Franco Moretti




  • Signs Taken for Wonders (1983)
  • The Way of the World (1987)
  • Modern Epic (1995
  • Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 (1998)
  • Graphs, Maps, Trees (2005)
  • The Bourgeois (2013)
  • Distant Reading (2013)
  • Chief editor of The Novel (2006)- A translated selection from the epic five-volume Italian Il Romanzo (2001-2003), The Novel's two volumes are a unified multiauthored reference work, containing more than one hundred specially commissioned essays by leading contemporary critics from around the world.
  • founded the Center for the Study of the Novel and the Literary Lab
  • Writes often for New Left Review
  • works translated into over twenty languages.

a 'groundbreaking hero' and 'diabolical heretic'

A caveat

on reading a methodological manifesto regarding quantitative history for literary theory and literary history by a critical Marxist scholar...(abstract models for literary history)

Distant reading

"where distance is however not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge."

Criticisms of current field

  • fluffiness and lack of innovation of "Theory" in lit departments and replaced with theories, plural, lower case 't', even that developed by natural and social sciences
  • plural of anecdote is not data
  • "interpretation" on the text at expense of larger structures, temporal cycles, materialist history (fetishizing local meaning at expense of historical meterialism)
  • -->a call for materialism, eclecticism, description
  • his methods do not claim to replace current models

Quantitative approach to literature

  • thematic databases
  • book history
  • computational sylistics


  • Graphs
  • Maps
  • Trees

"Abstraction is not an end in itself, but a way to widen the domain of the literary historian, and enrich its internal problematic."

Noam Chomksy's Problems v. Mysteries

The purpose of abstractions for Moretti

  • Problems have  a field of conceptual understanding; not everything is known but the contours of inquiry are well-established
  • Mysteries are not understood; progress has not been made on them, though their formulation dates to antiquity
  • -->Moretti's attempt to demystify 'mysteries', to find 'strict nonrandom regularity' within the social world but refraining from Althusser "expressive totality" and positivist claims

Interpretations v.

Social Systems (experiments)

"No single explanatory framework may account for the many levels of literary production and their multiple links with the larger social system"

Interpretations v.


  • interpretation: relationship between meaning and another meaning
  • explanation: (causal) relationship between an external force (or constraint) and one or more meanings)

Heterogeneity of Problem & Solution


" I presented an 'explanation'...but it was silly of me, because the most interesting aspect of those data was that I had found a problem for which I had absolutely no solution. And problems without  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." 20


"a field (literature) this large cannot be understood by stitching together separate bits of knowledge about individual cases, because it isn't a sum of individual cases: it's a collective system, that should be grasped as such, as a whole"

Rise and Fall of the Novel



Argument for studying the pattern as a whole

"What are we trying to explain here: two unrelated individual events, or two moments in a recurring pattern of ups and downs?...if they (downturns) are parts of a pattern, then what we must explain is the patttern as a whole, not just one of its phases."

From Fernand Braudel, three modes of structures

  • EVENT: circumscribed domain of the event and individual case
  • LONGUE DUREE: long span of unchanging structures
  • CYCLE: ??!!


Temporary structures within the historical flow

  • event is all flow, no structure
  • longue duree is all structure no flow

The Birth & Death of Genres

Is this wave-like pattern a sort of hidden pendulum of literary history?

  • 45 genres
  • 160 years
  • over 2/3 cluster in 30 years
  • bursts of creativity: late 1760s, early 1790s, late 1820s, 1850, early 1870s, late 1880s
  • genres disappear in clusters (exception 1790-1810)


Shklovksy's hypothesis does not explain the regularity of the replacement


almost all genres active at the time seem to arise and disappear together according to a hidden rhythm

causal mechanism must be external to the genres and common to all


  • 25-30 years
  • rhythmically differentiated only through a profound destabilization (generation emerges through experience of 1968)

Title Text

Further Questions

Why some genres only last 10 years?



  • Moretti's approaches not new
  • problems of formal data
  • unpredictability of humans (understanding novelty, accidents) and question of agency
  • building upon humanistic 'data' ~ scientific proofs
  • positivism, impossibility of rationalizing history, heresy of quantification, grand fluorishes

Final Thoughts

  • can we have both close and distant- interpretation and explanation(~social system)? Moretti says these are inherently antithetical, but within the field these should dialectically co-exist
  • was any of this theorizing on methodology useful?
  • big data and thick description

Digital Ethnography

Wendy Hsu:


  • MONK Project (metadata offers new knowledge)- Matthew Kirschenbaum
  • WordSeer (text analysis environment for humanities scholars)
  • Voyant-tools (see through texts)
  • NLTK (natural language tool kit for text processing- classification, tokenization, stemming, tagging, parsing, semantic reasoning)

Other Sources

Graphs, Maps, Trees

By Cindy A. Nguyen

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