Classic Literature Isn't Dead: No Ifs, Ands, or Buts

THIS JUST IN: Contemporary writers are no longer influenced by classic literature -- or so claim a team of mathematicians from Dartmouth and Wisconsin in a recently published paper entitled, "Quantitative patterns of stylistic influence in the evolution of literature."

But, aspiring writers, don't be fooled: This study doesn't prove that reading the classics is no longer important. In fact, when it comes to the influence of classic literature on contemporary writing, the study doesn't prove much of anything.

The Dartmouth and Wisconsin mathematicians have come to their conclusion by analyzing the frequencies of "content-free" words such as "a," "but," and "she" in literature published since 1550. Now, you might ask: What does the number of times the word "because" appears in a given work tell us about whether or not an author was influenced by classic literature? Nothing. The conclusions presented in the paper would be laughable -- if they weren't being taken seriously.

The (all male) team of mathematicians proclaims "the so-called 'anxiety of influence,' whereby authors are understood in terms of their response to canonical precursors, is becoming an 'anxiety of impotence,' in which the past exerts a diminishing stylistic influence on the present."

"Anxiety of influence" is a term coined by renowned literary critic and Yale professor Harold Bloom in his 1973 book The Anxiety of Influence. But what does Bloom know? These guys have numbers to back them up. And numbers don't lie, right?

Using the digital database of Project Gutenberg, the mathematicians calculated the frequency of appearance of 307 "content-free" words in over 7,000 works of literature written in English between the years of 1550 and 1952 (which is the most recent date of the works included in Project Gutenberg). The study defines "content-free" words as "words that convey little meaning on their own but form the bridge that convey meaning"--prepositions, pronouns, and conjunctions, for example. This is an example of a technique known as stylometry, the quantitative analysis of literary style. Stylometric analysis has most commonly been used as a technique for determining authorship. Certain authors use recognizable and consistent syntactical patterns, and syntax and diction can be very helpful for dating a work. But, as a means of identifying literary influence, it's impotent (to use the paper's terms). Although stylometry can chart stylistic similarities, it is not a useful tool for the analysis of literary influence. The study's findings are alternately unsurprising or woefully unsubstantiated.

In this study, "literature" is defined as "written works." The texts analyzed include works of poetry as well as prose, and fiction as well as non-fiction. It comes as no surprise to learn that "[h]istorians and naturalists do not only write about different topics, they write about them differently," the paper explains. Poets, novelists, and playwrights also differ markedly in terms of diction and syntax, believe it or not. The study also finds that the rate of change in literary style has accelerated in the 20th century.. But an accelerating rate of stylistic change do not prove or even suggest the diminishing influence of classic works of literature. The authors equate stylistic similarities with literary influence -- and herein lies the critical problem with this study.

The paper identifies Modernism as a critical turning point:

The negative influence of authors from a preceding generation in the period 1907-1952 could be explained by the Modernist movement. Modernist authors, who are contained within this time period, display a radical shift in style as they reject their immediate stylistic predecessors yet remain a part of a dominant movement that included many of their contemporaries.

Modernism did indeed break with the stylistic conventions of 19th-century realism -- but it did not mark a break with literary influence. Hardly. If you read modernist literature in words, as opposed to numbers, it's hard to miss the influential role played by classic works of literature. For example, take Eliot, Joyce, and Woolf -- arguably the foremost Modernist writers. James Joyce's Ulysses is a rewriting of Homer's Odyssey. T.S. Eliot's Modernist masterpiece "The Waste Land" is saturated with literary allusions --starting with the opening line ("April is the cruelest month... ") which is an allusion to the opening of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Virginia Woolf wrote that Cowper's 1799 poem "The Castaway" was one of the primary inspirations for her 1927 novel, To the Lighthouse.

Both T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf discussed literary influence in their non-fiction writing as well. In his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," T.S. Eliot reflects, "Some one said: 'The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.' Precisely, and they are that which we know."

In an essay entitled "Reading," Virginia Woolf describes her belief that all books are linked to those that have come before them. She writes:

"If I looked down at my book I could see Keats and Pope behind him, and then Dryden and Sir Thomas Browne--hosts of them merging in the mass of Shakespeare, behind whom, if one peered long enough...Chaucer perhaps, and again--who was it? some uncouth poet scarcely able to syllable his words; and so they died away."

