When a writer has been an important literary presence for as long as John Barth (his first novel was published in 1956), and especially when his work has been as steadfastly unconventional as Barth's, it is no doubt inevitable that such a writer will provoke his share of reactionary, willfully ignorant criticism. In this regard, Ethan Gilsdorf's San Francisco Chronicle review of Barth's new collection of novellas, Where 3 Roads Meet, does not disappoint.
According to Gilsdorf:
When Barth finally gets on with the story and loses the postmodern soft-shoe routine, the "extended interruption-of-an-interruption" in "Tell Me" begins to build an engaging story. In spite of the tangents that get tangled in their own thought processes, the shock ending manages to deliver a punch. The reader is left wondering how much more poignant it could have been were the narrative less afraid to confront sentiment head-on.
A) Barth can't "get on" with his stories without the "postmodern soft-shoe routine" because performing such a routine is precisely his way of telling stories. Asking him to lose his "verbal pyrotechnics" and his "sef-consciousness" ("talking about the telling itself," as Gilsdorf clumsily puts it) is asking him to lose his authorial personality, his reason for telling stories in the first place. If you don't like Barth's approach to the writing of fiction--by which everyone has to agree that stories are all made up in the first place and that reflecting on how stories affect us is a satisfactory substitute for the "suspension of disbelief"--the appropriate response would be to read someone else, someone who won't "frustrate our expectations of conventional narrative," not to ask Barth to become a different kind of writer.
B) Barth doesn't do "poignant." At heart Barth is a comic writer, and all comic writers worth their joke-making will scrupuloulsy avoid the "poignant." The "poignant" is precisely the sort of thing comic fiction attempts to deflate. (And by "comic" here I mean the kind of comedy one finds in, say, Beckett, not in Garrison Keillor.) Neither Barth nor his postmodern colleagues have ever been writers to turn to if what you want is to "confront sentiment head-on." Again, to ask him to do this is to ask him to renounce what has always been an important part of the postmodern mission: to resist reducing fiction to the expression of cheap sentiment. (I know that some current writers, including David Foster Wallace, have wondered whether it is possible to infuse postmodernism with more "sentiment." My answer is "no," but then I don't understand why anyone would even think of blending the two. If you want to write sentimental fiction, just do it.)
Later, Gilsdorf ruminates:
Whether Barth is long lost in his own funhouse of verbal trickery, or is parched from a well of inspiration run dry, it's clear he's not changing. Still, "Where Three Roads Meet" raises useful questions: If a writer insists on (or is obsessed by) returning to the same themes and forms, must his readers remain impressed, or are they permitted to grow irritated? Does the author's knowledge that he's trying the reader's patience permit him to natter on?
"If a writer insists on (or is obsessed by) returning to the same themes and forms"? Well, now, in my reading of Shakespeare, of Dickens, the Romantic poets, Hawthorne, James, Thomas Hardy, Hemingway, Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Yeats--actually of almost all serious writers still worth reading, I seem to find constant return to "the same themes and forms." Am I supposed to have grown "irritated"? Silly me. I just assumed that this was the mark of poets and novelists "obsessed" with the subjects that most interested them, that most strongly provoked their own powers of invention and led them to invest their "forms" with both imagination and authenticity. If I had only known they were just nattering on.