In Graphs, Maps, Trees Franco Moretti attempts to use these, and a range of other abstract models, to explore genres, plots, and other aspects of literature. He wants to shift our attention away from texts and ideologies and towards more general patterns, to build "a materialist concept of form". Moretti begins with "Graphs". One example charts the number of new novels published each year, in Japan, Denmark, France and Italy, and attempts to connect these to political and social changes.
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This is an interesting book, with the first three quarters composed of a trio of essays on literary history, looked at quantitatively and the last quarter made up of an evolutionary scientist trying to play literary critic and messing up everything that went before! By doing this the ambitious project is set forth — to isolate the evolution of literature and to see the causes and consequences of the diverging paths within the evolutionary Tree of Literature.
But despite the differences of scale, some aspects of the argument remain constant. What these literary models allows Moretti do is fascinating: He first reduces the vast torrent of literary works to a few recognizable constructs say gothic fiction, or the narrative voice , and abstract them, constructing new, artificial objects like the maps and graphs and tress.
It is only by looking at those larger patterns that we can analyze literary history: the temporal cycles that determine the rise and fall of literary forms.
Normal literature remains in place for twenty-five years or so. But where does this rhythm come from? An easy answer is proposed, arising from the length of this interval — that perhaps it has to do with every new generation trying out new styles, thus allowing new styles to attempt to thrive, or fail. But this is dismissed as too simplistic and Moretti turns to a Marxist conception of History to be able to answer the Variation, Evolution and Survival of literary forms. But once you have established this pattern, how this cultural selection operates then becomes the question.
And quite predictably, we have to turn to the material conditions, the Environment, to answer that. A diversity spectrum. And then, there is the pressure of the market. As a common denominator for all these attempts at isolating Literary Evolution Moretti seems to choose: a materialist conception of literary form.
But he immediately changes course and reasserts that this is anew field of study and this is only a tentative first step. We have to await more research and study before we can settle for any overarching Theory of Everything in literature.
Reading Graphs, Maps, and Trees: Responses to Franco Moretti
Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History