Gass, William H(oward) (Vol. 15)
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...
(The entire section is 1551 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 613 words.)
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...
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Samuel Irving Bellman
"'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 language is at its best: fiction. "When fiction turns its back on the world and walks into wonderland," he says in a defense of fiction's almost unlimited resources; that metaphor, one of many fine ones, gives us a good idea of what the book and Gass's desperate yearning are all about.
No exit for Gass. But he tries to talk his way through the looking glass with two quaint philosophical charms: ontology and epistemology…. This is what makes Gass's book such a taxing enterprise, despite his animated, omniumgatherum approach to literary style: abstruse pedanticisms, obscenity, the racial slur, metaphorical conceits, breezy colloquialisms, first- and third-person narrative familiarities, etc., etc. One is...
(The entire section is 703 words.)