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.

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