TCR Talks with Ben Blatt

By: A.M. Larks

In his latest book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, Ben Blatt uses his data journalism skills to tackle writing’s lingering questions and examine adverb usage, gender pronoun tendencies, reading levels, and writers’ favorite and fallback words.

Although Blatt uses statistical analyses to show that writers generally follow their own writing advice, word counts grow in size after the first publication, and co-authors rarely get equal title space on book covers, his work isn’t a math book disguised as a creative writing book. Blatt uncovers interesting insights into style and writing tendencies by looking at rule breakers and followers, including best sellers, critically acclaimed works, and fan fiction, to give the reading public and would-be authors a comprehensive view of what writing looks like by the numbers.

Blatt is a former staff writer for Slate and The Harvard Lampoon and has taken his fun approach to data journalism to topics such as Seinfeld, mapmaking, The Beatles, and Jeopardy!. Blatt’s work has also been published in The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and Deadspin. He is the co-author of I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back with Eric Brewster, which follows the duo’s quest to go on a mathematically optimal baseball road trip, traveling 20,000 miles to all thirty ballparks in thirty days without planes.

The Coachella Review: What was the impetus in writing a book that uses math to analyze writing patterns?

Ben Blatt: I was a writer for Slate who focused on math to analyze pop-culture, whether it be movies, sports, game shows, etc. I did a few articles looking at popular authors like JK Rowling, and it was fun to see how the results played out. Books and writing are studied endlessly, but I didn’t feel like anyone had ever studied them by looking at all the words of a book at once. On top of that, there is a lot of conventional wisdom in writing (words to avoid, patterns in genre, etc.) that people just assumed but had never really been proven or disproven by any simple counting techniques.

TCR: How do your findings bring value to the writing process?

BB: The book is not intended to be a how-to book in any way. However, if you read a how-to-write book, it may advise things such as “do not use ‘-ly’ adverbs” or “do not use exclamation points.” What my book does—it looks at these pieces of wisdom and sees which authors follow them and which don’t. Not only does this help sort out which writing tips are good, it can help distill in your mind what makes your favorite authors unique from each other.

TCR: Do you think approaching writing this way may be an effective teaching method?

BB: I think once you have started to write on your own and are starting to think about what style you want to adopt, this book can be very useful. Throughout the book, I compare Hemingway to EL James to Stephen King to Harper Lee. While the issues looked at are sometimes particular, it’s a unique way to get a view of the literary landscape in one sitting.

TCR: If authors want to employ your advice and analyze their own works, how can they do so?

BB: If they want to get very intense about it, I suggest they look into Natural Language Toolkit, which will require some programming. However, if that is a bit too intense, I would start by thinking one or two writing tics you think you might have and try to compare how often you overuse those words compared to other classic books.

 TCR: Recently, Nobel Prize winner Kauzo Ishiguro stated that authors don’t always understand their own writing. Do you agree? How does this relate to your study of authors’ fallback words and favorite words?

BB: In some ways, this can be very true. Elmore Leonard advised not to use more than two or three exclamation points per 100,000 words of prose. When he gave that advice, he had never written a book anywhere close to that low threshold of exclamation usage. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that the ratio was more of general guidelines, but nonetheless goes to show that sometimes the strongest advice is only the strongest because it is the most overconfident.

TCR: You define “literary fingerprints” as an author’s unique uncopiable style. Is this a way of quantifying voice? Do you think that math can help us to understand this elusive literary concept?

 BB: In my book, I show that by looking at the rate of about one hundred basic function words (like “of,” “and,” or “other”), you can identify the author of a novel about 99% of the time. I call this the literary fingerprint. Even when authors shift genres and span decades, their fingerprint stays recognizable. Like an actual fingerprint, this doesn’t actually tell you about the essence of a person or their writing voice. However, it does suggest that no matter how much people attempt to shift their writing style, they are unable to completely abandon who they are.

TCR: In your book, you outline certain trends (like the use of fewer adverbs) in bestsellers and literary fiction. Do you believe that math can help authors understand why their work is not being accepted or published?

 BB: I wouldn’t go straight to the numbers if you are not being published. In many cases, with fiction, luck plays a huge factor. As a statistician, I’d call initial publishing rate success a noisy outcome. However, if you are trying to write for a broad audience, eliminating bad habits that eliminate certain readers is a good place to start.

TCR: In your opinion, should we be deconstructing art using mathematics? Does it detract from our appreciation of Da Vinci or Dali to analyze their works in terms of mathematical concepts, like the golden ratio?

BB: I don’t think so! In no way does my book attempt to assign an abstract score to greatness. If you were to analyze a Dali painting, you may be interested in his color scheme selection, the length of his strokes, or his placement of objects within a scene. These are all technical questions, but studying them can make the uniqueness or beauty clearer. Likewise, looking at word choice or pattern is technical but can show a new way to appreciate great writing.

TCR: Can tools like those you have used in this book be used to determine the sociological impacts of writing? In this vain, can the changing of the written language be used to determine sociological shifts?

BB: There is definitely a lot that can be found by sifting through how people write and which writing resonates with people. A book popular one hundred years ago would be out of place today not just because of style, but because the way we view certain common relationships has shifted dramatically. I expect much more to be found through textual analysis, whether it be another writing-centric look at novels like my book or a larger study looking through news articles or even private journals.

 AM Larks currently resides in California. She has earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and is currently pursuing her Master of Fine Arts from University of California Riverside Palm Desert’s low-residency program. She reads submissions for The Coachella Review nonfiction, poetry, and drama sections.