Interviews on The Surrender


Over the past couple weeks, two interviews with me on The Surrender have been published.

The first is with my good friend Emma Ramadan, translator of Sphinx by Anne Garréta, among many other things, and soon-to-be bookstore co-proprietor (in Prividence, RI). Here’s the interview.

I could dress as I wished in private, and I could enjoy the sensations and textures that are not possible with men’s clothing. I derived benefits from this, but so much of one’s personality is only unlocked when you are in public and able to interact with other people. It goes back to what I said before about meaning being social: what does it mean to be a good person or a bad person, or generous, or crafty, or wicked, or kind, if there is no one for you to interact with? Can you be mean if there is no one and nothing to be mean to? These traits only assume their full meaning in the presence of a society. Well, my sense of myself as masculine or feminine is the same. My appearance can only signify to the world what I am if there is someone out there to signify to.

And the wonderful journalist and soon-to-be-author Tobias Carroll interviewed me for Vol. 1 Brooklyn.

The first time I encountered part of The Surrender was when “The Last Redoubt” appeared in The White Review. It’s located in the middle of the book here, and I’m curious – when you wrote it, did you already know that it was part of a larger whole?

No, I had no idea! When I originally wrote “The Last Redoubt,” I thought this would be all that I wanted to say in writing on the matter of my gender, crossdressing, etc. But then, after I finished the essay and published it, I found that it had enabled me to think about new questions that had never been possible before for me. So as I began working through these new questions that “The Last Redoubt” had opened up, I realized that this essay was actually the hinge of a much larger set of questions that I could investigate about myself. Thus, I began writing The Surrender.

And, in fact, now that The Surrender has been published I am finding that the same thing is happening all over again. . . .

We Are Entering a Prolonged Period of Slow Growth


The 20th-century was a once-in-a-species-lifetime aberration and the 21st century will be one of prolonged slow growth.

That is essentially what gets said in William D. Nordhaus’s NYRB review of The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living Since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon. In this, it echoes many of the things said in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.

The message of Rise and Fall is this. For most of human history, economic progress moved at a crawl. According to the economic historian Bradford DeLong, from the first rock tools used by humanoids three million years ago, to the earliest cities ten thousand years ago, through the Middle Ages, to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1800, living standards doubled (with a growth of 0.00002 percent per year). Another doubling took place over the subsequent period to 1870. Then, according to standard calculations, the world economy took off.

From later in the same essay:

The last chapter of the book suggests that the US faces major “headwinds” that will continue to drag down living standards relative to underlying productivity growth. In Gordon’s account, these headwinds are rising inequality, poor-quality education, the aging population, and rising government debt. Gordon forecasts that average growth in real income per person over the next quarter-century will be 0.7 percent per year—even lower than the 1.3 percent per year in the 2000–2015 period. If inequality continues to grow, this might lead to declining incomes of the bottom part of the distribution—and therefore to true Spenglerian decline. I emphasize that these forecasts are highly speculative and contingent on many economic, fiscal, and demographic forces.

Anagrams by Lorrie Moore


Lorrie Moore has long been known to me as one of the “name” authors of American fiction, one of a very select group of fiction writers who could probably live off her writing alone, a fixture of major anthologies, the likes of The New Yorker, and major American awards. So, in other words, everything that would scream out to me “mediocrity” or at least “careerist” (it generally amounts to the same thing). In the case of Moore, however, I know that she is very esteemed by some critics whose opinions I take very seriously, so I’ve always meant to read her. And of course, there are authors like Marilynne Robinson or Don DeLillo who have managed to produce extraordinary writing from within the confines of enormous mainstream success.

Lorrie Moore’s first novel, Anagrams, mixes aspects of experimental and realist fiction. It is composed of five self-contained sections of fairly conventional storytelling. The experimental aspect of this book is in the fact that these five sections are “anagrams” of each other. The names of the three main characters are always the same, but their various traits, afflictions, hopes, and failures are shuffled around so that each time we are presented with three distinct, not-previously seen, people.

The five parts of this book are thus related in the sense of words that are anagrams for one another. Already an implicit question is raised: is there any deeper relationship between “refer” and “freer” than between two random words, just because they happen to contain the same letters? Might we imagine reasons why some anagrams have stronger connections than others? Similarly, is there some deeper relevance between the five parts of Anagrams? Are all solitary, lonely, depressed lives connected to some extent? Or is each middling life painful in ways that have nothing to do with the others?

