"I suppose if we were all androids it wouldn't matter," says Angel Edwards, as she thumbs through historical romance novels in a Bay Area bookstore.
"Just press a button and we can get a book. What's next? How can a computer know about feelings? I wouldn't buy it," she says
"I think it's bogus," says Angela Spangler, another browser in the women's fiction section. "There wouldn't be enough emotions."
Some writers also deplore the idea of a computer writing about matters of the heart or anything else.
"It's a shock," says Jane Bonander, a Bay Area writer whose works include "Heat of a Savage Moon," "Secrets of a Midnight Moon" and the upcoming "Forbidden Moon."
"I'm stunned," she says. "I hate to think it has come to this. I don't think it will be very threatening. I get mail from women who write to me about the characters as though they are real people. They can't do that with a computer."
"It must be a joke," says Veronica Sattler, a Pennsylvania romance writer whose "Highland Fire" will be published this month. "I suspect this computer is going to turn out some bad stuff. I can't imagine anyone buying it. I can't imagine any of my readers taking it seriously."
But Maggie Davis, who writes women's fiction from her home in Florida, is willing to give Hal a chance: "A computer could probably do a better job than Jacqueline Susann. You could program a computer to be tasteless."
To be sure, writers aren't about to be replaced. Computer programs can analyze grammar, syntax and even spit out a string of words. But they lack "common-sense reasoning," says Robert Wilensky, a professor at UC Berkeley who specializes in artificial intelligence.
"They don't have the faculties to understand what they just wrote," he says. "We are not going to put writers out of work."
The book by Hal, though, is getting slightly better reviews than anything written by Susann, whose "Valley of the Dolls" garnered critical disdain and sold 26 million copies.
Novelist Thomas Gifford, in a review for USA Today, compared the computer-crafted story with "American Star: A Love Story," by Jackie Collins and concluded, "If you like this stuff, you'd be much, much better off with the one written by the computer."
The Dead Jackie Susann Quarterly, a campy, irreverent New York City publication for Susann enthusiasts, calls "Just This Once" a triumph. "It truly captured Jackie's style of almost freakishly unrelated adjectives strung before nouns to create sketches of people and place that both hold your attention and question how this woman ever sold a book. . . . She would be proud."
It took French two years find a publisher. "My agent went to all the big publishers, and they said, 'We really like the book,' " French says. "But they wouldn't touch it. Every publisher said, 'I can see lawsuits coming down the pike.' I did not violate copyright laws. I never used more than two words of Susann's in a row."
French, who insists he's a genuine fan of Susann's work, is planning another novel. "People say, 'Do Shakespeare.' Yeah, right. There's 100 years off my life.
"It would be easier for me to do another Jacqueline Susann," he says. "Let's be honest: She writes in a formula style.
"A sequel could work," he adds, because, in "Just This Once," as plotted by Hal, "nobody dies."