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  • Structure, Change, and Survival: A Response To Winthrop-young
  • Franco Moretti (bio)

Geoffrey Winthrop-Young’s is the sort of review article one dreams of: long, intelligent, and very generous. So, first of all, thanks. And thanks also for the clarity with which disagreements are expressed. In the same spirit, here is a brief response.

The first area of disagreement comes early in the article, when Winthrop-Young claims that in the Atlas, “the here and now of a specific location suffers something akin to the fate of a Barthesian myth: its specificity is subordinated to a signifying function as part of an established narrative sequence. But as Moretti chooses not to address the question of how this transformation is achieved, his discussion tends to gloss over the differences between geographical, literary, and imaginary locations” [7]. Frankly, I don’t think this is true. I often do exactly what Winthrop-Young demands, using a sequence of maps to clarify the successive steps by which a geographical space ends up supporting a specific narrative strucure: see the Austen maps that open the book, or the picaresque sequence in the first chapter, or the Balzac and Dickens maps in the second chapter—where I also address the issue in conceptual terms in a section entitled “Stories of the Third.” It’s true that I don’t do so in every case (as perhaps I should), and Winthrop-Young may of course disagree with the way I chart the transformation of space into narrative, but he cannot deny that I am doing so. The fact that those maps compose sequences of increasing complexity (as is particularly clear for Austen and Our Mutual Friend) proves precisely that I am indeed mapping a “transformation” of relatively simple beginnings into a complicated final structure. Incidentally, I do something similar in Modern Epic, where I describe how Joyce’s stream of consciousness “grows” from rather slim paragraphs to the plump ones we read now, or follow the slow rise of Ulysses’s polyphony. Again: my theses may be wrong—but they are an attempt to follow the step-by-step structuration of a text (or genre). This, after all, is the basic test of critical materialism: if we cannot describe the how and the why of the various steps, we are implicitly invoking “creativity” as an explanation for literary products. Which is a bit like invoking God. But on the futility of this, Winthrop-Young and I probably agree.

The second disagreement regards the tempo of literary history: does morphological change occur in brief bursts separated by long periods of stasis (as in Eldredge and Gould’s punctuated equilibria)—or is it more evenly distributed across time? Here, Winthrop-Young claims [36, fn 5] that my attempt to see Schwarz’s account of Brazilian modernism and the genesis of magic realism as a single instance of punctuated equilibria is contradicted by historical evidence. He is right. Years ago, I adopted punctuated equilibria because it proved better than any rival theory at explaining the peculiar rapidity of many literary turning points (baroque drama; the rise of the British novel; the modernist season of European literature). From this initial conviction, I was (unconsciously) led to generalize, and to treat every case of major morphological change as an instance of punctuated equilibria. This was silly, and Winthrop-Young is right in criticizing me. However, he would probably agree that a single (or even a few) contrary [End Page 41] instances do not invalidate a theory in its entirety, and that what we most need is to know more about how literary change occurs. Only after such an empirical reconnaissance will the testing of theories be on a truly sound basis. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if we discovered that literary change can occur in more than one way, and that we need more than one theory to account for it; still, all I know of literary history suggests that punctuated equilibria will be the theory with greatest explanatory power.

The last disagreement concerns literary selection: specifically, whether my view of it is indeed Darwinian, or whether I Lamarck-like “transform the concept of selection from the traditional passive filter...

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pp. 41-42
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