Okay, well, my name is Steven Moore. I'm 64 years old. I'm currently living in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
I trained as a teacher but I couldn't find a job as a teacher so I went into publishing and then book selling. For many years I was an editor at Dalkey Archive Press, which is a small press that specializes in kind of experimental fiction. I've also written several books on innovative writers, modern writers like William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, so-called postmodernists. For many years I was a book seller. I owned my own book store for a while, back in the early '80s when Dungeons & Dragons was the big thing. [Laughs.] I remember selling a lot of that stuff.
And then later I became a buyer for the Borders chain. I was up there 'til about a year before they collapsed. "Up there" means Ann Arbor, which is where their headquarters were.
I loved it so much here that I decided to stay. And then, yeah, about 10 years ago, yeah, I had written several books and articles about modern literature. I wanted to go back to the very beginning and trace the history of the novel for various reasons that I won't go into. I started doing that in about 2004 and spent about eight and a half years writing two fat volumes that trace the novel from ancient times, ancient Greece, all the way up to the year 1800, Jane Austen's time.
And those were published by Bloomsbury, who happen to be Harry Potter's publisher. For what that's worth.
So, and then over the years I've also written book reviews for The Washington Post, mostly new books and all that.
Now, because of my age, 64, I wasn't really aware of or paid attention to the gaming world. I remember hearing about it in the '80s, the early, early stages. Back then I was totally involved in my work and just had no interest in games. I don't even like board games, much less any others. So, I've been aware of the whole gaming world over the years, but it never had any appeal to me.
Nothing wrong with it. It just wasn't my thing. Again, I think that maybe I was too old for it.
And like I said, it was only recently, like 10 years ago, I've been hearing about how the gaming world has changed and getting a lot more elaborate, a lot more money into it and all that. And then, like I said, I started watching Felicia Day's The Guild series, which showed me what the average life of gamers is like or a comic take on the average gaming world and all that.
And I read her memoir, as I said earlier, but outside of that I don't really know much about it. I have to say from what I've heard just from the media, the gaming world does sound rather misogynistic and that whole Gamergate thing that happened about a year and a half ago certainly underscored that, so that certainly doesn't make me want to jump into it.
But I can see what you're saying about the parallels because I'm sure nowadays it's huge corporations, lots of money and all that and there's probably as you hinted earlier, a lot of self-consciousness about what they're doing and restrictions and market testing and all that. Whereas, I bet back in the '80s -- and you'll have to correct me if I'm wrong -- it was probably a lot more free, a lot more hit and miss, a lot of people, independent, just trying things, throwing it out there and seeing what worked, probably a little craziness, wacky games that nowadays look rather ludicrous.
That's something that Felicia Day goes into in her book. She talks about some of the games that she was addicted to in the late '80s and early '90s. They all sound really silly, but interestingly enough, that's exactly the way the novel was. Along about the 18th century, novels became kind of a big business. That's when people started -- literacy rate rose where there's more and more people reading it, publishers started realizing that there's money in it, authors started asking for big advances, there were certain expectations about different genres that started settling in.
But before that, and I'm talking before 1800, there were no rules, basically. And novels have been around, basically, for 2,000 years, but for most of those years, there were no rules, and consequently you just had all sorts of weird examples of things. In the old days, 2,000 years ago, literature meant poetry and drama. That's all.
That's what Aristotle wrote about. He set the rules for it. Couple centuries later, Horace, the Roman critic kind of built on that, and for the next 2,000 years, literature, if you studied literature or were serious about it, it meant poetry or plays.
They didn't say anything about novels even though novels were being written at that time, not only in Europe but also in China and Japan.
And consequently, because there were no rules, these novelists were free to do whatever they wanted. There's all sorts of crazy examples, as I write in my book, of prose fictions that often look like postmodern novels, things that Thomas Pynchon might write or Mark Leyner or some of these more wild, postmodern writers.
So, I can see -- and like I said, it started to become more commercialized in the 18th century and even more so in the 19th century and now, of course, it's big business and Random House and Amazon but, so, I can see a parallel like that. You'll have to tell me that that's the way the gaming world was in the late '80s and '90s but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that that's the way it worked out in gaming.
Yeah, that's pretty accurate. Too, there was an element of the industry starting in Japan and it did spread to America. And what did happen in the '80s with Nintendo is the market had crashed a few years before from Atari and before that gaming was seen more as an all-ages type thing. Like, I'm sure you remember Pac-Man at a pizza place or in a bar.
But that notion somehow started to go away and videogames, they went from to the living room. But when Nintendo brought it back, they tweaked it and reframed it as being specifically just for kids, and so therefore was a much more focused effort. And so in that era there were games getting popular over here from a totally different culture. There were no "best practices" or, like, what makes a great game. People were trying all sorts of things.
That includes, you mentioned independents, companies. Today, the way it looks is there's a lot of aversion to taking big creative risks.
As budgets have gone up, a lot of games from the industry now are very, very similar as far as types of stories they tell, the content of them, the way that they look. And the same is often true of the output from teams who are now considered independent, who are one person or two people or four people in their garage or spare rooms.
So we're seeing less creative risks but lower barriers to entry by and large. And so, I'm wondering from the very broad question I started with when I first reached out to you: If games are today where the novel was a few centuries were as far as contested cultural worth amid this backdrop of having still not yet realized its potential, what does that actually mean?
Well, even as the novel became more commercialized and more rules and expectations built in, there's always been a small band of avant-gardists who have been pushing the envelope, breaking the rules. Especially in the early 1920s with James Joyce and the modernists and all that. And even today, with a lot of independent presses.
