Essays and Other Nonfiction
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Lectures, introductions, symposium contributions, and other miscellaneous pieces (written on Friday mornings)--most of which end up as arguments for Barth's "postmodernist" approach to fiction, with extensive references to his own work (especially the numbing LETTERS). "The novelist is not finally a spectator, an imitator, or a purger of the public psyche, but a maker of universes: a demiurge. At least a semidemiurge." Likewise, "Whatever else it is about, great literature is almost always also about itself." Thus, Barth applauds the celebration of virtuosity for its own sake and the device of stories-within-stories-within-stories (which he explores to comical excess); he's interested in mythic patterns, with Eastern and ancient narrative forms; he praises Borges, Garda Marquez, and late Calvino. And, in a central 1979 essay, "The Literature of Replenishment," he takes on professors Gerald Graft and Robert Alter, appraises "modernism," deplores the school-of-thought that "rushes back into the arms of nineteenth century middle-class realism," and comes up with "a worthy program" for postmodernist fiction: the "synthesis or transcension of these antitheses, which may be summed up as pre-modernist and modernist modes of writing." Unfortunately, though some of this theory sounds plausible and heartening, when Barth turns to specifics (usually in discussing his own work), postmodernism most often seems academic, mannered, show-offy, self-involved. And though the style in many of these essays (and especially in Barth's mini-introductions) is jazzy and genial, the sameness of the subject-matter throughout becomes enervating, with only sporadic relief from Barth's whimsical approach ("the important subject of dippy verses as a legitimate contaminant of novels") to serious esthetic issues. Primarily for those involved in the philosophy-of-fiction quarrels, then, along with passionate fans of Barth's novels and stories.
Pub Date: Oct. 18th, 1984
ISBN: 0801855578
Publisher: Putnam
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1984


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