An Attempt to Discover the Laws of Literature


Joshua Rothman profiles Franco Moretti's efforts at 'distant reading' in the New Yorker (via Andrew Sullivan):

Franco Moretti, a professor at Stanford, whose essay collection “Distant Reading” just won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, fascinates critics in large part because he does want to answer the question definitively. He thinks that literary criticism ought to be a science. In 2005, in a book called “Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History,” he used computer-generated visualizations to map, among other things, the emergence of new genres. In 2010, he founded the Stanford Literary Lab, which is dedicated to analyzing literature with software. 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.

Moretti’s work has helped to make “computational criticism,” and the digital humanities more generally, into a real intellectual movement. When, the week before last, Stanford announced that undergraduates would be able to enroll in “joint majors” combining computer science with either English or music, it was hard not to see it as a sign of Moretti’s influence. Yet Moretti has critics. They point out that, so far, the results of his investigations have been either wrong or underwhelming. (A typical Moretti finding is that, in eighteenth-century Britain, for instance, the titles of novels grew shorter as the market for novels grew larger—a fact that is “interesting” only in quotes.) And yet these sorts of objections haven’t dimmed the enthusiasm for Moretti’s work.

More here. Also see this pushback from Micah Mattix in The American Conservative.