Barthelme and the writing dead[and how they can write better]

In Gupter Puncher/Oli Johns on January 29, 2011 at 8:43 pm



The ideal state of the critic, for Barthelme, is confusion…”

Donald Barthelme is dead, but not spent.

We’ll begin with the first tip and work our way workman-like to the last:

1] ‘No two sentences should be alike.’

A decent point. At its peak, we get a story like that one he did with King Kong. [He [KK] climbed through a window into a cocktail party of academics] Or his reworking of Snow White. If you haven’t read it, Snow White is a slut, living and sleeping with the dwarfs in a New York tenement or building. [Tenement – definition?] The Prince spies on her from a bunker underground. And the wicked witch goes through the phone book and tells strangers how easy it is to get their numbers.

But actually…more than two sentences in this are alike…not the exact same sentence, but similar…

A correction to this: [If Barthelme were alive again and could think the same way he thought before]…

no two ideas should be alike.

This makes more sense. No two pages of Snow White are twins.

Maybe there’s more to write about this one? More than two sentences…it’s a call to innovation, isn’t it? But how do we have this debate?

‘There’s no innovation anymore.’

‘No, I’m innovative.’

‘Wrong. It’s been done.’

‘Okay. There’s definitely no innovation anymore.’

And by doing everything possible in a narrative, Barthelme has killed innovation dead.


There was that book by Foer, the code of trees…or the tree of cods…

Was the innovative?

Was that innovative?

No. I used to read books like that when I was a kid. Fantasy books. Where you have to skip through the book, following a different order each time. And Cortazar did it too…Hopscotch. What has Foer done differently? He’s just cut up pages and spread the words out, and made it unreadable. I don’t like this innovation. And it’s not innovation anyway. It isn’t. He’s incapable of it. I don’t and can’t and won’t ever believe that someone like him holds the key to the next step of literature. And that’s not even bias.

It’s not bias, really. I don’t like him, but I can give him a fair shot.

I fucking hate it that he’s up there and other people aren’t. He doesn’t deserve it. He doesn’t deserve anything. Nothing. Doesn’t deserve…I should be up there, not him.

See, but the thing is… if I can spell the rage out then it doesn’t have a hold over me. I can still give him a fair shot. I can. Because I’m aware of my bias. I can talk to it, I can ignore it. Whichever.

But he’s still not good enough.

So, innovation. Back to it.

The book? It still has to be in book form, doesn’t it? Otherwise it gets redescribed…reclassified? Example, if you grafitti’d your story on a wall, it’s grafitti. It’s not literature.

I don’t know. Is that right?

You could cut out the wall and carry it around with you.

But you couldn’t copy it.

Write it on lots of walls?

What else?

I think I’m spending too long on this point. I’ll sum up. The forms have all been done. Postmod is the apocalypse of lit. What’s left?

The fourth dimension.

No shit. Really.

Things we cannot see, if they can find a way to make us see them, they can…they will…they’ll do something.

Let’s move on, and a bit faster too:

2] ‘Vocabulary is unimportant.’

I didn’t know what he meant by this for a long time. Words have to matter, don’t they?

Yeah, they do. But did Barthelme ever use a long word for the sake of it? Did it not always sound beautiful when he wrote something like ‘Hacquiety’ or ‘sendententiousness’?

But why did he only say three words here?

Why not ‘Vocabulary is unimportant because…’?

I’m not sure…he’s dead, and he wasn’t alive when I was around…or he was, but he died when I was fourteen, and I wasn’t very interesting when I was fourteen…I just watched Star Trek Deep Space Nine and wanked over that woman with the wrinkled nose…she was the security officer, I think…Nani Visitor?

Barthelme wouldn’t have spoken to me. Not at fourteen.

But I think…now that I’m smarter…that he only wrote three words because he didn’t want people to have his explanations. He didn’t like explaining things. Neither do I.

But why isn’t vocabulary important?

A word on its own has no feeling?

You seek a word, you’re not writing any kind of truth?

You sound like a twat?

I think what he really meant was, all writers sound the same.

They do, they all sound the fucking same. Go to Waterstones and pick up any book and-…

After the second tip, we have the third:

3] ‘Begin after the most interesting part of the scene has gone.’

I don’t get this one.

Is it like in Oceans Twelve, where Clooney and Pitt started the scene by finishing a joke? A joke that was never explained.

I think that’s what he means.

Does it mean that the aftermath is more important than the…math?

I remember what William Goldman said about film-writing…that you always had to enter the scene at the right point, just as the drama was starting up.

So, you don’t start with: ‘Hey, what did you do today?’

You start with: ‘I know what you did, bitch.’

But does Barthelme want us to start after this? When exactly?

Woman with black eye lies in bed. Man hovers above with boxing glove.

‘You deserved that. Now go to sleep.’

It’s different, I guess.

Maybe you could go further and start the scene after the characters have left it? You could…I don’t know…look at the environment and feel the effects of their drama…feel the residue…is that what Terence Malick does?

You know I don’t think Barthelme was right about everything.

They say he was a bit of a prick most of the time.

And kinda smug. Like he thought he was the pinnacle of…everything…all literature and…

He wrote at the same time as Cortazar. And Vonnegut. And the no ‘E’ guy…Perez?

And his stories aren’t even that good.

They’re weird, yeah, but they’re not funny.

He’s not a funny writer.

Or he’s snob funny, not genuine funny.

He’s not as good as they say he is.

I could do better than him…better than all of them…nay of those…any of those ones you’re talking about, I can out-write them…even the dead ones, if they came back I could write better words than them…or better stories…they’re all fucking academics, the whole lot of them, and academics can’t write shit, not when they’ve got to try and…when they’re trying to write something truthflu…truthful…

My head is fucking killing me, but I’m gonna do this. Fuck, it’s afternoon already. Why didn’t he wake me up?


