‘Death of an Author’ Prophesies the Future of AI Novels

ai death of an author culture 1482805005.jpg
ai death of an author culture 1482805005.jpg

An LLM cannot write a cohesive, novel-length narrative from start to finish. At present, ChatGPT can produce roughly 600 words at a time, so in order to complete a novel, a human has to feed it prompts and then collage its outputs into a complete story. One prompt might be something like “Describe the death of an author in the style of CBC news.” The next might be “Write Augustus’ response to this death.” The computer can’t keep track of the minutiae of plot and character, leaving holes in the process. 

In his afterword to Death of an Author (required reading for anyone who wants to think seriously about the future of LLM-assisted writing), Marche explains this patchwork process of composing the novel. He reread some of the great detective fiction writers, like Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, and James Myers Thompson, and employed ChatGPT to produce passages in their styles. 

To polish the outputs into more readable language, he ran the text through Sudowrite, another LLM that allows for more stylistic authorial control (making sentences longer or shorter, rephrasing text, etc.) and then used yet another program, Cohere, to generate poetic similes, refining the language even further. Marche’s goal might have been Chandler, but to this reader’s ear, the prose is closer to Dan Brown—compulsively readable, but not in danger of winning the Edgar.

Despite the use of so many different programs and styles, this text has Stephen Marche’s signature all over it. Marche even said as much to The New York Times: “I am the creator of this work, 100 percent.” What’s striking, though, is what he says next: “But on the other hand, I didn’t create the words.” 

It’s important to meditate on this renunciation of authorship because it seems central to current misunderstandings about what LLMs are and why they make us so nervous. On the one hand, Marche acknowledges his role in the creation of the text: “I had an elaborate plan … I have a familiarity with the technology … I know what good writing looks like.” On the other, he chose to publish the work under a pseudonym, Aidan Marchine, a portmanteau of machine and Marche. Calling him the author of Death of an Author wouldn’t just be a tongue twister, it would be, according to Marche, “inaccurate as a matter of fact.”

This seems like a missed opportunity. As someone who has just finished writing two novels that incorporate LLM language, I agree with Marche that only a good writer will make anything worthwhile with these programs. Because of this, it seems important to acknowledge the human hand in every aspect of the writing process. 

Even the choice to include a particular LLM output over another is a human decision, not unlike the selective reframing employed by artists like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. Giving creative credit to the LLM seems to turn an elaborate collaboration between a human and a machine into a flashy tech gimmick. And it plays into the hands of forces who claim that writing with LLMs is not “real” writing, nor is it worthy of copyright protection, as the US Copyright Office recently argued.

LLMs are not authors, nor do they possess intelligence. They are simply tools. They are computer programs trained to recognize patterns in how we write and then use these patterns to produce language that appears like conscious and coherent thought. At least for the foreseeable future, these programs do not operate without prompts. They can’t produce text at a random moment out of their own creative inspiration. They can’t prompt themselves to fulfill apocalyptic fantasies and take over the planet. They begin and end with human direction. As such, the material that LLMs produce should be seen as a collaboration between a human author and a machine. The author asks the machine for language and then creatively determines what to do with the machine’s outputs. 

It might be helpful to situate Death of an Author not in the tradition of LLM writing, but in the larger field of literary supercuts, or works of fiction made entirely out of found language. While the history of literary supercuts is less known, fiction writers have been incorporating found language for centuries. Al-Jāḥiẓ, a Medieval Arabic author, borrowed plenty from other sources. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick begins with 13 pages of found whale descriptions. 

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