The Riddle in PLOS One

Do novel readers want to be swept away by a novel? Or do they seek an intellectual challenge? Or both at the same time?

In 2013, the research team of The Riddle of Literary Quality, led by Professor Karina van Dalen-Oskam in the Netherlands, completed The National Reader Survey. Almost 14,000 respondents shared their opinions about recently published novels. The participants also responded to six statements that related to the question of what they personally considered important to reading fiction.

Today, in the international (open access, peer-reviewed) journal PLOS One, an initial analysis of these reactions appears. The American researcher Allen Riddell applied methods to analyze these responses that were previously used in research into voting behavior. He discovered an interesting pattern in the responses of the representative group of participants in the National Reader Survey. Readers who indicated they read in order to be intellectually challenged also indicated that they wanted to be carried away by a novel. Conversely, this did not apply: not all readers who wanted to be dragged along, also wanted to be challenged intellectually.

Readers who want more than just being swept away by a story are usually ‘literary’ readers. They usually have more demands and higher expectations when they read, they not only restrict themselves to the story, but also want to enjoy the use of language in a novel. This group is often critical of popular books that are “devoured” by others. But this research shows that they, as readers, do report seeking emotional engagement with works: they report wanting to be carried away by a novel. An interesting outcome, not only because it tells us something about the readers of literature but also about the literature itself.

In the article, Riddell and van Dalen-Oskam state that they suspect that the literary reader has come to appreciate this way of reading in the education they have enjoyed or by developing their own reading experience. Literary readers sometimes are critical about ‘non-literary’ readers and the books they read, but this research shows that they do want the same. Only a little more …

Allen Riddell & Karina van Dalen-Oskam, Readers and their roles: evidence from readers or contemporary fiction in the Netherlands. PLOS One, 26 July 2018,

“The mother, the wife” and The Riddle

Corina Koolen’s PhD defense already received much attention in Dutch newspapers, but when the Dutch organization CPNB (Collectieve Propaganda voor het Nederlandse Boek; Collective Propaganda for the Dutch Book) decided its new theme for the 2019 book week, new interest sprang up. CPNB chose as a theme “De moeder, de vrouw” (“The mother, the wife” or “The mother, the woman”), after a poem by Martinus Nijhoff. This might not have caused much of a stir, had they not asked two male authors to write the accompanying Book Week novella and essay. This resulted in a protest by both female and male authors. On June 18th Koolen was interviewed for Nieuwsuura Dutch human interest programme, and asked to explain the problematic nature of this CPNB action. Radio programme Focus also payed attention to the discussion. Finally, Dutch newspaper Trouw published an interview, asking Koolen to discuss five possible solutions to the problem of female authors still not receiving equal attention in the Netherlands.

PhD defense ‘Reading beyond the female’

The second PhD project in The Riddle of Literary Quality is about to be finished. On Friday the 18th of May, 11:00 sharp, Corina Koolen will publicly defend her PhD thesis Reading beyond the female. The relationship between perception of author gender and literary quality in the Aula of the University of Amsterdam, Singel 411, Amsterdam.

After the Riddle project gathered the results of the National Reader Survey, the issue with author gender became obvious. Readers did not consider works by female authors to be of high literary quality. In her thesis, Koolen researches why this is the case. First, she examines the position of female authors in the Netherlands: in which genres do they publish? Why are their novels judged to be of lesser literary quality by the Dutch public? Second, she looks at the content of the novels: is gender really as important a factor in text style, topics, etc.? And is the topic of ‘attention to physical appearance’ typically a topic for female authors or not? With her analyses she debunks a number of the myths about literary quality that still exist in the current Dutch literary field: that female authors are judged equally; that they have equal chances; and that if they do not, that it is solely to blame on the literary quality of their work.

The PhD was funded by the digital humanities special research area of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Amsterdam.

Summaries of the thesis are available in Dutch and English.

Defense details
Title: Reading beyond the female. The relationship between perception of author gender and literary quality
Date/time: Friday May 18th, 2018, 11:00 sharp (until about 12:15)
Location: Aula of the University of Amsterdam, Singel 411, Amsterdam
A reception will be held at the same location after the defense.

More information
For more information, you can contact Thijs van der Veen (Huygens ING).

Let’s LIWC at The Riddle from a slightly different perspective…

The Riddle is in its final phase. In the next two years, much of the experiments that have been done will be reported on in one more PhD-thesis, scholarly articles and in a book for all those who enjoy reading and may even have participated in our National Reader Survey in 2013. One of the things still on our to do list was applying stylometric tools with the knowledge we gained concerning the literary conventions of contemporary novels on older fiction. In April 2017, Floor Naber has started a short stint at Huygens ING’s Riddle Team to do an experiment with LIWC. She will use the software Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count on the Riddle corpus and on a corpus of late nineteenth-century Dutch novels to test whether old and new compare or where they differ.

