How Do I Know I Want to Publish a Book? Vague Nausea: The Millions Interviews Danielle Dutton

Danielle Dutton is a writer, editor, and publisher who might shift the way you read. Author of Margaret the First, SPRAWL, and Attempts at a Life, her writing is compact and quick as it contemplates the strange banalities of domestic life. Her prose finds wonder in the uniformity of the suburbs, or the particularities of 17th-century aristocratic life. It’s funny and full of strange consequence. Dutton also runs Dorothy, a publishing project, one of the best independent presses in the United States. Dorothy is dedicated to “works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women.” Dutton works on all components of each Dorothy release, including curation, editing, and design. In just seven years, with writers like Renee Gladman, Joanna Walsh, Joanna Ruocco, Nell Zink, Amina Cain, and more, Dutton has brought together the work of some of the most electric voices in contemporary publishing. Each Fall, Dorothy publishes two new books simultaneously. This year, Dorothy continues its pattern of innovation, with genre-bending French writer Nathalie Léger and out-of-nowhere wunderkind Jen George. Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden seamlessly blends biography, memoir, film criticism, and auto fiction, as it contemplates the star of a 1970 art-house movie. George’s The Babysitter at Rest is a hilarious and one of a kind story collection that has already earned the adoration of writers like Ben Marcus, Sheila Heti, and Miranda July. I wrote to Dutton to ask her about this year’s Dorothy releases, and her work as a curator, editor, writer, and reader.  The Millions: How did Suite for Barbara Loden and The Babysitter at Rest come into your hands? What was the process like of editing these books, and working with Jen George and Nathalie Léger (or Léger’s translators)? Danielle Dutton: In the case of Jen George’s The Babysitter at Rest what happened was fairly straightforward: I read her story “The Babysitter at Rest” in BOMB (it had been selected by Sheila Heti for BOMB’s 2015 Fiction Contest), and I thought it was incredible. Totally unlike anything I’d read. After about three paragraphs I could feel my hands getting shaky. And this is very often the case, that it’ll take only moments for me to sense that I’ve found the right next book -- when this is happening, in those rare and wonderful moments, I actually feel somewhat physically unwell. It’s like I’m literally being overwhelmed by what I’m reading. So, that’s one way I know I want to publish a book: vague nausea. Anyway, I got in touch with the editor at BOMB, who forwarded a message to Jen, for whom my interest was, of course, totally out of the blue, and the whole thing went from there. With the Léger, Stephen Sparks, who manages San Francisco’s Green Apple Books on the Park, and is an incredibly smart reader and one of our most trusted advisors, put us in touch with one of the book’s translator’s, Cécile Menon. Essentially, he recommended us to her and her and the book to us. In terms of the editorial process(es): with the translation there wasn’t a ton to do. We chose to Americanize spelling, and we did have a few lines here and there that we went back and forth about with Cécile and her co-translator Natasha Lehrer, but the book was very beautiful and basically ready to go (it had just been published in the U.K.). We worked more with Jen. She sent us a number of stories and we whittled it down to the five you see in the book, and then we worked with her on them, arranging and re-arranging, laughing -- the raw material of Jen’s brain continually amazes me. Even her emails make me laugh. The process was, I think, really productive, collaborative. It’s been a delight getting to know Jen and getting to see her see her first book enter the world.  TM: The books that you write and the books that you work with at Dorothy tend to have levity -- often a sense of humor -- in common. What draws you toward lightness in writing? What’s it like to edit humor in other people’s work? DD: That’s an interesting question, or series of questions. My first thought is that, editorially, we generally leave the humor alone -- it’s either there or it isn’t. It’s more often what’s around the humor that might need attending to, the stuff that allows the funny parts to be funny, unburdened, or as you put it, light. But humor is one of those things like voice, if it’s good it’s because it doesn’t sound like anybody else, and then why would you want to mess with that. TM: You used to work as a book designer at Dalkey Archive Press. Are you involved in design at Dorothy, too? What are your ambitions in the way you design books? What was it like working on the design of this year’s Dorothy books? DD: Yes, I do all the design at Dorothy. I think the aesthetic of the press has a lot to do with my limitations as a designer, honestly. Essentially, I am not a designer. I wasn’t a designer when I got to Dalkey, even though I wound up being the book designer there for several years. Minimal was key! I’m actually quite pleased with some of the covers I managed to do there -- the covers of both Édouard Levé books, for example, or of Mina Loy’s stories and essays. And I think -- I’d like to think -- I’ve found a way to make my limitations work at Dorothy as well, though the aesthetic I’ve developed with Dorothy is very different from the Dalkey stuff. The first thing I do with each cover