Critical Mass

The Conversation Continues


The Quarterly Conversation, the online critical journal edited by Scott Esposito, has just published its twelfth issue. If I have the math right (and assuming it’s not like some literary publications which are less periodicals than “sporadicals”) that means TQC has been around for three years. A long time, as these things go. And if it were a print publication, I would definitely buy it at the newsstand. The table of contents lists essay and reviews on Jorge Luis Borges, Roberto Bolaño, Nicholson Baker, Simone de Beauvoir, and Kurt Vonnegut, as well as several authors whose names I don’t recognize yet probably should.

And it’s good to find Dan Green using the publication of Flying to America as an occasion to discuss the truly screwed-up way that readers must now encounter Donald Barthelme’s fiction. Green translates into a rational argument what I was afraid might be my own, private, very irritable response to Sixty Stories and Forty Stories.

The original collections, most of them published in the 1970s, each had a special flow and temper. To quote Green:

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.

Even though the same work could be found in the Big Barthelme Barns, it wasn’t the same. The sense of an evolving body of writing seemed to be obliterated. After that, I kept an eye out for the paperbacks of the original collections at secondhand shops. The fact that Come Back, Dr. Caligari or Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts have not been reprinted in years—by now, decades—is absurd.

“I fear,” writes Green, “given the economics of American publishing, that the original books will not be readily available and that Barthelme will be known to future readers mostly through the assembled miscellanies—perhaps only by Sixty Stories. This will be a sad (and avoidable) injustice to a great writer.”

Damn straight. So is somebody out there willing to fix it?