The link below is to an article that takes a look at the writer Nelson Algren.
There’s no question that Michael Jackson changed music history. But how will history remember Michael Jackson?
Since HBO released the new documentary film “Leaving Neverland,” which detailed allegations by two adults who say that they were molested by Jackson as children, the musician’s legacy – already complicated – is up in the air.
But there are other alleged child abusers who have died and whose works, once considered great, have faded into obscurity, in no small part because it is almost impossible to memorialize them without creating the impression of condoning their behavior.
The writer Norman Douglas is a prime example. The subject of a biography I’m working on, Douglas had a reputation for molesting children. After his death, he became an off-limits topic for biographers, and while he had his defenders, he ultimately couldn’t escape historical erasure.
Rumors do little to dim a budding star
During the first half of the 20th century, Norman Douglas was a literary star. Friends with Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley, he was best known for his bestselling 1917 novel “South Wind.”
Virginia Woolf sang its praises in the Times Literary Supplement. Graham Greene recalled how his generation “was brought up on South Wind.” When the hero of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” arrives at Oxford after World War I, he brings with him only two novels, “South Wind” and Compton Mackenzie’s “Sinister Street.”
But today Douglas is entirely forgotten.
The reasons why artists’ works go forgotten vary. In Douglas’ case, it’s fair to say that his erudite writing style went out of fashion.
But there’s more to the story. During his lifetime, Douglas was notorious for his relationships with children. In 1912, he lived with a 14-year-old boy in London while he was working at The English Review. Four years later, he was arrested in London for acts of gross indecency with a 16-year-old. After his release on bail, Douglas fled to Italy, where laws regulating sex between men and boys were more lax. He settled in Florence, where his celebrity only grew.
Visitors to the city, like Huxley and Lawrence, would seek him out in the city’s cafés. The radical journalist and heiress Nancy Cunard, who met Douglas in Florence in 1923 and became a close friend, recalled the “aureole of legend” that surrounded him.
Douglas was always attended to by Italian boys who worked for him as messengers or cooks, and endless rumors circulated about Douglas’ relationships with these boys. A diary entry written by a friend of Douglas’ described how Douglas performed fellatio on a boy named Marcello. Brothers Sacheverell and Osbert Sitwell warned Cunard that Douglas was dangerous. D.H. Lawrence’s widow, Frieda, told her friend Dudley Nichols that Douglas was “the only wicked man I have known, in a medieval sense.”
Britain’s strict libel laws, the norms of politeness and the power of Douglas’ celebrity seemed to prevent people from writing publicly about his sexual relationships with boys while he was alive.
But you can’t libel the dead.
When Douglas died in 1952, debate about his memory erupted in the press. The first signs of the battle to come appeared in the obituaries. British diplomat Harold Nicolson noted Douglas’ shocking “indulgences” in a death notice for The Spectator.
Nicolson’s article prompted 50 or 60 letters of protest from Douglas’ friends, but there was no holding back the tide. In 1954, Douglas’
former friend Richard Aldington published a book of vicious recollections about the writer titled “Pinorman,” a portmanteau of Norman and his friend Pino Orioli. Aldington didn’t mince words. He called Douglas a pederast whose path in life was “strewn with broken boys and empty bottles.”
Douglas’ friends were outraged. Cunard wrote to Aldington’s publisher accusing him of libel and threatening to wage a “collective protest.” She rallied Douglas’ friends to lambaste the book in reviews. Her own review for the periodical Time and Tide was titled “Bonbons of Gall.” Graham Greene wrote to a friend that he intended to “kill” Aldington’s book, and he penned a review for The London Magazine that was so incendiary it could not be published for fear of libel charges from Aldington, who was very much alive.
Greene maliciously sent Aldington the review and asked for permission to publish it. Naturally, Aldington refused and reached out to friends for help putting together a pamphlet attacking Douglas’ defenders. Frieda Lawrence contributed a story about how Douglas once casually offered her a boy of 14, saying that he preferred them younger. But the pamphlet was so intemperate that a lawyer said it would run afoul of the libel laws and could not be published.
