In the past few weeks a non-fiction book has taken the publishing world by storm: The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel. Written by a former literature lead researcher at Apple and an associate professor of English, the book has a compelling blurb:
What if an algorithm could predict which manuscripts would become mega-bestsellers?
Girl on the Train. Fifty Shades. The Goldfinch. Why do some books capture the whole world’s attention? What secret DNA do they share? In The Bestseller Code, Archer and Jockers boldly claim that blockbuster hits are highly predictable, and they have created the algorithm to prove it. Using cutting-edge text mining techniques, they have developed a model that analyses theme, plot, style and character to explain why some books resonate more than others with readers. Provocative, entertaining, and ground-breaking, The Bestseller Code explores the hidden patterns at work in the biggest hits and, more importantly, the real reasons we love to read.
The authors, Archer and Jockers, scanned nearly 5,000 novels into a computer, amongst them 500 New York Times bestsellers, and then programmed the computer to predict which would succeed. Their algorithm returned 80 per cent correct predictions.
Most authors don’t set out with the express aim of writing a blockbuster (unless they have fantastically large egos); they are like EL James, who has said, ‘I never set out to do this. Getting to number one in the New York Times bestseller list wasn’t even a pipe dream.’ As for publishers, they do their best to predict what will sell, but will openly admit that there is no exact science to publishing a blockbuster – remember that JK Rowling was rejected over and over again with Harry Potter.
So a formula that can predict a bestseller is surely very exciting for publishers (can it be applied to the ‘slush pile’?), and for authors (by studying this book’s analysis of theme, plot, style and character, can we write a guaranteed bestseller?). The idea of a computer telling us what to write and publish, however, doesn’t prove to be inspirational.
First, most of the findings of the analysis amount to common sense for writers – for example, that ‘human closeness’ is key in a popular book.
Second, there’s just no predicting the mood of a time. As Knopf editor Carole Baron said to The Atlantic, ‘Can you predict the future in literature and art when you can’t factor in the zeitgeist? We’re always surprised.’
Third, where is the art in analysing books, spotting ‘must haves’ and then inserting them into your fiction – to writing not from the heart but to a formula? What would the future of literature be if books were increasingly written to rule, and purely in order to be bestsellers (remember, some of the very best works of literature are not bestsellers)?
Finally, what about meaning – writing and publishing for the love of it and the fun of it? Where is the meaning and enjoyment in success no longer being at least in part random?
What do you think about analysing books and then writing to rule? I would be very interested to hear your thoughts.
If there is one thing I know about the Spanish – having visited their beautiful country many times and set my most recent fictional works, the Andalucían Nights trilogy, there – it is this: they are fiercely proud of their culture and heritage.
That pride extends to cuisine, it has become apparent in the past weeks, when the Spanish nation united in outrage over a British chef fiddling with their beloved dish paella.
Newspapers have delighted in reporting on the backlash to Jamie Oliver’s simple tweet: ‘Good Spanish food doesn’t get much better than paella. My version combines chicken thighs & chorizo’.
Paella is a traditional dish in Spain, and while regional variations on the ‘pure’ Valencian recipe exist, they never extend past a core list of ingredients, which includes rice, chicken/ rabbit/snails/seafood, green beans, white beans, artichokes, tomatoes, salt, rosemary, paprika, saffron, garlic and olive oil. Nowhere in that list, as you can see, is chorizo.
Spanish respondents on social media were deeply unimpressed by Jamie Oliver’s tweet; reactions ranged from polite but irritated, through to downright vitriolic. So why the fuss? It comes down to pride and a sense of ownership. Paella belongs to the Spanish. It is their dish, made their way. ‘Putting a twist’ on the dish and still calling it paella is offensive and disrespectful.
One group feels so passionately on the definition of paella it set up a website called Wikipaella on which you can see the definitive recipe (Spanish dictionary at the ready). ‘Our objective is to have the majority of people know what an authentic paella from our region is,’ co-founder Guillermo Navarro told the Guardian. ‘We want it to be like pizza – where people can add in whatever ingredients they want, but that they know what a traditional pizza is.’
The comparison to pizza is interesting. It’s no secret that the pizza you eat outside Italy is quite different to the pizza you eat in Italy. How do Italians feel about that? Just as the Spanish do, I think. They don’t like to see their authentic cuisine misunderstood. Just last week Italian chef Antonio Carluccio was bemoaning the state of the spaghetti bolognese served in Britain. He told the Telegraph that spaghetti bolognese does not even exist in Italy. There, ‘it is tagliatelle bolognese, with freshly made tagliatelle and bolognese without any herbs whatsoever’.
So what is a food-lover to cook that won’t offend a nation? May I suggest this:
Les Diners de Gala is a cookbook that offers 136 recipes compiled by the Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala. It’s already topping the bestsellers’ list on pre-orders alone, not for its authentic Spanish recipes, but instead for its highly inventive take on gastronomy. I can guarantee that tweeting ‘Here are the frog pasties I made from Les Diners de Gala; delicious!’ won’t get you in hot water with the Spanish.
In the past week, book news has been dominated by a single story: that of the unmasking of notoriously private Italian author Elena Ferrante.
In case you have missed this story, here are the basics. Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian novelist. In the past few years, her Neapolitan quartet of novels has received widespread attention and acclaim (the last was nominated for a prestigious Italian book award), so that Time magazine named her one of the one hundred most influential people on the planet in 2016.
Famously, from the start of her publishing journey Elena Ferrante has been determined to be anonymous. She wrote to her publisher before her first book was published: ‘I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient.’
Elena Ferrante fans – and there are many – have long accepted that her true identity is not theirs to know; they enjoy her books, not her public persona. They also, in their droves, respect her artistic decision and right to anonymity. Some creatives are even very inspired by her example, in a world where creator has fast become more a commodity than that which is created.
But then, last week, the New York Review of Books published an exposé by an investigative journalist ‘outing’ Elena Ferrante, detailing whom he believes she actually is (I won’t even include the assumed name here, because it is irrelevant and, more to the point, disrespectful).
No doubt the New York Review thought this would be a discussion-provoking article, but it was not prepared for the massive backlash from people all around the world who were outraged by this invasive reporting and defended vehemently the author’s right to anonymity. The Times Literary Supplement put it best: ‘He thinks he has put us out of our misery, but no-one really wanted to know the identity of Elena Ferrante.’
Here are my thoughts on this incident:
- All people have a right to privacy, and when a person has set clear boundaries, it is wrong to cross those boundaries.
- A writer – and, indeed, any creative – is not public property. The TES likened this journalist’s exposé to that of a corrupt politician. A politician is a public servant and thus in that sense is public property and may be scrutinised and of course exposed for bad behaviour. But a writer who has done nothing but silently write is not open for exposure.
- In revealing the author behind the pen name, the journalist has ruined some of the pleasure for readers. ‘Anonymity gave Ferrante’s readers a hard-to-define pleasure – it left them with a precious space in which to fantasise about her’ (BBC). Psychoanalyst Fiona Sinclair told the BBC: ‘We all have a tabula rasa when we read a book, a private world that we create, and Ferrante doubled this effect with her anonymity… Her anonymity was generous, allowing her readers the freedom to imagine her as both the protagonist and the author.’
- How must the author herself feel? How violated? Will this affect her ability to write more novels? ‘Anonymity lets me concentrate exclusively on writing,’ she had told The Guardian. She had told Vanity Fair, ‘I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.’ What right has a journalist to cause that pain?
- Is this act, as many are saying, one of ‘masculine aggression, meant to take Ferrante down a peg’ (Digg)?
- I wonder how much investigative work the journalist, now famous, will get be offered now. Sadly, I expect the answer is ‘plenty’.
What do you think about this news story? I would be very interested to hear your thoughts.
A question I am asked often in interviews is this: ‘What advice would you give to a new or aspiring novelist?’ My response is always:
Write from the heart. Be true to yourself and don’t compromise to please the market. Markets change, fads come and go; your work will remain.
It strikes me that the modern writer may find this much more difficult than writers of a decade or more ago, because of one word: marketing. A little word, but one imbued with an awful lot of importance in the publishing industry. Authors are told they must write books that fit neatly into genre categories and conform to the norms in order to please readers; in short, they must think, before writing, what will sell?
Two recent news stories brought this issue to light. First, the Wall Street Journal profiled a newly published book entitled Bottom’s Dream, by German author Arno Schmidt. What is notable about this book, which is a novel about interpreting Edgar Allan Poe’s works? Its length, predominantly. It has 1,325,000 words, which equates to 1,496 pages. The resulting tome weighs more than 13 pounds.
The article made much of the challenges posed by the size of the book. Booksellers had to resort to creative means to store the books (two to a box) and display them. One reader has said he’s reading it on the floor; others expressed concern about the time it will take to read the book (years?). The verdict from literary website founder Michael Orthofer: ‘I suspect it will mainly be a conversation piece. I’m not sure about a coffee-table addition – it would crush mine.’
Clearly, this isn’t a book that is highly marketable – the 70-dollar price tag alone puts it out of most readers’ reach. But it is the book that Arno Schmidt had in him to write; it is his from-the-heart novel that he wrote without obeying genre rules.
