Toni Morrison’s Opus About Confronting a Terrible Past

Time for some Toni Morrison and her most cancelled book.

Beloved is the magnum opus of the late, great Toni Morrison. It has become a key piece of literature taught in schools and is considered one of the great pieces of American literature. To understand Beloved, we must first look at the woman behind the pages: Nobel Prize Winner Toni Morrison.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit is made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book vs Movie: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – What’s the Difference?

This month in What’s the Difference? let’s discuss a classic five-part novel trilogy and its movie adaptation.

Video: Lost in Adaptation – Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy part 1
Video: Lost in Adaptation – Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy part 2

I love the Hitchhiker’s books. In the above videos, Dominic Noble covers a lot of what was changed from the book(s) to the movie and I agree with his points about how they managed to ruin the adaptation. But unlike Dominic, I don’t have any particularly strong feelings about the movie. I think this comes down to how I largely dismissed the film as either:

  • A very American homage to the Hitchhiker’s books, or;
  • A very soulless adaptation by the Hollywood machine.

Take, for example, the point about Arthur Dent being portrayed as a snivelling loser with all the cringe humour to support that portrayal. I really don’t enjoy cringe humour and laughing at “losers”. Having them be the main character is an even worse idea. But I can see how an American or Hollywood adaptation would take the idea of an incompetent and insecure (i.e. British) character and make them into Loser McCringefest.

The stamp of this failure to understand what the jokes actually were is all over the movie. And it seems to be a common problem when American studios take British material and try to adapt it. There are numerous TV shows that American audiences have loved, which a production studio takes as the impetus to make a version without subtitles*, and then somehow they make a pilot or show that just mangles the entire point. American audiences really deserve better.

There’s actually a good documentary on this issue done as part of the Red Dwarf DVD extras. Essentially, the production studios don’t really understand what is funny about the source material and thus what any changes they make will do to the adaptation.

So I don’t hate the movie adaptation of one of my favourite books. Because I don’t regard it as a real adaptation.

* Oh, you think I jest? I’m afraid not. When I visited the US of A I was surprised to see subtitles being used when people of non-North American origin spoke English. I mean, Scottish people having subtitles I can kinda understand, but Irish people? At least it was good to bust the myth that Americans can’t watch stuff with subtitles…

Inside the Absurdist Mind of Kurt Vonnegut

And so it goes, in this month’s It’s Lit!

I have to admit to only having read two of Vonnegut’s books. Obviously the first is Slaughterhouse Five, because you can’t talk about books on the internet (or anywhere else for that matter) unless you’ve read it. The second is the short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House.

Two of my favourite short stories are in Welcome to the Monkey House, the eponymous short the collection is named after, and Harrison Bergeron. The latter was used in our high school English Literature class. Don’t ask me why it was used or what we discussed about it, I only remember it being refreshingly good after too many weeks spent reading ee cummings.

I think the reason I’ve not read more Vonnegut is that I never really bonded with his work. Sure, he wrote two of my favourite short stories, but that same collection also had some really bland stuff in it that could be best described as unmemorable. And some of his satirical takes were, as the famous philosopher said, meh.

Like the afformentioned short stories, which appear to critique egalitarianism by attacking a strawperson (because egalitarianism doesn’t seek to eliminate individualism nor enforce mediocrity for all). Is that really satire or is it misrepresentation? Or did I just miss something? Because I didn’t miss the “corrective rape”… ewww.

Further reading: https://digitalcommons.butler.edu/bjur/vol4/iss1/7/

It can be said that there are two types of fiction writers – those who take a backseat and let their work take the spotlight, and those who are as iconic as their work, sometimes even more so. But maybe there’s a third type – a type of writer whose complex persona is so intertwined with their fiction – that to ignore them as a person would be to ignore their work entirely. In this episode we explore the life and work of Kurt Vonnegut.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit is made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

The Women of Jane Austen

Do you need a summary of Jane Austen’s novels and heroes? Then this month’s It’s Lit! has you covered.

Elizabeth Bennet. Emma Woodhouse. Marianne Dashwood. Jane Austen has been responsible for creating some of the most frequently adapted and analyzed women in the English literary language. Along with Buzzfeed quizzes asking “which SATC or Little Women” character you are, there is always a lot of fanfare about which Jane Austen heroine you are.

But beyond the big three. Well mostly … big two. Who are the women of Jane Austen’s completed novels? How do they reveal to us, her modern audience, any insight into her growth as an author, her politics, and just how she feels about what makes a girlboss and #girlboss.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Why We Keep Retelling the Classics

This month’s It’d Lit! is all about stealing your story ideas from others.

I’ve previously discussed how few plots there are and how certain archetypes trace their origins back as far as we have records for. One example of this is the wandering hero, or knight errant, arriving in town to take on the bad guys before moving off for the next adventure. This is a popular genre – think Jack Reacher – and has its origins at least as far back as the Greek myths and East Asian folklore.

So is this recycling or is it about the formula storytellers use as the basic backbone to hang their narrative off of?

I’d argue the latter. This is especially true of the examples of “inspired by” or “fan-fic” from the video (and elsewhere). The storyteller will have been thinking about that awesome story and what they’d have liked to do differently, or set it in a different location.

For example, the best Die Hard sequels haven’t been in the Die Hard franchise. Instead, they have been Die Hard On a Bus, or Die Hard On a Plane, or Die Hard In the Whitehouse. The fact you probably know exactly which movies those refer to shows how the basic premise being adapted doesn’t cut down on the creativity. Well, mostly.

And even if the recycling isn’t quite as overt as Die Hard On a Boat, all stories are inspired by or are a combination of the stories that came before. The storyteller has to start somewhere. Preferably not with Die Hard On a Train, the sequel to Die Hard On a Boat.

From James Joyce’s Ulysses to Bridget Jones’s Diary, you’ve probably read a book that was just a modern retelling of a well-established story. Which is to say nothing of other forms of media and their own obsessions with retellings.

And despite what your Writing 101 instincts might tell you, this is neither bad nor lazy writing—or even a new concept. Because let’s be honest: sometimes a story is just so dang good, it bears repeating. Sometimes more than once. Sometimes multiple times. I’m looking at you, Jane Austen.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book vs Movie: Dune – What’s the Difference?

