Artificial Intelligence Identifies the Six Main Arcs in Storytelling: Welcome to the Brave New World of Literary Criticism

Is the singularity upon us? AI seems poised to replace everyone, even artists whose work can seem like an inviolably human industry. Or maybe not. Nick Cave’s poignant answer to a fan question might persuade you a machine will never write a great song, though it might master all the moves to write a good one. An AI-written novel did almost win a Japanese literary award. A suitably impressive feat, even if much of the authorship should be attributed to the program’s human designers.

But what about literary criticism? Is this an art that a machine can do convincingly? The answer may depend on whether you consider it an art at all. For those who do, no artificial intelligence will ever properly develop the theory of mind needed for subtle, even moving, interpretations. On the other hand, one group of researchers has succeeded in using “sophisticated computing power, natural language processing, and reams of digitized text,” writes Atlantic editor Adrienne LaFrance, “to map the narrative patterns in a huge corpus of literature.” The name of their literary criticism machine? The Hedonometer.

We can treat this as an exercise in compiling data, but it's arguable that the results are on par with work from the comparative mythology school of James Frazier and Joseph Campbell. A more immediate comparison might be to the very deft, if not particularly subtle, Kurt Vonnegut, who—before he wrote novels like Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradlesubmitted a master’s thesis in anthropology to the University of Chicago. His project did the same thing as the machine, 35 years earlier, though he may not have had the wherewithal to read “1,737 English-language works of fiction between 10,000 and 200,000 words long" while struggling to finish his graduate program. (His thesis, by the way, was rejected.)

Those numbers describe the dataset from Project Gutenberg fed into the The Hedonometer by the computer scientists at the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide. After the computer finished "reading," it then plotted “the emotional trajectory” of all of the stories using a “sentiment analysis to generate an emotional arc for each work.” What it found were six broad categories of story, listed below:

  1. Rags to Riches (rise)
  2. Riches to Rags (fall)
  3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
  4. Icarus (rise then fall)
  5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
  6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

How does this endeavor compare with Vonnegut’s project? (See him present the theory below.) The novelist used more or less the same methodology, in human form, to come up with eight universal story arcs or “shapes of stories.” Vonnegut himself left out the Rags to Riches category; he called it an anomaly, though he did have a heading for the same rising-only story arc—the Creation Story—which he deemed an uncommon shape for Western fiction. He did include the Cinderella arc, and was pleased by his discovery that its shape mirrored the New Testament arc, which he also included in his schema, an act the AI surely would have judged redundant.

Contra Vonnegut, the AI found that one-fifth of all the works it analyzed were Rags-to-Riches stories. It determined that this arc was far less popular with readers than “Oedipus,” “Man in a Hole,” and “Cinderella.” Its analysis does get much more granular, and to allay our suspicions, the researchers promise they did not control the outcome of the experiment. “We’re not imposing a set of shapes,” says lead author Andy Reagan, Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at the University of Vermont. “Rather: the math and machine learning have identified them.”

But the authors do provide a lot of their own interpretation of the data, from choosing representative texts—like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—to illustrate “nested and complicated” plot arcs, to providing the guiding assumptions of the exercise. One of those assumptions, unsurprisingly given the authors’ fields of interest, is that math and language are interchangeable. “Stories are encoded in art, language, and even in the mathematics of physics,” they write in the introduction to their paper, published on

“We use equations," they go on, "to represent both simple and complicated functions that describe our observations of the real world.” If we accept the premise that sentences and integers and lines of code are telling the same stories, then maybe there isn’t as much difference between humans and machines as we would like to think.

via The Atlantic

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Here’s John Steinbeck Asking Marilyn Monroe for Her Autograph (1955)

When asking a celebrity for a special favor, it helps to be a bit of a celebrity yourself.

As Keith Ferrell details in his biography, John Steinbeck: The Voice of the Land, the Nobel laureate had little patience for autograph seekers, pushy young writers seeking help getting published, and “people who never read books but enjoyed meeting authors.”

The shoe went on the other foot when Mrs. Steinbeck let slip to her nephew that Uncle John had met the boy’s movie star crush, Marilyn Monroe.

Suddenly, an autographed photo seemed in order.

And not just some standard issue publicity shot, but ideally one showing the star of The Seven Year Itch and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in a “pensive girlish mood.”

Also, could she please inscribe it by name to nephew Jon, a young man with, his uncle confided, “one foot in the door of puberty”?

The star-to-star tone Steinbeck adopts for the above letter seems designed to ward off suspicion that this nephew could be a convenient invention on the part of someone desiring such a prize for himself.

Sixty years after a secretary typed it up, Steinbeck's message fetched $3,520 at Julien’s Auctions, one of a wide range of items culled from hardcore Marilyn Monroe collector, David Gainsborough-Roberts as well as the estate of Monroe's acting teacher, Lee Strasberg.

In addition to other correspondence, the Marilyn auction included annotated scripts, an empty prescription bottle, a ballerina paperweight, stockings and gowns, some pinup-type memorabilia, and a program from John F Kennedy’s 1962 birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden.

One lot that is conspicuous for its absence is Steinbeck’s promised “guest key to the ladies’ entrance of Fort Knox.”

Could it be that the boy never got his customized autograph?

We'd like to think that he did. Perhaps he's still savoring it in private.

H/T Alan Goldwasser/Letters of Note/Flashbak

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain, this Monday, March 11. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Elaborate Pictogram Ernest Hemingway Received in the Hospital During WWI: Can You Decode Its Meaning?

Everyone who knows the work of Ernest Hemingway knows A Farewell to Arms, and everyone who knows A Farewell to Arms knows that Hemingway drew on his experience as a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy during World War I. Just a few months after shipping out, the eighteen-year-old writer-to-be — filled, he later said, with "a great illusion of immortality" — got caught by mortar fire while taking chocolate and cigarettes from the canteen to the front line. Recovering from his wounds in a Milanese hospital, he fell in love with an American nurse named Agnes Hannah von Kurowsky, who would become the model for Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms.

Hemingway wrote that novel years after Kurowsky had left him for an Italian officer, but when their prospects still looked good, they received this curious letter, which at first glance looks like nothing more than a few pages of doodles. "We think it may be a rebus or another type of pictogram that uses pictures to represent words, parts of words, or phrases," wrote Jessica Green, an intern at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library where it turned up, in 2012. "Can you help us solve this puzzle?" Quite a few Hemingway-enthusiast commenters dutifully got to their interpretive work below Green's post, bringing to bear their knowledge of the writer's life and work on these animals, musical notes, grinning faces, and mugs of beer, all strung together with logic symbols.

If you need a hint, you might start with the apparent fact that the letter came from three of Hemingway's ambulance-driver buddies. "The letter is a cheerful narrative of the three friends’ recent hijinks," writes Slate's Rebecca Onion. "In the salutation, the writers used a foaming mug of beer to represent Hemingway’s name (he was often called 'Hemingstein'); clearly, these were men who shared Hemingway’s love for inebriation." But even before they addressed good old Hemingstein, they addressed Kurowsky — as, in the visual language invented for their purposes, a frying pan with an egg in it. "Ag sounds like egg," explains the decipherment Green later posted to the JFK Library's blog.

Green goes on to break down the pictographic letter section by section, from Brummy, Bill, and Jenks' plans to take leave time and come to Milan, Brummy's unfortunate recent experience with "mixed drinks made from Asti Spumanti, Rum, Cognac, Marsala, and Rock Syrup," Jenks' driving of the bedbugs in his bed into that of another driver, and the glorious results of Bill's trimming and waxing of his mustache, and more besides. To modern readers, the letter offers not just a glimpse into the sensibilities of Hemingway's social circle but life on the Italian front in 1918. And for Hemingway himself, receiving such an amusing piece of correspondence during six long months of recuperation in the hospital must surely have done something to lift the spirits, though what effect its distinctive compositional style may have had on his own writing seemingly remains to be studied.

Click here to read a decoding of this pictogram from 1918.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The British Library Digitizes Its Collection of Obscene Books (1658-1940)

Many people are cheated out of an authentic education in English literature because of a longstanding puritanical approach to its curation. One might spend a lifetime reading the traditional canon without ever, for example, learning much about the long history of popular pornographic British writing, a genre that flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries as the popularity of the novel exploded. Everyone knows the Marquis de Sade, even if they haven’t read him, not least because he lent his name to psychoanalytic theory. Many of us have read Voltaire’s randy satire, Candide. But few know the name John Cleland, author of Fanny Hill, a bawdy British novel published in 1748, over forty years before de Sade’s Justine.

A book that serves up its own wealth of psychosexual insights, Fanny Hill does not disappoint either as pornographic writing or as entertaining fiction. Cleland wrote the book while in debtors’ prison, after he “boasted to James Boswell, himself no mean pornographer… that he could write a sexually exciting story of ‘a woman of pleasure’ without using a single ‘foul’ word,” writes John Sutherland at The Guardian. Cleland succeeded, in a narrative loaded with crudely Shakespearean puns and euphemisms. The wordplay in the title character’s name, an Anglicization of mons veneris (mound of Venus), will be immediately apparent to speakers of British English.

Upon its publication, however, Cleland was prosecuted for “corrupting the king’s subjects,” and the book was “duly buried and went on to become a centuries-long underground bestseller.” Such was the fate of many an obscene British novel. Thousands of these became property of the British Library, which “kept its dirtiest books locked away from the rest of its collections,” notes Brigit Katz at Smithsonian. “All volumes deemed to be in need of extra safeguarding so that members of the public couldn’t get their hands on the saucy stories—or try to destroy them—were placed in the library’s ‘Private Case.’” Now, they are being digitized and made available to Gale subscribers.

2,500 volumes from the Private Case collection have become part of Gale’s Archives of Sexuality and Gender research library, the first time much of this material has been available. “Pretty much anything to do with sex,” says British Library curator Maddy Smith, was locked away “until around 1960, when attitudes to sexuality were changing.” Librarians only began cataloguing this material in the 1970s, but most of it remained obscure and fairly inaccessible. The collection dates to 1658. It includes a series called the Merryland Books, written in the 1740s by authors who took pseudonyms like “Roger Pheuquewell” and described “the female anatomy metaphorically as land ripe for exploration.”

It is not overall a body of work given to subtleties. Aside from some exceptions, like Teleny or The Reverse of the Medal, a tragic gay romance attributed to Oscar Wilde, these are also largely books “written by men, for men,” about women, Smith points out. “It’s to be expected, but looking back, that’s what is shocking, how male-dominated it is, the lack of female agency.” She might have also pointed out that many women in the mid-18th century were writing and publishing popular novels, largely read by women, with frank coming-of-age descriptions of sexual education, seduction, and even rape. And both men and women wrote about homosexuality and gender fluidity in ways that might surprise us.

The response to such books tended to be moralistic correction—as in the best-selling Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson—or lascivious satire, as in the Merryland Books, Fanny Hill, and Henry Fielding’s Shamela, a parody that turns Richardson’s chaste heroine into a scheming prostitute. These two novels were massively popular and show the form as we know it developing as a literary conversation between men about women’s supposed vices or virtues. We should read mid-18th century pornographic literature as an essential part of the formation of the British novel tradition.

