Also: Is England for the English? Is Chateaubriand worth reading?
Last November, the British music critic Tim Jonze took part in National Novel Writing Month. He wrote a 50,000-word novel in a month and set it aside. He left it aside (mostly) for an entire year when this November he decided to read it to see how bad it really was:
My memory of what was in the novel, however, was sketchy. On the handful of occasions I’d had a peek at the pages, it was like reading the work of a complete stranger. In a way this is a good thing. Stephen King advises that writers step away from their manuscripts for at least a few weeks after completing them, in order to give their brains some time away from the story.
Well, it’s been a year since NaNoWriMo. Could this book really be as bad as I imagined? Amazingly, the answer is no.
It is much, much worse.
I had held out hope that the opening two chapters might stand up, before I became totally exhausted by the exercise. But it turns out they are excruciatingly bad. Cringeworthy dialogue, tedious “action”, characters you’d cross the street to avoid. The best thing I can say about the opening scene, in which two characters wait on a quiet street for a drug dealer to turn up, is that it faithfully recreates that experience: it’s incredibly boring.
Later, a character gets in a car and the driver kills the engine. Then they kill the lights. Then they drive forward, stop again, and kill the engine again. At this point I would happily kill all the characters, as well as the author of such drivel. Even worse are the appalling attempts at wit made by the characters, not just because they’re patently un-witty, but because they are always – always – followed up by me telling the reader how everyone laughed. And she laughed; And they both laughed; And they all laughed.
Good on Jonze for being so honest with himself, which is characteristic of most writing pros. After reading Jonze’s piece, I came across this naively sunny piece about how AI might help us “understand the future of writing” and “help us create the kind of future we’re happy to live in.” Here’s a snippet:
A woman has been working on her book, a young adult fantasy novel, for hours. At some point, she gets the familiar itch to check her email: She can’t think of what to write next. She stares at the screen. She’s lost her words. She could bang her head against the wall, or maybe turn to a favorite book for inspiration, or lose her momentum to distraction. But instead she turns to an AI writing tool, which takes in her chapter so far and spits out some potential next paragraphs. These paragraphs are never quite what she wants, though they sometimes contain beautiful sentences or fascinating directions. (Once it suggested a character sings a song, and also generated the lyrics of the song.) Even when these paragraphs fail, they make her interested in the story again. She’s curious about this computer-generated text, and it reignites her interest in her own writing.
With the advent of high quality computer-generated text, writers suddenly have a half-decent writing buddy who at least wants to do what they ask (even if it doesn’t always succeed) and has no desire to take any credit. Never before could writers get paragraphs of fluent text on a topic of their choice, except from another writer. (Ghostwriting may be an appropriate analogy for these writerly use cases of AI.) This is posing questions to writers everywhere: Which parts of writing are so tedious you’d be happy to see them go? Which parts bring you the inexplicable joy of creating something from nothing? And what is it about writing you hold most dear?
I’ve spent the past five years working with computer-generated text systems as part of my PhD work in human-AI interaction, and talking to writers about how they do—or do not—want to incorporate them into their practice. The woman above, working on her fantasy novel, is based on a woman I interviewed as part of a study on the social dynamics of writers requesting and incorporating support from computers.
It’s useful to think about three different parts of writing: planning, drafting, and revising. I consider these to be parts, and not stages, of writing; they are cognitive processes involved in writing, such that planning can occur at the beginning but also middle and even end of a writing project. By thinking through specific parts of writing, we can understand in more detail how computers will end up affecting writing as a whole. This exploration will not only help us understand the future of writing, but also help us create the kind of future we’re happy to live in.
As Derek Thomas notes in this Atlantic piece, AI is becoming uncannily good at simulating human writing and research, and while it is hard to know how this will affect writing generally, I don’t think it will be nearly as wonderful as the author of that Wired piece hopes. Actually, I don’t think it’ll be wonderful at all, at least not for readers, though the technology clearly has other applications.
It goes without saying—but I’ll say it anyway—that AI will never be able to produce great writing since all it can do is simulate the human act of stringing words together. The “imagination” of AI is no imagination at all. It is the simulation of an imagination, and this will always place a limit on it.
What this technology will do, however, is flood us with mediocre texts, and this will certainly affect things like education and the reading experience generally.
Words bring people together and push people apart. Can words produced by AI do this? I don’t think so if we know that they are AI texts, and I think we always will. What they will do is produce a feeling of emptiness or blankness—like the kind of blankness you feel when you speak to a computer-generated voice on a call to your health insurance company. Blankness is what all simulated things produce in the end, and I don’t know why it would be any different with AI texts.
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Is England for the English? Andrew Sullivan writes about the changing demographics of London: “In 1971, the proportion of Londoners who were ‘White British’ was 86.2 percent. Fifty years later, it’s 36.8 percent. That’s not a population change; it’s an entire paradigm shift.”
