Chuck Wendig: Terribleminds

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The Virtual George Carlin Standup Exemplifies The Sad Creepy Awfulness of Generative AI

In case you missed it, some (generous-air-quotes here) “comedians,” Will Sasso and Chad Kultgen, buried George Carlin in the ol’ Pet Sematary, where Carlin arose from death as a Paper-Jam Dipper version of himself, and the aforementioned “comedians” Weekend-at-Bernies’d him into “performing” a “comedy special,” all of which is proof we live in Hell.

That story, and Kelly Carlin’s response, can be found here.

This sucks. Obviously, this sucks. It absolutely sucks in a lot of directions. It is bad, and I hate it, and if you’re a person who does not suck, then you think this sucks, too.

I really loved George Carlin growing up. Carlin cemented my love of standup comedy but not just that — he was so fucking clever, and so very profane, and righteously angry, and perhaps best of all, he really, really loved language. His books put this well on display, how much he loved tinkering with words and the rhythm of the spoken word and how our language was not just interesting because of its construction but because of how it changed and how it exposed the inadequacies and contradictions in society. He was exceptional at dissection. He could rip us down to the struts with one sentence, and make us cry laughing doing it.

He was singular.

So, it was itself a singular desecration to see a couple of Internet jamokes have his memory vacuumed up into the belly of Generative AI, where it then digested him and sprayed the mucky bilious chunks onto the internet in the form of a brand new, and again I must emphasize the sarcastic quotation marks here, “””comedy special.”””

This comedian, this genius, who loved the art of language and the incisiveness of it to both make people laugh and make people think, gets run through the shit-grinder, and the art barf robot barfs out something whose language is graceless, whose wit is as incisive as instant pudding.

Again, this sucks, I hate it, you hate it too, because you’re a good person.

But I also think, this is a very good example of why generative AI sucks. And not just in one way, oh no. In this way, the Carlin special is a fruitful field with considerable yield — it is a manifold example that offers, with almost alarming clarity, the answer to the question of why we should be deeply resentful and distrustful toward generative AI. It reminds us bold-facedly why we should sneer at it, and spit at those who made it, and make sour faces at anyone who tries to use it.

Let’s go through it why this nicely exemplifies how gen-AI is hot garbage:

a) First, the special is bad. I don’t mean this as a moral judgment (though it fails that test, too) — I mean the special is just fucking bad. It is not funny. It does not sound like Carlin in literal voice or metaphorical voice. It isn’t even mid. The best it can aspire to is “fits of pure mediocrity.”

You ever taste something, a soda or a candy or whatever, that’s supposed to taste like another thing (strawberry, let’s say), and you eat it and it’s terrible but somewhere in there you can vibe that someone once maybe thought of a strawberry while they were making this? Like, there’s the ghost of an abducted, murdered strawberry in there? But mostly it’s just gross? This is that. It’s a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of the ghost of an idea of a dream of a old cursed VHS tape. And it’s bad.

I don’t know why we want this. Who is the market for this? “Remember that thing that was really good? Well, I took that good thing and then 3-D printed it with sewage, and now here it is again, just considerably shittier.” Who wants that? Who wants more of the same, just whittled down to splinters? Is that what we want from the human experience? “I really like David Bowie, but he’s dead, so now give me David Bowie again, just awful this time. By the way, my kink is ruining good things.”

It’s not just his poorly-replicated voice, or the shitty material. All the AI-generated imagery that serves as a backdrop, too: mediocre, weird, bad.

b) It can only steal. This exists only because George Carlin made comedy. It cannot exist without George Carlin. It stole his face. It stole his voice. It stole his material. Then ruined all three. The end.

c) To put a finer point on it, ChatGPT cost, what, $100 million to train? They’ve admitted that they could not have done that if they had to pay for rights from what they fed to the machine. If they had to pay for the rights to access and replicate Carlin’s material, that alone would have been a pretty penny. A hundred million is chump change — they would’ve paid billions in licensing fees to feed material to the machine. (And again, consider the active agency here: we speak of AI like it’s out there, roaming the countryside, wolfing down copyrighted works on its own. But there is an active human hand in this. There is human agency. Rich people want to get richer by stealing work. It’s cheap as free to them. They kidnapped all this material, then built the copy-paste button and hope you’ll push it.)

d) This one-hundred-percent confirms the fears that generative AI is not only stealing material, but will grave-rob your shit for eternity. Actually funny (and no-air-quotes-required) comedian Josh Gondelman points out in that article linked above: “There’s the idea of someone’s image being used in perpetuity, including after their death, without consent or appropriate compensation.”

e) The Uncanny Valley just gets deeper and deeper. Hearing this feels like you’re poking some atavistic impulse inside you, a deeply-buried ancestral memory of a time when we were hunted by The Things That Stole Faces. It’s like the men-in-black from Keel’s Mothman book — they show up with semi-human faces and smeared makeup and no eyelids and they’re like, YES HELLO FELLOW MEAT MAN WE ARE FLESH-BOUND HUMAN AGENTS DO NOT TELL PEOPLE OF THE UFOS OR WE WILL DIGEST YOU I MEAN ARREST YOU WHAT DO YOU MEAN I DON’T HAVE EYEBROWS. It’s fucking creepy. It makes me queasy to hear it. It’s like the bad guy from any Doctor Who episode, wearing our skin to steal more of our skin.

f) It’s also a good example of how the media might launder this stuff. Look at the headline here at USA Today when this first hit:

(My understanding is the lede here was added later, in the 1/11 update.)

This definitely vibes like, “Wow, hey, George Carlin has a new comedy special, and his digital ghost has some controversial takes, whoa, crazy!”

The media is very good at laundering negatives as if they’re positives — and it doesn’t help that our media landscape is being gutted left and right, newsrooms bereft of actual humans as waves of layoffs crush our access to news, and why? For what? Well, so AI can come in and just write the articles. It’s AI writing AI for AI from AI and we’re just watching artwork and information turn to muck and mush.

(It’s not a conspiracy if it’s out in the open.)

Listen, I didn’t want to give this oxygen. I still don’t. This is a stunt, and arguably a stunt’s job is to get attention, and I’m giving it attention. At the same time, it’s hard not to deny that this embodies a monstrous effort to… I dunno, reduce us to garbage-eaters and feed us garbage. “Look, we made the Content Recyclers to recycle content into your held-open mouths, so just be quiet and suckle at the Info-Tube. Then don’t forget to shit your entertainment slurry back into the Content Recycler! It’s sustainable content, after all. Like Taco Bell! From the sewer it comes. To the sewer, it returns.”

I think it’s important to talk about this. I think it’s good to point at it and say, “This is shit, I hate it, it’s a problem.” I think it’s good to lacquer all the output from generative AI with a slick sheen of foul-smelling mucus so that nobody wants to touch it. I want us to see that it’s a bad idea. I want corporations to see that it’s a bad idea. That we’re suspicious of it. That we don’t want it. That what we want is for artists and writers and musicians and comedians and creators to be free to create and to be paid for what they do and to not have that work stolen and fed to a machine so that some corporation can photocopy it poorly and sell it to you for money in their pocket.

