INTERVIEWED BY NICOLAS TREDELL
NICOLAS TREDELL: Could you start by telling us something about your family background and pre-college schooling?
STEVEN MOORE: I grew up in southern California, the eldest son in a middle-class family. Neither of my parents went to college, but both were readers, which set a good example. Looking back, I can see two things that set me on the road to becoming a literary critic. When I was seven or eight, my father bought a set of Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias. I began dipping into it, less for the articles themselves than for the wondrous idea of wrangling the chaos of the world into an orderly set of alphabetical entries. My parents then bought an illustrated set of encyclopedias for children, and that set me to thinking that I’d like to write my own encyclopedia. I decided to focus on famous people, and began typing up my own work, in two justified columns in imitation of the children’s version, and freely borrowing from reference books at home and school. I abandoned it after about two years (around age 10), but during that period I not only learned to type, but also unwittingly learned how to write expository prose. Some have praised my critical writing for its clarity, and I owe it all to those early years of childish plagiary.
My father was a research assistant for an oil company, but he made amateur movies on the side: ghost stories, Westerns, short subjects. He did everything—wrote the scripts, shot and edited the films, created the soundtracks—and watching him and occasionally assisting him (even acting in a few of them), I witnessed how art is made, even at that do-it-yourself level, which likewise stood me in good stead when it came time to analyzing how literary works are made.
You had a strong interest in rock music and played in bands and composed pieces for performance. How did this develop and how did it relate to your interest in literature?
I was fortunate enough to be a teenager during the glorious Sixties. Like millions of other teens, I fell in love with the rock music of the time, and taught myself to play guitar well enough to join a band. But in another harbinger of my later literary career, I quickly became intrigued by the use of figurative language in some of the more intelligent songs of the time. I still remember listening in the summer of 1966 to Bob Dylan’s “I Want You” with puzzled pleasure: the words didn’t make literal sense, but they made some sort of poetic sense that fascinated me. That’s where my literary education began: I was mesmerized by the unexpected things words did in the lyrics of Dylan, Jim Morrison, the Incredible String Band, Procol Harum, even the nonsensical stuff of Syd Barrett and other psychedelic bards. And they led to “legitimate” poets and writers: a reviewer compared the lyrics of the Incredible String Band to Swinburne, so I looked him up in an anthology my father owned and became of fan of his; the Soft Machine—whose lyricist Robert Wyatt remains a favorite to this day—led me to the William Burroughs novel of that title; the group H.P. Lovecraft led me to that eldritch writer, and so on. This growing love of the creative use of language was abetted by some of the poetry I read in high-school English class, where I identified with lines like “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” (I still remember the line, but I had to Google it just now to learn that it’s from Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.”)
In your first two years at college, you were a history major. How did the switch to literature come about?
When I entered college in 1969, I still planned to become a history teacher, but after two years I wasn’t so sure. I took a six-month break, and when I resumed at a different university, I decided to switch to English to nurture my growing interest in poetry. I had taken and enjoyed a few creative writing classes during those first two years, which made my decision even easier. But that early interest in history influenced the kind of critic I would become, for I’ve always been more of a literary historian than a theorist or academic.
While you were a student, you wrote poems for college literary magazines. What kind of poems were these? Were you conscious—or are you conscious in retrospect—of any influences on the poetry you produced then, for example Metaphysical, Romantic, Modernist, Southern Agrarian?
They belonged to the school of undergraduate poesy. I haven’t looked at them in 40 years, and don’t plan to now, but they were imitative of some of the rock poetry I admired, and in fact many of them were lyrics for my music compositions. I remember writing a few sonnets, and I believe most used rhyme, but they are all best forgotten.
What did you read when you switched majors to English?
At first I took poetry classes, for I didn’t have much interest in studying prose. But I experienced an epiphany in the summer of 1972. Allow me to quote from an autobiographical digression in one of my books: “I took only poetry classes until the summer session, when none were on offer and I had to settle for a course called “Techniques of the Novel”. Before then I had regarded novels merely as long stories, lacking the “craft or sullen art” of poetry (Dylan Thomas). I can’t remember the first novel we read—either Pamela or Joseph Andrews—but I was impressed when my professor diagrammed the architectural structure of Tom Jones on the blackboard. What, novels have structure, like a sonnet? Next up was Tristram Shandy, and that did it. It blew my mind, as we said in those days, and by the time I finished the rest of the required reading—The Old Wives’ Tale, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, To the Lighthouse, The Sound and the Fury—I decided to bid farewell to Dame Poetry and embrace Lord Novel. I got a B in the course.
I also took classes in Middle English and Old English, and enjoyed them enough that I briefly contemplated becoming a medievalist, but one of my teachers told me I’d have to learn Arabic too, so that dissuaded me. By then I was enjoying modern fiction too much anyway. In addition to assigned texts, I was reading contemporary novels on the side, things like On the Road, Catch-22, The Crying of Lot 49, lots of Vonnegut and Brautigan. I was also reading more challenging novelists like Proust and Joyce, and in fact by the time I graduated with an M.A. in 1974, I was a full-out Joyce fanatic. The first critical book I ever purchased was Stuart Gilbert’s old book on Ulysses, and that started me thinking that I’d like to write something like that someday.
