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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

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • A Legacy by Sybille Bedford March 15, 2015
    Sybille Bedford had the benefit—or bad fortune, however you see it—of being born into the German aristocracy in 1911. Her father was a retired lieutenant colonel and art collector from the agrarian south, from a Roman Catholic family in fiscal decline. Her mother came from a wealthy German-Jewish family from Hamburg. A widower from his first marriage, Bedfor […]
  • 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 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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