Category Archives: the quarterly conversation

Lance Olsen and Ingo Schulze @ TQC

We start your week off with an interview and an essay at The Quarterly Conversation.

The interview is my conversation with experimental novelist Lance Olsen, discussing his latest novel, Head in Flames, a book that will remind a lot of people of David Markson, and possibly Don DeLillo.

Olsen must be one of my favorite writers, both as a novelist and a critic, and I think you’ll find a lot of worth in our conversation. Here’s a quote:

I’ve always been interested in the two things fiction can do that film can’t: textured language and deep consciousness. If not those, then why aren’t you writing a screenplay or piece of journalism? Head in Flames, although filled with external action, is at the end of the day all about external action perceived, all about interior spaces, how the mind moves—how, as Henri Bergson and phenomenologists like Husserl reminded us, time is a completely different (and completely elusive) experience when sensed from the inside out.

The other piece is Marcel Inhoff’s argument for why Ingo Schulze isn’t worth reading, despite being one of Germany’s most lauded novelists and one of the few contemporary Germany authors to have made significant inroads into English-language publication.

Ingo Schulze must be one of the more famous living German writers. He sells well in Germany, has won a wide variety of prizes and every new book is sure to receive broad attention and a nomination for one of the major German literary prizes. Additionally, he’s also widely translated into different languages, and has received positive write-ups in Anglophone and Francophone newspapers. In a climate where many readers and critics are concerned about the lack of attention accorded to translations, writers like Schulze are a success story. And he’s the best example that they shouldn’t always be, because Schulze is a deeply mediocre writer, and the attention he receives arguably takes away time and space from better contemporary writers in German, whose voices should be heard.

We happen to publish this just a week after Schulze’s latest English-language publication, One More Story: Thirteen Stories in the Time-Honored Mode, which received a starred review from Booklist.

Wallace Shawn and White Privilege

At The Quarterly Conversation, Andrew Ervin ponders a writer’s responsibility to his privileged place in our society. And he does it in light of reading Wallace Shawn’s new play and book of essays:

Reading these Essays a couple times reminded me of the pressing need for white, male, middle- and upper-class authors like Shawn to think and write about race and class and all the issues our rich parents were too fucking polite to talk about in public. I can’t think of another American author more worthy of the Nobel Prize. He’s that good and that incendiary. In short, with this collection he has caused me to think, yet again, about the responsibilities of the privileged artist—that is, about my responsibilities.

As a writer myself, these privileges put me in a position of some dubious, discomforting authority . . .

42 Years of Mark Strand

At TQC we’ve just published Donald Brown’s look at 42 years of American poet Mark Strand’s work, via his 2007 collected works, New Selected Poems.

Here’s a quote from the review:

Strand’s poems have always been inflected by a sense of words as symbolic more than descriptive. He’s about as far from being a nature poet, who yet describes a natural world, as could be. He’s also rather far removed from confessional verse, even though he does at times write about himself, or as himself. And that, to me, is the lesson of symbolist poetry: it allows one to treat the natural world, and oneself as a member of that world, as an occasion for verbal constructs that relay a sense of both connection and estrangement. Such poems are not meant to create a scene to contemplate, or to reveal the dramatic movement of events, but to make a statement about perception or representation by rendering a state of consciousness. In Strand the state of consciousness on display never smacks of life in its quotidian particulars, rather it articulates a lyric presence that a poet might spend his whole live trying to articulate.

More Books You Won't Read in the U.S.

Lewis Manalo, the buyer for Idlewild Books in NYC, must be doing a good job. Though I’ve never been to the store, by all reports Idlewild has a great selection of world literature.

What’s more, Manalo has penned an op-ed where he describes his efforts to get books–often great works of world literature–that have never been published in the U.S. into the hands of his customers. At the very least, this is evidence against the claim that “culturally insular” Americans don’t want to read beyond their borders:

Telling your bookseller that you’ve tried every other shop in the city before you’ve tried his won’t gain you any sympathy (I’m thinking, “Why, after all, didn’t you just try mine first?”) but I always do my best. In those few instances when I can’t produce the book, the customer always has to ask, “Why not?”