There is another stylistic quirk to this book. It is broken into two sections, the first of which contains four separate pieces that look and feel like short stories. With a little imagination they might even fit together in certain ways to tell a whole story. These 4 comprise about 60 pages of Anagrams. Then, section two (it is separated from section one by its own epigraphs) is made up of one long narrative of approximately 150 pages, and which feels like a novella. No explanation is ever given for the relative lengths of the parts or why they are presented as they are, although the individual pieces are numbered 1 through 5, giving some impression that we are to take the book as a whole.

Anagrams is always narrated from the first-person perspective of Benna, a wry, single, mid-thirties woman beginning to feel adrift in life and starting to worry that she will have to live through her middle age—and probably her whole life—alone. She has friends Gerard and Eleanor who are similarly rudderless in their thirties. They all work the degrading, dead-end jobs of the over-educated, underemployed lower-middle-class, and they generally have artistic inclinations, sometimes nurturing false and fragile beliefs that they will one day graduate into an artistic career.

Benna, Gerald, and Eleanor remind me of something F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in Tender Is the Night (and which Moore either paraphrases or re-discovers in Anagrams): essentially, Fitzgerald said that his two protagonists, Dick and Nicole Diver, had all the sensitivity of great artists but none of the talent. So they were essentially stuck in a “neither here nor there” of emotion—capable of experiencing profound sentiments, but incapable of ever articulating them in a satisfying way. They even have pretensions to being artists, but of course they fail.

It is this ever-present theme in Benna’s own fresh voice that gives the most continuity and originality to this book. Her narration is cynical and clenched, there are lots of wry observations on the nature of mainstays of bourgeois American life, like yard sales, telemarketers, diners, lounge acts in budget hotels. Benna’s voice seems committed to assaulting a reader with the general tawdriness of people who lead empty lives but try to convince themselves that things are really richer and more exciting than they are. On the other hand, Benna’s voice shows a softer side in its bemusement with bad puns, stale jokes, and the like, plus its occasional sentimental observations on life. Benna has a kind of everywoman wisdom about her—she speaks lofty truths, but they are always couched in the down-to-earth language of the everyday. In the hands of a weaker writer this might easily be condemned as cleverness, but Moore manages to strike the right balance between the high and the low, creating something that feels authentic: “‘It’s not that men fear intimacy,’ I said to Eleanor. ‘It’s that they’re hypochondriacs of intimacy: They always think they have it when they don’t.'”

Each individual Benna—as well as the cumulative Benna across the book’s five sections—is complex and interesting as a narrator. You can never quite trust her. In one story Benna observes that Eleanor “took our mutual mediocrity harder than I did,” although it’s not clear that this is true. Benna seems to take it pretty hard herself, and she seems to disdain Eleanor’s efforts to have some kind of artistic breakthrough in the way that bespeaks self-hatred. Later in that same story Benna tells herself, “It’s not that I wanted to be married. It’s that I wanted a Marriage Equivalent, although I never knew exactly what that was, and often suspected that there was really no such thing.” Much of the tension of this story comes from the fact that Benna may in fact want a marriage (not just a Marriage Equivalent), and is just unable to let herself know that—after all, she lives in an apartment across the hall from a man she seems to be in love with yet whom she never honestly communicates with.

“The Nun of That” is obviously Anagrams’ showpiece. It is the only part of the book where Moore breaks from first-person: Benna is an adjunct professor at a California college, and most of the activity in her classes is told from the third-person, albeit with plenty of free indirect discourse into Benna’s head. This is a satisfying and fairly subtle way to break up Benna’s first-person narration, which might have otherwise gotten a little onerous over 150 pages. Notably, Benna narrates “The Nun of That” in the present tense, which gives her narration a sort of breathless, optimistic quality, whereas the teaching sections are in the past tense, making them read as much darker and more pessimistic.

