Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

To Understand Literature, Moretti Argues, We Must Stop Reading Books

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Moreover, as theologies go, Moretti’s is neither new nor, at present, rare. The idea that truth can best be revealed through quantitative models dates back to the development of statistics (and boasts a less-than-benign legacy). And the idea that data is gold waiting to be mined; that all entities (including people) are best understood as nodes in a network; that things are at their clearest when they are least particular, most interchangeable, most aggregated — well, perhaps that is not the theology of the average lit department (yet). But it is surely the theology of the 21st century.

Kathryn Schulz considers Franco Moretti and distant reading in the New York Times.

Written by gerrycanavan

June 26, 2011 at 11:30 pm

15 Responses

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  1. ’tis a puzzlement.

  2. Has Moretti ever actually said to *stop* reading books? I mean, I like the guy because geographical proximity equals exposure to him and his people, but it seems to me that Scott McLemee’s “Brief Guide to Avoid Saying Anything Too Dumb About Franco Moretti” is still mandatory, and wasn’t consulted in the writing of that NYT piece.


    June 27, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    • Yeah, the MetaFilter thread actually had some decent commentary on this point, first pointing to a n+1 review where Moretti gets “caught” (horrors!) having actually read a book, and then this line afterwards:

      As DaDaDaDave points out, part of the irony with Moretti’s “don’t read books” soundbite is that he, himself, has probably read more of the literary canon than pretty much anyone alive. So, his “distant reading” credo relies to a huge extent on his almost-encyclopedic, already-existing knowledge of literature, drawn from old-fashioned, well, reading. Which is to say: I’m not sure that his methodology is that reproducible. One has to be, well, Franco Moretti to use it.


      June 27, 2011 at 1:09 pm

      • For me, it’s important to remember that his original “conjectures” article pretty much starts from this problem that the canon is hyper-exclusive and that “Reading ‘more’ is always a good thing, but not the solution” to that. Dunno if he’s been quoted saying stronger “No Reading!” stuff ever since then, but as far as I’ve been aware, he’s always framed his project as an additional thing we can also do, and a way to make up for the things that what we *normally* do doesn’t allow us to cover.

        Whereas, for most of the people on that thread (and every other thread I’ve seen), the absence of non-canonical works from our analysis (that motivates him) is simply not a problem, and thus, his striving for a solution seems utterly non-sensical. As that commenter you linked to notes, it’s only when you’ve read all 200 books that the limitations of doing so become fully clear, and most people outside the academy haven’t done that, so they tend to respond in exactly this way.

        For what it’s worth, I actually dislike his methodology as it reproduces an enlightenment “world literature” as object of analysis; Goethe is actually not a good place from which to start, imo, if you want to get at the dynamics of African literary production, and nothing he says about stuff I know something about struck me as useful, though ymmv. But the underlying thing that drives the whole MorettiWTF phenomenon — and which the NYT cite of Bloom just demonstrates in spades — is that most people are really happy with the old Great Tradition canon (plus handful of token marginal figures who we won’t really care much about anyway) and methodology, in ways he is not. But even this new kind of distant reading that he’s playing with seems to be the sort of thing that only becomes attractive as a next thing to do after you’ve thoroughly mastered the old way of proceeding, and thus, exactly the sort of thing which non-academics are poorly placed to appreciate the merits of.


        June 27, 2011 at 2:29 pm

      • I have more or less the same relationship to Moretti that you do — I find his approach interesting as a reaction to genre/canon formation, but of rather limited use for the things that actually interest me about literary study.

        I see you’ve extended your search to Twitter; I wonder if you’ll ever find a smoking gun quote. I suspect he probably did say something like “stop reading!” off-the-cuff someplace, though it’s not an especially good summary of his method for all the reasons you note…


        June 27, 2011 at 2:53 pm

      • Having become curious and Googled, I now think it’s probably just an artifact of lazy back-of-the-book copy from Verso: “In this groundbreaking book, Franco Moretti argues that literature scholars should stop reading books and start counting, graphing, and mapping them instead.”


