Monthly Archives: December 2016

A Deleuzian Theory of literary style

I’m always surprised when I read one of the thinkers generally, and perhaps lazily, lumped in to the general category of post-structuralist, when I find how great a disservice the term does to their work. To read Derrida, Foucault or Deleuze, is not to find a triad of philosophers who struggle to produce a coherent system via addled half-thoughts in order to deconstruct, stymie or relativise everything. In fact, I’m not sure there’s another philosopher I’ve read who displays greater attention to detail in their work than Derrida, and Deleuze, far from being a deconstructionist, presents us with painstaking and intricate schemata and models of thought. The rhizome, to take the most well-known concept associated with Deleuze and his collaborator, Félix Guattari, doesn’t provide us with a free-for-all, but an intricately worked-out model to enable further thought. Difference and Repetition is likewise painstaking, and so involved is Deleuze’s model of difference, applying it in great depth to my theory of literary style, might be something to do if one wished to be a mad person, particularly since, at an early stage in the work, he attempts to map his concepts to particular authors, such as Borges, Joyce, Beckett and Proust. But I’ll do my best.

My notion of literary style has been influenced by the fact of my dealing with the matter via computation, i.e. multi-variate analysis and machine learning. All the reading I’m doing on the subject, is leading me towards a theory of literary style founded on redundancy. When I say redundancy, I don’t mean that what distinguishes literary language from ‘normal’ language is its superfluity, an excess of that which it communicates. For the Russian formalists, this was key in defining literary language, its surfeit of meaning. I don’t like this distinction much, as it assumes that we can neatly cleave necessary communication from unnecessary communication, as if there were a clear demarcation between the words we use for their usage (utilitarian) and the words we use for their beauty (aesthetic). The lines between the two are generally blurred, and both can reinforce the function of the other. The shortcomings of this category become yet more evident when we take into account authors who might have a plain style, works which depend on a certain reticence to speak. Of course, a certain degree of recursion sets in here, as we could argue that it is in the showcased plainness of these writers that the superfluity of the work manifests itself. Which presents us with the inevitable conclusion that the definition is flawed because its a tautology; it’s excessive because it’s literary, it’s literary because it’s excessive.

My own idea of redundancy comes from a number of articles in the computational journal Literary and Linguistic Computing, the entire corpus of which, from the mid-nineties until today, I am slowly making my way through. It provides an interesting narrative of the ways in which computational criticism has evolved in these years. At first, literary critics would have been sure that the words that traditional literary criticism tends to emphasise, the big ones, the sparkly ones, the nice ones, were most indicative of a writer’s style. What practitioners of algorithmic criticism have come to realise however, is that it is the ‘particles’ of literary matter, that are far more indicative of a writer’s style, the distribution of words such as ‘the’, ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘and’, ‘said,’ which are sometimes left out of corpus stylistics altogether, dismissed as ‘stopwords,’ bandied about too often in textual materials of all kinds to be of any real use. It’s a bit too easy, with the barest dash of an awareness of how coding works, to start slipping into generalisations along the lines of neuroscience, so I won’t go too mad, but I will say that this is an example of the ways in which humans tend to identify patterns, albeit maybe not necessarily the determining, or most significant patterns, in any given situation.

We’re magpies when we read, for better or worse. When David Foster Wallace re-instates the subject of a clause at its end, a technique he becomes increasingly reliant on as Infinite Jest proceeds, we notice it, and it becomes increasingly to the fore in our sense of his style. But, in the grand scheme of the one-thousand some page novel, the extent to which this technique is made use of is statistically speaking, insignificant. Sentences like ‘She tied the tapes,’ in Between the Acts, for instance, pass our awareness by because of their pedestrian qualities, much like many other sentences that contain words such as ‘said,’ because of the extent to which any text’s fabric is predominantly composed of such filler.

In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze is concerned with reversing a trend within Western philosophy, to mis-read the nature of difference, which he traces back to Plato and Kant, and the idealist/transcendentalist tendencies within their thought. They believed in singular, ideal forms, against which the notion of the Image is pitched, which can only be inferior, a simulacrum, as they are derivative copies. Despite his model of the dialectic, Hegel is no better when it comes to comprehending difference; Deleuze sees the notion of synthesis as profoundly damaging to difference, as the third-way synthesis has a tendency to understate it. Deleuze dismisses the process of the dialectic as ‘insipid monocentrality’. Deleuze’s issue seems to be that our notions of identity, only allow difference into the picture as a rupture, or an exception which vindicates an overall sense of homogeneity. Difference should be emphasised to a greater extent, and become a principle of our understanding:

Such would be the nature of a Copernican revolution which opens up the possibility of difference having its own concept, rather than being maintained under the domination of a concept in general already understood as identical.

Recognising this would be the advent of difference-in-itself.

