Tag Archives: john williams

National Book Award winners, number 27: 1973’s split award, Chimera and Augustus.

31 May


In 1973, John Barth won the national Book Award for his fascinating, scintillating rubix cube of a novel, Chimera. In an unprecedented move, John Williams won, too, for his fantastic novel of imperial rule, Augustus.

Barth belongs with the major, heavy duty post-modernists; he’s playful, obsessed with language and its shortcomings, challenging, at once high and low brow in his technique and interests.

For a time, Barth was a major American author, influential, ballyhooed, widely read and copied. But that time has passed. There’s something old-fashioned about his inter-textual games, his solipsism, his self-abnegation. There’s also something cruel, vicious, sardonic and self-destructive about his work. He juxtaposes silliness with violence, low culture with academic jargon. He’s one of the major figures of postmodernism, and embodies all of their sins and virtues.

Chimera follows three updated and modernized characters from antiquity. The first section follows Scheherazade on the eve of her first night with the lusty caliphate. John Barth, the author, appears and gives her a solution to her impending demise: tell him stories that never end. She does, and the rest becomes history. The other two sections follow Perseus, growing pudgy at middle age and yearning for immortality, and Bellerophon, obsessed with his reputation for posterity. Each is subverted through a fractured narrative lens. Each is witty (if a touch corny), bawdy, lusty.

Barth’s novel is about the impossibility of knowing, well, anything. Chimera details the constant reinvention of everyone, the mercurial demands of memory, the cascade of lies that constitute a human life and voice. Barth’s novel is also, despite the playful and ironic tone, full of self-loathing exhaustion with the form of the novel.

Intriguing, byzantine, and dated.

Intriguing, byzantine, and dated.

The major virtue of Chimera—it’s playful cancellation of everything occurring inside of it—is also its major problem. It’s about the writing of itself. Art for art’s sake is fine, but fake art for fake art’s sake seems a bitter pill to swallow. Reading fiction must be more than feints and gimmicks and nihilism and trickery.

Still, Barth is a fine, if occasionally clunky, writer. Here’s a taste, of Dunyazade, telling a third character, about Scheherazade:


“ ‘Three and a third years ago, when King Shahryar was raping a virgin every night and killing her in the morning, and the people were praying that Allah would dump the whole dynasty, and so many parents had fled the country with their daughters that in all the Islands of India and China there was hardly a young girl fit to fuck, my sister was an undergraduate arts-and-sciences major at Banu Sasan University. Besides being Homecoming Queen, valedictorian-elect, and a four-letter varsity athlete, she had a private library of a thousand volumes and the highest average in the history of the campus. Every graduate department in the East was after her with fellowships—but she was so appalled at the state of the nation that she dropped out of school in her last semester to do full-time research on a way to stop Shahryar from killing all our sisters and wrecking the country.’”

That ironic interjection of the contemporary into the timeless is supposed to be funny.

There was a time when I loved John Barth. That time has passed.


Augustus is John Williams’s grandest artistic achievement[1], an evocation of Octavian’s evolution as a thinker, humanist, and ruler, as well as an astonishing piece of writing. The novel takes the form of letters between various dignitaries, thinkers, artists and politicians, including Virgil, Horace, Julius Caesar and the like. The result is a mosaic of Octavian—cerebral, forward-thinking, and humane, but also draconian, puritanical, and humorless—who sacrifices most of his life and the lives of his friends and family to his devotion to the state. Octavian is stern, diabolical even, self-flagellating.

But Augustus is not some stale or staid accounting of Octavian’s rule. It unfolds in a thrilling fashion, with conspiracies, intrigues, double-crossings, and the almost-familiar weirdness of ancient Rome. In a word, it’s fantastic. He digs into the skein of Roman personalities and mores, as well as detangling the complex civil war that followed Julius Caesar’s death.