is find the right art. The art is my focus. I generally manage it by looking all over everywhere, scouring art school tumblers, raiding friends’ Facebook photo albums, just looking all over, really, hoping to find a piece that matches the writing’s energy. I don’t like a cover to be overly illustrative, or literal, but more collaborative with the text. The exception, actually, is the cover of Suite for Barbara Loden, which is an illustration of a still from Barbara Loden’s film Wanda. But something about it being an illustration of a still left space. It still felt open, suggestive, like a sketch. TM: I was planning to ask you about your great new novel, Margaret the First, but then I realized that you haven’t been asked in interviews about your other new book, Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera. Here Comes Kitty is a narrative collage book constructed by you and Richard Kraft. What was it like collaborating on a book? How did you “write” it? DD: Here Comes Kitty is really Richard’s book. He’s a visual artist and he had this series of collages he was working on based out of a Cold War comic book called Kapitan Kloss, which is about a Polish spy infiltrating the Nazis. Richard basically exploded the Kloss narrative with all these bizarre and wondrous intrusions: from Amar Chitra Katha comics of Hindu mythology to underground porn comics like Cherry to just a bunch of bunnies. As he was working on it, he decided it wasn’t quite chaotic enough, I guess, and he contacted me and asked if I would write a text of my own to accompany the images. Our idea was that the images and the text would be in some sort of conversation but neither would attempt to explain the other. To echo my answer about design above: the relationship would be more suggestive than illustrative. Ultimately we decided (out of a shared love for the collaboration between John Cage and Merce Cunningham) to work separately, each thinking about the other, wondering what the other might be up to, but not knowing, just sort of trusting it to work out, and also being interested in whatever discordant notes might arise. I actually did look at some of his earlier work, as inspiration, to find the tone ...and, conversely, Richard knew my book SPRAWL very well. So, yeah, for most of the time we worked with or toward each other remotely -- one in Los Angeles and one in St. Louis. The result is, as we’d hoped it would be, a cacophonous book that is sort of rhyming and riotous at once. TM: Between being a publisher, professor, writer, mom, etc., it’s incredible that you still seem to manage to find time to read. What are your strategies for carving out reading time? DD: The vast majority of my reading is for teaching or for Dorothy. My strategy for fitting in other reading is pretty dull: I read a lot in the summer. For a while I was reading non-work stuff before bed each night (a long stretch there with Angela Thirkell novels), but I’ve slipped into the habit, at this medium-to-late stage in the semester, of watching TV at bedtime instead. TM: Do you put books down? Or do you finish what you start? How do you prioritize your reading (beyond teaching and Dorothy)? The Angela Thirkell novels, for example -- what kept drawing you to them? DD: I do put books down, yeah, all the time. I’ll put them down after one page. That’s harsh, and it means I probably miss out on work I might appreciate, but if I’m not immediately interested in the writing it’s hard to justify the time. The Thirkell books are an odd exception. The writing isn’t great. There’s also a certain amount of problematic politics in them (they’re from the 1930s and '40s). I started them because they’re a series set in the English countryside and I was looking for something easy, bedtime reading. That’s not what I’m normally looking for when I read, but I was feeling stressed out and wanted pleasant little stories about mostly happy people. I did actually grow to admire them more over time. There’s a wonderful sense of ease about them. This sometimes means the books feel too loose, or repetitive, but also they don’t feel labored. It doesn’t feel as if Thirkell was wringing her hands over them, and for some reason I find this refreshing. It feels a bit free. TM: Seven years in, what’s the hardest part of running Dorothy? DD: It’s definitely just finding the time. TM: What’s the most rewarding? DD: The money and power and fame! Also I really like working with these strange, brilliant writers. TM: What’s something you’ve read in the past year that you’ve loved? DD: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman TM: What’s something you’re looking forward to reading, but haven’t yet? DD: Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy and Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. TM: In the classroom, what’s a book that you love teaching, and why do you love teaching it? DD: Just this semester I taught Marguerite Duras’s The Lover in a new course on desire, and it was incredibly satisfying, a very rich conversation, because it’s such an open text, there’s so much to wonder at -- the politics, the way Duras writes sex, the way desire is enacted structurally. And then one of my favorite short stories to teach is Stanley Elkin’s “A Poetics for Bullies.” It’s hilarious, for one thing, but also it gets students to see what you mean when you harp on about how a character is made up of language, or what you mean when you say that there should be action in the writing itself. 

