Happy birthday, Donald Barthelme! Here are some quote from his writing.
“[T]here is the pressure on language from contemporary culture in the broadest sense—I mean our devouring commercial culture—which results in a double impoverishment: theft of complexity from the reader, theft of the reader from the writer.”
“The combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they’re allowed to go to bed together, allows the writer to surprise himself, makes art possible, reveals how much of Being we haven’t yet encountered.”
“Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art. However much the writer might long to be, in his work, simple, honest, and straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to him. He discovers that in being simple, honest, and straightforward, nothing much happens: he speaks the speakable, whereas what we are looking for is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.”
“The problems that seem to me to define the writer’s task at this moment (to the extent that he has chosen them as his problems) are not of a kind that make for ease of communication, for work that rushes toward the reader with outflung arms—rather, they’re the reverse. Let me cite three such difficulties that I take to be important, all having to do with language. First, there is art’s own project…of restoring freshness to a much-handled language, essentially an effort toward finding a language in which making art is possible at all. This remains a ground theme, as potent, problematically, today as it was a century ago. Secondly, there is the political and social contamination of language by its use in manipulation of various kinds over time and the effort to find what might be called a ‘clean’ language…Finally, there is the pressure on language from contemporary culture in the broadest sense—I mean our devouring commercial culture —which results in a double impoverishment: theft of complexity from the reader, theft of the reader from the writer.”
“Problems are a comfort. Wittgenstein said, of philosophers, that some of them suffer from ‘loss of problems,’ a development in which everything seems quite simple to them and what they write becomes ‘immeasurably shallow and trivial.’ The same can be said of writers.”
“I am never needlessly obscure—I am needfully obscure, when I am obscure.”
“Every writer in the country can write a beautiful sentence, or a hundred. What I am interested in is the ugly sentence that is also somehow beautiful. I agree that this is a highly specialized enterprise, akin to the manufacture of merkins, say—but it’s what I do. Probably I have missed the point of the literature business entirely.”
“The difficulty here is not producing mere run-of-the-mill outrageousness, but the nature of the transformational process by which aspects of the world are made over into art. How to prevent the ugly (what we have agreed to call ugly) from becoming, in some sense, beautiful (what we now agree to call beautiful) over time, thus losing the electrical charge which made the artist choose it in the ﬁrst place? You can’t. But there are strategies of delay. Céline, with the aid of some truly revolting politics, managed to remain a monster almost to the end.”
“Art is always aimed (like a rifle, if you wish) at the middle class. The working class has its own culture and will have no truck with fanciness of any kind. The upper class owns the world and thus needs know no more about the world than is necessary for its orderly exploitation. The notion that art cuts across class boundaries to stir the hearts of hoe hand and Morgan alike is, at best, a fiction useful to the artist, his Hail Mary. It is the poor puzzled bourgeoisie that is sufficiently uncertain, sufficiently hopeful, to pay attention to art. It follows (as the night the day) that the bourgeoisie should get it in the neck.”
“One of the beautiful things about words is that you can put words together which in isolation mean nothing, or mean only what the dictionary says they mean, and you put them together and you get extraordinary effects.”
“I look for a particular kind of sentence, perhaps more often the awkward than the beautiful. A broke-back sentence is interesting. Any sentence that begins with the phrase, ‘It is not clear that…’ is clearly clumsy but preparing itself for greatness of a kind. A way of backing into a story—of getting past the reader’s hard-won armor.”
“So, the project is next to impossible, which is what makes it interesting. There’s nothing so beautiful as having a very difficult problem. It gives purpose to life. And to work. I’m still worrying with it.”
“I tell my students that one of the things readers want, and deserve, is a certain amount of blood on the floor. I don’t always produce it. Probably a function of being more interested in other parts of the process.”
John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.