Lose Their Style
"The trouble is," said Ronald Frobisher, "that twat Wainright and that ponce Parkinson are right about one thing. I've dried up. Been blocked on a novel for six years now. Haven't publishd one for eight." He gazed mournfully at his tankard of real ale. Persse was still on Guinness. They were in the saloon bar of a pub off the Strand.
"It's style I'm talking about, the special, unique way a writer has of using language. Well, you're a poet, you know what I'm talking about."
"I do," said Persse.
"I had a style once," said Frobisher wistfullly. "But I lost it. Or rather I lost faith in it. Same thing, really."
"How did you come to lose faith in your style?" Persse enquired.
"I'll tell you. I can date it precisely from a trip I made to Darlington six years ago. There's a new university there, you know, one of those plate glass and poured concrete affairs on the edge of the town. They wanted to give me an honorary degree. Not the most prestigious university in the world, but nobody else had offered to give me a degree. The idea was, Darlington's a working-class, industrial town, so they'd honour a writer who wrote about working-class, industrial life. I bought that. I was sort of flattered, to tell the truth. So I went up to receive this degree. The usual flummery of robes and bowing and lifting your cap to the vice-chancellor and so on. Bloody awful lunch. But it was all right, I didn't mind. But then, when the official part was over, I was nobbled by a man in the English Department. Name of Dempsey."
"Robin Dempsey," said Persse."
"Oh, you know him? Not a friend of yours, I hope."
"Good. Well, as you probably know, this Dempsey character is gaga about computers. "I'd like to take you over to our Computer Centre this afternoon," he said. "We've got something set up for you that I think you'll find interesting." He was sort of twitching in his seat with excitement when he said it. So, when the degree business was finished, I went with him to this Computer Centre. Rather grand name, actually, it was just a prefabricated hut, with a couple of sheep cropping the grass outside. There was another chap there, sort of running the place, called Josh. But Dempsey did all the talking.
"You've probably heard," he said, "of our Centre for Computational Stylistics." "No," I said, "Where is it?" "Where? Well, it's here, I suppose," he said. "I mean, I'm it, so it's wherever I am. That is, wherever I am when I'm doing computational stylistics, which is only one of my research interests. Anyway, when we heard that the University was going to give you an honorary degree, we decided to make yours the first complete corpus in our tape archive." "What does that mean?" I said. "It means," he said, holding up a flat metal cannister rather like the sort you keep film spools in, "It means that every word you've ever published is in here." His eyes gleamed with a kind of manic glee, like he was Frankenstein, or some kind of wizard, as if he had me locked up in that flat metal box. Which, in a way, he had. "What's the use of that?" I asked. "What's the use of it?" he said, laughing hysterically. "What's the use? Let's show him, Josh." And he passed the cannister to the other guy, who takes out a spool of tape and fits it onto one of the machines.
"Come over here," says Dempsey, and sits me down in front of a kind of typewriter with a TV screen attached. "With this tape," he said, "we can request the computer to supply us with any information we like about your ideolect." "Come again?" I said. "Your own special, distinctive, unique way of using the English language. What's your favorite word?" "My favorite word? I don't have one." "Oh yes you do," he said. "The word you use most frequently." "That's probably the 'a' or 'and,'" I said. He shook his head impatiently. "We instruct the computer to ignore what we call grammatical words --- articles, prepositions, pronouns, modal verbs, which have a high frequency rating in all discourse. Then we get to the real nitty-gritty, what we call the lexical words, the words that carry a distinctive semantic content. Let's see." So he taps away on the keyboard and instantly my favorite word appears on the screen. What do you think it was?"
"Beer?" Persse ventured.
Frobisher looked at him a shade suspiciously through his owlish spectacles, and shook his head. "Try again."
"I don't know, I'm sure," said Persse.
Frobisher paused to drink and swallow, then looked solemnly at Persse. "Grease," he said, at length.
"Grease?" Persse repeated blankly.
"Grease. Greasy. Greased. Various forms and applications of the root, literal and metaphorical. I didn't believe him at first. I laughed in his face. Then he pressed a button and the machine began listing all the phrases in my works in which the word grease appears in one form or another. There they were, streaming across the screen in front of me, faster than I could read them, with page references and line numbers. The greasy floor, the roads greasy with rain, the grease-stained cuff, the greasy jam butty, his greasy smile, the greasy small change of their conversation . . . .
I was flabbergasted, I can tell you. My entire oeuvre seemed to be saturated with grease. I'd never realized I was so obsessed with the stuff. Dempsey was chortling with glee, pressing buttons to show what my other favorite words were. Grey and grime were high on the list, I seem to remember. I seemed to have a penchant for depressing words beginning with a hard 'g.' Then he started to refine the categories. The parts of the body I mentioned most often were hand and breast, usually one on the other."
"You remember all this from six years ago?" Persse marvelled.
"Just in case I might forget. Robin Dempsey gave me a printout of the whole thing. "A little souvenir of the day," he was pleased to call it. Well, I took it home, read it on the train, and the next morning, when I sat down at my desk and tried to get on with my novel, I found I couldn't. Every time I wanted an adjective, greasy would spring into my mind. Robin and Josh had really fucked me up between them. I've never been able to write fiction since."
He ended, and emptied his tankard in a single draught.
"That's the saddest story I've ever heard," said Persse.
The lights in the pub dimmed and brightened. "Time, ladies and gents," called the barman.
"Come on," said Frobisher. "I know a place where we can get a drink. In Soho."--- Slightly abridged from Small World
©1985, Penguin Books