Bartleby Meets Cujo: On Matías Celedón’s ‘The Subsidiary’

Constraints in writing have a way of helpfully containing possibilities. Speaking to the role of constraints in poetry, Anne Sexton once said, “You could let some extraordinary animals out if you had the right cage.” Take the sonnet, a strict poetic form that consists of 14 lines of iambic pentameter that has endured for more than seven centuries. Take Pale Fire, which presents itself as an explication of a single poem, yet digressively explicates an entire life. Or, take Green Eggs and Ham, which Dr. Seuss wrote after his editor challenged him to create a book using no more than 50 different words. One of the major constraints of Matías Celedón’s The Subsidiary is a technical one. He wrote this book with a now discontinued stamp set called a Trodat 4253 that he found at an office supply sale. The device allows one to arrange characters on a stamp any way he likes, but limits the output to the size of the stamp. The result feels as much like an art exhibit, as it does a novel. Most of the 200 pages in the book are constrained to less than five lines of text, and fewer than 90 characters. This is a book that can be read as fast as the reader can turn the page, and that momentum elevates the unsettling effect of the nightmare. The Subsidiary tells the story of a worker trapped in the offices of a Latin American corporation, who uses the materials at his desk to give testimony of his experience. The book begins with a loudspeaker announcement that the power supply will be interrupted between 8:30 and 20:00. The exits are closed off. The phone lines go down. There’s shouting outside. The jailers treat the office captives -- THE SUBSIDIARY, LAME MAN, ONE-EYED MAN, and ONE-ARMED MAN; THE MUTE GIRL, BLIND GIRL, and DEAF GIRL -- with an attitude that alternates between indifferent and threatening. Sometimes they let them work. Sometimes they chase them with bloodthirsty dogs. The Subsidiary is Bartleby the Scrivener meets Cujo as imagined by David Lynch (in Chile). The book contains banal reports, like “MY SKILLS ARE MANUAL,” and “I STAMP THE ORDERS, THE INSTRUCTIONS, THE MANDATES-.” Yet it also transports the reader to frightening places. Many pages have a snapshot-in-the-dark quality to them, and what we see during those flashes is scary. “IT’S THE HOWLING OF A PACK OF HOUNDS BEFORE THE VIOLENCE BEGINS,” Celedón stamps. “THE BLIND GIRL KEEPS STILL WHILE THE DOGS SNIFF AT HER,” and, “SHE’S IN HEAT.” In the spirit of Franz Kafka, Matías Celedón evokes a bureaucratic nightmare that is terrifying in its banality and in its menace. The power remains off for 12 days, and nobody resists the instructions to remain at their stations. Despite its near pointlessness, the narrator maintains an unwavering commitment to his job. Celedón’s dedication to his farcically technical method stabilizes this harrowing story. He wrote The Subsidiary by taking it on like a clerk -- by showing up every day, and selecting and placing individual letters with tweezers. From its technical construction to its tormenting delivery, The Subsidiary enacts the tension between reason and futility in doing work. You shouldn’t just read The Subsidiary for its eccentric context or its chilling story. You shouldn’t just read this book because of its painstaking commitment to forming words. All of these pieces -- each spectacular on their own terms -- fix together to create a remarkable reading experience. The Subsidiary releases an extraordinary beast.

Is ‘Jesus’ Son’ a ‘Red Cavalry’ Rip-Off?

On an August 2013 episode of The New Yorker's Fiction Podcast, author Donald Antrim read and discussed Denis Johnson's short story “Work.” Antrim said he remembered the liberation he associated with reading the story when it was published in The New Yorker in 1988: “At the time, I was trying to write stories myself, but they were somewhat dead and I think I felt a little lost...I think reading Denis Johnson had to have something to do with a sense of permission, a sense of freedom to do something that I didn’t understand fully and didn’t know how to imagine or envision.” Antrim’s revelatory experience of reading the stories in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son – a linked collection that follows the drug-addled wanderings of a narrator known as “Fuckhead” -- is far from unique. In 2012, Illustrator Jane Mount compiled My Ideal Bookshelf, a collection in which 100 contemporary cultural figures shared the books that mattered to them most. Jesus’ Son was tied alongside James Joyce's Ulysses as the third most selected book. They both only trailed behind Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, and Herman Melville's Moby Dick. On The New Yorker podcast, Antrim goes on to describe some of the unusual techniques in Jesus’ Son that have rattled so many readers and writers. Antrim notes the clipped and disoriented structure to many of the stories and scenes. He remarks on the speed of the narrative transitions. He says that there’s “an incoherence in the thought process that actually has a coherence.” Then, as is the case on each episode of the podcast, Antrim reads the selected story: “I’d been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I’d ever known, for three days under a phony name, shooting heroin. We made love in the bed, ate steaks at the restaurant, shot up in the john, puked, cried, accused one another, begged of one another, forgave, promised, and carried one another to heaven.” Antrim proceeds through a story in which the narrator and his friend Wayne