Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Interview with critic and author Steven Moore

Steven Moore is the author of several books and essays on modern literature. From 1988 to 1996 he was Managing Editor of the Review of Contemporary Fiction/Dalkey Archive Press, and for decades has reviewed books for a variety of journals and newspapers, principally The Washington Post. His new book is The Novel: An Alternative History. The Novel is an attempt to tell the complete story of our most popular literary form, beginning not with 18th century England or Don Quixote, but in ancient Egypt, and exploring Greek romances; Roman satires; medieval Sanskrit novels narrated by parrots; Byzantine erotic thrillers; 5000-page Arabian adventures; Icelandic sagas; delicate Persian novels in verse; Japanese war stories; even Mayan graphic novels. David Markson, author of Wittgenstein's Mistress and The Last Novel, says "Moore's range here is staggering and the intelligence he brings to bear on his materials is awesome, from the subtlest of insights to the boldest of (seemingly always valid) judgments." Michael Dirda, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism says, "The Novel: An Alternative History is a breathtaking achievement. Steven Moore isn't just incredibly well read, he's also funny, irreverent, argumentative, and sometimes even downright mean. There's nothing dryly academic about this magnificent book--it's as personal as a love affair and just as thrilling." Below is an interview with Steven Moore.

What is a novel?

In order to include everything that is labeled a novel these days, especially those by experimental writers, we need to keep the definition as wide and simple as possible. That's why I like E. M. Forster's definition of a novel as "any fictitious work over 50,000 words" (that is, about 150 pages), though I'd lower that to around 30,000. Many critics want to limit the term "novel" to fictions that are realistic, set against a recognizable cultural background, and have a certain psychological depth, but once you start adding qualifications like that, you omit countless modern works that novelists themselves and their publishers call novels, and I don't see the point of that. Novelists should be allowed to tell/show us what a novel is, not critics.

The novel is the dominant form of literature in our culture. Why do you think the appeal of the form is so powerful?

People like stories, obviously, but also crafted stories give order, shape, and meaning to life in a way that actual living doesn't. For example, if your life were a novel, what chapter would you be in? Impossible to say, because you can't see the narrative arc you are participating in at this moment--you're maybe at the start of a new phase, or you may drop dead tomorrow: who knows?--so novels provide a satisfying if illusory sense that life happens a certain way for a reason. I'm flailing a bit here, because I'm trying to guess why other people like novels. I'm in it for the language: for me, novels are displays of linguistic prowess, and I'm always more interested in language than plot, more interested in how the author writes than what he's writing about.

Why do you think the very early forms of the novel that you deal with in this volume aren't included in the standard history of the novel?

First problem is nomenclature. Most of the early novels I deal with are labeled romances, or sagas, pastorals, picaresques, chronicles, folk epics, or any number of other terms. The term "novel" (not the genre itself) is fairly new, and the earliest scholars to write about ancient novels didn't think to use that term. But the only difference between, say, Chariton's Chaereas and Callirhoe, which was written in Greek around the time of Christ, and any novel on the New York Times' best-seller list is that the former is called a "romance" and the latter a novel. Structurally, formally, they are identical--except that Chariton's novel is better than most of them on the best-seller list.

Second problem is ignorance. Most literature teachers have never heard of Chariton, for example, or are even aware there are ancient Greek novels, much less ancient Sanskrit or Chinese ones. They were certainly never mentioned in any of the literature courses I took in college. These novels are familiar only to specialists, who write for each other, not for the general public. That's one reason I wrote this book: to spread the word.

What does it mean for a work of fiction to be "experimental?"

It means to depart from the norm and try something new. In every generation of writers, 90% just follow the conventions, while 10% are experimenting with new approaches, new techniques--some of which become conventions and then are imitated by 90% of the next generation. Those who want to be professional writers look to see what's selling, and try to imitate those; those who want to be experimental writers avoid what's selling and look to the other arts or disciplines for ideas on how to expand the novel's repertoire.

Whenever someone tries something different with a novel, invariably someone criticizes it by saying that whatever the author did was done before by Joyce or Sterne, and yet no one ever seems to criticize a book for replicating the style or themes of Austen or Hemingway. Why are conventional novels and experimental novels held to different standards of originality? Is it because experimental novels invite the criticism for trying to be original, is there a belief that conventional style is inherently justified? Or is there some other force?

I think there's always resistance to the new--remember the crowds booing the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring?--so critics, in effect, say to experimental writers, "Don't give us anything new unless you can surpass Ulysses." And even then, they'll find something to complain about. You're absolutely right: experimental writers are held to a much higher standard, whereas less ambitious, conventional writers get a pass as long as they keep delivering the expected goods.

There's this mythical figure sometimes referred to as "the common reader," who is assumed to be incapable of untangling the webs of language and style woven by Joyce, Pynchon, Delillo, etc. How would you define "the common reader?" What should authors assume about the reading abilities of their readers? What responsibilities do readers have in relation to "hard" books?

Most people read for entertainment and/or relaxation, so I guess they would be "the common readers." Uncommon readers don't mind working a bit at deciphering a novel, and rise to the challenge of untangling a knot of words. They are flattered by novelists who treat them as smart people, and don't talk down to them. And "hard" books invite you back for a second look. A conventional novel is like a one-night stand; a difficult novel encourages a second, and third date.

In the introduction you say, "Great entertainment is better than bad art; but one shouldn't condemn artistic works for not being more entertaining, nor entertainment for not being more artistic." Why do you think people are compelled to attach value to the terms "art" and "entertainment" in relation to each other? Why do we resist simply acknowledging their differences?

In the context I made that statement, the problem arises when entertainers want to be taken seriously as artists, or when a person dislikes a work of art because it's not entertaining enough. I can't answer your question; why not indeed?

How can you tell when a style, motif, or trope, in a work of fiction is a "gimmick?"

I suppose when it's nothing more than a trick. For example, when Georges Perec wrote an entire novel without using the letter "e," it wasn't just to see if he could pull it off; in that novel (A Void) he was dealing with loss, specifically with the loss of his Polish Jewish compatriots during World War II, whose disappearance is formally replicated by the disappearance of the letter "e." A gimmick would not have that thematic function. Gilbert Sorrentino wrote an entire novel in interrogatory sentences (Gold Fools), not just to see if he could pull it off, but because he wanted to interrogate our cultural assumptions about the Old West.

In the introduction you say, "Literature is a rhetorical performance, a show put on by someone who possesses greater abilities with language than most people." A lot of the negative criticism of experimental novels targets the performance aspect of language, accusing the author of "showing off." Yet, we accept when a professional athlete or singer shows off. Why do you think people respond positively to displays of greater ability in sports or music and negatively to displays of greater linguistic ability in novels?

I have no idea. That drives me crazy too.

Of the many novels you deal with in the book, which do you think is the one people should absolutely read?

That's a tough one, but maybe A Tale of Genji (written around 1010), first because it will show people that sophisticated novels were written long before the 18th century, which is when most people thought the novel was born; and second, it was written by a woman, which shows that Jane Austen wasn't the first major female writer. It has the things people look for in conventional fiction--a dashing leading man, unforgettable characters, several romantic subplots, exotic background--as well as complexity and depth for the art crowd. It's a slow read, but it will reset your assumptions about the novel as a literary genre.

What contemporary writers are fitting into the tradition of the novel presented in your book?

Ben Marcus, Mark Z. Danielewski, William Vollmann, a young Jewish kid named Joshua Cohen--but to be honest, once I started writing my book in 2004 I had to declare a moratorium on reading new fiction, so I'm behind the curve at this point.

What are you reading now?

A French writer named Claude-Prosper de Crebillon, who shook up the French novel in the 1730s with several bold experiments, like writing a one-sided epistolary novel and novels consisting solely of the dialogue between two characters. You can read all about him in my next volume.

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