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Mixed Methodology: On Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve

Does Ernest Hemingway really use the fewest adverbs? Do authors write about their own gender more than others’? In his new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, Ben Blatt uses statistical analysis to deconstruct popular and classic literature and interrogate truisms about writing fiction. Many of the claims he makes are intriguing. He finds that male writers tend to use the pronoun “he” far more often than “she” in their books, whereas female writers use “he” and “she” almost equally. Blatt also finds that over the last 200 years, writers’ tendency to use qualifiers (“‘rather, very, little, pretty, etc.'”) in their fiction has decreased substantially. Blatt’s quantitative approach to literature is novel — and very entertaining — but the book is undermined by poor copyediting and methodologies that call into question the conclusions Blatt reaches.

To a bibliophile, the flaw that jumps out is Blatt’s seeming unfamiliarity with some of the fiction he calls on to support his findings. In Chapter 4, “Write by Example,” Blatt claims that writers’ use of qualifiers has been declining for two centuries. (Between 1900 and 1999, he writes, qualifier use per 10,000 words dropped from more than 200 to a little more than 100.) He cites Jane Austen as prime example of 19th-century qualifier abuse: “Jane Austen is one of the English language’s most celebrated authors but her use of words like very is off the charts.” Blatt’s claim, broadly speaking, is believable, but the excerpt from the novel he cites is terrible evidence to justify that writers of a different era conformed to different stylistic standards regarding qualifiers. The quote he chooses from Emma is Austen’s summary of Harriet’s dialogue:
She was very fond of singing. He could sing a little himself. She believed he was very clever, and understood every thing. He had a very fine flock, and, while she was with them, he had been bid more for his wool than any body in the country. She believed every body spoke well of him. His mother and sisters were very fond of him. (Emphasis Blatt’s)
Later in the chapter, Blatt quotes Dead Poet’s Society to explain how qualifiers can vitiate speech: ‘“…avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy.”’ Or, to put it another way, using “very” too often can make a person sound dumb. In Emma, Harriet Smith is an airhead and her vacancy is crucial to the novel’s plot. Thus, those abundant “verys” in the passage aren’t an indication either of Austen’s laziness or her conforming to the style conventions of another era; Austen uses them deliberately to telegraph to the reader that Harriet is dense. Blatt’s relying on this passage as an illustration of unconsciously absorbed literary standards suggests either shallow familiarity with his source material or a failure of literary analysis.

Blatt is also sometimes careless about the conclusions he draws from his data. For example, when he compares the relative frequency with which male and female writers use the pronouns “he” and “she,” Blatt concludes that, based on his sample, “Of the 50 classic books by men, 44 used he more than she and 6 did the opposite” and “Of the 50 classic books by women, 29 used she more than he and 21 did the opposite.” Both of these statements, however, are, at best, misleading, and possibly false, as Blatt identifies two books in his 50-book sample, one by a man and one by a woman, that use “he” and “she” at equal rates. Blatt rounds to the nearest percentage point, so it is possible that what he writes is, strictly speaking, true; there may be barely more appearances of “he” in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and barely more appearances of “she” in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, both of which round most closely to equal representation. If this is the case, however, why does Blatt not make this clear in the text?

Perhaps more importantly, Nabokov’s Favorite Word did not get the attention it needed from a copy editor. (On page 70, for instance, Blatt titles a list “Most Probable to be Richard Bachman” [Stephen King’s pseudonym], when what he means is “Most Probable to be Robert Galbraith” [J. K. Rowling’s pseudonym]). In a book of statistical analysis especially, Blatt’s lack of care defining criteria for inclusion in his samples (and adhering to those criteria invariably), calls into the question the conclusions he draws from his analysis. For instance, in the aforementioned analysis of gendered pronouns, Blatt waffles about whether his analysis is confined to novels or just to “books.” On page 41, he writes that he drew his data from the “100 novels on [the] classic literature list.” This list of “novels,” however, contains several collections of short stories, including A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Winesburg, Ohio.  It is unlikely that including short stories would bias the results determining how often writers use “he” and “she;” it may, however, mislead the reader about how writers use gendered pronouns in fiction in general, as opposed to novels in particular. Blatt’s sloppiness in choosing his samples is not limited to this analysis alone. In another case of “Breakout Debut Novels,” he states that to qualify a work had to be “an author’s first novel.” Nevertheless, he includes in his sample Alice McDermott’s second novel, That Night, published in 1987, though McDermott’s first novel was A Bigamist’s Daughter, published in 1982.

