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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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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.

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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.

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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

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

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Interviews from Conversational Reading

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


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    A man enters a house and asks to buy some beans, but we aren’t given his question, only the response: humble surprise from the narrator and an invitation inside. This modesty, though it remains at the core of the narrator throughout, is quickly overwhelmed when his questions, his welcoming explanations, flow into an effort to tell his whole life story, from […]
  • The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson, edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin March 9, 2014
    The Gorgeous Nothings, the dedicated work of visual artist Jen Bervin and author Marta Werner, presents in large format the first full-color publication of all fifty-two of Emily Dickinson’s envelope writings. As such, it opens up an aspect of her craft that suggests she was, in the so-called late ecstatic period of her career, experimenting with creating te […]
  • The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber March 9, 2014
    The Mehlis Report follows the architect Saman Yarid on his daily perambulations around Lebanon's capital, where his memories of the city's past and his observations of the high-rises that have emerged from the ruins of the nation's civil war dominate the faint plot. But the book transcends Beirut: Jaber writes about what is left behind when pe […]
  • The Fiddler of Driskill Hill by David Middleton March 9, 2014
    Middleton’s sensibility as poet and man is thoroughly Christian, Southern (or rather, Louisianan), and traditional, but he’s no unreconstructed romantic Rebel reliving the Civil War. His manner is meditative and elegiac, not rancorous or redneck. In a rare useful blurb on the back of the book, the North Carolina poet and novelist Fred Chappell describes Midd […]
  • The Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell March 9, 2014
    After The Kindly Ones, the nine hundred-page long Goncourt Prize-winning “autobiography” of a Nazi, fans of the Franco-American writer Jonathan Littell may heave an inward sigh of relief at the sight of The Fata Morgana Books. A slim collection of “studies” (as some of these stories were called in their original French incarnations), The Fata Morgana Books n […]
  • Novelty: A History of the New by Michael North March 9, 2014
    There is no better way to ensure the early demise of a form or a style than to proclaim its newness; fewer epithets are as old as “new.” A well-known work by Italian artist Maurizio Nannucci reads, “All art has been contemporary”—we may wish to amend it, for present purposes, and have it read, “All art has been new.” Yet surely this is something of a truism. […]
  • A Life Among Invented Characters: A Tribute to Mavis Gallant March 9, 2014
    Two things immediately come to mind when remembering Mavis Gallant: her unique sense of humor—stories always told with a wry half-smile—and her near-comical stonewalling when confronted with leading questions about her craft in interviews and with audiences. The first time I was in her simple three-room apartment on rue Jean Ferrandi, a mere three blocks fro […]
  • The Guy Davenport Reader March 9, 2014
    Poet-critic. Think of that word, made of two—what a beaux construction. The first is wild, hair mussed, looking at a bird in a tree—yet the follower is practical, urbane, and seemingly obeisant to word counts. Together they bleach out the fusspot academic and appeal to logos—Davenport once said that he was “not writing for scholars or critics, but for people […]
  • [SIC] by Davis Schneiderman March 9, 2014
    In 2011 Andrew Gallix, in the Guardian, wrote a piece on unread difficult books, and mentioned “an anthology of blank books [edited by Michael Gibbs] entitled All Or Nothing,” and we can consider Blank as continuing that line. Kenneth Goldsmith’s prefatory essay “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?” in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (201 […]
  • The Ben Marcus Interview March 9, 2014
    I do tend to generate a lot of pages when I’m drafting something, and I cut as I go. I make strange noises out of my face, on the page, and they are for the most part not worth keeping. Some of the stories don’t take shape until I overwrite and pursue every cursed dead-end I can think of, which clarifies everything I don’t want the story to become. But I don […]

American Fiction Sucks

I read a lot of translated literature. Every now and then I make an effort to find out more about what’s being produced by my own continent’s writers, but a lot of time it’s not very good. Obviously there are exceptions, but oftentimes I have a much better shot of finding something worth my time if I read stuff by dead people or by people who don’t write in English.

But I don’t think Chaon’s advice is necessarily beneficial to literary fiction writers. For one thing, most contemporary literary fiction is terrible—mannered, conservative, and obvious. Most of the stories in the annual best-of anthologies are mediocre, as are the stories that populate most magazines. It’s inevitable that this should be so; fiction writing is ludicrously popular, too many people are doing it, and most of them are bound to be bad at it. MFA programs, while of great benefit to talented writers, have had the effect of rendering a lot of lousy writers borderline-competent, and many of these competent writers get stories and books published. (This is not an anti-MFA rant: I loved the program I studied in, and love the one I teach in, and enjoy helping students do their best, even when it doesn’t end up being very good.)