With the new Dune movie coming soon, it’s time to look at the 80s adaptation’s differences from the classic novel.

On the train to work the other day I noticed that in my carriage half the people reading books were reading Dune – mostly the first novel but some were reading other parts of the series. It was somewhat surprising.

Then about a week later I was in a book store and saw that they had an entire shelf of Dune novels and a new edition of the first novel in piles at the front of the store. It was then that I remembered Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation was coming out soon.

Now of course, I’m so ahead of the game that I read Dune *checks notes* 3 years ago. I even discussed the Dune series’ importance just last year.

For me the main thing about the David Lynch adaptation was that it needed to be a political thriller. Instead it was a drama.

Not that the film isn’t without tension and thrills, like the running across the desert without the thumpers and trying to avoid the worms. But the book needed to be stripped back to that political thriller plot to hang the conflict and civil war on.

I’m not sure what Villeneuve plans to do, but he is a very accomplished storyteller. It will be interesting to see if he succeeds where Lynch managed to find himself crying in the corner he’d painted himself into.

Dune is coming back to the big screen while Denis Villenueve and Timothee Chalamet crashing a sandworm into your HBO Max as well, so it’s time to take a look back at the adaptation from David Lynch back in 1984. Based on the Frank Herbert epic, Dune is considered to be one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time. So how did an indie auteur make a big budget Hollywood adaptation out of a dense fantasy epic? It’s time to remember, fear is the mind killer as we ask, What’s the Difference?

Starring Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides, Sting as the space-underwear clad Feyd-Rautha and the soon-to-be Captain Picard Patrick Stewart, Lynch brought together a fascinating group of 80s character actors like Dean Stockwell, Linda Hunt and Jurgen Prochnow to fill out the cast. A critical and commercial failure when it came out, and in light of prior failed attempts to adapt the sci fi fantasy all-timer, which included Jodorowsky’s Dune, the book was long thought to be unfilmable. With the Atreides and Harkonnen rekindling their big screen rivalry in the form of Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Zendaya and a cast as stellar as the one Lynch assembled, we’ll see how 2021’s adaptation fares.

Book vs Movie: Doctor No – What’s the Difference?

With a new Bond movie set for theaters, it’s time to look back at the first James Bond adventure and ask, What’s the Difference?

I still haven’t picked up any of the Bond books. Previously I’ve mentioned having vague memories of reading a couple when I was younger. But honestly, they could have been Biggles books.

Side note: as a kid I always thought that Biggles and his friends were gay. I didn’t really know what that was exactly, but they were definitely it. Monty Python agreed. Pity it wasn’t championed a bit more.

Seeing the differences outlined between the Dr No book and film does highlight an issue with plot vs character adaptation. Especially for a series. Change one and you have to change the other.

Although, it would be interesting to see how a cardboard thin character could be slotted into any plot without change. Like say the majority of Jason Statham’s roles.

No Time to Die finds James Bond, Her Majesty’s most infamous double-oh, retired in Jamaica. But we’re going all the way back to the first time Sean Connery as 007 found his way to the Caribbean Island in 1962’s Doctor No. But while it was the first Bond adventure in the film franchise, it was the sixth book author Ian Fleming published. So how did the filmmakers set about adapting the middle of Bond’s novel career for the beginning of his film escapade? Dust off your license to kill because it’s time to ask, “Difference… What’s the Difference?”

Why Do People Think Huck Finn Is Racist?

This month’s It’s Lit is going to talk about one of the most controversial classics of literature.

I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn when I was very young. The former was an easy and entertaining read, but the latter I remember being a slog to get through. When I revisited Huck Finn as an adult I came across some history of the book which suggested Twain had battled to write the book over many years. This was certainly how the novel felt in reading.

Both times I read Huck Finn, I was struck by just how infantalised Jim’s character was. It felt wrong. And giving it any level of thought leads you to conclude that this was the way white people viewed African Americans at the time the book was written.

You could argue that this is to draw the reader in and have them empathise with the plight of African Americans. But then wouldn’t you also have Jim grow to become an adult equal to other people by the end of the novel? Or was that something Twain struggled with, as it may have not being judged “realistic” to his audience?

Previously, I’ve discussed banned books and Huckleberry Finn. Something this video raised is what I had said about schools teaching Huck Finn, and that is the idea of complex discussions. It’s hard to teach an older text, provide the context, provide the complex subject matter, and do it all justice. Especially when that subject and context is something like racism.

People might say they are no longer teaching or will attempt to ban Huck Finn because of the N-word. But realistically, it’s because they aren’t willing to put the effort into teaching a complex topic and text. Double that unwillingness if they are someone who wants to pretend racism doesn’t exist.

I’m still a fan of old Samuel Clemens. But as noted in the video, this book isn’t without flaws and there are plenty of other authors and books who probably need highlighting more than Twain and Huck Finn.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by American author Mark Twain is both considered one of the great American novels and one of the most frequently banned and contested novels due to its use of the N-word and racial stereotypes. This has launched many debates as to if the work should even be taught in schools.

Today we are going to attempt to crack the case: is Huckleberry Finn an anti-racist work? Or is it just plain ol’ racist?

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book vs Movie: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – What’s the Difference?

Did you know that Quentin Tarantino had novelised his ninth film? Neither did I. Let’s take a look and What’s the Difference?

As a Tarantino fan since the early 90s – geez, that makes me sound even older than I am – I have to come clean on Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. I didn’t like it.

I’ll even go a step further and say that his previous film, Hateful Eight, wasn’t good either.

Unlike Hateful Eight, which had a decisive moment when the film fell apart (Tarantino’s voice over setting up the third act just ruined everything for me), Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was entirely pedestrian. It always felt like a film avoiding being anything other than a love letter to Hollywood films of the 60s.

In fairness to the movie, Tarantino was clearly trying to subvert many of the usual movie moments and be more about actors making great films. For example, the scene at the ranch was setup for a fight for Pitt’s character (Cliff Booth) and the Manson acolytes. Instead, Tarantino subverts that moment and there is no fight, allowing us plenty more time for DiCaprio’s character to learn about method acting from his child co-star.

That the novelisation is quite different from the film isn’t particularly surprising. It’s pretty difficult to make Brad Pitt into a thoroughly unlikable character in a movie. Something to do with charisma and production credits. But the book is unconstrained by actor charisma, which makes it a good opportunity to throw the character under the bus.

