Thursday 23 November 2023

The Plot Twist

Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) is currently underway - it runs at various venues until November 26.  To suit our strange times, this year’s theme is plot twist - embracing strange approaches, unexpected outcomes, sudden changes in direction, unlikely connections, and the unpredictable. Devika Misra reports.

The opening of SWF saw panellists debate the proposition: This House Believes AI is the Better Writer. Is AI an opportunity or a threat to literature? Can it make good writers better? These were questions addressed by panellists Colin Goh, the Singaporean writer, and creator of the Dim Sum Warriors comics; Arianna Pozzuoli, the Canadian-Singaporean poet and storyteller; Nessa Anwar, playwright and journalist; Marc Nair, Singaporean poet; Melizarani T Selva, Malaysian writer and poet. 

Colin Goh was up first.  He appeared to be mimicking a chatbot and mouthed his words in a flat, robotic monotone. “In the time it takes to type short prompts, AI can generate entire essays”. He then proceeded to compare working with  AI to the experience of human writers. 

Colin Goh: “First humans do the research, consisting mainly of hours upon hours of aimless surfing, punctuated by the consumption of unhealthy snacks, followed by periods of anxiety, self-doubt and self-loathing, before concluding with a last-minute late-night marathon while sobbing over the keyboard!” 

Arianna Pozzuoli  acknowledged AI can speed up writing, but argued AI produces text which is “heavily processed, repetitive, predictable”.

Arianna Pozzuoli: “A faster turnaround might make your boss happy...but it doesn't necessarily pump out polished work. It gives way to plot holes and clichés. I'm glad overused phrases are recyclable, but they pollute creativity. Can someone please explain why people are impressed by something that spits out words? Just because something can write a fast prescription doesn't mean you're cured. When AI spits out info, we should be the ones scared of what it's actually sharing. We don't bow down to writers who write novels in a hurry, or write like they're assembling parts in a factory line. Writing takes time. The greatest pieces of literature stay for decades on the back burners of stoves. We wait for things to simmer and heat up because they taste better. A writer's word is a scenic road…a long commute.” 

Nessa Anwar stressed the democratisation that AI brings to writing. 

Nessa Anwar: “Think about somebody with literary skills at the lower end of what is socially and professionally acceptable in a majority English-speaking environment...Danny, a non-native English speaker, creates an email account powered by chat GPT to offer people in his position a chance not to lose opportunities from native English-speakers who are more comfortable dealing with other native English-speakers. So when Danny sends an email that says, Sally, I am start work at yours Monday, chat GPT rewrites it as Dear Sally, I'm writing to let you know that I will be starting work with you on Monday, Best Wishes. Can you believe how this will change someone's life? People with dyslexia, people who struggle with communication, people who just immigrated to a foreign country. It bridges a gap that a lot of people take for granted in terms of communication because all of us have such a set idea of what effective communication looks like. Who is the better writer in this context of socially acceptable effective communication? AI is.” 

Meanwhile, Marc Nair refused even to accept that AI was a writer. 

Marc Nair: “Quick and dirty, with minimal effort, a hack. But does it make one a better writer? Does it even make one a writer? Writing is thinking. It is a way of being and becoming. It is one of - not the sum of, but one of - the primary ways humans choose to express desire, thought, feeling and belief. Is it flawed? Infinitely so - from arcane rules of grammar to fundamental contradictions to impossible permutations for non-native speakers - and yet it is ours. It is all we have.”

The last word went to Melizarani T Selva who said that AI is the better writer simply because it is the better reader.

Melizarani T Selva: “The better writer understands the need to read plenty and without prejudice. AI reads without discrimination towards gender and genre. AI voraciously consumes literature in non-English languages and non-Western forms. AI is not shackled by expectations of what is good or what is desirable because AI does not wonder what kind of writer it wants to be. AI reads nearly everything and writes nearly everything. The better writer is AI.”

A second conversation, Mapping the Literary Legacies of Women in Singapore drew together a group of Singaporean women writers from different ethnic backgrounds and generations, and who work in different genres, to discuss their own legacies, and those of their predecessors.

Comic book writer and illustrator Nurulhuda Izyan, best known for A Drip, A Drop, A Deluge, said she wasn’t born into a literary family. In fact, her mother couldn’t read. Yet that didn’t stop her from bringing home from the library big bags of books.

Nurulhuda Izyan: “I remember they were filled with folklore, legends…like Sita-Ram…all these Malay stories. These  are the stories I was exposed to…stories my mother would have read had she been a reader…stories that have been carried from great, great grand-parents so kids today can tell you that, hey, there's a story behind this story.”

Playwright Stella Kon’s iconic work Emily of Emerald Hill is loosely based on the life of her grandmother, a Peranakan – that is, a person of mixed Chinese and Malay heritage. Stella herself was born in Edinburgh into a well-known Chinese family and has written several novels, musicals and short stories, many around the question of Singaporean identity.

Stella Kon: “The early books that I read were from school…One was Jane Eyre and another was Pride and Prejudice…five daughters all desperate to get married. Those were two books that struck me partly because I got introduced to the beauty of the English language. Then there was Han Suyin who was based in Malaysia for a while. She wrote stories about China - somewhat ideological stuff totally overshadowed by the fact that one of her books, Love is a Many Splendoured Thing, became a movie. Mind you, the most influential person may have been Enid Blyton. She wrote fascinating stories and turned them out prolifically, she was a role model of what it was to be a very professional writer, she had a market. As a little girl, I wrote to her office and she sent me a signed picture, so that also gave me a sense of her as a living person.”

Visual artist and writer Dana Lam said there was a period when she thought she couldn't be a writer because most writers were men. She warned, too, that literature can reinforce stereotypes. 

Dana Lam: “Reading can be a very dangerous thing - I remember reading a book about a nurse and after reading that book, I thought: I’ll be a nurse so that I’ll fall in love with a male doctor and marry. Quite a lot of books available to me were about women: they fall in love with some guy, who is never emotionally available. Then they get into trouble. So there were those kind of models, which I think is very  dangerous if that is the only thing you read.” Dana credited contemporary Singaporean female writers for introducing her to literature beyond romance. “People like Constance Singham and Suchen Christine Lim who were writing friends, and we were all meeting in a writing group at Connie's house. Suchen was working on The River’s Song, which became a Singaporean classic, and we got to hear her thought processes. Those kinds of experience were very interesting for me.”

Educator and writer Nuraliah Norasid said for her literary influence was less about the actual books she'd read than about the range of material she was exposed to. 

Nuraliah Norasid: “As much as I was reading fiction, I was reading non-fiction, and more importantly, as much as I was reading English fiction, I was also reading Malay fiction.” 

Finally, Stella Kon captured the idea of literary legacy by saying, “Remember, I will still be with you, as long as you hold me in your memory.”