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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Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

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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.

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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.

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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.


  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante September 16, 2014
    Few novelists have captured the rhythms and flow of life with the veracity of Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan Novels. Following the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo from childhood to old age, the tetralogy spans fifty years; over the course of that time, no emotion is too small, too dark, too banal to be recorded. No expense, so to speak, is […]
  • Trieste by Daša Drndić September 15, 2014
    As Drndić reiterates throughout the novel, “Behind every name there is a story.” And Haya Tedeschi’s story is draped in death. Born to a Jewish family that converted to Catholicism and tacitly supported the Fascists in Italy, Haya was a bystander to the Holocaust. She attended movies while Jews and partisans were transported to concentration camps; she pored […]
  • The Tree With No Name by Drago Jančar September 15, 2014
    At the opening of chapter 87—the first chapter found in The Tree with No Name—Janez Lipnik finds himself up a tree, shoeless, and lost in the Slovenian countryside. He makes his way to a house where he is taken in by a woman teacher who is waiting for her lover, a soldier. It becomes clear we are at the height of World War II. Soon after, we follow Lipnik […]
  • Kjell Askildsen, Selected Stories September 15, 2014
    Here, at the midpoint of his narrative, Bernhard, the affectless and purposeless protagonist of "The Unseen," experiences existential near-emancipation at dusk. This retreat toward obscurity in terse, direct language—thematic and stylistic markers of each work in the collection—comes immediately after Bernhard’s sister mentions her plans to enterta […]
  • Berlin Now by Peter Schneider September 15, 2014
    In his new book of essays, Berlin Now, Peter Schneider reveals himself as a gnarled Cold Warrior who has been stricken with many of the maladies common to his generation. With the specter of Communism exorcized, his new enemy is Islam. The book is a collection of short interlocking pieces introducing Anglophone readers to Berlin; it is not being published in […]
  • Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente September 15, 2014
    In 1999, Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, was awarded the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize. Despite his success, it took fourteen years for Giralt’s work to appear in English, with the story collection The End of Love arriving in 2013. Now, this year sees the publication of two more books by Giralt: Paris, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, a […]
  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner September 15, 2014
    “It seemed that the [New Yorker] story—which was in part the result of my dealing with the reception of my novel—had been much more widely received than the novel itself,” says the narrator of Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04. Perhaps this narrator is Lerner himself—at one point he describes 10:04, within its own pages, as “neither fiction nor nonfiction but […]
  • Theories of Forgetting by Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting is a masterful work structured around Robert Smithson’s earthwork “The Spiral Jetty.” Olsen’s novel is comprised of three narrations, written each by a separate member of a family. The husband’s and wife’s texts progress in opposite directions across the book, with each page divided among these two inverted texts; though […]
  • An Interview with Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    The most substantial may be that innovative fiction knows what it is, that someone like me could define it in any productive way, that innovative fiction might somehow be one thing, or somehow consistent through time and space. None of these is the case. That’s exactly what I find most exciting about writing it, reading it, thinking about it. Innovative fict […]
  • The Ants by Sawako Nakayasu September 15, 2014
    In The Ants, we receive a study of existence through ants. That is, there are ants everywhere, ants substituted in every segment of the landscape, yet their behavior seems to reveal something altogether human. Too human. The ants are crushed and disappointed. They are warm and many. They are involved in gang wars and live inside carrot cake. The unique quali […]

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 to his monumental cycle The Human Comedy. Emile Zola, no laggard is nonetheless diminished by comparison: he was only the author of 30-some books, although it undoubtedly would have been more if he hadn’t died of a carbon monoxide poisoning that many believe was an assassination. Similar to Balzac, the heft of his oeuvre consists in a cycle of novels—Les Rougon-Macquart (the name of a family) in this case, and there are 20 of them.

Georges Simenon, by my count, has everyone beat. He was the author hundreds of books, but of course they all weren’t literary; most Simenon aficionados will tell you that only about 100 of them carry that distinction. (NYRB is bravely bringing them into English.) In a good year he could write 30. He would beat out the thin books in a week, and if it took much longer he couldn’t stand to work any more. As he told The Paris Review (quoted in this Bookforum article):

On the eve of the first day I know what will happen in the first chapter. Then, day after day, chapter after chapter, I find what comes later. After I have started a novel I write a chapter each day, without ever missing a day. Because it is a strain, I have to keep pace with the novel. . . . All the day I am one of my characters. I feel what he feels. . . . And it’s almost unbearable after five or six days. That is one of the reasons my novels are so short; after eleven days I can’t—it’s impossible. I have to—it’s physical. I am too tired.

Everyone’s favorite prodigious writer, Joyce Carol Oates, is no Simenon. In fact, she’s not even a Balzac. She’s only published about 70 works, almost split evenly between novels and short story collections (with a few odds and ends tossed in). Give her some time, though. She’s not done yet, and at the clip she’s going she’ll give Balzac a run for his money.

