The Moveable Writer

New technology and old comforts for today's writer.

Data Driven Art?

2 Comments

Recent articles in The New York Times, NPR, and WSJ have reported on ereaders collecting data from readers while they read. The data collected includes noting at what point a reader stops reading a book. It also notes which parts of a book – action scenes, sex scenes, or romantic scenes, for instance – that the reader stays engaged in.

The chief executive of Scribd, a company that sells subscriptions for unlimited ebooks, stated that, “We’re going to be pretty open about sharing this data so people can use it to publish better books.”

But what does this mean for the future of literature? What would writer’s like Hemingway say about altering your writing to suit readers? I think we know what he would say and I am not going to write the profanity that would come out if his mouth in protest of this approach.

First, let me acknowledge that readers are individuals and that one book may appeal to many readers for different reasons. People may fall in love with different aspects of a character, but still love that character. Second, I acknowledge that certain stories and characters that do appeal to many readers have specific qualities that many people will like. These are two contradicting statements. Sort of.

If the data does come up with a certain combination of events that when written are more likely to become best sellers, should we alter our writing to ensure that our books meet that criteria? I must say that I would very much be interested to find out what readers think about my writing. As previously mentioned in this blog, I like the idea of readers being able to give me feedback about how and when my manuscript moves them. Readers matter to me. That being said, I think it is naïve to assume that we, as a group of writers, can “write better books” just by following this data. I agree that there are data that could be helpful, but we should not take over our writing.

Even if in the short term people did buy more books that fit a certain storyline, the market would be saturated by it very quickly. Nobody wants to read the same thing over and over again. Then, the data would see a shifting trend and writers would have to alter their writing to suit the new trend. We would lose the value of literature. One point I want to highlight is that many great books are like time capsules of a day or year or decade and capture a distinct atmosphere. We record this in detail and it is preserved for future generations to experience. Books written about life in our time may not be in trend in our time. What does that mean for future generations?

That is just one example. For me, I want to connect with a reader by telling a story that is meaningful and entertaining whether it makes a reader uncomfortable at times or takes them on an adventure they might not have known they wanted to go on. I believe that writing is telling a story through the unique perspective of the writer and that the truer you can be to human emotion and motivation the better. For this, there is no formula other than perception and practicing your craft. For these reasons I think we can gather data, understand it, and use it, but we should not let it make our writing untrue.

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Author: Donna Hockey

Donna Hockey is an author who lives in Northern California. Her most recent novel, The Underground League, can be found on Amazon and BN.com. Donna also works in the education space. She has a B.S. in Psychology from ASU and a Master of Public Policy degree from Harvard.

2 thoughts on “Data Driven Art?

  1. I also keep thinking that these data will be flawed. When I read, I don’t just stop because the story is slowing down. I often stop at very exciting places because the kids are calling, the dog wants to go out, my boyfriend says something or I need to get off the train/bus. So some of the data will have absolutely nothing to do with the intrinsic qualities if the work itself but everything to do with the world around the reader – and you can’t change that by changing the book.
    I’m also afraid that these data will result in a lot of books similar to Dan Brown – and while that’s fine, I’m glad there are all kinds of other types of books out there.
    I think this is a wrong path for authors to walk down.

  2. I agree Christina. I just put aside a great book because of competing interests and it is at a very interesting part. Also, some websites that gather data also offer unlimited reading which makes it a lot harder for readers to focus on one book. They may be interested in learning something for instance in a business book and then become attracted to a piece of fiction, but then realize they have gotten off track. Or they may start too many books at once because there are so many to choose from. Either way the data is compromised.

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