ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: John Barth is, as he has said, both marathoner and sprinter, novelist and short story writer. He's known for 800-page novels like "The Sot-Weed Factor" and collections of short stories. This month, he received the coveted PEN-Malamud Award for excellence in short fiction. His most recent collection is "On with the Story," a series of related tales about, among other things, how storytelling can or cannot keep death at bay. Barth also received a $100,000 lifetime achievement award last month from the Santa Fe, New Mexico-based Lannen Foundation. He is Professor Emeritus in the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins University.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you very much for being with us, and congratulations.
JOHN BARTH, Writer: My pleasure.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Which do you prefer writing -short stories or novels?
JOHN BARTH: Well, you said sprinter and marathoner, and there's no question about it, that by temperament and metabolism I'm a marathoner. "Prefer" is not the wrong word, because they're both great fun when all is going well, and they're both not fun at all when things aren't going well. But I'm usually by temperament in for the long haul. Once every four years for me is the median time, and that seems to be just about enough time to invent a new identity, a new voice, and face the enormous expanse of whiteness that has to be filled with little marks that translate into, we hope, good literature.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You wrote several long novels though and then turned to the short story in the 60's. Why? What were you longing for that only the short story could give you?
JOHN BARTH: Well, the short story turned to me. We all cut our teeth. We all meaning most of us who end up being professional writers - cut our teeth on the short forms. It's a good teaching tool, and whether or not we do our apprenticeship partly in a college or university writing program - some do, some don't - we generally - most writers start out practicing the short form and then they get the hang of it and begin to write novels and for reasons that we may return to later the typical pattern is that they seldom or never go back to the short story, though there are a few splendid examples.
One things of John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates or Bernard Malamud, after whom the PEN-Malamud Award was named, who moved easily all through - who move easily all through their careers between the long form and the short form. For me, an enormous, so to speak, capital investment once every four years, but then I can then - I can then live with for six hundred pages, eight hundred pages, three hundred pages is the most natural form. But as I was saying a moment ago, sometimes the form chooses the writer, rather than the other way around. And twice in my four decades or so of writing and publishing fiction I've been seized, possessed by the muse of short-windedness, the muse of civilized brevity, let's say, and in both of those occasions, once back in the 1960's, then once again not so long ago, for two full years I could think of nothing except short stories - no novels. Novel, novel, novel - no novel - only the short form. Well, one learns to be patient with one's muse, and I did that in each case because I do like books - in each case a book ensued - I could - I seemed to be able to write no more than two or three short stories, separate short stories, before I want to begin connecting the dots somehow as Scheherazade does in the "1001 Knights" and write something that finally is larger than just the sum of its parts. So both "Lost in the Funhouse" from the 1960s and "On with the Story" from the 1990s are a series of short stories that I hope add up to a book and not just an innocent, pure, discreet selection of stories.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Before I get into "On with the Story" in detail, I want to know why you think we love stories so much, but you put that question so much more elegantly in this book, read the way you put the question and then answer it for me.
JOHN BARTH: It's one of the things that the stories - it's one of the things that the series of stories is about. I believe it has occurred to the character in this book whom the author says I like a lot to wonder whether people reflexively think of their lives as stories, because from birth to death they're exposed to so many narratives of every sort, or whether contrariwise, our notion of what a story is in every age and culture reflects an innately dramatistic sense of life, a feature of the biological evolution of the human brain and of human consciousness, which appears to be essentially of a scenario-making character. It doesn't sound like a very exciting way to start a short story, does it?
But, in fact, I think, Ms. Farnsworth, that that impulse both to see our lives as stories and to feel ourselves consciously or half-consciously as being not only the central character of our story - of our own story - this is happening to me, then that will happen to me - but also as minor characters in other people's stories. I don't think it's just writers who think this way, and I'm not talking about thinking of it consciously. It really does seem to be - at least I like those cognitive scientists who maintain that our human consciousness really has evolved to be essentially a scenario, make every animal that's sentient at all is thinking if this, then that, if it's this, I'll run, if it's this, I'll fight, if it's this, I'll eat it, if it's this, I'll cuddle up and be friendly. It's not a very long step from those "if this, then that" propositions to the "as ifs" and the "what ifs" that begin the process of storytelling and story- making. I think from the very beginning --at least as old as human language certainly we've been telling each other stories.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And this all has something to do with how important time is in stories and your love for Physics. The new collection is very much about Physics too. You have a lot of principles of Physics that you explain and use in it. Why?
JOHN BARTH: Physics - contemporary Physics - Astrophysics particularly but Quantum Physics as well - like many another thing makes - make good metaphors. You know, it's rich in metaphors, and some of that comes over into the book. Stories are about time. Stories live in time, and yet, as the great image of Scheherazade teaches us, stories are a way not only of spinning out time but of holding back time. I mean, every story is a way of getting to the end while postponing the end. If there is no end, the story has no shape, but one wants to get there in one's own time with the proper narrative effect.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And the stories in your most recent collection are all about holding off death and about the last things. Every story seems to be something - almost every one about the last - there's even a story about a lecture series where the lecturer is to pretend that this is their last lecture ever. And it is near the end of the millennium, near the end of the century. Are these the things you're thinking about?
JOHN BARTH: Well, and I have reached Social Security age, and I think it would be unusual if a writer didn't start thinking down the road a little bit at that age, which is not to say, I hope, that the stories and the book in which they appear is a morbid book - not at all. I think I am essentially -
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It's actually very funny, I would say.
JOHN BARTH: My muse is the muse with the grin more than the one with the grimace, though I respect both forms, as I respect both long and short forms. But, yes, as with my idol, Scheherazade, the people in this story are confronting some unspecified terminality. They're doing it with composure and civilized good cheer, but they're at what they're calling their last resort and something of a terminal nature seems about to happen before they leave that resort, if, indeed, they do, and in the meanwhile, to keep up their spirits and to remind themselves what a sweet time they've had, after all, at least up to that point, one of the members, it seems, of the couple tells the other stories and - and the readers, who at least know the "1001 Knights," is supposed to nudge his or her neighbor and say, "get it," it's an updating of the great image of Scheherazade, which is the most, I think, beautiful and profound image, not only of the story teller situation - she's only as good as her next story - it's publish or perish for Scheherazade from start to finish - but she's an image of the situation of all of us since - as I maintained before and you were kind enough to point out, we do - one way or another - live in a kind of narrative time. We're always saying, "How was your day," "Wait till you hear what happened to me on the way to the studio," et cetera.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You have another story you'd like to read before we go.
JOHN BARTH: When I first was beset by the muse of the short story back in the 1960s, I decided since I'm a long-winded novelist, I'm going to start by writing the shortest story in the English language, which at the same time would be an infinite story that would go on forever. I was under the influence of a wonderful Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges. The story goes like this, "Once upon a time there was a story that began." It's called "Frame Tale" and it's meant to be put on a mobius strip, one of those guys that goes around - it's a circle with a twist, as is the book that follows it, so it's an image for the book that follows it. So "Once upon a time there was a story that began, once upon a time there was a story that began," it's short on character, it's short on plot, but above all, it's short, and that's what short stories are all about. And it does remind us of the infinite imbeddedness of the narrative impulse in human consciousness. I like to think if Scheherazade had had this little gadget, her problems would have been solved, the king would have gone to sleep, she could have started her novel, the end.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Mr. Barth, thanks for being with us and congratulations again on your awards.
JOHN BARTH: Thank you. My pleasure.