Barthelme and philosophy and fathers

Donald Barthelme once said that “selecting [literary] fathers” is one of the most important steps in the process of becoming a writer. In an old interview, one of his City College students, Brian Kiteley, talks about this comment in connection with Barthelme’s approach to teaching fiction writing:

He rarely recommend[ed] anyone specifically to us. We knew that his fellow postmodernists (though we didn’t use that word in 1983) were worth reading. But he most clearly wanted his writing students to be philosophically well-educated….

Barthelme struck me as a very self-assured man who nevertheless did not seem to believe his method of fiction-making was the be-all and end-all of writing stories. He seemed to like a great range of writing styles. I recall him strongly recommending Walker Percy (whose book The Moviegoer I’d read in high school and adored). But Percy is about as far from Barthelme as one can imagine going, except that both are very philosophically inclined. The only thing I remember Barthelme urging on us was conciseness. Get to the point, he was always saying. Both he and one of my other teachers at City College, Grace Paley, left that very strong impression on me — write less; be content with little, as long as it’s beautiful.

Kiteley also recalls Barthelme’s anxieties about his failure to meet the expectations of his actual father:

When I visited Barthelme … he told me about a dream he’d had the night before. He was in a room filled with hardbound and soft cover versions of his books. His father, the modernist architect, was also in the room, examining absent-mindedly one of these books. Finally, after a long silence, he walked over to his son and hit him on the forehead with the book. “Why don’t you get a real job, Don?” This stunned and depressed me — a great writer still suffering under his father’s yoke. Later it gave me a kind of license to indulge in similar thoughts, similar anxieties, without the feeling of being alone with them.


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.