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Life in the Fap Lane

Lost in the funhouse with John Barth

It has been alleged on more than one occasion that the fiction of John Barth is “masturbatory.” This isn’t only because Barth loved a dirty joke, although he certainly did. To wit, one of first things readers will notice when diving into his 806-page tome The Sot-Weed Factor—a ribald parody of eighteenth-century picaresques first published in 1960 and to be reissued this coming May by Dalkey Archive Press—is that Barth has a fondness for smutty proverbs (“there are more ways to the woods than one”), double entendres delivered with a rimshot (“Hell hath no fouler, filthier Demon / Preserve me, lord, from English seamen!”), and, yes, groan-inducing masturbation jokes (“that same knuckly hand that penned him his couplets took no wooing to make his quick mistress”).

Barth’s humor, in other words, verges on the self-pleasuring. But the charge of onanism goes beyond Barth’s bawdy predilections to the broader aesthetic formation The Sot-Weed Factor was among the earliest novels to delineate, characterized by a penchant for nesting stories within stories within stories, an indiscriminate mixing of high and lowbrow, and an explicit fondness for self-referential, so-called “metafictional” narrators (the epilogue to The Sot-Weed Factor is entitled “The Author Apologizes to His Readers”). These were all traits of an emerging literary style critics such as Leslie Fiedler would, by the end of the decade, be calling “postmodernism,” and the term’s earliest adopters, in defining its contours, often cited Barth’s trio of books from the 1960s as examples. (After The Sot-Weed Factor came Giles Goat-Boy in 1966, a surprise commercial hit, followed in 1968 by the story collection Lost in the Funhouse.)

By the 1980s, critical theorists like Fredric Jameson and David Harvey had reframed postmodernism as a historical epoch rather than an aesthetic category—a “cultural ether,” to quote Perry Anderson’s The Origins of Postmodernity—that emerged alongside the prevailing postwar social order and was conditioned by “objective alterations of the economic order of capital itself.” Nevertheless, within literary discourse, the word remained linked to the style of maximalists like Barth, and it accrued a controversial reputation that still clings to it today. Among detractors, postmodern novels are derided as show-offy and self-indulgent, reflecting the baleful influence of navel-gazing Continental theory. It doesn’t counteract the masturbation allegations that most of postmodernism’s most famous American practitioners—Donald Barthelme, William Gaddis, William H. Gass, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, Ishmael Reed, and Barth himself—are men with propensities for flaunting at immoderate length their research into arcane subjects such as cybernetics, rocketry, or the forgery of medieval paintings (although the fraternal stereotype does a disservice to the women pursuing similar fictional impulses in the postwar years, from Marguerite Young and Mary Caponegro to Jaimy Gordon).

No one put the charges more directly than David Foster Wallace, whose 1989 novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” is an elaborate allegory for how literary postmodernism exerted a detrimental and masturbatory influence on Gen X authors like himself—scapegoating Barth in particular as the style’s onanist-in-chief. “It’s the act of a lonely solipsist’s self-love,” Wallace’s narrator opines at a climactic moment when his protagonist, an aspiring writer, reasons through why he has rejected the temptation to become a postmodernist. “It’s lovers not being lovers. Kissing their own spine. Fucking themselves. True, there are some gifted old contortionists out there. Ambrose and Robbe-Grillet and McElroy and Barthelme can fuck themselves awfully well.”

There was always a current of unease surrounding Barth’s status; even many of his champions found something slightly off-putting about his work.

The last three names are actual postmodern authors, but Ambrose is the fictional protagonist of Barth’s oft-anthologized short story “Lost in the Funhouse,” in which a boy has a bewildering experience in the mirror room of a fairground funhouse that sets him on the path to becoming a writer. The story takes inspiration from the bird-girl revelation scene in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, only it transmogrifies it into a sort of postmodern exhibition piece, as the narrator keeps butting in with ironic, metafictional comments that deconstruct in real time the conventions of epiphany-driven realist fiction: “The function of the beginning of a story,” reads a typical aside, “is to introduce the principal characters [and] establish their initial relationships.” In Wallace’s novella, Ambrose has been recast as a nefarious creative writing professor in Baltimore (where Barth himself taught for many years at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars) who once wrote a postmodern story about funhouses that he’s now converting into a theme park franchise and licensing to McDonald’s as part of a massive advertising campaign into which the protagonist of “Westward” has, begrudgingly, been recruited. Wallace’s thesis here is that the “self-consciousness and irony and anarchism” of postmodernists, and especially “their aesthetic’s absorption by the U.S. commercial culture,” has had “appalling consequences for writers and everyone else,” as he’d explain in a 1993 interview. “If I have a real enemy, a patriarch for my patricide, it’s probably Barth.”

