Rollin' Barth
November 22, 2022 12:35 AM   Subscribe

It’s one thing to find Barth’s fiction masturbatory—that’s a matter of taste—but it’s another to hold it morally responsible for the cultural degradation we associate with fast food, commercialism, and televisual self-consciousness run amok (an especial bête noire for Wallace). Such menaces, it seems fair to point out, more likely result from political and technological circumstances coextensive with postmodernity as a historical epoch rather than from the stylistic choices of any individual author, or group of authors. from Life in the Fap Lane
posted by chavenet (24 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Pretty rich of Wallace to come after Barth for self-indulgent, self-reflexive fiction. I guess we all try to kill our fathers.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 5:21 AM on November 22 [7 favorites]

Barth is a lot more confident about himself and his ability to look outward than Wallace is, at least as far as I recall - I haven't read any Barth since I was about twenty and haven't read any Wallace in quite a while either. I mean, saying that you're taking on Fielding* requires a lot of confidence in your ability to look outward at the world and achieve achieve achieve (weird when you consider that Fielding had a lot of non-writerly experience to draw on).

I hope we're not rehabilitating all these guys, especially the sixties/seventies ones. They are so, so tediously sleazy and reflexively misogynist, it's like being forced to read a bunch of Crumb comics. I get that misogynist sexual transgression may have seemed to them like the only way to attack various powerful repressive social structures and may only sort of have reflected actual hatred of women, especially hatred of mothers and older women, but it is very difficult to read.

I'd be up for rehabilitating the early pomos if I don't have to slog through endless "dirty" jokes which are basically "I said a naughty, look at me" and a lot of sexualized murders of women, etc.

Fielding doesn't hate women. He's writing at a time and from a social position where he's not threatened by women so I understand that this is the mercy of the powerful, not feminism, but it's a lot easier to read.

But on the other hand I came to Barth via Wallace, sort of - I didn't understand "Westward The Course of Empire Takes Its Way" but I did immediately read "Lost In The Funhouse" - so maybe people will come to the 18th century via Barth, I guess. It's true that I read Barth way, way before I read Fielding and it didn't kill me.

*Seriously, Fielding was not such a bad guy in a lot of ways, and a great writer.
posted by Frowner at 6:02 AM on November 22 [5 favorites]

I was a student in the JHU Writing Seminars depicted in Wallace's story (which I had read before going there) and found Barth, as a workshop leader, to be a gentle old dude who was not in any way invested in getting people to write like him, but rather was pretty open to helping each student try to master whatever craft they were trying to figure out.
posted by escabeche at 6:13 AM on November 22 [11 favorites]

The Sot-Weed Factor includes a long scene which is essentially a celebration of rape — mass rape, in fact, and with a generous side of STI.

Perfectly suited for reissue in these post-Roe, resubjugation of women times, in other words.
posted by jamjam at 9:23 AM on November 22 [1 favorite]

Frowned, you’re so right. Every time I try to go back and read one of these pomo monoliths, it’s just a white dude literally writing about his dick. At least Pynchon tried to satirize it somewhat in Gravity’s Rainbow.
posted by fryman at 9:26 AM on November 22 [2 favorites]

Gotta say, I didn't have "reading an essay on The Sot-Weed Factor" on my 2022 bingo card.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:42 AM on November 22 [6 favorites]

I guess we all try to kill our fathers.

Hey there's a masturbatory book for that!

found Barth, as a workshop leader, to be a gentle old dude who was not in any way invested in getting people to write like him

I took a class with Wallace in the late 80s and that was my experience with him. But also I think he slept with one of the other people in our workshop soooooo.

At least Pynchon tried to satirize it somewhat in Gravity’s Rainbow.

One of those books that a guy I was dating at the time was like "You HAVE to read this" and when I got to the end I was SO MAD that I never took another book suggestion from him again.

I really like some of these authors, but yes, there's this thing about a lot of them. Never somehow got into Barth (though I love Barthelme) and it looks like that was an ok choice.
posted by jessamyn at 9:45 AM on November 22 [2 favorites]

The thing is, these guys aren't really more misogynist than, eg, Tolstoy, but their new freedom to write explicitly for a respectable audience about rape and sex and endless jokes about rape and sex and their new freedom to express openly the details of their hatred and contempt for women means that their work is just so much more work to read.

Also I'd say that they are not that interested in women except as things to fuck or nuisance killjoys - Tolstoy thinks that women are either bad or stupid (or possibly stupid and bad, but good women need to be stupid) but he rarely actually says this and he's at least interested in Anna Karenina, for instance, so you can tune him out a bit.

