Barthes in China

Adrian Versteegh “It will be necessary to start off with the major fact,” writes Roland Barthes in Travels in China, “the absolute uniformity of clothes.” That this should count as a “major fact”—partway through a journal that opens with a gripe about freshly stained trousers—ought to provide some sense of what the French semiotician is … Continue reading


when Baudelaire embarked on his literary career he wanted to make his mark not in poetry but in prose. In 1847 he informed his mother that he was going to commit himself to achieving commercial success in the newly dominant literary form of the novel:

From the beginning of next year, I’m turning to a new trade — by which I mean the creation of works of pure imagination — the Novel. I do not need to demonstrate to you here how grave, beautiful, and infinite this particular art is. As we are discussing material matters, all you need to know is that good or bad, everything can be sold: it’s just a question of assiduity.



Grass’s Poem

Jeffrey Goldberg “What Must Be Said” is interesting for what it says about the mind of Guenter Grass, but it is more interesting for what it says about the manner in which some intellectuals think about Israel and Iran. By extracting the self-pity, self-aggrandizement and guilt-expiation from “What Must Be Said” and leaving only the … Continue reading

The Big Lesson of a Little Prince

Maria Konnikova  My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky: So was it when my life began; So is it now I am a man; So be it when I shall grow old, Or let me die! The Child is father of the Man; I could wish my days to be … Continue reading

Haruki Murakami

The secret to his success. Hint: It’s not great writing. Nathan Heller Who’s ripping off whom, though? When writers like Chabon, Franzen, and Smith speak about their efforts in those novels, they tend to discuss a “return” to old values or long-lost literary pleasures. What joins the books is an effort to escape from the … Continue reading


How the great American novelist became the literary equivalent of the Nike swoosh. Nathan Heller Ernest Hemingway would be aghast to see what has become of Ernest Hemingway. Against the gray obscurity that awaits most writers in death, his image, 50 years later, has become the literary equivalent of the Nike swoosh or golden arches. … Continue reading

Tips from John Steinbeck

On the value of unconscious association, or why the best advice is no advice. Maria Popova “If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to … Continue reading

Proust and mater

Michael Wood There are texts that seem to require a certain craziness of us, a mismeasure of response to match the extravagance of their expression. But can a mismeasure be a match? All we know is that we don’t want to lose or reduce the extravagance but can’t quite fall for it either. An example … Continue reading

Gogol* Explains the Post-Soviet World

(*And Chekhov and Dostoyevsky.) The case for (re)reading Russia’s greatest literary classics. THOMAS DE WAAL Twenty years ago, 15 new states emerged from the wreck of the Soviet Union, uneven shards from a broken monolith. One story turned into 15. Most Soviet watchers have been struggling to keep up ever since. How to tell these … Continue reading

Night in Arzamas

How Tolstoy’s obsession with mortality became a teachable moment. Jordan Smith In 1869, just after he finished War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy experienced a profound spiritual crisis as the result of an incident during a journey through the city of Arzamas, which is on the Tyosha River about 250 miles east of Moscow. As he … Continue reading

What the Dickens

Sales of Charles Dickens’s books in his lifetime ON THE death of Charles Dickens in 1870 the Times lamented, “The loss of such a man is an event which makes ordinary expressions of regret seem cold and conventional”. It was the prodigious popularity of his work that went furthest to explaining the effect his death … Continue reading

Does Alcohol Improve Your Writing?

Putting Hitch’s theory to the test. Brian Palmer Writer, philosopher, gadfly, and Slate contributor Chrisopher Hitchens died on Thursday of complications from esophageal cancer. While drinking and smoking may have contributed to his untimely passing, Hitchens didn’t regret either habit: “Writing is what’s important to me, and anything that helps me do that—or enhances and … Continue reading

Christopher Hitchens dies at 62 after suffering cancer

Vanity Fair’s editor said those who read him felt they knew him British-born author, literary critic and journalist Christopher Hitchens has died at the age of 62. He died from pneumonia, a complication of the oesophageal cancer he had, at a Texas hospital. Vanity Fair magazine, which announced his death, said there would "never be … Continue reading

Great white hunter

Fifty years on from Ernest Hemingway’s death EL Doctorow We know too much about Ernest Hemingway to think of his work apart from his life. With the success of his first novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926), he became a public figure. He worked, usually on a short lead time, from his own experiences: the … Continue reading

Was Jane Austen Poisoned by Arsenic?

Modern techniques could reveal whether the celebrated English novelist’s surviving hair contains unusually high levels of arsenic Ferris Jabr  On April 27, 1817, Jane Austen sat down and wrote her will, leaving almost all of her assets—valued at less than 800 pounds sterling—to her sister Cassandra. In May, the sisters moved to Winchester, England, so … Continue reading

The Dragon’s Egg

High fantasy for young adults. Adam Gopnik At Oxford in the nineteen-forties, Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was generally considered the most boring lecturer around, teaching the most boring subject known to man, Anglo-Saxon philology and literature, in the most boring way imaginable. “Incoherent and often inaudible” was Kingsley Amis’s verdict on his teacher. Tolkien, … Continue reading


John le Carré and the rise of George Smiley. Anthony Lane The opening sentence of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” a 1974 novel by John le Carré, runs as follows: “The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races, Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s at all.” The tone is instant … Continue reading

Human Nature’s Pathologist

CARL ZIMMER CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Steven Pinker was a 15-year-old anarchist. He didn’t think people needed a police force to keep the peace. Governments caused the very problems they were supposed to solve. Besides, it was 1969, said Dr. Pinker, who is now a 57-year-old psychologist at Harvard. “If you weren’t an anarchist,” he said, … Continue reading

The Extraordinary Syllabus of David Foster Wallace

What his lesson plans teach us about how to live. Katie Roiphe Lately David Foster Wallace seems to be in the air: Is his style still influencing bloggers? Is Jeffrey Eugenides’ bandana-wearing depressed character in The Marriage Plot based on him? My own reasons for thinking about him are less high-flown. Like lots of other … Continue reading


Andrew Hussey One of the most important facts about Michel Houellebecq – usually overlooked in favour of his nihilism, alleged racism and other attention-seeking provocations – is that he is a first-rate prose stylist. This is not quite enough, however, to make him a good novelist. Even some of his best novels (Atomised and Platform, … Continue reading

Among the Russians

Visiting Tolstoy’s estate, Edward Docx met writers who live gloriously and furiously—and took a beating on behalf of the former head of MI5 Edward Docx We are walking through birch trees that quaver and drip with a steady but refreshing rain. We are on our way to Yasnaya Polyana, the country house of Leo Tolstoy. … Continue reading

The Fierce Imagination of Murakami

SAM ANDERSON I prepared for my first-ever trip to Japan, this summer, almost entirely by immersing myself in the work of Haruki Murakami. This turned out to be a horrible idea. Under the influence of Murakami, I arrived in Tokyo expecting Barcelona or Paris or Berlin — a cosmopolitan world capital whose straight-talking citizens were … Continue reading

Fearless Salman

He thinks ‘Game of Thrones’ is dumb, bemoans the lack of good modern novels and believes terrorism is dying out; over 20 years after fleeing for his life from an Iranian-issued fatwa, novelist Salman Rushdie is still unafraid to speak his mind. Gidi Weitz New York. One fine evening a few weeks ago, the writer … Continue reading

A Voice, Still Vibrant, Reflects on Mortality

“He has this great love of life, which I rather envy, because I think I may be deficient in that respect. It’s an odd thing to say, but he’s almost like a Tibetan monk. It’s as if he’d become religious.” – Martin Amis CHARLES McGRATH HOUSTON — Christopher Hitchens, probably the country’s most famous unbeliever, … Continue reading

John Updike’s Homophobic Book Review

David Haglund On this week’s Culture Gabfest, in a discussion of the new movie Weekend (which all of the gabbers love), Stephen Metcalf mentions a controversial book review by John Updike. The words “controversial,” “book review,” and “John Updike” may not seem like obvious bedfellows, but actually he made them something of a habit in … Continue reading