Yelling about this stuff has some purpose. It ensures that when a company uses AI for a book cover or when a news outlet uses AI to write an article, there’s enough people pissed that they have to walk it back. I like it when companies have to apologize for having used AI. Put a little stink on it. Smear it up. It helps to say, “I won’t buy this if there’s AI involved.” I write books because I’m a person trying to talk to other people. I write stories because I want to grapple with all the goofy scary strange shit that is a part of the human condition. I don’t want an AI to emulate me, to steal my face and chase people down with its too-many-fingers. I don’t want people to want that of me. Why would you? Who really is the audience for this? Are we begging for it, or are corporations begging for us to be begging for it?

I also think there’s value specifically in writers saying that they don’t want to be a part of any of this, and don’t want any of it to be a part of our work. Paul Tremblay, who is an author you should always, always be reading, posted this on his Instagram

And I think this is absolutely the right way forward. I think it’s good to make it clear that this shit won’t fly. (And in case I have not made it clear, I obviously co-sign what Paul is saying here.) It’s worth going to our agents and publishers and saying, “Yeah, keep all of this out of the AI’s mouth, please. I only want human intervention on my books.”

As an endcap to this, I note the following —

When I posted my last bit about AI (here), someone commented thusly:

And I post it here because it really is, like the Carlin special, an emblem of how bad ChatGPT and these language models are at doing what you want them to do. It is a mediocre answer that fails to understand both the source material and any potential answer to that material. It offers shallow non-answer responses, assumes I’m a visual artist (my “doodles”), insults without meaning or grace, and mostly just says “meh, fuck you, so what if AI sucks” in a variety of ways over and over again. The commenter called it priceless, and it is that, in the sense that it is worth no price, no penny at all.

Anyway. I hope this special earns the two dickheads who made it the very worst kind of attention.

And I hope that Kelly Carlin jams a lawsuit so far up their asses that they can feel American jurisprudence pressing against the backs of their teeth.

OKAY, buy my books or I die. Bye!

Just Say No to Artificial Intelligence In Your Creative Pursuits, Please, JFC, WTAF

Art is about people.

This is obvious and simplistic on the face of it but I think it’s important to remind ourselves of this–

Art is about people.

It is by people. It is for people. Art — and by proxy, storytelling — is a conduit between the maker of the art and the witness to that art. I made this, the maker says, and they did so for myriad possible reasons. They did it because it was beautiful, because it was horrible, because it scared them or enraged them or titillated them, or some combination of all of that. They were driven to portray a thing, or subvert a thing, or invent a thing.

The art forms a connection. The witness to the art — the one on the other end of that connection — experiences it however they must. They relate to it. They rebuke it. They adore it. They obsess over it. They detest it even as they can’t look away. Art, story, music — they form this ephemeral thing that is a way for us to talk to each other metatextually, across spans of distance great and small, and even across time itself. We scream our strange creations out into the void in the hope of being heard. A signal that we’re not alone. And we witness art in much the same way: as a reminder that we are not alone.

Which is to say, there’s not a lot of room for the ART BARF ROBOT to come in and BARF ART all up into this connection.

The introduction of so-called “artificial intelligence” — which, really, is just a keenly-designed high-tech mimeograph — has gunked up the conduit between artist and audience with great clotted gobs of digital snot. It’s a pipe crawling with the Too-Many-Fingers monsters waggling their many bent digits at you while screaming twee authorial pablum and dipshitted disinformation in your ear. It’s gunk. It’s a mess.

I’ve spoken before about how “artificial intelligence” is really about the fetishization of idea —

(The above comes from Threads, which I guess is proof that it’s a social media platform with “the juice,” given how far and wide I’ve seen this comment travel across various channels.)

For the people so attracted to AI-generated anything, work is just a speedbump. Process is yucky. Wouldn’t it be great to just yell at a computer, WHAT IF BATMAN FUCKED SUPER MARIO ON A SOFT BED OF MOSS WHILE FRAMED BY THE CREPUSCULAR LIGHT OF A GLITTERING FAIRY FOREST, PLEASE SHOW ME THAT NOW, and then the computer just said, YOU GOT IT, BOSS, and extruded your greatest desire onto the screen? So what if Batman has seven weird fingers? All the more fingers to lustily push into Mario’s dewy mustachioed mouth! So you grab this image and you show other people and you say to the people on the internet, LOOK MOM I MADE AN ART, and the people say back, “Did you mean to call us Mom?” And you choose not to answer because, why did you do that, exactly? That’s weird. Anyway. You did it! You arted! You had an idea and then you pressed a button and basically, basically, you painted this yourself, right? You took what was in your mind, the Dark Knight romantically bat-fucking the diminutive turtle-hating cross-dimensional Uber-Plumber, and now here it is, for all the world to see. What chumps other artists are, out there getting out their paints and their Procreates and their word processors — ugh, right? If only they understood how easy it was to become An Artist, now.

Except, come the fuck on.

You didn’t do shit. You’re not an artist, shut the fuck up. Thing is, I think deep down, you know it. You have to know somewhere in that short-circuiting soul of yours that what you’ve done is nothing. You, at best, are a patron of the arts, a mule-kicked de Medici wandering around trying not to fall in canals while poking your fake fucking Robo-Leonardo and yelling at him to paint you another SEXY TOMB RAIDER DRIVING A CYBERTRUCK NUDE. Congratulations. You said a thing and pushed a button and now the ART BARF ROBOT barfed art for you. Slow clap from the cheap seats.

That image of Batman banging Tanuki Mario (sorry, I changed it, one must cleave to one’s own very special fantasies, after all) wasn’t really yours. What occurred on screen was not your actual vision. An idea is formless. It’s nothing without execution. The art exists in that execution — and you weren’t the one who did it. The ART BARFING ROBOT did. If I paid an actual artist actual money to paint me Batman and Mario doing the bat-nasty, the artist would be the one executing. The artist is still the artist. I’m just the guy paying the artist and asking them to give me what I want. I had no skill to bring to the table. I had no talent. No process, no ability, no understanding of light and texture, no sense of how to make this color or those shadows, literally no grasp of how to make the roundness of those night-clad bat-cheeks gleam moistly in the glow of the Narnian forest. Can you imagine me paying the artist and then boldly saying, “Well, I’m the artist of this because it was my idea. You were just the crass serf who did all the work.” I’d be run out of town on a rail. I’d have the painting broken over my head.

And yet, that’s what you’re doing.

Except worse!

