From the archive
Mark McGurl, quoted by Elif Batuman, argues that the ‘ultimate commitment’ of the discipline of creative writing ‘is not to knowledge but to what Donald Barthelme called “Not-Knowing”’ (LRB, 23 September). If this is McGurl’s view, it runs counter to the spirit of an exchange recorded by John Barth in his introduction to Not-Knowing, a posthumous collection of Barthelme’s essays and interviews, in which Barthelme, asked by a student how to become a better writer, suggests reading the entire history of philosophy ‘from the Presocratics up through last semester’. The student worriedly replies that Barth has already advised his class to read all of literature, ‘from Gilgamesh up through last semester’.
‘That too,’ Barthelme agrees, and adds: ‘You’re probably wasting your time on eating and sleeping. Cease that, and read all of philosophy and all of literature. Also art. Plus politics and a few other things. The history of everything.’ Barthelme’s fiction presumed an encyclopedic historical consciousness and proceeded from, as he put it elsewhere, the effort ‘to attain a fresh mode of cognition’. His fiction, with its multiple references and allusions to the histories of literature, art, philosophy, architecture and politics, certainly bears the traces of his own study of the history of everything, as well as a melancholy recognition of how useful that study might ultimately prove to be; asked why he wrote the way he did, he liked to reply: ‘Because Samuel Beckett already writes the way he does.’