Every now and then a work of general interest on literature, written for a non-specialized audience but filled with citations, comes along that, due to its brashness, perspective, or style re-opens arguments considered settled, inviting us to look anew at this or that subject. In extreme cases it can even encourage us to toss out what we’ve been taught. For obvious reasons this can arouse hostility in traditional-minded critics and reviewers.
Steven Moore’s The Novel: an alternative history is such a book. Moore challenges beliefs many hold dear about the novel’s origins, and he does this through a seemingly simple and, when described, tedious-sounding fashion: beginning with 1990 BC texts from Egypt, Moore moves forward, in this first of three volumes, to just before Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote appears, summarizing major novels from across Europe, the Near and Far East, Central Asia, and the sub-continent (with a side trip to Mesoamerica).
The purpose is not to dully list what Indian, Japanese, Hebrew, and Greek writers were thinking about but to illustrate that what they wrote are works most readers today would recognize as novels. (Even though most of those works have long been classified as something else [sagas, for instance].) Summaries give us the gist of a book, but that’s only where Moore starts. He tells us, as best he can, how the books influenced later novels, and goes through their structures. In this last aspect he can convincingly show how ancient, classical, and medieval works handled the literary representation of disputes within families or between the powerful and the powerless, as told through multiple narrators, flashbacks, stories within stories, and so on, and Moore links these stories and their styles to modern or contemporary novels. The more he discusses India’s Entry into the Realm of Reality (1st or 2nd century), the more we recognize that its extravagant language and imagery calls to mind recent stylists with poetic vocabularies, such as Henry Miller or Blaise Cendrars. The Plum in the Golden Vase, a 17th-century Chinese novel of 2,300 pages, contains much earlier Chinese writing in it through the use of allusions, sampling (very of the now, musically), and reworking earlier stories. Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves presents familiar elements—the monster in the dark, the driven explorer, the found manuscript, the entry into the so-called real world of something from another dimension—reworked into a design given a new edge thanks to the voices Danielewski conceived.
Moore’s analysis of so many previously unheard of (to me) early novels, carried out over nearly 700 pages, collapses the centuries between this or that novel—such that the books written about are simultaneously of our time and the time of their creation—and dismantles the long-taught divisions of genre. We see that the history of the novel that older British critics (and critics from other countries who followed them) came up with is mistaken. The hoary tale that the novel began with Defoe, Swift and Richardson, going on to Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, and so on, is a fabrication that has robbed us of experiencing, or even knowing about, a wider world of literature than English fiction, and a considerably older heritage of the novel than previously posited.
Moore is out to make another case, too. The kind of novel many people nowadays swallow like sweets is a mainstream work that contains a painstakingly assembled realism; in contrast, the kind of novel many people look askance at is called experimental. The realists have won the day, in most minds, when it comes to what’s considered a “real” novel, but it wasn’t always that way. (To declare two interests: I favour experimental works, and I also know the author.) In his rough-and-tumble Introduction (almost 40 pages) Moore gives reasons for writing this book: the prevalence of slashing reviews of postmodern literature by Dale Peck—models of rhetoric and heat without sympathy or much understanding of the creative process—and an ignorant and facile assault on William Gaddis by Jonathan Franzen, as well as a general dislike on the part of many reviewers for novels that lie outside the norm (i.e., threaten the placid, plastic surface overlaying our reading culture) and for writers with “a yen for innovation, a showy prose style, and a perceived disregard for the common reader” (p. 2).
The critics Moore engages with—lumped together as MPF (“‘[B.R.] Myers, Peck, Franzen, and readers like them’”) believe “linguistic extravagance” is a phenomenon primarily stemming from 20th-century writers, but this argument is demolished by the accumulation of evidence presented throughout The Novel: lengthy quotations from works dating well before 1901 that illustrate grandiose conceits, lengthy sentences, and intricate structures have been used by writers across the world and over two and a half millennia. (Moore relies on translated works, in whole or part, and is backed up in his belief that many works are novels by the scholars, editors, and translators who brought these books into English and also call them novels.) Reading the summaries helped me come away with a fuller understanding that many older works were far from portraying the real world (as well as stiffening an internal conviction that not even pain of death could force me to read anything about King Arthur) In a word, they are fantastic—while also being formally inventive, and excessive in ways a lover of long books would treasure. I have no doubt that if any one of several of the older works Moore lingers over, as a lover does, were to appear today, it would be harshly treated by MPF for being overwritten and untrue to life.
