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 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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If 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.
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.
Do you read Australia’s First Nations (Indigenous) writers? If not, why not? People read for many reasons: information, entertainment, escape, to contemplate in company, to be moved. Reading can also be a political act, an act of solidarity, an expression of willingness to listen and to learn from others with radically different histories and lives.
In his new book, Australia’s Unthinkable Genocide, professor Colin Tatz writes that Australia suffers from “wilful amnesia”; storytelling is a way of remembering.
Despite good intentions, Royal Commissions, and endless policy initiatives such as Closing the Gap, conditions for many First Nations people remain unacceptable. During National Reconciliation Week, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was released, calling for “the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution”. Even if there remain differences of opinion within First Nations communities as to process and aims, the onus is on non-Indigenous Australians to respect First Nations demands to speak and be heard.
The time is well overdue for non-Indigenous Australians to engage with the First Nations of this country, and their narratives, on their terms. Interest in the experience and concerns of others is crucial to combating social ills like racism. Writing and reading literature can be acts of intimacy, and as such reading can be a vital form of listening.
Where to start?
In Australia, white writers and scholars are more read than writers and scholars of colour. Non-Indigenous Australians often simply fail to seek out other voices and perspectives. Sometimes it’s a case of not knowing where to start.
This bestselling autobiography precedes the impressive entries into the emerging 21st century First Nations canon that follow. It is a contemporary classic of Australian literature, and it was the first book I read by a First Nations writer. Published the same year of Australia’s contested “bicentenary”, Langford Ginibi’s story continues to test the learned indifference of white Australians. Written during the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Don’t Take Your Love to Town tells the tale of a woman caught at the intersection of gendered and raced injustice with admirable and endearing honesty.
I’ve written about Carpentaria in an essay for Reading Australia, and I discuss both books at length in my forthcoming academic book The Poetics of Transgenerational Trauma. In short, these books matter. This is innovative writing forging cross-cultural trauma testimony that portrays a country in crisis and in desperate need of recovery from the devastating realities of colonialism and racism. There’s no way around it, Wright is not an easy read. These two novels are as far from literary comfort food as it gets. But those able to relax into Wright’s wildly experimental world-making are rewarded with insights and nothing less than a renewed vision of this land and appreciation for the complex communities that inhabit it.
One of my favourite books of recent years, Dirty Words is a whip-smart conceptual collection of poems about the state of the nation and the spectre of its shameful history. Authored by a Narungga scholar and creative practitioner, this slim volume may well knock your socks off and leave you questioning everything you read and hear. Harkin’s poems about the domestic servitude of her Narungga forebears might even move you to tears.
“Childhood anxieties would eventually help me realise the power of imagination”, writes Wagan Watson in “author’s notes # 1”. This generous, award-winning collection of poems later became a multi-modal arts project when its cycle of 23 poems served as inspiration for musical compositions. Poems like “white stucco dreaming” evoke familial ties within societal divides and the daily rituals of suburbia, while “a verse for the cheated” depicts the hidden tragedies of Queensland’s glamorous coastal tourist traps. At times Wagan Watson turns his muscular lyricism outward to consider the world at large, but he soon circles back to home-grown griefs and wonders.
These books do the crucial work of testifying to transgenerational trauma and representing and celebrating surviving First Nations cultures and peoples. Each demonstrates, as Tony Birch puts it, the “potential for Aboriginal writing to productively shift the national story”.
Australians, generally speaking, have an inadequate understanding of transgenerational trauma and underestimate the effects of the extreme and sustained traumas experienced by First Nations communities. Transgenerational trauma is the process by which trauma is passed down through successive generations.
There is some debate about if and how this takes place, but transmission likely has various pathways through families, individuals, and culture at large. Colonialism and its aftermath – frontier wars, slavery, dispossession, and stolen children – proved a hotbed for severe traumas and legacies of transmission. The challenge is for non-Indigenous Australians to take responsibility for their own education and become familiar with the voices and concerns of those who have peopled this continent for eons.
Given the depth and scope of the inequity, clearly much more than reading alone is called for. But reading truth-telling accounts of our history and contemporary Australia by First Nations writers is one way of participating in a national dialogue.
What’s your favourite book by a First Nations writer? Leave your recommendations in the comments below.
Yet women still aren’t equal to men. And if we think in terms of intersectional feminism – the connections between different multi-layered facets of oppression such as gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ability or age – the invisibility of some groups of women is even more striking.
Some may well say that this inequality is to be more expected in traditional male domains, and that in areas like arts and culture, women are actually far more visible than men. For example, they might argue that a glance at what is available in libraries or bookshops shows that more women writers are being published today, both in the UK and worldwide.
