- The Novel
Reluctance to review edited volumes and reference works runs high in the humanities, and Franco Moretti’s The Novel partakes of both categories. However, this edited collection—the first sustained effort to survey the novel as a truly global literary phenomenon—is so central to the scholarly interests of comparatists, and its list of contributors and editorial board so distinguished (including Benedict Anderson, Nancy Armstrong, Mieke Bal, Homi Bhabha, A. S. Byatt, Umberto Eco, Fredric Jameson, and of course the editor, to name just a few), that the resistance to review was easily overcome.
The challenge in reviewing edited volumes lies in evaluating the whole rather than merely listing and rating its separate parts. In the case of The Novel, additional obstacles are presented by the tremendous range and heterogeneity of the material treated, and by the fact that most readers will probably not read both volumes from first page to last. A team of reviewers would be preferable. By necessity, this review by a single individual will mainly limit itself to describing the contents and organization of these two volumes, relaying the overall effect of reading its 1,800-plus pages, and mentioning some of the high points, which undoubtedly reflect my own biases.
While I called this a reference work above, this designation must be taken with a grain of salt, since it is not really structured for reference use: titles of articles, such as Moretti’s own “Serious Century” (1:364–400), are not always helpful for locating the article appropriate to one’s own research; the choice of novels singled out for treatment is somewhat idiosyncratic; there is an author and works cited, but no topics index at the end of the second volume; and if there is any attempt at defining the novel, it is not placed front and center. Nor can one quite make one’s way chronologically, [End Page 514] though historical development and radiation of the genre is certainly the organizing principle at work. Some classic novels, such as The Adventures of Huck Finn, are analyzed in the first volume (1:841–54), while “prototypes” varying from Alejo Carpentier’s Kingdom of This World to Walter Scott’s Waverly to Hamadhanii’s Maqama—referred to specifically as a non-novel (2:144)—appear in the second.
The architectonics of the work seems almost a musical theme-and-variations with ritornelli: rather than a long list of articles, we are treated to an alternation between literary history, readings of individual works, statistical analyses of sales and marketing (1:429–530), and lexicographical entries on related terms such as midrash (1:217–24), povest’ (1:283–90), and other narrative forms. The architecture seems, however loosely, to respond to Moretti’s core-periphery thesis concerning the rise and spread of the novel. The idea of core-periphery in this collection is not only geographic, following the routes of trade and empire and the construction of a “world system,” but also generic—the articles together outline both a novelistic core and also address the various other genres lurking at the outer edges of the novel. The collection as a whole also tends to reflect Moretti’s thesis of “allopatric speciation” (Graphs, Maps, and Trees [NY: Verso, 2005]), namely that literary genres when they enter new cultural spaces become different forms. The most obvious clues lie in the titles given to major sections, for example, the very first section, “A Struggle for Space” (1:3–121), whose contributions by Jack Goody and Luiz Costa Lima, among others, signal that much of the work of defining the novel (which, in the broadest sense, can be seen as the object of these volumes) will be by contraries, stating what the novel is not and describing its uneasy relations with history, romance, and other genres. In addition, one detects in the Darwinian struggle for survival an evolutionary-biological model that harkens back to the...