Of course, there will be objections to what Moore’s doing. He brings in the first one that a literary historian and a “traditional critic” of the novel would raise: “I haven’t defined the novel yet, nor differentiated it from other kinds of fiction, like the romance, the confession, and the anatomy”; Moore says that in his “ecumenical view… any book-length fictional narrative can be called a novel.” Some might object to that, and here I believe Moore could have used input from others. (Though he quotes Barthes “distinction between ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ texts,” he stays away from theory; in fact, Moore blames many French theorists for the state of literary discussion today.) While relying on remarks made by those most familiar with the works under discussion, nevertheless he could have strengthened his argument. Moore is showing the protean form of the novel, and how it evolved; but then critics began defining what comprised a true novel, and what didn’t. Much of this was based on the old, and seemingly crucial, division of . . . form and content in a work, which helped some people decide what genre a text belonged in. Gilbert Sorrentino, reviewing Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style in 1981, offered a different idea, one that Moore could have used:
Exercises in Style lays to rest (or should) the quaint idea that fiction is composed of two equal parts: form and content. It also calls seriously into question the generally accepted contemporary dictum that “form is never more than an extension of content.” What it posits, in a great, bravura performance, is the joyous heresy that will not go away, despite the recrudescence of such aesthetic nonsense as Moral Responsibility, Great Themes, and Vast Issues as the business of fiction, and that heresy simply states: form determines content. (“Le Style de Queneau,” in Something Said: Essays, p.200)
(An interview from 1983 with Publishers Weekly contains this remark by Sorrentino: “‘Form not only determines content,’ he told Charles Trueheart of Publishers Weekly, ‘but form invents content.’” Quoted in Poetry Foundation
More recently, Nigel Fabb’s “Form as fiction,” in Belgian Journal of English Language and Literatures (new series 2 : 63-73), argues—and I’m simplifying this—from a linguistic basis that as literary texts contain fictions, then their form is also a type of fiction. This is one step further to dissolving the usually specious, and often permeable, barrier between genres. People created the romance, haiku, and expressionist drama, and people will re-create them, transform them, and expand the definitions critics futilely insist must be adhered to. A critic can’t keep throwing up sandbags to make sure the river stays in its bed. A critic has to stand back and describe how the river moves. This isn’t news, but it seems to be, especially to conservative critics. Their arguments against Moore, which he partly foresaw, deserve to be considered since it’s likely people who haven’t read The Novel will come across them and walk away with a negative impression of the book.
Denis Donoghue is a little over 80 years old. Writing in The Wall Street Journal in mid-May he reacted strongly to Moore’s book. The review is mostly angry rhetoric aimed at some pup twenty years his junior who says English novels aren’t The Source of the Novel. Donoghue begins by relying on what you and I were taught: “Most readers think that the novel—or at least the English novel—came into its own with the emergence of the middle-class at the beginning of the 18th century. Members of that class were primarily concerned with getting on in the world, living by the values we now think of as bourgeois: being comfortable, making enough money, getting congenially married.” In a typical debater’s move, the argument has been moved from one field to another: the middle-class is what brought the novel into its own, and the writer comes later, almost a creature devised by the reading public.
(In the online journal Open Letters Monthly, a different Donoghue—Steve—reviewed The Novel under the title “On the Bunny Slopes of Helicon.” That’s just coincidence. But some way through the review Steve Donoghue says: “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.” O dearie I!, as John Cowper Powys often said. What can one say to this cavalcade of notions? The casual denigration of authors—none of whom are holy, as Donoghue knows if he’s read one single biography of any of them—bears a resemblance to the secondary placement Denis Donoghue spoke about. Steve Donoghue states that he knows what the purpose of critics is for all time—do taxonomy—a great diminishment to anyone who regards novels as vibrant objects whose reception is as varied as the number of readers. But, he has contradicted himself, for his opening states: “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…” Critics aren’t coherent, yet they should be left in charge of defining categories. Donoghue must have very specific critics in mind.)
The elder Donoghue continues: “Don’t tell that [about women with time on their hands reading novels and wanting realistic ones] to Steven Moore. In The Novel: An Alternative History [Donoghue uses double quotation marks, which become single in the quote. It would be inaccurate to italicize.] he holds that the novel actually began about 4,000 years ago.” But it is incorrect to portray Moore’s voice as a lone one: Donoghue has either missed or ignored the scores of citations Moore provides, as mentioned above, where scholars of this or that period and language say that such-and-such a book is, in their opinion, a novel. Further, the impression given about Moore is that he’s not a scholar with a thesis but as an enthusiast holed up in a basement apartment writing in green ink. Donoghue maintains the integrity of outdated categories of fiction—in the face of how many writers see writing today, and against the material Moore presents—and can’t offer a substantive counterargument. (The other Donoghue did offer much better arguments.) Looking at the works Moore talks about would be a start, but there’s no evidence Donoghue did that. In fact, he brushes that effort aside: “No one knows all the languages required to read the works involved in the original… Questions of style in the originals are impossible to address.”
In his fifth paragraph Donoghue says that Moore discusses “varieties of the ‘novel.’” Those quote marks convey this message: Books from ancient Greece and Rome, or dealing with Iceland’s bloody history, because they aren’t in English and I don’t trust their translators, editors or scholars, aren’t open to judgment on their style, so they’re not novels. What about Mati Unt’s Things in the Night (1990), translated in 2006, can we talk about that? Apuleius, Judah ha-Levi, Jean d’Arras? No. The novel safely remains in English hands.
When I read Moore’s plot summaries of Irish novels, their absurdity and wild adventures remind me of science fantasy. There is continuity. The same holds true for realism (“…merely one of many modes of the novel, not the only or defining one” [p.648]) from long ago up to this very day. At the end of his book Moore writes:
Realism is what many critics insist separates the true, modern novel from older book-length fictions, and for that reason usually assign the honor of the first novel to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) or Richardson’s Pamela (1740) . . . any reader who turns from The Plum in the Golden Vase  to either of those two novels will immediately be struck by how many details are missing from them, especially concerning physical/sexual matters, how quaintly unrealistic they are, displaying a faux-realism at best. . . . It’s not necessarily the first realistic novel—see those by Petronius, Murasaki, the Icelanders, Martorell, Aretino, Deloney—but it’s the most realistic.
Moore’s ecumenical view unearths the novel’s oldest roots, but that runs against Donoghue’s Anglocentric preference. By not reading with attention, or an open mind for ideas he could learn from, Donoghue exemplifies MPF. The reactionaries are everywhere.
There is one major drawback to The Novel, which Steve Donoghue discusses at length, and that is its ill-temper towards religions and those who have a religious belief. “The page is the dear, good grave where everything that lasts will finally rest,” says William Gass (“Robert Walser,” in Finding a Form), and that sentiment about sums up Moore’s position on the material world and immortality. A kindly editor would have suggested that these needless irruptions make Moore come across as intolerant of difference.
Those wanting to discover new old books, or to read a vigorous refutation of a broken and useless idea of when the novel began written in a breezy, informative, style, will find The Novel an essential work. It belongs in personal, community and university libraries.
Canadian writer Jeff Bursey has written reviews and articles for journals in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. His first book, Verbatim: A Novel, will be released by Enfield & Wizenty this fall.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Arc d’X by Steven Erickson I. The one-sentence summary for Arc d’X is as follows: It’s the book that would have been made if David Lynch did the plotting and Thomas Pynchon did the writing (but in a suppressed, uncomedic way, like Paul Auster). These are all artists I like and respect, so this should...
- Everything Bad Is Good for You by Steven Johnson Steven Johnson is a compelling magazine writer. I read his article (now doomed to paid-archive purgatory) in the NY Times Magazine with more than engaged interest, because it gave a surprisingly counterintuitive explanation of the impact of popular culture on society. The article did its job, too, because it made...
- One Writer’s Beginnings: Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o Quietly and unobtrusively, the author draws out the influences that will shape his literary work and his political views in the years to come. By the end of the story, you understand the love of language and performance that drove Ngũgĩ to become a novelist and playwright. You see how...
- On the Natural History of Destruction by W.G. Sebald I. When published in English in 2003, W.G. Sebald’s collection of lectures, On the Natural History of Destruction, touched off a storm of critical response. One might wonder why these lectures didn’t drum up so much conversation–in English–when they were first delivered in 1997, but that is a question for...
- Breaking the Code: Against Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate Steven Pinker implies that art that isn't rooted in evolution is perforce bad and irresponsible art. Dan Green has other ideas....
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Jeff Bursey
Read more articles about books from Continuum