Natural language generation (NLG) refers to the process in which computers produce output in readable human languages (e.g., English, French). Despite sounding as though they are contained within the realm of science fiction, computer-generated texts actually abound; business performance reports are generated by NLG systems, as are tweets and even works of longform prose. Yet many are altogether unaware of the increasing prevalence of computer-generated texts. Moreover, there has been limited scholarly consideration of the social and literary implications of NLG from a humanities perspective, despite NLG systems being in development for more than half a century. This article serves as one such consideration.
Human-written and computer-generated texts represent markedly different approaches to text production that necessitate distinct approaches to textual interpretation. Characterized by production processes and labor economies that at times seem inconsistent with those of print culture, computer-generated texts bring conventional understandings of the author-reader relationship into question. But who—or what—is the author of the computer-generated text?
This article begins with an introduction to NLG as it has been applied to the production of public-facing textual output. NLG’s unique potential for textual personalization is observed. The article then moves toward a consideration of authorship as the concept may be applied to computer-generated texts, citing historical and current legal discussions, as well as various interdisciplinary analyses of authorial attribution. This article suggests a semantic shift from considering NLG systems as tools to considering them as social agents in themselves: not to obsolesce human writers, but to recognize the particular contributions of NLG systems to the current socio-literary landscape. As this article shows, texts are regarded as fundamentally human artifacts. A computer-generated text is no less a human artifact than a human-written text, but its unconventional manifestation of humanity prompts calculated contemplation of what authorship means in an increasingly digital age.
Tuija Laine and Kirsti Salmi-Niklander
Vernacular literacy began in Finland with the Reformation. Michael Agricola, the first Finnish reformer, studied in Wittenberg, and, after returning to Finland, translated the first books into Finnish. The books were originally intended for priests, but in the middle of the 17th century a literacy campaign was conducted throughout the Swedish realm, one that was quite effective in expanding the reading audience. A number of bishops in the diocese of Turku were also active in writing basic religious material for the common people, including primers, catechisms, and hymnals. The church also examined its parishioners’ reading skills. People could not acquire the status of godparent, attend the Eucharist, or marry without proper reading skills and a knowledge of basic Christian doctrine. In the first phase of the campaign, reading was only learning by rote, but by the last decades of the 17th century bishops and priests were emphasizing the importance of reading from books and understanding their content. Literacy progressed further in the 18th century, and literature published in Finnish became more varied.
During the 19th century, Finland’s literacy rate continued to rise gradually. For the vast majority of the rural population, however, “literacy” meant only the very basic reading skills required and examined by the Lutheran Church. The statute for primary schools was laid down in 1866, but the law on compulsory primary education was not enacted until 1921. The Russian government began to promote the Finnish language in the 1860s. The consequent growth of Finnish-language literature and the expansion of the press allowed for reading by large segments of the population. The popular movements established during the final decades of the 19th century (the temperance movement, agrarian youth movement, and labor movement, for example) provided further opportunities for literary training. Among the lower classes in rural Finland, many self-educated writers submitted manuscripts to the Finnish Literature Society and sent news of their home parishes to newspapers. Some of them became professional writers or journalists.
Troy J. Bassett
Beginning in the 18th century and continuing throughout the 19th century, circulating libraries became an integral part of the literary marketplace as the chief means of distributing books. Subscribers paid an annual or per-book fee to rent volumes: during the Victorian period, the typical subscription rate was one guinea (21s) per year to borrow one volume at a time. The relatively high price of books made circulating libraries an economical means for many middle-class families to access books: for less than the price of one three-volume novel (one-and-a-half guineas, or 31s 6d), a subscriber could borrow dozens if not more volumes. Hundreds of circulating libraries existed during the Victorian period, but the two largest were Mudie’s Select Library (1842–1937) and W. H. Smith and Son’s Subscription Library (1860–1961). Mudie’s, headquartered in London, had upwards of 50,000 subscribers, established branches in other major cities, and shipped books around the world. W. H. Smith added a library department to its pre-existing network of railway bookstalls with larger branches in major cities. Between them, Mudie’s and W. H. Smith became the largest purchasers of books and thereby had a direct and indirect effect on Victorian literature. In particular, the three-volume novel system—whereby the high price limited sales to the libraries who then had a monopoly on new fiction—encouraged British readers to become book borrowers instead of book buyers. The format of the three-volume novel led to certain generic conventions influencing areas such as characterization, plot, and style, which remained until the format was abolished in 1894. Since the libraries, especially Mudie’s and W. H. Smith, largely controlled the distribution of literature, they often exerted an informal censorship on literature which some authors, such as George Moore, advocated against.
