rock paper byte

Here’s an intriguing article, essentially addressing the question, “What makes a style distinctive?” How is it, for example, that trained musicians can often recognize the work of a particular player upon hearing only a few notes – or even, in some cases, a single note? How can experienced readers recognize a particular writer’s style, even when the writer might be pretending to affect a different voice? Students in writing classes often fail to recognize the distinctiveness of their own voice as writers, to their peril if they try to get away with plagiarizing someone else’s words: most skilled teachers can immediately recognize that the grafted prose is not their student’s work.

The article cites a particular verbal quirk exhibited by a character in a novel. For what it’s worth, that phrase was what led me to the article (I was originally wondering why people often double up on conjunctions, prefacing “yet” with “and” or “but,” as if “yet” wasn’t itself a conjunction…and in fact, the usage cited in this story begins to explain that phenomenon), but the author points out that, conceivably, a single word, or a single instance of a distinctive phrase, could provide a strong sense of identity for a writer. One would think that that would be more likely true with rarer words or distinctive phrases…and yet the cited case makes do with two of the commonest words in the language, and in a phrase that is commonly spoken (in fact, my overhearing the phrase is what spurred my search).

The link to the David Lodge story is a bit amusing: I suppose, first, in the quaintness of the story’s conceit that some future society would still rely on (presumably magnetic) tape to store data (and hey: thirty years from now we’ll laugh at current data storage, I’m sure), but more in the way that the fictitious author seems stymied by awareness of his own quirks. You’d think he’d be aware of them to begin with, really, and you think he’d have enough other quirks to allow the pointed-out quirks to blend in unsuspected among the others.

The anti-technological bias the excerpt exhibits seems to interface with an anti-intellectual bias just below the surface: ’tis bad to know how things work, it says; and if you learn, you will no longer be able to do. You can see this in some of the more antinomian moments of sixties art, I think; in the praise of the untrained “primitive”; in the critic’s wielding of the term “pretentious” as a club (the writer is entitled to judge the extent to which the artist can presume, which of course in itself presumes awareness of the presumption: you can’t diss a musician for alluding to Nabokov in his song lyrics if you don’t know who Nabokov is)…and even in the rock musician’s disdain for knowing too much traditional musical craft, such as reading music. (Amusingly, extensive knowledge of gear is apparently exempt from this rule…)

I’ve never understood this view. Analysis enhances and enriches rather than deadens: knowing how you do what you do enables you to stop doing it, rather than forcing you to awareness of what you can do no other than. (Unless you’re crap, of course.)

Backing up a bit: I’ve probably mentioned before an article I read way back in probably the late ’70s or early ’80s. I believe it was in Scientific American, and its subject was very similar to the computer analysis Lodge’s stand-in decries (it may even have been that article that inspired Lodge – although I’ve never again found the particular article). The analysts had input huge gobs of text from several well-known authors (I remember Henry James, Faulkner, and Hemingway…I think), and one task they set was to determine at what level “style” emerged. They chopped up the verbal corpus of each writer, and then put it back together again, first one word at a time, essentially in random order…then in two-word chunks, then three, four, etc. (That is, if the phrase “this night wounds time” had occurred, the first run would have most likely separated all four words, the second one could have produced “this night,” “night wounds,” and “wounds time,” while the third would have produced “this night wounds” and “night wounds time.”) The surprising results were that each writer’s distinctive style started to become visible as early as the three-word level…and by the five-word letter, no reader familiar with the writers was likely to misidentify which writer’s work was being reassembled.

And to return to that faux-future magnetic-tape strand: this article in today’s New York Times notes some of the difficulties researchers and archivists are likely to face as literature is increasingly composed on computers from the start, rather than with paper and pen or typewriter. “Manuscript” has largely been an outmoded term (at least if we take etymology seriously) but now even the physical medium is vaporized. One problem is hardware media interfaces: libraries are apparently compelled to keep functioning 5″ floppy readers on hand, and might as well resign themselves to becoming inadvertent museums of outmoded technology as well as information clearinghouses. The software problem is powerful as well, as Neal Stephenson pointed out more than a decade ago: what currently available application opens a MacWrite document?

I’m not sure how to answer the archival issues posed above. I suppose a combination of a very basic binary-level encryption of text, along with an extremely durable storage medium, might solve the problem. Perhaps we should be chiseling 1’s and 0’s into granite…


1 Comment

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One response to “rock paper byte

  1. ’tis bad to know how things work, it says; and if you learn, you will no longer be able to do.

    Beware of any philosophy that valorizes ignorance.

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