Regardless of Tarantino’s future literary aspirations, I hope his tenth/final film is able to cement his career as one of the greats.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Who is Cliff Booth anyway?

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a celebrated installment in writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre. So when he came out with a book adaptation of the story, we were first in line to read it. But was the book markedly different from the film, and do those differences mean something big? We think so and we’ll explain in this Book vs. Film on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – The New Ending.

Popular Words Invented by Authors

Words are helpful in expressing ideas. So it is no surprise that authors, who sometimes try to express ideas, need to make a few words up. This video from PBS Other Words goes through a few examples.

I’m currently reading The Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent. A topic discussed in the book was on how language and culture shape how we think and express ourselves. So the ability to craft out language is an important skill to advance not only language, but also culture and society and potentially the way we think.

Personally, I’m trying to make the word beveragement catch on.

The Unappreciated Female Writers Who Invented the Novel

This month’s It’s Lit covers Amatory Fiction.

This is an interesting video for several reasons. I’m always amused when the topic of rethinking “great authors” comes up and people without pearls start clutching them.

The literary canon excluding certain types of authors and books shouldn’t be news to people. But there always seems to be plenty of reactionary debate making excuses for why, for example, Grapes of Wrath got published while Sanora Babb’s Whose Names Are Unknown (written the same year on the same topic, both using Babb’s notes) took 65 years to be released. Yeah, that was a thing.

I’ve covered this before when calls have been made to increase the diversity of the literary lists for students in the hopes that more diversity of texts will be taught. Getting people who don’t read much to acknowledge that “literary greats” are less about talent than luck (timing, contacts, $$, etc) is a hard task. Trying to get those same people to acknowledge that women, people of colour, and non-Americans might have written books throughout history is often a hurdle they are unwilling to even attempt jumping.

Which brings me around to one of my favourite topics here: snobbery and guilty pleasures. The It’s Lit video shows how snobbery essentially relegated an important part of literature to the unknown and unappreciated baskets of history. Combine that snobbery with a bit of the old bigotry of the pants and you will have people trying to ignore a segment of literature that broke boundaries (e.g. Behn wrote one of the earliest anti-slavery novels).

For more on Sanora Babb’s novel, it is worth watching this video:

The guy typically credited with inventing what we know as the modern novel was Miguel de Cervantes with his cumbersome 800+ page book, Don Quixote. But what if I told you that the real antecedent for the modern novel was created by… ladies.

Before the rise of what would become the modern novel, there was Amatory fiction. Amatory fiction was a genre of fiction that became popular in Britain in the late 17th century and early 18th century. As its name implies, amatory fiction is preoccupied with sexual love and romance. Most of its works were short stories, it was dominated by women, and women were the ones responsible for sharing and promoting their own work.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book vs Movie: Shadow & Bone – What’s the Difference?

Screen Rant have broken down the differences between book and Netflix show for Shadow & Bone.

I’m about half-way through the series on Netflix. It didn’t exactly wow me out of the gate, but I did think it had potential. A few episodes in and I’m entertained.

I really appreciate the differences between the book and the show. It elevates the show about generic YA and gives us Inej Ghafa earlier in the series.

Although, still generic enough to have me laugh at the super obvious love triangle.

Book vs Movie: The Queen’s Gambit – What’s the Difference?

This month’s What’s the Difference? looks at The Queen’s Gambit.

On my Netflix profile there are a couple of types of recommendation categories that keep popping up. One is “Because you watched John Wick shoot 400 people in the head” and the other is “Movies based on books”. Both are obviously bound to have good recommendations in them.

Needless to say, I became aware of The Queen’s Gambit because of the fact it was based upon a book. That I’d never heard of the book is probably telling you a lot about how many chess thrillers I read.

The changes mentioned in the video above were intriguing. The one that stuck out to me was the mother being turned into a rich woman with a PhD. In the 1950s. This really feels like some lazy shorthand by the screenwriters.

Often in movies you’ll have super-smart characters described as having a number of PhDs. Because smart people obviously feel the need to have multiple PhDs rather than doing postdocs, climbing the corporate or academic hierarchy, and becoming world renowned. It used to be that these smart characters would have a large IQ, but that is falling out of favour. I’m hoping it is because authors realise that IQ has limited utility, but realistically it will be because it has become a cliche.

The idea that the mother had to be rich is something I’ve noted with a lot of films and TV shows of late. There appears to be a fetishisation of wealth happening in our media. Sure, Snowpiercer, Parasite, etc., have all been popular of late. But look at how many protagonists are billionaires (or millionaires). Think about the revision of characters like Spiderman from working class to being wealthy or having wealthy benefactors.

Maybe I’m just having selective memory. There is a noted phenomenon of movie and TV show productions displaying an utter failure to understand what things cost or what poverty looks like. Like having the Friends cast living in apartments that none of them could afford. Maybe I’m just hung-up on the Spiderman example – since a big part of his character was struggling financially whilst being a hero. Or maybe having poor characters makes product placement – like a lime green Alpha Romeo in Michael Bay’s 6 Underground – really hard.

Netflix made chess sexy again with its limited series The Queen’s Gambit. With Anya Taylor-Joy as orphan turned chess prodigy Beth Harmon, writer director Scott Frank created a cinematic portrayal of the mind of a chess genius through substance abuse, struggles with mental health and even the Cold War. But Walter Tevis wrote the novel in a simple, unadorned style that’s a far cry from the stylish and sexy version of the story that wound up in your Netflix queue. So with no restraint on spoilers, it’s time to ask, what’s the difference?

While Anya Taylor-Joy is a more glamorous version of Beth Harmon in the Golden Globe winning awards season darling, the story follows a lot of the same beats. Following her from orphan and prodigy to eventual chess master and world champion, Thomas Brodie-Sangster of Game of Thrones and Harry Melling from the Harry Potter franchise play more complicated versions of their book counterparts. But many of the changes, while seemingly small, have sneaky wide-ranging implications on the Beth’s journey from learning the game from the janitor at an orphanage, to developing an addiction to pills and ultimately her victory over a Russian Grand Master. It’s an interesting and sometimes frustrating collection of changes!

Book vs Movie: Howl’s Moving Castle – What’s the Difference?

