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 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, 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 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 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.