The danger of choosing to forget?
Aldington was forced to retreat. With “Pinorman” disparaged by its reviewers, Aldington was discredited. It seemed that Douglas’ friends had won the battle.
But Aldington won the war. The truth was out there, and Douglas’ reputation was permanently injured.
In the decades that followed many would-be biographers tried their hand at writing Douglas’ story; time and again they failed. Douglas simply could not be remembered as a great writer in the face of the allegations against him. Only one comprehensive biography, titled “Norman Douglas,” has ever been published about him. It came out in 1976, during a rare moment of sexual openness; even so, the publisher almost nixed the manuscript after 10 years of work by its author, Mark Holloway.
Today Douglas is a forgotten writer. When the truth about his sexual relations with children was fully exposed after his death he became an impossible figure to memorialize.
Over time, it’s likely that Michael Jackson’s memory will be similarly eroded. The television show “The Simpsons” has already pulled its 1991 episode featuring Jackson. His name will likely be taken down from public monuments. People will be hesitant to produce new versions of his music. His influence will live on, but it will be difficult to commemorate his work.
Perhaps that is for the best. But maybe it isn’t.
Reluctance to preserve the memory of the extensive history of sex between adults and children leaves society ill-equipped to recognize and handle child sexual abuse today. A culture that is caught up in narratives that identify pedophiles as monsters has a hard time recognizing when beloved figures, like Michael Jackson, are molesting children right before its eyes.
There is need for history to remember abusers and to remember them in all their complexity. If Jackson’s memory is preserved, maybe it will be easier to see the present more clearly.
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
In April 1941, just a few short years after Superman came swooping out of the Manhattan skies, Miss Fury – originally known as Black Fury – became the first major female superhero to go to print. She beat Charles Moulton Marsden’s Wonder Woman to the page by more than six months. More significantly, Miss Fury was the first female superhero to be written and drawn by a woman, Tarpé Mills.
Miss Fury’s creator – whose real name was June – shared much of the gritty ingenuity of her superheroine. Like other female artists of the Golden Age, Mills was obliged to make her name in comics by disguising her gender. As she later told the New York Post, “It would have been a major let-down to the kids if they found out that the author of such virile and awesome characters was a gal.”
Yet, this trailblazing illustrator, squeezed out of the comic world amid a post-WW2 backlash against unconventional images of femininity and a 1950s climate of heightened censorship, has been largely excluded from the pantheon of comic greats – until now.
Comics then and now tend to feature weak-kneed female characters who seem to exist for the sole purpose of being saved by a male hero – or, worse still, are “fridged”, a contemporary comic book colloquialism that refers to the gruesome slaying of an undeveloped female character to deepen the hero’s motivation and propel him on his journey.
But Mills believed there was room in comics for a different kind of female character, one who was able, level-headed and capable, mingling tough-minded complexity with Mills’ own taste for risqué behaviour and haute couture gowns.
Where Wonder Woman’s powers are “marvellous” – that is, not real or attainable – Miss Fury and her alter ego Marla Drake use their collective brains, resourcefulness and the odd stiletto heel in the face to bring the villains to justice.
And for a time they were wildly successful.
Miss Fury ran a full decade from April 1941 to December 1951, was syndicated in 100 different newspapers at the height of her wartime fame, and sold a million copies an issue in reprints released by Timely (now Marvel) comics.
Pilots flew bomber planes with Miss Fury painted on the fuselage. Young girls played with paper doll cut outs featuring her extensive high fashion wardrobe.
An anarchic, ‘gender flipped’ universe
Miss Fury’s “origin story” offers its own coolly ironic commentary on the masculine conventions of the comic genre.
One night a girl called Marla Drake finds out that her friend Carol is wearing an identical gown to a masquerade party. So, at the behest of her maid Francine, she dons a skin tight black cat suit that – in an imperial twist, typical of the period – was once worn as a ceremonial robe by a witch doctor in Africa.