Because you’re not even doing the very good work of paying an artist. You’re poking a piece of software to make your weird idea fall out. You’re clicking the “randomize character” button on the Sims and pretending you created life. And that piece of software? The ART BARF ROBOT? We have visions of it being this singular entity, a chrome-faced digital being out there in the void, tethered to all of us as we feed it our ideas, but it’s not that. It’s just a shitty techno-industrial blender grabbing all the words and all the images and all the music from all the creators it can, and it’s chewing them up and spitting them into your mouth like a big ol’ mama bird.

Artificial intelligence isn’t a person. It’s not even really, despite how I describe it, a machine. It’s the representative of a company. It’s the tool of not just one corporation, but many.

And it only exists because real people did real art.

Without something to chew up, it has nothing to spit out.

It steals our stuff, milks it, and kicks it aside, then shows it proudly to the world as if it did anything other than bleed an actual artist dry. It turns the artist and the art into dirt, then just regrows stuff from that same earth.

It’s a thief.

Except, even there? I’m lying. It didn’t steal shit. Because “it” has no agency. The owners? The companies? They have agency. They, actual people, are the ones who stole the shit, fed it to their beast, and then sold access to the beast to you. The art barf robot isn’t even a robot. It’s just the Scooby-Doo mask worn by all these tech bro shitheads. They’re pretending to be a sentient magical art maker when really, they’re the man behind the curtain. All they’ve really done is made a way for them, and you, to shortcut the work by stealing it from someone else.

To put it boldly, and surely to some contention:

The use of artificial intelligence in your creative pursuits is unethical.

And though this blog post is already too long — hey, fuck it, it’s my blog and I’ll yammer if I want to — I’ll go into a little more detail here and attempt to address some of the pushback I’ll probably hear.

So, to me, there are a number of predominant concerns for using artificial intelligence in your creative pursuits —

a) As noted, it is “trained” on the work of other artists, writers, musicians, what-have-you. They were not given a choice in this regard. Their work — and by their, I mean our, because I’m actually in that list, too — was simply vacuumed up in order to be pulped. We’re the meat in your Soylent Green. We are the fruit for your insipid smoothies. Using it empowers the companies to do this more and more.

b) Environmentally, it ain’t great. Artificial intelligence gulps a lot of resources — at a time of increased water usage in the west, here comes OpenAI to guzzle more water just so you can ask ChatGPT to lie to you or write mediocre fiction. It’s theorized that even just a handful of ChatGPT queries drains the equivalent of a 16-oz bottle of water. Never mind its potential power-draw and resultant emissions.

c) While there is this feeling that artificial intelligence is this alien thing, this unique mind, this individual persona, it really must be framed as being the product of big companies, of tech bros and billionaires. It’s why they steal the work — because if they had to license it, they wouldn’t make money. (OpenAI literally said this out loud.) Their goal is to make money, not art. Ultimately, this just becomes a tool for them. Why hire artists to make a movie poster, why pay authors to write a book, why have SFX people or musicians for commercials or any artist or writer or musician at all? They’re making themselves a system to crush the value of art, and they want you to be proselytes of this system. And to help train it. You pay for it and feed it prompts, and, one can argue, it banks that and “learns” from it.

d) Though this is adjacent to the art/writing stuff — it’s very, very easy to see how this is already being used for mis/disinformation. I can’t tell you how often I see some shit on social media (let’s be honest, it’s usually Facebook) of OMG LOOK AT THIS COOL GRANDMA AND HER GIANT YARN HOUSE or WOW THESE ARE PHOTOS OF FLYING SHARKS INSIDE A HURRICANE HOLY SHIT CLIMATE CHANGE IS WILD YOU GUYS, and of course it’s AI-generated bullshit. We were already in a world where truth and fact was becoming unstable — but when you can generate willfully deceptive fiction (visually and textually) with a button, and during a vital election year to boot, that’s real fucking bad. And our investment in, and use of, AI — even as a tool, even as a toy — is helping further that dissolution of shared reality. Holy fucking shit, there are AI-generated influencers now? Is this Hell? This might be Actual Hell. I’m going to go live in the woods now.

e) If we are to believe that art has value and the making of art is labor, AI completely cuts the throat of that notion. Right now, you pay your ten bucks a month or whatever and make your shitty AI art with your shitty AI art button, click-click-click, and meanwhile, an actual artist has to start a Gofundme just to pay (their ever-increasing) rent this week. And don’t get used to cheap access to AI. These are drug dealer rules. It’s cheap now. But once the human creators are all out of work (or are paid a pittance to basically turn the garbage AI output into something serviceable), that cost will either go up for the average users or it’ll get so enshittified (thanks Cory Doctorow for the word) that it’s unusable. Hell, maybe it’ll be both.

f) Eventually, this stagnates art. AI needs art to feed it, and if the preponderance of extant art becomes AI-created pap, glurge, and slop, then it will have to cannibalize itself to make more of itself. Which, admittedly, I look forward to, because it’ll eat itself to make itself and produce what I am guessing will be the garbage piss at the bottom of old dumpsters, and then we will learn the true value of human art. Which will be ironic since all the artists by then will be either accountants or, you know, pig feed.

g) Also, finally, it devalues art. If art, even shit art, is so easy to make, and artists are not required anymore, they won’t be paid and they’ll instead be turned into Robot Herders, herding the output of the software into something art-shaped. Meaning, they’ll probably still be doing THE ART, just at a cut rate, because realistically, the output of AI generators will still be mediocre, and someone of skill will need to fix that shit, but they won’t be treated like an artist. Which is to say, a class of creator that is already devalued in a lot of ways. AI makes it worse! Somehow! Fuck!

So, already I’ve been typing for a while, and this post is too long, but I’m about to make it longer. Because I can sense a small percentage of you reading this gnashing your teeth. You’re frothy with indignation because how dare I say these things? How could I poo-poo this cool fun future-changing technology? You have your BUT CHUCK retorts, and I will endeavor to address them, now. Note: they are different from your BUTT CHUCK retorts, which is a whole different, and altogether more childish, retort.

But Chuck! Something-something buggy whips, you Luddite!

Obviously the idea here is that blah blah blah when cars were invented all the buggy-whip manufacturers went out of business and certainly using a car wasn’t unethical just because of the poor buggy-whip makers blah blah blah. This is falsely based on the assumption that all technological advances are both a) equal and b) equally good. (It’s also worth asking the question of whether cars really were the singular most valuable and ethical choice going forward, as our reliance on them has not been necessarily a global good. More trains, I say!) To me the question is, who does this serve, and AI-generated material serves giant companies and tech bros more than it serves, say, you or me — and, one could argue it’s pretty deleterious to art, art culture, art as labor, all of that. And why are you comparing art — all the beautiful paintings and books and music over the years — to a single instrument used to cane a horse into moving faster? No. Be better. (And though Luddite has long been an insult, it’s really, really, really worth reading the origins of the term ‘Luddite’ and why, like the lady who burned herself with McDonald’s coffee, there’s a far more important story here.)

“Now do cameras.”

I’ve seen this response a buncha times re: criticisms of AI, specifically that phrasing. “Now do cameras.” Which, again, what are you saying? You have to, somewhere down deep inside, understand that USING A CAMERA and USING ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE is not remotely the same, and you should know that even if you think of AI as a boon, and not a bane, to artists.

I assume the idea is, oh, if I use a camera it removes all the work of… painting the landscape? So it can’t be art? And digital art removes the work of using paint, too? And so therefore it’s the same? Or… something?

Let me say it this way: when I use a camera, and I take a photo, I am being intentional and I am making choices. Those two things are really key here: intentionality, and the making of choices. I’m saying, this thing in front of me, it is something I see, and want to show the world. And even I, a basic ding-dong, know that how I take that photo matters. How I frame the image matters. Subject versus background, light versus shadow, and so forth. Far better photographers than I are making even more choices in that moment, with a far greater awareness than I have, but in all aspects, there remains us, the photographer — aka, the human element. Then, if we go to digitally edit that photo in whatever way we care to (saturation modifications, cropping, doodling a little dick on a forehead and the dick is shooting hyphenated pee-pee bullets), we are once again a human making deliberate choices that culminate in a photo we, the human, wanted to show you, a fellow human.

And here you’re saying, BUT MAKING AI GENERATED BARF ART IS THE SAME THING, but please let me stop you. Your prompt is, indeed, making choices and creating intentionality, but you aren’t actually touching it or interacting with it. And the result is not something you in any way made. Something else made it. The software made it.

You didn’t make anything.

The equivalent is, instead of holding a camera and taking a photo, you instead handed the camera to a robot and said, “Go get me a photo of a butterfly.” You aren’t even taking the photo. The robot comes back and hands you the photo and you have the gall to say I’m the photographer.

If I tell a bartender to make me a cocktail, I don’t claim I made, or invented, the cocktail, okay? The bartender had the skills. You just had a drink order.

Art involves intentionality and making choices but also the effort — the literal human touch, actually, not even a metaphorical touch, I mean you’re actually touching the material in a fundamental way.

Cameras are a tool. Paints are a tool. Word processors are a tool.

ChatGPT, Midjourney, all of that? They’re just bartenders. They are third-party entities to which you give the entirety of the creative act.

BUT CHUCK. Isn’t what the AI does the same as what a human artist does?

Do you actually think this? You don’t, do you? I really am going to need you to see clearly through to the difference between “human doing human stuff, as human has done since humans starting humaning” and “software owned by tech assholes snorting up all the art so it can sneeze it back out.” If the software were truly a chrome-domed robot in a room, poring through the output of humanity over the centuries and finding inspiration and agita and hope and love and fear and emotion in what they were witnessing, then hey, maybe, sure. But it isn’t that. This feels like you already know this. My child knows this. A Furby isn’t a dog, either, since we’re having this chat.

But Chuck?? What about accessibility and ableism???

Seen the argument that making AI art is actually an act of accessibility and to deny it is an act of ableism and, you know, I think this is a disingenuous argument that uses social justice as a cudgel instead of actually doing any kind of work or offering any kind of benefit. This is a world designed by rampant acts of ableism, I agree, and that sucks, and it should change, but I don’t know that simply removing the entire act and effort of making stuff and instead handing that act and effort to an AI generator is not really a true act of equity. You have not given anybody accessible tools. AI isn’t the tool, it’s the everything. It’s the artist. I don’t see this as leveling any playing fields so much as it is taking the playing field away and calling it a favor.

But Chuck! The AI generator I use trains itself on opt-in material!

Hey, that’s great if that’s the case. But let’s remember that Midjourney supposedly didn’t have a huge list of art/artists it was harvesting, except then it turns out it totally did. And “opt-in” is kind of a sliding scale, isn’t it? EULAs can be pretty fucking inscrutable and sometimes a service will quietly add something to its service parameters about AI and then you’re technically kinda sorta opt-in even though you didn’t really opt-in, did you?

But Chuck, I’m an artist using AI!

That’s great, we can tell! “I’m a human and I eat other humans!” What fun for you! Okay! Cool! If you do that, more power to you. I don’t get it, and I’m happy it helps your… process? But I also don’t think you can, at present, extract the realities of artificial intelligence from your use of it without a hefty dose of fantasy and good old fashioned ignorance is bliss thinking.

And so, that leads me to this:

We all make choices and a lot of those choices are, by necessity, poorer ones than we’d like. And we make them because a lot of times we don’t have better choices at hand, and because unregulated capitalism has left us with a series of buttons to push and levers to pull that force us to imagine the trolley problem whenever we’re buying groceries or purchasing a book or posting a vacation photo on Instagram. Did you buy a water to drink at the airport? Congrats, it’s full of plastic and probably is helping to contribute to the desiccation of the Western United States and that bottle will probably end up in the ocean where it will somehow choke and kill a pelican. But you needed some fucking water and the airport maybe doesn’t have a dispenser for your own bottle and… you needed some fucking water, I dunno. We do what we can, when we can, to make meaningful choices in order to stave off the inevitable corporate plan of turning us all into chum for the harvesters.

And my view is, at this point in time, it’s clear that artificial intelligence in the arts is real problematic, and the juice is not worth the squeeze — and, further, if denying its power now gives us better agency going forward, then that’s a really good thing. Because certainly there is a world where AI can be used ethically, in some fashion, in our creative pursuits.

But today is just not that day.

And certainly AI can and should be used in important places that humans can’t really… effect, or access. If an AI helps us find new antibiotics, or can predict a new weather pattern, or can remind me that I’m out of ketchup and I need to buy new ketchup, hell yeah, let’s do it. But art is about people, and it has always been about people, and so-called AI being inserted into that equation by tech-bros (who yesterday really really wanted you to buy NFTs) changes the equation in such a fundamental way that it cannot be worth it, especially given the way the sausage is made. Or should I say, stolen.

Because with AI, the sausage is totally fucking stolen.

So don’t use it. Don’t play with it, don’t post it, don’t share it around. Reject the Art Barf Robot. You don’t need it. It’s not for you. You don’t need it for the words, the images, the narration, the music. Writing isn’t easy, but also, your access to writing is easy. Art is hard, but also, you can still make art. Make weird shit, messy shit, ugly shit, incomplete shit, amateur shit — make art to make art. Touch it. Be intentional. Make choices. Make art. You do it. The human you. I’ll do it, too. Eat shit, art barf robot!

p.s. buy my book it’s suburban folk horror about an orchard cult, yeah, try to do that, ChatGPT you mediocre fucker

p.p.s. please watch Stephen Fry read Nick Cave’s thoughts on AI

Cover Reveal: Monster Movie!

Hey! Look! It’s a new book! Here, then, is the cover (by artist George Ermos, who also did the paperback for Dust & Grim)! There are a lot of exclamation points! Even in the title name! Because ahhhhh! AHHHHHH!

