By Shari Lane
Words are powerful.
It likely comes as no surprise that an editor of a literary magazine believes words and stories matter. If you’re reading this essay, I suspect you agree. At times it feels like the very survival of our species is at stake. Because we are dependent upon each other and simultaneously often have conflicting needs and wants, we must find ways to reach across the yawning void, to bridge the gap, if only momentarily, between the “you” and the “me.”
This goes beyond expressing the bottom rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, communicating Me hungry and You cold? I’m talking about articulating the shared experience of beauty and joy and grief and mystery and hilarity and mischief and rage and lust and passion and boredom. Seeing ourselves in each other means we are no longer islands buffeted separately by the waves of our humanness, but atolls conjoined and buffering each other and buoying each other up, maybe even daring to break free of our bonds to surf the waves, gleefully, giddy from the sheer audacity of knowing and being known.
Imagine how barren our universe would be without poetry, without Amanda Gorman’s “the power to author a new chapter, To offer hope and laughter to ourselves,” or Mary Oliver’s “have you too finally figured out what beauty is for? And have you changed your life?”
And what riches we receive from the essays and memoirs of people who invite us into their lives! Consider Hope Jahren’s pronouncements in Lab Girl: “Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.” Apropos of this essay, Jahren goes on to say, “It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more . . .”
And then there’s fiction! My lonely childhood would have been bleak without Jo March and Elizabeth Bennet and the Wart and Scout Finch and Meg Murray and Anne. I often think of this exchange between Anne of Green Gables and Marilla:
“Do you never imagine things different from what they really are?” asked Anne wide-eyed.
“Oh!” Anne drew a long breath. “Oh . . . Marilla, how much you miss!”
How much poorer our world would be without Rosalind’s assertion, “Make the doors upon a woman’s wit and it will out at the casement,” (Shakespeare’s As You Like It), or Shug’s observation, “Everything want to be loved” (Alice Walker’s The Color Purple).
David Foster Wallace says, “Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. . . . Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion—these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.”
Remember the concept of catharsis that was drubbed into you in high school literature class? That is fiction’s domain. Where reality fails to bring justice, or mercy, or evolution of character, fiction can step in. “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.” Flannery O’Connor.
Which is not to say that good stories always tidy the chaos (they don’t, and that’s sometimes the point), or that words are only ever used to lift and ennoble (they aren’t—racist and misogynistic words hurled at others, angry tirades in the Comments section, and conspiracy theories masquerading as truth demonstrate that words can be used to divide and traumatize). But the potential is there. As an aside, I love how the word potent is latent within the word potential: the written word is a potentially potent force for forging community.
Just as importantly, life without literature would be, for me, unbearably flat and empty.
These ideas were rumbling around in my brain (along with a grocery list, anxiety about having no holiday clothes that fit, and a fear that the little tickle in the back of my throat meant I was about to fall prey to Covid) when I came upon “The End of High School English,” by Daniel Herman. The Atlantic, December 9, 2022. Herman demonstrates that new AI can literally (and I don’t use that word lightly) produce an essay that is cogent and well-drafted, and he ponders what that means for the future of literature.
Reading the example he provides, I shudder; it is competent but sanitized and generic. Computer-generated words will never be “what we stay alive for” (Walt Whitman), and I am compelled to ask: what if AI-generated words become not a supplement or a shortcut, but the sum total of our written communication?
Herman says: “I believe my most essential tasks, as a teacher, are helping my students think critically, disagree respectfully, argue carefully and flexibly, and understand their mind and the world around them. Unconventional, improvisatory, expressive, meta-cognitive writing can be an extraordinary vehicle for those things. But if most contemporary writing pedagogy is necessarily focused on helping students master the basics, what happens when a computer can do it for us? Is this moment more like the invention of the calculator, saving me from the tedium of long division, or more like the invention of the player piano, robbing us of what can be communicated only through human emotion?”
We can’t let the latter scenario occur.
And so I end with a plea. To all you writers, and teachers of writers, do not let literature fade in the face of practical but soulless artificial intelligence. Stand with us, the editors and contributing writers at SHARK REEF Literary Magazine, and all those who huddle under their blankets with flashlights to read just one more chapter, stand with us as Gandalf stood before the Balrog (I confess I am not only a lover of deep literature, I am also a Lord of the Rings nerd), saying to a future bereft of stories and poems and essays and drama and song: You shall not pass.
“Write with your eyes like painters,
with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers. You are
the truthsayer with quill and torch.
Write with your tongues on fire.”
Copyright Lane 2023