In search of history’s most innovative fiction: Colin Marshall talks to historian of the novel Steven Moore

Steven Moore is an author, a critic, and a former managing editor of Dalkey Archive Press and the Review of Contemporary Fiction. In his latest book, the first volume of The Novel: An Alternative History, Moore traces the development of long, adventurous fiction from its origin to the year 1600, paying special attention to unusual works that make innovative use of language. Colin Marshall originally conducted this interview on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes]

Moore2 It's a remark people have made about the book, and that I believe you've also made yourself: it is called The Novel: An Alternative History, but it could also be called A History of the Alternative Novel. How true is that?

In my mind, I was doing two things at once. First of all, it's an alternative to the conventional history of the novel, which begins in 18th-century England and goes up to about 1920 and then James Joyce comes along and throws a monkey wrench into everything and invents the avant-garde novel. The problem with that is, the novel actually started way back in ancient Greece, and the avant-garde novel that Joyce allegedly invented has always been a property. There's crazy, avant-garde, weird, experimental novels going back almost to the very beginning. I'm writing about these ancient works, but all along I'm defending modern, innovative fiction, which often gets a bad rap. I want to point out that these modern avant-garde things are not deviations from the norm, but have always been part of the novel.

This opens up a big issue of just how it's come to be that a traditional history of the novel has become so narrow. This book of yours, the first part ends well before the traditional history begins. How much do you have to modify the “normal” definition of the novel to go back as far as you do.

It depends on what you mean by normal. The dictionary, and E.M. Forster in his famous Aspects of the Novel, says that a novel is any work of fiction longer than 50,000 words, or any book-length work of fiction. If you take that as your definition, you can go back as far as I do. However, you're right, some modern critics want to narrow that down to: a novel has to be realistic, it has to have a certain amount of psychological depth, it has to be set against a recognizable social or economic background, et cetera, et cetera. Why they want to do that, I don't know. I gues they wanted to distinguish the novel written by Flaubert or Henry James from something written in the Middle Ages, so they've come up with all these notions. If you just go by a basic definition, which most would agree, that a novel is just a book-length work of fiction, that opens all sorts of possibilities.

Someone who isn't familiar with this talk about what defines a novel, I'm sure they'll be surprised when they read your book, especially the introduction. They'll find out that, indeed, there has been some argument over what constitutes a proper novel. How closely were you following that before you set into this enormous project, the history of the novel?

I wasn't so much following arguments about the novel as I was simply noticing, throughout my life, that I kept stumbling across these older works of fiction that looked like novels to me, even though that's not what I learned in college. In college, the novel started in the 18th century. In bookstores, I would come across The Tale of Genji, an ancient Japanese novel, or Petronius' Satyricon, which comes from the very first century, or an Icelandic saga like Nial's Saga. I would look at them and say, well, this is fiction, book-length. They certainly looked like novels. I was responding to that, rather than following the academic debates that have been going on for the last century or two.

Starting this project, at what point in your research were you able to find a beginning for works that look like novels, to your own mind?

I knew there were ancient Greek novels. I'd seen a big fat book published by the University of California press called The Collected Ancient Greek Novels. Then I realized Nietzsche once compared Plato's dialogues to early novels, and I thought that was interesting. I came across a book of ancient Egyptian tales, and there's some ancient Egyptian scholars who say these are pretty much novels in everything but name; they have all the properties of novels. It was just looking at ancient fiction, which I've always had a slight interest in, and realizing a lot of those early writings had a lot of properties of the novel. Of course, there was no such thing as the novel per se then, so they were never labeled as such, but if you treat them as the fictional adventures of some character going through a set of dramatic sequences, which is what most novels are, you can look at something like Gilgamesh and say, “Yeah, this resembles a novel,” even though that's not what the author may have set out to do.

What about the earliest fictions you include in the book fascinate you the most?

