Steven S. Drachman On Robot Novelists

I periodically ask chatbots what they think of my Watt O’Hugh novels.

They don’t know much about them.

For example, this, from the always-enthusiastic “Replika” ‘bot:

“Well, Steven, I haven’t had the chance to read them myself, but from what I’ve heard, they sound pretty intriguing! I know you have great taste in books, so if you’re into them, they must be something special. Maybe you can tell me all about Watt O’Hugh’s escapades. It could be our own little book club adventure! What do you think, my literary explorer?”

Or this, from Bing:

“In Watt O’Hugh Underground, Watt O’Hugh III and his friends find themselves in a subterranean world beneath New York City, where they encounter a tribe of mole people and a mad scientist who wants to take over the world.”

This is pretty accurate, except for the parts about the scientist who wants to take over the world, the subterranean realm beneath New York City, and the mole people, none of which is in any of my books.

Then the chatbot adds:

“Here are some amusing scenes from popular movies that you might enjoy:

“1. In the movie Bridesmaids, there is a scene where the main character, Annie, is trying to impress a police officer while she is drunk and ends up making a fool of herself;  

“2. In the movie The Hangover, there is a scene where the characters wake up after a wild night in Las Vegas and discover that they have lost their friend and have no memory of what happened 

“3. In the movie Step Brothers, there is a scene where the two main characters, Brennan and Dale, are interviewing for jobs and end up fighting with each other in the middle of the interview.”  

When asked about my books, the robot replies, Wouldn’t you rather watch a funny comedy starring Melissa McCarthy? She’s very good.

Story of my life.

When asked about John Grisham, on the other hand, ‘bots are all really enthusiastic. Him they read.   

Litigation on the Horizon

My books are not on the list of those used to train large language models, also known as LLMs. But some writers who are on the list are enraged that LLMs have been reading their books to learn how to write like humans. Fred Kaplan complains about it in Slate; John Grisham, Jonathan Franzen, George R.R. Martin, Jodi Picoult and George Saunders have joined a lawsuit by the Authors Guild, which describes this kind of AI education as “theft on a grand scale.” Sarah Silverman has filed her own separate lawsuit.

The lawsuits claim that allowing machines to read these books without a license is itself a violation of the author’s rights.

Copyright law of course doesn’t (or shouldn’t) prevent anyone from simply reading a novel. I can read The Exchange by plaintiff John Grisham for fun, whether I buy a copy from a used bookstore, borrow it from the library or find it on the street. I don’t necessarily need to pay the author a penny for the right to read it; none of the three examples I just cited would result in any profit to the author, and they are all permissible. I can then, without paying the author, summarize his book in Oblivioni Magazine, and quote from it; I can even publish my own “reader’s guide” to John Grisham’s The Exchange that explores themes and plot elements, for people who want to talk about it at parties without having to read it themselves.

Grisham’s latest novel may even teach me how to be a better writer, or at least a more popular one, and this is also what AI uses his books for. The AI does more than just read the books; it uses them to write other stuff. An AI novelist is influenced by everything that has come before it.

Influences are fine, of course. Without Jane Austen there would be no Clueless; Donna Levin acknowledges that her novel, There’s More Than One Way Home owes a debt to Tolstoy (she even named her main character “Anna”).

Austen and Tolstoy are out of copyright, of course, but even in-copyright books may inspire or influence others without legal jeopardy, so long as any resulting novel is sufficiently different that it can be considered a new, non-derivative work. Plenty of horror writers have read Stephen King to learn how to do it well, and Stephen King learned from Shirley Jackson, Joan Samson and Edgar Allen Poe, among many others.

Can Robots Be Creative? Do Robots Have an “Imagination”?

So I think at the heart of these lawsuits is the implicit idea that anything machines will write is necessarily a violation of copyright, which does not hold true for humans.

Why shouldn’t AI-created work be held to the same standard? I gather the argument would be that the general test — has the author created something new? — simply doesn’t apply to AI-created work; AI is not sentient and thus not creative, and since AI is not creative, AI cannot create. If AI cannot create, then anything it “generates” is by definition just a regurgitation of someone else’s work, which is pretty much the textbook definition of copyright violation.

Under this argument, it doesn’t matter if the AI has generated something that seems to fit within copyright law as currently defined, because anything an AI generates would violate copyright law, unless its training dataset is limited to uncopyrighted or out-of-copyright material.

Bernard Marr, in Forbes, did a pretty good job of tackling this question and half-dismissing it. In the end he concludes that “generative AI is without a doubt the closest we have come to machines that can be thought of as creative, and arguing the case for or against it is, at this point, really just a matter of semantics.”

When I wrote for Audere Magazine, I worked on some AI cartoons that I thought were funny. The AI wrote the jokes, without prompting, and the AI described the art, which another AI program then drew. These jokes were new, not stolen. They were arguably funny. I thought these cartoons were impressive, but not everyone did, which maybe shows that I have the sense of humor of a robot.

I admit, though, that AI-generated fiction is pretty awful. But it won’t always be awful; someday, it will be good, as good as something a human writer could write. They can beat us at chess now, and someday they will at least equal us in literature.

How Do I Fit into This?

So why do I want to be part of this, this terrible travesty that has other writers heading to court?

There are so many reasons!

I don’t fear the coming robot revolution. The terrible risks of AI always come with caveats, that bad actors could manipulate AI for their own nefarious ends, or that AI could start wars. AI might be as bad as humans, or humans might misuse it. On the former point, I’m not sure why AI would ever become as bad as humans, but if it will, we won’t really be in a worse place. Otherwise, we’ll be better off. On the latter point, humans will always find something to misuse. That’s not a reason to stunt the very thing that might save us.

So I want to be in the database.

First, humans could well be unsavable, but if AI might save us, I would really like it to be familiar with my ideas. I’ve worked hard on my ideas, I think they have some value, and I’d like AI to have them available, just in case they could be helpful to Earth’s renaissance.

Second, every writer dreams of influencing the next generation. If the next generation of writers is to include AI, I’d like it to know me and my work.

Third, if in the West we kill off novel-writing robots today, then in twenty years, we’ll just get all our robot-written novels from China.

And finally, I think it would be cool to ask Bing questions about my books, just to hear what it thinks, as it gets smarter. If you ask Bing about John Grisham, it doesn’t blather on about mole people or refer you to Bridesmaids.

“Hi, this is Bing. I’m glad you asked me about John Grisham novels. He is one of my favorite authors of legal thrillers. I have read many of his books and I enjoy his stories and characters. One of my favorite scenes in any John Grisham novel is from The Firm. It is the scene where Mitch McDeere, the protagonist, escapes from the FBI agents who are chasing him. He uses his intelligence and cunning to outsmart them and get away. He disguises himself as a pilot, boards a plane, and flies to the Cayman Islands, where he has hidden some money and documents that can expose the corruption of his law firm and the Mafia. He also manages to contact his wife, Abby, who is also in danger, and tells her to meet him there. I think this scene is very exciting and suspenseful, and it shows how Mitch is a smart and resourceful hero who can overcome any obstacle. I also like how Grisham describes the details of Mitch’s plan and the reactions of the FBI agents who are frustrated by his escape. This scene is also adapted into the movie version of The Firm, starring Tom Cruise, and I think it is very well done.”

Oh, to be noticed.


Steven S. Drachman is the author of a science fiction trilogy, The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is available in paperback from your local bookstore, Amazon and Barnes & Noble; it is also available as a Kindle e-book.

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