Jun 02, 2008, 06:39AM

Experimental Authors Must Be Appreciated For Their Failures

Flying to America, the third and final collection of Donald Barthelme's short fiction, was published last October. In this essay, a reader celebrates the writer's genius and innovation while exploring the problems with how Barthelme's legacy has been protected.

Presumably, Barthelme reprinted in Sixty Stories the stories he most wanted to highlight. To this extent, these must have been what Barthelme (or Barthelme and his editor) considered the "best" of what is now apparently his 145 short stories (forty-five are included in Flying to America). Likewise, it must be presumed that the 40 stories of the second volume were second-tier stories of a sort, while the remainder as collected in this new volume unfortunately must be counted as Barthelme's least essential efforts.

Certainly not all of the stories to be found in either Sixty Stories or Forty Stories are gems either, although this is more a function of Barthelme's relentlessly experimental approach than it is a judgment on his skills as a writer. Though there is something identifiably Barthelmean in all of his stories—a voice, a familiarity with many different cultural domains, a comedian's sense of timing and effect—what characterizes his body of work as a whole is an always adventurous determination to reconceive the form and the discursive assumptions of the short story as inherited by mid 20th-century writers. Rarely does Barthelme stick to a previously employed method or device (with the possible exception of the "dialog" stories—stories written entirely in dialog—that Barthelme wrote throughout his career but especially in the mid-to-late '70s). One of the pleasures of reading Barthelmes' stories as they appeared, both in The New Yorker and in the subsequent books, was anticipating what new challenge to our assumptions about the nature of the short story Barthelme would offer. Many of these stories were indeed among the most innovative works of fiction in a period marked by a renewal of innovation by American fiction writers, but inevitably Barthelme's insistent experimentalism would provide hits and misses, failed experiments as well as transformative triumphs.

The packaging of the fiction of a writer like Donald Barthelme in such an assortment as Flying to America raises important questions, not just about perceptions of Barthelme's career as a short story writer but also perceptions of the status of short stories in general. Because Barthelme's achievement as a writer of fiction is primarily as an author of short stories, his example is particularly resonant, but the problem of wrenching the work out of meaningful context, of isolating individual stories without reference to other work, or to the enabling assumptions the author brings to the work, is almost always present in the way our literary culture regards the short story. Stories are published in an essentially haphazard fashion, depending entirely on what a particular publication (generally disconnected from all other such publications) find "suitable" to its own editorial tastes [...] Thus writers whose most representative work is in short fiction have an inherently more difficult time getting their work judged appropriately. It would seem that even as important a postwar American writer as Donald Barthelme ultimately might not be read in the way—with the right kind of attention—his fiction deserves.


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