Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Nonetheless I Smiled, Leaned on My Stick, and, No Troubleder Than Mom, Gimped in to Meet the Guards Halfway, or: Rest in Peace, John Barth

I would not read and think like I do if Gary Pittenger, English 101 professor at Montgomery College, Rockville, had not pushed Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor into my hands in 1980
The Paris Review interviewAn RIP: John Barth
Lost and Found in the Fun House: The John Barth Collection
Barth's massively influential essay The Literature of Exhaustion
A novelist who found possibility in a "used-up" form
The case for John BarthOn Giles Goat-Boy
On The Sot-weed Factor part one, on The Sot-weed Factor part two
Discovering The Sot-weed FactorBelow the fold: the rest of The Publisher's Dilemma, the opening of Giles Goat-Boy

Publisher's Disclaimer

The reader must begin this book with an act of faith and end it with an act of charity. We ask him to believe in the sincerity and authenticity of this preface, affirming in return his prerogative to be skeptical of all that follows it.

The manuscript submitted to us some seasons ago under the initials R.N.S., and by us retitled Giles Goat-Boy, is enough removed from the ordinary and so potentially actionable as to make inadequate the publisher's conventional disclaimer: "Any resemblance to persons living or dead," etc. The disclaimer's very relevance-which we firmly assert-was called into question even prior to the manuscript's receipt, as has been everything about the book since, from its content to its authorship. The professor and quondam novelist whose name appears on the title-page (our title-page, not the one following his prefatory letter) denies that the work is his, but "suspects" it to be fictional-a suspicion that two pages should confirm for the average reader. His own candidate for its authorship is one Stoker Giles or Giles Stoker- whereabouts unknown, existence questionable-who appears to have claimed in turn 1 ) that he too was but a dedicated editor, the text proper having been written by a certain automatic computer, and 2) that excepting a few "necessary basic artifices" * the book is neither fable nor fictionalized history, but literal truth. And the computer, the mighty "WESCAC"-does it not too disclaim authorship? It does.

* The computer's assumption of a first-person narrative viewpoint, we are told. is one such "basic artifice." The reader will add others, perhaps challenging their "necessity" as well.

Frankly, what we hope and risk in publishing Giles Goat-Boy is that the question of its authorship will be a literary and not a legal one. If so, judging from the fuss in our office these past months, the book affords more pregnant matter for controversy. Merely deciding to bring it out has already cost us two valued colleagues, for quite different reasons. Five of us were party to the quarrel, which grew so heated, lengthy, and complex that finally, as editor-in-chief, I was obliged to put an end to it. No further discussion of the book was permitted. Inasmuch as the final responsibility was mine I requested from each of my four associates a brief written statement on the questions: should we publish the manuscript entitled Giles Goat-Boy? If so, why, and if not, why not?

Their replies anticipate, I think, what will be the range of public and critical reaction to the book. I reprint them here (with signatures and certain personal references omitted) not in the hope of forestalling that reaction, but to show that our decision was made neither hastily nor in bad faith:

Editor A

I am quite sensible that fashions have changed since my own tenure as editor-in-chief: marriage has lost its sanctity, sex its mystery; every filthiness is published in the name of Honesty, all respect for law and discipline is gone-to say nothing of propriety and seemliness, whose very names are sneered at. Cynicism is general: the student who eschews cheating like the young girl who eschews promiscuity or the editor who values principle over profit, is looked upon as a freak. Whatever is old-a man, a building, a moral principle is regarded not as established but as obsolete; to be preserved if at all for its antiquarian interest, but got rid of without compunction the moment it becomes in the way. In the way, that is, of self-interest and the tireless sensualism of youth. Indeed fashions change, have always changed, and there's the point. Granted that every generation must write its own "New Syllabus" or re-interpret the Old one, rebel against its teachers, challenge all the rules-all the more important then that the Rules stand fast! Morality like motion has its laws; each generation takes its impetus from the resistance of its forebears, like runners striving against the ground, and those who would abolish the old Answers (I don't speak of restating or modifying them, which is eternally necessary) would turn the track underfoot to quickmire, with fatal consequences for the race of men.