Though the answer is usually that the book is out of print or out of stock, very often the book is not American and has never been available in the United States. Since I started working at Idlewild, it’s very often the case that the book has never been published here. Now, in the face of all of these requests I can’t meet, the paltry amount of world fiction printed in the U.S. has become a personal embarrassment. For every customer who asks, “Why doesn’t the shop have more titles by Mian Mian?” “Only two titles by Cendrars?” or “Where is all the Clarice Lispector?” I can only offer an apology.

Of course, for about 50 suggestions for what classics of world literature need to be published in the U.S. right this minute, go right over to The Quarterly Conversation’s winter feature Translate This Book!. Featuring the likes of Chris Andrews, Susan Bernofsky, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Margaret Jull Costa, it’ll definitely make you wish more translated literature was available in the U.S.

Explaining the Difficult-to-Explain

We’re serializing John Domini’s essay “Against the ‘Impossible to Explain’: The Postmodern Novel and Society” in two parts, the first of which has just been published at The Quarterly Conversation.

The essay brings in a number of books and essays, and it covers three particular works in depth: Aureole by Carole Maso, Zeroville Steve Erickson, and Michael Martone by Michael Martone by Michael Martone. It’s a lengthy piece that’s a little difficult to summarize, but essentially Domini is writing against criticism that throws its hands up in the face of “difficult” books. Part of the essay is him railing against such criticism, and part of it is him demonstrating precisely the better kind of criticism he’s asking for (with three excellent reads of the three main books being discussed here). It more or less jumps off from something Domini read in the NYTBR:

Another book I’m going to look at, Steve Erickson’s far-from-ordinary Zeroville (2007), enjoyed high-profile encomiums; the Times Book Review hailed it as the author’s “best.” Yet the Times reviewer, Liesl Schillinger, went on to say: “it’s simply impossible to explain the intent and direction of this . . . novel.” Oh really? And this from someone described as “a regular contributor” to the Review? A better brief example of the problem with contemporary criticism would be hard to find.

Have a look at the essay in full–I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. And remember that part 2 of the piece will be published in The Quarterly Conversation next week.

Natasha Wimmer on Horacio Castellanos Moya, Name-Checks Quarterly Conversation

In The Nation.

Graciously, Wimmer sends some kind words toward The Quarterly Conversation:

El asco struck a nerve not just in El Salvador but across Latin America. Photocopies of it were circulated where the printed book wasn't available, and in an interview with Castellanos Moya (published in the online journal The Quarterly Conversation, which does an admirable job of covering literature in translation), Mauro Javier Cardenas notes that everyone in Mexico City seemed to be reading it in the late 1990s. More than ten years after its publication, it is taught in at least one Salvadoran university, but it continues to be reviled in the Salvadoran press.

The essay covers everything by Castellanos Moya currently available in English: Senselessness (read our review), as well as the recently published novels The She-Devil in the Mirror (my essay here) and Dance with Snakes. Notably, toward the end Wimmer also briefly mentions El arma en el hombre, which I believe is being translated at the moment:

Both Yuca and Laura play cameo roles in another novel, El arma en el hombre (The Human Weapon, 2001), yet to be translated, which is a kind of companion piece to The She-Devil in the Mirror. Besides providing some revelatory information about Yuca's drug connection, it tells the story of RoboCop, the killer for hire who shot Olga María. If Laura is the warped, glossy surface of Salvadoran society, RoboCop is the machinery beneath it. He learned his trade during the civil war, and when it ended he took work wherever he could get it. At first, he tries to maintain some semblance of loyalty to his army comrades, but he soon discovers that there are no sides anymore, just shifting alliances of old-money landowners, politicians and drug lords, among whom there is always someone willing to pay good money to have someone else killed.

El arma en el hombre, like The She-Devil in the Mirror, is a conspiracy theorist's delight, a kind of fairy tale of corruption (including lovely visions of poppy fields). Every murder is a sinkhole that leads down to some crime kingpin, and the network of connections is dizzyingly complex. And yet to invoke conspiracy theory suggests that crime is always some kind of puzzle complete with a solution, no matter how byzantine.

