Sunday, May 29, 2011

More about the Role of the Writer

The literary community often debates its relevance, debates whether reading/publishing/writing are dying. Are you surprised that writers can't agree that literature, that reading and writing ourselves and each other, is the essence of life? Of course, people do almost everything in life for metaphors. Not just writers, but all of us work, marry, live, and kill for metaphors.

It's always fascinated me that Islamic leaders issued a fatwa on an author of fiction, as opposed a writer of polemics or religious tracts. Though I've read many more articles announcing the irrelevance of fiction than its relevance, little was made of Rushdie's status as a mere novelist (as opposed to a theologian or politician, or writer of another form than novels.) That's because we know deeper down that fiction is relevant; people kill for Bibles and Korans. The Ayatollah realizes that the old metaphors cannot be supplanted except by new ones.

The new metaphors, topic of a future blog post.

Provocative Essays on Literature

I don't think that spurious controversy is helpful, and Jess Row's essay that I mentioned in my previous post has generated its share of that. What I prefer is outrageous essays making enormous claims for literature. Mainly, I'm surprised that writers of every stripe can't agree that literature is the central human activity, the key to our evolution, the engine of human progress.

What else is there? As a technologist, I submit that technology offers us apocalypse and immortality, but our imaginations incline toward apocalypse. The humanities have to catch up, we have to mature faster so we don't destroy ourselves with the power technological progress has given us. We need to forgive us our grudge against ourselves.

I'm currently condensing my ideas on this subject in to 250 words. But I'd argue that if you're a writer and you don't think along the lines of what I'm saying above, you should be doing something else that you think will help us all more.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Jess Row on the Novel at Boston Review

Jess Row has published an essay here, courtesy of Boston Review, declaring critics to be in thrall to false dichotomies of new and old for the novel.

His piece is provocative. Row brings up some of the canards of the theorists and practitioners of fiction before and after Mikhailovich Bakhtin and Virginia Woolf. What I am surprised to find is that the argument does not include one of the leading lights of the novel in recent years, Milan Kundera. For all his male bias, Kundera remains one of my favorite guides to the overlooked possibilities of full length fiction, in his Art of the Novel and The Curtain especially.

But Row's arguments cover lots of ground and demonstrate, among other things, the reductiveness of Zadie Smith's widely cited and persuasive essay in NYRB, that set up a split between novels like Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (presented by her as lyrical realism, the past of the novel) and Remainder by Tom McCarthy (presented by her as avant-garde, the future of the form.)

More on what I think specifically about all this in my next post.

The Two SEERs

FYI - there were two concurrent code bases used for SEER, the artificial intelligence with which I co-wrote my latest novel. For now I call them SEER1 and SEER2, like creatures from Dr. Seuss, and might change those names to something more creative and distinguishing.

SEER1 I fed the words and concepts for my scenes, and let it process those before writing output that I never altered before inserting in my book. For SEER2 I used some concepts around processing large text files and summarizing them to digest all of William Blake, all of Don Quixote and all of Moby-Dick, for instance.

This approach I used for the narrator's quest to understand his wife, a literature professor, with a computer's help because he doesn't grasp literature well on his own.

More soon.

SEER and Novel Writing

I created an artificial intelligence called SEER (Sentient Electronically Engineered Recounter) to help me co-author my novel Love Song of Zero and One, but I'm not the first to use AI or randomness to help me write.

Last year Zachary Mason's excellent novel The Lost Books of the Odyssey came out on Farrar, Straus & Giroux after moving sideways for awhile on Starcherone Press. For that book, he used AI to generate ideas for alternate endings to Homer's epic, but did not include its text in the book, or credit it with co-authorship. Before him, David Ferrucci and collaborators created BRUTUS, an AI for writing novels. And before them, Philip K. Dick threw the I-Ching to ignite his sense of possibility while writing novels. Before him, William S. Burroughs cut up pages and tossed them in the air, reassmbling the fallen words into new sentences. The list goes on.

For my AI, I used Java and researched Markov n-gram models, Bayesian belief networks, and machine learning algorithms. I talked for guidance to people I know who grasp AI a little better. I will post more about the process soon.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Love Song of the Infinite Machine and new family!

Well, I've not been blogging for awhile. The main two reasons (three?) have been the birth of our twins Finnegan and Faye thanks to my lovely wife Erin, and my progress in co-authoring my new novel with an artificial intelligence I created.

The AI is called SEER, and unlike my new twins, it's not very cute. But it can talk. The approach I've taken has had its complexities, as you'd imagine. First, I've tried to use SEER to interpret and synthesize texts that are important to one of the novel's characters, a professor of English poetry who is the narrator's wife.

Secondly, I've tried to feed it words and concepts from my novel, to see what it will write with them. More details on these approaches later.

Meanwhile, a pic of the babies!