American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction

Writing Degree Zero and Elements of Semiology

by Roland Barthes
Beacon Press

S/Z

by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Miller
Hill and Wang

The Pleasure of the Text

by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Miller
Hill and Wang

The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers

by Joe David Bellamy
University of Illinois Press

Come Back, Dr. Caligari

by Donald Barthelme
Little, Brown, Anchor paperback (paper)

Snow White

by Donald Barthelme
Atheneum, Bantam paperback (paper)

Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts

by Donald Barthelme
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

City Life

by Donald Barthelme
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Sadness

by Donald Barthelme
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Bantam paperback (paper)

Guilty Pleasures

by Donald Barthelme
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Dell paperback (paper)

The Dead Father

by Donald Barthelme
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Men and Women at Love

by Grace Paley
Viking, NAL paperback (paper)

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute

by Grace Paley
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Omensetter’s Luck

by William Gass
NAL

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country

by William Gass
Harper and Row

The Floating Opera

by John Barth
Doubleday, revised edition, Bantam paperback (paper)

The End of the Road

by John Barth
Doubleday, revised edition, Bantam paperback (paper)

The Sot-Weed Factor

by John Barth
Doubleday, revised edition, Bantam paperback (paper)

Giles Goat-Boy

by John Barth
Doubleday, Fawcett paperback (paper)

Lost in the Funhouse

by John Barth
Doubleday, Bantam paperback (paper)

Chimera

by John Barth
Random House

V.

by Thomas Pynchon
Lippincott, Bantam paperback (paper)

The Crying of Lot 49

by Thomas Pynchon
Lippincott, Bantam paperback (paper)

Gravity’s Rainbow

by Thomas Pynchon
Viking, Bantam paperback (paper)

The New Novel is close to forty years old. Although forty is young for an American presidential candidate or a Chinese buried egg, it is very old indeed for a literary movement, particularly a French literary movement. But then what, recently, has one heard of the New Novel, whose official vernissage occurred in 1938 with Nathalie Sarraute’s publication of Tropismes? The answer is not much directly from the founders but a good deal indirectly, for, with characteristic torpor, America’s Departments of English have begun slowly, slowly to absorb the stern aesthetics of Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet, not so much through the actual writing of these masters as through their most brilliant interpreter, the witty, meta-camp sign-master and analyst of le degré zéro de l’écriture Roland Barthes, whose amused and amusing saurian face peers like some near-sighted chameleon from the back of a half dozen slim volumes now being laboriously read in Academe.

Barthes has also had a significant (or signifying) effect on a number of American writers, among them Mr. Donald Barthelme. Two years ago Mr. Barthelme was quoted as saying that the only American writers worth reading are John Barth, Grace Paley, William Gass, and Thomas Pynchon. Dutifully, I have read all the writers on Mr. Barthelme’s list, and presently I will make my report on a kind of writing that derives from, variously, Gertrude Stein, Joyce, and Beckett; from the American University itself, as fact and metaphor; from Dada, Zero Degree French novelists, and Roland Barthes himself. But, first, a look at M. Barthes.

For over twenty years Barthes has been a fascinating high critic who writes with equal verve about Charlie Chaplin, detergents, Marx, toys, Balzac, structuralism, and semiology. He has also put the theory of the New Novelists rather better than they have themselves, a considerable achievement since it is as theoreticians and not as practitioners that these writers excel. Unlike Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, and Butor, Professor Barthes is much too clever actually to write novels himself, assuming that such things exist, new or old, full of signs or not, with or without sequential narratives. Rather, Barthes has remained a commentator and a theoretician, and he is often pleasurable to read though never blissful, to appropriate his own terminology.

Unlike the weather, theories of the novel tend to travel from east to west. But then, as we have always heard (sometimes from the French themselves), the French mind is addicted to the postulating of elaborate systems in order to explain everything (including the inexplicable), while the Anglo-American mind tends to shy away from unified-field theories. We chart our courses point to point; they sight from the stars. The fact that neither really gets much of anywhere doesn’t mean that we haven’t all had some nice outings over the years.

Nine years ago I wrote an exhaustive and, no doubt, exhausting account of the theory or theories of the French New Novel. Rejected by the American literary paper for which I had …

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Letters

Plastic Fiction October 28, 1976

Plastic Fiction October 28, 1976