Anyway. I’ll let the cover copy do the talking for me:

In this modern, spooky novel by New York Times bestselling author Chuck Wendig, a boy must face his many fears to save his friends from a cursed videotape.

Ethan Pitowski is afraid of everything. Luckily, his best friends don’t mind, and when their entire class gets invited to watch a long-buried horror movie at the most popular boy in school’s house, Ethan’s friends encourage him to join in the fun. But when the “scariest movie ever made” reveals itself to be not just a movie about a monster, but a movie that is a monster, only a terrified Ethan escapes its clutches. Now he must find a way to stop the monster and save his friends (and also, um, get their heads back).

With his signature balance of kid-friendly horror and humor, Chuck Wendig crafts a spookily heartfelt novel about anxiety, friendship, and finding your unique voice and inner strength.

The book comes out in September. And it is now preorderable!

First and foremost, you can of course pre-order from my local store, Doylestown Bookshop, in which case you can also ask for it signed and personalized to you. Pre-order now.

But, of course, all the usual suspects also apply: B&N, Amazon, and anywhere books are sold. (I don’t see the entry populating at places lik or Powells yet, but I’m sure they’ll get there soon.)

Writer’s Resolution 2024: Pretend Trends Do Not Exist (Or, “Fuck It, This One Is For Me”)

Head’s up: what I’m about to say is probably very bad advice, and you should not listen to it. This is generally true with what I say: don’t listen to me. I don’t know what I’m talking about. Dubious distrust mode: active.

Okay, so, trends.

Book trends.

Meaning, a reading audience begins trending toward a specific genre or subject matter — like, you know, vampires is a trend once in a while. Superheroes were a trend at the movies for, well, maybe too long. One of the current trends is the portmanteau of romantasy.

Reading trends are not publishing trends.

But publishing trends sometimes like to borrow reading trends.

What I mean is this: Big Publishing looks at, say, TikTok, and sees that Sexy Frankensteins are trending because a lot of people on TikTok (or, rather, BookTok, the reading portion of the Tiks and the Toks) are reading about and recommending The Sexy Frankensteins. Big Publishing then says, “Whoa whoa whoa, we want a piece of that action. We should buy Sexy Frankenstein books, because that is what the readers want.” So they start buying up any Sexy Frankenstein books from their slush pile and they encourage agents and writers to submit to them Sexy Frankenstein books and suddenly there are new Sexy Frankenstein book deals for big money and now a reading trend becomes a publishing trend and a publishing trend becomes a writing trend, except, honestly, the whole thing went off the fucking rails the moment Big Publishing said the words, “We should buy Sexy Frankenstein books.”

It makes no fucking sense to do that. The reason it makes no fucking sense is it’s going to take, most likely, at least a full year for that book to hit shelves. Probably more? And this is assuming the book has already been written. It still has to go through developmental editing and copy-editing and get on the schedule. A year, minimum.

Do you believe a trend will last a year? It might! This of course assumes the publisher bought the trendy Sexy Frankenstein book at the very start of the trend — like, zoom, zip, right as the Hot Sensual Stitched-Together Fella subgenre was gettin’ goin’. Do you think it will last two years? Oooh, okay, now that feels a little less certain, doesn’t it? Especially since Big Publishing is not just one publisher but several (and by several, I mean, uhh, five), and you can be sure if one is chasing this trend, so are the other four, and what that means is — in a world where a lot of books come out often all the time — there’s going to be a whole lot of EROTIC MAN-MADE MEN books hitting the shelves, and as that’s happening, BookTok is going to be like, “Hey, you know what’s hot now? Cottagecore Mesopotamian Cookbook Fiction.” Which isn’t a thing yet, but who the fuck knows? It sounds great, whatever it is. We get Big Feels and Earnest Confessions and Weird Ancient Soups!

In other words, by the time the Big Publisher puts up the flag that they’re hungry for that Frankenlove Narrative, it’s already too late.

And in this sense, what we’re calling a trend could just as easily be called–

A bubble.

And bubbles pop.

So, what does this mean for you as a writer?

Well, it means I think it’s best if you care less about trends. And I say this at a time when a not-insignificant number of my writing friends have had their agents and/or publishers tell them, “Well, can you write romantasy?” — even if their wheelhouse has not now, or ever been, romantasy. (Just to be clear, this is no judgment against romantasy or any genre or subgenre. Read what you read, write what you write, love what you love. It’s awesome.) Don’t get me wrong — if you want to write to a current trend, do it. Especially if you like that trend and think you can rock it. And also, there’s zero shame in chasing the money. If you have your Sexy Frankenstein book ready to go, and they’re buying big on the Lip-Biting Big Brute Sexmonster genre, pitter-patter, let’s get at ‘er. Do it. Take the payday. Cover yourself money from your Libidinous Patchwork Creatureman deal!

But if you’re looking to write a book, and your first question is, “What’s hot right now?” then I sorta think you’re smashing your feet with a hammer just as it’s time to race. Because you take three to six months to write the book, then months to find a publisher for it, then a year to get it out on shelves — that genre or trope that was hot right now is suddenly well it was hot two years ago, oops. This isn’t being trendy, it’s chasing a trend, and in this sense, the trend will always move faster than you do. And that’s assuming that the world doesn’t change, too, because when the world changes (like, say, there’s a big pandemic, but those never happen, right?) — reading tastes change, too. Can you predict that shit? I sure can’t. (Uhh, I mean, Wanderers aside, I guess.)

Trends are, or should be, reader-driven, not driven by writers and publishers. Readers should be in control of that, and chasing a trend overmuch does a disservice to the readers — more more more is not always good good good. It’s just a glut. Then the bubble pops. And then nobody wants Sexy Frankenstein books for the next five, ten years.




And ultimately, as a writer, I think there’s so much more delight and love in writing the book that wants to burst out of your chest like a happy little Xenomorph. “This is the weird awful amazing sad sappy splattery sweet fucked-up thing that lurks in my heart,” is way more interesting than, “Well, my publisher asked if I could write a Mesopotamian Cookbook.”

Listen, there’s no harm and no foul in writing whatever you need to do to feed yourself. This is not an effort to shame you into doing differently, and if you can make this work for you, please do, absolutely. But at the end of the day it can also be a trap: one where you think your book might become this big hit, but by the time your book is going to come out, the big hit books have already done the big hit thing, and now it’s just a series of diminishing returns. And if the publisher has detected this shift in the trend — even though they’re the ones who published you because of that trend! — then you’ll find that they’re not really supporting you like you wanted. (Or worse, even in the midst of the trend, they glibly assume the “trend” part will handle the work for them and they don’t have to do much to support it.)

Not every publisher is like this. And you really can’t blame them, either, in a lot of ways, though I also have more confidence in a publisher who isn’t chasing trends and is instead committed to making trends — or even better, just picking and producing the best possible work and then supporting it materially with actual money, and not caring about trends at all.

