Strictly Jane Austen

Can AI Write an Austen Novel?

The launch of AI systems for content and art creation is a hot topic, but where do fans of the early-nineteenth century novel stand? This month’s Musings sees our guest blogger and author of ‘There’s Something About Darcy,’ Dr. Gabrielle Malcolm consider whether AI can write a novel like Jane Austen

There has been a lot of chatter about how AI systems will replace human authors. This poses a slew of questions for writers and fans of literature. What’s the reality? Is it true that authors will be obsolete by the end of the 21st century?

One major player in AI content creation is Chat GTP. This is an artificial intelligence software developed by OpenAI in November 2022. It is a ‘chatbot’ that uses both supervised and reinforcement learning techniques. Supervised Learning (SL) means a form of software that gathers examples of existing functions, so it compiles instructional data off a set of training examples. Reinforcement Learning (RL) focuses on finding a balance between exploration (of uncharted territory) and exploitation (of current knowledge).

So far, so complex. What does this mean for fiction, romantic fiction, popular fiction, and the reputation of novelist?

Chat GTP works off prompts and questions. A writer can devise prompts that enable Chat GPT to generate certain content. The content that the system comes up with is based on examples that exist throughout the internet, and so you have to word the prompts or questions in such a way as to help the software build something ‘original’, of sorts.

I started out with the prompt: ‘Write the opening line of a novel in the style of Jane Austen’. And Chat GPT answered with: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” So, nothing new there. A simple copy and paste of SL – supervised learning.

I tried again, with: ‘Can you write an original line for a novel in the style of Jane Austen?’ And the following came through: “Catherine Morland was a young lady of no particular beauty or fortune, but with an excessive fondness for novels, and a hopelessly romantic heart that often led her into the most peculiar of circumstances.” Again, a copy and paste. Thanks, internet.

I’ve always been an early adopter of technology. I am a huge fan of AI, and anything artificially generated that makes my life easier! So, I gave it one more test.

‘Can you create the opening line for a novel in the style of Jane Austen?’

Chat GPT learned. Clever girl.

The reply was:

“Mrs. Elizabeth Bennet, a woman of lively wit and impeccable manners, was not in the habit of visiting her wealthy neighbors at Netherfield Park, but on this particular morning, her curiosity got the better of her.”

Hmmm. This was a little more promising. Yes, somewhat derivative – but still, a degree of invention. A small degree, but invention, nonetheless.  I persevered.

‘Can you continue writing the first paragraph?’

For those new to Chat GPT, you enter the prompt or question and then you wait … with the three dots rippling, much suspense.

The answer came:

“As she donned her best bonnet and pelisse, Elizabeth couldn’t help but wonder what it was about the newcomers that had caused such a stir in the sleepy town of Meryton. Rumors of their fortune and good looks had spread like wildfire, but Elizabeth was not one to be easily swayed by such things. No, what truly piqued her interest was the fact that the eldest of the two gentlemen was said to be of a reserved and taciturn disposition, a challenge to any young lady with a lively mind and an interest in human nature. As she made her way across the dewy fields towards Netherfield, Elizabeth knew that his visit would be unlike any other.”

Certainly, some period details in this paragraph. Information exists, and the suggestion of characters and their response to the situation. It is establishing Elizabeth’s romantic conflict, some character traits, and observation about the society. However, and this is a BIG however, it is sparse on detail and offers only an outline – without the fleshing out of characters and motivation, backstory, functions, traits, or nuance. One of the gentlemen at Netherfield is ‘taciturn’, certainly, but without the ‘noble mien’ of the original Darcy.

Chat GPT presents broad brushstrokes and a general outline – so far.

Next up, I asked the question: ‘Can you tell me what happened next?’

“As Elizabeth arrived at Netherfield, she was greeted by the handsome Mr. Bingley, who welcomed her with warmth and hospitality. She was introduced to his charming sisters and the taciturn Mr. Darcy, who seemed to be everything the rumors had described him to be. Elizabeth was immediately intrigued by Mr. Darcy’s quiet reserve and his air of superiority, and she found herself drawn to him in spite of her initial misgivings. As the day wore on, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy engaged in a lively conversation, which ended with Mr. Darcy making a cutting remark about her family’s lack of social standing. Elizabeth was both offended and intrigued by his words, and as she made her way home, she couldn’t help but wonder what kind of man Mr. Darcy truly was.”

More detail, very promising. Elizabeth is wondering what Darcy is like, and they have had a ‘lively conversation’. There is even some tension as to Darcy’s cutting remarks about Elizabeth’s family and their lack of social standing.

What is missing? If this is a scene from a novel then it’s very sketchy, brief, and throwaway. A lack of detail. There is no ritual, no performance – the routines that we are used to from the modern novel. Where is the conversation? The picturesque? The drama?

AI is not concerned with those features, of course. It is designed, in fact, to bypass the detail and the nuance. It is great for outlines and informational blogs, about technical ideas, and official detail. Bypassing is not a bad thing when it comes to repetitive content and mundane meaning.

I asked Chat GPT for some more content: ‘What does Elizabeth do now and how does she fall in love with Darcy?’

The reply:

“After her visit to Netherfield, Elizabeth continues to encounter Mr. Darcy at various social events and gatherings. Despite her initial dislike for him, Elizabeth finds herself increasingly drawn to him, even as she continues to disagree with many of his opinions and actions. As she gets to know him better, she begins to see that there is more to him than his proud demeanour suggests, and that he has many qualities that she admires.

Meanwhile, Mr. Darcy becomes more and more aware of his own feelings for Elizabeth, even as he struggles with his own prejudices and the disapproval of his friends and family. Despite his reservations, he finds himself drawn to Elizabeth’s wit, intelligence, and independent spirit, and he begins to see her in a new light.

As Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy continue to interact, they find themselves engaged in a series of misunderstandings and. Miscommunications that threaten to keep them apart. But through it all, they are drawn inexorably closer, until finally they are able to put aside their pride and prejudices and declare their love for one another. In the end, they find happiness together, having overcome their differences and discovered the true depth of their feelings for one another.”

An interesting sketch. It covers the broad sweep of the story, but of course leaves out the detail. It’s like reading an impatient review. Well, what happens in the end? What is the story about? This is a summary that leaves out the flesh of the story, the aspects that make it a novel.

If Chat GPT is to write a novel, it requires sufficient prompts. And then, yes, over time, it will generate content – possibly something inspiring, dramatic, even important. But for the time it takes to coach the AI software, you could develop your own fictional voice.

It all hangs upon whether you are a writer. The question of using AI instead of writing a novel yourself depends on whether you regard writing as a chore or not. Austen enjoyed writing. It was preferable to so many other pursuits in the Georgian and Regency period. As far as she was concerned writing was an art and an artifice. Here is Austen on the subject of being a writer and doing the job:

“I am not at all in a humour for writing; I must write on until I am.”

And …

“I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.”

AI for fiction, currently, is only useful if you want to be devoid of irony, artifice, and intrigue.

The act of writing is enjoyable. The output of the writer is contextual and subtle, perhaps full of angles and detail, tangents, and nuance. We’re a long way off. AI can only scratch the surface of what Austen offers.