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.

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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 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 […]

Now S/Z Is What I'd Call Creative Criticism

S-Z-roland-barthes If we can get behind Harold Bloom's assertion that texts engender other texts–and thus that literary criticism, like fiction and poetry, is an artistic response to an earlier work–then Roland Barthes' S/Z is an excellent example of what Bloom had in mind. Rarely have I seen a critical work that so manhandles its source material. It is, after all, a 200-page essay on a 13-page story.

In the book, Barthes breaks down Balzac's story "Sarrasine" into 561 "lexias," which for him is a unit of any given text worth commenting on. Thus, for instance, lexia #2 reads: "I was deep in one of those daydreams," which then occasions a 2/3 of a page discussion. Clearly the lexias offer Barthes lots of room to let his imagination run loose, but he grants himself even more space: in S/Z one also finds a series of short digressions headed by Roman numerals and somewhat obscure titles (e.g. "XVIII. THE CASTRATO'S PROSPERITY"), these digressions bearing a certain tangential significance to the lexias they follow.

To say that in S/Z Barthes uses "Sarrasine" as license to write whatever he wants is overstating the case, but only slightly. The closest comparison I can think of at this point would be Pale Fire, where Kinbote's "criticism" (I use the term with hesitation) runs roughshod over Shade's poem, yet nonetheless remains captive to the logic of the source material.

One way you can tell Barthes' respect for the text he critiques is by how he continually imbues it with agency, as if it was an organism in its own right. This must be the first critical book I've read in which the text (here personified as "the discourse") actually becomes a subject, with certain needs and wants. E.g.:

. . . for the moment, probably due to the needs of the Antithesis, the discourse can only contrast the old man-machine with the new child-woman.

Essentially, in S/Z Barthes is picking apart "Sarrasine" into constituent pieces (although he's the first to acknowledge that the pieces he discovers are but one way of breaking up this piece of writing). A bit like an archaeologist, he's assigning each piece certain traits and organizing them along various schemas of his own creation. Thus, in S/Z he is attempting to create a response to "Sarrasine" that disrespects the narrative logic of the story (for example, he completely spoils the ending within the first pages, but in an analysis such as this "spoiler" really has no meaning), while simultaneously creating a different kind of critical logic. Thus, in my reading, it's a creative response to a source text, similar to how an author of fiction would reinvent a source text in his or her own writing (e.g. the use of Hawthorne and the Quixote in The New York Trilogy, or the use of the Odyssey in Ulysses).

The last thing I want to say about this book right now is that it's delightfully full of all kinds of the portentous statements that I love to encounter in Barthes. For instance: "Thus, realism (badly named, at any rate often badly interpreted) consists not in copying the real but in copying a depicted copy of the real." Or: "Beauty (unlike ugliness) cannot really be explained: in each part of the body it stands out, repeats itself, but it does not describe itself. Like a god (and as empty), it can only say: 'I am what I am.'" And lastly, what at this point must be my favorite, if only for its audacity:

And then: if literature and painting are no longer held in a hierarchical reflection, one being the rear-view mirror for the other, why maintain them any longer as objects at once united and separate, in short, classed together? Why not wipe out the difference between them (purely one of substance)? Why not forgo the plurality of the "arts" in order to affirm more powerful the plurality of "texts"?

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More from Conversational Reading:

  1. On That Creative Criticism School Thing . . . At The Valve there's an interesting discussion of J.C. Hallman's essay on launching a school of creative criticism. Among others, Zak Smith, of Gravity's Rainbow...
  2. Kazuo Ishiguro: Don’t Call Noctures a Novel Round these parts, it's big news when Kazuo Ishiguro has a new book out. Nocturnes doesn't hit the States till fall, but the UK...
  3. On the Pleasures of Rereading (by Barthes), And On the Pleasures of Rereading Bolano I'd like to share a quote here from S/Z by Roland Barthes, which is itself quoted in Structuralism in Literature by Robert Scholes. I've included...
  4. Kafkaesque Criticism Writing on Franz Kafka: The Office Writings in The New Republic, Louis Begley makes Kafka criticism sound a little, well, Kafkaesque: Thus was constituted the...
  5. The Translation Creative Commons I've been discussing retranslation in light of the new edition of The Tin Drum. One issue that comes up is, what do you do if...

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