Meanwhile, Marie Claire magazine ran an article with this headline: ‘I Published My Debut Novel to Critical Acclaim—and Then I Promptly Went Broke’ and this subtitle: ‘On the dark side of literary fame’. Author Merritt Tierce’s debut novel Love Me Back received excellent reviews – The New York Times called it ‘brilliant, devastating’. But there is no second book as yet, because Merritt explains: ‘I haven’t been able to write since the moment I started thinking I could or should be making money as a writer.’
Money comes down to marketing, to writing a book that you think will sell – and thus make money, which allows you to write another book that you think will sell – and thus make money… you get the picture. But in fact, in this case the business of publishing is holding a writer back from writing from the heart – from writing whatever she feels she must write because writing is her way of being.
I have published five novels over the past four years, and I have more in the pipeline. Each of my books is from the heart. For me, the answer to keeping on writing authentically has been to keep a strict division between the business of being an author – social media, emails, working with my publisher on covers and edits – and the creative side. I allot time for each, and I do my utmost to close the door and focus entirely on the job in hand.
When it comes to writing, I set the scene, writing somewhere beautiful that makes me feel inspired, and if I ever feel myself drifting from the moment – thinking about the business of publishing, for example – I take down one of my own books from the shelf and I open it and read a line… and I remember at once what it is about writing that I love, why it is I dreamed from childhood of being a writer, and what legacy I want to leave through my writings.
Are you a writer? Do you struggle to write from the heart? If you are a reader, do you detect a difference in those books that were written for a market and those books that were written purely from the heart? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Any seasoned writer will tell you that writing ‘rules’ abound. Over the past hundred years or so, it has become de vogue for renowned writers and impassioned grammarians to publish ‘rules’ by which others should, they are certain, abide.
Sometimes, these rules have merit – for example, Elmore Leonard’s ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip’ and Henry Miller’s ‘Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand’.
Sometimes, these rules are far more arbitrary – for example, Stephen King bans adverbs, declaring, ‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs’, and Kurt Vonnegut detested semi-colons, saying, ‘All they do is show you’ve been to college.’
For a student of literature – as I was at university, and have remained since through my reading list, which always comprises both modern and classic texts – a truth emerges: a modern style of writing has evolved that is quite different to the classic style.
Today, writers are faced with these core rules:
- Show, don’t tell.
- Write succinctly (omit needless words).
- Choose short words rather than long words, and carefully control the length of sentences and paragraphs.
- Write in the active voice (he opened the door, not the door was opened).
The essence of this modern style is formalised in a very influential American guide called The Elements of Style, first written by William Strunk Jr. and published in 1918, and then revised by E.B. White in 1959. It’s a book that many writers have read and followed. It’s also a book that some – academics among them – have criticised, for being far too rigid and prescriptive.
According to proponents of the modern rules, the resulting narrative is ‘tighter’ and ‘cleaner’. Just as films have become faster paced, with cuts to new scenes more frequently, so do many books have galloping paces and only the bare essentials required to set the scene. ‘Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue,’ Elmore Leonard advised; thus the average novel may employ that verb many times.
Personally, in my own writing I stand somewhere between the old and the new. I take on board modern rules and guidance, but I will always be the writer who was born and shaped out of a love for classic literature. I don’t always use the simplest, shortest word; I use the word that best encapsulates the meaning, and that works poetically. I don’t always break my prose into short, choppy sentences and paragraphs – I write romantic fiction, and the rhythm must be flowing and beautiful. I don’t live in horror of moving into the passive voice; sometimes, the writing is all the better for it. I do use semi-colons, and certainly I use adverbs – there is such a difference between the connotations of ‘Please, he said’ and ‘Please, he said desperately’.
The final popular rule, ‘Show, don’t tell’, is the most interesting to me. It harks back to Chekov’s advice to writers: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ This, above all other rules, most affected me as a novice writer. He is talking of description – of masterfully setting the scene for the reader, so that it is vivid in the mind. All authors of great classic literature adhered to this rule; how well we can picture Dicken’s Fagin, and Brontë’s windswept moor, and Leroux’s Paris Opera House with its disturbed phantom. But Chekov’s guidance has come to be seen as a call for avoiding the time-old tradition of storytelling in favour of story-showing.
Recently, writer Namrata Poddar wrote a fascinating piece for the Lit Hub website entitled ‘Is “show don’t tell” a universal truth or a colonial relic?’. She explores the modern preference in the West for ‘visual’ over oral storytelling – the way people have told stories for centuries. Having found a strong oral tradition in the works of various writers, her conclusion is that ‘what we consume as universal in story craft, literary history, or aesthetic taste is anything but universal’.
Thank goodness, I thought as I read. For each time I have written the word ‘convention’ or ‘rule’ in this article, something deep inside me has clenched uncomfortably. In truth, writing is art, and in art there are no rules – or if rules are laid out, then surely they are made to be broken, for that is the very creation of art.