Every undergraduate at Princeton is required to write a senior thesis. The prospect of this daunting undertaking looms large in the minds of freshmen, sophomores, and particularly juniors, all of whom hope to find the inspiration for a compelling project and fear that they will fail. Like my classmates, I worried incessantly as an underclassman about finding an idea worth devoting myself to for the entirety of my senior year. My task was made extra challenging by the rather peculiar decision I made to major in operations research while minoring in American studies, which meant I would have to write a thesis that somehow bridged those two seemingly unbridgeable disciplines.
Then one day, inspiration struck. It came after the last lecture in an amazing class about American literature with a focus on short fiction taught by the awe-inspiring Elaine Showalter. Elaine gave her last lecture before retiring from the English department in a cavernous classroom in the iconic McCosh Hall (a gothic building near the heart of Princeton’s campus), and it concluded with a standing ovation from the audience. As I made my way back to my dorm room after class, full of awe for Elaine and the profound ideas about life, art, and literature that she had just shared, I had an idea for my thesis.
I would quantitatively test the hypothesis about literature at the heart of Elaine’s last lecture. She had argued that to understand great fiction, you must understand the lives of those who produced it, as their art conveys insights generated by their struggles and adventures. In spite of her convincing arguments, I was fairly sure that no one had ever attempted to actually quantitatively test this relationship between the protagonists in fiction and the lives of the authors who invented them. I set out to do just that, and with guidance from Elaine (before she retired) and her colleague William Gleason (who became one of my thesis advisors), I found the perfect petri dish for my research: fiction printed in The New Yorker—the most sought-after publication outlet for modern short stories.
In my senior thesis, later published as an academic paper, I analyzed the content of 442 pieces of New Yorker fiction (every story published between October 1992 and September 2001; and yes, I read each one myself) and quantitatively documented the strong link between an author’s demographics and the demographics of her fictional protagonists (among other things). This thesis on The New Yorker piqued my interest in studying the media, which eventually contributed to my aforementioned idea to study what articles are most widely shared on The New York Times website.
Related media content:
☛ New Yorker Fiction, by the Numbers
The New York Times