Ezra Pound’s exhortation to “make it new” has proved to be one of the most destructive aesthetic formulae ever to come along. Had he had an inkling of what grotesque lengths his successors would resort to in their feverish quest to make it new and ever newer, he might have hesitated, for Pound was no disrespecter of literary traditions.

And while Pound, Eliot, and Joyce certainly set out to revolutionize Western literature, it is doubtful whether they meant to end it. Yet for the better part of a century, the experience of reading the great modernists has had a paralyzing or deleterious effect on younger writers. After Finnegans Wake, what next? In a well-known 1967 essay in The Atlantic, John Barth coined a term which still has resonance: “The Literature of Exhaustion.” Joyce and the other major modernists, he wrote, had given future writers nowhere to go. There seemed no way to make literature more innovative, newer, more “modern.” There seemed no way now to astonish, at least not to the extent that the modern masters had astonished.

As a result we have witnessed a century-long effort by the highbrow and the would-be avant-garde toward a state of permanent revolution. In the hands of second- and third-rate talents, the quest for innovation at any cost has produced results that can be seen as depressing or laughable, depending on your mood. Unfortunately, a few genuinely gifted writers (and artists) have fallen victim to the same delusion. Among these, one of the most notable is John Barth himself, who in a thirty-year career has evolved from a mannered but prolifically talented author to a self-indulgent windbag, a stuck record repeating the same notes ad nauseam, in book after book after book.

As Barth never allows his readers to forget, his muse, or model, is Scheherazade. He has declared the conceit of the tale-teller telling stories for her very life to be the ruling metaphor for his identity as an artist. “Narrative equals language equals life: To cease to narrate … is to die.” From a metaphorical point of view this is acceptable—maybe; but as the years go on Barth, always an encyclopedic, repetitive, and lavish writer, has apparently come to take it literally. “About my fiction,” he has offered, “my friend John Hawkes once said that it seems spun out of nothingness, simply so that there should not be silence.” This is a charge Barth accepts with no small degree of satisfaction, even going so far as to dub the phenomenon “Scheherazade’s terror.”

This particular wellspring of creative activity would seem to offer more to the author—writing as therapy, perhaps—than to the reader. Writing for the sake of mere writing, writing simply as a means of filling silence or making conversation, would obviously, in the manner of cocktail party chatter, stress style at the expense of substance. And this has indeed proved to be the case. While Barth’s early books—The Floating Opera (1956), The End of the Road (1958), The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), Giles Goat-Boy (1966), and Lost in the Funhouse (1968)— were (if you can excuse the postmodern excesses of extreme and self-conscious narrative complexity, artificiality, and a kind of dogged and not always very funny “playfulness”) interesting pieces of work which displayed almost excessive imaginative powers. However, each book succeeding his novel Sabbatical: A Romance (1982)—Tidewater Tales (1987), The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991), Once Upon a Time (1994), and On with the Story,[1] his latest—has given evidence of an imaginative shriveling, as Barth compulsively plays out minor variations on the themes that obsess him.

“When I was writing Once Upon a Time,” Barth said in an interview, “… I hoped it would be the last go-round, the last riff, the last re-orchestration of some riffs I have been playing for forty years in my fiction, the story of Scheherazade, the sailing quest motif.” If only it had been! For On with the Story is little more than another riff—more tedious, because more familiar and repetitive—on Once Upon a Time’s self-involved musings. It is a novel disguised as stories, in actuality a frame story or story cycle, like Barth’s favorites The Thousand and One Nights and The Decameron. It features a narrator and listener remarkably like Barth and his wife, and, in the individual “stories,” many other characters also remarkably like Barth. Since this is a postmodern work, there is a lot of punning and linguistic playfulness. There is also a lot of sailing and travel, each journey involving some sort of spiritual search. And the narrator, in a variation on the Scheherazade pattern, spins out his stories not to prolong his own life but that of his mate—an illustration of Barth’s pet theory that “narrative equals language equals life: To cease to narrate … is to die.”

So: a happy, compatible couple in late middle age checks into a luxurious tropical hotel—their “last resort.” It appears that she has been diagnosed with a fatal illness. Between meals, tennis, swimming, and sex (and in this book we are treated to a bit more sensitive, middle-aged, married sex than is really quite appetizing), the husband tells stories to the wife in an attempt to postpone The End, narrative equalling life in the Barthian formula.

Unfortunately, Barth is ultimately more interested in narrative than in life. The form of On with the Story is constructed to include the formal structures of narrative itself, and the stories within it are not discrete entities but reflected versions of one another, with characters and motifs jumping their frames from one tale to the next. It is an interesting and sometimes brilliantly executed conceit, and of course Barth is nothing if not intelligent: On with the Story provides the pleasures of a complex puzzle or mathematical proof. But all the life of the book is in its gamesmanship; of passion or of real narrative force there is little, and when such a thing threatens to enter the rarefied atmosphere Barth has established, he is always there with an authorial nudge to remind us that the story is really only an imaginative construct. After all, as he has said elsewhere, literature

is an artifice… . And so far as wanting our readers to forget that they are reading a novel, we [writers like himself] are more inclined (but then, so was Scheherazade, so was Sophocles and so was Shakespeare) to remind the reader from time to time that this is a story… . You’re enthralled, you’re spellbound, if we are doing our work right, but … do not confuse this with reality. Art ain’t life.

Well, duh. Barth has been known to boost his own high intellectualism with subtle putdowns of his fellow-Chesapeakian James Michener, a quintessentially “popular” writer, and to imply that Michener’s readers get so wrapped up in the story as to confuse its fiction with reality. But let’s be serious: even the most benighted Michener enthusiast doesn’t really forget that he is reading a novel; likewise, it is awfully arrogant of Barth to think (if he really does) that his own readers are dumb enough to need the authorial intrusions with which he peppers his novels to remind them of his presence. Every time Barth begins to tell a genuinely compelling tale—and he can do so, when he wants to—he breaks it off, delectatio interruptus, with some first-person digression, as though he can’t bear to allow his readers the unworthy, unintellectual pleasure of losing themselves within a story. But could anyone reading a Barth novel ever forget he is reading a novel, or rather, “literature”? Certainly not with prose like the following, from On with the Story:

Supreme in this category of human constructions to be farewelled—so much so, to this fareweller, as to be virtually a category in itself—was that most supple, versatile, and ubiquitous of humanisms, language: that tool that deconstructs and reconstructs its own constructions; that uses and builds its users and builders as they use, build and build with it. Ta-ta language, la la language, the very diction of veridiction in this valley valedictory. Adieu, addio, adios, et cetera und so weiter; he could no more bear to say good-bye to you than to say to those nearest dearest, in particular the nearest-dearest, so to say, themof: He meant the without-whom-nothing for him to bid farewell to whom must strain the sine qua non of language even unto the sinequanonsense.

This is the work of someone who has fallen so deeply in love with his own voice that fiction is at an end; all that remains is a narcissistic celebration of self. Barth is far more interested in his own cogitations on art and narrative form than he is in any of his characters.

Which means that his characters tend to be uninteresting to the reader as well, and far too often are merely stand-ins for himself. This has been commented upon before, to disingenuous expressions of annoyance from Barth. Autobiographical connection-making is, he says, “finally impertinent. It beggars [the author’s] capacities of invention and transmutation.” In that case, why repeatedly invent and transmute middle-aged, male fiction-writers who are divorced and happily remarried, teach at universities, and enjoy sailing on the Chesapeake Bay? Is the reader supposed to eschew all connections of character with author? Is he not even to be allowed the pleasure of trying to figure out, as with Philip Roth’s novels, which facets of the character are autobiographical and which are not?

