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Literature to Infinity

Literature to Infinity
January 4, 2006

Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History is a weird and stimulating little book by Franco Moretti, a professor of English and comparative literature at Stanford University. It was published a few months ago by Verso. But observation suggests that its argument, or rather its notoriety, now has much wider circulation than the book itself. That isn’t, I think, a good thing, though it is certainly the way of the world.

In a few months, Princeton University Press will bring out the first volume of The Novel: History, Geography, and Culture -- a set of papers edited by Moretti, based on the research program that he sketches in Graphs, Maps, Trees. (The Princeton edition of The Novel is a much-abridged translation of a work running to five volumes in Italian.) Perhaps that will redefine how Moretti’s work is understood. But for now, its reputation is a hostage to somewhat lazy journalistic caricature -- one mouthed, sometimes, even by people in literature departments.

What happened, it seems, is this: About two years ago, a prominent American newspaper devoted an article to Moretti’s work, announcing that he had launched a new wave of academic fashion by ignoring the content of novels and, instead, just counting them. Once, critics had practiced “close reading.” Moretti proposed what he called “distant reading.” Instead of looking at masterpieces, he and his students were preparing gigantic tables of data about how many books were published in the 19th century.

Harold Bloom, when reached for comment, gave one of those deep sighs for which he is so famous. (Imagine Zero Mostel playing a very weary Goethe.) And all over the country, people began smacking their foreheads in exaggerated gestures of astonishment. “Those wacky academics!” you could almost hear them say. “Counting novels! Whoever heard of such a thing? What’ll those professors think of next -- weighing them?”

In the meantime, it seems, Moretti and his students have been working their way across 19th century British literature with an adding machine -- tabulating shelf after shelf of Victorian novels, most of them utterly forgotten even while the Queen herself was alive. There is something almost urban legend-like about the whole enterprise. It has the quality of a cautionary tale about the dangers of pursuing graduate study in literature: You start out with a love of Dickens, but end up turning into Mr. Gradgrind.

That, anyway, is how Moretti’s “distant reading” looks ... well, from a distance. But things take on a somewhat different character if you actually spend some time with Moretti’s work itself.

As it happens, he has been publishing in English for quite some while: His collection of essays called Signs Taken for Wonders: On the Sociology of Literary Forms (Verso, 1983) was, for a long time, the only book I’d ever read by a contemporary Italian cultural theorist not named Umberto Eco. (It has recently been reissued as volume seven in Verso’s new Radical Thinkers series.) The papers in that volume include analyses of Restoration tragedy, of Balzac’s fiction, and of Joyce’s Ulysses.

In short, then, don’t believe the hype – the man is more than a bean-counter. There is even an anecdote circulating about how, during a lecture on “distant reading,” Moretti let slip a reference that he could only have known via close familiarity with an obscure 19th century novel. When questioned later -– so the story goes -– Moretti made some excuse for having accidentally read it. (Chances are this is an apocryphal story. It sounds like a reversal of David Lodge’s famous game of “intellectual strip-poker” called Humiliation.)

And yet it is quite literally true that Moretti and his followers are turning literary history into graphs and tables. So what’s really going on with Moretti’s work? Why are his students counting novels? Is there anything about “distant reading” that would be of interest to people who don’t, say, need to finish a dissertation on 19th century literature sometime soon? And the part, earlier, about how the next step would be to weigh the books -- that was a joke, right?

To address these and many other puzzling matters, I have prepared the following Brief Guide to Avoid Saying Anything Too Dumb About Franco Moretti.

He is doing literary history, not literary analysis. In other words, Moretti is not asking “What does [insert name of famous author or novel here] mean?” but rather, “How has literature changed over time? And are there patterns to how it has changed?” These are very different lines of inquiry, obviously. Moretti’s hunch is that it might be possible to think in a new way about what counts as “evidence” in cultural history.  

Yes, in crunching numbers, he is messing with your head. The idea of using statistical methods to understand the long-term development of literary trends runs against some deeply entrenched patterns of thought. It violates the old idea that the natural sciences are engaged in the explanation of mathematically describable phenomena, while the humanities are devoted to the interpretation of meanings embedded in documents and cultural artifacts.

Many people in the humanities are now used to seeing diagrams and charts analyzing the structure of a given text. But there is something disconcerting about a work of literary history filled with quantitative tables and statistical graphs. In doing so, Moretti is not just being provocative. He’s trying to get you to “think outside the text,” so to speak.

Moretti is taking the long view.... A basic point of reference for his “distant reading” is the work of Fernand Braudel and the Annales school of historians who traced the very long-term development of social and economic trends. Instead of chronicling events and the doings of individuals (the ebb and flow of history), Braudel and company looked at tendencies taking shape over decades or centuries. With his tables and graphs showing the number (and variety) of novels offered to the reading public over the years, Moretti is trying to chart the longue dure’e of literary history, much as Braudel did the centuries-long development of the Mediterranean.

Some of the results are fascinating, even to the layperson’s eye. One of Moretti’s graphs shows the emergence of the market for novels in Britain, Japan, Italy, Spain, and Nigeria between about 1700 and 2000. In each case, the number of new novels produced per year grows -- not at the smooth, gradual pace one might expect, but with the wild upward surge one might expect of a lab rat’s increasing interest in a liquid cocaine drip.

“Five countries, three continents, over two centuries apart,” writes Moretti, “and it’s the same pattern ... in twenty years or so, the graph leaps from five [to] ten new titles per year, which means one new novel every month or so, to one new novel per week. And at that point, the horizon of novel-reading changes. As long as only a handful of new titles are published each year, I mean, novels remain unreliable products, that disappear for long stretches of time, and cannot really command the loyalty of the reading public; they are commodities, yes, but commodities still waiting for a fully developed market.”

But as that market emerges and consolidates itself -- with at least one new title per week becoming available -- the novel becomes “the great capitalist oxymoron of the regular novelty: the unexpected that is produced with such efficiency and punctuality that readers become unable to do without it.”

And then the niches emerge: The subgenres of fiction that appeal to a specific readership. On another table, Moretti shows the life-span of about four dozen varieties of fiction that scholars have identified as emerging in British fiction between 1740 and 1900. The first few genres appearing in the late 18th century (for example, the courtship novel, the picaresque, the “Oriental tale,” and the epistolary novel) tend to thrive for long periods. Then something happens: After about 1810, new genres tend to emerge, rise, and decline in waves that last about 25 years each.

“Instead of changing all the time and a little at a time,” as Moretti puts it, “the system stands still for decades, and is then ‘punctuated’ by brief bursts of invention: forms change once, rapidly, across the board, and then repeat themselves for two [to] three decades....”

Genres as distinct as the “romantic farrago,” the “silver-fork novel,” and the “conversion novel” all appear and fade at about the same time -– to be replaced a different constellation of new forms. It can’t, argues Moretti, just be a matter of novelists all being inspired at the same time. (Or running out of steam all at once.) The changes reflect “a sudden, total change of their ecosystem."

Moretti is a cultural Darwinist, or something like one. Anyway, he is offering an alternative to what we might call the “intelligent design” model of literary history, in which various masterpieces are the almost sacramental representatives of some Higher Power. (Call that Power what you will -– individual genius, “the literary imagination,” society, Western Civilization, etc.) Instead, the works and the genres that survive are, in effect, literary mutations that possess qualities that somehow permit them to adapt to changes in the social ecosystem.

Sherlock Holmes, for example, was not the only detective in Victorian popular literature, nor even the first. So why is it that we still read his adventures, and not those of his competitors? Moretti and his team looked at the work of Conan Doyle’s rivals. While clues and deductions were scattered around in their texts, the authors were often a bit off about how they were connected. (A detective might notice the clues, then end up solving the mystery through a psychic experience, for example.)

Clearly the idea of solving a crime by gathering clues and decoding their relationship was in the air. It was Conan Doyle’s breakthrough to create a character whose “amazing powers” were, effectively, just an extremely acute version of the rational powers shared by the reader. But the distinctiveness of that adaptation only comes into view by looking at hundreds of other texts in the literary ecosystem.

This is the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Moretti’s project is not limited by the frontiers of any given national literature. He takes seriously Goethe’s idea that all literature is now world literature. In theory, anyway, it would be possible to create a gigantic database tracking global literary history.

This would require enormous computational power, of course, along with an army of graduate students. (Most of them getting very, very annoyed as they keypunched data about Icelandic magazine fiction of the 1920s into their laptops.)

My own feeling is that life is much too short for that. But perhaps a case can be made for the heuristic value of imagining that kind of vast overview of how cultural forms spread and mutate over time. Only in part is Moretti’s work a matter of counting and classifying particular works. Ultimately, it’s about how literature is as much a part of the infrastructure of ordinary life as the grocery store or Netscape. And like them, it is caught up in economic and ecological processes that do not respect local boundaries.

That, anyway, is an introduction to some aspects of Moretti’s work. I’ve just learned that Jonathan Goodwin, a Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Tech, is organizing an online symposium on Moretti that will start next week at The Valve.

Goodwin reports that there is a chance Moretti himself may join the fray. In the interim, I will be trying to untangle some thoughts on whether his “distant reading” might owe something to the (resolutely uncybernetic) literary theory of Georg Lukacs. And one of the participants will be Cosma Shalizi, a visiting assistant professor of statistics at Carnegie Mellon University.

It probably wouldn’t do much good to invite Harold Bloom into the conversation. He is doubtless busy reciting Paradise Lost from memory, and thinking about Moretti would not be good for his health. Besides, all the sighing would be a distraction.

 

 

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