John Barth, Writer Who Pushed Storytelling’s Limits, Dies at 93

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John Barth, who, believing that the old literary conventions were exhausted, extended the limits of storytelling with imaginative and intricately woven novels like “The Sot-Weed Factor” and “Giles Goat-Boy,” died on Tuesday. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by Rachel Wallach, who works in communications at Johns Hopkins University, where Mr. Barth was an emeritus professor of English and creative writing. She said she did not have further details.

Mr. Barth was 30 when he published his sprawling third novel, the boisterous “The Sot-Weed Factor” (1960). It projected him into the ranks of the country’s most innovative writers, drawing comparisons to contemporaries like Thomas Pynchon, Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov.

He followed up with another major work, “Giles Goat-Boy” (1966), which he summarized as a story “about a young man who is raised as a goat, who later learns he’s human and commits himself to the heroic project of discovering the secret of things.” It was also an erudite and satirical parable of the Cold War, in which campuses of a divided university confronted each other in hostility and mutual deterrence.

Mr. Barth was a practitioner and a theoretician of postmodern literature. In 1967, he wrote a critical essay for The Atlantic Monthly, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” which continues to be cited as the manifesto of postmodernism and which has inspired more than three decades of debate over its central contention: that old conventions of literary narrative can be, and indeed have been, “used up.”

As his foremost inspiration, Mr. Barth cited Scheherazade, the tale-spinning enchantress who nightly wove stories to keep her master from executing her at dawn. He said it was she who first bewitched him when he worked as a page in the stacks of the Johns Hopkins University library in Baltimore as an undergraduate.

From 1965 to 1973, Mr. Barth taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo (now the University at Buffalo), where he was a member of a renowned English department that also included the critic Leslie Fiedler.

Mr. Barth’s creative output was prodigious: He published nearly 20 novels and collections of short stories, three books of critical essays and a final book of short observational pieces. In his teaching and in his writing, he stressed the force of narrative imagination in the face of death, or even just boredom. When the university was thrown into chaos by a long and shapeless student upheaval in early 1970, Mr. Barth was asked by a young reporter what the experience had taught him.

In the Tidewater accent of his native Maryland, Mr. Barth acknowledged that by temperament he was not likely to get involved in campus protests and “the casuistries that people evolve.” He volunteered laconically that what he had learned was “the fact that the situation is desperate doesn’t make it any more interesting.”

Mr. Barth was a distinctive presence. “He is a tall man with a domed forehead; a pair of very large-rimmed spectacles give him a professorial, owlish look,” George Plimpton wrote in the introduction to an interview he conducted with Mr. Barth for The Paris Review in 1985. “He is a caricaturist’s delight.”

“In manner,” Mr. Plimpton continued, “Barth has been described as a combination of British officer and Southern gentleman.”

John Simmons Barth was born on May 27, 1930, in Cambridge, Md., on Chesapeake Bay, to John Jacob and Georgia (Simmons) Barth. His father ran a candy store. He had a twin sister, Jill, who once told The Washington Post that he had “gotten a lot of things without trying very hard at school.” An older brother, William, said that as a child John “always had an overactive imagination.” He added, “What amazes me is how he imagines so much when he’s experienced so little.”

In high school Mr. Barth was drawn to music; he played drums in the school band and hoped to become a jazz arranger. He was accepted to join a summer program run by the Juilliard School in New York before enrolling at Johns Hopkins.

“I found out very quickly in New York,” he said in a 2008 interview, “that the young man to my right and the young woman to my left were going to be the real professional musicians of their generation, and that what I had hoped was a pre-professional talent was really just an amateur flair.”

Mr. Barth graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1951 and received a master’s degree there the next year. He taught at Pennsylvania State University from 1953 to 1965.

His first published novel, “The Floating Opera” (1956), was narrated by a character who considers killing himself out of existential boredom before realizing that this choice would be as meaningless as any other. In 1969, Mr. Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse,” an experimental collection of short stories, was a finalist for the National Book Award. He won the award in 1973 for “Chimera,” another collection.

After the publication of “The End of the Road,” a campus novel filled with parodies of psychiatric and academic jargon, in 1958, Mr. Barth set out in a new and less realistic direction with “The Sot-Weed Factor,” a huge picaresque written in Elizabethan style and laden with puns. It tells the story of Ebenezer Cooke, the “sot-weed factor” (tobacco peddler) of the title, who travels through a sinful late-17th-century world with his twin sister and his tutor, struggling to maintain his virtue.

“The book is a bare-knuckled satire of humanity at large and the grandiose costume romance,” Edmund Fuller wrote in a review in The New York Times, “done with meticulous skill in an imitation of such 18th-century picaresque novelists as Fielding, Smollett and Sterne.”

He added, “For all the vigor of these models, we have to go back to Rabelais to match its unbridled bawdiness and scatological mirth.”

“The Sot-Weed Factor” was, Time magazine said, “that rare literary creation: a genuinely serious comedy.”Credit…Doubleday

Mr. Fiedler, Mr. Barth’s colleague in Buffalo, said “The Sot-Weed Factor” was “closer to the Great American Novel than any other book of the last decade.” Time magazine called it “that rare literary creation: a genuinely serious comedy.”

Mr. Barth took another gamble with his next book, saying it would be “a souped-up Bible.”

“What I really wanted to write after ‘The Sot-Weed Factor’ was a new Old Testament, a comic Old Testament,” he told an interviewer.

What emerged was “Giles Goat-Boy,” the story of a young man who, having recognized that he is human and not a goat, seeks to promote moral conduct on the west campus of a university and redeem its student body by reprogramming a computer, WESCAC, that dominates that portion of the campus, even while the machine is in a dangerous standoff with the equally threatening EASCAC, a deus ex machina that controls life on the east campus.

The book was generally received with enthusiasm and won Mr. Barth new admirers. But it was also criticized for what some called its artifice and contrivance. While Newsweek said it “confirms Barth’s standing as perhaps the most prodigally gifted comic novelist writing in English today,” Michael Dirda, writing in The Washington Post, called it “more than a little overwrought and too clever by half.”

The criticism would continue. Writing in The Times in 1982, Michiko Kakutani noted that over the years Mr. Barth had been “praised, on the one hand, for creating daring, innovative texts” and “damned, on the other, by critics as disparate as John Gardner and Gore Vidal, for substituting high-tech literary gimmicks for real characters and moral passion.”

Mr. Barth was clearly sensitive to such views and seemingly addressed them in one of his best-known statements: “My feeling about technique in art is that it has the same value as technique in lovemaking. That is to say, heartfelt ineptitude has its charm and so has heartless skill, but what you really want is passionate virtuosity.”

He defended his use of postmodern devices like jokes, irony and exaggeration to punctuate, comment on, and even ridicule and undermine a narrative. Such techniques, he insisted, provided the tools to replenish and build on what he considered to be the moribund realism of the 19th-century novel.

When an interviewer for Bookforum asked him in 2004 if he read his reviews, Mr. Barth replied: “Oh, sure. As I used to tell my apprentices, what you want most of all is intelligent praise. If you can’t have intelligent praise, you’ll take stupid praise. If you can’t have stupid praise, then the third-best thing is intelligent criticism. And, of course, the worst thing is stupid criticism.”

He especially disliked it when he was accused of writing spoofs. He once told Esquire magazine that the word “spoof” sounded like imperfectly suppressed flatulence.

Mr. Barth often tinkered with his own work and prepared revised editions of many of his books. One of his novels, “Letters” (1979), consisted of letters to and from the characters of his earlier novels. He revisited the essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” in another essay, written in 1980, titled “The Literature of Replenishment.” His “Tidewater Tales: A Novel” (1987) was conceived as a mirror-image twin to “Sabbatical: A Romance,” published five years earlier. Both dealt with couples on a sailboat trip, but with key characters making opposite life choices.

Mr. Barth’s novel “Coming Soon!!!” (2001) was a riff on his first book, “The Floating Opera.” It concerned a writing competition between an aging writer identified only as the “novelist emeritus” and a student at the Johns Hopkins writing department, where Mr. Barth had taught from 1973 to 1995.

As he grew older, so did his characters. “The Development” (2008) was a set of linked stories about the elderly residents of a gated community called Heron Bay Estates. There were toga parties and high spirits in these stories, but also pain and loss. One story was titled “Assisted Living,” another “The End.” His last book, a collection of short nonfiction pieces, “Postscripts,” was published in 2022.

Mr. Barth married Harriette Anne Strickland in 1950. They had three children, Christine, John and Daniel, and divorced in 1969. He married Shelly I. Rosenberg in 1970. Information about his survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Barth often sailed in the Chesapeake, as did many of his characters. He regularly played the drums with a neighborhood jazz band in Baltimore.

He confided to Ms. Kakutani that his experience in the world at large had been somewhat limited. He said he had “led a serene, tranquil and absolutely non-Byronic life.”

Michael T. Kaufman, a former Times editor and correspondent, died in 2010. Alex Traub contributed reporting.