The influence of anxiety: the motivations of awareness

Published: 2019/12/11 Number of words: 3902

Reflecting on a proposed ultimacy to the work and thought of Samuel Beckett, John Barth imagines: ‘How about an empty, silent stage, then, or blank pages–a “happening” where nothing happens, like John Cage’s 4’33” performed in an empty hall?’(The Friday Book, 67). It is a suggestion entirely consistent with the ideas Beckett pursued along his entropic path from Watt to The Unnameable; it is the logical conclusion to draw when considering how Beckett’s project, governed by a continued deterioration of language, must eventually become mute. However, as radical as the theatrical gesture Barth puts forward might look, it would still remain quite comfortably within the critical boundaries of a play. As Barth goes on to point out, ‘…dramatic communication consists of the absence as well as the presence of the actors; “we have our exits and our entrances”: and so that even that would be imperfectly ultimate in Beckett’s case’ (The Friday Book, 68). We quickly see how there is no ‘outside’ from which the artist can hope to communicate to us, and that to continue expressing him/herself, and particularly his/her ideas regarding his/her art, will require an engagement with at least the rudimentary tools of his/her chosen medium. Barth addresses this irony when he has the narrator of Lost in the Funhouse describe how ‘He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator – though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed’(Barth,17).

It is the ‘entering’ which causes the eventual anxiety of the writer; in undertaking the task of creating fiction, the writer is forced to recognize certain traditions and supposed dogmas that have come before him/her, some of which may limit and distort his/her expression. T.S Eliot identifies this ancestry of ideas in his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, and concludes that progression and novelty are made possible only once this lineage has been recognized and in some way addressed. As he rightly suggests, the writer is not expected to simply repeat and update older works, but might form his/her engagement through intertextuality, parody, or other methods which appropriate ideas from existing literature but do so to achieve something wholly unlike their original or intended purpose[1]. Understandably, this inescapableness of history produces a degree of anxiety in the writer. One means of alleviating or managing it is to expose it in the ways that Barth does in his own fiction. Whilst it resists the orthodoxy established by the traditions which preceded it, it is still a kind of writing that we recognize as fiction. For this reason, it is clear that Barth is not simply attempting to undermine fiction, but is endeavouring to write in a way that makes use of its limitations and explores its singularity.

What I would like to suggest in this essay is that the staging of anxiety in American literature during the 1960s was a kind of catharsis for fiction, an exercise that led to a renewed understanding of the possibilities for such a medium. Rather than simply regarding metafiction as the means of exposing the disingenuousness of certain literary tropes, I will argue that it is a strategy that helped to re-establish the dynamic between author and reader, fiction and criticism. In short, I plan to trace the movement from the ‘Literature of Exhaustion’ to the ‘Literature of Replenishment’, identifying exactly which creative and theoretical choices were responsible for the transition. I will begin by expanding on my claims regarding the ways in which metafiction might be seen as restoring some balance between the author and his/her reader. From here I will attempt to situate the author of a metafictional text inside his/her fiction.

The death of the reader: metafiction and the ways we read

‘Let us suppose that someone is writing a story. From the world of conventional signs he takes an azalea bush, plants it in a pleasant park. He takes a gold pocket watch from the world of conventional signs and places it in the azalea bush. He takes from the same rich source a handsome thief and a chastity belt, places the thief in the chastity belt and lays him tenderly under the azalea, not neglecting to wind the gold pocket watch so that its ticking will, at length, awaken the now-sleeping thief. From the Sarah Lawrence campus he borrows a pair of seniors, Jacqueline and Jemima, and sets them to walking in the vicinity of the azalea bush and the handsome, chaste thief. Jacqueline and Jemima have just failed the Graduate Record Examination and are cursing God in colourful Sarah Lawrence language. What happens next?

