Sunday, 6 April 2014

Can You Study Literature Without Actually Reading Books?

Franco Moretti—who won this year's National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism for his collection Distant Learning—thinks so.  In an early interview, he summarizes the problem as he sees it:
"The next thing will, in fact, be an attempt to combine two things. A history of literature that works with a much wider field of material. The extent of the field is now clear. It's enormous. And precisely because it's so enormous, we need some intellectual models that are the very opposite -streamlined, elegant, diagrammatic, synthetic - and this is what the natural sciences and the social sciences have been trying to do for decades, and in some cases for centuries. And we haven't. We still work with the interpretative model and one great book at a time. We must find a way to combine the individual who reads a single work with great collective efforts and vision."
Joshua Rothman provides more detail about Moretti's research:
The basic idea in Moretti’s work is that, if you really want to understand literature, you can’t just read a few books or poems over and over (“Hamlet,” “Anna Karenina,” “The Waste Land”). Instead, you have to work with hundreds or even thousands of texts at a time. By turning those books into data, and analyzing that data, you can discover facts about literature in general—facts that are true not just about a small number of canonized works but about what the critic Margaret Cohen has called the “Great Unread.” At the Literary Lab, for example, Moretti is involved in a project to map the relationships between characters in hundreds of plays, from the time of ancient Greece through the nineteenth century. These maps—which look like spiderwebs, rather than org charts—can then be compared; in theory, the comparisons could reveal something about how character relationships have changed through time, or how they differ from genre to genre. Moretti believes that these types of analyses can highlight what he calls “the regularity of the literary field. Its patterns, its slowness.” They can show us the forest rather than the trees.
James F. English gives us a glimpse of that forest:
Having performed a count of definite and indefinite articles in the titles of various genres of 19th-century fiction, Moretti discovers that the definite article predominates in titles of anti-Jacobin novels (outnumbering indefinite articles 36 percent to 3 percent), while the indefinite is more common in titles of New Woman novels, appearing there 10 times as often. Why should this be? Elementary, my dear Watson. The linguistic function of articles is to direct a reader’s attention either backward, toward the already established, or forward, toward a new and unknown thing. The anti-Jacobin novel depends on received ideas, the New Woman novel on an encounter with something unprecedented. Moretti is ever alert for such puzzling quirks in the data, and never at a loss for the nifty Holmesian explanation.

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