Could the Next Great Author Be a Robot? We Asked (Human) Writers.


On Thursday evening, more than 1,000 writers, presenters and guests gathered for the PEN America Literary Awards at Town Hall near Times Square. Just before 6 p.m., the staff set up a small red carpet area for what has been called the Oscars for books.

Slowly, luminaries from the worlds of literature and entertainment — Susan Choi, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Lorne Michaels, Diane Sawyer — arrived. Attendees posed for photos and spoke to the press before slipping away to sip drinks and mingle. At the ceremony, hosted by the actor Kal Penn, the literary and free speech organization PEN America honored the best writing from the previous year and conferred more than $350,000 in awards.

Percival Everett took home the prestigious PEN/Jean Stein Award, for his novel, “Dr. No,” and Erika Dickerson-Despenza and Vinod Kumar Shukla were recognized with career achievement awards. Tina Fey was honored with the PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award.

The crowd wore neon Barbie pink, flowers on their lapels, feathers in their hair, at least one gold bolo tie and lots of velvet, glitter and sparkles. They accessorized with buttons that said, “Free the Books.”

So could the next big author be a robot? Could A.I. take the jobs of writers and storytellers? Could A.I. write truly great literature, the kind that wins awards?

“Sure,” said the author David Sedaris, who was wearing a blush pink flower on his lapel. When it comes to robots, “I don’t think anybody’s job is safe,” he said.

And if the work was great, would it bother him that it wasn’t written by a human? “I think it would bother me because there’s another human out of a job,” he said.

He reflected on change, generally: “I always thought when you got to be a certain age, you’d give anything to be younger,” he said. “But I am so excited to be dead in, like, 20 years. Because there’s not much more of this I can take.”

Others were convinced that being human, with all its messiness and layers of experience, is a key ingredient to magical writing that a machine can’t replicate.

“I’m not totally sure that A.I. will really be able to do poetry,” said the actress Molly Ringwald, a presenter at the awards.

“I think it’ll do plenty of bad poetry, but not good poetry. I think to be a good poet you have to have soul,” said Ms. Ringwald, who wore a pink Ulla Johnson dress with silver Rachel Comey shoes.

(Had anyone called her “pretty in pink” yet? “Oh yeah,” she said. “When I go out in something pink, I know I’m going to hear that,” she said. “But you know what, if I’m wearing red I hear, ‘You’re also pretty in red!’ There’s no escaping it.”)

The writer Judith Thurman had not really been aware of all the A.I. writing tools, “because I’m a Luddite,” she said. (On Thursday night, she won the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay for “A Left-Handed Woman.”)

But recently, she was at an appointment when her doctor asked how she felt about A.I. writing. Then he drew her into an experiment: He asked a bot to do a piece of writing in her style. She gave him a subject and he returned, she said, with a few paragraphs that sounded like a ninth-grade term paper. “There was nothing literary about it,” she said.

For A.I. to write great literature, “You would have to get inside the brain and find what no one has ever found — no neurologist, no writer investigating their own brain — and capture that essence that generates the beautiful sentences,” she said.

Others said they’re optimistic that people will still want to read human writers. 

“I don’t feel really threatened by the idea of A.I. writing,” said Robert Jones, Jr., a presenter at the awards. “I still want to believe that there’s something about the human being that’s individual enough such that A.I. won’t take over our critical arts.”

Robin Coste Lewis, who won the PEN/Voelcker Award For Poetry Collection for “To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness,” said she is always interested in seeing what the human mind can create, even through something disembodied like artificial intelligence. 

But, she said, “I don’t think A.I. could ever do what Octavia Butler did, or Asimov did, or Samuel Delany did, in science fiction. I’d like to see it try.”

At least one attendee had a different fear of artificial intelligence.

“I don’t want the robots to kill me, but I’m anti-A.I. fiction,” the comedian Rachel Dratch said. “But I hope that they don’t find out that I said that because who knows what’s next with this?”

Quick Question is a collection of dispatches from red carpets, gala dinners and other events that coax celebrities out of hiding.

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