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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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
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  • 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 […]

The Craft of Fiction

Dan Green finds the advice garnered from Tin House’s writers’ workshop (collected in the recent book The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House) overly formulaic:

Thus Tom Grimes informs us that “our stories are amorphous until we discover how time controls them. Every great story contains a ‘clock,’ an intrinsic timekeeper.” “Determine whether or not your story has a ‘clock,’” he concludes. “It can be a day, a week, a month, a season, etctera, but the story has to have it.” If a story “has to have” a clock, then should one discover one’s story doesn’t really seem to depend much on timekeeping, on the sort of narrative “development” the passage of time provides, then apparently one doesn’t really have a story at all. This seems a reductively literal insistence on “story” as the sine qua non of short fiction, when of course much modern/postmodern fiction has explicitly worked to undermine “story” as the essence of fiction. Not many of Donald Barthelme’s stories, for example would be able to pass the “clock” test administered by Grimes. They’re much too “amorphous.”

Some of Dan’s concerns touch on the same territory covered in Mark McGurl’s recent book The Program Era, discussed here.

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Modern Arabic Fiction A couple years ago, Anchor Books published a nice anthology of new American fiction. Now they have struck again, with what appears to be...
  2. Does Postmodern Fiction Really Exist? Dan takes up a worthwhile question I’ve seen pondered variously, whether or not postmodern literature is actually distinct from modernist literature: Jonathan suggests that poets...
  3. New Pakistani Fiction Sadly this story is framed as "the Pakistanis write amidst chaos in their country," but nonetheless, The Guardian discusses a recent resurgence of new fiction...
  4. New Yorker Fiction Shows Lack of Diversity Unsurprisingly, a statistical analysis of The New Yorker’s fiction pages reveals that they’re dominated by a handful of proven stars: The headline takeaway from this...
  5. Dan Green Fiction Dan Green has been one of the louder online voices I’ve read in support of POD technology and of the Internet as a venue to...

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5 comments to The Craft of Fiction

  • Well, this is interesting to me in light of a piece in the AWP magazine a couple years ago called “The Clockless Stories of Charles D’Ambrosio.” The premise is that D’Ambrosio’s stories don’t have the clock Grimes is talking about — but the interesting part is that Grimes and D’Ambrosio are the best of friends (and, full disclosure, I’ve known both of them for years, at Iowa and since).
    I think Green is missing the point a little bit. Yes, whenever we talk craft, we hone in on a sort of physics of storytelling. Often, when a story isn’t working, you can look at how stories generally tend to work and conceive of a way to fix them in line with that physics. But that doesn’t mean you should always approach fiction trying to obey those laws — and anyone familiar with Grimes’s work knows that the goal for him seems to be to figure out how to write a physics of his own. It’s like impressionism, in that regard…first learn how to draw a nude, then mess around with it. If you leap straight to impressionism (or whatever ism) without basic skills, it shows. Therefore, when you teach the physics, you’re not teaching formulaic writing, you’re simply teaching the first step.

  • Hey Chris,
    I kind of got the idea that that might have been the kind of book it was, although I can also see where Dan’s coming from on this.
    That said, I’ve generally found Tin House’s books to not be representative of the kind of uninteresting fiction that Dan implicates in this collection of craft essays.

  • LML

    “If you leap straight to impressionism (or whatever ism) without basic skills, it shows. Therefore, when you teach the physics, you’re not teaching formulaic writing, you’re simply teaching the first step.”
    I wonder. I think this can be true, certainly. You could even make the argument that most of the giants of art, or at least the modern ones, have evolved in this stairstep fashion: from mastery of traditional elements (and ensuing boredom with them), to a search for new modes of expression, to a finding of those modes and a revolutionizing of the art form. Picasso, Joyce, John Coltrane come to mind.
    But then there’s Beckett, or Barthelme, or Bernhard, and all sorts of other people whose names don’t start with “B”. I doubt any of these writers were even capable of employing the “physics” of conventional storytelling, and I think that had they tried to master “craft,” literature might well be the poorer. Had Beckett started at Dubliners instead of Murphy (forgive the broad strokes here), literature might not have gotten anything nearly as radical as Molloy or Endgame or Krapp’s Last Tape.
    Even radical writers start off vulnerable, is I guess what I’m saying, and I do think it’s wise for some people to insulate themselves completely from talk of “craft.” At any rate I hope there are talented writers with radial tendencies who have insulated themselves.

  • Travis

    I don’t know, LML. Beckett, Barthelme and Bernhard all had formal training of some sort, whether in other arts or in journalism. I’m not sure that isolation is what fosters work like theirs. People like Ben Marcus, George Saunders and John Hawkes are or were leaders of MFA programs. The experimental writers are often the ones to teach craft. I am willing to say that they pay more attention to it than do most writers. Calvino wrote books on it. Craft is usually not restrictive, but rather shows various ways in which writers solve the problems they confront. In my experience, MFA students are not divested of their radial tendencies (e.g. Dan Brown and David Foster Wallace were in the same workshop).
    If you want to find fault with MFA-style study, consider instead that it often congratulates people for their unfinished work (usually because of a nice use of “language”,) when finishing a story is one of the hardest things a writer has to do.

  • LML

    I didn’t mean to suggest that Beckett, Barthelme, and Bernhard developed the way they did because they were completely isolated from art. Far from it, in all three cases. They were aesthetes to the core. They are good examples of what I’m saying, though, because all three seemed to have been at least as influenced by other art forms as they were by writing.
    Bernhard’s musical training, as I imagine it, attuned him to a way of restricting his prose so that it sings (“drones” might be a better way of putting it) in a way that was new in the world of letters. There is a passage in the Loser about Gould’s preference of Bach over Mozart. Gould has no patience whatsoever with the way a Mozart composition “develops.” It seems artificial and boring to him. In my perhaps misguided imagination, “Mozart” can here be substituted for “conventional realism,” and “Bach,” or at least the double-helixed, rising and falling counterpoint of the keyboard pieces, can be substituted for “Bernhard’s way of writing.” So it’s not an issue of doing something utterly new and freakish, necessarily. Often, it’s an issue of seeing preexisting art in ways that are different from how everyone else is currently seeing them. (Proust is another good example here. This issue is one of the subjects of his novels.) It’s an issue of redefining “craft” entirely, sometimes, and maybe that happens in MFA programs, but at a minimum, the workshop’s structure seems to run counter to this.

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