Another Postmodernists Dinner

I’ve written about the so-called “Postmodernist Dinner” on this blog before. The 1983 dinner was organized and hosted by Donald Barthelme, and attended by John Barth, William Gaddis, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Coover, and John Hawkes, among others (Thomas Pynchon politely declined).

This morning, searching for something other than what I ended up finding, I came across a 1988 New York Times describing another Postmodernists Dinner. This particular dinner was organized by Robert Coover in honor of his friend John Hawkes’s retirement form Brown University. Well, I’ve written dinner here, but really the dinner was the celebration at the end of a conference at Brown. From Caryn James’s article “The Avant-Garde Ex Post Facto”:

When the novelist Robert Coover organized a conference called ”Unspeakable Practices: A Three-Day Celebration of Iconoclastic American Fiction,” he invited some old friends to Brown University. There would be panel discussions that might define literary post-modernism once and for all, Mr. Coover said, but mostly it would be ”a family gathering” to mark John Hawkes’s retirement as a teacher of writing at Brown.

The poster above, signed by many of the panelists, is part of Washington University in St. Louis’s Modern Literature Collection. Here is the collections description of the event:

“Unspeakable Practices: A Three-Day Celebration of Iconoclastic American Fiction” sponsored by Brown University as part of the 1988 Brown University Reading and Lecture Series on April 4-6, 1988. Notable writers include Donald Barthelme, Walter Abish, Robert Kelly, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Jonathan Baumbach, Toby Olson, John Hawkes, Meredith Steinbach, William Gass, William Gaddis, Marilynne Robinson, Geoffrey Wolff, Leslie Fiedler, Marc Chenetier, Maurice Couturier, Geoffrey Green, Donald Greiner, Sinda Gregory, Tom LeClair, Richard Martin, and Larry McCaffery.

In her article “The Avant-Garde Ex Post Facto,” James describes the group as “almost all the major novelists sometimes called post-modernist . . . sometimes simply called difficult.” She continues:

They assaulted realism in the 1960’s, turning language inside out, crossing paths and forming friendships along the way. Twenty years later, here they all were, a group the critic Leslie Fiedler called ”iconoclasts with tenure” – the writers the current minimalists reacted against, an avant-garde no longer ahead of its time.

James then goes on to describe some “family friction” between the group during the panel called ”Traditional Values and Iconoclastic Fiction,” moderated by Leslie Fiedler:

The author of the classic study Love and Death in the American Novel and recent works on popular culture posed questions one writer later described as the sort you fear getting from little old ladies in tennis shoes. Why do you write? Who is your audience? The panelists floundered, told anecdotes, skated – sometimes charmingly – on the surface of the questions. “I know exactly who I’m writing for,” said Mr. Barthelme. “They are extremely intelligent and physically attractive.” Mr. Gaddis, whose fiction includes the two immense novels The Recognitions and J. R., said he wrote ”to avoid boredom, which is probably why I came up here today.”

At this point, I knew I’d read about this particular panel before, but I couldn’t remember where—possibly in Tracy Daughtery’s Barthelme biography, Hiding Man? Anyway, Fiedler continued to piss off some of the postmodernists:

When Mr. Fiedler concluded by saying, “None of us will be remembered as long or revered as deeply as our contemporary Stephen King,” many writers became furious and insulted.

I’m pretty sure Fiedler meant the comment from a place of deep contempt for contemporary culture, but whatever; James notes that

Some were so incensed they threatened to stay away from Tuesday night’s big dinner, the event Mr. Coover was playing as the centerpiece of the celebration.

She continues by describing the postmodernists dinner;

The main event was worthy of a post-modern novel, a dreamlike scene in which people from one life wander into a room where they don’t belong. Mr. Coover had discovered a modest Portuguese restaurant in East Providence, to which he often brought colleagues from Brown, where he teaches. Some became regulars; some never returned.

That was the sight of Mr. Hawkes’s retirement party, and between the fried calamari and roast pig, the lights went down and the audience was captive at its long narrow tables for the entertainment – traditional Latin fado songs to guitar accompaniment.

