Thursday, January 12, 2006
Moretti and Other Genre Theorists
Scott McLemee accurately and amusingly describes the buzz surrounding Stanford professor Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary Theory: Moretti is a heretic; he wants to abolish close reading; and he asserts that we should count books rather than interpret them. Moretti claims to have developed a new, quasi-scientific approach to literary history. When I opened the package from http://www.amazon.com, I was prepared for something strange, scandalous, innovative, and unconvincing. I expected to feel threatened. I not only like interpreting books, I happen to do it for a living.
I was surprised to discover that I liked the book and found it largely persuasive. I also found the book’s methods and arguments strangely familiar. This is a book of genre theory, with a particular emphasis on how new subgenres of prose fiction emerge, develop, and disappear. Moretti suggests that paradigms and methods from evolutionary biology and the social sciences might help us to analyze the development of literary genres over time.
My largest quibble with the book is that Moretti’s approach is perhaps a bit less innovative than he claims. One would think from looking at this book that literary historians had never before counted, graphed, or mapped anything, and that all of us had focused on a small number of canonical texts. Moretti is ignoring entire subfields, like the history of the book, theater history, and the study of manuscript transmission (also known as scribal publication).
Failure to acknowledge other producers of graphs, maps, and tree diagrams is a relatively trivial matter. But Moretti definitely weakens the project at least a little by also ignoring almost all of the most influential genre theorists of the second half of the twentieth century. There is no citation in this book of Rosalie Colie’s Resources of Kind, Claudio Guillen’s Literature as System, Tzvetan Todorov’s Genres in Discourse (which Moretti cites elsewhere), Gian Biagio Conte’s Genres and Readers, or Alastair Fowler’s magisterial Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes. I hate to be one of those pedants who lists the works a critic should have cited, but these genre theorists have many helpful insights into the questions Moretti also addresses, and engaging their ideas would have helped Moretti to deepen his own.
Consider the first chapter of Graphs, Maps, Trees, in which Moretti draws graphs of the rise and fall of various subgenres of the novel: the silver-fork novel, the chartist novel, the evangelical novel, and forty-one other largely forgotten species of literary production. The graph shows that these subgenres tend to flourish for no more than twenty-five years, and sometimes for as few as ten. Engagingly, Moretti notes that he is fascinated by his inability to explain these generational successions, which seem to have, at their maximum extent, the length of human generations (Richard Helgerson has made a similar observation about the generational cycles of early modern genres). Moretti’s graph is wonderful, but it does not represent a wholly unfamiliar method. I am somewhat less familiar with work on the nineteenth century, but in my field, early modern English literature, there are similar tabulations of sonnet sequences, dramatic genres, books, manuscript libels, pastorals, elegies, and country house poems, to name just a few literary forms. Alastair Fowler, who is particularly obsessed with numbers and quantification, has produced all sorts of wonderfully odd charts, including a chart of the incidence of various names in pastoral works. He also observed that in a bibliography compiled by two other critics, almost 12% of American poems about paintings refer to Peter Brueghel the Elder. This statistic, of course, comes in the course of a rich analysis of the generic repertoire of these poems and several variant species thereof, their antecedents in the Renaissance emblem poem, and their difference from poems about photographs and other species of ekphrastic poetry. Identifying sub-genres of twentieth-century poetry or fiction is a tricky business. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that twentieth-century novels cannot be divided into neat categories in the way that Moretti divides earlier novels. One can separate out genres like detective fiction and the romance novel (and sub-species of romance, like the ones in which the hero rapes the heroine), but within the category of serious fiction identified simply as “fiction,” it is not easy to say whether Richard Powers and William Vollman and Jonathan Franzen are working in the same sub-genre. Did the Victorian genre system divide the novel into a neater set of sub-genres? Of course, as Ray Davis pointed out in his post, the categories Moretti tabulates are also open to question. Moretti’s tabulations depend on the “morphology,” or classifications of literary forms, of other critics. I, for one, would like to see Moretti dig a little deeper into the theoretical complexities of generic repertoires, generic mixture, the relations between different genres (Gabrielle Starr has written a fascinating book called Lyric Generations: Poetry and the Novel in the Long Eighteenth Century), and the development of new forms. This is one of the rare occasions on which I wished a book of criticism had been substantially longer.
I loved the book’s third chapter, which explores the usefulness of the evolutionary tree as a model of literary history. In a compressed version of an article published in MLQ, Moretti does a hilarious and illuminating analysis of the development of the clue as a central feature of detective fiction. Arthur Conan Doyle’s fellow authors quickly understood that clues were appealing to audiences, but they kept botching their deployment of clues. In one story, a detective deduced that a cup of coffee had been drugged, but he then drank the cup anyway. Moretti also presents some fascinating ideas about the differences between European and Latin American uses of free indirect discourse. As a general exploration of evolutionary biology as a model for literary history, though, this chapter is not particularly new. I would have liked to see Moretti respond to the extensive and rigorous discussions of this analogy by Alastair Fowler and David Fishelov.
I said this on another thread without much response, but if Moretti proposes his method as an alternative, it’s a sort of crappy one. If it’s intended as a new, additional method for cultural history, that’s great, but it shouldn’t replace other things that are being done.
It has a whiff of quantitative positivism, as though lit people were told that their work can now be really Scientific for the first time. And I think that hitching your wagon to Braudel and cycles at this late date is a bad gamble.
The method is most problematic when things get interesting. One can develop a more or less accurate list of Chartist novels, but what does one do with the moment of the novel’s emergence, when Robinson Crusoe was presented as nonfiction, Fielding thought he was writing a “a comic epic in prose,” and Pamela started as a guide to the writing of letters? Is Gulliver’s Travels a novel?
</i>I didn’t do it.
</i>What are the consequences of saying that Gulllivert’s Travels is a novel? The main one, for Moretti’s kind of work, is that you have to classify works that are like GT as novels too. Depending on what you’re up to, that may or may not be acceptable.
Many or most of my favorite novels have been denied the status of “true novels”. They’re just longish prose fiction of some indeterminate kind.
One of the loudest dumbest bar fights I ever got into was over whether _Ulysses_ was a novel or not. (I said it was.)
I’m working on a fiction canon which excledes all true novels. No Austen, Tolstoy, Stendahl, Balzac, Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Hardy, Zola....
I think you mean ‘exclade’, John, i.e. rule out for cladistic study purposes.
Knut Hamsun, Flann O’Brien, Beckett, Kafka, Gombrowicz, Dineson, Borges, Italo Svevo, Bulgakov, Kleist, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Melville, Hawthorne, Sterne, Rabelais, Cervantes.
Suggestions for additions will be considered. No exclusions will be considered. All other prose fiction will be judged according to its conformity to the standards of this list.
(I don’t know how this comment will look, but on preview everything is showing up in italics.)
Re genre large enough to contain Vollmann, Powers, and Franzen, I think that Mendelson’s “encyclopedic novel” or the “novel of information” is routinely trotted out here. Frye’s “anatomy” might work well for some of them. Generic definition is a very hard problem; none will survive a sufficiently close encounter with a candidate text.
John, I don’t know if you’ve read Bakhtin, but I think that his take on this would be that your project is a priori impossible.
"(Fr. nouveau, fem. nouvelle), from O.Fr., from L. novellus “new, young, recent,” dim. of novus “new” (see new)“