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AI and Its Effect on the Book Publishing Industry (
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One personal project that always seems to be on the back burner for me is an examination of the fiction written during the Cold War in the Soviet bloc countries. My interest in this started about a decade ago, after Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son won the Pulitzer. For his novel, Johnson did extensive studies of North Korea, even visiting there for a time, and as I read interviews with him and about the book, I learned a lot about how the authorities of those communist countries virtually shackled the abilities of their authors to write anything other than pro-communist propaganda. There were a very small number of acceptable plots, and all the conflicts detailed in the prose were relatively minor, with all of them easily solved by embracing communism and the communist authorities in charge of the country.

That Western countries were somehow above this kind of activity is laughable, of course; around the same time that The Orphan Master’s Son was on everyone’s nightstands, it came out that during the Cold War, the CIA had worked in conjunction with the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the oldest and most prestigious creative writing programme in America, to push out a canon of modern American literature that, albeit in more subtle ways, promoted right-wing capitalistic values. Perhaps this kind of activity was only to be expected given the times, and this had been speculated about for ages before it was finally confirmed about a decade ago, but it’s hard to read the novels that came out from Iowa-trained authors during this era without having that CIA involvement in the forefront of one’s mind. Of course, all the right-wingers frothing at the mouth about universities “indoctrinating” students don’t want to talk about this, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Having read a decent amount of those American novels, though, whatever values they may have been trying to promote, at least it can be said that the writing was solid. Good writing in the service of bad ideas is still good writing on some level, and Iowa hasn’t retained its prestige for as long as it has without reason. By all the accounts I’ve read — again, I hope that I one day have the time to read this stuff for myself — the pro-communist literature coming out on the other side of the world was trite, ridden with clich├ęs, and dull on its own merits. Those words convey the general reviews I’ve read of that literature, but there’s one word from those reviews that has stuck in my mind all this time, a word that I’ve had even more reason to reflect on in recent months: “Formulaic.”

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve done more than my fair share of messing around with all these new text-generation bots like ChatGPT and Google Bard since they first made national news about six months ago. In part, this is because of the concerns of how these technologies will affect the writing we college instructors get from our students, but I also have more than a little personal curiosity in the use, and potential abuse, of these technologies, especially when it comes to their fiction-writing capacities. Although the quality of those capacities has increased somewhat since I first started experimenting with them at the end of last year, my initial criticism of them still remains: All their fiction reads like plot summaries of episodes of bad eighties sitcoms. This shouldn’t be surprising, since that was the era where television and movie executives saw the success of Star Wars and assumed that Joseph Campbell’s monomyth was some kind of formula to be slavishly followed, so the stories we got in those media often felt like they came from Mad Libs.

With all the recent talk of film and television writers, and potentially even fiction writers, being replaced by stuff like ChatGPT, I’d like to think that we writers have an advantage in the technology being so primitive, and riddled with so many issues about the intellectual property rights of the writers whose writing these technologies base their output off of, that the potential of “we’ll just use ChatGPT instead of hiring writers” is still laughable. While we haven’t seen a serious media company try to make a serious end-product out of computer-generated text, I find it hard to believe that anything like that would receive more than mocking laughter from even the most easily-amused of potential audiences. There’s a reason why so many “greatest films” lists have few entries from the eighties; formulas, especially those that these current text-generation bots are currently using, are just recipes for disaster when it comes to writing quality.

At the same time, though, I can speak from personal experience that while the eighties were actually going on, lots of people ate that stuff up with a spoon. The one thing about formulas is that their regularity and predictableness create a sense of calm in viewers, an assurance that things will fall exactly where they’re supposed to. There’s a reason why romance novels have to be segregated into their own bestseller lists, and there’s a reason why pop songs about love will always crowd the Billboard Top 40. Especially as more and more politicians play to people’s primal fears about pretty much everything, media with simple escapist themes will continue to have a considerable audience, and this trend will probably only get bigger in the coming months as we go through yet another miserable presidential election cycle here, to say nothing of all the atrocities in the news of late. If anything, the ability for pretty much anyone to use these bots to generate fiction as propagandistic as that of the Cold War is enough to make me worry about how close we are now to a real-life fiction dystopia.

The big question is going to be how well writers will be able to adapt to a potential future where all the big studios and publishing houses just rely on these bots instead of writers. I would like to think that the ability of independent writers and producers to get their work out through streaming services and stuff like YouTube, and self-publishing services like KDP, will provide a necessary check on the ability of big producers to force-feed us computer-generated crap. It probably won’t be long before that crap isn’t quite as crappy as the crap that’s being crapped out by ChatGPT right now, though; at least they still haven’t been able to put out alliteration like that. I wish that the onus wasn’t on us writers to prove that we can write stuff a lot better than these bots can, but that’s where we’re at right now, so we’d all better up our games, and quickly, because these bots are even more prone to corruption than human writers are, and the dangers of this technology becoming commonplace spread far beyond the world of writing.

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