This is all fairly consistent with Deleuze’s sense of Being as being (!) in a constant state of becoming, an experiential-led model of ontology which doesn’t aim for essence, but praxis. It would be fairly unproblematic to map this onto literary style; literary stylistics should likewise depend on difference, rather than similarity which only allows difference into the picture as a rupture; difference should be our primary criterion when examining the ways in which style becomes itself.

Another tendency of the philosophical tradition as Deleuze understands it is a belief in the goodness of thought, and its inclination towards moral, useful ends, as embodied in the works of Descartes. Deleuze reminds us of myopia and stupidity, by arguing that thought is at its most vital when at a moment of encounter or crisis, when ‘something in the world forces us to think.’ These encounters remind us that thought is impotent and require us to violently grapple with the force of these encounters. This is not only an attempt to reverse the traditional moral image of thought, but to move towards an understanding of thought as self-engendering, an act of creation, not just of what is thought, but of thought itself.

It would be to take the least radical aspect of this conclusion to fuse it with the notion of textual deformance, developed by Jerome McGann, which is of particular magnitude within the digital humanities, considering that we often process our text via code, or visualise it, and build arguments from these simulacra. But, on a level of reading which is, technologically speaking, less sophisticated, it reflects the way in which we generate a stylistic ideal as we read, a sense of a writer’s style, whether these be based on the analogue, magpie method (or something more systematic, I don’t want to discount syllable-counts, metric analyses or close readings of any kind) or quantitative methodologies.

By bringing ourselves to these points of crisis, we will open up avenues at which fields of thought, composed themselves of differential elements, differential relations and singularities, will shift, and bring about a qualitative difference in the environment. We might think of this field in terms of a literary text, a sequence of actualised singularities, appearing aleatory outside of their anchoring context as within a novel. Readers might experience these as breakthrough moments or epiphanies when reading a text, realising that Infinite Jest apes the plot of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, as it begins to cast everything in a new light. In this way, texts are made and unmade according to the conditions which determine them. I for one, find this to be so much more helpful in articulating what a text is than the blurb for post-structuralism, (something like ‘endlessly deferred free-play of meaning’). Instead, we have a radical, consistently disarticulating and re-articulating literary artwork in a perpetual, affirming state of becoming, actualised by the reader at a number of sensitive points which at any stage might be worried into bringing about a qualitative shift in the work’s processes of meaning making.


Lisa McInerney’s ‘The Glorious Heresies’ and Paul Murray’s ‘Skippy Dies’

The novel that Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies most readily started conversing with in my head while I was reading it, was Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, not just because both novels have a cast north of twenty, but that both also place their characters in situations of unrelenting bleakness, albeit ones capably balanced mind by a sardonically comedic narrative voice.

Another thing the novels have in common is the extent to which similarity and interconnection determine their overall structure. Skippy Dies is a novel of repetition and concealed dovetails; one notices that almost every character in a given setting, whether this be among Skippy’s friends, the teachers, or the inner-city drug-dealers, certain overlaps and congruencies play off one another throughout the novel. Skippy Dies never signals this overtly however, it’s the sort of thing that’s left for the reader to discern themselves, particularly on a second or third reading. Skippy Dies’ structure can therefore be said to resemble a network, being multiple, deferred and interconnected in obscure and subterranean ways. Interconnection in Heresies runs along a more linear or arborescent model; it could be said that if it wasn’t for Maureen giving birth to Jimmy outside of wedlock, the events of the novel, the misery and fallout that Jimmy goes on to inflict as a gangster operating between Cork and London, it is unlikely that anything in the novel would have happened at all.

Although, if we were to trace historical events in the Heresies back, we can’t or rather shouldn’t stop there, as we must recall that Maureen became pregnant at a time in Ireland when sending one’s ‘fallen’ daughter to a laundry for the rest of her days was a viable option. As is clear from the argument Maureen has with a priest in a confessional, Ireland’s treatment of women is a big part of what can be said to make the country as miserable for its inhabitants at the time in which the novel is set.

The historical consciousness of Skippy Dies’ can be traced as far back as the forgotten young men who fought in World War I on the side of the English, and were therefore written out of the historical record. This all has significance for the Robert Graves ‘White Lady’ motif, and chimes with Skippy’s own premature death, but the novel’s argument is directed at an hagiographical tradition, whereas, as Maureen’s attempts to come to terms with her experience, and place herself within the society of her time, is a contemporary, and urgent task. The ending makes clear that Maureen’s attempts to do so is ongoing, as is, by extension, those of other survivors of her generation.

This might be said to relate to the fundamental difference between McInerney and Murray’s narrative styles. While McInerney takes a panoramic view only towards the novel’s opening and closing sections, moving from house as she sets the scene/ties up loose threads, Murray is more inclined to take a longer, or even cosmic view more frequently, zooming out to rhapsodise in a manner reminiscent of David Foster Wallace quite a bit, whereas McInerney keeps things restrained, perspectivally. This isn’t to say that Murray’s approach is less immediate, or less worthy, but this difference provides a means of emphasising what it is that’s important in McInerney’s writing. Murray’s Seabrook College is easily made a synecdoche of Life, in the ‘in the particular is contained the universal’ sort of a way, but McInerney’s Cork never reaches beyond itself; it reflects it’s author’s willingness to take it seriously as a setting-in-itself, and the pallor in which it has been set in a post-bailout, post-globalised, and never quite post-clerical, Ireland.


