All this came to mind recently when I picked up a novel I’d been meaning to read for many years, John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. Reading. The Sot-Weed Factor. John Barth. “This is Barth’s most distinguished masterpiece . This modern classic is a hilarious tribute to all the most insidious human vices. ii 1 03 THE SOX-WEED FACTOR by John Barth THE FI-OATINC OPFJRA THE KKI> OF XJfcUE ROAJD THJ SOT-‘WJeKO FACTOR The SOT-WEED.
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Some of the chiefest pleasures in a lifetime of reading fiction are those moments when you stumble upon a gem johj a book you somehow missed. This happens more often than we might care to admit because wred fiction is a lot like its distant cousin, the acquisition of knowledge: Lacunae are inevitable for even the most voracious and catholic of readers. The consolation is that the deeper you go into your life and your reading, the more precious the long-overlooked gems become once you finally unearth them.
Reading the opening words was like touching a live wire: From the foreword I learned that The Sot-Weed Factor was originally published in the summer ofwhen Barth was just 30, exactly 50 years before I finally came to it. I also learned that the novel sprang from an actual satirical poem of the same title published in by an actual man named Ebenezer Cooke.
This realization led Barth to uohn far richer one: The dangers of innocence versus the value of wise experience. Here, surely, is a rich theme for any American novelist trying to capture the impulses and foibles and follies of a nation convinced of its own righteousness — in love with its own virtue and virginity, if you will — a nation that historically has had little use for history and therefore has spent several centuries blundering its way, usually uninvited and ill-informed, into the affairs of other nations, beginning with the settlements of native Americans and moving on to the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia and, now, Iraq and Afghanistan.
He reserves special contempt for an American innocent named Alden Pyle, some sort of foreign-aid operative who shows up on Rue Catinat with a head full of half-baked theories and a heart teh of good intentions. Fowler, despite himself, begins to feel protective toward Pyle. He muses, too late, that he should have known better: And jogn, of course, causing all natures of harm to himself and to bystanders, innocent and otherwise.
And so innocent Ebenezer gets captured by rapacious pirates twice and murderous Indians, swindled, stripped of his clothing and his name and his estate — only to wind up with his virtue, if not his virginity, intact. His epic poem even becomes a hit. A little digging taught me that John Barth grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where much of the action in The Sot-Weed Factor takes place, and as vactor young man he switched from studying soh at Julliard to studying journalism at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.
Barth became intrigued with the literary device known as the frame tale, in which a character in a story narrates the story. For Weed, then, the telling of the story is the story. This got me thinking about my other belated fictional discoveries.
What was I thinking to wait so long? Even bad movies sometimes do good things for books. Books find us as often as we find them. I bought the volume and swallowed it whole, each short novel more hilariously disorienting than the last. On paper this might sound un-filmable, but I thought the same thing about William S. In the end, these belated discoveries did what all good fiction does: I place the word serious between quotation marks because soh one seems to know quite what it means as a modifier of writer, unless it means someone who is after something above and beyond the most basic and necessary thing, which is, of course, money.
Among the discoveries during my brief background check on Barth was an essay by a man named John Guzlowskiwho, as a grad student in the early s, was drunk on then-current American fiction — not only the mainstream realism of Updike, Bellow and Rothbut all the untamed, unnamed new writing by the likes of Barth and Pynchon, John Hawkes and William Gaddis and Robert Cooververy different writers who eventually got lumped together under a vague and porous umbrella called Postmodernism.
Guzlowski went on to teach at Eastern Illinois University, where he taught a course in Postmodern Fiction half a dozen times over the course of 20 years. He might as well have said serious novels or literary novels or novels that seek to do more than titillate or entertain. Those things, as Colum McCann knows, are becoming harder and harder to sell to American book buyers, and the people bart write them are edging closer and closer to the brink of irrelevance, which is a gentle way fwctor saying extinction.
There was a time, not so very long ago, when serious — and funny, challenging, mind-bending — fiction was passionately read and discussed, a vibrant part of our national life.
Bill Morris is a staff writer for The Millions. He lives in New York City. A few family portraits of lantern-jawed gentlemen in tie-wigs, and ladies with large head-dresses and small bodies, hung between the shelves lined with pleasantly-shabby books: The library at Bellomont was in aeed never used for reading, though it had a certain popularity as a smoking-room or a quiet retreat for flirtation.
I have been reading for some time now, complaints from writers about the demise of books and reading. And as the above quote shows, it is not anything really new. Rhe is a certain amount of irony and satire involved, which becomes more evident when read in context. And to put things even into, I hope, a greater perspective, historically speaking, reading and education for centuries were activities that were confined to very small portions of the population.
The great majority of people—in large parts of the world until the last years or so—were illiterate. The fact so few people read these days, despite near universal literacy, really does not concern me; there really is nothing to this. Publishers are putting untold numbers of books each year.
