A look at the future of novels, with the help of AI
In a new short story, “Death of an Author,” writer Aidan Marchine describes a plate of nachos this way:
“The cheese was set and the fries soggy, wet and coated in a greasy film like some kind of lake scum. Gus forced himself to take a bite, but the flavor was rancid, a sick imitation of cheese. He washed it down with a sip of beer, but even that tasted lousy, like he’d been out in the sun too long.
The writing is crisp, but there’s nothing particularly unusual about it. Aidan Marchine, however, is an unusual author – at least for now – because Aidan Marchine is a collection of computer systems. Type of.
Journalist and author Stephen Marche wrote “Death of an Author” using three artificial intelligence programs. Or three AI programs wrote it with extensive plotting and promptings from Stephen Marche. It depends on how you look at it.
“I am the creator of this work, 100%,” Marche said, “but, on the other hand, I did not create the words.”
Pushkin Industries, an audio production company, will release the news next month as an audiobook and e-book. Even the nickname “Marchine” is an invention of a program, a combination of Marche and machine.
In January, Jacob Weisberg, Pushkin’s chief executive, approached Marche, who has been writing with and about artificial intelligence since 2017. He asked if Marche was interested in using the technology to produce a murder mystery. The result of this collaboration is “Death of Author”, in which an author who uses AI a lot ends up dying.
Detective story? Was it her estranged daughter? Was it the professor of crime and cyberfiction who was an expert in his work? Was it the eccentric billionaire who worked with her on a secret AI project?
To coax the story from his laptop, Marche used three programs, starting with ChatGPT. He ran a plot outline through the software, along with numerous prompts and notes. While the AI was good at a lot of things, especially dialogue, he said, its storylines were terrible.
Then he used Sudowrite, asking the program to lengthen or shorten a sentence, adopt a more conversational tone, or make the writing sound like Ernest Hemingway’s. Then he used Cohere to create what he called the best lines in the book. If he wanted to describe the smell of coffee, he would train the program with examples, then ask it to generate comparisons until it found one he liked.
“To me, the process felt a bit like hip-hop,” he said. “If you do hip-hop, you don’t necessarily know how to play drums, but you definitely have to know how the beats work, how the hooks work, and you have to be able to put them together in a meaningful way.”
Marche said these programs could be a tool for writers, and he said he was optimistic about the growth of algorithmic writing in his field. But this prospect makes many writers and their representatives extremely nervous, fearing that machines will put writers out of work. The Authors Guild called for “legal and policy interventions that balance the development of useful AI tools with the protection of human authorship”.
Weisberg, Pushkin’s chief executive, said that while the new tools very often displace people, they also create opportunities. Take journalism, for example.
“If routine stories are written or generated by technology,” he said, “you as a journalist, instead of reporting on every fire, can write interesting stories about AI.”
Marche and Pouchkine tried to use software to create as much of “Death of an Author” as possible, including blurbs and its cover art. But there was one area where its creators felt the technology was lacking: audiobook storytelling. So they hired a human, Edoardo Ballerini, who won several awards in the field.
“But this stuff is moving so fast,” Weisberg said. “If we did it now rather than six weeks ago, I think we could get AI storytelling that would be up to snuff.”
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