30 Writing competitions for 2016

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Ohohoho! Saviours of the written word! As we look forward to a fan-frickin-tastic 2016 filled with a multitude of writerly insights and discussion, we’ve compiled a list of upcoming writing competitions scheduled for the year ahead.

Included are details about word counts, deadlines and direct links to each event.

If you’d like to add a writing competition to our list then please feel free to contact us!

  1. Graywolf Press Non-Fiction Prize

The next submission period for the nonfiction prize will be from January 1-31, 2016.

A US$12,000 advance and publication by Graywolf will be awarded to the most promising and innovative literary nonfiction project by a writer not yet established in the genre.

Submissions must include a one-page cover letter, a two to ten page overview of the project (including what is already complete) and a minimum of 100 pages (25,000 words) from the manuscript.

  1. Climate Fiction Short Story Contest

Climate change – perhaps better described as catastrophic climate breakdown – undoubtedly represents one of the most significant threats to humanity. Yet it remains a fairly abstract concept for most of us.

Speculative fiction stories have the power to take abstract ideas and turn them into gripping, visceral tales. The emerging subgenre of climate fiction help us imagine possible futures shaped by climate change.

The grand prize for this competition is US$1000, and the deadline for submissions up to 5000 words in length is January 15th.

  1. Bare Fiction Magazine Short Story Competitions

Any style/genre of writing in a variety of forms, including short stories, flash fiction and poetry. An annual competition with submission deadline of October.

Short story submissions must be below 3000 words and the associated entry fee is £8. Winners of each category receive £500.

  1. Bedford Writing Competition

Annual competition for writing of any style or genre. Winners are published on website and in an eBook, and they also receive a £200 prize.

Submissions have a maximum word count of 3000 words and the associated entry fee is £5.

  1. Young Lions Fiction Award

This award recognises ‘young authors’ – defined in the competition rules as anyone aged 35 or under. Submit any novel or short story published or scheduled to be published in the calendar year.

The deadline for submissions is August.

  1. 2016 Newcastle Short Story Award

One for Australian writers. First prize is AU$2000. The deadline for submissions is midnight, 31st January 2016 and the entry fee is AU$15. The maximum word limit is 2000 words, which includes both titles and any subheadings.

  1. Chicago Tribune short story award

The contest is open to all writers in residence in the United States. All entries must be fiction and less than 8000 words in length. First prize is US$3500 with four finalists receiving US$1000 each and five runners up receiving US$500.

Deadline is January 31st 2016.

  1. PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

For American citizens with books published in the calendar year (or scheduled to be published) – no self-published books will be accepted. No submission fees, with a deadline of October.

  1. British Fantasy Society Short Story Competition

One for fantasy writers. Deadline for submissions (max 5000 words) is annually in June. There is a £5 entry fee and first prize receives a £100 award.

  1. The Caine Prize for African Writing

For published African authors of fiction. Must be over 3000 words in length and written for adults. Advisable length for the stories is between 3000 and 10,000 words. There is a cash prize of £10,000 and works must be written in or translated into English.

Deadline for submissions is January 31st.

  1. Cinnamon Press Writing Competitions

Any style or genre of writing is eligible for their rolling competition deadlines, which fall throughout the year between September and July. Entry fees vary according to form of writing, such as poetry, novels, short stories and flash fiction.

  1. Artificium Short Story Competition

What makes a winner? The judges are looking for accomplished writing, full of style and intelligence, demonstrating a passion for language. Intriguing plots and themes that captivate the reader and make them think. Any genre, as long as the quality of writing is high. Works must be written in English, and authors can be from any country.

Submissions must be less than 8000 words in length. There is a £6 entry fee and a prize of £300 for the winner.

  1. Nelligan Prize

International writing prize for writers of all stripes and nationalities. Deadline is March 14th, 2016 for submissions of 12,500 words or less. Entry fee is US$15 and first prize is US$2000.

  1. The Bath Short Story Award

An award for local, national and international writers. Closing date for submissions is April 25th, 2016. Short stories of up to 2200 words in all genres and styles are welcome – there is no minimum word limit. First prize receives £1000 and there is also a local prize for Bath residents, as well as The Acorn Award of £50 for unpublished writers of fiction. Entry fee is £8.

  1. The Bristol Short Story Prize

Entries are welcomed for unpublished stories written in English. The deadline for submissions is 30th April 2016 and stories can be on any theme or subject. Maximum length of 4000 words. An £8 entry fee and first prize is £1000. There are also 17 further prizes of £100 for all shortlisted writers.

  1. Brooklyn Non-Fiction prize

Annual prize awards US$500 for the “best Brooklyn-focused non-fiction essay which is set in Brooklyn and is about Brooklyn and/or Brooklyn people/characters”. (It’s Brooklyn centric, you might say).

Submissions should be between 4 and ten pages long (up to 2500 words). Deadline is mid-November.

  1. Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award

Annual poetry competition for African America poets – both published and unpublished. The award offers a US$500 prize and publication by Lotus Press for the best book-length collection of poems (approximately 60 to 90 pages). Deadline is March 1st.

  1. The HG Wells Short Story Competition

Space is the theme for the 2016 HG Wells Short Story Competition. Key date for your diary is July 17th – the final deadline for entries. Submissions must be below 5000 words in length and there is an entry fee of £10. Various prizes are on offer for different types and styles of writing. Check website for more details.

  1. The Doris Gooderson Short Story Competition

Submissions welcomed for writing of any style or genre. Winners are published on the Wrekin Writers website and in the Wrekin Writers anthology. This annual competition offers a first prize of £150 for stories of no more than 1200 words. Entry fee is £3.

  1. Early Works Press

Annual writing competition accepts entries of any style or genre. Winners are published in anthology containing 10 to 20 stories (length dependent). There is a £5 entry fee for stories up to 4000 words in length and £10 fee for stories up to 8000 words long. Deadline is October each year, though the publishers also run other competitions throughout the year, so it’s worth keeping an eye on their site for details.

  1. Exeter Writers Competition

Exeter Writers runs an annual short story competition. The competition began in 2009 and is very popular, receiving entries from all over the UK. The 2016 competition is OPEN for entries. Prizes are £500, £250, £100 for first, second and third placed submissions. There is also a local prize of £100 for the best Devon entry.

Deadline is February for stories no more than 3000 words in length, of any style or genre.

  1. The Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition 2016

Entry fee is £8 for ghost stories between 1000 and 7000 words in length. Though the website also runs competitions throughout the year for flash fiction stories. Deadline is Thursday, March 31st 2016 and first prize receives £500.

  1. Writer’s Digest Competition

The winner of this annual award will receive US$5000 and an interview in Writer’s Digest. There are a variety of different award categories so it’s best to check the website for details. Deadline is May 6th 2016.

  1. Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2016 Short Story Competition

First prize receives £500 and a place on an Arvon residential writing course of your choice, as well as publication of your story on the W&A website. Closing date for writing submissions is Monday February 15th 2016 and all submissions must be unpublished prose of 2000 words or fewer.

  1. Manchester Writing Competition 2016

There are two prizes – one for fiction and one for poetry. Both competitions offer a £10,000 first prize. Deadline for entries is Friday September 23rd 2016. The fiction prize will be awarded to the best short story of up to 2500 words, and is open to international writers aged 16 or over. The poetry prize will be given to the best portfolio of three to five poems (maximum length: 120 lines). The entry fee for each competition is £17.50.

26. Tethered by Letters F(r)iction contest

Literary publisher and resource for writers Tethered by Letters run this tri-annual publication, F(r)iction, – an art and literature imprint that is distributed around the world. It features short fiction, flash fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and even a selection of graphic stories. It also showcases amazing artwork.

First prize for the short story contest is US$1000 and there is an entry fee of US$18. The first prize for both the poetry and flash fiction contests is US$300 and there is a US$10 entry fee.

The deadline for these contests is 31 March 2016.

27. The Short Story ‘Monthly 500’ Flash Fiction competition 

The Short Story was established in 2015 and has quickly developed into an influential platform for short fiction. They champion short stories, flash fiction, and micro-fiction.

Every month, they invite submissions for their flash fiction competition, the winner of which receives publication on their website and £50.

The deadline for each month’s contest is midnight on the last day of each month.

There is an entry fee of £2.28 and entries must be no longer than 500 words (including title).

28. The Tales for Teens competition from Skylark Literary Agency 

Skylark Literary Agency are on the look out for dazzling and original writing for young teens. They are looking for compelling voices with strong characters and a gripping story – an “unputdownable read” for 13-15 year olds.

Entries must take the form of a one-page synopsis and the first three chapters of the novel, submitted by via email.

The competition is open to writers of any nationality writing in English, and entrants must be unpublished in the field of fiction and unagented.

The winner will receive a one-to-one editorial critique of their finished manuscript either via telephone of in person (location permitting) with one of the competition judges.

The deadline for entries is Easter Sunday – 27th March 2016.

29. The Brighton Prize

The Brighton Prize offers cash prizes for new short and flash fiction. If you’re a writer with a brilliant short story that will both challenge and excite the judges; this is for you.

Submissions are currently open for flash fiction up to 350 words, and short stories of 1-2000 words.

The winner of the short story prize will receive £500, and the winner of the flash fiction prize will receive £100.

There is an entry fee of £8 for short stories and £6 for flash fiction.

The deadline for submissions is 10th June.

30. New Welsh Writing Awards 2016: University of South Wales Prize for Travel Writing

The prize celebrates the best short form travel writing from writers based in the UK and Ireland and those based worldwide who have been educated in Wales. The word length is 5,000-30,000 and the closing date is midnight 3 April. Entry is free.
The winner receives £1,000 cash, e-publication by New Welsh Review on their New Welsh Rarebyte imprint in 2016, as well as a positive critique over lunch with leading literary agent Cathryn Summerhayes at WME.
Second prize is a weeklong residential course in 2016 of the winner’s choice at Tŷ Newydd Writing Centre, and third prize is a weekend stay at Gladstone’s Library.

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A novel idea: German machine vends books in exchange for unwanted presents

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What do you do with those unwanted Christmas presents? Rather than attempt the half-thought out gift repurposing – where you end up accidentally giving your Aunt Mildred the same pair of bright pink suspenders she gave you and trying in vain to persuade her that you both just have similar tastes in presents – a German book retailer has come up with an innovative way of addressing this age-old problem.

Hugendubel – which owns some 70 odd high street bookshops in major department stores throughout Germany – has paired up with German trade publisher Bastei Lübbe to develop a somewhat unusual solution.

The organisations have invented a vending machine (pictured above), which recycles unwanted gifts in exchange for books.

Users simply dump their presents – of all shapes and sizes – and at the touch of a button see it replaced by one of a number of different book titles.

“Books are simply the best gifts in the world, and the conversion machine is a wonderful way that [can be] emphasized again even after the holidays,” Ricarda Witte-Masuhr, Bastei Lübbe’s marketing manager, said.

The device will be set up outside Hugendubel branches after ‘C-Day’, on 28th December in a busy shopping centre in Munich. This will be followed by appearances in Ingolstadt the following day and in Nuremberg on 30th December.

The seven frontlist book titles will be supplied by Bastei Lübbe and include bestselling authors such as Rebecca Gable and Ethan Cross.

All unwanted presents will be given to local charities.

Book vending machines have been on the rise recently, with Washington D.C. setting up vending machines that dispense free books to children. Meanwhile, another German initiative – the Hamburger Automatenverlag – saw literary vending machines established by repurposing former cigarette vending machines. And in the UK, Warwickshire libraries have been working with local hospitals to introduce a library book vending machine, which featured over 400 different book titles.

