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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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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 […]

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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