So even though the novel became bigger and bigger and more commercialized and accepted as a cultural thing rather than being dismissed as nonsense as the way it was three centuries ago, there's always been a small band, though, that keeps things interesting and trying new things.
Now, most of them are not published by the big publishers, they're independent, small houses, the kind of company I worked for, Dalkey Archive, was basically a three-person operation. So, I think the really adventuresome, outside-thinking kind of stuff will never really dominant because once any artform, whether it's movies or books or anything become serious money, obviously, people don't want to take chances on something that's gonna flop. So I think there'll always be the big commercial aspect of it that'll play it safe and give the public what they think they want, and then there will be outsiders on the lunatic fringe even doing interesting things. And the bulk of people, I imagine, are fine with the big commercial stuff. That's what they like. They like to see things blowing up and the quests and all the kind of standard storylines you get.
I'm sure most 12-year-olds are perfectly fine with that.
But for adults and the more interesting 12-year-olds there will be a small body for people on the outside fringes and as long as they don't get stomped out by the majors, that's probably the way it'll go.
Are you saying, in a way, that's the job of the majors is to provide for the 12-year-olds and the adults who like seeing things blow up, regardless of medium?
I sort of think so, yeah. I mean, look at movies. You've got the big Hollywood studios that are wringing out the Furious 7-type movies and the James Bond movies and all that, and that's fine. That's what most of the public wants. But there's all these independent filmmakers who are trying new things and sometimes they become successful and get sucked into the Hollywood machine, but let's face it: Most people's tastes, whether it's books, games, or whatever, is kind of common. That's where the money is because they're the bulk of the customers.
So, if you're in it for the money or if you're in it just to make as many people happy as you can, you're gonna provide that kind of stuff. You're gonna be Katy Perry rather than some more tortured indie artist, for example.
You're gonna give the public what they want and you'll get rich as a result and, you know, that's pretty much the way it's always been. It's not really a bad thing. It's just the way it is.
And you can see that with almost everything. Film, for example, the early days, 1920's was pretty wild and crazy, too, but then the Hays Code came in in 1930 and slapped all sorts of rules on it and Hollywood became more tame and following more conventional.
Same with comic books. You're probably more familiar with that, but in the late '40s there was lots of weird stuff going on there and in 1950's they had to come and establish the Comic Code to kind of clean it up and all that.
So I think you can see that -- and of course, the novel, as I was saying earlier. So, that's pretty much the trajectory of every artform. Its early days when it's kinda disreputable but kinda fun and Wild Westy, and independent people doing lots of things, and then powers that be kinda come in and clean it up a bit, elevate it to make it more socially acceptable, make it more of a money-making proposition, and if you're lucky, you still have the independents and the avant-gardists on the side that'll do things and keep things interesting. And then, of course, the big, big companies will sometimes borrow from those avant-gardists. They're the ones who come up with the new techniques and new things and they're weird at first but some aspects get enveloped into the general culture.
So, it sounds like, from what little I know about gaming, it sounds like it's following the same trajectory as all these other art forms have, which isn't good or bad, but just seems to be the organic history of art forms.
Why are creators and audiences and the general public often so bad at noticing or forgetting these patterns exist within media?
It could be that most people aren't familiar with the origins of various media like novels, opera, rock music, or whatever and thus can't see the parallels. Also, there's a tendency to focus on the novelty of new media, at the expense of what it has in common with older forms, which results in silly predictions such as in the 19th century that photography would displace painting, or in the 20th that television would kill radio, that video would kill the radio stars as the Buggles sang, that CDs would doom vinyl to oblivion, etc. You need to step back and see what new media has in common with older forms, rather than welcome it as totally different from anything that came before it.
How were people blind to this sort of pattern, in turn, as this was happening with the novel's ascent to legitimacy?
The same kind of historical blindness. People who regarded early novels as unworthy of being called literature on the same level as poetry and drama forgot that those two genres also evolved from primitive forms, that they didn't just spring into being fully formed but had to evolve -- and continue to evolve.
I think you mentioned there was a shift in novels about 200 years ago when they stopped being contested culturally. So, like, what sort of scrutiny and doubt was cast against novels and what changed 200 years ago?
Novels were thought to give people the wrong ideas of life. That's what Samuel Johnson complained about. It had all these people having fantastic adventures and doing crazy things and Johnson did not want to mislead people into thinking life was more exciting than it really is.
Which sounds weird, but that's the way he was, and a lot of people. They don't want to raise young people's expectations too high. And, in fact, most novels 200 years ago were written for young people and young women, not for adults. Maybe that's another parallel with your gaming world.
And then also, of course, there's a lot of adultery in novels back then, a lot of free-wheeling sex. I don't know if you've read any, like, Tom Jones or novels from that period but they're rather sexy at times. I mean, it's R-rated, rather than X-rated, but a lot of them were testing religion, saying bad things about the culture and being critical of the culture.
And then a lot of about -- so, as late as the 1790's you still had people complaining about novels being immoral. And then along about the Victorian Age, though, the novels started to become more cleaned up, less sex and violence, more about moral issues and cultural issues and all that. So it became more respectable at that point.
People like Charles Dickens and George Eliot writing about the great social issues of the time rather than writing about, you know, young adventurers having sex with barmaids and milkmaids and whatnot. So, I think that's what I generally meant, yeah.
How, then, did novelists and novels struggle with mainstream legitimacy or acceptance?