The most interesting device in “The Nun of That” is that Eleanor is now Benna’s imaginary friend, and Benna also has an imaginary daughter named Georgianne (these aren’t spoilers, as these facts are revealed very early on). However, their imaginary nature is referenced so seldom that a reader is lulled into thinking they are real people, which makes it all the more damning when something happens to remind a reader of the fact that they are figments of Benna’s immense loneliness. Also the fact that Benna may be mentally ill is completely downplayed throughout “The Nun of That,” which seems far more poignant and interesting of a way to do it than to make this aspect of her more clearly defined. The overall effect of “The Nun of That” is tragicomedy on virtually every page: Benna’s voice is irrepressible and often very funny and entertaining, but it’s impossible to get away from the fact of the situation of her life, which is chronically depressing in the extreme. It’s a very schizoid kind of narrative consciousness, one where two powerful and irreconcilable personalities are present sentence-to-sentence, paragraph-to-paragraph.

In the end, I have a hard time saying what exactly Anagrams is about, other than disintegrating relationships and lonely people. I think it’s perhaps a sort of hymn to bourgeois America—its ugly beauty—as well as an examination of why people reach a guarded sort of adulthood from which they are inherently incapable of making the kinds of deep connections that are easier to come by in one’s more naïve 20s. It always seems like the right elements are present for a happy ending in Anagrams, but things never manage to turn out that way—its letters can spell out words, they just always end up combining in ways that refuse one another.

Recommended Reading: Svetlana Alexievich, Hitchcock, Truffaut, Curzio Malaparte, Enrique Vila-Matas


Recommended Reading is a collection of some books I’ve read recently that I’m recommending to you. It’s just stuff I’ve liked, nothing to do with release dates, theme, etc, etc, just great books. Read more here.


Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich (tr Bela Shayevich)

This book is one of the most humanizing, acute things I’ve ever read about the Soviets and what Russia has become in the post-USSR era, but more than that it is first and foremost awe-inspiring literature. As I said in my review:

What is most important about Alexievich is that even though she treads deeply into the Russian psyche, her books have immense humanistic power. Like her other books, “Secondhand Time” is told through oral monologues, and its stories transcend national boundaries: the mother remembering the teenage son who committed suicide, the woman who leaves her husband for a murderer serving a life sentence in a remote prison, the delicate son with the macho father who forces him through a hellish military enlistment, the immigrant who has fled civil war only to find a life of depredation and degradation.

Alexievich grapples with some of the biggest questions in life, politics, and nation (she foregrounds the work with some questions from Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor), and her book is remarkably touching and full of wisdom-lines from people who have lived through the very most life can throw at a person. An incredible read.



There is basically one book on film that there’s 100% approval of, and this is that book. It is a week-long series of interview that Francois Truffaut conducted with Alfred Hitchcock, covering his entire career output. Hilarious, creep, incisive, eye-opening, absurd, frightening . . . it is all of these things, an homage to the art of film by two of its greatest practitioners.


The Skin by Curzio Malaparte (tr David Moore)

Curzio Malaparte was a fascist in support of Mussolini, the only Italian journalist to report for the Eastern Front in the Ukraine (and who did so with such honesty that he got himself in trouble), a communist after the war, and a man with a beautiful house on Capri that he designed himself and that Goddard used in his film of Moravia’s Contempt. He also named himself “Malaparte” in opposition to Napoleon’s “Bonaparte.”

An eccentric gentleman, you might say, and The Skin is a book about Naples during the war that is every bit as repulsive, honest, visceral, cynical, hopeful and original as you might expect from such a man. As I remarked previously, I can’t say I “liked” The Skin, but it was a remarkable and necessary reading experience.


Because She Never Asked by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Valerie Miles)

When I interviewed Valerie Miles about this novella, she told me that it was Vila-Matas’s favorite piece of his own writing because it contained elements of his entire career, crunched and refracted in on themselves. It was also a thing Vila-Matas wrote about a near-death illness, so it came out of very intense circumstances that provoked deep reflection.

I can see all of these elements in this book, which is a “collaboration” of sorts with the Sophie Calle, who also “collaborated” in a similar way with Paul Auster. It’s Vila-Matas at his most coy, his most seductive and feinting and impenetrable.

Pillars #7: Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson


Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.

One measure of a book’s influence—perhaps the best measure—is the degree to which that book determines the shape of your thoughts and your sentences. And by this measure, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress is undoubtedly a huge personal influence. When I fist read it in 2005, its form was unlike the form of any book I had ever previously read. Though perhaps now there are other books I’ve read that somewhat resemble it, Wittgenstein’s Mistress still stands out to me as an original.

So what exactly is Wittgenstein’s Mistress? It mostly consists of single-sentence paragraphs of just a dozen or two dozen words. (It kind of looks like a big old archive of text messages.) As we read the book, it becomes clear these sentences are being typed down by a person who believes herself to be the last human being alive on Earth. Basically, this book just follows the flow of her thoughts as she recounts what she does as the last person on Earth, as well as any number of random musings she see fit to delve through. I picture the narrator of this book, whoever she is, as striking down a few thoughts on a typewriter, going about her day, striking a few more, falling asleep and waking and striking down a few more, just collecting lines after lines. This is just what this book is.

And the thing about this book, what began to occur to me as I read it, was that, yes, indeed, this is how people think. It captures the feeling of thought very, very well (at least our thoughts that come to us in the form of language). The particular length of each thought, the way that they form little clusters as several thoughts cumulate upon one another, and the way that they digress and wander, eventually interrupted by the eruption of a sudden memory or idea.

So here’s something I’ve wrestles with in the aftermath of reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a kind of chicken and the egg” question: perhaps Markson got the drift and punch of thought just right, so that I often think in the manner in which this book thinks because this is just how we think. Or, perhaps I think in the manner in which this book thinks because Markson played some major role in teaching me how to think. I’m not quite sure. Regardless, to this day, a decade after I first read Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I will find an apposite sentence forming in my head, and I will know, this is a Markson sentence. Or, even more often, I will compose a tweet on Twitter, or send off a triad of text messages, or leave a Facebook comment, and I will know, these were written in the mold of Markson.

This is already a huge influence.

The other thing that stayed with me from this book is how, regardless of what exactly the “plot” of this book is, or who it’s narrated by and what her life circumstances are, this book’s true subject is the human mind—that is, consciousness, experience, structural linguistics. At that point in my writing life I couldn’t put it to you the way I’m putting it now. I didn’t know there were authors who focused on things like experience and consciousness, who wanted to understand how language contained our possibilities as sentient beings, and I certainly didn’t understand the philosophical and historical antecedents to these authors. (Nor am I sure I do now, although my grasp of such things is certain much firmer these days.) I had so many authors to discover in this school of writing. Back then, I only knew the sorts of books that would absorb my attention and fire up certain parts of my readerly brain. And this was one of them!

Now, with the benefits of hindsight, I can see how many books I’ve adored in the past decade take as their primary concern human experience, which is to say the workings of the human mind. I can see that this is indeed the central element in my life as a reader and a writer. In other words, to put a slightly fine point on it, phenomenology. I can also see how, over that same span, I’ve more and more come over to the belief that the world as our mind understands it is bounded by language. That is, structural linguistics.

And I would say these two things—phenomenology and structural linguistics—are pretty much what Wittgenstein’s Mistress is about. You’ve got the pure experience of a human mind—processed into these little orations the narrator types into her typewriter—and you’ve got this subtext where Markson is doing everything he can to get you to look at the way this book is mediated by language (more on that in a moment). Essentially, it was as though someone had written an experimental novel that was exactly designed to push all the buttons I was developing as a reader.

As to the linguistics: Markson gets half of his title from the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, which is a huge tip-off that this is going to be a book about language. When I first read Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I knew a little bit about Wittgenstein. I understood that he had proposed a new approach to philosophy that many would say was one of the first genuinely new things in the two millennia following Plato’s writings based on Socrates’ dialogues. I understood that this approach was based on the idea that philosophical problems were basically problems of language, and his early work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, somehow fixed that. And I knew that he had famously begun the work in which he explains this thesis with the declaration “the world is everything that is the case,” and that it is composed of many, many such short, enigmatic declarations.