Adam Gopnik’s love letter to winter

Winter sunset, Mount Tegelberg, Bavaria, Germany

Winter sunset, Mount Tegelberg, Bavaria, Germany

As we slink by the winter’s solstice and our dark days grow colder (or milder and wetter, as the case may be in the UK), there’s certainly a heavy amount of cultural baggage that burdens our seasonal metaphors.

Winter, after all, is so often presented as a season symbolic of spiritual barrenness – sometimes a psychological manifestation of emotional trauma and anguishing longing for comfort and warmth.

With the commercialisation of Christmas (UK households are set to spend well over £800 apiece in 2015 – largely on superfluous Star Wars merchandise), what once presented a core tenet of spirituality during the winter months has also become barren, and largely devoid of meaning.

Writers have often used this landscape as inspiration for their stories, poems and novels. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, for instance, is as chilling as the wintery mountain air in which it is set. While Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is surely mandatory reading for every one of us, as we seem to need reminding that Christmas is meant to be a time of love and goodwill, and not Darth Vader toasters.

Yet few have truly explored the cold season’s splendour and significance to our own lives. Albert Camus famously wrote, “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer” – in some of the most beautiful thoughts committed to words on the subject. But one writer has gone further still.

In 2011, essayist and long-standing New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik set out to reclaim the wonder, the satisfactions, and the significance, of winter in a series of lectures celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Massey Lecture Series.

These lectures, now published as Winter: Five Windows on the Season stand as a potent mixture of love letter to and cultural history of winter – exploring in depth the season’s image within popular imagination and interpretation.

Gopnik’s inquiry sees him explore winter through the works of Pushkin, Hans Christian Anderson, Goethe and Schubert, and he discusses the role of engineers, architects and polar explorers in shaping our perceptions of the season.

He writes:

“Human beings make metaphors as naturally as bees make honey, and one of the most natural metaphors we make is of winter as a time of abandonment and retreat. The oldest metaphors for winter are all metaphors of loss.”

Yet for Gopnik, such metaphors are wholly unsatisfactory. To counter such images and perceptions, he offers a defiant counterpoint to our cultural mythological misappropriation of winter, what it is, and what it means:

“My heart jumps when I hear a storm predicted, even in the perpetual grisaille of Paris; my smile rises when cold weather is promised, even in forever-forty-something-Fahrenheit New York. Gray skies and December lights are my idea of secret joy, and if there were a heaven, I would expect it to have a lowering violet-gray sky (and I would expect them to spell gray g-r-e-y) and white lights on all the trees and the first flakes just falling, and it would always be December 19 — the best day of the year, school out, stores open late, Christmas a week away.”

Such presentations and celebrations of winter are vital to us as human beings, Gopnik argues, though he notes that they may be part of a unique “modern taste”:

“A taste for winter, a love for winter vistas — a belief that they are as beautiful and seductive in their own way, and as essential to the human spirit and the human soul as any summer scene — is part of the modern condition. Wallace Stevens, in his poem “The Snow Man,” called this new feeling “a mind of winter,” and he identified it with our new acceptance of a world without illusions, our readiness to live in a world that might have meaning but that doesn’t have God. A mind of winter, a mind for winter, not sensing the season as a loss of warmth and light, and with them hope of life and divinity, but ready to respond to it as a positive, and even purifying, presence of something else — the beautiful and peaceful, yes, but also the mysterious, the strange, the sublime.”

Gopnik notes that the ability to praise winter, and to think of it as something to be celebrated and to fill us with as much joy as the sight of summer may give us, has been made possible by the conquest of artificial warmth:

“The romance of winter is possible only when we have a warm, secure indoors to retreat to, and winter becomes a season to look at as much as one to live through.”

CathedralofLearningLawinWinter

Charting our changing perceptions of winter, Gopnik writes:

“In the past two hundred years we have turned winter from something to survive to something to survey, from a thing to be afraid of to a thing to be aware of. It’s through the slow crawl of distinctions, differentiations, and explanations that the world becomes … well, never manageable, but recognizable, this place we know. The conquest of winter, as both a physical fact and an imaginative act, is one of the great chapters in the modern renegotiation of the world’s boundaries, the way we draw lines between what nature is and what we feel about it.”

Crucially, Gopnik argues that winter is essential to our enjoyment of summer, as without the coldness of one we would not be able to appreciate the warmth of the other:

“Without the stress of cold in a temperate climate, without the cycle of the seasons experienced not as a gentle swell up and down but as an extreme lurch, bang! from one quadrant of the year to the next, a compensatory pleasure would vanish from the world. There is a lovely term in botany — vernalization — referring to seeds that can only thrive in spring if they have been through the severity of winter. Well, many aspects of our life have become, in the past several hundred years, “vernalized.” (Even those who live in warmth recognize the need for at least the symbols of the cold, as in all that sprayed-on snow in Los Angeles in December.) If we didn’t remember winter in spring, it wouldn’t be as lovely; if we didn’t think of spring in winter, or search winter to find some new emotion of its own to make up for the absent ones, half of the keyboard of life would be missing. We would be playing life with no flats or sharps, on a piano with no black keys.”

They are thoughts reminiscent of those penned almost a century beforehand by Rainer Maria Rilke – one of the most prolific and poetic writers in history, who wrote:

“This last long winter, I have experienced a truth more completely than ever before: that life’s bestowal of riches already surpasses any subsequent impoverishment. What, then, remains to be feared? Only that we might forget this! But around and within us, how much it helps to remember!”

 

 

The best literary stocking fillers

stocking

The average British family is set to spend over £800 this Christmas. It’s possible that quite a lot of that will be splurged on some of the wide range of Star Wars: The Force Awakens merchandise currently piled high in every shop window – from your Lightsaber BBQ tongs to your BB-8 oranges.

