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Mathematicians prove the Classics are dead

By Harriet Staff

Riddle us this: Are writers today more influenced or less influenced by the quote-unquote classics? Well, if you’re a Dartmouth mathematician working in the field of stylometry and just drafted a paper titled “Quantitative Patterns of Stylistic Influence in the Evolution of Literature,” then you’d say “less influenced.” We found this out yesterday via Salon. Turns out, data crunching is all the rage in the humanities:

The Dartmouth research belongs to the relatively established field of stylometry, the study of linguistic patterns in texts. Digitally-aided stylometry is most familiar as a means of establishing the authorship of contested works: Plays or poems allegedly written by Shakespeare, say, or Christopher Marlowe. This involves comparing a small number of works to each other and looking for internal consistencies and differences. Most authors use detectably distinctive language patterns, even after you eliminate such obvious giveaways as content. In fact, stylometrists often assert that tracking “content-free” words — such as conjunctions, like “and,” and prepositions, like “above” — is the most reliable way to reach what the Dartmouth researchers call a “useful stylistic fingerprint” for any given author.

It’s more unusual, however, to crunch a large body of texts written over a long period of time by many different people. The Dartmouth study analyzed multiple works by 537 authors who wrote English language texts published since 1550. Comparing them to each other, they found, not surprisingly, that authors from a given historical period have more in common with each other stylistically than they do with authors from the past (or future). They also found that the more recent a work is, the more “localized” its stylistic brethren are in time. An author from, say 1850, will have more in common with an author from 1800 than an author from 1950 will have with an author from 1900.

Sounds pretty reasonable to us. But “Where the Dartmouth article makes a big leap, however, is in claiming that contemporary authors are less ‘influenced’ by authors of the past than they are by those of their own time. Furthermore, they propose a reason: The explosion in the number of published books in the past century or so.” This is the “it’s too much” phenomenon, and now we’re finally feeling the fallout—we’re all in one big echo chamber sounding (stylistically) just like everyone else! Or not? The article goes on pull the pocket protector out from under the mathies:

There are so many wobbly assumptions built into these interpretations that they could be used as an illustration of the dangers of empirical hubris: Having a lot of numbers and equations is not the same as knowing what they mean, especially in such a complex and meaning-rich field as literature. The Dartmouth researchers seem somewhat aware of this problem — they suggest that the dramatic decrease in the influence of the past on 20th century literature might be due to the Modernist movement, which advocated just such a break with tradition. (Note: The texts used in the study were taken from the public domain, and so included nothing published after 1952, a time when Modernism still ruled the literary roost. For all we know, postmodernism might cause the math department’s processors to melt down.)

First, there is the assumption that a lack of stylistic similarity is the same thing as a lack of influence. This is manifestly untrue. A stylometric analysis of, say, the prose of John Irving, for example, would probably not show much resemblance to that of Charles Dickens; one author is a contemporary American and the other a Victorian Briton. But Irving worships Dickens and cites him as his master and model in every interview he gives. He writes in the voice of a modern American, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t profoundly influenced by Dickens’s novels. On the pop fiction front, Helen Fielding doesn’t write a bit like Jane Austen in “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” so does that mean the founding text of chicklit simply couldn’t have been influenced by “Pride and Prejudice”? Please: Fielding’s novel is a retelling of the Regency classic in a modern setting.

There’s much more to ponder after you make the jump.


Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, May 31st, 2012 by Harriet Staff.