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Thursday, 24 March 2016

The Day a Computer wrote a Novel

Would you read a novel that began like this?

'I squirmed with joy, which I experienced for the first time, and continued writing excitedly.'

Before you leave this blog ( squirming)  I deny all responsibility for the above sentence. It  was composed by... a computer!

Let me explain. Several works of robot-assisted fiction were amongst more than a thousand entrants for a Japanese novel competition recently. The Hoshi Shinichi Literary Award, named after one of Japan's most famous fiction writers,  decided to invite 'artificial intelligence programs' to submit their works.

The judges had no idea which authors were human and which were robots, but were given a strong hint by the one  above entitled 'The Day a Computer wrote a Novel.'

Another anonymous entry asked  'Are jobs being cut, as cheap, clever, humanoid robots  replace humans?'

One novel, using  'sentences from inputs by its human masters' actually made it through the first round of the competition. Asked to include the elements of time, weather and what the character was doing, it came up with the following:

'The clouds hung low that day in an overcast sky. Inside, though, the temperature and humidity were perfectly controlled.  Yoko was sitting lazily on the couch, passing the time playing pointless games.'

The judges commended the story, though found it's efforts were 'a bit thin on characterisation.'

Phew - that's a relief!

(First published March 2016)

Happy Easter everyone.

Monday, 21 March 2016

In praise of depressed spinsters...

Oh, how I wish I had met Anita Brookner, the 'famously miserable'   novelist who died  recently.

Like many readers, I first discovered Anita  Brookner's writing in 1984 when her third novel  Hotel Du Lac won the Booker Prize - the most coveted literary prize in Britain.

Writing in the Daily Mail this week social historian  A N Wilson  observed: 'Though she denied her novels were autobiographical,  they chronicle the lives of  lonely miserable women who have the unerring knack of falling for unsuitable men.'

Her novels, as fans will confirm,  were full of  depressed spinsters,  but in real life she had  a dry wit that could, sometimes, be  misunderstood. 'I feel I could get into the Guinness Book of Record as the world's loneliest, most miserable woman,' she once said.

Anita Brookner grew up in  a large Victorian villa in South London 'the only child of clever, ill-matched parents.'  Though she never married, she had two great loves - art and fiction - in particular the work of Belgian writer Georges Simenon.  Simenon was well-know for creating Inspector Maigret, but most of his work at the time comprised dark, psychological novels.

According to Wilson, Brookner's novels could be described in similar terms. 'They all chronicle, in one way or another, men and women who cannot find happiness in personal relationships but can't be happy without them.' he says.

In retrospect it is hard not to feel a little sorry for this extremely intelligent and talented woman who never seemed to meet her match. Hotel du Lac, about a woman who jilted her partner on their wedding day, made her famous and she went on to write a book a year (by hand) for almost two decades.  History has it that she fell in love many times, but always with unsuitable people.

As for me, I prefer  to remember  for  her  incredible talent and this wonderful quote (below) on writing.

You never know what you will learn till you start writing.
Then you discover truths you never knew existed

Anita Brookner

Wednesday, 9 March 2016


Love, Loss and legions of laughs... If you've every wished you could sum up Shakespeare's plots in just a few words, The Times newspaper is here to help.

Ahead of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death on April 23, 2016, the Times 'Shakespeare special'  has ranked  the bard's 39 plays in order of merit. 

Can you guess the name of the  sample, below, ranked at number three?

The plot:Second-string Scottish nobleman nabs the crown, egged on by his unscrupulous wife, spurred by three local well-wishers.

The quote: Life is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing

The clue: Shakespeare's shortest tragedy.

The answer: see photo, above.

For those of you who, like me,  grew up on Shakespeare, coerced from an early age into  analysing every word, this is refreshing stuff. Tongue-in-cheek, okay, but entertaining all the same.

Today  Benedict Nightingale, the paper's chief theatre critic from 1990 to 2010,  ranks the Bard's ten best love scenes.  At Number One is Much Ado about Nothing.

Top quote: I do love nothing in the world so well as you.

The pitch: A quarrelsome duo discover they don't hate each other.

Happy ever after? Benedict and Beatrice share an improbable love, but one more likely to succeed than most.

Far from being 'dumbed down' as its critics may fear,  it seems to me that is a positive way to introduce successive generations to an extraordinary talent of which we, as a nation, are rightly proud. And if it brings Shakespeare a host of new fans it has surely achieved its aim.

Meanwhile, tomorrow's Shakespeare special will be charting the great man's ten best death scenes.  Which means I have work to do. It will take me the rest of the day, at least, to guess which they are.