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The End of Oulipo?

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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 […]

The Tunnel Big Read: We Begin

We are group reading William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on this website from September 30 through November 3. We are currently in Week 1, covering pages 3 through 127. Get the schedule here. Purchase the book here and benefit this site. All posts related to this group read are here.


To start us off on this Big Read, I’m going to quote verbatim from the Wikipedia page for The Tunnel.

I’ve mostly kept these Big Reads to contemporary novels, and part of the reason for that is that I think we, as a community of readers, should participate in evaluating the works. One very important aspect of these reads, of course, is to experience the books as a group and help one another interpret and enjoy them. But another equally important aspect is to say whether or not we like these books, and if we think they are worthy of the contemplation and time that their size and (occasional) difficulty requires. That is our privilege when reading books that have not had the chance yet to acquire the layer of dust necessitated by the “classic” designation—more than a privilege, it is a responsibility.

The Wikipedia page for The Tunnel captures this fact magnificently. Wikipedia, of course, strives to be an encyclopedia, yet it also strives to be up-to-date, a goal which can at times be in tension with the attempt to be authoritative. We see that in the case of the entry for The Tunnel, a book about which posterity has not yet made up its mind. (And, readers of Gass will know that he regards the opinion of posterity as the most valid of all.) In that spirit, over the next month or so I hope that we will become a part of that posterity that will inevitably evaluate this book.

Critical reception

Some critics have harshly decried the novel, for instance Robert Alter in his review of the book in The New Republic,

“Some may seize on it as a postmodern masterpiece, but it is a bloated monster of a book. (…) The bloat is a consequence of sheer adipose verbosity and an unremitting condition of moral and intellectual flatulence. (…..) The abjection of (Gass’) hero seems less lived than written. It is an act of ventriloquism: behind the repulsive, potentially fascist narrator stands his critic, the novelist, presumably committed to humane, democratic values. But those values are nowhere intimated in the book, and what emerges is a kind of inadvertent complicity between author and protagonist. The supposedly critical novel becomes an enactment of bad faith.”[1]

However, other critics commended the work. In his review of the novel in the New York Times Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote:

“So why, given the considerable grimness of The Tunnel, does the reader still track its endless coils of prose? For the lyrical set pieces, for one thing; the haunting evocations of a small-town childhood so sensually rich in detail that the prose is sometimes hypnotic. But more compelling still is the tension Mr. Gass has created between literary art for its own sake and transcendent psychological truth.”[2]

A third opinion is raised by Robert Kelly, who writes in the New York Times Book Review that “It will be years before we know what to make of it.” [3]

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More from Conversational Reading:

  1. The Tunnel Big Read? If you’re on my Twitter you might have seen me post this last week: I am feeling kinda like doing a fall Big Read for...
  2. The Tunnel Big Read Schedule We are starting the Big Read of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel on Sunday, September 30. Below you will find the schedule and links...
  3. The Tunnel Big Read in October Y’all convinced me, we should do a group read of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel in October. More details to come. It’ll start sometime around...
  4. Fall Group Read Update Thanks to everyone who took the time to offer some thoughts on what they would like for the next group read. The discussion was great,...
  5. This Fall's Group Read — Make Your Voice Heard! Thanks to everyone who has already offered their preferences for this fall's group read. I've got a pretty good sense of where we're at, and...

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4 comments to The Tunnel Big Read: We Begin

  • Richard

    I really admire the way you put it, Scott: we will be part of those who can help decide the reputation of this book for posterity.

    I will make one specific note on the Robert Alter review. As far as I am concerned, any critic who accuses a novelist of “bad faith” is ipso facto full of crap. I’m sorry, but those two words are the same ones George F. Will used in his “review” of Don DeLillo’s Libra. Anytime a critic accuses a novelist of a moral failing, or worse yet, of “bad faith” (whatever that means, exactly…what DOES it mean? Faith (or lack thereof) in what? And what “faith” does Alter demonstrate anywhere, in anything, at any time, on this planet? Where does he demonstrate “good faith” in his reviews? Please!) I think anyone with a mind of his/her own should turn the page.

    P.S. I know what “bad faith” ostensibly means, obviously; but I find it a moral failing on the part of a critic to assume that a novelist is demonstrating “doublemindedness” in a harmful, intentional way. And the way the phrase is used by Alter, Will, and sometimes others says to me that they are accusing the novelists of being purposefully evil in some way. THAT is what I cannot abide.

    I’m only 40 pages into The Tunnel, and I’m sure you can accuse Gass of all sorts of things based on this book, but to label someone as having (or having written in) “bad faith” is just ridiculous to me. Period.

  • My favorite line from Kelly’s review, which was the only good review of it published at the time, as far as I know: “It is driven by language and all the gloriously phony precisions the dictionary makes available.”

    NB on Bad Faith: whatever one thinks of Gass, I’d say Gore Vidal makes a pretty good case for Henry Miller’s Sexus being in bad faith.

  • Richard

    I’m not going to begin to try to “defend” Miller from Vidal, or you, or anyone else. But I will say this: have you ever read any of Vidal’s tripe? I won’t accuse him of bad faith, but will accuse him of bad novels. They’re boring, dilletantish, and snobby at the same time, which is a weird feat to pull off.

    But, again, I would not accuse him (who also seems to have thought he was God) of “bad faith.”

  • This really is a great place to start, and though it seems obvious in a way, it’s worth a fresh reminder (for me at least) that we’re under no obligation to this book, this thing. I’ve liked the handful of essays of Gass’s I’ve read (for an academic writer he feels brilliantly sensual in his approach to literature) but at this point in the book I can see how easy it would be to make a case for this novel’s being complete crap, a noble (or not) but failed experiment.

    Not that I’m arguing that yet. Judgment reserved. So far I’m at the stage of loving a lot of the language but feeling like I’m failing at parsing enough of the meaning to make substantial assessments of what I’m reading. Like I need to keep re-excavating to find out what’s sifting through my fingers as I pass it by.

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