2017—Franco Moretti

Photo of Franco Moretti
Danily C. and Laura Louise Bell Professor in the Humanities, Stanford University

A scholar with audiences both within and outside of the humanities, Franco Moretti is the Danily C. and Laura Louise Bell Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University. He is the founder of Stanford’s Center for the Study of the Novel and founder and director of the Stanford Literary Lab, a pathbreaking center devoted to digital research in the humanities.

Professor Moretti’s early books, especially Signs Taken for Wonders (Verso, 1983), The Way of the World (Verso, 1987), Modern Epic (Verso, 1996), and Atlas of the European Novel (Verso, 1998), established him as perhaps the most distinguished living critic of the European novel in the “realist” tradition. The Way of the World, for example, examines the youthful protagonist as a symbol for European modernity itself: that sudden mix of “lost illusions and great expectations” exemplified in the novels of Austen, Goethe, Stendhal, Balzac, and Turgenev. Modern Epic turns to perhaps the most foundational question of all in novel studies: its relationship to the epic form. Atlas of the European Novel is a pioneering study of the physical geography of the novel.

Moretti’s more recent work has built on the quantitative approach to studying literature perhaps first laid out in Atlas of the European Novel. In his influential article “The Slaughterhouse of Literature” (from Modern Language Quarterly, 2000), Moretti diagnosed the problem confronting all literary criticism: today’s canon represents a mere 0.5% of all works published and read during a given historical period—too little to draw real conclusions. Moretti set for himself the task of reading the “other” 99.5%, or what fellow critic Margaret Cohen refers to as the “Great Unread.” Graphs, Maps, and Trees (Verso, 2005), for example, attempts to chart the emergence of novelistic forms and genres (for example, the epistolary form, the gothic novel, or the historical novel) within a literary field in which canonical and noncanonical novels count equally—as pieces of data rather than as literary works comprised of words and ideas.

In 2010, Moretti founded the Stanford Literary Lab as a means of further analyzing literature through statistical and computational methods. Projects have ranged from mapping characterological proximity in Renaissance drama, analyzing the geography of emotion in the nineteenth-century novel, and describing the manner by which environmental law creates a linguistic atmosphere where choices appear natural and even inevitable. Moretti has termed the type of reading he now champions, involving concepts like z-scores and clustering coefficients, as “distant reading”—a rejoinder to the traditional practice of “close reading.” In 2013 he published Distant Reading (Verso, 2013), a manifesto for his new method.

Professor Moretti’s academic accomplishments are many and wide-ranging. He is the author of seven books, editor of the five-volume encyclopedia of the novel Il Romanzo (G. Einaudi, 2001-03), which was translated into two vastly influential English collections, The Novel, Volume 1 and The Novel, Volume 2 (2006). He is a frequent contributor to the New Left Review