existential primer

John Simmons Barth
absurd fiction about fiction

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It would seem difficult to be taken seriously when your works include a novel about “Goat-Boy” — a name conjuring images of Saturday Night Live skits. John Simmons Barth utilizes unconventional techniques to communicate philosophical and moral dilemmas. Barth was noticeably influenced by Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett.

Barth is best known for stories that include lengthy discourses on writing. He has even had the story itself as the narrator, which is either brilliant or ridiculous (maybe both) depending on which critic you believe. As you read about Barth, consider the role of higher education in his life and novels. Even his novels try to teach how novels are written.

A search through reviews reveals most literary critics consider Barth both a writer and theoretician, an expert “postmodern” artist and academic. His self-definition is more to the point: “concocter of comic novels.” Granted, Barth’s “comic” style is complex, demanding, and certainly not the stuff of mass market fiction. The reader, the writer, and the story can seem like characters in the universe of Barth. Light reading, Barth is not.

Revising Never Ends, Nor Should It…

Do not use this site as a study guide. The Existential Primer is a “living” academic project, unlike a static text. This primer is only a shallow introduction to the thinkers profiled. The incomplete nature of this website might result in misunderstanding the profiled individuals. These pages are revised often because scholarship is never ending. Consult any citations included because within them is where you will find the experts. Read their works!

NOTE: Citations are not in MLA or APA format to prevent “borrowing” from The Existential Primer. Full lists of citations appear at the end of each page. Present tense is used when referencing a published work, while past tense is favored on these pages because the major figures are… dead. Inline citations take the form (Author p. page) with no year. A title is included if there might be confusion as to the work. Quoted long passages appear indented with the <blockquote> tag and cited in the format:

Work; Author, p. Page


John Simmons Barth was born in Cambridge, Maryland, on 27 May 1930.

Barth dreamed of becoming a jazz composer, attending the Juilliard School of Music in New York. He was skilled, but decided he was not as naturally talented as many of his classmates. According to Barth, he “went home to think of some other way to become distinguished.”

His new path took him to Johns Hopkins University. While an undergraduate at the university, Barth had a part-time job filing books in the Classics Department and the stacks of the Oriental seminary. Surrounded by books, the young Barth became enchanted with the tenth-century Sanskrit Ocean of Story and Sir Richard Burton’s annotated Arabian Nights.

These two classics were extremely important in the development of Barth’s literary style. These works are sometimes called “frame-tales” because stories exist within other stories. A single “master tale” contains all other stories. In the Arabian Nights Barth found the example of Scheherazade, a woman escaping execution through creativity. She tells a tell each night to her misogynist ruler, who finds her tales captivating. Barth drew on this example as he experimented with writing self-reflexive fiction. As he reasoned in The Friday Book:

We tell stories and listen to them because we live stories and live in them. Narrative equals language equals life: To cease to narrate … is to die. … If this is true, then not only is all fiction fiction about fiction, but all fiction about fiction is in fact fiction about life.

Barth received his master’s degree in 1952 from Johns Hopkins University, only a year after completing his undergraduate studies. As with many writers, Barth would initially support himself teaching, while remaining committed to writing. One reason Barth was readily accepted in America, while other experimental writers were not, was Barth’s link to academia. As an English and Literature professor at Pennsylvania State University, State University of New York at Buffalo, and John Hopkins University, Barth was embraced by his American peers before the French existentialists who influenced his work.

His career as a novelist started with acclaim. Barth's first novel, The Floating Opera, was second-runner-up for the National Book Award in 1956. Lost in the Funhouse was nominated for the same award in 1968. Both were considered major postmodern works and remain influential.

The label of “academic writer” is much like that of “literary author” — it places one clearly outside the mass market. Granted, there is a certain snobbery in academic circles that values such labels and disdains extreme financial success as an author. Within the insular literary world, writing about writing (or teaching or reading…) is an established norm. Barth has even told interviewers that his works are all about education. Writing in Harper’s Barth admitted:

There is chalk dust on the sleeve of my soul. ... I have never been away from classrooms for longer than a few months. ... I believe I know my strengths and limitations as a teacher the way I know them as a writer: doubtful of my accomplishments in both metiers, I am not doubtful at all that they are my metiers, for good or ill.

