Writers and Lovers Lily King

The hatchet falls on... Writers & Lovers

The news of an upcoming Italian translation of "Writers & Lovers" by Lily King, brought back the memories of the terrible day and a half I spent reading this novel (and also a few reflections on the criteria on which Italian publishers chose what to translate and not to translate, but let's not well on that... for now).

My quite strongly negative opinion on this novel seems to clash with the many 5 star comments on web platforms (e.g.: Goodreads), therefore, for a while I thought I just hadn't understood the deep meaning that Lily King wanted to convey with her writing. Then, fortunately, in July, the Times Literary Supplement published a review that shared most of my negative thoughts (by Evelyn Toynton), and I finally felt understood.

Now, the following review will contain a number of spoilers: therefore, if you really really want to read "Writers & Lovers" you might want to stop here. If you want to save yourselves a rather pathetic experience, please feel free to carry on.

When I bought this book in early 2020 I should have known that a fancy title and a nice cover were going to be misleading...

Writers and Lovers Lily King
The book cover of Writers & Lovers, by Lily King. Photo credit: Winky Lewis

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Actress Anne Enright

Actress by Anne Enright: between biography, autobiography, fiction and autofiction.

The exquisite pen of Anne Enright, one of the most talented Irish writers, strikes again thanks to her latest literary enterprise, the novel Actress.

Actress is not simply an objectively “good novel”, in a canonic way – because of the undeniable elegance of the writing and because of the story which, though flowing nicely, requires an attentive reading – but is also and most importantly an interesting novel in the light of the dense and sophisticated experimentation the author did on the literary genre. Anne Enright has indeed wisely merged fiction, autofiction, biography, autobiography, memoir, and essay writing in one engaging and well-balanced literary pastiche.

The actress in the title is the protagonist of the novel and mother of the co-protagonist, who is the narrator of this story. Therefore, a first intersection appears to happen between the voice who tells the story and the person who acts in those stories. Katherine O’Dell, a star of Irish theatre (and not only) in the post-war Ireland, lives a life of torments that inevitably end up mirroring themselves in the life of her daughter Norah – just a mistake, but very much loved. Norah is also a writer, who chooses only late in her life to dedicate her energies to the narration of her mother’s life, as a consequence of some appalling attempts from other journalists and writers, morbidly interested in the indecent details of Katherine’s love life. This story is fiction, but it is rather easy for a reader to forget, after a few pages, that Katherine O’Dell never existed and never was a great actress, and that Norah non is not Anne Enright. The novel is written in a style which is more similar to autofiction than it it is to a biographical account. What makes it even more outstanding is that Norah, in unraveling the events of her mother’s biography, ends up digging deeply into her own personal one, making it the core of her narration, at least as much as Katherine’s life. All this is then made even more unique by the unusual choice of narrating the whole story in the second person: Norah is writing to her husband, one of the characters in this double (auto)biography.

Anne Enright
Anne Enright (2008). Picture by Hpschaefer, CC BY 3.0

At times, the writing style appears almost journalistic, if not academic: some of the events of which Katherine is the protagonist are news stories and are told accordingly (in particular, her aggression to a colleague, which was all over many newspapers); others appear told through an academic filter, a scholarly filter, the filter of a historian, interested in what the great actress represented for Irish theatre in a specific historical moment. At other times, instead, Norah’s humanity outclasses the somewhat aseptic necessity of providing an objective and impartial account that biographies often require. Norah cannot resist her need for analysis and auto-analysis. Therefore, she builds a reflection on herself, on the events of her life, the life of a child cast away, of a teenager surrounded by her mother’s friends and lovers, of a young college student discovering and practicing sex in a Catholic and bigot Ireland but also in a family without taboos (Katherine never represses and never hides), of a woman tormented by her love for her mother and future husband, and from the difficulty of not having a father and nor the chance to discover who he was. At the same time, through the pages, another reflection takes place: one on her mother’s choices, on her morals, on the reasons for her eccentric behaviour, on her role and on her skills as a parent. Crucial are finally Norah’s accounts of the History in which she’s involved, the “civil war” in the ’70s, which she narrates through her personal experience of the conflicts.