go to rip copper wire from an abandoned house. Then Wayne visits his wife while Fuckhead waits in the car. Then they go to the bar where they spend all the money they just made scrapping the copper wire. The story ends with Fuckhead gawking at the angelic bartender. “I’ll never forget you,” he thinks. “Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.” New Yorker Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman tells Donald Antrim about how she recently interviewed Denis Johnson at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She says, “I asked him about this book, about Jesus’ Son...he’s quite dismissive of it when he talks about it now, and he said it’s just a rip-off of Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry...” Antrim says that he’s never read Red Cavalry, and the discussion of Jesus’ Son, on its own terms, continues on. But what does Denis Johnson mean by calling his most iconic book a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry -- a classic of early 20th-century Russian literature? Johnson’s book features a ragtag cast of addicts in rural America, engaged in efforts of drug procurement and petty crime that almost always go wrong. Red Cavalry, on the other hand, features the title army during the Russian-Polish campaign, the Soviets’ first military effort toward spreading Communism to the rest of Europe. In terms of locations and circumstances, the books are radically different. But, on closer look, they actually do share a lot in common. “The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head,” Babel writes in the opening story of Red Cavalry (as translated by Peter Constantine). “The stench of yesterday’s blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill.” In an introduction to Red Cavalry, Michael Dirda writes, “Violence and brutality mingle with a surreal, sometimes poetic beauty...This juxtaposition of an elevated literary style with coarse soldier’s talk, of strikingly original analogy with harsh naturalistic observation, lies at the heart of Babel’s achievement. In every way the stories yoke together opposites.” Jesus’ Son actually works with a similar set of tools. “The sky is blue and the dead are coming back,” Johnson writes. “Later in the afternoon, with sad resignation, the county fair bares its breast.” Using “elevated literary style” alongside “harsh naturalistic observation,” both writers convey haunting and brutal landscapes. Babel: “Stars slithered out of the cool gut of the sky, and on the horizon abandoned villages flared up. With my saddle on my shoulders, I walked along a torn-up field path...” Johnson: “There’d been a drought for years, and a bronze fog of dust stood over the plains. The soybean crop was dead again, and the failed, wilted cornstalks were laid out on the ground...” Both books feature frequent and intense poetic violence. Babel writes of Dolgushov who lies in the mud with his exposed heart beating and his intestines spilling out. “[He] placed his blue palms on the ground and looked at his hands in disbelief.” Johnson writes of McInnes, who’s been shot in the stomach and is dying in the backseat of a car. “[He] was white and sick, holding himself tenderly.” Both writers seem to be geniuses of metaphors on the sky. Babel: “The moon hung over the yard like a cheap earring.” Johnson: “The sun had no more power than an ornament or a sponge.” What gets quickly lost when I put particular sections side-by-side like this is how radically different each book still really is. In a Red Cavalry story, a young Jewish soldier will accost an old woman and murder her goose to prove he’s not an intellectual sissy. In a Jesus’ Son story, a drugged-out hospital orderly will try to save a litter of “bunnies” in the desert to prove he’s not a fuck-up. “It’s a name that’s going to stick,” his friend Georgie tells him after he sits on and kills the rabbits. “‘Fuckhead’ is gonna ride you to your grave.” Considerable narrative overlaps between the two books also exist, but they tend to be circumstances that are realized in newly distorted ways. In one Red Cavalry story, the narrator transcribes another soldier’s letter home about, among other things, his brother Fyodorovna being “hacked” to pieces. “I wrote it down without embellishing it,” the narrator says, “and am recording it here word for word.” In Johnson’s “Steady Hands at Seattle General,” the narrator carefully shaves the face of another man in rehab, while that man tells him the story of each of his scars. “Are you going to change any of this for your poem?” he asks. “No,” the narrator says, “It’s going in word for word.” Babel’s “Ivan and Ivan” and Johnson’s “Two Men” both feature men hitching rides who are perceived-to-be-faking deafness. Kirill Vasilyevich Lyutov shouts, “Are you deaf, Father Deacon, or not?” Fuckhead says, “Look...I know you can talk. Don’t act like we’re stupid.” "What sort of person is our Cossack?” Babel wrote in his 1920 Diary. “Many-layered: looting, reckless daring, professionalism, revolutionary spirit, bestial cruelty." He stops, and then writes, “Omit the ‘revolutionary spirit.’” The same things might be said of Fuckhead. In “Out On Bail,” he steals and cashes Social Security checks from a dead tenant’s apartment, but he says he’s always believing he should be finding an honest way to make a few dollars, always believing he’s “an honest person who shouldn’t be doing things like that.” In “Dirty Wedding,” he mourns the death of his ex-girlfriend Michelle, who he once abandoned at the abortion clinic for a hooker at the Savoy Hotel: “[Michelle] was a woman, a traitor, and a killer. Males and females wanted her. But I was the only one who ever could have loved her.” One of the more pronounced elements of both books is their narrative messiness. In The New York Times book review of Jesus’ Son, James McManus wrote, “The narrator's inability to construct a ‘well-made’ story, or even to keep the facts of his life straight, expressively parallels the rest of his dysfunctional behavior.” McManus is talking about how Jack Hotel dies of a heroin overdose at the end of “Out on Bail,” and how, in the next story, Hotel returns, smokes hashish, and remarks, “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” as McInnis bleeds out in the back of the car. An early story in the collection is titled “Two Men.” Later in the book, in “The Other Man”, the narrator begins: “But I never finished telling you about the two men. I never even started describing the second one...” In “Emergency” -- the prescription-pill-loaded narrator -- undermining the entire story he had been telling up until that point -- stops and reflects, “Or maybe that wasn’t the time it snowed. Maybe it was the time we slept in the truck and I rolled over on the bunnies and flattened them.” He decides, “It doesn’t matter. What’s important for me to remember is that early the next morning the snow was melted off the windshield and the daylight woke me up.” In the final pages of the story, the narrative logistics turn impossible. Fuckhead and Georgie return to the hospital, possibly the same day they left. Then the narrator remembers how, just hours earlier, they had picked up their AWOL friend, Hardee, and how Georgie swore he’d get him across the border: “I think I know some people,” Georgie said to him. “Don’t worry. You’re on your way to Canada.” Red Cavalry -- in oftentimes strange and beautiful ways -- is also haphazardly constructed. In “The Story Of A Horse,” Khlebnikov, a self-proclaimed white-stallion enthusiast, fails to reclaim his horse from Savitsky. Khlebnikov spends several days crying and writing a petition for his horse on a tree stump. At the end of the story, he’s discharged from the army as an “invalid” for his poor health and battle wounds. Ten stories later, in “The Continuation of the Story of a Horse,” the narrator reminds the reader of the disagreement between Khlebnikov and Savitsky, then transcribes a pair of no-hard-feelings correspondences between them; the horse only receives a brief and fairly inconsequential mention. “Thirty days I have been fighting in the rear guard, covering the retreat of the invincible First Red Cavalry and facing powerful gunfire from airplanes and artillery,” Savitsky writes to Khlebnikov. “Tardy was killed, Likhmanikov was killed, Gulevoy was killed, Trunov was killed, and the white stallion is no longer under me, so with the changes in our fortunes of warm Comrade Khlebnikov, do not expect to see your beloved Division Commander Savitsky ever again.” In another story, the same vivid and incredibly specific metaphor shows up twice: “Trunov had already been wounded in the head that morning. His head was bandaged with a rag, and blood trickled from it like rain from a haystack,” the narrator reports early in the tale. Later he says, “At that moment I saw Trunov creeping out from behind a mound. Blood was trickling from his head like rain from a haystack and the dirty rag had come undone and was hanging down.” Babel was an active soldier in the Red Cavalry army while he was writing many of his stories. The dangerous and dismal conditions under which the material was gained likely made smooth story construction quite difficult, even if that ever was an ambition. “Under machine gun fire, bullets shriek, a dreadful sensation, we creep along through the trenches,” Babel wrote in his 1920 Diary. “Some Red Army fighter is panicking, and, of course, we are surrounded.” Similar to what McManus describes in his review of Jesus’ Son, in Red Cavalry it’s also fitting that tales are so surreal and fractured. Johnson, meanwhile, was originally writing Jesus’ Son as a piece of memoir. He said, "Originally, in fact, I wasn't even going to publish it. But then I added a lot of things that never happened to me, though almost everything in there actually happened to someone I know or heard about.” The conditions under which the books were written share another important similarity: both were written with a sort of wild-eyed desperation. Babel joined the army, on the advice of his mentor, Maxim Gorky, to find material for his writing in the hopes of getting published. “My birthday,” Babel wrote in one of his early journal entries, “Twenty-six years old. I think of home, of my work, my life is flying past. No manuscripts. Dull misery.” In 1990, Johnson after a rough stretch and a rocky conclusion to his second marriage, owed $10,000 in taxes. He called his editor at FSG: "I told him, 'I'll make you a book of short stories; all you have to do is pay off the IRS.'” Jesus’ Son vaulted to a cult popularity among contemporary readers and writers that’s hard for many other individual story collections to measure up against. Maybe Flannery O’Connor achieves a similar level of cultural cachet with A Good Man Is Hard To Find. Maybe Ernest Hemingway does with In Our Time. Jesus’ Son, though, was the collection chosen more frequently than any other in Jane Mount’s My Ideal Bookshelf. Similarly, on The New Yorker's Fiction Podcast, Denis Johnson has been the most selected writer -- three times with all three stories from Jesus’ Son. On a 2009 episode, before