But Virginia Woolf herself was probably not very influenced by Shakespeare, because the word "it" appears over 2,000 times in Mrs. Dalloway, and it appears fewer than 300 times in Hamlet.

And in Michael Cunningham's The Hours, "it" only makes 100 appearances! The publisher may claim that The Hours is an homage to Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway -- but clearly this is just a marketing move, because "it" makes only 100 appearances in The Hours, whereas, in Mrs. Dalloway, it appears more than 2,000 times. And "anyway" appears 13 times in The Hours, but not even once in Mrs. Dalloway!

Clearly, there are some major flaws in this stylometric analysis -- but, disconcertingly, the "findings" of the study are being taken seriously by a number of news outlets. The Guardian reports that, although the study only covers works written prior to 1952, Daniel Rockmore, one of the paper's authors and the chair of the Mathematics department at Dartmouth, "believes the decreasing influence of the canon will only have continued in the authors of today." Novelist Lionel Shriver, The Guardian explains, "agreed that this was probably true in her case - and suggested it was likely to apply to her contemporaries as well." This line is followed by a quote from Shriver -- but the problem is that the quote itself doesn't quite line up with The Guardian's prefatory gloss. Shriver is quoted as saying:

"About all I can do is confess that while I myself devoured classics in my teens and 20's -- even 30's, come to think of it -- I now read contemporary fiction almost exclusively...I feel ambivalent about this evolution, but between reviewing, blurbing occasionally, and keeping up with what's out there on general principle I don't often get around to touching base with the literary canon. When I have tried to, say, reread a Dostoevsky novel, I've discovered that I don't have the patience any longer -- for the long philosophical digressions, for example. I bet I'm not alone in this reduced tolerance for the stylistic traditions of the past."

Like the study, The Guardian article conflates 'stylistic traditions' and literary influence. In this quote, Shriver does not say that classics have not played an influential role. Rather, she recalls a passionate relationship with the classics -- describing herself as "devouring" them. It would not be unreasonable to suppose that the classics played a critical role in her development as a writer. The fact that she no longer has the patience for Dostoevsky's meandering, digressive literary style does not mean that she was not influenced by Dostoevsky. The paper's authors suggest that contemporary writers are not well-versed in or influenced by the classics -- which is absolutely not the case for Shriver. She talks about not wanting to reread Dostoevsky -- not about reading him for the first time. (Not to mention the fact that you don't have to like a book in order to be influenced by it). And yet, The Guardian presents Shriver's quote as evidence in support of the study's findings.

Lionel Shriver won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005 for her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. The recipient of the following year's award was Zadie Smith's On Beauty -- which, as Smith states in the prefatory note of the book, is an homage to E.M. Forster's Howards End. This year's winner, announced just this week, is Madeleine Miller's The Song of Achilles, which was inspired by Homer's Iliad. Suffice to say, these writers are familiar with the classics (and, like Eliot and Woolf, Smith has written about how classic literature has influenced her writing in essays).

An article in The New York Daily News, which cites The Guardian's interview with Shriver as corroborating evidence of the study's findings, goes so far as to suggest that "while traditionalists may lament the loss of historical perspective, it is worth asking how much has truly been lost. After all, the presence of the great themes and elemental emotions does not depend merely on paying respects to Dead White Males. There's something to be said about originality, isn't there?"

Indeed. But there is nothing incompatible about "originality" and literary tradition. To quote T.S. Eliot, a spectacularly "original" writer: "[W]e shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of [a poet's] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously." So, aspiring authors, take note: reading the classics is just as important as ever, and the best writers know this.

Furthermore, regardless of your tastes, you've still been getting some of the classics in your literary diet, whether you know it or not. Even the literary atrocity that is Fifty Shades of Grey contains a number of allusions to and quotations from classic literature (Tess of the d'Urbervilles) -- as does Twilight (Wuthering Heights).

In the world of contemporary literature, the classics are not suffering from an "anxiety of impotence" (to use the paper's terminology) -- but, when it comes to understanding contemporary literature, perhaps this team of mathematicians is.