Actress is a dense and compact book, well-orchestrated and full of reflections. Reflections on parenthood, childhood, adolescence, adult age; reflections on love, sexuality, morals, habits, costumes; reflections on solitude, on recklessness and responsibility; on jealousy, envy, admiration; reflections on theatre, on playing a role on a stage and in life. But above all, Actress is a book that is not afraid to reinvent a genre or more genres, of experimenting with narrative voices, with the concept of protagonists, with styles.

Actress Anne Enright
The cover of the book by Anne Enright, Actress. A Novel, published by W. W. Norton

premi letterari inclusività diversità literary prizes inclusivity diversity fiction

From Booker to Strega: diversity and inclusivity in literary prizes

As I was reading, a few weeks ago, the names in the Booker Prize 2020 shortlist, I was caught by a fleeting yet well-defined thought: how depressing can it be to make a comparison between this shortlist and those of the most prestigious Italian prizes for fiction?

premi letterari inclusività diversità
Literary prizes, inclusivity, diversity. Picture by Roberta Berardi


The answer is quite simple: very depressing. Not because the literary quality of those English novels which ended up being finalists for the Booker Prize is necessarily higher than the quality those written in Italian and selected by the committees of the Strega and Campiello prizes– I haven’t read them all, I wouldn’t know how to judge – but for the disturbing dominance, in Italian prizes, of the writing phenotype of the “white male”.
Italy saw some mild turbulence in the debate on this topic, when Valeria Parrella, the only woman in the Strega shortlist, reacted in an understandably resented way, when, during her interview on the award ceremony, had to sadly realise that a debate on the relationship between the #MeToo movement and literature would happen between two men: “e lei ne vuole parlare con Augias? Auguri!” (“and you want to discuss that with Augias [editor's note: a man]? Good luck!”, said Parrella to the journalist, manifesting a resentment which would be easily shared by many female writers, or simply many women.

Valeria Parrella’s resentment deserves to be charged with further significance if we look at the names of the finalists in the three abovementioned prizes.

For the Strega, all six writer were white and five out of six were men. The longlist was not more encouraging, if we think that besides Valeria Parrella, there were only two more women, Marta Barone e Silvia Ballestra. For the Campiello, the situation was quite similar: once again, all writers were white, and only one was a woman. Moreover, she was not even a novelist. We are talking about Patrizia Cavalli, an undoubtedly illustrious author, but in truth a poet attempting to turn to prose only now, at a later stage of her career, almost as a form of self-celebration. The Booker Prize, instead, among its six finalists, presents four people of colour of which only one is a man. The longlist was equally widely populated with talented women.

If about racial issues, someone might be naive and object that in Italy most writers are in fact white, on gender issues Italy seems to have no excuses. Contemporary Italian fiction has a panorama abounding in women, with a long- or short-lived career. Female writers with talent and original ideas.
The problem seems to occur with similar practices also in other realities of continental Europe: in France, the Goncourt prize has currently only four women out of fifteen in the longlist.

It appears that anglophone prizes, on the contrary, have decided to invest on the principles of diversity and inclusivity, making sure that their selection mirrors the actuality of the society literature represents. The choices of the Booker committee are well matched with those of the American National Book Award, whose longlist is extremely variegated both in terms of genders and of writers’ cultural backgrounds. Needless to remind that the Pulitzer prize for fiction this year was assigned for the second time to Colson Whitehead, a black writer.

It’s easy to brand these choices as banal and comfortable publicity moves. It is undeniable that they are political choices, but their necessity in undeniable in this historical moment. They act as signals, as messages aimed at a mentality change, which is not only desirable but also compelling. They are signals that must arrive from those who hold the power in publishing and media in general. Signals that other countries, like Italy, persists to give only in a fictitious form, relegating them to a surface level, when to a the duty and the honour to debate female literature is given to a man, in the reassuring certainty that the problem of being politically correct can now be filed, and that we can finally go back - without too many subtleties – to awarding the prize to a male writer.


Pulitzer Prize 2020

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2020: when literature precedes history

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2020: Great American Novels, Black Lives Matter, archetypes and stereotypes

The almost proverbial longtime obsession that American writers have always shown to have for writing the “Great American Novel” (an expression canonised by Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel) seems to have found its perfect embodiment in the finalist trio of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Let’s be honest: not all past Pulitzer winners — let alone just finalists — have managed to contribute to the history of American literature, but this year, the year of Apocalypse apparently, our judges have provided us with a remarkable specimen of thriving American fictional prose.

