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.
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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.

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Take pity on forensic scientists – crime writers make their lives a nightmare 



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The truth is not always out there.
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Aliki Varvogli, University of Dundee

A blackmailer steals a compromising letter from a woman of high standing. The police know he is keeping this letter in his home, but they cannot find it. Using the latest forensic tools they search every inch of the apartment, recording their efforts as follows:

We examined the rungs of every chair …. and, indeed, the jointings of every description of furniture, by the aid of a most powerful microscope. Had there been any traces of recent disturbance we should not have failed to detect it instantly.

A single grain of gimlet-dust, for example, would have been as obvious as an apple. Any disorder in the glueing – any unusual gaping in the joints – would have sufficed to insure [sic] detection.

Back in 1844, this description of the police using a powerful microscope with the promise of instant detection would have dazzled readers of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter. Yet this is not what solves the mystery. Instead the private investigator, Auguste Dupin, correctly surmises that the best place to hide such a letter is in plain sight. He finds it on the blackmailer’s mantelpiece.

The story is one of the earliest and best examples of crime fiction. It suggests that science and technology are sometimes not as powerful as empathy or intuition in solving crimes. Indeed, Poe queries science throughout his writings. In one poem he calls it a vulture that preys on the poet’s heart, replacing the magic of a writer’s imagination with its “dull realities”.

Bloody good.

Try telling that to modern readers of crime fiction. These days, forensic scientists are one of the great staples of the genre. They are integral to everything from popular TV franchises like CSI and Line of Duty to blockbuster names like Patricia Cornwell and Jeffrey Deaver to many of the works showcasing at the Bloody Scotland festival in Stirling. There is also something about their incredible achievements that we often overlook: they are often a long way from the reality.

Criminal comforts

We love crime fiction because it is reassuring. Yes, human beings are capable of evil and cruel deeds, but criminals are always caught and usually punished. This formula, as WH Auden suggested in a 1948 essay on the genre, restores us to a “state of grace”. It helps us believe we are basically innocent and good, and that criminality is an aberration.

Forensic science amplifies this sense of comfort in crime fiction: it produces evidence that cannot lie; it brings the most cunning of criminals to justice. In a world with no god and no certainty, these fictional scientists fill a void. They let us think that our world can be examined, analysed and rendered legible. They are modern-day magicians whose wizardry reveals indisputable truths.

Val McDermid.
Fenris Oswin, CC BY-SA

But does forensic science really hold all the answers? Sadly, no. Val McDermid, one of the big names appearing at Bloody Scotland, is one of the few authors who help us understand this. In Out of Bounds (2016) for example, the police are trying to determine whether a man was murdered or shot himself.

The amount of gunshot residue in his hand is inconclusive, we learn, and not inconsistent with a self-inflicted wound. How can scientific evidence be inconclusive? How come scientists talk of things being “not inconsistent”, rather than dealing in certainties?

This is where the trouble begins for forensic experts. Imagine a scientist giving evidence as a witness in court and having to explain the limitations of their field. Jurors are unlikely to appreciate that forensic evidence often relies on human interpretation; that blood spatter patterns or bite mark analysis do not tell a single, compelling and unambiguous story the way they do in books.

Yet the reality of the uncertainty of forensic science was recently laid bare in relation to the DNA laboratory of the office of New York City’s chief medical examiner. Seen as one of the most sophisticated forensics labs in the world, carrying out work for investigators across the US, certain scientists are now claiming some of its methods are unreliable. A group of prominent New York defence lawyers is calling for the inspections watchdog to carry out an investigation.

Meanwhile, America’s National Institute of Standards and Technology recently accused the forensics industry of lagging other professions when it comes to looking into and resolving errors. It said:

In recent years, high visibility errors have occurred at crime labs in almost every state. These have ranged from simple mistakes, such as mislabelling evidence, to testimony that overstates the scientific evidence, to criminal acts.

In thrillers, forensic evidence almost always leads the investigative team to a satisfying conclusion. We never finish a novel thinking the killer might be exonerated when the evidence is re-examined. Even when all is as it should be, forensic scientists have their work cut out trying to communicate the complexity of the evidence, while explaining how it might be both subjective and reliable at the same time.