Barth’s reputation has waned since the 1980s, and it would seem strange to single him out if mounting a case against literary postmodernism today. Yet in his heyday, there was no postmodernist who polarized opinion quite like him; Wallace was one among a phalanx of readers who found something simultaneously emblematic and pernicious—even morally objectionable—about Barth’s irony-laden and pastiche-heavy style. A similar charge is leveled in John Gardner’s 1978 treatise On Moral Fiction: “Arch, extravagantly self-indulgent, clumsily allegorical, pedantic, tiresomely and pretentiously advance guard . . . puerilely obscene,” Gardner writes of Barth’s oeuvre, distinguishing him as the “most interesting case” among the malignantly “immoral” postmodernists.

But do these allegations make sense? 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. The way Barth understood his approach, as he’d articulate in a 1967 essay “The Literature of Exhaustion,” was as an essentially intra-literary reaction to a feeling of “used-upness” of high modernist forms, a sense that the epistemological experiments of Joyce, Stein, Faulkner et al. had driven literature into a cul-de-sac from which there was no path forward. How do you out-stream-of-consciousness Finnegans Wake? Rather than offering a supposed solution in the form of “penetrative” fiction like Wallace and his Gen X cohorts, Barth’s response was to hold up a funhouse mirror to the novel’s existential crisis, cavorting and jesting in the resulting aesthetic free-for-all. If this turned him into a poster boy for postmodernism’s supposed ills—Barth was assuredly front-of-mind in the numerous Gen X fictions that feature “Westward”-style scenes of writerly protagonists rejecting juvenile phases of postmodern dabbling for a more “adult,” empathy-centered model of storytelling—it also makes the controversy he engendered a showcase for the difficulty of identifying what social function, exactly, literature is expected to fulfill under the conditions of postmodernity.

This was a question that dogged The Sot-Weed Factor, Barth’s breakout novel, from the moment it began attracting critical scrutiny. What was this bawdy, blasphemous, willfully perverse and scatological, bewilderingly intricate parody of picaresque novels like Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random and Voltaire’s Candide actually trying to say? The Sot-Weed Factor boasts sixty-five chapters, two novels within the novel which reconceive John Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia as a burlesque sex farce, and some dozen extended dialogues on topics near and dear to Barth’s heart—moral relativism, virginity as a plot device, the Hudibrastic rhyme schemes of Samuel Butler, the erotic history of twins, to name a few. It’s written in a dubiously accurate pastiche of Georgian Era English that is monomaniacally unwavering (a sample line of dialogue: “But say, thou’rt all beshit”), and it features one of the most intentionally complex plotlines in the history of the twentieth-century novel—an attempt on Barth’s part to “see if I couldn’t make up a plot that was fancier than [Henry Fielding’s] Tom Jones.”

The narrative is too convoluted to recount here, but at a basic level it tells the story of an ingenuous rube named Ebenezer Cooke, quixotically fixated on preserving his virginity (he’s convinced it’s the key to becoming a world-famous poet), whose father punishes him for his indolent London lifestyle by commanding him to cross the Atlantic and take charge of a “sot-weed” farm—i.e. a tobacco plantation—in colonial Maryland. Before departing, Ebenezer approaches the colony’s London-based governor with a request to be named its “Poet and Laureate,” whereupon he obtains a commission to compose an “Epical Poem” titled The Marylandiad that will extoll “the Graciousness of Marylands Inhabitants, Their Good Breeding and Excellent Dwelling-Places, the Majesty of her Laws, the Comfort of her Inns,” and so forth.

En route, however, Ebenezer is waylaid by a dizzying number of subplots, ranging from pirate abduction to slave rebellion, from international intrigue for Maryland’s governorship to a love triangle involving his twin sister Anna and best friend Henry, all of which interlock in a Russian Doll-like nested pattern that builds to a Dickensian crescendo of implausible coincidences and mistaken identities unmasked. Eventually, a disenchanted Ebenezer abandons his Marylandiad to compose a scathing denunciation of the colony called “The Sot-Weed Factor”—a title Barth’s novel shares with a real-world satirical poem from 1708 by an obscure figure named Ebenezer Cooke, about whom little is known except that he was a colonial planter and dubbed himself Maryland’s “Poet and Laureate”; lines from his decidedly unimpressive body of work are transposed directly into the novel, enabling The Sot-Weed Factor to be read as a sort of madcap Cooke origin story. If you enjoy the eighteenth-century works Barth is spoofing, the novel is a wild ride and a virtuosic parody, although it’s hard to deny that a deliberate effort to be abstruse underlines the whole project; Barth often joked that his central motivation in conceiving The Sot-Weed Factor was to write a book “fat enough so that its publishers could print its title comfortably across the book’s spine rather than down it,” although, presumably to his grave disappointment, later editions of the book were printed vertically anyway.

