Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Because what we need is fewer facts faster

Two things, and I promise to be briefer than my last, long-winded post.

One, The Daily Beast (Tina Brown’s latest project) and Perseus Books Group have combined to publish books more quickly.

Instead of taking a year to write and another year to publish — the current standard — these Beast Books will be written in one to three months and published (first, as an e-book; then, in paperback) in another month. The Beast Books writers will be from the Daily Beast stable.

This move should not surprise anyone. The rest of the world has sped up. Why not publishing?

Newspapers and magazines constantly create new content and update their Web sites. The Internet has made it possible for people to publish their thoughts instantly.

Twitter, Facebook, blogs, news sites ... there are a dozen ways to immediately disseminate facts and opinions. By comparison, the book publishing industry looks sluggish.

Two years to write and publish something? In two years, no one will care about vampires or Heath Ledger’s death or Kanye West’s errant behavior.

If there is money to be made, it pays to be punctual; and Beast Books intends to be the first to each party.

This isn’t Perseus’s first foray into speed publishing. It created Book: The Sequel on a shortened timeline for the BookExpo America annual event.

While this is a smart business move, it doesn’t promise more quality writing. A faster timetable means less research, less editing and more dependence on knee-jerk reactions. If you think the Internet ruined responsible reporting, I suspect you’ll also have a bad opinion of Beast Books.

Second, literary magazine Wasafiri asked 25 international authors what was the most influential book of the last 25 years. Three authors said Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. No other book was named more than once.

I agree that Marquez had the most influential book. Literature (both popular and critically acclaimed) has moved toward a combination of the fantastic and realistic. I’d attribute that to Marquez.

Solitude isn’t the first book to insert fantastic elements into the “real world.” But Marquez revolutionized fantasy by treating it as commonplace. He offers no apology or explanation for the improbable things that occur in Macondo.

People come back from the dead. So what? A sleeping sickness swallows the town. Sure, why not?

By treating the impossible as normal, Marquez made everything possible.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

P.S. I hate when people say "At the end of the day." It make Hulk want smash.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

An end to the Hack Test

I’ve been gone for awhile.

I’d explain, but it’s a long story, and not even a long, interesting story. It’s a story that meanders without a point, similar to this prologue. So, instead of explaining why I disappeared, I’ll give you some of the elements involved in my disappearance and let you create a more interesting excuse: a pickup truck, my father-in-law, Wickliffe zoning code and two tons of gravel.

(If you guessed “building a deck,” you’re right… and boring. A better answer would have involved a shootout and a dying wish.)

I have a lot of ground to cover and want to be concise. I’d like to revisit one of Tricia’s comments and, also, the Hack Test one final time before giving it a respite. My co-blogger Tricia (who has carried the weight for me during my absence) and I have what we call the McDonalds Theorum.

Every reader, no matter how erudite, needs a way to unplug. I like the occasional comic book. Tricia likes romance novels. My favorite English professor swore by lousy pulp fiction. The most developed palette needs a cheeseburger every now and again. (That's why we call it the McDonalds Theorum.)

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a cheeseburger. However, Tricia took it a step farther when she wrote: I think we should ban usage of the word good when talking about authors and books.

Tricia and I disagree here. Some writing is good. Some writing is bad. You want proof? Read our newspaper — some of the writing is brilliant; some of it isn’t. I’m not knocking my coworkers. I’ve churned out more than my share of workmanlike copy. Deadlines make hacks of us all.

You can enjoy bad writing if you like, but that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as good writing.

Robert Pirsig phrased it more eloquently in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

Quality… you know what is, but you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exists … Obviously some things are better than others… but what’s the “betterness”?

To say there is no “good” or “bad” is to deny that anything is good. But some things are good. We may not be able to say what makes them good, but we know that good exists.

I have a secondary reason for mentioning Pirsig and Zen. In his book, Pirsig recounts how he tried to find a scientific way to define good rhetoric (like my proposed Hack Test). The end result? Pirsig had a psychological meltdown because there is no absolute scientific way to define good rhetoric.

Pirsig’s plight might seem obvious to others. Occasional commenter Neil noted that counting adverbs is not going to give you a guaranteed way to rank literature. I agree.

But I never intended the Hack Test to be an absolute test like Pirsig tried to devise. I paint in broader strokes. I simply wanted to devise a test that might indicate the quality of the narrative based upon measurable quantities in the text.

