Study By Math Dudes Claims Writers Don't Care About Classic Lit
Recently, a study on literary influence from Dartmouth College has been getting a lot of press for essentially concluding that modern writers don't give a damn about the classics compared to their pre-19th-century counterparts. The paper, "Quantitative Patterns Of Stylistic Influence In The Evolution Of Literature," comes not from the literature department or even the linguistics department but from math scholars. These mathematicians aimed to find large-scale trends in literary style by using stylometry, a linguistic technique often used to determine the authorship or authenticity of texts.
In this case, they analyzed 7,733 works written between 1550 and 1952 by 537 authors, focusing on 307 "content-free" words (primarily conjunctions and prepositions) to determine the stylistic fingerprint of an era. Their much-hyped conclusions are that the influence of classic literature on authors is declining as time goes on and that the chronological realm of influence is getting smaller. In other words, as Salon explains, "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."
Based on some reactions to the study, you'd think modern writers were burning Dante and Homer in the streets, but as others noted, there are some fundamental flaws. Most importantly, in my opinion, is the fact that the research seems to confuse literary influence with linguistic similarity. As a writer, you might be deeply influenced by Shakespeare, but odds are, your sentence structure won't reflect that. Thanks to the internet and globalization, language itself is evolving faster than ever, so it stands to reason that the language used in literature would be changing at a similar rate. In order to gain any serious conclusions from a study like this, the speed of language evolution really has to be factored in somewhere. And it's not. Even if it were, that would still tell us more about how language is used than it would about which books inspire and engage modern authors.
Not to mention that the study cuts off, for copyright reasons, with texts from 1952, so despite the academics' belief that the trend inevitably continues on the same trajectory today, that's guesswork. The research also suggests that the sheer volume of books published today is to blame for the decline in the classics' influence because people just can't keep up with all the new stuff so where on earth would they find time to read the old stuff? Again, pretty speculative.
Ultimately, the most accurate way to determine what's influencing today's authors is to ask them. So, let's do that: what books or authors have influenced your writing the most?
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