Distant reading and the blurry edges of genre.

There are basically two different ways to build collections for distant reading. You can build up collections of specific genres, selecting volumes that you know belong to them. Or you can take an entire digital library as your base collection, and subdivide it by genre.

Most people do it the first way, and having just spent two years learning to do it the second way, I’d like to admit that they’re right. There’s a lot of overhead involved in mining a library. The problem becomes too big for your desktop; you have to schedule batch jobs; you have to learn to interpret MARC records. All this may be necessary eventually, but it’s not the ideal place to start.

But some of the problems I’ve encountered have been interesting. In particular, the problem of “dividing a library by genre” has made me realize that literary studies is constituted by exclusions that are a bit larger and more arbitrary than I used to think.

First of all, why is dividing by genre even a problem? Well, most machine-readable catalog records don’t say much about genre, and even if they did, a single volume usually contains multiple genres anyway. (Think introductions, indexes, collected poems and plays, etc.) With support from the ACLS and NEH, I’ve spent the last year wrestling with that problem, and in a couple of weeks I’m going to share an imperfect page-level map of genre for English-language books in HathiTrust 1700-1923.

But the bigger thing I want to report is that the ambiguity of genre may run deeper than most scholars who aren’t librarians currently imagine. To be sure, we know that subgenres like “detective fiction” are social institutions rather than natural forms. And in a vague way we also accept that broader categories like “fiction” and “poetry” are social constructs with blurry edges. We can all point to a few anomalies: prose poems, eighteenth-century journalistic fictions like The Spectator, and so on.

But somehow, in spite of knowing this for twenty years, I never grasped the full scale of the problem. For instance, I knew the boundary between fiction and nonfiction was blurry in the 18c, but I thought it had stabilized over time. By the time you got to the Victorians, surely, you could draw a circle around “fiction.” Exceptions would just prove the rule.

Selecting volumes one by one for genre-specific collections didn’t shake my confidence. But if you start with a whole library and try to winnow it down, you’re forced to consider a lot of things you would otherwise never look at. I’ve become convinced that the subset of genre-typical cases (should we call them cis-genred volumes?) is nowhere near as paradigmatic as literary scholars like to imagine. A substantial proportion of the books in a library don’t fit those models.

This is both a photograph of a real, unnamed mother and baby, and a picture of a fictional character named Shinkah. Frontispiece to Shinkah, The Osage Indian (1916).

This is both a photograph of a real, unnamed mother and baby, and a picture of a fictional character named Shinkah. Frontispiece to Shinkah, The Osage Indian (1916).


Consider the case of Shinkah, the Osage Indian, published in 1916 by S. M. Barrett. The preface to this volume informs us that it’s intended as a contribution to “the sociology of the Osage Indians.” But it’s set a hundred years in the past, and the central character Shinkah is entirely fictional (his name just means “child.”) On the other hand, the book is illustrated with photographs of real contemporary people, who stand for the characters in an ethnotypical way.

After wading though 872,000 volumes, I’m sorry to report that odd cases of this kind are more typical of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fiction than my graduate-school training had led me to believe. There’s a smooth continuum for instance between Shinkah and Old Court Life in France (1873), by Frances Elliot. This book has a bibliography, and a historiographical preface, but otherwise reads like a historical novel, complete with invented dialogue. I’m not sure how to distinguish it from other historical novels with real historical personages as characters.

Literary critics know there’s a problem with historical fiction. We also know about the blurry boundary between fiction, journalism, and travel writing represented by the genre of the “sketch.” And anyone who remembers James Frey being kicked out of Oprah Winfrey’s definition of nonfiction knows that autobiographies can be problematic. And we know that didactic fiction blurs into philosophical dialogue. And anyone who studies children’s literature knows that the boundary between fiction and nonfiction gets especially blurry there. And probably some of us know about ethnographic novels like Shinkah. But I’m not sure many of us (except for librarians) have added it all up. When you’re sorting through an entire library you’re forced to see the scale of it: in the period 1700-1923, maybe 10% of the volumes that could be cataloged as fiction present puzzling boundary cases.

You run into a lot of these works even if you browse or select titles at random; that’s how I met Shinkah. But I’ve also been training probabilistic models of genre that report, among other things, how certain or uncertain they are about each page. These models are good at identifying clear cases of our received categories; I found that they agreed with my research assistants almost exactly as often as the research assistants agreed with each other (93-94% of the time, about broad categories like fiction/nonfiction). But you can also ask a model to sift through several thousand volumes looking for hard cases. When I did that I was taken aback to discover that about half the volumes it had most trouble with were things I also found impossible to classify. The model was most uncertain, for instance, about The Terrific Register (1825) — an almanac that mixes historical anecdote, urban legend, and outright fiction randomly from page to page. The second-most puzzling book was Madagascar, or Robert Drury’s Journal (1729), a book that offers itself as a travel journal by a real person, and was for a long time accepted as one, although scholars have more recently argued that it was written by Defoe.

Of course, a statistical model of fiction doesn’t care whether things “really happened”; it pays attention mostly to word frequency. Past-tense verbs of speech, personal names, and “the,” for instance, are disproportionately common in fiction. “Is” and “also” and “mr” (and a few hundred other words) are common in nonfiction. Human readers probably think about genre in a more abstract way. But it’s not particularly miraculous that a model using word frequencies should be confused by the same examples we find confusing. The model was trained, after all, on examples tagged by human beings; the whole point of doing that was to reproduce as much as possible the contours of the boundary that separates genres for us. The only thing that’s surprising is that trawling the model through a library turns up more books right in the middle of the boundary region than our habits of literary attention would have suggested.

A lot of discussions of distant reading have imagined it as a move from canonical to popular or obscure examples of a (known) genre. But reconsidering our definitions of the genres we’re looking for may be just as important. We may come to recognize that “the novel” and “the lyric poem” have always been islands floating in a sea of other texts, widely read but never genre-typical enough to be replicated on English syllabi.

In the long run, this may require us to balance two kinds of inclusiveness. We already know that digital libraries exclude a lot. Allen Riddell has nicely demonstrated just how much: he concludes that there are digital scans for only about 58% of the novels listed in bibliographies as having been published between 1800 and 1836.

One way to ensure inclusion might be to start with those bibliographies, which highlight books invisible in digital libraries. On the other hand, bibliographies also make certain things invisible. The Terrific Register (1825), for instance, is not in Garside’s bibliography of early-nineteenth-century fiction. Neither is The Wonder-Working Water Mill (1791), to mention another odd thing I bumped into. These aren’t oversights; Garside et. al. acknowledge that they’re excluding certain categories of fiction from their conception of the novel. But because we’re trained to think about novels, the scale of that exclusion may only become visible after you spend some time trawling a library catalog.

I don’t want to present this as an aporia that makes it impossible to know where to start. It’s not. Most people attempting distant reading are already starting in the right place — which is to build up medium-sized collections of familiar generic categories like “the novel.” The boundaries of those categories may be blurrier than we usually acknowledge. But there’s also such a thing as fretting excessively about the synchronic representativeness of your sample. A lot of the interesting questions in distant reading are actually trends that involve relative, diachronic differences in the collection. Subtle differences of synchronic coverage may more or less drop out of questions about change over time.

On the other hand, if I’m right that the gray areas between (for instance) fiction and nonfiction are bigger and more persistently blurry than literary scholarship usually mentions, that’s probably in the long run an issue we should consider! When I release a page-level map of genre in a couple of weeks, I’m going to try to provide some dials that allow researchers to make more explicit choices about degrees of inclusion or exclusion.

Predictive models that report probabilities give us a natural way to handle this, because they allow us to characterize every boundary as a gradient, and explicitly acknowledge our compromises (for instance, trade-offs between precision and recall). People who haven’t done much statistical modeling often imagine that numbers will give humanists spuriously clear definitions of fuzzy concepts. My experience has been the opposite: I think our received disciplinary practices often make categories seem self-evident and stable because they teach us to focus on easy cases. Attempting to model those categories explicitly, on a large scale, can force you to acknowledge the real instability of the boundaries involved.

References and acknowledgments

Training data for this project was produced by Shawn Ballard, Jonathan Cheng, Lea Potter, Nicole Moore and Clara Mount, as well as me. Michael L. Black and Boris Capitanu built a GUI that helped us tag volumes at the page level. Material support was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies. Some information about results and methods is online as a paper and a poster, but much more will be forthcoming in the next month or so — along with a page-level map of broad genre categories and types of paratext.

The project would have been impossible without help from HathiTrust and HathiTrust Research Center. I’ve also been taught to read MARC records by librarians and information scientists including Tim Cole, M. J. Han, Colleen Fallaw, and Jacob Jett, any of whom could teach a course on “Cursed Metadata in Theory and Practice.”

I mention Garside’s bibliography of early nineteenth-century fiction. This is Garside, Peter, and Rainer Schöwerling. The English novel, 1770-1829 : a bibliographical survey of prose fiction published in the British Isles. Ed. Peter Garside, James Raven, and Rainer Schöwerling. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Paul Fyfe directed me to a couple of useful works on the genre of the sketch. Michael Widner has recently written a dissertation about the cognitive dimension of genre titled Genre Trouble. I’ve also tuned into ongoing thoughts about the temporal and social dimensions of genre from Daniel Allington and Michael Witmore. The now-classic pamphlet #1 from the Stanford Literary Lab, “Quantitative Formalism,” is probably responsible for my interest in the topic.

Genre, gender, and point of view.

A paper for the IEEE “big humanities” workshop, written in collaboration with Michael L. Black, Loretta Auvil, and Boris Capitanu, is available on arXiv now as a preprint.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is an odd venue for literary history, and our paper ends up touching so many disciplinary bases that it may be distracting.* So I thought I’d pull out four issues of interest to humanists and discuss them briefly here; I’m also taking the occasion to add a little information about gender that we uncovered too late to include in the paper itself.

1) The overall point about genre. Our title, “Mapping Mutable Genres in Structurally Complex Volumes,” may sound like the sort of impossible task heroines are assigned in fairy tales. But the paper argues that the blurry mutability of genres is actually a strong argument for a digital approach to their history. If we could start from some consensus list of categories, it would be easy to crowdsource the history of genre: we’d each take a list of definitions and fan out through the archive. But centuries of debate haven’t yet produced stable definitions of genre. In that context, the advantage of algorithmic mapping is that it can be comprehensive and provisional at the same time. If you change your mind about underlying categories, you can just choose a different set of training examples and hit “run” again. In fact we may never need to reach a consensus about definitions in order to have an interesting conversation about the macroscopic history of genre.

2) A workset of 32,209 volumes of English-language fiction. On the other hand, certain broad categories aren’t going to be terribly controversial. We can probably agree about volumes — and eventually specific page ranges — that contain (for instance) prose fiction and nonfiction, narrative and lyric poetry, and drama in verse, or prose, or some mixture of the two. (Not to mention interesting genres like “publishers’ ads at the back of the volume.”) As a first pass at this problem, we extract a workset of 32,209 volumes containing prose fiction from a collection of 469,200 eighteenth- and nineteenth-century volumes in HathiTrust Digital Library. The metadata for this workset is publicly available from Illinois’ institutional repository. More substantial page-level worksets will soon be produced and archived at HathiTrust Research Center.

3) The declining prevalence of first-person narration. Once we’ve identified this fiction workset, we switch gears to consider point of view — frankly, because it’s a temptingly easy problem with clear literary significance. Though the fiction workset we’re using is defined more narrowly than it was last February, we confirm the result I glimpsed at that point, which is that the prevalence of first-person point of view declines significantly toward the end of the eighteenth century and then remains largely stable for the nineteenth.

Mean probability that fiction is written in first person, 1700-1899. Based on a corpus of 32,209 volumes of fiction extracted from HathiTrust Digital Library. Points are mean probabilities for five-year spans of time; a trend line with standard errors has been plotted with loess smoothing.

Mean probability that fiction is written in first person, 1700-1899. Based on a corpus of 32,209 volumes of fiction extracted from HathiTrust Digital Library. Points are mean probabilities for five-year spans of time; a trend line with standard errors has been plotted with loess smoothing.


We can also confirm that result in a way I’m finding increasingly useful, which is to test it in a collection of a completely different sort. The HathiTrust collection includes reprints, which means that popular works have more weight in the collection than a novel printed only once. It also means that many volumes carry a date much later than their first date of publication. In some ways this gives a more accurate picture of print culture (an approximation to “what everyone read,” to borrow Scott Weingart’s phrase), but one could also argue for a different kind of representativeness, where each volume would be included only once, in a record dated to its first publication (an attempt to represent “what everyone wrote”).

Mean probability that fiction is written in first person, 1700-1899. Based on a corpus of 774 volumes of fiction selected by multiple hands from multiple sources. Plotted in 20-year bins because n is small here. Works are weighted by the number of words they contain.

Mean probability that fiction is written in first person, 1700-1899. Based on a corpus of 774 volumes of fiction selected by multiple hands from multiple sources. Plotted in 20-year bins because n is smaller here. Works are weighted by the number of words they contain.


Fortunately, Jordan Sellers and I produced a collection like that a few years ago, and we can run the same point-of-view classifier on this very different set of 774 fiction volumes (metadata available), selected by multiple hands from multiple sources (including TCP-ECCO, the Brown Women Writers Project, and the Internet Archive). Doing that reveals broadly the same trend line we saw in the HathiTrust collection. No collection can be absolutely representative (for one thing, because we don’t agree on what we ought to be representing). But discovering parallel results in collections that were constructed very differently does give me some confidence that we’re looking at a real trend.

4. Gender and point of view. In the process of classifying works of fiction, we stumbled on interesting thematic patterns associated with point of view. Features associated with first-person perspective include first-person pronouns, obviously, but also number words and words associated with sea travel. Some of this association may be explained by the surprising persistence of a particular two-century-long genre, the Robinsonade. A castaway premise obviously encourages first-person narration, but the colonial impulse in the Robinsonade also seems to have encouraged acquisitive enumeration of the objects (goats, barrels, guns, slaves) its European narrators find on ostensibly deserted islands. Thus all the number words. (But this association of first-person perspective with colonial settings and acquisitive enumeration may well extend beyond the boundaries of the Robinsonade to other genres of adventure fiction.)

Third-person perspective, on the other hand, is durably associated with words for domestic relationships (husband, lover, marriage). We’re still trying to understand these associations; they could be consequences of a preference for third-person perspective in, say, courtship fiction. But third-person pronouns correlate particularly strongly with words for feminine roles (girl, daughter, woman) — which suggests that there might also be a more specifically gendered dimension to this question.

Since transmitting our paper to the IEEE I’ve had a chance to investigate this hypothesis in the smaller of the two collections we used for that paper — 774 works of fiction between 1700 and 1899: 521 by men, 249 by women, and four not characterized by gender. (Mike Black and Jordan Sellers recorded this gender data by hand.) In this collection, it does appear that male writers choose first-person perspective significantly more than women do. The gender gap persists across the whole timespan, although it might be fading toward the end of the nineteenth century.

Proportion of works of fiction by men and women in first person. Based on the same set of 774 volumes described above. (This figure counts strictly by the number of works rather than weighting works by the number of words they contain.)

Proportion of works of fiction by men and women in first person. Based on the same set of 774 volumes described above. (This figure counts strictly by the number of works rather than weighting works by the number of words they contain.)


Over the whole timespan, women use first person in roughly 23% of their works, and men use it in roughly 35% of their works.** That’s not a huge difference, but in relative terms it’s substantial. (Men are using first person 52% more than women). The Bayesian mafia have made me wary of p-values, but if you still care: a chi-squared test on the 2×2 contingency table of gender and point of view gives p < 0.001. (Attentive readers may already be wondering whether the decline of first person might be partly explained by an increase in the proportion of women writers. But actually, in this collection, works by women have a distribution that skews slightly earlier than that of works by men.)

These are very preliminary results. 774 volumes is a small set when you could test 32,209. At the recent HTRC Uncamp, Stacy Kowalczyk described a method for gender identification in the larger HathiTrust corpus, which we will be eager to borrow once it’s published. Also, the mere presence of an association between gender and point of view doesn’t answer any of the questions literary critics will really want to pose about this phenomenon — like, why is point of view associated with gender? Is this actually a direct consequence of gender, or is it an indirect consequence of some other variable like genre? Does this gendering of narrative perspective really fade toward the end of the nineteenth century? I don’t pretend to have answered any of those questions, all I’m doing here is flagging the existence of an interesting open question that will deserve further inquiry.

— — — — —

*Other papers for the panel are beginning to appear online. Here’s “Infectious Texts: Modeling Text Reuse in Nineteenth-Century Newspapers,” by David A. Smith, Ryan Cordell, and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon.

** We don’t actually represent point of view as a binary choice between first person or third person; the classifier reports probabilities as a continuous range between 0 and 1. But for purposes of this blog post I’ve simplified by dividing the works into two sets at the 0.5 mark. On this point, and for many other details of quantitative methodology, you’ll want to consult the paper itself.

Distant reading and representativeness.

Digital collections are vastly expanding literary scholars’ field of view: instead of describing a few hundred well-known novels, we can now test our claims against corpora that include tens of thousands of works. But because this expansion of scope has also raised expectations, the question of representativeness is often discussed as if it were a weakness rather than a strength of digital methods. How can we ever produce a corpus complete and balanced enough to represent print culture accurately?

I think the question is wrongly posed, and I’d like to suggest an alternate frame. As I see it, the advantage of digital methods is that we never need to decide on a single model of representation. We can and should keep enlarging digital collections, to make them as inclusive as possible. But no matter how large our collections become, the logic of representation itself will always remain open to debate. For instance, men published more books than women in the eighteenth century. Would a corpus be correctly balanced if it reproduced those disproportions? Or would a better model of representation try to capture the demographic reality that there were roughly as many women as men? There’s something to be said for both views.

Scott Weingart tweet.To take another example, Scott Weingart has pointed out that there’s a basic tension in text mining between measuring “what was written” and “what was read.” A corpus that contains one record for every title, dated to its year of first publication, would tend to emphasize “what was written.” Measuring “what was read” is harder: a perfect solution would require sales figures, reviews, and other kinds of evidence. But, as a quick stab at the problem, we could certainly measure “what was printed,” by including one record for every volume in a consortium of libraries like HathiTrust. If we do that, a frequently-reprinted work like Robinson Crusoe will carry about a hundred times more weight than a novel printed only once.

We’ll never create a single collection that perfectly balances all these considerations. But fortunately, we don’t need to: there’s nothing to prevent us from framing our inquiry instead as a comparative exploration of many different corpora balanced in different ways.

For instance, if we’re troubled by the difference between “what was written” and “what was read,” we can simply create two different collections — one limited to first editions, the other including reprints and duplicate copies. Neither collection is going to be a perfect mirror of print culture. Counting the volumes of a novel preserved in libraries is not the same thing as counting the number of its readers. But comparing these collections should nevertheless tell us whether the issue of popularity makes much difference for a given research question.

I suspect in many cases we’ll find that it makes little difference. For instance, in tracing the development of literary language, I got interested in the relative prominence of words that entered English before and after the Norman Conquest — and more specifically, in how that ratio changed over time in different genres. My first approach to this problem was based on a collection of 4,275 volumes that were, for the most part, limited to first editions (773 of these were prose fiction).

But I recognized that other scholars would have questions about the representativeness of my sample. So I spent the last year wrestling with 470,000 volumes from HathiTrust; correcting their OCR and using classification algorithms to separate fiction from the rest of the collection. This produced a collection with a fundamentally different structure — where a popular work of fiction could be represented by dozens or scores of reprints scattered across the timeline. What difference did that make to the result? (click through to enlarge)

The same question posed to two different collections. 773 hand-selected first editions on the left; on the right, 47,549 volumes, including many translations and reprints.

The same question posed to two different collections. 773 hand-selected first editions on the left; on the right, 47,549 volumes, including many translations and reprints. Yearly ratios are plotted rather than individual works.


It made almost no difference. The scatterplots look different, of course, because the hand-selected collection (on the left) is relatively stable in size across the timespan, and has a consistent kind of noisiness, whereas the HathiTrust collection (on the right) gets so huge in the nineteenth century that noise almost disappears. But the trend lines are broadly comparable, although the collections were created in completely different ways and rely on incompatible theories of representation.

I don’t regret the year I spent getting a binocular perspective on this question. Although in this case changing the corpus made little difference to the result, I’m sure there are other questions where it will make a difference. And we’ll want to consider as many different models of representation as we can. I’ve been gathering metadata about gender, for instance, so that I can ask what difference gender makes to a given question; I’d also like to have metadata about the ethnicity and national origin of authors.

pullquoteBut the broader point I want to make here is that people pursuing digital research don’t need to agree on a theory of representation in order to cooperate.

If you’re designing a shared syllabus or co-editing an anthology, I suppose you do need to agree in advance about the kind of representativeness you’re aiming to produce. Space is limited; tradeoffs have to be made; you can only select one set of works.

But in digital research, there’s no reason why we should ever have to make up our minds about a model of representativeness, let alone reach consensus. The number of works we can select for discussion is not limited. So we don’t need to imagine that we’re seeking a correspondence between the reality of the past and any set of works. Instead, we can look at the past from many different angles and ask how it’s transformed by different perspectives. We can look at all the digitized volumes we have — and then at a subset of works that were widely reprinted — and then at another subset of works published in India — and then at three or four works selected as case studies for close reading. These different approaches will produce different pictures of the past, to be sure. But nothing compels us to make a final choice among them.