The Serpentine Muse Vol 27, No. 4, 2011, pp 16-17.
DO YOU WRITE LIKE ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE?
by Karen Murdock
It’s a bad combination—the seduction of new technology and the warm inner glow of egotism. Taken together, they can make the common sense you were born with get up and leave the room.
Take the hot new internet website, “I Write Like” (IWL.me). Please. It’s alluringly simple. You cut and paste a few paragraphs of English prose—any prose will do but egotism demands that it be yours—into the analyzer box and click the “Analyze” button. Without a moment’s hesitation, “I Write Like” processes your prose and tells you “which famous writer you write like.”
The site is the work of a young Russian software programmer named Dmitry Chestnykh. The program he wrote breaks prose down into simple computer code, analyzing word and sentence length to make its instant—and invariably flattering—assessment. Chestnykh, who apparently couples an appealing desire to please with entirely too much time on his hands, uploaded works from fifty of history’s greatest English writers to produce the IWL site.
You cannot lose with this program. IWL will never tell you that you write like a semi-literate sheepherder or like a roomful of students in the second week of an English as a Second Language class. No, you are a literary genius every time. No wonder the site is so popular.
It is irresistible, and the moment I heard about IWL, I surfed over to the site. Just as a test, I plugged in the first paragraph of the last article I published in The Serpentine Muse. I clicked “Analyze.” The all-wise, all-knowing website instantly rendered its judgment. It told me I write like Arthur Conan Doyle.
My little Sherlockian heart went pit-a-pat. My native common sense leaped up from the sofa and dived out the window. Showers of glittering confetti rained down upon my ego. For a moment—okay, maybe three or four moments—I actually felt that I could and did write like my literary hero.
Then my native common sense returned, a bit battered and covered with dead leaves and dirty snow. It was in a surly mood and simply growled two words—“Sez who??”—before collapsing on the sofa, eyeing me askance, and falling asleep.
So I decided to put the algorithms of IWL to a test. I plugged in pages from five other randomly-selected Sherlockian articles I have published. IWL told me, consecutively, that I write like: Charles Dickens, Vladimir Nabokov, David Foster Wallace, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Ursula K. LeGuin.
My Cloyingly-Insincere-Flattery Detector began to hum, then to ring, then to shriek. My native common sense woke up and smirked at me knowingly.
I plugged in two paragraphs from Moby Dick. IWL said that Herman Melville wrote like Daniel Defoe. Two paragraphs from Moll Flanders revealed that Defoe wrote like Jonathan Swift.
I took some more modern examples. Two paragraphs from Virginia Wolff’s To the Lighthouse revealed that Wolff wrote like James Joyce. Two paragraphs from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man produced the conclusion that Joyce actually wrote like Vladimir Nabokov. When I plugged in paragraphs from Tender is the Night, IWL told me that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote like either Vladimir Nabokov or David Foster Wallace or Mary Shelley, depending upon which paragraphs one used—and these were successive paragraphs, mind you.
My native common sense, who had been standing behind me watching all this, patted me on the shoulder, not unsympathetically, I thought. I logged off “I Write Like” and began to type this article.
A large percentage of the readers of this journal have probably not read my article—scintillating and thought-provoking though it undoubtedly is, and downright Nabokovian in its wit and sophistication—even this far. They are all over on IWL.me seeking flattering assessments of their literary efforts.
So, dear readers, do I write like Arthur Conan Doyle? As Edgar Allan Poe once wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” Or maybe that was James Fenimore Cooper.