After leaving university and while working as a substitute teacher, you wrote a novel yourself, which is unpublished, and produced a second one of several hundred pages which you abandoned. It may be that, as with your early poetry, you don’t particularly want to revisit your fiction, but given the centrality of the novel to your critical and scholarly work, I thought it would be interesting if you could give us an idea of what sort of fiction you were writing at that time.
I was still under Joyce’s spell, so the first one, entitled Clarinets and Candles (1974–75), was mostly a formal exercise, in which a rather tepid autobiographical tale of unrequited love was enclosed in an elaborate superstructure. I was fascinated by the so-called Linati schema that Gilbert published in his book on Ulysses, which shows not only that every chapter has a counterpart in the Odyssey but also its own style, color, science/art, etc. So I used sonnet form to construct my novel: not only did it have fourteen chapters, but each chapter ended with a sonnet about clouds (I called them skyscapes), which metaphorically commented on the subject of the preceding chapter. Like Ulysses (in the most superficial sense) it boasted lots of literary allusions and stylistic devices; one chapter is in dramatic form, like the Circe episode, and the novel concludes with an epilogue in the form of a fairy tale. All of my time went into the structure and style, neglecting the actual story material, so it deservedly was turned down by the half-dozen publishers I sent it to.
It’s a short novel, so I planned to follow it with a Ulysses-size novel, also alliteratively titled (Sunlight and Summer, 1975–78), which was intended to be a Rabelaisian satire on religion—a subject I was immersed in at the time (and its shadow, the occult). By then I was also under the spell of American meganovels by such authors as Barth, Coover, Gaddis, and Pynchon. It too had a complex structure and showy erudition, but a more sensational plot: it concerned two teenage girls who, after an emotional crisis, become nuns; realizing their mistake after a while, they swing to the other extreme and become prostitutes (while in the background I made lots of snarky remarks about sublimated sexuality in religion), and eventually they abandon the extremes for a more centered approach to life. One of the girls is into vampires, and my research into that subject eventually resulted in an anthology of vampire poetry I edited in the 1980s.
Why did you not persist with writing novels?
I realized I could never be as good as my spellbinding models, plus I was writing literary criticism by that time (I published my first article in 1976), and I realized what talents I had were more suited for the latter. But attempting to write fiction enhanced my appreciation for those who can pull it off, which informed my later criticism and book reviewing. Every book reviewer should try writing a novel before criticizing others.
You weren’t able to find a full-time teaching position between 1974 and 1977, or, later, after completing your PhD in 1988. Do you feel this was an advantage or disadvantage in terms of your work as a literary critic and scholar?
It turned out to be an advantage. Had I been hired to teach high school in the 1970s, I probably would have been too busy (and too tired) to write criticism; it’s partly because I had some free time on my hands that I began writing. Nor has my lack of a university affiliation prevented me from publishing books with university presses and articles in scholarly journals. (I once attended a conference in France that requested an academic affiliation for the name-badges, so I used Lovecraft’s nefarious Miskatonic University—go Ghouls!) I belong to that gypsy tribe known as “independent scholars,” and if anything, that status allowed me to write more than I would have otherwise, and more freely, for I’ve written whatever/whenever I wanted—and never for academic promotion. I also use politically incorrect language—blatantly so in The Novel: An Alternative History—which would get me tarred and feathered on many campuses. When writing that work, I sometimes thought it would be nice to be a professor so that I could consult with colleagues in fields outside my own, but looking back, I realize it’s probably for the best that no one hired me to teach.
In 1977, you started to work as a bookseller at ABC Books in Denver, and two years later you opened your own bookstore, Moore Books. I know you later worked for Borders, and we can discuss that in due course, but I’d like to focus here on your pre-Borders bookselling experience. What was working as a bookseller and then running your own bookstore like at that time, in the pre-Amazon era? Did it affect the kind of interest you had in literature?
That was a glorious time when anyone could set up a small bookstore without the crushing competition of the big chains or Amazon. It was all very hands-on and un-automated: I called in my orders on a phone, and had little more to go by regarding new books than Publishers Weekly and Books in Print. It didn’t affect my literary tastes, which were pretty much set by that time, but working in a bookstore certainly expands one’s general knowledge. You have to be prepared for customers asking for all sorts of things, and “What’s the best book on hypnosis?” is not a question every literary scholar can answer. (Nowadays I would recommend Trance-Migrations by Lee Siegel.) So I learned a lot about a lot of things, including the economics of book publishing. This experience (and my later career as a publisher) gave me a good sense of how books actually function in the real world, the influence of reviews, the wide range of reader expectations, etc., all of which has kept me grounded over the years. Some critics write about literature in such abstruse, theoretical terms that I suspect they’ve lost sight of how and why authors write books, and why and how people read them.
Moore Books was a small shop (with a black cat named Montague), and business was modest enough that I wrote my first book during that period. By that time I realized that the store would never generate enough income to live comfortably, so I decided to return to university and earn a PhD and try again to become a teacher. As it happens, I sold my store at the right time, for two years later a huge Barnes & Noble opened a half mile away, which would have wiped me out.
