William H. Gass Gass, William H. - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William H. Gass 1924-

(Full name William Howard Gass) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Gass's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 8, 11, 15, and 39.

A precise and highly regarded literary stylist, William H. Gass prefers to be known as a “writer of prose” rather than a novelist, short story writer, postmodern theorist, or essayist, as his body of work attests to. Gass is distinguished for his preoccupation with the literary and the philosophical facets of language, particularly his view that a writer should not attempt to represent the world through mimesis, the imitation of nature, but should instead use language to create his or her own imaginary world. For his emphatic insistence on the purely aesthetic significance of the written text, Gass has become known as a literary figure who defies the restrictions of genre. His innovative works, including the novels Omensetter's Luck (1966) and The Tunnel, (1994), the novella Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, (1971), and several volumes of critical essays, have earned Gass a reputation as a brilliant and imaginative literary experimenter.

Biographical Information

Born in Fargo, North Dakota, early on Gass moved with his family to Warren, Ohio. His Depression-era childhood was complicated by his mother's alcoholism and his father's crippling arthritis. Gass's inability to deal with his family's problems influenced his decision during college to adopt a formalist aesthetic, which afforded him emotional detachment in his writing. Gass studied for a year at Kenyon College in Ohio, then spent a brief period at Ohio Wesleyan University. He entered World War II service in 1943. After the war, Gass returned to Kenyon, where he majored in philosophy and audited classes given by poet John Crowe Ransom. After graduating from Kenyon, Gass entered Cornell University, where he continued his study of philosophy. A lack of courses on aesthetic theory impelled him to study the philosophy of language. Having studied the theory of metaphor under Max Black, Gass produced a dissertation entitled “A Philosophical Investigation of Metaphor.” While at Cornell, Gass was influenced by the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, particularly his investigations into the language-mind-reality relationship and his conception of philosophy as an activity done for its own sake, divorced from content. Gass was also inspired by the work of Gertrude Stein and began experimenting with the sentence as the basic unit of writing. Gass joined the faculty of the College of Wooster in Ohio in 1950 as an instructor of philosophy and was awarded his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1954. After leaving Wooster, Gass taught at Purdue University until 1969. In 1958 Gass had several stories published by the magazine Accent, which also published sections from the novel Omensetter's Luck. Gass spent a dozen years writing this novel; at one point the only manuscript copy was stolen, hampering his progress. Though Omensetter's Luck was rejected by several publishers, it was eventually printed and established Gass as a significant American literary figure. His next book, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968), a collection of five stories, solidified his popularity among critics and academics. In 1969 Gass began teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, where, since 1979, he has held the position of David May Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities. Gass subsequently published several books, including Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970), Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, and On Being Blue (1975), before finishing his magnum opus, The Tunnel in 1994. Known as a slow, careful writer, Gass began The Tunnel nearly thirty years before its publication, in the meantime releasing portions in literary journals. The Tunnel won both the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the American Book Award in 1996. Two of his essay collections, The Habitations of the Word (1984) and Finding a Form (1996), have won the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism. Gass won the National Institute for Arts and Letters prize for literature in 1975.

Major Works

In both his experimental fiction and critical essays, Gass evinces his preoccupation with the importance of the word over content and form over plot. The novel Omensetter's Luck, for example, is divided into different sections and incorporates several narrative styles and the use of experimental techniques to subvert the conventions of realism. The protagonist, Brackett Omensetter, displays, like Adam before the Fall, a naturalness and lack of self-consciousness. Arriving with his family in a small Ohio town in the 1890s, Omensetter stands in direct contrast with the town's preacher, Jethro Furber, who is obsessed with death and sex. Furber, believing that Man's Fall necessitates a separation from nature, views Omensetter's lack of a sense of guilt as a personal threat. Isolated from other individuals, Furber attempts to find refuge in the rhetoric offered by his own mind. Despite the book's emphasis on language over narrative conventions, however, a dramatic conflict does exist between Omensetter and Furber, demonstrating a tension that exists in Gass's work between the use of language as an end in itself and language as a means to an end. Similar to the depiction of Furber in Omensetter's Luck, the story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country focuses on lonely individuals. These characters retreat into fantasy and reveal their inner selves only through their patterned use of language. The title story considers an isolated narrator who attempts to create an aesthetic unity around his life by organizing descriptions of his town into blocks of prose poems, a process that only isolates him further.

Gass's own aesthetic principles are put forth in Fiction and the Figures of Life. Collecting together essays by the author on language, philosophy, and literature, the work argues for the virtues of art. Gass maintains that, as opposed to the functional use of words as signs in everyday language, words in novels are aesthetic signs that serve only an aesthetic design. The novelist, in turn, should not be concerned primarily with providing an accurate portrayal of the world; instead, according to Gass, the novelist should create his own aesthetic world based on language. In Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, Gass illustrated his belief that words in literature are not just vehicles with which to view the world, but are aesthetic objects in themselves. This “essay-novella,” as Gass termed it, calls attention to the physical aspects of language through its use of variously colored and textured paper, photographs, and its experiments with typefaces. The virtually plotless book presents sections that correspond to the stages of sexual intercourse that the narrator, Baby Babs Masters, is having with her lover. In so doing, the book invites readers to respond to the sensuousness of language. The extended essay On Being Blue continues Gass's exploration of the complex manner in which words relate to the world. Gass looks at the many meanings of the word “blue” and the attributes of “blueness.” While the essay collection The Habitations of the Word further delineates Gass's defense of art as a state not governed by moral conventions, a more personal argument for the autonomy of language in fiction is presented in Finding a Form. The Tunnel, Gass's long-awaited masterwork, eschews morality for the sake of art in unusually discomfiting terms. The novel centers upon the reprehensible narrator William Kohler, a history professor who has almost completed his own magnum opus, called Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany, a sympathetic treatment of the Third Reich. Instead of writing the remaining introduction, Kohler begins to dig a tunnel out of his basement, the act of digging carrying him further from finishing his book. Gass's insistence on the insignificance of plot in fiction finds its representation in Kohler's futile tunnel project. Much of the novel involves Kohler's reminiscences about his family, his Nazi sympathizing former professor in Germany, Kohler's debates with department colleagues, and his perceptions of his personal life. As The Tunnel's narrator makes correlations between his domestic life and the Holocaust, an event normally viewed as having such extreme moral implications that it prohibits comparisons to other circumstances, the novel reiterates Gass's stance that words in fiction are removed from moral responsibility.

Critical Reception

Critics and scholars have praised Gass for his technical accomplishments, his discerning insight into how words are used and perceived, and his deft handling of words to create a remarkable array of inventive metaphors. Upon its publication, Omensetter's Luck was recognized as a startling achievement for its combination of trenchant thought and physical language. The work prompted comparisons with literary formalists James Joyce and William Faulkner, and the Symbolists in light of Gass's pursuit of technique for its own sake. However, for his relentless efforts to discredit and break free from conventional narrative forms, Gass is often referred to as a postmodern writer and grouped with contemporaries Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, John Barth, and Thomas Pynchon. Gass's critical essays on the primacy of language and the written word, particularly in The Habitations of the Word and Finding a Form, are highly regarded. Commentators note that in On Being Blue Gass effectively combines philosophy and imaginative speculation to create a text that blurs the definition of the discursive essay. Critics immediately hailed The Tunnel as an important accomplishment, though many reviewers acknowledged that additional time would be required to study and adequately assess the complicated work's significance. While Gass's rejection of such conventions as character, plot, and realism has been seen as a desire to separate the novel from a smothering emphasis on moralizing, some critics have expressed impatience with his writing. Noting that not everyone is as dissatisfied as Gass with fiction's attempts at realism, such critics contend that Gass's word associations do not compensate for the elimination of conventional structure and that he has substituted literary gimmicks for characters. Nevertheless, Gass's imaginative and indefatigable defense of the aesthetic value of language within fiction has accorded him a unique status and critical renown among twentieth-century American writers.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Omensetter's Luck (novel) 1966

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (short stories) 1968

Fiction and the Figures of Life (essays) 1970

*Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife (novella) 1971

On Being Blue (essay) 1975

The World Within the Word (essays) 1978

The First Winter of My Married Life (short story) 1979

The Habitations of the Word: Essays (essays) 1984

Words about the Nature of Things (nonfiction) 1985

A Temple of Texts (nonfiction) 1990

The Tunnel (novel) 1994...

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Richard J. Schneider (review date Winter 1979-1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The World Within the Word, in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 25, No. 4, Winter, 1979-1980, pp. 757-58.

