Would Donald Barthelme or Herman Melville be published now?

Others have mentioned Dave Eggers’ piece on Monty Python, which appears in The New Yorker this week. I haven’t gotten around to reading the thing yet, but if you’re dying to dig in, it’s not hard to find. Eggers also answers some interview questions online. His thoughts about the de facto structural requirements for contemporary fiction are interesting:

generally, books weren’t always so streamlined and tidy. We have a hard time reading Cervantes or “Moby-Dick” now, because they’re unwieldy and very strange, when you think about it. They’re eccentric. Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the Underground” is a very weird book, meandering. And that’s not really allowed so much now. You don’t see tangents, or unusual narrative shapes as much. Right before I did the Python piece, I was writing a new introduction to “Forty Stories,” by Donald Barthelme, and I think that he and Python share a lot of DNA. Barthelme had no reverence for narrative at all, and it was really just paragraph to paragraph — you had the sense that he could go in any direction at any point. And each story had to come in a completely different shape than any other story by him or anyone before. The shape was always important. At the same time, he was really funny. I think that being in touch with the absurdity of life, it’s got to encompass the absurdity of form. If you wanted to say, “Obviously, life is absurd, this is all screwed, we’re all screwed, and we’re going to die and then be dust, and it makes no sense for us to care about anything — and that’s why we have to care about everything,” there are a lot of people that will come to that same thesis, but then they’ll write about it, and they’ll be completely reverent to the contemporary standard form of a novel. It’s a really strange time for books, in some ways. Anything off the beaten path, structurally, is censured. If Barthelme were writing today, I think he would be highly marginalized. And, you know, in his heyday, he had stuff in The Talk of the Town and Shouts & Murmurs all the time. He was a big New Yorker contributor, and, if you read what he wrote for The New Yorker, you cannot believe that it was in a mainstream weekly magazine.


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