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I Write Like, Follow-Up

A few notes re: the I Write Like... meme that still seems to be popping up all over the place.

1. The meme is written at least in part to promote promotes a vanity press, per Making Light. I don't necessarily have any objections here; it's a clever ploy. If I had the skills to write a princess meme to promote my own stuff, I would. But I do like to be aware of what I'm promoting by participating in a meme.

ETA: It doesn't appear that the meme began as a way to promote this press. Rather, the author saw how it was spreading and sold ad space to the vanity press. See here for further details. (Via Charlie Stross.)

2. The race/gender implications, from zia-narratora and nojojojo. When it was pointed out to the meme's creator that the 40 famous writers in the results included 37 white men and 3 white women, his response included the line, "All people are equal to me, and equality means not looking at skin color or different types of chromosomes."

Oh, yay. Yet another round of "I'm colorblind, so you can't blame me if those women and colored folk don't know how to write." As a follow-up, it sounds like he did add a few more names to the list of possible responses ... all of whom were white.

ETA: C. E. Petit points out below that three of the forty authors are Jewish.

I'm sure someone's going to read this and say, "But it's just a silly Internet meme. Aren't you overreacting?" It's just a meme, sure. And just another whitewashed cover. Just another whitewashed film. Just another all-white, all-male anthology. These things add up pretty quickly.

In the meantime, I'm sticking with my initial response. I write like me, and I'm proud of that.


( 43 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 17th, 2010 06:31 pm (UTC)
Personally, I thought this meme was stupid the first time I saw it, but I haven't had the time or spoons this week to blog about why. But the fact that it's a marketing tool just makes it even worse to me. Even though many writers have, inevitably, influenced me, I'm also happy to say that I write like myself.
Jul. 17th, 2010 06:49 pm (UTC)
When I first started writing, I was completely imitating other writers I had enjoyed. I think a lot of us start out that way. But at least for me, where I finally started to *sell* my fiction was when I started discovering my own style, and writing fiction that wasn't just an imitation. (I still steal borrow techniques and tricks when I find ones I like, but I'm much more comfortable writing my own stories these days.)
Jul. 17th, 2010 07:17 pm (UTC)
I've heard that a lot of painters used to start out by trying to do copies of the great classics, mostly to learn how they worked and how to use the techniques to turn paint into a painting

Of course, then they go on to do their own thing. It makes sense -- to learn how you write or paint or draw, you need some near-universal rules*, and then try some techniques that others use that might work for you and might not.

* like spelling and grammar or anatomy and perspective
Jul. 17th, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC)
It is amazing to me that this spread so wide and far without anyone being aware of where it came from (including me). Sheep. We're all sheep. Sigh.

And what a coincidence--I write like Jim c. Hines, too. (I wish!)
Jul. 17th, 2010 06:44 pm (UTC)
Nah. Write like Deborah Blake. The world already one author writing like Jim C. Hines (even if he's a bit of a hack). We don't need two ;-)
Jul. 17th, 2010 07:03 pm (UTC)
It is a scary thought, isn't it? Besides, I don't know nuthin' 'bout no goblins.
Jul. 17th, 2010 07:09 pm (UTC)
Actually, Jig is surprisingly easy to write for. No matter what mess I throw him into, I always know he'll do whatever gives him the best chance of surviving :-)
Jul. 17th, 2010 06:41 pm (UTC)
I havent seen any meme where someone complains that it doesnt contain white men yet...
Jul. 17th, 2010 06:44 pm (UTC)

I don't know enough to know what's going on here, but I was reading through this article and it doesn't say anything about this being associated with a vanity press and they seemed to have interviewed the writer. Could this just be a case of unfortunate advertising? Do we know anything more about this that is more documented?

Jul. 17th, 2010 06:47 pm (UTC)
I'm going based on Making Light's article, and by my own examination of the results page. Right after your results, you get:

Great job! Do you want to get your book published?

"I have personally read through thousands of book proposals in my career as a publisher and agent. I know what these professionals are looking for—and what they are not looking for."
— Michael Hyatt, Chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers.

This is followed by a link to the vanity press.
Jul. 17th, 2010 06:50 pm (UTC)
<sarcasm> I hate to break it to everyone, but three of the authors on the list aren't white.

They're Jewish.

And socially, legally (until recently), and ethnographically, that's not white, or even the less-obvious Caucasian. It's "pale-skinned Semitic." And if you'd ever been excluded from a country club on the basis of such ancestry, you wouldn't be so fast to assume otherwise.</sarcasm>

And then there are those Mediterranean people, and Slavs, and...

Never mind. I gave up when it characterized Orwell (one of the members of the list!) as Lovecraft.
Jul. 17th, 2010 07:04 pm (UTC)
I gave up when it characterized Orwell (one of the members of the list!) as Lovecraft. Ow ow ow ow ow

Jul. 17th, 2010 07:06 pm (UTC)
Edited the post to add this info.
Jul. 17th, 2010 08:15 pm (UTC)
And then there are those Mediterranean people, and Slavs, and...

Why go that far? The Irish aren't white. As in, when the law stated an American citizen had to be a "free white person" courts refused to naturalize Irish because of the second term.
Jul. 17th, 2010 09:28 pm (UTC)
pale-skinned Semitic

Hooray, now I can check the 'other' box on my paperwork!
Jul. 18th, 2010 03:25 am (UTC)
My elder remora has decided that he's going to check "other" when asked, and then write in "Cylon," because "race is an artificial human construct from the mind of a sixteen-year-old-girl." I think I raised him right...
Jul. 17th, 2010 06:53 pm (UTC)
I still kind of want to know how it works. So I could build a better one -- for one, to eliminate the fact if you type 'dragon dragon dragon dragon' in, you'll automatically get Tolkien or something. So I've been mentally constructing a sort of scheme to focus more on sentence patterns and use rather than just putting everything into a Baysean model.
Jul. 17th, 2010 07:03 pm (UTC)
I pounded keys at random, and was told I write like Ursula K. LeGuin.

I don't have the programming skills for it, but I'd be curious myself. It sounds like there really is supposed to be some textual comparison and analysis going on, and that it's not just random, but beyond that...
Jul. 17th, 2010 07:14 pm (UTC)
I don't think I do either, but it's a fun thought problem.

It might even be improved if the comparison texts were things like

"It was the (superlative adjective) of (plural noun), it was the (superlative adjective) of (plural noun), it was the (singular noun) of (mass noun), it was the (singular noun) of (mass noun)..."

... or basically stripping out everything but common prepositions, articles, pronouns and maybe a couple of ubiquitous verbs like 'to be'.

Of course, then it would need a dictionary program or something to take a writing sample and turn it into this. Maybe more, since it would trip up over invented words, foreign language words, names, and anything obscure enough to not make it in the dictionary.

Or you could go with wild cards -- put in a list of words that you want it to remember and have it replace everything else with nonsense:

"It was the *** of ***, it was the *** of ***, it was the *** of ***, it was the *** of ***..."

Which is a lot easier to do, but I don't know how instructive it would be.
Jul. 26th, 2010 02:55 pm (UTC)
The way I'd go about it would be counting how often each word and each punctuation mark occurrs in a text sample, and divide it by the number of words in the sample. That way you'd get statistic information about what words the writer has a particular liking for, if they write a lot of short sentences (many full stops) or dialogue (many quotation marks).

To compare two samples, for each of those relative frequencies I'd subtract the second from the first. To get one number denoting the dissimilarity/distance, I'd go with the root of the sum of the squares.

To get a "you write most like X when compared to our samples" result, you'd have saved lists of relative frequency for a bunch of authors/texts, compare the newly given sample with each of them, and spit out the author name for which the distance value is lowest.

No idea if that's what's really behind it, and if that's efficient enough for a web application like that, but it should give better than random results.
Jul. 17th, 2010 07:01 pm (UTC)
Thanks. Thanks for doing the homework I SHOULD have done before I jumped on that particular bandwagon. Thanks for boosting the signal. Thanks for pointing out that even as a meme it was rather assumptive about who I might *want* to write like... (Did McCaffrey, Kurtz, Cherryh, make it? Even well known "white" female writers didn't make the "colorblind" cut it seems...) Atwood and Austen as his example of the ONLY good female writers? Crap, I don't normally even get INTO these kinds of discussions and he's get me mad enough to comment. Project Gutenberg has LOADS of writers - and they're not all white - or even white male. For the most part, he didn't pick bad choices, he just didn't pick choices from enough backgrounds to be even a LITTLE representative of the world of writing.


Edited at 2010-07-17 07:04 pm (UTC)
Jul. 17th, 2010 07:08 pm (UTC)
My guess is he didn't do it intentionally, just like I doubt the "Mindblowing SF" guy intentionally picked all white male SF writers. I suspect they picked people whose names they recognized ... but then you get into the subtler phenomenon of selective reading habits, and which authors get taught and pushed in the educational system, and similar factors.

None of which excuses it in any way.

The test does include LeGuin now, though I don't know if she was part of the original 40. I know J. K. Rowling was in there, though.
Jul. 17th, 2010 07:40 pm (UTC)
She wasn't there originally, no - the only three female authors were JK Rowling, Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood.
Jul. 17th, 2010 07:17 pm (UTC)
The heavily-male answers were the first thing a few of my friends and I (being female writers) noticed. "Ummm... is Margaret Atwood the only woman on here?" was the very first comment I saw on it.

Since I can't imagine the algorithm is based on anything more than word and paragraph length, and I seriously doubt it has anything to do with actual word choice or style, I was dismissive at first. Now that it's been pointed out with certainty the extreme...singleness of the author samples, I am downright derogative about it!

Thanks for pointing this out, Jim. I think the only way we can correct THIS kind of "colorblindness" is to keep saying, "Hey, why are we doing things this way?"
Jul. 17th, 2010 07:22 pm (UTC)
I think the only way we can correct THIS kind of "colorblindness" is to keep saying, "Hey, why are we doing things this way?"

I tend to agree. Each time I post something like this, I get a few responses saying "But it's just one little _______." But I hope that if people keep pointing it out when it happens, folks will start to see and recognize the larger pattern.
Jul. 17th, 2010 07:19 pm (UTC)
This is depressing.
Jul. 17th, 2010 08:25 pm (UTC)
"All people are equal to me, and equality means not looking at skin color or different types of chromosomes."

the rage, jim, it burns!!!

also: if we don't get upset about the small things, then the big things will stop mattering, too.

Edited at 2010-07-17 08:25 pm (UTC)
Jul. 17th, 2010 11:30 pm (UTC)
I'm disappointed, actually.

When I put in my writing, I get names like James Fenmore Cooper, Stephen King, and Ian Fleming. What I should have gotten was "Some schmoe I found in the slush pile"...
Jul. 18th, 2010 12:42 am (UTC)
Why am I unsurprised? :(

I reposted this in whole in my LJ with credits/link - sometimes folk won't follow a link and I think this is worth making sure they see it. I hope that's all right?
Jul. 18th, 2010 12:51 am (UTC)
In this case, that's fine. But thanks for asking.
Jul. 18th, 2010 12:56 am (UTC)
Thanks, Jim. When I made my post, you were one of the people I was hoping would pick up on it. (And if you saw it somewhere else first, that's perfectly fine, but you did comment on mine, so I know you looked at it.) Sometimes I think I must have been a telephone conduit in a past life, because so much of what I post seems to be about porting information from one community to another! :-)

And yes, it's important to keep pointing out all the "just one little thing"s, because otherwise people don't realize that they all fit into a larger pattern.
Jul. 18th, 2010 01:26 am (UTC)
Yep, I had seen nojojojo's post yesterday, then came across Making Light today, and figured between the two it was worth posting. That's one of the nice things about the 'net, how easy it is to spread and share information. (Of course, that ease is also what allowed the meme to spread so far to begin with. Ah well...)
Jul. 18th, 2010 02:16 am (UTC)
I confess I did assume it was like most Net memes, that is to say written by an underage college student with a lot of spare time or similar, especially when I got two different names for the same piece of writing. I took it about as seriously as I do the MS Word grammar checker. This is kind of disturbing, though.

(I wouldn't phrase it quite "These things add up," so much as these things are already there in a big solid lump that we're trying to chip away. I am guilty of having terribly low expectations in general. Working on that.)
Jul. 18th, 2010 03:52 am (UTC)
The first time I saw this, I thought two things:

a) The only thing this is good for is merciless parody, and

b) the parody would probably be far more amusing than the original.
Jul. 18th, 2010 07:10 am (UTC)
Go easy on the blame-game.

It wasn't meant to be too serious. Entertainment in a short program. Try putting in "aaaa bb cccccc dddd eeeeeeee" etc and see what you get. It is limited by the number of inputs one has to choose from and total accuracy is impossible!

As for those who cry "Where are the Black Writers", I say where are the Native Americans? And what constitutes an American Indian today? If Obama was a writer, how would you classify him? "Black" because of the darker tan color of his skin? He has a "white" parent, but that was/is totally denied by a great segment of the rhetoric of the News Media and some of the early African American celebrator's the day after the election.

If I named American Indians as writers, I'd have a hard time finding one that was completely full-blood:

N. Scott Momaday: Born in a Kiowa Indian hospital in Lawton, Oklahoma, on February 27, 1934, Navarre Scott Momaday was the only child of Kiowa artist Alfred Morris Momaday and teacher Mayme Natachee Scott Momaday. A descendant from early American pioneers, Momaday's mother derived her middle name from a Cherokee great-grandmother, Natachee. His father inherited the Kiowa family name "Mammedaty" from Momaday's grandfather.

Carol Lee Sanchez: a poet, visual artist, essayist, teacher and mother of three adult children. She is a native of New Mexico and her cultural heritage is mostly Laguna Pueblo and Lebanese-American.

Carter Revard: born in 1931 in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, of Osage, Ponca, Irish, and Scotch-Irish heritage.

I know that on my Mother's side, I'm of Jewish, Cherokee, Irish, Welsh, Bavarian, Scot... but my Father - a total unknown! So, do I claim to be White, Indian, Hebrew; red, yellow, black, white, alien, arachnid, or what?

How many of us can say with absolute certainty that we are not of a mix of colors drawn from the earth's tones of paint on Nature's own pallet?

Edited at 2010-07-18 07:12 am (UTC)
Jul. 18th, 2010 01:12 pm (UTC)
"Go easy on the blame-game."

Implying that criticism of this sort of all-white "colorblindness" is just a game?

"It wasn't meant to be too serious."

So does that mean it should be excused? Racism or sexism only counts when it's "serious" and deliberate?

"As for those who cry "Where are the Black Writers", I say where are the Native Americans?"

I didn't see anyone asking where are the black writers. I saw people asking why are all of these writers white. (And almost all male.)

"How many of us can say with absolute certainty that we are not of a mix of colors drawn from the earth's tones of paint on Nature's own pallet?"

I'm not sure I understand your point. If I go back five or six generations, I can identify nonwhite ancestry in my family tree. Are you trying to argue that this is the same as being raised Korean or African American or Native American? As being visibly identifiable as nonwhite? That if you go back far enough, we're all the same, so racism doesn't really matter?
Jul. 20th, 2010 04:00 am (UTC)

I apologize for my cryptic style. I can't type as fast as my thoughts run together. Bits and pieces fly through my mind but have difficulty finding my keyboard.

My answers, statements and esoteric ramblings were not aimed an anyone in particular, but a shotgun attempt at responding to 20 or so, of the posters.

When I wrote "It wasn't meant to be too serious.", I was referring to the "I Write Like" infestation.

As for those that asked "why are all of these writers white" I'm duly chided for my assumption that the reference to a "color", was not regarding colors other than "white". As to what direction this reference was meant lead, is beyond the scope of my meager intellect.

I will not however, apologize or refrain from my support of the American Indian!

While the U. S. Government makes apologies, and special allowances for the past treatment of those forcibly brought here from Countries where the dominate skin color was very dark, they have done very little to make reparation for the treatment of the "Native" Americans that were abused through an attempted (and nearly successful) genocide. At some point, promotion of New York Firefights might not be based upon knowledge or ability, but on Race.

King County in Washington State, change it's origination from Governor King, who, it is said, owned "slaves", to that of Martin Luther King, a man for whom there is a Federal Holiday. When do we celebrate leaders like Chief Joseph, who tried to lead his people to Canada and tried very hard, to avoid fighting with the U. S. Army?

Even into the 1900's, the Federal Government was reimbursing the State of California for Bounties paid for Scalps and Heads of Indians.

Governor Stevens of Washington State did every thing he could to wipe out Chief Leschi and his "people", in the face of the out-cry of white citizens and other Politicians of his day.

Infected blankets; bad food; Reservations where there was no way to feed one's family except to lay down and accept the garbage the Indian Agents handed out... and that in the middle of winter at times; Buffalo Soldiers that fought and killed Apaches... I recommend a book by Dee Brown: Bury my Heart a Wounded Knee.

The Southern Slaves and "White Trash" were never treated with the quality and quantity of violence and racial hatred that was aimed at the American Indian!

With the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, Native Americans were first granted U.S. citizenship and the corollary right to vote-54 years after African-American men were formally enfranchised with the 15th amendment (1870), and four years after women received the same right with the 19th Amendment (1920).

Anyway, you can see that I have one sensitive spot, but otherwise, I'm just an easy going, old guy, with the early onset of Dementia or Alzheimer's. Me and Pratchett. :o)

If you see a shorter version of this, It is because I got my fingers confused and somehow hit a combination of keys that caused LJ to enter my rant, before I was finished. :o)

Edited at 2010-07-20 04:31 am (UTC)
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 18th, 2010 01:02 pm (UTC)
With the vanity press, I'd be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he simply didn't know. A lot of new authors can't tell the difference between a legitimate commercial press and a bottom-feeder, and this is a programmer, not a writer.

But yeah, he lost my sympathy when the race/gender thing was pointed out, and he responded with the _____blindness routine.
Jul. 26th, 2010 03:04 pm (UTC)
The creator's first reply to accusations of sexism I saw was something on the lines of "The program didn't turn sentinent so it could be sexist; worry about real problems, like the coming robot invasion". Not the exact phrasing, but examples were exactly like that.

So, yeah, he didn't exactly look thoughtful there.
Jul. 26th, 2010 03:07 pm (UTC)
To be fair, I do think we should be putting far more energy and resources into the robot invasion. Everyone's far too single-minded about the zombie threat.

But yeah. Sigh.
Jul. 18th, 2010 07:13 pm (UTC)
I don't think it's about wanting to write like anyone else. At least, that's not why I did the meme. I did it for fun, to see what came out, and I suspect that's why most other people did it as well. Jim's response - to not take the meme and go with "I write like me" - made me smile, but I don't think there was anything *wrong* with people doing the meme. It's the construction of the meme and the author's craptastic rationalizations afterward that are problematic.
(no subject) - tvini - Jul. 18th, 2010 03:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
( 43 comments — Leave a comment )


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