Recently Jane Friedman’s newsletter, The Hot Sheet, noted two new AI products designed for writers: Novelai and Sudowrite. Each offers some free features, and, of course, upgrades that writers have to pay for. There will likely be more such uses of ChatGPT technology in the not too distant future.
Novelai describes itself by saying, “Our Artificial Intelligence algorithms create human-like writing based on your own, enabling anyone, regardless of ability, to produce quality literature.” Sudowrite self-describes as, “The AI writing partner you always wanted.️” It seems designed to augment writing by providing plot ideas and prose to cure writer’s block. Sudowrite also claims to help writers “Write a novel from start to finish. In a week.” Yeah, right. I can’t help wondering if those descriptions were themselves written by AI or by actual thinking and feeling marketing people (which may be an oxymoron when you think about it).
Anyway, the hype is moot. Can they churn out publishable prose?
I checked them out and the writing they can produce seemed not bad. To test them further I used a prompt based on a story I’ve written: A man and a woman in a struggling relationship visit Galway in Ireland on a very windy day.
The result from Novelai was dialogue heavy, but otherwise decent, although it did not include anything about Galway in the story. An Orca staff member also fed Novelai a prompt—this one for a time-loop western story. On the first try, it responded with correctly written incorrectness—it decided to tell her about Batman films, particularly the ones in which John Wayne starred. Overall, though, the writing does sound like mainstream fiction.
Sudowrite did a little better (for a while). It focused more tightly on the prompt, and had a more story-like structure. It purported to know a few things about the Irish city—some were even right. Here’s the beginning of what Sudowrite produced:
The man and the woman walked through the narrow streets of Galway, their footsteps echoing against the ancient stone buildings. The wind was blowing fiercely, threatening to knock them off their feet at any moment. They walked hand in hand, but their grip was loose and their fingers barely intertwined. They were both lost in thought, their minds preoccupied by the tension that had been building between them. As they turned onto a quieter street, the wind suddenly died down, and the silence that followed was almost eerie. The woman stopped and turned to look at the man, searching his face for some sign of affection. But his eyes were cold and distant, and she felt a chill run down her spine.
Had I entered more information, such as the characters’ names and a little of their backstory I suspect Sudowrite would have returned writing that is on a par with the writing we see in the majority of submissions to Orca. By that I mean the writing is conventional and mainstream. It’s not particularly creative, but there’s nothing terribly wrong with it. It’s writing that cannot be easily discerned from human generated writing. However, I allowed Sudowrite to continue based on what it had already written and the narrative soon turned into hardcore porn, with the two characters tearing each other’s clothes off and having graphic sex right there on the street.
So writers’ AI still has some work to do. But it does have potential. And by that I mean potential to eventually replace the average writer. That’s right, not just augment, but replace. If we can get a computer to do the same kind of writing that you do, then what do we need you for? Sorry to be so blunt, but machines and computers have been replacing people in jobs for decades. Machines and computers do not need to stop for lunch breaks. They don’t goof off and gossip when they should be working. They do not need to be paid. They do not need health insurance. They do not complain about working conditions or wish they could be at the beach instead.
This may be a little premature, but it may also be prescient: If a computer program can write as well as you, then it can eventually replace you. The writers who survive the AI onslaught will be those who are able to produce imaginative, beautifully written stories that AI cannot produce.
The AI that the average person can access is primarily based on information that is already on the web (hence the porno, I guess). The algorithms are sophisticated enough to pour through oceans of stuff and repurpose it for the writing task at hand. Considering the pace of advancement in AI technology, I’d say it’s only a matter of a couple of years before the flaws in AI’s ability to write decent fiction are filtered out. Maybe less. At that point more than a few writers may be in trouble. As a former journalist I know this is a distinct possibility. In the early 2000s many newspapers refused to acknowledge the growth of the internet as a source for news and entertainment. Many that did not adapt became noncompetitive and went out of business, and many journalists lost their jobs. (Fortunately by that time I was already out of that career field.) So if you think this can’t happen, you might want to think again.
But I also think that for a much longer time AI will not be able to replace true inventiveness. Writers who are far ahead of the mainstream curve possess some aspect of intellect that is not quantifiable or predictable, and has little relation to what most others are writing. Since AI is based on knowledge that has already been recorded, it simply can’t reproduce that level of inventiveness. It may recombine existing ideas into new ones, but it can’t do that and still make it seem plausible. One of the more interesting aspects of fiction is that, unlike nonfiction, it has to be believable to be successful. Weird but true when you think about it. It also can’t speak to readers with a voice that hasn’t been done before, because it has no model to do so. Its efforts at good literary fiction will likely continue to be as ridiculous as the examples posted above.
If you want to survive in the writing industry in the coming future, you may have to up your game. Instead of mimicking the style of a better-known writer, you’ll have to develop your own, unique style. Instead of regurgitating tired story ideas you’ll have to invent characters and situations that AI won’t anticipate. It will be a challenge, but creative people have always been up for such challenges. In fact, they relish them because they’d rather take risks with their art than pander to mediocre tastes. Someone once said the internet is like a vast ocean of information that is only an inch deep. Find the depth in your efforts and AI won’t be able to compete with you.
As long as we’re doing predictions, I asked the staff at Orca which popular writers could be buried by AI and which will thrive? Here’s what they said.
- Raymond Carver for yes, Richard Powers for no.
- Who’s likely to be replaced early on? I’m tempted to say writers of whom a great deal of scholarship has been written—thousands upon thousands of papers on in-depth textual analysis might be able to help AI. I don’t want to think of an old classical fella so I’ll go with a good mix of controversy and reasonability: Orwell. My couldn’t be replaced (or more specifically, one of the later replacements): I’m guessing some genius poet or writer that we don’t know about yet. For novelists maybe Georges Perec?
- I think AI could write a Murakami novel (at least in English) but I feel like it could not write Tolkein, considering how hard it was for Tolkein to write Tolkein.
- AI might replicate Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (The Leopard) but maybe not Clarice Lispector.
- Stephen King. Not that he would actually be replaced because he’s too famous, but I think AI could replicate him. But an imagination like Margaret Atwood’s could never be faked.
PS: If you’re thinking about submitting an AI-generated story to Orca, go right ahead. We (and other readers for literary journals) may not be able to tell the difference between a submission generated by AI and one written by a human being, but it would be a futile exercise because that kind of mainstream writing is not what we are looking for, and we’ll decline it anyway. And if you submit an AI generated story for feedback, we might just recognize it and send back AI generated criticism.
– Joe Ponepinto
 There’s more to it than that but I didn’t want to confuse the algorithm too much.