Distant Reading
by Franco Moretti

Reviewed by Patrick Fessenbecker


Published by Verso, 2013   |   244 pages

At the center of Franco Moretti’s attempt to enact a revolution —or at least a mild shift—in the methods of literary study are the tools of statistical analysis. As he puts it, “quantitative methodologies” offer a new way of doing literary history, opening up “the Great Unread” of uncanonized literary works to analysis. They do so by preserving the critical emphasis on literary form, while increasing exponentially the quantity of text one is able to analyze. More substantively, Moretti is committed to the claim that formal attention is essential to literary criticism; he remarks that formal analysis is “the great accomplishment of literary study.” Yet he wants to examine formal features, “the repeatable element of literature,” on a much broader scale than close reading of individual texts permits. Accordingly, Moretti utilizes tools capable of performing a critical analysis that require only a cursory reading of the texts in question, or perhaps no reading at all. As Moretti puts it in an elegant phrase, it is “Formalism without close reading.”

Distant Reading is composed of ten of Moretti’s essays from the last twenty years that showcase the development, theorization, and practice of this critical approach, and one of the pleasures of the book involves seeing how Moretti’s thinking about the issues involved changed over time. For this reader, the two essays included that demonstrate most clearly the kind of interpretation Moretti advocates are “The Slaughterhouse of Literature” and “Style, Inc.: Reflections on 7,000 titles” – the first concerning clues, the second, obviously, titles. In “Slaughterhouse,” Moretti traces the ways in which clues function narratively in one hundred different mystery stories published in the 1890s. Since on Moretti’s view a clue is a formal feature, one discernible in a wide variety of otherwise divergent mysteries, one can approach a formal history of the genre by quantitatively analyzing the ways in which a number of authors used them. The story the data reveals is that not all clues work in the same way: sometimes they are mere symptoms, incomprehensible to the ordinary man but easily discernible to the proper expert; other times they are visible in the story but not decodable to the reader, or characters, or both; perhaps most interestingly, in a few cases they are present but neither necessary or visible, as if “writers sense that these curious little details were really popular, so they decided to use them—but they didn’t really understand why clues were popular.”

In “Style, Inc.” Moretti similarly considers the titles of seven thousand novels published between 1740 and 1850. His analysis reveals not only a radical shortening of titles—very long titles of more than fifteen words comprised sixty percent of the total titles in 1750, whereas by 1800 fewer than ten percent of novels would have titles so long—but also reveals that as titles shorten, a few types of short titles become dominant, with certain effects linked to each type. In particular, in article-noun titles, the noun is transgressive in some way half of the time: The Vampyre, or The Libertine. But in article-adjective-noun titles, the noun becomes more commonplace: “wives and daughters rise from 16 to 40 percent,” and the adjective becomes the signifier of transgression— The Discarded Daughter, The Infidel Father, and so forth. As with the analysis of clues in “The Slaughterhouse of Literature,” these are insights that would almost certainly have remained beyond the reach of scholars without the quantitative comparative analysis Moretti practices.

For this reader, then, there is no question that Moretti’s methods represent an important step in humanities scholarship. While there are significant disputes to be had about the nature of the methods, their claim to novelty, and the status of the claims they produce, a wholesale rejection seems unwarranted. Moreover, in explaining his method, Moretti is admirably engaged with his opponents. Each of the essays starts with a brief note where Moretti offers a gloss of the essay’s argument, an explanation as to how it fits into his broader theoretical approach, and an argument about how it responds to problems his interlocutors have pressed against his view. The most substantive is his engagement with Christopher Prendergast, who in Moretti’s retelling pressed him on whether the market for literature can function in the evolutionary way—responding to and selecting certain formal features—that Moretti describes. Moretti’s responses engage with a wide variety of writers—including graduate students!—and make no attempt to conceal the developmental and shifting nature of his methodology.

