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

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.


  • 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 […]

How to Write a Literary Biography

Lee Konstantinou has a very sharp review of Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, DT Max’s David Foster Wallace bio, though I think this misses the point:

The story of Wallace’s life makes it hard to say whether it should be written in experimental, fractured prose or in sentences that are right at home on the pages of The New Yorker, but our effort to answer the question — and this is the most important one that must be asked of Max’s book — necessarily recapitulates the major intellectual and artistic struggle of Wallace’s life, a struggle he never found a way to overcome. Wallace spent years battling those who would domesticate his sentences and put a harness on his imagination.

Biography is a genre that, by definition, attempts to give an arc to a life. Telling it in Wallace’s prose, which was purposely crafted to deny any kind of a narrative arc, is contrary to biography’s aims. Just because Wallace attempted to do this as a writer, I see no reason why a biographer should attempt to replicate what he did.

For a good idea of how a writer can craft a satisfying biography while staying true to an experimental writer’s core sensibilities, I recommend Like a Fiery Elephant, Jonathan Coe’s biography of the very highly experimental British writer B.S. Johnson. This book, I’d argue, is what DT Max’s should have aspired to.

You Might Also Like:

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. How Not to Do Literary Biography Dan Green has extraordinarily harsh words for David C. Dougherty, the author of Shouting Down the Silence: A Biography of Stanley Elkin: . . ....
  2. Why Write? Paul Auster in The Guardian: I don’t know why I do what I do. If I did know, I probably wouldn’t feel the need to...
  3. Literary Nonfiction A couple weeks ago, I did a Friday Column about 3 writers of literary nonfiction whose work I enjoy. It was my little way of...
  4. Reality TV Meets Literary Marketing Say what you will of Oprah, at least she spares us the spectacle of authors publicly begging us to vote for their books on a...
  5. On How Writers Write In a piece titled “GET TO WORK,” Claire Davenport writes, Ernest Hemingway once said writing was like bleeding, which means that it either comes naturally...

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

5 comments to How to Write a Literary Biography

  • Tom

    I completely agree with you, Scott. I still remember the flood of tributes and obituaries that followed DFW’s death — several were written in his style, and I cringed every time I saw another footnote and “and but so.” They came across as somehow hokey and thinly felt.

  • I certainly wouldn’t recommend that a biographer simply imitate the style of David Foster Wallace, and I tried to be a cagy about my argument by posing it in terms of Wallace’s hypothetical preferences, but the fundamental conflict between so-called “linear realism” and more unfinished/experimental styles of writing is precisely what Max’s bio highlights and what Wallace mentions struggling with in the Lipsky interview I quote. Yes, there are conventions for literary biography–just as there are conventions for what gets called realism–but the issue for Wallace, more than many writers, is whether these conventions falsify or misrepresent lived reality. Does the literary biographer have more of an obligation to conform to genre conventions or to get at the truth of a subject’s life, and if the latter what form would do the job? I don’t have good answers, but giving the definition of a genre normative force begs the question–why is this the definition? Why are these the obligations?

  • Marlene van Niekerk

    Wallace’s prose was not “purposely crafted to deny any kind of a narrative arc.” Jeez.

  • SirJack

    I think your reading of this review could’ve been more nuanced (as the review itself is).

  • J

    Writing a biography does not imply giving an “arc” to someone’s life.

    Wallace’s prose is far from being crafted to deny “any kind of narrative arc.”

    That being said, writing a biography of him in a pastiche of his style would be hilarious, and a terrible idea.

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>