Tuesday, May 31, 2016

John Barth, "Autobiography: A Self-Recorded Fiction"--Short Story Month 2016-Day 31


            In 1967 and 1968 Barth aligned himself with the postmodernist focus on self-reflexive fiction with two decisive steps.  First he published a controversial essay in the Atlantic entitled "The Literature of Exhaustion," which, although it has been misunderstood to have claimed that contemporary fiction writers have "run out" of a subject for their work, actually urged more of the kind of self-conscious narrative experimentation being practiced by the South American writer Jorge Luis Borges. 
            Secondly, he published Lost in the Funhouse, an experimental collection of short stories in which fiction refused to focus its attention on its so-called proper subject--the external world--and instead continually turned the reader's attention back to what Barth considered fiction's real subject--the process of fiction-making itself.  All of Barth's fictional works published since Lost in the Funhouse were similarly focused on their own narrative structure and methods.
            "Autobiography" is one of the most thoroughgoing self-reflexive fictions in Lost in the Funhouse, for it does not pretend, as conventional fictions do, that the voice that speaks the fiction is the voice of a human being; rather it confronts directly the inescapable fact that what speaks to us is the story itself; thus, the only autobiography a story can present is a story of its own coming into being and its own mode of existence.  Once we accept this fact, the rest of this story follows logically. 
            Every statement in the story is a assertion, in one way or another, about this particular fiction's fictionality, whose mother was a mere fictional device of self-reflexivity which the father/author was attracted to one day.   Some of the key characteristics of fiction in general that the story foregrounds are:  fictions have no life unless they are read; fictions cannot know themselves; fictions have no body; fictions have one-track minds; fictions can neither start themselves nor stop themselves; fictions reflect their authors in distorted ways.
            Barth insists that the prosaic in fiction is only there to be transformed into fabulation.  For Barth, the artist's ostensible subject is not the main point; rather it is only an excuse or raw material for focussing on the nature of the fiction-making process. 
            Great literature, says Barth, is almost always, regardless of what it seems to be about, about itself.  Perhaps more than any other American writer in the last quarter of the twentieth century, John Barth made fiction intensely conscious of itself, aware of its traditions, and of the conventions that make it possible.  If, as the main currents of modern thought suggest, reality itself is the result of fiction-making processes, then John Barth is truly a writer concerned with the essential nature of what is real.

Thanks for Reading:  Hope you had a good Short Story Month this year and had the chance to read lots of short stories.

1 comment:

deadmachinery said...

I enjoyed going on this voyage with you.
Thank you so much, your insights on the nature and history of short stories are always thought provoking.
Looking forward to read more! :)