News as literature


I like going to bookstores wherever I go. Mostly I just like books, but bookstores also serve as a quick measure of a nation’s pulse – who speaks for the nation, what books are selling best, which ideas matter most. In that regard, Singapore, is stoutly practical in the way literature is not, or at least, perceived so.

This is why I enjoyed this piece on the New Yorker on whether the news is replacing literature. Taking the Woody Allen-Dylan Farrow scandal as a starting point, the piece makes the point for the news format leaving room for the indeterminate questions of life that we associate with the most serious pieces of fiction:

No sooner are you convinced that Farrow is telling the truth than you are persuaded by Allen, only to return to Farrow, then back to Allen and back to Farrow, and on and on. The alleged abuse is heinous—there’s nothing “artistic” about it—yet the arguments of each party are suffused with the kind of rich, if indeterminate, emotional, psychological, and intellectual twists and turns that literature seeks to delineate. No less than if you were reading Ford Madox Ford’s magnificent fugue of perspectives, “The Good Soldier,” you try to weigh the arguments of Farrow and Allen, their defenders, and the legions of commenters by applying all you know about being human to the story.

This is not just “the news.” This is a piece of reality so dense that it goes beyond art in illuminating just how nebulous reality is. (But, then, the news stopped reporting reality and started to constitute a new layer of reality years ago.)

This immediately reminded me of the Straits Times – the news being a very partial narrator of the story of a nation. But beyond that – I do find myself impatient when starting a novel these days – its tidy descriptions of a setting for a few actors to play along to a story arc that is often immediately identifiable in its accumulation. The world of the novel now seems small, quaint, and faintly ridiculous.

It may be because many authors are now encouraged to write in a certain style – the MFA pieces that have been workshopped to death; the world literature that often do more to affirm stereotypes than bust them – whence they have something to say, it often feels trite – saying something that’s already been said, in a way that’s been said before.

Egan powerpoint

Zadie Smith, Geoff Dyer, Tim Parks, and other writers, have expressed a sense of the same novel-nausea. The fault is not the novel so much as its form, which is increasingly ill-contemporaneous with the world it lives in. Applauding Jennifer Egan’s inclusion of a chapter written in PowerPoint form 20 years after its launch feels absurdly self-congratulatory.

If not the novel, then what? The collected writings of Lydia Davis? The Twitter stories by Teju Cole? The novel – if we can call it that – S by J.J. Abrams? The scribbles of graffiti artists in subway stations? Not every story should be the next Finnegan’s Wake (“Margaritomancy! Hyacinthous pervinciveness! Flowers. A cloud. But Bruto and Cassio are ware only of trifid tongues the whispered wilfulness (’tis demonal!) and shadows shadows multiplicating (il folsoletto nel falsoletto col fazzolotto dal fuzzolezzo), totients quotients, they tackle their quarrel. Sickamoor’s so woful sally. Ancient’s aerger. And eachway bothwise glory signs. What if she love Sieger less though she leave Ruhm moan? That’s how our oxyggent has gotten ahold of half their world. Moving about in the free of the air and mixing with the ruck. Enter eller, either or.”) – no, readers still crave meaning and structure from a story the way they cannot from real life – but to not aspire to shake the novel from its ways… when we fear the death of books versus the rise of radio, television, and the internet, it is not for a lack of writers and readers, but for a lack of imagination on what can be achieved on the page.


The periodic table of storytelling

Writing is as much a science as it is an art. And when the muse fails you, you turn to the periodic table of storytelling.

periodic table of storytelling


It’s beautiful. Leo Tolstoy said there are only two kinds of stories – a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes into town. This breaks it down a little further, and each element takes you to a detailed wiki on the trope used. Wall-E, for example, is a combination of a Woobie (character you feel sorry for), Action Girl (self-explanatory), and recycled in space (meaning the story can take place anywhere, but wouldn’t it be cooler if it was in space!).

Buy a poster here. Or just click around and procrastinate on your writing.

Secret to writing a best-selling novel

Sounds like the name of some trashy writer’s guidebook, but here we are – scientists have apparently found the secret to writing a best-selling novel.

Using a method called statistical stylometry, which mathematically examines the use of words and grammar, computer scientists arrived at an algorithm that is “surprisingly effective” at determining how popular a book would be. The range of factors that can have an impact include: novelty, style of writing, engaging storyline, and “interestingness”. (How one would evaluate that, I’m not sure – would zombies outrank suburban middle-age angst?)

The researchers downloaded classic literature from the Project Gutenberg archive, and also used more recent award-winning novels and low-ranking books on Amazon, spanning genres that range from science fiction to classic literature and even poetry.

So what is the secret to a bestseller?

They found several trends that were often found in successful books, including heavy use of conjunctions such as “and” and “but” and large numbers of nouns and adjectives.

Not the most helpful advice thus far.

Less successful work tended to include more verbs and adverbs and relied on words that explicitly describe actions and emotions such as “wanted”, “took” or “promised”, while more successful books favoured verbs that describe thought processes such as “recognised” or “remembered”.

Of course, this begs the question – what is “successful literature”? Would we say Woolf’s To The Lighthouse is a bigger “success” than, say, The Hunger Games? Not that I have a empirical basis for saying this, other than a hunch than The Hunger Games seems more of an action-packed story full of wanting and taking, and To The Lighthouse, more of a literary tale revolving around recognizing and remembering. I imagine The Hunger Games would have sold more copies. Critical success, or commercial success?

The bad news is, this really isn’t much of a secret or a guide to success. But that’s the good news too – writers like torturing themselves so.

Procrastinate on your writing by reading the research paper here.