Can a Computer-Generated Book Matter?: NaNoGenMo as Critical Media Art

Note: What follows is the text version of a talk prepared for the 2022 ELO conference. This talk was accompanied by some slides


Computational literature has a history nearly as long as that of computing, and creative programmers have found ways to produce literary work with a wide range of forms and with many different genres, tropes, and recurring focal points of interest. The earliest works tended toward poetry, but -- especially as the practice expanded with the proliferation of print-on-demand publishing services -- it is now possible to find computer-generated prose, drama, zines, and even comics in relative abundance. There is no more dense concentration of nascent computational literature than NaNoGenMo (National Novel Generation Month), which is an annual event and community of practice challenging participants to write code that will generate a 50,000 word "novel" during the month of November.

As I have written elsewhere, the charm of NaNoGenMo's low-barrier for entry is that it affords a generative commingling of brand new programmers with experienced practitioners, all focusing completing the same task by different means and as a result to innovate their craft. While my earlier work studying the corpus of NaNoGenMo books has focused on understanding the themes, forms, and tropes of computational literature demonstrated in this community and its antecedents, my goal in what follows is to highlight a few works that stand out for their emphasis on having a point to make. It is my hope that this introduction fosters a wider appreciation of NaNoGenMo as an experimental literary community and that it encourages others to experience the challenge of NaNoGenMo for themselves. Moreover, by highlighting both meaning and ways of meaning, I hope to extend the implications of a loose taxonomy of forms developed elsewhere where I have classified creative literary and artistic computer-generated books as metonymic, contingent, and/or operationalist in their disposition.

Ideological Specificity in Conceptual Writing

Two reasons motivate this presentation.

First, conceptual writing (and conceptual art) is an important antecedent to the works in NaNoGenMo, or to put it more bluntly, for a majority of the work produced, knowing the idea behind the work (or seeing and understanding the code) is sufficient, rather than reading it. This gap between that idea of the work and the work itself echoes Sol Lewitt's remarks from "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art:"

When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.

Certainly these novel generator machines are ideas.

Or as Henry Flynt wrote in an earlier formulation of concept art:

.. concept art is a kind of art of which the material is language.

But conceptual writing in its contemporary formulation has had a problematic relationship with the subject position of the artist. The most notorious example of this occurred with Kenneth Goldsmith's performance, "The Body of Michael Brown," which Joey De Jesus memorably characterizes as "Half-baked Rationalization of White Idiocy" in their response.

Moreover, and more generally, with conceptual writing, one does not always get the impression that there is very much at stake. Much of it -- especially, perhaps, that work interested in forms and appropriation -- seems to exist "just because it can." To be sure, conceptual writing can be specific and critical, and eliding the subjectivity of authorship can be an ideological commitment -- as it was for various movements within the historical avant-garde. But for me the question is, for NaNoGenMo books, what is at stake for these aesthetic projects?

Mark Sample faced with a similar question in his 2014 essay about Twitter bots, “A protest bot is a bot so specific you can’t mistake it for bullshit.” Sample creates a detailed rubric for what he means by "specificity" for Twitter bots, but since the context for NaNoGenMo is rather different, a different and broader set of criteria is warranted. That is, Twitter bots have a preconceived rhetorical situation: a public main street of a platform with an audience, real or imagined, that will can perceive and potentially be persuaded, moved, or annoyed by these bots' presence in their timelines, but NaNoGenMo books have a much narrower more temporary audience.

It may be useful to pursue this broader rubric for generated books of conviction, but my second purpose motivating this presentation is that I already have a heuristic for discussing works' differences and family resemblances, but can that be deeper or more informative than merely descriptive? Are there further differences these could point to? Briefly, in the larger work that this presentation is part of, I characterize computational literary as demonstrating at least one of three characteristics

  • Works that are metonymic or sculptural express meaning through their (de)mediation
  • Works that are metaphoric or contingent express meaning through their relationship to prior texts or datasets
  • Works that are operationalist express their ideas through the means of their construction

These characteristics are not mutually exclusive, nor are they exhaustive, but seeking works that follow these patterns can help give shape to the hundreds of books now in the NaNoGenMo corpus (to say nothing of hundreds more produced independently and on their own terms), and these could even help generate new book ideas.

Examples and Themes

With that background established, I want next to look at several examples -- just a few works organized by theme -- of NaNoGenMo projects that use their format, content, or means of construction to make some point of protest, intervention, or even activism.

