Digital Literary Stylistics in Utrecht: A Report on the DH2019 Conference

Most of us are back from the post-conference summer break: Time to revisit! Seven weeks have passed since the DH2019 conference in Utrecht: presented as the biggest DH conference so far (with about 1,100 participants and more than 400 presented papers), it also distinguished itself for the number and quality of contributions in digital literary stylistics. With this post, through highlights and summaries, we try to provide an overview of the most recent outcomes of stylistics research in DH. Well aware that (as our colleague José Calvo Tello already highlighted when reporting on DHd2018) these notes cannot be considered but a preliminary, incomplete, and subjective report on a much more complex and stratified event. As usual, more information can be found in the conference programme and book of abstracts, both available on the conference website. To extend the variety of documentation, then, the #dh2019 and #sig_dls hashtags were remarkably active on Twitter, while participants like Geoffrey Rockwell even shared their conference notes online.

But well, if you would like to know the specific point of view of the SIG-DLS (and, more specifically, of the member who’s writing this report), here are a few notes.

The first step, inevitably, is the pre-conference workshop organized by the SIG-DLS steering committee. Held on the morning of 9 July, DLS Tool Criticism. An Anatomy of Use Cases was conceived as a moment of self-reflection (and of self-criticism) on the tools and methodologies most frequently used in digital literary stylistics. During the workshop, Clémence Jacquot presented her use of the TXM software in the study of Apollinaire’s poetry (stimulating a discussion on limits and potentials of pre-compiled, user-friendly tools for the study of style); Geoffrey Rockwell presented a case study and a theoretical reflection on the concept of replication (thus rekindling the still lively discussion sparked by Nan Da’s criticism, but going beyond, querying ‘replication’ as a more flexible concept); and Steffen Pielström resisted the temptation to advertise his efficient topic modeling tool, inciting on the contrary an acute disputation on the pros and cons (and on the aleas) of such a technique. One of the major achievements in the final discussion was the shared impression that the quantitative/qualitative dichotomy is simply misleading, and digital literary stylistics will have to move beyond it, looking for a more organic integration of approaches.

The SIG_DLS Workshop (photo credit: J. Berenike Herrmann)

When reaching the bulk of the conference, the impressions we can record here become inevitably more random and scattered. A general trend was evident, however, with digital stylistics contributions divided roughly in two main categories: methodological analyses, providing very advanced and stimulating discussions of (more or less) shared approaches; and applications on complex and engaging case studies. This can be considered as a reflection of the state of things in stylometry, where methodological research is needed to ground more and more steadily the scientific rigor of the approaches (with the risk of an excessive technicism), and new applications even more so, if our research field is to gain  recognition beyond the boundaries of DH.

Among the methodological papers, some titles call for a specific mention. In “Comparing Assonance and Consonance for Authorship Attribution”, Lubomir Ivanov proposed prosodic elements as possible new features in stylometric classification, considering the extremely relevant role of prosody in 18th century prose (and beyond). His experiments showed how the combination of assonance/consonance with traditional stylometric methods generates significant improvements in the classification. Further research on the subject is definitely advised! In “Feature Selection in Authorship Attribution: Ordering the Wordlist”, Maciej Eder and Joanna Byszuk worked on the effects of re-ordering the (traditional) list of features. Main discovery: a combination of term frequency (the widely-used MFW) and a coefficient of variation slightly improves the results. Finally, in “Identifying Similarities in Text Analysis: Hierarchical Clustering (Linkage) versus Network Clustering (Community Detection)”, a team of four researchers led by Jeremi Ochab tried to provide an answer to a still under-studied–but ever-present–question in stylometric classification: how do I cluster the texts to visualize similarity/dissimilarity? Results showed that network clustering tends to underestimate the actual number of clusters, while hierarchical clustering overestimates it (and of course, which one is better will depend on the research question!). Traditional algorithms (Ward, Louvain) were confirmed as the most efficient.

