#86: The Person Behind the Story

AI will soon write better novels than humans, many a clickbait headline claims. The capabilities of artificial intelligence are growing at a staggering pace. Writers beware: like truck drivers and cashiers, you will soon become redundant. That does sound worrying, but is AI really something to be worried about?

The premise is simple. Writers read and experience a lot of things and turn them into stories. It takes a lot of time and effort to write a good story and even longer to establish yourself enough for anybody to want to read your stuff. A computer, on the other hand, can blaze through all books ever written in a few hours. In a few days, it might process all posts shared on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr. In a few months, all video ever posted on YouTube. If a thing like that learns to write, we’re all doomed! How could a meatbag ever compete?

At this point, most articles go on to showcase a rather underwhelming piece of writing generated by an AI. These are the early days, they say. Wait and see.

Beyond any doubt, the technology will improve. It’s hard to say how fast and if ever it will match the capabilities of a human. It might. And it doesn’t matter.

Writing serves many purposes—to inform, to persuade, to sell, to entertain. But above all, writing is a form of communication. It’s the author talking to their reader, just like I am talking to you right now. (I hope that you’re doing well!)

For utilitarian prose like user manuals and marketing copy, authorship is hardly relevant. Most people don’t browse Amazon, thinking, Blimey! I want to read more product descriptions from this author. Hardly anyone would notice that a machine was now writing SEO optimised blurbs for shoes. Fortunately, things are very different when it comes to works of art.

Many fiction writers tried to dissociate themselves from their work, only to attract even more interest. Milan Kundera, for one, has long been telling his readers to worry about his books, not himself. J. K. Rowling had a brief, secret stint as Robert Galbraith until someone blabbed. Why wouldn’t these world-class authors publish their works anonymously? Or each book under a different pen name? The answer is simple: because no matter how good you are, nobody would care.

Quality is, of course, hugely important, but it’s only a part of the equation. By reading someone’s work, we develop a relationship with them. If we like what they do, we want to read more. We want to know them better, to know who they are and why they wrote what they wrote. And how can someone possibly write so well?

Longtime readers and fans often come up to authors at signings and conventions, feeling like they’re meeting an old friend. They developed a profound connection with them through a shared experience. Reading a story means getting inside the author’s head which can be quite an intimate experience.

There already is an abundance of new fiction coming out every year, much of it astonishingly good. And yet, you and I are more likely to choose the new Neil Gaiman book over an acclaimed debut even if it perhaps isn’t that good. On the other hand, if your sibling or good friend publish their first novel, you will probably want to read it.

When an AI managed to convert any photograph to a painting in the style of an old master like Van Gogh or Picasso a few years ago, the hype lasted for a few weeks. Starry Night profile pics spread through Twitter like wildfire. Then people moved on. That something looks like art doesn’t mean that it is art. Human connection is at the very centre of it. Without it, there’s no art.

Will humans ever be able to love and develop a genuine connection towards intelligent machines? That is one of the themes that Annalee Newitz explores in her fascinating sci-fi novel Autonomous. Maybe we will. But when singularity arrives and machines become a complete and superior replacement for humans, I suspect that we will have more significant issues to worry about than who’s writing the books.

As things stand now, I love my dishwasher, but I hardly want to talk to it about my day. And if it ever writes a book? I’ll definitely want to read it.

What I Am Reading

Finished Normal People by Sally Rooney. It’s a fantastic read worthy of last year’s hype. I find her writing very immersive and really enjoy her minimalistic descriptions. This time around, the characters weren’t as obnoxious. Well worth a read.

I’m almost done with Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata which is an endearing story of Keiko—an autistic woman that found her place in the predictable world of a convenience store. Through her story, the author challenges various conventions in today’s society. It’s a short read, and I’m pretty sure that in a way, there’s a bit of Keiko in all of us.

I also finished listening to William Gibson’s The Peripheral this week. I loved the idea, the world building and the author’s style. The beginning was a little confusing, and I wasn’t a huge fan of the overall structure. Overall, it was an enjoyable book.

Make Something Up by Chuck Palahniuk

I found a copy of Make Something Up which is a collection of short stories by Chuck Palahniuk in the local charity shop, and I started reading it already. I think I’m in for a pretty disturbing ride.

The Writer's Eye by Amy Wheldon

Finally, I’ll be reading The Writer’s Eye by Amy Weldon which I’ve been putting off for a while now.

Short Stories

This week, I read these short stories:

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