However, the influence of jazz also remains essential to the nature of Barth as a writer. He wrote in The Friday Book:

[My] chief pleasure is to take a received melody — an old narrative poem, a classical myth, a shopworn literary convention… — and, improvising like a jazzman within its constraints, reorchestrating it to its present purpose.

For the novel Chimera, Barth finally received the National Book Award for fiction in 1973.

Dedicated Fans

Barth’s readers include a dedicated fan base. The Society for the Celebration of Barthomania honors Barth each year, on the author’s birthday. Barth told the Washington Post that, despite the support of such loyal readers, critics always ensured a reality check.

Fortunately for the size of one’s ego, there are always at least as many critics telling you to go back to [the] marsh and stick your head in it.

Barth told Israel Shenker, writing for the New York Times Book Review:

Maybe when I’m 90 I’ll be as grave as Sophocles at 90. More likely, Zeus willing, I'll be writing comedy in my 80's as Thomas Mann did, and die laughing.

1930 May 27 Born in Cambridge, Maryland, to John Jacob and Georgia Barth.
1950 January 11 Marries Harriette Anne Strickland.
1952 M.A. from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, only a year after receiving an A.B.
1953–1956 English instructor at Pennsylvania State University.
1956 Nominated for National Book Award for The Floating Opera.
1957–1960 Assistant professor of English at Penn State.
1960–1965 Associate professor of English at Penn State.
1965–1973 Professor of English at State University of New York at Buffalo.
1968 Second National Book Award Nomination, this time for Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice.
1969 Divorces Anne Strickland.
1970 December 27 Marries Shelly Rosenberg, a teacher.
1973 Returns to Johns Hopkins, as professor of English.
1973 Receives U.S. National Book Award for Chimera.
1990 Retires as professor emeritus from Johns Hopkins.
1997 F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for outstanding achievement in American literature.
1998 Receives the PEN/Malamud Award.



I admit that I find Barth amusing and sometimes funny, but I am not sure what to make of his writings. He approaches literature in a manner parallel to absurdist theatre: he tears down the “fourth wall” between writer and reader, invading the fiction with asides on writing.

Since my scripts have done this, with the cast of characters including the director of the play, I find it difficult to declare the method a good technique for theatre and a terrible sin in fiction. But, I also find myself wanting fiction to follow the rules I understand as a reader. I sympathize with theatre audiences, though I am careful to use some techniques only to mock theatre snobs.

Is Barth mocking academic analyses of texts? Is he creating a parody or even satire? Exactly what is it that this writer of writing stories wants us to recognize? I am going to offer few useful insights in the comments I make, while also trying not to summarize any of the stories — that would probably be a futile exercise. Barth’s is an art that must be experienced, not explained.

From 1960 through 1980, many of Barth’s works contained internal critiques of themselves, making the novels difficult for many readers to decipher. In 1967, Barth explained his literary approach in “The Literature of Exhaustion,” an essay for the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Barth argued that literature was a confrontation between the writer and all past literary techniques.

Consider some of the general comments on the works of Barth.

[Barth has attained] a madcap eminence (and occasional odium) for huge and bawdy intellectual fables, philosophical vaudeville, [and] rococo parodies of antique literary forms.
Washington Post; Curt Suplee

[I]n his fascinated commitment to the art — and to the criticism — of storytelling, he has no rival.
New York Times Book Review; William Pritchard

General Themes in Barth’s Works

I include Barth in The Existential Primer because his characters (including his narrators) are primarily on quests of self-definition. The works might be called “postmodern” or existential, and I am not going to claim to be the ultimate authority in literary categorization.

As with much modern fiction, the protagonists in Barth are not necessarily heroic, though some are heroic in the sense of Albert Camus’ Sisyphus. Barth’s heroes are engaged in a search for meaning, a justification for life. There seems to be a tension between the relativism of postmodern thought and a desire for a defined, rational ethics. Issues of virtue and character are intertwined among word games, time shifts, and other experimental literary techniques.

