith – not exclusively in “world interest” or “global literature”.

Bookish.
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Equally, much can be gained by thinking of white British writers like Alan Hollinghurst or Hilary Mantel as having as much of a cross-cultural or even postcolonial outlook as Aminatta Forna and Kamila Shamsie.

There are positive signs. A new EdExcel/Pearson A-level teaching resource on Contemporary Black British Literature has been developed. The Why is My Curriculum White? campaign continues to make inroads in university syllabuses. And the Jhalak Prize is raising the profile of BAME writing in Britain. Against this background, the Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds website offers a multimedia hub of resources on black and Asian British writing, providing points of departure for more inclusive, wide-ranging courses. Yet there is still much to be done.

The ConversationAll literature written in English in the British Isles is densely entangled with other histories, cultures, and pathways of experience both within the country and far beyond. Its syllabuses, publishing practices, and our conversations about books must reflect this.

Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English, University of Oxford and Erica Lombard, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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New African literature is disrupting what Western presses prize



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Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie after a reading of her book ‘Americanah’ in Lagos in 2013.
Akintunde Akinleye /Reuters

Jeanne-Marie Jackson, Johns Hopkins University

African literature is the object of immense international interest across both academic and popular registers. Far from the field’s earlier, post-colonial association with marginality, a handful of star “Afropolitan” names are at the forefront of global trade publishing.

Books like Chimamanda Adichie’s “Americanah” and “Half of a Yellow Sun”, Teju Cole’s “Open City”, Taiye Selasi’s “Ghana Must Go” and Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing” have confounded neat divisions between Western and African literary traditions. The Cameroonian novelist Imbolo Mbue captured a million-dollar contract for her first book, “Behold the Dreamers”. That’s even before it joined the Oprah’s Book Club pantheon this year.

Such commercial prominence, though, has attracted considerable and unsurprising push back from Western and Africa-based critics alike. Far from advancing narratives with deep roots in local African realities, such critics fear, many of Africa’s most “successful” writers hawk a superficial, overly diasporic, or even Western-focused vision of the continent.

Noviolet Bulawayo was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2013 for her book
Olivia Harris/Reuters

The most visible of these critiques has been directed at the Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo’s “We Need New Names” (2013). The Nigerian novelist Helon Habila worried in a review in the London Guardian that it was “poverty-porn”. The popular Nigerian critic Ikhide Ikheloa (“Pa Ikhide”) frequently makes a similar point. Fellow Nigerian writer Adaobi Nwaubani critiqued the West’s hold on Africa’s book industry in a much-circulated New York Times piece called “African Books for Western Eyes”.

Such debates about African writing could, and likely will, go on forever. Questions about Africa’s place in the current global literary marketplace broaden some of the most urgent queries of the postcolonial era. Who gets to document African realities? Who are the “gatekeepers” of African publishing traditions?

It goes on: To what sort of audience does African writing cater? What is the role – and what should it be, if any – of Western institutions in brokering cultural prestige?

All these issues merit concern.

Between the default poles

Too often, though, African writing ends up volleyed between two default poles of “corporate global” and “activist local”. Some onlookers, as in a recent essay by the Canadian scholar Sarah Brouillette, go as far as to name the biases of even Africa-based print outlets. Kenya’s Kwani Trust is exposed as “Western-facing” due to a web of donor relations. “West” here is code for neoliberal. “Western-facing” is for complicity with a market that skews toward British and American interests.

Faced with a “world system” argument like Brouillette’s, African literature would seem trapped between a rock and a hard place.

But, in fact, this tells only a small part of the story of how African writing now makes its way through the world. It is incomplete to the point of being outdated, given the boom over the past five years in new, globally conscious small US literary presses collaborating with African writers.

A “West subsuming Africa” brand of critique works fine for scholars with no real skin in the game of literary publishing. It also denies real agency to a lot of African writers and other literary professionals. On the ground the literary field is far more forward-thinking and diverse.

There is an entire new body of African writing that escapes this closed circuit of damning truisms. A wave of new or recently galvanised independent literary presses in the US and the UK are working in tandem with some of Africa’s most generative outlets. Together they are publishing and promoting work by young and adventurous African writers.

