Noticed a certain consistency in literary journals? Been wondering why it takes months, even years, to receive rejection letters?
Well, wonder no more.
“We started developing the software in the early 1970s,” said The New Yorker’s Roger Angell. “Ann Beattie was an early adopter, and Alice Munro. Think of those complex timelines—it would have been really impossible to keep track without some kind of automation.”
But The New Yorker wasn’t alone.
“[Gordon] Lish brought it to a whole other level,” said HTMLGiant’s Blake Butler. “No way you could have had automatically generated indie lit without his Becket subroutines. People are still using his WordLimit daemon, and no one knows how it works.”
Lish’s work benefited from faster processors, as did others’ work in the 1990s.
“[David Foster] Wallace rented supercomputer time for years at ILM,” said a spokeswoman for LucasArts. “We would have artists wondering why shots were taking so long to process, and all we could say was that Infinite Jest was processing in the background. But we felt we were doing something important. He saw things in the code that no one else could.”
The spread of MFA programs gave fiction programmers a new outlet for experimentation: with so many aspiring writers sending out work, who could keep track of which stories were by humans, and which were by machines?
“I guarantee,” said Bill Buford, former Fiction Editor at The New Yorker. “Seventy-five percent of the fiction in literary journals today isn’t written by human beings.”
So why release the code now?
“We felt all the discussions of MFA programs was getting really unproductive,” said The New Yorker’s Deborah Treisman. “I mean, we’re talking about fiction here. Come on, people. Stop talking about it, and start writing it better. So we’ll put the code out there, see what people do with it.”
Other sources agreed. “There’s this sense,” an Iowa Writers Workshop official said, “that fiction is all dry and stuffy, or else snotty and condescending. What if people were as excited by fiction as they are about Facebook or Twitter? What if instead of Angry Birds everyone was talking about this week’s story, in… I don’t know…. Wouldn’t that be something? But I don’t see that happening the way things are now.”
The full code will be released on Monday from MFA programs around the country.
Code and composite: Sarah Malone