        June 27, 2011 at 2:57 pm

  3. I think you’re right re: the Verso cover copy, though she’s also relying heavily on EB’s in N+1, who seems to bring more of a personal back-story to the whole debate than I have any desire to unpack. In any case, @muziejus turned me on to this quote from his response to Katie Trumpener in Critical Inquiry:

    “The current essay,” Trumpener writes, “shows statistical analysis as a relatively blunt hermeneutic instrument, redeemed mainly by Moretti’s own exegetical verve” (p. 170). Thanks for the verve, but—why exactly is statistics blunt? And why set quantitative evidence in opposition to “attention to syntax, linguistic register, and grammar”? From the moment I started using external models for literary study—evolutionary theory, over twenty years ago—I realized that their great advantage lies precisely in the fact that they renew and galvanize formal analysis. At times, the external model makes literary structures more perspicuous: it’s the case of maps. At other times, it provides a conceptual architecture for the history of forms: evolutionary theory. And quantitative series, for their part, allow us to see new problems, whose solution is usually found at the level of formal choices (linguistic, rhetorical, or a mix thereof). The specific relationship between literary form and nonliterary model varies from case to case; but the relationship is always there. So, it is not despite graphs that I quote Shklovsky and Benveniste more often now than twenty years ago; it is because of them.


    June 27, 2011 at 5:13 pm

  4. this ny times piece (and especially batuman in n+1, egads) are excessive and somewhat reactionary in their appraisal of moretti, but he definitely does present what he’s doing as a superior alternative to close reading the canon. read in context with the rest of that conjunctions article and his other writing, “reading ‘more’ is always a good thing” sounds more like a bit of snark than an acknowledgement of close reading’s scholarly value — it’s hard to mistake the meaning of this, for example:

    “But the trouble with close reading (in all of its incarnations, from the new criticism to deconstruction) is that it necessarily depends on an extremely small canon. This may have become an unconscious and invisible premiss by now, but it is an iron one nonetheless: you invest so much in individual texts only if you think that very few of them really matter. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense. And if you want to look beyond the canon (and of course, world literature will do so: it would be absurd if it didn’t!) close reading will not do it. It’s not designed to do it, it’s designed to do the opposite. At bottom, it’s a theological exercise—very solemn treatment of very few texts taken very seriously”

    the way he describes the division of labor between national and world literature can sound like the former consists of reading, but in his ideal world it doesn’t. the whole point of this endeavor is so no one else has to read ANY canon (not just the ‘western canon’ but any canon whatsoever), not as an advanced form of scholarship for those who ‘learn they know nothing’ by coming to the end of their assigned reading. i think if you look at moretti’s project as just something else you can do it loses all interest — lots of people have done macro analysis and lots now analyze literary databases, but primarily as ‘background’ tools for better readings, or at most a better theory of some national literature.

    i mean, this is plainly a manifesto:

    “There is no way to settle this controversy once and for all—fortunately: because comparatists need controversy. They have always been too shy in the presence of national literatures, too diplomatic: as if one had English, American, German literature—and then, next door, a sort of little parallel universe where comparatists studied a second set of literatures, trying not to disturb the first set. No; the universe is the same, the literatures are the same, we just look at them from a different viewpoint; and you become a comparatist for a very simple reason: because you are convinced that that viewpoint is better. It has greater explanatory power; it’s conceptually more elegant; it avoids that ugly ‘one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness’; whatever. The point is that there is no other justification for the study of world literature (and for the existence of departments of comparative literature) but this: to be a thorn in the side, a permanent intellectual challenge to national literatures—especially the local literature. If comparative literature is not this, it’s nothing. Nothing. ‘Don’t delude yourself’, writes Stendhal of his favourite character: ‘for you, there is no middle road.’ The same is true for us.”


    June 28, 2011 at 1:39 am

    • Traxus,
      Strongly disagree. What kind of manifesto is called “conjectures”? You can argue that he’s being sneaky and hiding his real agenda, but the point at which you say something is “plainly a manifesto” and also that what he says he’s doing isn’t what he’s actually doing is when I start to cock my head and look quizzical.

      Your last long block quote takes off from his argument that there are two viewpoints on literary development, waves and trees. Here’s where he explains those metaphors:

      The tree describes the passage from unity to diversity: one tree, with many branches: from Indo-European, to dozens of different languages. The wave is the opposite: it observes uniformity engulfing an initial diversity: Hollywood films conquering one market after another (or English swallowing language after language).Trees need geographical discontinuity (in order to branch off from each other, languages must first be separated in space, just like animal species); waves dislike barriers, and thrive on geographical continuity (from the viewpoint of a wave, the ideal world is a pond). Trees and branches are what nation-states cling to; waves are what markets do. And so on. Nothing in common, between the two metaphors.

