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.

Across this great bulk and diversity of material, several persistent issues emerge. The first concerns the origins of the form itself. Moretti is to be commended for casting his net widely, implicitly challenging the novel’s conventional boundaries in several directions. Standard accounts of the form’s inception begin with Don Quixote at the start of the seventeenth century or, because Cervantes’s work produced few immediate successors (for reasons skillfully explained by Joan Ramon Resina in “The Short, Happy Life of the Novel in Spain”), with Richardson and Fielding in the middle of the eighteenth. But as many of these essays show, the novel’s roots go back much further, to the Greek novel of the Roman Empire (Heliodorus’s Aithiopika, the last and greatest of them, was a major influence in the Renaissance) and to medieval romance (stories of King Arthur’s knights and Charlemagne’s paladins), the key relay point between ancient epics and the sixteenth-century chivalric romances with which Cervantes played his sublime games. But the novel also arose independently in other cultures, most notably sixteenth-to-eighteenth-century China, the subject of several essays here. What unites that period with both the Roman world and late Renaissance Europe, as well as with the developing world today, another hot zone in the novel’s history, is modernization. The novel flourishes during periods of social and intellectual upheaval, when longstanding literary conventions and metaphysical beliefs can no longer carry the weight of lived experience.

Inseparable from the question of when the novel emerged is that of what it emerged from. A number of essays here sketch forms of prose narrative against or through which the novel would ultimately define itself, including the Japanese monogatari, of which the Tale of Genji is the most celebrated example, and the Arabic maqama, a kind of traveler’s tale. For one of the novel’s abiding characteristics is its magpie (or gadfly) relationship with other forms–as models to imitate, rivals to satirize, fodder to dismember and ingest (a relationship that continues especially with movies, though now also with comic books, to this day). Novels have cast themselves variously as epics made prosaic, romances made realistic, chronicles or confessions made fictional, rogue’s tales made respectable and folk stories raised to the level of literature. The boundaries of the novel have always been porous, its nature heterogeneous, its form plastic, uniquely open to experiment and innovation–all characteristics that mark it, again, as modern. Indeed, only of the novel do we ask so insistently what it is and when it began, as if uncertainty about its origin and essence–or about origin and essence as such–were constitutive of the form.

If the novel’s relationship with other forms has generally been parasitic, its status within the culture as a whole has usually been disreputable. This is difficult for us to believe, living as we do in the wake of its hegemony during the first half of the twentieth century. But as many of these essays show, the novel has spent most of its life having to explain why it shouldn’t be despised, if not suppressed. Horace ignored it, Hegel dismissed it, Japanese cultural authorities scorned it, Confucian philosophy relegated it to the bottom of the generic ladder, and literary critics and other cultural conservatives across Europe throughout the centuries of its rise saw it as a threat to religion, public order and the souls of their daughters and wives. Novels were accused of being frivolous and superficial, of inciting the imagination rather than the intellect and thus arousing strong emotions and illicit desires, especially among the weaker sex. (Women have formed the bulk of the novel-reading public in virtually every age, including our own.) Novels were also often accused, in their rough handling of received beliefs, of sedition and blasphemy. In the literary sphere–where the most prestigious forms were epic, tragedy or, in China, history–the novel was seen as illegitimate and debased: a vernacular, even colloquial, prose form that didn’t seem to have much shape, couldn’t be properly defined and had no apparent truth value. More recently, the novel has been assailed for being too true, too frank–hence the obscenity trials of Madame Bovary, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses.

No wonder so many of the greatest novels insist that they aren’t really novels at all, or aren’t that kind of novel–the run-of-the-mill improbable or sentimental or sensational kind. The novel has not only always struggled with other forms; it has also always struggled with itself. A contradiction seems to lie at the heart of the form. At least in its periods of growth (one would hardly say this about the American novel today, for example), the novel gives voice to the kinds of people and language and desires that more respectable forms suppress. But it also tends to recoil from the desires it arouses, the sheer readerly pleasure, devoid of anything like self-improvement, it so readily indulges. And yet this inherent tension, between low impulses and high art, may be the ultimate source of its powers, especially its power of self-renewal.

