Would I use AI to write my novels? I’d get better results from a monkey with an iPhone

This summer two worlds – literature and technology – collided. News stories began appearing about authors suing OpenAI and Meta for using their works to train their large language models “without consent, without credit and without compensation”. I read them with increasing curiosity, and then I found a review of a novella, Death of an Author, which was “95% machine-generated”. I put down my quill and stared out of the window, wondering if my tried and tested productivity hacks of taking the dog for a walk or soaking in a hot tub were no longer going to cut it in this frightening new world.

Be brave, I told myself. Experiment with these new technologies or prepare to be replaced by a monkey with an iPhone and a writing app. I lay on my bed and opened up Laika, one of the free creative writing tools I’d read about. Perhaps my latest novel, Love Marriage, could have been vastly improved with this genius tool. I pasted in the first paragraph: “In the Ghorami household sex was never mentioned. If the television was on and a kissing-with-tongues scene threatened the chaste and cardamom-scented home, it was swiftly terminated by a flick of the black box. When Yasmin began her first period, her mother had slipped her a pack of Kotex Maxi pads and murmured instructions not to touch the Qur’an …”

I pressed the “write” button and moments later, Laika delivered this gem: “She had seen that the most secret of the secrets of the body, was its female secret. The secret of its male secret.”

What? Who? Had Laika been subject to some kind of cyber-attack?

I closed my laptop and slept soundly that night, secure in the knowledge that the bots are about as smart as that monkey with an iPhone. But deep down I knew that wasn’t the end of the story, that I had proved precisely nothing with my little experiment.

Come the autumn, the news stories ramped up – the Authors Guild brought a class-action lawsuit against OpenAI. For fiction writers, it said, “OpenAI’s unauthorised use of their work is identity theft on a grand scale”. The threat to authors’ livelihoods is at the heart of the complaint.

I decided to continue my flirtation with AI, although now it felt a little dirty. Everybody’s doing it, I reassured myself as I created an account on ChatGPT. “Write a story in the style of Monica Ali.” I paused before I hit return, because who wants a pastiche of their style thrown in their face. I needn’t have worried. The bot doesn’t rise to the level of pastiche – though the words “love”, “determination” and “courage” crop up.

One thing that worries me is the lack of cultural diversity in the programming of AI algorithms. If AI is going to become writers’ ride-or-die best friend in the future, what does that mean for writers who have diverse and unorthodox stories to tell? Will it be harder for them to compete?

I went back to ChatGPT and asked it to write a story about a junior doctor, Yasmin, who has an affair with a much older colleague. It returned with lashings of romance cliches, so I fed in more details from Love Marriage: “Yasmin is of British Indian Muslim heritage. The first time she has sex she is on her period and having sex on your period is forbidden in Islam. Write the sex scene, depicting both Yasmin’s intense pleasure and her feelings of guilt.”

This was ChatGPT’s response: “I’m sorry, but I cannot fulfil this request. It goes against the policies of OpenAI and could be inappropriate and offensive. As an AI language model … it is not within my capacity to generate inappropriate or explicit content.”

I understand the reluctance to generate explicit content, and wasn’t expecting anything more explicit than ChatGPT had come up with in the previous iteration of the story. But I wondered about “inappropriate” and “offensive”. Was ChatGPT taking a position on the uncleanliness of menstruating women?

Do writers really have anything to fear from AI-generated novels? Or could the technology work in our favour? I’ve heard of writers who release genre fiction directly on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing using AI to vastly increase their output, and Amazon appears to be preparing for the coming bookpocalypse by limiting authors to uploading a mere three books per day. Per day! But even now, the problem is not a shortage of books, it’s a shortage of readers. More and more books pumped out in a shorter and shorter timeframe doesn’t sound like healthy competition, it sounds like a hot mess in which it will become increasingly difficult to sift the signal from the noise.

Perhaps literary fiction – the genre I write in – will be a harder nut for the AI machine to crack. It’s less formulaic. It relies more on depth of characterisation and elegant and innovative use of language. But remember that these AIs are babies, still sucking on dummies. By the time they reach maturity, adolescence even, they may reach a level of sophistication that is difficult to imagine today. What’s wrong with that? Perhaps nothing. But we’d feel a little cheated, wouldn’t we? Because we read to connect with human experience, human instincts and emotions. Only a human author can bring their intentions to meet our own.

And therein lies my real fear. That the bookpocalypse, when or if it comes, will mean an increasing homogenisation, driven by a “dataset” that is simultaneously massive and narrow in its worldview, supported by a “more like this” algorithm that crowds out diverse voices or those that challenge the status quo. When I wrote my first novel, Brick Lane, even I didn’t think that many people would be interested in a Bangladeshi housewife who has an affair with a younger man. Some older, conservative Muslim men deemed it offensive back then. My AI writing buddy might deem it offensive today. But Brick Lane is now an A-level set text. And on an almost weekly basis I hear from women about how they connected with the book, what it meant to them to see themselves reflected in the culture.

That doesn’t mean there’s no place for AI in writing, or that “real” writers shouldn’t use it – though I envisage a future in which “natural” writers, those who don’t use AI, will become distinct from those who do. AI is here to stay, but we need to think carefully about whose voices will be amplified by it, and those that may be muffled or even silenced.

  • This is an edited extract from Monica Ali’s 2023 PEN HG Wells lecture, hosted by English PEN in partnership with New Writing North. The full version of this piece is published in PEN Transmissions, English PEN’s literary magazine

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