John Barth's career suggests that being considered a master of postmodern fiction is a mixed blessing. His vigorously unconventional storytelling has earned him as many critics, who chide him for being overly clever and self-referential, as devotees. But, beginning with the publication of his first novel, The Floating Opera, nearly fifty years ago, his influence on American letters has been unmistakable; he helped pave the way for new generations of innovators, the most recent one including Rick Moody, David Foster Wallace, Aimee Bender, and Jonathan Safran Foer. In his fourteen novels and story collections, Barth may spin tales within tales Ó la Scheherazade, Boccaccio, and Laurence Sterne and metafictionalize his own life as well as those of his characters, but at their core can be found the author's philosophy of storytelling. His narrative gamesmanship both undermines traditional forms and affirms the importance of telling and receiving tales in our lives.
The onetime aspiring jazz drummer and Juilliard dropout retired from teaching a decade ago after twenty-two years at Johns Hopkins, but at seventy-four he shows no inclination to dry out his quill. He's just published The Book of Ten Nights and a Night, a collection of eleven stories that gently sends up The Thousand and One Nights and Boccaccio's Decameron, in part by borrowing their narrative frame to compose what he calls a "Hendecameron." Narrator Graybard, the physical embodiment of an older writer's imagination, tells these tales to his flirty muse, Wysiwyg ("What You See Is What You Get"), in the days immediately after September 11, 2001. The two frequently go off topic, however, engaging in intercourse both sexual and conversational, and contemplate the importance of storytelling in a brutal, destructive world.
John Barth spoke with Bookforum in late March by phone from his winter home in Florida about the perils of being a literary trailblazer (though he is far too modest to call himself such a thing), the threat of humorlessness in the aftermath of 9/11, and the pleasures he derived from being a "coach" (his word) for over forty years to such writers as John Casey, Mary Robison, and Vikram Chandra. There's a familiarity to his voice, and not merely because we've met his various alter egos in the fiction. We encountered the winsome, thoughtful elder statesman of letters that we anticipated, but the Maryland native, who has guided us up and down the Chesapeake Bay, is also voluble about new writers he's discovering, former students, colleagues who make him proud, and classic books he can finally return to now that he's enjoying retirement. ˇKERA BOLONIK
BOOKFORUM: Threaded through your "Hendecameron" is an ongoing discussion about the relevance of storytelling amid grim circumstances, in particular the World Trade Center attack. Let me ask you a question that Graybard and Wysiwyg consider together: Are comical stories permissible, perhaps even therapeutic, in the most devastating situations?
John Barth: Whether or not it's therapeutic, it is certainly permissible. It is not reprehensible, let's put it that way. Graybard and Wysiwig keep invoking as their icons The Thousand and One Nights and Boccaccio's Decameron, where, as they say, the frame situation is very grim indeed, but the actual stories are prevailingly lighthearted, even comic in some cases.
BF: The Decameron uses the Black Plague as its narrative frame. In The Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade tells stories to save her life. Do you think we mortals will always need stories, especially in times of urgency?
JB: I hope so, because that's my line of work. Even a humorous narrator such as the Grandma from Minsk [related in the "Invocation" section of The Book of Ten Nights and a Night] is quoted as saying that back in the shtetl at the time of the pogroms, "If we didn't laugh, we'd hang ourselves." It is a kind of strain that, of course, runs through a lot of traditional Jewish humor, but, as I tried to show, it runs through a lot of other literature as well. I believe that somewhere along the line, the Graybard figure makes it clear that I had planned a collection of previously published but uncollected stories from the past few years and a couple of older souvenirs and was not originally looking for a frame situation. Just before 9/11, I published a comic apocalyptic Y2K novel, Coming Soon!!!, and did the obligatory author tour. As it happened, just after 9/11 hit the fan, I was on tour and was asked more than once, "Don't you think, sir, that maybe a comic novel, that comedy in general, might be a little inappropriate in these grim circumstances?" Not just in defense of my novel but in general, I kept being reminded of, and reminding my questioners of, such predecessors as Scheherazade and Boccaccio's people in the Decameron. When I finished that tour and got back to my writing desk, looking at those discrete stories, I thought, "VoilÓ! There's a possible framing story."