PhD defense Andreas van Cranenburgh

2 November 2016: Andreas van Cranenburgh defends his PhD-thesis Rich statistical parsing and literary language.

This thesis studies parsing and literature with the Data-Oriented Parsing framework, which assumes that chunks of previous experience can be exploited to analyze new sentences. As chunks we consider syntactic tree fragments.

After presenting a method to efficiently extract such fragments from treebanks based on heuristics of re-occurrence, we employ them to develop a multi-lingual statistical parser. We show how a mildly context-sensitive grammar can be employed to produce discontinuous constituents, and compare this to an approximation that stays within the efficiently parsable context-free framework. We show that tree fragments allow the grammar to adequately capture the statistical regularities of non-local relations, without the need for the increased generative capacity of mildly context-sensitive grammar.

The second part investigates what separates literary from other novels. We work with a corpus of novels and a reader survey with ratings of how literary they are perceived to be. The main goal is to find out the extent to which the literary ratings can be predicted from the texts. We first evaluate simple measures such as vocabulary richness, text compressibility, and the number of cliché expressions. In addition we apply more sophisticated, predictive models: a topic model, bag-of-words model, and a model based on syntactic tree fragments. We find that literary ratings are predictable from textual features to a large extent. While it is not possible to infer a causal relation, this result clearly rules out the notion that these value-judgments of literary merit were arbitrary, or predominantly determined by factors beyond the text.

Link to the thesis:

Meeting with Think Tank

March 16th The Riddle will meet their Think Tank. This day project leader Karina van Dalen-Oskam and the three PhD candidates Andreas van Cranenburgh, Corina Koolen and Kim Jautze will present their latest results and the progress they made over the last four years. We are looking forward to meeting the Think Tank members and are sure we will benefit from their remarks in order to come as close as we can to solve the riddle.

Thriller elements in literary novels. Literary ingredients in thrillers.

Saturday the 7th of November, de Vereniging van Schrijvers en Vertalers and het Genootschap van Nederlandstalige Misdaadauteurs organized an event where literary authors, crime authors and translators met to discuss various kinds of topics. In the afternoon session there was an interview with thriller writer Charles den Tex and literary author Nausicaa Marbe. The topic of the interview was about thriller elements in literary novels and literary ingredients in thrillers. In other words: what happens when the genres make use of each others ingredients?
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Prehistory of The Riddle

In 2014, the editors of the Utrecht journal for literary studies Vooys:asked project leader Karina van Dalen-Oskam for a short article about the background of the project The Riddle of Literary Quality.. The editors of Vooys gave permission to post an English translation of this article on the Riddle blog. The original publication is titled ‘The Riddle of Literary Quality. Op zoek naar conventies van literariteit’ and was published in: Vooys: tijdschrift voor letteren 32 (2014), 3, p. 25-33.

The Riddle of Literary Quality: The search for conventions of literariness

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The Riddle goes Lausanne

A well-know fact amongst digital humanists is that the Digital Humanities Conference of 2014 will be organized in Lausanne, Switzerland. However, most of them will be less familiar with the (fictional) conference that took place in Lausanne 67 years ago:

“Over een eeuw, over driehonderd jaar, als mijn moeder, mijn zuster en ik niet meer leven, zal iedereen die de moeite neemt in het gedenkboek Mallinckrodt kunnen opzoeken wie er deelgenomen hebben aan het congres in Lausanne, juli 1947. Von Karbinsky uit Krakow, Stahl uit Göttingen, Pelletier uit Lyon. Maar als hun blik over het hoofd van mijn vader glijdt, weten zij niets. Mijn moeder, Eva en ik zijn de enige bezitters van het gedenkboek die hem kennen. Alfred de eerste. Alfred de eerste, mompel ik dan, en zet het boek op zijn plank terug.”

A century from now, or two or three, when my mother, my sister and I are long dead, anyone who cares to will be able to find out who attended the conference in Lausanne by consulting the MALLINCKRODT MEMORIAL VOLUME. Von Karbinski from Cracow, Stahl from Göttingen, Pelletier (Lyon), James (Oxford)… But when their gaze stops at my father’s face they won’t know who he is.

– Nooit meer slapen, 1966, Willem Frederik Hermans
(cited from the 32th edition included in Volledige werken, 2010
& translation Beyond Sleep by Ina Rilke, 2006).

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Midterm meeting

In the last week of January 2014 the Riddle team held a two-day meeting with the members of their Think Tank. During these two days the project members presented the first accomplishments within the overarching project, as well the results achieved within the individual PhD projects, in order to discuss the progress and to be advised on the proposed next steps.

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