Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve – a book market researchers should read

To read the Japanese version of this post (from Mr Ryota Sano) click here.

Post by Ray Poynter, 28 March 2018

Ben Blatt's bookBen Blatt’s book, Nabokov’s Favourite Word Is Mauve is a good read, and a read I would recommend to any market researcher who wanted to widen his or her horizons in ways that challenged their ‘within-the-box thinking’. The book is, on the face of it, a quantitative review of different characteristics of literature. But do not panic, Blatt’s work does not reduce great literature to a set of soulless and unfeeling numbers. The success of the book is that it makes the reader think about authors like Hemingway and Austen, Rowling and Joyce in new and interesting ways.

The book explores several characteristics of writing to provide additional perspectives on things we already know. For example, Blatt devotes his first chapter to exploring whether the advice to use adverbs sparingly is supported by success or otherwise of authors and books. In his analysis, he quickly homes in on ‘ly’ adverbs, such as ‘suddenly’ and ‘quickly’. He starts his analysis by looking at a list of successful authors and contrasting their use of adverbs, for example Ernest Hemmingway and Mark Twain both used a meagre 80 or 81 ly-adverbs per 10,000 words in their books. By contrast, JK Rowling and EL James (author of the Fifty Shades of … series) both used 140 or more ly-adverbs per 10,000 words.

The great strength of Blatt’s approach is that he does not stop at the first, easily tabulated numbers. He shows that different authors use a different number of ly-adverbs and he also shows that there is quite a lot of variation between books written by the same author. But this does not answer whether fewer ly-adverbs is ‘Better’.

Blatt created a list of 15 ‘great’ authors by turning to four published lists of ‘best 100 books’, such as the Library Journal List. These 15 authors had, between them, 37 books listed in multiple top 100 lists. The authors/books included F Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby and DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. Armed with this triangulation of data, Blatt was able to show that more than half of these books had fewer than 50 ly-adverbs per 10,000 words, and very few of them had more than 150 per 10,000 words.

This information informed the story, i.e. that writers are advised to use fewer ly-adverbs. This advice is borne out by the evidence that ‘great’ books are more likely to use fewer ly-adverbs, but the rule is not so prescriptive that we should always shun the ly-verb. BTW, the main reasoning for avoiding the ly-adverb seems to be from authors who consider it lazy, rather than using the word ‘suddenly’, the narrative flow should create the impression of suddenness in the mind of the reader.

The chapter goes on to explore a number of other ways of building a rich picture around the ly-adverb. Perhaps my favourite is where Blatt compares three categories of books – Award Winners, Best Sellers, and Fanfiction. Fan fiction refers to books written by fans of specific authors who seek to write in the style of those authors, about the same topics. What Blatt shows is that Fan fiction (written by a wide cross-section of authors) uses more ly-adverbs than the leaders in the field – but the numbers are not so different that we could use it as a clear demarcation between great author and imitation.

I think market researchers should read this book because it illustrates several useful approaches that the modern researcher should adopt:

  • Blatt creates a clear question and then seeks data from a variety of sources to answer the question.
  • He combines visual, numerical and statistical approaches to cumulatively build his discovered narrative.
  • He shuns simple approaches (such as word clouds and sentiment analysis) to engage with texts in new and interesting ways.

So, please do read the book, and perhaps add your comments here?

Japanese version contributed by Mr Ryota Sano, from TALKEYE Inc., Japan.
Ben Blatt's bookナボコフの好きな言葉は藤色?リサーチャーへの推薦書

Ben Blatt著の”Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve”(参考訳:ナボコフの好きな言葉は藤色)は優れた読み物である。特に、視野が狭くなりがちなリサーチャー諸氏が彼・彼女らの思考の幅を拡げるために、よい本だと思う。見たところ、この本は文学の異なる特徴を定量的に分析したものである。と言っても、別に身構える必要はない。Blatt氏の仕事は偉大な文学作品を魂の抜けた無機質な数字に変換しようというものではない。この本で、彼は、ヘミングウェイ、オースティン、ローリング、ジョイスといった作家について、読者に新規かつ興味深い方法で考えさせることに成功している。