The Styles of the Novelists

I just read an article by Kevin Knudson, which appeared on April 30 in Forbes Magazine. It was a book review of Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, by Ben Blatt. Noting that famous novelists write in their own particular style: Hemingway and the short sentences, Henry James and the longer ones, Virginia Woolf in the free-flowing stream of consciousness, Mr. Blatt, who’s a scientist, wanted to determine if you could figure out who the author was just by examining the pattern of his or her words.

Nabokov

 

The first chapter tackles the rule that all of us writers learned early, i.e. to use adverbs sparingly. Blatt took it to the scientific level. He took a corpus of novels written by a broad spectrum of famous writers and counts the “LY” adverbs. Here’s what you’ve got:

 

Author                           Books looked at          Adverbs per 10,000 words

Hemingway                    10                                      80

Mark Twain                    13                                      81

Amy Tan                          6                                      83

Steinbeck                        19                                      93

Vonnegut                       14                                      101

Updike                          26                                      102

Rushdie                          9                                      101

King                               51                                      105

Dickens                         20                                      108

Virginia Woolf              9                                      116

 

Blatt goes on to determine if each author is uniformly efficient or does it vary from book to book. Bringing it home to this blog, the question is:  Hemingway the most efficient or just the most efficient on average. It turns out that William Faulkner wrote three books with a lower adverb rate (As I Lay Dying, The Sound And The Fury, The Unvanquished), than Hemingway’s lowest count, To Have and Have Not.

 

Blatt also looks at the number of exclamation points per 100,000 words. Elmore Leonard once said, “You are allowed no more than 2 or 3 per 100,000 words.” He actually used 49 per 100,000, but that still made him “one of the stingiest.” Tom Wolfe used 929 per 100,000. But the “winner” is James Joyce’s 1105 per 100,000. Most clichés? James Patterson the highest; Jane Austin the lowest. In addition, Blatt looks at what words an author uses more often than the average. He set out the following requirements to judge this issue:

LOS ANGELES – MAY 24: Author Elmore Leonard poses during a portrait session prior to a reading and signing of his latest novel “Up In Honey’s Room” on May 24, 2007 at Book Soup in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Elmore Leonard

 

  1. The word must be used in at least half of the author’s books.

 

  1. It must be used at a rate of at least once per 100,000 words.

 

  1. It must be obscure in the sense that it is not commonly used.

 

  1. It is not a proper noun.

 

Based on those criteria, Ray Bradbury’s favorite words are: icebox, dammit, exhaled. Nabokov’s favorite word was, in fact, mauve.

Ray Bradbury

 

So, some scientists have really buckled down and used their training to illuminate, and to have a bit of fun! Interesting data that’s not quite trivia.

 

Love,

Christine

 


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