Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Can a book have a genome?  No, but the metaphor is useful, because it suggests a plan of analysis, mostly a matter of breaking things down into component parts and figuring out how they interact.  You know that hypothesis that five characteristics of human personality are likely to be inherited?  One report described them as below, having to use phrases because the characteristics don’t fit naturally in one word. 
  1. leadership (social potency) vs. social conformity (rule following)
  2. vulnerability to stress
  3. need for intimacy  (emotionally intense relationships)
  4. need to achieve
  5. impulsiveness vs. caution
These are not absolutely determined by heredity, but represent responsiveness to environment, such as family, community or school.  They can be shaped by life experience.
The url’s below describe a project that is along the same lines except they are trying to capture the “allele’s” that describe a book’s “personality.”  This is not book criticism, but an attempt to capture why people buy books.  What is it they are after?  What are the variations among different kinds of book reader preferences?  You are invited to participate at these websites.

The five “metrics,” as they call them, are sort of surprising -- at least to me.  These are not variables I think about when I choose a book.  I do know people who don’t like description and others who say they won’t read a book that moves slowly, but I really enjoy variety in what I read and am liable to be all over the map. “Five-star” ratings don’t help me at all, nor do the “people in your demographic liked . . .”  (I suppose that movie recommends like Netflix are not that different from book reviews on Amazon.)
Booklamp’s Five Metrics Defined
Motion: “Motion refers to the level of physical motion in a scene or book”.
Description: “Description refers to the level of descriptive language that the author uses in his or her writing.”
Pacing: “Pacing refers to the layout of the text on the page. A scene with high Pacing will have characteristics that quickly move the reader’s eye down the page.”
Density: “Density refers to the complexity of the text. Text with high Density will take longer to read than a text of equal length with low density.” 
Dialog: “Dialog refers to the amount of spoken text between two or more characters in a scene.”
I think I’ll try some exercises.  
MOTION, DESCRIPTION, FAST, LOW DENSITY, DIALOGUE with a character who is a leader, stressless, low need for intimacy, high need for achievement and impulsive.
The buffalo roundup was a pounding, dust-raising, earth-shaking mass of dark animals, humps heaving as they galloped forward, while the cowboys -- hats jammed on tight -- spurred their horses to keep up.  Honchoing the whole operation was Deke, slouched in the saddle as always, hanging back a little so he could see the whole mass, because he did NOT want anything to go wrong.  
Then he saw that a young bull was refusing to move and had taken a stand.  He was about to bolt over the horizon.  If the others followed his example, the herd would scatter.  
Yelling as loud as he could, he forced his horse straight at that buff, it’s horns gleaming in the sun.
“Get back in there, you sunnavabitch!  Or I’ll make you into a rug!”
Now I’ll flip it over.
SLOW MOVEMENT, LESS DESCRIPTION, SLOW PACING, HIGH DENSITY, NO DIALOGUE with characters  who are rule followers, worried, have a need for intimacy, a low need for achievement, and who are not impulsive.
The buffalo herd was lying down on this summer afternoon.  All that moved was their tails swatting flies and their jaws grinding away at cud.  The tourist family drove cautiously on the observer’s road through the bison refuge, gazing at these huge ungulates but not really understanding that they were once the keystone of the culture of the prairies, supporting the Indians in much the same way as the huge herds of the Serengeti in Africa.  The children would have loved to run out among those boulder-sized dark shapes but the family had read aloud the caution signs all along the road and they stayed safely in the car.  They did dare to roll down the windows.  For once they were quiet.  Their parents smiled at each other.     
This set of short lists seems pretty useful to writers as a sort of idea generator, but I’m not sure it selects what a specific reader prefers any better than the rough binary of “genre” vs. “literary” or maybe “academic.”  I read all sorts of things about buffalo. My personal advisors (I call them my “kitchen cabinet” but I’m not sure they like it.) reads a lot of immersive fiction and murder mysteries, but they also say that they like to learn things while they read.  
I was much impressed by the writing of Patricia Nell Warren (who takes on gay themes) for her plot-guided clarity and her ability to integrate information.  One novel (“The Front Runner”) focuses on competitive track at a fairly technical level; the next (“Harlan’s Boy”) uses sci-fi and astronomy to excellent effect; and the third that I’ve read (“The Wild Man”) is passionately about bull-fighting and Spanish religious history.  I think these characteristics are at least partly because of the years she put in as a Reader’s Digest editor.  The whole issue of “why” a boy is gay is simply a given, though they were the reason I read the books.
I also enjoy writing by someone like Lawrence Durrell which is entirely mysteriously suggestive, entwining emotion with very little action and an arguable plot, since he uses the Rashomon principle (every character has a different experience) to rework the same narrative.  Sex in these books is almost miasmic, responding to every influence, indefinable.
The folks working on this “booklamp” project are open to comment and revision, which is more that one can say about publishers these day.  Stuck in the Simple Simon paradigm (do whatever worked last time which -- if you know that cautionary tale -- is usually a disaster) or they're dominated by surveys that only reflect the assumptions of the surveyors or trapped in the relentless grip of their own salesmen who insist that they know what will sell because they are “out there” with the bookstores, publishers are reduced to paying reviewers to say what they think will sell books.  “I couldn’t put it down.”  “Time passed quickly.”  “My heart was broken.”
What the book memers neglect is the influence of environment, which the genetic investigators keep telling us make all the difference in readers as well as books.  What we read in the best of times is not what we read in the worst of times.  It’s a process, not a destination.

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