So I present the inaugural run of the Hack Test. Because I don’t have the years to devote to counting modifiers and “to be” verbs, I ran a mini-test on the first two pages of three books: Kyra by Carol Gilligan, A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor and Italo Calvino’s collection of Italian Fairy Tales.

One final disclaimer: You can’t assess plot or character confidently from two pages because almost nothing has happened.

For example, Kyra begins with two characters playing chess. I suspect it’s a symbol for matching wits. That’s an overly familiar plot mechanism; but I wouldn’t call the plot of Kyra cliché. Similarly, the characters or setting do not stand out in two pages, but I the characters being the highpoint of Kyra the first time I read the book.

Consequently, it is unfair to assess plot, character or setting based upon two pages of reading — just language. All of these elements are vital to good reading, but I won’t pretend to assess them on the microtest.

How many modifiers does the author use?
I counted 22 (but there could have been more.) Perhaps, more importantly, it felt like there were more. Gilligan did not describe a chair or room or piece of fashion without adding its color. I do not know the two characters’ last names, but I do know the color of their eyes. I’m not saying their last name is more important their eye color, but a lot of emphasis has been placed on pigment in these first two pages.

How many of those modifiers could be removed without changing the intent of the sentence?
I realize already this question is subjective. I thought it was objective. I was wrong. As a journalist, I’m trained to keep my writing tight. I would have excised most of the modifiers—11, in total; but someone else might feel differently. (Hence, any hack test would need to be personalized.)

How many cliches does the author use?
“standing around the fireplace”
And one character asks another what they are thankful for on Thanksgiving.

How many pathetic fallacies does the author use?
None. Gilligan wrote a line about the “sun igniting yellow leaves;” and while she wasn’t being literal, it’s not a pathetic fallacy.

How many times does the author use a tense of the verb “to be?”

How many times does the author use an extraneous phrase that could be removed completely? (Not just a modifier, but an entire phrase.)
I intended for this question to identify wasted verbiage: for example, when people say they are going OVER there. I counted three examples.

One other thing that should be noted about Gilligan’s text: she often used passive voice when it wasn’t necessary. In fact, she did it twice in her second sentence.

A Good Man is Hard to Find
How many modifiers does the author use?

How many of those modifiers could be removed without changing the intent of the sentence?
I would have only removed four, maximum.

How many cliches does the author use?
“seizing at every chance”

How many pathetic fallacies does the author use?
I counted none.

How many times does the author use a tense of the verb “to be?”

How many times does the author use an extraneous phrase that could be removed completely? (Not just a modifier, but an entire phrase.)
I counted one.

O’Connor devoted most of her first two pages to dialogue. Consequently, there were less opportunities narrative sloppiness.

Italian Folk Tales
How many modifiers does the author use?
12 (Most of these modifiers came from the character’s name, Dauntless Little John, being repeated.)

How many of those modifiers could be removed without changing the intent of the sentence?

How many cliches does the author use?
I expected a lot of clichés because fairy tales tend to depend on tropes (daring young men, people in distress, haunted houses et al) and, while the plot has some predictable elements, I only counted two narrative clichés. They involved “lighting the way” and “living happily.”

How many pathetic fallacies does the author use?

How many times does the author use a tense of the verb “to be?”

How many times does the author use an extraneous phrase that could be removed completely? (Not just a modifier, but an entire phrase.)
I counted five. Most of them tacked “up” or “down” unnecessarily to the end of verbs.

The only conclusion I derived from my mini-test is that the actual number of modifiers used does not seem to matter. Gilligan and O’Connor both used several modifiers, but O’Connor’s writing felt much more concise.

The most important statistic was the number of modifiers that could have been removed; and identifying useless modifiers requires the reader to be subjective, which defeats the purpose of the Hack Test.

My hypothesis was that “language can be used to objectively rank the quality of the writing.” My microtest seems to have proven my hypothesis false.

Damn. I hate when that happens.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sequel a letdown

As a fan of “The Deep End of the Ocean,” Jacquelyn Mitchard’s engrossing tale of a family’s struggle to cope in the aftermath of a kidnapping, I was eager to dive into her sequel, “No Time to Wave Goodbye.”

Ocean was so much more than a crime novel.