That power has been on vivid display over the past several generations throughout the developing world. The novel may have been superseded by visual media in the West, but to judge by a wide array of essays presented here, it has become a major mode of consciousness–specifically, of historical consciousness–in large parts of the world as they have been brought into contact with the West. Indeed, the characteristic theme of colonial and postcolonial fiction is precisely that experience of contact: the trauma of subjugation, the denigration of indigenous culture, the tragedy of the “superfluous man” made obsolescent by modernization, the felt inauthenticity of Westernized elites (the class to which the novelist almost invariably belongs). The stakes for the novel are higher here even than when the form was emerging in the West, because the novel as it has been received in the developing world is itself a Western form–the master’s tools, as it were. Among other things, that circumstance makes the novel a bearer of values antithetical to traditional cultures, including individualism and the materialist or positivist conception of reality we call realism. No wonder the characteristic technique of postcolonial fiction is the adaptation of traditional forms–the maqama, the oral epic. No wonder, too, that the major models for non-Western novelists in recent decades have been Joyce and Faulkner, writers who stand at the summit of Western novelistic achievement yet simultaneously furnish paradigms for the attempt to forge the uncreated conscience of a defeated people.

The recent history of non-Western fiction recapitulates the Western experience in another, less happy respect: the novel’s tendency to attract hostility, even persecution, from cultural authorities. One need only mention Salman Rushdie in this regard. The Rushdie affair points to an aspect of the novel that may seem to us its most obvious but that has historically aroused the greatest incomprehension (and, frequently, hostility), and that is–even now, even in the West–its most difficult to define: fictionality. The novel isn’t true, like history, nor is it manifestly false, like legend or fable, so what is it? As Henry Zhao notes, “it seems that the very idea of fictionality baffled Chinese thinking,” and the same was true in Europe, where, as Francisco Rico writes, fictionality constituted, upon its emergence, “a category of artistic perception hitherto unknown.” When that emergence occurred is a matter of some dispute; one essay here puts it in sixteenth-century Spain, another in seventeenth-century France, a third in eighteenth-century England, a fourth in nineteenth-century Scotland (a sequence, not coincidentally, that is no bad itinerary of the novel’s own emergence). This uncertainty should be no cause for embarrassment, however, but is rather an indication of the enormous difficulty with which a traditional culture, for which revealed religion was the exclusive standard of truth, wrapped its mind around so alien a concept. The establishment of fictionality as an epistemological possibility midway between truth and falsehood is an enormous cultural achievement, its possession an enormous cultural resource.

So what exactly is fictionality? As Catherine Gallagher explains in what is in a sense the collection’s central essay, the idea of fictionality arose in contradistinction not, as we might expect, to the fantastic and improbable tales of, say, medieval romance but to what today we would call romans à clef, thinly veiled satires of real people. Fiction means that which is believable without soliciting belief, that which is referential without referring to real figures and events. Fiction is, in a word, representative: Because it doesn’t tell us about anyone in particular, it can tell us about everyone in general, including ourselves. Fictionality enables identification, the chief of readerly pleasures, because it frees us from moral responsibility toward those about whom we read, but it also enables self-reflection, the chief of readerly virtues. Fictionality allows us to imagine (not fantasize)–an act that is not only not anti-intellectual but is in fact supra-intellectual, for it integrates intellect with feeling. The truths that the reading of fiction brings us are not factual and specific but general and philosophical–what earlier ages called wisdom. That may be why our own age of information has less and less use for both reading and fiction. Scientism (which seems to be more the property of laymen than scientists) believes that all truth is quantifiable and attainable through scientific method. Popular culture turns increasingly to “reality” programming and the memoir. Education has become simulation: the guy at Walden Pond who pretends to be Thoreau, the high school teaching segregation by dividing its students, for a day, by eye color. Lost in these exercises is the ability to imagine–to think and feel your way into other people’s experiences without pretending to be them, to hold similarity and difference simultaneously in mind. The idea of fictionality, that cultural treasure, is in the process of being dismantled.

This is ultimately why I find Moretti’s campaign for “distant reading,” which has been gaining a lot of traction, so disturbing. The truth is, the new method isn’t really as new as it would have us believe, and I’m not talking about the timeless phenomenon of intellectual megalomania, or what Gerald Martin points at when he refers here to “literary-critical conquistadores concerned to control vast territories without ever working the land.” Distant reading, or quantitative analysis, is just the latest effort to put literary study on a scientific, or pseudo-scientific, footing, and it descends from an earlier attempt, structuralism. It was Vladimir Propp’s work on the morphology of the folktale that got everyone counting motifs and “functions.” Only now, we have computers to do the counting for us. One essay here extols the development of a “database of novelistic topoi,” an effort that’s been in progress for more than twenty years and has received contributions from scores of scholars–to what ultimate end is still not clear. Evidently, quantitative analysis seeks to emulate the sciences not just intellectually but also in terms of professional structure. Moretti may not read novels anymore, but his research assistants do, a group that apparently includes the Manhattan primary school class that helped prepare one of the charts accompanying his essay here (I’m not making this up). Now we can have labs, big grants and “basic research” done in the name of unforeseeable future benefits. Moretti also likes to borrow concepts from science, notably Darwinism and chaos theory–the idea being that literary forms develop not through influence but through something like (and I use the word “like” loosely) natural selection or turbulence. This theory has the advantage of reducing writers from people with brains to the equivalent of finches or fruit flies, unconscious actors in a vastly complex system. The person with the brain becomes the critic–an updating of structuralism’s Oedipal murder of the Author in favor of the Reader. Rather than listening to works of the imagination, distant reading lectures them.