[In the following favorable review of The World Within the Word, Schneider discusses Gass's critical views on literature.]

Following close on the heels of John Gardner's On Moral Fiction, William Gass's second collection of essays seems almost a counter-attack. To Gardner's call for fiction of moral concern, Gass replies that “Poetry [which for Gass usually includes fiction and essays] is not a kind of communication, but a construction in consciousness.” On the thread of this premise, Gass strings essays about an impressively...

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Charles Caramello (essay date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Fleshing Out Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife,” in Silverless Mirrors: Book, Self, and Postmodern American Fiction, Tallahassee, FL: University Presses of Florida, 1983, pp. 97-111.

[In the following essay, Caramello examines Gass's postmodern ambivalence toward authority, textuality, and the deconstruction of reality in Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife.]

If dreams are made of imagination, I'm not afraid of my own creation.

Rodgers and Hart, “Isn't It Romantic?”

But though he had breathed heavily, groaned as if ecstatic, what he'd really felt throughout was an...

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Charlotte Byrd Hadella (essay date Fall 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Winter Wasteland of William Gass's ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,’” in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXX, No. 1, Fall, 1988, pp. 49-58.

[In the following essay, Hadella examines Gass's theoretical perspective, literary allusion, and narrative authority in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” According to Hadella, the narrator's “attempt to control his world through language fails because he lacks love, the vital ingredient needed to transform language into art.”]

“Models interfere with the imagination,” William Gass insists in response to a question about how or where he gets the material for his...

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Kevin J. H. Dettmar (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Yung and Easily Freudened’:1 William Gass's ‘The Pedersen Kid,’” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 88-101.

[In the following essay, Dettmar provides analysis of initiation themes, postmodern literary techniques, and psychoanalytic associations in Gass's story“The Pedersen Kid.” Dettmar concludes, “Jorge is not just another ‘little Oedipus’—rather he's a little Freud, both author and subject of his own case history.”]

Hans: “What I've told you isn't the least true.”

Father: “How much of it's...

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Reginald Dyck (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “William Gass: A ‘Purified Modernist’ in a Postmodern World,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 124-30.

[In the following essay, Dyck examines underlying modernist aspects of Gass's postmodern literary and theoretical perspective, including comparative analysis of Gass's story “Icicles” and Wright Morris's novel Ceremony in Lone Tree. “Although modernist in its formal aesthetics,” Dyck writes, “Gass's world of words reflects a postmodern perspective on contemporary culture.”]

I don't regard myself as a postmodernist. … I prefer to think of myself as a purified modernist. In...

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Arthur M. Saltzman (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Where Words Dwell Adored: An Introduction to William Gass,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 7-14.

[In the following essay, Saltzman provides an overview of Gass's postmodern linguistic techniques and theoretical perspective.]

William Gass builds sentences, sentences that are their own best excuse for being, sentences that seduce, like a bold, new Annunciation, through the ear. They can be as delicately suspended as a bridge of web spun by the spider that serves as metaphor for the artist in Omensetter's Luck; or they can be arches of triumph, solid and lasting and right as pillars set in concrete; or they can lie...

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Philip Stevick (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “William Gass and the Real World,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 71-7.

[In the following essay, Stevick examines the significance of Gass's comments on his own work in light of his problematic insistence on the nonreferentiality of his texts. Stevick draws attention to paradoxical distinctions between Gass's authorial persona and his actual existence as creator and critic of his own writing.]

Not very many writers refuse to talk about their work these days. A writer has to be resolutely reclusive to do so, or perhaps supremely rude. People do ask. It is probably attractive for most writers to respond, partly because the...

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Robert Kelly (review date 26 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Repulsively Lonely Man,” in New York Times Book Review, February 26, 1995, pp. 1, 17-8.

[In the following review, Kelly provides summary analysis of The Tunnel, which he describes as “an infuriating and offensive masterpiece.”]

If you want to go down into the self, you'd better go armed to the teeth. Paul Valéry says that somewhere, and it was what came to mind as I began reading The Tunnel, this huge and long-awaited novel by William H. Gass, the masterpiece, one must presume, of this 70-year-old American master.

A middle-aged professor of history at a Midwestern university takes to going down into the cellar of his...

