As Fresh as a Cliché

Paula McGrath

Exploding the Creativity Myth: the Computational Foundations of Linguistic Creativity, by Tony Veale, Bloomsbury Academic, 184 pp, £18.99, ISBN 978-1441181725

For work to be creative, must it be original? Many a would-be writer, perhaps placing form before function, has fallen at this particular hurdle. Yet novels, plays and poems have been written after Joyce, Beckett, TS Eliot. After Chaucer. After Shakespeare. Somehow, writers have managed to overcome the need for novelty by a greater need: the need to tell a story.

It takes effort to find a new way of saying something where an old way perfectly captures what it is that needs to be said. The phrase “a sinking feeling”, for example, is one I find hard to better in my fiction writing as far as imparting the notion that “an unpleasant feeling caused by the realization that something unpleasant or undesirable has happened or is about to happen” (Mac dictionary). The startlingly fresh metaphor, the novel analogy, the original aphorism, might be book club gold, but when it goes wrong, as it so easily can: ‑ “His heart was a ship sinking hopelessly into the bottomless ocean of despair”, from a fortunately anonymous online writer – it can earn its creator derision, and possibly a nomination for a purple prose award.

In Exploding the Creativity Myth, Tony Veale throws out a lifeline to the sinking feeling and other like-minded phrases, when he tells us that the cliché/metaphor/analogy blend does not have to be new to be fresh; that, like Mae West’s discarded lovers, all familiar phrases should be given a second chance, but with somebody else. And in a new twist, that the creative use of these renewed, reused and recycled tropes can be ably assisted by computers.

Computers and creativity? The author himself, in his preface, admits that in any discussion of creativity “the algorithmic perspective of Computer Science ... can stick out as something of a gatecrasher to the party”. Yet, step by step, Veale guides us through the processes behind linguistic creativity, and shows how far they can be exploited by computers, as they harvest – “scan, snip, store, index and retrieve” ‑ existing phrases and enable us to bring freshness to language.

Putting his recycling philosophy into practice, Veale makes his examples earn their keep. Marcel Duchamp’s infamous Fountain is used to illustrate the investment theory of creativity: that every creative act is a conscious decision to exploit undervalued or unconventional ideas in a way that can generate unexpected value in a new context. Duchamp’s Fountain is a reused urinal, a readymade piece of art. Later, to explain the concept of the readymade in linguistic terms, Veale reemploys Fountain to draw attention to the signature Duchamp gave it, R. Mutt, a play on the maker of urinals (Mott) “blended with a reference to Fountain’s status as a readymade (‘R.M’)”. Veale points out that the chapter headings of his book are also readymades: “Six ridiculous things before breakfast”, “Pimp my ride”, “Round up the usual suspects”, “Shock and awe”.

In addition to providing a guide to linguistic creativity, and in so doing presenting a credible argument in favour of the creative reuse of existing expressions, Veale’s book also serves as a showcase for the computational toolbox available at his website, www.educatedinsolence.com, ‑ the free toy with the weekly comic. Software system Aristotle generates metaphors; The Jigsaw Bard retrieves linguistic readymades on demand when one types an adjective into the format “as (e.g. cold) as”; and Metaphorize is “a brainstorm for one, please”. For anyone who writes there is a lot of fun to be had with these toys, sorry, tools, and while I don’t know yet how much or how little I will use them in my writing, it is a comfort just knowing that they exist. Veale himself feels confident that “Creative users will increasingly view the web as a vast and growing treasury of readymade expressions that can serve fresh creative purposes for those who retrieve them. The web would thus become the ultimate thesaurus and Duchampian companion, always on, always responsive, and always changing.” Time will tell the extent to which computers will contribute to the creative writing process, if the gatecrasher will become an invited guest.

While Veale’s book is eminently readable, there is the odd sticky patch for the non-computational, non-linguist reader. For example, chapter three, “Shock and awe”, takes us through quite a range of theories and terminology in order to bring us to an understanding of cliché, and, for this reader at least, unfamiliar terms abound (GOFAI: Good old-fashioned artificial intelligence; or Google’s wildcard). However, it helps that linguistic humour, which Veale analyses throughout the book, is also employed in his analysis: “While metaphors are masters of disguise, similes are fundamentally unsuited to undercover work of any kind.” Or, referring to his software system for generating metaphors: “Having no knowledge of the mean things writers say about stereotypes and clichés, Aristotle exploits them freely, as though they are something to be proud of.” Or, analysing the metaphor “my job is a jail”, “The office bully might even be the hulking white-supremacist in the bottom bunk, the one with a taste for fresh meat and a bowel-chilling romantic gleam in his eye.” Perhaps Veale’s writing is wasted in the world of non-fiction, academic writing.

This is an academic book, however, which draws together research about linguistic creativity from psychology, linguistic science, cognitive science and computational linguistics and presents the information clearly enough to make it accessible to the general reader, provided he or she is prepared to put in some effort. The effort is rewarded, through a new understanding of, and appreciation for cliché, metaphor, analogy, blends and readymades. And, for this reader, computers.

Paula McGrath is an MFA student. Her blog is http://viewreviewawritersblog.blogspot.ie/