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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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.


  • Nostalgia June 15, 2014
    Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably). […]
  • Why Literary Periods Mattered by Ted Underwood June 15, 2014
    There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era be […]
  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz June 15, 2014
    August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance […]
  • Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan June 15, 2014
    The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optim […]
  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
    Two of the greatest of Tom Holland's predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix"), while the latter's 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, […]
  • Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue June 15, 2014
    The premise of Yasushi Inoue's debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper's young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handl […]
  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones June 15, 2014
    Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has s […]
  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
    Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a ni […]
  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
    Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s […]
  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
    David Peace's novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer's epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike ter […]

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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