Machines are getting better at literary analysis

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IN “Dead Poets Society” (1989), John Keating, a teacher at a 1950s American boarding school, played by Robin Williams, draws a chart, its shape dictated by a fictional essay called “Understanding Poetry”. The horizontal axis measures a poem’s technical quality, the vertical axis shows its importance, and the combination of the two determines its greatness. After allowing his pupils to draw such a chart for Lord Byron and William Shakespeare, Mr Keating declares the essay “excrement”, and orders them to rip it out of their poetry anthologies. “This is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your hearts and souls,” he rumbles. There are “armies of academics going forward measuring poetry”, with little regard for passion, beauty or romance.

Doubtless Mr Keating would have been dismayed to read “The Transformation of Gender in English-Language Fiction”, a paper published last month in the Journal of Cultural…Continue reading

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