Top crime writer raises alarm as ‘robot novelists’ threaten to destroy reading | Books | Entertainment

May 29, 2024
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Ruth Ware has raised the alarm about AI 'authors'

Ruth Ware has raised the alarm about AI ‘authors’ (Image: Mike Whorley Photography)

Bestselling thriller writer Ruth Ware fears artificial intelligence is being used to churn out legions of poor novels that will make it harder for human authors to survive. With most already struggling to make a living, and many having to supplement their income with other jobs, the writer of the critically acclaimed The It Girl and Zero Days, believes AI tools, such as ChatGPT, will only make things harder.

Ware, programming chair of the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate this July, says: “Discoverability is already the biggest problem for writers and AI is only going to make that worse because there’s going to be an inordinate amount of ChatGPT-written novels, which are, to be honest, not great.

“If it was simple to write a good novel, every human being would do it, let alone every computer. And it’s hard to pin down exactly what that X-factor is.

“I try to teach writing and it’s very difficult to put into words what makes a good book. I don’t always know it myself until I read someone else’s and wonder, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’”

Having worked in publishing, the Brighton-based author says the biggest issue arising from AI may end up being a slew of poorly-written, AI-generated books swamping the market and making it tougher for readers to discover emerging talent.

She adds: “That will unfortunately make it much harder for people to find what they’re actually looking for and might, ultimately, turn readers off, because if you buy a book that has a great cover, sounds like it’s really good, and then the plot doesn’t hang together, that’s not good for crime writing or writing, full stop.

“Anything that makes it harder to discover the real gems is a concern. It’s not taking away from the number of diamonds in the diamond mine, it’s just increasing the amount of earth around, making them that much harder to find. I think that’s the biggest risk at the moment.”

The 46-year-old describes being asked to chair the world’s leading crime writing festival, supported by the Daily and Sunday Express, as her “absolute dream come true”.

She recalls going to its first ever year in the North Yorkshire spa town in 2003, when she was an aspiring writer working in publishing, then returning as an author in 2015.

“I just remember looking at these star-studded panels and thinking, ‘If I ever get on a panel, I’ll know I have made it as a crime writer’,” she continues.

Ware’s first two bestselling novels, In A Dark, Dark Wood and The Woman in Cabin 10, which were modern takes on classic locked room mysteries, have drawn comparisons to the work of one of her writing heroines, Agatha Christie.

So it’s fitting to be chairing a festival held every year at The Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, where Christie famously spent 11 days avoiding the public spotlight after suddenly and mysteriously disappearing in December 1926.

“I didn’t set out to write modern-day Agatha Christies, and when people pointed it out to me, I think I was a bit shocked and surprised,” she admits.

“But the more I thought about it, the more I realised I owe Christie an enormous debt. She was one of the first crime writers I read.

“She’s the person who taught me what a crime novel should look like.” Ware adds: “The reason the festival in Harrogate is where it is, is because of the legacy of Christie. So it does feel like a really lovely symmetry to be able to chair a festival not just in the town she disappeared to, but at the very hotel where she went into hiding.

“It’s literally walking in her footsteps, which feels particularly special.”

In her own plot twist, it’s just been revealed that two-time Oscar nominee Keira Knightley, 39, is set to star in a new film adaptation of Ware’s 2016 thriller, The Woman in Cabin 10, for Netflix.

The mega casting was announced two days after the launch of the 2024 Harrogate festival earlier this month. “Nobody told me that one of the hardest parts about being a writer would be keeping amazing secrets,” Ware says.

Knightley will play travel journalist Lo Blacklock, who is covering a luxury cruise ship when she sees a woman being thrown overboard in the middle of the North Sea.

But having raised the alarm, she is told that all the passengers and crew are apparently accounted for. Despite the doubts of her fellow passengers, she doggedly searches for answers, putting her own life in danger.

Like all of Ware’s books, it’s a taut psychological thriller with an impossibly addictive plot, pounding pace and electrifyingly claustrophobic feel.

As one of the leading lights in the reinvention of the psychological thriller over recent years – other exponents include Lisa Jewell, Erin Kelly and Louise Candlish – Ware is aware of the competing genre of “cosy-crime”, or “up-lit”, as it’s sometimes known.

“Every year, there’s a piece in the literary press saying the psychological thriller is dead and everyone’s reading something else,” she chuckles. “Luckily that doesn’t seem to be the case in the real world, but for some reason, everybody seems determined to call time on the psychological thriller.”

Despite this, sales are on the increase and there have been dozens of hit TV adaptations in recent years.

