Style – Control of Information

Voyant Tools, a text analysis web tool – Pictured here: “Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan

People read books for all sorts of reasons.

There are some who are the most mercenary, and they want all the information. They don’t particularly care about style or author or any kind of larger context for the book being produced. They simply want the goods. These are value readers, as I’ll call them.

There are other readers where the context might be everything. Would you have read Fire and Fury if it wasn’t for the fact that it was the first book to come out about President Donald Trump’s first year in the White House? Likely not.

Still there are those who will read whatever an author writes out of brand loyalty.

Beyond that, there are those readers who also enjoy writing, or who hope to write in the future. These are readers who engage in style. To them the form of something, how it is written, is everything, because they are scrutinizing the words on the page like paint on a canvas. There is a materiality to the thing being produced.

I read a lot, and I hope to write, and I feel as though an author makes or breaks my enjoyment of a book when it comes to style.

If the style is to my liking, I’ll read millions of words by them, as I did with Karl Ove Knausgaard. He wrote his My Struggle series and, like Zadie Smith, I was hooked. I drank in that series in a year’s time and eagerly awaited the sixth and final volume of the book in 2018. But by then the spell had been broken, and I had to actually go to his later work, his seasonal quartet, to get back into the river he had dug for me.

When everyone was talking about Rachel Cusk and her Outline trilogy, I picked up the first book and was immediately spellbound.

Others take time. No one is going to pick up Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson and claim to understand exactly what he is doing and why until at least fifty pages in, and by then 90% of the audience has dropped off.

When I read a book that I finish, yet I did not like, that is an interesting combination. At this point, if there is a book that I do not like, I drop it at the first chance, because I no longer believe I have to suffer in a book in order to derive meaning. And that would mean that if I make it to the end of a book, there was something clearly going for me. But if I do not like the book, it usually has to do with style. And yet style is the very material of how the story is constructed.

So what is going on here?

I experienced this most recently with Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. With this conundrum deeply embedded in my mind, I decided to run the novel through Voyant Tools, a computer program that allows someone to analyze the text at word, phrase, and sentence level. What I find is always interesting. One of the reasons why I despised reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara had to do with the repetition of phrases. As I went there with Washington Black, I noticed similarities to a point. Many phrases like “I could smell the” or “but she did not” or “I glanced at the” are phrases four words or more, and they occur up to six times in a 340 page novel, which is disconcerting.

You might be thinking that these words are functional, and they hardly contain the content that makes up a novel. What people have a hard time understanding is that our language is largely made up of function words. For more information on this, consider reading James Pennebaker’s The Secret Life of Pronouns to see just how much we can discover about people from the words that hide in plain sight.

The repetition of phrases and terms in Washington Black meant that the book was not difficult to read. The vocabulary density of the book, how many novel (pun intended) words it contains compared to the whole work reads (pun intended) as 0.084 and has an average sentence length of 12.4. The higher the vocabulary density, the more difficult to read.

To give you some context, Haruki Murakami, who labors to make his prose clear and unlabored to read, has a density of 0.092 (higher therefore more complex) and an average sentence length of 13.2 (higher still).

Infinite Jest? A density of 0.121 and an average sentence length…of 21.7 words.

Washington Black was so easy of a read that, once I had gotten down the major characters and the main conflict, I could turn the kindle pages with a tap every two to three seconds with an average font size and not feel the least like I was missing something.

Coupled with a conflict arc that reboots itself in the middle and you can see why I could easily finish and yet not feel satisfied. Black and Titch both go after Titch’s father, looking for atonement (if you’ve ever read Joseph Campbell) and then Black goes after Titch. There are some revelations in between that do not land, unfortunately.

But to me, trying to figure out the plot letdowns was simply not enough. People seem to think that style is some hidden artistic wonder, and that trying to analyze it takes the magic out of storytelling. The true answer is that style is just as easily discoverable as any other human trick. It just takes the right tool. If you’re interested in programs like this, also consider checking out Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count. There are a multitude of ways to provide words to the feelings you have while reading a book or gazing at a painting.

Because as Knausgaard discovered in his latest work, So Much Longing in So Little Space, style is simply control of information.

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