All Trees Are Oak Trees: Introductions to Literature

John Barth
From the January/February 2004 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Writers who hang out in academia to help pay the rent are likely to find that their job description comes to include inviting other writers to visit their campus and then hosting them through their visit, introducing them to their lecture audience, and sitting in on the informal sessions with students that typically complete the visitor’s tour of duty. Such visitations are, I believe, a generally worthwhile feature of any college writing program: beneficial to the visitor, obviously, who gets paid or otherwise rewarded and may possibly gain a few additional readers; potentially enlightening for the visitor’s audience (even those whose curiosity may be more sociological, anthropological, or even clinical than literary); and at least marginally beneficial for the host as well, as I shall attempt to illustrate.

Most certainly, as an undergraduate and then a grad-student apprentice myself at Johns Hopkins in the latter 1940s and early ’50s, I was impressed, entertained, instructed, inspired, and chastened by spectating such èminences grises as W.H. Auden, e.e. cummings, John Dos Passos, and a decidedly intoxicated Dylan Thomas, who threw up in the wastebasket of our seminar room just prior to his public reading and had to be walked by our department chairman a few turns around the quadrangle to clear his head. After which—in a chemistry lecture-theater, with lab faucets flanking the podium and the old 92-element periodic table on the wall behind—he delivered himself flawlessly of perhaps the most eloquent, exhilarating, intoxicating poetry reading I’ve ever heard. Indeed, I can summon the cherub-faced Welshman’s majestic voice yet, bidding us Yankee undergraduates Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Farther down the academic road—on the faculties of Penn State, the State University of New York at Buffalo, Boston University, and then back at Hopkins—it devolved upon me to be the frequent host and introducer of visiting literary luminaries: more often than not an agreeable and even instructive chore for the glimpse it afforded of how very different from one another’s and from one’s own are the lives of fellow scribblers whom one respects; likewise for the obligation, in composing their introductions, to articulate in distilled form what one finds distinctive about their writing; and, not least, for their incidental remarks and advice to aspiring writers in the campus workshops.

I like to warn such aspirants that down their own roads, some of them will be saddled with this not-unpleasant responsibility. I trust they’ll learn from it, as I did, to be wary of all generalizations about how fiction and poetry ought to be written or its author’s life lived, since what’s good advice for one writer may be counterproductive if not downright disastrous for another (there’s a generalization they can trust). I hope further, I tell them, that those fortunate enough to one day find themselves being introduced instead of doing the introduction will likewise heed that advice about Advice: What worked for Emily Dickinson would not likely have served Lord Byron; Proust, Kafka, Henry James, and Hemingway would in all probability not have flourished in one another’s milieux.

It has been my happy case to be both introducer and introducee—so often the former that I once considered, half seriously if only briefly, perpetrating a book to be called “Introductions to Contemporary Literature,” comprising my “takes” on (to name an alphabetized few) Edward Albee, Paul Auster, the brothers Barthelme (Donald, Frederick, and Steven), Ann Beattie, Jorge Luis Borges, Richard Brautigan, Italo Calvino, Raymond Carver, Robert Coover, Jose Donoso, Umberto Eco, Stanley Elkin, Ralph Ellison, Louise Erdrich, John Gardner, William Gass, John Hawkes, Joseph Heller, Larry McMurtry, James Michener, Joyce Carol Oates, Grace Paley, Richard Powers, Mary Robison, Anne Sexton, I.B. Singer, Robert Stone, William Styron, Anne Tyler, John Updike, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Kurt Vonnegut. In the second capacity—doing reading gigs myself as well as sitting in on fiction-writing workshops all over the republic—I often find myself quoting one or another of those introducees on some particular aspect of writing, usually though not invariably because they made their point so memorably; sometimes because, while memorable, their aphorisms seem to me to need a bit of qualifying, or at least glossing; and other times because I respectfully but firmly disagree and wouldn’t want their recommendations or pronouncements taken as gospel.

Working backward through those three categories: I remember Kurt Vonnegut’s smiling, shrug-shouldered, but not unserious admission that “like all writers,” he writes his fiction "in the secret utopian hope of changing the world,” and my wanting to differ, politely: “Not all of us, Kurt; some of us just want to get a story told.” I quite allow, however, that if like Vonnegut I had been a prisoner of the Nazi Wehrmacht in World War II and by the merest fluke had survived the Allied bombing of Dresden during my captivity, I might well approach the fictive page with the same “secret hope” as his.