Indeed, in 2015, the BBC surveyed international critics to find the greatest British novels. Their results showed women authors accounted for half of the top 20 titles chosen. However, the same piece also emphasised how these results “stand in stark contrast to most such polls over the past decade”.
Look further into the number of reviews of women writers’ work published in literary magazines, and into the amount of writing prizes awarded to women, however, and a dramatic gender imbalance emerges.
Different gender-specific initiatives attempt to address this problem, such as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and organisations like VIDA, working to highlight the gender imbalance in publishing. But there’s still a great wealth of literature out there that is still consistently being overlooked: that of non-English women writers.
So what’s the problem? To begin with, very few books are being translated into English from other languages. In Britain, translated literature makes up only 3.5% of the market, but 7% of book sales.
To challenge this, ongoing work carried about by English PEN – more specifically PEN Translate, a network promoting translations into English of outstanding works in foreign languages – and other organisations such as Literary across Frontiers – a platform for literary exchange, translation and policy debate based in Wales, aimed at developing intercultural dialogue through translation – is undoubtedly crucial. However, still more must be done.
The thing is, within that small number of translated works, women writer’s books are consistently undervalued. But women read and women write. Even if it has been traditionally difficult for women writers to have their works published – with many resorting to male pen names to combat sexism – and even if the current publishing market still shows a clear gender bias, globally more fiction than ever before is being authored by women.
Yet, even those women authors who make the cut and become renowned writers in their home countries are not being translated for an English-speaking audience. There is a clear tendency to translate fewer women authors than men authors. Generalist publishers have been found to have obvious gender-biased attitudes when selecting titles for translation, and the work of women writers is far less often chosen for inclusion in translation anthologies, as shown in recent examples from Galician literature.
The tendency is even worse if we think about outstanding women authors from postcolonial, peripheral and non-hegemonic contexts. There are so many examples of Polish, Italian, Latin American, Czech, Arab, Balkan and Japanese women writers that aren’t translated into English.
Portuguese is one of the most widely spoken languages worldwide and yet there are barely any translations of women authored-literature into English. And that accounts for not only those coming from Portugal or Brazil, but also Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau or East Timor.
The fact that these women are being silenced in translation is not something trivial: in the age of transnational feminism, in which we want to promote truly cross-cultural understandings, we should be facilitating dialogues among women across the globe. And translation can certainly help us do that.
In an ideal world, women’s presence in literature and translation should not have to be ensured by gender-specific prizes, anthologies and supplements. Instead, their work should be placed in generalist and genderless ways alongside men’s. But in our still patriarchal world – in which, for example, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has been awarded twice out of 21 times to women writers – corrective and positive action measures are indeed very much a necessity.
Supporting the translation of female writers, literary network The English Pen has recently announced a record number of women authors and translators won its annual translation awards. More than half of the 18 award winners were women, with books translated from 14 languages and 16 countries among those honoured. This is indeed a move in the right direction. As was this year’s Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, launched on International Women’s Day to promote foreign writers in English translation.
The future of feminism is in the transnational, and transnational links can only be made through translation. Women writers the world over should be given a voice, no matter what language they speak and what cultural background they come from. Surely, we all can benefit from this: to carry on denying British readers access to great literature simply because it is authored by women is beyond belief.
Writing in Meanjin, Frank Moorhouse proposed, among other measures, renewable ten-year “national contracts” for mid-to-late career writers. And in the Sydney Review of Books, Ben Eltham describes an initiative that he is working on that would aim to provide literary fellowships for fixed periods of three to four years.
Both writers make the valid point that, as fewer successful writers are able to sustain themselves via book sales and royalties, the role of public support becomes more important. They both argue for the need to radically expand the range of fellowships available to writers.
While more secure fellowships are certainly welcome ideas, there are other ways to support writing that address the current economics. So in the spirit of keeping the conversation going, here are a few thoughts.
The value of books
Moorhouse and Eltham both seem to be arguing for fellowships that might provide the long-term security that many working writers currently lack. This suggests a fundamental shift in the purpose of this kind of writing support.
Individual grants and fellowships have typically been provided as a short-term investment in a writer or author, with a duration ranging from a few months to a year. They are there, ideally, to encourage new projects and innovation – offering opportunities for a concentrated period of work, for research, for travel. The University of Melbourne Asialink arts residencies program is a strong example of this. It offers support to a range of Australian writers and artists to live and pursue creative projects in Asia for six weeks to three months.
