“Great prose or not”

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, the statement, backed by facts, “famous writers have more readers.”

It has been a while since I crunched some numbers. The idea came this time from an article written by Mikhail Simkin in the Journal of Quantitative Linguistics. Using the results of a blind test where readers were presented with anonymous excerpts from the novels of Charles Dickens and Edwin Bulwer-Lytton, Simkin showed that:

  • the results were on the level of random guessing – that is up against a giant panda using a specially adapted panda-friendly keyboard, you would in all likelihood lose.

He then argued that:

  • famous writers are different from their obscure colleagues because they have more readers – the corollary being that the quality of writing does not differentiate between them.

As you can imagine this kicked up a bit of a stooshie, which Simkin summarised in another article in the journal of the American Statistical Society, Significance.

They sit around all day, eating bamboo and could probably tell the difference between Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton better than you. Source: Wikipedia.

They sit around all day, eating bamboo and could probably tell the difference between Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton better than you. Source: Wikipedia.

Simkin then went on to develop his argument using data from the Goodreads website. Looking at the top ratings given by readers to the works of Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton, he argued that given the proximity of average top ratings for both writers, once again, what differentiated them was solely the number of readers. All of which got to me  to thinking, what would a similar study show when looking at arch-cultural-rivals Arnold Bennett and Virginia Woolf. Funnily enough, it would look like this:

Watch those numbers stack up.

Which, when turned into a handy bar chart, looks like this:

The mighty bar chart

 

The results are very much in line with those that arose from the study carried out by Simkin, namely that:

  • the difference between the number of ratings for the two writers is noticeable: 2,725 – 91,010 for Virginia Woolf and 41 – 1,788 for Arnold Bennett;
  • the average listed rating is very close for both writers: 3.76 for Virginia Woolf and 3.77 for Arnold Bennett;
  •  Virginia Woolf’s advantage as regards 5 star ratings is small: Virginia Woolf’s average being 26.9% and Arnold Bennett’s being 23.8%,

and of course:

  • “…famous writers just have more readers.”

Objections to all of the above are, like the demons of the man from Gadara, legion. Not the least being, I did not carry out a blind test to distinguish extracts from the works of the two writers. But if nothing else, it has made me consider with a little more depth the validity of any notion of an accepted literary canon. I now have it in mind to repeat the same experiment with Joseph Conrad and H.G.Wells.

Coming up next, The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

If you were wondering, I scored 8 out of 12 on the test. 

Note: I made corrections 23rd May 2014 to the title of the chart, Virginia Woolf’s average and range of ratings for Arnold Bennett following suggestions made by Mikhail Simkin.

 

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I am completely operational, and all my circuits are functioning perfectly.

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week the Book Genome Project.

What would the DNA of a book look like? According to the Book Genome Project it would look like this for Anthony Trollope’s novel The Warden: 

Pandora's Box, and why not?

How do they do this? Here’s what they say on their FAQs page:

Simply put, we trained the computers to read and look for elements of writing style and theme – though differently than a person would – and translate that into an opinion that is consistent across thousands and thousands of books.  In other words, each time the computer looks at a scene, it asks itself, “If I were human, how Dense (among others) would I rate this particular scene?”

Is this anything more than a misplaced metaphor? More than likely. Does that negate the project to measure, not the worth of a book or even its genre, but its structural elements? If this means rejecting the possibility of robots ever reading books I think we’d all agree the answer is a hearty no. 

Why?

In a word meta-study. Back to Trollope. There are eleven of his novels listed in the Book Genome Project. By converting the StoryDNA into a numerical value for each book, then we end up with a graph that looks like this:

Nice, isn't it?

Putting aside any objections – moral, literary, personal – what can we learn from the results? Well, money and family stand out as the two key themes in his work; in second rank, jury trialspolitics, social class and letter writing; coming up in third place extended familypolitical office, romance, time and secrets; and trotting along in fourth Catholic institutions and church services. Despite his love of hunting, all things equine come in at a poor 0.3. It would, of course, be easy to explain the importance of family and money in the light of Trollope’s own difficult childhood where the social leanings of his parents were not equalled by his father’s management of his farm. As it is easy, damnit, let’s go with it. 

Does the Book Genome Project tell us anything we don’t already know? Probably not. It just does it faster. With the results of Trollope’s meta-analysis, I feel I’ve got enough useful insight into his works to pass muster at a Trollope literary do. Of course, what the Book Genome Project can’t do  is tell me how good his books are. For that we still need the human touch. For now.

Enough of the theorising about dystopian futures. I promised you facts and facts you will have. The Voyage of the Beagle is now over, the specimens have been examined and a full report is being written for the Society of Travellers and Gentlefolk.

Putting the text into Textals.

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, what the Textal app can do for you. Oh, and for you too.

After Google Ngrams and Google Trends  comes the wonderful iPhone App Textal. As the developer’s introduction puts it:

Textal is a free smartphone app that allows you to analyze websites, tweet streams, and documents, as you explore the relationships between words in the text via an intuitive word cloud interface. You can generate graphs and statics, as well as share the data and visualizations in any way you like.

