77 North Washington Street

John Barth

MORE than thirty years ago, in August of 1967, an essay by a distinguished thirty-seven-year-old novelist and critic then teaching at the State University of New York at Buffalo appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. The essay was in part an appreciation of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. It was also an unsparing assessment of a number of popular art forms of the time which, the author slyly noted, had a tendency to "eliminate not only the traditional audience ... but also the most traditional notion of the artist." The essay's final section speculated that the triumph of Borges's work might be seen as evidence of the "used-upness" of certain literary forms, the "exhaustion of certain possibilities." The author was John Barth, and the essay was titled "The Literature of Exhaustion."

A dozen years or so later, in an Atlantic piece titled "The Literature of Replenishment," Barth sought to set the record straight about his earlier "much-misread essay." He had not, he insisted, meant to say "that literature, at least fiction, is kaput." Instead, Barth declared, "The simple burden of my essay was that the forms and modes of art live in human history and are therefore subject to used-upness ... in other words, that artistic conventions are liable to be ... deployed against themselves to generate new and lively work."

Some of that "new and lively work" has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, including Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse" (November, 1967) and, more recently, "Stories of Our Lives" (March, 1995) and "Ever After"

Barth is now a professor emeritus in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, his alma mater (B.A., 1951; M.A., 1952), where since 1973 he has helped to direct one of this country's best-known graduate writing programs. He has taught at Penn State University as well as at SUNY, Buffalo. Barth is the author of ten novels and two collections of short fiction. Three of his books have been nominated for National Book Awards; won the prize in 1973. His work has rarely fit easily into any conventional mode, but it has won many admirers among critics, who cite his technical virtuosity, his extensive reading in many disciplines, his wit, and his pervasive concern with aesthetics.

Readers of "Click," the story in this issue, may well wonder whether the narrative form has in Barth's hands been turned on its head -- a concern that no doubt would neither surprise nor dismay the story's author.


Photo by Robert Farber

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1997; 77 North Washington Street; Volume 280, No. 6; page 8.