Books

Does Microsoft Word Have Literary Judgment?

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

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.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

The Texas Gentlemen Share the Powerful and Soulful "Last Call" (premiere)

Eclectic Texas band, the Texas Gentlemen return with a vibrant, imaginative LP that resists musical boundaries. Hear their latest epic single, "Last Call".

Music

Vincent Cross Pays Tribute to Folk Hero via "King Corcoran" (premiere)

Gangs of New York-era James "The Rooster" Corcoran was described as the terror of New York's east side. His descendent, Vincent Cross, retells his story with a "modern dark fairy tale".

Music

Eddy Lee Ryder Gets Lonely and Defiant with "Expected to Fly" (premiere)

Eddy Lee Ryder explores the loss of friendship and refusal to come of age, cloaked in the deeply dramatic and powerful song, "Expected to Fly".

Playlists

Rock 'n' Roll with Chinese Characteristics: Nirvana Behind the Great Wall

Like pretty much everywhere else in the pop music universe, China's developing rock scene changed after Nirvana. It's just that China's rockers didn't get the memo in 1991, nor would've known what to do with it, then.

Film

Creative Disruption in 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'

Portrait of a Lady on Fire yearns to burn tyrannical gendered tradition to ash and remake it into something collaborative and egalitarian.

Music

Fave Five: The Naked and Famous

Following two members leaving the group in 2018, synthpop mavens the Naked and Famous are down to a duo for the first time ever and discuss the records they turned to help make their aptly-named fourth record, Recover.

Evan Sawdey
Books

Fleetwood Dissects the European Mindset in His Moody, Disturbing Thriller, 'A Young Fair God'

Hugh Fleetwood's difficult though absorbing A Young Fair God offers readers a look into the age-old world views that have established and perpetuated cultural rank and the social attitudes that continue to divide us wherever we may reside in the world.

Music

Art Feynman Creates Refreshing Worldbeat Pop on 'Half Price at 3:30'

On Half Price at 3:30, Art Feynman again proves himself adept at building colorful worlds from unexpected and well-placed aural flourishes.

Music

The Beths Are Sharp As Ever on 'Jump Rope Gazers'

New Zealand power-poppers the Beths return with a sophomore album that makes even the most senior indie-rock acts feel rudimentary by comparison.

Music

Jessie Ware Returns to Form on 'What's Your Pleasure'

On What's Your Pleasure, Jessie Ware returns to where it all began, the dance floor.

Music

The Jayhawks Offer Us Some 'XOXO'

The Jayhawks offer 12-plus songs on XOXO to help listeners who may be alone and scared by reminding us that we are all alone together.

Music

Steve McDonald Remembers the Earliest Days of Redd Kross

Steve McDonald talks about the year that produced the first Redd Kross EP, an early eighth-grade graduation show with a then-unknown Black Flag, and a punk scene that welcomed and defined him.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.