From Jane Austen to James Patterson, each author has their own way of writing. And this writing is often discussed in terms of “style”. Essentially, style refers to “how” something is written – it is more about form than content. So when, for example, someone remarks 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 at 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 a more difficult read, full of arcane terms, complex formulations and enigmatic references to other materials.
Of course, Joyce is still telling a story in Ulysses (and a big one at that), but he’s not just concerned with telling his story. Joyce also uses the structure and language of the novel to experiment with form and challenge established ideas of what literature should look like.
But if the style differs from one author to another, it seems that it does not change so much between writers who are part of the same family. In my recent research, I looked at the literary styles of related authors to see how their writing compared. Most members of the same literary families I looked at tended to write similarly.
Examining an author’s style based on their tendency to choose particular words is increasingly done with a process called “stylometry.” Stylometry uses computers to statistically measure the most frequent words in a text. Authors are consistent with the regularity with which they use certain words, so word counts can give an indication of how a particular author or group of authors tends to write.
Stylometry is most often used for attribution of authorship, answering (usually unsubstantiated) questions about who really wrote a particular novel, as has been the case with The Wuthering Heights and Go set a keeper.
But stylometry is not only useful in cases where the authorship of a text is disputed, it can also be used to analyze stylistic similarity more generally. And literary families offer a unique opportunity to study why authors write in certain ways because parents tend to grow up in similar social environments.
In my research, I have 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 generally wrote in similar styles. Without exception, each of the authors tested grouped with the other members of his family. This means that the computer was able to distinguish between different families, based on their respective writing styles, with 100% accuracy. The next step would be to do a larger study with more families to see if this trend holds more broadly.
This recent experience was prompted by my previous study of the Brontë (perhaps one of the most famous literary families), which shows that, compared to a selection of their peers, the Brontë siblings all share a style remarkably similar literature. This is perhaps unsurprising considering how well the Brontes are known to have collaborated, but this trend seems consistent in other families as well.
The creative collaboration seen with families like the Brontës is a common practice among parents who all write. But it is still significant that the family influence is so strong that it can be detected using stylometric techniques. This could indicate that the essential characteristics of a writer’s voice could be intrinsically linked to his training environment and upbringing.
Nature versus nurture
But such discoveries also rekindle the (perhaps tired) debate between nature and nurture. Mary Shelley, who is best known for writing Frankensteinregroups alongside his 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. And yet, they still share similar literary styles.
Her mother’s only novel was published before she began her relationship with Godwin, so her influence is unlikely to simply bind the female members of her family together. Again, perhaps Mary Shelley had a similar upbringing to Mary Wollstonecraft.
Or maybe there is something else beyond the upbringing, something genetic that was simply passed down from mother to daughter. Although such an explanation seems highly unlikely, what is undeniable is that Mary Shelley, without having known her mother, grew up to resemble her literary style. Maybe then, being an author is just in the blood.
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