While you were working as a bookseller and studying for a PhD, you were developing your career as a literary critic. You wrote and published scholarly essays and reviews and your first book, A Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, came out in 1982. You followed this up by co-editing and contributing to an essay collection, In Recognition of William Gaddis, which appeared in 1984, edited an anthology called Vampire in Verse, which was exposed to the light of day in 1985, and wrote an authoritative monograph on Gaddis which Twayne brought out in its United States Authors series in 1989 and which Bloomsbury reissued, in an expanded edition, in early 2015. Could you talk about the progress of your career as a critic during the 1980s, especially the growth of your interest in Gaddis?
I first learned of William Gaddis in the fall of 1975. I read a review in my father’s Time magazine of Gaddis’s newly published J R, which had a sidebar on a new edition of his 1955 novel The Recognitions. That caught my eye because the reviewer compared it to Ulysses, which was all I needed to hear, for I was in the depths of my Joyce addiction. I found a copy locally and bought it the next day, read it shortly after, and was blown away by it. As I wrote in the preface to my Reader’s Guide:
As is my custom when confronted with exhilarating literature, I began looking around to see what kind of critical work had been done on the novel, fully expecting to find mountains of material (and silently wondering all the time how I had missed hearing of such a novel). To my utter dismay, I found not mountains but molehills, and this in 1975, a full twenty years after publication. Apparently the novel had been sitting like an island in the stream of American literature, circumnavigated a few times, but as yet unexplored. Feeling let down by the academic scholarly community, I proceeded to write (for myself if no one else) the kind of book someone should have written long ago.
It also struck me that writing the first book on Gaddis would be better than writing the 101st book on Joyce, which I was contemplating. I was so taken by Gaddis that I wrote quite a bit about him in the 1980s and began collecting his letters for the edition I eventually published in 2013. I continue to regard him as one of the greatest American novelists of the second half of the twentieth century. And that notion of writing about an author who has been undeservedly neglected stuck with me, for in later years I sort of specialized in such authors (Chandler Brossard, Alexander Theroux, David Markson, W. M. Spackman, and others).
The 1980s were an incredibly busy time for me. In addition to earning a PhD between 1983 and 1988, I wrote or edited the four books you mention, plus a dozen or so essays and introductions to books, along with dozens of book reviews. After I joined Dalkey Archive Press in 1988, I began slowing down because I didn’t have time for much beyond book reviews.
Could I pick up a general point in your 1989 book on Gaddis? You say in Chapter 5: “What is lacking in more compact critiques of American manners and mores—Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, say, or Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49—is the breadth and density of detail that give J R its greater weight and plausibility, comprehensiveness & exactitude. Gaddis’s novel is as witty as Fitzgerald’s and as fantastic as Pynchon’s, but easily outdistances either as a critique of the American dream due to the ‘detail & development’ that Gaddis, like Flaubert, pursues with such encyclopedic thoroughness” (p. 97). But I wonder here about your elevation of the encyclopedic over the compact novel—or, to use other terms, the novel of saturation over the novel of selection? It could be argued that the two kinds of novel are both effective but in different ways. Gatsby, for example, has generated an enormous amount of commentary and interpretation that suggests it is a comprehensive critique of the American Dream and of much else, but in a compressed form that the reader has to work to draw out.
I totally agree that both modes—the novel of encyclopedic saturation vs. compact selection—are equally valid and effective, and in fact the shorter novels deliver more of an emotional punch because they are condensed. That’s certainly the case with The Great Gatsby, which I reread recently and admired more than ever. It’s just a personal choice: though some of my favorite novelists (Firbank, Spackman) wrote very short novels, I’ve always preferred huge flamboyant novels over short ones.
In Chapter 7 of the Gaddis book, you identify in his novels not only the “theme of personal failure” but “the larger theme of the failure of America itself […] Throughout his work […] there is a feeling of bitter disappointment at America’s failure to fulfill its potential, to live up to the magnificent expectations held for the New World ever since Columbus declared it the Terrestrial Paradise predicted by Scripture” (p. 136). Do you yourself endorse the idea that America has failed “to fulfill its potential” and do you share this “feeling of disappointment”?
I do indeed. One mundane reason I like Gaddis’s novels is that I share many of his views, and like many Americans today, I’m rather ashamed at the way my country has turned out. This is especially the case with my generation: in the 1960s there were hopes and expectations that the country would make a great leap forward, especially with the advances in civil rights and other liberation movements (women’s, gay, Native Americans). The dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and all that. But the bulk of the country turned its back on those ideals, and the country has been going downhill ever since. Though I’ll admit I’d rather live here than many places, if only because I can get away with anti-patriotic sentiments like these (and the anti-religious statements that follow) without fear of being arrested.
You said earlier that Sunlight and Summer, the second novel you started, was intended as a Rabelaisian satire on religion and that you were immersed in religion—and its shadow, the occult—at that time. I wondered if we might explore your attitude to religion further, taking up an observation you make in Chapter 6 of the Gaddis book, where you say: “The crucial difference is that literary and legal fictions are recognized as fictions; religious fictions are not. Fundamentalists, [McCandless] implies, are like poor readers who first mistake a work of fiction for fact, then impose their literal-minded misreadings on others—at gunpoint, if necessary” (p. 132). Of course, you’re explicating Carpenter’s Gothic here but I’d like to ask if you yourself thought that the problem with religious beliefs, particularly of a fundamentalist kind, is that they are not recognized as fictions.