Writing about Writing

One of the complaints about Barth’s works is that he often spends as much time writing about writing as he does telling a story. How the story is told becomes a primary concern, which can distract readers and, sometimes, the author. The construction of sentences, paragraphs, and chapters becomes a struggle for the character-narrators in some stories, as if the battle with words supercedes all other concerns.

Even commenting on half of Barth’s works, one is left repeating what has been said before. Barth writes about academics telling stories. By On With the Story (1996) even some friendly critics were wanting something more than a collection of stories told by middle-aged academics. Publishers Weekly has described Barth’s writing on writing as “self-indulgent” in his later works.

The Floating Opera (1956)

The “problem of nihilism” is a recurring theme in existential works. If every choice and value is individual, what limits our behaviors?

Barth’s early novels deal with, in his words, “the problem of nihilism.” Many critics of existentialism, including Albert Camus, have wondered about the inherent nihilism found in twentieth century existentialism. Barth, like Camus and Dostoevsky, turned to fiction to explore the motivations of anarchists and nihilists.

Via the narrator Todd Andrews, Barth explored extreme relativism in The Floating Opera. Andrews comes to the realization that if all things are relative, with no moral or even perceptual absolutes, reality becomes a personal vision — one option from numerous possible ways to experience life. Identity becomes unknowable, uncertain, and the individual is disoriented. Barth does emphasize there are factual absolutes, however; Andrews has a life-threatening heart condition. Martin Heidegger suggested being mortal gave life purpose — even a sense of urgency. Andrews is confronted with living.

The novel is, to be kind, complex. It is meant to be absurd, and it succeeds at that. The story takes readers from the literal horror of the front lines of World War I to the horror of law offices and legal disputes. Andrews manages to find himself living, while on the path towards suicide.

The WWI scenes have received some attention from critics for the honest brutality. Andrews kills a German soldier, using his bayonet. The scene is bloody, raw, and disturbing. The use of war to illustrate absurdity still seemed somewhat original in 1956, even though it had been done for centuries. There was something different about the novels exploring the wars of the twentieth century, though. Barth captures the violence in a frank, first-person narration.

It is the complicated legal dispute, complete with seventeen wills and 129 jars of human excrement, that somehow marks the essence of The Floating Opera. Forget the adultery, the war, and suicidal thoughts. The legal dispute says more about modern life and philosophy than the other digressions.

Throughout much of the novel Andrews debates how to tell the story. He wonders about sentences, subjects, verbs, and the basic mechanics of writing.

The End of the Road (Novel, 1958; Film, 1970)

Barth attempted to explain The End of the Road in an interview with Frank Gado, published in First Person: Conversations on Writers and Writing. According to Barth, the novel

would begin with the conclusion of the first as its premise but come to completely different conclusions — horrifying conclusions, where people who shouldn’t die do die, where people are destroyed by their own and other people’s ideas.

No, this is not an uplifting work revealing the meaning of life. This is a dark comedy, in the classical sense. Human folly leads to disaster. The novel’s protagonist is Jacob Horner, is in a battle of wits against Joe Morgan — a radical “existentialist” of sorts, a cruel distortion of Nietzschean ethics, according to some critics. Commentaries on the story tend to highlight the “evil” of relativism and the “will to power” in the novel.

Morgan is direct, humorless, and sure of himself. He considers himself completely rational, within an absurd existence. He intentionally introduces his wife, Rennie, to Horner. Though she is easily manipulated and emotionally immature, Horner ends up sleeping with Rennie. The ethical dilemma in the story is Rennie’s pregnancy; the child could be Morgan’s or Horner’s.

Rennie dies a horrible death during an abortion. One has to read the novel to understand the sudden shift in the style of the story. Barth goes from a comedic, almost mocking tone, to a dark, brooding, even sad and disillusioned tone. The book is about the destruction, literally, of a human being.

Some commentaries dwell on the role of Doctor D as an “extremist, therapist, and abortionist.” These commentaries insist Doctor D acts the most directly, manipulating other, weaker characters, doing the most actual harm to both Horner and his lover.

