Tag Archives: Mark Twain

Danielle Steel Loves the Weather and Elmore Leonard Hates Exclamation Points: Literature by the Numbers

Source: Danielle Steel Loves the Weather and Elmore Leonard Hates Exclamation Points: Literature by the Numbers

by Ben Blatt

The first literary mystery to be solved by numbers was a 150-year-old whodunit finally put to rest in 1963. Two statistics professors learned of the long-running debate over a dozen contested essays from The Federalist Papers, and they saw that they might succeed where historians had failed. Both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison claimed to have written the same 12 essays, but who was right?

The answer lay in how each writer used hundreds of small words like but and what, which altogether formed a kind of literary fingerprint. The statisticians painstakingly cut up each essay and counted the words by hand—a process during which “a deep breath created a storm of confetti and a permanent enemy.” And by comparing hundreds of word frequencies, they came up with a clear answer after so many years of speculation: the contested essays were distinctly the work of James Madison.

Since 1963, similar methods have continued to yield major findings. Take, for instance, last year’s revelation that Shakespeare collaborated with Christopher Marlowe. And in the meantime, the technology involved has leapt from scissors and paper to computer and code, giving rise to a whole new field of study—the digital humanities.

In my new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, I use simple data to whiz through hundreds of classics, bestsellers, and fan fiction novels to explore anew our favorite authors and how they write. I uncover everything from literary fingerprints and favorite words and tics, to the changing reading level of NYT bestsellers and how men and women write characters differently.

If you have a body of literature, stats can now serve as an x-ray. Here are a few fascinating examples from Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve:

Writing Advice

There is a lot of writing advice out there. But it’s hard to test, and it’s often best to judge someone not by what they say but what they do. Novelists may tell their adoring fans to do one thing, but do they actually follow their own advice? With data, we can find out—looking at everything from the overuse of adverbs to Strunk and White’s advice against qualifiers like “very” or “pretty.”

One of my favorite examples comes from Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, where Leonard offers the following rule about exclamation points: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” A writing rule in the form of a ratio is a blessing for a statistician, so I ran with it. Does Leonard practice what he preaches?

From a strict numerical view, no. Leonard wrote over 40 novels which totaled 3.4 million words. If he were to follow his own advice he should have been allowed only 102 exclamation points his entire career. In practice, he used 1,651—which is 16 times as many as he recommends.

But looking deeper, we find that Leonard did follow the spirit of his own rule. Below are 50 novelists, representing a range of classic authors and bestselling authors. Elmore Leonard beats out everyone.

And the picture gets even more interesting when we look at how Leonard’s use changes over time. The chart below shows the number of exclamation points that Leonard used in each one of his novels from the start of the career. He loved the exclamation point as a novice, but he slowly weaned off of it over time.

Interestingly, after he delivered his exclamation point rule in 10 Rules for Writing, his use decreased even further (the one exception was Leonard’s sole children’s novel). He may have been a zealot: no one I looked at uses exclamation points at a rate lower than two or three per 100,000. But Leonard practiced what he preached: he got closer to his magic ratio than any other writer, especially in his final stretch of novels.

He was also on to something. I parsed through thousands of amateur fan-fiction stories online and found they were not only enthusiastic about their story universes, but for exclamation points as well. The average published author relies on about 1/4th as many exclamation points as the average amateur writer.

How Cliché

The book world loves a good list: bestsellers, award winners, “best of the year” lists. But what other superlative lists are there to uncover out there in the literary world? In Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, I decided to ask: who uses the shortest sentences, the most adverbs, writes at the lowest grade level or relies on the most clichés?

I took all expressions mentioned in the 2013 book by Christine Ammer titled The Dictionary of Clichés. These are phrases like “fish out of water,” “dressed to kill,” and “not one’s cup of tea”—4,000 phrases in total. To my knowledge, Ammer’s book is the largest collection of English language clichés. I then scanned through the complete bibliographies of the same 50 authors mentioned above to see who used the most clichés.

