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Posted January 10, 2004
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Studying Literature By the Numbers


If Franco Moretti had his way, literature scholars would stop reading books and start counting, graphing and mapping them instead. For an English professor, this is an ambition verging on apostasy. But Mr. Moretti, a professor of English and comparative literature at Stanford and director of the university's center for the study of the novel, insists that such a move could bring new luster to a tired field, one that in some respects, he says, is among "the most backwards disciplines in the academy."

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Cris Wade-Jone for The New York Times
Franco Moretti, a professor at Stanford, proposes a more systematic, scientific approach to scholarship: Literature as data.

Mr. Moretti, 53, has been honing his vision of a text-free literary scholarship in books and articles over the last two decades. And now he is issuing a manifesto. "Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History," which just appeared in the November/December issue of New Left Review, a British journal of politics and culture, is merely the first installment. (Two more will follow in subsequent issues.) But in it Mr. Moretti makes his most forceful case yet for his approach, a heretical blend of quantitative history, geography and evolutionary theory.

Literary study, he argues, has been a random, unsystematic affair. For any given period, scholars focus on a select group of a mere few hundred texts: the canon. As a result, they have allowed a narrow, distorting slice of literary history to pass for the total picture.

"What a minimal fraction of the literary field we all work on," Mr. Moretti declares, tactfully including himself among the guilty. "A canon of 200 novels, for instance, sounds very large for 19th-century Britain (and is much larger than the current one), but is still less than 1 per cent of the novels that were actually published: 20,000, 30, more, no one really knows — and close reading won't help here, a novel a day every day of the year would take a century or so."

The perils of such a method, he writes, are clear: "A field this large cannot be understood by stitching together separate bits of knowledge about individual cases, because it isn't a sum of individual cases: it's a collective system, that should be grasped as such, as a whole."

Equally clear, he maintains, is the remedy: the way to "a more rational literary history" is to replace close reading with abstract models borrowed from the sciences.

Where other scholars quote from "Pamela," "Moll Flanders" or "Tom Jones" — traditionally considered among the first modern novels — Mr. Moretti offers bar charts, maps and time lines instead. A vast synthesis of material (much of it gathered by other scholars working on a single period or genre), his is a history of literature as data points, one that looks as if it could have been lifted from an economics textbook.

Here the 18th-century British novel is represented by its publication rate: a single, undulating fever line. Likewise entire genres — including the epistolary, the gothic and the historical novel — as well the literary outputs of countries like Japan, Italy, Spain and Nigeria.

Viewed from this level of abstraction, Mr. Moretti argues, literary history looks significantly different from what is commonly supposed. For example, it is clear, he writes, that the novel did not experience a single "rise," as is frequently taught (following the title of a famous book by the critic Ian Watt), but went through repeated cycles of growth and retrenchment, with political crises corresponding to dips in publication rates. So, too, according to another graph, did the ratio of male to female authors.

As Mr. Moretti sums up the point: "It's fascinating to see how researchers are convinced that they are all describing something unique (the gender shift, the elevation of the novel, the gentrification, the invention of high and low, the feminization, the sentimental education, the invasion . . . ), whereas in all likelihood they are all observing the same comet that keeps crossing and recrossing the sky: the same literary cycle."

In some ways, Mr. Moretti's quantitative method is simply the latest in a long line of efforts to make literary criticism look more like science. From Russian formalism in the 1920's to New Criticism in the 1950's and structuralism and semiotics in the 1960's and 70's, the discipline's major movements share a desire to portray literature as a system governed by hidden laws and structures whose operations it is the critic's job to reveal. But in its formal renunciation of individual texts — and, more provocatively, of reading — Mr. Moretti's approach, at least as he sketches it in New Left Review, is conceivably more radical than anything his predecessors dreamed up.

Which doesn't mean that he always knows what to make of his findings. For example, disparate novelistic genres, when mapped out together across a time line, appear to share some intriguing features: an individual life span of about 25 to 30 years and a tendency to emerge and die out in clusters. Thirty years is the length of a human generation, Mr. Moretti notes. But then, he concedes, people are born — and generations begun — every day. So what explains the regularity with which genres appear and disappear? Mr. Moretti isn't sure. But it is precisely this kind of question, he argues, that scholars have overlooked by focusing on specific texts rather than literature as a whole.

As he put it in a telephone interview from Rome, where he was on vacation: "The big picture is not just bigger in terms of the number of texts. The system is literally a system with different properties than individual texts. This is something literary studies would never face if we just kept reading and rereading the same texts."

A professor whose vision is 'literature without texts.'

Maybe so. But given the extent to which instruction, research and reputations in the field are yoked to just that activity, even Mr. Moretti's admirers say his approach is unlikely to win many converts. "It's an extraordinarily brave and promising project that carries the danger of taking the study of literature away from reading, which is what keeps us and our students going," said Jonathan Arac, the chairman of the English department at Columbia University and a specialist in the 19th- and 20th-century novel.

Harold Bloom, the Yale English professor famous for his prodigious command of canonical literature, was more dismissive. Interrupting a description of the theory, he pronounced Mr. Moretti "an absurdity."

"I am interested in reading," he said with an audible shudder. "That's all I'm interested in."

Mr. Moretti cheerfully acknowledged that his ideas were controversial. But that has not dampened his enthusiasm. "After Christmas, I'm going to teach a class on electronic data in which we will work on 8,000 titles from the mid-18th century to the 19th century," he said, eagerly elaborating his vision of what he called "literature without texts."

"My little dream," he added wistfully, "is of a literary class that would look more like a lab than a Platonic academy."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Arts & Ideas, of Saturday, January 10, 2004., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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