The Riddle of Literary Quality Project

The syntactical complexity of chick lit

The syntactical complexity of chick lit

My research is liaised with a larger project called The Riddle of Literary Quality. In this project two fellow PhD candidates (Andreas van Cranenburgh and Kim Jautze) and I conduct research to find out what makes readers value some types of literature — specifically prose fiction — more than others.  We each have our own field of expertise, but together we do awesome things as well. Such as find out how complex chick-lit novels are as opposed to ‘literary’ novels (not officially a genre perhaps, but certainly marketed as such).

In the case of this paper, we did not focus on literary quality or literariness, but solely on genre. We compared deep syntactic structures in a corpus of 32 Dutch novels, equally split between the genres. And we found that the intuitive notions that many readers have are correct: chick lit does contain more simple, compound sentences, whereas ‘literary’ novels contain more complex sentences with subordination. Next to that we found that the literary novels are more descriptive — they contain more noun phrases, prepositional phrases and relative clauses.

The paper was presented during the 2013 NAACL satellite workshop Computational Linguistics for Literature in Atlanta, Georgia. You can find the full paper on ACL Web. A more comprehensive summary (with pictures!) can be found on Kim Jautze’s blog.

Kim Jautze, Corina Koolen, Andreas van Cranenburgh and Hayco de Jong (2013), ‘From high heels to weed attics: a syntactic investigation of chick lit and literature’. In: Proceedings of the Workshop on Computational Linguistics for Literature, Atlanta.

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