02/15/2012 02:14 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2012

Hard Print: John Barth on Fistfights, Riots and Shadow Boxing With Norman Mailer


Critics' accusations to the contrary, there's really nothing unrealistic about John Barth. Granted only his first two novels -- The Floating Opera and The End of the Road -- were considered "realist" (and those both date all the way back to the '50s), and yes, his 15 (count 'em!) subsequent fictions have been labeled everything from Fabulist to Postmodern to Meta. Yet as fabulously PoMo as were the metafictions upon which Barth has made his reputation (from 1960s The Sot-Weed Factor onward), neither his most recent Every Third Thought (Counterpoint, $24) or 2008's The Development (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $23) could even exist had he not first lived the life each are in many ways based upon.

Then there's the American Man of Extraordinary Letter's unflagging work ethic, which owes more to collars of blue than white, despite the many, many moons he's spent in ivory towers. Even when the experimentalist is waxing upon something as elusive as a Muse (as he does in his Granta essay "The End?"), Barth has an almost blunt matter of factness. Face-to-face at the Coral Gables branch of Books and Books in support of Granta's just-out Exit Strategies, the writer most likely to be read from an angle is about as direct as direct can get.

Nevertheless, when a man's name is synonymous with somewhat lofty airings, it's only natural to wanna bring him down from the clouds. So, over a helping of "table wine" (two glasses daily, one with dinner; then a glass of beer before bed) and a cocktail snuck from John Martin's (much to a bouncer's chagrin), we grounded ourselves -- and left the flights to the fancy pants.

With Barth, of course, who's spent a large part of his 81 years teaching people to wisely use words, even a grounding is bound to be anchored in high lit. There's Chekov's proverbial shotgun on the wall (where it must be fired in the third act, natch); Joseph ("Joe") Heller's beginning with endings ("I wouldn't know how to write a novel [otherwise]"); and "platform-sharing" with "close friend" Donald ("Don") Barthelme (who "looked like an Amish farmer from West 11th Street"). There are seminar remembrances of William Gaddis (another with whom Barth was often lumped), Raymond Carver ("don't be surprised if I have nothing to say"). He did not like public appearances, but he agreed to come. And he was okay. He listened to the students, and worked with the students.

"I so enjoyed having writers speak at my seminars; then remembering what they said," says Barth, "that it became part of my spiel."

Barth, taught at Penn State, SUNY/Buffalo, Boston U and Johns Hopkins, hosted "everyfuckingbody, for decades," including the aforementioned Barthleme, who was a "favorite."

"Don walked into the room and asked the grad students 'so what's bothering you?", recalls Barth.

"'How can we become better writers?' asked one student."

"'You might start by reading all of philosophy, from pre-Socratic to the last semester. That might help.'"

"But Mr. Barth already says we should read all of literature, from Egyptian Middle Kingdom to last semester.'"

"'That too.' said Barthleme. 'In fact you're probably wasting your time eating and sleeping.'"

Another favorite seminar attendee was Norman Mailer, who not only insisted he introduce himself ("I'm Norman Mailer. Any questions?"), but asked Barth to shadow box with him before he took to the head of the class.

"I'd only been in a fistfight once in my life," remembers Barth, "in the 5th grade, with a former best friend. We slugged each other a few times and wrestled each other to the ground. I actually think I won that. But we made up it was even over. With Mailer at least I ended up on my feet."

Star-studded seminars aren't the only things Barth fondly recalls, nor are they even the most violent, playfully or otherwise. In fact, an episode at SUNY/Buffalo almost got our man mauled not by a literary lion -- but by the authorities.

"It really was the "High" Sixties, in both senses," says Barth, "a time of sit-ins and riots. We had one grad student who kept complaining that 'history was shit.'"

"'Fine, we said, 'but can you tell us a bit about the idea of history being shit?'"

"'That's all shit too.'"

"At the point we just wanted to get rid of the guy, so we agreed to give him his doctorate if he promised never to enter a classroom again. When we went out into the hallway to tell him, tear gas came pouring into the building. So instead of teacher teaching student, the situation was reversed, and he told us to lie down in the fetal position, cover your genitals, and pray to hell they recognize you as faculty."

Did the riot squad recognize you as faculty?

"I'm still here, am I not?" replies Barth.

Indeed you are, sir. Indeed you are.

Image courtesy of Jeffrey Delannoy