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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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

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Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

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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 […]

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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