Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.93.3: ME AND MY ALGORITHM

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The algorithm at Amazon.com that knows me better, it seems sometimes, than I know myself, must be a little befuddled these days. Like a shadow it tracks my purchases for my bookshelves in my Kindle, sifts through the bursting wish list into which I toss everything that’s too costly or “iffy,” and it decides, as only its arcane mathematics is capable, just where my vulnerable tastes might be today and sends me an email that says, like a good friend from cyber land, “Hello James, readers who enjoyed XYZ, by abc, also liked QRS, by hij.” A convenient click away, and I can check out QRS, and another click or two and it will be downloading to my Kindle, or winging its way from the Amazon warehouse.

Y’gotta be careful because your algorithm sees everything. A few years ago I was searching for an image for an essay I was doing on battered women.  I needed an image of a blow-up sex doll ( found one, too); but my algorithm thought I had gone a little kinky and I began getting offers in my browser for different sex dolls and other sex toys.  Apparently, my algorithm got hacked or sold and I’m concerned that I might turn up on one of those sex-offender sites and people in my neighborhood will be coming with torches and pitchforks.

I say the algorithm must be confused because I recently made some “uncharacteristic” purchases recently, and now the algorithm is wondering whether I have undergone some sort of life change or crisis, or want to join some new discussion coterie at my café, or maybe there is some new woman in my life with whom I am trying to establish conversational conviviality. In fact, it was a woman who prompted my foray into genre fiction. So a little anecdotal aside might actually save some space here.

She is an elderly (anyone older than me) woman who lived in my building until recently, and who I really only had snippet/elevator conversations with until someone else recommended that she read my novel. When I handed her a copy she said very assuredly that she was a reader of mysteries and that she would probably figure out my “plot” before she finished. There is a lot of me in that book (not as much biographically, but about the way I think about cities, women, and other things), so I felt a little like I might be surrendering myself to a 5’1” octogenarian algorithm.

A couple of weeks later I met her in the elevator again and asked if she had finished the book. She told me that in fact she had finished it a week earlier, so I asked her if she had figured out the “plot.” “I think I got very close,” she said.  Bullshit, I thought; how are you going to figure out where my story was going when I was 300 pages into writing it and I had no idea where it was going. I have to say that I was a little bit insulted by her approach to my story because I was not setting to write a mystery novel when the only mystery to me was whether I could express interests that I had in a city, a culture, and a movie in a narratively sustainable way.  No “artist” likes to be accused of the derisive “derivative,” and “genre” connotes derivative.

Don’t repeat this to my algorithm, but I am not a genre reader either. Nevertheless my encounters with my mystery reader neighbor, and with some other acquaintances who read sci-fi, thrillers, and even romances, inspired me to take a peek. I chose crime/murder mysteries because I already had, mostly by way of movies, some familiarity with that genre thanks to Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, and Perry Mason. It’s a huge genre, and so I allowed some other interests to assist in the selection. First I chose A Death on Crooked Lake, by Robert W. Gregg, because I had recently spent a couple of weeks at my cousin’s place on Keuka Lake in upstate New York, where the author lives and writes (Keuka means “crooked” in Iroquois).  Following that idyllic setting for a homicide I selected Qiu Xiaolong’s A Case of Two Cities, and then Mrs. Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha, by Dorothy Gillman. I read them pretty much in succession so that I might get an idea of common elements. I did. One of them was that in two of the stories the prime sleuth was a woman, and in the third a woman detective is instrumental in helping the central male detective “solve” the crime. Could this be because I suspect—and the algorithms must know— that women, like my erstwhile neighbor, are the largest cohort of murder mystery readers?  Not that it matters, mind you.

But there are other elements of commonality. What comes through in just this small sample is very reasonably predictable “architecture” of plotting that is probably the principal addictive agent that causes some readers want to complete the entire alphabetic ouvre of Sue Grafton (from “A” is for Aibi to, thusfar, “W” is for Witness). There are, after all, mysteries, puzzles to solve, so there’s always a beginning, a crime, a body found by a lake, or someplace else, an introduction to the protagonist/sleuth, who often has a Holmsean (cocaine) flaw, but is usually a rather thin “cutout” character.  To provide some distinction the author will sometimes give his sleuth a idiosyncrasy (Qiu’s detective is also a poet; Mrs. Pollifax is a karate expert). Then there are the dramatis personae a of dimensionless “suspects” – the drunk, the slut, the greedy business partner, the aggrieved wife, this or that family member, etc. – to tease the reader with their various motives, a couple diversions and plot twists, and finally, if you haven’t guessed or figured it out, a denouement. And while the very vast number of crimes in real life are not solved, such is not the case in murder mystery genre-land.  How would you like it to end with: “Sorry, the writer couldn’t figure out who did it.”

For a while my Amazon algorithm was bugging me with suggestions for Christie, P.D. James, James Patterson and others.  But I’m proving not so easy to nail down.  One thing I learned from the mystery genre experience was that I can only take mysteries (and probably any genre) in small doses.  I also learned that since the character variable and the plot variable (crime/detection/solution) were rather formulaic, what usually caught my interest was what I’ll call locus, or place-in-time.

Place is what interests me, I think, because reading has always been for me a form of travel, of being in another place at another time, something that is not easily captured in a sidebar or a drop-down menu.  Both my fiction and non-fiction reading (and writing, as well) are most influenced by my interest in locus.  If genre is a form of commonality, locus is always sui generis. I expect that my algorithm will on to me, and I won’t mind much when it catches up, but for a while I will lead it on a merry chase.

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© 2015, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 1.11.2015)

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