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Literature by the Numbers

Jessica Gross | Longreads | March 21, 2017 | 2,982 words
Posted inBooks, Fiction, Nonfiction, Profiles & Interviews, Story

Literature by the Numbers

Data journalist Ben Blatt takes his a mathematical approach to the writers of fiction.
Photo credit: Sierra Katow

Jessica Gross | Longreads | March 2017 | 12 minutes (2,982 words)

If you’ve ever taken a writing class—or enrolled in high school English—you’ve probably been advised to use fewer adverbs. But does a glut of adverbs really degrade writing? Moreover, do the writers who’ve given this advice even follow it?

This is just the opening gambit of data journalist Ben Blatt’s deep dive into the mathematics of literature. In his new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, Blatt examines the stylistic fingerprints of writers (which follow them even when they write under pen names in different genres), whether Americans are “louder” than Brits in their writing, the differences between how men and women write, whether books are getting simpler (yup), and many other curiosities.

Blatt has a penchant for numbers. In his first book, I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back (co-written with his friend Eric Brewster), Blatt mathematically engineers the ideal baseball road trip. In this new book, he makes a convincing case that words aren’t any less suited for mathematical analysis than baseball is—and that data can actually help us see and appreciate rule-breaking that really works. We spoke by phone about why he’s drawn to treating art as data, as well as some of his most compelling findings.

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I’m not sure if you chose the title Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve or if your publisher did—but if it was you, I wondered if you could walk me through that choice. Was that finding the most delightful to you?

So, the title was a collaboration between me and the publisher. But what we were going for was, the book covers a lot. It covers the reading level of New York Times Best Sellers, the adverb use of your classic authors, the difference in how men and women write, book cover design—and with this title, we were going for a bit of intrigue, and a bit of the possibilities of combining numbers and writing, or science and art. And yes, the specific finding about Nabokov was very exciting when I stumbled across it.

In an interview, Ray Bradbury had said his favorite word was “cinnamon.” If you look at the numbers, he actually does use the word “cinnamon” at a high rate. And his reasoning for liking cinnamon was that it reminded him of his grandmother’s pantry. If you look at a bunch of other words that relate to pantries, spices and smells, he also uses those at an extremely high rate. So I repeated that experiment on a hundred other authors, not knowing what to expect or if anything would come up.

For Nabokov, I found that his favorite word was “mauve,” and that struck me as a bit curious. And then I remembered, and found in some further reading, that he had synesthesia. He wrote in his autobiography about how when he would write a certain sound or letters, he would visualize, automatically, that color in his head. And mauve was one of them. I thought this was a nice way of showing that there’s not an opposition between the numbers and the words. This is probably what he would say his favorite word was anyway, but the numbers do back it up.

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