Can AI write good novels?

I expect that this is probably the year I’ll need to consider how my profession will change if students start relying on AI writing software.

Like many people in my social media feed, this summer I’ve been playing a bit with AI image software, and thinking about how all the photographers and artists whose work is being sampled and remixed, without compensation or credit, to supply a commodity that serves someone else’s needs.

“Julia was twenty-six years old… and she worked, as he had guessed, on the novel-writing machines in the Fiction Department. She enjoyed her work, which consisted chiefly in running and servicing a powerful but tricky electric motor… She could describe the whole process of composing a novel, from the general directive issued by the Planning Committee down to the final touching-up by the Rewrite Squad. But she was not interested in the final product. She ‘didn’t much care for reading,’ she said. Books were just a commodity that had to be produced, like jam or bootlaces.” –George Orwell, 1984

The average undergrad who panics and turns to an AI program in order to meet a deadline probably won’t have the close-reading and analytical skills necessary to spot where the AI veers into the uncanny valley, or the editing skills and time necessary to fix those errors.

A few years ago a student ran several pages from various online study guides through a tool that replaced words with synonyms, presumably to conceal evidence of plagiarism. I spotted several awkward phrases that sounded like ESL issues, and managed to reverse-engineer enough phrases that I found several online sources that matched the student’s paper idea for idea; but the kicker was when the online source mentioned “Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury,” and the student submitted a draft that referenced “Celsius 232.78 by Beam Bradbury.”

The skill to create a coherent final draft is something that comes only with years of effort. 

While it’s entirely possible that an AI could help a casual user to churn out informal response papers, brainstorming, and discussion board posts, students who submit AI-generated informal writing won’t learn the lessons those low-risk, exploratory assignments are supposed to teach, so they won’t be equipped to tackle the major assignments, and they won’t develop the editing skills necessary to spot and fix telltale AI glitches. 

But I’m sure the human writers behind the term paper mills are already using AI. Here’s an article about a successful popular fiction writer who relied on AI to boost her word count (and meet deadlines).

The tool was called Sudowrite. Designed by developers turned sci-fi authors Amit Gupta and James Yu, it’s one of many AI writing programs built on OpenAI’s language model GPT-3 that have launched since it was opened to developers last year. But where most of these tools are meant to write company emails and marketing copy, Sudowrite is designed for fiction writers. Authors paste what they’ve written into a soothing sunset-colored interface, select some words, and have the AI rewrite them in an ominous tone, or with more inner conflict, or propose a plot twist, or generate descriptions in every sense plus metaphor.

Eager to see what it could do, Lepp selected a 500-word chunk of her novel, a climactic confrontation in a swamp between the detective witch and a band of pixies, and pasted it into the program. Highlighting one of the pixies, named Nutmeg, she clicked “describe.”

“Nutmeg’s hair is red, but her bright green eyes show that she has more in common with creatures of the night than with day,” the program returned.

[…]

She thinks more fully automating fiction right now would produce novels that are too generic, channeled into the grooves of the most popular plots. But, based on the improvement she’s seen over the year she’s been using Sudowrite, she doesn’t doubt that it will get there eventually. It wouldn’t even have to go far. Readers, especially readers of genre fiction, like the familiar, she said, the same basic form with a slightly different twist or setting. It’s precisely the sort of thing AI should be able to handle. “I think that’s the real danger, that you can do that and then nothing’s original anymore. Everything’s just a copy of something else,” she said. “The problem is, that’s what readers like.”–The Verge