John Domini at The Quarterly Conversation:
The peak isn’t the one most folks point to. I’m speaking of John Barth, now in his mid-80s and debilitated, and of a career that stretches back to when he was a vigorous 25. At that age Barth published his debut, The Floating Opera, and just five years later came the work for which he’s most celebrated, The Sot-Weed Factor. I’d never deny that the 1960 novel was a watershed for American fiction, nor that what he accomplished over the following decade, in particular the stories of Lost In the Funhouse, established landmarks for what we now call Postmodernism. Nevertheless, the man’s career overall now suffers a misbegotten consensus. Too many critics—a catchall expression, I realize, but bear with me—hold that the author had shot his bolt by, give or take, 1972. That was the year he publishedChimera, and the same ill-informed consensus considers the subsequent National Book Award as a kind of recognition for Lifetime Achievement, a late salute to Sot-Weed orFunhouse or both. Yes, the author was barely into his 40s, at that point. Yes, but whatever he published thereafter was at best hubristic overreach and at worst . . . well, see George Steiner’s treatment of LETTERS, a Neanderthal bashing in The New Yorker. That piece appeared in 1979, and from then on the buzz about the work, in the hive mind, fell away. No one, buzz buzz, read the novels of the ‘80s and ‘90s. No one was buying Barth and his po-mo brand, as first Raymond Carver made it look prissy, and then David Foster Wallace rendered it unhip.
I admit I’m being hasty. I’m working with a catchall, and ignoring for instance the work of Frederick Karl, who made LETTERS a centerpiece of his massive ‘83 overview, American Fictions. In ‘91, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor garnered a dream review in theWashington Post, from no less a figure than Angela Carter. The publisher sprang for a book tour, and the reading I attended, at Powell’s in Portland, was standing room only. Barth still had his fans, including including David Foster Wallace, who closed Girl With Curious Hairwith an homage to “Funhouse,” and he still garnered the occasional thumbs-up.