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And Other Experiments in Literature

by Ben Blatt

Pub Date: March 14th, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-5011-0538-8
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Literary criticism by the numbers.

Writers write—and write and write. In fact, notes former Slate staffer Blatt (co-author: I Don't Care if We Never Get Back: 30 Games in 30 Days on the Best Worst Baseball Road Trip Ever, 2014), they write more once they get going than when they started. A useful example is J.K. Rowling, whose first Harry Potter book came in at 78,000 words—but who wrote a follow-up three times as long. “If the unknown Rowling had written an 870-page version of the first book in 1997,” writes the author, “it would likely have had a much harder time getting published (and getting readers to pick it up).” We are able to know things such as book inflation by applying techniques of big data to the corpus of literature. In Blatt’s opening examples, the discussion centers on adverbs, which writers such as Stephen King and Ernest Hemingway have scorned. By doing part-of-speech searches of whole books or even just looking for words that end in -ly (only one class of adverb, as Blatt notes), we can see that those two authors didn’t always practice what they preached—and again, that Hemingway’s early, harder-worked books were leaner than his later ones, True at First Light being almost twice as adverbial as The Sun Also Rises. One takeaway for writers: “The best books—the greats of the greats—do use a lower rate of -ly adverbs.” Statistical approaches to literature have sometimes produced barren results, but Blatt has obvious fun poking around in the stacks, conducting literary experiments that sometimes turn into object lessons: if you want to write like a Brit, use “brilliant,” but not too much, lest you sound like an American trying to sound like a Brit. If you want to avoid ridicule, avoid clichés like “past history.” And always avoid opening with the weather—unless you’re Danielle Steel.

If you want to know how many times Chuck Palahniuk uses the verb “snuff,” this is just the thing. Illuminating entertainment for literary readers.