Adi Robertson at The Verge:
Last week, generative fiction tool Sudowrite launched a system for writing whole novels. Called Story Engine, it’s another shot in the ongoing culture war between artists and AI developers — one side infuriated by what feels like a devaluation of their craft, the other insisting that it’s a tool for unlocking creativity and breaking writer’s block. Neither answered the question I was really curious about: does it work?
Well, I didn’t take on Sudowrite’s pitch of a full novel in a few days. But over the weekend, I generated a novella written entirely inside Story Engine — it’s called The Electric Sea at the AI’s suggestion, and you can read the whole thing on Tumblr.
I’m not sure how I feel about it.
I’m an enthusiastic, if strictly amateur, fiction writer. I wrote somewhere north of 150,000 words of unpublished fiction last year, so Sudowrite’s “break writer’s block” pitch isn’t that compelling to me. Writing, however, is not a task I hold inherently sacred. The field has a long and proud tradition of hastily written profit-driven trash, from Ed Wood’s churned-out erotica to the infamous pulp publisher Badger Books, known for handing authors a cover and asking them to write a book around it. I enjoy seeing where large language models’ strengths and weaknesses lie, and I’ve long been fascinated by challenges like NaNoGenMo, which asked writers to create an AI-generated novel in the days before modern generative AI. So on Saturday morning I paid for 90,000 words of Sudowrite text, booted it up, and “wrote” a roughly 22,500-word cyberpunk novella by Sunday afternoon.
One of my favorite novels deals with the world of “hastily written profit-driven trash:” “Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies,” by Tom DeHaven, about a hack writer in the 1930s who churns out pulp stories and comic strip text. I wrote about it here. (“‘Derby Dugan’ is a wonderful novel,” I said. “I like to re-read it every few years to revisit a time and place where a kid in a yellow derby with a talking dog can make a writer a star of an enchanted New York.” Which reminds me that I haven’t re-read the Derby Dugan trilogy in some time.)
Writing is a pastime I enjoy, and it’s led me to a lot of fascinating places, even when the end result won’t be sold or even read by anybody else. I’ve taken up entire hobbies and vacations for research purposes. I like devising a good turn of phrase or exploring a character’s motivations. I enjoy feeling like I’ve done something a little unexpected or, conversely, like I’ve written a spot-on pastiche of a style. I don’t care about an AI “replacing” me the way I don’t worry about an industrial knitting machine replacing my handmade shawls — the process is the point.
I need to think about that. I started my journalism career on daily newspapers, where I loved doing weird things that I would not do on my own initiative: playing paintball, flying in an ultralight aircraft, or—in college—going out with the campus police on an all-night ridealong. I talked with a lot of strange characters too. Tech journalism and marketing is a great career, but I miss that other thing.
Spoiler: Robertson finds the software writes a barely passable, mediocre, cliched cyberpunk novella. I think she’s being charitable. I think it stinks—but I’m not a cyberpunk fan. Still, it’s a functional novella, she says.
I find the same thing with ChatGPT, when I’ve tried it on articles. It’s bad, like SEO spam. But there’s demand for SEO spam.