The Case for John Barth

If literary blogs exist to dredge up the underrated authors of our time, I must ask why the litblogosphere, so capable of unearthing the neglected, has remained so silent concerning the great novelist John Barth. If Gilbert Sorrentino, William Gaddis, and David Markson cut the mustard with their postmodernist innovations, then Barth likewise deserves a spot in the This Guy is the Real Deal pantheon. Here is a novelist who playfully uses first person plural in Sabbatical to represent a romantic escapade on the Chesapeake Bay with the apparent descendants of Edgar Allan Poe and Francis Scott Key. Here is a novelist who, in his early trilogy of novels The Floating Opera, The End of the Road, and The Sot-Weed Factor, takes the piss out of absolutist thinking: Todd Andrews, the protagonist of The Floating Opera, is an attorney who contemplates a moment in his life when he should have died. The answer to his conundrum might lie in the ridiculous logic he uses in relation to a court case, unearthed in hilarious fashion over a protracted “logic” reminiscent of the crazy legal brief in William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own. Jacob Horner’s reason for living in The End of the Road is predicated upon following the dicta of a mysterious Doctor, with the series of instructions being woefully misunderstood and employed in an insensitive manner that even Horner doesn’t seem to see. Consider, for example, the way that Barth describes this moment in which Jacob Horner shares dinner with the Morgans:

Since there were only four chairs in the kitchen, Rennie and the two boys and I ate at the table while Joe ate standing up at the stove. There would have been no room at the table for one of the sling chairs, and anyhow it did not take long to eat the meal, which consisted of steamed shrimp, boiled rice, and beer for all hands. The boys — husky, well-mannered youngsters — were allowed to dominate the conversation during dinner; they were as lively and loud as any other bright kids their age, but a great deal more physically co-ordinated and self-controlled than most. As soon as we finished eating they went to bed, and though it was still quite light outside, I heard no more from them.

Who is this guy? Is this really a sad domestic situation or is Jacob Horner more concerned with externalizing every situation he comes across? We have all sorts of general details about who this family is and what the dinner entails, but why can’t Jacob Horner pinpoint anything about them? Why the strange comparative qualifiers compared to other boys? Why the concern for the boys’ conversation? These are the questions that pop up when reading a Barth novel.

Likewise The Sot-Weed Factor, possibly Barth’s masterpiece, frames a hypocritical concern for virtue using a real-life historical figure (Ebeneezer Cooke) over the course of a playfully picaresque novel.

Why not Barth? He regularly subverts conventional narrative. He is very funny and regularly irreverent. He is often unapologetically preoccupied with sex. He sneaks in little tidbits about mythology, history, and little-known procedures of the law. And his work often bristles with a warm-hearted sense of mischief, even when the scenario being described is an extremely troubling one involving abortion, rape, or suicide.

If Barth can be accused of any literary crimes, his rap perhaps involves an overwhelming preoccupation with Maryland and Virginia history and a restless ambition. Nearly every Barth reader I’ve talked with gave up on LETTERS at some point. It was the most ambitious volume that Barth produced, involving characters from Barth’s previous novels writing letters to a guy named John Barth. After LETTERS, it seemed that people wanted to forget that Barth even existed. (He is still alive, presumably residing somewhere around the Chesapeake Bay.) Even I, when I first read Barth a decade ago, failed to continue reading Barth’s works in sequence. But now that I’m reading one of the novels that came after LETTERS, Sabbatical, I’m finding it to be a great surprise, just as fun and inventive as his early work. And LETTERS is due for a serious reassessment. (LETTERS and Sabbatical, incidentally, are available from Dalkey Archive Press.)

I have been rereading Barth’s novels in a rather odd manner over the past month, starting with the first two and now including Sabbatical and The Sot-Weed Factor, the latter of which I am reading for the third time. If anything, the playfulness and narrative tinkering that first wowed me when I was feeding on a variety of lengthy and ambitious novels in my early twenties has resonated more.

Has Barth in some sense declined over the years? I don’t think so. I think the guy still has it, even though my reading of his post-LETTERS books remains limited. Nevertheless, I have now obtained almost all of his novels and I aim to figure out precisely what happened.

