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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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You Say

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  • 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

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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 […]

Generosity Gets Dinged Again

Apparently it's not just the prose by also the science that's bad:

The Caspi results, reported in Science, were never neat. Children with two copies of the protective gene might suffer depression unrelated to painful events. And older studies conflicted with the new research. In Against Depression (2005), I wrote that the Science report had "raised eyebrows on a number of grounds," and I expressed doubts that the finding of absolute stress immunity would hold up.

When it came, the debunking was dramatic. In June of this year, scientists reviewing numerous studies for the Journal of the American Medical Association found no evidence that the serotonin gene offers stress protection or, indeed, any protection from depression.


Powers' book turns on the notion—now cast in doubt—that the right genes can make a person absolutely invulnerable to stress.

To be fair, some reviews have made the claim that the plausibility of the science isn't really a point in the book–that is, it just imagines a universe where this is true and goes from there.

The review also notes that the prose is bad as well:

Worse, despite the high-literary devices, Powers clings to the low-art techniques of genre fiction. Here, I should confess to a bête noire, intolerance for the method (I date it to Ian Fleming's naming of Gordon's Gin and Kina Lillet in James Bond's Vesper martini) of signaling a character's worth by cataloging his tastes in branded products

I'll also note that the review picks up on the same disregard for nuance that Wood elaborates in his piece. For a dissenting opinion, see John Domini's positive review in Bookforum, as well as Michael Orthofer's review.

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. James Wood’s Richard Powers Takedown I’m one of those people who has fallen off the Richard Powers bus. When I first read him I had a very favorable impression, but...
  2. Is Richard Powers Evan Dara? Novelists Richard Powers and Evan Dara are often grouped together because they both write lengthy, info-packed narratives that draw heavily from science. Some have even...
  3. Powers Speaks A few weeks ago, I posted an excerpt from an interview where Richard Powers explained that he creates his books not by writing, but by...
  4. Bizarre Creepy science meets art. Maybe Richard Powers could work it into his next novel. ...
  5. Fredric Jameson on Dystopia Inspired pairing at the LRB. Who will recount the pleasures of dystopia? The pity and fear of tragedy – pity for the other, fear for...

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6 comments to Generosity Gets Dinged Again

  • Strikes me as very weird to attack style on the basis that the writer is using so-called “low-art techniques”. This attitude seems to plague a lot of literary fiction reviews. I thought the divide between high and low had been shown, ages ago, to be a very silly one.

  • True, getting the science right isn’t the point, but in novels where the science is wrong, the science typically gets used crudely. Fictional scientific conclusions/analyses often are a little too neat and campy, and, to me anyway (I’m a geneticist), are very shallow compared to the messiness and ambiguity of real science. I haven’t read Generosity, but I found that the science was very mediocre in Echo Maker – it came across like a parody of science, not much like the real thing. Powers uses a lot of jargon, but doesn’t work very deeply with the concepts.
    Wood criticized Powers for always making his scientists talk like scientists. I don’t think they even talk like scientists.
    Working scientific themes into a novel is not simply about getting the facts right (or wrong) – it’s about going beyond jargon and superficial metaphors and working the scientific concepts more deeply into fiction. I’m not as widely read as any of you here, but one of the best at this that I’ve read is Pynchon. For example, he barely mentions General Relativity (or Einstein) in Against The Day, but he does amazing things with the concept and its historical precursors.

  • Hey Fausto,
    I think that was poor phrasing on the part of the writer. He meant to criticize such things as Powers’ characterization by the brands of products that a character buys, but I don’t think it was a dig at “low” art in general.
    Obviously that kind of technique has a correct time and place, but if I’m reading the review correctly the reviewer’s quibble was trying to use this kind of characterization in an ostensibly realist work, where there are better ways to characterize.

  • John Domini here, & I’m unfamiliar w/ this blog or the background of this discussion — rather, someone just steered me this way. But I do know literature & criticism, & I must point out that Wood’s piece in the NY’R bears glaring earmarks of bad reading, most esp. a mean-spiritedness. Note that he won’t give Powers credit for anything, that he trashes the man’s entire oeuvre, reducing dozens of characters & situations & conflicts to the narrowest sort of paradigm. Note also Wood’s insistence that a long-gone Classic like Thomas Hardy did it better (oh sure, the dead were *always* better), while ignoring the overwhelming differences of Hardy’s status, stories, century…
    Powers must be understood as a social novelist, fundamentally: reliant on research & verisimilitude to explore the challenges we live w/ now. In that mode, he’s one of the best this country ever had, demonstrating enormous invention & versatility in creating scenes & locating points of view, in order to dramatize. Pychon’s not really a good comp; Pynchon’s much more about alternative worlds. Powers uses science in the way it affects most ordinary citizens & the choices he or she has to make.
    W/ that in mind, GENEROSITY is a substantial departure for Powers, more rich w/ experiment than any previous novel, & intended to an extraordinary degree as a comedy. For what it’s worth, this novel was my favorite of the five of his I’ve read.

  • Hi John,
    Thanks for clarifying your views vis a vis Powers. I agree that Wood is often needlessly mean-spirited in his reviews . . . it’s unfortunate, and I doubt it does him much good.
    I hope you’ll check out the site, as I think there’s much you’ll like here. Also check out our affiliated magazine, The Quarterly Conversation: http://quarterlyconversation.com/

  • Scott, ciao,
    TQC is a fine place, one I’ve visited several times, & I’m glad to say so right here in the sunshine.
    You may recall that you & I corresponded briefly about my new novel A TOMB ON THE PERIPHERY.
    Thanks for asking, John

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