This month’s What’s the Difference covers a beloved movie in Howl’s Moving Castle.

I have to admit to not having gotten onboard of the Studio Ghibli lovefest bandwagon. At best, I can claim to have watched half of Spirited Away and some film analysis videos that sing the studio’s praises.

But, but, Fantasy! And anti-war! And environmentalism! And anti-consumerism! And anti-discrimination!

Yes, I know. I watched Astroboy as a kid.

Seriously, what is it about drawing and animation that leads to having a social conscious?*

Anyway, I like that a lauded production company manages to make book adaptations that improve on the source material. Maybe I’ll give it a watch at some stage.

* Let’s just ignore examples like Scott Adams… who is just terrible despite making some really funny comics in the past.

Anne Rice, The Queen of Literary Monsters

This month’s It’s Lit! covers the woman who made vampires sexy.

I was a young and impressionable university student when I bought The Vampire Lestat. It was not the first reimagining of vampires as more human creatures I’d read, but it managed to feel more substantial than other efforts. As a result, I went out and gradually made my way through the first half-a-dozen Vampire Chronicles. They still sit proudly on my shelf next to my wife’s collection of Twilight books.

There were obviously a lot of people who felt the same way as myself. We enjoyed the tales of immortals walking through history. We even liked that pensive sadness all the characters dripped. It certainly made the indulgent detailed descriptions of ancient art mildly tolerable.

And I think that is why I parted way with the Vampire Chronicles and Rice’s works in general. There was a moment in reading one of her novels, either Blood and Gold or perhaps a Mayfair Witches books, when I remember commenting upon the poem at the beginning of a chapter. Here was yet another very arty poem by Rice’s husband to skip over, what a waste of good paper.

Now, I generally dislike non-novel additions to novels. Chapter titles are fine, but sub-headings, dates, locations, quotes, poems, and other indulgences are just stuff in the way of my book reading. They often feel like attempts to make the work more arty or important than it really is. In the case of dates and locations, common in thrillers, they feel like lazy writing. And Rice was the author who made me dislike these things.

Once you start pulling at the thread, things start to unravel. I started to realise just how indulgent and boring much of Rice’s novels were. These were books I thoroughly enjoyed, yet I’ve not felt compelled to reread them since making this observation (I’d read several of the Vampire Chronicles at least twice at that point). Maybe I’m being too hard on Rice, I mean, she did pretty much reshape genre fiction (as discussed in the video). Maybe I need to revisit The Body Snatcher or The Vampire Lestat (again, as they were my favourites I’ve read multiple times).

Or maybe I should pickup some Lestat fanfic. Rice would love that.

Forbes once called her “The Warren Buffett of vampires,” but American author, Anne Rice has established herself as the literary queen of monsters of ALL kinds over her four-and-a-half decade career. Besides her 15 novels of the world-famous Vampire Chronicles series, she’s also written 21 other books featuring all your favorite dark, supernatural, and undead beings: witches, ghosts, mummies, werewolves, aliens, demons, angels, Jesus.

But the works of Anne Rice aren’t just light, pulpy fun monster books–her vampires changed the landscape of genre fiction as we know it?

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

How many climate crisis books will it take to save the planet?

Ben White/Unsplash, CC BY

Ian Lowe, Griffith University

It’s that time of the year again. Brochures and emails spruik a bumper crop of new books about the climate crisis.

Book cover: Bill Gates How to Avoid a Climate Disaster


Goodreads

This time there are some really big names: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates, Climate Crisis and the Global New Deal by Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin, All We Can Save by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson, What Can I Do? The Truth About Climate Change and How to Fix It by Jane Fonda, as well as new efforts from David Attenborough and Tim Flannery.

The incoming tide of new books makes me reflect and wonder whether writing still more books about climate change is a waste of precious time. When the UN is calling for governments to act to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, are books just preaching to the converted? My answer is no, but that doesn’t mean publishing, buying or reading more books is the answer to our climate emergency right now.




Read more:
Friday essay: thinking like a planet – environmental crisis and the humanities


Decades of books

In April, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the New York Times told readers this might be the year they finally read about climate change. But many already have.

The earliest titles date back to 1989: The Greenhouse Effect, Living in a Warmer Australia by Ann Henderson-Sellers and Russell Blong; my own contribution, Living in the Greenhouse, and the first book aimed at the US public, Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature.

Book cover: planet earth image. By Al Gore.


Goodreads

The science was still developing then. We knew human activity was increasing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. Measurable changes to the climate were also clear: more very hot days, fewer very cold nights, changes to rainfall patterns.

The 1985 Villach conference had culminated in an agreed statement warning there could be a link, but cautious scientists were saying more research was needed before we could be confident the changes had a human cause. There were credible alternative theories: the energy from the Sun could be changing, there could be changes in the Earth’s orbit, there might be natural factors we had not recognised.

By the mid-1990s, the debate was essentially over in the scientific community. Today there is barely a handful of credible climate scientists who don’t accept the evidence that human activity has caused the changes we are seeing. The agreed statements by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, led to the Kyoto Protocol being adopted in 1997.

And so — as the urgency being felt by the scientists increased — more books were published.

Former US vice president and 2007 Nobel Prize winner Al Gore’s book Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis was first published in 2008 and has since been issued in 20 editions. There have been more than enough books to furnish a list of the top 100 bestselling titles on the topic, recommended by the likes of Elon Musk and esteemed climate scientists and commentators. The ones I have acquired fill an entire bookcase shelf — dozens of titles describing the problem, making dire predictions, calling for action.

Girl walks through bookshop.

Preaching to the converted might not be such a bad thing.
Becca Tapert/Unsplash, CC BY



Read more:
‘The Earth was dying. Killed by the pursuit of money’ — rereading Ben Elton’s Stark as prophecy


Deeds not words

Does the new batch of books risk spreading more despair? If the previous books didn’t change our climate trajectory then what is the point in making readers feel the cause is hopeless and a bleak future is inevitable?

Book cover: What can I do? by Jane Fonda


Goodreads

No. Writing more books isn’t a waste of time, but they also shouldn’t be a high priority at the moment. The point of writing a book is to summarise what we know about the problem and identify credible ways forward.

