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.

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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

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Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

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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 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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