Close Reading with Computers
Textual Scholarship, Computational Formalism, and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas
Martin Paul Eve


Chapter 1


> Among the many controversial statements made by Rita Felski in The Limits of Critique, there is at least one with which I agree. Felski notes that academics often undervalue many hidden types of publisher labor: “publishers, advertisers, critics, prize committees, reviews, word-of-mouth recommendations, syllabi, textbooks and anthologies, changing tastes and scholarly vocabularies.”1 Conversely, Robert Eaglestone laments in his “Contemporary Fiction: Towards a Manifesto” that these sites of publishing labor “do not see the point of” academics.

What has happened here, such that academics working on contemporary fiction are often underinvested in studying the labor practices of the publishing industry that condition the production and reception of literature, even while feeling undervalued for their own role in promoting such work? As Eaglestone puts it:

I think that every academic working in contemporary fiction has at least one bad story about trade publishers and agents. While some can be very helpful, in the main agents and trade publishers are very unhelpful and resistant to academics. They do not see the point of us, which is odd as we sell many, many thousands of copies of their books to our students (nearly a captive audience, in fact) and more importantly we create the intellectual and cultural infrastructure within which their business grows. (“I studied her in college so I downloaded the new one straight away.”) Yet this, too, reveals that one issue in contemporary fiction is what we might call the “contemporary history of the book”: the ways in which the business of publishing helps to shape and control contemporary fiction. There seems to be a dearth of research into this aspect of the field.2

While calling for a “contemporary history of the book,” Eaglestone also claims that he wishes to be neither “a glorified journalist or modern antiquarian, nor simply a generic critic reproducing basic critical gestures.”3 Indeed, for Eaglestone, it is important that we remain “critics of contemporary fiction.”4 What, though, does the term critic mean in the study of contemporary fiction? How is it different from other periodizations?

What we talk about when we talk about “criticism” in the space of contemporary fiction is, by and large, the precise school of critical work at which Felski is taking aim. That is, it is the Althusserian and Ricoeurian epistemologies, as set out in my introduction, that most strongly underpin contemporary ideas of “critical reading” or “literary critique.”

The form of criticism that is not normally invoked when we say that we want to remain “critics” in the space of contemporary fiction is textual criticism. Textual studies or textual criticism refers to the philological study of the variants of a particular manuscript or printed book. Traditionally used when studying earlier literatures in which the production lineage is unknown or lost, there are a range of methods one can deploy to produce a critical edition from various witness documents and to reapproach the archetype document (although there are disputes around whether a reconstruction of an archetype document should even be the goal of textual criticism). This is ironic under the critical paradigms that Felski attacks, since such a mode would yield to us direct instances of unseen texts lurking behind the one in plain sight—that is, truly other versions of the text waiting to be unearthed. It would also be a study of the diverse labor forms that contribute to the existence of the text.

In the study of bygone periods such studies have clear merit. With multiple diverse variants claiming fidelity to an original copy-text, Shakespearian scholars, for instance, were keen to understand the transmission histories of works. But the complicated legacy for the study of contemporary fiction is one within which the author is both central (interviewed, biographized, and scrutinized) and absent or “dead” (in a hermeneutic paradigm still derived from the high-theory era).5 This led, in the 1980s, to Jerome McGann working against extant paradigms that sought to recover an ur-text and instead advocating for a collection of always-“corrupt” parallel texts that, in aggregate, constitute the social and historical event of a work.6

Yet in the contemporary era there are also version variants and textual differences. What does it mean for the close-reading practices of contemporary literary studies that texts in the contemporary age are as prone to variations in transmission and editing as they ever have been, even while there is no substantial effort devoted to textual criticism? Indeed, we actually have a unique opportunity in the study of contemporary fiction to examine these processes. Speaking with the authors and publishers themselves is not possible for many of our colleagues working in far-distant periods. Yet close readings and minute attention to novelistic language become laughable when critics do not realize that for some readers the text is a totally different experience.

This is not to say that textual criticism never happens around the contemporary novel. For instance, Tim Groenland studies the manuscript versions of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (2011), a work that was unfinished at the time of the author’s death and that was reassembled from fragments by his editor, Michael Pietsch.7 Groenland argues that it is possible (indeed necessary) to close-read the genetics of a text within its own thematic bounds; that is, the multiple versions and permutations of textual histories can help us to build thematic close readings. This idea was spurred, however, by the incompleteness of the final work amid the blooming Wallace industry and is one of the only times that textual criticism seems to rear its head in the study of contemporary fiction.