Labours of love

Books published originally by presses like Umuzi (South Africa), amaBooks (Zimbabwe) and Kwani (Kenya) find second lives with international publishers working to defy the constraints of profitability. They’re mostly labours of love with skeleton staffs that speak to a transcontinental commitment to innovative African writing.

Here are a few key examples of African texts published by independent American outlets – “independent” here refers to presses beyond the “Big Five” US trade publishers (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster.

These include Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Ugandan epic “Kintu” which was originally launched by Kwani. It was the first Anglophone novel put out by the brand-new Transit Books based in Oakland, California. The press seeks maximum visibility for translated fiction alongside texts originally written in English. They advocate for more ethical legal and financial dealings with translators, as well as international writers.

Congolese author Fiston Mwanza Mujila.
Marc de Gouvenain

A number of similarly tiny, ambitious ventures have published some of the most acclaimed recent African writing in translation. Deep Vellum Publishing was behind the English translation of Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Etisalat Prize-winning “Tram 83”.

Also dedicated exclusively to works in translation, LA-based Phoneme Media in 2016 published the first ever Burundian novel in English, Roland Rugero’s deeply contemplative “Baho!”. Phoneme’s tagline, fittingly, is “curious books for curious people”.

In a similar vein, Brooklyn’s Restless Books was founded to combat “parochial, inward-looking, and homogenised trends in American publishing”. Among their forthcoming titles, translated from the French is Naivo’s “Beyond the Rice Fields”. It’s the first novel from Madagascar to see its way to English.

Veteran nonprofit press Archipelago Books is also in Brooklyn. In 2015, it published the translation from the Portuguese of Angolan writer Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s “A General Theory of Oblivion”.

Every one of these throws a wrench in a clear, cynical sense of what kind of novel Western presses prize. That is not to mention the many African writers, publishers, and editors working in concert to promote these same texts.

Small, focused channels

It applies to the Anglosphere too. Books that offer a decidedly more locally textured experience than those of the “Afropolitan” rock stars have made their way abroad through small, focused channels.

These works might include Tendai Huchu’s “The Maestro, the Magistrate, and the Mathematician” (published originally by amaBooks, and in the US by Ohio University Press); Imraan Coovadia’s “Tales of the Metric System” (from Umuzi, and again by Ohio University Press); and Masande Ntshanga’s “The Reactive” (also Umuzi; in the US by family-run Two Dollar Radio.

Clearly, this collection just scratches the surface. But what these works have in common is an investment in stylistic and structural experimentation that confounds rather than caters to an international taste for “digestible” fiction, or to mostly Western points of cultural and institutional reference.

This counter-current of transnational African literary life complicates the equation of culture, geopolitics and economics in more useful ways than stale materialist critiques.

As such titles and presses continue to gain acclaim and recognition by an international readership that is aware of and hostile to shallow representations of Africa – and who crave engagement with challenging fiction, regardless of its origin – critics will need to rethink some of their orthodoxies.

The ConversationThere is more to both African literature and Western publishing than meets an eye too practised in its suspicion. If literature is doomed only to echo the failings of globalisation, then why bother? On the contrary, a new generation of writers and publishers deserve our awareness of the “global literary marketplace” as a meaningfully multidimensional space.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson, Assistant Professor of World Anglophone Literature, Johns Hopkins University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The ‘inevitable sadness’ of Kazuo Ishiguro’s fiction


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British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro listens to a question during a press conference at his home in London on Oct. 5, 2017.
Alastair Grant/AP Photo

Cynthia F. Wong, University of Colorado Denver

On a damp October day in 2006, I followed Kazuo Ishiguro and my 10-year-old daughter Grace to a back table at a bustling cafe in London for an interview. As Ishiguro answered my questions, he explained how he “auditions” his characters’ voices and personalities in his head before they appear in his fiction. He spoke candidly about a writer’s messy work.

Now he is the laureate for the Nobel Prize in literature, for what the Swedish Academy praised as his unapologetic portrayals of “the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”

It’s a nod to the self-delusion that many of Ishiguro’s characters possess. One, for example, rationalizes his service to a fascist loyalist. Others see their past through the cloudy lens of trauma. If we were to peel back the warped self-deception, we might find a bottomless pit of despair.

