Some time ago, I heard about I Write Like (iwl.me), a website that instantly analyzes submitted writing samples and identifies writers similar in style. It’s a dangerous game, as the idea of writing is generally to bring your own style to the table, not just imitate someone else’s. But curiosity being what it is (a cat killer, and a column-starter), I pulled up a few of my own writings and entered them.
I posted a book review that I wrote recently, and was informed that I write like… H.P. Lovecraft. This, despite the notable absence of the phrases “unspeakable horror” or clusters of consonants naming “those who are not to be named.” (To confess, though, there have been many times I’ve considered describing books I’ve read for review as “unspeakable horrors,” except it seemed a little gratuitously harsh; plus, when you’re reviewing a book, they usually want you to, um, speak about it.)
A decidedly nonhorrific (at least, not intentionally scream-inducing) short story I wrote about a couple’s decision to have a baby was assessed as being similar to Stephen King. Sure, he wrote the story that inspired the film Stand by Me, but in general you don’t want to evoke Stephen King when you write a lighthearted family tale.
My script for a Robin Hood comic adaptation was identified as being like Robert Louis Stevenson. A cheeky poem I wrote about a forgotten J.R.R. Tolkien character was “marked” as Mark Twain-ish. Another short story was compared to David Foster Wallace, whose writing I enjoy in small doses, but whose massive novel Infinite Jest seemed to go on… infinitely.
All of this brought to mind a literary version of the old joke about hell, wherein the cooks are British, the policemen German, the mechanics French, the lovers Swiss, and the bankers Italian. Literary hell is where H.P. Lovecraft writes the reviews, David Foster Wallace writes the cookbook recipes (complete with tangents, footnotes, and hyperlinks), Mark Twain writes The Lord of the Rings (“Frodo warn’t a-scared a those goblins on account of he had the ring.”) and Stephen King tackles your family dramas.
Because the website’s assessments, though complimentary in their way, seemed a little off, I decided to test some writing samples that were not my own. A sample from the minutes of the April 6, 2010 Hamilton Township Council meeting inspired a comparison with the work of Chuck Palahniuk. You know, the guy who wrote Fight Club. So maybe that one’s sort of appropriate.
A sample of Huckleberry Finn revealed that Mark Twain does indeed write like Mark Twain. “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” was not marked as the work of some anonymous Western Union employee (legend has it that the sentence was used to type-test, since it famously uses all 26 letters in the alphabet) but rather… Rudyard Kipling. The lyrics to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” reminded the algorithm of David Foster Wallace. The (official, non-obscene) lyrics to “Louie, Louie” evoked William Gibson. And apparently—we’re off the rails now, English majors beware—Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” is like James Joyce.
Of course, all of these comparisons are dictated by the parameters of the system — and when the only options are 50 or so writers famous for being good at writing, you’re going to get a pretty complimentary result every time. Far more interesting would be a system that pulls from a database of good and bad writers.
For example, one might include Amanda McKittrick Ros, an Irishwoman who wrote roughly a century ago, and has been called the world’s worst writer. At Oxford, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary group held contests to see who could read her work the longest without laughing. To be compared to her might first seem insulting, but in today’s fame game, where the reason for fame isn’t as important as the fame itself, a comparison like that might be good for a three book deal with a major publisher.
There are certain authors, artists, and musicians whose work is instantly recognizable, for better or worse, as their own. That’s probably most writers’ ultimate goal—-to take what they like, move through some too-faithful pastiches of their favorites, and eventually become someone not just compared to other writers, but a writer to whom others are compared (e.g., “a Dabbene-esque amalgamation of treatise and foofaraw”). But for anyone who writes—anything—and wants a bit of good fun (not to mention a printable badge that you can cut out and wear around the town that says “I write like Dan Brown”), it’s worth a shot. Who knows? Maybe you write like Dan Brown. And whether that’s an insult or a compliment is entirely up to you.
Peter Dabbene lives and writes in Hamilton. His website is peterdabbene.com. His science-fiction graphic novel Ark is available digitally at comixology.com and his book Spamming the Spammers (with Dieter P. Bieny) is available through amazon.com and other online retailers. His poem “The Exorcism of Tom Bombadil” is currently viewable at Eunoia Review: eunoiareview.wordpress.com/2013/08/01/the-exorcism-of-tom-bombadil.