Category Archives: william h. gass

William H. Gass On The Pulitzers

The Pulitzer Prize in fiction takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses; the prize is simply not given to work of the first rank, rarely even to the second; and if you believed yourself to be a writer of that eminence, you are now assured of being over the hill–not a sturdy mountain flower but a little wilted lily of the valley.

The essay from which that comes (collected in Finding a Form)is actually a lot kinder to the Pulitzer than the above might indicate (Gass has always been great at starting essays), although Gass remains steadfast in his mediocrity charge and backs it up fairly well.

Looking at the Pulitzer winners since Gass wrote this (1988, I believe), the prize's aim seems to have improved a tiny bit, albeit only by a tactic that Gass calls out in his essay: retrospectively anointing a known superstar. If you pull out the obvious picks, it is a fairly mediocre assemblage.

Writing Like A Cubist Paints

I think essay collections are the perfect things for our new super-sped-up, Internet-fragmented lives.I like them becuase I can sneak an essay into a small bit of time–like the morning's subway ride. And if it's a good collection, I like the slowed-down feeling of coming back to it again and again over the course of a month or so.

Right now I'm reading William H. Gass's Finding a Form, recently published by the Dalkey Archive.

Gass writes wonderfully on Ford Madox Ford, and in this book he has an essay called "Ford's Impressionism." The title's a little misleading–half the essay is given over to a consideration of just what impressionism means (with shots at Monet et al.)–although you could just as well consider this proper preparation for Gass's remarks on Ford, which are excellent.

Late in the piece, Gass delivers a spot-on evocation of what it is like to read what is quite likely my favorite first-person novel ever, Ford's The Good Soldier:

By this method any occasion is dissolved into its elements (act, agent, object, qualities, and temporal successions–first this, then that); its various modes of apprehension are marked off (detailed close-ups, distant overviews, vague general effects); and all of these are stirred about, apparently higgledy-piggledy, until not only order but many actual bits are utterly lost. This mess is mixed with all sorts of memories and associations, some longer and more detailed as it were, by means of sidelongs and fractures, obscure details and elaborate digressions, surprising omissions and untoward simplifications.

I highlight those words because this to me has always been the most amazing thing about The Good Soldier. It is so true to life and so cohesive because of the fact that it contains so many gaps, so many "facts" that by textual analysis can be proven false. These are just the things that make it live.

Gass continues:

The fit is loose, but this method more nearly resembles the working habits of the cubists than those of the impressionists.

Of course, the real chances are that the writer began with the bits and let the words feel their way toward some absent whole the way a sketch suggests a face or a landcape, rather than commencing with a complete and disciplined design and then scrubbing things out and messing them up.

The impression we are after here, and which we with to give to the reader is that of a consciousness, not of a thing . . .

It's a fine essay. I look forward to dipping in and out of Finding a Form for several weeks to come.

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