The answer: James Patterson.

You’d expect some recency bias in the dictionary of clichés (Jane Austen’s characters, unfortunately, weren’t ever described as “dressed to kill”). So I also looked at every single book that ranked on Publishers Weekly’s bestselling books of the year since 2000. James Patterson can’t blame his time period alone. Even compared to his contemporaries in genre and time, Patterson comes in with five of the 10 most clichéd books. He’s clearly making it work, though. Of those PW lists, Patterson has 16 books, more titles than any other writer.

Start with a Bang

In response to a question on Twitter about her favorite first sentence in literature, novelist Margaret Atwood answered: Call me Ishmael. “Three words. Power-packed. Why Ishmael? It’s not his real name. Who’s he speaking to? Eh?”

Atwood emphasized the brevity of the Moby-Dick opener, and she is similarly concise in her own work. I compared the median length of her opening sentence to that of the 50 authors in the exclamation point chart above. Only one author, Toni Morrison, beats her out.

Opening sentences are far from an exact science, but keeping them short and powerful by rule of thumb is a smart place to start. Drawing from a range of sources, I assembled a list of the consensus top 20 opening sentences in literature. And of that list, 60% of the openers are short when compared to the book’s average sentence length.

But when you look a much wider sample of literature, most authors in practice opt for long openers. In 69% of all of the books I looked at, the opening sentence is longer than the average sentence throughout the rest of the book. It might be that authors like Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood are on to something as they keep their openers “power-packed.”

Beach Weather

In one last example, let’s return to Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. His first rule (#1!) is “Never open a book with weather.” Apparently Leonard had strong feelings about this trope, but anyone who’s ever heard too many plays on the old saw, “it was a dark and stormy night,” will know where he’s coming from.

Leonard again lives up to his own advice. But there’s one author who completely flouts it, and it’s an example I love.

Danielle Steel, known for selling hundreds of millions of books, should also be known for talking about the weather. She started her first book off “It was a gloriously sunny day and the call from Carson Advertising came at nine-fifteen.” She’s never looked back.

Nearly half her of introductions involve weather—mostly benign, positive weather (“perfect deliciously warm Saturday afternoons,” “perfect balmy May evening”, “absolutely perfect June day,” or simply: “The weather was magnificent.”). But like Patterson she has made her rule-breaking choice work. It’s a distinctive style that’s all her own—and it’s a quirk that at least this reader would never have been able to pin down without having been able to run the numbers first.




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Photo finish Friday: “Enlightenment”

Friday night on the town, awaiting the start of Mark Twain Tonight at The Tennessee Theatre.

Friday night on the town, awaiting the start of Mark Twain Tonight at The Tennessee Theatre.

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Book sequel

The 5 best sequels to classic novels

Author Chet Williamson has written an authorised sequel to Robert Bloch’s Psycho. Here, he looks at other sequels that honour the original works while bringing new life to them

Source: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/my-five-favourite-sequels-to-classic-novels-from-the-further-adventures-of-huckleberry-finn-to-the-a6970976.html

Having just written an authorised sequel to Psycho, Robert Bloch’s original tale of Norman Bates, I was asked by The Independent to come up with what I considered the five best sequels to other classic novels. I’m not so sure about the “best”, but these are certainly my favourites, ones that honour and respect the original works while bringing different perspectives and new life to them:

The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Greg Matthews (1988)

The author of the western epics, Power in the Blood and Heart of the Country, takes up Sam Clemens’ pen and picks up the story as though channelling Mark Twain. A perfect sequel to a book that’s as close as anyone’s come to the Great American Novel.

Pym by Mat Johnson (2010)

It seems that Edgar Allan Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym, a story of weird adventure in the Antarctic, is based on fact, and it’s up to a professor of American literature to confirm it with a trip to the South Pole. Johnson deals with race, history, and literature trenchantly and often humorously, while retaining the cosmic mystery of Poe’s original.