Also now available, as just another example, are the papers of Toni Morrison, held at Princeton University Library. These include handwritten drafts of Beloved (1987) and other material that will undoubtedly supplement our understanding of Morrison’s oeuvre. For Eaglestone, however, even though I disagree with his tongue-in-cheek periodization, the “‘rule of thumb’ is that the contemporary is the last ten years.”8 The eventual availability of manuscript drafts does not seem to fit easily within the study of contemporary fiction, whether or not one buys Eaglestone’s definition of the “contemporary.” It is also the case, as can be seen elsewhere, such as in Andy Weir’s The Martian (2011), that editions are different from one another at their moments of publication.9 For instance, I have discovered that Pulitzer Prize–winner Jennifer Egan’s first collected work, Emerald City, was originally published in a 1993 edition rather than the more widely known 1996 version. This earlier version of the text, still available in UK national deposit libraries, contains a short story unknown to critics, as well as thousands of words of rewrites and line edits. Yet this type of comparative, close, textual study usually falls underneath the radar of the contemporary critic, despite close reading being the primary modus operandi.

Of course, to reiterate, and despite my warnings about the lack of textual scholarship in the field of contemporary fiction, there is a long history of the study of manuscript variance / textual scholarship, much of which, in the tradition of European genetic criticism, has focused on tracing the route from manuscript to published edition, while noting that the centers of textual authority in these routes are convoluted and difficult to pin down.10 We have certainly also seen a good body of post–World War II scholarship that has focused on the variance between prepublication manuscript and final text, much of it in the US context arising from the collecting sprees of institutions such as the Harry Ransom Center.11 There has also been, within the last decade, a special edition of Variants dedicated to the topic of textual criticism across multiple textual editions (version variance included).12

In the era of digital books the possibility of version variance—or even disappearance—through mutability becomes an especially important issue. For instance, in what must surely have been one of the least-well-thought-through corporate censorship moves in recent years, Amazon came under fire in 2009 for remotely removing a book from its users’ Kindles. Citing copyright problems as the reason for removal, Amazon brought to the fore the issue of unstable textual variants in the digital age in a way that made many readers uncomfortable. The notion that the contents of one’s library might vanish at the whim of a corporate giant caused great unease. Some wondered whether Amazon might change editions of digital texts even while their customers were reading them.13 For, as John Lavagnino noted, as far back as 1993, it is a fundamental property of digital texts to be mutable: “as most have perceived, an electronic edition needn’t ever stop growing and changing.”14 That Amazon targeted George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948) for this treatment—a novel famous for its critique of historical censorship and totalitarian interference with the rights of the individual—struck many readers as one irony too many.

This anxiety about Amazon changing texts and libraries is strange in another, related way. As I mentioned above, texts have always appeared in different versions, with relative corruption between editions. Perhaps, then, we might account for a slight technologico-positivist bias here; the assumption among readers seems to be that as technology improves, the risk of different editions emerging from the socioliterary production process will disappear.

Similarly, however, an examination of the North American digital edition of Cloud Atlas alongside its UK counterpart brings a fresh set of anxieties about literary production to light. For it quickly emerges that the texts are very different and that readers of Cloud Atlas based in the United States are likely to encounter a novel that stands starkly apart from that bearing the same title in the United Kingdom. Indeed, I have identified that there have been at least two English-language editions of Cloud Atlas in widespread circulation, from the very first day of its publication. As well as exhibiting many minor linguistic variations and copyedits throughout, these different editions also contain sections of narrative unique to each version that must change any close reading of the text. Given that so much literary criticism has now been produced on the subject of Mitchell’s novel, these version variants are potentially problematic as they have not previously been noted. Using a combination of computational visualization, textual-scholarly, and more traditional hermeneutic methods, I lay out here the substantial differences among the editions of Cloud Atlas and point to the future work that must be done to understand the effects of the heavy rewritings that occur across the different versions of the text. I also outline the publishing history of the novel that resulted in these variations, as detailed to me by David Mitchell.

The main variations between versions of the text occur in the Sonmi~451 interview narrative and are different between the print and electronic editions of the novel (hence my salvo above on the theme of digital variance), but the texts also vary from region to region in print (US vs. UK). The “electronic” and US variants that I have identified are present in the edition with eISBN 978-0-307-48304-1 but also in other US editions, such as the Random House paperback with ISBN 978-0-375-50725-0.15 The major and significant variations to Sonmi’s narrative that I have been able to identify within this edition are presented in tabular form in Appendix A, although the first half of the text is substantially different even in matters of minor phrasing. Since the Sonmi~451 chapter is an interview that moves predictably between two partners in dialogue, the variant referents herein are structured by Question (Q) and Response (R) numbers as they occur within the UK paperback edition with ISBN 978-1-444-71021-2 and the US paperback edition with ISBN 978-0-375-50725-0. I refer to the UK paperback edition of the text as Cloud Atlas P (for paperback) and the US editions as Cloud Atlas E (for electronic, where I first noticed the variance, although I subsequently discovered that the US printed editions also vary from the UK paperback).16 I here cover the major variations between the editions of the Sonmi~451 narrative as they relate to differences of syuzhet, theme, and linguistic expression, across the US, UK, and Kindle editions of the novel.

