Have Justin Webb and the man from business school no idea what literature might actually be?

A computer cut and pasting vaguely relevant bits of kit isn’t creativity - but try telling that to the guests of Radio 4's Today programme this week


I’m still reeling from an exchange on Radio 4’s Today on Wednesday, when Philip Parker, an American professor of Management Science at the INSEAD business school told Justin Webb about his work in “automatic authoring programs”.

Mr Parker writes books with the help of 60 or 70 computers. He has “authored” 200,000 books, making him “the most published author in the history of the planet”.

I wouldn’t rush to sample them, however: his computerised compilations of fax’n’info off the internet include such must-read titles as The 2007-2012 Outlook for Tufted Washable Scatter Rugs, Bathmats and Sets That Measure 6-Feet by 9-Feet or Smaller in India. Sorry, but I just don’t see it nudging the memoirs of Miranda Hart off the bestseller charts.

What pained me isn’t that Mr Parker calls himself an “author” when he is merely a superior cut-and-paste exponent with some fancy machinery. Nor that he said he’s now turning his hand to “literature” and producing an algorithm that’ll write romantic novels and poetry. What pains me is that neither Parker nor the usually brilliant Webb nor a woman romantic novelist on the programme discussed the subject of computers and creativity with the faintest understanding of what literature might be.

Parker seemed to believe you could “reverse-engineer” a poem and, by using “cluster analysis”, construct a new one from the machine parts left lying around. He talked about “digital poetry” (where the reader joins in the creation) as analogous to punk; just imagine the response to anyone who’d attempted to “join in” the creation of “London Calling” or “Pretty Vacant”. And, after churning out 1.3m “poems” in a year, Parker wondered if his invention might help “authors who don’t have time to create literature”.

After five minutes of this philistine gibberish, I was screaming.  This was like meeting a man who’d never read a work of imagination, or met a writer, or understood that creativity is about individual intelligence, not the yanking together of vaguely relevant bits of kit.

Then the other guest joined in. Tiffany Reisz, a Mills & Boon author, said she personally had “a very open dialogue with my readers” and that a computer-author simply “wouldn’t offer any human interraction” with them. Yes, indeed, said Webb. “People who enjoy poetry want to know there’s a real person behind it, don’t they.” 

What the hay? How come everybody was wilfully missing the point. The point being that the novels or poems or whatever a computer creates would, in all cases, be unreadably bloody awful. That if a reader’s unable to glimpse (even in a Mills & Boon) a real, fleshy authorial presence behind the words, the stuff thus created falls dead on the page.

In the 1960s, avant-garde literary figures like Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec had fun inventing new ways of writing “story-making machines” and novels whose pages could be read in any order. They were clever tricks to make you think about writing, but nothing more. The Today discussion, by contrast, was a meeting of people under the impression that literature is about words but nothing more. It ain’t.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
An Indian bookseller waits for customers at a roadside stall on World Book and Copyright Day in Mumbai  

Novel translation lets us know what is really happening in the world

Boyd Tonkin

Nature Studies: The decline and fall of the nightingale, poetry’s most famous bird

Michael McCarthy
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine