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Panel: Networks, Literature, Culture

Moretti, Franco, Stanford University,

Finn, Ed, Stanford University,

Lewis, Rhiannon, Stanford University,

Frank, Zephyr, Stanford University,

Overview: Our panel proposal, and the three individual papers, present work in progress at the Stanford Literary Lab, a work space opened in the Fall of 2010 where faculty and students conduct research of a digital and quantitative nature. Ideally, we try to generate critical “experiments” that mix archival exploration and hypothesis testing, and extend over a period of one-two years; all of them collaborative, and developing through regular group meetings that evaluate results and plan the work to come.

Reading, Writing and Reputation: Literary Networks in Contemporary American Fiction

Finn, Ed, Stanford University,


Long-established models of literary production are changing dramatically as the digital era continues to blur, and at times erase, the divisions between authors, critics and readers. Millions of cultural consumers are now empowered to participate in previously closed literary conversations and to express forms of mass distinction through their purchases and reviews. My project argues that these traces of popular reading choices constitute a fresh perspective on elusive audience reactions to literature, one that reveals distinct networks of conversation that are transforming previously well-understood relationships between writers and their readers, between the art of fiction and the market for books (Radway). Employing network analysis methodologies and ‘distant reading’ of book reviews, recommendations and other digital traces of cultural distinction (Moretti), my research develops new models for studying literary culture in America today. In this paper I consider the reception of three mid-career writers, David Foster Wallace, Junot Díaz and Colson Whitehead, asking how they have redefined authorial expectations and literary identity through their work.


My project is founded on the argument that as literary production evolves, new kinds of reading communities and collaborative cultural entities are emerging. Many of these communities are ephemeral and quite often they are fostered by commercial interests seeking to capitalize on their cultural production. Nevertheless, a handful of websites like Amazon continue to dominate the marketplace for books and attract millions of customer reviews, ratings and purchase decisions, and the literary ecologies of these book reviews have become valuable research resources. The ideational networks I explore are made up of books, authors, characters and other literary entities (these are the nodes), along with the references linking them together as collocations in book reviews, suggestions from recommendation engines, and other structures of connection. As my project has moved from Thomas Pynchon and Toni Morrison to the younger generation represented by Wallace, Díaz and Whitehead, I have improved my data-gathering and network analysis methodologies. With new data and better tools, I hope to determine how the game of authorial fame is changing in an increasingly reflexive, networked literary landscape.


This paper will present my research on three younger writers who have broken new ground in literary constructions of identity in a shifting landscape of reception. Wallace, Díaz and Whitehead, all members of “Generation X,” are writers who have captured national attention through particularities of self-presentation and novelistic style.

I argue that these authors signal a sea change in literary reputation. Authors as well as publishers are now interacting with active communities of readers who conduct complex cultural conversations independent of traditional arbiters of taste. As the barriers separating readers from ordained critics crumble online, younger authors are increasingly engaging with audiences that are both collaborative and vocal. Tracing the half-spun career arcs of Wallace, Díaz and Whitehead, this paper articulates a new model of contemporary literary culture: a reading society that demands increasing authorial reflexivity to mirror the collaborative, iterative nature of digital literary conversations.

Each author makes a distinct form of literary identity central to his work. David Foster Wallace defined a deeply introspective and reflexive narrative voice, pioneering a style so individual that he ultimately felt it had become clichéd and struggled to escape it in his final years of writing. In his breakout novel The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz has tackled the challenges of his hybrid Dominican/American identity by creating a new argot of Spanglish phrases, pop cultural references and an ingenious deployment of footnotes to both buttress and undermine normative American understandings of Latin American history and culture. Finally, Colson Whitehead has similarly inverted expectations for African American authors, accomplishing the seemingly impossible feat of writing in the traditions of both Toni Morrison and Thomas Pynchon. As a group, these writers have little in common except their age, positions of cultural prestige and their talents as re-inventors of literary identity. This makes them excellent subjects for a study of contemporary literary reception and the collective construction of literary identities.