 

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The 2020 #Pulitzer Prize-winning books are: 1. Fiction "The Nickel Boys," by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday) @DoubledayBooks A spare and devastating exploration of abuse at a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida that is ultimately a powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption. . 2. History Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America, by W. Caleb McDaniel (Oxford University Press) @OxUniPress. A masterfully researched meditation on reparations based on the remarkable story of a 19th-century woman who survived kidnapping and re-enslavement to sue her captor. . 3. Biography Sontag: Her Life and Work, by Benjamin Moser @BenjaminFMoser (Ecco) @EccoBooks. An authoritatively constructed work told with pathos and grace, that captures the writer’s genius and humanity alongside her addictions, sexual ambiguities and volatile enthusiasms. . 4. Poetry The Tradition, by Jericho Brown @JerichoBrown1 (@Copper_Canyon_Press) A collection of masterful lyrics that combine delicacy with historical urgency in their loving evocation of bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence. . 5. General Nonfiction The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care, by Anne Boyer (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). An elegant and unforgettable narrative about the brutality of illness and the capitalism of cancer care in America. . 6. General Nonfiction The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, by Greg Grandin (Metropolitan Books) A sweeping and beautifully written book that probes the American myth of boundless expansion and provides a compelling context for thinking about the current political moment. (Moved by the Board from the History category.) . #PulitzerPrizes #Pulitzer #Journalism #Arts #Books #Writers #Playwrights #Bookstagram #Drama #amreading #amwriting

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The victory of The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead (for the second time awarded with the prize, after his triumph in 2017 with The Underground Railroad) could not be more timely: only 21 days before the murder of George Floyd, which initiated the ongoing history-changing wave of protests of the Black Lives Matter movement, on May 4th 2020, a novel whose story revolves around white violence against black boys in an American reformatory, deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize. A prophecy? A foreshadow of things to come? Or perhaps just a signal, a symptom of the growing need for awareness on a social — and ultimately historical — issue that had been simmering just beneath the surface for way too long.

This is not simply an honest, profound, and well-timed novel on the condition of black people in the US. It is — I will be excused the redundancy from now on — a Great American Novel.

I quote from the Wikipedia page for GAN: “The term Great American Novel (GAN) refers to a canonical novel that is thought to capture the spirit of American life. It is generally regarded as being written by an American and dealing in some way with the question of America's national character. The Great American Novel is considered America's equivalent of the national epic.

The book cover of The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2020

The Nickel Boys, though not canonically “epic” with its 215 pages, does indeed capture in a robust way the spirit of contemporary American life. Despite the fictional character of this novel, older and recent history has proved that the events narrated in Whitehead’s last book — the brutality of the violent and multiform abuse against (even young) black people — are facts that permeate everyday American (and not only) society and corrode its foundations. The question of black lives is, therefore, a question of America’s national character, and Whitehead’s powerful writing immortalises it in a way that few other writers (and I’m thinking of Toni Morrison above all) have been able to do so far: this is a profoundly personal, single, individual story that has the strength to turn itself into the archetype of a universal human condition of suffering, abuse, violence, and discrimination. Creating archetypes is indeed what good writing should normally bet able to do, whereas mediocre writing fills its pages with fragile and dull stereotypes. This is why, if one of the two winners of the Man Booker Prize 2019, Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo, merely offers us a rather banal tracking shot of poorly written cliches (stereotypes, precisely!) on black women (and does not, therefore, portray a reality a reader can fully grasp), Whitehead, on the contrary, creates a fictional world that, in its uniqueness, makes the real world aware of its flaws, and resonates with archetypical strength. This is how it becomes epic too, and most resolutely deserves the title of Great American Novel.

What further enriches the literary scenario of this year’s Pulitzer Prize is the incontestable truth that the other two contenders also notably had all the characteristics of great American novels.

The book cover of The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner, is a refined and sophisticated novel depicting a certain bourgeois cross-section of American society: the protagonists are a family of psychotherapists, whose young son is a champion of public debate. The narration is polyphonic not only thanks to the multitude of voices (mother, father, son), but also to the author’s choice of alternating the first and third-person speech. The narrative technique is wise, as the secretly hidden story of a boy called Darren — that touches tangentially yet significantly the lives of the protagonists — unwinds throughout the chapters without being ever explicitly told. This is potentially a great American novel, not only because it is beautifully written and masterfully orchestrated, but also because it tackles tactfully a number of hot themes of contemporary American society. Public speech and eloquence — persuasion and its danger —, above all, feminism, mental health and psychotherapy, but also and quite remarkably the critical role of education. This pastiche of themes could have easily risked creating yet another collection of stereotypical cliches, but Ben Lerner appears to know better than this, and chooses to give his novel a vigorous framework within which these problems interact naturally and vividly, and therefore can aim at universality.