Dreaming of a Joycean Summer

This gallery contains 3 photos.

Originally posted on Posts on the Penman:
It’s only natural for a person stuck in a hazy shade of winter to daydream of the summer that follows it.  This year, it’s not even Christmas yet, and I’m ready for June 2017…

Chris Morris’ Blue Jam Monologues

CW: Everything, all the bad things

Chris Morris’ television show Jam was originally a radio series called Blue Jam, in which five to ten minute ‘sketches’ played out above an ambient soundtrack bed. When it was imported to television, the actors lip-synced to these pre-recordings, intensifying the surreal effect that the show gave off. Jam is subversive, hilarious, absurd and if you’ve never seen it, I’d advise you to keep it that way. Every episode contains at least one thing that is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen, let alone the worst thing I’ve ever seen in show that it supposedly a comedy. In one episode, a couple are only slightly irritated that their child has been abducted and murdered, in another, a woman near fatally maims a cyclist in order to have someone to talk to, and in one of the show’s legendarily creepy cold openings, a homeless man is abducted and forced to wrestle pigs for sport. These are some of the milder scenarios of the show’s one-season run.

One of the running sketches that appears in Blue Jam never made the transition into the television show, one in which an unnamed character relates a narrative in monologue. Based on the addictions he outlines, he seems to have a neurological disorder of some kind. We only get snatches of his backstory; his narratives are far too fragmented to provide any specific detail. We might get some bits of information regarding the narrator’s wife and his childhood, but this isn’t to say that can necessarily trust what it is that he says; take this example:

I began to remember the time when I was seven and a gerbil had started swearing at me. Amongst other things it had told me that my dad was having an affair. I told my mum and soon afterwards the family had split up.

While none of these sketches made it into the television show, one of the monologues, in which the narrator is goaded by a talking dog, supposedly acting as his lawyer, goads him into doing various things, was adopted into a short film My Wrongs 8245–8249 & 117 in 2002, starring Paddy Considine. It’s not quite successful however, the original medium in which these sketches appeared, discontinuous monologues within the context of a radio sketch show, are definitely more suited to rendering them. The short film brings the viewer too close to the psychosis by representing the dog as actually talking, and loses the overall effect of having the listener dependent on the narrator’s perspective, however unreliable. Added to all this, it isn’t really one of the best monologues, one has the feeling that the joke is going on for too long.

The most successful pieces are the ones rooted within social comedy while maintaining the surrealist vibe, in such a way that is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett or Flann O’Brien, which has had I think, a far greater impact on UK/Irish comedy than is generally acknowledged. Compare the fundamental uncertainty touched upon in these monologues with the opening of Beckett’s novel Molloy:

I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got there. Perhaps in an ambulance, certainly a vehicle of some kind. I was helped. I’d never have got there alone. There’s this man who comes every week. Perhaps I got there thanks to him. He says not.

with the third episode:

I had been in the pub three hours talking to a guy I used to work with named Ian before I realised he wasn’t called Ian at all and I was in the wrong pub. By that stage he was very cross. He poked me in the chest and asked me if I was some kind of puppy squeezer.

And another one because it’s rather good:

I had wandered into a children’s park under the influence of Prozac and I had beaten up an ostrich while several toddlers looked on and cried…I begged a little girl to kill me. She left with her mother shortly afterwards.

It is in the second instalment of the show that the target of Morris’ satire becomes a bit clearer, as the narrator is mistaken for a piece of conceptual art after he goes blind. His blindness is a side-effect of his codeine overdose, it should be noted. Morris is clearly taking aim at 1990’s Britain, and the growth of ‘Cool Britannia,’ not to mention the urban chattering classes who propagate it. In this New Labour era, almost every character the narrator encounters is more a bundle of shallow affectations than a real person; when he is exhibited in an apartment, they are reported as saying things like: ‘this is what art should be. Moving in a relevant way.’ Novelist Will Self even makes a cameo, declaring that he ‘has never seen a more kleptomasturbatory entropoid.’ One can imagine Morris, an increasingly feted, critical darling in this media landscape of this era, casting an eye on his peers who lacked his critical eye regarding the media establishment.

In another, he meets a comedian named Tony at a party, ‘standing next to a huge ice sculpture of his head.’ One thinks of David Baddiel and Rob Newman playing Wembley Stadium, and the belief that British comedy in the nineties was to be ‘the new rock n’ roll’. Merely by being in attendance, the speaker’s career seems to be getting off to a good start:

By the time I got back to the crab tartlets, I had an agent, a transmittable pilot, a five year development deal and someone with a mobile phone told me Jarvis Cocker wanted to meet with me.