This Revised New Syllabus is nothing new, but as old as sickness of the spirit- not a revision of anything, but a repudiation of all that's wholesome and redeeming. It is for us to repudiate it. Publishing remains despite all a moral enterprise, and is recognized as such in its heart of hearts even by the public that clamors for gratification of its appetites. The sensational, the vulgar, the lurid, the cheap the hackneyed-there is an innocence about these things in their conventional and mass-produced forms, even a kind of virtue; the novelists everyone purchases do no harm as they line our pockets and their own. They are not difficult; they do not astonish; they rebel along traditional lines shock us in customary ways, and teach us what we know already. Their concerns are modest, their literary voice and manner are seldom wild, only their private lives, which make good copy: in straightforward prose they reveal to us how it is to belong to certain racial or cultural minorities; how it is to be an adolescent, a narcotic, an adulterer a vagabond- especially how it is to be the Author, with his particular little history of self-loathings and aggrandizements. Such novels, I conceive, are the printed dreams of that tiny fraction of our populace which buys and reads books, and the true dwelling-places of art and profit. In serving the dream we prevent the deed: vicariously the reader debauches, and is vicariously redeemed; his understanding is not taxed; his natural depravity may be tickled but is not finally approved of; no assaults have been made upon his imagination, nor any great burden put on his attention. He is the same fellow as before, only a little better read, and in most cases the healthier for his small flirtation with the Pit. He may even remark, "Life is absurd, don't you think? There's no answer to anything"; whereafter, his luncheon-companion agreeing absolutely, they have another cocktail and return to more agreeable matters.

Consider the difference with R.N.S.: here fornication, adultery, even rape, yea murder itself (not to mention self-deception, treason, blasphemy, whoredom, duplicity, and willful cruelty to others) are not only represented for our delectation but at times approved of and even recommended! On aesthetic grounds too (though they pale before the moral), the work is objectionable: the rhetoric is extreme, the conceit and action wildly implausible, the interpretation of history shallow and patently biased, the narrative full of discrepancies and badly paced, at times tedious, more often excessive; the form, like the style, is unorthodox, unsymmetrical, inconsistent. The characters, especially the hero, are unrealistic. There never was a Goat-boy! There never will be!

In sum it is a bad book, a wicked book, and ought not-I will say must not-be published. No computer produced it, but the broodings of an ineffectual megalomane: a crank at best, very possibly a psychopath. As the elder, if no longer the ranking, member of this editorial group I urge that we take this opportunity to restore a part of the moral prestige that was ours when our organization was more dedicated and harmonious, if less wealthy; to reverse our lamentable recent policy of publishing the esoteric, the bizarre, the extravagant, the downright vicious. I urge not only that the manuscript in question be rejected forthwith, but also that the "Author's" superiors, his Dean and Department Chairman, be advised what they are exposing undergraduate minds to. Would the present editor-in-chief, I wonder, permit his own daughter to be taught by such a man? Then in the name of what decent principle ought we to make his scribbling available to all our sons and daughters?

Editor B

I vote to publish the Revised New Syllabus and agree with the Editor-in-chief that Giles Goat-Boy is a more marketable title for it. We all know what [A's] objections to the manuscript are; we also know why he's not editor-in-chief any more, after his rejection of __* on similar "moral" grounds.

* Not to injure unnecessarily the reputation of that splendid (and presently retired) old gentleman here called A, let it be said merely that his distinguished editorial career never regained its earlier brilliance after the day some years ago when, in a decision as hotly contested as the present one, he overrode the opinions of myself and several other of his protegé's to reject the novel here cited by B which subsequently made the fortune of our largest competitor. No further identification of the book is needed than that it concerns the adventures, sexual and otherwise, of a handsome, great-spirited young man struggling against all odds and temptations to fulfill what he takes to be his destiny- that the plot was admittedly not original with the now-famous author; and that the book bids fair to remain a best seller forever.

