Jun 10, 2008, 06:27AM

INTERVIEW: Steven Moore

A consistent advocate for big, knotty books like Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses, Steven Moore is working on his own history of the novel, and he talked to Splice about combating anti-intellectualism, the novel’s 2500-year heritage, and why he likes his literature “big and brainy.”

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Steven Moore has written countless fiction reviews for publications like The Washington Post and the Rain Taxi Review of Books, but I only came to know his work when I started reading William Gaddis’ 1955 novel The Recognitions. A 950-page monolith that’s often cited as the first postmodern American novel, The Recognitions is the kind of book—like Ulysses, or The Man Without Qualities, or Infinite Jest—that gets read by a small coterie of ambitious readers who are up for a challenge. It’s dense with allusions and complex language; the main character’s name isn’t mentioned past page 118; it spans continents, dozens of characters, art history, and pre-Christian mythology. But it’s also absurdist and frequently hilarious, not to mention astute in its criticism of contemporary urban culture, and these are the qualities that become clearer with the help of Moore’s Reader’s Guide to The Recognitions, originally published as a book and now available for free online.

It takes a while to read The Recognitions, so anyone who consults Moore’s skeleton key will spend a lot of time with him, as well. His annotations are exhaustive and obviously a labor of love, the kind of project aimed to remind skeptics that yes, reading Gaddis is worth it. After a lifetime studying The Recognitions and other infamously difficult books, Moore is at work on an “alternative history of the novel,” which he claims is also necessarily a “history of the alternative novel.” He was kind enough to send me a draft of his Introduction, and we exchanged emails about reading, writing, and being a torchbearer for a supposedly snooty intellectual tradition.

SPLICE TODAY: What was the first book you loved? At what point did you decide that literature was going to be your professional and intellectual livelihood?
STEVEN MOORE: [Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century experimental novel] Tristram Shandy. I came late to fiction, for I had been interested in history from grade school through my second year of college, and when I did switch to an English major, it was because of my interest in poetry (writing it as well as studying it). Then I took a class in the History of the Novel (because the poetry class I wanted in that time slot was canceled), and one of the first novels we read was Sterne's anarchic masterpiece. That blew away all my preconceptions of what a novel was, or could be. In that same class we read To the Lighthouse, The Sound and the Fury, and Joyce's Portrait. By then I was a goner, and dumped poetry for innovative fiction. Joyce especially fascinated me, and after struggling through Ulysses I read some Joyce criticism and decided that's the kind of stuff I wanted to write, and in fact my first published piece of criticism was a short note on an episode in Finnegans Wake. My first book on Gaddis' Recognitions was pretty obviously modeled on those by Thornton and Gifford on Ulysses.

ST: You've published many reviews, yet you're not a published novelist yourself, nor a professor. What twists and turns has your career taken, and what do you consider your current professional title? Writer? Scholar? Publisher? Something else?

SM: “Independent Scholar” is the box I check when I fill out a request at the library. I had hoped to become a teacher when I graduated with an M.A. in 1974, but couldn’t find a job, and ditto in 1988 after I earned a Ph.D. So I've had to support myself in other ways, mostly in the book industry. I did try my hand at a few novels when I was in my 20s, but I decided to leave it to the pros.

ST: As a champion of Gaddis, William Vollmann, David Foster Wallace, Alexander Theroux, et al, you sometimes come off as a guy who needs a novel to be big, dense, and encyclopedic in order to enjoy it. Where did this interest in the prodigious 20th-century writers begin for you? Are there any more “traditional” writers you’ve loved or studied with equal excitement?

SM: I like a challenge, and appreciate grand, superhuman efforts. Seven-course meals, not quick snacks. It started with the music I listened to as a teenager in the 1960s; I liked long ambitious songs (check out Soft Machine's Third—a double album with one complex song per side), but again it was Ulysses that spoiled me: I was enthralled by the idea of the novel as a cultural encyclopedia of its time—not merely as a story about some people facing some problems, which is what most mainstream novels amount to. So I quickly gravitated to huge novels like The Recognitions, The Sot-Weed Factor, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, novels you could lose yourself in for weeks, and study for a lifetime. (It shouldn't come as a surprise that I also like Wagner's and Glass' operas.) I do like some writers known for short novels—Firbank, Spackman, Markson, Ducornet—but generally I like 'em big and brainy.
As far as more traditional writers go, I revere P. G. Wodehouse, but since leaving college I've read very little conventional fiction, and not out of snootiness but simply because I've had my hands full keeping up with all the unconventional authors I prefer.

ST: Since it’s not yet published, could you summarize the thesis of your work in progress?

SM: It's that the experimental, artsy novel that [reviewer Dale] Peck and others feel began with Ulysses actually began thousands of years ago, and that today's experimentalists are continuing in that venerable tradition. The conventional, realistic novel that dominates the best-seller lists today is a very late development in the long history of the novel, not the novel's default setting. So I begin at the beginning—ancient Egypt, "The Tale of Sinuhe" (c. 1950 BCE)—and show that all early fiction writers were innovative, making up the rules as they went along. At early stages in every culture's history, literary theorists like Aristotle in Greece (and his counterparts in India and China) established rules and expectations for poetry and drama, but ignored prose fiction. Consequently, novelists were free to do whatever the hell they wanted, so I survey the results from around the world up to the year 1600 (right before Don Quixote, 1605). That's where my Volume 1 ends, which is circulating among publishers right now. Volume 2 will begin with Cervantes and end with the most interesting novel of 2012.

And I'm developing a secondary theme that fiction is a kind of secular literature running alongside every culture's sacred literature—testing its validity in "real" life, so to speak—and that fiction is finally a more trustworthy guide to life than sacred texts.

ST: Speaking of Peck, you claim that your project was spurred by a few controversial and near-simultaneous essays by him, B.R. Myers, and Jonathan Franzen. In their own ways, they all decried novels that, to them, seemed overly verbose and learned, or too linguistically histrionic. (I'm actually surprised you didn't mention anything about James Woods' hammering of “hysterical realism.”) Certainly this aversion to virtuosity is nothing new; Samuel Johnson said of Tristram Shandy, “Nothing strange will last.” But to what do you attribute the insistence of the recent critics? Is it, as you nearly imply, that teaching literature in schools creates a false sense that it should always be approachable to everyone?

SM: I don't think it was a coincidence that Myers, Peck, [and Franzen] began voicing their complaints right after Bush stole the 2000 election and the country was hijacked by conservatives. You’re right that innovative writers have always faced opposition, but 50 years ago, an educated person would have been apologetic if he had never read Ulysses; after 2000, you had people like that bog-trotter Roddy Doyle saying Joyce wasn’t worth reading, as though it showed good sense not to have read Ulysses. Instead of being embarrassed at not making it past page 25 of Gravity’s Rainbow, some people were proud to have seen through that charlatan so quickly. These conservative critics seem to hold a “family values” attitude toward literature, believing that anything outside of the mainstream of fiction should be shunned, and that if a novel couldn't be read and appreciated by your average Joe or Jane, then it was a pretentious waste of time. Of course you don't have to like Joyce (or Pynchon or Gaddis), they’re certainly not for everyone, but to dismiss them as pretentious frauds and to glorify simpler, more traditional fiction struck me as an example of the growing anti-intellectualism in our country, right in step with schools mandating that evolution was just a “theory” and that creationism should be taught alongside it in science classes.
I couldn't help but detect some laziness as well; some people don't want to “work” at reading a novel (or listening to a complex opera, or watching a film with subtitles, etc). I said earlier I liked a challenge; many people obviously don’t, or not when it comes to novels. I got the sense from these critics that they feel the novel is a democratic, middle-class genre that anyone should be able to enjoy, and that these experimentalists were betraying the novel (and their readers) by trying to turn it into something (high art) it was never intended to be. (In music, punks reacted the same way in the 1970s after progressive, virtuosic rock bands turned pop music into something they felt it was never intended to be.) But only since the 18th-century were novels written for the benefit of average readers; for the 2000 years before that, novels were written and read by scholars and aristocrats, for the most part. These critics seemed to be unaware of the novel's decidedly elitist roots, so that's the history I decided to tell in my work in progress.

ST: What about Franzen, though? His complaint was from a novelist's point of view, and his struggle with this question was a (admittedly solipsistic) struggle with his own profession's role in the culture. He claimed that, after writing two deliberately dense systems novels that didn’t affect society in any meaningful way, he was worried that the novelist-as-cultural-spokesperson model was becoming extinct. He belongs to that school that wants to rid capital-L Literature of its ivory tower mentality. What's your feeling about this impulse?

SM: Well, authors have to choose the audiences they want to write for, and while commercial novelists have no illusions on that score, Franzen's not the first novelist to want to have his cake (write capital-L Literature) and eat it too with fame and sales in the tens of thousands. With the dumbing-down of America, it's inevitable that art-novelists will find their audiences shrinking, but they'll have to get used to it, as poets have. (Few poets anymore complain that they aren't as popular as, say, Tennyson was in his.)

ST: Tell me about the process of writing the Gaddis annotations. Did you correspond with him through that and pick up clues?

SM: I didn't dare contact him until I was nearly done. I did a first pass annotating those items that were relatively easy to find, then spent hundreds of hours in libraries researching more obscure items. (This was pre-Internet: I first read The Recognitions in 1975, and began the annotations a year or two later.) A few dissertations and articles on the novel had already been written by that time, which provided some information, and I dug up the rest on my own. Identifying Gaddis' sources were the key: once I found the particular book he used for saints' lives or for alchemy, for example, I could knock out a number of annotations like bowling pins. It helped that I had already read some of the same books Gaddis used, like Fraser's Golden Bough and Graves's White Goddess, which is part of the reason I was so attracted to the novel to begin with, [particularly Gaddis’ fascination with] the modern relevance of ancient myths. Toward the end, it was like completing a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, trying to fill in the gaps that were still missing. Only then did I write to Gaddis and tell him I'd annotated about 90 percent of it, and wondered if he still had a list of sources that I could use to finish up. He said he didn't. I learned later he was very pleased with the book, and wrote me a six-page letter filling in some of those gaps. Looking back, it was the greatest intellectual adventure of my life.

ST: As a person who makes his living discussing the more difficult end of the contemporary lit. spectrum, how would you classify the readership of the Gaddis, Theroux, Pynchon, et al set? There's a stereotype that it's all educated white males and academics, yet I had an older woman in my college Joyce class who, despite being an engineer and part-time literature enthusiast, was a massive, lifelong Pynchon fan. Do you have any idea, perhaps from meeting users of your Gaddis research, what this reader community is like?

SM: The stereotype is largely true, I guess, and I'm sure female admirers of these authors are in the minority. I don't socialize much, so I couldn't say what this community of readers is like, though I'm always happy to hear there are those outside the academy who like this kind of fiction.

ST: Could you recommend a book? I liked Paul Verhaeghen's Omega Minor, which, to put it mildly, is your kind of thing.

SM: I got that when it came out and had hoped someone would ask me to review it, because that's pretty much the only excuse I allow myself to play hooky from my book project; I'll never finish it otherwise. It totally looks like my kind of novel. Since I'm aware that my tastes are unconventional I'm always reluctant to recommend books, but the novel I would most like to read again for the first time (another standard interview question) is Alexander Theroux's Darconville's Cat. It's long and challenging, but not nearly as difficult as any of the egghead novels we've mentioned above.

  • "Darconville's Cat" is a perfect choice coming from what he said in the rest of the article; it's dense, and it's debt to Joyce runs deep, but it's frequently funny and pretty approachable for a casual reader who avoids the "challenging stuff."

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  • Steven Moore is one guy I'd love to have dinner with, just to pick his brain on literature. Judging by this interview, he ought to be an English professor at Princeton, with classes devoted solely to Gaddis and Barth. One quibble: He says that conservatives "hijacked" the country after "Bush stole the election." That's a common trope among liberals and we're all use to it by now. However, Moore is clearly more conversant with serious literature than politics. Conservatives regained prominence with Reagan's election in 1980 and then in '94 after Newt Gingrich engineered the GOP takeover of the House. Besides, I wouldn't say Bush is all that "conservative." Otherwise, an extraordinary interview with an extraordinary scholar.

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  • I tried to read Infinite Jest, and I just couldn't force myself too. I mean its so god damned longwinded, and when I've worked all day, the last thing I feel like doing is wading through that mess. the ratio of people who have actually finished those books versus those who say they have is probably about 1/5. I never really understood what people meant by "over educated" before trying to read infinite jest.

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  • At the risk of sounding like a rube, or BillyIdol, I also tossed Infinite Jest after 100 pages. A waste of time, just like Dave Eggers. I did like Steven Moore's jabs at Jonathan Franzen, one of the great literary scabs of our time.

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  • im not saying infinite jest is a waste of time, but it requires such a huge effort to go through all the footnotes and the pointless longwindedness (and doesnt even feel all that satisfying when you wade through all those god damn footnotes) that its not surprising that so few people, usually just those with a background in literary theory, find it interesting.

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