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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.