A Romance Novel With Byte : Author Teams Ups With Computer to Write Book in Steamy Style of Jacqueline Susann
The steamy new novel is about “women . . . men . . . fame, fortune and temptation,” says the dust jacket. A cover picture features a couple, the man’s arm thrown around his partner.
There ends any resemblance to the partially clothed, big clinch school of cover art common to this genre of fiction. In this photograph, on the back cover of “Just This Once,” Scott French--scruffy, 40ish, wearing sunglasses, jeans and a T-shirt--cuddles a Macintosh 11CX computer named Hal.
The hardcover potboiler, out this month from Carol Publishing Group’s Birch Lane Press, comes with a subtitle that explains: “A novel written by a computer programmed to think like the world’s best-selling author as told to Scott French.”
French is a 44-year-old computer programmer who spent eight years and $40,000 to create what he says could have been the next novel written by Jacqueline Susann had she not died 19 years ago.
It has been reported that the Susann estate threatened to sue but settled out of court for half of French’s profits and control over the publicity for the book. Part of the agreement is that neither party may talk about it.
Computer experts are amused by the book. Writers of so-called women’s novels are not.
“I thought it was funny to use a cutting-edge system, that is used to run the space shuttle, to write a trashy novel,” says French, who began the project on a bet.
“The computer people think this is an interesting, offbeat program,” he says. “Some writers, on the other hand, suggest that if you’re about to die, shoot Scott on your way out.”
French, who lives amid redwood trees in San Francisco’s Peninsula foothills, started by attending seminars and purchasing expensive, complex computer programs.
“The first seminar I went to was at UC San Diego,” says French, who also writes books--in the conventional manner--on surveillance techniques.
“Two or three (attendees of the seminar) were from the RAND Corp., learning to use artificial intelligence to analyze satellite photos. Two other guys I guessed were CIA agents. They were trying to program computers to act like world leaders in certain situations.
“Then they got to me and everyone laughed and said, ‘What are you really doing? Is it so secret you can’t talk about it?’ I said, ‘No, I’m actually trying to write a book like Jacqueline Susann.’ ”
He scanned portions of two Susann books, “Valley of the Dolls” and “Once Is Not Enough,” into his databanks.
“The most difficult thing was trying to analyze exactly what constitutes a writer’s style,” he says. “I broke it up into several hundred things, ranging from frequency and type of sexual acts, to the sentence structure. Once you’re there, the writer’s style emerges, part of her actual personality comes out, and the computer can be programmed to make a story.”
Hal’s work, however, required extensive editing. “I’d say it did almost 100% of the plot, 100% of the theme and style. Often, it came up with three adjectives in a row and I had to put a verb in there. But I didn’t change its basic story line or themes. I didn’t feel I had the right to do that because I would have violated Miss Susann’s style,” French says.
Hal’s work is Susannesque:
“She was still dreaming. She had to be. . . . The plush four-poster brass bed and the veiled canopy were definitely out of some Arabian Nights dream. Maybe she was an exotic princess being made desperate love to by a handsome sheik. Carol willed the dream to continue and then her eyes absently focused on the gigantic mirror directly overhead. . . . “
“I’m not going to say this is a great literary work,” says Carol Group publisher Steven Schragis. “But it’s every bit as good as anything out in this field, and better than an awful lot.”
Initially, retailers weren’t sure what to think of “Just This Once,” he says. “They had never seen anything like this before.”
Although the book has yet to take off, there is optimism. Novelty has pushed “Just This Once” from a first printing of 15,000 into its second, for a total of 35,000 copies. And overseas publishers have inquired about rights.
“We have it in stock, but we haven’t sold any yet,” says Anne Bancroft, credit manager with L-S Distributors, a San Francisco-based wholesaler that supplies hundreds of bookstores in Western states. “It could mean that people don’t know about it yet. It just takes a while for a book to hit, unless you’re an established writer.”
Some in the publishing industry, however, believe French’s success will be short-lived.
“I don’t think a book written by a computer will be popular,” says Barbara Keenan, publisher of Affaire de Coeur, a monthly magazine that reviews romance literature.
“Danielle Steel’s books do not sell because she’s a wonderful, fantastic writer, but because women feel they know her,” she says. “They really want to feel close to the author. They like to talk about her. Can you imagine talking about a computer?”
Romance readers are equally suspicious.
“I suppose if we were all androids it wouldn’t matter,” says Angel Edwards, as she thumbs through historical romance novels in a Bay Area bookstore.
“Just press a button and we can get a book. What’s next? How can a computer know about feelings? I wouldn’t buy it,” she says
“I think it’s bogus,” says Angela Spangler, another browser in the women’s fiction section. “There wouldn’t be enough emotions.”
Some writers also deplore the idea of a computer writing about matters of the heart or anything else.
“It’s a shock,” says Jane Bonander, a Bay Area writer whose works include “Heat of a Savage Moon,” “Secrets of a Midnight Moon” and the upcoming “Forbidden Moon.”
“I’m stunned,” she says. “I hate to think it has come to this. I don’t think it will be very threatening. I get mail from women who write to me about the characters as though they are real people. They can’t do that with a computer.”
“It must be a joke,” says Veronica Sattler, a Pennsylvania romance writer whose “Highland Fire” will be published this month. “I suspect this computer is going to turn out some bad stuff. I can’t imagine anyone buying it. I can’t imagine any of my readers taking it seriously.”
But Maggie Davis, who writes women’s fiction from her home in Florida, is willing to give Hal a chance: “A computer could probably do a better job than Jacqueline Susann. You could program a computer to be tasteless.”
To be sure, writers aren’t about to be replaced. Computer programs can analyze grammar, syntax and even spit out a string of words. But they lack “common-sense reasoning,” says Robert Wilensky, a professor at UC Berkeley who specializes in artificial intelligence.
“They don’t have the faculties to understand what they just wrote,” he says. “We are not going to put writers out of work.”
The book by Hal, though, is getting slightly better reviews than anything written by Susann, whose “Valley of the Dolls” garnered critical disdain and sold 26 million copies.
Novelist Thomas Gifford, in a review for USA Today, compared the computer-crafted story with “American Star: A Love Story,” by Jackie Collins and concluded, “If you like this stuff, you’d be much, much better off with the one written by the computer.”
The Dead Jackie Susann Quarterly, a campy, irreverent New York City publication for Susann enthusiasts, calls “Just This Once” a triumph. “It truly captured Jackie’s style of almost freakishly unrelated adjectives strung before nouns to create sketches of people and place that both hold your attention and question how this woman ever sold a book. . . . She would be proud.”
It took French two years find a publisher. “My agent went to all the big publishers, and they said, ‘We really like the book,’ ” French says. “But they wouldn’t touch it. Every publisher said, ‘I can see lawsuits coming down the pike.’ I did not violate copyright laws. I never used more than two words of Susann’s in a row.”
French, who insists he’s a genuine fan of Susann’s work, is planning another novel. “People say, ‘Do Shakespeare.’ Yeah, right. There’s 100 years off my life.
“It would be easier for me to do another Jacqueline Susann,” he says. “Let’s be honest: She writes in a formula style.
“A sequel could work,” he adds, because, in “Just This Once,” as plotted by Hal, “nobody dies.”