Not perfect.
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To make their case, scientists need much more than hard facts. They need to make their expertise accessible by using similes, metaphors and narrative examples. In fact, they need to be a little like novelists – which is ironic given that they have to dispel some of the misconceptions created by novelists in the first place.

The ConversationIf there is a consolation in any of this, these experts can at least thank novelists for their public image. No matter how hard they have to work to seek and communicate knowledge, at least forensic scientists will always look glamorous while doing so. They might be the victims of our need for reassurance and certainty, but we don’t tend to treat them with the same hostility as Edgar Allan Poe.

Aliki Varvogli, Senior Lecturer in English and Associate Dean for Learning and Teaching, University of Dundee

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

Should authors’ unfinished works be completed?



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Claire Squires, University of Stirling

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.

A scene from a fantasy novel? No. The hard drive was from the late author Sir Terry Pratchett’s computer, and it contained the files of, it is thought, 10 unfinished novels.

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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.

Raising Steam

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.

Unfinished work abounds in literary history, from Jane Austen’s Sanditon and Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood to F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Love of the Last Tycoon.

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.

Reaper Man

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.

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The ConversationAs 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.

Claire Squires, Professor in Publishing Studies, University of Stirling

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

Women writers’ work is getting lost in translation



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Dr Olga Castro, Aston University

Britain now has a record number of female MPs, more women are on company boards, and work is being done to encourage more women to take up science.

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.

Missing translations

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.

Readers are missing out on a valuable source of literature.
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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 ConversationThe 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.

Dr Olga Castro, Lecturer in Translation Studies, Aston University

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

Should writers be paid for their e-books lent by libraries?


Rita Matulionyte, University of Newcastle

When libraries lend books to the public, authors and publishers receive remuneration from the Government under the Lending Rights schemes, but this is not the case when libraries lend e-books. Is this fair?

This year, the government has distributed almost A$22 million under these Public Lending Rights and Educational Lending Rights Schemes. For each book in public library collections, creators receive $2.11 and publishers receive $0.52.

The amount that each claimant receives is often not very significant, with the majority of authors receiving between $100-500 annually. Still, a previous study has revealed that this remuneration constitutes the second most important source of income for creators from their creative work.

E-books, however, are not covered by these Lending Rights schemes. This may not be a big issue at the moment, since only 3.5% of library holdings are e-books and most publishers still release books both in print and e-book formats.

But e-book lending is increasing and, according to the Australian Library and Information Association, e-books are likely to reach 20% of library holdings by 2020. Also, most, if not all, self-published titles are done so in digital format only. Such self-published titles, if lent by libraries, would not qualify for any remuneration.

For this reason, authors and publishers have been lobbying the Government to extend the Lending Rights Schemes to e-books. Although the Book Industry Collaborative Council made such proposal already in a report of 2013, nothing has happened of yet.

One of the main reasons why e-books are not covered is that e-book lending is quite different from print book lending. In case of print books, authors and publishers are arguably losing on customers and revenues when libraries loan their books for free.

Creators only receive $2.11 and publishers receive $0.52 for each book in public library collections.
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At present, in the case of e-books, many publishers chose not to sell these books to libraries. Also, publishers assume that libraries will lend e-books to many readers so they often charge libraries three or more times the price that consumers are paying for the same e-books.

While publishers charge libraries high prices for e-books, writers complain that these amounts do not reach them. Publishing contracts often don’t specify whether and how much authors receive for e-books sales or for e-lending.

How other countries deal with this question

This year, a Public Lending Rights scheme was extended to e-books in Canada, with no payments for e-books yet. A few weeks ago, the Court of Justice of the European Union has confirmed that European Lending Rights scheme applies at least to certain e-lending models.

Government support for the publishing industry is declining, but Australian literature is vital for our culture and identity.
Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Should Australia follow the trend? Australia’s publishing industry, like the industry worldwide, has been in a decline for a number of years. Despite this, it is still our second largest creative industry and it is of no question that Australian literature is greatly important for local culture and identity.