It is in the spirit of that conversation that I want to pose the following question. Why does Moretti think literary form is worth studying? And why is the analysis of that form “the great accomplishment of literary study?” Many of Moretti’s methods seem reasonable if one grants him the initial premise that form is worthy of attention. But that initial premise remains unproven in Distant Reading itself. Moretti hints at two possible answers over the course of the book, but—significantly—they are somewhat in tension. On the one hand, he clearly sees quantitative literary history as a part of the study of history more generally, the academic field of study. In his response to Prendergast, he writes:

In a nutshell, the idea is that literary genres are problem-solving devices, which address a contradiction of their environment, offering an imaginary resolution by means of their formal organization. The pleasure provided by that formal organization is therefore more than just pleasure—it is the vehicle through which a larger symbolic statement is shaped and assimilated. (141)

The point here is that literary form is in part a response to real political problems, and it’s possible to see changes in form as offering information on shifting political conditions. Literary form is worth studying because it’s a manifestation or symptom of historical features, and thus useful evidence for understanding them.

On the other hand, and somewhat surprisingly, as Moretti recovers “the Great Unread” throughout the book, he is at pains to reassure his reader that he accepts the validity of aesthetic judgments. He notes that canonized literature is “canonized for a good reason,” says that he understands why someone would rather study The Ambassadors than Dashing Diamond Dick, and has snarky things to say about the aesthetic merit of Milan Kundera—in his words, “a continent that falls in love with Milan Kundera deserves to end like Atlantis.” (87; 164; 42). What such claims imply is an older and alternate justification for formal study of literature: namely, one ought to analyze works formally because it is their form that gives them their value as art.

The question of Moretti’s justification for formal analysis matters, because the possible ultimate insight of his methods loses much of its significance once we recall why we cared about form in the first place. If one were privileging aesthetic judgment, for instance, the fact that Emma has a shorter title than most eighteenth-century novels, or that The Red-Headed League uses clues in a distinctive way, would be largely irrelevant to the experience of reading the stories themselves now. In other words, there’s a disjunction between the reason the object is worth studying and the methods Moretti wants to use to examine it.

But if Moretti does mean to justify formal analysis as an element of the broader study of history—and, given his response to Prendergast, almost certainly this is what he would say—it seems as if literary criticism will primarily be a handmaiden to history proper. Indeed, Moretti’s interpretations exemplify this fundamentally secondary status for literary criticism: while the essays that comprise Distant Reading are full of suggestions that the formal shifts they note are the product of historical phenomena, in no case do they revise our understanding of the event itself. So, for instance, it may very well be the case that “imperialism” poses “the basic problem” of literary modernism: given the problem of perceiving a “heterogeneous and growing world,” formal techniques like “collage, intertextuality, or the stream of consciousness” are the necessary outcome (40). But this doesn’t contribute anything to our understanding of imperialism itself: it is the already understood explanans, to which Moretti appeals to make sense of the explanadum of literary form. And if the whole point of studying literary form was to help make sense of history, then this seems like a problematic outcome, since it’s difficult to imagine that Moretti’s methods could ever produce anything different. Correlation, after all, does not imply causation. Nor does it, in fact, necessarily provide evidence of a relation at all. The formal shifts Moretti perceives will never bear their connection to history on their face, and thus the connections to historical phenomena a literary critic might detect will usually depend upon and be unable to alter the current understanding of those phenomena.

Obviously this touches on issues beyond the scope of this review: as Moretti notes, the way of thinking about the relationship between history and literary form is one he shares with Fredric Jameson, Claude Levi-Strauss, and many others. Correspondingly, my objections undoubtedly have analogues in the history of debates about other critics, and thus a full response would necessarily draw on a much wider body of scholarship. Moreover, while he doesn’t address this specific issue, I think Moretti is aware of the general problem. In pressing on the relationship between the causal power of history and changes in literary form, in some ways my objection is related to what he calls the “Zeitgeist fallacy”—the belief that all aspects of a culture at a given time will share a particular attitude—in the introduction to Signs Taken for Wonders. Still, if Distant Reading is meant to be a sort of compendium for a new methodological approach, it seems there is still some work to be done on its philosophical foundation.

This review benefited from my conversations about Moretti’s work with Grant Shreve and Matt Flaherty.

Patrick Fessenbecker is a professor in the Program for Cultures, Civilizations, and Ideas at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He completed his Ph.D. in English at Johns Hopkins University in 2014, and is currently working on “Novels and Ideas,” a book manuscript based on his dissertation. His essays have appeared in New Literary History, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Studies in English Literature, and he has written reviews for Review 19, Modern Language Notes, and The Journal of Literary Theory.

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