Quantcast

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.

Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and direct from this site:


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.

For low prices on Las Vegas shows visit LasVegas.ShowTickets.com

You Say

  • Max: Henry, it seems a little odd to say that Proust and Kafka an
  • Mike: I agree with much of this discussion, though I'm not sure wh
  • S: This outpouring has been pretty wide-spread indeed. To be ho
  • Will: Salman rushdie is a microscopic crapule on the asshole of th
  • Henry: I think the fireworks may come from the fact that these auth
  • Paul: Vanessa Place's 'La Medusa' seems like an American authored
  • Lance: I agree with you about the state of American fiction and I b

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

Shop though these links = Support this site


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 […]

Friday Column: A Critical Experience

Over at Critical Mass, Molly McQuade has a nice idea. After a particularly tumultuous year for book reviewing, why not look back and see what we can say about the state of the art? Choosing Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero as her test case (because it’s a book that forced critics to react differently than usual), McQuade writes 4,000 words in a three-part essay (1, 2, 3) on what she sees.

It’s not good. McQuade almost immediately finds most critics too "incurious" to approach Divisidero correctly; that is, their preconceptions of what a novel is and should be short-circuited their potential appreciation of what Ondaatje’s might have been.

McQuade then links this lack of curiosity to another problem with newspaper reviews.

[Ondaatje's] writing seems less likely to explain anything—including itself—than many another writer’s prose. The lack of explanation might tempt curiosity, invite curiosity, or beckon to the curious to “explain” it. In any case, opportunity lurks. And yet, most critics of his most recent book appear to stop short, limiting themselves by their own choice; namely, they either commit rapture or rebuke in their reviews. Although either rebuke or rapture can give me something interesting to read, by itself neither will lead me far enough. The reason is simple: either reaction excludes at least as much as it includes.

Though this point has been made before, it’s no slight to McQuade for making it again since it’s such a good one. (As a sidenote, it seems appropriate that our era’s best example of the hack reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, seems to be a favorite target for those critical of the "thumbs up/thumbs down" approach to book reviewing.). Further, McQuade is right to bring this up in her essay since a book like Divisadero is a good one to expose the fallacy of a review that solely seeks to say "good" or "bad." Divisadero, like all challenging works of fiction, can’t be reduced to one or the other; as McQuade finds, those who try to do so end up either in cliché or foolishness.

But if I find McQuade correct in her criticism of Divisadero’s critics, I can’t entirely agree with her prescription for them. Part of good criticism, McQuade says, is to become something akin to "a leading character in the very book [under review]," someone who can "tell the story of living in [a book] to somebody who hasn’t yet gone there to live."

Although I think a good critic does convey something of her experience of the book in a review, I think this is always secondary to explaining why a given piece either works or doesn’t. I’ll grant that telling the story of a book has some value, but aspiring to that feels to me too much like aspiring to write good catalog copy. I think reviewers should do more.

Book reviews are, of course, only the first line of critical response to a work, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be good criticism. In my own reviews I always make it a point to dig down beneath the surface of my reaction to a piece of prose of any length (sentence, paragraph, book, etc) and make clear what I reacted to it as I did. I don’t think it’s idealistic to believe that this can be done in a newspaper review, and I believe that the more critics engage fiction on these terms, the better will their readers be able to think about and read the books under review. Further, if this kind of criticism is done well the experience of a book often comes included in the analysis. (One of James Wood’s strengths is just this; in much of his output Wood conveys the experience of a work while, in the very same words, he explains its rhetoric. In his best reviews, the two are inextricably bound up in each other, to remove one necessarily destroying the other.)

In actually getting below the surface of a novel is where a lot of critics fail. (At one point in her essay, McQuade rightly rails against the overuse of meaningless words like "breathtaking.") In fact, with regard to Divisidero, this is where even McQuade finds herself failing. Earlier in her essay, she writes:

Michael Ondaatje is a writer whose books I would much rather read than review. . . . In fact, I have never reviewed him, though I have often taught his work to undergraduates and graduate students, most recently this autumn. While I always savor the moment of entranced bemusement overtaking a typical new reader of his words, to explain the words themselves (or the bemusement) might seem peculiarly at odds with the consciously elusive sensibility of his writing. Better to write in his footsteps, perhaps, than to summarize, adjudicate, or analyze?

