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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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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 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 Two Things A Fiction Writer Needs

Notes on Sontag by Philip LopateI agree with Philip Lopate on the following two things he says a fiction writer needs to have:

Sontag felt the big game was fiction. And that’s where you win the Noble Prize. You don’t win it for writing essays. That’s understandable and that would’ve been great had she been a great fiction writer. Some people can do both, but she lacked a deep sympathy for other people—which is okay if you’re a critic because you don’t have to be that empathetic if you’re a critic, you just have to know what you think about something. And she lacked, for the most part, a sense of humor. It’s hard to be a great novelist without those two things. Somehow she also disdained realism and naturalism for a long time, so that meant she didn’t put that much emphasis into building characters and situations but was much more interested in experimental fiction; when she practiced it, it seemed a little dry. I’m not saying anything that devastating because she was so good an essayist, it’s not a crime not to be a terrific fiction writer also. It’s just that because I love the essay, I regret that she came to put her eggs in another basket.

Empathy is essential to any kind of fiction; a good sense of humor, though essential in any case, would seem to be more necessary to experimental fiction (perhaps because playfulness is experimental literature’s stock-in-trade).

Perhaps this is why very good critics rarely make very good novelists (with James Wood being the first example other than Sontag that pops to mind). Criticism and fiction are both kinds of creative writing, but they are very different kinds of creative writing, and it’s rare to see someone who can truly excel at both. William H. Gass is a good example of someone who has, although reading his criticism (or his fiction) you begin to see why.

For more about Lopate and Sontag, read our review of Lopate’s recent book-length essay on Sontag. Also see our essay on Sontag’s journals.

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Newest Review At TQC: Notes On Susan Sontag By Phillip Lopate Monica McFawn reviews an interesting addition to the collection of Sontag scholarship: Lopate is a writer of personal essays, and Notes on Sontag is, among...
  2. Alain Robbe Grillet Ruined Your Fiction I don’t quite agree with this post-mortem on Alain Robbe-Grillet. The "new novel" or "nouveau roman," as Robbe-Grillet defined and explained it in his famous...
  3. Fiction v Non-fiction In this essay by Kevin Smokler about editing Bookmark Now, a non-fiction anthology by younger authors about writing in the 21st century, there’s a lot...
  4. Writer's Writer Almonds to Zhoof gets a very enthusiastic review. Too bad it’s only the book’s third, after several months of release. Fiction-writing is unremunerative toil, but...
  5. A Writer Comes Home to Death Threats Words Without Borders has a short essay by the Salvadorian author and personal favorite Horacio Castellanos Moya. In it, he discusses how he discovered the...

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6 comments to The Two Things A Fiction Writer Needs

  • DCN

    Humor is vastly underrated in writers, and almost worse than a writer not being funny is when a writer is, but people don’t realize it. Melville was a tremendously funny writer, but few people I discuss him with feel the same way. George Eliot and Flaubert and Faulkner–all used humor to great effect, but most people don’t think of them in terms of humor.

  • Alternative hypothesis: Good critics often make very good novelists. It’s common to see someone who can truly excel at both.
    Evidence: George Eliot, Henry James, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Guy Davenport, Alessandro Manzoni, Edgar Allan Poe, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ford Madox Ford, Oscar Wilde, D. H. Lawrence.
    I’m not sure I agree with this hypothesis, but I wouldn’t want to take the reverse for granted.

  • Hurrah for Amateur Reader (who certainly doesn’t SOUND like an amateur)! And we could add enormously to that list of good novelists who were also (usually for the steady paycheck) good critics – my boy Randall Jarrell, for instance, or almost all the great Russians (although the pinnacle will surely always be Virginia Woolf, who was not only good but great at both)(and the Edgar Allen Poe was a good catch – far too few people know what a great critic he was). I think the key is not to look at this as two different species of animal but rather simply as two different skills – like cooking and long-distance running – at which you work to get good. The problem here is centering on monstrously overrated oddities like Sontag – MOST half-way conscientious novelists can be very good critics… after all, who’s better qualified for the job?

  • Of course, those writers are all novelists or fiction writers first (with the possible exception of Sartre, who was something else), not so Sontag.
    I’m contractually obligated to mention Gabriel Josipovici as a wonderful writer of fiction and an equally marvelous critic.

  • Sartre, Eliot, and Woolf were the first to come to my mind, but I would add Calvino as well.

  • Kit

    I loved THE BOOK AGAINST GOD, a novel by James Wood. Just loved it.

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