William Gaddis’s fiction is convoluted, confusing, and difficult, qualities that have led some readers to criticize it. His work is also sophisticated, multilayered, and technically innovative, qualities that have led most thoughtful readers to see Gaddis one of the most important writers of the post-World War II era, though he is not fully appreciated or understood.
Gaddis’s accomplishments began to receive greater attention in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, during which time he was at work on his second monumental novel, JR. Between 1955 and 1970, only a single article on Gaddis appeared in the United States, but in the 1970’s momentum started to build. The first doctoral dissertation on Gaddis was published in 1971, providing valuable information on The Recognitions and basic facts about Gaddis’s life. The year 1982 saw the publication of new essays on Gaddis in a special issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, as well as a full-length guide to The Recognitions, written by Steven Moore; in that same year, Gaddis was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.
Gaddis’s success was confirmed when he received the 1976 National Book Award in fiction for JR. Indeed, Gaddis responded by publishing his third novel only a decade later, down from the twenty years between his first two efforts. Carpenter’s Gothic was widely hailed for its bitter yet readable satire of ethical vanity in American business, politics, and popular religion. The novel broadened the readership for a novelist accustomed to a comparatively small audience, and it confirmed him as one of the most gifted and serious writers of contemporary American fiction.
Gaddis’s fourth novel, A Frolic of His Own, was published in 1994 to a mixed response similar to that given his earlier works. It won for him his second National Book Award and was praised for its savage wit. However, some reviewers raised the old complaints that it was difficult, long-winded, and all too faithful in its representation of the tedium of everyday conversation and legal minutiae.
In addition to the National Book Awards and the MacArthur Fellowship, Gaddis received a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1963), two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (1963 and 1974), and a Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award (1993).