Those were my goals when I wrote Living in the Greenhouse in 1989 and Living in the Hothouse in 2005. The main purpose of the first book was to draw attention to a problem that was largely unrecognised, trying to inform and persuade readers that we needed to take action. By the release of the second book, the aim was to counter the tsunami of misinformation unleashed by the fossil fuel industry, conservative institutions and the Murdoch press. Rupert Murdoch spoke at News Corp’s AGM this week, maintaining: “We do not deny climate change, we are not deniers”.

But there are two reasons why I’m not working on a third book right now.

The first is time. If I started writing today, it would be late next year before the book would be in the shops. We can’t afford another year of inaction. More importantly, the inaction of our national government is not a result of a lack of knowledge.

On November 9, United Nations chief António Guterres said the world was still falling well short of the leadership required to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050:

Our goal is to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Today, we are still headed towards three degrees at least.

Some believe the inaction is explained by the corruption of our politics by fossil fuel industry donations. Others see is a fundamental conflict between the concerted action needed and the dominant ideologies of governing parties. Making decision-makers better informed about the science won’t solve either of these problems.

They might be solved, however, by the evidence that a growing majority of voters want to see action to slow climate change.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has focused, rather than distracted, the community on the risks of climate change. A recent survey by the Boston Consulting Group of 3,000 people across eight countries found about 70% of respondents are now more aware of the risks of climate change than they were before the pandemic. Three-quarters say slowing climate change is as important as protecting the community from COVID-19.

The growing awareness and sense of urgency are backed by another recent study looking at internet search behaviour across 20 European countries. Researchers found signs of growing support for a post-COVID recovery program that emphasises sustainability.

Kids climate books on shelf.

Books have also educated young readers on the climate emergency.
Shutterstock



Read more:
Why it doesn’t make economic sense to ignore climate change in our recovery from the pandemic


Change is happening, more is needed

Still, preaching to the converted is not necessarily a bad thing. They might need to be reminded why they were persuaded that action is needed, or need help countering the half-truths and barefaced lies being peddled in the public debate. Books can fulfil that mission. So can speaking to community groups, which I do regularly.

I tell audiences the urgent priority now is to turn into action the knowledge we have about the accelerating impacts of climate change and economically viable responses. Our states and territories now have the goal of zero-carbon by 2050, so I am giving presentations spelling out how this can be achieved. We urgently need the Commonwealth government to catch up to the community.

Climate action protest sign above crowd.

Mass protests have called for environmental leadership.
Unsplash/Markus Spiske, CC BY

Change is happening rapidly. More than 2 million Australian households now have solar panels. Solar and wind provided more than half of the electricity used by South Australia last year and that state achieved a world-first on the morning of October 11: for a brief period, its entire electricity demand was met by solar panels.

The urgent task is not to publish more books on the crisis, but to change the political discourse and force our national government to play a positive role.The Conversation

Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor, School of Science, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

My Comment: I think an important point to be made about books on a topic is about influencing the zeitgeist and creating the groundswell for change. While books are only a small part of that, they do tend to lend credibility to any argument and push for change (hence why there is such a large amount of science denial, political revisionism, and blatant propaganda books published by various think tanks, pundits, and reactionaries trying to legitimise nonsense).

But we also have to acknowledge that at some point books are less about communicating ideas and influencing the zeitgeist and more about grift. There is money to be made by writing books. Publishers certainly make money with those books (and by publishing contrarian books… you know, for balance… and cash). And no small part of this grift is selling those books to well meaning people who will feel like reading the books counts as doing something about the issues raised.

So we have to remember, both as readers and writers, that the knowledge step of the book is only as valuable and meaningful as what we do with that knowledge.

10 ‘lost’ Australian literary treasures you should read – and can soon borrow from any library

Perfecto Capucine/Unsplash

Rebecca Giblin, University of Melbourne and Airlie Lawson, University of Melbourne

Many culturally important books by Australian authors are out of print, hard to find as secondhand copies, and confined to the physical shelves of a limited number of libraries. Effectively, they have become inaccessible and invisible — even including some Miles Franklin award winners by authors such as Thea Astley and Rodney Hall.

To ensure these works can be read, a team of authors, librarians and researchers are working together on Untapped: the Australian Literary Heritage Project.

By digitising out of print books and making them available for e-lending, the project will create a royalty stream for the authors involved, as well as income for the arts workers we are employing as proofreaders.

Commercial publishing lists, such as Text Classics and Allen & Unwin’s House of Books, do a great job of breathing new life into some of Australia’s lost books. But they often focus on literary fiction, to the exclusion of genre fiction, children’s books and non-fiction, which also need to be preserved.

Here are 10 of our favourites we’re excited to digitise so you can borrow from your local library straight to your e-device. We expect these and other books in the project to be available in the first half of 2021 – and you too can nominate a book for inclusion in the collection here.

Working Bullocks (1926) by Katharine Susannah Prichard

Book cover

Before Coonardoo (1929), Prichard’s best known work, there was Working Bullocks.

The novel describes the trials of Red Burke, a bullock driver in Western Australia, trying to make a living in a post-war Australia.

Just after the novel’s original publication, it was described by John Sleeman of The Bookman in the UK as “the high-water mark of Australian literary achievement in the novel so far”.

Metal Fatigue (1996) by Sean Williams

Sean Williams has written over 50 books, including co-authored titles with authors such as Shane Dix and Garth Nix which have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list.

Metal Fatigue was Williams’ debut. Set in a small American city 40 years after the end of a nuclear war, the residents must decide if they want to join the newly forming Re-United States of America.

Depicting a dystopic future of violence, shortages and a divided USA, it still feels remarkably current today.

I’m Not Racist, But… (2007) by Anita Heiss

Book cover

This poetry collection from activist, writer and member of the Wiradjuri Nation, Professor Anita Heiss, skewers Australia’s racist underbelly.

I’m Not Racist, But… explores identity, pride and political correctness; proposes alternative words to the national anthem; and reveals how it is to grow up as an Indigenous woman in Australia.

This is a landmark work along Australia’s slow road to racial reckoning.

Space Demons (1986) by Gillian Rubinstein

The multi-award winning Space Demons was Gillian Rubinstein’s first book and began the much-loved trilogy of the same name.

It follows four ordinary kids drawn into a dangerous new computer game – instead of simply watching the game on the screen, they become part of it. And there is no way to know if they will escape.

