Is there a secret to writing prize-winning novels?

There’s an infographic currently circulating in the Blogosphere in which the themes that were prevalent in the 2011 Man Booker long list are analysed.

Someone at Delayed Gratification – a ‘slow journalism magazine’ (whatever that is) felt compelled to graphically chart the themes in order to show ‘what makes a prize winning novel.’ The result is attractive, even if the swirling coloured connecting lines do bear more than a passing resemblance to the London Underground map.

But what exactly is the point of this endeavour? Ok, so now we know that death was the predominant theme and far exceeded narratives featuring love or betrayal. That’s hardly an earth-shattering insight. Death has always featured significantly in literature. Just think about the body count at the end of many of Shakespeare’s plays where even the romances like Romeo and Juliet end with a few corpses strewn around the stage. Death is also at the heart of many of our classics (Germinal, Tess of the D’urbervilles; Anna Karenina being just a few examples).

What irritates me  is the premise that it’s ok to  analyse literature in this way. It reminded me of a scene in the film The Dead Poets’ Society  in which Robin Williams plays the new English teacher at a prestigious American boarding school. He mocks the way the boys have been taught to evaluate literature – almost to the point of plotting the score for each poem or piece of prose on a graph.  Score 12 for language but only 4 for characterisation and you’ll never be considered a ‘great author’.

That was fiction but  I discovered today that  at Stanford University some its English literature graduate students are engaged in something called ‘literature mining’. They are currently “mining 19th Century British and American novels” to  track how literary styles in novels changed  through the course of the 19th Century.  Instead of just relying on their knowledge of literature gained from just reading the texts, to understand how the styles changed, they are counting the frequency of words that share a particular theme and mapping how the frequency changes over time.  And after all that one of their conclusions was that there was:

“a more fundamental shift in the style of narration from abstraction to concreteness, from telling to showing. No longer talking about abstract values but embodying them in actions.”

So, three or four years studying literature at one of the leading academic institutions in the world’s most powerful nation couldn’t have told them that without the need for software analysis tools and statistical approaches??

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