      Now you can disagree with this model if you like, but when he argues that comparative literature people do waves and national literature types do trees, he is referring back to a model that not only implies and demands the basic co-existence of both, but so does he, quite clearly, when he writes in the next few lines:

      But—they both work. Cultural history is made of trees and waves—the wave of agricultural advance supporting the tree of Indo-European languages, which is then swept by new waves of linguistic and cultural contact…And as world culture oscillates between the two mechanisms, its products are inevitably composite ones.

      He is arguing that while national literature departments take the perspective of the tree — watching the passage of unity to diversity — comparative literature takes the perspective of the wave, watching diversity to unity. As far as I can tell, there is simply no way to read this as arguing for the pre-eminance of his methodology. The very structure of the metaphors requires that we see both as partial and each as implying the other as their aporia. If he’s arguing the position of the wave theorist, it’s because comparative literature is, now, little more than a bunch of national literatures lumped together in the same department, and the status and funding and importance of English literature (our national literature) is seen to be massively higher. He’s the guy in the small department arguing that what he’s doing is important too, not demanding that we shutter up all the English departments.

      By the way, I’m not even particularly a fan of what he does; as an Africanist, I’m a person whose “tree” is constantly being covered up by grand “world literature” wave theorists like him, from people like Jameson back in 83 to Pascal Casanova more recently. When people start with a big Goethean theory of world literature, they tend to say stupid or uninteresting stuff about African writers (or say nothing at all because my tree doesn’t fit into their wave), and Moretti is no exception. What he can tell you about Nigerian writers is not much, and the fact that he has that ambition actually irritates me a bit. The problem with African literature study is that it gets no sustained study as a tree in its own right. But I just don’t understand where people get these readings of him (and I hope you’ll push back against me on this, because I literally DO NOT UNDERSTAND, and would like to).


      June 28, 2011 at 11:58 am

      • hey, sorry for the delay.

        yes, national literature and world literature are to (adversarially) co-exist but national literature doesn’t imply reading. at least i took the ‘trees’ metaphor to reference his ‘methods’ book graphs, maps, trees, the latter itself an alternative to close reading. national literature specialists (he argues here) start from the formal assumption of ‘from unity, diversity’ – they look for roots. this is contrary to what comparativists do, but is on some level still important. it’s not (necessarily) reading, though.

        calling close reading a “theological exercise” and distance “a condition of knowledge” seems pretty clear — “it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems,” which is all moretti seems to be interested in in his theoretical writings. Then: “And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more. If we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something.” he’s talking about ‘the system’ of world literature that must be assumed by the comparativist, but if you look at his writing on evolutionary trees i think he’d say the same about any (sub) system – that to understand it requires that we accept de-privileging of the singularity maintained by close reading.

        i don’t have a copy, but i remember the graphs, maps, trees book did have a more liberal statement to the effect of “everyone’s been doing it this way, now let’s try this way” but the critiques of close reading don’t leave doubt in my mind that he thinks we should be doing it his way, or one of his several proposed ways, none of which rely on new close readings.

        of course, as you point out, moretti is an excellent reader and still does it. he also still published a huge survey of theories of the novel, that big compendium of essays by people who still read and who disagree with him on all kinds of things. but as for his own work on novel theory and world literature, i haven’t read anything where he’s left open a specific place for close reading, or even where he mentioned it without the same fundamental criticisms as are in the conjuctures essay. so he hasn’t proved the power of his approach yet, but he seems to have big dreams for it all the same.


        June 29, 2011 at 6:04 pm

      • this is sort of beside the point, but don’t you think his theoretical writings are a bit boring without the sense that he’s a revolutionary? macro-analysis of literature isn’t novel, using databases isn’t novel. you said yourself you don’t find his results all that thrilling. i think you’d have to assume he’s just real good at self-marketing to believe he’s just adding a few more tools to the toolbox.


        June 29, 2011 at 6:12 pm

  5. Also, is an argument possible that his Ibsen essay from 2010 in NLR “The Grey Area: Ibsen and the Spirit of Capitalism” is anything but completely traditional literary criticism?


    June 28, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    • Traxus,
      The funny thing is, I don’t get the feeling that he’s a revolutionary at all, or thinks that he is; if he sometimes makes grand claims, it’s as an innovator who’s found a very new and different solution to a completely conventional problem and for completely conventional ends. And he *does* mostly look for a practical solution to what everyone basically agrees is a real problem: when we say “The Victorian Novel” we mean that in a canonical way, not a sociological way (the 200 novels in the canon, or whatever). But ever since new historicism, people have treated writers in the canon as sociologically representative — or at least often implied it — in ways which have always been sort of wrong, but no one knew a better way to do it. And they have almost never been at all rigorous about defining what kinds of empirical facts were to be used to “historicize” a work of art.

      Placed in that context, what he’s doing just seems to me to be a completely plausible and unremarkable way of historicizing, of placing the part into the context of the whole (this is the “we have already been doing this” part). As an intervention into English literature, in other words, “distant reading” is only the opposite of the “close reading” which means abstracting the part from the whole completely, which is to say, the aesthetic approach around the new criticism. IOW, “Close reading” was a methodology by which you only focused on the arrangement of the words on the page and nothing else (no history, author bios, genre, etc), and so his “distant reading” is the inverse, where you focus on history, author bios, genre, etc, and “lose” the arrangement of words on the page. But why does that kind of knowledge necessarily make it impossible to do the other kind? He always asserts that they are compatible, in fact; here, in his response to Katie Trumpener’s critique of his titles essay in Critical Inquiry:

      She says: “he “frame[s] his recent work as a showdown or perhaps controlled competition between statistical analysis and close reading,”

      He says “[W]hy set quantitative evidence in opposition to “attention to syntax, linguistic register, and grammar”? From the moment I started using external models for literary study—evolutionary theory, over twenty years ago—I realized that their great advantage lies precisely in the fact that they renew and galvanize formal analysis. At times, the external model makes literary structures more perspicuous: it’s the case of maps. At other times, it provides a conceptual architecture for the history of forms: evolutionary theory. And quantitative series, for their part, allow us to see new problems, whose solution is usually found at the level of formal choices (linguistic, rhetorical, or a mix thereof). The specific relationship between literary form and nonliterary model varies from case to case; but the relationship is always there.”

      And while it’s certainly true that he’s not proposing to do close reading himself when he’s doing *that* kind of project, I’ve never understood where him doing his kind of work meant that others couldn’t do whatever kind they wanted. Or why “what he thinks” would even matter beyond the validity of each particular project. It’s not for me, but I can see why others would dig it; the only revolutionary thing about it seems to be that he’s applying slightly more sophisticated tools and models than people have in the past (instead of just using databases or doing word searches, he’s using network theory, or claiming to; that seems interesting to me, and if it hasn’t turned up gold yet, I’m still waiting to see what’s next).

      Aaron Bady

      June 29, 2011 at 8:50 pm

      • But “formal analysis” is exactly what he is trying to do better than close reading. form is how he describes his primary interest (a materialist conception of form). the projects kathryn schultz describes in the nyt article are all about formal analysis — he’s not content with biography or history, his problem is the nature of the relation of the texts to those ‘external factors.’ i don’t think it’s fair to call distant reading simply the inverse of new criticism style close reading — genre is something he recognizes is a feature of the words on the page. studying the relation between words on the page and genre with databases and algorithms is a different approach to exactly what ‘traditional’ literary criticism tries to do when it addresses genre.

        and of course he’s not going to say something silly like no one should be reading anymore (that’s his more hysterical critics/marketers talking) but his methodologies are plainly competitors to canon-based literary criticism, especially if you take his criticisms of close reading seriously (that close reading and canons presuppose each other). he wants to let what he’s doing speak for itself – he probably learned his lesson from the response to the conjunctures essay. what should really decide this is – if moretti’s most utopian dreams for his work pan out (a very questionable possibility), will there be any place in academia for close reading (one critic, a few books), and i would say probably not.


        July 2, 2011 at 12:32 pm

      • “I don’t get the feeling that he’s a revolutionary at all, or thinks that he is; if he sometimes makes grand claims, it’s as an innovator who’s found a very new and different solution to a completely conventional problem and for completely conventional ends ”

        but like most innovations it’s intended to be better than the conventional methods, even if the stated goals are the same (e.g. historicizing form). if the goals weren’t the same it might not piss people off so much.

        in multiple places he distinguishes knowledge from reading, and sometimes (as in the conjunctions essay) opposes them. i don’t know he could make the point any more strongly.

        your ‘wait and see’ attitude to moretti is the only responsible attitude, i just think it’s important to recognize the stakes.


        July 2, 2011 at 12:51 pm

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