Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 19 2018 02:00PM

Jane Austen’s novels have provided the inspiration for any number of musical treatments, from operas and a classical instrumental suite to both original and jukebox musical theater. But only recently, it seems, has anyone had the idea of training a computer to write songs by feeding it the text of Emma.


Yes, that’s what they’re up to over at Google, as we learned last week from an article made available online by two of the company’s researchers, Pablo Samuel Castro and Maria Attarian.


Apparently, getting artificial intelligence to produce decent poetry and song lyrics is an especially challenging computer-science task. Castro and Attarian attempted to improve on previous efforts by training their neural network on two datasets, one consisting of the lyrics of songs in a variety of genres (excluding hip-hop, “to reduce the amount of profanity” in the results), and one drawn from sixteen popular books, all but one of them fiction, available via Project Gutenberg.


Yes, just as Mr. Darcy would dictate, it was not enough for the computers to have a thorough knowledge of music and singing; they also had to improve their minds by extensive reading.


Among the items in the second dataset, which was designed to expand the computer system’s vocabulary, were Emma and Pride and Prejudice. Austen, Dickens, and Twain were the only authors with two books on the list, which also included works by writers ranging from Machiavelli to Charlotte Perkins Gilman.


Alas, however, getting a computer to write poetry is even harder than turning a nineteenth-century heroine into Mr. Darcy's idea of a truly accomplished young lady. The experiment's results, though of interest to computer scientists, were hardly toe-tapping Top 40 hits. (Sample result: “come on, uh/ you remember the voice of the widow/i love the girl of the age/i have a regard for the whole/i have no doubt of the kind/i am sitting in the corner of the mantelpiece.”)


In future, the researchers say, they hope to refine the training process by including more books, as well as books employing a more modern lingo. Since Project Gutenberg primarily includes out-of-copyright works, the list of books used in the experiment is heavy on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novels, whose vocabularies are not exactly typical for today’s songs. (In the resulting lyrics, Austen’s influence can perhaps be detected in the presence of words like “estate,” and “fancy” used as a noun.)


Personally, however, I’m in favor of nipping this whole thing in the bud right now. Since I make my living, such as it is, as a writer, I’m all in favor of teaching machines as little as possible about writing. Keep the computers ignorant, I say!


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 12 2018 02:00PM

This business of Austen trend-spotting is getting to be exhausting.


Barely four months ago, I noted that the two-decade-long craze for adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels seems to have inaugurated a more recent craze for second-order Austen spinoffs: adaptations of works that are themselves Austen adaptations. Broaden the category to include films that constitute original works of fanfic -- one-and-a-half order adaptations? -- and the numbers multiply.


Before the year is out, we will have experienced (at least!) five second-ish-order spinoffs: an Off Broadway musical based on Clueless, the 1995 movie that updates the story of Emma to high school in Beverly Hills; a fifth-anniversary sequel to the web series Emma Approved; and no fewer than three Pride and Prejudice-inspired Hallmark movies (here, here, and -- before long -- here). And that's not even to mention the announced plans for a remake of Clueless; a movie version of Ayesha at Last, a P&P fanfic set among young Muslims in Toronto; and a filmed update of Persuasion.


Apparently, next year will bring more of the same: Lifetime, the TV channel famed for its tales about women in love, women in danger, and women in love with danger, has just promised us Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta. In this version of the story, the main characters are African-American, Mr. Bennet is a minister – call him Rev. Bennet – and his wife is in a rush to marry off her five daughters because she’s the author of a self-help marriage manual. (Shades of the 2003 P&P movie set among devout Mormons in contemporary Utah?)


I approach almost every new Austen project in a spirit of Christmas-in-July good cheer. Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta? I’m game! Good news: Tracy McMillan, a veteran TV writer whose wise and funny Huffington Post piece “Why You’re Not Married” went viral in 2011, is doing the screenplay! Hurrah! This could be awesome!


And what with the Ayesha At Last news and the September publication of Pride, billed as “a Pride and Prejudice remix” set among black and Latino teenagers in Brooklyn, that brings us to a total of three recent Austen fanfics revolving around characters of color. Don’t look now, but we may have a trend on our hands.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 8 2018 02:00PM

Back in middle and high school, I took French. In college, I took Italian. I enjoyed them both – beautiful languages, fascinating cultures and histories, great national literatures.


Alas, however, it seems I should have been studying Portuguese.


This belated realization came to me last week, when I learned that Brazilian TV had just concluded the six-month, hundred-hour run of a racy new early-evening soap opera, Orgulho e Paixão (Pride and Passion), that gleefully mingles characters and plot elements from four Jane Austen novels and the novella Lady Susan.


The adapters seem to have taken a few liberties with their source material, and not just in the title pairing. Although the story still concerns a family with five daughters to marry off, it’s set among early twentieth-century coffee barons in rural southern Brazil – “more Downton Abbey than Jane Austen,” writer Marcos Bernstein told the BBC.


In this version, two of the Benedito family’s girls hail from Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, and free-spirited Elisabeta has not only a love interest named Darcy but also a close friend named Ema.