The daring of them. This goes back to your first question about alternative fiction. These early fictions, especially Egyptian and Assyrian stuff, they're almost like avant-garde magical realist novels. They're more like García Marquez than John Updike, say. The freedom I saw there really interests me. This is the same freedom avant-garde writers adopt. As soon as literature started becoming written, critics came up with rules for poetry and drama. Anyone who was writing tales or longer fictions were pretty much free to do whatever they wanted. There was this real spirit of experimentalism, to use a modern term, in that early fiction, that fit in perfectly with my whole thesis: the avant-garde novel is not a modern aberration, but goes all the way back to the beginning. If anything, the conventional novel is the aberration. That's a very late development.

Could you say that we have it backwards, that what we see as normal is one current of many in terms of the way the novel has gone? We've focused so much on one subset, that has seemed to us to be the only thing?

Exactly. Without question, it's the most popular form of fiction, the conventional novel, the beginning, middle, end, and all that. It's the easiest to read, has the largest appeal, blah, blah, blah. But when you step back and look at the whole stream from ancient Egypt to what's being written now, it's just a tributary that goes off to the side. I wouldn't push it too hard, but the experimental novel is actually the main river. The conventional novel is a popular sidetrack.

I want to get an idea of your own experience connecting with these fictions that go all the way back — very ancient stuff. The descriptions you have in the book of all these novels make them sound exciting and, as you said, quite daring. But what was it like actually going to this material in translation and connecting on a level of a reader in the 2000s?

I deliberately tried to read these like someone living in the 21st century rather than as an antiquarian specialist. That's how most of these things have been read in the past. I did try to take into account the historical context, but I also asked myself, is there anything here that would appeal to a modern reader? I was shocked. How exiting a lot of these books were, how fun, how interesting. I tried to push that in the way I write about these books. I'm not a stuffy professor. I'm a book reviewer, basically — that's what I've been doing for the last 20, 30 years — and an editor of modern fiction. I deliberately read these as if they were modern novels, and was delighted with how exciting they are.

To what degree could an average reader of your book could go to the material, pick it up just as you did, and treat it as a novel that was written in 2009? Is that possible for the ancient stuff, for the medieval stuff, if someone isn't writing your book?

I think so, in selected cases. I mention there's an early Greek novel, written in about the time of Christ, by Chariton. You could take off the cover, put a shiny foil cover on it, and sell thousands at Wal-Mart. It's a wonderful romantic adventure novel, except it's set back in ancient Greece. Even modern novels are sometimes set back then. Some of the others are a bit weird, yeah, but if you have a little patience and a taste for classic literature, most people could read three-fourths of the books I mention with no problem at all.

The fascinating thing is that, in college, people will read fictions from these time period — they'll just read all the same ones. Professors in comparative literature departments or wherever don't tend to touch the fictions you champion. Why do you think that is?

The classics get established, and that's what most professors learn when they're students. They turn around, and that's what they teach. The greatest classics are really worth spending your time on. There's no doubt about it. I just re-read Candide, by Voltaire, and it's everything everyone says it is. Consequently, something like Jacques the Fatalist by Denis Diderot, written about the same time, a really crazy avant-garde book, gets shunted aside. Specialists write about it, but it's not taught in courses because it's unusual. There's so much to choose from, so you stick with the classics, with what you know. It's rare that professors or students get to explore these by-paths.

There is a sense in which you back into the historical works. This introduction I've mentioned, one of the best I've read in terms of a statement of purpose — you set up a context of the modern books you enjoy, and the reader can get an idea of the thread they'll be following. What sort of books in the 20th and 21st centuries does this alternative novel thread lead to? What favorites of not got you into this quest for the alternative fiction of then?

It began with James Joyce. I read Ulysses and Finnegans Wake when I was younger at the end of a class in the history of the novel. I thought, “Wow, this is fantastic stuff!” Of course, Joyce was written almost 100 years ago. I started noticing other modern writers, like John Barth and Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis. I appreciated that much more than the mainstream novels by Updike and Roth, as fine as they are. I just kind of like the crazy stuff, the more experimental stuff. That's continued ever since. There's writers today like Mark Danielewski and Carole Maso, people like that. I've always liked that unconventional fiction. I want to let the reader know that I do favor that oddball stuff, so I'll be looking for the same qualities in these ancient novels. Hopefully the reader will find a few things that interest him or her.

How important was it to you to lay down loud and clear, “I like these things. Because this is my book, it's going to follow my tastes”?

