John Steinbeck was among the most prominent literary figures of the twentieth century, responsible for works such as The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and The Pearl. East of Eden, arguably his best work, is a sprawling novel about two families in the Salinas Valley in California and is often interpreted as a modern-day retelling of the book of Genesis, particularly the story of Cain and Abel.
If we were to ask Steinbeck today about AI’s ability to write a good novel, what might the celebrated writer say? Well, an interview with Steinbeck from Paris Review, while it doesn’t have anything to do with computers or artificial intelligence, does reveal a significant aspect of Steinbeck’s own philosophy of writing that offers insight into contemporary debates over AI. For Steinbeck, writing fiction was at least partly an attempt to combat loneliness, to reach out into the vast world in search of a listener. We write to establish connections with each other and to affirm a sense of solidarity with each other over common hopes, fears, and struggles. A novel, in this framework, is a conversation between the author and the reader, an exchange of two minds capable of understanding one another. Steinbeck told the Review,
A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals. He isn’t telling or teaching or ordering. Rather he seeks to establish a relationship of meaning, of feeling, of observing. We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say—and to feel— “Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.” Of course a writer rearranges life, shortens time intervals, sharpens events, and devises beginnings, middles and ends. We do have curtains—in a day, morning, noon and night, in a man, birth, growth and death.Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 45 (theparisreview.org)
The last couple of sentences describe the technics that an AI system like GPT-4 could easily achieve: devising plots, rearranging life events, shortening time, etc. But those AI systems, while they will probably only get craftier at imitating the human voice and narrative structures, can’t understand their own fabrications, and moreover, has no intention of speaking to the reader. This will probably be an ongoing debate in the AI issue (I just debated with a friend of mine about it two nights ago), but notice Steinbeck’s keyword in the quote: relationship. It’s true that ChatGPT can pump out coherent stories, essays, and poems. But I wonder what we would lose as a culture if we started going to bookstores and seeing AI-generated novels all over the bestseller’s rack in the foyer. Who would the critics praise? Could you call the work creative, insightful, or entertaining? In a sense, yes. However, there would be something simply missing if real people were no longer behind works of literature. There would be no chance for the reader to step into the mind of the writer.
As AI gains more traction and hype, it seems like an important time to discern what it can be used for and the domains where it’s best left out. I’d argue the arts is one such arena. Robert J. Marks, director of the Walter Bradley Center, has often noted that there are certain characteristics human beings possess that AI will never manage to compute. Creativity, empathy, and relationship are among them, and at least according to Steinbeck, make for the foundation of a worthwhile novel.