The Literature of Exhaustion and Originality

I thought I’d share an argument that I first learned from the essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” by John Barth. It is in his The Friday Book.

barth's literature of exhaustion

It’s something that used to come up all the time when I was an undergraduate music major, and it usually comes up now in the form of literature.

I’ll phrase it in terms of literature since this is the form it appears in Barth’s essay, but it works for any art form.

The reason I thought of it was that I was watching an interview with Patrick Rothfuss. From what I’ve seen, he takes the craft of writing about as seriously as any author I’ve seen, and he really wants to better himself as an author in any way possible.

He was asked what sorts of fiction he reads outside of the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I was shocked to hear that he basically doesn’t.

It reminded me of this argument.

Progress in Art

Similarly, the music composition students that I used to talk with had basically no interest in listening to or analyzing current living composers.

There is this disconnect that because art is “subjective” it doesn’t build on itself. People seem to have the opinion that art just spreads off in random branches of originality and you don’t have to pay attention to what your contemporaries are doing.

Some go so far as to claim that paying attention to your contemporaries blocks your ability to be truly original through subconscious influence.

Here is the main thrust of Barth’s “The Literature of Exhaustion” put flippantly:

No one would ever dare to say this type of thing about any branch of science or math.

You would be laughed at. Imagine saying you could do something completely original in physics by ignoring the last 50 years of research so you aren’t influenced.

The obvious problem with this is that in order to do something new, you will have to completely reinvent all of the past 50 years of physics (at least in your area) before getting to the new part.

What is the point of trying to do that when you could just intentionally learn it in a small fraction of the time and get on to your new ideas? In fact, even coming up with a new idea might be impossible without having seen the recent advances that open your mind to ideas that were inconceivable beforehand.

The Literature of Exhaustion

To put it bluntly, trying to make some awesome original art without being up-to-date on what has been done doesn’t make you a visionary.

It makes you an idiot.

The main objection to this is probably that in art, as opposed to science, you don’t have the same type of building. You don’t need to be completely current on what every contemporary author is doing in order to build off in some direction or try something new.

This is in part true, but let’s try to put it in perspective.

If you were to take a one-semester course whose primary goal was to expose you to as many significant advances in just some very narrow frame like American literature of the past 40 years it couldn’t be done thoroughly.

This is with an intensive study by someone who knows what they are doing with this goal in mind. Think about how hopeless it would be to try to invent all these ideas yourself whenever you need one of them.

It is just about as hopeless as the scientist who tries to ignore the past 40 years of science.

I claim that not only is it a good idea for a serious genre author to make an attempt to keep up with modern literature, but it is almost certainly the most important thing they can do to better themselves.

literature of exhaustion

Takeaway for Writers

Forget about the worries of being unoriginal due to influence. You are certain to be unoriginal if you don’t keep up anyway.

In fact, if you know what people have been doing, then at least you have some chance of building upon it in a unique direction.

It will not only improve your writing to have these modern techniques at your disposal, but it will make you a much more interesting writer as well.

I quote from Barth’s “Literature of Exhaustion”:

In any case, to be technically out of date is likely to be a genuine defect: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony or the Chartres cathedral, if executed today, might be simply embarrassing ….

Nothing is as frustrating as getting into these types of arguments with people who want to think that being a good artist is all about this lackadaisical, touchy-feely, everything goes attitude.

That is just some romantic fantasy. All the great artists have put in a lot of hard work and study. Part of that study is understanding what other great people in your craft have done.

Don’t take my word for it.

Try it out. You’ll probably find that not having to reinvent the wheel every time you need a particular technique actually frees up your energy to use on creating something that is actually new.


For anyone interested in these sorts of ideas you should check out The Friday Book by John Barth which has his essay in it.

The ultimate example I’d have to say is Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence which is basically a book long case study of how some of the great poets influenced each other and overcame those influences to create something new (an impossible task if they weren’t reading each other I might point out).

As a game, just take any of the hundreds of lists out there with names like “100 Best Novels” or whatever and try to find even one novel on that list that didn’t liberally borrow techniques from a contemporary.

For you genre writers out there that think you can get away with staying within the genre, a quick glance at the Modern Library list and the Time Magazine list shows many great genre authors like George Orwell, Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut, J.R.R. Tolkien, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Samuel Delany, Philip K. Dick, and more.

Every one of these authors would have been severely hindered without being up to date on modern fictional techniques that mostly weren’t appearing in their respective genres.

Check out my related articles:

What is Lost in the Funhouse About?
The Ecstasy of Influence