The primary analytic tools of modern literary criticism were forged in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries out of print culture's effort to consolidate its hold on society by making more out of its objects. The further we have burrowed in—sacralizing only a few texts, dwelling on each image—the more we have had to say. Canonization, the vector of less, and close reading, the vector of more, are thus the paradoxical countermovements of the modern literary system. Ideology has also served that system well, sharing with close reading the logic of the physical: to grow by making more of itself, to flesh out the “real” by adding more layers, whether of interpretations or of consciousness. Close reading and ideology thus developed hand-in-hand with what I call the practice of “close writing.” The results were the standard forms of modern criticism, including entire books on a single author or just a few texts. These practices also valorized a new set of objects to be close to: in the early nineteenth century, the longest form of prose fiction finally rose in the generic hierarchy after decades down below. As critical close writing fed on creative close writing, and vice versa, the newly instituted novel assumed, physically, Victorian proportions. It became a quantitative phenomenon in the history of the real. This essay outlines that history, from the primacy of the metaphysical to the physical to the virtual. As we enter electronically into that third chapter, Nancy Armstrong's hypothesis will be put to the test: the novel, she has argued, “was not made to reproduce the status quo.”

The text of this article is only available as a PDF.
You do not currently have access to this content.