Tobias Wolff read “Emergency,” Deborah Treisman laughed and said, “I’ve had three other writers ask to do this very story while I put it on hold for you.” Is what Denis Johnson said true, though? Is Jesus’ Son just a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry? “Rip-off” seems to be the wrong word. It borrows heavily, yes, but it seems to me Jesus’ Son is less a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry than West Side Story is a “rip-off” of Romeo and Juliet. Or, in keeping with the Johnson-Babel theme of stark and brutal poetry, Jesus’ Son is less a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry than Apocalypse Now is of Heart of Darkness. With any of these works, even adaptation or re-creation seem to not entirely be the right words; in each case, the follow-up deviates wildly from what might be considered its source material. In Jesus’ Son, the stories and execution certainly have a lot in common with Red Cavalry and -- in considering them closely -- it seems right for Johnson to acknowledge his debt. But do the similarities diminish any of the virtues of either book? Even more than in the case of the most liberal of re-creations, adaptations, or “rip-offs,” it seems to me that each book is still its own radical thing. After Treisman tells Antrim, on the 2013 podcast, that today Johnson is dismissive of the stories in Jesus’ Son, Antrim says, “Well, he has his own attitude about what he did a long time ago. I have a tendency to write things off after 20 years, too. I’m not a particularly good judge of what I do. Maybe he’s not a particularly good judge, over time, of what he’s done.” Antrim pauses in thought, and then adds, “And that’s probably as it should be.”

When Updike Met Barth

It was October of 1966 and John Barth had just published Giles-Goat Boy, a 700-page postmodern comedy, and a New York Times Bestseller. Barth was starting the stories that would eventually make up Lost In The Funhouse, a seminal work of metafiction. He was teaching at the University of Buffalo and was busy putting together a week-long reading series for the following spring. He had already secured writers like Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and John Hawkes – author of the spectacular surrealist Western, The Beetle Leg. The series would feature some of the most powerful literary figures of the time. But Barth was working to finish the line-up with one more writer, a man he admired and sought to befriend; he wanted to get John Updike. “I’ve been told you don’t make public appearances, and I sympathize,” Barth wrote to Updike. Updike had won the National Book Award for The Centaur three years prior, and Rabbit, Run was only half a decade old. Updike was 34. Barth was 36. Barth wrote to Updike, “…as one who respects your work, and suspects it would sound excellent to the ear in the author’s voice, and has agreed to read something of my own to help out, and wants to meet you better anyhow than I did at the Academy last Spring, I’d be honored, and we all delighted, if you’d bend your admirable policy once and lay some of your prose on us out loud.” Barth was genial with many alpha literary fiction writers throughout his career – eventually even men like Philip Roth, Italo Calvino, and Salman Rushdie. But Barth was an alpha writer himself, in the mid-60’s, a literary artist and intellectual who was both wildly innovative and popular. Barth largely associated with other experimentalists – people like William Gaddis, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass – but then he was especially drawn to Updike. Updike was a realist, and this genre discrepancy served as a sort of important buffer to literary bitterness and jealousy, especially as time went on. Other writers knew about Updike’s aversion to public speaking. Updike had only ever taught one course, in the early 1960s, at the Harvard Summer School and disliked the experience so intensely that he vowed to never do it again. Updike covered a single additional class session in the Fall of 1966 at Boston University – after John Cheever called him, too drunk to stand up – and that was his final appearance in the classroom. Barth wrote to Updike anyway. Updike responded, “I don’t ‘read’ much, but such a generous and engaging letter from the author of Giles Goat-boy would be hard to resist. By next April I should either be insane or substantially through a novel that is presently tormenting me, so let me accept, on the assumption that I’ll be reminded as the date approaches.” Updike went to Buffalo in 1967. Barth stood at the front of a crowded auditorium and enumerated the ways that Updike’s writing was distinctive in a time of high postmodernism and experimentation. “His materials and methods remain essentially realistic, straightforwardly if subtly representational, as opposed to the diverse anti- and irrealisms of most of his contemporaries.” Barth said, “He’s non-apocalyptic, a highly unfashionable attitude – one suspects he may not even be a nihilist.” Barth certainly thought of himself as one of those irrealist writers he mentioned in Updike’s introduction. He had begun writing Lost In The Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice. The book begins with a note from the author, in which Barth writes that many of these stories aren’t actually meant for the page. Barth says “Glossolia,” for example, “will make no sense unless heard in live or recorded voices, male and female.” Despite finally limiting some of those ambitions to the printed word, a story like, “Night-Sea Journey” – a sperm’s