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You Look Like You're Writing a Novel

by J.W. Wood They’d been developing these algorithms for decades. The old “You look like you’re writing a letter” expanded to include, “You look like you’re writing a poem,” or similar. For any form you could think of, your computer provided suggestions: better grammar, corrections, emendations. The writer started tapping: Julia O’Brien put down her coffee and gazed at her mobile phone in disgust. What was meant to be a convenience had become an instrument of slavery. Her every utterance, stored to be used against her by anyone with access, from brain-dead marketers to the intelligence services. Nominally free, in fact she was chained to an invisible, all-devouring algorithm. The writer paused. Patches of his screen populated with dialogue boxes offering hints. These machines were so powerful now they had, if not minds of their own, then binary memories so enormous they operated like minds. Julia imagined herself swimming, playing with childhood friends among kelp on the beach. Adulthood was worse today than it had been for centuries, since humanity was denied freedom of expression, everything monitored over the internet. Then a dialogue box popped up: “You look like you’re writing about the role of technology in society.” “No shit, Hal,” the writer muttered. He clicked in the corner of the pop-up to remove the message. He placed his fingers on the keys. Another dialogue box: “Are you aware that other writers such as Dick, Philip K., and Le Guin, Ursula K., have already tackled this theme?” “Yes I am!” the writer shouted, slapping his mouse down on the trackpad. Just as he was about to type, another dialogue: “Risk of repetition is estimated at 93.7%. Do you really want to explore the same theme as other writers of greater ability? Other themes are available. Click here to read more.” “Greater ability? I’ll give you–” he stopped himself in disgust. He stood up, his chair falling backwards. Time for a coffee. He headed for the kitchen.


It started forty years ago with the first spell checkers. Around the same time as people started paying to have their work considered by magazines. Back then, debate centred around the legitimacy of self-publishing, the ethics of paying to submit. Then came the grammar and style checkers. Writers became enveloped in a techno-cocoon, then redundant as conformity to moral and social norms came to matter more than truth, beauty or anything else. The writer remembered when all he had was a notebook filled with furious scrawl skittering across pages like demented spiders. Pencil tips cracking, pen nibs bending under his raging fingers, the connection between hand and brain rapid, vital. In the kitchen, he pressed a button on the espresso machine and watched as it gurgled and blew, doing things to beans he did not understand. As the coffee ran into his cup, the writer wondered how to get round his computer’s trickery. Even without a connection, dialogue boxes advised you splatterpunk and cybercore were most likely to attract readers, that literary work would not sell, and that self-publishing was a great idea. Then it tried to sell you stuff. The writer drank his coffee, listening to Mozart’s Requiem played by an Austrian orchestra over the internet. As he sipped, he reflected that someone, somewhere had recorded his love of Mozart. That person, or bot, had noted him listening to his internet radio during working hours. The writer put down his cup and snorted. Even Mozart used technical assistance in the shape of his amanuensis, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, who completed the last four sections of the work after the Maestro’s demise. And if Mozart had lived now? He could have sketched some outlines and let an online composition tool do the rest. These days, Count von Walsegg would most likely have tried to write the Requiem himself. On a computer.


The writer finished his coffee and went back to the study. He sat down and stared at the words on the screen: Julia O’Brien put down her coffee and gazed at the mobile phone on the table in disbelief. What she’d seen as a torment had become an instrument that enabled her to the point of omnipotence. Now she could record her every utterance and use it to fend off brain-dead marketers or even the secret intelligence services, as if they’d be interested in what she did or said. She was free, but willingly engaged with an invisible, all-enabling machine. Then a dialogue box popped up: “You’ve self-identified this work as a novel. Are you sure it’s not a political treatise? Please be aware of libel and slander legislation–false accusations of corporate malpractice may carry prison terms.” Shaking his head, the writer pressed a key to delete the message. Then another dialogue box: “For your convenience, we have edited your text for style and grammar. Ready to upgrade? Go Pro with Wordly™: Shakespeare’s power at a keystroke™!” The strains of Süssmayr’s Sanctus, one of his additions to the Requiem, floated into the study from the kitchen. Known to all as Mozart’s work, this score was not his. These tones, this depth, this genius guaranteed Amadeus immortality–but he was cold in a pauper’s grave when it was written. Today, computers acted as a cyber-Süssmayr for writers and–worse–as an instrument of control. The writer shut his laptop and reached for his old notebooks. Still half-full of fresh pages–enough to set down what had happened for some better, future time. He fished in his desk for his fountain pen and scratched at the page, watching the ink dry as the pen wrote, its meniscus fading like souring blood. And he no longer knew for whom he was writing, or why.

A Canadian citizen based in British Columbia, J.W. Wood's work has appeared around the world in titles such as The Fiddlehead (Canada), The South-West Review (US), The Times (London, UK), and many others. The author of five books of poems all published in the UK, a novel, and a novella, he has been shortlisted for many literary awards and is the recipient of awards from the BC Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts.

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