In a similar humor, Donald Barthelme acknowledged to the room his private ambition to write “a book that will change literature forever.” No objection there, especially as Barthelme was neither generalizing nor prescribing, only confessing—but I’d want it pointed out that ambitions of that sort belong to the general aesthetic of Romanticism, which, while not to be sniffed at, is by no means the only viable aesthetic: Virgil, for example, probably didn’t intend his Aeneid to change either literature or the world, only to demonstrate that he and Rome and the Latin language could hold their own with Homer, Hellas, and classical Greek—no small ambition itself. And on the subject of “changing literature,” when my distinguished then-colleague Hugh Kenner declared to us that literature changed significantly when its writers all took to composing on typewriters instead of with pen and pencil, I was moved to the cordial objection that a few of us troglodytes still prefer the flow of fountain-penned script to typed letters in side-by-side disconnection like wary passengers in the subway—at least for first drafts, before transcribing the day’s output to computer for further processing. I later recounted this anecdote to Anne Tyler in the course of her campus visit, and was pleased to learn that she, too, prefers first-drafting in what she memorably called “the muscular cursive”—a phrase I’ve often quoted since (with due attribution). Kenner’s response to my objection, by the way, was that even we exceptions to his rule had cut our apprentice teeth on typewrit lit: a reasonable enough riposte, though only fractionally true for those of us who gnawed at least as eagerly on the Odyssey, the Satyricon, The Thousand and One Nights, The Decameron, and Don Quixote as on Ulysses and later modernisms.

And then there was Grace Paley’s spirited credo—when one of my coachees asked her, back in Vietnam War days, how she managed to get any writing done amid her tireless antiwar protesting and occasional consequent jail-time serving—that “Art isn’t important. People are important; politics is important.” To which one wanted to demur, “Well, yes, of course, Grace, but…” But one held one’s tongue, out of respect for such principled, selfless courage as hers. As one did likewise when Raymond Carver summed up his literary aesthetic for our Hopkins fiction-writing students in two words: “No tricks.” One knew what that excellent realist-minimalist meant: no O. Henryish trick endings or suchlike jokers in the dramaturgical deck. Much as I admire Carver’s plainspoken down-to-earthiness, however, I admire at least equally François Rabelais’s unbuttoned verbal and imaginative excesses, and that brilliant trickster Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy; what counts, I told those students later, is the quality and relevance of a writer’s “tricks,” not their presence or absence as such. For that matter, to the extent that “no tricks” may be taken to mean “no artifice,” mightn’t it be objected that Carver’s finely honed narrative simplicity, like Hemingway’s, is as much artifice as Faulkner at his most incantatory or Henry James at his most syntactically baroque? Apprentices especially (I wanted to protest but did not, just then) should be encouraged to acquaint themselves open-mindedly with the literary corpus’s whole bag of tricks—what Umberto Eco has memorably called “the already said”—while working out for themselves their own next-stage aesthetic.

And how hold one’s tongue when a bellicose John Gardner, fresh from his kneecapping treatise On Moral Fiction, repeated in my seminar his distinction between what he called Primary Fiction (“fiction about life”) and Secondary Fiction (“fiction about fiction”), and made it clear that for him this was not mere taxonomy, but a value judgment? “King Priam weeping over the bloody corpse of Hector!” Gardner thundered, pounding the seminar table: “That’s literature, damn it! The rest is bullshit!” “Really, John?” I wondered. What about the same bard’s famous extended description, in Book 18 of the same opus, of the elaborate scenes forged by Hephaestos on Achilles’ shield—scenes that bear poignantly upon the epic in progress and are a literally classic specimen of art about art? Or the fine reorchestration of that riff in Book 1 of Virgil’s Aeneid, where refugee Aeneas sees in the unfinished frescoes of Queen Dido’s Carthage-under-construction not only scenes from the Trojan War and its similarly unfinished aftermath, but the figures of his fallen comrades and even his protagonistic self? Art about art, for sure; fiction about fiction, including the Homeric fiction with which Virgil’s epic-under-construction is very self-consciously in the ring; but it’s also so affectingly “about life” that Aeneas (his own epic labor likewise far from finished) weeps at the spectacle, and his author is moved to the famous line Sunt lacrimae rerum: “There are tears in things”—even in so-called Secondary Fiction. Insofar as all the world’s a stage and our selves themselves may be said to be essentially the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are—our Center of Narrative Gravity, as the “neurophilosopher” Daniel C. Dennett puts it—great literature (I wanted to say to the now-late Gardner then and there, but, being his host, did not until a later occasion) can be regarded as being Seldom Simply but Always Also about itself. In that sense, at least, all fiction is secondary fiction, and all “fiction about fiction,” even the most programmatically and/or tiresomely “metafictive,” is also fiction about life.

Got that, John? (Not every neuroscientist, I should add, agrees with Professor Dennett that human consciousness has evolved to be essentially a scenario-making machine; but we storytellers are likely to nod yes to that proposition—always allowing for the venerable device of the Unreliable Narrator.)

