Victorian dreams of AI

George Gissing’s New Grub Street was published 130 years ago but it’s remarkably modern in its description of how today’s media works.

It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting. I’ve always had a bit of a prejudice against Victorian literature since being forced to read Wuthering Heights at university. Teaching Jane Eyre was even worse.

And, to be fair, New Grub Street is in many ways a fairly standard morality tale of the difficulties faced by the upright and pure in a thoroughly commercial world.

Our hero, Edward Reardon, and sundry other aesthetes struggle to balance their devotion to Art against the need to keep body and soul together.

Some lose out in this struggle. Reardon himself dies of a severe illness brought on by near starvation, while fellow writer Harold Biffen commits suicide after publishing a brilliant but largely unread(able) novel.

Others succeed admirably — most notably antihero Jasper Milvain, who takes a thoroughly pragmatic approach to his writing, putting the tastes of the mass market above all, and ends by marrying an heiress and winning a prized periodical editorship.

As far as this goes, there’s not much here that hasn’t been said before. And if you’re looking for a sympathetic female character, you’re out of luck. Jasper’s sisters might think poorly of him but one of them ends up being just as flighty, superficial, and money-obsessed, while the other can’t do much except sigh in exasperation. Reardon’s wife Amy does her best to stand by him while he’s struggling to come up with a decent idea for his next book. But her support finally gives way to her ambition and she abandons Edward to his fate. To add insult to injury, she shacks up with Jasper after Reardon’s death, realising her dream of becoming one of the doyennes of Literary London.

But the book’s sense of where literary culture was going was what really caught my attention.

The novel describes a shift in the literary marketplace — a move away from the long, three-volume novels favoured by Reardon and his fellow aesthetes towards shorter potboilers. It’s a move mirrored in the magazines away from the dry, scholarly articles produced by crabby Arthur Yule (who shamelessly takes the credit for the dogged research of his dutiful daughter Marian) towards the lighter froth that Milvain specialises in, targeted at the “quarter-educated”.

The more I read, the more the New Grub Street of 1880s London seemed a precursor to today’s world of “content” and clickbait. Milvain would fit quite naturally into many a newsroom these days with his belief that writing holds little inherent value. Instead, it is merely something to be produced quickly and regularly for mindless consumption by the masses.

Gissing certainly wasn’t the first to see how commercial demands could cheapen literary production. At least 250 years earlier, Ben Jonson turned out the satirical The Staple of News (1625) — in which news was described as a commodity like any other, to be bought and sold by quantity not quality.

Nevertheless, the culture Gissing described seems uncannily prescient of the twenty-first century. Take Marian Yule’s fantasy of an automated process for producing literature, dreamed up while she sits in the British Museum’s Reading Room, surrounded by numerous scholars and writers all beavering away on their various projects:

surely before long some Edison would make the true automaton; the problem must be comparatively such a simple one. Only to throw in a given number of old books, and have them reduced, blended, modernised into a single one for today’s consumption.

It’s a Victorian dream of AI, which, sure enough, is now becoming a reality in Silicon Valley, where machine learning has progressed to the point where programmes like Google’s Smart Compose can draft emails on your behalf.

When will machines pass the artistic Turing Test — being able to compose a novel and pass it off as the work of a human? Drafting quick emails is one thing but sustaining a coherent narrative is quite another, as this piece from The New Yorker suggests. However, while machines are not there yet, the possibility of fully automated literature is no longer the stuff of science fiction.

The real question is what will happen to Art when we reach this point? According to classic texts like Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, art loses its distinctive aura when it gets reproduced through mechanical means. The further away you get in time and place from the original act of creation, the less artistic value a reproduction holds.

But what if the work of art — a novel, for example — is not only reproduced by mechanical means but produced by it in the first place?

Will we have to recalibrate our ideas of what constitutes a work of Art? Or might we need to do away with the concept altogether?