John Barth  

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"John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor is a thoroughly fictional account of the life of real person Ebenezer Cooke, a Maryland colonist who in 1708 wrote the real satirical poem ""The Sot-Weed Factor"". Barth's Cooke is a naive innocent who sets out to write a heroic epic, becomes disillusioned and ends up writing a biting satire." --Sholem Stein

"Sterne is perhaps the most blatant forebear of Barth’s brand of parody and self-consciousness about novelistic conventions. The causality of plots, the use of illustrations and footnotes, the demand for moral content, adventures, suspense, the time conventions, the writer’s power, the critic’s demands, chapter divisions, the use of prefaces, cover pages, digressions, stylistic uniformity - these are only a few of Tristram Shandy’s parodied conventions."--Narcissistic Narrative (1980) by Linda Hutcheon

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John Simmons Barth (born May 27, 1930) is an American novelist and short-story writer, known for the postmodernist and metafictive quality of his work.



John Barth was born in Cambridge, Maryland, and briefly studied "Elementary Theory and Advanced Orchestration" at Juilliard before attending Johns Hopkins University, receiving a B.A. in 1951 and an M.A. in 1952 (for which he wrote a thesis novel, The Shirt of Nessus).

He was a professor at Penn State University (1953-1965), University at Buffalo (1965-1973), Boston University (visiting professor, 1972-1973), and Johns Hopkins University (1973-1995) before he retired in 1995.

Literary work

Barth began his career with The Floating Opera and The End of the Road, two short novels that dealt wittily with controversial topics, suicide and abortion respectively. They were straightforward tales; as Barth later remarked, with gentle condescension, they "didn't know they were novels".

The Sot-Weed Factor was an unprecedented leap in literature, an 800-page mock epic of the colonization of Maryland based on an actual poet, Ebenezer Cook, who wrote a poem of that name. The Sot-Weed Factor was what Northrop Frye called an anatomy — a large, loosely structured work, with digressions, distractions, stories within stories, and lists (such as a lengthy exchange of insulting terms by two prostitutes). The fictional Ebenezer Cooke (repeatedly described as "poet and virgin") is a Candide-like innocent who sets out to write a heroic epic and is disillusioned enough that the final poem is a biting satire.

Barth's next book, Giles Goat-Boy, of comparable size, was a speculative fiction based on the conceit of the university as universe. It could be described as a fictional gospel about a half-man half-goat who discovers his humanity and becomes a savior in a university that allegorically represents the universe, presented as a computer tape given to John Barth, who denies that it is his work. In the course of the book, Giles carries out all the tasks prescribed by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Barth kept a list of the tasks taped to his wall while he was writing the book.

The short story collection Lost in the Funhouse and the novella collection Chimera were even more metafictional than their two predecessors, foregrounding the writing process and presenting achievements such as seven nested quotations. LETTERS was yet another tour de force, in which Barth and the characters of his first six books interacted.

While writing those books, Barth was also pondering and discussing the theoretical problems of fiction writing, most notably in an essay, "The Literature of Exhaustion" (first printed in the Atlantic, 1967), that was widely considered to be a statement of "the death of the novel" (Compare with Roland Barthes's "The Death of the Author"). Barth has since insisted that he was merely making clear that a particular stage in history was passing, and pointing to possible directions from there. He later (1979) wrote a follow-up essay, "The Literature of Replenishment", to clarify the point.

His fiction continues to maintain a precarious balance between postmodern self-consciousness and wordplay on the one hand, and the sympathetic characterisation and "page-turning" plotting commonly ascribed to more traditional genres and subgenres of classic and contemporary storytelling.


1956 — Nominated for the National Book Award for The Floating Opera. 1966 — National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in literature. 1965 — The Brandeis University creative arts award in fiction. 1965-66 — The Rockefeller Foundation grant in fiction. 1968 — Nominated for the National Book Award for Lost in the Funhouse. 1972 — Awarded the National Book Award for Chimera. 1974 — Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. 1974 — Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 1997 — F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Fiction. 1998 — Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. 1998 — PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story. 1999 — Enoch Pratt Society's Lifetime Achievement in Letters Award.

Selected works



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