Literature seen from afar

Image: Andrés Sandoval


Commentary on the book by Franco Moretti

The importance of Franco Moretti's work is noticeable from the first reading and must be emphasized. By making use of models of thought in general little used by scholars of literature – the theory of evolution and the history of long duration, in addition to cartography –, he has been building for at least 20 years a solid work alternative for the so-called cultural studies , a tendency that dominated the area of ​​literary studies for a good period. More than that, his proposals bring back to the intellectual panorama of our time a discipline that seemed dead to many, literary history (even the already buried histories of national literatures), and help to reconfigure the field of comparative literature. As you can see, it's not much.

In this sense, Literature seen from afar, despite its somewhat fragmentary character and more purposeful than conclusive, is a point of arrival because it brings together strategies outlined in several other works. In its three parts, “Graphics”, “Maps” and “Trees”, each of those disciplines is evoked and seeks a form of visual synthesis capable of capturing very broad movements.

Thus, in the first part, we have a literary history that, unconcerned with the reading of specific works, seeks to trace the evolution – rise, validity and decline – of the novel genres, making it visible in graphics. In the second, the method of approach he had developed in Atlas of the European Novel (Boitempo) goes a step further and refines himself: the maps become diagrams, forms that are at the same time more abstract and more dynamic, which make it possible to visualize, at a single stroke, the course of social and literary history. In the third, the theory of evolution appears, used to the study both of those forms that always change and reach a wide validity and of those others that are not capable of asserting themselves and become extinct.

An evolutionary tree can give a nearly 200-year-old picture of the constant changes in free indirect discourse, from Jane Austen to the contemporary Latin American novel. Or how the reading public selected the detective story as practiced by Conan Doyle, guaranteeing it survival, and relegated to oblivion other modalities, practiced by countless authors.

The result is quite convincing. We are used to understanding and respecting graphics, and seeing them in relation to literature is something that airs the current state of literary studies. But it should be noted that these graphics look more finished than they really are. It's just that the premises for choosing this or that element of analysis are always a little obscure. Instead of explaining his choices, Moretti naturalizes them in strong rhetorical strokes.

Thus, in the first part, the genre appears as a “kind of morphological Janus, with one face turned to history and the other to form”, “the true protagonist of this middle time of literary history” (the cycles according to Braudel) . Accustomed to Antonio Candido's formulation that criticism must understand how elements external to the text become internalized, the Brazilian reader wonders what in the literary form is foreign to the story. In this case, gender is the protagonist confronted with what?

The same happens in the final part, when the critic attributes to a plot strategy – the presence of clues for solving the crimes – the explanation for Conan Doyle's success. In a chapter in which he proposes a scientific approach, he fails to explain how it would be possible to isolate a single element and assign responsibility for an entire process of great complexity to it. Pharmaceutical companies would be happy – and even richer – if they could commercialize tested substances in this way.

In fact, the more we go back into Franco Moretti's reasoning, the more doubts appear. The biggest concern that moves his thought is that literary history operates on a derisory amount of works, constituting a kind of history of exceptions, a non-history. There is no way to disagree: this is a fundamental problem for history and literary criticism.

But what is the solution for this? Read all? It is evident that this is not practicable, and he is right when he says that no one has enough time to read everything that has been produced over a long period, nor is there a method capable of dealing with the enormity of data that would arise from this reading, even that it could be done. So, he says, let's be radical and read nothing. Let's look at literature from afar. In a joint effort, which Moretti once called the “cosmic division of intellectual labor”, many would read, producing data, and someone, located in a privileged point, from afar, would do the brilliant work of synthesis that would explain how things are.

The problem is that this solution may only be apparent and does not shift the discussion as radically as the proposal – not reading – seems to suggest. Well, no one stops reading what they've already read, and that's why Moretti can't get rid of Jane Austen, Flaubert, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Conan Doyle and so many other canonical authors. The decision not to read, therefore, cannot affect them. It affects only those others that, after all, would not be read at all. There is no confrontation, and everything runs the risk of being reduced to the old center-periphery system, which remains intact and even reinforces itself, as it structures the method.

Perhaps the solution is another: to also read what is on the periphery of both the literary canon and the critic. Not reading everything, not even reading more, but reading other things and seeing what dynamics they produce when placed next to what everyone reads.

* Luis Bueno is a professor at the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR). Author, among others, books of A story from the romance of 30 (Edusp/Unicamp).


Franco Moretti. Literature seen from afar. Translation: Anselmo Pessoa Neto. Porto Alegre, Arquipélago editorial, 184 pages.

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