Topology of theories of the novel’s rise
Transcript Topology of theories of the novel’s rise
Topology of theories of the
From Formal Realism to working with
The Marxist inheritance of a Novel Studies Grounded in History
Literature is not separate from society and its history; it expresses the class antagonisms,
the economic forces, and the struggle for dominance that are central to all history.
The infrastructure of economy and class becomes expressed in up-to-the moment changes
in the lighter superstructure of ideas, art, and literature
The novel is a “new” late-comer to literature: it is the least literary genre; but starting in
the 18th century, it overtakes other genres (poetry, drama) as the most popular form of
literature, and within Marxist theory the novel’s popularity is one of its virtues. The novel’s
novelty makes it a way to understand the daily experience of modernization.
Novels do not just represent antagonisms and “contradictions,” the novel became one of
the ways that the bourgeois asserted its cultural hegemony (“leadership”) in the modern
era, by universalizing their values:
– The concept of natural individual rights; the right to choose in marriage; the supreme
value of the companionate marriage; the nostalgia for the heroic deeds of the warrior
Winners/losers: Marx was a great admirer of 18th century realism and especially Robinson
Crusoe; realism is favored over allegory, allusion, poetry and all the forms of court
– This turns into a confining doctrine with the “social realism” of Russian and Chinese
communist states: novel and film become used as ways to propagate the new social
order (there is admiration of the way the middle class had hidden its own earlier
bourgeois novelistic propaganda).
Ian Watt: the rise of the novel is an effect of the happy
coincidence of ideology, epistemology, and literary form
The rise of the middle class depended upon a new understanding
of the individual as the origin and ground for a new, intensely
personal concept of a “deep” self (Crusoe; Pamela)
Putting the self first was also sustained by British empirical
philosophy and modern scientific method; both insisted upon the
ontological priority of the experience of time, space, geography,
The novel in the British 18th century developed to deliver this
experience of reality to the reader; “formal realism” is a
technology that allows the author to capture and the reader to
experience reality through the novel.
There are winners and losers: the Defoe’s labored descriptions
and Richardson’s formal realism (and ‘writing to the moment’),
where artistry is submerged in documents (the journal, the letter)
over the ‘realism of assessment’ Watt ascribes to Fielding.
Nancy Armstrong: the rise of the novel narrative is translated
through different conceptual terms
Armstrong qualifies the grounding of the rise of the novel thesis in social history,
history of ideas, and nation
Armstrong deploys Foucault’s concept of the “discursive formation” (as a semiautonomous rule-bound body of language; a groundless ground made of ideas,
procedures, values) to describe the way the novel mediates social change:
• Thus, in Pamela, the eponymous heroine Pamela can transform the conduct,
by changing the desire, of the master: Pamela teachers Mr. B to desire her for
her mind and heart (the way she writes up her experience); he trades in
lust/mastery for equal love; P as “domestic woman” prototypes the modern
In “The Fiction of Bourgeois Morality,” “bourgeois morality” is a discursive
formation that is at once real and a fiction; novels allow authors and readers to
do things of consequence: over 3 centuries, the novel mediates social change by
allowing the individuals (author, reader) to appeal to “bourgeois morality” to
critique and thereby enlarge the existing social system.
Bias: Armstrong reasserts Richardson’s dominance over Fielding, sentiment over
irony, the realistic novels of manners over adventure, fantasy, or satire.
Mikhail Bakhtin: “novel” is less a genre in a spatial array of
literary forms than a process of liberation …
Novelization has happened during the 3,000 years of Western literature: in Platonic
dialogue, ancient romance, in medieval carnival, as well as throughout the modern
Bakhtin offers an antidote to the modernization thesis
From the social world comes a plurality of speech genres, a field of heteroglossia,
which are brought into a fertile ironic qualifying relation to each other; the novel’s
architecture mediates social difference through the linguistic differences it
Bakhtin does not worry the reality effects or sly duplicities of novelistic mimesis.
The dominant work of the novel is dialogism: an irreverent, hybridization that
incorporates and affirms the plurality of the world.
Bakhtin downplays ‘ownership’ of literature, by authors, nations, critical schools,
Winners/losers: the plurality of speech genres, dialects, and popular culture that are
reconciled by the detached and ironic narratives of Fielding and Scott are favored over
the purifying impulses of Richardson and Sterne.