At the Gale online collection of these British Library treasures, one can do just that, then reach back a century earlier and forward 200 years to 1940, the last date in the Gale collection, which “makes available approximately one million pages of content that’s been locked away for many years, available only via restricted access.” (We must note that access is still restricted to Gale subscribers). These pages come not only from the British Library but also from The Kinsey Institute and the New York Academy of Medicine, who have both supplied a share of textbooks and scholarly monographs on sex. The “obscenity” of this material lies in the eyes of its keepers—much will seem unremarkable today, and some can still seem plenty scandalous.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Behold The Drawings of Franz Kafka (1907-1917)

Runner 1907-1908

Runner 1907-1908

UK-born, Chicago-based artist Philip Hartigan has posted a brief video piece about Franz Kafka’s drawings. Kafka, of course, wrote a body of work, mostly never published during his lifetime, that captured the absurdity and the loneliness of the newly emerging modern world: In The Metamorphosis, Gregor transforms overnight into a giant cockroach; in The Trial, Josef K. is charged with an undefined crime by a maddeningly inaccessible court. In story after story, Kafka showed his protagonists getting crushed between the pincers of a faceless bureaucratic authority on the one hand and a deep sense of shame and guilt on the other.

On his deathbed, the famously tortured writer implored his friend Max Brod to burn his unpublished work. Brod ignored his friend’s plea and instead published them – novels, short stories and even his diaries. In those diaries, Kafka doodled incessantly – stark, graphic drawings infused with the same angst as his writing. In fact, many of these drawings have ended up gracing the covers of Kafka’s books.

“Quick, minimal movements that convey the typical despairing mood of his fiction” says Hartigan of Kafka’s art. “I am struck by how these simple gestures, these zigzags of the wrist, contain an economy of mark making that even the most experienced artist can learn something from.”

In his book Conversations with Kafka, Gustav Janouch describes what happened when he came upon Kafka in mid-doodle: the writer immediately ripped the drawing into little pieces rather than have it be seen by anyone. After this happened a couple times, Kafka relented and let him see his work. Janouch was astonished. “You really didn’t need to hide them from me,” he complained. “They’re perfectly harmless sketches.”

Kafka slowly wagged his head to and fro – ‘Oh no! They are not as harmless as they look. These drawing are the remains of an old, deep-rooted passion. That’s why I tried to hide them from you…. It’s not on the paper. The passion is in me. I always wanted to be able to draw. I wanted to see, and to hold fast to what was seen. That was my passion.”

Check out some of Kafka’s drawings below:

Horse and Rider 1909-1910

Horse and Rider 1909-1910

Three Runners 1912-1913

Three Runners 1912-1913

The Thinker 1913

The Thinker 1913

Fencing 1917

Fencing 1917

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Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in February 2014.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.

Alice in Wonderland, Hamlet, and A Christmas Carol Written in Shorthand (Circa 1919)

For hundreds of years before the regular use of dictation machines, word processors, and computers, many thousands of court records, correspondence, journalism, and so on circulated in translation. All of these texts were originally in their native language, but they were transcribed in a different writing system, then translated back into the standard orthography, by stenographers using various kinds of shorthand. In English, this meant that a mess of irregular, phonetically nonsensical spellings turned into a streamlined, orderly symbolic system, impenetrable to anyone who hadn't studied it thoroughly.

I do not know the rates of accuracy in shorthand writing or translation. Nor do I know how many original shorthand manuscripts still exist for comparison’s sake. But for centuries, shorthand systems were used to record lectures, letters, and interviews, and to write edicts, essays, articles, etc., in Imperial China, ancient Greece and Rome, and modern Europe, North America, and Japan.

The practice reached a peak in the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries, when stenography became a growth industry. Jack El-Hai at Wonders and Marvels explains.

A century ago, hundreds of thousands of people around the world regularly used shorthand. Secretaries, stenographers, court reporters, journalists and others depended on the elaborate shorthand systems that Isaac Pitman and John Robert Gregg developed in the nineteenth century, and countless schools and publishers seized the business opportunity to train them. Talented practitioners could write at speeds up to 280 words per minute.

The texts of systems like Pitman and Gregg’s “grew increasingly complex,” then increasingly simplified during latter half of the 20th century. “In 1903, the publishers of the Gregg method released the first novel entirely rendered in shorthand—an 87-page edition of Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son by George Horace Latimer."