As an upfront note, it is also worth highlighting that textual scholarship dealing with electronic editions faces a media as well as a textual challenge. It is clear from much research that the embodied experience of reading a physical book differs from that of reading a digital version, either on a Visual Display Unit (VDU) or on an e-reading device such as the Amazon Kindle.17 Further research is thus merited on the specific effects of reading Mitchell’s novel in different media environments. In the particular case that I outline here, however, I am working less on the media form or distinctly digital side of Mitchell’s text and more on the textual “version variants,” as Burghard Dedner calls them, that represent “changes in different printings of the same work” and come about through the novel’s publishing history.18

As highlighted in my introduction, textual scholarship on contemporary fiction is subject to the challenges posed by copyright legislation. Many of the conventional techniques of the critical edition that might be used to highlight textual genetics or version variants cannot apply without specific publisher and author permissions.19 Furthermore, it is often difficult to understand the precise terms of the copyright, even on older works (the standard copyright term in most of the world is the life of the author plus fifty or seventy years, depending on jurisdiction). While the purpose of this chapter is to outline the version variants in Mitchell’s novel, I have had to do so within the constraints of this copyright framework using minimal recourse to textual citation in the appendix within the bounds of fair dealing / fair use. Therefore, a great deal of this chapter presents paraphrased and abridged descriptions of the differences between versions that I nonetheless hope will prove useful. For pragmatic reasons, I have opted for such a method rather than taking either a more analytical/literary-critical approach or seeking permission from publishers to create a critical edition. That said, and as I will reiterate below, the way that I have mapped the versions of Cloud Atlas against one another is in itself a hermeneutic exercise that others may challenge. I outline my methodology for constructing this dataset in the next section and openly release this data for others to modify and build on. I also openly release the software for visualizing syuzhet modifications among version variants.


1. Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 170.

2. Robert Eaglestone, “Contemporary Fiction in the Academy: Towards a Manifesto,” Textual Practice 27, no. 7 (2013): 1096,

3. Eaglestone, 1093.

4. Eaglestone, 1093.

5. See Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1987), 142–48; Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” in The Essential Works of Michel Foucault, 1954–1984, ed. James D Faubion, 3 vols. (London: Penguin, 2000), 2:205–22; Seán Burke, The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault and Derrida, 3rd rev. ed. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008).

6. Jerome McGann, A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983).

7. Tim Groenland, “‘A Recipe for a Brick’: The Pale King in Progress,” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 58, no. 4 (2017): 1–12,; see also John Roache, “‘The Realer, More Enduring and Sentimental Part of Him’: David Foster Wallace’s Personal Library and Marginalia,” Orbit: A Journal of American Literature 5, no. 1 (2017):, which examines Wallace’s marginalia.

8. Eaglestone, “Contemporary Fiction in the Academy,” 1095.

9. Erik Ketzan and Christof Schöch, “What Changed When Andy Weir’s The Martian Got Edited?” Digital Humanities 2017 conference, Montreal, August 8–11,

10. For more on this see Jed Deppman, Daniel Ferrer, and Michael Groden, eds., Genetic Criticism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

11. See, e.g., in my own field Luc Herman and John M. Krafft, “Fast Learner: The Typescript of Pynchon’s V. at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 49, no. 1 (2007): 1–20,

12. Luigi Giuliani et al., eds., Texts in Multiple Versions: Histories of Editions (Amsterdam: Brill, 2006), v.

13. Bobbie Johnson, “Amazon Kindle Users Surprised by ‘Big Brother’ Move,” The Guardian, July 17, 2009, sec. Technology,

14. John Lavagnino, “Excerpted: Reading, Scholarship, and Hypertext Editions,” Journal of Electronic Publishing 3, no. 1 (1997):

15. A full concordance of all US and UK editions is beyond the scope of this chapter.

16. I also keep to this schema to remain in line with Martin Paul Eve, “‘You Have to Keep Track of Your Changes’: The Version Variants and Publishing History of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas,” Open Library of Humanities 2, no. 2 (2016): 1–34,

17. See, e.g., Anne Mangen, “Hypertext Fiction Reading: Haptics and Immersion,” Journal of Research in Reading 31, no. 4 (2008): 404–19,

18. Burghard Dedner, “Highlighting Variants in Literary Editions: Techniques and Goals,” in Texts in Multiple Versions: Histories of Editions, ed. Luigi Giuliani et al. (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006), 15–32.