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.

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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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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.

  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante September 16, 2014
    Few novelists have captured the rhythms and flow of life with the veracity of Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan Novels. Following the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo from childhood to old age, the tetralogy spans fifty years; over the course of that time, no emotion is too small, too dark, too banal to be recorded. No expense, so to speak, is […]
  • Trieste by Daša Drndić September 15, 2014
    As Drndić reiterates throughout the novel, “Behind every name there is a story.” And Haya Tedeschi’s story is draped in death. Born to a Jewish family that converted to Catholicism and tacitly supported the Fascists in Italy, Haya was a bystander to the Holocaust. She attended movies while Jews and partisans were transported to concentration camps; she pored […]
  • The Tree With No Name by Drago Jančar September 15, 2014
    At the opening of chapter 87—the first chapter found in The Tree with No Name—Janez Lipnik finds himself up a tree, shoeless, and lost in the Slovenian countryside. He makes his way to a house where he is taken in by a woman teacher who is waiting for her lover, a soldier. It becomes clear we are at the height of World War II. Soon after, we follow Lipnik […]
  • Kjell Askildsen, Selected Stories September 15, 2014
    Here, at the midpoint of his narrative, Bernhard, the affectless and purposeless protagonist of "The Unseen," experiences existential near-emancipation at dusk. This retreat toward obscurity in terse, direct language—thematic and stylistic markers of each work in the collection—comes immediately after Bernhard’s sister mentions her plans to enterta […]
  • Berlin Now by Peter Schneider September 15, 2014
    In his new book of essays, Berlin Now, Peter Schneider reveals himself as a gnarled Cold Warrior who has been stricken with many of the maladies common to his generation. With the specter of Communism exorcized, his new enemy is Islam. The book is a collection of short interlocking pieces introducing Anglophone readers to Berlin; it is not being published in […]
  • Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente September 15, 2014
    In 1999, Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, was awarded the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize. Despite his success, it took fourteen years for Giralt’s work to appear in English, with the story collection The End of Love arriving in 2013. Now, this year sees the publication of two more books by Giralt: Paris, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, a […]
  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner September 15, 2014
    “It seemed that the [New Yorker] story—which was in part the result of my dealing with the reception of my novel—had been much more widely received than the novel itself,” says the narrator of Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04. Perhaps this narrator is Lerner himself—at one point he describes 10:04, within its own pages, as “neither fiction nor nonfiction but […]
  • Theories of Forgetting by Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting is a masterful work structured around Robert Smithson’s earthwork “The Spiral Jetty.” Olsen’s novel is comprised of three narrations, written each by a separate member of a family. The husband’s and wife’s texts progress in opposite directions across the book, with each page divided among these two inverted texts; though […]
  • An Interview with Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    The most substantial may be that innovative fiction knows what it is, that someone like me could define it in any productive way, that innovative fiction might somehow be one thing, or somehow consistent through time and space. None of these is the case. That’s exactly what I find most exciting about writing it, reading it, thinking about it. Innovative fict […]
  • The Ants by Sawako Nakayasu September 15, 2014
    In The Ants, we receive a study of existence through ants. That is, there are ants everywhere, ants substituted in every segment of the landscape, yet their behavior seems to reveal something altogether human. Too human. The ants are crushed and disappointed. They are warm and many. They are involved in gang wars and live inside carrot cake. The unique quali […]

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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