You can still think about writing books people want to read — which, callously and capitalistically, does translate to, which books they’ll want to buy. There’s no harm in that. Art is commerce, regrettably, and certainly when I think of what books I’m going to write, I definitely try to imagine if they’re books that an audience is going to respond to both critically and financially. I don’t write in a vacuum. I have to think about if people are going to be willing to shed coin for whatever weird shit I want to write. But I can only take that so far. And I can only be so concerned about it in the end because… I also can’t predict what the world will bring.

I’ll give you an example: Blackbirds took a long time to sell. I thought it was an easy sell — “A young woman can see how you die by touching you!” — but all the big publishers rejected it, and often with the nicest rejections. “Oh, we want to publish this but our sales team doesn’t know how to sell it.” I’d offer to tweak it to make it more sellable, and the response became, “Oh, no, don’t do that, then we wouldn’t love it the same.” Which, yes, will make your brain instantly bleed when you hear that. “I want to buy your red wagon but my sales team only likes blue, but if you make it blue, it won’t be a red wagon anymore and I won’t like it as much, anyway, sorry about all that blood squirting out of your nose, here’s a towel.”

It took over a year to find a publisher, and when we did, it was for a fairly low advance — I think after the UK conversion, it was like, $8k, maybe.

And that book has gone on to still, to this day, be one of my most lucrative. One book became three, then earned out, then got sold to another publisher where three books became six, and along the way I continued to license it for film/TV options and across foreign markets and further, it did really well in some of those markets — so much so I get royalties from those books. So, this one book that nobody thought they could sell has done me a good service.

(And, writing that book was for me, an “I hit bottom” moment. I had written five other finished novels before that, each of them being me trying to chase some trend or some voice. It was only when I was like FUCK IT THIS ONE IS FOR ME that I actually sold a book.)

Anyway. Again, this is probably bad advice. But for me, in 2024, I want to be a bit selfish and greedy and brush away trends and say, fuck it, this one is for me. Yes, it’s for you, too, but first and foremost, always and forever, I have to live with myself, I have to live with this book, so it’s for me first.

Y’know, hey, don’t listen to me — you do you! Whatever that is! And me, I gotta do me. Relentlessly, perhaps foolishly, definitely stubbornly. Queue up the Sammy Davis, Jr — “I’ve Gotta Be Me.”

Anyway. Onward we go. Into 2024. Through the door. Into the breach. Toward whatever joy we can grab and whatever fuckery we cannot avoid. We are the squirrel at the fore of this post: perched on the branch in the cold, as the sun rises ahead of us. (Okay, technically the sun is setting in that photo, don’t bother me with the details.)

Selfishly, I note that I did write a book that might help you writer-folk in the year ahead: Gentle Writing Advice. Given the way things have been going for all of us, maybe you need it.

Happy 2024.

Write on, art harder, tell your stories.

You do you.

Digging A Grave For 2023, As 2024 Struggles To Be Born

Well! I see we find ourselves once again at the turn of the tide. The one year recedes. Another year washes up in its place, eating all the sandcastles you made. Washing away your footprints. Time, and life, and the universe —

They go on.

This peculiar moment is both an excellent time for reflection and a piss-poor time for reflection — the former because, it is useful to take stock, and what better moment than during this interstitial notimeplace? The latter because, we are in the interstitial notimeplace. I don’t know what day it is, so how the fuck am I expected to look both backward and forward with any effectiveness at all? I can’t remember shit. I don’t even know who you people are or how you got here. I’m pretty sure it’s The Fifth Garblesday, or maybe Bleenstag. I’m wearing underpants on my head and pants on my arms. I am half-chocolate and half-cheese. It’s foggy out. It’s foggy in. Everything is Betwixt. But this is all my problem, not yours.

I shall rally. I shall muster. I SHALL FORTIFY.

To reflect back: 2023 was, personally, I suppose, a pretty good year. I wrote and sold a new middle grade, Monster Movie!, and yes, that exclamation point is part of the title because fuck yeah, let’s exclaim excitedly about things. I published my next adult horror novel, Black River Orchard, which to my shock and awe became a USA Today bestseller? Got to go on tour for that book, as well, which was a true delight — I met cool readers, ate weird apples, got to hang out with the writerly likes of Paul Tremblay and Aaron Mahnke and Chris Golden and Sadie Hartmann and Clay McCleod Chapman and Owen King and of course Kevin Hearne and Delilah Dawson. Plus, I got to visit some of the greatest bookstores in the country. Especially ones I’d never been to, like Montana Book Co and Gibson’s.

It was genuinely fucking great.

(And in case people are like, but book tours aren’t effective, why do you think Orchard hit the USA Today list? Because of bookstore visits.)

(Also: thanks to Powell’s this morning — particularly, Nick K! — for putting Black River Orchard on his top five staff picks of 2023.)

Plus, there was Gentle Writing Advice this past summer, too — which I hope has been helping people navigate the labyrinth of a writing life. I know I needed to write it — I needed to talk about navigating the creative and emotional challenges of the modern age, and also I needed the book as a response to me, where I got to use the book as a weird, I dunno, remix or rebuttal or reconsideration of who I am as a writer. But also ideally for those writers out there who know that this thing we do is work, that it’s hard, that it’s satisfying, that it’s challenging, and that to do it requires a measure of mindfulness and self-care. And the book is very much about that, and also about challenging the idea of self-care, too, to become a more nuanced and meaningful aspect of your work. It’s not just about HAVE A DONUT, but about how taking yourself and your work seriously is itself a form of self-care, you know? Anyway. So that came out.

Wayward hit paperback. That’s good, too, though I still meet people who loved Wanderers and don’t realize it has a sequel? (Whispers: it has a sequel. It’s called Wayward. Pass it on.)

Oh, and I was on the cover of a magazine?? What the fuck is that? Who lets that happen? Writer’s Digest did, apparently.

Life was, mostly, pretty good? My family is good. Kid is nailing school and now, the electric guitar. (He’s been playing since he was in kindergarten but I think the electric opened him up to the experience in a big way.) He’s getting older now and that’s weird and wonderful and awful, because you see TIME ITSELF cascading past like the scenery on a long car ride, and you see it in their faces and how tall they’re getting and in the cracking voice and in the books they’re reading, and, and, and. It’s great. But also, oof.

Saw Yeah Yeah Yeahs in concert. That was amazing. Some bands you see live and you realize, yeah, fuck, they’re better on the album. But YYYs fucking bring it. Legit amazing show.

Went to Europe for the first time — Netherlands, Germany, Spain. Truly amazing. Beautiful experience. Best travel I’ve ever done, hands down. Thinking of going back this next year. Portugal, maybe.

Got COVID. Wouldn’t recommend it. Zero stars. Had Pax-Mouth, which was like licking a robot’s corroded asshole. Was not the worst I’ve ever been sick but you can definitely feel like, without vaccines and other remediations, COVID could definitely kick down the gate and escape containment inside your body real fucking quick.

