Franco Moretti
Born 1950 in Sondrio
Relevant Work From Graphs, Maps, Trees


(NATC, 2nd ed.)

Biography Edit

  • Born in Italy, Franco Moretti received his Ph.D. in modern literature from the University of Rome in 1972.
  • After teaching at various Italian universities, he joined the faculty of Columbia University where he served as a professor of comparative literature from 1990 to 1999.
  • In 2000, he accepted the Danily C. and Laura Louise Bell Professorship at Stanford University and founded the Stanford Center for the Study of the Novel, an interdisciplinary institute dedicated to promoting discussions on the novel that cut across history and cultures.
  • He gave the Gaus Seminar in Criticism at Princeton University in 1991, the Beckman Lectures at the University of California at Berkeley in 2002, and the Carpenter Lectures at the University of Chicago in 2008.
  • Moretti has also been a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin and a scientific adviser to the French Ministry of Research.

from Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History Edit

Background and Historical Context Edit

Moretti felt that with the insurmountable amount of literature in the world, a whole lifetime would not allow for a sufficient amount of time to read. Thus, he developed a style called "distant reading", a technique to limit the time readers spent on close reading and to facilitate the study of texts in more a scientific method, "which strategically subjects the genre to a process of scientific observation and analysis focused on the total phenomenon rather than on individual cases" (2438).[1]

Key Words and Terms Edit

Distant Reading - A method of approaching the genre of the novel antithetical to a "close reading." Distant reading is not interested in looking at individual novels, but is instead a scientific and analytical approach to the genre as a whole.

Morphology - The study of the forms of things--in particular, form, shape, and structure.

Temporary Structures or Genres - Morphological arrangements that last in time, but always only for some time.

Generalist - Someone who reads absolutely anything at random.

Longue Durée - Measurement over centuries of time/history; the time frame in literary analysis in which most theorists are comfortable.

Cycle - Measurement of "temporary structures" (2449) within history; "variations in a conflict that remains constant" (2461); the time frame in literary analysis most unexplored by theorists.[1]

Event - Measurement of short time span; time frame in literary analysis that focuses on individual works, a comfortable structure for theorists.

Key Quotations Edit

"According to Moretti, the cyclical rhythm of dominant genres is conditioned by the sequence of generations" (NATC 2439).

"But what would happen if literary historians, too, decided to 'shift their gaze' ... 'from the extraordinary to the everyday, from exceptional events to the large mass of facts'? What literature would we find, in 'the large mass of facts'?" (2441).

"A field this large cannot be understood by stitching together separate bits of knowledge about individual cases, because it isn't a sum of individual cases: it's a collective system, that should be grasped as such, as a whole" (2442).

"A more rational literary history. That is the idea" (2442).

“…quantitative work is truly cooperation: not only in the pragmatic sense that it takes forever to gather data, but because such data are ideally independent from any individual researcher, and can thus be shared by others, and combined in more than one way” (2442).

"But graphs are not really models; they are not simplified, intuitive versions of a theoretical structure in the way maps and (especially) evolutionary trees will be in the next two chapters" (2445).

“And the reason behind downturns seems to always be the same: politics—a direct, virulent censorship during the Kansei and Tempo periods, and an indirect influence in the years leading up to the Meiji Restoration, when there was no specific repression of the book trade, and the crisis was thus probably due to a more general dissonance between the rhythm of political crises and the writing of novels” (2447).

“Why the lag? Almost certainly, because as long as hegemonic form has not lost its ‘artistic usefulness’, there is not much that a rival form can do: there can always be an exceptional text, yes, but the exception will not change the system” (2452).

"From individual cases to series; from series to cycles, and then to genres as their morphological embodiment" (2452).

From individual cases to series; from series to cycles, and then to genres as their morphological embodiment. And these three genres seem indeed to follow a rather regular life-cycle, as some economists would call it. These genres—or all genres? Is this wave-like pattern a sort of hidden pendulum of literary history (2452)?[1]

“Instead of changing all the time and a little at a time, then, the system stands still for decades, and is then ‘punctuated’ by brief outbursts of invention: forms change once, rapidly, across the board, and then repeat themselves for two-three decades…” (2453).

"When one genre replaces another, it's reasonable to assume that the cause is internal to the two genres, and historically specific" (2455).

