The wrung dry corpses of words.

I have been unduly cruel to Michel Houellebecq for cheap lulz. Appropriating dry technical texts is an entirely valid and often highly entertaining literary technique. And the publicity has actually made me want to read the book.

It was picked up on immediately because he picked a dry technical text that people actually read. I’m presuming here that words in French Wikipedia are subject to the same horrors they’re put through on English Wikipedia and the pattern of traumatised textual flesh is distinctive and obvious.

Spotting and marking for death anything interesting, well-written or showing signs of coherent authorship is, in practice, a reliable heuristic for eliminating puff pieces. English Wikipedia has a house style, and it’s really obvious when someone’s quoting a chunk of it. It’s what happens to text when too many people edit it and all nuance is iteratively wrung out. Also, there’s lots of dangling subclauses as successive writers argue in the article and try to get their favourite nuance or contingency covered. It’s most visible on articles that were made featured a few years ago and have since sunk into dilapidation.

If someone hasn’t studied and written about the Wikipedia house style academically, they damn well should. It would be an interesting exercise for an individual to try to write as badly as an overedited Wikipedia article, so as to make their own fake Wikipedia text for fiction. This may even be amenable to computerisation.

5 Responses to “The wrung dry corpses of words.”

  1. Tony Sidaway says:

    Many would agree with you, though some say this is because of inadequate education, but it is notable because no refutation has been offered. Notwithstanding this, it is significant that NASA has never endorsed Wikipedia for use in planning space missions.

  2. Sage says:

    Sometimes you get a pleasant departure from house style, though.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_Got_Back#Synopsis

  3. Andrew says:

    One of Adam Roberts’ books (Yellow Blue Tibia?) has a mock Wikipedia article for its protagonist as an appendix at the end, complete with cleanup tag and – if my memory serves well – a fairly plausible style of writing.

    It’s meant as an element of closure, I think – this is what happened to him after the book ends. The idea of including bits of a fake reference work to provide backstory or context is not new, of course – the classic example is the Who’s Who entry included at the start of the Flashman novels, which manages to encapsulate several strange stories all of its own – but this is the first time I’d seen someone use Wikipedia for it. Anyone seen another?

  4. gallium says:

    Not aware of it being studdied but it has been written about (and objected to):

    http://educationnext.org/repn-tri-to-the-fullest/

  5. Peter Damian says:

    My favourite comment on this is the talk page of Aristotle’s metaphsyics, by Wareh (who is actually a very good and competent editor. He wrote of my contribution “even if I loved it personally, it just doesn’t look like the product of bland unanimity that belongs here. Its original collocation of historical material, comparisons, etc., even seem to rise to the level of an original synthesis at least, which is a Wikipedia no-no. By calling it too original, I mean to do some honor to the fact that it has a certain persuasive and readable eloquence to it, the clear product of one author’s view rather than the typical Wikipedia jumble” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Metaphysics_(Aristotle)

    The section is still there, though, which I attribute to the obscurity of the article.

    My favourite essay about the problem you mention is here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Avoid_thread_mode

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