MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Literary Criticism as Science?

Franco Moretti

Franco Moretti

Franco Moretti’s new collection of essays, Distant Reading, has been generating a lot of buzz. The National Book Critics Circle just honored it with its award for criticism last month (winning out over books by Jonathan Franzen and Janet Malcolm ).

Few critics, writes the Times Literary Supplement are “as hell-bent on rethinking the way we talk about literature.” Wired declares that “if his new methods catch on, they could change the way we look at literary history.” And Joshua Rothman recently offered this reflection on the revolutionary critic in The New Yorker:

Should literary criticism be an art or a science? A surprising amount depends on the answer to that question…. Almost no one…wants to answer the question definitively, because, for a critic, alternating between one’s artistic and scientific temperaments is fun—it’s like switching between the ocean and the sun at the beach. Franco Moretti, a professor at Stanford, fascinates critics in large part because he DOES want to answer the question definitively. He thinks that literary criticism ought to be a science.
[…]
Moretti’s impulses are inclusive and utopian. He wants critics to acknowledge all the books that they don’t study; he admires the collaborative practicality of scientific work. Viewed from Moretti’s statistical mountaintop, traditional literary criticism, with its idiosyncratic, personal focus on individual works, can seem self-indulgent, even frivolous.

Over at Nautilus, the science writer Dana Mackenzie considers Moretti’s approach of “distant reading” in the context of the “topic modeling” trend:

Topic modeling looks beyond the words to the context in which they are used. It can infer what topics are discussed in each book, revealing patterns in a body of literature that no human scholar could ever spot. Topic-modeling algorithms allow us to view literature as if through a telescope, scanning vast swaths of text and searching for constellations of meaning….

Other revolutionary aspects of topic modeling for humanities students, according to Mackenzie: it brings “quantitative arguments into the humanities,” allows scholars to “mine for new themes and topics,” and introduces the tool of falsifiability via statistical analysis.

Digital humanities technologies can help us see gradual changes, whether in literature or elsewhere. Humans have difficulty comprehending change that happens on the time scale of a human life, or longer. If Underwood’s hypothesis is correct, we need computers to help fill in our blind spot. Topic modeling does not overturn or replace our previous ways of seeing; it enhances them.

Filed under: book news, book recs, literary criticism

Melville Rejected

MS submission cover letter by Herman Melville: 9 May 1854

Cover letter for a short story submission by Herman Melville (dated 9 May 1854)

Herman Melville was 34, with Moby-Dick several years behind him, when he submitted the manuscript for his short story “The Two Temples” along with the cover letter pictured above to the publisher G.P. Putnam. His first novel, Typee, became a best-seller when it appeared in 1846, but the increasing ambition and complexity of Melville’s subsequent writings resulted in a decrescendo in sales and public interest – particularly starting with his third novel, the richly symbolic fantasy Mardi (1849).

Harper & Brothers, Melville’s publisher, rejected his (subsequently lost/destroyed) novel Isle of the Cross in the wake of Moby-Dick and the truly far-out Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, which had bombed commercially and critically.

That’s the context around his submission of “The Two Temples” to the monthly periodical Putnam’s, which began publication in January 1853. In fact founder George Palmer Putnam circulated a letter to prominent American authors, including Melville, announcing his plans to create a platform for American writers and pundits. So in May 1854, Melville submitted his manuscript for “The Two Temples.” Structured as a diptych, this story recounts the narrator’s cold rejection by a “beadle-faced man” when he attempts to enter a church; contrasting with this “excommunication” in his homeland, he takes comfort in the temple of the theater when he later finds himself a stranger in London.

Melville’s cover letter for the submission is currently being offered for $35,000. It reads:

Pittsfield May 9th [1854]

Dear Sir –

Herewith you have a M.S.

As it is short, and in time for your June number, therefore – in case it suits you to publish – you may as well send me your check for it at once, at the rate of $5 per printed page.

– If it don’t suit, I must beg you to trouble yourself so far, as to dispatch it back to me, thro my brother, Allan Melville, No. 14 Wall Street.

Yours

H. Melville

G.P. Putnam, Esq.

Booktryst contributor Stephen J. Gertz explains that Melville’s protagonist “reaches the conclusion that this theater is a true church, the other not at all.” He quotes the letter Putnam editor Charles F. Briggs sent to Melville to clarify why the magazine decided to reject this submission by such a recognized writer:

“I am very loth [sic] to reject the “Two Temples” as the article contains some exquisitely fine description, and some pungent satire, but my editorial experience compels me to be very cautious in offending the religious sensibilities of the public, and the moral of the “Two Temples” would array against us the whole power of the pulpit, to say nothing of Brown, and the congregation of Grace Church.”

Gertz believes that this very personal rejection letter was intended to minimize fallout, since Putnam’s “wanted to retain [Melville] as a contributor. Briggs is suggesting that to assuage Melville’s feelings they should buy another, more appropriate, piece from him.” As it happened, “The Two Temples” ended up with the writer’s private papers and was never published in his lifetime. Gertz further describes why this letter was important:

“Two Temples” represented the metaphysical path that Melville had begun to travel with Moby-Dick and had further bestrode, deepening his spirituality. His earlier works had been popular; $5 a page was top wage for a short story; he was still in demand. (And Melville desperately needed the money.) Beginning, however, with Moby-Dick, religious themes began to rapidly creep into his work. His readership began to slowly creep out, and from then on publishers became increasingly wary to publish Melville. “Two Temples,” so overtly theological and spiritually rebellious, was, if not the beginning of the end, a definite so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen to [the popular style of writing represented by the early] Omoo, amen.

Hat tip: Ted Goia (Twitter: @tedgoia)

Filed under: American literature, book news, literature, Melville, publishers

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