Nicholas Lezard looks at a new scientific “formula” that can, it is claimed, identify a given author’s stylistic “fingerprint”: the key, it appears, is “the frequency with which authors use new words.” Lezard is not impressed:
For any reasonably well-read person should be able to tell whether a text is by Hardy, Melville or Lawrence almost at a glance even if they haven’t read it before. . . . Do you remember when, years ago, some dismal piece of doggerel (which began, as I recall, with the lines “Shall I die?/Shall I fly?”) was, on the basis of word-frequency, claimed to be a hitherto undiscovered work by Shakespeare? A few people were impolite enough to point out that it was far too shit for Shakespeare to have written, but on the whole news agencies and those with a tin ear for poetry went along with the assertion. It even made it into an edition of his collected works, but I think now has been quietly dropped.
Leaving aside the question of whether this new formula is reliable — I don’t know enough about it to have an opinion, and I doubt that Lezard does either — I wonder about Lezard’s claim that a given writer’s style is so readily identifiable by “any reasonably well-read person.” (“Almost at a glance”?) That would depend, I guess, on several things: first, how distinctive that style is — Dickens is more highly mannered than George Eliot, Pynchon more so than Philip Roth — , but also how large a sample one would get to work from, and what the sample happened to be. Distinctive as Dickens is, I could find paragraphs from his novels that would be hard to distinguish from Trollopian passages of similar length. Sometimes even the most peculiar writer just has to get on with the business of telling a story. (Similar caveats would need to be made about the evaluation of poetic style.)