Daniel Green at The Quarterly Conversation:
The four books of short fiction that John Barth has published (all now reprinted by Dalkey Archive as Collected Stories) offer a usefully synoptic view of Barth’s most signature moves as a writer of fiction—or at least those moves with which he is likely to remain most identified. Although Barth advises the reader in his brief introduction to Collected Storiesthat his “authorial inclination” has always been “toward books rather than discreet, stand-alone short stories,” the very ways in which he endeavors in each of these collected books to unify the series of “discreet” stories are revealing of Barth’s fundamental assumptions and ambitions. Thus, while it may be true that “short fiction is not my long suit,” as Barth puts it, these collected stories do reveal the ultimate purposes of Barth’s literary art.
Clarity about Barth’s artistic principles is necessary because his fiction is often mischaracterized, sometimes deliberately caricatured, and readers are still likely to be familiar with his reputation as a “difficult” writer given to “playing games,” obsessed with his own narrative tricks rather than telling a story about “life.” Certainly books like Lost in the Funhouse and On With the Story, both appearing here in full, are among the most comprehensively self-reflexive works of fiction published by an American writer (or any writer). Both as individual stories and as a whole, such books readily acknowledge the artifice of their own making, but if this is to be regarded as playing a “game” with the reader, it is a game that transcends frivolity, serving aesthetically serious and thematically consequential goals. If the prevailing tone in these books is playfulness, this should not be mistaken for whimsicality, for arbitrary (or even contemptuous) humor to no justifiable artistic effect.