Category Archives: Uncategorized

Recommended: At the Lightning Field by Laura Raicovich

I’ve recently finished Laura Raicovich poetic essay At the Lightning Field, just released by Coffee House Press. The book revolves around Raicovich’s experiences at The Lightning Field, a major work of Land Art constructed in 1977 in New Mexico (see more here).

In this book, Raicovich combines poetic narratives of her experiences at The Lightning Field with reflections on mathematics, the nature of memory, artistic theory, and poetry. The result is a substantial, spare long essay that at times functions more like poetry than prose. It’s a delightful little book, the sort of response to works of art that I wish more essayists would make.

Read Sergio Pitol!!!, aka The Magician of Vienna by Sergio Pitol

The Magician of Vienna by Sergio Pitol is coming out next week. It completes Pitol’s “trilogy of memory,” which begins with The Art of Flight and continues with The Journey.

Pitol is a true master, and these are incredible books. The words that currently come to mind to encourage you to read them feel inadequate . . . I will simply say that you should experience them. You will be better for it.

We excerpted two essays from The Magician of Vienna at The Quarterly Conversation: you can read them here. And BOMB magazine excerpted The Art of Flight. Read that here. (I am linking to the Google Cache page, as something appears off with the actual webpage.)

And here, for good measure, is a photo of Pitol and Bolaño together. It was taken on the occasion of Bolaño being awarded the Romulo Gallegos Prize for his novel The Savage Detectives. (You should also read TSD, if you have not already done so.) Pitol, a member of that year’s jury, awarded him the Prize.

The Collected Poems of Thomas Bernhard

Over at Lit Hub, as part of their April recommended releases, I recommend the Collected Poems of Thomas Bernhard.

This is a pretty massive release that has been a long time in the coming. It’s close to 500 pages, and it’s got everything. Bernhardians should rejoice.

Indie Bookstore as Political Instrument

My latest Lit Hub column is up, and it’s all about the intersection of indie bookstores and political resistance.

I think for a long time now I’ve had some kind of sense that indie bookstores aren’t really like most other normal businesses, but it’s only been with the arrival of Donald Trump and the response by many indies in my community that I’ve been able to put these thoughts into coherent shape. It does say something that the one business I all but expected to see a strong and prolonged engagement from—and which has provided just that—was the indies in my community.

Anyway, some thoughts on all that over at the Hub.

The Re-Emergence of Henry Green

Long a closely kept secret (a writer’s writer, or maybe a writer’s writer’s writer), Henry Green is getting the treatment by NYRB Classics and coming back into the mainstream. It’s about time.

They’ve done these 5, with more on the way. For an introduction and some ideas where to get started, I recommend Dan Green’s essay in The Quarterly Conversation.

If you want to see more about Green on Amazon, do so here.

Let’s Hear It for the Editors

With the passing of founder and 50+-year editor of the New York Review of Books, Robert Silvers, we’re seeing a number of remembrances praising what he built.

The New York Review has been special for a number of reasons, which include: being profitable for 50 years despite not dumbing down its content or catering to the trends; and being a wide-ranging publication of ideas that aimed to publish timeless essays but that also stayed on top of the news.

The other reason for the NYRB’s belovedness is of course that Silvers was by all reports an incredible editor, one who was dedicated and tireless, and who made everything he touched much, much better.

After an essay was finally on track, he would send an edited copy back — the famous “A Galley.” Your argument would be better, and your prose would be cleaner. But on every page, there would be his cramped handwriting, asking for page references for every quotation, questioning word choices, inserting paragraph breaks, pointing to recent work from the Congressional Research Service, invoking arguments from James Madison, John Marshall, John Stuart Mill or Immanuel Kant.

After you responded to “A Galley,” you would get “B Galley,” with still more questions and corrections, more references, meticulous editing and, occasionally, a serious concern. A direct quotation: “After many readings, I appreciated the changes you made, but in our ignorance my colleagues and I still had questions.”

When an essay was far along and close to ready to run, he would occasionally call to say, “We just have a few final questions.” My heart would sink. Was a conversation actually necessary? Had he found a serious defect? Wouldn’t email be better? Were we going to go over whole sentences, word by word?

Yes, yes, no and yes.

It’s really impossible to overstate how important editing experiences like this are for writers, especially up-and-coming writers who are still finding their voice.

Given the trajectory of many young critics today—which would include lots of blogging, writing reviews and essays for Web-native venues, and maybe doing some newspaper reviewing—I do wonder if this sort of intense editing is getting lost. And I wonder what this is doing to the current up-and-coming generation of American public thinkers.

To be clear, I think it’s fine that many Web-native venues don’t do a ton of editing. Oftentimes the nature of the work is that it is not to be lasting, and certainly there have always been venues where the editing was light. Oftentimes there’s not a whole lot you can do with a shortish book review if it’s submitted well-written. This will always be true, and it’s fine.

But, really strong editing is so important to a writer’s development. Looking back on the editors I’ve worked with who have stepped me through multiple edits of my own pieces, making them immeasurably better in the process, it is clear how 100% crucial good editing is. This is really where a writer learns to take note of his/her blind spots (we all have them, no matter what you think of your own self-awareness), to step beyond the sources and logic we are most comfortable with, to consider arguments we never would have thought of before, and just to take the prose and the reasoning behind it to the next level. Even though it can be hell for a writer to be asked to go through that draft one more time, in retrospect it is always something I value and appreciate, and editors who can do this well are people I am always inclined to work with in the future.

As Cass Sunstein writes, this is really a matter of “what a democracy needs,” as such on-the-job learning-via-editing is one of the only ways talented, promising writers can become the sorts of public intellectuals who are rightly looked to an admired. It’s one of the only ways to be kept humble, to make a writer really see all of the sides of an argument, to deal with his/her flaws, and to have the kind of scope and thoroughness necessary to be a great essayist. And if you can’t see the applicability of such writing to a functional democracy . . . well, it should be clear.

If you’re a writer (at whatever point in your career), try this: take a look at all the pieces being written about Silvers right now (they will invariably include discussions of his in-depth edits), and ask yourself if you couldn’t benefit from an editor with the skill, resources, and dedication.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 47


Charting a Course Toward Cultural Decolonization

Charting a Course Toward Cultural Decolonization

Enter Souffles, a Moroccan magazine of culture and politics. Hassan II’s aforementioned broadcast had mapped a how-to of sorts—in this instance, how to best pose a threat to the monarchy—and, heeding the call, a group of young poets and artists decided to start a magazine. Abdellatif Laâbi was the group’s main instigator. The twenty-four-year-old poet ran the magazine out of his apartment, penned the first issue’s opening salvo and served as the magazine’s editor throughout its five-year lifespan, from 1966 to 1971. In the prologue to the first issue Laâbi wrote with a brash confidence and made his intentions clear: those involved with his magazine intended to “demonstrate that they are less continuers than they are initiators.” A young country with young writers was charting the course toward cultural decolonization.

Novel Spirits: George Saunders Goes Long

Novel Spirits: George Saunders Goes Long

Saunders is thought of somewhat generically as a saint, as someone who exudes a Jesus-like kindness, about whom Joshua Ferris says, “He seems in touch with some better being.” Tobias Wolff says, “He’s such a generous spirit, you’d be embarrassed to behave in a small way around him.” I have no wish to dispel these excellent thoughts about Saunders’s character, but it’s a little weird how our literary culture turns excellent male writers (again always male) into gurus. Saunders isn’t just the best American writer currently writing stories; he’s the Gandhi of grad school. But all this adoration aside, Gandhi still hadn’t written a novel. And short story writers who haven’t yet written a novel are treated like spinster women in a pre-war patriarchy: Why won’t they get with the program? What is wrong with them? And so here we are at the beginning of 2017 with Saunders finally walking a novel down the aisle, whether by cultural compulsion or authorial ambition no one truly knows.

Five Hungarian Writers to Know

Five Hungarian Writers to Know

the fact is that, in looking at Hungarian literature over the course of the 20th century and into the early millennium, what strikes one—for all the violent ruptures—is the extraordinary continuity of literary life and “generations,” as Hungarians themselves formulate it. This extraordinary microcosm of an extraordinary literary culture is now suffering additional stresses under Viktor Orbán’s illiberal regime, and only time will tell how it will evolve. Still though, the history of Hungarian literature in the 20th century, the extraordinary resiliency of its creators faced with genocide, deportation, totalitarianism, and the three T’s (Tiltott, Tűrt, Támogatott: prohibited, tolerated, and supported) tends to fill one with hope.