This is kind of a personal take on the whole history of the novel. Academic criticism these days, they bend over backwards to be objective, which is fine in reference books, but there's no passion there, no interest, no color. I wanted to show my enthusiasm, show that I do have some odd tastes and all that, but I wanted to share that excitement with the reader. A boring 700-page book on early literature sounds deadly. I did deliberately make it as entertaining as I could and let my enthusiasm show, rather than bury it under a bushel.

And in this introduction, there's the impression that you do feel there's some degree of — not necessarily attack, but — derision for the kind of fiction you enjoy.

Exactly. Avant-garde art has always been attacked, going back to the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring where everyone's booing at it. Joyce got a lot of attacks. It hasn't changed. Even today, when some weird avant-garde thing will come out, a raft of conservative critics will knock that kind of stuff. I noticed it at the beginning of the last decade, when I began the book. Shortly after Bush stole the 2000 election, I started noticing more and more criticism of the oddball fiction I like. a conservative backlash. I got to be quite angry.

If you criticize my favorite writers, in a sense, you're criticizing me. What they were offering instead was this bland mainstream fiction that I have no interest in. I took it personal. I thought it was time to lash back and say this unusual fiction does have benefits. There are some of us who like this stuff. It's not all trickery and fakery, which is what these people were saying. This stuff is as good as mainstream literature, if not better, because it has this older history. This gets back to what the novel started: it's art, not just entertainment. There's a certain amount of anger and personal counterattack against these critics criticizing the writing I love.

You mention a type like Jonathan Franzen in this introduction. You talk about how he's written articles bemoaning experimentalism in fiction. It seems that's such a strange thing for somebody like him to do. Him or any other critic, maybe you can help clarify why they would see avant-garde fiction as a threat. It can't threaten anything, can it?

Yeah, that's the whole thing! Only a handful of us like that stuff. You never see the books on the bestseller list, not knocking anything off. These works often get the prizes, the Pulitzer or the National Book Award. They don't like the attention they're getting, even though the sales aren't great. There's a little envy, too. You read a book like Ulysses, and most novelists, if they're honest, couldn't even think of writing a book like that. It's above their heads, beyond their heads.

There's an unstated resentment: these books get the critical attention, these are the books people write dissertations about. Franzen is an oddball, because he's usually considered one of the more literary novelists. I was surprised he was being conservative about this. He has this idea that novels should be a community consensus-builder, that we read novels to connect with other human beings, and avant-garde fiction is off-putting, too intellectual. I can see why he doesn't like that stuff, but still, he's an odd one to object.

I'll float this notion: it would be a better reading world if more people were reading avant-garde fiction, and it seems there's got to be a way for avant-garde fiction to read at least a few more people without compromising itself. Do you think that's possible, or do you think the compromise is so inherent in that that it can't be done?

I agree with your first part. More people should be reading this stuff. The avant-garde always challenges the status quo in a way conventional fiction doesn't. Unless you're living in a perfect world, the status quo always needs to be questioned and challenged. A lot of that stuff is more intellectually challenging to many readers than conventional fiction; I can see where it might be off-putting. It's not for everybody. I'm certainly not trying to foist my literary taste on other people. I guess it comes down more to tolerance than anything else. If you don't like this kind of fiction, fine, but don't attack it.

Realize that, in the name of diversity of nothing else, there's room for all kinds of fiction. Some people like this kind of fiction, reading it and writing it. Fine, let them do that. I was an editor at Dalkey Archive, as you mentioned, and we did very experimental fiction. It was always frustrating to build an audience. You reach the point when you realize there's a limited number of people who like that kind of stuff; it's always been that way and always will. What can you do?

But in the part of your life that deals with experimental fiction, do you consider your mission to turn people on to this stuff? Or are you now talking to people like me, who already like it, and want to get them deeper into it?

I do feel like I'm preaching to the choir, sometimes. I'm hoping that, with this book, I encourage some people who maybe read Proust, not Joyce — people who do like rather challenging literature, but haven't gone far into the really difficult stuff — to start exploring some of that stuff. If you can read Thomas Mann or even Jane Austen, with the archaic language and whatnot, you shouldn't have too much trouble, and would certainly find it more interesting than what's on the bestseller list.