In the meantime, I jam this message into the bottle and throw it into the tidewater. I cannot be the only guy out here who thinks John Barth is the cat’s pajamas. So what of you, readers? If you tried out Barth, why did you put him back on the shelf? Or have you remained silent over the past few years because Barth ain’t exactly the heppest cat to rave about? Well, I’m here to tell you that Barth is the real deal! You are not alone! Let’s make some noise and get people talking about Barth! Who’s with me?

[UPDATE: Dan Green, wryly quoting me in the manner of a film publicist truncating blurbs, points out that he has written about Barth. The specific words I used were “so silent,” which is not to suggest total silence, but a comparative qualifier. Dammit, let’s make some noise!]


  1. Letters is a wonderful book. So is Lost in the Funhouse. One of the first great post WW2 American writers. Foster Wallace & The Gang owe him a tip of the hat.

  2. No question about it: John Barth is the man. I like the three volumes he published between Sot Weed Factor and Letters best: Giles Goat Boy, Lost in the Funhouse, and Chimera. Funhouse, especially, deals with problems of self-awareness and ‘meta-fiction’ in a particularly sober and thoughtful manner. Not that that’s why anyone reads Barth. People read Barth because he’s freakin hilarious. (David Foster Wallace has a nice homage to Barth in Girl with Curious Hair. The story is called ‘Westward the Course of Empire Makes its Way’ or something similar.)

  3. I’m with you, in as much as I loved The Floating Opera and The End of the Road when I read them many years ago. I haven’t read anything else by him — though I’ve often meant to give The Sot-Weed Factor a shot.

  4. I agree with you about the greatness of John Barth. He is not only the cat’s pajamas, he may even be the bee’s knees. I’m not sure why he remains so under-appreciated. I think it has something to do with the fact that he seems to be having more fun than a proper novelist should. His writing has a playfulness to it that may turn off the more serious-minded critics. He also has a tendency to return to the metafictional well a bit too often, frequently writing stories about authors writing stories, or about stories writing themselves. I love it, but can see why it might turn some readers away. My personal favorite is The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, but I’m also fond of the Menelaiad from Lost in the Funhouse, with the brackets within brackets within parentheses within parentheses. His most recent work has been a turnoff to many Barth purists, but I have enjoyed it. I humbly submit my thoughts on Where Three Roads Meet.

  5. I read “Giles Goat-Boy” once again as a hyper-obsessive teenager in thrall to Anthony Burgess (it’s another one of those 99 Best Novels, isn’t it?). But though I read that and several others with considerable enjoyment, I don’t feel much urge to revisit–it all feels too much like work, there is a heavy-handedness or almost pedantry to my ear now in much of that Sot-Weed-type stuff, and I think that I remember even at the time finding “Lost in the Funhouse” too, what?, inward-looking. I guess I’m not against him, but I’m not passionately for him either. And I think the “we have X, Y and Z” line of argument might not be quite right–it’s more like we have only so many slots for certain kinds of novelists, and for some contingent reason I do not quite understand (I agree with you that Barth deserves a place alongside those others on the basis of quality) Barth didn’t get one of the slots. (That Pynchon takes up a lot of air for instance–don’t you think people are going to read EITHER Mason & Dixon OR Sot-Weed Factor?!?)

  6. I’ve read M&D and Sot-Weed; I can’t be alone in that, can I?

    I agree that Barth is all that and a bag of Funyuns, but I have to say that the reason he’s not sung to the rafters more often is that he has in fact gone to the well too often. His books of the past couple of decades feel a bit recycled. Although I’m sure they’d still seem fresh and great to the right kind of reader who hadn’t encountered the earlier books, who is that reader? That is, who appreciates metafictional playfulness who doesn’t know about Lost in the Funhouse? If there’s someone like that out there, I’d still say to start with the old stuff.

    Where Three Roads Meet is actually a darn good distillation of the Barth sensibility, though. Heck, start there if you want. Just start somewhere.

  7. I’ve never read Barth, Ed, so thanks for this. I’ll go and knock on some publisher’s doors and see if I can get my hands on some titles and then report back on ReadySteadyBook anon. I’ll no doubt take James’ advice and start with the old stuff. Thanks again for the nudge.