Up until about a hundred years ago, literature -- if you went to Harvard and were an English major, you studied poetry and plays. Novels have always been thought of as almost like juvenile delinquents. It was never quite respectable, even in the 19th century when people started writing more major novels. They still weren't taught or studied in colleges. They were still kind of thought of as entertainment, like television or something. Not serious art.
So it had to continue struggling against that attitude all the way up until about the early 20th century. It took about that long for it to attain the kind of respectability that poetry and plays have always had and, ironically, in the early 20th century the novel almost exceeded poetry and drama. The greatest writers of the 20th century and people who speak about that are usually novelists like James Joyce, not poets or playwrights anymore. I mean, they're almost second and third place. So, in general it just had a bad reputation and even when the books weren't immoral, it was just considered escapist fantasy and love stories and stuff. It just wasn't taken seriously by the cultural arbiters at the time.
How did gender and other categories of exclusion interact with innovation in the novel?
Well, most novels up until about 200 years ago were written by men mostly because women didn't have the education to write them. Most women weren't educated or sent to college, obviously. Many of them could barely write. They weren't encouraged to think and all that, so there are a number of novels written by women before the 18th century, but they're in the minority. So there wasn't much interaction. It was mostly a boy's world until Jane Austen came along.
As far as the interaction goes, I don't know what to say about. Obviously a men's version, patriarchal at times, demeaning of women at the times, or the opposite was women were elevated to almost saintly status, considered to be almost worshiped than interacted with.
The whole virgin-whore dichotomy.
Yeah. So it wasn't until women started writing novels of their own in bulk that you started getting a more female attitude or more female view of the world, so to speak.
I mean, given that that's a little one-sided, that history and the output, but do you get a sense from the novel that innovators are often members of marginalized group, or are they informed by the work of marginalized groups?
No, I don't think so. Now that I think of it, most of them -- I mean, I could run through a bunch of names but most of them were just general members of society who just had a different outlook on life. They weren't parts of a minority. A few of them may have been gay or whatever but, no, I don't really get a sense of that. I think it's more of a personal thing.
I mean, if you've got an innovative, creative kind of mind, that's kind of beyond gender and beyond race and all that. So, no, I don't see that. Maybe nowadays there's more of that, but not in the early history of the novel.
As it overlaps with videogames, what do make of or think of interactivity as a narrative tool?
That's actually an important part for great literature. Many writers, they want the reader to interact with them. They don't want a passive person who's just spoonfed everything.
That's what commercial fiction does: They tell you everything you need to know, you read a novel once, you got everything you want. The better novelists, though, expect you to do a little work. They want you to pay attention, to interact, to participate in the fiction, even, as it's being made.
It's not the same as the participation in a videogame, of course, but there is that element of it where the better writers, and especially the innovative ones, do expect a reader to participate in it rather than just passively consume it.
And there's certain early novels where, like, Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy where the author will actually address the reader and say, "Are you paying attention? Did you catch what he just said?"
Sterne actually stops the reader and then heckles them sometimes, saying, "You weren't paying attention, or otherwise you'd know where I'm at right now." That kinda thing. Back then it was more of a comic device, but I've heard this from several novelists where they expect participation rather than passive consumption.
And it seems to me that videogames, you have to participate. I mean, you could sit down and watch someone else play, but it's totally different as far as you participate and you make the game as you go along.
Well, I've obviously been thinking about this for a while. And it's not as if the people who make videogames are unaware of other mediums or even fans of them, but a lot of times what comes across is people making games seem to be in awe or are huge, huge fans of movies or whatever, but they don't really understand the things that make those other mediums work. So, I don't really know what the best question is to ask you about that. I guess it would be interesting to ask, well, if you're a creative person and you'd like to learn how to appreciate another medium, how would that work and how would you integrate that?
I could ask you that, but do you get a sense of something like this in the novel's history? In other words, is this just a normal hurdle for a medium to run into?
Like, a lot of times, videogames are very much about the visuals. And I don't know, sometimes it just feels like you're playing a very hackneyed or tired rehashing of an action movie or something you've seen before.
Oh yeah, yeah.
It feels like they're giving you a movie but only -- it's like you're playing a movie but as made by someone who doesn't know what makes a movie good or interesting. Do you know what I mean?
Oh yeah. Now I got ya.
Yeah. There's a certain -- I get a sense that there's a certain predictability. If you're playing a game, you get into some sort of situation and you've got, like, maybe six choices you can make. And those choices are kind of obvious ones. Whereas in a really creative work, the choice you might want to make is totally off the walls.
And you can sort of see that in the better novels because you really, literally don't know where they're going sometimes and you can -- the best novels are always surprising you. Whereas if you read a straightforward cowboy novel about typical ranchers or whatever, you can kind of predict where it's gonna go. And there might be a few little surprises, but after a while, if you've read enough of those you can pretty much write it yourself.
Whereas the better novelists always keep you guessing and throw in things you wouldn't expect.
So, I don't know if the gaming world is like that, but I imagine that unless they allow for totally unexpected right angles from which a gamer could play, I think they are curtailing the experience somewhat.
You talked about learning from other mediums. I know I always find it fascinating to listen to the director's commentary on film.
The good ones will always tell you all sorts of things you didn't know about camera angles and they'll talk about the lighting and how they tried it this way and that and all that. That's where -- I find those fascinating because you can see how they are, even though they have a script and kinda know where it's going, there's always these little surprises, trying things. "We tried it this way, we tried it that way."
It's fascinating to see how artists, or directors, in this case put together their work of art. And interviewing novelists is the same way. They'll talk about different things they tried and all that. And I bet if you were to interview someone who writes one of these Harlequin romances, you wouldn't get that. They have a template. Girl meets boy, conflict, and then they marry in the end. You know, it's just a boilerplate thing that they follow. That's the difference between commercial fiction and literary fiction, and I'm sure it's the same way with commercial movies and independent movies and probably, I wouldn't be surprised, if this were the case in the gaming world.
Some of the games are kind of playing to what they think the reader is -- even though they give you four or five choices in a scenario, they kinda know where you're gonna go and all that. Whereas the best games would just leave it totally up to chance, I suppose, and allow for all sorts of bizarre choices.
What's happening in storytelling today in the novel in the 21st century? Where are things at?
Many writers are still writing 19th century novels. [Laughs.]
But the most interesting ones are taking advantage of print and technology. Up until 50 years ago you just typeset a book and that was it. Whereas now, of course, with computers you can do all sorts of things.
And some of the most interesting novels are bringing in graphics. Weird things on the page. Not only different fonts and all that, but just all sorts of topographical effects. In fact, I just finished reading one by Mark Danielewski. He's written a novel called The Familiar. You open up one of his books and it's incredible. Every page looks different, there's all sorts of different graphic effects. So, he still has a storyline going through like the traditional novel, but it's just a world of difference because all the special effects are available through print technology, and he designs the books himself.
And he's just one of many who are taking advantage of everything you can do with computers these days.
So, that's the most interesting thing that I think is going on in modern fiction, is people who are using whatever technology that's available to enhance their stories, rather than writing the same old novels that still sell in millions.
So there's that, and also, from a technical standpoint, which is what I find more interesting. Obviously, there's more points of views these days from minorities that you didn't hear from before, other outsider communities, and all that. But it's the technical stuff I find most interesting, breaking up their stories into little segments and typographical tricks and things like that. Those novels actually look like something published in the 21st century, whereas you go to a bookstore and pick up most novels, even new novels, they still look like ones that were published a hundred years ago, really. There's no difference.
So the most interesting people are really taking advantage of the technology that's available.
In videogames, if this is a workforce that understands how to use technology, why is it so repeatedly being utilized to do the same things over and over again?
Which I don't know if I can fairly ask you, but do you have any perspective on it?
Yeah, I don't, except that, again, going back to what I said earlier: the majority of people want things they're familiar with and comfortable with. They don't want to be challenged with every single book they pick up. They want to settle down with something that's familiar. That's why so many TV shows follow similar lines and all that. And you can't blame people. They just want entertainment. Fine. Just give them that.
But if you're like me and you're always looking for more than entertainment, then you'll look for this other stuff. But, again, I'm part of a minority. I don't know about you, but if you want to reach a large audience and you want to make a lot of money, you can't be too experimental or you'll limit your use of technology to minor little CGI and movies and things like that rather than really changing the format of a book or a movie.
A lot of the different movements with the novel, I'm curious, as a correlate for where games are going today, when you think of the different schools of thought that appear, they seem like they come wave after wave when you look back at them, when you're writing a history of them or if you're researching them. But for people who are inside of them, do you get a sense of how often they know that they're part of something? Or do they have no idea and they're just kind of writing stuff and putting it out into the world?
The innovators aren't aware of that, I don't think. I mean, I don't know who wrote the first rock 'n' roll song, but it wasn't some guy someday and said, "I'm gonna create a new genre and then call it rock 'n' roll." They just instinctively wrote a song that would have more of a beat than the previous stuff and kind of took it from there.
It's only later on that it becomes recognized as a genre and people start figuring out why it works. Or, whoever wrote the first opera, again, they didn't plan to create a new genre. So, the innovators, I don't think they're concerned about labels or creating new genres or anything. They just have an artistic impulse that they follow and then later people start imitating it and then the critics notice it and start defining how it works and at that point you get more and more followers, people just imitating the model.
So if you're part of that, you're certainly aware of it.
If you wanna make a living as a mystery novelist, you know what the rules are, basically. But, no, the innovators I don't think are ever aware of what they're actually doing.
They follow their muse, as they used to say, or they follow their artistic impulses and later people recognized that, "Oh yeah, that's the first rock song" or "That's the first hip-hop song" or whatever.
What does that mean about the non-innovators, since you framed it that way?
Yeah, they're just following the herd, making a living at it.
We can't all be brilliant innovators. Once something gets established -- the better ones, of course, build on it. Like I said, maybe it was [Claudio] Monteverdi who wrote the first opera. There's lots of imitators, but then a [Wolfgang Amadeus] Mozart comes along, a real brilliant guy, and he adds his own touch to it, and then [Richard] Wagner comes along and pushes it a new direction. So there's always innovation available within every genre, but it's -- and even then, Wagner, for example, didn't say, "I'm gonna start something new." He just had a different creative take on things, so he just wrote what he wanted and got a little bit of pushback from people who thought his stuff was too weird and too new, but after a while his stuff becomes acceptable and here comes the next innovator. It's just an endless cycle like that.
Do you ever wonder about historians looking back at today, like, is it gonna be really difficult for them to do the work you did of rooting through everyone's social media and email and figuring out what the trivial things they were doing and what were the meaningful things they were doing?
Yeah. There's way too much information. I mean, literally, back in the 17th century, if you had a good library, you could have read every book ever published. Maybe 5,000 were available at point or something. But those days are gone. There's so much more information and so much wider range of things that I don't know how anyone can do anything. Even writing a book right now about the history of rock music, even though it's only 60, 70 years old, rock music has taken so many different forms and there's so many thousands and thousands. You couldn't do it anymore.
So, as far as social media and all that and everything that the computer and the world wide web has opened up, I don't know how they're gonna make any sense of it, unfortunately. I think the historians will look at the broad trends, the big moneymakers and they'll look at those and judge our society about that. All the weird, little interesting sideline stuff will kinda get lost in the mix. So, yeah. It's gonna be more and more difficult because historians -- they're limited to what kind of materials are available, which in the past was a limited amount, but nowadays it's such an overwhelming amount and if it all gets saved, which I guess it will in some form or another, it's just gonna be overwhelming. I don't know how anyone's gonna make sense of things.
When in the history of -- I don't even know when marketing started entering the world of the novel, but when did nostalgia start becoming part of the picture?
I don't know. I guess every once in awhile you have writers today who will deliberately write a retro mystery noir novel, as they were written back in the '40s or something but that's something I haven't really thought about. It happens. Not so much in literature as it does in movies and other things, but I could be wrong. I haven't really thought about that to be honest.
Does that not happen often, like, "Here's a remake a novel?" I don't think I've ever heard of that.
Not really. Let me think about this for a second. That's dangerous. If you try to say, "Oh, I'm gonna write a remake of Moby Dick, you gotta be very careful."
You could do a children's adaptation or something but, no -- or, yeah, I guess you have people doing maybe an update on Romeo & Juliet, they'll kind of set it in the ghetto or something like that. But, eh, I don't know. Unless it's really brilliant. I mean, West Side Story is a remake of Romeo & Juliet, and it's fantastic of course.
Unless you're that kind of stellar talent, you better not try that. But, no, I don't see so much of that retro stuff in literature. Maybe I just missed it.
A lot of stuff, too, in videogames, and maybe it just feels like a long time because of the Internet, but in the last 10 or 15 years for sure, a lot of the stories being told are about the apocalypse or about zombies or about our own destruction. I am curious why we're so fixated on stories like those, but was there a similar arc in the novel where the same theme was explored over and over and over and over again by the majority?
Yeah. You certainly see that in love stories. I mean, almost every romance novel ever written all the way from ancient Greece all the way up to today is a single person meets someone who always seems like the right guy or the right woman, then there's some kind of conflict or an obstacle they have to work through, and then finally they overcome the obstacles and get married or whatever.
That's the plot of maybe 10 million books. And it probably always will be. There are certain archetypal stories that are at the core of storytelling to begin with. The quest, the coming of age novel is a very standard Catcher in the Rye-type thing where you leave the childhood world and you introduce the adult world and you have a rough few years and you finally settle into wherever you're gonna go. Or, you know, go off on a quest somewhere and do something and come back as a wiser person. Someone wrote a book on it, I think it's called The Seven Basic Plots of literature. [Christopher Booker] boiled it all down to all novels ever written can be boiled down to one of seven basic plots. And, you know, that's probably true. They're all variations on that. So, that part will always be with us. It's like I said, I think it's just part of our storytelling DNA or archetypes that speak to people.
So the writer's duty is to come up with new, interesting ways of playing that game, coming up with new variations on that basic theme.
And some don't try too hard. They kinda stick with the standard guy meets girl, blah blah blah, get married at the end. Others mix up more. Like I said, the postmodern writers I like really tear it all apart and reconfigure it in ways you would never even dream of or they just ignore it and go off in a totally different direction.
There's a lot of that, too, where people make lists of tropes and call out the patterns in them. I don't know if tropes are necessarily bad. How do you feel as a reader or as a fan of media?
Oh, no. Like I said, they're in our DNA, those kinds of stories. They speak to us in a way that is satisfying. I probably look for more innovation in those old tropes than other people do, but still, you can't expect every single book or movie or game to be 100 percent different from anything that's ever come before it.
I mean, that's probably impossible. And it'd be almost too much to start from square one with every novel or film or game that you ever come up with. You've got to have some built-in rules or expectations just to kind of get through it and all that. So, it's the amount of innovation you bring to it rather than having none or anything. And, yeah, I'm comfortable with it. Yeah.
Well, wait, so, why are we so fixated on stories about the apocalypse and our own destruction? Does it mean anything?
I think it's a combination of guilt -- a fear that we are going to be punished for our shortcomings -- and anger: a raging desire to destroy other people for their shortcomings, meaning their different life-style, beliefs, religion, what have you. Here's what I once wrote in a book on novelist William Gaddis: "apocalypse originates in older religious writings and mythography, bearing witness to the strange fact that cosmic catastrophe has been a fear and a hope of almost every society -- a fear of extinction no matter how richly deserved, and a hope for purgation and another chance to start anew. The literary apocalypse is used by a writer to render judgment on society, a heretical desire to destroy that which God created. God said let there be light; the apocalyptic writer, like Melville at the end of The Confidence-Man, puts out the light."
What's your feeling about those Choose Your Own Adventure books?
Oh yeah, I remember those.
Because in some ways, they are a decent parallel to some of the earliest videogames because they're text only and you make decisions at pivotal moments.
Yeah. Yeah. No, I think it certainly encourages the reader to participate. I'm trying to think of any really good literary novels have been written on that model and I can't think of any. For some reason that never became a structure that serious writers wanted to -- there's one example. [Julio] Cortázar's Hopscotch. He wrote a novel in, I don't know, like 150 chapters, but they're all mixed up and at the end of each chapter he says, "You can either go to the next chapter or you can go to chapter 78." And you'd flip ahead read that one and at that point you could go ahead or you could go back to chapter 54 or something like that. Now, that came out in the late '50s or something and for all I know that may have been the genesis of the Choose Your Own Adventure thing.
That's not an approach that's ever caught on in serious literature that I can think of. Maybe that's giving -- yeah, most writers have a sense of where they want the novel to go. They don't want to leave it totally up to chance like that. Like I said, it just really hasn't caught on as far as I know.
You mentioned some awareness of the Gamergate stuff, which is a nebulous way of referring to widespread sexism or some sort of expectation that a medium is inherently belonging to one group of the audience. Did anything like that ever happen in the novel's audience?
For a long time, the novel was considered to be a woman's genre. Even though it was written by men, most of the novel readers were women and most of the protagonists, of course, were women. A lot of classic novels from the 18th century had names like Pamela or Clarissa or Eveline. They're named after women. And there was a lot of pushback from men for a long time, male writers, who were trying to write things that were more serious and they felt like they were being edged out by all these women writers. Oddly enough, it's just the opposite, even though nowadays we look back and the male writers are the ones we remember.
But, for example, Nathaniel Hawthorne, he complained that no one was buying his books because of all of these, I think he called them "damned scribbling women." He said, "All these women were writing these romances." And those were the things that were selling, not his really brilliant novels. We think of Hawthorne now as a great writer, [Herman] Melville, and the rest, but you have to remember that those guys hardly sold anything. They were like indie writers nowadays with a small press.
It was the female writers who were writing romances and historical romances that were making all the money and selling all the copies. So, there was a lot of animosity towards female novelists and female readers by male writers up until about the 20th century simply because they dominated the market.
These male writers were trying to elevate the novel into a serious artform and yet they were being outnumbered by all these women writers who continued writing these sappy romances. So, now, I can see from what little I know about Gamergate is that some minority was afraid that women were gonna change the whole nature of the game and make it more girly and more woman-friendly and all that, so maybe that's a weird reversal of what was happening in the novel, but I'm not sure.
You mentioned that many of the authors we know today were not at all well-known or popular then. What in those days swayed who became successful or influential or more read?
I think it was just the general appeal of the plots. I mean, something like Uncle Tom's Cabin sold more than Hawthorne and Melville and all those guys combined because it dealt with the big issues of the day, slavery in that sense, and the novels that aimed more at the heart, than the head, I mean, they were sentimental, they were romantic. For a long time, and even today, novels are escapist literature. People wanted to read about things that were exciting and escape from the dreary world.
They don't want to have their noses rubbed in how awful the world is, which is what often what serious writers do.
So it was that. It was the same appeal to general emotions, I guess, rather than intellectual matters. I think that's as true today as it ever was.
How about book criticism or novel criticism. How did that evolve into becoming a legitimate part of that world or influencing the conversation?
That took a long time. Like I said, novels have been around for about 1,600 or 1,700 years before finally in the 18th century a few critics started writing about novels and trying to make the case that they were indeed literature rather than escapist fare.
But it was a slow road and the first literary book-review sections didn't come out until about 1750 and they were sort of more like consumer advisory reports telling people what's out now and giving people long extracts. It wasn't really a serious critical endeavor the way we had now until maybe 150 years ago. Again, this is partly because nobody took novels that seriously even though they realized some novels were serious and well-done. Like, 50 years ago no one would think of writing a critical study of I Love Lucy or a TV show. They may have watched it and they may have enjoyed it, but it wasn't considered something that serious people wrote about. Or comic books or anything else. That's the way novels were regarded up until about 100 years ago.
Now, there was criticism, like, in China. Back in the 17th century, they started writing about novels, but it was a very minor activity that only a few people engaged in.
We love to draw parallels from fiction to our real lives, whether it's "How Game of Thrones explains blank" or -- you name it. You've seen the sorts of "think pieces" I'm talking about. I've always read the current approach to it as an extension of us being less religious as a culture, and perhaps a little guilty and thus trying to over-intellectualize a lot of what we consume. How do you feel about these sorts of analyses? When are we going overboard and when are actually being insightful? Or is this, too, part of a bigger cycle we're less aware of?
I think you're exactly right. For a long time, religious writings and myths provided explanations of how the world worked, and for how people should behave. But literature and the other arts started offering different, more realistic explanations for how things and people work, and as a result some people started elevating certain works to quasi-religious status -- even comic strips. In 1965 Robert L. Short published a book called The Gospel According to "Peanuts," which I haven't read but I'm guessing offers a more realistic guide to living than the original Gospels do. Literature especially -- but also film, television, and other genres -- comprise what might be called "secular scriptures" that compete with the traditional "sacred" scriptures of various cultures, and in my opinion they are far more trustworthy and enlightening. I don't know enough about videogames to say whether that applies there too; I see that someone online has stated that "No More Heroes is commonly interpreted as a parody and critique of video games, but I think the game has something to say on a whole other level: it also seems to be a critique of the capitalist system." That strikes me as a legitimate approach, as long as commentators don't get too carried away. Sometimes a game is just a game.
If games wanted to learn something about the path to legitimacy from the novel, what do you think are some good lessons to learn?
Well, I can say this. Critical attention is happening a lot faster than it ever was. In the old days, it would take -- like, the first critical book on Herman Melville didn't appear until 60 years after he died. Whereas nowadays, someone like that Mark Danielewski I mentioned earlier or David Foster Wallace, critics will hop right on them and write critical essays and books and everything. Same with movies and TV shows. I mean, nobody wrote books about TV shows back in the '50s or the '60s, but nowadays -- I remember about two years after Buffy the Vampire Slayer was on that you started seeing books about it. And some of them were just kind of fan books, but some of them were edging towards serious criticism. And now, of course, with the Internet you're getting a lot more serious criticism happening a lot quicker.