The mail just came. Yup. Two for me.

Okay. The estate agents don’t want to give me that money back. They’re saying I didn’t give them any, even though they know I did. No, I know I did. I definitely did.


What’s this?

Fucking New Yorker. I know what this is gonna say.

Yup, told you I knew. Hacks. Why do they-…

It’s not fucking cheap to send snail mail, New Yorker. You know that? The least you could do is…I mean, if you don’t like it, fine, but don’t tell me it’s…don’t give me one of those typical repsonses.

My stuff is not typical.

And who reads that piece of shit anyway? What do they know about…what do they know about innovation or anything? They’re the ones who are typical. They’re the ones who don’t…they never publish anything different or good or…

How is my stuff typical? In what way is it-…

What’s the fucking pointy? Fuck…point. What’s the fucking point? Point, point, point…

Here I am, typing again.

What’s it been? Two months? Three?

Three months. I just counted. Three months since I picked up a pen. Or my computer. I don’t really use a pen. Only for the really passionate or angry stuff, I guess. But the last few months, I don’t know…it’s been…

Forget it. There’s no point turning this into a diary. Let’s just get back to Barthelme. He knows how to write. I don’t. He does. Listen to him, not me. Just the stuff in italics, follow that.

Is italics important enough? Important looking enough?

Maybe I should put it in bold? Or capitals? A bigger text size at least…

I’m losing my way.

Barthelme, give me a sign. Did you go through all this shit too? When did you make it? Before thirty? I bet you did. I can’t be fucked looking it up, but I bet you did. You never lost your way, did you? You were an academic. You got money for your first fucking words. Always a genius, always a known genius. You could pick up a magazine or a book review and the word would be used about you. Never had to use it on yourself. Did you?


4] ‘Don’t copycat’

It’s true.

Don’t copy anyone else.

You’ll probably be doing it anyway.

I copy people all the time. And I know I do it. What does this make my work? Pathetic. Or just ordinary. Let’s think…

I copied Daisy Anne Gree. I copied Larry Harrison. I copied…who else? I copied Barthelme. I copied Vonnegut. I copied Orwell. I’m copying Nabokov as we speak…as I type…

I saw Marc Horne use the word ‘coalface’ in one of his stories, and I stole that too.

It’s not so bad.

People copy me too. And the Nabokov thing, he never did it like this. I mean, Pale Fire, yeah…but I only took the very basicest concept of it. The idea at the root of it all.

It’s not total theft.

But I read somewhere that it’s…something like, it’s not wise to overload your stories with references to other works. It may be gratifying for the reader at first, but it soon wears thin, and most of all, it tries to put a disguise over a lack of the author’s own ideas.

Is that true?

And it said, a novel like Gatsby never used references. And that’s why it’s so great.

Ha, I also copied one of those scenes where the main character is a writer and he goes to a bookshop or a library and he looks for where his future book will be on the shelf.

I got that from John Fante.

I wonder if he got it from anyone?

And why did I repeat it?

So many questions for someone else who’s dead. And not only dead, but blind too. He lost his eyes a few years before he went, poor guy.

Okay, I think we’re nearly done.

No, still two more left. I’ll try and be quick:

5] ‘Using a confident narrator is caveman’


Barthelme doesn’t make mistakes. I guess he meant to use ‘caveman’ as an adjective.

Actually, that’s weird, as I read somewhere today, in one of the papers, I think…someone said that another guy and his sexist views were dinosaur.

Did they copy Barthelme?

I don’t know. Anyway, the sentiment of the line…

If you have a confident narrator, you will have a bored reader. That has to be what Barthelme is saying…was saying…

Or maybe not a bored reader, but…you won’t let anything slip. Won’t reveal anything.

American writers use confident narrators. They use them a lot. They write pretty sentences and decent word combinations and all that, but why does it have to be so confident?

Where’s the reality to any of it?

I’m gonna make a guess…or assumption…

A theory:

‘Confident people have pulled such a well-constructed mask over themselves that they cease to be of any interest.’

Psychological interest, I mean.

How’s that?

I think it holds up pretty good.

Pretty well.

And as the most confident narrators are done by American writers that means that any writer who’s American or who copies American is already worthless.

That’s gotta be most people.

I’m feeling pretty good about things now. Not sure why.

Okay, Barthelme. Last one:

And I’m setting myself an eight minute limit to write a response to this one:

6] ‘Don’t just drop your life on the page, be creative.’

Yes, good.

I dropped my life on the page before. But…

But if you write it into some kind of narrative, even if it’s a blank-written narrative, does that mean you’re being creative? Even if there’s no real story…?

I have six minutes to think this out.


I don’t know, man.

If you put some kind of order into things then…if you’re making sentences and choosing what of your life to put on the page then…

That’s being creative, I think.

But it’s not very, very creative, is it?

Do we have to be miserable to be creative?

I don’t know if that links very well with what I just wrote above, but…

No, it links okay.

Do you have to be more miserable in your life to…to what? I don’t know, to open up your head more? To get your imagination opened up…fuck, I know I should be able to explain this better…

Two more minutes.

Time’s up.

I just stared at the screen for those last two minutes.

But I just wanna add something more…

I think you do have to be miserable to write something good.

And…I just thought of one other thing…it’s not just if you’re miserable…anyone can be miserable and still write a piece of shit…but if you’re miserable and…

What was it?

Fuck, it’s gone.

Okay, summation.

Barthelme’s dead.

He fucked literature every possible way it could be fucked.

You’re on your own.

  1. For a writer not to copy anyone else, they’d have to be writing in a vacuum. It’s not possible.

  2. But I invented coalface. That’s all me.

  3. I’ll give you coalface. But the dead guys still write better than all of us put together.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: