Tuesday, January 24, 2006

89 Pages, 33 Figures

Or more than one figure every third page. Thus begins my attempt to quantify the content of Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees – an endeavour of which he might approve. If Moretti succeeds, future historians of literary history will track its progress to the sure path of science with graphs that illustrate the growing use of graphs over the course of generations, and with trees that display the survival of the fittest branch of literary history – the one in which trees appear.

The book is a paradox. Sold as a "heretical argument" against close reading, it contains not a word of critique. (See, instead, Moretti's "Conjectures on World Literature".) And perceived as a work of brilliance, its principal "results" can seem quite lame:
Graphs: Novelistic genres are born and die off in cycles of twenty-five or thirty years; but we don't know why.

Maps: The geographical or geometrical arrangement of narrated events in the "village novel" was changed by such political upheavals as rural class struggle and the industrial revolution.

Trees: People who read detective fiction like to be given intriguing clues, and preferably ones they could in principle decode; this explains why Sherlock Holmes survived.
Nevertheless, it is virtually impossible not to be caught up in the magic of Moretti's approach, which begins with the brute fact of quantity.
[A] canon of two hundred novels, for instance, sounds very large for nineteenth-century Britain (and is much larger than the current one), but is still less than one per cent of the novels that were actually published: twenty thousand, thirty, more, no one really knows – and close reading won't help here, a novel a day every day would take a century or so…
To know the canon is not to know what people used to read. Hence the need for alternative methods in literary history. The lame conclusions sketched above are really just illustrations of these methods, whose introduction is the main ambition of the book: using graphs to chart publication figures, maps to locate narrated events, and trees to study variation in the tropes that define a literary form.

In each case, the application of the methods is mostly inconclusive. But it belongs to Moretti's charm that he is at once grandiose and terribly modest. As he remarks about his own efforts (in Graphs): "Clearly, we must do better."

The book is very short. (89 pages with 33 figures: only 56 pages of text!) It is compulsively readable. And it is visually beautiful: perfect for "distant reading", though not quite in Moretti's sense.


Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

A postscript and acknowledgement: Graphs, Maps, Trees has been the subject of a recent "book event" at The Valve. (See, especially, this interesting response.) Also: an article on Moretti from n+1.

10:01 AM  
Anonymous IB Perfect said...

Thanks for the recommendation.

The book seems interesting. I will purchase it the next time I frequent Barnes and Noble bookstore. =)

2:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, I finally read this book, at your suggestion, and I have to say: it's fun, but it's pretty bad. Case in point: the evolutionary argument of Trees. Moretti purports to establish his theory, that Sherlock Holmes survived because of the special clues, without considering any serious alternative. His evidence is little more than: it survived, and it has special clues; surely no coincidence? That's awfully weak! When he examines the actual development of detective stories, from 1891-1900 (in fig. 31, p. 74), his evidence conflicts with his own hypothesis. Books with decodable clues did not flourish, and ones without them did.

I understand your enthusiasm for Moretti's "scientific" approach, but the execution is so embarrassing one has to wonder whether he is taking it seriously himself.

4:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoy: http://newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2389

7:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Moretti replies to some recent criticism.

10:57 AM  

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