Thursday, February 24, 2005

It's All In the DNA

I'm probably butchering this paraphrase, but Jorge Luis Borges once said no one ever needed to write a biography on him. To know him one would only have to read his complete works and he would live again through those words. It's quite the romantic ideal, that the full spirit of the writer can be brought forth by reading and understanding their work.

Anyway, I'm thinking about this today because it came up yesterday in class through kind of a back door. I don't think I've mentioned it, but I'm taking a class in editing. This particular class focused mostly on fine-tuning and odd eccentricities of the English language, but a small portion dealt with the challenge of editing a person's work while maintaining the unique sense of the author's style. Discussion even covered computers used to examine and imitate an author's style.

The teacher cited a book called Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous by Don Foster, who apparently coined the term literary DNA. His theory is that a sense of our identities is encoded into the way we use language. To a certain point, that's obvious. No one can confuse the writing of William S. Burroughs for the writing of Diana Gabaldon. But Foster not only presses his idea, he proved it to a point by using his methods to identify Joe Klein as the author for Primary Colors and identify Ted Kaczynski as the Unabomber.

It's a beautiful idea when you think about it. Running with the theory, it could mean that every paragraph, every sentence, every word you write contains some sort of inherent code connecting it to not only the work as a whole (be it a short story or novel) but also to the author. Reading writing should, and most often does, impart a sense of the author. Pushing it to this extent gives it a little magical feel. Magical in a postmodern sense, but still magical. I guess it appeals to my vanity a little bit, too, thinking that I may live on in some small way through my writing.

And you never know. Perhaps some future episode of CSI will feature a murder of a publisher by an angry, rejected writer. The only clue left behind: a copy of an unnamed, rejected manuscript.

I can just imagine it.

"How will we find the killer?" Detective Brass asks.

"We have the killer's DNA," says Grissom.

"What do you mean? The killer didn't leave any fingerprints. No hairs. No skin cells."

"Not that kind of DNA," Grissom says holding the manuscript. "This killer left his... literary DNA."

cue cheesy guitar riff and cut to commercial



LadyLitBlitzin said...

Wow, that's really fascinating. I also find it fascinating because I've always thought I had kind of a weird "voice" in my fiction writing -- something that probably doesn't work SO well with editors of magazines, seeing how I haven't had all that much fiction published... of course, I don't actually know it's the crux of the problem.

Also weird to think that I write for my day job, write on my blog, and write short stories... wondering how much the DNA overlaps and if someone could theoretically look at examples of all three and tie them all together. Not that they'd care to. ;)

Hebdomeros said...

In some far-flung future date, perhaps they'll be able to string all our writings together and bring us back to life.

Dare to dream.