Just This Once is a 1993 romance novel written in the style of Jacqueline Susann by a Macintosh IIcx computer named "Hal" in collaboration with its programmer, Scott French. French reportedly spent $40,000 and 8 years developing an artificial intelligence program to analyze Susann's works and attempt to create a novel that Susann might have written. A legal dispute between the estate of Jacqueline Susann and the publisher resulted in a settlement to split the profits, and the book was referenced in several legal journal articles about copyright laws. The book had two small print runs totaling 35,000 copies, receiving mixed reviews.
The novel's creation spanned the fields of artificial intelligence, expert systems, and natural language processing.
Scott French first scanned and analyzed portions of two books by Jacqueline Susann, Valley of the Dolls and Once Is Not Enough, to determine constituents of Susann's writing style, which French stated was the most difficult task. This analysis extracted several hundred components including frequency and type of sexual acts and 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." French also created several thousand rules to govern tone, plotting, scenes, and characters.
The text generated by Hal, the computer, was intended to mimic what Susann might have written, although the output required significant editing. French credits Hal's work with "almost 100% of the plot, 100% of the theme and style." French estimates that he wrote 10% of the prose, the computer Hal wrote about 25% of the prose, and the remaining two-thirds was more of a collaboration between the two. A typical scenario to write a scene would involve Hal asking questions that French would answer (for example, Hal might ask about the "cattiness factor" involved in a meeting between two key female characters, and French would reply with a range of 1 to 10), and the computer would then generate a few sentences to which French would make minor edits. The process would repeat for the next few sentences until the scene was written.
Jacqueline Susann's publisher was skeptical of the legality of Just This Once. Susann's estate reportedly threatened to sue Scott French but the parties settled out of court; the settlement involved splitting profits between the parties but the terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
The publication of Just This Once raised questions in the legal profession concerning how copyright law applies to computer-generated works derived from an analysis of other copyrighted works, and whether the generation of such works infringes on copyright. The publications on this topic suggested that the copyright laws of the time were ill-equipped to deal with computer-generated creative works.
The book's publisher Steven Shragis of Carol Group said of the novel, "I'm not going to say this is a great literary work, but it's every bit as good as anything out in this field, and better than an awful lot."
The novel received some positive early reviews. In USA Today, novelist Thomas Gifford compared Just This Once to another novel in the same genre, American Star by Jackie Collins. Gifford concluded: "If you do like this stuff, you'd be much, much better off with the one written by the computer." The Dead Jackie Susann Quarterly declared that Susann "would be proud. Lots of money, sleaze, disease, death, oral sex, tragedy and the good girl gone bad."
Other reviews were mixed. Publishers Weekly wrote, "If the books of Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins seem formulaic, this debut novel of sin and success in Las Vegas outdoes them all. And that, in a way, is the point.... All novelty rests in the conceit of computer authorship, not in the story itself." Library Journal stated "French invested eight years and $50,000 in a scheme to use artificial intelligence to fulfill his authentic, if dubious, desire to generate a trashy novel a la Jacqueline Susann. Shallow, beautiful-people characters are flatly conceived and randomly accessed in a formulaic plot ... a sexy, boring morality tale. Of possible interest to computer buffs for its use of Expert Systems and the virtual promise of more worthy possibilities; others should read Susann." Kirkus Reviews wrote: "The deal here is that author French is not the author, he's just the midwife, having allegedly programmed his computer to write about our times just the way Susann would... almost perfectly capturing glamorous Jackie's turgid but E-Z reading prose style and ultrareliable mix of sex, glitz, dope 'n' despair.... One wonders, though, if French's tale spinning PC will do as well on the talkshows as Jackie did. The computer weenies have been trying to tell us for years, garbage in-garbage out."
See also Procedural generation
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A Romance Novel With Byte : Author Teams Ups With Computer to Write Book in Steamy Style of Jacqueline Susann
August 11, 1993 | JOHN BOUDREAU |
SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
WOODSIDE — 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.
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