On the Bunny Slopes of Helicon
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 – its 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):
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.