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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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.


  • 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 […]

On Sex, Literature, Baker, and Ballard

I’ve seen some flimsy logic in my time, but Elaine Blair’s review of House of Holes in The New York Review is pretty flimsy. The first two-thirds of the review are taken up by a description of the book, which is fine enough. Blair basically describes it as nothing more than straight pornography, albeit written with Nicholson Baker’s characteristic facility.

In the final third of the review, as if suddenly realizing that the book should do something more than just be high-class fodder for your personal pleasure, Blair strikes out into new territory. Noting the book’s complete separation from anything resembling reality–that the book, in fact, has nothing to do with anything involving sex in any known reality on planet Earth–Blair declares:

This will feel, to many masturbators, like a loss. But having banished these troubling reprobates from his paradise, Baker can draw a magic circle of wholesomeness around sexual situations that we normally interpret as scenes of defilement. I’m thinking, for example, of the woman in the House of Holes who makes “an emergency top-level request for dick” and welcomes into her hotel room eighteen tumescent men who masturbate over her while the woman exhorts them to “Jerk it out! Ice my cake, dickboys! I want to feel like a breakfast pastry!” In the cheerful, egalitarian atmosphere of House of Holes, a woman’s desire to be covered in the semen of many men seems as unexceptional as her desire for intercourse or cunnilingus.

Essentially, a world where all sex is considered a priori wholesome simply because it fulfills one’s desires, is a utopia.

From here, Blair makes the leap that because in this world women need not feel any shame whatsoever at any kind of sexual fantasy they may have, Baker has constructed a realm that fixes sex. This is the basis of the “utopia”:

The wish behind Baker’s idyll is to be rid of the notion of female sexual abjection. Not only does this allow women greater sexual abandon, the book implies, but it also liberates men: the male characters don’t have to worry about offending or abusing women, nor do they have to worry about calling them for a second date.

Blair goes on to encourage that parents of her generation give the book to their children so that they can learn to have the joys of completely guiltless sex, with Bakers many illustrative scenes providing the education.

I’m sorry, but this is ridiculous on at least two grounds: first of all, how in the world would robbing women of any sexual mores whatsoever be a sudden liberating force that would make of sex a joyous nirvana of joussaince for both men and women? Call me stupid, but I have the idea that the very thing that makes sex enticing is the transgression of those norms, or at least the fact of having to contend with some sort of friction (excuse the pun) along the way to the eventual orgasm. And isn’t this argument for complete sexual freedom just a rehash of the arguments of the ’60s that . . . well, that opened the legal and moral pathway for books like Baker’s, that aspire to nothing greater than pornography?

But secondly and moreover, why would this instruction be helpful to anyone? Quite clearly, even if women wanted to have semen squirted on them by some 20 men without feeling any guilt or shame in the least, they couldn’t simple choose to throw off all of the cultural and personal baggage surrounding such a feat and do it. That’s why Baker’s book is pure fantasy, as Blair herself recognizes. It doesn’t pertain to any reality that any of us live with, and so its value as education is zero.

This, to me, seems to be the problem with Baker’s book: it presents sex as disconnected from any social, historical, gender, etc, etc, etc reality one could imagine. Except in a gross anatomical sense, the people having sex in this book are hardly human. How could such a book be valuable in any way other than a sort of erudite, high-class pornography? I suppose that’s fine if that’s what you want to read it for, but I would think that the critics of America would ask for more out of a writer of Baker’s stature.

We might usefully compare this book to J.G. Ballard’s Crash, which is also about establishing a revolutionary sexual order. The very success of that book is that it relates the bizarre sex envisioned by its narrator and friends to the world in which they–and we–live. More than that–it presents their vision of violent, technologically inflected sex as an argument about the culture that they live in, and where it is headed. Rather than simply abandon the world, as Baker does, it takes the reader on a journey from what we would recognize as our own world into a counter world dominated by the signs and sights understood by those who grasp the logic of Crash. It initiates us into a new order, which, I think Ballard would argue, is in some very important ways reveals the order that we already live in.

But Baker, cleanly severing his fake sexual world from anything having to do with ours, reveals nothing.

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More from Conversational Reading:

  1. How is it possible that Philip Roth’s sex scenes are still enraging us? Katie Roiphe’s NYTBR essay on sex and American fiction is full of holes (Kunkel, Franzen, and Foer the heirs apparent to Roth, Updike, and Mailer?)....
  2. House of Holes The new Nicholson Baker novel (or rather “book of raunch”) sounds good, but ultimately, bad. The B&N Review: This can’t be called a failure, though....
  3. Menand on Baker The New Yorker: He likes to surprise, though, and one surprise in his new book (not the biggest surprise) is that it is all done...
  4. On the Coming of Science Fiction’s Time via Atwood and Ballard Interesting synchronicity in the literary pages last week. First, from Jonathan Lethem’s review of JG Ballard’s complete short stories: Ballard was, unmistakably, a literary futurist,...
  5. Lethem on JG Ballard By now, everybody has linked Jonathan Lethem’s review of JG Ballard’s complete short stories, just out from Norton. But I thought Lethem really nailed it...

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