Jane Austen, computer algorithms, and the enduring importance of the literary expert

February 1, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

To the literary critic’s toolbox, which includes concepts such as mimesis, irony, and the unreliable narrator, it might soon be necessary to add stylometry and culturomics. The former refers to a quantitative analysis of a writer’s vocabulary, syntax, and lexicon, and the latter refers to a similar quantitative analysis undertaken in the area of the humanities. What is significant about both is that they are handled by a computer running sophisticated algorithms like the kind used by Google or Amazon.

A recent New York Times article points to the way these computer algorithms were employed to determine that Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott are the two most influential writers of the 19th century. The study, undertaken by Matthew L. Jockers, found that Austen and Scott “had the greatest effect on other authors, in terms of writing style and themes.” To some extent, it is unsurprising that the authors of romantic social comedy on the one hand and mass-appeal adventure stories on the other should be influential: these are still the kinds of novels that dominate bestseller lists today. (It is important to note that when people talk about their affection for Jane Austen, it is usually Pride and Prejudice they’re thinking of, not Northanger Abbey.)

Here’s the NYT on Jockers’ project:

He based his conclusion on an analysis of 3,592 works published from 1780 to 1900. It was a lot of digging, and a computer did it.

The study, which involved statistical parsing and aggregation of thousands of novels, made other striking observations. For example, Austen’s works cluster tightly together in style and theme, while those of George Eliot (a.k.a. Mary Ann Evans) range more broadly, and more closely resemble the patterns of male writers. Using similar criteria, Harriet Beecher Stowe was 20 years ahead of her time, said Mr. Jockers, whose research will soon be published in a book, Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History (University of Illinois Press).

While not claiming to know what “the patterns of male writers” means precisely, this is interesting information, “an intriguing sign that Big Data technology is steadily pushing beyond the Internet industry and scientific research into seemingly foreign fields like the social sciences and the humanities.” It is probably overstating the case, however, to compare (as the NYT goes on to do) a statistical algorithmic literary analysis to the impact of the microscope or the telescope.

In any literary endeavour, statistics will only get you part way. Human beings are still needed to effect a more nuanced investigation into literary history and the traditions that inform it, something the NYT article points out: “Quantitative tools in the humanities and the social sciences, as in other fields, are most powerful when they are controlled by an intelligent human. Experts with deep knowledge of a subject are needed to ask the right questions and to recognize the shortcomings of statistical models.”

While unarguably true, this is not good news in a world that seems to devalue the role of “experts with deep knowledge of a subject.” In an editor’s note in The Walrus, John Macfarlane bemoans exactly this problem, noting that in the digital age, expert analysis has been forced to take a back seat to popular opinion:

A people’s choice award was once a consolation prize for not winning something more estimable, like an Oscar or an Emmy, but in the age of Facebook and Twitter popularity rules.

This egalitarian impulse is the cultural assertion of the neo-liberal belief – itself increasingly popular – that the market should determine nearly anything. But more alarming is the flip side: a growing disrespect for knowledge and expertise. In contemporary North America, one person’s opinion is as good as the next, no matter how uninformed.

Popularity is paramount, as Macfarlane notes, and frequently in matters that don’t carry a whole lot of substance or import. More people in 2013 are likely to vote for the winner of So You Think You Can Dance? than are likely to vote in a federal election. And when people who do vote are asked what quality most attracts them in a potential leader, the answer is frequently, “The person I’d most like to have a beer with.” While conviviality and approachability are certainly admirable traits, it is devoutly to be hoped that substantial intellect and sober judgment would be more desirable attributes.

There isn’t much in the current culture to bolster such hope, however, and certainly not in the literary sphere. Substantial book review sections are shrinking or disappearing for want of readers, who would rather give a quick thumbs up or thumbs down to a book on Goodreads than work through 1,500 words of carefully crafted analysis by a knowledgeable critic like James Wood or Rohan Maitzen. While computers are busy counting the number of times authors use certain words, and making quantitative judgments about their relative influence as a result, it would be good if we did not forget the importance of having human experts capable of parsing the data and placing it into a broader, deeper context.

Monday morning criticism: Woolf, Carpenter

March 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Good Monday morning. In the news today, support for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives remains steady even in the face of allegations that party workers engaged in a campaign of voter suppression during the 2011 election; allegations of fraud also persist in Russia’s weekend election, which resulted in 63% support for incumbent Prime Minister Vladimir Putin; and the U.S. seems determined to turn the possibility of war with Iran into an election issue.

In other news, here’s Rohan Maitzen on Virginia Woolf’s criticism:

Woolf’s criticism … (and let’s, after all, concede her the term) is full of life and vitality. It is not criticism meant for cataloguing according to Library of Congress rules; it is not criticism as scholarship. It offers us no nuggets of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of our notebooks. Though definite, it is never definitive: its pronouncements are really provocations, at least to me – reading it, I simmer with questions and challenges and counter-examples, along with admiration for the lambent play of Woolf’s mind across her subjects. From the Oresteia to Ulysses, from the Paston letters to Gissing’s New Grub Street: Woolf seems able to talk with ease and wit about anything. Her criticism stimulates us to participate in the conversation with her, though not quite as equals – for there’s nothing common at all about the cultivation or polish of her writing.

And, for those who missed it over the weekend, here’s a National Post review of Matt Lennox’s debut novel, The Carpenter, written by a somewhat less estimable critic than Woolf:

If CanLit has a predominant colour, that colour is grey. The grey of storm clouds and winter; of factory smoke stacks and car exhaust; of woodsmoke and cigarette ash. The grey of memory made manifest in old black-and-white photographs. And, not least important for Matt Lennox’s debut novel, the grey of moral relativism. “There was always the grey,” Lennox writes late in his novel, “and in the grey was where the truth often resided.”

This observation, placed in the head of retired cop Stan Maitland, is somewhat ironic, given that the forces advocating for black-and-white interpretations of events and individuals in the novel tend to be institutional: cops, the court, the Church. True, there is a criminal element that is fairly straightforward in its villainy, but these characters are more a means to an end than anything else, the end being an exploration of the forces that conspire to make an essentially good man do some very, very bad things.