22 June 2010

Novels and Alternatives

Yesterday, I read a review by Scott Byran Wilson of Steven Moore's The Novel: An Alternative History in the new print issue of Rain Taxi, the first time I'd heard of the book, and then today via Scott Esposito discovered this thorough review-essay of the book by Steve Donoghue. Wilson's review was all praise, Donoghue's mostly the opposite. I suspect I'd fall somewhere between them, since I am sympathetic to keeping the definition of "novel" broad and encouraging complexity, but Moore's tone in many of the excerpts both in the Wilson review and the Donoghue is, if it's representative, one I know I'd find tiresome.

Donoghue's essay is well worth reading because it is a thorough attack on certain rhetorical stances common to critics who want to praise "difficult" or "experimental" writing (the terms are often mushy), stances that buy into a terrible polarity and so end up as smug and blinkered as what they set themselves against -- to be for something, these critics must be against whatever is different from what they are for, and often from a position where they attempt, whether admittedly or not, to give moral meaning to their preferences, making their preference a superior one to those of people who prefer other sorts of things. Many times, this is in response to ignorant and impatient cries of "Unreadable!" and "Elitist!" by people who prefer conventional fiction and who, in their own sense of superiority (which may just be another sort of defensiveness), state or imply that people who like less conventional fiction don't actually enjoy it.  An individual response gets inflated to a universal one: If I don't like this, nobody can -- and if they say they do, they must be lying! Both sides play this arrogant game.

Steve Donoghue does a good job for a while of not indulging in the game, but he can't help himself later in the essay, and the sound of grinding axes unfortunately begins to marr the prose. Nonetheless, the essay is thorough and valuable for many of the points it raises.

I hope Moore's book continues to provoke such posts and ripostes, because the discussion could be valuable. It would be especially helpful for more critics to follow up on a passage in Wilson's Rain Taxi review, that Moore shows "that even aspects of fiction that feel fresh to us now are evident in the earliest stories." In my reading of older literatures, this has been the greatest revelation, and one that deserves to be brought to more readers' attention.

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