BF: In a 1982 essay in the New York Times Book Review, you likened writing to being an orchestrator. You wrote, "At heart I'm an arranger still, whose chiefest literary pleasure is to take a received melodyˇan old narrative poem, a classical myth, a shopworn literary convention, a shard of my experience, a New York Times Book Review seriesˇand, improvising like a jazzman within its constraints, re-orchestrate it to present purpose." I know you've also asserted that passion and virtuosity will shine through any aesthetic, but is it possible to both orchestrate and convey urgent emotion?
JB: Yes, I don't think that's difficult. To stay with the analogy for a moment, an orchestrator, or an arranger, as we used to call them back in the big-band days, can take what was originally a somber theme, let's say, and reorchestrate it in another mode, another attitude altogether. We see frequently in music the same theme varied from movement to movement: It can first be done plaintively, let's say, and then you can do the adagio, then the scherzo, the allegretto. In the same way you can take a theme from Scheherazade, or from Boccaccio or Homer, and replay that theme in another key with different instrumentations, to speak figuratively, for different effects. You mention the matter of emotions: An originally tragic theme can be reorchestrated in a comic way, or an originally comic theme in a tragic way. No question about that.
BF: What would you say is your most emotionally charged book?
JB: [Laughs] I don't think I'm in the habit of thinking of my books in those categories. When I speak of "passionate virtuosity," I mean "impassioned," in contrast to mere cold exercises in techniqueˇof which we saw a great deal back when postmodernism was first emerging. One can respect such exercises, but I've always preferred things less merely technical. In fact, I think it's better to have the virtuosity done with your left hand and not rub the reader's nose in it, though I'm sometimes guilty of that.
BF: You have sought to redefine narrative form through language, framing devices, and other literary devices. How do you now define a story, and how has that notion evolved over time?
JB: Boy, that's a big question now, isn't it? And it has been and continues to be at the very center of my concerns. I don't know how much of that is an occupational hazard of having been a coach for young writers for so many years at various universities. Sometimes the last thing that an apprentice writer learns is what really distinguishes a story from a nonstory, even if that writer has in their hand strong cards in some of the other suits. I do believe that telling and reading or hearing stories is about as human a thing as human beings do. I'm in agreement with the neuro-philosopher Daniel Dennett, who maintains that human consciousness has evolved into a kind of scenario-making machine and that ultimately what we are, our self itself, is our Center of Narrative Gravity. Now, what was your question?
BF: How has your definition of a story changed?
JB: I don't know whether my definition of it has changed. The centrality of storytelling in my stories has become more prominent over the decades. My first couple of novelsˇThe Floating Opera and The End of the Roadˇwere fairly innocent in that respect. They are not conscious of themselves as stories being told, and, for better or worse, the later ones do become more aware of themselves as novels. Now that's one aspect of what has got labeled as literary postmodernism, and that's a term, like any label, that I find myself chafing at.
BF: Do you think people use labels like "postmodern" dismissively?
JB: We have to use them whether we like it or not. Of course, a concept like "postmodernism," like so many things that become fads after a while and perhaps become overpublicized, encourages one to back off from it. But the idea of the story being aware of itself as a story has an ancient history. It's as old as storytelling itself. I've said somewhere or other that if the first story ever told began with the words "Once upon a time," I'll betcha the second story ever told began with the words, "Once upon a time there was a story that began, ňOnce upon a time.'" We find in Greek drama, when the plays took place in the amphitheater toward sundown, that as the sun went down the playwright would have written into the script, "Oh look! There goes the sun." The play was aware of its circumstances. In Shakespeare, you hear that all the world's a stage. That kind of teasing the reader, the spectator, the auditor, the listener, with the fact that he or she is involved in hearing a story, it's like the magician who reminds the audience, "Hey look, this is just a trick. Now watch my next trick over here," while he's doing the important thing with his left hand. That's an old and honorable convention, and it occurs not only in comic literature, as in Shakespeare, but in stories that are not necessarily comic at all.
