A Text Without An Author?: The Nature of Generative Literature

This next unit might feel a bit strange or unwieldy at first glance — that’s ok. We’re deep enough into the semester that I think we can dive into a fundamental question of narrative: What does an author do?

People have been asking this question for as long as artists have been stringing fragments of text, image, or sound together to form something new. Does the author have to compose every word in a piece? Does the author have to compose any words in a piece, or is the art and act of arranging enough? Generative literature, poetry, and art, takes the question a step further: if the author selects nothing herself, but creates or sets into motion a program that does the selecting, has the author written the text?

And though I use the word “program” above, this is not a question, or an authoring experiment, native to the digital environment. As you have seen in your reading, authors have been implementing “authoring systems” for centuries. The French group known as Oulipo formed specifically to explore the idea of creation through constraint. William S. Burroughs, one of the country’s most well-known writers, composed entire novels usingthe cut-up technique, an Oulipo invention. Some consider the compositions of J.S. Bach to be generative art.

But the digital world has undoubtedly given rise to a whole realm of new possibilities, as code — the language humans and computers use to talk to each other — made it possible for a human author to program a system that could run independently of the author. Now we have generative poetry, a la “Taroko Gorge,” a continuously re-imagined poem that meets any identifiable standard for poetry; Twitter bots, which carefully select and rearrange existing social media content to form a new text, even a new identity; generative mash-ups like the Nietzche Family Circus, all of which create new texts or cultural products almost on their own. Even AIs or chatbots are generative language projects, using their algorithm to select and compose an appropriate response to a question.

All raise the same significant question: who wrote that?

Today in class, we will engage in a discussion about the nature of authorship through the lens of the generative projects you explored this weekend. We will try to ask some of the concepts raised by Balpe, about what makes something generative literature, and how it changes or challenges the reader experience.


Of course ultimately, your task will be to compose your own work of generative literature.

A few possibilities:

  • Build a Twitter bot. There are basic tutorials for a retweet bot here and a run-down of non-programming options here; if you’re feeling more ambitious, or you’re familiar with programming, there’s a more nuanced discussion of building a Twitter bot here, and some usable source code in JavaScript here. You should also feel free to use any other source code that you can find via simple Google search — loads of tutorials out there on bot building.
  • By copying and reusing source code, make your own remix of Taroko Gorge (a super easy-to-follow tutorial here). Note: once you’re comfortable using a text editor, you can try this exercise with virtually any of the generative objects we’ve looked at. Also note: the end-result of this project will be an .html file, which you will need to find hosting for in order to hand it in (not a live link you can embed in a blog post).
  • If you’d rather not bite off something too technically complicated, for this unit, you do have the option of going analog. Simply decide on a programmatic or algorithmic system of constraints, and then use those “rules” to select and order your text. You may choose to extend either of the exercises for Wednesday’s class into a larger data set, or you may develop a new authoring system and produce a variety of texts using those constraints. You could take this same approach with any form of writing, art, image, audio, or video, any source material, and any constraint system. If you go this route, the key will be deciding on and articulating the “rules” beforehand, so that the resulting piece is truly generative. Note: if you go this route, I will want to see a body of work, since it is less technically challenging.

For any of these options, what we’re really attempting to do is force ourselves into the background as writers; to adopt a set of rules and then allow the system to generate its own text, and to truly articulate what it means to be the author.


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