That’s Artificial Intelligence, For You.*

 

355px-Ernest_Hemingway_in_Milan_1918_retouched_3

Ernie

375px-Edward_George_Earle_Lytton_Bulwer_Lytton,_1st_Baron_Lytton_by_Henry_William_Pickersgill

Eddie

Compare these two paragraphs:

On a cold windswept street, this was a warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living. The photographs all looked like snapshots and even the dead writers looked as though they had really been alive.
~ Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

… and …

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
~ Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford

My question is, “Exactly how is the first paragraph supposed to be better than the second paragraph?” I’m genuinely perplexed about this, because what seems to be merely a matter of personal taste in writing styles has somehow acquired the force of law, among writing gurus and publishing gatekeepers.

The Hemingway excerpt is purportedly from his posthumously published memoir (NB). Papa is supposed to have edited it before he died, but it’s been issued more than once, having passed through various sets of his surviving family members’ hands. I have no idea whether or not this paragraph is pure Ernie.

According to the faceless, nameless contributors to Wikipedia, “[Hemingway’s] economical and understated style had a strong influence on 20th-century fiction.” A long time ago there used to be a “Bad Hemingway” writing contest, and Papa himself is reported to have ridiculed the style of some of his writing. But emotions may run high, here, so in an effort to find unbiased input, I resorted (as many do), to Artificial Intelligence: the eponymous Hemingway App.

Running these writing samples through the program yielded equivocal results. Hemingway received a writing grade level of 15 and a grudging “OK” for quality, but was censured for the first sentence’s being very hard to read, and for one adverb in the second. Apparently Papa forgot to be sufficiently economical and understated to make his namesake App happy.

Bad Bulwer-Lytton writing competitions are still held, so the Baron is routinely hauled forth, wearing a hair shirt and a scarlet letter, to be pelted with rotten aubergines. This time, like Ernie, Eddie got slapped for his having one very hard to read sentence and one adverb, in addition to one use of the passive voice. Oddly enough, the software refused to assign a writing level or a quality evaluation: it only said, “Not enough text.”

How this could be true, when both samples are 58 words long, puzzled me, at first – especially when the passage, “See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!” was assigned Grade 0 and was evaluated “Good.” So I scrounged up a 55-word sentence from Irish Firebrands. Like Bulwer-Lytton’s paragraph, it was accused of “Not enough text,” while also being a very hard to read sentence with one adverb. We all seem to be in good company – Ernie, Eddie, and I.

Then I tried the 6-word “story,” For Sale: baby shoes, never worn, which has an unsubstantiated attribution to Hemingway, and it merely received the reproach, “Not enough text.” By my simply substituting a full stop for the colon, it garnered a Grade 3 and the praise “Good.” Evidently the HA incarnation of AI depends on periods, to help it make sense of the words it sees. The “look-say” people must be proud.

I didn’t try to analyze any of my graduate school nonfiction research papers, but I suspect that the limitations of the Hemingway App make it inappropriate for all but the most simple technical writing; nevertheless, in my online roving I ran across someone (self-identified as a teacher) who had suggested installing the software on school computers. Now, that’s scary.

Does Papa Hemingway deserve the kudos?
Does Baron Bulwer-Lytton deserve the bad rap?
Has independent publishing made these moot points?
What do you think?

* Accent on Artificial.

NB: I found the Hemingway excerpt (without any accompanying commentary) at another blog, possibly posted as an example of “good” writing, because when I posted the Bulwer-Lytton passage to comments with the above question, the blogger chose not to publish my inquiry. That’s okay. It’s a free country. When I went back to the blog to check again, there was one posted response to the blog, and it was favorable towards the Hemingway excerpt. I suspect that the blog already has thousands of loyal followers, anyway, so stimulating a discussion apparently wasn’t the point of that post.

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