In Translation

From Poetry and Photography by Yves Bonnefoy

From Poetry and Photography by Yves Bonnefoy

This research I am beginning—on the impact of the earliest photography on the experience of the world and the conduct of existence in the nineteenth century and up to our own day—must necessarily also be a reflection on poetry, since the study of what I shall call “the photographic” enables us better to understand both how poetry has developed and the tasks that confront it. The kind of—historically unprecedented—act the photographer has accomplished, and continues to accomplish, in fact exerts its influence directly on what poetry is seeking to be. And poetry, in its turn, must therefore examine what that act is, and what it asks of, or imposes on, contemporary society.


Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson

Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson

As one navigates the sprawling streets and avenues that spread out across the pages of Darran Anderson’s ambitious guidebook to the metropolitan ideal—past, present, and future—there is likely to be more than one occasion of disorientation, an invitation to entertain an entirely new way of understanding the possibilities of the urban reality. In this sense, Imaginary Cities is a map that encourages you to get lost. Subtitled A Tour of Dream Cities, Nightmare Cities, and Everywhere in Between, this journey is an open-ended inquiry into the myriad ways that the idea of the city has been conceived in history, art, literature, social theory, and architectural design—for better or worse.

A Separation by Katie Kitamura

A Separation by Katie Kitamura

To say that a book written in the author’s own language reads like a translation would normally be considered an insult. But this is exactly what Katie Kitamura achieves in her remarkable new novel, A Separation. The narrative voice has an otherworldly and disconnected air—quite unlike the hard clarity of her previous book Gone to the Forest—which is doubly appropriate, as the unnamed narrator is herself a literary translator, and because the story is a report of the search for her estranged husband in a foreign country.

Bright Magic: Stories by Alfred Döblin

Bright Magic: Stories by Alfred Döblin

Two years before his death, Alfred Döblin, author of seventeen novels and a dozen volumes of stories, essays, and memoirs, complained, “Whenever they mentioned my name, they always followed it with Berlin Alexanderplatz.” That there are worse fates a writer could suffer is a fitting rejoinder in the German-speaking world, where his novel is ranked among the milestones of literary modernism and readers can relish its seediness, its bewildering structure, and its vertiginous language in the original. In translation, however, the book has been cut and bowdlerized, and its formal innovations tamed; and the slang and sudden shifts in linguistic register, which are among its signal pleasures, drift from dated to incomprehensible. A new version by Michael Hofmann, due out this year, will doubtless do much to address these lacunae, but in the meantime NYRB Classics has issued translations of two seminal works of Döblin’s: The Three Leaps of Wang Lun and Bright Magic: Stories, selected and translated by Damion Searls.

The Billy Collins Experience and Sleaze & Slander: New and Selected Comic Verse, 1995-2015 by A.M. Juster

The Billy Collins Experience and Sleaze & Slander: New and Selected Comic Verse, 1995-2015 by A.M. Juster

“A.M. Juster” is an incomplete anagram of the poet’s given name, Michael J. Astrue, who from 2007 to 2013 served as Commissioner of the U.S. Social Security Administration (his tenure straddled the reigns of Bush and Obama). The pen name echoes “jester” and “adjuster,” and suggests that its bearer is juster than the late American poet Donald Justice. Juster was outed as Astrue in 2010 by Paul Mariani in the journal First Things, and may have the most unorthodox curriculum vitae in American literary history. He graduated from Harvard Law School, served as General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ran three publicly traded biotechnology firms and, since 2008, has published volumes of translations of Latin poetry by Horace, Tibullus and St. Aldhelm. Since leaving public office, Juster has been busy. The two volumes under review came out in 2016, and this year will see publication of two more books of translations: The Elegies of Maximianus and Milton’s Book of Elegies.

Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga

Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga

The opening pages of Cockroaches, Mukasonga’s memoir about the Rwandan genocide and the decades surrounding it, introduces a distinctive narrative style and framework onto the story that follows. Mukasonga creates an intimate space where she can speak. She seats us across the table and, in hushed tones (her children sleeping in the next room), shares her memories. It begins in the late 1950s, after the Rwandan Revolution. Hutus are in power. Mukasonga and her Tutsi relatives are forcefully relocated to Nyamata, in eastern Rwanda. Then they are moved to Gitwe, a village built by the government specifically to put displaced Tutsis. They will remain there for a time, but eventually will find a more permanent home in Gitagata. Gitagata is where her family will be killed.

A Greater Music and Recitation by Bae Suah

A Greater Music and Recitation by Bae Suah

Readers that rely on plot will find themselves on unpredictable ground. Bae Suah is a circular writer, and a circle, as we know, has no end. Recitation, especially, whose protagonist is a wandering actress, whose stories and memories become the stories and dreams of other characters, seems akin to gazing at a beautiful painting without a point of focus. Perhaps this is the point; where does one draw a map of life? Or art? Where do these things start and end? Are they supposed to start and end? García Márquez insisted that intuition was fundamental to writing fiction; Bae Suah seems to support this belief, demonstrating how this conviction shapes their work. As the characters in both these books wander through their lives, their pasts, and their memories, so too does the reader.

Of Darkness by Josefine Klougart

Of Darkness by Josefine Klougart

The human-precipitated Anthropocene promises unprecedented loss: of beauty and wildness in the natural sphere, and the comforts of convenient consumption in the domestic sphere—yet outside of science fiction, this has yet to register in our literature. In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh argues that the blame should be put on the very structure of the novel, which employs depictions of mundane reality to conceal a scaffold of more remarkable plot points, and which developed at a time when nature was viewed as a bucolic canvas upon which human individuals acted rather than a system of which we are part. The best way to think about the Anthropocene may be through images, Ghosh suggests—film and television already seem to be having a more successful time. Danish writer Josefine Klougart’s cinematic experimental novel, Of Darkness, would seem to be the sort of novel Ghosh would appreciate

Our Street by Sándor Tar

Our Street by Sándor Tar

Our Street, which can be read both as a series of interconnected stories or a fragmented novel, consists of thirty-one vignettes depicting the post-1989 Hungarian countryside through a cast of villagers living in a dead end called “Crooked Street.” Coming from an impoverished family himself and having worked as a manual laborer most of his life, Tar chronicles the harsh yet often humorous realities of the working class in the industrial provinces and the post-agrarian rural world. His protagonists are the downtrodden, the marginalized, and the forgotten, those for whom the collapse of communism brought mainly unemployment. Tar’s people became known as the “losers” of the regime change—and they represented a sizable section of East European society.

Movieola! by John Domini

Movieola! by John Domini

Domini balances on the knife-edge of sheer surface content and the profundity that literary fiction, especially anything that verges on the experimental or exploratory, is expected to have as one of its characteristics. After so many novels and movies about filmmaking it’s hard to see how any writer can say something newsworthy about the core of the industry. For the most part Domini focuses on the surface because that’s where the producers, directors, screenwriters, and stars reside, and because that’s where the film genres lie that he wants to explore.

On Historical Fiction and John Williams

My latest column over at Literary Hub starts with Augustus, John Williams’s book of the incipient Roman Empire. (Since publishing the column, I have been surprised to learn that many people who love Stoner had no idea of this book’s existence. Which is particularly surprising since it may be better than Stoner.)

The column uses Augustus to look at the point of historical fiction (a weird and oft-maligned genre, but also one that many of your favorite writers have probably tried out at least once). I more or less argue that it’s kind of an in-between genre, not exactly history, but using a lot of the apparatus of history to deliver truths that only fiction can give us.

More on all that at the column.

An Experimental Memoir, a Grief-Stricken Poetry Collection, and a Daring Booklength Essay

The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi is a new of poetry from Civil Coping Mechanisms that’s been selling very well (in part thanks to a serial in The New York Times).

As I Stand Living by Christopher Higgs is also from CCM and is a lyric, fragmentary memoir derived from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

At the Lightning Field by Laura Raicovich is a forthcoming booklength lyric essay from Coffee House Press based in Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field,” an art piece of 400 stainless steel poles positioned 220 feet apart in the desert of central New Mexico.

