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.

For low prices on Las Vegas shows visit

You Say

  • DCNahm: I meant to comment on this when you posted it, but the week
  • Sudha Shastri: I have read _Midnight's Children_ several times but only jus
  • P.T. Smith: Was Ring of Saturn nearly everyone's first Sebald? I was ass
  • l: Saturn's Moons, W.G. Sebald - A Handbook, edited by Jo Catli
  • Will: Moby-Dick all the way. Maybe Beckett's Trilogy.
  • Bruno: Plays and poems are clearly the most workable choices. One c
  • S.: Don't you feel like there's too many worthy books out there

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

Shop though these links = Support this site

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.

  • [[there.]] by Lance Olsen December 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen is the author of two recent works, [[there.]] and Theories of Forgetting (FC2). The second presents three narratives in a clearly fictional mode while the first offers day-to-day thoughts on living in another country. We rightly suspect that any artist’s memoir or diary ought to be viewed as written with a prospective public in mind, no matter ho […]
  • Noir and Nihilism in True Detective December 15, 2014
    "It’s just one story. The oldest. . . . Light versus dark." Spanning 8 episodes between January and March of 2014, HBO’s runaway hit True Detective challenged the status quo of contemporary crime drama. The show has been widely celebrated for its philosophy, complexity, and visual aesthetic. Co-starring actors Matthew McConaughey as Rustin "Ru […]
  • The Colonel’s World December 15, 2014
    Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (born 1940) is considered by many the living Iranian novelist, a perennial Nobel Prize candidate. Dowlatabadi wrote The Colonel some thirty years ago, because in his own words he had been “afflicted.” The subject forced him to sit at the desk and write nonstop for two years. “Writing The Colonel I felt a strong sense of indignation and pa […]
  • Mr Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn by Alessandro Baricco December 15, 2014
    Alessandro Baricco’s well-crafted, elegant prose seems as though it should create the impression of distance, or of abstraction; instead, the reader of Mr. Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn becomes wholly implicated and immersed, drawn into a dreamy and idiosyncratic world that blurs the division between reader, character and writer. As readers, we expect that th […]
  • The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash December 15, 2014
    "The paan shop leads to the opening of a tunnel, full of the creatures of the city, and the tears and spit of a fakir." In a single opening line, Uday Prakash sets the scene for the politically incisive, yet intimately human stories of The Walls of Delhi (translated brilliantly from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum). Lest the fakir suggest otherwise, t […]
  • The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation December 15, 2014
    In a speech reprinted in the book, Heim makes a self-deprecating joke about whether the life of a translator is worth reading: “What does a translator do? He sits and translates!” The Man Between serves as a book-length retort by laying bare all the things Heim did: these include persuading the academy that translation is a scholarly (in addition to a creati […]
  • The Prabda Yoon Interview December 15, 2014
    Yes, I think people are not comfortable anymore to write in this straightforward, traditional way, especially the younger, more progressive writers. So it’s interesting—you have social commentary, and you also get a little bit of structural experiment. You have themes that are very, very Thai. I’m actually very interested to see what new writers will come up […]
  • The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck December 15, 2014
    For Jenny Erpenbeck, no life is lived in an indisputable straight line. Which is why, in her new novel (new in English, though published in 2012 as Aller Tage Abend) she approaches the narrative as a series of potential emotional earthquakes, some which take place, some which might have taken place, all of which reveal something of how political turbulence p […]
  • In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass December 15, 2014
    Once, at a writers symposium, William Howard Gass remarked that to substitute the page for the world is a form of revenge for the recognition that "you are, in terms of the so-called world, an impotent nobody." There is inarguably no contemporary writer of American stock in whose work one might locate a more ambitious war of attrition between innov […]
  • Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli December 15, 2014
    Luiselli’s first novel, Faces in the Crowd, translated into fluid English by Christina MacSweeney, is the perfect illustration of this attitude toward fiction writing. Narrated in short sections spanning multiple storylines and the better part of one hundred years, it uses "[d]eep excavations" to expose the empty spaces in two lives, those of a you […]

Where the Truly Audacious Work Lies

So I took the opportunity in my review of Blinding to editorialize a tiny bit about the state of American fiction. My thesis: if you want epic ambition, look overseas.

I don’t think it’s controversial at all to say that in the past decade or so, the great majority of the real shoot-for-the-moon, thrilling novels published in English have appeared in translation. Things life Freedom and The Goldfinch may pack in a lot of pages, but in terms of style, theme, and structure, they’re extremely tame. They’re page-turners that are mean to be plowed through, and if you don’t linger over the prose that’s because there’s little there to linger over. They don’t take risks, and they give their audience that they want.

Here’s a book that does none of that.

Increasingly, the truly audacious novels published in English are not originally written in this language, but are translated into it. Consider the projects that have appeared here in just the past five years: the My Struggle sextet by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, thousands of pages in length and regularly compared to classics of Modernist literature. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, an epic of language, geography, politics, and horror. Parallel Stories by Peter Nádas, over a decade in the making and an attempt to sum up all of postwar Eastern Europe. Mathias Énard’s single-sentence, 500-page novel Zone, telling the 2,000-year history of the Mediterranean. The baroque disasters brought to us by Laszlo Krasznahorkai . . .

