Category Archives: Writing

Literature by the Numbers

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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Why We Still Can’t Quit F. Scott Fitzgerald

It’s been almost a century since a 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald penned “The I.O.U.,” a short story that pokes fun at the publishing industry’s obsession with sensation over substance. But until now, you couldn’t read it; it was among Fitzgerald’s still-unpublished papers. Last week, the long-lost story appeared in The New Yorker, another chapter in what the magazine calls its “imperfect romance” with the author. In 1925, Fitzgerald was “was a little too famous to appear often in its upstart pages,” though they were able to snag two poems and three “humorous short stories” before he died in 1940. Read more…

How a Story Becomes a ‘Hopeful Thing’: George Saunders on His Writing Process

George Saunders

At The Guardian, George Saunders reflects on his writing process. The magical, romantic notion where fully formed art leaps from the author’s brain on to the page? It dishonors the writer, the reader, and the work. In reality, it takes “hundreds of drafts” and “thousands of incremental adjustments” to form a story into a “hopeful thing.”

If you love George Saunders, check out the Anton Chekhov-George Saunders Humanity Kit and see what it’s like to take a literature course with Mr. Saunders, for yourself.

We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.

The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.

How, then, to proceed? My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with “P” on this side (“Positive”) and “N” on this side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without despair”). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.

The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?

The interesting thing, in my experience, is that the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in “real life” – funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining.

And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual.

Why do I feel this to be a hopeful thing? The way this pattern thrillingly completed itself? It may just be—almost surely is—a feature of the brain, the byproduct of any rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system. But there is something wonderful in watching a figure emerge from the stone unsummoned, feeling the presence of something within you, the writer, and also beyond you – something consistent, wilful, and benevolent, that seems to have a plan, which seems to be: to lead you to your own higher ground.

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Screw You, and the Icelandic Pony You Rode In On

black and white photo of icelandic ponies

Novelist Nell Zink, in n+1, takes readers on a rambling but sharp journey through writers and novels of the 20th century in the name of exploring realism, compassion, and justice in fiction. Midway through the piece she introduces writer Halldor Laxness; if Icelandic fiction is low on your to-be-read list, get ready to fall into a Google abyss thanks to Zink’s description.

Take Halldor Laxness’s stupendous magnum opus Independent People, surely a gem among novels. It will make you want to strangle your landlord and the Icelandic pony he rode in on, and that’s a fine thing; a shift of power to a larger class of people can transform society in positive ways. But it’s just a story. The 20th-century intellectual project mentioned above doesn’t happen to Laxness. He’s all about injustice. His is not an exhaustive analysis of life, just a political one, and it seems accurate mostly because (face it) you know nothing about Iceland in 1900. I mean, by age 15 you could dismiss Gone with the Wind as bullshit, but Independent People will remain plausible to you forever because it’s about farmers in Iceland, the fishing and banking nation that put “ice” in its name as a warning to would-be farmers. There’s not going to be a meta moment when Laxness asks why you bought a long novel about starving children just so you could watch them starve.

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The Anton Chekhov-George Saunders Humanity Kit: An Introduction

A little over three years ago I asked George Saunders whether I could sit in on one of his MFA classes at Syracuse, and, flabbergastingly, he said okay.

This opportunity seemed particularly valuable at a time when education privatizers and MOOC-peddlers were busily attempting to equate “education” with “that which can be bubbled in on a Scantron form.” Saunders’ work is very particularly about human qualities, fallibility, the unexpected; dissonance, misapprehensions; comedy; mystery; beauty. Immeasurable and incommensurate things. What he’d already taught me, just as a reader of his fiction, was and remains the diametric opposite of anything you could answer by multiple choice.

MFA studies consist largely of working on individual students’ writing, in conditions too sensitive for me to be barging in on with a tape recorder. But George’s students were also required to take “ENG 650 (Forms): The Russian Short Story in Translation (for Writers),” a class devoted to learning structures and techniques that might effectively be pilfered from the Russian masters—and that one, I could attend.

My instructions were as follows:

Syllabii attached – looks like you’ll be there for the Chekhov “About Love” trilogy – usually the best class of the year. It’s Bowne Hall 101 or 110 – it says on the sheet. The easiest thing to do is to park at the University Sheraton and have them give you a campus map – it’s a short (though uphill) walk… I’d say read the stories just a few days before and if you really want to do it the way we do it, write a little essay on each, or on the three (they’re linked).

I’ve wrestled with how to write about the resulting experience in a way that would most clearly transmit the benefits I received to readers. I’ve reread the stories many times in the years since, and it’s always acutely pleasurable—increasingly so, in fact. The repetition in slightly different circumstances is something like the telling of a literary rosary; the same ideas seen and considered through all different prisms of personality, time and circumstance grant a newly deepened awareness each time. This is the sensation I sought to reproduce in what follows.

In the end I made this kit, which provides a number of methods by which you can experience The Little Trilogy, and George Saunders’ teaching methods, on your own, according to your own purposes.

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Explore the kit