The highlight for me, is probably ‘The Suicide Journalist,’ in which a journalist named Clive has announced in his weekly column, his intention to commit suicide, and to document process over a number of weeks. The column is a big hit among the bright young things, who all attempt to impress Clive at a dinner party with tales of their own mental anguish and self-harm: ‘Look at my scars. They are beautiful, but not as beautiful as your columns.’

Goby Jovler (in theory rather than execution) is another probable highlight, as a parody of a vapid Pinter imitation, responsible for a play called Fuckers: ‘critics had said it was the devastatingly accurate play that will ever be written about sex,’ which tackles the subject of urban alienation ‘as a sexual malfunctioning zeitgeist.’

It’s worth reflecting on these sorts of media edifices Morris satirises in amidst the nineties nostalgia arising in our current era of political turmoil, and remembering that, while they might have been a good time for journalists and cocaine users (significant overlap here) they weren’t a golden age of affluence for everyone. The seemingly homeless, indigent and drug-addicted narrator is probably not there are a means of furthering the show’s social critique, but serves as a disembodied presence through which the era, in all of its absurdity, becomes clear. He’s at his best when used as a foil to the absurd commentariat, as in the quotation below:

I said I’d had no money for a bottle of wine and the homeless bloke at the tube station who usually subs me a couple of quid because he says I look worse off than his dog was being mugged when I’d asked him this time, and hadn’t given me a penny. And then I’d got lost because I’d forgotten whether Susie’s house was opposite some trees or opposite no trees at all. Several conversations had started by the time I’d got to that bit.

Ten Songs I Liked This Year and Why

No, these songs aren’t terribly current, only one of them was out this year, but y’know, there’s lots of music, it takes a while for me to find all of it.

Sam Cooke — What a Wonderful World

This isn’t the version of Wonderful World, popularised by Louis Armstrong, but a soul standard by the same name that Cooke first put out. Around the time the song was released/recorded in 1960, Cooke would’ve been around twenty-nine or so, but, perhaps due to his image as a teenage-heartthrob type, the lyrics mostly reference high-school subjects. These changes were Cooke’s; he made them when altering the original. You can perhaps tell from the slightly clumsy ‘don’t know much about a science book/don’t know much about the French I took’. I’d say he about redeems himself by rhyming ‘trigonometry’ with ‘geometry’, even if the former isn’t actually a subject per se. Aside from the trope on which the song depends (‘I don’t know much about anything, but I know what I like’), it otherwise sits really well in Cooke’s oeuvre as a whole; in most of his songs the speaker advances a very image of themselves, usually in some kind of dialogue with his public persona, in an attempt to make himself a more attractive partner for the presumable auditor. Another reason I like this is its prominence in the trailer for Inherent Vice, the best trailer of all time. The film, less so.

Boards of Canada — Music is Math

I’ve always found it difficult to articulate why I like Boards of Canada so much, knowing how long it took me to get to grips with their sound. Mostly it’s about the communication of vibes; I could listen to Boards while watching videos of what people thought would the future would be like in the fifties forever. In this way I supposed it makes me nostalgic for a space-age childhood I never had, a time of techno-utopian plastic brutalism, which conveyed a visionary optimism about the future. But yeah, primarily the communication of primo vibes, particularly in shades of nostalgia, note the only lyrics, ‘the past inside the present’. Also the irony in what is such a sprawling, ambient track being called ‘Music is Math’, as if it were a straightforward composition by numbers.

Plaid — Do Matter

I only started listening to Plaid this year, and the first I’d heard of them was this year’s release, The Digging Remedy. Turns out they are luminaries of the Warp label, which hasn’t let me down yet. The Digging Remedy continues Plaid’s strange habit of putting what is indisputably their best song as the first track, and while their discography as a whole is slightly homogenous, this is rarely a problem when their capacity for producing good songs is consistent since their first release in 1991. There is perhaps a more ominous strain to their work of late, of which ‘Do Matter’ is perhaps the best example, some stuff on Scintilli and Rest Proof Clockwork was too bright for me to tolerate, but the arc of this track’s slow build, prepossessing climax and return to its fundamental structure is very competent, and hella bliss-y.

Milo — Sansoucci Palace

Milo would be among my favourite anti-rappers. Like a lot anti/alt-rappers, he’s remains far more rooted within the tradition of rap than either delineation might suggest. The first verse, with its prominent ambient synthesisers and introverted perspective ‘I have read the Wittgenstein/and sat starting at the ceiling wondering when I’m gonna die’ eventually give way to a beat, a proliferation of pop cultural references and an invective against an otherwise unnamed ‘You’, so frequently a target of any number of rappers ire: ‘You’re the dude in Clerks getting his hand caught in a cannister of Pringles/I’m a Squidbillies animator/rap messiah agitator/chronic bathroom masturbator’. Seeing how Milo moves between deploying the tropes of ‘mainstream rap’, and going his own way is my favourite thing about his music, even if the album as a whole is slightly unfocused.

