My friend Susan told me about the I Write Like site. I’ve had entirely too much fun playing with it. I tested 30 of my fiction posts with the IWL analysis. Here is the short version of the results:
Once each: Margaret Atwood, Jack London, J.D. Salinger, Ian Fleming (on a story involving multiple ways to kill someone), David Foster Wallace, Margaret Mitchell, P.G. Wodehouse (!), Raymond Chandler, Harry Harrison, and Bram Stoker (on a vampire story).
Twice each: Kurt Vonnegut, James Joyce, and JK Rowling.
Three times: Chuck Palahniuk.
Four times: Dan Brown:.
Seven times: Stephen King.
When I plugged in a selection that was all or mostly exposition, I was often compared with Dan Brown. Make of that what you will. More characters talking, more diversity in whom I write like. I was a little disappointed, frankly, that Wodehouse showed up in the results only once and that my writing is nothing like that of the late, great Douglas Adams, who was a popular result among the BoingBoing crowd.
There is concern in the blogosphere that I Write Like is perhaps not a fully scientific tool. Antinous, a BoingBoing moderator, put in the first lines from the LOLCat Bible:
Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem. Da Urfs no had shapez An haded dark face, An Ceiling Cat rode invisible bike over teh waterz. At start, no has lyte. An Ceiling Cat sayz, i can haz lite? An lite wuz. An Ceiling Cat sawed teh lite, to seez stuffs, An splitted teh lite from dark but taht wuz ok cuz kittehs can see in teh dark An not tripz over nethin. An Ceiling Cat sayed light Day An dark no Day. It were FURST!!!
The IWL analysis: Mark Twain.
Additionally, charges have surfaced that only Caucasian writers, and very few women, are in the database. These are assuredly gaping holes to plug. Still, it was fun.
I had been thinking of this very subject for a few days, even before Susan mentioned IWL. Also coincidentally, Stephen King was part of those thoughts.
I don’t care for the horror genre, so I have never read one of King’s novels. I have, however, greatly enjoyed some of his nonfiction. Be sure to read On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Also, I have delighted in his Foreword to Stalking the Nightmare, a collection of stories by Harlan Ellison. He writes, in part, about how after reading the stories in the collection his writing had taken on Ellisonian tones:
You find yourself writing like whoever you’re reading that week. If you’re reading RED NAILS, your current short story sounds like that old Hyborian Cowboy, Robert E. Howard. If you’ve been reading FAREWELL, MY LOVELY, your stuff sounds like Raymond Chandler. You’re milk, and you taste like whatever was next to you in the refrigerator that week.
He says that professionals largely get over this and write like themselves, but he admits that there are a handful of writers whose style he can slip into easily, unconsciously, if he’s been reading them again.
Now we come to why I’ve been pondering this notion. Take a quick look again at last week’s Pen to Paper. Note that second paragraph. If I had put that through the I Write Like analysis, I would perhaps have gotten the coveted Douglas Adams response. The week before I wrote that post I had re-re-re- (etc.) read his five-book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. It was simple, indeed, almost natural, to write in his style after that immersion.
(I’ve just tested that theory: my first three grafs are allegedly in the style of David Foster Wallace; the first two by themselves remind IWL of Vladimir Nabokov. I give up.)
I’ve never been hypnotized, but I know darn well I’m suggestible. Despite having a perfectly serviceable style of my own, it’s all too easy to be the milk in the refrigerator and take on another writer’s flavor. I have to think that’s worth guarding against, just as I didn’t do in last week’s Pen to Paper. (And there’s another sentence Adams could have crafted.)
There could be educational value in borrowing the style of a famous author. One could compose a sonnet in the mode of either William Shakespeare or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, just to see how it feels to write like that. But would an entire collection of such sonnets be of any value to the world, other than for the appreciation one gives a clever forgery? Art students copy the great masters, trying to recreate the brushstrokes. It’s a good exercise. But when the exercise is finished and one still copies the masters, it leads to the inevitable (and perhaps unanswerable) question: Is that art?
There could be legal grounds for not appropriating someone else’s style, but there are also good moral reasons not to, and better still there’s simple dignity. The world already has had a Douglas Adams and a Raymond Chandler. It still has a Stephen King and a Harlan Ellison. More is not better. Let’s enjoy their stories and their voices but write our stories in our own voices. This is the only way to preserve uniqueness all around.