So I could see that Markson’s book was obviously patterned on Wittgnstein’s form and ideas to a degree. What must have appealed to me so much about this was the way in which Markson continually reminds a reader of the fraught relationship between the words on his page and whatever objective reality is supposed to exist in conjunction with those words. (To that one might also add the fraught relationships between the words in one’s head to the objective world beyond the skull.) He’ll do this by troubling over things like the spelling of “Cassandra” (or is it “Kassandra”?), or asking if Anna Karenina would still be called Anna Karenina if no more copies of it existed. Or, in one of my favorite examples, by having the narrator state that one of her favorite ways of ignoring the rain is by walking through it. By continually posing questions like this, he keeps putting a reader in mind of the many ways that language constantly fails us when we try to put certain ideas into words. (Another nice thing about Markson is the pithy tone he gives his narrator when she keeps making all of these asides; Wittgenstein’s Mistress would be a very different book if she didn’t have such a succinct, compelling way of putting things.) I knew that these sorts of linguistic games were playing at things that went very deep into the conundrum of what goes on between the mind, the page, and the world, the way the all keep pushing one another along to create the possibilities that we experience as conscious life. I knew that this was striking upon something very exciting to me.


There is one more strange way that this book has always stuck in my mind. At the time I read it, I was just beginning to make my way as a writer, and I was finding that being an infant writer was a very demoralizing thing. At some point in my reading of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I came upon the now very familiar story about how Markson was forced to submit this title to something like 80 publishers before at last he found one to take it on—and, then, that publisher was the Dalkey Archive Press, which at the time had only been around for four and was obscure, tiny, and fond of books that would quickly be dismissed elsewhere as not being fit for the market because they were too “cerebral.” So in others words, at once a press that was probably Markson’s ideal publisher, and also a press that was barely one step up from self-publication. And, indeed, this book might have languished and have been completely forgotten had not David Foster Wallace championed in the heady days after Infinite Jest, when he himself had become a sensation.

The truths that hid behind the conception of this book and its existence as a material object were lessons that any writer must absorb—hopefully early on—and finding out about them at this point in my life as a serious writer was a thing of priceless value.

Something Like the Argentine Stoner


Antonio di Benedetto’s first novel, Zama, first came to my attention in 2009, when I asked Sergio Chejfec to recommend a title for Translate This Book! Chejfec’s recommendation ended with these unequivocal words:

I think that Zama should be translated into English simply because so many English-speaking readers and authors haven’t read one of the best novels of the 20th century. Good books are unique and need no justification.

For years, it seemed, Esther Allen was working on the English-language translation of Zama. It will at last be released next month.

Ever since I first heard of this book in 2009, it has been in the back of my mind as an important thing to read. I received an advance copy from the publisher last week. I do my best to retain my fidelity and monogamy as a reader, so when I got my copy of Zama, my first instinct was to do what I would do with any promising title: put it in the proper stack and make it wait its turn. But then I tweeted a photo of the book.

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And before I knew it I was besieged with enthusiastic responses by some of the best Latin American writers:

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So, I couldn’t help myself. Fidelity be damned. I just went ahead and read it.

At some point near the end, it seemed to me that Zama might be described as something like an Argentine Stoner. I know, comparisons like this are tough, but stay with me. The book was written in the 1950s by di Benedetto, and it looks back to the late 18th century, when Buenos Aires was a colonial seat of power, and the land that would become Paraguay was a distant province. Zama is a bureaucrat there, always hoping that he will soon be promoted, be given his back pay (he is kept penurious by the distant king that only deigns to pay his bureaucrats infrequently), and be allowed to move back into proximity of his beloved wife and mother. With some comedy and much tragedy, di Benedetto shows how all of Zama’s hopes come to naught. His life is very much like that of a fish that he describes on the book’s second page:

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Along the way, Zama has strange encounters with the powers that be and the women of the colonies. Everything occurs through a screen of 18th-century manners and propriety. At length, he meets his end as tragically and ineffectually as he has lived his wife.

I think the elements, from the tragic life of a bureaucrat hoping to survive to the historical era and the feel of the book, makes Stoner at least a decent point of reference. Of course, this book was written by an Argentine, not an American, and it takes place in colonial Paraguay, not the Midwest, so there are some considerable differences.

And of course, there is the fact that Zama is a powerful novel. It stands entirely on its own. As Chejfec says, it is unique. It doesn’t need to be compared to anything.

