or, Book-Titles Should Be Straightforward and Subtitles Avoided
Essays and Other Nonfiction
by John Barth
a.b.e-book v3.0 / Notes & Copyright info at EOF
Back Cover: "[The] pieces that make up The Friday Book. . . have a consistent tone of warm personal enthusiasm that is often beguiling." -- Walter Kendrick "Whether discussing modernism, postmodernism, semiotics, Homer, Cervantes, Borges, blue crabs or osprey nests, Barth demonstrates an enthusiasm for the life of the mind, a joy in thinking (and in expressing those thoughts) that becomes contagious. . . A reader leaves The Friday Book feeling intellectually fuller, verbally more adept, mentally stimulated, with algebra and fire of his own." -- Washington Post Barth's first work of nonfiction is what he calls "an arrangement of essays and occasional lectures, some previously published, most not, most on matters literary, some not, accumulated over thirty years or so of writing, teaching, and teaching writing." With the full measure of playfulness and erudition that he brings to his novels, Barth glances into his crystal ball to speculate on the future of literature and the literature of the future. He also looks back upon historical fiction and fictitious history and discusses prose, poetry, and all manner of letters: "Real letters, forged letters, doctored letters. . . and of course alphabetical letters, the atoms of which the universe of print is made." "The pieces brought together in The Friday Book reflect Mr. Barth's witty, playful, and engaging personality. . . They are lively, sometimes casual, and often whimsical -- a delight to the reader, to whom Mr. Barth seems to be writing or speaking as a learned friend." -- Kansas City Star "No less than Barth's fiction these pieces are performances, agile, dexterous, robust, offering the cerebral delights of playful lucidity." -- Richmond News Leader John Barth, Professor Emeritus in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, is the author of twelve works of fiction -- The Floating Opera, The End of the Road, The Sot-Weed Factor, Giles Goat-Boy, Lost in the Funhouse, Chimera (winner of the 1973 National Book Award), LETTERS, Sabbatical, The Tidewater Tales (also available in paperback from Johns Hopkins), The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, Once upon a Time: A Floating Opera, and On with the Story -- as well as another collection of essays, Further Fridays. He lives on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
I Tell Them Rather Than Some Other Sort of Stories Some Other Way," which
appeared as "The Making of a Writer," and for "Getting Oriented"; The Pennsylvania
State University Press for "The Ocean of Story" from Directions in Literary
Criticism, edited by Weintraub and Young; The Washington Post Sunday
Magazine for "Historical Fiction, Fictitious History, and Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs,
or, About Aboutness." Designed by Helen Barrow
The text of this book is set in Times Roman and Helvetica Light. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data will be found
at the end of this book. ISBN 0-8018-5557-8 (pbk.) A catalog record for this book is available from the British Library.
THE FRIDAY BOOK,
BOOK-TITLES SHOULD BE
AND SUBTITLES AVOIDED
Essays and Other Nonfiction
The Title of This Book Book-titles should be straightforward. Book-Titles Should Be Straightforward is not quite straightforward (see below) -- nor is it quite the title of this book. The Canterbury Tales, A Cruising Guide to the Chesapeake, The Trial, The Idiot, Moby-Dick, The Anatomy of Melancholy, The Friday Book -- those are straightforward.
Comic works need not bear comic titles. The Frogs. The Birds. Don Quixote. Tom Jones. A catchy title may serve a catchy book (Catch-22 is not a title with a catch to it; it is straightforward): Two truly catchy books by the logician Raymond Smullyan -- What Is the Name of This Book? and This Book Needs No Title -- have appropriately catchy titles. But better a book more engaging than its title (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) than a title more engaging than its book (Steal This Book, by Abbie Hoffman).
Later in the course -- the course of this arrangement of miscellaneous nonfiction by a habitual novelist and occasional short-storyteller who has also for three decades professed the reading and writing of fiction in American universities and along the way has entertained a couple of ideas at a time about literature -- we may touch upon other principles and categories of literary titling and upon titling errors to be avoided.
