How Big Events Shape the Novel World

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In his essay, “Graphs”, Moretti asks “What would happen if literary historians, too, decided to shift their gaze from the extraordinary to the everyday, from exceptional events to the large mass of facts?”. He shows how this is possible by using charts to display the rise and fall of novel production in Britain, Italy, France, India, Spain, and Japan from the 1700’s to 1900’s. After correlating trends with external factors of all magnitudes, however, he suggests an interesting theory to explain the volatility of the novel world.

Using data from numerous scholars, Moretti shows that British novelistic genres between 1740 and 1900 were segmented (page 17, Figure 9), and that the decline of one genre always coincided with the rise of another. He realized that there were 5 big shifts in the novelistic field during this time frame. This leads him to theorize that these shifts were caused by the birth of new generations that differed significantly from the preexisting ones. To appropriately addresses the question, “But since people are born every day, not every twenty-five years, on what basis can the biological continuum be segmented into discrete units?” he states that the birth of these generations were caused by large-scale, external events, such as war or natural disaster. For example, harsher living conditions in 19th century Britain created a generation that would find Gothic literature more appealing than Epistolary literature due to its darker subject and would hence explain its rise at the same time of the decline of epistolary subjects at this time.

There is a saying that we are a summation of our experiences. Moretti understood this and applied it to explain that the trends were being affected external influences applied over an entire country, resulting in new generations of people with personalities distinct from former ones.

2 thoughts on “How Big Events Shape the Novel World”

  1. Moretti argued that war may have created differing ideals between previous generations that lead to a change in the overall literary preferences of the nation. While war has the capability to effect everyone, it primarily influences young adult males. Not only does it change their perspective of the world, war has the capability to remove a significant chunk of the literary audience in this age range.

    Events such as winning wars that cause people to have favorable outlook on the future also tend to correlate to an increase in the birthrate. This can lead to a distinct new generation with differing ideals to the previous generation. The primary example of this is the baby boom following WWII, which lead to the cultural shift and generational gap of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

  2. This is very interesting how the big events caused such a change in the preference of the readers of the time. I could not really tell from the graph though which genres were a result of the 5 big events and what the 5 big events were though. This makes me think about how big events during our lifetimes can shift some of our favorite pastimes still.

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