I recently finished the novel Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen. It was entertaining (as usual), though hardly deep, a typical over-the-top Carl Hiaasen story with a clever, contrarian, down-on-his-luck hero, a smart, sexy and amoral heroine, an array of truly nasty and disgusting criminals (professional and amateur), and some bizarre wildlife – in this case, giant Gambian pouch rats.
I’ve probably read at least half a dozen of Hiassen’s books. They’re not exactly predictable, but they share a basic framework, a set of common elements. Each story is different in detail, but the setting (Florida, often the Keys), the characters, the style, the pace and the plot devices do not vary much from one novel to the next.
It occurred to me that wouldn’t take much to create a fake Carl Hiasssen book. With that in mind, I logged into ChatGPT and asked:
Write me the first paragraph of a novel in the style of Carl Hiaasen.
Here is what the AI came up with.
In the sticky heat of Florida’s muggy embrace, where the line between civilization and madness blurs like the horizon at sunset, the days begin with a peculiar rhythm. Palm fronds rustle their tales of scandal, while alligators lurk beneath murky waters, guardians of twisted secrets. It was within this swampy theater of absurdity that Chester “Chet” Monroe found himself, a small-time private investigator with a penchant for trouble and a nose for the scent of danger. Today, as the sun clawed its way above the horizon, Chet’s day began not with the usual banalities, but with the promise of a bizarre case that would plunge him deep into the murky abyss of Florida’s most bewildering mysteries.
I was impressed. The prose is a bit more flowery than Hiassen’s usual, but this passage hits all the salient elements, except there’s no trace yet of the girl. It even has the wildlife!
Stepping out into the danger zone, I then asked:
Now write me the first paragraph of a novel in the style of Lisabet Sarai, author of Raw Silk.
The jasmine-scented breeze whispered through the latticed windows, teasing the delicate silk curtains into a seductive dance. In the opulent chambers of an ancient Rajasthani haveli, secrets and desires mingled like forbidden lovers, waiting to be unmasked. Rani Devika, the enigmatic mistress of this clandestine sanctuary, reveled in the power she held over those who sought refuge within her sensual embrace. Her eyes, dark as the midnight sky, shimmered with a forbidden knowledge, promising both ecstasy and peril to those brave enough to succumb to her allure. Tonight, as the moon cast its ethereal glow upon her domain, Rani Devika prepared to embark on a journey that would unravel the very fabric of pleasure and pain, leaving nothing but raw silk in its wake.
I don’t know if you’ll agree with me, but I think this is pretty awful. It barely makes sense. At the same time, it does include a variety of references that make it clear the AI knows something about my books: the reference to Rajasthan, the allusions to eroticism and power exchange, the repeated use of “silk”. The purple prose, on the other hand, is truly cringe-worthy. Perhaps I am flattering myself, but I don’t think anyone who’s familiar with my work would ever mistake this for something I’d written.
Carl Hiaassen is far more famous that I am. It’s likely the AI has ingested a good deal more of his oeuvre than mine. (That does make one wonder whether ChatGPT has actually been trained on the full text of our books – and if it has, did OpenAI buy them, or was the training done on pirate copies? I decided I just don’t have sufficient energy to pursue this disturbing question.) All things being equal, though, I suspect it would be much more difficult for an AI to generate convincing Lisabet Sarai fakes. The main reason for this is that, unlike Hiaasen, I think it’s far more difficult to predict what you’ll find in one of my books, given another.
I write in many different genres and a variety of styles, from raunchy to lyrical. Most of my titles are stand-alones as opposed to series. Sex is the one common element that appears in almost all of my work, but the treatment of erotic content swings wildly from story to story, from spiritual to romantic to thoroughly depraved.
Just to illustrate, I’ll share the first few sentences from some of my books.
Only when faced with the stout oaken door to Randerley Hall did Gillian Smith’s considerable resolve fail her.
In the dead of night she had fled her Aunt Martha’s London townhouse, mere hours before her diabolical guardian planned to denounce her as a deviant and a thief. She had endured the seven-hour rail journey to Tavistock crammed into a reeking third class carriage, struggling to remain awake in order to guard her meagre possessions. (The Pornographer’s Apprentice)
“Holy hell, woman! You’re insatiable.”
Lauren suckled Elliot’s unresponsive dick for another thirty seconds before giving up with a sigh. “I thought you might enjoy another round, baby. That last one went by a bit fast. I only came once.” (The Slut Strikes Back)
I’m used to getting what I want. It’s not because I’m smarter than most people, or richer. (Although I am. These are documented facts, not boasts.) No, I usually succeed because I don’t give up. I’m tenacious—or just plain stubborn, if you listen to my mother. (The Gazillionaire and the Virgin)
It would have been much faster to fly.
Alas, Cecily Harrowsmith—special agent for Her Majesty the Queen, expert in the martial arts of three continents, past mistress of princes, potentates and the occasional prime minister—was afraid of flying. She despised herself for this weakness, but not enough to board one of the Empire’s sleek, viridium-powered airships, strap herself into her seat and hope for the best. (Rajasthani Moon)
“So, Michael. Have you been a good little boy?” Neil loomed over me, one hand against the wall on either side of my head. “Do you deserve the goodies that Santa’s brought for you?” Leaning forward, he trailed a wet tongue up my neck, from my open collar to just below my earlobe. When I squirmed in response, he flattened his pelvis against the lump growing in my jeans and fastened his mouth on mine. The fake beard got in the way. He ripped it off and resumed kissing me, while his hands slipped around me to cup my ass. (A Kinky Christmas Carol)
Hours past midnight, the village slept, dappled in silver moonlight and inky shadow. Bess kept watch at her bedroom window, lost in a waking dream. The breeze freshened as dawn grew closer. Occasional gusts sent clouds scudding across the sky like sheep before an impatient shepherd. The full moon sailed high above the moors, sometimes revealed, sometimes obscured by a veil of wind-tossed mist. (By Moonlight)
If you happened upon these separate passages, would you know they were all penned by the same author?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m seriously concerned about the impact of generative AI on the business of writing. It takes me six to eight months, minimum, to write a novel. In that time, how many dozens of books could an AI spew out? Some of you may remember the scams that hit Amazon when they first introduced Kindle Unlimited and started paying based on pages read. Huge gobs of nonsense text assembled automatically from public sources flooded the store and depressed the income of legitimate authors.
Today’s AI can do much better at creating plausible-sounding books. And tomorrow’s? I shudder to think about the implications for the market, especially since there are plenty of unscrupulous humans who won’t hesitate to pass off AI-produced prose as their own work.
So I’m not optimistic, in general, about shielding authors and other artists from the impacts of AI. I do believe, though, that by writing diverse, unpredictable, original stories, we can reduce the chances of being specifically copied or impersonated by an AI system.
For me, as a reader as well as a writer, originality is the Holy Grail. I know that some people love to read familiar plots, traditional tropes and favorite kinks. Not me. Quality prose matters a lot, but I’ll forgive some awkward sentences or grammar errors in a book that surprises and delights me with its creativity. I strive to deliver that same sense of unexpected excitement and wonder to my readers. I really don’t want to write the same book twice.
From a marketing perspective, this is a problem. I have no “brand”. I’ll never be a best selling author, because I refuse to deliver the predictability that many readers crave.
But diversity is one way to protect your writing from AI’s “stochastic parrots” – at least for now.