Take notes, Nate Silver! Reinventing literary criticism with computers

Big data literary critic Franco Moretti wants to study bad books, preferably without reading them

Published April 23, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Franco Moretti       (Verso Books)
Franco Moretti (Verso Books)

As a literary critic who says he aims to study books without actually reading them, Franco Moretti has positioned himself as an iconoclast. He has described what most non-academics think of as the essence of literary criticism -- singling out the best works and describing what's great about them -- as a "a theological exercise." Instead, as a co-founder of the Stanford Literary Lab, Moretti (with his students) "discusses, designs, and pursues literary research of a digital and quantitative nature." That means treating books like data: taking massive digital archives of texts and using computers to scan them for patterns no human reader would have the time, attention or patience to sift out. There's no set name for this method; it's been dubbed everything from "quantitative stylistics" to "computational criticism."

You'd think that mainstream literary critics would decry Moretti's approach as bloodless or absurdly obvious, and indeed, some have. Yet Moretti's 2013 book, "Distant Reading," recently won the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism. NBCC board member Anne Trubek praised "Distant Reading," a collection of Moretti's essays, as "compelling cultural and historical analyses" that are "light on declamations and heavy on a sort of wide-eyed excitement and curiosity." She's right: If you conflate academic literary criticism with impenetrable jargon suspended in a void light-years away from the books that make people want to study literature to begin with, Moretti will surprise you. His prose has a vigor, clarity and informality that would delight any reader. I spoke with him on the phone recently about his work, including its almost unprecedented focus on the history of the vast numbers of bad and forgotten books published every year.

One of the aspects of your work that's the most counterintuitive at first glance is that you're not that interested in studying literary masterpieces. You study literary works in large masses, regardless of whether they're good or not. You're not looking at "Middlemarch"; you're looking at 7,000 mostly mediocre Victorian novels. Why is that interesting to you?

First of all, those novels were there, it's just that there wasn't the desire to understand what those 7,000 -- or, rather, 6,900, if we don't count the ones that are still being read today -- authors had in mind when they were writing. Why do so many people write things that others don't like to read in the end? What is going on?

[Laughs] I wonder that all the time in my work. I can see why the National Book Critics Circle would find that a good question.

It's really a question of social history and conventions. I'm interested in understanding the culture at large, rather than just its best results. I have no doubt that canonical books are best -- although we can spend days arguing what "best" means. But it's not enough for me to understand that. I want to understand the broader conventions, the field of attempts and failures, hoping that that may tell us something significant about the culture we live in or that others have lived in.

The truth of the matter is that we haven't yet completely succeeded. We have these new tools, these telescope-like things that allow us to see many more texts than was possible before, just like the telescope allow Galileo to see many more stars.

You mean databases containing the texts of many books and the computers to analyze those texts?

Yes. When Galileo built his first good telescope, he discovered that the Milky Way was not a mush, but a collection of stars. We have tools that allow us to do the same thing, but we haven't yet made discoveries that are even remotely comparable to those of astronomy once telescopes were invented. But the hope is that these tools, by allowing us to see so much more, will also allow us to change our image of the culture.

There have been here and there some interesting results, but there is not yet a new astronomy. There are not yet new literary heavens, so to speak. This is really the beginning.

It sounds like some of the confusion might be a matter of terminology. Conventionally, a "literary critic" has the role of figuring out what the best works are, but what you describe is more the work of a cultural historian.

Exactly. Literary history has two sides, I think. One is the normative side: deciding what is good and what is less good. The other is the explanatory side. It's two very different modalities of thought, and I've always been inclined toward the explanatory. That's what fires my mind. And in the study of the humanities, the normative modality has disappeared. It's all explanatory now.

Outside of the academy, however, that's still what people see as the literary critic's job.

I agree with you. And outside of the academy, when people enter into contact with literature, it's because they want to read a book, right? And they want to read a good book, which is a very reasonable desire. So for them, the normative aspect of literary criticism -- "Tell me what books are really worth reading" -- is important. And should be important, and should remain important.

My work addresses mostly those who enter into contact with literature not only because they want to enjoy it but also because they want to study it. If you want to study it, the object of your study doesn't always have to be a single text. It could be a very large collection of texts, or a very large collection of words drawn from a single text.

When I first read that you applied evolutionary models to literary studies, I winced because I associate that with these sort of ham-fisted efforts to apply the reductive (and scientifically dubious) ideas of evolutionary psychology to the content of famous novels.

You mean like, "Is Darcy from 'Pride and Prejudice' an alpha male?" That sort of thing is a travesty.

Exactly. It's so dumb. First, it's not like nobody ever noticed before that one of the reasons Elizabeth likes Darcy is that he's rich, but above all, it's reductive. However, that's not what you do. You're observing how literary forms or genres evolve, which innovations or mutations are successful and which works end up surviving and thriving -- if by thriving we mean remaining in print and being read by people for generations to come. You're looking at how what we call "the test of time" operates.

Yes, that's right.

And one of the most fascinating assertions you make is that, when it comes to the canon or the books that survive or which are considered great and worth reading for generations to come, it's not scholars or critics or other authority figures who decide what gets in. It's the market.

