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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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

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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

New Books
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 […]

Pro Or Con Quotation Marks

The Wall Street Journal has an unfortunately dumb editorial by Lionel Shriver attacking authors who opt not to use quotation marks in their fiction. Shriver takes what might be an interesting topic for discussion–what the inclusion or disinclusion of quotations marks from speech does to a novel’s aesthetics–and oddly shoehorns it into a flat, quasi-populist condemnation of authors who push away readers with "difficult" quotationless fiction:

Literature is not very popular these days, to put it mildly.
According to the National Endowment for the Arts, nearly half of
Americans do not read books at all, and those who do average a mere six
a year. You’d think literary writers would be bending over backwards to
ingratiate themselves to readers — to make their work maximally
accessible, straightforward and inviting. But no.

Perhaps no single emblem better epitomizes the perversity of my
colleagues than the lowly quotation mark. Some rogue must have issued a
memo, "Psst! Cool writers don’t use quotes in dialogue anymore" . . .

Why not toss in the serialists for using all those ugly sounds and those abstract expressionists for, you know, not painting pretty pictures of things?

Empty as Shriver’s "art for the people" line of argument is (you can write a perfectly vapid, easy read without quotation marks; for instance, just use em dashes to set off quotes, or just make it plainly obvious when a character is speaking with those rarely used words he/she said) Shriver puts herself on even shakier ground when she attempts to critique the aesthetics of quotation marks:

The appearance of authorial self-involvement in much modern literary
fiction puts off what might otherwise comprise a larger audience. By
stifling the action of speech, by burying characters’ verbal conflicts
within a blurred, all-encompassing über-voice, the author does not seem
to believe in action — and many readers are already frustrated with
literary fiction’s paucity of plot. When dialogue makes no sound, the
only character who really gets to talk is the writer.

There are two points here: no action and no sound. The first one is quite simple to deal with. Anyone who has read many of the authors Shriver mentions as going quoteless (Coetzee, Vollmann, Saramago, Diaz) knows that their books are plenty plotty. (In fact, Pulitzer-winner and bestseller Diaz would even rebut Shriver’s point about pushing away readers.) Or we could reverse this and note that famously plotless writers such as Proust and Sebald managed to make their stories stand still with plenty of quotes.

The second point is almost as easy to rebut as the first. Why would dialogue make "no sound" simply because it wasn’t encased in quotation marks? Speech is obviously about the way the words are put together, not about the fact that they’re put between a couple pairs of dumpy lines. This is, in fact, why quotationless quotes can work in good fiction–because skilled authors can establish voice without any quotations marks at all, and they can make multiple voices distinct enough that readers can discern who is speaking.

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Poets & Writers I’m not sure if anyone reads Poets & Writers any longer. In any event, they continue to publish. Just got a press release on the...
  2. Reality TV Novel The novel was bound to critique reality TV someday. The Guardian reviews a shot at it that sounds worth checking out. Maxwell’s all-dialogue device eschews...
  3. Dialogue Matthew Cheney on dialogue: Dialogue is not just about how characters talk. It is, more than anything else, a writer’s trick. Dialogue in even the...
  4. Nobel Reactions The Literary Saloon has a pretty good response to the recent Engdahl remarks. It includes: Kirsch mentions Roth, who, after all was editor of the...
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3 comments to Pro Or Con Quotation Marks

  • Mary Ann

    Come On!!!
    If Cormac McCarthy ( a master craftsman) does it, can it possibly be wrong? Let’s give these creative folks some slack and the readers some credit. If the reader is not disturbed by the lack of punctuation, why mention it?

  • Well said. I agree that “authorial self-involvement” can go too far and be simply pretentious (I think B.R. Myers argued this point well in A Reader’s Manifesto). But she’s a bit off going after people about quotation marks. Saramago, at least, is hardly a difficult read. I love his books, quirky punctuation and all.

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