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My research interests have been turning increasingly toward a deeper understanding of the theory of the novel, and it is for this reason that I added Steven Moore's recent book to my library. Unfortunately, though, it is an unmitigated disaster, a work that should not be taken seriously by anyone.
Let's begin with Moore's central thesis. He argues that the scholarly consensus, which places the rise of the novel genre at around the beginning of the eighteenth century, is completely wrong, that novels have in fact existed for centuries before that time. Such a hypothesis is provocative, but there's one immediate problem that Moore largely circumvents: it's an argument that's already been made, more than a decade earlier and much more convincingly, by Margaret Anne Doody in The True Story of the Novel. While Moore does make a passing reference to Doody in his book, another curious thing that is missing from his analysis is any recognition of the actual scholars who have written about the history of the novel. Astoundingly, Moore makes no allusion at all to groundbreaking works like Ian Watt's The Rise Of The Novel or Michael McKeon's The Origins of the English Novel, books that have set the standard in this field and, even though they tell a narrative that differs from Moore's, surely require him at least to address why these famous scholarly precursors are wrong. After all, it is they who created this "myth" about the novel's invention in the eighteenth century.
Instead, Moore decides to take B.R. Myers, Dale Peck, and Jonathan Franzen as his extremely dubious representative sample of contemporary views on the novel. All three of these figures (Myers and Peck are literary critics, Franzen is a novelist) made famous statements rejecting "difficult" and "experimental" prose, and by amalgamating these views Moore creates his straw man, whom he dubs "MPF" after the initials of Myers, Peck, and Franzen. Never mind that these three figures are debating matters of style rather than what Nancy Armstrong calls "the ideological core" of the novel, never mind that their comments are not meant to relate to the entire history of the genre - for Moore, they suffice to create an illusion of opposition that he can exploit and rail against for the next 700 pages.
Moore's slipshod approach to the scholarship that precedes him is matched by his turgid writing style. It's certainly impressive that he has read such an enormous array of texts, but his in-your-face approach to the reader, while occasionally entertaining, mostly comes across as immature, didactic, and out-of-touch. He compares Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book, for instance, to "a modern teenage girl's MyFace profile." Mostly, though, Moore is just plain condescending, insisting that either you agree with him or you're a blind fool. It's an arrogance that pervades everything from his unnecessarily didactic statements about the "stupidity" of religion to the bizarre multiple-choice personality test he gives in the introduction that again, essentially says that you must either agree with him or you're an idiot.
While I certainly would encourage people to go and read the various texts that Moore talks about in this book for their own sake, he never really addresses why almost *any* of the long prose pieces he writes about should be called a novel. The definition of the genre, from this perspective, becomes so wide and nebulous that it is rendered utterly useless. If I may make a parallel: those who study economics call our current system "capitalism" because it exhibits certain distinguishing features. If someone came along and claimed that ancient Rome, or medieval Japan, were "capitalist" on the sole basis that both these earlier societies used money, their analysis would be seen as weak, if not laughable. In the same way, theorists of the novel have separated it from earlier long prose forms precisely because they see a qualitative shift that requires the identification of a whole new genre. For Mikhail Bakhtin, for instance, it is the increasing complexity of voice compared to the earlier, monological form of the epic, whereas for Ian Watt, the rise of the novel is made possible by the rise of empirical philosophy, which created a whole new way of thinking about both reality and the self. But such particularities do not concern Moore, whose categories are so broad they include any text without regard for its particular historical circumstances.
Moore presents this work as an "alternative" history of the novel, but as a reader, I found myself constantly comparing it to the rants of the various conspiracy theorists that I have encountered in the course of my life. Such people exhibit a common trait: they are often obsessively well-read on certain particulars that support their case, as Moore does with regard to the literary texts he talks about, but always at the expense of addressing seriously those authors and facts that could prove them wrong. Moore's refusal to engage with the most famous theorists in the field, his meaningless definition of what a novel is, and his sheer arrogance in addressing the reader all add up to a dire failure as a book.