What’s lost in all this is what I earlier called, with a humanism some would no doubt find touchingly quaint, self-reflection. Quantitative analysis reduces wisdom to information. I’m not suggesting that studying the great mass of mediocre fiction that people read in every age possesses no value. It clearly does, as a way of deducing all kinds of social and cultural trends, and it’s the kind of thing that departments of history or sociology should be interested in doing. The problem comes when it displaces other forms of study within literature departments. Scholarship inevitably gives the lead to teaching. I don’t just want the students of tomorrow reading Dan Brown and John Grisham and Jackie Collins for what those authors might show them about our culture. I also want them reading Toni Morrison and Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy for what those authors will teach them about themselves, and if I had to choose one or the other, I would choose the latter every time. Critics who study mass culture forget that they’re able to draw interesting socio-cultural conclusions from such material because their minds have been trained on Shakespeare and Austen and Joyce. Train a mind on nothing but Brown and Grisham and Collins, authors who present no intellectual challenge, and it will develop no powers of its own, save the power to parrot the concepts it’s been handed in the classroom. And what distinguishes fiction that’s worth reading closely from fiction that isn’t is precisely what Gallagher might call representativeness. Literary power is the power to tell stories in a way that makes them persuasively representative, that makes you feel like the author is talking about you.

In any case, some of the first fruits of quantitative analysis are on display here, and the results are not pretty. One of the collection’s two “Critical Apparatus” sections gives statistical profiles of the growth of the market for fiction in seven different countries. While some of these essays make useful points, and a couple of them interesting ones, they are distinguished, in general, by numbing banality and the use of methodologies that would make a statistician weep. (As one writer admits, “My data stop at precisely the point where one wants to know more.”) Some of the charts aren’t even properly proofread, though that problem is hardly unique to this section. The two volumes together contain well over a hundred typos and inconsistencies–which, given the collection’s price and publisher and prestigious editorial board (which includes Fredric Jameson and Mario Vargas Llosa), is nothing short of disgraceful. Also disgraceful is the quality of the translations. Many of these essays are from Italian and other originals, and if the editors were going to bother having them translated, they might as well have taken the trouble to have them translated into English: “the Götterdammerung, which ultimately was caused by adultery and that marked the end of the Arthurian world”; or “the relationship between interlacing and the whole with the reality of the episode and the knowledge of the totality”; or “nearly any group of readers or listeners can participate thereof.” And speaking of Italian, about 20 percent of the essays in the collection are by Italian scholars, and while some of their work is quite fine, that proportion might–how shall I put this?–somewhat overrepresent Italy’s worldwide share of literary-critical talent. Particularly distressing, to this reader, was the fact that fully three of the seven pieces on American literature, including the major synoptic essay, were written by one hand: Alessandro Portelli. Portelli’s knowledge of American culture is decent but hardly distinguished, and his work here largely recycles insights from his own monograph. He’s also enamored of the hoary old European image of the American primitive, doesn’t know what “woolly-haired” means and thinks Margaret Atwood is American.

Still, for all its flaws, The Novel is an impressive achievement, and precisely because Moretti was so willing to include perspectives that diverge sharply from his own. Cunningham’s passionately eloquent reading of Tess ends by asserting that Hardy’s novel gives us, through its “forest of textual perplexities,” “the knowable essence of a woman and her story.” Fisher’s essay on Ulysses is informed by a profound understanding of urban history and a profound feeling for urban experience. And Brenkman’s smashing of the facile “first modernism, then postmodernism” model of twentieth-century literary history reminds us that grand critical narratives rarely survive contact with the immense complexity of human culture, and that the novel is a beast that no theoretical net–and no essay collection, no matter how big–will ever hold.