The death of fiction via algorithm

Server pornOkay, here’s some bullshit for you. Some computer science gearheads have written an algorithm to determine if a novel will be successful or not. They basically took the text from a bunch of best sellers, and then did statistical analysis on the text to try and determine why a book sells.

They found that “Novelists who write more like journalists have literary success,”  or using more nouns, pronouns and prepositions.  Says Yejin Choi, one of the paper writers:

“It has to do with showing versus caring,” Choi said. “In order to really resonate with readers, instead of saying ‘she was really really sad,’ it might be better to describe her physical state, to give a literal description. You are speaking more like a journalist would.”

There’s all of the usual disclaimers on sample size and whatnot, and this kind of project isn’t that new.  I’m too lazy to cite anything, but people have been doing this for years with music metadata. This kind of number-crunching on qualitative works with quantitative figures has been going on in the basement of computer science departments ever since computer geeks started watching Star Trek. And data mining is big business; you can make tons of money by selling the FBI or the NSA tools to mine through data in the name of security theater, for example by digging through grocery store sales of falafel to catch terrorists.

What’s more scary/disturbing to me are the implications for fiction writers. The article I linked above had a couple of chickenshit quotes from an agent and a writer, saying this would never apply to their respective lines of work.  But I’m certain that once this is productized, it will result in book publishing that’s vetted by a program that spits out a score based on your work’s ability to fit within the cookie cutter. It’s like the Save the Cat crisis in Hollywood, where the catalyst has to happen at the twelve-minute mark or you’ve failed.  This has created a Hollywood where every movie is the same damn thing, or at least the ones getting big funding are.  Books are already heading that way, but once Microsoft Word gets a fiction profitability wizard (“It looks like you’re trying to write a YA vampire romance!”) good luck trying to sell anything that’s not written with the exact structure of every other book out there.

And before someone gives me the “but that’s the beauty of self-publishing: no gatekeepers!” – 99% of self-published books that sell are just aping the same romance and detective story structure as the best-selling Big Four authors.  If something like this came out, every self-publishing hack would be telling their cultists they absolutely needed to use it to make their books a success.

Looks like it’s time for me to scrap that non-linear, emotional novel and start punching up my zombie erotica project.  Big money!

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