Introduction

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Gass, William H(oward) 1924–

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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.)

Ned French

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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...

(The entire section contains 4600 words.)

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