existential reflections on its swim to fertilize an egg – is brilliant. Stories like “Lost In The Funhouse”, “Autobiography”, and “Title” are, too. Some of the others – “Echo”, “Menelaiad”, “Anonymiad” – really stumble. Six years after the Buffalo reading, and around the time Barth published his National Book Award-Winning trio of novellas, Chimera, Barth moved back to Baltimore to teach in the writing program at Johns Hopkins, his alma mater. He was put in charge of another speaker series. He again sought John Updike. In October 1974, Updike wrote back and accepted that invitation. Updike then shared some unhappy news: “You and [Barth’s wife] Shelley will be sorry to hear that Mary and I seem to be undergoing that American, or is it menopausal, experience called separation. Hence the urban address below. I work, eat, sleep, and read all on the same head of a pin-sized apartment, and seem happy in a way, or at least less asthmatic.” Barth conveyed his distress and sent his best wishes to Updike and his wife. He hoped Updike was able to write in his “diminished physical plant.” Updike furthered the intimate tone of the exchange with his response. He wrote, “A curious bit of etiquette – having no wife to bring, might I bring someone else?... The substitute would be, I would think, a mature American female, quiet and mannerly, not apt to embarrass any proceedings. I haven’t invited any yet, just wondering, way in advance.” Barth wrote to Updike that he would set him up in the Nichols House, which would be comfortable “with or without mature American female, whom by all means, bring.” On Friday, April 18th, 1975, Updike arrived in Baltimore with, in his words to Barth, “A Martha Bernhard (37, une autre séparée, onetime student of Nabokov at Cornell).” Leslie Fiedler, the book critic, had a campus event that same day. The group of them went to Updike’s afternoon reading, then Fiedler’s evening lecture, then out to dinner. The next morning, Barth and Shelley and Updike and Martha went on a literary tour of Baltimore. They visited Edgar Allan Poe’s grave. They went to the H.L. Mencken House. They got soft-shell crab for lunch. Then John and Martha got on a plane back to Massachusetts. Gracious letters from both Bernhard and Updike followed. Bernhard wrote, “Dear Shelley and Jack, You were dear to let me tag along to watch John enchant your students, a pleasant occasion for me of course. Beyond that, I was moved by your graciousness and acceptance in what could have been an awkward situation. But it was charming, really, because of your gentleness. Lovely of you.” She added that the Barths were fortunate to have seen Updike in a “role he shies from but does beautifully.” Updike, for his part, said, “Martha was greatly touched and cheered by the lack of awkwardness in an adventure, a venturing forth, that was a touch barefaced for us. You were both most kind.” Then he goes on to ask Barth if he can get him a Johns Hopkins University sweatshirt for a souvenir, “with as it happens [his] initials on it.” Updike and Martha got married in 1977. They were married for 31 years, the rest of Updike’s life. After Updike died, Martha told Barth in a letter that this first trip was not only the beginning of her relationship with Updike, but also the occasion on which Updike changed his mind about readings. “He took to it,” Martha wrote, “as he didn’t to teaching, and thus began a modest, but consistent, reading schedule that he truly enjoyed.” Following the Baltimore visit, Barth and Updike’s communication continued primarily through the mail. Letters of mutually generous appreciation of each other’s work were frequent, and they sustained the friendship. The differences between the two writers, meanwhile, grew more marked. In 1982, Updike published Rabbit Is Rich, the story of Harry Angstrom inheriting his late father’s Toyota dealership and living through prosperous days in which he worries about his wife’s drinking, his son’s hostility, and his own libido. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Barth, meanwhile, published an opus of a novel called LETTERS. LETTERS is not only entirely about itself and its author, but also about Barth’s first six novels, which you need to have read in order for LETTERS to make any sense. The critical state of their respective careers diverged. After the publication of Rabbit Is Rich, Barth wrote to Updike, “Congratulations on ‘Rabbit’ sweeping the field—and what’s more, on the book itself. Shelly has asked me, “are you envious?” And I have answered, “yes,” especially as the first negative advance reviews of my new one [The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor] trickle into the clear stream of our life like acid mine drainage.” Updike published the well-received Witches of Eastwick. He again won the National Book Critic Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with Rabbit at Rest. Barth meanwhile published sprawling navel-gazing novels like The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor and The Tidewater Tales – books that were increasingly long form concentrations on the mechanics of storytelling. Barth and Updike complained to each other of certain writers’ underappreciated brilliance, and griped of others' successes. “The Pynchon—,” Updike wrote, “I got a hundred pages into it, and wondered if the next several hundred would tell me anything I didn’t already know. He can coin wonderful phrases, and does prodigies of homework, but there isn’t a lot of flesh to nibble on. Still, I must get back to it, and then read every word of Underworld, as penance or pleasure, who knows?”  