Placing itself between method and application, David L. Hoover proposed his “Invisible Translator Revisited”. Given the (supposed) invisibility of the translator in stylometry, Hoover proposed a method for making her visible again, by filtering out the words preferred by the author. The approach showed surprisingly effective, but will it work for all pairs of authors-translators? As it happens, the idea found an indirect confirmation in “Attributions Of Early German Shakespeare Translations”, where a team of three researchers led by David Lassner was equally successful in revealing the translator (here, by combining advanced classification methods based on sub-word-level features). Shifting the focus towards themes and genres, Fotis Jannidis and his colleagues (in “Thematic complexity”) used two approaches, LDA and Zeta, to model genre distribution and to measure thematic complexity (via the “Gini index”) for dime novels and high-brow genres. Their results support their hypothesis of high literature comprising a broader spectrum of subject areas than pulp fiction genres. On a similar line of enquiry, a team of seven researchers led by J.D. Porter used stylometric approaches to identify passages in novels that adopt stylistic traits from other genres (in the paper “Microgenres”).

Miffy’s Traffic Light (photo credit: J. Berenike Herrmann)

Moving then to the applications, it is worth mentioning “Challenging Stylometry: The Authorship of the Baroque Play La Segunda Celestina”, by Laura Hernández Lorenzo and Joanna Byszuk (who wins our award of the most prolific stylometrician, with three co-authored papers, and who on top of that also has contributed a SIG-DLS blog post!). That of La Segunda Celestina is a real “challenge” for authorship attribution: in fact, the results of the analysis did not limit themselves to “solving” the problem, but suggested possible new lines of enquiry. In “Stylometric Analyses of Character Speeches in French Plays”, then, Ioana Galleron provided an effective example of “scalable reading”, combining multiple approaches to distinguish the style of male and female characters. Finally, Massimo Salgaro and Simone Rebora (i.e. myself, in the panel “Digital Humanities for the Study of Social Reading”) showed how stylometric approaches can also be used to distinguish professional and non-professional book reviews.

A conclusive note should be dedicated to “Stylometry for Noisy Medieval Data: Evaluating Paul Meyer’s Hagiographic Hypothesis” by Ariane Pinche, Jean-Baptiste Camps, and Thibault Clérice. The work stands out as a perfect realization of a processing pipeline (from handwritten text recognition to stylometric classification, with advanced techniques to reduce noise and manage spelling variants) that instantiates a fruitful dialogue with traditional literary research, by confirming (and in part disputing) Paul Meyer’s hypotheses about the composition of the French saint’s Lives. The paper was awarded the Paul Fortier Prize for the best young scholar paper of the conference. A further success that confirms the increasingly central position of digital literary stylistics in DH research.

The SIG-DLS steering committee reiterates their congratulations to Ariane, Jean-Baptiste, and Thibault, but also to the Programme Committee chairs Elena and Fabio, and to the local organizers Joris and Franciska, for making such a spectacular conference possible. Looking forward to meeting you all again in Ottawa (hopefully, with even more stylometry to discuss)!

Doctors in lusophone literature

How often is a medical doctor cited in literary works written in Portuguese in the period 1840-1919? How much can this illuminate the importance of medicine in the society, and the socio-economical status and prestige of the doctor in particular?

This question lies at the intersection of two research communities or projects I am involved in: ILLREP, the representation of illness and disability in literary and cultural texts, an interdisciplinary research group at the University of Oslo, and the COST action “Distant reading for European literary history”, a large and exciting endeavour with more than 30 participating countries, aiming to investigate (among other things) the relationships, similarities and differences between different literatures, more specifically their novels. This January (2019), in a plenary session of the COST action, the analysis of the socio-professional profiles that can be found in the various literatures was elected as one of the research angles that should be addressed. Or, removing the jargon, are butchers, writers or soldiers, proeminent in each or all literatures? Are duchesses, governesses and cooks equally present?