Kendrick Lamar — A.D.H.D.

As far back as Kendrick Lamar’s first major release, the themes which would motivate To Pimp a Butterfly were in place. Lamar takes intimate, first-hand accounts and details of life in black American ghettos to construct fatalistic and critical accounts of his background and early adolescence. ‘A.D.H.D.’ is a downbeat track, the beat is synth-y and ambient, offset by Lamar’s run-on quick-fire cadence and intermittently ticky-tack beats. This is standard production for Lamar, ‘Swimming Pools,’ probably being the most diverting example of what it is that he does best. But it’s the lyrics that stand out for me here, being an investigation of self-destructive hedonism and dead-end consumerism. The track opens with an introduction to the speaker’s experience of being part of a lost generation of black youth: Lyric sites give ‘Eight doobies to the face, fuck that,’ but I can’t help but hear ‘fuck dot,’ probably a reference to Kendrick’s former stage name, K-Dot, focusing a bit more attention I think, on the self-destructive aspects of the speaker’s character. References to labels and brands are on show here too, easily interchangeable with references to the any number of substances the speaker is consuming during the song’s arc.

Blu — Amnesia

A familiar Blu track in a lot of ways, which a prominent melody and a slow beat, with the rapper muttering understatedly over (under?) it all. The lyrics are again, characteristic, playing with his uncertainty, regarding his personal life and as a rapper, intermingled with some more poetic diction and metaphor, but being totally honest, it is absolutely all about that Billie Holiday sample as the hook

Aphex Twin — 4

For a tune with such confrontationally irascible percussion, ‘4’, manages to reach for a melody that is almost pop-like (with a dash of video-game soundtrack) while being rather beautiful, helped by the violin which sustains what might have been an outro, were this not a track made by Richard D. James. Impatient, compulsive and structurally noncomittal, like the best Aphex Twin tunes.

Tom Waits — Hoist that Rag

I’ve become slightly ambivalent about Tom Waits over time — one too many story-songs that endlessly re-hash the whole ‘Nighthawks with a heart of gold’ thing, which is why I think Real Gone and this track in particular, are among his best. Excluding the extended guitar solo, however ham-fisted, there’s a punk quality to Waits’ throaty vocals, and the threadbare percussion, which sound as if they’re being recorded off objects one might find in any garage. The quiet thumbing of the over-distorted guitar before Waits takes off at the chorus, infinitesimally out of time, is great, and I manage to fall for it every time. And only a glimmer of continuous narrative, present mostly in the second verse, referencing some kind of conflict. This album was, after all, a veiled critique of the Bush regime, the ‘rag’ been hoisted meaning presumably, the flag of any given nation.

Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg —69 année érotique

Sort of a whimsical tune from Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, which seems to imagine the singer/a prosthesis of the singer and the English painter Thomas Gainsborough on some nearly seventy-year love affair and crossing from England to Paris. I like to think of it as having inspired The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs.

Benjamin Clementine — Adios

Clementine’s At Least For Now, which won the Mercury Prize, is a spectacular, and beautiful album. This isn’t the album version, but appeared on an EP. It might not be my favourite track on the album, that might go to ‘Cornerstone,’ but it has one of the record’s best moments, as Clementine breaks off the course of a song with one of his most impassioned deliveries, claiming ownership over some misstep made in his personal life, and mutters some words which are, incidentally, different words from the album cut of the track. In any case, both versions feature him interrupting the song to play a transcendent piece of music once sung to him by an angel, apparently during some manner of vision. It’s beautiful.

Statistical Correlations in avant-garde prose writing

The question that this blog post sets itself is: What differences and similarities can be detected in modernist and contemporary authors on the basis of three stylistic variables; hapax, unique and ambiguity, and how are these stylistic variables related to one another?

I: The Data

The data to be analysed in this project were derived from an analysis of twenty-one corpora of avant-garde literary prose through use of the open-source programming language R. The complete works of the authors James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Sara Baume, Anne Enright, Will Self, F. Scott FitzGerald, Eimear McBride, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Franz Kafka, Katherine Mansfield, Marcel Proust, Elizabeth Bowen, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Djuna Barnes, William Faulkner & D.H. Lawrence were used.

Seventeen of these writers were active between the years 1895 and 1968, a period of time associated with a genre of writing referred to as ‘modernist’ within the field of literary criticism. The remaining four remain alive, and have novels published as early as 1991, and as late as 2016. These novelists are known for their identification as latter-day modernists, and perceive their novels as re-engaging with the modernist aesthetic in a significant way.

I.II Uniqueness

The unique variable is a generally accepted measurement used within digital literary criticism to quantify the ‘richness’ of a particular text’s vocabulary. The formula for uniqueness is obtained by dividing the number of distinct word types in a text by the total number of words. For example, if a novel contained 20000 word types, but 100000 total words, the formula for obtaining this text’s uniqueness would be as follows:

20000/100000 = Uniqueness is equal to 0.2

I.III Ambiguity

Ambiguity is a measure used to calculate the approximate obscurity of a text, or the extent to which it is composed of indefinite pronouns. The indefinite pronouns quantified in this study are as follows, ‘another’, ‘anybody’, ‘anyone’, ‘anything’, ‘each’, ‘either’, ‘enough’, ‘everybody’, ‘everyone’, ‘everything’, ‘little’, ‘much’, ‘neither’, ‘nobody’, ‘no one’, ‘nothing’, ‘one’, ‘other’, ‘somebody’, ‘someone’, ‘something’, ‘both’, ‘few’, ‘everywhere’, ‘somewhere’, ‘nowhere’, ‘anywhere’, ‘many’, ‘others’, ‘all’, ‘any’, ‘more’, ‘most’, ‘none’, ‘some’, ‘such’. The formula for ambiguity is:

number of indefinite pronouns / number of total words

I.IV Hapax

Finally, the hapax variable calculates the density of hapax legomena, words which appear only once in a particular author’s oeuvre. The formula for this variable is:

number of hapax legomena / number of total words

a bar chart giving an overview of the data

II: Data Overview

Even before analysing the data in great depth, the fact that these variables are interrelated with one another stands to a logical analysis. Hapax and unique are best understood as an indication of a text’s heterogeneity, as if a text is hapax-rich, the score for uniqueness will be similarly elevated. Ambiguity, as it is a set of pre-defined words, can be considered a measure of a text’s homogeneity, and if the occurrences of these commonplace words are increasing, hapax and uniqueness will be negatively effected. The aim of this study will be to first determine how these measures vary according to the time frame in which the different texts were written, i.e. across modern and contemporary corpora, which correlations between stylistic variables exist, and which of the three is most subject to the fluctuations of another.

more overviews for each variable

IV.I: The Three Groups Hypothesis

A number of things are clear from these representations of the data. The first finding is that the authors fall into approximately three distinct groups. The first is the base- level of early twentieth-century modernist authors, who are all relatively undifferentiated. These are Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Elizabeth Bowen, Marcel Proust, F. Scott Fitzgerald, D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford. They are all below the mean for the hapax and unique variables.

boxplot of outliers for the unique hapax variable

The second group reach into more extreme values for unique and hapax. These are Djuna Barnes, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Flann O’Brien, James Joyce, Eimear McBride and Sara Baume. Three of these authors are even outliers for the hapax variable, which can be seen in the box plot.

Joyce’s position as an extreme outlier in this context is probably due to his novel Finnegans Wake (1939), which was written in an amalgam of English, French, Irish, Italian and Norwegian. It’s no surprise then, that Joyce’s value for hapax is so high. The following quotation may be sufficient to give an indication of how eccentric the language of the novel is:

La la la lach! Hillary rillarry gibbous grist to our millery! A pushpull, qq: quiescence, pp: with extravent intervulve coupling. The savest lauf in the world. Paradoxmutose caring, but here in a present booth of Ballaclay, Barthalamou, where their dutchuncler mynhosts and serves them dram well right for a boors’ interior (homereek van hohmryk) that salve that selver is to screen its auntey and has ringround as worldwise eve her sins (pip, pip, pip)

Though Borges’ and Barnes’ prose may not be as far removed from modern English as Finnegans Wake, both of these authors are known for their highly idiosyncratic use of language; Borges for his use of obscure terms derived from archaic sources, and Barnes for reversing normative grammatical and syntactic structures in unique ways.

The third and final group may be thought of as an intermediary between these two extremes, and these are Katherine Mansfield, Samuel Beckett, Will Self and Anne Enright. These authors share characteristics of both groups, in that the values for ambiguity remain stable, but their uniqueness and hapax counts are far more pronounced than the first group, but not to the extent that they reach the values of the second group.

boxplot displaying stein as an extreme outlier for ambiguity

Gertrude Stein is the only author who’s stylistic profile doesn’t quite fit into any of the three groups. She is perhaps best thought of as most closely analogous to the first group of early twentieth century modernists, but her extreme value for ambiguity should be sufficient to distinguish her in this regard.

The value for ambiguity remains fairly stable throughout the dataset, the standard deviation is 0.03, but if Stein’s values are removed from the dataset, the standard deviation narrows from 0.03 to 0.01.

Two disclaimers need to be made about this general account from the descriptive statistics and graphs. The first is that there is a fundamental issue with making such a schematic account of these texts. The grouping approach that this project has taken thus far is insufficiently nuanced as it could probably be argued that McBride could just as easily fit into the third group as the second. Therefore, the stylistic variables do not adequately distinguish modern and contemporary corpora from one another.

IV.II Word Count

word count for the most prolific authors

It should not escape our attention that those authors who score lowest for each variable and that the first group of early twentieth-century author are the most prolific. The correlation between word count and the stylistic variables was therefore constructed.

Pearson correlation for word count and stylistic variables

Both the Pearson correlation and Spearman’s rho suggest that word count is highly negatively correlated with hapax and unique (as word count increases, hapax and unique decreases and vice versa), but not with ambiguity.

Spearman’s rho for word count and stylistic variables

The fact that the Spearman’s rho scores significantly higher than the Pearson suggests that the relationship between the two are non-linear. This can be seen in the scatter plot.

scatter plot showing the relationship between word count and uniqueness

In the case of both variables, the correlation is obviously negative, but the data points fall in a non-linear way, suggesting that the Spearman’s rho is the better measure for calculating the relationship. In both cases it would seem that Joyce is the outlier, and most likely to be the author responsible for distorting the correlation.

scatter plot displaying the relationship between word count and hapax density
Pearson correlations for word count and each stylistic variable

SPSS flags the correlation between hapax and unique as being significant, as this is clearly the most noteworthy relationship between the three stylistic variables. The Spearman’s rho exceeded the Spearman correlation by a marginal amount, and it was therefore decided that the relationship was non-linear, which is confirmed by the scatter plot below:

Spearman’s rho correlation for word count and stylistic variables

The stylistic variables of unique and hapax are therefore highlycorrelated.

VI: Conclusion

As was said already, the notion that stylistic variables are correlated stands to reason. However, it was not until the correlation tests were carried out that the extent to which uniqueness and hapax are determined by one another was made clear.

The biggest issue with this study is the issue that is still present within digital comparative analyses in literature generally; our apparent incapacity to compare texts of differing lengths. Attempts have been made elsewhere to account for the huge difference that a text’s length clearly makes to measures of its vocabulary, such as vectorised analyses that take measurements in 1000 word windows, but none have yet been wholly successful in accounting for this difference. This study is therefore one among many which presents its results with some clarifiers, considering how corpora of similar lengths clustered together with one another to the extent that they did. The only author that violated this trend was Joyce, who, despite a lengthy corpus of 265500 words, has the highest values for hapax and uniqueness, which marks his corpus out as idiosyncratic. Joyce’s style is therefore the only of the twenty-one authors that we can say has a writing style that can be meaningfully distinguished from the others on the basis of the stylistic variables, because he so egregiously reverses the trend.

But we hardly needed an analysis of this kind to say Joyce writes differently from most authors, did we.

Will Self’s Umbrella and post-modern modernity


As has been repeated in any number of the literary outlets which give Will Self column inches, Self has thumbed his nose at the British literary establishment, readers and writers alike, by returning to the ground zero of avant-garde prose writing in his trilogy of Umbrella, Shark and the forthcoming Phone. I held off reading Umbrella for some time, for the same reason that one generally doesn’t read a novel written by one of the authors that one might rate highly, sensing in advance that it will be in some way a disappointment, particularly when said author has set themselves the task of re-invigorating an dormant genre in which one is steeped in, on a semi-professional basis.

But I did listen to, and read, an awful lot of interviews in which Self spoke on why he’s returning to modernism as a wellspring for his own fiction. In one of these interviews, which unfortunately, I can’t seem to find, Self says that one of the things he was trying to avoid, was writing a post-modern version of modernity. At the time I heard it, I had no idea what that might mean, or what a post-modern modernity might look like. After having read Umbrella, whether Self intended it or not, I have a far better understanding of the phrase, because I think that a post-modern modernity is exactly what Self has stumbled upon in Umbrella.

The plot moves between roughly three time frames, centred around four individuals, the primary one being Zack Busner, a fixture in many of Self’s works, Busner generally functions as a composite of the author and the late neurologist Oliver Sacks. In Umbrella, Busner is a psychiatrist based in London, treating Audrey Death for her encephalitic lethargica, which has left her in a catatonic state for decades. In some parts of the novel, Busner is doing so in 1970, and in other parts, he looks back on the affair in 2010. While this is happening, the narrative will jump back to the Audrey’s early adulthood in the opening decades of the century, working in a munitions factory, getting involved in radical socialist circles. Her brothers, Stanley and Albert, are also focalisers of the narrative at points, albeit in very different ways. Indirect discourse and interior monologue are probably the two best known characteristics of modernist prose, and these two take the lion’s share of the novel’s foray into experimentation, allowing for the character’s voices to blend suggestively with the narrator’s, making it difficult to tell where Audrey, Busner, Albert and Stanley are speaking amidst the barrage of music-hall pieces, street rhymes and song lyrics. Side Note: Azaelia Banks and The Kinks feature. Unfortunately, Self generally does so through use of italics. Here’s a typical example:

