Metrics for Distant Reading Literary History

1. Abstract

The method of “distant reading,” conceptualized most notably by Franco Moretti (2013), has been employed extensively in textual analysis. Analytics have most often been used for textual analysis in literary studies (Piper 2018). What should “distant reading” look like in prosopographical literary history? In this talk, I will examine various metrics that can be used to analyze and classify writers, as well as the potential significance of each metric. Using the concept of “sets,” I classify writers as “globally successful,” “nationally successful,” “prolific,” “minor,” or “one-hit wonders,” based on information on these writers’ literary production derived from data and combined with demographic data. The core dataset for this project is a database I have built of 10,000 French writers active at some time from 1700 to 1914 and a smaller subset of the top 1000 writers. This project uses the schema “Procope,” developed as a part of the Mapping the Republic of Letters project at Stanford University (Comsa et al. 2016), combined with data from the National Library of France, to produce a large dataset of writers ranging from published authors of major works to correspondents of note, minor writers, and what I call “one-hit wonders,” authors who have only one hit in library catalogues and are more likely to be unpublished authors or writers of correspondence than what we think of as canonical authors. The dataset also includes women writers from the Huygens database of women writers to address the lack of women writers in the other datasets. I use the following metrics from VIAF: the number of items held in libraries, number of current ISBNs, and the number of countries where materials are held.

In this new project, I consider various metrics which could be used to rank these writers, as well as similar projects by Ted Underwood and Mikko Tolonen with his group in Helsinki. I explore ways that writers could be grouped into sets and how these sets can be used to write alternative histories of literary and social movements by focusing on minor writers and figures who are generally marginal to histories of literary movements. The social and demographic data can be compared to “productivity” metrics from library catalogues, such as number of works published and number of editions, to make observations about which social networks (that is, academies, salons, movements) were more likely to produce successful or unsuccessful writers - both in the short term (in terms of contemporaneous publication) and in the long term (in terms of archiving and post-mortem publications). Finally, I look at which genres “failed” at a greater rate and the social status of “successful” and “failed” writers. Through this analysis, I produce a more nuanced picture of literary success than the division of writers into “canonical” and “non-canonical,” especially by looking at writers who do not generally make it into literary histories at all.

Works Cited

Comsa, Maria and Melanie, Conroy Dan Edelstein, Chloe Summers Edmondson, and Claude Willan “The French Enlightenment Network,” The Journal of Modern History 88:3 (2016), pp. 495-534.

Conroy, Melanie. Nineteenth-Century Networks: European Literary, Intellectual & Social Networks 1789-1914.

Comsa, Maria and Melanie Conroy, Dan Edelstein, Chloe Edmondson, Claude Willan, “French correspondents of major Enlightenment figures,” Stanford Digital Repository (2014),

Moretti, Franco. Distant Reading (London: Verso, 2013).

Piper, Andrew. Enumerations: Data and Literary Study (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

Lahti, Leo, Marjanen, Jani, Roivainen, Hege, & Tolonen, Mikko. “Bibliographic Data Science and the History of the Book (c. 1500–1800).” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 57.1 (2019), 5-23.

Underwood, Ted. Distant horizons: digital evidence and literary change (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).

---. Why literary periods mattered: Historical contrast and the prestige of English Studies (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013).

Melanie Conroy (, University of Memphis, USA

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