Globally, shit kinda sucked. All over the place. I mean, I suppose in a ‘grand scheme’ sorta way, there’s a lot of THINGS SUCK every year, and I do think it’s important to also recognize THINGS DON’T SUCK IN EVERY DIRECTION AND SOMETIMES GOOD THINGS HAPPEN TOO. But it’s hard not to look at climate change and rising vaccine denial and Israel/Palestine and marching fascism and feel like, “we’re really nailing it right now.” But, but, but, locally, at least, I’ll note: we kicked Moms For Liberty out of our school district. And M4L is dying fast on the vine right before our very eyes, and that’s something I’ll cherish forever.

The death of Twitter was a real good news bad news thing — good news because, honestly, Twitter had gone rotten long before Musk took over, and he just pulped it into rancid wine and tried to make everyone drink it. But losing it sucked, too, because you lose real connections, real community, and also for creatives, we lost a pretty useful way to reach the audiences we have earned there. But it’s hard to be there and stay there and support that place. (See also: Substack, now. If you’re on it, I’d start finding a way off it.) Bluesky has been a pretty great replacement. Threads less so — it’s good in a lot of ways, but just this week alone there’s been a lot more FIGHTY RAGEBAIT ENGAGEMENT going on and it’s tiresome and also the UI is fucking Byzantine.

The continued rise of AI in art and writing is hopefully soon going to do what all of these (at the core) lazy get-rich-quick bullshit jawns do over time — like NFTs and all that shit, I’d love to see the air leak out so I can watch the balloon squeak around the room in a pathetic death spiral. It’s theft, and a lazy theft at that — you know it’s theft because, as others have said before me, it wouldn’t exist without other art and writing doing the work of pre-existing. It feeds on that, chews it up, spits it back out. Folks who use it, they just have an idea and want a Work Button to make the robot shit out their idea. But even there, the execution is based on everybody else’s work, not your own mind — you just fed it a line of words and now it’s crapping out a digitized regurgitate of someone else’s effort. (Never mind the environmental impact.)

Let’s be shut of it.


So, 2024.

Um. Whew. Yeah. I dunno!

There are of course concrete things I’ve got going on — I have to finish The Staircase in the Woods and send that off to the editor. I have to pitch my next middle grade. I’ll have Monster Movie! out in the world come late September. I’ll soon show you a cover for that and a cover for the paperback version of Black River Orchard, too.

I think the hardest thing that’ll happen professionally this year will be having to pitch new books — you know, a writing career, I often note, is one of peaks and valleys, and more to the point, cliffs you’re always about to drive off of, and so much of our careers are spent simply trying to furiously get a ramp built at the edges so we can jump the valleys instead of crashing down into them. And that means this year is one of those inflection points where I have to see if the ramps I’ve been building will carry my ass over the void and to the next stable landmass, or if I’m going to be extracting myself from a fiery wreck and have to climb back up and out. There’s no shame in that, it happens to all of us, we all have careers that catch fire once in a while, but obviously the hope is, the ramp holds, and I jump the gap.


Publishing is definitely continuing its trend of “going through some things,” and it’s always weird any given year but the weirdness quotient seems to have gone up, up, up. And that’s for a lot of reasons, I suspect. The rise of AI, the impact of pandemic emotions and trauma, the cascading weirdness of inflation slash greedflation, the crash-and-burn of reliable social media. Best we can do is hold tight to the bucking beast and try not to get thrown.

Otherwise, who knows? I can’t predict what the year will bring. I will try to enter it creatively and with curiosity and with compassion — I enter it with the desire to keep telling stories and keep reading them in turn. I’ll travel, long as the pandemic lets me. I’ll keep trying to blog here, because it remains a stable place for me to set up shop and say my silly bloviating shit. And I hope you’ll keep coming along with me here, too, on whatever this odd journey is, until this odd journey ends. (Which, hopefully, will be a good long time from now, but that’s never guaranteed, is it?)

All right. To close it out, here are some of my favorite photos of the past year.

Have a wonderful NYE, don’t drink lighter fluid, do kick 2023 out the door with the heaviest boot you can find, let’s all wish each other the best version of ourselves in the year going forward, and I’ll see you next week sometime with my “writerly resolution” for 2024.


Why Aren’t There More Pandemic Novels, Anyway?

It’s weird being in the midst of a pandemic and then watching a film or a show or reading a book set in the absolute present where… there appears to have never been a pandemic. Right? Everybody just gets in elevators and on planes, unmasked; they share food; they cram into crowded bars; nobody tenses up when they’re in a movie theater and they hear someone cough not once, not twice, but three times which to me is always the Bat Signal for, “this motherfucker is about to give me COVID, isn’t he?”

Why is this, exactly? Why does fiction — whether on our screens or on the page — seem to want to avoid the subject? This question popped up on Bluesky (Katie Mack was talking about it, and Sarah Weinman, and then some other authors jumped in) and I find it to be a really interesting question without any single answer, but I do feel like I wanna explore it a little. So here are my (admittedly quite hasty) thoughts —

a) If it’s a book, you have to understand, publishing is glacial. A book you read in the last year was written more than a year before it hit shelves, and maybe even longer ago — as such, it was possibly being written in the midst of the first year or two of COVID, which is to say, during a rather chaotic period of history that is hard to immediately replicate. The story you want to tell may not easily accommodate a months-long lockdown or mask-wearing or even the political shit-show that (by and large) right-wingers turned basic science into. It’s like, once you start talking about the pandemic, you kinda have to talk about Trump and maybe Biden and honestly, a lot of that actual reality ended up more surreal and satirical than your average bit of popular fiction. I mean, we had a president more or less advocating for shoving light bulbs up your ass to burn out the mean-bad virus, yeah? It feels like once you start to get into the weeds on COVID, you’re really really in the fucking weeds and — honestly, current fiction is not up to the task of merely glimpsing our current reality. It’s either a snout-to-tail full-throated turn-your-head-and-cough exam or it’s going to do a weak, watered-down job of it.

b) And, you know, fiction — particularly popular fiction — doesn’t often acknowledge The Big Shit. It just doesn’t. It’s safe to say that most fiction exists in a sort of interstitial alt-universe of each author’s making — most fiction doesn’t sit there and reference the dozen-plus Very Bad Things currently happening, from 9/11 to Trump to Ukraine to Israel/Palestine to school shootings to whatever. They might become background information — something a character says or thinks, or a news story someone hears. But it’s rarely foregrounded, because once you foreground, say, school shootings, now it’s a School Shooting Book or a School Shooting Movie and it’s almost as if the Troubling Topic becomes a subgenre in and of itself.