Commentary on them and even if it's just chat boards or whatever they call them, and serious reviews and things, so I think it's a different world now because of the media and the Internet that nowadays if something is valuable, you will get a critical response a lot quicker than you would have in the past.
Are there academics who are writing books about the gaming world? Are there very many published by university presses, for example?
Not many, but it is starting to gain traction in the sense that it is happening.
But it is so siloed in the sense that unless you are extremely curious you're not gonna hear about it or want to read it.
Right. Right. Yeah. That's -- okay. So, it sounds like it's on the same trajectory as the novels, but it's obviously gonna happen a lot quicker, I'm sure.
I mean, I'm sure that -- especially as, again, you can correct me if I'm wrong, but videogames are no longer played by 12-year-old boys in their mother's basement, right? You got a lot more people in their thirties and forties playing it?
Yeah. I mean, they never were only being played by just kids, though.
Yeah, okay. So, yeah, I'm surprised -- you would think there would be more criticism by now, but then again, well, I don't know. It's probably not that much of a bigger audience that would want to read a scholarly analysis of whatever, of some of those games. Or an investigation on how they were put together or some of the game theory and all that. You're right, it's a very small audience.
Or you could say that about literary criticism. I mean, someone would write a book on Thomas Pynchon and it'll only be 300, 400 copies that'll be printed. It's not that wide and big of an audience for it.
I mean, it's interesting with games. I think the big missing piece of the puzzle, which I mentioned before, is it's very hard for people to want to get curious because there's not a lot of information that is freely available. I mean, it's very basic stuff. If you're a fan of a novelist, certainly people could read books like the one you write, or you could go on the Internet and you could read interviews with novelists.
I spent a great portion of my career doing that for other mediums, but in games it just doesn't really exist. There's always a PR person in the room, they want to make sure they only stick to answering questions that are gonna help promote the game. So you can't ask the types of questions you and I have been discussing. It's very rare to see that coming from people within the game industry.
Okay, yeah. So as long as they have that attitude, yeah, they're not gonna be getting much. So they need to either be a lot more open or you need to have access to the people who actually create the games and willing to talk about what goes through their heads when they're trying out various things, so, yeah. They need to open up if they ever want to have that kind of scholarly attention, it sounds like.
I mean, are the other ways that you think that control over information impacts the audience or its potential for growth? Or, like, imagine you were researching for your books and you couldn't find what anyone actually thought or why anyone made anything.
I'm trying to think. I guess you'd have to start at scratch. I suppose you could base it on your own experience, pick out some game you like, and just write about, "Okay, what's it based on?" Write about how it's similar to other, earlier games that were out there, how it was different, what kind of challenges it has. You'd have to kind of start from scratch but you could certainly analyze it the way that you analyze a poem or a song or anything else.
Yeah, I guess if you don't have access to the creators you could still kind of guess what they were at.
I guess, like, what's missing when you don't have that primary information?
Let me put it this way. I'm a book reviewer, so often I'll be given a new book by someone. I don't know anything about 'em. I don't have access to the writer. The author has no history. So, all I've got is the pages in front of me, so I just work with what I have and make comments and criticize what I can see, what it reminds me of in other trends it might be following or breaking away from and all that.
So you don't really have to have access to anything if you want to simply just comment on the artistic qualities of what's in front of you. You can do that with games, can't you?
Certainly. And I've done that as a critic as well. But if you're a curious fan, you're sort of gated.
Oh yeah, yeah.
So, in that case, you won't be able to find out much more other than what people are guessing or speculating.
Yeah, you're limited because it's basically just your opinion of what's going on rather than having an informed sense of some of the decisions that went into the game and some of the things they were trying to do and all that. Yeah, you're gonna have a really limited response to it. And, yeah, that's surprising. I would think they would want to encourage -- the gaming companies or PR people would want to encourage more openness just for that reason.
Tell me, you mentioned DVDs have director's commentaries. Do any of these have games ever have the equivalent of a director's commentary where you have the creator speaking about what's going on or why they created it the way it was.
Actually, yes. In very, very rare instances that does happen. It will never be from the much bigger companies that I've talked about. I pay attention to the space and honestly I think there are only two or three that are not overly promotional that I'm aware of. It is a thing, but it's not at all uniform.
Yeah, I'm surprised there isn't more of that. You'd think they'd be proud to talk about what they created and why. Boy, I just don't know. You've got me on that. [Laughs.]
Maybe for games it's just inherent in the medium, but it seems very difficult for it to move past the man versus man, and I don't know if there's really a correlate, but it is something I wonder about.
Well, apart from it being one of those core archetypal stories, I don't know. I can think of -- there's some hypertext novels that have come out in the last 20 years that are more literary that go off in different -- they don't have that kind of conflict. They're more philosophical and all that. I'll send you an example of TOC: A New Media Novel something you can look up later, but that's something that hasn't really caught on. Are you aware of hypertext?
Yeah. Yeah. That was something that was introduced in the '90s and it was supposed to be the next big literary thing but it never quite caught on. I don't quite know the reason, but that's what those people were doing. They were sort of like videogames that were intended for literary nerds, trying to combine gaming technology with literary themes. Like I said, they haven't really caught on. And every once in awhile one keeps coming out, but I think -- I don't think that would appeal much to the gaming crowd, though, because like I said most of them were rather esoteric and philosophical and I think the majority of gamers want to just kill things and blow things up or some semblance of that.
