The Anna Karenina Principle

“The Anna Karenina principle states that a deficiency in any one of a number of factors dooms an endeavor to failure. Consequently, a successful endeavor (subject to this principle) is one where every possible deficiency has been avoided.

The name of the principle derives from Leo Tolstoy’s book Anna Karenina, which begins:

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

In other words: happy families share a common set of attributes which lead to happiness, while any of a variety of attributes can cause an unhappy family. This concept has been generalized to apply to several fields of study.

In statistics, the term Anna Karenina principle is used to describe significance tests: there are any number of ways in which a dataset may violate the null hypothesis and only one in which all the assumptions are satisfied.”

In 2013 Anne Tyler, the American novelist, short story writer, and literary critic, was interviewed at home in Baltimore by Mark Lawson. The resulting half hour edition of the BBC R4 Front Row programme, released on 29.3.13., is still available on the Sounds app.

This morning it was the turn of the Arts Correspondent, Rebecca Jones, for the Today programme, to interview the author (1h44m into the programme).

Jones suggested: “You essentially write the same book exploring the lives of middle class Americans…”, which Tyler readily acknowledges:

“It’s fair. I always say when I’m starting a book, this one’s gonna be different. About halfway through I say, oh darn, it’s the same book over again….Another word that comes up (in reviews) often is “sentimental”…ya know, life is kind of sentimental sometimes, so there you are.’

Of her forthcoming book, Redhead by the Side of the Road, she says:

“Surprise surprise, it’s about a family in Baltimore. The world does not need another one of my books, but I don’t have any hobbies and it really makes me happy to write, so that’s what I’m doing still.”

Anita Brookner, novelist and art historian, (1928- 2016), observed: “I don’t like writing fiction much; it’s like being on the end of a bad telephone line – but it’s addictive.”

Rumaan Alam wrote for the New York Times on 1.3.18.:

“The prevailing criticism of Brookner is that her work is repetitive. There are concerns she returns to: the single woman who wishes not to be, the dutiful daughter overwhelmed by filial obligation, the family that is not unhappy but not quite happy. I find such intelligence and vitality in her books that it does not bother me that they amount to variations on a theme. Repetition is part of the particular pleasure; the books’ familiarity, as well as the cunning with which the author pushes herself to reinvent the form she’s chosen as her own.”

In an obituary for (Dr) Anita Brookner for The Independent of 15.3.16., Peter Guttridge wrote:

“…She felt all authors wrote the same novel again and again, and certainly by the time of Hotel du Lac she had established the themes she would explore in the rest of her fiction. Most of her novels were about lonely women, outsiders, disappointed in love, often betrayed, usually damaged, drawn to “undamaged men”. In her world “the hare wins every time over the tortoise”. 

…In a 1987 Paris Review interview she said: “writing has freed me from the despair of living. I feel well when I am writing – I even put on a little weight.” She felt she had made a hash of life. She seemed to regard writing as a way of “editing” her own life because she had “started on the wrong footing”…”

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