What can AI do for novels?

AI has hit the creative field more or less out of nowhere. Automation was sure to happen to more and more things, we knew that, but surely the arts would be immune. Surely a robot could never do what we writers, artists, and musicians do.

Well, so far we haven’t been proven wrong. AI has been only middling at these things. But that hasn’t stopped it from disrupting industries. I have two jobs threatened by AI: a content writing job by day, and a fiction writing job the rest of the time. At this point, AI can write content that looks like it could plausibly have been written by a mediocre writer. Since much online content was already written by mediocre writers under time pressure for one to three cents a word, you’d hardly notice the difference.

However, the job of writing content consists of three main jobs: writing clearly, sourcing accurate facts, and avoiding plagiarism. AI content writing can only do the first one. Still, I’m losing work to it, because a lot of the clients simply don’t care if the quality is worse and the facts are lies.

Anyway, where novels are concerned, it can’t do even that well. I’m reminded of the joke about the dog that can whistle. He can’t whistle very well; we’re only impressed that he does it at all. It’s impressive and disturbing to see a snippet produced by an AI. We could even think it was written by a human—not a talented human, but a human, anyway.

But once you’ve read a few of them, especially if they go on for a while, they quickly become tedious. Every single description is cliché. You can make it write an outline for a novel of a given genre, and it will produce exactly the stereotype of that genre without one single diversion.

Those of us who have actually pitched novels know that there is no demand for exactly the sort of thing that already exists. Instead, agents and editors want something like what exists, but a new and fresh twist. Where is the twist? AI cannot produce a twist, because all AI is is the sum total of what already exists.

My favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, coined the term Parnassian to describe the language of poets when they are not particularly inspired. It’s just the basically poetic but not particularly exciting tone when the poet is trying to get from one cool turn of phrase to the next. Novice poets can produce reams upon reams of Parnassian without ever saying one inspired thing. That’s fine, it’s good practice, but (by his definition) it’s not poetry.

That’s what AI produces. It produces a kind of lowest-common-denominator filler. You could save time on writing by using it on the parts of your book you’re not excited about . . . except, what the heck are you doing, having stuff in your book you’re not excited about?

There is no part of writing that can’t and shouldn’t be inspired. Sometimes a character is unique, inspired by someone you knew or an aspect of yourself. Sometimes your plot has an amazing twist. Or maybe you’re writing a quiet scene with no major tension, but the way you describe the tree the main character is sitting under is beautiful, a turn of phrase nobody has ever used before. I read to find these moments, and I quickly abandon books that are just pages upon pages of Parnassian.

Currently, AI can’t even manage a single, unoriginal, maximally bland novel. It doesn’t know what plot is, so any time you want to advance what’s going on, you have to give it further instructions. If it tried to write even the most basic Hallmark Christmas movie plot, it would quickly get confused. The story begins with Sally wanting to save her family’s farm but being stymied by Joe, and by the end it would be Harry saving Alice’s bookshop, because it’s trying to mix together different stories.

But say that it could. Say that it could write a coherent plot that’s a sort of general average of everything that was written before. It may at some point develop the ability to do that; I can’t rule it out.

In that case, I guess we’d be buried under even more floods of unoriginal, low quality work than we are now. This is probably rude to say. But a lack of beginner work with no spark of inspiration in it is, shall we say, not a pressing problem for the industry. Curation is the problem. Already we’re hearing of the massive explosion of AI work clogging up submissions inboxes. The same on Amazon: people churning out novels every day or two, with AI text and AI covers, in the hopes that somebody will spend their money before they notice it isn’t any good.

The curation problem hurts both readers and writers. Readers struggle to find things they like to read, because there may be thousands of books out there in every genre, but only a few will ever get advertised or placed on shelves. And writers struggle to be discovered, believing that their work deserves to find readers, but there is just too much out there competing for the same few spots.

AI worsens these problems. The net result will probably be an increase in gatekeeping from trad publishers—needing personal referrals, allowing ever shorter samples—and a lowering in book price on the self publishing side. AI authors can afford to sell their books for a dime, if they want. They represent hardly any labor, and a low price might get them better odds of an impulse buy. That will make real authors who expect to be paid $5 for their creative labor look greedy by comparison, even though they weren’t even turning a profit before.

AI boosters say that we simply have to put up with all this, because the future can’t be stopped. The technology exists now, it will necessarily be used, and if it hurts you, you’ll just have to find something else to do (until that also gets automated).

We’ve all heard of the Luddites. They were English textile workers who lost their jobs to automation. Textile factories produced lower-quality materials, didn’t employ as many people, and were dens of wretched conditions and low pay. So the Luddites went around breaking the machines wherever they could, and they were ultimately brutally put down by the government. The word “luddite” now means that you’re some kind of backward person who hates progress. But that was never really the point. The point was that technology was used to harm workers, not to increase the quality of anybody’s life. Even today, textiles are often low quality, most garments are made in oppressive conditions, and the gap between rich and poor continues to expand. I’m beginning to think the Luddites were right.

I’m not against technology. I write about technology because some of it is very cool. But I also write about it because the creation of new technologies can be a flashpoint for cultural change. Some of that is positive, some not. We need to imagine ahead of time the consequences of what we invent. That’s the essential lesson of sci-fi, when we’re not just having fun. What would happen if there were babies gestated in tanks? What would happen if you could upload your brain? What would be the consequences of a planet-killing weapon? We don’t ask those questions because we want that stuff to happen. We ask because we want to know.

It wasn’t a fantasy novel or a historical romance that came up with these words: “When you make a machine to do the work of a man, you take something from the man.” That was Star Trek: Insurrection.

What do we want taken from us? What do we want to keep? Is it possible to create machines that take away drudgery and leave the dignity of work? Is it possible to give the job of drafting tiresome emails to machines and keep the joy of writing novels?

I hope so. I see invention as taking place in an area I call possibility-space, the sum total of all inventions that are possible. We don’t have to explore every edge of this space. There are dark places we could turn back from. And even once we’ve explored a land, we don’t have to build our homes there. We could look, consider what our lives would look like in that space, and then pick the best real estate to pitch our tent in. A place where we use the technologies that help us live the kind of lives we want.

There are many wonderful uses of technology. We can dictate, so people who can’t type can still be authors, and screen read, so blind people can read anything they want. We can connect with one another. Someday, I would love to take a trip in a self-driving car, provided it could figure out how to take a left turn. But I will not be writing my novels with AI assistance. I’d as soon hire a robot to hug my children and sleep with my spouse. There are some things I want to keep for my own.


    • Oh, that’s terrible 😛 In addition to it being bad pay at $5 an hour, the “novels” are surely word salad. I doubt they’ll be able to make it pay off. Plenty of actually good authors don’t sell $10 worth of books on Amazon, unfortunately.


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