At that interview years ago, Ishiguro talked about his characters’ painful chasms, the way they protected themselves by concealing their mistakes. But when everything seems hopeless, his characters often courageously turn to their imagination to forge a connection to life and meaning.

In doing so, they beckon readers to imagine something better, too.

When I asked Ishiguro about his 2005 dystopic novel “Never Let Me Go,” his tone shifted. He lowered his voice when he told me about the students in that novel, and how they eventually perish. But he was surprised when I said that I found the novel sorrowful.

“There is an inevitable sadness,” he admitted. “On the other hand, it’s not a bleak view of human nature.”

I could sense Ishiguro’s concern for how my daughter might take his observations about death and despair.

He continued: “The question, ‘What are we useful for?’ is the question that your daughter Grace asks, and one Tommy and Kathy ask in ‘Never Let Me Go.’ Some cold system says to Tommy and Kathy that they will be useful [to the world], and it’s the same as another system saying to Grace that someday she will be useful to the world economy.”

Human systems figure in all of Ishiguro’s novels, whether these are governments, communities or families. Often, these systems are damaged, and humans still must move through them. They try to repair them or save themselves. Ishiguro has examined many facets of what it means to live among and within countless systems.

The first-person narrators of Ishiguro’s first three novels, “A Pale View of Hills,” “An Artist of the Floating World” and “The Remains of the Day,” reflect on personal losses in the context of world events: friends and families dead from atomic bombings in Japan, unrealized romances, wrong choices and lives founded on delusion. These characters long for clarity, retribution or forgiveness.

The narrators of his next three novels are, variously, a pianist (“The Unconsoled”), a London detective (“When We Were Orphans”) and a roving hospice-type worker (“Never Let Me Go”). Whether they’re situated in Japan, Great Britain, some unnamed European city or even a medieval village, Ishiguro’s characters beguile his readers with their disclosures. His eloquent prose expresses their anguish or their repressed longings. We sense time passing darkly for these characters. We see how they face disappointments and ache for dignity.

Ishiguro explained that to probe the emotional force of his novels, we must understand that the characters are set within “an internal world [and] it’s an emotional logic that is being played out.”

In narrating their sorrows and their fruitless optimism, Ishiguro gives his readers a way to empathize with his characters’ situations.

Ishiguro’s capacity for compassion was cultivated during his university gap year, when he worked with the homeless. He also studied piano and guitar and dreamed of a career in music before he detoured to the creative writing program at the University of East Anglia. He still writes musical lyrics and works with musicians as an avocation.

By his own admission, Ishiguro is a slow writer; he produces a novel every few years. In 2015, when he came to Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop to promote his latest novel, I was able to catch up with him. He remarked that he may have only a couple more books forthcoming.

“We’re not immortal,” he said. “We’re here for a limited time. There is a countdown.”

The Swedish Academy honors a laureate for a lifetime of achievement. To date, Ishiguro has published eight books as well as many short stories, television and film scripts. His career may seem disjointed when focusing on only the best-known novels, “The Remains of the Day” and “Never Let Me Go.”

But few contemporary authors have dared to take as many risks as Ishiguro. The more complicated, Kafka-esque novel “The Unconsoled” is a book some critics called disappointing. A different sort of writer might have quit, but Ishiguro persisted.

Similarly, even though some readers responded coolly to “The Buried Giant,” Ishiguro had taken yet another literary leap: The highly metaphorical story is set in an early English era that predated historical records. Memory, repression of pain and the resolve to protect oneself and loved ones return as themes, but in unusual, allegorical ways.

Each novel is a singular achievement; each successive undertaking enriches a broader canvas of Ishiguro’s portraits of alienated lives.

During that 2006 London interview, I watched Ishiguro banter with my daughter during a break. They were laughing about what it means to “snarf” food, and they were picking up some biscuits and spooning melted ice cream to demonstrate. Ishiguro’s ease and humor when speaking with my child captivated me.

In spite of the sadness in his books, Ishiguro is a gracious guardian of humanity. He is a fine curator of emotions and a skilled storyteller.

The ConversationWe don’t know how many more books Ishiguro will publish. But we can be certain that in his literary explorations, he will remain undaunted.

