Siri, write me a novel!
Literature in the digital world
Week of the Festival: Krems, Austria
Imagine you are a writer and somebody asks you for an interview — but you have absolutely no idea what to answer.
For his book Bot: Gespräch ohne Autor* (Bot: conversation without writer), Clemens Setz, one of the most outstanding Austrian writers of the present, offered his computer-stored journals to create answers. In the meantime, he sat back in a cosy chair and read poems on Twitter. Or maybe he worked on one of his short stories. At least that is what we are ought to think. Whether the surreal answers really were made up by an algorithmic system or by the writer himself will remain a mystery. What we know for sure: artificial intelligence exists. Not only do we talk to cyborgs on the phone more and more often (sometimes without even noticing it), we also ask our “personal assistant” to tell us the current parking situation, the weather forecast or our upcoming appointments. And Siri (or whatever our nice assistant is called) feeds us with information. We do not even have to ask her (or him or it), we just have to command. Siri does not understand the complicated subjunctive ( or: conditional?) constructions, that have always been typical for us Austrians. (Could you please be so kind and check, if… Ex-cuse-me-I-can-not-un-der-stand… O, come on, SIRI, SHUT UP!)
But let us get back to literature. At the moment Siri only knows that some writers missed their plane or did not find the way to the hotel. Others ate too much chocolate or consumed even harder drugs before the reading. But what if Siri was not satisfied by just knowing everything? What if she wanted to take over? Don’t forget, a relative of Siri has already written a sequel chapter of Harry Potter! So who knows, maybe in some years, people will be able to buy bedtime storygenerators for their children.
Already ten years ago, poetry generators and online translators influenced the experimental literature scene. An acquaintance of mine programmed his own Western title generator back then, other poets translated their texts into a foreign language and then back into German to perform the output. Artificial intelligence is something many artists like to play with. But we do not only play. Some poems have already passed the Turing test.
So, should we be afraid that computers will soon be the best writers? I mean, we feed them with Shakespeare, Hemingway, Proust and Rushdie! And if the software engineers really succeed (and I am sure they will, maybe not today, but for sure someday in the future) — who will be in charge of feeding the Cyborg writers with specific topics? The government?
But even if Cyborgs write good prose or poetry one day, human literature will not be eliminated. Just think of all the people who write. Never before have so many books been published as today. Books on Demand made it possible that thousands of novels are waiting in some virtual niche to be found by their readers. At the same time poems and prose fragments are published on Twitter and Facebook. Of course, finding the pearls within that wide field of published literature increasingly feels like looking for the needle in a haystack. Fortunately, we still have trustworthy (human!) expert juries and critics. They may not be the best friends of writers, but when searching for good literature, we tend to believe them. Lovers of literature know their country’s publishing companies well. They also know the small bookstores with highly engaged keepers. Readers believe in personal recommendations. It has never been the sales ranking on Amazon that readers trust in.
Capitalism creates quantity. Quality is something that hides within. The literature market will change within the next twenty years. But it is not so much because young people are not interested in literature anymore. Visit a poetry slam —it’s cramped with young people! Enter a bookstore some weeks before Christmas — it’s cramped with young people! Watch a modern role play in your city — it’s cramped with young people! (Only the readings with just a table and a glass of tap water are cramped with white-haired ladies…)
Maybe my generation (X) did not have Pinterest or Instagram or WhatsApp, but we already had 30 different TV channels. I was the nerd with the book. I was the freak who knew Shakespeare long before our teacher told us about Romeo & Juliet. Reading literature has never been mainstream, not even when my Granny was young. “Lazy city chick!” — That’s what my great grandma called her whenever she sat down to read a book.
The main problem is not that readers do not read anymore. The main problem is that the big players like Amazon drive the traditional publishing houses and bookshops out of the market. Furthermore, an ongoing change of habits is increasingthe problem. We do not only buy online, we also use our e-readers to log into the web portal of our library. We read free online newspapers. We share PDF files. We download illegally. At the same time subventions are cut every year. Especially small publishers cannot survive without financial support.
Digitalisation does not only change our habits, it changes the world around us. Still, literature will not vanish. Let’s hope that publishing companies won’t do so either. But even if they do — writers will not stop writing. (But if they are not good at crowd funding they might need a full-time job.)
And what about Siri and her relatives? Well, if one day more and more writers decide to feed the BOT with their diaries and text fragments (means with (their?) own thoughts, own words and own feelings), maybe the cooperation of human and artificial intelligence will create a new genre of fiction. And within that genre, there again will be literature of high quality and common trash…
Since a few days the world has changed.
The literature scene was one of the first fields affected by the Corona crisis. Book fairs, readings, literature festivals —they now take place in a virtual world. Books have to be bought online, bookshops try to keep up and promise to deliver as quick as Amazon.
We do not know how much the crisis will change our society. The economic effects will be noticeable for months or even years.
Digitalisation can help us those days to stay in touch. To work. To amuse ourselves / have fun. To forget.
But at the same time — here and now in Austin and other parts of Europe — we are getting used to being tracked by the government, which collects the data of telecommunication companies in order to find out if we stay home or not.
In the future, maybe it will be better to walk without your mobile phone.
* Clemens Setz, Bot: Gespräch ohne Autor, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2018, ISBN: 978-3-518-42786-6
Margarita Kinstner was born in 1976 in Vienna, and is currently based in Graz. She is a novelist and co-editor of the Austrian literature magazine &Radieschen. www.margarita-kinstner.com
Photo © Isolde Kerstin Bermann