The End?: Writers respond to John Barth
Photo by Kate Gibb \ Big Active.
Since the appearance of his first book The Floating Opera in 1956 and the landmark works that followed, such as The Sot-Weed Factor in 1960 and Chimera , which won the National Book Award in 1973, John Barth has established himself as one of the foremost pioneers of American letters. Then, approaching the terminus of a long and prolific career, Barth suddenly found that since finishing his last two productions he had written . . . nothing. In his essay
, which features in
, he explains that he is ‘accustomed to a well-filling interval of some weeks or even months between book-length projects: an interval not to be confused with ‘writer’s block’.’ But this time it is going on for an unnervingly long time. He finds consolation, though, in an example from nature:
A writer-friend from Kansas who knows about waterwells informs me of the important distinction between dry wells and ‘gurglers’, which may cease producing for a time but eventually resume; he encourages me to believe that I am, if no longer a geyser, still a gurgler, not yet a mere geezer.
So, we asked a few of the finest geyser’s in the world – Colum McCann, A.L. Kennedy, Andrew Miller, Edmund White and John Banville – (not mere geezers) is it really The End?
Perhaps Jim Harrison said it best when he wrote: Children pry up our rotting bodies with cries of earn, earn, earn. As a writer no longer young, but not yet old, I found myself wondering what I would do if I wore Barth’s shoes. But then I realised that I have worn Barth’s shoes: in every word that he has written, or certainly every word of his that I have read. And having written it, it remains. Perhaps what I find most wonderful about all of this is that I can go to my shelf this very minute and pluck his words from mid-air. I will do it when he’s dead, and I will do it again when I’m close to dead. I would, of course, love for him to blow my heart open with another book, but I won’t find it terrifying if he doesn’t. In the meantime, in between time, I have children to help scaffold me towards the next page.
I do feel for him, but – as he points out – he is writing. Albeit he’s writing about not writing, but he’s still writing. The mind and body change and age is no joke at all, but I think it’s possible to continue writing until they screw the lid down on you unless something particularly catastrophic has happened to your body or mind. The pace and the methodology and the content – those are all variables and this is a reminder to have humility about our vocations. Sometimes the call goes away and I think it’s necessary that we should believe it really has left. But it may not have. Equally, we may decide we’ve done enough and we want to love our loved ones and pass our time differently . . . and maybe the call will respect our wishes and maybe it will wait and maybe it will nudge back in.
John Barth’s piece is sweetly affecting. Also, of course, slightly sobering. All of us – or those who make it that far – are likely to share similar experiences. I suspect that the majority of writers would choose to die in harness, like an actor who keels over mid-soliloquy (curtain down, anguished impressario breaking the news, audience in turmoil) but as choice has very little to do with it the odds are we will have to settle for something quieter. Barth does not sound unhappy. A little wry, a little melancholy perhaps, but not unhappy. And it might be he turns out to be the gurgler his friend speaks of. I wish it for him (for all our sakes).
I used to teach at Johns Hopkins with John Barth and he always struck me as a ‘professional writer,’ in the sense that John Updike was professional. Updike, too, had several desks devoted to letter-writing, novel-writing and essay-writing. I’ve always been proud of my amateur status. I write, also by longhand, on the dining room table or on the train or in the Maine cabin or wherever I happen to be. Since I’ve never made it the way these two writers have done, I’m poor and write to secure the next payment. I suggest John Barth put aside all his writing rituals and that he give away all his money – that way he might find his talent will be rebooted.
When Henry James was on his deathbed, in his last delirium, those tending him noticed his right hand moving back and forth over the sheet as if it held a pen: he was writing still, at the very end. I expect to be doing the same, when I am on my way to meet what James is said to have called ‘the distinguished thing’ – although I have always suspected that the word he muttered was in fact ‘the extinguishing’. Whichever, I like to imagine my poor old dying head singing as unstoppably as ever as it is swept away on the waters of the Hebrus. ?