In fact the crime was merely the catalyst for a look at the ways grief and guilt change people. The very different ways Beth and Pat and Vincent coped with the disappearance of their son and brother captivated. Did they blame each other? Themselves? What did it mean if they gave up hope? Was it wrong to enjoy life again?

And when their every wish is granted, why is life not perfect?

So in Goodbye, which picks up the family’s story 13 years after their son is returned to them, I expected a look at just how far-reaching the ripples of that event had been.

What I got was a routine whodunit.

Its pieces fit together a bit too perfectly for a truly memorable one.

Spoiler alert! Stop reading here … much of the plot is given away….

Beth remembers Patricia Fellows instantly from decades earlier; but Vincent cannot recall the phrase ad hoc ergo propter hoc from an interview months before.

Claire reads one article and instantly suspects her husband of a heinous crime.

Sam/Ben says to his brother, “…the morning she was born, I felt like I was going to explode. Like go up in the air in a hot-air balloon. I felt like nobody ever felt like I did, like you could die from loving a person. I wanted to get on my knees,” and we’re supposed to believe that those feelings did not evoke any understanding of how his parents felt about his refusal to call them mom and dad.

Perhaps if my expectations hadn’t been raised so high by Ocean, I wouldn’t have felt so let down by Goodbye.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Monday, September 21, 2009

They can't get no satisfaction

I’m sure you know a few people who spend so much time and energy bemoaning what they don’t have that they fail to enjoy or even appreciate what they do have.

So the main characters of “The Palace of Strange Girls” by Sallie Day (ISBN 9780446545860) waste their life together.

Meet the Singletons in 1959 England. Ruth wants a bigger house and children who adhere to her strict and rigid standards. Her husband Jack wants a life with his war-time romance. Their daughters want to break free.

After the events of a week’s holiday, the family will never be the same.
The Palace of Strange Girls, on the face of it, refers to the sideshow attraction at the resort town where the Singletons are staying. It’s home to the Tiger Woman whose chance encounter with the youngest Singleton gives her a new way of looking at things.

As Tiger Woman tells Beth, “I always think that scars aren’t too bad. I mean, by the time you have a scar you’re better, aren’t you? It means the cut has healed.”

While Beth’s scars are visible, those her parents carry are not - though they are no less disfiguring.

It’s how each chooses to cope that sets them apart.

And makes the reader think about his own scars.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

What book got you hooked?

The state has a chance to win 50,000 books for children in need, as long as enough people cast their votes for Ohio in the What Book Got You Hooked? contest by First Book.

The only required field to fill out on the form is which state you'd like to send the books to. But you can also add the name of the book that got you hooked and why, along with your name and e-mail address. See what other people have selected as the book that got them hooked, including celebrities like Jon Krasinski, Morgan Freeman, Neil Patrick Harris, Selena Gomez and Bow Wow.

You can vote once every 24 hours, so vote early and vote often -- and have your friends and family do the same. Voting ends at midnight Sept. 30.

-- Cheryl Sadler

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Why working in publishing stinks

I intended to spend this week sequestered in my lab, fussing with my Hack Test until it was ready for public consumption.

Instead, I found something that forced me from the confines of my beakers and bubbling chemicals.

Daniel Menaker is the former Executive Editor-in-Chief at Random House and fiction editor of The New Yorker. He has written a column listing 11 reasons why the publishing industry is awful and one reason why it is good. I’d recommend reading the column in its entirety, but let me give you a few excerpts if you’re busy.

Publishing is often an extremely negative culture... This circumstance in turn increases the usual business safety of self-protective guardedness. You’re more likely to be “right” if you express doubts about a proposal’s or a manuscript’s prospects than if you support it with enthusiasm.

Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors. And it should be -- at least when it is unaccompanied by a broader, more popular sensibility, it should be. When you are trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like, you have to have some of the eclectic and demotic taste of the reading public.

Review coverage means far less than it used to --when, for example, a front-page review in the New York Times Book Review usually guaranteed a certain level of recognition and sales. This is true partly because of the thinning of the ranks of newspapers’ stand-alone review supplements and partly because the Internet has fragmented people’s cultural attention. (As a sometimes literary critic, I appreciate the truth in this statement. The Internet gave everyone a platform, but it also made most of the platforms mean less. That’s not a good or bad thing. It simply is.)

You must almost entirely give up reading for pleasure. (My wife works in publishing — textbook publishing, specifically. I occasionally ask her why she doesn’t read for fun anymore. Then, she reminds me that she already read for 10 hours at work. Sometimes, doing what you love for a living means loving it less.)

