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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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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

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.


  • 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 […]

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...
  5. What I'm Doing Here Dan quotes the following from A.M. Correa: As an undergrad, I was fortunate enough to study abroad for a term at a university in England...

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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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