Not always thought of as a prodigious writer, Graham Greene wrote 33 books; most of them novels, some of them autobiography, and a few of them travel narratives. On top of that he wrote 18 plays and screenplays. John Steinbeck wrote 31 novels. Philip Roth, in the high 20s, is closing in on that.

Argentine author Cesar Aira has written 63 novels and shows no signs of quitting. Like Simenon, Aira tends to write exclusively short novels (The Hare, one of three Aira books available in English, is one of his longest, at 223 pages), and they often follow the author’s flights of fancy, regardless of plot or context. In one book, a pregnant woman is murdered and the fetus is taken from her womb, carried throughout as a mascot named "the little gaucho." Another, How I Became a Nun (also available in English), begins with a daughter’s first taste of ice cream, which turns out to be laced with cyanide (this is based on an actual occurrence in Argentina) and tragi-comedically leads to the father accidentally killing the vendor. These flights, however, don’t mean that Aira’s books don’t come together, though. In the opinion of one essayist:

[Aira's literary] versatility is possible only because at the heart of each Aira novel there is a marvelously ingenious storytelling device—a premise, central anecdote, or plot mechanism—which Aira exploits to the nth potential. He has a vertigo-inducing capacity to suggest a cornucopia of stories even while telling just one.

There are some up-and-comers among prodigious writers. Haruki Murakami has published some 15 novels and short story collections since 1980. That’s not counting his many translations, of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, and Paul Theroux, among others. He’s 58 now and he says he’ll write till he’s at least 80, and if that holds true then his complete output will need its own bookcase. He claims to write for 5 hours a day between 4:00 and 9:00 am, to have written every day for the past several years, to have completed his 500-page novel Kafka on the Shore in six months, and to pound out each of his numerous short stories in under a week.

This brings up a good question: What is the method of a prodigious author? Balzac worked intensely and may have sent himself to an early grave. He claimed to have once written for 45 hours out of 48. He would go to sleep at 6 in the afternoon, sleep to midnight, and then wake up for hours of work.

By contrast to Balzac, who was prodigious in spite of his mania for revising his novels, Aira claims not to edit his work at all. He believes in what he has called "the constant flight forward," a concept by which editing is tantamount to stepping backward. It’s a reckless, maybe even haphazard way of writing, but the results are hard to argue with.

But to return to the up-and-comers. Eric Chevillard has written 18 novels since 1987. He’s similar to Aira in that his writing is said to feel unedited. He takes an idea and wrings out perturbation after perturbation until he feels like he’s had enough, and then the book just stops, wherever.

William T. Vollmann has published 17 books since 1989. This is deceptive, though, since many of them close in on 1,000 pages, and one of his works is arguably 7 works (the complete set being 3,300 pages long). A repetitive stress injury and a stroke haven’t stopped Vollmann; nor have they appeared to have slowed him down, as he’s published a book each for 2008, 2007, and 2006.

Lydie Salvayre, whose novels are written as short, paranoiac, almost chaotic monologs, has published some 13 books since 1990, when, in her mid-40s, she launched into the literary world from a career as a psychiatrist. (Despite publishing 13 novels in 18 years, she still practices.)

Last we come to the Italian novelist Paola Capriolo, an award-winning author who is often identified as a major voice in the future of Italian fiction. Since 1988 she’s published more than 15 books. With their bending of space, time, and reality, they are often referred to as "fantastic," as in "somewhat unreal," but the author prefers the term "ambiguous." The are often praised as highly inventive and postmodern in the best sense of the word.

Balzac aside, prodigious writers contradict the idea of the author who labors day after day refining a novel until it is hewn just right; their output is so large that it’s hard not to get the impression that at least a few of their books are disposable. To close, I quote Murakami: "I’d say my readers are in a certain way addicted to my style of writing. They are loyal readers. That’s why I know that they will put up with reading my next novel, even if it’s just so-so. Although they probably wouldn’t buy my book if it’s really bad, I at least have confidence in myself that what I write won’t be that bad."

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2 comments to Friday Column: Prodigious Writers

  • I wrote an essay about long novels and short novels which might be relevant.
    Writing today is an economic issue. Those who can do it full time have an easier time being prolific, to restate the obvious. Less lucrative forms of writing take more time. Also, I think the beselling novelist can afford an editor to clean his writing up later on (negating the need do revisins on one’s own).
    BTW, don’t forget above Asimov.

  • Simenon was a master of the psychological novel. His method was to mine the diamond, polish it, then with one blow split it into perfection. In these days of short attention spans, he is prescient, and has created a class of modern novels that fit well with today’s reader, assaulted on all sides by time consuming distractions. He understood how the economy of language can get the same emotional effects as paragraphs of bloated prose. As a novelist, whose 30th book will be published next month, I have always considered him my ultimate role model.

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