Grendel by John Gardner (1971)

Grendel John_GardnerNot so much a sequel as a retelling of the ancient epic, Beowulf, seen from the monster’s point of view. Gardner was an extraordinary writer, and his depiction of Grendel is tender, haunting, empathetic, and terrible.

A Feast Unknown by Philip Jose Farmer (1969)

First published by an “erotica” house, this novel is the great-grandfather of literary mash-ups, and still far superior to most of them. Farmer creates his own versions of Tarzan (Lord Grandith) and pulp hero Doc Savage (Doc Caliban), makes them half-brothers (their father was Jack the Ripper), and sets them against each other in a violent and homoerotic grudge match. A masterpiece of absurdity.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998)

From the ridiculous to the sublime. Cunningham’s tripartite exploration of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is too complex in plot and character to begin to discuss here, but this bold and experimental novel sets the bar for what can be accomplished by treading in the footsteps of an earlier work of literary brilliance.

Psycho: Sanitarium is published on 12th April by Canelo, price £3.99 in eBook

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Seeing old books with renewed eyes

Huckleberry Finn, Alive at 100

Published: December 9, 1984

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/1984/12/09/books/mailer-huck.html?smid=fb-share&pagewanted=all

[Editor’s note: This essay of rediscovering a classic in adulthood was written over 30 years ago, but is still true today.]

Is there a sweeter tonic for the doldrums than old reviews of great novels? In 19th-century Russia, ”Anna Karenina” was received with the following: ”Vronsky’s passion for his horse runs parallel to his passion for Anna” . . . ”Sentimental rubbish” . . . ”Show me one page,” says The Odessa Courier, ”that contains an idea.” ”Moby-Dick” was incinerated: ”Graphic descriptions of a dreariness such as we do not remember to have met with before in marine literature” . . . ”Sheer moonstruck lunacy” . . . ”Sad stuff. Mr. Melville’s Quakers are wretched dolts and drivellers and his mad captain is a monstrous bore.”

Annotated edition of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”

By this measure, ”Huckleberry Finn” (published 100 years ago this week in London and two months later in America) gets off lightly. The Springfield Republican judged it to be no worse than ”a gross trifling with every fine feeling. . . . Mr. Clemens has no reliable sense of propriety,” and the public library in Concord, Mass., was confident enough to ban it: ”the veriest trash.” The Boston Transcript reported that ”other members of the Library Committee characterize the work as rough, coarse, and inelegant, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.”

All the same, the novel was not too unpleasantly regarded. There were no large critical hurrahs but the reviews were, on the whole, friendly. A good tale, went the consensus. There was no sense that a great American novel had landed on the literary world of 1885. The critical climate could hardly anticipate T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway’s encomiums 50 years later. In the preface to an English edition, Eliot would speak of ”a master piece. . . . Twain’s genius is completely realized,” and Ernest went further. In ”Green Hills of Africa,” after disposing of Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau, and paying off Henry James and Stephen Crane with a friendly nod, he proceeded to declare, ”All modern American literture comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ . . . It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

Hemingway, with his nonpareil gift for nosing out the perfect vin du pays for an ineluctable afternoon, was nonetheless more like other novelists in one dire respect: he was never at a loss to advance himself with his literary judgments. Assessing the writing of others, he used the working author’s rule of thumb: if I give this book a good mark, does it help appreciation of my work? Obviously, ”Huckleberry Finn” has passed the test.

A SUSPICION immediately arises. Mark Twain is doing the kind of writing only Hemingway can do better. Evidently, we must take a look. May I say it helps to have read ”Huckleberry Finn” so long ago that it feels brand-new on picking it up again. Perhaps I was 11 when I saw it last, maybe 13, but now I only remember that I came to it after ”Tom Sawyer” and was disappointed. I couldn’t really follow ”The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The character of Tom Sawyer whom I had liked so much in the first book was altered, and did not seem nice any more. Huckleberry Finn was altogether beyond me. Later, I recollect being surprised by the high regard nearly everyone who taught American Lit. lavished upon the text, but that didn’t bring me back to it. Obviously, I was waiting for an assignment from The New York Times.