The book cover of The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Finally, we have The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett, perhaps the most traditional of the three novels: a family saga. The plot, somehow a modern and harsh rewriting of the fairytale of Cinderella, is that of two siblings (a brother and a sister, of whom the brother narrates the story), who are, on the one hand, the victims of the tragic destiny of their family (abandoned by their mother, kicked out from their family house by the second wife of their late father), and, on the other hand, the victims of their own violent obsession for the Dutch House. The house is the sumptuous place where they grew up — the materialisation of their father’s American dream, the dream of an ambitious and stubborn man, decided to substantiate his scaling of the social ladder through the possession of a dream house, the same house that will lead his wife to folly and escape.

The obsession of the two protagonists for the house will accompany them until old age and death, and will be inherited by future generations. If the plot is fundamentally simple, the feeling it conveys is undoubtedly epic: a blind, insistent, stubborn search for the evidence of the actuality of the past; a desperate chase of roots; a morbid yet rational attachment to the material possession — the house — which provided those roots; the physical and tangible component of memory.

By narrating these sentiments, universal yet so strongly connotated as typically American (isn’t in the big house, after all, the American dream?), Ann Patchett builds an epic novel, whose emotional strength is at times excruciating, whose simplicity describes folly, torment, resignation, family love, and a vast plethora of human emotions and actions. This is, in sum, a great (and in this case also traditional, though universal) American novel.

Ultimately, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2020 amazes for its foresight and for the brilliance of choices, but most remarkably teaches how literature, at times, precedes history, how the big human and social questions often surface on the written page before action takes place. How great American novels (and hopefully great universal novels) can be a driving force to action and thought.

Pulitzer Prize 2020
Colson Whitehead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction 2020. Picture by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0

Fears in Solitude Samuel Taylor Coleridge propaganda Napoleon

Coleridge’s Fears in Solitude – propaganda in Britain in 1798

Coleridge’s Fears in Solitude – propaganda in Britain in 1798

Fears in Solitude Samuel Taylor Coleridge propaganda Napoleon
Bonaparte and the Plumb Pudding

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Britain was shaking with fear.  The French were poised to invade – indeed they did manage to get ashore at one point – and the popular belief, fuelled by propaganda, was that they were savages who would wreak merciless violence on the civilian population.

Contemporary words and pictures that evoke this mood of despair are being analysed by a University of Huddersfield lecturer who also finds modern parallels with the scaremongering of two centuries ago.

“Look at how anger and emotion spread on social media.  It is mostly negative emotions that spiral out of control and as people feel compelled to respond, the panic and hostility spreads and intensifies,” says Dr Ildiko Csengei, a Senior Lecturer in English Literature.

But she is researching a time long before our present-day anxieties, when pamphlets, broadsheets, handbills and caricatures were among the media that shaped the national mood during the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France that were waged between 1793 and 1815.

Major poets too produced works that explored their response to “the Great Terror”, as it was known, and Dr Csengei’s latest articleThe Literature of Fear in Britain, appearing in the journal English Literature, focusses on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem Fears in Solitude.  This was written in 1798 “during the alarm of invasion” and followed an incident in 1797 when a French force landed at Fishguard, only to be captured.

Dr Csengei’s article includes an account of this episode, which, she writes, “is usually remembered today as a humorous shambles, with a handful of Welshmen and women triumphantly outsmarting the French”.

It was said that the French mistook local women dressed in traditional hats and red coats as British soldiers and so believed themselves to be outnumbered.  This is a myth, but women did play a part in defending Fishguard for a day, writes Dr Csengei, and they did gather on a hill – although not to frighten off the French but to watch them surrender.

Fishguard’s French invaders

The new article analyses a wide range of responses to the Fishguard incident and to persistent fears of French invasion.  Dr Csengei includes a lurid broadside titled Horrors upon Horrors that purported to report on the cruelties inflicted by French soldiers.  An 1803 Invasion Sketch predicts murderous atrocities in a London that is renamed Buonapart-opolis.

