Letters of William Gaddis

My review of the Letters of William Gaddis, at The Barnes & Noble Review.

Letters can be a mixed bag, this but one has turned out to be one of my favorite reads of the year so far. Certainly if you regard yourself as a writer in any respect, this should be a book you make an effort to read. Aside from that, there’s a lot that should be of interest here to anyone, from a literary, practical, and just plan personal level.

Still, I can think of at least three good reasons to read Gaddis’s letters, now finally available to us in a stately volume edited by longtime Gaddis scholar and critic Steven Moore. The first would be that a better understanding of Gaddis as a human being will surely bring him down to earth for many curious readers who have taken a look at The Recognitions’ 900 pages (or even J R’s 700) and immediately turned elsewhere. Some tourism in Gaddis’ personal life is surely worthwhile if it gets more people to try his books. The second reason is that these letters open a fascinating window onto a lifestyle that seems to be disappearing from the mass conception of what an author is: the non-careerist novelist, for whom writing is more akin to a calling that bobs and weaves through a multi-faceted existence, rather than someone whose personal life is imagined to be nothing but sitting at a desk, writing page after page day after day.

And third and perhaps most important is the opportunity to gauge just why Gaddis wrote – and why he wrote the way he did. In the letters we can finally comprehend his often ambivalent, anxious relationship to his novels, his sporadic, long drawn out mode of composition, the way literary creation clearly draws him in to another space. He evokes it beautifully here, when he was feverishly working to complete J R: “apparently I’m regarded as an ‘experimental’ writer, and one thing that takes so much time with J R seems to be that since it’s almost all in dialogue I’m constantly listening, write a line and then have to stop and listen, does it sound like this character talking?” In a later letter we get an idea of just what called Gaddis to write: “I suppose it has a lot to do with creative lag, the attempt to rekindle one’s fires after the dampened blaze of J R but I’ve simply not yet got any grasp of a central idea for another book of the obsessive proportions that kept both other books going.”

Indeed, the picture that emerges of the off-the-record, daily existence of a literary genius may be the biggest bonus of this treasure-laden volume. . . .


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