A year and a half ago I came into some money after a moving job in Pennsylvania Amish Country. With my share of the earnings I purchased a bus ticket to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Steven Moore’s first volume of The Novel: An Alternative History. Moore’s work entertained me during my odyssey through the nation’s Rust Belt. While a young man in the row behind me spoke loudly into his cellphone about having to leave a job slitting chicken throats in Delaware, I sunk lower into my seat, focusing more intently on Moore’s joyful writing. Thirty-three hours of reading later, my head full of literature and unfortunate visions of headless chickens, I dizzily disembarked in Sault Sainte Marie. I spent the next few days on Les Chenaux Islands finishing Moore’s volume while waiting for the fish to bite.
Steven Moore — author, literary historian, editor — is a man devoted to his craft. He is renowned for his expertise on the fiction of William Gaddis, and has recently published the second volume of The Novel, which reconfigures our understanding of a form we now know to be boundlessly elastic since its beginnings forty centuries ago. He has also edited The Letters of William Gaddis, which was published in the spring of 2013.
I reached out to Moore to thank him for getting me through that bus trip, and for greatly enriching my reading life in any number of ways in the time since. Over email we discussed his epic defeat at the hands of David Foster Wallace on the tennis courts of Normal, IL, his nomination for The Great American Novel, and the style of an independent scholar.
Andrew Mitchell Davenport: What makes your history of the novel “alternative”?
Stephen Moore: I had two meanings in mind when I began writing the book: one was to provide an alternative to the mainstream view that the novel was born in England in the 18th century, and the second was to write the book in an alternative way to standard academic criticism. (I had the musical distinction between mainstream and alternative music in mind.) I wanted to show that the novel — which I define simply as a book-length work of fiction — has an ancient pedigree and an international scope. I also wanted to write it in my own voice: not the impersonal, humorless style of academic criticism but in a personal style that, I hoped, would be more appealing and entertaining. At the beginning of the project, I gave myself permission to have fun with it and hoped the reader would too.
When did you first conceive the project of a multi-volume history of the novel?
It was in the early 1990s that I realized an alternative to the standard history was needed, and I jotted down some notes later that decade, but it wasn’t until around 2003 that I thought seriously about writing it. To be honest, I was bored and needed something to do. I dragged my feet for about a year under the assumption I’d have to write a typical academic work, which stymied me, but when I decided, as I said, just to have fun with it, I began writing in February 2004 and didn’t stop until eight and a half years later. I originally thought it would be much, much shorter: it wasn’t until I began researching and writing that I realized it would occupy more than one volume. I had no idea it would turn into two fat volumes that only reached the year 1800.
How does your status as an independent researcher differ from the way an academic might go about the project of a history of the novel?
The actual research was conducted in a typical scholarly manner, but it was a one-man show. An academic has colleagues to consult — the acknowledgments page of most monographs usually contains the names of dozens of people who helped — but I had to figure it all out on my own. I also didn’t have the perks of being an academic: no research funds, sabbaticals, and the like. I wrote the bulk of it during off-hours while working as a buyer for the Borders chain, which had its advantages: I was able to obtain lots of free books from sales reps, and kept on top of new publications more easily than an academic might.
You also worked independently to collect William Gaddis’s letters. What was the process like collecting Gaddis’s letters and whittling them into the present edition? Did you ask for his permission before he died?
I began corresponding with Gaddis in 1979 when I was working on my first book, A Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1982), and as I continued to work on him — I published two more books on Gaddis in the 1980s — I began writing to his acquaintances to ask for copies of his letters. It was partly for background information for my own work that decade, but also with the idea that his letters should be preserved for literary history, and for the eventual edition of his letters that I was confident would be published someday. I didn’t ask his permission to do so, but he was aware of what I was doing: in fact there’s a letter in the published edition dated 12 November, 1984 commenting on the “idiotic matter” of collecting his letters, though I suspect part of him was flattered that at least one person considered him historically important enough to do so. From then out I continued collecting letters wherever I found them: from fellow critics, rare-book dealers, and especially from Gaddis’s acquaintances, which I felt compelled to do because many of them were aging: had I waited until 2010, when the Gaddis Estate invited me to edit a collection of his letters, many of the ones I had collected would have been lost forever.
In your own letters to Gaddis you mention having to sell some of his off to make ends meet. If Gaddis wrote you emails instead of letters, do you think you’d be able to sell those off? How will the scholar’s role change now that the majority of our correspondence is done online?
I assume print-outs of emails are of interest to research libraries, if not to collectors, but they certainly lack the archival aura of a real letter, typed or handwritten and signed, and in an envelope with a 13¢ stamp on it. Since many novelists and their correspondents don’t save and print out their correspondence nowadays, the biographer’s job is indeed going to be more difficult in the future.
Gaddis’s early letters are purely entertaining. What role does letter writing have for a young artist, as Gaddis was before publication of his first novel?
It’s great practice, a good warm-up exercises for writing fiction. Many of Kerouac’s letters were first-draft versions of things that went into his novels, as is the case to a lesser extent with some of his early letters. That’s where he found and developed his voice: not in the short stories he was writing at the time (late 1940s) and which he failed to place anywhere. To return to your previous question, I doubt e-mails — and certainly not Tweets — fulfill the same function for writers today.
The full text of your book explicating Gaddis’s The Recognitions is available for free online. How has your scholarship benefitted by keeping the text freely available and “live” on the internet?
The great advantage of having my Reader’s Guide online is that I can update it whenever I have new information, which I sometimes discover on my own, and which sometimes comes from other readers. Plus it’s available worldwide, whereas the original print book was available only in a couple hundred U.S. libraries. Although I greatly prefer printed books, this is one example where a renewable online version of a text makes much more sense.
You’ve visited and met a number of artists. This seems to be a kind of pilgrimage you undertake. Would you describe a few memorable encounters with writers?
It wasn’t a deliberate pilgrimage, but back when I was writing about contemporary American writers I had the opportunity to meet quite a few. The first author I met was Gaddis himself, in 1983, and when I moved from Denver to New Jersey the following year, he invited me to recuperate at his house in the East Hamptons for a few days. While there he allowed me to read the manuscript of his third novel, Carpenter’s Gothic, which he had just finished. I raced through it in a day, to be grilled by him that night on the feasibility of various plot points. I also met a few writer-friends of his like novelist Chandler Brossard, poet Alan Ansen, novelist David Markson, and poet-artist Sheri Martinelli (all of whom I’ve written about). I attended Rutgers in the mid 1980s and thus was close enough to New York City to meet a few others who lived there, like novelist Joseph McElroy, who positively radiated intelligence, and Harry Mathews.
Along about then I met David Foster Wallace for the first time (after corresponding with him for a few years), who was very quiet and polite. I saw him a few more times after he moved out to Normal, Illinois: by then I was working for Dalkey Archive Press, which was located there, and he took a teaching position there in 1993. As you probably know, he was a championship-level tennis player when younger; one summer we got together to play, but it was too beastly hot and humid to exert ourselves, so we just volleyed lazily back and forth, and he gave me some tips on my serve. At one point he politely asked if he could play full out, after which he blew me off the court. I could barely see his serves, much less get a racket on them. While at Dalkey I met a number of other writers (William H. Gass, Carole Maso, Rikki Ducornet, among others), and while I was a buyer for Borders (2001-10) I met still others, such as Philip Roth. He was very genial, especially after I told him how much I liked his early 1970s stuff when he threw caution to the winds and wrote whatever he wanted. As it happens, I recently met Jane Smiley: I was asked by the English Department at the University of Michigan to do a public interview with her. She too was very genial, easy to talk to.
Would you say Carpenter’s Gothic is your favorite Gaddis novel because of the way you came into contact with it, reading it in his home? If not, what is your favorite work of WG?
It was a memorable experience to devour the manuscript of Carpenter’s Gothic in a day while visiting with Gaddis, but it’s a lesser work. Gaddis’s first novel, The Recognitions, was my favorite for a long time, and I’ve reread and written about it more often than his others, but his second novel, J R, is now my favorite, and arguably the best thing he wrote. (It’s also my nomination for THE Great American Novel.) But his last major novel, A Frolic of His Own, is almost as good. I wrote about it recently for a new edition of my 1989 book on Gaddis (to be published in 2015 by Bloomsbury), and I think it may be his greatest rhetorical achievement: it’s the grandest demonstration of everything Gaddis could do with the English language.
You do what you love. How did you have the guts to go off and become an independent scholar? What advice would you give for someone who feels a similar urge to find their own artistic vocation?
I started writing criticism in the 1970s simply because it appealed to me — not for tenure, or to make money — and I was lucky enough to have my first book published by a university press when I was a nobody: just a indy bookseller in Denver with an M.A. from a no-name college (University of Northern Colorado in Greeley). I suppose that’s the advice I would give: if there’s something you want to do, don’t worry about whether you have the right credentials or are in the right circumstances, just do it. It probably helped that I was writing about someone (Gaddis) who hadn’t attracted much critical attention yet, so originality helps. Be the first to do something, and it’s bound to attract the attention of others who share your interest.
And as an independent scholar what’s your sartorial style like?
I have to admit I’m a bit of a slob. Since I live a solitary life and work from home, I keep it simple: a T-shirt and sweatpants at home, and switch out to jeans when I have to leave the house. I was a hippie in the late ‘60s and went in for some extreme clothes back then: black & white checked pants, green socks, and once I was the only person at a Procol Harum concert wearing a tie (probably a flowery eyesore worn with patterned jeans). I was briefly inspired by the Brideshead Revisited TV series (1981) to clean up my act a little bit, but I soon relapsed. I dress for comfort is my only excuse.