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 […]

Piketty Isn’t Literary Criticism

Stephen Marche’s LARB essay on the state of the contemporary novel reads as extremely half-baked to me.

To start, it’s full of all sorts of off-base observations, such as:

The narrative forms that thrived in the mid-nineties — minimalism, with its descriptions of poor and rural men; magical realism which incorporated non-Western elements into the traditional English novel; the exotic lyricism of John Berger or Michael Ondaatje — have been pushed to the side

That’s a remarkably strange way to describe magical realism—as an offshoot of the “English novel” instead of a genre of its own that developed on a whole other continent from the Anglos. And the dates Marche invokes are just plain bizarre . . . minimalism and magical realism developments of the mid-90s? Ondaatje and Berger as writers who did their groundbreaking work in that decade?

My bigger beef with this essay is that its big claim turns out to be a tautology:

These structural forms of inequality fit Piketty’s vision of a return to patrimonial society perfectly. The jeopardy driving the plots in contemporary social realism is identical to the jeopardy faced by Austen’s or Balzac’s characters. Only the ground has changed, not the fury of the dancing. How is the hero going to survive? How is she going to avoid disaster to become or to stay rich? The threat of the shrinking middle class, while it may sometimes provoke unsettling debates about the possibilities of societal reform, more often creates a ferocious private determination not to go down with the others. It’s a hell of a good place to begin a story.

So in other words, the plot interest in contemporary novels is about the hero surviving in society, which is the same as it was in Balzac and Austen, just with all the details changed. How is this saying anything?

OK, to be fair, Marche’s claim is a little more specific than that. He says that now we’re seeing something called the “patrimonial novel,” which has taken over contemporary mainstream literature. His definition of this novel grows out of a misreading of Piketty, and, insofar as I can tell, means “a novel concerned with how young people make their way in society with the help of their wealthy elders.” But (some) novels have always been about this.

To be sure, Piketty does invoke Balzac and Austen, as Marche says, but not nearly enough to warrant the claim that “Capital in the Twenty-First Century is perhaps the only major work of economics that could reasonably be mistaken for a work of literary criticism.” If only. Piketty mainly invokes Austen to help support his observations that monetary inflation didn’t exist in the 19th century. Balzac gets a little more play, as Piketty uses him to demonstrate both his inflation claim, and another claim: that the aristocrats of Balzac’s day were so far ahead of the rest of society in the 19th century that there was really no point in ever trying to catch them by hard work—it would be much better to marry into wealth and live off of that money (as many of Balzac’s characters attempt to do). That’s it. As far as they go, Balzac and Austen are fine ways of making Piketty’s points more concrete for a mass audience, but Piketty makes no attempt to demonstrate the existence of something called the patrimonial novel. (And nor should he; he’s writing a work of economics, not literary criticism.)

And then there’s this:

The restraint of this form of social realism is also an evasion; one thing that is rarely, if ever, discussed is money itself. “It is surely no accident that money — at least in the form of specific amounts — virtually disappeared from literature after the shocks of 1914-1915,” Piketty writes. “Specific references to wealth and income were omnipresent in the literature of all countries before 1914; these references gradually dropped out of sight between 1914 and 1945 and never truly reemerged. This is true not only of European and American novels but also of the literature of other continents.” The explanation, according to Piketty, is simple: inflation. Inflation “rendered the meaning of money ambiguous.” And so, in contemporary novels, readers almost never learn the key facts about the characters — the amounts in their bank accounts and in their parents’ bank accounts. The absence is a failure, aesthetically as much as politically. Money is the greatest metaphor of them all.

Piketty is saying almost the exact opposite of what Marche thinks he’s saying. Piketty’s point is absolutely not that discussions of wealth disappeared from fiction after 1914. He’s simply saying that in the 20th century wealth as a numerical figure became useless to novelists as a signifier, because in 10 years the numbers would all be skewed by inflation, anyway. So the key facts about these characters wouldn’t be “the amounts in their bank accounts,” as Marche insists, because it would be pointless today to know how much money Nick Carraway had. Instead, Fitzgerald tells us about the things he owned, the parties he threw, the kinds of people he consorted with—all obvious signifiers of wealth and social class, and things that still obviously mean a great deal to us 100 years later.

You Might Also Like:

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Who Cares If Literary Criticism Is An Art or a Science It’s nice to see some intelligent attention being directed at Franco Moretti’s work. That said, I don’t agree with the premise of Joshua Rothman’s piece...
  2. Not Everything Involving an Author and a Book Is Literary Criticism I agree with Michael here: this isn’t really literary criticism. Even when publishing new editions of classic books/poets, there are things publishers can get right...
  3. Capital in the 21st Century Long-time readers to this blog know that I very, very rarely talk about books that are not directly related to literary fiction in this space....
  4. What I Want Out of Contemporary Literature Reading Balzac again, I realize (other than that everyone should read Balzac as often as possible) that all I really want out of contemporary literature...
  5. Criticism Should Not Be This Disposable It’s interesting to note that Tim Parks’ blog posts on the NYRBlog are routinely better than the criticism printed in that paper’s pages. A good...

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

1 comment to Piketty Isn’t Literary Criticism

  • Marek

    Marche is writing about the American novel almost exclusively, so his remark about “magical realism” refers to its importation into Western Lit, in the 1990s, not some kind of offshoot from it. This isn’t too off-base, but it’s an odd way to account for the post-Pynchon crowd who were the biggest counterweight to Minimalism that I remember from that time.

    I agree that the level of generality is doing a lot of work here, but the grouping/ identification of a trend (beyond the trendy insertion of Piketty) was provocative … wish he’d teased out more about the predilection for “magical elders.” That seems worth an article in itself — feels like transference from the institutional/academic petri dishes authors grow out of these days.

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>