Menaker makes several other interesting points, but there’s no reason for me to recapitulate them all. Back to the lab.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com


New twist on familiar theme

Original ideas are tough to come by. So I’m always intrigued by the spin authors put on familiar themes.

I’ve read a number of novels constructed around multiple personalities.

Frequently the persona comes to life in response to a great trauma. Often the novel’s conflict is on the desire to unite various personalities. Sometimes the reader isn’t even aware that the persona is in fact a manifestation of the main character.

I’ve enjoyed a number of these stories over the years. But I’ve never read one from quite the perspective of debut novelist Brian DePeeuw’s “In This Way I Was Saved” (ISBN 9781439103135).

DePeeuw introduces us to 6-year-old Luke, son of the soon-to-be-divorcing James and mentally unstable Claire. Daniel “befriends” Luke on the playground and the two are instantly inseparable.

Is Daniel Luke’s protector? Is he the part of Daniel able to act on certain desires? Why did he connect with Luke on that day?

Or is Daniel something far more insidious?

“I wanted to tell her who I was now, but I didn’t know how to begin. She would look at me and she would see Luke; not only that, but she would see a Luke who had lost his grasp on himself, a Luke deluded and desperate.”

Though the story is told from Daniel’s point of view, DePeeuw reveals all his characters in snippets, showing us just a bit more of Claire and of Luke and even of Daniel to make us keep questioning what we thought we knew.

He certainly left me wondering.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Not an easy story to tell

Writing honestly and unflinchingly about your own experiences is never easy.

There’s always the temptation to make yourself just a little bit wittier - after all, you’ve had time to think of that clever comeback. There’s the temptation to make yourself a little bit smarter, to take the knowledge you gained from the whole experience and give it to the self that’s just starting out. There’s the temptation to paint yourself in the best possible light.

But when authors refrain from giving in to temptation, the result is oh-so provocative.

Julie Myerson does just that in “The Lost Child: A Mother’s Story” (ISBN 9781596917002).

This London-based author weaves her personal struggles with a teenage son’s drug addiction with her professional fascination with a woman who died centuries earlier.
And it works.

This is Myerson’s story. Her son, his father, their other children are mentioned, but only as such. She’s not kidding when she says this is a mother’s story.

And perhaps that’s why I felt a connection.

When we first meet Myerson, it’s been a few weeks since she and her husband asked their oldest son to leave their home. She felt there was no other choice. His drug addiction was tearing the family apart. It’s clearly a decision she’s still struggling with.

“And then one day we can’t do it any longer. We can’t be without him. So we do exactly what we said we wouldn’t do, what the experts categorically say you should not do. We take him back without negotiation, without having secured any promises about behavior. We take him back unconditionally. We tell him we love him. We just take him back.”

Things don’t get much better. Myerson finds some measure of solace in immersing herself into finding out all she can about Mary Yelloly, a 21-year-old who died in the early 19th century.

Myerson flips back and forth in time skillfully. But for me the quest for Mary Yelloly was never as fascinating as Myerson’s worsening conflicts with her son.

“When I tell people – not many people but just a close one or two – that our son hit me, they always say the same thing: Oh, but I bet he felt so terrible afterwards?
And that’s where the story gets harder to tell. Because if he did feel terrible – Oh, they say, but he must have! Come on, there’s no way any boy could do that and not feel the most extraordinary remorse? – if he did feel terrible, then he did not show it. Even now. He has not showed it.”

Myerson gives us no easy answers - no answers at all, really – but despite how hard to tell the story becomes, she goes on. And we are taken along with her.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Hard times

Seems we're feast or famine on the blog front these days...

Every so often I read something that stops me dead in my tracks.

Last week it was this:

"That was Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, day of the worst duster of them all. The storm carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal. The canal took seven years to dig; the storm lasted a single afternoon. More than 300,000 tons of Great Plains topsoil was airborne that day."

Can you even imagine such a thing? 300,000 TONS of AIRBORNE DIRT!!!

I've developed a curiosity (my daughter says obsession) about the Dust Bowl recently.

I was home one Friday morning, bookless and flipping channels. I came upon The History Channel's airing of "Black Blizzard," an in-depth look at the Great Plains of 1930-1940. (It will air again at 8 p.m. Oct. 18.)

