I just finished a book by the renowned Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami called Novelist as a Vocation. Murakami is the author of 1Q84, Norwegian Wood, and Kafka on the Shore, among many others. As a young novelist myself, I wanted to learn a professional’s thoughts on the trade and also get a sense of his philosophy of writing, which in the age of AI, feels increasingly valuable. Most of the book was composed during or before 2015 but was just published last year, and is basically a compendium of essays on the novel-writing process, how Murakami got started, and the broader literary landscape.
Connecting With Readers
Murakami’s thoughts on his readership and audience particularly stood out to me. He confesses that he doesn’t have a particular kind of reader in mind when he writes. He doesn’t write primarily for old audiences or young ones. From his estimation, his readers are pretty much evenly split between men and women, and his writing has appealed to a variety of age groups. He mentions an instance when a young woman approached him and asked how he understood teenager girls’ problems so well, despite his admission that he writes for no specific group of people. It’s apparent that he has a big literary arm with a far reach. Regardless, he thinks one of the essential goals in writing fiction is connecting with the individual reader. While he initially started writing novels as a way to please himself, he recognizes that generating a readership is one the great privileges a writer can achieve. He writes,
To put it another way, over a long period of time I think I’ve constructed a system whereby readers and myself are connected by a stout pipeline that allows us to communicate. This is a system in which the media and literary industry aren’t needed much as an intermediary. What’s needed most there is a natural, spontaneous sense of trust between author and readers (p. 185).
On the next page he continues to formulate the connection between author and reader as an intimate kind of relationship built on trust: “You have to get that kind of intimate, physical sensation–that ‘Hey, bro, got something here you’re gonna love” sense–that sort of direct deal between author and reader.”
Trusting the Author
This idea of writing as a conversation between two persons has been an important reminder over the last few months, given all the rage with ChatGPT. GPT-4, OpenAI’s newest iteration of its chatbot, is significantly improved from its predecessor, sure. But novelists like Murakami can remind us that something essential is missing in stories, essays, and poems generated by an algorithm: there’s no personal center generating the content. There’s no sentient mind directing the narrative. There’s no one talking to you. What’s deceiving with new AI systems is that it often does feel like someone is there talking to us. Heck, it might even convince us that it loves us. Microsoft’s new chatbot said as much to a terrified New York Times tech reporter a couple months ago. But for all its amazing mimicry, I can’t email ChatGPT and say how excited I am for its next novel title. At least, it would be quite strange.
It’s interesting too how he emphasizes trust. If AI is a tool, then it can be used, but not trusted in the way I’d trust my brother, or you might trust your husband or wife. I love the personal framework in which Murakami situates his fiction; even though he doesn’t directly mention AI in this book, his thoughts on the written word imply that he would hesitate to consider AI generated material legitimate literature. Writing powerful literature is a human endeavor written for a human audience.