The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and direct from this site:


Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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  • Favorite Reads of 2014Favorite Reads of 2014

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    I'm surprised to learn Andres Newman is so young. Also, great overview of his books in English. Andrés Neuman is... »
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You Say

Group Reads

The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Life Perec

Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

Shop though these links = Support this site


Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

New Books
Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

New Books
See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • [[there.]] by Lance Olsen December 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen is the author of two recent works, [[there.]] and Theories of Forgetting (FC2). The second presents three narratives in a clearly fictional mode while the first offers day-to-day thoughts on living in another country. We rightly suspect that any artist’s memoir or diary ought to be viewed as written with a prospective public in mind, no matter ho […]
  • Noir and Nihilism in True Detective December 15, 2014
    "It’s just one story. The oldest. . . . Light versus dark." Spanning 8 episodes between January and March of 2014, HBO’s runaway hit True Detective challenged the status quo of contemporary crime drama. The show has been widely celebrated for its philosophy, complexity, and visual aesthetic. Co-starring actors Matthew McConaughey as Rustin "Ru […]
  • The Colonel’s World December 15, 2014
    Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (born 1940) is considered by many the living Iranian novelist, a perennial Nobel Prize candidate. Dowlatabadi wrote The Colonel some thirty years ago, because in his own words he had been “afflicted.” The subject forced him to sit at the desk and write nonstop for two years. “Writing The Colonel I felt a strong sense of indignation and pa […]
  • Mr Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn by Alessandro Baricco December 15, 2014
    Alessandro Baricco’s well-crafted, elegant prose seems as though it should create the impression of distance, or of abstraction; instead, the reader of Mr. Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn becomes wholly implicated and immersed, drawn into a dreamy and idiosyncratic world that blurs the division between reader, character and writer. As readers, we expect that th […]
  • The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash December 15, 2014
    "The paan shop leads to the opening of a tunnel, full of the creatures of the city, and the tears and spit of a fakir." In a single opening line, Uday Prakash sets the scene for the politically incisive, yet intimately human stories of The Walls of Delhi (translated brilliantly from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum). Lest the fakir suggest otherwise, t […]
  • The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation December 15, 2014
    In a speech reprinted in the book, Heim makes a self-deprecating joke about whether the life of a translator is worth reading: “What does a translator do? He sits and translates!” The Man Between serves as a book-length retort by laying bare all the things Heim did: these include persuading the academy that translation is a scholarly (in addition to a creati […]
  • The Prabda Yoon Interview December 15, 2014
    Yes, I think people are not comfortable anymore to write in this straightforward, traditional way, especially the younger, more progressive writers. So it’s interesting—you have social commentary, and you also get a little bit of structural experiment. You have themes that are very, very Thai. I’m actually very interested to see what new writers will come up […]
  • The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck December 15, 2014
    For Jenny Erpenbeck, no life is lived in an indisputable straight line. Which is why, in her new novel (new in English, though published in 2012 as Aller Tage Abend) she approaches the narrative as a series of potential emotional earthquakes, some which take place, some which might have taken place, all of which reveal something of how political turbulence p […]
  • In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass December 15, 2014
    Once, at a writers symposium, William Howard Gass remarked that to substitute the page for the world is a form of revenge for the recognition that "you are, in terms of the so-called world, an impotent nobody." There is inarguably no contemporary writer of American stock in whose work one might locate a more ambitious war of attrition between innov […]
  • Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli December 15, 2014
    Luiselli’s first novel, Faces in the Crowd, translated into fluid English by Christina MacSweeney, is the perfect illustration of this attitude toward fiction writing. Narrated in short sections spanning multiple storylines and the better part of one hundred years, it uses "[d]eep excavations" to expose the empty spaces in two lives, those of a you […]

Alain Robbe Grillet Ruined Your Fiction

I don’t quite agree with this post-mortem on Alain Robbe-Grillet.

The "new novel" or "nouveau roman," as Robbe-Grillet defined and explained it in his famous 1963 essay, was high art at its unpalatably highest. It applied rules and regulations, opposed subjectivity and tried to dissolve plot and character into description. The approach was perceived, he admitted, as "difficult to read, addressed only to specialists." The "art novel" became the preserve of high priests. Many novelists you’ve probably never heard of were deeply influenced by Robbe-Grillet. Even more damaging, though, was the effect his radicalization and elitism had on readers in the English-speaking world: They took a look at the future of the novel according to Robbe-Grillet and walked in the opposite direction.

First of all, creation under constraint has given rise to some wonderful art of all types (in fact, much of poetry follows "rules and regulations" as to form), so I’m not sure that method made novels worse.

Also, I don’t think novelists are as herd-like as Stephen Marche seems to think. Sure, lots of writers were influenced by Robbe-Grillet, but artists tend to be a pretty individualistic lot, so I think it’s rather simplistic to claim that the Frenchman gave the marching orders and it was either his way or the highway so far as avant-garde fiction goes. (Similarly, it’s kinda strange to opine that now that he’s dead a new generation of writers will feel free to experiment again.)

Marche goes on to claim the whole "resurgence" of realist fiction as due to Robbe-Grillet scaring the bejesus out of anyone who would write experimental fiction. The resurgence of realist fiction is a bit overstated. First off, you can argue that realist has never really been dethroned: Even in the wild and wooly ’60s and ’70s you didn’t have to look hard to find people critical of the "new" fiction.

But moreover, it wasn’t too long ago that we were touting the great commercial successes of such non-realist writers as DeLillo, Foster Wallace, and the whole flock of crazy folks McSweeney’s brought out of the woodwork. If non-realist fiction was really that whipped, would these guys be such literary forces? Sure, they’re not as experimental as you can get, but you’re fooling yourself if you think there was ever some experimental golden age when truly avant-garde lambs nestled with the lions of mainstream culture and everyone could attain market success, regardless of how they wrote.

I think Marche is on somewhat firmer ground when he claims that the prejudices of a critic like James Wood have to do with Robbe-Grillet’s exclusionary rhetoric, although I don’t think Wood is the literature’s greatest populist either. Yes, he’s championing a form that tends to have a broad appeal, but he’s also championing in-depth, challenging looks at fiction, which tends to exclude people.

I don’t think, as Marche seems to imply, that The New Yorker took on Wood as some sort of collusion with the Great Reaslist Forces conspiring against the avant-garde. I think it probably had more to do with The New Yorker needing to fill a hole and taking on a prominent, established critic, and with Wood wanting a change of venue from TNR. But besides, is it that surprising that The New Yorker, a magazine that purposely uses archaic British grammar, would take on a critic like Wood? Look to comparatively progressive publications, like Harper’s (and even the NYRB), and you’ll see critics giving non-realist fiction its due.

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. New Yorker International Fiction Issue The New Yorker International Fiction Issue is here. I haven’t received my copy in the mail yet, but the offerings online are a let-down: a...
  2. The Avant-Garde In this analysis of the contemporary avant-garde, Josh from Cahiers de Corey is talking about poetry, but I think his sentiments are transferrable to novels....
  3. Burke Slaps Wood Nice. James Wood has another one of those silly articles (in Prospect magazine, London) attacking William Gaddis, Don DeLillo, Gilbert Sorrentino, et al. These articles...
  4. Fiction v Non-fiction In this essay by Kevin Smokler about editing Bookmark Now, a non-fiction anthology by younger authors about writing in the 21st century, there’s a lot...
  5. Why is Non-Fiction More Popular than Fiction The Guardian checks in with an interesting article on how the rising tide of non-fiction books threatens to swamp fiction. Although fiction still sells in...

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