Home » belles-lettres, criticism, Fiction

On the Bunny Slopes of Helicon

The Novel: An Alternative History – Beginnings to 1600

By Steven Moore
Continuum Books, 2010

When I first read B. R. Myers’ essay “A Reader’s Manifesto” in the July 2001 issue of The Atlantic, I thought, “this thing is going to stir up a lot of controversy.” Fiction critics are not usually the most coherent kind of scribes; they’re given to vapid hyperbole and comparing their subjects to different kinds of fruits or Hollywood movies (case in point: Michiko Kakutani is currently one of the most influential book-critics in the Western world, and she writes at about the level of a competent but over-caffeinated tenth grader – if you took the lazy idioms and game-playing similes out of her reviews, all you’d have left would be some dangling modifiers). And yet here was one in full possession of his faculties, writing in clear, sharp prose, and proceeding to lambaste a handful of the most popular literary novelists of the day for the crimes of pretension, obscurity, and bad writing. He had no rival novel of his own to push, nor was he of some esoteric school of stylistics – rather, he seemed to be just what he claimed: an outraged reader who’d finally had enough of the stilted, condescending prose coming from our so-called leading literary lights.

The essay did indeed stir up some controversy, both at the time and later when Myers made it into a book. His voice was soon joined by others occasionally daring to speak against the literary establishment, writers like Dale Peck, whose 2004 book Hatchet Jobs contained his infamous career-ending review of the novelist Rick Moody, and Jonathan Franzen, a writer of turgid, overpraised novels who decided, in a 2002 New Yorker article, to turn on his own. Peck, the wimp, has since sworn off negative reviewing, and Franzen, with a new hoping-to-be-overpraised novel coming out, has grown predictably chary about throwing stones at other people’s glass houses. But Myers is still going strong, writing gimlet-eyed essays for The Atlantic and the New York Times Book Review that never fail to make the folks at Yaddo want to burn him in effigy (and, every last one of them, describe the flames as “lambent”).

But surely Steven Moore’s new book The Novel: An Alternative History – Beginnings to the Present is the longest response Myers is ever likely to get – it’s 650 pages (plus an extensive bibliography) of angry flail-back, are very nearly as gimlet-eyed as Myers in its prose, every bit as entertaining, and very much more frustrating.

The entertaining part hits you right away and, amazingly, stays with the book for what amounts to a 600-page Wikipedia-style itemized plot breakdown of the some 200 or so works of literature he claims illustrate the long history of the novel. Moore is a former editor of the Dalkey Archive and a long-time champion of experimental fiction in all its various forms, as he enthuses here in no uncertain terms:

Give me fat novels stuffed with learning and rare words, lashed with purple prose and black humor; novels patterned after myths, the Tarot, the Stations of the Cross, a chessboard, a dictionary, an almanac, the genetic code, a game of golf, a night at the movies; novels with unusual layouts, paginated backward, or with sentences running off the edges, or printed indifferent colors, a novel on yellow paper, a wordless novel in woodcuts, a novel in first chapters, a novel in the form of an anthology, Internet postings or an auction catalog; huge novels that occupy a single day, slim novels that cover a lifetime; novels with footnotes, appendices, bibliographies, star charts, fold-out maps, or with a reading comprehension test or Q & A supplement at the end; novels peppered with songs, poems, lists, excommunications; novels whose chapters can be read indifferent sequences, or that have 150 possible endings; novels that are all dialogue, all footnotes, all contributors’ notes, or one long paragraph; novels that begin and end midsentence, novels in fragments, novels with stories within stories; towers of babble, slang, shoptalk, technical terms, sweet nothings; give me many-layered novels that erect a great wall of words for protection against the demons of delusion and irrationality at loose in the world …

Having enthusiasms that cover such a wide range allows Moore to haul in everything but the kitchen sink into his discussion, and that’s the main source of his book’s entertainment. Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller (with its “firking flantado amphibologies”) rubs elbows with William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat (1553, published in 1570 – about which Moore says, “The English novel has arrived, baby! Hail Britannia!”). We’re told of ancient works containing “bitchy remarks” and “home invasions.” Characters in Njal’s Saga “exchange witty barbs ala Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and Moore confesses that the reason he likes nikki monogatari as a name for novelistic diaries like that of Sei Shonagon is “because it sounds like the name of a Japanese pop idol.” He compares Saint Paul to Seinfeld’s George Costanza and the Irish hero Cu Chulainn to the Incredible Hulk. He summarizes part of the plot of the 16th century Chinese work of erotica, The Lord of Perfect Satisfaction, by mentioning “the imperial consort Wu Zetian’s roll call of lovers, including a commoner named Xue Aocao, still unmarried at the age of 30 because women are frightened of his enormous wang” – and then (in a move perhaps not surprising for an author who seems charmingly conversant in back issues of Asian Sex Gazette) footnotes it thus:

Xue is the author’s invention, one of the few departures from history. Xue becomes the moralizing author’s mouthpiece, so perhaps it’s not surprising the author would give him(self) a giant dong. Men!

Spotting a persistent trend in certain ancient Indian literature, he vents, “Again with the urine!” and he admits that his own impatience might at times prompt him to ignore good stuff. These are charming, humanizing elements, and they are all throughout the book. For instance, about Varavini’s Tales of Marzuban he writes that “although my bumper sticker reads I (heart) INGENIOUS IMAGERY, I suspect most modern readers would regard such ‘pearls’ as egregious examples of overwriting,” and even his frequent factual missteps have an endearing kind of gruff cluelessness to them, as when we’re told that the miscellany of observations, poetry, dramatized scenes, and lists of likes and dislikes we find in the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon superficially resemble “a modern teenage girl’s MyFace [sic, omg] profile.”

It should be noted that entertaining comments like these aren’t the book’s only persistent tic. There’s a weird one, and it’s as ubiquitous as it is discordant in a long work of literary history: Moore hates organized religion and, Richard Dawkins-like, misses no opportunity to tell us so. You’ll be reading his lively, engaging history of one ancient work of literature or another, and suddenly you’ll come across an odd declaration like this:

I’m not going to mock the Greek gods as I did the Jewish one because no one believes in them anymore and, more important, no one today legislates morality or conducts politics based on imagined mandates from Zeus.

And just as you’re wondering what a literary historian would be doing mocking any gods, you’ll find him calling Sufism and Buddhism “nonsense” (and elaborating: “Reincarnation – has there ever been a more pathetic religious notion than that? It’s yet another desperate denial of the finality of death”), or launching into full-blown arias of cant worthy (or un) of Christopher Hitchens:

Fear of/obsession with sex? Check. Disgust with the body and life itself? Check. Uncritical acceptance of a ‘sacred’ text? Check. Confusion of subjectivity with objectivity? Check. Self-absorption mistaken for selfishness? Check. Displacement of eros onto a paternal (and in this case homoerotic) fantasy figure? Check. Yep, it’s the usual religious bullshit.

