John Simmons Barth (born May 27, 1930) is an American novelist and short-story writer, known for the postmodernist and metafictive quality of his work.
John Barth was born in Cambridge, Maryland and briefly studied "Elementary Theory and Advanced Orchestration" at Juilliard before attending Johns Hopkins University, receiving a B.A. in 1951 and an M.A. in 1952 (for which he wrote a thesis novel, The Shirt of Nessus).
He was a professor at Penn State University (1953-1965), SUNY Buffalo (1965-1973), Boston University (visiting professor, 1972-1973), and Johns Hopkins University (1973-1995) before he retired in 1995.
Barth began his career with The Floating Opera and The End Of the Road, two short novels that dealt wittily with controversial topics, suicide and abortion respectively. They were straightforward tales; as Barth later remarked, with gentle condescension, they "didn't know they were novels."
The Sot-Weed Factor was a literary quantum leap, an 800-page mock epic of the colonization of Maryland based on an actual poet, Ebenezer Cook, who wrote a poem of that name. The Sot-Weed Factor was what Northrop Frye called an anatomy--a large, loosely structured work, with digressions, distractions, stories within stories, and lists (such as a lengthy exchange of insulting terms by two prostitutes). The fictional Ebenezer Cooke (repeatedly described as "poet and virgin") is a Candide-like innocent who sets out to write a heroic epic and is disillusioned enough that the final poem is a biting satire.
Barth's next book, Giles Goat-Boy, of comparable size, was a speculative fiction based on the conceit of the university as universe. It could be described as a fictional gospel about a half-man half-goat who discovers his humanity and becomes a savior in a university that allegorically represents the universe, presented as a computer tape given to John Barth, who denies that it is his work, preceded by an alleged note from the publisher to the effect that Barth really did write it. In the course of the book, Giles carries out all the tasks prescribed by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Barth kept a list of the tasks taped to his wall while he was writing the book.
The short story collection Lost In the Funhouse and the novella collection Chimera, were even more metafictional than their two predecessors, foregrounding the writing process and presenting achievements such as seven nested quotations. Letters was yet another tour de force, in which Barth and the characters of his first six books interacted.
While writing those books, Barth was also pondering and discussing the theoretical problems of fiction writing, most notably in an essay, "The Literature of Exhaustion" (first printed in the Atlantic, 1967), that was widely considered to be a statement of "the death of the novel." Barth has since insisted that he was merely making clear that a particular stage in history was passing, and pointing to possible directions from there. He later (1979) wrote a follow-up essay, "The Literature of Replenishment," to clarify the point.
His fiction continues to keep the precarious balance between postmodern awareness of the status of its own discourse and the characters, descriptions, and plotting for which most readers still turn to fiction