The Apocalypse for Writers won’t happen, at least not the way you expect it
I literally grew up with technology. My father was an electronics engineer and inventor for the Manitoba Telephone System. Long before Mac IIs or TRS 80s (the “Trash 80”) were common, I lived in a house in Winnipeg that had eight television sets and six computers. As a kid, I had the best furnished “spaceship” to play in of any child in five blocks.
I came home one day from my journalism program at Red River Community College, and my father was thrilled to play me one of the first voice synthesizer programs, his own design: “Hello, Jeef.” Well, progress comes in stages.
In my lifespan alone, I have seen us go from typewriters to “word processors” to laptops to notebooks to intelligent yet pitiful creatures who would rather play with their thumbs on a phone because they think “it’s faster” to text me while I use all my fingers on a keyboard at my desk at 75 words per minute (thank you, Grade Nine typing class).
So, I sit and watch the little three-dot icon blip away… and wait. Sigh.
Chicken Little said the sky was falling when we got Wikipedia, because of course, it’s a supposedly democratic forum where anyone can make entries, and it turned out group knowledge was not so knowledgeable, and those with half a brain either realized or eventually learned, “Take the extra step and check original sources.” Duh.
Chicken Little had a panic meltdown over e-books, predicting the demise of print volumes, when if anything, print sales have consistently held their own and in some years, even went up.
What is maddening about the ChatGPT discussion being interminably carried out on every damn TV channel is that the conversation is being framed wrong.
I’m a professional writer, and I don’t give a shit and never will how sophisticated your program grows. It’s easier for TV interviewers and pundits to whip up an “Oh, my God, how far will it go?” mock-hysteria than to be sensible. Because hey, who would want to tune in for common sense, right? Let’s make you either buy the next thing or fear the next thing.
This is why I love history. It gives perspective.
First of all, any professional writer has to contend with the fact that only so many people read books. Yes, of course, minimal literacy rocketed up over the past 100 years around the globe, but the ugly little truth is that only a minority of people ever read books or ever will. Which is just fine for those of us who want to write history, poetry, novels, short stories, journalism. It’s too easy to forget that there are degrees of literacy in terms of comprehension.
There was a “professional wisdom” taught to us in journalism school which I will always reject: The average newspaper reader has the reading capability of a seven-year-old, so we had to write down to their level. I was even told this by a veteran editor on the newsroom floor of the Winnipeg Free Press when I was there for a two-week internship some forty years ago. It was an asinine rationale then and it still is, and I hate the implied contempt for the reader. The truth is that if you have the reading level of a seven-year-old, you are most likely not reading newspapers at all.
Where am I going with this? Bear with me, but for the moment, the first moral is that technology is never the villain, it’s our arrogant assumptions.
If you checked with any sensible writer over the age of fifty, They will tell you, Thank gawd, we are past the days when we had to fight with typewriter ribbons and stuck keys and white globby correction fluid and then have to pack and mail our manuscripts like a brick and ship them off to agents and publishers. In the 1980s and even early Nineties, sending off a book manuscript was a gamble that cost me an average of $50 a pop. Each and every time. For which I could get back either a polite “no” on stationary or sometimes a postcard or nothing at all. So, thank heavens for printers and even more so, PDFs and email. The first novel I ever sold I did not have to print out; I sent the manuscript as an attachment.
Technology is not the villain. Never was, never will be. It’s your assumptions and expectations.
And by now, you might be saying you’re off on a tangent, what does that have to do with it? This thing can crank out an essay or a novel…! Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I will still roll my eyes. I just watched Simon Schama on BBC World express his doubts that the program will ever come up with the wonderful line of John Donne’s: “A bracelet of bright hair about the bone.” And I suspect he’ll be proved right. But even that misses the point.
This is a product that has to look for a market. Nobody really asked for it. And it’s ultimately self-defeating. The kid who cheats with it for his high school or college essay assignment? How long do you think that will last before there’s a program to counter that? Every essay I submitted for my Masters degree — for which I was in school only a couple of years ago — had to run through an obligatory plagiarism check program, and ChatGPT didn’t even exist then.
My girlfriend, also a professional writer, recently paid me a compliment by mentioning how she went back to read some lines from a novel of mine, and she was moved to tears. The lines are about a character’s breakup and are from my novel, The New Bohemians:
“At the time she made her announcement, I crashed at a friend’s apartment, because I couldn’t bear to watch her take any more belongings from shelves and zip the luggage bags shut. I waited a couple of days before I came home to the apartment, and there was that special, supernatural stillness of a room that’s had no one in it for days. Her camera gear was gone, her electric piano no longer in its pride of place near the window… But her smell was still in the towels.”
These lines moved her. I don’t know if they’ll resonate with you, and they’d probably work better if you read the rest of the book, but they worked especially for her because I wrote them. Another human being who walks, talks, breathes, suffers wrote them.
Because who the hell wants to read poetry or a novel by a computer program?
Except maybe a squirrely academic or a couple of sci fi fans, and even then probably damn few of them, too.
When James Baldwin shares with us in Notes of a Native Son the riveting scene of an ugly confrontation he had at a diner in New Jersey, we believe him. We know James Baldwin was there. We know he was a flesh and blood human being who was experiencing racism and hate, and we want to be there backing him up or at least sharing his pain and anger. We are made to feel what he feels.
When we read Harlan Ellison’s short story about the last human defiance against a sociopathic mega-computer, the classic “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” we know in our hearts that the late Ellison lived, wrote, ranted, laughed, loved and passed away, now missed by scores of fans and friends.
Their writing is validated by the authenticity of the human experience.
So go ahead and give me the prettiest, most lyrical shot you can get from a program that simply scrapes what’s already available on the Internet and blends it together. And I still won’t give a shit or be taking up a new trade.
It can be a wonderful line, but it will ring hollow and plastic and false because I will invariably find out at some point that this eloquence is synthetic.
The other silliness that’s overlooked with ChatGPT is that the experiment has already been tried and failed, although it keeps on being tried over and over. Sure, it can work, but only up to a point. By this, I mean you don’t need an artificial intelligence to get artificial writing.
Ever hear of Harold Robbins? If you’re under forty, probably not. But there was a time when his shlock was everywhere. A bestselling author with his books adapted into equally execrable films. You won’t easily find copies of his book in any Barnes & Noble these days, and nobody’s missing him much, although ghostwriters still churn out crap under his brand name. It’s because here was a guy who even lied about his own background, at one point claiming he was a Jewish orphan, and his books had no soul and no heart. Idiotic plots with ample helpings of sex and melodrama.
Like Robbins, you will have to comb through used bookstores to find the endless stream of individual Star Trek and Star Wars tie-in books that once hit the shelves for a few weeks and then got pulled. This endless river of mediocrity started in the 1970s, for which no doubt, normally good writers contributed and gave up hours of their lives away from their real projects to just keep the lights on. None of these tie-in books stayed in print and were never meant to. Artificial, heartless, soulless crap.
We don’t need a computer program to write us more shlock because there are humans already willing to do it. It’s the entire business model of Harlequin Romance — which still has its own integrity.
And when genuine art is created, we appreciate it more because it does come from a genuine human being.
I cranked out nine erotica novels under pseudonyms for publishers big and small for the same purpose — to pay rent and to eat — and I can’t in good conscience say these products deserve to stay in the light of day anymore than Harold Robbins. Or Judith Krantz. Or the work of the authors who cranked out The Executioner and The Baroness books (look ’em up).
But I can almost guarantee that years from now, there will still be more fans for any terrible novel by a real person than for the romance novel Alexa churns out while setting the waffle option on your toaster.