Inquest on Left-Brained Literature

Excuse me while I get all Franco Moretti on you readers here. I work among engineers, and many of them are voracious readers who, nonetheless, have little connection to any prevailing literary trends. Rather, there appears to be a parallel track of literature that is popular specifically among engineers, which I’ll call “left-brained literature” for lack of a better term. The provisional definition of the term is simply those books that fall into the category of my having empirically observed them being read by a multitude of engineers with a literary bent. My conclusions are tentative, but I think that it’s valuable just to construct this sort of list.

I’m excluding all genre science-fiction from the category, because I don’t find it particularly revelatory. I’m interested in that subset of “mainstream,” “non-genre” fiction (these relative terms having been established by social consensus), and within that set, which novels of some notoriety and good PR happen to attract members of the engineering professions.

(Another scholar who also works amongst engineers produced near-duplication of this list when queried. Some affinities were further verified by use of the “similar items” feature on Amazon. Give me a research grant and I’ll confirm further and conduct a less ad hoc census.)

After each name I’ve given a list of a couple general elements of the author’s work, which I think might be useful in considering their inclusion.

Richard Powers. Uses “science” (and scientists) with a minimum of “science-fiction.” Yet of course this does not explain his comparative left-brained success. By far the most popular of his works amongst engineers: The Gold Bug Variations and Galatea 2.2. Emotionally pathos-laden works. Clear stylistic and thematic affinities with Douglas Hofstadter (see below). A key figure in that he appears to be more popular with engineers than with almost anyone else.

Umberto Eco. Only popular for his fiction, and mostly for his first two novels. Use of generic material (mystery and suspense) towards metafictional and postmodern ends. Rather dispassionate.

Milorad Pavic. Portrays history, myth, and religion as game. Most popular for Dictionary of the Khazars, but this is also his most famous work, a self-described “lexicon novel.” Emotionally sterile, but historically panoramic. Experimental means but clear empiricist ethos.

Georges Perec. Life: A User’s Manual is the ur-text for many spatially architected novels to follow. Mathematical (and other Oulipo-esque approaches) methodologies deployed in fields of the humanities. Hesitant about traditional psychology, abandoning it after the early work A Man Asleep. Controlled emotion, especially notable in W: The Memory of Childhood.

Haruki Murakami. Genre-elements of science-fiction and mystery used in psychological phantasmagorias. Imaginative but construction is often less than rigorous. Linear plots with plenty of momentum. Heartfelt and sincere, if sometimes clumsy. Literal writing sytle.

Colson Whitehead. Quite popular just on the basis of his first novel, The Intuitionist. Not yet categorizable, but shows a tendency to sublimate emotion in allegorical assemblages. Pristine, detached style belies strong messages.

David Mitchell. Heavily influenced by Murakami and has lived in Japan. Also heavy use of phantasmagoria, complemented by very sophisticated narrative construction. Prefers simple, visceral, classical themes approached in flashy, novel way. Heavy use of pathos.

Don DeLillo. Highly acclaimed by literary establishment, but not as popular amongst engineers as some of those above. Heavy allegorization, usually irony-laden. Socio-political commentary, often delivered through the voices of characters who tend to sound the same. Virtuosic stylist, but the prose can drag.

Italo Calvino. Favored mostly by engineers for post-1965 experimental work reminiscent of Borges such as Cosmicomics, Invisible Cities, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, and If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Heavy mythological content; light math/science content. Some “new novel” influence via Robbe-Grillet. Wonderful, breezy stylist.

Douglas Hofstadter. Non-fiction writer, but importance of Godel, Escher, Bach, which partly uses fictional forms, is too great not to list. Brilliant computer scientist and popularizer, but suffers from a glib, punny style and a lack of verbal taste (see his translation of Eugene Onegin) that render his works unreadable to many. His ideas, drawn from logic, music, mathematics, and elsewhere, suffuse the works of many other American authors on this list.

Nicholson Baker. Obsessively detail-oriented. Near-autistic categorizing and cataloguing of quotidian material, especially in his early work. Baroque style, flattened emotions.

Neal Stephenson. Crossed-over from science-fiction into information-laden historical epics of chiefly science history. Most beloved for Snow Crash, but Cryptonomicon is also important. Appropriately-titled Baroque Cycle remains unread even by most engineer fans of his. Competent stylist, light on character and emotion.

William Gibson. Another cross-over. “Cyberpunk” tendencies disguise lack of rigorous science content. Aggressive use of technology, but fundamentally rhapsodic and character-driven. Innovative, influential stylist, but often narratively lax.

Bruce Sterling. A third cross-over who may not yet have crossed over. Parallel career to Gibson, but weak style, emotional shallowness, and lack of character development may have hindered mainstream acceptance. Compensates with greater science and technology content.

Jorge Luis Borges. Literary genius who wrote conceptual, highly-compressed short stories. Not as widely-read as some of the others on this list, but has influenced so many of them that he must be included. Lack of emotion, character, and plot; stories are often driven by a single, revelatory idea.

There were a few other candidates that I excluded from the list either for lack of confirmation data (Cortazar, Pynchon, Auster) or due to the work falling into the realm of “trash,” to use the term descriptively (Danielewski, Coupland). I’d be willing to reconsider. And as much as I racked my brains, I could not come up with a single woman writer that fit.

One obvious conclusion is that engineers tend to like novelists that deal in math and science material, but that does not explain many of the names on this list, notably those that use science in a “soft” form, such as Calvino and Gibson. Certain common traits do seem to recur, such as verbal literalism and a lack of irony, but even these are contradicted by some members of the list above.

I have no definite conclusions to draw at the moment, but I do believe that this is more than just an exercise. Within this overlap, I believe one can observe two different forms of reading, one more particular to engineers and one more general. While they may not be discrete, I think they separate cleanly enough to merit deep investigation.

[How do you all like the new list-making Waggish? It's only a temporary phase, probably brought on by reading Finnegans Wake, which contains many, many lists itself, particularly the list of names of ALP's letter (i.e., the book itself) and the list of titles for
HCE. These tendencies will be further explored in a forthcoming post
on listmakers and architects.]

Update: more suggestions and hypotheses from readers in the comments.