Oh, and the proceedings also involve a pregnant Lydia-clone who abandons her groom at the altar, an Elisabeta who attends a party in male costume, a Bingley-equivalent who joins a fight club, and a Darcy who ventures down a mine -- not to mention a gay kiss and a scene in which a couple bathe together under a waterfall. All of it was shocking enough that Brazilian regulators deemed the program unsuitable for children.


OK, so it’s not a strictly faithful adaptation.


But come on – does this not sound wildly entertaining? It’s probably too late for me to learn Portuguese, but according to the BBC, the Jane Austen Society of Brazil (blog here, website here) now boasts four thousand members, making it among the largest Austen societies in the world. Surely someone in this group has a little free time on her hands and would like to spend it creating English subtitles for Orgulho e Paixão? Can you say "Janeite service project"?


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 29 2018 01:00PM

They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. So perhaps the definition of Janeite insanity is repeatedly watching Austen-inspired Hallmark Channel movies and expecting them to be any good.


This rumination was occasioned by my Saturday night viewing of Christmas at Pemberley Manor, which kicked off Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas,” a dizzying series of holiday-themed entertainments scheduled to take us to the brink of the new year. Yes, October 27 seems early to launch – Halloween at Pemberley Manor would have been more like it – but the Christmas-industrial complex brooks no opposition to its saccharine imperium.


Hallmark is a recent convert to the Janeite cause. It’s less than three years since the channel aired Unleashing Mr. Darcy, a truly terrible Pride and Prejudice update set in the dog-show world. Apparently, that offering was enough of a success that earlier this year, Hallmark felt compelled to give us an equally awful sequel, Marrying Mr. Darcy. And Pemberley Manor is only the first of the Austen-themed movies in this year’s “Countdown to Christmas”: the day after Thanksgiving, Hallmark will air Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe, a gender-swapped update based on a fanfic of such execrable badness that even I may be unable to bring my usual sunny optimism to the enterprise.


But sufficient unto the day: for now, we are concerned with Pemberley Manor, which chronicles the romance between an event planner named Elizabeth Bennet and a titan of some indeterminate industry named William Darcy. They meet cute-ish over a coffee order and then bond when he agrees to let his palatial family home serve as the backdrop for the Christmas festival she is organizing in a Connecticut town whose Olde New Englande quaintness should make fans of Gilmore Girls feel right at home.


To be fair, the writing and acting on display here are an improvement over Unleashing Mr. Darcy. Alas, however, that’s a very low bar. The leads, TV actors Jessica Lowndes and Michael Rady, are professional, but it’s hard to believe that either of them hoped for roles like these when they dreamed of going into acting. (But hey – work is work. . .)


The story’s Austen connections are so tenuous that they barely deserve to be called perfunctory. Aside from the names of the protagonists, the Darcy homestead, and a few other characters – personal assistant Jane Lucas, overbearing boss Caroline Bingley, un-Wickham-like mayor George – not a shred of Austen’s story remains. (Although I give the writer props for calling the town Lambton – apparently, he did thumb through a dog-eared paperback of P&P.)


In place of Austen’s narrative, we have a bland and reassuring made-for-TV plot: Smart but pliant girl learns to stand up for herself while teaching successful but lonely workaholic guy that Love and Family are the Most Important Things. Phrases like “the magic of the holidays” and “Christmas miracle” are used repeatedly and without irony.


Even the now-classic first-they-hate-each-other-then-they-love-each-other rom-com template, itself lifted from Austen’s original, is barely gestured toward: Although Elizabeth and Darcy meet via an argument, it’s brief and good-natured, and before the movie is half over, they are decorating Christmas cookies and flirting adorably, with nary a hint of pride or prejudice in sight.


Nearly twenty-five years into Austen’s pop-culture renaissance, references to her most famous work now seem to function as a sort of all-purpose Romance Flavoring, a bit like a parsley garnish that can be sprinkled over almost any dish. Why do I keep hoping for more? Feel free to offer a diagnosis.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 25 2018 01:00PM

Can I get half credit?


As blog readers will recall, last week I predicted (correctly, as it turned out) that Pride and Prejudice, despite making it into the top ten finalists in PBS’s Great American Read competition, would not win.


On the other hand, I picked Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to sweep a field dominated by twentieth-century historical and fantasy epics, and by books most readers encounter in childhood. I was wrong: as PBS revealed on Tuesday night, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird led the voting from the start, winning forty-eight of the fifty states. (In retrospect: duh. What was I thinking?)


Ultimately, P&P finished fourth – coming in behind the Outlander and Harry Potter series, but edging out LOTR – a pretty good showing, all things considered.


PBS didn’t collect demographic breakdowns of its voters, but given years of research showing that women read more fiction than men do, it’s likely the pool skewed female. The makeup of the winners’ circle suggests as much: five of the top ten (Mockingbird, P&P, Gone with the Wind, Little Women and Jane Eyre) are female coming-of-age tales written by women, while in two more (the Outlander series and, arguably, Charlotte’s Web) female characters are the key protagonists. Even the fantasy epics that round out the list – LOTR, the Harry Potter series, andThe Chronicles of Narnia – feature important female characters, although male protagonists dominate.


So: girl power. And I’d still rather be reading Jane Austen. But hey – it’s all good, as long as we’re reading books.


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