Williams sees inherent to the human condition moral choices and their consequences. He sees great drama in the real stuff of everyday lives. He also sees immense problems in the administration of governance, the gray areas between duty, honor, country, morality. Williams recognizes Octavian as real and complicated, as a man, a ruler, and a symbol. He isn’t a few throwaway lines in a textbook. He breathes.

Sterling, stirring, superior.

Sterling, stirring, superior.

Augustus belongs to a tiny sub-genre, fictionalized biographies of Roman Emperors. Others are Robert Graves’s I, Claudius; Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian; Gore Vidal’s Julian II; and to a lesser extent (and the one on this list I haven’t yet read) Herman Broch’s The Death of Virgil. Of these, Augustus is the best.

The writing is sterling, lucid, never boring. Williams inhabits manifold voices of various learned peoples and professions. He includes lists, fragments of memoirs, letters, prayers, minutes of official meetings.

Here’s a sample, with Maecenas writing to Titus Livius:


“You ask me about the early days of my association with our Emperor. You ought to know that only three days ago he was good enough to visit my house, inquiring after my illnesses, and I felt it politic to inform him of your request. He smiled and asked me whether or not I felt it proper to aid such an unregenerate Republican as yourself; and then we fell to talking about the old days, as men who feel the encroachment of age will do. He remembers things—little things—even more vividly than I, whose profession it has been to forget nothing.”

And there’s that sliver of menace tucked into the jocular tone, a feeling of unease and lurking violence that simmers inside the novel’s twists and turns, the dagger always (just barely) concealed in the interactions of the Roman elite.


It’s a tale of two Johns, and emblematic of a major schism in the reading habits of American letters.

Williams is serious, serene, elegant, controlled and precise. He was a professor, a scholar, a teacher. He has his own theories of fiction: regardless of the subject matter, a novel must unfold in a pleasing way for the reader.

Barth is mimetic, satirical, exuberant, artificial and pungent. He was a professor, a scholar, an essayist. He has his own theories of fiction, too; that the old forms are exhausted, ruined, and boring, and that writers must burrow into the form, shift traditions, blow the fucking thing up from the inside. Barth holds Jorge Luis Borges up as the ultimate modern author; Williams would, no doubt, favor Flaubert, Dostoevksy or Dickens. Barth is at home with self-replication, parody, contradiction. Williams tackles the issues of a life, death, moral choices.

Barth sees fiction as a meta-textual game. Williams sees it as one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. To Williams, stories are holy[2].

Barth was born to money in the northeast, educated at top schools. Barth and his ilk are products of 1950s corporate culture and the ghastly Korean War. They saw realism as a terror, a near-unbreakable cage. They saw history as a snake eating its own tail. Unlike the Beats—whose theory of art was trangressive sex plus drug use plus eastern mysticism plus street-level patois, a sort of updated French romanticism—the postmodernists’ major themes were exhaustion with the existing forms and norms, and an abiding lack of belief in absolutes.

Williams was born to working class parents in Texas. He comes from a darker, more harried America. His dad was a janitor. He dropped out of his first college. He served two years in the Army. He belongs to no particular school. He wrote a western, an academic novel, a novel of ancient Rome.

Barth was happy to reuse and repurpose his own work and the work of others. Williams labored in specific genres, a delicate artist with delicate tools. Williams bears more than a passing resemblance to Edward Anderson, another great American author with a tiny output. (Anderson wrote just two novels, Hungry Men and Thieves Like Us.)

Barth was famous, Williams was not. But with the passing years, Barth’s books are declining, while Williams is now regarded as a major American author.

The award had never been split before. This has to do with the panel of judges: William Gass, Jonathan Yardley, Walker Percy, Leslie Fielder and Evan Connell. There’s a clear split between the traditional (Yardley and Connell) and the avant garde (Gass and Fielder), with Walker Percy straddling the two camps. I don’t know the story behind the voting, but I can imagine the growing rancor, the distrust and disgust with the opposing sides. In the end they split the top award. This is as it should be. Better to honor two writers than to ignore them all.


