Gass, William H(oward) 1924–
Gass is an American novelist, short story writer, philosopher, and essayist. An experimentalist, Gass works out his philosophical and literary theories in both the formal and thematic aspects of his prose. It is often said that his novels and short stories read like poetry rather than prose. He is probably best known for Omensetter's Luck. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 8, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
The times are full of contradictions…. Such contradictions, which slip in among the products of our work, have become the subject and the fact of our best fiction—making it complicated, ambivalent, and too often inaccessible. Some of this fiction is written by William H. Gass….
[Today] the novelist is both more cut off from society and more involved in its contradictions. We shouldn't be surprised, therefore, to find in Gass's work a major discrepancy between the theory of his essays and the practice of his fiction—a discrepancy that also makes for difficulty, disturbance, and beauty within the fiction itself. (p. 96)
Anyone familiar with Gass's essays will have been struck by certain of their shining and upsetting sentences:
There are no descriptions in fiction, there are only constructions, and the principles which govern these constructions are persistently philosophical….
It seems a country-headed thing to say: that literature is language, that stories and the places and people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smoothed sticks and sometimes of cloth or metal tubes….
Such sentences seem to assume the victory for New Criticism. (p. 97)
One explanation of this incongruity in Gass is that maintaining such a theory is a corrective for certain tendencies in his own habits of composition—tendencies toward over-writing or turgidity. To say this sounds as if we are psychologizing (as Gass says we psychologize about Hamlet), but nevertheless, I think we can proceed, remembering that such activities do have their place…. The interplay between the conscious and unconscious factors of creation is often tactfully and euphemistically placed under a single heading such as "taste" or "talent." Gass himself does this…. [Gass's theory] is an integral part of his world view and his creative process. There is a sense in which his theory is his conscience, if not his consciousness. Useful, appropriate and necessary in certain ways, it is not however sufficient. Exactly because it is insufficient Gass must resort to the elusive idea of "taste." Similarly, New Criticism teaches us how to read, but not how to criticize or live. (pp. 97-8)
[Gass says in Afterwords: "A simple scene, a sudden flash, can be used metaphorically, to represent a whole—and there are simply a million possibilities."] "Represent a whole"—strange talk from one whose theory is ostensibly not representational or mimetic. What Gass reminds himself about here … is that truth resides in both camps, or rather, in the interaction between them…. Gass is everywhere recognized as a theoretician leaning toward formalism, but the construction of his novels is realist.
I bring this up in this way because the play between Gass's theory and his fiction has its social aspect…. Gass's particularly acerbic reviews of Updike and Roth show where he stands on fashion, "relevance" and popularity. He is driven to the position of equating realism with journalism and pornography. His avoidance of the topical leads him to deny subject matter and content almost completely, dismissing them as "just a way of organizing."… (pp. 99-100)
Presented with these circumstances, Gass constructs his elaborate defense of poesy. His defense, however, is ultimately of the people for whom the work of art can be an aid—society, reader, artist…. Confusion arises because value is so hard to measure. The measures of the market (popularity, relevance, marketability) infect even the "purest" art. Thus, in trying to create a worthy addition to reality, Gass counters with the stringent criteria of his...
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On Being Blue is quite extraordinary. Very short, it is an inquiry by a philosopher into the wonders that can be worked with words. But although its terms of reference are, as might be expected, genuinely conceptual, it had not crossed my mind that anyone whose intentions were analytic could be so comprehensively at ease in the use of language….
[Gass's] territory is that of the professional writer—he is also a novelist—and his assumption is that the author's skill lies in fashioning sentences that will serve as "containers of consciousness"—especially, he wants to suggest, erotic consciousness. And he exploits his own virtuosity as a means of stealing up on truths about such uses of language; ones that lie beyond the reach of jargon or of any formal scheme.
