A shared writing fashion

from Jane Austen to James Patterson, every author has his own spelling. And that writing is often discussed under the term “style”. Essentially, style refers to “how” something is written – it is more about form than content. So, for example, when someone comments that they “liked the story” but “didn’t like the way it was written,” they are commenting on the style.

If you want to see an example of different styles in action, just compare something like The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien to Ulysses by James Joyce. The Hobbit is written for a general audience, it’s a good old-fashioned story told in clear, accessible language. Ulysses is more difficult to read, full of obscure terms, complex language, and cryptic references to other materials.

Obviously, Joyce is still telling a story (and a great one at that) in Ulysses, but he’s not just about telling his story. Joyce also uses the structure and language of the novel to experiment with form and question established ideas about what literature should look like.

But while the style differs from author to author, it doesn’t seem to change that much for writers who are part of the same family. In my last research, I looked at the literary styles of authors who are related to one another to see how their writing compares. Most of the members of the same literary families I considered tended to write in similar ways.

Literary families

Research into an author’s style based on his tendency to choose certain words is increasingly being carried out using a process known as “stylometry”. Stilometer uses computers to statistically measure the most common words in a text. Authors stick to the regularity with which they use certain words, so word counting can give an indication of how a particular author or group of authors tends to write.

Stylometry is most commonly used for authorship attribution to answer (usually unsubstantiated) questions about who really wrote a particular novel, as was the case with it Wuthering Heights and Go and put a guard.

Stylometry is not only useful in cases where the authorship of a text is controversial, but can also be used to analyze stylistic similarities in general. And literary families offer a unique opportunity to examine why authors write in certain ways because relatives tend to develop in similar social settings.

In my research, I used stylometry to examine the writing styles of the following literary families: Kingsley and Martin Amis (father-son), Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë (sisters), William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley (father-mother) – Daughter), AS Byatt and Margaret Drabble (sisters), W Somerset and Robin Maugham (uncle-nephew), John le Carré and Nick Harkaway (father-son).

The results show that the relatives involved usually wrote in similar styles. Without exception, each of the authors tested clustered with the other members of his family. This means that the computer could differentiate between families based on their writing style with 100 percent accuracy. The next step would be to do a larger study with more families to see if this trend continues more broadly.

This new experiment was prompted by my previous one Study of the Brontës (perhaps one of the most famous literary families), which shows that the Brontë siblings share a remarkably similar literary style when compared to a selection of their peers. This may not come as a surprise considering how well known the Bronts are worked together, but this trend seems to be consistent across other families as well.

Working creatively with families like the Bronts is a common practice with relatives who all write. But it’s still important to see that the family influence is so strong that it can be detected using stylometric techniques. This could suggest that essential features of an author’s voice are inherently related to their formative environment and upbringing.

Nature versus care

But such insights also enliven the (perhaps tired) debate between nature and upbringing. Mary Shelley, best known for writing Frankenstein, Clusters alongside their parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft.

While the stylistic similarity between the other literary families analyzed could be attributed to the collaboration, Mary Shelley never knew her mother as she died 10 days after Mary was born. Yet they still share similar literary styles.

Her mother’s only novel was published before she began her relationship with Godwin, so his influence is unlikely to link only the female members of his family. Perhaps Mary Shelley had an upbringing similar to that of Mary Wollstonecraft.

Or maybe there is something else beyond care, something genetic that was simply passed down from mother to daughter. While such an explanation seems highly unlikely, it is undeniable that, without knowing her mother, Mary Shelley has become similar to her literary style. Maybe then being an author is simply in your blood.

-The conversation

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