Truth of literature is in the numbers

Mathematics And The Writing Life

August 15, 1999|By Craig Nova | Craig Nova,Special to the Sun

I am a novelist, and I have found that a merely literary understanding of the world is insufficient. In fact, I often turn to mathematics to explain things, since the mysteries of the writing life lend themselves to proportions inspired by Newton as much as they do to an explication of character.

For instance, I have noticed that as novelists get older, the more they tend to insist that their most recent books are their best and most original work. This does not happen in a straight line, but in increasing intensity. An author's trustworthiness in this regard becomes exponentially less with each passing decade.

To invoke Newton, I have produced Nova's Coefficient For Authorial Trustworthiness. Simply stated, it is that a writer's trustworthiness varies as the inverse of the square of the decade in which he makes a claim to his best work, or:

NC = 1/d2

D is the number of the decade of life a writer is in when he makes his claim. If, for instance, a writer is in his 20s, which is the third decade (d=3), his NC is 1/9, but if he is in his 50s (d=6), his NC will be 1/36, a figure which suggests, and precisely, too, just how much less reliable he is.

Now, I did not always like mathematics. I was somewhat traumatized by it when I was growing up, since I was in high school when the Russians launched the first Sputnik, and the school I went to immediately transferred me into a class filled with kids who were already making scientific discoveries.

What we did was to watch films made by guys at MIT who wore white lab coats and conducted experiments with some pretty primitive equipment (like old electric bells and Pyrex roasting pans) and then we were supposed to come up with the formulas to describe what it was that we had seen.

This, we were assured, is how we were going to beat the Russians to the moon. Illumination came to me too late to help with getting to the moon, but still I have found, much to my surprise, that those guys in white coats had a method for explaining the mysteries a novelist faces on a daily basis.

For instance, I am working much harder than I used to. Everyone is, but in the midst of one exhausting day, I wanted to know just how much harder I was slaving away. One of the elements of the increase in my work load is the fact of e-mail.

In the old days, I used to have a typist, and after I finished a book (on an office Royal Standard) I gave the manuscript to the typist, whose name was Shirley Shannon, and she typed it. This usually took her about three weeks. During this time there was nothing for me to do aside from taking it easy and thinking about the book I had just finished. Maybe I went fishing. Or took my wife to New York.

Now, though, it works like this. Recently I have been doing a script for some film producers, and when I finished a draft I e-mailed it to them. The producers read it overnight, sent me their response by e-mail in the morning, and by noon the next day I was back at work. My wife now scowls at me when I come from my office to get a cup of coffee.

I have had to delve into the realms of pure science to come up with what I call the Nova Coefficient for Time Squeeze (which the reader will recognize as a subset of the mathematical relationship for authors and the originality of their work). This coefficient shows that the time squeeze (TS) in one's life is proportional to the sum of the square of the number of people one does work for by way of a network. In its purest form this is:

TS = n2

Here "n" is the number of editors or film producers who communicate with you by e-mail. Say, for instance, you have only one of them, or 1 squared, which even a novelist knows is one, but if you have three of them, your Nova Coefficient has increased to 9, and this means it is nine times less likely that you will get to do anything aside from ... well, working.

All of this, though, is child's play. It only describes what is happening rather than what will happen. Forecasting is where mathematics really shines, and the item that I am considering from a mathematical point of view is the stability of publishing. Of my last six books, four of them have been published after the editor who acquired it was fired.

My only chance to apprehend what is going on, I have discovered, is Chaos Theory, and I have been considering a Lorenz Attractor to describe the repetitive, but not precisely repetitive, nature of the firing of editors.

As everyone knows, the weather is always changing in roughly the same pattern, but not precisely the same pattern. Same with editors.

Now, as nearly as I can tell, it should work like this: the probability of an editor being fired after a publisher has been bought by a conglomerate is this:

EF = p/yb

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