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.

For low prices on Las Vegas shows visit LasVegas.ShowTickets.com
  • 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.... »
  • Tarr After the HorseTarr After the Horse

    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... »
  • Literary AdvocatesLiterary Advocates

    Very honored to be among the esteemed list of "Literary Advocates" named by Entropy magazine for 2014. The list of... »

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 […]

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.

You Might Also Like:

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...

Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>