Donald Barthelme

By University of Houston [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An American author known for his playful, postmodernist style of short fiction. He takes great risks with tone and content, combining irony, rhythmic energy, and exuberance with a formal trickiness. For making it new and strange, he is a heroic figure in modern literature.

Born in Philadelphia, his family soon moved to Houston, where  he endured a normal childhood. He married four times. Barthelme was a journalist, a jazz lover, an art lover, a moviegoer, an avid reader, a curator and, with his second wife, a writer and designer of advertisements. He was also the brilliant young editor of the magazine Forum, which he oversaw from 1956 (after he returned from the Korean War) to 1960.

“[A] mysterious shift . . . takes place as soon as one says that art is not about something but is something, [when the literary text] becomes an object in the world rather than a commentary upon the world. ”

Barthelme's short stories are often exceptionally compact (a form sometimes called "short-short story", "flash fiction", or "sudden fiction"), often focusing only on incident rather than complete narratives. (He did, however, write some longer stories with more traditional narrative arcs.) His fiction had its admirers and detractors, being hailed as profoundly disciplined or derided as meaningless and academic postmodernism. 

Barthelme's stories typically avoid traditional plot structures, relying instead on a steady accumulation of seemingly-unrelated detail. By subverting the reader's expectations through constant non-sequiturs, Barthelme creates a hopelessly fragmented verbal collage reminiscent of such modernist works as T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and James Joyce's Ulysses. However, Barthelme's fundamental skepticism and irony distanced him from the modernists' belief in the power of art to reconstruct society, leading most critics to class him as a postmodernist writer. 

Barthelme's legacy as an educator lives on. Barthelme was known as a sensitive, creative, and encouraging mentor to young creative writing students while he continued his own writings.