Though I don't know how you'd prove it, Steven Moore must be the most wide-read man in the United States. He began writing and publishing book reviews in the 1970s, and published his first book in 1982, A Reader's Guide to William Gaddis's The Recognitions. He spent about a decade writing two volumes on the international history of the novel from ancient times until 1800 (The Novel: An Alternative History). He has aided in the editing and publishing of many writers, including David Markson, Rikki Ducornet, Alexander Theroux, and David Foster Wallace.

My Back Pages, released in March of 2017 by Zerogram Press, collects Moore's book reviews and essays, stretching over forty years. There are reviews of books from well over 100 authors, and the essays come in three parts. The first two cover books and writers of special interest to Moore. The third and final part is comprised of three personal essays, including the soul-bearing and heart-wrenching "Nympholepsy". He edited and wrote an introduction to a collection of W.M. Spackman's essays that should be released this fall. He works mostly as a freelance indexer for university presses now.

You will see a lot of semi-colons in this interview, and it's because Steven Moore often speaks aloud several thoughts without coming to a full stop. I felt encouraged to use them after reading his "Of Cause and Consequence" essay in My Back Pages. I visited Moore at his apartment in Ann Arbor, MI early on a Monday morning in June, bringing bagels, cream cheese, and fish in tow from Detroit (thank you, Sea Fare Foods). He sliced the bagels, I cut the tomato and onion. He did not have a cutting board, but we made do. He wore jeans and a Rain Taxi T-shirt, for that is how they compensate contributors. He wears thin framed glasses over eyes that are an ocean blue. His head went down and to the right when he was trying to jog his memory. I did not count the books. There were a lot, but not as many as the thousands I imagined. His apartment building is about a football field's length from Interstate 94. When I left, groundskeepers were mowing the lawn with headphones on slack and bored faces. They grinned and nodded, and it felt very strange. It seemed no one knew the most wide-read man in America lived here.

-Mike Sack

 

 

Eye 94

I saw somewhere you weren't going to write a third volume, but that you took a lot of notes, and if anyone wanted to go down that road, they were welcome to your notes. Has anyone taken you up on that?

Steven Moore

No. I think they're all smarter than I am. I realized I'd bitten off more than I could chew at that point; writing a third volume would probably take me ten years; it would be about a 1,500 page book, so it's just too much. I'm not surprised no one's approached me for that.

 

Eye 94

Would you have requirements for that person, or team?

Moore

Oh, no. I would want them to write the book in kind of the same style I did; I didn't want to write something only academics or professors would want. I wanted to write something almost anyone could read, you know. I tried to make it interesting, to throw a little bit of humor in there, because so much of academic writing is really dull. They have to write that kind of stuff to get tenure and all that, I get it, and I've written a few things like that myself, in my early days. I wanted to write what they call a "trade" book. Something anybody could read, not just academics. So I would hope if anyone took on a third volume, they would try to maintain the same style.

 

Eye 94

Is there anything out there that comes close to what you've done with your first two volumes? A comprehensive history of the novel?

Moore

Not really. There's stuff on the history of the English novel, or the Chinese novel...

 

Eye 94

There's the one you reviewed and is in My Back Pages. The one on American fiction from 1960-1980 and 1980-2000 by...what's his name?

Moore

Frederick Karl, yeah. But no one's tried to take a whole international view the way I did, and again, now I understand why; it's just way too much.

 

Eye 94

What if someone offered to publish it serially?

Moore

Nah, at this point I'm too tired. I really kind of overworked myself. I spent eight years writing those two books, which were, like, 700 pages and 1,000 pages long, plus I edited the [William] Gaddis letters, which was a 500 page book; I spent four months copy editing Alex Theroux's last novel, Laura Warholic, you ever saw that?

 

Eye 94

I've seen it at the library. It's a monster.

Moore

About 800 pages, plus I wrote like two dozen reviews for the Washington Post, and I was working a full time job, during that period, so--

 

Eye 94

Are you OK? [laughing]

Moore

[not laughing] --when I finished I felt like I had just run a decathlon or something, and I was just exhausted, mentally and physically. Plus I felt like I said everything I really wanted to say. That, plus the essays in this new book; I've covered almost everything I wanted to cover, I made my point often, over and over again, so, no. That was five years ago, anyway, that I finished writing the second volume, and by now I've lost momentum. No, I wouldn't want to continue now.

 

Eye 94

William Spackman had his biggest burst of fiction writing in his seventies.

Moore

Yeah, that's pretty amazing.

 

Eye 94

Is that something that sparks a flame with you?