Beyond that, what I might also tell you is that the book is quite strange and elusive. It is a “realist” novel that mostly concerns itself with the day-to-day life of its protagonist, but di Benedetto hides profound existential concerns in the texture of his prose, and at times it swings into very bizarre territory. The writing here is amazingly well controlled and measured; so much can turn on a phrase or a sentence of this book. This is writing that is 100% muscle, or, at least, 0% fat, 100% economy and purpose. Much praise is due to Esther Allen for making this book feel so sharp and elusive, for giving di Benedetto’s sentences such a penetrating power, and also for implementing archaic words and terms of the era with consummate skill—it is a translation that feels new and old all at once, and in the appropriate ways. She even manages to make an important pun toward the end accessible to a reader with no Spanish-language knowledge without belaboring the matter.

This is a book that I could see myself reading many times, and always profiting from, seeing it each time as if was reading a whole other book. If my words don’t sway you, look at all the words above of the authors who swayed me. Read it. Zama has been worth waiting 7 years for.

The Skin by Curzio Malaparte


As a friend of mine put it recently, I can’t exactly say I “enjoyed” The Skin by Curzio Malaparte, even though I recognize the genius. Although I would say the following words in conjunction with it: disturbed, fascinated, moved, revolted, admired. I laughed at times. It was never dull.

I hope to write a little more about this strange book and strange author in this space. For the moment, I would say that this is an interesting view of Naples to read in conjunction with Ferrante (and I believe both authors observe, across a gap of 60 years, that Naples is the future of Europe). And just a plain interesting view of Naples, Italy, the Second World War, and America.

The Surrender at Full-Stop


A very, very on-point review of The Surrender at Full-Stop by John Trefry. So much has Trefry said about this book that accords with my own ideas about it, and that also enlarges upon them in ways that feel new to me, that I don’t quite know how to summarize my response, other than to just encourage you to read it.

In particular, I think the readings via Alta Ifland’s poetry and Marcel Bénabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books are inspired, and I would say that this very well accords with what I have tried to do in the book.

The matter of The Surrender is necessarily biographical, but even inasmuch as this is narrative-based, Esposito does not quite submit to that as a form. The text exists far more in the digressive temporality of Tristram Shandy or Austerlitz than a mainstream biographical memoir. Every book functions as the distillate of nonverbal cognitive fields into text. But the productivity of some books is predicated on that function. A book like The Surrender that is so much about the proper fit of a word scrim over an entire life of cognitive fields cannot avoid being an unrecognizable oversimplification when measured against the digressive and ephemeral intrusion of fleeting thoughts and stimuli that every instant consider who you are, what articulates your identity, what precipitates the thought itself. While such thoughts accrete, they form the identity, and are so voluminous, so recursive, and of such a fine grain as to be undetectable, but always accreting. All the same, if the only possible manifestation is something more like the twilit scrawl of an absent skater on a frozen pond, The Surrender is very effective.

You can get The Surrender from me at this link, or from Small Press Distribution right here.

The Doctrine of Deteriorating Translations

An interesting discovery (among many) in Derrida’s Breakfast by David Brooks.

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Experience, Creativity, and Craft: Some Thoughts on Mark McGurl’s Program Era


I’ve recently finished Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, which I’m sure some of you will recall as having made a splash a few years ago. The book has such a commonsensical (bordering on obvious) thesis that it’s one of those things you’re amazed no one has ever tried to write before: quite simply, McGurl tries to figure out the impact writing programs have had on postwar American literature, taking it as the single most important influence on writing in that time.

The book starts out with a 70-page introduction which, if you don’t have the stomach for all 400 pages, you should take a couple of hours to read. It lays out McGurl’s main idea of the MFA influence, which is that writing programs key contribution has been an interrelated triad of values: experience (write what you know), creativity (find your voice), and craft (show, don’t tell). In these McGurl finds the larger values of higher education since the reforms of the Progressive Era: individualism, pluralism, creativity, and discipline. In detailing how these values are indicative of the larger university setting McGurl provides a fairly good sketch of the major trends in the development of the American university in the 20th century, which makes for interesting reading in and of itself. Ad his schematic of the larger trends in creative writing over the past 70 years or so is very strong. It’s a great overview that puts many things into perspective.