On the way to the ball, Marla takes on a gun-toting killer, using her cat claws, stiletto heels, and – hilariously – a puff of powder blown from her makeup compact to disarm the villain. She leaves him trussed up with a hapless and unconscious police detective by the side of the road.
Miss Fury could fly a fighter plane when she had to, jumping out in a parachute dressed in a red satin ball gown and matching shoes. She was also a crack shot.
This was an anarchic, gender flipped, comic book universe in which the protagonist and principle antagonists were women, and in which the supposed tools of patriarchy – high heels, makeup and mermaid bottom ball gowns – were turned against the system. Arch nemesis Erica Von Kampf – a sultry vamp who hides a swastika-branded forehead behind a v-shaped blond fringe – also displayed amazing enterprise in her criminal antics.
Invariably the male characters required saving from the crime gangs, the Nazis or merely from themselves. Among the most ingenious panels in the strip were the ones devoted to hapless lovelorn men, endowed with the kind of “thought bubbles” commonly found hovering above the heads of angsty heroines in romance comics.
By contrast, the female characters possessed a gritty ingenuity inspired by Noir as much as by the changed reality of women’s wartime lives. Half way through the series, Marla got a job, and – astonishingly, for a Sunday comic supplement – became a single mother, adopting the son of her arch nemesis, wrestling with snarling dogs and chains to save the toddler from a deadly experiment.
Mills claims to have modelled Miss Fury on herself. She even named Marla’s cat Peri-Purr after her own beloved Persian pet. Born in Brooklyn in 1918, Mills grew up in a house headed by a single widowed mother, who supported the family by working in a beauty parlour. Mills worked her way through New York’s Pratt Institute by working as a model and fashion illustrator.
In the end, ironically, it was Miss Fury’s high fashion wardrobe that became a major source of controversy.
In 1947, no less than 37 newspapers declined to run a panel that featured one of Mills’ tough-minded heroines, Era – a South American Nazi-Fighter who became a post-war nightclub entertainer – dressed as Eve, replete with snake and apple, in a spangled, two-piece costume.
This was not the only time the comic strip was censored. Earlier in the decade, Timely comics had refused to run a picture of the villainess Erica resplendent in her bath – surrounded by pink flamingo wallpaper.
But so many frilly negligées, cat fights, and shower scenes had escaped the censor’s eye. It’s not a leap to speculate that behind the ban lay the post-war backlash against powerful and unconventional women.
In wartime, nations had relied on women to fill the production jobs that men had left behind. Just as “Rosie the Riveter” encouraged women to get to work with the slogan “We Can Do It!”, so too the comparative absence of men opened up room for less conventional images of women in the comics.
Once the war was over, women lost their jobs to returning servicemen. Comic creators were no longer encouraged to show women as independent or decisive. Politicians and psychologists attributed juvenile delinquency to the rise of unconventional comic book heroines and by 1954 the Comics Code Authority was policing the representation of women in comics, in line with increasingly conservative ideologies. In the 1950s, female action comics gave way to romance ones, featuring heroines who once again placed men at the centre of their existence.
Miss Fury was dropped from circulation in December 1951, and despite a handful of attempted comebacks, Mills and her anarchic creation slipped from public view.
Mills continued to work as a commercial illustrator on the fringes of a booming advertising industry. In 1971, she turned a hand to romance comics, penning a seven-page story that was published by Marvel, but it wasn’t her forte. In 1979, she began work on a graphic novel Albino Jo, which remains unfinished.
Despite her chronic asthma, Mills – like the reckless Noir heroine she so resembled – chain-smoked to the bitter end. She died of emphysema on December 12, 1988, and is buried in New Jersey under the simple inscription, “Creator of Miss Fury”.
This year Mills’ work will be belatedly recognised. As a recipient of the 2019 Eisner Award, she will finally take her place in the Comics Hall of Fame, alongside the male creators of the Golden Age who have too long dominated the history of the genre. Hopefully this will bring her comic creation the kind of notoriety, readership and big screen adventures she thoroughly deserves.