Barth grew sensitive to critics and reviews, and counter-productively more stubborn in his methods. In 2001, Barth wrote Coming Soon!!!, in which he attempts to spoof his own position in the pantheon with two protagonists: one’s a retiring novelist (quite clearly John Barth) setting out to write his final masterpiece. The other’s a young, aspiring writer (quite clearly a young John Barth) in the midst of his first novel. The two protagonists are tangled up together in a competitive literary reprisal of The Floating Opera, the writer John Barth’s first book. Despite his admirable pursuit of fun and experimentation in fiction, Barth often seemed to want to make things hard on himself. Like with a lot of artists, he tended to be his own worst enemy. In a 2002 Salon interview, critic Leslie Feidler was asked which of postmodern writers would survive and endure. Feidler said, “I used to think Barth and Hawkes had a chance. I’m not so sure now. Barth’s most recent book was terrible. And he sorta knows it too, I had a note from him which mentioned the reviews.” Updike wrote to Barth in November 2008. He said he had only read the first story in Barth’s new book, The Development. He wrote, “I needed to pluck up my courage to continue, especially since. I have just emerged from testing the waters of mortality in three days at Boston’s finest, MGH. Your description of the hectic banality of retirement havens almost makes mortality look good.” Updike had just been diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer. Eight weeks later, on January 27th, 2009, he died. Barth immediately wrote to Martha, and she responded, “He began writing the final verses of Endpoint in that hospital bed and continued at home where he finished before Christmas...He died eight weeks after his diagnosis, at the end of January.” Updike had some faults – most notably a nonchalant misogyny – but there was much more that was miraculous about his writing. Rabbit, Run, in gritty lyric detail, conveys the American dream as the American nightmare in the way it renders young Harry Angstrom stumbling after happiness in a place like Brewer, Pennsylvania. Updike once described his own style as “an attempt to give the mundane its beautiful due,” and he did do just that. He also published an incredible number of books – 24 novels, 16 books of nonfiction, 14 collections of short stories, and 10 books of poetry. John Barth, too, wrote more than most readers would be likely to get through. Yet there are moments in his catalog that are wildly inventive, strange, and brilliant; the influence of certain Barth stories and novels ripple conspicuously across the works of writers like Nicholson Baker and David Foster Wallace, who went on to generate monumental influence on their own terms. Barth’s story “Lost In The Funhouse” is metafiction at its peak. Ambrose’s anxious journey through the story’s funhouse becomes a perfect metaphor for the reader’s passage through the story itself. In certain places, the plot pushes forward and the story gains momentum. In others, it gets stuck in mirrored corners. “The important thing to remember,” Barth writes, “is that it’s meant to be a funhouse; that is, a place of amusement.” Barth’s embrace of this principle – as he considers funhouse architecture and simultaneously inspects the mechanics of storytelling – transforms the piece into something sinisterly buoyant and incredibly smart. The writer, narrator, and reader experience all the joys and setbacks of the journey together. The story is passionate, angsty, and a bit existentially terrifying. “For whom is the funhouse fun?” the story opens. “For Ambrose it is a place of fear and confusion.” Barth’s early success in metafiction inspired him to continue in that vein, and it eventually led to the surge of negative criticism for the books that came later in his career. “Metafiction’s real end has always been Armageddon,” David Foster Wallace once said in an interview. “Art’s reflection on itself is terminal.” Barth, though, kept fighting to mine life from his metafictional flights, writing longer and longer books to do it. In their later letters, Barth continued to express admiration and respect toward Updike. Updike returned the praise, though more often with soft mentions that he hadn’t quite finished Barth’s most recent books. As was always the case, Barth took solace in the discrepancies between their respective genres, but it got more difficult for him as the state of their critical acclaim split. The thorniness of the relationship begins to show as the letters go on.  Updike never abandoned Barth, though. Updike and Barth rose as important literary figures around the same time, and largely behaved as compatriots until the very end. In the 1990s, Updike spotted a news clipping featuring Barth in which Barth had been quoted saying, “Just now, I’m completely enthralled by and engrossed in John Updike’s book. There’s a writer who’s very unlike me who I admire enormously for his productivity and his talent.” Updike underlined the passage and wrote, “I do thank you for the generous words. But I don’t think we’re very unlike. We’re both sons of the hard-working, temperate Middle Atlantic region, twice married, depression-conscious, and stuck with the belief that there is such a thing as American littrachoor.” Images courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center at Johns Hopkins University. A physical exhibition on the writer John Barth will be mounted in the Johns Hopkins George Peabody Library in Fall 2015.