The Bestseller Code by Archer & Jockers

book jacketThe Best Seller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers (c 2016)

Fascinating book and not what you might think. I saw it on Book TV I think and was interested because it is not some cheesy How To writers guide, but actually is about CODING: As in computer algorithms and natural language processing.

This book presents the findings of numerous algorithms the authors ran analyzing all aspects of novels: style, character, plot and more. The really amazing and surprising bits were some of the details that made a difference, including the use of “very” (bad) versus “really” (best). Even the use of “the” and “of” can be a definitive difference between bestseller and bust.

I did not read the book to be able to write a bestseller. It is too hard. I have tried to write fiction before but always worked myself into corners that required too much suspension of disbelief. (Why bother having video surveillance with blind spots? Why not audio as well? Then you could hear footsteps even with blindspots.)

This book surprised me in another way. I am a huge reader, though have become discouraged with most fiction out there. The extent to which I am out of mainstream bestseller land was really shocking to me. The book contains numerous lists of top tens by plot, style, and so on, as well as the ultimate book that scored 100% — The Circle by Dave Eggers. I promptly went to my library reserve and planned to reserve it only to discover I had already checked it out but had not remembered doing so. I think I must have seen it on Book TV for itself, or maybe it was mentioned on the program I saw about this book. Anyway, I found it very funny that I had already had it and didn’t remember. I have not read it yet though so I can’t tell you if I regard it as the perfect bestseller or not.

While I know I have pretty much devoted the last year to nonfiction, I was shocked by how FEW of the books on any of the lists I had read. More meaningfully, most were books I don’t want to read. Not sure what to make of that. There were some notable exceptions though, including a recent favorite (and the sequel) called The Rosie Project.

I read two others on the plot list: Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star (also read the rest of his books, notably Gorky Park) and Tom Wolfe’s infamous The Bonfire of the Vanities. By the way, having THE in the title is a good attribute.

On the STYLE lists I had read (well, listened to) Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer. Note the THE again, plus specific adjective before LAWYER. Just The Lawyer doesn’t have quite the same attention grabbing effect.

There is a fun section on the recent “girl” book phenomena. The ¬†Larson series starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (there’s the THE again) is attributed with starting the trend. Subsequently we have The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl bestsellers, neither of which I have read nor do I want to read them; I’m sick of murder and depravity and depressing crap with serial killers and body dissections and anything that features the word GRUESOME on the back jacket. The Dragon book was compelling despite the horrific rape and torture and killing because the heroine was such a compelling character. As a rule, I would never read anything remotely like that series. It was fascinating to learn that the original title was Men who Hate Women, and that was too harsh for English translation so an editor came up with the catchy titles.

Some of the “girl” versus “women” differences is discussed and I thought it was interesting that the original title had “women” and not girl. Feminists worked very hard for decades to get men to stop calling women girls because it is demeaning. They discuss the “agency” of the character as being strong feature but also “girl” functions as a kind of limitation by implication of less than fully competent female; it functions as an obstacle that all the lead characters have thwarting them on their journeys. But this analysis is belied by the fact that an EDITOR used “girl” in the title and not the original “women” so without that in the title, the book sets up a completely different expectation for the reader.

As a feminist, I find the “girl” title trend somewhat distressing. BOY and GIRL have different functions in our society, and not in a good way. It reminds me of Hollywood culture where there are no roles for women over 20-something, but post-menopausal in particular. Even when the lead male actor is 30 or 40 YEARS older than the love interest female cast, no one seriously calls that trophy wife and of thing as creepy, a touch pedophilia if you ask me. WTF could they have to talk about given the decades of life experiences that would be so different, based on age, but also on male/female roles in society.

Considering the overt misogyny and hostility to women in general, I think there is something fairly deep going on to have these fully grown women being referred to as “girls” almost as if their agency would be too threatening. Maybe it’s just the way GIRL sounds, with one syllable versus two. And Gone Girl has alliteration going for it. Nah, I think it’s a Hollywood thing so that the title makes you think of a YOUNG and therefore automatically more attractive female to visualize while reading.

On the final list of the 100 books the computer analysis picked as having the most qualities that engender a bestseller, I was pleased too see Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. I liked it right up to the end and SPOILER ALERT, then was very disappointed to have her conclude exactly in the cliche I anticipated as well as having a lame excuse for why something simple hadn’t happened because it would have derailed the entire plot.

Janet Evanovich came in at #9 for her Twelve Sharp. I first discovered her when her One for the Money was first published and it was exactly the kind o book I prefer — one with humor. Not slapstick or practical jokes, but character humor of satire, sarcasm, and commentary on various aspects of the setting, in her case, New Jersey.

Out of the 100 listed books, I have read only seven. The vast majority of the authors were not ones I have read or would care to read. I think the issue I have with them involves the lack of humor. They are all so full of angst. I appreciate a lot more wit and a lot less violence.

For my money, the Discworld series of Terry Pratchett is the very best novel writing that perhaps has been allocated to a snubbed genre category. Going Postal was hilarious!! Bits of pop culture parody had me chuckling out loud and admiring the cleverness of the language. it cracks me up when I will be reading along in a “regular” book and there will be a reference to the Tardis. No explanation! You only get the laugh if you know Dr. Who. As a ¬†book lover, of course I adore plays on words and references to famous sentences from other books. I suppose in that sense it is a little vain to be “in” on the jokes, but I like to think it is more than that, it is a mutual cultural shared between author and reader.

I have often wondered why there is no category for “amusing” books like there are for mystery, scifi/fantasy, large print, and so on. Movies have a comedy section, so why not books? Especially satire! Gosh that would really be where I’d go to browse. I guess in many ways, Terry Pratchett’s books are satire.

In the end, in addition to The Circle, I only plan to read one other book cited: The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wilde by Junot Diaz. I have hopes that since Oscar Wilde was very good with the cutting remarks, the book will amuse.

How they go about disambiguation is fascinating to me because I have worked a lot with controlled language and thesaurus construction. Good explanations of their methods with charts and graphs were very helpful to follow the process.

The main thing that this book lacks is an index. I hate nonfiction books without indices. I can’t be sure, but I don’t think all the books listed ended up on the top 100 list, so a clarification of that would be useful.

I would love to see what they could do to assess humor, or pop culture references, or literary references and relate that to either bestseller status or developing a fanatical fan base. Cult classics might be another way to categorize what I would look for, like The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

What would be even more fun in this time of fakery and lies, an analysis of the “truthiness” (Thanks Stephen Colbert) of nonfiction would go a long way to discredit the massive pile of crap out there by the right wingers and religious zealots.





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