The Sot-Weed Factor (1960)

I have never managed to finish The Sot-Weed Factor. Apparently, I am not alone. It is a mock epic, dealing with the rise and fall of a seventeenth-century poet, Ebenezer Cooke. The poet is an idealist, an innocent who dedicates his life to purity of purpose. After swearing to remain a virgin, he ends up having to consummate a marriage to a prostitute in order to regain control of his family estate.

The story is set in historic Maryland, a nod to Barth’s personal ties to the region. But this is not historical fiction. In fact, it aims to illustrate how history is a fiction, created by the winners. Honestly, it is seldom clear what the “reality” is within the pages of The Sot-Weed Factor.

Giles, Goat-Boy; or, The Revised New Syllabus (1966)

Joseph Campbell asserted that mythologies share common elements across cultures. The field of comparative mythology, much of which is grounded in Campbell’s works, was the inspiration for Giles, Goat Boy. Barth spent a great deal of time immersed in mythology, a field that had captured his interest while working in libraries at Johns Hopkins as an undergraduate. Stories did seem to follow specific patterns, with ritual heroes experiencing specific challenges.

George Giles was based on the notion of an archetypical hero. As with other mythological heroes, Giles was to descend into an underworld, conquer his fears, and achieve a form of immortality. The action takes place within the University. Consider this as the forerunner to The Matrix: a computer controls the University, determining who will pass or fail.

One must suspend all disbelief to accept the premise of this novel. Barth’s protagonist is George Giles, but he was raised as Billy Bockfuss — a goat. Giles is on a journey, as in most myths, to be a savior of his people: The Grand Tutor.

“The Literature of Exhaustion” (Essay, 1967)

“The Literature of Exhaustion” was published in 1967 in the Atlantic. This essay is considered one of the most important studies of the novel form composed during the twentieth century. The essay, meant to explain the novel form and its need to change in order to thrive, turned out to be as complex as a Barth novel. Barth eventually composed another essay, “The Literature of Replenishment,” to correct what he viewed as misreadings of “The Literature of Exhaustion.”

Somehow, it is fitting that what Barth intended as a simple argument was a confounding essay — and popular in literary circles. Maybe this is a greater statement about the division between book consumers and what is being composed by the most honored writers. Maybe pulp fiction is not ideal, but you do need a willing audience for literature to thrive.

Barth viewed the essay as a call to revive the novel in the face of “exhaustion” in the form. He proposed solutions, not a death knell for the novel.

[“The Literature of Exhaustion”] was really about … the effective ‘exhaustion’ not of language or literature, but of the aesthetic of high modernism: that admirable, not-to-be-repudiated, but essentially completed “program”
The Literature of Replenishment

Barth believed his generation had not produced a work that would move the genre ahead. There were some experimental authors trying new things, as a result, that were not reproductions of the familiar forms.

[A] few people — like Beckett and the Argentinian, Borges, and Nabokov, for example — have been able to turn this ultimacy against itself in order to produce new work.
— Barth, quoted in New York Times Book Review; Phyllis Meras

For Barth, the shift is to a postmodern form, a self-aware novel. Unfortunately, this is a risky venture, sometimes getting in the way of good storytelling.

Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice (Collection, 1968)

I have read Lost in the Funhouse as an undergraduate, a master’s student, and a doctoral student. This means three different universities, three different specialties, and two decades of time were linked by one collection of stories. The obvious conclusion: Lost in the Funhouse has influenced at least two generations of writers and writing instructors.

Though packaged as a collection, Lost in the Funhouse is more like a single, unified work. One story might comment on another, unifying patterns emerge, and the reader is almost compelled to find out what Barth will do next. As with Barth’s other works, Lost in the Funhouse is a story about storytelling.

Chimera (Three Novellas, 1972)

While Chimera is a collection like Lost in the Funhouse, the three novellas seem more traditional. It might well be that relying on myths for inspiration helps organize the work, making it more decipherable. Barth might do his best work when drawing from mythology.

The heroes we meet include Bellerophon, Dunyazade, and Perseus. It is likely many readers will only recognize Perseus without explanation. However, it is possible that the tales of the first two are more interesting from a philosophical perspective.