1972 was an intriguing year for American fiction, democratic, unpredictable, just plain weird. Writers veered into odd corners: crime, science fiction, fantasy. The line between literature and pulp was further eroded. The big theme in American fiction seems to be the (attempts at) elevation[3] of the gutter genres.

Richard Adams published his epic tale of questing rabbits[4], Watership Down. Ira Levin released his feminist horror novel, The Stepford Wives. George Higgins published his great crime novel of Boston’s underworld, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Barry Hannah—what a career he had!—released Geronimo Rex. Ishmael Reed published Mumbo Jumbo. Eudora Welty released The Optimist’s Daughter. Paul Theroux, Irving Wallace, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Vladimir Nabakov published novels. Hunter Thompson released his “non-fiction[5]” travel book about bad dealings in Nevada, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

World literature continued its romp. Peter Handke, Robertson Davies, Italo Calvino, Jorge Amado, Martin Amis, Roald Dahl, Gunter Grass, Mary Renault, Graham Greene, and Kenzaburo Oe all published novels.

There is one glaring fact about the impressive array of novelists above: there’s only one woman, Eudora Welty. And only one African American. Ishmael Reed. The boys’ club mentality was still fixed. The white, male viewpoint was dominant. The keys to the kingdom remained in the hands of a select few. A literary power elite.

Still, Augustus and Chimera are superb novels. And Augustus deserved the top award.


[1] Or maybe it’s Butcher’s Crossing. Or maybe Stoner. All three are stupendous.

[2] In Stoner, he has his main character feeling vertigo over his first taste of serious literature. “What’s happening?” he asks one of his teachers. “You’re falling in love,” his teacher says.

[3] Of course, each genre has produced its own artists.

[4] A bit better than it sounds.

[5] He later said he made a lot of it up.


Interlude 3: The academic novel.

9 May

(And the crime novel. And my life in academia. In 55 lovely points.)

