Steven Moore:

"The Novel" (Continuum, 2010)

(Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
Steven Moore wrote the best history of fiction ever published, as far as i can tell. His introduction goes to a great length to defend his book from the traditionalists and revisionists who would like the novel to be just a story, just the plot. His book, instead, focuses on what the traditionalists call "experimental" and "avantgarde" novels. Moore shows that such genre has been around since ancient times. The reason why the traditionalists think that the experimental novel is a modern invention is, quite simply, that they are ignorant. He specifically picks on BR Myers, Dale Peck and Jonathan Franzen, who have criticized the likes of Joyce and Faulkner (and would probably criticize anything innovative in the arts, or, for that matter, in any discipline).

I had a similar goal when writing my "History of Rock Music": focus on the innovative musicians, not (necessarily) on the bestsellers. Moore has a relatively humble approach: he simply wants to remind readers that there is "another" tradition of fiction, that is not just about an interesting plot. I have a bigger goal: to prove that this alternative tradition is the one that really matters. My mathematical proof is very simple: tell a Beatles fan that the Beatles were not innovative and you get skinned alive. As hard as it is to deny that the Beatles simply composed melodic three-minute songs, a Beatles fan wants to hear that those songs were as innovative as anything else. The opposite is not true: the fan of Captain Beefheart or Robert Wyatt does not want to hear that they simply composed melodic songs (and certainly would not believe that they became bestsellers). Therefore it's the very opponent who tends to prove us right: there is an absolute merit in innovation and experimentation (without which, incidentally, we would still be living in caves and writing graffitis on their walls). I doubt that Jonathan Franzen would relish a review of his novels stating "there is absolutely nothing new in this novel", exactly the same reaction that you get from an experimental novelist. Therefore both traditional ones and experimental ones indirectly acknowledge an absolute value. It is not me (piero scaruffi) who has that "subjective" view of the history of literature (and art in general) but the very writers and artists (and fans) who oppose my aesthetic values.

Therefore i have a much stronger bias towards the "experimental" novel than Moore himself has. In a nutshell, i could say that interesting plots tend to become very boring within one or two generations. The plot is very important for a novel to be a novel, but, by itself, it does little to distinguish the novel (even when the current generation finds the plot very interesting for whatever sociopolitical reason).

Moore's book is well summarized in the introduction. Here is a liberal collage of some of its lines:

"The novel has been around since at least the 4th century BCE (Xenophon's Cyropaedia) and flourished in the Mediterranean area until the coming of the Christian Dark Ages. The earliest novels were Greek romances and Latin satires. where the plot was a mere convenience that allowed the author to engage in rhetorical display, literary criticism, sociopolitical commentary, digressions. and so on. It was an elastic form that made room for interpolated poems. stories within stories. pornography. and parodies, where the realistic and fantastic blend together. These novels peaked with Apuleius' Golden Ass and Heliodorus' Ethiopian Story, and even the early Christians produced a novel before the fall of Rome ended this phase of the novel's history. That Christian novel was called Recognitions, remembered today because it may be the first instance of the Faust theme in Western literature. The European novel went underground during the Middle Ages but continued to mutate in interesting ways. The Irish began converting their heroic stories into book-length fictions, and in England and France legends of King Arthur inspired prose romances. By then Icelanders had invented the realist novel, seven centuries before Balzac (they're called sagas, but they're essentially realistic novels, despite the occasional appearance of a troll), which was then reinvented by Thomas Deloney in Elirabethan England. In l3th-century Spain, Moses de Leon wrote a vast mystical novel called the Zohar, misunderstood by most as a commentary on the Kabbala but actually a road novel like Kerouac's, with a band of religious nuts dissecting the Torah. In the east, novels in Sanskrit started appearing in the 6th century, and in the Middle East Arabs began producing vast adventure novels and stringing short novels into story-cycles like The Arabian Nights. In 11th-century lapan. Murasaki Shikibu composed a huge novel (The Tale of Genii) more sophisticated than anything produced in the West until the Renaissance. ln 14th-century China, gentlemen-scholars began producing ambitious, 2000-page novels. arguably the greatest body of ?ction before the modem era. During the Renaissance, the novel experienced its own rebirth, reviving the tradition established 15 centuries earlier by the Greeks and Romans to create extravaganzas like Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel and of course Cervantes' Don Quixote, which introduced metafiction into the mix. England soon caught up with the continent with the appearance of novels by George Gascoigne, John Lily, Robert Greene, and others."