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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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.

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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.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

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Tale of Genji

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Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

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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.


  • Nostalgia June 15, 2014
    Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably). […]
  • Why Literary Periods Mattered by Ted Underwood June 15, 2014
    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
    The premise of Yasushi Inoue's debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper's young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handl […]
  • 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 […]

On American Fiction Sucking

Some reasonable commentary in the responses to this post. By way of clarification, I don’t think Lennon meant (I certainly didn’t) that there are no good books being published in the U.S. right now. My point was that, if I decide to try out a completely unknown new author, I’m much more likely to find something that feels above-average with the translated stuff than with the U.S. stuff.

Obviously part of that is the fact that translated literature is much, much more curated, but people tend to undercut the importance of this. Finding a compelling new voice from a foreign language is a damn hard thing. There’s the fact that you’re not surrounded my media and agents from that culture like you are in the U.S. There’s the language barrier. There’s the simple distance involved, the larger amount of time and resources necessary for correspondence, etc. There’s the need to find someone who can translate it well, who really understands the source text. And people also need to take into account that pretty much all of the translation presses are almost universally, constantly on the brink of insolvency because they tend to publish things that are truly strange and challenging.

The state of affairs in U.S. publishing is different. There are a lot more presses that tend to do some good stuff but mix than in with a lot of books that are mediocre and aimed at a very different demographic than what someone like Lennon wants to read. You can debate the reasons why that is, but the fact remains that it’s harder to find something that you don’t feel “meh” about.

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5 comments to On American Fiction Sucking

  • “you’re presumably being offered in translation only the best or the most noteworty books being published in those countries. Most of their dross remains untranslated.”

    I hear this argument all the time but don’t quite understand it. If I believed the “American publishing system” was failing to bring authors I might like to my attention (which I do), why would I believe it’s any more competent in bringing foreign authors I might like to my attention? Foreign books being “much more curated” notwithstanding, if the same people are doing the curating, it’s just going to reproduce the same results. I get that we in America are only exposed to the “prize-winning” books of foreign languages, but why is the same group of people who are generally so bad at bestowing prizes, at separating the best from the dross, when the books are in English (cough*Franzen*cough), suddenly endowed with unerring ability to separate the best from the dross when it comes to books in other languages? Answer: they’re not.

  • Herb Levy

    Ezra, most translated fiction in the United States comes from small often non-profit presses that, generally, are not run by the same people or by the same principles, who publish the majority of American fiction.

    The American authors published by, say, New Directions or Dalkey Archive, have more in common with the authors working in languages other than English that those presses publish than they have with most of the American authors that more commercial US presses publish.

  • Michael

    To me, it seems more a matter of target markets.

    Almost all the marketing dollars in the US are aimed at the middle — middle-aged, middle-class, middle-educated, and mostly women. They don’t even try to target me.

    But if you’ve got a book in translation by an author outside the US, you’re more likely to target someone like me. Someone outside the mainstream with diverse interests beyond the border. Someone who speaks other languages besides English, who has practiced other religions besides Protestantism, with relatives and in-laws who aren’t American.

    So of course I’m going to find a higher caliber of writer in translation. That’s who I hear about and listen to — the US market is mostly just noise, meant for someone else, not me.

  • Scott: The very fact that, as you correctly note, translated fiction is more highly curated only further explains why the translations we receive seem superior. If only domestic fiction were this thoroughly curated, we presumably wouldn’t get so much crap. It’s certainly possible that those doing “curation” of translation are more competent at the job than those responsible for it(supposedly) in the U.S.

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