Exactly, which is to say the so-called sacred scriptures those beliefs are based on are fictions (not just the Bible, of course, but the Quran, the Book of Mormon, the Vedas, the narrative Buddhist sutras, etc.). As in novels, there are some admirable ethical lessons to be learned from them, but to mistake them as the pronouncements of a god rather than what they are—the writings of men, many of whom we would now call religious fanatics—leads to all sorts of problems, as the headlines of any newspaper will show. I’ve been an atheist since I was a teenager, but I’ve been fascinated all my life with how religions came about. Most of my reading was on the history of religion—textual histories of sacred books, comparative religion, its relation with supernaturalism and the occult, mythology, etc.—not theology per se, which I regard as worthless because its fundamental premise (the existence of a god) is an error, which invalidates everything that follows, just as if you were to begin a long, complex equation with “Since 2 + 3 = 6, then . . .” For me it’s as simple as that, but most believers equate religion with communal solidarity, morality, ethnocentrism, psychological needs, comfort-food solace, and so on, which complicates things.
You mentioned earlier that you joined Dalkey Archive Press in 1988 and that this left you little time for writing criticism. You worked at Dalkey from 1988 to 1996 and in that period you were also managing editor of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, which Dalkey published. Could you tell us about Dalkey Archive Press and your experience of working there?
The Review of Contemporary Fiction was founded by John O’Brien in 1981, and I began contributing to it the following year. He started Dalkey Archive in 1984 as a means of reprinting some of his favorite novels, and by 1987 it had grown large enough that he felt he needed another person to help, and he invited me to join. Since I was striking out in my job search for a teaching position and was broke, I accepted his invitation. I had never planned to become a publisher, but I liked some of the books Dalkey had already published, and figured this would be a good way for me too to reprint some of my own favorite authors. The work was very time-consuming at first, because I had to do a little of everything: copyedit books, design the covers, see them through the press, work with sales reps and book review editors to get them noticed, write catalog copy, attend trade shows, create ads, explore fundraising possibilities—plus edit/publish three issues of the Review a year. Like all small presses, we had trouble getting the media to review our books and stores to stock them, so it was always an uphill battle. O’Brien was difficult to work with—the archetypal boss from hell—and that, along with the deep depression I had fallen into in 1985, combined to make my Dalkey years a rather miserable period, despite the rewards of getting some deserving authors into print. Another plus was that I could review whatever I wanted in the Review; Michael Dirda of the Washington Post saw and liked my reviews and invited me to start writing for it, which I’ve been doing two or three times a year ever since 1990.
Your Wikipedia entry attributes your resignation from Dalkey to “irreconcilable differences with the publisher”. Is this accurate and, if so, would you like to say any more about those differences?
That is indeed accurate, and suffice it to say that when I left in 1996, two-thirds of the staff left for the same reason: no one could stand working for O’Brien. I was getting a little tired of the publishing business anyway, but I would have stuck it out had he not been such a %@#&@$!
You were an early enthusiast for the work of David Foster Wallace. How did your interest in his fiction start and develop?
I read his first novel, The Broom of the System, when it came out in 1987 and I knew right away he was a major talent and destined for greatness. As it happened, O’Brien had just asked me to guest-edit a special issue of the Review called “The Novelist as Critic”, so I invited Wallace to contribute an essay, which he did. We started corresponding, and then I asked him to contribute to another issue on David Markson. (Both were reprinted in his posthumous collection Both Flesh and Not.) After Dalkey Archive moved at the invitation of Charles Harris of Illinois State University from the suburbs of Chicago to Normal, Illinois, in the summer of 1992, Charlie told me there was an opening for a creative writing teacher there, in case I knew of anyone. I informed Dave, he applied, and was accepted for the position in 1993. That December he asked me to read the draft of Infinite Jest to suggest cuts, an experience I’ve written about at length elsewhere. Regrettably, we didn’t see much of each other during the years we lived in the same town—because of my depression I didn’t feel like socializing— though he occasionally dropped by the Dalkey office to talk, and once we played tennis. We kept in touch after I left Dalkey in 1996—he sent me the stories that later made up Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in batches as he wrote them, hoping I’d like them (which I certainly did)—and we exchanged the occasional letter or postcard until around 2004. Needless to say, his suicide in 2008 hit me hard.
In 1996, after resigning from Dalkey, you went back to bookselling, working for Borders Books and Music. What was this like, particularly in relation to your previous experience of bookselling?
It was completely different. The first bookstore I worked for was a family-run business with about five employees, and my own store was a one-man operation where I had to do everything. In some ways it was nice to be a cog in a big machine, where I didn’t have to worry about daily receipts or whether I could pay my bills on time. There were some corporate policies I didn’t care for, but the atmosphere was much more cheerful than Dalkey—by that time I had crawled out of my long depression—and I enjoyed the generous employee discount and benefits. From almost the beginning, however, I had my eye on a job at the corporate office, and in 2001 I applied for a book buyer’s position and was hired. After leaving Dalkey in 1996 I had moved back to my hometown in Colorado, so I packed up again and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, into the same apartment I’m typing these words in. I worked there until January of 2010, when I was caught up in one of the waves of layoffs before Borders finally went under in 2011.
And you resumed writing criticism during those early years with Borders?
Yes. I began writing a few essays when working at the bookstore in Colorado, and in 2001 I published Beerspit Night and Cursing: The Correspondence of Charles Bukowksi and Sheri Martinelli. (She was an old girlfriend of Gaddis’s and an intriguing character in her own right. I’ve never cared for Bukowksi: I did the book just to get Martinelli’s letters into print.) In 2004, bored and needing something to do during my free time, I decided to write a history of the novel; I figured that should keep me busy for a while. Working at the home office of Borders was a godsend; as a buyer, I could request all the books I needed for my work from publishers’ sales reps, who were happy to oblige (or so they said), thus saving thousands of dollars over the years, especially with pricey university press publications. Also, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor boasts a stupendous research library. I almost literally could not have written my history anywhere else and/or at any other time in my life, so once again, things worked out for the best. It’s almost enough to make an atheist like me believe in providence.
Could we explore that momentous decision to write a history of the novel? I know that in your introduction to volume one of The Novel: An Alternative History (2010), you recall that you “began thinking seriously of writing it” in 2002 when you discovered Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili [Poliphi’s Erotic Dream-Quest, 1499] and read B. R. Myers, Dale Peck and Jonathan Franzen’s “three-pronged attack on the kind of fiction I love” (p. 1). In the context of this interview and from your current vantage point, could you revisit the process that led you to start writing your alternative history of the novel in earnest?
As I explain in that introduction, I first started thinking about the topic in the early 1990s when working at Dalkey Archive, for our books didn’t fit in with the so-called great tradition of the novel—the realistic works that continue to be thought of as the norm—but rather followed an older tradition that went back from Joyce to Sterne to Rabelais and Boccaccio (with numerous sidetrips), all the way back to Petronius’ Satyricon. I realized that avant-garde, experimental fiction was not a twentieth-century aberration (as some would have it) but an alternative approach that has always existed. At any given time in history, the majority of writers (and artists, composers, movie-makers, et al.) follow the conventions of their era, while a minority explores new options, and it’s that group that has always interested me. In the later 1990s I jotted down some notes on what a book on the subject might entail, and continued to think about it (as you note) during the new millennium. I kept dragging my feet about actually starting, but what finally lit a fire under me was Roddy Doyle’s attack on Joyce in a newspaper article in early 2004, for he denigrated not only Joyce but (by implication) all experimental novelists like him—all my pretty ones. That’s when I decided to get down to work.
The two volumes of The Novel: An Alternative History are an immense feat of reading, research, analysis, synthesis and writing, running to around 1700 pages in all and covering a vast amount of literary, cultural, historical and geographical ground. You’ve mentioned how valuable it was to be able to get books through your position at Borders and to have access to the University of Michigan library in Ann Arbor, but it would be interesting if you could tell us more about how you approached this epic task.
Instead of spending a year or so researching and outlining the book, as a normal person would, I just dove right in, illustrating Pope’s observation that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread”. I dashed off the truculent introduction in about a week, airing grievances against conservative, narrow-minded critics that had been building up ever since 1975 when I discovered how critics had trashed Gaddis’s Recognitions. I was aware that literary fiction began with the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians, and also knew that portions of the Bible had been compared to novels, so I began there and just sort of educated myself as I went along. For each section, I sought out some scholarly overviews of the period, worked up a reading list of what to cover, then started reading and writing, glancing from time to time at further scholarship to keep me on track. As I progressed and learned more, I sometimes backtracked and revised accordingly, and by the time I finished each section I was confident that I had attained a good working knowledge of a period. I was delighted when a historian of Chinese literature wrote me after the first volume appeared and said that my survey of early Chinese novels was the best non-specialist account he’d ever read. That’s all my book was intended to be: not a definitive history but a reasonably informed overview, with special attention to the technical advances in fiction-writing that link premodern novelists with postmodern ones.
You say in your Introduction to the first volume that “the challenge for me is not unfamiliarity with earlier literature but with foreign languages” and that “I’ve had to rely on translations for all but a handful of the novels discussed in this book—a major drawback for someone like me in it for the language” (p. 36). But you still felt it was worth persisting with the project despite this “major drawback”?
Yes. See “fools rush in” remark above. No critic knows enough languages to write a global history like this, which is probably why no one had previously attempted one, but I thought I’d give it a try. It helped that the last 40 years have seen a profusion of good translations of world literature, though I complain in my pages of many omissions and inadequacies.
The Novel: An Alternative History is large and contains multitudes but this also provokes what seems to be the most central objection to it—that it is too capacious, a kind of loose, baggy monster with definitions that tend to slide around. For example, in the first paragraph of your section on “Medieval Icelandic Fiction”, you assert that, when they started writing the sagas, “Icelandic writers basically invented the social realist novel, some 600 years before Balzac introduced the genre in continental Europe” (p. 147). But in the last paragraph of the same section you contend “The sagas may not resemble mainstream novels but they do resemble modernist ones, that is, the novels that dispensed with the cosy moralizing and sociological padding of Victorian novels” (164). So Icelandic sagas are both Balzacian and modernist, social realist and non-mainstream. I know there are ways in which these apparent contradictions might be reconciled, but aren’t they indicative of the way in which your approach licenses a certain looseness that risks effacing the specific qualities of particular literary works?
I see what you mean, but after pointing out how elastic the term “novel” is, how unsatisfactory all definitions of the novel are, how resistant to consensus the novel genre is even regarding basic features like page length, prose vs. poetry, fictional vs. nonfictional content, etc.—because of all this, I didn’t feel that I needed to be rigidly precise in my terminology. The novel genre is capacious and amorphous, so I felt justified in taking a freewheeling, Whitmanesque approach (to pick up on your allusion), at the risk of some terminological imprecision. (What was that Walt said about contradicting himself?) Because in fact Icelandic novels display both Balzacian and modernist features, realistic and supernatural elements, as well as some specific to Icelandic fiction. And in my defence, I spend more time discussing “the specific qualities of particular literary works” than in making sweeping generalizations like the ones you quote. It’s the opposite of the approach Michael McKeon takes in The Origins of the English Novel, where he begins by writing brilliantly about English literary culture in the seventeenth century but discusses only a handful of English novels, whereas I discuss about 50 published during that century.
I might add that before I began writing it, I thought it would be wonderful someday to write a huge, outlandish book along the lines of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Frazer’s Golden Bough, and Graves’s White Goddess—“loose, baggy monsters” filled with forgotten lore and heterodox opinions that are appealing despite their eccentricity, if not because of their eccentricity. I wouldn’t put my two-volume study in their league, but those are the kinds of books—as opposed to standard literary criticism—that were my models.
Could I take up a point Alberto Manguel makes in a largely favourable review of the first volume of The Novel: An Alternative History in the Washington Post (22 Aug 2010), where he says: “As astute and thorough as this book is, however, it is based on a tenuous premise: That ‘the standard history of the novel’ states that the form ‘was born in 18th-century England’. This is not quite fair: A whole library of histories of the novel has traced the genre’s origins to the same ancient sources that Moore discusses. Margaret Anne Doody’s The True History of the Novel (1996) is perhaps the best known, but in the 1930s, Dorothy L. Sayers was tracking the detective novel back to the Bible and the Greeks. In the 1890s, Spanish scholars searched for models of Don Quixote in ancient tales such as the Alexander Romance and the Kalilah and Dimnah story cycle”. How would you respond to Manguel’s point?
Manguel grossly exaggerates the familiarity of general readers with the premodern novel, and that’s who the book was written for, not for specialists in the field. The Novel was written, priced, and marketed as a trade book, not as an academic monograph. Manguel is an uncommonly well-read man, as anyone who has explored his delightfully erudite Dictionary of Imaginary Places knows; more common is the response of British novelist Nicola Barker, whom my publisher approached for a blurb: puzzled by the first volume’s subtitle (“Beginnings to 1600”), she said she always thought Samuel Richardson invented the novel with Pamela. I cite Moody and other historians of the novel throughout my book; my job was to synthesize all the findings of specialists, mostly buried in obscure journals and academic monographs, and popularize this material for a general educated audience. But even specialists are unfamiliar with much of this material: I’m sure those Spanish scholars who stumbled upon the Alexander Romance had no idea what was going on in early Chinese fiction during Cervantes’ time, and even today I doubt specialists in the early Sanskrit novel, say, are familiar with Byzantine novels of the twelfth century, or Icelandic scholars with medieval Tibetan fiction. I mean, how familiar were you with all this material before you picked up my book?
There’s another criticism of The Novel: An Alternative History that relates to a topic we discussed earlier in this interview—your attitude to religion. In the Boston Review (17 March 2014), for example, Roger Boylan, again in a largely favourable review, says “Moore’s lucid criticism is frequently derailed by his dislike of religion” and that this dislike “threatens to upset his composure; he seems constitutionally incapable of finding any redeeming value in the 2,000-year history of Christianity that has been so much a part of Western culture”. Steven Donoghue, in the online journal Open Letters Monthly, similarly finds your aversion to religion, which he compares to that of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, “as ubiquitous as it is discordant in a long work of literary history”. What would you say to that kind of criticism?
I began writing the book in 2004, only a few years after some deeply religious people crashed two planes into the World Trade Center—a “faith-based initiative”, as someone bitterly quipped—and in 2004 religious conservatives played a large role in re-electing the worst president in American history (not uncoincidentally a born-again Christian), in keeping with their ongoing efforts to shut down abortion clinics and to remove Harry Potter books from school libraries for promoting witchcraft. So my dislike of religion was at a boiling point by that time. And by the way I find it hypocritical, if not cowardly, of academics to censure any whiff of sexism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, intolerance, patriarchalism, predatory capitalism, imperialism, or colonialism in the authors they write about, but to remain silent when it comes to religion, which is a major contributor to all of the above.
When I began writing, I didn’t plan to be so aggressively anti-religious, but the topic was hard to ignore because religion is a big presence in premodern fiction. I also quickly realized that literature is a kind of secular scripture that co-exists with sacred scripture, sometimes complementing it, sometimes challenging it. Morality in sacred books is black and white: do this, don’t do that. But creative writers know that life is fifty or more shades of grey. The Bible says don’t steal, but Victor Hugo comes along and asks what if a man steals bread for his starving relations? It struck me that many early novelists were dramatizing the pronouncements in sacred scripture in order to test them out in real-life scenarios, and more often than not exposed their inadequacy in the process. So if you read books partly for guidance on how to live, you are better served by secular rather than sacred literature. Plus fiction only pretends to be real, unlike sacred literature, which insists on its nonfictional status and has a nasty history of burning or beheading anyone who challenges its veracity.
As in a formal debate, or better yet a courtroom, it’s not enough to present your case: you need to demolish your opponent’s case in order to strengthen yours. So I took every opportunity to ridicule religion, largely for the sake of my thesis, but also because I believe every person should speak out against outrages when the opportunity arises. My lifetime of study of religion taught me that religion is a history of outrages—against reason, to begin with—so I adopted Voltaire’s écrasez l’infâme as my motto. I’m more than happy to be associated with people like Hitchens and Dawkins: we’re on the right side of history.
In your introduction to The Novel: An Alternative History, you have some animadversions on French literary theorists, whom you hold “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” (p. 20). But isn’t your attitude here similar to the attitude of those who denounce “difficult” fiction because a mass audience supposedly finds it incomprehensible and risible? Couldn’t one say that literary theory, like literature, is not for everyone but no less valuable because of that and that some readers enjoy its intricacies as you might enjoy those of experimental fiction? Furthermore, couldn’t one argue that there is some convergence between literary theory and the kind of fiction you like? For instance, when you state, in the chapter in your Gaddis book on Carpenter’s Gothic, “All the world’s a text, Gaddis implies, and all the men and women merely readers” (pp. 132-3), this sounds close to a position that one might derive from Jacques Derrida. And one could contend that such theory, for some people, might help to illuminate Gaddis’s work, make it more approachable.
Literature can be as complicated as it wants to be, but I think criticism should be lucid and intelligible, which most theory-driven criticism is not. Some obviously “enjoy its intricacies,” but I don’t; that’s not what I turn to criticism for. Perhaps it’s because I consider myself a scholar rather than an academic. Scholarship represents the older approach to literary criticism, which basically means working outward from the text: you start with the words on the page, look up the ones you don’t know (and trace allusions, quotations, and sources if need be), note the patterns of imagery and structural devices, and work your way up to an explanation of how it all works together, which should result in an appreciation of the writer’s artistry. Since the 1970s academics seem to work from the outside in: they start with a trendy topic, master the specialized lingo and theory associated with it (often shanghaied from a non-literary field), and then find a text on which they can apply that notion—often resulting not in appreciation but in an exposure of the artist’s alleged shortcomings. It’s like inventing a new tool, and then looking around for something to use it on, rather than the older way of starting with a text and then choosing the appropriate tools to open it up for inspection.
And the language those academics use! So ugly, so tone-deaf, so needlessly obscure. Sixty years ago, any educated person could pick up the latest issue of the Journal of English and Germanic Philology and read it as though it were the latest issue of Time magazine, but nowadays one has to struggle to get through the jargon-laden, obfuscatory prose of academic critics, rarely emerging with new insights into a work of art. I remember being puzzled when I first saw that stuff in the late 1970s; I’d finish an article in the James Joyce Quarterly and say, “Well I guess you could look at it that way, though I don’t know why anyone would want to.” I was always reminded of Horatio’s response to one of Hamlet’s convoluted notions: “’Twere to consider too curiously to consider so.” (Translation: Dude, you’re overthinking it!) How appropriate that one of the meanings of “academic” (as in, “it’s an academic question”) is “having no practical or useful significance” (Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edn). To be sure, most academics are very smart people, and I’ve read some ingenious stuff by them, but working in an ivory tower and communicating only with fellow academics can sometimes cause them to lose sight of how and why literature is written. The forgotten British novelist Storm Jameson put it better in Parthian Words (1970), where she warned critics against “the dangers of retreating into a Platonic realm of forms and essences where the practice of criticism is neglected for the pleasures of constructing scholastically intricate general theories addressed to the circle of initiates.”
I’m sure you’ve seen the steady stream of books and articles assessing the damage done to literary studies by theory-driven academics, who are even held responsible for declining enrollments in university English programs, and who are routinely ridiculed in the press. The New York Times used to cover the annual MLA convention, and would report back on papers alleging masturbation imagery in Jane Austen, etc. with ill-concealed scorn. Forty years ago, literary critics belonged to a club I wanted to join, but the younger me would not want to join today’s version of that club.
You’ve engaged closely with contemporary fiction and you write in an up-to-date idiom but, looking at your critical career, it seems closer in some ways to that of a nineteenth- or early twentieth-century person of letters than to that of a modern academic. In this context, it was intriguing to find that in your introduction to The Novel: An Alternative History you call the English literary historian, biographer and critic George Saintsbury (1845-1933) “my idol” (p. 35). Why do you idolize Saintsbury and have you tried to emulate him in any way?
Like the older “scholar” label, I’m happy to be identified with the older man of letters tag, and who better exemplifies that than George Saintsbury? He was unbelievably well-read, yet wore his erudition lightly. Reading him is like sitting in an old-fashioned English club, brandy snifter in hand, listening to a charming literary raconteur. In his analysis of literature, he knew exactly what snippets of biography were relevant, indulged in occasional personal anecdotes and admissions of love for some female characters, and always brilliantly contextualized and judged whatever author he was writing about. Here’s a random example, in which he’s evaluating Thomas Lovell Beddoes: “He is a younger and tragic counterpart to Charles Lamb in the intensity with which he has imbibed the Elizabethan spirit, rather from the nightshade of Webster and Tourneur than from the vine of Shakespeare” (A History of Nineteenth Century Literature). Do you see how much reading and taste goes into a casual comparison like that, not to mention the lilting cadence and evocative use of botanical imagery? And how sublime is his observation on Voltaire’s usage of “Mademoiselle” Cunégonde in Candide: “nobody will ever know anything about style who does not feel what the continual repetition in Candide’s mouth of the ’Mademoiselle’ does” (A History of the French Novel)? He knew everything about style, both how to evaluate it and how to use it himself. His books were published by commercial houses like Macmillan rather than by university presses, and could be read by anyone with a high-school education. So yes, I attempted to emulate him, but I was more mindful of writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, rock critics like Lester Bangs, and especially David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction. Have you read his book on the history of infinity? If he had decided instead to write a history of the novel, I like to think the result would have resembled mine (minus the atheistic ranting), though I’m as far below his level as I am from Saintsbury’s.
Coming back to twentieth-century fiction, do you have any thoughts on the innovative British novelists who emerged in the 1960s, such as Christine Brooke-Rose, Alan Burns, B. S. Johnson and Ann Quin, all of whom featured at one time or another in The Review of Contemporary Fiction? They aroused some initial interest but were soon marginalized, and both Johnson and Quin died early, Johnson definitely and Quin possibly by suicide. But there has been growing retrospective interest in the UK, particularly in Brooke-Rose, the inspiration of Verbivoracious Press, and Johnson, the subject of Jonathan Coe’s major biography in 2004. How did they—and how do they—impinge on the American alternative fiction scene?
I read with admiration several Brooke-Rose novels in the 1980s—I think I read all four in that Carcanet omnibus—and I liked Amalgamemnon enough to reprint it when I was at Dalkey Archive. While there I also published what I believe is one of the first critical monographs on her work, Friedman and Martin’s Utterly Other Discourse (1995). I haven’t read Burns or Quin—they were featured in the Review after I left—but I’ve read Johnson’s novel-in-a-box The Unfortunates and I love his use of typography in House Mother Normal. I don’t know how they impinged on American fiction at that time: I would guess they had minimal influence because most of their books were available only in British editions and not readily available here. Among that generation of British novelists I also read a lot of Brigid Brophy, whose In Transit in particular is fabulous. I edited an issue of the Review on her, but sadly it appeared two months after she died in August 1995.
The two volumes of The Novel: An Alternative History make up an immensely rich and substantial work that is, as you indicated earlier, unparalleled in its coverage; but its very strengths leave its enthusiastic readers wanting you to continue this story of so many stories. In your interview with Jeff Bursey dated 26 November 2013, almost two years ago, you say that you “have a clear idea of what a third volume would entail” and that you wouldn’t undertake it now because of the huge amount of work that it would involve. You go on to say that you’ve “lost interest in writing criticism in general”. Would those two statements still be true today, in October 2015?
I’m afraid so. I’ve written a few short essays since then, and I continue to review new books for the Washington Post, but I don’t have any desire to take on new writing projects. In the winter of 2013–14 a burst of energy allowed me to update that 1989 book on William Gaddis you’ve quoted, but that was more a case of tying up loose ends than a recommitment to criticism.
What about other kinds of writing? You write with acumen, verve and wit; you’ve had an unusually varied and interesting life; you’ve met a wide range of people, especially authors, including such major novelists as William Gaddis and David Foster Wallace. Any memoir you wrote would surely be fascinating. Would you contemplate doing that?
No. I would welcome an opportunity to collect all my miscellaneous essays and reviews into a big book—especially since they cover many of the authors I planned to treat in the third volume of my novel-history—but as I said I have no desire to write anything new.
Could I ask finally whether, in light of your wide experience in writing, editing, publishing and selling books, and your profound and wide-ranging knowledge of fiction from ancient times to the present, you have any reflections on the current state and future of the novel—especially, given your own interests, the difficult, experimental, innovative novel – in the era of digital culture, of the internet, e-books and Amazon?
Much to my surprise and delight, the kinds of novels I prefer continue to be published, though I suspect the audience for them is shrinking. Just this year (2015) there appeared several “difficult, experimental, innovative novels,” such as Reif Larsen’s I Am Radar, Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers, William T. Vollmann’s The Dying Grass, and the first two 800-page volumes of Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar. Translations of big, innovative novels are also appearing regularly: last year saw Leopold Marechal’s Adam Buenosayres—which inspired one of the few short essays I’ve written recently—as well as the first volume of Miklós Szentkuthy’s enormous Prae, and Dalkey is reportedly publishing soon John Woods’s translation of Arno Schmidt’s Bottom’s Dream, for which I’ve been waiting all my adult life. (Literally: I first learned of it in the mid-1970s in the context of Finnegans Wake, whose difficulty it rivals.) And there’s no let-up in shorter experimental novels: if anything, more than ever are appearing nowadays thanks to recent print-on-demand technology and do-it-yourself publishing. So experimental novels, big and small, are alive and well, but as I say I suspect the genre is approaching the status of poetry—that is, a literary form that appeals only to a limited, select audience. But as long as such novels continue to appear, I’ll be content.