Questions for Jeffrey Eugenides

The author of The Marriage Plot discusses his new novel, the character that’s not based on David Foster Wallace, and why he works in a windowless room. Jessica Grose It’s been nearly a decade since Jeffrey Eugenides released his Pulitzer Prize-winning, Oprah’s Book Club-approved, mega blockbuster novel Middlesex. The writer’s highly anticipated new novel, The … Continue reading

An ignoble confusion

A BRIEF kerfuffle in Balkan and literary circles today: the venerable Serbian novelist, Dobrica Cosic was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Well, that is what it said here. But, hang on, no he wasn’t. It has been given to Tomas Transtromer, from Sweden. What is up? Someone went to the time and effort to … Continue reading

Papa on work routines

David Dobbs INTERVIEWER Could you say something of this process? When do you work? Do you keep to a strict schedule? HEMINGWAY When I am working on a book or story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold … Continue reading

Why I Love Hemingway

David Dobbs Hemingway’s reputation has suffered immensely over the last two or three decades. Read around enough and you’ll see this. And I can feel it when I occasionally confess to people — for you don’t tell this, you confess it — that I love him and his writing. I always sense a bit of … Continue reading

Hemingway’s Short, Moving Nobel Prize Speech

David Dobbs Yesterday, a few hours after the Nobel Prize for Literature had been awarded to Tomas Transtromer, I received from former Nobel staffer Simon Frantz an audio clip that seized my heart. It is a 1954 recording of Ernest Hemingway reading his acceptance speech for the prize that year. (Hemingway did not attend the … Continue reading

Maurice Sendak

At 83, children’s author Maurice Sendak is as productive – and angry – as ever. Roald Dahl? Glad he’s dead. The US right? Schnooks. Life? Awful. Emma Brockes gets an earful Emma Brockes Maurice Sendak looks like one of his own creations: beady eyes, pointy eyebrows, the odd monsterish tuft of hair and a reputation … Continue reading

The Future of the Book

Bestselling author Sam Harris explains his current solution to the strange new media world—and why he’s publishing short ebooks. Sam Harris Writers, artists, and public intellectuals are nearing some sort of precipice: Their audiences increasingly expect digital content to be free. Jaron Lanier has written and spoken about this issue with great sagacity. You can … Continue reading

Out of the shadows

W.G. Sebald, stifled by the culture of silence in post-war Germany, by ‘people’s ability to forget what they do not want to know’, settled in 1960s England and wrote groundbreaking literary works to great acclaim. Ten years after Sebald’s untimely death, Uwe Schütte, a former student, reflects on his life Freedom fighter: Sebald objected to … Continue reading

Bashing Orthodoxy

Michael Powell OXFORD, England —You walk out of a soft-falling rain into the living room of an Oxford don, with great walls of books, handsome art and, on the far side of the room, graceful windows onto a luxuriant garden. Does this man, arguably the world’s most influential evolutionary biologist, spend most of his time … Continue reading

A Man of Parts

Michael Dirda HG. Wells’s life (1866-1946) has always read like a novel. And now it is one. Or is it? David Lodge’s “A Man of Parts” hews closely to all the known facts about Wells, derives much of its dialogue from his letters and memoirs and includes no made-up characters. ( LIBRARY OF CONGRESS / … Continue reading

Michael Ondaatje, author

MICHAEL ONDAATJE began his career as a poet. He published his first collection, "The Dainty Monsters", in 1967, and then took nearly a decade before releasing his first novel, "Coming Through Slaughter", in 1976. Although he is better known for his fiction, having won the Booker prize in 1992 for "The English Patient" (which went … Continue reading

Joan Didion

In The Year of Magical Thinking, the 2005 best-seller, Joan Didion dissected the trauma of losing her husband, John Gregory Dunne. With Blue Nights, to be published in November by Knopf, she agonizingly explores the heavier blow that followed: the death of their daughter, Quintana Roo. Christopher Hitchens contemplates a tragic achievement. By Christopher Hitchens … Continue reading

Plagiarism! No, maybe ‘Repurposing.’

  By Kenneth Goldsmith In 1969 the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, "The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more." I’ve come to embrace Huebler’s idea, though it might be retooled as: "The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not … Continue reading

I write, therefore I am

Can only a writer be elected French president? THE start of the school year in France also brings la rentrée littéraire, when publishers load a new crop on to the bookshelves in time for the season’s literary prizes. Over 650 new titles are out this time, scrutinised and promoted in glossy pages and on television … Continue reading

Visions and Revisions

On T.S. Eliot James Longenbach By the time T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis on September 26, 1888, he had been preceded in this world by a brother and four sisters, the eldest of whom was nineteen years his senior. Inevitably, great care was lavished on the youngest Eliot; he had five mothers. Or … Continue reading

Grass’ Gaffe

Political Thinking Shouldn’t Be Left to Novelists Why do people continue to stubbornly believe that novelists have anything special to contribute to political matters? As German Nobel laureate Günter Grass has repeatedly shown, just because you can come up with pleasant stories doesn’t mean that will translate to sage political thinking. A Commentary By Jan … Continue reading

The Querent

Fortunetelling is easy to ridicule, frequently misunderstood, and, for some people, extremely powerful. Unfortunately, what’s very tough to predict is what reading futures will do to the person with the cards. Alexander Chee Credit: Lauren Nassef Like many children, I wanted to be more powerful than the world around me, and so I became interested … Continue reading

Breaking bread with Nicholson Baker

America’s foremost writer of literary sex novels. Katie Roiphe Nicholson Baker Baker is probably best known for his highbrow dirty books, for books like Vox and The Fermata, as well as his innovative first novel, The Mezzanine, with its artfully and obsessively spun analysis of daily life. The book was based on the years he … Continue reading

Holiday Reading

  … ‘From that instant her doom was sealed. The children exchanged a glance of realisation. Jeremy smiled. The lesson was continued. What possessed Jeremy now? What possesses any child, naturally perhaps, of a kindly and even sentimental nature at the sight of something helpless and in its power? Is there any cruelty in after … Continue reading

Albert Camus and the KGB

Car crash in which French literary giant was killed in 1960 was no accident, claims new theory Albert Camus died instantly when the car he was travelling in spun off the road in icy conditions and hit a tree. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis When the French philosopher, author and inveterate womaniser Albert Camus died in a car … Continue reading


How to be a faster writer. Michael Agger Can you make yourself write quickly? Hunched over my keyboard, I’m haunted by anecdotes of faster writers. Christopher Hitchens composing a Slate column in 20 minutes—after a chemo session, after a "full" dinner party, late on a Sunday night. The infamously productive Trollope, who used customized paper! … Continue reading

Deceptive Picture

How Oscar Wilde painted over “Dorian Gray.” Alex Ross Even before Wilde sent the manuscript of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” to the typist, he was hesitating over its homoerotic content. Oscar Wilde was not a man who lived in fear, but early reviews of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” must have given him pause. … Continue reading

Snacks of the Great Scribblers

Wendy MacNaughton … Walt Whitman began the day with oysters and meat, while Gustave Flaubert started off with what passed for a light breakfast in his day: eggs, vegetables, cheese or fruit, and a cup of cold chocolate. The novelist Vendela Vida told me she swears by pistachios, and Mark Kurlansky, the author of “Salt” … Continue reading

RCMP spied on noted literary scholar Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye is shown in an undated photo. (Bill Becker / THE CANADIAN PRESS) The Canadian Press OTTAWA — Canada’s intelligence service spied on renowned literary scholar Northrop Frye, closely eyeing his involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement, an academic forum on China and efforts to end apartheid in South Africa. Newly released archival records … Continue reading

Writing is bad for you

I’m not sure about the improving influence of reading, but I’m certain that writing brings out the worst in me Rick Gekoski Shadowy occupation … a typewriter. Photograph: Corbis We live in a literary environment that – a little uneasily, I often think – feels the need to justify the reading and study of imaginative … Continue reading