I really think that some of this is really some needless anxiety. To into this, perhaps a little further, is to think of who in history has written the books. Mostly well-educated, white men. There are a few exceptions, of course. Queen Elizabeth I wrote some poetry. And there factot a few others. Where are the women Elizabethan playwrights?
I love the Restoration and 17th Century—but where are the female equivalents of Pope, and Swift, and Sterne? Phyllis Wheately, writing in the American colonies, is one of the few people of color writing at this time—both female and uohn, both of which were pretty unusual for the time, since it was not considered necessary for either group to be educated in that way.
I really think that the Updike quote used by Mr. Morris is probably a little naive. And to be fair, I am not an Updike fan—he was just a little too unquestioning of his background, too WHASPy for my taste I have been adding the silent H to this acronym for the last few years, to isolate what is probably just assumed—and that is heterosexuality.
But that is another subject altogether. In the end, I just really do think that the navel-gazing and hand-wringing is unnecessary. Books will still be writtien and read, for the forseeable future.
Even though, just as for centuries, the pleasure of reading is still enjoyed by a minority. The Barth book sounds pretty interesting.
Anyway, this sounds like none of those and maybe worth a look. Ulysses, well…what were you thinking? Nice to see this. Your email address will not be published. This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed. The Millions’ future depends on your support. Become a member today.
A Chiefest Pleasure: Discovering The Sot-Weed Factor on its 50th Birthday – The Millions
Sometime after he died, I had what I think we literary types call an epiphany. My father was a fan. I am thankful for each of my mentors and what they’ve offered me at different points in my life as a writer. I don’t want to imagine what I might not have attempted, creatively and professionally, were it not for their support and enthusiasm, their benevolent shadows.
Bill, just before I read your piece, I was busy pulling books off my bookshelves. What I johb pulling off? Oh, and johnn for the tip on James Crumley…sounds like a must-read. Cancel reply Your email address will not be published.
He is also the author of Madonna of the Toasta look at the cultural ramifications of unexpected religious and secular icons. Keep up with his adventures in surprising iconography at his Wedd of the Toast blog.
In light of the many detailed and more timely reports from this year’s Book Expo America, this is not so much about BEA, but about how the setting of this year’s American publishing-industry high holiday really defined BEA Unlike the other two events of that paper and ink and more recently pixilated trinity – Frankfurt and London – this event ventures out from New York from time to time, and this year it tucked itself into downtown Los Angeles – not quite as sexy as American Apparel would lead you to believe, though it is not difficult to interpret those ads as remnants of lascivious thoughts burped up by Charles Bukowski as he leered at a waitress in some cafeteria in this very same downtown.
You can imagine how the fact that I stayed in the Stillwell Hotel, a place right out of a Bukowski book except this hotel reeked like curry would skew how I was taking in the days. Like all great cities, Los Angeles has a feel that is unmistakable and, for better or worse, wholly its own. That je ne sais quoi struck me on the flight, in fact. The woman sitting next to me, a relationship expert and author, barraged me with her war stories, from her first publishing gig working at Grove Press, fielding phone calls from Sam Beckett who was asking where his money was to schooling me about how you know when a television interview has gone well hers went well on “Oprah”, but not so well on “The Today Show”.
And so it began. I arrived on Thursday. A blue-haired resident paying her rent, in cash, delayed my check-in to the Stillwell. Sunset portioned downtown into stark blocks of shadows and light as I noticed droves of people – young and old, of all ethnicities – snaking into a hotel.
I assumed a publishing event, but I was wrong.
A Chiefest Pleasure: Discovering The Sot-Weed Factor on its 50th Birthday
A toothy, plastic-looking woman informed me that it was a “creating happiness seminar. After a busy day of meetings on Friday, I kept away from industry parties that night, opting to hang out with an old friend of mine in Santa Monica, but even there the star-studded grip of publishing choked me. Someone I met works for a talent agency and this guy is a celebrity handler, and had been hanging with Slash the night before, who just so happens to have a book out.
I know, because I had seen Slash earlier that day, smaller than I would have thought, but wearing his trademark top hat as he signed books. If you’re not a celebrity in LA, it always seems like you’re only one conversation away from talking about a celebrity. All three days drew people in search of free tote bags and celebrity autographs, but once all of the initial business was done – the true purpose of BEA, the selling of books, foreign rights and film rights, which mostly happened on Friday – things seemed subdued.
The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth
As Saturday got underway, everyone was talking about how attendance was down. Not only was day one public attendance down by thousands compared to joun years, but everyone was joking about all of the agents, editors and publishers that did not bother making the trip from New York, let soh Europe.
And so we were all there, spending the days under artificial lights, nursing hangovers and figuring out where to head at 5pm for some hair of the dog.
Yes, we were all in Los Angeles, and most of us seemed ready to be back home, especially once the open bars ended.