Thomas Pynchon sends his regrets to Donald Barthelme for missing the Postmodern Dinner


A 1983 letter from Thomas Pynchon to Donald Barthelme.

Superlibrarian Jessamyn West shared Pynchon’s letter to Barthelme on Twitter yesterday and then posted it on her wonderful Donald Barthelme appreciation page.

Pynchon here is ostensibly apologizing for missing Barthelme’s so-called “Postmodern Dinner” in New York.

In his 2009 Barthelme biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty offers the following recollection from novelist Walter Abish:

Around this time — in the spring of 1983 — “Donald had this idea to make a dinner in SoHo,” says Water Abish. “A major dinner for a group of writers, and he planned it very, very carefully. It was a strange event. Amusing and intriguing. He invited…well, that was the thing of it. The list. I was astounded that he consulted me but he called and said, ‘Should we invite so-and-so?’ Naturally, I did the only decent thing and said ‘Absolutely’ to everyone he mentioned. I pushed for Gaddis. Gass was there, and Coover and Hawkes, Vonnegut and his wife, Jill Krementz, who took photographs, I think. Don’s agent, Lynn Nesbit, was there. She was always very friendly. Susan Sontag was the only woman writer invited.

Daugherty continues:

Pynchon couldn’t make it. He wrote Don to apologize. He said he was ‘between coasts, Arkansas or Lubbock or someplace like ‘at.”


Abish recollects that the meal was at a very expensive restaurant, prefix, and the writers had to pay their own way. There were about 21 attendees, and Barthelme was “Very, very dour.”

“The main difficulty with the book business” (Donald Barthelme)

The main difficulty with the book business is that a book is two kinds of objects. You have, on the one hand, a thing that a reasonable and prudent man might decide is a book. You have on the other hand an object which looks very much like a book, feels very much like a book, but is in actuality a bucket of peanut butter covered with a thin layer of chocolate sauce. These things are sold in the same way. The latter seems to sell better, for some mysterious reason, than the former. A good example of this that I ran into recently is a book called The First Time, which apparently has to do with accounts of initial sexual experiences of either eminent or reasonably well-known people. This, I would say, is a bucket of peanut butter. Actually, they missed. They should have done a book called The Last Time, which would not only be funnier but more poignant. The idea is copyrighted, by the way. Take notes.

From remarks Donald Barthelme delivered at a 1975 conference at the Library of Congress. Published in Tracy Daugherty’s book Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme.

Book Shelves #43, 10.21.2012


Book shelves series #43, forty-third Sunday of 2012

Kind of a hodgepodge shelf—some literary biography, a few now-redundant collections, some literary criticism, art books, etc.

Tracy Daugherty’s Donald Barthelme biography Hiding Man is on the far left; I reviewed it a few years ago, taking note of my favorite part, the so-called postmodernists’ dinner.

Next to it is Susan Sontag’s Reborn, a collection of early journals that I also reviewed.

Next to these two is Sara Davidson’s Loose Change. My aunt gave me a box of books years ago (lots of Asimov and Octavia Butler) and this was in here.

I knew about it because of a long essay in a 2007 issue of The Believer.


I picked up Penguin’s The Essential James Joyce in Jimbocho, an area in Tokyo known for used bookstores.

I recall paying maybe ¥100 for it. It comprises a few selections from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, some of  Joyce’s (totally unessential) poetry, and the entirety of Dubliners, Exiles, and Portrait. I’ve kept it because of sentiment (and  I like the cover).


Hiding Man — Tracy Daugherty

Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty’s excellent and insightful biography of Donald Barthelme begins with a fascinating anecdote. Daugherty, a student of Bartheleme’s, is told to “Find a copy of John Ashbery’s Three Poems, read it, buy a bottle of wine, go home, sit in front of the typewriter, drink the wine, don’t sleep, and produce, by dawn, twelve pages of Ashbery imitation.” We’re not sure if that sounds like fun homework or not, but it does signal both Barthelme’s imaginative trajectory as well as Daugherty’s intimacy with his subject. Elsewhere in his introduction, he notes that “it’s wrong to think of Don as a victim of neglect. He was, rather, a connoisseur of it.” In short, Daugherty argues that Barthelme was a “Hiding Man,” an artist of structured subtlety who remains under-appreciated and misunderstood.

Daugherty’s book is at once a well-researched biography, a work of cultural and literary criticism, and a writerly affair–that is, its written with a novelist’s fine ear. He weaves Barthelme’s personal life with the man’s stories against the backdrop of a rapidly changing society, weighing Barthelme’s themes and methods along with a shift in literature, art, film, and culture. The book is most interesting when Daugherty situates Barthelme’s writing along/against other writers, particularly the other authors at the forefront of the so-called post-modernist movement. In one late episode, Barthelme organized what has come to be known as “The Postmodern Dinner,” inviting literary giants like William Gaddis, William Gass, John Barth, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Coover, and Susan Sontag to a fancy SoHo restaurant (Thomas Pynchon politely declined the invite). By 1983, postmodernism had fallen out of favor in lieu of minimalism; Barthelme wasn’t the only writer at the dinner who we might–even now–see as a “victim of neglect.” Many of these writers were attacked (and continue to be attacked) as verbal tricksters, hacks playing at a literary shell game. But, as Daugherty makes very clear in Hiding Man, Barthelme was deeply concerned with matters of meaning and art and philosophy and life and love. He was, like most postmodernists (and Modernists, and post-postmodernists), simply willing to remove some of the strictures that bound distinctions of high and low culture, all as a means of getting closer to a core of truth and perception–not as a means of displacing or denying it. He was an artist.

Hiding Man both begins and ends with an assignment. Daugherty invites Barthelme to read at Oregon State University in early 1989, six months before his death. After the reading, in a moment of utter poignancy, Barthelme asks his former pupil, “Did I do okay for you?” As Barthelme gets in a taxi to leave he gives Daugherty one final assignment: “Write a story about a genius.” Daugherty gets more than a passing grade on this one. Recommended.

Hiding Man is new this month in trade paperback from Picador.