Longer-term fellowships would certainly have many benefits for established writers. They help compensate them for cultural labour that is not always adequately rewarded in the literary marketplace. As Moorhouse observes, the value of a book often goes beyond its cover price. Books are read and reread, loaned to family members and friends, speculated upon and debated. They inspire insights, arguments and critical and creative forms of engagement. Singular sales and royalty payments cannot reflect this hidden or social value of a book.
However, the criteria that Moorhouse proposes for his ten-year contracts – multiple publications, international distribution, being the subject of academic research – could cluster a lot of funding around a small number of conventionally successful authors.
A particular kind of writing?
In his article, Eltham suggests that a lack of individual fellowships has contributed to the rising importance of literary prizes in Australia. According to Eltham, prizes have become “the closest thing to a fellowship most Australian writers can aspire to”. In the same vein as Ivor Indyk’s 2015 Sydney Review of Books article, he argues that “‘prize literature’ is now a discernible genre of its own, taken to represent a certain form of middlebrow that is accessible, appealing and safe.” The implication is that the exclusive pursuit of prizes results in stylistically homogenous literary fiction, and that more individual grants and fellowships would provide writers with more freedom to experiment and take risks.
However, shifting a writer’s focus from winning a literary prize to appeasing a grant committee or funding body will not necessarily result in more adventurous fiction. Writing in 1971 about the Commonwealth Literary Fund (which subsidised Australian writers from 1908 to 1973), Maurice Dunlevy reflected on the value of literary fellowships, observing that “the fund has yet to aid the birth of a genius” or even a “classic Australian novel”.
He went on to claim that “the overwhelming number of fellowships have been awarded to well-known mediocrities who have produced mediocre work.” I won’t pretend to know exactly how fair Dunlevy is being to the fellowship writers of this period. But his critique can easily be compared to some of the contemporary objections to Australian prize culture.
There are a number of questions any new fellowships would need to answer. What kinds of literary work and lives would they encourage writers to work towards? What kinds of writing would be eligible for this kind of support? Would it favour the writer who produces a steady output of moderately successful publications over a powerful single work? Or the traditional print-based author over a writer creating innovative material for digital platforms?
Meeting the world
I don’t want to argue against more fellowships for writers (especially since, given the state of arts funding, this would likely be an argument over imaginary money). But we should question whether fellowships of the length that Moorhouse and Eltham are proposing are sustainable or even desirable.
In his 1991 lecture, On Writing, the Canadian author Robertson Davies expressed some of his reservations about the culture of writing grants, noting that even as they seem to offer freedom for writers they also potentially isolate them. Davies argues that, for a writer, a job isn’t just a distraction from the serious business of their craft. It is also a valuable opportunity to “meet the world” in their own particular way, and to find a daily task that keeps them from “writing too much” to the point where “their talent has become diseased, hypertrophied because of the continual gross and indecent solicitation of the imagination”.
I can’t pretend to share Davies’s distain for writing grants, having been the grateful beneficiary of a couple myself. But I think that there is a spleeny contrarian wisdom to his critique that is worth considering.
Relatively few successful authors throughout history have lived professional lives that were focused solely on writing. For many, the kind of subsidy that Eltham and Moorhouse have proposed might not be particularly useful. Being able to focus solely on writing for three, four or ten years might offer some incredible benefits, but it also presents the possibility of isolation, insularity, and a continued dependence on this kind of funding that might be detrimental for a writer’s work in the long run. As Davies writes: “Nothing – including grants – is for nothing”. The kind of freedom they offer always comes at a cost.
On balance, individual funding might be more suited to providing opportunities for travel (like the brilliantly conceived Antarctic Arts Fellowship), cultural exchange, or residencies. These require engagement with the life and rhythms of unfamiliar institutions, offering both emerging and established writers new ways of meeting the world.
He is being replaced as head of the bank’s research arm after he demanded that his colleagues write succinct, clear, direct emails, presentations and reports in the active voice with a low proportion of “and’s”. Romer will remain the bank’s chief economist.
In fact, he had threatened not to publish the bank’s central publication, World Development Report, “if the frequency of ‘and’ exceeded 2.6 per cent”. He had also cancelled a regular publication that he believed had no clear purpose.
Why, you may ask, did the economists who work in the World Bank’s research department take exception to these strictures? Who wouldn’t want the corporate report that was a flagship publication of the bank to be narrow and “penetrate deeply like a knife”? Romer’s 600 colleagues, that’s who. But why?
It seems that, while he was encouraging his staff to avoid their customary convoluted “bankspeak” and consider their readers, he failed to follow his own advice. He was apparently curt, abrasive and combative. The troops refused to fall into line and he was ousted.
Such a shame, Professor Romer, because we need more pruning of the muddy prose that is endemic in so many institutions, particularly banks. We can only imagine how Australia’s four big banks are readying themselves to obfuscate their documents in response to the recent budget measures.
The various shades of pedantry
There are two kinds of people in this world: pedants and everybody else. Pedantry isn’t confined to grammar, of course. Pedantry can be found in architecture, cooking (for example, Julian Barnes’s lovely little book The Pedant in the Kitchen), geometry, music, philosophy, politics and science. Think Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, the most popular show on American television.
Romer’s case, however, highlights the key dilemma of grammar pedants: how do you handle your pedantry so that you don’t lose your job? It depends on what kind of pedant you are.
Do you practise your pedantry privately by just “thinking” corrections at other people when they write “bunker” instead of “hunker” down? Or do you practise your pedantry publicly and thereby subject yourself to taunts of “peevish prescriptivist”, “nit-picking, hair-splitting pedant”, or the more arcane and colourful “pettifogging pedant”?
BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman was quoted in The Guardian in 2014 as saying:
People who care about grammar are regularly characterised as pedants. I say that those who don’t care about it shouldn’t be surprised if we pay no attention to anything they say — if indeed they are aware of what they’re trying to say.
I am a fervent believer that grammar provides writers with analytical tools to choose and combine words felicitously into English sentences to a set of professional standards that serve utilitarian needs and provide intellectual pleasure.
However, aware from long experience that it’s rare to be thanked for pointing out a solecism that has made me wince, I attempt to shield the newly minted graduates of my grammar course at The University of Queensland from the potential consequences of sharing their knowledge with those less grammatically alert. To this end, I lead a discussion about their stance on grammar in the final class of the semester.
To counter the negative connotations evoked by the term “grammar pedant” and to celebrate their pleasure in language, they invent playful monikers such as “grammartiste”, “grammagician”, “grammardian angel”, “grammar groover”, “grammartuoso” and “grammasseur”.
Anne Curzan, a grammar maven who contributes to the Lingua Franca blog on The Chronicle of Higher Education, favours “grammando”; I prefer the much less warlike “grammond” (modelled on gourmand, “one who has a refined palate for grammar and savours it at its best”).
That “linguifier” Stephen Fry begs us to abandon our pedantry, but he confines his admonition to non-professional contexts and admits: “It’s hard not to wince when someone aspirates the word ‘aitch’ and uses the genteelism of yourself and myself instead of you and me.”
Fry says that “context, convention and circumstance are all”. And this is what Professor Romer forgot. What we need to abandon is not pedantry. After all, its etymological origins are in teaching.
It is peevish, condescending and competitive pedantry that is the culprit. We could take a lesson from the Bristol engineer who has for 13 years used his specially designed long-handled apostrophiser and step-ladder to remove aberrant apostrophes and plant missing ones on buildings in Bristol and managed to remain anonymous.
It’s always pleasant to go carol-singing, or carols-singing, with the Pedants’ Association, formerly the Pedants Association, originally the Pedant’s Association. I first joined ten years ago with the long-term aim of attracting the requisite number of votes in order to change its title to The Association of Pedants, thus rendering the apostrophe redundant.
I’ll leave the uses and abuses of “and” aside for another day.
It’s a lean time for writers, as arts funding shrinks on all sides, journalists are laid off in droves, broadcasting budgets are slashed, and book publishing remains in a state of seemingly unceasing upheaval.
It often seems as if the age of living by the pen may be brought to a close by an increasingly rapacious approach to human affairs, interested only in hard numbers and bottom lines. Australian writers Frank Moorhouse and Ben Eltham have recently proposed several schemes to give writers a living wage to support their work.
And so it’s timely to reflect on some of the strange, desperate and occasionally dangerous ways in which writers have historically lived, if not always by their pens, then at least on their wits. Here’s twelve ways in which classics of western literature were written.
Unlike other activities, advertising continues to pay very well (though many writers fear they may be required to sell their soul).
English crime writer Dorothy Sayers had a top floor office at Benson’s advertising, where she invented the Mustard Club, a fictional mustard-loving entity with half a million real life subscribers in the UK, and also devised “Just think what Toucan do” for Guinness.
Peter Carey devised roof-tiling company Monier’s well-known jingle, “Top Cat in Roof Tiles”. Salman Rushdie spent many happy years at Ogilvy & Mather where he came up with “Look into the Mirror tomorrow – you’ll like what you see” for the Daily Mirror. Don Delillo was also employed at Ogilvy & Mather’s New York office, but doesn’t talk about it much.
Even F. Scott Fitzgerald did time at Barron Collier’s. Not only did he give us The Great Gatsby, he also produced – for the Muscatine Steam laundry in Muscatine, Iowa – “We keep you clean in Muscatine”.
