Moretti And Fiction’s New Maps

Elif Batuman analyses Franco Moretti in this brilliant piece for n+1. Here’s how she sums up Graphs, Maps, Trees:

Moretti’s fascinating new book, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History—three essays originally published in the New Left Review, plus an afterword by geneticist Alberto Piazza—brings a science-fiction thrill to the science of fiction. As in the first photographs of the earth taken from outer space, Moretti’s object—“literature, the old territory (more or less)”—is rendered almost unrecognizable by various perspectival leaps. The first chapter, “Graphs,” charts the rise and fall of novelistic production in Britain, Italy, France, Spain, Japan, Nigeria, and India—and three centuries of novels come out resembling the cardiogram of a single heartbeat. Moretti correlates the rises and falls to external factors, ranging from the biggest Marxist generalities—the emergence of the novel as a “regular commodity” in late capitalism—to small historical particulars—the effect of the Sepoy Rebellion on the rate of importation of British novels into India after 1857.

In 2001, Batuman took a seminar taught by Moretti which explored “canonicity and literary survival” via the lost bestsellers of Victorian England. She briefly considered the theoretical project of reading the 30,000 lost Victorian novels:

My commitment to the 30,000 took an additional blow one day in class, when a classmate suggested that if we really wanted to understand the law of survival in the novelistic field, we would have to read the slush-piles of the big Victorian publishing houses. Moretti met this proposal with enthusiasm. “That is a very intelligent idea,” he said.
“An intelligent idea,” I thought, as all the slush-pile texts I had ever read flashed before my eyes in a gruesome parade. The novella about a woman who discovers in her den a series of video tapes of her husband’s elderly parents describing their experiences in the Holocaust—“Jackie had never even known that Alex was Jewish”—and then watches them all; the epistolary novel about a woman who receives letters from her uterus, which claims to be trying to write a novel: “It’s dark in here—could you please insert a flashlight into your vagina?”
If I tried to do any systematic reading from slush piles, I realized, it would be just a matter of time before I ended up writing my own crazy novel, about how my life was deformed by reading all these crazy novels. Then somebody would have to read my crazy novel and enter it into the database. Soon we would run out of manpower and have to outsource, possibly to Bangladesh. When the Bangladeshi inevitably wrote their “peripheral” versions of the slush novels, these, too, would have to be put into the database.

The Valve will be running a series of short essays and comments on Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees starting today; drop by for the discussion, or check out their previous essays.

Other links: Arie Altena’s piece on Moretti’s Atlas of the European Novel
Moretti’s 2003 article in The New Left Review:

Do cycles and genres explain everything, in the history of the novel? Of course not. But they bring to light its hidden tempo, and suggest some questions on what we could call its internal shape….Both synchronically and diachronically, the novel is the system of its genres: the whole diagram, not one privileged part of it. Some genres are morphologically more significant, of course, or more popular, or both—and we must account for this: but not by pretending that they are the only ones that exist. And instead, all great theories of the novel have precisely reduced the novel to one basic form only (realism, the dialogic, romance, meta-novels . . .); and if the reduction has given them their elegance and power, it has also erased nine tenths of literary history. Too much.





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