Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Friday Book

John Barth

This isn’t a confession. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m no John Barth fan—generally speaking, that is. My distaste goes back to early adolescence when my dad tried to get me to read Giles, Goat Boy, a novel, if you don’t know, that’s just entirely too heady for most fourteen- or fifteen-year-olds, even me at the time (I was pretty strange). In college I was intrigued with “Welcome to the Funhouse,” the story, not the collection. I have found Barth’s fiction writing generally verbose, purposely hard to understand. Like Pynchon’s, it’s self-conscious, experimental, story-for-the-sake-of-story, showing off. Fiction like that always gives me a terrible image of the author writing the original prose, like he was practically masturbating words onto the page at the typewriter, saying “look, aren’t I clever?”

There, now. I think I’ve made my point.

But I read The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction specifically because of its two essays, “The Literature of Exhaustion” and “The Literature of Replenishment,” which are important because in them Barth defines postmodernism, at least for himself. What I found surprising was that upon looking at the introduction and other early parts of the book, I felt compelled to read almost all the essays out of a strong interest in what he was saying. At first I thought it was because this non-fiction Barth was a different character than the guy who writes that insipid metafiction, but truth told, Barth’s nonfiction narrator is much the same as the fiction Barth. In fact, the first three mini-essays in The Friday Book are self-conscious comic pieces giving advice about writing the type of book he’s writing. The very title page—before the essays—parodies an actual title page, saying:


and Other Nonfiction

Then, in the first piece, “The Title of This Book,” he points out that his own title, as well as The Canterbury Tales, Moby-Dick and several others, “are straightforward” (vii). Importantly, though, he insists, “[c]comic works need not bear comic titles,” giving examples such as “The Frogs. The Birds. Don Quixote. Tom Jones,” etc. (viii).

A little later, in an epigraph, Barth goes on (with comic effect) to show why epigraphs “should be avoided” because there “is something hokey about an epigraph” since they are “a kind of rhetorical attitudinalizing” (xvii). And so on.

The book is particularly appealing to someone in the process of writing a book—even though Barth is obviously (to me) parodying the angst a writer goes through when s/he’s putting together a book.

When I figured that out, I realized that when my dad asked me to read Barth’s novels in early adolescence, he was asking me to read something too abstract for my age. I wasn’t ready for metafiction until right now. (You’ll note that I’ll be writing about the Sot-Weed Factor then shortly, because I’m in the middle of reading it at the moment. I still like Barth’s non-fiction better, though.)

Nevertheless, another reason why the essays were so appealing was that Barth talks about speaking to groups of college students about literature and writing, an experience any English faculty member like me can relate to.

That’s exactly what Barth was doing when he gave the lecture on “The Literature of Exhaustion” (at the University of Virginia). The idea of “exhaustion,” he says, comes not from the traditional sense of the word, but rather from “the used-upness of certain forms or the felt exhaustion of certain possibilities,” which makes sense (64). If postmodernism was the beginning of a new “movement” in literature, it happened because every possibility had already been exhausted in modernism, so this new movement had to arise in order for writers to try new things. Indeed, Barth calls himself an “author who imitates the role of an Author” when he wrote the Sot-Weed Factor (which itself parodies the colonial American poem) (72). So the main point of the essay is that parody and the reuse or retooling of stories are part and parcel of postmodernism.

Another interesting essay in the collection is “The Spirit of Place.” He begins this essay by paraphrasing Hemingway, who said that “every writer owes it to the place of his birth either to immortalize it or to destroy it” (127). Barth also says “A good writer may be inspired in part by the locus genii of the place where he was born or raised [...]. But at least as often, the writer’s place of origin may be of little or no significance to the work” (128). In other words, postmodernism (unlike modernism) frees writers from being bound to setting.

Barth discusses the matter still more specifically, saying “the ‘postmodern’ writer may find that the realistic, even tender evocation of place (for example) is quite to his purpose, a purpose which may partake of the purposes of both his modernist fathers and his pre-modern remoter ancestors without being quite the same as either’s” (129). Ultimately, then, the details, now are up to the writer, rather than up to the period. The piece determines the rules.

“The Literature of Replenishment,” says Barth, is “meant as a companion and corrective to” the previous essay, “The Literature of Exhaustion” (193). As of 1979, when he gave the original lecture, the word “postmodernism” had not yet made it into “standard dictionaries and encyclopedias,” Barth reports, yet at the time the topic already was hot at the university and the MLA. At first Barth takes up the definition of postmodernists—who among the white male canon may be considered to be postmodern. For example, Vonnegut: is he or isn’t he? Some of the theorists say yes, and some don’t. Some trace postmodernism as far back as Virginia Woolf, Baudelaire, and de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. According to some definitions, variations may be judged “among the productions of a given writer” (196). For example, Barth classifies “John Gardner’s first two published novels” as “distinctly modernist works” whereas “his short stories dabble in postmodernism” (196). Barth even sees “both modernist and postmodernist attributes” in his own work (196).

The term “postmodern,” says Barth is not easy to define, since it has such broad applications. A number of theorists, according to Barth, begin with the premise that postmodernism in some way extends some of the ideas of modernism (197). But the way Barth sees it is different. He says:

My ideal postmodernist author neither merely repudiates nor merely imitates either his twentieth-century modernist parents or his nineteenth-century premodernist grandparents. He has the first half of our century under his belt, but not on his back. [...] The ideal postmodernist novel will somehow rise above the quarrel between realism and irrealism, formalism and “contentism,” pure and committed literature, coterie fiction and junk fiction. Alas for professors of literature, it may not need as much teaching as Joyce’s or Nabokov’s, or some of my own. (203)

Barth ends by saying that while he argued in his original essay that “The Literature of Exhaustion” could refer to having exhausted the possibilities of modernism, “The Literature of Replenishment” was actually a better term for Postmodernism because of the many possibilities it offered for literature of the future.

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