Why do we let numbers speak for literature? The literary world is, after all, innately qualifiable.

It’s become an epidemic, it seems, to quantify the world. The only problem is that sometimes we’re not using useful metrics.

When a social injustice occurs, people take to the streets. Thousands gather and hold protests. Thousands more, maybe even millions, take to social media to voice their grievances. Later, the success of the movement comes from the metrics: the number of marchers, the number of cities where they took place, the vast amount of tweets. But was that the point? Or was it to change government policy?

Now let’s look at the business side of metrics. Companies flush money down the drain with the promotion of tweets and Facebook posts and rave about their “reach,” a term they use to assume success. But what was the return on investment? How about the conversion? Does it matter how many new followers you tallied if it led to minimal additional sales?

Again, caught up in the wrong numbers.

Then, of course, there’s the question at the heart of the issue, or at least what I care about: Why do we try to apply these same methods of metric measurement to literature, something so innately qualifiable?

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A few months back, I read an article in Publishers Weekly breaking down the “numbers of literature,” regarding aspects such as cliché and punctuation use. It included several infographics, showing how various books and authors stacked up against each other. Among the findings: Danielle Steel started 46% of her novels with a sentence mentioning the weather, James Patterson’s Cross Fire used 242 clichés per 100,000 words, and Elmore Leonard used only 49 exclamation points per 100,000 words over his 45 books. The article, however, never answers the looming question, “So what?”

Literature was never meant to be dissected into quantifiable metrics, but it seems that’s the world where we now live. To a certain extent, I get it — by using metrics, we can more effectively study the world and our businesses, and therefore try to apply our analysis toward improving. It works in many fields — if, of course, they’ve found the right metrics to measure (the problem being that some form of measurable data is readily available to most businesses, and so defining what metrics are actually valuable is the difficult part).

But please, keep it out of literature.

Metrics break down a data set to attempt to form a new strategy. They find the best formula for success — or try to, at least. But I don’t want to live in a literary world where meeting quotas on cliché use and punctuation frequency is considered successful. (It’s bad enough that there are word count requirements!) Doing this creates a uniformity, and don’t we already have enough of that in mainstream pop culture?

The argument from me is simply: Forget about the numbers. Let the writing speak for itself.

16 thoughts on “Why do we let numbers speak for literature? The literary world is, after all, innately qualifiable.

  1. You are so right! I hate to see great literature be reduced to something as ‘simplistic’ as metrics and all those useless numbers. Let’s speak of the effect a piece of writing has on your spirit and forget the numbers.

  2. I agree, absolutely. We are obsessed in this digital culture with quantifying, labeling and slotting each and every phenomenon in our lives. My pet peeve lately has been the “labelling” of literature. A book is a mystery novel, or a fantasy or an adventure, or LBQT…I can’t remember all the letters. It’s absurd. It’s also terribly limiting. A writer now has to produce their brand. What? next we’ll have to burn a number on our ass I suppose. Sigh.

  3. Good thought.
    You’re touching upon one of my pet peeves concerning most things from art to medical science. Measuring something seems to give us humans some type of sense of control over an unknown.

  4. Numbers may be helpful if they reveal weaknesses in our writing or marketing, but they cannot be the ultimate standard by which a story is judged. The average reader cares nothing about this, only that they are moved, entertained or informed. I will trust my readers any day.

    1. Absolutely, I completely agree. As long as you are using them the right way, they can be used to improve upon a skill, but I’m concerned that when it comes to literature they are going to be used to create formulaic plots.

  5. The fact that someone had the time to go through and count those things leads me to believe that person was bored. What I can’t wrap my head around is why someone would care how many explanation points or whatever is in a book. I could understand counting how many times a certain motif was used, because that has literary value. But some things should not even be counted.

    I agree that people are focusing on the wrong numbers and reducing beautiful things to numbers. It is sad.