Steven Moore Interview
I first became aware of the criticism of Steven Moore, I think, via his The Novel: an Alternative History, which basically undoes any tidy history that’s been written of the genre as begun and established in any one place or time, illustrating the sprawling origins of sprawling textual experiments across the earth and time. Feeling a bit dead in terms of my own efforts writing, I reached out to Moore with the eventual goal of trying to write the third volume to his two masterworks. He was incredibly kind, even sending me notes he’d had for a third volume. It’s an odd thing in turn, because, in a way, the third volume was written in his My Back Pages, a compendium of criticism as sprawling and ambitious as his works on the novel, though I guess a bit more open than the first two volumes and hence published as something different. I tried to wrap my head around continuing his efforts, and some time passed. I jotted some notes, and wrote a bit based on what he’d sent me, and some time passed. I emailed him about things, or lost touch a bit, and some time passed. Eventually I shifted my focus and wrote him with an apology, saying perhaps I’d try my hand at an alternative history of the short story, and some time passed. Across whatever years or months begun with his alternative history, I became acquainted with everything else he’d written. He’s probably the most important figure, aside from Gaddis himself, who’s kept alive the modest bonfire of interest in the life and works of William Gaddis. He’s an ardent admirer of big, brainy books, and has worked for much of his life to champion both the lesser-knowns in that category, as well as each decade’s occasional tomes. If you’re a fan of Michael Silverblatt’s immersive, readerly approach to interviewing writers, there’s a good chance you’d find a kindred spirit in the writing of Moore. His most recent book, a selection of writings on the elusively brilliant American original Alexander Theroux, presents a wonderful entry point to both Theroux’s tomes, and to the writings of Steven Moore in turn. He was kind enough to answer some questions regarding Alexander Theroux: A Fan’s Notes, out now from Zerogram Press.
— Grant Maierhofer
I wanted to start with a sort of primer question before getting into the book and Theroux in particular. You’re someone who has weathered your share of storms in the name of criticism, and in the name of writing about fiction as a sort of historical force. When you look at things as they are today, has your sense of the role of the critic, and the sort of critical writing you’re interested in—in-depth, rigorous, academic but human and impassioned—has it changed very much? You’ve single handedly kept afloat scholarly interest in a number of significant writers, has this process, or your relationship to it, been affected by the seemingly constant change of the last century or so?
I do indeed feel the role of the critic has changed, and not for the better. Over the last fifty years, there seems to have been a shift in many critics’ attention away from the craftsmanship and artistry of literary works to their sociopolitical implications, to their authors’ attitudes, perhaps unconscious, toward such issues as gender, racism, power, colonialism, etc. Critics became more interested in literary theory than literature itself and used particular literary works only to illustrate various propositions by their peer-approved theorists. More recently, some have donned the drab uniform of social justice warriors to chastise authors for not being as woke as they are, and to cancel them from the curriculum. (On this trend I highly recommend a new book entitled Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender and Identity, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay.)
And the language of academic criticism has certainly changed since the 1970s, again not for the better. (For that reason, I decided to use an anti-academic style when writing The Novel: An Alternative History; I intended “alternative” to describe its style as well as its focus on lesser-known, more innovative works.) So I feel no connection with most current modes of criticism, but I come across enough new examples of traditional literary scholarship—such as Steven Belletto’s The Beats: A Literary History and Massimo Bacicalupo’s Ezra Pound, Italy, and “The Cantos”—to assure me not everyone has drunk the Kool-Aid.
I wondered, with this in mind, where you saw this book functioning in terms of all of your output. We've talked a little about how My Back Pages kind of functions as an informal third book in the Novel series, and alongside those books your recent work has favored individual authors—with the Bukowski book, the Gaddis material you've written. As a sort of rejoinder to the concerns of contemporary criticism—moving in a sociopolitical direction, or simply functioning as a way to explicate academic theories—would you almost suggest an individual author-centric approach to criticism for burgeoning writers?
Most of my books and essays have been author-specific, as you note; I’ve never been one to attempt thematic approaches, as in another excellent book I’ve just read, Rob Turner’s Counterfeit Culture: Truth and Authenticity in the American Prose Epic since 1960. (Hope you don’t mind these product placements, but I like spreading the word about useful books.) The closest I’ve come is my argument in The Novel that avant-gardism has always been practiced by a small number of writers; it didn’t begin in the 20th century, as many assume. But I strongly feel that, in addition to pursuing large themes, young critics ought to specialize in at least one author, because that deep immersion will teach you a lot about how writers create. Research their biography, read their letters and interviews (if available), study manuscripts and textual issues, familiarize yourself with their critical reception, and so on. If nothing else, it results in a greater appreciation of the ordeal of writing something and seeing it through the press, and underscores the fact that literary works are, first and foremost, constructed artifacts, which should be the first thing a critic focuses on when assessing a work.
I had the opportunity to read the typescript of Gaddis’s third novel, Carpenter’s Gothic, while staying with him for a few days in 1984, and after I told him how much I liked it, he started grilling me on its aesthetic aspects: characterization, plot development, pacing, etc. He didn’t want to discuss the overarching themes or sociological implications of the book; he was solely concerned with whether it was an aesthetically sound work of art. I have the impression that many current critics don’t care about the aesthetic soundness of a novel or play, only about its place in current socio-political discussions.
How has your relationship to Theroux's works over time informed or affected your views about the author-critic relationship?
Writing about a living author who is still creating is tricky, as you can imagine. For one thing, even though you are writing principally for others, knowing that the author will be reading your remarks is unnerving, which can cause you to pull your punches, though it also forces you to avoid glibness and sloppy generalizations. If a reader knows you are in contact with an author, you risk losing credibility if you praise the author too loudly or sidestep weaknesses in the author’s work. It’s obviously easier to write about dead authors, but writing about living authors forces you to be more respectful, more even-handed, and more sympathetic—all good qualities that critics should exhibit no matter who they are writing about. Also, as in the case of Theroux, you learn that your initial reaction to a writer might later appear premature or misinformed; as I write in the preface to the new book, my disappointment with Theroux’s later works are partly the result of my early miscategorization of him as a writer.
I’m interested in that moment in the preface and this idea of the process of critique often being one of revisiting over the course of one’s life. It’s clearer probably with your work on Gaddis as you’ve carried him with you from the beginning, but I wonder about moments like that, where you’re looking back and realizing your perception has changed. Theroux provides an interesting case because his work has been published and reissued in such random fits and starts throughout his career, the unifying thing being this fascinating presence he commands at all stages. What steps do you need to go through to feel as though a solid critique has been reached, before you can let go a bit from the endeavor? Have there been other authors over time you’ve almost written on but couldn’t quite settle on a position or method?
Although I now feel I miscategorized Theroux earlier, my appreciation of his early work hasn’t changed—though I deliberately refrained from re-reading them for this book, for I wanted to preserve my early reactions to them. But to reach what you call “a solid critique,” I would indeed have to re-read them and fit them into the wider picture of his complete works. I suspect I would now rate his An Adultery a little higher than I originally did, and I would use Darconville’s Cat as an example of what he did right that he failed to do in Laura Warholic. His anti-racist Three Wogs certainly rebuts, or complicates, the charges of racism some readers have made against his later work. But having written this book, I’ll leave that sort of evaluation to someone else. I can’t think of any other writers I’ve hesitated to write about because I couldn’t make up my mind about them: I’ve plunged forward with anyone who has aroused my enthusiasm.
This next one sort of builds on your answer a bit here. One of my favorite portions of the book was when you included the letter you sent Theroux having just finished his Laura Warholic, which itself sort of speaks to the best moments in most critical writing, and why your “Fan’s Notes” approach is more appealing than an exhaustive critical biography. Theroux is someone who has usually positioned unsavory characters in his characteristic wall of language and allusion. You mention in your letter that it seems off to “like” the relentlessness of the book—its characters, or the language’s invective—but that the experience is nevertheless powerful. Gass talked in his Paris Review interview about literature’s ability to render the hatred he had acceptable to the world at large. In your years of reading and engaging literature, do you think one of its unique qualities would be the transformation of hatred, or disgust, or anger into something that works, that seduces or holds a reader? I can think of films that feel relentless—Romper Stomper or Alan Clarke’s stand out—but even if well done there’s a coldness to the experience you don’t necessarily have when reading Sabbath’s Theater. Painting can wield aggression with a Pollock or someone thereabouts, but reading literature does seem better positioned to scream at a reader, so to speak. This might actually merge well with your subtitle too, as Frederick Exley is certainly a writer who found an outlet in his work. Does this align with your thinking on Theroux’s strengths? Would you agree that literature does have the benefit of allowing for ugly, or unkind figures or language to reach a reader better than other narrative forms?
