“Literary Misery Index”

An article under the headline “Reading between the lines: novels are so last decade” appeared in today’s Daily Telegraph.  It said that the ‘literary misery index’ has demonstrated that  novels reflect accurately the economic hardship of the decade prior to their publication.

“The frequency with which downbeat words appear in more than five million books by authors including George Orwell, Graham Green and John Steinbeck was found too reflect economic conditions in Britain and America.

“Researchers  compared how frequently “mood” words from six categories – anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise – were used, and created the index by subtracting the number of sad words from the number of happy words.  Some periods, such as the 1980’s were clearly marked by literary misery.

“The lead author of the study, Professor Alex Bentley from the University of Bristol, said: ‘When we looked at millions of books published in English every year and looked for a specific category of words denoting unhappiness, we found that those words in aggregate averaged the authors’ economic experiences over the past decade.  It looked like Western economic history, but just shifted forward by a decade.  It makes sense if you think about authors who wrote sad books, like Steinbeck, that their choice of words would have reflected the economic conditions.  In other words, global economics is part of the shared emotional experience of the 20th century.’

“Co-author Dr Alberto Acerbi added: ‘Economic misery coincides with the First World War, the aftermath of the Great Depression and the energy crisis.  But in each case, the literary response lags by about a decade.’  Professor Bentley said: ‘Perhaps this ‘decade effect’ reflects the gap between childhood, when strong memories are formed and early adulthood, when authors may begin writing books.’

“The study, published online by Plos One, also found the same correlation in German novels.”

As I think about this study, it seems to make some sense.  The mood of an author will certainly be coloured by his/her experience of the world.  I’m not so convinced that the cause of the effect is just economic.  What about the effects of major wars – like the First and Second World Wars?  And what about the effect of the socio/political situation?  Would authors writing after the Stalinist period in Russia have a more pessimistic slant than those writing today?  And what about the ten year time lag?  To me it doesn’t seem right to correlate the ten year time lag to the period between childhood and authorship.  For most authors it is more like twenty years, and in my case it’s a lot more than twenty!  Perhaps the time lag has more to do with the aggregate effect of human memory: memories older than ten years begin to fade in importance, and memories younger than ten years haven’t taken their full effect.

What do you think?


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