The Barthelme Problem

[This post is something of a response to John’s recent post, and some of the comments made there by Darby, John, and me.]

Back in high school/college, my favorite filmmakers were Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick, Peter Greenaway, and Martin Scorsese:

As you can see, I gravitated toward a visually spectacular cinema. Everything else looked so boring! So mundane!

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Style as Imitation

Leonardo #1, page 17 (1987) (detail; First Publishing reprint). Art by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.


My father, who once trained as a baker, taught me when I was a kid how to bake an apple pie. I don’t know where he got the original recipe from; I highly doubt that he invented it. Certainly he didn’t invent the idea of baking pies. And he didn’t invent the idea of baking an apple pie.

He was very clear about certain instructions:

  • always use Granny Smith apples;
  • always use ice-cold water;
  • touch the dough as little as possible.

Since then, I’ve baked several apple pies, and over time I’ve modified the recipe slightly, but it’s essentially the same (and I never violate his prime instructions).

When I make a new apple pie, I’m not doing anything new.

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For those of you with students of the creative writing persuasion…

Please tell them about the Juniper Summer Writing Institute at the University of Massachusetts. This is the best summer writing conference around. (I’m a little biased, to be sure, having been the program’s associate director for several years and now serving as one of its writers in residence.) It’s an incredible June week in lovely Amherst, packed with workshops, craft seminars, readings, and the company of dozens of fellow writers—young and old, famous and unknown, traditional and experimental, cranky and cheerful. (Mostly cheerful.)

UMass Amherst campus

The 2010 lineup of faculty and writers in residence: James Tate, Joy Williams, Mark Doty, Charles D’Ambrosio, Dara Wier, Stephen Graham Jones, Noy Holland, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Paul Lisicky, Lisa Olstein, Matthew Zapruder, Michael Kimball, Leni Zumas, Alex Phillips, and Heather Christle.

Our scholarship deadline is fast approaching (April 1) and workshops tend to fill quickly, so if you know any students or writer-friends who might be interested, please pass the word! Application forms are available on the website.