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.

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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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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

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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.


  • A Legacy by Sybille Bedford March 15, 2015
    Sybille Bedford had the benefit—or bad fortune, however you see it—of being born into the German aristocracy in 1911. Her father was a retired lieutenant colonel and art collector from the agrarian south, from a Roman Catholic family in fiscal decline. Her mother came from a wealthy German-Jewish family from Hamburg. A widower from his first marriage, Bedfor […]
  • Reviving Antal Szerb March 15, 2015
    Antal Szerb’s lithe, lively, and wholly endearing fiction is peopled by male dreamers on spiritual journeys of self-discovery. Each one sets out on his respective mini-mission with good intentions but knows from the outset that there are only so many harsh truths he can withstand. In this respect, all Szerb’s protagonists seem to have heeded the advice of Gr […]
  • 39 Africans Walk into a Bar March 15, 2015
    New anthologies of African fiction seem to materialize virtually every year, if not more often in recent years. When presented with the physical fact of yet another new anthology of African fiction, the immediate question, one which I was asked when I pressed the warm, bound pages of the Africa39 anthology into the even warmer hands of a new acquaintance, wa […]
  • The Country Road by Regina Ullmann March 15, 2015
    This collection of short stories, her first to appear in English, counters material poverty with a fulfilling and deeply spiritual relationship with the natural world. Ullmann herself was no stranger to hardship. A depressive, she was plagued by personal and professional crises. Financial constraints forced her to send her illegitimate children to the countr […]
  • The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura March 14, 2015
    The Fall of Language in the Age of English stirred up debate upon its publication in Japan in 2008, and it’s possible it will do so in the U.S. with its arrival in Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter's translation. In their introduction, Yoshihara and Winters Carpenter, point out that Japanese reviewers accused Mizumura of being a jingoist, an e […]
  • Another View: Tracing the Foreign in Literary Translation by Eduard Stoklosinski March 14, 2015
    Another View demonstrates exciting potential in translation study and praxis. It is especially significant in deconstructing assumptions about fluency and linguistic identity. The author makes some persuasive arguments for considering and even preferring non-native translation of texts, the most controversial of which is the possibility that linguistic compe […]
  • The Latest Five from Dalkey Archive’s “Library of Korea” Series March 14, 2015
    Despite South Korea having the kind of vibrant literary scene you'd expect from a country with one of the highest literacy rates in the world, we're still not exactly inundated with English translations of South Korean fiction. Given this dearth, Dalkey Archive Press's Library of Korean Literature series, twenty five titles published in collab […]
  • B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman March 14, 2015
    here’s a conspicuous history of books that simply should not work: Books like U & I by Nicholson Baker, a book-length exercise in “memory criticism,” where Baker traces Updike’s influence on his own writing life while studiously not actually re-reading any of Updike’s books. Or books like Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer’s book that procrastinates away from […]
  • The Valerie Miles Interview March 14, 2015
    The idea was to uncover the secret life of these texts, why do their creators consider them their best work? What’s the clandestine, the underground, the surreptitious meaning or attachment? Where’s the kernel, the seed from which a body of work grew, what the driving obsession? Is it something sentimental, something technical, maybe even something spiritual […]
  • On Being Blue by William H. Gass March 14, 2015
    Look up at the sky, or down into the ocean, and what color do you see? We see blue, but not Homer—he never once employs the term throughout The Iliad and The Odyssey, famously calling the sea "wine-dark" and the heavens "bronze." Neither did the Greek philosopher Xenophanes say blue—he described the rainbow as having only three colors. Th […]

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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