I conclude this first category of my fellow scribblers’ wisdom-pearls with the grand declaration made by Richard Brautigan at the close of his “reading” at SUNY–Buffalo toward the end of the high 1960s. The author of Trout Fishing in America, The Revenge of the Lawn, and In Watermelon Sugar was at the peak of his literary fame then, a hippie icon warmly received on a campus that prided itself, in those years of antiwar sit-ins and teargassing riot police, on being “the Berkeley of the East.” It was a time, too, when Marshall McLuhan, across the Niagara River in Toronto, was warning us “print-oriented bastards” that our medium was moribund in the Electronic Global Village. In that spirit, after my introduction, Brautigan said hello to the packed hall, pushed the Play button on an old reel-to-reel tape recorder beside the lectern, and disappeared into the auditorium’s projection booth, from where—as we all sat for a very long three-quarters of an hour listening to our guest’s recorded reading—the invisible author projected slides of giant punctuation marks: five or ten minutes each of a comma, a semicolon, a period, entirely without bearing on the taped recitation. Had it been anybody but Brautigan, that audience would never have sat still for it—but still we sat, until, when the eye-glazing hour was done at last, the shaggy, beaming author reappeared from the projection booth, gestured grandly toward the tape machine, and declared, “There you have it, folks: the twentieth century!” Whereat one of my seriously avant-garde graduate students sitting nearby turned to me and muttered, “Yup: about 1913.”

On to my second category: visiting writers’ obiter dicta to which I readily nod assent and which I find myself often quoting, but not without some amplification or qualification. I like Dylan Thomas’s (sober) assertion, for example, that “all trees are oak trees, except pine trees”: It serves to remind early-apprentice writers especially that to say “Patsy paused under a tree” or “Just then Fred’s car zipped by” is almost always less effective than specifying what sort of tree and automobile were involved—specificity being one component of sensory texture, and sensory texture being usually a literary plus (but not invariably, I remind them: Don’t forget Beckett). Whence one goes on to suggest—they having in revision paused Patsy under a Norway maple and zipped Fred into a milk-white Camaro—that it were well if those specifications turned out to be not only specific, but relevant. Why a Norway maple instead of a weeping birch? Why a milk-white Camaro (Mary Robison) instead of a gamboge Cadillac (Frederick Barthelme) or a “high, rat-colored car” (Flannery O’Connor, the mother of automotive specificity in American literature)?

Into this same middle category go the contradictory recommendations of Joseph Heller and E.L. Doctorow regarding dramaturgical advance planning. Heller declared to our seminar that he always wrote his novels’ closing chapters first: How would he know how to get there, he asked rhetorically, if he didn’t know where he was going? Mind you, he went on, these first-draft last chapters were proposals, not binding contracts; by the time he re-reached them, small or large changes might well be in order. But he could no more begin a novel without knowing how he meant to end it than he could launch into a joke without knowing its punch line. Doctorow, on the contrary (not in my seminar, but in one of his at Sarah Lawrence College decades ago, whence one of his students later came to us and retold the tale when I retold Heller’s), is alleged to have said that a novelist “needn’t see beyond [his] headlights”—which I take to mean that knowing the direction of the next plot turn is navigational data enough; that bridges farther down the road may be crossed when one arrives at them. All very well, perhaps, I warned my seminarians, for a veteran professional like Doctorow with doubtless well-established work habits and seasoned intuitions, but dangerous advice indeed for apprentice novelists, a fair number of whom I’ve seen write themselves into all but inextricable culs-de-sac. Something between Doctorow’s improvisatory insouciance and Heller’s to-me-unimaginably-detailed advance planning is probably soundest for most of us yarnspinners: The aforecriticized John Gardner—by all reports a first-rate coach despite his wrongheadedness, by my lights, in certain areas—wisely observes (in his treatise On Becoming a Novelist) that most novels culminate in some sort of all-hands-on-deck Big Scene, and that it were well for the author to have at least some advance notion of that scene’s lineaments. Something may be said for putting off the crossing of bridges until one reaches them, but it helps to know ahead of time that there’s a bridge or two to be crossed, and whether it looks to be a footbridge or the Golden Gate.