They want more excitement than blowing up philosophical quandaries about this or that. So, I could be wrong. Maybe that's the direction they'll go in. That is one thing that is kind of related but it never did quite -- I know there's been books written about hypertext. So, that's kind of a curious side road that you might want to look into.
Did you see that photo essay in The Atlantic a while ago, of people holding their phones but the phones are removed?
No, I haven't seen that.
It might not make sense for me to ask about it, but it illustrates or demonstrates how fixated people are on their phones and with social media, ignoring the people around them. I feel like you could make that point about any medium, but I was wondering if you were aware of people ever made that assertion about novels and that they make them less curious about the world around them?
Yeah, in a general sense, yeah. If you're sitting inside reading a novel all day rather than being outside experiencing the world, it's similar, but in their defense, I guess, most novels were more realistic in describing a world that's really out there rather than a fantasy world.
But, I don't recall hearing many complaints, though, over the ages about people not spending more time outside because they're inside reading a book. I know what you mean.
I think it's way beyond what it was 50 years with people, as you say, staring at their screens and being obsessed with social media and all that, I think it's terrible. I see people here in Ann Arbor, you know, walking around and no one's actually looking around at the sky or the trees or anything. They all have their faces buried in their iPhones and walking out the streets and almost getting run over and that's a terrible thing.
But maybe that was made about the novel at some point, but that was never such a big deal. It was more, like I said, the immorality of novels that bugged people in the past. I think it's probably because in the past people had lots and lots of free time. If you spent four hours reading a book, it's no big deal, whereas nowadays you have so many more options.
Videogames like to compare themselves to movies a lot, but I rarely see questions like this levied to someone like you: Do you think there will ever be a videogame as complex as William Gaddis' The Recognitions?
It can, yeah. Sure, why not?
[Laughs.] This is why I feel it's a little silly to ask questions like that.
[Laughs.] I think it'd be closer, as I said, these literary hypertexts I was talking about. It'd be a combination of words on the page where you also have music in the background and various options you can go to, following those links, almost like a Choose Your Own Adventure kind of thing and all that, but I don't know. It'd be a different kind of reading experience. In fact, I don't know. Maybe you've heard that, that on a cognitive level gaming works on a different part of the brain than reading does. When you're reading, you're just imagining what's being described, as in a radio program. But when you're actually seeing it on the screen, I think it's a different kind of cognitive level or cognitive approach, but that's something I've only heard about and I don't know much more about it. It's a different kind of experience.
But sure, I think some of the games I've heard about do sound rather complex but, then again, it's a different kind of complexity. Something like The Recognitions is complex because there's all sorts of allusions to esoteric information and complicated connections between things that happen over the space of 900 pages and all that and how you would do that in a videogame, I don't know. But that's probably down to my ignorance of how sophisticated some of these games now are nowadays.
Are there stages an artform just goes through where it inflates and deflates in terms of complexity and self-reflexiveness? Or does it just go towards myopic entanglement with the history of the form?
It's been basically more and more reflexive as it goes on. The earliest novels were -- it's like watching a play on the stage. You just watch people do things. And then as novels progress over the centuries, you started getting closer and closer to seeing the inner thoughts and monologues and even closer you started getting into streams of consciousness and all that. So, over the centuries, novels have been going from an exterior point of view to a very interior point of view, how characters are thinking.
The novel itself has sort of gone that way. In the early days, it was just a straightforward story, but as the novel became more complex, you started getting the author commenting on the story or the characters commenting on how they feel about the story and all this reflexivity.
So I think that's just part of the growing up of the medium. So, yeah, I don't know if it goes in stages or not, but I think it's been a general arc towards more interiority and self-reflexivity.
It's interesting because there is a lot of that in games where they sort of point out a very popular trope, make fun of it, but then do it anyway.
Which, I mean, for me personally as a critic I kind of feel like that's more an indication that the creator was smart enough to figure out they could have done something else and then just chose not to. And even then, pointing it out and doing something else just becomes another trope.
Yeah, that's a very postmodern kind of thing to do. It's clever the first time or the second time, but after a while you think, "Yeah, so they're making a tired allusion to something. Come up with something fresh and unusual that you wouldn't expect." But, yeah, I know what you mean.
What do you think novels have accomplished?
Well, lots of things. They open up the world. You're exposed to people and thoughts and places that you never would have in your own life.
You have to remember, back in the old days, a person was born, raised, and died in one little village or one town and never saw anything. The novels were a real window on the world.
Both onto different parts of the country, different social circles around the world. So, they had a real educational component in the old days. I guess they still do. They also give access to how other people think about things, take you out of yourself. That's always a good thing to be taken out of yourself and see how the other half lives, as they used to say, or how other people think or how they react to certain situations. That's again going back to the educational aspect of it.
Especially as a teenager when you're reading novels about grown-ups, you can kind of learn about what the grown-up world is like and how to respond to things.
Eventually, and I think after you read enough novels you get tired of the plots and you start paying attention to the artistry, the language, and if anything, novels, the better novels, will cause you to develop a greater appreciation of the English language and the creative use that writers make of it.
And finally, that's what becomes for someone like me, who's read thousands and thousands of novels, I don't read for the plot anymore, I read for the language.
I wanna see what kind of clever metaphors the person comes up with or interesting parallels. It's the artistry, kind of like the DVD commentary part of it, the craftsmanship that goes into a book. Those are the things that after you've reached a certain point, I think, you most appreciate.
And sometimes it's an escape from the real world. Other times it opens up a new vista on the actual world. It works both ways.