Moore1 This question interest me so much, because it seems like the ultimate one in literature or so many of the arts: how does one both attain a wide audience and not have to water down one's innovation, experimentalism, interestingness. With this book, it seems you yourself have made it accessible, but have not compromised the content. Is that a goal you think you've achieved?

I certainly hope I have. I get the impression from the reviews that some think the book is a little too academic. It does have a lot of footnotes, trappings of an academic book, but I did try to make it accessible. I always thought of it as a trade book, not an academic book, and so did my publishers.

As far as the voice you use in the book, there's so much enthusiasm, but you also allow yourself a surprising humor, just jokey asides, which I appreciate. You talk about breaking codpieces, things like that. I did enjoy, foe example, a footnote addressed to Mark Leyner telling him to stop writing those jokey medical fact books and come back to the fold. Was it an issue of allowing yourself to do this, or were you just letting yourself write in your own personal voice?

Both of those. When I began, I assumed I'd have to write a standard academic book. I quickly got bored with that notion and decided I wanted to write in my own voice. I happen to be a rather sarcastic person. I thought, “If I'm having fun with this book, the reader will have fun.” I didn't want to become too jokey. I've seen a few books that try to make literature sound like a Simpsons episode; I didn't want to go that far. I figured some humor, some bantering here and there, would ease the wheels of this huge book, make some of this strange stuff go down easier. I'm glad you seem to have caught on to that.

In terms of conveying your enthusiasm, you've said something in previous interviews, that you're “in it for the language.” What does that mean?

I'm not really into the plot. For conventional fiction, when you read a novel, the first thing someone asks is, “Oh, what's it about?” I really don't care what a book is about. I'm interested more in the artistry. What's the language like? What technical devices are going on? I compare this to ballet and opera. When you go see and opera or ballet based on Romeo and Juliet, you're not going for the story. You already know the story. You're going for the artistic performance: the dancers' abilities, the singers' abilities. When I read a novel, that's pretty much what I'm going for: metaphoric language, imagery, interesting structural devices, humor. That's something I appreciate in a novel; that's why I use it myself. I'm going for the artistry, not for the story.

Given that, what are your feelings on the way you've had to convey these books? So much of what you have to talk about is plot; so much is plot summary. Was this a problem?

It was a real challenge. When you're writing about Charles Dickens, you don't need plot summaries, because most people know about them. When you're writing about Renaissance Italian novels, you first of all have to explain what happens before you can start analyzing or praising it. I tried to combine plot summary with commentary mixed in, and joking asides, footnotes pointing out this and that. Too often, I had to spend a paragraph giving a plot summary just to set up the comments I wanted to make. I didn't know how to get around that. When I write the second volume, when I get closer to modern fiction, I won't have to do that so much. With that earliest stuff, I'm talking about books most people have never heard of, much less read. I thought it was inevitable that I had to rely on plot summary than I would've wanted to.

Once the plots are summarized, what are the challenges of getting across to the reader what you do like about these books: the language, the artistry, the technique?

It was difficult, because I couldn't read any of these books in the original. I admit in my introduction, that's a real drawback for someone in it for the language. On the other hand, I deal with books from about 30 different languages, and I don't think anyone on Earth could've done that. What I look for in every book was basically: what's new about this? What innovations? What do they bring to the table? Analyzing these, I tried to point out the little innovations, the little alterations they made to whatever was the novel in their own time. What they may have picked up, what they modified, how that may have been modified by another one. I was more interested in the innovations every generation brought rather than just character development or something more traditional.

Given that you've seen every trick in the book, as it were, was there anything left to surprise you in terms of fictional technique in these ancient, medieval, Renaissance fictions, or was it just the introductions of what you'd already gotten used to?

It was more the latter. What shocked me was that what I considered modern, 20th-century, avant-garde innovations had almost all been anticipated by someone living 1,000 years ago. I was more attuned to that than anything else, again, making the point that our avant-garde stuff is not much of a departure. There were some unusual things they did that no one's done ever since, but it would take me a while to think about that. It was more how these early writers seemed to anticipate every trick in the book, as you put it.