Donna M. Kabalen de Bichara
Hundreds of 19th-century newspapers and magazines published in the region of the US–Mexico border are housed in archival collections in Mexico and the United States, and they provide access to historical, cultural, and ideological perspectives involving two world spheres that are intimately connected. Archival collections in the following databases provide access to periodicals published in the United States as well as in Mexico: the Newspaper and Periodicals Collection at the National Autonomous University of Mexico; the Readex Collection of Hispanic American Newspapers, 1808–1980; the Nettie Lee Benson Library’s microfilmed collection of 19th-century independent newspapers; the digital collection of periodicals and magazines from the Capilla Alfonsina Biblioteca Universitaria and the Biblioteca Universitaria Raúl Rangel Frias, at the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León; and the EBSCO Arte Público Hispanic Historical Collections, Series 1 and 2. These collections house digitized and microfilmed newspapers that include those published in the US states of California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas, as well as Mexican states such as Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas. The region includes areas that share not only a physical border but also a cultural memory based on the effects of historical collisions that have contributed to the formation of new meanings regarding these world spheres that can be understood as two intersecting semiotic systems that exist as a continuum. The intersection of these spaces represents the transnational aspect of periodical print culture of the late 19th century that communicates worldviews that are semiotically and ideologically heterogeneous. Indeed, cultural spaces that exist in the borderland (or that symbolic space that forms a border or frontier in a cultural sense), are semiotic realities that unfold in unpredictable and indeterminate ways as a result of historical processes. Periodical print culture produced in the border region provides access to diverse social, cultural, political, and religious perspectives. Furthermore, the history of print culture involves a process of communication of both social and cultural history. As objects of study, borderland newspapers ultimately provide the basis for understanding the circulation of ideas.
Latin American Print Culture in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries: Censorship and Public Sphere Before and After the Independence War
Rosa Dalia Valdez Garza
The history of print culture in Latin America is not only about the world of books propagated by an intellectual elite who exerted influence and advanced civic discourse by publishing their works, their intimate reading customs, and exclusive kinds of sociabilities—even during the Enlightenment. Not even the increase in literacy among the general population lessens the importance of oral practice traditions among their potential readers. This is made evident not only when identifying the kinds of sociabilities based on reading among different social classes but when observing the role and impact of print during the reign of the Spanish Crown in the Americas. In this way, we can identify the role of publishers, print culture, and books. To think about print culture beyond the printed book and prevailing print genres enables us to attain the broadest understanding of printing typology that served the intellectual elite and those materials that responded to the daily requirements related to public governance and professional or family life. Widening this perspective leads to the understanding of the appearance during the 18th century of the periodical that even with a civil and religious censorship served to advance the principles of discussion based on reason; while during the 19th century, with freedom in printing, periodicals consolidate themselves as protagonists in political discourse. Therefore it is necessary to imagine the impact of publishing and print culture on people’s lives beyond the members of the Republic of Letters and to weigh the impact of print on an illiterate audience whose lives were also shaped by print culture. The cultural practices related mainly to reading, sociabilities, conversation, and publicizing (in the sense of “making public”) are those that bring to light the cultural significance of print.
Frederick Luis Aldama
Despite Latinxs being the largest growing demographic in the United States, their experiences and identities continue to be underrepresented and misrepresented in the mainstream pop cultural imaginary. However, for all the negative stereotypes and restrictive ways that the mainstream boxes in Latinxs, Latinx musicians, writers, artists, comic book creators, and performers actively metabolize all cultural phenomena to clear positive spaces of empowerment and to make new perception, thought, and feeling about Latinx identities and experiences. It is important to understand, though, that Latinxs today consume all variety of cultural phenomena. For corporate America, therefore, the Latinx demographic represents a huge buying demographic. Viewed through cynical and skeptical eyes, increased representation of Latinxs in mainstream comic books and film results from this push to capture the Latinx consumer market. Within mainstream comic books and films, Latinx subjects are rarely the protagonists. However, Latinx comic book and film creators are actively creating Latinx protagonists within richly rendered Latinx story worlds. Latinx comic book and film creators work in all the storytelling genres and modes (realism, sci-fi, romance, memoir, biography, among many others) to clear new spaces for the expression of Latinx subjectivities and experiences.
Cara Anne Kinnally
While cultural critics and historians have demonstrated that print culture was an essential tool in the development of national, regional, and local communal identities in Latin América, the role of oral culture, as a topic of inquiry and a source itself, has been more fraught. Printed and hand-written texts often leave behind tangible archival evidence of their existence, but it can be more difficult to trace the role of oral culture in the development of such identities. Historically, Western society has deeply undervalued oral cultures, especially those practiced or created by non-Westerners and non-elites. Even before the arrival of the first printing presses to the Americas, starting with the very first encounters between Spaniards and indigenous peoples in the Americas in the late-15th and early-16th centuries, European conquerors understood and portrayed European alphabetic written script as a more legitimate, and therefore more valuable, form of history and knowledge-making than oral forms. Those cultures without alphabetic writing were deemed barbaric, according to this logic. Despite its undervaluation, oral culture was one of the principal ways in which vast numbers of Latinas/os were exposed to, engaged with, and exchanged ideas about politics, religion, social change, and local and regional community identity during the colonial period. In particular, oral culture often offers the perspective of underrepresented voices, such as those of peasants, indigenous communities, afro-Latinas/os, women, and the urban poor, in Latina/o historical, literary, and cultural studies. During the colonial period especially, many of these communities often did not produce their own European script writing or find their perspectives and experiences illuminated in the writings of the letrados, or lettered elites, and their voices thus remain largely excluded from the print archive. Studies of oral culture offer a corrective to this omission, since it was through oral cultural practices that many of these communities engaged with, contested, and redefined the public discourses of their day.
