Word processing and writing
Spotted an essay this morning in the NYT about fiction writing by computers. I love to read fiction writers dissembling about their vocation, which is great because there's so much of it about. Although there's no reason for it, writers seem to be in a constant panic that their status or existence is imperiled and feel the need to justify their existence. This is as it should be.
I can't see why writers should concern themselves with fiction-writing computers. As long as human beings retain a monopoly over fiction reading and reviewing, computers won't likely take away jobs from deserving workshop grads. Pinker's point is well-taken; most books written by a computer probably won't be worth reading. Of course, that's true of most novels written by humans, so maybe it's a small consolation.
This article reminded me of Stanislaw Lem's piece from A Perfect Vacuum called "Gigamesh," a Borges-like piece describing a fictional Joycean modernist epic based on Gilgamesh and written primarily by hooking up computers to the Library of Congress or something like that and altering the basic text of Gilgamesh to maximize the number of allusions made. Lem's essay raises the question of the value of a work like "Gigamesh," since it arguably has the same virtues of Finnegan's Wake, but doesn't originate solely from the mind of a person. If the virtue of fiction is supposed to be its capacity to enlighten through allusion or to bring connections between disparate subjects to light, then computers probably will write valuable fiction. It's only if we acknowledge the appeal to sentiment, subjective biases that computers are far less likely to exploit, that undergirds our appreciation for fiction that we can distinguish between the value of something like "Gigamesh" (hypothetical though it might be) and fiction written by human beings for human readers.
The basic issue, I guess, is how curious we really are. It's probably worth admitting that most people don't really want to read a book written by someone who isn't also a person, or at least doesn't do a very good job of reflecting the interests of people. The same limits operate at a more modest level and can be seen in the recent controversy over the National Book Award for fiction, which went to a decidedly pedagogical novel, chosen out of five finalists of remarkably similar backgrounds. I don't buy the objection made by some, that the current favorites of the literary fiction establishment are found lacking in other circles because of an absence of plot, although that might have something to do with it. I find a great deal of contemporary literary fiction uninvolving because I don't share the same interests as those who praise it highly. The formalist criteria that seem to animate reviewers and awards committees may accurately reflect the interests of a certain community, but it's not one that I belong to. With luck, computers will one day be capable of writing the "beautiful sentences, formal experiments and infinitely delicate evocations of emotional states" that Laura Miller describes as the goal of many contemporary writers, leaving writers to move on to more worthwhile pursuits to distinguish themselves from machines.