When the author Richard Flanagan described Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian asylum seeker currently held on Manus Island, as “a great Australian writer”, he turned tired cliché into a pointed question: what makes an “Australian” writer?
Flanagan was writing in the foreword to Boochani’s startling book No Friend But the Mountains (Picador), which last night won the $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature, the richest of its kind in Australia. Boochani also claimed the award for non-fiction, worth another $25,000.
This triumph cements Boochani’s status as an Australian writer.
Boochani was arguably the most important literary phenomenon in Australian literature in 2018. In part, this is because of the distinctive qualities of No Friend But the Mountains, an epic work that moves between verse and prose, reportage and fantasy, the mundane and the historical. The fact that Boochani’s political memoir of what he calls Manus Prison was ever published in book form defies the odds.
A journalist and experimental documentary maker, Boochani wrote the book as text messages on his mobile phone, sending them, sometimes through several intermediaries, to the academic Omid Tofighian for translation into English.
Indeed, beyond the recognition of Boochani’s book as a singular achievement in its own right, its success this week highlights recent intersections of human rights activism and the vocal political position-taking of the Australian literary community.
The publication of No Friend But the Mountains was accompanied by numerous public events, such as one at the Greek Centre in Melbourne in October 2018, where the conditions detailed in the book were discussed and protested, and Boochani participated via Skype. The same month, A “National Day of Action” organised by Academics for Refugees featured public “read-ins” of the book on university campuses nationwide.
Other Australian authors have also used their voices to bring attention to the plight of asylum seekers. During her acceptance speech for her second Miles Franklin Award in August 2018, Michelle de Kretser chastised politicians for their treatment of refugees on Nauru and Manus Island. To illustrate her point, she read a list of names of asylum seekers who have died there in the past five years.
It is tempting to dismiss such actions as gesture politics by an urban elite. But each individual action has served to raise awareness of the Australian government’s policy of “offshore processing” for asylum seekers, and to fuse artistic expression with political activism in a particularly forceful manner.
At the same time, and perhaps uniquely in the history of Australian literature, No Friend has seen the translation of human rights awards into convertible cultural capital in the literary field. The author has been awarded the Anna Politkovskaya Award, the Amnesty International Award and Liberty Victoria’s Empty Chair Award. These humanitarian awards have confirmed Boochani’s rapidly acquired high profile in the literary field.
Last night’s news topped all of that to make Boochani the first “non-Australian” author to win the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. The Victorian government established these awards in 1985 to honour Australian writing. The specific challenge this poses to the definition of “Australian writing” can be seen as an intervention by the literary community into the field of politics. If a non-citizen who has never set foot on mainland Australia can win, who counts as an Australian author?
Ironically, perhaps, Boochani’s success simply mirrors some of the prevailing trends in Australian authorship in an age of global literary circulation, which allow writers to transcend national borders. An example of this phenomenon is Nam Le who rose to fame with the publication of his very successful The Boat. This collection of short stories, informed by the author’s diasporic identity and upbringing in Australia, soon earned him over a dozen major literary awards in Australia, the United States and Europe.
Conversely, Boochani’s status on Manus Island has been defined by deterrence, indefinite detention and the spectre of refoulement. The narrative of this experience is one that he seeks to address directly to the Australian people from beyond Australia’s borders.
With no clear solution to the indefinite detention of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru in sight, the paradox of Boochani’s award success can only contribute further to public debate over the tangled logic of indefinite detention. It shows how cultural practices and political activism can be reconfigured to correspond with the newly created literary currency associated with refugee writing. For now, at least, Boochani is an “Australian writer” because Australia is morally implicated in what he wrote and how he wrote it.
Who makes the money in publishing? Nobody. This often repeated dark joke highlights a serious issue. The most recent figures show that Australian authors earn just $12,900 a year from writing work (the median, at $2,800, was even worse). Indeed, authors can gross less than $5,000 for Miles Franklin-nominated titles that took two or more years to write.