There’s a difference between passionate conviction and intemperate froth, and once a writer indulges in the latter, his readers automatically – and justly – start to suspect that he might not really be capable of the former. It’s what’s made Dawkins and Hitchens (et al) seem vaguely stooge-like to a great many of their readers, and here it threatens to tar Moore with the same brush.

If we treat it as an odd, aberrant reflex that somehow escaped the editor’s pen, we can move on to Moore’s main point in The Novel: An Alternative History. That main point can be summed up briefly, as Moore himself does: self-consciously ‘literary’ fiction – fiction that makes unconventional choices in style, narration, even orthography – is more worthwhile than its more conventional counterparts.

In order to defend the ‘literary’ and ‘experimental’ (he uses the two terms as synonyms) novels decried by Myers, Peck, and Franzen (he dubs them ‘MPF’ and says they do stand-in duty for all such sniffing, dismissive, conservative readers) fiction he so loves from accusations of upstart tomfoolery, Moore must demonstrate that the avant garde is actually old enough to qualify as an Ancien Regime. The ‘history’ of his book’s title therefore starts not with the usual Cervantes-Richardson-Fielding paradigm he himself was taught in school but with ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and ancient everywhere else. He goes rummaging through these archives in search not only of things he can call novels but things he can proudly display as experimental novels, and he finds a boatload of them.

It’s easy to do if you fudge any possible definition of what a novel is. Moore takes all previous such definitions, puts them on the rack, and yanks them to such a point of dislocation that almost anything will qualify. Here his impatience crops up again – he opens a barn-door of rhetorical possibilities and then hurriedly, almost irritatedly waves in virtually every work of literature in the last 2000 years that isn’t by Pindar. Romances, sagas, stage-satires, pornography … Moore impatiently tells us the only reason the ancients didn’t call these things novels is because they didn’t know the word. Bestiaries, parodies, Elzabethan deportment-manuals, the Cyropaedia of Xenophon (even though it explicitly calls itself a “life” – doesn’t matter! Xenny baby was ancient! He didn’t know any better!), even Hebraic midrashim are called novels, with a cavalier re-writing of both “novels” and “midrashim”:

Any work about biblical characters could be called a midrash in that it expands up on the stories in the Bible by offering more details and background, deeper character analysis, and more authorial interpretation than given in the original. Joseph Heller’s outrageous novel about King David, God Knows (1984), could be called a midrash, though chances are it will never be studied in any yeshiva.

No indeed it won’t be, nor should it, since it’s not a midrash, any more than saying a man who just misses the subway and yells out “God, why do you hate me so?” is engaging in learned scriptural commentary. Moore is happy to quote the Elizabethan maxim that says “to grant one false proposition is to open the door to innumerable absurdities,” but he appears to consider his own mammoth work exempt. Ideo mirum quia monstrum he tells us proudly: it’s marvelous because it’s monstrous. But he makes no allowance for things that got to their marvelous state by other means; his conflation is much closer to “it’s monstrous, so it must be marvelous.”

There’s some fundamentally dodgy stuff going on here, and the fishy eye turns naturally to Moore – we begin to sense that our guide might indeed be blind. Certainly he makes it easy to doubt his literary judgement. Talking about his initial inspiration for this book, he remembers thinking, “Someone should write a comprehensive history of the novel, I thought, so that curious readers like me wouldn’t have to learn belatedly and haphazardly of such glories as the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.” The book in question is a 15th century romance by Francesco Colonna that might just qualify as a novel but most definitely contains no ‘glories’ of any kind (you get the very strong impression that Moore is only claiming them because he thinks none of his readers will be in a position to contradict him). Our author is loose and prodigal with such literary verdicts, and although he’s endlessly engaging, some of those verdicts don’t exactly inspire confidence in his insight. His take on Dante, for instance:

Poor Dante, that lovesick fool. It’s a shame most people, me included, read the Comedy without first (or ever) reading La Vita nuova, where it’s plain that the whole epic is a paean to unrequited love. Paradise is Beatrice’s smile, and the Celestial Rose that part of her he never got to enter.

Poor Dante indeed. If you can convince yourself that the whole of the Divine Comedy springs from frustrated lust, you’re not exactly the poem’s ideal reader. But even simplicities like this are more often than not compensated for by his springy, unaffected style (few books of this length and factual density are this much fun to read), whether he’s striking a much-needed note of balance:

We all know people who prefer to stick to the tried and true, who automatically reject anything that doesn’t conform to their pre-established tastes (or, more often, the pre-established tastes of their social group; such people are not exactly Ayn Randian pillars of individuality). These are the people who mock anything new because it is new, anything different because it is different. Of course it can be equally brainless to champion novelty merely for its own sake, to don and discard fads like a fashion slave. Just because something’s new and different doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good.

Or simply bashing the French (or at least their literary theorists):

I’m reluctant to cite any French literary theorists, for I hold them largely responsible for turning literary criticism into the laughingstock it’s become to most people outside the profession; 40 years ago they sashayed over like flirty foreign-exchange students and began seducing English and American critics into making fools of themselves.

Roland Barthes

Despite this reluctance, he cites one such French theorist anyway: he finds convenient Roland Barthes’ distinction between ‘readerly’ texts, which have conventional narratives with beginnings, middles, and ends that can be “passively consumed without much effort”) and ‘writerly’ texts, which are “more original” and “require some work on the reader’s part.” This taxonomy is crucial to Moore’s project, not only because he’s maintaining that ‘writerly’ texts – all of them novels, apparently, no matter what tradition or their own authors call them – have a 4,000 year heritage, but also because he badly wants to call ‘writerly’ works inherently superior to ‘readerly’ ones, even at the risk of looking like a fashion slave. This is the ‘alternative’ of his book’s subtitle – not just an alternative history of the novel, but a history of alternative novels. And the whole thing would be a lot more effective if it were a little more honest.

Instead, the book is full of tricks. A few obvious ones would only add to the fun (what writer on top of his game can refrain from a trick here or there, after all?), but these are the other kind of trick, the kind meant not to engage but to dupe. Moore starts out disingenuously enough, sounding a genuine note of earnestness when talking about the gap between ‘writerly’ works (which he often calls ‘literature’) and ‘readerly’ ones (which get lumped together as ‘mainstream’):

Reading Joyce, Barth, Pynchon, et al. is a treat, not a task; nor is it something one does (unless you’re a poseur) just to claim bragging rights afterward: at your next social gathering, try announcing you’ve just finished Hermann Broch’s Death of Virgil and see how far that gets you. These novels are admittedly not for everyone, but they are for some of us …

Relativistic enough so far as it goes (although that caution against posing might be observed by our author, who spends his entire book calling various translations from the Aramaic, Finnish, Gaelic, and Sumerian “excellent” or “poor” and then later admits he has “only a little Spanish and a soupcon of French”), and there’s plenty of good experienced thought behind his elaboration:

The difference between mainstream fiction and literature is what their writers do with words; the former places its emphasis on the story rather than the language used to tell that story; in literature, the language is the story; the story is primarily a vehicle for a linguistic display of the writer’s rhetorical abilities.