Gun Violence in America

Nick Montfort, whose work is well-known to the ELO community, has contributed work to nearly every installment of NaNoGenMo, and has probably had the most success in publishing versions of these generated books in print. His book, Hard West Turn, first completed in November 2017 and published in 2018 under Montfort's Bad Quarto imprint, deals with the endemic problem of mass shootings in America.

Cover of Hard West Turn (2018)

Montfort's Python program uses BeautifulSoup to crawl through WikiPedia articles about mass shootings and then processes the sentences in those articles Spacy's NLP interface to isolate clauses that lack proper nouns. Assembling those together with a few framing phrases creates a surreal effect more of meandering westward than a hard turn. Though not named in the book, the main character is evidently the shooter of the Mandalay Bay massacre, whose motives for the deadliest mass shooting remain unknown. Statements of introspection and observation -- mostly composed by Montfort -- juxtaposed with the flat attestations of the details of violence create a disturbing affect:

The man went west to find something, not knowing what. These included communication and sensory difficulties, socialization delays, and repetitive behaviors. According to the autopsy reports, many of the victims were shot multiple times in the front or side, and from a short distance. He lay down in a grassy area and fell asleep.

In my reading, the point of this book is not to shed light on this specific event, but rather to use its meanderings through WikiPedia's information space to act out the anxiety of living in a dystopia under the thread of stochastic violence.


The rise of authoritarianism regimes around the world has had many implications and comorbidities, especially racist ideas about immigration and national identity. Cameron Edmond's 2020 book, Citizens[], avoids the specific politics of any real national identity by instead detailing how "our glorious nation" is populated through a series of applications for citizenship. Each applicant's characteristics are generated randomly, but for each successful application, at least one of those characteristics is taken as a criteria that all future applicants must also share, else they will not be admitted. In this way, the 21st citizen -- the 22,612th applicant -- had to satisfy 16 arbitrary criteria:

Citizen 22612's application to join our glorious nation.

The manner in which each page of this book is constructed succinctly illustrates the dilemma of immigrants' who compete against the arbitrary privileges of native-born citizens, a challenge conveyed in other literature through conventional means such as identification with subjects' lived experiences.

Bilgé Kimyonok's approach to the closely-related, racist, replacement theory conspiracy is similarly elegant in its implementation. Intended explicitly as a work of satire, Rhinozeros (2021) randomly replaces letters and numbers in a text, Eugene Ionesco's play, Rhinoceros, with the letter, "Z." Kimyonok chose "Z" as a reference to right-wing politician, Éric Zemmour, and the specific Ionesco play because it is a parable about fascism wherein people are transforming into rhinoceroses.

Il a raizon, c’ezz zzztz ! Nzzz nz pzuvons zas permettze qze nzs chats szient
écrzsés pzz zes zhzzzcéroz, ou zar z’imporze zuzi !
Nzus zz pozvznz zaz lz zezmettrz !
L’ÉPICIÈRE sortant sa tête, par la porte de la boutique,
à z’Épicizz.

quotation from first third of Rhinozeros.

DAISY Zuz, iz zzzz zzzzzz zù zozz zn zzzzzs ! (Zzz zzzrzzzzzzzzz zzztzzz zz zzzzz. Zézezzzz zzzzzz zzzzzzzt zz zzzzzz. Zz pzzzz z’zzrêze. Oz zzzzzz cezzzzzzz ezzzze, zzzz lz zzizzzzz, zzzzz zez ézzzz zz zzzzzzzzzzzzs.) Çz zzzzznz zzzzzzzz zérzzzz ! Zz z’zzzz zzz zzzz, zz z’zzzzzs zaz ! Zzzz zzzzbzz.

quotation from final pages of Rhinozeros.

The straightforward implementation of this formula underscores the absurdity of this racist idea, but the blanket of Z's as the play concludes is a chilling illustration of the creeping hegemony of fascist ideas in mainstream conversations.

Structure and Infrastructure

The title of Charles Horn's You wouldn't curl an NFT (2021) refers to curl, a command-line for retrieving content addressed by a URL, and the curious position non-fungible tokens hold vis a vis the premise of owning digital files. (The phrasing here also echos the infamous "you wouldn't steal a car" ad campaign.) Horn's code demonstrates the fungibility (textually) of a particularly well-known set of NFTs by transforming each into a textual description of its contents. Those descriptions, printed in the dominant color of each image, make up the text of the book.

Dude against goldenrod background: tired.

This book is effective in the way it critiques NFTs as investment commodities, but at a deeper level, Horn's use of cURL and a web3 protocol (each sentence links to that token's URL via IFPS), also points with a satirical lens at the infrastructure developing around and for cryptocapitalist ideologies.