Star Wars images

While we’ve been puzzling over just what it is exactly about oranges that makes them suitable Star Wars-themed, we’ve come to the conclusion that some of the best purchases you can make this Christmas may be on items that have a far longer shelf-life and far greater usability than Star Wars fruit and utensils. Although of course that Star Wars Darth Vader toaster is a must-buy for all your estranged aunts, uncles, first and second cousins.

We’re of course talking about books. Not only can they be read again and again, and invite us to explore new worlds and entire new universes, they also help us think differently about the world – and they teach us about wonderful new ideas. They’re also good for us, too. Perhaps even better than the vitamin C you’ll get from those Star Wars oranges. As this paper in the journal Science points out, reading literary works cultivates a skill known as “theory of mind”, which is described as the “ability to ‘read’ the thoughts and feelings of others.” So books make us nicer, basically. If there is anything more appropriate at Christmas, then, we certainly haven’t come across it.

So which books should you buy for those special people in your life who aren’t getting that Vader toaster? Well, surely size comes into it – because they have to fit into stockings of all shapes and sizes.

To help you narrow your options down, take a look at some of our suggestions, below:

  1. Penguin Little Black Classics

Penguins-Little-Black-Cla-009

80 little books to choose from – one for each year in the life of Penguin Books and each around 60 pages long – give you a wealth of options to choose from. These extracts of wider classical literary works are sure to offer choices to meet all literary tastes. Authors include Karl Marx, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Plato, Caligula, Keats, Flaubert, Dostoevsky and Dickens. What’s not to love?

  1. The Absent Therapist, by Will Eaves

 

absent therapist

Technically described as a novel, this delightful little book will fit any stocking – but would also be a great find under the Christmas tree. A collection of mini-narratives, each with a precise tone and occasional touches of poetry, feature stories of artificial intelligence and musings on philosophy, of travel and adventure, and of course, family feuds – without which it simply wouldn’t be Christmas.

  1. On Inequality, by Harry Frankfurt

On inequality

Certainly one for the more miserly Christmas gift receiver, who will undoubtedly point out that the credit-fuelled Christmas expenditure is forced upon the poorest in society by those marketing and corporate execs who bombard us with advertisements designed only to make us consume endlessly on a finite planet. But this fascinating book by New York Times bestselling author Harry Frankfurt addresses one of the most divisive and important issues of our time – inequality.

  1. A Guinea Pig Pride and Prejudice

Guinea Pig

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Few people realise that this same truth applies to Guinea Pigs. This brand new abridgement to the classis Jane Austen novel helps set the record straight in this regard.

  1. A satirical spoof of the classic ‘Peter and Jane’ series

Penguins new Ladybird books

Penguin’s new series of spoof Ladybird book titles, modelled on the Peter and Jane learning reading books from the 1960s and 70s have been selling out in their hundreds of thousands as potential stocking fillers. They feature “The Ladybird Book of Sheds” and “The Ladybird Book of the Hipster”. Yet they have been inspired by books they initially threatened legal action over – the wonderfully satirical ‘We Go to the Gallery’ by Miriam Elia. Instead of going for the spoof of the spoof, why not get your loved ones the real thing?

  1. The Jeremy Corbyn Colouring Book, by James Nunn

Jeremy Corbyn colouring book

A fantastic twist that has accompanied the explosion in popularity of adult colouring books, as well as in left-wing literature, James Nunn’s Corbyn-themed colouring book is a wonderfully interactive gift for people on all wings of the political spectrum. Not only topical – Corbyn is, after all, a massive part of our cultural consciousness at the moment – the book also shines a light on a man whose message of kindness, respect, love and honesty surely fits perfectly with the true meaning of Christmas.

  1. Where’s the Wookie?

Where's the wookie

If you really can’t avoid getting in on all the Star Wars hype, we can’t think of many better stocking filler options than this suitably fitting take on the classic ‘Where’s Wally’ book series. You might think that an eight-foot tall walking carpet is not going to be difficult to spot, but you’d be surprised. This book will have you scanning some 40 pages depicting elaborately detailed scenes from the Star Wars universe in search for Chewbacca. Sure to distract people of all ages from trying to work out where that Vader toaster is.

Do poets dream of electric literature?

Google dreamscape

Google’s dreamscapes – the product of an artificial neural network being asked to amplify and pull patterns out of white noise. Photo credit: Michael Tyka/Google

In 2011, one of the longest-running student-run literary journals in the USA – Archive at Duke University – ran its annual call for poetry submissions for its Fall Issue. The editors, shifting through the reams of poetry, stumbled upon a short poem called “For the Bristlecone Snag”. It was environmentally themed. It struck a slightly aggressive tone. It contained a few of those clunky turns of phrase that can so often be found in student poetry, including the less-than-immortal line: “They attacked it with mechanical horns because they love you, love, in fire and wind”. Regardless of these slight failings, the editors of the journal decided to run with it. An unremarkable decision and an unremarkable nine-line stanza at first glance, except for one thing: the poem was written by a computer algorithm, and nobody could tell.

Of course, it remains too soon to predict when the TS Eliot Prize will be won by a robot. However, what it could mean for the future of poetry – and writing in general – is gradually gathering a great deal of attention, and stimulating significant discussion.

It’s important to point out that Bristlecone Snag is not the only example of machines writing poetry. In 2008, a US high-school student, Sarah Harmon, used Java to create a computer program that wrote poetry. Again, she submitted poetry created by this machine to student journals. And again, the submissions were successful.

There is nothing fancy about these machines. They are not magically complex. They are simple algorithms built by simple tools. They follow predefined rules of grammar and structure to compose poetical-sounding snippets. For example, Harmon’s poetry machine – named OGDEN – came up with the refrain: “He was perfectly strange,/His world was shyly hopeless,/Then he tasted his dreams.”