“Writers like Lisa Jewell are absolutely smashing it here and in the US,” Ware continues. “There’s a real hunger for writing about the kind of issues women face in their everyday lives.

“Let’s be honest, most of us probably aren’t going to stumble across a murder or find ourselves marooned on a desert island, as in my next book, but we’re still having to deal with toxic relationships or difficulties at work. Very often, these are the issues psychological thrillers are talking about, just in a really heightened way.

“I think it was the writer Julia Crouch who coined the term ‘domestic noir’, and while it doesn’t sum up all psychological thrillers, there can be a very domestic, ordinariness about them that’s incredibly compelling.”

Pictured from left Simon Theakston, Ruth Ware, Vaseem Khan and Mick Herron

Pictured from left Simon Theakston, Ruth Ware, Vaseem Khan and Mick Herron (Image: Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival)

There’s nothing ordinary about the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, taking place as usual in Harrogate, from July 18 to 21.

One of the world’s longest-running, and certainly most prestigious, celebrations of crime writing, it’s shaping up to be another barnstorming event.

“There were two things I really wanted to achieve with the festival, and one was to just showcase our brilliant, bloody genre in all of its diversity,” beams Ware. “There’s crime out there on every subject, for every background, for everybody.

“I honestly believe there’s nothing that you can’t explore tackling crime fiction and no reader who can’t find something to love in the genre, whether it’s psychological thrillers or cosy crime or a hard-boiled whodunnit, there’s something there for everybody.

“The other thing I think is particularly special about Harrogate, and the reason I love it so much, is that it’s one of the most reader-centric festivals out there.

“At some festivals, the authors kind of hide away in the green room and there’s a divide between the readers and the, quote-unquote, talent. But Harrogate’s not like that. It’s just people who love books hanging out together, shooting the breeze, having a pint of Theakstons and enjoying the sunshine. That’s what makes it so special.”

Asked who she’s most looking forward to seeing, Ruth chuckles: “That’s a bit like being asked to choose my favourite child!

“I’m interviewing Richard Osman, so I’m looking forward to grilling him pretty harshly. And I can’t wait to hear from Vaseem Khan and Abir Mukherjee who are appearing together. They’re always hilarious.

“In my own space of psychological thrillers, I’m really looking forward to hearing what Erin Kelly has to say and Dorothy Koomson is a fellow Brighton author so I know she’ll be utterly brilliant, but we’ve got a terrific line-up. I’m proud to be involved.”

Her favourite panel, nodding to her thoughts on the growing role of AI in life and writing, is “From PI to AI”. “It’s about showcasing the more speculative side of crime fiction,” she explains. “Parts of the genre people don’t necessarily immediately think about.”

Ware is chairing this year's Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival

Ware is chairing this year’s Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival (Image: Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival)

Following a handful of complaints over the lack of authors of colour in the 18-strong longlist for the festival’s Crime Novel of the Year award, Abir Mukherjee blamed “issues within the industry rather than the judging process”.

He said: “Given that relatively few non-white authors are published, we need to accept that there will be years without representation.”

Ware agrees: “Publishing needs to do much better at being diverse from the ground up. We need more diversity of editors and staff. And we absolutely need more diversity of books.

“Once that part of the puzzle is in place, it will feed through to much more diverse submissions to prizes and, hopefully, more diverse winners. Diversity is hugely important to the festival and me personally, which I think is reflected in our programme.”

As for her own next book, Ware describes One Perfect Couple as a mix of the TV series The Traitors and Big Brother, with a little Love Island and some murder.

“The best reality TV takes ordinary people and puts them in weird artificial situations and that’s why I connected with The Traitors so much. It was a cast of completely regular people you could imagine hanging out with in the pub or meeting in the supermarket.

“Most of my own fictional contestants are working together to survive because, basically, there’s a huge storm on the first night and they’re suddenly trying to survive for real rather than in the eyes of voting viewers.”

So where did the idea come from?

“I was doing an event with the writer Gillian McAllister, for her book, Wrong Place, Wrong Time, and I can’t remember why but we were talking about reality TV and how easy it would be for a contestant to start murdering their rivals,” she smiles.

“Tensions run high and you see people, literally, at breaking point, and Gillian said as a joke that it ‘sounded like a Ruth Ware novel’. I laughed, and then afterwards, I thought, ‘That does sound like one of my novels’.”

So she wrote it. And AI, as she rightly points out, would never have done that.

One Perfect Couple by Ruth Ware (Simon & Schuster, £18.99) is published on July 18. To pre-order, visit expressbookshop.com or call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832.

For bookings and more details on the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, call 01423 562 303 or visit harrogateinternationalfestivals.com



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