Based on this, I don’t think McQuade should be reviewing Michael Ondaatje’s works, and I give her credit for knowing this about herself and abstaining from critiquing his books via print.

However, I find very strange her idea that a novel can’t survive a critic’s attempts to analyze it. As if a work of art were so fragile a thing. A good reading of a work (be it negative or positive) has always enhanced my own thoughts on it, opening up new avenues of contemplation and encouraging me to return back to it. (Sometimes, it has even opened my eyes to works I haven’t read or unfairly dismissed.) I don’t believe that "to explain the words themselves (or the bemusement) might seem peculiarly at odds with the consciously elusive sensibility of [Ondaatje's] writing" any more than I believe that to explain David Letterman’s relationship with irony makes his monologue less entertaining.

Oddly enough McQuade seems to end up finding her ideal critical reaction to Divisadero in the universal whipping boy otherwise known as Amazon reviews. (This may be the first ever instance of someone ostensibly from the establishment actually praising these things.) But the qualities McQuade highlights in Amazon reviews are hardly those I would want in a review:

The reviews of Divisadero—together with the ratings of those very reviews by Amazon readers—offer a curiously complete and unguarded range of opinion. Does something in Ondaatje’s writing lead silent solo readers to log on, and open their mouths? What is that certain something in his writing?

My guess is, the structurally maverick and unexpectedly poetic qualities of his prose tend to inspire conflicting opinions that feel no obligation to resolve themselves. The debate may continue, and continue. To me, this seems a rare pleasure. . . .

Another pleasure of Amazon book reviews is, they save you time. You can read the review headlines, skipping the reviews themselves. The lords and masters of Amazonia seem to anticipate and enable this move. For, unlike newspaper headlines, which can sometimes stray wide of making any point, Amazon scribes and their editors are straightforward: the review headline gives you an opinion more or less identical to that of the review itself.

I don’t think of book reviewing as an aggregation, and I certainly don’t imagine it as skipping from headline to headline. (If anything, the latter would represent a nadir that we may be heading toward.) In other words, I don’t think book reviewing is work by committee; I don’t, Rotten Tomatoes-style, tally up the positives and the negatives and establish a consensus that tells me what’s worth reading.

If anything, I look for that one review that gets so deep into my head that after I read it I’m not willing to listen to anything else until I’ve read the book under review. The reviews that don’t do this for me tend to wash right off.

And for me, what best gets my attention is when I see that a book is working in new and interesting ways. The most effusive praise in the world scarcely makes a pinprick impact on me. (The only exception to this would be the effusive praise of a reader who I know and trust to be someone whose recommendations I can have confidence in.) I want to see the book working, and if that excites my curiosity then chances are I’ll hunt down a copy of that book at some point. If not, then a review might as well have been a negative one.

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Incurious Critics In part I of a three-part essay scheduled to run at Critical Mass, Molly McQuade uses the critical reception of Divisadero to point out some...
  2. Friday Column: Book Reviews One of the jobs of any good litblog is to chronicle the absurdities that occur with frightening regularity in the Sunday book reviews. A secondary...
  3. Friday Column: Snark A couple weeks ago, Mark Slouka chairman of the creative writing program at the University of Chicago wrote in to the New York Times Book...
  4. Friday Column: Trusted Fellow Reader Via Dan, I find this post by The Written Nerd, in which TWN writes: The best comment of this whole conversation, summing up the problem...
  5. Friday Column: Discursive Polymaths With the passing of Ryszard Kapuscinski, I thought is a good time to look at writers who have pushed the boundaries of literary nonfiction. Whereas...

Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.

1 comment to Friday Column: A Critical Experience

  • Scott, thanks for pointing her essay out as a unit – is she going to collect it and have it whole somewhere?
    Also, regarding the comment about reviews as good criticism: I’ve felt a pressure in print media towards book reviews as long buying-guides instead of a critical forum for literary and greater book culture, hence the thumbs-up/down aspect of most reviews. It is a pressure that is very much adversarial to reviews as good criticism when page-space is taken into consideration.

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>