New Review: Kamby Bolongo Mean River by Robert Lopez

New review of a really intriguing new book at The Quarterly Conversation. Published by Dzanc Books, it’s called Kamby Bolongo Mean River and it sounds part-New York Trilogy, part-Beckett, and part Wittgenstein. Here’s a taste:

In Kamby Bolongo Mean River our protagonist is confined in an observation cell containing only a bed and a telephone. Behind the two-way glass, white coated doctors observe the incarcerated narrator as he chooses to answer or not answer incoming calls. The sudden ringing of the phone occasionally terrorizes the man whose frequent masturbation spells may or may not be a subject of interest to whoever these observational authorities are.

In the opening pages of the novel, the narrator describes the method he has developed for communicating with the wrong numbers and probable impersonators calling on his phone. Implicit in his method is a primer for the reader on how to read this book . . .

Eugene Marten’s Waste Reviewed at TQC

Our latest review is of an intense little novel:

Eugene Marten’s Waste is blurbed up by the Lish School (including Lish himself) so I was expecting a quirkily written, intelligent effort more concerned with the structures of its sentences than narrative cohesion; what I got is a brutal, disturbing little novel that works beautifully both for those who read for story and those who read for the artistry—or at least those who read for those things but who can deal with a shocking amount of physical and psychological trauma . . .

The Other Half of Moby-Dick

Recently, the Review of Contemporary Fiction published a very odd text for its summer issue. It kind of looks like Moby-Dick, but it also looks like some kind of automatic poetry.

What it is, actually, is Damion Searls’ abridgment of Moby-Dick by automatic means. A couple of years ago Orion Books published Moby-Dick in Half the Time, a book that turned Meville’s bizarre masterpiece into something resembling a psychological novel. In other words, Moby-Dick without everything that makes it distinctive.

Well, Searls’ text is everything that got cut. It’s a very interesting project, and we discuss it at The Quarterly Conversation.

SE: So, in a sense, is the anonymous editor who chopped up Moby-Dick for Orion Books the true author of ;?
DS: You know, I’ve wondered about that. Is ; or The Whale plagiarized? Even though it would be a special case of plagiarism, since literally, rigorously not one word or punctuation mark is that other person’s work. (Of course none of it is either the other person’s or mine, it’s all Melville’s.) If not plagiarized, is it an infringement of intellectual property or something? Maybe that’s why I’ve never gotten in touch with the people at Orion Books—I don’t know how they might feel.
SE: That’s kind of ironic since ½’s creator is anonymous and may very well be a team of editors. How do you feel about it?
DS: I feel fine about not being the true author. That’s how collage or found poetry always works, and it’s not like I’m passing off ; or The Whale under my own name or anything. Even “Edited by” is a bit strong, since I didn’t exactly make any editorial decisions—I’d say “Produced by,” like a record producer.
SE: Regardless, your question about intellectual property is an interesting one . . .

Fall Issue of The Quarterly Conversation

We’ve just published the 17th issue of The Quarterly Conversation. The TOC is below.

If you appreciate what we do and are in a position to donate something, please do. Even if it’s just one or two dollars, this money will go a long ways toward helping us meet our costs and continue on to issue 18, 19, and beyond.

And if you’d like to support us but feel like you can’t donate right now, have a look at our Support page for more ideas.

Now on to the issue.


From the Editors: On the Right Way to Write Criticism

Horacio Castellanos and the New Political Novel

The Right to Write About It: Literature, After Katrina

When a Biography Is Not a Biography: The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys

Words Are Living Tissue: The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

Citizen of Literature: Dubravka Ugrešić

The Limits of Human Memory: On Proust and Javier Marías


From Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornografia

From The Subversive Scribe by Suzanne Jill Levine

Launching a School of “Creative Criticism”



For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut by Takashi Hiraide

Selected Poems by Geoffrey Hill

Reading Novalis in Montana by Michelle Kwasny

Micrographia by Emily Wilson

Scape by Joshua Harmon

C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems by C. P. Cavafy


Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme by Tracy Daugherty

The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch

Running Away by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Imperial by William T. Vollmann

News from the Empire by Fernando Del Paso

Little Fingers by Filip Florian

The Silence Room by Sean O’Brien

The Father and the Foreigner by Giancarlo De Cataldo

The Bun Field by Amanda Vahamaki

The Feline Plague by Maja Novak

Said and Done by James Morrison


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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