The Price to the Artistic Community of Closing Our Borders

When President Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban was signed into law weeks ago, many people instantly realized the deleterious effects it would have on citizens of the banned nations, in addition to other vulnerable populations who are now regularly harassed by emboldened officers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).

What was perhaps not so clear was its effect on seemingly disconnected groups—for instance, those who have dedicated their lives to the study and promulgation of great literature.

So, to help make that more evident, I give you outstanding translator and academic Shelley Frisch.

When I saw that Trump’s border-closing activities had been having an adverse effect on Shelley’s ability to bring her fellow translators and academics into the United States to help spread great literature, I asked her to explain in her own words what was going on. You will find her remarks below.

At a time when we are getting shifting rationales for Trump’s Muslim Ban—first it was to protect us from terrorism now it is to protect American workers from competition—and also when Trump is directly assaulting the arts by attempting to cut off government funding to the NEA and NEH (despite the $702 billion the arts are estimated to bring to our economy, to say nothing to the benefits to our quality of life and national culture), I feel it is important to show some of the real ways that our Federal government’s policies are harming our community.

While reading the below, bear in mind that just last week, a highly respected French academic was held for 10 hours in detention at threatened with deportation while trying to enter the United States. Similarly, Muhammad Ali Jr was racially profiled and held in detention at an airport and demanded to explain his name and religion, despite being a born U.S. citizen.

So here is what Shelley has to say about her colleagues’ willingness to come to the USA. If you have a story of your own to share, I urge you to share yours.

For many years now, a German colleague, Karen Nölle, and I have been co-directing international workshops that bring together established translators from German to English and English to German. We have been convening in a variety of venues in Europe (Germany, Switzerland, Ireland) to discuss our participants’ translations-in-progress. Here’s the wording of the first paragraph of the announcement we send out to solicit applications, to give you a flavor of our approach:

We invite translators from German to English and English to German to apply for our eighth translators’ workshop, which will provide the opportunity for ten translators (five German-English and five English-German) to present and discuss their translations-in-progress. We will spend one week working in depth on the submitted texts to scrutinize problematic passages and hone our translations. Most translators find it invaluable to work with colleagues on concrete textual issues—sentence by sentence and word by word, in a constructive environment. We also anticipate the formation of lasting collegial bonds between professional literary translators in English-speaking and German-speaking countries. In addition to our work on the texts, the program will include meetings with literary movers and shakers.

We had always dreamed of holding the workshop in the United States, but, as is well known, funding for the arts is very poor in our very rich country. When we held the workshop in Ireland in 2010, that country was in dire economic straits, yet Irish arts funders displayed extreme generosity in promoting our effort to further cross-cultural literary exchange.

Finally, this time around, for our eighth workshop, and after years of planning, we have secured a wonderful venue in upstate New York, Ledig House (aka OMI), which has extended a generous helping hand and all manner of good will in making our translation workshop possible on American soil, and so all is well—or so we think and hope.

When we drafted the workshop announcement back in the fall, we could not have imagined a Trump presidency, and even once we learned the outcome of the election, we could not have pictured the deleterious effect it would have on international gatherings of the kind we were planning. We quickly discovered that some potential participants from Europe decided to forgo applying altogether in view of the current administration’s policies, and even those who did apply were now wary of entering the United States. These are people who, in the past, regularly traveled to the United States for both professional and personal reasons, and have a long history of pro-American sentiments, coupled with their professional commitment to promoting American culture. Under ordinary circumstances, they would be thrilled to be attending a workshop in our country.

The circumstances are no longer ordinary. With each passing day, we learn of new restrictions: on international travel, on personal freedoms, on a sense of comfort in this country. Our own workshop’s participants happen not to hail from the “seven countries” this president seems intent on identifying as his primary target, at least for the moment, but all travelers to the US may be asking themselves whether they really want to visit a country that would display this degree of xenophobia, and do little or nothing to speak out against a new wave of hate crimes. Moreover, who’s to say what further restrictions the government may decide to introduce, as randomly and unfairly as the ones so far?

I am hoping against hope that our upcoming translation workshop will run smoothly against these new odds, but even if all goes well during our week in April, there is no denying that our country’s image, at home and abroad, has been greatly—perhaps indelibly—tarnished.


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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