Class 3 (English 197 – Fall 2022)

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Class Business

Practicum 1: Google Books Ngram Viewer Exercise

Student outputs

“Distant Reading”

Cover of Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, TreesFranco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees (2007), pp. 1-33

‘Distant reading’, I have once called this type of approach; where distance is however not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection. Shapes, relations, structures. Forms. Models. (3)

… 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 of the year would take a century or so . . . And it’s not even a matter of time, but of method: 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 — and the graphs that follow are one way to begin doing this.(4)

Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees, Fig. 2.
Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees, Fig. 2.

(Figure 2, p. 7)

Quantitative research provides a type of data which is ideally independent of interpretations, I said earlier, and that is of course also its limit: it provides data, not interpretation. That figure 2 shows a first ‘rise’ (when the novel becomes a necessity of life), and then a second (the shift from the past to the present), and then a third (the multiplication of market niches), seems to me a good account of the data, but is certainly far from inevitable. Quantitative data can tell us when Britain produced one new novel per month, or week, or day, or hour for that matter, but where the sigriificant turning points lie along the continuum — and why — is something that must be decided on a different basis. (9)

Now, ‘temporary structures’ is also a good definition for — genres: morphological arrangements that last in time, but always only for some time. Janus-like creatures, with one face turned to history and the other to form, genres are thus the true protagonists of this middle layer of literary history-this more ‘rational’ layer where flow and form meet. (14)

Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees, Fig. 7.
Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees, Fig. 7.

(Figure 7, p. 15)

Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees, Fig. 9.
Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees, Fig. 9.

(Figure 9, p. 19)

The causal mechanism must thus be external to the genres, and common to all: like a sudden, total change of their ecosystem. Which is to say: a change of their audience. Books survive if they are read and disappear if they aren’t: and when an entire generic system vanishes at once, the likeliest explanation is that its readers vanished at once.
This, then, is where those 25-30 years come from: generations. (20-21)

… to make sense of quantitative data, I had to abandon the quantitative universe, and turn to morphology: evoke form, in order to explain figures. Here, the figures of the literary market.

[Note]: See here how a quantitative history of literature is also a profondly formalist one – especially at the beginning and at the end of the research process. At the end, for the reasons we have just seen; and at the beginning, because a formal concept is usually what makes quantification possible in the first place: since a series must be composed of homogeneous objects, a morphological category is needed’ — novel’, ‘anti-Jacobin novel’, ‘comedy’, etc — to establish such homogeneity.

(24, 25n)

Quantification poses the problem, then, and form offers the solution. But let me add: if you are lucky. Because the asymmetry of a quantitative explanandum and a qualitative explanans leaves you often with a perfectly clear problem-and no idea of a solution. In ‘Planet Hollywood’, for instance, it turned out that absolutely all Italian box office hits of the sample decade were comedies; why that was so, however, was completely unclear. I felt I had to say something, so I presented an ‘explanation’, and NLR [New Literary History] indulgently printed it; but it was silly of me, because the most interesting aspect of those data was that I had found a problem for which I had absolutely no solution. And problems without a solution are exactly what we need in a field like ours, where we are used to asking only those questions for which we already have an answer. ‘I have noticed: says Brecht’s Herr Keuner, ‘that we put many people off our teaching because we have an answer to everything. Could we not, in the interest of propaganda, draw up a list of the questions that appear to us completely unsolved?’ (26)

Both synchronically and diachronically, in other words, the novel is the system of its genres: the whole diagram, not one privileged part of it. Some genres are morphologically more significant, of course, or more popular, or both — and we must account for this: but not by pretending that they are the only ones that exist. And instead, all great theories of the novel have precisely reduced the novel to one basic form only (realism, the dialogic, romance, meta-novels … ); and if the reduction has given them their elegance and power, it has also erased nine tenths of literary history. Too much. (30)

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