On the other hand, he doesn't need to hate women much because women have no power over him at all, whereas if you read those sixties/seventies dudes it is clear that they are incredibly pissed off that their mothers had any authority in the home, that they were expected to listen to women schoolteachers and now, as adults, they are occasionally expected to be deferential to women in administrative roles.

I will say that - and hopefully this is a real change and not just a brief interregnum - after about 1980 there are fewer and fewer new male writers who really just categorically hate women and resent that they have to deal with woman as anything more than servants and compliant fucktoys. Feminist or not, that deep, deep hatred of their mothers, their wives, their girlfriends, the woman at the post office, etc, seems to lose its grip on them.

Barthelme is all right in my book, there are few prettier stories than "Captain Blood" or the one about the giant balloon over New York. If he's not all right, I don't want to know - don't steal "Captain Blood" from me.
posted by Frowner at 9:52 AM on November 22 [5 favorites]

I love Barthelme so much that I keep forgetting Barth exists. (Funnily enough, I had a jonesing for Barthelme just a week ago, went hunting online for stories of his to read and share with friends, and what should I find but Jessamyn's own online Barthelme collection! It was a delightful find.)
posted by Tom Hanks Cannot Be Trusted at 10:56 AM on November 22 [3 favorites]

I was super confused because I thought this was about Karl Barth.
posted by vorpal bunny at 10:57 AM on November 22 [3 favorites]

I guess we all try to kill our fathers.

Wow, for a minute I thought you were making a clever reference to 'The Dead Father' but then I realized that was Donald Barthleme, not John Barth.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 11:17 AM on November 22 [1 favorite]

fryman: ". Every time I try to go back and read one of these pomo monoliths, it’s just a white dude literally writing about his dick."

Isn't all truly great literary-literature about middle-aged white dicks and their feefees?
posted by signal at 11:22 AM on November 22 [1 favorite]

yes, when arriving at the end, everyone seems to have thrown their copy the The Magus across the room.
posted by clavdivs at 11:41 AM on November 22 [1 favorite]

Thanks for letting me know I failed your cleverness test.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 11:53 AM on November 22 [1 favorite]

Seems odd this critique would go down the route of complaining this kind of fiction is masturbatory and then claim it should be "penetrative"--maybe just poor choice of word, seems more masculine centering, it should be more of a connection than the author showing off. Given Wallace was known for poor treatment of women, placing him as chief complainer seems off.

It's not that there wasn't postwar literature, even by white males, that had elements of the fantastic, picaresque, had cartoonish elements, yet engaged real emotions about life difficulties: Catch-22 and its bitter view of war.

Looking back at that time when at least there was more of a secure middle class, remembering when I was a college kid and it seemed fun to make jokes with my peers that were funny just b/c we made some obscure highbrow reference, I can see an appeal of literature that's playful--even if it appears to be the author "playing with himself"...

I think European literature that played word games or was self-referential, I'm thinking of Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler, or Georges Perec, or Umberto Eco showing off his erudition, I don't think had the same kind of misogyny. I agree with the analysis above that there was an anxiety about women gaining power and men losing it in the US at the time.
posted by Schmucko at 12:12 PM on November 22 [2 favorites]

everyone seems to have thrown their copy the The Magus across the room.


How did you know‽
posted by jessamyn at 1:26 PM on November 22 [3 favorites]

well, I took a seminar on Fowles, my teacher wrote a book on him. I threw the book, more a lofty toss thud, two other teachers also either tossed or threw the book. One doesn't quite put it back in a designated place, one puts it in between Bernard Spilsbury and Bunkers handwriting analysis. I decided to save myself double angst by not writing unconscious and Conchis imagery of light and shadow. I went straight to Mantissa. also, the Wikipedia entry under ending, concerning the fan mail implies a certain dissatisfaction with the quick dissolve ending and it's interpolation.
posted by clavdivs at 2:37 PM on November 22 [1 favorite]

Pretty rich of Wallace to come after Barth for self-indulgent, self-reflexive fiction. I guess we all try to kill our fathers.

Wallace is quoted as saying that in the article: "If I have a real enemy, a patriarch for my patricide, it’s probably Barth."

I'm kind of amazed that someone could write that many words about The Sot-Weed Factor without using the word "rape". It's like writing about Brideshead Revisited without mentioning Catholics. I guess "bawdy" and "earthy" are the euphemisms here.
posted by betweenthebars at 2:59 PM on November 22 [1 favorite]

Isn't all truly great literary-literature about middle-aged white dicks and their feefees?

It was a real breakthrough for me the day I realized every Manly Man Movie about justified violence is "What if a Man... had an emotion?"
posted by Rat Spatula at 3:00 PM on November 22 [4 favorites]

I've kind of had an inverse journey through literature to the one that feels "normative." I grew up reading books by and about women, discovered critiques of Male Writers way before I took time aside to read any—not counting the classic science fiction grotto, which is a different world entirely—and have slowly found my way back towards being interested in that whole phenomenon of writers, despite still mainly agreeing with the critique.