Indeed, let us touch upon them now and have done with it: I mean such misdemeanors as Titles Quoted From Even Better Works Than One's Own (The Sun Also Rises, The Winter of Our Discontent, Tender Is the Night), Hokey-Romantic Titles (How Green Was My Valley, Winter Blood, Not as a Stranger, The Executioner's Song), especially Tacky Tandems (War and Peace is straightforward; Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are nearly so, but for the alliteration. The Beautifuland Damned, The Naked and the Dead, The Agony and the Ecstasy -- these are the Tacky and the Poshlost: see below), Poetical Inversions (By Love Possessed, Too Late the Phalarope, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan), and other varieties of what the late Vladimir Nabokov called by the Russian word poshlost: a word adequately denned for our purposes by the samples given. Such titles may happen to entitle works otherwise innocent of hoke, affectation, pretentiousness, tack, poshlost; such works are not better for their titles.
Then there is the Self-Referential Title, which refers not to the subject or to the contents of the work but to the work itself. The Bible. Samuel Beckett's film Film; his play Play. Fulton Oursler's The Greatest Story Ever Told is not mainly self-referential and therefore is not essentially boastful: It refers less to the book it entitles than to the book that that book is about: i.e., The Book. Its element of ironic or at least amused self-referentiality is, however, part of the title's point, as it is in the title of Philip Roth's novel The Great American Novel. Quite all right.
The Canterbury Tales refers not primarily to Chaucer's book thus named but to the tales told in it, the Canterbury tales, and thus is not self-referential; the same is true of Boccaccio's Decameron, Marguerite of Navarre's Heptameron, Giambattista Basile's Pentameron, Somadeva's The Ocean of Story, the Panchatantra, the Vetalapanchavimsata (25 Tales Told by a Vampire), and most other tale-cycle titles. The title of the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, like that of the modern Guinness Book of World Records, is semi-self-referential: It names both the container and the thing contained, as if one were to label a jar of apple jelly not Apple Jelly but Jar of Apple Jelly. The Kitab Alf Laylah Wah Laylah, or Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, would seem to be in this category as well, but in curious fact it refers immediately neither to the book thus titled nor to the period of Scheherazade's liaison with King Shahryar, but rather to a book described by the book thus titled, itself entitled The Marvels and Wonders of the Thousand Nights and a Night, which book in turn, the text itself explains, is a popular edition of yet another book (in thirty volumes) called The Stories of the Thousand Nights and a Night. That is the original book of the scribes' transcription of the tales told by Scheherazade to the king, plus the tale of Scheherazade telling those tales to the king. The book we hold in our hands is a book about a book about that book; it might properly be entitled The Book of the Book of the Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night.
Rather, it is a copy of a translation of that book about that book about that book, just as that innermost book is a written copy of Scheherazade's spoken tales, themselves recited from her memory of the "thousand books of histories" in her personal library and the "works of the poets," which she knew "by heart." Such several removes between us and the original tales -- removes acknowledged in many cases explicitly, if in passing, by the text itself -- suggest an awareness among the ancients in many cultures of what in Hebrew tradition is implied by the Cabalistic notion of The Original of the Book: an original we can only infer from however "authoritative" a copy, even the author's manuscript. I have for example revised this paragraph a number of times on a number of Friday mornings here in my workroom overlooking Langford Creek on the Eastern Shore of tidewater Maryland and have not got it quite right yet, have not got it right quite yet, have not yet got it right, quite, but like the tide I shall move on now and later return. More about tales within tales and tales about tales in the pages to follow, and considerably more about Scheherazade. Also tides.
The difference between Self-Referential Titles like the Bible or Film, Self-Reflexive Titles like The Title of This Book, and Self-Demonstrating Titles like Book-Titles Should Be Straightforward is that the first name the thing they name (at least a copy of that thing), the second name the name of the thing, as the name name names itself, and the third exemplify not only what they are but what they say. Inasmuch as the names of things are also members of the class of things, things in the world, a perfectly self-reflexive sentence such as Adjective adjective subject adverbially verbs adjective adjective object is as meaningful, though its content is not in itself so moving, as the sentence Old King Priam tearfully kisses Achilles's bloody hands.