2) Postal clerks
The postal service has provided a safe haven for many a writer. Anthony Trollope wrote his novels for three hours every morning before going off to his day job at the post office, which he kept for 33 years. Charles Bukowski also worked for the postal service, and kept his job for ten years. (His first novel was called Post Office and its protagonist was a postal clerk.)
William Faulkner was also a postmaster in Mississippi, but rather less good at holding his job. His resignation letter famously read,
As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.
Faulkner went on to work as a night manager in a power plant where he penned As I Lay Dying in six or eight weeks, writing between the hours of midnight and 4 am.
3) Janitors and pest exterminators
Ken Kesey was a night cleaner in a mental hospital. He also volunteered to be an experimental guinea pig in a CIA-backed mind control study conducted under the auspices of a front organisation at the Menlo Park facility. This experience gave us One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Stephen King also did time as a janitor in a high school. William S. Burroughs worked as a pest exterminator in Chicago. Jack Kerouac’s resume includes stints as a cotton picker, a dishwasher, a night guard, and gas station attendant.
4) Music transcription
Desperate writers, it seems, will do just about anything. Rousseau, with his books banned, and patrons running scared, transcribed an estimated 9,000 pages of music at six sols per page between 1770 and his death in 1778.
Jack London was famously an oyster poacher, though he preferred to call himself an “oyster pirate”. There’s also an apocryphal tale that Shakespeare was forced to flee Stratford when he was nabbed for poaching deer on the nearby Lucy estate, leading to a life-long feud with the local lord.
There’s no doubt that Shakespeare was adept at turning a guinea where he could. The Earl of Rutland paid no less than four pounds and eight shillings to Shakespeare and his lead actor Richard Burbage (who also moonlighted as a painter) to create a shield and write a motto so that Rutland could appear well dressed at a tournament.
Shakespeare sent his money home to his very clever wife in Stratford, who slowly bought up lots of farmland and cornered much of the local grain trade.
Many writers teach, but few do it for a career. David Lodge was Professor of English, back in the day when academics didn’t worry too much about things like Excellence in Research evaluation, or applying for research council grants. JRR Tolkien was Professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford, producing definitive editions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Beowulf as well as his novels.
Robert Frost taught at Amherst and Vladimir Nabokov was Professor of Russian Literature at Cornell. But not everybody agreed this was a good idea. When Nabokov was up for a chair in literature at Harvard, the distinguished linguist Roman Jakobson protested, “What’s next? Shall we appoint elephants to teach zoology?”
7) Butterfly curator
Nabokov’s first job on arrival in the United States was as the curator of Lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard. He stayed there for six years.
It’s surprising how many writers have ended up on the murky side of politics. John Buchan, perhaps most famously, earned 1,000 pounds a year as the Director of the Ministry of Information, closely aligned to the War Propaganda Bureau where H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, J.B. Priestly, and Ford Maddox Ford penned paid and unpaid articles, pamphlets and leaflets including Doyle’s To Arms! (1914) and Ford’s When Blood is Their Argument (1915). Arnold Bennett was head of British propaganda in France. Wells became Head of Enemy Propaganda until a strange series of events led to his spectacular resignation.
George Orwell, who spent much of his life scraping money from wherever he could, was employed in the service of the Imperial Police in Burma, an institution he despised. On returning to London, he worked as a paid propagandist at the BBC, broadcasting to India. It was the psychic pain of the arch enemy of mindless patriotism serving as a wartime propagandist that gave us 1984.
9) Doctors, lawyers and clergymen
Some writers have known from the start that there are better ways to make a living. Henry Fielding was a Magistrate, but by “refusing to take a shilling from a man who would undoubtedly not have had another one left” halved his portion of what he called “the dirtiest money on earth”.
Jonathan Swift was the vicar of Laracor – his congregation of just 15 leaving him plenty of time to write, which he did, for the most part, in the glittering clubs of London.
Anton Chekov, Somerset Maugham and Williams Carlos Williams were doctors. So too was Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle set up a not very successful medical practice in Portsmouth and famously penned A Study in Scarlet during the interminable wait times between patients. He later set up an ophthalmologist in Upper Wimpole St, London, but claims that he never secured so much as a single patient.
10) Cinema impressario
James Joyce scraped a living by teaching English in Trieste, while dreaming up wild moneymaking schemes. With the help of Italian friends he opened the Cinematograph Volta in Dublin, on Mary St, but couldn’t stick to it for more than seven months. He then planned to import Irish tweed to Trieste.
Ulysses would never have been written without the support of feminist publisher Harriet Shaw Weaver, who, in February 1917, shortly after she published Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in book form, gave Joyce an income of £200 a year to support his work. Later Weaver created a trust fund, the interest from which gave Joyce an income for life.
