In the midst of copy editing the material for this issue I read “These 183,000 Books are Fueling the Biggest Fight in Publishing and Tech” by Alex Reisner in The Atlantic. The article outlines how big tech companies are using the published work of writers to train generative AI systems, and the fact that this work is being scooped up without permission has the writing community up in arms. The list of writers whose work has been pirated is impressive—thirty-three books by Margaret Atwood, for example, along with Rebecca Solnit, Stephen King, George Saunders and on it goes. Others may not be so well known, or so well remunerated but the common denominator is that they were the creators of the work being “harvested”—the thinking, the researching, the writing, the rewriting that goes into a novel, essay, or poem, was all by their hand. They were the generators. Reisner is thorough in his investigation—even providing an online portal for writers to check if their work is being pirated—and stern in his reporting: “The future promised by AI is written with stolen words.”
I don’t have the technical prowess or vision to see how this is going to play out— lawsuits have already been initiated—but this development has spurred me to think about creativity, its value, and how it trickles or blooms in the mind of the creator. It can be said that artists are all magpies, collecting and storing imagery or phrases, or even ideas from others. This is not stealing, however, this is everyday inspiration. We are all influenced by the books we read, the movies we watch, and the paintings we observe. We are also influenced by that walk in a birch grove, the conversation with that stranger on the bus, the sight of striated sun rays through the clouds. We are influenced by mood, by our state of health, by the support of friends, by the balm of solitude. That is how creativity works. It’s complicated, and magical, and the outcome can be life-changing. But there is also the hard graft of creativity. The hours no one wants to think about that go into actually producing something. The hourly wage, if calculated, would in most cases be so low as to be shocking to those who hesitate when buying a book. The question of what these tech businesses will produce with this material is a curious one, as is the question of how we will respond to it. How will the philosophical, psychological or contemplative imprint behind so much creative work stand up against the algorithms?
Who will want to continue to write only to fill the limitless digital cauldron of words that the tech companies are amassing?
And if writers stop writing, who will be left to create the beautiful sentences?
I’m thinking of beautiful sentences like that of our Edna Staebler Personal Essay contest winner, Monica Kidd in “Not Nothing, But Everything,” who wrote “There is something unholy in how fast we move from place to place, seeing so many moods of the planet in one day.” Or of the words Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse winner Dagne Forrest wrote in her poem “Abecedarian with Sharpened Vision” that “All birds can detect/ ultraviolet: imagine seeing what’s beyond our/ viewing.” Or in Alex Kitt’s winning piece in the Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Contest “Bruise and Shine,” with “The part that freaked me out was how naively sweet he was, like he’d swallowed a child.” Along with these winning entries, we have published the runners-up in all three contests.
Elsewhere in the issue we have a writer-at-large essay about the collapse of a marriage and the precarious economic situation that ensues in “Hole Digger” from Liz Harmer, where she writes: “That marriage was a transaction with economic underpinnings is something everyone else seemed to know.” Also in nonfiction we have two short observational essays that make up “Tiny Expeditions” by Ronna Bloom.
Included in our fiction line-up we have Kate Dervishi with her short story “Parka,” where a young woman navigates a complicated relationship in Berlin. In it she writes: “She also senses the delicate scent of his sweat preserved across her skin, the presence of his mouth near her own, and the elegant curvature of his shoulders, but as the river passes outside the windows and the other half of the city slides into place, she recalls the harsh superiority in his voice and how spoiled he sounded.” Also in fiction we have Kate Black with “Dancing in the Snow,” Rory Say with “The Marksmen,” Joanna Reid with “Woodwards,” Dustin Moon with “Geoff with a G,” Amandine Coquaz with “Fleuve,” Adam Grant Warren with “Up, Up,” and Andrea Lynn Koohi with “Little Things”
Among the poetry in this issue we have “The Way Things Fall” by John Adames who writes “I hear the offering,/ the cranky rejection,/ I watch the raw red fluster of hands”. His is one of many poetry offerings in this issue including those from writers Catherine Phillips, Frances Koziar, Hollie Adams, Lynda Monahan, Alexander Hollenberg, and Kathy Mak.
When I returned to my copy editing, I became immersed in the words that may one day be stolen too, treated like “open source” material as those 183,000 books have been. The sentences weave and flow through this issue from fiction to poetry to essays and when we consider who will continue to write the words that humanity has come to rely on, especially if the insatiable pirates keep knocking at the door, we can only implore: we need you.