  8. Thanks for this. Just re-read Sot-Weed – happy coincidence.

    It’s funny – I was thinking about the Utah coal mine incident and John Coover’s *Origin of the Brunists* and then about Coover in general (I think *John’s Wife* brilliant, his best, much better than the more famous *Public Burning*), wondering why in all the litblogs is Coover’s name (and Elkin’s) rarely evoked.

  9. You should check out The Tidewater Tales, it’s a lot of fun. (And it “repurposes” the characters / situation from Sabbatical.) I must admit , though, I find his more recent stuff more mannered, convoluted. I couldn’t even get through Coming Soon.

  10. There’s a lot more to Barth after LETTERS, but it does get into a sameyness…middle-aged (and beyond) sailboating author in love with the muse of literature (often in the form of Scheherezade) and his younger, bookish but oh-so-sexy lover (many of his novels are dedicated to his second wife), writing about writing. Coming Soon!! was a lazy exercise, but all of the novels and the semi-autobiographical Once Upon A Time are worthy of at least one read. LETTERS is the novel, however, that I rate second only to Joyce’s Ulysses in my list of favorites.

  11. The first John Barth novel I read was ‘The Tidewater Tales: A Novel’, and I’ve read everything else since. Except LETTERS – I’m keeping it for my 49th year.

    His essays and short stories are great too. I think his star has waned a bit because his work can be quite unapproachably playful – you gotta love, ‘cos if you don’t, dear reader, you’ll hate it.

  12. Barth is great and one of the first “experimental” writers I really fell in love with. I think my reading of his work predates any of my blogging. I made it through all his novels up to the late 90s. LETTERS is on my list of best huge books and deserves a reread. The formal constraint alone is prodigious.

    Though, I will also remain in steadfast dislike of Sot-Weed Factor. I just couldn’t stand it.

    There used to be fairly active Barth Yahoo group that was doing some group readings.

  13. I love them all–Barth, Wallace, Pynchon, Sorrentino, Gaddis, Kotzwinkle and the whole pack. Only Coover leaves me a bit cold, except for possibly GERALD’S PARTY, which IMHO has its moments. I’ve got ORIGIN OF THE BRUNISTS but haven’t settled down with it. I think Tom Pynchon went downhill after GRAVITY’S RAINBOW but all in all is something of a genius. “COMING SOON!!!” is merely THE FLOATING OPERA in another format, but I agree it’s nowhere near as fun.

  14. Hi, I’m currently writing a B.A. thesis about “The Sot-Weed Factor” which I find very interesting and worth of reading book. I’ve found Your site by “accident” because I’m looking for some interesting opinions, essays and e-books conected with Barth and his works, especially sot-weed factor, I didn’t mention yet that I’m writing to You from Poland and it’s really difficult to get any books about modern American literature…

    Greetings from Poland.

  15. My pajamas have flames crawling up the sides and
    those are what I wore reading DANYAZADIAD(CHIMERA) to an attentive group of backpackers
    at eleven thousand feet in the Sequoia National Forest. We’ve been reading Barth around the campfire for over twenty years and inexorably return to the Danyazadiad for inspirational meta-humor. Looking forward to his latest short-story trilogy as we prepare for the Mighty middle fork
    of the Kings River. Happy Trails!!

  16. The first part of Giles Goat Boy; culminating in that tour de force, the play “Oedipus Decanus”, is as funny a passage of literature as any I can remember reading. Twain at his wittiest doesn’t surpass it.

  17. No one, absolutely no one that I have ever read, could write a more perfect sentence than Barth.

    My personal favorite was (is) “The Sot-Weed Factor,” but I also loved “The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor.” “The Floating Opera,” “Lost in the Funhouse,” and “The End of the Road” (especially the first two), are also remembered more than fondly.

    I don’t see how Barth can be left out of any discussion of the best writers of his generation.

    While I don’t jump for his latest offerings I was more than thrilled to find a pristine signed first edition of “Coming Soon,” at a local library book sale (though I haven’t read it). I will be buying “The Development,” as soon as I see a paperback or a used hardcover in excellent condition.

    Since he is someone often lumped in with Barth, I would also like to trumpet William Gass’s “Omensetter’s Luck”; a too neglected American masterpiece.

  18. I’ve been reading Barth for 42 years now…all his books…each multiple times some dozens (Chimera) of times. He is brilliant. His new books are, perhaps, less accessible, more difficult to read. I expect that they are also more difficult to write as his pen empties out.
    I’ll miss his new work while continuing to revisit his old when he’s through.

  19. reading Chimera 40 some years ago I was pulled to an abrupt halt by the dangling right parenthesis and had to backtrack (how many) maybe a hundred pages to find the left match; ever after I was an avid fan 老鬼

  20. Letters may have done Barth in. Not that it is bad or unreadable; far from it (well, Ok, a bit difficult at times..;-), but after this whirlwind of hyper-meta-fiction, his later novel seem a bit of a let down. Giles Goat-Boy was the first thing I read by him and while I found it quite funny, I was also very confused. Then again, I was also 15-16 or so. One thing in the book that rather grabbed my attention at the time was when Giles was in the library reading electronic texts where you could pick a word or phrase and get a gloss on it. And perhaps find something in that gloss that you wanted to follow up on and gloss IT. And so on. We are used to hypertext (HTML, ya know) now, but at the time, this was a completely new idea. I am inclined to think that Barth came up with this just simply because he liked the idea of ‘meta’ rather than he got it from techies or scientists. He probably deserves a round of applause here at the least!
    Still, I think my favorite has to be The Sot-Weed Factor, simply because it is soooo damn funny! Letters I want to read again, just to make my head hurt (in a good way, ya know?)

  21. I consider myself an uneasy fan of Barth. I’ve enjoyed many of his books (especially Giles Goat-Boy), but after a while I get tired of the rather dull sailing trips (I half-expect the courses, when plotted on a chart, to spell out something, but I really couldn’t give a rat’s ass), and what’s up with all the raping? I just finished LETTERS, after several attempts, and it’s a wankfest. A rehashing (the entire book is about rehashing, in fact, as Barth keeps reminding us thoughout) of the concerns of all his books up to that time, using some of the same characters (along with a new one invented for the book, an entirely unconvincing British academic), hung on a pointless calendrical-acrostic structure that adds nothing to the reading experience. Along the way there’s a lot of winking about the various meanings of “letters,” and the usual rapes, disguises, cancers, towers, and recapitulation. The humor is strained and the endless rehearsal of “this day in history” events, begun by Jacob Horner (from The End of the Road) but eventually taken up by everyone else become quite tedious. I got the feeling, far before it was over, that Mr. Barth wasn’t enjoying the journey any more than I was. He famously spent ten years writing it. I suspect he was glad to have it over with.

  22. Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson are often cited as the originators of what we now call hypertext, but the first time I ran across the concept was in Giles Goat Boy, published in 1966, and which I first read in college in about 1969. In Giles, Mr. Barth presented the idea of the World Wide Web, which did not arrive in its present form until a decade later. I found his idea of a “gloss”, where one could select a word or concept in a document and go to a place that gives a further explanation to be fascinating. This is hypertext and the WWW as we know it today. Mr. Barth deserves credit for this concept that he has never fully received. I have often wondered if the creators of the WWW had received their inspiration from Giles and Mr. Barth.

  23. Am struggling through Sot-Weed, still find it written somehow for a male sensibility. It is mildly amusing. Am not amused or entranced by the bawdy humor or the various sexuality, more closely am a little bored by it, maybe I am too old or have read too much. Not many comments from women on this site……

  24. I think Sarah b is correct. Barth’s from a generation where the roles were defined differently. Personally I started with “Sabbatical” and read through “Sinbad”, then “Letters” Friday’s books. “On with the Show”, “Coming Soon”, and some of the later books were harder to connect with, and I can’t say why. I’m currently reading “Every third thought” and it is familiar in form- he loves to turn things inside out and upside down before moving on- but its autobiographical nature keeps me going. He is a great example of the American authors life in purest form. Teacher and novelist without tv or film to corrupt. I imagine he may have welcomed a little corruption.

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