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Make Literature Human Again

Should the AI novel be embraced or avoided?

I’ve been writing avidly since the first grade. Thumbing through a children’s nature magazine in the classroom one day, I discovered a crisp image of a red fox standing in the snow. I’d seen pictures of foxes before, but something stood out to me about this one to the point that I felt like I needed to write about it. If you’re looking for advice on owning foxes as pets, see my manual on the topic. (Full disclosure: my first-grade self was absolutely convinced having a fox for a pet is out of the question.)

Years later, that fundamental impulse hasn’t left. Writing stories, novels, essays, news reports, and poetry has always been a fundamental way to try to do some kind of justice to beautiful and noteworthy things. Writing can also be an avenue for parsing out complexities in the human experience; words are both swords and salves, bitterly dividing us or gently healing us. A word of correction can steer the arrogant man from the precipice of his own folly. A soft word of encouragement can lift up the brokenhearted. “It’s really something to see how many people are dying for lack of an encouraging word,” said the teary-eyed Jordan Peterson on the Piers Morgan show a few months ago. Sometimes situations call for silence instead of speech to say what really needs to be said.

The Power of the Word

The point is that words are powerful. It’s been repeatedly pointed out that complex language is a trademark of homo sapiens. We are communicative creatures. What animal composes operas, literary epics, or scientific hypotheses? Dolphins are smart too, but they haven’t built a Willis Tower on the ocean floor. I love cats, but they can’t mew Beethoven’s Fifth. If you ever see that, please email me the video.

These days, though, it seems like our challenge is less about differentiating ourselves from animals and more about our comparison with machines. Artificial intelligence is a human creation that many say is poised to recreate humanity in its own image. It’s taking over. It will help us live forever. More modest questions keep the debate realistic. What jobs will AI augment and who will it replace? How will human productivity and economic affairs be affected by its rise? Those are all worthy questions, and tend to temper both the bald optimism and frightening pessimism regarding AI. Certainly, AI could have much to offer the modern world. Echoing the sentiments of technology and economics expert George Gilder, technological innovation has always led to job creation and economic growth. Nonetheless, I’m not sure AI needs to subdue every division of society; storytelling might well be one of them.

Here Comes the AI Novel

A recent opinion piece at Wired anticipates and praises the advent of the “AI novel.” The old-fashioned way of doing imaginative writing, which involves sitting down with a pen or a keyboard and imagining things, is due for a makeover. After all, since ChatGPT can write stories, then of course it should. Right? Author Stephen Marche used ChatGPT substantially in his new novel Death of an Author. (An apt title!) Tom Comitta writes,

Despite the use of so many different programs and styles, this text has Stephen Marche’s signature all over it. Marche even said as much to The New York Times: “I am the creator of this work, 100 percent.” What’s striking, though, is what he says next: “But on the other hand, I didn’t create the words.” 

-Tom Comitta, ‘Death of an Author’ Prophesies the Future of AI Novels | WIRED

Marche seems like a talented and capable writer, so his choice to implement large language models (LLMs) into his process begs the question: will AI novel writing become its own particular art form? Comitta notes that right now, ChatGPT can only generate some 600 words at a time. It can’t write a full-length novel. However, it can generate passages and then get “patched together” to resemble something relatively cohesive, as in the case of Marche’s novel. Comitta also goes on to admit that LLMs are tools, not authors, and that only good writers will be able to use them to tell a good story. They find patterns in human writing and are programmed to replicate them. In the end, ChatGPT’s words are only as good as the people who have already written them.

What Would We Lose?

Nonetheless, using AI to write novels seems bound to diminish literature’s trademark human touch. This is to state the obvious. Can we creatively use LLMs to write stories? Sure. Marche already seems to have done a good job at it. But novels are conversational mediums that connect us to the authors behind them. It’s a distanced method of having a long cup of coffee with someone. Ideally, works of fiction enrich our understanding and appreciation of the real world. I’m just a bit concerned that the more AI is involved in the process, the more it will feel like interacting with a non-entity, parroting a human voice. It will be like having a conversation with no one.

Maybe that’s too cynical. For me, reading about human characters developed by a human author makes literature and other art forms worth attending to. Despite AI’s infiltration into the literary world, let’s try to keep it as human and true as we can.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and serves as Managing Editor of Mind Matters.

Make Literature Human Again