Of course, I don’t know’. (Barthelme, 11)

Taken from Donald Barthelme’s essay, Not Knowing, this passage nicely outlines the central objectives of metafiction. Not only does it illustrate how criticism and fiction are synthesized by metafiction – metafiction commentating on texts whilst creating one of its own – but it consciously exposes some of the more common misconceptions that have been attached to the Author for some time. That Barthelme himself does not know what will come next in this imagined sequence demonstrates how the process of creating a story involves a certain negotiation of contingencies. Whilst we are likely to trust that a novel has a purpose and is designed to reveal some kind of order or meaning, the reality is that it is simply the result of a kind of free play of association. By juxtaposing certain ideas, the writer is, in effect, appropriating concepts and meanings from the world around him/her in order to construct a narrative in which to house them. This process, convincing as its results can be, is ultimately one which involves a creative act, and for that reason cannot be considered as an article pertaining to truth, as some fictions may like us to believe. If we suppose that Barthelme goes on to apprehend his imaginary crook with a similarly imaginary cop, it isn’t because of any prevailing sense of justice in the ‘real world’, but because that is the outcome which has been arbitrarily decided by the writer. By confessing that he/she does not know what will become of the characters he/she has just breathed into existence, we are reminded that fiction is often something that tries desperately to disguise the fact it is always an artifice, never an accurate transcription of the world in which we, the readers, live in. Once we have accepted this fact, we can move past the inherently disingenuous devices that have previously characterized literature and allow for this deconstruction to form the basis of a new kind of fiction. Indeed, the largely nebulous term ‘postmodern fiction’ would appear to feature these kinds of works in its loose canon: Nabokov’s Lolita, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night A Traveler each expose in their own ways the fictionality of their being, producing a work that relies on the traditions of literature and the reader’s fluency in them. Indeed, one of the ways in which metafiction might be regarded as something restorative is precisely because it requires the reader’s existing knowledge in order to be successful. Unlike typically Realist devices, metafiction relies entirely on a comprehensive understanding of how novels typically operate, asking not that the reader diligently follow a story and employ his/her imagination, but that he/she bring his/her existing knowledge to bear on the work and engage with it in a more academic capacity. The discourse moves away from narrative towards a dialogue concerning what fiction is, and what it can be said to achieve. We see clearly how metafiction is not simply mocking the attempts of earlier writers, but is looking to improve on the methods they adopted.

Furthermore, Barthelme’s essay acknowledges that the writer is foremost in handling semiotics, subtly and overtly directing the imagination of his/her reader along an invented trajectory. Of course, as Barthelme points out, the path of this trajectory is entirely at the discretion of the writer and might not come to anything at all. By showing how ‘conventional signs’ are the composites of fiction, Barthelme calls our attention to the textuality of fiction, reminding us that what we are engaging with is simply a linguistic construction. Whilst this certainly challenges the illusion that fiction is capable of producing something that transcends an arrangement of text on a page, it is in many ways a very liberating gesture. In Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968), for instance, William H. Gass has his narrator accuse the reader of mistreating the idea of character in fiction, when she says: ‘the usual view is that you see through me, through what I am really – significant sound’ (William Gass, 52). This ‘seeing through’ is, of course, what readers have been expected to do in many of their previous encounters with literature. Often in the case of Realist novels, or indeed any kind of fiction that is using the medium to discuss ideas other than writing, readers will be expected to use language as something of a visual and intellectual prompt, allowing it to move away from the purely linguistic to something more abstract.

What Gass does in his novella, and which is crucial to understanding how metafiction can be seen as a readjustment of traditional ideas, is to shift our attention away from the signified and towards the signifier. By showing how language should be considered for its own qualities and not simply what its connotations can give rise to, we begin to see how by forcing the reader to acknowledge the textuality of what he/she is reading, a kind of writing is made possible which is much more aligned with the singularity of fiction. Indeed, it is only in fiction (and in poetry) that language can escape from its usual, utilitarian obligation. Instead of designating truth-claims or behaving in a way which responsibly describes reality, words are permitted the freedom to be applied for their sound and shape, made effective by the creative use of syntax. Clearly, if we follow Gass’ advice to hesitate on language rather than on its connotations, our duty as readers becomes transformed via metafiction. No longer are we treating the text in the same way as we have others, but are interpreting it on the grounds that it sets out for itself. This is exactly why I am suggesting that metafiction can be regarded as restoring a balance to the reader and the writer; by allowing the author to speak directly to the reader, it is possible that texts can become liberated from the limiting models/analysis that came out of the tradition of Realist writing and criticism, allowing for a more singular, case by case approach to fiction and language.

If we return to Barth, we are able to observe how his addresses to the reader are similarly prescriptive, but are more forthcoming in their antagonism towards the capacity of the ‘usual reader’. Amidst a harangue, the narrator all but yells:

‘The reader! You, dogged, uninsultable, print-oriented bastard, it’s you I’m addressing, who else, from inside this monstrous fiction. You’ve read me this far, then? Even this far? For what discreditable motive? How is it you don’t go to a movie, watch TV, stare at a wall, play tennis with a friend, make amorous advances to the person who comes to your mind when I speak of amorous advances? Can nothing surfeit, saturate you, turn you off? Where’s your shame?’ (Barth, 13).

