Before there were computers and artificial intelligence, there were file cards. Writers producing nonfiction used the cards to organize their facts. Writers churning out vast quantities of genre fiction, such as a series of detective novels, also used cards and charts to vary plot lines. Because often they were paid little per book, these writers figured out ways to take short cuts.
Fantasy, science fiction, horror, and mystery all have their followings, and are often published as a series. But the most profitable genre books, that have been churned out in vast quantities, are romance novels. It seems that everyone likes to read about two people falling in love. But how many different Boy meets Girl, Girl meets Girl, Girl meets Boy, and Boy meets Boy configurations can you come up with?
Long before there were computers, a prolific romance novelist named Barbara Cartland, who wrote as many as 191 novels in one year, devised a system. She wrote all the possible variations such geography, time period, and plotline as Boy is engaged to someone else or Girl is cloistered from society due to wicked aunt, on index cards. Then she’d shuffle the cards to make her choices and start writing.
How different is that from artificial intelligence, writing stories? Maybe the computer can do it faster. Maybe they can do it cheaper. The sad thing is, in our society, the predictable and the comfortable is often what people want to read and watch.
Often, when I read a synopsis or a book review, I notice how a book is easily categorized by being described as a version of a previous much loved classic. For example, I just finished reading Ann Napolitano’s Hello Beautiful, which is being marketed as a version of Little Women with basketball. If I was writing the review, I wouldn’t describe it that way. I liked the book, the characters and the setting, but what made it stand apart, was how it focused on how we process grief and depression.
Writer often take a beloved classic and retell it in a different way. It’s a well- accepted literary practice and has been done for a long time. Partly because some stories are so powerful, they deserve to be told by different voices and because as our culture evolves the way we change our stories can inform us about ourselves.
However, stealing other people’s ideas i.e., plagiarizing is never acceptable. Serious writers, acknowledge their sources.
No one wants to think a machine can create works of art better than a human, but for decades businesses have been trying to cut down the cost of producing stories, film scripts and media content. The fear is that writers will be replaced by machines, but isn’t it the consumers who are driving the demand for the predictable? Artificial intelligence writing stories and scripts, can only use the material that is already out in the world. True creativity still resides in humans inspired by the literary muse.
Someone I just met, when she learned I was a writer, asked me which authors I liked to read. I told her I try not to read books by the same author.
“I don’t want to fall into the same old rut and get too comfortable,” I said. “I want to be surprised and discover new and different voices.”
“But once I find someone I like,” she said, “I want to keep reading more.”
This is what publishers have come to expect, and it makes their job easier. Once an author becomes popular, a following is established and sales are consistent. But for creatives, maybe you’d like to try different styles and genres. Once you’ve been successfully published in one genre, historic romances for example, your publisher may be reluctant to publish your collection of science fiction poetry. This practice discourages experimentation and artistic growth.
Publishers are looking for sales and profits, in other words, a sure thing. I remember when A Perfect Storm became a bestseller and a movie, all of a sudden a dozen more books written by ship captains and fishermen dealing with unpredictable weather were released. If a trend is perceived, the common wisdom is to follow the money.
Out in the world are hundreds of stories being published each week in small literary magazines, posted as part of online blogs, and published in print by small independent presses. Wonderful creative work is being produced. But many people are too lazy to find it and take the time to read it. Certainly none of the big moguls have time to read any of those stories, when it is so much easier to read a logline ( a single sentence conveying the essence of the story).
So, if the writer’s guild strike continues….maybe instead of watching television and movies, you’ll read a copy of an independent magazine or a collection of poems or a book by an author you’ve never read before. And maybe you’ll be enlightened and entertained.
Thank you for reading this blog and for your feedback. And if you’d like to read two of my poems, recently published in Across the Margin, just click here.