Franco Moretti, a literature professor, wants scholars to start thinking about history in different forms – that is, graphs, maps and trees. Graphs, Maps, Trees looks at literary history through these three models, which Moretti argues open up a whole new way of looking at history.
The first chunk of the book looks at the rise and fall of the novel through graphs. Moretti writes that this history should be looked at as a whole, instead of parts – the rise and fall of literature as a discipline, instead of the rise and fall of individual pieces of literature. Moretti includes a variety of graphs to support his text, including the rise and fall of the novel in individual countries, dominant genres, and the persistence of genres.
When considering the graphs of the rise and fall of the novel, Moretti looks at when the fluctuations occurred and what could be the possible causes. But then he points out that only looking at the causes for the changes is looking at the individual pieces of literature instead of the whole field. “If they are parts of a pattern, then what we must explain is the pattern as a whole, not just one of its phases,” he writes (13).
By looking at his graphs, Moretti observes that genres last for 25 to 30 years and then die off. He deducts that this pattern for a genre as a whole has to do with generations – people who read the genre died, so there was no one left to read the books (20-21). Not all quantification problems have easy solutions like this, though. “Because the asymmetry of a quantitative explanandum and a qualitative explanans leaves you often with a perfectly clear problem-and no idea of a solution,” Moretti writes, (26).
Not all graphs have an explanation, but it is better to look at history this way than to not look at it at all, Moretti seems to be saying. He writes how everyone thinks they discovered something unique in academia, but if they only plotted the information on a graph, they would see that isn’t something special, but just a reoccurrence, a part of the cycling pattern (27).
“Maps” is illustrated with the example of Our Village, a collection of village stories by Mary Mitford. Moretti maps out Our Village, not on a conventional map, but in circles, with the village being the center.
One central part of Our Village is the character’s walks in the country, something that is quite frequent in all village stories. “But in order to see this pattern, we must first extract it from the narrative flow, and the only way to do so is with a map… it shows us that there is something that needs to be explained,” Moretti writes (39).
It is hard to come to definite conclusions when using maps, but they bring to light something the researcher might not have seen before. Moretti says they are a good way to begin analyzing texts and that they help researchers concentrate on only a few elements. Those few elements are presented a different way and reveal something new to the researcher, something not seen with only text in a novel, (53).
The last model Moretti advocates for is trees, which Darwin called “diagrams” when he used them to explain his theory of evolution. Trees look at the form of history, where elements diverged and converged.
Moretti’s main example is detective fiction and how the presence of clues was the deciding factor of whether a book was popular or not. Moretti finds that when writers tried something new, like making clues decodable for the reader, it decided their book’s fate. “In making writers branch out in every direction, then, the market also pushes them into all sorts of crazy blind alleys; and divergence becomes indeed, as Darwin had seen, inseparable from extinction,” he writes (77).
Moretti uses trees to chart the change of a genre, and how popular those changes were with the readership. If the changes were not popular, the book died off, giving literary historians a better explanation for why some books in a certain genre made it, and others did not.
Graphs, maps, trees. Did you find one model more more useful than the other? Do you think historians use these models enough, or is there room for improvement? Are there any disadvantages to using these models to support text?
Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. New York: Verso, 2005.