This interest in infrastructure also echoes Everest Pipkin's earlier book, A thoroughfare [] beat Across the wilderness (2016), which assembles screenshots from Google Street View pointing down toward the location of fiberoptic internet cables.

Detail of A thoroughfare [] beat Across the wilderness, page 24

These books are not mere objects: they are systems for producing an artifact. And by creating a process to systematically represent latent network systems, Horn, Pipkin, and others use operational aesthetics as a vehicle for criticism.

Language and Power

The examples discussed so far have worked in what I have called an operationalist mode, foregrounding the process of their construction (or the inscrutability of that process) as a driving force for signification. Many other works in NaNoGenMo are what I call "contingent" or "metaphoric", and these are books that authors can use as methods for critique in a different way. A contingent book is one that is derived from another, as in a remix or interpretation, and many of these derivative works are parodic in nature. As language is a means of expressing power relations, the parodies that reveal or subvert those power structures demonstrate criticism in a different way.

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a novel that deals with the politics and gendered stratifications of Regency England, so when Lynn Cherny's 2021 "re-genderizer" replaces titles, pronouns, and other gender markers with their opposite, the result is a reworking of the original that casts the gendered roles of the original work in a clearer light.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a husband. However little known the feelings or views of such a woman may be on her first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that she is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their sons.
"My dear Mrs. Bennet," said her gentleman to her one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?" Mrs. Bennet replied that she had not.

Cherny's work joins E.M. Daniels' The Adventures of Charlotte Holmes (2015) in demonstrating what happens when gender roles are reversed at the level of language:

To Charlotte Holmes he is always THE man. I have seldom heard her mention him under any other name.

But I also argue that katstasaph's Ready Player N more subtly critiques a stereotypically masculine use of language by inserting into any text unnecessary references to pop cultural minutia. As the following excerpt of a transformed Dracula illustrates, the elevation of these trivial details to textual importance is specifically parodying Ernest Cline's writing in Ready Player One, but it more generally invokes an overbearing fanboyish tone.

Having conquered the violence, you know, like Konami's Violent Storm, of his feelings, he appeared to despise himself for being the slave of passion; and quelling the dark -- darker than the crystal out of The Dark Crystal -- tyranny of despair, he led me again to converse concerning myself personally. He asked me the history of my earlier years. The tale was quickly told, but it awakened various trains of reflection. I spoke of my desire of finding a friend, basically like Tony Montana's little friend from Scarface, except not a gun, of my thirst for a more intimate sympathy with a fellow mind than had ever fallen to my lot, and expressed my conviction that a man could boast of little happiness, as happy as Pharrell in his hit song Happy, who did not enjoy this blessing.

Political Anxiety

A third and final -- for now -- mode of expression common to NaNoGenMo books is the metonymic, volumetric, or sculptural wherein in computational works express their meaning via their demonstration of the book as both a medium and form. As with the other two primary modes, authors find a wide array of motivations and contexts for metonymic works, but an interesting cluster of works conveys a monographic anxiety.

Leonardo Flores's 2020 Elections is effective not at the atomistic level of expressive statements of anxiety but rather as a monolithic wall of text.

Election 2020.

Similarly, Hugo van Kemenade adapted his 2016 Twitter-scraper, "Dear Santa...", in a series of books that record snapshots of the sentiments -- many of them quite anxious -- being expressed before, during, and immediately after election day in November 2020. Like Flores's work, these by van Kemenade express with a vertiginous scale, but Flores' practically infinite interiority is exchanged for infinitesimal and thus performative exteriority.

I want to see the TOTAL COUNT! lol I want Biden to lose and Kamala is a cop” THEY ARE YOUR PRESIDENT AND MADAM VICE PRESIDENT I want to know Rina more I WANT BAYBEEEEE I want a live feed of them dragging trumps ass out the White House 😩 I want to hear from Kornacki! I WANT HIM UNDERRER THE JAILLLLLLLL i want live footage of trump crying in a corner rocking back and forth


To conclude, what I have found in excavating these examples from the vast corpus of NaNoGenMo books is that, for each of the three modalities of generated literature discussed earlier, there is an attendant trope that programmers may use in order to make a critical point or intervention. For metonymic or sculptural works, the trope is scale, scope, and the sublime of data. For works in a metaphoric or contingent vein, the trope is to deal with the stuff of language as a material, stream, or graph. And for operational works, the critical trope is to use a system to convey a system, a process to convey a different process, or a simulation to convey other systems of meaning.

With these tropes thus contextualized, I believe it is possible to consider other works -- those not evidently political or critical -- in light of how these design directives lead them to operate as critical, computational media.

Word Count: 2672

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