Sunday, 1 March 2015

snowdrops, anuario americanista europeo, digital humanities, matthew l jockers, lynn cherny, catherine chanter, the well, woodstock bookshop

Snowdrops and other spring bulbs out in the garden. Very cheering. Especially as I have a bad cold...

The cold hasn't stopped my cycling, though. Whether this was a good idea, time will tell.

Spent quite a lot of yesterday doing some translation and editing work on the English-language abstracts for the next issue of the Latin American Studies journal Anuario Americanista Europeo. The issue is dedicated to the Digital Humanities as they relate to Latin American research. I won't give away the subjects covered but it promises to be a terrific read.

Speaking of the Digital Humanities, I was fascinated by the latest blog post from Professor Matthew L Jockers on his investigations into shape in fiction (see also the one published earlier in the month). I came across his work after Lynn Cherny's talk in Oxford last September. His findings, published on 2nd and 25th February, have attracted a lot of attention, including an article and an editorial piece in the Times on Thursday (these articles are, of course, behind the Times paywall...). It'll be great to read more when he publishes his academic paper. For now I'm left wondering about the immediate usefulness of some aspects of the six 'plots' his programme has identified as the archetypal structures underlying the 40,000 or so novels in his corpus. On the one hand the idea that writers naturally conform to one of these meta-structures when they put pen to paper is thought-provoking. How does the writer come to follow one of these shapes? What are the processes that ensure such a standardised fictional output? But on the other hand, common sense tells you that these six plots can't be fiction's whole story. The novels we read in a lifetime are - aren't they - all so varied? I wonder what Digital Humanities can tell us about the complexity of fiction writing, as opposed to the broadest of patterns that they might (or might not?) conform to.

I was also intrigued to see that Professor Jockers found an innovative way of comparing the texts - all of which were of different lengths - by using science developed at CERN (see 2nd February post). This seems to have converted the texts into a form of data where length was no longer an issue, so that they could be compared, before converting them back again. It may be that this process was of itself inert and had no effect on the validity of the results. Yet, were the lengths of the novels properly factored into the six plots? Looking at these plots the impression is that all the books that follow a particular plot paradigm have exactly the same shallowness or depth of plot arc as it rises and dips. But in relation to the length of a work, surely the effect of each shape is going to vary significantly, depending on how long or short the work is. Aren't the dips going to be more strung out in a longer work and more intense in a shorter one? And if so, aren't the effects of the rises and falls in the plot arcs on the reader going to be different in each case?

The broad approach taken by Professor Jockers leaves many questions unanswered but, as he himself says, his research has produced a plethora of data, so the six plot shapes are just the start of the story!

Finally, I'm really pleased to learn that a former student of mine,Catherine Chanter, is having her first novel published by Canongate on 5th March. It's called The Well and I read an early draft of part of it a couple of years ago. It's a tremendous story (which plot arc did she choose?). If you live near Woodstock, you can see Catherine reading at the Woodstock Bookshop on the 10th March at 7 pm.

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