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

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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

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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


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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

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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.


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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...

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Critical Essays