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Does Microsoft Word Have Literary Judgment?

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Tuesday, Sep 25, 2007

Janice Harayda, proprietor of One-Minute Book Reviews, former books editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle , does NOT like Lloyd Jones’s Booker Prize-front-runner, Mister Pip.  The nub of her complaint: Jones writes for third-grade readers.  Here’s her evidence:


How do I know? I once edited books for a test-prep company and, after finishing Mister Pip, realized that its reading level was much lower that of many books I had edited for elementary-school students. So I entered a page of Jones’s text into my computer, ran the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word, and got a grade level of 4.4 for it. To see if the passage was typical, I entered two later pages and got even lower grade levels, 3.1 and 3.5, an average of 3.6 for the novel. I also entered text from another finalist, On Chesil Beach (grade 8.6), and the past winners listed below with their reading levels.


Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip

Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip


I have to say that I wonder about this methodology.  Reviewers have usually noted that Jones’s simplicity is deceptive, that, like Conrad, he’s achieving a variety of effects with tone (here’s one of many who make this claim).  Such effects would, necessarily, not show up on the Flesch-Kincaid stats. 


For example: if you reproduce the experiment with May Sinclair’s masterpiece, The Life and Death of Harriet Frean,  you’ll also get odd numbers.  For example, chapter 2 is apparently written at a 2nd-grade reading level.  Now, no second grader on this earth could make heads or tails of Sinclair. 


Later on, Harayda claims that:


  He can’t be trying to imitate Great Expectations, because a page from Charles Dickens’s novel registered a grade level of 10.7


But this really does compare apples with limes.  Victorian expectations of prose were so different from modern ones.  The idea that one needed the equivalent of a modern 10th-grade education to grasp Dickens just doesn’t mesh with the reality of 19th literacy practices.


Mister Pip may well not be the best choice for the Booker Prize—I’ve not read all the finalists, and so can’t say anything with confidence—but this is a remarkably thin objection (especially since Harayda ties Lloyd Jones’s stylistic choices to racial assumptions!).  Plus, it makes my head hurt to think that Microsoft Word’s grammar checker—the bane of English professors everywhere—could play any role in literary judgment.

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