“Fiction has always been about fiction,” Barth has said. This is a problematic statement, rather easy for Barth from his lofty position as a postmodern professor of writing and literature to make. Studied in depth, and in context with the entire history of literature, it can indeed be demonstrated that fiction is “about fiction.” Yet I doubt that Chaucer with The Canterbury Tales, or Richardson with Clarissa, or Conrad with Lord Jim, were overwhelmingly conscious, during composition, of writing “about fiction.” Before the modernist movement only a very few great authors, Sterne or Cervantes for instance, demonstrated a Barthian preoccupation with form for its own sake. Yet Barth does not hesitate to make the questionable assertion that fiction that “aspires to become part of the history of fiction is almost always about itself.”

Barth is consciously writing for the ages, and there seems no doubt that he aspires for his own fiction to become part of the history of fiction. Whether it will or not is another story. In my opinion, his later work is likeliest to appeal to the reader who shares Barth’s narcissism and is primarily interested in literature insofar as it reflects his own erudition and displays his ability to pick up references and paradoxes. In On with the Story Barth deplores writers who die too young, such as Keats, and their opposite numbers, those who go “on being and being after one’s pen has gleaned et cetera: not so much a pity as simply pathetic.” Barth is making a fair bid to join the latter category. “The Literature of Exhaustion” is still a meaningful phrase, but thirty years on it seems not so much the genre that is exhausted but the over-taxed powers of innovation in Barth and some of his postmodern contemporaries.

One contemporary who has not worried himself about “making it new” is William Trevor, an artist who gives no evidence of ever having considered whether his genre might or might not be exhausted. In fact the work of writers like Trevor should in itself be sufficient to prove that fiction is very far from being exhausted, and that “experimentation” is a term that covers a lot of territory. Trevor, a writer whom most people would describe as traditional, has made a deeply intelligent comment upon the nature of artistic experiment:

I think all writing is experimental. The very obvious sort of experimental writing is not really more experimental than that of a conventional writer like myself. I experiment all the time but the experiments are hidden. Rather like abstract art: you look at an abstract picture, and then you look at a close-up of a Renaissance painting and find the same abstractions.

This is in its way a revolutionary observation, and should challenge anyone’s false notion that unobtrusive effects are somehow easier for the author to achieve than dramatic ones. Trevor’s extremely unobtrusive writing is, in fact, the finished product of a lifetime’s toil. He is one of the rare serious writers who is not afraid to let his characters’ voices obscure his own; it is a mark both of his skill and his humanity. As for showy postmodern stylistics: “Fashion belongs on a coat-hanger. In literature—in any art—it’s destructive.”

Nevertheless, Trevor, with his delicacy, fine observation, and empathy, is more truly a successor to his compatriot Joyce than is Barth—to the Joyce of Dubliners, at any rate. He has made some highly successful forays into the novel form, including The Old Boys (1964), The Children of Dynmouth (1977), and last year’s Felicia’s Journey, but Trevor affirms, “I am a short story writer, I believe, who also happens to write novels, not the other way around.” The publication of his collected stories by Penguin in 1993 brought together an important body of work, new to many American readers.

Over the decades Trevor’s fiction has become noticeably less harsh and unpleasant, the misanthropic comedy of The Old Boys mellowing into a detached tone in which pity rather than judgment is the dominant note. Trevor grew up a Protestant in Ireland—not a grand Protestant of the “Ascendancy” but a lower-middle class, “lace-curtain” Protestant—and though he has long since left his native country to live in Dorset and Italy, he has retained the personal sense of being an outsider, “which,” he has said, “I think all writers have to be.”

Whether or not it has anything to do with his outsider status, Trevor’s primary gift is undoubtedly his ability to get inside his characters. His new collection, After Rain is notable for the tremendous variety of characters—various in social class, age, and sex—that Trevor is able to inhabit. Six of the eleven stories in the collection are about women; middle-aged women are something of a specialty with Trevor. Children, an inarticulate potato-dealer, a piece of homosexual rough trade, a couple of thugs are all made emotionally comprehensible; posh Londoners and Irish peasantry, Catholics and Protestants are treated without discrimination. “I have never believed in the axiom that a writer should first and foremost write about what he knows,” he has stated. “I think it’s a piece of misinformation.”