I also, full disclosure, wrote (by accident!) a book when I was 17 that, in retrospect, hit all of the "postmodern male author" notes: overly playful with its own form, somewhere between brooding and deconstructive of its own brood, and done up in a way where it was hard to tell whether the deconstruction was an attempt to justify the brooding or the other way around. I hadn't really discovered any of this era of writer apart from Barthelme; really, a lot of it came from reading James Joyce, whose influence on both postmodernists and on men having a wank might be somehow overlooked. And I think that partly that's because Joyce was such a unique talent that his successors all kinda grabbed 60% of what he was on about, with some leaning harder in the direction of Wank and others leaning harder in the direction of Play.

I'm sympathetic towards the Barth era because, hell, Joyce had the same impact on me decades later. But I think that that's also the critique I have of that era: everything I've seen of it suggests that we were just really really receptive towards men who were (in their way) very smart and playful and really obsessed with themselves. An undue amount of oxygen was dedicated to them, to the exclusion of everything else. And that in turn went to define what "prestige" meant in the literary world, which was unhealthy for everyone, probably including the writers themselves. It also, seemingly, emphasized "demonstration of intelligence" to the exclusion of more meaningful social, psychological, or philosophical inquiries, to the extent that a kind of academic nihilism became the dominant theme. That mixed with an apathy towards these men's sheer inability to depict women with anything resembling empathy results in a pretty unpleasant gestalt, especially when taken in as a whole or with the context of just how many people fawned over this shit because they didn't care to turn a critical eye to its failings.

And yet! At the same time, I've gotten gradually more into that kind of Male Writer recently—that despite despising David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, both of whom feel like attempts to "redeem" the flaws of that particular generation. And I think there are two reasons why I've found myself really enjoying that era of writer, albeit in moderation and with a hell of a lot of other cultures thrown into the mix.

The first is that I think there's an inherent social critique, and occasionally a philosophical and political one, to how an artist approaches their medium. And that era of writer wasn't just springboarding off of Joyce and the Modernists and the Dadaists or what-have-you: they were responding to the emergence of a genuinely mass media for the first time in human history. I think that a lot of the silliness that happened with the novel at around that time was an anxiety both about the possibilities of other broadly-distributed media, music and film and television alike, and about the immediate recognition that literature was about to lose its cultural cachet. Yes, it remained (and remains) an "elite" medium, favored by people with the power to tell other people what "real culture" is like, but even in the 50s and 60s, it was clear that something new was rising up—and by the 70s and 80s, it was obvious that it had already happened.

I think that that explains, to some extent, both why you got the literary motte-and-bailey, with literature becoming defined in part by academic and not just popular culture. Eric Hobsbawn, in The Age of Extremes, covers how the "artistic parlor" model lost its pre-eminent cultural voice as cinema and especially rock-and-roll swept in; it's really telling that Andy Warhol's Factory, which was one of the last big "parlors" in the art world, was self-consciously a pop phenomenon. So you have a lot of writers suddenly dealing with the fact that their role in culture was undergoing a sea change. I'd even go as far as to say that it's why so many pomo writers were fascinated with 18th- and 19th-century literary forms: they were drawing upon an even more "classic" version of the novel, and puncturing and lampooning it all the while.

At its best, imo, that gave us Italo Calvino and (my personal favorite) Robert Coover: people who saw the shifting culture as a kind of potential, and wanted to evolve literature and the novel into something it had never imagined being before. But that wave went hand-in-hand with a similar revolution in masculinity, and I think the latter's results were... spotty and over-emphasized at best, and really fucked-up at worst. Because you got some men who jumped really early on that whole "men are being deprived of their Purity of Essence" bandwagon, you got some men (like R. Crumb, recently featured on the blue) who used their art like a self-loathing confessional that delved deep into the misogyny, and you got some men who, though maybe more "enlightened," felt like it was suddenly their duty (as Serious Chroniclers of their Era) to fetishizes and compulsively repeat themes of men abusing women, women defined by victimhood, and so on and so forth.

All those flavors obviously still exist today. I can only do so much of any one flavor of it before I need a break. But within these various strains—and more and better variants exist today, thank goodness—I'm learning that I get more out of it from older writers, because there's more of a sense of teasing out and puzzling through these various expressions. The more contemporary version of this feels like an echo chamber a lot of the time—don't get me started on Franzen, ugh—but the earlier versions seem... rawer and harsher, but more often illuminating, even if it's in flashes rather than in any kind of cohesive worldview. It's kind of like the way I feel when I read Tolstoy (mentioned above) or earlier eras of genuinely conservative writer: I know that what I'm going to get is extremely limited and offered from a perspective that I profoundly disagree with, but once I take that into account, there's a lot of genuinely interesting thought going on. It's not the kind of thing I'd ever put on a class syllabus, but I find it personally gratifying and rewarding, in a way that probably would have perplexed me a decade ago.

