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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Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

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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

The Summer of Genji

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

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A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

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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
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  • 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 […]

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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More from Conversational Reading:

  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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