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Full of Gass #2: True Lies


Folks, if you’ve read any of this ridiculous and now vitiated weblog, you’ll have surely picked up on our steadfast and by-no-means-unique opinion that William H Gass is not only a living literary legend, but one of the greatest writers in the history of the sport. As a craftsman, he is meticulous; as a poet, wondrous; as a weaver of words, rapturous.

We could claim this mild encomium is apropos of picking up at random a collection of the great man’s essays and once again being blown away by the wit, intelligence, perspective, poetics, aesthetics, and humor therein, but really he is constantly in our thoughts, when reading, when writing. I can’t think of a better teacher of literature to whom to direct aspiring writers. Read his fiction; read his essays. Then go read the folks he talks about in his essays.

And listen to his advice (like this he gave last October), and the advice inherent in his position (however pushed aside) in the literary world:

Try to remember that artists in these catastrophic times, along with the serious scientists, are the only salvation for us, if there is to be any. Be happy because no one is seeing what you do, no one is listening to you, no one really cares what may be achieved, but sometimes accidents happen and beauty is born.

It’s true. Sometimes accidents do happen. There are a handful of young writers today with great talent and ability, whose books are actually taken up by the reading public. Jonathans Foer and Franzen are two. Claire Keegan, across the pond, is one. All too often they do not showcase their gifts, but try instead to write to their (perceived) audience: they tone it down, they write short books because they don’t think readers can take long ones, they don’t challenge themselves because they don’t want to challenge us.

Keegan is a short-form writer, and this is no criticism of her. Franzen nobody can claim doesn’t try to write long (too long) masterpieces, but they always come up short, they lose focus after page 150. Foer and fellow NY boy-genius Ben Lerner are tremendously talented, yet can’t seem to write more than a 200-or-so-page book (Foer might be trying to rectify this, as his new book, coming in Sept, is much longer). It isn’t that length is always good, or necessary (again, see Keegan), only that the profound issues these writers are tackling can’t be tussled with in the cool space a hipster wants his books to slide into. They take time. As we should want them to.

I am constantly telling friends that fiction isn’t fiction because it’s not true, it’s fiction because it doesn’t have to be. In other words, elaboration is the entire point. Besides brevity, the next most fashionable modern trend is that of memoirist or “nonfiction novel” type writing, along with its more literary sideshow (see Lerner) of metafictionally mixing the form back into non-fiction. This again plays to the ignorance of readers for whom this type of writing is easily digested, those who either haven’t been taught enough fiction, or didn’t grow up reading it, or both. It’s always been common sense that any work of fiction is derived closely from reality. Fiction’s role is to free the writer (and the reader) from the narrow construction of what was perceived as to actually have happened. This specific type of imagination is the very point of reading fiction. It is also the only real way to get into another’s consciousness, and not through the “true story” which lacks just that imagination.

Literary criticism, a separate art form with the same problems, isn’t helping by supporting these trends, indeed utilizing these same tricks themselves. As Gass proclaimed some years ago:

Bad critics treat good books as if they were lousy novels. Even though their copies were complimentary and haven’t cost them, they sprawl on top as if they had paid.

Good ol’ Gass is 91. I don’t know if we’ll get another round out of him but he’s left us such a magnificent body of work it’s hard to not feel lucky. American readers have felt this before–think of Saul Bellow and William Faulkner. Give Gass to the high-school kids! Give him to the college surveys! Make awful movies of his books! Gass was born in July, so let’s just say it’s now the Month of Gass (who loves the scatalogical), and celebrate accordingly.


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