David Foster Wallace: An unexpected perk from ‘text analysis’

Having written for a couple of decades in professional journalism and more recently made public some of my parallel fiction from those years, I’d started to believe that maybe I could carve out a niche spot for me, myself and I along that endless spectrum of authors… but enough gilding. The cold truth slapped me in the face recently, having caught wind of websites such as “I write like…” that use text analysis to pinpoint a writer whose work is most akin to your own.

Or, more accurately, a writer to whom you may share some puzzling connection going by the small sample of writing that you randomly choose to sling into the text box provided…

iwl

Like countless writers I’ve appreciated some nice comments over the years from friends and, better still, strangers about how some slice of fiction had reminded them, a bit, of so-and-so (most names I’ve heard of, some I’ve read, a few I’ve had to admit to not recognising). Best of all are those moments when someone (hopefully a stranger) comments favourably on a piece of writing without mentioning how it reminds them of some particular author.

So it was with some dismay that the black magic text box of IWL did not remain profoundly empty…

After a matter of milliseconds, it conjured up a name…

A recognisable name. Yet a recognition that had rung only a distant bell, sounded off somewhere across the Atlantic…

Indeed, IWL alleged that the sample of writing I had slung into its text box was, maybe, a bit, like…

*drumroll*

David Foster Wallace.

Hmm.

The name yet nothing more…

A dragonfly skim across DFW’s digital footprint soon relaxed my concern. Indeed, DFW is feted by many of the book trade’s talking heads, and namedrop-able fiction sections such as in The New Yorker. davidfosterwallace_captureThe consistently readable blog Brain Pickings praises DFW for his “singular, potent, wildly eclectic mind.” A kind of strange smugness started to shower over me – this feller might well be some kind of soul mate…

A moment later I’d read various sources suggesting that DFW had endured disastrous depression for decades and that it had eventually led him to take his own life at the, arguably young, age of 46.

Being 46 myself, this cast a sudden and sullen shine over my newfound enthusiasm for DFW. This extra fact – the irrelevant kinship of one’s age – had trumped whether or not my sample of writing had any resemblance to any of the words DFW had ever placed side by side, never mind any of the literary highs that he had attracted, the positive reviews, prizes, professorship, even a nod of respect from the teaching syllabus at Harvard.

Silly yet true. A three-word summary that perhaps DFW would have approved, going by his message to one graduating class:

“The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.”

A man, an author, after my own heart. Yet, to be frank, it does not matter to me whether or not a limited data analysis suggests that my sample of writing is somewhat akin to DFW or any other writer. Yet I am quite pleased that the process has randomly conjured up an author whom I sense, on the early evidence, I will enjoy revisiting. My headfirst leap into his back catalogue will start with this audio archive…

dfw-audio-project


P.s.

Here is the Brain Pickings blog’s recent rumination on depression.

And, from the same blog, one of several posts worth browsing about David Foster Wallace.

Beyond that, why not try the short and slightly surreal ride of an ‘IWL’ text analysis on some of your own writing? Regardless of whether or not text analysis is any more reliable than finger-in-the-air whim, it may just conjure up a writer worth some of your time.

 

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