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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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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.

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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

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

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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 Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski March 9, 2014
    A man enters a house and asks to buy some beans, but we aren’t given his question, only the response: humble surprise from the narrator and an invitation inside. This modesty, though it remains at the core of the narrator throughout, is quickly overwhelmed when his questions, his welcoming explanations, flow into an effort to tell his whole life story, from […]
  • The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson, edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin March 9, 2014
    The Gorgeous Nothings, the dedicated work of visual artist Jen Bervin and author Marta Werner, presents in large format the first full-color publication of all fifty-two of Emily Dickinson’s envelope writings. As such, it opens up an aspect of her craft that suggests she was, in the so-called late ecstatic period of her career, experimenting with creating te […]
  • The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber March 9, 2014
    The Mehlis Report follows the architect Saman Yarid on his daily perambulations around Lebanon's capital, where his memories of the city's past and his observations of the high-rises that have emerged from the ruins of the nation's civil war dominate the faint plot. But the book transcends Beirut: Jaber writes about what is left behind when pe […]
  • The Fiddler of Driskill Hill by David Middleton March 9, 2014
    Middleton’s sensibility as poet and man is thoroughly Christian, Southern (or rather, Louisianan), and traditional, but he’s no unreconstructed romantic Rebel reliving the Civil War. His manner is meditative and elegiac, not rancorous or redneck. In a rare useful blurb on the back of the book, the North Carolina poet and novelist Fred Chappell describes Midd […]
  • The Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell March 9, 2014
    After The Kindly Ones, the nine hundred-page long Goncourt Prize-winning “autobiography” of a Nazi, fans of the Franco-American writer Jonathan Littell may heave an inward sigh of relief at the sight of The Fata Morgana Books. A slim collection of “studies” (as some of these stories were called in their original French incarnations), The Fata Morgana Books n […]
  • Novelty: A History of the New by Michael North March 9, 2014
    There is no better way to ensure the early demise of a form or a style than to proclaim its newness; fewer epithets are as old as “new.” A well-known work by Italian artist Maurizio Nannucci reads, “All art has been contemporary”—we may wish to amend it, for present purposes, and have it read, “All art has been new.” Yet surely this is something of a truism. […]
  • A Life Among Invented Characters: A Tribute to Mavis Gallant March 9, 2014
    Two things immediately come to mind when remembering Mavis Gallant: her unique sense of humor—stories always told with a wry half-smile—and her near-comical stonewalling when confronted with leading questions about her craft in interviews and with audiences. The first time I was in her simple three-room apartment on rue Jean Ferrandi, a mere three blocks fro […]
  • The Guy Davenport Reader March 9, 2014
    Poet-critic. Think of that word, made of two—what a beaux construction. The first is wild, hair mussed, looking at a bird in a tree—yet the follower is practical, urbane, and seemingly obeisant to word counts. Together they bleach out the fusspot academic and appeal to logos—Davenport once said that he was “not writing for scholars or critics, but for people […]
  • [SIC] by Davis Schneiderman March 9, 2014
    In 2011 Andrew Gallix, in the Guardian, wrote a piece on unread difficult books, and mentioned “an anthology of blank books [edited by Michael Gibbs] entitled All Or Nothing,” and we can consider Blank as continuing that line. Kenneth Goldsmith’s prefatory essay “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?” in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (201 […]
  • The Ben Marcus Interview March 9, 2014
    I do tend to generate a lot of pages when I’m drafting something, and I cut as I go. I make strange noises out of my face, on the page, and they are for the most part not worth keeping. Some of the stories don’t take shape until I overwrite and pursue every cursed dead-end I can think of, which clarifies everything I don’t want the story to become. But I don […]

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. Pornografia Nice to see a little love for Pornografia by Witold Gombrowicz, just published in the first ever direct Polish-to-English translation by Grove Press. The book...
  2. What Passes for Discourse Been a while since I've seen a really good rant against the old-media lit coverage. This would be the rant: What really bugs me about...
  3. Another Snub The New Yorker follows up its snub of 2666 with a dismissive capsule review of The Kindly Ones. (As a consolation of Littell, at least...
  4. Looking for Gombrowicz Words Without Borders has an intriguing excerpt from Gombrowicz in Argentina, which appears to never have been fully translated into English. . . . continue...
  5. Ben Okri Serializes Poem on Twitter Normally I'm not terribly big on cute things like this, but since it's Nigerian author Ben Okri doing it, I'm willing to be a little...

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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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