Oral culture in the colonial period comprised a broad range of rich cultural and artistic practices, including music, various types of poetry and balladry, oral history, legend, performance, religious rituals, ceremonies, festivals, and much more. These practices served as a way to remember and share ideas, values, and experiences both intraculturally and interculturally, as well as across generations. Oral culture also changes how the impact of print culture is understood, since written texts were often disseminated to the masses through oral practices. In the missions of California and the present-day US Southwest, for example, religious plays served as one of the major vehicles for the forced education and indoctrination of indigenous communities during the colonial period. To understand such a play, it is important to consider not just the printed text but also the performance of the play, as well as the ways in which the audience understands and engages with the play and its religious teachings. The study of oral culture in the Latina/o context, therefore, includes an examination of how literate, illiterate, and semi-literate Latinas/os have engaged with, resisted, or repurposed various written forms, such as poetry, letters, theater, testimonios, juridical documents, broadsides, political treatises, religious texts, and the sermon, through oral cultural practices and with various objectives in mind. Oral culture, in all of its many forms, has thus served as an important means for the circulation of knowledge and the expression of diverse world views for Latinas/os throughout the colonial period and into the 21st century.
Posthumous publication is part of a long-standing literary tradition that crosses centuries and continents, giving works of art ranging from The Canterbury Tales to The Diary of Anne Frank, from Northanger Abbey to 2666. Preparing for print work that was incomplete and unpublished at the time of the author’s death, posthumous editing is a type of public and goal-oriented grieving that seeks to establish or preserve the legacy of a writer no longer able to establish it for herself. Surrounding the work of posthumous editing are questions of authorial intent, editorial and publisher imperative, and reader response, each shaping the degree to which a posthumously published edition of a text is considered valuable. The visibility of the work of such editing spans from conspicuously absent to noticeably transformative, suggesting a wide range of possibilities for imagining the editorial role in producing the posthumous text. Examples drawn from 20th- and 21st-century US literature reveal the nature of editorial relationships to the deceased as well as the subsequent relationships of readers to the posthumously published text.
Susan K. Martin
Reading practices and tastes were transported to colonial Australia along with European colonists. Access to and circulation of books and newspapers in the colonies were subject to the vagaries of distance, travel, and transport, and these had a concomitant impact on reading patterns and access, as well as on the development of local writing and publishing. Trade routes, and the disjunction of inland versus sea routes, may have had some influence on localized reading and distribution. The early history of libraries and booksellers in the Australian colonies, publication patterns, and marketing give clues to reading patterns. Examining the reading accounts and movements of individual readers, and individual texts, provides further detail and context to the environment and situatedness of reading in the Australian colonies, as well as the impact of transport as an idea, and an influence on texts and reading.
Andrew T. Kamei-Dyche
Reading in Japan has a rich history replete with transformative moments. The arrival of Chinese logographs by the 5th century necessitated the development of reading mechanisms adapting the logographs to the Japanese language which had previously lacked writing. In the Heian (794–1185) court, reading was often a social activity incorporating performance. Small reading communities read romances aloud to one another, while poetry competitions involved intense bouts of composition and reading. During the medieval era (1185–1600), literature spread through the recitation of epic tales with musical accompaniment, while in early modern times (1600–1867) the gradual expansion of literacy combined with a print revolution fueled the emergence of socially and geographically diverse communities of readers. Alongside studies of medicine and Neo-Confucian thought a market in popular fiction flourished. The arrival of modern printing technology at the end of the 19th century ushered in mass-market readership. Cheap printings of classic texts competed with popular serial fiction, both of which were encouraged by newspapers. During the early 20th century, reading came to be seen as an act of self-cultivation but retained a social element as students and educated urbanites read together and discussed literature. Contemporary Japanese society retains a strong emphasis on the social values of reading, understanding reading not primarily as an individual engagement with one’s interests but rather as a means to acquire a consciousness of one’s group and nation. Newspaper readership continues to be enormous, and the influence exercised by newspaper corporations and prominent publishers in Japanese society is significant, shaping not only what is read but how. Japanese manga, meanwhile, continue to enjoy a diffuse range of reading communities that represent considerable wealth and influence. Such communities vary by gender, age, and political leanings, and demand media suited to their own particular reading practices and identities. Technological innovation has also facilitated new reading experiences, such as visual novels, a type of interactive fiction game popular among Japanese gamers. The Internet has given rise to virtual reading cultures, embracing both traditional print readerships and visual novel fandoms, further enhanced by ubiquitous smartphone use among readers of all ages. Tokyo’s book town, Kanda-Jinbochō, is a thriving cultural center, and book fairs and other events are widely celebrated.