Literary Theory for Robots: How Computers Learned to Write by Dennis Yi Tenen is a captivating exploration into the intersection of literature, technology, and artificial intelligence (AI). In this thought-provoking book, Tenen delves into the evolving relationship between humans and machines  in the realm of literature, offering insights that challenge conventional notions of creativity and authorship.

At the heart of the book is the question of whether machines can truly understand and create literature. Tenen skillfully navigates this complex terrain by tracing the historical development of literary theory alongside advancements in computing technology. He argues that the rise of computational methods has not only transformed the way literature is studied but has also fundamentally altered our understanding of what it means to write and read.

One of the book’s strengths lies in its interdisciplinary approach, drawing on insights from fields such as computer science, linguistics, and philosophy. Through engaging anecdotes and examples, Tenen demonstrates how algorithms can analyze and even generate literary texts, blurring the boundaries between human and machine authorship. However, he also cautions against the temptation to reduce literature to mere data points, emphasizing the importance of human interpretation and context in literary analysis.

Throughout the book, Tenen raises thought-provoking questions about the nature of creativity, the role of technology in shaping cultural production, and the implications of algorithmic authorship for literary criticism. He challenges readers to consider traditional notions of authorial intent and invites them to explore new possibilities for literary expression in the digital age.

While Literary Theory for Robots is undoubtedly dense and intellectually challenging, it is also accessible to readers with varying levels of expertise in both literature and technology. Tenen’s clear and engaging writing style, coupled with his ability to demystify complex concepts, make this book a rewarding read for anyone interested in the intersection of literature and technology.

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What if I told you that I, Grace Utomo, didn’t write a single word of that eloquent, insightful review? No. That  jaw-droppingly professional opinion materialized in under thirty seconds, the answer to my ChatGPT command: “Write a 350-word book review of ‘Literary Theory for Robots: How Computers Learned to Write’ by Dennis Yi Tenen.” Scary I could trick you that easily? Or is it wonderful artificial intelligence (AI) is already that smart? Have I just experimented my way out of a meaningful job? Questions like these continue creating insomniacs across disciplines that — like writing —many had considered untouchable by AI.

Up to now, my online partner-in-crime, ChatGPT, has given you many facts that could influence whether or not you purchase a copy of Literary Theory for Robots. But he (for whatever reason ChatGPT is a ‘he’ in my imagination) still can’t hold a candle to a flesh-and-blood reviewer in one department: emotional persuasion. So I’m going to tell you how I felt while I was reading the book, and we’ll let you decide which review is more effective.

As a human reader, I’m always curious about the author of whatever text I’m reading. Books don’t materialize in vacuums; in nonfiction, the author’s ethos usually determines how likely I am to listen to embrace their ideas.

Dennis Yi Tenen is the unicorn of a man qualified to write about both computers and literature. Although he started his professional career as a software engineer at Microsoft, he made a stunning about-face to the world of academia, and is currently associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. You’ll only need a paragraph or two of his delightfully conversational, tongue-in-cheek prose to appreciate that this second career fits him like a glove.

Another issue I tend to raise as a nosy human reader lies in the realm of specifics. How, specifically, does Tenen trace “the historical development of literary theory alongside advancements in computing technology”? I was delighted that he did so by starting with ancient Arabic and Spanish philosophers — a fascinating parade of names I’d never heard before. Most “traditional” First World literary criticism begins with Plato and Aristotle, then moves to the Renaissance, then the Enlightenment, etc. Tenen seemed determined to only talk about the “little people” — nonconformist thinkers who were women, or heretics, or represented minorities — inventors whose progeny didn’t make the history books but gave birth to those that did. Aristotle once said the role of good poetry (his word for “literature”) is to “surprise and delight.” Tenen’s cornucopia of quizzical outcasts will captivate you, from Ibn Khaldun and the Muslim zairajah in the fourteenth century, to Andrey Markov and his chains of letter and word probabilities in the twentieth.

I wouldn’t be an honest reviewer if I didn’t comment on a point where  Literary Theory for Robots didn’t quite live up to my expectations.  Although Tenen’s copious quotations and footnotes give the illusion of presenting a comprehensive account of literary criticism and computer science, they fall short. Roughly three-quarters of my way through the book, I realized that Tenen had yet to touch on a single  traditionally recognizable historical figure.Expanding our currently curated cast of usually Western, often male notables is a noble goal. Nevertheless, doing so at the cost of those men and women who’ve already earned a rightful place in our history books seems a bit like cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

For example, I was delighted to learn that Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s love child, was one of the world’s first computer programmers. But I would have also liked to know if Sir Isaac Newton ever made any literary contributions. I concede that no book can cover everything the reader wants, but the sense that Tenen might have been intentionally glossing over recognizable names made the content feel a bit unbalanced.

Well, now you’ve read the scoop on Literary Theory for Robots: How Computers Learned to Write from both an impartial artificial intelligence and a human reviewer’s fleshy fingertips. Are you more or less likely to pick up your own copy, compared with after you’d only read my friend ChatGPT’s take? If you could read only one review, which would it be? Am I out of a job? Tenen thinks not. As he says in his penultimate chapter:

“The pleasure of putting together a word puzzle into a beautiful sentence is not diminished by the fact that someone or something can do it better or faster than me or in greater quantity. Perhaps we simply enjoy playing this game too much. It is tuned perfectly to the bandwidth of our peculiar limitations — their small victories and defeats included.” (117)

We humans are obsessed with connecting and being heard. We will talk as long as there’s an ear left on earth to listen and we’ll write as long as there’s an eye, ear, or finger left to read. It’s in our DNA. 

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