This morning, First Thoughts featured a link to a new tool called “I Write Like…” where writers can compare their work to the styles of famous authors. The site is clearly an ad for a publishing agency, and gives wildly illogical results: for example, though it correctly identified the first chapter of Huck Finn for me as written in the style of Mark Twain and the short story “Araby” as by James Joyce, it also said the first chapter of Genesis (King James Version) was in the style of Kurt Vonnegut and that the first few paragraphs of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” sounded like H.P. Lovecraft. Those comparisons are plausible, I suppose, but still a bit far-fetched.
The site does not provide any commentary on its analyses, nor does it even explain its program’s methodology. Such background information would make this much more enjoyable. As it is, it’s little more than a cute novelty.
However, as I played with this toy, I thought about the issue of Book of Mormon authorship. Though this would hardly be a scholarly study, I wondered what this site would say about it: does all of the text seem to come from one author, or many? Does it sound like Joseph Smith? (Though, to be fair, “I Write Like…” surely doesn’t have Smith in its program, nor is it consistent: in the space of two pages, Faulkner’s short story goes from sounding like Lovecraft, apparently, to Vladimir Nabokov. My test here is purely facetious fun.)
1 Nephi chapter 1 is written in the style of cyberpunk master William Gibson. (Strange, I don’t remember Nephi spending much time dwelling on malevolent artificial intelligence. Perhaps the desert wilderness into which his family was exiled was the Matrix?)
1 Nephi 22 sounds like Daniel Defoe. Makes sense. Nephi Robinson and Lehi Crusoe sure could have used Friday.
Alma chapter 1 could have come from the pen of Jane Austen, it says. I have to admit, this one is dead on. Cheer up, Alma; your literate spiritual drama in no way makes you less of a man, even if you sound like a Victorian waif pontificating about courtship.
Ether 15 sounds like Shakespeare. Tragic, indeed.
As for the text’s alleged source? The first 25 verses of Joseph Smith’s history come across like…Edgar Allan Poe. This should give the critics fodder for some cute remarks.
Still, as silly and informal as this exercise is, it demonstrates something and raises a good question. First, whatever else you might think of it, the Book of Mormon is a treasure trove of literate variety: within its covers are to be found several distinct voices, equalling some truly great writers. After all, none of my example passages were said to be similar to Danielle Steele or Dan Brown. Secondly, could you imagine the works of William Gibson, Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, and Shakespeare being written by Edgar Allan Poe? Neither can I.
Finally, in case anyone’s wondering, yes, I did put in some of my own stuff to see what it thought. The results:
My short story, “Seducing the Muse”: David Foster Wallace. Cool!
Blog post, “On the Joy of Sentence Diagramming”: David Foster Wallace. Uh oh. I’m getting pigeonholed. Better try something different.
Blog post, “Teachers and the Ninety and Nine”: David Foster Wallace. Dude, this is getting creepy. I know I write breathless purple prose, but am I that consistently ironic and analytical, too? No Jack Kerouac? No Thoreau? Heck, no Stephen King? OK, I’m going to keep going until I get someone else. No offense, Wallace is a terrific writer and all, but, um, he did kill himself. With my luck, then, I’ll end up getting Hemingway, too.
Blog post: “Book Review: Olive Kitteridge“: Ian Fleming. Heck yeah! Take that! I write like the guy who created JAMES BOND!
Of course, all this really proves is that, however many authors this site has in its database and whoever they are, they do not have Lemony Snicket.
Um, wait a minute. What would happen if you did put in text by horrible writers? For this, I went to the recently released results of the famous Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which gives awards each year to the worst writing they see. The first four “winning” entries for 2010 came out as sounding like, respectively, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ursula K. LeGuin, J.D. Salinger, and Bram Stoker. Ouch.
I ended this experiment by putting in two of my favorite writers, men who have hopefully molded me and my work. Historian Hugh Nibley writes like H.P. Lovecraft and columnist Mark Steyn writes like…David Foster Wallace.
Ah, I feel better.