Friday, March 30, 2007

Barthleme Online

So I assigned a short story for my graduate workshop to read, by a writer I won't name but whose fiction, which I found unappealing before, I thought deserved a second chance. I read the story and found my original opinion confirmed: Bad Barthleme.

Donald Barthleme was a wonderful fiction writer, essayist, and critic active in the 1970's and 1980's; he followed in the footsteps of the Oulipians as an "experimental" writer who was as funny and engaging as he was innovative. His selected-story collections 60 Stories and 40 Stories are among my favorite books by any 20th Century American writers. Barthleme died young but left behind several careers' worth of great writing, and he was, and is, a major influence on my own work.

I showed up for class and asked the students--what did you think? One of them, Alexi Zentner, immediately said "Bad Barthleme."

In this case, most of the class agreed, and that got me thinking it was time to go read some good Barthleme. My students informed me that a great deal of Barthleme was now available online--a blogger named Jessamyn Charity West got permission from Barthleme's estate (specifically his brother, the writer Frederick Barthelme) to post a bunch of stories, and they're free for the reading now.

It's hard to pick favorites, but I can't resist linking to the hilarious Some Of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby--I'm going to assign it to my undergraduates, most of whom haven't yet had their first contact with this endlessly rewarding writer. Huge thanks to Jessamyn and Frederick Barthleme for making this work available for free--I can't believe it took me this long to find out about it.


5 Red Pandas said...

Have you ever read his children's book-The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine-? It's out of print but I found a copy at the Donell Branch of the NYPL years ago. It's in the children's rare books room and I read it on a lunch break while sitting on one of those little chairs they have for kids at the library. It was a strange book as far as kid's picture books go, but it was pretty great.

Wing said...

Heh. As you are probably aware, Barthelme started the creative writing program at my current school, UH. Anyway, there are lots of pictures and stuff about him there.

I have his book put out by Penguin, Forty Stories. I've liked what I've read... Good Barthelme I say.

Anonymous said...

5red, that book is now back in print! Overlook press just put it out.

Wing, I did not know that about the writing program at Houston...but 40 Stories is a great book, esp. "The School." Hope you dig it.

Also I am going to get a drum kit you will have to move here and make some records with me.

Jonathan said...

You don't know about the UH Writing program? It's pretty famous-- rated #2 in the nation for years now, just behind Iowa. I've actually gotten the chance to meet and work with a lot of famous writers, even as an undergraduate. I even got the chance to meet John Updike, whom I know you're not terribly interested in, but it was a pretty cool opportunity nevertheless.

So why would I not apply to UH? Because I've been in Houston for almost 23 years. Somebody get me out of here!

Check your email...? If I ever were to attend up there, I would bring drums, and records would result.

5 Red Pandas said...


Very jealous about your new drum kit!

Since I don't actually own any drums, before my band mate settled on some basic beats for his songs, I actually tried to practice my drumming on this electronic drum pad thing my uncle gave me. You hit it like a real kit, and you tap a pedal with your foot to simulate the bass drum. Well my downstairs neighbor complained about my stomping on her ceiling so that put an end to that. There's very little that feels more impotent than playing electronic drums with headphones on so you don't actually make any noise. So when you get your kit, bang the hell out of it for me.

Some woman down here wants to start a pavement cover band, and knowing my Mo-Tuckerish drum skills, she's enlisted me to be her Bob Nostanovich, something I think I could actually be quite good at.

rmellis said...

JRL does not have a drum kit YET. It's something that will happen with our new larger place. He gets drums; I get poultry.