Most of what I knew about the Dust Bowl came from John Steinbeck novels. This show sent me to the library to learn more.

And so I read that paragraph in "The Worst Hard Time" by Timothy Egan.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author's work combines personal stories with statistics and historical data in a fascinating look at the era.

It is still hard for me to fathom living through 10 years of drought and heat and disease and dust in a home that provided little shelter from the elements.

To meet these families who continued on in such conditions was inspiring. My obsession continues...

- Tricia Ambrose

As to Jason's hack test, I wish him well. I'm curious to hear the outcome, but skeptical that art can be reduced to numbers. Good luck.

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Revising the Hack Test (Round Two)

Before we use the Hack Test, I have one more revision. This lengthy suggestion comes from my old college housemate, Joe Paxton.

He’s working on his masters for something or another at Harvard. (No, most OU graduates do not continue to Harvard. He’s always been the type of guy who ruins the curve for all of us.) Consequently, he uses phrases like “multi-dimensional quality space” and “personalized learning algorithm.” He also makes an excellent point that simultaneously reaffirms and ruins my Hack Test. His words:

I love this idea. I think, though, the algorithm would have to be a learning algorithm rather than something static, because of how difficult it is to articulate exactly what makes for good/bad writing. And if might be a good idea to tailor it to the individual as well, since tastes vary.

I imagine that, with an individually-tailored learning algorithm, you could feed a book into a program that implements that algorithm, and rate it along some scale from good to bad. The program would then analyze the text of the book along multiple dimensions -- the dimensions you suggested would be a good start, but you could constantly add dimensions as you think of them.

After you’ve fed in a couple dozen books, the computer would have some idea of what, on average, you think makes for a good book. This would be encoded in a “multi-dimensional quality space” that combines the good/bad rating for a given book with the dimension scores for that book, and averages these multi-dimensional quality scores over all books.

So now you have your personalized multi-dimensional quality space, which tells you how important you personally take each dimension to be. I imagine that we could construct a database that holds the dimension scores for any arbitrary book. By comparing the dimension scores for that book to your personalized multiple-dimensional quality space, you could get a good idea of whether you’d be likely to enjoy the book.

I worry, though, that this method wouldn’t allow you to flag the really great books. The really great books often seem to be great because they break the mold, somehow going beyond most everything you’ve read before. But I do think this kind of personalized learning algorithm approach would enable you to at least filter out the hacks without having to read them. And it might even give you some decent recommendations.

Of course, this personalized learning algorithm approach is currently pretty impractical. But that’s not because the algorithm is particularly complicated. It’s mainly due to the fact that a lot of books have not been digitized yet. And that’s particularly true of fiction books. It seems that Google Books is in the process of changing that. So I could imagine such a system being practical within the next ten years.

And someone will write the program, given enough demand. In fact, I would be surprised if some computer scientists with a passion for literature hasn’t already started writing it.

Three thoughts on Joe’s statement: One, he’s absolutely right about this test not identifying great books. The best books do not follow logic, they defy it. However, I expect it will identify writers with hacky tendencies. (Thus, it is a Hack Test and not a Genius Exam.)

Two: I think Joe underrates how difficult it might be to write a computer algorithm for the hack test (and not just because my knowledge of HTML code ends with knowing how to underline statements). The sticking point would be the cliché clause. I feel the same way about clichés that Potter Stewart feels about pornography. I may not be able to list all the clichés in the English language, but I know them when I see them. Also, clichés have iterations that even the most inclusive algorithm might miss.

For example, if I write about “the straw that breaks the literary critic’s back,” it’s a cliché. It may not be verbatim, but it still counts.

Third, and most importantly: Joe is correct to say that these algorithms would need to be personalized. What is important to me will matter less to other readers. We can list factors (originality, conciseness of writing), but each reader must decide how to weigh these factors.

My Hack Test roots in William Zinsser’s notion of good writing. Don’t use three words when two will suffice. But Zinsser’s philosophy does not fit Cervantes, Dickens or Shakespeare. It would be pointless to apply my hack test to anything before 1940. But it offers one more tool we can use to measure literature.

The next time I post, I’ll be testing the test.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

P.S. Because Joe mentioned it, an update on the Google case.

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Revising the Hack Test (Round One)

I disappeared for a week — holidays, family birthdays, Office Space-style printer destruction — but I’m back and still on the same subject: the hack test.

