John (Simmons) Barth 1930–
American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
Barth is a major practitioner of the postmodern literary movement known as metafiction. Many of his works may be seen as studies of how fiction is created and how the reader and the text interact. Barth's approach to writing derives from his belief that the traditional novel is unsatisfactory. In his essay "The Literature of Exhaustion" (1967), published in The Atlantic Monthly, he describes the new writer as one who "confronts an intellectual dead end and employs it against itself to accomplish new work."
In his search for new fictional modes, Barth utilizes and parodies traditional forms such as the epic and the epistolary novel. Although the structure of his work varies, there are several common elements: the "protean fictionalizers" or narrators with whom Barth identifies; the black humor, often bawdily overstated; the negative diagnosis of the plight of modern man; the blurring of past and present; and the use of sex as a symbol of human vitality. The settings of Barth's novels range from seventeenth-century Maryland in The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), to a modern-day university in Giles Goat Boy or, the Revised New Syllabus (1966). His main consideration always is how individuals can learn to deal with reality.
Experimentation characterizes all of Barth's work, including his collections of short fiction. Only three of the stories in Lost in the Funhouse (1968) are traditional in form; in the others Barth seeks alternatives to conventional writing and the stories become fantastic creations continually changing shape. In the three novellas of Chimera (1972), Barth makes new use of Arabic, Greek, and Roman mythology to show that myth permeates everyday life.
In his recent novels, Letters (1979) and Sabbatical (1982), Barth again utilizes imaginative techniques. Letters incorporates the main characters from his previous works, adding only one new one who becomes the point where the narrative threads meet. In Sabbatical Barth gives his two main characters more attention and illumination than he has since his early works. Here the metafictional qualities of his work are most apparent, for his two main characters are in the process of writing the book which the reader is reading.
Throughout his career, critics have been divided in their estimations of Barth. While some feel he is pretentious, others praise his verbal agility and his courage to experiment with new forms.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 5; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2.)