The Moveable Writer

New technology and old comforts for today's writer.


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Data Driven Art?

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.