The project draws on two primary datasets: first, a corpus of professional and consumer book reviews collected from nationally prestigious reviewing newspapers and magazines along with consumer reviews from Amazon dating back to 1996; second, networks of recommendations based on consumer purchases and book ownership drawn from the websites Amazon and LibraryThing. Comparing these different literary networks allows me to make broader arguments about contemporary authorial fame and the changing role of the everyday reader in literary conversations.

For the first dataset, consumer and professional book reviews, I have employed the MorphAdorner project’s Named Entity Recognition tool to create a dictionary of literary proper nouns (authors, titles, character names, etc). This dictionary was used to identify collocations on a paragraph level throughout these reviews, making nouns into nodes and collocations into links. This approach allows me to empirically identify and visualize those authors and texts frequently mentioned in the same review contexts. The resulting noun networks reveal not only the distinctions between everyday readers and more traditional arbiters of literary taste but the ways in which popular authors are increasingly carrying on multiple independent and complex literary conversations.

The second dataset combines book recommendations provided by Amazon’s “Customers who bought this also bought” engine and LibraryThing’s recommendation engine. In this case books form the nodes and recommendations the links connecting them. Employing network analysis to identify patterns of prestige and clustering in these recommendation networks has allowed me to trace the diverse functions of genre and authorial identity in ordering literary texts and to identify the basic rules of contemporary market canonicity.


As I have moved this project through its first two case studies, with Pynchon and Morrison, I have refined a hybrid methodology that explores literary and cultural context through a limited empirical lens, considering particular digital and textual networks of reference and evaluation. This iteration of the process takes on three authors with very different styles to ask how a younger literary generation is working together with newly empowered readers to construct new kinds of multiply mediated, widely collaborative forms of cultural identity. By studying these writers mid-career, I hope to trace both the evolution of contemporary authorial fame and its relationship to wider systems of social distinction in a rapidly evolving digital landscape.


Bourdieu, P. 1993 The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature., Randal Johnson New York Columbia University Press

English, J. 2005 The Economy of Prestige, Cambridge, MA Harvard University Press

Guillory, J. 1993 Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation, Chicago University of Chicago Press

Moretti, F. 2005 Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstracted Models for a Literary History, London and New York Verso

MorphAdorner. Northwestern University 2009 (link)

Radway, J. 1997 A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire, Chapel Hill University of North Carolina Press

yEd Graph Editor yWorks GmbH 2010 (link)

Paper Two: Plot as Network: Quantifying the Evolution of Dramatic Style

Lewis, Rhiannon, Stanford University,

In the last decade or so, quantitative evidence has become part of literary study in a variety of ways – from the material realities of book history [library holdings, or translation flows], to the linguistic macro-patterns that have renewed the study of attribution, genre differentiation, and stylistics. Plot, however, has proved much more difficult to quantify. This paper looks for a possible solution in network theory, whose concepts re-define plot as a system where characters are the vertices, and their interactions the edges of a narrative network. Focusing, for now, on dramatic literature, such "network narratology" brings to light the striking discontinuities between the structure of ancient and Renaissance tragedy, and suggests a reconceptualization of literary characters in terms of their "connectedness" and their position within the network.

This paper grew out of Franco Moretti’s network analysis of three Shakespeare plays: Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. Preliminary work for the project included php-extraction of speaker-receiver data from MIT’s xml-encoded Shakespeare corpus. The program R was then used to generate network analyses. A team of Stanford graduate students hand-corrected receiver attributions to a level of 100% accuracy. The paper’s methodological component discusses the difficulties of automated recipient attribution in dramatic texts, and touches on issues of “quantifying” performance literature, including plays lacking an authoritative text. The idea of (performance) time turned into space is grounded in narrative theory: specifically, Alex Woloch’s concept of a character-system made of many character-spaces (The One vs. the Many). In addition to modeling “plot as network” based in dialogue, I also utilize stage directions to map networks as shared “space.” Here, space includes more ambiguous character presence such as disguised identity and plays-within-plays, as well as the auditory presence of eavesdropping. Thus, overlapping networks of character position -- both physical and verbal -- model multiple dimensions of plot through form and performance.