It’s a rather compelling thesis and I have a hard time disagreeing. What is more debatable is McGurl’s rather bold declaration that creative writing programs have produced “as rich and multifaceted a body of literary writing as has ever been.” Certainly something in me is pleased to see someone so resolutely stand up for creative writing programs, but this is also a claim that McGurl doesn’t do much to flesh out beyond this statement (perhaps a second study is forthcoming). Yes, there are readings of many of the standout authors of the MFA system, but there’s no so much of a defense of the tons and tons of less recognized authors that have also come from that system. It is here that McGurl would have to be persuasive if he would really want to defend that argument.

Instead, what McGurl proceeds to do is to flesh out the experience/creativity/craft triad over the course of the next 330 pages. There is a lot here that is genuinely interesting, and this is a book that found me making lots of marginal notes and underlines, as well as one that had me noting down books that I’d like to look up in the future. McGurl has some rather strong takes on some mainstays of American lit: Thomas Wolfe (whom he twice says is today best known for being mistaken for Tom Wolfe (McGurl does like to repeat himself in this book)) is a complete nothing and has entirely faded from view; Hemingway is probably the strongest influence on American literature today; Faulkner should be the equal of Hemingway in terms of influence but is too syntactically taxing. I found McGurl’s opposition of Raymond Carver to Joyce Carol Oates inspired, as well of the dichotomy of pride/shame in program writing that he reads through their work. (As an aside, when was the last time you heard a critic compellingly discuss “shame” in any deep way, much less as a determinant of literary construction?)

While there is much that is quite interesting about this book, one of my problems with it is that we have to sit though readings of a number of writers who are largely unknown, and whom McGurl makes sound uninteresting. For instance, how many now regard Margaret Walker’s slave novel Jubilee as worthy of attention, or know of Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand? I’m persuaded that the latter may be a discovery (Larsen has attracted quite a lot of attention from gender and ethnic studies academics), but outside of the academy (and probably even inside of it) these names certainly require an introduction of sorts, which McGurl never provides. He never even makes the case why Wofle is worthy of such a thorough reading and bracing take-down (Frederic Jameson, in his review of The Program Era, helpfully reminds us that Faulkner regarded Wofle as his key influence; McGurl might have told us that). So one is often left feeling contextless in the pages of this book, wanting to know why an author is important enough to garner such attention, and precisely how that author fits into the larger schematic.

Another issue I had with The Program Era is the quality of its prose. I can appreciate that a book written largely by and for academics is going to have some clunkers, but surely there is no excuse for “rhetorical rape of the slave by the master,” “triumphantly phallic singularity,” or comparing Nat Turner’s position as a privileged slave to the lot of “a writer-in-residence.” Aside from borderline offensive usages like those, there’ just a lot of severely academic language that comes off as very imprecise—I’m still not really sure what “autobardolatry” means or why McGurl needs to use it (a quick Google search seems to indicate that he’s the only one), much less the many other auto- terms that proliferate in these pages.

But to return to the good, the book does have quite interesting (and original to my ears) readings of Philip Roth, Don DeLillo John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, Donald Barthelme, Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, Vladimir Nabokov, and Flannery O’Connor. (It would seem, at least in my reading, that McGurl is strongest on what he terms the “technomodernists” and does not to so well on the writers he groups under ethnic pluralism.) The book is also a rather strong thesis of how literary influence has functioned in the postwar era, who have been the key writers and institutions and what has been their unique contribution to shaping the landscape. I learned a great deal about the literary history of my own country by reading this book. All this has undoubtedly required a great amount of thought and research, and for it McGurl is to be commended.

I would just conclude by saying that one thing I wish McGurl had done better was to say what was genuinely new or contemporary about his overarching triad, experience (write what you know), creativity (find your voice), and craft (show, don’t tell). I do agree that these are probably the core values of literary writing in the program era, and McGurl does do some deep exploration of how they manifest in this era, but he doesn’t say what makes them distinct from the literary values of prior eras. Certainly all three must have been present to some extent throughout the history of writing in the modern era, so one wants to know why and how other eras or geographic locations might have treated them differently (or championed other values). I realize that a full exploration of this would be beyond the possibilities of this book, but without even giving a little response to these questions McGurl leaves a reader saying, for instance “but hasn’t craft always been a part of good writing? Could there be an example of great writing that did not involve, say, great craft, or personal experience?” Without an adequate response, this book feel less a book about “program” writing than simply writing.


The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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