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This review is taken from PN Review 267, Volume 49 Number 1, September - October 2022.

Cover of Story Machines: How Computers Have Become Creative Writers
Nicolas TredellMike Sharples and Rafael Pérez y Pérez, Story Machines: How Computers Have Become Creative Writers (Routledge) £14.99
‘Je ne suis qu’une machine à faire des livres.’ Thus Chateaubriand, perhaps expressing a widespread feeling among writers, at least prolific ones, that they sometimes tend towards the condition of the mechanical and perhaps may even aspire to it as an escape, albeit illusory, from the fluctuations of personality and the accidents of existence. Sartre applies Chateaubriand’s description to himself in his autobiography, Les Mots (1964), echoing the mechanical imagery in his 1938 novel, La Nausée, where Antoine Roquentin experiences a rare epiphany that momentarily sets unfenced existence in order: ‘je sens mon corps comme une machine de précision au repos’. This calm supervenes when listening to a song rather than writing a story, but it could also fit the latter experience in those moments when the words flow and fall into place with a kind of vibrant exactitude that is aesthetically pleasing, existentially concordant and quite possibly, as Sartre suggested in Les Mots, a mighty self-deception, a misplaced and impossible quest for salvation through language.

Such a deception might look even greater if there were indeed machines that could make books. We are not quite there yet, as Mike Sharples and Rafael Pérez y Pérez acknowledge in their informed and intriguing study Story Machines: How Computers Have Become Creative Writers; but the possibility no longer sounds improbable or inhuman. F.R. Leavis once insisted, in a characteristic flight of cognitive hubris, that he knew a computer could not write a poem and saw the very idea that it was possible to do so as an index of the cultural depths to which technologico-Benthamite society had sunk; ...


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