With its gripping plot and local setting, Space Demons introduced many children to Australian science fiction – and led to many Australians first discovering their love of reading.




Read more:
Curious Kids: Why do adults think video games are bad?


Noonkanbah: Whose Land, Whose Law (1989) by Steve Hawke, with photographs by Michael Gallagher

Book cover

In 1979-80, the Yungngora people protested to stop the American company Amax drilling for oil on a sacred site on Noonkanbah Station, Western Australia.

This book is the detailed first-hand account of what became a high profile, ground-breaking land rights campaign, leading to the formation of the Kimberley Land Council. The Yungngora people wouldn’t have their native title rights recognised until 2007.

Alongside the reporting by Hawke, son of former PM Bob Hawke?, the book includes photographs taken by anthropologist Michael Gallagher.

This is an essential work of Australian history.

The Unlucky Australians (1968) by Frank Hardy

Frank Hardy was known for his political activism around labour rights, and as the author of 16 books. Almost his entire backlist is out of print, with the notable exception of Power Without Glory (1950).

In The Unlucky Australians, Hardy tells the story of the Gurindji people and the opening years of the strike they began in 1966.

Their protest against poor working and living conditions, seeking the return of their traditional lands, lasted nine years.

The Whitlam government returned some of those lands in 1975 with the historic transfer of “a handful of dirt” and the strike led to the passage of the historic Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in 1976.

A vital piece towards understanding the shameful labour conditions inflicted upon Indigenous Australians, this book should never have gone out of print.




Read more:
An historic handful of dirt: Whitlam and the legacy of the Wave Hill Walk-Off


The Mandala trilogy (1993-2004) by Carmel Bird

Inspired by three real life charismatic and dangerous individuals, these dark stories of abused trust and misplaced faith are transformed, taking on a gothic quality, with complex narratives, unlikely narrators and fairy-tale elements.

The White Garden is an ambitious novel following the misdeeds of the psychiatrist Dr Goddard (or Dr God, for short) in a hospital in the 1960s. Red Shoes takes us into the world of a religious cult. Cape Grimm looks at a religious order after its members are killed by their charismatic leader.

The Mindless Ferocity of Sharks (2003) by Brett D’Arcy

The Mindless Ferocity of Sharks is coming-of-age story about “Floaty Boy”, an 11-year-old with a love of body-surfing, his family, and what happens when his older brother disappears.

Described by the Australian Book Review as “Tim Winton on speed”, D’Arcy shines his own spotlight on Western Australia, exploring the duality of a life spent between the waves and the shore – and what happens when a family becomes torn apart by loss.


Untapped will launch with a free online celebration on November 24 at 6pm. Register for the launch here, nominate a book for inclusion at untapped.org.au – and let us know what you think we should digitise in the comments.The Conversation

Rebecca Giblin, ARC Future Fellow; Associate Professor; Director, Intellectual Property Research Institute of Australia, University of Melbourne and Airlie Lawson, Postdoctoral Fellow, ‘Untapped: the Australian Literary Heritage Project’, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australian literature is chronically underfunded — here’s how to help it flourish

Kate Winslet in the 2015 film The Dressmaker. The film was based on the novel by Australian writer Rosalie Ham. Screen Australia, Film Art Media, White Hot Productions

Gail Jones, Western Sydney University

This is an edited version of author Gail Jones’ submission to the parliamentary inquiry into the creative industries.

Literary culture carries profound social value. In general terms it is essential to employment, cultural literacy and understanding of community, as well as to Australia’s post-pandemic recovery and growth. It is also radically underfunded and in urgent need of new support.

I am particularly concerned with the low level of investment in literature through state and federal funding agencies compared with other art forms.

The economic benefits

Literature is a mainstay of the creative and cultural industries, which contributed $63.5 billion to the Australian economy in 2016-17. Creative arts employ 645,000 Australians and those numbers were increasing before the pandemic. Literature operates in the economy in many and complicated ways, since writers are “primary producers” of creative content.

Books form an often invisible bedrock of robust resources for the wider economy. They provide creative content in areas such as film, television, theatre and opera; moreover they contribute fundamentally to the educational sector, to libraries, events and what might be called our forms of cultural conversation.

Julia Ormond and Angourie Rice in Ladies in Black, a 2018 film based on the novel by Australian author Madeleine St John. Lumila Films, Ladies in Black SPV, Screen Australia

The most conspicuous areas of economic benefit and employment are libraries, universities, schools, festivals, bookshops and publishing.

Indirect benefits, such as to tourism and cross-cultural understanding, are often overlooked in reference to the economic benefits of literature. Our books carry implicit, prestigious reference to a national culture and place; they attract interest, visitors and students and arguably establish a presence of ideas above and beyond more direct mechanisms of cultural exchange.

Cross-cultural exchange and understanding are crucial to the literary industries and of inestimable benefit in “recommending” Australia and its stories.

However, writers’ incomes are disastrously low, $12,900 on average; and COVID-19 has eliminated other forms of supplementary income. It has always been difficult to live as a writer in Australia (which is why most of us have “day jobs”) and it is clear writers are disproportionately disadvantaged. Although essential to the economic benefits of a healthy arts sector overall, writers are less supported by our institutions and infrastructure.


Read more: Five ways to boost Australian writers’ earnings


Total literature funding at the Australia Council has decreased by 44% over the past six years from $9 million in 2013-14 to $5.1 million in 2018-19. The abolition of specific literature programs such as Get Reading, Books Alive and the Book Council has been responsible for much of this decrease.

We need additional government-directed support such as the funding delivered to visual arts through the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy ($6.6 million in 2018-19), regional touring delivered through Playing Australia ($7.4 million 2018-19) and the Major Festivals Initiative ($1.5 million 2018-19).

Melbourne’s State Library. Valeriu Campan/AAP

Shaping national identity

The literary culture in Australia is chronically underfunded, but its benefits are persistent, precious and immense. “Social well-being” requires social literacy, a sense of connection to one’s history, community and self: these are generated and nourished through narrative, conversation and reflection.

The literary arts create a sense of pride, community and solidarity. A single library in a country town can offer astonishing opportunities of learning and self-knowledge: how do we calculate value like this?