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10 comments to American Fiction Sucks

  • Of course, you’re presumably being offered in translation only the best or the most noteworty books being published in those countries. Most of their dross remains untranslated. Here we’re exposed to the whole range of the mediocre fiction that gets published.

  • l

    I agree with Dan’s comment. For example, Cesar Aira has become a niche favorite among many English speaking readers of translations because only his top-tier books are translated. Become exposed to him in his native Spanish and you are confronted by dozens of his lesser novels.

  • Alex

    Out of curiosity, who are the contemporary American writers whom you would consider ‘exceptions’? I’m constantly struggling to find American work that’s worth my time. Most often, I wind up reading something old, or translated, or just not fiction. I’m divided by a feeling of abhorrence at most contemporary American fiction I bother to read, and a very acute guilt at being sort of clueless about contemporary trends.

  • Alex, if you’ve not read Laird Hunt, I’d check him out. His work is most decidedly not “mannered, conservative, and obvious.”

  • Padraic

    This is pretty silly. Obviously the work of the entire history of literature + the rest of the world will be > than work being produced by Americans living right now. If, given how vastly small living and writing Americans are as a proportion of ALL literature, modern American literature could actually compete with the history of literature and the entire rest of the world, it would be astonishing.

    I find American fiction is about as proportionally good as one would expect. Give it some time to weed itself out.

  • Sawn

    This article is ridiculous, not because it is wrong, but because it seems to suggest that at sometime in the past there was a lot of great writting being produced. The percentage of good writing that lasts has always been small. Whenever I go to some used bookstore that has been around for a very long time there are stacks and stacks of ancient paperbacks – the majority of which are just terrible books – even if they may have been “best-sellers” in their day.

    Look at the books by the two people whose essays brought up this topic: Don Chaon and J. Robert Lennon – not exactly steller writers, and they are suppose to be teaching writting? What possible hope can their student have of learning anything worthhile other than perhaps grammer or maybe basic plot structure? So if they produce a Michael Connelly or a PD James they’ll be lucky.

    The most telling comment J. Robert Lennon makes is that “television is, at the moment, the most artistically important narrative medium.” Really? Because one or two programs currently are OK and not complete drivel? And how is most television written? Not by an author, but by a committee – a group of writers with a boilerplate outline of the program’s format who sit in a room bouncing ideas off of each other to meet a deadline. A great way to produce light entertainment, but not great art.

  • Sawn

    This article is ridiculous, not because it is wrong, but because it seems to suggest that at sometime in the past there was a lot of great writting being produced. The percentage of good writing that lasts has always been small. Whenever I go to some used bookstore that has been around for a very long time there are stacks and stacks of ancient paperbacks – the majority of which are just terrible books – even if they may have been “best-sellers” in their day.

    Look at the books by the two people whose essays brought up this topic: Don Chaon and J. Robert Lennon – not exactly steller writers, and they are suppose to be teaching writting? What possible hope can their student have of learning anything worthwhile other than perhaps grammer or maybe basic plot structure? So if they produce a Michael Connelly or a PD James they’ll be lucky.

    The most telling comment J. Robert Lennon makes is that “television is, at the moment, the most artistically important narrative medium.” Really? Because one or two programs currently are OK and not complete drivel? And how is most television written? Not by an author, but by a committee – a group of writers with a boilerplate outline of the program’s format who sit in a room bouncing ideas off of each other to meet a deadline. A great way to produce light entertainment, but not great art.

  • Chuck

    Coincidentally I just purchased J. Robert Lennon’s most recent novel. Perhaps I should return it unread since it qualifies as recent American fiction.

  • Rachel Owlglass

    I’m seconding Sawn and also pointing toward new books by Gass, McElroy, Coover, and Pynchon this year that might suck, but probably won’t.

  • Pat O'Donnell

    Late coming to this: to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “suck” is just a four-letter word. Most of anything, generically, sucks. Most wine (if placed alongside the best wine), most films (if placed alongside, etc.), most American fiction “sucks.” That’s precisely why edged, discriminating criticism is important: to help us find the way through the fog. “Most . . . sucks” is a zero-sum game; saying that Gaddis, Bolano, Marias, etc., are worth spending one’s time on, and why, is helpful and illuminating.

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