Graphing and mapping literature

Moretti presents a novel idea of doing research. Even though I still believe that in some cases and in some departments, especially English, it’s hard to make academics see quantitative research as academic research, I’ve witnessed a new trend shaping up in the field and I’ve even heard of dissertation that feed off of the very same idea. So, it is happening.

The idea of challenging the present “narrow scope” practices of working only with a limited number of literary works (the canon) and viewing them as representatives of a particular historical period, such as the Victorian literature, is not enough. By widening that scope and making room for a larger representation of the works published during that time would require a shift in the way we are taught to view literature and even the reading and appreciation of literature, but at the same time it would give the other works that have slipped into oblivion a chance to resurface. I can see how this is possible with factual information, because once one enters the domain of close reading and interpretation, hence the world of tropes, it’s a slippery slope. This kind of research is more appropriate for something that can be checked and verified against some existing document. Moretti himself acknowledges the limitations of distant reading when he states, “it provides data, not interpretation.”

Being someone who has to prepare for QPs and having being assigned a reading list to work with, I can see the necessity for such an approach. It’s similar to a reading group, where everyone reads a particular article and there is a sharing session, because it’s practically impossible to read everything within the allotted time frame. The “close reading” approach is much more convenient in a culture where the number of aspiring writers is limited to “white men” and an extremely limited number of women. Since literature has grown to embrace other cultures, genders, races, genres and modes of presentation, it’s hard to keep up with every new book that is released. That’s why we specialize in a particular field. On the other hand, it would be good to have a more comprehensive view of what’s out there, or what has been at a particular point in time. In this sense, Moretti’s proposal presents a different way of looking at literature.

I have to say that this approach gives literature a new life. It no longer resides under the domain of literature as a work of art. It opens the door for other disciplines to partake of the knowledge literature has to give, but not necessarily the aesthetic appreciation. It lends literature a historical flair, which I think is essential in this day and age.

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