Book Review: Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve

By Patrick Stuart

Confession:  I use the word ‘that’ way, way too much.  OK, not that much. See? Just did it.  ‘That’ is one of those words that sneaks into my rough drafts with regularity, then when I go back for a revision I notice them popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Not that that’s the worst . . . dammit. Twice this time. Does anyone else do this?

Turns out; yeah. A lot, actually. Even with famous authors who end up contradicting their own writerly advice. Which is what statistical word nerd Ben Blatt set out to find in his fascinating book Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve. By comparing several well-known authors of different genres and the books we know them for, he ran their work through complex computer programs to parse out their commonalities and secret habits. You know how Stephen King likes to slam adverbs (i.e., words ending in -ly)? Turns out he’s not quite so adverse with adverbs; he’s actually somewhere in the middle of the pack with usage (between Salman Rushdie and Charles Dickens). At the low end is Ernest Hemingway, whereas the high end tops out with E.L. James (50 Shades of Gray series) and J.K. Rowling. Which posits the following theory:

More adverbs > commercial work

Less adverbs > literary work

So maybe Mr. King has a point with his prejudice of sadly, suddenly, and tearfully (note: he’s hardly the only author against extraneous adverb usage). However, as the shopping channel likes to say; but wait, there’s more. Ben also compares the novels of Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, William Faulkner and others, and it turns out their most famous works (e.g., Beloved, Cat’s Cradle, The Sound and the Fury, etc.) also use less adverbs, while their lesser-known books tend to be more adverb-heavy.  Which further supports the prejudice against adverbs:

Less adverbs > higher literary quality

More adverbs > lower literary quality

But it’s not just adverbs.  No, Ben’s just getting started. There’s comparisons of swearing between male and female authors, the use of exclamation points (!), qualifiers (e.g., very), sentence length, clichés (spoiler: James Patterson and Janet Evanovich use the most), similes, and, yes, favorite words (hence the title). By taking blind snippets of books, Ben can even statistically predict who the authors were… imagine using that in a jury scene with an anonymous ransom note. One minor criticism: NKWIS is filled with statistical data, numerous bar charts, scatter plots and lists, which can come across a little dry at times. But ultimately, by teasing out these wonderful little factoids, it’s a fascinating trip inside the minds of our favorite authors and their literary peccadillos.  And that’s why this is recommended for your to-read list (another ‘that’ … shut up).

(Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, by Ben Blatt, The Atlantic, Simon & Schuster, pub. 2017

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