At the heart of Canadian author Stephen Marche’s latest novella, Death of an Author, lies a paradox of creativity.
Marche describes the majority of his book as “derivative,” referring to the story’s composition of various literary influences. “On the other hand, this will probably be the most original book published this year.”
The audio mystery story, published by Pushkin Industries on May 9, takes its name from Roland Barthes’ famous theory about literary influence and understanding authorial intention.
The protagonist, Gus Dupin — a U of T English professor — shares his name with Edgar Allen Poe’s character in what is widely considered the first canonical detective story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Marche’s story owes much of its plot to the Sherlock Holmes story “The Problem of Thor Bridge.” He even takes elements from his own previous works of experimental fiction.
The difference this time is that the author isn’t Marche, but rather ‘Aidan Marchine’ — a pseudonym he’s used to represent the book’s composite authorship of him and artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots.
Death of an Author is purportedly 95 per cent AI auto-generated. The story follows unassuming Professor Gus Dupin, who becomes implicated in the death of famous Canadian crime fiction author Peggy Firmin, as he attempts to solve the case and clear his name. The metafictional murder mystery, set in Toronto and partially on the St. George campus, allowed Marche — a Torontonian and a U of T alumnus — to work within the familiar as he charted out unfamiliar literary territory.
Marche’s collaboration with creative AI comes after an initially cool response to the advent of algorithmic thinking in literary affairs. In 2012, he wrote an op-ed for the LA Review of Books called “Literature is Not Date: Against Digital Humanities”, refuting what he called the encroachment of the “tech bullshit aesthetic” mode of analysis on writing and literary criticism.
The article caught the attention of many scholars working in this interdisciplinary field, including U of T English Professor Adam Hammond. Eventually, Marche and Hammond embarked on an experimental project: writing a sci-fi short story using guidelines created by an algorithm that analyzed 50 pre-selected stories to determine their stylistic and structural requirements. The result was a story called “Twinkle, Twinkle” published in Wired in 2017.
It proved to be a landmark in this emerging artistic medium. Across his lengthy writing career, Marche has touched upon everything from Shakespeare to parenting to speculative nonfiction about what might lead to a new civil war in America. His curiosity and absorptive interests put him in an ideal position as a writer to bridge the longstanding gap between the “two cultures” of the arts and sciences. Since 2017, he’s embraced this new technological frontier, with a newcomer’s fascination for AI writing instruments and with the benefit of a literary outsider’s perspective.
Marche began to create more short stories with generative AI assistance: ‘Krishna and Arjuna,’ an existential parable about a superintelligent AI, for the MIT Technology Review in 2020; a 17.1 per cent auto-generated horror story for the LA Review of Books in 2021 called ‘The Thing on the Phone’; and a story for Literary Hub in 2022, ‘Autotuned Love Story,’ whose method of composition set the stage for his latest book, Death of an Author.
Marche beat out the plot of Death of an Author independently before using three large language models to write the story. He began by inputting prompts into ChatGPT to compose the story paragraph by paragraph. He then put the text from those results into Sudowrite — a program he used to refine specific stylistic and structural aspects of those text excerpts — and Cohere — a program developed by former U of T machine-learning researchers — to polish and refine the text.
“Cohere [was probably responsible for] the ten best sentences in the book,” said Marche. This led to lines that popped; some beautiful: “She walked away like a record being put back in its sleeve,” and some confusing: “[Gus] knew that the more he spoke, the less he was making sense — it was like he was brushing his teeth with dirt.”
Marche’s protagonist is an unlikely detective: a middling literary critic who refuses to accept that his small world is careening towards irrelevance in the face of rapid technological change. Marche, a writer with scholarly credentials who’s chosen to run head-first into the creative possibilities of AI fiction, demonstrates the exact opposite approach.
Much digital ink has already been spilled over Death of an Author about whether the innovative audiobook revolutionized or destroyed literature. Op-eds abound on the death of creativity with the onset of AI, while fewer words have been written about the story itself. One reviewer on Audible, commenting on the perceived emotional flatness of the text, wrote, “The narrator might have well been narrating an envelope of coupons.”
But another reviewer on the same site provided a more uplifting critique that ‘Aidan Marchine’ could agree with: “I think Stephen Marche has demonstrated a way that humans and artificial brains can work together and I hope this inspires a healthy new direction for AI-assisted storytelling.”
Marche himself advocates for this more measured approach. “The idea that creativity is going away, or that AI is some threat to the capacity of humans to create stories, is ludicrous,” he said. “This is just another tool.” For literary skeptics opposed to the idea of AI helping in the writing process, he advises, “Just use it for two months — you’ll be much less afraid.”A more overt line from Death of an Author reads: “Writing about living writers is inherently unsatisfying. The author can always keep churning out new stuff to contradict you.” Whether Marche or the machine deserves credit for them, perhaps these words provide sage guidance for how readers and critics should respond to his future works of AI-assisted fiction — with the open-mindedness and curiosity that’s also guided his cursor.