More literature in shorthand followed, marking the Gregg system's most baroque period. Ten years later saw the publication of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, then, in 1918, with Alice in Wonderland, Hamlet, and A Christmas Carol, and stories like Guy de Maupassant’s “The Diamond Necklace,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelström." All of this literary shorthand is written in what is known as “Pre-Anniversary” Gregg, which contained the largest number of symbols and devices. In 1929, a year-late “Anniversary Edition” began a period of simplification that culminated in 1988, a century after the system’s first publication.

The literature published in Gregg shorthand joined in a history of shorthand “used by (or to preserve the work of) everyone from Cicero to Luther to Shakespeare to Pepys,” writes the Public Domain Review. And yet, the “utilitarian function of shorthand sits a little oddly perhaps with literature, given the novel or the poem is a form associated with a different realm: that of leisure.” One should not have to train in a specialized phonemic orthography to read and enjoy Alice in Wonderland, but, on the off chance that you did so train, there is at least much enjoyable and edifying material with which to practice, or show off, your skills.

It would, I maintain, be a fascinating exercise to compare translations of these well-known works from the shorthand with their originals manuscripts written in the phonetic chaos of the English we recognize. Whether or not you have the skill to undertake this experiment, you can see many of these Gregg’s shorthand editions here and at the Internet Archive. Just click on the embeds above to see larger images and view and download a variety of formats.

via The Public Domain Review

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear a Six-Hour Mix Tape of Hunter S. Thompson’s Favorite Music & the Songs Name-Checked in His Gonzo Journalism

Of all the musical moments in Hunter S. Thompson's formidable corpus of "gonzo journalism," which one comes most readily to mind? I would elect the scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when Thompson's alter-ego Raoul Duke finds his attorney "Dr. Gonzo" in the bathtub, "submerged in green water — the oily product of some Japanese bath salts he'd picked up in the hotel gift shop, along with a new AM/FM radio plugged into the electric razor socket. Top volume. Some gibberish by a thing called 'Three Dog Night,' about a frog named Jeremiah who wanted 'Joy to the World.' First Lennon, now this, I thought. Next we'll have Glenn Campbell screaming 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone?'"

But Dr. Gonzo, his state even more altered than usual, really wants to hear only one song: Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit." He wants "a rising sound," and what's more, he demands that "when it comes to that fantastic note where the rabbit bites its own head off," Duke throw the radio in the tub with him.

Duke refuses, explaining that "it would blast you right through the wall — stone-dead in ten seconds." Yet Dr. Gonzo, who insists he just wants to get "higher," will have none of it, forcing Duke to engage in trickery that takes to a new depth the book's already-deep level of craziness. Such, at the time, was the power of not just drugs but of the even more mind-altering product known as music.

Nothing evokes a period of recent history more vividly than its songs, especially in the case of the 1960s and early 1970s that Thompson's prose captured with such improbable eloquence. Now, thanks to London's NTS Radio (they of the spiritual jazz and Haruki Murakami mixes), you can spend a good six hours in that Thompsonian period whenever you like by streaming their Hunter S. Thompson Day, consisting of two three-hour mixes composed by Edu Villarroel, creator of the Spotify playlist "Gonzo Tapes: Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die!" Both that playlist and these mixes feature many of the 60s names you might expect: not just Jefferson Airplane but Buffalo Springfield, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Cream, Captain Beefheart, and many more besides.

Those artists appear on one particularly important source for these mixes, Thompson's list of the ten best albums of the 60s. But Hunter S. Thompson Day also offers deeper cuts of Thompsoniana as well, including pieces of Terry Gilliam's 1998 film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as well as clips from other media in which the real Thompson appeared, in fully gonzo character as always. Villarroel describes these mixes as "best served with a couple tabs of sunshine acid, tall glass of Wild Turkey with ice and Mezcal on the side," but you may well derive a similar experience from listening while partaking of another powerful substance: Thompson's writing, still so often imitated without ever replicating its effect, which you can get started reading here on Open Culture.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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