Bellerophon must learn that it is not possible to become a hero by imitating past heroes. One has to ask if you can be a novelist by imitating storytellers from the past; it is unclear how Barth might address this paradox. How original must one be? Then again, Barth seems to prize irony and paradox.

The Arabian Nights are well known, especially the character-narrator Scheherazade. Barth introduces readers to Dunyazade, the sister who has been an observer to the tales, as well as to the abuse of a tyrant. Is Dunyazade a storyteller? Can she be more than what her sister has been?

The story of Perseus deals with self-awareness and authenticity. Walking through his temple, which spirals in the shape of a nautilus shell, Perseus is presented with scenes from his life. To move ahead, Perseus must confront his past.

When the chambered nautilus adds a new chamber to itself, that chamber is determined somewhat by its predecessors, but it’s where the beast is living presently, and he’s a larger animal for it.
— Barth, in Caliban

Barth has suggested this is precisely how he sees his works: one structure, building on itself. This could be as interesting as Monet’s Water Lilies, an experiment in learning how best to depict a subject. Chimera received a National Book Award, indicating the literary elite still viewed Barth as new and exciting; three decades later he would still be depicting the same scenes in different lighting. But, more often, this leaves Barth trapped by his own games.

Sabbatical: A Romance (1982)

Sabbatical: A Romance is something of a relief for many readers. The text is more “realistic” than previous works; it takes fewer detours into the authorial mind. Once again we have protagonists-narrators telling the story, but this is more story (even though the work is thinner than previous Barth novels).

On a sabbatical, Fenwick Turner and Susan Seckler cruise to the Caribbean, and then return to the Chesapeake Bay. Somehow this cruise leads to various mysteries and questions. Did the CIA murder Fenwick’s twin brother? Does anything make sense? According to several reviews, the book was inspired (very loosely) by the mysterious death of ex-CIA official John Paisley, whose corpse was found near Barth’s “home waters” in 1978. In fact, roughly 20 pages of stories on Paisly and the CIA from The Baltimore Sun are used in novel.

Sabbatical is a familiar Barth novel, if somewhat more restrained than his previous efforts. Though there are fewer digressions into how stories are written, Turner and Seckler do spend a fair amount of time discussing (arguing) how their story should be told. At least the book is more realistic, closer to most contemporary fiction. Yet, it still seems obsessed at times with its own nature as a story.

As with The End of the Road, the issue of abortion enters the story. Seckler debates the merits of bringing children into an unstable world. She eventually aborts twins.

The Tidewater Tales (1987)

The Tidewater Tales is a parallel novel, something of a twin, to Sabbatical. We encounter another married couple, in roughly the same waters, pondering many of the same life issues.

Unlike the female narrator of Sabbatical, Katharine Sagamore happily carries and delivers twins. Unlike Susan Seckler, who is something of a pessimistic academic, Sagamore realizes the world is unstable but has much less inner turmoil about motherhood. It might be unwittingly, but Barth makes interesting points about the academic class. From different last names to their lack of hope, the couple in Sabbatical is the epitome of the educated elite. The Sagamores, by contrast, seem somewhat better adjusted to the world.

As in Sabbatical, Barth presents the “real world” moving headlong towards disaster, while retelling various myths. As the Sagamores travel, connections are made to Huck Finn, Don Quixote, Odysseus, and Scheherazade — among others. Barth uses these classics, trying to modernize the myths. Critics are divided as to the effectiveness of the borrowing from classics. As with Giles, Goat Boy, Barth positions his characters in predicaments to test them.

The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991)

After three decades, it was clear Barth was either incapable or unwilling to break from his comfortable routines. Readers, including critics, do risk wanting or even demanding the comfortable from a writer; maybe Barth was a victim of his success. The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor is yet another novel with a self-absorbed, often annoying, protagonist. And, yes, we return to water.

Readers are guided through the Chesapeake Bay, while Barth continues to indulge his passion for classic tales. A Thousand and One Nights serves as a framework for The Last Voyage.