"The causal mechanism must thus be external to the genres, and common to all: like a sudden, total change of their ecosystem. Which is to say, the change of their audience" (2455).

“This, then, is where those 25-30 years come from: generations…’a rhythm in the sequence of generations’…We shall therefore speak of a generation as an actuality only where a concrete bond is created between members of a generation by their being exposed to the social and intellectual symptoms of a process of dynamic destabilization” (2455).

"At some point, a particular significant 'destabilization' gives rise to a clearly defined generation, which occupies centre stage for 20-30 years, attracting within its orbit, and shaping after its mould, slightly younger or older individuals. Once biological age pushes this generation to the periphery of the cultural system, there is suddenly room for a new generation, which comes into being simply because it can, destabilization or not; and so on, and on..." (2456).

"But the real point, here, is less the specific answer, than the total heterogeneity of problem and solution: to make sense of quantitative date, I had to abandon the quantitative universe, and turn to morphology: evoke form, in order to explain figures" (2458).

Discussion Edit

Genre Cycles Edit

The selection of Moretti's book Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History included in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism explores literary trends and genres and the ways in which they change over time. Moretti wanted to uncover evidence as to why various genres have disappeared and why some only stayed for a short time before ushering others in. What he discovered was that there were periods of time where genres lasted between 25-30 years (there were several periods in which those genres were back-to-back and lasted the same amount of time), but there were only a few periods that lasted only 10 years. Whilst analyzing these generic cycles, Moretti ultimately began to realize that "Books survive if they are read and disappear if they aren't: and when an entire generic system vanishes at once, the likeliest explanation is that its readers vanished at once" (2455, original emphasis).[1] He reasoned that once people stop reading a certain genre, writers respond by stopping production of that particular material.

But why do readers decide to stop reading a certain genre? Moretti's analysis can help us understand questions like that because his work focuses on "the dynamic interplay between social history and literary form" (2439).[1] His research involves studying large samples of literary genres ranging across particular time periods in order to pinpoint the geographic locations and origins of ideas as well as the cultural basis of readership. By avoiding close-reading strategies and instead looking at large swaths of literary data, Moretti seeks to link literary trends to social, political, and cultural trends occurring in the same time period and locations.

Accusations and Controversy Edit

In 2017, Kimberly Latta, a former UC Berkeley graduate student of Moretti’s at the time, publicly accused Franco Moretti of sexual assault, harassment, and rape. Latta said Moretti had “sexually stalked, pressured, and raped” her in her Oakland apartment, telling her “You American girls say no when you mean yes” (Liu and Knowles).[2] In the 1990s, Moretti was also accused of sexual harassment of another graduate student (Liu and Knowles).[2] Both claims have been disputed by Moretti, who described his interactions with Latta as “fully consensual,” adding that he’s “horrified by the accusation” (Liu and Knowles).[2]

Accusations against Moretti raise the question about whether or not authors should be separated from their work and if students and educators should learn and teach from disreputable writers. This is a pressing question when put into conversation with other influential writers; such as Althusser, who made substantial contributions to Marxism and philosophy, but murdered his wife in 1980 in a manic fit of rage. Separating text from its writer must be debated in education, especially since the worst atrocities are committed by those in power and influential thinkers are in positions of power. Doubtlessly, both Althusser and Moretti have contributed to their fields and have made impressions on students and researchers, but should their influence continue to spread after they have been accused or prosecuted for severe crimes? Are there not equally relevant texts to learn from, written by moral and humanistic authors?

Major Criticism and Reception Edit

Critics have accused Moretti of omitting too many of literature's objectives while simultaneously treating all literature as a whole rather than acknowledging the originality of individual texts. He has likewise been criticized as being too preoccupied with the flimsy relationships he presents between science and literary scholarship. His broad geographical and historical expansions of novelist genres to include immense numbers of peripheral works discounts the specificity of historical context, eliminating not only close readings, but also cultural critique. His choice of omissions overlooks the psychological, moral, and aesthetic functions of literature.

Related Works Edit

References Edit

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Leitch, Vincent B., editor. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed., W.W. Norton & Co., 2010.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Liu, Fangzhou, and Hannah Knowles. “Two Women Accuse Former Stanford Professors of Sexual Assault.” The Stanford Daily, The Stanford Daily, 9 Nov. 2017,