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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    My piece covering two new translations of books by Marcos Giralt Torrente—Paris and Father and Son: A Lifetime—has just... »
  • A Little Lumpen NovelitaA Little Lumpen Novelita

    The latest Bolaño, reviewed at M&L. In one of the monologues that make up the long middle section of Roberto... »
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    I don't really think poetry written for print works in the electronic format. You can make an argument that there isn't a whole... »
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    Here it is. If you're the kind that doesn't like to just jump into things, full TOC after the... »
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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.


  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante September 16, 2014
    Few novelists have captured the rhythms and flow of life with the veracity of Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan Novels. Following the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo from childhood to old age, the tetralogy spans fifty years; over the course of that time, no emotion is too small, too dark, too banal to be recorded. No expense, so to speak, is […]
  • Trieste by Daša Drndić September 15, 2014
    As Drndić reiterates throughout the novel, “Behind every name there is a story.” And Haya Tedeschi’s story is draped in death. Born to a Jewish family that converted to Catholicism and tacitly supported the Fascists in Italy, Haya was a bystander to the Holocaust. She attended movies while Jews and partisans were transported to concentration camps; she pored […]
  • The Tree With No Name by Drago Jančar September 15, 2014
    At the opening of chapter 87—the first chapter found in The Tree with No Name—Janez Lipnik finds himself up a tree, shoeless, and lost in the Slovenian countryside. He makes his way to a house where he is taken in by a woman teacher who is waiting for her lover, a soldier. It becomes clear we are at the height of World War II. Soon after, we follow Lipnik […]
  • Kjell Askildsen, Selected Stories September 15, 2014
    Here, at the midpoint of his narrative, Bernhard, the affectless and purposeless protagonist of "The Unseen," experiences existential near-emancipation at dusk. This retreat toward obscurity in terse, direct language—thematic and stylistic markers of each work in the collection—comes immediately after Bernhard’s sister mentions her plans to enterta […]
  • Berlin Now by Peter Schneider September 15, 2014
    In his new book of essays, Berlin Now, Peter Schneider reveals himself as a gnarled Cold Warrior who has been stricken with many of the maladies common to his generation. With the specter of Communism exorcized, his new enemy is Islam. The book is a collection of short interlocking pieces introducing Anglophone readers to Berlin; it is not being published in […]
  • Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente September 15, 2014
    In 1999, Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, was awarded the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize. Despite his success, it took fourteen years for Giralt’s work to appear in English, with the story collection The End of Love arriving in 2013. Now, this year sees the publication of two more books by Giralt: Paris, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, a […]
  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner September 15, 2014
    “It seemed that the [New Yorker] story—which was in part the result of my dealing with the reception of my novel—had been much more widely received than the novel itself,” says the narrator of Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04. Perhaps this narrator is Lerner himself—at one point he describes 10:04, within its own pages, as “neither fiction nor nonfiction but […]
  • Theories of Forgetting by Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting is a masterful work structured around Robert Smithson’s earthwork “The Spiral Jetty.” Olsen’s novel is comprised of three narrations, written each by a separate member of a family. The husband’s and wife’s texts progress in opposite directions across the book, with each page divided among these two inverted texts; though […]
  • An Interview with Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    The most substantial may be that innovative fiction knows what it is, that someone like me could define it in any productive way, that innovative fiction might somehow be one thing, or somehow consistent through time and space. None of these is the case. That’s exactly what I find most exciting about writing it, reading it, thinking about it. Innovative fict […]
  • The Ants by Sawako Nakayasu September 15, 2014
    In The Ants, we receive a study of existence through ants. That is, there are ants everywhere, ants substituted in every segment of the landscape, yet their behavior seems to reveal something altogether human. Too human. The ants are crushed and disappointed. They are warm and many. They are involved in gang wars and live inside carrot cake. The unique quali […]

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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