Photo credit: Sierra Katow
My book, Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve
, is about what numbers can teach us about writing. It uses data to sort through thousands of books totaling hundreds of millions of words. But despite all this new information, I found myself rereading one mostly forgotten short story over and over throughout the writing process: Roald Dahl
’s "The Great Automatic Grammatizator."
The premise is darker and more science-fiction based than a typical Dahl work. An engineer named Adolph Knipe dreams of writing stories that people will read. Knipe looks at the beginning of his latest failed novel attempt, which begins, of course, “The night was dark and stormy.” Then he has a eureka moment:
He was struck by a powerful but simple little truth, and it was this: that English grammar is governed by rules that are almost mathematical in their strictness! Given the words, and given the sense of what is to be said, then there is only one correct order in which those words can be arranged.
He soon invents a machine he calls The Great Automatic Grammatizator. Knipe creates story outlines and then gives the plots to the machine, which can return a finished story. Knipe harnesses his machine to the point where “one half of all novels” published in English are written by The Great Automatic Grammatizator.
Even supercomputers aside, Dahl was prescient in his prediction of the book market. James Patterson
is the bestselling author in the United States. He works with co-authors. Below is a chart showing the frequency with which Patterson has published a book under just his name.
And below is the same chart, but instead showing the frequency with which Patterson has published a book with or without a co-author.
As described in a Vanity Fair profile on the author
, Patterson still creates his outlines but gives the plots to his co-authors who can return a finished story. He has been so successful to the point where 1 out of every 17 novels
sold in the United States are written by Patterson. It’s a model for mass production (and hardly alone in literary history: the Hardy Boys
, for instance, followed a strict formula with multiple authors combining into a single pseudonym). The only thing missing from the classic assembly-line model is automation.
I kept rereading "The Great Automatic Grammatizator" because I was worried that people might assume I was trying to reverse-engineer the perfect novel, stripped of all its wisdom, charm, and originality — boiled down to its simplest, most irresistible formula. But my goal for the readers of my book is the opposite. I wanted to enhance the reading experience — to learn things that we never knew about Toni Morrison
and Ernest Hemingway
and so many other great writers.
I wrote my book for the love of writing and the love of books — specifically so that we could see those books through a new lens. That's why the questions I sought to answer were not arbitrary explorations based on a random result by a computer, but based on ideas writers have already had. Stephen King advises in On Writing
to avoid “ly” adverbs; does he do so himself? J. K. Rowling has said she wished her fifth Harry Potter
book had been shorter; were her ever-increasing book lengths a unique problem or a problem all series writers find themselves in? Ray Bradbury
said his favorite word was “cinnamon” because it reminded him of his grandmother's spice rack; even if you didn't know that, could you have traced his love of all things olfactory through his words? Margaret Atwood
says her favorite opening line in literature is “Call me Ishmael” because it is short and power-packed; does she rank at the top of authors when it comes to concise openers? Martin Amis
says that “all writing is a campaign against clichés”; but does he actually avoid the most overused turns of phrases? Elmore Leonard
says in his advice book on writing not to use exclamation points; did he?!
These questions are only a starting point for writers or readers — not an attempt to “engineer” art as much as a way to understand it or describe it. The distinction was important to me while writing Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve
, and I hope that comes through when you read it. If you love writing, you probably already study how your favorite authors construct their stories and already read any advice they share. Sometimes their styles and suggestions clash, which is why taking a step back and sorting through the numbers is illuminating.
Examining the patterns of thousands of novels is going to answer different questions than reading one novel in depth, but it is likewise a useful way to uncover how books are truly crafted. And the more I looked, the more confident I became that the dystopian future of "The Great Automatic Grammatizator" will not be coming anytime soon. While all novels follow certain patterns, the novel that breaks through the crowd, by definition, does so by breaking the rules.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a former staff writer for Slate
and The Harvard Lampoon
who has taken his fun approach to data journalism to topics such as Seinfeld
, mapmaking, The Beatles, and Jeopardy!
His previous book, co-written with Eric Brewster, is I Don't Care If We Never Get Back
, which follows the duo’s quest to go on the mathematically optimal baseball road trip, traveling 20,000 miles to a game in all 30 ballparks in 30 days without planes. Blatt’s work has also been published in The Wall Street Journal
, The Boston Globe
, and Deadspin
. His most recent book is Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve