Scott Gates's Reviews > The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600

The Novel by Steven Moore
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Feb 25, 11

Read in February, 2011

Moore successfully blows up the standard simplistic history of the novel, only to offer in its place a view of the novel that is often just as simplistic. His entire aesthetic boils down to rejoicing any time a narrative is disjointed, bawdy, discursive, “experimental.” His aesthetic depends on the crude aesthetic of those traditionalists he’s writing against. Both sides draw a neat (and nonexistent) line separating one supposed type of fiction from another supposed type. It’s an aesthetic that doesn’t stand on its own.

Here’s the standard history of the novel Moore undermines: The novel was born in the 18th century in England. From here, Nature took its course and things ripened and led to the novels of Dickens, Eliot, Flaubert, Tolstoy, James, et al. Then something went wrong: “Things got a little out of hand during the 1920s and 1930s [Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner] but soon settled back on track, though not before spawning a lunatic fringe that still remains.... Today, our best novelists follow in this great tradition: that is, realistic narrative driven by strong plot, peopled by well-rounded characters struggling with serious ethical issues, conveyed in language anyone can understand....”

Here’s Moore’s one-word response to this history: “Wrong.” The rest of the book attempts to elaborate on this stance. Moore’s history of the novel is portrayed strictly in terms of this contemporary squabble between a handful of critics and academics about the current direction of fiction.

(And concerning this debate between “traditionalists” and the “avant-gardeists”: Do authors like Pynchon and Delillo really need defending? Does anyone really care if airheads like Dale Peck don’t like Delillo, or if Franzen writes an emo-essay about how “difficult” authors should be more considerate to their readers?)

There are parts of the Introduction that knock it out of the park. Moore maintains that the novel has been around for over two thousand years, that its aim has always been to offer something new (hence its name), untraditional, and extraordinary. He has some solid references to back up an alternate view of the novel’s history. And ancient literature speaks for itself: Oddball narration, fantastical events, innovative narrative techniques, and metafiction have always been a part of fiction, from Gilgamesh on. Moore does a good job of arguing that the line that separates the “novel” from older romances, sagas, tales, pastorals, legends, acts, picaresques, and epics (all in quotation marks) is often hazy and perhaps nonexistent.

Then there is the rest of the book: Though much of it is very interesting and informative, it’s still just hundreds of pages of plot summary after plot summary, with interjections of excitement any time Moore can use a piece to supports his partisan, temporally-contingent outlook.

And it doesn’t take long for Moore’s devastating predictability to announce itself: Whenever there’s something religious in a piece of fiction, you can expect a bunch of flippant jokes. Whenever there’s something sexual, you can expect a Yee-haw! Now that’s more like it! His brand of formulaic irreverence towards religion works fine on TV or in works of pop atheism, but in a work that purports to piece together a history of narrative techniques, it’s remiss.

The problem is that Moore doesn’t make any effort to empathize with ancient cultures, and this makes him unsuited to write a book like this.

Or rather, he thinks that no effort is needed. His historical worldview is radically parochial. Each piece of writing, whether it’s from ancient Egypt or medieval France, is judged against current-day (urban/intellectual) standards of propriety. You get only the weakest historical/cultural contexts of the works covered in this book, such as how he pretentiously refers to Jesus as Yeshua bin Yosef in a shallow attempt to display how “exotic” the ancient world was. This is the extent to which Moore pushes himself to relate to that world: showing us how crazy their names were.

Because the entire book depends on it, Moore is quick to make any correspondence he can between an ancient book and a twentieth-century “experimental” novel. Many of these comparisons are weak, to put it mildly. Concerning a thirteenth-century mystical novel written in Hebrew, he claims that the book is misunderstood and that it’s really “in the same spirit” as Keroauc’s characters in On the Road digging sax solos while cruising America. A scene from an Egyptian scrap written in 1800 BCE on a piece of stone is claimed to be “like something out of Kafka or Borges” because it involves a character’s returning to court and finding that no one has aged (if you accept this lazy level of comparison, then anytime you’re standing in a line, not to mention all fairy tales, can be referred to as “Kafkaesque”). An ancient Mesopotamian hymn opens with a description of the city of Kullab that “almost sounds like Saul Bellow’s Chicago.” This last one torpedoed any faith I had in Moore: this opening paragraph is given in full; it does not (no surprise) read anything like Bellow.

Moore’s complete lack of nuance makes him sound mentally unbalanced at times. Here he is discussing whether or not sections of writing within the book of Genesis and the book of Samuel should be considered novels: “But of course they’re fiction; otherwise they must be classified as religious propaganda, pious frauds perpetrated by self-serving priests who rewrote history as perniciously as Soviet historians rewrote theirs in the last century and with a similar totalitarian agenda.”

Steven Moore, King of the Anachronism!

The book is rounded out with secular/atheist platitudes, such as the following: “One shouldn’t need the promise of heaven or the threat of damnation to act decently.”
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