  1. The academic novel is one of the great, under-appreciated subgenres in American literature.
  2. Academic novels tend to feel insulated from the real world. And yet besieged by heightened real-world problems. Of identity, sexuality. Of how to live a good life without harming others. Plus the white-knuckle terror of ideas.
  3. Bernard Malamud’s The Good Life, John Williams’s Stoner, and Saul Bellow’s Herzog form a sort of trilogy on the subject. White Noise is the epilogue.
  4. Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table should be added to this list. A post-script, maybe.
  5. John Williams gets my vote for the most under-appreciated great writer. He only wrote four novels, and three of them are pure dynamite.
  6. Edward Anderson, of Thieves Like Us, is gets my second vote.
  7. Thieves Like Us is one of the great crime-caper novels, with two very good film versions. (Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us.)
  8. Academic novels often use the atmosphere of noir. There’s something about universities and tenure and the classroom that lends itself to the mood of crime fiction.
  9. Existentialism?
  10. Noir fiction is not detective fiction. The difference is in the details.
  11. Noir is French existentialism plus American gangsters plus sex.
  12. Detective fiction is crime plus honor plus lawlessness plus fearlessness plus heroism. And usually sex.
  13. Noir is death, dread, damaging sex. The hero rarely makes it out alive.
  14. Detective fiction is hard talk and individual genius. The hero rarely dies.
  15. I like both.
  16. Crime fiction has so many good writers that it’s difficult for new writers to make it their own; they risk parody or imitation. There’s little left. The Long Goodbye and The Maltese Falcon have not been improved on.
  17. Having said that, No Country for Old Men is a fabulous crime novel.
  18. The Last Good Kiss is, too. James Crumley. He rules.
  19. It must be said: Ross McDonald is underrated. Not sure why he seems to be receding, while Hammett and Chandler are secure.
  20. But I have a hard time reading new hard-boiled fiction.
  21. The hardboiled school of writing is often more sentimental, more romantic, more false than just about any other type of writing. The detectives are often creaky old men drinking their way through clues.
  22. “Creaky old men drinking their way through clues.” This could be an analysis of much of detective fiction of the 20th century.
  23. Case in point—my favorite line in Dashiel Hammett’s Red Harvest: “At forty I could get along on gin as a substitute for sleep, but not comfortably.”
  24. I recently finished Nic Pizzolato’s (writer and producer of True Detective) Galveston. It won awards. It sold boatloads. It’s good but not great. See point 21 above.
  25. Southern noir is the weirdest of subgenres. The kudzu, the heat, the spread out towns and cities, the drinking, the scars of slavery—it somehow works. Few shadows. Small towns. Oodles of violence.
  26. I’m struggling with the final touch-up of my latest novella. I can’t quite ratchet things into place. Everything feels right—the characters and the mood and the sentences—but something feels off. Absent. Missing. Letting my subconscious mull.
  27. Ennui: writing a random blog post while thinking about deficiencies in your own work. By the by, here’s the first sentence: “It’s almost midnight and I’m just inside my apartment with enough juice in my veins to power a steam ship across the Atlantic.”
  28. Bruce Duffy’s The World As I Found It is an academic novel.
  29. So is J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.
  30. Umberto Eco’s Foucoult’s Pendulum is an academic novel, too. Sort of.
  31. If I could go back in time, I would try to attend the best university in the world. Or study semiotics with David Foster Wallace.
  32. Lucian Carr and William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg began as academics. They were drawn to transgression, drugs, petty crime, seduced in some sense by Herbert Huncke. Carr eventually murdered David Krammerer. Knifed him and dumped the body into the Hudson.
  33. Keroauc drank himself to death. Sounds like a character out of any number of crime novels.
  34. (I knew another grad student who focused on Keroauc. Only, he didn’t like Keroauc at all. Not at all.)
  35. William Burroughs shot his wife in the head.
  36. De Tocqueville said, almost two hundred years ago, that unlike Europe, America has few suicides but tons of murders.
  37. What is it, in our cultural DNA that loves murder so much?
  38. It’s a reoccurring theme: art equals intelligence plus disgust plus hard work plus crime. And usually sex.
  39. A good description of Roberto Bolano’s work.
  40. I’m getting off point here. Or maybe I’m not. 2666 is both an academic novel and a crime novel.
  41. There’s something quixotic about the life of the scholar. Something brave and wonderful and near-useless.
  42. I once met a ph.d. student focusing on English ballads of the 16th century. This was the entirety of his work. I asked him if he just loved English ballads. “Not really,” he said.
  43. I asked another grad student what her dissertation was about. “Comic book zines,” she said. What about them? I asked. “You know,” she said, “jargon jargon jargon.”
  44. John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy is an academic novel. (And a key meta-fictional text.)
  45. I wanted to go to graduate school for ancient history. But you have to be able to read German and French and Latin. I didn’t even apply.
  46. Like every other writer, I tried to get a spot in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I spent a month reworking three short stories, which I had already worked on for months. At the last minute, I switched one of these with a new story, which was hardly a first draft. I don’t know why I did this; some impulse to self-sabotage. This was years ago.
  47. I didn’t get in.
  48. I applied to my wife’s program, American Studies. I wanted to study gangsters, true crime, film noir and 1930s crime fiction. I titled my application essay, “The killers are us.” I thought I was a shoo-in.
  49. I didn’t get into this, either. (And thank my lucky stars for that.)
  50. Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys is an academic novel. The movie is fantastic.
  51. I think the magic of the academic novel is the collision of high-minded ideals with randy youth.
  52. There’s something smug about graduate students. Only tempered with a streak of self-pity, and an undercurrent of self-disgust.
  53. A.S. Byatt’s Possession is an academic novel. The movie is . . . not fantastic.
  54. For librarians, it’s the air of perpetual moral high ground. We stand for diversity, democracy, pluralism. We stand against censorship, small-mindedness.
  55. Unless we work for a law firm. Or a corporation.
  56. I eventually earned a Masters in library science, (barely) circumventing many of the tribulations facing humanities grad students.
  57. I’m a library scientist. I can’t think of any good academic novels about that.