Blatt’s problem defining criteria for his samples and adhering to them most profoundly undermines his investigation of different writers’ favorite words. Blatt concludes, for example, that Virginia Woolf’s favorite words are “flushing, blotting, mantelpiece;” Marilynne Robinson’s are “soapy, checkers, baptized;” and Lemony Snicket’s are “siblings, orphans, squalor.” Blatt designates only four criteria to determine whether a word is a favorite, one of which is that the word “is not a proper noun.” Blatt does omit all words that are unmistakably proper nouns; you won’t find Chicago, Arkansas, or Sahara among any writer’s favorites. Blatt, however, neglects to exclude words that writers use as proper nouns. This is most obvious in his choice of Virginia Woolf’s favorite word “flushing.” Based on searches performed on Google Books, Woolf only uses “flushing” (not as a proper noun) eight times in the nine novels that constitute Blatt’s Woolf sample. There are, however, 55 occurrences of “Flushing” in Woolf’s novel The Voyage Out, in which Woolf repeatedly refers to the characters Mr. and Mrs. Flushing. To determine a favorite word, Blatt also uses the criterion that the word “must be used in half an author’s books.” Excluding The Voyage Out, which never uses “flushing” as anything other than a character’s name, the word only appears in four of the nine novels that constitute Blatt’s Woolf sample. Thus, Blatt must be counting the erroneous appearances of “Flushing,” used as a proper noun, to arrive at his ranking.

Though I cannot prove it with the same certainty, Blatt likely repeats this flaw in several other authors’ favorite word lists. One of Marilynne Robinson’s favorite words, as determined by Blatt, for instance, is “soapy.” In her novel Gilead, “Soapy” is the name of the cat, who is mentioned by name 11 times. Excluding references to the cat, however, Robinson only uses the word “soapy” twice in all the novels in Blatt’s Robinson sample and never in Gilead. It is also possible the same error occurred in the identification of “squalor” as one of Lemony Snicket’s favorite words; there is a supporting character named Esmé Squalor in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Blatt could argue that names should be included in the analysis because a writer handpicks them for her characters. Nevertheless, Blatt either needs to redefine his criteria to make this inclusion clear or exclude from his sample instances where a writer uses common words as proper nouns.

Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve is a thoroughly entertaining romp, but the mistakes — especially Blatt’s lack of rigor in sticking to the criteria he defines for his samples — mean one should approach it with several grains of salt. Given the problems of methodology observed, one often can’t put faith in Blatt’s conclusions. It is unfortunate that his intriguing approach is compromised by lackluster execution. His analyses, approached with more rigor, could offer meaningful insight into the way great writers compose.

Poetry, Jarmusch Style

During college, two of my English-majoring friends had a running argument, years long, about whether “Pale Fire,” the 999-line poem that begins Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of the same name, is good or not.  The poem is attributed to the fictional writer John Shade, and the rest of the novel takes the form of an unhinged and digressive commentary on it by Shade’s neighbor.  There’s no doubt about the quality of the commentary (as commentary, as opposed to a satire of one), nor about the quality of novel, but what of the poem?  Usually, fictional works of art are framed as clearly good or bad by the larger works they are within, but occasionally their status is more interestingly ambiguous.

Jim Jarmusch’s new film Paterson follows a week in the life of Paterson, a Paterson, N.J., bus driver played by Adam Driver.  (Many of its jokes are of this sort.)  It is admirably quiet and prosaic, refreshingly so in a time when it can feel like 50 percent of films include the computer generated destruction of a metropolis.  It is also remarkably thought provoking, raising questions about why people write poetry, whether they need readers, and who merits the label “poet.”  More than any other, however, the film left me with the question of whether it — and Jarmusch — thinks Paterson’s poetry is any good.

