Tufte vs. Bloom 1

Moretti's work in a broad context.

Led to the Franco Moretti's essay “Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History[1]” by an article in the New York Times[2], I found myself reading with genuine interest, and much sympathy for his claims. Moretti describes a way to study world literature that is not based on the careful reading of a canon of approved, curriculum-sanctioned texts, but a data-driven study of historical change in forms and publishing practice.

In his essay, the first of three, Moretti works on quantitative book history; the next essay will cover the geography of narratives, likely growing out of his work in his book Atlas of the European Novel, and in the one after that, he'll map evolutionary theory to the development of forms and genres, which is a bit of a tightrope walk: the application of evolution to non-biological processes is a sketchy business at best.

But I'll get upset about that when it arrives. In the first essay, working from raw data and charts which were produced from databases of information about dates of publication, genre, and other fields, Moretti arrives at questions like: why does a particular genre arise at a particular time? And: how does the development of one genre influence the development of another? Why were only a few novels published in Denmark in 1810, when 35 were published in 1800? The charts and graphs in his essay, presented with Edward Tufte-style clarity, open a number of doors, and then leave them open:

“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.”

A graph from Moretti's paper, showing the “Market Quotas of British Hegemonic Forms”

This approach is likely to be met with little enthusiasm by established critics; in the Times article, Harold Bloom weighs in with a predictable dismissal:

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.”

Moretti is coming at the problems of literature from a very different vantage than is currently popular; it's ridiculous to try to sum up all of the different aspects of theory—Bloom's approach is different from, say, Frederic Jameson's—but it's a fair summary to say that nearly every well-received approach to understanding literature as a discipline is based on close reading, on finding the smallest possible unit of communication (the lexeme-morpheme, the sign/signifier, the word, the letter, the text). Working as a critic, you start with a theory which defines that smallest possible unit—semiotics, post-structuralism, deconstruction, Marxism—and using that as your base, analyze a given text (like Neuromancer) or set of texts (like the Victorian novel), and report on your findings.

So, given this small set of theories, a canon limited in size, and thousands of desperate Ph.D.s who must publish or perish, you end up with a well-picked over field which concentrates on ever-smaller subjects. The amount of work to be done to get started thinking about texts is prohibitive; reading in the academy is a highly professional activity which can only be practiced by experts. You can either dive into that fray, learn French and German, read Foucault, Hegel, and Heidigger, and fight through the thickets of Derrida's Glas, or you can choose a different direction. And there are really only two places to go: in, or up.

Mark Turner is someone who's gone in. His project fuses cognitive theories with a theory of narrative, as in The Literary Mind, where he mingles metaphor, story, and cognition. The Turner project is interesting because it has an endpoint: that is, if we ever develop an absolute science of cognition, and can account for and explain every synapse firing, Turner's theories can be proven to work, or not work. They're grounded in the idea of the brain as a story-processing machine, primarily based on the work of linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, and could be, one imagines, empirically tested, where the concept of differance is something that must be taken on faith.

Moretti, on the other hand, is going up. He's jumped into a critical airplane and is flying far above the academic landscape. Sentences are invisible to him; books look like ants, points on a graph. Rather than focusing on the texts that cultures prop up, he seeks to investigate all the books, as a set, and creating a Venn diagram where author gender, chronology, geography, the quantity of books, and genre overlap and intermingle.

This is a worthwhile pursuit for no other reason than its novelty, its willingness to truly consider literary production as production and use the tools of sociologists, economists, and other practitioners of the soft and dismal sciences. And, speaking for myself, that sort of quantitative analysis allows the critic a certain freedom from ideology which I find liberating and useful. As someone who cares deeply about texts, reading, and language, and is left quite cold by much of the recursive thinking currently required of scholars, where texts are seen as fractals, infinitely zoomable, I'm glad to see this wide-angle-lens on literature, using the tools of visualization and data processing.


1. Moretti, Franco. “Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History.” The New Left Review. Vol. 24, Nov/Dec 2003, p. 67. [Back]

2. Eakin, Emily. Studying Literature by the Numbers. New York Times, 10 January 2004. [Back]




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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