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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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

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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.

  • Nostalgia June 15, 2014
    Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably). […]
  • Why Literary Periods Mattered by Ted Underwood June 15, 2014
    There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era be […]
  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz June 15, 2014
    August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance […]
  • Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan June 15, 2014
    The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optim […]
  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
    Two of the greatest of Tom Holland's predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix"), while the latter's 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, […]
  • Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue June 15, 2014
    The premise of Yasushi Inoue's debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper's young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handl […]
  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones June 15, 2014
    Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has s […]
  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
    Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a ni […]
  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
    Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s […]
  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
    David Peace's novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer's epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike ter […]

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 . . .

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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.

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