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  • Birthday Boys
  • William Gass (bio)

How clever of literary history to divide its passage into decades. How smoothly, too, has it persuaded its brightest lights to gather under the same lamp. What good fortune for these (yes they are mostly) white guys to arrive in time to save the life of the novel from the death of the novel, the latter an event very much anticipated by the buzzards who have prepared themselves to feed upon its carcasses. Oh, wait a sec, I may have put that attitude on assbackward. These writers are actually the ones murdering the novel. Yes, everything is more attractive from that angle.

The inner members of the clench in question are Walter Abish, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Raymond Federman, William Gaddis, William Gass, John Hawkes, Joseph McElroy, Steven Millhauser, Alexander Theroux (etc.) Jesse James could never boast of a band so fulsomely and thievishly armed.

They are called (by everybody else but themselves) Metafictionists. They write Self-Conscious novels—books made of mirrors. Dubbed Surfictions. Fantastics. Considered Surreal Squealers. Said to be Parodists. Masturbators. PostMods. They are in fact Fabulists, Formalists, Dystopians. Above all, Experimental. Liberals, they appear to be elitist, at least on weekends.

They (I guess it’s “we”) play nasty tricks upon the reader by creating elaborate spaces from which no one can escape like the boxwood in the gardens of estates, “…tortuously constructed barrages of verbiage with the words so crushed together that they do indeed become opaque as stones…” No. Worse. These writers (“we”) go on too long about ourselves—ah, we are made of mirrors. No. Everything we publish is too abstract, too mental. No. One hears genres crashing—mirrors again?—exclamatories clashing—mirrors once more?—rhymesters trashing. In sum, we are sometimes disagreeable, always hard to read. In addition, we are bitterly gloomy: espousing “… opinions that will not survive scrutiny, chiefly… that life is absurd…”. Is nothing sacred? Goshamighty, we (“they”) seem to admire Vladimir Nabokov despite the success of Lolita (1955).

As a family, however, the bunch won’t water in the same vase with any comfort. Each writer whose name I’ve flung upon the table like a gambler’s dishonest shuffle arranges words in his own way, and these differences are far from minor. They are pronounced and evident. They are defining. “Style” separates Elkin from Barthelme, it does not bring them together like reconciling lovers; Gaddis is not Gass however often the confusion is made; Hawkes’s obsessions are driven by the horses he loves; Barth is a sailor not a cowboy; Barthelme’s wit is fed by his disavowal of the ordinary. Some of us are tall, some are small, some are plump, others not at all. Some write short books, some long, a few endless. Our materials are not alike. Nor are our aims, histories, personalities, in any sense the same. West is prolific, Gass stingy. A number of us are no longer alive.

Call them post modern if you like, these difficult and evasive couplings of Stein with Barthelme and Gass, Beckett with Federman, Borges with Millhauser, Grove Press with Sorrentino, Pound with Davenport, Nabokov with everybody, though nobody admires the name post modern or its substitutes.

Now that we are thinking through these days again…there may be one consequence we share: John Gardner disapproves of us. Well, he did, momentarily. Does he still? Bobbing above us like a threatening cloud. [Pause at this point to consume a fresh package of alliteration.] What else can be said on our behalf? We admired one another’s work. We did not envy a good book’s success (if it had any)—at least not on paper, not out in the open. Fine writing of every kind should be welcomed, and there are a lot of “kinds,” lots of ways of being beautiful. We were ambitious about our art, but quality was our goal, not quantity. (Ok, Paul West can combine them.) Finally, we did not desire to make a public fool of ourselves by appearing on TV or running for the mayor of an amused city (no one invited us), or producing silly critical disasters like On Moral...


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pp. 7-8
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