Poetic Justice by Amanda Cross (Computers and Literature in Fiction, 2)

Some time ago, I briefly reported on reading Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore by Robin Sloan, the recent fantasy-mystery novel in which the contrast between the all-digital and old-style book culture was played out in the most entertaining way. Back then, I was wondering whether there were more such novels about computers and literature, and indeed there are!

This time, the hint came from Jan Rybicki, who told me that there was a recent novel called Poetic Justice, and that it was all about stylometry. When searching for this, I in fact found two novels with that title, one by Amanda Cross (published in 1970) and one by Mitzi Morris (published in 2012). The Amanda Cross one was more easily available in electronic form (over at Kobobooks), so I started with this one, although it seemed not to be the one Jan had been talking about.

To make it short, the Amanda Cross novel relates to the Mitzi Morris novel just as David Lodge’s Changing Places relates to Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra: in the first, the computer-and-literature theme has only marginal importance, whereas in the second, it is central to the plot.

Still, that first novel is worth the read. Poetic Justice by Amanda Cross is a very classical detective fiction, part of the Kate Fansler series, and set in New York City. Not exactly the hard-boiled detective fiction I usually prefer to read, but still interesting. It is set during the 1968-69 student movement which is gripping the City University where Kate Fansler is teaching. One faculty member suddently dies under somwhat strange circumstances, and Kate Fansler sets out to find out what happened and how this death is related to university politics.

And where does the computer and literature theme come in? Well, only twice and very briefly, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the novel, or the case to be solved, or much of anything else. But it’s there: Kate is on the disseration committee of a Ph.D. candidate working about the British essayist Max Beerbohm, and studying that author’s sentence structure using computers. Kate comments:

“Since it is impossible to study all of a writer’s sentences in the ordinary way without a century of time, the young man […] had soon entangled himself with computers. With something between relief and dismay, Kate had handed him over to a stylistics expert, though she had remained on the dissertation committee.” (chapter eight)

As becomes clear, the researcher is working in a field we would now probably call corpus stylistics (although the corpus consists of the work of only one author), more closely related in any case to corpus linguistics than to literary text analysis, although we are not given much more detail about this research. As far as Kate’s murder case is concerned, computers are of little help; she notes: “If only I had a problem a computer could solve this very moment. But I gather computers can give you answers only if you give them all the relevant information and ask all the right questions. Alas, I haven’t either.” (chapter eight)

Although I think that computers can also be used in exploratory ways in text analysis, Kate has a point here, of course, and the computer quite logically vanishes from the novel after this. So I turned to the next Poetic Justice novel and here, things are much more serious: without stylometry, the murder case which concerns both a literary and a literal murder, could not be solved. I hope you’ll excuse the cliffhanger, but how exactly this happens will only be revealed next year.


Christof Schöch

Christof Schöch is a Research Associate at the Department for Literary Computing, Würzburg University, Germany. He leads the junior research group CLiGS (Computational Literary Genre Stylistics). His interests are in French and Spanish Literature, Digital Humanites, and Open Access.

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