OGDEN poetry via Shutterstock

Image via shutterstock

These more recent examples are nothing new, either. In 1984 one of the first computer bards – Racter – wrote prose largely at random. It produced a book of poetry and surreal dialogues called The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed.

But is it surprising that simple coding tools and skills can be used to create poetry that readers find passable? After all, William Carlos Williams wrote that “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words”. A nice, simple statement of a poetic position. But also one that picks up on the essentially formulaic aspects of writing. If there are reproducible structures and characteristics – as one would find in any industrial machine or piece of new technology – then it stands to reason that computers can do just a good a job at recreating patterns and writing their own poetry as human beings.

Racter shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

Just as aspiring writers will look to the poems and novels of their favourite authors, and are able to identify similarities of style and structure that they can imitate, it does not seem unreasonable that digital programs are able to identify the same patterns and imitate them. After all, Booker-nominated author Will Self said of creative writing courses that they are a like to working from “a pattern book”. If such formula can be taught, it can just as easily be programmed.

But what next? Can machine-written poetry ever go beyond simple imitation? Can a computer ever be creative in and of itself? Can it ever create lasting poetic expressions that stand the test of time among human readers without having any examples of real, lived experiences to draw on?

And, perhaps a more pertinent question, would we ever want any answers to these above questions to be ‘yes’?

Ever since the Luddite machine-breaking rebellion 200 years ago, advocates of ever-advancing technology have learned to scoff at technofobes. The argument goes that machine efficiency allows resources to go further, so what does it matter if workers are displaced?

Such an attitude has held firm as industries like coal mining, agriculture and banking and finance have seen miners replaced by coal-cutting machines, farm labourers by tractors and combine harvesters, and bank clerks and analysts by computerised ledgers and algorithms. Although of course we all know that this last one has not been without some teething problems.

The digital Shakespeare 

Yet as IT systems and ever-more capable artificial intelligence evolve, is it truly desirable to have so many aspects of humanity computerised and automated? Do we want to read poetry and novels written by machines, as writers huddle together in the last vestiges of hipsterism in some dusty London cereal café pining for the old days, trying to remember what pens, pencils and paper were called? And will we come to exist as those humans depicted in Pixar’s WALL.E – utterly reliant on automation for sustenance and entertainment, and unable to think for ourselves?

Quite what poets like Blake – who envisioned an England of “dark, Satanic Mills” at the face of the country changed with the advent of the industrial revolution – would make of computerised poetry remains unknown. Though it’s probably possible to at least take a rough guess about his feelings.

George Orwell’s 1984 envisioned a world in which we have already reached this point in history. Here, the “proles” are entertained by books produced by machines. Perhaps unfortunately – depending on your point of view – such a future may not be far away.

Professor Philip Parker, of Insead Business School, has created software that has generated 200,000 books, with over 100,000 of these titles available on Amazon. He notes: “A computer works very well with rules and the most obvious way is poetry.”

“We did a blind test between a Shakespearean sonnet and one that the computer had written. A majority of people surveyed preferred ours,” Professor Parker added. “That’s not to say it was better, but it was what people preferred.”

Writer as algorithm

The algorithms at the heart of Professor Parker’s software have also inspired a new suite of writing software that threatens to compete with journalists for the already minimal numbers of jobs going within the news and media industries.

Startup company Narrative Science creates articles without a human doing the writing.

With 30 clients for its articles already, written automatically by a machine collating data and writing “rich narrative content” from it, the death of the journalist has been mentioned in more than one speculative column.

Business news site Forbes is using the service for a number of pieces each weekday.

More questions than answers?

What this illustrates is the extent to which digital technology represents a force of change for writers of all ilk and forms. Some writers will no-doubt realise potential opportunities created by the emergence of new technologies. Think, for instance, of Iain Pears’s new novel, Arcadia – a 600 page hardback that works in close conjunction with an app of the same name. Or else Melville House’s line of “illuminated” novels with QR codes that lead to extra digital content. Or alternatively, Picador’s “The Kills” – a 2013 “digital first” thriller that links to online films from the characters’ points of views.

But perhaps an issue with these examples is that they all utilise technology under the assumption that the human being remains in control. Here, poets, novelists, publishing houses and media groups embrace these tools as enablers, but do not consider where the future is heading. How long before all the news stories we read have been written by machines? How long before we are all reading pre-programmed novels created by robots? How long before studentds are studying the poetry of AI-8976R, or the HAL-9000, instead of Blake and Shakespeare? And what would this mean for our culture?

These questions remain purely hypothetical. Yet as technology develops, we must begin to consider how we can answer them.

 

The satire that sold a thousand stocking fillers: Ladybird books mimic satirical hit ‘We Go to the Gallery’

Penguins new Ladybird books

Two titles from the new Ladybird book series, published by Penguin

Book publisher Penguin has launched a new series of spoof Ladybird book titles, modelled on the Peter and Jane learning reading books from the 1960s and 70s.

The eight books include ‘The Ladybird Book of Sheds’, ‘The Ladybird Book of the Hipster’, and ‘The Ladybird Book of the Mid-Life Crisis’, as well as ‘How it Works: The Husband’ and ‘The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness’. They feature original Ladybird artwork alongside new, deadpan text from Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris.

“Leanne has been staring at this beautiful tree for five hours. She was meant to be in the office. Tomorrow she will be fired. In this way, mindfulness has solved her work-related stress,” goes the mindfulness spoof, later adding, alongside an image of a woman in a field of flowers: “Sophie is concentrating on her breath. It smells of Frazzles. She says she has light for breakfast, air for lunch and love for supper, but Sophie has also secretly had some Frazzles.”

Book sellers have already shifted over 600,000 copies of the mini-hardbacks in less than two months, as people rush to fill stockings for Christmas, according to book sales monitor Nielsen.

All eight of the titles are in the top 50 selling books, with the biggest sellers – ‘How It Works: The Husband’, and ‘How It Works: The Wife’ – both in the top 10.

