A Close Look Into Distant Reading

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Though the term Distant Reading is scarcely more than a decade old, the practice it describes is central to many practitioners of Digital Humanities and it enjoys an unimpeachable status in the field. Yet, I would like to highlight the fractious effect of this method in what has become a famous exchange between Franco Moretti and Kate Trumpener.

Franco Moretti’s 2009 quantitative microanalytical approach to seven thousand British novels pinpoints title length in fiction within the novel and its implications in certain genres spanning 110 years (1740-1850[1]). Moretti defines specific arguments that raise awareness to title creation and its “half sign, half ad” (Moretti 135) purpose such as the use of definite and indefinite articles in a title. He declares the definite article “the” gives thought to “something we already know,” whereas the indefinite article “a” and “an” defines something “we are encountering…for the first time…” (154). While this may imply a feminization, does it also predicate the “othering” of race, class, and gender? Additionally, does this play out in contemporary contexts, namely do American fiction titles follow this pattern? Do Moretti’s other findings include his main point of title length and variation and article-adjective-noun combinations? Moreover, I conclude in one area that the extended title length he examines is basically a synoptic title (synopsis), yet he does not use the word synopsis to support why authors titled their writing in this fashion. Distant Reading with quantitative approaches can be beneficial in finding patterns of lexical data; however, it does not provide the interpretation that traditional humanistic method or close reading offers. Bridging the gap, the Digital Humanities can provide scholars and researchers new insights into theoretical approaches in authorship and offer an overview of the literary archive.

Katie Trumpener examines Moretti’s quantitative research and takes it further in a macroanalytic view of literature across different eras, cultures, and genres.[2] Taking a skeptical view of the validity of Moretti’s findings, she relies on her literary training and study of German sociocultural contexts. Trumpener tends to overlook Moretti’s overall pedantic approach, but supports Moretti’s research and findings: “…Moretti’s provocative essay…seems to provide the answer…” (Trumpener 161). She finds fault with the way in which his study only focuses on British novels and ignores (at its peril) other genres or national literatures. Trumpener addresses the need to explore definite/indefinite article usage and further asserts how they assist in the title/topic being presented by the author (162), something Moretti did not explore in much detail. She further expands on her cross-culture -genre examination with her German literary culture upbringing by claiming Moretti “takes for granted that by the end of the eighteenth century the novel is centered primarily on bourgeois life” (166) and claims Germany, during the same period, attempted “to establish the possibilities of a bourgeois national public” (166), looking to British and French Enlightenment models. I have recounted this debate as it is widely recognized to be a significant example of how old and new methods of conducting humanities research often meet in contentious ways.

In my assessment, the microanalytical approach of Moretti and the critique to which Trumpener subjects it reveal they both come to similar conclusions about literary titles and subtitles across a broader spectrum of literary canons. One of the other aspects of DH which is often overlooked is its collaborative spirit. Borrowed from the sciences, “labs” and co-authored essays are common DH practice. If Trumpener would collaborate with Moretti, a broader and more in-depth analysis could result which would be even more valuable than their individual findings.

The role of the Digital Humanities is vital in bridging the gap between quantitative and qualitative analyses of literature. Quantitative data used in Distant Reading can supplement intuitive assessments and qualitative close reading of the text. The role of the digital humanist is vital in helping to explore the canon in ways that were not possible in the past. Dr. Konkol’s “Technologies of the Book” graduate course in Digital Humanities played a major part in developing my thesis project and personal role/responsibility as a digital humanist/archivist. My creation of a digital archive of the Mace & Crown student newspaper will be a digital collection to further enhance research and scholarship within the journalistic narrative of Old Dominion University. By using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software (the conversion of scanned images to text), the digital archive, in its quantitative dataset, can yield new qualitative research and scholarship exploration on both the micro- and macroanalytical levels. Moreover, with various software applications such as NGram and Voyant, the possibilities seem endless in utilizing these digital tools to present new scholarship.

Moretti and Trumpener represent polar opposite positions in regards to the value of the Digital Humanities. Instead of a dividing line in regard to using digital technologies to decipher authorship codes within literature, by embracing new methods of quantitative research we can unlock and further the discussion of what lies beneath the surface in the canon.



[1]Moretti, Franco. “Style, Inc. Reflections on Seven Thousand Titles (British Novels, 1740-1850).” Critical Inquiry, vol. 36, no. 1, 2009, pp. 134-158.

[2]Trumpener, Katie. “Critical Response I. Paratext and Genre System: A Response to Franco Moretti.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 36, no. 1, 2009, pp. 159-171.