The host raconteur and main singer was named Manny. He wore a maroon jacket, told corny jokes and sang songs reminiscent of a discount Julio Iglesias (though he reminded Mr. Elkin of the nightclub singer in ”Broadway Danny Rose”). He stood at the head of the writers’ table, now and then glancing at Mr. Hawkes or Mr. Gaddis while shouting, “You’re lookin’ good!” Some people squirmed; some clapped along; Mr. Coover loved it. There were three sets in all.

And like a good postmodern comedy, there’s a happy ending:

Late in the night, Mr. Coover joked that he had not thrown this party for Mr. King, and Mr. Fiedler took his chance to make amends. “Whatever I said, I said with irony and with real affection for you,” he told Mr. Hawkes. “I hope it’s taken in that spirit.” Some family members held a grudge, but Mr. Hawkes hugged Mr. Fiedler and gave him the ultimate Hawkesian compliment. “Leslie,” he said, “you’re the most erotic critic here.”

Here’s a clipping of the event, again from Washington University’s invaluable Modern Literature Collection:

3 thoughts on “Another Postmodernists Dinner”

  1. Super long thought here, I totally undersatnd if you cut it…

    These dinner posts are news to me (thank-you) and kind of re-embittering/depressing.

    Although I’m a fan of so many of these authors’ works, it’s like, 1988 and where are the women? I’m no expert on or even understander of the label ‘post-modern,’ but gosh, I can think of a few women writing in/prior to the eighties whose work I’d consider ‘iconoclastic’ besides the couple who made it onto that program. Kathy Acker? Rikki Ducornet? Leslie Marmon Sllko? I mean I get it. It’s really “A party for my writer friends that’s also paid for by the University” and/or “well it was a different world back then”; and I know the hip stance now is to not be emotionally moved by past decades’ sexism and just “focus on the texts” and enjoy the history of it; that I should just appreciate all those literary heavyweights being in the same place at the same time, but…as much as I love Barth, Elkin, Gaddis, & Gass, I’m SMH. And it does make me suspect again that critically-acclaimable experimental literature was, at that time, an easier attainment for white men, b/c of their whiteness, their maleness, whereas a lesser percentage of women writers could take the (critical, financial) risk being language-y, meta-, or ‘difficult’ because, well, we all know how popular a difficult woman is. Nevermind the whole childcare issue.

    To try and end on a non-bitter note, I will say that ok fine at least these heavyweights paved the way, etc.etc, but Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, & Gertrude Stein did too, so, not that note. This one, then: I do love the sometimes-perceived-as-‘difficult’ and language-y work of several woman writers working today, there are scads and I know I’m leaving some gems out and apologize in advance (and yes, this list is still very white, so clearly I have some exploring to do) but I’ll just say: Anne Boyer, Rita Bulwinkel, Anna Burns, Halle Butler, Lucy Corin, Rebecca Curtis, Lydia Davis, Virginie Despentes, Danielle Dutton, Lucy Ellmann, Jen George, Julie Hecht, Catherine Lacey, Carmen Maria Machado, Otessa Moshfegh, Alyssa Nutting, Hillary Plum, Amber Sparks, Deb Olin Unferth, Jenny Zhang, Nell Zink…. I feel lucky that there are so many women writing today who break the mainstream-storytelling mold I often lose patience with, or who severely subvert/reinvent/reshape that mold, and I hungrily await new work from all of these writers. To me, THIS literary moment is a Golden Age.


    1. I think Gass, Elkin, Coover, Barth, Barthelme, et al had something of a mutual appreciation society going on. Their maleness and whiteness was certainly a factor in their success, no doubt. And even if they paved the way for other “difficult” voices, there’s certainly a lack of diversity to the symposium line up. (Who knows if Marilynne Robinson was invited to the dinner?) It’s also telling that Ishmael Reed never seems to show up with any of these cats, although he was doing some of the same (if very different, they were all so different) stuff. I read Fran Ross’s Oreo earlier this year, and it’s utterly contemporary with what Coover and Elkin were doing. It’s crazy that it’s still not spoken of along with the metatextualists. Anyway, good list. I’ve read some of the authors you list, but hardly all. Cheers.


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