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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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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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

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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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Interviews from Conversational Reading

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


  • Nostalgia June 15, 2014
    Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably). […]
  • Why Literary Periods Mattered by Ted Underwood June 15, 2014
    There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era be […]
  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz June 15, 2014
    August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance […]
  • Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan June 15, 2014
    The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optim […]
  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
    Two of the greatest of Tom Holland's predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix"), while the latter's 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, […]
  • Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue June 15, 2014
    The premise of Yasushi Inoue's debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper's young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handl […]
  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones June 15, 2014
    Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has s […]
  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
    Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a ni […]
  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
    Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s […]
  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
    David Peace's novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer's epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike ter […]

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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