art can definitely survive AI
Last week a friend gave me Xochitl Gonzalez’s piece on Chat GPT from The Atlantic, which made for interesting reading. In it, she makes the persuasive argument that what good writing does—creating an emotional journey for the reader—cannot, at the end of the day, be taught in an MFA program, but neither can it be learned by a computer program like Chat GPT. Chat GPT is (according to Wikipedia) a “large language model-based chatbot,” fed endless streams of content (including published books) and “taught” to emulate them.
Its proponents say it will take over the world. Certainly, the AMPTP is counting on it, since they want to bring AI into every aspect of the film production process, from writing to acting to editing. What’s to stop a publishing company from cutting out the pesky writer entirely, and feeding a thousand YA novels into Chat GPT to get the ultimate YA fantasy novel that will surely sell one million copies? Gonzalez points out in her article that the machine “has read—the same great writers I have read. It can (and is beginning to) learn all of the clever lessons of craft. It will almost certainly become capable of producing what many M.F.A. classes would consider “good writing.”
She goes on to say that good writing isn’t merely good mechanics, it’s also emotional resonance—and if “good writing” of a purely mechanical kind can be produced by a machine, then we need to change our definition of good writing. But publishers hungry for a frictionless relationship with a fantasy-writing robot will undoubtedly end up disappointed, because this equation leaves out the other pesky player in the relationship between a book and its audience—the reader. People read books for a variety of reasons, but I don’t know a single person who reads who isn’t also following individual authors. Whether it’s one of my clients who will read every spy thriller by a certain author, or me reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ entire oeuvre (inclusive of weird Christian commentary), the personality behind the work is a factor that gets taken into consideration. If I find out that a book was written by a chatbot, I don’t think I would be interested.
The allure of AI to corporate America is the dream of cutting out the human factor, a seamless stream of profit untouched by human hands. Such a thing isn’t possible, however—already, Chat GPT’s wildly underpaid Kenyan workforce, tasked with flagging harmful content fed to it, has unionized, saying that having to watch hours of extreme material was like torture. $2 an hour to torture people—that’s just part of the cost of OpenAI.
But I digress. Gonzalez’s larger point with the article was that though most MFA programs do push their students towards greater emotional honesty in their work, most are concerned with the mechanics of good writing, and that if the MFA is to survive in this year of our Lord Open AI, they need to change the way they teach. To a certain extent, I think this has always been true—the joke in genre circles is that all literary fiction is the same, an endless stream of Iowa-polished prose about unhappy professors having affairs. Regardless, I think the advent of Chat GPT and bots like it should push all of us to be more vocal about the work we like, and if Random House tries to make a chatbot e-author a thing, to vigorously vote no with our dollars.
WHAT I’M READING
I finished The Grief of Stones earlier in the week and immediately reread The Goblin Emperor, and 10/10 no regrets. Addison’s world is so layered and detailed that I will read everything she publishes in it for the rest of time. Yes, The Goblin Emperor is imperialist fantasia. Also, I don’t care. The Grief of Stones follows an ancillary character from The Goblin Emperor, the disgraced prelate Thara Celehar, as he solves crimes. Start with The Witness for the Dead if you’d like to skip The Goblin Emperor (but maybe don’t skip it? I love it.) Currently I’m reading The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow as well as Get Your Sh*t Together by Sarah Knight, a subscriber recommendation when I asked for people’s favorite self-help books the other day. Do you have a favorite woo-woo self-help tome? Please leave it in the comments or as a reply to the newsletter!
THIS WEEK IN HOCKEY
Nearly preseason, baby! The hockeys are coming back from their destination weddings and their lakeside cottages that are actually mansions and actual Russia and are gathering in their various cities to begin preseason practice. Carl Hagelin announced his retirement following a gnarly eye operation. Ovi and Nicke are back in Washington, DC. For your entertainment, please read this article about NHL players’ favorite cheat foods in the offseason.
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