The Proper Word in a Prickly Time

The Proper Word in a Prickly Time

I am in rewrite on Cyberstorm, the fifth in my Mayfield – Napolitani series. Rewrite is the process of going over a draft manuscript with a fine tooth comb looking for anything that might improve the story other than throwing the whole thing in the trash bin.

These days, people are sensitive about word choice, and there are so many ways to offend any of the many subsets of potential readers. What’s a writer to do?

From the writer’s point of view, the important question is: When should the sensitivity of today’s readers dictate a change in what would be the natural language of a character or situation? The drift seems to be in favor of sensitivity at the expense of literary voice.

The crucial issue is that context—time; place; person’s social class, education, family background; race; physical location; social setting of the scene—may well dictate language that current day would find either odd or offensive. But what if changing the offensive word(s) would weaken the writing?

I run into the problem fairly often. Here are two examples:

In my Cyberstorm, Sheriff’s deputies looking for a car ask an older woman in a somewhat run down neighborhood in south Nashville where her car is. She says, “My nephew took it off to the shop. He said somethin’ about the tranny being all … uh … messed up.”  The offending word is ‘tranny’ which the OED flags as an offensive reference to a transvestite or transgender person. Not just offensive … very offensive. But … very much in context here. Clearly, the woman’s referring to the car’s transmission, and the dialectical use is appropriate for her age and region. In this case, not much is lost by altering or removing the offending element. It’s an incidental exchange with an incidental character. I made the change to “He said somethin’ about the motor being all … uh … messed up.” A little weaker, but not a big loss.

The second one was a little more difficult. In a novel I’m writing with others, my character Louise Napolitani shows up for a job. Weezy presents her ID at a guard station and “(s)hortly, a woman dressed in an upscale business casual blouse, slacks, and low-heeled pumps emerged from the elevator in back of the guard station. Her dark brown hair was shot through with gray, and she had the figure of a person who, as Weezy’s mom would say approvingly, took care of herself.” The offensive word here was “figure.” A critique partner flagged it as demeaning and suggested ‘physique.’ Weezy’s mom would be in her early sixties, brought up in North Boston, aspiring to be socially correct. The suggested substitute sounded odd to put in the mouth of this character, so I kept ‘figure.’

There’s rarely a clear right and wrong with these word issues. Publishers are now often providing sensitivity readers to smooth the potential micro or macro offenses. I hope our current cultural focus on how things are said will moderate to an appreciation of literary voice.

Artificial Intelligence and the Novel

A couple of years ago, I began writing a piece for my blog about Amazon and self-publishing. I thought I had a clear idea until I started writing it. Finally, I put it aside because it seemed unclear.

Yesterday, my son Edward, a writer himself (though of music) sent me an interesting article about artificial intelligence and writing, The Great Fiction of AI by Josh Dzieza, in

The article discusses how artificial intelligence is approaching the point at which it can write fiction. It quotes Mark McGurl in his book Everything and Less, who captured in perfect economy of words what I had been trying to say in my earlier attempt: “the Kindle platform transformed the author-reader relationship into one of service provider and customer.”

In the opening, the article shows a writer who writes a book every four months, following a project management approach. She explains that she “allots herself precisely 49 days to write and self-edit a book. This pace, she said, is just on the cusp of being unsustainably slow. She once surveyed her mailing list to ask how long readers would wait between books before abandoning her for another writer. The average was four months.”

This is dramatically different from the writer telling the story in his head and heart and (if it is good enough) giving it to the world through a publishing industry the begins with an agent, passes through editors residing in comfortable offices in New York publishing houses, through distribution, to independent booksellers (or the only big one left, Barnes and Noble), on whom the reader depends to suggest a good book.

The article details the latest efforts of Sudowrite, an AI designed for writing. Sudowrite accomplishes fiction by massive statistical analysis. Such fiction would be what that comfortably ensconced editor might look down her patrician nose at and pronounce to be “formula fiction.”

Then there’s that other stuff. The story that takes a half-year to draft and a year or more to revise. It’s often formula, too, simply because the natural progression of a story is a formula: beginning, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement. Aristotle codified it (along with so much else in western thought), but it holds through many cultures and a great deal of music and poetry as well as writing.

Presumably, AI will get better and better. After all, Deep Blue, the chess Deep Blue Chess Computersupercomputer, did finally beat a grand master. But will statistical observation allow Sudowrite to write good fiction? Hard to tell. The bluesman says, “You gotta suffer if you want to sing the blues.” If you want to write deep emotions, don’t you have to have felt them? Or can you rely on the descriptions of others to do it for you, as sampled by AI?

Not sure of the answer, but the transformation wrought by Amazon, in my mind, establishes a bifurcated world of fiction. Right now, there’s a creative wall between the fast written, formula driven novel that is being reeled in by Sudowrite and the traditional writer-in-a-garret novel.

Next problem for me: I’m on the Indie/Amazon side of distribution world and the writer-in-a-garret side of the creative wall. And that wall I mentioned may be a chasm.

But I write for passion and pleasure, and to enjoy the infinite complexity of the mother tongue, so I ain’t quittin’.