Sublime enlargement: Moretti’s “On the Novel”
“Countless are the novels of the world. So, how can we speak
of them? (1)
The Novel combines two intersecting perspectives.
First, the novel is for us a great anthropological force, which
has turned reading into a pleasure and redefined the sense
of reality, the meaning of individual existence, the
perception of time and of language. (2)
The novel as culture, then, but certainly also as form, or
rather forms, plural, because in the two thousand years of
its history one encounters the strangest creations, and high
and low trade places at every opportunity, as the borders of
literature are continuously, unpredictably expanded. (3)
At times, this endless flexibility borders on chaos. But thanks
to it, the novel becomes the first truly planetary form: a
phoenix always ready to take flight in a new direction, and
to find the right language for the next generation of
Two perspectives on the novel, then; and two volumes.
History, Geography, and Culture is mostly a look from the
Forms and Themes, from the inside. (5)
But like convex and concave in a Borromini facade, inside and
out side are here part of the same design, because the
novel is always commodity- and artwork at once: a major
economic investment and an ambitious aesthetic form (for
German romanticism, the most universal of all).”
1.A sublime plurality of novels triggers a
methodological question: what is the path
for knowing them?
2.First, novels have the ‘force’ to change
(pleasure, reality); they are one of the
engines of history.
3.Second, in the variety of the forms of the
novel there is something ‘strange’,
wondrous, and unpredictable that imparts a
mobility to novels.
4.The terms flexibility and planetary link the
formal openness and variety of novels to
their global circulation: the novel is the first
and only form of world literature.
5.To affirm the value of both distance and
close reading, both the larger configurations
of market, geography, nation, class, etc as
well as the intricate variety of forms, one
must follow the dynamic interdependence
of external and internal, the network and
6.The architecture of this project is as
ingeniously complex as a Borromini façade:
Is a synthesis implicitly promised? Or do we
have the infinite loop of Escher?
Francesco Borromini’s San Carlino of the Four Fountains
& Franco Moretti
“…inside and outside are here part of the same
Moretti characterizes the Novel:
“History of the Novel, Theory of the Novel”
The novel is not written in verse (with the symmetry, reversibility and monument like
quality of poetry) but prose (pro-vorsa: forward looking, front facing, where meaning
“depend on what lies ahead”: the need for construction, continuity, and hypotaxis rather
In novels there is a formal tension develops between complexity (delay) and narration
Why are novels long? Because they tell the story of a string of adventures: the adventurer
cannot rest, the knight must move on to prove himself again, to rescue the innocent with
bravery (the moral alibi for violence and war).
• “If there is a main branch in the family of forms we call the novel…then its this: we’d still
recognize the history of the novel without modernism, or even without realism, but
without adventures in prose, no.” (Moretti, NOVEL: a Forum in Fiction, 4)
Moretti notes this irony about the novel’s focus on adventure: why do we get the social
narrowness of the knight-Christian hero so avidly consumed by bourgeois audiences?
A theory is advanced: with capitalism on the march, the adventurer may be an anti-type of
the bourgeois, but he supports tropes of expansion: “capitalism on the offensive, planetary,
crossing the oceans”… “The bourgeois class needs a master” and finds a figural one in the
hero and his adventure. Moretti’s ideological analysis “Hegemony doesn’t need purity—it
needs plasticity, camouflage, collusion between old and new…. The novel is central to
modernity not despite, but because, of its premodern traits. (8-9)
Distance reading to overcome the canon’s filtering out most novels:
Moretti’s debate with Trumpener
Moretti’s complaint: since we critics read only 200 out of 7,000-8,000 novels of the British 19th
century, we hardly know what novels are.
Moretti is suspicious of attempts to reduce criticism to intimate reading guides to a few canonical
He instead focuses upon the literary system and finding more rigorous ways to study it. But how
can we study as system in aggregate? Use a database of 7,000 novel titles and track their
change over time.
Thesis of “Style, Inc.”: Over the course of the 18th-19th century, titles get shorter because of the
market sustained increases in number and the circulating library catalogs required a title to serve
as a concise and unique identifier of the novel. (noun, modifier and noun, definite article…)
Trumpener’s advocates, first, doing the “real footwork” of studying particular publishers archives,
authors letters, etc to discover the reason for title changes; secondly, her endorsement of
“reading more: more widely, more deeply, more eclectically, more comparatively.”
