Western Lit was the name of the course I took at Cornerstone University in the Fall of 1973 with the intelligent and enthusiastic Dr Diane Portfleet. We had a big fat Norton Anthology but Norton — whoever he, she, they was or were — decided what to include and therefore what to read. That whole approach got hammered when postmodernity bloomed with its claim that inclusion meant exclusion, and the choosers of inclusion were also the choosers of exclusion and who did they thin they were … and even more, their choices reflected their bias and it was time to own up to prejudice and downright powermongering in this whole “literary canon” thing. At the time I took Dr Portfleet’s class I found an affordable copy of The Great Books of the Western World, which I still own and I’ve read a fair number of the books.
What do you think of a “canon”? What do you think of Jockers’ approach below?
But changing the canon — or even a proliferation of canons, as literary studies has fractured into a collection of increasingly well-defined subfields — takes us only so far. Readers are finite creatures, capable of making their way through only a tiny fraction of the millions of books published over the centuries. The problem, at this sort of scale, has less to do with canonical selection bias than it does with our inevitable ignorance of nearly everything that has ever been written. It’s one thing to claim that a particular book was influential in its day (though influence is a tricky matter, more sociological and economic than literary) or that a text has been treated as important in subsequent scholarship. It’s something else entirely to argue that the same book is “representative” of a genre’s or an era’s output, especially when even the best-informed critics have read almost none of the material in question.
So how can we know the outlines of literary history without reading an impossible number of books? One answer is that we can’t. At best we tell stories, some of which are more convincing than others for their intended audiences, but all of which are based on vanishingly small slivers of evidence. Alternatively, we abandon the project entirely, preferring instead to make small but more easily defensible claims about individual texts. A third option, though, would be to change the way we work, to preserve large-scale claims by ending the singular identification of literary study with close reading….
Into this uncertain scene comes an important new volume by Matthew Jockers, offering yet another headword (“macroanalysis,” by analogy to macroeconomics) and a range of quantitative studies of 19th-century fiction. Jockers is one of the senior figures in the field, a scholar who has been developing novel ways of digesting large bodies of text for nearly two decades. Despite Jockers’s stature, Macroanalysis is his first book, one that aims to summarize and unify much of his previous research. As such, it covers a lot of ground with varying degrees of technical sophistication. There are chapters devoted to methods as simple as counting the annual number of books published by Irish-American authors and as complex as computational network analysis of literary influence. Aware of this range, Jockers is at pains to draw his material together under the dual headings of literary history and critical method, which is to say that the book aims both to advance a specific argument about the contours of 19th-century literature and to provide a brief in favor of the computational methods that it uses to support such an argument. For some readers, the second half of that pairing — a detailed look into what can be done today with new techniques — will be enough. For others, the book’s success will likely depend on how far they’re persuaded that the literary argument is an important one that can’t be had in the absence of computation.
So, what’s the literary argument? Roughly speaking, it’s that there are real, broadly identifiable differences between whole classes of books from different time periods and genres and written by authors of different genders and nationalities. If that fact seems obvious, we should ask ourselves what we really know about, say, British fiction as a whole and how we could possibly establish that knowledge in any fully persuasive way using our traditional methods. For every purportedly distinguishing feature of British fiction, there are dozens or hundreds of American (or Indian or Russian) books that exhibit it. Eras and periods are the same, with endlessly multiplying forerunners and stragglers outside their temporal bounds; there are thousands of men who write “like” women and vice versa (enough, in fact, that we might wonder if there’s really a difference between them, especially in the modern period). Such difficulties are of course in many ways constitutive. It’s absurd to imagine a definitive answer (computational or otherwise) concerning the nature of British or modernist or women’s writing, or to the singular generic membership of any given book. But if we’re curious and honest, don’t we want to know whether our provisional answers hold up even a little outside the narrow samples on which they’re based? Wouldn’t we like to know if it’s possible to tell the difference between books — all books — published in the United Kingdom and the United States? Or written by women and by men? Not in any individual case susceptible to a dully correct result, but in aggregate?