Let me offer assurances. It may have been worth the wait. I suppose I am the 10-millionth reader to say that ”Huckleberry Finn” is an extraordinary work. Indeed, for all I know, it is a great novel. Flawed, quirky, uneven, not above taking cheap shots and cashing far too many checks (it is rarely above milking its humor) – all the same, what a book we have here! I had the most curious sense of excitement. After a while, I understood my peculiar frame of attention. The book was so up-to- date! I was not reading a classic author so much as looking at a new work sent to me in galleys by a publisher. It was as if it had arrived with one of those rare letters which says, ”We won’t make this claim often but do think we have an extraordinary first novel to send out.” So it was like reading ”From Here to Eternity” in galleys, back in 1950, or ”Lie Down in Darkness,” ”Catch-22,” or ”The World According to Garp” (which reads like a fabulous first novel). You kept being alternately delighted, surprised, annoyed, competitive, critical and finally excited. A new writer had moved onto the block. He could be a potential friend or enemy but he most certainly was talented.

That was how it felt to read ”Huckleberry Finn” a second time. I kept resisting the context until I finally surrendered. One always does surrender sooner or later to a book with a strong magnetic field. I felt as if I held the work of a young writer about 30 or 35, a prodigiously talented fellow from the Midwest, from Missouri probably, who had had the audacity to write a historical novel about the Mississippi as it might have been a century and a half ago, and this young writer had managed to give us a circus of fictional virtuosities. In nearly every chapter new and remarkable characters bounded out from the printed page as if it were a tarmac on which they could perform their leaps. The author’s confidence seemed so complete that he could deal with every kind of man or woman God ever gave to the middle of America. Jail-house drunks like Huck Finn’s father take their bow, full of the raunchy violence that even gets into the smell of clothing. Gentlemen and river rats, young, attractive girls full of grit and ”sand,” and strong old ladies with aphorisms clicking like knitting needles, fools and confidence men – what a cornucopia of rabble and gentry inhabit the author’s river banks.

It would be superb stuff if only the writer did not keep giving away the fact that he was a modern young American working in 1984. His anachronisms were not so much in the historical facts – those seemed accurate enough – but the point of view was too contemporary. The scenes might succeed – say it again, this young writer was talented! – but he kept betraying his literary influences. The author of ”The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” had obviously been taught a lot by such major writers as Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos and John Steinbeck; he had certainly lifted from Faulkner and the mad tone Faulkner could achieve when writing about maniacal men feuding in deep swamps; he had also absorbed much of what Vonnegut and Heller could teach about the resilience of irony. If he had a surer feel for the picaresque than Saul Bellow in ”Augie March,” still he felt derivative of that work. In places one could swear he had memorized ”The Catcher in the Rye,” and he probably dipped into ”Deliverance” and ”Why Are We in Vietnam?” He might even have studied the mannerisms of movie stars. You could feel traces of John Wayne, Victor McLaglen and Burt Reynolds in his pages. The author had doubtless digested many a Hollywood comedy on small-town life. His instinct for life in hamlets on the Mississippi before the Civil War was as sharp as it was farcical, and couldn’t be more commercial.

No matter. With talent as large as this, one could forgive the obvious eye for success. Many a large talent has to go through large borrowings in order to find his own style, and a lust for popular success while dangerous to serious writing is not necessarily fatal. Yes, one could accept the pilferings from other writers, given the scope of this work, the brilliance of the concept – to catch rural America by a trip on a raft down a great river! One could even marvel uneasily at the depth of the instinct for fiction in the author. With the boy Huckleberry Finn, this new novelist had managed to give us a character of no comfortable, measurable dimension. It is easy for characters in modern novels to seem more vivid than figures in the classics but, even so, Huckleberry Finn appeared to be more alive than Don Quixote and Julian Sorel, as naturally near to his own mind as we are to ours. But how often does a hero who is so absolutely natural on the page also succeed in acquiring convincing moral stature as his adventures develop?

