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.

Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and direct from this site:

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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You Say

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.

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    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
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  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
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  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
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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:

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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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