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 […]

How Many Times Must an Author Write the Same Book?

(Today we have a guest column from Christina Thompson. She is the editor of Harvard Review. Her essays and articles have appeared in numerous journals, including American Scholar, the Journal of Pacific History, Australian Literary Studies, and in the 1999, 2000, and 2006 editions of Best Australian Essays. Her new book, Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, is reviewed in the New York Times Book Review this weekend.)

This spring, as the publication date of my book approached, my publisher suggested I get myself a website. I had never had a website before and one thing I didn’t know was how long it would take before a newly launched site showed up on Google.

Shortly after the site was launched I tried a search for the title of my book. This was still pre-publication, but the online retailers were already listing it, as were a couple of libraries, the publisher of course, and a couple of social cataloging sites. My own website was still nowhere to be found, but there was one result that took me by complete surprise. It was a page on the University of Hawaii’s website describing an issue of the journal Mānoa that I had edited in 1993, and in which I had described myself as a “working on a book about the Pacific called Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.”

Now if you were to ask me when I’d started writing this book, I would have to confess that it’s taken me an abominably long time, but I would never admit to having begun it as long ago as 1992. That was a full six years before I returned to the United States from Australia, broke, unemployed, pregnant with my third child, but in possession of a pair of small grants from the Literature Board of the Australia Council and Arts Victoria to write a book I was calling, with an obvious nod to Melville, “Call Me Abraham.” That book eventually morphed into this, but I was genuinely surprised to discover that I had had the title all those many years ago. And naturally, it made me wonder what kind of a book it might have been if I had actually written it then and not a decade later.

It’s sort of like the plot of a Borgesian novella: a woman writes a book with a certain title over and over again, using the same historical material and making the same theoretical points, but each time somehow managing to tell a completely different story. In fact, this is often what we do. I once heard a professor at Harvard—I wish I could remember who it was—say in the introduction to a lecture that first she had written her dissertation, then she had rewritten her dissertation and published it as her first book, then she had rewritten her dissertation a second time and that was her second book. By then I think she was up to her fourth or fifth iteration.

I’ve always liked that idea, and part of me is sorry I didn’t write this book the first time in 1992. On the other hand, if the extract of my guest editor’s essay in that same issue of Mānoa is anything to go by, it’s probably just as well that I didn’t. I was only a couple of years past my own dissertation at that point and the words of my young self, preserved in the amber of the worldwide web, show all the hallmarks of a recent graduate school education.

In this essay, which was called “A Brief History of Australia” (another nod), I compared the histories of Australia and the United States, observing that both had been established as colonies, that “this establishment entailed the displacement and subjugation of an indigenous people by a predominantly Anglo-Celtic population,” that both had grown “as a result of migration from the fraught places of the world,” and that both were now “struggling to adapt to the realities of their polyphonic, multicultural, postcolonial populations.”

I had always remembered this essay as a light-hearted romp—which just goes to show, again, what tricks the memory plays. Still, I was clearly thinking about how to communicate something about the colonial histories of the Pacific, and my titles, at least, suggests that I had the intention, even if I didn’t yet have the voice, to spin my subject in a light-hearted way.

“Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All” is something in the way of a researcher’s joke. It is what Charles Darwin said that Captain Cook said that the Maoris said when they first encountered Europeans. In fact, it’s not what the Maoris said (for more on this see Chapter 8: A Dangerous People), but from the moment that I first grasped the way that historical texts are like something whispered in a child’s game of telephone, I was hooked on the idea. And that, I have to admit, was a lot earlier than 1992.

I knew almost from the beginning that there was a way to write about history that was both funny and serious, irreverent and still deeply felt, and I knew that this was what I wanted to do. But I also knew that I needed a vehicle for this story of colonialism in the Pacific—I was not, after all a “proper” historian—and I even had an inkling that this vehicle would be my own life.

The problem, of course, was that back in 1992 (or 1989, or even 1987) when I first began to think along these lines, I didn’t have that much life to work with. This is another reason those early attempts feel so derivative: in fact, they are. But 10 or 12 or 15 years later, when I finally got around to writing the book I had been thinking about for so long, I had actually lived quite a lot. I had, you might say, a whole lot more material, though I don’t believe my subject had ever really changed.

What takes forever is not necessarily finding the concept, but developing the voice in which to express it. The book I would have written in 1992 might have been a perfectly good book, or at least one that would have gotten me tenure, but I think I prefer the one I’ve written now. It’s just as serious in all the important ways but it’s gayer and more generous and I think it actually sounds much more like me. There are few compensations to getting older but one of them is certainly that you become more and more yourself. This is not to say that you are not still a composite of influences or that the derivative elements are no longer there. But I think they are better blended, or perhaps it just becomes easier to pick out from among them the sound of your own voice.

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Friday Column: National Book Awards The winner of the 2006 National Book Award for fiction will be announced next week, and it is very likely that the winner will, for...
  2. Author Asks Amazon to De-List Him George Walker, anti-Amazon crusader. A children’s author has drawn attention to the plight of independent bookshops by demanding that his book be removed from sale...
  3. Shadow of Towers in Times Michiko Kakutani checks in with a review of the long-awaited In the Shadow of No Towers. “No Towers” is ultimately a fragmentary, unfinished piece: brilliant...
  4. U.S.! in the LA Times The LA Times offers a lengthy review of U.S.!, the new book where Upton Sinclair is repeatedly resurrected, pens a left-wing novel, and it...
  5. Lonely Planet Is Imprecise At Times After making fairly extensive use of Lonely Planet guidebooks for almost the last 2 years, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise: The image...

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1 comment to How Many Times Must an Author Write the Same Book?

  • Christine Schmidt

    The best way for a writer to teach other writers is to be candid. This article is refreshingly genuine and I find the last couple of sentences profound and beautiful. They convey the simplicity of life that we discover when we are older, after a lifetime of complicating it.

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