What I must add, at the risk of "impropriety," is that in addition to his predictable bias against anything more daring than Gay Dashleigh's Prep-School Days, he may have a private antipathy for this particular manuscript: his own daughter, I happen to know, "ran off" from college with a bearded young poetry-student who subsequently abandoned her, pregnant, in order to devote himself to sheep-farming and the composition of long pastoral romances in free verse, mainly dealing with his great love for her. Her father never forgave her; neither has he, it seems, forgiven bearded heterosexuality or things bucolic, and it is a mark of his indiscrimination that he makes a goat-boy suffer for a sheep-boy's sins. Much as I respect your request that these statements remain impersonal, and hesitate as a new employee to criticize my colleagues in addition to disagreeing with them, I must argue that the "personal" and "professional" elements are so bound together in this case (indeed, are they ever separable in literary judgments?), that to take a stand for or against Giles Goat-Boy is to do likewise on the question whether this organization will prosper in literary judgments?), that to take a stand for or against Giles Goat-Boy is to do likewise on the question whether this organization will prosper in harmonious diversity or languish in acrimonious dissension. In choosing to publish or reject a manuscript, one oughtn't to bear the burden of choosing professional friends and enemies as well. Where such has become the case, the new man's only choice is to follow his best judgment, laying his future resolutely on the line; and I respectfully suggest that the responsible administrator's best hope for curing the situation is to turn any threatening ultimatums (like A's) into opportunities for revitalizing and reharmonizing the staff.

The fact is, I happen to agree-I think we all do-that Giles Goat-Boy is tough sledding in places, artistically uneven, and offensive (we'll call it challenging, of course) to certain literary and moral conventions. Personally I am no great fan of the "Author's"; like [Editor C, whose opinion follows] I found his early work lively but a bit naïve and his last novel wild and excessive in every respect. I frankly don't know quite what to make of this one. Where other writers seek fidelity to the facts of modern experience and expose to us the emptiness of our lives, he declares it his aim purely to astonish; where others strive for truth, he admits his affinity for lies, the more enormous the better. His fellows quite properly seek recognition and wide readership; he rejoices (so he says) that he has but a dozen readers, inasmuch as a thirteenth might betray him. So far from becoming discouraged by the repeated failure of his novels to make a profit, he confesses his surprise that no one has tarred and feathered him. Apparently sustained by the fact that anyone at all has swallowed his recentest whopper, he sets about to hatch another, clucking tongue at the compass and bedazzlement of those fabrications. Plot, for the young novelists we applaud, is a naughty word, as it was for their fathers--story to them means invention, invention artifice, artifice dishonesty. As for style, it is everywhere agreed that the best language is that which disappears in the telling, so that nothing stands between the reader and the matter of the book. But this author has maintained (in obscure places, understandably) that language is the matter of his books, as much as anything else and for that reason ought to be "splendrously musicked out"; he turns his back on what is the case, rejects the familiar for the amazing, embraces artifice and extravagance; washing his hands of the search for Truth, he calls himself "a monger after beauty," or "doorman of the Muses' Fancy-house." In sum, he is in a class by himself and not of his time; whether a cut above or a cut below, three decades ahead or three centuries behind, his twelve readers must decide for themselves.

My own net sentiment comes to this: the author in question has, I'm told, a small but slowly growing audience, more loyal than discerning or influential, of the sort one needs no expensive promotion to reach, as they have their own ways of spreading the word around: penniless literature students, professors in second-rate colleges, and a couple of far-out critics. Giles Goat-Boy isn't likely to make anybody rich, but if we can saturate this little group it should at least pay its own way, and may even redeem our losses on the man's other books. One day those penniless students may be pennied enough- those professors may rise to more influential positions; the far-out critics may turn out to have been prophets . . . Alternatively, the author's luck may change (rather, our luck, as he seems not to care one way or the other): by pure accident his next book might be popular, stranger things have happened. Meanwhile we may write off our losses to that tax-deductible sort of prestige associated with the better publishing houses; the thing to do is keep the advance and advertising expenses as low as possible while holding him under contract for the future, in the meantime exploiting whatever ornamental or write-off value he may have.