c) And that means you really don’t want to get it wrong. Or half-ass it. How often have you been watching a TV show where they’re like, “wow this pandemic is bad” during one episode and then by the next they mostly aren’t really acknowledging it anymore? It has this hand-wavey vibe to it. “We acknowledge the Very Bad Thing and made serious sounds and nodded our heads concerningly, but now it’s fixed.” It has that Very Special Episode vibe. “This episode is about Sexual Abuse, but next episode, nobody is going to remember any of this shit, welcome to the memory hole.” On the one hand, I suppose this is actually a fair representation of reality — because in this reality, we memory hole a lot of shit, including but not limited to the pandemic. And certainly both in fiction and in our lives we’ve seen or even experienced that sense of “well of course it’s real, but oops, I forgot my mask and I’m in a crowded grocery store, fingers fucking crossed, I guess, I’m sure it’s fine.” And it usually is fine, mostly, generally, so we grow comfortable and forget to do it more the next time and… so our overall carelessness grows. As such, I guess it’s fair to see that on TV, but it also feels all the more dismissive and shitty, somehow, and so I think I’d prefer to see it not acknowledged at all instead of just half-assedly pointed at as if to say, “Wow, remember that? Glad we dealt with it for one episode. Moving on, now.”

d) I’m very, very sure there is some pressure from publishers and film studios and such to scrape the pandemic from fiction. I’ve struggled with this in regards to climate change — it’s like, climate change is real, climate change is daily, and I often have characters reference it in passing, sometimes in real moments of anxiety and hey, sometimes as jokes. Not because it’s not HUGELY SERIOUS but because people are messy and we often deal with the absolutely worst shit with gallows humor. And I’ve gotten notes from editors that are like, is this too much, should we pull some of it out? Not the jokes — I mean, the inclusion of it at all. As in, if it’s not relevant to the story, why are they bringing this up? Nobody is forbidding me from including it, to be clear, but I think the note is a fair one. I’m writing books that ostensibly are meant as entertainment. I’m not actively trying to bum you out or remind you of the very real nightmares at your door. There’s a lot of talk sometimes about the “responsibility” an author has and I honestly cannot say what that responsibility is — it’s certainly not a hard-coded one, not a responsibility that is a true moral obligation, because that’s a slippery fish. But at the same time it’s kinda hard to try to write about real people and not have them suffer from… real problems and real anxieties and sometimes that means pointing at real shit going on. Which leads me to:

e) I don’t know that I always want to see it. Listen, sometimes I read books as a way to escape the *gestures broadly toward the outside world* — I think it’s fair to say the pandemic was, and arguably is, a mechanism for a certain kind of trauma. It was, and is, traumatic. And while fiction can be a uniquely good place to deal with that kind of trauma, fiction is also a very good place to either come at that trauma at an oblique angle or simply be a portal away from it. I’d argue this is probably why genres like romantasy and horror are both having a moment right now — they are particular forms of escapism. Horror is about the trauma, but not about the specific trauma: it’s like a narrative vaccine where we deal with existential terrors and the varieties of evil but at a way that is either parallel to or perpendicular to our current actual horrors. Side-booted exposure therapy, of a sort. Whereas romantasy — still dealing with and offering some very big feelings — is maybe a more overt doorway out of the current reality in which we live. And while I think some might have a dim view of both of these genres, I think readers are smart people who know what they want and know what their needs are — ironically, sometimes the effects of the pandemic on us (and lo, those effects are many) force us to mitigate the trauma of that time in whatever way we can. Fiction can deal with things head-on, at a side-angle, or by looking the other direction entirely — and sometimes that’s a fault of how we memory hole things, but sometimes I think it’s also a mentally protective measure.

More to the point, sometimes we want to look at a thing and study it.

And sometimes we’re too close to it, the wounds are too fresh — and all we can do is look away.

Meaning, while I think sometimes this is an act of culturally memory holing the pandemic, I also think it’s sometimes just our way of dealing with big, horrible shit. Is that healthy? Probably not? I don’t know? It’s also probably not healthy to sit and think about any one horrible thing all the time? Ennh? You know how a lot of people don’t want to read books where the dog character dies? Dogs actually die, we know. We’re not trying to memory hole the reality of dog death. We already know how absolutely fucking shitty a dog dying is in real life, and I think it’s that we don’t want that in a story we’re reading, particularly escapist entertainment.

So what does this mean?

I have no idea! Like I said, I just wanted to… talk it out, think about it a little bit. See what jostles loose.

I think certainly it’s easy (“easy”) enough for writers of contemporary fiction to reflect our present reality, whereupon there is a pandemic, but it’s more naturalized — vaccines and masks and tests and all that. So if you’ve come here looking for writing advice on that front (ha ha, a huge mistake, you fool), then I guess it would be that. Let the pandemic become background noise in your contemporary fiction because, it’s kind of that now, already, in our reality. (For the record, this is not a sentiment as to how we should view the pandemic as some second-tier, half-existent thing. The pandemic is active and many still suffer from debilitating effects, and if you’re inclined to seek out the work of Ed Yong, particularly on the subject of Long COVID, I encourage you to do so immediately.) I think further, when you do include it, it should be done with empathy, because to me, empathy is king when we write our characters (of any genre!) and the realities in which they live.

I do think discussion around all this ends up (inadvertently, at least) also asking the question again of “What are fiction’s responsibilities and obligations are when it comes to…” Okay, yes, the pandemic, but also, well, anything, really. And I don’t know what that answer is, or if there’s even a single answer. I think when you assign fiction too many obligations as to how it relates to reality, you end up assigning moral rules to fiction, at which point it runs dangerously close to becoming preachy and self-indulgent, if not outright propaganda. I’ve seen some uncomfortable assertions that a character who does bad things is an authorial endorsement of those bad things — which, wow, what? No! We’re not writing instruction manuals over here. We’re writing fiction. It’s a playground, it’s shadow puppets, it’s a safe space to poke at the edges of empathy and fantasy and reality.

But it’s also pretty wacky to suggest fiction exists in a null void with no consideration for how it deals with readers and the reality of that readership. Stories are an echo and they bounce around and reach all kinds of ears and it’s worth thinking about what that means for those who receive the stories and how they’re going to receive them.

Anyway. Fuck. I dunno. This got much, much longer than I thought it was going to, so whaddya gonna do?

The answer, like many things, is probably somewhere in the hazy middle, and I think the best thing we can do is be suspicious of easy answers and of people who demand everything be one way, and not the other. People are messy. Writers are messy, readers are messy, and the world in which we live is real fucking messy, and how fiction presents that mess is not easily designed. We’re all shooting arrows at teleporting bullseyes.

I’d also guess we’ll start to see more pandemic reality reflected in contemporary fiction, but again, in that “background noise” way — and we may also see overall less contemporary fiction just because it’s more pleasant to not deal with reality right now. And honestly, I get it.


Good luck. Also, there’s a lot of COVID out there right now, the pandemic is no fiction, so maaaaaybe put a mask on your face when you’re out there?