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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  • 20 Books at 3820 Books at 38

    I'm surprised to learn Andres Newman is so young. Also, great overview of his books in English. Andrés Neuman is... »
  • The Future ModianoThe Future Modiano

    The Complete Review has the details of the future Englishing of our most recent Nobel laureate. And also, sales figures. For... »
  • Quarterly Conversationi Issue 38Quarterly Conversationi Issue 38

    Issue 38 right here. or TOC after the jump. Features Readings, Fragments,... »
  • On KafkaOn Kafka

    Rivka Galchen on the new Kafka bio by Reiner Stach. I have come to the conclusion that anyone who thinks about Kafka for... »
  • Me on ModianoMe on Modiano

    My review of Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano. The most focused of the book’s three diffuse novellas is... »
  • Elena Ferrante InterviewedElena Ferrante Interviewed

    At the NY TImes. I'm currently reading Book 1. Q. You insist on anonymity and yet are developing a cult following,... »
  • Infinite FictionsInfinite Fictions

    Buy David Winters's book.... »
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    At BOMB: A couple of months after that, in February 2011, Béla Tarr presented the world premiere of The Turin Horse at... »
  • Bolaño: A BiographyBolaño: A Biography

    This is a pretty fair assessment of Bolaño: A Biography. Denied access to papers in the Bolaño estate, the Argentine... »
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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.


  • [[there.]] by Lance Olsen December 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen is the author of two recent works, [[there.]] and Theories of Forgetting (FC2). The second presents three narratives in a clearly fictional mode while the first offers day-to-day thoughts on living in another country. We rightly suspect that any artist’s memoir or diary ought to be viewed as written with a prospective public in mind, no matter ho […]
  • Noir and Nihilism in True Detective December 15, 2014
    "It’s just one story. The oldest. . . . Light versus dark." Spanning 8 episodes between January and March of 2014, HBO’s runaway hit True Detective challenged the status quo of contemporary crime drama. The show has been widely celebrated for its philosophy, complexity, and visual aesthetic. Co-starring actors Matthew McConaughey as Rustin "Ru […]
  • The Colonel’s World December 15, 2014
    Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (born 1940) is considered by many the living Iranian novelist, a perennial Nobel Prize candidate. Dowlatabadi wrote The Colonel some thirty years ago, because in his own words he had been “afflicted.” The subject forced him to sit at the desk and write nonstop for two years. “Writing The Colonel I felt a strong sense of indignation and pa […]
  • Mr Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn by Alessandro Baricco December 15, 2014
    Alessandro Baricco’s well-crafted, elegant prose seems as though it should create the impression of distance, or of abstraction; instead, the reader of Mr. Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn becomes wholly implicated and immersed, drawn into a dreamy and idiosyncratic world that blurs the division between reader, character and writer. As readers, we expect that th […]
  • The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash December 15, 2014
    "The paan shop leads to the opening of a tunnel, full of the creatures of the city, and the tears and spit of a fakir." In a single opening line, Uday Prakash sets the scene for the politically incisive, yet intimately human stories of The Walls of Delhi (translated brilliantly from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum). Lest the fakir suggest otherwise, t […]
  • The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation December 15, 2014
    In a speech reprinted in the book, Heim makes a self-deprecating joke about whether the life of a translator is worth reading: “What does a translator do? He sits and translates!” The Man Between serves as a book-length retort by laying bare all the things Heim did: these include persuading the academy that translation is a scholarly (in addition to a creati […]
  • The Prabda Yoon Interview December 15, 2014
    Yes, I think people are not comfortable anymore to write in this straightforward, traditional way, especially the younger, more progressive writers. So it’s interesting—you have social commentary, and you also get a little bit of structural experiment. You have themes that are very, very Thai. I’m actually very interested to see what new writers will come up […]
  • The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck December 15, 2014
    For Jenny Erpenbeck, no life is lived in an indisputable straight line. Which is why, in her new novel (new in English, though published in 2012 as Aller Tage Abend) she approaches the narrative as a series of potential emotional earthquakes, some which take place, some which might have taken place, all of which reveal something of how political turbulence p […]
  • In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass December 15, 2014
    Once, at a writers symposium, William Howard Gass remarked that to substitute the page for the world is a form of revenge for the recognition that "you are, in terms of the so-called world, an impotent nobody." There is inarguably no contemporary writer of American stock in whose work one might locate a more ambitious war of attrition between innov […]
  • Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli December 15, 2014
    Luiselli’s first novel, Faces in the Crowd, translated into fluid English by Christina MacSweeney, is the perfect illustration of this attitude toward fiction writing. Narrated in short sections spanning multiple storylines and the better part of one hundred years, it uses "[d]eep excavations" to expose the empty spaces in two lives, those of a you […]

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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