Not long ago I proposed to abolish telephones. This was when the telephone companies began to sell these inhuman systems by which a caller is instructed to press "3" to talk about billing or to press "4" to talk about a job. I renew the proposal. Down with telephones!
Recently an even more serious threat appears. The press reports that in San Jose, California, a free-lance author programmed his computer to write in the fashion of Jacqueline Susann. According to the author, if so he may be described, the program worked. Out of the computer came a novel bearing the Susannian title of "Just This Once." Said Scott French: "I didn't rTC copy her words or even sentences but her way of thinking."
By way of input, the gentleman read the whole of the Susann corpus, beginning with "Valley of the Dolls" and going downhill from there. From this scrutiny he was able to direct the computer in matters of both style and content. He asked the computer "to create hundreds of formulas dictating how a character would react" according to Susannian plots. "I can handle that," said the computer.
In the end, the computer brought forth a 350-page manuscript about several young women who achieve fame in movies and rock music, and then destroy themselves with drugs and high living. The author directed his electronic amanuensis to heat up the steamy sex, and in a flash blouses were ripping and loins were aching. How does a computer know such things?
Mr. French estimates that he wrote 10 percent of the work all by himself, and bully for him. The computer wrote 25 percent, and they collaborated on the rest. Unfairly, or so it seems to me, the finished book will bear only his byline.
All this requires some thought. Using the same techniques it ought to be possible to input Hemingway. Short sentences. Active verbs. Much repetition. Laconic characters. We could do a story about an old man. He is not a Cuban fisherman. He is an oyster tonger.
"These are good oysters," said Marco.
"Yes," said Guiseppe, "but not great oysters."
They sat in silence. "Yesterday," said the tonger, "I walked barefoot upon the beach, feeling the good sand between my toes."
"Yes, the sand is good and the toes also are good. Let us drink cold beer together and talk of sand and toes. We will pick up sand and we will see it trickle through our fingers."
"It will be good sand and good fingers."
Or come to think of it, a skilled computerist could feed his machine some good Mississippi mash, combining long paragraphs and endless digressions, and the computer would regurgitate Faulkner. On the lower slopes of Olympus we might develop software for Stephen King or Erica Jong. Boot up the Harlequin program, Penelope! And enter a command for heavy breathing.
Instant style! What a temptation for an author! Ah, to write in Gibbon's rolling rhetoric, or to speak with Lord Macaulay of what every schoolboy knows. What of Proust? Forget Proust. Dickens? Yes, it would be good to write in the fashion of Dickens. Back to Hemingway.
Marco looked at the sky and then at the oyster beds. I hate oysters, he thought. But Dickens is good. The sky is good, but the wind is rising. Soon the sea will be choppy. If I tong today, I will likely throw up. It would be better to drink a cold beer with Guiseppe. Then I will not throw up. We will drink our beer and we will wonder if an oyster has a soul, and after a while we will drink another beer, and Guiseppe will tell me of the women he has known. We will drink lite beer because it has less cholesterol and we will hate every drop of it.
Writers have been trying to write like other writers for many years. Not many have gotten away with it. In my own Early Mencken Period, I scorned the booboisie. Under the spell of the Sage of Baltimore I spoke of brummagem schemes and mocked the Bible Belt. It never worked. My publisher thought I was nuts.
Some of my colleagues have used plastic wheels as plot finders: FBI agent meets girl reporter; girl reporter falls for auto thief; FBI agent arrests thief, loses girl, runs amok. The agent was weary now. He gripped his .350 Magnum and gazed again at the darkening sky. It is a good sky, he thought, and the girl reporter is a nice reporter even if she cannot spell worth beans. I desire her greatly, but I need a cold beer. I will find Guiseppe and together . . .
* James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.