This is a very ambitious collection, and it was put together by a very ambitious man. An attempt to encompass the whole history of the novel, from Heliodorus to DeLillo, Argentina to Japan, it includes more than a hundred essays, by nearly a hundred contributors, under a dozen and a half rubrics (“Toward World Literature,” “Space and Story”), employing three different expository strategies: long synoptic essays, shorter readings of individual texts and brief explications of analytic terms or historical trends. And this is an abridgment of the five-volume Italian original. Imagine a comparable collection titled Drama or Poetry.
But Moretti is no stranger to grand, omnivorous projects. In The Way of the World (1987) he constructed a theoretical history of the Bildungsroman, or novel of development, the nineteenth century’s major fictional genre. Modern Epic (1996) did the same for its titular form. (A projected third study, of modern tragedy, which would complete his exegesis of the major modern literary forms, has yet to appear.) Moretti is an unquestionably brilliant thinker, one of the major literary theorists of the past twenty years and an elegant, lucid writer to boot. His ideas are unfailingly far-reaching, unexpected and inventive. And he’s right a good half the time. (Full disclosure: I studied with Moretti in graduate school, and while we butted heads fairly often in seminar, we remained on cordial terms.) The criticism of Moretti has always been that he thinks before he reads–that his grand syntheses encompass everything except the particular facts of the texts to which they lay claim. But Moretti is nothing if not nimble; in recent years, he has turned the charge into a battle cry, proclaiming a new method of “distant reading” to replace the traditional scholarly close reading that, he says, fetishizes a few hundred canonical novels at the expense of the tens of thousands that have been produced over the centuries. The kinds of critical procedures the new method entails may be gleaned from the titles of the works Moretti has so far produced in its name: Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900 (1998) and Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2005). Rather than painstakingly interpreting the complexly integrated elements of a single text, distant reading conducts quantitative analyses of particular elements across hundreds of texts at once–the geographical location in which they take place, for instance–treating Middlemarch, say, no differently from the dozens of potboilers and weepies published in the same era. Now Moretti can construct theories about every novel ever written, without even, as he has come to boast, having to read them at all.
The best thing that can be said about The Novel is that while it amply reflects the size of Moretti’s ambition, constituting his latest attempt to place himself at the center of global novelistic study, it only sparingly reflects his critical aims. Quantitative analysis does rear its head in several places, and the collection is also highly uneven and in several respects rather poorly edited. But Moretti has enlisted some first-rate critics among his contributors, and they have responded with a large range and amount of superb work: Perry Anderson on Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, Ian Duncan on Scott’s Waverley, Valentine Cunningham on Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Philip Fisher on urban space in Joyce’s Ulysses, Gerald Martin on Latin American fiction, Andreas Gailus on the German novella, Michael Denning on left-wing fiction as the first global literary movement, Nancy Armstrong on the evolving struggle across the history of the novel between individualism and bourgeois morality, Michal Peled Ginsburg and Lorri Nandrea on prose and poetry as competing value systems and the interplay of the two within novels themselves, Bruce Robbins on artist-figures as social climbers and the myth of bohemia, and John Brenkman on the false distinction between modernism and postmodernism and the true course of fiction in the twentieth century.