In this passage we find everything that has come to characterize the 1960s conception of metafiction: self-reflexivity is taken to its absolute limits, the agenda of the reader is brought beyond playful questioning to the point of hostile interrogation, and the purpose of fiction and our reading of it is presented as a laughable enterprise. In his litany of alternatives we intuit a great deal of anxiety; the author, usually so keen to sustain our attention to his clauses and plot, is, in this case, making us acutely aware of the limited capabilities a story truly has – that what we are reading is a strictly literary event is made unavoidably obvious, and to expect to gain anything other than an enhanced awareness of the artificial nature of fiction would be entirely foolish. Such a blatant intrusion naturally disrupts traditional ideas of reading. By insisting we participate and reflect on the activity we are performing, our role as readers becomes something quite unlike the role we are asked to occupy when reading nineteenth-century Realism, for instance. No longer is the reader encouraged to suspend his/her disbelief, but is instead given total exposure to the mechanics of writing and asked to consider how absurd it all is. Here we see a restoring of the balance I referred to earlier; in many ways, metafiction is the most earnest gesture a writer might make. By confessing to all the techniques he/she is employing, the writer does not ask that we interpret his/her objectives, but lays them bare so that we might engage them more directly. The reason I suggest that this gesture might be considered transitional or, in Barth’s terms, replenishing, is because although it denies us the pleasures we might receive elsewhere in literature, it is in many ways, a sign of progress. By revealing the impotence and exhaustiveness of popular literary devices, the metafiction of the 1960s performed a kind of exorcising which removed these redundant gestures, or at least revealed their ineffectiveness, and proposed alternatives with more progressive possibilities. Certainly, recent fiction would confirm this thesis; writers such as David Foster Wallace, Don Delillo, and Dave Eggers all display in their own fiction an awareness of ‘60s metafiction (DFW pays homage to Barth in his story ‘Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, a response to ‘LITFH’) and use it as the source from which they draw their own work and provide a subsequent extension to their work.

The writer and his/her impersonal voice: situating the author in his/her metafiction

Not only does Barth display an anxiety about how his fiction is likely to be read, but the precariousness of his position as Author seemingly contributes to his struggle. As Marjorie Worthington points out in her study of authority in the story ‘What is often overlooked is metafiction’s inherent and inevitable preoccupation with the creative power of the author. At the same time that they lament the diminished capacity of the narrator to construct a proper story, the self-conscious moments in Lost in the Funhouse point necessarily to the existence of a creator, of an author’(Worthington, 116). Written less than a year after the publication of Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author, we can trace what is evidently a castrating effect on the writer of fiction. Consider the implications of the claim, ‘For Mallarme, as for us, it is language which speaks, not the author: to write is to reach through a pre-existing impersonality…where language alone acts, “performs”, and not “oneself”’(Barthes, 3). Applying this thinking to Barth effectively compromises any presence he might wish to occupy in his fictions, reducing him to ‘the means’ for its existence: a version of Rousseau’s ‘scriptor’[2]. Whilst it’s true that it is unnecessary for us to have a working knowledge of the biography of John Barth, it would certainly appear that for metafiction to be successful, we must be convinced that there is an author behind what are reading; one who is using his/her agency to reach through to us. What I would suggest allows Barth to do this and does grant him a presence in his fiction; it is a sort of metaphysical manoeuvre made possible by text. If, when reading his intrusions, we treat Barth as though he is just as much a linguistic construct as the characters he invents, then we remain consistent with Barthes’ suggestion that writing is inherently impersonal, whilst still grasping the ‘human hand’ which makes metafiction possible. Of course, we must privilege the ‘linguistic Barth’ above the entirely fictional constructs we encounter if his attempts at appealing to us are to be successful, but by performing in this way we treat the text responsibly whilst still being affected by its intentions. This ontological transformation of the Author is a central theme in Jeffery Williams’ study of self-reflexive fiction, and he explains my argument concisely when he says how ‘one cannot speak to a character unless one is a character’(Williams, 81). So what we see in the intrusive moments is not a life-like version of the Author, but a version of him/herself which comes into being only once he/she embeds him/herself in the fiction he/she has created. As Ricardou puts so succinctly: ‘In fiction, the real and the virtual have the same status, since both are established and governed by the laws of writing’ (Ricardou, 23).

With this in mind, we begin to see how the influence of continental philosophy, with its emphasis on post-structuralist thinking, served as another motivating and anxiety-inducing source. Not only does Barth have to contend with the orthodoxy of fiction, but also a philosophy that challenges even more basic ideas about the act of writing. Whilst writing which is impersonal may be liberating for many reasons and permits a kind of expression which is not accountable in the same way we might have viewed it previously, it certainly threatens our conception of the self. Indeed, without a stable understanding of what the self is, it cannot be said to figure in fiction in the way that metafiction would like it to. For this reason, I would return to my earlier suggestion that we must not expect to find an actual Author in the text, but a textual version which we read and place ‘above’ the fiction he/she is intruding on. Indeed, Barth and his contemporaries were not placing themselves in their fiction for any purpose other than to remind us that it is a constructed artifice, and this can still be communicated without violating the terms of Barthes’ essay. It would be a different matter entirely if the gesture asked us to be fluent in the history of the writer we were reading, as that would require us to go outside the text; an activity Barthes demonstrates as being an improper reading of a text. As it is, metafiction is distinctively textual and requires only that we engage with the construction in front of us, using our existing knowledge to identify what it is setting out to achieve. Whilst Worthington identifies that Barth is insisting on the existence of a creator, she fails to recognize that he is doing so whilst challenging the traditional idea of what an author is. He is not, as Worthington seems to argue, trying to bring in a presence which has always been behind texts, but a presence which is aligned with the type he is constructing. We see that the author of a metafiction is quite unlike the author of a Realist novel, and only by observing his/her transition to text, which I explained earlier, can we properly understand his/her position and its effects.


Ultimately, what I have described in this essay is the ways in which metafiction, when treated as the staging of anxiety, demonstrates a desire to move forward our understanding of the limits and potential of fiction. Only once writers had internalized certain struggles in their fiction, which might otherwise have remained the concern of their essays, was it possible for the problematic nuances of literature to be properly confronted. In confronting these issues directly, the writers of the ‘60s, and Barth in particular, were able to propose a means of producing fiction that although novel, formed the foundation from which to ‘go further’. When recognized as a transitional period in literature, the popularity of metafiction in the 1960s can be properly contextualized and appreciated for its movement away from the limiting confines established by centuries of tradition and towards a more progressive type of literature. Not only does this influence of anxiety bear on the writer of fiction, but also on its readers and critics. Indeed, if we are to accept the ideas proposed in the Death of the Author, and the intentions of metafiction, then so too must we accept that traditional notions of reading are considerably shifted by an awareness of post-structuralist thought and self-reflexive fiction. No longer is the reader to be considered as a passive observer, idly flicking through pages, naively accepting the words and contrived plot in front of him/her, but as an active and collaborating force in the project of fiction. It is not only writers who received replenishment from the transgressive writing of the 1960s, but readers too. Although it is unlikely that critics and readers were oblivious to certain disingenuous tactics in literature before the 1960s, the explosion of a type of writing which was designed as a means of revealing them certainly meant that these illusions could not continue to be nearly as successful. For these reasons, we can accept the proposition that it was an inherited and internalized anxiety that motivated the writers of the 1960s to offer something which can be considered transitional in the dialogic of literature.

Works cited:


  • Williams, J., (1998), Theory and the Novel: Narrative Reflexivity in the British Tradition. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
  • Barth, J, (1984), The Friday Book: Essay and Other Nonfiction, America, Putnam Publishing Group
  • Barth, J, (1969), Lost in the Funhouse, America, Doubleday Publishing
  • Eliot, T.S (199), Selected Essays, America, Faber & Faber
  • Barthelme, D, (1999), Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme, America, Vintage Publishing
  • Gass, W.H (1989), Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, America, Dalkey Archive Press
  • Barthes, R., (1993), Image-Music-Text, America, Fontana Press
  • Wellington, M (2001), Done With Mirrors: Restoring the Authority Lost in John Barth’s Funhouse, America, Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 47, No 1 (Spring 2001), pp114-36

[1] Eliot, T.S (199), Selected Essays, America, Faber & Faber pp25-7

[2] Goodden, G, (2013), Rousseau’s Hand: The Crafting of a Writer, England, Oxford University Press

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