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.


  • A Legacy by Sybille Bedford March 15, 2015
    Sybille Bedford had the benefit—or bad fortune, however you see it—of being born into the German aristocracy in 1911. Her father was a retired lieutenant colonel and art collector from the agrarian south, from a Roman Catholic family in fiscal decline. Her mother came from a wealthy German-Jewish family from Hamburg. A widower from his first marriage, Bedfor […]
  • Reviving Antal Szerb March 15, 2015
    Antal Szerb’s lithe, lively, and wholly endearing fiction is peopled by male dreamers on spiritual journeys of self-discovery. Each one sets out on his respective mini-mission with good intentions but knows from the outset that there are only so many harsh truths he can withstand. In this respect, all Szerb’s protagonists seem to have heeded the advice of Gr […]
  • 39 Africans Walk into a Bar March 15, 2015
    New anthologies of African fiction seem to materialize virtually every year, if not more often in recent years. When presented with the physical fact of yet another new anthology of African fiction, the immediate question, one which I was asked when I pressed the warm, bound pages of the Africa39 anthology into the even warmer hands of a new acquaintance, wa […]
  • The Country Road by Regina Ullmann March 15, 2015
    This collection of short stories, her first to appear in English, counters material poverty with a fulfilling and deeply spiritual relationship with the natural world. Ullmann herself was no stranger to hardship. A depressive, she was plagued by personal and professional crises. Financial constraints forced her to send her illegitimate children to the countr […]
  • The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura March 14, 2015
    The Fall of Language in the Age of English stirred up debate upon its publication in Japan in 2008, and it’s possible it will do so in the U.S. with its arrival in Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter's translation. In their introduction, Yoshihara and Winters Carpenter, point out that Japanese reviewers accused Mizumura of being a jingoist, an e […]
  • Another View: Tracing the Foreign in Literary Translation by Eduard Stoklosinski March 14, 2015
    Another View demonstrates exciting potential in translation study and praxis. It is especially significant in deconstructing assumptions about fluency and linguistic identity. The author makes some persuasive arguments for considering and even preferring non-native translation of texts, the most controversial of which is the possibility that linguistic compe […]
  • The Latest Five from Dalkey Archive’s “Library of Korea” Series March 14, 2015
    Despite South Korea having the kind of vibrant literary scene you'd expect from a country with one of the highest literacy rates in the world, we're still not exactly inundated with English translations of South Korean fiction. Given this dearth, Dalkey Archive Press's Library of Korean Literature series, twenty five titles published in collab […]
  • B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman March 14, 2015
    here’s a conspicuous history of books that simply should not work: Books like U & I by Nicholson Baker, a book-length exercise in “memory criticism,” where Baker traces Updike’s influence on his own writing life while studiously not actually re-reading any of Updike’s books. Or books like Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer’s book that procrastinates away from […]
  • The Valerie Miles Interview March 14, 2015
    The idea was to uncover the secret life of these texts, why do their creators consider them their best work? What’s the clandestine, the underground, the surreptitious meaning or attachment? Where’s the kernel, the seed from which a body of work grew, what the driving obsession? Is it something sentimental, something technical, maybe even something spiritual […]
  • On Being Blue by William H. Gass March 14, 2015
    Look up at the sky, or down into the ocean, and what color do you see? We see blue, but not Homer—he never once employs the term throughout The Iliad and The Odyssey, famously calling the sea "wine-dark" and the heavens "bronze." Neither did the Greek philosopher Xenophanes say blue—he described the rainbow as having only three colors. Th […]

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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