Penguin originally printed 15,000 copies of each title, but the publisher now has over 1.5 million copies in print. Some bookstores have reported struggling to get their hands on stock, with the titles proving so popular.

At Waterstones, non-fiction buyer Richard Humphreys said the chain was doing “amazingly well” with the spoof Ladybird books. “These strong sales are down to a number of factors: it’s been Ladybird’s 100th anniversary this year and almost everybody will have a fond memory of the Ladybird books of their childhood,” he said.

But this has been done before, hasn’t it?

While Penguin and others count revenues from these books, many will be inclined to think they have seen something similar before.

In 2014, artist Miriam Elia was behind the runaway success of her satirical art book, ‘We Go to the Gallery’ – a spoof version of the same Ladybird books Penguin is now spoofing itself.

In 44 pages, Elia poked fun at the art world, using simple scenes reminiscent of the Peter and Jane series alongside new vocabulary at the bottom of each page. Described in The Guardian as “funny, smart and – to any parent who has tried to introduce small children to modern art – excruciatingly recognisable”.

We Go to the Gallery - Miriam Elia

Miriam Elia – ‘We Go to the Gallery’

“The rubbish smells,” says the girl, standing by a binbag installation. “It’s the stench of our decaying Western civilisation,” says Mummy.

Elia raised £5000 through Kickstarter to publish the book, marketing the idea by putting sample pages out on social media. By the time the first edition of 1000 books had been released, it had gone viral.

Miriam Elia - We Go To The Gallery

Miriam Elia – ‘We Go to the Gallery’

Those with memories of this will remember that Penguin did not take too kindly to Elia’s ingenuity, threatening her with court action to seize the books and have them pulped.

“It was really distressing,” she says. “I’m not a very professional person. Millions of people around the world were sharing pages of the book, but nobody knew what it was.”

In an attempt to divert away from legal proceedings, Elia rebranded the books under the publishing title ‘Dung Beetle Limited’.

“We set up Dung Beetle Limited as a joke,” she laughs, “and it’s become a corporation with a ‘fulfilment centre’ to send out the books.” By we, she means herself and her older brother, Ezra, who is cited as co-author, and with whom she created a previous hit: The Diary of Edward the Hamster, 1990 to 1990. Their childhood memories of owning a hamster were the basis of this mordant story of an abused pet, which began life as a satire for Radio 4 before becoming a Sony-nominated animation and a book. It is a memorial to the suffering of the only pet the siblings were allowed growing up in north London, when they would really have preferred a dog. “Wednesday May 5: Why exist?” writes Edward. “Wednesday May 7: Two of them came today, dragged me out of my cage and put me in some kind of improvised maze made out of books and old toilet rolls.”

Elia hits back at book publisher

The similarities between Penguin’s new book series and the Dung Beetle copy they threatened legal action over have not been missed by the artist.

In a brilliant, scathing rebuttal on her website, Elia writes:

“Penguin books […] were right to threaten me with legal action when I first released We Go to the Gallery, and right also to force me to pulp all remaining copies of the first edition. They were right to call my work morally bankrupt (which it is), and infer that it would corrupt the minds of young children (which it certainly has). They were right also to lie about the fact they owned the copyright to the original illustrations, because to do good, sometimes you have to be bad.

Indeed in the long run, independent artists like myself are worthless to the national economy, because Penguin employs more people and therefore feeds more children, who will read Ladybird books. I have learnt my lesson. I have learnt that Penguin are a force for goodness, innocence and purity in this shitcan we call real life, and that I was mentally deranged to attempt an upturn of the status quo. In the future I will always ask for permission before I decide to rip the piss. I would also like to apologise to the teams of lawyers who nobly slogged night and day to crush my artistic integrity. Without their weighty correspondences I would never have gained the means to see the error of my ways.  

Furthermore, I would like to personally congratulate the creative team at Penguin- they have ingeniously manages to come up with an original concept, that they copied from me. Almost word for word in places.  And they were right to do that. Their new books clearly demonstrate that it is the working class, not the intelligentsia, who present the greatest hazard to our cultural, artistic and political heritage. And also hipsters, who in their frivolous narcissism also represent a tangible threat to good taste and common sense. They are so right to choose superfluous targets that won’t be there in a year’s time.”

And Elia has gone further, adding a new title to her Dung Beetle series, ‘We sue an artist (and then rip off her idea)’.

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Miriam Elia’s latest guide for children to help them learn about corporate intimidation.

 

 

 

 

The app and the paperback: is the future of literature electric?

Electric-Book-500x500

Faber and Touchpress have launched a “groundbreaking” new mode of publishing, which explores the future of digital reading after ebooks.

Novelist Iain Pears has worked with the two media organisations to create a new reading experience which combines the traditional paperback novel with the new digital opportunities of the smartphone or tablet app.

His new work, Arcadia, has been conceived to be read as an app first and book second, with the application written using specially-commissioned software and developed for readers by Touchpress and Gaver, the partners behind multi-award-winning apps such as The Waste Land and Shakespeare’s Sonnets for iPad.

The e-novel gathers up ten characters in three different worlds, and presents them as a skein of coloured, intersecting lines. Short bursts of text propel the characters onward, or across into another storyline: the choice depends upon the reader.

But this is not your standard “choose your adventure” type model of writing – or reading. This interactive fiction enables every single individual reader to experience the story differently. The author controls the story universe, but how readers reave the three tales – pastoral utopia, 1950s Oxford and dystopian future – is deeply dependent on the individual turning the page (or, in this case, putting fingertip to touch screen).

“There are readers who are ‘acrossers’ and others who are ‘up and downers’,” says Henry Volans, director of Faber Press, a division of the app’s publisher, Faber & Faber. “It’s meant to be a rabbit hole that encourages all sorts of reading.”

Where will this rabbit hole end?

