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The Novel: An Alternative History Paperback – 1 May 2006

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The Novel: An Alternative History  is a breathtaking achievement. Steve Moore isn't just incredibly well  read, he's also funny, irreverent, argumentative and sometimes even  downright mean. There's nothing dryly academic about his magnificent  book--it's as personal as a love affair and just as thrilling. Like  Edmund Wilson, Hugh Kenner or Randall Jarrell, Moore writes with real  stylish dash, yet backs up what he says with the authority that only  comes from vast knowledge. Ancient Greek novels, classics of Asian  fiction, medieval romances, Renaissance allegories, Victorian  triple-deckers, postmodern experiments--Moore knows them all. For  readers, the result isn't just a history of the novel, it's also one of  the all-time great literary carnival rides. --Michael Dirda, author of Classics for Pleasure and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism

About the Author

Steven Moore (Ph.D. Rutgers, 1988) is the author of several books and essays on modern literature. From 1988 to 1996 he was managing editor of the Review of Contemporary Fiction/Dalkey Archive Press, and for decades he has reviewed books for a variety of journals and newspapers, principally The Washington Post. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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45 of 58 people found the following review helpful
The Novel: A Conspiracy Theorist's View 10 Nov 2012
By Peter Mathews - Published on
Format: Paperback
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This book is extraordinary. While telling the history of ... 7 Oct 2014
By musicfan - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book is extraordinary. While telling the history of the author's broad but convincing definition of the novel, the author
in fact presents what can almost be described as a history of civilization itself. Going back beyond the 4th century BC, the book
covers ancient Greek and Roman literature and runs through to the beginning of the seventeenth century. Geographical
coverage is also extensive, with western, middle eastern and far eastern novels all given very thorough treatment. The breadth
of knowledge of the author, the depth of detail in his accounts of the selected novels and his astute, witty and often irreverent
comments on the books covered make this lengthy volume a highly entertaining read. I look forward very much to reading his second volume covering the years 1600 to the present.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Anthony Iacoboni - Psychologist and Professor of English Literature 14 Sep 2014
By Cristina - Published on
Format: Paperback
Steven Moore has done the impossible! I would never have believed that the history of the novel could be at the same time as erudite as entertaining. I haven't read anything as delightfully freewheeling and heuristic as THE NOVEL since the Austrailain art critic Robert Hughes crashed into our culture with THE SHOCK OF THE NEW.
What distinguishes Moore's book from all fo the rest is the tangible fluidity of his writing. This is the only nonfiction book I have read since Hughes which could qualify as literature. There simply is nothing I can compare it to short of The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
A few recent examples of exceptional nonfiction which fall short of Moore's THE NOVEL might provide a perspective. Paul O'Keefe's A GENIUS FOR FAILURE (The Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon), THE VERSE REVOLUTIONARIES ((Ezra Pound, H.D. and The Imagists) by Helen Carr, and HOGARTH (A life and a World) by Jenny Uglow are all works which I would enthusiastically recommend as incomparable. But they lack the seamless melding of supple prose and literary sinew which makes Moore's two volumes absolutely indispensible for anyone who wishes to grasp the history and significance of fiction, readers as well as scholars and writers.
The sad as silly 'gatekeepers' can wail at their self-professed wall of stale dogma all they want, but it is in vain. Moore opens up the world of literature like no one else has ever had the chutzpah to do with a tangibly authoritatively as comprehensive perspective of literature which must needs be considered an essential component of the canon.
Having had to stomach the self-serving as orthdox views of a schlepping literary establishment which has been effete for so many decades, I am grateful for these two volumes which I will read and reread over the years no less than my adored Norton.
7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
The "N" word 29 Aug 2010
By - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The word "NOVEL" still conjures up visions of "forgot-to-finish-the-required-reading-before-class" jitters in me; yet Mr. Moore's Alternative History of the "N-word" is unfolding as the perfect antidote for the "heebie jeebies." I like that Mr. Moore has not forgotten "the common reader," at least in style and construction of his book: I actually laughed out loud (LOL) when reading portions of it. This is turning out to be a damn enjoyable history of the n, o, v, e, l, I guess I'm just pleading to the "common reader" when I say that folks interested in an erudite, yet FUN history of the "en-oh-vee-ee-elle" should get Mr. Moore's book now, and not wait for the pesky paper back!

4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Fresh, Bold and Thoroughly Irreverent 27 Mar 2012
By Robert Lebling - Published on
Format: Hardcover
A reviewer recently said a new translation of the Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh "reads as effortlessly as a novel." Maybe that's because it is a novel. Steven Moore would like to claim that it is the world's first novel, but he concedes its language is closer to poetry than prose. Gilgamesh, the pinnacle of Akkadian literature, has many novelistic traits - it's a coming-of-age tale packed with action - and should probably be called a "novel in verse."

Moore's book, the first volume of two, takes a fresh, bold and thoroughly irreverent look at the great works of world literature before 1600. The novel, he says, did not begin, as many think, in 18th-century England, or even with Cervantes' Don Quixote in the early 17th. The earliest novels were probably fictional tales (from "mini-novels" to book-length efforts) written anonymously in ancient Egypt's Middle Kingdom. By the 19th century BCE, all the elements of the novel were in place in Egypt: sustained narrative, dialogue, characterization, metafiction, even magical realism.

Moore gives us a new perspective on the early writings of many peoples, including the Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Celts, Britons, Scandinavians, Arabs, Persians, Indians, Chinese and Mesoamericans. Of particular interest is his analysis of the classic Arabic frame-tale collection, the Thousand and One Nights, Persian in origin but thoroughly Arab in its present form.

Moore extracts three extended narratives from this influential opus that qualify as separate novels: The Story of the Hunchback (a "cruel comedy" that takes Shahrazad a week and a half to narrate), The Story of Qamar al-Zaman (a "dark romance" forming the core of the Nights) and The Tale of King Umar ibn al-Nu'man (the Nights' longest narrative, taking Shahrazad a hundred nights to narrate).

More artistically refined Arabic works of the Middle Ages are highlighted as well, such as Ibn Tufayl's Hayy ibn Yaqzan, which may have influenced Robinson Crusoe, and the "hugely entertaining" Adventures of Sayf ben Dhi Yazan, which Moore calls "the most outlandishly imaginative tale in Arabic literature, outdoing even The Arabian Nights in magic and wonder."

[A version of this review appeared in Saudi Aramco World, Mar/Apr 2011.]
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