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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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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 Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski March 9, 2014
    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 […]

Clearly the Soviet Writers Were Blockheads

It seems that in these blog-happy, newspaper-sad times I’ve been seeing a certain famous quote by Samuel Johnson crop up again and again: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Leaving aside questions of whether said quote tells us more about the person who employs it these days than about the wisdom of writing for free, I had that quote in mind when I read the following in Memories of the Future, a collection of stories that Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky surely knew were unpublishable when he wrote them in 1920s Moscow:

I don’t much believe words for which authors have been paid, and so once when I found a newspaper on a boulevard bench–this was in my hungry days–I read it carefully, never getting further than the Classifieds, for which, as you know, the authors are not paid, but rather pay themselves . . .

The nice thing about Memories of the Future is that it can toss out a quote like that in a story that’s very sympathetic to the travails of Soviet writers who preferred writing literature in obscurity to fame from Socialist Realism, while keeping the story as a whole more complex than a straight up “poor suffering writer” tale. In point of fact, the speaker of the above line is later revealed as insane, and though you end up sympathizing with his plight as a writer with standards, he doesn’t exactly come off in a good light.

I’ve read three of the seven stories in this book so far, and two of them have dealt with this theme in considerable depth. (The first was a somewhat surreal satire about a man who lives in a “matchbox” room, but then pays the price after applying a mystical substance to make it grow.) At this point I’m quite impressed at how Krzhizhanovsky can deal very authentically with the lot of the Soviet dissident writer (or even just Soviet citizen) while not making the story so tied to a certain time and place that it feels dated now. What comes most across is that these people just want to write; they’re in love with beauty and their own attempts to create it on the page, and it’s this that gives them poignancy, tragic appeal, and timelessness all in one. It’s of course a theme that has been worked to death (most recently by a certain Chilean), yet Krzhizhanovsky has a way of making it his own, of writing into these stories a great deal of relevant period detail, as well as plenty of the very idiosyncratic pleasures of his style. So far he’s a real discovery.

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Tips for Writers In The Guardian, Zadie Smith on writing. I want you to think of a young man called Clive. Clive is on a familiar literary mission:...
  2. Sensitive, Relativistic Writers This piece in the Guardian has got me thinking. It’s a consideration of the charge of "relativism" in the humanities, occasioned by the death of...
  3. Friday Column: Prodigious Writers To get us started, a couple familiar Frenchmen. Honore de Balzac wrote well over 100 novels and plays. The great majority of them went...
  4. The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers Maybe about a year back, McSweeney’s launched its Believer Books imprint. Initially, Believer Books repurposed items originally printer in The Believer into slim volumes, like...
  5. Four Greek Writers That You Should (and Can) Read On Tuesday, May 12, the translator Karen Emmerich read from various Greek works that she has translated into English. She spoke before a packed...

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1 comment to Clearly the Soviet Writers Were Blockheads

  • It occurred to me, and it seemed funny the first time I thought of it, that ONLY blockheads write for money because writing is one of the most difficult ways to make the stuff.

    Also, in a rather retrograde Jungian fashion, I’ve always thought of the “Soviet Union” as nothing more than a projection of our collective “shadow” (Jungian technical term for the part of ourselves that we don’t want to face) onto the Soviet Union.

    Always excepting the few Americans who actually studied the Russian language, Russian history and traveled to the place, that is.

    For the rest of us, as Pogo said, “I’ve met the enemy and he’s us.”

    In the sense that you and Sam used the term, I respond,

    “Blockheads unite, we’ve got nothing to lose, even money.”

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