The purpose of this study is to review the criticism surrounding Barthelme's fiction and to engage in a closer reading of Barthelme's texts in order to see beyond the highly engaging surface of the prose to the interrogation of contemporary morality in which Barthelme is engaged. There truly are more ways than one to heaven. As between minimalism and its opposite, I pity the reader - or the writer - too addicted to either to savor the other. John Barth: The ultimate concern of any writer/critic/thinker who is concerned with literature may be not the literature itself so much as the fact of reading, which is at least as important as and in some ways more intriguing than literature itself. If there were no readers, after all, the work of literature would be like the tree falling in the forest with no human ear to hear it. Does it make a sound? Does it make a noise? Who cares? And so I turn to reading itself - what it is, what it does, and what it means. If by reading one means, as do at least some of today's students, the physical act of viewing text and very little else, then it is probably an activity without real importance.
It can be used to fill time, but so can other equally disengaged activities. If it means, as it still does to many, the active intellectual and emotional involvement of a reader in a fictional word created by a writer, then reading means both entertainment (an aspect of the creative act of writing that is too seldom acknowledged) and the exercise of considerable craft on the writer's part. On the reader's part, it means both genuine engagement with the fiction itself and an implicit acceptance of the writer's rules of engagement - factors that may subsumed under the heading "willing suspension of disbelief."This is not, necessarily the same thing as engagement with the writer's text - an exercise that involves a somewhat different set of definitions and employment of some kind of critical apparatus, so that the "text" (perhaps) assumes a life independent of its writing; "reading" then operates in the service of deriving meaning(s) from that textual artifact.
And if reading means the (act of) interpretation of text, then it implies a readerly interest or agenda that may or may not be concerned with the characters who inhabit the story, either as "people" or as constructs, with the dramatic energy of the work, with the symbolic richness that supports or undercuts the story's apparent direction, or even with the theme (that old fashioned word!) of the story. Equally possible, if we are concerned with reading as interpretation, is a preoccupation with the text-as-artifact, with the story-as-artifact, with the meaning of the text-as-artifact, with the implications of spatial arrangement of the text...and so on. Construction, in this line of investigation, may well be more significant than meaning. And so the further I go, the more confusing and prolific the possibilities become. In that respect, even this particular piece of text is rather like life and also rather like critical theory. I do not suggest that the work of the critic supersedes that of the writer, but neither to I wish to suggest that writing (if it is to mean anything at all) can exist, in some very real sense, without its readers.
Once upon a time, I was certain I could name and define the major (and many less than major) movements of Western literature. Today, I am not sure I can name the major movements in American literature since World War II. I am not even sure all of them have been named. As a younger reader, I believed that with my contemporaries I lived in the modern age and that literary modernism might well turn out to be the sine qua non of literary development. What, after all, could possibly succeed the Hemingways, the Faulkners, the Hellers who dominated the literary stage of the day? The answer is (no great surprise) that they were succeeded by what came next, by other writers. Their modern world was also replaced by what came next - new wars, new inventions, new schisms and newer literature. That is how time works, on art as surely as on individuals, on tradition, and on land forms. Among my personal favorites of those who succeeded the modernists I number a disparate company that includes Toni Morrison, Hubert Selby, Larry Brown, Tobias Wolff and such other lights as Raymond Carver, Linda Hogan, Ron Rash, and John Edgar Wideman.
The list contains, in addition to these writers of fiction, poets Linda Pastan and Stephen Dunn, literary novelist Michael Cunningham and pulp writers like Lawrence Block. Nor can I fairly leave out science fiction writers Karen Joy Fowler and Eleanor Arnason. The literary landscape is too varied and too complex for me to map it in convincing detail; it is changing even as I write. As succeeding waves of writers established themselves, the literary landscape they were shaping often seemed not to make very much sense, a fact of which John Hughes is clearly cognizant, for his effort in this study of the minimalist fiction of Frederick Barthelme is in part to make sense of the evolution of style and convention in American literature and, at the same time, to consider the subject matter by which the literature makes itself known. Hughes urges his readers to recognize that the minimalist work of Frederick Barthelme shows his readers what is, and in doing so shows them something about their world, - the malls, the apartment complexes, the highways, the parking lots.
Even the detritis of broken-down piers and abandoned airplane hangars - in a way that reveals the unique and specific beauty of those things. If there is a morally prescriptive element in Barthelme's fiction, it is one that encourages an acceptance of [that] world in all its tacky, garish, and ultimately satisfying glory (138).While Hughes offers a big "if" in this passage, he also offers a big possibility that encompasses and embraces not only Barthelme's achievement, but the inevitability of change in the literary landscape. The world itself is changing. The ways in which we perceive and understand that world, and its literature, must change as well. As Hughes acknowledges, the pedagogical touchstones of plot, character, setting, and theme have acquired new meaning - or new meanings - as the critical establishment has armed itself for and addressed itself to the onslaught of new things in world. We have moved from the modern to the post-modern to the post-post-modern or whatever it is we now inhabit. Within this broil, Hughes gives us some sense of continuity and a place in the spectrum that is occupied by Frederick Barthelme, and this is no small achievement.
It is almost certainly signification that Frederick Barthelme began his writing career as a metafictionist and then retooled as a minimalist; this fact alone does much to account for the meaning Hughes elucidates in Barthelme's minimalist work. There is much here to enjoy - not least the comparative close reading of T. S. Eliot's Prufrockian narrator and the more contemporary Prufockian figures in Barthelme's stories and novels. Hughes's elucidation of the major themes of the minimalist canon of Frederick Barthelme also point to a keen awareness of social and political history and the ways in which they have affected the literature of at least one strand of American writing. In this, Hughes builds an excellent case for the defense of minimalist writing - a case every reader would do well to consider, especially if that reader has been watching the literary scene for the past thirty or forty years. Ultimately, in terms of canonical acceptance, personal response may not matter all that much, but for the life of literature in the living culture it matters a great deal. A reader myself, I have not much cared for all the literary developments of the past forty years.
Some I have loved and some not. None would allow me the ease of indifference. When I read Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, they are still beautiful and full of a kind of desperation. I do not see them, particularly, as modernist or minimalist, though it seems to me that both labels may be applied. When I read Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" I am still moved, and (if the story is doing its work) not really conscious of literary categories. What makes the work of these writers so valuable, I suspect, is that a career in the academy and several years training as a critic have not rendered me immune to it, something that may well turn out to be true of the minimalist fiction we owe to Frederick Barthelme. Carver's and Hemingway's stories still move me with their beauty and their emotional strength. As a reader (a reader-by-nature, if you will), I am happiest when that is the case. As a critic, I am happier when I understand something new about the stories - about, perhaps, the relative lack of ornamentation, the apparent simplicity of the language - that I had not realized on earlier readings.
I am even happier when I can start to see a "history" of literary development, from early to late Hemingway, from the forties to the seventies and eighties. These, like all preferences, seem to me to best be accounted for by personal taste, which (along with far more impressive forces) shapes the history of literature. What makes literary criticism like this work by John Hughes valuable is that it allows us to see something larger about the work of Frederick Barthelme than we would likely see alone - its place in the evolving consciousness of the writer and the reader and its place in the continuous movement of American letters.