We have a new study published today in the Guardian that shows ways of finding cultural commonality in our age of political polarization. Using the site Goodreads, we identify collections of books that both liberals and conservatives like to read. We show how these books drive different kinds of reader behaviour, prompting readers to react less tribally and negatively and discuss books in more nuanced and cognitively complex ways. You can find lists of the top 100 most non-partisan books here along with the books that liberals and conservatives favour reading.
We’re super excited that our new article on gender inequality and book reviews has just been published at The New Republic. The take away: even as you increase the headcount of women in publishing and reviewing, the stereotypical language used to describe women writers remains unchanged. I.e., better gender representation ≠ less gender bias. We use this insight as a basis to argue for a new way of thinking about, and addressing, gender inequality in the literary world.
We’re very excited that our new culture analytics essay on creativity and MFA programs, as well as issues of gender and racial diversity in publishing, has been published at the Atlantic Monthly. We use text mining techniques to reveal some troubling patterns in creative writing today, and tell a new story about institutions and creativity. In the next week or so, we’ll be publishing more details and findings about our experiment.
We have a new piece appearing in The New Republic today. In a number of recent book reviews, literary critics and novelists arrive at the consensus that to be a great writer, one must avoid being “sentimental.” One famous novelist describes it as a “cardinal sin” of writing. But is it actually true? Using a computer science method called “sentiment analysis,” we tested this claim on a large corpus of novels from the early twentieth century to the present, and found the opposite. Writers who win book prizes and get reviewed in the New York Times are not any less sentimental than novelists who write popular fiction, such as romances or bestsellers. The only group for whom this was not true were the 50 most canonical novels ever written since about 1950. Our analysis tells us that if you want to write one of the most important books of the next half century, then you should tone down the sentiment. But if you want to be reviewed in a major newspaper, sell books, or win prizes, go ahead and emote away.
But the larger point for us is the way our cultural taste-makers are often wrong or extremely biased in their assumptions about what matters. We found that a computer, ironically, can paint a more nuanced picture of what makes great literature.
Here is a an excerpt:
If you want to be a great writer, should you withhold your sentimental tendencies? The answer for most critics and writers seems to be yes. Sentimentality is often seen as a useful way of distinguishing between serious literature and the not-so-serious, probably best-selling kind. “Sentimentality,” James Baldwin wrote, is “the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion…the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel.” While sentimentality is false, grandiose, manipulative, and over-boiled, high literature is subtle, nuanced, cool, and true. As Roland Barthes, the dean of high cultural criticism, once remarked: “It is no longer the sexual which is indecent, it is the sentimental.” This sentiment (yes sentiment) has been around since at least the early twentieth century and is still a subject of debate in the review pagesof numerous media outlets today. But is it true? Whether you are for subtlety or against sentimentality, is this a good way to think about writing your next novel?
Read more here.