On March 2nd, Matthew Jockers gave a talk at Wesleyan about his research on using quantitative methods for analysis in literature. His talk was titled “Novel Analytics: From James Joyce to the Bestseller Code.” The following article is an exploration of his talk and the ideas he brought forward.
What makes something a piece of art? This might sound like a pretty theoretical question, but English professor Matthew L. Jockers believes that it is possible to take a technical approach.
“Art shows how things are perceived, not known,” Jockers explained. This is a definition that could cause tension in the literary world. After all, writing is messy, personal, and painfully subjective. And yet – “We tend to emphasize the idea that the text is withholding an ‘essential truth,’” Jockers explained. In this way, a literary critic wants to be able to anticipate a certain meaning, causing an endless tug-of-war between objectivity and subjectivity. Jockers does not wrestle with this tension, as evidenced by his book The Bestseller Code, in which he uses analysis to tackle that all-elusive question: What makes a bestselling novel?
Jockers and his co-author Jodie Archer nailed down the qualities that make a book a bestseller by analyzing 30 years’ worth of New York Times bestselling novels. The idea of taking an analytical look at novels was appealing to Jockers because, while a literature enthusiast, he is largely interested in the way parts fit together. Rather than focusing on the novel itself, Jockers believes we should focus on the relationship readers have with the literal words on the page. “Books are a map of grammar, syntax, and word order used to direct our attention to a certain meaning,” he explained. This transforms the previous abstract question to a new, more concrete one: How do best-selling writers write?