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the Complete Review
the complete review - literature / statistics


Nabokov's Favorite Word
is Mauve

Ben Blatt

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To purchase Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve

Title: Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve
Author: Ben Blatt
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2017
Length: 220 pages
Availability: Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve - US
Nabokov's Favourite Word is Mauve - UK
Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve - Canada
  • US subtitle: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing
  • UK subtitle: The literary quirks and oddities of our most-loved authors

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Our Assessment:

B : entertaining by-the-numbers insights into books and authors

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 16/1/2017 .
Wall St. Journal . 14/3/2017 Jeff Baker

  From the Reviews:
  • "This leaves the reader with the feeling of having witnessed engaging parlor tricks instead of scholarly inquiry. But parlor tricks are fun, and so is this book." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ben Blatt begins Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve by writing about Frederick Mosteller and David L. Wallace's 1963 paper, Inference in an Authorship Problem [pdf] -- which was, as the subtitle has it: A Comparative Study of Discrimination Methods Applied to the Authorship of the Disputed Federalist Papers. Mosteller and Wallace used statistical methods to try to determine the disputed authorship of twelve of the essays in The Federalist Papers, basically by comparing the frequency of common words in other works by the authors in question to those in the twelve The Federalist Papers-pieces. As it turns out, this is a very effective way of determining authorship: writers have 'tells' -- not just stylistic, but even as regards the usage of common words.

     The reason it works is that authors do end up writing in a way that is both unique and consistent, just like an actual fingerprint is distinct and unchanging.
       Back in that day -- 1963 -- Mosteller and Wallace actually had to count by hand. Modern computing now allows much more elaborate, thorough, and far-reaching textual analysis by the numbers, speedily and with little effort, and in Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve Blatt has some fun with these capabilities, as he considers some of the linguistic tics and markers of writers. (He focuses on fiction, and naturally, he considers essentially only works written in English (translations slip in only very occasionally, as in when he looks at the 'best first sentences in literature'); he also limits himself to (relatively) modern literature, more or less from Jane Austen on. (While it's obviously beyond the ambit of the book, there is incredible potential for some interesting translation analysis, comparing translations and translators -- one hopes there are scholars already on that.))
       Comparing authors entire outputs, but also variations over individual authors' careers, Blatt begins by looking at style -- specifically the usage of '-ly adverbs' (as he quotes Chuck Palahniuk: "No silly adverbs like 'sleepily,' 'irritably,' 'sadly,' please"). Hemingway indeed goes for a spare style, ranking lowest in the usage of '-ly adverbs' -- with Blatt also usefully comparing the frequency in his different books, and finding that the one's with a higher reputation tend to have less, too.
       A chapter on 'masculine' and 'feminine' language does yield some ... surprising results, such as Charlotte's Web being the second 'most masculine classic novel' according to one criterion, while A Clockwork Orange ranks third among the 'most feminine classic novels' (suggesting some questions about definitions of 'masculine' and 'feminine' ...). More interesting is the more basic examination of the use of 'he' and 'she' -- with a definite male/female split regarding authorship, as well as the interesting finding that 'he'-dominated novels tend to be much more weighted to 'he' (with three titles essentially single-(male-)sex, while none of the major classical titles he considers fall below one-fifth male).
       An entertaining example is on writers and whether or not they take their own advice -- including Elmore Leonard's famous exhortation to avoid exclamataion points ("no more than two or three per 100,000 words", he suggested). Leonard's use of exclamation points is indeed sparing -- if his entire output is considered. But Blatt also looks at their frequency book by book -- and Leonard started out writing very exclamation-point-happily, before reducing his usage. (Not surprisingly, Tom Wolfe is among the exclamation-point-leaders; somewhat surprisingly, the one author who tops him is ... James Joyce.)
       Statistical analysis proves revealing in comparing, for example, the styles of The New York Times op-ed writers Paul Krugman and David Brooks, both of whom have very distinctive style and usage quirks. Digging a bit deeper, Blatt tries to find the words that are especially representative of an author -- ones they are much more likely to use than other authors (which is where the title of the book comes from: in addition to 'mauve' Nabokov's 'favorite' words (per Blatt's plausible definition) were 'banal' and 'pun').
       Blatt entertainingly looks at other literary oddities and ends: animal similes ! (D.H.Lawrence loved 'em -- they litter his writing; Jane Austen didn't use a one) the percentage of an authors novels that mention weather in the first sentence ! (every other work by the prolific Danielle Steel, while Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, and Toni Morrison, among others, never stoop to it) the most popular accents in erotica ! A nice one has him consider the size of the author's name on the cover of their books -- with a trend towards inflating as the bestsellers are racked up (i.e., after a certain point, it's the author's name that sells, not the book).
       Blatt also looks at standards, and finds (as others have already noted) that there seems to be a general dumbing-down of popular fiction, with the percentage of The New York Times number one bestsellers with a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Index greater than 8 collapsing from 47 per cent in the 1960s to ... 3 per cent in the 1990s (and beyond), with the general reading level of these titles continuing to fall. [Point of comparison: this review -- excluding this sentence -- rates a 13.6 grade level on that index.]
       There are lots of fun titbits -- and tables and charts -- in Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve. Blatt crunched a lot of numbers and books -- including fan fiction, for some of his observations -- and there are fascinating nuggets to be gleaned from this. While overall the book is more a casual overview, it does offer a tantalizing glimpse of what can be done with such textual analysis (and a few very good examples, too). Much of this isn't necessarily purely literary -- it tells us little about the books themselves, and their merit -- but the larger context, trends, and individual quirks are often fascinating.
       An entertaining volume, and some interesting ways of looking at books, writing -- and reading.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 May 2017

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Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve: Reviews: Ben Blatt: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American writer Ben Blatt is also a statistician.

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© 2017 the complete review

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