The Literature of Exhaustion

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The Literature of Exhaustion is a 1967 essay by the American novelist John Barth sometimes considered to be the manifesto of postmodernism.

The essay was highly influential,[1] and for some controversial.[2] It depicted literary realism as an "used up" tradition; Barth's description of his own work, which many thought nailed a core trait of postmodernism, is "novels which imitate the form of a novel, by an author who imitates the role of Author".

Barth argued that a particular stage in history was passing, and pointed to possible directions from there. In 1980, he wrote a follow-up essay, "The Literature of Replenishment."

Gore Vidal criticized "The Literature of Exhaustion" and Barth's novels for making an analysis of only the plots of novels and myths, while refusing to engage with the style of either, resulting in reductionist and disinterested understandings of novels' contents.[3] Vidal instead advocated increased stylistic innovation and appreciation as better venues for further progression of the novel as a form, pointing particularly to the work of Italo Calvino as a model.


Barth first delivered "The Literature of Exhaustion" in 1967 as a lecture in a Peters Rushton Seminar held at the University of Virginia;[4] it was first printed in The Atlantic in the same year. Since then has been reprinted several times, and was included in Barth's nonfiction collection The Friday Book (1984).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1] in Contemporary Literature, 2000
  2. ^ "The Literature of Exhaustion". Archived from the original on 2012-05-21. Retrieved 2012-05-25.
  3. ^ Vidal, Gore (June 15, 1976). "American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction". New York Review of Books. Retrieved 29 November 2014.
  4. ^ John Barth (1984) intro to The Literature of Exhaustion, in The Friday Book.

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