Fixing this isn’t as simple as reaching more deeply into publisher pockets, because most of those are empty too. While the major international houses are thriving (Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House recently reported 16% profits), publishing Australian stories can be financially perilous.
In independent publishing, 10% of the book sale goes to the author, perhaps another 10% to the printer, and up to a whopping 70% for distribution. What’s left has to pay the publisher, editor, marketers, admin staff and keep the lights on.
But we can improve our approach to author rights. Here are five lessons we can learn from elsewhere to help Australian writers earn more money.
#1: Give authors stronger out of print rights
Traditionally, contractual “out of print” clauses have let authors reclaim their rights when a print run has sold out and the publisher doesn’t want to invest in another. But in our recent analysis of almost 150 contracts in the Australian Society of Authors archive, we found 85% of contracts with these clauses allowed authors to reclaim their rights only when the book was “not available in any edition”.
These days, books can be kept available (at least digitally or via print-on-demand) forever – but that doesn’t mean their publishers are still actively promoting them.
A better approach is to allow authors to reclaim their rights towards the end of a work’s commercial life, determined with reference to objective criteria like the number of copies sold or royalties earned in the previous year. The Australian Society of Authors recommends authors only sign contracts that have this meaningful kind of out-of-print clause – but many publishers still try to get authors to sign up to unacceptable terms.
A growing number of countries (including France, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Macedonia and Brazil mandate author rights based on objective criteria. The French law is an interesting model. There, authors can get their rights back if a book has been published for at least four years, and they haven’t been credited royalties for at least two. This opens up new possibilities for the author to license it to another publisher, or even sell it directly to libraries or consumers.
#2: ‘Use it or lose it’: return author rights when they’re not being used
Publishers take very broad rights to most books: in our recent archival analysis we found 83% took worldwide rights, and 43% took rights in all languages. It’s easy to take rights – but if publishers do so, they should be obliged to either use them or give them back.
To that end we can learn from the “use it or lose it” laws that bind publishers in some parts of Europe. In Spain and Lithuania, for example, authors can get their rights back for languages that are still unexploited after five years.
#3: Introduce a ‘bestseller’ clause to contracts
Of course, it’s not always the case that there’s no money in publishing: sometimes a title that was expected to sell 5,000 copies sells 5,000,000. That changes the economics enormously: but in many cases, the contract only provides the same old 10% revenue for the author. For works that achieve unexpected success, we can learn from Germany and the Netherlands (and the proposed new EU copyright law). They have “bestseller” clauses that give authors the right to share fairly in unexpected windfalls arising from their work.
#4: Legally enshrine the right to fair payment
Even where there’s not much money to be made, the author should still receive a fair share. Again, Germany and the Netherlands lead the way on this. There, authors are entitled to “fair” or “equitable” payment for their work – and can enforce those rights if their pay is too low.
These laws don’t set a dollar amount, since what is “fair” depends on all the circumstances. However, such laws at least provide a minimum floor. If the contracted amount is unfair or inequitable, authors have a legal right to redress.
#5: Put time limits on transfers
In Australia, copyright lasts for the life of the author, and then another 70 years after that. Publishers almost always take rights for that full term – only 3% of the contracts between publishers and authors we looked at took less. But publishers don’t need that long to recoup their investments. In the US, authors can reclaim their rights from intermediaries 35 years after they licensed or transferred them.
In Canada, copyrights transfer automatically to heirs 25 years after an author dies. We used to have the same law in Australia, but it was abolished for spurious reasons about 50 years ago. If we reintroduced a similar time limit on transfers, it would open up new opportunities for authors and their heirs (for example, to license or sell to a different publisher, libraries or direct to the public).
It’s true that there’s often not much money in publishing. But by changing our approach to author rights, we can help writers earn more and make Australian books more freely available.
The French writer Colette was indifferent and even hostile to the feminist movement in the early 1900s. But both her writing and the way she lived her life represent a vibrant and radical feminism in tune with the #MeToo spirit of today.