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Merle Rubin (review date 6 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Notes From a Postmodern ‘Underground Man,’” in The Christian Science Monitor, March 6, 1995, p. 13.

[In the following review, Rubin offers unfavorable assessment of The Tunnel.]

William H. Gass's first novel, Omensetter's Luck, was published in 1966. The Tunnel, his second full-length novel, has been more than 30 years in the works, we are told, which would place its beginnings at least three years before the publication of his first book.

In the interim, Gass has produced a modest yet considerable body of short fiction and essays that have established him as one of the more innovative and intellectually challenging...

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Michael Dirda (review date 12 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “In the Dark Chambers of the Soul,” in Washington Post Book World, March 12, 1995, pp. 1, 10.

[In the following review, Dirda offers positive assessment of The Tunnel.]

Long awaited. Eagerly anticipated. Thirty years in the making. Such siren calls have sounded before—most recently luring us to Harold Brodkey's Runaway Soul and Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost. Each time we wonder, could this be it? Our age's Ulysses? Our Magic Mountain? So we plunk down our cash, lug our shiny purchase home, swiftly read up to page 47 or 99—and then sigh. The great book, the masterpiece is, well, okay. No great shakes. Not bad really. But...

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Michael Silverblatt (review date 19 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Small Apartment in Hell,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 19, 1995, pp. 1, 12-3.

[In the following review, Silverblatt offers high praise for The Tunnel.]

The Tunnel is the most beautiful, most complex, most disturbing novel to be published in my lifetime. It took nearly 30 years to write, including long periods of silence and the author's repeated decisions to abandon the work; but some of us have been peeping over William Gass' shoulder, reading sections as they appeared in literary magazines beginning in 1969 when a chapter called “We Have Not Lived the Right Life” appeared in the New American Review.

That piece...

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John Leonard (review date 20 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Splendor in the Gass,?” in The Nation, March 20, 1995, pp. 388, 390.

[In the following review, Leonard offers favorable evaluation of The Tunnel, concluding that is “a splendid, daunting, loathsome novel.”]

Your wife is fat. Your penis is tiny. Your children are sallow-faced louts. Your mistress dumped you because you have “a loathsome mind.” Your colleagues in the history department at a Midwestern university are charlatans and poltroons. Your “post-Bomb pre-Boom” students on the banks of the Wabash are either boring pests or sexual prey. The preface you are writing to your magnum opus, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's...

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Steven Moore (review date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Tunnel, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 159-60.

[In the following review, Moore offers high praise for The Tunnel.]

I'm grateful that I lived long enough to see this. For nearly thirty years Gass has been publishing sections of The Tunnel in literary journals (including this one) and as fine press books, and as I devoured these I wondered, as many did, when and if the finished book would appear and whether the whole would be greater than its parts. That question has now been answered beyond my wildest expectations; The Tunnel is a stupendous achievement and obviously one of the greatest...

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Gary Percesepe (review date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Tunnel, in Antioch Review, Vol. 53, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 380-1.

[In the following review, Percesepe provides a summary of The Tunnel and comments on its critical controversy.]

Having completed his magnum opus, Guilt & Innocence in Hitler's Germany, William Frederick Kohler, distinguished professor of history at a distinguished Indiana University, sits in his chair, intending to write an introduction. Blocked, he writes instead a history of history, or better a history of the historian-as-liar, lout, and loser. Fearing his wife will discover it, he hides the new manuscript by slipping it into the pages of his book....

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Louis Menand (review date 13 July 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Journey into the Dark,” in New York Review of Books, July 13, 1995, pp. 8-10.

[In the following review, Menand provides a summary of The Tunnel and discusses the novel's problematic espousal of bigotry, hate, and amorality. According to Menand, the many biographic parallels between author and protagonist, as well as Gass's resistance to conventional forms of fictional distancing, make it difficult to separate Gass's own ideas from those of his reprehensible character, Kohler.]

The Tunnel is about a man who undertakes to establish an identity between the frustrations and disappointments of ordinary domestic life and the Holocaust. The man is a...

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Jim Lewis (review date February 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Finding a Form, in Artforum, February, 1997, Vol. 35, No. 6, pp. 19-20.

[In the following review, Lewis comments on Gass's literary aesthetic and offers positive evaluation of Finding a Form.]