But that doesn’t go far enough, and obviously Moore doesn’t feel he can push it any further by straightforward means – this is the point where he starts throwing spitballs. He wants to champion one kind of novel-writing over all others, and at first he’s willing to say simply ‘some of us’ like experimental, unconventional fiction, it’s OK if you don’t, but here’s what you’re missing, here’s what you want to think about. But that doesn’t stay good enough, and soon invidious implications start creeping in (along with that persistent tinny note of anti-religion):

I would argue further that this should be the lifelong goal of every intelligent person: to see through the polite lies promulgated by political, corporate, media, and religious entities, the often irrational customs, beliefs, and prejudices of one’s social group … to arrive at a clear understanding of the true nature of things. This is why the novel is invaluable, for more than any other art form it encourages and assists us on that goal. Traditionally, the sacred scriptures of various cultures have claimed that prerogative, but they are merely fictions of a different sort – giving a false view of the world and promoting repression – inferior to the “secular scriptures” of imaginative literature.

The implications adhering to this are silent but deadly: that novels leaving unquestioned – or even upholding – some or all of those ‘polite lies’ aren’t capable of being intelligent, and that readers who like such books are somehow failing in the lifelong goal of all right-thinking people. In other words, there’s a moral element edging in here (despite how roundly Moore criticizes the great fiction critic John Gardner, to say nothing of his dreaded MPF, for introducing that same element), and as with a certain breed of political huckster, Moore does most of his hinting by slightly skewing his vocabulary. It’s a truth well known to the worst kind of trial lawyer: there’s a world of difference between “do you beat your wife?” and “when did you stop beating your wife?” Moore soon grows impatient with his initial choice of adjective:

‘Difficulty’ is the wrong word; a better one is ‘complexity.’ Writers like Joyce and Gaddis planned their novels on an ambitious scale – cathedrals, not trailer homes – and probably knew that with every new level of complexity they added, they would lose a few more readers.

You can hear the flat note right off, yes? It’s that jab about trailer homes – an ostensibly minor detail that actually makes the staggeringly evil implication that poverty equals stupidity. And Moore isn’t content to keep it minor. “Are you reader enough for difficult fiction?” he asks, and then helpfully provides a few test questions to help you determine just how much of a reader you are. One of those questions is this:

You got to a club hoping for some good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll, but instead of a long-haired band there’s a bald DJ spinning some techno-ambient concoction unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. Do you:

a) Cry “I don’t understand any of this” and burst into tears?

Or

b) Let the music wash over you, let yourself find the pulse, maybe even ask the purple-haired girl in the striped tights to dance?

This is bad, admittedly, and mighty hypocritical of an author who spends a great deal of this long book aggressively stamping down his likes and dislikes. There’s no hint in the actual narration of The Novel: An Alternative History that we’re in the presence of a hey-ho free-former who doesn’t care how his time is spent as long as he’s got stuff washing over him. Quite the contrary: at one point he says if he went to a Tom Jones concert and didn’t hear “What’s New, Pussycat?” he’d demand his money back. But it gets worse:

You’ve had enough of the big city and decide to return home. Waiting for a bus, you pick up a discarded copy of Larva and, because you have a long bus-ride ahead of you, begin reading. You quickly discover it is not a conventional novel. Do you:

a) Discard it and stare out the window all the way home?

b)

That’s not just bad, it’s iniquitous, and it’s flyblown with dirty tricks. You’ve had enough of the big city = you’re a hick (and a weakling); you’re waiting for a bus = you’re too poor to own a car (and perhaps too stupid to drive one); you pick up a discarded copy of Larva = you’re too poor to buy a copy; and finally, the lack of any intelligent alternative to doing exactly what Moore wants you to do = a cheap bit of manipulation. This kind of gratuitous audience-denigration forcibly reminds the reader again of Dawkins, Hitchens, et al – any reader coming at this with a neutral mind frame is going to think what I thought: if you have to stack the deck like that, you can’t be very sure of your game.

But the heart of that game, the defense of ‘difficult’ fiction (I categorically refuse to agree with ‘complex’ as a synonym here – Pride and Prejudice is not in any sense a ‘difficult’ novel, but would even Moore dare to say it’s not complex? It’s a foolish critic indeed who so unwittingly bets against the deceptive calm of Jane Austen – she’ll win every time), must come down to specifics, and Moore knows this. He recognizes at least enough of B.R. Myers’ probity to know he can’t defuse it with generalities, no matter how enthusiastically voiced. So he gives us a case in point, and we’ll indulge in following it to the end.

The case in point is a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses, in which two young ranch hands have had too much to drink and stop their horses in order to vomit. Here’s what McCarthy wrote:

By dark the storm had slacked and the rain had almost ceased. They pulled the wet saddles off the horses and hobbled them and walked of in separate directions through the chaparral to stand spraddlelegged clutching their knees and vomiting. The browsing horses jerked their heads up. It was no sound they’d ever heard before. In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool.

This is the famous drubbing Myers gives it in A Reader’s Manifesto:

It is a rare passage in a rare book that can make you look up, wherever you may be, and wonder if you are being subjected to a diabolically thorough Candid Camera prank. I can just go along with the idea that horses might mistake human retchings for the call of a wild animal. But “wild animals” isn’t epic enough; McCarthy must blow smoke about “some rude provisional species,” as if your average quadruped had table manners and a pension plan. Then he switches from the horses’ perspective to the narrator’s, though just what “something imperfect and malformed” refers to is unclear. The last half-sentence only deepens the confusion. Is the “thing smirking in the eyes of grace” the same thing that is “lodged in the heart of being”? And what is a gorgon doing in a pool? Or is it peering into it? And why autumn pool? I doubt even McCarthy can explain any of this; he just likes the way it sounds.

And here’s Moore, defending the choices of a ‘difficult’ author he admits he’s read nothing of except this one book:

…it’s obvious what he’s doing here. All the Pretty Horses has its comic moments, and when it comes to describing a hangover, every writer feels at liberty to have some fun with it. They will reach for the most ludicrous simile they can find …

The paragraph starts with some sequential alliteration (storm/slacked/ceased), and narratively winks at the reader with the clownish adverb “spraddlelegged,” hinting at the fun to come. The boys’ vomiting is enough to attract the attention of the horses, but the point of view doesn’t change there (I don’t know why Myers thinks it does; and witness his feeble attempt to get a laugh out of it). McCarthy, not the horses, comically compares the sound of their retching to the calls of some prehistoric species to underscore how wretched the boys feel.