The Circumstance art collective in Bristol is set to follow a similar interactive model of app and primary text (or primary app and secondary text, as it may be, depending on your viewpoint), as the group prepare to publish a new version of “These pages fall like ash”: a combination of a print book and an urban-walking app that overlays an imaginary world onto the physical.

Some remain cautious of suggesting anything even more interactive could be produced, however. Lincoln Michel, of the website Electric Literature, says it is hard to imagine a truly digital novel because “we already have digital narratives – they’re called videogames”. Meanwhile, British novelist, Naomi Alderman, points to the intimate nature of reading, echoing the thoughts of many other readers and writers throughout the centuries: “There’s nothing like a novel to take you into the individual consciousness of a writer. But there are things that are choice-based that only video games can do.”

Human beings have always been story tellers. Part of the reason for our species’ success has been our ability to communicate – and in fact has been key to the rise of the digital era we currently live in. What we may be catching the first glimpses of is a new digital environment that begins to break the page. As Tom Abba, a scholar or digital narrative at the University of the West of England says: “We’re trying to nudge the reader into a new kind of relationship with the story.” In other words, the traditional models of reading are changing. The future of literature may be electric.

Is the commercial media machine killing creative culture?

John Steinbeck

As prophetic dreams go, few are as discomfiting – due to their close proximity to reality – as one nocturnal epiphany John Steinbeck conjured up in the mid 1950s.

A rare writer of uncommon integrity, with a deep resistance to commercialism and a supreme faith in the human spirit, Steinbeck felt the need to pen a short letter to his literary agent and lifelong friend, Elizabeth Otis, after one specific dream caught him off guard. Indeed, the missive speaks volumes about what is perhaps the most significant threat to creative culture today.

In late July, 1956 – some 50 years before Buzzfeed – Steinbeck writes:

“Do you ever dream of getting letters? I used to a lot but haven’t lately until last night when I had one very clear and sharp. I can even see the stationery. It was from Otis Wiess and it said, “We would like very much to print your book The Short Reign of Peppin IV and think we can do it in two large installments. There are, however, certain changes we would like you to make in order that our readers will be more interested. The pace must be considerably speeded up and many of the historical and literary allusions must be removed since they will only confuse our readers. We should also want you to add three new characters and several episodes which are too long to put in a letter. I should like to meet with you to tell you of the changes we will require. Will you please let me know when this will be convenient?”

It was all perfectly clear. When the clock went off this morning I was busy typing an answer and had got as far as “Dear Otis: I have your letter and am deeply pleased with your interest in my book. I would like to suggest to you that rather than put in new characters and episodes, that you get new readers—” And I woke up thinking this was funny as hell and just laughing at my own cleverness. Isn’t that an odd and perhaps prophetic dream?”

Prophetic indeed. After all, we are in constant dynamic interaction with this thing we call culture – which is shaped by our values and, in turn shapes what we come to value. The question of balance between catering and creating is one that is asked by countless aspiring creatives: whether it is the responsibility of those involved in cultural enterprise to cater to what the people already crave, or else to create new, more elevated tastes by insisting on the substantive over the vacant?

It is pretty clear where much of the corporate media (i.e. culture and art for profit at all costs) stand on the issue. How else to explain the constant stream of novels that are copies of other successful novels, and the sequels and prequels of movies, and the exhibitioning of photography and art that is simply clones of previously successful pieces of art or photographs?

There is undoubtedly a necessary dialogue between catering and creating; yet it is difficult not to side with E.B. White, who famously asserted that “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life,” and that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down.”

Yet irrespective of White’s idealism, we find ourselves immersed in a culture that purveys endless memes of cats because – we are told – that is what we want. We don’t want new films. New stories. New art. New ideas. We want cats getting stuck on treadmills. We want cats looking grumpy. Sometimes we want dogs chasing deer but that is about as far as originality is allowed to stray.

This is part of an overarching narrative that is suffused with a rather insidious implication that cat GIFs – and the occasional inspirational (though usually misattributed) quote superimposed on some stock image of a sunset – are all that we as a people are capable or worthy of wanting or understanding. Increasingly, our agents of culture are abdicating their responsibility to create more elevated tastes and capitulating to catering.

What is to be done? As aspiring creatives, the challenge is and may always remain: do something different. Create something new. It may be difficult. There may be less money in it. But it is possible. It has to be. In the words of Captain Picard, you just have to “make it so”.

 

Writers on their favourite books

Everyone has that book they can’t get out of their head. The story that will forever hold a special place in their hearts and souls. We were lucky enough to have the chance to ask* five famous authors about their favourite books** – here’s what they told us…

  1. Jonathan Franzen – The Hungry Caterpillar

Franzen

“This is a fabulous allegory for rapacious capitalism. The caterpillar clearly represents neoliberalism. He bites into every fruit, takes just one bite and moves on, getting fatter and fatter. He’s exploiting everything. The caterpillar might as well be called Ronald Reagan. It’s great! Also I liked the colours.”

  1. Toni Morrison – Fifty Shades Free

Toni Morrison

“Like most people I prefer to read the ‘Fifty Shades’ series upside down. It really puts things into perspective. You are hanging there, reading this, and everything becomes so clear. What I realised was that this book goes so much deeper than most people give it credit. And in fact you can do so much with it. You can dip it in Pepsi. You can spread Nutella over it. You can cut out all the words and arrange them in little patterns on your fridge by sticking those tiny magnets to them. It’s interactive, in that way.”

  1. Ernest Hemingway – The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

Hemingway gun

“Every so often you come across a book in which it feels as though the author has reached a hand through the page and taken yours in its grasp. You see yourself in the characters. You become the story. The story becomes you. This is the book that does that for me. When Adrien writes “I have never seen a dead body or a female nipple” I wept. It was too close to home.”