I happened to be passing through St. Louis one summer weekend in 1989, and, having a day to kill, I took a chance and telephoned William Gass in his offices at the philosophy department at Washington University. Ordinarily I would have hesitated before trying to contact a writer whom I admired; but Gass, as a philosopher, essayist, and novelist, was more important to me than most, and as luck would have it, he was in and invited me over. I remember that...

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Maureen Howard (review date 9 March 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “In the Heart of the Heart of the Text,” in New York Times Book Review, March 9, 1997, p. 6.

[In the following review, Howard offers positive evaluation of Finding a Form.]

William H. Gass is embattled. It's awful out there where the stale sweets of commerce are served up as art, laced with dope for the dopes, violence injected for the numb. As a gentleman trained in philosophy, a writer of distinguished fiction, an honored academic, Mr. Gass has his rights, if not every right, to remain sore. And in Finding a Form he confronts the conundrum of the writer that he has faced in previous essays: the word is sacred, though there are no longer sacred...

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John O'Brien (review date Spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Finding a Form, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 170-1.

[In the following review, O'Brien offers praise for Finding a Form.]

Gass is a writer who has always believed in public discourse, that the act of the critic and scholar is to engage as wide an audience as possible in matters of serious intent (that is, that these things matter or at least have consequences for the body politic) and that, therefore, the form of the discourse must itself be engaging, resonate, enlivening, and at times, vituperative. The present collection hits the mark in every way, though one may mourn that there are not more critics...

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Marcus Klein (essay date Summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Postmodernizing the Holocaust: William Gass in The Tunnel,” in New England Review, Vol. 18, No. 3, Summer, 1997, pp. 79-87.

[In the following essay, Klein examines Gass's postmodern conflation of personal and national history, morality, and guilt associated with the horrors of Nazi Germany as presented through the protagonist, Kohler, in The Tunnel. “Given the perspective to which we are invited,” Klein concludes, “Kohler's evil amounts to an irrelevant tawdriness.”]

The subject is the Shoah, the Catastrophe, and how to account for it—a subject in history, to say the least, to which Gass as novelist and as theorist of fiction brings...

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Kenneth Haynes (review date Fall 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Tunnel, in Sewanee Review, Vol. CV, No. 4, Fall, 1997, pp. cxx-cxxii.

[In the following review, Haynes offers positive assessment of The Tunnel.]

To The Tunnel William H. Gass has brought Flaubert's ambition to write a book with no subject, a book that would be held together by the strength of its style alone, to creating a book on the Holocaust. Or rather a book on a book on the Holocaust: the protagonist William Kohler, a middle-aged professor of history in a midwestern university, has just finished a large work on Hitler's Germany. Surreptitiously he now writes these pages, a mixture of embittered personal history and of angry...

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Arthur Saltzman (review date Fall 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall, 1998, p. 232.

[In the following review, Saltzman offers positive assessment of Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas.]

William Gass regularly demonstrates how the artist's devotion is best measured by his concern for the language he cultivates; his scruple and injunction is that beauty, vision, and morality require the precision and ingenuity of sentences lovingly constructed. Indeed, the dry prairie solitudes that dominate these four novellas prove to be rich soil for linguistic enterprises. Disappointments and hatreds still sparkle with imagery and...

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James Wood (review date 1 November 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wrestling with God,” in New York Times Book Review, November 1, 1998, p. 9.

[In the following review, Wood offers positive evaluation of Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas, though notes contradictions and shortcomings in the work.]

William Gass is the philosopher-novelist who wants to scramble our p's and q's. For many years, in both essays and novels, he has fought what he sees as the unthinking realism of American fiction. Instead of the blank essences of traditional fiction, he wants the subtle absences of the nouveau roman: instead of characters, he organizes his fictions around “symbolic centers”; instead of the architecture of...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Charyn, Jerome. “Three Critical Notes.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 12, No. 2 (Summer 1992): 120-3.

Charyn reflects on his initial reading of “The Pedersen Kid” and the story's significance in contemporary American literature.

Feld, Ross. “Timing and Spacing the As If: Poetic Prose and Prosaic Poetry.” Parnassus 20, Nos. 1 and 2 (January 1995): 11-31.

Feld comments on the function of poetry and prose and offers unfavorable evaluation of The Tunnel.

Kaufmann, Michael. “The Textual Body: William Gass's Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife.Critique: Studies in...

(The entire section is 290 words.)