The paper draws on extant and original corpora of over 70 plays, from classical through Renaissance drama. They include Shakespeare’s complete dramatic works, as well as select plays by Marlowe, Jonson, and Webster. The classical plays are drawn from Project Perseus’ database. Evaluating our script’s performance across literary periods has revealed that classical dramatic dialogue follows a linear progression more frequently than dialogue in Renaissance drama. In other words, the script always assumes that Speaker A will address Speaker B who addresses Speaker C, etc, and therefore inaccurately assigns the receiver when Speaker B responds back to Speaker A. Here, methodology illuminates dramatic structure. The linear model of “progressive” dialogue correctly attributes a higher percentage of utterances (and words) in Greek than Shakespearean tragedy. Dialogue in ancient plays more strictly observes a recursive model that occurs less frequently within Shakespeare’s more populated scenes. The script correctly identifies more receiver tags in plays with smaller casts (i.e., classical drama) and scenes with two interlocutors, such as Iago and Roderigo in Othello I.i. When there are more than two interlocutors, the script misattributes a response to a previous speaker as an address to the following speaker. However, accuracy is usually measured at the unit of the utterance, or speech-tag. When measuring accuracy by words, Act I of Othello presents a different case. Word-based accuracy is consistently lower than utterance-based accuracy in the Greek plays and in Hamlet, but in Othello, the reverse is true. Thus, inaccurately attributed speeches—those given in response to a preceding speech--are longer in Hamlet and the Greek plays than in the opening act of Othello. It follows that in Othello, characters tend to say more when they address the next character who speaks. If there's more chain-like dialogic progress in Act I of Othello than in all of Hamlet, this corroborates scene-based thematics that characterize Othello: its beginning in medias res and the transmission of news through increasingly public scenes (from “a street” (I.i) to “another street” (I.ii) to “a council-chamber” (I.iii)). In the second section of this paper I explore such network patterns diachronically: at levels of scene, act and play, and in comparative context.

This formal figuration of dialogue’s progress supplements the paper’s central findings: weighted network visuals, at levels of the play entire, act and scene. At the most macroscopic level, we observe “synchronic” patterns and discontinuities: for example, larger scenes, with more characters and therefore usually a more “public” nature occur near the beginning and the ending of Hamlet, Lear, and Othello. Networks create a hierarchy of centrality among characters. This model inevitably calls into question the binaries with which we usually think about characters: protagonist vs. minor characters, or "round" vs. "flat": nothing here supports these dichotomies, and, in fact, the hierarchical re-conceptualization of characters is another promising research area opened by network theory.

The third section focuses not on character as determined by location in narrative structure, but by semantic analysis of dialogue, using word frequency and semantic field analysis. For example, relativized word frequency lists reveal that “Cassio” is among the top ten most frequent words that Brabantio, the Duke, Lodovico and Montano speak, before any other character’s name, including “Othello,” “Desdemona,” or “Iago.” This semantic analysis detects the linguistic virulence of Iago’s revenge scheme, “promoting” Cassio’s name in the constructed adultery plot. Semantic analysis and weighted word networks also reveal that antagonists’ confrontations are consistently verbose in Greek tragedy, while Shakespearean antagonists may never exchange a word. In this paper, I consider dramatic plot as a function of network connections--coded as relations between speaker and addressee—through both historical and generic developments.