Born in rural Burgundy in 1873, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette (the abbreviated pen name came later) belonged to a middle class but unorthodox family. Raised by a mother who was as sceptical of religion as she was of bourgeois respectability, she was 20 when she married Henri Gauthiers-Villars (“Willy”), the 33-year-old charming but dissolute writer son of a family friend.
The marriage was both a good and a bad move for Colette. Willy introduced her to the rich Bohemian culture of the Parisian demimonde, and launched her career by insisting (despite her reluctance) that she write down memories of her schooldays.
But his serial infidelities distressed and depressed her. And as an unscrupulous literary entrepreneur, Willy cheerfully sold his wife’s semi-autobiographical “Claudine” novels under his own name.
The stories of a spirited, tomboyish heroine rapidly became a publishing sensation, with profitable sales of related merchandise including Claudine cigarette holders. But the profits were all Willy’s.
When, in her early 30s, Colette decided to leave the marriage, she had to find a way to support herself. Energetic and resourceful, she began to publish under her own name and took classes in dance and mime. She trained in the gym and went on stage, becoming the only great French author (to my knowledge) to have alternated writing with dancing semi-nude on stages all over France.
She combined her careers, writing both fiction and non-fiction set behind the scenes of the music hall, giving a voice to the underpaid women performers who featured so often from a male perspective in paintings and novels of the time. She also began a passionate affair with a cross-dressing lesbian aristocrat, Missy, and scandalised the nation by sharing a passionate kiss with her on stage.
Director Wash Westmoreland’s recent film about Colette takes us to this point in her colourful career. She would go on to write prolifically as a journalist, novelist, essayist and innovator in the blended genre of “autofiction”.
She would nurse in World War I, marry twice more, bear a daughter at the age of 40, bolster her flagging finances by opening a beauty parlour – and finally become, for the French, “our great Colette”. But a whiff of scandal was still attached to her name, and acceptance of her as a great writer was slow.
The Catholic Church even refused to grant her a religious funeral (although she would have agreed with the Church, for religion formed no part of her passionate love of life.)
Sex and sensuality
Westmoreland’s film, starring the British actor Keira Knightley, shines a deserved spotlight on an important feminist figure. From the Claudine series on, Colette gives us a serenely irreverent perspective on a patriarchal culture.
She reverses the gaze of heterosexual desire to provide sensual, detailed descriptions of male bodies, and writes with equal sensuality and precision of same-sex desire. She writes movingly of romantic love and motherhood but insists, in her novel Break of Day that both are also peripheral to a woman’s life:
Once we’ve left them both behind, we find that all the rest is gay and varied, and that there is plenty of it.
In life, as in writing, she places female friendship centre-stage, sometimes subverting the eternal triangle by making its primary focus the relationship between a man’s wife and his mistress. She often published in women’s magazines, right up to her death in 1954 (Elle serialised her final books), and wrote comically and caustically of trying to make her own robust, food-loving body fit into the willowy fashions of the inter-war years.
In a very public life, as in her fiction, she exemplified financial and social independence and shame-free sexuality – what we would now call “gender fluidity”. She possessed a generous optimism that went against the grain of the angst and despondency which characterised so much male literature of the 20th century.
She remained, throughout, a popular writer. An author read for pleasure, for the sensuality of her prose, the dry note of humour that peppers her eloquence, the lightness of touch that means her seriousness is never heavy or self-important.
One of France’s greatest – and certainly most unconventional – writers, she has been translated – often brilliantly – into other languages. Her appearance on cinema screens should bring her even more readers.
Have you ever thought you might have what it takes to be a writer? The link below is to an article that looks at traits that may indicate that you have what it takes.
In Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, a collection of nine short stories about robotics, Asimov explores the possibilities of human-computer interaction. How can humans and computers co-exist? How can they work together to make a better world?
A research group from the Meertens Instituut in Amsterdam and the Antwerp Centre for Digital Humanities and Literary Criticism recently introduced a new digital creative writing system. Using a graphical interface, an author drafts a text sentence by sentence. Then, the system proposes its own sentences to continue the story. The human and the computer work together to create what the system’s developers call “synthetic literature”.
