Richard G. Epstein
SEEK SHARE OF MELTZER
KEN PLOTSKY ADMITS HIS AWARD-WINNING
NOVEL WAS GENERATED BY A
Sentinel-Observer Book Critic
It came as no surprise when Ken Plotsky's best-selling novel The Ridges of Chester County won the prestigious Meltzer Prize for Literature. However, Mr. Plotsky stunned attendees at the Meltzer Prize awards dinner late last month when he admitted that his novel was written by a computer program. Now, the developers of that program, which is sold as The Great American Novel, are suing Mr. Plotsky for their share of the $250,000 Meltzer literary prize.
The Ridges of Chester County electrified the book world with its steamy description of life in Pennsylvania's most affluent county. The book centers around the county's congressman, Bret Threadwell, and his relentless pursuit of sex and power. The book opens with numerous scenes of sexual shenanigans between Congressman Threadwell and some of his wealthy supporters, including some of Chester County's most notorious anti-environmentalists. But, the plot takes an unexpected turn when Congressman Threadwell tries to blackmail his own father, a closeted gay mobster, in order to finance his re-election campaign. By the time we reach the end of chapter one, Plotsky has us hooked. Will the father manipulate his mobster boyfriend to ice his son? Will the anti-environmentalists succeed in their plot to allow a dangerous hazardous waste dump to be located in the county? The remaining chapters were just as riveting.
My own review of Ridges, as it is now affectionately called by its fans, waxed euphoric, much to my embarrassment. In my glowing review for the then recently released book I wrote, "Mr. Plotsky is a master craftsman, a literal genius at calculating plot twists and developing character, almost algorithmically. A novelist myself, I sometimes wish I could crawl into that marvelous computer-like brain of his, to figure out how he does it. How does he manage to introduce just the right character at just the right moment in order to keep the reader hooked and begging for more?" Of course, when I wrote that review, I didn't realize that Mr. Plotsky had used a computer program to do most of his writing for him.
The Great American Novel software system was developed by PertSystems International of Silicon Valley. PertSystems is suing Mr. Plotsky for what they consider to be their fair share of the $250,000 Meltzer Prize. PertSystems spokesperson Sam Riddley put it this way, "Our software developers did most of the work. We should get at least some of the money."
PertSystems is not suing Mr. Plotsky for a share of the book's royalties. The book has reportedly earned its author tens of millions of dollars. Instead, they are citing their advertising that invariably includes the following sentence: "Of course, if you win the Nobel Prize for Literature using our fantastic author's workbench and expert system, then we will want to share in the prize money!" In addition, this same sentence appears in The Great American Novel license agreement. When a user uses The Great American Novel author's workbench they are implicitly agreeing to the license agreement, which claims a share of all Nobel Prize for Literature prize moneys.
Mr. Plotsky graciously accepted the Meltzer Prize at an awards banquet three weeks ago. He received a standing ovation as he accepted the check for $250,000. The Meltzer Prize was established by Sam Meltzer, the founder of the Silicon Valley Sentinel-Observer. Originally intended for journalists, the Meltzer Prize was expanded in 2020 to cover literature, drama, the short story, biography, history, and poetry. The Meltzer Prize is easily the most prestigious literary prize except for the Nobel Prize, if only because of the generous prize moneys.
The Ridges of Chester County was viewed as a remarkable first novel by many reviewers, including myself, when it was released two years ago. It quickly rose to best-seller status and Mr. Plotsky was not shy about promoting his book. Ridges soon became a popular choice for use in contemporary American literature courses because of its masterful construction. Sally Butler, Professor of American Literature at Silicon Valley University explained the popularity of the book in academic circles as follows: "It's the perfectly crafted novel. It's like a gothic cathedral. It replaced Moby Dick in our university's list of required readings for entering freshmen. I remember telling my students that this novel bears witness to the indomitable spirit of human creativity."
After accepting the Meltzer Prize, Mr. Plotsky gave the acceptance address in which he admitted that most of the hard work in generating the novel was actually done by The Great American Novel. The Great American Novel is marketed as an "author's workbench". It includes tools for constructing plot, character development, local color and historical authenticity. It includes automatic editing tools that all but replace the need for a traditional book editor. The Great American Novel contains dozens of tools that an author can use to create, well, to create the great American novel.
Mr. Plotsky explained that all he did was to feed the system some basic ideas, what he characterized as slightly distorted facts, from the local newspaper, the Chester County Daily Local News. "I just took some fairly well known facts about our current congressman and his disdain for the environment and his disdain for the disadvantaged poor and the elderly and I twisted them a bit, adding the sexual stuff to boost sales, like the gay father, and then I interacted with the software for a period of a few days and within a week I had myself a block buster novel. It wasn't my idea to make the father into a mobster. That was the computer's idea. Most of the details, especially the explicit sex scenes, came right from the computer. I'm too inhibited to write stuff like that."
Mr. Plotsky's admission that his novel was largely the product of a computer program created so much controversy that he was forced to hold a news conference the following day. One reporter asked him whether he had received any personal, artistic, gratification out of the creative process of generating, if not writing, The Ridges of Chester County.
Mr. Plotsky's response was short and sweet. "No."
Pressed to elaborate, Mr. Plotsky admitted that artistic considerations were the furthest from his mind. "You can't pay off a mortgage with artistic considerations," Mr. Plotsky asserted. "I invested over five hundred dollars for this software and I wanted to get the most out of my investment. I wasn't thinking about art or even about self-expression. There are literally hundreds of parameters and switches in this software. Well, one of those parameters was 'block buster'. I wanted a block buster novel. That choice had nothing to do with artistic considerations."
Mr. Plotsky admitted that he had tried writing his own material at one time. "But, it's so emotional, so painful to write in that manner. I mean, I'm not into this pouring out your gut kind of writing. The beauty of an expert system, like The Great American Novel, is that it removes that emotional, raw-edged element, without sacrificing the mass market appeal."
Lawyers are divided on whether PertSystems can prevail in their law suit. Silicon Valley University law professor Harry Litter took a neutral stance. "Intellectual property rights is a confused area of the law right now. Many books, works of art, engineering artifacts are not the product of one mind, or even solely of the human mind. Expert systems and other tools are increasingly participating in the creation of intellectual property. The developers of these tools have been reluctant to relinquish claims to the products that their tools help to develop. PertSystems was pretty clever with their seemingly tongue-in-cheek advertising concerning their claims on any Nobel Prize moneys that might be won by an author that used The Great American Novel. We see that their ad had a serious intent. It is conceivable that a court of law will support PertSystems claim to part of the prize money."
PertSystems CEO William Faulknauer told this reporter in a teleview interview last night that the new version of The Great American Novel author's workbench will assert rights to royalties as well as prize moneys. "I think we underestimated the quality of the product that our expert system can produce. Now, that we've won the Meltzer Prize, I think we need to claim a share of all authors' royalties from this point on."
Mr. Plotsky's announcement at the Meltzer Prize awards dinner has had a dramatic effect on sales for The Great American Novel. "Our sales have gone up dramatically since Mr. Plotsky made his announcement. I think there are a lot of aspiring authors out there who want to take a shot at writing the great American novel without having to actually invest any sweat equity into such an undertaking."
We asked Professor Butler whether she thought that The Ridges of Chester County would no longer be held up as a paragon in contemporary American literature. "Quite the contrary," she said. "I think that Ridges will be remembered as the first great American novel that was largely authored by a computer system. Isn't it obvious that Ridges is just the first of many such efforts? The point is that Ridges is a masterpiece in terms of its construction, its almost baroque architecture, as I have explained in a paper I have just submitted for publication. You see, the computer has an advantage over the human author. It can maintain a database of elaborate relationships that the human mind just cannot hold in consciousness. It's too mammoth. This opens up new possibilities for literature and I think Mr. Plotsky deserves credit for alerting us to these new possibilities."
Professor Butler elaborated upon her observations. "Imagine a novel so intricate that no human being could possibly understand it, so intricate in its detailed depiction of relationships, that it is like real life. Only a computer could compose a novel of that nature. So, I believe that ten or twenty years from now, we will be reading new computer-generated novels that will never grow old, novels with endless and intricate patterns that no human being will ever be able to fully comprehend, novels as bewildering and as overwhelming as life itself."
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