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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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  • Paul: Vanessa Place's 'La Medusa' seems like an American authored
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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 […]

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.

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  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...

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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.

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