The care with which he writes reflects Professor Gass's eagerness that there should be no neat stories for us to carry away in our nutshells. On Being Blue is not easy to paraphrase. Nevertheless, it does have a species of analytic framework; and this takes as its foundation the claim that the relationship dominant in a writer's life is that between himself and his own prose. Moreover, that our impulse in fiction, both as writers and as readers, is at root one of sexual curiosity….
Gass points out that sex can enter a writer's prose by a number of routes, some crude, others more recondite; and after his own fashion, he is prepared to list what these routes...
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What you want to do is create a work that can be read non-referentially. There is nothing esoteric or mysterious about this. It simply means that you want the work to be self-contained. A reader can do with a work what he or she wants. You can't force interpretations and you can't prevent them.
In Omensetter's Luck, I wanted to take on the nature-culture cliché because I knew that it was one of the basic themes of American literature, and I wanted to have my go at it. I set Omensetter back in that particular period precisely because I didn't want my writing to be influenced by reality…. Fiction, god damn it, is fiction. When will that simple truth be acknowledged.
The same thing is true of most of the stories. The only one of which it isn't quite true is "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country." Once upon a time I decided that my tendency to work as far away from my real life as possible might be a kind of neurotic defense, and that it might be good for me to write as close to home as possible for a change. I learned that by writing close to home I got further away. Now I realize it was my worry which was neurotic. (p. 97)
What, for Christ's sake is positive about the narrator [of "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country"]? The language. He has language. That language is unique. No one can claim it. That is the only accomplishment of the story. When people use literature to interpret the world they are saying that the language of the work is theirs—they are Ahabs, Hamlets. Not only do they falsify the world, they lie to themselves. If you cannot speak this language, you cannot be these people, for that is what they are. (p. 98)
That narrator of "In the Heart" is limited, full of fatal flaws. I spent a lot of time building those flaws into him. Some of the flaws I put there, the limitations, are mine. Some are not. Any writer has got to see more than his or her narrator, a hell of a lot more, otherwise they have no story….
In The Tunnel, I am going to use a lot of home-made material, but I am mainly interested in how I can transform that material until it will have the same status as stuff found in an encyclopedia. Or a newspaper. Or invented out of that fabulous whole cloth. It's the true-confession I suspect. The ME. I was THERE. And what was THERE? ME! Wholly unprofessional. Totally inartistic. The so-called confessional mode has an immediate rhetorical power (is he/she really telling me that?) which is fake, cheap. In these works the subject matter does your work for you, but the esthetic qualities are all left out. So the problem is to get in the confessional mode, take away the confessional power, and reclaim that power in the language. (p. 99)
[The Tunnel] combines my interests in the kind of continuous rhetoric which characterized the Furber section of Omensetter's Luck with the non-linear development of a story like "In the Heart …". I am finally finding what kind of mode I can work in best. Well, I hope that's true. It is a change, however, in lots of other ways. I am working closer to my own concerns, but that's not necessarily closer to me. I am deliberately taking on a subject that is highly charged—none more so, really—and one which has a lot of referential meaning. The challenge is to disarm that subject, to tame it, make it purr. I guess where it differs from my earlier work is in my desire to replace the reader's consciousness the way Lowry did in the Volcano. Once I get the reader captured in the book, I really want to do things to him. Still, I can entice him in like a whore. And I hope to write about certain kinds of objectionable attitudes and feelings in such a way that the reader will accept them, will have them, while he's reading. In that sense the book is a progressive indictment of the reader. If it works. (pp. 99-100)
The book is a tunnel; the writing of the book is the digging of the tunnel. So it has to have characteristics of tunnels...
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"'So I have sailed the seas and come …,'" wrote the footloose philosopher and polymath William H. Gass, by way of introducing what is probably his best single piece, "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country." One of its strongest features is its adaptation of Yeats's marvelous line in "Sailing to Byzantium": at once a cock-crow of triumph at having escaped that country of dying generations, and a prayerful hope of being gathered "into the artifice of eternity." (p. 202)
How to escape? is the problem, theme, story line, and old refrain, in The World within the Word…. Gass, quite simply, wants to escape into print, into sound, into pure language itself, into the place where...
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