The `Less Than 1% Problem’ in the Domain of Novels

So, Professor Franco Moretti has identified `the 1% Problem’ in the domain of novels.

In his excellent article The Slaughterhouse of Literature (2000), Moretti writes

`The history of the world is the slaughterhouse of the world, reads a famous Hegelian aphorism; and of literature.

The majority of books disappear forever—and “majority” actually misses the point: if we set today’s canon of nineteenth-century British novels at two hundred titles (which is a very high figure), they would still be only about 0.5 percent of all published novels.

And the other 99.5 percent?

This is the question behind this article, and behind the larger idea of literary history that is now taking shape in the work of several critics—most recently Sylvie Thorel-Cailleteau, Katie Trumpener, and Margaret Cohen.’

(Moretti 2000, p. 207)

As a member of the Digital Humanities Research Group, I commend that landmark Moretti (2000) article The Slaughterhouse of Literature (2000) to you; it is available online, here.

Moretti (2000) also cites DeVany and Walls (1996):

`The Blind Canon Makers

So, the market selects the canon. But how? Two economic theorists, Arthur De Vany and W. David Walls, have constructed a very convincing model for the film industry (a good term of comparison for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels):

Film audiences make hits or flops . . . not by revealing preferences they already have, but by discovering what they like. When they see a movie they like, they make a discovery and they tell their friends about it; reviewers do this too. This information is transmitted to other consumers and demand develops dynamically over time as the audience sequentially discovers and reveals its demand. . . . A hit is generated by an information cascade. . . . A flop is an information bandwagon too; in this case the cascade kills the film.” (De Vany and Walls 1996, p. 1493)’

(Moretti 2000, p. 210 – bold emphasis mine)

This research is also of great interest to me, primarily because of:

StoryAlity #115The `Less-Than-1%’ Problem in the Domain of Film

Moretti’s book Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (2007) is also excellent, in my view.

Graphs Maps Trees - Moretti 2007

In Part 3 of the book, `Trees’, Moretti (2007) uses an evolutionary model to examine the development (and also, extinction) of various genres in literary fiction (novels).

After examining Charles Darwin’s evolutionary tree (interestingly, the only diagram in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, 1859) Moretti (rightly) asks:

`And if language evolves by diverging, why not literature too?’

(Moretti 2007, p. 70)

I also found the book’s Afterword by Alberto Piazza (an evolutionary biologist) both fascinating and illuminating. Piazza notes that:

`In his Way of the World, Franco Moretti proposes the very interesting idea that even literary genres cannot survive without cultural variety.

The genre of the Bildungsroman, he shows, was born in Europe after the French Revolution in response to a precise social need: mediation of the conflicting demands of freedom and stability… But in the very different, and ethnically more heterogeneous setting of the United States, a Bildungsroman was reborn in which youth itself narrated its own moral education, in Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.’

(Piazza in Moretti 2007, p. 99)

Also, interestingly, Moretti (2007) includes a diagram of a `Tree of Culture’ from A.L. Kroeber:

Kroebers Tree of Culture - Moretti 2007 p.79What I also find interesting here is that the `tree’ on the left (in the diagram above), indeed (as Moretti notes) reflects the evolution of biological species under natural selection diverges (and only diverges; indeed that is the definition of species – that they cannot interbreed), while the `tree’ on the right shows how culture diverges – but also reconnects (as, ideas, processes and products spread across – and also between – cultures, and sub-cultures).

However, given not just natural selection, but also artificial selection and genetic engineering, we can now recombine genes and proteins and create new and different organisms, such as, say, GloFish. In other words, due to culture (i.e. science, and the arts) we are clearly no longer just in the domain of natural selection.

Moretti (2007) also rightly notes:

`There are many ways of being alive, writes Richard Dawkins, but many more ways of being dead – and figures 30 and 31, with all those texts that were so quickly forgotten, fully bear out his point: literary pathology, one may almost call it.

But instead of reiterating the verdict of the market, abandoning extinct literature to the oblivion decreed by its initial readers, these trees take the lost 99 per cent of the archive and reintegrate it into the fabric of literary history, allowing us to finally ‘see’ it.

It is the same issue raised in the first chapter – the one per cent of the canon, and the ninety-nine of forgotten literature – but viewed from a different angle: whereas graphs abolish all qualitative difference among their data, trees try to articulate that difference.’

(Moretti 2007, p. 77)

Moretti (2007) also provides a wonderful graph of British novelistic genres (1740-1900), noting the `lifespan’ of each genre (see below). Moretti invokes Kuhn’s `normal science’ and suggests that on average, `normal literature’ (a new genre, or paradigm) lasts around 25 years or so, in this view.

British Novelistic Genres - Moretti 2007 p19

This fascinating approach by Moretti, using statistics and quantitative analysis in the Humanities is called `distant reading’ by Moretti and others (as opposed to say, the approach known as `close reading‘ of course), and arguably provides a more holistic view of `large-scale patterns’ in the evolution of culture.

I commend Moretti’s work to you, and I also look forward to reading much more of it.

And if this kind of evolutionary examination of culture is of interest, perhaps, see also:

StoryAlity #100 – The Holon-Parton Structure of the Meme – the Unit of Culture (Velikovsky 2013, 2014)

And – for more detail on the evolutionary systems (or, complexity) view of narrative and bioculture in general, see, this book chapter:

StoryAlity #132The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture – and the narreme, or unit of story – book chapter (Velikovsky 2016)

And for a great consilience & creativity & evolution reading list, see:

StoryAlity #71On Consilience in the Arts / Humanities / Communication

Comments, always welcome.


JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/



De Vany and Walls, “Bose-Einstein Dynamics and Adaptive Contracting in the Motion Picture Industry,” Economic Journal, November 1996, p. 1493.

Moretti, F. (2007). Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. London: Verso.

Moretti, F. (2000). `The Slaughterhouse of Literature’. MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly, 61(1), 207-227. doi: 10.1215/00267929-61-1-207

Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme): In Science, Media, Entertainment and the Arts.‘ In A. Connor & S. Marks (Eds.), Creative Technologies for Multidisciplinary Applications. New York: IGI Global.

5 thoughts on “StoryAlity #114B – The Less Than 1% Problem in the Domain of Novels (Moretti)

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