Next time, should J. K. Rowling disguise her writing style?

Here’s an interesting interview on Science Friday with Patrick Juola, the guy who’s computerized analysis helped identify J. K. Rowling as the author of the mystery The Cuckoo’s Calling.  He gives much more detail about exactly what kind of analysis he did over at Language Log.  Essentially, he compared the novel to works by Rowling, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, and Val McDermid on four linguistic variables: distribution of word lengths, use of the 100 most common English words, and two other tests based on authorial vocabulary.

So, the final score? The results look “mixed,” but pointing strongly to Rowlng. There were certainly a couple of likely losers: nothing at all pointed to Rendell as a possible author, and only one test, and an unreliable one at that, suggested James. McDermid could be a reasonable candidate author, but the word length distribution seemed almost entirely uncharacteristic of her. The only person consistently suggested by every analysis was Rowling, who showed up as the winner or the runner-up in each instance.

One of the comments to Juola’s Language Log post suggests that a determined author can defeat analyses like these.  This is referred to as “adversarial stylometry.”  There are two basic approaches: obfuscation, where you try to simply hide your own style, and imitation, where you try to copy someone else’s style.  (A third approach is machine translation, where you translate an original passage using machine translation services.)  I doubt that any of this is worth Rowling’s time, but you might consider it if, say, you’re a whistleblower who wants to remain anonymous.

Of course, all of this analysis is overshadowed by the Onion’s shocking revelation that J.K. Rowling’s books were really written by Newt Gingrich:

“Assuming a fake identity really gave me a lot of freedom to build out the world of Hogwarts and flesh out the characters without drawing unwanted attention to myself or having the novels associated in any way with my political career,” Gingrich said in a statement, confirming reports he wrote the first four books in the fantasy series while still in office, but wrote the remainder before his 2012 presidential run.

Why do people rely on anything besides the Onion for their news?

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One thought on “Next time, should J. K. Rowling disguise her writing style?

  1. Pingback: First Rowling, then Shakespeare… who’s next? | richard bowker

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