The list goes on. These books are not only lengthy and ambitious in their subject matter, but they are also formally challenging and take considerable risks with language: extremely long sentences (some as long as fifty pages or more), the incorporation of arcane terminology, the use of mathematical logic and symbols as a part of the prose. It is no exaggeration to call them the works that are driving the novel forward in the twenty-first century, and they are increasingly being studied by students of writing in the United States. To their ranks must be added Mircea Cărtărescu’s 1,500-page Blinding trilogy, originally published in Romanian across the decade from 1996 to 2007, and the first book of which has been published in English this year in Sean Cotter’s marvelous translation.

Insofar as I comprehend it—insofar as it can be comprehended—the aim of this octopus-like work, which seems to move in several different directions on each page . . .

You Might Also Like:

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. New Work from Cees Nooteboom, More At WWB Cees Nooteboom headlines at the  August Words Without Borders. Among the translators this issue is none other than Quarterly Conversaton contributor George Fragopoulos with Lissi...
  2. Language Is Everyone’s Work Ben Marcus discussing his latest collection, Leaving the Sea. MF: In “The Moors,” as in The Flame Alphabet, language is a pollutant: “speech . ....
  3. The Thomas Bernhard Checklist Here's your guide to all the Bernhard available in English. . . . continue reading, and add your comments...
  4. Do Writers Do Good Work After the Nobel Prize In an article on Haruki Murakami once again being “passed over” for the Nobel Prize in Literature (or, you could argue that he’s not being...
  5. Former Approaches that No Longer Seem to Work Sven Birkerts: And our situation? As data and image supplanted the authority of the actual, foreground and background collapsed into each other; we entered what...

Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.

6 comments to Where the Truly Audacious Work Lies

  • Lance

    Any idea on the schedule for The Body and The Right WIng? Also: have you heard anything about a reprint or new translation of Knausgaard’s first book?

  • Lance

    I agree with you about the state of American fiction and I blame the MFA machine (which now begins in middle school) that has come to work a lot like Hollywood. Lots of market research and giving people what they want and it’s all nice and fine. I spent years reading stories for a fiction prize offered by Prairie Lights to the students of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. They all start out pretty much the same, “I’ll never forget the summer I was 12… I’m changed.” That’s the last time they did something other than workshop a story into the ground. Even writers who used to be at least trying to nudge the envelope have consciously broadened their audience to include the book club crowd (think George Saunders and Lydia Davis). I think it’s time to demote MFA fiction to genre with the rest of the predictable, safe, page-turning junk food. It’s frustrating and disappointing but it’s what Americans want. I’m in awe of stats from Iceland and Norway and Romania etc about not only the numbers of books they sell but the quality of their bestsellers. I know that these countries have the population diversity of a college town but still…

  • Paul

    Vanessa Place’s ‘La Medusa’ seems like an American authored novel that fits in this category, as does De La Pava’s Naked Singularity. Others?

  • I think the fireworks may come from the fact that these authors inhabit a space between the modernist and the postmodernist, and that the conversation in Europe is based around the modern. Cartarescu etc. look from the modern perspective – ‘news that stays news’ – but relentlessly pursue it with the doubt of the postmodern. It’s like approaching modernism, but from the point of exploring ‘perception’ rather than ‘reality’; a more introspective form of the modern, perhaps, less societal. (Not to mention the fact that both modernism and this style of writing were forged in the heat of disasters which makes all doubt the point of art, and are often overshadowed by the Spanish Civil War, the fall of communism, the drug wars, and so on. I think America’s position of twentieth-century dominance is more likely to produce ‘systems novelists’ like Pynchon and DeLillo – gigantic systems were needed to maintain this flimsy hegemony, and naturally inspired paranoia. But what hopes for the multipolar twenty-first century world in American fiction?)

  • Mike

    I agree with much of this discussion, though I’m not sure where the blame lies. Perhaps it is the MFA program, perhaps not. Does it lie with the marketplace? In some ways I doubt it, especially with the dire reports of people just not reading (though I would argue that reading has always been done by an elite, since universal literacy is a relatively recent phenomenon). I really do not read much contemporary American fiction for this reason: it just really is not good, with a few exceptions, such as Vollmann’s Seven Dreams novels. I think that some of our best writers have actually gone to other media, such as cable TV and film. Charlie Kaufman has written some brilliant screenplays, and I really admire the work of Paul Thomas Anderson.

    There is indeed much to admire in the fiction of Central Europe. And not just in the living writers. The past hundred years of history, at a minimum–the shock wave of the First World War(and its catalyst)onward–has produced some great and resonant work. Some of these are just now being translated into English, such as Ernst Weiss’ fabulous Georg Letham, Physician and Murderer.

  • Max

    Henry, it seems a little odd to say that Proust and Kafka and Faulkner were not exploring “perception” rather than “reality,” or that their works were not completely saturated with doubt. There was doubt before postmodernism.

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>