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Accent and Sentiment

January 7, 2016

Title for this post borrowed from a Metafilter thread that raised some important questions about writing and audiences and marketing.

Two recent essays explore the way our expectations and our language interact in fiction: First, at The Toast, Brittany K. Allen deals with what “urban” means in “urban romance,” and how hewing to the genre affected her writing, in “I Wrote the Accent.” Next, Andrew Piper and Richard Jean So use sentiment analysis to determine whether pop fiction is more sentimental than its literary cousin, in “Quantifying the Weepy Bestseller.”


Both articles, I think, were intended for an audience of book consumers, marketers and authors, but also important for librarians to read and ponder.

First, “urban romance.” Allen’s discussion of “urban as broad, lazy code for Black,” in book marketing raises important points about book marketing, actual and implied target reader demographics, and how to categorize and catalog books… without categorizing and cataloging people. Allen is honest about her own writing process, trying to figure out a balance between personal detail, tropes, honesty, privilege. Here’s another excerpt:

On Amazon, and in real bookstores, there are sub-genres for Fiction — like “African American Literary Fiction” and “Jewish Fiction” and “Women’s Fiction” — though I’ve yet to meet a writer, literary or commercial, who enjoys being bundled into one category. No one really wants to write to and about one type of person; people want to write about people, to make other people feel like people. A genre that is defined around a particular audience breeds the “idea of the ghetto,” the “idea of the kingpin,” as opposed to creating someone alive, someone precise. To write to perceived type is to pay lip service to the institutional prejudice that keeps minorities exactly where the groups in power expect them to stay.

Read the above, and replace “writer” with “reader,” and it becomes important food for thought for librarians in libraries of all sizes, city or school at any level of perceived privilege or diversity. Similarly, it’s a good swap for book marketers to make, to think about the readers not the categories.

And there’s a whole other article to unpack: “Quantifying the Weepy Bestseller” using sentiment analysis. “Essentially sentiment analysis uses fixed lexicons that map words to either positive or negative sentiments and then scores a piece of text accordingly.” Researchers compiled a range of two thousand novels of different genres and levels of popularity

…then searched for indications of differing levels of sentimentality using dictionaries developed by Bing Liu, one of the more prominent researchers in the field. The more a novel contained strongly positive or negative words (abominable, inept, obscene, shady, on the one hand, admirable, courageous,masterful, rapturous on the other), the higher its score. However complex literary sentimentality may be, the assumption is that in order to be sentimental at a minimum you need a sentimental vocabulary.

Some of their findings: there’s been a significant drop in the number of sentiment words from Victorian novels to modern novels. Novels of the 19th century had a significantly greater number of sentiment words. And the distribution of sentimental words is not well sorted between the (admittedly subjective) distinctions between high and low culture designated works of fiction, nor does it appear to play a role in book sales.

What sentimentality does do, however, is strike you from the list of twentieth century classics (CLASSIC). While the list of the 400 most-widely held novels in libraries since 1945 do not exhibit significantly lower levels of sentimentality (indeed it appears to be the opposite), the more constrained list of the 60 or so most canonical novels published between 1945 and 2000 (an admittedly very subjective list) appear to show more restraint when it comes to using a sentimental vocabulary…There appears to be some kind of selection mechanism at work that winnows the field at least partially according to a bias towards less sentimentally inflected literary works. Sentiment may not be the driving factor, but it is a noticeable outcome…Interestingly, a good deal of this effect can be accounted for by the under-use of positive vocabulary.

After reading the above, I was ready to settle into a nice robotic dystopian funk of gloom (and cheer myself up with a cuddly positive genre novel)… but then I read further, and was relieved that the analysis got more nuanced.

…what is missing [from the modern literary canon] is a kind of explicit articulation of belief, what we might call, for lack of a better word, “conviction.” Over time we seem to institutionally value novels that downplay the clarity of their own beliefs. This makes a good deal of sense—novels that endure do so because they represent more open belief systems, ones that allow readers across broader stretches of time to engage with them and explore their own beliefs.

Makes sense. Even, makes me feel more hopeful about literary canon and appetites for stories.

Having read both of these articles together, I’m struck by a difference between them, a difference in tone and purpose, or even sentiment. It’s a difference that makes sense given author and audience. The final paragraphs of Allen’s piece on Urban Lit read like a manifesto, a call to action for her own writing and for the writing (or book selection of librarians) to empower readers. On the other hand, the last few paragraphs wrapping up the discussion of academic sentiment analysis read like a simple, psychic shrug: “Our advice to writers? Based on the available evidence, if you want to write one of the fifty most important novels in the next half-century, then by all means avoid sentimental language. But if you want to get published, sell books, be reviewed, win a prize or simply make someone happy, then emote away and just write a good novel.”

And it seems to me, having read both pieces in succession… that advice to writers ignores a lot of issues of marketing, race, assumed privilege and lived experience that shape the lives of readers and writers. And librarians.

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