Barth on writers and their advice to young writers

In the current issue of Poets & Writers, John Barth reflects on university readings given by writers. He recalls being impressed as a Johns Hopkins undergraduate with the performances of such luminaries as:

W.H. Auden, e.e. cummings, John Dos Passos, and a decidedly intoxicated Dylan Thomas, who threw up in the wastebasket of our seminar room just prior to his public reading and had to be walked by our department chairman a few turns around the quadrangle to clear his head. After which—in a chemistry lecture-theater, with lab faucets flanking the podium and the old 92-element periodic table on the wall behind—he delivered himself flawlessly of perhaps the most eloquent, exhilarating, intoxicating poetry reading I’ve ever heard.

Now, after hosting readings and lectures conducted by a diverse group of authors, including Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme, Grace Paley, Raymond Carver, and Jorge Louis Borges, Barth finds himself sharing their thoughts about writing with his students:

usually though not invariably because they made their point so memorably; sometimes because, while memorable, their aphorisms seem to me to need a bit of qualifying, or at least glossing; and other times because I respectfully but firmly disagree and wouldn’t want their recommendations or pronouncements taken as gospel.

Working backward through those three categories: I remember Kurt Vonnegut’s smiling, shrug-shouldered, but not unserious admission that “like all writers,” he writes his fiction “in the secret utopian hope of changing the world,” and my wanting to differ, politely: “Not all of us, Kurt; some of us just want to get a story told.” I quite allow, however, that if like Vonnegut I had been a prisoner of the Nazi Wehrmacht in World War II and by the merest fluke had survived the Allied bombing of Dresden during my captivity, I might well approach the fictive page with the same “secret hope” as his.


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