I turned my proposed algorithm over to that tool of sex offenders and bored homemakers — Facebook.

Most of my Facebook friends are smarter than me (as are most of the people I meet at the grocery store, county fair and city jail) and a few of them had some suggestions for my initial model.

First, Brian Jones noted a flaw in the system:

I don’t think this is possible. Even if the whole test is just a count of grammatical errors, sometimes those are an important part of the writing style (i.e. Emily Dickinson). I also don’t think originality is quite as simple as you’re making it out to be. If you ask me, nothing is ever truly original, so that would have to be measured on some numeric scale, as opposed to a simple “yes” or “no”.

Brian makes one great point. This system is not going to be infallible. It’s poorly suited to judge poetry and not designed for nonfiction. Also, the older an author gets, the less likely my system will effectively rate it. (Reading tastes and language itself change overtime. Chaucer, for example, would break my formula.)

As per originality, there are two schools of thought when it comes to originality: the Voltaire school (“Originality is nothing but judicious plagiarism”) and the Degas camp (“Art is either plagiarism or revolution.”) My original test applied the Degas standard. Something is either original or it isn’t. Brian is arguing for Voltaire. Nothing is original, just slightly less unoriginal.

Brian’s not wrong but his proposed remedy — a numeric scale — breaks the central tenet of the hack test. No subjectivity. Ideally, I would like to create a system that can be used to impartially rank literature. A numeric scale forces us to have an opinion.

However, Brian is correct. There is a middle ground between original and plagiarist; so what if, for now, we adapted the originality scale? (This would amend the almost identical questions pertaining to character, setting and plot.) What if we had a ranking system of three? It would be uncomplicated, but more nuanced than what predated it.

Settings, characters and plot could be (1) overly familiar, we recognize this character or setting etc. from multiple pieces or work, (2) familiar but not a copy, the character or plot may judiciously plagiarize one or two ideas without committing theft, and (3) if not completely original, very close to it. This character, plot or setting would need to be unlike something we had seen before.

I think the categories here are broad enough to permit as little interpretation as possible; but I won’t know until I apply the hack test to something. (I intend to do this soon. One more post revising the hack test. Then, a test run.)

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

Addendum: Tricia and I seem to have uploaded our posts almost simultaneously. I don't mean to ignore her opinion; but I prepared this post before I read it.

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My two cents

I've been reading Jason's recent posts these last weeks and have composed scads of responses, none of which I've posted.

Yet, I feel I can't write about any of the books I've read these last weeks until I respond, so here goes ...

I agree with Jason's friend that the written word engages us in a way no other medium can - it's why I love it so much - and that the best writing enriches our lives.

But I - clearly - disagree with the notion that all we should be reading is what someone else has determined is good for us.

In fact I think we should ban usage of the word good when talking about authors and books.

If some books are good to read, then others must be bad, right?

Perhaps I'm overanalyzing, but what is bad about spending your time reading a novel that overuses adverbs?

(And frankly, if you're counting adverbs, the author has lost you!)

Some people may choose to relax by watching sports on television or enjoying a beer.

Should we tell them that they shouldn't be doing these things because there are other more worthy pursuits?

What is the harm in relaxing with a book that is less than perfect?

Besides, if we don't read authors who are less than the best, how will we recognize those who are truly gifted?

- Tricia Ambrose


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What's Good Reading II: The Importance of Circumstances

For the last two weeks, we’ve talked about what makes a book good or bad. One factor we’ve ignored is circumstance.

Sometimes, a book is released at the right time and captures the zeitgeist. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, for example, benefitted from circumstances. I liked The Kite Runner (though I preferred A Thousand Splendid Suns), but there’s no way Hosseini sells 10 million copies without the war in Afghanistan.

The average American knew very little about Afghanistan when the war began. The nation hungered for more information on the country and Hosseini was there. Right time. Right place. Right subject matter.

That doesn’t make his writing less impressive, but his circumstances turned him from a good writer into an extremely successful author.

Likewise, circumstances almost doomed Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Nowadays, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is a mainstay of American and African-American literature courses. It chronicles the growth of thrice-married Janie Starks from farmgirl to mayor’s wife to the woman she wants to be.

But when Hurston released Their Eyes in 1937, it suffered a thumping. Richard Wright equated the book with a minstrel show.

In his review for the New Masses, Wright wrote:

Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the “white folks” laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.