BF: You talk about storytellers inventing their lives as they go.
JB: We're all storytellers. That doesn't mean we're liars [laughs]. Our notion of who we are, what we're doing, what we're up to, and what it's all about is obviously something that, consciously, half-consciously, or unconsciously, everybody keeps doing all the time.
BF: Your fiction often incorporates autobiography. How have you invented your own life through the many alter egos we've met in your pages?
JB: I'm not sure I'm the right person to ask, since, as we know, the fiction writer is going to make up a fiction about it anyway. I get fidgety in the presence of autobiographical fiction. On the other hand, everything depends on how it's done. That's why you can't take a category like "postmodernist fiction" or "metafiction" and either approve of it or dismiss it out of hand. Right now, for example, I'm in the midst of enormously enjoying an earlier novel of Michael Chabon's, Wonder Boys. If somebody'd said to me, "This is a novel about a guy who's writing a novel called Wonder Boys," you could say, "Get out of here! This is tiresome postmodernism!" But you begin reading the novel, and right from the first sentence you're charmed because of the delightful quality of Chabon's storytelling. He can have that blurb from me, by the way. I've never met the chap, but I admire the work. To get back to your question, regarding the autobiographical in fictionˇin principle, like Nabokov, I deplore it. But in fact, for example, Nabokov's fiction certainly has all sorts of echoes of the circumstances of his actual life, and it doesn't surprise me at all to find that kind of thing in some of mine. On principle, I would say, the less the better. Still, a writer uses what he has, and one of the things he knows most about, though much of it may remain mysterious to him, are the circumstances of his own life. A good writer, like a good painter or a good musician, can break all the rules he himself most lives by, and if it's done brilliantly, then bravo.
BF: Your last novel, Coming Soon!!!, featured a relationship between a professor/ writer approaching retirement and a "novelist aspirant," as you called him, who challenges his mentor to a collaboration-cum-competition. As a writing instructor for over forty years, with students like Mary Robison and John Casey, did you ever feel threatened by your apprentices' success?
JB: Oh no, on the contrary. I take avuncular pride in their success. I would always tell them at the end of our time together, after having worked my butt off on their manuscripts and having had them work their butts off on their manuscripts, "Okay, as of today I never want to see another unpublished word from you. But do please send me all of your publications so that I can kvell about them to my colleagues and modestly take partial credit for what you would've done anyhow." No, I have never felt threatened in the least. I've had to be careful sometimes that I didn't accidentally, unintentionally, unconsciously borrow a good metaphor or image or something from one of my students back in the old days, but I don't think I ever did. At least, I told them, If you ever find anything in my writing that I stole from you, blow the whistle. So far as I know, no whistles have been blown, so I presume that's never been the case.
BF: What was it like to teach writing while you were writing?
JB: Stimulating. I haven't done it now for ten years or so, but during the decades when I did, I was delighted to work with those good students. I enjoy teaching because I would get to think about first principles like, What is a story? What do we mean by point of view? What's the difference between comedy and tragedy, fiction and nonfiction?
BF: Can people be taught to write?
JB: I concluded that, while it can't be taught, it can be learned, and it gets learned a little better with good coaching, good feedback, and interchanges between comparably talented comrades and rivals in a seminar room. We have to remind ourselves that literature got along very well for millennia without such things. But even though you didn't have college writing programs in Renaissance England or nineteenth-century France, writers and artists in every medium have always looked for inspiration and competition from their peersˇwhether they knew them or were just reading them, looking at their paintingsˇand from their predecessors. That's the dialogue between every new generation of artists and an enormous corpus of what Umberto Eco calls "the already said, the already painted or the already sung."