11) Airline ticketing clerk
Harper Lee worked as a reservation clerk for Eastern Air Lines and BOAC for more than eight years. This only changed in in 1956, when the Broadway composer Michael Brown and his wife Joy gave Lee a Christmas gift with a card that said, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please.” Lee produced the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird within 12 months.
It’s hard to believe, but writers made nothing from their books until the invention of copyright in the 18th century. Instead, they relied on wealthy patrons to make a living.
This uneasy relationship led a frustrated Samuel Johnson to insert in 1755 a double-edged definition in his Dictionary. After the words, “Patron: One who countenances, supports and protects,” he added, “Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence and is paid with flattery.”
Shakespeare is said to have received an astonishing £1,000 for his flowery dedications to the Earl of Southampton (though it was more probably a still wildly generous £100). Hence he wrote, “The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end; whereof this pamphlet, without beginning, is but a superfluous moiety.”
But choosing a patron could be dangerous. The Earl of Southampton was later imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth I for his role in the Earl of Essex’s 1601 rebellion against the queen. Southampton had organised a special performance of Richard II. While there is no evidence Shakespeare was directly punished, he had good reason to be worried, with other writers tortured and even murdered in Elizabethan England.
Living by the pen
Of course, the preferred method of earning an income for writers has inevitably been journalism. Once patronage was replaced by the rise of the commercial press, writers were able to turn to the business of writing about real people. Samuel Richardson was a printer. Samuel Taylor Coleridge edited The Watchman and The Friend. Charles Dickens was a parliamentary reporter and then editor and publisher of Household Words.
Indeed, writing for periodicals was what allowed many women in the 19th century to secure an independent income. Jane Austen calculated that the life-long return on her novels was a mere 84 pounds and 13 shillings (works that made millions in the centuries that followed).
But Harriet Beecher Stowe was able to become the sole income earner for her family, penning not just Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but periodicals, gift books, textbooks and popular annuals. Margaret Fuller became the first female editor of the New York Tribune, and their first female foreign correspondent covering the Italian revolutions.
Today, the problem is that not only writers but also perhaps journalists could use an arts council grant.
History is a story about the past told by people who didn’t live there. Historical fiction and scholarly histories and biographies dominate the field, but a fresh approach, the literary nonfiction narrative of reflection, is making its presence felt.
As a writing genre, history is no spring chicken. Livy (59 BC – 17 AD) gave us the history of ancient Rome, while Australian histories have an even longer provenance, from the First Peoples’ Dreamtime narratives to Grace Karskens’ excellent scholarly account of European settlement in The Colony: A History of Early Sydney (2009). Historical novels are nothing new either, from Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009).
A relative newcomer to the field is the literary nonfiction historical narrative, in which the archive serves as a springboard into a pool of reflection for a contemporary writer. The latest example, published this month, is Kerrie Davies’ A Wife’s Heart, published by University of Queensland Press, a book that retells the life of poet and short story writer Henry Lawson, from multiple viewpoints. Central to Davies’ narrative is a sadly damning affidavit filed by Lawson’s wife Bertha when she sued for divorce in 1903 alleging domestic violence.
When journalist and academic Davies emerged blinking from the archives and into the glare of publication and media interviews, she was greeted by headlines like “Henry Lawson, voice of a nation, larrikin, likely wife beater”.
My excitement reading that headline was due not just to the fact that Davies is a colleague and friend. I was simply happy to see that unorthodox approaches to history are welcomed, and can ignite and enrich our readings of our past.
History, as we know, is a political football. We struggle over the meaning of the past in order to control the game of present and future. A marriage like Henry Lawson’s that began in 1896 and ended seven years later can be hijacked by anyone with an agenda. Davies adopts a light touch. She moves among the many contemporaneous perspectives on Henry from friends and foes as a man who struggled with poverty, ambition, deafness, a failed marriage and alcoholism.
Bertha, who struggled to raise two children while coping with Henry’s ups and down, had her critics as well. She ended up doing a long stint in a mental institution for what today might be called manic depression. Their fraught marriage and messy divorce provides Davies with a ball of historical wool to untangle. She chases it through the archives and across the landscapes through which her subjects drifted, including a grinding stint in London. The affective impact of this pursuit turns the pond of reflection into a whirlpool, inexorably drawing the reader in.
Not everyone sees it that way. Though he has not commented on Davies’ book specifically, Sydney journalist and author David Marr recently disclosed his distaste for biographies in which authors share the personal reflections and experiences they have had while researching and writing their books.
