Just one more thing on this ChatGPT business, as we think about how it might put some writers out of work. (And it might.)
You know, I felt bad for floor traders put out of work at the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, when computer trading began to make their raucous profession redundant about 15 years ago.
I know a few of these guys. They’re garrulous, they’re permanently hoarse from working and playing so hard, and they’re still fun to drink with. And when you do drink with them, it’s not hard to get them to talk about the heyday of the wonderfully named work of “open-outcry trading.”
And now they’re selling real estate, or doing other work that they must find disappointingly sedate.
But they don’t complain. I mean, floor traders can’t very well complain about capitalism destroying what were purely capitalistic jobs.
They can be sad about it, but they can’t complain.
Writers, though, having our so-called livelihood threatened? Oh, we can complain!
When was our heyday, for one thing? Unless you worked for The New Yorker in the 1930s or Time-Life in the 1950s, you’ve had the financial security of a desert scavenger and the artistic freedom of a certified accountant.
The trouble begins early in a writer’s career. As my mother put it, it came as a shock when she graduated from the University of Michigan in 1959, and realized “I couldn’t make a living writing Chaucer papers.”
Very young, you’re usually forced to put your poems aside and your novel in the drawer and go to work for a terrible local newspaper or a dreary newsletter publisher or a suffocating corporate communication department. (E.B. White wrote an employee newsletter early in his career, and Kurt Vonnegut did, too—before quitting General Electric to churn out about a dozen books to survive long enough to get famous for Slaughterhouse Five, when he was almost 50.)
As you get older and need to make more than rent money, there are further compromises, if you want to get paid to write at all: You have to have direct reports, who do not appreciate literary flourishes on their performance reviews. You have to take on lots of projects that require the kind of responsive emailing that would have put a real crimp in the writing of Light in August. And you get told by smiling creeps like the head of the Professional Speechwriters Association that you have to be more than “just” a writer. (At one point, Vonnegut opened a fucking Saab dealership.)
And then, just when you hit midlife and you have enough wisdom to write really valuable things, your newspaper goes out of print, your grownup income needs force you out of publishing and into a corporate world where there’s baldfaced age discrimination, and not in your favor.
And now people are talking about a machine that can write your first draft for you, reassuring you that you’ll have plenty of work to do touching up those electronic compositions and expecting you not to be apoplectic about it. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” they shrug.
Speechwriter Joshunda Sanders said in a comment on my piece last week, “Some guy at a cocktail mixer asked me what I did, I told him I’m a speechwriter and then he proceeded whip out his phone with ChatGPT and produce in seconds a speech produced by AI. I immediately felt threatened and defensive.”
I would have slapped that phone out of his hands, stomped it to bits under my Writing Boot and asked (rhetorically), “How do you like your ChatGPT now?”
And a judge would let me off. Because she went to law school after having given up her unrealistic dream of being a writer.
I don’t know how AI composition tools are ultimately going to affect the writing profession (which I’m tempted to put in air quotes anyway), and I realize that some of my writing colleagues are more hopeful than I am that it could get rid of some of the grunt work and let us focus on the ideas.
As I’ve written (all by myself), I think the grunt work is an essential part of writing, which I have always considered a form of blue-collar work: You’re gathering up raw material in a pile, you’re moving it around, you’re making it into something and then smoothing it out, with your hands. I believe that in the mind of a good writer, things happen at every stage of that process, almost no matter how routine the thing being writ. I believe in something like, there’s no rote writing, only rote writers.
I’m not burying my head in the sand on AI composition, because I’m obligated to investigate its potential and actual influence on the members of the Professional Speechwriters Association—and also, AI’s utility to the communication managers who belong to the PSA’s sister organization, the Executive Communication Council.
But I’m going to stay mad about this. Bitter even. And as I wrote to another writer last week, “I look forward to dying before an AI machine can write gooder than me. Even if I have to hasten the process!”
For the moment, though, I believe it remains firmly true, with ChatGPT, or without: I’m faster than the writers who are better than me, and better than the writers who are faster than me.
(And meaner, too. How about you?)