The boyfriend hadn’t minded gotta split, man and Busner was split…a forked thing digging its way inside her robe. She fiddled with bone buttons at her velvety throat. His skin and hairs snagged on the mirrors, his fingers did their best with her nipples. She looked down on me from below … one his calves lay cold on the floorboards. There was the faint applause of pigeons from outside the window —

Italics are used here to allow us access to Busner’s mind, his memory, and for Lear references. There’s nothing bad in here (or in the novel overall, Self’s sentences are staggering for how rhymically attuned they are, particularly when he dallies with academic verbiage and sub-clauses to the extent that he does), the problem is you sort of know where these turns are coming from the typography. There was a ‘Remastered’ version of Ulysses published about six years ago, produced by Robert Gogan, in which the interior monologue appeared in italics. The three or four people in the world who care about such things were outraged at the simplification, seeing the text as having been purged of its ambiguity. I think this periodic italicisation is to Umbrella’s detriment overall; it substitutes a reading that might have demanded even more of you for a more surreal-looking typeface.

My own notion of Umbrella’s modernism would therefore be rather distinct from the identification made between Umbrella and this rather inflexible and monolithic modernism made in some literary journalism, because I don’t see it as modernist in the same way that the ‘men of 1914’ are modernists. Although they might have one thing in common.


Self’s modernism is a selling point serving a rather specific function in today’s literary marketplace. Self’s modernism builds upon his persona as a surly performer on television news-panel shows and newspaper columns, going out of his way to discourage people from reading his books by his performative hauteur and dismissive attitude regarding everything. Returning to a praxis of literary art some six decades out of date is the logical conclusion of being Will Self. For Self, being a latter day modernist is to reject the commodification of the literary artwork, and insist upon the right of the author to write something wholly non-commercial. Umbrella therefore carries with it a critique of commodity culture, and the proliferation of screens, which Self also decries regularly, believing it to signal an end to the novel. However, the canard of modernism’s opposition to commodity culture has been overhyped after postmodern novelists made such a point of engaging with the novel as a commodity, and one should remember that modernism was deeply involved in the marketplace of its time; Ezra Pound began using zeitgeist-y words like ‘modern’ and ‘futurity’ to draw Marinetti’s audiences, who were substantially larger than his own when he first came to London. Performative modernism, cultivated for the purchasing attentions of a well-groomed and discerning élite is one of the things that Self gets right regarding his channeling of the genre.

Umbrella also seems to draw on modernism’s sometimes overlooked heritage, as it is at least somewhat to blame for the volume of secondary literature written subsequent to its boom and bust. From even a vague knowledge of these texts we might produce some foundational aspects of modernism; that it is taken to entail a shift in consciousness and human subjectivity, that exposure to slaughter and death on an industrial scale led to an ambivalence regarding technology and a sundering of rigid social hierarchies, an increasing mediation of our reality through mass media, growth of radical political movements such as feminism and socialism, etc. etc. etc. Our responses to these texts are thereby pre-determined; we know what we can expect from a canonical modernist text.

Which is why the modernism of Umbrella seems post-modern. It’s hard to read Audrey’s re-animation in the 1970’s, or Busner’s recollection of the time in 2010, as a meta-commentary on Umbrella’s resuscitation of the genre. The fact that Audrey worked in a munitions factory, as a radical socialist and feminist, that one of her brothers, Stanley, went to fight in the war, while her other brother, Albert, Pynchon-like, became an arms manufacturer selling weapons which fuelled the conflict, that in her comatose state she rehearses the actions of her time at the lathe, seems to have been dictated by our relationship to modernism in our contemporary setting. In the novel’s closing stages, Audrey’s status as a symbol of technology’s encroachment into our subjectivity is made overt:

The final words Audrey Death had spoken before relapsing into a merciful swoon were a string of nonsensical fractions — eighteen over four-point-two, ninety-four over fourteen-point-seven, sixty-six-point-three over thirty-three…that, even as he accepted the futility of the exercise, Busner had tried to fit into some conceptual framework. Were they, perhaps, the numerical analogue of her brain-chemistry’s intro-conversions between the discrete and the continuous, the quantifiable and the relativistic?

The irony here is that the paragraph in which Self is telling you exactly what the novel is about, features a character attempting to make sense of a random string of numbers. This is far from what the book is, a novel which has been compulsively over-determined in any number of columns, interviews and lectures which, taken collectively, probably come to a length equal to the text. While the modernists can be considered guilty of pushing particular interpretations — they often wrote about their own work, in the way that authors often do, by pretending to write objectively on other authors, The Waste Land came with annotations (parodic ones, but annotations nonetheless) — it feels as though Self’s foray into it is too overtly packaged as such. It’s probably my own fault for consuming it as I did, a book has to be sold after all, and no one made me read those six Guardian interviews. I should wrap up by saying that this novel is very good, and that you should read it, and, in true modernist style, ‘the rest is noise’.