The Fun of Mapping Lies
“You do realize what you are researching are works of fiction, don’t you?” she asked with a British accent, while her smile expressed a confusing mixture of sincere friendliness and wry skepticism. “Oh dear, are you telling me that all of these stories are based on lies?” I countered, in an attempt to both copy her British wit and hide my annoyance. Holding a glass of lukewarm orange juice in one hand and a soggy club sandwich in the other, I shifted my weight uncomfortably. We were standing in the staff room of a university. It was a spacious but soulless room: grey office furniture, two leather sofas, a wall with announcements. Judging by the yellowish hue of the paper and the curled corners of those announcements, most activities were already deep in the past. The atmosphere was close and oppressive and I looked around to see if I could open a window. What I really wanted to do was leave the room altogether.
How much of this story was true? Even though I was in that room, I could not give you the exact answer. Not only do memories change over time, I also might have altered some details and facts to add interest to the story. What I would argue, however, is that the story does give an impression of how I experienced that room: a depressing and suffocating space. But to what extent did that feeling come from the room itself? Was it not also the uncomfortable conversation that intensified this feeling? Or the bad food? Maybe just the mood I was in that day? In other words, what can we know about the relationship between that actual staff room, my experience of it, and the fictional representation of that experience?
It is precisely this complicated relationship between “real” space, experienced space, and imagined space that I examine in my dissertation. In Shanghai: Literary Imaginings of a City in Transformation (Leiden University 2012), I explore literary responses to Shanghai’s recent urban transformation process. Witnessing how entire neighborhoods of little shops and low-rise residential housing were being replaced by high-rise shopping malls and office buildings, I wanted to understand how people living in this environment experienced these sweeping changes. Instead of sociological or anthropological research, I looked for answers in novels and short stories set in Shanghai, examining how these literary works imagined the impact of Shanghai’s urban transformation on people’s daily and inner lives.
Firm conclusions about cause and effect amidst the impact of urban change are elusive; this is made even harder when your research material is fiction. It is a problem that keeps fascinating me and inspires me to continue my work, exploring not only fiction but various forms of cultural expression. It is also a problem that is met with skepticism and mild disdain, such as by the woman in the suffocating room; or take the following remark by Dan Vukovich in a recent interview: “Social science always seems to do so little with so much data, whereas the humanities do the reverse – reading a film, say, and pretending you are doing cultural, let alone social or ‘real-world’ analysis.” By exploring the problem itself we already gain important insights about the relationship between art and lived experiences, yet the question remains if we can really draw any valuable conclusions about “real-world” developments from fictional accounts. Or, to stay closer to home, how did I deal with this problem in my dissertation?
Let me begin by explaining how I selected the works I wanted to study. First, I searched for novels and short stories published between 1995 and 2005 (when the urban transformation of Shanghai reached its peak), written by writers who (mostly) grew up in Shanghai and were living there in that period. I then selected those stories that offered articulate representations of the city and in which explicit references were made to actual places, such as the names of streets, public buildings, and bridges. The final selection criteria consisted of: (1) stories which featured the authors’ memories of particular places in the city (e.g. the 2004 story collection City Map 城市地图, edited by Jin Yucheng 金宇澄); (2) semi-autobiographical novels (e.g. Sandbed 沙床, 2003, by Ge Hongbing 葛紅兵); (3) collections of literary essays on the city (e.g. Shanghai Memorabilia 上海的风花雪月, 1998, by Chen Danyan 陈丹燕); (4) novels with the city as a protagonist in its own right (e.g. Wang Anyi’s 王安忆 Song of Everlasting Sorrow 长恨歌, 1996). While I started out with a more “conventional” approach of close-reading strategies, it was overall the literary scholar Franco Moretti’s concept of “distant reading” that furnished me with a sharper analytical tool to understand the complex intertwining of fictional and real space.
“Literature scholars should stop reading books, and start counting, graphing, and mapping them instead.” A provocative statement on the back cover of Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (2005), that both summarizes his concept of distant reading and shows the concept’s controversial character. What makes this book so interesting is that it breaks the taboo of using “objective” facts and quantitative methodology for that most “subjective” field of literary studies. The book argues that by using geometry — counting, graphing, and mapping — to analyze and/or historicize fiction, literary texts can be subjected to a deliberate process of abstraction that will reveal new insights.
Considering the subject of my dissertation, Moretti’s idea of “mapping literature” struck me with particular force. It could be used for two different objects of study: “literature in space” (the geographical distribution of a novel, for example) and “space in literature” (the locations featured in a novel, say). Nevertheless, I initially had no intention of changing my reading strategies at all. Moretti’s book merely fascinated me because of its daring, provocative nature and its writing style that seemed more like “thinking aloud” than trying to argue a case persuasively. Whereas some have pointed this out as a weakness, I maintain that by involving the reader in his thinking process, Moretti does something much more important than just trying to win an argument: he makes you question your assumptions. Most of all, the book’s contagiously enthusiastic presentation of the graph, maps, and trees, made me want to try them all out for myself. Just for the fun of it.
And it was fun. I took one collection of short stories by different writers and a big map of Shanghai and started “mapping” where the stories took place. The authors of this collection were specifically asked to write a fictional story about a place that held a special meaning for them, so the dots on my first “literary map” showed me important memory places for the city’s local writers. The first thing I noticed was that most stories were set in former colonial settlements, while not one was in the old city center, where the old walled city used to be. I realized that this was also the case in the other novels I analyzed, implying that the colonial part of the city felt more representative of Shanghai to its local writers compared to its “indigenous” historical core. Whereas one could argue that this nowadays is only a small part of the city, it is nevertheless its heart and origin. It is only two centuries ago that this was the entire city of Shanghai!
This surprising outcome made me want to experiment some more; but what to map? How to avoid determining the outcome before the research had started? Moretti’s strategy to keep “changing and changing” the variables until he “had found a good answer” is rather problematic. Since the focus of my research was the experience of the changing physical landscape of the city, I decided to use the parameters that urban scholar Kevin Lynch identifies as crucial reference points through which people perceive and navigate urban space: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. In his seminal study The Image of the City (1960), Lynch did in-depth interviews with residents of three American cities (Boston, Jersey City, and Los Angeles) about their images of their physical environment, and asked them to draw a map of the route they took from work to home. Although Lynch’s project is more than fifty years old and the three American cities have since changed tremendously, his urban elements are still commonly recognized as fundamental reference points of people’s mental image of urban environments.
At this point, my “fun experiment” started to become more serious as I spent days and days rereading the stories, focusing on each urban element, placing it on the map, and then defining which of Lynch’s parameters it exemplified. For example, the same bridge played an important role in two stories, symbolizing the crossing point between the poor north and the rich south. However, in the first story the bridge functions as a “path,” connecting the two worlds, while in the second story it functions as a “node,” marking a fundamental point of rupture and emphasizing the separation of the two worlds. In other words, by having to “map” the urban elements, I had to reread the stories, providing new insights that, in turn, also raised new questions. After my analysis of the maps, I went to all the places indicated on my maps in Shanghai, which again brought new insights. Finally, I presented my maps and the pictures I took during my walks to the writers themselves, which proved to be a surprisingly good way of having them talk more freely and spontaneously about their stories.
It is important to note that a literary map is not textual analysis in itself, but nevertheless can function as a useful analytical tool in preparation of another round of close reading. For this reason, contrary to Franco Moretti’s exhortation, I do not see it as a replacement of close reading: by placing certain elements from a literary text onto a literary map, the resulting patterns raise questions that still require close reading so as to enable the researcher to formulate the beginning of an answer — and stifle, perhaps, mildly critical questions in stuffy rooms.
Assistant Professor Faculty Fellow
New York University Shanghai (NYU Shanghai)
Image: Images by Lena Scheen.
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