Government support for this industry, however, has been declining over years. In addition, the Productivity Commission has recommended that the government eliminate the restrictions on parallel imports of books. If the government acts on this, it will likely reduce the income of Australian publishers and authors.

The Commission has suggested that the government replace parallel import restrictions with some other cultural support measures. However, in the current neo-liberal climate, with constant pressure to decrease public expenditure, it is unlikely that government will create additional schemes to support local writing.

One option could be the extension of Lending Rights schemes to e-books. However, extension alone would do little if the current funds under the schemes were merely re-distributed from books to e-books. For effects to be felt, there would need to be increased funding under the schemes.

The Conversation

Rita Matulionyte, Lecturer in Law, University of Newcastle

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

Political tracts: the good, the bad and the badly written


Christopher Kremmer, UNSW Australia

If it’s an election, you can bet that our cash-strapped publishing industry is preparing to unleash another volley of those hardy perennials known as the election campaign diaries. Penned by seasoned political observers who tail our leaders on their madcap journey to the ultimate opinion poll, you can expect several of these to be appearing soon in bookshops near you.

Political writing encompasses many different types of books. There are histories of governments, biographies and memoirs of politicians (John Howard’s 2013 Lazarus Rising), scholarly studies of the political process (Ian McAllister’s 2011 The Australian Voter: 50 years of change) and diaries.

This last category may be written by practitioners (The Latham Diaries (2005) and Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister (2014)) or observers, usually journalists, and of these, the election diary has been a growing niche.

For publishers, I suspect, not much thought goes into them. The logic is, “If we don’t publish a campaign book, someone else will. Let’s be proactive. Somebody call Laurie Oakes”.

The popularity of the campaign diary owes much to the prevalence of tragic intrigues and power plays in recent Australian politics. The opinion poll-driven cutting down of leaders by their colleagues, inextricably linked as it is to the election cycle, personalises political discourse, thereby accentuating the gladiatorial, or perhaps Shakespearean aspects of the campaigns that follow.

From the journalist’s point of view, it’s money for nothing. Keeping a diary is just another form of taking notes, very useful when checking your facts down the track. The advance will cover drinks and won’t need to be repaid if the thing doesn’t sell.

For the public, campaign diaries are a godsend for spouses and relatives of impossible-to-buy-for men who are expected to be (but aren’t) interested in that kind of thing. It’s a slightly upmarket version of getting Dad a pair of his favourite socks.

Within the sub-genre of campaign books there are a variety of approaches to telling us what happened, or analysing what it means, or both.

At one end of the spectrum lie books that discern and expand on a theme, like Christine Jackman’s 2008 Inside Kevin 07: The people, the plan, and to a lesser extent Barrie Cassidy’s The Party Thieves: The story of the 2010 election (2011). At the other end, lie documentary-style first person accounts like Mungo MacCallum’s The Mad Marathon: The story of the 2013 election (2013).

The irony of political books generally is that, while publishers are fixated on them, they are usually the first to be remaindered, a sure sign of having over-estimated the market.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his chronic intake of massive doses of dangerous drugs, the American “Gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson found politics compelling. But as he confessed in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973), most political reporting disappointed him.

The most consistent and ultimately damaging failure of political journalism in America has its roots in the clubby/cocktail personal relationships that inevitably develop between politicians and journalists – in Washington or anywhere else where they meet on a day-to-day basis. When professional antagonists become after-hours drinking buddies, they are not likely to turn each other in.

My sense is that we have less to fear on that front in Australia, where competition for stories between news organisations remains vigorous. When it comes to campaign diaries the problem is not timidity, but a lack of ambition when it comes to the writing itself.

Political journalists place great weight on the quality of their information, but are less prone to crafting beautiful sentences. Because their books are produced in a hurry, they fail generally to take full advantage of the techniques of Longform journalism. They also assume there is intense, widespread interest in election campaigns.

This is a courageous assumption that leads to an even more toxic presumption; that the significance of the outcome of an election necessarily makes every detail of the campaign gripping. Not so.

It is 40 years this year since Laurie Oakes published a quickie that is arguably the finest work of book-length narrative non-fiction ever written about Australian politics, Crash through or crash: The unmaking of a Prime Minister (1976).

As anniversaries go, this one is passing quietly, but amid the cacophony of a federal election campaign it’s worth noting. Crash was the third in a trilogy of books Oakes wrote about the rise and fall of Labor leader Gough Whitlam, who died in 2014.

Whitlam’s victory at the 1972 polls ended a 23-year drought for his party, and ushered in an era of unprecedented reform and upheaval in Australian politics which ended with his dismissal by the Governor-General. Oakes, who was already regarded by many as the country’s leading political journalist, published his book the following year. From its opening sentence there is a sense of a writer in full command of the literary form.

The study at Government House is an imposing room. The mushroom colored walls provide a suitably muted background for the Governor-General’s collection of aboriginal bark paintings and for a beaten copper plaque presented to him during an official visit to Papua New Guinea. There are bookshelves on two sides. One wall is dominated by a large window overlooking the spacious grounds and Lake Burley Griffen beyond. The window forms an alcove, furnished with comfortable lounge chairs upholstered in brown fabric, for informal conversation. At the end of the room furthest from the door there is a carved desk where Sir John Kerr conducts formal business.

There had been no shortage of tumultuous moments in Whitlam’s career. Any of them might have made an arresting opening for the book. But Oakes’ chose instead to set the scene by juxtaposing the stillness and quietude of the room against the savage political act that would take place there, when an Australian prime minister was trapped, deceived and disposed of by the unelected representative of our foreign head of state.

It is exactly the right place and moment to begin the book, as the journalist-author uses the authority of his material, and the research and reporting skills that gathered it, to best advantage.

Even Oakes doesn’t write books like this anymore. The reason? We are all in a terrible rush, and in our increasingly fast, complex world, we are taking refuge in commentary and opinion, as opposed to reporting and analysis.

It’s 13 years since another literary landmark. Don Watson’s erudite and majestic Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A portrait of Paul Keating PM (2002) set the bar for quality in political writing so high. But not all the quickies are bad.

Bob Ellis is an acquired taste, which many of us have never acquired, and I came to his book about the 2010 federal election Suddenly, Last Winter: An election diary (2010) with deep foreboding.

The rather lengthy author bio that precedes it informs readers that Lord Bob has written “twenty-one books, fifty-five screenplays, two hundred poems, five-hundred political speeches (including one for Kamahl), a hundred songs and two thousand film reviews”. But, hey, who’s counting? We’re into quality, right?

Okay, so he’s a character, and part of his character is a Promethean capacity for name dropping which does tend to intrude upon the job at hand, that is, writing about the election that pitted Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard against Tony Abbott.

9.40 a.m – A call from Denny Lawrence in New York. The play we co-wrote, Intimate Strangers, has just been given a public reading at the Vaudeville Theatre in London…

11.40 a.m. – A phone call from George Miller (for whom I’m writing spare dialogue in Fury Road) eager to know how Canberra was

4.40 p.m. I begin a journal-letter to John Ralston Saul (the world’s greatest thinker)…

Diaries, by their very nature, include much minutiae, such as when Ellis’s beloved northern beaches retreat is invaded by a bush turkey that knocks over chairs, plates, DVDs and bookshelves, “banging his fool head against closed windows, and with shrill cries beseeching whatever deity he worships to help him”.

But the book survives all its author’s efforts to ruin it, mainly due to a bravura 40-page preface, or as Lord Bob prefers to call it a “curtain-raiser” (written by a Hell-raiser), that hurls the reader into the world it describes.

Bob’s world is one in which politics still matters, and Australia is a country in which politics is still imbued with sectarian passion. However, those who practice politics as opposed to observing it are, shall we say, distracted, a “generation of drongos”, as Ellis describes them, “seizing their preselections and bringing us to ruin.”

