Recently, two intriguing articles from well-respected Digital Humanities scholars came through in my feed reader, and as they align quite nicely with my own interests in the intersection of technology and literature, I thought I’d share them here.
What is an @uthor? by Matthew Kirschenbaum
Writing for the LA Review of Books, Kirschenbaum (perhaps best known for his article “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?”), explores how the evolving landscape of social media and author engagement with audiences online is changing the nature of literary criticism and the very idea of authorship itself:
Today you cannot write seriously about contemporary literature without taking into account myriad channels and venues for online exchange. That in and of itself may seem uncontroversial, but I submit we have not yet fully grasped all of the ramifications. We might start by examining the extent to which social media and writers’ online presences or platforms are reinscribing the authority of authorship. The mere profusion of images of the celebrity author visually cohabitating the same embodied space as us, the abundance of first-person audio/visual documentation, the pressure on authors to self-mediate and self-promote their work through their individual online identities, and the impact of the kind of online interactions described above (those Woody Allenesque “wobbles”) have all changed the nature of authorial presence. Authorship, in short, has become a kind of media, algorithmically tractable and traceable and disseminated and distributed across the same networks and infrastructure carrying other kinds of previously differentiated cultural production.
In an article for Motherboard, contributing editor Ben Richmond interviewed Matthew Jockers (textual analysis proponent and author of Macroanalysis) about his algorithmic model that identifies archetypal plot shapes. According to his research, about 90% of the time, results showed six basic plots (with the remaining 10% indicating seven basic plots). While some of his data remains unknown, Jockers did release his tools on GitHub to encourage others to try the same experiment for themselves:
Most books that measure the number of plots seem aimed at writers and would-be writers, but Jockers’s work has implications for readers, librarians, and even literature snobs, or anyone who wants to put snobs in their places.
As he was charting plots, Jockers noticed that some genres that are derided for being “formulaic,” like romance, aren’t just relying on boy-meets-girl.
“Romance showed some proclivity for two of the six plot shapes, but it wasn’t an overwhelming case of all the plots falling into one,” Jockers said. “It was a much more evenly distributed from these six shapes.”