May 20, 2013

Barthelme and Metafiction

Donald Barthelme, when hospitalized for the throat cancer of which he would die, was asked if he knew where he was. "In the antechamber of heaven," he replied.

The idea that Donald Barthelme primarily wrote fiction about fiction is tenacious, but if one reads his stories against his biography it becomes evident that he was doing something entirely different. No doubt his stories are aware of being fictitious, but they are not about fiction, because, at the very least, they are full--jammed full like a suitcase--of the life of their times. Barthelme believed that modernism had altered the relationship of art to reality; no longer, he thought, was realism its goal. No art was supposed to be a representation. Art had no obligation to represent anything, still less represent anything accurately. Instead, the art work had become an object in its own right. Instead of depicting the world, it added something to the world. In this he took his cue from art, not fiction, and treated fiction like an art form such an artist as Claes Oldenberg, had he been interested in prose, might have liked. (The funny thing is that artists, even verbally gifted ones, never write things like that. Think of the endless manifestos of dada and surrealism, all non-art about art, boring in ways that art is not.)

Barthelme did write one metafictional piece about fiction: "How I write my songs." In it, he wrote, "A knowledge of all the different types of songs that are commonly accepted is helpful. To give you an idea of the various types of songs there are I am going to tell you how I wrote various of my own, including "Rudelle," "Last Night," "Sad Dog Blues," and others--how I came to write these songs and where I got the idea and what the circumstances were, more or less, so that you will be able to do the same thing. Just remember, there is no substitute for sticking to it and listening to the work of others who have been down this road before you and have mastered their craft over many years."

Here we see the mind of the writer exposed directly to the reader who wants to become a writer, and it reveals two sides of Barthelme that cannot be emphasized too much: he was a teacher, and a dedicated craftsman.

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