The paper detailing this project describes the text generation system as an attempt to:
Create a stimulating environment that fosters co-creation: ideally, the machine should output valuable suggestions, to which the author retains a significant stake within the creative process.
How to train your robot
To learn language and sentence structure, the system has been trained using the texts of 10,000 Dutch-language e-books. Additionally, the system was trained to mimic the literary styles of such renowned authors as Asimov and Dutch science fiction author Ronald Giphart by generating sentences that use similar words, phrases, and sentence structures as these authors.
As part of this year’s annual Nederland Leest (The Netherlands Reads) festival, Giphart has been trialling the co-creative writing system to write a tenth I, Robot story. Once Giphart’s story is completed it will be published at the end of a new Dutch edition of Asimov’s classic text. Throughout November, participating libraries throughout the Netherlands will be offering free copies of this edition to visitors to get people thinking about this year’s festival theme: Nederland Leest de Toekomst (The Netherlands Reads the Future).
As Giphart types new sentences into the system’s graphical interface, the system responds by generating a selection of sentences that could be used to continue the story. Giphart can select any of these sentences, or ignore the system’s recommendations altogether.
The point of the system, its developers explain, is to “provoke the human writer in the process of writing”. Giphart says he still considers himself “the boss, but [the system] does the work”. One article even described the system as being ideal “for those who have literary aspirations, but who lack talent”.
Can a computer be creative?
The “synthetic literature” referred to by this system’s developers implies a combined production effort of both human and computer. Of course, the human still guides production. As co-developer Folgert Karsdorp explained: “You have numerous buttons to make your own mix. If you want to mix Giphart and Asimov, you can do that too.” The system follows its user’s direction, responding by using its own capacity for creativity.
But can a computer ever be truly creative? This is a question that the field of computational creativity has been studying since computers were invented. The field generally accepts that a computer can be called creative if its output would be considered creative had it been produced by a human.
Computational creativity debates are all rooted in one underlying question: is the computer merely a tool for human creativity, or could it be considered a creative agent itself? In a discussion about computer-generated art, creativity scholar Margaret Boden noted that:
It is the computer artist [the developer] who decides what input a system will respond to, how the system will respond, how unpredictable the system’s output will be, and how transparent the system’s functionality will be to users.
Even the most unpredictable output, according to Boden, results from choices the computer artist has made. While a developer may not be able to predict a system’s exact output, the output nevertheless reflects the choices the developer has made while programming.
The co-creative writing system Giphart is using isn’t able to produce an entire book by itself, but it can produce paragraphs that continue Giphart’s story for him. Giphart, though, ultimately has the power to choose what computer output he uses.
But does this mean that Giphart alone will be credited as the author of his Ik, robot story, or will his computer be given credit as a co-author? It’s still unclear. Although it could be hotly debated whether the creative writing system is just a tool for Giphart’s vision or could be considered an agent itself, we won’t be seeing the demise of human authors any time soon.
One Nederland Leest blog post compares this new method of writing to the evolution of the electric guitar. It may have existed for nearly a century, but it wasn’t until Jimi Hendrix showed us how to really play the instrument that its potential was realised. Similarly, we still need to discover how to “play” this writing system to get the best results, whatever they might be.
So is synthetic literature the future? Maybe. Keep reading to find out.
A video explaining the project is available here, in Dutch.
I am Norma Dunning. I am a beneficiary of Nunavut; my ancestral ties lie in the village of Whale Cove. I have never been there. My folks left the North shortly before my birth. I am southern Inuk, born and raised.
I am a writer. I have always been a writer. I would dream of publishing my writing, but it was easier and safer not to. I kept all of it in a drawer. I would think about publishing, and then I would think about the process of publishing. As an Indigenous, female writer I didn’t want to take it. I didn’t want to take the criticism.
I didn’t want to take the reworking of my words into a form that is standard Western format, or into the practices that are expected and accepted within literary work. I know that I do not write in the ways that most non-Indigenous writers do. I didn’t want my work re-colonized.
