Distant Reading and the Slaughterhouse of Literature


by Mae Capozzi

I first heard about distant reading in a 200-level English class on World Literature and was immediately hooked. Though I have always enjoyed close reading, I was excited to discover there were different ways to think about literature than book-by-book. I had often felt that familiar feeling of not having read enough, and when I spoke to other academics they expressed that same anxiety. Here, I thought, was the solution. Of course, as I investigated Moretti’s concept more deeply, I realized I could not be farther from the truth. Moretti’s goal is not to simplify. Rather, he seeks to expand beyond the canon––to understand not only why canonical texts work, but why other books sputter out without so much as a spark.


In his essay The Slaughterhouse of Literature, Moretti outlines a distant reading project he did on detective stories from the late-nineteenth-century. He traced the “clue” through the literature of Arthur Conan Doyle compared to his “rivals.” In reading both canonical texts (Doyle) and non-canonical texts (all of the rivals), Moretti was able to pinpoint what worked for Doyle along with what did not work for his rivals. He ultimately concluded that Doyle was successful because he offered visible, decodable clues where other authors did not. Thus, Doyle’s work has prevailed.

Moretti then tells his reader that one of his students, Jessica Brent, pointed out to him that

“no matter what our intentions may be, the research project is a tautological one: it is so focused on a canonized device…that in the non canonical universe it can only discover…the absence of the device, that is, of the canon”(“The Slaughterhouse of Literature” 87).

Ultimately, in an attempt to move beyond canon, to read the other 99.5% of literature, Moretti has merely made a conclusion about canonical literature. This realization leads Moretti to an inclusive appeal.

“Inevitable was the tree; many branches, different––and for the most part still completely unknown. Fantastic opportunity, this uncharted expanse of literature; with room for the most varied approaches, for a truly collective effort, like literary history has never seen”(Moretti 89).

Thus, there is room for participation in this discourse, as well as the exciting prospect of “fantastic opportunity.”

While our project does not take on quite the same subject matter as Moretti’s on Doyle, we do seek to be a part of this “collective effort.” By using Topic Modeling in MALLET and a dataset from HathiTrust, we are working to analyze a large corpus and to then draw unexpected and unusual connections that can only become clear through a distant reading. We do not only want to gather why the canon was successful, but to focus on the unpopular as well.

Moretti concludes in better words than I:

“Great chance, great challenge (what will knowledge indeed mean, if our archive becomes ten times larger, or a hundered), which calls for a maximum of methodological boldness: since no one knows what knowledge will mean in literary studies ten years from now, our best chance lies in the radical diversity of intellectual positions, and in their completely candid, outspoken competition. Anarchy. Not diplomacy, not compromises, not winks at every powerful academic lobby, not taboos. Anarchy. Or as Arnold Schoenberg once wonderfully put it: the middle road is the only one that does not lead to Rome”(Moretti 89).


Moretti, Franco. “The Slaughterhouse of Literature.” Distant Reading. London: Verso, 2013. Print.

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