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Presentation on “Typicality”

On February 27th, 2018, Mark Algee-Hewitt and Erik Fredner presented their new project on typicality in literature.

Do literary critics need to know what the typical novel is like? Critics routinely turn to moments where novels violate our expectations of the form, expectations that have been developed by reading, writing about, and discussing novels of all sorts. We may intuitively reject the idea of any given novel’s typicality—each is, in some sense, unlike any other—yet paradoxically rely on a conception of the typical novel as a heuristic for other works in the genre. We know when our expectations in a novel have been undercut, but in writing about a given novel, we tend to focus more on what that undercutting does than the origins of the expectation. This project shifts the critical focus from the former to the latter.

The problem of typicality poses a question that is at once deeply historical (what is the typical novel of, for example, the 1890s?) and simultaneously unmoored from history (what is the most novel-like novel?) Methods of quantitative analysis can help us get new purchase on these questions: for the first time, we can measure averages, medians, and other statistical expressions of typicality in many different ways across large datasets. But what are the benefits and consequences of thinking about the literary field in this way? How might we measure literary averages, and, assuming that we can find a few, what light would the typical novel shed on our understanding of the literary novel? In this new project, we begin to explore the intersections of quantitative and qualitative typicality as a methodological intervention into literary criticism.