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.


  • 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 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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