Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tip O'Day #458 - There's Still Room

Guest blogger Donna Levin on “The Last Endangered Species.”

The novel 1984 is one of my favorite books, and I’ll leave you to wonder what that says about moi. In 1984, George Orwell predicted many horrors that have come to pass: government spying, “enhanced interrogation,” and strangling political correctness. The prediction that hasn’t come true – yet – is factory-produced fiction (Winston Smith’s lover, Julia, repairs “the novel-writing machines”). But when I saw how the auto-correct capability on my iPhone changed cyxt to Hi there, I realized that this final abomination cannot be far away.

My anxiety seemed even more justified last week when I read about the HemingwayApp: a program that will scan your prose for adverbs and the use of passive voice. Not that we shouldn’t be able to do this for ourselves, but we used to make our own clothes, too.

Throughout the ages, many jobs have disappeared. There are no more elevator operators. There are still blacksmiths, but according to WikiAnswers, “they are few and far between.” And your average town crier has been out of work a long time.

I don’t know anything about computer programming, but I know what they can already do, and any kid in junior college familiar with javascript could install a MadLibs-type program for a Regency romance outline:

HEROINE has __ eyes __ hair __ is ___ tall and is: spoiled and willful/beautiful but unappreciated by her family/was rich but just lost her fortune and now must become a governess….
HERO has __eyes__hair and will obviously be six feet or taller with broad shoulders. He: is mysterious and aloof/is ardent and affectionate/has a bad reputation …
He also has a secret: he’s already married/has murdered someone, but justifiably/is closely related to a famous criminal/has insanity in his family…
HEROINE and HERO meet: on the moors/at a ball/in a creepy castle/at her father’s house when he appears looking for a place to stay in the middle of a violent storm…
They fall in love. Total, pure, eternal loooove. But:
They face an obstacle: parents objects/financial difficulties/hero goes away (to war, to care for elderly relative, charged with a crime (he didn’t commit)…
Then: Good fortune intervenes to bring them together: the parents see the light/the person in the way dies from illness or in a fire (or is murdered, but by villain)/a previously unheard-of relative dies and leaves a large inheritance…

Sentence structure in English has only so many possibilities, and with all due respect I’ll bet computers can compete with Georgette Heyer or Barbara Courtland in that arena.

It’s a long, long leap from writing formula fiction to the genre we think of as literary. (A genre that can be just as awful as it can be inspiring. Ever try to read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead?) But last week on The Daily Show a scientist was predicting that our entire brains could be uploaded onto CDs. That particular idea doesn’t hold much appeal, but as Walt Whitman wrote, “every inch of common air throbs a tremendous prophecy, of greater marvels yet to be.” And Whitman didn’t even have a laptop.

Novelists have always lived on the edge of unemployment. The computer-produced novel will be to writers what automotive repair has been to the blacksmith. As with blacksmiths, there will always be room for a craftsperson or two.

Donna Levin is the author of the novels Extraordinary Means and California Street, as well as two books on the craft of fiction, Get That Novel Started and Get That Novel Written. Learn more at her website.

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