Editor C

I vote against publishing the book called The Revised New Syllabus, not for reasons of morality, law, or politics, but simply on aesthetic and commercial grounds. The thing won't turn us a profit, and I see no ethical or "prestigial" justification for losing a nickel on it. Publishing may be a moral enterprise, as [A] likes to claim, but first of all it's just an enterprise, and I for one think it's as unprofessional to publish a book for moral reasons (which is what young [B's] enthusiasms amount to) as to reject one for moral reasons. [A] quite obviously has personal motives for rejecting the book; I submit that [B] has motives equally personal, if more sympathetic, for pushing its acceptance. He's new to our profession, and knows very well that discovering fresh talent is a road to success second only to pirating established talents from the competition. He has a young man's admirable compassion for lost causes, a young scholar's sympathy for minor talents, and a young intellectual's love of the heterodox, the esoteric, the obscure. Moreover he's a writer of fiction himself and no doubt feels a certain kinship with others whose talents have brought them as yet no wealth or fame. Finally, it's no reflection on his basic integrity that on the first manuscript he's been asked his opinion of, he might be less than eager to oppose the known judgment of the man who hired him; but that circumstance probably oughtn't to be discounted-especially since his vote to publish is a "net sentiment" by his own acknowledging, arrived at over numerous and grave reservations.

I think I may say that my own position is relatively objective. I agree that there are inferior books which one does right to lose a bit of money on in order not to lose a superior author, and there are superior books (very rare!) which one publishes, regardless of their commercial value, merely to have been their publisher. But the book in question I take to be neither: it's a poor-risk work by a poor-risk author. It wants subtlety and expertise: the story is not so much "astonishing" as preposterous, the action absurd. The hero is a physical, aesthetic, and moral monstrosity; the other characters are drawn with small regard for realism and at times lack even the consistency of stereotypes the dialogue is generally unnatural and wanting in variety from speaker to speaker-everyone sounds like the author! The prose style-that unmodern, euphuistic, half-metrical bombast-is admittedly contagious (witness [A's] and [B's] lapses into it), even more so is syphilis. The theme is obscure, probably blasphemous- the wit is impolite, perhaps even suggestive of unwholesome preoccupations; the psychology-but there is no psychology in it. The author clearly is ignorant of things and people as they really are: Consider his disregard for the reader! Granted that long novels are selling well lately, one surely understands that mere bulk is not what sells them; and when their mass consists of interminable exposition, lecture, and harangue (how gratified I was to see that windy old lunatic Max Spielman put to death!), it is the very antidote to profit. Indeed, I can't imagine to whom a work like R.N.S. might appeal, unless to those happily rare, more or less disturbed, and never affluent intelligences-remote, cranky, ineffectual-from whom it is known the author receives his only fan-mail.

What I suggest as our best course, then, is not to "protect our investment" by publishing this Revised New Syllabus (and the one after that, and the one after that), but to cut our losses by not throwing good money after bad. My own "net sentiment" is a considered rejection not only of this manuscript but of its author. He has yet to earn us a sou; his very energy (let us say, inexorableness), divorced as it is from public appeal, is a liability to us, like the energy of crabgrass or cancer. Despite some praise from questionable critics and a tenuous repute among (spiritually) bearded undergraduates-of the sort more likely to steal than to purchase their reading matter-he remains unknown to most influential reviewers, not to mention the generality of book-buyers. In the remote event that he becomes a "great writer," or even turns out to have been one all along, we still hold the copyright on those other losers of his, and can always reissue them. But no, the thing is as impossible as the plot of this book! He himself declares that nothing gets better, everything gets worse: he will merely grow older and crankier, more quirksome and less clever; his small renown will pass, his vitality become mere doggedness, or fail altogether. His dozen admirers will grow bored with him, his employers will cease to raise his salary and to excuse his academic and social limitations; his wife will lose her beauty, their marriage will founder his children will grow up to be ashamed of their father. I see him at last alone, unhealthy, embittered, desperately unpleasant, perhaps masturbative, perhaps alcoholic or insane, if not a suicide. We all know the pattern.

Editor D

Failed, failed, failed! I look about me, and everywhere see failure. Old moralists, young bootlickers, unsuccessful writers; has-beens, would-bes, never-weres; failed artists, failed editors, failed scholars and critics- failed husbands fathers, lovers; failed minds, failed bodies, hearts, and souls-none of us is Passed, we all are Failed!

It no longer matters to me whether the Revised New Syllabus is published, by this house or any other. What does the Answer care, whether anyone "finds" it? It wasn't lost! The gold doesn't ask to be mined, or the medicine beg to be taken; it's not the medicine that's worse off when the patient rejects it. As for the Doctor-who cares whether he starves or prospers? Let him go hungry, maybe he'll prescribe again! Or let him die, we have prescription enough!