Albert-László Barabási, Linked, Penguin NY 2003

Mark Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties, ” American Journal of Sociology, May 1973

R. Alberich J. Miro-Julia F. Rosselló “Marvel Universe looks almost like a real network, ” (link)

M. E. J. Newman “Finding community structure in networks using the eigenvectors of matrices, ” Physical Review E 74, 036104 2006

M. E. J. Newman “The Structure and Function of Complex Networks, ” SIAM Review, 2003

Mark Newman Albert-László Barabási Duncan J. Watts The Structure and Dynamics of Networks, Princeton UP 2006

Mark Steyvers Joshua Tenenbaum “The Large-Scale Structure of Semantic Networks: Statistical Analyses and a Model of Semantic Growth, ” Cognitive Science, 29 2005

James Stiller Daniel Nettle Robin I.M. Dunbar “The small world of Shakespeare's plays, ” Human Nature, vol. 14, no. 4 2003

Social Connections and Space in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro

Frank, Zephyr, Stanford University,

This paper explores the theme of social connections in the novels of Machado de Assis, José de Alencar, and Aluísio Azevedo against a background of empirical research on historical social networks in the space of the city of Rio de Janeiro. It argues that a better understanding of the meaning and configuration of social networks in history can be obtained through creative use of literary sources. In this, the paper builds upon the work of Antonio Candido, Roberto Schwarz, and Raymundo Faoro—all of whom emphasized the historical and sociological richness in the works of the novelists under consideration. By emphasizing the physical space of the city, its street networks and modes of transport, and the existence of overlapping social networks therein, the paper connects sociologically inflected literary criticism to social history through the use of new digital methods of analysis and visualization.

The body of the paper is divided into two parts. The first part analyzes networks within the novels and the novelistic space of the city. The second part, building on the network typologies and spaces discovered in the analysis of the novels, explores social networks and the space of the city through the analysis of historical documents such as lists of club members or occupational groupings. The paper then concludes with an appraisal of the way literary networks and spaces can inform better historical questions put to more traditional historical documents.

In terms of digital humanities methods, the paper explores the use of computational techniques and programs such as GIS (ArcGIS and related software) and Gephi, a network analysis tool. Part of the novelty of the approach considered in this paper is the degree to which it combines analysis across these platforms—that is, network space (Gephi) and geographical space (ArcGIS) taken together. Because it is difficult to describe the approach taken in the paper in words alone, two examples of the kinds of visualization generated for the paper are shown to the right.

Epitaph of a Small Winner

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Machado de Assis’s novel (1881) is told in the first person by a voluble narrator. Connections to the central character (red node) shoot off in multiple directions as the book zig-zags through his life (which can be read, loosely, as a Bildungsroman of Brazil personified in the character of Brás Cubas). The structure of the novel thereby reflects the author’s critique of the capricious and fragmented world of Rio de Janeiro. Still, in the midst of all this fragmentation, certain characters and places emerge as brokers and spaces of social connections.

Sonhos d’Ouro

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José de Alencar’s novel (1872) is told in a traditional third-person style. The central character (red node) is surrounded by characters of similar importance (measured by network centrality). There are relatively few network clusters and far fewer characters and complications than in the case of Machado’s novel. The plot of Alencar’s novel seeks to resolve the tension between newly minted capitalist wealth and values of thrift and honor embodied in the protagonist.

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The second part of the paper explores what happens when we place historical individuals in the context of social networks and the spaces of the city. Using information gleaned from the analysis of networks in novels, including the role of “brokers” and “spaces of interaction,” part two looks for evidence of similar patterns of social connections and spaces in the historical record.

As in the example provided in the diagram above, it is possible to reconstruct the shape of social networks in nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro through the collection of data concerning club and organization membership and the analysis of large datasets with tools such as Gephi and Pajek (used above). There is a clear pecking order in the organizations of the civic fauna in Rio. Just a few leaders are required, for example, to tie together 90 percent of the civic fauna in first- or second-degree connections. The same emphasis on hierarchy and gatekeeping with respect to social connections appears in the analysis of the novels discussed with respect to the first part of the paper.