Moore

It doesn't. He was a genius, I'm not [laughs]. And he wrote very short novels, I don't know if you've seen them, but they're about 150 pages long, and well done, but you know, that's different from what I was trying to do. His novels didn't require a huge amount of research or background the way I would, so...Quite a few people do continue writing into their seventies and eighties: Robert Coover, he's like ninety and he's got a new book coming out next year. William Gass is still going, he's about ninety. Those are better people than I am. Like I said, I just got tired of the whole thing.

 

Eye 94

For what it's worth, if you write something, good or bad, I'll probably buy it. And I know at least a couple other people would.

Moore

[short laugh] Thanks.

 

Eye 94

[looking down abruptly, rushing to next question] The Vollmann reader, Expelled from Eden, you read that, right?

Moore

Uh huh. Yeah.

 

Eye 94

You remember the excerpt in there about his rules for writing? Did you have any kind of rules for your own writing?

Moore

I always try to--as naive as this may sound--to look on the positive; I hate writing negative reviews. I always tried to find something nice in anything I reviewed. Essays are different, I was always writing about something I liked. But I would get review assignments of books I didn't like sometimes, and I'd always try to say something positive because I know how hard it is to write a novel. I always tried to keep it light; I wanted to appeal to a wide audience. Aside from that, I didn't have any hard and fast rules, never made a list or anything.

 

Eye 94

Have you consciously made sacrifices for literature? To be able to read and write all that you have?

Moore

Not consciously. It just kind of worked out that way. I've never had much of a social life and I've never been married, so as result I've had a lot more time on my hands than most people. But that wasn't a conscious choice. I didn't chase women away so I could devote myself to art. Nothing noble like that.

 

Eye 94

[laughs]

Moore

[smiling] Just Saturday night, I don't have a date, I might as well read a novel, that kind of thing. I kind of became obsessed with certain projects; when I first discovered Gaddis, for example, I was obsessed about writing about him. It was more than just a hobby. The free time and the obsessive interests just led to a lot of critical writing. Plus I was always very interested in what I was writing about. I wanted earlier to become a teacher, a professor, but I couldn't find a job teaching anywhere.

 

Eye 94

Really?

Moore

Yeah. So that, too, worked in my favor. I don't think I would have had as much time for writing. I didn't plan on being a solitary all my life, but it's kind of worked out, and I've made the best of it.

 

Eye 94

Do you ever think about changing that?

Moore

Oh, it's too late now. I'm 66 years-old, this is the age when most people retire, rather than go into some new line of work.

 

Eye 94

Not necessarily a new line of work, just being more social in general.

Moore

No, I don't really have the personality for it. Like I said, I'm a bit of a loner, solitary type. I don't really like people, to be honest, so, nah. My books and my music is all I need.

 

Eye 94

Did you have any mentors?

Moore

Not really, no. Let me think. No, I pretty much just took off on my own.

 

Eye 94

Not even in school?

Moore

Yeah. I never had any professor that really took me by the hand and guided me or anything like that.

 

Eye 94

Did you yearn for [a mentor] when you were younger?

Moore

Not really. I've always been an individualist, anyway. Just make my own way. I'm trying to think...No one's ever asked me that. But no.

 

Eye 94

Would you do it differently if you could do it again, knowing what you know now?

Moore

I...--

 

Eye 94

Because for me, I'm a fairly slow learner, but that learning is accelerated exponentially when I reach out to other people. Something like this, coming here, talking to you.

Moore

Yeah, it uh, it probably would have helped, now that I think about it. If I had known people who had the same kind of interest in literature I did, they maybe could have geared me towards certain writers. [Pauses, thinking] Nah, it's too late. I just kind of learned as I went along.

 

Eye 94

What's the worst insult you've received?

Moore

An Amazon reviewer said my history of the novel was written in a turgid style. And I stopped reading at that point because you can say a lot of things about my style, but not that it's turgid. But then again maybe I'm wrong, would you call my writing turgid?

 

Eye 94

I don't think I'd be here if I thought so.

Moore

Yeah, see. So, I think that's the worst thing.

 

Eye 94

That's the one that stung the most?

Moore

Yeah. Well, it's the worst insult. It didn't sting, because I know it it's not true. I can be overly facetious, superficial, too jokey in my writing, but not turgid. That stuck out, but I can't take it seriously.

 

Eye 94

How about the highest compliment?

Moore

That I've read more books than most academics have.

 

Eye 94

Who told you that?

Moore

There's a review of the new book, I can't remember who it was. [Julian Anderson, Fiction Writer's Review]

 

Eye 94

You used to own a bookshop, right?

Moore

Yeah, when I was younger, in the late '70s. That was back when you could do that, before the chains started coming out. I did that for about three years.

 

Eye 94

Did you stop because you got tired or because of operating losses?

Moore

It reached a point where it was doing as well as it could, because of the small size, and I was just starting to be able to pay back my father, and I realized that it would take me twenty years to pay back the loan, living on $600 a month. Plus I had just had my first book published, so I thought maybe I should go back to college, get my PhD.

 

Eye 94

Oh?

Moore

Yeah, I got my MA in 1974, tried to get a teaching job, couldn't find one.

 

Eye 94

That seems crazy.

Moore

There was a real glut on the market at that time. About 300 applications for every opening. It was real difficult for everyone. I had the same problem after I got my PhD. Late '80s was when universities were cutting down on professors and using adjuncts. But that was about when John O'Brien got a hold of me and asked me to come work for Dalkey Archive.

 

Eye 94

If you had the means, would you go back to book trade? Your own shop?

Moore

No, it doesn't really appeal to me. Dealing with customers, dealing with stopped up toilets, dealing with taxes, there are a lot of not so glamorous things involved with running a bookstore. No, I don't want to do that.

 

Eye 94

Are there any bookstores in Ann Arbor that you really like?

Moore

Yeah, there's Literati, which is great, I had a reading there not that long ago.

 

Eye 94

How'd it go?

Moore

Eh, not so good. There were a couple people I used to work with at Borders who were there, but that was about it. I was told it was finals week, so...

 

Eye 94

I read somewhere that your four years at Rutgers [for a PhD] were not so hot.

Moore

No, I didn't like New Jersey. You ever been out there?

 

Eye 94

No.

Moore

It's very humid and hot, and I was living in a lousy apartment. I went to Rutgers because they were supposedly very strong in American literature. They offered one class in the four years I was there. Plus it was socially disastrous for me, I just didn't like it at all. The only good thing was that I was a sixty minute train ride from New York. I got to meet authors I liked. David Markson, Joseph McElroy, Gaddis. So that part was cool.

 

Eye 94

What was disastrous about the social aspect?

Moore

Loneliness, inability to connect with anyone. I became very depressed at that point.

 

Eye 94

Were people in the program really competitive, mean?

Moore

No, no. It's just that they were...Well, I'll tell you; I went to a New Year's Eve party where there were twelve couples. And me. And that's how Rutgers was, I had a hard time meeting people.

 

Eye 94

Is the idea of posterity important to you?

Moore

Posterity is important in a round about way. When I first went to college, I went for history. I wanted to be a high school history teacher. And history is all about, of course, preserving posterity. When I first started writing criticism I was very interested in literary history. Identifying who I thought was going to be important in the future, writing about them, preserving their letters. I guess a lot of the people I've written about have been for that reason, like Chandler Brossard. Rather than writing about someone like Henry James. He's doing fine. I've always been concerned about recording literary history.

 

Eye 94

What about working with younger writers? Passing on knowledge.

Moore

What do you mean?

 

Eye 94

I don't know, I find it hard to believe that no one's sought our your advice on writing.

Moore

I get emails from literary critics from time to time.

 

Eye 94

Nothing from fiction writers?

Moore

Well, actually, yeah, every once in a while, I hear from a younger fiction writer who has written a novel and asks me to read their stuff. And I always say yes. I think it would be a real diva move to say no, I'm too busy.

 

Eye 94

But you might just be too busy.

Moore

I figure if they sought me out, if they took the time to read my work, then the least I can do is read as much of it until I get bored. Some I read about halfway through and put down, and others have been quite good. That's actually how [My Back Pages] came about. Zerogram Press is run by a guy named Jim Gauer. He published a novel called Novel Explosives. He had written it two or three years ago and asked if he could send it to me. He'd read my stuff. I said sure. I started reading it, and I really, really liked it; so he asked for a blurb, and I gave it to him, and then when he started his own press, he asked if I had anything that he could publish.

 

Eye 94

In a Music & Literature interview you were asked about your introduction to literature, and you had talked about your gateway being music. I was wondering if literature has been a gateway for you to other interests.

Moore

In some ways. Well, not really. For example, reading Proust led me to explore some of Wagner's operas. I've learned a little about painting.

 

Eye 94

Do you paint?

Moore

No, no. I have no talent for that whatsoever. I learned about new drinks. Spackman in one of his novels has a woman order a vermouth cassis. I had no idea what that was, I thought I'd give it a try. I tried mezcal because of Under the Volcano.

 

Eye 94

What was your favorite drink?

Moore

Vermouth cassis is really good. Gaddis was really fond of dark beer. I enjoyed that. Joyce led me to Bass ale. Ever seen that, with the triangle?

 

Eye 94

Uh huh.

Moore

He talked about the triangle in Ulysses. I haven't discovered some whole new area the way I moved from music to literature. In fact, that's kind of what I'm looking for at this point in my life. I was obsessed with music for six, seven, eight years, then I became obsessed with literature for about forty years, now I'm ready for a new obsession.

 

Eye 94

Does anything peak your interest?

Moore

Nothing has really grabbed me yet.