Let him laugh, even, that I've swallowed in good faith the pill he made up as a hoax: I'm cured, the joke's on him! One comes to understand that a certain hermit of the woods is no eccentric, but a Graduate, a Grand Tutor. From all the busy millions a handful seek him out, thinking to honor and sustain him- we bring him cash and frankincense, sing out his praises in four-part harmony, fetch him champagne and vichyssoise. Alas, our racket interrupts his musings and scares off the locusts he'd have suppered on the wine makes him woozy, he upchucks the soup; he can't smell the flowers for our perfume or hear the birds for our music, and there's not a thing to spend his money on. No wonder he curses us under his breath, once he's sober again! And thinking to revenge himself with a trick, he puts on a falseface to scare us away. We had asked for revelations- he palms off his maddest dreams. "Show us Beauty," we plead; he bares his rump to us. "Show us Goodness," we beg, and he mounts our wives and daughters. "Ah, sir!" we implore him, "Give us the Truth!" He thrusts up a forefinger from each temple and declares, "You are cuckolds all."

And yet I say the guller is gulled, hoist is the enginer: the joke's on the joker, that's the joker's joke. Better victimized by Knowledge than succored by Ignorance; to be Wisdom's prey is to be its ward. Deceived, we see our self-deception; suffering the lie, we come to truth, and in the knowledge of our failure hope to Pass.

Publish the Revised New Syllabus or reject it- call it art or artifice, fiction, fact, or fraud: it doesn't care, its author doesn't care, and neither any longer do I. I don't praise it, I don't condemn it- I don't ask who wrote it or whether it will sell or what the critics may make of it. My judgment is not upon the book but upon myself. I have read it. I here resign from my position with this house.

One sees the diversity of opinion that confronted me (I do not even mention the disagreement among our legal staff and such nice imponderables as the fact that it was Editor A who gave me my first job in the publishing field, or that Editor D-present whereabouts unknown-happens to be my only son); one sees further something of what either option stood to cost. One sees finally what decision I came to-with neither aid nor sympathy from the author, by the way, who seldom even answers his mail. Publishing is a moral enterprise, in subtler ways than my dear A asserted; like all such, it is spiritually expensive, highly risky, and proportionately challenging. It is also (if I understand the Goat-Boy correctly) as possible an avenue to Commencement Gate as any other moral enterprise, and on that possibility I must bank.

Herewith, then, Giles Goat-Boy: or, The Revised New Syllabus, "a work of fiction any resemblance between whose characters and actual persons living or dead is coincidental." * Let the author's cover-letter stand in all editions as a self-explanatory foreword or opening chapter, however one chooses to regard it; let the reader read and believe what he pleases; let the storm break if it must.

The Editor-in-Chief

* In the absence of any response from the author, whom we repeatedly invited to discuss the matter with us, we have exercised as discreetly as possible our contractual prerogative to alter or delete certain passages clearly libelous, obscene, discrepant, or false. Except for these few passages (almost all brief and of no great importance) the text is reproduced as it was submitted to us. [Ed.]


  1. 1/today i learned of bacon's rebellion - virginia 1676-7 - while reading about the sot-weed factor - or if it was covered in my virginia history course in fourth grade in the 1950s, i had forgotten it

    2/speaking of weed in a 20th century sense, not 17th century, this morning while writing to college chums from the 1960s i mentioned the bathroom stall witticism "if drugs are a crutch, reality is a broken leg" - and yet, i mused, I am now for all practical purposes a teetotaler - is reality less acute? or am i just used to it?

    3/and also, i can be confident that all my earthly troubles will be over relatively soon

    3.5/whereas those who have more of the 21st century to look forward to than i do face challenging times

    from an account of a lecture jane goodall gave the week she turned 90:

    Around this point in her talk, Goodall described how she sees humanity “at the start of a very, very long, very, very dark tunnel. And right at the end of that tunnel is a little star shining. And that’s hope.” The tunnel is climate change. It’s also biodiversity loss, poverty, discrimination, and war, she said, and we’ve got to do what it takes to get ourselves to the light at the end.

    3.55/...very, very...very, very...

    1. over at naked capitalism someone asserts that this impending metaphorical tunnel goodall speaks of may not only be very, very long and very, very dark -- it may be very, very narrow as well - in other words: