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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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.

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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.

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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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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.


  • [[there.]] by Lance Olsen December 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen is the author of two recent works, [[there.]] and Theories of Forgetting (FC2). The second presents three narratives in a clearly fictional mode while the first offers day-to-day thoughts on living in another country. We rightly suspect that any artist’s memoir or diary ought to be viewed as written with a prospective public in mind, no matter ho […]
  • Noir and Nihilism in True Detective December 15, 2014
    "It’s just one story. The oldest. . . . Light versus dark." Spanning 8 episodes between January and March of 2014, HBO’s runaway hit True Detective challenged the status quo of contemporary crime drama. The show has been widely celebrated for its philosophy, complexity, and visual aesthetic. Co-starring actors Matthew McConaughey as Rustin "Ru […]
  • The Colonel’s World December 15, 2014
    Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (born 1940) is considered by many the living Iranian novelist, a perennial Nobel Prize candidate. Dowlatabadi wrote The Colonel some thirty years ago, because in his own words he had been “afflicted.” The subject forced him to sit at the desk and write nonstop for two years. “Writing The Colonel I felt a strong sense of indignation and pa […]
  • Mr Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn by Alessandro Baricco December 15, 2014
    Alessandro Baricco’s well-crafted, elegant prose seems as though it should create the impression of distance, or of abstraction; instead, the reader of Mr. Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn becomes wholly implicated and immersed, drawn into a dreamy and idiosyncratic world that blurs the division between reader, character and writer. As readers, we expect that th […]
  • The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash December 15, 2014
    "The paan shop leads to the opening of a tunnel, full of the creatures of the city, and the tears and spit of a fakir." In a single opening line, Uday Prakash sets the scene for the politically incisive, yet intimately human stories of The Walls of Delhi (translated brilliantly from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum). Lest the fakir suggest otherwise, t […]
  • The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation December 15, 2014
    In a speech reprinted in the book, Heim makes a self-deprecating joke about whether the life of a translator is worth reading: “What does a translator do? He sits and translates!” The Man Between serves as a book-length retort by laying bare all the things Heim did: these include persuading the academy that translation is a scholarly (in addition to a creati […]
  • The Prabda Yoon Interview December 15, 2014
    Yes, I think people are not comfortable anymore to write in this straightforward, traditional way, especially the younger, more progressive writers. So it’s interesting—you have social commentary, and you also get a little bit of structural experiment. You have themes that are very, very Thai. I’m actually very interested to see what new writers will come up […]
  • The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck December 15, 2014
    For Jenny Erpenbeck, no life is lived in an indisputable straight line. Which is why, in her new novel (new in English, though published in 2012 as Aller Tage Abend) she approaches the narrative as a series of potential emotional earthquakes, some which take place, some which might have taken place, all of which reveal something of how political turbulence p […]
  • In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass December 15, 2014
    Once, at a writers symposium, William Howard Gass remarked that to substitute the page for the world is a form of revenge for the recognition that "you are, in terms of the so-called world, an impotent nobody." There is inarguably no contemporary writer of American stock in whose work one might locate a more ambitious war of attrition between innov […]
  • Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli December 15, 2014
    Luiselli’s first novel, Faces in the Crowd, translated into fluid English by Christina MacSweeney, is the perfect illustration of this attitude toward fiction writing. Narrated in short sections spanning multiple storylines and the better part of one hundred years, it uses "[d]eep excavations" to expose the empty spaces in two lives, those of a you […]

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

    Travis,
    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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