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Modern authors 'influenced less by classic literature'

15th May 2012

The authors of today are less influenced by classic literature than their predecessors were, according to a major new study that has analysed thousands of works written over the last 500 years

Using the digitised Project Gutenberg Library, mathematicians from Dartmouth College led by Professor Daniel Rockmore processed 7,733 works from 537 authors written after 1550 to determine the individual style used in each.

By searching for the use of 307 'content-free' words including 'of', 'at' and 'by', the investigators aimed to identify large-scale trends in literature, including how many authors were clearly influenced by their predecessors.

According to the experts, this method of identifying changes in prose involved deconstructing the 'syntactic glue' of language and highlighting the 'stylistic fingerprint' of authorship.

The results indicated that, while authors of all periods are influenced by their contemporaries, those writing in the 18th and 19th centuries were also inclined to utilise the stylistic tendencies of their predecessors when composing new works – what they would have deemed as 'classic literature'.

However, as the centuries have passed, authors have become less likely to take inspiration from the past and instead used their contemporaries as muses.

Professor Rockmore explained that a so-called 'anxiety of influence', whereby authors are understood in terms of their response to canonical precursors, is fast becoming an 'anxiety of impotence', in which the past exerts a diminishing stylistic influence on the present.

The study author suggested that this is not unrelated to the acknowledged gradual diminishment of a canon in literature, with the modernist movement seeing many authors rejecting their immediate stylistic predecessors, yet remaining part of a dominant faction that included many of their contemporaries.

'One hypothesis is that there is so much more to read now and more kinds of "important" work that if we believe that style is influenced by what one reads, then it is less likely that people generally devote the preponderance of their reading to the older "classics",' he added.

'If one believes that writing style is significantly related to spoken language, then it might be traced to the rapid evolution of that form of communication.'

Professor Rockmore said further studies will include collaborations with the college's Department of English to establish whether this gradual shift has also influenced literary criticism.

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