Sunday, January 08, 2006


Literature By Numbers

Thursday's Inside Higher Ed has a great article by Scott McLemee on literary theorist Franco Moretti, author of Graphs, Maps and Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History and the upcoming The Novel: History, Geography and Culture:
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.... 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.
It's basically a rhetorical stunt to oppose close reading and "distant reading": there's no reason they can't co-exist. When I was taking classes by one of the best literary specialists I've ever met -- David Reynolds, who has since written on Whitman and John Brown -- he was fulsome in his praise of one study that analyzed old New York Public Library call slips to determine library reading habits from a century earlier. (The upshot, as I recall, was that despite received wisdom to the contrary, just as many men as women were reading novels back then.)

Anyway, despite the silly posturing, it sounds like there's some very interesting stuff in Moretti:

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.".... 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.

Of course, the devil will be in the details on just how he classified them, but by Moretti's account niche fiction consistently rises and then falls over the course of about one generation -- about 25 years or so. Actually, the generational comparison might be a rather apt one, as McLemee points out:

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.

This is pretty much the argument I made in The Believer a while back about Virginius Dabney's utterly forgotten but extraordinarily ambitious novel Don Miff: there's lots of brilliant work out there, but it must be brilliance that can be adapted to our present needs -- otherwise, it goes extinct. It will not surprise any of my readers that I've always been very skeptical of the Great Man model of history, particularly when applied to something as subjective as literature. Moretti sounds like a fellow after my own heart in this regard, and I'll be first in line when his book comes out.

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