It’s easy to use and gives you words clouds that look like this:

How to Live on 24 Hours a DayThis was generated using Arnold Bennett’s self-help book How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, first published in 1910, and it is very intuitive, as you can see. You can build a more detailed picture by selecting a word from the cloud, for example, focusing on the word literature we can see that:

Statistics Or what about those collocations:

Collocations

Word pairings? Why, the work of a moment:

Pairs

And, of course, my own favourite – the graph:

Graph

I wrote a piece about How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. Running that through Textal produced the following cloud:

How to Live on 24 Hours a Day blog post

I’m not sure why the colours but it was after an update and I imagine they show correspondence in the use of words in the text. Now the fun begins. Looking back at the word cloud for Bennett’s book, and passing over the core comprising of words such as one, will and time, it is words such as business and programme that stand out. Not surprising, given that Bennett was writing the book for the growing class of white-collar workers. Looking at the word cloud for my post, it is literary, family, Virginia (Woolf) and servant that stand out. Not surprising, given that I was using Bennett’s book to point out the part played by servants in British society in the opening decades of the twentieth century. And having a go at Virginia Woolf, of course. Do the Textal word clouds point to a wilful misunderstanding on my part of Bennett’s book? Speaking for myself, I would be surprised if it was otherwise.

Should an application such as Textal be used with care, keeping in mind the need at all times for context and the widest perspective possible? Of course it should. But if experience shows us anything, it is that genies do tend to jump out of bottles at the earliest opportunity.

Next time, graphs to show the state of my literary taste.

Middlebrow goes West

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. Graphs abound in this post, plus a chart and a 1949 advert for a television. 

The Lowbrow/Middlebrow/Highbrow debate is not a uniquely British one. Arguments in favour of one or the other have also been voiced by American commentators. In 1950, as part of its centennial celebrations Harper’s Magazine included a survey of the changes in taste that had taken place over the lifetime of the magazine. Written by Russell Lynes, The Age of Taste went on to form the basis for his famous book The Tastemakers, published in 1955. One chapter Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow had not appeared in the original article. It had already been published in the previous year, 1949, and had caused, as they say in Glasgow, a bit of a stooshie. His thesis that in the post-war world traditional social norms were redundant and that position in American society would now be determined by taste caught the attention of  Life Magazine. In April of 1949 it published High-Brow, Low-Brow, Middle-Brow. The strapline left the reader in no doubt as to the form this new America would take:

These are the three basic categories of a new U.S. social structure, and the highbrows have the whip hand.

To help you find out where you fitted into this new world, a chart was provided:

Martini or bourbon? When it came to reading, the different tastes went from “Little Magazines” and solid non-fiction at the top to book club selections in the middle, and pulp books and comics at the bottom.

America was to change but in a way that Russell Lynes hadn’t anticipated. Under Entertainment he had listed ballet (highbrow), theatre, musical extravaganza films and western movies (lowbrow). He didn’t include what was lurking on one of the pages in the same issue of the magazine:

At last!

The US, like Britain, had suspended television broadcasts for the duration of the war. With the war won General Electric switched from making engines for American war planes to making televisions. The $399 price tag, which would buy close on to $4,000 today, barely delayed its millionth sale. The impact on American society was as rapid as it was dramatic

My oh my. Would the whip hand end up in the hands of the middle and lowbrows after all? 70,000,000 television sets and 83% of all households owning more than one set are impressive statistics. Add to them the top ten US television shows from 1955-56 and the highbrows’ days seemed numbered:

The Phil Silvers' Show didn't even get in the top twenty!But, and as much as this pains me, that would be too quick and easy a conclusion to draw. If we look at book sales in that same period, and particularly what the American Census Department called “General Literature and Criticism,” a different picture emerges:

Here comes the cavalry!In a period of rising book sales (religious books helping drive the surge) and despite the recently achieved dominant position of television in American society, books from the category General Literature and Criticism managed to maintain a yearly average of 5% of the total of new titles published in the US. Not, perhaps, evidence of a flourishing democratic intellect but neither a society feeling the lash of the middle and lowbrow whips. If there was a loser in all this, it was probably radio. By 1950, 95% of American families owned a radio. However, when you look at revenues (in millions of dollars) it’s clear that having a radio set in nearly every American home was not a guarantee of year-on-year rising profits:

So it was video after all.

As profound a change as it was (and those figures quoted above, taken from data in the American Censuses for the 1950s, are in millions) it would seem that its nature can still escape us. Television undoubtedly did affect the balance of power between the ‘brows. But just as it is capable of plumbing the depths, American television can equally be innovative, intelligent and funny. Radio, on the other hand, could be argued to be inherently conservative, given its limitations and that this too can be a strength. Our man Bennett was witness to a period of cultural change when, as he said, the large villas of English novelists made rich from American royalties, would be replaced by semi-detached cottages in the London suburbs; while in America “literary palazzos” would spring up beside the Hudson, homes for the new generation of American novelists, who unlike Henry James, would live and work in America and be read around the world. Writing in The North American Review in January, 1912 he commented: 

…the great argument in favor of the future of the American novel…lies in the strenuousness, the variety, and the essential romance of American life.

A return to the norm is due. So, I am reading H.G.Wells’ novel Tono-Bungay as recommended by Arnold Bennett. In the next post, has it added to my literary taste?

The Literary Taste 2012 review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 3,300 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 6 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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