It is to be repeated. In the attractive grip of this talent, one is ready to forgive the author of ”Huckleberry Finn” for every influence he has so promiscuously absorbed. He has made such fertile use of his borrowings. One could even cheer his appearance on our jaded literary scene if not for the single transgression that goes too far. These are passages that do more than borrow an author’s style – they copy it! Influence is mental, but theft is physical. Who can declare to a certainty that a large part of the prose in ”Huckleberry Finn” is not lifted directly from Hemingway? We know that we are not reading Ernest only because the author, obviously fearful that his tone is getting too near, is careful to sprinkle his text with ”a-clutterings” and ”warn’ts” and ”anywheres” and ”t’others.” But we have read Hemingway – and so we see through it – we know we are reading pure Hemingway disguised:

”We cut young cottonwoods and willows, and hid the raft with them. Then we set out the lines. Next we slid into the river and had a swim . . . then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee-deep and watched the daylight come. Not a sound anywheres . . . the first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line – that was the woods on t’other side; you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn’t black anymore . . . by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there’s a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water and the east reddens up and the river.”

Up to now I have conveyed, I expect, the pleasure of reading this book today. It is the finest compliment I can offer. We use an unspoken standard of relative judgment on picking up a classic. Secretly, we expect less reward from it than from a good contemporary novel. The average intelligent modern reader would probably, under torture, admit that ”Heartburn” was more fun to read, minute for minute, than ”Madame Bovary,” and maybe one even learned more. That is not to say that the first will be superior to the second a hundred years from now but that a classic novel is like a fine horse carrying an exorbitant impost. Classics suffer by their distance from our day-to-day gossip. The mark of how good ”Huckleberry Finn” has to be is that one can compare it to a number of our best modern American novels and it stands up page for page, awkward here, sensational there – absolutely the equal of one of those rare incredible first novels that come along once or twice in a decade. So I have spoken of it as kin to a first novel because it is so young and so fresh and so all-out silly in some of the chances it takes and even wins. A wiser older novelist would never play that far out when the work was already well along and so neatly in hand. But Twain does.

For the sake of literary propriety, let me not, however, lose sight of the actual context. ”The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is a novel of the 19th century and its grand claims to literary magnitude are also to be remarked upon. So I will say that the first measure of a great novel may be that it presents – like a human of palpable charisma – an all-but-visible aura. Few works of literature can be so luminous without the presence of some majestic symbol. In ”Huckleberry Finn” we are presented (given the possible exception of Anna Livia Plurabelle) with the best river ever to flow through a novel, our own Mississippi, and in the voyage down those waters of Huck Finn and a runaway slave on their raft, we are held in the thrall of the river. Larger than a character, the river is a manifest presence, a demiurge to support the man and the boy, a deity to betray them, feed them, all but drown them, fling them apart, float them back together. The river winds like a fugue through the marrow of the true narrative which is nothing less than the ongoing relation between Huck and the runaway slave, this Nigger Jim whose name embodies the very stuff of the slave system itself – his name is not Jim but Nigger Jim. The growth of love and knowledge between the runaway white and the runaway black is a relation equal to the relation of the men to the river for it is also full of betrayal and nourishment, separation and return. So it manages to touch that last fine nerve of the heart where compassion and irony speak to one another and thereby give a good turn to our most protected emotions.

READING ”Huckleberry Finn” one comes to realize all over again that the near- burned-out, throttled, hate-filled dying affair between whites and blacks is still our great national love affair, and woe to us if it ends in detestation and mutual misery. Riding the current of this novel, we are back in that happy time when the love affair was new and all seemed possible. How rich is the recollection of that emotion! What else is greatness but the indestructible wealth it leaves in the mind’s recollection after hope has soured and passions are spent? It is always the hope of democracy that our wealth will be there to spend again, and the ongoing treasure of ”Huckleberry Finn” is that it frees us to think of democracy and its sublime, terrifying premise: let the passions and cupidities and dreams and kinks and ideals and greed and hopes and foul corruptions of all men and women have their day and the world will still be better off, for there is more good than bad in the sum of us and our workings. Mark Twain, whole embodiment of that democratic human, understood the premise in every turn of his pen, and how he tested it, how he twisted and tantalized and tested it until we are weak all over again with our love for the idea.

Norman Mailer’s latest novel is ”Tough Guys Don’t Dance.”

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/1984/12/09/books/mailer-huck.html?smid=fb-share&pagewanted=all

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Photo finish Friday: “Starting off”

Photo prompt: what's the first idea that comes to mind?

Photo prompt: what’s the first idea that comes to mind?

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Bill Murray Gives a Delightful Dramatic Reading of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1996) | Open Culture

Bill Murray Gives a Delightful Dramatic Reading of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1996) | Open Culture.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

George Barnard Shaw once called Mark Twain “the American Voltaire,” and like the inspired French satirist, Twain seems to have something to say to every age, from his own to ours. But if Twain is Voltaire, to whom do we compare Bill Murray? Only posterity can properly assess Murray’s considerable impact on our culture, but his current role as everyone’s favorite pleasant surprise will surely figure largely in his historical portrait. Of Murray’s many random acts of kindness—which include “popping in on random karaoke nights, or doing dishes at other people’s house parties, or crashing wedding photo shoots”—he has also taken to surprising us with readings from American literary greats: from Cole Porter, to Wallace Stevens, to Emily Dickinson.

Just above see Murray read an excerpt from American great Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Murray’s appearance at the 1996 Barnes & Noble event apparently came as a surprise to the audience—and to himself. The excerpt he reads might also surprise many readers of Twain’s classic, who probably won’t find it in their copies of the novel. These passages were originally published in Life on the Mississippi but reinserted—“correctly, I guess,” Murray shrugs—into Huck Finn in Random House’s 1996 republication of the novel, marketed as “the only comprehensive edition.” (Read a publication history and summary of the changes in this brief, unsympathetic review of the re-edited text.)

1996 was an interesting year for Twain’s novel. Long at the center of debates over racial sensitivity in public education, and banned many times over, the book figured prominently that year in a tense but fruitful meeting between parents and teachers in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. These discussions produced a new curricular approach that PBS outlines in its teaching guide “Huck Finn in Context,” which offers a variety of responses to the thorny pedagogy of “the ‘n’ word,” racial stereotyping, and reading satire. Beyond the issue of derogatory language, there also arose that year a pugnacious challenge to the book’s place in the American literary canon from novelist Jane Smiley. Smiley’s polemic prompted a lengthy rebuttal in The New York Times from Twain scholar Justin Kaplan.

More at: http://www.openculture.com/2014/09/bill-murray-gives-a-delightful-dramatic-reading-of-twains-huck-finn.html

[Editor’s note: the over hour-long video contains much more than Murray’s reading and is worth watching for its own merits and authors on the panel.]

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Monday morning writing joke: “State of mind”

Two fifty-five-year-old authors were sitting together on a dais at a writer’s conference.

The first one looks at the photo and short biography of the third author who is scheduled to join them.

“Wow,” the first author says, “I must be getting old.”

“Why?” the second asks, “because she looks so young in the photo?”

“No. Because she says she’s twenty-seven and describes herself as middle-aged.”

“Yeah,” the second author sighs, “middle age is looking younger and younger to me, too.”


Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.
–Mark Twain

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