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My Barth Reading Plans

Thanks to last week's commenters, I think I've got a reasonable approach to the works of John Barth.

Recall that Lost in the Funhouse is the only Barth I've read and that I proposed The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat Boy as suitable follow-ups.

Sot-Weed was highly praised although one called it "annoying."

There was also some regard for Barth's early novels The End of the Road and The Floating Opera, although also cautions that the latter was atypical of his work (less playful, more existential in tone).

Barth's later novel Chimera was also recommended, and I was instructed not to read LETTERS until I had tackled the preceding books. As one who regularly instructs readers not to read The Savage Detectives until they've read the short novels available in English, I take this to heart.

So, it looks like I will do this in order. Since the omnibus version of The End of the Road and The Floating Opera is scarcely half the size of Sot-Weed or Giles, it shouldn't be too much trouble to read those first. Then I'll take my chances with Sot-Weed, and, depending on how I feel, either jump straight to Chimera or stop off at Giles first, before concluding with LETTERS.

And now for fun I'll quote Gore Vidal's estimation of Barth, from his noted and lengthy essay on virtually every important postmodern American novel published at the time:

Barth was born and grew up a traditional cracker-barrelly sort of American writer, very much in the mainstream—a stream by no means polluted or at an end. But he chose not to continue in the vein that was most natural to him. Obviously he has read a good deal about Novel Theory. He has the standard American passion not only to be original but to be great, and this means creating one of Richard Poirier's "worlds elsewhere": an alternative imaginative structure to the mess that we have made of our portion of the Western hemisphere. Aware of French theories about literature (but ignorant of the culture that has produced those theories), superficially acquainted with Greek myth, deeply involved in the academic life of the American university, Barth is exactly the sort of writer our departments of English were bound, sooner or later, to produce. Since he is a writer with no great gift for language either demotic or mandarin, Barth's narratives tend to lack energy; and the currently fashionable technique of stopping to take a look at the story as it is being told simply draws attention to the meagerness of what is there.

To help you calibrate those rather harsh sentiments, this is the same essay in which Vidal dismissed Gravity's Rainbow (after highly priasing V) as "Removed from the academic mainstream and its extra-terrestrial connections, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is just an apocalyptic 'whine.'"

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Which Barth Should I Read? As I discussed in my reading resolutions for 2009, after reading lots and lots of world literature for the past couple of years, one of...
  2. Friday Column: Where's Pynchon on the Modern Library List? The reviews of Pynchon’s new novel have been streaming in, and often they’ve been accompanied by testaments to the magnitude of his literary career. All...
  3. Screen Reading Vs. Book Reading The New Atlantis has a provocative article that comes very close to asserting that screen reading isn’t reading in the traditional sense. The piece starts...
  4. The Value of Reading Translated Fiction Aviya Kushner’s essay on translated literature in the U.S. is an interesting mix of provocation, insight, and misrepresentation. Her main argument is more or less...
  5. Friday Column: James Wood Reading Quarterly Conversation contributor Barrett Hathcock made a 3-hour drive to see James Wood participate in a recent panel. He was good enough to give me...

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4 comments to My Barth Reading Plans

  • Jim

    Congratulations for jumping into Barth! I’ve read them all and I think your plan is a good one. The first two novels seem like they were written before his Scheherazade epiphany and seem (to me) to be by a different writer.
    Giles and Sotweed? – Wow, you have to buy into the whole thing, because if you don’t you have pages and pages to slog through!
    The rest? I think all of them are fun and juicy – my favorite might even be LETTERS.
    BTW: Characters (and character types) are re-used from novel to novel. Realizing this is not essential to the works, but it does inform. It is similar to the way types are used in different tales in 1001 Arabian Nights.

  • I’ve read his essay collections The Friday Book and Further Fridays in the past year and enjoyed both a lot. Scott, I am sure there would be a number of essays in them that would interest you.

  • lorna

    you completely misread vidal who is quoting john gardner in that line and defending pynchon later in the essay – shucks for you to have lazed

  • You’re right, he was paraphrasing Gardner there, although Vidal is nonetheless quite mixed regarding Pynchon.

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