But there were also satirical and humorous responses, and Dr Csengei’s article includes reproductions of cartoons that mock the idea of French invasion, including a giant hot air balloon, complete with guillotine, carrying troops across the Channel.

“There were also images produced during the 1803-05 invasion scare that showed Napoleon as tiny and John Bull as big and strong, so it wasn’t just about generating fear but generating a sense of national bravery,” said Dr Csengei.

Coleridge’s response in Fears in Solitude is much more ambiguous.  Since it appeared, there has been debate over whether the poet was subscribing to the alarmism of the period or challenging it.

Dr Csengei argues that the poem “emerges as an artistic discourse designed reflectively to manage his own and the nation’s fears instead of perpetuating the feeling itself”.

It is an intellectual response of the kind that is much needed today, she said.

Her Coleridge article, and an earlier one about Lord Byron’s response to Waterloo, forms part of research that will lead to a book dealing with the emotional and mental health impact of the Napoleonic Wars, a period when the Romantic movement was emerging in English literature.

Today there are recognised conditions such as combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and during World War One there was the concept of shell shock.  Dr Csengei is exploring how such experiences were recorded before the development of psychiatry.  The poetry of Romantics such as Coleridge, Wordsworth and Byron is a key source, together with many first-hand accounts written by those who participated in the wars during this period.

 

Dr Ildiko Csengei’s article in ‘English Literature’ journal analyses Britain’s fear of invasion by the French at the turn of the 19th century. Her article, ‘The Literature of Fear in Britain’ focusses on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, written following an incident in 1797 when a French force landed at Fishguard.

Full bibliographic information

Title: The Literature of Fear in Britain
Author: Ildiko Csengei
Journal: English Literature 5 | 2018
DOI 10.30687/EL/2420-823X/2018/05/011
Fears in Solitude Samuel Taylor Coleridge propaganda Napoleon
Dr Ildiko Csengei

Press release from the University of Huddersfield


Breaking down Beowulf

Breaking down Beowulf

Researchers use statistical technique to find evidence that Old English poem had a single author

Illustration from Hero-myths & legends of the British race, by John Henry Frederick Bacon

It's been a towering landmark in the world of English literature for more than two centuries, but Beowulf is still the subject of fierce academic debate, in part between those who claim the epic poem is the work of a single author and those who claim it was stitched together from multiple sources.

In an effort to resolve the dispute, a team of researchers led by Madison Krieger, a post-doctoral fellow at the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics and Joseph Dexter, who received a Ph.D. from Harvard, turned to a very modern tool - a computer.

Using a statistical approach known as stylometry, which analyzes everything from the poem's meter to the number of times different combinations of letters show up in the text, Krieger and colleagues found new evidence that Beowulf is the work of a single author. The study is described in a April 8 paper published in Nature Human Behaviour.

In addition to Krieger, the study was co-authored by Leonard Neidorf from Nanjing University, an expert on Beowulf whose numerous studies include a book on the poem's transmission, as well as Michelle Yakubek, who worked on the project as a student at the Research Science Institute, and Pramit Chaudhuri from the University of Texas at Austin. Chaudhuri and Dexter are the co-directors of the Quantitative Criticism Lab, a multi-institutional group devoted to developing computational approaches for the study of literature and culture.

"We looked at four broad categories of items in the text," Krieger said. "Each line has a meter, and many lines have what we call a sense pause, which is a small pause between clauses and sentences similar to the pauses we typically mark with punctuation in Modern English. We also looked at aspects of word choice."

"But it turns out one of the best markers you can measure is not at the level of words, but at the level of letter-combinations," he continued. "So we counted all the times the author used the combination 'ab', 'ac', 'ad', and so on."

Using those metrics, Krieger said, the team combed through the Beowulf text, and found it to be consistent throughout - a result that lends further support to the theory of single authorship.

"Across many of the proposed breaks in the poem, we see that these measures are homogeneous," Krieger said. "So as far as the actual text of Beowulf is concerned, it doesn't act as though there is supposed to be a major stylistic change at these breaks. The absence of major stylistic shifts is an argument for unity."

The study is just the latest effort to pin down Beowulf's often-mysterious background.

"There are two big debates about Beowulf," Krieger explained. "The first is when it was composed, because the date of composition affects our understanding of how Beowulf is to be interpreted. For instance, whether it is a poem near or far in time from the conversion to Christianity is an important question."

The second debate among Beowulf academics, Krieger said, is related to whether the poem was the work of one author, or many.

"The first edition that was widely available to the public was published in 1815, and the unity of the work was almost immediately attacked," Krieger said. "From high school, everyone remembers the battle with Grendel and Grendel's mother, and maybe the dragon, but if you go back and read the whole poem, there are weird sections about, for instance, how good Beowulf is at swimming, and other sections that go back hundreds of years and talk about hero kings that have ostensibly nothing to do with the story. So the way we read it now... seems very disjointed."

Beowulf dragon stylometry Harvard University
"Now he belched forth flaming fire." An illustration of Beowulf fighting the dragon that appears at the end of the epic poem. Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1908), Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, p. 93

One piece of evidence that has factored into debates about unitary composition can be seen just by looking at the text.

"The handwriting is different," Krieger said. "At what I would call a random point in the poem, just mid-sentence, and not really an important sentence, the first scribe's handwriting stops, and somebody else takes over. It's clear that the second scribe also proofread the first scribe, so even though currently nobody really things that these two guys were different poets, or were joining together parts of a poem at this random mid-sentence location, it has helped contribute to a narrative according to which the writing of Beowulf, and maybe its original composition, was a long and collaborative effort.

For the nineteenth century, the prevailing view among academics was that the poem must be the work of multiple authors. It wasn't until the early 20th century that another author - one whose name is all but synonymous with epic storytelling - began to challenge that idea.

His name? J.R.R. Tolkien.

"Tolkien was one of the greatest champions of single authorship," Krieger said. "He was a very prominent Beowulf scholar, and in 1936 he wrote a landmark piece, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," that really revived the idea that it was the work of a single person."

At the heart of Tolkien's argument, Krieger said, was the way in which Christianity is reflected in the text.

"The Christianization of Beowulf is very interesting, because every single character in it is a pagan, even in these odd digressions" Krieger said. "Beowulf is from southern Sweden and goes to Denmark to help other pagan Germanic peoples fight monsters... but it's overlaid throughout with a Christian perspective and infused with Christian language." Computational evidence from the study supports Tolkien's view, from a new perspective. "Arguments based on the poem's content or its author's supposed belief system are vital, of course, but equally important are arguments based on the nitty-gritty of stylistic details. The latter also have the merit of being testable, measurable."

Though he acknowledged it's unlikely the new study will be the end of the debates about Beowulf's authorship, Krieger believes it can shed important new light on English literary traditions.

"If we really believe this is one coherent work by one person, what does it mean that it has these strange asides?" he asked. "Maybe one of the biggest takeaways from this is about how you structured a story back then. Maybe we have just lost the ability to read literature in the way people at the time would have understood it, and we should try to understand how these asides actually fit into the story."

Going forward, Krieger and colleagues are hoping to apply the stylometry tools developed for the study to other literary traditions and other landmark works.

"Even works as well-studied as the Iliad and the Odyssey have yet to be analyzed using a full array of computational tools," Krieger said. "The fine-grained features that seem to matter most have never been examined in a lot of traditions, and we're hoping to spread these techniques that we think could change the way similar problems are approached."

Krieger also hopes to use the techniques to understand the stylistic evolution of English across history.

"Putting Old English in context is the springboard," he said. "This is the birth of English literature. From here, we can look at what aspects of style evolved - not just grammar, but at the cultural level, what features people enjoyed, and how they changed over time."

Aside from their ability to shed new light on works of literature, Krieger suggested the stylometry tools used in the study might also have some thoroughly modern uses - including spotting troll farms and fake news online.

"In retrospect, we know many thousands posts on Facebook were written by the same Macedonian troll farm during the 2016 election," he said. "If we had some way to identify that posts were likely written by the same author, that would obviously be very useful in deterring misinformation campaigns."

Ultimately, though, Krieger believes the study is a prime example of how ancient texts still hold secrets that can be uncovered through the use of modern tools.

"This is the first step in taking an old debate and refreshing it with some new methodology," he said. "It's a new extension of the whole critical apparatus, and it's exciting that an area probably assumed to be very traditional can in fact be at the cutting edge of work that spans the humanities and sciences."

###

This research was supported with funding from a Neukom Institute for Computational Science CompX Grant, a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant, a New Directions Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and a Neukom Fellowship.

 

 

Press release from Harvard University