Crunching the Literature

In Writing Magazine last month there was an article about a new book by Ben Blatt called, Nabakov’s Favourite Word is Mauve. The book apparently (I am yet to read it but I can’t wait to start!) combines two wonderful things: literature and statistics.

Ben Blatt analysed several hundred copies of novels from literary classics like those by Austen and Dickens, to recent bestsellers like the Twilight books and novels by James Patterson. From these he worked out fascinating statistics on things like word frequency, adverbs and cliches.

The title of the book comes from his discovery that Vladimir Nabokov’s most commonly-written words (presumably excluding dozens of small words such as ‘the’ and ‘he’) are mauve, banal and pun. This wouldn’t mean a lot to me except that Blatt also found out Agatha Christie’s top three words: inquest, alibi and frightful. To me, these three words so wonderfully sum-up Christie’s work. To anybody who had never heard of her, just these words place her as a crime writer from around the 1920s-1950s. Which makes me wonder exactly what Nabakov’s writing must be like! I’ve never read any Nabakov. From mauve, banal and pun I get the feeling he is a descriptive, perhaps slightly cynical, world-weary kind of writer, who is expert at bringing characters to life. Am I right?

There were so many facts in the magazine article that I found fascinating. I was particularly interested to see that Blatt discovered that, on the whole, an author’s book with the fewest adverbs in tended to be their most popular. Some statistics to back-up the well-known advice to avoid adverbs in our fiction where possible. Adverbs tell people things, they don’t create a vivid picture and it seems that we subconsciously notice that in our reading.

Those tantalising facts were only a tiny snippet of what must be contained in the full book. As a writer and lover of all things statistical, Nabakov’s Favourite Word is Mauve is definitely a book I’ll be reading as soon as possible.