Tag Archives: novels

The Cyclical Nature of Novels and Culture

In his essay, “Graphs, Maps, Trees”, Franco Moretti comes to the conclusion that, due to the cyclical nature of the graphing of literature and genres, there is never a definite winner in regards to the trends that occur in writing over periods of time. When debating on the topic of Male or Female dominance of British novels, he states:

“…No victory is ever definitive, neither men nor women writers ‘occupy’ the British novel once and for all, and the form oscillates back and forth between the two groups.”

This conclusion got me thinking. He makes a very valid point: the trends involving novels tend to be very cyclical. When thinking about this, I realized that not only can the trend in novels be in a sort of cycle, but our culture as a whole. Sometimes I talk to my mother about clothes and what is, for lack of better words, “in” or “out” at the time. I tell her that guys now wear shorts that sit only above their knees and sunglasses that have larger lenses (such as Aviators) whereas girls have been wearing higher wasted shorts/pants in the summer and high boots in the colder times of the year. After she processes everything, she almost always says, “Those types of clothes have made a comeback?! I remember your father and I always wearing those types of clothes when were together back in high school and college.” Even music nowadays tends to follow old school rules, with artists such as Justin Timberlake creating jazzy and retro beats; even setting up his concert stages to represent the classiness of the earlier decades of the 90’s. There has never been a certain culture or trend that has thrived and dominated America, but several cultures that come and go and then repeat themselves in later years.
In regards to what Moretti states, I think he is correct when he says that human culture, or in this case, novels, has a cyclical nature.

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.