A typical drongo leader may be

in make-up for the Today show at six-thirty. He may then be at a business breakfast attempting genial oratory at eight and at a Caucus meeting at nine-thirty for an hour of punitive admonition. His brain arrives at eleven, there’s a press conference at noon, a lunch with the President of Palau at twelve-thirty and Question Time at two…In all this he’s supposed to be running the country and he can’t…And so the roof-batts crisis occurs, and the climate change backflip, and the fight with the mining giants … None of these things he would have done had he been awake. And he hasn’t been awake for two years.

The above description is of Kevin Rudd, who is later characterised as “a cocksure twerp who deserved his downfall richly”. But the debilitating political culture it evokes hasn’t changed, except perhaps in degree.

Like Hunter Thompson, Ellis casts off the fetters that neuter most political reporters. The reader may not share the author’s view that the political rivalry between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott was “erotic”, but the observation is interesting.

Ellis reports, but from a subjective point of view that is at turns, lively, cranky, contentious, silly, surprising, but rarely dull. It’s the kind of writing that lasts, partly because it doesn’t report politics on the campaign’s own terms, but translates it into a conversation that the rest of us can participate in, get irritated by, and at times even enjoy.

When the dust had settled and the minority government was formed, Ellis surveyed the political landscape and found signs of life in the north.

I look forward especially to the ramshackle, whinnying rural-socialist manifestos of Bob Katter. Because I do admire this brilliant wayward white-hatted yodelling dingo-kelpie cross and his untamed, yelping twists of soul.

We get the politics we deserve, but not always writing about it of the quality we expect. Bob’s rude charm saves the campaign diary from itself, and his foibles at some point become endearing.

Always has it been so. Just ask our current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who as a university student once planned to write a political musical based on the life of the Depression era New South Wales Premier Jack Lang.

Bob recalls it well, as he himself (who else?) was involved. He even has a few surviving scraps of some of the songs, one of which features Hitler, as he reveals to Annabel Crabb in this year’s best quickie so far. Crabb’s Stop at Nothing: The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull showcases the journalist’s knack for the well-turned phrase. Take this, for example

Something is missing in Australia. It’s been missing since about 9.30 p.m. on 14 September 2015… It’s the sound of Malcolm Turnbull wanting to be prime minister.

Crabb has a fine ear for the quotable quotes of others too. Recalling his mother Coral’s decision to leave his father (and nine-year-old Malcolm) Turnbull suspects she “sort of got bored with the role.”

Elsewhere in the book, discussing the PM’s diverse pre-politics careers in journalism, law and business, Attorney-General George Brandis remarks that “Malcolm has more hinterland than any previous Australian prime minister”.

And referring to the strains between our current leader and his party, another supporter observes that,

Malcolm doesn’t always realise that in the Liberal Party, when somebody raises an eyebrow at you, it actually means something.

But the chatty spiel that makes Crabb such a successful communicator on television doesn’t always translate well to the page. A blow is “ghastly”, a family farm is “beautiful”, the loss of death of Turnbull’s father (whose affairs were “tangled”) “smashed him up” and the son’s subsequent decision to keep the farm was “crazy brave”. That’s just from page one, and the “adjectivitis” keeps resurfacing throughout the text and becomes very wearing.

Yet the book succeeds mightily, due mainly to the author’s bower-bird instincts, her deep interest in character and astute choice of subject. The reader of her book, and Paddy Manning’s Born to Rule (2015), will find themselves observing those TV images of Malcolm on the campaign trail through the lens of the stories told by these writers.

And they will worry that, win or lose, the current truce between Mr Turnbull and all the people he has offended along the way, including many in his own party, might be short-lived.

The Conversation

Christopher Kremmer, Senior Lecturer in Journalism, School of the Arts & Media, UNSW Australia

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

Authors, get thee to social media: explaining the rise and rise of YA books


Marcella Purnama, University of Melbourne and Mark Davis, University of Melbourne

Before JK Rowling, critics and experts predicted that young adult (YA) literature would finally die, as sales continued to decline. In 1997, a mere 3,000 YA books were published. A decade later that number was 30,000.

