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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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.

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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

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A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

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Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • A Legacy by Sybille Bedford March 15, 2015
    Sybille Bedford had the benefit—or bad fortune, however you see it—of being born into the German aristocracy in 1911. Her father was a retired lieutenant colonel and art collector from the agrarian south, from a Roman Catholic family in fiscal decline. Her mother came from a wealthy German-Jewish family from Hamburg. A widower from his first marriage, Bedfor […]
  • Reviving Antal Szerb March 15, 2015
    Antal Szerb’s lithe, lively, and wholly endearing fiction is peopled by male dreamers on spiritual journeys of self-discovery. Each one sets out on his respective mini-mission with good intentions but knows from the outset that there are only so many harsh truths he can withstand. In this respect, all Szerb’s protagonists seem to have heeded the advice of Gr […]
  • 39 Africans Walk into a Bar March 15, 2015
    New anthologies of African fiction seem to materialize virtually every year, if not more often in recent years. When presented with the physical fact of yet another new anthology of African fiction, the immediate question, one which I was asked when I pressed the warm, bound pages of the Africa39 anthology into the even warmer hands of a new acquaintance, wa […]
  • The Country Road by Regina Ullmann March 15, 2015
    This collection of short stories, her first to appear in English, counters material poverty with a fulfilling and deeply spiritual relationship with the natural world. Ullmann herself was no stranger to hardship. A depressive, she was plagued by personal and professional crises. Financial constraints forced her to send her illegitimate children to the countr […]
  • The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura March 14, 2015
    The Fall of Language in the Age of English stirred up debate upon its publication in Japan in 2008, and it’s possible it will do so in the U.S. with its arrival in Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter's translation. In their introduction, Yoshihara and Winters Carpenter, point out that Japanese reviewers accused Mizumura of being a jingoist, an e […]
  • Another View: Tracing the Foreign in Literary Translation by Eduard Stoklosinski March 14, 2015
    Another View demonstrates exciting potential in translation study and praxis. It is especially significant in deconstructing assumptions about fluency and linguistic identity. The author makes some persuasive arguments for considering and even preferring non-native translation of texts, the most controversial of which is the possibility that linguistic compe […]
  • The Latest Five from Dalkey Archive’s “Library of Korea” Series March 14, 2015
    Despite South Korea having the kind of vibrant literary scene you'd expect from a country with one of the highest literacy rates in the world, we're still not exactly inundated with English translations of South Korean fiction. Given this dearth, Dalkey Archive Press's Library of Korean Literature series, twenty five titles published in collab […]
  • B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman March 14, 2015
    here’s a conspicuous history of books that simply should not work: Books like U & I by Nicholson Baker, a book-length exercise in “memory criticism,” where Baker traces Updike’s influence on his own writing life while studiously not actually re-reading any of Updike’s books. Or books like Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer’s book that procrastinates away from […]
  • The Valerie Miles Interview March 14, 2015
    The idea was to uncover the secret life of these texts, why do their creators consider them their best work? What’s the clandestine, the underground, the surreptitious meaning or attachment? Where’s the kernel, the seed from which a body of work grew, what the driving obsession? Is it something sentimental, something technical, maybe even something spiritual […]
  • On Being Blue by William H. Gass March 14, 2015
    Look up at the sky, or down into the ocean, and what color do you see? We see blue, but not Homer—he never once employs the term throughout The Iliad and The Odyssey, famously calling the sea "wine-dark" and the heavens "bronze." Neither did the Greek philosopher Xenophanes say blue—he described the rainbow as having only three colors. Th […]

Polite Discourse

In her New Yorker article about Witold Gombrowicz’s Diaries, Ruth Franklin brings up the Pole’s harsh treatment of the literary scene he was a part of:

In the early years, Gombrowicz fires off one screed after another at the literary establishment. He rails regularly against the niceties of emigre publications (such as the one he is writing in), which he says remind him “of a hospital where the patients are given only soups that are easily digested.” He worries that literature “is in danger of becoming a soft-boiled egg instead of being a hard-boiled one, which is its vocation.”

I wish the constraints of the publication Franklin was writing for had let her dedicate more space to Gombrowicz’s critique of the literary “establishment.” As it is, the way it’s treated in the article makes it sound as something that is consigned to the past, as well as merely one concern among many that Gombrowicz had. Of course, neither is true. Gombrowicz’s critique of the chumminess and bloodlessness of the literary scene of his time could as well be leveled at our own. And his concerns about literature “becoming a soft-boiled egg” should be regarded as perennial.

Unfortunately, it seems all too normal in our polite literary discourse that a writer working in a venue like The New Yorker would not be at liberty to point this out; or, if such a point was made, it would be dwarfed by the sensation it caused, as when Jonathan Franzen attempted to critique his friend David Foster Wallace. There seems to be no space in these publications for discourse that steps outside these boundaries, unless someone is quoting something that a writer like Gombrowicz wrote decades ago, probably lamenting the same things.

Jacob Silverman notes this energy on his personal website, although he speaks of it only in the context of Twitter and the blogosphere (I imagine he would extend it to other sectors, though):

There’s a version of Fischer’s critique that could be applied to the literary blogo- and twitter-spheres. The dominant sentiments are cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm (particularly on Twitter). Somehow criticism has become synonymous with offense; everything is personal—one’s affection for a book is interchangeable with one’s feelings about its author as a person. Critics gush in anticipation for books they haven’t yet read; they <3 so-and-so writer, tagging the author’s Twitter handle so that he or she knows it, too; they exhaust themselves with outbursts of praise, because that’s how you boost your follower count and affirm your place in the back-slapping community that is the literary twitter-sphere. There’s also a sense in which critics have to engage in this kind of behavior in order to appeal to average readers (whom they also hear from on Twitter); so as to connect with them, they must become them.

I like Silverman’s advice: “Let’s think more and enthuse less.” Or rather, let’s remember that we can still like someone personally if we think they’re an awful writer. And let’s keep in mind that we don’t betray our literary heroes when we critique their style or argue against the substance of their arguments.

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1 comment to Polite Discourse

  • Richard

    I would just point out that the uproar surrounding Jonathan Franzen’s “critique” of DFW had nothing to do with a literary or aesthetic argument. Rather, Franzen made some very personal comments about DFW as a person, as a friend, as a human being (and as a husband). They were, as I just wrote, “personal”–so you can argue that he can say whatever he wants, or feels, since they were friends. However, the uproar seemed to me to be equally valid–Franzen was criticizing DFW as “selfish” and a “coward” for having committed suicide, in short, and publicly airing some very obviously conflicted but strongly negative feelings about him. Again, it’s his right to say whatever he wants, but my take was that some people thought it a bit unseemly to air such dirty laundry in public forums (it wasn’t just the excerpt from Farther Away in The New Yorker, by the way–it was also a couple of interviews that he gave, and live talks).

    So I don’t really see how that compares to what you’re claiming about the Gombrowicz article. They’re two completely distinct issues.

    On the other hand, I do certainly agree with what you point out with regard to the Gombrowicz article.

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