The evolution of the novel

From: William Benzon (
Date: Fri 06 Feb 2004 - 20:58:56 GMT

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    Stanford's Franco Moretti has recently published the first in a series of three articles on the cultural evolution of the novel. He doesn't use that term -- evolution -- but that's what he's looking at. And he has data too, lots of it.

    William L. Benzon
    708 Jersey Avenue, Apt. 2A
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    "You won't get a wild heroic ride to heaven on pretty little
    sounds."--George Ives
    Mind-Culture Coevolution:
    * * * * * *
    Abstract Models for Literary History‹1
    What follows is the first of three interconnected articles, whose common
    purpose is to delineate a transformation in the study of literature.
    Literature, the old territory; but within it, a shift from the close reading
    of individual texts to the construction of abstract models. The models are
    drawn from three disciplines‹quantitative history, geography and
    evolutionary theory: graphs, maps and trees‹with which literary criticism
    has had little or no interaction; but which have many things to teach us,
    and may change the way we work. [1]
    The old historical paradigm, writes Krzysztof Pomian, Œdirected the gaze of
    the historian towards extraordinary events . . . historians resembled
    collectors: both gathered only rare and curious objects, disregarding
    whatever looked banal, everyday, normalı. [2] What changed the situation,
    Pomian goes on, was the shift Œfrom exceptional events to the large mass of
    factsı introduced by the Annales school, and the present article tries to
    imagine what would happen if we, too, shifted our focus from exceptional
    texts to Œthe large mass of [literary] factsı. Itıs an idea that occurred to
    me some years ago, when the study of national bibliographies made me realize
    what a minimal fraction of the literary field we all work on: a canon of two
    hundred novels, for instance, sounds very large for nineteenth-century
    Britain (and is much larger than the current one), but is still less than
    one per cent of the novels that were actually published: twenty thousand,
    thirty, more, no one really knows‹and close reading wonıt help here, a novel
    a day every day of the year would take a century or so . . . And then, a
    field this large cannot be understood by stitching together separate bits of
    knowledge about individual cases, because it isnıt a sum of individual
    cases: itıs a collective system, that should be grasped as such, as a
    whole‹and the graphs that follow are one way to begin doing this. Or as
    Fernand Braudel put it in the lecture on history he gave to his companions
    in the German prison camp near Lübeck:
    An incredible number of dice, always rolling, dominate and determine each
    individual existence: uncertainty, then, in the realm of individual history;
    but in that of collective history . . . simplicity and consistency. History
    is indeed Œa poor little conjectural scienceı when it selects individuals as
    its objects . . . but much more rational in its procedures and results, when
    it examines groups and repetitions. [3]
    A more rational literary history. That is the idea.
    Full text:
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