I have a small reputation of being a poet, and my poetry manuscript is usually rejected twice a year. Over the last seven years, I am often invited to read my poetry at various local events. I am very honoured to have been asked, but I am the poet who shows up without her book of published poems. I am the poet with her work attached to a clipboard. I am surprised that my first published work, Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, is a book of short stories. There’s irony in that.
Inuit peoples live in two worlds
Writing for me is not a hobby. Writing is a part of my being, a part of daily living. It is for me what breathing is for others. It is physical in that if I am not creating a story or a poem, I do not feel well. I know that of myself. It is spiritual and emotional. Producing the written word is the only place where I can be who I am, without expectations, without criticism and without someone looking over my shoulder telling me that I am wrong.
Inuit peoples do not read and write and ingest culture the way non-Inuit Canadians do. I believe Inuit Canadians do not place a high value on the written word. Instead, we come from a culture with roots that lie within the passing on of stories orally; this is what lies within our blood and genetic memories. When I operate outside of my own circle of family and friends, I operate in a different fashion. It is not compromise. It is survival.
When I was studying for my BA degree, my minor was in creative writing. I have since taken many university creative writing courses and I received two prestigious awards for my efforts through the University of Alberta. Creative thinking is a requirement for my doctoral work, and taking writing courses has helped me. However, the other students in the writing classes were not always supportive. I heard their criticisms every week.
While not every class was good or productive, I was exposed to the writing of non-Inuit poets and writers from long ago. I enjoyed their old works, which were new to me. I thought about how they could spend time running up hill and down dale and always remain writing in their predictable and trained writing format. I cannot write about butterflies or bumblebees. In time, I published the odd poem here and there, but never a story. The stories were mine. It took many years to decide to share them.
Deciding to publish
Until one winter afternoon, close to Christmas. I was standing in a lineup at a post office. It was a long line, filled with people wanting their packages to exotic places to be stamped “Express!” I held my thick, brown envelope addressed to the University of Alberta Press close to my chest. I thought I could do this another day, but I knew that if I stepped out of the lineup, I would never send that envelope out anywhere. When I was asked if I wanted a rush delivery, I gasped, “No!”
The longer it took for anyone to read my work, the longer I was safe. The longer the characters that I had created could stay only mine. If no one ever read it, I didn’t have to explain who these people were. The longer the envelope took to deliver, the longer my creative world belonged to only me. I didn’t hear back from the press for over a year. I kept telling myself that was OK. Things take time. Inuit are patient.
When I was told that the press accepted my work, I was stunned. Perhaps part of being an Indigenous writer is the expectation of rejection. I did not get what I was used to. I was assigned to my editor, who is a Namibian man, born and raised. He knows colonialism very well. He lives it, like me. The path to publishing became less complicated. I knew one thing; my words were safe with him. He got it.
However, there was one long discussion over the use of a comma or a period. I had written the sounds of two Inuit women throat singing. I had written it without any grammar. I knew how the song sounded in my head, but what I had to think about was a non-Inuit readers’ understanding.
I sang it to myself for 45 minutes. Was it “Oooma” insert period or “Oooma” insert comma? There were emails and phone calls around two simple sentences. I learned to think about how grammar shapes understanding. What if I was a foreigner reading this passage; how would it sound in my head? We worked it through because my editor took the time to build a good working relationship with me. He didn’t dive in and try to make me or my words “right.” He didn’t push for the quick fix that I know all too well. When non-Inuit do that, it is a signal for me to run.
As Aboriginal artists, we inherently analyze the people around us, because we walk inside two worlds. Aboriginal artists do the hard work, the heavy lifting. We put out into the world the truth of Canada’s grand narrative. Aboriginal artists take the whispered secrets and put them onto paper. It is not easy work.
If my book does any one thing, I hope it brings other Inuit writers to a publisher. I hope other Inuit writers realize that they can do this too. They can put their work out there. They can publish. Be fearless. Stand by your words, and believe that no matter where you stand, you are Inuk.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the benefits of both ebooks and traditional books for the publisher/writer.
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