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Marriage of maths and words, or how to appreciate Jane Austen better

Jane Austen used 45 cliches per 100,000 words, Virginia Woolf 62 and Khaled Hussaini 71. At the other end of the scale, James Patterson used 160, Tom Wolfe 142 and Salman Rushdie 131. Nabokov used the word “mauve” at least once in all of his eight books. On an average, the best seller Nora Roberts’s name used up 37 percent of the space on the book’s cover. Danielle Steele began her novels (92 of them) with a mention of the weather 46 per cent of the time.

How do we know all this? And does knowing all this make us either better writers or better readers? The statistics have been worked out by American writer Ben Blatt who has analysed 1,500 books, including best sellers, classics and popular novels, and reams of “amateur” writing to give us the figures. His book: Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve: The Literary Quirks and Oddities Of Our Most Loved Authors provides loads of good old-fashioned fun.

I say “old-fashioned” because it is a sophisticated version of the “analysis” we used to carry out on our school text books during boring classes. One day, we would tote up the number of times the word “the” appeared on a page or the word most likely to follow “Now listen here..” which the teacher spoke. Some of us looked for the placement of letters which might spell out our names.

Blatt has gone beyond all that, and using the modern friendly computer arrived at more fascinating conclusions. His book brings together the three Rs in a way no other has before, analysing our reading and writing through ‘rithmetic. He takes particular delight in checking out if writers followed their own instructions on writing well.

Elmore Leonard wrote: “You are allowed no more than two or three exclamation marks per 100,000 words.” He used fewer than most, but even he used 49 (Tom Wolfe, not surprisingly, used 929).

Some conclusions – like Nabokov’s mauve – are susceptible to psychological explanations. Nabokov was a synesthete, which means he sometimes saw words as colours. Synesthesia is a condition where one sensation is felt by a person as a completely different one. Thus sound ‘appears’ as a colour, or smell ‘feels’ like a shape and so on.

“I present a fine case of coloured hearing,” Nabokov wrote in his autobiography, Speak, Memory. “The long a of the English alphabet has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony.”

Blatt’s analysis shows that Thomas Pynchon and Salinger were indeed two different people, and not the same writer as a rumour once had it. He suggests ways – based on maths, frequency of word usage – to distinguish between male and female writers based on text.

What he doesn’t tell us is if Shakespeare’s plays were written by the man from Stratford-on-Avon or Francis Bacon or anybody else (years ago, there was a theory they were written by Agatha Christie). But that’s a minor crib in a book of fun and surprising conclusions.

Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu


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