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.

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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.


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    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
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  • 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
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  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
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  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
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Who Cares If Literary Criticism Is An Art or a Science

It’s nice to see some intelligent attention being directed at Franco Moretti’s work.

That said, I don’t agree with the premise of Joshua Rothman’s piece at The New Yorker.

Should literary criticism be an art or a science? A surprising amount depends on the answer to that question. If you’re an English major, what should you study: the idiosyncratic group of writers who happen to interest you (art), or literary history and theory (science)? If you’re an English professor, how should you spend your time: producing “readings” of the literary works that you care about (art), or looking for the patterns that shape whole literary forms or periods (science)? Faced with this question, most people try to split the difference: if you relate to criticism as an art, you take a few theory classes; if you relate to it as a science, you put on bravura close readings. (Louis Menand’s article about Paul de Man, in this week’s magazine, quotes the critic Peter Brooks, who recalls how de Man could “sit in front of a text and just pluck magical things out of it.”) Almost no one, meanwhile, wants to answer the question definitively, because, for a critic, alternating between one’s artistic and scientific temperaments is fun—it’s like switching between the ocean and the sun at the beach.

This to me sounds like a typical “New Yorker” frame: start out with a short, provocative-sounding question, and then try to unravel the complications behind it. That’s fine, except, I don’t see the point of asking whether literary criticism should be an art or a science. It’s obviously not a science and never will be. There’s simply no way as a critic that you can form hypotheses and test them, that being the heart of the scientific method. Yes, sure, you can try to determine the structures beneath texts, movements, etc, but I’ve never seen a literary critic make a single falsifiable prediction, not even in the sense of how it’s done in social sciences like economics and political science. And of course theorists like Paul de Man did nothing of the sort . . . not even Roland Barthes, who’s probably much closer to a “literary critic/scientist” than de Man, got even close to science.

My sense is that people who care about books are much more interested in other questions, and I would even count Moretti himself in that group. Yes, Moretti obviously uses ostensibly scientific methods to look at texts, but so have a lot of critics. Structuralism came out of the science of linguistics, but I don’t think any of the structuralists were interested in being scientists. And nor to I get the sense that science as such is important to Moretti. My impression is more that computation is the best method for thinking about books in ways that fascinate him. There are so few (if any) mathematical equations in Moretti’s books. There aren’t even that many numbers. The man is a success because he knows how to use words. That makes him a writer, not a scientist.

Also, a bit of a nitpicky point, but this is a pretty ridiculous misreading of one of Moretti’s essays:

Yet Moretti has critics. They point out that, so far, the results of his investigations have been either wrong or underwhelming. (A typical Moretti finding is that, in eighteenth-century Britain, for instance, the titles of novels grew shorter as the market for novels grew larger—a fact that is “interesting” only in quotes.)

The essay that Rothman is alluding to is actually collected in Distant Reading, so I guess he must have read it, and if he did he must know that this is just the starting point of Moretti’s findings. (It’s actually one of my favorite essays in the book.) Saying that the above is the whole of Moretti’s finding would be like saying that Newton discovered that apples fall from trees. There is actually some very intelligent, criticism of Moretti’s work (some of it available right in Distant Reading, for instance), and Rothman, who’s clearly smarter than this, should have found some of it for his piece.

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  1. Art and Science Pretty interesting discussion between Cormac McCarthy, Werner Herzog and Lawrence Krauss on the intersections of art and science, even if they all pretty much agree...
  2. Friday Column: Literary Science I suppose that Jonathan Gottschall’s article in th Boston Globe, arguing for literary studies to embrace scientific methods, was meant to be provocative and exciting....
  3. Not Everything Involving an Author and a Book Is Literary Criticism I agree with Michael here: this isn’t really literary criticism. Even when publishing new editions of classic books/poets, there are things publishers can get right...
  4. The Best Response to Art Is Art Considering the "declining authority of the critic," Morgan Meis argues that the answer is to see the critic not as a judge but as a...
  5. The Alternative to Gottschall This article about Jonathan Gottschall--whose attempts to fuse the scientific method and literary criticism I've found wanting--doesn't change my opinion on the erstwhile "scientific" literary...

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