Ted Gioia writes about how he discovered the Esbjörn Svensson Trio and how it changed jazz in Europe: “Svensson changed the landscape of global jazz during his short time with us, even if he doesn’t have much name recognition in the genre’s native land. I could describe this change in many ways, but perhaps the most obvious impact was economic. European jazz festivals once relied heavily on touring American musicians for legitimacy and audience draw, but that’s not quite so true anymore, and the success of EST was a major turning point in this shift.”
Eccentric English gardens: “William John Cavendish-Bentinck-Scott (1800-79—5th Duke of Portland from 1854), known as “The Burrowing Duke” because of the “gorgeous specimen of perverted ingenuity” expressed in the series of tunnels and underground rooms at Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire (begun c.1860), illuminated by thousands of gas-jets, heated by hot air, and provided with tramlines by which food was transported from the kitchens. However, the Duke’s peculiarities were also manifest at Harcourt House, Cavendish Square, London, where he erected (1862) enormous metal-and-glass screens on the northern and southern sides of his garden, to conceal it. Even odder, the Duke had a short tunnel constructed to enable staff to traverse the garden without being seen.”
A couple of items from the media desk: The Washington Post will close its Sunday magazine. The last issue will be published on December 25th. The newspaper also laid off its dance critic, Sarah Kaufman. NPR has imposed a hiring freeze as it tries to cut $10 million from its current budget.
Carolyne Larrington reviews a new biography of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath: “Informative, clear-sighted, entertaining and as opinionated as its subject, Turner’s new book is a wonderful introduction to the lives of 14th-century women, The Canterbury Tales and the fascinating ways in which Alison has been read and misread since she first hoisted up her voluminous skirts to show her fine red stockings during the last decade of the 14th century.
A history of English food: “After a short essay on breakfast, Purkiss begins with bread. And where else should a history of food begin? The history of wheat is also the history of folklore, religion, magic, agriculture, boundaries, land control, plague, migration, politics and economics.”
Michael Taube takes stock of the graphic novels of Paco Roca: “The Spaniard’s first great success was in 2007 with Wrinkles (‘Arrugas’). It’s a graphic novel about a group of senior citizens who decide to rob a casino during a visit organized by their residence. Why? They discovered a person can’t be jailed for committing this type of crime after turning 70 years old. The gradual aging of our parents, combined with the father of fellow Spanish cartoonist Diego Ruiz de la Torre Gomez de Barreda, or ‘MacDiego,’ suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, motivated Roca to write this tale. His book was highly acclaimed in Spain, and it was translated into English in 2008 by Britain’s Knockabout Comics. It was later adapted into an animated film in 2011 that was short-listed for an Oscar. The success of Wrinkles has led to additional English translations of Roca’s brilliant work. Fantagraphics, a well-known U.S. comics publisher, has released a few of them through its European graphic novel line.”
Is François-René de Chateaubriand worth reading? Yes: “One might expect that the translation in progress of the 2,000-page autobiography by François-René de Chateaubriand, Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe, which was published posthumously in 1849–50, will attract readers literally by the dozens. The first two volumes of an anticipated four have appeared, in admirable renditions by Alex Andriesse, to a decided lack of notice. After all, Chateaubriand has nothing to recommend him but the incorruptibility of his intellect and the elegant gleam of his prose. He committed the unforgivable bêtise of being born an aristocrat in the season of radical equality, when family members and friends of his were sent off to the guillotine. His literary celebrity in his own lifetime rested chiefly on The Genius of Christianity (1802), a full-throated celebration of the faith that revolutionaries had recently jettisoned and that progressives now despise. The book found its eager readership among a populace disenchanted with both the spiritually arid cult of Enlightenment rationalism and the blood-soaked worship of Napoleonic glory. Ironically, it benefited from the appreciation of Napoleon himself, for whom good terms with the papacy had its uses. The only edition available in English is the reprint of an 1856 version from Forgotten Books, which could not be more aptly named: This remarkable tome was, is, and will remain forgotten. The loss is the reading public’s. Perhaps there is an outside chance the Memoirs will not share that fate. It stands just a rung below Rousseau’s Confessions and Goethe’s Poetry and Truth among the supreme Romantic autobiographies.”
Tim Page recommends the 1928 film The Crowd: “When the Coen Brothers followed No Country for Old Men (2007) with Burn After Reading (2008) and A Serious Man (2009)—their darkly brilliant but aggressively anti-glamorous meditation on the Book of Job and Schrödinger’s Cat—the Variety critic Todd McCarthy summed up the last as ‘the sort of film you get to make once you’ve won an Oscar.’ Eight decades earlier, the director King Vidor had done something similar when he went from his 1925 World War I drama The Big Parade (which predated the Oscars but was one of the two or three most financially successful productions in silent film’s short history) to The Crowd (1928), an unsparing study of an impoverished and unhappy couple struggling to get by and get along in a tiny apartment in New York.”