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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Literary rotisserie league?

I love Steven Johnson's blog post about's text stats. Johnson used to be a grad student in the English department at Columbia but left to write books that were not dissertations. I've always wanted to tell him what a huge influence his books have been on my English career--I often talk and write about issues he raised in Emergence and Everthing Bad is Good for You. This is my favorite essay he's written about how science fiction imagines robot intelligence. On his blog, he's graphed his own Readability index against titles by Malcolm Gladwell, Christopher Hitchens, Steven Pinker--as well as Michel Foucault and Frederic Jameson. Here are two of his readings of the graph he plotted:
3. Check out Foucault and Jameson. They are literally on another planet. The top spot goes to Jameson's "Postmodernism" book which I read like scripture my first year of grad school: 53 words per sentence! Interestingly, most of the variation shows up in sentence length not in word complexity -- you often hear people complain about the impenetrable jargon of critical theory, but it looks here like the sentence length is as least as much of a culprit.

4. I would love to see some stats on dynamic range here: not just average sentence length, but how much the sentence lengths vary over the course of each book. One of the things I learned when I started writing in a less academic style (largely when I was doing FEED) is the importance of throwing in a very short sentence for emphasis at regular intervals. (Come to think of it, I may have learned this from reading Gladwell's early pieces in the New Yorker.)

I'll take the fourth part first: I would love to see a dynamic range study. That's something that I pay attention to in my own writing (although less so on this blog). Johnson jokingly proposes a literary rotisserie league to play with these text stats--in the fiction division, I'll take Joan Didion, you take Richard Powers, I'll take Amy Hempel, you take Raymond Carver.

Just Being Difficult: Academic Writing in the Public Arena by Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb is a great collection of essays about how criticisms of bad writing in academic theory tend to follow predictable paths. Johnson obviously isn't doing that here--his interest is in how authors who write for a larger audience use long and short sentences--but the book is really good at situating "bad writing" in historical contexts. There's a good essay on Hume's style and another one that questions Martha Nussbaum's charges about Judith Butler's style.

These questions aren't new ones; I love Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) for its sheer weirdness of style, which he defends in his introduction:
My Reader sees, why I commit the Fault of περιαυτία (talking about himself), which appears in the mention of these Minute-passages, ‘tis to excuse whatever other Fault of Inaccuracy, or Inadvertency, may be discovered in an History, which hath been a sort of Rapsody, made up (like the Paper whereupon ‘tis written!) with many little Rags, torn from an Employment, multifarious enough to overwhelm one of my small capacities.

You can see him anticipate the criticisms of this "Rapsody" of names, books, Greek and Latin phrases, and puns in this paragraph:
It will not be so much a Surprise unto me, if I should live to see our Church-History vexed with the Anie-mad-versions of Calumnious Writers, as it would have been unto Virgil to read his Bucolicks reproached by the Antibucolica of a Nameless Scribbler, and his Aeneids travestied by the Aenediomastix or Carbilius. Or Herennius taking pains to make a collection of the Faults, and Faustinus of the Thefts, in his incomparable Composures. ... How should a Book, no better laboured than this of ours, escape Zoilian Outrages, when in all Ages, the most exquisite Works have been as much vilified, as Plato’s by Scaliger, and Aristotle’s by Lacantius?

And the criticisms looked familiar. Here's William Douglass writing in 1752 about Mather's intolerable errors, which he believes are a result of Mather's paying more attention to accumulating references inside sentences than to factual accuracy: Christi Magnalia contains “miserable jargon, loaded with many random learned quotations, school-boy exercises, roman-like legends, and barbarous rhimes. An indefinite number of more errors, the repetition of them would be confutation sufficient.” The ironic, but not unexpected, thing is that Douglass's sentences get long and confusing on their own as he tries to excoriate Mather: the thing he dislikes in his rival is the thing he struggles with himself. Neither one found this digressive style conducive to actually finishing their gigantic projects of compiling histories of early America.

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Blogger person in chair on Mon Nov 05, 12:23:00 PM:
This is really funny-- I wrote a very similar blog comment on my site about this too! (I used to work at Feed before coming back to CU)...