- Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History
Franco Moretti's very small book makes some very big claims. Not all of these are immediately relevant to the concerns of the readers of The Library, but Moretti makes a point that no one engaged in the study of book culture can ignore: 'I no longer believe that a single explanatory framework may account for the many levels of literary production and their multiple links with the larger social system' (p. 92). Given how much the study of the book has broadened over the past two decades this conclusion is unsurprising. However, Moretti is a Marxist, though he encompasses [End Page 342] in his study of book culture not only production and circulation, but the strictly literary operations of specific genres. He does so using models more prevalent in economics and geography than in literary study. The result may be an eye-catching addition to the methodology of book culture, but it also results in a sharp attack on a central concept in the study of literature since the Alexandrian Greeks two thousand years ago cultivated the idea of the 'canon': that some works by their inherent merit rise above others, and consequently both endure and deserve to endure. Not a bit of it, says Moretti, and with his graphs, maps, and trees proceeds to show why.
Scientific, and especially quantitative analysis has had a very bad press in the humanities, as Moretti knows. His strategy is to take the offence by announcing his approach as a new direction in literary theory: 'instead of concrete, individual works, a trio of artificial constructs — graphs, maps and trees — in which the reality of the text undergoes a process of deliberate reduction and abstraction. "Distant reading" [...] where distance is however not an obstacle but a specific form of knowledge' (p. 1). 'The very small and the very large; these are the forces that shape literary history', he observes. 'Devices and genres, not texts. Texts are certainly the real objects of literature [...] but they are not the right objects of knowledge for literary history' (p. 76).
In Chapter 1, 'Graphs', Moretti's case study is the novel. Using standard data in publications by W. H. McBurney, J. C. Beasley, and James Raven, and comparing it with similar sources covering Japan, Spain, Italy, and Nigeria, he traces the number of new novels per year, chiefly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His graphs disclose nothing like the standard concept of 'the rise of the novel', but rather a wave-like movement that rises and falls in response to external events. Turning to the graphing of genres (courtship novel, sporting novel, Imperial Gothic, etc.) he detects a similar hidden rhythm. We may search for the causes of the oscillation, but what we should be observing is the pattern itself. Here he abandons the quantitative method and turns to morphology, concluding that 'the cycle is the hidden thread of literary history' (p. 26); the rise of this or that genre is a mere variation in a conflict that remains constant. This is not as banal as it seems, for Moretti points out how the oscillation enables the genre to exploit a double pool of talents and forms, and thus shapes it not as a single form, but as a constantly diversifying one.
In Chapter 2, Moretti maps the locations of Miss Mitford's Our Village (1824–32) as well as of stories by the Scottish John Galt and the German Berthold Auerbach, and the locations of the protagonists of Parisian novels (all on the Left Bank) and the objects of their desire (all on the Right Bank). Cultural mapping is standard stuff in contemporary geography, and though Moretti's earlier work has had its critics, his results here are genuinely illuminating, pointing as they do to the matrix of relations that emerges. In the case of Our Village he shows how ruthlessly its locations are dispersed between 1824 and 1832, and with it the idyllic focus of the genre...