Absolutely. I think those choices, for almost the entirety of the history of literature, have been made not by critics but by readers. It's audiences that have made Aeschylus and Sophocles and Shakespeare and Racine and Ibsen the pillars of the dramatic tradition. The same goes for the novel, all the way at least until modernism and the avant garde, when things changed a bit. But by and large it's readers and audiences who manage, by these word-of-mouth cascades, to learn about books and to select them -- to use the Darwinian term.

That's another reason why explanation has always appealed to me because the choice has already been made for us by normal readers. But what normal readers don't do is explain. They just choose. They like something. It's a task of the critic to try to understand why they like what they like. Or, as you say, it's more like cultural history. That's fine. Being called a cultural historian: I consider that praise.

Furthermore, you're right that I'm interested in the survival of genres, of texts, of forms. I'm a formalist. I think that should be the basis of literary analysis because, I suspect, that is also the basis of readers' choices, although readers may not be aware of that. They don't seem to choose a story. They choose a story told in a certain way, with a certain style and sense of events.

A curious aspect of your work is that much of it involves studying why works, such as the would-be rivals of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, fail. Most books do fail to find a lasting readership or any readership at all, which is why one of the essays in "Distant Reading" is called "The Slaughterhouse of Literature." But studying that stuff means that you have to look at a lot of books that didn't work. In effect, you're studying bad books.

Yeah [sighs]. That's a difficult thing to do. And it's a difficult thing to do not only because they're bad books but because it's seldom obvious what is the reason for failure. For my students and me, it's sometimes like the earliest ages of pathology in which we're still looking for what it is that ruins a construction. There's a group of students at the Stanford Literary Lab that's studying the transformation of meter in poetry and a group studying the transformations of suspense in narrative. Both of them are trying to understand what makes certain forms thrive and others not. That's always the hardest part.

It's also the hardest to make others interested in. I'm not sure, but I suspect that for a long time it was much easier for an astrologer to make people interested in the skies than for an astronomer. It was much nicer to tell stories of the stars holding the destiny of human beings in their hands. Astronomy, with its calculations, seemed cold by comparison. Plenty of people still care about astrology, of course, including myself. I'm a Leo, and of course I believe in astrology [laughing]. But astronomy, just like biology and all the other sciences, has managed to enter the culture and make a lot of people interested in a good explanation, a bold theory, an interesting conjecture. These have become part of what millions of people are interested in.

I would hope that literary history moves to that stage as well. That it maintains what has been great in its past, but also becomes something that becomes interesting for nonspecialists because it has some bold ideas about why, for example, the chorus at a certain point disappears from tragedy. Just as we ask why dinosaurs went extinct, we should ask why the chorus went extinct. Of course, I have a young son so I know that the chorus is less interesting than T. Rex and Company, but still: Why did the chorus go extinct?

I can remember going to the drugstore as a girl and seeing racks of paperback novels, all of which had on their covers images of a girl in a nightgown running away from a big, dark building. They were called gothics, and they were the pulp-fiction version of novels like "Jane Eyre." That commercial genre has since completely vanished. Why did that happen, I've often wondered. I don't know.

I don't either! But that's the kind of question we try to ask.

Collecting this information has to be difficult, though. In your survey of the titles of 7,000 British novels published between 1740 and 1850, you made some fascinating observations about the significance of the use of articles, whether indefinite ["The Woman"] or definite ["A Woman"]. You pointed out that the definite article is much more common in the titles of "anti-jacobin" novels, which is a politically conservative genre, one that assures its reader that this is something or someone you've seen before and know all about. The "new woman" genre of novels, on the other hand, mostly used the indefinite article in titles because that suggests that this is someone or something you haven't seen before, about whom not much has already been decided.

When I read that, I thought: To make an observation like that, you still have to know if a novel is a "new woman" novel or an "anti-Jacobin" novel, so don't you still have to read it, however bad it may be?

Well, you need to know a little about the text, but you need to know a lot about articles. That was really the key moment of that interpretation. I read an essay about articles that I thought was a stroke of genius. And it's something I keep encountering. I was teaching "The Dead," the last story in [James Joyce's] "The Dubliners," yesterday. The moment of transformation comes when the main character of "The Dead" is at a party and sees "a woman" standing on the landing. That woman is his wife, as we're told a few lines later. We've seen her talk and be with him for the previous 20 or 30 pages. The fact that she's introduced with an indefinite article signals that we've never encountered this woman before. If you remember the story, she's just heard a song that makes her think of this lover of her early youth, and this takes her back to that time. She has become another woman.

When I saw that, I hadn't taught the story in many years, and I thought, "It's the same thing that happens in those titles!" All you need is just an article to signal a major perceptual shift. So you need to know something about the text, but really you need to know more about the grammar, the syntax, the semantics. That's something else we've been doing, my students and I, collaborating with linguists, just as in my earlier work I collaborated with a geneticist.

One of the most provocative arguments you've made is that it's possible to study texts without actually reading them. That's what "distant reading" is. But what you've just told me is how this method gave you insight for the most granular type of close reading, which is finding significance in how an author uses an article -- a type of word most people pay no attention to -- in a single passage!

But when I see the indefinite article playing that role in that Joyce story, what excites me is coming up with a program that finds all the times an indefinite article is applied to a character we've already met. You see what I mean? I'm more interested in that than digging even deeper into that page of that story. It's just a different direction of the interest.

I'm a very attentive reader! I'm just not as interested in reading one text at a time.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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