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A juxtaposition

March 10, 2012

Barth doesn’t do “poignant.” At heart Barth is a comic writer, and all comic writers worth their joke-making will scrupuloulsy avoid the “poignant.” The “poignant” is precisely the sort of thing comic fiction attempts to deflate. (And by “comic” here I mean the kind of comedy one finds in, say, Beckett, not in Garrison Keillor.) Neither Barth nor his postmodern colleagues have ever been writers to turn to if what you want is to “confront sentiment head-on.” Again, to ask him to do this is to ask him to renounce what has always been an important part of the postmodern mission: to resist reducing fiction to the expression of cheap sentiment. (I know that some current writers, including David Foster Wallace, have wondered whether it is possible to infuse postmodernism with more “sentiment.” My answer is “no,” but then I don’t understand why anyone would even think of blending the two. If you want to write sentimental fiction, just do it.)

“Nattering On,” blog post on The Reading Experience

INTERVIEWER: You also manipulate the most fundamental artifice of the novel: the fact that it’s written, it interposes language between the reader and the events in which he somehow participates. A great deal of the comedy in Giles is generated just by this tension between style and what is happening. The most essential example is, of course, the play of Taliped Decanus, where what is happening is, of course, the archetypical tragedy, and is of course strangely moving, even though under this hilarious burlesque of language.

BARTH: It could be moving only under that kind of burlesque. In fact, one of the reasons why people who have very serious and passionate things on their minds, may want an element of farce in their fictional premises, is precisely so that they can address themselves to matters which they feel would be simply impossible to do in a long-faced, unironic spirit. Mann, for example, used to like to write in the grand old style. Well, one way to write in the grand old style, if you want to, is with your tongue halfway in your cheek. Then you’re free to do things that would be sentimental and unbearable if your tracks weren’t covered by a certain degree of irony. Farce and burlesque can cover your tracks in a similar fashion; no one nowadays can write Greek drama, but if you want to get at some of the Sophoclean tragic spirit, one way to approach it, perhaps, is by throwing up a masquerade of burlesque.

An Interview With John Barth, 1967 (emphasis in original)

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