In the title story, Harriet, a thirtyish Englishwoman, makes a sentimental visit after the breakup of a love affair to the Italian pensione she came to with her parents as a child. With expertise, Trevor draws together the parallel strands of her thoughts: she reflects upon her own repeated failures at love while simultaneously being confronted everywhere with early memories of her parents in the years before their unexpected divorce—a reality she still fails to understand, for her family had seemed perfectly happy together.

At the time it didn’t seem unreal or artificial. Their smiling faces didn’t, nor the pleasure they seemed to take in poky French hotels where only the food was good, nor their chattering to one another in the front of the car, their badinage and arguments. Yet retrospect insisted that reality was elsewhere; that reality was surreptitious lunches with two other people, and afternoon rooms, and guile; that reality was a web of lies until one of them found out, it didn’t matter which; that reality was when there had to be something better than what the family offered.

Harriet is finally offered insight into her own personal failures, not in a flash of knowledge but in a fleeting, almost epiphanic moment of beauty.

“The Potato Dealer,” like Trevor’s earlier stories “The Ballroom of Romance” and “The Property of Colette Nervi,” tells of a marriage of convenience in rural Ireland. One of the finest pieces in the collection, it paints a culture of almost inconceivable emotional bleakness; the inhabitants of this world do not seek personal happiness, for it never occurs to them that such a thing might come their way. Only survival and a kind of grim respectability are to be aspired to. Ellie, made pregnant by a visiting curate, is married off by her family to Mulreavy, a middle-aged potato dealer; in return, he will be made heir to the small family farm.

The marriage is never consummated, for the principals look on it purely as a business proposition. “Ellie accepted with equanimity what there was. She lived a little in the past, in the summer of her love affair, expecting of the future only what she knew of the present… . She knew it couldn’t be: a priest was a priest.” Yet by a masterful trick of perspective, Trevor finally works it so that it is not Ellie who most insistently claims the reader’s empathy but the impassive, undemanding Mulreavy, fond of the little child who thinks he is her father and whom Ellie eventually disabuses of that illusion in a passionate but misguided impulse for truth-telling. To Mulreavy’s feelings in the matter she gives no thought. “She mended his clothes, she kept them clean. She assisted him in the fields, she made his bed. In all the time she’d known him she had never wondered about him.” If many of Trevor’s stories recall Joyce’s, this one carries a far stronger whiff of Thomas Hardy.

Perhaps the most harrowing story in the collection is “A Day.” The day in question is an uneventful July one, in the life of Mrs. Lethwes, an upper-middle-class woman in her mid-forties who goes about her quotidian tasks of shopping, cooking, and supervising the maid and gardener while her husband is at the office. As her reflections develop, it becomes evident that her feelings of malaise and uselessness stem from a real despair at her childless state. A few years earlier the Lethwes had thought about adoption; her husband had been eager, but she had balked at taking in an Asian child; now it is too late, and she is inconsolable. Even the discovery that her husband is in love with a female colleague means nothing to her save giving her the improbable hope that the two will have an illegitimate child that might somehow, magically, be passed on to her. As the day progresses, Mrs. Lethwes drinks herself into unconsciousness. Trevor has made this banal but desperate woman tragic; even more impressively, he has, with only a few words, made her husband tragic, too.

The most complex and ambitious story of the collection is “Last Call.” In the apple orchard one day, Milton Leeson, a fifteen-year-old boy from a Protestant farm family, is visited by an odd woman who says that she is Saint Rosa, and kisses him. After a second vision, Milton is increasingly disturbed; he asks advice from his brother-in-law, who is a vicar, then from the local Catholic priest, but each is far more concerned with the political than the spiritual implications: the vicar feels that Milton has been polluted by Papist superstition, while the priest is furious that a holy saint should choose to make herself manifest to a Protestant boy. Matters come to a head during the July celebration, the annual Protestant festival honoring King William’s 1690 victory over the Catholic James II in which local Protestants put all their chauvinism and belligerence on display. Milton finds himself inspired to begin preaching in public places. His parents, appalled, lock him up, and eventually the family settles matters in the tradition of their culture’s exceedingly rough forms of justice.

