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Ed makes The Case for John Barth:


If literary blogs exist to dredge up the underrated authors of our time, I must ask why the litblogosphere, so capable of unearthing the neglected, has remained so silent concerning the great novelist John Barth. If Gilbert Sorrentino, William Gaddis, and David Markson cut the mustard with their postmodernist innovations, then Barth likewise deserves a spot in the This Guy is the Real Deal pantheon.

I've never read Barth, but I'm intrigued. You guys know him?

Readers Comments

  1. I don't know. I have a hard time buying that argument, though I'm an unapologetic fan of Gaddis & generally like Markson and Sorrentino's work. I'm not sure they really fall in the same category: while Markson's work has mostly been metafictional, there's only a smidgeon of it in Gaddis (the struggling artists in The Recognitions, J R, and maybe, in a different way, Agape Agape). They were all publishing at roughly the same time, and they were all "difficult" but I think the difficulties are different.

    Barth's early work is good - The Floating Opera and End of the Road still pack a punch, though they do feel dated. After that, though, much of Barth's work is metafiction for the sake of metafiction. Certainly Lost in the Funhouse and Chimera are historically important in the development American metafiction, and they are fun to a certain extent, but they're really, really clunky, and it's hard for me to get around that. I haven't read LETTERS, which might make me change my mind, but it will take me a while to get to that point.

    Those are the books that gave metafiction a bad name in the United States; in retrospect, I don't think they're doing much that Calvino or even Gass didn't do more elegantly. Or Eric Kraft, who somehow never gets thrown in that group of difficult writers.

  2. I'm pretty much with Dan, though with less Barth reading to base my opinion on. _Lost in the Funhouse_ is surprisingly fun, but everything else I've tried has been too . . . constructed . . . to bear. It ends up seeming like pointless game-playing, with nothing at stake--the opposite of Markson, whose methods transcend any technical aspects of their origins to add up to deliver a moving sense of incipient loss.

    Though, like I said, I've only picked him up to try here and there; I suppose there could be a masterpiece out there that I've not tried.

  3. I'm pretty much in agreement here about Barth, though he was certainly playful and brilliant in a lot of his work, as a whole, I'm not sure he would stand up to the standards held by Gaddis.

    I offer this tentatively, because I'm not sure either about this author, either--but it is often pains me that Donald Barthelme, of the same era, rarely gets a nod. I can't be objective about Donald as I was his student as I was Susan Sontag's student (they wrote at the same time and worked and taught together). But I've often wondered why Sontag has gotten so much more attention when many, many of her lauded ideas actually came from Donald Barthelme as well as many of the styles claiming originality in current trends today. Barthelme was an "original" and began parody as collage. Perhaps because he was a "humorist" in some sense, so he is given less attention. His background was in art history and architectural design and he originated the uses of visual "Collage" in text, among many, many things.

    I would consider Donald Barthelme's work much more neglected than John Barth's. And it hurts to see so many writers claiming his style as their own uniqueness currently.

  4. Mark, here's an excellent site about John Barth that really does give him substantial credit for the very noteworthy contribution he did make to literature. I'm just generally skittish and uncomfortable when the word "masterpiece" is used, but this doesn't mean I don't agree that Barth was an important post-modernist and well worth a serious look.

    Here's the link: http://www.davidlouisedelman.com/barth/

  5. Barth's themes changed quite substantially after LETTERS, which was a sort of watershed in his writing project. The novels after, until Coming Soon!!! which looked back to his early books, are predominantly sailing stories, with frame-tale structures and lots of gooey metafiction to make for lipsmacking narration and reading enjoyment.

    Sabbatical and The Tidewater Tales are important books, to my mind, because Barth develops, in them, his technique of dual narration from a single, coupled perspective.

    And also, for an Old Codger, he's still going strong. See another post on the same blog, which presents an analysis of recent Barthian accomplishment with which I heartily agree: http://www.edrants.com/?p=557

  6. Thanks James, seems I really should take a look at The Tidewater Tales and Sabbatical. I ashamed to admit I haven't them. I was responding having read only his work before those.

    Appreciate the lead.

  7. William Patrick Wend Wednesday 22 August 2007

    I've enjoyed the Barth fiction I have read, but my primary enjoyment of his work comes from his criticism. Additionally, his essay The Literature Of Exhaustion was what turned me onto Borges, which pretty much completely changed my life.

  8. I've only read Lost in the Funhouse of Barth, am currently about halfway through The Recognitions which is the total of my Gaddis, and have read all of Markson and none of Sorrentino. Based on that sample I concur with the general tenor here -- I take Gaddis to be in a class all his own, and find Markson both intellectually and emotionally far more satisfying. Actually, I only read Lost in the Funhouse because the David Foster Wallace story "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way", from Girl with Curious Hair, is a homage to it -- and I thought the Foster Wallace story was better.

  9. There's a podcast of John Barth reading from Coming Soon!!! here, and discussion with Michael Silverblatt (once a pupil of Barth's, I think).

    http://podcast.lannan.org/2007/07/30/john-barth-with-michael-silverblatt/

  10. The Danyazadiad(CHIMERA) has been required reading on our eight to ten day pack trips in the High Sierras for the last twenty years. Google whasabe for views of some of these trips. We would like to formally invite John on one of our jaunts(mountain-climbing aside) but have yet to locate the dude. We want to know more of the Maryland snails house. Its there in the national forests that we pine for Danyazad.

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