Moretti, Franco

Assigned: Moretti, Franco. From Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, Chapter 1. “Graphs”(2255-77). Also read the editors’ introduction (2252-54).

From Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2003/2005)

Chapter 1. Graphs

1. On 2255 (“Before the advent of the…”), how does Franco Moretti encapsulate traditional historiography using the words of Krzysztof Pomian? What is thereby implied about the nature of the understanding that such historiography achieves? What alternative to this model does Moretti introduce to his readers, and how, in his view, does Fernand Braudel of the Annales School in France provide a vision of history as more intelligible than an individual’s life (or a single piece of literature, if we are discussing literary history) could ever be?

Part I

2. On 2256 (“The quantitative approach to…”), how does Moretti describe “book history” as one variety of the “quantitative approach to literature”? What is involved in gathering the necessary materials for such historical research? What does Moretti suggest about the significance of the sheer quantity and regularity of novel production at various periods in history? Why, that is, does it matter how many novels are written and marketed over certain periods of time?

Part II

3. On 2256-59 (“The rise of the novel, then…”), what inferences does Moretti make based upon the data tracking three phases of one particular “rise of the novel” that occurred between 1720-1850? (2256-57) During these respective phases, what happened to readers’ attitudes towards the novels they read? (2258-59) What limitation does Moretti admit with regard to his use of graphs as a way of marking literary developments—what can’t they tell us, and why? (2259)

Part III

4. On 2259-62 (“A—multiple—rise of the novel…”), what do the quantitative data suggest to Moretti about the fall of novel production from 1780-1870 in Japan? What seems to have been responsible for Japan’s striking and multiple downturns in this kind of literary production? (2259-60) Similarly, what do the data for Denmark, France, and Italy suggest in this regard? (2259, 2261) How is a certain period in Indian literary output something of an exception in terms of the correlation between politics and literary production? (2261-62)

Part IV

5. On 2262-66 (“An antipathy between politics and…”), as Moretti ponders the data on the rise and fall of the novel in various nations, what methodological question comes to the fore, and how does he respond to it? (2262) Since he borrows Fernand Braudel’s tripartite division of historiographers’ treatment of time: “Event, cycle, longue durée” (2263), what does Moretti suggest about the importance of the middle term, the cycle? How do cycles mediate between the short event and the very long, stable stretch of time? In addition, how is genre similar in importance and function to the historical cycles of literature? (2263) What does Moretti believe accounts for the temporal “lag” (2263, graphs 2264-65) between the appearance of a new subgenre and its rise in popularity? (Example: the lag in time between Richardson’s Pamela and the writing of other epistolary novels a few decades later.)

Part V

6. On 2266-68 (“From individual cases to series…”), Moretti ponders the “life-cycle” of genres of the novel. Based on examination of more than one hundred studies covering forty-four British novel genres from 1740-1900, what did he and his colleague Brad Pasanek discover about the thriving and passing of the various types of novel? (2266-68) According to Moretti, what surprising data point emerges regarding intervals of stability and change in these forms? (2268)

Part VI

7. On 2268-69 (“Normal literature remains […] for twenty-five…”), Moretti points out that based on his study of novelistic genres, “Normal literature remains in place for twenty-five years or so…” (2268). What hypothesis about this “rhythm” of change does he explore? What might the passing of human generations have to do with the rhythm in question? What point about generational change does Moretti borrow from sociologist Karl Mannheim? Why does he nonetheless feel obliged to conclude Part VI on a “note of perplexity” (2269) about the true cause of novelistic and generational cycles?

Part VII

8. On 2269-71 (“Normal literature […] for a generation…”), how does Moretti begin to account for the very brief popularity of certain novelistic types, such as the “Jacobin” and “anti-Jacobin” novel, whose heroes and villains are drawn from the French Revolutionary Era, or the evangelical religious novel, or the radical Chartist novel? (2269-71) He points out that many of these varieties resort to a great number of “explicit ideological declarations” (2271) rather than naturalistic conversational models; what seems to be the reason for including such argumentation even though doing so may render the novel “dull”?


9. On 2271-72 (“Why did most British genres last…”), what succinct answer does Moretti give to his question about the relative brevity of certain genres of the British novel (as discussed above, in question 8)? What is it about the handling of “narrative logic” (2271) of such novels that leads to their short “shelf-life,” so to speak? What point does Moretti go on to make about the necessity of not limiting oneself to “quantitative data” when it comes to formulating answers to the questions that the data explore? How does he illustrate this point by referring to his consideration of why American film comedies sold quite well in the U.S.A. from 1986-95, but not well at all in several other countries? (2271) Finally, what is Moretti’s attitude towards not finding all the answers to the questions he explores through quantitative research? (2272)

Part IX

10. On 2272-75 (“Two brief theoretical conclusions…”), Moretti offers some further insights on what can be learned from “cycles” in literary history. Why, in his view, are literary historians mistaken when they assert that the particular phenomenon or “cause” they are exploring is the only one? (2273) What conclusion does Moretti offer by way of replacing such myopic claims? What does he suggest is the positive news with regard to English novels’ authorial shifts between men and women? (2274-75)

Part X

11. On 2275 (“Do cycles and genres explain…”), what final observations does Moretti offer with respect to the benefits of keeping a steady focus on the cycles of literary history? On what basis does he reject the idea that there is only one novel—i.e., “the novel” and many subgenres of that supposedly Platonic form? In his view, what would be a more accurate way of defining “the novel,” one that actually “falsifies existing theoretical explanations” and brings with it a strong sense of the diversity of novelistic fiction?

12. General question: In our selection from Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, Franco Moretti illustrates varieties of what he calls “distant reading” as a means of arriving at otherwise unavailable insights about the larger cycles of change that entire literary genres (novels in particular) undergo. Obviously, this kind of “reading” is to be distinguished from close reading of individual authors and texts, which yields a different kind of understanding. How do you see the strengths and weaknesses of these two fundamentally different kinds of reading? On the basis of Moretti’s examples (or your own experience, if you have encountered results stemming from “distant reading”), do you believe “distant reading” and “individual close reading” are complementary, or mostly oppositional in terms of the results they produce? If you have a preference, which kind of reading do you favor, and why so?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake