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Posts tagged ‘Critical Theory’

CROSSROADS: Literary Fiction vs Speculative Fiction – Round Infinity!


Amazing Stories Logo Even though I’m theoretically on a blogging vacation, I’m still doing the weekly Crossroads series over at Amazing Stories. This week, we’re continuing May’s exploration of the intersection between mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction, and to that end I discuss how the core of each genre lies on various creative spectrums.

This week I take a stab at some theoretical groundwork in preparation for next week’s in-depth exploration of literary and speculative narrative strategies. I hope you stop by and enjoy this week’s discussion (and diagrams!)!

Crossroads: The Cores of Literary Fiction and Speculative Fiction

A Reaction to Klein’s Pyramid of Literary Quality


When I was fifteen, I went through a psychology phase. Fascinated by the workings of the human mind, I dove through Freud, Jung, Skinner, Pavlov – the whole crowd, always looking for deeper understanding. But it wasn’t until I came across Abraham Maslow’s 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” that I had one of those forehead-slapping “Of course!” moments. His hierarchy of needs was so elegant that it instantly passed my common sense test. And while my assessment of his theory has gained in nuance since, it still forms a framework for how I think about human motivation. Which is why when Cheryl Klein (executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books and the author of Second Sight, which I reviewed here) posted her concept of a Pyramid of Literary Quality, I sat up and took immediate notice.

NOTE: Since this is meant to be a response to Klein’s post, I won’t re-hash her theory here save to link to the diagram she included in her post. If you’re interested, I suggest you go read her original post and the comments people made there. It is short, and well worth the time.

On the Utility and Limitations of Sweeping Theoretical Frameworks

The Klein Pyramid of Literary Quality

Copied from Cheryl Klein’s blog on September 4th, 2012. Image by: Ed DeCaria.

First, I applaud the simplicity of Klein’s pyramid. I get annoyed at much of the last half-century’s criticism because of its obscurantist tendencies, and so whenever I find something profound stated simply, it is a breath of critical fresh air. Klein’s theory is general, abstract, and high-level. As such, it works well as a model for how to think about aesthetic quality. But it is important to understand both its strengths and its limitations as a critical tool. While there are many types of criticisms, ranging from the consumer review to the in-depth analytical exploration, I believe that criticism is fundamentally concerned with three questions:

1. What is the quality/value of a given work (or body of work)?
2. By what methods does a given work (or body of work) achieve or fail to achieve its artistic effects?
3. What is the cultural significance of a given work (or body of work)?

The first of these questions is categorical: a book can be good, or it can be bad, or it can take on any gradation between or beyond. It is subjective, in that the judgment stems from a particular critic’s own values, and those values are almost certainly not universal. The answer to this question may be valuable, and it may be interesting, and the exploration of its underlying rationale may be thought-provoking, but the question itself is very simple: it can be captured in a discrete thumbs up/thumbs down, or a star rating system.

The second two questions, however, are diagnostic in nature. They cannot be summarized in a pithy and universally understandable iconographic system. They focus more on questions of “how” and “why” and demand a more nuanced exploration of the methods at play in a literary work.

Sweeping generalizations like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are only valuable insomuch as they offer a methodology, a way of thinking, about the questions we pose. While they are valuable as mental models for complex processes, they tend to fail as diagnostic tools because they over-simplify very complex systems. For example, when confronted with the specific and idiosyncratic complexity of an individual’s or group’s neurophysiological, emotional, cultural, and psychological motivations, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs gets caught up in too many caveats to be useful.

Klein’s pyramid of literary quality faces the same problem. As a framework for thinking about aesthetic quality, it is useful. As a tool, it can even provide a method to answer the first of those three critical questions. But on its own, a mental model cannot really explore the specific diagnostic issues inherent in the second two. Klein’s pyramid of literary quality cannot answer questions of “how” or “why”.

But that’s okay, and in my view does nothing to diminish the value of her pyramid of literary quality. What the pyramid does well, I think, is provide a system for careful exploration of literary techniques and devices. For each component of Klein’s hierarchy, one can identify diagnostic tools, techniques, and perspectives through which to explore literary works.

Completion and Competence: Important in Specific Contexts, but Should be Flipped

The fact that Klein’s pyramid starts with “completion” and “competence” (as in “readable and understandable” for someone not the author) should not be surprising considering her work as an editor. She no doubt has to deal with piles of half-finished, and utterly incompetent manuscripts on a daily basis. But most critics, in particular those of us who criticize traditionally-published titles, rarely face incomplete or otherwise incompetent work.

If a book comes across our desks, and if that book has been edited and published by a reputable publisher, odds are that the story is “complete” and the writing “competent” according to several objective and presumably knowledgeable assessments. But with the rise of independent publishing, and in today’s series-heavy genres like science fiction, fantasy, and mystery/thriller, the concepts of completion and competence both need greater nuance.

First, a writer’s assessment of their own work is always skewed by their intentions, their aspirations, and their emotional investment in their own work. That’s only natural, and it is universal whether we publish through traditional channels or go independent. In traditional channels, there are multiple voices that weigh in on the book before it ever reaches the shelf: the editor, marketing, publicity, sales, etc. all comment and review the book before it even gets acquired, let alone printed. As a result, there are many individuals who assess whether the writing is “competent” (read: understandable), and whether the story is “complete”. This often, and even for experienced writers, provides some measure of reality check.

But if we publish independently, then we risk missing out on that reality-check: we might think we write as well as Shakespeare (fine, we can be humble and think we write like Marlowe) or we might think that our book is done. But outside opinions – not informed by our intentions, aspirations, and emotions – might have a different view. Thus, for independently published books that might not have been subjected to the same editorial process as traditionally published titles, the concepts of “competence” and “completion” become both important and relevant. For books that are traditionally published, competence in my experience tends to be a given, but the completion of the story remains interesting.

The concept of completion as a criterion of quality – and the definition of a “literary work” itself – becomes more interesting when we consider a series. Science fiction and fantasy, in particular, are famous for their sweeping epic sagas that span multiple books. This raises an important, I think, question of when should a literary work be judged? Should we judge George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire based on its component novels as published? Or should we wait for the story to complete? And what of series like Frank Herbert’s Dune books, or Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, where the author passed away before their magnum opus was complete? And where different authors were brought in to “complete” the cycle? These are fascinating and nuanced philosophical questions which make the – seemingly categorical – criterion of completion more complex than initially thought.

For this reason, and outside of a specific editorial-context, I would suggest flipping Klein’s first two elements. Competence, as in the degree to which sentences, thoughts, and paragraphs can be understood by a reader other than the author, is the more categorical and the more contained of the two criteria: whether a book is competently written or not is usually apparent within the first several sentences (or paragraphs). Whether a book is complete or not can be debated at length even after it has been published.

Charisma, Questioning, and Quality: The Heart of the Matter

The heart of Klein’s pyramid, literally and figuratively, combines the concepts of “charisma” (the intersection of author intention and reader emotional response), “questioning” (thematic exploration), and “quality” (a nebulous conjunction of prose, character, and plot). This is both the most interesting and the most problematic of Klein’s levels, I think.

Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t have an issue with Klein’s concept of charisma. While I might choose to de-emphasize authorial intention and focus more on reader response, I still think that “charisma” is a good way to characterize the ways in which a story engages its reader on an emotional level. This, I think, is a quibble that stems from the differences between editorial and critical perspectives. But that is all that it is: a quibble.

Similarly, I don’t have any issues with her criteria of “questioning”: as charisma focuses on the emotional response generated by a text, so questioning focuses on the intellectual or philosophical response. Makes perfect sense to me.

But the third component of this level – the very heart of the pyramid – is where I start to question a little further: Labeling this criterion “quality” mixes ontological concepts a little dangerously. After all, the pyramid as a whole is intended to serve as a framework for literary quality: as currently labeled, the pyramid suggests that “quality” is at the heart of “literary quality”. This might be a semantic quibble, but leaving the label as is risks undermining the pyramid’s value through an implied tautology.

I understand and support the purpose of labeling each level of the pyramid with a K-sound: it makes for an easy mnemonic, and plays nicely with the sound of Klein’s name. It would be a shame to forgo that pattern once established. That being said, I think we could re-label the “quality” section while both maintaining its phonetic characteristics and strengthening its conceptual utility. Rather than “quality”, I would call it “content”.

Klein explains how her concept of “quality” rests upon a combination of the story’s prose, characters, and plot. While I would suggest adding a fourth leg – narrative structure – these are all identifiable tools which writers use to produce the effects that Klein calls “charisma” and “questioning”. They are quite literally the content of the story, the words, sentences, paragraphs, perspectives, and chapters on the page. And if a literary work evidences “charisma” or “questioning” in Klein’s vocabulary, then it is expressed through the content of the story: namely its prose, its plot, its narrative structure, and its characters.

And Klein is exactly right when she claims that when a story’s quality content, charisma, and questioning work together in a cohesive, unified whole, the result is consonance. This is a concept to which I subscribe 100% percent (and which I’ve written about before here and elsewhere on the blog).

What’s (not) Missing: Pleasure, Ethics, and Resonance

In her own post, Klein asks whether Pleasure or Ethics should be included in her pyramid, and further in the comments to her post there is some suggestion around the concept of Resonance. While I am sympathetic to these questions, I do not think they have a place in Klein’s pyramid: Pleasure, Ethical Judgment, and Resonance are the effects a literary work evokes within the reader, and not the means by which a literary work achieves quality.

Pleasure is an emotional response to the story: a reaction produced by any combination of the story’s charisma, its questioning, or its content. That pleasure may be intellectual, it may be emotional, it may be physiological (the heart-racing in response to tension, for example). But it is a reaction to characteristics described elsewhere in Klein’s model.

Ethics, or more specifically the reader’s ethical judgment of the text, is similarly an intellectual response to the content, questioning, and charisma of the story. It is a response produced by the text within the reader, and the strength of that response may well be a measure of the story’s literary quality (consider the relationship between content/prose and the reader’s ethical judgment for a work like Nabokov’s Lolita). But that makes ethical judgment a measure of the story’s quality, and not necessarily a contributing factor.

Like pleasure and ethical judgment, Resonance is also a reaction in the reader to the text. I think of resonance as the reader’s reaction to what Klein calls consonance, or a story’s artistic unity. When a work is consonant, when its content, charisma, and questioning are unified, it will resonate with the reader.

Conceptually, Pleasure, Ethics, and Resonance are all missing from Klein’s pyramid. And that is as it should be, because they are not methods by which a story achieves literary quality. They are literary smoke: a second-order effect, a consequence of the literary fire built into the story.

REVIEW: The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre by Tzvetan Todorov


Title: The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre
Author: Tzvetan Todorov
Pub Date: 1970 (French)
1975 (English)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A relevant exploration of a narrow sub-genre within fantasy, applicable beyond its borders.

Happy New Year! Now that the formalities are out of the way, I thought I’d take a few moments to share with you what I did between Christmas and New Year’s: In addition to remodeling our library, and turning our dining room into a library annex, I also spent the week slowly and carefully reading Tzvetan Todorov’s classic book of genre criticism, appropriately titled The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre.

Our Library Annex (aka the Dining Room)

Our Library Annex (aka the Dining Room)

Of course, I’d read about Todorov many times before. I’d even read a couple essays he’d written (I particularly recommend his typology of detective fiction). But I figured that it was best to see for myself what he had to say. And though in the end I was very satisfied, this book really defied my expectations.

The book’s title is misleading. From the adjective-cum-noun “Fantastic” it is a short leap to the modern genre of “fantasy” – and so when I first bought the book, I expected to find a master critic expressing his own Unified Theory of Fantasy, like a Northrup Frye or a Wayne Booth for the speculative genre (for two excellent analyses more in this vein, I recommend Farah Mendelsohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy and Brian Attebery’s Strategies of Fantasy). Instead, Todorov uses a much narrower interpretation of fantasy, placing it on a spectrum between stories where ostensibly supernatural events are explained through rational means (which he calls the “uncanny”) and stories where supernatural events are shown to actually be supernatural (which he calls the “marvelous”).

Todorov's Spectrum of the Supernatural

Todorov's Spectrum of the Supernatural

To put it another way, Todorov’s uncanny stories are Scooby Doo episodes: during the action, the characters and reader experience events which are ostensibly beyond mortal ken (ghosts, monsters, strange worlds, etc.). But by the end of the story, all of the ostensibly supernatural experiences are explained away in a naturalistic and rational fashion, thus erasing the supernatural from the story. It’s like Old Man Withers being unmasked by the gang. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Todorov’s “marvelous” stories are Buffy episodes: during the action, the characters and reader experience events which are beyond mortal ken, but by the end of the story, all of the ostensibly supernatural experiences can only be explained by an acceptance of their supernatural reality. Todorov’s “fantastic” genre, however, is the Twilight Zone: neither the characters nor the reader is ever really certain whether the supernatural events are to be accepted.

This is a much narrower definition of “the fantastic” than “fantasy” would imply. It excludes almost all secondary world fantasy, and almost all science fiction. Even most wainscot fantasies would fall into Todorov’s “marvelous” camp. Which is a shame, because anything beyond his narrowly defined borders gets brushed off as beyond the scope of his analysis.

The first half of The Fantastic is an interesting, if dry, exercise in critical philosophy and semantic hair-splitting. He defines what he means by the fantastic, and provides a definite set of criteria for use in its identification. Given my (incorrect) expectations, the book initially frustrated me. I wanted to gleam sweeping insights with applicability across a broad swathe of fantasy titles and sub-genres. Todorov’s painstakingly detailed definition of “hesitation” or what I would call ambiguity: the uncertainty felt by the character and the reader as to their implied frame of reference for experiencing the story. According to Todorov, if a story has no ambiguity, then by definition it falls outside the bounds of his fantastic. Now, I love ambiguous stories. But most fantasy, and most science fiction, eschews the degree of ambiguity described by Todorov. Let’s face it: there are few Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever or There Are Doors out there.

Yet once Todorov establishes his definitions, he begins to dissect his ambiguous stories in much more painstaking detail, parsing their themes and structures. And here, The Fantastic becomes a treasure trove of insight. The conclusions Todorov draws regarding the fantastic are not, in fact, particularly interesting. They may be thought provoking, but they have limited applicability beyond his caged genre, and furthermore I suspect his reliance on the psychoanalytic school of criticism ignores too many other factors. Yet the techniques that Todorov applies, independent of the genre against which they are applied, are quite impressive.

In a very real sense, Todorov draws the treasure map to a very narrow sub-genre. But by doing so, he shows us how to draw such maps for any other genre in existence. I wish that Todorov had taken the trouble to do the same for both his uncanny and marvelous genres. But the process of structural analysis that he applied to his ambiguous stories can just as readily be applied to secondary world fantasy, portal/quest fantasies, wainscot fantasies, liminal fantasies, intrusion fantasies, and all the rest. And that is why this book remains significant: on the one hand, it adds to our critical toolkit, and by using much-analyzed “classic” texts of the Gothic age, it helps to bring the tools of genre criticism into the “respectable” light of academia.

In that sense, later critics like Farah Mendlesohn or Brian Attebery both benefited from Todorov’s work. On the one hand, they apply to a broader body of work the universal techniques that Todorov pioneered. And on the other hand, they benefit from the fact that Todorov dragged ghosts and demons into the light of critical respectability.

All in all, this is a book on criticism well worth reading. But not for its conclusions: more for its methods.

Why Process, Criticism, and Theory Can Be Good for All Writers


What’s the fastest way to start an argument with…
The Professor? Advocate an analytically-driven, engineered writing process.
Chris? Advocate process-less, instinctive writing (“Just write!”)

Obviously, this is one subject on which my wife and I disagree. Sometimes quite vehemently. And this is also an argument that I’ve seen writers manifest in the perennial debate over outlining, writing synopses, or just seat-of-the-pantsing it.

Why Seat-of-the-Pants vs Outline is a False Dichotomy

That question, beloved of the interwebs, is bogus. For a story to be effective, it must be coherent on one or more levels. And coherence in narrative results from having a plan. If a story didn’t have an underlying plan, it would be stream of consciousness and word association. And while some few (*cough* James Joyce *cough*) may have pulled it off, most of us won’t. The real question is one of timing, worldview, and brain wiring.

Let’s posit two (obviously extreme) writers: Jane Outline and John Pants. Obviously, Jane likes to map out the events of her story before sitting down to pen some prose. John, by contrast, sits down and lets his characters tell the story. Both John and Jane still execute on a plan. The real difference is when each prepares that plan.

Jane, with her spreadsheets, notes, and color charts front-loads a great deal of the work. Before she writes her opening sentence, Jane knows what her characters will do at each stage of her story. She knows what motivates them, and how they will react to the situations she puts them in. For her, the act of writing is more a question of finding the words to best express actions that she has already mapped out. The events of her story will rarely surprise her, but her execution might.

John, by contrast, sits down with a character, a voice, or a sentence. He has a hook that brings him into the world of his story, but beyond that he doesn’t know much of where the story is going. After he writes that first sentence, or the first paragraph, he lets the character/voice guide him. The story that unfolds might surprise him, though he counts on his facility for language to express that story as it makes itself apparent. If John has a plan, he makes it up as he goes: he knows what will happen in the next sentence, the next paragraph, or the next scene. But he might not necessarily have an end-goal in sight. His plan is gradually uncovered in parallel to the story.

Both plans come from the heart of storytelling in our souls. Those of us wired like Jane might consciously try to tap into that wellspring, while those like John might have to negotiate access on a moment-by-moment basis. But if we want to write at a professional level, we need to develop the capacity to touch that heart of storytelling whenever we need to. Waiting for the elusive muse, or relying on some ritual, is counterproductive and inhibiting. And that is something that the Professor and I agree on. So how can writers – regardless of whether they plan ahead of time or not – develop the capability to build stories? While at its most basic level the answer is practice (or as the Professor tells me constantly: Just write, dammit!), I think the more complete answer depends on how our brains are wired.

Creative Tools for the Analytical Writer

I’m a fairly analytical fellow by both nature and training. I see patterns and systems just about everywhere (whether they’re really there or not). When I sit down to write, I try to think of it in terms of systems and processes. This isn’t to say that I write by the numbers, but I find that I will always try to build a conceptual framework around whatever writing project I’m working on at any precise moment. Sometimes, that conceptual framework manifests itself in an outline, other times in a synopsis, and sometimes (usually when I write short fiction) it stays in my head. But the quality of those conceptual frameworks, and the tools that I can apply to them are actually the result of critical theory and extensive analytical reading.

I try to read as much critical theory as possible. And since I write primarily in the speculative genres, I also read heavily in genre theory. If your only exposure to critical theory has been Derrida (ick) or most of the other post-modernists, then I strongly suggest you take a look at some of the more formalist schools of thought: there’s a lot of value to be found there. I’ve found that useful critical theory expands my conceptual vocabulary, and gives me a way of thinking about story structure, character archetypes, and narrative techniques. Unlike how-to-write books or blogs (which can also be helpful), most good theory isn’t didactic. It’s diagnostic: it describes what the investigator sees in the field, rather than what a practitioner should do.

Why is this helpful? It explains what other authors, schools of writing, or genres have done. If I’m writing a fairy tale, I find that I keep Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale close to hand. Not because I slavishly stick to the plot constructions he describes, but because he has laid out a time-tested architecture for fairy tale storytelling. I might choose to diverge from his framework, but if I do so, I do so consciously: I know where I’m diverging and why. When I write fantasy, I keep in mind Farah Mendlesohn’s categories of fantasy (from her excellent Rhetorics of Fantasy). Doing so does not limit my writing, but it expands my awareness of where my story might go.

Analytical reading is a way of consciously constructing my own conceptual vocabulary. When I read a story, in particular when I’m reading something for review consideration, I’m always asking myself what techniques the author used to manipulate the reader’s perception. I examine their effectiveness, and the reasons driving it. In essence, I’m creating my own internal critical theory that then informs my writing and affects how stories get constructed in the deeper recesses of my brain. A big part of this blog is actually my attempt to further systematize this nebulous personal critical theory and deepen my conscious awareness of it through its articulation.

“Theory is Boring, Didactic, and Risky,” says the Instinctive Writer

Our theoretical John Pants (and The Professor, and a who’s who list of amazing writers) would probably disagree with everything I just said above. They would say that theory can be inhibiting, leading us to write by the numbers. And yes, this is a real risk. Just consider all of the dross produced on the back of the Campbellian monomyth. Instead, they would probably suggest that people should just read extensively and analytically, and write, write, write.

And that is absolutely true. But extensive reading (whether consciously analytical or not) has the same ultimate effect as reading theory. Have you ever found yourself reading extensively in a particular time period, or genre, and discovered that you’ve picked up habits (sentence construction, pacing, plot) from your reading? Even if we don’t consciously dissect our reading material, the act of reading still builds our internal critical theory. Consciously, analytically, or through osmosis, the act of reading assembles our conceptual vocabulary whether we want it to or not. Whether we can ever consciously articulate that theory or not doesn’t matter: it’s still somewhere in our brains. And it percolates there, and then leaks out to flavor our writing. And the more extensive our internal critical theory, the wider assortment of narrative tools we have in our writing workshop.

I admit, I’m not one of these instinctive writers. But I suspect the biggest challenge for such writers is to work through the moments in their writing when their limited conscious plan peters out. “Where do I take the story from here?” is a question I suspect many struggle with at some point. Which is why they say Broadway is paved with excellent first acts. The exhortation that writers force themselves to write, come hell or high water, is designed to train us to smoothly access our conceptual vocabulary – whether we’re conscious of the process or not. And the wider our reading, the broader and deeper that conceptual vocabulary becomes. This then lets us avoid such dead-ends, or to more easily identify them so we can backtrack to fix them.

Process vs Ritual: The First is Good, the Second is Bad

We writerly types are fairly idiosyncratic. Like athletes, we all have our little habits that put us in the zone. Whether it’s a particular chair we love to write in, or a particular time of day to write at, or a particular process that we go through before setting fingers to keyboard, we’ve all got our little rituals. And rituals are bad. They’re crutches that over the space of a career are just not sustainable. Because life generally is not conducive to ritualized work processes. Sooner or later, our favorite chairs break, mugs get lost, schedules get all mixed up. Life just gets in the way. And if we’re beholden to our rituals, then our writing will suffer.

Imagine if John Pants lands a three book deal, with a national book tour (okay, I realize this isn’t likely in the modern world – but for illustrative purposes only, bear with me). He’ll be on the road for eight weeks plugging the first book in his trilogy, meanwhile his deadline for book number two is rapidly approaching (if it hasn’t already passed). If he’s addicted to his favorite writing chair, or to his cat lounging on his feet, he’s going to have a lot of trouble finishing book two while on tour.

I find that I struggle with a variety of rituals in my writing. For example: when I sit down to write a short story, I like to write a complete draft in one sitting. Silly, but it’s just a little ritual or idiosyncrasy that I’ve got. Or if I’m working on a long form work, I like to write a complete scene, or a complete chapter. As far as rituals go, this isn’t that bad (the upside is I usually finish the stuff I start). But it still means there will be times when I decide not to write because I know I won’t have time to get far beyond a single sentence or paragraph. If I don’t have an hour or two to focus, I might just wait for later. And that’s an inhibiting habit that I’m working on breaking. It’d be nice to be able to write effectively at any time of day, whether I’ve got five minutes or an hour to do so. With the Professor’s exhortations (and mockery) I’m working through this, but it’s something that takes – and will continue to take – work.

But there is a difference between ritual and process. Process is an outgrowth of how our brains are wired, and so if we need to write an outline to tell a story, then I say go for it! But we cannot let ourselves become slaves to that process. An outline is one process that is particularly suited to those of us with an analytical mindset. There are others (synopses, notes, mind-maps, and yes – even just winging it, etc.). If we say we absolutely need an outline to write, and then we get stuck in the outlining phase, that might mean our process has broken down for a particular project.

If our process has become a ritual, we might get stuck. But if we have the flexibility to switch to a different process, the odds of bogging down fall dramatically. The last three long works I’ve drafted (one fantasy novel, one graphic novel script, and one alternate history novel) all used a different process. The first had a detailed outline before I ever started writing it. The second had a loose synopsis. And I winged the third until I got about halfway through it, then built a detailed scene-by-scene outline from there. Much as I like process, it can be a crutch. And here my wife’s aversion to analytical writing is dead on: At some point, crutches always break. Which is why having the widest possible assortment of processes in our writing toolkit makes good analytical sense. It is always good to push our own boundaries as writers, to play and experiment with different tools, techniques, and methods.

So what processes work for you in your writing? What techniques would you recommend? What techniques have you tried that didn’t work for you?

REVIEW: Graphs, Maps, Trees by Franco Moretti and a Critical Wish List


Title: Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History
Author: Franco Moretti
Pub Date: July 21, 2005
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A stimulating model for literary criticism.

So I’ve got a bit of a confession to make: I’m a critical theory nerd. I love the philosophical debates that arise from Russian formalism versus post-structuralism, and I get a twisted masochistic enjoyment from reading Derrida’s mysticism-disguised-as-science. If I’m not reading genre fiction, odds are my nose will be buried in a critical text. But despite this guilty pleasure, it is the rare work of theory that changes how I think about the written word. But that’s exactly the kind of reaction I had to Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History.

A Criticism of Critical Theory and the Application of Science

Even at its most basic “Spot runs” level, the key to effective writing has always been communication. Which is why I’ve always found it mystifying that the lions of critical theory forget this basic tenet. It is a shame that in the practical world of academia, a book as lucid, well-reasoned, and communicative as Farah Mendelsohn’s impressive Rhetorics of Fantasy will spawn far fewer doctoral dissertations than the jumbled arguments of Derrida’s Of Grammatology. This just makes me sigh.

I suspect it is because my background – for the most part – lies in market research, computer sciences, statistical linguistics, economics, and mathematics. My brain is wired to work in an analytical fashion more commonly found in the hard sciences. In those fields there is zero room for the ambiguity and fuzziness present in critical theory. If a mathematician were to try to publish a paper whose equations were as muddled as the majority of critical theory texts, she would be laughed right off the top of the ivory tower. Ultimately, beneath the rhetoric of their presentation lies objective science.

However, objective need not mean uncontested or incontroversial. Consider today’s economic debates about the “right” solution to the Greek debt crisis. There’s a joke that says if you put two economists into a room, you’ll have three opinions. Yet since the early 20th century, the critical theory establishment has eschewed a rational, scientific approach to literary analysis and instead has gone down the rabbit hole of spurious semantic navel-gazing. And while that has done a lot to further the peer-reviewed publication credits of many theorists, I’d argue it hasn’t done terribly much to move our understanding of literature forward. And it also limits the critical debate to the in-crowd who grok Derrida and Foucault.

A New Formal Science for Literary Analysis: Macro versus Micro

Which is why Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees is so refreshing. First, his argument has a clarity to it that most critical theorists lack. He lays out a logical case, and presents his arguments in a reasonably accessible fashion.

Fundamentally, Moretti is trying to bring the science back into critical theory. In one sense, he is updating the early 20th century’s formalism with the computational tools available to us in the 21st century. And that means that he’s mixing oil and water: words and numbers. Moretti’s underlying claim is that the close reading that forms the foundation of post-structuralism, New Criticism, most contemporary brands of Marxist criticism, etc. is a shibboleth: its propononents risk missing the forest for the trees. He argues that we can learn more about literature by applying statistical techniques across and within multiple texts. He proposes a separation between data collection and its interpretation, which is how economics, mathematics, physics, and literally every hard science in existence has operated for centuries.

A Framework for Quantitative Literary Theory

A Framework for Quantitative Literary Theory

Comparing it to the dismal science (economics), Moretti’s approach is to close reading what macroeconomics is to microeconomics. Moretti argues that we now have the tools to analyze literature at a macro-level, thus enabling us to notice aspects that close reading’s micro-approach would not spot.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this approach is controversial. Most of the folks I’ve met in the humanities self-select as “bad at math.” So a theoretical framework that relies on statistics and charts is likely to be scary: it is quite literally a new critical vocabulary, requiring an entirely different set of skills. Yet this vocabulary can be particularly compelling, and offer new insights to our understanding of genre and literature.

Moretti’s Critical Toolkit

In Graphs, Maps, Trees, Moretti explains three independent tools that can be applied to literary analysis. He devotes an entire section to each of these three techniques, and the they can even be read separately without losing much of his over-arching argument.

State of the Genre: Graphs

Of the three, the first section (graphs) is the most compelling, most understandable, and most readily applicable. A picture is worth a thousand words, and I don’t need to be in the business of data analysis (which in my day job I am) to know that graphs can communicate information more succinctly than pages of text. The statistics that Moretti employs are as simple as they get: there are no formulas, no equations, no actual math is ever shown. All Moretti does is visualize data on publication history. That’s the kind of charting we all learned back in fourth grade, but which has so rarely been applied to literature.

Once that data gets visualized, Moretti is absolutely right that certain basic trends jump out at us and demand explanation. Which is where the critical aspect comes into play. Data by its nature is an observation: it tells us “what” but not “why”. And so Moretti attempts to explain the observed behavior of the data, providing some interesting insights into the periodicity and lifespan of genres in 19th century British texts. His critical conclusions – as he himself states – are not new. Others had made similar observations before. But by visualizing an extensive set of data Moretti is able to make a stronger – less anecdotal – case. In one sense, it is like particle physicists seeking empirical proof for the Higgs-Boson. The theory supporting its existence is not new: but there’s a lot of data crunching needed to prove it.

In speculative fiction, genre fragmentation is a very real trend. We’ve got hard SF, soft SF, zombie, splatterpunk, cyberpunk, sword and sorcery, steampunk, etc. And because our minds are statistical supercomputers, we perform quantitative analyses like Moretti’s every day when we say “Vampires are so over!” or “Hard SF is dying.” We base statements like that on a fuzzy sense of what’s being published, but we generally lack the hard and fast numbers to back up such hyperbolic statements. This is just as true for critics as it is for consumers, authors, publishers, and booksellers. By looking at actual data on published texts, we can lay to rest these debates about the health of different sub-genres and perhaps identify incipient trends that are just beginning to percolate. If I were a genre publisher, or a bookseller, I would be running these kinds of analyses once a quarter to have a more scientific handle on what’s going on in the marketplace: what my competitors are publishing and what my consumers are reading. Note that this analysis has nothing to do with the quality of what is being done: merely an observation of what is happening.

State of the Book: Maps

In his second section, Moretti dives into a deeper analysis of particular texts. Rather than try to put together graphs, he draws maps based on the events, characters, and locations of the texts he is analyzing. His argument that visualizing the relationships within a book may provide us with insights into its themes and characters is extremely compelling.

Unfortunately, the science in this section of the book begins to break down. While his maps are thought-provoking, he fails to provide us with an explanation of how they were generated. In the hard sciences, nothing can be proven if a given result cannot be replicated independently. Yet Moretti fails to provide an explanation for process by which his maps were derived. Are they based on actual observed/collected data? Or are they instead conceptual diagrams meant to symbolically represent relationships within and between texts?

If the former, then a further and more precise explanation of his methods would be necessary. Such an explanation would allow other critics to replicate, test, refute, and expand on Moretti’s findings. If the latter, then a discussion of the principles and approach by which he designed the maps would also be helpful for the same reason. While this opens the door to interpretative ambiguity, it would be helpful to give other critics insight into this tool.

I would love to apply Moretti’s mapping concepts to fantasy fiction in particular. Think of the classic fantasy texts that rely so heavily on location: Alice in Wonderland, Little, Big, Peake’s Gormenghast books, or the Lord of the Rings. Speculative genres – which rely so fundamentally on world-building – are particularly conducive to this kind of analysis, and I believe we can gain much deeper insight into their themes and techniques through its application.

Relationships Between Books: Trees

In the third and final section, Moretti describes trees as a tool for analyzing the relationship between different texts. Again, this tool is less a statistical one than it is a way of visualizing large amounts of information. Essentially, trees present a certain hierarchy: they have a flow to them from one point (or set of points) to another. We’ve seen these kinds of trees many times before: flowcharts, genealogies, or folders on our computer.

But by visualizing literary works in a tree-like structure, we are able to notice relationships and trends that might otherwise get drowned out. This is particularly interesting as we examine the evolution of genres. Moretti is well aware of this, applying this technique to the mystery genre. In particular, he uses trees to visualize how Arthur Conan Doyle and his contemporary mystery writers used clues in their stories. He makes a claim that Doyle’s use of clues is why Sherlock Holmes and the rationalist mystery has survived into the present day, while his contemporary competitors have been forgotten.

His argument is compelling, and it would be far more difficult to communicate if he did not have diagrams and pictures that made it easier to follow his argument. This is another tool that I would love to see applied to speculative fiction. For example, I would love to represent the presence of invented languages in speculative fiction using these tools, and then juxtapose that against their sales statistics. Whether we learn anything that publishers, booksellers, or authors can apply is uncertain: but the results would certainly be interesting.

Doing What It Means To

At its core, Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History does what it sets out to. It describes a set of techniques that can – and should – be utilized in the world of literary analysis. It shows how those techniques can be used to derive new insight into literature and genre, thus giving us a greater understanding of how written art functions.

At first glance, these techniques may seem scary. But in reality, they’re not that terrifying. Moretti’s techniques don’t use, or even any math that goes beyond an elementary school level. If he uses that kind of math, it is hidden beneath his accessible charts. If you know how to plot a simple graph, then you can begin applying his techniques. For teachers of critical theory, they offer a powerful tool to make theory accessible. Ultimately, one of Moretti’s pictures is worth ten thousand of Derrida’s words…if only because it is so easy to grasp.

From a scientific standpoint, this book is not perfect. It lacks some of the detail that would be laudable or expected in the hard sciences. But Rome was not built in a day, and had Moretti included that level of detail, I imagine that many critical theorists would be even more frightened by his ideas. I hope that more theorists – and especially genre theorists – look at Moretti’s work and try to apply some of its insights to speculative fiction.

With that in mind, here’s a short wish list of analyses I would love to see. These are really just a list of charts/diagrams that would then be wide open to interpretation and further analysis, but I think they would be really interesting and thought-provoking:

  • Graphs:
    • Number of Genre Texts Published in Hardcover vs Softcover by Sub-genre over Time
    • Unit/Dollar Sales of Genre Texts by Sub-genre over Time
    • Median Advances by Sub-genre over Time
    • Median Length of Texts by Sub-genre over Time
  • Map Analyses:
  • Trees:
    • Plot Tropes in Hard SF over Time
    • Gender Characteristics by Sub-genre over Time
    • Economic Systems by Sub-genre over Time
    • Usage of Neologisms by Sub-genre over Time

Golly…I wish I didn’t have to work for a living and had easy access to the archives of Bookscan / Amazon.com data to do even a quarter of those analyses. Anyone in the publishing industry want to pay a peer-reviewed, internationally published market researcher to put together some of this research?

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