… now, the money shot … yes, Mr. Myers, the “thing smirking in the eyes of grace” is the same thing that is “lodged in the heart of being.” It’s an extended metaphor – “retchings” become the “calls of some rude provisional species” that lodge themselves in and thus profane the “heart of being,” just as a “rude provisional species” like a gorgon would profane with its presence an autumn pool. The “imperfect” gorgon is the perfect literary equivalent to a stomach-emptying, chaparral-echoing retch.

Moore claims not to know what “McCarthy specialists” make of the passage in question (he needn’t have advertised his amateur status in all things McCarthy if he thinks the notoriously prickly author would enjoy having one of his similes called “ludicrous”), but he certainly does a good job approximating the kind of slop they’d come up with. Not only does his simile leg itself into a metaphor in mid-spraddle, but his pronouncements do nothing to shore up the enormous weaknesses of the original passage. If anything, Myers is being too gentle – he refrains from pointing out that McCarthy inexplicably has his characters hobbling their wet saddles. And he doesn’t think the point of view changes – his ‘feeble’ joke derives from the fact that in the passage as McCarthy ineptly wrote it, we are inside the horses’ perceptions in the fourth sentence – it’s the most natural thing in the world to assume those perceptions carry over to the fifth sentence, and it’s a very common, very pedestrian lazy-author mistake not to guard your sentence-constructions against just that kind of misstep. McCarthy’s books are absolutely jammed with semi-written passages just like that one, and Myers is right: they yank your head right up off the page.

Moore tells us that he himself has written two novels (one unpublished, one unfinished), and he assures us, “there’s nothing like writing a novel yourself to sharpen your appreciation for those who do it well.” And yet he praises Mark Leyner’s infamous, odious line, “It’s because I want every little surface to shimmer and gyrate that I haven’t patience for those lax transitional devices of plot, setting, character, and so on, that characterize a lot of traditional fiction.” So there’s a big question mark over that ‘do’ and an even bigger one over that ‘well.’

First things first: just what are we talking about here? Moore’s gambit throughout this book – that racking of definitions, that Noah’s Ark of categorical inclusions, ushered on board two-by-two – is as phony as it is arbitrary. It’s one thing for Moore to champion the merits of ‘experimental’ fiction (Lord knows it needs ardent champions, considering how badly most of it stinks up the room) – it’s certainly always a joy to see William Gaddis or John Barth given the credit they’re due. But it’s quite another to turn the entire canon of human literature into silly putty in an attempt to score some quick legitimacy. Moore spends many frantic paragraphs recounting all the various poets and songwriters in the past 200 years who’ve jotted something down on a party napkin and called it a novel, but he needn’t have bothered. If Michael Chabon published his dream-diaries and called them an epic poem, we’d all ignore him, and we’d be right to; who in their right mind cares a fig how authors categorize their work? If authors had any genuine talent for categorization, they’d be accountants. Authors are nitwits – that’s what makes them holy; it’s the critic’s job to determine categories. And a critic like Moore, who’s so lost in his pet theory that he’s willing to throw all categories to the wind, does neither writers nor readers any good service.

I read books for a living, and a hefty number of those books are novels. I know what a novel is, and I’d bet my last basset hound Moore does too (at one point, when discussing an obscure Buddhist text – after once again scorning Buddhism itself, of course – he disqualifies it for ‘novel’ status, saying “we have to draw the line somewhere”). It’s not hard, but it does exclude medieval falconry manuals and ancient Egyptian recipe books. A novel is a coherent prose narrative that’s too long to be read comfortably in one sitting. Eighteen words instead of 700 pages – anticlimactic, I know, but there’s such a thing as making a mountain out of a molehill. If the book in question doesn’t tell (or want to tell) a coherent narrative, it isn’t a novel (Dosvidanya, Russian saints’ lives! Sayonara, Japanese tactical exercises! Shalom, all you midrashim!). If the book in question isn’t in prose, it isn’t a novel (sorry, Ariosto, Burgess, and Seth – your respective books are actually poems again, better luck next time). And if the book in question is sixty, sixteen, or six pages long, it isn’t a novel (don’t forget to send us a postcard, all you chapbook crowd! You can probably fit a whole something on one, but it won’t be a novel). These things aren’t difficult, and when Moore muddies the waters to make them seem difficult, he obscures his own points more than anything else.

Because he has a point beyond taxonomy, and it deals with ecstasy. “The novel,” he tells us, “is essentially a delivery system for aesthetic bliss,” and you have to admire an author who can make such an unreconstructedly visceral declaration. We read novels, Moore believes, “for the same reason we might go to the opera or the ballet: to be dazzled by a performance.”

I couldn’t agree more. But then the tricks start up again:

Only in literature, however, is difficulty considered a fault rather than a virtue … In diving competitions and gymnastics, ratings depend on the degree of difficulty. Magicians who pull off difficult feats get more applause than the guy who merely pulls a rabbit out of a hat, as do jugglers who keep a dozen objects in the air rather than two or three oranges. Experienced climbers and skiers prefer the challenge of a difficult mountain over an easy one; for a good golfer, a “difficult” course is an exciting one … But when it comes to literature, many readers want to be spoon-fed; they want the bunny slope rather than the challenging one, miniature golf rather than the real thing. No wonder movies usually portray bookish types as pansies.

In equating show with substance, this could scarcely be more boneheaded – and it’s misguided too: most writers of ‘experimental’ fiction don’t show us the virtuosity of the expert skier or the master magician … instead, they just plop the wand and the top hat on the blank page and wait for us to applaud. There’s a tawdry little secret all novelists know and virtually none will discuss openly: the hardest thing in the world to do, the true equivalent of the challenging mountain here, is to create a fully-realized fictional world, people it with believable characters living their lives in front of us, and bring the whole thing to a conclusion – often hundreds of pages later – that’s both intelligible and moving. And by contrast, it’s the easiest thing in the world to simply declare such an exercise invalid, ala Leyner, so you can concentrate your wispy little powers of creation on the filigreed bits of decoration. The true scandal of the avant garde isn’t their belligerence, it’s just plain old incompetence.

That avant garde now has an ambitious Bible in The Novel: An Alternative History, a book that’s entirely better than its subject. Buy a copy. Deconstruct its arguments with your friends. Debate its points late into the night, over wine, pulling books off your shelves and reading passages back and forth to each other. But don’t neglect your Fielding, your Trollope, your Wharton. Bliss is there as well, for those who don’t mind fine writing. And if you happen to catch Moore off-guard and find him snuggled up with a dog-eared copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, don’t be too hard on him: even prophets need some mainstream enjoyment now and then.

