William H. Gass Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Language is a preoccupation in William H. Gass’s work. How does language help or hinder Professor Kohl in The Tunnel?

How does Gass use names of characters (Omensetter, Kohl, Tott) to develop themes in his fiction?

In Gass’s fiction, it is often difficult to determine exactly what happens. Is this true to life as people experience it?

Gass’s individual characters sometimes hold contradictory views. Does this often happen in real life?

Gass’s work has often been called “experimental.” In what ways can his novels and stories be called experimental?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Besides his collections of short fiction, William H. Gass has published the novels, including the well-known Omensetter’s Luck (1966). He has also written several collections of essays, some of the most provocative literary theory of post-World War II literature, and the literary studies


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

William H. Gass is one of a handful of contemporary American writers who can justifiably be described as pioneers—that is, writers who eschew the well-trod ways of the mass of their fellow writers and chart new directions for literature. The fact that he has been as frequently assailed—most famously by the novelist John Gardner—as praised for his innovations is perhaps the best proof that Gass has indeed made his mark on the literary world. Along with John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and a few other innovators, Gass has shown the reader the artifice behind the art of fiction. At the same time, he has created memorable characters involved in gripping conflicts. Rather than an experimenter or old-fashioned storyteller, though, Gass may best be seen as an impeccable stylist. It is this interest in the relation among the sounds of words that most clearly unifies his short fiction, novellas, novels, and essays. Among his awards and honors are a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship (1965), the Hovde Prize for Good Teaching (1967), a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (1969), and the National Institute for Arts and Letters prize for literature (1975). He has also received the National Medal of Merit for fiction (1979), the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism (1986) for Habitations of the Word: Essays (1985), the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the American Book Award (1996) for The Tunnel (1995), National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism award (1997) for Finding a Form (1996), and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lannan Foundation (1997). He has also received honorary doctorates from Kenyon College, George Washington University, and Purdue University.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Chiefly a writer of novels, William H. Gass is also the author of a book of short stories titled In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and Other Stories (1968) and four volumes of essays about literature. In the chief of these, the collections Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970) and The World Within the Word: Essays (1978), Gass illuminates his own work as a writer of fiction. He prefers novels, as his essay “Imaginary Borges and His Books” suggests, that render fictional worlds that are highly contrived metaphors for the real world. He values the kind of verbal experimentation, and the implications about human consciousness that lie behind it, characteristic of the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, Gertrude Stein, and Robert Coover. Ultimately, Gass sees the fictional text as less a reflection of objective reality than an artifact created out of the consciousness of the author.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although William H. Gass is a highly individual writer, one whose work does not reflect the influence of his contemporaries, his fiction shares with work by authors such as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon an emphasis on the text as verbal construct. As his On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry (1976) indicates, Gass believes that the words used to talk about a thing reveal the essence of the thing being talked about. His prose itself is highly rhythmic and reflexive, filled with images and allusions. The novels Gass has written are as much meditations on the art of writing fiction as narratives about their title characters. His essays, often published in literary journals before their appearance in book form, are cogent statements of Gass’s own thematic and technical preoccupations. They influence both other writers and general readers, not only in the way they read Gass’s work but also in the way they read the fiction of his contemporaries. In recognition of his contributions to literature, in 1998 Gass was honored with a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bradbury, Malcolm. The Modern American Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Places Gass in the company of postmodern writers of the 1960’s and 1970’s. In discussing Gass’s fiction and critical writing, Bradbury notes Gass’s background in philosophy and that he is conscious of the “discrepancy between language and reality.”

Busch, Frederick. “But This Is What It Is Like to Live in Hell: Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” Modern Fiction Studies 20 (Autumn, 1974): 328-336. This essay provides one of the earliest, and still one of the best, analyses of theme and style in one of Gass’s most important short stories.

Gardner, James. “Transgressive Fiction.” National Review 48 (June 17, 1996): 54-56. Agues that whereas fiction used to delight as well as edify, now it has split into different forms of fiction, with writers like Stephen King and Jackie Collins being read for entertainment value, while Thomas Pynchon and William Gass intentionally suppress the element of pleasure.

Gass, William. “An Interview with William Gass.” Interview by Lorna H. Dormke. Mississippi Review 10, no. 3 (1987): 53-67. One of the most recent and most extensive interviews with Gass.

Hadella, Charlotte Byrd. “The Winter Wasteland of William...

(The entire section is 564 words.)