Will Martin writes: Even before J.K. Rowling came onto the scene, plenty of heads were being scratched in the creative writing world, worrying about economic success – everyone, so we are told, wants to be the next ‘best seller’.
But what, exactly, is it that makes a book literary and enjoyable; what makes it sell? Any self-respecting writer will tell you that there are many tricks of the trade; writing is, after all, an art, and technique – talent, even – is essential.
Teaching creative writing has, too, long been a bone of contention, with many arguing that art cannot be taught; indeed, Stephanie Vanderslice’s fantastic Rethinking Creative Writing explores this very subject – how do teachers of creative writing engage and stimulate their students? How do writers learn?
But apparently it is all much simpler than we have been led to believe. The key to success lies in an algorithm.
Straddling many genres, forms and authors, Yejin Choi (an assistant professor at Stony Brook University), and her team of dedicated researchers (and myriad computers), used ‘systematic analyses’ to compare the first 1000 sentences of 800 books downloaded from Project Gutenberg.
Paring the text down, the researchers noticed many traits that occurred again and again across ‘less successful’ books, in comparison with best-sellers – including a heavier reliance on verbs (especially those ‘explicitly descriptive of actions and emotions’) and adverbs, foreign words and clichéd phrases.
By compiling this extensive research, Choi has created an algorithm that, she says, can distinguish ‘highly successful literature from its less successful counterpart’ with 84% accuracy.
Algorithms are certainly flavor of the month – the Bookseller recently announced the release of Tristano, by Nanni Balestrini and An Alogrithm. Verso Books’ 4000-strong print run will produce 4000 different books. Each one will be one of 109,027,350,432,000 possible variations, with all ten chapters consisting of fifteen pairs of paragraphs in randomized positions.
Most remain convinced, however, that algorithms can’t hold the key to the future. As James McConnachie, writer and editor of The Author, tells the Guardian: ‘If computers can write successful books, how about we let computers read them as well? Then real readers can get on with the true business of reading, which is an encounter with another human consciousness – with a writer’s voice’.
So perhaps we shouldn’t let computers take over creative writing just yet. In the words of Stephanie Vanderslice in a recent interview, ‘The theme of Rethinking Creative Writing is that creative writing programs really need to be more reflective about the extent to which they’re preparing students for writing in the twenty-first century, to be more responsive to the world in which writers write today.