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Lady Chatterley’s Brother

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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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Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

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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.

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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.


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    There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era be […]
  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz June 15, 2014
    August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance […]
  • Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan June 15, 2014
    The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optim […]
  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
    Two of the greatest of Tom Holland's predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix"), while the latter's 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, […]
  • Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue June 15, 2014
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  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones June 15, 2014
    Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has s […]
  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
    Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a ni […]
  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
    Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s […]
  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
    David Peace's novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer's epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike ter […]

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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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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