Since you see every trick in the book happening in these older books, what have the newer authors you love invented? A William Gaddis or an Alexander Theroux, for example. What do they add to the mixture that all these works hadn't done before?

One big shift is in what you might call interiority. The early novels are mostly about what people look like from the outside. They're going through all these crazy things, adventures and all that, but it's almost as if you're watching a stage. As the novel progresses, gets up to the modern era, you start getting deeper and deeper into characters' minds. More about what people are thinking, not doing.

In the 20th century you start getting stream-of-consciousness, then you've got some novelists today like Joseph McElroy or Richard Powers delving into neural networking, how the brain works and all that. You can see this arc going from the outside to the inside. There's a greater sense of realism, even though some of these early novels were surprisingly realistic, especially in sexual matters, there's an ever-growing realism as the novel progresses. More verisimilitude, I guess.

What do you think a contemporary novelist can learn from these works, from the beginning to 1600?

I encourage them to continue to be inventive — maybe not the exact things these people did. Too many writers look around and just see what's successful these days — what's selling, what agents like to buy — and just follow that. If they look at some of these older novels I'm talking about, they'll realize there's always room for invention, trying things anew, things other writers aren't going. Maybe they won't grab any specific techniques, but the spirit of experimentalism and exploration and novelty I hope they'll pick up. The novel should always be novel, put it that way. Not a novelty — that's just a trick — but always fresh, always new. Hopefully, reading about these older novels will inspire novelists to keep it new, as Pound said.

What did you learn, going through these older fictions, about the context the novel existed in? We get an idea of how content changed, but the way societies perceived the novel? What the novel was for?

That's interesting. The main charge against avant-garde fiction today is that it's intended only for intellectuals. But when you go back to these ancient fictions, they weren't written for the general public; they were written by scholars and aristocrats for scholars and aristocrats. This question of elitism often thrown at modern experimental fiction was always a part of a novel. The earliest novels in all these cultures — India, China — they were written for a very small elite. Most people couldn't even read back then, much less access manuscripts.

It wasn't until the 17th, 18th century that novels became published in big enough numbers for the general public to start reading. Not until the 19th century did it become popular entertainment. The elitist charge turns out to have been exactly where the novel started, where it was for the first 2000 years of it existence.

You talk about these wide spans of time with experimentalism being the norm. It seems this would be so hard to ignore for somebody excusing experimentalism of being a weird, niche thing. It doesn't make sense that a critic of experimental fiction could ignore such a wide tradition.

I think it's because they're not aware of the situation. I seriously doubt the critics I mention have even heard of this whole tradition. That's the one break that I give them: they're attacking the stuff simply because they don't know any better. That's the great task I've set myself, to explain all this fiction that preceded them. I don't think I'll change their minds, to be perfectly honest — people don't change that quickly — but I think it's just ignorance of this incredible world of fiction that existed before modern times.

I'm hoping that, after reading my book and maybe reading some of those novels, they'll think twice about making that charge. Most of this is simply never mentioned. I went through college all the way to the PhD. level, and I guarantee not a single book I discuss in my book was ever mentioned, much less taught. It's been the domain of specialists up until now. The task I set myself was to spread the word, get it out from the specialists to the general public: there's this whole other world of fiction worth exploring.

In 2010, we have more books printed than ever, more books around, people who can read books than ever. But is this a different time for fiction in kind, or is it simply a different time for fiction in quantity? Is the place of fiction distinctly different now than it has been in past centuries, or are we in a continuation of this thread?

I hate to say it, but I think the literary novel I celebrate is on the wane. Sure, lots of people are reading novels, but fiction is simply TV shows or movies, and even then it's declining. The internet has obviously stolen a big part of the audience. There's so many distractions these days. 50 years ago, someone who may have read a novel to relax is now going on the internet and writing a blog, reading a blog, playing video games. There'll always be fiction, always be people who want to read stories, but the ultra-literary fiction I'm talking about, I get the impression it died out at the millennium. There'll always be a few, but it's almost contracting to the point where poetry is nowadays: a highly specialized form of writing written and appreciated by a small audience.

At times, writing this book, I felt like a museum curator: this is what fiction was, rather than looking forward. There is some interesting stuff now being written by people who work with new media, hypertext novels written on computers and blah, blah, blah. There'll always be experimental fiction, but the day when an ultra-literary novel can sell more than 5,000, 10,00 copies is probably behind us.

We're only fourteen years past a book like David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, which sold many copies. I don't think anybody considers that to be watered down or not experimental. Maybe that's just an anomaly, but in that span of time we've gone from that being able to sell so much to the end of that, goodbye to all that?

1996, when that came out, was the dawn of the internet, as you recall. The internet has made such an incredible change, just a big cultural shift since then, with all the new media, all the gadgets, all the iPhones, everything else. I think it has changed that much. If you look around, you'll notice you don't see too many books like Infinite Jest anymore, and even when you do, certainly they don't sell in that quantity. Of course, that was a work of genius, and not everyone is capable of writing something like that. That was pretty much the end of an era.

In terms of your personal reading life, when you look back at these fictions from previous eras, do any of them rise to the ranks of a David Foster Wallace, a William Gaddis, an Alexander Theroux? Did you find new works to add to your personal stable of the very best?

Oh yeah, I definitely did. There's a Chinese novel called The Plum and the Golden Vase that was written about 1590 which is just astounding. It's one of the greatest novels I've read in any era. I could put it up there with War and Peace or Ulysses. This is a novel available in a multi-volume set from Princeton University, and it's probably not even carried in bookstores. I think I deal with about 250 novels in this book. 20 or 30 are just as great as anything I've ever read. I'll let the reader discover them, but I was really knocked out. I thought, when I started this, I'd just be looking at some antiquarian books of limited interest, but I was stunned by how great some of these books.

Throughout the book, there's this foreshadowing of Don Quixote. I would imagine that book will begin the next volume?

That's the very first book I talk about. In fact, that's why I stop this first volume in the year 1600, because Don Quixote came out in 1605. A lot of people think that's the first novel, so I wanted to write a 700-page book that didn't even include that. But yeah, that's a big game-changer.

Can we talk about Don Quixote as being the watershed between a what do they call it now? — B.C.E. and C.E.? Is it so important that it is the dividing point between the novel as one thing and the novel as another?

In European fiction, yes. Half of my book is devoted to Middle Eastern and Far Eastern novels, and for them it doesn't matter. I don't want to slight then, because in one sense, in the Orient, the greatest novels ever written before the modern area were written in China and Japan. But in a Europen sense, that book made a huge difference. A lot of writers in the 17th and 18th century were inspired by it, and it inspires people to this day. You can use that as the A.D., B.C., whatever division.

The Chinese and the Japanese fiction chapters in this first volume are some of the most interesting, because they have these works that sound fantastic. I haven't read most of them, but it's hard not to get excited about them. You mention Don Quixote as very important to the European tradition in the next books, but what has happened to the East Asian threads? You don't mention many contemporary authors of those nationalities.

To be honest, I'm not familiar with that much of it. I've read a few things, but that's an area I haven't explored yet. I mentioned Yukio Mishima at one point and maybe Kawabata, but those are just a few I was vaguely aware of. I'll just confess: I don't know modern oriental fiction as well as I do Occidental. As I'm writing the second volume, I'm sure I'll discover those threads.

Do you know yet how far the second volume will extend?

I'm afraid it's only going to 1800. 1600 to 1800 was the big bomb of the novel: the growth of the novel, the rise of the novel. That's when everyone was writing novels. Lots of experimentation, various forms going on. I'm writing that now, and I didn't think it would occupy as much space, but as I'm researching, I'm finding so much worth talking about. Volume two will go up to 1800, and hopefully volume three can get from 1800 to modern times. I'll be much more selective when I get to the modern era. I don't need to write about Dickens or Eliot. They're well enough known. I'll be able to focus on the oddball experimental things.

There's enough of that going on in 1600 to 1800, what they call the early modern period, that it does require a detailed examination. Especially since there isn't anything available like that; if you want a history of the Spanish novel, good luck finding one. I'm sure they exist in Spanish, but in English, there really is no history of the French novel or Spanish novel or German novel in that period. That's what I'm foolishly setting out to rectify.

When you are doing volume two, you're going to hit the point many in the English-speaking world reference as the beginning of the novel. They'll talk about Samuel Richardson's Clarissa. I take it, from what you mention in the book, you're not a fan of Clarissa.

No. I read Pamela, but Clarissa I hit the wall at about page 500 and just couldn't go on. He's a very important writer, so I'll make all the way through this time. It's going to be on like page 460 of my book, so that will allow the reader to realize that's not where the novel starts. He's just part of the long, long arc.

Considering your wide taste in fiction and willingness to give a lot of fiction a chance and to entertain a wide variety of techniques, it does make be wonder what you run into that you don't like in the history of the novel. Are there certain techniques, threads, that you don't find as pleasing as others?

I like comical novels rather than serious ones. Anything that has something new to it, I automatically like. What I don't like is seeing so many novels that imitate previous ones and don't add anything. I don't care for overtly religious novels, just by temperament. My own personal tastes enter into that, but if a novel has any artistic value to it, I try to give value to it and try to keep my own tastes out of it. But, ehh, we'll see how it goes.

How possible is it to separate your own tastes out? It seems like your own tastes are critical; this book doesn't exist without your tastes.

I'm not writing an encyclopedia. I'm allowing my tastes to dictate how much space I give to certain books. I hope that's one of the things a reader will like about the book: getting my take on literary history. This is an alternative history in that sense too. It's me coming from the sidelines rather than an official history, take it or leave it.

You mentioned the reviews you've seen so far. What have you thought of the response? There've been some lengthy responses: a lot of praise, some critiques as well.

It doesn't surprise me. My publisher warned me there would be some people who really love this book and some who really hate it. I've seen examples of both. I'm a bit annoyed by people who get factual things wrong, people who say I don't justify why I use certain translations, for example, whereas, in fact, I do. I have a whole half-page given to Rabelais, explaining why I'm using this translation rather than the dozen others available. I knew I was writing a very personal, almost cranky kind of book. I know I have unusual tastes; I lay that on the table. I knew I'd get quite a range of responses.

I'm a bit disappointed that, ten years ago, this book would've gotten a lot more review attention. As you know, so many book review supplements have closed down, dried up. The New York Times Book Review hasn't reviewed it yet and probably never will, whereas ten years ago I think they would've. The Washington Post would've, and the Los Angeles Times. Ehh. That goes back to what I was saying earlier about David Foster Wallace's book. We're living in a different era now.

Do you consider yourself a literary pessimist, or is this more just this is it how it is, kind of a shrug? Given all the literature there is and all the literature still coming out, are you really as disappointed as you might sound?

I do see the audience shrinking for this kind of fiction. Back in the seventies, John Barth would've sold 20,000, 30,000 copies. Nowadays, he brings out a book and he's lucky if he sells 1,000 or 2,000. Again, there's more distractions. The kind of people who are intelligent enough to appreciate these fictions have been sloughed off into other areas of media, they're just not paying attention anymore, more interested in — well, who knows what they're interested in?

Maybe I'm being pessimistic. Maybe the audience is still out there, and they're simply not as vocal. On the other hand, William Gaddis once said that he writes for a very small audience. As much as he would like to have big bestseller books, the kind of people who appreciate this stuff — like opera as well, or ballet — is always going to be small. I certainly don't see it growing, and I can't imagine our culture changing in any way that this kind of fiction would be more popular than it is now.

Do you ever think that there remains the possibility of “smuggling in” the interestingness, the experimental, the avant-garde techniques you like into fiction that does gain a wider audience?

That's a great point. I notice a lot of mainstream writers who do pick up little tricks from the avant-gardists and incorporate them into their writing. Suddenly that becomes the new conventional writing. The average novel today is much more sexually explicit than anything written back in the Victorian age, and you have Joyce or D.H. Lawrence to thank for that, not conventional writers. Little quirky magic realism and things you wouldn't have seen in the Victorian novel — even the most conventional writer will pick up things that have become normalized that were invented by the avant-gardists. It kind of works that way.

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