Franco Moretti's theory in Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 is that quantitative methods applied to the study of literature will disclose previously undiscovered facts about i.) the content of literature and its relation to the world it purports to describe or reflect and ii.) the dissemination of literature in a culture and the power relations and material conditions that make it possible and shape it in ways invisible to non-quantitative analysis.
The first two chapters of Moretti's book pursue the former issue; Moretti literally maps aspects of the fiction under his consideration—we see where Jane Austen's novels begin and end, what the typical journey in colonial adventures looks like and the areas in London where Dickens's middle-class characters live. These maps are experiments that allow us to test the hypotheses offered by qualitative criticism: Jane Austen's fiction consolidates the nation-state? Let's see what the map says. Indeed, the map shows that her novels begin in the county where the heroine (old local gentry) lives and end in the county where her eventual husband (new national elite) lives, these counties being located in a southern, rural England that excludes the Celtic fringe and the industrial north, though the plot complication do occur in the cities where mobile, shiftless seducers try to move in on this marriage market. So Austen's England, Moretti argues, is an “invention,” a technology for communicating and naturalizing the often (in real life) frightening marriage of the old elite and the new, which, for the classes affected, was not often motivated by the desire typical of Austen's heroines but rather through fear and desperation of ending up in one of her plot-device cities where seducers swarm. So Moretti's map experiment has tested and seemingly proved the hypothesis we're all familiar with about the political meaning of Austen's novels. This is literary criticism as science.
In pursuing the latter claim of his thesis, Moretti's third chapter, more provocatively, gives us literary history as science.
In short, after mapping the locations of circulating libraries throughout Europe, analyzing their contents and comparing the results, Moretti concludes that literary circulation follows certain laws in the middle of the nineteenth century: the novel dominates Europe—in the smallest circulating libraries, which, Moretti demonstrates, contain only what is considered the most canonical books, there are only novels. Which novels? Moretti theorizes the “three Europes.” England and France, the dominant political powers and producers and codifiers of the novel, compete for hegemony in the other two European spheres: the shifting middle sphere of countries, “regional powers,” like Spain and Italy and Germany that produce and export some of their own fiction, though it mostly corresponds to the English and French models, and the third sphere of small countries that import novels almost entirely and export nothing of their own (like Rumania, of whose national bibliography Moretti parenthetically and hilariously observes that it “unfortunately stops, like Mr Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, at the letter 'R'”).
As France and England compete for dominance (spoiler: France wins (though the result might be different if Moretti had factored in the U.S., which imported enormous amounts of English fiction in the nineteenth century)), their novel becomes a rigid form. Gone is the chaos of genres of the eighteenth century in favor of an increasingly homogenized realist novel that is written even at a distance from the (political, cultural) ground in which the form evolved. After quoting Peter J. Hugill, a historian of technology, to the effect that in the twentieth century only two basic cars had been produced, the design of 1902 and that of 1959, Moretti writes:
Only two cars! But the ubiquity of imitation, Hugill dryly goes on, 'has been hidden by the competitive nature of automobile companies. No company wishes to admit that its basic design differs little from that of others.' No company; and also no publisher, or novelist—or critic, for that matter. They all insist on the originality of their products, like so many car salesmen, and for the very same reason: to sell. Which is human, but cannot hide the growing sameness that holds sway within the literary field—just as everywhere else.What possible response to the homogenization of art by power relations and their modern attendant, the laws of the market? One might, considering that Moretti levels that literary field by considering the largely unknown bulk of fiction produced in the nineteenth century, take refuge in the canon. Harold Bloom's The Western Canon, a book known and justly deplored for its senile rantings against the six-branched “School of Resentment”, also contains a deeper argument, perhaps directed more against the Lynn Cheney/William Bennett axis in the culture war. As Carl pointed out to me over stout one rainy night in a bar called The Liberal Cup in Hallowell, Maine, Bloom's more interesting thesis holds that the books of the traditional canon are not the most typical books or the ones that most effectively propagate our values, but in fact they are the strangest books, the ones that break out of the very field of sameness that Moretti surveys. What would Moretti say to this? Probably “yes” and “no”. He would say, for instance, that some of their originality is in the consolidation of the very values Cheney and Bennett would celebrate, as in the case of Austen or even Dickens, who evolved new forms for the representation of the modern nation-state and the values of its middle-class. He would also want to inquire about where originality comes from.
He theorizes that it comes from the interaction of center and periphery. There were two great innovation in narrative in the last two centuries, he notes, the first being the Russian novel of ideas (1860s and '70s) and the second being the Latin American magic realist novel (1950s-'80s). Here the periphery, those on the edges of the dominant fiction-producing sphere of England, France and, later, the U.S., blend the hegemonic novels of these spheres with their own local traditions and differing perspectives on the material to produce a hybrid novel: in Crime and Punishment, for instance, we get the young man struggling to negotiate and rise in society (the material described by Dickens and Balzac and Stendhal), but we get it in a lurid story drawn from newspapers and framed by Dostoevsky's own idiosyncratic religious perspective that contains and critiques western ideas in a way that Dickens and Balzac could not because those ideas, local and natural to them, were necessarily in their ideological blind-spot. So originality too is quantifiable, traceable to the market's laws of literary diffusion.
What literature would look like in a future not ruled by market laws, we can't say. Moretti himself does not explicitly observe that market laws only operate where markets rule, and I think he somewhat confuses the issue by referring to Stephen Jay Gould and evolutionary theory to explain the novel's development. This gives support to the idea that market laws are universal laws and that no other way of imagining economic or cultural relations is possible. But I doubt he means to do this.
In any case, the situation of boredom, homogenization and sameness persists. In this month's Harper's, Lynn Freed offers an essay called “Doing Time: My years in the creative-writing gulag”. This is the usual diatribe against creative-writing programs—these are of course entirely justifiable, but it's getting old as a topic—and also participates in a genre I don't like, which is the one where the teacher complains about the stupidity of his or her students. What's remarkable about the essay is that it too languishes in the captivity of the creative-writing gulag; competent and readable, its formal structure relies on a discontinuous impressionism to move it between its punctuational epiphanies. You can read it but you wouldn't want to; it's the product of creative-writing hegemony and sounds like the texts produced by the very students Freed complains about, sixth-generation renderings of Chekhov. Creative-writing programs are an especially visible literary marketplace and even the testimony of people who participate in that market confirm that its logic produces stylistic hegemony, sameness and boredom. Bloom believed that the individual romantic genius would deliver us from this sameness with another radical text that would ascend to the weird canon. Moretti would imagine a periphery interacting with this center to produce innovation (perhaps the intersection of the ethos of creative-writing and that of genre fiction one finds in certain novels, films and comics these days qualifies, but I'm not all that interested). Freed scrawled in the margins of her students' stories, “Who cares? Make me care!” But while markets rule, boredom reigns. A future different from this is hard to imagine, but I'm sure it's possible. Indeed, make me care.