Has it all been for nothing?
All of the hours that I have spent in front of my computer, rising at dawn to be at my station, pounding out stories, working through the fear of not being good enough, of not being able to put something great on the page, something that is part of me, that is me. The scrawls in my notebook, the daydreaming when I walk. The small steps and incremental gains. The steady getting there.
All for naught.
Because ChatGPT or something like it—an artificial intelligence—will one day write a poem or a short story or even a novel that is as compelling as one of my own. Somewhere, a bunch of programmers are laughing at me: “You think what you do is special? I can make an app for that.” And they have.
So why should I bother to write at all?
Because it is not just about the result or the finished product. Not even close. I’m sitting here, holding one of my books in my hand, an anthology of short stories that I helped edit and to which I contributed. I admire the cover that took so many hours to format and the font that we debated for far too long. I flip to my piece, about falling in love in Paris while on exchange, and I remember when I wrote it. The feeling of gliding across the keyboard because I was on a roll. The delight I took in capturing a tender, painful moment in my life in words. Giving it existence and conveying it to others.
The process I went through to publish the story imbued the entire project with meaning, like looking down a trail that you have hiked and taking pride in the work that it required to get there. That sweaty, joyful glow. The trail is just a trail, a path in the woods, until you have walked every foot of its length. Then it becomes something more. Something that is part of you. Imagine being plunked down at the end and looking back. Would you feel the same pride? Of course not. The trail would be meaningless, and your only relationship would be with the shortcut. (Which, in the case of AI, is very short indeed!) Likewise, a book is not just the words on the page. It is the physical manifestation of our grit and our pain and our faith. It is a symbol of our effort to impose meaning on our lives. Because that is what writing does. It gives us purpose. I know where I will be tomorrow morning and the morning after. I organize my social life, my diet, my sleep, and my family time around this central goal. There is clarity and comfort in that, not to mention satisfaction. I don’t think us writers can imagine living any other way.
And what about the reader? Reading is about the writer, not just about the book. We read to be entertained, sure, but we also read to have a kind of communion with the author. We want to hear their voice in our minds and to know what they know. We want to taste their insight and their imagination and their courage. A bot could theoretically write a book like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or The Gulag Archipelago. But would those bot-made pieces really have the same meaning as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s work, published after having spent eight years in a Russian prison? Of course not.
Incidentally, ChatGPT can “write” in the style of Solzhenitsyn, or Ernest Hemingway, or Jane Austen, because their books already exist. It is essentially a massive synthesizer of existing data, improved by constant refinement of its answers to prompts, and it predicts what is likely to be the next sentence based on billions of previously written texts. Without authors (without us!) producing real work, Chat GPT, and other AI models like it, have nothing to say.
And that’s the core of it, isn’t it? You can’t untether art from the world. Art is inextricably linked to human experience and to human will. Otherwise, what the heck is it? Writing is not plagiarizing thoughts and feelings, it is confronting our own inadequacy, our fears, our yearnings and spilling it on the page in a way that resonates with others. The catalyst is empathy, which links the reader and the writer together. Bots do not know what it is like to lose a loved one or to suffer rejection or to yearn for revenge. Only humans do. And it is that knowledge that readers seek when they open a book.
In the end, bots will produce cool stuff, even great stuff, things we could never have imagined before (check out DALL-E); but writers will continue to write, and readers will continue to read human work, because the process itself makes the act and the result meaningful. If anything, we will start to see more novels that explore the ways that AI intersects with and changes art, rather than rendering that art extinct.
As that unfolds, you know where I’ll be. In front of my computer toiling away, or daydreaming on a walk.
Duncan Hart Cameron has taught college-level philosophy in Quebec for over twelve years. Born in Ontario, he lived in BC before moving to Montreal in 2001 to pursue a Master’s in Philosophy. A passionate writer and editor, he recently helped found Les éditions comme au vingtième, a bilingual literary review and independent publisher focused on supporting emerging writers, poets, and screenwriters living in Montreal and the Laurentians. His first novella, Eclipsed, is set to appear in the Fall of 2023 and explores the hold that our past can have on our present, especially in our most intimate relationships.
Photos: Loz Pycock via Flickr (header banner); Duncan Hart Cameron (headshot)
One thought on “Writing Fiction in the Age of Artificial Intelligence—By Duncan Hart Cameron”
Authors are essential for the health, growth and beauty of civilisations. I wouldn’t entrust a machine to accomplish such an important task.