Everyone thinks they have a novel in them. Most people don't. They have an excruciating set of semi-autobiographical musings which, thankfully, will never see the light of day. For the would-be authors among us, though, there is encouragement in a website that has taken the internet by storm. Copy in the first few paragraphs of your opus and I Write Like (www.iwritelike.com) will carefully analyse your prose and tell you which published author it most resembles. Thus, it was an epochal moment to learn the first two paragraphs of my story on Tom Jones's new album, published in The National last week, were akin to the iconic literature of Charles Dickens. It's now a fact: I write in the style of one of English writing's greatest figures. Of course I do.
There are hours of fun to be had here, simply because any form of writing can be compared by the I Write Like website. A particularly lengthy e-mail I sent to the Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival was apparently reminiscent of the celebrated postmodern writer of Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace. I was only asking for a press release. Of course, it's not long before you end up doubting the veracity of the site and pasting in excerpts from the classics to see if I Write Like's algorithms can actually pick them out. My first attempt at this was genuinely impressive. I pasted in the classic opening paragraphs from 1984, with its indelible opening line "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." And sure enough, the answer came back George Orwell. Impressive stuff - although the last sentence, with its momentous warning "Big Brother is watching you" surely gave I Write Like a huge helping hand. And admittedly, the harder you test the site, the more varied (and hilarious) the results. The winner of the Booker Prize last year was Hilary Mantel, for one of the most cleanly written and enjoyable historical novels in years. But paste an excerpt of Wolf Hall into the engine, and it's attributed to one of the most baffling and convoluted authors of all time, James Joyce. Vladimir Nabokov's final book The Original Of Laura was one of the publishing sensations of last year, despite the fact that he'd been dead 32 years and it was incomplete. No wonder the author of Lolita had left instructions for The Original Of Laura to be destroyed, though: it reads, according to I Write Like, remarkably similarly to the clunking prose of Dan Brown.
So yes, there are huge limitations - most succinctly observed in a tweet from possibly the most famous film critic in the world, Roger Ebert. "I Write Like thinks I write like Margaret Atwood, she writes like HP Lovecraft and he writes like James Joyce," he said. Margaret Atwood herself heard of this, pasted in some of her own work, and found she resembled Stephen King. As she tweeted, "who knew?", the literary set tried desperately to find a link between her brilliantly complex Booker Prize-winning novel The Blind Assassin and King's seminal horror tale Pet Sematary.
So, in the end, it's best to take any results with a huge pinch of salt. Essentially, I Write Like is a work-in-progress online game by a 27-year-old software developer, Dmitry Chestnykh, whose first language isn't even English. His website admits there were originally only 50 authors in the database, including some from the bestsellers list on Wikipedia and the most downloaded books from the out-of-copyright library The Gutenburg Project. And an interview posted on the I Write Like site admits that he'd spent only three days writing the program, which essentially works like a spam filter. As Chestnykh said himself: "I feed it with Frankenstein and tell it, 'This is Mary Shelley. Recognise works similar to this as Mary Shelley'." Viral internet crazes are usually simple ideas such as these, but he couldn't possibly have known he would rack up one million unique users in a matter of weeks and suddenly find himself under worldwide scrutiny. But perhaps I Write Like does have a benefit. Despite Chestnykh admitting himself that he didn't think there was "a big point" in the idea before launching it, the amount of comments he's since received saying that users would now read books by the authors they've discovered they "write like" has genuinely amazed him.
Cheering stuff, which is why I'm off to read Little Brother by the impossibly cool science fiction writer Cory Doctorow. Apparently the first paragraph of this very story could have been written by him.