The success of Harry Potter changed everything. YA is now embraced by teenagers and adults alike – a 2012 Bowker Market Research study in the US found that 55 per cent of people buying YA books are over 18.

We’re currently living in the second golden age of YA literature. But why is there a sudden demand for these coming-of-age books?

Apart from the undeniable quality of the books themselves, a generation of online readers are creating new ways to discuss, dissect and celebrate their favourite stories. And it’s driving sales in a big way.

Take John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (2012). It reached #1 on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble bestseller lists six months before the book was published. It received thousands of five-star reviews, ranked by readers who hadn’t even held their copies.

The reason? Green told his fans – the Nerdfighters – on Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube, that he would personally sign the first print of the pre-ordered books. He ended up signing 150,000 of them, but a pain in the wrist was a small price to pay.

John Green isn’t the only author embracing social media to engage readers.

Amulet Books, in conjunction with Puffin UK, created the campaign “Uncover the Color” to promote the eighth book of the famous Diary of Wimpy Kid series in 2013. The campaign included interactive mini-games and trivia challenges, and was advertised in other children’s websites such as FunBrain.com and CartoonNetwork.com. It resulted in 1.3 million copies sold worldwide in the first week of the book’s launch.

In 2015, Harlequin Teen created a “digital oracle” on Twitter to promote the first book in Eleanor Herman’s new Greek-inspired series, Legacy of Kings. They invited readers to ask @HarlequinTeen on Twitter using hashtag #asklegacyofkings. The program responds with one of 100 statements from various gods, including Poseidon and Athena.

If content is king, to repeat that somewhat hackneyed and sexist Silicon Valley mantra, social media has undoubtedly become queen.

Should publishing be “more about culture than book sales”, as a recent article published in The Conversation has it? The point is moot. Publishing has always been about both culture and commerce.

Art and commerce has come together in a related trend: the resurgence of the middlebrow reader. Academic Beth Driscoll describes these readers as middle-class and aspirational, seeking emotional connections with book characters, other readers and authors.

In other words, reading has become more than ever an emotional, cultural and social act. YA readers are at the forefront of this: discussing books, connecting with other fans and tweeting to their favourite authors to ask about plot holes.

They create drawings, songs, poems and fan fictions to declare their love towards a certain book character (in late 2000s, the debate of the Twilight decade seemed to be: Are you Team Edward or Team Jacob? They dress in Gryffindor robes and bring their wands to bookshops to queue for J.K. Rowling’s final Potter book.

Fans pose with their copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Hannibal Hanschke.

This level of engagement has not been seen in readers of other genres, and increasingly it has an impact on the success of a book. A 2014 study of over 10,000 Facebook and Twitter posts proved that social media activity helps drive book sales.

Yet it’s not just the quantity of social media mentions that creates success, but their quality.

Recently, Marcella Purnama studied readers’ emotional engagement and its impact on the success of YA author John Green’s books, drawing on the Goodreads reviews of Green’s four books. The results showed that high levels of emotional engagement from readers correlated with better Goodreads ratings.

The more emotion readers show online, the more they interact with others about the books. And the more interaction, the greater the success of the books.

This creates a snowball effect, driven by high levels of social media engagement among YA readers, that has helped drive the growth of the category as a whole.

Sadly, some publishers and authors are still reluctant to use social media to market their books. Often publishers depend on booksellers and authors to connect directly with the readers, while authors hope that the publishers’ expertise and connections will increase book sales.

Readers are eager to share their reading experience. They share their latest reads on Facebook, write reviews on their blogs and actively find fan communities to talk about their favourite characters.

The books that rise to the top will be the books with the most engaged readers. And it’s up to publishers and authors to keep the fire going.

The Conversation

Marcella Purnama, Masters Candidate in Publishing and Communications, University of Melbourne and Mark Davis, Lecturer in Publishing and Communications, University of Melbourne, University of Melbourne

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

Software for Authors


The links below are to articles that look at the best software for authors.

For more visit:
http://www.indiesunlimited.com/2015/11/05/which-software-program-is-best-for-authors-part-1/
http://www.indiesunlimited.com/2015/11/12/which-software-is-best-for-authors-part-2/

My struggle is yours: why failure is the new literary success


Alexandra Smith, University of Sydney

What happens when novelists actively incorporate the idea of failure in their books?

We generally understand failure as a negative attribute, particularly when looking at politics, the economy – and, yes, art. As individuals, we are driven by thoughts of success and achievement, so it makes sense that failure might make us feel slightly uneasy.

Turning that unease into something aesthetically pleasing is no mean feat, and yet, that’s where we are with the work of several well-known contemporary authors.

Failing to speak

In 2007, British novelist Tom McCarthy, with philosopher Simon Critchley, issued what they called a Joint Statement of Inauthenticity, in which they argued that:

the essence of poetry is […] of trying (and failing) to speak about the thing itself and not just ideas about the thing.

While this might not seem to relate to the novel, what they were setting up there was a relationship between “trying to speak” and “failing to speak”.

One of the pervading motifs in McCarthy’s novels is an emphasis on some form of failure. In his first novel, Remainder (2005), the narrator tries, and fails, to reenact a moment of perfection.

In Men in Space (2007), McCarthy’s character Ivan Manasek forges a stolen Byzantine painting in an attempt to perfectly recreate the original object. In McCarthy’s most recent novel, Satin Island (2015), the narrator, U, is tasked with writing The Great Report of our age.

Long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, this novel is, at its core, about the failure to write. The Great Report’s essential function is one of identification, one that “name[s] what’s taking place right now”.

U’s boss, Peyman, asks him to “[s]peak its secret name”. For U, this is rather like trying to name “Rumpelstilskin”, but it seems that McCarthy is directly engaging with the enduring aim of poetry to “speak to the thing”, even if he fails.

Trying and struggling

We don’t always feel pleased with artistic expressions of failure. In an article in June for the London Review of Books, American poet and novelist Ben Lerner suggested that the reason that we might “dislike or despise or hate poems” is because, in some way, “they are – every single one of them – failures”.

In Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), the narrator, Adam, is obsessed with artistic and linguistic failures because they allow him to experience an almost transcendent ambiguity. While in 10:04 (2014), the narrator, Ben, often addresses the second person – “You have failed to reconcile the realism of my body with the ethereality of the trees” – despite never being heard.

For Lerner, the “you” occupies “a collective person who didn’t yet exist, a still-uninhabited second person plural to whom all the arts, even in their most intimate registers, were nevertheless addressed” – or, in other words, an audience that he will always fail to reach.

But it is Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-part literary project, My Struggle, that is perhaps the most overt example of such an attention to failure. It offers a prosaic, not poetic, assessment of failure.

Indeed, it is a project that strives deliberately towards constructing “real” experience. In framing the work as a novel, Knausgaard has claimed that he was able to “use [him]self as a kind of raw material,” enacting “an existential search” of the self.

The “struggle” suggested in the title references, in part, the struggle to write without shame to create something of value.

An Eastern perspective

Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai won the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. His most recent novel, Seiobo There Below (2013), introduces the reader to failure in slightly different terms, through the aesthetic of wabi-sabi.

Rooted in ancient Japanese tea ceremonies from the 15th century, wabi-sabi recognises beauty in imperfection, impermanence, and incompletion. To a Western eye, beauty is often equated with perfection, but for Krasznahorkai, fleeting moments are established as beautiful even if they go on to decay.

The novel’s first vignette describes the magnificent beauty of a white heron hunting, in contrast to industrial Kyoto.

But it is wabi-sabi’s focus on “the now” that makes it interesting when thinking about contemporary writing. What might be expected from a novel that reflects on its own inability to say things successfully? Or, more pressingly, that constructs failure as an aesthetically-pleasing subject?

By focusing on failure, contemporary novelists might find they can wield surprisingly equal critical, ethical, political, and aesthetic power.

Perhaps failure is not so bad after all.

The Conversation

Alexandra Smith is Sessional Lecturer and Tutor in English Literature and Rhetoric at University of Sydney

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