 

  1. George Saunders – Sex and the City
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Photo of George Saunders. (Chloe Aftel/Random House)

“One of my favourite aspects of Sex and the City is how you can read it with your eyes closed, trying to guess aloud what words will come next. I’m really good at this game now – I play it with my son, who frankly is terrible at it. But part of this just comes down to practice. A lot of the time you’ll get it right by shouting one of the following phrases: “I could so do with a margarita right now”; or “This once again illustrates the fundamental problem with modern economic theory, and makes you realise that we are increasingly becoming a plutocracy, rather than a democracy.” That’s a good hint I gave you. Don’t tell anyone.”

  1. Margaret Atwood – The Eye of Argon

MargaretAtwood

“This story has unfairly got a bit of a bad rep, I think. Too many books these days are written by people who seem to think the only thing that matters is whether or not their characters drink enough Mountain Dew or wear the latest Nike trainers. This is one of those rare books that doesn’t suffer from that sort of nonsense. It’s concise. And yet it feels alive.”

 

 

* May not actually have had the chance to ask these authors anything.

** May or may not be their favourite books. It’s all pretty much conjecture at this point.

Self-doubt and the cure for procrastination

procrastinate

The well-known ailment of any artist, writer, illustrator, photographer, comedian, actor – anyone creatively inclined at all, in fact – is of course creative block. So often, this mental obstacle that seems to stifle our ability to think clearly about creative challenges is met with hours of another well-known symptom: procrastination.

Indeed, this symptom is increasingly common throughout the world – in office blocks and class rooms, in the student dormitories of undergraduates and post graduates not working on their theses or essays, and in our own homes, where chores are put off in favour of watching that latest episode of Catastrophe, or simply staring at a spot in the wall above the fireplace until you can’t tell whether you’re asleep, awake, or in some crazed semi-reality where everything is off-white and always out of focus.

These life-draining hours spent putting off new projects is often predicated on the illusion that tomorrow will contain more favourable – or even optimal – conditions for beginning it. And this theory itself is of course based on the clear untruth that there will ever be any perfect or optimal conditions for doing anything, anything at all.

Yet what so often happens when trying to begin a new creative project – or that novel you’ve been working on – is that the more we stall and procrastinate after the initial spark of inspiration, the more we stifle the force it fired within us, until eventually – tragically, inevitably – we douse it completely without catalysing a beginning at all.

Part of this may have to do with overthinking, which is an especially common form of procrastination. Picasso famously captured the error with thinking that art can begin with planning or a novel can begin with a thousand post-it notes when he said: “To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.”

Another great artist articulates the psychological underpinnings of this tendency with an uncommon clarity and vulnerability. Eugene Delacroix’s journal provides us with a transcendental, moving meditation on procrastination and self-doubt.

delacroix self-portrait, 1837

Eugene Delacroix – Self Portrait, 1837

In an entry from April of 1824, two weeks before his twenty-sixth birthday, Delacroix writes:

“I’m always having excellent ideas, but instead of working on them while they are still fresh in my imagination, I keep telling myself that I will do them later on — but when? Then I forget about them, or worse still, can no longer see anything interesting in ideas that seemed certain to inspire me. The trouble is, that with a roving and impressionable mind like mine, one idea drives another out of my head quicker than the changing wind alters the direction of a windmill’s sails. And when I have a number of different ideas for subjects in mind at once, what am I to do? Am I to keep them in stock, so to speak, quietly waiting their turn? If I do that, no sudden inspiration will quicken them with the touch of Prometheus’s breath. Must I take them out of a drawer when I want to paint a picture? That would mean the death of genius.”

Delacroix’s solution to this is to turn to the classics as a clarifying force of inspiration:

“I believe that when one needs a subject, it is best to hark back to the Classics and to choose something there. For really, what could be more stupid? How am I to choose between all the subjects I have remembered because they once seemed beautiful to me, now that I feel much the same about them all? The very fact that I am able to hesitate between two of them suggests lack of inspiration… What I must do to find a subject is to open some book capable of giving me inspiration, and then allow myself to be guided by my mood.”

Four days later, he returns to this topic, reasoning that at the heart of procrastination lies self-doubt – and the most effective cure for it is immediate action:

“I must never put off for a better day something that I could enjoy doing now. What I have done cannot be taken from me. And as for this ridiculous fear of doing things that are beneath my full powers…. No, this is the very root of the evil! This is the mistake which I must correct. Vain mortal, can nothing retrain you, neither your bad memory and feeble strength, nor your unsuitable mind that fights against ideas as soon as you receive them? Something at the back of your mind is always saying: “You who are withdrawn from eternity for so short a time, think how precious these moments are. Remember that your life must bring to you everything that other mortals extract from theirs.” But I know what I mean. I think that everyone who has ever lived must have been tortured by this idea to some degree.”

Procrastination is by no-means a modern phenomenon. No doubt Homer spent days picking sand from his toes after walking on the beaches of the Aegean rather than pen the Iliad. Shakespeare undoubtedly spent many weeks talking about how high the price of apples were rather than start working on Romeo and Juliet.  And it spares no-one: not the troubled French artist nor those writers we celebrate as geniuses: after all, Steinbeck reasoned, that to avoid procrastination, one simply had to get on with it: “One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all […] I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not.”

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One of Delacroix’s stunning illustrations in Goethe’s Faust.

Yet in our digital world, it is undoubtedly harder to concentrate, and procrastination is far easier to fuel when the means of distraction are all around. We know, for instance, that digital devices are disrupting our creative tendencies when all we really need is silence and – in fact – boredom.

To steady ourselves in a thrashing sea of distraction and procrastination, then, The Journal of Eugene Delacroix remains an invaluable source and reference book for all creatives struggling with creative block – and two centuries after it was first written. Not only does it provide readers with an invaluable record of the inner life of one of humanity’s greatest artists; but also serves as a timeless trove of insight into the universal afflictions (and their cures) which take the challenges of the creative life and turn them into art.