Read more: Friday essay: the library – humanist ideal, social glue and now, tourism hotspot


As someone who grew up in remote and regional areas, I’m aware of how crucial libraries and book culture are to a sense of connection with the nation. Moreover, reading is an indicator of mental health, especially among young people.

Brothers Douglas and Dare Strout read a school book together while home schooling in Brisbane in April. Darren England/AAP

“National identity” also requires reflexive literacy: social understanding and agency derive from reading and writing; a nation that neglects its literary culture risks losing the skills that contribute to creative thinking in other areas — including in industry and innovative manufacturing. Local reading and writing initiatives have had remarkable success in areas like Aboriginal literacy and aged care mental support.

More Australians are reading, writing and attending festival events than ever before. Reading is the second most popular way Australians engage with arts and culture.

Writers’ festivals are flourishing and attendances growing. Libraries remain crucial to our urban and regional communities. It is no overstatement to claim that literature has shaped and reflected our complex national identity.

Australian literature at universities

The formulation of a Creative Economy Taskforce by Arts Minister Paul Fletcher is a positive step in establishing better understanding of this crucial economy. I would draw attention, however, to the lack of literary expertise on the taskforce. The appointment of a publisher or a high-profile Indigenous writer, for example, would give more diversity to the collective voice of our literary community.

The additional appointment of an academic concerned with Australian literature, such as the current director of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, would further enhance the claims of literature.

The education sector will have a role in implementing creative arts initiatives. There has been a deplorable lack of support for Australian literature within the academy.

Under the current wish to renovate the jobs sector through the creative arts there is an opportunity to direct dedicated funds within the education budget to establishing a Chair of Australian Literature in each university (or at least in the Group of Eight).

There is currently one Chair at the University of Western Australia and a privately endowed one at the University of Melbourne. Postgraduate scholarships could also be offered specifically in the area of Australian literary studies.

Alexis Wright, pictured here in 2007 after winning the Miles Franklin award, is the Boisbouvier Chair of Australian Literature at Melbourne University. Dean Lewins/AAP

For a comparatively small outlay in budget terms, such a move would signal direct support for Australian reading, writing and research and would be widely celebrated in the education and library sectors.

‘Embarrassing’

It is embarrassing to discover that some European universities (in my experience Belgium, Germany and Italy, in particular) study more Australian literature than is offered in our own nation.

The case for increased Australia Council funding in the neglected area of literature has already been made. Writers’ incomes are, as attested, direly low and I worry in particular about diminishing funding for new and emerging writers.

An injection of funds into the literature sector of the Australia Council is another efficient and speedy way in which to signal understanding of the fundamental role of literature to our cultural enterprises and economic growth.

Cuts to publishing, festivals, journals, individual writers’ grants and programs generally, have had a disastrous effect on the incomes and opportunities for writers in this nation. Notwithstanding a few highly publicised commercial successes, most writers truly struggle to make ends meet. The “trickle down effects” — from a sustaining grant, say, to a literary journal — have direct economic benefits to writers and therefore to the wider economy.


Read more: Literary magazines are often the first place new authors are published. We can’t lose them


Most writers’ work is not recognised as a “job”; if it were, if there were a definition of “writer” as a category of honourable labour (such as it is, for example, in Germany and France), writers would be eligible for Jobmaker and Jobseeker benefits.

This may be blue-sky thinking, but I look forward to a future in which forms of precarious labour, like writing, are recognised and honoured as legitimate jobs.

Another area that may work well with literature is foreign aid. The government of Canada, for example, donates entire libraries of Canadian literature as part of its aid program. (I’ve seen one installed on the campus of the University of New Delhi.)

What about gifting libraries of Australian books as part of our aid program? Hamilton Churton/PR Handout

This works as a stimulus to the host economy (benefiting publishers and writers) and also the receiving community, for whom access to books and education may be difficult. It also encourages study of the host culture’s writings and has benevolent “soft power” effects of inestimable worth.

‘Literature houses’

The government has indicated physical infrastructure (buildings and so on) will be necessary to the renovation of the domestic economy post-COVID. This is a wonderful opportunity to consider funding “literature houses”, purpose-built sites for readings, writer accommodation for local and overseas residencies, places for book-launches, discussion and the general support of literature.

The Literaturhaus system in Germany, in which all major cities have funded buildings for writer events, and in which, crucially, writers are paid for readings and appearances, is a wonderful success and helps writers’ incomes enormously.

The Frankfurt Literaturhaus. shutterstock

The inclusion of Indigenous, regional, rural and community organisations in proposals for “literature houses” would stimulate local building economies and generate community recognition of Australian literature.

The Regional Australia Institute considers creative arts as a potentially productive area of regional economies. However its 2016 map of Australia has a tiny space allocated to creative industries (situated around Alice Springs and linked to the Indigenous art industry). This strikes me as a radical imbalance and a missed opportunity.

A priority for this inquiry could be support for initiatives in literature, perhaps through existing library or schools infrastructure, to address creatively matters of both rural innovation and disadvantage.

Encouraging workshops in writing, including visiting writers, addressing reading and writing as a creative enterprise for the community as a whole: these could form the basis for an enlivening cultural participation and skills. Dedicated funds in literature for regional, remote and rural communities are urgently required.

Literature, in all its forms, is crucial to our nation — to the imaginations of our children, to the mental health and development of our adolescents, to the adult multicultural community more generally — in affirming identity, purpose and meaning.

Gail Jones, Professor, Writing and Society Research Centre, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

I have a couple of points to add:
1) $12,900 average but $2,800 median. The Median figure is much more relevant and telling.
2) Literature needs to be defined as all of the genres, not just the small section that is held up as “important”. Otherwise you will further erode the writing industry.

See more here:

https://tysonadams.wordpress.com/2018/01/24/writing-in-western-australia/

https://tysonadams.com/2018/01/10/literary-fiction-in-crisis/

The (Stephen) King of Horror

This month’s It’s Lit! is looking at the career of Stephen King.

I’m not sure I fully appreciated Stephen King until more recently. When I was younger I didn’t get into his books; IT was particularly popular when I was in primary school. Then when I was a bit older, I tried a few novels with mixed results (Carrie was great, the first Dark Tower didn’t grab me).

My view of King changed when I picked up On Writing. Every writer recommends it as a must read for budding authors. It was while reading this book that I realised just how prolific and successful King has been.