Cynthia F. Wong, Professor of English, University of Colorado Denver

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The enduring power of print for learning in a digital world



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Patricia A. Alexander, University of Maryland and Lauren M. Singer, University of Maryland

Today’s students see themselves as digital natives, the first generation to grow up surrounded by technology like smartphones, tablets and e-readers.

Teachers, parents and policymakers certainly acknowledge the growing influence of technology and have responded in kind. We’ve seen more investment in classroom technologies, with students now equipped with school-issued iPads and access to e-textbooks. In 2009, California passed a law requiring that all college textbooks be available in electronic form by 2020; in 2011, Florida lawmakers passed legislation requiring public schools to convert their textbooks to digital versions.

Given this trend, teachers, students, parents and policymakers might assume that students’ familiarity and preference for technology translates into better learning outcomes. But we’ve found that’s not necessarily true.

As researchers in learning and text comprehension, our recent work has focused on the differences between reading print and digital media. While new forms of classroom technology like digital textbooks are more accessible and portable, it would be wrong to assume that students will automatically be better served by digital reading simply because they prefer it.

Speed – at a cost

Our work has revealed a significant discrepancy. Students said they preferred and performed better when reading on screens. But their actual performance tended to suffer.

For example, from our review of research done since 1992, we found that students were able to better comprehend information in print for texts that were more than a page in length. This appears to be related to the disruptive effect that scrolling has on comprehension. We were also surprised to learn that few researchers tested different levels of comprehension or documented reading time in their studies of printed and digital texts.

To explore these patterns further, we conducted three studies that explored college students’ ability to comprehend information on paper and from screens.

Students first rated their medium preferences. After reading two passages, one online and one in print, these students then completed three tasks: Describe the main idea of the texts, list key points covered in the readings and provide any other relevant content they could recall. When they were done, we asked them to judge their comprehension performance.

Across the studies, the texts differed in length, and we collected varying data (e.g., reading time). Nonetheless, some key findings emerged that shed new light on the differences between reading printed and digital content:

  • Students overwhelming preferred to read digitally.

  • Reading was significantly faster online than in print.

  • Students judged their comprehension as better online than in print.

  • Paradoxically, overall comprehension was better for print versus
    digital reading.

  • The medium didn’t matter for general questions (like understanding the main idea of the text).

  • But when it came to specific questions, comprehension was significantly better when participants read printed texts.

Placing print in perspective

From these findings, there are some lessons that can be conveyed to policymakers, teachers, parents and students about print’s place in an increasingly digital world.

1. Consider the purpose

We all read for many reasons. Sometimes we’re looking for an answer to a very specific question. Other times, we want to browse a newspaper for today’s headlines.

As we’re about to pick up an article or text in a printed or digital format, we should keep in mind why we’re reading. There’s likely to be a difference in which medium works best for which purpose.

In other words, there’s no “one medium fits all” approach.

2. Analyze the task

One of the most consistent findings from our research is that, for some tasks, medium doesn’t seem to matter. If all students are being asked to do is to understand and remember the big idea or gist of what they’re reading, there’s no benefit in selecting one medium over another.

But when the reading assignment demands more engagement or deeper comprehension, students may be better off reading print. Teachers could make students aware that their ability to comprehend the assignment may be influenced by the medium they choose. This awareness could lessen the discrepancy we witnessed in students’ judgments of their performance vis-à-vis how they actually performed.

3. Slow it down

In our third experiment, we were able to create meaningful profiles of college students based on the way they read and comprehended from printed and digital texts.

Among those profiles, we found a select group of undergraduates who actually comprehended better when they moved from print to digital. What distinguished this atypical group was that they actually read slower when the text was on the computer than when it was in a book. In other words, they didn’t take the ease of engaging with the digital text for granted. Using this select group as a model, students could possibly be taught or directed to fight the tendency to glide through online texts.

4. Something that can’t be measured

There may be economic and environmental reasons to go paperless. But there’s clearly something important that would be lost with print’s demise.

In our academic lives, we have books and articles that we regularly return to. The dog-eared pages of these treasured readings contain lines of text etched with questions or reflections. It’s difficult to imagine a similar level of engagement with a digital text. There should probably always be a place for print in students’ academic lives – no matter how technologically savvy they become.

Of course, we realize that the march toward online reading will continue unabated. And we don’t want to downplay the many conveniences of online texts, which include breadth and speed of access.

