Seeking a more rational literary history, Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees demonstrates the interpretive possibilities made available by distance reading. For Moretti, mapping the development or evolution of genres and bibliographies draws attention to often-ignored non-canonized texts, providing vital context for the one percent of literature that is still actually read or well known. Data trees are an optimum tool for tracing the Darwinian development of literary trends and markets, revealing a network of material and cultural circumstances often overlooked by close-reading practices.
As Isaac Knapp notes in his response, Moretti’s approach is likely welcomed by Digital Humanists as it lends itself to data visualizations and tracing massive numbers of books and trends. Understanding the detective genre, for example, should not necessarily begin and end with a reading of Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Instead, according to Moretti, it is essential to understand the development and competition of the literary market at this time, demonstrating the similarities, differences, and complexities of what we term “detective fiction” from the late nineteenth century: “The more one looked in the archive…the more complex and ‘darwinian’ became the genre’s morphospace” (74). In other words, by looking at material and textual aspects of the genre as a whole, the relationship between and development of various forms takes shape.
Focusing on the “materialist conception of form” (92), Moretti’s approach is greatly enhanced by digital technologies. Software allows for data mining and graphing, and it can search massive and/or obscure archives connected across the globe. By tracking words, forms, and concepts, literature takes on new meaning as a material and cultural product that constantly shapes and reshapes itself. This method also encourages researchers to look at lesser-known works, writing that may appear in archives, libraries, or bibliographical records, but is rarely read due to the dominance of cannons.
Unlike a Marxist approach that may also address the materiality of literature, Moretti’s distance reading is a method that can avoid sweeping generalizations or a one-size-fits-all theoretical approach. This focus on methodology aligns itself with the Digital Humanities, as it asks individuals to analyze, interpret, and create new ways of understanding literature–with a focus on the literature. This seems part of a growing perspective, a notion that literary studies should rely less on abstract poststructural theory, and more on the text itself.
Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. Memphis: Verso, 2005. Print.