Take a look at the NYT bestseller lists for fiction. From the mid-70s through to today you will battle to find a year where King didn’t have at least one bestseller. That’s without even looking at top 10s for those years either. There aren’t any authors with that sort of staying power and talent. Most would battle to even churn out something half-readable after a decade or two.

So:

Few writers have had the sheer staying power, popularity, and prolific output as Stephen King. From insatiably flesh-hungry clowns and sentient cars to telekinetic teenagers and mystical gunslingers, if there’s one author who has taken up valuable real estate in that part of our imaginations, it’s Stephen King. But it’s not just his monsters that have lasting power—it’s also the very human and very psychological elements in his work that linger.

So come with me, Constant Reader, while I lead you through the dark and twisted world of Uncle Stevie, the King of Horror…

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Can robots write?

Machine learning produces dazzling results, but some assembly is still required

Shutterstock

Alexandra Louise Uitdenbogerd, RMIT University

You might have seen a recent article from The Guardian written by “a robot”. Here’s a sample:

I know that my brain is not a “feeling brain”. But it is capable of making rational, logical decisions. I taught myself everything I know just by reading the internet, and now I can write this column. My brain is boiling with ideas!

Read the whole thing and you may be astonished at how coherent and stylistically consistent it is. The software used to produce it is called a “generative model”, and they have come a long way in the past year or two.

But exactly how was the article created? And is it really true that software “wrote this entire article”?

How machines learn to write

The text was generated using the latest neural network model for language, called GPT-3, released by the American artificial intelligence research company OpenAI. (GPT stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer.)

OpenAI’s previous model, GPT-2, made waves last year. It produced a fairly plausible article about the discovery of a herd of unicorns, and the researchers initially withheld the release of the underlying code for fear it would be abused.

But let’s step back and look at what text generation software actually does.

Machine learning approaches fall into three main categories: heuristic models, statistical models, and models inspired by biology (such as neural networks and evolutionary algorithms).

Heuristic approaches are based on “rules of thumb”. For example, we learn rules about how to conjugate verbs: I run, you run, he runs, and so on. These approaches aren’t used much nowadays because they are inflexible.




Read more:
From Twitterbots to VR: 10 of the best examples of digital literature


Writing by numbers

Statistical approaches were the state of the art for language-related tasks for many years. At the most basic level, they involve counting words and guessing what comes next.

As a simple exercise, you could generate text by randomly selecting words based on how often they normally occur. About 7% of your words would be “the” – it’s the most common word in English. But if you did it without considering context, you might get nonsense like “the the is night aware”.

More sophisticated approaches use “bigrams”, which are pairs of consecutive words, and “trigrams”, which are three-word sequences. This allows a bit of context and lets the current piece of text inform the next. For example, if you have the words “out of”, the next guessed word might be “time”.

This happens with the auto-complete and auto-suggest features when we write text messages or emails. Based on what we have just typed, what we tend to type and a pre-trained background model, the system predicts what’s next.

While bigram- and trigram-based statistical models can produce good results in simple situations, the best recent models go to another level of sophistication: deep learning neural networks.

Imitating the brain

Neural networks work a bit like tiny brains made of several layers of virtual neurons.

A neuron receives some input and may or may not “fire” (produce an output) based on that input. The output feeds into neurons in the next layer, cascading through the network.

The first artificial neuron was proposed in 1943 by US neuroscientists Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts, but they have only become useful for complex problems like generating text in the past five years.

To use neural networks for text, you put words into a kind of numbered index. You can use the number to represent a word, so for example 23,342 might represent “time”.

Neural networks do a series of calculations to go from sequences of numbers at the input layer, through the interconnected “hidden layers” inside, to the output layer. The output might be numbers representing the odds for each word in the index to be the next word of the text.

In our “out of” example, number 23,432 representing “time” would probably have much better odds than the number representing “do”.




Read more:
Friday essay: a real life experiment illuminates the future of books and reading


What’s so special about GPT-3?

GPT-3 is the latest and best of the text modelling systems, and it’s huge. The authors say it has 175 billion parameters, which makes it at least ten times larger than the previous biggest model. The neural network has 96 layers and, instead of mere trigrams, it keeps track of sequences of 2,048 words.

The most expensive and time-consuming part of making a model like this is training it – updating the weights on the connections between neurons and layers. Training GPT-3 would have used about 262 megawatt-hours of energy, or enough to run my house for 35 years.

GPT-3 can be applied to multiple tasks such as machine translation, auto-completion, answering general questions, and writing articles. While people can often tell its articles are not written by human authors, we are now likely to get it right only about half the time.

The robot writer

But back to how the article in The Guardian was created. GPT-3 needs a prompt of some kind to start it off. The Guardian’s staff gave the model instructions and some opening sentences.

This was done eight times, generating eight different articles. The Guardian’s editors then combined pieces from the eight generated articles, and “cut lines and paragraphs, and rearranged the order of them in some places”, saying “editing GPT-3’s op-ed was no different to editing a human op-ed”.

This sounds about right to me, based on my own experience with text-generating software. Earlier this year, my colleagues and I used GPT-2 to write the lyrics for a song we entered in the AI Song Contest, a kind of artificial intelligence Eurovision.

AI song Beautiful the World, by Uncanny Valley.

We fine-tuned the GPT-2 model using lyrics from Eurovision songs, provided it with seed words and phrases, then selected the final lyrics from the generated output.

For example, we gave Euro-GPT-2 the seed word “flying”, and then chose the output “flying from this world that has gone apart”, but not “flying like a trumpet”. By automatically matching the lyrics to generated melodies, generating synth sounds based on koala noises, and applying some great, very human, production work, we got a good result: our song, Beautiful the World, was voted the winner of the contest.

Co-creativity: humans and AI together

So can we really say an AI is an author? Is it the AI, the developers, the users or a combination?

A useful idea for thinking about this is “co-creativity”. This means using generative tools to spark new ideas, or to generate some components for our creative work.

Where an AI creates complete works, such as a complete article, the human becomes the curator or editor. We roll our very sophisticated dice until we get a result we’re happy with.




Read more:
Computing gives an artist new tools to be creative


The Conversation


Alexandra Louise Uitdenbogerd, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.