Paterson writes, if the week we see is typical, about a poem a day.  We witness him thinking through the first lines over breakfast and his walk to work, then writing in his “secret notebook” (as his wife calls it) as he waits to set out on his first route of the day, on his lunch break, and at his basement desk at home.  Certainly the film seems to celebrate his words: paired with Driver’s voiceover, they are inscribed on the screen, both as they are being drafted and in apparently finished form.  Yet Paterson is uninterested in showing his poetry to anyone.  His wife seems to have read, or heard, a few of them, and constantly hectors him to make copies and share them with the world, but he is clearly reluctant to do so.

The counterpoint of Paterson’s wife, Laura (played by Golshifteh Farahani), suggests all the more that the film thinks Paterson’s poetry is good.  She flits from daydream to daydream about how she will become famous — for her cupcakes, or as a Nashville singer with her newly bought guitar — and the film gently mocks these dreams, as well as her many design projects around the house.  Yet no such mockery is pointed toward Paterson’s work.

Films can make any poem seem greater than it is, and of much deeper significance — or go too far in such a direction, turning it into overwrought bombast, as Dead Poet’s Society did for Walt Whitman and, more recently, Interstellar for Dylan Thomas.  Despite this, Paterson’s poetry still seems, at best, merely mediocre.  It is styled after that of William Carlos Williams, son of Paterson, N.J., and hero of both Driver’s character and the film.  Williams is repeatedly discussed, Paterson recites “This Is Just to Say” at his wife’s request, and his book Paterson is obviously visible on the main character’s shelf (along with other collections of poetry and Infinite Jest, a book I cannot imagine Driver’s character reading, which Jarmusch also visually fetishized, more convincingly, in Only Lovers Left Alive).  Unlike Williams’s poetry, however, Paterson’s seemed to me unnecessarily baggy, occasionally finding a good line or two, but only after far too much preamble, not just conversational, but plain in its diction and rhythm to the point of banality.

I was surprised to learn, then, that Paterson’s lines were in fact written, some especially for the film (others have appeared elsewhere), by the poet Ron Padgett, an award-winning member of the New York School (itself name-checked, via Frank O’Hara, in the film).  Unless Jarmusch means to insult his friend, this makes me think he means to present the poems as good.  Otherwise, why not write them himself?  Poetry of Williams’s sort is not hard to write, only hard to write well.  Did Padgett, in the poems written for the film, take on the persona of a lesser talent?  The film features one other poem, written by a 10-year-old girl with whom Paterson falls into conversation.  This one was actually written by Jarmusch, and the film presents it as no worse than Paterson’s (that is Padgett’s) work: Driver’s character seems genuinely moved by it, and he recites its opening lines to his wife later that night.  Does Jarmusch intend to lower Paterson’s status, or to elevate the young girl?

Paterson exists thought-provokingly, though I am not sure fully purposefully, in the space created by the ambiguity of whether Paterson’s poetry is any good.  If it were clearly bad, then the film would become cruel.  If it were clearly good, then the film would become something else, a hackneyed gem-in-the-rough story.  Twice in the film, Paterson is presented with the opportunity to call himself a poet.  Neither time does he.  He is interested in poetry, likes poetry, but he doesn’t even admit he writes it, neither to the young girl, nor to a Japanese poet on pilgrimage to the hometown of William Carlos Williams.   Where Williams was a doctor, Paterson is a bus driver and thinks of himself merely as that.  Unlike Williams, he writes only for himself.

Near the end of the film, Paterson’s notebook is destroyed (a move so heavily telegraphed that this really isn’t a spoiler).  His wife is devastated by the loss — clearly she daydreams about his future fame as well — but Paterson’s own reaction is opaque.  He says almost nothing: is he in shock or remarkably stoic?  Does he not especially care, or perhaps even feel a little relieved?  We briefly wonder if he will stop writing or, alternatively, now write to publish, his juvenilia swept away.  Instead, he simply returns to his routine, it seems: his poems, it is suggested, are for him, and him alone.  They help him find meaning in his otherwise routine life, and that’s enough — anything else would be too much, too grandiose, too, well, poetic, for his merely prosaic existence.

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