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Addendum: How Many Novels Can There Be?

A savvy commenter pointed something out about my post “How Many Novels Can There Be?” In a nutshell, they said that word count isn’t everything. That seems obvious, at first: Ernest Hemingway wrote a very short story called “A Very Short Story” (I know, I know… damn you, Hemingway…) that’s in the realm of five or six hundred words long. It’s about love and loss and drinking, and while I haven’t read enough Hemingway to decide if his reputation is deserved, I have to admit, I’m impressed. Meanwhile, there are novels like Slither, which tops a hundred pages and says little more than “The author is very horny and wants to write about vagina parasites.” I think. It was too awful to finish, I’ll admit.

So if that’s obvious, why am I mentioning it? Why am I wasting all these words re-hashing “Quality before quantity”? (And putting myself firmly in the Slither category at the same time.) The first reason is that I like the clicky sound my keyboard makes. The second is that the fact that word count isn’t everything tells you something profound about human minds.

Consider this: a novel which consists of the sentence “It’s been a long time, and I’m still waiting for Godot.” 4,546 times is not only grammatically valid, but it technically has a storyline, a point of view, a narrator, and two characters (the narrator and whoever the hell Godot is). But even I, crazy though I am, wouldn’t want to sit down and read that sentence four and a half thousand times. I think even a Zen monk would start swearing and kicking things before the end.

The number of possible fifty-thousand-word novels is something like 1.382 x 10^114,701. My hunch is that, even if the universe doesn’t collapse or rip itself apart with whatever the hell dark energy is, there simply isn’t enough time and energy before the heat death to write that many novels. Even so, when you consider how many novels we humans could have written, our actual output is a lot less. Part of the reason is that not everybody cares to read or write novels, and for a lot of history, only the wealthy were even taught to read and write. But there’s another side to it.

Even a dim human mind (like mine!) is a remarkable machine for making judgments. Give a computer a series of pictures of a human face. We’ve done a lot of research into computer perception, so it might be able to detect the emotions on that face. But unless it was specifically programmed to do it, by a human, it won’t bother to string those emotions together and say “Hey! These are all pictures of the same guy! And he’s making a face like someone just put him in front of a computer and kicked him in the gonads!”

The same applies to novels. Narratively, this is a valid ending to a novel: “…and then Sarah walked out the door. I never saw her again. I miss her dearly. Also, everything I’ve been telling you over the last 350 pages was a lie I made up because I hate you.” From a grammatical viewpoint, it’s valid. The sentences follow each other and make sense together. They’re the conclusion of a story arc, obviously. And they absolutely ruin the story that went before them. Only the snobbiest readers will get any satisfaction out of a snarky ending like that, and frankly, I think those people need a kick in the shins to straighten them out.

So, when faced with the task of writing something (be it a novel, a sentence, an epitaph, a text message, or exciting bathroom graffiti (I really do need to call that George; he promised he could show me a good time. I hope he has cake.), a human being can pick from the thousands of possible words that might come next and decide which one matches the idea in their head. Not only that, but they can pick from the trillions upon trillions of possible sentences that follow the previous one. (There are something like 7.594×10^45 possible twenty-word sentences, using the same math as in the last post. That’s seven quadrillion quadrillion quadrillion.) And even beyond that, a uman being can look at the sentence “Also, everything I’ve been telling you over the last 350 pages was a lie I made up because I hate you.” and decide that it kind of massively ruins whatever story they were trying to write about Sarah and the narrator. And readers can detect, almost in an instant, that this sentence, which is grammatically valid, fits with the story, and completes it, is a really, incredibly stupid thing to put at the end of a novel.

Here’s the point I’ve been drunkard’s-walking my way towards: You could call a human being a machine, but we’re machines for producing meaning. The Champernowne constant is an irrational number: you can’t write it out to perfect accuracy using a finite number of symbols like you can with 42 or 9.1 or 5.3279 (I know, the repeat bar goes on the top. My formatting options are limited here.) Champernowne’s constant starts out 0.123456789101112131415… You can write out a formula that will produce Champernowne’s number perfectly (it’s not a terrifying formula, but it is damned ugly). Or, you can do the sensible thing and say “You get Champernowne’s number by sticking all the integers greater than zero together, end-to-end: 0 becomes 0.1, 0.1 becomes 0.12, 0.12 becomes 0.123. Repeat for all eternity, because apparently, you’ve been sent to Hell.”

But the creepy thing about Champernowne’s number is that it’s what mathematicians call “normal.” That means that every digit is equally likely. Which means that every pair of digits is equally likely, and so is every triplet of digits, and so on. Which means there’s a tiny, but non-zero probability that, if you pick a random stretch of Champernowne’s number, it will contain the opening lines of Hamlet, or a decimalized .wav file of that really awful Yoko Ono song that’s just her making a horrible squeaking sound, or a version of the Mona Lisa where she has three breasts and eight hundred eyes. Basically, if you look far enough downstream in Champernowne’s number, you’ll find every possible string of finite length. Perfect copies of every poem, play, novel, and dirty magazine that has ever been or will ever be published, plus all the ones that we won’t get to. Somewhere in Champernowne’s number (and possibly in pi, although nobody seems to know for sure whether or not pi is actually normal; frankly, I think he’s a bit weird, myself), you will find the most beautiful picture it is possible to create. Maybe it’s so beautiful that it causes violent epileptic seizures the moment anybody looks at it. (Maybe it’s a picture of a parrot.)

But Champernowne’s number (or possibly pi, or a random number generator or a finite number of monkeys) will only crank something meaningful out eventually. A human being is able, from the time they start speaking, to put together a meaningful string of symbols on the first try. We can pick through that ocean of possibilities (which is as close to infinite as we’re ever likely to get), and decide that we want to say “Will you marry me?” rather than “Will you celery celery?” Unless you’re aphasic or have a very specific case of Tourette’s syndrome, you probably won’t even consider the second option. It’s out there, in the realm of possibility. But you know that it’s not a valid sentence, and, unless your lover has a celery fetish, is a piss-poor proposal.

And the fact that, starting from age two or three, almost all of us have learned enough to chart a precise course through an infinity of confusion and nonsense, is pretty cool.

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6 thoughts on “Addendum: How Many Novels Can There Be?

  1. Great post. One of my undergraduate professors claimed there were only finitely many names for positive integers. I suppose he never heard of exponential notation! As an aside, there are more real numbers than can be counted (ie the set is uncountable).

  2. Machines follow rules even in the physics of their breakdowns. We don’t. If we were meat machines we’d have no free will. But a prayer to the Pi-ety rarely works with only 3.14927. It’s not even enough digits to make a round enough birthday apple pie for the transcendental entity and besides he prefers cherry.

  3. Pingback: Imma Be NaNoWriMo-ing | ch4rl13sm1th

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