In this respect, a subquestion, the one I am concerned with here, is: and what about the health professions? How do doctors fare in fiction, compared for example to clergymen (of different persuasions)?

Having ca. 800 literary works in Portuguese in Literateca, in 6 different literary corpora spanning from 1380 to the present, richly syntactically and semantically annotated, there are a lot of questions we can pursue. For this particular issue, we restricted the corpus to novels originally written in Portuguese in the COST period (1840-1919), but not to European origin only, since it is lusophone literature (i.e., works originally written in Portuguese) which concern us.

In addition to several other investigations in this subcorpus concerning health and illness, we looked at the lexemes “médico” and “facultativo” in some detail, and hope that this will provide an interesting point of comparison for other languages.

But first we should perhaps stress that Portuguese literature has many authors who are doctors. In fact this is something that is interesting per se, and may bring a special flavour to Portuguese literature. After all, it is conceivable, although by not means guaranteed, that this may bring more doctors and more medicine talk to the literature. In any case, this is probably not a conspicuous feature of the COST period, since this multitude of doctor writers is mainly true of the 20th century.

Anyway, one the most read and beloved works of the COST period, As Pupilas do Senhor Reitor (1867), written by a doctor (Júlio Dinis, see picture), has one doctor as its main character, and another doctor type which has become the stereotype/model of the country doctor, as a recent text in the Portuguese Medical Journal has highlighted.

So, what are the figures concerning doctors in the 172 novels in this period that we investigated? The first thing is that there is reference to a medical profession in 83% of them, more precisely in 143. And there are 18 novels where there are more than 30 mentions to doctors, which make us believe that they have a character with this profession. This means that 10% of the novels are (partially) about doctors.

Now, is this interesting? Is this different from the other literatures? Is this something that indicates either a particular concern with health or a period of scientific enlightenment in Portuguese-speaking belles-lettres? One needs of course to look into those novels in more detail, as well as to produce a specific classification of the kind of doctor involved (main character, secondary character, type, generic). Also, onet should assess how relevant for the plot it is that a character is a doctor or not.

Let me give some examples of different cases, from a selection of those novels with a high proportion of references to the profession (4 out of the 18 which have more than 30 mentions).
In the already mentioned Pupilas, in addition to present a model of the country doctor, it is relevant for the plot that the main character has to go to the city to study, and come back to the village invested in a new status. However, and notwithstanding some of the funniest scenes of Portuguese literature in his encounters with the old-fashioned chemist and his wife and daughter, for the main plot I believe he could have studied law instead.
In the novel O Dr. Luiz Sandoval, by Alice Moderno (1892) it is just relevant for the plot that the first encounter between the main characters was motivated by his coming into her house as a doctor, but for all the rest of the story he could well have been a neighbour of whatever profession.
In the novel A ermida de Castromino, by Teixeira de Vasconcellos (1870), the main character is a doctor who has to become a trader due to money problems. However, some of the plot events are related to his profession, in that he becomes a sort of “resident doctor” of a particular family, and ends being a renowned friar canonized by the people due to the health suggestions he gives to those who come to see him.
Finally, in A caveira da mártir, by Camilo Castelo Branco (1876), the medical doctor character is the evil one, but again all his deeds have little to do with his profession.

Now, is this similar in other literatures? From a very small pilot study we did with profession tagging in COST, and although “doctor” in most languages is ambiguous between medical doctor and simply university graduated, some form of “doctor” was one of the most common professions in six of the seven languages we probed from ca. 30,000 words from 10 books per language.

On the other hand, it is perhaps understandable that (medical) doctors are more common in contemporary than historical novels. The subgenre of the novel, and the literary school it pertains to, is obviously relevant. We have already been able to detect a significant correlation between the health domain and the naturalist school. But this will have to become another post…


Picture Credit.

By Unknown – Romanov Family Album 3, page 37, image no. 8, Public Domain,

Por Afonsomsilva97 – Obra do próprio, CC BY-SA 4.0,