The Virtuous Feedback Loop of Influence: Barth Reading Wallace Reading Barth

So, I just realized I probably should have posted this earlier, but here is an abstract of a paper I delivered a couple weeks ago at the 2011 Duquesne Graduate Conference, “Echoes: Across Disciplines, Texts, Times.” I had the great pleasure of presenting with my good friends and colleagues Ryan Pierson, who talked about Wallace and Wittgenstein in his paper, “David Foster Wallace on Solipsism and the Private Language Argument,” and Racheal Forlow, who delivered a quite fascinating paper on Wallace and Henry James, “Mass Culture and Fiction’s Recursive Futures: James, Wallace, and One Hundred Years of American Formalism.” My abstract is below. If you’re interested in looking at the entire paper, get in touch w/ me.

“The Virtuous Feedback Loop of Influence: Barth Reading Wallace Reading Barth”

Postmodern literature has long been understood in terms of how it complicates, questions, and explodes previous modernist modes of aesthetic influence and textual reference.  Unlike Harold Bloom’s“anxiety of influence,” however, the relationship between the work of John Barth and David Foster Wallace provides an instance of intertextuality more complex than this mostly unidirectional model, tracing instead a synchronic web of recursive feedback loops in which each author is engaged in a project of explicitly rereading and repurposing the other.  This paper will present Barth’s 2001 novel, Coming Soon!!!—a self-reflexive sequel to his first novel, The Floating Opera (1956)—as a response to Wallace’s early novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” (1989), which is itself a response to Barth’s seminal short story “Lost in the Funhouse” (1967).  Through exploring how these works are everywhere engaged with specifically echoing each other, as well as heeding each writer’s conception of literary influence in their own critical essays, this intervention will question what is historically at stake for a specific American literary practice as it becomes aware of itself as postmodern.  Following this, I will argue that what the work of Barth and Wallace point toward is a rhizomatic, anti-patricidal model of literary influence and a conception of contemporaneity that acknowledges reiteration to be a fundamental aspect of its aesthetic regime.

Barth on the Novel

Whether historically the novel expires or persists as a major art form seems immaterial to me; if enough writers and critics feel apocalyptical about it, their feeling becomes a considerable cultural fact, like the feeling that Western civilization, or the world, is going to end rather soon.  If you took a bunch of people out into the desert and the world didn’t end, you’d come home shamefaced, I imagine; but the persistence of an art form doesn’t invalidate work created in the apocalyptic ambience.

John Barth, “The Literature of Exhaustion”