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John Barth, innovative postmodernist novelist, dies at 93

Apr 2, 2024, 8:13 PM | Updated: Apr 3, 2024, 9:06 am

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — John Barth, the playfully erudite author whose darkly comic and complicated novels revolved around the art of literature and launched countless debates over the art of fiction, died Tuesday. He was 93.

Johns Hopkins University, where Barth was an emeritus professor of English and creative writing, confirmed his death in a statement.

Along with William Gass, Stanley Elkin and other peers, Barth was part of a wave of writers in the 1960s who challenged standards of language and plot. The author of 20 books including “Giles Goat-Boy” and “The Sot-Weed Factor,” Barth was a college writing instructor who advocated for postmodernism to literature, saying old forms were used up and new approaches were needed.

Barth’s passion for literary theory and his innovative but complicated novels made him a writer’s writer. Barth said he felt like Scheherazade in “The Thousand and One Nights,” desperately trying to survive by creating literature.

He created a best-seller in 1966 with “Giles Goat-Boy,” which turned a college campus into a microcosm of a world threatened by the Cold War, and made a hero of a character who is part goat.

The following year, he wrote a postmodern manifesto, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” which argued that the traditional novel suffered from a “used-upness of certain forms.” The influential Atlantic Monthly essay described the postmodern writer as one who “confronts an intellectual dead end and employs it against itself to accomplish new human work.”

He clarified in another essay 13 years later, “The Literature of Replenishment,” that he didn’t mean the novel was dead — just sorely in need of a new approach.

“I like to remind misreaders of my earlier essay that written literature is in fact about 4,500 years old (give or take a few centuries depending on one’s definition of literature), but that we have no way of knowing whether 4,500 years constitutes senility, maturity, youth, or mere infancy,” Barth wrote.

Barth frequently explored the relationship between storyteller and audience in parodies and satire. He said he was inspired by “The Thousand and One Nights,” which he discovered while working in the classics library of Johns Hopkins University.

“It is a quixotic high-wire act to hope, at this late hour of the century, to write literary material and contend with declining readership and a publishing world where businesses are owned by other businesses,” Barth told The Associated Press in 1991.

Barth pursued jazz at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, but found he didn’t have a great talent for music, and so turned to creative writing, a craft he taught at Penn State University, SUNY Buffalo, Boston University and Johns Hopkins.

His first novel, “The Floating Opera,” was nominated for a National Book Award. He was nominated again for a 1968 short story collection, “Lost in the Funhouse,” and won in 1973 for “Chimera,” three short novels focused on myth.

His breakthrough work was 1960’s “The Sot-Weed Factor,” a parody of historical fiction with a multitude of plot twists and ribald hijinks. The sprawling, picaresque story uses 18th-century literary conventions to chronicle the adventures of Ebenezer Cooke, who takes possession of a tobacco farm in Maryland.

Barth was born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and set many of his works there. Both his 1982 “Sabbatical: A Romance” and his 1987 “The Tidewater Tales” feature couples sailing on the Chesapeake Bay.

Barth also challenged literary conventions in his 1979 epistolary novel “Letters,” in which characters from his first six novels wrote to each other, and he inserted himself as a character as well.

“My ideal postmodernist author neither merely repudiates nor merely imitates either his twentieth-century modernist parents or his nineteenth-century premodernist grandparents. He has the first half of our century under his belt, but not on his back.”

Barth kept writing in the 21st century.

In 2008, he published “The Development,” a collection of short stories about retirees in a gated community. “Final Fridays,” published in 2012, was his third collection of non-fiction essays.

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This story was first published April 2, 2024. It was updated April 3, 2024, to correct the name of one of Barth’s peers. He is Stanley Elkin, not Stanley Elkins.

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AP Entertainment Writer Andrew Dalton contributed from Los Angeles.

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John Barth, innovative postmodernist novelist, dies at 93