Since I’m very critical of the way Theroux expanded the original version of Laura Warholic, I wanted to end that chapter on a positive note, to affirm that—for all its faults—it is still a powerful novel. Fortunately I had kept a copy of my letter responding to the first draft that I read in 2002—which Theroux really liked—and that first-draft response struck me as more effective than an academic evaluation made 18 years later. As I say there, I’m uncomfortable with the cheap shots Theroux takes—body-shaming, homophobia, ethnic slurs, etc.—but then again, the satiric mode he works in doesn’t play nice: it has always relied on insults and degradation. As you note, there’s a power and appeal in such vicious, over-the-top language that normal discourse lacks, and it can be perversely enjoyable, like listening to an insult comic roast someone. Not every writer is cut out for that sort of thing, but Theroux realized early on that savage indignation and satire came natural to him, which is definitely one of his strengths. And despite the discomfort and outrage objectionable language can cause, it should never be suppressed or censored: in our politically correct culture, literature is one of the few places left where “free speech” is truly free, and where some uncomfortable truths can be uttered. Having said that, the relentless negativity in the long novel can become wearying, especially since you have to endure it longer than a relentless film or painting.
I’m very curious about that, and it ties in with Theroux too. You’ve championed not only the long novel throughout history in your two-book study, but also the long contemporary novel as a unique sort of artwork in our disrupted, flailing present. You’ve spoken highly of House of Leaves, and more recently on Matthew McIntosh’s theMystery.doc, and then here with Theroux’s sprawling endeavors, some labeled as fiction and others nonfiction, but all undeniably exhaustive works in the tradition of Robert Burton and the long book. As a critic, and a thinker, do you think there is solace to be found in our present in the long novel, or long book? Can you see the more recent (or updated, as you noted with Laura Warholic) Theroux projects as mirrors on, or responses to our present day? As someone who’s read the novel’s various moments across cultures and eras you seem to be one of the best minds to gauge its relevance or not to things as they are.
Don’t get me started on long novels! For some reason, I’ve always been attracted to them, beginning in high school with Ayn Rand’s doorstoppers and Tolkien’s trilogy, and continuing with anything large and ambitious-looking in my twenties. At a flea market in the early 1970s I remember buying John Barth’s Sot-Weed Factor and Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling solely because of their girth. (The Young was the Signet paperback, which was 1,400 pages long!) Nor has the attraction faded: a few weeks ago I finished reading an 1,836-page novel by Michael Tobias entitled The Adventures of Mr Marigold (2005), which reconfigures Don Quixote as a modern-day environmentalist/animal rights activist. And I’m pleased to see that publishers are still bringing out gigantic novels, like Vollmann’s, like Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (though I abandoned it after about 100 pages), and like Charlie Kaufman’s recent Antkind, which Amazon keeps trying to foist on me.
Yes, “solace” is one appeal of such novels: it is solacing to lose oneself in a long novel for several weeks as an alternative to the daily madness conveyed by the news media. It’s like going on a long vacation, whereas the average-size novel is more like a weekend getaway, or a one-night stand, depending on how fast you read. To bring this back to Theroux’s recent work: one overwhelming feature of modern life is information overload, TMI as people used to say, and several of his recent books—Laura Warholic and Einstein’s Beets in particular, as well as some unpublished books like Anomalies (currently around 288,600 words)—display this in excelsis. But if it comes down to a choice between maximalism or minimalism, I’ll tolerate Theroux’s excesses.
by Savannah Cooper
... I should be sleepless—and I am / sometimes, just not in the way / I anticipated ...
A Bedtime Story
by John Grey
... in which / the wise king / and munificent queen / are burned to / a crisp by dragons ...