And in part that's because I feel like we do need a literary culture of men, particularly straight men, examining themselves and the culture that's produced them. It shouldn't look at all like the older cultures of literary men, and I hope it's never front-and-center in the way it used to always be, but maleness and male experience is still ripe for exploration, especially in today's climate, where it's clear that many-to-most men are in weird, dark, and dangerous places. Literature is still maybe the richest way to examine the worlds that people live in, and the fact that most literary attempts to explore masculinity are masturbatory just means that there's still a dire need to do that exploration in meaningful, sincere, and considerate ways. On one level, it rocks that most of the most worthwhile and fascinating work done in modern literature revolves around everything but men considering masculinity, especially because imo all men should be taught how to appreciate stories about people who aren't them, and on another level I don't think we're ever going to run out of a need for stories that explore what it means to be a certain kind of person living through a certain kind of time. And I'm not sure that's happening in a healthy way for men nowadays.

This is probably too many words spent lending a sympathetic ear towards Barth &c., so I'll back off, but I don't think that the things that made those writers popular and beloved in their heyday were fictions. Some of their better qualities were magnified in ways that erased or overlooked their glaring faults, but that's true of a lot of artists, a lot of success stories, and a lot of culture full-stop. We're better off living in a world that doesn't center them as the only meaningful thing that happened in late-20th-century literature, especially since half a dozen other major movements were happening at the time, but I do think that they have their place. Even if I'd never presume that anybody else "ought" to read them or would want to read them. They have value in their own way, and I hope they inspire more than just DFW's not-entirely-self-aware excoriations. They deserve better than that, imo, which isn't to say they deserve to be exonerated either.

That said, it's always telling that some writers get grouped like this, and other writers don't. Because Nabokov and Beckett were white male writers who overlapped all the guys mentioned in this article, and nobody would ever think to lump Nabokov or Beckett in with them—or with each other, for that matter. Even though you could argue that Nabokov wrote the two best books that fall under this category of writing hands-down, and Beckett is not shy of masturbation either.
posted by Tom Hanks Cannot Be Trusted at 3:55 PM on November 22 [7 favorites]

The essay sums it up. J Barth was one of my favourites among the various mid/late-20th century macho American literary author-dudes, because he was experimental but also clever and witty. 'The Sot-Weed Factor' & 'Giles Goat-Boy' (odd metaphoric sci-fi) were fascinating and weird (and sometimes cringe-y) books to discover when I was young. Well-written, and obviously not dated well. It's been a while, but I could recommend them for those curious about 20th century American literature, with the usual caveats. I didn't like his later novels.

(In related: 'End of the Road' was adapted into a rather strange 1970 film starring Stacy Keach. It's not recommend for most any audience, unless you're looking for something that most audiences wouldn't like.)
posted by ovvl at 5:12 PM on November 22 [1 favorite]

I tried to read Barth once and bounced off. I guess I thought I was qualified to read his work, because I'd read Vineland or something? But it felt like some sort of joke I didn't get.

I guess that was also about the time I started feeling like the stuff my English-major friends were reading was... maybe just not for non-English-majors?

Which is fine, I suppose: nobody complains that Einstein's photoelectric effect paper is "inaccessible to the layman". Nobody expects it to be accessible to the layman; it wasn't written for him. It was written by one guy at the top of his field to other people also working in the field.

And I guess that's where I decided to shelve the rest of postmodernism in my mind: I don't think I'm the intended reader? But it's not super clear to me who is, or what it's meant to communicate to them.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:09 PM on November 22 [2 favorites]

I tried to read Barth ... I guess that was also about the time I started feeling like the stuff my English-major friends were reading was... maybe just not for non-English-majors? ... I don't think I'm the intended reader? But it's not super clear to me who is ...

Barth's Giles Goat-Boy was a NYT bestseller for months when it appeared in 1966!
posted by JonJacky at 7:04 PM on November 22 [2 favorites]

I was very young when I read The Collector, then I also read Lolita in my early teens. I learned my lack of worth from some very learned men. I later read Barth, John Irving, Brautigan, Vonnegut, Pynchon, it is all in here somewhere. I did read all of Pearl Buck, again, it is all a part of me, as, at the time, I had no filters. Maybe the one who most severely wounded me, was Tennessee Williams, by 1968 I had read everything he had written, to date. The feminists helped me set up some boundaries...I really enjoyed The Sotweed Factor.
posted by Oyéah at 7:09 PM on November 23

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