Readers in search of authentic, original reality had better go elsewhere; they will not be happy in this ingenious multi-story fiction in which every floor turns out to be another false bottom.
New York Times Book Review; Jonathan Raban

The Friday Book and Further Fridays:
Essays, Lectures, and Other Nonfiction, 1984–1994

According to Barth, he devotes Fridays to writing non-fiction. Of course, his non-fiction is generally writing about writing, with the random tangent of a story tossed into the mix. The Friday Book gathered some of Barth’s non-fiction essays, mainly on issues of literary theory, creative writing, and a few tributes to those who influenced his writing and life.

The work is an interesting exploration of Barth’s motives and intentions; it is also a work by Barth. It is more organized than his novels, sometimes presenting lectures on postmodernism that are extremely insightful. Yet, there are still tangents in some essays, proving the author is at least authentic to his impulses.

Once upon a Time: A Floating Opera (1994)

Barth has moments of brilliance, and has created new literary techniques. His influence is extensive. However, I cannot resist considering Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, the first volumes of which were published in 1759. The work eventually reached nine volumes. Tristram Shandy is narrator, critic, and subject of the work. Sterne was ahead of his time; Barth is curiously representative of his.

Martin Amis’ Money: A Suicide Note, appeared in 1985. A decade later, Barth adopted some of same techniques for Once upon a Time: A Floating Opera. In Money, a fictional Martin Amis is the main character; Once upon a Time is purported to be the work of fictional author John Barth. Maybe Barth gave no thought to Amis’ work or similar authorial conceits. By comparison, Amis created an interesting Amis while Barth’s twin is simply more of the familiar, possibly tired, Barth technique.

Once upon a Time is the “bookend” of 12 volumes, paired with The Floating Opera. This “final novel” of John Barth is a study of the autobiographical form and general narrative theory. The work is meant to be considered a completion of Barth, though it marks the midpoint of the real Barth’s career.

Coming Soon!!! A Narrative (2001)

A novelist writing his last work, a writing student pondering a digital future, and Barth’s theorizing create the unusual novel Coming Soon!!! Though Barth is in comfortably familiar territory, Coming Soon manages to be more interesting than what Barth had written in the previous decade. It is a refreshing break, returning Barth to the role of futurist he had occupied in the late 1960s.

The writing student, desperate to enter a graduate program (as many writers are), believes the future of writing is digital. The world of interactive fiction (IF), familiar to many early residents of the Internet, is viewed as the coming form of novels. Unfortunately, the student might see the future, but he also resorts to stealing (“borrowing”) the words of his mentor. Now, with Creative Commons and Public Licenses gaining popularity, the question of what is an original work is a real, complicated question. The questions posed by Barth in 2001 are still relevant to writers.

The Book of Ten Nights and a Night: Eleven Stories (2004)

Most of the text of The Book of Ten Nights and a Night: Eleven Stories comes from previously published works. The book includes an introduction and additional intervening comments written after the terrorists attacks on New York City of 11 September 2001. In interviews, Barth has suggested he considered not completing the collection following “9/11.” Eventually, he decided to finish the work, which explains why it appeared in 2004.

The collection, as with most of Barth’s works, received mixed reviews. While even harsh critics commented on moments of brilliance in the text, the work was generally considered lacking passion. Maybe events around Barth were reinforcing the absurdity of the universe a bit too well.

Where Three Roads Meet (2005)

If I were to recommend only two works by Barth, I would suggest Lost in the Funhouse and Where Three Roads Meet. I realize these are not the critically acclaimed Chimera or the two Floating Operas, but I imagine these works surviving the test of time. The novellas in Where Three Roads Meet represent what Barth’s techniques can accomplish.

“As I Was Saying” manages to mock academia, writers, and even Barth himself. This is a joke all Barth readers can enjoy. The text of the story shifts time, goes astray several times, and eventually tries to tell the intended story. Reading this one work reveals the power of postmodernism when it is done well.


Quotes to come...


Fogel, Stanley. Understanding John Barth, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1990.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volumes 2 and 227: American Novelists since World War II, 1978, sixth series, 2000.

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