Initially, like Barth’s first two traditionally realist novels The Floating Opera (1956) and The End of the Road (1958), The Sot-Weed Factor generated positive reviews but paltry sales. However, it started to acquire a word-of-mouth reputation, and after a paperback edition was printed in 1964 it shocked the publisher by selling twenty thousand copies. When Barth’s truly bizarro follow-up, Giles Goat-Boy, came out in 1966—this time the conceit was to transpose the twenty-two stages of Lord Raglan’s “mythic hero” archetype to a university setting, the protagonist a half-man, half-goat figure immaculately conceived by a campus mainframe computer who seeks to redeem the universal “student body”—it became a surprise New York Times bestseller, finding resonance perhaps within the era’s widespread campus movements. Barth’s reputation was cemented after 1968’s landmark collection Lost in the Funhouse, whose metafictional gestures and mixed-media experimentation—one story features instructions to be excised with scissors and assembled into a Moebius strip; others to be read in tandem with tape recordings Barth wanted shipped alongside the book—left critics scrambling to unpack Barth’s agenda and to define what, precisely, about his style seemed like such a clear break with experimental literature of the past.

Debates about self-reflexivity are perhaps, at a deeper level, really about the incentive structures governing postwar American creative life. 

Among contemporaries, it was largely taken for granted that Barth’s books represented a rupture with the modernist novel—in particular, with what Perry Anderson has described as its emphasis on “the primacy of immediate perception.” Nowhere in Barth’s 1960s fiction was there an effort to represent a believable character in a mimetic setting resembling contemporary life; he proudly restricted himself to reference and simulacra, pastiche and roleplay. As for his revival of the historical novel—which, in its pre-modernist form, according to György Lukács, staged dialectical conflict between competing social forces as a means of dramatizing history’s progressive thrust—Barth seemed to be thumbing his nose. The historical impulse in Barth’s fiction was thoroughly deconstructivist, encouraging readers to reflect critically on the extent to which received history is always a fabrication, unintelligible except as a pageant of self-justifying discourses. (“Clio was already a scarred and crafty trollop when the Author found her,” proclaims the narrator in The Sot-Weed Factor’s epilogue, referring scurrilously to history’s muse.) Features like this were hallmarks of a style coalescing across literature that didn’t yet have a name but which critics took to calling the “new novel,” the “antinovel,” and, eventually, the “postmodern” novel; whatever your preferred nomenclature, The Sot-Weed Factor was one of its earliest iterations.

In a critical environment that hadn’t yet shed the modernist habitus of viewing literature as an unfolding sequence of heroic aesthetic innovations, this should’ve qualified Barth as a nonpareil talent—and, in certain quarters, he was received as one. The Times review of Giles Goat-Boy went so far as to label Barth “the best writer of fiction we have at present, and one of the best we have ever had,” while 1976’s MLA International Bibliography, an annual round-up of peer-reviewed academic articles, lists more entries for Barth than any other living writer. Meanwhile, his increasingly public role as an essayist and speaker—Barth made a point of traveling monthly during the academic year to MFA programs across America, giving packed lectures about the “new novel” alongside performances of his works for tape (in his 1984 essay collection, The Friday Book, he’d boast that “the sovereign states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah . . . are the only ones in which I have yet to set lectorial foot”)—turned him into America’s foremost exemplar of a new breed, the star creative writing professor.

Yet there was always a current of unease surrounding Barth’s status; even many of his champions found something slightly off-putting about his work. Tony Tanner, who devoted an entire chapter to Barth in his 1971 study City of Words, described him tellingly in Partisan Review as a “computer-author,” capable of channeling a vast amount of information into intricate satires, but not necessarily of conveying anything in them beyond his own mental powers. This echoes a more scathing criticism Gore Vidal would deliver in a 1976 omnibus review of works by Barthelme, Pynchon, Gass, and Barth for the New York Review of Books, which compared their writing to the U.S. plastics industry and labeled Barth a “Research and Development” author, attempting misguidedly to

come up with some brand new Henry Ford-type invention that will prove to be a breakthrough in world fiction. . . . Barth is exactly the sort of writer our departments of English were bound, sooner or later, to produce. . . . 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.

Vidal’s “R&D fiction” coinage encapsulates a common critique of postmodernism’s supposedly ouroboros-like nature, written not to move readers’ hearts but to generate a self-perpetuating loop of eggheaded academic analysis. In most other respects, his takedown reads as a cantankerous settling of scores—Vidal goes out of his way to emphasize he knows more about eighteenth-century novels than Barth—but it does distil one critical point about literary postmodernism in America that often goes unremarked upon: its deep entanglement with the postwar institutionalization of creative writing. The definitive book on the subject is Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, which points out that nearly all the postmodern iconoclasts—Pynchon being the exception who proves the rule—were, at one point or another, salaried instructors in an MFA program. Barth himself enrolled in one of the nation’s first undergraduate writing programs during his junior year at Johns Hopkins in 1950; he’d finish his bachelor’s, master’s, and half a doctorate there before leaving to teach at Penn State and SUNY Buffalo, only to return in the wake of Giles Goat-Boy’s success and remain until his retirement in 1995.

McGurl’s Program Era framing helps broaden the perspective around the Barth backlash, highlighting the extent to which self-reflexivity was not some pernicious creation emanating from Baltimore, as Wallace’s “Westward” allegory has it, but instead the prevailing literary paradigm during an era in which, as McGurl writes, “every work of serious fiction . . . is, on one level, a portrait of the artist.” McGurl characterizes this as the “autopoetics” of America’s literary discourse network, reflecting a broader society-wide imperative toward self-observation and self-staging in the emerging postwar information economy, the navigation of which requires “individuals who understand themselves to be living, not lives simply, but life stories of which they are the protagonists.” Collegiate creative writing fills an obvious programmatic role under such a paradigm, and its instructors are subject to the same mandates as any knowledge worker laboring under a regime of “reflexive accumulation”—postmodernity’s answer to modernity’s famous “logic of differentiation”—which is to submit one’s craft to rigorous self-monitoring and analysis in order to pursue innovation in formal, stylistic, or technical terms. One byproduct of such a system is an aesthetic of involuted self-referentiality of the sort exemplified as much by Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” as Wallace’s supposed renunciation of it in “Westward”—stories that, while pedagogically deconstructing on a “meta” level the very narrative conventions they’re employing, also function to fashion authorial origin stories and elaborate a series of thematic concerns that will be revisited across the authors’ careers (in Wallace’s case a torturously ambivalent relationship to “sincerity,” and in Barth’s an ever-more-involuted treatment of the “funhouse mirror room” metaphor, which renders his novels after the 1970s a bit of a slog for any but the most devoted fans).

The centrality of the “autopoetic thematization of authorship” as a defining motif of postwar fiction doesn’t merely characterize the aesthetic formation commonly referred to as postmodernism, but holds true across the entire literary landscape, from author-as-protagonist novels like Philip Roth’s Zuckerman saga to the thinly fictionalized coming-of-age workshop collection epitomized by Sandra Cisneros or Tim O’Brien’s debuts—all the way to our contemporary crop of autofictionists such as Sheila Heti or Ben Lerner, who engender the same species of nervous hand-wringing that Barth’s self-referential fictions did in their time, suggesting the extent to which such debates about self-reflexivity are perhaps, at a deeper level, really about the incentive structures governing postwar American creative life. For our purposes, appraising Barth separately from the moralistic trappings surrounding the term postmodernism might enable his work to be put into conversation with other broad impulses across postwar literature, from the polymorphous perversity of Nicholson Baker or Mary Gaitskill to the amiably maximalist logorrhea of Lucy Ellmann or Norman Rush.

But we’re still left with the question of the novel’s social function—whether only works of fiction that are “penetrative,” that seek to elicit a species of perspective-broadening sympathy within their readers, are fulfilling literature’s proper role and responsibility. The answer hinges, to a certain extent, on whether one subscribes to a liberal aesthetic program that maintains faith in the weighty, empathy-generating power authors wield to redeem our solipsistic epoch. This isn’t a perspective shared by Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, at the root of which lies an earthy, self-deprecating joke about the sordidness of all authorial pretensions. After Ebenezer publishes his denunciatory poem to scant acclaim, he puts aside his literary ambitions and settles down to the boring life of a tobacco planter in tidewater Maryland, where in 1732 he expires, enjoying the distinction, at least, of having been the colony’s first and only poet laureate. “To the best of the Author’s knowledge,” read the final lines of the book, “[Maryland’s] marshes have spawned no poet since Ebenezer Cooke, Gentleman, Poet and Laureate of the Province.” The joke, of course, is that the bawdy, bewildering, maximalist reimagining of Ebenezer’s life in the form of the giant novel we’ve just finished positions Barth as the sole true heir to Ebenezer’s concocted title, which is not exactly a noble distinction—a portrait of the artist as a virginal, provincial, status-seeking hack, deluded by visions of grandeur and given to penning couplets with the same knuckly hand that . . . well, you get the point. Writers, they’re just like us.