Published online by Cambridge University Press: 12 September 2012
In his influential essay ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’ John Barth argues that, confronted by a post-Saussurean crisis in language and a realisation of the limitations of its communicative capacities, the novel reaches a ‘dead end’, signalling ‘the used-upness of certain forms or the felt exhaustion of certain possibilities’. For many critics Scott's novels of the 1820s represent a similar dead-end, the beginnings of a slow demise for the Author of Waverley. However, Barth was later to redress his own conclusions in an essay called ‘The Literature of Replenishment’ where he acknowledges that, against all odds, the ‘postmodern’ turn that had been taken by fiction since his earlier essay has served to reinvigorate the form:
What my essay ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’ was really about, so it seems to me now, was the effective ‘exhaustion’ not of language or of literature, but of the aesthetic of high modernism: that admirable, not-to-be repudiated, but essentially complete ‘program’ of what Hugh Kenner has dubbed ‘the Pound era.’ In 1966/67 we scarcely had the term postmodernism in its current literary-critical usage—at least I hadn't heard it yet—but a number of us, in quite different ways and with varying combinations of intuitive response and conscious deliberation, were already well into the working out, not of the next-best thing after modernism, but of the best next thing: what is gropingly now called postmodernist fiction; what I hope might also be thought of one day as a literature of replenishment.
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