On the surface it may seem surprising that Dashka Slater, the author of delightful picture books such as Escargot, could also be the creator of searing young adult non-fiction books like The 57 Bus and the newly released Accountable. In his introduction to Egil’s Saga E.R. Eddison observed that the school that believes “the gouger out of Armod’s eye could not in nature be also the tender and sublime poet of the Sonatorrek, is a school that knows little of humanity.” Similarly we should be edified but not surprised by both Slater’s versatility, and by the humanity she reveals in the perpetrators of terrible actions in her non-fiction tours de force.
If I could pick a single book for a national book read it would be Slater’s just published Accountable. With Accountable she has brought another morally complex story of severe interpersonal harm among teenagers to life. She does so with an acute subtlety which draws forth the intertwined elements of action, character, causation, and reaction in a manner whose artistry and open clarity provides the reader with multiple avenues of engagement.
The subtitle of the book is The True Story of a Racist Social Media Account and the Teenagers Whose Lives It Changed. The story includes racism, masculine bravado, the worst mediation imaginable, the accelerant nature of social media, bystanderism, and the profound failure of the adults in the room. It is a failure shared by parents of both the victims and perpetrators, of school and town administrators to put the welfare of children at the center of their words and actions.
Slater’s combination of tightly focused detail and moral restraint reveals harm as a self-propagating, ever-accumulating, dehumanizing snowball of polarization, rage, abuse, and suppression. The skill of the book’s revelation lets air into an environment normally inhospitable to life in which the only way to survive is to adopt a spacesuit of self-protection. To read Accountable is to traverse a heartbreaking tragedy that deserves our deepest attempts at understanding. Remarkably it provides every reader with just that opportunity. What more could a children’s bookseller ask for?
As Artificial Intelligence (AI), crowd-sourced editing, and the superimposing of particular cultural sensibilities onto established works of literature make themselves more at home in our world, those of us who care about books for a living—publishers, booksellers, authors, editors and book marketers—have a job to do. We need to articulate our positions regarding these practices that are eroding the integrity of the human literary enterprise or allow passive fatalism to be the instrument of our own demise as book lovers, book professionals, and engaged human beings.
Here are some questions to consider.
Is the defense of textual and editorial standards a better path for the bookselling industry than buying into the self-fulfilling idea that this kind of change is inevitable? Should we offer an island of stability in a sea of ephemeral media, a source of balance and fixity in an unsettled world? Should we work to provide active engagement with the literary continuum over time or retrain ourselves to breathe in an atmosphere saturated with information imbalances that are leveraged to promote passive consumerism? Is there any point in resisting what appear to be dominant forces of dehumanification?
For perspective, let us look at a parallel situation. Consider the words of Saruman speaking to Gandalf on the benefits of aligning with Mordor, our AI-equivalent in TheLord of the Rings.
This then is one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf…. Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, it’s proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.
“Saruman,” [said Gandalf]. “I have heard speeches of this kind before, but only in the mouths of emissaries sent from Mordor to deceive the ignorant. I cannot think that you brought me so far only to weary my ears.”
The insidious adjuration to adopt an ascendant, even if repugnant, force in the hopes of benefitting from its dominance and influencing its character over time could hardly be more on point. Each adoption of Saruman’s reasoning weakens the standing of the bookselling world.
For example, new editions of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse come with the following warning:
That a book written in 1927 was written in 1927 should not be noteworthy. The idea that publishing the book as it was originally published is a noteworthy decision infers that the publisher just as easily might have altered the author’s words to align with some other notion of cultural representation and language. It should surprise no one then that, as the Washington Post opinion piece “21st-century editors should keep their hands off 20th-century books” pointed out, “The estate of Ursula K. Le Guin recently authorized the publisher of her Catwings series to change words such as ‘dumb,’ ‘lame,’ ‘stupid’ and ‘queer’ in seven instances across three books. In common parlance, the word ‘queer’ now means something different than it did when Catwings was first published in 1988. The estate determined that changing the language was necessary to ensure the author’s point comes across.”^
Once we have acceded to textual revision as a new standard of practice, it is but a short hop to Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Rabe (channeling Saruman) when speaking to the Financial Times: “[f]or creative industries, generative AI could be ‘very positive provided we… understand its potential and threats… [AI is] on balance… probably more of an opportunity… If it’s your content, for which you own the copyright, and then you use it to train the software, you can in theory generate content like never before.” +
There is a clear descending path from the To the Lighthouse trigger warnings to the textual revisionism of changing queer to peculiar in Catwings to Thomas Rabe’s disedifying pitch promoting generative AI in creative industries. This kind of progressive weakening of the norms of professional book publishing can only lend itself to even more dubious actions becoming more palatable and likely—such as apps offering readers the ability to optimize Jane Austen novels by requesting AI to output Sense and Sensibility with 15% added sex and 10% added violence, new AI-generated novels by Toni Morrison, new poems by William Butler Yeats, and other fresh AI-generated material from dead authors.
And yet, advocating for what you care about is not the empty practice Saruman would have you believe. Consider Denethor’s proclamation to Gandalf:
[A]gainst the Power that now arises there is no victory. To this City only the first finger of its hand has yet been stretched. All the East is moving. And even now the wind of thy hope cheats thee and wafts up Anduin a fleet with black sails. The West has failed. It is time for all to depart who would not be slaves.
“Such counsels will make the Enemy’s victory certain indeed,” said Gandalf.
Resisting odious change is not a guarantee of success but, as Gandalf suggests, not resisting it makes failure a certainty. Perhaps producing and marketing integrity and quality is a better play for publishing and bookselling than sublimating all editorial and historical standards in the hopes that ephemeral forms of discovery, dubiously projecting the present onto the past, and relegating humanity into being the passive consumer—rather than the creator—of its own stories, will somehow keep things profitable and relevant. As TikTok stops simply being the discoverer of profitable, unedited material and begins to be the publisher of it as well, it may well be time to stop wondering about getting bitten by the hand that’s feeding you and go back to feeding ourselves. With The Writers Guild of Americaand The Screen Actors Guild on strike and fighting for their creative and professional lives against the threat of generative AI, perhaps we should be focused less on profiteering and opportunism and more on integrity and common cause with other professionals in the creative industries. Do we really want to help produce a future in which human beings no longer aspire to creative expression?
Instead of engaging in this dubious embrace * I suggest it is time for the major publishers and bookselling trade organizations to make a formal position statement rejecting AI and textual revisionism.