Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Influence of classic literature on writers declining, study claims

Lionel Shriver, who won the Orange Prize five years ago for her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin
'I no longer have the patience for long philosophical digressions' … Lionel Shriver. Photograph: David Azia/AP

Harold Bloom famously dubbed it the "anxiety of influence" (paywall): the effect which the literary canon has on writers. Less today than it did in the past, according to a mathematical study which analysed thousands of works written over the last 500 years.
American mathematicians, led by the chair of Dartmouth College mathematics department Professor Daniel Rockmore, set out to investigate "large-scale" trends in literary style. Using digitised works in the Project Gutenberg library, they processed 7,733 works from 537 authors written after the year 1550, were looking for the frequency at which 307 "content-free" words – such as "of", "at" and "by" – appeared. They called these words the "syntactic glue" of language: "words that carry little meaning on their own but form the bridge between words that convey meaning", and thus "provide a useful stylistic fingerprint" for authorship.
"When we consider content-free word frequencies from a large number of authors and works over a long period of time, we can ask questions related to temporal trends in similarity", they write in their new paper, "Quantitative patterns of stylistic influence in the evolution of literature".

Full story at The Guardian.

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