I’ve saved for last that first category of authorial obiter dicta: observations about writing made by visiting authors that I find myself quoting without need of comment. With a sigh I recall a reluctant, taciturn, and very weary-looking John Dos Passos in Johns Hopkins’s Gilman Hall back in the early 1950s (he lived nearby then, a widower saddened further by the indignation of many liberals at what they saw as his turncoat right-wingery during the McCarthy era) warning us starry-eyed aspirants that writing was “a bad job.” More cheering was Norman Mailer’s reply when I reported to him, two decades later, Dos Passos’s gloomy remark: “Granted, the pay’s not so hot—but you can’t beat the hours.” Mailer, by the way, preferred not to be introduced at all when he visited us at Buffalo just after publishing Why Are We in Vietnam? At his request, he and I sparred or shadowboxed or something for a few seconds in the lobby of the auditorium—my first and only experience of that alarming exercise—and then he sprang to the podium and introduced himself.

I like to repeat, too, Joyce Oates’s caution (back at Hopkins again) about literary regionalism: A strong sense of place, she granted, may be valuable indeed to a writer; on the other hand, she warned, it can be all too easy to become the Sweet Singer of Saskatchewan, for example, with an audience that may not extend beyond that doubtless songworthy place. Larry McMurtry more or less seconded this proposition by good-humoredly complaining that he’d so often been called by critics a “good minor regional novelist” that he’d had a T-shirt made up for himself with that damningly qualified praise. McMurtry also told us—this was decades ago—that the reason he got along well back in his Hollywood scriptwriting days was that he didn’t give a damn whether his screenplays were finally produced or not, as long as he got paid; the main purpose of screenplays anyhow, he declared, is to give the producer some idea of how many locations are involved, for budget and logistical purposes. Stanley Elkin, too, after a stint in LaLa-Land, waxed eloquent on the inferior status of words in film as opposed to prose fiction: We writer types, he said, are in the habit of thinking that stories are told with lines like Proust’s “For a long time we went to bed early,” or Joyce’s “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan…” Movies, on the other hand, said Elkin, tell stories this way—and he launched into hilarious extended wordless sound effects: cars screeching to a halt, doors slamming, footsteps approaching, other obscure but portentous noises.… Not easy for a wordsmith to adjust to.

Then there’s William H. Gass’s memorable response to a student who asked him whether a writer’s first concern ought to be the reader’s pleasure or the author’s. Neither, Gass replied: To put the reader’s pleasure first is pandering; to put the author’s pleasure first is self-indulgence. A writer’s first concern, he declared, ought to be for the verbal artifact that’s trying, with the writer’s collaboration, to get itself said. The author as midwife: I like that.

I like, too, the exchange I had some decades past with the poet John Ashbery, whom I was delivering to his Baltimore reading-cum-Q&A and who to my surprise appeared just a tad anxious about the latter. “What sort of questions do you think they’re going to ask me, Jack?” he wondered, to which I replied, “Oh, probably the usual, John—like, “Do you write with a pen or a typewriter?” That sort of thing.” Much cheered, he said, “Oh, I hope they ask that one! I like that one!” Alas, no one must have done so, or I’d surely be repeating Ashbery’s response.

As I enjoy repeating the so-prolific John Updike’s response to my student who asked him…I don’t recall exactly what; perhaps whether he had ever abandoned a project-in-the-works, for Updike’s reply was to the effect that now and then he would set aside a fiction-in-progress because he didn’t recognize its author as (quoting Updike) “nimble old me.” Nimble, yes: That’s him, for sure, a self-assessment as modest as it is exact. Likewise James Michener’s response to the student who asked him what he regarded as his major strength and his most serious weakness as a novelist. The former, Michener replied unhesitatingly, was information: Whether writing about Iberia, Texas, Poland, or Outer Space, he prided himself on doing his homework. And his major weakness? “Human psychology,” confessed our visitor with a smile and a shrug. “Don’t know the first thing about it.”

And that sort of authorial self-recognition informs—most touchingly, by my lights—the final item in this little anthology of en passants. In the only conversation I ever had with Robert Frost, who visited us at Penn State on a wintry spring day some 40 years ago, the old poet invited us to ask him anything we cared to: He was too deaf to hear our questions anyhow, he said, but he would answer something. I don’t recall what my question was, but I remember clearly Frost’s reply: that every spring for as long as he could remember, he would notice that the oak trees up his way still had a few forlorn brown leaves hanging on from the previous autumn. The sight of those weather-beaten remnants, he declared, never failed to suggest to him the tatters of a blown-out sail on a ship limping into harbor after storms, and his professional intuition never failed to tell him that there was in that simile not merely a poem, but a Robert Frost poem—a Robert Frost poem that, alas, the poet of that name had yet to figure out. Nor did he ever, to my knowledge, although there is passing mention of oak leaves in several of his verses.

As might be expected, one supposes—given that all trees are oak trees (except pine trees).


John Barth is the author of numerous works of fiction, including The Sot-Weed Factor, Lost in the Funhouse, the National Book Award–winner Chimera, and The Book of Ten Nights and a Night, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin in April. He is professor emeritus in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.