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."