Typicality

With Mark Algee-Hewitt

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.

How populous is the typical novel? This graph shows the distributions of the percentage of words in the Gale Corpus of American Fiction that are persons over time.
t-sne plot of slices of Henry James novels arranged by his typical distribution of nouns.

From the 1000-word slice of The Golden Bowl closest to the mean:

“You’d think it still more if you knew. But you don’t know–because you don’t see. Their situation”–this was what he didn’t see–“is too extraordinary.”
“‘Too’?” He was willing to try.
“Too extraordinary to be believed, I mean, if one didn’t see. But just that, in a way, is what saves them. They take it seriously.”
He followed at his own pace. “Their situation?”
“The incredible side of it. They make it credible.”
“Credible then–you do say–to YOU?”

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