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Lady Chatterley’s Brother

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

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Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

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Tale of Genji

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

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Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


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    Lance Olsen is the author of two recent works, [[there.]] and Theories of Forgetting (FC2). The second presents three narratives in a clearly fictional mode while the first offers day-to-day thoughts on living in another country. We rightly suspect that any artist’s memoir or diary ought to be viewed as written with a prospective public in mind, no matter ho […]
  • Noir and Nihilism in True Detective December 15, 2014
    "It’s just one story. The oldest. . . . Light versus dark." Spanning 8 episodes between January and March of 2014, HBO’s runaway hit True Detective challenged the status quo of contemporary crime drama. The show has been widely celebrated for its philosophy, complexity, and visual aesthetic. Co-starring actors Matthew McConaughey as Rustin "Ru […]
  • The Colonel’s World December 15, 2014
    Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (born 1940) is considered by many the living Iranian novelist, a perennial Nobel Prize candidate. Dowlatabadi wrote The Colonel some thirty years ago, because in his own words he had been “afflicted.” The subject forced him to sit at the desk and write nonstop for two years. “Writing The Colonel I felt a strong sense of indignation and pa […]
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  • The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash December 15, 2014
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  • The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation December 15, 2014
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    Yes, I think people are not comfortable anymore to write in this straightforward, traditional way, especially the younger, more progressive writers. So it’s interesting—you have social commentary, and you also get a little bit of structural experiment. You have themes that are very, very Thai. I’m actually very interested to see what new writers will come up […]
  • The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck December 15, 2014
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  • In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass December 15, 2014
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  • Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli December 15, 2014
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Who Cares If Literary Criticism Is An Art or a Science

It’s nice to see some intelligent attention being directed at Franco Moretti’s work.

That said, I don’t agree with the premise of Joshua Rothman’s piece at The New Yorker.

Should literary criticism be an art or a science? A surprising amount depends on the answer to that question. If you’re an English major, what should you study: the idiosyncratic group of writers who happen to interest you (art), or literary history and theory (science)? If you’re an English professor, how should you spend your time: producing “readings” of the literary works that you care about (art), or looking for the patterns that shape whole literary forms or periods (science)? Faced with this question, most people try to split the difference: if you relate to criticism as an art, you take a few theory classes; if you relate to it as a science, you put on bravura close readings. (Louis Menand’s article about Paul de Man, in this week’s magazine, quotes the critic Peter Brooks, who recalls how de Man could “sit in front of a text and just pluck magical things out of it.”) Almost no one, meanwhile, wants to answer the question definitively, because, for a critic, alternating between one’s artistic and scientific temperaments is fun—it’s like switching between the ocean and the sun at the beach.

This to me sounds like a typical “New Yorker” frame: start out with a short, provocative-sounding question, and then try to unravel the complications behind it. That’s fine, except, I don’t see the point of asking whether literary criticism should be an art or a science. It’s obviously not a science and never will be. There’s simply no way as a critic that you can form hypotheses and test them, that being the heart of the scientific method. Yes, sure, you can try to determine the structures beneath texts, movements, etc, but I’ve never seen a literary critic make a single falsifiable prediction, not even in the sense of how it’s done in social sciences like economics and political science. And of course theorists like Paul de Man did nothing of the sort . . . not even Roland Barthes, who’s probably much closer to a “literary critic/scientist” than de Man, got even close to science.

My sense is that people who care about books are much more interested in other questions, and I would even count Moretti himself in that group. Yes, Moretti obviously uses ostensibly scientific methods to look at texts, but so have a lot of critics. Structuralism came out of the science of linguistics, but I don’t think any of the structuralists were interested in being scientists. And nor to I get the sense that science as such is important to Moretti. My impression is more that computation is the best method for thinking about books in ways that fascinate him. There are so few (if any) mathematical equations in Moretti’s books. There aren’t even that many numbers. The man is a success because he knows how to use words. That makes him a writer, not a scientist.

Also, a bit of a nitpicky point, but this is a pretty ridiculous misreading of one of Moretti’s essays:

Yet Moretti has critics. They point out that, so far, the results of his investigations have been either wrong or underwhelming. (A typical Moretti finding is that, in eighteenth-century Britain, for instance, the titles of novels grew shorter as the market for novels grew larger—a fact that is “interesting” only in quotes.)

The essay that Rothman is alluding to is actually collected in Distant Reading, so I guess he must have read it, and if he did he must know that this is just the starting point of Moretti’s findings. (It’s actually one of my favorite essays in the book.) Saying that the above is the whole of Moretti’s finding would be like saying that Newton discovered that apples fall from trees. There is actually some very intelligent, criticism of Moretti’s work (some of it available right in Distant Reading, for instance), and Rothman, who’s clearly smarter than this, should have found some of it for his piece.

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More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Art and Science Pretty interesting discussion between Cormac McCarthy, Werner Herzog and Lawrence Krauss on the intersections of art and science, even if they all pretty much agree...
  2. Friday Column: Literary Science I suppose that Jonathan Gottschall’s article in th Boston Globe, arguing for literary studies to embrace scientific methods, was meant to be provocative and exciting....
  3. Not Everything Involving an Author and a Book Is Literary Criticism I agree with Michael here: this isn’t really literary criticism. Even when publishing new editions of classic books/poets, there are things publishers can get right...
  4. The Best Response to Art Is Art Considering the "declining authority of the critic," Morgan Meis argues that the answer is to see the critic not as a judge but as a...
  5. The Alternative to Gottschall This article about Jonathan Gottschall--whose attempts to fuse the scientific method and literary criticism I've found wanting--doesn't change my opinion on the erstwhile "scientific" literary...

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