The Titular Head

Agatha ChristieWe are just a day or two into the new year. The year that just passed was a year in which Agatha Christie hogged more or less all the limelight, even though she is not that hot. In two separate studies, scientists claim to have unlocked the secret of why her books are so popular, even though they feature protagonists we’d rather not drink tea with.

Scientists at the Universities of London, Birmingham and Warwick “loaded Christie’s novels onto a computer and analyzed her words, phrases and sentences.” The results of the study show that

[S]he peppered her prose with phrases that act as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction.

[Another] finding was that she used a very limited vocabulary. “It means that readers aren’t distracted and so they concentrate more on the clues and the plots,” said Dr Pernilla Danielsson from the school of humanities at Birmingham University. [Link]

Here’s Mark Lieberman’s take at the Language Log.

Christie used a limited vocabulary, “pleasing and gentle” language even though the plots were macabre, and repeated certain “mesmerizing” phrases over and over again to stimulate serotonin and other chemicals in the body.

Favourite words or phrases, repeatedly used in a “mesmerising” way, help to stimulate the pleasure-inducing side of the brain. They include she, yes, girl, kind, smiled and suddenly. Common phrases include “can you keep an eye on this”, “more or less”, “a day or two” and “something like that”. [Link]

Let’s summarize the recipe for bestsellers: Repeating the same things over and over again, gentle presentation, familiar phrases, sixth grade vocabulary. And let’s also state our opinion of the whole stylometric study: Duh! Just read any three books by Robert Ludlum, and you’ll know. Familiarity sells. Familiarity and simplicity, we are convinced, are the key ingredients that make popular art so… popular. Actually, duh again. There is a whole industry in India, um.. I mean, South Asia that has been using the formula successfully for ages – Indian movies are all about familiar settings, dumbed down plotting and an insistence on making audiences feel good. The next time someone asks Ram Gopal Varma why he keeps remaking his own movies (and those of others), he should quote Professor Danielsson, stylometry, serotonin, Agatha Christie and Antara Mali. And Anu Malik – what can I say? I respect him a lot more now. Something like that.

The repetitive nature of Bollywood means titling movies is a hard, hard task. How many ways can you headline the same article? Guy beats up Bad Guys, falls in Love with Girl. Girl Falls in Love with Guy who beat up Bad Guys. Bad Guys beaten up by Guy that Fell in Love with Girl. Love fallen into by Girl and Guy who beat up Bad Guys. And so on. Which, by the way, is a great segue into the next Agatha Christie finding.

According to a statistical study commissioned by Lulu.com, Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder is the “perfect title” for a bestselling novel and John Le Carre is the most consistent producer of “good” titles. [Link]

Figurative or abstract titles, such as “Sleeping Murder,” or “Presumed Innocent,” produce more top-sellers than literal ones, such as “The Da Vinci Code.”

A title’s length does not affect sales — contrary to publishingindustry wisdom, which decrees that bestseller titles be short. Another increased respect moment here. Remember all those Hindi movie titles: DDLJ. HAHK. K3G. Damn. These guys knew.

Through the Language Log a link to the statistical analysis tool used for the study. The Lulu Book Title Analyzer. Please don’t forget to leave comments complimenting the intriguing figurative title I chose for this post.

[Previous Post on why Bollywood is high literary art.]

PS: Agatha Christie picture courtesy The Free Library.

16 thoughts on “The Titular Head”

  1. A good inferential read 🙂 That also explains why JamesBond and JackieChan movies are accepted worldwide…
    Wishing you a wonderful year ahead..

  2. though i dont have any big complaints against Christie, i ve found her rather insipid.. most of the time.. except the time when i was forced to read a Poirot case from my Seventh std english text book… And I feel Da Vinci Code rode on controversy more than content and style…

  3. Bart – you have a great year too.

    Christie was insipid alright, but that’s the whole point – that is why she sells so many books. People like the familiarity and the (more or less) mindless entertainment she offers. Da Vinci code wasn’t even good pulp.

  4. Karthik-

    Nice post. I must compliment you on the caption, you are right, it is very apt. One author who also deserves very high praise for his banal plots along with some very interesting titles is Robin Cook, the medical mystery man. I think he deserves an award for being a great believer in recycling. He is doing his part for the environment.

    -Paavana

  5. Paavana, thanks. I must confess – I’ve never finished a Robin Cook novel. Have tried reading a couple, but never got around to finishing them.

    By the way, welcome to the Blogosphere. Here’s to many, many years of productive blogging…

  6. Hey, lay off Cook. I grew up on his books. Fortunately, I have grown out of them, too, but I didn’t think them so bad then.

  7. Ok, ok. I confess (again): Cook woke up the hypochondriac in me. Halfway through coma I was convinced I was in one. Which is why I quit.

  8. Well, you’re lucky, ‘cuz coma is one of his better works… ne of his later ones might have just killed ya 😀

  9. I used to feed on speciality thrillers.. Crichton, Cook, Ludlum, Crichton, Grisham… But was never able to read more than 2 books of the same author, and nver ever one behind the other.. The font size of the paperbacks used to take me to realms beyond my cognizance..
    Dunno y, as u grow older, ur tolerance for same-ness reduces i suppose.. 🙂

  10. True, I used to like Ludlum quite a lot. Even though I knew every book was going to be a version of “gifted young man fighting with his back to the wall,” I still liked to read the books – it was fun.

    I grew out of it, but some people didn’t – which is fine I guess. As long as they are happy…

  11. Writers get away with the style and the flow more than the content… The Alchemist ruled the roost with a very poigant style but the content wasnt something that hit the nail hard..

  12. I confess. I’ve read all but one or two of the Robin Cook books. Hey, this was when I was much much younger and youth is allowed its follies, right? And yes, I was an avid Christie reader too. This one I make no apologies for. Nothing in the way of literary talent there, but still had fun reading them.

  13. Paavana, yeah. Mary and her daughter; Janet Evanovich, Patricia Cromwell. But I liked Grandma Mazur in the first few Stephanie Plum books, so maybe Evanovich doesn’t belong here.

    And Gayathri, I have this thing against “medical thrillers.” Which is why I’ve never watched ER, ever. And so Robin could actually be one of those great writers I missed out on 😉

  14. being a big fan of Ms.Christie i hate to see the word ‘insipid’ being used in context of her writings and common plz dun compare the contemporary writers with a giant like Dame Agatha Christie – her plots were ingenious and i think Hercule Poirot is one the greatest literary characters ever created…
    n it also xplains y Famous Five,Secret Seven n Nancy Drews r ever popular by young readers – everyone likes a mystery! not to forget the greatest of them all -Sherlock Holmes…

  15. Swathi, sorry. I grossly underestimated the popularity of Ms. Christie among SMSers. All I know to say is: thank u 4 stoppin by. n bye 4 nw.

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