____
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.

13 Comments »

  • Chuck Darwin says:

    Splendid review, Steve. Mrs. Proudie would approve! This book caught my eye at the Booksmith last weekend, and I’ll definitely pick up a copy when it comes out in paperback, but my enthusiasm has dwindled a bit as the days have passed.

    It’s great to find a fellow B.R. Myers fan. I still get goosebumps when I recall his skewering of “Tree of Smoke” in the Atlantic a couple of years ago. It appears his detractors outnumber his supporters in the blogosphere, as I see he is labeled “dyspeptic”, “whiny”, “prissy” and “ignorant” by droves of “Tree of Smoke” defenders. Oh well, I find his criticism bracing, witty and remarkably lucid. His new book on North Korea is terrific as well.

    Thanks for the excellent work!

  • James says:

    Well, your review takes Mr. Moore’s book seriously and with an intact sense of humor, so all credit for that. I have to take issue with some of your remarks, though.

    You write:

    Talking about his initial inspiration for this book, he remembers thinking, “Someone should write a comprehensive history of the novel, I thought, so that curious readers like me wouldn’t have to learn belatedly and haphazardly of such glories as the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.” The book in question is a 15th century romance by Francesco Colonna that might just qualify as a novel but most definitely contains no ‘glories’ of any kind (you get the very strong impression that Moore is only claiming them because he thinks none of his readers will be in a position to contradict him).

    Whether or not Colonna’s work contains glories is for its readers to decide, but I can’t see how anyone could come away from The Novel: An Alternative History with the impression that Moore is being disingenuous about his claims. Rather than trusting that the Hypnerotomachia will remain mostly unread and that he can’t be contradicted, he nearly begs for it to be purchased and explored. And he repeatedly cites what he finds most glorious about it, quoting liberally and expressing a hope that “Colonna’s trilingual vocabulary” could be translated in an even more baroque fashion:

    [Colonna] never uses one adjective where two will do, is overly fond of the superlative case and classical allusions, and loves to spin out long, grammatically complex sentences. A typical one reads: “On this horrid and sharp-stoned shore, in this miserable region of the icy and foetid lake, stood fell Tisiphone, wild and cruel with her vipered locks and implacably angry at the wretched and miserable souls who were falling by the hordes from the iron bridge on to the eternally frozen lake.” . . . But this swatch of purple prose is actually a pale imitation of the original; as Godwin points out in the introduction to his translation, an accurate re-creation . . . would read: “In this horrid and cuspidinous littoral and most miserable site of the algent and fetorific lake stood saevious Tisiphone, efferal and cruel with her viperine capillament, her meschine and miserable soul, implacably furibund . . . .” Now I may be one of the few readers who wishes the entire novel had been translated this way–that is, faithfully . . . .

    Disagree with Moore’s assessment as you may, but he’s not being at all coy about the nature of the work at hand. Neither is he “iniquitous” or “hypocritical” when he challenges readers to try to appreciate experimental literature. TN:AH definitely does this, but you neglected to mention that the multiple-choice questionnaire you used as your main example of his allegedly overly aggressive style isn’t really part of the argument in his book, but is instead extracted from ad copy that he wrote years earlier. The tone and content of that ad (which you somewhat bizarrely overinterpret into a classist swipe at poor people) aren’t good characterizations of the tone and content of the work as a whole.

    I do agree that Moore’s continual lobbying in favor of secularism does occasionally threaten to imbalance the book, and I say that as someone who is as personally anti-religious as they come. That the history of the novel is the history of humanist scripture is an essential part of his argument, I think, and I wouldn’t want to be without it, but if there’s snideness in his book, that’s where you’ll find it.

    While I do appreciate how hard it must have been to be evenhanded in this review, Mr. Donoghue, the conclusion of your piece seems to show how fundamentally unsympathetic you are to Mr. Moore’s aims:

    [M]ost writers of ‘experimental’ fiction don’t show us the virtuosity of the expert skier or the master magician … instead, they just plop the wand and the top hat on the blank page and wait for us to applaud. There’s a tawdry little secret all novelists know and virtually none will discuss openly: the hardest thing in the world to do, the true equivalent of the challenging mountain here, is to create a fully-realized fictional world, people it with believable characters living their lives in front of us, and bring the whole thing to a conclusion – often hundreds of pages later – that’s both intelligible and moving. . . . The true scandal of the avant garde isn’t their belligerence, it’s just plain old incompetence.

    Writing experimentally doesn’t preclude creating a fully-realized fictional world or believable characters, and it certainly doesn’t preclude being intelligible or moving. Conversely, writing in the more direct way that I think you’re imagining isn’t any more “real” than the more performative style that Mr. Moore promotes. And how did we go from talking about “most writers of experimental fiction”–already an overreach–to suggesting the avant garde is incompetent in its entirety?

    It’s completely unsupported to claim that writing a realistic novel is the hardest thing in the world to do, but it’s completely ridiculous to say that this assertion is a “tawdry little secret” that isn’t openly discussed–the majority of the book reviewers left in this country would nod right along with you. Shades of FOX News griping about being the lone voice of political conservatism heard through the wilderness.

    I hope it doesn’t sound as if I’m painting the tar on too thick. I don’t think you were completely fair in your review, but you weren’t entirely unbalanced.

  • Konstantin says:

    Thank you for an engaging review – I haven’t read Moore’s book, but your assessment seems a fair-minded one. I do just want to say, though, that your 18 word definition of the novel strikes me as rather simplistic, handy, and, indeed, one must draw the line somewhere, but literary historians can’t get away with that kind of (frankly) laxity. Prose is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a novel, and some of the foremost thinkers of the form (Bakthin, Lukacs) have made the argument for including verse works, eg. Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” or Byron’s “Don Juan” (and I would certainly add Vikram Seth’s novel). Also, you avoid fully acknowledging (though you snipe) Moore’s salutary acknowledgement of the properly ancient genealogy of the novel form – the novel did not begin in the English 18th century, nor did Cervantes invent it. Bakthin (and a host of classicist scholarship) certainly stressed the historical importance of the greek adventure novel, re-covered in the Renaissance to huge and lasting impact, and the Menippean satire, while critics like Todorov have stressed the continuities of the form with medieval chivalric novels, many of them in prose (and to which, in part, Don Quixote represents a riposte). These are novels, by any coherent definition. Also, Western readers are becoming increasingly aware of a Chinese novel-writing tradition that stretches back hundreds and hundreds of years, and which reaches its pinnacle with the “Big Six” novels of classical Chinese literature, from the 14th Century “Journey to the West” to the 18th Century “Dream of the Red Chamber”, not to mention the middle eastern novels appearing during the European Middle Ages. A wonderful survey of the novel’s diverse historic and polygenetic origins can be found in Franco Moretti’s recent edited collection, which runs over two volumes and two-thousand pages, simply entitled “The Novel”. (Moretti is a Professor at Stanford University and the founder of the Stanford “Centre for the Study of the Novel” – he actually is serious). The novel is a complex and sprawling beast, and it is high time that we break with the limited and limiting assumptions about the form, that we have all ultimately imbibed from Ian Watt’s “The Rise of the Novel”, and which can only serve to stifle our reading enjoyment, and our literary creativity.

  • Robert Nagle says:

    I’m about 100 pages into the book and enjoying it. Generally the tics you point out don’t bother me because I accept the fact that a longish treatment of a genre is going to belabor a few points and overstate a case for emphasis.

    By the way, I like to compare this book with another book I cherish Martin Seymour-Smith’s New Guide to Modern World Literature . I like the quirky individual judgments and the individual sensibility being expressed (even if I recognize that these snap judgments are a little too glib in places).

    By the way, keep in mind that the quiz in the introduction was originally part of a tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign? Let’s not take it too seriously.

    But a worthy review of a worthy book. This book has helped me to discover lots of new works and genres. And I’ve only gotten started.

  • Mr.Minny says:

    Those ‘ticks’ are vice vermin venting very voiceless vanquishing thee thinks’ so?
    My bother’s whether receiving isn’t better than clueless capers in the nightmares of thines self.
    In this case it’s that which affords even clueless speculations above all; I can’t think..
    Instead; however, one’s no doubt the efforts’ aimed well.
    I can’t debate with a reviewer who’s obviously translucent in detailed dilligence, thus the clueless diviner of difficult deeds.
    Great review!

  • Jeff Bursey says:

    Steve Donoghue, hello. First, thanks for taking the time and space to consider Steven Moore’s book. You did much better than Denis Donoghue in the _Wall Street Journal_ in mid-May.

    Second, I know Moore, so you may think what follows is special pleading. Third, I also write book reviews for a variety of publications, and I try and find new books that will get ignored by most presses, choosing small publishers and experimental (more on that word in a moment) writers.

    Fourth, my first book, _Verbatim: A Novel_, is due out in the fall up here in canada and is told in lists, letters and political debates. It will likely be considered experimental. So I might be seen as being on that side in this discussion.

    The experimental novel is as capable, as someone above indicated, as any other of conveying emotion, providing strong characters, and so forth. While I think ‘experimental’ is a disastrous term – exploratory might be better – we’re stuck with it. Alexandra Chasin’s _Kissed By_ is a recent example of a fine work (of short pieces) that combines humour, compassion, and a good sense of what makes (some) people tick. But there are numerous other ‘experimental’ works that are as awful as Franzen’s _The Corrections_, Alice Munro’s short stories, and other mainstream, often realist, works. In my opinion. And it’s only an opinion. Others will strongly disagree. But it’s true that story is less important than how something is told for most writers who are categorized as ‘experimental.’

    In review outlets that reach a wide public mainstream novels are far more represented than novels that aren’t. You can read numerous summaries of the latest P. Roth book, but you wouldn’t find nearly as many reviews of the late David Markson’s works. Works like Markson’s get so little press, but a Dale Peck comes along and wants to deny them even that. The republic of letters seems to be afraid of the influence that ‘experimental’ novels (and their creators) may have.

    Moore’s book provides some reasons for that division, which I find you skate over a bit–though you only have so much space; readers of your review might benefit from reading his Introduction–and he draws solid lines back to much earlier roots than the 18th century english novel. Many of us were raised to believe the novel came from there while wondering why other books we read–for me it was _Njaal’s Saga_–weren’t considered novels by the english critics. Why the exclusion? Why the hidebound (as I came to see it) definition on the part of some critics of what makes a novel a novel?

    You write: “Authors are nitwits – that’s what makes them holy; it’s the critic’s job to determine categories.” Authors aren’t nitwits, unless you really believe that, as examples, Dostoyevsky, Melville, Queneau, and John Cowper Powys fit that description. If they did, could they write even a grocery list? A quick survey of their lives will prove they aren’t holy. (Who is? And since you mention Moore’s attacks on religion, I definitely need more from you on what constitutes holiness.) And the critic’s job? Many writers are critics (Musil, Paul West and John Barth spring to mind; so does Stephen King), so how do you reconcile this?

    While I do appreciate some of your points, others are over-stated like you say some of Moore’s are (and some of his points are), and some are conventional. For instance, the form of the novel never ceases to change, but some people resist that. It’s not up to critics to determine what a novel is, though. Novelists do. Fact is, the novel, the sonnet, to use just two examples, are made up categories (Nigel Fabb made this point a few years ago), and these categories are fictional things in themselves. They weren’t handed down on stone tablets, but some people believe they are holy writ. People created the romance, haiku, expressionist drama, and people will re-create them, transform them, and expand the definitions critics like to insist on. A critic can’t keep throwing up sandbags to make sure that river stays in its bed. A critic has to stand back and describe how the river moves.

    Moore’s book shows how some of what we were taught has to be discarded. He is speaking against the many voices who praise the mainstream novel and ignore or, at times, spectacularly disparage the many other novels that exist. Of course his book has its flaws–every book will, to someone or other–and it is provocative. Generally, these are good things. If _The Novel_ stopped there, then it would have limited value. But it speaks to many about world literature–not a big topic in most book review sections–and summarizes complex books from long ago up to 1600 A.D. It introduced me to many writers or novels I’d not heard of. (And Moore is backed up, as shown in the citations, in calling this or that book a novel by those who’ve edited it or translated it. Much of the time it’s not just his opinion.) There is immense value to that. We broaden our minds by learning about what other people in other countries and times considered important or interesting (or just plain fun) to write about. For these reasons, _The Novel_ is very much worth picking up, by anyone interested in the history of literature.

    Again, your review sparked comment, and that’s what a good review does. So thanks for it.

    Jeff

  • ojimenez says:

    Wow! I’m not a scholar. I’m not a student. I’m not a critic or a writer of novels; heck, I’m not even a native English speaker! yet I enjoyed reading this review, and the comments that follow it. I must confess, tough, that I have corresponded with Mr. Moore (via email, briefly) before I began reading TN:AH; when I found his comments about a Mr. David Foster Wallace, (my favorite [now you also know where I stand on the experimental, exploratory, etc novel]..) on a website, so I’m somewhat biased.

    Mr. Donoghue, et. al.: all points well taken. All-in-all, a good discussion. Yet, I sense a hint of elitist pontificating (now there’s a pejorative word) on all sides of the argument. I like that Mr. Moore’s book has not forgotten “the common reader,” at least in style and construction of his book: I actually laughed out loud (LOL) when reading it. Yes, I did feel the “nail-on-blackboard effect” here, and there; but this is turning out to be a damn enjoyable history of the novel. (The pesky term: “NOVEL” still conjures up visions of forgot-to-finish-the-required-reading-before-class, goose pimples in me, yet Mr. Moore’s book is unfolding as the perfect antidote for the “heebie jeebies.” )

    I guess I’m just pleading to the “common reader” when I say that folks interested in an erudite, yet fun history of the novel should run, not walk to the nearest book store to get Mr. Moore’s book, and not wait for the pesky paper back!

    Cheers!
    ojimenez

  • Chris says:

    I find this review largely unpersuasive, and it fails, in my view, to come to terms with Moore’s actual arguments.

    “There’s a tawdry little secret all novelists know and virtually none will discuss openly: the hardest thing in the world to do, the true equivalent of the challenging mountain here, is to create a fully-realized fictional world, people it with believable characters living their lives in front of us, and bring the whole thing to a conclusion – often hundreds of pages later – that’s both intelligible and moving.”

    Is that not precisely what James Joyce was attempting to do when he wrote Ulysses? As the ultimate Ulysses lover, Moore’s hardly going to quarrel with you there. His point, however, is that the MANNER in which this “fully-realized fictional world” is disseminated to the reader is not necessarily going to be along the lines B.R Myers or Dale Peck demand. They aggressively demand a very particular sort of minimalist prose, and the Myers and Pecks of Joyce’s and Faulkner’s day levelled the same complaints against THEM as these gentleman level against Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, or Thomas Pynchon, or whoever else writes the “wrong” kind of book in their estimation.

    (And by the way, I’ve read all of McCarthy, and plenty of Faulkner and Bellow, and while I’ve disliked some of McCarthy’s novels, he certainly does not lapse into overwrought, overwritten purple prose any more frequently than Faulkner or Bellow do. So what justifies Myers’ ridicule of McCarthy while simultaneously giving props to the other two? The answer is: nothing. Myers ridicules All the Pretty Horses, but even he concedes McCarthy’s first novel is very well-written. He might have added that other novels by McCarthy like Blood Meridian are also very well-written, and the excellent paragraphs in McCarthy greatly outnumber the lapses and blunders. Faulkner and Bellow, likewise, won major literary awards for some mediocre, or worse, novels, but that doesn’t alter the truth they also wrote some great books. So what is Myers’ point other than to simply vent? He has no real point.)

    Secondly, Moore – while not objecting to “characters living their lives in front of us” – also recognizes that this isn’t the only thing the novel was designed to do. The novel – that is to say, imaginative prose fiction of a particular length – has always had many mansions, not just one. Northrop Frye realized the same thing half a century ago, which is why he tried to divide fiction into multiple forms: the novel, the romance, the anatomy, the confession. Each in their own way, Frye and Moore were trying (and succeeding) in defending the variegated forms of the novel against the rigid, narrow strictures of the James Wood/B.R. Myers type of overbearing literary scold. Gravity’s Rainbow and Love in the Time of Cholera have just as much right to exist as Caleb Williams (an early suspense novel Myers lauds). I suspect Myers simply doesn’t like digressive fictions – he prefers streamlined suspense fiction, thrillers and melodramas and so forth – and is rationalizing his arbitrary preferences as if they were some set-in-stone objective truth. They’re not, and Moore shows exactly why not.

  • rascherR duB says:

    To begin: who gives an airborne fornication who reads what? All this unseemly jibber-jabber over taste in writing — let’s read according to our own lights (augmented by recommendations from respected fellow readers); we can compare our impressions later. In fact, it is the subsequent discussion and comparing of impressions, not the writers, that matter.

    I loathe the way art gets turned into a contest (such as: who can write the knottiest, most dislocated prose?; which industrial band or contemporary composer makes the most “difficult” music?; which new visual artists represent the most up-to-date anti-art stance?). Novels, music, painting are not competitions, which is why we tend not to think of them in terms of diving, skiing and displays of magic, where setting records and oneupsmanship is one of the primary objectives. Inasmuch as an artist wants to set records or emphasize his/her own uniqueness, that artist’s real area of endeavor is marketing.

    Of course, many artists, writers and composers do want fame. They want to know that they have penetrated the consciousness, that they will be remembered. Some do this by severe craftsmanship, some by unhinged audacity. A banal observation.

    One might read “Gravity’s Rainbow” with awe, yet find “The Crying of Lot 49″ lightweight. No one possessed of real insight adheres to an ideological program of consistent enjoyment with regard to reading. If I hear someone gush with self-congratulatory discrimination, “Oh, I only read certain types of books,” I immediately tune that person out.

    Why laud a foolish consistency? It is possible to love Gaddis but not give a fig for D.F. Wallace. What’s with these blinkered critics who have nothing better to do than invoke a new canon that nobody asked for and nobody wants?

    Just because “Finnegan’s Wake” is more scriptible than “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is no reason to automatically elevate it to some laughably rarefied height (that exists only in the critic’s imagination). No need for polemics whereby one demonstrates one’s good faith by trumpeting a credo of “I only read certain books, I only listen to certain music.”

    Anyone who can’t equally esteem The Beatles, Bartok, Ornette Coleman, Duke Ellington, Throbbing Gristle and Tom T. Hall is an idiot. The same applies to one’s appreciation of writers. Intelligence is demonstrated as much by range as by depth.

    Praise Joyce’s last book for audacity and verbal pyrotechnics, to be sure, and glad we all are that he wrote it, but that was the culmination of Joyce’s own fascinating, gratuitous path — and that does not make it an exemplar of anything other than his audacity.

    To those who go around preening and declaiming “I only love the experimental stuff”: fine, thanks, here’s the latest by Jacques Roubaud, go sit in a corner and shut up. The notion of “experimental literature” has no connotative value. Experimental literature is an empty suit. As Gertrude Stein put it: real writers don’t experiment; they know what they’re doing.

    Yes, Steve Moore, some folks love a strong dram of verbal-textual audacity, but that is not the only, nor is it the quintessential excellence to be found in novel-writing and novel-reading.

    Avant-garde literature has been, and remains, a bourgeois ornament. The avant-garde has never broken up the pre-conceptions of everyday life; it has never shaken up the world except among its relatively small coterie of admirers and literature departments. The obsession with descriptive ostentation and digressive curlicues is in fact an insidious form of escapism, a comfortable womb-like niche to crawl into, a slumbrous pouch infused with the amniotic fluid of la jouissance du texte.

    According to Mallarme, a roll of the dice will never abolish chance. I say, a groaning board of the clever John Barth will never abolish the ascescence of Chester Himes.

    Many thanks to the reviewers who saw through Moore’s posturing and puffery.

  • Chris says:

    “I loathe the way art gets turned into a contest (such as: who can write the knottiest, most dislocated prose?; which industrial band or contemporary composer makes the most “difficult” music?; which new visual artists represent the most up-to-date anti-art stance?).”

    Good for you – none of this has any relevance to anything Moore actually wrote. If anyone is guilty of turning writing into a contest, it’s not Moore but the overbearing literary scolds Moore argues against: Dale Peck, B.R. Myers et al. Take up your complaints with them, not Moore – they’re the ones who “laid down the law” in print – demanding the abolishing of the avant-garde. Somehow you’ve managed to get this entire debate ass-backwards.

    And Gertrude Stein and Mallarme were experimental, avant-garde stylists, no matter what they called themselves. So I’m not sure what point you think you’re making by citing them.

  • rascherR duB says:

    The word “experimental” when applied to writing is a misnomer and a conceit. The implication that artists are neutral investigators belies a kind of science envy (one that art shares with religion these days). Still, to call a work “experimental” is handy because it allows mediocre work to escape criticism, as the “experimental” nature of the work can always be chalked up to ongoing research or the complexity inherent in problem-solving.

    The notion of an “experimental” novel is a huge conceit, as is the so-called “difficult” or “complex” novel – is Infinite Jest really more complex than Middlemarch? The designation “experimental” belongs to the realm of marketing, not aesthetics.

    I thought Moore’s staunch defense for the likes of J R and Darconville’s Cat against the depredations of the villainous Peck et cie rather overblown. Then again, with such overbearing literary scolds menacing the ludic rights of the imagination, I may as well join in and cheer: fight on, Moore, mon preux chevalier! May you and your recusant lot rout the realists from the fields with your aposematic linguistic displays and your sesquipedalian rhetorical abilities!

    Gaddis in The Recognitions wrote: “Homoiousian or Homoousian, that was the question . . . the fate of the Christian church hung on a diphthong.” Moore in his spat over style makes the fate of the novel hang on a false dichotomy: scriptible versus lisible.

  • Chris says:

    “The notion of an “experimental” novel is a huge conceit, as is the so-called “difficult” or “complex” novel – is Infinite Jest really more complex than Middlemarch? The designation “experimental” belongs to the realm of marketing, not aesthetics.”

    And the notion of “poetry” as opposed to “prose is also a conceit. Nobody has ever been able to offer a definition of “poetry” that everyone can agree on or that satisfies all – that doesn’t make the conceit useless, even if there are no hard and fast divisions and even if the demarcations are ghostly.

    Did Moore claim Infinite Jest was a greater achievement than Middlemarch? No. So your point is irrelevant. Myers, on the other hand, DID claim that Louis L’Amour is a better writer than Cormac McCarthy. Moore also says he doesn’t like all “experimental” writing or think it’s all good – or think a novel is good just BECAUSE it’s “experimental” in style – so I’m not sure why you continue to harp over this particular straw man.

    “I thought Moore’s staunch defense for the likes of J R and Darconville’s Cat against the depredations of the villainous Peck et cie rather overblown.”

    Riiigght…. and I suppose Peck wasn’t being overblown when he blamed James Joyce for the decline of modern literature. How many times, and from how many quarters, have Joyce, Pynchon, Gaddis, been declared writers nobody REALLY likes: they’re just medicine you’re supposed to swallow and pretend to enjoy. That is just bullshit, and I’m glad Moore said so.

    “Moore in his spat over style makes the fate of the novel hang on a
    false dichotomy: scriptible versus lisible.”

    What you conveniently ignore is that Moore didn’t start this fight: Dale Peck and Brian Reynolds Myers did. That is the cultural context in which Moore’s book was written. If anyone put this “false dichotonomy” front and center in any kind of cultural debate, it was Peck and Myers, not Moore.

    Your logic (like the logic of all of Myers’ admirers) is as screwy as logic gets. If admirers of quote-unquote experimental writers vigorously defend their tastes against Myers’ strenuous rantings, as Moore has done, they get accused of snobbism, “false-dichotomy” mongering, and “posturing and puffery.” On the other hand, if they DON’T defend their aesthetics, but implicitly cede the floor to the Puritanical Myers/Peck “all-honest-writing-looks-exactly-like-THIS” brigade, the avid devourers of Myers’ silly screeds take this as some kind of talismanic “proof” that his argument is powerful and essentially correct, and that he’s successfully refuted all challengers. So Moore is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. If he argues back against these rants and tirades, he gets accused of all the unpleasant things you accuse him of. But if he DOESN’T issue a rebuttal, people automatically interpret this as further proof of how intelligent Myers is and how strong his argument is – after all, if Myers were wrong, surely someone could show him to be so? (Myers himself claimed exactly this in the full-length book version of his Manifesto – gleefully pointing out, quite correctly I might add, how weakly his manifesto had been rebutted in the mainstream press. So obviously Moore, quite rightly, felt the need to step up to the plate. For this he is vilified.)

  • rascherR duB says:

    Chris: Thanks for your rebuttals and your insights, which I genuinely appreciate. You are correct that my comments are not strictly about Moore. I tender my own thoughts (digressive – oh my gosh! — as they may be) without apology.

    I won’t counterthrust any further except to point out something obvious: the dialogue between the defenders of traditional praxis and the upholders of cutting-edge, neoteric theory hasn’t changed much in the last two centuries. The scandals provoked by creative writers’ efforts to break the tether of convention has ever revolved around “a notion of language very much at odds with received wisdom of realism at the time” (quotation from contemporary novelist/critic Andre Brink on the 1857 condemnation and trial of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary).

    The epic fulminations between the comfortable, consuming classes and the creative paladins parading under the banners of the new and divergent – their slogans have changed, but not the substance. Both Peck and Moore traipse us another turn around the everlasting maypole with its dull dialectic of in and out, scriptable and lisible. The duetting libretto of firebrand vs. fuddy-duddy gets repeated every decade with a new round of players and zealots eager to prove themselves possessed of the golden note, the true Promethean deliverance that will rescue humanity from its stultifying past and confined present while ushering in a bountiful future. Peck and Moore are acting out a predictable story arc. I can’t help laugh at same-old same-oldness of it all.

    Indeed, Moore’s first volume on the history of the novel did have its charm but was marred by aesthetic posturing as well as classifying pedantry, which as a grown-up he is accountable for regardless of who started it. In fact, it struck me that he let the Peck partisans more or less set the terms of the debate. A brief rope-a-dope in the closing pages of his book (by which point he would have shown his scholarship and earned the reader’s trust and good will) would have done the trick. By fastening onto a challenge of no consequence he lowered his long-horizon history to the level of a parochial dispute.

    Over and out,

    rd

6 Pingbacks »

Leave a comment!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also Comments Feed via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.