For evidence of the correctness of his position, Marr conveniently points to his own writing, quoting from a scene in Patrick White: A Life in which he reports a medical emergency he witnessed at White’s home not long before the Nobel Laureate’s death in 1991. Marr was witnessing what could have been (but wasn’t) his venerable subject’s demise. Yet his own voice is detached. He expresses no personal emotion or reaction, acting instead as a fly on the wall observer.
I’m on the side of invisible biographers. I don’t give a damn about their happy thoughts as they tread in the footsteps of their subjects. Spare me their personal reflections on the Straits of Gibraltar or the old House of Reps. I’m not interested in their research triumphs. I want the life, not the homework.
In A Wife’s Heart, Kerrie Davies transgresses Marr’s “law”, sharing generously of her own life story while telling Henry and Bertha’s. Readers learn that, like Bertha, Davies is a single parent whose marriage has ended in divorce. The pressures are financial as well as emotional, just as they were for the Lawsons.
At first I found these personal references, which begin on page three of the book, jarring. I simply wasn’t ready to have the focus shifted so early in the story. However, as the book progresses the personal reflections merge with her subjects’ narratives. Conflicting accounts by the Lawsons’ friends and colleagues give the book the feel of a detective novel, a texture well suited to a story of marital failure in which there seems plenty of blame to go round.
Some readers no doubt share Marr’s views about biography, but there are good reasons why younger authors working in a less journalistic genre might profitably venture where Marr warns them not to go.
The distant voice of the “invisible” biographer – like the voice of God booming from above Mount Sinai – has a slightly anachronistic feel these days. To depart from this voice challenges readers who like being reassured by an authoritative tone, or perhaps, put less kindly, enjoy being told what to think. But others prefer more open, less conclusive arguments and reflections.
For some, Marr’s preference for invisibility is out of synch in a world in which readers routinely write back at authors, questioning their logic and exposing mistakes in the “comments section” that now follows most online articles. The invisible narrator’s biases are more implicit, or opaque. That may seem subversive in an era when transparency is valued.
Marr’s argument is that the reader is not well served by an introspective or performative narrator, and that is often true. Some of the worst nonfiction I’ve read in recent years was penned by authors who lost focus on their subject by sharing too much of themselves.
The changing economics of publishing are contributing to our evolving literary landscape. The ranks of subeditors patrolling the borders of mainstream media publications, beating the literary crap out of upstarts who dare to use the personal pronoun “I” are being depleted.
On the bright side, literary rules exist to be broken in the more diffuse structure of contemporary publishing. There never was a golden age.
The subjects of Marr’s early biographies, like White and former Attorney General Sir Garfield Barwick, were alive and highly influential when he started writing about them, good reasons for being careful and adopting an orthodox style. But for Davies, archival sources were all she had. No living witnesses of the trouble between Henry and Bertha survive. The author was left to curate documents. Personalising the narrative breathes life into documentary sources.
There are dangers in interpreting the facts of history. Historians grapple constantly with the problem, while historical novelists can choose whether to stick with the facts or alter them, sometimes radically. Literary nonfiction’s third path allows the juxtaposition of an author’s experience and perspective alongside the archival evidence. This might just reduce the temptation to invent or over egg.
Meanwhile, in the world outside the book, the world in which we live, marital violence is at epidemic levels, commanding our society and governments’ attentions. In that context, Davies’ personal story as a single parent acts as a footbridge connecting contemporary readers to the world of her subjects.
Beyond questions of literary technique, Davies’ academic writing on the Lawson story reveals that her literary reflection was catalysed by previous accounts by respected historians that favour Henry over Bertha.
The biographers of the iconic bush poet and writer – most notably Denton Prout (1963) Manning Clark (1978) and Colin Roderick (1982, 1991) – have all constructed a victim as hero narrative around Lawson’s life, blaming Bertha Lawson (nee Bredt) for his personal and creative decline. In their biographies, Lawson’s marriage breakdown and judicial separation from Bertha Lawson is narrated as a destructive turning point, with Bertha portrayed as a callous persecutor who “spun the wheel of retribution” … against her husband. The unanimous interpretation in these works is that Bertha Lawson in her legal claims disregarded Henry’s evident inability to pay child support, resulting in his imprisonment at Darlinghurst Gaol sporadically from 1905 to 1910.
Was Lawson a wife beater? Davies thinks so, but some who knew Bertha believed otherwise. We may never know, but it’s a worthwhile conversation in which all voices and literary styles are welcome.
Marr’s argument for invisibility is undermined somewhat by the fact – which he acknowledges – that he has previously put himself into his stories about others, including the White biography (in a note near the end of the book), and in essays on Kevin Rudd and the Bill Henson case. In all of these his narratives were better for it.