The late John Gardner was pleased to argue that sentences like the latter make up what he called Primary Literature -- literature about "life" -- whereas the former add up to Secondary Literature: literature about literature, or in this case language about language. One understands what he meant (Homer's powerful scene in Book XXIV of the Iliad, of Priam kissing Achilles's hands, still bloody from Hector's slaughter, in vain supplication to return his dead son's body, was one of Gardner's favorite examples of Primary Literature). But since one may write stirring sentences about matters in themselves unstirring or even nonsensical ("And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? Come to my arms, my beamish boy!"), and unstirring sentences about stirring matters ("Homer's powerful scene in Book XXIV of the Iliad. . ." above), the issue is far from simple. Such distinctions as Primary and Secondary Literature, particularly when they become value judgments, do more to becloud than to clarify the manifold processes of language and literature, which, like many other processes both "natural" and artificial, from walking upright to welding automobile frames by computerized robot, depend upon more or less subtle and intricate "feedback loops" for their success. Surely we do better to acknowledge that literature, like language, is seldom simply but always also about itself. Titles too, about which this is enough.
Four mornings a week from September through May I have for some years been privileged to make up and set down my stories in a pleasant white house in the city of Baltimore, where in the afternoons I teach at the Johns Hopkins University. On normal Thursday evenings my wife and I drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to a pleasant red house on Langford Creek, off the Chester River, off that same Bay, where on Friday mornings (unless the story in progress asserts the priority reserved to it) I refresh my head with some other sort of sentence-making, preferably nonfiction, while Shelly does schoolwork. Two English teachers. Most of the pieces here edited, revised, and assembled were in fact composed before I was blessed with this tranquil work-rhythm, from which only the later ones proceed. But I find that rhythm so agreeable that in the summer months too, when teaching and weekend-commuting are suspended and we live and work only in our creekside house, hoping the world will not soon end, I still reserve the last weekday morning for whatever "Friday-piece" is in hand, and I hope to do so until the period of my life's sentence.
Though I am far from regretting that sentence -- which in the main has been thus far a serene, productive, and rewarding one -- if I could revise it to my preferences, the pieces here collected would all have been written on Friday mornings on Langford Creek; then The Friday Book, itself conceived and executed over a year's Fridays, would be my Friday book indeed.
Prefatory notes and other introductory material should be avoided wherever possible. See "Author's Introduction."
The Subtitle of This Book Subtitles -- like printed dedications, notes on titles, author's introductions, forewords, sonnets and epistles dedicatory, and the rest -- should be avoided. Get on with it. Get on with it.
But if you must use a subtitle, at least eschew the archaizing or, followed by cutesy fake earlier-centuryisms. Or, the Whale is quite all right for Moby-Dick, or was in the nineteenth century. Erica Jong's Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout Jones, can be justified as the title and subtitle of a twentieth-century novel humorously imitative of eighteenth-century fiction -- a category of humorous twentieth-century fiction one would have thought exhaustible by a single instance, but its appeal seems to be as perennial to Americans as other fake colonialisms.
Subtitles are usually made necessary by titles with more "grab" than straightforwardness. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language requires no subtitle. Book-Titles Should Be Straightforward is intelligible but requires at least the subtitle Essays and Other Nonfiction to make it meaningful. Sub-subtitles like Subtitles Should Be Avoided should be avoided if only because though fairly straightforward they necessitate a sub-sub-subtitle, in this case Essays and Other Nonfiction, which, had it been used as the book's title in the first place, would have been perfectly straightforward and required no subtitles.
This is not to say that no straightforward title requires subtitling. It is useful to know whether the title Baltimore is subtitled A Picture History or Telephone Directory. Straightforwardness, moreover, while a virtue, is not the only virtue; therefore one sees titles which sin against no other principle of titling than straightforwardness and are doubtless more arresting or engaging than Fifty Stories or Tales of the Chesapeake, but may require subtitling. Should you perpetrate such a title, follow it with a subtitle which not only is straightforward but manages also to avoid the as fetish worshipped in particular by literary critics: Literature as Equipment for Living. Language as Gesture. Subtitles as Literary Genre. Say it straight. Get on with it.