– Moretti’s rejoinder: “the behavior of a large system is not the same as the sum (of the
behaviors) of its individual elements. When a system changes en block in the same direction,
we must look for general reasons for the change, operating at the level of the system as such,
and applying simultaneously to all its components (along the lines of Bourdieu’s ‘field’).”
Moretti acknowledges that there might be other systems besides the market which could be
tested within his database, but Trumpener has not proposed one.
Moretti’s call for a different literary studies: the last paragraph of
“Network Theory/ Plot Analysis”
“A different role for the protagonist,
resulting from a different set of
narrative relations: what networks
make visible are the opposite
foundations of novel-writing East and
One day, after we add to these
skeletons the layers of direction,
weight and semantics, those richer
images will perhaps make us see
different genres—tragedies and
comedies, picaresque, gothic,
Bildungsroman…--as different shapes;
ideally, they may even make visible
the micro-patterns out of which these
larger network shapes emerge.
But for this to happen, an enormous
amount of empirical data must be first
Will we, as a discipline, be capable of
sharing raw materials, evidence—
facts—with each other? It remains to
For science, Stephen Jay Gould once
wrote, fruitful doing matters more
than clever thinking.
For us, not yet.”
1. Generalized finding from the comparative analysis of character
networks undertaken in this article (here Pride and Prejudice
versus The Story of the Stone).
2. The ‘one day’ makes an implicit call for the future time when
literary study will become science; this, for the project of plot
analysis, will require the filling out of new “layers” of complexity
to the (mere) “skeleton” of plot that these x-ray plot maps have
laid bare. That future will allow us to “see” different genres as
different shapes, and thus, with the detail and fullness of a
“richer” photograph-like “images.”
This higher resolution imaging might then allow access to the
smaller “micro-patterns” that generate network shapes, thus
enabling causal analysis.
3. The “but” announces the next step that the provisional
incompleteness of this essay reveals to be necessary: the
assembling of an “an enormous amount” of data about
4. But will our bias against quantifiable data (perhaps grounded in
our too eccentric and clever acts of literary interpretation) make
us not “capable” of “sharing” more modest constituents of
literary analysis: ‘Materials, evidence, facts.” The jury is out on
this momentous question.
5. If literary studies wishes to grow into a science it is necessary to
give up our clever ways of thinking and exchange it for truly
6. But, we/you are not yet there; but if you attend to this kind of
study, if you/we try harder, you/we might be ‘ready’ someday. 10
Questions for Moretti’s scientific project
While this passage begins with a summary of the comparative finding of the
normal sort at the end of an essay, the next sentence summons literary
studies to a new and better day.
• Are Moretti’s network arrays models of plot? (that is, both a simulation of
the plot structure, but also models for criticism?)
• Is it a ‘model’ because it is a simple early version of what could be scaled
up: we could one day fill in the nature of character connections (direction,
weight, and semantics) by gathering (#3) and sharing (#4) lots of data?
• Is Moretti acting as a prophet who sees the future of literary studies
depends for its development of new knowledge that uses the new tools of
information data aggregation and visualization?
• Is he a creative scholar-critic who finds remarkably original ways to
resituate the literary object, above all by increasing the scale of the
literary objects of knowledge?
• Is he a pioneering scientist of literary studies or is he a scold, who
implicitly condemns most of what literary studies have been (comforting,
intuitive, clever reading guides to a tiny fragment of the universe of
How would you contrast Latour and Moretti?
• Actor-network theory seeks to develop a report by doing an ANT analysis
that is ultimately mimetic: it seeks to preserve the terms already in place,
follow the actors, incorporate as many actors as possible, in view of
representing the salient mediators of a system.
• By contrast, Moretti’s self-conscious use of models (whether
charts/graphs/maps, or evolutionary trees, or a network of nodes and
edges) are explicitly instrumental: that is, the model allows us to do the
equivalent of an “X-ray” upon an object or a huge and varied body of
objects (“the novel”).
• When Moretti gathers data and builds them into databases, there is an
acknowledged reduction of quality into quantity so that one can read from
a distance and grasp the system as a provisional unity, so one can track its
changes (for example from long to short titles), and this produces an
outcome that produces a question (why do novel titles become shorter?),
which in turn produces speculations/ proposals. This procedure sets much
aside: for example, the particular rhetoric or syntax of one long title.
• Doesn’t an ANT analysis seek to preserve complexity by increasing the
number of mediators included in the analysis, understood as a living