BF: Or perhaps it is the "literature of exhaustion," a term you once used. You often reference your early works in your later fiction. Do you worry that being self-referential makes your work too insular, thereby limiting your audience?
JB: Well, it seems like a bad idea. The ground rule on that subject would be never to make familiarity with one's earlier works necessary for enjoying or appreciating the current one. You're allowed to mention them, to refer to them, and you're even allowed to echo them, so long as that's just an available extra dimension and not a prerequisite for making sense of or enjoying the present story.
BF: Whom do you write for? Are you thinking about your readers?
JB: I think about those poor suckers now and then. My colleague and comrade-in- literary-arms William Gass gave the best answer to that question I've ever heard. He said, "My first concern is not for the reader. That would be pandering. My first concern is not for myself. That would be self-indulgent. The writer's first concern should be for the verbal object that's trying to get itself said." I like that idea of the author as a kind of midwife at the birth of a text. I know exactly what Gass means, and I couldn't agree more. You mentioned writers referring to their earlier works, and the famous example to show that it needn't be egomaniacal or metafictive or postmodern is the opening of Huckleberry Finn, which goes something like "You don't know nothing about me, except you have read a novel by Mr. Mark Twain called The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't nothing."
BF: Do you read your critics?
JB: Oh sure. As I used to tell my apprentices, what you want most of all is intelligent praise. If you can't have intelligent praise, you'll take stupid praise. If you can't have stupid praise, then the third-best thing is intelligent criticism. And, of course, the worst thing is stupid criticism. One will almost certainly get all four of those in the course of one's adventures in literaria, and I would still stack them in that order. But it's true that when negative reviews come in, I do read them, and, of course, my feelings can be hurt. I can be annoyed. But I can also be enlightened. I have learned things over the years. I listen to what they say if the reviewer is intelligent, and one whom I normally respect, and if he or she respects writers whom I respect.
BF: Are there any that come to mind?
JB: No. I can't remember what they've said about my work. But if it's a reviewer like John Leonard, for example, whose reviews I usually read with interest and pleasure, I would take it seriously. Some reviewers just have such a chip on their shoulder. It's no fun to be savaged, at any age or stage. I find that the ones who annoy me are the kind who seem to start out with an aesthetic agenda or categories and dismiss the book simply because it falls in that category. You have to ask yourself, Why would a reviewer choose to review books that belong to a category that he or she disapproves of on principle?
BF: What do you think of the new generation of metafiction writers, who arguably owe a debt to you, like Dave Eggers, Aimee Bender, and David Foster Wallace?
JB: One of the things to be noticed about them, as about those former coachees of mine who have made reputations of their own, is that they are very different from one another and they are very different from me. When I think of people like David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers, both of whose works I have admired, I'm at least as impressed by the differences I see as I am by any similarities. But then that also applies to placing, say, Gass, Donald Barthelme, William Gaddis, John Hawkes, and myself under the heading of "postmodernist." When we would see one another, we would always sort of shake our heads and remind ourselves that we'd been more impressed by the differences between what we were each doing than by any similarities. Those categories are useful, but they're not to be mistaken for the things that they describe.
BF: Aside from Wonder Boys, what are you reading these days?
JB: My first category of reading is always the books or publications sent to me by my former coachees and students, whom I am delighted to see again. I'll always set aside whatever I'm doing and read what they're doing, and then immediately fire them off some applause. My second category is new publications sent to me by writers of my generation whom I've come to know over the years. I'm talking about people like John Updike, Robert Coover, and the late Barthelme and Hawkes. And then there are the books one hears about, or reads reviews of, like Jeffrey Eugenides or Michael Chabon, or my successor at Johns Hopkins, Alice McDermott. Then there are always the enormous old classics that you haven't got around to reading and that are staring at you reproachfully from the shelf, like the rest of Dickens or the rest of Balzac. I try not to let too many semesters go by without revisiting some of those. I still think in terms of semesters, as you see.