He precedes to call her novel one without theme, message or thought. Wright’s review predates Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son and Black Boy, so he wasn’t Richard Wright yet. But the other reviews for Their Eyes were indifferent when they weren’t scathing. Thus, Their Eyes was condemned to purgatory where it might have languished forever had Alice Walker not resurrected it.

Walker wrote an article, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” for Ms. magazine in 1971 where she found Hurston’s unmarked grave. The article sparked a renewed interest in Hurston and Their Eyes.

What changed between 1937 and 1971? In 1937, African-American literature was shifting in tone. Voices like Wright’s were replacing the Harlem Renaissance vanguard. The writers spoke of anger, protest and isolation. Hurston’s work was too subtle for an outspoken time. Hurston wrote about love and self-affirmation while others wrote about lynchings.

And we shouldn’t ignore gender. Who were the most famous African-American authors of the 1940s and 1950s? Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison.

But, by 1971, Maya Angelou had written I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Toni Morrison was two years away from being nominated for a National Book Award. The country was ready for a black woman's voice when Walker went in search of Hurston.

Was Their Eyes a better novel when the country rediscovered it? No, but people had become more receptive to it. It’s circumstance — time and place — and, sometimes, that’s the difference between Richard Wright insulting you and Alice Walker beatifying you.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

P.S. This post argues the same point as Outliers, so Malcolm Gladwell deserves some credit (or hatred, if that’s your reaction).

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Creating the hack test

What if we created a hack test?

The difficulty with critiquing an author is that reading is subjective. Sometimes, you like an author. You know they’re middling or worse, but you still read them. Either they write about a subject that interests you or have a style that appeals despite its faults. Likewise, sometimes you unfairly hate a writer. Their technique is flawless, their characters and plot original, but the text doesn’t move you.

But what if we created a test that assessed the writing separate from emotion? What if we made an algorithm that spit out an “author score?”

Sure, it wouldn’t be infallible (and partly takes the fun away from reading,) but it could be fascinating.

The trick is it would have to measure quality quantitatively. We would need to glean measurable numbers from the text or our Hack Test would devolve into “I like them, so they’re not a hack.”

Roy Peter Clark and Harold Bloom already gave us two qualifiers to search for — overuse of unnecessary modifiers and dependence upon cliches.

We can read through passages and identify if a writer uses too many adverbs. That’s not subjective. That’s not a matter of opinion. If Author One uses twice as many adverbs as Author Two in the same amount of pages, Author Two has demonstrated more tact. If Author One depends on familiar turns of phrase, he is using a crutch.

We can count the number of pathetic fallacies and see if it exceeds good taste. We can check for dependence on “to be” verbs or overuse of passive voice. The language might be the easiest part of writing to score. Other aspects like characterization or plotting will be trickier.

We all know characterization is important, but how do we measure good characters?

The only quantifiable yardstick I can think of is originality. Tricia and I might argue about whether or not a character is likable or interesting, but we can agree when an author repeats character archetypes.

The same principle could be applied to plot or setting. Whether or not a plot is “good” is subjective. What I call good, you could call trash. Neither of us would be wrong, because they’re opinions. But originality? That’s not an opinion. Somebody has already used an idea before or it’s original. (Someone might be plagiarizing from an unknown source; but, in lieu of omniscience, we’ll have to depend on our own knowledge.)

So this is just a rough draft on the hack test. I expect revisions, but we must start somewhere.

First, some categories that we will rank:

Questions pertaining to language:
How many modifiers does the author use?
How many of those modifiers could be removed without changing the intent of the sentence?
How many cliches does the author use?
How many pathetic fallacies does the author use?
How many times does the author use a tense of the verb “to be?”
How many times does the author use an extraneous phrase that could be removed completely? (Not just a modifier, but an entire phrase.)

Questions pertaining to plot:
Has the author used this or a similar plot in previous works? If yes, how many times?
Has this plot been used in other authors’ work previously?

Questions pertaining to character:
Has the author used similar characters in previous works? If yes, how many times?
Is this character almost identical to other characters previously created by another author?

Questions pertaining to setting:
Has the author used similar settings in previous works? If yes, how many times?
Has an almost identical setting been used in other authors’ work previously?

I’m not worried about a ranking system yet. Let’s get a usable test first.
So what other quantifiable qualities need to be included in the hack test?

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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