Kerrie Davies and David Marr will be speaking at separate events at next month’s Sydney Writers Festival.
The 2017 Pulitzer Prizes have just been announced, and this year’s winners of the prestigious award include Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre for his investigative report on the drug companies that flooded West Virginia with opioids and New York Times Magazine writer C.J. Chivers for his article about a veteran of the war in Afghanistan suffering from PTSD.
I’ve done research on award-winners for some time, analyzing Pulitzers granted since 1995 (the first year for which award-winning stories are available through the organization’s online archive). In studying the winning stories, we’re able to see what gets recognized as good journalism.
My research reveals something surprising: What distinguishes Pulitzer Prize-winning stories is not only painstaking journalistic work on important social issues, but also the use of emotional storytelling.
The winning stories, however, upend this narrative, showing that it’s possible to retain objectivity and also stir the feelings of readers.
An objective framework
The journalistic goal of objectivity first emerged around the end of the 19th century. It was motivated, in part, by a desire to broaden newspaper readership base by asserting the independence of the press from political parties and ideologies. And in order to maintain objectivity, the thinking went that journalism should be based on cold, hard facts. Journalists needed repress their own views and feelings.
According to standard practice of news reporting, the information should be delivered in an “inverted pyramid”-style lead paragraph, telling readers the most important facts first. The idea is that the objective style sends a strong signal about the independence and trustworthiness of journalism – something that, in the age of fake news, may be more important now than ever.
Instead of relying on the edicts of objectivity, award-winning journalism draws heavily on telling personal stories about people caught up in news events. My research shows that across hard news award categories – feature, explanatory, international, national, public service and investigative reporting – Pulitzer Prize winners eschew the standard “inverted pyramid.” Instead, they’ll often rely on what journalists refer to as an “anecdotal lead.”
An anecdotal lead draws the reader into a story with wider sociopolitical implications by illustrating how it affects a particular individual or group.
“Sam Siatta was deep in a tequila haze, so staggeringly drunk that he would later say he retained no memory of the crime he was beginning to commit. It was a few minutes after 2 a.m. on April 13, 2014. Siatta had just forced his way into a single-story home in Normal, Ill., a college town on the prairie about 130 miles southwest of Chicago. A Marine Corps veteran of the war in Afghanistan, he was a 24-year-old freshman studying on the G.I. Bill at the university nearby, Illinois State. He had a record of valor in infantry combat and no criminal past.”
Similarly, the Associated Press won the coveted Public Service Pulitzer last year for a series exposing the grueling labor conditions in the seafood industry. The series opened with the experience of Burmese slaves forced to work in Indonesia:
“The Burmese slaves sat on the floor and stared through the rusty bars of their locked cage, hidden on a tiny tropical island thousands of miles from home. Just a few yards away, other workers loaded cargo ships with slave-caught seafood that clouds the supply networks of major supermarkets, restaurants and even pet stores in the United States. But the eight imprisoned men were considered flight risks – laborers who might dare run away. They lived on a few bites of rice and curry a day in a space barely big enough to lie down, stuck until the next trawler forces them back to sea.”
By using personal stories to elicit empathy for individuals, these stories all enable us to understand how real people are caught up in the large, bewildering forces that drive our world.
Of the stories I analyzed, more than three in five used anecdotal leads, while just under one in five drew on the conventional inverted pyramid. Stories of individuals caught up in the news were featured in 62.4 percent of stories.
It’s a trend that has been remarkably stable since the mid-1990s.
This type of storytelling is just one of several markers of what I have referred to as a “strategic ritual of emotionality”: an institutionalized and systematic practice of journalists infusing their reporting with emotion.
However, this doesn’t mean that the journalists write about their own emotions. Instead, they “outsource” emotions to the people whose stories they tell. According to my research, stories often use emotional language – for example, quoting worried investors, frightened children, hopeful villagers or anxious parents – but never in reference to the journalist’s emotions. What this suggests is that award-winning journalism is able to both maintain its allegiance to objectivity and tell emotional stories.
I’m not the first to notice the emotionality of award-winning journalism. For example, the journalist and academic Susan Shapiro has criticized the “sob sister” style of journalism which of is “calculated to snag readers by the emotions and not let them go until they burst, on cue, into tears.”
What my research suggests, however, is that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism’s use of emotional storytelling is not merely focused on emotional appeals for their own sake. Rather, eliciting empathy from readers enables journalism to render abstract and complex events understandable and relatable.
In a world where our experiences and backgrounds are so varied, this type of storytelling is indispensable. And if journalism can successfully tap into universal emotions to bridge divides and elicit mutual understanding, such an achievement truly deserves an award.