Another veteran short story writer with a new book out is Tobias Wolff, author of the previous collections In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981) and Back in the World (1985), as well as The Barracks Thief (1985), a novel, and the memoirs This Boy’s Life (1989) and In Pharaoh’s Army (1994). A stylistic traditionalist whose heroes are Hemingway, Cheever, Maupassant, and Anderson, Wolff admits to being a little impatient with postmodern baroque. “I’m not hostile to experimental fiction,” he says, “but there’s a kind of self-indulgence that just doesn’t interest me.” The stories in his new collection, The Night in Question, are stylistically in harmony with the American masters mentioned above, but written with a markedly different socio-economic slant: a significant number of his characters inhabit a Catholic, blue-collar world which Wolff depicts with precision and, often, with poetry. In his treatment of this milieu, and of life in the ranks of the American military, Wolff has few peers. His economical, pointed prose and his sensitivity to emotional nuance make his work consistently worth reading.

The stories in The Night in Question possess all these qualities, but by and large they suffer from inexplicable compositional defects. “The Life of the Body,” for instance, begins with great style and force: Wiley, an unmarried high-school teacher of overweening intellectual confidence and great personal self-control, gets unwontedly drunk at a bar and pesters an attractive woman. The anarchy that Wiley glimpses within himself as a result of this lapse, and the imbalance that the incident continues to bring into his life, form a discrete and quite perfect story. Yet Wolff continues the action almost aimlessly. Wiley’s fibs about the reason for his black eye introduce racial tension into his classroom. He is ministered to by his best friend’s wife; in the course of their conversations, ten years’ history is gone over, so that it becomes evident that Wiley is himself in love with her. These digressions soften the story’s edges. What, then, is the point of them? It almost seems as though “The Life of the Body” started out as a novel, then got abandoned. Otherwise, why all the dropped threads and extraneous themes?

A story with similar problems is “Flyboys,” a meandering narrative about three elementary school boys and their shifting relationships. The boys and their families are established quickly and with skill, but too many characters are introduced and left hanging, too many themes are suggested and not followed up, and the story is never given a proper ending, although several suggest themselves. Again, it would seem that “Flyboys” contains the germ of a novel, subsequently dropped; the same is true of “Two Boys and a Girl,” in which two different stories seem to be competing for space. If Barth takes too seriously Chekhov’s admonition to fire every gun that’s hung on the wall, Wolff doesn’t take it seriously enough.

Nevertheless, there is enough good writing in this collection to make it worthwhile, and some of the stories are neat, unified pieces of work that raise interesting questions of perspective and personality. In “Migraine,” for instance, Wolff creates an unreliable protagonist whose extreme emotional rationalizations are presented from the protagonist’s own point of view, as though they were reasonable. “Smorgasbord” is an offbeat, blackly funny narrative of three prep-school boys on a night out. “The Other Miller” presents a startling vision of the inner life of a man wholly out of touch with his own, intense, feelings. “Casualty” and “Sanity” are two other fine stories in the best tradition of the American short story.

Though Tobias Wolff is not really in the class of William Trevor, the common strengths of these two very different authors demonstrate that, Barth and his dithering notwithstanding, fiction is still alive, “experimental” writing is not an absolute but a question of perspective and attitude, and, most importantly, that pure style—as good and necessary as it undoubtedly is—cannot continue to exist without substance.

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  1. On with the Story: Stories, by John Barth; Little, Brown and Company, 257 pages, $23.95. Go back to the text.
  2. After Rain, by William Trevor; Viking, 213 pages, $22.95. Go back to the text.
  3. The Night in Question: Stories, by Tobias Wolff; Knopf, 211 pages, $23. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 3, on page 51
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