Franco Moretti’s “Graphs”

Franco Moretti’s chapter entitled “Graphs” from Graphs, maps, trees abstract models for a literary history analyzes the trends in literary history across the world, with a special focus on novels. Moretti’s stated goal is to create a more rational literary history because the sheer number of novels published over time prevents scholars from relying on close reading because it is logistically unfeasible to closely read the many thousands of novels. Moreover, focusing on one author or groups of authors leaves out too many others to be able to make reasonable arguments about literary history.  Moretti’s solution is to “graph” hundreds of novels over time either to measure the number of novels per decade and number of novels in a given genre. The graphs he produces demonstrate, perhaps, the connection between political instability and novel writing during the 19th century in Europe or the impact of colonialism on literary forms. This chapter raises a few questions. Where does Moretti’s work, the graphs, fit in with the rest of literary history? Does it intend to replace or improve literary history? Does close reading still matter when graph making can chart provocative and insightful arguments? Does this method, for example, adequately provide explanations for how genres shift or are exported?

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