The ConversationRather, our goal is simply to remind today’s digital natives – and those who shape their educational experiences – that there are significant costs and consequences to discounting the printed word’s value for learning and academic development.

Patricia A. Alexander, Professor of Psychology, University of Maryland and Lauren M. Singer, Ph.D. Candidate in Educational Psychology, University of Maryland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

We, robot: the computer co-authoring a story with a human writer



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Leah Henrickson, Loughborough University

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.

Computer systems can be trained to mimic the language and sentence structure of particular writers.
Shutterstock

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 ConversationA video explaining the project is available here, in Dutch.

Leah Henrickson, PhD Candidate, Loughborough University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Nobel-winner Kazuo Ishiguro shows us the illusion of connection with the world


Jen Webb, University of Canberra

English author Kazuo Ishiguro has won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. For some weeks now, the bookies have been offering odds on the likely winner. Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was front runner earlier this week, followed closely by Japan’s Haruki Murakami. Ishiguro was some way down the list of favourites: a surprise win, no doubt, for the bookies, and one that is likely to generate plenty of discussions and debate.

The commentary about this year’s prize, though, is unlikely to run as hot as it did last year, following the bombshell announcement that Bob Dylan was the new Laureate. With Ishiguro, love him or not, we are unquestionably in the company of a noteworthy writer, one who has been widely honoured. He has been winning literary awards since 1982, when A Pale View of the Hills won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize.

Despite this record of success – or perhaps as an inevitable consequence of the current media climate — Ishiguro seems to have been caught unawares by the win. Not unlike Helen Garner’s first response to the email telling her she’d won the Windham-Campbell prize, he thought the announcement of the award was fake news.

This year’s award was based on Ishiguro’s contribution as a writer “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”. Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary to the Nobel Academy, added that he is “a writer of great integrity”, one who tackles those complex and enduring themes of “memory, time, and self-delusion”.

Ishiguro’s 1989 novel The Remains of the Day.
Goodreads

Personally, I’m delighted with the win. Ishiguro’s novels have helped give shape and texture to my life. An Artist of the Floating World (1986; winner of the Costa Book Award) and Remains of the Day (1989; Booker Prize winner) accompanied me through long insomniac nights. The uncertainty, barely-declared unhappiness and sense of dislocation found in both narrators fitted perfectly with my experience of being a stranger in a strange land. When We Were Orphans (2000), with its awkward misfit narrator and its haunting/haunted location, might be considered his least successful book, but I found all that unresolved guilt and unconfirmed identity both compelling and disturbing.

Never Let Me Go was named as Time Magazine’s Book of the Year in 2005. Its exquisite voice, and exquisitely painful dystopia, seemed to fit perfectly the mood of anxiety threading through that decade, one characterised by both late capitalism and the rapidly changing environment associated with the Anthropocene. And, most recently, The Buried Giant (2015) catapulted readers back to post-Arthurian Britain, weaving narrative threads from across history and treating enduring love and failing memory with equal compassion.

Ishiguro is often described as an author who writes across and between genres, moving from speculative fiction, to crime fiction, to social realism and fantasy. However I don’t find it instructive to pigeonhole his books into generic categories.

Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go.
Goodreads

If anything, his writing demonstrates the permeability of the rules of genre. His technical and literary capacity, along with his closely observed — and coldly if tenderly rendered portraits – locate his writing outside formulae or conventions. The worlds he creates, and the characters that people them, are startlingly authentic – an empty term that I don’t like to use, but which feels right in this context.

Alfred Nobel established the prize, in his will, as one that is designed to reward “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. “Ideal” is another of those empty terms, but it seems to me that a writer who has consistently tackled problems of ethical relationships, social responsibility, questions of memory, gaps in meaning and identity, and done it all with a light touch and deep empathy fits that bill.

The ConversationIshiguro’s characters are often hard to love, but easy to care for, and their struggles with “the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world” offer ways of seeing and thinking about what lies beneath our own feet.

Jen Webb, Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Nobel Prize in Literature 2017


The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to Kazuo Ishiguro. The link below is to an article reporting on the announcement.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/05/kazuo-ishiguro-wins-the-nobel-prize-in-literature